Faith at Altitude

Religion and spirituality in the shadow of Pikes Peak

Friday, March 31, 2006

Grads and God

In The Gazette's Letters to the Editor section Wednesday, a letter from Russell Flora took Pikes Peak Community College to task for holding its graduation ceremonies in a "worship center" -- New Life Church's mammoth 7,500-seat auditorium.

"Your public community college is having its graduation in a church," Flora wrote. "What happened to separation of church and state? Does this not seem odd at best, borderline illegal, morally wrong and unethical?"

I checked in with New Life just to see what the deal was.

Apparently this'll be the second year PPCC will hold graduation at New Life, and the church isn't charging the college for its use: It's part of an agreement wherein the church can use the parking lot of PPCC's nearby Rampart Range campus for overflow parking on Sunday mornings. New Life will provide some ancillary support for the graduation -- janitorial services, I suppose -- but will be otherwise uninvolved in the ceremony.

New Life officials say other secular groups have used their facilities: Liberty High School holds its advanced placements tests in New Life Buildings; Trout Fishing in America apparently held some sort of event there (it's unknown whether New Life's baptismal was used); there was recently an Anti-terrorism Seminar there, as well.

"We built it (the auditorium) to be multifunctional," said Carolyn Haggard of New Life. The auditorium itself doesn't have any religious symbolism that I've seen -- no stained glass, no pews, not even a pulpit. In fact, they'd like their buildings to be utilized by the community perhaps even more than they are now.

Churches have almost always been used for public and social gatherings: European cathedrals weren't just used Sunday mornings. They were open for meetings, markets and all sorts of pretty diverse uses. The reverse is true, too: Many local schools house Sunday morning church services.

Can you hear me now?

So, I was listening to Paul Harvey on the radio coming into work this morning. He mentioned more and more people are being buried with their cell phones -- on purpose.

I guess Ouija boards are a little too old school now ...

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Divine divolumes

"The Da Vinci Code" juggernaut is still steaming ahead. With the movie set to be released this May, Dan Brown's book -- the biggest-selling fiction title that doesn't have the name "Harry Potter" on the jacket -- is still selling gazillions of copies (give or take a few), and just marked its 155th consecutive week on Publishers Weekly Best-seller chart. This week, it again looks down from the top of the hardcover fiction list.

But it's not the only religiously themed book on the bestseller lists. It seems readers just can't get enough God -- or enough unsettling, "Da Vinci"-style mystery.

Take a look at the hardcover Top Ten: No. 2 is "The Tenth Circle" by Jodi Picoult; a metaphorical journey through Dante's "Inferno." No. 5 is "The Secret Supper," a period mystery focusing on Da Vinci's painting of the Last Supper. Two gnostic-glorifying stories of the Templar Knights make the top 10 -- "The Templar Legacy" at No. 6 and "The Last Templar" at No. 8.

And let's not forget No. 7, "The 5th Horseman." OK, so it doesn't appear to contain any overtly religious themes, but it still may be catering, in part, to a religiously savvy readership: The name is a riff off the book of Revelation.

It goes on: Kevin Phillips "American Theocracy," which in part critiques right-wing Christian influences on the country, is No. 2 on Publishers Weekly non-fiction list. "Inspiration: Your Ultimate Calling" is No. 7. "Misquoting Jesus" is No. 9.

And, if that wasn't enough, Rick Warren's "The Purpose-Driven Life" is still hanging out at No. 12.

And they say America is becoming more secular.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Is your God my God?

The Rev. Ted Haggard, senior pastor for New Life Church, was on CNN yesterday, talking about Abdul Rahman, the Afghan who got into hot water with the country's Islamic government for converting to Christianity. During the interview, Haggard said something pretty interesting: That Muslims and Christians don't worship the same God.

It was in response to a question from broadcaster Kyra Phillips during a joint on-air interview with Haggard and Yahya Hendi, a Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University:

Phillips: ... "Reverend, we are talking about the same God and the same belief in truth here?"

Haggard: "Well, no. We Christians don't believe that. Most evangelicals, Christians, believe that there is a difference in spiritual entities and people do worship different spiritual entities."

Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, was asked to clarify his comments later in the interview, when Hendi said that Muslims, like Christians, worship "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." Haggard responded by saying "No, I don't agree with that. And I think the personality -- or the evidences of the spiritual entities are showing themselves right now in Arabic countries."

Haggard's not the first to say this sort of thing. Some Christians, particularly conservative Christians, are extremely wary of Islam, and Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, made headlines a few years ago when he called Islam "a very evil and a very wicked religion." To say Islam and Christianity are faithful variants worshipping the same god makes some Christians very uncomfortable. Haggard didn't call Islam "wicked" or "evil," but he was definitely drawing a firm line between it and Christianity, which is telling in itself.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Faith in advertising

The United Church of Christ, a liberal, mainline protestant denomination, will launch a television ad featuring an ejector pew. Network television stations -- CBS, NBC and the like -- won't air the commercial, but several cable channels will run the spot in April.

In the commercial, an unnamed church jettisons all sorts of folks the church doesn't want hanging around: an Arab-American, a gay couple, a person using a walker, a woman caring for a noisy infant. It's a pretty harsh condemnation of church culture at large -- one lots of churches would probably argue is unfair. UCC officials say, though, it's in keeping with the denomination's "God is still speaking" motto.

"'Ejector seat' continues to challenge the church -- all churches -- to a more extravagant welcome," said the Rev. John Thomas, UCC's general minister and pastor. "While celebrating the way the UCC has reached wide in that welcome, it also reminds us that many in our communities continue to feel left out and left alone."

Several local churches belong to the United Church of Christ, including the 700-member First Congregational Church-United Church of Christ downtown.

Friday, March 24, 2006


As we head into the weekend, spiritually minded movie-goers might want to check out "V for Vendetta," the latest stylistic piece of popcorn philosophy from the Wachowski brothers ("The Matrix"). The main villian is apparently the caricature of a right-wing religious zealot who has gained control of the British government and is trying to stamp out, among other things, homosexuality and Islam.

Some might think the movie might not play that well at, say, Focus on the Family. And, for the most part, it doesn't. Still, even this Focus review indicates that the movie wrestles with issues well worth wrestling with. And, religion and politics aside, faith rarely lends itself neatly to caricaturization.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Cookin' up religion

So, it appears that Chef from Comedy Central's South Park is dead. At least mostly dead.

In the show, Chef's brain was scrambled after he joined the "Super Adventure Club," a thinly veiled jab at the real-life Scientology bent of Chef's voice, Isaac Hayes. Hayes left South Park after the program poked too much fun at Scientology.

It's been a rough go for the faith, which was created in the 20th century by author L. Ron Hubbard and has become the religion du jour for a busload of celebrities. The religion holds that man is a spiritual being who can break free of problems, materialism and bad vibes through the right training and mindset. As clear as I can figure, it's a religion without a diety.

Americans seem rather wary of Scientology: While most support the federal government giving funds to faith-based charities, 52 percent would draw the line if the charity was affiliated with Scientology, according too a recent study by the Pew Forum. Still, the faith clearly has a strong appeal for lots of folks, and I'd be interested to find out just what that appeal is.

If you have any thoughts on a local Scientology angle I could pursue in the future, let me know. I'm all ears.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The silver (and green) lining

As I mentioned last week, New Life Church was burgled of at least some of its tithes and offerings March 12. No word as to how the investigation is going, but apparently a couple of other churches in town are giving New Life -- the city's biggest church with 14,000 members -- a helping hand.

New Life officials report that Woodmen Valley Chapel and Church for All Nations both gave money to New Life after they heard about the burglary. Officials declined to say how much was donated.

Some people in Colorado Springs' faith community sometimes whisper that the city's churches have a difficult time working together. New Life has always presented itself as a catalyst for church cooperation -- its senior pastor, the Rev. Ted Haggard, has often said he wants all "life giving" churches in Colorado Springs to grow, not just his -- but some pastors are bound to be, well, a little envious of New Life's growth and presence. In church circles, size matters.

But for folks who like to hear about churches helping other churches, this is an encouraging gesture.

Monday, March 20, 2006

God squads

Men's NCAA Tournament update: Three Roman Catholic colleges rolled into the Sweet 16, but two of them -- Boston College and Villanova -- play against each other Thursday. Oral Roberts University lost (as expected), and those good ol' Duke Blue Demons keep rolling.

Under cover

An Afghan man, who converted to Christianity about 16 years ago, may be put to death for his religious convictions, according to an Associated Press article The Gazette ran in this morning's paper.

It's an interesting story -- underlining once again how seriously religion is treated in many places in the world. While it's not necessarily a crime to be a Christian (or Buddhist or Hindu) in the Middle Eastern countries I'm aware of, it IS a crime to leave the mother faith in some. Obviously, evangelizing for another faith will get evangelizers into even worse trouble. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if there are people with Colorado Springs ties that thumb their nose at such anti-evangelism laws with some regularity.

Colorado Springs is a city filled with missionaries and mission organizations. More than half of the 100 or so Christian ministries have some missionary component linked to them, and churches regularly send and sponsor missionaries around the globe. Some of these missionaries, I'd wager, go to the Middle East or other religious hot spots -- but it's almost impossible to get confirmation because saying where these missionaries are working could put their lives in danger. It's a faith kept in shadow.

For some, these missionaries are heroes. Others believe they are criminals. The missionaries may be going to countries where evangelism is explicitly forbidden by law. To many a Muslim mind, these missionaries are not only undermining the one true religion, but a nation's political and cultural underpinnings.

Are these missionaries potential religious martyrs or cultural moles? What do you think?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

As a religion writer, I believe faith and religion play an important part in practically every story out there. The NCAA Tourney may be something of a stretch, but just hold on:

There are at least six Roman Catholic schools in the tournament this year: Boston College, Gonzaga, Marquette, Seton Hall, Villanova and Xavier. At least three of those teams -- B.C., Gonzaga and Villanova -- have a decent shot to make some waves. Do you think Pope Benedict XVI will be watching?

There also is a died-in-the-wool evangelical school in play - Oral Roberts University, founded by the noted televangelist. It's a 16th seed, but apparently has a pretty good collection of outside shooters and could potentially pull an upset. Gambling is typically frowned upon by the evangelical community. Do you think that, this year, Oral Roberts U. is turning a blind eye to college bracket pools?

The Duke Blue Devils are a No. 1 seed and have won three national titles. Should antichrist watchers take note?

Next year, I'm rooting for the Hustlin' Quakers of Indiana's Earlham College to make it in. Maybe they can play the Praying Colonels of Kentucky's Centre College.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Pilfering from the pulpit

New Life Church was the victim of a theft this weekend: No one's saying exactly how much was taken, but considering New Life attracts thousands of folks each Sunday -- it's the largest church in town with an annual budget in the millions -- it could be quite a bit.

The folks at New Life feel a little embarrassed about the whole thing. Heck, in the church's view, New Life is just a cash-holding middle-man, shuffling congregants' money to do God's (and the church's) work. They feel a little like the Wells Fargo folks would if one of their money trucks was stolen.

But this sort of thing happens, sadly, quite a bit. A quick Web search pulls up hundreds of church robberies -- some involving millions of dollars embezzled by church treasurers, others the pilfering of some low-cash media equipment. And then, of course, there's this, featuring a samuri-wielding would-be thief.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Westboro returns

Fred Phelps' infamous Westboro Baptist Church was in town over the weekend (and in Maryland and Michigan), picketing the funeral of a local Fort Carson soldier (Sgt. Gordon Misner) who was killed in Iraq. They've become a fixture at such funerals because they believe our casualties over there (and those from Hurricane Katrina and AIDS, among other things) are God's punishment on America for being too accepting of homosexuality.

I hesitate to even bring this up, because this group thrives on attention -- any attention. They are built to shock. Westboro has less than 100 members (most of them part of the Phelps clan), but apparently a hefty bankroll to travel around the country and picket funerals and "gay-friendly" organizations that includes, in Phelps' estimation, Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family.

Several states are mulling laws that could ban protests at funerals, but some experts wonder if such laws are constitutional. It's a difficult issue ... grief-stricken family members certainly don't want to hear protesters outside the church door, but what about that whole freedom of speech thing? What do you think?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Dinosaurs on cruise

Coming up in Saturday's paper, readers will see a story titled "Jurassic Ark," about a Littleton-based group that leads creationist tours through, say, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

I took the tour with the group, as did museum curator Kirk Johnson, and it was a pretty interesting experience. Johnson -- who was introduced at the beginning of the tour as a scientist and evolutionist -- became as much a curiosity as the dinosaur skeletons: Thrity minutes after the tour concluded, I found a Denver-area pastor in a fairly one-sided, animated conversation with Johnson trying to get him to admit that he definitively exists.

"Ask him if he exists," the pastor told me. "That should be part of the story."

For the record, Johnson is pretty sure he exists, but scientifically, it'd be an impossible thing to prove, because if he didn't exist than his observations would be the product of something or someone else and therefore faulty. Think "The Matrix" and the whole warped reality thing.

Anyhow, the tour illustrated a heavy-duty clash of worldviews: Each side thinks the other is full of it. Creationists argue that scientists "created" evolution for their own ends; Johnson said modern-day creationism actually "evolved" in the last 100 years. But both Johnson and Bill Jack, who led the creationist tour, agree on one really important point: It's important to ask questions. Why do scientists believe the T-rex lived 65 million years ago? Why do they think he ate meat? Why do creationists like Jack believe they made their way to Noah's ark? And why didn't they eat the rest of the animals?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Happy, happy, happy

The Pew Research Center says that the typical evangelical Christian is happier than the average, "unsaved" Joe. In a study released earlier this year, 43 percent of evangelical Protestants said they were "very happy," about nine percentage points higher than the national average.

Still, some say these evangelicals are faking it. These folks are expected to be happy (goes the theory), so they are.

"There's very little room in megachurches for lament and grief and expressing one's deep sadness," said Ruth Tucker, a professor at Calvin Theological Seminary in the linked Christianity Today article. "If you feel deep depression or sadness and are going through a rough time, you are told to stay home from church."

I don't know how many Christians are actually told to keep away if they're feeling blue, but certainly the typical evangelical church atmosphere is pretty peppy. For instance, New Life Church attracts around 10,000 deliriously happy worshippers every weekend, who get caught up in the place's rock-concert-like vibe. They bounce. They dance. They wave their hands. And people do seem to smile an awful lot there.

Maybe it all goes back to what our mothers taught us: Smile, and eventually you'll feel like smiling.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Think church is full of hot air?

You ain't seen nothing yet. Check this out.

It looks like the inflatable church is mainly built (?) for weddings, but I can't help thinking that, with as many Colorado Springs churches looking for places to meet these days, this might be a creative solution.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Changing guard

Yesterday, Peter Bradley, president of the International Bible Society, announced plans to retire -- eventually. He'll hang around for as long as the IBS needs him. For my money, he's heading one of the region's most fascinating religious groups.

IBS's goal, created under Bradley, is to get Bibles into the hands of 2 billion people by 2008. When it comes to seeing that mission through, IBS has been pretty darn creative -- and sometimes controversial. Several years ago, IBS was behind a controversial translation of the Bible called Today's New International Version. IBS said it represented the best biblical scholarship available, but that didn't stop some conservative Christians from blasting the new Bible -- sometimes with a shotgun.

Now, the IBS is producing a new Bible without chapters and verses and rearranging the order of some of the texts -- again, a move that will likely make some Christians uncomfortable. And let's not forget that IBS was also behind the Cityreachers Bible -- cheap, city-centric Bibles delivered through a city's daily newspaper, like advertising flyers or shampoo samples. IBS used The Gazette for its Cityreachers program in December, 2004.

Bradley wasn't afraid to take risks. It'll be interesting to see if IBS remains one of the evangelical movement's most active risk-takers.

Monday, March 06, 2006

It's not easy being gay

At the risk of going on Focus on the Family overload ...

According to the Associated Press, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute wants the government to take a greater role in managing or monitoring religious programs designed to turn youth away from homosexuality.

The Task Force's report on such programs came on the heels of a February "Love Won Out" conference in St. Louis, sponsored by Focus and a homosexual recovery group called Exodus International. The conference teaches attendees that homosexuals can change their lifestyle. Focus has produced dozens of similar conferences, and the Task Force seems to be taking direct aim at these conferences. Folks for the task force argue that such programs damage the psyche of young gays and lesbians. And frankly, they add, the programs don't work all that well, either.

"Many of these programs are crossing the line as to what is approved under freedom of expression," said Matt Foreman, executive director for the task force. "This deserves attention. It deserves to be regulated."

Bill Maier, a Focus vice president and psychologist-in-residence, took issue with the report. Are you surprised?

"This report is another attempt to silence a message that is not tolerated by America ’s gay-activist organizations — a message that change is possible," Maier said in a press release from Focus' public policy organ, CitizenLink.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Lion and the Penguin will win awards together ..., a huge multi-faith informational clearinghouse on the Web, hopped on the Academy Awards bandwagon and handed out its Beliefnet Film Awards. The big winners: "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "March of the Penguins."

Both movies figured prominently in a story I wrote this year about spiritual films, and "Narnia" wound up being a blockbuster. Colorado Springs particularly loved this adaptation of C.S. Lewis' classic children's story/Christian allegory, with large numbers of Springsians flocking to the film long after it dropped off the national radar.

Narnia fans shook their collective fist when the movie was snubbed by the Academy Awards (though it may have gotten some sort of acknowledgement for "best talking beavers"), so they can take solice in this award.

As for "March," well, what can you say? It's a movie that evolutionists and creationists can both point to and say "see? I told you so."

Food, glorious food

Care and Share is a mammoth operation. Its main warehouse in southeast Colorado Springs is stacked to the rafters with food; it looks, frankly, a little like the warehouse in the last scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" -- the warehouse where Jimmy Hoffa might still be hiding.

I wrote a story about Care and Share and its partnership with faith-based organizations for Saturday's paper. It was pretty illuminating, really ... the complexity involved in feeding the region's needy. Care and Share serves, essentially, as middleman -- a bridge between groups with food to give away and groups with hungry to feed.

There's never a lack of folks to give food to, apparently -- but ironically, there's never a lack of food. Care and Share doled out more than 7 million pounds of food last year, but turned away millions more because they couldn't store it. Interesting.

Anyway, check out the story and let me know what you think.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

This is why no-one writes thank-you notes anymore

Samuel Alito, newly approved Supreme Court justice, apparently thought he was doing the right thing when he sent some letters out the other day, thanking folks for their prayers and support. And, it looks from the text of the letter he sent to James Dobson at Focus on the Family, he hoped Dobson would read the letter over the air.

But several activists, including Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, took issue with the thank-you note, saying it wasn't very judicious of Alito to write them.

Dobson -- who's locked horns with Lynn over about a gazillion issues -- calls Lynn's remarks and others like them "nothing short of ridiculous."

"He simply wrote asking me to thank those who prayed for strength and wisdom during the past few months," Dobson wrote in a statement released late Wednesday. "Many of those same Christians also pray daily for the president. We are called to do this in I Timothy 2:1-2, which urges believers to pray for those in authority and leadership over us."