A rose for 1999

Moments before the fateful lunch break, a Columbine High School classmate saw Rachel Joy Scott drawing in one of her spiral-bound journals.

It was a pencil sketch of a rose, which her family believes was meant to symbolize youth. The poet, dancer, musician and missionary also drew two eyes - weeping 13 tears onto the rose. Police found the journal in her bloody, bullet-pierced backpack.

Why 13 tears? Then, Scott's journal ended with this prayer: "Am I the only one who sees? Am I the only one who craves Your glory? Am I the only one who longs to be forever in Your loving arms? All I want is for someone to walk with me through these halls of a tragedy."

There were many important religion news stories this year -- from Kosovo to Kansas. But it was Columbine's shattering images of evil, faith, violence and courage that dominated 1999, inspiring fierce debates about whether America's soul is twisted. The massacre followed a bloody stream of school violence and preceded the slaughter of seven worshippers in Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

Was Columbine a clash between pietistic believers and bitter acolytes for a media-fueled youth culture, or a cautionary tale about tolerance and guns? My answer is "all of the above," and Columbine tops my list of the top 10 religion news stories of the year.

In an April 20, 1998, journal entry - precisely one year before the tragedy - Scott wrote: "I have no more personal friends at school. But you know what? I am not going to apologize for speaking the name of Jesus, I am not going to justify my faith to them, and I am not going to hide the light that God has put into me. If I have to sacrifice everything I will. I will take it."

In their pre-rampage videotapes, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold discussed - in their litany of hate - how they wanted to start a "religious war" and mocked a girl named Rachel who had shared her Christian faith.

In audio tapes aired on CNN, and transcripts released by parents, Klebold said: "Stuck-up little b----, you f------ little Christianity, godly little w----."

Harris: "Yeah, 'I love Jesus, I love Jesus.'... Shut the f--- up."

Klebold: "What would Jesus do? What would I DO? (Makes shotgun sound at camera)"

Yet Columbine insiders know it could have been much worse, said the Rev. Bruce Porter, who preached at Scott's funeral. They also know that Harris and Klebold were not uniquely wicked villains, but bright young men who managed to hide their rage. This could have happened anywhere.

"We want to know: How could these students have done these evil acts? Where did this rage come from? It looked like these students had every advantage in life, or at least they had everything that our world considers an advantage in life," said Porter. "All of this just exploded on us. Columbine has become the Pearl Harbor of the culture wars."

Here are the remaining events on my 1999 list.

2. Secular Serbs clash with secular Albanians in Kosovo, while diplomats ignore the peace efforts of all faith groups. NATO bombs Serbia during Holy Week and on Pascha (Easter).

3. China arrests 35,000-plus members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, while continuing crackdown on underground Protestants and Catholics.

4. President Clinton impeached, but not convicted, in a riveting showdown between the religious right and the lifestyle left. His ultimate defense is that he could not have committed perjury, because of his biblical interpretation of what is and what is not "sex."

5. Kansas State Board of Education shelves mandatory tests covering Darwin's theory of macroevolution and allows teachers to cover controversies linked to Darwinian philosophy. The "intelligent design" approach to creation issues continues to rise.

6. Coalition of Protestants and Catholics begins governing Northern Ireland.

7. Is evangelism hate speech? Southern Baptist Convention attacked for efforts to convert Jews, Muslims and Hindus. Pope John Paul II visits India, stressing that "there can be no true evangelization without the explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord."

8. U.S. Catholic bishops pass guidelines enforcing the pope's "Ex corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)," a philosophical map for life on 235 college campuses.

9. George W. Bush's sermons at Second Baptist Church in Houston trigger a rush of spiritual testimonies, and calls for "faith-based" social work, by White House wannabes.

10. Y2K: apocalypse or a symbolic signpost?