Looking for alternative forms of faith in the streets of postmodern Czech Republic

Looking for alternative forms of faith in the streets of postmodern Czech Republic

PRAGUE -- The Czech Republic's capital has long been called the "city of 100 spires" and there are many church steeples among all those soaring medieval landmarks.

But along the winding, cobblestone streets, something else is happening at eye level in the bookstores, artsy shops, coffee hangouts and sidewalk posters. This is where yoga mixes with sacred rocks, folk religion bumps into numerology and dark themes in fantasy comics blend into pop versions of Hinduism and Buddhism.

In today's Czech Republic, people are "still asking questions about what is good and what is bad, and questions about life and death," said Daniel Raus, a journalist and poet known for his years with Czech Radio, covering politics, culture and religion.

"What is different is that (Czechs) are saying, 'I will decide what is good and I will decide what is bad. No one can tell me what to believe about any of this.' "

These trends can be seen in revealing numbers in a new Pew Research Center study entitled "Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe."

Looking at the big picture, the survey shows that the influence and practice of faith is slipping in lands long identified with Catholicism, those closest to the European West. Eastern Orthodoxy is rising, especially in lands in which faith and national identity blend. Among the Orthodox, however, statistics linked to prayer and worship remain sobering.

But the location of the most stunning changes is clear.

"The most dramatic shift … has occurred in the Czech Republic, where the share of the public identifying as Catholic dropped from 44% in 1991 to 21% in the current survey," noted the Pew summary document. "Today, the Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in Europe, with nearly three-quarters of adults (72%) describing their religion as atheist, agnostic or 'nothing in particular.' "

Donald Trump meets worship wars in controversial Kennedy Center, Dallas rites

Donald Trump meets worship wars in controversial Kennedy Center, Dallas rites

Rare is the Church of England worshipper who needs a pew copy of Hymns Ancient and Modern in order to sing No. 578, which is often performed with great pomp -- trumpets and all -- in the rites that symbolize the old glory of Great Britain.

The first verse: "God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen! Send her victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us: God save the Queen."

That works in England, which has a state church. However, some flashy church-state rites at the Kennedy Center recently raised lots of American eyebrows, inspiring online shouts of "Idolatry!" In particular, critics focused on an anthem performed by the First Baptist Church of Dallas choir and orchestra during the "Celebrate Freedom Rally."

The first verse, sung before a speech by President Donald Trump, proclaimed: "Make America great again! Lift the torch of freedom all across the land. Step into the future joining hand in hand. And make America great again."

The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist, Dallas, was just as blunt during his remarks during the rally in Washington, D.C.

"God declared that the people, and not the pollsters, were going to choose the next president of the United States and they chose Donald Trump," shouted Jeffress, an early Trump supporter. "Christians understood that he alone had the leadership skills to reverse the downward death spiral our nation was in."

Jeffress later defended the anthem, which was based on the Trump campaign slogan. It was not "sung in a church as a worship song on Sunday morning," he told The Christian Post.

However, others were just as offended by the fireworks, flag-waving and political sermonizing during this year's "Freedom Sunday" services in First Baptist, Dallas. A typical response came at the "Ponder Anew" blog in the Patheos public-square forum.

A decade later, the omnipresent iPhone shapes lives, families and even souls

A decade later, the omnipresent iPhone shapes lives, families and even souls

The late Steve Jobs loved surprises and, at the 2007 MacWorld conference, he knew he was going to make history.

"Every once and awhile, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything," said Apple's prophet-in-chief. This product -- on sale at the end of June 2007 -- combined entertainment programs with a telephone, while also putting the "Internet in your pocket." His punch line a decade ago: "We are calling it iPhone."

At one point in that first demonstration, Jobs began jumping from one iPhone delight to another. He wryly confessed: "I could play with this thing a long time."

To which millions of parents, clergy and educators can now say: "#REALLY. Tell us something we don't know."

One key iPhone creator has had doubts, as well, especially when he watches families in restaurants, with parents and children plugged into their omnipresent smartphones.

"It terms of whether it's net positive or net negative, I don't think we know yet," said Greg Christie, a former Apple leader who helped create the iPhone's touch interface. He spoke at a Silicon Valley event covered by The Verge, a tech website.

"I don't feel good about the distraction. It's certainly an unintended consequence," said Christie. "The fact that it is so portable so it's always with you … and it provides so much for you that the addiction actually, in retrospect, is not surprising."

There is more to this puzzle that mere addiction, according to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. In a recent podcast -- yes, he noted many people listen on iPhones -- he tried to summarize the cultural, moral and even theological trends seen during the first decade in which the iPhone and related devices shaped the lives of millions and millions of people worldwide.

Rather than being a luxury for elites, he said, this device "has become something considered a necessity, and in this world, if we're playing by the world's terms, of course it is. … The question the iPhone represents to us is: Who owns whom? Do we own the iPhone, or, increasingly, immorally, does the iPhone own us?"

Wrestling with the complex Gospel according to Bob Dylan, once again

Wrestling with the complex Gospel according to Bob Dylan, once again

When Bob Dylan tells the story of Bob Dylan, he often starts at a concert by rock 'n' roll pioneer Buddy Holly in the winter of 1959.

At least, that's where he started in his recent Nobel Prize for Literature lecture.

Something mysterious about Holly "filled me with conviction," said Dylan. "He looked me right straight dead in the eye and he transmitted something. Something, I didn't know what. And it gave me the chills."

Days later, Holly died in a plane crash. Right after that, someone gave Dylan a recording of "Cotton Fields" by folk legend Leadbelly. It was "like I'd been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me," said Dylan.

That story probably sounded "rather strange to lots of people," said Scott Marshall, author of the new book "Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life."

"What happens when somebody lays hands on you? If people don't know the Bible, then who knows what they'll think that means? … Dylan is saying he felt called to some new work, like he was being ordained. That's just the way Dylan talks. That's who he is."

For millions of true believers, Dylan was a prophetic voice of the 1960s and all that followed. Then his intense embrace of Christianity in the late 1970s infuriated many fans and critics. Ever since, Dylan has been surrounded by arguments -- often heated -- about the state of his soul.

The facts reveal that Dylan had God on his mind long before his gospel-rock trilogy, "Slow Train Coming," "Saved" and "Shot of Love."

One civil rights activist, the Rev. Bert Cartwright, catalogued all the religious references in Dylan's 1961-78 works, before the "born-again" years. In all, 89 out of 246 Dylan songs or liner notes -- 36 percent -- contained Bible references. Cartwright found 190 Hebrew Bible allusions and 197 to Christian scriptures.

Sen. Bernie Sanders opens up a new front in America's church-state warfare

Sen. Bernie Sanders opens up a new front in America's church-state warfare

Try to imagine the media storm if the following drama ever took place under the hot glare of television lights in a U.S. Senate hearing.

So a Muslim believer who has been nominated for a cabinet-level post is taking questions. A Bible Belt senator asks: "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?"

Or perhaps a senator from a New England state -- say Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- asks the nominee: "Do you think Christians who believe in the Holy Trinity will be condemned because they reject the oneness of God?"

Ismail Royer knows what would happen if he faced those questions. He would defend one of Islam's core doctrines.

"I believe Jesus was a prophet of God, but not God himself," said Royer, who works at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. "I'd have to say that worshipping Jesus alongside God amounts to polytheism and is a rejection of the one God. There is no way that I could apologize for what I believe as a Muslim."

A purely hypothetical case? Not after a recent confrontation during a U.S. Senate budget committee hearing on the nomination of Russell Vought to serve as deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Sanders questioned a Vought article about a Wheaton College controversy, in which a professor made headlines with her claims that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. As a former Wheaton professor, Vought argued that salvation was found through Jesus -- period.

Thus, Sanders said: "You wrote, 'Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son and they stand condemned.' Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?"

The nominee repeated his defense of this ancient Christian doctrine. Sanders kept asking if Vought believed that Muslims "stand condemned."

Once again, Vought said: "Senator, I'm a Christian …"

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.