When British media critic Jenny Taylor talks to journalists about why they need to take religion seriously, she tells them stories about news stories -- mostly stories many journalists try to avoid.
"The majority world is deeply religious. That small bit of it that still dominates the world's agenda -- the secular West -- is deeply unaware of what drives the rest," she said, during the recent "Getting Religion" conference in Westminster, England, led by the Open University and her own Lapido Media network.
Thus, she argued, "The world is in grave danger from the West's own conceits and complacency. ... In Britain we have been trained through cultural prejudice and ideological pressure not to 'do God.' I was told by a BBC press officer that 'we leave our religion at the door when we come to work.'
"The intention may be the scrupulous avoidance of perceived bias, but misunderstood it leads to blindness and an inability to report the facts."
One story has been unfolding in East London, where controversy has long swirled around plans to build the massive Abbey Mills Mosque near Olympic Stadium. How massive? It would hold 9,000 people, roughly four times the size of the iconic St. Paul's Cathedral.
The power behind the mosque is Tablighi Jamaat, a global organization that Western security experts believe serves as a recruiting network for radical Islamists, including al-Qaeda. Many Muslims accuse "TJ" of opposing efforts to help believers, especially women, assimilate into Western life.
A cabinet minister will soon decide the mosque's fate. But the key, said Taylor, is that this story has received little mainstream press coverage, in part because journalists either don't take religion seriously, fear making mistakes or don't want to be called "Islamophobic," even when defending moderate Muslims.
There is no way to justify this lack of coverage, she said, and in the end "to ignore religion is 'anti-journalism.' "
This "anti-journalism" gauntlet came from published remarks by Richard Porritt, a former top editor at The London Evening Standard and the British Press Association.
"Many news desks shun real religious news because they believe the subject matter is too tricky to get across properly, and the fear of getting anything wrong is too great," he argued. "But ignoring these stories, or not reporting them fully, is anti-journalism.
"It is the exact opposite of why every reporter signs up in the first place -- to uncover the truth and educate your audience. The media must not avoid hard truths just because they are hard."
During the "Getting Religion" conference, several speakers discussed the degree to which journalists and the diplomats they cover see religion as an "irrational" part of life that should be kept out of the public square. Thus, while private, personal beliefs are acceptable, many elite opinion shapers fear what will happen if religious convictions -- especially among so-called "fundamentalists" -- affect things that are "real," such as politics, law, business and education.
It would be hard to imagine a worldview more radically different from that of -- to be specific -- millions of traditional Christians, Muslims and Jews, argued historian Kate Cooper of the University of Manchester, in a paper included in the conference's "Religion, Security and Global Uncertainties" report (.pdf here).
"Modern people often imagine that human beings are naturally a-religious and that religious traditions add an optional layer of meaning -- and conflict -- into human experience," noted Cooper.
"But in the Mediterranean world out of which the Abrahamic religions emerged, the understanding of the human condition was entirely different. All parties agreed that the sacred was everywhere. ... There was no conception of a world in which the sacred had no place -- where it was absent or had been 'stripped away.' "
That world, one open to both the sacred and the secular, is the world that far too many journalists struggle to understand, respect and cover, said BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent Caroline Wyatt, who moderated one conference session. It's time for journalists to be "braver" and to cover this real world.
"Globalization has meant that there is a whole world out there to whom religion is very important and for whom secularism or the idea of separation between religion and state is not necessarily something people believe in or want," said Wyatt. "We need to start getting our minds in the West around how other people think."
NEXT WEEK: When religion gets linked to violence.
The bishop was candid with the small flock at All Saint's Episcopal Church, just outside of Baltimore: She had a sobering sermon for them.
"There are things that happen in life that we can't control, that we didn't predict, that perhaps we don't welcome at all," said Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook of the Diocese of Maryland.
Believers must be prepared for the worst, including wrestling with bad habits that can lead to destruction, she said in a Nov. 9 sermon that was posted online.
"If we routinely drive 55 in a 30-mile-an-hour zone, we won't be able to stop on a dime if driving conditions get dangerous or if an animal or, God forbid, a human being should step out in front of us," said Cook. "Things happen suddenly, and we're either prepared in the moment or we're not, and we face the consequences.
"We can't go back. We can't do it over. In real life there are no instant replays."
This sermon was delivered weeks before the accident -- two days after Christmas -- in which police report that Cook's car veered into a wide bike lane and hit a 41-year-old father of two, sending the cyclist crashing onto her hood and windshield. A breath test after she returned to the crash scene, and after she had been taken to a police station, found a blood-alcohol level of 0.22. The legal limit in Maryland is 0.08.
The veteran priest and recently consecrated bishop has since been arrested and charged with criminal negligent manslaughter, using a texting device while driving, leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in death and three charges of drunken driving. Her bail was set at $2.5 million, in part because of a 2010 DUI incident in which she received probation and paid a $300 fine. She also faces national disciplinary proceedings, under the jurisdiction of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
This tragedy has left Episcopalians in pulpits and pews debating the contemporary relevance of St. Paul's words in I Timothy: "Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money."
In addition to being the Maryland diocese's first female bishop, consecrated last September, Cook is also the daughter of a prominent priest. She was raised in the historic rectory of Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Baltimore and her father was nationally known for his work with alcoholism, while struggling with the disease himself.
Diocesan officials stressed that, before her election, Cook told them about the 2010 incident in which she was seen driving slowly at 2 a.m., with a shredded tire, on the side of a road. Police reported that there was vomit on her shirt and a bottle of wine, a fifth of whiskey, two baggies of marijuana and a smoking device in her car.
After the fatal 2014 accident, the Diocese of Maryland released a statement that said: "We cannot preach forgiveness without practicing forgiveness and offering people opportunity for redemption. ... We too are all filled with questions for which there are still no answers, and we are all filled with anger, bitterness, pain and tears." After background research, including a "psychological investigation," church leaders quietly concluded that the 2010 incident "should not bar her for consideration as a leader."
That was then. In the words of Cook's sermon, there are also times when people cannot hide from their own actions.
"My perception is that we live in the midst of a culture that doesn't like to hold us accountable for consequences, that somehow everybody gets a free pass all of the time," she said. "Well, we do -- in terms of God's love and forgiveness. But we don't in many other things that happen and it's up to us to be responsible."
Believers must prepare their hearts for severe trials, she concluded. They also must trust God and one another.
"If you are not ready in your heart, you will miss God when he comes. You will miss Love when she passes by. You may find that the door of hope is shut on you," said the bishop. "If we don't know how to love and trust in God in the small, daily events of our lives, we might be absolutely devastated when the really terrible things happen."
For decades, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's World Wide Pictures unit produced many films with titles like "Souls in Conflict," "The Heart is a Rebel," "The Restless Ones" and "The Prodigal."
Critics relentlessly noted the formula that drove most of these films: The sins of the main character would cause a crisis, then -- somehow -- he would hear a Graham sermon and be born again. Roll credits.
That was cinema. But the drama was real in 1949 when a shattered sinner named Louis Zamperini attended Graham's historic "canvas cathedral" crusade in Los Angeles.
Come judgment day, warned the evangelist, "they are going to pull down the screen and they are going to shoot the moving picture of your life from the cradle to the grave, and you are going to hear every thought that was going on in your mind every minute of the day ... and you're going to hear the words that you said. And your own words, and your own thoughts, and your own deeds, are going to condemn you as you stand before God on that day."
Whenever Zamperini told his life story -- a rebellious childhood, Olympic glory, then the horrors of World War II, including 47 days adrift in the shark-infested Pacific, followed by two hellish years in prison -- this was the climactic scene. He was soaking his nightmares in alcohol, facing divorce and obsessed with killing his torturers.
Graham said: "Here tonight, there's a drowning man" at the breaking point, someone "lost in the sea of life." It took a sermon or two, but Zamperini surrendered.
That's what millions read in "Unbroken," the bestselling page-turner by Laura Hillenbrand, but that scene isn't in Angelina Jolie's new "Unbroken" film. The director has publicly said that Zamperini, who died last summer at age 97, embraced her decision to skip the Christian specifics and offer a message of "universal" faith and forgiveness.
Obviously, the Graham team disagreed with her artistic choice.
"The key to the whole story is what Louis Zamperini was a broken man. ... But it wasn't the Japanese who broke him. He broke himself. He came back from the war and was trying to find peace by seeking the things of this world," said the Rev. Franklin Graham, the eldest son of Billy and Ruth Graham.
While he has chosen not to see her film, Graham said it appears Jolie told a spectacular story, while ignoring its climactic chapters. Thus, the Graham team has released it's own film about Zamperini, including references to the years of testimonies he shared in Graham crusades. The documentary, "Louis Zamperini: Captured by Grace" has been posted at the BillyGraham.org website.
"We're not talking about a Billy Graham movie here," said Franklin Graham, reached by telephone. "We're talking about real life and, most importantly, what happened in this man's real life. All of our lives are going to spiral down if we don't grab a life rope. That's what Louis Zamperini did and his life was changed for eternity."
In particular, Graham said he wished that Jolie had been willing to include the dramatic episode in which, soon after his conversion, Zamperini returned to Japan to forgive -- face to face -- as many of his prison guards as possible. "You can just imagine that scene in your mind. ... It's like she forgot the punch line," he said.
The Jolie film does include references to spiritual crisis and prayer. A self-professed agnostic, the superstar actress and director told reporters at one press event: "If you were looking for symbolism and miracles in the film, you will see them."
Thus, during the movie's sea ordeal, Zamperini prays: "If you get me through this, if you answer my prayers, I swear, I'll dedicate my whole life to you. I'll do whatever you want. Please."
But in the Graham documentary, the real man stressed that, at first, he didn't keep that promise. The unbroken man, in reality, came home spiritually broken.
"Yes, I had a lot of great times, a lot of great experience, a lot of escape from death, but I still didn't like my life after the war. I came home alive. God kept His promise. I didn't keep mine," said Zamperini, five years before his death.
"The heart of this story is when I found Christ as my Savior. That's the heart of my whole life."
Soon after his elevation to the Chair of St. Peter, Pope Francis warned that the world was entering a time when Satan would increasingly show his power, especially in lands in which believers were being crushed.
Looking toward a rising storm in the Middle East, he warned that the persecution of religious minorities is a sign of the end times.
"It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world," said Pope Francis. "Religion cannot be spoken of, it is something private, no?"
A year later, the pope was even more specific in a letter to churches in the ancient lands of the Bible.
"I write to you just before Christmas, knowing that for many of you the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs. Nonetheless, the birth of the Son of God in our human flesh is an indescribable mystery of consolation," said Pope Francis.
"Sadly, afflictions and tribulations have not been lacking, even more recently, in the Middle East. They have been aggravated in the past months because of the continuing hostilities in the region, but especially because of the work of a newer and disturbing terrorist organization, of previously unimaginable dimensions, which has perpetrated all kinds of abuses and inhuman acts. It has particularly affected a number of you, who have been brutally driven out of your native lands, where Christians have been present since apostolic times."
Pope Francis was, of course, referring to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria -- a reign of death and destruction that was selected as the year's top religion news story by members of the Religion Newswriters Association. And once again, Pope Francis was selected as Religion Newsmaker of the Year.
Here is the rest of the RNA Top 10 list, which included several ties:
(2) The Supreme Court, in another 5-4 decision, rules that two closely held companies -- Hobby Lobby and Conestoga -- can claim religious objections to the Affordable Care Act mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer employees, and often students, health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including "morning-after pills."
(3) A rapid deterioration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict includes the kidnappings and murders of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, amid increasing tensions over access to the Temple Mount. This includes an Israel-Hamas war that leaves more than 2,000 dead and a hellish attack on rabbis at prayer in a synagogue. (TIE) Pope Francis continues his efforts to reach out to the needy, marginalized Catholics and people of other faiths.
(4) Liberal Protestants continue to move toward full acceptance of same-sex marriage and the ordination of noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy.
(5) Health-care workers, many of them missionaries or activists from faith-based groups, courageously carry on with their work during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
(6) A broad coalition of Catholics, mainline Protestants and some evangelicals, especially in Latino congregations, celebrate President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration reform.
(7) Pakistani Muslim Malala Yousafzai -- still recovering from Taliban gunshots in retaliation for her work supporting the education of girls -- shares the 2014 Nobel Prize with children's rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, a Hindu from India.
(8) Clergy and other activists from faith-based groups help support peaceful protests against racial injustice after a shooting in Ferguson, Mo., during riots before and after a grand jury declines to indict police officer Darren Wilson. Similar protests take place in New York, after another case in which an unarmed black suspect died in an altercation with white officers.
(9) After years of debate, the Church of England votes to allow women bishops. For the first time, women lead three of America's major mainline Protestant churches and the U.S. Navy names its first female head chaplain.
(10) India elects Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi as prime minister, creating tensions with the land's religious minorities. (TIE) Movie critics proclaim 2014 as "The Year of the Bible" after the latest wave of films centering on events in the Bible -- from Noah to the Exodus and on to the Rapture -- or focusing on other religious themes.
Anyone passing the Hoffman home in the Cincinnati suburbs during the holidays will see festive blue and white lights and an inflatable bear in the front yard -- a bear wearing a Santa cap and holding a candy cane.
This is where things got complicated, with a typically blunt question from a child: Should Jews have a bear in the yard during Hanukkah?
"I said it was a Jewish bear," said Neal Hoffman, a marketing executive. "One of our boys came right back with: 'What about the candy cane? Don't candy canes have something to do with Christmas?' I said I didn't think there was anything specifically Christian about a candy cane. Is there?"
Well, that's complicated, too, since the candy cane often shown with Santa Claus is a symbol that links the shopping-mall superstar back through the mists of history to the 4th Century St. Nicholas of Myra, in Asia Minor. The saint was a bishop and, thus, this spiritual shepherd carried a crook staff -- which in Western church tradition is shaped like a large candy cane.
"The main thing is that I want my kids to know that they're Jewish and our celebration of the holidays is different," said Hoffman, in a telephone interview. "They also know mommy is a Catholic and we celebrate both holidays, but we really celebrate Hanukkah -- big time.
"We're in both worlds, but we're trying make a statement that we're different and that this is a good thing."
The holiday puzzle is really complicated during Hanukkah, the eight-day "festival of lights" that began at sundown on Tuesday, Dec. 16, this year. The season's primary symbol is a menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum that represents a miracle in which a one-day supply of pure oil burned for eight days after Jewish rebels -- the Maccabees -- liberated the temple from Greek oppressors.
Part of the puzzle, of course, is that this relatively minor Jewish holiday is aligned with Christmas during "The Holidays," an explosion of secular marketing and festivities that dominate American life this time of year. Many Jews avoid Christmas altogether, striving to focus on Hanukkah traditions. Some keep the season's gift-giving modest, to avoid appearances of turning Hanukkah into a "Jewish Christmas."
However, many Jews -- especially in interfaith homes -- have made their peace with Christmas, while exploring the line between the sacred and secular. Is a green tree safe, especially when topped with a six-pointed Star of David? Do snowflakes and icicles suggest the North Pole and, thus, Santa Claus?
Holiday cards also inspire a "swirling snow globe of emotions" for many Jews, noted Lenore Skenazy, of the reality television show "World's Worst Mom." Most generic holiday cards don't cry out "Victory for the Maccabees!"
"So the question is: Does sending a not-specifically-Hanukkah card mean the sender is buying into Christmas?", she asked, in an essay for The Forward. Some Jews choose "purely wintery" blue and silver cards -- avoiding red and green -- seeking a look that is "neither Santa nor latke."
But some people question all those winter symbols, too. "Snowmen, believe it or not, turn out to be a minefield all their own," she noted. One friend she contacted stressed, "No trees, wreaths or snowmen for me! ... By trees, she meant Christmas trees. Ditto, Christmas wreaths. But snowmen? Big, smiling balls of snow? Those are taboo?"
Are reindeer safe? How about polar bears? When one of his sons begged for one of the hip "Elf on the Shelf" plush toys, Hoffman responded by creating a "Mensch on a Bench" alternative. This toy is now sold nationwide, with its a hardback story book explaining its Yiddish roots.
In the age of social media -- especially zillions of visual Pinterest boards -- all kinds of secular and religious Jews are sharing tips on how to create do-it-yourself traditions that reflect their own unique family trees, he said. It's hard to imagine a more American approach to solving the holiday puzzles in the lives of many modern families.
"We're just not accepting what's been done before and what's out there on the shelves and that's that," said Hoffman. "We're thinking this through as a family and coming up with a plan that is meaningful for us. ... That's what matters the most. We are all in this together, as a family."
The blitz begins while Jack-O-Lanterns are fresh and Thanksgiving turkeys are still frozen, a manic parade of hip elves, sexy angels, reluctant Santas, wisecracking families, toy-obsessed children and even those Euro-trash terrorists who crash holiday office parties.
Entertainment industry pros still call them "Christmas movies."
While the logic may be circular, a "Christmas movie is a movie that everyone expects to be shown on television during the Christmas season two or three years after it was released and then at Christmas for years and years after that," said entertainment scribe Hank Stuever, author of "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present."
"It's easy to explain why people think 'Love Actually' is a Christmas movie, or 'Home Alone' is a Christmas movie, or 'Elf' is a Christmas movie. What's hard to explain is why 'Die Hard' as a Christmas movie."
All it takes for a movie to earn this label is few holiday touches. This means adding symbolic dollops of decorations, lights, songs, tears, travel, parties and shopping to a family-friendly script, said Stuever, a veteran Washington Post reporter. Most importantly, these movies can be chopped up and surrounded by all of the advertisements that power the season.
"The television is always right there in the middle of everything and everyone in the room -- all ages -- needs to agree to watch what's on," he said.
Skeptics might ask how "Christmas movies" are linked to the actual holy season on the Christian calendar. That misses the point, said Stuever. The rites depicted in these movies are not about Christmas, as much as they are evidence of how most Americans actually celebrate Christmas.
Take the classic "A Christmas Story," with its tale of young Ralphie and his life-and-death quest for an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. This may be "the least religious Christmas movie ever made," he said.
Instead, it tracks the preparatory rites for an American Christmas, such as worrying over the perfect Santa letter, struggling with tree decorations, facing the store Santa, preparing an epic meal and, of course, endless litanies of hints about must-have toys. Everything must be perfect in order to produce the explosion of joy and wonder that is supposed to surround the Christmas-morning extravaganza.
For centuries, Christians prepared for the 12-day Christmas season -- which begins on Dec. 25 -- with four solemn weeks of Advent. "What we have now is a kind of secular Advent. ... That's what we see in 'A Christmas Story,' " noted Stuever. While believers used to fast and pray during Advent, now "we shop and watch television."
At the opposite pole of the Christmas-movie spectrum is the Golden Age Frank Capra classic "It's a Wonderful Life," noted the Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus, whose runs the DecentFilms.com website.
Rather than depicting a holiday season centering on gift giving and festivities, it offers a parable -- which peaks with shouts of "Merry Christmas!" -- about pain, greed, faithfulness, sacrifice and, ultimately, redemption. It's almost impossible to picture a similar film being made today, let alone by a Catholic filmmaker who wove religious symbolism and themes into his story.
"When you look at 'It's a Wonderful Life' and then you look at a more modern film like 'A Christmas Story' you realize that both of them reflect the eras in which they were created," said Greydanus. "One tells a story about sacrifice and family and faith and community and redemption. The other tells a few funny stories about Christmas and that's that."
So what's the ultimate message?
Greydanus noted that in one popular modern holiday vision, "The Santa Clause 2," the character who is both Scott Calvin and Santa Claus tells adults assembled for a dreary holiday party that they must remember "what the true spirit of Christmas is all about." That turns out to be a wave of child-like wonder produced -- literally -- by bags of toys.
"So in the end, a good Christmas movie these days is one that fits the narrative we see all around us," he added. "It's supposed to provide us with happy, joyful feelings and a wave of nostalgia that we have been taught to associate with Christmas. ...
"Whether that has anything to do with the meaning of the real Christmas season is another matter altogether. But it seems to be hard to make movies about that."
When members of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church celebrate their patron saint's feast day on Dec. 6th, they may be able to mark the occasion with prayers on newly blessed ground in lower Manhattan.
It depends on work schedules at the construction site for their new sanctuary, which will overlook the National September 11 Memorial. This is a problem Greek Orthodox leaders welcome after a long, complicated legal struggle to rebuild the tiny sanctuary -- 80 yards from the World Trade Center's South Tower -- which was the only church destroyed in the 9/11 maelstrom.
"It's all of this powerful symbolism and its link to that Sept. 11 narrative that lets people grab onto the effort to rebuild this church and see why it matters," said Steven Christoforou, a youth ministry leader at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Facing the giant holes at Ground Zero, he said, it was natural to see them as tombs, as symbols of never-ending grief. Today, the footprints of the twin towers have become fountains in reverse, with curtains of water pouring into a dark void that disappears down into the underground at the 9/11 memorial and museum.
But sometime in 2016, or early 2017, the new St. Nicholas National Shrine will literally shine -- a dome lit from within, through layers of marble and glass -- over this memorial plaza.
"From our perspective, this is really about hope and the Resurrection," said Christoforou, who is making videos about the project for young people. The "smoking hole in the ground" after 9/11 became an "archetypal symbol of death, grief and loss for millions. ... We really need to believe that something can rise again, out of that void."
St. Nicholas vanished beneath a firestorm of concrete, steel, glass and heat. Few objects survived, other than an embroidered velvet Bible cover, minus its Bible, and a bell clapper, minus its bell. Workers found marble altar fragments, a twisted candelabrum and beeswax candles -- which survived even though a 700-pound fireproof safe vanished.
"We remember this very place filled with ruins, hiding under piles of debris, the pulverized remains of 3,000 innocent victims. Breathing a very heavy air, saturated with the dust of storm, wood, iron and with tiny particles of human bodies, we remember walking with heavy hearts to the specific place where our St. Nicholas Church stood as a building for more than a century," said Archbishop Demetrios, leader of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, during recent groundbreaking rites for the shrine.
"We stood there frozen, paralyzed and cried."
It was horrible, yet holy. A sanctuary had become a small collection of relics.
One icon that did survive is called the Life-Giving Font and its Byzantine image shows the Virgin Mary embracing the Christ child, above a font of blessed water that flows into a large marble basin below, which is shaped like a cross. In the symbolic language of iconography, this one image -- now connected to 9/11 -- combines baptism, sacrifice, death and new life.
The canvas icon is mounted on a wooden board that has been broken and crushed to the point that the ripped icon is all that is holding it together, said Father Evagoras Constantinides, a member of the archdiocese team on this project. It will be placed, with other objects found at the site, somewhere in the new shrine -- perhaps in the interfaith center for meditation and mourning, which will be outside the main sanctuary.
"We do have some relics, you might say, from the original church," said Constantinides. "We know this place, this shrine, will become a destination point for pilgrims from all over the Orthodox world. But we also know that this is not a Greek thing. This is not just an Orthodox thing. This is for everyone."
When it's time to consecrate the church, he added, its leaders will focus on one final symbolic detail. The safe that vanished contained a gold-plated ossuary holding small bones from three saints -- including St. Nicholas of Myra, the 4th century saint who is the patron saint of orphans, merchants, sailors and all those in distress.
"That is the time when we can reach out to other churches" around the world dedicated to St. Nicholas, he said. "That is when we will try to find a way to replace what was lost and bring St. Nicholas home again."