The Real Story Is That a Public School Was Hosting a Nativity Play

From the UK, a news report about a different kind of Christmas War:

Father’s finger bitten off at school nativity (08 Dec 2011)

A father had his finger bitten off in a brawl with another parent as they waited for their kids’ nativity play to begin.

Parents intervened to pull the men apart as they fought at Harton Primary School, in South Shields, South Tyneside, before the children’s performance.

The 32 year-old victim was taken to hospital where his hand was treated. A 39-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of assault and bailed.

See what happens when we let religion in the public schools? Maybe Justice Stevens was right, after all.

Volf, “A Public Faith”

As America heads into another presidential election cycle (do they ever really end?), a new book by Yale theologian Miroslav Volf evaluates the proper role of religion, especially Christianity, in public life. In Public Faith (Brazos 2011), Volf rejects both a coercive Christianity that would seek to dominate society and an idle Christianity that would retreat completely to a private space. He advocates a middle way for Christians in our religiously pluralistic culture, a “creative engagement” with the world. The publisher’s description follows.

Debates rage today about the role of religions in public life. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, various religions come to inhabit the same space. But how do they live together, especially when each wants to shape the public realm according to the dictates of its own sacred texts and traditions? How does the Christian faith relate in the religious pluralism of contemporary public life?

While Volf argues that there is no single way Christian faith relates to culture as a whole, he explores major issues on the frontlines of faith today: 1) In what way does the Christian faith come to malfunction in the contemporary world, and how should we counter these malfunctions? 2) What should a Christian’s main concern be when it comes to living well in the world today? and 3) How should we go about realizing a vision for human flourishing in relation to other faiths and under the roof of a single state?

Covering such timely issues as witness in a multifaith society and political engagement in a pluralistic world, this compelling book highlights things Christians can do to serve the common good.

Paulsen on “The Most Important Religious Liberty Case of the Last 30 Years”

Constitutional scholar Michael Stokes Paulsen has an interesting piece about Widmar v. Vincent, which he describes as just that important.  In Widmar, the issue was whether UMKC, a state school, could exclude a Christian group from using its facilities to engage in religious worship on the same terms that other groups used them.  As Professor Paulsen notes, by an 8-1 vote, the Court said that it could not exclude the religious group.

An important piece of that case, which Paulsen notes and which was regrettably ignored and/or marginalized by the Second Circuit in its Bronx Household of Faith decision by drawing an irrelevant distinction between worship services and religious expression, was that there simply is no establishment concern that is activated by permitting religious groups to use public facilities for religious purposes on equal terms with others.  It is regrettable that the Supreme Court has denied cert. in Bronx Household, since it would have represented an occasion to reaffirm that principle.  Moreover, while state use of religious facilities may have been an establishment concern, the reverse was certainly not of concern as an original matter.  (See Donald Drakeman’s book)

Diggins, “Why Niebuhr Now?”

From the University of Chicago Press, a posthumous work by the late historian John Patrick Diggins (CUNY Graduate Center), Why Niebuhr Now? (2011),  on the public theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. The publisher’s description follows.

Barack Obama has called him “one of my favorite philosophers.” John McCain wrote that he is “a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war.” Andrew Sullivan has said, “We need Niebuhr now more than ever.” For a theologian who died in 1971, Reinhold Niebuhr is maintaining a remarkably high profile in the twenty-first century.

In Why Niebuhr Now? acclaimed historian John Patrick Diggins tackles the complicated question of why, at a time of great uncertainty about America’s proper role in the world, leading politicians and thinkers are turning to Niebuhr for answers. Diggins begins by clearly and carefully working Read more

New Edition of The Jefferson Bible

I’ve always enjoyed the image of Thomas Jefferson, sitting up late, going through the New Testament with his razor to excise the parts he found objectionable, the very picture of an Enlightenment eccentric. Jefferson thought that Jesus’ moral teachings were pretty good, but that the Evangelists had ruined them by inserting claims of divinity that Jesus never made. How Jefferson thought he could distinguish the actual words of Jesus from those the Gospel writers invented is not entirely clear, since an independent source for Jesus’ words doesn’t really exist. Just in time for Christmas, Random House has released a new edition of Jefferson’s work, The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition, a color reproduction of the original, now contained in the Smithsonian’s collections. The publisher’s description follows.

The Jefferson Bible, or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth as it is formally titled, was Thomas Jefferson’s effort to extract what he considered the pertinent doctrine of Jesus by removing sections of the New Testament containing supernatural aspects as well as perceived misinterpretations he believed had been added by the Four Evangelists. Using a razor, Jefferson cut and arranged selected verses from the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in chronological order, mingling excerpts from one text to those of another in order to create a single narrative. After completion of The Life and Morals, about 1820, Jefferson shared it with a number of friends, but he never allowed it to be published during his lifetime. The most complete form Jefferson produced was inherited by his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and was published in 1895 by the National Museum in Washington.

Once published in black-and-white facsimile by the Government Printing Office in 1900 as a gift for new members of Congress, the Jefferson Bible has never before been published in color in its complete form.The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition is an exact facsimile reproduction based on the original copy in the Smithsonian collections. The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition is as beautiful an object as was so painstakingly crafted by Thomas Jefferson himself.

Levy-Rubin, “Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire”

A very interesting-looking and deeply researched book by historian Milka Levy-Rubin (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire: From Surrender to Coexistence (CUP 2011), traces the ways in which conquered religious minorities were and were not accommodated in the Islamic state.  The book is therefore not only of historical interest, but may also illuminate our own struggles with religious accommodation in new and unexpected ways.  The publisher’s description follows.

The Muslim conquest of the East in the seventh century entailed the subjugation of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and others. Although much has been written about the status of non-Muslims in the Islamic empire, no previous works have examined how the rules applying to minorities were formulated. Milka Levy-Rubin’s remarkable book traces the emergence of these regulations from the first surrender agreements in the immediate aftermath of conquest to the formation of the canonic document called the Pact of ‘Umar, which was formalized under the early ‘Abbasids, in the first half of the ninth century. What the study reveals is that the conquered peoples themselves played a major role in the creation of these policies, and that these were based on long-standing traditions, customs, and institutions from earlier pre-Islamic cultures that originated in the worlds of both the conquerors and the conquered. In its connections to Roman, Byzantine, and Sasanian traditions, the book will appeal to historians of Europe as well as Arabia and Persia.

Catholicism and the Risorgimento

Also from the Vatican Insider page of La Stampa mentioned by Mark below (the picture at right is of Garibaldi, not Mark) is this piece about a conference at the Pontifical Lateran University about the Christian roots of Italy as nation-state.  The aim of the conference was to study “the contribution of Christianity to the formation of Italian identity through the work of the Church[.]”  It may be somewhat revisionist to claim that the Roman Catholic Church was truly in support of Italian unification.  Pope Pius IX was in fact rather hostile to the idea, and not without understandable political reasons given the fortunes of the Papal State after 1861.

Be that as it may, I found the following paraphrased statement by historian Msgr. Cosimo Semeraro (as reported in the story) to be a nuanced and sensible characterization:

Undoubtedly unity took place in the wake of a bitter dispute between Savoy and the Papal State, and was achieved against the interests of the Church itself, Msgr. Semeraro acknowledged   Nevertheless (Piedmontese prime minister) Cavour “also began to become aware of the universal value of Rome and the papacy”. Therefore, “The insistence of Cavour for the proclamation of Rome as the capital in 1861 reflects his awareness that the future of the new state had to necessarily pass through a reconciliation with the Holy See”.

To sum it up all, he is convinced that the contribution of Catholics was actually crucial, both in terms of “social and political initiatives of Italian Catholicism to address economic imbalances and social inequalities” and in historical circumstances like World War I, when “large masses, especially peasants” were made more familiar with “a state still suffering from the markedly elitist dimension of its beginnings”.