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.

Growing LGBT theological tensions keep shaking American evangelicals

Growing LGBT theological tensions keep shaking American evangelicals

Tensions on the left side of American evangelicalism had been building for years and then Christian ethics professor David Gushee drew a bright red line.

Many religious groups reject gay-rights efforts because of ancient doctrines on marriage and sexuality, he noted in a Religion News Service essay last year. Some have tried to do this quietly.

"It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it," wrote Gushee, who teaches at Mercer University, a hub for Bible Belt progressives. He is the author of numerous books, including, "Changing Our Mind, Kingdom Ethics."

Gushee warned the orthodox: "Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you."

This warning was one moment of clarity that led to the August 25 Nashville Statement from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The manifesto restates many ancient Christian doctrines, such as: "God designed marriage as a covenantal union of only a man and a woman that is the sole context for sexual intercourse."

However, the preamble addresses new challenges, stating: "Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being."

Thus, Article 10 states: "WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness. WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree."

Country music and the emotional ties that bind Saturday night and Sunday morning

Country music and the emotional ties that bind Saturday night and Sunday morning

Anyone looking for the late Johnny Cash will find him in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Folk Music Hall of Fame and many other American music honor rolls.

 But when asked to describe his musical values, Cash preached country gospel: "I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And mother. And God."

That's the kind of raw, tear-jerking storytelling that country fans embrace, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent Revisionist History podcast called "The King of Tears." That emotional worldview may be one reason people in different regions and social classes have trouble understanding each other.

"I'm talking about the bright line that divides American society -- not the color line, or the ideological lines. I'm talking about the sad song line," said Gladwell, best known for his work in The New Yorker and bestsellers like "The Tipping Point."

Contrast the worldviews of rock and country, he said. Anyone who studies Rolling Stone Magazine's top 50 rock songs will mainly hear "songs about wanting to have sex, songs about having sex, songs about getting high, presumably after having sex. ... In all of those 50 songs, nobody dies after a long illness, no marriage disintegrates, nobody's killed on a battlefield, no mother grieves for a son."

In terms of raw country emotions, said Gladwell, it's hard to top the epic memorial service after the death of superstar George Jones in 2013. At one point, Vince Gill sobbed his way through the heart of his classic "Go Rest High on that Mountain," with Patty Loveless singing a harmony line alone. That song was inspired by the death of Gill's brother, as well as the death of country star Keith Whitley.

Pastor looking for God-shaped holes in the 24/7 human dramas at Waffle House

Pastor looking for God-shaped holes in the 24/7 human dramas at Waffle House

In every religious sanctuary, there are people who believe they've staked out pews as their very own.

The same thing happens at Waffle House, those very-Southern, 24-hour-a-day diners in 25 American states. Many of the patrons claim their own territory day after day, week after week.

The Rev. Gary Liederbach is a Waffle House regular in Madison, Ala., where he leads the One Direction Community, a circle of house churches, community meals and kid's groups targeting people who may not feel comfortable in regular churches. He's an ordained United Methodist minister, but doesn't wear that on his sleeve when using the Waffle House as his unofficial office.

One recent morning, Liederbach sat down at the diner's middle bar, where the line of side-by-side chairs almost requires diners to chat with waitresses and each other. He didn't see the empty coffee cup of a rough, 50-something regular that, as a matter of pastoral discretion, he called "Chuck."

When Chuck came back inside from smoking a cigarette, he lit into Liederbach with a loud f-bomb, blasting him for taking his seat.

"The two waitresses who were standing there almost jumped over the bar and verbally attacked Chuck," wrote the pastor, in an online reflection. "One said, 'Now you listen here you mother f***er, this man here is a f***ing man of God and if you ever talk to him like that again I will kick your f***ing @ss!' " Another added: "He's my f***ing pastor! … Show some f***ing respect!"

The waitresses exchanged high fives and one shouted an image -- sort of -- from a recent Bible lesson with Liederbach: "Sword of the spirit, b*tch!"

Chuck walked out.

From baseball to decades in a pulpit, with lots of courage along the way

From baseball to decades in a pulpit, with lots of courage along the way

When the Rev. William Greason tells his own story, he stresses that God gave him the ability to throw a baseball, but that gift wasn't what mattered the most -- because his true home was a pulpit.

Of course, that's exactly what a 92-year-old preacher is going to say hours before entering the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame for his trailblazing efforts as -- in the words of sports scribes -- "Oklahoma City's Jackie Robinson," pitching for the Oklahoma City Indians in 1952.

"The Lord laid this on my heart. He said, 'You're going somewhere where you were not wanted. … You gotta go and you gotta represent me,' " said Greason, in a guest sermon at the St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, just before the Aug. 14 hall of fame rites.

"I've been careful about asserting myself, wanting to be in positions where I didn't have any business being. … But it's been a blessing, though, to know you have a God who is able to do all things."

Greason's road to the pulpit was long and, at times, dangerous. Case in point: When the American flag was raised high on Iwo Jima's Mt. Suribachi, Greason was among the young Marines who saluted it from the beach. Watching his buddies die in combat was tougher than facing jeers and sprays of beer from racist fans.

His former Birmingham Black Barons teammate Willie Mays put it this way, in a tribute to Greason: "He was a groundbreaker in Oklahoma City, a World War II veteran honored for his service, a man of God and a good friend to many."

Greason's sermon was a revelatory moment after seven years of work building the case to honor him, said amateur sports historian Mark House. Everyone knew Greason still preaches almost every Sunday at Birmingham's Bethel Baptist Church, where he has served since 1969. But seeing him in action was a shock.

Pastors must help suffering people wrestle with broken bodies, minds and spirits

Pastors must help suffering people wrestle with broken bodies, minds and spirits

There was good news and bad news in LifeWay research that probed whether Protestant churches in America were ready to minister to people suffering from mental illness.

Good news? Only 21 percent of people who attended worship services once a week disagreed with this statement: "If I had a mental health issue, I believe most churches would welcome me." Alas, 55 percent of those who never went to church disagreed.

More bad news? Nearly half of self-identified born-again and evangelical Protestants said prayer and Bible study alone could defeat schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder and other serious mental illnesses.

To suffering people that sounds like, "Take two Bible passages and call me in the morning," according to the Rev. Todd Peperkorn, author of "I Trust When Dark My Road: A Lutheran View of Depression."

Many pastors and counselors still think mental illnesses are spiritual problems caused by "sinful choices" alone, instead of complex puzzles of brokenness in body, mind and spirit, he said, at a Lutheran Public Radio conference earlier this summer in Collinsville, Ill. 

Thus, they believe mental illness is the "result of a lack of obedience. And so, if you could only manage to obey God a little more, a little better, then any mental illness that you had would magically go away." This leads to a blunt prescription: "Sin less! Got that? All of your problems are going to go away if you would just stop sinning. So get on with that. … You kind of turn Christianity into Weight Watchers."

Peperkorn stressed that he has seen this hellish struggle from both sides -- as a pastor and as a patient with clinical depression. Just over a decade ago, he said, he found himself working his way through Holy Week to Easter, while also pondering the end of all things -- as in suicide.

Rabbi Lord Sacks: Religious believers face harrowing choices in these tense times

Rabbi Lord Sacks: Religious believers face harrowing choices in these tense times

As long as there have been chase scenes -- think Keystone Kops or Indiana Jones -- movie heroes have been caught straddling danger while trying to get from one vehicle to another.

Inevitably, the road splits and the hero has to make a decision.

Religious believers now face a similar challenge after decades of bitter conflict in the postmodern world, said Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in a recent lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York State.

For a long time, "we were able to have our feet in society and our head in religion, or the other way around. … But today the two cars are diverging and they can't be held together any longer," said Sacks, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2005 and made a life peer in the House of Lords.

It's an agonizing dilemma that reminded the rabbi of a classic Woody Allen quote: "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

Truth is, there's no way to escape the Internet, which Sacks called the greatest economic, political and social revolution since the invention of the printing press.

"I sum it up in a single phrase -- cultural climate change," said Sacks, who from 1991-2013 led the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. "It's not so much a matter of more religion or less religion, because the truth is that both are happening at once. … The result is a series of storms in the West and even more elsewhere in the Middle East, in Asia and Africa."

For four centuries, European and American elites wrongly assumed the world would get more and more secular.

Looking for alternative forms of faith in the streets of postmodern Czech Republic

Looking for alternative forms of faith in the streets of postmodern Czech Republic

PRAGUE -- The Czech Republic's capital has long been called the "city of 100 spires" and there are many church steeples among all those soaring medieval landmarks.

But along the winding, cobblestone streets, something else is happening at eye level in the bookstores, artsy shops, coffee hangouts and sidewalk posters. This is where yoga mixes with sacred rocks, folk religion bumps into numerology and dark themes in fantasy comics blend into pop versions of Hinduism and Buddhism.

In today's Czech Republic, people are "still asking questions about what is good and what is bad, and questions about life and death," said Daniel Raus, a journalist and poet known for his years with Czech Radio, covering politics, culture and religion.

"What is different is that (Czechs) are saying, 'I will decide what is good and I will decide what is bad. No one can tell me what to believe about any of this.' "

These trends can be seen in revealing numbers in a new Pew Research Center study entitled "Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe."

Looking at the big picture, the survey shows that the influence and practice of faith is slipping in lands long identified with Catholicism, those closest to the European West. Eastern Orthodoxy is rising, especially in lands in which faith and national identity blend. Among the Orthodox, however, statistics linked to prayer and worship remain sobering.

But the location of the most stunning changes is clear.

"The most dramatic shift … has occurred in the Czech Republic, where the share of the public identifying as Catholic dropped from 44% in 1991 to 21% in the current survey," noted the Pew summary document. "Today, the Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in Europe, with nearly three-quarters of adults (72%) describing their religion as atheist, agnostic or 'nothing in particular.' "

Donald Trump meets worship wars in controversial Kennedy Center, Dallas rites

Donald Trump meets worship wars in controversial Kennedy Center, Dallas rites

Rare is the Church of England worshipper who needs a pew copy of Hymns Ancient and Modern in order to sing No. 578, which is often performed with great pomp -- trumpets and all -- in the rites that symbolize the old glory of Great Britain.

The first verse: "God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen! Send her victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us: God save the Queen."

That works in England, which has a state church. However, some flashy church-state rites at the Kennedy Center recently raised lots of American eyebrows, inspiring online shouts of "Idolatry!" In particular, critics focused on an anthem performed by the First Baptist Church of Dallas choir and orchestra during the "Celebrate Freedom Rally."

The first verse, sung before a speech by President Donald Trump, proclaimed: "Make America great again! Lift the torch of freedom all across the land. Step into the future joining hand in hand. And make America great again."

The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist, Dallas, was just as blunt during his remarks during the rally in Washington, D.C.

"God declared that the people, and not the pollsters, were going to choose the next president of the United States and they chose Donald Trump," shouted Jeffress, an early Trump supporter. "Christians understood that he alone had the leadership skills to reverse the downward death spiral our nation was in."

Jeffress later defended the anthem, which was based on the Trump campaign slogan. It was not "sung in a church as a worship song on Sunday morning," he told The Christian Post.

However, others were just as offended by the fireworks, flag-waving and political sermonizing during this year's "Freedom Sunday" services in First Baptist, Dallas. A typical response came at the "Ponder Anew" blog in the Patheos public-square forum.