Old-school journalism values ended up leading Lee Strobel to God

Old-school journalism values ended up leading Lee Strobel to God

Reporter Lee Strobel was investigating the story of his life and he knew it.

As legal-affairs editor at The Chicago Tribune, he had covered plenty of hot-button issues -- like abortion rights -- that required him to wrestle with the views of people on the "other side." Strobel knew what he believed, as an atheist committed to abortion rights and other liberal causes. But he knew -- as a journalist -- that he had a job to do.

"I grew up in the era of old-school journalism, when you really had to try be balanced and fair and accurate. You had to listen to what other people had to say," he said. "Besides, I knew that if I turned in a story with holes in it my editor would come down on me. He'd bounce that thing right back."

But this story was different. The person on the other side of this Strobel investigation was his formerly agnostic wife, Leslie, whose 1979 conversion to Christianity rocked the foundations of their marriage. Suddenly, their home contained a new set of expectations when it came to anger, alcohol, ego and workaholism.

"I was mad and I wanted my wife back," Strobel said. "I decided that the Resurrection was the key to this whole thing and I set out to prove it was all nonsense."

The result was 19 months of research and interviews with experts on both sides of centuries of arguments about the claims of Christianity. As a graduate of the famous University of Missouri journalism program, followed by a Yale Law School degree, Strobel worked through a library of classic texts by atheist and Christian scholars.

The result was Strobel's own conversion, a career shift into ministry and, in 1998, the first of his many books, "The Case For Christ." This year, that book evolved into a movie built on a screenplay by Hollywood veteran Brian Bird -- a former reporter. The indie film made a modest $15 million at the box office. Here is the surprise: It drew an A-plus rating from CinemaScore and 79 percent of Rotten Tomatoes ratings by critics were positive.

The key to many reviews was that journalism remained front and center in the story, creating what Variety film critic Joe Leydon called a cross between an a basic "investigative-journalism drama" and a "theological detective story."

Some serious shopping tips for Catholic parents (and others) seeking traditional schools

Some serious shopping tips for Catholic parents (and others) seeking traditional schools

Buried inside the websites of colleges and universities are the calendars covering the nitty-gritty details of academic and student life.

That's a great place for research by parents considering places for their children to spend some of the most formative years of their lives, according to a Catholic scholar involved in fierce debates about postmodern trends in education.

Anthony Esolen thinks parents should pay special attention to student-life offerings on Friday and Saturday nights.

"You aren't just looking to see what kinds of things they're doing, you're looking for what is missing," said Esolen, best known for his translation of Dante's "The Divine Comedy." He has also written "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization," "Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child" and other books on hot-button subjects.

For example, Esolen once noticed that calendars at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., contained lots of dancing -- swing dancing, to be precise. That sounded fun, but it didn't sound like business as usual in this day and age.

"What you're trying to find out," he explained, "is whether campus leaders are making serious attempts to build some wholesome community life. You're looking for chances for young men and women to get together in settings that tend to reinforce what a Catholic college is all about. … Otherwise, the weekend is just the weekend and we know what that means."

This topic may not sound controversial, said Esolen, but it is because of cultural issues looming in the background -- the defense of ancient doctrines on sexuality, gender and marriage. What happens in classrooms is important, but so are the expectations campus leaders establish for campus life, especially in their dormitories.

"Like it or not, parents have to learn whether a school is or is not on board with the whole Sexual Revolution," he said. If a school "has capitulated on that front" then traditional Catholic parents, or serious religious believers in other flocks, "have to run away and not look back. You can't compromise on that, right now."

The irony is that these kinds of doctrinal issues are critically important to both liberal and conservative Catholics. The bottom line: They are seeking different answers to the same questions.

Can clergy help modern parents struggle with technology issues in their homes?

Can clergy help modern parents struggle with technology issues in their homes?

The evidence keeps growing that families need help controlling technology in their homes, but this is a subject most megachurch pastors would have trouble addressing with a straight face.

"Talking about this subject in many of our churches would be … controversial for reasons that are rather ironic," said author Andy Crouch, senior communication strategist for the John Templeton Foundation in Philadelphia. "Pastors would be preaching in churches dominated by giant video screens and lots of them now ask their people to tweet sermon feedback right there in the service. The technology is everywhere."

It's hard to talk about controlling today's digital-screens culture without being accused of advocating a semi-Amish retreat. But at some point, he said, parents who care about faith, morality and character will have to develop some strategies. For starters, their children will need to hear, over and over: "Our family is different."

Clergy could help parents face this task. But that would require them to address hot-button issues ranging from online porn to whether parents should give children smartphones. It would also require saying, "Our church is different."

Crouch doesn't have easy answers for any of these questions. His new book, "The Tech-Wise Family," includes "Crouch Family Reality Check" pages detailing the struggles behind the principles he recommends. While his family uses candles at its screens-free dinners, Crouch admits that his home's number of Apple devices is in double digits.

Obviously, it's hard to observe any kind of "digital Sabbath" in which all these screens go dark for an hour, a day or even a week, said Crouch. Nevertheless, trying to control this digital lifestyle is a subject religious leaders should discuss with their flocks.

"If we don't have some rhythm with these things -- in terms of when we use them and when we don't -- then they're using us, instead of us using them," he said. But it's crucial to remember that, "we're not saying all this technology is bad. It's good, when used as part of a Christian family culture. That's what takes planning and commitment.

Saith Peggy Noonan: Pick up the Book and change your world

Saith Peggy Noonan: Pick up the Book and change your world

Any history of Catholic thought, and the rise of Western culture, has to mention the turning point in the conversion story of Aurelius Augustinus.

During a time of inner torment, the young man from North Africa withdrew into a garden. As Pope Benedict XVI told the story in 2008, he "suddenly heard a child's voice chanting a rhyme never heard before: tolle, lege, tolle, lege -- pick up and read, pick up and read. He … returned to the Pauline codex that he had recently read, opened it, and his glance fell on the passage of the Epistle to the Romans where the Apostle exhorts to abandon the works of the flesh and to be clothed with Christ."

The man who became St. Augustine picked up that book and, thus, he "changed himself and changed our world," said journalist Peggy Noonan, in her May 13 commencement address at the Catholic University of America.

That was the punch line in her urgent appeal for the graduates to grasp that there is much more to life than the fleeting contents of the glowing, omnipresent screens that dominate their days and nights.

Instead, the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for commentary urged them to "embark on a lifelong relationship with a faithful companion who will always help you and sometimes delight you -- who will never desert you, who will make you smarter, and wiser, who will always be by your side and enlighten you all the days of your life.

"I am talking about -- books. You must not stop reading books. That's all. If you seek a happy and interesting life, one of depth, meaning and accomplishment, you must read books."

Noonan said she certainly couldn't tell her own story without referencing one book after another, from biographies she read as a child to "Saints for Sinners: Nine Desolate Souls Made Strong by God," which as an adult "helped me understand that I was a Catholic and believed it all." Her love of history, which helped shaped her speechwriting for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, came from shelves of books.

The closest Noonan came to talking politics -- she made only two passing references to the current president -- was to note the degree to which the story of 2016 was told by journalists raised in cyberspace.

What Vice President Pence said about global (not U.S.) persecution of Christians

What Vice President Pence said about global (not U.S.) persecution of Christians

Their loved ones died on a Libyan beach, beheaded by Islamic State militants as cameras recorded their agony for a 2015 propaganda video.

Some of the Coptic Christians died repeating these words: "Lord, Jesus Christ." An ISIS leader in a ski mask, in turn, offered this warning: "We will conquer Rome with Allah's permission."

During the recent World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, relatives of these modern martyrs stood to receive the applause of participants, who came from 136 nations -- including the ravaged lands of the Middle East and Africa.

"Today our Christian brothers and sisters across the world are facing persecution and martyrdom on an unprecedented scale," said the Rev. Franklin Graham, who hosted the event for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. "No part of the Christian family is exempt -- Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox -- nor is any part of the world exempt."

There were other poignant moments, including an Iranian woman ringing a memorial bell for the dead, including her father who was hanged for converting to Christianity. Summit speakers represented the global church, including remarks by Archbishop Christophe Louis Yves Georges Pierre, the U.S. ambassador for Pope Francis, and a major address by Metropolitan Hilarion, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church's ecumenical office.

But this meeting was held in Washington, D.C., and led by the always outspoken Franklin Graham -- who called the persecution of Christians "genocide." Also, an address by Vice President Mike Pence guaranteed some mainstream news coverage, as well as a hot spotlight on the U.S. political implications of his remarks.

Thus, a Huffington Post news report claimed: "Pence reiterated a common belief among conservative Christians in the U.S. that they are among the most persecuted people of faith in the world."

While the vice president alluded to trends in the United States, he made it clear that his primary worries and prayers about persecution were global.

Fightin' words and confusion surrounding Trump's shot at the Johnson Amendment

Fightin' words and confusion surrounding Trump's shot at the Johnson Amendment

There was nothing new about the Rev. Jerry Johnson talking about abortion, gay rights and other hot-button moral issues during sermons at the Central Baptist Church of Aurora, outside Denver.

But on this particular Sunday in the mid-1990s, Johnson mentioned President Bill Clinton, noting his liberal take on several issues. Later, several laypeople told him he had risked the church's tax-exempt status -- by mentioning the president's name in the pulpit. Americans United for Separation of Church and State had just begun circulating letters warning religious leaders against endorsing or opposing candidates.

Two decades later, Johnson leads the National Religious Broadcasters and he still thinks preachers should have the right to say whatever they want about faith and politics, even if that includes letting believers know what they think of candidates. Whether pulpit endorsements are wise or necessary is another matter, he said.

"Speech is speech and free speech is free speech," said Johnson. "The question isn't whether it's wise or not for church leaders to endorse candidates, the question is who gets to make that decision. If the answer is the government, then that's the old Soviet answer, that's the answer you get in China. If the church gets to make that decision, then there's your First Amendment answer, right there."

Thus, Johnson was among those celebrating President Donald Trump's executive order telling Internal Revenue Service officials not to "take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization" that endorses candidates. Those actions were banned in the mid-1950s by the rarely enforced Johnson Amendment, engineered by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, who wanted to corral his opponents in secular and religious nonprofit groups.

Yes, an executive order is not the same thing as Congress overturning the Johnson Amendment, said Johnson. The NRB leader also knows that Trump didn't really address the rising tide of First Amendment clashes between religious believers -- such as wedding photographers, cake bakers and florists -- and discrimination claims by LGBTQ activists.

Is there still room for pro-life Democrats in their own political party?

Is there still room for pro-life Democrats in their own political party?

On the subject of abortion rights, the 2016 Democratic Party platform language prepared for candidates was as firm as ever.

"Democrats are committed to protecting and advancing reproductive health, rights, and justice," it noted. "We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion -- regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured."

Most of the party's candidates agreed on other implications of that statement, from legal third-trimester abortions, taxpayer funded abortions and gender-selection abortions, which usually means aborting unborn females.

Most Democratic candidates backed that platform -- but not all.

Thus, it stunned some Democrats, especially in heartland and Bible Belt states, when Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez drew another bright line defining who participates in the work of his party.

"Every Democrat, like every American," he said, "should support a woman's right to make her own choices about her body and her health. This is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state." In fact, he added, "every candidate who runs as a Democrat" should affirm abortion rights.

Needless to say, these were fighting words for Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America.

"I am glad this conversation is taking place," she said, in a telephone interview earlier this week. It would help if the party's chairman "sat down and talked with us, because we are obviously feeling left out.

Tricky interfaith details: Muslim preacher in an Episcopal pulpit and at the altar

Tricky interfaith details: Muslim preacher in an Episcopal pulpit and at the altar

Soumaya Khalifah's sermon fell in the usual place in the Holy Week rite in which Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta clergy renewed their vows -- after a Gospel passage and before the consecration of bread and wine as Holy Communion.

In this Mass, the Liturgy of the Word also included a Quran reading, including: "God, there is no god but He, the Living, the Self-Subsisting. Neither slumber overtakes Him nor sleep. Unto Him belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is on the earth. Who is there who may intercede with Him save by His leave?"

Khalifah asked leaders from the region's 96 Episcopal parishes an obvious question: Was this an historic moment, with a Muslim woman preaching in a liturgy for an entire Christian diocese?

"I truly believe that interfaith works is the Civil Rights Movement for the 21st century," said Khalifah, head of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta. "Faith is used to divide us and we need to make intentional efforts to bring ourselves together. Normally we worship, associate and have friends from our own faith tradition, our own race. …

"When I look at the beautiful creations of God and how they worship, I see my Christian brothers and sisters. I think of their love for Jesus -- peace be upon him -- and their trying to live by his specific example of loving his enemies."

After her sermon, Atlanta Bishop Robert C. Wright invited Khalifah to join clergy and others at the altar for the Eucharistic prayers consecrating the bread and wine. As the worshippers stepped forward to receive Holy Communion, the bishop said Khalifah took part.

"She held out her hand to receive the Host and it is not my practice to refuse people," said Wright, reached by telephone. He noted that "open Communion" is common across his diocese, especially with visitors. Khalifah returned to her seat without receiving the consecrated wine, the bishop said.

Yes, it appears that Easter and resurrection of Jesus are still controversial

Yes, it appears that Easter and resurrection of Jesus are still controversial

It's a challenge, but every Easter preachers around the world strive to find something different to say about the Christian doctrine of the resurrection.

This applies to the pope, as well, in his Holy Week and Easter sermons. Journalists always sift through these papal texts searching references to the Middle East, global warming, social justice or other "newsy" topics worthy of headlines.

 But Pope Francis did something different this year, abandoning his prepared sermon to speak from the heart about a recent telephone conversation with a young engineer who is facing a serious illness, as well as life-and-death questions.

Christians insist that Easter is the ultimate answer, said Francis.

"Today the church continues to say: Jesus has risen from the dead. … This is not a fantasy. It's not a celebration with many flowers," he said, surrounded by Easter pageantry.

Flowers are nice, but the resurrection is more, he added. "It is the mystery of the rejected stone that ends up being the cornerstone of our existence. Christ has risen from the dead. In this throwaway culture, where that which is not useful … is discarded, that stone -- Jesus -- is discarded, yet is the source of life."

So the pope has to defend Easter? As it turns out, anyone seeking other motives for the pope's blunt words could point to headlines triggered by a new BBC survey claiming that many self-identified British Christians have rejected, or perhaps watered-down, biblical claims that Jesus rose from the dead.

The BBC.com headline proclaimed: "Resurrection did not happen, say quarter of Christians." Among the survey's claims: