God's Politics

If you want to find out what it means to be a hero, you could do worse than seeing two current documentaries: In the Shadow of the Moon and The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Shadow consists of documentary footage of the space race, intercut with new interviews of most of the men who have been to the moon and back. Kong follows another race, and one of the strangest competitions of our time – the battle to be the world Donkey Kong video game champion. At first glance, these films may seem to have little in common – but they both reflect different dimensions of the same theme: that of American exceptionalism.

In the Shadow of the Moon brings parts of the politics and adventure of space travel to the attention of an audience for whom putting a human being on another planet is a historical fact rather than a mythical possibility. The astronauts are wholly charming and exude an integrity that we may associate with the post-war era, in which service to the community was perhaps considered a higher ideal than in our own cynical age.

The King of Kong relates the heroic narrative of Steve Wiebe, a Seattle native whose life story more resembles that of Homer Simpson than Neil Armstrong. A failure at high school sports, grunge music, and even being laid off on the day he and his wife signed their mortgage papers, Wiebe is an endearing figure – the kind of guy who seems far too nice to be the recipient of so much trouble. The one thing he knows he is good at is Donkey Kong, which he plays obsessively in his garage, hoping to beat the 25-year-old record held by Billy Mitchell, whom the film portrays (perhaps unfairly) as a hot sauce-hawking Darth Vader with a mullet. Steve’s wife supports him in challenging the record, but his nemesis refuses to grant him the dignity of even turning up to participate in the competition, preferring to submit a taped entry. The tension mounts, and we are seduced into feeling the desperation perhaps as much as when the world watched Apollo 11 land on another world.

Both films are stories of people struggling against the odds; and both the astronauts and Steve Wiebe may remind us of ourselves. Regrettably, the moon documentary buries the lead. A film about human beings who can genuinely be said to be unique spends too much time looking at the technical aspects of space travel, and far too little on how the travelers were changed by their journeys. Toward the end of the movie, one of the astronauts speaks of his epiphany that all of creation comes from the same source and that we are all one. It is ironic that such a pacifist (and biblical) revelation resulted from a neo-military endeavor rooted in Cold War paranoia and suspicion.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, the Steve Wiebes of this world go about their own, smaller adventures – the adventure of building a family, of living honestly, of seeing ourselves as beautiful imperfections. In the Shadow of the Moon focuses on something extraordinary, but manages to make it seem less than the sum of its parts. The King of Kong, however, takes something apparently absurd and suggests that the decision to try to do one thing right might actually be a key to becoming a better human being.

Gareth Higgins is a Christian writer and activist in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For the past decade he was the founder/director of the zero28 project, an initiative addressing questions of peace, justice, and culture. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul and blogs at

Here’s an intriguing SAT-style question.

Ann Coulter is to Christianity as …

(A) Dr. James Dobson is to Sponge Bob Square Pants
(B) The new thought movement is to common sense
(C) Marilyn Manson is to Satanism
(D) Dick Cheney is to gun control
(E) Richard Dawkins is to reasoned debate

The correct answer is C. Both Ann and Marilyn found a profitable way to utilize religion as a provocative tool to feed their cash cow. Ann appeals to the base instincts of her rabid followers that right makes (Christian) might. Conversely, Marilyn attracts the kids of control freak parents who want to rebel from what can best be described as a rigid and repressive regime. I’ll let the Satanists deal with Marilyn Manson, but please, do not interpret Coulter’s trademark viciousness and venom as viable Christian virtues.

I thought when I reported on Coulter’s “faggot” comment that this political pundit committed career suicide. But I was wrong. But given that even Fox News condemned the latest Coulter snafu blasting the Jews, one can hope that she will be off the airways for good.

This is not to say there isn’t a place for insult humor. While covering The New York Film Festival, I had the opportunity to catch John Landis’ new documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project. Landis took me on a journey that enabled me to sample the depth of this fearless comic and actor. In particular, I was impressed by the plethora of comedians including George Wallace, Chris Rock, and Sarah Silverman who praised him for his “take no prisoners” attack dog approach. Throughout the movie, I was reminded that to be insulted by Rickles was indeed the highest compliment. Also, Landis showed us Rickles’ softer side by illuminating the kindness he shows towards his family, friends, staff, waiters, and even strangers that he encountered offstage.

Watch this documentary and you’ll see how people double up with laughter whenever Rickles reams them. In fact, they jockey for position just so they can be part of the act. Coulter proclaims in her latest book, If Democrats Had Brains, They’d be Republicans, ” I am the illegal alien of commentary. I will do the jokes that no one else will do.” She might think she’s funny, but her targets aren’t amused one bit.

For Rickles, hurling insults is an act. In Coulter’s case, spewing venom appears to be a lifestyle choice.

Becky Garrison’s further critiques of Ann Coulter can be found in her Amazon short, Contemplating Coulter Christianity, as well as her forthcoming book, The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail: Their Misguided Quest to Destroy Your Faith (Thomas Nelson, January 2008).

Last evening I attended a reception and dinner in Washington for evangelical Christian leaders, which is not an unusual event here. But the topic and, especially, the main speaker would seem highly unusual to many. The event, called “A Global Leaders Forum,” was hosted by the National Association of Evangelicals and the Micah Challenge, a global advocacy campaign focused on achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are aimed at cutting extreme global poverty in half by 2015. The topics that brought 250 evangelical leaders together from around the U.S. and world were indeed global poverty and the urgent issue of climate change. Both issues are now firmly on the agenda of the evangelical mainstream, as last night’s impressive list of leaders demonstrated.

The speaker for the evening was none other than Ban-Ki Moon, the new secretary general of the United Nations, which is driving the MDG initiative. Growing up in the evangelical world, I remember the great debate about who was the real “Antichrist” as described in biblical prophecy–it was either the pope or the United Nations. As Washington Post writer Dana Milbanks noted this morning

In the wildly popular Left Behind series of evangelical Christian novels, the Antichrist takes the form of the secretary general of the United Nations, sets up an abortion-promoting world government and becomes the Global Community Supreme Potentate. Last night, the National Association of Evangelicals met for dinner at the Sheraton in Crystal City. The keynote speaker? Why, the Antichrist himself.

Last night, the supposed Antichrist was listening to gospel music, speaking of his own faith, quoting scripture, celebrating a new alliance with “the evangelical church” on the critical issues of poverty and global warming, and bringing the conservative Christian crowd to its feet in smiling agreement with the secretary’s agenda.

Indeed, leader after leader insisted this was a biblical agenda. A prominent leader from the Religious Right came up to sit right next to me, and then engaged me in an amazing conversation about finding common ground. This dramatic shift in the public agenda of the evangelical community is affecting American politics in very significant ways and promises to change them, especially if the political labels of left and right slowly slip away and are replaced by a common commitment to focus on the key moral issues of our time. Those issues are now defined more broadly and deeply than before and include the plight of God’s poorest children and the fragile state of God’s creation.

Mamta, a winsome, wide-eyed girl of 12 moves through her daily chores in a poor household in India. Although still a child, her life has little play, and she will too soon be bearing the full responsibilities and burdens of an adult woman: Mamta was married at the age of 7. At puberty she will quit school and move to the house of her husband, who she’s had no contact with since her wedding night five years ago.

You can meet Mamta in a special hour-long broadcast tonight of the PBS weekly newsmagazine NOW. In Child Brides: Stolen Lives, NOW senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa takes viewers to Guatemala, India, and Niger to explore stories of early marriages and to show how people are campaigning to end child marriage in many of these communities – sometimes at the risk of their own lives.

On a trip to Ethiopia last year, I saw firsthand the devastating ripple effects of child marriage on individuals and on an impoverished country. Millions of girls around the world are forced into marriages long before they are grown. They are usually deprived of schooling, virtually powerless when the husband or his family is abusive, at high risk for HIV/AIDS infection from their older, sexually experienced husbands, and face disability or death for themselves and their babies when they become pregnant before their bodies are ready.

The NOW broadcast is a great opportunity to learn more about child marriage and why it’s so important to stand up on behalf of these children and support community-based efforts to end this practice. Child marriage legislation is currently before the U.S. Congress – to learn more, visit the International Center for Research on Women Web site.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.