Christian education

Faith on the Blind Side

In the beginning there was "Big Tony" Henderson, whose dying mother urged him to pull his son Steven from a public school on the bad side of Memphis and take him somewhere to get a Christian education. But there was one big complication. Steven didn't want to abandon his buddy Michael Oher (pronounced "Oar"), a street kid who slept on their floor most nights. "Big Mike" was afraid to return to the bleak foster homes he knew after police tore him away from his mother, her crack pipe and her 13 children.

So Henderson took both boys to Briarcrest Christian School on the rich side of town, hoping for scholarships that would make a grandmother's dream come true. School officials were impressed by Steven's grades. Coaches were impressed that Oher was 6-foot-4, weighed 340 pounds, could dunk a basketball and looked like God's gift to quarterbacks who needed a left tackle to guard their "blind side."

The rest is a long story, one that weaves together themes of race, sports, money and education. But a key player in the real-life version of "The Blind Side" stressed that this is also a story about faith.

"We're convinced that faith guided and controlled this whole thing," said Leigh Anne Tuohy, the steel-magnolia matriarch of the rich, white, evangelical family that finally embraced Oher as a son, after providing food, shelter and clothing. "We absolutely believe that none of this was a fluke. ... This was God-driven from the start."

Author Michael Lewis didn't hide that faith element while writing "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game," a bestseller that mixed Oher's story with information about how the left-tackle position evolved into a crucial, and lucrative, slot in any National Football League offense. Then writer-director John Lee Hancock included religious details about the family in the new movie, while avoiding heavy-handed sermons. "The Blind Side" grossed $34 million at the box office on its opening weekend, while scoring a rare A-plus CinemaScore audience rating.

On screen, the Tuohys attend plenty of sporting events. After all, Sean was a University of Mississippi hoops star and Leigh Ann was an Ole Miss cheerleader. Their daughter Collins is both a cheerleader and volleyball star, again at Ole Miss, and their young son, Sean Jr., seems to have inherited his father's gifts as a tireless sports entrepreneur.

The movie does skip the ritual when everyone heads to Grace Evangelical Church, a growing congregation the family helped start. Oher began attending soon after the wet winter night when the family first spotted the shivering giant in shorts and a floppy shirt, walking back to the shelter of the warm Briarcrest gymnasium.

Leigh Anne Tuohy said that "from day one," Oher was the first person ready to go on Sunday mornings. Church was part of everyday life, like homework, piano lessons and trips to sports events and practices.

The key is that expressions of faith were a natural part of this true story, said actress Sandra Bullock, who plays Leigh Anne. No one was faking anything.

"This family, they were themselves for no other benefit other than because they wanted to reach out, lend a hand, and had no idea that they would get a son in return," she told reporters, after a press screening of "The Blind Side." Bullock said that, while making the movie, she regained a little "faith in those who say they represent a faith. ... I've finally met people that walk the walk."

While Tuohy stressed that she can now see God's work in the events that changed Oher's life, and their family, that doesn't mean the details were clear at the time.

The family had reached out to others before, but not to the same degree. Now, it's impossible not to think about how many other talented, gifted children are, literally, on the run in America's cities, she said. What is the family supposed to do now? What should Oher do, now that he plays for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens?

After one of her Southern chuckles that Bullock had to master to play her on screen, Tuohy said that it's hard to talk about the future when she is still trying to understand the wild changes that have changed her family forever.

"A miracle is what this is," she said. "Childbirth is easier to explain than all of this."

So a reporter walks into a church (rimshot)

It's a law. Whenever the Vatican issues a papal encyclical, journalists have to figure out what the pope was trying to say.

To do this, we contact scholars, politicos and clergy for background information and edgy quotes. Thus, a reporter recently called Father Richard John Neuhaus of the journal First Things to discuss Pope Benedict XVI's "Deus Caritas Est (God is Love)."

During this interview, Neuhaus referred to the pope as the "bishop of Rome." The reporter then said, "That raises an interesting point. Is it unusual that this pope is also the bishop of Rome?"

(Cue sound: One comedy-club rimshot.)

Writing in his online journal, Neuhaus noted that the journalist later said, with "manifest sincerity, 'My job is not only to get the story right but to explain what it means.' Ah yes, he is just the fellow to explain what this pontificate and the encyclical really mean. It is poignant."

Wait, there's more. Another time, an "eager young thing" from the same national newspaper called to discuss a political scandal. Sadly, Neuhaus said, corruption has "been around ever since that unfortunate afternoon in the garden.?

There was a long pause and she asked: "What garden was that?"

Neuhaus isn't alone in noticing that reporters often veer into a mental ditch when covering religion. In a scathing Books & Culture essay entitled "Religiously Ignorant Journalists," sociologist Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina said he is tired of calls from journalists who don't know that Episcopalians are not "Episcopals" or who confuse evangelicals with "evangelists" or even, God forbid, "evangelicalists."

Why, he asked, do newsroom managers allow this?

"I find it hard to believe that political journalists call Washington think tanks and ask to talk with experts on background about the political strategies of the 'Democrizer' or 'Republication' parties, or about the most recent "Supremicist Court" ruling," said Smith. "So why do so few journalists covering religion know religion?"

Anyone who talks to people in pulpits and pews knows that many -- especially in conservative sanctuaries -- believe they know the answer. They believe that most journalists are biased against religious people.

Neuhaus, however, is convinced that the problem is even more basic than that. Journalists work hard, he said, but they are "not always the sharpest knives in the drawer." Most are the products of journalism schools that, according to Neuhaus, are intellectually second rate or worse.

While he knows of "notable exceptions" of bias and malicious intent, the priest said he has "been led to embrace something like an Occam's razor with respect to journalistic distortions: Do not multiply explanations when ignorance will suffice."

These are fighting words for journalists. As a professor, I must confess that many if not most of my student journalists in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities have come from the honor rolls. I have also had the pleasure of knowing more than my share of brilliant women and men who are professional religion reporters.

Yes, if would help if more editors hired trained, experienced professionals to cover the religion beat. And it would help if Neuhaus and other clergy who belittle the craft of journalism urged their own colleges to emphasize journalism education, thus adding to the intellectual diversity in newsrooms. Religious leaders could praise and support postgraduate seminars such as those offered by the Pew Forum and the Poynter Institute that help journalists learn more about religion and improve their reporting skills.

But mistakes will be made.

Just this week, Newsweek served up an instant classic in the journalistic genre of "laugh to keep from crying" miscues about religion.

The story concerned the success of the debate team at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. At the moment, the team is ranked No. 1 in the nation (Harvard University is No. 14) and Falwell tried to explain that the debaters were, in their own way, involved in a kind of ministry to the culture.

Alas, the reporter mangled a crucial metaphor.

Thus, the story now ends with this correction: "In the original version of this report, NEWSWEEK misquoted Falwell as referring to 'assault ministry.' In fact, Falwell was referring to 'a salt ministry' -- a reference to Matthew 5:13, where Jesus says, 'Ye are the salt of the earth.' We regret the error."

Baylor, Bibles, boots and education

Soon after David Solomon arrived at Baylor University in 1960, he realized that one of his new friends had a problem -- this rancher's kid had spent his life in boots.

"That's all he had," said Solomon, a philosopher who leads the Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture. "We went out and he bought his first pair of lace-up shoes. ... That's what Baylor was about, back then. Baylor was supposed to take Baptist kids from small-town Texas churches, knock the dust off them and hit them with the Enlightenment. You know, civilize them."

Texas has changed. But anyone digging beneath the headlines about the Waco wars over faith and learning will find that the past has power. The old assumption was that students arrived rooted into a brand of faith that was rich and rigid. Thus, Solomon said most of his professors set out to "shake everybody up" and teach students a more complex, progressive set of beliefs than what they learned at home and church.

Baylor life was baptized in faith, symbolized by chimes that played hymns as students -- like me, during the 1970s -- walked to chapel.

But in the classrooms, most professors assumed that piety was a good thing, but had little to do with the wisdom in secular textbooks, said Solomon, who has stayed active in debates at his alma mater. Thus, the world's largest Southern Baptist school was a "university with a Christian atmosphere," but not a "Christian university" that blended ancient faith and modern learning.

This worked for decades, until reports about sex, drugs and nihilism pushed millions of parents to hunt for distinctively Christian campuses. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, enrollment in the 105 members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities -- an organization in which I teach journalism -- soared 60 percent between 1990 and 2002, while numbers at public and secular private schools edged up or stayed level.

Recently, Baylor has steered toward "Christian university" status, led by its regents and an academic team headed by a brash president named Robert Sloan.

The result was Baylor 2012, a controversial plan calling for a larger endowment, a 36 percent tuition hike, more scholarships, 230 new faculty positions and a wave of construction, most noticeably a $103 million science building. Sloan's team also began asking prospective professors -- Protestants, Catholics and Jews alike -- to explain how faith affected their teaching and research. This was a direct challenge to the "Christian atmosphere" tradition, with its separate zones for faith and learning.

Sloan fought for a decade, before the Jan. 21 news that he will step down to become chancellor. Baylor's civil war had become national news, especially when combined with a tragic basketball scandal.

While Sloan made painful mistakes, Baylor 2012 provoked a public statement of support from an ecumenical coalition of Christian educators -- including Solomon -- from Notre Dame, Yale, Harvard, Duke, the University of Chicago and elsewhere.

"Baylor has charted a bold course," it said. "It has strengthened the mission entrusted to it by its founders, preserving its Baptist heritage while making it intellectually relevant. ... In matters of faculty hiring and curricular innovation Baylor has assumed a leadership role among the remaining Christian colleges and universities."

News reports have often linked the Baylor controversy to decades of conflict between Southern Baptist "moderates" and "fundamentalists." But what Sloan and the regents say they want is a "big tent Christian orthodoxy" that transcends Baptist politics, according to Robert Benne of Roanoke College.

These are fighting words to many Baylor loyalists.

"Above all, traditional Baptists disagree with Sloan's contention that Christianity has intellectual content," argued Benne, writing in the Christian Century. "In the view of Baylor's new leaders, faith is more than atmospheric. There is a deposit of Christian belief that all Christians should hold to. On the basis of that belief they should engage the secular claims of the various academic disciplines."

This attempt to wed soul and intellect encouraged, or infuriated, many educators in postmodern America, said Solomon.

"We can no longer assume that our students know much at all about the faith once delivered to the saints," he said. "It's a new world, even for church kids. The days of bringing boys in off the farm are gone."

Freud, Lewis & God on PBS

Dr. Armand Nicholi of Harvard Medical School was caught off guard as he read evaluations of his first seminar on the life and philosophy of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.

"Several of the students said the same thing," he said, recalling that semester 35 years ago. They thought the class "was good, but that it was totally unbalanced. They said it was one sustained attack on the spiritual world."

Nicholi had a problem. He decided that the students were right, but he knew it would be hard to find another writer with the stature to stand opposite Freud -- perhaps the 20th century's most influential intellectual. Then he remembered a small book he discovered by chance during his internship in a New York City hospital, a time when he wrestled with the agonizing questions of cancer patients and their loved ones.

The book was "The Problem of Pain" by C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don and Christian apologist. Nicholi revamped his seminar, focusing it on the life stories and writings of Freud and Lewis. Rather than back into discussions of spiritual questions, the psychiatrist placed them at the heart of the syllabus. Decades later, Nicholi's classic course became "The Question of God," a book that has inspired a pair of PBS and Walden Media documentaries for television and home video.

The format blends academics and drama. Nicholi presents Freud as a spokesman for the "secular worldview" that denies the existence of any truth or reality outside the material world. Lewis is the champion of a "spiritual worldview" which accepts the reality of God. Seven articulate women and men representing a variety of viewpoints join in the seminar discussions.

Freud and Lewis are represented by their own words, the commentary of experts and actors who dramatize a few episodes from their lives, often seen in counterpoint with archival photographs and film footage.

Nicholi said the goal is the same as in the seminar -- to let these giants grapple with the big questions of life. Is there a God? What is happiness? Why do people suffer? Is death the end? What is the source for morality? It helps that Lewis, before his conversion, was an articulate atheist and familiar with Freud's work.

"I was astonished at how Freud would raise a question and then Lewis would attempt to answer it," said Nicholi. "When you read their work it is almost as if they are standing side by side at podiums, debating one another. It was uncanny."

At the center of the project is a word that is criticized by some scholars -- "worldview." Nicholi said it's impossible to deny that Lewis and Freud had different approaches to life. Each saw the world through filters created by culture, heritage, philosophy, education, experiences, faith and prejudices.

Their actions and writings make no sense when separated from these secular and sacred worldviews, said Nicholi. By studying their worldviews, students can test and refine their own. Many educators seem afraid to even discuss this process, he said. They find it especially hard to discuss questions of faith and morality.

"You can study an opposing worldview and learn everything that you can about it or you can try to ignore it," said Nicholi. "Many religious believers are afraid to take Freud's work seriously. They reject him out of hand. On the other side are the critics of Lewis who say that his traditional Christian beliefs were fitting for the uneducated masses, but not for the classroom. You hear them say, 'I do not consider this is an intelligent point of view and, since I am intelligent, I don't have to pay attention to it.' "

This is education?

Through the years, Nicholi has defended his seminar from critics on both sides. He still finds it hard to believe that people who claim to cherish academic freedom and diversity can question the value of reading and contrasting the works of these two intellectual heavyweights.

"We are supposed to be as critical, as objective and as dispassionate as we can possibly be," said Nicholi. "But if we cannot allow this kind of dialogue between two worldviews to take place in an academic setting, then we are in trouble. Discussing these kinds of questions is what academic life is supposed to be about."

Saving the Baylor brand name

WACO, Texas -- Looking out his window, athletic director Ian McCaw has been watching workers tear up the turf in Baylor University's football stadium one more time.

The environment is brutal in there, and not just because the Bears play Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and other Big 12 powers. Central Texas offers searing heat and then its share of ice. Since 1950, Baylor has tried grass, various brands of fake grass, real grass again and now Prestige System artificial turf.

"We're committed to making changes," said McCaw, a young sports management professional who arrived in the midst of Baylor's recent siege of scandals and woe. "We're moving forward. We think this is going to work out fine."

McCaw was talking about the grass, but he could have been defending his own turf. The environment has been brutal for months, with the world's largest Baptist school facing a searing media spotlight and the cold reality that when many fans hear "Baylor" they now think of death, drugs and dirty dollars, not dedication to Christian principles.

Surely the grass was greener at the University of Massachusetts, where McCaw had done his graduate studies and returned to direct a 23-sport athletic program. But after one successful year, and two weeks before moving his wife and four children into a newly constructed home, he answered the call to help resurrect Baylor's reputation.

"From a branding, marketing standpoint, we know what we have to do," he said. "We have to position ourselves to the whole Baptist and Protestant community as the flagship, much as Notre Dame always has been for Catholics. ... To compete at the highest level, we're going to have to have that kind of brand.

"We certainly can't try to hide what Baylor is, or what Baylor is supposed to be."

But that brand name also raises questions in an era when schools with small markets and high academic standards face brutal pressures to cut corners. Meanwhile, this is a boom time for Christian colleges and universities, along with their athletic programs. Many are now asking: What does it mean to have "Christian" athletics?

It doesn't mean all of the school's athletes have to be Christians, said Grant Teaff, a Baylor coaching legend and, for the past decade, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. But dedicated Christian coaches are a must.

"You can't say, 'Find me the best Christian defensive back you can and go sign him.' You can't compete like that," he said. "But that doesn't mean that, if one of the top defensive backs in the country is a strong Christian kid, you can't look him in the eye and tell him Baylor is where he would feel right at home."

It's also time for these coaches to admit that larger schools will sign almost all the top blue-chip recruits. However, Teaff noted that most of these phenoms -- in basketball and perhaps soon in football -- linger only one or two years in college. At some point, teams led by experienced, loyal juniors and seniors may start winning more games against the freshmen and sophomore superstars.

"The world says to these young men, 'Get as much as you can as soon as you can. Get your hand out -- right now,' " said Teaff. "Schools like Baylor can't compete in that game. ... But a school like this has other strengths and it can't be afraid to use them."

Schools that emphasize academics and spiritual values will also need stronger ties to national networks of ministries, home-school families and Christian high schools that stress athletics, noted McCaw. The evidence is strong that schools emphasizing faith are especially attractive to top female athletes.

Another trend may help. As Third World churches grow in power, global recruiting efforts will increasingly affect sports such as soccer, track, baseball and basketball. Missionaries often packed sports equipment with their Bibles.

But earning the trust of parents remains the key.

"There is a growing percentage of parents that want their children to go to a Christian college, yet they also want to see their children compete in Division I athletics. If you want a quality, Christian education and you want to compete at the highest level in athletics, how many options do you have? Where are you going to go?"

A Hail Mary for Hollywood

In the Hollywood culture wars, Barbara Nicolosi is an army of one, a former nun turned screenwriter who constantly urges angry believers to love the artists who so frequently mock them.

"How many of you have complained -- or been enraged even -- in the last month by something you have seen on television or in a movie theater?", she asked a recent audience in Los Angeles.

Hundreds of hands went up.

Nicolosi gently pounced: "Now, how many of you, when you saw that something on the screen that offended you, paused and said a prayer for the filmmakers or producers behind that production?"

Two or three hands were raised -- slowly.

This is part of the problem, she said. The entertainment industry needs diversity. It needs new talent, viewpoints, passion and stories. But a creative sea change will not occur until churches grasp Hollywood's importance in American and global culture and -- yes -- even begin praying about it.

Most of the time, Nicolosi speaks to flocks of Evangelicals on behalf of a national educational project she leads called Act One: Writing for Hollywood. But on this day she was facing members of Legatus, a network of Catholic CEOs and philanthropists.

This allowed Nicolosi to do something she said she had long wanted to do, but lacked the right forum. Bowing her head, she asked the Catholics gathered before her to focus on the Hollywood community and then join her as she said: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. ..."

Nicolosi plays a unique role, but she is not alone. She is part of a growing nondenominational effort to convince schools and ministries to get serious about creating real entertainment for real audiences, instead of cranking out Christian products that preach to the choir. Her passion for this cause began while working at Paulist Productions with the late Father Ellwood "Bud" Kieser, who was best known for making the movie "Romero" and years of "Insight" television programs.

Someone had to read the large stacks of scripts offered by Christians convinced that God had inspired their work. That sad person was Nicolosi. All but a few of these efforts, she said, dryly, were "badly written, banal, on the nose, pedantic schlock."

For some reason, most of Hollywood's critics think that because movies are easy to watch, they must be easy to make. Thus, tiny squads of true believers -- with no experience and little training -- keep attempting Mission Impossible.

"We think we're going to raise $5 million and make a movie about St. John Chrysostom and suddenly people are going to fall down on their knees all over the world and Jesus will float down from heaven on a cloud," said Nicolosi.

This isn't how Hollywood works. It is a town that is fiercely committed to excellence and its high-stakes projects require teamwork and compromise by almost everyone involved, she said. It is a town fueled by unbelievable amounts of pressure, power, paranoia and agonizing moral choices.

The way to prepare to enter this arena is to learn from professionals who already thrive there. This is why Act One's seminars are taught by a team of 75 Christians with credits in shows ranging from "MASH" to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," from "Braveheart" to the "X-Men." The screenwriting program ( is based at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, but will soon become independent and take on new topics, such as directing and producing.

Hollywood's critics need to get serious or they will continue to look foolish, said Nicolosi.

"There is a sense of outrage in many Christians that the industry should instinctively know how to make the movies that we want to see, and should make them," she said. "That is ridiculous. They are making the movies that THEY want to see, which is their right. ...Just suppose that the situation were reversed and we were the ones who had all of the cultural power in our hands. Would we feel obligated to make a few disgusting films for those groups of perverted folks out there to enjoy, just to be fair?

"Of course not. We have to stop begging and whining."