Idol Chatter

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.

…Or so the comedian-turned-liberal political commentator claims during the initial moments of the documentary “Al Franken: God Spoke,” opening in limited released tomorrow.

Hilariously dressed in a Santa Claus-like beard and holding a Ten Commandment-esque tablet–presumably Al Franken’s mode of representing God–the film opens with Franken’s voice booming amid the clouds: “God Spoke! God spoke to me and he told me to write this down….” Franken is of course, mocking pundits and politicians who have been known (and heard) to imply that God speaks through them and the ideas they espouse–most notably President Bush. (This scene is sure to offend some viewers–though then again, those viewers it might offend probably won’t go see a documentary about Al Franken. They are busy at home reading Ann Coulter’s latest diatribe, “Godless.”)

But for viewers hoping for a Franken critique about God and politics, religion and the public square, Franken’s mockery of right-wingers’ claims to bend the ear of God is limited to those first moments. This documentary is not at all about religion or God (at least in any direct way), despite its title’s implications. It is, instead, an overview of two years in the life of Al Franken–which includes a good deal of sparring with Ann Coulter and the rise and subsequent demise of Air America, the liberal radio network Al Franken spearheaded. (OK, maybe “demise” is not the right word–but the network is having its troubles.)

The film is certainly a tribute to the career of Al Franken, specifcally how he uses the claims and foibles of our country’s O’Reillys and Coulters as a means to espouse his liberal point of view and make his targets look stupid in the process. The film also highlights Franken’s recent struggles to make Air America work. (It is having trouble finding its audience and has been dropped altogether in some major markets.)

Though I was disappointed to find out that the film has virtually nothing in common with its title, the documentary is sure to interest Al Franken fans. It’s as “fair and balanced” a film as one can hope from two unabashed fans of the documentary’s subject.

Both Kris and Doug, in their own separate ways, downplay the controversy over ABC’s “The Path to 9/11” miniseries. Maybe it’s just that, unlike them, I am a stereotypical East Coast liberal, but I can’t dismiss Democrats’ complaints over the TV movies’ exaggerations and fabrications so easily. Let’s not forget another based-on-fact miniseries pulled–not just edited, as this one was–because of conservative complaints about truthfulness: “The Reagans,” CBS’s 2003 docudrama about the former president. Let’s apply the same values here.

For better or worse, we Americans look to Hollywood–and the fiction it produces–for insight and, yes, information about news and historical events; Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert owe their success to this trend, and they step up to that task responsibly, with a deep thoughtfulness inside their comedic exteriors.

That’s not to say every work of fiction need hew to truthfulness and social responsibility; it just means that if you’re purporting to present fact, do it in a way that is honest and which helps further our understanding instead of muddying it. For ABC, the timing of this miniseries around the fifth anniversary was no coincidence, nor was its hiring of 9-11 Commission chair Tom Kean as a consultant. The clear message, despite the hastily added disclaimers to the contrary, was that this movies dramatized The Truth. If not quite a documentary, it was to be not quite a work of fiction either.

And why would anyone need to fictionalize 9-11? As Maureen Dowd wrote this past weekend, “Isn’t the dire actuality enough?” For a nation still mourning its losses, still trying to figure out how best to respond to the terrorist threat, still trying to understand how our leaders and intelligence services could have missed the clues leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, it’s just plain irresponsible of ABC to air a miniseries that does anything short of depicting truth as it happened. A mix of fact and fiction is the worst of both worlds, allowing us neither to dismiss it as mere entertainment or to embrace it as edifying.

I applaud ABC for re-editing the movie after the complains surfaced, but for me, the movie’s credibility is already lost, and I don’t know what to accept and what to reject in its portrayal of this crucial part of our recent history. “Truthiness” just doesn’t cut it here, and we deserved better.

Despite protests, petitions, and threats of boycott, the first part of ABC’s mini-series “The Road to 9/11″ aired last night. Many political pundits and liberal media watchdogs were crying foul–even though some of them hadn’t seen an advance copy of the movie–because they felt it was spinning the facts to be sympathetic to Bush’s handling of the terrorist attack while portraying Clinton’s lack of response to Bin Laden as the cause of the 9/11 tragedy. ABC’s official stance–repeated often during last night’s broadcast–has been that this is simply a fictional recreation of some of the events leading up to 9/11 and is not meant to be a documentary.

The first part of the mini-series started with the collapse of the Twin Towers but then began working its way back in time to 1998, when journalist John Miller broadcast an interview with Osama Bin Laden. The film then goes back further still, to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Through all of this, we are reminded in scene after scene that not only were there many warnings of what was to come in 2001, but also that many government operatives were feverishly working to capture Bin Laden, only to be hampered by beareaucracy. In short, this movie tells us what we already know: Hindsight is always 20/20.

Quite honestly, I don’t know how closely this mini-series adheres to the Commission Report on 9/11–which is what ABC has claimed the script is based on. What I do know is that the liberal political conspiracy theories and verbal attacks surrounding the mini-series are unfounded and make me automatically doubt any other argument about how the events surrounding 9/11 are being portrayed.

Specifically, director David Cunningham has been under attack on sites like Ariana Huffington’s blog. He’s been called a right-wing activist simply because his father is the founder of a missionary organization called Youth With A Mission (YWAM). YWAM is not an organization involved in political activism of any kind, but an organization that offers Bible training and coordinates relief efforts in other countries as well as the U.S. And while David Cunningham is a Christian, perhaps the reason he was hired to direct this movie was simply because ABC used him in the past to direct other historical dramas (he did ABC’s version of “Little House”) and they liked his work. In fact, Cunningham posted a sensible response to detractors over on ABC’s website, but it attracted such inflammatory comments in response that ABC temporarily took it down.

My point is simply this: The mini-series, so far anyway, is actually not that poignant or insightful or revelatory–but the controversy around the mini-series is. While there are better examples in the media of coverage of the events surrounding 9/11, perhaps the controversy surrounding this mini-series underscores that the depth of the political and cultural divide in this country is a long way from being bridged.