Monday, May 23, 2011

The Christophers: Bearing Christ in the Stories

What do Akira Kurosawa, M. Night Shyamalan, Denzel Washington, Ken Burns, Jason Reitman, Cardinal Avery Dulles, Rod Serling, Bishop Fulton Sheen, David Mamet, Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Heaton, Will Smith, Bob Dole, Clint Eastwood, and Big Bird all have in common?

They have all been honored by The Christophers for outstanding work in media and communications.

When he won a Christopher Award for his work on the 2002 CBS News special, "9/11," writer/editor and Catholic Deacon Greg Kandra counted the prize as especially meaningful. Although the documentary had also brought him an Emmy and a Peabody Award, "Of all of them, the Christopher means the most to me, because it speaks most directly to the higher calling of working in the media—the effort to act as a candle in the darkness and be, somehow, a tiny beacon of hope."

Christopher Awards producer Tony Rossi with Shannon Hickey, founder of Mychal's Message ministry and recipient of the 2011 James Keller Award which recognizes young people who are changing the world for the better.

"It comes down to the power of storytelling," says Christopher Awards Producer Tony Rossi. "Whether they're fiction or non-fiction, stories have the power to make us think in ways that preaching doesn't. Stories don't necessarily tell us how to think or act. Instead, they show us the results of thinking or acting a certain way and let us make up our own minds."

Recognizing excellence in Film, Television and Books for both children and adults, The Christophers presented their 62nd Annual Awards on May 19, 2011 in categories covering both fiction and non-fiction. Honorees in attendance included director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler of the Academy Award-winning The King's Speech. Attendees were addressed by two special award winners whose lives also tell great stories: Shannon Hickey—the 21-year-old Foundress of Mychal's Message and recipient of the James Keller Award in recognition of her ministry to the homeless; and Christopher Leadership Award winner Captain Scotty Smiley—the U.S. Army's first blind active-duty officer and the current commander of the Warrior Transition Unit for ailing or wounded soldiers at West Point.

(To read further, go to

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why "Lost" Still Matters

The ABC TV series "Lost" left the air almost a year ago, yet it continues to generate lots of emotion from fans and detractors. Recently the show's Executive Producers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were blind-sided by insults from popular fantasy author George R.R. Martin, whose book Game of Thrones has been turned into an HBO mini-series, and who continues work on his Song of Fire and Ice book series.

Martin expressed concern about finding a satisfying ending for his series saying, "What if I f--- it up at the end? What if I do a Lost?"

That comment struck Lindelof and Cuse as unnecessarily harsh; they had poured their hearts and souls into "Lost's" storytelling. Both men responded on Twitter—Lindelof with some zingers directed at Martin; Cuse more succinctly with the statement, "We never raise ourselves up by demeaning the work of others."

Having watched "Lost" from the beginning, I think the level of animosity directed at it is completely unwarranted. The show told a brilliant, engaging story in a way that made it matter to people. In fact, it's a story that I believe continues to matter.

For the uninitiated, "Lost" dealt with a group of plane crash survivors who landed on a mysterious, mystical island. Initially, these castaways were emotionally-crippled souls without any genuine human connections, but through the love and responsibility they exhibited toward each other, they were able to grow as human beings—to move past the tragedies, mistakes, and obsessions that haunted them and eventually arrive in a state of grace. Despite everything you may hear about the show's complicated mythology, these are the issues the show was about at its core.

Before the haters and naysayers chime in, I do acknowledge that "Lost's" mythology grew unwieldy, and numerous threads were not tied up. But to paraphrase Shakespeare, "Lost" is a show far more sinned against than sinning. It dared to deal with big issues—faith and doubt, sin and redemption, earthly life and the afterlife—through some of the most well-drawn and acted characters ever created on television.

Take the issues of faith and doubt: There was an ongoing clash between the characters Jack Shephard and John Locke about whether our actions and experiences in life have some unseen purpose, or whether only those things that can be scientifically proven and deduced are real.

In one heated exchange, Locke screams at Jack, "Why do you find it so hard to believe?" Jack responds, "Why do you find it so easy?" Locke exclaims, "It's never been easy!"

Right there, you've got an encapsulated version of questions that most believers of all stripes have grappled with. In a world where earthquakes and tsunamis kill thousands, where people who've made evil decisions live to a ripe old age while innocent children die in accidents or from diseases, there can seem like plenty of reasons not to believe in a benevolent God. Yet if people are humble enough to consider the possibility that a reality exists beyond what the senses can experience, they may come to notice connections and meanings they never knew were there. "Lost" did an excellent job of bringing those questions and struggles to light in a way that resonates with the open-minded.

(To cotinue reading, go to

Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Hitman, a Priest, and a Confession

When a cold-blooded hitman bursts into a hotel room to execute someone, the intended victim does something unexpected: he asks the hitman for a moment to make his peace with God. The hitman lowers his gun as the victim takes a chain with a crucifix from around his neck, holds it tightly in his hands, kneels down with eyes closed, and begins moving his lips in silent prayer. Now peaceful and resigned to his fate, the victim opens his eyes, looks at the hitman, and says, "I forgive you." The hitman hesitates, looking confused and even regretfully at a peace he's never seen before, but then pulls the trigger anyway.

That's the incident that propels the story in the new online web series on, and across the DBG network, called The Confession. Shot partially in the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in New York City, the series stars Kiefer Sutherland as the hitman, and John Hurt as the priest to whom he contentiously goes to gain an understanding of what he witnessed.

Sutherland's character is definitely complex. He enters the confessional and speaks words from a bygone era of his childhood: "Bless me Father for I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed. I confess to Almighty God and to you, Father. It's been thirty-five years since my last confession."

When the priest asks if he's sorry for his sins, he says, "No," and goes on to explain he killed a man last night. The hitman isn't there for forgiveness, but rather to understand the peace he witnessed come over his victim the night before.

This begins a back-and-forth between Sutherland and Hurt that is intercut with scenes from the hitman's past. Though the flashbacks are interesting and well-done, the meat of the story hinges on the dynamic Sutherland and Hurt bring to their roles and their natural gravitas as actors. I felt like I could listen to the two of them debate morality and theology for an hour without getting bored. Those areas of morality and theology set this story apart.

(To continue reading, go to

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Catholics, Nazis, and Rat-Eating Aliens

It's rare for a TV series to make a Catholic priest one of its primary characters, but that's what the ABC show "V" did when it debuted in 2009. Not only was the character generally positive and even heroic, but as the show has evolved in Season 2, themes that hold special interest for Catholics have garnered a higher profile too.

In case you're not familiar with the basics: "V" is the story of a civilization of human-looking-aliens who come to earth under the guise of being friendly. Dubbed "the Visitors" (or Vs for short) and led by their queen Anna (Morena Baccarin) who promises "We are of peace, always," they provide humanity with healing centers to cure the incurable, clean energy that's free for the neediest, and promises of brotherhood and solidarity. To people whose needs are suddenly provided for, the Visitors are like gods.

That makes Catholic priest Father Jack Landry (Joel Gretsch) suspicious, since he's living out his devotion to the real God. Father Landry and FBI agent Erica Evans (Lost's Elizabeth Mitchell) eventually discover the Visitors are not as peaceful or as harmless as they appear to be; they begin a resistance movement.

Though "V" sounds like standard sci-fi fare, it manages to insert some genuine substance into its storytelling. For instance, one recent episode had Anna setting her sights on Father Jack—a threat because of his anti-Visitor sermons. Though the priest insists he is a man of peace, Anna captures video footage of him breaking up a fight; she edits it in a way that depicts him as advocating violence. When the video goes viral on the Internet, Anna believes she has discredited the priest's moral authority and weakened his opposition.

(To continue reading at, click here.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

"The Life of a Christian Doesn't Guarantee Sunshine and Lollipops"

Actress Patricia Heaton is well-known for playing a harried-but-loving wife and mom who makes us laugh, previously as Debra Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond” and now as Frankie Heck on the ABC comedy “The Middle.” But it was a tragedy involving her own mother that shaped the Emmy Award winner’s life at an early age.

When Heaton was 12, her mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. The resulting emotional and spiritual struggle lasted for years, but Heaton credits her Catholic upbringing with helping her achieve a level of acceptance and peace. On the Christopher Closeup radio show/podcast, she explained, “Many churches (say) if you’re a Christian, you really shouldn’t be suffering. In fact, suffering is a part of the walk, and I think that’s a very important torch the Catholics carry. You get made fun of for it a lot. The nuns always used to say, ‘Just offer it up.’ But it’s important because rain will come into your life and you need to be able to know that God is still there with you despite those problems.”

Knowing that God is with you through struggles is a personal belief of Heaton’s that has also found it’s way into her work, specifically through her role as a producer of the film Amazing Grace, which told the story of William Wilberforce’s efforts to end the slave trade in the British empire. She was introduced to the story by her husband who is British, and drawn to it because Wilberforce’s commitment to solving this social problem was propelled by his Christian faith.

Heaton said, “Probably the only thing that was able to keep him going was his faith because it literally took him forty years . . . And Wilberforce was sort of shunned from society . . . There’s a price to pay and I think that is one of the messages -- you have to be willing to sacrifice everything to follow God and to follow what He’s called you to do.”

(To continue reading, go to

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Healing the Hidden Suffering of Infertility

“Infertility is one of the most painful things I have ever seen a couple or woman suffer with,” says Dr. Anne Mielnik, Director and co-founder of Gianna: The Catholic Healthcare Center for Women which opened less than a year ago in New York City. “For most of them, it is a hidden suffering.”

Dr. Mielnik is doing her best to heal that pain, but unlike many doctors, she’s doing it in a way that’s completely pro-life.

In vitro fertilization (IVF) has become the default method by which infertility is treated. Since it involves the creation and sometimes destruction of embryos, it’s morally incompatible with the fact that life begins at conception. That’s where Dr. Mielnik comes in, offering treatment through a relatively new method called NaPro which stands for Natural Procreative Technology.

On the Christopher Closeup radio show/podcast, Dr. Mielnik explained, “NaPro refers to a comprehensive approach to evaluating and treating a woman’s reproductive problems including those that lead to infertility, recurrent miscarriage, pregnancy problems, and other disorders. It then treats the woman in a way that doesn’t shut down her cycle or try to bypass the cycle … We use what originally developed as a natural family planning chart - a woman recording the signs of her fertility—as a diagnostic tool.”

(To continue reading, go to

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"The Cure for Which Mankind Longs"

"In this time of world crisis brought on by advancing inroads of materialism and godlessness, first-line Christophers have it in their power to snatch faith from disaster if they can be found in sufficiently large numbers to carry Christ into the marketplace."

Father James Keller, M.M. who founded The Christophers sixty-five years ago wrote those words then, but their relevance holds true today.

To continue reading, go to

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"She is Far More a Blessing to Us Than We Are to Her"

(Cross-posted at the "Christopher Closeup" blog)

21-year-old Haylee Cain, feeling alone and hopeless, lay in her bed in an Alabama nursing home for senior citizens. She didn’t yet know that an article written by journalist Michelle Eubanks from “The Times Daily” newspaper would soon change her life in a dramatic way.

Haylee was afflicted with a form of cerebral palsy that produced a lot of spasticity in her arms and legs. She wasn’t able to stand and had limited use of her hands. Though she had previously lived with her grandfather, his own health problems resulted in him not being able to care for her anymore. Haylee ended up in the nursing home of infirm senior citizens because Alabama has no state agency for people 21 or older “who suffer from physical, rather than intellectual, disabilities.” Though Haylee struggled with her body, her mind was sharp.

One day, Michelle Eubanks from Florence, AL, “The Times Daily” got in touch with Haylee because she wanted to write a story about the disadvantage faced by people with strictly physical handicaps. Though reluctant to be interviewed, Haylee agreed to Michelle’s request thinking it might help others who found themselves in similar dire straits.

The morning Michelle’s article was published, Tuscumbia, AL, resident Judson Emens brought the newspaper to his wife Donna and showed her the picture accompanying the story. “Do you know who that is?” he asked. Stunned, Donna happily exclaimed, “That’s our Haylee-bug!”

It turns out that when Haylee was five-years-old, Donna was her aide in the Head Start program. She recalled on the “Christopher Closeup” radio show/podcast, “(Haylee) was absolutely the brightest spot in anybody’s day! She was so full of life and love.”

Haylee often spent weekends and holidays with the Emens who came to love the girl’s unconquerable spirit. When Haylee eventually moved to Texas to live with extended family, Donna lost touch with her. She had recently heard through the grapevine that Haylee was back in Alabama. Though she desperately wanted to re-connect with her, she couldn’t because of privacy laws. The newspaper story was an answer to Donna’s prayers.

Donna discovered that Haylee’s nursing home was only 10 minutes away from her home so she rushed over to visit. She said, “When (Haylee) saw me she started screaming, “Mama-bear!’ because that’s what she used to call me. I just started crying, I couldn’t help it. She was laying there so pitifully…She said, ‘Mom, I don’t belong behind these walls. I belong out there.’ And when she said that to me, I knew immediately that I was going to have to do something…When I came home, I was crying and my husband said, ‘How was it?’ And I said, ‘I just wanted to scoop her up and bring her home with me.’ His very next words were, ‘Go get her.’”

Though the intention was good, Donna realized it wouldn’t be that easy. She and Judson were already in the process of adopting a 3-year-old girl named Nadia who they’d taken in when she was 4-months-old. Donna also held a job she loved at a cancer center. Their house was small and not particularly handicap-friendly. But as Donna said, “It just all started coming together. We prayed about it, we talked about it…We knew that if we didn’t bring her home with us that she was eventually going to be so depressed that I didn’t know if she would come out of it or not.”

When asked where she got the courage to take someone with physical challenges and mobility issues into her home, Donna responded, “From God. God inspired my life with my brother who was Down Syndrome. He died five years ago at age 48. All my life, he has been the light of my life. I think God putting him in our lives helped us to realize that it’s good to help other people with needs.”

The Emens’ lives have become more physically demanding since welcoming Haylee into their home because she needs to be lifted up or carried. “It’s a lot of physical activity,” says Donna who left her job to care for Haylee full time. “It just so happens that my husband and I have strong backs and strong arms and we’re very willing to do this for her.”

A special van that could accommodate Haylee’s electric wheelchair would be a big help. The spasticity in her legs causes her to shake a lot, but her electric wheelchair keeps her muscles and legs steadier. Donna and Judson’s cars can only accommodate a manual wheelchair, however, so it makes going places more problematic. Locals have set up a fund to raise money for the vehicle.

Living with the Emens has done wonders for Haylee’s physical condition and spirits. Whereas before, she couldn’t stand on her own or feed herself, she is now improving in both those areas. She also has a laptop and cell phone which she uses to communicate with friends. More importantly, Haylee has a new goal in life. Donna explains, “She wants to be a motivational speaker, and I really want her to because she is such a good speaker. She has a story and people need to hear it.”

Though the Emens are focused on both Haylee and their adopted daughter Nadia, they’re keeping an eye on the bigger picture too. In January, they plan a trip to Montgomery, Alabama to see if they can get some laws changed so physically-handicapped people have better options than being placed in nursing homes like Haylee was.

In thinking back over everything that’s transpired over the last few months, Donna concludes, “I knew she was going to bless us, but I didn’t have a clue she was going to bless us like she does. She is far more a blessing to us than we are to her. She brings joy and laughter. And you know, it’s a lot of work but it is so much fun!”

(To listen to Donna's full interview, visit

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Lighting a Candle Instead of Cursing the Darkness

If you haven't already checked out the new "Christopher Closeup" blog (which I tend to update more frequently than this one), head on over right now so you can read interviews with people like Leigh Anne & Sean Tuohy (the real-life couple played by Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw in "The Blind Side") discussing the power of cheerful giving; singer/songwriter Audrey Assad discussing her struggles with God and the challenge of feeling like a "misfit soul" when growing up; and Julie Woodley, a sexual abuse victim who now helps others in similar situations through a program called "Restoring the Heart Ministries." We also run contests from time to time where we give away free stuff so be sure to subscribe to the blog or bookmark it so you don't miss a thing. Again it's at

In other news, my friend Danielle Bean (who's also featured at the blog) has written a post about "The Girls With Glasses Show," an Internet show starring "American Idol's" Brooke White and Eliza Magazine's Summer Bellessa. As Danielle writes, "What I really like about The Girls With Glasses and their show is that they demonstrate that girls don’t have to sell their dignity to be entertaining. Girls can be smart, funny, pretty, and cool without taking their clothes off or even getting drunk on TV." Read the whole thing and watch the Girls' clever & funny video satire about TV execs trying to get good girls to go bad.

Finally, you should also check out the 3 winning videos in The Christophers' 23rd annual Video Contest for College Students. They're truly outstanding stories about selfless, compassionate people who are making the world a better place - specifically, a young cancer survivor studying to be a scientist so he can help others with the disease, a priest who runs an orphanage for disabled children and adults in the Philippines, and a woman in Pennsylvania who runs a homeless shelter for women in need. These videos will leave you feeling good about your own potential to make a difference in the world so take a few minutes to be inspired!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Creating Better Media

I recently contributed a short essay to a site called which offers insights into all the world's major religions. My topic dealt with the problem of people writing off popular culture instead of trying to transform it for the better from the inside. To read my take, go here.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"American Idols" Show Class and Gratitude

On Friday July 9, I went to see the 2010 Top Ten "American Idol" contestants perform on "Good Morning America" at Central Park's Summerstage. While the performances were great, I was more impressed by the performers themselves who were all very friendly in their interactions with the fans. The two I would single out especially are Crystal Bowersox and Didi Benami. Because I have 2 friends who work for GMA, I was lucky enough to get backstage and meet a few of the singers. It also allowed me to observe what people are like once the cameras stop rolling. A young girl accompanied by her grandfather was in a scaffolded area under the stage hoping to talk to and get autographs from Crystal & Didi. Both Crystal and Didi literally had to get on their hands and knees to interact with this young fan and sign her pictures. They did it happily and with genuine appreciation. It was a very classy thing to do and a sign they truly appreciate the opportunity they've been given and the people who support them.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Afterlife of "Lost"

Rarely, if ever, has a television show dealt with religious and spiritual themes as extensively and maturely as ABC's "Lost" which ended its six year run on Pentecost Sunday with an episode that was profoundly transcendent. On the surface, the series dealt with a group of plane crash survivors who landed on a mysterious, mystical island with a mythology that grew more complex each season. But at its heart, "Lost" told character-driven stories that explored themes like the possibility that human beings can find redemption from past sins.

The series finale addressed that theme again, but in a slightly different way – specifically, from the perspective of death and the afterlife. Apparently, this ending has left a number of people confused and, in some cases, dissatisfied. It was revealed that the Flash-sideways story device employed this season actually took place in a Purgatory-type realm in which the souls of the characters needed to work out their redemption by remembering and ultimately letting go of their past.

After experiencing their awakenings, the characters (or their souls, actually) all gather in a church in order to take the final step into eternal life together. Jack Shephard, the doctor who becomes the primary hero of the story by sacrificing his life to keep hell from being unleashed, is the last character to discover the truth in the Sideways world. The soul of his father explains to him that the realm they're in exists outside of space and time - "Everyone dies some time, kiddo. Some of them before you, some of them long after you...There is no now here."

Some viewers are misreading the full group being there together as meaning they all died at the same time, that the entire series took place in Purgatory because they were dead the entire time. Christian's words clearly dispel that theory. There's also the fact that Hurley and Ben in the Sideways world reminisce about the period where they protected the island. That experience was a part of their real lives that they remembered in their awakenings so that again points to the reality that the island timeline was real and that others escaped the island alive (Sawyer, Kate, Clare, Miles, Lapidus, Richard and Desmond).

So what exactly does this ending in which everyone is dead really mean? When the castaways arrived on the island, they were, as Jacob described them, "alone." They were emotionally-crippled, lost souls without any genuine human connections. But through the love and responsibility they exhibited toward each other, they were able to grow as human beings and fulfill their real natures - to move past the tragedies, mistakes and obsessions that haunted them and eventually arrive in a state of grace. In fact, there was a promo for "Lost" before this final season began that was edited to Willie Nelson singing "Amazing Grace." For me, the lyrics in that song "I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see" explains the process of what happened in the Sideways/Purgatory world and over the course of the series. Grace builds on nature. As such, the castaways became a means of each others salvation.

The communal aspect of the final scene in the church also resolves one of the story's earliest conflicts. In the first season after everyone is trying to adjust to surviving the island soonafter the crash, there are personality clashes and arguments about how best to run things. It gets to the point where Jack addresses the large group of castaways saying, "Every man for himself is not going to work...If we can't live together, we're gonna die alone." That's exactly what this group of loners learned to do over six seasons - live, love, sacrifice, and sometimes die together. And it makes all the difference. Because as their souls are ready to step into the final stage of the afterlife, they do it as a community. Learning to live together in their earthly lives resulted in their stepping into eternal life together too. As Christian Shephard explains, “The most important part of your life was the time you spent with these people. That's why you're all here. Nobody does it alone, Jack: you needed all of them, and they needed you ... to let go."

The notion of letting go leads me to another aspect of this Purgatory which doesn’t leave everyone with the happy ending the castaways achieve. The Sideways/Purgatory world is somewhat reminiscent of the afterlife created by C.S. Lewis in his book "The Great Divorce" in which dead souls can gain entrance to heaven if they let go of elements from their earthly pasts that are holding them back from fully loving God. For instance, one "Bright Spirit" from heaven tries to talk a mother whose son died years ago to let go of her grief and anger so she can see him in heaven. The mother refuses saying, "You are heartless...The past was all I had." The Bright Spirit responds, "It was all you chose to have. It was the wrong way to deal with a sorrow." In other words, the very normal grief she felt after losing him became the core of who she was to the point that the resentment holds more sway over her than the opportunity to see her son again. Another Spirit later explains, "Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried."

This exchange reminds me of Eloise Hawking in the Sideways world. She appears to understand where she is and discourages Desmond from pursuing knowledge about the flashes that will make him realize he's dead because she knows that her son Daniel will then leave her. So instead of valuing Daniel's eternal happiness and maybe even joining him, Eloise prefers to possess him in the in-between world. Unlike Hurley & Libby or Sawyer & Juliet who remember their human love for each other and allow it to move them on toward something greater, Eloise is like the mother in Lewis’ story. She chooses stagnancy over growth, an earthly possessiveness over a higher love.

Of course, there’s someone who’s even worse off than Eloise: Anthony Cooper. It’s a Christian belief that God doesn't send people to hell; we send ourselves to hell by choosing to separate ourselves from the love and will of God. The one denizen of the Sideways/Purgatory world that appears to fit that bill is Anthony Cooper, John Locke's con-man father who was responsible for paralyzing him and who led Sawyer's father to shoot his own wife and then himself. One of the few characters who never demonstrated any redemptive qualities, Cooper is locked in a stroke-like frozen state, seemingly forever. Interestingly, in Dante's Inferno, the denizens of the 9th circle of hell are depicted as being frozen in a lake of blood and guilt. The choices Anthony Cooper made in his real life have left him with much blood on his hands. He also died unrepentant, so that final act of defiance against the natural moral law appears to have caught up with him here.

In the end - though the series ended showing everyone eventually dead - it can still be considered a happy ending from a Christian perspective. The main characters that viewers grew to love all lived their lives in a manner that will allow them to spend eternity together in heaven. Endings don’t get any happier than that.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Brooke White on "Christopher Closeup"

I recently had the opportunity to interview Brooke White on "Christopher Closeup."

In Part 1 of our interview she discussed her album High Hopes and Heartbreak, her struggle with self-confidence issues, how prayer is her anchor during times of stress, and why she’s come to see the challenges in her life as blessings. You can listen at

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Describing Dean Koontz as a popular author of suspense novels is an understatement. His books have been published in 38 languages and sold more than 400 million copies worldwide. But what I discovered when I read his book “Brother Odd” a few years ago was that you can enjoy a Koontz story strictly for its engaging writing, characters and plot. But if you read the same story through a spiritual lens, you’ll be able to appreciate it on an even deeper level. I recently had the opportunity to interview Koontz on Christopher Closeup. Here's an excerpt:

TR: Dean, there’s a line in your latest Odd Thomas book “Odd Hours” – it’s spoken by him but I was wondering also if it reflects your own view too. The line is, “I love life because of what the beauty of this world and this life portend.” Where do you see beauty in this world and how does it point you toward the life beyond this one?

Dean Koontz: I see it everywhere in this world. I really feel for people who are depressed or think life is terrible or don’t like the world they’re living in. I just want to say to them, “Stop and look. Look at everything around you. Look at the incredible intricacy of it.” A lot of people think science has explained (everything) but it hasn’t explained anything; it’s described. The intricacy is just awesome and it’s there everywhere you look…There are so many things in the world that are here to make the world a better place that make no sense scientifically or biologically. Flowers don’t have to be beautiful; they just have to attract with pheromones of one kind or another bees that they need. So much in the world is so much more extravagant and delightful than it has to be that it points me to a creative place.

TR: So when you see mystery in the world, whereas for some people that could be a stumbling block to faith, for you it makes it more real or more appealing?

Dean Koontz: Oh yeah. I think if you look around and you say, “The world is a deeply mysterious place,” then you can’t live alone by the materialist viewpoint. You have to say, there’s deep mystery in the world. And that makes it more fabulous…Recognizing deep mystery in the world gives us a great sense of wonder – and it is a sense of wonder that makes life worth living.

TR: Dean, another thing you deal with in your books like “Brother Odd” and “One Door Away from Heaven” – you talk about the dignity of special needs children, you talk about modern bioethics. How and why did these life issues become so important to you?

Dean Koontz: My wife and I have long worked with a charity for people with disabilities – Canine Companions for Independence. They train service dogs for all kinds of people with disabilities. People who are paraplegic or quadriplegic, with one of these dogs, can live on their own when they couldn’t before. They have great effect on autistic children. Working with that and being a part of that, I saw that a lot of these people were shunted aside. There’s a lot of people who think they shouldn’t be given medical care. People like Peter Singer think a disabled child should be allowed to die or should not be give antibiotics because they have nothing to contribute to the world. (He’s) an idiot. If you bring these (disabled) people into your life, I’ve discovered – I’ve never found one who whined or complained like average people do. I’ve never found one who wasn’t grateful for every good thing that comes their way. And I haven’t found one that wasn’t an inspiration to people. If you can inspire other people by your own courage and your own stoicism, you’ve had a very valuable and important life. So they bring a great deal to the world…I’ve featured Down Syndrome kids in books at times and I’ve gotten literally thousands of letters from people who have Down’s children . Every single one of them says, “This was the best thing that happened to me.” They’re not pretending; they’re not trying to make the best of a bad situation. They’re saying it really was a tremendous benefit to their lives. That’s why I wish people would stop thinking that you have to be the perfect physical specimen in order to be worth living. That is far from the truth.

TR: Do you think that addressing those issues in story form may be a more effective way of getting the point across than say, a priest in a homily or an op-ed piece in a newspaper?

Dean Koontz: I think so because you disarm people with a story, you charm them with humor, and then you let them think about these other issues. For me, it’s a wonderful method by which to promulgate at least the thought of these things, at least to make people stop and wonder if they’re really right to think these things.

(To hear the full interview, visit

Sunday, September 20, 2009


One of the driving forces behind the success of “American Idol” is not someone you see on camera every week. Vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd acts as a vital guide and mentor to the young contestants, and leaves an indelible mark on them once they embark on their careers. Byrd – as she prefers to be called – has had a prolific and successful career in television, film, theater and concerts including a longtime association with Barry Manilow. Her approach to her work on both “American Idol” and “Canadian Idol” has a definite spiritual bent because she sees herself as a vessel that’s being led by God to to help others. Here’s an excerpt from our recent interview on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here):

TR: You are the vocal coach and arranger for “American Idol.” But you don’t see that as just a job; you look at it as a ministry. How come?

Debra Byrd: I love that it’s a service job. I remember the first tour – we were on the road, Kelly Clarkson was the first American Idol winner and so there was a tour afterwards…I was singing backup for all the contestants that I had just mentored. Band members would say to me, “How can you do that? How can you sing backup for these people? You know more than they (do).” I said, “You don’t understand. I’m here to show them how to do this because it’s a huge undertaking. I get to pass on so much information and I’m grateful to do it.”

…When contestants are stumped and overwhelmed, when they’re in a puddle of tears…when they’re saying, “I’m so nervous, I don’t know what to do,” I stop and I look them in the eye and say, “Do you believe in God?” And they say, “Of course I do.” And I say, “Well you have to let God do His job. You have to let go and let God and trust that you will be led to do the right thing.” Then they’ll look at me and it all kind of goes away. And that’s when my ministry kicks in – when I talk about trust. People always ask me what is the most important part of my job. I believe the most important part of my job is that they trust me. I try to explain to them that there’s a higher power and they can be led by that power.

TR: Last week, Brooke White was here in New York doing a promotional appearance for her new album “High Hopes and Heartbreak.” I went to see her and I asked her about you. She said, “Byrd is a bright light and I love her very much.” You obviously leave an impression on contestants even after they leave the show, so when you’re working with these young artists – take Brooke for instance – how do things start out and how do you see her and others evolve by the time the show is over?

Debra Byrd: There’s a huge evolution. I didn’t notice it when I began the show the first season because I was trying to figure out what the TV show was, what am I doing, why am I doing it. As the show has evolved, I’m able to step back and really have a good look at the person in front of me…Brooke White is a magnificent young woman. On the small stage – that’s the second stage of being in Hollywood, it’s when you’re in front of the camera - we were on the small stage having band rehearsal. Brooke had her guitar on and she was speaking with the music director Rickey Minor. I was watching and listening to their conversation and…the music director wanted her to make some changes. God love Brooke White, she stood and said, “This is who I am. I play guitar and I sing. I may not be the best singer, I may not be the best guitarist. All of you can play circles around me. But I’m going to play the guitar.” And she stood her ground and did her band rehearsal which was going over the song two or three times.

When her portion of band rehearsal was over, she thanked the band, she thanked the music director, she walked to me and I said, “Let’s go for a walk” because I knew it was overwhelming. I knew it was very emotional for her. We walked outside and she began crying as we walked outside. I said, “Number one, I applaud you. I applaud you for not breaking down in front of the band. I applaud you for holding your ground, for knowing who you are, for standing by what you believe.” We walked all the way outside to the parking lot and it began raining. And I said, “See, God didn’t want anyone to your tears. He wanted them to see how strong you are and I applaud you.” Of course we both began crying at this point. And she said, “Byrd, I just love you, thank you so much.” So that was huge with her, we had a huge moment with her standing her ground, knowing who she is, trusting God. It was just a magnificent moment. I love Brooke White.

TR: Do you have to take a different approach with different contestants depending on their personalities or is there a common thread you practice with all of them?

Debra Byrd: Unconditional love is my common thread. On “Canadian Idol” there was a contestant that no one liked. Clearly, this young man had huge problems that came from his upbringing...Consequently his perspective on life is incredibly different. He didn’t get along with anyone at all. One of the judges on “Canadian Idol” said, “How do you deal with this kid? How can you talk to this kid every day? This is a horrible human being.” And I said, “Through unconditional love. That’s the only way you can get past him, what he brings to the table. I have to deal with him with unconditional love.” And it worked. I’m a living testimony that unconditional love works because that kid – he realized he could trust me, that he had someone he could speak to. And I would bust him if he made an incredibly wrong turn. I’d say, “Now you know that’s incorrect, don’t you?” And he’d say, “Yeah I do.” I said, “You know you can’t do that.” I would just bust him; not (like) being a parent but I just wanted him to realize you can’t walk through life and treat people that way…looking at life through your negativity and responding (even though) no one's done anything to you that’s negative. So I guess that would be the common thread – it’s unconditional love.

(To hear the full interview with Debra Byrd which features more insights about “American Idol” and what she calls “the sun and moon theory” in relationships and work situations, visit