C.S. Lewis on stage: Working to bring the DNA of life and faith to off-Broadway

NEW YORK -- To get to The Pearl Theatre, drama lovers visit the bright lights of Broadway and then turn West and head deep into Hell's Kitchen, where the off-Broadway marquees are smaller and the offerings more daring.

For the team behind "C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce," the road to The Pearl ran through halls in Chattanooga, Tenn., Tampa, Fla., San Diego, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere before reaching New York for a Dec. 3 opening night in the intimate 162-seat venue.

Theater's highest hurdle is still New York City, explained Max McLean, founder and director of the Fellowship for Performing Arts team and co-writer of this version of "The Great Divorce."

Living and working in the neighborhood defined by Broadway and off-Broadway, he said, means "being surrounded by hundreds of artists of every kind. They may not be as well known as people in Hollywood, but they are producing art that's exported to the whole world. This community in New York City still has tremendous influence. …

"The goal is for our work to be taken seriously. We want to tell stories that engage the moral imagination and push people to take faith seriously -- right here."

Ironically, one way for a modern company dedicated to faith and the arts to find cultural credibility is to look to the past, focusing on the work of legendary writers who are not part of the modern evangelical subculture.

Lewis remains one of the world's most popular writers and the Oxford University don was an articulate atheist before his turn to Christianity, a conversion that took place with the help of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. In addition to "The Great Divorce," McLean has produced, directed and starred in the four-year national, and off-Broadway, run of another Lewis classic, "The Screwtape Letters."

"Lewis called himself a dinosaur" in the 1950s, said McLean. "But for me, he remains the model for how to bring the Christian imagination into the mainstream. He remains a relevant dinosaur -- along with Tolkien -- and he points us to the work of G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers and others."

Concerning sex, marriage, babies, pews and the rise of he 'nones'

Researchers studying religion in America have long observed a kind of faith-based law of gravity: While young people often stray, most return to the pews after they get married and have children.

But something new is happening, especially among the "nones" -- the growing ranks of individuals who declare themselves "unaffiliated," when it comes to religious life. While researchers have dissected their political views, now it's time to focus on their actions linked to marriage and children.

"We have always known that family size is related to religiosity. The more devout people are the more likely they are to get married and have a higher number of children," said John Green of the University of Akron, a veteran researcher on faith and public life.

But Americans born after the 1960s have been shaped by storms of change linked to sexuality and marriage. For them, noted Green, contraception and abortion are normal parts of the American way of life. Cohabitation rates keep rising and people tend to marry later than in the past. Thus, they are older if and when they choose to have children.

It's time to probe the impact of these trends on religion, said Green, in a telephone interview. He was reacting to the Pew Research Center's massive 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, released on Nov. 3.

"You used to be able to say that the young would drift away from the faith of their youth, but then they would get married and have kids and that would pull them back … or maybe they would choose some other faith," he said. "The assumption was that marriage and family change people and they get more religious as they get older.

"Maybe what we're seeing now is that it's the faith component that is actually driving the actions of the young people who are choosing to get married and to have children in the first place. …

The legacy of a faithful pioneer in mainstream media and sports

GREENVILLE, Ill. -- Two decades ago, Bob Briner made a radical decision as he edged away from his 35-year career in pro sports and global media: He sold his homes in Dallas, Texas and Paris, France, and moved to a quiet town in southern Illinois.

The goal was to pass on what he had learned while mentoring students at his alma mater, Greenville College. He hosted Bible studies, helped students find jobs and spent time hanging out and talking sports.

But Briner kept hearing one awkward question over and over, after the release of his book "Roaring Lambs," a bestseller urging believers to get more involved in mass culture. People kept asking if he was going to start producing "Christian media."

Briner always tried to change the subject. Truth is, he once told me, most of his fellow evangelicals would not appreciate his answer. Many would be offended.

"I decided I wasn't tough enough to work in Christian media," he said, a few weeks before he died of cancer in 1999.

"You see, it never offended me when secular people acted like secular people," he explained. "What I couldn't understand was why so many Christians I did business with didn't act like Christians. I found that things were actually worse -- in terms of basic ethics -- in the Christian media than in the mainstream. That really hurt. So I decided I wasn't tough enough for Christian media."

Anyone who knew the man would recognize those words as "quintessential RAB," said retired Greenville College President Robert "Ish" Smith, using the initials that formed Briner's nickname. Smith and Briner met at age 12 on a church baseball team in Dallas, and were friends for life, including during college.

Dark Halloween nights vs. bright All Hallows' Eve rites

It's Halloween in suburbia and most of the houses are decorated and glowing, waiting to serve treats to Disney princesses, superheroes, movie pirates, zombies. Minions and tiny people disguised as puppies, pumpkins or other innocent options.

But a few houses are dark because, for reasons of safety or theology, their inhabitants have made the countercultural decision to avoid contact with a season they believe has grown too dark and dangerous. Others believe "pagan," evil influences have shaped Halloween, deep into its roots.

"It's hard to know precisely what people mean when they use a word like 'pagan.' For many people it means anything that's ungodly or disturbing. … That's what some Americans think Halloween has become -- a clash between good and evil," said Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research.

A recent LifeWay telephone survey, he said, found that 21 percent of Americans have decided to avoid Halloween altogether, while another 14 percent specifically try to avoid "pagan" elements of the festivities. Nearly 60 percent said Halloween is "all in good fun," while 6 percent of survey participants were "not sure" what they thought.

While some people are worried about ghosts, goblins, devils and other images of death and decay, Americans are much more likely to see Hollywood symbols of "good and evil" arrive at their doors shouting "trick or treat."

'Conscience' became a key fighting word at Vatican synod on family

Want to start a fight? Just ask this question: How many Protestant denominations are there in the world?

Estimates start as high as 40,000 and most sources put the number above 20,000, citing the United Nations, the World Christian Encyclopedia or some other authority. The key is that various Protestant groups have their own concepts of biblical authority and the role played by the conscience of each believer. Fights often cause splits and new flocks.

Meanwhile, the Church of Rome has the Throne of St. Peter and the Catechism. This is why eyebrows were raised when progressive theologian Daniel Maguire of Marquette, amid tense debates about marriage, divorce and gay rights, wrote to The New York Times to argue that Catholicism is "going the way of its parent, Judaism" and dividing into three streams.

"In Judaism there are Reform as well as Conservative and Orthodox communities. This arrangement is not yet formalized in Catholicism, but the outlines of a similar broadening are in place," said Maguire. While the Vatican may tweak some procedures, such as streamlining the annulment process, "reform Catholics don't need it. Theirconsciences are their Vatican."

The tricky word "conscience" crept into news about the 2015 Synod of Bishops in Rome -- focusing on marriage and family life -- when the leader of the giant Archdiocese of Chicago told reporters that he thought many Catholics who under current teachings cannot take Holy Communion should be able to do so, if guided by their consciences.

A case for having some doctrines affecting smartphone use in pews

It's a typical Mass in an American parish in which the kneelers contain a mix of teens, single adults, young families and church stalwarts with gray hair.

Near the end of a sermon about family life, during this hypothetical Mass, the priest makes a pithy observation that is both poignant and slightly ironic.

A young-ish parish council member smiles and posts the quote to Twitter, since he is already using his smartphone to follow Mass prayers in a popular Catholic app. This infuriates a nearby grandmother, who is already upset that her daughter is letting her kids play videogames in church, to keep them quiet.

The Twitter user, of course, thought he was paying the priest a compliment by tweeting the sermon quote while, perhaps, engaging in a bit of social-media evangelism to prompt discussions with friends at work. But this gesture also infuriated a nearby worshipper and destroyed her sense of sacred space.

"Everyone used to know the worship rules and now we don't. It's that simple, which means that things are getting more complex," said Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center. He is also the co-author of the book "Networked: The New Social Operating System."

Every venue in public life "has its own context and you can't write a set of social-media rules that will apply in all venues," he said. "Using technology to enrich our own spiritual experiences is one thing, while interrupting corporate worship is another. … People are going to have to ask if that phone is pulling them deeper into worship services or if they're using it to disengage and pull out of the experience."

This storm has been building in the pews for more than a decade and religious leaders will not be able to avoid it, according to fine details in new work by the Pew Research Center's American Trends Panel.

Pope, global conference see threats to family and 'human ecology'

Pope Francis has been preaching on marriage and family for a year, describing in increasingly vivid terms a global threat to what he has called "human ecology."

"We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment. This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable," he said last fall, at the Vatican's Humanum Conference on marriage.

"The crisis in the family has produced an ecological crisis, for social environments, like natural environments, need protection."

In his historic address to the U.S. Congress, the pope concluded with this same point: "I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family."

As a result, he warned, many young people are growing up "disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. … We might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family."

Ironically, while the world's attention was locked on Pope Francis during his U.S. visit, the event that brought him here -- The World Meeting of Families -- unfolded quietly in Philadelphia with 20,000 people in attendance, drawing little media attention.

Wheels up? Flights of papal candor are now becoming the norm

After avoiding "culture wars" quotes and fiery headlines during his historic U.S. visit, Pope Francis finally offered his blunt opinion about believers being asked to abandon their faith -- or else.

When doing so, he chose to talk about an epic Medieval poem that describes Muslims being forced to choose between Christian baptism and death. Or was that really what Francis was talking about on that flight to Rome?

Terry Moran of ABC News asked if Francis supported individuals "who say they cannot in good conscience … abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples?"

Pope Francis said he could not address all such cases, thus avoiding a reference to Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who secretly met with the pope in Washington, D.C.

"If a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right," said Francis. "Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying 'this right has merit, this one does not.' …

"If a government official is a human person, he has that right."

Rather than discuss current events, the pope added: "It always moved me when I read, and I read it many times, … the Chancon Roland, when the people were all in line and before them was the baptismal font -- the baptismal font or the sword. And, they had to choose. They weren't permitted conscientious objection. It is a right and if we want to make peace we have to respect all rights."

Flights of papal candor are becoming a tradition for reporters with the newsroom resources to pay business-class rates for seats on Shepherd One -- whatever plane is carrying the pope.

A widow's thoughts on ministry, after an Ashley Madison tragedy

Christi Gibson knew that her husband, the Rev. John Gibson, was working himself to the point of physical collapse, while fighting depression at the same time.

There was his faculty work at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he taught communication in the undergraduate Leavell College, including a "Ministry Through Life Crisis" class. He was served as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pearlington, Miss.

As if that wasn't enough, he kept volunteering -- working in New Orleans' brutal heat and humidity -- to repair cars for seminary students and others who couldn't afford mechanics.

"John stayed busy to the point of absolute exhaustion," said Christi Gibson, in a telephone interview. "I often came home expecting to see signs that he had worked himself into the ground and collapsed."

She knew about his struggles, but didn't expect to come home on Aug. 24 and find his body, dead at age 56. There was a suicide note in which he confessed that his name was among thousands released after hackers hit the Ashley Madison website that promised to help customers arrange sexual affairs, with complete anonymity.

Since then, Christi Gibson and her grown-up children, Trey and Callie, have struggled to work through their grief. They have also tried to use their terrible, unwanted moment in the public spotlight -- including a CNN interview -- to urge fellow believers to be more honest about the pain and brokenness found in pews and pulpits.