Friday, August 31, 2007


A lot is being written about the spiritual and emotional disconnect from God that Mother Teresa endured for practically her entire ministry to the destitute and dying in Calcutta. Some writers who doubt the reality of God and relevance of faith have jumped on these revelations as proving their point - i.e. even one of the most devout Catholics of our age doubted the existence of God and heaven.

How should the rest of us who struggle to live by faith adjust to this news about Mother Teresa? I recommend the words of Christian author/theologian C.S. Lewis from his great satirical book "The Screwtape Letters." The book is composed as a series of letters from an older devil named Screwtape to a younger devil named Wormwood. In the letters, Screwtape offers Wormwood advice on how to lead people toward hell (and in turn shows readers how to avoid the devil's pitfalls). The following passage is particularly appropriate to Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul and how we can all view her struggles - and our own:

"(God) cannot tempt to virtue as we do to vice. He wants (human beings) to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there, He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks around upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."

Monday, August 27, 2007


One of the Catholic Church's most debated teachings involves its opposition to contraception, even after a couple is married (a stance held by both Catholic and Protestant churches until the 1930's). Having read a number of articles about the reasons behind this teaching, it's still not an easy concept to grasp. But as I've often found, 'stories' - fiction or non-fiction - can clarify ideas much better than a sermon or article.

Such is the case with the P.D. James novel "The Children of Men." Most people will be familiar with the title because it inspired a movie version that was released in 2006. While the movie was good (even better in certain ways than the book), it unfortunately ditched many of the book's Christian social themes. "The Children of Men" is not churchy, preachy, or hit-you-over-the-head Christian. Instead, P.D. James - a devout Anglican - manages to seamlessly integrate Christian ideas into the story in a way that non-believers might not even notice.

The story begins in the United Kingdom in the year 2021 during an era called "Omega." Humanity is on the road to extinction because the world has not recorded one single childbirth since 1995. Though scientists worked tirelessly to discover the cause behind this sudden lack of fertility, they remain clueless 26 years later. Hopelessness and madness have spread throughout England reulting in a jump in violence and lawlessness. Under the guise of security, the British government has become so tyrannical and all-intrusive in people's lives that law enforcement has achieved what one character calls "a refinement of cruelty." And since the government would want to control any woman who might miraculously give birth, they subject all healthy females to time-consuming forced examinations of their fertility every 6 months.

Theo Faron, the story's protagonist, is a man detached from loving relationships of any kind. He describes himself as having ensured "that there are no unexpected visitors in my self-sufficient life." When Theo is called on to protect the first woman in the world to become pregnant in 26 years, he undergoes a moral awakening that leads him down some dangerous paths.

The film version of "The Children of Men" emphasized what happens to societies when civil rights are suspended. The book, however, focuses just as much if not more on the "life" issues involved.

Recalling the evolution of the infertility problem, Theo says, "We thought that we knew the reasons - that the fall was deliberate, a result of more liberal attitudes to birth control and abortion, the postponement of pregnancy by professional women, the wish of families for a higher standard of living...Most of us thought the fall was desirable, even necessary. We were polluting the planet with our numbers...When Omega came it came with dramatic suddenness and was received with incredulity."

Described in these terms, the story seems like an all too plausible scenario. In a society that has largely divorced sex from procreation, no one ever followed that attitude about reproductive choice to its logical if unlikely conclusion. Now, Omega has arrived and the despair is overwhelming.

There is a marked increase in suicides by middle aged people who would "bear the brunt of an ageing and decaying society's humiliating but insistent needs." Also, every reminder of children (schools, toys, playgrounds) has been removed from the public landscape "except for the dolls, which have become for some half-demented women a substitute for children."

People's attitudes toward sex have also changed in an unexpected way. Theo says, "Sex has become among the least important of man's sensory pleasures. One might have imagined that with the fear of pregnancy permanently removed, and the unerotic paraphernalia of pills, rubber and ovulation arithmetic no longer necessary, sex would be freed for new and imaginative delights. The opposite has happened. Even those men and women who would normally have no wish to breed apparently need the assurance that they could have a child if they wished. Sex totally divorced from procreation has become almost meaninglessly acrobatic."

The lack of children has also resulted in an inability to feel romantic love in its fullest and most meaningful form - "We need the comfort of responsive flesh, of hand on hand, lip on lip. But we read the love poems of previous ages with a kind of wonder."

In a culture like ours where sex is often viewed as purely recreational, this fictional world gives us points to ponder. Maybe there's more truth to the church teaching on sex as "mutual self giving" than people realize. Perhaps a greater openness to children would be a good and beneficial idea for our society.

I've always thought that the church's moral rules were ultimately designed to keep individuals or societies from engaging in behaviors that would ultimately harm them. The problem is that the church often does a lousy job of explaining the reasons behind those rules in an understandable, relatable way. With that in mind, "The Children of Men" should be required reading for anyone interested in how "culture of life" issues can affect our world.

The Kingdom - Trailer

Being a fan of Jennifer Garner since her debut on "Alias," I wanted to highlight her upcoming movie which has been getting some good buzz and seems to return Jenny to butt-kicking mode.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


Comedian Bill Maher has long made it known that he pretty much hates religions of all kinds but especially Christianity. Now Maher and Larry Charles, the director of Borat, have traveled around the world filming a documentary that mocks religion. My problem with Maher and others like him isn't that he doesn't believe the way I believe; it's that he thinks he's smarter and better than me because he doesn't believe what I believe.

I am well aware that religions of all kinds attract their share of wackadoos and loudmouths. Plus, the religious spokespeople who make it on TV news reports tend to be the types who generate attention, not necessarily make intelligent, rational arguments. But I'm firmly convinced that the majority of people of faith are decent and loving. They are mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters who are trying to build a good life for themselves and their families. They demonstrate their love for God through personal prayer & practices, and are motivated to leave the world a little better than they found it. But Bill Maher ignores these people. His documentary, being a comedy, will of course focus on the freaks and present them as average, ordinary and typical.

I think people of faith need to be prepared to counter some of the negative publicity that will come with this film's release in 2008. It doesn't require screaming and boycotts because that will just prove Maher's point about how ridiculous and irrational religious people are. Instead, collect three stories about people whose faith has motivated them to do something positive for the world around them, who relied on God to help through difficult times, whose faith stories are worth sharing. Then when local newspapers start covering the film, send them your stories and request equal time. If they get inundated with these requests, attention will be paid. So give it some thought. You have months to prepare.

In the meantime, here's a piece reacting to Bill Maher's appearance on Larry King by Fox News commentator Father Jonathan.

If Judaism or Christianity actually taught even a fraction of the absurdities Bill Maher apparently thinks they teach, I would send him my resume and petition him to bring me on as a co-producer of his upcoming documentary, “The Absurdity of Religion” (title still indefinite), as announced last night on "Larry King Live." I, too, would want to reveal the fraud.

I suspect we would make perfect business partners — a publicist’s dream team. My work as an adviser on the set of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” my role as an analyst for the FOX News Channel and the fact my home/workplace is a stone's throw from the Vatican might partially offset Mr. Maher’s reputation as being somewhat biased toward things religious. Together, we would laugh our way all the way to the box office and perhaps liberate a few paltry-minded believers along the way.

But there’s one problem: Not a fraction of Bill Maher’s statements about Christian and Jewish beliefs coincide with what, in fact, Christianity and Judaism say of themselves.

Unlike in Bill Maher’s world of comedy (where he truly excels), in theology, truth is not optional, opportunistic or malleable. Things are, or they aren’t, but they can’t be both.

Because Mr. Maher has decided to step out of his field of expertise and into mine, in a genuine spirit of dialogue, I would like to clarify a few things here that he has managed to jumble. You will notice that I am assuming the best — that Mr. Maher simply doesn’t know what Christianity really teaches.

• If Christianity really taught that God took out a pen, wrote a book for us, called it the Bible and dropped it from the clouds, I, too, would doubt. But Mr. Maher, Christianity doesn’t teach that. As history shows, human beings wrote the Bible and, according to Christian belief, their writing was divinely inspired. Christians don’t suggest they can prove such inspiration with material evidence (the only kind skeptics would accept), but they consider faith (the assent of the heart) capable of grasping some immaterial, spiritual realities — like this one. On another note, from a purely historical standpoint, I think you would agree that 2,000 years of continual belief should be given some weight. In all this time, nobody has proven the Bible is NOT inspired, and therefore, by the same standard of material evidence, we should all agree that nobody can say Christians are definitely wrong about inspiration.

• If Christianity really taught that the man in the jungle who has never heard the name of Jesus is going to be damned forever to hell, I, too, would doubt. But Mr. Maher, Christianity doesn’t teach that. We are responsible to God in as much as God reveals himself to us. Christianity teaches that the saving grace of Jesus Christ is bigger than our date or place of birth. Christians believe God gives all of his children, in ways often unknowable to our little brains, the opportunity to accept or reject his love.

• If Christianity really taught that God created cancer, child abusers and earthquakes to torture his own children, I, too, would doubt. But Mr. Maher, Christianity doesn’t teach that. The evil in this world is not willed by God. Christianity teaches both physical and moral evil is a result of a world that is out of wack as a result of the misuse of our own human freedom. Like a good parent, God allows us to make mistakes and to live with the consequences. And even so, he doesn’t abandon us. He promises to bring forth a greater good out of every instance of evil. Ask someone with faith who has suffered great pain or loss and they will surely tell you how God has made good on his promise.

• If Christianity really taught that God sometimes commands us to kill the innocent in his name, I too would doubt. But Mr. Maher, Christianity doesn’t teach that. This would go against the very nature of God as all-loving and all-just. I am equally as scandalized as you are when I see religious people, in our checkered past and present, mistake their own pride and ignorance for the voice of God and march off to holy war. As Pope John Paul II said, “War is always a failure of humanity.”

• If Christianity really taught that people with homosexual tendencies are all going to hell, or that somehow they are not God’s children, I, too, would doubt. But Mr. Maher, Christianity doesn’t teach that.

And the explanations about what Christianity says about itself, and how this differs from Bill Maher’s subjective understanding, could go on and on. I only hope that when he travels, as promised, to the Holy Land and to the Vatican with his team of investigative journalists to do “research” for his new documentary about the absurdity of religious belief (to be released, of course, in the Easter season), he stops by my place, or the place of any of the more than two billion Christians and Jews who will explain why his vision of their religion, is, well … rather absurd.

God bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. A personal note to Bill Maher: I spend quite a bit of time in New York City. In the case it doesn’t work out for us to meet up at the Vatican during your travels, let me know and we can work out something on your side of the Atlantic.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Here's a link to an interview with Oxford acholar Alister McGrath who counters the arguments Richard Dawkins sets forth in his best-selling book "The God Delusion." As atheist fundamentalists are rising in popularity, McGrath shares some insights worth reading.


ALISTER McGRATH used to be an atheist. Now he’s an Anglican theologian.

And he’s taking on one of the most aggressive and polemical atheists of our time, Richard Dawkins, author of the bestselling book The God Delusion.

Like Dawkins, McGrath is a professor at the University of Oxford and a scientist. But unlike the zoologist Dawkins, he is an expert in historical theology, philosophy as well as molecular biophysics. It’s an expertise that led him to write The Dawkins Delusion?, published earlier this year.

In addition to lecturing on historical theology, McGrath also helps run the newly-established Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics, and is currently researching the iconic role played by Charles Darwin in atheist apologetics.
Q: The essence of this debate, between believers and atheists, is an old one, but how do you think this particular debate is different from those in the past?

A: That’s a very good question. I think the intensity is much, much greater. When you read The God Delusion, it’s extremely aggressive, it’s very dismissive, it prejudicially stereotypes those who believe in God, and I don’t see that in older atheist writings in the 1950s and ’60s. I see criticism but not ridicule. So there’s a change in tone but in terms of the arguments used, I have to say with great sadness that I’ve read The God Delusion very closely and it is a recycling of older positions, many of which are already discredited, and I find myself just astonished that it’s being done.

Q: Do you think it’s really a moneymaking exercise on the part of Dawkins, that he’s merely exploiting people’s current ignorance of religion in our secular age?

A: The God Delusion works as a piece of writing only if the reader is very ignorant or very prejudiced against religious believers. In other words, they don’t know what they believe and they don’t really know very many people [who believe], so they have these rather odd ideas of what people who believe in God are actually like. Those who are acquainted with the field, whether they are religious believers — or atheists — are very, very concerned by the book because it is so obviously dependent on misrepresentation, misunderstanding and so forth. Indeed, in North America, the most scathing reviews have not come from the religious commentators, who are generally disregarded as just being not worthy of serious comment. The most serious, negative reviews have come from atheists who feel that Dawkins is doing atheism a very bad turn, that Dawkins is portraying atheism as extremely ignorant and prejudicial.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Sometimes a TV show can remind you of life's little truths. That's what happened to me while watching an episode of "The Andy Griffith Show" about what happens when Andy hires Malcolm, a visitor to Mayberry, to help Aunt Bea with her chores around the house. Aunt Bea, for those who don't know, is like a lovable grandmother who cooks, bakes, cleans and generally cares for her loved ones. Andy hires help because he thinks she's overworked and deserves to be a woman of leisure. As Aunt Bea's life of leisure progresses, we witness her becoming less joyful and ultimately losing her spark for life. While Andy meant for her to relax more, Aunt Bea finds she has lost her purpose. She lives to care for her loved ones and didn't mind all the seeming impositions. There's a scene where Andy's son Opie (Ron Howard) comments that Malcolm sings while he does his work. Malcolm responds that he sings when he works because it gives him purpose which makes him happy. Opie then says that Aunt Bea used to sing a lot when she worked but now she doesn't sing at all. Realizing that he has actually done a disservice by taking on so much work, Malcolm leaves Andy's household and Aunt Bea happily resumes her old routine.

This story resonated with me because Aunt Bea reminds me of my grandmother, Anna. Even when she hit her nineties, she was consumed with staying busy. She would cook for herself, my uncle, and sometimes for me and my parents. She was always dusting, sweeping, and washing the porch.

Much of her life had consisted of this kind of caretaking especially the many years when my grandfather suffered from Parkinson's Disease. We thought she'd ease up when she got older - and she did to a degree. When she hit 85, she stopped shoveling snow (though she did sweep the light stuff off the porch). I couldn't understand why she didn't take it easy more because she definitely didn't need to do as much as she did - and we, her family, always offered our help.

Then, years ago, I saw this episode of "The Andy Griffith Show" and it registered. My grandmother's work gave her life purpose. She had loved ones for whom she could do things and that made her happy. And she was stiil in surprisingly good shape in her nineties so this approach was obviously working. We, her family, definitely focused on helpign her out with things but never to the point where we took all her work away. That would have done more harm than good.

Even in the final months of her life when she was unexpectedly diagnosed with fatal leukemia, we let my grandmother continue to do some cooking because it made her feel useful. I tried telling her to relax so she could preserve her strength but that just made her angry. Her hardworking, independent streak remained with her until her final couple of weeks.

Sometimes I think it would be nice to do nothing. And for an occasional short period of time, it is nice to do nothing. But we all need some kinds of activities to give our lives purpose especially when those activities are geared toward people we love. It may require some hard work and sacrifice on our part. But sometimes that's a good thing regardless of how old you are.

(If anyone is interested, that episode of "The Andy Griffith Show" is "The Return of Malcolm Merriweather" on the Season 4 DVD box set)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


(Portions of this interview originally appeared on in 2006)Photo by Kristen Barlowe

Grammy winning singer/songwriter Kathy Mattea has survived her share of personal and career challenges - from a broken blood vessel on her vocal chords that nearly ended her career to speaking out on behalf of AIDS victims when the Nashville establishment preferred she stay silent. In recent years, however, Kathy’s troubles seemed to reach an almost insurmountable level. In addition to a long separation from her husband which nearly led to divorce, she witnessed the slow deterioration of her father to cancer and her mother to Alzheimer’s. But as Kathy writes in an essay about the making of her album Right Out of Nowhere, “I have learned that when I am the most vulnerable, I am the most teachable if I can stay awake through the pain.”

In order to get through this dark period, Kathy was able to draw on a faith that was formed in a small Catholic church in West Virginia and that has always been a consistent presence in her life. Throughout her career, that faith has been reflected in her music. Her first album included the song “God Ain’t No Stained Glass Window” which dealt with the necessity of a relationship with God outside the confines of church walls and organized religion. Her latest album, “Right Out of Nowhere,” continues those spiritual themes with songs like 'Only Heaven Knows' and 'Give It Away.'

Though historically a country artist, Kathy Mattea’s music can’t be pigeonholed because it includes folk, celtic, blues and gospel influences. Her songs also have the ability to be reflective and insightful without sacrificing a catchy hook or melody.

Kathy took the time to talk with me about the Catholic upbringing that formed her adult faith, the challenges and blessings she experienced taking care of her ailing parents, the factors that led to a reconciliation with her husband, and how she practices the Christian ideal of service.

Tony: Let’s talk about God and faith because they play such a prominent role in your songs. Your father was Catholic and your Mom was Baptist. At a time when interfaith marriages weren’t that common, how did the 2 of them get together?

Kathy: My mom had lost a husband. She had two small boys. She moved onto a farm with her sister and brother-in-law. They would always play cards and stuff at night, and my dad would come over because he was friends with my uncle. My dad loved kids but there was some medical history that made him reticent about getting married and having kids. But he fell in love with the boys and eventually fell in love with my mom. And she actually went through the whole process of catechism and converting and everything. Then there was a big blow up with a particular priest. And – this was my mom’s way – she got so mad that she said, “I’ll show you” and she never joined the church.

Tony: I know you were raised Catholic but did your parents integrate both faith traditions in your home life?

Kathy: No. You had to sign this thing that you would raise your kids Catholic. And my mom didn’t really have a religion. She’d go to church on Easter and Christmas.

Tony: So your father was the primary Catholic in the house who taught you about faith?

Kathy: Yeah, and my dad was also a real thoughtful person. So we would have long discussions about the church and doctrine and insights that he had. He would say, “Hmm, I think this is good but I’m not sure I agree with this part.” At a certain point late in his life he said, “There’s a lot about the Catholic Church I don’t agree with but it’s the church I grew up in, it’s where I belong, it’s where my point of view is, and I can go with an open heart and be there.” You know he didn’t pretend but he didn’t have to give it up either. I just thought that was so beautiful.

Tony: You’ve said that you attended a “funky little Catholic church” growing up. (KATHY LAUGHS) Tell me about what that church experience was like.

Kathy: The church is not there anymore. They tore it down and built a bigger church. I love telling the story of my church because it’s so anti the norm of what you think of as the Catholic experience. We had a small wooden church in a small town right across the street from a giant brick Baptist church. If you rang the bell of our church, the steeple was in danger of falling off the church because it was so rickety. To keep people from ringing the bell, they tied the rope high enough so that people couldn’t reach it. So for my entire childhood, the rope to the bell hung through a hole in the ceiling in the back of the church tied in a hangman’s noose. (KATHY LAUGHS). And it was very much just a small town church instead of the big – you know, I think of Catholic churches as being sort of majestic – and this was just a funky little church. We had great music and in a lot of ways that really deepened my connection to the church. A lot of people who don’t consider themselves Catholic anymore have a lot of resentments about the Church. But I feel really lucky to have grown up in a church like that because I felt connected. I felt like I was able to glean all the good stuff.

Tony: When you were growing up going to that church, what was your image of God? Was it the authoritative, punishing God or the forgiving merciful God?

Kathy: I really felt like it was a practical God. And part of that was that I loved the way the homilies were. It wasn’t just “be good or you’ll go to hell” or all about fear. It was like “Here’s a mini theological lesson. You’ve got to understand this in context.” We did the gospel reading, and then the priest would say, “And in the other gospels, the story comes out like this. And here’s the history of John’s point of view and who he was and what he did and how he came to be an apostle. So here’s how we see the point of view of the lesson.” And it all got related back to your real life and I just felt like God was my best friend. God was benevolent. But it wasn’t all simple. I had to do the deal.

Tony: You had to put something into it to get something out of it.

Kathy: Exactly.

Tony: The music that was in that church – do you feel it inspired or somehow directed your own musical career?

Kathy: Boy I tell you there was something I felt when we were doing that music that was transcendent which is what music does for me. That, for me, is what art is in this world for. It wakes something up in us that is beyond words and gives us insights from the inside out experientially, and I definitely had that in that church. And I’ve had it in religious contexts and secular contexts ever since.

Tony: In your college and young adult years, did you drift away from God and faith like many young people do?

Kathy: I drifted away from the church but I’ve always had this sense of God as being real. But I would get lazy. I also had a lot of conflict about the balance between a personal relationship with God and a sense of a community relationship – in terms of church needing to be like a membership in a group. I had to work my way through that part as well. I went from believing in my own personal relationship with God and thinking church was too much about dogma no matter where you go. And then I would kind of drift the other way. I went back and forth. And I feel like in my life right now, I have a nice balance of those two things.

Tony: On your album “Roses,” you recorded a song called “Till I Turn To You.” I like the song because it takes a brutally honest look at the difficulties of doing things God’s way instead of our own way. In particular, there’s the line, “I know others fall down on their knees for mercy / But you may have to hurt me before I see the light.” Which type of person are you – the one who falls down on their own to ask for mercy or the one who needs a little convincing?

Kathy: Oh, it’s pain. But you see my point of view today is that that pain is not caused by God. That pain is caused by me staying in my own will. And a lot of times I have to - because I’m a stubborn cuss – I have to do it my own way until it hurts bad enough that I am willing to try something else and I’m willing to let that help in. And to me, that’s the nature of sin. It’s not “I do bad.” It’s “I’m blind.” If I’m doing things my own way, sometimes even if it’s painful, that is the known experience. And when I let go of the known, that’s where the rubber meets the road about whether God is real or not real – about faith. Many times that feels like free-falling off a cliff and I will hold onto the painful thing until I have no choice because I want the comfort and predictability of that misery. But eventually it hurts so bad that I have no choice but to surrender. And that’s my cycle.

Tony: So even though you know it in your head, you still wind up having to go through it all the time anyway.

Kathy: Yeah, because the stuff of life comes at you from a different angle every time like the stuff with my dad and watching him physically deteriorate. But he was wide open about it and we had great talks about life and God and what it’s all about and what he learned. He just always squeezed out his wisdom like a tube of toothpaste as he walked towards his death. My mother completely checked out. Her mind broke because she could not bear the idea. They were two different kinds of anguish. So it comes at you different every time. You think, I went through that with him but this is a completely different experience.

Tony: Were you able to find any blessings during the time of your parents’ illnesses?

Kathy: Oh my God, so many of them. You know there was this moment with my mother that was the defining moment of that concept you just brought up. It was about a year before she died and I made a driving trip to visit some old college friends. And on the way I stopped at my Mom’s house. And as part of this, I had ordered a guitar for a friend of mine’s kid and so I had it sent to my mom’s house in West Virginia. When I got there, it arrived. I thought I better check it out to make sure it got shipped okay, that nothing got damaged. So we’re sitting on the porch and I tune the thing up and I hit a chord and my mother starts singing “Love at the Five and Dime” (Editor’s Note: one of Kathy’s first hit songs). My mother, you have to understand, was tone deaf and would never sing. And she starts singing it. And I wasn’t singing, I was just hitting the chord to see if the guitar worked! And the caregiver looked up and she said, “Oh that’s right. She gets restless around dinner every night because she feels she should be doing something so we bring her in the kitchen when we cook dinner and bring the little boom box in to play your greatest hits record every night and she sings along.” So I got that record out and went through the titles in order and my mom sang every song with me. And she couldn’t make a sentence at that point!

Tony: But she remembered all the lyrics?

Kathy: She remembered all the lyrics and sang with me. And you know even as late as this summer when she didn’t know who I was and she didn’t remember why she was supposed to know me, she could still sing all the verses of “You Are My Sunshine” to me. And that is a picture to me of how deeply seated music is for us and how important it is.

Tony: And that is a moment you’ll carry with you forever.

Kathy: Forever.

Tony: Alright, let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about marriage. You’ve been open about the fact that you faced a separation from your husband Jon. But the marriage survived by evolving in some way.

Kathy: Yeah and it’s still evolving...So many times I think we make a decision to get ourselves out of the pain. But it’s sitting in that pain and hanging out with God that gives us the answer to the deeper questions in life. But our culture doesn’t encourage us to do that.

Tony: Some people’s problems with marriage have to do with forgiveness. Somebody did something wrong and they associate forgiveness with giving in. How have you learned to define forgiveness through your marriage?

Kathy: Forgiveness is between me and me always. I used to think that forgiveness was taking the high road and saying, “Okay, I’ll forget about this.” It was almost like this sanctimonious thing.

Tony: Like an ego boost?

Kathy: Exactly. There was a point in my marriage, as part of my spiritual exercise, I made amends to my husband for the things that I had done in the marriage to bring us to this crisis. At the end of that I realized that by sitting there and owning what I had done in this marriage, suddenly all the wrongs I felt had been done to me just didn’t matter anymore. I could see very clearly that I contributed as much to where we were as he had. So suddenly instead of forgiveness being about pronouncing him not guilty, forgiveness was really about not judging in the first place. So instead of it being about letting somebody off the hook, when you’ve really forgiven, there’s no hook to let somebody off of anymore.

Tony: So essentially in your relationship with your husband and your relationship with God, it’s when humility is there that the good stuff happens.

Kathy: Absolutely. God doesn’t see any difference between us. He loves us all just the same. We can’t make a mistake big enough for God to not love us. We can not forgive ourselves and therefore cut ourselves off from being able to see that love. That’s where the work is to me.

Tony: You mentioned before you did spiritual exercises. Was that anything specific you could talk about?

Kathy: Part of my journey has been becoming a 12 step person. I’m not addicted to any substance or anything like that. But it has been walking through those twelve steps – and I know colleagues who’ve done it; I know people who’ve done it through their church. I have a friend who lost her husband to cancer and she joined a support group at her church. As part of their exercises, they took a sort of Christian approach through the twelve steps. And if you do them, if you actually do them, they will change your life. To me that process has been like taking my glasses off and cleaning them and putting them back on. And suddenly it’s like, “There’s God. He was there all along. I just had all this crap in the way and couldn’t see Him.”

Tony: Did you ever feel overwhelmed by everything that was going on?

Kathy: I did but what I did differently this time is that I found a support system and I stayed more connected with other people than I have with some of the other challenges I’ve been through in my life. And I have a friend who talks about healing and community – that’s a big part of why we’re all here. That didn’t just save me, it didn’t just allow me to eke through. It gave me a new point of view about what the world’s really all about and what a gift this life is. And just like any difficult experience that you rise to meet, it does transform you. I think that it really transformed how I am in all the different aspects of my life.

Tony: I know the support system can be crucial because, myself, I’m good at giving help but not so good at asking for it. So the fact that you got to the point where you could seek support and accept it is a great step forward.

Kathy: Sometimes you get so broken that you have no choice and that’s when you really get humbled. Because I think that not being able to receive help has as much ego in it as giving with ego. There is this ebb and flow to life and there are times when I can’t do it by myself and I have to get humble enough to say “Help.” And then I have to remember to give from that same place. And then you really get to see that we’re all just schmoes in the room. We’re just all here in this life finding our way in this human experience.

Tony: Right. Somebody once said ‘when you’re broken, that’s when God comes in.’

Kathy: It’s true. You know that Leonard Cohen song? The chorus says “Ring the bell that’s still to be rung / Sing the song still to be sung / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” I’ve gone back to that so many times.

Tony: Is it tough sometimes to get yourself out of the way and let God do the driving?

Kathy: Oh boy, you think! (KATHY LAUGHS) That’s the lifelong struggle of being human isn’t it. If I could get out of God’s way, God could do amazing things in my life. But when I get scared I take the reins back. There’s this great little thing I put on my web site, I heard somebody say it one time: “Life is like a rowboat. If you row, God will steer. God will be happy to let you steer. But the thing is God doesn’t row.”

Tony: I know you continue to stay involved in AIDS charities and cancer charities. Who instilled that ideal of service in you?

Kathy: It’s been an interesting journey because there are many opportunities to do service as a public person and I feel like I’ve done pretty good with that. But there needs to be a sense of (service) in a personal way. And that’s what I’ve been working on in recent years. I started a tithing program for myself and just started trying to do a little bit of service work every day, even the smallest thing. And that’s been a real different kind of focus for me, and that makes all the pressure not be on doing it so publicly.

Tony: Since you’re getting immediate feedback from people, does that help you in a spiritual sense too?

Kathy: Yeah, I think that’s one of the really big lessons about life is that we think that love comes from outside of us. And when you do service work, you get to learn that love – when you give it – you get the energy going the opposite way and realize there’s this bottomless well of love in you. It is not a finite thing. It is an infinite thing. Sometimes you can only learn that by giving it. Someone told me a story yesterday. They are friends with this woman who spent a lot of time with Mother Teresa and she was talking about being at an orphanage and they had to catch a plane. And this was in India and they were leaving the country so it was imperative that they don’t miss this plane. And they were going out to the car and one of the nuns came out and said that there’s this dying baby. Mother Teresa turned back to go inside and this woman was saying, “We’ve got to catch this plane, we’ve got to catch this plane, you can’t go back inside, we’re going to be late.” And she said that Mother Teresa turned around to her. She said, “I have to go see this baby.” And she said, “I will come, I will come to the plane.” And she said the thing that astounded her at that moment was that Mother Teresa had as much compassion for her and her anxiety about the plane as she did about the dying baby. That deep of a well of compassion only comes from living it in every second of your life. I looked at my friend who told me that story and I said we have so far to go.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Wednesday, August 8, 2007


A CBS News veteran who's also a Catholic deacon gives his take on religious bias in the newsroom at:

Tuesday, August 7, 2007


I was reading through "Publisher's Weekly" magazine recently because they've listed all the books being published this Fall. In the political section, I was disappointed (but not surprised) to read that the American public would again be subjected to the usual slate of liberal/conservative diatribes - i.e. Why Godless Liberals Are Succubi From Hell or Sieg Heil! The Bush Administration's Real Post 9/11 Agenda (not actual titles). If all our pundits and leaders do is lob grenades at each other, we might as well vote Vince McMahon into the White House because that's the level of political theater for which we're settling. Come to think of it, I might spring for Pay-per-View if Dick Cheney and Al Gore fought a steel cage match!

Cheney: I guess me piledriving your head into the floor is an inconvenient truth, Mr. Vice President!

Gore: Hey Dick, is that an Iraqi Mobile Weapons Lab over there?...Made you look. SLAM!

But I digress.

In an interview on the television series "Christopher Closeup," award winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns explained his approach to American history. In a world of sophomoric spin, I think this approach seems sane, rational and productive. Here's what Burns had to say:

"I think the things that we do well stand in much prouder and more distinct relief if we're also very honest and directly honest about the things we haven't done so well, the areas of improvement... So my films are all celebratory. They love the country. But they're not knee-jerk celebrations. They hold our feet to the fire. My biography of Thomas Jefferson was a laudatory portrait of him, but it did not hesitate to criticize him for this hypocrisy with regard to slavery and other things. And I think that's good, because we're all flawed. I've yet to meet a perfect person. And somehow, in our media culture today, where we reduce everything to good or bad, we forget that we're all sinners, that we all have work to do, and that as a country, we have work to do. And I've tried to say, "That's not a bad thing; that's a good thing, to have work to do." To be in pursuit of happiness means we're a country forever becoming. We have the possibility of getting better. Most other countries see themselves as an end in and of themselves: "That's it; we're done. We are who we are." We're not. We're always getting better. And I think that you can use history to safely discuss the ways in which we have flaws and we have strengths. And let's play to the strengths. Let's try to improve on the flaws and go forward together. And that's the final point I want to make, which is: We spend too (much time) in our country reminding (each other) how we're different. "You're not the same religion as me. You believe this. You're from a red state;you're from a blue state. You're black; you're white. You're male; you're female, young or old." And we forget to select the things that bring us together. Our motto, the Latin motto, is "E pluribus unum," "out of many, one." There's too many people out there in the job of pluribus. I'm in the job of unum. I want to remind us why we can agree to cohere, why we can all sit around a table and share an American conversation."


Listening to Bruce Springsteen's latest album "Live in Dublin" or watching the concert on PBS is like attending a church revival meeting. There's a spiritually electric atmosphere on-stage along with a transcendant quality to the music and lyrics. It seems that matters of faith are on Springsteen's mind more often now that he's getting older. A brief article on "Christianity Today" confirms what I've been thinking.


The first time I saw Bruce Springsteen in concert, as a 15-year-old back in 1974, I might've called it "a religious experience." In the 16 times I've seen him since, I've often thought he resembles an evangelist on stage—whether he's extolling the virtues of rock or urging the crowd to donate to a local food bank. This guy grew up in a Catholic home and seems to understand the concepts of sin, the Cross, confession, and redemption. These themes have all shown up in his music over the years.

Springsteen told The New York Times that although he's "not a churchgoer," his music is "filled with Catholic imagery … a powerful world of potent imagery that became alive and vital and vibrant. … As I got older, I got less defensive about it. I thought, I've inherited this particular landscape, and I can build it into something of my own."

For more thoughts on the power of music - and Springsteen in particular, check out this post at Barbara Hall's blog.

I think music is one of the purest forms of reaching out. Last year I was part of a seminar in New Jersey, where all these scholars got together to talk about Bruce Springsteen. My good friend Ben Eicher spoke on one of the panels. Ben is a lawyer and Catholic scholar and a musician. Also a longtime Bruce fan. Ben said, and I'm paraphrasing, one of the biggest misconceptions about rock music is that it's about rebellion, standing alone. It's not. It's about inclusion. No one ever picked up a guitar in order to separate himself/herself from the pack. We do it because we want to belong to a pack. It's just that we want to belong to a different pack. An authentic and expressive one. When people want to be alone, they meditate and do yoga. When they want to belong, they turn up the radio real loud.

Saturday, August 4, 2007


The thing about dancing with the devil is this: you're not done dancing until the devil is done dancing. And the devil is never done."
Barbara Hall, The Noah Confessions

Like most 16-year-olds in her 90210-like California town, Lynnie Russo expects a car for her birthday. Instead, her father gives her a charm bracelet that belonged to her deceased mother. Disappointed and confused by this seemingly meaningless gift, Lynnie acts uncharacteristically rebellious by ditching school and going surfing for the first time. Instead of punishing Lynnie, her father tries to teach her how significant the bracelet really is by presenting her with a lengthy letter written by her Mom titled “The Noah Confessions.” That letter reveals some dark family secrets that will change Lynnie’s view of herself, her life, and the parents who raised her.

“The Noah Confessions” is a young adult novel authored by Barbara Hall, the creator, writer and executive producer of the TV series “Joan of Arcadia” about a teenage girl who gets first-hand advice and guidance from God. Though geared toward teens, I (who am admittedly a few years beyond my teens) found the story to be engaging, witty, and a real page-turner. Hall’s strength as a storyteller both in this book and in her television writing is the ability to create smart, funny heroines like Lynnie and her Mom and integrate them seamlessly with weightier themes like, in this case, teenage angst and the generational repercussions of secrets and lies.

Secrets and lies are the hallmarks of many stories set in the South and Hall’s book is no exception. One of the primary settings is Union Grade, Virginia where the majority of Lynnie’s mother’s story takes place. Hall, who was raised in Virginia, creates a Southern atmosphere that is both appealing and appalling, highlighting some dark compromises covered up by the area’s “history of gentility and manners.”

These compromises are generally due to people not accepting who they are and not, as God once told Joan in Arcadia, “fulfilling their nature.” Their egos or fragile psyches reject society’s view of them, so they create secret lives for themselves which ultimately lead to madness or violence. As the aforementioned quote states, the secrets in Lynnie’s family reveal several ‘dances with the devil’ that snowball from one generation to the next until someone is brave enough to break the cycle of secrecy no matter how painful. Breaking that cycle comes down to the revelation and acceptance of truth.

The writer and theologian C.S. Lewis once said, “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort, you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin - and in the end, despair.”

That quote perfectly captures the choices and struggles of the characters in this book. Life is about being true to yourself and also to a higher truth. I associate Hall’s description of truth in "Confessions" with the acceptance of God and faith. She writes, “The truth always settles on you very quietly, and it sits in a pocket inside you and doesn't displace anything and it just feels right but not always logical. Logic is something else. The truth is quiet and simple but not painless. The truth just is."

For me, this points to another strength in “The Noah Confessions.” Barbara Hall is a recent convert to Catholicism so Christian beliefs and principles are a natural part of her thinking. God's presence in this story is not as prominent as it was in "Joan" but there is a definite subtext about faith. Instead of hitting readers over the head with religion, Hall simply weaves truths into the story. In my opinion, truth always points toward God.

If teens, teachers or parents are looking for a multi-layered story with a relatable heroine, seek out “The Noah Confessions.” It will lead you on a journey well-worth taking.