For Southern Baptists, Mayberry is now officially dead

When the Rev. Russell Moore was a Baptist boy in Mississippi, he knew the culture around him had lots of unwritten rules.

Dogs didn't live in the house. Women didn't chew tobacco in public and men didn't chew at church or in funerals. Tattoos were forbidden and scary.

So he was scandalized one Sunday when a man came to church sporting a tattoo of a naked lady and propped his arm on the pew for all to see. To the young Moore's surprise, his grandmother whispered that this was good news -- because the man's wife had long been trying to get him into church.

Moore recalled his grandmother saying: "He's not trying to be rude, honey. He just doesn't know Jesus yet."

In a way, that's where Southern Baptists are right now, said Moore, in a pastors' conference sermon before the recent national Southern Baptist Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Baptists are struggling to relate to real people who live in a changing culture that frightens, or even angers, lots of church people.

"For a long time … in certain parts of this country, baptism was kind of a Bible Belt bar mitzvah," said Moore, who leads the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Washington, D.C. "You needed a Christian identity, you needed a church identity, in order to make it as a good American, in order to be part of the culture around you. Those days are over."

Moore's words in recent weeks -- in pulpits and mass media -- have offered fresh evidence that some leaders of America's largest Protestant flock realize the cultural ground is shifting in America, including their once safe base in the South.

Campolo, Neff signal that an open doctrinal left is emerging in evangelicalism

One moment defined old-school evangelicalism more than any other -- the altar-call ritual in which the Rev. Billy Graham urged sinners to come forward and repent, accept God's forgiveness and be born again. 

For decades, crusade choirs sang "Just As I Am," which proclaims: "Just as I am, and waiting not to rid my soul of one dark blot, to thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot, O Lamb of God, I come, I come." 

So evangelical activist Tony Campolo knew he was grabbing heartstrings as he referenced this gospel hymn when announcing that he had changed his beliefs on marriage and homosexuality. 

"As a social scientist, I have concluded that sexual orientation is almost never a choice," said the 80-year-old Campolo, for decades an influential voice on Christian campuses. "As a Christian, my responsibility is not to condemn or reject gay people, but rather to love and embrace them, and to endeavor to draw them into the fellowship of the Church. 

"When we sing the old invitation hymn, 'Just As I Am,' I want us to mean it." 

With this nod, Campolo underlined crucial questions in heated debates linked to the emerging evangelical left: Since the movement called "evangelicalism" lacks a common structure and hierarchy, who decides what the Bible says about repentance and forgiveness? Who decides when acts cease being sinful and become blessed?  

Europe on ice, Africa on fire: Doing the global Catholic math in 2015

As economists like to say, when America sneezes Europe catches a cold. 

When it comes to culture the equation often works the other way around, with European trends infecting America. If that's the case, then American Catholic leaders must be doing the math after reading a sobering new study -- "Global Catholicism: Trends & Forecasts" (.pdf) -- by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. 

"These are the Vatican numbers and nothing in here will surprise the bishops," said Mark Gray, director of CARA Catholic Polls and coauthor of the report. "They are aware of their sacramental numbers and their Mass attendance numbers. … They know that they face issues right now, and in the future, that are very serious." 

When it comes to church statistics, experts study life's symbolic events -- births, marriages and deaths. It also helps to note how often believers go to Mass and whether there are enough priests to perform all these rites. 

If so, the European numbers in the CARA report are serious business. While Vatican statistics claim Europe's Catholic population rose 6 percent between 1980 and 2012, infant baptisms fell by 1.5 million and marriages between two Catholics collapsed from roughly 1.4 million to 585,000. The number of priests fell 32 percent and weekly Mass attendance kept declining, from 37 percent in the 1980s to 20 percent since 2010. 

But the past lingers in brick and mortar.

(Murder) Mysteries of Amish life in this postmodern world

The new guy in the town of Millersburg, one David Hawkins, wasn't just a U.S. Army veteran, but a skilled sniper and Special Forces operative.

Then his only daughter was murdered by an ex-con, followed by another murder clearly linked to the case. Obviously, the sheriff had to investigate whether the shattered father was planning his revenge before the ex-con's trial.

That's the set up for "Broken English," one of nine murder mysteries -- so far -- by author P.L. Gaus. But there's a twist, because these stories unfold in Holmes County, Ohio, in Amish country. Hawkins has already vowed to live as a pacifist, while preparing to marry an Amish woman and embrace her faith.

In these books -- "Whiskers of the Lion" arrived this spring -- the fine points of Amish doctrine and culture provide more than colorful frames around the plots, but add crucial details that complicate them.

To be blunt: The Amish believe it's spiritually dangerous to mix with "English" locals, even if that means not cooperating with authorities investigating crimes in which their loved ones are the victims, stressed Gaus, reached by telephone. What if the state's idea of justice is little more than sinful human vengeance?

Crash course in how to offend visitors to your church

For generations this greeting was included in the announcements during Sunday services in the typical American church.

The pastor or another leader would cheerfully say how glad the homefolks were to have visitors in their midst and ask newcomers to stand and be recognized. Members might even point at guests, to make sure they were spotted. Visitors would then be asked to share their names, where they were from and perhaps even why they were visiting.

A friendly gesture to help guests feel welcome or a sure-fire way to freak out introverted people who may have struggled with the decision to visit a pew?

"This is one of those things that truly divides people into two groups, depending on their personalities," said the Rev. Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources at the Southern Baptist Convention's headquarters in Nashville. Before that, he was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

"Some see this as a sincere gesture of fellowship," he said. But for others "anything this overt may make them feel uncomfortable or even pressured."

At some point, some churches tweaked this rite and, rather than asking visitors to stand, asked members to rise -- while guests remained seated.

Rainer laughed, and added: "Now the poor visitor is surrounded and singled out even more. It's like they're in a spotlight. … They don't even get to mingle with others on their own terms, like normal people."

Striving to save churches, ancient and modern, in Iraq and Syria

The small chapel in ancient Dura, near the Euphrates River in western Syria, is not a spectacular historical site that tourists from around the world travel to see.

However, the diggings yielded priceless insights into life in an early Christian community, and a synagogue as well, in the days before Dura was abandoned in 257 A.D. The frescoes, for example, include an image of Christ the Good Shepherd -- one of the earliest surviving images of Jesus in Christian art.

Then came the Islamic State. Has the Good Shepherd fresco been destroyed?

"Religious heritage sites throughout ISIS held areas of Iraq and Syria have been suffering enormous damage and face constant risk. The targeted extermination of religious minorities by ISIS results in mass death and also the erasure of the outward manifestations of the minority religious culture, threatening the continuity of their religious practices," said Katharyn Hanson of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, in a recent House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing.

In her litany describing the destruction, she gave this verdict on what has happened in the "Pompeii of the Desert." The Dura-Europos site "has been extensively looted and is currently under ISIS control," she said. Scientists estimate that "some 76 percent of the site's surface area within the ancient city walls has now been looted."

The hearing's goal, of course, was documenting what is happening to flesh-and-blood believers -- especially women and children -- in minority faith communities inside the borders of the Islamic State, not just the ancient ruins and holy sites that symbolize their deep roots in the region. As Jacqueline Isaac of the organization Roads of Success testified: "We cherish ethnic and religious diversity. ISIS hates it."

The most anticipated testimony was by Sister Diana Momeka of the Dominicans of St. Catherine of Siena convent in Mosul, who was the only member of the delegation of Iraqi religious leaders invited to testify who was initially denied a visa by the U.S. State Department. She was the only Christian from Iraq in the group.

Short, candid sermon about faith and life -- from Denzel Washington

As often happens on a campus with strong religious ties, the commencement speaker began with a personal story about life and faith -- with a hint of the miraculous.

The speaker flashed back to a specific date -- March 27, 1975 -- when he had flunked out of college and was poised to enlist in the U.S. Army. Then, during a visit to his mother's beauty parlor, a woman he didn't know gazed into his eyes and demanded that someone bring her a pen. 

"I have a prophecy," she said, writing out key details. She told him: "Boy, you are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people."

That's the kind of thing Pentecostal Christians say to future preachers all the time. But in this case she was talking to Denzel Washington, a future Hollywood superstar. The key, he recently told 218 graduates at Dillard University in New Orleans, is that her words rang true.

"I have traveled the world and I have spoken to millions of people. But that's not the most important thing," said the 60-year-old Washington, who received an honorary doctorate in the ceremony. "What she told me that day has stayed with me ever since.

"I've been protected. I've been directed. I've been corrected. I've kept God in my life and He's kept me humble. I didn't always stick with him, but he's always stuck with me. … If you think you want to do what you think I've done, then do what I've done. Stick with God."

Pope Francis offers preaching 101 tip -- don't bore the sheep

It was another ordination rite in St. Peter's Basilica and the pope was expected to stay close to the ritual book during the homily.

Then again, Pope Francis has a way of expanding the script. Off the cuff, he offered the new shepherds some blunt advice about preaching -- do not bore the sheep.

"Let this be the nourishment of the People of God, that your sermons are not boring, that your homilies reach people's hearts because they come from your heart, because what you say to them is what you carry in your heart," he said, in one translation of remarks on the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.

But if priests share from their own experiences, added Francis, their actions must match their words, because "examples edify, but words without examples are empty words, they are just ideas that never reach the heart and, in fact, they can harm. They are no good!"

Pope Francis has, on a number of occasions, discussed how Catholic priests can become more effective communicators. Before becoming pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglia of Argentina was already concerned about the effectiveness of his priests -- during an era in which charismatic evangelical preachers radically changed Latin America.

Candidate Hillary Clinton casts judgment on our very religious world

Looking at women's lives worldwide, Hillary Clinton is convinced that faith ioffers strength and hope to many, while "deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases" continue to oppress others.

The Democratic presidential candidate cited her own Methodist heritage as an example of positive faith during the recent Women in the World Summit in New York City. But religion's dark side, she said, is easily seen when doctrines limit access to "reproductive health care" and cause discrimination against gays and the transgendered.

In the future, she stressed, politicians will need to force religious leaders to change these ancient teachings to fit modern laws.

"Far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health," said Clinton, focusing on issues she emphasized as secretary of state.

"All the laws that we've passed don't count for much if they're not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice, not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will and deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed."

The Kennedy Center crowd responded with cheers and applause.