Ignore religion's role in real news in the real world? That's 'anti-journalism'

When British media critic Jenny Taylor talks to journalists about why they need to take religion seriously, she tells them stories about news stories -- mostly stories many journalists try to avoid.

"The majority world is deeply religious. That small bit of it that still dominates the world's agenda -- the secular West -- is deeply unaware of what drives the rest," she said, during the recent "Getting Religion" conference in Westminster, England, led by the Open University and her own Lapido Media network.

Thus, she argued, "The world is in grave danger from the West's own conceits and complacency. ... In Britain we have been trained through cultural prejudice and ideological pressure not to 'do God.' I was told by a BBC press officer that 'we leave our religion at the door when we come to work.'

"The intention may be the scrupulous avoidance of perceived bias, but misunderstood it leads to blindness and an inability to report the facts."

One story has been unfolding in East London, where controversy has long swirled around plans to build the massive Abbey Mills Mosque near Olympic Stadium. How massive? It would hold 9,000 people, roughly four times the size of the iconic St. Paul's Cathedral.

The sad, sobering sermon of the DUI bishop in Maryland

The bishop was candid with the small flock at All Saint's Episcopal Church, just outside of Baltimore: She had a sobering sermon for them.

"There are things that happen in life that we can't control, that we didn't predict, that perhaps we don't welcome at all," said Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook of the Diocese of Maryland.

Believers must be prepared for the worst, including wrestling with bad habits that can lead to destruction, she said in a Nov. 9 sermon that was posted online.

"If we routinely drive 55 in a 30-mile-an-hour zone, we won't be able to stop on a dime if driving conditions get dangerous or if an animal or, God forbid, a human being should step out in front of us," said Cook. "Things happen suddenly, and we're either prepared in the moment or we're not, and we face the consequences.

"We can't go back. We can't do it over. In real life there are no instant replays."

This sermon was delivered weeks before the accident -- two days after Christmas -- in which police report that Cook's car veered into a wide bike lane and hit a 41-year-old father of two, sending the cyclist crashing onto her hood and windshield. A breath test after she returned to the crash scene, and after she had been taken to a police station, found a blood-alcohol level of 0.22. The legal limit in Maryland is 0.08.

The broken soul at the heart of the 'Unbroken' movie

For decades, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's World Wide Pictures unit produced many films with titles like "Souls in Conflict," "The Heart is a Rebel," "The Restless Ones" and "The Prodigal."

Critics relentlessly noted the formula that drove most of these films: The sins of the main character would cause a crisis, then -- somehow -- he would hear a Graham sermon and be born again. Roll credits.

That was cinema. But the drama was real in 1949 when a shattered sinner named Louis Zamperini attended Graham's historic "canvas cathedral" crusade in Los Angeles.

Come judgment day, warned the evangelist, "they are going to pull down the screen and they are going to shoot the moving picture of your life from the cradle to the grave, and you are going to hear every thought that was going on in your mind every minute of the day ... and you're going to hear the words that you said. And your own words, and your own thoughts, and your own deeds, are going to condemn you as you stand before God on that day."

When Zamperini told his life story -- a rebellious childhood, Olympic glory, then the horrors of World War II, including 47 days adrift in the shark-infested Pacific, followed by two hellish years in prison -- this was the climactic scene.

Religion news 2014: The pope, ISIS, persecution and the rest of the Top 10 stories

Soon after his elevation to the Chair of St. Peter, Pope Francis warned that the world was entering a time when Satan would increasingly show his power, especially in lands in which believers were being crushed.

Looking toward a rising storm in the Middle East, he warned that the persecution of religious minorities is a sign of the end times.

"It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world," said Pope Francis. "Religion cannot be spoken of, it is something private, no?"

A year later, the pope was even more specific in a letter to churches in the ancient lands of the Bible.

"I write to you just before Christmas, knowing that for many of you the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs. Nonetheless, the birth of the Son of God in our human flesh is an indescribable mystery of consolation," said Pope Francis.

Facing the Hanukkah-Holidays puzzle, one American family at a time

Anyone passing the Hoffman home in the Cincinnati suburbs during the holidays will see festive blue and white lights and an inflatable bear in the front yard -- a bear wearing a Santa cap and holding a candy cane.

 This is where things got complicated, with a typically blunt question from a child: Should Jews have a bear in the yard during Hanukkah?

 "I said it was a Jewish bear," said Neal Hoffman, a marketing executive. "One of our boys came right back with: 'What about the candy cane? Don't candy canes have something to do with Christmas?' I said I didn't think there was anything specifically Christian about a candy cane. Is there?"

 Well, that's complicated, too, since the candy cane often shown with Santa Claus is a symbol that links the shopping-mall superstar back through the mists of history to the 4th Century St. Nicholas of Myra, in Asia Minor. The saint was a bishop and, thus, this spiritual shepherd carried a crook staff -- which in Western church tradition is shaped like a large candy cane.

Hollywood, Christmas movies and America's secular Advent

The blitz begins while Jack-O-Lanterns are fresh and Thanksgiving turkeys are still frozen, a manic parade of hip elves, sexy angels, reluctant Santas, wisecracking families, toy-obsessed children and even those Euro-trash terrorists who crash holiday office parties.

Entertainment industry pros still call them "Christmas movies."

While the logic may be circular, a "Christmas movie is a movie that everyone expects to be shown on television during the Christmas season two or three years after it was released and then at Christmas for years and years after that," said entertainment scribe Hank Stuever, author of "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present."

"It's easy to explain why people think 'Love Actually' is a Christmas movie, or 'Home Alone' is a Christmas movie, or 'Elf' is a Christmas movie. What's hard to explain is why 'Die Hard' as a Christmas movie."

All it takes for a movie to earn this label is few holiday touches. 

St. Nicholas (the real one) returning to lower Manhattan

When members of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church celebrate their patron saint's feast day on Dec. 6th, they may be able to mark the occasion with prayers on newly blessed ground in lower Manhattan. 

It depends on work schedules at the construction site for their new sanctuary, which will overlook the National September 11 Memorial. This is a problem Greek Orthodox leaders welcome after a long, complicated legal struggle to rebuild the tiny sanctuary -- 80 yards from the World Trade Center's South Tower -- which was the only church destroyed in the 9/11 maelstrom. 

"It's all of this powerful symbolism and its link to that Sept. 11 narrative that lets people grab onto the effort to rebuild this church and see why it matters," said Steven Christoforou, a youth ministry leader at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. 

Facing the giant holes at Ground Zero, he said, it was natural to see them as tombs, as symbols of never-ending grief. Today, the footprints of the twin towers have become fountains in reverse, with curtains of water pouring into a dark void that disappears down into the underground at the 9/11 memorial and museum. 

But sometime in 2016, or early 2017, the new St. Nicholas National Shrine will literally shine -- a dome lit from within, through layers of marble and glass -- over this memorial plaza. 

Dick Cavett, Eric Metaxas talk miracles on Manhattan's Upper West Side

Long ago, back in Sunday school in Nebraska, something happened that changed how television talk legend Dick Cavett would think about faith forever.

When he was a boy, his mother got breast cancer. Then a "seemingly helpful old lady said, 'Dickey, if you pray your mother will get well,' and," he said with a long pause, "she didn't."

This anecdote was highly relevant, during a recent New York City forum, because Cavett was interviewing author Eric Metaxas about his new book, "Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life."

In other words, young Cavett prayed for a miracle, it didn't happen and that certainly did shape his life.

"That didn't help either my attitude toward religion or helpful old ladies," he said, drawing sad laughter from the live audience during this "Socrates In The City" webcast. "I felt that I did it wrong, of course. I didn't do it right and I was partly responsible."

Metaxas, founder of the "Socrates" series, added: "Is this old lady still alive? Because I would like to give her a piece of my mind."

Is this pope Catholic? The debate heats up

With Catholic leaders still sweating after the Extraordinary Synod on the Family firestorm, Pope Francis has once again tried to cool things down -- by publicly affirming core church doctrines.

The question, however, was whether Catholics could balance edgy front-page headlines about sex, divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality and modern families with the pontiff's orthodox sermons, which have received very little ink in the mainstream press.

"We know that today marriage and the family are in crisis," said Pope Francis, opening this week's Vatican conference on "The Complimentarity of Man and Woman in Marriage." It drew 300 leaders from a many world religions, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and several branches of Christianity.

Rather than yielding to the "culture of the temporary," the pope said, it's time to stress that "children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother. ... Do not fall into the trap of being swayed by political notion. Family is an anthropological fact -- a socially and culturally related fact. We cannot qualify it based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history. We can't think of conservative or progressive notions."