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Marching Onto DVD: Intelligently Designed “Penguins”

Movie stars, but are they gay?
One of last summer’s biggest and most surprising success stories at the box office was a movie that had no special effects and no movie stars--just a bunch of penguins. The documentary “March of the Penguins” was released on DVD this week. The film's poetic-yet-gritty depiction of Emperor penguins surviving the hazards of life in the Antarctic became the second highest grossing documentary ever (behind “Farenheit 9/11”)--while also becoming a discussion point in the debate over Intelligent Design. Conservative Christians in particular latched onto the film’s portrayal of the penguins' complex and fragile mating rituals, which include marching on a 70-mile trek and sheltering an egg under unbelievably harsh conditions. Details such as these, the argument goes, must be an affirmation that a Supreme Being, not natural selection, is behind it all.

Of course soon after such claims were made by the religious right, others began to challenge the absurdity of attaching values such as monogamy and self-sacrifice to animals. One article went so far as to point out that some penguins who live in captivity are gay, which would not fit with the religious right’s version of family values. Even the director of the film has said in interviews he supports evolution and did not like his film being used as an argument for acknowledgment of some kind of creator.

When I watched the movie the first time, I observed in total fascination the journey of these unique creatures, as they choose a partner, give birth, protect their young, and live in community with other penguins for survival against the elements. I couldn’t fathom how anyone would think these animals’ lives are a random accident. If you believe Darwin’s theory of adaptive radiation, it takes considerable time for species to adapt to ecological niches. So operating from that theory and considering the brutal conditions of the Antarctic, Emperor penguins would have become extinct many years ago before natural selection could have kicked in.

Surfacing from “Syriana”

This is one of those films that I knew I really wanted to see, though I was not looking forward to it, due to its painful themes. But a movie like “Syriana,” in light of the world’s spotlight on the Middle East, should be seen. Flaws and all, it really should be seen.

It’s difficult viewing, for its complex, crisscrossing storylines, numerous characters, and heavy geo-political subject matter. Basically, you’ve got five subplots that explosively converge. Four are quite compelling for their theme of corruption robbing people of belief.

First there’s reform-minded Arab leader, Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), who is groomed to take over his country and has awarded a key drilling contract to Chinese bidders. The U.S. is not happy and plots to assassinate Nasir to make way for his younger U.S.-loving brother.

Then there’s Bob Barnes (George Clooney), an aging Middle East CIA operative who’s worked undercover his whole life on assignments that he wholeheartedly believes will better his country. Assigned to assassinate Nasir, the job goes horribly wrong and Bob is hung out to dry.

At the same time, energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) faces tragedy when his elder son dies in a pool accident at a lavish party thrown by Prince Nasir’s father. Bryan throws himself into work and ends up latching on to Nasir to help him with his reform ideas. He thinks he is doing a greater good while ignoring his grief.

And finally, of most interest to me, is the story of young Wasim, a Pakistani migrant worker in Nasir’s country, who works for Connex and gets laid off. He is disillusioned and angry at his situation and finds solace in a madrassa. He faces the ultimate decision when befriended by a charming Egyptian, whose religious preaching draws Wasim into a suicidal mission.

Confused? It is a lot to digest. And the film is very careful to avoid stereotypes--perhaps too careful. I appreciated the meticulous approach to detail, but in doing so lot of belief issues are glazed over. The characters of Wasim, Bob, Bryan and Nasir are losing their hold on their beliefs--faith in country, God, and family. And when corruption viciously strips them of whatever belief they have left, they make crucial, individual choices that shake the world around them.

But this intriguing state of affairs is marginally presented. We are left to fill in the gaps, and that doesn’t always work well. I see why Wasim is frustrated and why he is drawn to the Egyptian, but what ultimately makes him choose a suicide “martyr” mission? The Egyptian’s words are not really radical--he speaks of things that many Muslims are taught--but most Muslims don’t choose such an ending for themselves.

It’s one story of many that “Syriana” ambitiously addresses. How do we humanly hold on to beliefs when faced with corruption? The book has been opened, now let’s read deeper.


Some Christians already see Festivus--the holiday "for the rest of us" founded by Frank Costanza, a fictional character on "Seinfeld," and catching on in the real world--as a threat to Christmas. Now marketers from Virgin Mobile, British mogul Richard Branson’s cell phone service, are desperately trying to blow life into Christmahanukwanzakah, a sort of Frankenstein holiday that aims to recognize today’s diverse religious landscape: "What other holiday features a gay elf and Hindu Santa?" asks a press release. It also apparently hopes to extend shopping mania to all parts of said landscape: By calling 1-800-ELF-POOP, shoppers can find out what to buy a Pagan, a Jew, a Hindu, or a Muslim for Christmahanukwanzakah. For more, seek out http://www.chrismahanukwanzakah.com, where you can hear the Hindu Santa and a couple of Hasidic Jews sing "classic" Christmahanukwanzakah carols. For those interested in adopting Christmahanukwanzakah as their festival of choice, it falls on Dec. 13.

The Gospel According to Dave Matthews

Thanksgiving has passed, which means we're in that time of year when mainstream radio stations play Christmas song after Christmas song. For me, those same Christmas tunes get old by December 1, and many lost their meaning a long time ago. My new nominee for most meaningful Christmas reflections: the Dave Matthews Band.

The hemp-filled air and beerfest atmosphere of a DMB concert usually isn’t for the kids, but their lyrics are a blend of the intimacy of Song of Solomon and the gospel of, well, The Gospels.

Consider their current album, "Stand Up." From the title track (“I woke up to the angels singing in my head” and “Lift me up save my soul”) to the featured single "American Baby" (“If these walls came crumblin' down…to make us lose our faith” and “God's grace lost and the devil is proud”), the album is introduced as a clearly spiritual expression.

"Everybody Wake Up" comes close to quoting scripture (“Do unto others as you'd have them do, not an eye for an eye is the golden rule”), while "Hello Again" (“Sinnin' I've done my share of this…Lord forgive me my sins”) and "Oh Great Light of Love" (“You come like an answered prayer, Praise God”) are reminiscent of the Psalms.

Jesus’ challenge to His disciples is near-paraphrased in "You Might Die Trying": “If you give, you begin to live... Yeah, you might die trying.”

"Save Me," a song from the "Some Devil" CD, and "Bartender," from "Busted Stuff," are among the prayers found on previous albums. The spiritual journey is front and center, and even evangelical groups like Focus on the Family and Christianity Today are noticing.

Dave Matthews has not made a public profession of faith, and he is way too secular--not to mention endorsing of pot culture and pre-marital sex--to be seen as any sort of evangelical or Christian. That's probably attractive for many. So are his provocative and compelling lyrics, which don’t preach or assume consent. His inspiring and intricate music, with its artistic complexity and aesthetic style, befits the Divine Questions. Whatever the reason, it is, it works, on a level deeper than music.

As he sings in You Might Die Trying: “To change the world, start with one step, however small, the first step is hardest of all.”

Christ's Housewife, Not So Desperate

Though Beliefnet has debated which of the sexy ‘Desperate Housewives’ had the most spiritual potential, it was actually a desperate househusband who found God on last night’s episode of “Desperate Housewives." After being put in jail for dabbling in sweatshop labor, Carlos got early parole when a Catholic church lobbied for his release. While Gabrielle was ecstatic about her man’s return home (sans handcuffs or house arrest tracking systems), her bubble burst quickly upon learning Carlos has not only a (seemingly sudden) newfound penchant for doing God’s work, but a well-developed pastoral relationship with one Sister Mary Bernard--a nun who happens to be blonde, and hot.

Disturbed by Carlos’s sudden desire to “do right” by going to mass on a weekday (Gabrielle: “I thought mass was only on Saturdays.”), reading the Bible, and praying on his knees before going to sleep, Gabrielle sets out to know her enemy by inviting Sister Mary over for lunch. When Carlos offers to give his car to Sister Mary’s church, Gabrielle finds the opportunity to threaten Sister Mary Bernard, who smiles sweetly while tossing back a few verbal barbs: She blames Gabrielle’s excessive materialism as being the root cause of Carlos’s original crime and tells her to “bring it on” (apparently, the nun grew up in the south side of Chicago, a notorious neighborhood that makes her immune to threats). While Sister Mary is not your average Julie Andrews-type nun, she makes for an interesting monkey wrench as we see how long she can help Carlos become assimilated into his role as “changed man” while counteracting Gabrielle’s new resolution to foil her “good work.”

In other “Desperate Housewives” news, Bree attempted to forgive her erstwhile fiance, George, after discovering he was responsible for attacking her therapist and causing the death of her husband, Rex. As befitting George’s narcissistic and psychotic character, he swallows a bunch of pills and lures Bree to his hotel room to test her love for him. As George lies on the bed semiconscious, Bree takes on a role as psychologist/minister, exhorting George to confess his sins to her so that she may forgive him. Instead, George claims he committed his crimes because she wanted him to; destroyed by his sociopathic reasoning, Bree gets revenge when she lies about calling an ambulance to save George. While George dies peacefully, reassured by Bree’s seemingly unconditional love for him, Bree extricates herself from his room and washes her hands of the “crime.”

New Church Trend: Downsize Me!

I was extremely surprised last night when on “NBC’s Nightly News” the “Faith in America” segment featured not the latest Christian book bestseller or yet another profile on someone of faith working in Hollywood, but instead examined the backlash against the Protestant mega-church movement. Use of the term megachurch grew throughout the late 90s into the new millennium. Megachurches are generally defined as any congregation with a sustained average weekly attendance of 2,000 persons or more in its worship services and are exemplified to an extreme degree by mammoth-sized churches such as Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California or Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. NBC’s report focused on a growing number of Christians who are now leaving the mega-church movement and searching for a more intimate approach to worship and Bible study.

NBC interviewed members of Mosaic church in Dallas, which meets in a home and has no intentions of becoming a large church in need of a chapel. Instead, as it grows, the group will simply break into smaller groups and continue to meet in various homes. Mosaic Church was just one of several examples the segment showed as part of a movement by some believers to find something deeper in their church experiences, if perhaps less flashy.

I have worshipped in megachurches as well as “micro-chruches” and certainly there are benefits to both, depending on your spiritual needs. With so much attention being devoted to the big business of having a big church in recent years, I was pleased to see a major news outlet give some air time to those believers who don’t have a bestselling book, a television show, or a pastor with a direct line to the White House.

How to Drink Like a Mahatma

This just in from your friendly neighborhood coffee-obsessed blogger (a.k.a., me): While Starbucks can boast about the upcoming “God Cup,” New England McDonald’s restaurants recently started using placemats which promise that drinking McDonald’s new and improved fair-trade coffee will make you (get ready for what I am about to say) “a caffeinated Mahatma Gandhi” and that it “may put you on the fast track for sainthood.” I kid you not. I admit that I have not yet ventured into a McDonald’s to confirm this news, but this message is, according to people who've seen it, what the chain's paper placemats claim in all restaurants now carrying Newman’s Own Organic Blend, made by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.

McDonald’s announced in late October that it would be trying fair trade coffee in select stores—all in New England—but no articles that I could find mentioned anything about the placemats. The full text of the placemat (if indeed this is true, and it’s so ridiculous that I am finding it hard to believe) says the following, according to my fast-food-friend sources:

“HOW DRINKING A GOOD CUP OF COFFEE CAN MAKE YOU A BETTER PERSON. It’s simple really. All you have to do is go up and get a cup of the new McDonald’s coffee. And it’ll just happen. You see, we now have Newman’s Own Organic Blend from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. It’s great-tasting stuff. Which will make you happier. And happy people are nicer people. So you’ve made progress already. But there’s more. It’s all organic. No bug sprays. No bad stuff. Which makes you a bona fide environmentalist. So you can grow that beard you always wanted and dig out those flannel shirts you secretly love. Plus, it’s Fair Trade Certified. That makes you a humanitarian too. A champion of the masses. A caffeinated Mahatma Gandhi. And all that goodness may put you on the fast track for sainthood. So before you know it, grateful people will build statues in your likeness. Big, bearded smiling statues. All because of a simple cup of coffee. Newman’s Own Organic Blend from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. Available at all participating McDonald’s. IT’S GOOD. IT’S REAL.”

The burning questions that remain for me are: Must all the statues be bearded? Will all the coffee drinkers want beards after drinking the coffee? I believe I can speak for most women in expressing my serious lack of desire for growing a beard. And, should some grateful person decide to build a statue in my likeness as a result of my drinking McDonald’s coffee, I have no interest in it being big and bearded. It can, however, be smiling.

So off I go in search of an authentic “Why drinking McDonald’s coffee will make me like Gandhi” placemat. I'll let you know when I am ready for that statue.

The Pope Has My Shoes!

I’ve always longed for a pair of Prada shoes, be they wedges, kitten heels, sandals--any style would do. Or perhaps a Prada bag would appease my fashion desires: those coveted accessories that hang gracefully from the shoulders of the privileged or occasionally are seen tightly clutched in the hand. Or a Prada dress, a Prada skirt, a Prada Italian silk shirt! The possibilities are quite endless.

Well, come to find out, Pope Benedict XVI is a closet fashionista himself (well, an out-of-the-closet fashionista now). His footwear preferences? You guessed it: Prada shoes. More specifically, RED Prada loafers! Barbie Nadeau from Newsweek reports: “He may never make the best-dressed lists, but Pope Benedict XVI is nothing short of a religious-fashion icon, riding in the Popemobile with red Prada loafers under his cassock and Gucci shades.”

Gucci too! Apparently Benedict also has a penchant for glitter and glamour as well, and “Alessandro Cattaneo, [from] the 20-year-old religious-fashion house of Raniero Mancinelli, has provided the pope with dazzling new vestments (some with shimmering, sequinlike details).”

The initial laughter this news provoked was quickly followed with some questions: Does Pope Benedict have to pay for his Prada all by himself? Or does the Vatican Amex pick up the tab? Are Catholic collection boxes the world over supplying this Pope with his own religious version of the Carrie Bradshaw-style wardrobe? Or is being The Pope akin to being a Hollywoodr starlet, who gets freebies from all the hottest couture houses the world over if only they will wear them at prestigious public gatherings, like the Oscars (or, in this case, Sunday Mass, presumably)? And finally, is the Pope modeling for us (quite literally) the latest in Catholic fashion? And if so, does this mean that it’s not morally wrong to spend upwards of $500 on a single pair of shoes, a question I struggle with not only in terms of the depth (or lack thereof) of my bank account but also my conscience?

Or maybe he just buys them at a discount.

Thanksgiving With Arlo

My wife makes fun of me because, as any holiday approaches, I invariably talk about how THIS holiday is my favorite of all. And while I am guilty as charged as far as Jewish festivals go--Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Hanukkah... they're all my favorite--Thanksgiving is the only American holiday that's Number One in my book. I love the traditional meal, the family gatherings, the post-Turkey lull, the morning's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But most of all, I love Thanksgiving because of Arlo Guthrie. Every Thanksgiving, around noon, many radio stations play his 22-minute-long comedic anti-war song "Alice's Restaurant." For those unfamiliar with this classic, "Alice's Restaurant"--more of a spoken story with musical accompaniment than a song--tells of the aftermath of a Thanksgiving feast at the home of Alice, she of the eponymous restaurant, who lives in the balcony of a church and uses the pews below to stow her garbage. Her guests, of which the narrator is one, decide to clear the trash, and, long story short, end up being arrested for littering. It's the biggest crime in Alice's small town, and after much legal hubbub, the litterbugs are fined. The story then gets to the point, which takes up the latter half of the 22 minutes. Narrator is called to the draft board and--again, long story short--disqualified from service, deemed not "moral enough join the army, burn women, kids, houses, and villages after bein' a litterbug."

Yes, it's a Vietnam-era anti-war song, and no, I don't love it because of my Vietnam-era draft-dodging. I wasn't even born when Arlo first told of Alice and her restaurant, but many Thanksgivings ago, my brother and I stumbled on a broadcast of the song. We quickly learned to sing along as the chorus rolled by: "You can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant. Walk right in, it's around the back, just a half a mile from the railroad track. You can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant."

Oblivious to its political overtones, we loved it because it was ours; we found it ourselves and we made it our own. Funny, quirky, catchy, we listened and we laughed, year after year, at noon on Thanksgiving, in person or on the phone, just about every year since.

Idol Chatter wishes everyone a happy holiday and hopes you enjoy your own traditions, whether they involve antiwar songs, copious amounts of football, or watching every Thanksgiving TV special out there.

“Teen People” Singing the Blues

Two sweet-looking teenage twin girls have been in the middle of a media controversy this week--and I am not talking about the Olsen twins. Lynx and Lamb Gaede, 13, are a blonde haired, blue-eyed musical duo who go by the name Prussian Blue. And, oh yeah, they're neo-Nazis. Their music includes such uplifting lyrics as, “Aryan man awake, how much more will you take, turn that fear to hate, Aryan man awake."

But these rascist lyrics didn’t stop both Teen People and Elle Girl magazines from chasing after interviews with the girls, who cite Hitler and Rudolf Hess as their heroes. The New York Post reported earlier this month that Teen People had supposedly given editorial control to the girls in order to get the interview (who reportedly insisted that the piece avoid words such as “hate” and "supremacist")--something the magazine initially denied. Fast forward to today, when the New York Daily News reported that Teen People--after receiving an onslaught of protests, including a rally outside parent company Time Inc.’s New York City offices--has now pulled the story from its February issue.

I suppose I should make some comment here about the need to defend free speech, even the free speech of those who we find morally reprehensible, but I can’t. I can really only think of the same question Jay Leno asked Hugh Grant after getting caught with a hooker. What were you thinking? I’ve been to the “Prussian Blue” website and found it more disturbing than any scene out of “American History X,” the movie dramatization of skinheads. So perhaps if Teen People wants to pander to the teen public by telling them what’s hot, they’d be better off running another Jesse McCartney or Hilary Duff puff piece. And kudos to the Post and the Daily News for being watchdogs on this one.

A First Journey to 'Narnia'

Last Thursday, after a brief yet awkward encounter with security personnel looking to weed out would-be bootleggers, I attended an advanced screening of the much-hyped cinematic translation of C.S. Lewis's classic "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." I'm a fan of the book and, at the same time, highly critical of filmic adaptations of literary classics, but I must admit, I was more than pleasantly surprised.

The film offers a version of Narnia similar to what I'd envisioned, and in some cases even more spectacular than my feeble adult imagination could ever create. It's beautiful, idyllic, and huge. However, inevitable departures from the story do appear in the form of additional and altered scenes, overlooked details, and creatures never featured in the book. Nothing is mishandled in the adaptation, but the computer-generated beasts do take some getting used to. I found it especially difficult to overcome the cartoonish quality of the chatty Beavers.

The actors playing Peter, Susan, and Edmund are all good choices, but it's Lucy, the youngest Pevensie, who steals the show. Lucy's portrayer, Georgie Henley, took part in a short Q&A session after the screening where she was as charming and personable as she was on screen. Small but eloquent, she poked fun at the "unflattering bob" she sported throughout the film and stressed that, to her, acting is a hobby, not a career.

Whenever the topic of conversation turns to Narnia, the name Aslan invariably comes to mind. Well, I'm happy to report that he's beautifully rendered, elegantly voiced, and as ferocious as he is majestic. The special effects crew did a heck of a job bringing to life one of the most beloved characters in children's literature. You will not be disappointed.

On the other side of the moral playing field is the villainous White Witch, played ruthlessly by Tilda Swinton. As intended, she has no redeeming qualities and is, as they say, deliciously evil.

Those worried about the filmmakers' treatment of Lewis's Christian allegory can breathe a collective sigh of relief. The film stays true to the book in remaining somewhat reserved about its Christian roots, but during its most pivotal moments, the film, like the book, embraces the parallel and openly deals with the significance of sacrifice and redemption.

The audience served up a cheerful round of applause at the film's end, and I felt both satisfied with the experience and pleased by such a worthy adaptation. I will, however, offer a warning to parents planning on taking small children: The film is filled with frightening imagery. The battle scenes, though bloodless, are particularly violent, and Aslan's sacrifice at the Stone Table is carried out in a most terrifying fashion. Keep that in mind, but don't let it keep you from the theater.

Late on 'Rent'

I am excited to see "Rent," the movie version, opening tomorrow, of Jonathan Larson's 1990s Broadway musical, a loose retelling of "La Boheme" transposed to New York's East Village. The music is fabulous, the message inspiring, the characters memorable. And yet, I can't help feeling that any new "Rent" production is bound to feel dated. That's not because because of that song about the approaching "end of the millennium," or because the Village has been gentrified beyond recognition, or because of that gnawing feeling that Rent's Gen X idealists just may have, a decade on, gotten real jobs to support their artistic pursuits.

No, it feels dated because the AIDS crisis has changed so dramatically in the almost-decade that I've been listening to the "Rent" soundtrack. The disease provides the story's sense of impending doom, giving it a sense urgency and its central message of "no day but today." But that was before drug-cocktails made "living with, not dying from disease" more than a slogan, but a reality--for some, at least. Today, the 20-something, poor-by-choice "Rent" characters would, most likely, not be facing their last days on Earth, but would, rather, be taking breaks for many more pills than just AZT.

But AIDS remains with us, tragically, and is today a pandemic even worse than Larson could have imagined. Even as East Village bohemians got a new lease on life, the disease exploded in America's inner cities, in Asia, and most devastatingly, in Africa. Those are communities whose plights aren't portrayed in rousing, big-budget Broadway musicals. Seeing "Rent" at a time when AIDS deaths are both staggeringly high and unforgivably invisible to most Westerners seems almost callous. And yet, just maybe we can use this movie as a call to arms to remember that today AIDS is ruining more lives than ever.

The part of me that adores "Rent"--that gets inspired every time I listen to the music, that wishes I had the cojones to pursue ideals and art as uncompromisingly as the "Rent" characters--will see the film, and I hope, love it as much as I loved the stage version. But the part of me that is haunted by stories of uncountable numbers of AIDS orphans and whole countries on their way to decimation, that is angered that the West has come to the cause too late and done too little, that can't fathom how this preventable disease was allowed to get so out of hand... that part of me wonders whether the real stroke of genius would have been to set this new "Rent" in an American urban ghetto or, better yet, an African village. No day but today, indeed.

Turning up the Heat in “Goblet of Fire”

There’s really only one way to watch a “Harry Potter” movie: at midnight, on the first day the movie opens, in a theater crowded with a few hundred teens and tweens. That’s the way I saw “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” last Thursday night/Friday morning. In “Goblet,” Harry continues to navigate the magical world of wizardry at Hogwart’s, where this time around Harry finds himself entered in the very dangerous Triwizard Tournament and then comes face-to-face for the first time with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the evil Lord Voldemort. Laughter, gasps, and murmurs could be heard throughout the theater as the audience was treated to a dazzling series of special effects--from the World Quidditch Cup to Hogwart’s first formal ball--all of which did not disappoint.

“Goblet” in certain ways seems a little more uneven plot-wise than perhaps its cinematic predecessors. While half of the movie is focused on Harry going through a series of life-threatening challenges, the rest focuses on Harry dealing with typical teen troubles like asking girls to a dance, first loves, fighting with friends, and fitting in with his peers. And while there are many lessons parents and children can learn from Harry, as I talked with some of the young Potter fans around me--all of whom thought this was the best Potter movie yet--I realized that the odd mix of darkness and silliness is exactly why they identify with Harry so much. The teens who have grown up watching Harry have also grown up in a post-9/11, post-Hurricane Katrina, current Iraq War world. I think they have already learned the difficult lesson that in the middle of the ordinary or even the celebratory moments of life, it is possible for evil to strike without warning. Hopefully through experiencing stories such as “Harry,” they are also learning that it is also possible for goodness to respond to that evil and overcome it, if we have the courage.

One of the primary themes of this extremely dark chapter of Harry’s saga is that facing evil cannot be avoided. Instead of avoiding the darkness that lurks around us, it is required of all of us to respond to evil with light. Facing evil, in whatever form it takes, will refine us and our character for the better, just as Harry, while terrified by the tasks in front of him, ultimately becomes a wiser, kinder, less selfish person, with a stronger moral compass after he faced You-Know-Who.

(And if all of you “Potter” fans out there want to read lots more insights about the world of Harry Potter, I suggest you check out Janet Batchler’s blog, where she has been writing tons of interesting stuff about all of the characters at Hogwarts!)

Over to You

It would be unseemly for me to dissect Jonathan V. Last's article for First Things on the dangers of online religion since, (a) Last dumps all over Beliefnet, and (b) as a Beliefnet editor, I assigned Jon several pieces and consider him a pal. So I'll just ask which you think is the most lazily Luddite Catholic media piece of last week, Last's, or Andrew Santella¹s on Slate about why Catholics don't go to confession anymore? Post your judgment on the miniboard to the right.

Bono on '60 Minutes'

Bono once again talked about his political activism and his desire to help end world poverty, this time in an interview with Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes.” As Ed Bradley questioned Bono on why he as been so successful in raising awareness of issues like the AIDS epidemic in Africa, Bono explained that going against his left-leaning, “bleeding heart liberal” tendencies was key to getting those on the political right to work with him.

He said, “Particularly conservative Christians, I was very angry that they were not involved more in the AIDS emergency. I was saying, ‘This is the leprosy that we read about in the New Testament, you know. Christ hung out with the lepers. But you're ignoring the AIDS emergency, How can you? And, you know, they said, ‘Well, you're right, actually. We have been. And we're sorry. We'll get involved.’ And they did.”

I blogged here not too long ago about how I have only recently become a fan of Bono’s activism. This particular interview further solidified my respect for Bono not only as a musician but as a diplomat of sorts. He is doing what our own politicians don’t seem to be able to do. He is working with leaders on more than one side of the political aisle, able to confront them without offending them, hurling insults, or labeling (and reducing) people or issues as “red state” or “blue state.”

Perhaps just as impressive, the brash Irish rocker managed to only swore once during the entire interview.

The Next TV Frontier

Satellite TV is making its gradual rollout as the newest entertainment option for your car, SUV, or minivan. One report says satellite TV can now deliver a “digital stream of sports, movies, and news into your... vehicle--whether you're tailgating, keeping kids occupied in the back seat, or just listening to the audio feed…” Convenient and entertaining as that may sound, I have a deep sense that families should at some point actually enjoy talking with each other when together. And as every room in our house and every trip in our car may now include a TV, I wonder if we should show some restraint before buying.

Perhaps you’ve seen the science experiment called “The Frog in the Kettle.” A frog in lukewarm water will endure gradual heating, adapting until it finally dies by explosion. (How’s that for a visual?!) However, a frog tossed into extremely hot water will ignore immediately jump to safety.

What if the “frog” is us, the “kettle” is our cars and homes and the “hot water” is these new adventures in television delivery?

When television was new in the 50s and 60s, sociologists warned that it would break up the family closeness. One could argue that The American Family has been in trouble ever since.

In the 70s, “two television” homes were the next step. The 80s brought VCRs; the 90s gave us cable television growth; and recently it’s been DVDs, TiVO, and movies in our cars, which may or may not be a good thing.

Analysts say that by the start of the next decade more than three million vehicles will have in-car satellite TV. I hope that some of us are wise enough to jump out of the hot water before we fry in a media age that is enjoyable but potentially destructive to family bonding and raising healthy kids…even if we remember how much we hated “family time” in our teen years. We don’t need to abandon it. We just need to do it better.

Harpers Goes Biblical

The cover story of Harper's magazine for December examines two noncanonical gospels: the Gospel of Thomas, the mysterious early Christian text that records Jesus' teachings as elliptically wise proverbs, and Thomas Jefferson's radical edit of the New Testament that omits all but Jesus' ethical sayings and doings. My curiosity about either of these documents was exhausted approximately four million barrels of ink ago, but Harper's Erik Reece interestingly links the eponymous Thomas to Jefferson and other iconoclasts like Ralph Waldo Emerson, arguing that these stripped down "Christ Unplugged" renderings are particularly American. Harper's still has its November issue online, but when digital December's ready it will appear >here.

The December issue also features an inside-baseball piece by Stanley Fish detailing how the Christian right's intelligent design campaign was tailored after leftist professors' culture-war tactics.

Johnny Cash's Soul

As Beliefnet's reviewer makes clear, "Walk the Line," the new Johnny Cash biopic, all but expunges Christianity from the story of the star and his second wife, June Carter Cash. Even John Carter Cash--Johnny and June's only child together and the film's exec producer--cops to the charge, telling Beliefnet that the film ends before the part in his father's life where Christianity loomed so large.

The film nevertheless has a deep and moving spirit and moral sensibility. It's embodied in the character of June Carter Cash. Joaquin Phoenix offers an unbelievable performance as Johnny Cash, capturing his descent into addiction and coming alive on stage for the unforgettable concert scenes. But it is Reese Witherspoon's June who is the movie's real soul, providing strength and clarity, just as she did for Cash in real life. These are two forces of nature, strong personalities whose gravitational pull is tugging them each in different directions: her to grounded reality and moral clarity, him to self-destruction and ruin. It's hard to understand what she sees in him. Animal magnetism--one factor, to be sure--doesn't account for years of her attempting to pull him back from the abyss, to clean him up, to get him to "walk the line." It certainly doesn't account for her years of refusing his come-ons, reminding him of his wife and kids at home, even as she clearly loved and wanted him. She's no angel--she doesn't always successfully resist him--but even as she withdraws from his life for extended periods, she always returns, despite herself, unable to abandon this broken man.

The movie leaves a lot to implications and inference. We don't get a strong sense for what made Cash's music so new and significant, we don't understand why June couldn't walk away from this mess of a man, and we don't see Christianity become a central feature of their lives, their relationship, and his recovery from addiction. But June's dedication to her sinner, the ability of her love to transform someone whom everyone else has abandoned, is a powerful depiction of the faith that remains below the surface in this film.

Inspiring Movie Moments

Thank goodness Halloween is over and Bravo can stop running the American Film Institute's "100 Scariest Movie Moments" special. I know I'm ready to emerge from the dark and dreary of "The Shining" and "The Exorcist." Apparently the AFI is as well, announcing today that it is beginning production on a special that will chronicle "the most inspirational films of the century." Ballots have gone out for writers, actors, and directors to choose from 300 films that will be winnowed down to the happiest 100. The list will be revealed in June of 2006.

Word is that nominees include "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Passion of the Christ," and "The Sound of Music," and that Tom Hanks and Henry Fonda each appear in eight nominated films.

I have my own hopes for films that will make the final cut. "Shawshank Redemption," anyone? Also, Albert Brooks' "Defending Your Life" and the Stanley Tucci film "Big Night" really ought to be in the mix. (Please use the discussion space to offer your own pics for most inspiring film.)

Will Scientology Sue Stan?

Last night's episode of South Park threw down an animated gauntlet at the Church of Scientology.

Stan goes to a local Scientology center and his "thetan" levels (Scientologists believe humans are made of mind, body, and "thetan," your spiritual self) are recorded off the charts. So church leaders identify him as the second coming of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard--which is news to Stan, who has to be educated about the belief system and gets to skip decades of "auditing" classes before learning its carefully guarded secrets.

We watch with Stan as a film illustrates the cosmology behind Scientology. Anticipating the incredulity of the TV viewer (after all, this is the stuff John Travolta doesn't share on Oprah), the words "THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS ACTUALLY BELIEVE" appear across the screen as we watch the ancient story of alien Lord Xenu, head of the Galactic Federation, who freezes the excess populace on his planet and sends them to Earth. After thawing out in the volcanoes of Hawaii, their souls are released and are said to afflict humanity to this day.

The writers also poke fun at Scientology superstar Tom Cruise--who ends up, ridiculously, in Stan's bedroom closet and won't come out, so that characters can repeatedly say "Tom Cruise won't come out of the closet."

When Stan announces publicly that the religion is just a money-making sham, believers bombard him with threats of legal action. South Park's writers throw their voice through Stan, who looks into the "camera" and dares "them" to sue.

Not taking any chances, when the credits roll, everyone--from the animators to the production assistants--are listed as either Jane or John Smith.

Alien Resurrection?

To show my continuing devotion to "Invasion," prove the fact that I am indeed hooked, and perhaps entice new viewers, I decided the show is deserving of twice-in-one-week blog entries. Dr. Mariel Underlay--wife of the villainous, though ever more complex, sheriff (a.k.a. Head Alien?)--and a potential alien victim herself, had a shocking experience last night. Mariel revisits the site of her hurricane blackout on the shores of the Everglades, in an effort to understand what happened to her the night of Hurricane Eve, to unlock the mysteries of her disappearance during that storm and her subsequent reappearance. When she did reappear, she was decidedly changed and a good deal confused about the fact that she can now breath underwater (like a fish) but cannot give blood to her children (because her blood type has become poisonous to her offspring).

Mariel decides to take a dip, and as she swims toward the embankment where her body lay after the storm, a vision begins to form under the water, catching her eye. Soon she lets out a blood curdling scream. What’s underneath the water? Her dead, rapidly decaying body. Apparently, who she is now--the body that is hers at the moment--is a new body, raised up after the storm. Are all the touched-by-the-alien characters resurrected bodies? This remains to be seen. Her husband, Sheriff Underlay, seems disturbed and haunted by this revelation.

Christians Terrorize “E-Ring”

My home state of Michigan, and more specifically the city of Detroit, was once again portrayed in a negative light, this time on NBC’s political thriller “E-Ring”. Oh, and Christians didn’t fare too well either in last night’s episode. The freshman drama is sent in the Pentagon, where the Department of Defense's military experts and civilians work together to stop various threats to U.S. safety.

Last night’s story centered on a radical Christian group based in Detroit (which has the largest population of Muslims in the U.S.). Group members decide to take God’s will into their own hands and solve the problems in Iraq by hijacking a mosque and taking all of the Muslims in it hostage. By doing this they were able to receive national media attention as they spread the “good news” of the gospel. The Muslim hostages were portrayed positively, which was refreshing, while the Christians were portrayed as people symbolically related to David Koresh--that wasn’t so refreshing.

The show ended with the mosque and the people in it being, saved while the Christian wackos got what’s coming to them. Nothing new was added to the political dialogue about the war in Iraq, but it was a not-so-subtle reminder of the ever-increasing issue of religious tolerance in a diverse America

Madonna's Magical, Mystical Song

I don't generally listen to anything Madonna has done in the past decade or so, but when I heard that some rabbis were upset with a song from her new album, I had to take a listen. The song is "Isaac," and it raised that rabbinic ire because it's about the great Kabbalistic sage Isaac Luria (1534-1572), whose teachings launched one of the great schools of traditional Jewish mysticism. The song is interlaced with Hebrew stanzas sung in a Middle Eastern-sounding tune by an Israeli-sounding man, who is reportedly Yitzhak Sinwani of the London Kabbalah Centre.

I am ashamed to admit that my 12 years of Jewish day school education and lifetime of Jewish living left me unable to decipher more than bits and pieces of the Hebrew. So I turned to some of my Kabbalatastic Contacts for help, emailing them the lyrics and asking for some background. Within minutes, I got this response from the extremely knowledgeable, always accessible Eliezer Segal of the University of Calgary:

No, I have not heard Madonna's recording at all. At any rate, the Hebrew (not Aramaic) lyrics that you copied are from a song (piyyut) by the renowned 17th-century Yemenite Jewish liturgical poet and Kabbalist Rabbi Shalom Shabazi. I understand that it is favourite hymn among Yemenite Jews. The song became something of a popular hit in Israel when it was included in an album of Yemenite melodies by the late Ophra Haza back (I think) in the '80's... The theme of the hymn is that, even if human rulers are not always approachable, the gates of prayer are never shut and humans always have direct access to the throne of God. Shanazi's poem uses imagery of the angelic "chariot" taken from Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6, and might have been meant to accompany the Kedusha section of the liturgy.
He provided a link to the traditional Hebrew song, which you can find here. You can find the song's lyrics--with the Hebrew parts transliterated--here.

And You Thought Jews and Catholics Had Only Guilt in Common

It¹s a cliché in theatrical circles: Every director who grew up Catholic mumbles meaningfully at some point that he or she would like to direct the Mass. In an interview posted yesterday on Slate, comedian Sarah Silverman--who stars in a movie of her stand-up act, "Jesus Is Magic"--intimates that Jewish rites also are rooted in drama:

Slate: How did three of the Silverman sisters end up getting into show business and one is a rabbi?

Silverman: Ach, it's the same thing.

Is there a least thespian faith or denomination? Unitarianism. Most services I've attended are just a person talking, and they blush if someone rises to play guitar.

Jon Voight Plays John Paul II

Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight is your new pope--well, sort of. The "Midnight Cowboy" stars as the late John Paul II in an upcoming two-part CBS mini-series premiering this Thursday at an exclusive Vatican City screening.

Voight enjoyed the role, declaring that as he ages he continues to see "God's importance in our lives." He acknowledged his own Catholicism as being the fuel for his performance and added that the copious amounts of available papal footage aided him in his research. Thanks in part to his lengthy 27-year reign, the late pope was one of the last century's most documented public figures.

The actor claims his life experiences helped him to prepare for the role as well. "I think I had to live a life. For some reason I have had success playing the suffering souls so that the last stages (of the Pope's life) were comfortable for me."

Some would say he's still "living a life." The ongoing feud between the actor and his daughter, Angelina Jolie, is setting a new standard for family dysfunction. Voight left Jolie and her mother when the "Girl, Interrupted" star was less than a year old, and the resulting off and on father-daughter relationship has been in the public eye ever since Jolie hit the big screen.

Whether or not you think Voight is fit to don the mitre, CBS is airing the mini-series in early December. Network rival ABC will premiere its own version December 1.

Is "Christian" the New "Gay"?

In the current issue of "The Atlantic Monthly," Hollywood gets a dose of religion, as the magazine asks the question "Can Jesus save Hollywood?" The feature is a behind–the-scenes look at Christians working in Hollywood. Writer Hanna Rosin describes how she spent the day observing faculty and students at Act One, a screenwriting program in Los Angeles that trains Christian writers to work in Hollywood. Once again citing "The Passion of the Christ" and the upcoming "Chronicles of Narnia" as proof positive Christians are becoming an effective artistic voice in the film industry, the article captures the ambition as well as the faith of a group of dedicated, hard-working and talented professionals who also happen to be Christians.

There is much to learn from the article about how the attitudes in Hollywood are changing toward religion, but my two favorite quotes from the piece came from program director and former nun Barbara Nicolosi and "That 70s Show" writer Dean Batali. Nicolosi said in an interview with "Inside Edition," "When I first came [to Hollywood], I never thought I'd be on 'Inside Edition.'" To which the reporter responded, "Didn't you know? (In Hollywood) 'Christian' is the new 'gay.'"

Batali's quote expressed his frustration with the development of Christian writers in Hollywood by saying, "What Tony Kushner did for gays and Eve Ensler did for feminists, some Christian writer ought to do for his own group. Where's the Christian 'Vagina Monologues?'"

I'm working on it, Dean. I swear.

A Church of Aliens?

Since it follows "Lost" on Wednesdays at 10 on ABC, I've been giving "Invasion" a chance, and after several weeks of indecision, I'll finally admit that I'm hooked. The basics you need to know to jump in mid-season are simple: Hurricane Eve hit the Everglades in Florida so hard the area is virtually destroyed. (Yes, of course it must be Eve who wreaks havoc on the earth.) As far as characters go, the show depicts the aftermath of Eve's chaos, as lived through the town's Sheriff Underlay, an Everglade Ranger named Russell, and their families. Both characters are heavily involved in the cleanup and in keeping order, yet they're also constantly at odds with each other since Sheriff Underlay is married to the Russell's ex-wife, Dr. Mariel Underlay (with whom he has a son and daughter).

Then there are the aliens. They seem to have fallen out of the sky and into the murky waters of the Everglades in the form of glittering lights that now dwell and occasionally shine underneath the swampy surface. Watch out: Whenever a shining light appears underwater, someone is bound to get attacked. The mystery is not only underwater, however; it's in the fact that some of the townspeople (including Mariel and a strange priest, Father Scanlon, who keeps popping up) have been infected by the aliens. Infected... or turned into aliens? Strangest of all is the fact that the sheriff seems to be somehow responsible for the alien invasion. Or is he leading it? Or in charge of all the newly made aliens? (Since he seems to be a veteran alien himself.) His true role--other than some kind of villain--is still unclear.

Most interesting of all? One storyline in Episode 5, "Unnatural Selection" had the apparently alien-infected Father Scanlon inviting selected (presumably infected) townspeople to a gathering at the local church—including Mariel, who is startled and upset by the invitation. Turns out, her husband, Sheriff Underlay, is not only behind the invite, but the sheriff is Father Scanlon's surprise guest giving the homily. As the episode comes to a close, viewers watch as half a church worth of townspeople fill the pews and Mariel, cautiously, reluctantly joins the gathering.

Most disappointing: Since Episode Five, the show has failed to explore this "Church of Aliens" any further.

Role of Another Lifetime

Reese Witherspoon is reporting that she had personal experience with the supernatural before taking her latest role in "Just Like Heaven," as a ghost haunting her Manhattan sublettor. While rehearsing a play in New York shortly after her grandfather died some years ago, says the "Legally Blonde" actress in internet stories today, "there was no one in the audience, then I looked out and he was there watching me." She felt him rooting for her too as she herself portrayed a spirit in the movie. Could this be why the audience for the film were also largely no-shows?

Get all the "Sexcess" You Deserve--and Jesus Too!

I wasn't going to do it; I wasn't going to give space on this blog to Thomas Nelson's Biblezine Series, which packages the New Testament in a glossy women's- or sports-magazine style. But I can't resist. Amazon has me listed as a "candidate" for email updates on the latest from Thomas Nelson in the Biblezine department. A little over two years ago I bought the first one, "Revolve: The Complete New Testament for Girls" because I wanted to use it in a feminist theology class for a critique about how Christianity prescribes gender roles (and in such clever new ways!). So this morning I got an exciting offer from Amazon. I qualify to buy " Align: The Complete New Testament for Men" for 32% off for the men in my life!

I think the Biblezine is a fascinating idea in theory. (Obviously I am all for reconciling religion and culture in creative ways). I think Thomas Nelson must have fantastic marketers working for them. Yet the way these glossy, full-color New Testaments pander to Christian gender stereotypes about girls and women (who of course, have no libidos, are all about making themselves nice and virginal for the boys, and must get those emotions in check for those emotionally stunted men they are trying to catch) and boys and men (who are all libido, aggression, and need to dig deep inside themselves to find something resembling a feeling despite their nature to lust, lust, lust) is cringe-inducing at best.

"Align" takes the cake. Why? Apparently, "Align" (which is for the young career man) will teach you to get "Sexcessful"—that's the first article promised underneath the book's cover title. Get "sexcessful" with the opposite sex? Are you serious? The counterpart to "Align" is "Becoming"--for young women who apparently do not have much of a career, because their duty is to wait around for the "Align Man" to conquer all that aggression, and stop playing with all those gadgets (also promised as a discussion point on the cover). The cover of "Align" shows a young man eruditely reading the newspaper, while the "Becoming" cover features a young woman posing demurely, doing nothing but staring out into space, assumedly waiting for her "Align" man to get sexcessful with her.

What's next? Biblezine's for the overwhelmed married woman hoping for less sex, more romance after the kids go to bed--with its counterpart for the husband who needs to find new, creative ways to get his harried, overworked wife re-interested in his sexcessfulness?

This Week in Deviancy

Last Monday, news spread across the country that two Carolina Panther cheerleaders had been arrested in an altercation after alleged sexual activity in a restroom stall. They were fired from their jobs because they violated a code of conduct and were arrested, but not because of sexual activity in public. Is two women having sex in a bathroom stall deviancy which should be punished or diversity worth celebrating? And, who decides?

Last Tuesday’s “Boston Legal” featured a wife who sued for an annulment when her husband had an affair with... a cow! And she lost the case! Is cheating with a cow deviancy or the kind of diversity we should celebrate? And, who decides?

Last Wednesday, kids who watch MTV heard a song called “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been,” by a band of evangelical Christians. And like on any other day, they also heard explicit lyrics on any number of other songs--lyrics which now can include “Hell” and “Damn” but not “*&^%$#” and “^#%&$(*&”. Who decided that damn and hell were acceptable words for kids, and when did they decide? And who decided that evangelical Christians could proselytize our young children through their music?

A story ran Thursday reporting that Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas declared that “pornography is a pervasive problem that every family now grapples with. But what few people want to admit is its devastating effects on marriages, families and, worst of all, children.” Who decided that? Who affirms if he’s right?

On Friday, the country heard of another warning by ex-presidential candidate and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson--who in 1998 first warned the city of Orlando that it risked hurricanes, earthquakes, and terrorist bombs after it allowed homosexual organizations to put up rainbow flags in support of sexual diversity. This time, Robertson told the residents of Dover, Pa., that disaster may strike them for voting out of office school board members who favored teaching intelligent design. Who decided his words constituted news? Should his warning be laughed at or heeded? Is his view a deviant one or part of the diversity we celebrate?

Each of these news stories have one thing in common: two sides. Someone has a clear view of what is normal, healthy, and appropriate behavior in our society. Someone else has a different view. It’s usually at this point that each side begins pointing fingers at the other side, rather than asking the real questions that matter: What is the normative social behaviors that should be tolerated, accepted, and embraced in our society? And... Who should decide?

My advice: Try to find answers to these questions without simply pointing fingers at how the “other side” is wrong. Meanwhile, I’ll go back to trying to explain to my daughter how the “guy-with-the-cow” thing works, while remembering that I chuckled at how well the scene was done.

Jan Before Jesus

As Lauren Winner writes in her appreciation of Jan Karon's Mitford series, Karon's best-selling novels "proved Christian fiction can be a publishing phenomenon." The books--the final of which hit bookstores last week--depict small-town Christian life in all its sex-free and gossip-less wholesomeness, from conversions to weddings to the challenges of retirement. Karon has been getting a lot of press this month, thanks to the release of "Light from Heaven." But Mitford devotees should definitely take a peek at this revealing Charlotte Observer profile of Karon from several months ago. Fans of the series may be shocked to learn that, among other juicy tidbits, the born-again author has been married three times, had a baby at 15, was active in the civil rights movement, participated in a "hard partying scene," and at one time, practiced Judaism.

Karon says she found Jesus in 1982, when she was fired from her job at a Charlotte advertising agency. ""I distrusted Jesus, because he'd been presented to me as a kind of policeman," she told the Observer. She says she told Jesus, "I don't know who you are, but I'm willing to take my chance with you. But be gradual with me. I don't want to end up on a street corner handing out pamphlets and beating a tambourine.' "

Fact & Fiction in Christ's Birth

NBC got an early start on the Christmas season by airing a special Friday night that examined the birth of Christ. “Dateline” anchors Stone Phillips and Ann Curry, along with correspondent Keith Morrison, interviewed a variety of theological experts of various religious backgrounds to examine what is fact and what is fiction regarding the narrative of the Christmas story. Were there really three wise men that visited a manger? Was the star over Bethlehem actually a comet? These were some of the less controversial questions the program asked. Most of the special was actually devoted to a deeper examination of the conflict between the account of Jesus’ birth found in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.

Matthew places Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, then moves them to Nazareth after they flee Egypt to save Jesus from a Herod-ordered massacre--an event not documented historically. In Luke's account, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth but go to Bethlehem in response to a census ordered by Caesar Augustus--a census for which there is no historical record either. So do these inconsistencies discredit the Christmas story or further illustrate that faith and fact are both required in order to truly embrace the birth of Christ? The show went out of its way not to draw any conclusions, suggesting that whether or not you accept a literal or allegorical treatment of the Biblical accounts, the birth of Christ has continued to influence the course of history.

In general, this particular discussion of the life of Christ was about as fair and balanced as I could have hoped for, especially in comparison to the treatment Christianity received on NBC’s “In God They Trust” a few weeks ago. My only beef with this special is actually that the reporters tried too hard to be P.C. and not offend anyone with their discussion of the Christ story. In fact, Stone Phillips said right at the beginning of the hour that “with this report, we're not trying to challenge or change anyone's beliefs.” But where does such kid-glove treatment of faith leave those of us who want our beliefs to be challenged? I want to consider that Jesus’ birth did not remotely resemble a Hallmark greeting card and I want people to ask questions about my faith even if I don’t have all the answers.

Hunting for Sunday Parking

One of the big news stories here in New York over the weekend was the end of Sunday parking meters--from now on, all of the city's meters will rest on the Christian Sabbath. This was particularly good news for churchgoers, who resented having to rush out to feed their meters during worship. NY1.com, a local news site, played the story heavily much of the day yesterday, celebrating the changes with this delicious headline:

"Pay To Prey" Parking Rules Are Officially Over

Alas, the blurb underneath the headline contained the same typo. After remaining up as the site's lead story for several hours, some poor editor working on Sunday fixed the error. Wonder if he was parked at a meter?

Minister's Daughter's McDonald's Mishap

Ashlee SimpsonOh, Ashlee, what would your father--a former minister--say?

When 21-year-old singer Ashlee Simpson wants a Big Mac, she really wants a Big Mac. Last week, the citizens of Canada were witness to a distinctly un-Christian display of drunk and disorderly behavior when Simpson showed up late one night at a Toronto McDonald's. The young songstress was obviously intoxicated and, after being approached by a photograph-seeking fan, uttered such illogical gems as "You would not kiss my foot, so [expletive deleted] you."

But wait, there's more.

After her run-in with the audio/visual contingent of her Canadian fan base, Ashlee put up her verbal dukes with an unwitting fast-food employee. Miss Simpson thought it necessary to sit herself next to the register for the encounter, prompting the bewildered worker to seek managerial intervention. In response, Ashlee quipped, "Oh, please, bring the manager. I would love to talk to the manager." She then interrupted the cashier's attempted rebuttal with, "Stop talking to me," to which she inexplicably added, "I'm nice. I promise your manager will be nice to me."

The immoral antics were mercifully made public in an attempt to understand the folly of youth and the general derangement of inebriated celebrities.

Buying a Doll of Virtue

Sure, your American Girl doll is beautiful and comes with lovingly detailed, era-appropriate accessories. But does your doll reflect biblical principles like "purity and contentment, faith and fortitude, enthusiasm and industry, heritage and home?"

Beliefnet blogger Charlotte Hays has already weighed in about recent ire over American Girl, which is owned by Mattel. The doll company's "I Can" campaign donates money to Girls Inc., which conservatives claim supports lesbianism, abortion rights, and contraceptive access for girls.

Now, a competing doll company--one that encourages a return to traditional gender roles--has chimed in, supporting the protest. According to a press release, the president of the San-Antonio-based Vision Forum, Doug Phillips, "Offers Censure to Dollmakers’ Support of Perversion." The press release continues:

“I was grieved to learn that American Girl is supporting an organization that encourages little girls to entertain and embrace lesbianism and other reprehensible behavior,” lamented Phillips. “As a father of three young daughters, it is nearly unbearable for me to consider their minds ever being sullied by such wicked thoughts.”
Conveniently, Phillips has a solution to parents' dilemma. His company offers the Beautiful Girlhood Collection, which includes dolls that can be dressed as historical figures like Sacagawea, Dolley Madison, and Maria von Trapp. The site also offers books like "Raising Maidens of Virtue: A Study of Feminine Loveliness for Mothers and Daughters" and material on surviving in a "savagely feministic, anti-Christian culture."

Girls who dress their Beautiful Girlhood toys as "Patriot Doll" and "Colonial Doll" can also mull their dolls' biblically-mandated disenfranchisement. An article on the related Vision Forum Ministries website--and linked to from the doll page--states that "God does not allow women to vote (cf. 1 Tim 2:11ff)...In regards to a woman’s right to vote; if husband and wife are truly “one flesh” and the husband is doing his duty to represent the family to the wider community, then what PRACTICAL benefit does allowing women to vote provide?"

'7th Heaven' on Its Way to TV Heaven

"7th Heaven," the longest-running family drama on television, has been cancelled by the WB, in what’s being reported as a cost cutting move.

Although the show is still a big draw for the network, paying such a large cast has just gotten increasingly more expensive.

Over the years the show has included Jessica Biel, who Esquire magazine voted "Sexiest Woman Alive" this month (she was written out of the show in 2001, partly because of semi-nude pictures she took for Gear magazine); Ashlee "Acid Reflux" Simpson; and most currently, Haylie "Sister of Hilary" Duff, who also was in the Mormon immediate-classic Napoleon Dynamite.

'Lost': The Island Giveth, the Island Taketh Away

Death claimed Shannon Rutherford this week on "Lost," the second death of this series (after her stepbrother Boone) but the first of this season. While the last episode (before a bunch of recent repeats) left off with a feeling of hope, this episode left off with a feeling of futility and hopelessness. After seeing strange visions of Walt, Shannon spends the episode begging for someone to believe in her, not just in her story but in her deeper potential of transforming into someone new.

Struggling with self-esteem and abandonment issues, Shannon says, in a pivotal scene: "Everyone thinks I'm worthless." Once she reveals this, she is free for the first time in her life—her words and her old self washed away by the rain pouring down on her, a metaphor for immersion baptism, as the sins of her Jezebel-tinged past (namely, her incestuous one-night stand with Boone and her years of keeping house with older men in order to swindle money from her stepmother) are washed away.

Yet, instead of a burst of light breaking through the rain to fully complete the transformation from old to new, Shannon is promptly killed, just as she releases her yoke onto the shoulders of her savior, Sayid, who declares his undying love. Although the rain seems to wash away Shannon’s sins, it does not fully cleanse her because her repentance is incomplete; she does not fully express regret about her past sins or seek hope in the island, which should be her true savior.

Even though Sayid seems to be her savior, he is really a false savior; instead, she transfers her hope and desperate codependency from one idol (Boone) onto another (Sayid). Because Shannon’s repentance is not entirely true, instead of being saved, she is punished, and it is Ana-Lucia who literally casts the (accidental) first stone—a bullet. As Shannon dies in Sayid’s arms, the horror of the island’s judgment reverberates: "For the wages of sin is death..." (Romans 6:23a, NIV ).

Despite having finally found self-worth, the island ultimately judges her life worthless—and beyond redemption.

Reality TV's New God Warrior

Attention Christians: In case you didn’t get the memo, there’s a spiritual war going on! At the forefront, fighting on your behalf, is Marguerite Perrin, who made her debut on the public stage in the most recent episodes of “Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy.”

For those who missed this two-episode storyline (or my blog entry about Part 1 last week), the show has featured Perrin, a Louisiana dance-studio owner, swapping places with Jeanne D'Amico, a New Ager from Massachusetts. Each must live with her new family, and take charge of her new household, for one week. At the end of the show, each woman must decide how the other family should spend the $50,000 they get for participating.

It is the good Mrs. Perrin, a self-proclaimed "God Warrior," who has the tougher time playing Mommy for a Week for a bunch of strangers, stuck as she is in a household of non-Christians. Her weapons of choice are her King James Bible and her voice, which, at times, could make your ears bleed. In place of armor she wears a black muumuu.

As the two women spend their final couple of days with their new families, Perrin gets progressively more uncomfortable with living in an “ungodly” household. She pressures the family to go to church with her, although it is quite clear that the D’Amico-Flisher family, particularly the kids, want nothing to do with her Jesus-loving ways. She was so annoying and stubborn (she forced her religion down the throats of this poor family but went into a fit if they mentioned their own beliefs) that I wouldn’t have been surprised if Jesus himself to came down to slap some sense into her. I even said a prayer that He would.

The best part of the show is the very end, when Perrin has her much-publicized meltdown/screamfest in front of the cameras. There hasn’t been this much crazy on TV since the Tom Cruise-Oprah incident. Perrin even starts yelling at the film crew, telling them to “get out of her house”--later adding, “unless you believe in Jesus.” Her eldest daughter, Ashley, bursts into tears, while her husband curses under his breath.

In a fit of rage, Perrin rips up an envelope containing a letter from Jeanne instructing her on how her family should spend their show winnings (the audience is also led to believe that the envelope contained the money). Perrin says there’s no way she’s going to let some “devil woman” tell her how to spend her money. The show ends with a note saying that Perrin did, indeed, take the money—to spend on gastric bypass surgery (clearly the most godly thing one can do with a sudden windfall).

I know that watching “Christians Gone Wild” is not everyone’s idea of a good time, though I certainly get a kick out of it. Idol Chatterer Kris Rasmussen doesn’t find the humor in the storyline, saying it brings a “’Jerry-Springer’ type quality to the series.” I say, “What’s wrong with that?”

Although I was never a big fan of “Jerry” it was less because of his love triangles and on-stage fighting than its complete lack of originality as the series went on. However, this never stopped the show from getting sky-high ratings. If “Trading Spouses” is, in fact, planning on pairing up more religiously diverse families like the Perrins and D’Amico-Flishers--as opposed to, say, a vegetarian family with a meat-eating one--their ratings will only improve (provided that one family member is loud and fanatical). And, I’ll have gotten a new favorite show.

God vs. Wal-Mart?

An independent film that attacks the retail behemoth Wal-Mart for poor labor practices is looking for support from a surprising place--the religious community. Producer Robert Greenwald is previewing the documentary “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” at about 1,000 churches, synagogues, and religious sites across the country on November 13 in an effort to create awareness of what he believes are unethical business practices by Wal-Mart. The film focuses on interviews with former employees and executives as well as small business owners and even religious leaders, all of whom take issue with Wal-Mart’s track record regarding wages, benefits, and treatment of the environment. In a recent article in USA Today, Greenwald declared that such issues are moral questions, partially explaining why he is looking to churches to spread the word about his movie. Greenwald is expecting that about 40,000 people will view the film in churches, with screenings of the movie at various colleges to follow later.

Greenwald may find support for his film in the church community. Shouldn’t the church look beyond hot-button issues such as abortion or euthanasia and get involved in other, less-advertised social issues? However, I think the USA Today article overstated things when it glibly spun Greenwald’s attempt to market his documentary to churches as “borrowing a play from Mel Gibson’s playbook.” Yes, it is encouraging that filmmakers inside and outside of Hollywood are finally treating the religious community as a viable audience. But anyone looking at the success of “The Passion of the Christ” or the potential success of “The Chronicles of Narnia” as some kind of one-size-fits-all blueprint for a box office bonanza with believers will be disappointed.

Calling for Religion-Free Reality TV

I will not be watching tonight’s gripping conclusion to the two-part episode of Fox's "Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy," which began last week. As my fellow blogger Dena described, the story features loud, obnoxious mom Marguerite, who thinks everyone is of the devil. I'd been forewarned by a good friend who once worked in casting for the show that this episode would set a new bar for bringing a “Jerry Springer”-type quality to the reality series, in which the moms from two very different families switch places for one week. But even so, I didn’t realize how bad it would be. So I have to disagree with Dena: There are actually many things funnier than a “proselytizing potty mouth.” Root canals and giving up carbs are just two examples that come to mind.

In this week's conclusion, which Marguerite continues to scream like she’s recreating a scene from “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” In fact, I’d like to challenge all of us in the media to stop devoting so much attention to the lampoonish way reality TV represents people of all faiths (such as last week’s episode of "The Apprentice," where a “nice Jewish boy from Alabama” was made fun of in the boardroom). If we who have spiritual beliefs really believed the depictions we see of ourselves on reality TV, we'd be convinced that we are all either freaks or geeks, losers or lunatics. If less media coverage was devoted to their antics, maybe Marguerite and her kind would find their 15 minutes of fame cut down to five ...or possibly those 15 minutes would disappear completely. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

New Jesus Movie From a Nice Jewish Girl

Its title is "Jesus Is Magic," and it includes a spirited rendition of "Amazing Grace" (and not just the first verse!), but you'll want to steer your church group away from this new movie. Kris, my fellow Idol Chatterer may preview high-minded movies like "The Chronicles of Narnia," but I was privileged to see the debut last night of Sarah Silverman's soon-to-be released flick highlighting her stand-up comedy.

Silverman--whose sister is a rabbi and whose brother-in-law (the rabbi's husband) runs the media group Jewish Family & Life!--is not a household name, though with profiles in The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly recently, she does seem to be the It Girl of the moment. That is, as EW points out, if that wider audience can stomach her brand of no-limits humor.

"Jesus Is Magic" is vintage Sarah Silverman, if there is such a thing. Her shtick boils down to this: Cute, soft-spoken, intelligent Jewish girl, whose look, tone, and demeanor suggest she'll offer up fairly traditional stand-up jokes--"I was talking to my therapist the other day..."--but who comes out with some of the most outrageous, raunchiest lines you'll hear among mainstream stand-up comics these days. Her subject matter in "Jesus Is Magic" includes rape; the Holocaust and Nazis; her (dead) grandmother and other family members; every racial stereotype imaginable; political correctness; sex and sexual orientation; and herself and her boyfriend, who happens to be late-night host Jimmy Kimmel.

I'm not a big fan of stand-up in general--and last night's audience of Sarah Silverman fans and friends was by no means laughing out loud most of the time--but the movie did have some hilarious moments. Alas, the sudden outbreak of Sarah Silverman magazine profiles quoted all too many of her best lines, but if you're feeling like you need to laugh about those things you just don't hear joked about too often these days, check out "Jesus Is Magic."

The title, by the way, comes from a riff on her interfaith relationship with the Catholic Kimmel--they'll tell their kids, she says, that "Mommy is from the Chosen People and Daddy believes Jesus is magic." And as for that rendition of "Amazing Grace"--let's just say that Sarah sings it, accompanied by two of her own body parts not generally known for their crooning talents. If you like your "Amazing Grace" more traditional, stick to "The Passion" or "Left Behind."

Pods and Playstations Against Peace?

Victoria A. Bonney, a senior at Endicott College, sees iPods, Playstations, and even the decades-old television set as behind the building of what she calls Generation Apathetic. Boney’s oped in today’s Boston Globe, “Antiwar activists, where are you?” is her direct address to fellow college students across the country—an address where she passionately critiques the that fact that her peers care more about getting their hands on the new iPod Mini or the latest Playstation game of audience-participation-violence than about the war in Iraq.

Bonney writes with obvious frustration that members of Generation Apathetic “are here in our land of iPods and cellphones, luxuriating in our apathetic comas while our soldiers are over there,” in Iraq, fighting in what she has come to see as an unjust war. This is not to say that college activism is completely defunct—but the kind Bonney encounters is dissatisfying, to say the least, and this particular form of “young inactivism” feeds right into the hands of “our elected warmongers” in the form of “E-marches.”

“Yes, E-Marches are the newest way to protest your government,” Bonney writes with biting sarcasm. “All it takes is a double click and you will be part of a simulated march on Washington. Oh, dear, sweet, wee-intentioned youth, don’ you see? Just as easily as you signed up to electronically protest your senators, they can delete you from your inbox…We are a generation with potential coming out of our ears. We could move mountains if only we’d turn off our televisions. They tell us we are powerless and to just give up.”

Food for thought for Idol Chatter, a blog that celebrates all things pop and pod and play-related.

Songs of a Dutiful Daughter

Anoushka Shankar, daughter of the classical Indian sitarist Ravi (and half-sister of pop star Norah Jones), is encountering resistance from purists who think her third album, "Rise," has betrayed her roots and the spiritual form known as the raga by braiding in elements of jazz and flamenco. (Buy the album, or read some irate, as well as laudatory, reviews here.)

The tone of the reviews is recognizable to anyone who has tracked Christian music over the years. In her crossover days, Amy Grant suffered the same scorn from listeners who equated fandom with ownership of an artist, and a genre. Shankar responds, in a way, in an interview on the site ethnotechno: In previous albums, she says, "I saw my music as very spiritual and very serious and very old. But as I've been growing, I've been seeing [that her new songs] are not necessarily so different, and even when they're opposite, they'll often end up being the same. That has been a really beautiful thing to me, and this entire shift has been that I feel in general, I seek intensity on all different levels."

Shouldn't that encourage anyone who wants to see the classical raga continue?

Jarhead: Marines in Search of a Purpose-Driven Life

“Jarhead” is not just another war movie based on a memoir that tells us war is bad or that soldiers are courageous. As told through the eyes of Anthony Swoff, we watch a group of eager, macho boys with minimal education, criminal records, and numerous other domestic problems suddenly find purpose by joining the U.S. Marines. (Marines enjoy the nickname of “jarheads” because of their severe haircuts). After a brutal time in boot camp, the soldiers--now filled with jingoistic brainwashing... I mean, enthusiasm--are sent off to the Saudia Arabian desert as part of Operation Desert Storm, the U.S.’s 1991 defense of Kuwait.

The marines' dreams of bravado disappear, as enthusiasm turns into boredom; boredom turns into uncertainty; uncertainty turns into fear and anger. The purpose and meaning they were hoping to find by defeating an unseen enemy vanishes as the soldiers sit in a desert and wait. And wait. Their only question? “Are we ever going to get to kill anyone?" For these jarheads, it soon becomes clear that the answer is probably no. They are nowhere near where the action is. When they finally do see a little bit of military action, it only lasts four days and they still never fire a gun. Returning home, they don’t feel like heroes; they don’t know what to do next. They aren’t even sure exactly what happened, but one thing is for sure, the emptiness most of them were feeling before they went to war still remains.

“Jarhead” is unsettling and haunting in so many ways, it is difficult to know where to begin in discussing it. The movie definitely demonstrates the mentality that waiting is truly an un-American ideal. We want results right now, got it? Then there is the disturbing moment when the new recruits are watching the bloody film “Apocalypse Now” as if the movie is a religious experience. We need to teach soldiers to defend our country, but does that automatically mean we indoctrinate them to cheapen the value of life?

And, yes, for those of you (and I know you’re out there) who want to find specific ties between this story and the U.S.’s current involvement in Iraq, you will, I imagine, find it. For me, honestly, I expected to find it, but did so only indirectly. I think this movie stands on its own as a deeply personal study of a man trying to make sense of chaos, deception, and his own human shortcomings.

An LSD Trip From God for an LDS Punk Rocker

Blogger Paul O'Donnell wrote about recent Mormon film fever, but he didn't mention the new film that may in fact turn out to be an even better marketing vehicle for the church: a documentary about a '70s punk rocker. "New York Doll," which opened on Friday, tells the story of bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane, an original member of the seminal glam-punk band the New York Dolls. The band, known for their big hair, heavy drug use, wild stage antics, and the death at age 21 of one of their original members, influenced countless other punk bands, from the Sex Pistols to the Clash to the Smiths. When the band split in the mid-70s, Kane's life quickly fell apart. He suffered from severe alcoholism, he lived in poverty, his wife left him, and he jumped out a third-story window, shattering his knee and his elbow.

It was at this low point, he reveals in the new documentary, that Kane received what he described as "an LSD trip from God," in the form of two Mormon missionaries showing up at his door with a Book of Mormon. From 1989 until his sudden death in July 2004 from leukemia, Kane was a devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and worked in the church's Family History Center in Los Angeles. His conversion to Mormonism surprised many of his fellow rock and rollers. "It would be like Donny Osmond becoming a New York Doll," one of these explained in the film.

Kane is pictured as a sympathetic, sweet character, but the people depicted as the most sympathetic in the film are the members of the church, who guide his spiritual life and provide him with comfort, livelihood, and a completely sober lifestyle (the church does not allow the use of alcohol, drugs, or caffeine). The church members even encouraged his participation in a 2004 reunion concert, arranged by British rocker Morrissey, and gave him the money to buy back his bass from a pawn shop so he could rehearse. And though a concert at London's Royal Albert Hall in front of thousands of screaming fans seems as far from his life in the Mormon Family History Center as Kane could possibly get, he modeled his costume after something he thought Mormon prophet Joseph Smith would wear.

What is not revealed in the film, however, may be the real reason for what some viewers might see as Mormon propaganda: filmmaker Greg Whiteley is a Mormon himself. He met Kane when he became his home teacher, the person assigned to make monthly visits to him, in 1995.

Lock Up your Daughters--the Mormons are Coming!

The new Mormon screen epic "American Zion," based on the historical novels by Gerald Lund, is likely to convince precisely nobody of anything they don't already believe about Mormonism. No doubt Latter-day Saints everywhere are fantasizing that a richly produced, well-acted saga of the church's trek west under the lash of persecution will free them from charges that they are fruitcake cult. Well, forget it. You might as well expect "Oliver!" to stoke audiences to help out at the orphanage.

If you want to change hearts and minds, turn friends and strangers on to "Trapped by Mormons," a British silent film from 1922 that has been recently remade by a gang of absurdists as a faux-silent. Both versions depict the Salt Lake sect as ghoulish types who bodysnatch young women for their nefarious purposes. Both the serious version and the satire promise to do for Mormonism what "Reefer Madness" did for marijuana: assign a tinge of hysteria to those who oppose it.

Better yet, rent the mission-year comedy "The Two Best Years," the most credible, outlandish, most cynical and sweetest film introduction for outsiders to what the Mormon commitment is about.

It’s Hip to be Jewish—In Boston?

New York City is no stranger to all things Jewish, young and old, liberal and orthodox, religious and cultural—and I’ll go as far as adding fashionable to the list, since New Yorkers are famous for the ultimate in fashionable Jewish everything, whether we are talking bar/bat mitzvahs or weddings.

But Boston? Boston has always been the Vatican’s American Catholic outpost, right? Aside from Zaftig’s, Brookline’s famous Jewish deli (which is, if you are not lucky enough to live near Katz’s in NYC on Houston St., which has the best pastrami and corned beef I’ve ever had in my life), Boston is not exactly known as a robustly Jewish city.

According to Doug Most, editor of the Globe Magazine and author of this Sunday’s cover story, there is a kind of Jewish revival, or “Renaissance,” rippling across this New England city upon a hill. And it’s young people—20- and early-30-somethings—who are breathing life back into Boston’s old and, in one case, vacated city-center shuls and filling their once-empty sanctuaries again.

Most asks readers to “think of these young Jews and the older Jewish leaders like two hikers passing on a mountain trail. The one coming down has been to the mountaintop and remembers when Fridays were for synagogue, when Jews only married Jews, when the high holidays truly were holy days… He is afraid that unless something changes, his grandchildren’s children will no longer be Jewish.”

And what of the other Jew, presumably the younger one on her way up? Most explains that this Jew is one “with an assured stride. With so many new ways to meet Jewish mates, she’s confident that she will. But she also believes an interfaith marriage doesn’t mean abandoning Judaism, just compromising—especially in a year like this, when the first day of Hanukkah falls on Christmas. And she finds that temple today is different from what it was with Mom and Dad, not such a boring way to spend a Friday, more alive and spiritual…At one time, being Jewish may have meant cooking traditional foods, resting on the Sabbath, and giving as much as possible to Israel, but that young hiker knows that today it can mean making friends, celebrating holidays with family, sending her children to Jewish preschool, and maybe, once in a while, going to synagogue.”

To the single Boston Jew, attending shul is less a prescribed ritual performed out of habit and parental pressure, and more an act of choice—a choice grounded in the desire for community and company, that, on a good night, might end in finding a date. A choice that is reintegrating Judaism into the nature of urban New England living in a way that goes beyond the foodies whose greatest connection to Judaism remains tied to eating a good pastrami on rye at a famous Jewish deli.

Missed Opportunity on "The West Wing"

I was ridiculously excited for last night's live presidential debate on "The West Wing" (yes, I know, I need a life, or a hobby, or cable), and planned on all sorts of blog entries from various Idol Chatterers in response to its treatment of religion, abortion, Intelligent Design, and any number of other issues we're interested in, many of which the show has dealt with before. It was not meant to be, however. The debate stuck to such wonky issues as the federal budget, drilling for oil in Alaska, and healthcare--all important, to be sure, but as a result the hour was about as interesting as... a real presidential debate. Less so, actually. The closest the debate came to the sort of issues you'd see us Idol Chatterers all atwitter about were questions on a death penalty moratorium--which each candidate answered with a surprising, one word yes or no--and debt relief in Africa. Oh well. Maybe the next fictional debate will decide not to avoid the hot-button issues that get Americans, and bloggers, riled up and arguing about at work the next morning.

Conservative Decency

Alice Chasan, blogging about Scooter Libby's novel "The Apprentice" and other sex-laden imaginings by high public officials, wonders how these Republicans justify their books in light of their outrage about sex in public culture. Alice is guilty of conflating her conservatives, a mistake often made, and often bemoaned by L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, the group that last month ranked three Fox shows the top social offenders. As blogged then, Bozell often complains about the lack of conservative unity on the question of media decency. "Beyond a couple in the Senate and a half-dozen in the House, there is nary a 'conservative' out there willing to risk an ounce of political capital decrying ... the sorry state of affairs in the popular culture."

Mel Gibson: Speaking In Other Tongues--Again

Mel Gibson finally divulged a little more information about his latest daring cinematic endeavor – “Apocalypto,” about an ancient Mayan civilization. Funding the film himself, Gibson will begin production in two weeks. Once again going against all the rules of commercial moviemaking, Gibson will use natives who are not actors, and like in his "Passion of the Christ," the cast will speak in a language understood by just about nobody in your average movie theater audience--Mayan this time, replacing the mix of Aramaic, Latin, Hebrew, and Greek used in "Passion." The press-weary Gibson stated that his interest in producing the project stemmed from a fascination with ancient cultures. Gibson describes the film as an "action-adventure film of mythic proportions,” but somehow I have a feeling he is not exactly Oliver Stone setting off to make the next pretentious and grandiose “Alexander” look-a-like. Instead, in my opinion, Gibson is shrewdly downplaying the fact that in "Apocalypto" he will be further exploring his own spiritual journey. It's obvious even from the title of the movie, which obviously doesn't come from Mayan, ancient or modern. "Apocalypto," according to Gibson, is “a Greek word for an unveiling or new beginning," adding, "It just expresses so well that I want to convey."

Not satisfied with that explanation, I did a little research of my own to see if I could figure out what Mel is really up to. It seems that apocalyptic literature began with early Jewish and Christian literature in which the secrets of the heavenly world or of the world-to-come are revealed by angelic mediation within a narrative framework. Furthermore, apocalyptic eschatology is marked by the conviction that God will intervene decisively in the present evil age and vindicate his suffering elect over their oppressors, raising the dead, consigning the wicked to eternal destruction, and establishing a new creation.

So if I have to make a guess about what’s going on in the mind of Mel post-"Passion,” I'd predict that he is using the rise and fall of another corrupt civilization as a biblically based allegory for our current culture.

The Passion of Scooter Libby

I'm no prude, but I was goggle-eyed after reading a New Yorker account of what is certainly former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby's most egregious offense. Turns out he's not only an indicted conspirator in the Joseph Wilson/Valerie Plame/CIA outing affair that has thrown the White House into turmoil. He's a published pornographer.

Libby's 1996 novel, "The Apprentice," is reportedly laced with shockingly perverse sexual imagery, some of it bona fide kiddie porn, and some of that involving bestiality. What's with that? How does a member of the family values and faith crowd decide to spew out such upsettingly ugly fantasies--except perhaps at the therapist's office or in a confessional-and then have the chutzpah to put them in book form? Isn't that a sin?

And being indicted, apparently, is good for business: "The Apprentice" has soared from #16,249 on Amazon to #379, as of several hours after the indictment was announced. At last glance, it had leveled off at a respectable #1,266.

Come to think of it, a number of other conservative Republicans have written sexually salacious fiction, including G. Gordon Liddy, William Safire, William Buckley, Bill O'Reilly, and Lynne Cheney, wife of Libby's mentor, Vice President Dick Cheney. Aren't these the same people who are always nattering on about virtue and reacting with outrage to sex in movies and on TV? And don't they advocate sex exclusively within heterosexual married relationships? How then to account for Mr. Libby's preoccupation with bears and young girls, in cages?

This group is giving new meaning to that old expression, "dirty book," and sending some pretty confusing messages about sexuality to anyone out in the American heartland who tries to practice what they preach.

To paraphrase John Dean, of Watergate fame, there's a cancer on the presidency, and its name is hypocrisy. It's not one of the seven deadly sins, but maybe we should make it Number 8.

A Word From “Narnia” About Faith and Fantasy

The keynote speaker at the third annual C.S. Lewis Festival last Tuesday was none other than Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham. As the emcee for the evening pointed out to all of us in the audience, there are not many people left in this world who can say they knew Lewis--and there are not even that many people who can say they know someone who knew Lewis. That's why I was in the second row, practically jumping out of seat the entire time Gresham spoke. He's been making the publicity rounds for the upcoming big screen adaptation of “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” Gresham gave the audience a sneak peek at the movie--it looked amazing--and then made us laugh and cy as he told stories about life with the man he called “Jack.”

What might surprise some of you Narnia fans out there--I know it did me--is that Gresham insists Lewis did not consider “Wardrobe” a Christian allegory. Hmmm…. this would defy most scholarly and non-scholarly thought on the topic. But Gresham said Lewis considered this story a “suppositional representation of fantasy.” I think almost everyone in the audience shifted in their chairs uncomfortably, because none of us wanted to admit we didn’t know for sure what a suppositional representation of a fantasy was. Gresham kindly explained that Lewis, when writing the “Chronicles of Narnia,” supposed what it would be like if all of the world’s various mythologies were combined into one kingdom and then Jesus entered into that kingdom. What would happen then?

But more important than a discussion of whether or not Narnia is simply a Christian allegory, Gresham challenged all of us to instead consider a deeper question: Who are we represented by within the land of Narnia? Sadly, I am pretty sure I am represented by Edmund.

Lesbians Love Angelina Jolie

She's an Academy Award winner, the adoptive mother of two, a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, and now, according to a recent poll, the celebrity lesbians would most like to marry. According to U.K.-based Gaydar Radio, Angelina Jolie took top honors in the race for lesbian dream spouse with a whopping 32% of respondents declaring her the most desirable same-sex wife. In second place was actor/director Jodie Foster with 18%, "Domino" star Keira Knightly took 11%, and fellow Oscar-winner Charlize Theron won 10% of the vote.

On the other side of the gender fence, 19% of gay men polled chose soccer superstar David Beckham as their celebrity husband of choice. Actor Vin Diesel and British crooner Robbie Williams tied for second place with 18% of the vote.

Gay marriage has lately become a hot topic across the Pond; official recognition of civil partnerships begins December 21st in the United Kingdom.

Trading Spouses: Meet Your New God-Warrior/Mommy

Fox's "Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy" works hard to pair up polar opposites, hoping for the ultimate in domestic disturbance when the two families swap mothers for a week. Last night's episode was no exception. One family, the Perrins, were Christians from Ponchatoula, LA, while the other, the D'Amico-Flishers, were a spiritual-but-not-religious family from Boxborough, MA.

Marguerite Perrin, a dance-studio owner and loud, devout Christian, continually complains about the D'Amico-Flisher's affinity for astrology, horoscopes, tarot cards, and the like--all of which were, of course, "of the devil." She also calls her temporary spouse and kids "a hippy Partridge family." She objects to a big star (made of what looked like Christmas lights) hanging on the family's barn, prompting one of the D'Amico-Flisher children to actually say during an interview, "It's not like it was a witchcraft star. Not that anything is wrong with that..."

When asked to participate in a summer solstice party that the family was throwing, Perrin watches skeptically from the sidelines while guests throw pieces of paper with their "good intentions" into a fire as drums beat loudly.

Jeanne D'Amico--a hypnotherapist and co-host with her husband, Chris, of a radio show--is not faring any better. At a family gathering, one of the Perrins' friends berates her with questions like, "What church do you attend?", "Are You a Christian", and "Do you believe in God or a 'Higher Power'?" (using air quotes when she says, "Higher Power"). Another friend of Marguerite's says that even though Jeanne is not a Christian, hopefully one day she will be saved.

Back at the D'Amico-Flisher home, Marguerite has agreed to fill in for Jeanne on her radio show. All is going well until a surprise guest--a psychic--shows up. Marguerite starts crying, and leaves the show to "find a church, now!" because her faith is "being tested." In her opinion, the family should shove all their New-Agey stuff "up their BEEEEEP."

The two-part episode will conclude next week. In it, according to the show's promos, Marguerite proclaims herself a "God Warrior" while having a meltdown worthy of any self-respecting reality show. (You can watch the promo here.)

Get this woman her own show. There's nothing funnier than a proselytizing potty mouth.

Video Therapy From Kelly Clarkson

What’s the last media moment that truly touched you at your emotional and spiritual core? Perhaps a "Sex In The City" dialogue or a "Boston Legal" harangue? Maybe it was a "Desperate Housewives" temporary secret or "Seinfeld" rerun?.

But how long has it been since you had your life dramatically changed by a music video? There’s one out now that has that potential.

In “Because of You,” Kelly Clarkson boldly reaches out to you whether you are a teen, a young professional, a parent or an executive in charge of millions of dollars and hundreds of people. She (with director Vadim Perelman) attempts to explain much of what sabotages many of the relationships that matter most to us, as well what causes the unmet professional needs that go mostly unmet in our lives.

Personal Responsibility. Humility. Legacy. Parenting Ethics. All are here.

The video depicts scenes which perhaps you and I can remember from our parents or recognize in our own households. Parents fighting. A child noticing. The threat of a parent headed for the door and a picture frame smashed on the floor. And a reflective moment when she notices herself in the mirror. (You can watch the video here.)

In this video, though, Kelly ceases to argue and retreats from anger as she looks inward to herself and her childhood, remembers her parents doing the same, and reflectively articulates words that must be humbling and hurtful, but honest:

“Because of you, I find it hard to trust not only me, but everyone around me.”

“Because of you, I’m forced to fake a smile, a laugh every day of my life.”

“My heart can’t possibly break because it wasn’t whole to start with.”

“You never thought of anyone else; you just saw your pain and now I cry in the middle of the night for the same damn thing…”

An honest moment of reflection changes a family legacy during these 229 seconds of visual therapy that can teach us much about what we don’t know we don’t know about ourselves.… and why we pass it on to those we love.

The Difference Between College and the Pros

Hard on the heels of a New York Times article on the prevalence of prayer in college football come the complaints of five Muslim men who were detained by stadium security at a New York Giants game after their praying made other fans "suspicious." Devout Muslims pray five times a day, and given the length of NFL games these days, it's hard to pray around them. The men don't have immediate plans to sue, apparently, but will hold a news conference in Newark, N.J., to raise awareness about Islam.

Calling All Catholics

Are you an orthodox Catholic who wants to hear Scott Hahn's Bible lectures, the wisdom of Franciscan father Benedict Groeschel, or The Best of Mother Angelica? As Godcasting--religious broadcasts downloaded to iPods--takes off, Catholics who don't get the popular cable channel Eternal Word Television Network have other options. The websites of Catholic radio stations like Immaculate Heart Radio offer both live streaming audio and podcasts of EWTN shows and other Catholic programs. Our favorite: The Station of the Cross in Buffalo, NY (877-888-MARY).

Madonna Fights Back

Lately, Madonna's devotion to Kabbalah has become less about personal betterment and more about publicity. Motivated by the house arrest of one of Kabbalah's leading figures and angered by the media's portrayal of Kabbalah as some kind of cult, the pop icon recently reaffirmed her support for the teachings and blames the negative attention her faith receives on public misconception. "It frightens people," she recently told the New York Daily News. "So they try to denigrate it or trivialize it so that it makes more sense."

Referring candidly to the "unwanted" attention her personal beliefs attract, the Material Girl added, "It would be less controversial if I joined the Nazi party." Needless to say, this statement has angered Jewish groups and comes fresh on the heels of the lyrical controversy surrounding her Kabbalah-inspired track, "Isaac."

But that's not all. Madonna went on to compare her current situation (in terms of scrutiny) to the public relations nightmare incurred by Scientologist Tom Cruise, "If it makes Tom Cruise happy, I don't care if he prays to turtles. And I don't think anybody else should."

Even on "The West Wing," the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It

I hate to disagree with my always witty and insightful colleague Donna, but last Sunday's episode of "West Wing" and its treatment of the controversial issue of abortion rights was a disappointment. I especially felt let down because the show had successfully sucked me back in with last season's cliffhanger. It had then further gained my respect with this season's episode on Intelligent Design. However, the abortion debate was given simple sound-byte level coverage once again.

I found nothing nuanced or even admirable about the Republican candidate, Arnold Vinick, shamelessly courting the religious right up until this point only to suddenly turn heels and find his conscience when the mudslinging ad campaign begins. But neither was I impressed with the Democrat, Matt Santos (up until now, my hero), who suddenly finds a way to disconnect from a core value like his stance on when life starts--he believes it starts at conception--long enough to court a lobbyist. It all sounds pretty much like something our real-life politicians would do. Nothing new was added to the discussion. (And are we really supposed to believe no one in the Democratic Party would have quizzed Santos on just such an issue as this, so there would be no surprises?)

But perhaps worst of all is the advice these men are receiving from those around them. In particular, Santos' running mate and advisor, Leo, tells Santos--in effort to convince him to "dance with the one who brung ya"--that most Catholics are pro-choice, so how could Santos be expected to be pro-life? Hmmm... maybe the series' writers should have checked the facts. One independent poll found 59% of Catholics did not favor changing doctrine on abortion, and the National Catholic Register also did a survey that showed only slightly over half of Catholics considered themselves pro-choice--hardly an overwhelming consensus.

Book Contracts for All

Joining the ranks of celebrity-cum-children's book writers Jamie Lee Curtis, Madonna, and Katie Couric, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recently had her first children's book published. "Chico" is a true but tame story about young Sandra's childhood on a ranch and her kinship with her horse, the book's namesake. While the narrative isn't very compelling--the most exciting thing that happens is a brief encounter with a rattlesnake--the muted, hazy palette serve well to illustrate the gentle ranch activities of riding a horse on the open range and petting baby calves. The book will most likely never rival Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," but neither is it a wasted effort.

While we're on the topic of famous people writing books with equine-related titles: Former "Joan of Arcadia" star Amber Tamblyn has also just published a book of poetry, marketed for teens. "Free Stallion", with no poems about literal horses, is a short, diverse collection of surprisingly mature, commanding, and concise poems brimming with an angry, cynical view of American politics and tackling subjects as diverse as war, desire, hatred for the opposite sex, and feminist battle cries against damaging body images. While Amber Tamblyn's age (around 20) has relegated her poems to the teen shelf, her voice speaks volumes past her age and holds the promise of breaking into the adult market.

Both books are impressive debuts, but a juicier future should see Sandra writing a how-to girl's guide on making it into the Supreme Court and Amber channeling some of her poetic musings into commentary about God and our evolving religious landscape.

Prayer, Prayer, Everywhere! But Especially Before Kickoff?

"Touchdown Jesus"--The Man Himself with arms held high in a "touch-down" gesture--is a now-famous mural that looms large above the library entrance at Notre Dame University, a school known not only for its Catholic affiliation, but also the sentiment that football can indeed by a religion.

Well, come to find out, as fellow blogger Paul O'Donnell mentioned in his "Weekend Media Roundup," Notre Dame is not alone in its associations of faith and football: Apparently it's been in good company for years at several football-famous public universities. New York Times writer Joe Drape reports on this past Sunday's (Oct. 30) front page that: "Every preseason for 30 years, Coach Bobby Bowden has taken his Florida State football players to a church in a white community and a church in a black community in the Tallahassee area in an effort, he said, to build camaraderie. He writes to their parents in advance, explaining that the trips are voluntary, and that if they object, their sons can stay home without fear of retaliation. He remembers only one or two players ever skipping the outing… Mr. Bowden believes that prayer and faith are part of the American way."

In response to what seems like an unorthodox practice for a state university football team, Mr. Bowden explains: "Most parents want their boys to go to church. I've had atheists, Jews, Catholics and Muslims play for me, and I've never not started a boy because of his faith. I'm Christian, but all religions have some kind of commandments, and if kids would obey them, the world would be a better place."

In terms of state-sponsored, pre-game displays of prayer Coach Bowden is accompanied by no less than the famous Penn State coach Joe Paterno (affectionately known by many as Joepa), who offers his players both Catholic and Protestant options. Georgia's Mark Richt is also known for his players' pre-game prayers and services.

I'm all for voluntary, student led prayer, reflection, moments of silence, etc., etc., even at public institutions; I believe the prohibition of all public displays of religious activity at state institutions—even if they are voluntary—is a violation of rights in itself). However, I must admit I am skeptical that in 30 years Coach Bowden's had "only one or two" students not attend the pre-game religious festivities. His comment that he's "never not started a boy because of his faith" is expressed as if he deserves some sort of credit or admiration for not excluding players for their, I'm assuming, non-Christian faith. The idea that he felt the need to make the comment is deeply concerning in and of itself.

"This is a lawsuit waiting to happen, and I believe university administrations are playing a game of chicken," the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, a lawyer and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said. "But eventually, you got to believe that one kid is going to say, 'I've had enough,' and step forward."

Maybe. Regardless of the legalities of these missionary-like pre-game events--whether explicitly Christian, multi-faith, or nondenominational--college-kid Touchdown Jesuses will be taking the field again this weekend, whether they hail from Notre Dame or not.

(And on a side note, to the Angry White Sox Fans I offended: I was just having a little fun. I do not begrudge the win and am a big fan of the underdog (always); who isn't? But I had to mention, had to, all the commentary that felt like echoes from last year's Red Sox win. The connections are just too obvious!)

Last Month's Idol Chatter: Bono Gets Abrahamic, Lost & Found on "Lost," etc.

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