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John Wooden, a faithful man

As the decades passed, the coach got used to hearing people call him a hero, an icon and even a saint -- even though he reminded them that only God knows the truth about any man. It was common to see the former English teacher reading the classics. But he also read his Bible daily and rarely missed church, so some friends called him the "reverend." That was probably for the best, since he disliked his other nickname -- the Wizard of Westwood.

John Wooden's own list of heroes was short and symbolic. At the top was his father, Joshua, followed by Abraham Lincoln. Among those who lived during his 99 years of life, he greatly admired the selfless service and deep faith of Mother Teresa.

It's hard to find heroes in a world wracked by scandals, corruption, infidelity and greed, Wooden once told me, during a 1990 telephone conversation just before the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament ended in Denver. But these painful realities only raise the stakes for people whose callings can lead to fame.

"When anyone is in a profession that is constantly putting them in the public eye, then they have to feel that they have a unique responsibility," he said. On the other side of this tricky equation, he added, some "people want you to be perfect. But we're not perfect. We're all fallible, flawed people. That's the reality of life."

Wooden had planned to come to Denver and take part in an event he rarely missed, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast at the Final Four. However, he decided it was too soon to return to a setting he had always shared with Nellie, his wife of 53 years, who died on March 21, 1985. He was still grieving.

After the coach's death on June 4, waves of media tributes focused on his stunning final years at UCLA -- when his teams won 335 games and lost 22, while winning 10 NCAA championships in 12 years. But Wooden was also an outstanding student at Purdue University and the first three-time consensus All-American in history. He was the first person enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach.

Many Americans also learned poignant details about the marriage of Nellie and John Wooden, including his ritual of writing a love letter to her on the 21st of every month after her death, producing stacks of envelopes wrapped in ribbons on her pillow.

Wooden's favorite scripture passage was 1 Corinthians 13 and it guided his relationships with his wife, family and players. That chapter ends with these famous words: "So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

When working with secular audiences, Wooden used a nondenominational approach to life's great lessons -- which led to his famous "Pyramid of Success" image, built on common virtues such as "skill," "enthusiasm," "industriousness," "patience" and "faith." Former players also learned to recite his folksy sayings, such as, "Be quick, but don't hurry," and "It is what we learn after we know it all that really counts."

But Wooden shared other sayings, when the time was right, including this one: "Basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live. There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior. Until that is done, we are on an aimless course that runs in circles and goes nowhere."

In the 1990 interview, the coach stressed that sports are important and can be used to build character. However, sports can also "tear down character" if twisted into a win-at-all-costs brand of faith.

Sports are like politics, business, the arts and organized religion, he said. All of these callings require people to make hard decisions and people are free to make good choices and bad choices. People are also free to admire and follow bad leaders, as well as good ones.

"You see, the truth is somewhere in between. It's wrong to turn people into idols. But it's also wrong to lose hope, to believe that we can't find good examples to inspire us," said Wooden. "We need role models. … Maybe role models are getting harder to find, these days. That doesn't mean that there aren't any worth finding."

Signs along the Methodist trail

Sex, sex, sex. That seemed to be the only thing United Methodists were talking about the year that the Rev. James V. Heidinger II took command at Good News, a national movement for his church's evangelicals. That was in 1981.

"Every time we turned around we were arguing about sex, and homosexuality in particular," said Heidinger, who retired last week. "Frankly, I was already weary of it and that was a long, long time ago. We wanted to get on to more positive things, like missions and church growth. ... Yet here we are years later, still arguing about sex."

Two events defined that era. Colorado Bishop Melvin Wheatley, Jr., defied his colleagues in 1980 by rejecting a church policy stating that homosexual acts were "incompatible with Christian teaching." Then, in 1982, he appointed an openly gay pastor in Denver. When challenged, Wheatley said: "Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God's grace. I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin."

The most important word in that statement was "sin," explained Heidinger. The fundamental issue at stake was whether United Methodists could find unity on basic doctrines -- like whether sex outside of marriage was "sin." This, of course, raised another issue: What does "marriage" mean?

Liberals kept quoting a statement added to the church's Book of Discipline in the 1970s affirming "theological pluralism" as an essential element of United Methodist life. Then conservatives managed to have "theological pluralism" removed in 1988, and language affirming the "primacy of scripture" added.

"That started a lively debate about the role of doctrine," said Heidinger. "Until then, it seemed like you could believe anything you wanted to believe and still be a Methodist. ... Want to say the resurrection of Jesus is a myth? That was fine, because of 'theological pluralism.' "

Meanwhile, United Methodists were learning other complex and painful truths about their church, long been known as the quintessential Middle American flock.

In the mid-19th century, 34 percent of all believers in the country were Methodists. Then in 1968, the Methodists joined with the Evangelical United Brethren to create the United Methodist Church -- with 11 million members. But by 2006, membership had fallen to 7.9 million, with staff cutbacks, gray hair and shuttered churches becoming the norm in many regions.

After decades of "thrashing around in denial mode, trying to find somebody to blame," United Methodist leaders finally admitted "that our house was on fire," said Bishop William Willimon of northern Alabama.

It was also painful to admit that United Methodists were worshipping in churches that disagreed on key matters of doctrine and church law, said Willimon, co-author of a mid-1980s study, "The Seven Churches of Methodism." The bottom line: It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the "Yankee Church," "Industrial Northeast Church," "Western Church" and "Midwest Church" with those in the "Church South" and the "Southwest Church."

Talking about the future is hard, when discussions of the recent past are painful.

"It's a tribute to Jim Heidinger and other people like him that, when they first came on the scene, they were just the old-fashioned guys who wanted to hang on to church doctrines and traditions," said Willimon. "But somewhere in the last few decades, the evangelicals turned into the people who were talking about wild ideas about how to change where the church was going. They're the ones finding out what the growing churches across the nation are doing."

Nevertheless, wars about doctrine and sexuality are far from over.

Progressives wield great clout in the seminaries, boards and agencies, stressed Heidinger. Yet in recent years, more than a third of the church's clergy have studied at the certified, but not officially United Methodist, Asbury Theological Seminary. The other two-thirds are spread among 12 official seminaries. An alternative, evangelical Mission Society for United Methodists sends roughly the same number of fulltime missionaries overseas as the official General Board of Global Ministries.

But, for conservatives, the most important trends are global. Thus, 25 percent of the delegates at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference came from overseas. That may hit 40 percent in 2012, said Heidinger.

"When you ask United Methodists overseas -- like in Africa -- about the big issues, they don't mind telling you what they believe," he said. "That's where the future is. That's where the growth is, right there."

Our political high holy day, part I

EDITOR'S NOTE: First of two columns on President Barack Obama's inauguration. As Aretha Franklin finished singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," the queen of soul did what she has done for decades -- she improvised.

The result was a soaring bridge between the inauguration of President Barack Obama and a sermon 45 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial.

"Our fathers' God, to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing. Long may our land be bright, with freedom's holy light, protect us by thy might," sang Franklin, before adding words that echoed some of the final cadences the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., added to his "I Have A Dream" address.

"Let freedom ring ... From the red clay of Georgia, all the way to the Allegheny Mountains. ... Let freedom ring."

If anyone ever doubted that themes from the Civil Rights Movement have been blended into America's "civil religion," it's time for those doubts to fade.

Presidential inaugurations are the "high feast days" of the vague, but powerful, faith that binds together a nation of many races and creeds. To no one's surprise, religion played a major role in the rites for Obama, said Darrin M. Hanson, a political scientist at Xavier University of Louisiana.

"Obama has a preacher's emotional style of speaking and he uses that to bring people together. It's a skill he will need in the days ahead," said Hanson, who will be analyzing the 2009 address as part of his research into the role that presidents play in America's civil religion.

In this speech, Hanson said, Obama wanted to deliver a few sobering, "prophetic" messages as well as offer "priestly" words to encourage the million-plus people on the National Mall and the millions more watching from coast to coast and worldwide.

Thus, the new president told his listeners: "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

Obama then used religious images -- aimed at left and right -- to describe bitter divisions in the body politic.

"On this day," he said, "we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things."

When scholars describe "civil religion," they discuss words and rituals that try to accomplish four major goals, argued Hanson, in an essay entitled "The High Priest of American Civil Religion: Continuity and Change."

First, American "civil religion" attempts to promote unity while accepting religious pluralism. Second, this faith must remain separate from both the state and any specific religion, he said. However, if it ever favors a particular creed, it does so in defense of fundamental human rights. Finally, this "civil religion" provides unity by appealing to shared values and beliefs, acted out in common rites that are acceptable to most believers.

In one passage, the new president managed to combine a number of "civil religion" themes, while also evoking deep emotions at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement and his own personal pilgrimage.

"This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny," said Obama. "This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall. And why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

The key, said Hanson, is that Obama managed to hit a few hard topics -- from global terror to an economic recession -- while emphasizing words of hope.

"If you are trying to bring people together, you can't be too specific when you talk about the things that drive people apart," he said. "Inaugural addresses, and I've read them all, are supposed to be vague -- but inspiring. …

"In the end, it's easier to be a priestly and successful president than it is to be a prophetic and successful president. It's hard to tell people, 'We have really messed up and all of us are going to have to change.' "

NEXT: The politics of prayer, in two dramatic acts.

What, me worry? Whatever II

EDITOR'S NOTE: Second of two columns on teens and ethics. When pollsters ask Americans the Eternal Question they almost always say, "I believe in God."

Ask young Americans about faith and the response is something like, "I believe in God and stuff." Finding the doctrinal meaning of "and stuff" is tricky.

"God made us and if you ask him for something I believe he gives it to you. Yeah, he hasn't let me down yet," said a 14-year-old Catholic from Pennsylvania, when researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton asked him why religion matters. "God is a spirit that grants you anything you want, but not anything bad."

The key is that this God -- part Divine Butler, part Cosmic Therapist -- watches from a safe distance.

"God's all around you, all the time," said conservative Protestant girl, 17, from Florida. "He believes in forgiving people and what-not, and he's there to guide us, for somebody to talk to and help us through our problems. Of course, he doesn't talk back."

If grown-ups roll their eyes at litanies such as these, most teens offer a chilly response that sums up their creeds -- "whatever."

Thus it was significant, in the Josephson Institute's latest Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, that 48 percent of the students surveyed in 100 random public and private high schools said they had "never" violated their own "religious beliefs" during 2007. Other parts of this survey made headlines, especially its reports that a third of the students said they stole something from a store during the previous year, while 38 percent committed plagiarism, 64 percent cheated on a test and 83 percent lied to a parent about something important.

Few of these young people are "unbelievers" or, heaven forbid, "secularists," noted Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. The overwhelming majority of them -- like their parents -- would insist that they are practicing Christians, Jews, Muslims or whatever.

"Plenty of religious kids do steal and cheat and whatever," he said, responding to the Josephson survey. "They have in their heads some image of what 'religious' really looks like. For many -- not all -- young people, the meaning of that word is so vague it can mean almost anything or nothing whatsoever. The bar is set low and their take on religion certainly doesn't include concepts such as self sacrifice, repentance or self mortification."

These young people are religious, he stressed. They are simply practicing a new religion, one that Smith and Denton called "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." When crunched to its basics, this faith teaches that:

* A God exists who "created and orders the world" and watches over our lives.

* This God wants people to be good, nice and fair to one another, as taught by most major religions.

* The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good.

* God is rarely involved in daily life, except when needed to solve a problem.

* Good people go to heaven.

This is not a faith that can stand on its own, noted Smith, in a lecture at the Princeton Theological Seminary Institute for Youth Ministry. Instead, it is a "parasitic religion" that creates weakened, less rigid versions of other faiths -- such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. There may even, he noted, be "Nonreligious Moralistic Therapeutic Deists" in modern America.

When describing their beliefs, most young people say it's important to be kind to one another and to try to live a good life. There are few limitations on behavior, other than loose rules that say it is wrong to hurt other people, especially one's friends. "Don't be a jerk" is a common refrain.

Words such as "sanctification," "Trinity," "sin," "holiness" and "Eucharist" have little or no meaning. Most references to "grace" refer to the television show "Will and Grace." If teens mention being "justified," this almost always means that they think they have a good reason to do something that others consider questionable.

This faith, Smith explained, blends well with popular culture and media.

"It's a religion that works at the level of email and texting and long hours talking on your cellphones," he said. "It's all about relationships. Your religion has to work with your friends and it has to bring you happiness. That's what really matters."

Joking about Jonestown

It only takes a few words to call back the memories from 30 years ago, all those nightmare images from the jungle sanctuary in Guyana. "Revolutionary suicide" may do the trick, especially when combined with that grim quotation from one survivor, "They started with the babies." But it was another Jonestown catch phrase that leapt into the national consciousness.

Sherri Wood Emmons heard it when she accepted a job with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) only four years after the massacre.

"Don't drink the Kool-Aid," said a friend, laughing.

"It's understandable, I guess. We use humor to distance ourselves from things we don't understand, things that frighten us," noted Emmons, in her editorial introducing a DisciplesWorld journal issue marking the Jonestown anniversary. "It's easier to poke fun at people than try to understand them. Those crazies, we say, shaking our heads. They must have been nuts."

But there's a problem with America's three decades of sick laughter about 900-plus people drinking cyanide and fake fruit juice in honor of one man's vision of the Kingdom of God on earth.

The Rev. Jim Jones really did flourish in the American heartland and begin his ministry in Indianapolis, of all places. In the early 1960s, his idealistic, multi-ethnic Peoples Temple was embraced with open arms by the Disciples of Christ, a mainstream church at the heart of the Protestant ecumenical establishment. When he moved his flock to California, he forged strong ties to George Moscone, Harvey Milk, Willie Brown and the San Francisco political establishment.

And those Jones disciples? "They were living out their faith in wants that might shame some of us today," according to Emmons. "And they were Disciples of Christ. As much as we might like to forget that."

In other words, Jones was a charismatic, talented minister whose work united rich and poor, black and white, young and old. That was before he started preaching socialism and saying he was the reincarnation of Jesus. That was before the sexual abuse, torture, drugs and violence.

Why didn't anyone see who and what he was?

After the tragedy unfolded, the headlines marched past day after day, with each bizarre revelation adding to the horror and confusion. The Jonestown news coverage made a strong impression on me because I was young journalist, just out of college, who wanted to become a religion-beat reporter.

I kept waiting for mainstream journalists to dig into the religious roots of these tragic events, to explain what Jones believed and why his followers were so loyal. I waited a long time.

This was an important religion story. Wasn't it?

Frustrated by why I was reading, and not reading, I called the dean of the religion reporters, the late George Cornell of the Associated Press. I remember the calm anger in his voice as he explained that few, if any, major news organizations had assigned religion specialists to help cover this shocking story that centered -- for better and for worse -- on the shocking demise of a pastor and his flock.

For many journalists, Cornell explained, Jonestown was too important to be a religion story.

"I think that a lot of newspaper people, a lot of journalists, grew up in a tradition where religion, at least the substance of religion, was out of the ballpark as far as newspapering is concerned," he told me. "They hesitate to cover religion because they see it as a private matter. They don't want it in the newspaper. Of course, this attitude could also be due to their ignorance of religion."

That's why it was hard to take Jones seriously during his rise. That's why it was hard to take him seriously after he died and took his followers with him. That's why it's easier to laugh or to look away.

Jonestown was not an isolated case, explained Cornell. Anyone who wants to understand how the world works has to take religion seriously. But many journalists just didn't get it. This blind spot is real.

That was true 30 years ago and it's true today.

"I mean, look at every major flash point in the world," said Cornell. "There's almost always a religious element involved -- and it's almost always a powerful one. ... People just don't see where the hammer is falling -- where the vital brew is brewing. Religion is usually mixed up in it."

Tesser well, Madeleine L'Engle

Madeleine L'Engle found it amusing that her critics kept missing the obvious in her fiction.

Consider the magical women in "A Wrinkle In Time" -- Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. It's true that they have strange wardrobes and unique ways of speaking. Mrs. Whatsit is chatty, for example, because she is so young -- a mere 2,379,152,497 years, eight months and three days old.

When the elder Mrs. Which arrives from another dimension, her colleagues begin giggling. Why? Since she is meeting three human children, Mrs. Which elects to appear as a "figure in a black robe and a black peaked hat, beady eyes, a beaked nose and long gray hair." She is holding a broomstick.

Get the joke? For decades, L'Engle's fiercest critics kept missing it. Thus, "A Wrinkle In Time" -- which won the 1963 Newbery Medal -- became one of America's most frequently banned children's books.

"If you read the book, there is no way that they are witches. They are guardian angels -- the book says so. You don't have to clarify what is already clear," L'Engle told me, in a lengthy 1989 interview.

"Don't they know how to spell? W-H-I-C-H is not W-I-T-C-H."

This interview came during a time when L'Engle (pronounced LENG-el) had increased her already busy lecture schedule after the death of her husband of 40 years, actor Hugh Franklin. But L'Engle kept writing and talking about the themes that dominated her life -- faith, family and creativity -- until her health failed. She wrote more than 60 works of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry and prayers during her life, which ended with her Sept. 6th death in Litchfield, Conn., at the age of 88.

Wherever L'Engle went, people kept asking her to explain her beliefs, from heaven to hell, from sex to salvation, from feminism to the arts. The writer did not hide her views, but rarely used the kind of language that so-called "Christian writers" were supposed to use.

Thus, her career was defined by a paradox: Many of her strongest admirers were evangelical Christians, as were most of her fiercest critics. Thus, it's symbolic that she donated her personal notes and papers to Wheaton College -- the Rev. Billy Graham's alma mater -- where they are part of a collection best known for its materials about the life of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

L'Engle was also candid about the role her faith played in her writing. She was, throughout her life, an Episcopalian's Episcopalian from New York City who was determined to keep describing the visions and voices that filled her soul. While her writing was often mysterious, she kept hiding the crucial clues right out in the open.

It's hard, for example, to miss the source of the climactic speech to Meg Murray, the heroine in the science fiction series that began with "A Wrinkle In Time."

"The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men," says Mrs. Who, who always speaks in quotations, such as this lengthy passage from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. "... God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty."

It's even clearer, in the next novel, that the children are backed by the powers of heaven. Meg finds herself face to face with a many-eyed creature with a 10-foot wingspan, a being with too many wings to count, wings that were in "constant motion, covering and uncovering the eyes." This is a biblical cherubim, yet another angelic vision. He stresses that he is not a singular cherub, and adds, "I am practically plural."

The goal, said L'Engle, was to create fiction that was unmistakably Christian, while writing to an audience that included all kinds of believers and unbelievers.

"I have been brought up to believe that the Gospel is to be spread, it is to be shared -- not kept for those who already have it," she said. "Well, 'Christian novels' reach Christians. They don't reach out. ... I am not a 'Christian writer.' I am a writer who is a Christian. I think that you have to be the best writer that you can be. Now, if I am truly a Christian, then that will show in my work."