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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."

Richard Sipe's journey into the long-secret hell of Catholic clergy sexual abuse

Richard Sipe's journey into the long-secret hell of Catholic clergy sexual abuse

The last thing an America bishop wanted to see was a letter from the relentless A.W. Richard Sipe, who spent more than a half-century studying the sexual secrets of Catholic clergy.

As a psychotherapist, his research files included hundreds of thousands of pages of church reports and court testimony. He estimated that he had served as an expert witness or consultant in 250 civil legal actions.

As a former Benedictine monk and priest, his private files included notes from years of work at the Seton Psychiatric Institute in Baltimore, where he counseled legions of troubled priests sent there by bishops.

"Sooner or later it will become broadly obvious that there is a systemic connection between the sexual activity by, among and between clerics in positions of authority and control, and the abuse of children," he wrote, in a 2016 letter to his local shepherd, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy.

"When men in authority -- cardinals, bishops, rectors, abbots, confessors, professors -- are having or have had an unacknowledged secret-active-sex-life under the guise of celibacy an atmosphere of tolerance of behaviors within the system is made operative."

Sipe, 85, died on Aug. 8, even as journalists around the world produced -- often with direct links to his work -- yet another wave of news about alleged sins and crimes committed by priests and bishops. The bottom line: Sipe was a critic of the church establishment whose work was impossible for liberal or conservative Catholics to ignore.

"He was the one who -- because of his unique background -- had first-hand knowledge of the psychosexual problems in the clergy," said Leon J. Podles, a conservative Catholic scholar with years of experience as a federal investigator.


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.

Seeking God's will: Inside the complex soul of the real Gen. Robert E. Lee

Seeking God's will: Inside the complex soul of the real Gen. Robert E. Lee

Soon after the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union forces, Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote to one of his spiritual advisers while wrestling with the pain of this great defeat, but also with a lesson that he had learned.

"God has thought fit to afflict us most deeply. … How great must be our sins & how unrelenting our obduracy," wrote Lee, to the Rev. William Platt, an Episcopal priest. "We have only to submit to his gracious will & pray for his healing mercy."

The key, Lee argued, is that the South's defeat represented the judgment of God. Now it was time to seek true unity, not "a forced and hollow truce. … To this end all good men should labour."

This was not random talk. Lee leaned on his faith because that's who he was, according to the Rev. R. David Cox, author of "The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee." Cox teaches history at Southern Virginia University, which is near the Episcopal parish in Lexington that he led from 1987-2000 -- then known as R.E. Lee Memorial Church.

This past fall, the church's vestry made news when -- after riots in Charlottesville -- it voted to return to the name "Grace Church," the church's name when Lee was on the vestry. Cox said he is convinced that the Lee revealed in his letters and private journals would have had no problem with that decision.

"I don't think Lee would have wanted the Confederate flag flown. … He would have opposed people putting up statues in an attempt to preserve the memory of a great 'lost cause' -- words that he never used," he said, during an interview in Lexington. "Lee would not have wanted to see a church named after him. He was too humble for that."

The problem, Cox explained, is that when people argue about "Robert E. Lee," they are actually arguing about two historic misconceptions of Lee.

Larry Norman: Trapped in Contemporary Christian Music walls he helped create? (Part 2)

Larry Norman: Trapped in Contemporary Christian Music walls he helped create? (Part 2)

When Larry Norman died in 2008 there was one thing the critics -- secular and religious -- agreed on: The controversial singer and music maven helped create the "Contemporary Christian Music" industry.

For Norman, that was not good news.

"In China, if you become a Christian, you may be imprisoned," said Norman, offering a cynical aside during his last concert, in New York City. Seven months later, his fragile heart failed one last time.

"In India, your parents may disown you. In the Middle East, they might execute you. But in America, if you become a Christian, you just have a broader selection of Christian CDs to choose from."

Norman lived to see the fiery folk-rock style he pioneered in the early 1970s -- part "Jesus Movement" evangelism, part social-justice sermons -- evolve into a suburb-friendly genre in which "Christian" was attached to safe versions of old fads in mainstream music.

The album Norman considered his bravest -- "So Long Ago the Garden" -- infuriated many "CCM" consumers because of its symbolic, mysterious language. Then there was the semi-nude, Edenic cover image of the singer.

While writing his Norman biography, "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music," philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury dug into the singer's papers and found an impassioned defense of that album, in a letter to angry fans.

"All of the songs I write are Christian songs, because I am a Christian," wrote Norman. "Is a man any less a Christian because he is a car mechanic instead of an evangelist? … Some people are so conditioned that if a song doesn't have some religious clues like 'blood of the lamb' or 'the cross,' they are unsure of its spiritual qualification."

Part of the problem, said Thornbury, is that Norman had "a glorious way of speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He never wavered from his desire to write Jesus songs. …Yet at the same time, he was constantly blasting Christian music people about making music that was propaganda -- with no art, or poetry, or mystery at all. …

"Larry thought you could be very, very clear on Jesus and the Gospel and, at the same time, go way out there on the edge in terms of art."

Alas, it was hard to be a commercial, secular success while doing both those things.

Larry Norman and the never-ending culture wars over 'Christian' music and art (Part I)

Larry Norman and the never-ending culture wars over 'Christian' music and art (Part I)

When Larry Norman released "Upon This Rock" in 1969, its rock-star sizzle and blunt faith put the album in the soundtrack for millions of lives as the "Jesus Movement" revival surged onto the cover of Time magazine.

Music industry pros were used to hearing The Beatles on Capitol Records. Now there was a longhaired guy on the same label belting out: "Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation to every man and every nation. Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation and let the people know that Jesus cares."

Norman's work did more than shake up church youth meetings. His early success convinced some Gospel music executives to turn up the drums and guitar solos. Soon, "Contemporary Christian Music" grew into a billion-dollar industry with its own written and unwritten rules.

Now it was time for Norman to freak out Christians as much as he did secular-music people in the early years when he shared concert bills with Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Who and others. What were Christian radio stations supposed to do with "The Great American Novel," a song that addressed racism, war, poverty and other hot-button topics?

"You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter, then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water," sang Norman. "And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on, at every meal you say a prayer; you don't believe but still you keep on."

Norman "overloaded lots of people's circuits" and, eventually, even his own, according to philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury, author of a new biography named after one of Norman's most famous tunes -- "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" The subtitle hints at future darkness: "Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock." Norman died in 2008 at the age of 60.

Thornbury calls Norman the "Forrest Gump," a true "holy fool," of American evangelicalism. The scholar — and guitar player — doesn't hide Norman's struggles in business and his private life, adding a painful backstory to a career that put the singer shoulder to shoulder with everyone from the Rev. Billy Graham to President Jimmy Carter, and lots of colorful people in between. As a young man, Vice President Mike Pence was born again at a Christian rock festival -- headlined by Norman.

Madeleine L'Engle: Yes, there are essential faith elements in 'A Wrinkle In Time'

Madeleine L'Engle: Yes, there are essential faith elements in 'A Wrinkle In Time'

When her children were young, author Madeleine L'Engle used to take them on nighttime visits to the top of Mohawk Mountain, not far from the family's 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse.

The goal was to glimpse the mystery of God.

"If you need one image of God, then go outside on a clear night and look straight up at the stars. That's about as good as I can do," L'Engle told me, in 1989 during a two-hour interview before some Denver lectures.

The wonders of science and heavenly light are at the heart of her classic novel "A Wrinkle In Time." However, she said she knew that she needed to include some specifics to clarify her central message -- without clubbing young readers over the head.

"It's a work of fiction, not theology. I didn't write it expecting to get challenged on every last detail," she said.

However, she was willing to state one fact for the record, offering a variation on a quote she repeated through the years. Yes, she loved stargazing, she said, but ultimately, "I can understand God only as he is revealed in the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth.”

L'Engle died in 2007 at the age of 88, after publishing 60 works of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry and prayers. Her work is back in the news because of debates about Disney's $103-million version of "A Wrinkle In Time," which removed the book's religious images and biblical quotes.

At the time of the 1989 interview, L'Engle was already involved in talks about bringing "A Wrinkle In Time" to movie theaters -- a process that led to a low-budget, made-for-TV flop in 2004. That film downplayed her Christian imagery, as well.

It would be hard, explained L'Engle, to grasp this book's cosmic war between life and death, good and evil, darkness and light without two crucial passages.

Memory eternal: Billy Graham

Memory eternal: Billy Graham

Oklahoma was shrouded in grief after the deaths of 168 people -- including 19 children -- in a homegrown terrorism attack at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.

President Bill Clinton spoke at the memorial service. So did Gov. Frank Keating. But everyone knew who would deliver the sermon and face the hard questions.

That was a job for the Rev. Billy Graham.

"The Bible says … there is a devil, that Satan is very real and he has great power," said Graham, focusing on the 9,000 mourners in the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds Arena. "It also tells us that evil is real and that the human heart is capable of almost limitless evil when it is cut off from God and from the moral law.

 "The prophet Jeremiah said, 'The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?' That is your heart and my heart without God. … I pray that you will not let bitterness and poison creep into your soul, but that you will turn in faith and trust in God even if we cannot understand.  It is better to face something like this with God than without Him."

Graham didn't end those 1995 remarks with an "altar call," urging sinners to come forward and make a profession of faith. But he could have -- even with the president of the United States in the front row.

Then again, Clinton was from the South and attended Graham's 1959 crusade in Little Rock, Ark. The young Clinton was so impressed by the preacher's message, and his refusal to bow to segregationists, that he began sending part of his weekly allowance to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

In the wake of his death this week, at age 99, diplomats, scholars and journalists will struggle to describe Graham's impact via preaching, television, radio, books and other writings. It's hard enough to do the math when discussing his 417 crusades in 185 countries, along with countless other gatherings ranging from presidential inaugurations to tiny youth rallies after his 1938 ordination as a Southern Baptist preacher.

To be blunt, it can be argued that Graham spoke -- in person -- to more people than any other leader in world history.