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Country music and the emotional ties that bind Saturday night and Sunday morning

Country music and the emotional ties that bind Saturday night and Sunday morning

Anyone looking for the late Johnny Cash will find him in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Folk Music Hall of Fame and many other American music honor rolls.

 But when asked to describe his musical values, Cash preached country gospel: "I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And mother. And God."

That's the kind of raw, tear-jerking storytelling that country fans embrace, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent Revisionist History podcast called "The King of Tears." That emotional worldview may be one reason people in different regions and social classes have trouble understanding each other.

"I'm talking about the bright line that divides American society -- not the color line, or the ideological lines. I'm talking about the sad song line," said Gladwell, best known for his work in The New Yorker and bestsellers like "The Tipping Point."

Contrast the worldviews of rock and country, he said. Anyone who studies Rolling Stone Magazine's top 50 rock songs will mainly hear "songs about wanting to have sex, songs about having sex, songs about getting high, presumably after having sex. ... In all of those 50 songs, nobody dies after a long illness, no marriage disintegrates, nobody's killed on a battlefield, no mother grieves for a son."

In terms of raw country emotions, said Gladwell, it's hard to top the epic memorial service after the death of superstar George Jones in 2013. At one point, Vince Gill sobbed his way through the heart of his classic "Go Rest High on that Mountain," with Patty Loveless singing a harmony line alone. That song was inspired by the death of Gill's brother, as well as the death of country star Keith Whitley.

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.

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."

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.

Year 29 for this column -- Yes, lots of journalists still need to get religion

Year 29 for this column --  Yes, lots of journalists still need to get religion

It was a month after Donald Trump won the presidency and, to be honest, many stunned journalists were still trying to figure out how they missed the tremors that led to the political earthquake.

That was the backdrop for an appearance by New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet on the Fresh Air program at National Public Radio. While the focus was politics and journalism, Baquet also offered a refreshingly candid sound bite about mainstream media efforts to cover religion news.

I think those remarks are worth a flashback this week, which marks the end of year 29 for my syndicated "On Religion" column. You see, I am just as convinced as ever that if journalists want to cover real stories in the real lives of real people in the real world, then they need to be real serious when handling religion.

Quoting a pre-election Times column by Jim Rutenberg, Fresh Air host Terry Gross said: "If you're a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation's worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him? Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century."

For Baquet, this topic was linked to stirred-up populist emotions out in the heartland. Journalists must strive, he said, to understand the "forces in America that led to Americans wanting a change so much" that they were willing to back Trump.

"I want to make sure that we are much more creative about beats out in the country so that we understand that anger and disconnectedness that people feel. And I think I use religion as an example because I was raised Catholic in New Orleans," said Baquet. "I think that the New York-based, and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don't quite get religion. …"

Philadelphia archbishop offers candid talk on new/old idols of our changing times

Philadelphia archbishop offers candid talk on new/old idols of our changing times

NEW YORK -- It was hard, especially when discussing faith during troubled times, for Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput to avoid the copper-tinted elephant in the national living room -- but he tried.

The leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia made only one reference to Donald Trump and his victory over Hillary Clinton. Why? Because Trump's win was just another sign of painful realities in American life.

"Some of those trends, in a perverse and unintended way, helped elect President Trump. But Mr. Trump is a REACTION to, not a REVERSAL of, the current direction of the country," said Chaput. "It's a sign of our national poverty that both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump were so distasteful and so deeply flawed in the 2016 campaign."

The big idea at this forum -- held at the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in Manhattan's East Village -- was that believers cannot expect politicians to provide solutions for several decades worth of moral puzzles. The archbishop's address was built on themes from his new book, "Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World."

At some point, he said, clergy and laypeople alike will have to make hard choices about how to live faithful lives in a radically different environment.

"Nations and peoples are changing all the time. If they're not, it means they're dead," said Chaput. "America is built on change because we're a nation of immigrants -- ALL OF US. … A nation's identity breaks with the past when it changes so rapidly, deeply and in so many ways that the fabric of the culture ruptures into pieces that no longer fit together. I think we're very near that point as a country right now.

"Why do I say that? Here's why. In 60 years -- basically the span of my adult life -- the entire landscape of our economy, communications, legal philosophy, science and technology, demography, religious belief and sexual morality has changed. And not just changed, but changed drastically."

Searching for 'subtweets' in prayers offered during the Trump inauguration rites

While the Beltway establishment gathered on the U.S. Capitol's West side with legions of Middle Americans in "Make America Great Again" hats, the House of Representatives approved the final pre-inauguration details.

The quick session opened with a prayer by the chaplain, Father Patrick J. Conroy.

"God of the universe, we give you thanks for giving us another day. You are the father of us all, and your divine providence has led this nation in the past," he said, before offering prayers for "your servant, Donald Trump." The Jesuit prayed for the new president to "see things as you see things" and strive to hold "all of us to higher standards of equal justice, true goodness and peaceful union."

Conroy closed with a poignant prayer for the blunt and ever-controversial New York City billionaire: "We pray that he become his best self."

Add that to the file of January 20 prayers to analyze.

As always with inauguration ceremonies -- the high-church rites of American civil religion -- references to God were almost as common as those to the nation's new leader. This ceremony included six clergy offering their own chosen prayers and scriptures and was framed by private and public worship services.

Journalists and activists then read between the lines seeking messages aimed at Trump and his fans, as well as at God. The bottom line: In cyberspace, combatants now "subtweet" their adversaries, offering subtle criticisms behind their social-media backs. This inauguration offered plenty of opportunities for participants to engage in some theological subtweeting. The eyebrow-raising messages included: