books

Saith Peggy Noonan: Pick up the Book and change your world

Saith Peggy Noonan: Pick up the Book and change your world

Any history of Catholic thought, and the rise of Western culture, has to mention the turning point in the conversion story of Aurelius Augustinus.

During a time of inner torment, the young man from North Africa withdrew into a garden. As Pope Benedict XVI told the story in 2008, he "suddenly heard a child's voice chanting a rhyme never heard before: tolle, lege, tolle, lege -- pick up and read, pick up and read. He … returned to the Pauline codex that he had recently read, opened it, and his glance fell on the passage of the Epistle to the Romans where the Apostle exhorts to abandon the works of the flesh and to be clothed with Christ."

The man who became St. Augustine picked up that book and, thus, he "changed himself and changed our world," said journalist Peggy Noonan, in her May 13 commencement address at the Catholic University of America.

That was the punch line in her urgent appeal for the graduates to grasp that there is much more to life than the fleeting contents of the glowing, omnipresent screens that dominate their days and nights.

Instead, the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for commentary urged them to "embark on a lifelong relationship with a faithful companion who will always help you and sometimes delight you -- who will never desert you, who will make you smarter, and wiser, who will always be by your side and enlighten you all the days of your life.

"I am talking about -- books. You must not stop reading books. That's all. If you seek a happy and interesting life, one of depth, meaning and accomplishment, you must read books."

Noonan said she certainly couldn't tell her own story without referencing one book after another, from biographies she read as a child to "Saints for Sinners: Nine Desolate Souls Made Strong by God," which as an adult "helped me understand that I was a Catholic and believed it all." Her love of history, which helped shaped her speechwriting for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, came from shelves of books.

The closest Noonan came to talking politics -- she made only two passing references to the current president -- was to note the degree to which the story of 2016 was told by journalists raised in cyberspace.

On the separation of church and history

On the night he was betrayed, the rabbi from Nazareth gave blunt, by mysterious, instructions about the rite that would forever be at the center of Christian life. The Gospel of St. Luke reports: "He took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you."

These images mystified the faith's Roman critics. In his multi-media project "Church History Made Easy," Baptist scholar Timothy Paul Jones noted that one ancient pagan wrote this vivid speculation about Christian worship: "An infant is covered with dough, to deceive the innocent. The infant is placed before the person who is to be stained with their rites. The young pupil slays the infant. Thirstily, they lick up the blood! Eagerly they tear apart its limbs."

How can anyone learn these kinds of human details, asked Jones, and come away thinking that history is boring? The stories and lessons of church history are especially important, he said, for millions of evangelical Protestants who attend the many modern megachurches -- flocks with few, if any, denomination ties that bind -- that have helped reshape the landscape of American religious life.

"Taking church history seriously helps us sink our roots into something deeper than the present," said Jones, who teaches at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "One of the dangers of this whole post-denominational world we live in is that people can lose their rootedness and lose a sense that generations of Christians have passed the faith on to us."

This is especially important in the age of "The Da Vinci Code" and other works of popular culture that can leave people thinking that "there is no heresy and that there is no orthodoxy," he said, in a telephone interview. "What you're left with is a lot of competing voices and the sense that everything is up for grabs."

This is tricky territory for Protestants in churches born through the work of John Calvin, Martin Luther and other reformers who -- to varying degrees -- questioned the authority of ancient traditions preserved in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. It's even harder to stress church history, said Jones, in today's rapidly changing independent churches that embrace modern media and other marketplace trends.

In these flocks, "tradition" is often measured in months or years, not centuries.

Thus, Jones opened the "Church History Made Easy" book with a reference, not to St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, Calvin, Luther or even Billy Graham, but to a classic "Peanuts" strip by the late Charles Schultz. In it, Sally Brown is writing a paper on "church history." To address this subject, she writes, "We have to go back to the very beginning. Our pastor was born in 1930."

Digging into ancient church history can leave some Protestants -- both liberals and conservatives -- facing questions about which traditions to embrace, which to adapt and which to avoid. Take, for example, the penitential season of Lent that leads to Easter.

One Baptist progressive, Central Baptist Theological Seminary President Molly T. Marshall, recently noted that "since the earliest times of the Church, there is evidence of some kind of Lenten preparation in the 40 days leading up to Easter (not counting the Sundays.) After the legalization of Christianity in CE 313, Lent developed patterns that continue, at least in the West."

In recent years, she added, something unusual has happened: "Many Baptists are learning the significance of paying attention to Lent."

Some Baptists will welcome that kind of connection to church history, noted Jones, while others will not. His own congregation recently observed Ash Wednesday, "ashes and all," leading some Southern Baptists to think "we've gone Catholic," he said.

The goal is not to uncritically accept symbols, rites and experiences merely because they are ancient, he said. For evangelicals, the goal is find what they believe is the doctrinal core that they share with Catholics, the Orthodox and other believers through the ages.

"There is what C.S. Lewis called a 'mere Christianity,' a core of Christian tradition that can serve as our touchstone," he said. "There was an orthodoxy -- with a little 'o' -- a tradition you can trace back to the apostles. That's why church history matters."

Warnings to believers in a consumer culture

Since the goal was to explore the cultural ties that bind, Father John Kavanaugh asked the young Catholics in a St. Louis classroom a basic civics question: How many national and world leaders could they name? The Jesuit didn’t allow the seventh graders to include celebrities and entertainers, which meant that actor Tom Cruise didn’t make the list. In the end, they ended up with 12 names.

"You started off with the pope and the president, of course. Then things got harder after that," said the St. Louis University philosophy professor, describing this scene during a 1990 Denver lecture that I covered for The Rocky Mountain News.

The questions got easier, for youngsters baptized in untold hours of commercials on cable television. When asked to name brands of beer, the list on the chalkboard topped 40. How about designer jeans? The seventh graders came up with more than 50 different brands. They were experts when it came to the shopping-mall facts of life.

The Regis University crowd laughed, but it was nervous laughter, as the author of "Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance" walked them through a slideshow demonstrating the power of advertising in shaping the minds of materialistic modern Americans.

Yes, it was funny when the priest offered Freudian interpretations of popular cigarette ads. But no one wanted to laugh at the images demonstrating how professionals were using bleak, depressing, yet erotic images of children in advertising aimed at adults.

Is this, the philosopher asked, what our culture's powers that be think real life is all about? If that is the case, he said, "then let's be freaks. Let's be tourists. ... We must remember this is not our home."

Kavanaugh died on Nov. 5 at age 71, after a career in service and scholarship that took him from St. Louis to India and then back home again. His perspectives on suffering and poverty were shaped by his early work with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and then with the Jean Vanier communities for those with disabilities in Bangalore.

In addition to his work as a professor and spiritual director for seminarians, Kavanaugh was known for his columns in America magazine, film criticism in The St. Louis Review and numerous books. "Following Christ in a Consumer Society" was reissued twice in new editions, to keep its cultural criticism up to date.

Kavanaugh pleaded guilty to tilting at his share of conservative windmills, but anyone who was paying close attention knew that he was trying to prod the consciences of Catholics on the left as well as the right.

The priest raised eyebrows with a 2002 column entitled "Goodbye, Democrats" in which he argued that America's political culture had collapsed to the point that it would be wise for believers to cut their partisan political ties by registering as independent voters. He stressed that he thought Catholics in the Republican Party needed to bail out, as well.

Writing to his fellow progressives, Kavanaugh proclaimed: "One thing the Democrats really stand for, however, is abortion -- abortion on demand, abortion without restraint, abortion paid for by all of us, abortion for the poor of the earth. I am not a one-issue voter, but they have become a one-issue party. … If traditional Democrats who are disillusioned with the selling out of the working poor and the unborn simply became registered Independent voters, would not more attention be paid?"

The problem, of course, is that it’s sinfully easy for ministers -- once again, on the left or the right -- to keep preaching easy sermons that they know their flocks want to hear, said Kavanaugh, when I interviewed him once again in 2008. It's easy to keep lashing away at the same familiar straw men, while avoiding topics that could offend the faithful in the home pews.

The Jesuit summed up his message with a quote that rings as true today as it did the final time that I talked with him.

"Whether you are preaching to liberals or conservatives, it's hard to tell people truths that they don't want to hear," he said, in that telephone interview. "It's hard to tell people to love their enemies. It's hard to tell people to repent of their sins and to forgive others. ... It's hard, but this is what good preachers have to do."

Harry Potter wars forever?

The Harry Potter culture warriors have surged into action one last time, adding their familiar notes of discord to the fanfares greeting the release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2." "It's no secret that the Harry Potter storyline about both good and evil wizards has fueled global teenage increase in Wicca and the occult," according to an urgent Christian Newswire press release. "Stephanie Meyer's The Twilight Saga about good and evil vampires has done the same thing for vampirism. Blood drinking among teens has surged. What's next?"

Whatever comes next cannot hope to match the firestorm sparked by the 1997 release of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," which led to global sales of nearly half a billion volumes for the seven-book series.

Nevertheless, that very first title -- containing a medieval Christian alchemy image for eternal life -- was a sign of debates to come. Publishers changed the title image to "Sorcerer's Stone" in America, assuming Americans would shun "philosopher" talk. Before you could say "Deuteronomy 18 (There shall not be found among you anyone who ... who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells)" -- the Potter wars began.

It mattered little that Rowling soon outed herself as a communicant in the Scottish Episcopal Church and told a Canadian newspaper: "Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said, 'yes,' because I do. ... If I talk too freely about that, I think the intelligent reader -- whether 10 or 60 -- will be able to guess what is coming in the books."

Thus, the series unfolded, with each book containing waves of medieval Christian symbols, including many used by artists to point to Jesus -- such as white stags, unicorns, hippogriffs, a phoenix and a red lion.

Meanwhile, the plots were built on alchemical themes of dissolution, purification, illumination and perfection, themes shared with Milton, Blake, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others. In each book, Harry Potter the "everyman" tries to sacrifice himself for others, before somehow being raised to new life in the presence of a Christ symbol.

Nevertheless, many critics failed to see how Rowling's work stands in contrast to the spirits of materialism and individualism that dominate modern life, according to classics scholar John Granger, an Orthodox Christian best known as the scribe behind HogwartsProfessor.com and numerous related books. I met him at Nimbus 2003, an early global conference on Potter studies, and we have compared notes ever since.

"In a secular culture like ours, fiction of this kind serves an almost sacramental function for millions of people," said Granger. "This offers a hint of the transcendent, a taste of spiritual transformation -- but it's not the real thing. ... Reading Harry Potter could, however, help some people become more open to transformative experiences and perhaps even to yearn for them."

In the end, the faith-based side of Potter mania produced at least five camps that rendered clashing judgments on these books, including:

* Rowling intentionally wrote occult books, creating a doorway into witchcraft for young readers.

* The books are merely tempting trifles celebrating adolescent behavior and mushy morals. They were not intentionally evil, but simply bad books.

* These fables are a mixed bag, mixing good messages with the bad. But if Rowling used Christian symbolism it was as mere window dressing.

* Rowling intentionally wrote "Christian books" containing literal, almost mechanical allegories that can serve as evangelistic tools, in and of themselves.

* The books, according to Granger and many other academics, are part of a British tradition of storytelling built on Christian symbols and themes (including clear biblical references) and can be enjoyed on several levels, including as stories of transformation and redemption. Thus, the Church of England produced "Mixing it up with Harry Potter" study guides.

After years of debating Potter critics, Granger said he still finds it stunning that so many people can study Rowling's work without seeing her extensive use of Christian themes and symbols. At the same time, her approach is "very English" and there is "no way anyone could call these books evangelical," he added.

"Clearly these books contain Christian content, but there is no altar call at the end of each one," said Granger. "If there was an altar call at the end, there never would have been a Potter mania. People would have seen through that."

Hail Marys for Hitch

One of the last things Thomas Peters does each day is face the Cross of St. Benedict that hangs over his bed and say his evening prayers. The sobering final phrases of the Hail Mary prayer have recently taken on a unique relevancy: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen."

A month ago, the conservative Catholic writer challenged readers of the American Papist website to join him in praying one Hail Mary a day on behalf of the iconoclastic atheist Christopher Hitchens, who has been stricken with esophageal cancer, a disease which leaves few survivors.

"I am going to begin praying ... for the salvation of his eternal soul," wrote Peters, "that God will be with him 'at the hour of his death,' that God will help his unbelief in this life, and that those he has led away from God will come back to His infinite love and mercy. I am in no way praying for him to die, I am praying for him to live eternally."

Peters is not alone and Hitchens knows it. While some believers hope that he suffers and dies, post haste, the author of "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" told CNN that he has been surprised that others -- who are "much more numerous, I must say, and nicer" -- are praying for his healing, both body and soul.

This has been one of the strangest side effects of Hitchens' journey across the "stark frontier that marks off the land of malady." This is a zone in which almost everyone is politely encouraging, the jokes are feeble, sex talk is nonexistent and the "cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited," wrote Hitchens, in a blunt Vanity Fair essay. The native tongue in "Tumorville" is built around terms such as "metastasized," phases such as "tissue is the issue" and quotes from the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Most of the inhabitants also do quite a bit of praying -- for themselves, for their loved ones and even for suffering people they have never met.

Hitchens told evangelical broadcaster Hugh Hewitt that he remains convinced these prayers "don't do any good, but they don't necessarily do any harm. It's touching to be thought of in that way."

The bottom line, explained Peters, is that his faith asks him to "pray for everyone, even those who hate us. ... Hitch just happens to be a famous public enemy of the faith, so more people know what is happening in this life, so more people are talking about why it's good to pray for him."

While it is "absolutely horrible" that anyone would pray for Hitchens to suffer and die, he added, many believers may find it hard to do more than pray for "God's will to be done." That is the "safe prayer" that is always appropriate.

Meanwhile, a quick Internet scan reveals that some believers are, predictably enough, praying for Hitchens to be converted to Christianity for the sake of his own soul. Others are specifically praying that the scribe who -- with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins -- is called one of the "four horsemen" of the New Atheism will not only convert, but also become an apologist for faith. That happened decades ago with an atheist named C.S. Lewis, after all.

"Ultimately, I simply will pray that Hitch has a good and holy death," said Peters. "I really do not care if he has a public conversion. I care that he, somehow, has a private conversion and that he will be reconciled to God."

As much as believers love these kinds of "foxhole conversion" stories, Hitchens is convinced he will not surrender. However, should rumors spread that he has "hedged his bets," the writer has made several public statements warning his admirers that if such cry to the Almighty were to take place, they should ignore it.

"If that comes it will be when I'm very ill, when I am half demented, either by drugs or by pain and I won't have control over what I say," he told CNN. "I can't say that the entity that by then would be me wouldn't do such a pathetic thing. But I can tell you that -- not while I am lucid. No, I could be quite sure of that."

Xmas is fake, so deal with it

As the Christmas pageant dress rehearsal rolled to its bold finale, reporter Hank Stuever found his mind drifting away to an unlikely artistic destination -- a masterpiece from the Cubist movement.

The cast of "It's a Wonderful Life 2" reassembled on stage at Celebration Covenant Church, a suburban megachurch north of Dallas. There were characters from a Victorian tableau, along with Frosty the Snowman, young ballerinas and children dressed as penguins. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were there, too.

Then, entering from stage right, came "an adult Christ stripped down to his loincloth and smeared with Dracula blood, dragging a cross to center stage while being whipped by two centurion guards," writes Stuever, in "Tinsel," his open-a-vein study of Christmas in the American marketplace.

"Here is where the Nativity, Dickens and Burl Ives collide head-on with Good Friday, as Jesus is crucified while everyone sings 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing,' ending on a long, noisy note: 'newborn kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.'

"Then they freeze.

"Hold it for applause."

The scene was achingly sincere and painfully bizarre, with holy images jammed into a pop framework next to crass materialism. For millions of Americans, this is the real Christmas.

"I wrote it in my notes, right there in that church," said Stuever. "I wrote, 'It's Picasso.' ... I just couldn't believe it."

There is nothing new about a journalist "embedding" himself to experience life on the front lines. Rather than heading to Iraq, Stuever moved to the Bible Belt. He lived in Frisco, Texas, for six months in 2006, then made 12 short follow-up trips during the next two years.

The veteran Washington Post reporter convinced three families to let him see Christmas through their eyes, from the Back Friday craziness to the somber trashing of mountains of ripped wrapping paper. The book's credo is voiced by Tammie Parnell, a 40-something business dynamo who decorates McMansions for women who are too busy to prepare for a Texas-sized Christmas.

"Fake is okay here," she tells Stuever. "Diamond earrings. Christmas trees. If you want me to prove that fake is okay here, let's you and I go to the Stonebriar Country Club pool one day and check everyone out."

The bottom line? Most Americans say they want Bethlehem and the North Pole, but the truth is that they invest more time, energy and money at the North Pole. That's fine with Stuever, who is openly gay and calls himself a "Christmas loser" -- while wrestling with the lessons of his Jesuit education and the loss of his Catholic faith.

"A dip into even the most reverent inquiries by Bible scholars," he argues, "easily leads to the conclusion that there was no actual manger scene in Bethlehem, no shepherds dropping by to see the baby, no star in the east, no Magi, no frankincense, no myrrh. ... Many scholars have concluded, some more gently than others, that the Christmas story is intentionally fictive, written by the earliest, first-century evangelists to beef up Jesus' street cred as a believable Jewish Messiah. Like any superhero, Christ needed an origin story rife with the drama, metaphors and the meaningful symbols of the era."

Thus, "Tinsel" seeks the meaning of Christmas in the material world itself, in the blitz of shopping, in houses draped in high-voltage lights, in the complex joys and tensions of family life. Stuever argues that the binges of shopping and feasting are as ancient -- and more significant today -- than the rites of praying and believing.

For Stuever, Christmas is fake, but that's fine because fake is all there is. He argues that millions of Americans struggle to find the "total moments" of nostalgia and joy that they seek at Christmas because they are not being honest about why they do what they do during the all-consuming dash to Dec. 25.

"It's so easy to see all of the craziness on TV and say, 'Oh, those poor, stupid people,' " he said. "But when you get down there in the middle of it with them and listen to what people are saying and try to feel what they are feeling, you realize that all of that wildness is not just about buying the new Wii at Best Buy. ...

"It's a religious experience for them, even though it couldn't be more secular. They're out there searching for transcendence, trying to find what they think is the magic of Christmas."

McChurch history 101

In the beginning, revival preachers used their dynamic voices and dramatic sermons -- framed with entertaining gospel music -- to attract large crowds and to pull sinners into the Kingdom of God. This formula worked in weeklong revivals and, when tried, it started working in regular Sunday services. Big preachers drew big crowds and created bigger and bigger churches. Then along came the big media, which helped create a youth culture that exploded out of the 1950s and into the cultural apocalypse that followed. Church leaders tagged along.

"In the '60s and '70s, we started drinking deep at the well of pop culture and we've been doing it ever since," said church historian John Mark Yeats of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Tex. "The goal was to use all of that to reach the young. Evangelicals ended up with own youth subculture."

Big churches created bigger stand-alone youth programs and then children's programs wired to please these media-trained consumers. Youth programs developed their own music, education and preaching, all driven by the style and content of entertainment culture.

Then these young people became adults and began to build and operate their own churches, argue Yeats and his seminary colleague Thomas White, in their sobering book, "Franchising McChurch." For churches that want to grow, the evolving approach to faith that White and Yeats call "theotainment" seems like the only game in town.

"Think of countless children's ministries across the United States. … Most children's Sunday schools quit reading and studying the Bible long ago. Instead, children view cartoon adaptations of the text along with numerous activities that keep them entertained while Mom and Dad worship without distraction," argue White and Yeats, who have worked in local churches, as well as classrooms.

This strategy is cranked up another notch in youth ministries. In many communities, the "religiously oriented youth, savvy shoppers that they are, simply attend the church that has the greatest concentration of entertaining events. … If they buy into Christianity through entertainment, the show must go on to keep them engaged."

This has been going on for decades, noted Yeats. The "Jesus rock" of the '70s moved out of music festivals and into Sunday services. This created a "Contemporary Christian Music" industry that helped churches hip-hop from one cultural style to the next, while striving to find their stylistic niches -- like stations on an FM radio dial. Sanctuaries turned into auditoriums and, finally, into theaters with semi-professional sound systems and the video screens preachers needed to display all of those DVD clips that connected with modern audiences.

That was the '90s. Today's megachurches offer members new options.

Grandmother may attend a service with hymns or -- as Baby Boomers turn 60something -- folk music or soft rock. Pre-teens will bop to Hanna-Montana-esque praise songs in their services, while the young people get harder rock. Over in the "video cafe," evangelical Moms and Dads can sip their lattes while musicians build the right mood until its time for the sermon. That's when the super-skilled preacher's face appears on video monitors in all of the niche services at the same time.

This trend -- multiple, niche services on one campus -- requires changing the traditional meaning of words such as "worship," "church" and "pastor."

But it is one thing for a single megachurch to offer its members a "have it your way" approach to church life at one location, said Yeats. The next step is for the "McChurch" model to evolve into "McDenomination," with the birth of national and even global chains of church franchises united, not by centuries of history and doctrine, but by the voice, face, beliefs and talents of a single preacher, backed by a team of multimedia professionals.

This trend is "very free market" and "also very American," he said.

"In these franchise operations, you don't say you're a Southern Baptist or a Methodist or a Presbyterian or whatever," Yeats explained. "No, you say you attend the local branch of so-and-so's church. The whole thing is held together by one man. That's the brand name, right there. ...

"If your church joins one of these operations you get the video feed, you get the media, you get the music and, ultimately, you get to listen to the dynamic man himself, instead of your own sub-standard preacher. It's a whole new way of doing church."

What, me worry? Whatever

EDITOR'S NOTE: First of two columns on teens and ethics. Take comfort in this: The items on the following "to do" list do not apply to all teens today.

Lie to your parents about those wild weekend plans -- check.

Steal that scarf you want at the mall -- check.

Download that term paper off the Internet and add a few mistakes to confuse the teacher -- check.

Inflate your volunteer hours at your church's soup kitchen to pump up that college application -- check.

The problem with the Josephson Institute's latest survey -- the 2008 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth -- is that it contained so many bad numbers that many depressing readers were tempted to pin an "all of the above" verdict on most teens.

Consider the numbers on stealing. Nearly of third of the students surveyed -- 29,760 in 100 randomly selected public and private high schools -- admitted stealing from a store during the previous year. Also, 23 percent said they stole from a parent or relative. The numbers were lower for honors students and those who attended religious schools, but around 20 percent of them stole something from someone.

It's easy to criticize the young, but it's also important to know that they're learning these behaviors from the adults around them, said Michael Josephson, founder of the Los Angeles-based ethics center.

"Did you lie about your child's age to save money? Did you provide your child with a false excuse for missing school? Did you lie about your address to get your child into a better school?", he asked, in a commentary about the survey. "Most of us stray from our highest ethical ambitions from time to time, but we usually do so selectively, convincing ourselves that we're justified and that occasional departures from our ethical principles are inconsequential when it comes to our overall character.

"Most of us judge ourselves by our best actions and intentions, but the children who watch everything we do may be learning from our worst."

The sobering numbers leapt into headlines nationwide, while the researchers said the truth was almost certainly worse -- since 26 percent of the participants admitted that they lied on at least one or two of the prickly questions. Students took part in the survey during class sessions, with guarantees of anonymity.

Other results noted by the institute included:

* More then eight in 10 students -- 83 percent -- admitted that they lied to a parent about an issue of some importance, while 43 percent of the students in public and private schools said that they have lied to save money.

* In a 2006 survey, 60 percent of the students said they cheated on at least one test and 35 percent cheated two or more times. This year, the numbers rose to 64 percent and 38 percent on the same issues.

* The Internet makes plagiarism easy, with 36 percent of the students confessing that vice -- up from 33 percent in 2004.

* Self-esteem is not a problem, since 93 percent of the students reported that their ethics and character were satisfactory and, in a popular quote from the survey, 77 percent said, "when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know."

Buried deep in the survey form was another question that would be of special interest to clergy and other religious leaders who work with the young. When asked if they had done "things in violation of my religious beliefs" during the past year, 48 percent of those polled affirmed a simple answer -- never. Another 15 percent confessed to one violation of their personal religious beliefs.

This survey is more proof that something has gone wrong with the way Americans are teaching their young people the meaning of right and wrong, said evangelical activist Charles Colson.

"Instead of being rooted in an objective moral order that exists independently of ourselves, right and wrong are subjective -- they're the product of the person's 'values.' In that case, it makes perfect sense that people can lie, cheat, and steal and still be 'satisfied' with their ethics," he said, in a radio commentary.

"After all, they are not answerable to God or the community, only to themselves. The question isn't, 'How shall we live?' but, 'How do I feel about it?' "

NEXT: The theological content of "whatever."

Final Harry Potter wars? Part I

Harry Potter and his best friend Hermione Granger arrived in the magical town of Godric's Hollow on a snowy Christmas Eve.

Carols drifted out of the village church as they searched its graveyard for the resting place of Lily and James Potter, who were murdered by the dark Lord Voldemort. First, they found the headstone honoring the family of Albus Dumbledore, the late headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The inscription said: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Then the Potter headstone proclaimed: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." Harry was mystified. Was this about defeating the evil Death Eaters?

"It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry," said Hermione, gently. "It means ... you know ... living beyond death. Living after death."

For millions of religious believers who embrace Harry Potter, this pivotal scene in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" -- book seven in J.K. Rowling's giant fantasy puzzle -- offers new evidence that the author is, in fact, a Church of Scotland communicant whose faith has helped shape her work.

The first inscription is from St. Matthew's Gospel and the second -- stating the book's theme -- is a passage in St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians about the meaning of Christ's resurrection. Is this part of what Dumbledore had called an all-powerful "deep magic" built on sacrificial love?

Nevertheless, for millions of Rowling critics the presence of scripture in this final book will not cancel a decade's worth of wizardry, magic and what they believe is vague, New Age spirituality. And besides, Potter clearly didn't recognize the unattributed Bible verses. Right?

Religious battles commenced soon after Rowling released "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." It didn't help that "Philosopher's Stone" -- a term from medieval alchemy -- was replaced with "Sorcerer's Stone" in U.S. editions. After the sale of 325 million-plus books worldwide, there are now at least three camps of Potter critics in these theological debates and three prominent camps of Potter defenders. The critics include:

* Some who insist these books are secular or subtly anti-religious. Writing in Time, Lev Grossman has argued that Rowling shares more in common with atheists like Christopher Hitchens than with J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, whose books were rooted in Christian faith.

"Look at Rowling's books," says Grossman. "What's missing? If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God. Harry Potter lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn't."

* Conservatives who think Potter-mania can lead to the occult. Some even oppose fantasy novels by Lewis and Tolkien -- which contain references to wizards, magic and demonic powers. The key is a Deuteronomy passage: "There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells. ..."

Focus on the Family's James Dobson responded to "Deathly Hallows" by saying: "Magical characters -- witches, wizards, ghosts, goblins, werewolves, poltergeists and so on -- fill the Harry Potter stories, and given the trend toward witchcraft and New Age ideology ... it's difficult to ignore the effects such stories (albeit imaginary) might have on young, impressionable minds."

* Believers who see mixed signals. Evangelical activist Chuck Colson, for example, praised the books in 1999, noting that they contrasted good and evil, while the main characters displayed courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice. "Not bad lessons in a self-centered world," said the founder of Prison Fellowship.

But Colson's latest statement warned: "Personally, I don?t recommend the Potter books. I?d rather Christian kids not read them."

Soon after that Colson commentary, however, current Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley gently praised Rowling's books and, above all, the role fantasy novels can play for readers numbed by modern life.

"The popularity of these books -- and, yes, even of the Harry Potter series -- reminds us that the yearning for hope, for good to win and evil to be vanquished, is no infantile desire," he said. "Rather, it is one of the deepest and most important parts of our nature, placed in us by the God of all truth."

NEXT WEEK: Believers who embrace Harry Potter.