Holy Week 2015: Hearing confessions in the Silicon belly of the high-tech beast

It would be hard to live closer to the belly of the high-tech beast than Menlo Park in Northern California's Silicon Valley.

Close to Stanford University? Check. A highway exchange or two from the Apple mother ship? Check. Not that far from Googleplex? Check. It's the kind of home base from which an Opus Dei (Latin for "Work of God") priest -- with the organization's emphasis on leadership among laypeople as well as clergy -- can lecture, as Father C. John McCloskey recently quipped, to "300 actual and would-be Techies and Masters of the Universe."

It's also an interesting place to hear lots of confessions as Catholics near the end of Lent and prepare for Holy Week and then Easter, which is April 5th this year for Western churches. Eastern Orthodox churches use the older Julian calendar and will celebrate Pascha (Easter) on April 12th.

"One thing we stress during Lent is a sense of detachment from the things of this world," said McCloskey, an apologist and evangelist in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before this West Coast move. "We even do this with good things, if they've become temptations. It can be a kind of food or it can be alcohol. It can be other good things, like running and being obsessed with your health. …

"But if you can't be happy living without something, then that tells you something. It tells you that this thing is using you, rather than you using it."

But what if this good thing is woven into most of the details of daily life?

Why me, Lord? Bob Dylan and the spiritual, musical ties that bind

After decades of listening to his critics, Bob Dylan has learned to shrug, look to the heavens and keep on going.

"Critics have always been on my tail since day one," he said, at the gala saluting him as 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year. "Some of the music critics say I can't sing. I croak. Sound like a
frog. … Why me, Lord?"

Critics insist that the problem is that he keeps "confounding expectations," he said. "I don't even know what that means. … Why me, Lord? My work confounds them obviously, but I really don't know how I do it."

Maybe its time, he said, for another Gospel album, perhaps with the legendary Blackwood Brothers, including the hymn "Stand By Me." Dylan quoted the lyrics, ending with: "In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me. In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me. When I do the best I can, and my friends don't understand, Thou who knowest all about me, stand by me."

For decades, armies of experts have pondered the contents of Dylan's mind. Secular critics and religious scribes of various stripes can quote chapter and verse while debating whether the alleged voice of his generation, now 73 years old, is a true believer in their various causes.

Now, in two revelatory blasts -- his MusiCares speech and a lengthy AARP the Magazine interview -- Dylan has gone out of his way to stress that there is no great mystery. The bottom line: He is an American songwriter and artist, one with roots deep into America's spiritual and musical soil.

The unique life, tragic death and legacy of Father Matthew Baker

As a high-school dropout, Matthew Baker worked the graveyard shift at a gas station because he wanted time to read. 

So he read for seven years, digging into philosophy, literature, history and poetry. This helped steer him away from his teen-aged atheism and eventually towards Orthodox Christianity and the priesthood. He never graduated from college. 

But there was marriage and a large family to love. Then a seminary accepted Baker and then another, leading to a Master of Divinity from St. Tikhon's Orthodox Seminary in Pennsylvania and a Master of Arts from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts. This led to Fordham University doctoral work in theology, history and philosophy and a dissertation that was nearly done, allowing him to finally be ordained in 2014 and, this January, to move to his first parish. 

Then the 37-year-old Baker died on March 1, when the family minivan crashed off a snowy road after evening prayers at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Norwich, Conn. His six children -- ages 2 to 12 -- were not seriously injured. His wife Katherine was home, still recovering from a recent miscarriage. 

"This isn't just a tragic story. It's several tragic stories," said Father Andrew Stephen Damick of St. Paul Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pa., whose family shared a backyard with the Bakers in seminary. "You can write so many headlines on this story and they're all true." 

The prayers of a quiet shepherd for the boys in U2

As Bono launched into another mini-sermon on faith, justice and love, Father Jack Heaslip did what he had always done for U2 -- he stood out of the limelight and prayed.

On this day in 2001, Bono wasn't standing at a microphone in a packed concert venue. He had slipped into a private gathering of staffers from Capitol Hill offices, a strategic circle of believers who shared his concerns about poverty, AIDS and oceans of Third World debt.

"God is watching. … Forget about the judgment of history. For those of you who are religious people, you have to think about the judgment of God," said Bono. And don't worry about "asking God to bless what you are doing. Look for what God is doing and get involved in that, because that has already been blessed."

That last saying -- a Bono standard -- was a quote drawn from the Anglican priest standing in the back of the room. As always, the man who for decades had been U2's behind-the-scenes chaplain declined to be interviewed, but quietly met with people on the edges of the crowd.

In notes accompanying its 2014 album, "Songs of Innocence," the band called Heaslip "our North Star," perhaps knowing that motor neuron disease would soon take his life at age 71.

The blasphemy iceberg is much bigger than Charlie Hebdo

The drama began when a Pakistani politician named Salman Taseer criticized the land's blasphemy laws that were being used to condemn Asia Bibby, a Christian convert.

This led to a man named Malik Qadri firing 20 rounds into Taseer's back, according to witnesses, while security guards assigned to the Punjab governor stood and watched the assassination. When Qadri went to trial, cheering crowds showered him with rose pedals. Later, radicals threatened the judge who found Qadri guilty.

The judge, of course, had committed blasphemy by passing judgment on the man who killed a Muslim politician who -- by criticizing the blasphemy laws and defending an apostate -- had committed blasphemy.

"Then you get the question: Can you defend the judge or would that be blasphemous? We are starting to get here very like a Monty Python element," noted human-rights scholar Paul Marshall, speaking on "Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech and Freedom of Religion" at The King's College in New York City.

This kind of tragedy on the other side of the world is not what most Americans and Europeans think about when they worry about violence inspired by accusations of blasphemy, said Marshall, who currently teaches at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, Indonesia. 

Americans remain confused about the many Islams in today's world

A week after 9/11, President George W. Bush told a hurting nation: "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."

Faced with a tsunami of hellish news about the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and the Levant, President Barack Obama updated that soundbite this past fall: "ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents. ... ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple."

The problem, of course, is that Islamic State leaders keep serving up quotes such as the following, part of the judgments rendered by the leader of recent rites to behead 21 Coptic Christians, filmed on a beach in Libya.

"The sea you have hidden Sheik Osama Bin Laden's body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood," said the executioner, as he pointed his knife at the camera. "Oh, people, recently you have seen us on the hills of as-Sham and Dabiq's plain, chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross for a long time. ...

"Today, we are on the south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message."

No wonder many Americans remain uncertain when asked questions about Islam -- such as whether the Islamic State represents one approach, or even the dominant approach, to Islam today. 

NASCAR America collides with NPR America at the National Prayer Breakfast

In terms of the worldviews that drive American life, the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast was a head-on collision between NASCAR and NPR.

Both President Barack Obama and NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip were the speakers and both were sure the world would be a better place if many sinners climbed down off their high horses and ate some humble pie.

First, Waltrip bared his own soul and described how he found what he believes is the one true path to eternal salvation. Then, moments later, the president told the same flock that religious believers who embrace precisely that kind of religious certainty are threatening the peace and harmony of the modern world.

This was, in other words, a morning for red religion and blue religion.

While the president's remarks comparing the modern Islamic State with Medieval Christian crusaders made headlines, Waltrip's blunt testimony contained words that -- for many in the interfaith audience -- were just as controversial.

The Azusa Street revival and other big trends in a century of Protestantism

Whatever was happening inside that "tumble-down shack" of a church at 321 Azusa Street in Los Angeles, the local newspaper's editorial powers that be were neither amused nor impressed.

"Devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal," said a Los Angeles Times report. "Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howling of the worshipers, who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication."

Worshipers were "speaking in tongues" and claimed spiritual gifts to translate this unknown language, including words of prophecy uttered by women and men alike. Journalists noted that the Rev. William Joseph Seymour -- son of former slaves -- preached that this revival was a sign of the end times and that a great earthquake would soon shake California.

The revival began on April 14, 1906, four days before the great San Francisco earthquake. A century later, the Pentecostal holiness movement that began in the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street continues to shake global Christianity.

Ignore religion's role in real news in the real world? That can be dangerous

For more than a century, Western diplomats and scholars were sure of one thing -- that religion's role in world affairs would decline as humanity evolved toward a future rooted in logic and science.

 Those who didn't accept this vision were considered naive, irrational or perhaps even dangerous.

 The problem? There is little evidence that this secularization theory is true. In fact, it has become increasingly obvious that journalists and diplomats must pay more attention to religious traditions and practices if they want to understand many of the conflicts shaping and shaking our world, argued historian John Wolffe of the Open University in England.

 "Precisely because mainstream Western society is predominantly secular, a positive effort needs to be made to enable those who do not have a religious faith to have a better understanding both of the significant minorities in the West itself who have a religious commitment and of a continuing, and arguably growing, influence of religion in much of the rest of the world," he said, during the recent "Getting Religion" conference in Westminster, England, led by the Open University and Lapido Media.

 To be blunt, he said, confusion about the role that religion plays in the real world is dangerous. But how will religious believers and unbelievers learn to understand each other if journalists don't learn to cover religion accurately and fairly?