Idol Chatter

Past Billy Graham television specials have focused on issues such as divorce or on cities in ruin, such as hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. But the latest evangelistic crusade, broadcast from Baltimore, asks the question, “Do you know where your children are?” Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, continues to take the helm of the behemoth evangelical ministry, while the ministry increasingly is focusing on reaching out to teens, in this case by addressing the staggering and bleak statistics surrounding teenage runaways.

The special follows the usual Crusade format of testimonies of dramatic conversions–in this case from teens who used to live on the streets–mixed with coverage of Franklin Graham preaching and contemporary Christian musical guests singing their latest hits. While I have never been a huge supporter of this type of old-fashioned revival-style formula for evangelizing, a thought struck me as I was watching the special. With pseudo-celebs like Stephen Baldwin trying to make Jesus “rad” by developing gospel skateboarding comic books while Christian bookstores sell the latest “Gospel According To…” book, maybe it’s time to go a little retro in the way the gospel is preached after all .

Jesus didn’t try to follow pop culture trends to make his message fashionable, He told the truth in simple terms. So while Graham’s method of ministry may seem old-fashioned, it is perhaps ever-so-slightly more effective than the latest Christian slogan or marketing trend.

Baylor University’s Institute on Studies of Religion is pitching their new report, “American Piety in the 21st Century,” as a testament to how diverse and complex religious feelings in our country really are. The report does show that many religiously unaffiliated people pray, and that “The Passion,” produced by a conservative Catholic and championed by white evangelicals, was most popular among African-American Protestants. The subtext of the data, however, is to show how culturally divided we are.

It’s right there in the charts relating church attendance to consumption of the controversial thriller “The Da Vinci Code.” Quite simply, Baylor found, the less you attend church, the more likely you are to have read the book. Only 16 percent of evangelical Protestants read Dan Brown’s novel; those who gave their affiliation as “None” were twice as likely to have read it, and “Other” were more than three times as likely.

On the other hand, “VeggieTales,” Rick Warren, and the “Left Behind” series all appeal to 20-25 percent of the population—a number close enough to the percentage of evangelicals in the national body to suggest that as popular as those products have become, they are still confined mostly to their home communities.

Since St. Paul, Christians have asked the question, What influences you most: Christ or culture? Judging from Baylor’s report, the answer might be that what influences us most is neither Christ nor culture, but which Christian culture we come from.

No character on television represents my own spiritual journey better than Gregory House, protagonist of FOX’s “House.” Flawed yet searching, abrasive in his search for answers, Dr. House has gone through a series of challenges, culminating with last season’s near-death experience. And now that the cranky doctor is still alive and back for a third season, I continue to be amazed at the way this series flips spiritual themes upside down.

In last night’s episode, House is no longer walking with his cane, thanks to the success of a risky surgery performed on his leg. He is now, with great difficulty, adjusting to a new life without physical pain. He is also a somewhat kinder, gentler version of himself. Because his co-workers like the new and improved House, some of them decide they don’t just want to fix him physically, but they also want to fix him spiritually. They feel House gave a reckless diagnosis and treatment to a patient, and so his colleagues take the opportunity to teach House a lesson in humility by telling him the treatment failed–when it fact it had worked.

The failure doesn’t sit well with House, who suddenly questions every personal and medical decision he makes. And then there is the pain in his leg that mysteriously begins to return. Is it real or a symptom of depression?

When House discovers that his co-workers betrayed him, he lashes out at them, and rightly so. While they often have accused him of playing God with his patients, it is, in fact, his fellow doctors who have played God, this time with House’s life, by tricking him. More importantly, House challenges the notion that humility only reveals itself by outward signs of modesty. House is humbled by the leg pain that is returning as well as by the Vicodin addiction he can’t quite beat.

As always, it remains to be seen how House will grow as a person as he continues to wrestle with fresh physical and emotional pain. However, just like my own tumultuous journey, I am sure House’s journey will continue to be unexpected, but, in the end, very rewarding.

St. Francis Church in Macon, GA, is putting a stake through the heart of boring adult education classes, while providing pop culture aficionados with a learning opportunity they can really sink their teeth into. Starting this Thursday, the church will launch “The Gospel According to Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” an adult-ed class designed to explore the Christian virtues portrayed in the show. The Macon Telegraph reports:

“It’s the most artistic and literate program that’s been on TV in 10 years, maybe ever,” [series co-teacher and self-proclaimed “Buffy junkie” Buzz] Tanner said. “Spiritually, Buffy’s virtues are Christian, though it would be hard to say Buffy is a Christian. The show deals with good and evil, right and wrong.”

“It’s about helping people not be so uptight about their religion,” said John Mark Parker, pastoral assistant at St. Francis. “One of things we want people to do is look for themes that reflect what they experience in their faith…. It’s really about creating dialogue.”

The group will watch an episode each week, and then discuss the episode’s spiritual lessons over soft drinks, popcorn, and beer. (As Buffy might have said, “Beer… foamy… good.” Of course, that was right before she said, “Beer bad…” but one can assume that with church supervision, they’ll stop at “foamy… good” before getting to “beer… bad.”) Garlic necklaces and wooden stakes are apparently optional.

Members of the class are being encouraged to read “What Would Buffy Do?: Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide,” and discussion will continue on a special blog. The last class in the eight-week series will take place on Halloween, when participants will be encouraged to dress as their favorite “Buffy” character.

Of course, the Macon church class isn’t the first analysis of the spiritual side of slayage. Over at Hollywood Jesus, horror writer/environmental toxicologist (yes, really) Maurice Broaddus writes about Buffy, Alias, Stephen King and other bastions of pop culture from a spiritual angle. Idol Chatter’s Donna Freitas has made no secret of her spiritual love for all things Buffy. At lives the online International Journal of Buffy Studies, with articles like “The Evolution of Joss Whedon’s Vampire Mythology and the Ontology of the Soul” and others. And the cult of Buffy continues to inspire, as the IFC Film Center in NYC takes a cue from Rocky Horror and serves up midnight shows of the soulful musical episode, in sing-along format.

Still, the best thing about having Buffy classes in church? Abundant crucifixes minimize chances of vampire invasion.