Facing the unChristian reality

Times were hard for the single mother and her 4-year-old son, so she did what hurting people often do -- she joined a church seeking solace and support. But there was a problem, one that drove her right back out of the pews.

"Everyone told me what to do as a parent," she told pollster David Kinnaman, "but no one bothered to help."

This blunt encounter wasn't one of the formal interviews that led Kinnaman and social activist Gabe Lyons to write their book, "unChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity ... and why it matters." But what the young mother said was painfully consistent with what they heard time after time during three years of research, as they focused on the concerns of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29.

The problem wasn't that she was turned off by the Christian faith or that she was an outsider who had never stepped inside a set of church doors, said Kinnaman, leader of the Barna Group in Ventura, Calif., where he has led nearly 500 research projects for both secular and religious clients.

From this woman's perspective, it was crucial that her anger and disappointment were rooted, not in ignorance or nasty media stereotypes, but in her own close encounters with Christians. She believed that real, live Christians had failed to treat her in a Christian manner -- leaving her burned and bitter.

Growing numbers of young "outsiders" say they know exactly how she feels.

"Most Mosaics and Busters ... have an enormous amount of firsthand experience with Christians and the Christian faith," wrote Kinnaman and Lyons, referring to Americans born after the massive Baby Boom. "The vast majority of outsiders within the Mosaic and Buster generations have been to church before; most have attended at least one church for several months; and nearly nine out of every 10 say they know Christians personally, having about five friends who are believers."

Here's the bottom line, according to their research: "Christians are primarily perceived for what they stand against. We have become famous for what we oppose, rather than what we are for."

To be blunt, young "outsiders" think that modern Christians are hypocritical, judgmental, clueless fanatics who choose to live in protective bubbles, except when they venture out to attack homosexuals, run right-wing political campaigns and proselytize innocent people who would rather be left alone. Things are getting so bad that many young Christians -- especially evangelicals -- say they are embarrassed to discuss faith issues with their friends.

It's easy to tap into this kind of hostility and get angry or scared or both, said Kinnaman, speaking at the annual Presidents Conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. Some religious leaders may even be tempted to rush into changes that compromise essential doctrines.

"The thing that we don't want to do is take a poll, figure out what kind of faith people want, and then just create Christianity in that sort of image," he said. "What I am not saying is that we change this, that we somehow lose touch with the biblical reasons why these perceptions exist.

"Jesus talks about sin. The Bible is clear about our brokenness. This is going to lead to the perception, sometimes, that we are judgmental."

But pastors, educators and other religious leaders must realize, Kinnaman insisted, that attitudes among young Americans have truly changed. The culture has moved light years past the skeptical attitudes that believers faced in earlier generations, when many young people rebelled and then, as they grew older, returned to traditional forms of faith.

At some point, he stressed, church leaders must find ways to listen to their critics and take their concerns seriously.

This will lead to hard questions. Can Americans listen to Christians in other parts of the world? Can religious leaders tune in signals from mass media? Can older Christians hear the voices of young people who struggle with pornography, who express their fears by cutting their own bodies, who struggle with issues of sexual identity?

"We have been the party in power for several hundred years," said Kinnaman. "That gives us a different kind of challenge, a different set of opportunities. ... We have been so busy trying to be a Christian nation that I think we may have forgotten what it means to follow Christ.

B16 challenges his bishops

The headlines and dramatic photos rush by during a papal visit, framing the sound bites that journalists uncover in stacks of Vatican speech texts.

So Pope Benedict XVI visited the White House and proclaimed "God bless America!" Then he noted that, in this culture of radical individualism, "Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility."

The former theology professor, speaking to Catholic college leaders, enthusiastically embraced academic freedom. Then he stressed that traditional doctrine -- as "upheld by the Church's Magisterium" -- should shape all aspects of a truly Catholic "institution's life, both inside and outside the classroom."

The former prisoner of war, speaking at the United Nations, hailed the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then he dared to claim that the document's defense of universal truths is built on "the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations."

The pope spoke to a wide variety of audiences during this visit and he emphasized words of praise and encouragement, not judgment. After all, Benedict could speak to gatherings of U.S. politicians and global diplomats, but he knew that he had no real authority over them. Also, as strange as it sounds, the pope's control over what happens on Catholic campuses is limited, at best.

Thus, the message that mattered the most came when Benedict faced the 350 American bishops in the crypt under the soaring Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. In theory, the bishops answer directly to the pope when it comes time to explain what happens at their altars and in the pews.

The sound bite that dominated the news afterwards focused on the sexual abuse of children and teens by Catholic clergy, with the pope agreeing with Chicago Cardinal Francis George's verdict that the scandal was "sometimes very badly handled" by the church hierarchy.

"Many of you have spoken to me of the enormous pain that your communities have suffered when clerics have betrayed their priestly obligations and duties by such gravely immoral behavior," said Benedict. "Rightly, you attach priority to showing compassion and care to the victims. It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged. ...

"Now that the scale and gravity of the problem is more clearly understood, you have been able to adopt more focused remedial and disciplinary measures and to promote a safe environment that gives greater protection to young people. While it must be remembered that the overwhelming majority of clergy and religious in America do outstanding work ... it is vitally important that the vulnerable always be shielded from those who would cause harm."

A leader of a support group for victims pressed on. The pope's statement that the scandal was "somewhat mishandled" is inaccurate, because "this is a current crisis, not a past one," said Barbara Doris of St. Louis, speaking for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "The phrase obscures the unassailable fact that hundreds of bishops willfully and repeatedly deceive parishioners, stonewall police and leave children at risk."

But there was more to this speech than one big quotation. While the pope's address challenged the bishops to keep wrestling with the sexual-abuse scandal, he also put these evil acts in a wider framework -- an era of revolt against the church's moral teachings. And who is in charge of defending these doctrines, while finding ways to strengthen marriages and families?

That would be the church's bishops, said Benedict. Thus, he urged them to address the sin of abuse within the "wider context of sexual mores," thus setting an example for society as a whole. This crisis, he said, calls "for a determined, collective response," a response led by the bishops.

"Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships," he said. "They should be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today. ... What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?

"We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society, so that a sound moral formation can be offered to young people and adults alike."

Not a rookie, at faith

Jim Morris came of age in a West Texas town, which means the locals didn't need to use street addresses to tell where they lived.

All he had to say was that his house was one block from Wood Creek Baptist Church and a vacant lot away from the Camp Bowie Sports Complex. That would cover the essentials, out where nobody talks much about the separation of church and sports.

"The first thing you need to understand about West Texas is that even local video stores have announcement boards out front with messages like, 'Keep Christ in Christmas,' " said Morris, in the first line of "The Rookie," the book about his middle-aged ascent into major-league baseball. "The second thing to understand is that, if Jesus Christ himself were to show up on a Friday night in the fall, he'd have to wangle a seat in the high school stadium and wait until the football game ended before declaring his arrival."

Naturally, a whole lot of praying and Bible reading vanished when Walt Disney Pictures got a hold of this story. But the good news for fans of old-fashioned movies is that God wasn't totally written out of the plot when the "The Rookie" moved to the big screen. It's hard to drain the faith out of a West Texas tale full of baseball, babies, wedding rings, tears, tough love and nuns appealing to the patron saint of impossible dreams.

Morris was natural athlete who almost reached the big show as a youngster, before his body broke down. So he got married, settled down, started teaching school and coaching a little baseball.

Then the kids on his ragged high school team make him promise to give baseball one more shot, if they won the district championship. The team won district. Morris went to a free-agent tryout and discovered that his blown-out shoulder was serving up 98 mile-per-hour fastballs -- light years past what he threw in his prime. With the stunned blessing of his wife and three kids, Morris headed to the minor leagues and then, at age 35, to the big leagues.

Roll out the clich? No Hollywood ink slinger would dare concoct such a story.

"It was God," said Morris, who is busy as a motivational speaker in both religious and secular settings. "What other explanation could there be for what happened?"

"The Rookie" has already passed $70 million in ticket sales, which means Disney succeeded in creating a feel-good hit for baseball season. But the movie also raised eyebrows with its G rating, which is often box-office death with adults.

The key is that "The Rookie" is basically an updated version of one of old Hollywood's most popular products - the inspiring story of a good man who beats the odds and wins big. Moviemakers used to tell this kind of story all the time and they almost always included a healthy dose of faith and family.

As it turns out, this formula still works - if the story is good enough.

"Quite frankly, faith played a big role in my life, so it would have been impossible to have left that out of the movie," said Morris. But the producers of the movie "didn't draw much attention to the religious side of the story."

They didn't have to. It was shocking enough to watch Hollywood tell a simple story about grown-ups and kids chasing their dreams, while keeping their vows and saying a prayer or two. But those who read the book will wonder, in particular, what happened to its major theme -- which is the pitcher's ongoing efforts to fathom "God's mysterious ways" of working through both the agony and the triumph of his life.

Nevertheless, God remains in the details, soaked into the images of family and commitment. Morris said his story makes "no sense whatsoever" without faith.

"They just sort of hit it, then back away a little," he said. "I thought that was appropriate, to tell you the truth. They didn't try to jam anything down anybody's throat. You didn't want people sitting in theaters saying, 'What are you trying to do here?' ... This is a movie. You really can't preach at people."