John Lennon, 'spiritual,' not 'religious'

Few images of John Lennon are as iconic as that of the ex-Beatle playing a white piano in a white room, gazing into the camera lens while singing "Imagine." "Imagine there's no heaven. It's easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today," said Lennon, in the anthem that for many defined his life. "Imagine there's no countries. It isn't hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too."

Critics of the rock martyr have quoted these words almost as often as his admirers, especially in light of another quotation about religion that haunted the enigmatic superstar. In a 1966 interview about life in England, Lennon stated: "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that. I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now."

Months later, his words were published in America. Many churches responded with bonfires of Beatles records and some Bible Belt radio stations banned the group's music -- for a while. Lennon received death threats.

Responding to the firestorm, Lennon told American reporters: "I pointed out that fact in reference to England, that we meant more to kids than Jesus did. ... I was just saying it as a fact and it's true more for England than here."

Decades later, pop-culture scholars and religious leaders continue to argue about what Lennon believed and when he believed it. This is the kind of topic that is being discussed in England, America and elsewhere during the fall of 2010 -- when Lennon would have been 70 years old.

Despite the images in "Imagine," Lennon "certainly wasn't an atheist, he was clear about that," noted Father Robert Hart, an Anglican traditionalist from Chapel Hill, N.C., whose "Hard to Imagine" essay was recently published in the journal Touchstone.

"What he was missing in his life was the certainty of a specific, definitive revelation of a particular religious truth. It's not that he denied that this kind of truth existed, but he was never able to find it. That's what he lacked and he knew it."

In other words, he was a vivid example of an attitude toward faith that has only gained power in the decades since his death. Lennon was "spiritual," but not "religious" before that stance became all too common.

And what about his statement that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus?

"The real problem with what John Lennon said in 1966 is not what so many were quick to assume and to decry in a knee-jerk reaction," noted Hart, in his essay. "The real problem is the element of truth in what he said. The Beatles WERE more popular than the Lord himself among youth in England at the time, as was Frank Sinatra among the older set in America -- and as are television, video games and many other things of this world to very many people today.

"Lennon, the eccentric artist, poet and musician, spoke all too accurately."

Lennon's life was defined by symbolic moments, noted Hart. He was -- literally -- born during an air raid and died after being gunned down by a mad man. As a teen, the vicar of the Liverpool parish in which Lennon was baptized and confirmed banned him from services for laughing at an inopportune time, almost certainly during a sermon.

As a global superstar, Lennon pushed his art and psyche to the limit while trying drugs, Eastern mysticism, psychics, astrologers and other ways of coping with life and his fear of death. As an adult he exchanged letters full of spiritual questions with televangelist Oral Roberts, at one point writing, "Explain to me what Christianity can do for me. Is it phony? Can He love me? I want out of hell."

For a brief time, Lennon tried to embrace evangelical Christianity. In the end, he called himself a "Zen Christian," among other labels.

One would have to conclude, Hart said, that Lennon both reflected his times and influenced them. He did his searching right out in the open.

"This was a man who, if anything, was almost too honest about his doubts and his beliefs," said Hart. "There are people who keep things bottled up inside. Well, that wasn't John Lennon. The question is whether anyone really listened to what he was trying to say."

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."

Synagogue for Jewish seekers

For centuries, Jews have watched their rabbis show reverence to God during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur rites by doing a prostration at the front of the synagogue. This symbolic act takes place during the "Aleinu" prayer that reminds worshipers of their duty to "bend our knees, and bow down, and give thanks, before the Ruler, the Ruler of Rulers, the Holy One, Blessed is God."

Rabbi Shira Stutman isn't sure how many people will accept her invitation to exit the pews and perform this prostration for themselves during her seeker-friendly High Holy Days service at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. But many of those who do, she said, will find themselves assuming a familiar meditative pose.

It helps to know that this unusual synagogue offers occasional services that blend yoga with traditional Shabbat prayers.

"There are different ways to do a full prostration, but one of them looks exactly like the yoga position called 'Child's Pose,' " said Stutman, referring to a move in which individuals sink to their knees, bow their foreheads to the floor and extend their arms forward. "I'm guessing that for most of the people who will attend the service I'm leading -- young professionals in their 20s and 30s -- the Child's Pose will be more familiar than the tradition of the rabbi prostrating during the Aleinu prayer.

"This will let me use this simple yoga pose to talk about what the act of prostrating can mean for us in worship."

This is the kind of multi-layered experience that is common at Sixth and I, which offers four radically different services -- Orthodox, conservative, family friendly and progressive -- during the holy season that begins at sundown today (Sept. 8) with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and ends 10 days later with Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement.

This multi-domed sanctuary on the edge of the Chinatown neighborhood has a complex and poignant history. Built in 1908 for the Adas Israel Congregation, it was sold in 1951 to the Turner Memorial AME Church and, by 2002, was hours away from being converted into a nightclub.

However, a trio of Jewish developers rushed in and purchased it for $5 million. Before long, they had created a coalition that focused on creating an urban facility that was part synagogue, part education complex, part community center and part concert hall -- yet independent from the branches of Judaism that have defined the faith for the past century or so.

"Jews in this generation, or generations, don't want to define themselves by the terms of the past," said Esther Foer, the synagogue's executive director. "Those denominational labels -- like 'Conservative' and 'Orthodox' and 'Conservadox' -- don't matter much anymore, especially when you are talking about how people want to worship.

"What matters, at the end of the day, is that we are all Jews -- who are praying."

While Stutman was trained in a liberal Reconstructionist school, she stressed that the synagogue does not have one defining congregation or rabbi. Instead, it uses six prayer books and is served by six rabbis and scores of other worship leaders. Her "Sixth in the City" services are attempts to create "primal worship" experiences, mixing English and Hebrew with themes from many sources, including Judaism, mass media and different world religions.

All of this is fitting in an age in which the vast majority of young Jews have no affiliation whatsoever with traditional Jewish institutions. Jewish leaders are struggling with this reality, as demonstrated by a 2001 survey that defined a Jew as someone whose "religion is Jewish, OR, whose religion is Jewish and something else, OR, who has no religion and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing, OR, who has a non-monotheistic religion, and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing."

What matters, said Stutman, is that people are searching for connections and experiences that help define who they are -- as Jews.

"We are not defined by any one set of doctrines or dogmas ... so every Jewish service is a fusion service," she said. "At any Jewish service there are people in the room with 1000 different views of God and half of them are probably atheists anyway. That's a given. What matters is that people know there is a place where they find community and keep searching."

Facing the unChristian reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God words vs. actions

When it comes to religion, modern Americans think religious beliefs are good, but they tend to worry about beliefs that affect other people.

As a rule, religious words are safer than religious actions.

Consider these numbers from a new Ellison Research study that shows surprising support -- on the left and right, among believers and skeptics -- for freedom of expression when it comes to words and symbols.

An overwhelming 90 percent of adults agreed that faith groups should be allowed to rent public property, such as a school gyms, if laws gave non-religious groups the same right. Asked about allowing a moment of silence in public schools, 89 percent said that was fine. Another 88 percent said teachers should have the right to wear jewelry, such as a cross or a Star of David, in public-school classes.

"There is a lot of unity out there about these kinds of issues," said Ron Sellers, president of the research firm in Phoenix. "But the specifics do matter. Wearing a cross on your lapel is not the same thing as showing up a school wearing a t-shirt with a big cross on it and the words, 'Believe in Jesus or you're going to hell.'

"There's no way to say that approving one thing is the same as approving another, even though the same principle is at stake."

The key is that religion is bad if it makes large numbers of people uncomfortable.

For example, 83 percent of the survey participants said it should be legal to put nativity scenes on public property, such as city hall lawns, and 79 percent supported the posting of the Ten Commandments in court buildings. But that number fell to 60 percent when they were asked about Muslim displays on public property during Ramadan.

This study asked another crucial question linked to a religious liberty issue that is affecting a wide variety of faith groups, especially in higher education.

The researchers asked if respondents agreed that it "should be legal for a religious club in a high school or university to determine for itself who can be in their membership, even if certain types of people are excluded." The result was a stark divide, with only 52 percent agreeing that religious groups should be able to enforce their own doctrines among their own members.

"People might respond differently if you asked the same question, but were more specific," said Sellers. "I think most Americans believe that a Jewish student union should have the right to say, 'No, you're Muslim. You cannot join our group.' But what if it's a conservative Christian group that says, 'No, you cannot join our group because you're gay'? American aren't sure what they think about that, right now."

The trend is clear. Vague talk is safer than clear action. Personal beliefs are good, but not if these doctrines lead to actions that indicate that some beliefs are right and others wrong.

Seeking is good, but finding is bad.

Judging is even worse.

For example, a new survey by the Southern Baptist Convention's LifeWay Research team found that 72 percent of "unchurched" Americans who rarely if ever attend worship services believe that "God, a higher or supreme being, actually exists." However, 61 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the God of the Bible is "no different from the gods or spiritual beings depicted by world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc."

The researchers found that 78 percent of the respondents claimed that they would be "willing to listen" if a Christian wanted to share talk about their beliefs. Then again, 44 percent agreed that "Christians get on my nerves."

"There is a sense in our culture that is acceptable to believe in anything spiritual, as long as it makes you a better person and helps you find peace," said Ed Stetzer, leader of the LifeWay Research team. "One's faith only becomes a problem when that belief actually makes claims that contradicts the faith of others."

In an age of "I'm OK, You're OK" spirituality, he added, "American spirituality has glorified 'searching' for spiritual meaning, but de-emphasized 'finding.' In other words, it is good to be looking for spirituality, but it is intolerant to actually believe you have found a right faith. ... Intolerance is defined to mean actually believing that your faith is the correct one."

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."

Witches leaving broom closets

The witches ball included the midnight spinning of the "Wheel of the Year" and a chance to gaze into the "Fire of Transformation" before the faithful were guided into the "Underworld and our Ritual Space."

The Samhain celebration last weekend in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., also included deejay music, dancing, door prizes and fun for the children.

"No photos at rituals! Some of us are still closeted," said the online invitation from the MoonPath Chapter of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. "Perhaps it's time to come out of the broom closet?"

There were plenty of signs this Halloween that more witches and wizards are doing precisely that.

Are there SpiralScouts circles in your area offering pagan parents an alternative to the rigid morality of the Boy Scouts? Have teen-agers formed reading clubs at school to dig into popular books like "Wild Girls: The Path of the Young Goddess" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft"?

Many parents and mainstream religious leaders are afraid to ask these kinds of questions, said Catherine Edwards Sanders, author of a new work of Christian apologetics entitled "Wicca's Charm." Instead of freaking out, they need to pay attention to the changing religious marketplace.

"Wicca is here and we need to face that," said Sanders, a speechwriter for the U.S. Department of Justice. "We can be threatened by these trends or we can see all of this as a sign that people are hunting for something that is greater than themselves, yearning for spiritual experiences they can call their own. They want to rebel against the secular culture and find a way to get back to nature."

Sanders is convinced, based on her interviews with modern pagans, that most are fleeing from two types of organized religion -- cold, rational liberalism that shuns the supernatural or suburban brands of conservatism that substitute rigid rules for the mysteries of ancient rites, art and traditions.

"Our culture has tilled the soil, making it fertile enough for the seeds of Wicca to grow," writes Sanders. "This may be of concern to some, and for others, cause to celebrate. But to dismiss this spirituality as fringe or something practiced by an insignificant minority group would be to miss the point of what is really happening."

Conservative Christians who read this book may be offended.

Pagans who do so are more likely to be amused, according to writer Jason Pitzl-Waters. Sanders made a good-faith effort at fairness, but the lens of her Christian faith warped everything, he said.

"It is somewhat sad to see so earnest an author come so close to understanding our culture and ideas, but missing the mark," said Pitzl-Waters, at his website. The result "makes me wonder if a full and rich dialogue about each other's faith can ever be engaged between a modern Pagan and a Christian."

Modern paganism includes Wicca and other forms of earth-based spiritualities rooted in the worship of ancient gods and goddesses. Court cases rooted in what could be called the separation of coven and state now pop up on a regular basis, from family-law courts to military bases to public-school classrooms. In 1986, a federal court declared Wicca a constitutionally protected form of faith.

The key, said Sanders, is that it's impossible to lock pagans inside one doctrinal box. A witch is not a druid. A "Gardnerian" witch dedicated to the teachings of British writer Gerald Gardner, with his emphasis on nudism, scourging and the rites of high witchcraft, may rarely agree with feminist witches who worship the goddess Diana, alone. Some pagans believe drugs are a crucial part of worship. Others totally disagree.

Modern pagans are the freest of free-market believers, said Sanders. Many are striving -- quite literally -- to honor the priesthood of every believer. They may worship alone at secret altars, linked to believers near and far by the Internet and networks of witchcraft supply companies.

"This is especially true with the thousands of young girls who are experimenting with Wicca," she said. "They see something in a movie or on TV and then they hit the Web and, with a few clicks of a mouse, they're ready to try it out. ...

"This trend is so American. It's so individualistic. The neo-pagans don't want to sit in pews anymore and follow anybody else's rules."

Matrix, the Apocalypse

Anyone looking for the "Matrix" movies at a video store knows to seek the digital mythologies shelved under "science fiction."

That will have to do, since there isn't a space labeled "apocalyptic."

"These movies are truly that ambitious," said the Rev. Chris Seay, co-author of "The Gospel Reloaded," about faith and "The Matrix" phenomenon. "This story reads more like the Book of Revelation more than it does your normal sci-fi thriller. Everything has this other layer of meaning. ... You have to wrestle with all that symbolism and philosophy if you take these movies seriously."

That statement may sound ridiculous to most clergy, said Seay, pastor of the young Ecclesia congregation in urban Houston. But anyone who studies Hollywood knows that the Nov. 5 release of "The Matrix Revolutions" will be an event of biblical proportions to millions.

The numbers are staggering. The final movie in the trilogy will open -- zero hour is 9 a.m. in New York City -- on almost 20,000 movie screens in 60-plus nations. Meanwhile, Forbes estimates gross revenue for "The Matrix" and "The Matrix Reloaded" is almost $2 billion, when ticket sales are combined with videogames, music, DVDs and other merchandise.

It matters little that Andy and Larry Wachowski veered into Star Wars limbo in "Reloaded," sinking into a swamp of linguistics and logic while striving to explain the visual mysteries of "The Matrix." Few acolytes blinked when Larry Wachowski left his wife, hooked up with a dominatrix and, newspapers reported, began taking hormones to prepare for a sex-change operation.

Millions will flock to theaters anyway.

"Everything about these movies is getting bigger -- bigger action scenes, bigger philosophical speeches, bigger rumors," said Greg Garrett, co-author of "The Gospel Reloaded" and an English professor at Baylor University. "Now they have to justify the buzz. ... I have faith that these guys are talented enough storytellers that they will be able to create some kind of cosmology that ties all this together."

But anyone seeking one coherent set of answers has got the wrong trilogy. The only certainty in "The Matrix" universe is that its new path to enlightenment is made out of pieces of all of the older paths, even if they contradict each other. The only absolute truth is that there is no one absolute truth, no one true faith.

Instead, these movies offer a crossroads where "all of our stories collide," write Seay and Garrett. "They not only coexist, they come together to create a story of tension, adventure and spiritual pursuit. As Buddhism, Christianity, Zen, existentialism, Gnosticism, Plato and Jacques Derrida interact with one another, we are encouraged to interact with them as well."

This shouldn't surprise anyone who has studied religious trends in recent generations, they added. "If movie theaters have become the new cathedrals, as cultural observers from Bill Moyers to George Lucas argue, then the priests of that domain are clad in black leather. And Cool Hand Luke, Obi-Wan Kenobi and E.T. assist in serving the sacrament."

Yes, "The Matrix" is this kind of metaphysical myth, said actor Laurence Fishburne, who plays a Batman meets John the Baptist hero named Morpheus. Many viewers will seek, and find, deep meaning in the ties that bind Morpheus, the heroine named Trinity and the messianic Neo.

"What kids or young people will get from this divine trinity is ... not for us to say," he said, at a Warner Bros. press conference. "If they get whatever they need, then we've done proper service not just to the filmmakers but the larger thing, which is the story itself. So there you have it."

So there you have what, precisely?

"The Matrix" movies show miracles, but no ultimate power that performs them. Characters make moral choices, but follow no commandments. They pray, but to an undefined god. They believe, but in what?

"We deal with all kinds of people today," said Seay, "who believe in a Creator, but they have no idea how to articulate that belief. Their God is energy or light or love or something. But it's real to them and they don't want to answer that question. ... 'The Matrix' movies are powerful because they offer people all kinds of things to believe in and none of them are very specific."

Postmodern Celtic Baptists

The first thing people do after entering the quiet sanctuary is pause at a table to light prayer candles for friends and loved ones, the tiny flames adding to the glow of nearby candle trees.

The ministers wear oat-colored, hooded robes tied at the waist with ropes and guide their flock through ancient prayers, a litany of confession and silent meditations marked by a series of bells. Hymns are accompanied by an ensemble that includes fiddle, acoustic guitar, wind chimes, pennywhistles, a Bodhran and even bagpipes.

This coming Sunday is the day before the feast of St. Patrick.

Thus, worshippers at Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church will sing the great prayer of Ireland's missionary bishop: "Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me. ... I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through a belief in the Threeness, through a confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation."

This is not your typical Southern Baptist service.

Nevertheless, this Celtic service is held every Sunday at this historic church in Lynchburg, Va. The goal is to use ancient rituals to touch postmodern souls.

"Postmodern people -- like Baptists in general -- like to take some of the old and mix it up with some of the new and then put it all together. We're comfortable with the unusual juxtapositions that may occur when you do that," said Karen Swallow Prior, who selects and reads many of the rite's Celtic prayers. She is an English professor at nearby Liberty University.

"We don't think that what we're doing is getting back to the ancient ways. We think that we're using elements of the past in ways that make sense to people who are alive today. The goal is to create something new."

In the lingo of Southern Baptist life, Rivermont is known as a "moderate," or even progressive, congregation. In addition to the Celtic service, it also offers the plugged-in, energetic contemporary worship common in "seeker-friendly" congregations across America. The bottom line: Different kinds of people worship in different ways.

The contemporary service is larger and the pews are filled with Baby Boomers who have become the established, middle-aged core of the congregation. For them, pop praise choruses and a chatty atmosphere have become normal. What was once "modern" is now strangely "traditional."

Meanwhile, said Prior, the Celtic service is attracting a unique blend of young adults, who are drawn by its beauty and mysticism, and the elderly, who appreciate peace and quiet. Church leaders refer to this as a gathering of the "pre-moderns and the postmoderns." What was once "traditional" is now strangely "innovative."

"How will the postmodern church worship?", asked Chad Hall of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, writing at "One thing we know about postmoderns is that they are extremely experiential. That is, they learn, grow, develop and commit based on their own experience with truth not according to someone else's encounter or someone else's retelling of an encounter."

Postmodern believers want to use all of their senses, stressed Hall. They want smells and bells. They want to see icons and statues, as well as drama and digital clips from movies. They look for God in nature, as well as scripture. They want to encounter God, not mere words about God.

But this doesn't mean they want to change their beliefs. The faithful at Rivermont Avenue remain steadfastly Baptist, said music minister Wayne Bulson. While they use elements of ancient liturgy, they believe that the Irish Bannock bread is still bread and the grape juice is still grape juice. They are embracing symbols, not sacraments.

"People want a sense of the ancient, but they still want something that they feel is appropriate to their lives, today," said Bulson. "I mean, we're still Baptists. We're not Catholic or Orthodox or anything else. ... We're not pushing for Baptist monasteries. What we're trying to do is find out what will be meaningful to our people, what will help them experience God in their lives.

"We're not proud. We're willing to borrow things from all kinds of traditions, as long as they work for us."