I am an inveterate consumer of newspapers, books, blogs, and just about any medium relating to the intersection of religion and society. Even State of the Union addresses. This month’s column is a brief collection of miscellaneous extracts from my recent nibblings. Here goes.

Readiness for marriage

Talk about contrasts. Last week's IR wedding page featured a story about the decline in “matchy-matchy” bridal attendant dresses. Right next to it was a good-size feature on internet divorce services. After recoiling from the whiplash, I wondered how many couples take part in pre-marriage preparation programs. Couples should seriously consider pre-marriage preparation. The Journal of Family Psychology reports that couples who do had 30 percent fewer divorces after five years of marriage.

Furthermore, they reported higher levels of marital satisfaction than couples who did not prepare for the challenges of marriage. For years I used Prepare-Enrich with couples and highly recommend it. There are currently five trained and licensed Prepare-Enrich facilitators in Helena and one in Clancy. Go to www.prepare-enrich.com and click on couples. The cost is a lot less than a “matchy-matchy” dress.

State of the Union

As I watched the president’s State of the Union address, I was deeply moved by the brave, courageous people he lifted up. If I had been in the House chamber, I would have stood and applauded them too.

The president’s speech-writers, however, chose heroic stories that mostly emphasized fear and violence. The vignettes left people thankful for brave men and women but fearful and anxious about life. Fear is a persuasive political ploy because it impairs memory. Chronic fear can drive people to do risky, dangerous things. That’s because fear drives us into our reptilian brain, where fight or flight are the only options. But there’s much more to us.

Paul tells us that we have received “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). In other words, God has given human beings those big frontal lobes to counter black and white responses to life. Truly, our gray matter helps us to see beyond stark, dichotomous alternatives. In short our evolved brains give us the ability to see the grey areas of life. When I am feeling fearful, I turn to Isaiah 43:1-3: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” Sometimes I insert my name into the text, letting God speak to me directly. Try it out. By the way, the phrase “do not be afraid” appears in the Scriptures 70 times (New International Version). I guess we need to be reminded a lot.

Pope Francis takes on fake news

Pope Francis caught my attention recently, as he often does. We can expect the pope to use Biblical images to make his point and he did not disappoint.

Fake news, said Pope Francis in a recent interview, is evil. It goes back to the Garden of Eden story when the serpent told Adam and Eve that eating the forbidden fruit wouldn’t hurt them. To compound matters, Adam and Eve didn’t check out the serpent’s fake information with God. Fortunately we can check out the accuracy and veracity of pronouncements. Well, most of the time. There was so much traffic that the nonpartisan fact-checking site PolitiFact crashed during the State of the Union Address.

The pope said disinformation exploits “emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger, and frustration.” He went on to call for “education for truth” that would help people understand news in order to spot the “sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments.” Perhaps we need an Eleventh Commandment: Thou shall fact check. On the other hand, we already have a commandment that encourages us to speak the truth and not mislead others.

A book plus a video to stretch your heart and mind

If love is at the core of all religions, why do so many religious people express hostility to others? And how do we overcome such ill will?

Brian McLaren, author of more than a dozen books, deals with religious identity in a multi-faith world in “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?” McLaren suggests that interfaith differences are less about our differences than our lack of understanding and respect. He encourages us to rediscover our distinct and unique identity, which includes core values of respect, hospitality, and neighborliness. Too long we have allowed impetuous voices to set the interfaith agenda.

As I read his book, the recent PBS program “The Sultan and the Saint” came to mind. It’s the unlikely story of how St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Al-Kamil met on a blood-soaked Egyptian battlefield 800 years ago. In one of the most improbable incidents in history, Sultan Al-Kamil invited Francis into his camp. The future saint spent several weeks with the enemy. Francis originally wanted to convince the Sultan of Christianity’s superiority, but watching Muslims pray five times a day left a huge impression on him. These people, Francis discovered, loved God too.

Eventually the Muslim army gained the upper hand and the Christian forces faced starvation. The Muslim troops, inspired by Francis, took bread and barley to their Christian enemies. The Crusader army melted away, returning home. The Crusades, for the most part, were over. Francis remained passionate about his faith. So did Sultan Al-Kamil. They discovered what their faiths had in common. Respect. Hospitality. Neighborliness. McLaren’s book is available in print and electronic formats. You can stream the video at pbs.org.

The Very Rev. Stephen Brehe is the retired dean of St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral in Helena.

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