Web/tech

The online Catholic bishop pays a visit to 'Court of the Gentiles' at Facebook

The online Catholic bishop pays a visit to 'Court of the Gentiles' at Facebook

In Jerusalem's ancient temple of King Herod, there was an outer courtyard in which Greeks, Romans and non-Jews could gather to pray, pose questions and debate with any religious authorities willing to do so.

Whether modern clergy want to admit it or not, Facebook has turned into a "Court of the Gentiles" for two billion-plus users, said Bishop Robert Barron of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, speaking recently at Facebook headquarters near San Jose, Calif. Social media is where people air their doubts and convictions, hatreds and hopes.

Religion is often a bone of contention on Facebook, said Baron, an auxiliary bishop known for years of work online and in mass media. However, these digital faith fights rarely offer constructive arguments that produce clarity and understanding, as opposed to anger and confusion.

What the Internet needs is better arguments about religion, he said, in a talk that featured numerous lessons from St. Thomas Aquinas, but only one allusion to President Donald Trump.

"Some people say, 'Why are you encouraging people to have arguments?' By 'argument,' I mean something very positive," he said, in a talk that, logically enough, has been posted on Facebook. "If you go on much of social media -- I've been doing this now for much of the past 10 years, doing evangelization through the Internet -- you'll see a lot of energy around religious issues. There'll be a lot of words exchanged, often very angry ones -- a lot of energy, but very little real argument about matters religious. …

"That's a serious problem, because if we don't know how to argue about religion, all we're going to do is fight about religion."

Many Facebook combatants act like they can force other people into agreement, he said. Others "throw up their hands" and assume it's impossible to make progress when dealing with religion. True arguments take place in the middle, among people who believe faith and reason can work together.

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

It's easy to capture a kid's attention with cartoons about Noah and the Ark, Joshua's laps around the walls of Jericho and other colorful stories from scripture.

Phil Vischer ought to know, since for millions of Americans under the age of 25 he is best known as Bob the Tomato and the brain behind the original VeggieTales videos. But over time, he realized that he faced a bigger challenge as a storyteller, one symbolized by the sign on his 1990s office wall that proclaimed: "We will not portray Jesus as a vegetable."

At some point, he said, children need to learn the whole story of faith -- including the hard parts. This has to happen quickly in a culture that barrages them with competing signals as soon as they leave their cribs.

"You have to have the big story of what our faith is all about," said Vischer, in a telephone interview. "Our moral beliefs are like ornaments we hang on a tree. The problem is that we've thrown out the tree and we expect the ornaments to keep hanging in the air on their own.

"You can't just tell kids, 'Behave! Because I told you so!' … Without a big spiritual narrative, some larger worldview, you have nothing to hang moral behavior on."

That was the challenge at the heart of Vischer's talk -- "Beyond VeggieTales: Forming the Moral Imagination of Your Kids" -- during a recent Nashville conference on parenting held by the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Speaker after speaker mentioned a media culture that feeds children clashing concepts of good and evil, success and failure, before they enter kindergarten. Digital screens are everywhere, packed with compelling stories.

Rabbi Lord Sacks: Religious believers face harrowing choices in these tense times

Rabbi Lord Sacks: Religious believers face harrowing choices in these tense times

As long as there have been chase scenes -- think Keystone Kops or Indiana Jones -- movie heroes have been caught straddling danger while trying to get from one vehicle to another.

Inevitably, the road splits and the hero has to make a decision.

Religious believers now face a similar challenge after decades of bitter conflict in the postmodern world, said Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in a recent lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York State.

For a long time, "we were able to have our feet in society and our head in religion, or the other way around. … But today the two cars are diverging and they can't be held together any longer," said Sacks, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2005 and made a life peer in the House of Lords.

It's an agonizing dilemma that reminded the rabbi of a classic Woody Allen quote: "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

Truth is, there's no way to escape the Internet, which Sacks called the greatest economic, political and social revolution since the invention of the printing press.

"I sum it up in a single phrase -- cultural climate change," said Sacks, who from 1991-2013 led the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. "It's not so much a matter of more religion or less religion, because the truth is that both are happening at once. … The result is a series of storms in the West and even more elsewhere in the Middle East, in Asia and Africa."

For four centuries, European and American elites wrongly assumed the world would get more and more secular.

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?"

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.

Reality keeps raising the April Fools' bar for all those online Catholic satirists

Day after day, Kevin Knight scans news and commentary pages looking for items that will interest Catholics and others who visit his New Advent website.

With its plain white background, stark graphics and columns of headlines, the site looks something like the powerful, secular Drudge Report. But New Advent focuses on church life and doctrine, not celebrity scandals and political horse races.

Knight does appreciate the occasional zinger. Still, he has learned to be extra careful when April 1 approaches. After all, the Chair of St. Peter is occupied by a pope whose off-the-cuff remarks often puzzle the faithful. Oh, and Donald Trump is president of the United States.

"Yes, it has gotten harder to tell satire and hoaxes from the real thing," noted Knight. "It's getting more necessary to be explicit when linking to some stories -- especially when they deal with Pope Francis. … In the past two years, I've deliberately avoided linking to April Fools' stories for this very reason."

All savvy news consumers need to do to see what Knight is taking about is open an online search program and enter various religious terms and then the phrase "not the Onion," referring to The Onion, a secular satire site.

Take this headline, for example: "Muslim Schoolgirl Sent Home Because Her Skirt Was Too Long." That story is real.

Or how about this? "Pope Francis to make Martin Luther a Saint on October 31." That jest ran on April 1 on the "Liturgy: Service and Gratitude" site.

Consider this headline: "Jesuits to Admit Women to the Society."

A married priest parses latest sound bite -- about married priests -- from Pope Francis

A married priest parses latest sound bite -- about married priests -- from Pope Francis

Every now and then, a typical Catholic asks Father Dwight Longenecker for his take on whether Rome will ever ordain more married men as priests. 

This is logical, since Longenecker is a former Anglican priest who is married and has four children. He was raised as a fundamentalist Protestant, graduating from Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., and now leads Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in that same city.

These conversations begin with the layperson cheering for married priests. Then Longenecker mentions the "elephant in the room" -- the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae defending church doctrines forbidding artificial contraception. Surely bishops would strive to ordain men who, with their wives, would defend these teachings. Right?

"They might have a dozen kids," says Longenecker. "Who's going to pay for them?"

The typical Catholic assumes the bishop will do that. Actually, parishes are responsible for their priest's pay, even when his children go to Catholic schools and off to college. That might require parishioners to put more than $5 in offering plates.

The typical Catholic then says: "I don't think having married priests is such a good idea."

Longenecker is ready for more chats -- in person and at his "Standing on my Head" website -- after recent Pope Francis remarks to the German newsweekly Die Zeit.

Asked about the global shortage of priests, Francis expressed a willingness to consider ordaining "viri probati" (tested men), such as married men already ordained as deacons. While "voluntary celibacy is not a solution," he added: "We need to consider if viri probati could be a possibility. … We would need to determine what duties they could undertake, for example, in remote communities."

This latest Pope Francis sound bite was not surprising, since Vatican officials have often discussed ordaining more married men, said Longenecker, author of 15 books on Catholic faith and apologetics.

Conspiring to keep some Advent spirit alive, while waiting for the real Christmas

Conspiring to keep some Advent spirit alive, while waiting for the real Christmas

The children kept asking a logical question in Sunday school, one linked to those "Whose birthday is it?" appeals voiced by "Put Christ back in Christmas" activists.

Leaders of Ecclesia Church in Houston were trying to find ways to encourage members to observe the four solemn weeks of Advent (Latin for "toward the coming"), which precede the Christmas season, which begins on Dec. 25 and then lasts for 12 days.

"The children pushed this thing to another level," said the Rev. Chris Seay, pastor of this nondenominational flock in the trendy Montrose neighborhood near downtown. The church, which draws around 3,000 each weekend, was created by a coalition of Baptists, Presbyterians and others.

The question the children asked, he said, was this: " 'If Christmas is Jesus' birthday, then he should get the best gifts. Right?' … Once you ask that, it has to affect what we do as a church and what we do as families. If you start thinking that way, it changes just about everything we do at Christmas."

That shift led to efforts -- part of a national "Advent Conspiracy" campaign -- to raise money to provide safe water for suffering people around the world. The basic equation: If Americans spent $450 billion a year on Christmas, then why can't believers funnel some of this gift-giving into efforts to save others?

Ecclesia, an urban flock that includes poor and rich, is trying to raise about $1 million. That would be 30 percent of its annual budget, noted Seay, a total that will require major changes for many church members. The bottom line: "Advent Conspiracy" pastors are asking people to find ways to use the four weeks of Advent to prepare for Christmas as a holy day, rather than queuing up for America's blitz of holiday shopping, partying and decorating -- starting around Halloween.

This also means paying attention to ancient traditions that have shaped the church calendar, if not the shopping mall calendar.