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."

Two clashing Orthodox takes on doctrine -- past and future

When two global religious leaders embrace one another, someone is sure to turn the encounter into a photo opportunity. 

The photo-op on Nov. 7 was symbolic and for many historic. The elder statesman was the Rev. Billy Graham and, rather than an evangelical superstar, the man who met with him at his North Carolina mountain home was Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. This visit was linked to a Hilarion address to a gathering of Protestant and Orthodox leaders in Charlotte, organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. 

After generations of work organizations such as the Episcopal Church and the World Council of Churches, the archbishop said many Orthodox leaders now realize that -- on issues of sex, marriage, family life and moral theology -- some of their ecumenical partners will be found in evangelical pulpits and pews. 

"In today's pluralistic world, the processes of liberalization have swept over some Christian communities. Many churches have diverted from biblical teaching ... even if this attitude is not endorsed by the majority of these communities' members," said Hilarion, who is the Moscow Patriarchate's chief ecumenical officer. 
 

Foggy faith in 'mushy middle' of American religion scene

Crack open a traditional hymnal and most American Protestants will be able to belt out the classic hymn, "Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!"

The last verse states: "Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea. Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity."

Also, most practicing Catholics will be familiar with these Catechism lines: "The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. ... The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the 'consubstantial Trinity'."

The language is mysterious and ancient. Yet according to a new survey probing what Americans believe on crucial theological issues, a majority of those polled -- 71 percent -- believe in the Trinity.

But what about that whole "God in three persons" thing? Not so much.

Three questions, three fault lines in American pews and puplits

If the goal is to map the evolving landscape of American religion, the late George Gallup, Jr., once told me, it was crucial to keep asking two kinds of questions.

The kind attempted to document things that never seemed to change or that were changing very, very slowly. Thus, Gallup urged his team to keep using old questions his father and others in the family business began asking in the 1940s and '50s, such as how often people attended worship services, how often they prayed and whether they believed in God.

The second kind of question, he said, tested whether these alleged beliefs and practices affected daily life.

"We revere the Bible, but don't read it," he warned, in one 1990 address. "We believe the Ten Commandments to be valid rules for living, although we can't name them.

"We believe in God, but this God is a totally affirming one, not a demanding one. He does not command our total allegiance. We have other gods before him."

About that time, I shared a set of three questions with Gallup that I had begun asking, after our previous discussions. The key, he affirmed, was that these were doctrinal, not political, questions. My journalistic goal was to probe doctrinal changes that revealed fault lines in churches. The questions:

Pope Francis sends warning to Catholic camps on left and right

After the media firestorm surrounding the recent Synod of Bishops on family issues -- with reports about plans to modernize doctrines on homosexuality, divorce and other sexy issues -- Catholic activists are bracing for the sequels.

Mark these dates. First there will be the "Year of the Family" preceding a "World Meeting of Families" next Sept. 22-25 in Philadelphia. The three-week Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family will follow that.

That pivotal synod at the Vatican opens on Oct. 4, 2015, and faces the tough task of issuing pastoral guidelines in response to the heated debates at this year's synod.

The world will be watching that Sunday as the pope preaches in the opening Mass. That sermon will be a challenge, since the official lectionary has already established Mark 10: 2-16 as the day's Gospel.

Two voices on opposite sides of the ultimate cancer issues

As millions of people now know, Brittany Maynard's husband Dan Diaz will celebrate his birthday on Oct. 26. They will gather with friends and family and then, days later, the 29-year-old Maynard plans to take the prescription drugs that will end her life.

The couple cleared legal, professional and financial hurdles to move from California to Oregon, where she is eligible for physician-assisted suicide. The clock was ticking -- due to a malignant brain tumor -- toward a "nightmare" she did not want her loved ones to have to endure with her.

As a spokesperson for Compassion and Choices, which evolved out of the old Hemlock Society, she shared the details of her diagnosis and choice at TheBrittanyFund.org and then through major media.

"Now that I've had the prescription filled and it's in my possession, I have experienced a tremendous sense of relief. ... It has given me a sense of peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty and pain," she wrote, in a CNN.com essay.

"Now, I'm able to move forward in my remaining days or weeks I have on this beautiful Earth, to seek joy and love and to spend time traveling to outdoor wonders of nature. ... When my suffering becomes too great, I can say to all those I love, 'I love you; come be by my side, and come say goodbye as I pass into whatever's next.' "