Idol Chatter

It’s not often I get to (a) see a movie star up close and (b) see a Broadway show. But on my first –and hopefully not last–whirlwind trip to New York, I was able to do both in one afternoon. I sat in my seat mesmerized as Ralph Fiennes (“The English Patient,” “Schindler’s List”), wearing a baggy suit with an ugly green tie and matching socks, made me forget his big-screen persona, as he alternately shuffled and then paced back and forth on a stark, black stage. With a twinkle in his eyes but despair in his voice, Fiennes transported me back to Depression-era Wales in search of the miraculous in the haunting Tony-nominated tragedy “The Faith Healer.”

The play, on the surface, is quite simple. It is actually a series of long, long, long monologues that tell the tale of a two-bit hustler, Frank Hardy (played by Fiennes) and the two people closest to him–his lover, Grace, and his “business manager,” Teddy. The motley trio travels the impoverished back roads of Wales advertising Frank’s supernatural ability to heal the lame and infirmed, for a small price, of course. The story of the same heartbreaking series of events surrounding the misguided use of Frank’s spiritual gift is told from the perspective of all three characters and reveals glimpses of truth in the midst of a pack of lies. The challenge for the audience is to figure out which is which.

Does Frank truly have the ability to heal others? Well, sometimes, in spite of his whiskey-induced stupor, yes, he does. Do the people who come to him actually want to be healed? In Frank’s opinion, no, they don’t. Is God involved in any of these healings–or in some cases, the lack of healings–or is it just mind over matter?

“The Faith Healer” neither mocks the possibility that faith in a higher power heals nor fully embraces the notion of the miraculous. Instead, it is a tortured look at what could happen to those who does not question what they put their faith in. Frank heals others not out of a sense of the divine, but rather to escape the nagging spiritual questions inside his heart. Frank only feels escape from these questions when he is healing someone, yet refuses to acknowledge the possibility of a God who gave him this gift–if it is a gift. Grace and Teddy, on the other hand, place too much faith in the frail and unhappy Frank and suffer greatly because of this. What is clear by the final, tragic scene is that in this story, faith alone cannot save anyone.

I certainly have been taught since I was a teenager to “walk by faith and not by sight,” as the Bible teaches, but this particular afternoon as I left the theater and walked down a crowded Schubert Alley, I was left reflecting on my own spiritual complacency. I put my faith in other people, other things–as well as my personal beliefs–but sometimes without a lot of thought. It only took a couple of hours in a darkened theater to remind me that it is when we ask questions and struggle with doubts, that we find what is truly worthy of our faith.

No need to wake early and drink warm beer to enjoy the World-Cup-time flap over English soccer star Wayne Rooney’s new billboard for Nike, left, which has scandalized churchmen in the Sceptred Isle because it recalls the Crucifixion. “‘The trivialization of Christ’s suffering is highly offensive to Christians and to God,” says one cleric. “This will cause real hurt to people.”

The second part of this statement may turn out to be prophetic. Rooney’s war cry might encourage fan violence, which European authorities finally seem to have quelled, which would be an obvious shame. But the red cross shouldn’t offend Christians any more than the Swedes’ yellow one or the Danes’ blue one, which their fans commonly slather on their bodies. The swaths on Rooney’s torso represent England’s traditional banner, the flag of St. George. (The Union Jack is the standard of the United Kingdoms of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, all of which have their own teams.) It’s the banner under which King Richard Lionheart’s men marched off to the Crusades–another reason, a disconcerted Labor MPs says, the image is too touchy for good taste, considering the war in Iraq.

If the red cross summons delicate associations, however, it’s a coincidence of England’s past (often a violent one) as an unambiguously Christian nation. Certainly no one is proposing the cross be removed from all national displays.

The Rooney ruffle comes on the heels of a smaller flap on these shores about the place advertising occupies in our media. During last week’s U.S. Open golf championship, Nike ran a commercial that memorialized Tiger Wood’s father, who died this spring. Critics said the spot capitalized on Earl Wood’s death. But the Woods family, which gave Nike all the footage, clearly viewed it as a tribute. The ad was Tiger’s way of communicating his loving grief to his fans.

Rooney’s image is haunting, even hard to look at, and its power unquestionably comes in part from its resonance with Christ crucified–not the suffering of Christ itself, of course, but hundreds of thousands of depictions in Western art. Nike has a right to that history, of course, as much as anyone who is trying to capture complex feelings to communicate about what we see or believe. In other words, to create art.

It seems that Madonna’s Kabbalah connection with Lindsay Lohan may be reaching new heights of mystical ecstacy.
is featuring pictures of Lohan with a Jewish “chai” charm necklace. It is not clear whether wearing the Hebrew word for “life” around her neck actually puts the starlet firmly in the Kabbalah camp, but she isn’t a stranger to the most famous Kabbalah adornment, the red string bracelet. Perhaps, she’s just on the Hebrew hip train like Scientologist Kirstie Alley, who has been seen carrying around a satchel emblazoned with Yiddish phrases.

Regardless of Ms. Lohan’s religious leanings, it seems that the mentoring Material Girl may have made a prodigious choice in this former child star. But maybe she should hold off on giving her new friend the 900-year-old Zohar she’d given Britney Spears–and reportedly requested back when Spears rejected Kabbalah.

I’m a sucker for unique music combinations (think: Metallica’s “S&M” collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony). So when I listened to the first track off Celtic punk band Flatfoot 56’s soon-to-be re-released album, “Knuckles Up,” I was immediately drawn in to the tribal-like drumming, electric guitar chords, and sweet mandolin playing–which soon gave rise to louder, faster drumming and more powerful guitar and mandolin playing. It was a much different sound than your standard punk song, which is usually very simple and predictable in style and arrangement (a couple of guitar chords and a screaming lead singer).

The song “This Town” is also unique in another way–it’s a positive anthem for change, something you don’t often hear in more traditional punk music, which is more aggressive. And then, of course, you’ve got the band’s Christian thing.

Although Christian punk bands aren’t new, they’re new to me. And, this one I like. Flatfoot 56 is comprised of three brothers from the south-side of Chicago–Tobin, Justin and Kyle Bawinkel– and their friend Josh Robieson on bagpipes and mandolin.

Lead singer Tobin, who writes most of Flatfoot’s songs, is very outspoken about the Christian messages in his work. In a 2004 interview with “The Phantom Tollbooth” he said, “Our lyrics talk a lot about brotherhood; standing strong with our brothers in the Lord, under Christ’s banner; being a light for Christ. Many times our lyrics talk about our struggle with sin; how God’s grace is always there to pick us all up when we fall down…”

Although the album was originally released in 2005, it will be re-released on June 27th, and will include new packaging, a new and sharper re-mastered sound, and a music video for their single “Brotherhood,” the album’s single about the power of friendship in standing up for what one believes.

One of my favorite songs off the album is a kicked-up version of “Amazing Grace.” You can listen to it streamed on Beliefnet here.