Religion Today

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Coffin of Archbishop Bancroft and the King James Bible

Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, England, is the center of the worldwide Anglican Church -- the third largest Christian organization in the world. But since the Anglican Church also is the official Church of England, there is a business office -- a residence called Lambeth Palace -- across the Thames River from London’s Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. And next to Lambeth Palace is an old medieval church known as “St. Mary at Lambeth,” where, for centuries, the archbishops of Canterbury and their families worshipped when they were in London.

It was announced this Easter weekend that the missing remains of five archbishops had been discovered in a crypt beneath the church. One of these archbishops was Richard Bancroft, who was archbishop from 1604 to his death in 1610. He was the “chief overseer” of the King James Bible.

The St. Mary’s crypt was discovered during renovations to the church that have been carried out since 2015. The crypt was not disturbed, but a remote camera on a pole was stuck into the tomb through a hole in the wall. Bancroft’s coffin was not alone, but accompanied by 30 other lead coffins, several of which contained the remains of later archbishops.

Bancroft was perhaps the most important figure in the creation of the King James Bible. To begin with, James became king of England in 1603, after being born the king of Scotland. He was raised and educated within the Calvinist Scottish church. At this time, the Church of England was undergoing difficult and protracted internal debates between the traditional churchmen and the Puritans.

The Puritans were heavily influenced by Calvinism, like England’s new king. They hoped he would be an ally in their attempts to reform the Church of England and petitioned him, as the church’s head, to institute key changes.

James convened the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604 to address their concerns. It was not a success for the Puritans. Bancroft, who was then bishop of London, was widely known as a fierce opponent of the Puritans. He helped persuade the king to reject the Puritan calls for church reform.

But James shared one desire with the Puritans, which he granted. That was their request for a new, “authorized” translation of the Bible. But, even as he acceded to their request, he added a twist: James put the anti-Puritan Bancroft in charge of the project.

King James hated the Calvinist Geneva Bible with a passion, widely used among Puritans. The source of that hatred was that it included interpretative notes, many of which expressed anti-monarchical ideas. Since James believed strongly in the divine right of kings to rule their subjects, these were especially infuriating. The new Bible, he made clear, would have no notes, just translation.

Archbishop Bancroft pioneered a new approach to Bible translation, one which helped the translation overcome the political and religious conflict in which the project was conceived. Earlier translations had essentially been done by individuals, without consultation or review. Bancroft brought together 47 experts in biblical studies from Oxford, Cambridge and London. Here, he was surprisingly even-handed, bringing in the best scholars whether they were establishment or Puritan.

Bancroft divided the experts into six companies: three for the Old Testament, two for the New Testament and one for the Apocrypha. There were multiple levels of review, with himself having the final say. This ensured that the translation was both accurate and pleasant to hear.

This last goal was important, for nearly all England agreed that the last official Bible translation of the church, known as the Bishop’s Bible, was plodding, dull and uninspired. The churchmen did not like it, and the people who listened to it every Sunday found it boring. To have any chance of success among the people, the King James Bible needed attractive prose.

And, by all accounts, the King James Bible succeeded. Within 50 years, its “majesty of style” made it the widest circulating English Bible. It traveled to the American colonies, where it was frequently reprinted. For more than 300 years, it was the main Bible used in the English language, and no other Protestant Bible could compete with it.


Archbishop Bancroft, whose burial site we now know, was a partisan bulldog for the Church of England establishment. Yet he guided the creation of a new Bible translation that lasted for more than four centuries and was accepted by most branches of Protestant Christianity.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Businesses, Sports and Public Debates Over National Moral Character

This week saw the end of one boycott and the start of another.

In North Carolina, months after the boycott by businesses and the NCAA began over the state’s anti-transgender “bathroom bill,” the Legislature passed a bill removing the restrictions, the governor signed it, and the NCAA removed its ban on holding tournaments in the state.

In New York, as Fox host and commentator Bill O’Reilly settled five cases of sexual harassment, and new charges were made, his show’s advertising supporters finally took notice. Five top-flight auto manufacturers, three health care companies and Allstate Insurance have withdrawn their advertising from his show. More may follow.

Since the start of the national debate over gay marriage specifically and LGBTA rights in general, national and international businesses have become vocal about their positions on political issues -- especially in states and shows attracting national news. CEOs from Apple, PayPal, Yelp and Eli Lilly weighed in on Indiana’s 2015 law permitting discrimination against gays. The NFL and the NBA are warning Texas over its own proposed bathroom bill. And, back in 2010, popular rock bands canceled concerts in Arizona over that state’s extreme anti-immigrant legislation.

Of course, it is common for businesses, sports groups and celebrities to defend their interests and those of their customers and fans. But, usually that is done with regard to issues related to their areas of activity. Coal and oil companies lobby about energy legislation, for example. Popular singers lobby for copyright enforcement and anti-pirating legislation.

But, this is different. Companies have realized that their national image is at stake; their brand value can be compromised by being associated with particular positions in debates over social issues. They want to choose their positions proactively, not have perceptions or misperceptions attached to them.

So, companies have taken stands to make their positions clear and protect their brands. When Donald Trump became the Republican nominee, Apple, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Ford and Motorola ended their sponsorship of the party’s national convention. They did not want to be associated with the inflammatory character of then-candidate “Trump’s statements about women, immigrants and minorities,” as Apple CEO Tim Cook put it.

While businesses have become more involved in social debates, their involvement tends to focus on one-off events or pieces of legislation. It is usually short-term, either avoiding a particular event or campaigning against a specific bill. Most find it difficult to sustain actions like a boycott over long periods of time.
Sports leagues have taken a prominent role in some of these debates. The decision by the NCAA to stop all tournaments in North Carolina because of its bathroom bill played a key role in rolling back that bill’s restrictions. Once state businesses made clear the economic and social impact the NCAA’s decision would have, the Legislature reluctantly made changes -- enough for the NCAA to rescind its ban.

When Arizona passed a law allowing discrimination against LGBTA people in 2014, the NFL threatened to move the upcoming Super Bowl to another state. Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill.

The power of sports leagues in combating state-sponsored discrimination comes in part from their fans, and those fans are families. From young children to doting grandparents, families participate in, root for and follow sports. From pee-wee leagues to high school and college games to professional teams, sports in America comprises a family activity. Leagues want to be seen as inclusive of everyone and exclude no one. It is an essential part of their all-American image. Businesses that manufacture products or provide services simply lack that kind of loyal and across-the-board following.

The only other major, national institution that consists of such a broad-based family culture are churches. Indeed, it almost goes without saying that religions -- both Christian and non-Christian -- are family based. They provide services for families and their members from birth (e.g., baptism) through marriage to death.

Finally, many religious movements, such as evangelical Christianity, and on some issues Catholicism, have joined the conservative wing of the Republican party. Ironically, it is conservative and often religious Republican legislators who have passed the discriminatory social legislation that sports leagues like the NCAA and the NFL have lobbied against. Perhaps the greatest irony is that the two family-oriented institutions -- sports and churches -- share many of the same followers.

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The Restoration of Jesus’ Tomb is Completed

Although Easter Sunday is not until April 16, perhaps the most important moment in this year’s Christian calendar is Wednesday, March 22.

For this is the day on which the restored Edicule -- the structure housing the Tomb of Christ -- was opened to the public with a celebration that included key representatives of both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The celebration does not commemorate a religious or spiritual event, but an achievement of engineering, architectural restoration and art historical conservation.

The restoration was undertaken not by celibate priests or monks, but by a team of academics, scientists and specially trained engineers and construction workers who have worked diligently for the last year to complete the work before this Easter. The team was led by Antonia Moropoulou and came from the National Technical University of Athens, where she is the vice rector of academic affairs and an expert in the restoration of ancient monuments.

The cost of the project was more than $4 million and was funded by people and organizations from different religious and nonreligious backgrounds. The New York-based World Monuments Fund (WMF) took the lead, but money was donated by King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (both Muslims); each of the three Christian churches who control the tomb -- Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Orthodox -- as well as WMF Trustee Mica Ertegun, the widow of the founder of Atlantic Records.

To state the point bluntly, the restoration of the Edicule over Jesus’ tomb came about through the cooperative efforts of Christians, Muslims, and secular organizations and individuals. And, the participation of all was necessary for its successful completion.

The Edicule is a small structure within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It is believed to cover the remains of the tomb in which Jesus was laid by his disciples after he was taken down from the cross, which, in turn, means that this was the tomb in which he rose from the dead. In Christian theology, then, the act that ensured the availability of salvation for all Christians took place right here.

This traditional location for Jesus’ tomb was identified in 326 by Queen Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine. It was hidden underneath a temple to the goddess Aphrodite. As part of Constantine’s promotion of Christianity in the empire, the temple was removed and a church built on the site.

The present Church of the Holy Sepulchre goes back to the Crusader church built in the 12th century. The Edicule over Christ’s tomb is known from that time, although it was rebuilt several times since then.

The present Edicule was built in 1810, incorporating remains from the previous one that had been damaged in a fire in 1808. It was fine for about a century and was then damaged by an earthquake. It became increasingly unsafe.

When the three churches in charge of it could not agree upon repairs, the British Mandate government stepped in and erected a structure of metal girders and cables around it to prevent it from falling down. It was quite ugly, but allowed pilgrims to continue to enter the tomb’s shrine within the Edicule.

And, so, the Edicule remained. Even when the entire Church of the Holy Sepulchre underwent restoration a decade ago, the Edicule remained untouched. But, when the Israel Antiquities Authority ordered it temporarily closed in 2015 for safety reasons, something had to be done to protect the worshippers.

That was when the current project got underway. After a study of the structure in March 2016, work began that May and was announced as completed just this past week.

Pilgrims primarily concern themselves with spiritual matters, but someone needs to ensure their physical safety. It took international and multi-religious cooperation to ensure that. And, in the end, it was mundane engineering and scientific expertise that restored this site of holiness and prayer to its former, safe magnificence.

Pictured here is the Edicule over Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre before this year’s restoration. (Paul V.M. Flesher Photo)

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Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Religious Cooperation on this Side of the Atlantic

Attacks on minority religions in America are on the rise.
There have been several mosque burnings in recent months, and hundreds of tombstones have been vandalized in Jewish cemeteries in the last couple of weeks. More than a hundred synagogues have received bomb threats since the start of the year although, thankfully, there have been no bombs. These may be the acts of just a few individuals, but America’s religious communities have come out in force to support each other.
American believers of all stripes have mobilized to support targeted religions. Christians from a variety of denominations have organized and attended rallies for religious freedom, especially in support of the freedom to worship the divine as one sees fit. Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans and Baptists, along with Hindus, Muslims and Jews -- the list could go on -- have participated, and their leaders made speeches calling for acceptance of all religions.
The Rev. Cody Sanders wrote in this month’s Baptist News Global, “If we don’t act now in solidarity with our Muslim siblings, we’ve got no legitimate reason to claim we are followers of Jesus.”
Within this large umbrella of interfaith support of our country’s smaller religions is these religions’ support of each other. As their communities and institutions have been attacked, Jews and Muslims have been supporting each other and working together.
When a mosque was burned in Victoria, Texas, Jews opened their synagogue to the Muslims as a worship space. When another was burned in Tampa, Fla., local Jews contributed extensively to the fund for replacing it.
In both Philadelphia and St. Louis, where hundreds of Jewish tombstones were knocked over by vandals, Muslims organized to help the Jewish community restore the cemeteries. As bomb threats against Jewish community centers have increased, Muslim organizations have been quick to condemn such threatening actions, as have representatives of Christianity and other religions.
These supportive activities are not just one-off events, but parallel a growing movement within each religion here in the USA to participate in activities that improve understanding and friendship with each other. In some communities, Jews have attended Muslim Friday prayers while, in others, Muslims have attended synagogue services. Elsewhere, there have been “teach-ins,” where Jews and Muslims learn about each other’s religious beliefs and practices, seeking to understand the differences and identify aspects of their commonalities -- including important moments of shared history.
This is what the USA’s legal emphasis on religious freedom means. It means that our nation is one of the few places in the world where the country and its government provide members of all faiths (and no faith) the freedom to worship and believe as they see fit. It allows for interreligion cooperation and friendship. Rather than elevating one religion over another, the government allows room for all and for all to work together (or not) as they wish. While short-term political surges may temporarily privilege one religious movement, these are always tempered by our legal and constitutional foundation.
The steps American Muslims and Jews have taken toward cooperation are only beginning to take fruit, but they provide hope in light of the ongoing religious problems in the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There, politics and political advantage have overshadowed religious discussion, cooperation and freedom.
In part, this is because in all countries involved, the government supports one religion over the other and, often, the religion becomes a weapon in each government’s arsenal. The arguments, violence and sometimes military conflict largely prevent the development of religious tolerance, understanding and cooperation, which could lead ultimately to peace.
Moreover, the cooperation of the two religions in the USA is reminiscent of Jewish-Muslim cooperation during Muhammad’s time. Jews were citizens of Medina when that town decided to invite Muhammad to govern them. And, although they did not convert to Islam as Muhammad hoped, Jews cooperated with his rule, and he remained respectful of them throughout his life. This should not be surprising since Islam believes in Judaism’s God.
It is only quite recently, in the upheavals of the 20th century that resulted in the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel, that Muslims of the Middle East came to hate Jews. Again, this has more to do with Israel’s occupying land formerly held by Muslims and still claimed by them than with religious differences.
In the end, although we should not read too much into recent cooperative and supportive activities between American Muslims and Jews, we should be proud that our country provides a place for such rapprochement. Perhaps members of the two religions will learn about each other in ways that might lead to positive developments elsewhere.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Muslims in America: Some Observations


One impetus for President Trump’s controversial ban on citizens from specific Middle Eastern countries is to reduce the number of Muslims entering the USA, as if Muslims in general were dangerous, rather than simply using the nation’s intelligence agencies to identify risky people and denying them entry. That impetus went unstated in the ban’s legal language but was widely bruited about last fall on the campaign trail. 
            This is rather too little, too late. The USA already counts many Muslims among its citizens, with Islam coming up on Judaism for the honor of being the nation’s second largest religion. While this sounds sizeable, in percentage terms it is not. Judaism stands at roughly 4 percent of Americans, while Islam is about 3 percent. Compared to the percentage of self-professed Christians, which a 2014 Pew survey puts at over 70 percent, this is rather small. But, like Judaism, Islam is here to stay.
            Muslims have been in America since Muslim slaves came with the Spanish in the 16th century. During America’s Civil War in the mid-19th century, Muslims served in the North’s army; one became a captain in the Illinois Infantry while another, Hajji Ali, was in charge of its Camel Military Corps in what is now Arizona. And, their numbers have increased gradually over the decades, with the biggest increase since World War II.
            This last observation is significant, for it means that Muslims did not enter during the largest period of immigration in USA history, from the 1880s to the late 1920s. Millions of immigrants entered America during this time, most from Europe. Until that time, America had been largely Protestant, but now large numbers of Catholics and Jews came to the country. Indeed, this is when Judaism become the nation’s second largest religion.
            Judaism’s adjustment to American society can be instructive for understanding the changes American Islam is presently undergoing. In the early 20th century, newly arrived Jews found the USA quite different from Europe. And, this required changes to the practices they had followed.
            Religions give (at least) two kinds of instructions to their adherents: how to worship and relate to the divine, and how to relate to the people and society in which their adherents live.
            While worship rules are internal to the religion and tend to remain fairly stable, rules about relating to society change as that society changes. If a religion moves from a totalitarian society to a democratic society, for example, or from a tolerant to an intolerant one, it will, by necessity, change the way it relates to the new society.
            But, how does a religion know when the changes are OK? Do they fit with the centuries and/or millennia of religious tradition? Those decisions are made by trained religious leaders.
            In Judaism, rabbis are the leaders authorized to make such decisions. At first, rabbis came from Europe along with their congregants. They were used to European ways of doing things rather than American ways. Change, therefore, was slow.
            But, the pace of adjustment picked up when Judaism created seminaries -- graduate-level educational schools to transform young Americans into American rabbis to lead the American Jewish community. Within a generation, American Judaism was led by rabbis who understood America because they were American, not transplanted Europeans. These rabbis reshaped the character of Judaism’s social relations to help the religion and its members fit into American society.
            Islam in America is at a similar stage right now. Immigration has increased the American Muslim population and the number of mosques. And, some trained Islamic leaders, “imams,” have arrived. Many mosques are led by devoted and dedicated lay people.
            In the past few years, the Islamic community has begun to organize seminaries for training young American Muslims as religious leaders. But, it is a slow process. Nationally, about half a dozen seminaries have programs, but none are yet fully accredited by the USA’s higher education accrediting bodies. Hartford Seminary -- a multifaith institution -- has an accredited Muslim chaplaincy degree, but even that falls short of a complete training for Muslim religious leadership.
            In the end, while American Muslims have lived here for generations, Islam, as a religious organization, is still in its early stages. The foundation of seminaries is a solid start and, within a few years, they will begin graduating American native imams. That will be a milestone in the advancement of our country’s religious liberty.

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