New York City

Beyond tweets and text messages: Many young believers evolve into accidental hermits

Beyond tweets and text messages: Many young believers evolve into accidental hermits

It was the feast of St. Mary, Mother of the Church, so writer Leah Libresco and some friends decided to have a traditional procession through their neighborhood, while praying the Rosary out loud.

"I live in New York City, where this was still not the weirdest thing that anyone would see that day," said Libresco, speaking earlier this winter at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C.

The procession received some puzzled looks along Broadway, near Lincoln Center. Their images of St. Mary sure didn't match the vision of womanhood seen in advertisements they passed.

This wasn't a public statement. All these New Yorkers were doing was celebrating the feast together, creating a face-to-face community with faith, food and fellowship. There's more to life than sitting at home, firing tweets and text messages at the world.

Long ago, Libresco explained, ascetic monks called "stylites" believed they should spend their lives fasting and praying while living atop pillars. This kind of solitude, obviously, was not for the average believer.

Today, many Americans have become "accidental stylites," she said. They are isolated from one another by jammed schedules, job demands and all those digital devices that were supposed to aid communication.

"A lot of folks wind up living hermetic lives, living their faith alone -- nakedly before God -- without the assistance of a monastic superior, or a community or anything else," she said. While monks carefully choose lives of solitude, that path would be "a terrible idea for the rest of us."

Once known as a popular atheist blogger, Libresco began exploring spiritual disciplines after converting to Catholicism in 2012. Her new book is called "Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name." The title is a reference to journalist Rod Dreher's bestseller "The Benedict Option," which challenged modern believers to build local support networks -- involving education, the arts, even small businesses -- in an increasingly post-Christian America. Dreher (a friend of mine for 20 years) wrote the foreword for Libresco's book.

Building on Dreher's manifesto, Libresco wants to encourage Christian hospitality in settings more intense than young-adult gatherings offering shallow chitchat over wine and cheese.

"My goal, always, in building the Benedict Option, is not to turn away from the world," she wrote. "Feeling the need for the thicker community of the Benedict Option … isn't the same as rejecting the world or fearing it. … A claustrophobic feeling can creep into your spiritual life when you practice it alone."

C.S. Lewis on stage: Working to bring the DNA of life and faith to off-Broadway

NEW YORK -- To get to The Pearl Theatre, drama lovers visit the bright lights of Broadway and then turn West and head deep into Hell's Kitchen, where the off-Broadway marquees are smaller and the offerings more daring.

For the team behind "C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce," the road to The Pearl ran through halls in Chattanooga, Tenn., Tampa, Fla., San Diego, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere before reaching New York for a Dec. 3 opening night in the intimate 162-seat venue.

Theater's highest hurdle is still New York City, explained Max McLean, founder and director of the Fellowship for Performing Arts team and co-writer of this version of "The Great Divorce."

Living and working in the neighborhood defined by Broadway and off-Broadway, he said, means "being surrounded by hundreds of artists of every kind. They may not be as well known as people in Hollywood, but they are producing art that's exported to the whole world. This community in New York City still has tremendous influence. …

"The goal is for our work to be taken seriously. We want to tell stories that engage the moral imagination and push people to take faith seriously -- right here."

Ironically, one way for a modern company dedicated to faith and the arts to find cultural credibility is to look to the past, focusing on the work of legendary writers who are not part of the modern evangelical subculture.

Lewis remains one of the world's most popular writers and the Oxford University don was an articulate atheist before his turn to Christianity, a conversion that took place with the help of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. In addition to "The Great Divorce," McLean has produced, directed and starred in the four-year national, and off-Broadway, run of another Lewis classic, "The Screwtape Letters."

"Lewis called himself a dinosaur" in the 1950s, said McLean. "But for me, he remains the model for how to bring the Christian imagination into the mainstream. He remains a relevant dinosaur -- along with Tolkien -- and he points us to the work of G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers and others."

Official stamp of history for Flannery O'Connor

Famous authors are often invited to elite dinner parties in New York City, a setting in which the rich Georgia drawl of Flannery O'Connor stood out like a dish of cheese grits next to the caviar. 

At one such event, O'Connor ended up talking to author Mary McCarthy, who opined that her childhood Catholicism had faded, but she still appreciated the Eucharist as a religious symbol. The reply of the fervently Catholic O'Connor became one of the most famous one-liners in a life packed with them.

"Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it," replied O'Connor, as reported in a volume of her letters. "That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me."

The fact that this literary legend now graces a U.S. postage stamp -- more than 50 years after her death -- is a testimony both to the greatness of O'Connor and to the fact that her radical, even shocking, vision of life has always been impossible to pigeonhole, said scholar Ralph C. Wood of Baylor University.

In particular, O'Connor refused to bow to man-made idols -- including the U.S. government and the civil religion many attach to it, said Wood, speaking at a National Philatelic Exhibition rite in McLean, Va., marking the release of the author's commemorative stamp. She refused to make her faith private and polite.

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.

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."

Praying for better journalism at The New York Times

NEW YORK -- It was a perfectly ordinary invitation to gather for Christian fellowship, the kind of message believers often circulate among colleagues that they know share their faith. In this case, Michael Luo invited a circle of fellow journalists in the New York Times newsroom to breakfast, including one former pastor of an evangelical church.

Yes, this tiny Times flock plans to gather again. No, the veteran reporter was not willing to name any names.

"The Times is like a lot of other elite cultural institutions," said Luo, speaking at The King's College in lower Manhattan's financial district. The newsroom is full of "cosmopolitan, urban types, highly educated people who went to the top colleges whose cultural sensibilities are probably more shaped ... by the upper West Side and Park Slope, Brooklyn, than, you know, the Bible Belt.

"So it's certainly not the easiest place to say that you're a Christian. In fact, some of those people at that breakfast who have confided their faith to me have often sworn me to secrecy."

After giving the matter careful thought, Luo did mention his public lecture at the evangelical college -- "Articles of Faith: A Believer's Journey Through The New York Times" -- on his Facebook page.

The Harvard graduate has faced more than his share of tricky situations, whether reporting in war-torn Iraq or in the culture wars of two White House campaigns. After one of his many Times pieces on loopholes in gun-control laws, AmmoLand.com ran his photo with a caption that called him a "biased anti-gun" reporter.

During the 2007 Values Voters Summit, Luo tried to assure participants that he was a churchgoer who genuinely wanted to understand their beliefs. One activist then introduced Luo to a prominent conservative Christian by saying, "Don't worry, he goes to church." The leader responded, "Well, he'll have to prove it," with a snarl.

"I was thinking," Luo recalled, "what am I going to have to do, quote my favorite Bible verses or give him the Four Spiritual Laws?"

On the other side of the church aisle are well-meaning Christians who insist that Luo's goal should be to "bring Christian truth to the pages of the Times." The implication, he said, is that he should smuggle an evangelical agenda into the "newspaper of record" and let it shape his work.

That would be a disaster, Luo said, and would allow other professionals to label him that "Jesus freak guy" or a "religious zealot." This would destroy whatever trust and respect he has earned during his decade at the Times, which recently led to his appointment as deputy metro editor with much of his work focusing on investigative reporting and, yes, religion coverage.

Luo stressed that one of his goals is to live out the recommendations of a 2005 Times self-study -- entitled "Preserving Our Readers' Trust" -- that urged editors to do more to cover "unorthodox views," "contrarian opinions" and the lives of those "more radical and more conservative" than those usually found in their newsroom.

In addition to seeking diversity of gender, race and ethnicity, the report said: "We should pursue the same diversity in other dimensions of life, and for the same reason -- to ensure that a broad range of viewpoints is at the table when we decide what to write about and how to present it." It would help, the report noted, if Times editors sought out "talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faiths."

Thus, Luo said he has tried become a resource to help the newspaper do fair, accurate, informed news coverage of a wider variety of religious believers. The goal is to avoid "loaded language" that frequently confuses "theological terms with political ones." It also would help, he said, if journalists spent more time covering religion stories rooted in the details of daily life, rather than focusing almost exclusively on political conflicts, both in pews and in public life.

"I would argue that when we screw up, it's not because of some sort of overt prejudice," he said. "The problem usually is that you can't know what you don't know. ... So ignorance can obviously lead to inaccurate and misleading characterizations and, yes, it can lead to bias sometimes seeping into the ways Christians are depicted."

NYC's dangerous churches (in schools)

Once a month, Village Church volunteers offer their neighborhood a gift -- free babysitting. This Friday "Parents Night Out" program uses non-religious crafts and games, which is important because the Presbyterian flock's leaders insist that it's open to parents of any "creed, color, party or orientation." It helps to know that this evangelical church is located in New York City's Greenwich Village and meets in rented space in Public School 3.

"We're New Yorkers and we know all about the incredible diversity of life in the Village," said the Rev. Sam Andreades, a former computer professional with a New York University graduate degree. "We're trying to be part of that diversity. We live here."

The question, however, is whether the Village Church will get to stay where it is, pending the resolution of an old church-state clash that is probably headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court. It is one of 60 churches that rent space -- outside of school hours -- in New York City's nearly 1,700 schools. About 10,000 non-religious groups take advantage of the same opportunity.

The question that vexes some educators is whether it's acceptable for churches to worship in their buildings. This is currently allowed under equal-access laws that have become common nationwide in recent decades.

At the heart of the debate is a 2001 Supreme Court decision -- Good News Club vs. Milford Central School -- that instructed educators to offer religious groups the same opportunity to use public-school facilities as secular groups. School leaders can elect to close their buildings to secular and religious groups alike, thus avoiding discrimination.

Now, the Second Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals has challenged this status quo. In a 2-1 decision, it backed New York City school board attempts to ban regular worship services in its facilities, while allowing for some other forms of religious expression by religious groups.

"When worship services are performed in a place, the nature of the site changes," wrote Judge Pierre N. Leval. "The site is no longer simply in a room in school being used temporarily for some activity. ... The place has, at least for a time, become the church."

The implication is that a "mysterious transformation" literally takes place during these worship services, noted Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defense Fund, a lawyer who has been involved in equal-access cases in New York City and elsewhere for a quarter of a century.

"There isn't some kind of architectural alchemy at work here that suddenly turns a school facility into a dangerous place," he said. "Allowing unions to rent space in schools doesn't turn them into union halls. Allowing Alcoholics Anonymous to use a school doesn't turn it into the Betty Ford Clinic."

However, this ongoing conflict is evidence that many New Yorkers are spooked by the thought of people -- especially evangelicals -- worshipping in spaces created for secular education. The bottom line: What if believers dared to pray for the students and teachers who occupy those spaces on school days?

In a New York Times essay, activist Katherine Stewart explained why she fiercely opposes having a church meet behind the red door of her local school on the Upper East Side. She also attacked the Village Church by name.

"I could go on about why my daughter's photo should not be made available for acts of worship, or why my P.T.A. donations should not be used to supply furniture for a religious group that thinks I am bound for hell," concluded the author of the upcoming book, "The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children."

"Maybe it's just that I imagine that that big red door is about education for all, not salvation for a few. Sometimes a building is more than a building."

The most disturbing theme in these arguments, said Andreades, is the frequent claim that his church and others like it are somehow aliens in their city. Renting space in PS3, he noted, allows his small flock to invest 10 percent of its budget into Village charities -- from an AIDS research center to programs for shut-ins, from arts projects to soup kitchens.

"This church has been in the Village for 16 years," he said. "We've had members attend that public school and teach at it. ... We know who we are and where we are and we think we belong here."