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Marching Onto DVD: Intelligently Designed “Penguins”



Movie stars, but are they gay?

One of last summer’s biggest and most surprising success stories at the box office was a movie that had no special effects and no movie stars--just a bunch of penguins. The documentary “

March of the Penguins

” was released

on DVD

this week. The film's poetic-yet-gritty depiction of Emperor penguins surviving the hazards of life in the Antarctic became the second highest grossing documentary ever (behind “Farenheit 9/11”)--while also becoming a discussion point in the debate over

Intelligent Design

. Conservative Christians in particular

latched onto

the film’s portrayal of the penguins' complex and fragile mating rituals, which include marching on a 70-mile trek and sheltering an egg under unbelievably harsh conditions. Details such as these, the argument goes, must be an affirmation that a Supreme Being, not natural selection, is behind it all.



Of course soon after such claims were made by the religious right, others began to challenge the absurdity of attaching values such as monogamy and self-sacrifice

to animals

. One article went so far as to point out that some penguins who live in captivity

are gay,

which would not fit with the religious right’s version of family values. Even the director of the film has said in interviews he supports evolution and did not like his film being used as an argument for acknowledgment of

some kind of creator

.



When I watched the movie the first time, I observed in total fascination the journey of these unique creatures, as they choose a partner, give birth, protect their young, and live in community with other penguins for survival against the elements. I couldn’t fathom how anyone would think these animals’ lives are a random accident. If you believe Darwin’s theory of

adaptive radiation

, it takes considerable time for species to adapt to ecological niches. So operating from that theory and considering the brutal conditions of the Antarctic, Emperor penguins would have become extinct many years ago before natural selection could have kicked in.

Surfacing from “Syriana”



This is one of those films that I knew I really wanted to see, though I was not looking forward to it, due to its painful themes. But a movie like “Syriana,” in light of the world’s spotlight on the Middle East, should be seen. Flaws and all, it really should be seen.

It’s difficult viewing, for its complex, crisscrossing storylines, numerous characters, and heavy geo-political subject matter. Basically, you’ve got five subplots that explosively converge. Four are quite compelling for their theme of corruption robbing people of belief.

First there’s reform-minded Arab leader, Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), who is groomed to take over his country and has awarded a key drilling contract to Chinese bidders. The U.S. is not happy and plots to assassinate Nasir to make way for his younger U.S.-loving brother.

Then there’s Bob Barnes (George Clooney), an aging Middle East CIA operative who’s worked undercover his whole life on assignments that he wholeheartedly believes will better his country. Assigned to assassinate Nasir, the job goes horribly wrong and Bob is hung out to dry.

At the same time, energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) faces tragedy when his elder son dies in a pool accident at a lavish party thrown by Prince Nasir’s father. Bryan throws himself into work and ends up latching on to Nasir to help him with his reform ideas. He thinks he is doing a greater good while ignoring his grief.

And finally, of most interest to me, is the story of young Wasim, a Pakistani migrant worker in Nasir’s country, who works for Connex and gets laid off. He is disillusioned and angry at his situation and finds solace in a madrassa. He faces the ultimate decision when befriended by a charming Egyptian, whose religious preaching draws Wasim into a suicidal mission.

Confused? It is a lot to digest. And the film is very careful to avoid stereotypes--perhaps too careful. I appreciated the meticulous approach to detail, but in doing so lot of belief issues are glazed over. The characters of Wasim, Bob, Bryan and Nasir are losing their hold on their beliefs--faith in country, God, and family. And when corruption viciously strips them of whatever belief they have left, they make crucial, individual choices that shake the world around them.

But this intriguing state of affairs is marginally presented. We are left to fill in the gaps, and that doesn’t always work well. I see why Wasim is frustrated and why he is drawn to the Egyptian, but what ultimately makes him choose a suicide “martyr” mission? The Egyptian’s words are not really radical--he speaks of things that many Muslims are taught--but most Muslims don’t choose such an ending for themselves.

It’s one story of many that “Syriana” ambitiously addresses. How do we humanly hold on to beliefs when faced with corruption? The book has been opened, now let’s read deeper.

Faux-Ho-Ho



Some Christians already see Festivus--the holiday "for the rest of us" founded by Frank Costanza, a fictional character on "Seinfeld," and catching on in the real world--as a threat to Christmas. Now marketers from Virgin Mobile, British mogul Richard Branson’s cell phone service, are desperately trying to blow life into Christmahanukwanzakah, a sort of Frankenstein holiday that aims to recognize today’s diverse religious landscape: "What other holiday features a gay elf and Hindu Santa?" asks a press release. It also apparently hopes to extend shopping mania to all parts of said landscape: By calling 1-800-ELF-POOP, shoppers can find out what to buy a Pagan, a Jew, a Hindu, or a Muslim for Christmahanukwanzakah. For more, seek out http://www.chrismahanukwanzakah.com, where you can hear the Hindu Santa and a couple of Hasidic Jews sing "classic" Christmahanukwanzakah carols. For those interested in adopting Christmahanukwanzakah as their festival of choice, it falls on Dec. 13.

The Gospel According to Dave Matthews



Thanksgiving has passed, which means we're in that time of year when mainstream radio stations play Christmas song after Christmas song. For me, those same Christmas tunes get old by December 1, and many lost their meaning a long time ago. My new nominee for most meaningful Christmas reflections: the Dave Matthews Band.

The hemp-filled air and beerfest atmosphere of a DMB concert usually isn’t for the kids, but their lyrics are a blend of the intimacy of Song of Solomon and the gospel of, well, The Gospels.

Consider their current album, "Stand Up." From the title track (“I woke up to the angels singing in my head” and “Lift me up save my soul”) to the featured single "American Baby" (“If these walls came crumblin' down…to make us lose our faith” and “God's grace lost and the devil is proud”), the album is introduced as a clearly spiritual expression.

"Everybody Wake Up" comes close to quoting scripture (“Do unto others as you'd have them do, not an eye for an eye is the golden rule”), while "Hello Again" (“Sinnin' I've done my share of this…Lord forgive me my sins”) and "Oh Great Light of Love" (“You come like an answered prayer, Praise God”) are reminiscent of the Psalms.

Jesus’ challenge to His disciples is near-paraphrased in "You Might Die Trying": “If you give, you begin to live... Yeah, you might die trying.”

"Save Me," a song from the "Some Devil" CD, and "Bartender," from "Busted Stuff," are among the prayers found on previous albums. The spiritual journey is front and center, and even evangelical groups like Focus on the Family and Christianity Today are noticing.

Dave Matthews has not made a public profession of faith, and he is way too secular--not to mention endorsing of pot culture and pre-marital sex--to be seen as any sort of evangelical or Christian. That's probably attractive for many. So are his provocative and compelling lyrics, which don’t preach or assume consent. His inspiring and intricate music, with its artistic complexity and aesthetic style, befits the Divine Questions. Whatever the reason, it is, it works, on a level deeper than music.

As he sings in You Might Die Trying: “To change the world, start with one step, however small, the first step is hardest of all.”

Christ's Housewife, Not So Desperate



Though Beliefnet has debated which of the sexy ‘Desperate Housewives’ had the most spiritual potential, it was actually a desperate househusband who found God on last night’s episode of “Desperate Housewives." After being put in jail for dabbling in sweatshop labor, Carlos got early parole when a Catholic church lobbied for his release. While Gabrielle was ecstatic about her man’s return home (sans handcuffs or house arrest tracking systems), her bubble burst quickly upon learning Carlos has not only a (seemingly sudden) newfound penchant for doing God’s work, but a well-developed pastoral relationship with one Sister Mary Bernard--a nun who happens to be blonde, and hot.

Disturbed by Carlos’s sudden desire to “do right” by going to mass on a weekday (Gabrielle: “I thought mass was only on Saturdays.”), reading the Bible, and praying on his knees before going to sleep, Gabrielle sets out to know her enemy by inviting Sister Mary over for lunch. When Carlos offers to give his car to Sister Mary’s church, Gabrielle finds the opportunity to threaten Sister Mary Bernard, who smiles sweetly while tossing back a few verbal barbs: She blames Gabrielle’s excessive materialism as being the root cause of Carlos’s original crime and tells her to “bring it on” (apparently, the nun grew up in the south side of Chicago, a notorious neighborhood that makes her immune to threats). While Sister Mary is not your average Julie Andrews-type nun, she makes for an interesting monkey wrench as we see how long she can help Carlos become assimilated into his role as “changed man” while counteracting Gabrielle’s new resolution to foil her “good work.”

In other “Desperate Housewives” news, Bree attempted to forgive her erstwhile fiance, George, after discovering he was responsible for attacking her therapist and causing the death of her husband, Rex. As befitting George’s narcissistic and psychotic character, he swallows a bunch of pills and lures Bree to his hotel room to test her love for him. As George lies on the bed semiconscious, Bree takes on a role as psychologist/minister, exhorting George to confess his sins to her so that she may forgive him. Instead, George claims he committed his crimes because she wanted him to; destroyed by his sociopathic reasoning, Bree gets revenge when she lies about calling an ambulance to save George. While George dies peacefully, reassured by Bree’s seemingly unconditional love for him, Bree extricates herself from his room and washes her hands of the “crime.”

New Church Trend: Downsize Me!



I was extremely surprised last night when on “NBC’s Nightly News” the “Faith in America” segment featured not the latest Christian book bestseller or yet another profile on someone of faith working in Hollywood, but instead examined the backlash against the Protestant mega-church movement. Use of the term megachurch grew throughout the late 90s into the new millennium. Megachurches are generally defined as any congregation with a sustained average weekly attendance of 2,000 persons or more in its worship services and are exemplified to an extreme degree by mammoth-sized churches such as Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California or Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. NBC’s report focused on a growing number of Christians who are now leaving the mega-church movement and searching for a more intimate approach to worship and Bible study.

NBC interviewed members of Mosaic church in Dallas, which meets in a home and has no intentions of becoming a large church in need of a chapel. Instead, as it grows, the group will simply break into smaller groups and continue to meet in various homes. Mosaic Church was just one of several examples the segment showed as part of a movement by some believers to find something deeper in their church experiences, if perhaps less flashy.

I have worshipped in megachurches as well as “micro-chruches” and certainly there are benefits to both, depending on your spiritual needs. With so much attention being devoted to the big business of having a big church in recent years, I was pleased to see a major news outlet give some air time to those believers who don’t have a bestselling book, a television show, or a pastor with a direct line to the White House.

How to Drink Like a Mahatma



This just in from your friendly neighborhood coffee-obsessed blogger (a.k.a., me): While Starbucks can boast about the upcoming “God Cup,” New England McDonald’s restaurants recently started using placemats which promise that drinking McDonald’s new and improved fair-trade coffee will make you (get ready for what I am about to say) “a caffeinated Mahatma Gandhi” and that it “may put you on the fast track for sainthood.” I kid you not. I admit that I have not yet ventured into a McDonald’s to confirm this news, but this message is, according to people who've seen it, what the chain's paper placemats claim in all restaurants now carrying Newman’s Own Organic Blend, made by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.

McDonald’s announced in late October that it would be trying fair trade coffee in select stores—all in New England—but no articles that I could find mentioned anything about the placemats. The full text of the placemat (if indeed this is true, and it’s so ridiculous that I am finding it hard to believe) says the following, according to my fast-food-friend sources:

“HOW DRINKING A GOOD CUP OF COFFEE CAN MAKE YOU A BETTER PERSON. It’s simple really. All you have to do is go up and get a cup of the new McDonald’s coffee. And it’ll just happen. You see, we now have Newman’s Own Organic Blend from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. It’s great-tasting stuff. Which will make you happier. And happy people are nicer people. So you’ve made progress already. But there’s more. It’s all organic. No bug sprays. No bad stuff. Which makes you a bona fide environmentalist. So you can grow that beard you always wanted and dig out those flannel shirts you secretly love. Plus, it’s Fair Trade Certified. That makes you a humanitarian too. A champion of the masses. A caffeinated Mahatma Gandhi. And all that goodness may put you on the fast track for sainthood. So before you know it, grateful people will build statues in your likeness. Big, bearded smiling statues. All because of a simple cup of coffee. Newman’s Own Organic Blend from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. Available at all participating McDonald’s. IT’S GOOD. IT’S REAL.”

The burning questions that remain for me are: Must all the statues be bearded? Will all the coffee drinkers want beards after drinking the coffee? I believe I can speak for most women in expressing my serious lack of desire for growing a beard. And, should some grateful person decide to build a statue in my likeness as a result of my drinking McDonald’s coffee, I have no interest in it being big and bearded. It can, however, be smiling.

So off I go in search of an authentic “Why drinking McDonald’s coffee will make me like Gandhi” placemat. I'll let you know when I am ready for that statue.

The Pope Has My Shoes!



I’ve always longed for a pair of Prada shoes, be they wedges, kitten heels, sandals--any style would do. Or perhaps a Prada bag would appease my fashion desires: those coveted accessories that hang gracefully from the shoulders of the privileged or occasionally are seen tightly clutched in the hand. Or a Prada dress, a Prada skirt, a Prada Italian silk shirt! The possibilities are quite endless.

Well, come to find out, Pope Benedict XVI is a closet fashionista himself (well, an out-of-the-closet fashionista now). His footwear preferences? You guessed it: Prada shoes. More specifically, RED Prada loafers! Barbie Nadeau from Newsweek reports: “He may never make the best-dressed lists, but Pope Benedict XVI is nothing short of a religious-fashion icon, riding in the Popemobile with red Prada loafers under his cassock and Gucci shades.”

Gucci too! Apparently Benedict also has a penchant for glitter and glamour as well, and “Alessandro Cattaneo, [from] the 20-year-old religious-fashion house of Raniero Mancinelli, has provided the pope with dazzling new vestments (some with shimmering, sequinlike details).”

The initial laughter this news provoked was quickly followed with some questions: Does Pope Benedict have to pay for his Prada all by himself? Or does the Vatican Amex pick up the tab? Are Catholic collection boxes the world over supplying this Pope with his own religious version of the Carrie Bradshaw-style wardrobe? Or is being The Pope akin to being a Hollywoodr starlet, who gets freebies from all the hottest couture houses the world over if only they will wear them at prestigious public gatherings, like the Oscars (or, in this case, Sunday Mass, presumably)? And finally, is the Pope modeling for us (quite literally) the latest in Catholic fashion? And if so, does this mean that it’s not morally wrong to spend upwards of $500 on a single pair of shoes, a question I struggle with not only in terms of the depth (or lack thereof) of my bank account but also my conscience?

Or maybe he just buys them at a discount.

Thanksgiving With Arlo



My wife makes fun of me because, as any holiday approaches, I invariably talk about how THIS holiday is my favorite of all. And while I am guilty as charged as far as Jewish festivals go--Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Hanukkah... they're all my favorite--Thanksgiving is the only American holiday that's Number One in my book. I love the traditional meal, the family gatherings, the post-Turkey lull, the morning's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But most of all, I love Thanksgiving because of Arlo Guthrie. Every Thanksgiving, around noon, many radio stations play his 22-minute-long comedic anti-war song "Alice's Restaurant." For those unfamiliar with this classic, "Alice's Restaurant"--more of a spoken story with musical accompaniment than a song--tells of the aftermath of a Thanksgiving feast at the home of Alice, she of the eponymous restaurant, who lives in the balcony of a church and uses the pews below to stow her garbage. Her guests, of which the narrator is one, decide to clear the trash, and, long story short, end up being arrested for littering. It's the biggest crime in Alice's small town, and after much legal hubbub, the litterbugs are fined. The story then gets to the point, which takes up the latter half of the 22 minutes. Narrator is called to the draft board and--again, long story short--disqualified from service, deemed not "moral enough join the army, burn women, kids, houses, and villages after bein' a litterbug."

Yes, it's a Vietnam-era anti-war song, and no, I don't love it because of my Vietnam-era draft-dodging. I wasn't even born when Arlo first told of Alice and her restaurant, but many Thanksgivings ago, my brother and I stumbled on a broadcast of the song. We quickly learned to sing along as the chorus rolled by: "You can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant. Walk right in, it's around the back, just a half a mile from the railroad track. You can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant."

Oblivious to its political overtones, we loved it because it was ours; we found it ourselves and we made it our own. Funny, quirky, catchy, we listened and we laughed, year after year, at noon on Thanksgiving, in person or on the phone, just about every year since.

Idol Chatter wishes everyone a happy holiday and hopes you enjoy your own traditions, whether they involve antiwar songs, copious amounts of football, or watching every Thanksgiving TV special out there.

“Teen People” Singing the Blues



Two sweet-looking teenage twin girls have been in the middle of a media controversy this week--and I am not talking about the Olsen twins. Lynx and Lamb Gaede, 13, are a blonde haired, blue-eyed musical duo who go by the name Prussian Blue. And, oh yeah, they're neo-Nazis. Their music includes such uplifting lyrics as, “Aryan man awake, how much more will you take, turn that fear to hate, Aryan man awake."

But these rascist lyrics didn’t stop both Teen People and Elle Girl magazines from chasing after interviews with the girls, who cite Hitler and Rudolf Hess as their heroes. The New York Post reported earlier this month that Teen People had supposedly given editorial control to the girls in order to get the interview (who reportedly insisted that the piece avoid words such as “hate” and "supremacist")--something the magazine initially denied. Fast forward to today, when the New York Daily News reported that Teen People--after receiving an onslaught of protests, including a rally outside parent company Time Inc.’s New York City offices--has now pulled the story from its February issue.

I suppose I should make some comment here about the need to defend free speech, even the free speech of those who we find morally reprehensible, but I can’t. I can really only think of the same question Jay Leno asked Hugh Grant after getting caught with a hooker. What were you thinking? I’ve been to the “Prussian Blue” website and found it more disturbing than any scene out of “American History X,” the movie dramatization of skinheads. So perhaps if Teen People wants to pander to the teen public by telling them what’s hot, they’d be better off running another Jesse McCartney or Hilary Duff puff piece. And kudos to the Post and the Daily News for being watchdogs on this one.

A First Journey to 'Narnia'



Last Thursday, after a brief yet awkward encounter with security personnel looking to weed out would-be bootleggers, I attended an advanced screening of the much-hyped cinematic translation of C.S. Lewis's classic "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." I'm a fan of the book and, at the same time, highly critical of filmic adaptations of literary classics, but I must admit, I was more than pleasantly surprised.

The film offers a version of Narnia similar to what I'd envisioned, and in some cases even more spectacular than my feeble adult imagination could ever create. It's beautiful, idyllic, and huge. However, inevitable departures from the story do appear in the form of additional and altered scenes, overlooked details, and creatures never featured in the book. Nothing is mishandled in the adaptation, but the computer-generated beasts do take some getting used to. I found it especially difficult to overcome the cartoonish quality of the chatty Beavers.

The actors playing Peter, Susan, and Edmund are all good choices, but it's Lucy, the youngest Pevensie, who steals the show. Lucy's portrayer, Georgie Henley, took part in a short Q&A session after the screening where she was as charming and personable as she was on screen. Small but eloquent, she poked fun at the "unflattering bob" she sported throughout the film and stressed that, to her, acting is a hobby, not a career.

Whenever the topic of conversation turns to Narnia, the name Aslan invariably comes to mind. Well, I'm happy to report that he's beautifully rendered, elegantly voiced, and as ferocious as he is majestic. The special effects crew did a heck of a job bringing to life one of the most beloved characters in children's literature. You will not be disappointed.

On the other side of the moral playing field is the villainous White Witch, played ruthlessly by Tilda Swinton. As intended, she has no redeeming qualities and is, as they say, deliciously evil.

Those worried about the filmmakers' treatment of Lewis's Christian allegory can breathe a collective sigh of relief. The film stays true to the book in remaining somewhat reserved about its Christian roots, but during its most pivotal moments, the film, like the book, embraces the parallel and openly deals with the significance of sacrifice and redemption.

The audience served up a cheerful round of applause at the film's end, and I felt both satisfied with the experience and pleased by such a worthy adaptation. I will, however, offer a warning to parents planning on taking small children: The film is filled with frightening imagery. The battle scenes, though bloodless, are particularly violent, and Aslan's sacrifice at the Stone Table is carried out in a most terrifying fashion. Keep that in mind, but don't let it keep you from the theater.

Late on 'Rent'



I am excited to see "Rent," the movie version, opening tomorrow, of Jonathan Larson's 1990s Broadway musical, a loose retelling of "La Boheme" transposed to New York's East Village. The music is fabulous, the message inspiring, the characters memorable. And yet, I can't help feeling that any new "Rent" production is bound to feel dated. That's not because because of that song about the approaching "end of the millennium," or because the Village has been gentrified beyond recognition, or because of that gnawing feeling that Rent's Gen X idealists just may have, a decade on, gotten real jobs to support their artistic pursuits.

No, it feels dated because the AIDS crisis has changed so dramatically in the almost-decade that I've been listening to the "Rent" soundtrack. The disease provides the story's sense of impending doom, giving it a sense urgency and its central message of "no day but today." But that was before drug-cocktails made "living with, not dying from disease" more than a slogan, but a reality--for some, at least. Today, the 20-something, poor-by-choice "Rent" characters would, most likely, not be facing their last days on Earth, but would, rather, be taking breaks for many more pills than just AZT.

But AIDS remains with us, tragically, and is today a pandemic even worse than Larson could have imagined. Even as East Village bohemians got a new lease on life, the disease exploded in America's inner cities, in Asia, and most devastatingly, in Africa. Those are communities whose plights aren't portrayed in rousing, big-budget Broadway musicals. Seeing "Rent" at a time when AIDS deaths are both staggeringly high and unforgivably invisible to most Westerners seems almost callous. And yet, just maybe we can use this movie as a call to arms to remember that today AIDS is ruining more lives than ever.

The part of me that adores "Rent"--that gets inspired every time I listen to the music, that wishes I had the cojones to pursue ideals and art as uncompromisingly as the "Rent" characters--will see the film, and I hope, love it as much as I loved the stage version. But the part of me that is haunted by stories of uncountable numbers of AIDS orphans and whole countries on their way to decimation, that is angered that the West has come to the cause too late and done too little, that can't fathom how this preventable disease was allowed to get so out of hand... that part of me wonders whether the real stroke of genius would have been to set this new "Rent" in an American urban ghetto or, better yet, an African village. No day but today, indeed.

Turning up the Heat in “Goblet of Fire”



There’s really only one way to watch a “Harry Potter” movie: at midnight, on the first day the movie opens, in a theater crowded with a few hundred teens and tweens. That’s the way I saw “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” last Thursday night/Friday morning. In “Goblet,” Harry continues to navigate the magical world of wizardry at Hogwart’s, where this time around Harry finds himself entered in the very dangerous Triwizard Tournament and then comes face-to-face for the first time with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the evil Lord Voldemort. Laughter, gasps, and murmurs could be heard throughout the theater as the audience was treated to a dazzling series of special effects--from the World Quidditch Cup to Hogwart’s first formal ball--all of which did not disappoint.

“Goblet” in certain ways seems a little more uneven plot-wise than perhaps its cinematic predecessors. While half of the movie is focused on Harry going through a series of life-threatening challenges, the rest focuses on Harry dealing with typical teen troubles like asking girls to a dance, first loves, fighting with friends, and fitting in with his peers. And while there are many lessons parents and children can learn from Harry, as I talked with some of the young Potter fans around me--all of whom thought this was the best Potter movie yet--I realized that the odd mix of darkness and silliness is exactly why they identify with Harry so much. The teens who have grown up watching Harry have also grown up in a post-9/11, post-Hurricane Katrina, current Iraq War world. I think they have already learned the difficult lesson that in the middle of the ordinary or even the celebratory moments of life, it is possible for evil to strike without warning. Hopefully through experiencing stories such as “Harry,” they are also learning that it is also possible for goodness to respond to that evil and overcome it, if we have the courage.

One of the primary themes of this extremely dark chapter of Harry’s saga is that facing evil cannot be avoided. Instead of avoiding the darkness that lurks around us, it is required of all of us to respond to evil with light. Facing evil, in whatever form it takes, will refine us and our character for the better, just as Harry, while terrified by the tasks in front of him, ultimately becomes a wiser, kinder, less selfish person, with a stronger moral compass after he faced You-Know-Who.

(And if all of you “Potter” fans out there want to read lots more insights about the world of Harry Potter, I suggest you check out Janet Batchler’s blog, where she has been writing tons of interesting stuff about all of the characters at Hogwarts!)

Over to You



It would be unseemly for me to dissect Jonathan V. Last's article for First Things on the dangers of online religion since, (a) Last dumps all over Beliefnet, and (b) as a Beliefnet editor, I assigned Jon several pieces and consider him a pal. So I'll just ask which you think is the most lazily Luddite Catholic media piece of last week, Last's, or Andrew Santella¹s on Slate about why Catholics don't go to confession anymore? Post your judgment on the miniboard to the right.

Bono on '60 Minutes'



Bono once again talked about his political activism and his desire to help end world poverty, this time in an interview with Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes.” As Ed Bradley questioned Bono on why he as been so successful in raising awareness of issues like the AIDS epidemic in Africa, Bono explained that going against his left-leaning, “bleeding heart liberal” tendencies was key to getting those on the political right to work with him.

He said, “Particularly conservative Christians, I was very angry that they were not involved more in the AIDS emergency. I was saying, ‘This is the leprosy that we read about in the New Testament, you know. Christ hung out with the lepers. But you're ignoring the AIDS emergency, How can you? And, you know, they said, ‘Well, you're right, actually. We have been. And we're sorry. We'll get involved.’ And they did.”

I blogged here not too long ago about how I have only recently become a fan of Bono’s activism. This particular interview further solidified my respect for Bono not only as a musician but as a diplomat of sorts. He is doing what our own politicians don’t seem to be able to do. He is working with leaders on more than one side of the political aisle, able to confront them without offending them, hurling insults, or labeling (and reducing) people or issues as “red state” or “blue state.”

Perhaps just as impressive, the brash Irish rocker managed to only swore once during the entire interview.

The Next TV Frontier



Satellite TV is making its gradual rollout as the newest entertainment option for your car, SUV, or minivan. One report says satellite TV can now deliver a “digital stream of sports, movies, and news into your... vehicle--whether you're tailgating, keeping kids occupied in the back seat, or just listening to the audio feed…” Convenient and entertaining as that may sound, I have a deep sense that families should at some point actually enjoy talking with each other when together. And as every room in our house and every trip in our car may now include a TV, I wonder if we should show some restraint before buying.

Perhaps you’ve seen the science experiment called “The Frog in the Kettle.” A frog in lukewarm water will endure gradual heating, adapting until it finally dies by explosion. (How’s that for a visual?!) However, a frog tossed into extremely hot water will ignore immediately jump to safety.

What if the “frog” is us, the “kettle” is our cars and homes and the “hot water” is these new adventures in television delivery?

When television was new in the 50s and 60s, sociologists warned that it would break up the family closeness. One could argue that The American Family has been in trouble ever since.

In the 70s, “two television” homes were the next step. The 80s brought VCRs; the 90s gave us cable television growth; and recently it’s been DVDs, TiVO, and movies in our cars, which may or may not be a good thing.

Analysts say that by the start of the next decade more than three million vehicles will have in-car satellite TV. I hope that some of us are wise enough to jump out of the hot water before we fry in a media age that is enjoyable but potentially destructive to family bonding and raising healthy kids…even if we remember how much we hated “family time” in our teen years. We don’t need to abandon it. We just need to do it better.

Harpers Goes Biblical



The cover story of Harper's magazine for December examines two noncanonical gospels: the Gospel of Thomas, the mysterious early Christian text that records Jesus' teachings as elliptically wise proverbs, and Thomas Jefferson's radical edit of the New Testament that omits all but Jesus' ethical sayings and doings. My curiosity about either of these documents was exhausted approximately four million barrels of ink ago, but Harper's Erik Reece interestingly links the eponymous Thomas to Jefferson and other iconoclasts like Ralph Waldo Emerson, arguing that these stripped down "Christ Unplugged" renderings are particularly American. Harper's still has its November issue online, but when digital December's ready it will appear >here.

The December issue also features an inside-baseball piece by Stanley Fish detailing how the Christian right's intelligent design campaign was tailored after leftist professors' culture-war tactics.

Johnny Cash's Soul



As Beliefnet's reviewer makes clear, "Walk the Line," the new Johnny Cash biopic, all but expunges Christianity from the story of the star and his second wife, June Carter Cash. Even John Carter Cash--Johnny and June's only child together and the film's exec producer--cops to the charge, telling Beliefnet that the film ends before the part in his father's life where Christianity loomed so large.

The film nevertheless has a deep and moving spirit and moral sensibility. It's embodied in the character of June Carter Cash. Joaquin Phoenix offers an unbelievable performance as Johnny Cash, capturing his descent into addiction and coming alive on stage for the unforgettable concert scenes. But it is Reese Witherspoon's June who is the movie's real soul, providing strength and clarity, just as she did for Cash in real life. These are two forces of nature, strong personalities whose gravitational pull is tugging them each in different directions: her to grounded reality and moral clarity, him to self-destruction and ruin. It's hard to understand what she sees in him. Animal magnetism--one factor, to be sure--doesn't account for years of her attempting to pull him back from the abyss, to clean him up, to get him to "walk the line." It certainly doesn't account for her years of refusing his come-ons, reminding him of his wife and kids at home, even as she clearly loved and wanted him. She's no angel--she doesn't always successfully resist him--but even as she withdraws from his life for extended periods, she always returns, despite herself, unable to abandon this broken man.

The movie leaves a lot to implications and inference. We don't get a strong sense for what made Cash's music so new and significant, we don't understand why June couldn't walk away from this mess of a man, and we don't see Christianity become a central feature of their lives, their relationship, and his recovery from addiction. But June's dedication to her sinner, the ability of her love to transform someone whom everyone else has abandoned, is a powerful depiction of the faith that remains below the surface in this film.

Inspiring Movie Moments



Thank goodness Halloween is over and Bravo can stop running the American Film Institute's "100 Scariest Movie Moments" special. I know I'm ready to emerge from the dark and dreary of "The Shining" and "The Exorcist." Apparently the AFI is as well, announcing today that it is beginning production on a special that will chronicle "the most inspirational films of the century." Ballots have gone out for writers, actors, and directors to choose from 300 films that will be winnowed down to the happiest 100. The list will be revealed in June of 2006.

Word is that nominees include "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Passion of the Christ," and "The Sound of Music," and that Tom Hanks and Henry Fonda each appear in eight nominated films.

I have my own hopes for films that will make the final cut. "Shawshank Redemption," anyone? Also, Albert Brooks' "Defending Your Life" and the Stanley Tucci film "Big Night" really ought to be in the mix. (Please use the discussion space to offer your own pics for most inspiring film.)

Will Scientology Sue Stan?



Last night's episode of South Park threw down an animated gauntlet at the Church of Scientology.

Stan goes to a local Scientology center and his "thetan" levels (Scientologists believe humans are made of mind, body, and "thetan," your spiritual self) are recorded off the charts. So church leaders identify him as the second coming of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard--which is news to Stan, who has to be educated about the belief system and gets to skip decades of "auditing" classes before learning its carefully guarded secrets.

We watch with Stan as a film illustrates the cosmology behind Scientology. Anticipating the incredulity of the TV viewer (after all, this is the stuff John Travolta doesn't share on Oprah), the words "THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS ACTUALLY BELIEVE" appear across the screen as we watch the ancient story of alien Lord Xenu, head of the Galactic Federation, who freezes the excess populace on his planet and sends them to Earth. After thawing out in the volcanoes of Hawaii, their souls are released and are said to afflict humanity to this day.

The writers also poke fun at Scientology superstar Tom Cruise--who ends up, ridiculously, in Stan's bedroom closet and won't come out, so that characters can repeatedly say "Tom Cruise won't come out of the closet."

When Stan announces publicly that the religion is just a money-making sham, believers bombard him with threats of legal action. South Park's writers throw their voice through Stan, who looks into the "camera" and dares "them" to sue.

Not taking any chances, when the credits roll, everyone--from the animators to the production assistants--are listed as either Jane or John Smith.

Alien Resurrection?



To show my continuing devotion to "Invasion," prove the fact that I am indeed hooked, and perhaps entice new viewers, I decided the show is deserving of twice-in-one-week blog entries. Dr. Mariel Underlay--wife of the villainous, though ever more complex, sheriff (a.k.a. Head Alien?)--and a potential alien victim herself, had a shocking experience last night. Mariel revisits the site of her hurricane blackout on the shores of the Everglades, in an effort to understand what happened to her the night of Hurricane Eve, to unlock the mysteries of her disappearance during that storm and her subsequent reappearance. When she did reappear, she was decidedly changed and a good deal confused about the fact that she can now breath underwater (like a fish) but cannot give blood to her children (because her blood type has become poisonous to her offspring).

Mariel decides to take a dip, and as she swims toward the embankment where her body lay after the storm, a vision begins to form under the water, catching her eye. Soon she lets out a blood curdling scream. What’s underneath the water? Her dead, rapidly decaying body. Apparently, who she is now--the body that is hers at the moment--is a new body, raised up after the storm. Are all the touched-by-the-alien characters resurrected bodies? This remains to be seen. Her husband, Sheriff Underlay, seems disturbed and haunted by this revelation.

Christians Terrorize “E-Ring”



My home state of Michigan, and more specifically the city of Detroit, was once again portrayed in a negative light, this time on NBC’s political thriller “E-Ring”. Oh, and Christians didn’t fare too well either in last night’s episode. The freshman drama is sent in the Pentagon, where the Department of Defense's military experts and civilians work together to stop various threats to U.S. safety.

Last night’s story centered on a radical Christian group based in Detroit (which has the largest population of Muslims in the U.S.). Group members decide to take God’s will into their own hands and solve the problems in Iraq by hijacking a mosque and taking all of the Muslims in it hostage. By doing this they were able to receive national media attention as they spread the “good news” of the gospel. The Muslim hostages were portrayed positively, which was refreshing, while the Christians were portrayed as people symbolically related to David Koresh--that wasn’t so refreshing.

The show ended with the mosque and the people in it being, saved while the Christian wackos got what’s coming to them. Nothing new was added to the political dialogue about the war in Iraq, but it was a not-so-subtle reminder of the ever-increasing issue of religious tolerance in a diverse America

Madonna's Magical, Mystical Song



I don't generally listen to anything Madonna has done in the past decade or so, but when I heard that some rabbis were upset with a song from her new album, I had to take a listen. The song is "Isaac," and it raised that rabbinic ire because it's about the great Kabbalistic sage Isaac Luria (1534-1572), whose teachings launched one of the great schools of traditional Jewish mysticism. The song is interlaced with Hebrew stanzas sung in a Middle Eastern-sounding tune by an Israeli-sounding man, who is reportedly Yitzhak Sinwani of the London Kabbalah Centre.

I am ashamed to admit that my 12 years of Jewish day school education and lifetime of Jewish living left me unable to decipher more than bits and pieces of the Hebrew. So I turned to some of my Kabbalatastic Contacts for help, emailing them the lyrics and asking for some background. Within minutes, I got this response from the extremely knowledgeable, always accessible Eliezer Segal of the University of Calgary:

No, I have not heard Madonna's recording at all. At any rate, the Hebrew (not Aramaic) lyrics that you copied are from a song (piyyut) by the renowned 17th-century Yemenite Jewish liturgical poet and Kabbalist Rabbi Shalom Shabazi. I understand that it is favourite hymn among Yemenite Jews. The song became something of a popular hit in Israel when it was included in an album of Yemenite melodies by the late Ophra Haza back (I think) in the '80's... The theme of the hymn is that, even if human rulers are not always approachable, the gates of prayer are never shut and humans always have direct access to the throne of God. Shanazi's poem uses imagery of the angelic "chariot" taken from Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6, and might have been meant to accompany the Kedusha section of the liturgy.

He provided a link to the traditional Hebrew song, which you can

find here.

You can find the song's lyrics--with the Hebrew parts transliterated--

here.

And You Thought Jews and Catholics Had Only Guilt in Common



It¹s a cliché in theatrical circles: Every director who grew up Catholic mumbles meaningfully at some point that he or she would like to direct the Mass. In an interview posted yesterday on Slate, comedian Sarah Silverman--who stars in a movie of her stand-up act, "Jesus Is Magic"--intimates that Jewish rites also are rooted in drama:

Slate: How did three of the Silverman sisters end up getting into show business and one is a rabbi?

Silverman: Ach, it's the same thing.

Is there a least thespian faith or denomination? Unitarianism. Most services I've attended are just a person talking, and they blush if someone rises to play guitar.

Jon Voight Plays John Paul II



Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight is your new pope--well, sort of. The "Midnight Cowboy" stars as the late John Paul II in an upcoming two-part CBS mini-series premiering this Thursday at an exclusive Vatican City screening.

Voight enjoyed the role, declaring that as he ages he continues to see "God's importance in our lives." He acknowledged his own Catholicism as being the fuel for his performance and added that the copious amounts of available papal footage aided him in his research. Thanks in part to his lengthy 27-year reign, the late pope was one of the last century's most documented public figures.

The actor claims his life experiences helped him to prepare for the role as well. "I think I had to live a life. For some reason I have had success playing the suffering souls so that the last stages (of the Pope's life) were comfortable for me."

Some would say he's still "living a life." The ongoing feud between the actor and his daughter, Angelina Jolie, is setting a new standard for family dysfunction. Voight left Jolie and her mother when the "Girl, Interrupted" star was less than a year old, and the resulting off and on father-daughter relationship has been in the public eye ever since Jolie hit the big screen.

Whether or not you think Voight is fit to don the mitre, CBS is airing the mini-series in early December. Network rival ABC will premiere its own version December 1.

Is "Christian" the New "Gay"?



In the current issue of "The Atlantic Monthly," Hollywood gets a dose of religion, as the magazine asks the question "Can Jesus save Hollywood?" The feature is a behind–the-scenes look at Christians working in Hollywood. Writer Hanna Rosin describes how she spent the day observing faculty and students at Act One, a screenwriting program in Los Angeles that trains Christian writers to work in Hollywood. Once again citing "The Passion of the Christ" and the upcoming "Chronicles of Narnia" as proof positive Christians are becoming an effective artistic voice in the film industry, the article captures the ambition as well as the faith of a group of dedicated, hard-working and talented professionals who also happen to be Christians.

There is much to learn from the article about how the attitudes in Hollywood are changing toward religion, but my two favorite quotes from the piece came from program director and former nun Barbara Nicolosi and "That 70s Show" writer Dean Batali. Nicolosi said in an interview with "Inside Edition," "When I first came [to Hollywood], I never thought I'd be on 'Inside Edition.'" To which the reporter responded, "Didn't you know? (In Hollywood) 'Christian' is the new 'gay.'"

Batali's quote expressed his frustration with the development of Christian writers in Hollywood by saying, "What Tony Kushner did for gays and Eve Ensler did for feminists, some Christian writer ought to do for his own group. Where's the Christian 'Vagina Monologues?'"

I'm working on it, Dean. I swear.

A Church of Aliens?



Since it follows "Lost" on Wednesdays at 10 on ABC, I've been giving "Invasion" a chance, and after several weeks of indecision, I'll finally admit that I'm hooked. The basics you need to know to jump in mid-season are simple: Hurricane Eve hit the Everglades in Florida so hard the area is virtually destroyed. (Yes, of course it must be Eve who wreaks havoc on the earth.) As far as characters go, the show depicts the aftermath of Eve's chaos, as lived through the town's Sheriff Underlay, an Everglade Ranger named Russell, and their families. Both characters are heavily involved in the cleanup and in keeping order, yet they're also constantly at odds with each other since Sheriff Underlay is married to the Russell's ex-wife, Dr. Mariel Underlay (with whom he has a son and daughter).

Then there are the aliens. They seem to have fallen out of the sky and into the murky waters of the Everglades in the form of glittering lights that now dwell and occasionally shine underneath the swampy surface. Watch out: Whenever a shining light appears underwater, someone is bound to get attacked. The mystery is not only underwater, however; it's in the fact that some of the townspeople (including Mariel and a strange priest, Father Scanlon, who keeps popping up) have been infected by the aliens. Infected... or turned into aliens? Strangest of all is the fact that the sheriff seems to be somehow responsible for the alien invasion. Or is he leading it? Or in charge of all the newly made aliens? (Since he seems to be a veteran alien himself.) His true role--other than some kind of villain--is still unclear.

Most interesting of all? One storyline in Episode 5, "Unnatural Selection" had the apparently alien-infected Father Scanlon inviting selected (presumably infected) townspeople to a gathering at the local church—including Mariel, who is startled and upset by the invitation. Turns out, her husband, Sheriff Underlay, is not only behind the invite, but the sheriff is Father Scanlon's surprise guest giving the homily. As the episode comes to a close, viewers watch as half a church worth of townspeople fill the pews and Mariel, cautiously, reluctantly joins the gathering.

Most disappointing: Since Episode Five, the show has failed to explore this "Church of Aliens" any further.

Role of Another Lifetime



Reese Witherspoon is reporting that she had personal experience with the supernatural before taking her latest role in "Just Like Heaven," as a ghost haunting her Manhattan sublettor. While rehearsing a play in New York shortly after her grandfather died some years ago, says the "Legally Blonde" actress in internet stories today, "there was no one in the audience, then I looked out and he was there watching me." She felt him rooting for her too as she herself portrayed a spirit in the movie. Could this be why the audience for the film were also largely no-shows?

Get all the "Sexcess" You Deserve--and Jesus Too!



I wasn't going to do it; I wasn't going to give space on this blog to Thomas Nelson's Biblezine Series, which packages the New Testament in a glossy women's- or sports-magazine style. But I can't resist. Amazon has me listed as a "candidate" for email updates on the latest from Thomas Nelson in the Biblezine department. A little over two years ago I bought the first one, "Revolve: The Complete New Testament for Girls" because I wanted to use it in a feminist theology class for a critique about how Christianity prescribes gender roles (and in such clever new ways!). So this morning I got an exciting offer from Amazon. I qualify to buy " Align: The Complete New Testament for Men" for 32% off for the men in my life!

I think the Biblezine is a fascinating idea in theory. (Obviously I am all for reconciling religion and culture in creative ways). I think Thomas Nelson must have fantastic marketers working for them. Yet the way these glossy, full-color New Testaments pander to Christian gender stereotypes about girls and women (who of course, have no libidos, are all about making themselves nice and virginal for the boys, and must get those emotions in check for those emotionally stunted men they are trying to catch) and boys and men (who are all libido, aggression, and need to dig deep inside themselves to find something resembling a feeling despite their nature to lust, lust, lust) is cringe-inducing at best.

"Align" takes the cake. Why? Apparently, "Align" (which is for the young career man) will teach you to get "Sexcessful"—that's the first article promised underneath the book's cover title. Get "sexcessful" with the opposite sex? Are you serious? The counterpart to "Align" is "Becoming"--for young women who apparently do not have much of a career, because their duty is to wait around for the "Align Man" to conquer all that aggression, and stop playing with all those gadgets (also promised as a discussion point on the cover). The cover of "Align" shows a young man eruditely reading the newspaper, while the "Becoming" cover features a young woman posing demurely, doing nothing but staring out into space, assumedly waiting for her "Align" man to get sexcessful with her.

What's next? Biblezine's for the overwhelmed married woman hoping for less sex, more romance after the kids go to bed--with its counterpart for the husband who needs to find new, creative ways to get his harried, overworked wife re-interested in his sexcessfulness?

This Week in Deviancy



Last Monday, news spread across the country that two Carolina Panther cheerleaders had been arrested in an altercation after alleged sexual activity in a restroom stall. They were fired from their jobs because they violated a code of conduct and were arrested, but not because of sexual activity in public. Is two women having sex in a bathroom stall deviancy which should be punished or diversity worth celebrating? And, who decides?

Last Tuesday’s “Boston Legal” featured a wife who sued for an annulment when her husband had an affair with... a cow! And she lost the case! Is cheating with a cow deviancy or the kind of diversity we should celebrate? And, who decides?

Last Wednesday, kids who watch MTV heard a song called “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been,” by a band of evangelical Christians. And like on any other day, they also heard explicit lyrics on any number of other songs--lyrics which now can include “Hell” and “Damn” but not “*&^%$#” and “^#%&$(*&”. Who decided that damn and hell were acceptable words for kids, and when did they decide? And who decided that evangelical Christians could proselytize our young children through their music?

A story ran Thursday reporting that Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas declared that “pornography is a pervasive problem that every family now grapples with. But what few people want to admit is its devastating effects on marriages, families and, worst of all, children.” Who decided that? Who affirms if he’s right?

On Friday, the country heard of another warning by ex-presidential candidate and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson--who in 1998 first warned the city of Orlando that it risked hurricanes, earthquakes, and terrorist bombs after it allowed homosexual organizations to put up rainbow flags in support of sexual diversity. This time, Robertson told the residents of Dover, Pa., that disaster may strike them for voting out of office school board members who favored teaching intelligent design. Who decided his words constituted news? Should his warning be laughed at or heeded? Is his view a deviant one or part of the diversity we celebrate?

Each of these news stories have one thing in common: two sides. Someone has a clear view of what is normal, healthy, and appropriate behavior in our society. Someone else has a different view. It’s usually at this point that each side begins pointing fingers at the other side, rather than asking the real questions that matter: What is the normative social behaviors that should be tolerated, accepted, and embraced in our society? And... Who should decide?

My advice: Try to find answers to these questions without simply pointing fingers at how the “other side” is wrong. Meanwhile, I’ll go back to trying to explain to my daughter how the “guy-with-the-cow” thing works, while remembering that I chuckled at how well the scene was done.

Jan Before Jesus



As Lauren Winner writes in her appreciation of Jan Karon's Mitford series, Karon's best-selling novels "proved Christian fiction can be a publishing phenomenon." The books--the final of which hit bookstores last week--depict small-town Christian life in all its sex-free and gossip-less wholesomeness, from conversions to weddings to the challenges of retirement. Karon has been getting a lot of press this month, thanks to the release of "Light from Heaven." But Mitford devotees should definitely take a peek at this revealing Charlotte Observer profile of Karon from several months ago. Fans of the series may be shocked to learn that, among other juicy tidbits, the born-again author has been married three times, had a baby at 15, was active in the civil rights movement, participated in a "hard partying scene," and at one time, practiced Judaism.

Karon says she found Jesus in 1982, when she was fired from her job at a Charlotte advertising agency. ""I distrusted Jesus, because he'd been presented to me as a kind of policeman," she told the Observer. She says she told Jesus, "I don't know who you are, but I'm willing to take my chance with you. But be gradual with me. I don't want to end up on a street corner handing out pamphlets and beating a tambourine.' "

Fact & Fiction in Christ's Birth



NBC got an early start on the Christmas season by airing a special Friday night that examined the birth of Christ. “Dateline” anchors Stone Phillips and Ann Curry, along with correspondent Keith Morrison, interviewed a variety of theological experts of various religious backgrounds to examine what is fact and what is fiction regarding the narrative of the Christmas story. Were there really three wise men that visited a manger? Was the star over Bethlehem actually a comet? These were some of the less controversial questions the program asked. Most of the special was actually devoted to a deeper examination of the conflict between the account of Jesus’ birth found in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.

Matthew places Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, then moves them to Nazareth after they flee Egypt to save Jesus from a Herod-ordered massacre--an event not documented historically. In Luke's account, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth but go to Bethlehem in response to a census ordered by Caesar Augustus--a census for which there is no historical record either. So do these inconsistencies discredit the Christmas story or further illustrate that faith and fact are both required in order to truly embrace the birth of Christ? The show went out of its way not to draw any conclusions, suggesting that whether or not you accept a literal or allegorical treatment of the Biblical accounts, the birth of Christ has continued to influence the course of history.

In general, this particular discussion of the life of Christ was about as fair and balanced as I could have hoped for, especially in comparison to the treatment Christianity received on NBC’s “In God They Trust” a few weeks ago. My only beef with this special is actually that the reporters tried too hard to be P.C. and not offend anyone with their discussion of the Christ story. In fact, Stone Phillips said right at the beginning of the hour that “with this report, we're not trying to challenge or change anyone's beliefs.” But where does such kid-glove treatment of faith leave those of us who want our beliefs to be challenged? I want to consider that Jesus’ birth did not remotely resemble a Hallmark greeting card and I want people to ask questions about my faith even if I don’t have all the answers.

Hunting for Sunday Parking



One of the big news stories here in New York over the weekend was the end of Sunday parking meters--from now on, all of the city's meters will rest on the Christian Sabbath. This was particularly good news for churchgoers, who resented having to rush out to feed their meters during worship. NY1.com, a local news site, played the story heavily much of the day yesterday, celebrating the changes with this delicious headline:

"Pay To Prey" Parking Rules Are Officially Over

Alas, the blurb underneath the headline contained the same typo. After remaining up as the site's lead story for several hours, some poor editor working on Sunday fixed the error. Wonder if he was parked at a meter?

Minister's Daughter's McDonald's Mishap



Ashlee SimpsonOh, Ashlee, what would your father--a former minister--say?

When 21-year-old singer Ashlee Simpson wants a Big Mac, she really wants a Big Mac. Last week, the citizens of Canada were witness to a distinctly un-Christian display of drunk and disorderly behavior when Simpson showed up late one night at a Toronto McDonald's. The young songstress was obviously intoxicated and, after being approached by a photograph-seeking fan, uttered such illogical gems as "You would not kiss my foot, so [expletive deleted] you."

But wait, there's more.

After her run-in with the audio/visual contingent of her Canadian fan base, Ashlee put up her verbal dukes with an unwitting fast-food employee. Miss Simpson thought it necessary to sit herself next to the register for the encounter, prompting the bewildered worker to seek managerial intervention. In response, Ashlee quipped, "Oh, please, bring the manager. I would love to talk to the manager." She then interrupted the cashier's attempted rebuttal with, "Stop talking to me," to which she inexplicably added, "I'm nice. I promise your manager will be nice to me."

The immoral antics were mercifully made public in an attempt to understand the folly of youth and the general derangement of inebriated celebrities.

Buying a Doll of Virtue



Sure, your American Girl doll is beautiful and comes with lovingly detailed, era-appropriate accessories. But does your doll reflect biblical principles like "purity and contentment, faith and fortitude, enthusiasm and industry, heritage and home?"

Beliefnet blogger Charlotte Hays has already weighed in about recent ire over American Girl, which is owned by Mattel. The doll company's "I Can" campaign donates money to Girls Inc., which conservatives claim supports lesbianism, abortion rights, and contraceptive access for girls.

Now, a competing doll company--one that encourages a return to traditional gender roles--has chimed in, supporting the protest. According to a press release, the president of the San-Antonio-based Vision Forum, Doug Phillips, "Offers Censure to Dollmakers’ Support of Perversion." The press release continues:

“I was grieved to learn that American Girl is supporting an organization that encourages little girls to entertain and embrace lesbianism and other reprehensible behavior,” lamented Phillips. “As a father of three young daughters, it is nearly unbearable for me to consider their minds ever being sullied by such wicked thoughts.”

Conveniently, Phillips has a solution to parents' dilemma. His company offers the

Beautiful Girlhood Collection

, which includes dolls that can be dressed as historical figures like Sacagawea, Dolley Madison, and Maria von Trapp. The site also offers books like

"Raising Maidens of Virtue: A Study of Feminine Loveliness for Mothers and Daughters"

and material on surviving in a "savagely feministic, anti-Christian culture."

Girls who dress their Beautiful Girlhood toys as "Patriot Doll" and "Colonial Doll" can also mull their dolls' biblically-mandated disenfranchisement. An article on the related Vision Forum Ministries website--and linked to from the doll page--states that "God does not allow women to vote (cf. 1 Tim 2:11ff)...In regards to a woman’s right to vote; if husband and wife are truly “one flesh” and the husband is doing his duty to represent the family to the wider community, then what PRACTICAL benefit does allowing women to vote provide?"

'7th Heaven' on Its Way to TV Heaven



"7th Heaven," the longest-running family drama on television, has been cancelled by the WB, in what’s being reported as a cost cutting move.

Although the show is still a big draw for the network, paying such a large cast has just gotten increasingly more expensive.

Over the years the show has included Jessica Biel, who Esquire magazine voted "Sexiest Woman Alive" this month (she was written out of the show in 2001, partly because of semi-nude pictures she took for Gear magazine); Ashlee "Acid Reflux" Simpson; and most currently, Haylie "Sister of Hilary" Duff, who also was in the Mormon immediate-classic Napoleon Dynamite.

'Lost': The Island Giveth, the Island Taketh Away



Death claimed Shannon Rutherford this week on "Lost," the second death of this series (after her stepbrother Boone) but the first of this season. While the last episode (before a bunch of recent repeats) left off with a feeling of hope, this episode left off with a feeling of futility and hopelessness. After seeing strange visions of Walt, Shannon spends the episode begging for someone to believe in her, not just in her story but in her deeper potential of transforming into someone new.

Struggling with self-esteem and abandonment issues, Shannon says, in a pivotal scene: "Everyone thinks I'm worthless." Once she reveals this, she is free for the first time in her life—her words and her old self washed away by the rain pouring down on her, a metaphor for immersion baptism, as the sins of her Jezebel-tinged past (namely, her incestuous one-night stand with Boone and her years of keeping house with older men in order to swindle money from her stepmother) are washed away.

Yet, instead of a burst of light breaking through the rain to fully complete the transformation from old to new, Shannon is promptly killed, just as she releases her yoke onto the shoulders of her savior, Sayid, who declares his undying love. Although the rain seems to wash away Shannon’s sins, it does not fully cleanse her because her repentance is incomplete; she does not fully express regret about her past sins or seek hope in the island, which should be her true savior.

Even though Sayid seems to be her savior, he is really a false savior; instead, she transfers her hope and desperate codependency from one idol (Boone) onto another (Sayid). Because Shannon’s repentance is not entirely true, instead of being saved, she is punished, and it is Ana-Lucia who literally casts the (accidental) first stone—a bullet. As Shannon dies in Sayid’s arms, the horror of the island’s judgment reverberates: "For the wages of sin is death..." (Romans 6:23a, NIV ).

Despite having finally found self-worth, the island ultimately judges her life worthless—and beyond redemption.

Reality TV's New God Warrior



Attention Christians: In case you didn’t get the memo, there’s a spiritual war going on! At the forefront, fighting on your behalf, is Marguerite Perrin, who made her debut on the public stage in the most recent episodes of “Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy.”

For those who missed this two-episode storyline (or my blog entry about Part 1 last week), the show has featured Perrin, a Louisiana dance-studio owner, swapping places with Jeanne D'Amico, a New Ager from Massachusetts. Each must live with her new family, and take charge of her new household, for one week. At the end of the show, each woman must decide how the other family should spend the $50,000 they get for participating.

It is the good Mrs. Perrin, a self-proclaimed "God Warrior," who has the tougher time playing Mommy for a Week for a bunch of strangers, stuck as she is in a household of non-Christians. Her weapons of choice are her King James Bible and her voice, which, at times, could make your ears bleed. In place of armor she wears a black muumuu.

As the two women spend their final couple of days with their new families, Perrin gets progressively more uncomfortable with living in an “ungodly” household. She pressures the family to go to church with her, although it is quite clear that the D’Amico-Flisher family, particularly the kids, want nothing to do with her Jesus-loving ways. She was so annoying and stubborn (she forced her religion down the throats of this poor family but went into a fit if they mentioned their own beliefs) that I wouldn’t have been surprised if Jesus himself to came down to slap some sense into her. I even said a prayer that He would.

The best part of the show is the very end, when Perrin has her much-publicized meltdown/screamfest in front of the cameras. There hasn’t been this much crazy on TV since the Tom Cruise-Oprah incident. Perrin even starts yelling at the film crew, telling them to “get out of her house”--later adding, “unless you believe in Jesus.” Her eldest daughter, Ashley, bursts into tears, while her husband curses under his breath.

In a fit of rage, Perrin rips up an envelope containing a letter from Jeanne instructing her on how her family should spend their show winnings (the audience is also led to believe that the envelope contained the money). Perrin says there’s no way she’s going to let some “devil woman” tell her how to spend her money. The show ends with a note saying that Perrin did, indeed, take the money—to spend on gastric bypass surgery (clearly the most godly thing one can do with a sudden windfall).

I know that watching “Christians Gone Wild” is not everyone’s idea of a good time, though I certainly get a kick out of it. Idol Chatterer Kris Rasmussen doesn’t find the humor in the storyline, saying it brings a “’Jerry-Springer’ type quality to the series.” I say, “What’s wrong with that?”

Although I was never a big fan of “Jerry” it was less because of his love triangles and on-stage fighting than its complete lack of originality as the series went on. However, this never stopped the show from getting sky-high ratings. If “Trading Spouses” is, in fact, planning on pairing up more religiously diverse families like the Perrins and D’Amico-Flishers--as opposed to, say, a vegetarian family with a meat-eating one--their ratings will only improve (provided that one family member is loud and fanatical). And, I’ll have gotten a new favorite show.

 

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