smartphones

Separation of church and life: Many pastors struggle to handle issues of sex and technology

Separation of church and life: Many pastors struggle to handle issues of sex and technology

If Daniel Weiss has learned anything about the small towns of east-central Wisconsin, it's that folks in the region he calls home care about what they eat.

Say buzzwords like "organic," "natural" and "superfoods" and -- snap -- people will organize fairs, farmers markets, farm-to-table workshops and debates about whether local free-range chickens have healthy social lives.

"You can talk about fresh veggies and how important food issues are for their families," said Weiss, leader of the Brushfires Foundation, a sexual-integrity ministry based in Omro, Wisc. "People in a secular society will bond together to talk about food and good health. That's real. That's safe. …

"It's totally different -- even in our churches -- if you try to get people to talk about pornography, smartphones, videogame addiction and all the stuff that's filling up their hearts and minds."

When asked about these issues, many pastors say things like, "I don't want to be negative," "That's a parents thing," "Tech issues are so complex" or "I'm afraid to offend people and run them off." Many pastors think silence is the safest option.

That's a naive attitude in modern America, according to Barna Group research commissioned by Brushfires, and supported by 24 national and state groups, such as Focus on the Family and Enough is Enough. Researchers contacted 410 senior ministers in 29 evangelical and mainline Protestant denominations, along with non-denominational congregations. Pastors were asked about 18 issues, including marital infidelity, premarital sex, same-sex relationships, sexting, gender dysphoria and the use of pornography by husbands, wives, teens and young children. Among the findings:

* Eighty percent of these Protestant pastors said they had been approached during the past year by church members or staff dealing with infidelity issues and 73 percent had faced issues linked to pornography.

* Seventy percent of the pastors said they dealt with serious "sexual brokenness" issues in their flock several times a year, with 22 percent saying this took place once a month or more.

*Only a third of the pastors said they felt "very qualified" to address the sexual issues being raised by their staff and church members.

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

It's easy to capture a kid's attention with cartoons about Noah and the Ark, Joshua's laps around the walls of Jericho and other colorful stories from scripture.

Phil Vischer ought to know, since for millions of Americans under the age of 25 he is best known as Bob the Tomato and the brain behind the original VeggieTales videos. But over time, he realized that he faced a bigger challenge as a storyteller, one symbolized by the sign on his 1990s office wall that proclaimed: "We will not portray Jesus as a vegetable."

At some point, he said, children need to learn the whole story of faith -- including the hard parts. This has to happen quickly in a culture that barrages them with competing signals as soon as they leave their cribs.

"You have to have the big story of what our faith is all about," said Vischer, in a telephone interview. "Our moral beliefs are like ornaments we hang on a tree. The problem is that we've thrown out the tree and we expect the ornaments to keep hanging in the air on their own.

"You can't just tell kids, 'Behave! Because I told you so!' … Without a big spiritual narrative, some larger worldview, you have nothing to hang moral behavior on."

That was the challenge at the heart of Vischer's talk -- "Beyond VeggieTales: Forming the Moral Imagination of Your Kids" -- during a recent Nashville conference on parenting held by the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Speaker after speaker mentioned a media culture that feeds children clashing concepts of good and evil, success and failure, before they enter kindergarten. Digital screens are everywhere, packed with compelling stories.

A decade later, the omnipresent iPhone shapes lives, families and even souls

A decade later, the omnipresent iPhone shapes lives, families and even souls

The late Steve Jobs loved surprises and, at the 2007 MacWorld conference, he knew he was going to make history.

"Every once and awhile, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything," said Apple's prophet-in-chief. This product -- on sale at the end of June 2007 -- combined entertainment programs with a telephone, while also putting the "Internet in your pocket." His punch line a decade ago: "We are calling it iPhone."

At one point in that first demonstration, Jobs began jumping from one iPhone delight to another. He wryly confessed: "I could play with this thing a long time."

To which millions of parents, clergy and educators can now say: "#REALLY. Tell us something we don't know."

One key iPhone creator has had doubts, as well, especially when he watches families in restaurants, with parents and children plugged into their omnipresent smartphones.

"It terms of whether it's net positive or net negative, I don't think we know yet," said Greg Christie, a former Apple leader who helped create the iPhone's touch interface. He spoke at a Silicon Valley event covered by The Verge, a tech website.

"I don't feel good about the distraction. It's certainly an unintended consequence," said Christie. "The fact that it is so portable so it's always with you … and it provides so much for you that the addiction actually, in retrospect, is not surprising."

There is more to this puzzle that mere addiction, according to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. In a recent podcast -- yes, he noted many people listen on iPhones -- he tried to summarize the cultural, moral and even theological trends seen during the first decade in which the iPhone and related devices shaped the lives of millions and millions of people worldwide.

Rather than being a luxury for elites, he said, this device "has become something considered a necessity, and in this world, if we're playing by the world's terms, of course it is. … The question the iPhone represents to us is: Who owns whom? Do we own the iPhone, or, increasingly, immorally, does the iPhone own us?"

Can clergy help modern parents struggle with technology issues in their homes?

Can clergy help modern parents struggle with technology issues in their homes?

The evidence keeps growing that families need help controlling technology in their homes, but this is a subject most megachurch pastors would have trouble addressing with a straight face.

"Talking about this subject in many of our churches would be … controversial for reasons that are rather ironic," said author Andy Crouch, senior communication strategist for the John Templeton Foundation in Philadelphia. "Pastors would be preaching in churches dominated by giant video screens and lots of them now ask their people to tweet sermon feedback right there in the service. The technology is everywhere."

It's hard to talk about controlling today's digital-screens culture without being accused of advocating a semi-Amish retreat. But at some point, he said, parents who care about faith, morality and character will have to develop some strategies. For starters, their children will need to hear, over and over: "Our family is different."

Clergy could help parents face this task. But that would require them to address hot-button issues ranging from online porn to whether parents should give children smartphones. It would also require saying, "Our church is different."

Crouch doesn't have easy answers for any of these questions. His new book, "The Tech-Wise Family," includes "Crouch Family Reality Check" pages detailing the struggles behind the principles he recommends. While his family uses candles at its screens-free dinners, Crouch admits that his home's number of Apple devices is in double digits.

Obviously, it's hard to observe any kind of "digital Sabbath" in which all these screens go dark for an hour, a day or even a week, said Crouch. Nevertheless, trying to control this digital lifestyle is a subject religious leaders should discuss with their flocks.

"If we don't have some rhythm with these things -- in terms of when we use them and when we don't -- then they're using us, instead of us using them," he said. But it's crucial to remember that, "we're not saying all this technology is bad. It's good, when used as part of a Christian family culture. That's what takes planning and commitment.

A case for having some doctrines affecting smartphone use in pews

It's a typical Mass in an American parish in which the kneelers contain a mix of teens, single adults, young families and church stalwarts with gray hair.

Near the end of a sermon about family life, during this hypothetical Mass, the priest makes a pithy observation that is both poignant and slightly ironic.

A young-ish parish council member smiles and posts the quote to Twitter, since he is already using his smartphone to follow Mass prayers in a popular Catholic app. This infuriates a nearby grandmother, who is already upset that her daughter is letting her kids play videogames in church, to keep them quiet.

The Twitter user, of course, thought he was paying the priest a compliment by tweeting the sermon quote while, perhaps, engaging in a bit of social-media evangelism to prompt discussions with friends at work. But this gesture also infuriated a nearby worshipper and destroyed her sense of sacred space.

"Everyone used to know the worship rules and now we don't. It's that simple, which means that things are getting more complex," said Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center. He is also the co-author of the book "Networked: The New Social Operating System."

Every venue in public life "has its own context and you can't write a set of social-media rules that will apply in all venues," he said. "Using technology to enrich our own spiritual experiences is one thing, while interrupting corporate worship is another. … People are going to have to ask if that phone is pulling them deeper into worship services or if they're using it to disengage and pull out of the experience."

This storm has been building in the pews for more than a decade and religious leaders will not be able to avoid it, according to fine details in new work by the Pew Research Center's American Trends Panel.

Holy Week 2015: Hearing confessions in the Silicon belly of the high-tech beast

It would be hard to live closer to the belly of the high-tech beast than Menlo Park in Northern California's Silicon Valley.

Close to Stanford University? Check. A highway exchange or two from the Apple mother ship? Check. Not that far from Googleplex? Check. It's the kind of home base from which an Opus Dei (Latin for "Work of God") priest -- with the organization's emphasis on leadership among laypeople as well as clergy -- can lecture, as Father C. John McCloskey recently quipped, to "300 actual and would-be Techies and Masters of the Universe."

It's also an interesting place to hear lots of confessions as Catholics near the end of Lent and prepare for Holy Week and then Easter, which is April 5th this year for Western churches. Eastern Orthodox churches use the older Julian calendar and will celebrate Pascha (Easter) on April 12th.

"One thing we stress during Lent is a sense of detachment from the things of this world," said McCloskey, an apologist and evangelist in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before this West Coast move. "We even do this with good things, if they've become temptations. It can be a kind of food or it can be alcohol. It can be other good things, like running and being obsessed with your health. …

"But if you can't be happy living without something, then that tells you something. It tells you that this thing is using you, rather than you using it."

But what if this good thing is woven into most of the details of daily life?

The pope and the Pentecostal smartphone

The image projected onto the giant screen above the recent Kenneth Copeland Ministries conference was not your typical clever smartphone video. Still, the crowd of Pentecostal Protestants was mesmerized because the shepherd vested in white who addressed them -- in Italian, with subtitles -- was one of the last men on earth they would have expected to warmly bestow his blessing on them.

Pope Francis stressed that they "must encounter one another as brothers. We must cry together. ... These tears will unite us, the tears of love. ... I speak to you in a simple way, with joy and yearning. Let us allow our yearning to grow, because this will propel us to find each other, to embrace one another and together to worship Jesus Christ as the only Lord of History."

There was another historic twist at the end. The pope from Latin America asked the flock in Texas for a spiritual favor, which would have been unthinkable during decades of bitter tensions between established Catholic churches and the rising tide of Protestant -- usually Pentecostal -- believers in the Americas.

"I thank you profoundly for allowing me to speak the language of the heart," said Pope Francis. "Please pray for me, because I need your prayers. ... Let us pray to the Lord that He unites us all. Come on, we are brothers. Let's give each other a spiritual hug and let God complete the work that he has begun. And this is a miracle. The miracle of unity has begun."

Copeland then took the stage, shouting, "Glory! Glory! Glory! Come on, the man asked us to pray for him!"

Many in the crowd lifted their hands and began speaking in what Pentecostal Christians believe are heavenly, unknown tongues. Copeland -- a global televangelist -- proclaimed: "Father we answer his request. ... We know not how to pray for him as we ought, other than to agree with him in his quest ... for the unity of the Body of Christ. We come together in the unity of our faith. Hallelujah!"

This drama was the result of relationships forged behind the scenes. The video was recorded during a Jan. 14 visit to Rome by Bishop Anthony Palmer, a Pentecostal minister from England who is part of the independent Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches. He traveled to Argentina five years ago to work with Catholic Charismatic Renewal leaders and also met the local Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio -- now Pope Francis. Their ongoing friendship led to an invitation to visit the Vatican.

The pope's video, and its enthusiastic reception by Copeland and his flock, caused a sensation on the Internet. The key was the contrast between the image of the Jesuit pope with a media-friendly flare for simple living and that of Copeland, an elder statesman of what critics call the "prosperity Gospel."

Meanwhile, some Protestants worried about Palmer's challenge to the crowd: "Brothers and sisters, Luther's protest is over. Is yours?" And some Catholics pondered the pope's statement: "It is sin that has separated us, all our sins. ... It has been a long road of sins that we all shared in. Who is to blame? We all share the blame."

Both of these reactions miss the point, noted Marcel LeJeune, the assistant director of campus ministry at the thriving St. Mary's Catholic Center at Texas A&M University. The goal of the pope's message was to demonstrate Christian unity where it could be demonstrated -- in prayer and encouragement -- rather than doctrinal debates.

"This is what Christian unity looks like," he argued in a commentary at the Aggie Catholics website. "It doesn't ignore the differences that we have with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. It isn't triumphalistic. It isn't us vs. them."

At the same time, speaking as a Catholic raised in Texas, LeJeune said it was stunning to see a flock of evangelical leaders openly praying for the pope, instead of, as was common in the past, "talking about Rome being the great whore of Babylon."

Catholics and conservative Protestants have to "find some middle ground between sitting in a circle singing 'Kumbaya' and sitting off by ourselves going on and on about our many differences," he said, in a telephone interview. "We have to see each other as brothers and sisters, rather than enemies, or we will just keep driving stakes into the hearts people who are open to becoming believers."

Apple, iSacraments and this lonely age

Probing the mysteries of Christmas, Pope Benedict XVI asked his flock gathered in 2006 to ponder what this season might mean to people living in the Internet age. "Is a Savior needed," he asked, "by a humanity which has invented interactive communication, which navigates in the virtual ocean of the Internet and, thanks to the most advanced modern communications technologies, has now made the earth, our great common home, a global village?"

What the world really needed, quipped Gizmodo writer Brian Lam, responding to the pope, was a new spiritual tool. Thus, digital believers were waiting for a John the Baptist -- Apple's Steve Jobs -- to "unveil Apple-Cellphone-Thingy, the true Jesus Phone" during the upcoming rites of the Macworld Conference.

That online exchange set the stage for an Apple advertisement that serves as a stained-glass image moment revealing the mysterious role that digital devices now play -- moment by moment -- in the lives of millions, according to University of Notre Dame business professor Brett Robinson, author of "Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs."

In the ad, a human finger reached out of darkness toward the rows of icons on the glowing iconostasis of the new iPhone screen above this incantation: "Touching is Believing." For Robinson, there is no way to avoid a connection with the biblical image of Jesus inviting the doubting St. Thomas to put his finger into the wounds on his resurrected body and, thus, "be not faithless but believing."

"It's all about the metaphors," said Robinson, in a telephone interview. "You cannot explain what cannot be explained without metaphors. Technology needs metaphors to explain itself to the world and the same is true for religion."

Thus it's significant that, for some many consumers, the use of Apple products have become what scholars have long called the "Apple cult," he said. It's also clear that Jobs -- drawing on his '60s driven devotion to Eastern forms of religion -- set out to combine art, technology and philosophy into a belief brand that asked consumers to, as stated by another classic ad, to rebel and "think differently."

"It's easy to get into arguments about what is a religion and what is not," said Robinson. "But there's no question that the giant glass cube of the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue" in New York City serves as "a cathedral and that people go travel there on pilgrimages and that their local Apple Stores are like local parishes. ...

"The goal is to consume something bigger than themselves and then they can draw a sense of identity from those products."

Jobs knew all of that. After fleeing the Missouri Synod Lutheranism of his youth, he went out of his way to rattle traditional cages throughout his career. This was, after all, the man whose company logo was a rainbow apple -- minus one Edenic bite. He tested an early product with a prank call to the Vatican, pinned a $666 price tag on the Apple I and dressed as Jesus at the company's first Halloween party.

In his famous 2005 Stanford University address, Jobs told the graduates to "trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. ... Don't be trapped by dogma. ... Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."

At the heart of the Apple mythos, stressed Robinson, is an amazing paradox, the yin-yang doctrine that Jobs was trying to sell consumers good computers in order to help them escape a chilly world dominated by bad computers. He sold his refined, graceful devices by using images of enlightenment and community, while users may end up spending untold lonely hours staring at digital mirrors in their hands or on their desks.

The bottom line: Have the products inspired by the "Jesus Phone" turned into narcissistic rosaries?

"That iPhone provides some of the comforts and a sense of security that religious faith provides," said Robinson. "It promises to connect you to the world and to the transcendent. ... Yet most people spend most of their time looking at the same five or six sites online -- like Facebook -- that primarily are about their own lives.

"They spend untold hours in this intimate ritual of touching those phones, clicking and clicking their way through their own interests, their own desires, their own lives. The emphasis ends up being on the 'I,' not the other."