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Escaping the M-word: Trying to go back to the Latter-day Saint future

Escaping the M-word: Trying to go back to the Latter-day Saint future

No doubt about it, New York press lord Horace Greeley interviewing religious pioneer Brigham Young was a face-off between giants.

One of the issues they discussed in 1859 is suddenly back in the news: Should outsiders use the word "Mormon" to describe members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Greeley asked Young: "Am I to regard Mormonism (so-called) as a new religion, or as simply a new development of Christianity?"

The faith's second "prophet, seer and revelator" insisted that there is "no true Christian Church without a priesthood directly commissioned by and in immediate communication with the Son of God and Savior of mankind. Such a church is that of the Latter-day Saints, called by their enemies Mormons."

In recent decades, LDS leaders have made several attempts -- prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah, for example -- to distance themselves from the M-word. Now, the church's president has made another appeal for journalists, and everyone else, to avoid "Mormon" when referring to members of his church. To be blunt, he said he's on a mission from God.

"The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He has revealed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," wrote President Russell M. Nelson, repeating a message he voiced decades before reaching the top office. "We have work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with His will."

The church's new journalism "style" guide proclaims: "Please avoid using the abbreviation 'LDS' or the nickname 'Mormon' as substitutes for the name of the Church, as in 'Mormon Church,' 'LDS Church,' or 'Church of the Latter-day Saints.' When referring to Church members, the terms 'members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' or 'Latter-day Saints' are preferred."

Writers needing a shorter name are asked to use "the Church," the "Church of Jesus Christ" or the "restored Church of Jesus Christ." The word "Mormon" will continue to appear in proper nouns such as "The Book of Mormon," the "Mormon Trail" and perhaps even "The Mormon Tabernacle Choir."

Lessons about faith and modern parenting, from heroes of the Czech resistance

Lessons about faith and modern parenting, from heroes of the Czech resistance

PRAGUE -- No matter what was happening outside their apartment walls, Kamila Bendova pulled her six children together every day and read to them for two hours or more.

It didn't matter if the Communists had imprisoned her husband -- the late Vaclav Benda, a leading Czech dissident and Catholic intellectual. It didn't matter that state officials had bugged their flat near the medieval heart of the city. It didn't matter if a friend showed up after being tortured at the secret police facility a block away.

The Benda family faithfully observed the rites that defined their lives inside its second-floor apartment, a site the Czech Republic has marked with a memorial plaque at sidewalk level. Every day, they prayed together, studied together and found ways to enjoy themselves -- while doing everything they could to show others there was more to life than the rules of a paranoid police state.

"I was never good at playing with the children, so I read to them. … That worked for me," quipped Bendova, who, like her husband, earned a doctorate in mathematics. Father Stepan Smolen, a Catholic priest close to the family, served as a translator during a recent meeting with Bendova and two of her adult children.

The family had plenty of books to read. The walls of the Benda apartment, where Kamila Bendova still lives, are lined -- from the floorboards to the high ceilings -- with bookshelves containing 10,000 books and snapshots of her 21 grandchildren. 

The Benda children were especially fond of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," for reasons the family considers obvious. They were the hobbits and, living in a totalitarian state, they knew that "Mordor was real," said Bendova.

Yes, it's satire: How to Bee a perfect Christian in a world defined by niche culture

Yes, it's satire: How to Bee a perfect Christian in a world defined by niche culture

When newcomers arrive at a megachurch these days, they face an obstacle course of challenges -- from deciding how much to tip the parking-lot guy to tricking their normal children into looking like cherubs.

Finally, loaded with visitor swag -- donuts, coffee, official church water bottles, snappy Christian t-shirts, the pastor's new book -- they head into the flashing lights, dry-ice fog and pounding pop music inside the auditorium.

Now what? The bottom line: Look spiritual.

"On the powerful choruses, lift your hands high with abandon. On the subtler verses, tone it down a touch," advises the snarky narrator in the new book "How to Be a Perfect Christian," by the duo behind The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website.

After the guitar solo, there will be a "bridge" that worshippers sing over and over and over: "Go for it with both hands and a feigned expression of emotion on your face. Sway side to side like a tree in the wind. If you open one eye at this point, you'll probably notice that people … are staring at you in awe that they're in the presence of one so holy."

The book's goal isn't to mock Christianity, but to help believers understand that many churches have evolved into self-help supermarkets defined by trends in mass culture, said Bee founder Adam Ford. Often, faith turns into another "niche" product.

"We push back against the commercialization and 'celebritization' of so many aspects of the church," noted Ford, who does email interviews since he struggles with anxiety attacks. "Get a famous pastor with a lot of Twitter followers, host the most carnival-like 'church services,' make sure everyone is as comfortable and entertained as possible, preach a Zig Ziglar-style message, and you'll get more people to come to your church. Like churches are circus franchises or something, with the ultimate goal being more butts in seats."

Ford wanted to become a pastor, but veered into the more private world of digital publishing (Adam4d.com). He founded the Bee in 2016 and recently sold the site, in part because of the hot spotlight caused by its success and a run-in with Facebook over content.

That strange sermonette that Chris Pratt tricked MTV viewers into swallowing

That strange sermonette that Chris Pratt tricked MTV viewers into swallowing

Everyone knows what the angelic nanny Mary Poppins meant when she sang:  "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."

Hollywood superstar Chris Pratt put a different spin on that during the recent MTV Movie & TV Awards. After receiving the Generation Award, he told fans to "listen up," because he was speaking "as your elder." Then he recited what CNN called his "Nine Rules for Living."

It was a strange set of commandments -- part potty humor, part youth-pastor sermon. But Rule No. 4 said this: "When giving a dog medicine, put the medicine in a little piece of hamburger and they won't even know they're eating medicine."

That's what Pratt was doing. The megastar of Guardians of the Galaxy and the Jurassic Park reboots followed the MTV rules and used some mildly off-color humor -- like how to poop at a party without smelling up the bathroom. These MTV celebrity-fests are known for their racy fashion statements and crude language.

That humor was Pratt's "hamburger." What caused a tsunami of Internet clicks was his "medicine," speaking as an out-of-the-closet Hollywood Christian.

Rule No. 2 proclaimed: "You have a soul. Be careful with it."

Rule No. 6 was rather personal: "God is real. God loves you. God wants the best for you. Believe that, I do."

Rule No. 8 was just as blunt: "Learn to pray. It's easy, and it's so good for your soul."

There was more to this drama than the rare chance to hear a "Hollywood A-lister tell people to pray," noted film critic Titus Techera of the Claremont Institute. Pratt was trying to turn celebrity worship upside down.

30 years of 'On Religion' -- Billy Graham, Shirley MacLaine and better religion news

30 years of 'On Religion' -- Billy Graham, Shirley MacLaine and better religion news

Through the decades, the Rev. Billy Graham was known for saying three words over and over -- "The Bible says."

But the world's most famous evangelist quoted another authority during his 1994 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- Shirley MacLaine. A year earlier, Graham noted, the actress, and spiritual adventurer told the editors that religion plays a major role in news worldwide and that it's high time for journalists to accept that.

"What has happened to us?", asked MacLaine. "Why is the discussion of spirituality considered so publicly embarrassing, sentimental or, God forbid, New Age? Why does it make us squirm, when our own founding fathers recognized the spiritual aspect of man as his most fundamental?''

"Amen," said Graham. Journalists and preachers, he stressed, both communicate news about what's happening in life and culture. Both care about people and truth. Both care about injustice, racism and corruption.

"I believe that this is why the founding fathers included both freedom of religion and freedom of the press in the same First Amendment," he added. "In the long run, the loss of one freedom will bring about the loss of the other."

It isn't every day that a religion writer gets to quote Billy Graham and Shirley MacLaine making essential points about journalism.

Then again, this isn't just another column for me. This week marks my 30th anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column. The first piece ran on April 11, 1988 and focused -- wait for it -- on arguments about evangelicals and White House politics. Turn, turn, turn.

Three decades is a long time, so allow me to pause and make something clear. I still believe that if journalists want to cover real news in the real lives of real people in the real world then they need to get real serious about religion.

Yes, there are problems.

Pope Francis speaks out on 'snake news': But the Devil's in the details on solutions

Pope Francis speaks out on 'snake news': But the Devil's in the details on solutions

Maybe it's author Michael "Fire and Fury" Wolff hinting that President Donald Trump is having an affair with United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Maybe it's the waves of lies from Russian hackers that have flooded major social-media sites, causing global confusion and chaos.

Maybe it's rumors that Pope Francis has a brain tumor or that he's preparing for a Third Vatican Council, one sure to split the Church of Rome.

Whatever "fake news" is, the pope's World Communications Day message made it clear that he believes Satan is behind it all, whether journalists and mass-media leaders know it or not.

"We need to unmask what could be called the 'snake-tactics' used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place," wrote the pope. "This was the strategy employed by the 'crafty serpent' in the Book of Genesis, who, at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news, which began the tragic history of human sin."

The pope released this text on Jan. 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales -- the patron saint of journalists -- even though World Communications Day will be on May 13. The "fake news" hook is in the title: " 'The truth will set you free.' Fake news and journalism for peace."

The problem is that few people -- especially in culture-wars America -- agree on what "fake news" means. It's hard to imagine a more partisan term, when President Donald Trump shouts it at a rally. Meanwhile, many journalists have downplayed Gallup polls showing that public trust in the news media is lower than ever.

Concerning the crucial definition issue, Pope Francis wrote:

At some point, 'Christianese' jargon may warp attempts at real prayer after tragedies

At some point, 'Christianese' jargon may warp attempts at real prayer after tragedies

After the stunning news from First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, House Speaker Paul Ryan joined the online chorus of Americans offering support.

"Reports out of Texas are devastating," said Ryan, on Twitter. "The people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers right now."

A star in the Star Trek galaxy, and frequent guest on "The Big Bang Theory," was furious with Ryan.

"The murdered victims were in a church," tweeted Wil Wheaton. "If prayers did anything, they'd still be alive, you worthless sack of [expletive]."

Wheaton later added: "Hey, real and actual people of faith: I hear you. I apologize for insulting you, in my rage at Paul Ryan's refusal to address gun violence."

This was, of course, yet another round of warfare about the Second Amendment, faith, bloodshed, media bias and the political powers that be. The fighting hadn't even ended after the secular vs. sacred Twitter wars following the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas.

At this point, it's clear that the fighting over "thoughts and prayers" tweets is yet another sign that America is dividing into warring camps in which language and symbolic actions are causing pain and confusion, rather than unity, said Tim Stewart, a professional wordsmith who created the "Dictionary of Christianese" website.

It doesn't help that the vocabulary of many Christians, especially evangelicals, is packed with "insider jargon they use all the time, whether they know it or not. … This language is like a liturgy for them, but they don't understand that other people don't get it," said Stewart, who was raised Catholic, but attends a Southern Baptist church in Austin, Texas.

Colorado students network to unplug key social-media apps, and an archbishop notices

Colorado students network to unplug key social-media apps, and an archbishop notices

Anyone trying to reach Cason Kurowski and his family at night in their home outside Denver needs to remember one thing.

Unlike most high-school juniors, Kurowski doesn't keep his smartphone within an arm's length of his pillow. In fact, the whole family leaves mobile phones downstairs at night, including his parents.

"It's amazing how much it helps me get a better night's sleep, since my phone isn't going off all the time," he said, reached on his smartphone (#DUH) after classes at Heritage High School in Littleton, Colo.

Wait, there's more. Back in September, Kurowski and some friends made strategic -- some would say radical -- tech changes after the news of two teen suicides, in two days, at area schools. Some students in this circle were friends with a Heritage student who committed suicide last year.

After several planning sessions, they launched OfflineOctober.com and urged friends to delete four specific apps -- Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter -- from their phones for a month. The goal, Kurowski explained, was to stop "hiding behind screens. … We wanted to try spending more time face to face, instead of just looking at phones."

The project grew through word of mouth, calls, emails, texts and, ironically, social media. Local news coverage helped spread this slogan: "Don't post a story. Live one." Students started planning informal gatherings to cook, play games, go hiking or just hang out.

At some point, their work caught the eye of someone whose support could help take the movement to another level -- the leader of the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

Survey of clergy spouses shows that privacy, isolation are issues in their glass houses

Survey of clergy spouses shows that privacy, isolation are issues in their glass houses

Study the weekly calendars of most American churches and somewhere there will be a reference to a "prayer group," or words to that effect.

These gatherings may take place at church, in homes or at a coffee shop. The format will usually be informal, but -- after snacks and a devotion of some kind -- people are offered time to share what is happening in their lives so others can pray for them.

What is a pastor's spouse supposed to do?

Consider these numbers from a recent LifeWay Research survey of 720 spouses randomly selected from a multi-denominational list of Protestant pastors. Nearly 50 percent of clergy spouses said their candid prayer requests "would just become gossip," with 11 percent "strongly" agreeing. Half said they no longer confide with church members because they have been "betrayed too many times."

"For these spouses, the walls around them are pretty high," said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. "If you ask them to open up with people in a new church community, they're already going to be pretty cautious about doing that."

While this survey found high levels of satisfaction among clergy spouses, concerns about privacy and isolation are the "kind of thing that seminaries may need to warn people about when their spouses go into the ministry," he said.

There's more. Nearly 70 percent of these clergy spouses said they had few friends with whom they could be candid. Just over half said they had experienced "personal attacks" in their current church.

Are they are living in a "fishbowl"? Half agreed.