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One of Beliefnet’s news stories this weekened was about Emily Saliers, a lesbian who is one-half of the singing group The Indigo Girls. She was invited to be a speaker at the United Methodist Women’s Assembly this past weekend in Anaheim, Calif.

I think the most important issue isn’t about homosexuality, celebrity, culture, religion, or Methodists. I think it’s about how many of us strongly believe in something like “love the sinner, hate the sin,” as our expression of Christian love. As a phrase, it summarizes the kind of love Jesus expressed and modeled as well as what many of us long to humbly and non-judgmentally live out in our own lives. The problem is that we also must form associations, contracts, commitments, governances, companies, and other entities that must draw real boundaries and stand for real convictions.

There are a significant number of women in the United Methodist Church who were glad she was on the speaking program because they believe the church should be more open and inclusive regarding the homosexual lifestyle. There are also many in the denomination who believe homosexuality should not be condoned in any way by the church and wanted her disinvited. There are still others who don’t have a strong opinion either way as much as they don’t think this kind of controversy is what the annual renewal conference is supposed to be about. Still others love the media attention it has drawn to the event because this is obviously a current and debated issue in the church.

The question of homosexuality and the church’s treatment of both the issue and the people struggling with it is certainly a significant one. Inclusiveness is a value, as is church interpretation of doctrinal purity, which on this issue says the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The church also stands strong in its commitment to “social witness against the coercion and marginalization of former homosexuals.”

I think it’s easier said than done, as is most anything that is truly spiritual.

Just before going to see Mission: Impossible III, I caught glimpses of the teaser trailers for both Superman and Casino Royale (the newest 007 sequel). That turned out to be a good thing, since these trailers gave me something to think—and blog—about coming out of M:I:3, which itself doesn’t say much.

But its genre does.

If you like summer eye candy, visualgasm, and plot twists that go beyond even “24’s” obnoxiousness, then M:I:3 satisfies. But I think the real story is in how many, many, many people in our culture are satisfied by a movie like this. Cynics may say it’s because we’re a dialed-down, decadent and dispassionate society contented by fantasy and escape. Even our “reality-TV” shows aren’t much like a reality anybody actually lives. But all of us have within us a God-given sense of what justice is and a God-shaped hole in us that desires a savior. Or at least a hero.

It follows then that if the churches and religions (and religious people) don’t do much for us, we’ll end up reaching out to the characters that bring and fulfill that sense of justice and worldfix we each have within us. Ethan Hawke. Jack Bauer. Jason Bourne. Lara Croft. James Bond. Superman. Batman. The Tuhminatuh. Go back to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. They’re heroes. They bring justice. They put the world back the way it is supposed to be. It’s a great story. It’s a mirror of The Greatest Story, which much of Christendom celebrated a few weeks ago.

But hero flicks like M:I:3 bring heroism and justice-hunting to light (and sound) in a more visually appealing way with more attractive stars than a church does, even if the depth of the message is a comparative drop in the bucket. This Sunday I’ll be at my church hearing about the Real Savior, who’s authentic heroic acts rescued all of us for all time. And if its gets boring, I’ll remember that the pastor and the music team don’t have the $100-million-plus budget of M:I:3, but the message will be closer to what will bring real justice in the world and contentment in my spiritual life than the hole left when M:I:3 wears off and planning for its next sequel begins.

Some of you may recall meeting Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as the fierce, wild-eyed henchmen devoted to the resurrected Imhotep in “The Mummy Returns.” And though he played a convincing devotee of the evil ancient Egyptian High Priest, it’s his most recent role as “Lost”‘s Mr. Eko, the African druglord turned “priest,” that has audiences devoted to him.

In fact, after being so taken with Mr. Eko’s recitation of the 23rd Psalm on one of this season’s espisodes, Hawaiian Senator Fred Hemmings asked him to repeat the perfomance as the daily prayer before the state Senate. So, it’s rather interesting that this actor who can imbody a Christian pastor so believeably is actually a Buddhist. Akinnuoye-Agbaje recently told the TVGuide Channel that it’s challenging playing a priest since he has to espouse doctrines and teachings that are not always in agreement with his own.

“I was intrigued to play that spiritual element. It was something that really interested me because I’m a Buddhist by nature. And I thought it interesting for me to play a priest, being a Buddhist. You know, because it would challenge my own faith, and hopefully deepen it, and at the same time give me a greater understanding of other people’s [spirituality],” he explained in more detail to the Philadelphia Daily News.

At the same time Akinnuoye-Agbaje should find comfort being on a show which seems to incorporate many Buddhist concepts, unlike his stint in “Oz” as the ultraviolent inmate Adebisi or his role as Majestic in the 50 Cent story “Get Rich or Die Tryin,'” for which “he [chanted] more than usual while playing the brutal character,” according to IMDB.com.

Just how many movies can Hollywood make about spelling bees as a cinematic metaphor for overcoming the odds? It is easy to dismiss the latest film about the importence of speling wordz corectly, “Akeelah and the Bee,”–expanding to nationwide release this weekend–as nothing more than a sentimental copycat of the documentary “Spellbound” or a rip-off the more recent movie, “Bee Season.” But the story of Akeelah Anderson, a fiesty 11-year-old girl from south Los Angeles with a gift for words, has more than enough to inspire–in spite of the movie’s slight feeling of famililarity.

Addicted to Scrabble but afraid to let her peers at school see how smart she is, Akeelah reluctantly enters the school spelling bee with the encouragement and manipulation of her principal. Her single mother Tanya (Angela Bassett) isn’t too thrilled, but along comes the perequisite mentor, which all underdog stories need in the character of no-nonsense Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne). Before you can spell antidisenstablishmentarianism, Akeelah’s love of letters earns her an opportunity to compete for a spot in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Yes, as these kinds of stories go, “Akeelah” is not just about winning a contest. More importantly, the girl makes new friends, learns some life lessons in courage and determination, and helps her mother begin to heal from the loss of Akeelah’s father.

Humorous and sassy one moment and tender and heartwarming the next, what sets “Akelelah” apart is the way this movie uses academics, not sports, as a uniting force in a poor community where many people have given up on succeeding in life. It’s not an NBA contract that is held up as a symbol of a better life, but the power of knowledge and how to use it correctly.

“Akeelah” also contains something we rarely see on film, a positive portrayal of a young girl of an ethnic minority as the center of a story. The message of “Akeelah” is not only about an underdog beating the odds; Akeelah represents a generation of girls who need a voice and an image that gives them hope for a brighter future. “Akeelah” gently reminds all of us that we are part of the community-at-large that can inspire the next generation of girls (and boys) to hope, dream and achieve through the power of their spirits… and their words.

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