God, Tebow and the NFL

Once upon a time, there was this controversial quarterback. Even his strongest defenders admitted that he was a fiery field general, not a conventional pinpoint passer. He made lots of big plays with his legs, dodging tacklers and creating havoc until he could unload the ball.

His throwing motion wasn't much to look at, either. Purists said he brought the ball way too low while winding up to fire it deep.

On top of all that, he was devoutly religious and very conservative. He was especially vocal about social issues, such as his belief that sex should be reserved for marriage -- period.

Talent scouts were divided. Many were sure he would never succeed in professional football, even though he was a Heisman Trophy winner. Besides, Roger Staubach had to serve as a Navy officer before he could start his Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys.

Wait a minute. You thought this was some other quarterback?

Week after week, the experts who dissect events in the National Football League have been struggling with the whole question of whether or not Tim Tebow -- an even more outspoken version of Staubach -- has a future with the Denver Broncos, other than as a third-string quarterback carrying a clipboard on the sideline.

The problem at the local level, of course, is the choir of Tebow supporters chanting his name in the stands. The problem at the national level is that it's rare for a backup quarterback to be so popular that his NFL jersey was last year's third highest-selling -- which is up in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady territory.

The big problem is that it's hard for fans to separate Tebow the inexperienced professional quarterback from Tebow the experienced missionary and evangelical superstar. Journalists are struggling with the Tebow culture wars, as well.

"Tebow had to be himself, which means letting everyone know exactly where he stands, consequences be damned," noted columnist Deron Snyder of the Washington Times. "Essentially he drew a line that separated him from everyone else -- not in a better-than-thou sort of way, but a marked distinction nonetheless -- and we've been picking sides ever since.

"Along the way, we've had difficulty in keeping our opinions unencumbered. Thoughts on Tebow the Christian get mixed with Tebow the Quarterback. Tebow the Hyped is entangled with Tebow the Great Guy."

Over at the sports Vatican called ESPN, veteran scribe Rick Reilly has had enough of what he called a "stained glass window" quarterback controversy.

In particular, Reilly is tired of getting waves of emails that sound like this one from West Virginia: "You only bash Tebow because he is a Christian and he does not fit into your pop culture mold of great athletes."

Actually, noted Riley, Tebow is not the first muscular Christian to take the field.

"Whose god Tim Tebow worships has zero to do with my criticism of him. It's his business," he wrote. "Like I care. Tebow is about the 1,297th-most outwardly Christian athlete I've covered. He doesn't stick his god down my throat. Doesn't genuflect after touchdowns. Doesn't answer every question with, 'Well, first, let me thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and, yes, I think I did pull my groin in the third quarter.'

"And even if he did, it wouldn't affect what I write about him. I've covered openly devout athletes for 33 years. Lord knows I'm used to it."

Yes, there have been plenty of other traditional believers in professional sports and most of them managed to avoid controversy. However, they were safe precisely to the degree that they remained silent on issues that linked their faith to hot-button moral, cultural and, in this age, political questions.

Snyder, for example, stressed that quarterback Kurt Warner was a strong believer who avoided controversy. That's true -- sort of.

The only problem is that Warner did get caught in a media firestorm during the 2006 World Series, when he appeared in an advertisement opposing a Missouri bill supporting embryonic stem cell research.

The bottom line: Athletes who speak out can expect media fallout.

"The accelerant in this debate is religion, which along with race and politics forms our trinity of third-rail topics," concluded Snyder. "Tebow isn't a litmus test for faith in God and belief in Jesus Christ, but that won't stop the saints and the aints from issuing grades."

Maher says Obama's faith is fake

The last thing the White House needed was another TV preacher questioning the sincerity of President Barack Obama's Christian faith. But there was a twist. This time it was HBO's Bill Maher -- sermonizing against religion has become his life's work -- who claimed that Obama is hiding a deep, dark secret. During the Feb. 11 episode of his "Real Time" talk show, Maher said he knows an unbeliever when he sees one and that Obama is probably an agnostic.

This came a week after the president made another attempt, as church people say, to give "his testimony." Yes, his mother was a skeptic, Obama said, during the National Prayer Breakfast, but she was also "one of the most spiritual people that I ever knew." Her values led him to the Civil Rights Movement and to the Baptist, Catholic and Jewish clergy who led it.

"Their call to fix what was broken in our world, a call rooted in faith, is what led me ... to sign up as a community organizer for a group of churches on the Southside of Chicago," he said. "And it was through that experience working with pastors and laypeople trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior."

The presidency has, on occasion, driven him to his knees, he said. But faith has strengthened his family, especially "when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time."

Those old questions remain a concern months after a Pew Research Center poll found that 18 percent of Americans think Obama is a Muslim. At that time, only 34 percent of those polled said the president is a Christian and 43 percent said they didn't know his current religion. Among strong supporters, 43 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Democrats agreed that he is a Christian.

The bottom line: Millions of voters remain unsure whether Obama is their kind of believer.

Maher's attack was unique, since it came from an outspoken liberal, the acidic wit behind the movie "Religulous," an fierce secularist who is so turned off by faith that he calls himself an "apatheist" instead of an atheist. If Maher has a sanctuary, it's the Playboy mansion.

"With friends like Mr. Maher, Mr. Obama doesn't need enemies," noted Brent Decker, who leads The Washington Times editorial page.

Maher stated his doubts during a roundtable about whether the president is sincere in his attempts to march under a "centrist" banner. The iconoclastic comedian agreed with many religious conservatives on one crucial fact -- that Obama often appears to hide his true beliefs.

"If you woke him up in the middle of the night, or if you gave him sodium pentothal, I think he's a centrist the way he is a Christian -- not really," said Maher. In other words, Obama is pretending to be a centrist and a Christian.

The African-American philosopher and critic Cornel West disagreed: "He is a Christian, he's just a centrist Christian. He's not a prophetic Christian."

Maher stood firm: "His mother was a secular humanist and I think he is too."

This unleashed a lightning-fast series of exchanges, with guests discussing the fact that Obama entered the black church before he entered national politics. As an adult, he had already begun a spiritual journey that took him away from his mother's blend of skepticism and spirituality.

"He changed his mind on the God question, brother Bill," West reminded the host. "He changed his mind on the God question."

Again, Maher insisted that Obama is hiding his true beliefs in the same way that he keeps insisting that he continues to "struggle with gay marriage." It's smart politics for Obama to say one thing while believing the other, said Maher.

Nevertheless, insisted West, "Being a Christian is not a political orientation for the president. He is a Christian."

"I just don't believe him," Maher said.

"Bill, what do you think he is?", asked West. "You think he's agnostic, actually?"

"Yeah, kind of," said Maher.

West grew even more animated, asking, "On what grounds do you say that? ... What kind of evidence you got?"

Maher declined to answer and steered the discussion into safer territory.

Getting in the last word, West noted: "But somebody is wrong about this thing."

A Catholic Colbert report

For Catholics raised during the head-spinning days after Vatican II, few things inspire flashbacks to the era of flowers and folk Masses quicker than the bouncy hymn "The King of Glory." But what was a goofy nerd doing on Comedy Central, belting out this folk song while doing a bizarre blend of Broadway shtick and liturgical dance?

"The King of glory comes, the nation rejoices! Open the gates before him, lift up your voices," sang Stephen Colbert a decade ago, in a video that is now a YouTube classic. "Who is the King of glory; how shall we call him? He is Emmanuel, the promised of ages."

Inquiring minds wanted to know: Was this painfully ironic comedian mocking trendy Catholics or saluting them? Was he outing himself as a Christian? Was he praising Jesus or risking a lightning bolt?

Legions of 40-something Catholics have strong memories of the first time they saw this clip, said Diane Houdek, managing editor of Something in Colbert's performance told them that this was not a random gag.

"Stephen walks this thin line," said Houdek, who runs "The Word: A Colbert Blog for Catholic It-Getters" in her spare time. "He isn't afraid to be critical when it comes to matters of faith, but when he does it's always clear that his critique is from the inside. ... He'll push things pretty far. He'll dance right up to that line, but he will not cross it. He will not compromise what he believes as a Catholic."

Colbert, of course, became the star of The Colbert Report, the fake news show in which he plays a right-wing egotist (think Bill O'Reilly of Fox News) named "Stephen Colbert." Religion plays a major role in the show and there are moments when he speaks sincerely in his own voice.

That's what happened last week when his alter ego came to Washington, D.C., at the invitation of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security. His testimony mixed satire ("I don't want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian") with serious information about the plight of farm workers.

Colbert lowered his mask when asked why this issue mattered to him, slipping in a reference to a Gospel of Matthew parable in which eternal judgment awaits those who deny compassion to the poor and defenseless.

Some of America's least powerful people, he said, are "migrant workers who come in and do our work, but don't have any rights as a result. And yet, we still ask them to come here, and at the same time, ask them to leave. ... You know, 'Whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers,' and these seemed like the least of my brothers, right now."

It helps to know that Colbert was raised as the youngest of 11 children in a devout Irish-Catholic family in Charleston, S.C. Then his physician father and two brothers died in a plane crash and their joyful home plunged into grief. Colbert soon lost his faith.

Years later, a sidewalk volunteer in Chicago handed the young actor a Gideon Bible and something clicked. Today, he lives a private life with his wife and three children, but he never hides the fact that he teaches children's Sunday school.

As he told Rolling Stone last year: "From a doctrinal point of view or a dogmatic point of view or a strictly Catholic adherent point of view, I'm the first to say that I talk a good game, but I don't know how good I am about it in practice. I saw how my mother's faith was very valuable to her and valuable to my brothers and sisters, and I'm moved by the words of Christ, and I'll leave it at that."

But there is more to Colbert's faith, and his theology, than that, said Houdek. For starters, a Jesuit serves as the show's chaplain.

"There is evidence of his faith all through his work, if you know what to look for," she said. "This is what makes him so unique, in the extremely secular world in which he is working -- Comedy Central. Yet he keeps doing what he does night after night, because he never comes off as preachy."

'Lost' in the eternal lite

When describing the mysterious concept called purgatory, the Catechism of the Catholic Church starts with the basics. "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven," the text states. "The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification. ... The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire."

Alas, any distressed "Lost" viewers who rushed to the Vatican website after the show's finale found no insights about the smoke monster, the Dharma Initiative, that mysterious "4 8 15 16 23 42" sequence or why the fate of the world depended on a pool of light on one very strange island.

At least one member of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has owned up to being tuned into the "Lost" phenomenon from the beginning. At the end, all Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark could do was understate the obvious.

"I've enjoyed the series, considering it to be akin to science fiction," he noted, reacting to the raging debates about the religious symbols and language that dominated the final moments. "While the Catholic Church does believe in Purgatory, I'm not sure that the series presents an accurate understanding of our beliefs."

Before the finale, the scribes who had been running "Lost" -- Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse -- said their creation would end by focusing on how the Oceanic Flight 815 survivors answered ultimate questions about the wounds, conflicts and sins in their pasts. The key word, they agreed, was "redemption." All of that pain and suffering had a purpose.

The final episode blended together lots of vague theology, philosophy, pop psychology, religious symbols and references to popular books and movies. Think of it as "Our Town" meets "The Sixth Sense," with dashes of "Ghost," "Field of Dreams," "It's a Wonderful Life" and, at the last minute, a comforting nod to "All Dogs Go to Heaven."

After years of flashing back and forth in time, the final year's action centered on events in two parallel time sequences -- the climactic battle to determine the island's fate and a purgatorial "sideways" timeline in which the characters gained insights into their troubled lives, before and after the fateful crash.

At the end, the castaways gathered in a church sanctuary for one last group hug before entering eternity -- an ocean of bright light outside the exit doors. The big chat explaining these final events -- reuniting the show's Christ figure, Jack Shephard, with his father, Christian Shephard -- was lit by a stained-glass window containing symbols of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

But was the show, as some had theorized all along, actually built on the concept of purgatory? Hadn't Lindelof told the New York Times in 2006: "People who believe that they're in purgatory or that they're subjects of an experiment are going to start reassessing those theories. ..." The creator of "Lost," J.J. Abrams, had denied the purgatory theory, too.

The finale's spirituality shocked many critics, including one or two who were so upset that they retroactively (flash backward) dismissed "Lost" as a whole. But veteran Washington Post writer Hank Stuever, drawing on his Catholic school past, said it's time to admit the obvious.

In the final five minutes, "I realized that the purgatory camp had been right all along, that Occam’s razor (the simplest solution is usually the correct one) had worked," he argued. "Oceanic 815 crashed. Some of its souls awoke in a realm that is neither heaven nor hell. It's limbo. ... Jack Shephard and his fellow travelers were brought there to resolve a number of problems between heaven and hell."

But some Catholic viewers struggled to reconcile their church's teachings with the limitations of a product created in Hollywood, a place that has its own definitions of terms such as "sin," "repentance," "redemption" and "savior."

Now, the creators of "Lost" have offered a glimpse of purgatory -- lite.

"From a theological point of view -- well, you can't have 'purgatory' per se without God, without Christ," said Amy Welborn, a popular online Catholic commentator. "But given a vague, non-specific Christ-less spirituality, I really don't see an argument that the sideways realities in the final episode, at least, weren't meant to be purgatory."

Island of 'Lost' souls

It's getting harder to visit office water coolers without hearing the whispers of the "Lost" disciples who are bracing for the end of the world as they know it. The same thing is happening during coffee hours in religious congregations of every shape and size, which is a testimony to the complexity of the religious themes and symbols embedded deep in the show's mythology. Tough theological questions have circled the island of the castaways ever since the fateful crash of Oceanic Flight 815.

Do absolute moral truths exist? Do good intentions ever justify evil acts? Does real love always lead to self-sacrifice? Can faith and reason coexist or even mesh? Can people change or are they doomed to commit the same sins over and over? What does it mean to be saved? To be delivered?

Some questions are more plot specific. Biblically speaking, what would happen if a patriarch named Jacob was killed by a brother who may or may not be named Esau? Why do some of the island's inhabitants occasionally speak Latin? What is the significance of the fact that most of the characters had horrible fathers? Where do the female survivors get all those tight-fitting tank tops?

" 'Lost' is a religious parable with obvious biblical references trying desperately not to be a religious parable," according to Catholic writer Roberto Rivera y Carlo, who is best known for his work with the evangelical apologist Charles Colson.

"The religion that has been most straightforwardly stated on the show has been straight-no-chaser Christianity. People pray like evangelical Christians or faithful Catholics. There's no kumbaya-style religion. … Ultimately, 'Lost' is an exploration of free will versus determinism or human freedom versus predestination. Take your pick."

Let's see, the plots involve hope, doubt, reason, freedom, sin, virtue, salvation, damnation and seekers striving to find empirical evidence to back their often agonizing leaps of faith. No wonder there is a central character named John Locke, along with others named Milton, Hume, Rousseau and C.S. Lewis (a Charlotte Staples Lewis, this time around).

The men who have been running the program for most of its life -- Damon Lindelof, who is Jewish, and Carlton Cuse, a Catholic -- have called themselves "men of faith," while confessing that "Lost" has become a "mash-up" of their favorite Bible stories, college philosophy textbooks, fantasy novels and movies. Thus, it will be impossible to understand Sunday's finale without wrestling with its final, indeed ultimate, spiritual questions.

"If there’s one word that we keep coming back to, it's redemption," said Lindelof, in a New York Times interview that has caused waves of online fan discussions.

"It is that idea of everybody has something to be redeemed for and the idea that that redemption doesn't necessarily come from anywhere else other than internally. But in order to redeem yourself, you can only do it through a community."

In the end, it's almost impossible to say that "Lost" has one overarching theme, said the Rev. Chris Seay of Ecclesia Church in Houston, author of "The Gospel According to 'Lost.' " However, if forced to choose, he said it's clear that the central characters have been forced to realize that they cannot survive as selfish, isolated individuals -- they must "live together" or they are doomed to "die alone."

However, this also means they have had to confront the reality of their own flaws, he said. Over time, he said, the survivors learned that if they were going to be saved they would have to "fear the evils they find inside themselves more than they fear what is out there in that jungle." That's the kind of message that works in a pulpit, as well as on a large-screen television.

While "Lost" does contain its share of references to Eastern religions and direct references to Christian classics, Seay said recent episodes have reminded him of a defining event in the Hebrew Bible -- the Exodus of the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt.

"In a way, these years on the island have been their time of wandering in the wilderness," he said. "They've had to learn how to live in forgiveness with one another, to face their own sins and find some kind of healing and some hope for the future. ... You have to ask, what would a promised land look like for this set of characters?"

Faith and the Russert Test

The politico facing Tim Russert was Vice Present Al Gore and their testy dialogue was one of the memorable moments during the 2000 White House race.

RUSSERT: When do you think life begins?

GORE: I favor the Roe vs. Wade approach, but let me just say, Tim, I did --

RUSSERT: Which is what? When does life begin?

GORE: Let me just say, I did change my position on the issue of federal funding and I changed it because I came to understand more from women -- women think about this differently than men.

RUSSERT: But you were calling fetuses innocent human life, and now you don't believe life begins at conception. I'm just trying to find out, when do you believe life begins?

GORE: Well, look, the Roe vs. Wade decision proposes an answer to that question --

RUSSERT: Which is?

Liberal critics said this line of questioning veered out of journalism into hostile territory, especially when Russert probed Gore on laws banning the execution of any pregnant woman on death row, somewhere, someday. Gore defenders defended his stunned, befuddled silence -- what one called a "pregnant pause."

But the Gore showdown raised other questions. Was the host of NBC's "Meet the Press" asking this question because of his own Catholic beliefs? Or was Russert pressing hard because he knew that, as a U.S. senator from Tennessee, Gore had an 84 percent positive National Right to Life voting record and he wanted to hear the candidate describe his change of heart?

"Tim wore his Catholicism proudly. He talked about it all the time," noted NBC anchor Brian Williams, who stepped in, after Russert's death, as the featured speaker at a recent Catholic Common Ground Initiative forum in Washington, D.C.

In fact, Russert's faith was not "an elephant in the room. It was the room. It was the room he was raised in. It was one of his great charms, as was how he dealt with it in life and in our public discourse. ... Catholicism was his base. It was never his bias. I think that's absolutely crucial and I will debate anyone who contends to the contrary."

Russert scheduled speech was called "Learnings from the Political Process for Common Ground in the Catholic Church," a natural topic drawing on his lengthy news career and his earlier brass-tacks political work with two major Democrats -- Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

In the days after the 58-year-old Russert's shocking heart attack, the focus changed for this event at the Catholic University of America. Williams, who is also Catholic, said the key question was theological and journalistic: Was Russert's relentless search for the truth a result of his Catholic upbringing?

Williams argued that it was impossible to understand Russert's "beautiful mind" without taking seriously the Catholic life and education that formed him. The newsman was who he was, an Irish Catholic guy from south Buffalo, N.Y., who loved his family and always sang the praises of the Mercy Sisters and Jesuit teachers who inspired him enter public life. In April, he openly brought his rosary to a meeting between elite journalists and Pope Benedict XVI, during his visit to Washington.

Russert vowed to never miss Sunday Mass if his son, Luke, was born healthy and kept that promise. While he had strong ties to Catholic progressives, Russert also admired the work of Pope John Paul II. He once told Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a veteran Catholic writer, than when he died he hoped John Paul would meet him at heaven's gate -- wearing the white NBC News baseball cap that Russert gave him.

There were tensions in Russert's life and work. In particular, the clergy sexual-abuse scandals left him angry and shaken. The newsman saw the crisis as "a test of his Catholicism," said Williams. But he also believed that covering the story required him to do the "job of a journalist."

Russert always "understood that the stakes were high. He knew that better than most of us," added Williams. "He knew that the civility of our dialogue was under attack. He knew that diversity in the public square takes work every day. And he knew that our standards of journalism were being attacked. ?

"He understood what it meant to be 'called' to be Catholic, and I think that's very important. He took the call."

Oprah and her American faith

Faithful members of Oprah Winfrey's TV flock know what's happening when guests start talking and their leader keeps saying "Amen," "Preach it" or even, "Sister, I understand the whole God connection!"

The host wants the guest to start "testifying," a confessional process in which believers look for God's healing hand in life's hard lessons. Winfrey learned all about "testifying" as a girl back in the Faith United Mississippi Baptist Church, where jealous peers often called her "Miss Jesus."

But here's the irony, noted journalist Marcia Nelson, author of "The Gospel According to Oprah." Winfrey has become a billionaire and one of world's most powerful women by baring her soul and urging millions of others to follow her example, resulting in what some critics call the "Oprahfication" of America. However, it's almost impossible to answer this simple question: What does Oprah believe?

"She sounds like a person who was raised in a Baptist church," said Nelson, who spent months digging into Winfrey's beliefs on suffering, gratitude, generosity, forgiveness and other spiritual topics.

"Still, it's hard to put a label on Oprah because she refuses to let people do that to her. ... You'd have to say that she looks a lot more like a Protestant than she does a Catholic, but what does that mean? It's hard to say what a person needs to believe these days to be called a 'Protestant.' "

Winfrey retains the ability to slip smoothly into the "mother tongue" she learned as a child in black churches, noted Nelson. For a few years as an adult, she attended the Trinity United Church of Christ, a progressive congregation in Chicago known as Sen. Barack Obama's home church. Then, during her "Remember Your Spirit" period in the 1990s, conservatives criticized her ties to Marianne Williamson ("A Return to Love") and other "New Age" writers who blurred the lines between Christianity and other faiths.

The key is that Winfrey has been a trailblazer who symbolizes many contemporary religious trends.

* Many Americans, said Nelson, are drawn to a "practical, how-to, self-help, just-do-it" approach to faith and personal growth that meshes smoothly with the parade of counselors, doctors, writers and ministers -- of every conceivable faith -- featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." It's crucial that the host looks straight into the camera and says: "This works."

Thus, noted Nelson, Winfrey has "been roundly criticized for making the spiritual too psychological, too therapeutic, too soft, too easy, too self-centered. The gospel according to Oprah doesn't appear to require some kind of doctrinal commitment or a community to ensure that the life-changing 'Aha!' moment of decision is more than a new year's resolution that is quickly made in isolation and broken two weeks later."

* The public loves complex, conflicted celebrities and Winfrey is the spiritual superstar. She quietly supports humble projects near home, yet courts publicity by flying off to start gigantic projects around the world -- such as the new $40-million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy near Johannesburg.

She tells women to love themselves the way they are, but keeps offering weight-loss tips. She urges viewers to give to others, but also pamper themselves. Winfrey says women should embrace their maturity, but shows them how to look 10 years younger. She advises women on private moral dilemmas, but fiercely guards her own privacy.

* One of the fastest growing segments of the population consists of people who call themselves "spiritual," but not "religious," noted Nelson. Winfrey clicks with media-driven, postmodern believers who stress the importance of personal experience and storytelling over the authority of religious institutions and doctrines. Meanwhile, many churches are trying to shed old names and labels, calling themselves "community churches" and adopting other post-denominational names.

The bottom line, said Nelson, is that for generations Americans were able to rally around a kind of tame, "nominal" Judeo-Christian faith that let them affirm a few common traditions and many old-fashioned values. But this has become harder after waves of immigration from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and elsewhere.

American is becoming more pluralistic on faith issues and that has always been just fine with Winfrey. She is all about spirituality, not doctrine. If she has a creed she keeps it hidden.

"Oprah's clothes may bear labels, but her faith does not," noted Nelson. "I don't know what her personal beliefs are."

Blonde, female, Christian, late-night comedian

It's no surprise that Victoria Jackson watches "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," the latest slice-of-elite-life offering from Aaron "West Wing" Sorkin.

After all, one of the main characters in this drama set inside a late-night sketch comedy show -- a fictional West Coast version of "Saturday Night Live" -- is Harriet Hayes, a blonde, female, singing comedian who is a born-again Christian.

This got Jackson's attention real quick.

"I'm the only blonde, female, singing, born-again Christian comedian in the history of 'Saturday Night Live.' I'm pretty sure there's only one of me," said Jackson, in the high, child-like voice that is her trademark. After watching the pilot episode, she asked her husband, "What's going on? Was that me?" It was, she said, "Pretty strange. It hit close to home."

Jackson knows enough about the struggling NBC series to know that the pivotal romance between the Hayes character and the "East Coast liberal Jewish atheist" writer Matt Albie is based, in large part, on the real-life romance between Sorkin and the Tony Award-winning actress Kristin Chenoweth, an outspoken Christian.

"It's hard on a very private level," Chenoweth told the Toronto Star. "I once told Aaron, `Unless you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, then get the hell out,' and he laughed for two minutes. Then I see it on the show in a different way. ... I went on The 700 Club to promote an album of Christian songs I had recorded and, yes, Aaron and I argued about that. But it doesn't mean I want to watch that disagreement flung up on the screen for all America to see."

Chenoweth stressed that the character "is literally me and some of it is not me at all."

Jackson feels the same way. She has seen scenes that appear to have been based on events -- on-stage and off -- during her SNL seasons from 1986-92, when the "Tonight Show" veteran worked with Dana Carvey, Julia Sweeney, Dennis Miller, Nora Dunn, Mike Myers, Jan Hooks, David Spade and others. Take, for example, that "Studio 60" pilot that focused on a comedy sketch entitled "Crazy Christians."

That was the name Jackson assigned to a sketch she was asked to perform, leading her to plead for relief from executive director Lorne Michaels. He heard her out and assigned another actress to do the part. The sketch bombed in dress rehearsal and vanished.

"It was a legitimate sketch that was making fun of what they called extreme Christians," said Jackson. "You know, there are Christians out there that make life rather embarrassing for other Christians. ...

"Now I can make fun of people who have a Jesus toaster and Jesus salt and pepper shakers and Jesus napkin holders. That's fair. But this time they wanted me to kneel down in a comedy show and pretend to pray -- to get a laugh. I just couldn't do it. I told Lorne that I thought I'd start crying or shaking. Prayer is real. I think prayer is talking to God."

Jackson said it's important that her colleagues worked with her and tried to respect her beliefs. Still, it was sometimes hard to do comedy when few -- if any -- of the writers truly understood her faith and, thus, her strengths as a comic.

"Studio 60" is doing a good job of showing this kind of tension, she said. It also helps that Harriet Hayes is not being portrayed as "one of those Christian clich

Peter Jennings -- news seeker

The journalists who met at Columbia University on Oct. 5, 1993, knew we were in for a challenging and confusing day.

We had, after all, come to New York to discuss "Religion and the News." A veteran CBS producer said this was a tough topic, since most broadcasters don't consider religion newsworthy unless it veers into "party politics, pageantry or pedophilia."

Freedom Forum researchers offered sobering statistics showing that 58 percent of liberal Protestant leaders affirmed the statement "most religion coverage is biased against ministers and organized religion." About 70 percent of Catholic priests agreed, along with -- no surprise -- 91 percent of evangelical clergy. The report concluded that many journalists are "tone deaf" to the music of faith.

Peter Jennings sat in the audience, scribbling in one of his private notebooks. He was gathering intellectual ammunition for his struggles to increase religion coverage at "ABC World News Tonight." He remained concerned about this issue throughout the final decade of his life and work.

The anchorman tried to blend in, but a circle formed around him during a break. It was easy to explain why he was there, he said. There is a chasm of faith between most journalists and the people they cover day after day. Six months later, I called him and asked to continue to conversation.

Anyone who has watched television, said Jennings, has seen camera crews descend after disasters. Inevitably, a reporter confronts a survivor and asks: "How did you get through this terrible experience?" As often as not, a survivor replies: "I don't know. I just prayed. Without God's help, I don't think I could have made it."

What follows, explained Jennings, is an awkward silence. "Then reporters ask another question that, even if they don't come right out and say it, goes something like this: 'Now that's very nice. But what REALLY got you through this?' "

For most viewers, he said, that tense pause symbolizes the gap between journalists and, statistically speaking, most Americans. This is not a gap that is in the interest of journalists who worry -- with good cause -- about the future of the news.

Jennings grew up as an altar boy in Canada. He knew the rites and the rules, learning that most Anglicans -- clergy and laity -- agreed to disagree about doctrine. It was OK, Jennings told, to say, "I'm not sure. I believe, but I'm not quite so sure about the resurrection."

Over time, his globetrotting career turned him into what church researchers would call "a seeker" -- even though Jennings disliked that trendy word. He declined to answer when asked: "Have you ever experienced anything that you believed was miraculous?"

To hear him tell it, a funny thing happened to Jennings the journalist. The more he wrestled with his faith, the more he discovered he was interested in how faith shaped the lives of others. He began seeing religious ghosts in news events, first in the Middle East and then in middle America.

Journalists strive to report the facts, he said. But it's a fact that millions of people say that faith plays a pivotal role in their actions and decisions. This affects the news. Can journalists ignore this? During a 1995 speech at Harvard Divinity School, Jennings quoted historian Garry Wills making this point.

"It is careless," Jennings read aloud, "to keep misplacing such a large body of people. ? Religion does not shift or waver. The attention of its observers does. Public notice, like a restless spotlight, returns at intervals to believers' goings on, finds them still going on, and with expressions of astonishment or dread, declares that religion is undergoing some boom or revival."

The key, Jennings said in interview after interview, is that journalists need to understand the facts about faith in order to do a better job covering the news.

"Don't be confused at all that somehow my interest in religion, faith and spirituality is somehow driven by any sense of faith or spirituality of my own. It is a fabulous story. It intersects with people's lives in ways that other people in newsrooms are not as lucky as I am to understand," he told Beliefnet.

"This is a good and irresistible story. ... My God, what else are we looking for in life? It is relevant."