Technology shapes content: High Holidays with the online flock

The idea was really simple, in terms of technology: Since many Jews could not attend High Holiday rites, why not put microphones in key locations and let them listen on their telephones? 

It wasn't as good as being there, but -- for shut-ins -- it was better than nothing.

Decades later, some Jewish leaders mounted cameras in their packed sanctuaries and let people watch High Holidays rites on video. Again, it wasn't the same as being there, but it was better than nothing and, certainly, better than listening on a telephone.

Jewish leaders who tiptoed into these technologies "didn't change what they were doing, they just put a telephone near it," said Rabbi Robert Barr, founder of Congregation Beth Adam, a 30-year-old independent congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio. "When cameras came along, they just aimed cameras at what they were already doing. They didn't change anything."

That isn't what this self-proclaimed "humanistic" congregation is trying to do with it's global OurJewishCommunity.org congregation, which began with High Holidays services in 2008 and has been meeting in cyberspace ever since.

Debating the U2 canon: How long must we sing this song?

In the first song on U2's new album -- "Songs of Innocence" -- the singer once known as Bono Vox sings the praises of the punk prophet who led his teen-aged self out of confusion into stage-stomping confidence.

"The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)" proclaims: "I was young, not dumb. Just wishing to be blinded, by you, brand new, and we were pilgrims on our way. I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred. Heard a song that made some sense out of the world. Everything I ever lost, now has been returned. The most beautiful sound I'd ever heard."

Actually, this could be a metaphor, noted Greg Clarke, leader of the Bible Society of Australia. What if Bono is actually describing another earthquake that rocked his life in those years -- his Christian conversion? What if God is the "you" in this song?

"We are not told what the miracle is, but there are plenty to choose from: the incarnation, the Gospel proclamation to an angry young man, or his encounter with a God
whose story makes some sense of the world," argued Clarke, in an online commentary. "Whatever it is, this miracle is the shaping concept for the album that unfolds. ...

"The line, 'Everything I ever lost, now has been returned' has definite echoes of not just Amazing Grace's "I once was lost," but more importantly, Luke 18:29. In this Gospel passage, Jesus talks about the way in which God will keep and restore the relationships of all who have prioritized the kingdom of God. The things and the people you have lost will be returned to you. It is a most moving idea, especially for pilgrim souls who take risks for their beliefs in the way Bono has always done."

Well, that's one way to hear the song.

"I don't know about that one. To me, 'Miracle' sounds like a song about Joey Ramone," said the Rev. Beth Maynard, laughing. She is an Episcopal priest in Champaign, Illinois, and nationally known as co-editor of the book "Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog" and as a key writer at the U2 Sermons weblog.

After decades of experts dissecting U2's music, it should be clear that Christian faith "is part of their native language. It's how they view the world. ... But sometimes the songs just say what they say. These guys are more Flannery O'Connor than the Newsboys," she said, contrasting a famous Catholic storyteller with a pop group in Contemporary Christian Music.

Critics agree that this album is packed with literal references to events and locations that shaped the band members during their years at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin, Ireland. The first person thanked in the credits is the school's chaplain -- "Jack Heaslip, our north star."

But there are layers in the content. One song, "Cedarwood Road," describes life on Bono's home street: "If the door is open it isn't theft. You can't return to where you've never left. Blossoms falling from a tree, they cover you and cover me. Symbols clashing, bibles smashing, paint the world you need to see."

When the album was released -- given free to 500 million iTunes subscribers -- commentators noted that there was a blossoming cherry tree at the house where a Plymouth Brethren family held Bible studies attended by Bono, Larry Mullen, Jr. and Dave "The Edge" Evans. Bono wrote in the album's notes: "In their company I saw some great preachers who opened up these scary black Bibles and made the word of God dance for them, and us. … One minute you're reading it, next minute you're in it."

By now, its obvious that many people -- the band's fierce critics, as well as loyal fans -- will find faith content into everything U2 releases. However, many evangelical Christians will never embrace a quartet of smoking, drinking and often bawdy Irishmen.

What's next? With a nod to poet William Blake, "Songs of Innocence" could be followed by "Songs of Experience" -- creating an autobiographical U2 song cycle.

The bottom line: listeners will keep debating what it all means.

"It this point in their careers, they've pretty much earned the right to do whatever they want to do," said Maynard. "I'll be perfectly happy to go along for the ride, along with millions of other people."

The new campus orthodoxy that forbids most old orthodoxies

At first, Vanderbilt University's new credo sounded like lofty academic lingo from the pluralistic world of higher education, not the stuff of nationwide debates about religious liberty.

Leaders of Vanderbilt student groups were told they must not discriminate on the basis of "race, sex, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, military service, or genetic information. ... In addition, the University does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression."

The bottom line: this "all-comers policy" forbad campus-recognized student groups from requiring their leaders to affirm the very doctrines and policies that defined them as faith-based, voluntary associations in the first place.

This private university in Nashville -- which once had Methodist ties -- affirmed that creeds where acceptable, except when used as creeds. Orthodoxy was OK, except when it conflicted with the new campus orthodoxy that, in practice, banned selected orthodoxies.

A golden age for Catholic architecture -- in the Bible belt?

Architect Michael Tamara's original goal was to study new Catholic churches built using classic designs and symbolism, as opposed to all of those modernist sanctuaries offering what some critics call the "Our Lady of Pizza Hut" style.

The first church that caught his eye, 15 years ago, was the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Ala., an ornate sanctuary rich in majestic marble and gold details that was becoming familiar to viewers of Eternal Word Television Network. This church, he thought, was built decades after the Second Vatican Council?

Tamara began gathering materials about other new churches in neo-Gothic, Romanesque or other classic styles. Eventually he spotted a surprising pattern.

That first church was in Alabama, and then he found others in Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Oklahoma, several in South Carolina and quite a few in Virginia. Oh, and there was a stunning new monastery -- in Alabama.

Rosary prayers and the hellish death of journalist James Foley

When a believer is immersed in the rosary, the familiar phrases of the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Doxology find a soft rhythm, as clicking beads mix with steady breaths and the human heart. 

While meditating on each great mystery of the faith, the final words of the Hail Mary prayers are particularly sobering: "Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen." 

The prayers are "like a pulse that sinks deep inside and goes on and on as you meditate on how these mysteries are connected to your life," said writer Elizabeth Scalia, known as "The Anchoress" among Catholic bloggers. 

"I think all the mysteries would have offered inspiration and consolation to James Foley" while in captivity, she said, as he "faced the fact that his life was truly in danger." 

Western elites still struggling to see the suffering Eastern Church

At first glance, there was a bizarre gap in the proclamation Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued as his forces rolled to victory after victory in their rush to rebuild a caliphate in Iraq, Syria and beyond. 

The modern world, he said, in a July 1 statement circulated on Twitter, has "been divided into two camps and two trenches, with no third camp present: The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy -- the camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin everywhere, and the camp of the Jews, the crusaders, their allies and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the Jews." 

Missing from this list were key groups immediately impacted by the rise of the Islamic State -- the region's ancient churches. In one stunning blow, ISIS forces seized Mosul and other Nineveh Plain communities that have sheltered Christians since soon after the faith's birth. Jihadi militiamen burned churches, or turned them into mosques, and marked Christian homes with "n," for "Nisrani" or "Nazarene." 

Thus, believers with 2,000 years worth of local roots were declared foreigners -- Nazarenes.

Is there a dark side to all of those fun funerals?

For centuries, religious believers in many cultures have held solemn funeral rites that were then followed by social events that were often called "wakes." 

The funeral was the funeral and the wake was the wake, and people rarely confused their traditional religious rituals with the often-festive events that followed, noted blogger Chad Louis Bird, a former Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary professor who is best known as a poet and hymn composer. 

But something strange happened in American culture in the past decade or two: Someone decided that it was a good idea to have fun funerals. 

"Our culture is anxious to avoid dealing with death. It seems that the goal is to keep your head in the sand and not have to face what has happened to your loved one and to your family," said Bird, in a telephone interview. 

An update on Pope Francis, Rush Limbaugh and the poor

From day one in the Pope Francis era, the so-called insiders who do so much to shape public opinion have said "conservatives" -- inside the Vatican and outside -- were grumbling about this shepherd's unorthodox style.

That is certainly true in some corners of the church, noted Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, a prominent voice on matters of doctrine and public life. However there is a bright side to all the jarring news reports about Pope Francis.

The famous Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton once noted that "every age gets the saint it needs. Not the saint people want, but the saint they need -- the saint who's the medicine for their illness. The same may be true of popes," said Chaput, in a July 26 speech at the Napa Institute in California.

Don't ask, don't tell on cohabitation?

It's a hypothetical case, but one priests frequently face in an American culture transformed by the Sexual Revolution. 

On the other side of the desk is a couple seeking marriage-preparation sessions before a church wedding. At least one of these young people is from a parish family and, thus, has been receiving Holy Communion. Neither has been to Confession in years. 

 The pastor has every reason to suspect that, like millions of Americans, this couple is already "shacking up."

A Catholic priest knows that the catechism teaches that sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman is "gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses." He knows that it teaches that anyone "conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion."

So a painful question looms over these encounters: Don't ask, don't tell?