Where Have All the Matt Santoses Gone?

The presidential campaign continues to heat up on "The West Wing." Last night, Democratic candidate Matthew Santos pulled the God-card for the second time this season on the campaign trail-with the kind of eloquence I so long to hear from real, living candidates for whom we can actually vote. Two weeks ago Intelligent Design was the issue that sparked discussion of the Big-G, and this time it was the don't-want-to-go-there, polarizing abortion debate that got Santos talking about the complexities of being Catholic and being pro-life (as a person) while at the same time being a pro-choice politician representing the Democratic party.

Controversy about abortion was initially sparked by a special interest group TV-spot that quoted Santos out of context saying he believed in "unlimited abortion." A Republican candidate's dream right? Not so, for Republican presidential hopeful Arnold Vinick, who responds to the attack add with as much anger as Santos. Oddly enough, this season's West Wing presidential campaign has pro-choice candidates on both side of the red-state, blue-state divide. Vinick has alienated the Republican religious right with his disinterest in religion, while Santos surprises the liberal left with his frequent God-talk.

Last night's best moment: Santos is confronted by the head of the fictional lobbying group Women's Alliance for Choice about his abortion views. The powerful organization is threatening to throw its support behind the pro-choice Republican Vinick and is unhappy about Santos' "yes I support abortion limits" response to the attack ad. Santos explains his understanding of the need for abortion "limits" by asking the group's leader if she believes in no-questions-asked abortion based on IQ tests, gender of the child, and the slippery slope that goes on from there. Answer to all of the above? No. Exactly, explains Santos. That's why I don't believe in unlimited abortion rights.

Again, a show in which a candidate is not afraid to express a smart, complex viewpoint about a third-rail issue (from both sides, I have to say, as kudos go to Vinick for his nuanced understanding as well.) Why aren't these people real so we could vote for one of them?

(Well, I confess, this was one of three best moments, really--the second being the news that there will be a LIVE DEBATE next week between the candidates, AND, last but not least, the return of Donna Moss, FINALLY, so the show can get back to the Josh-Donna sparring-flirting tension I love so much!)

Weekend Media Roundup

The rehabilitation of Josef Ratzinger's image from the modern-day Torquemada to benevolent Pope Benedict XVI continued in The Los Angeles Times Saturday with the dean of the "Vatican observers" (why aren1t they just called reporters?) John Allen portraying the pontiff's meeting with former nemesis Hans Kung as a sign of Benedict1s wish to be pope of not just of a faction of the Catholic Church but of the whole 1.1 billion family of faith

On the Right Coast on Sunday, The New York Times fronted a story about the propensity for prayer among college football teams, including the Georgia Bulldogs, whose coach Mike Richt takes them to church as a bonding measure. The Times mostly frowns on the phenomenon as a violation of players1 religious privacy. But the story includes a comment by Baltimore Raven rookie Musa Smith, a former player for Mike Richt's Georgia Bulldogs and a Muslim: "At the end of the day," said Smith, "[praying as a team] was about strengthening your spiritual foundations and to walk in a righteous way in whatever you believe."

NPR continues their series that began Sunday on the holy Indian city of Vrinduvan, where, Hindus believe, Krishna once walked. You can catch all the segments on the NPR website.

And the fun continues tomorrow morning, when NBC's "Today" is to air a segment on "mysterious religions," including... Mormonism, according to its promo for the show.

Millions of Reasons to Watch "Paper Clips"

Similar to other recent indie documentaries--such as "Mad Hot Ballroom"--where students overcome the odds, one of the best documentaries of last year, "Paper Clips" traces the life-changing journey of a group of children in rural Tennessee. Finally coming out on DVD, "Paper Clips" begins with one principal's idea to teach diversity to the students growing up in the white, Protestant community of Whitwell. To accomplish this goal, the principal of Whitwell Middle School asks some of her teachers to teach the students about the Holocaust. Wanting students to have a visual aid to better understand the magnitude of the millions of lives lost at the hands of the Nazis, one of the teachers suggests that students collect paper clips-one paper clip to memorialize each life that perished in the concentration camps. The students do so and eventually create their own Holocaust museum out of an old railcar.

Does it all sound just a little too sweet and TV movie-of-the-weekish? What saves this movie from being schmaltzy is that the director documents not only the process of creating the museum, but the uncomfortable realization by certain adults within the community ( not to mention the faculty) that they themselves are still racist. Because I an educator as well as a writer, these are the stories I truly adore--the stories where adults learn about unconditional love and sacrifice from children.

A Prayer to the TV Scheduling Gods

With NBC having moved "The West Wing" from Wednesdays at 9 to Sundays at 8, those of us who care about religious and spiritual themes in our TV watching have an unsolvable conflict. "West Wing"--the drama that offers the most intelligent and engaging exploration of these themes--now airs, at least in its first half hour, with "The Simpsons," the sitcom with the funniest and most biting satire of religion in American culture. Not all of us are blessed with TiVo (the subject for a prayer of its own, come to think of it) and taping it on the VCR is a pain in the butt, so we must make the choice week in and week out: President Bartlett or Reverend Lovejoy? Toby Zeigler or Ned Flanders?

For me, it's been "Wing" all the way, but I do miss Homer and his people of yellow animation. Please: solve our conflict and move "West Wing" to some 10:00 slot, as it well deserves.

"In God They Trust"... but Who's "They"?

Last Friday night NBC devoted an entire hour to examining the growing evangelical Christian movement in the U.S., calling the program "In God They Trust." Well, that's what former news anchor Tom Brokaw promised in all the commercials anyway--not that I was naïve enough to believe those commercials. As soon as I saw the images of Brokaw standing in front of supersized New Life Church in Colorado Springs--a church which is closely tied to religious leader James Dobson's Focus on the Family organization- I knew that a better name for the special would probably be "Another look at how those fundamentalist conservatives are unfairly using their religious agenda to influence politics."

And while the first segment of the show seemed too "play fair" by following around two very nice families who very gently and inoffensively described their beliefs, the majority of the show focused on New Life pastor Ted Haggard's direct line to the White House and his desire to stop gay marriage and abortion. The only balance NBC brought to Ted Haggard's commentary was a brief interview with author, preacher and activist Jim Wallis, who articulated his opposition to any party, or country, claiming they have the market cornered when it comes to hearing from God--a position I agree with, by the way.

I would love to see a major network actually do a quality news special on evangelical Christians one day. But to get to the heart of what it's really like to live out a walk of faith as one of the "70 million evangelical Christians in America" (NBC's stat, not mine) the media will have to look somewhere else besides the nearest mega-church or the latest Christian marketing trend found in books like "The Purpose Driven Life."

The White Sox ARE NOT The Red Sox

Sorry White Sox fans, I know you all are excited about the World Series win and yadda, yadda, congratulations and everything, it's not as if I'm not happy for you, but stop pretending it's somehow equivalent to last year's Red Sox Miracle, OK? It's nice you won but it just doesn't look good, all this copycatting of the "I Believe" fans of Boston.

I just had to groan at this morning's New York Times front pager by Monica Davey, headlined "A Bracing Shot of Redemption for a City Steeped in Baseball." OH, let me count the ways this story mimicked, stole, Red Sox language about our Sent-From-The Heavens 2004 Triumph. In addition to using the word "redemption" to describe the White Sox win in the headline, Davey talks to fans who say things like, "I can die in peace" (sound familiar Red Sox fans?), "It honestly means redemption," and "This certainly removes some of the stain." What stain, you wonder? Why the need for redemption? Well, as Red Sox fans long faced "The Curse of the Bambino" (which, was grace-fully broken last year), White Sox fans have their own curse too (of course), as my fellow Idol Chatterer Michael Kress blogged about last week.

Davey continues, "And redemption, perhaps, at last, for the shame of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, when eight players were barred from baseball accused of fixing World Series games," before she goes on to quote another fan who says, dramatically, about what I'll call "The White Sox Own Personal Curse," that the White Sox "have carried into the future all the ghosts of the Black Sox and this whole Second City thing. They have been in the shadow of all of that forever." Blah, blah, blah. Insert my eyes rolling equally dramatically here.

And how about your very own baseball-player-Jesus? Just slap a long-haired wig on White Sox hero, Bobby Jenks and you too, can have a Red Sox-like "Johnny Damon Jesus" WWJDD campaign (well, WWJDB).

And don't say I'm just bitter the Red Sox lost in the first round. This had to be said. It just sounds all too familiar to this New Englander-born girl and I had to rant a little OK? If you want to rave about your win, fine, it's well-deserved. Just find your own lingo to rave with and stop stealing from the Red Sox!

No matter how hard you try, White Sox fans (whom I refuse to call believers), you can't top the Red Sox Miracle! And the serious devotions of its long-time followers. So stop trying.

Left Behind: A 'Really, Really Good' Movie

Looking for reviews of the new "Left Behind" movie, "World at War," is a little like awaiting the results of the Iraqi constitutional referendum: anyone who will give an opinion was likely a fan going in. The third movie made from the series of apocalyptic Dispensationalist Christian thrillers was sent to 2,900 churches last weekend, before the DVD made its way straight to video stores. "The movie was really, really good," said a man who viewed the flick at a Baptist redoubt in St. Petersburg, Fla. "It's one thing when it's fiction," a fellow parishioner offered, "it's another when it's the truth," he said. "This is the truth. It's what's going to happen."

The only tough review of the film comes in the form of absolute silence from the "Left Behind" co-authors Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. Their reaction to the film may be repressed by the continuing litigation between LaHaye and the film's producers, Cloud Ten. LaHaye has sued Cloud Ten several times over previous films' poor production values.

Lost & Found on "Lost"

Created by cliffhanger genius J.J. Abrams, "Lost" is an optical illusion; turn your head another way and you find a whole new picture. What I love best about the show is all the amazing Biblical tidbits carefully threaded through the entire series, whether wittingly or unwittingly. We've witnessed Jack's calling of his disciples, Charlie's resurrection, Locke's miraculous healing, and the islanders breaking bread together like disciples, to name a few. Last week's episode dealt with the sweet, albeit semi-predictable, plotline of Sun losing her wedding ring. Those who have watched the movie "Apollo 13" know that losing a wedding ring is a signifier that Something Bad Happened. Only after Sun angrily uproots her garden does the resident "Man of Faith"--Locke--explain why he's no longer angry: "I am not lost anymore." A bewildered Sun is then told the secret to finding lost objects: "The same way anything that is lost gets found. I stopped looking."

Locke's words seem plucked out of the born-again Christian anthem, "Amazing Grace" by John Newton--"I once was lost, but now am found." Interestingly enough, Locke's background is parallel to Newton's --Locke was once an angry man who was saved from death and lifelong handicap by the island's divine grace. The island has aided in Locke's rebirth--"the old has gone, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17)--he has shed his anger, found faith in the unknown, and is no longer "lame."

Locke is now a Pez-dispenser of spiritual faith--his words are sweet to some (Sun), tart to others (Jack), tough to swallow at times but easily dissolvable. What he advocates is putting faith in the island--trust the island and the island will reveal all its rewards and secrets. When Sun does learn to let go, her ring is found where she least expects it, seemingly belched up through the sand by the island. We glean hope from this found ring: there is a seeming renewal of vows, as Sun is reassured that Jin is alive and re-pledges her faithfulness to the marriage. Plus, the spiritual seed Locke plants within her to trust the island, starts to take root.

Halloween Hocus Pocus

One of the things I love most about "Girl Meets God," Lauren F. Winner's memoir about her conversion to Christianity (which she began writing at the ripe old age of 22), is her use-and definition-of religious terminology ranging from the common to the obscure.

My students at. St. Michael's College in Vermont are well into "Girl Meets God" this semester, and today we read a passage that included one of those short, interesting tidbits about a term we've all heard and use liberally, especially near Halloween--though we (usually) have no idea about its origins: hocus-pocus.

Winner explains:

"Naysayers sometimes dismiss the Eucharistic rite as hocus-pocus. You say some formula over a slice of bread, and it becomes flesh, poof, magic. (In fact, hocus-pocus derives from a parody of the words a priest says at the Eucharist: 'Hoc est corpus meum'--'This is my body.')"

So, apply a little hocus-pocus on Halloween, and poof, like the body transformed in the Mass, we too (albeit in less pious ways, generally), transform our own bodies into something wholly other, just for the night.

iPod for Christians

For four years, Apple's iPod has been entertaining commuters, gym-goers, and urbanites the world over. But no one (except maybe Steve Jobs) could see the device as having a higher purpose--until now.

According to Devoted1.com, Apple's iPod Shuffle is representative of "the fastest growing religion in the world." The website is selling a replacement iPod Shuffle cap, called iBelieve, that turns the iPod into a makeshift cross. The website claims $2 from every sale will benefit "various relief funds and children's charities."

The Prodigal Gilmore Girl

The WB's critically-acclaimed dramedy "Gilmore Girls" started this season by parodying, in typically sassy but sweet Gilmore style, one of the most well know parables in the Bible--the parable of the prodigal. Smart and hip mom Lorelai Gilmore has had to stand by and watch her daughter make a series of bad life choices. Rory stole a yacht, dropped out of Yale, hooked up with the wrong guy, and was sucked into the high society lifestyle of Lorelai's parents. Sure, Lorelai could have interfered at any time and forced her daughter do what Lorelai thought was best for Rory's future. But Lorelai, remembering her own unhappy upbringing, instead has remained firm in her determination to allow Rory to choose her own path.

In last night's episode, which centered around Rory's 21st birthday party, Lorelai embodied the parable's message of true acceptance and unending love. Just as the father in the parable knew his son must lose everything before he will finally return home, Lorelai realized the only way Rory will return to her is if she hits bottom. And just like the father who daily looked down the road to see if his son had returned yet, Lorelai tried to contain her excitement when Rory finally called stepdad-to-be Luke to see if her mom would be at the birthday party. One of the final scenes of the episode was a tender but awkward moment at the birthday party, as the two women tried to have their first conversation in months. One wanted to ask to come home while the other desperately wanted to take her only child home. So far, though, neither has been quite ready to take that final step of reconciliation.

The Self-Porning of America

Recent books have examined how Internet porn is reshaping our sexual appetites. More surprising is how our sexual appetites are rising to meet the technology. Photo-sharing sites like Flickr, which Yahoo bought this year and is heartily promoting, are so rife with what might be called personal porn--nude shots of friends and family that are often as frank as anything on a site designed to titillate--that Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, have reportedly blocked their citizens from viewing them. Webshots Community, a similar service, seems to police its images more scrupulously, and doesn't allow users to tag albums for (naughty) content the way Flickr does. Parents burdened by tuition bills might want to take a stroll through the "College" section of Webshots, however: the photos there yield a graphic picture of what goes on inside the modern dorm.

Good Samaritans on TV

Reality TV had already grown gentler and kinder by the time Amy Grant's "Three Wishes" came along, but Grant's show seems to have maddened the rush to put Good Samaritans on TV. Tonight at 10 A&E debuts "Random 1," which follows the adventures of a do-gooder duo--one madcap, the other earnest and practical

Rice's Redemption

Bestselling vampire author Anne Rice's latest book, "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt" is due to hit stores next week. It may have some of her diehard fans scratching their heads as they turn the pages. No gothic-style blood and gore or titillating sex scenes in this novel. Instead, citing a return to faith in God by embracing her roots in the Catholic Church, Rice writes about the early years of Jesus Christ, beginning the story when Jesus is only seven years old and does not yet have a full sense of his power or his calling.

I became so curious about Rice's comments about her new devotion to Christianity on her website that I scoured the internet last week to find an advance copy of this novel. It arrived in the mailbox this past weekend and I immediately began reading the first few chapters.

At first, I was more than a bit disconcerted by the way Rice portrays Jesus. The story begins with a surprisingly simplistic narrative with events being told from Jesus' point of view. The voice she has given Jesus is not one of omniscience, but one of a typical boy questioning his untypical childhood. Rice's interpretation of these years, which are missing from the New Testament accounts, include moments such as Jesus wondering why he can turn clay pigeons into live birds or bring another child back to life after killing him. I suppose I, along with many others, am more comfortable with prose that depicts Jesus as a suffering servant or wise teacher as opposed to Jesus, the kid with a thousand questions that all begin with "Why...?". But the further I read in the novel, the less I take issue with her "fill-in-the-gaps" approach to the life of Christ. It's similar to how I feel about the way Mel Gibson portrayed Satan as a creepy baby in "The Passion." While the actual events in her book may be up for much scrutiny and debate, her intention to present an intriguing and loving portrait of Jesus is indisputable.

For The Yarn Harlot in All of Us!

It's no secret that knitting is the new sexy. It's also the new spiritual activity of choice for young women from coast to coast. As anyone who has knitted knows, it's clearly a meditative activity. Teenagers, twenty-somethings, and "Sex and the City"-types in kitten heels, fashionable attire, and armed only with wildly colorful yarn and a pair of knitting needles in hand are poring over how-to guides like Bust Magazine editor-in-chief, Debbie Stoller's "Stitch 'n Bitch" and the spiritually-infused "The Knitting Way" by Linda T. Skolnik and Janice MacDaniels as if they are scripture. Women and girls are gathering round tables for ad hoc communal knitting circles in fashionable neighborhood yarn stores like Purl in New York's Soho. These communities are almost a new form of church.

For the already converted (and the ready to be), the Yarn Harlot blog should not remain undiscovered. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, whose popular online blog persona--the yarn harlot--has launched book sales in the many, many thousands with her manual of the same name, "Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter," is a must-read (both the manual and blog) for knitting fashionistas everywhere. Witty, informative, personal, with a nice dash of over the top, the Yarn Harlot talks of everything from knitting-related pricks of conscience, voices in her head, and visions about the variety of projects on which she is currently working, not to mention including navigation bar options entitled "Where's the Harlot?" and "Got Harlot?" Don't resist: you too can be a yarn harlot.

Sexy Sitcom Seminary Students

An evangelical seminarian, a rabbinic student, and an imam-in-training walk into an Upper West Side bar.

Sounds like the makings of an odd one-liner, but truth be told, a former Columbia student turned small-screen script-writer, David Light, is developing a sitcom for NBC called "Morningside Heights," a "piously irreverent comedy about good-looking would-be ministers, rabbis and imams who share a dorm and try not to sleep with one another," according to the NY Times. The city-setting for the show? Seminary Row: the Columbia University-infused section of Upper Manhattan, home to the famous (liberal Protestant) Union Theological Seminary and Jewish Theological Seminary, which sit across the street from one another.

It may not be your average Seinfeld-style sitcom, but it's not exactly too far afield either. Light credits his inspiration for "Morningside" not only to his days in NYC, but also to the hip, youthful Los Angeles congregation IKAR founded and led by his wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous, herself an alum of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Gill comments: "If 'Morningside Heights' makes it into the NBC lineup, it will most likely present a different face of the city." What face is that, I wonder? A Christian Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker's "Sex in the City" character) desperate to get into bed with that Jewish rabbi hottie, who all the while prays for strength to calm those pesky lustful thoughts? A storyline with a thread of truth and a healthy dose of humor that sheds light on questions and concerns related to today's faith diversity, which the younger, "higher educated" urban set faces daily in their lives? A dash of both?

I have to say, my curiosity is piqued and I hope that NBC runs with it. We need a sexier spirituality series to feed those of us who can't stomach the syrupy TV-faith-genre epitomized by "Touched By An Angel"--yet who regard spirituality and religion a regular part of our lives and conversation with friends.

If NBC indeed greenlights Morningside, it will be produced by Big Cattle Productions, which was founded by Eric McCormack, well-known to TV-views as Will of "Will & Grace"--ironically, one of the same shows Gill uses to describe what Morningside is not.

Toby Ziegler's Walk of Shame

Political types will be humming about the ripped-from-the-headlines plot of last night's episode of "The West Wing," in which top White House staffer Toby Ziegler confessed to having leaked classified information about the space program to The New York Times and was swiftly fired. But the presidential moment at the end of the episode, in addition to being darned good television, was a morally-teachable one.

Martin Sheen's President Bartlett insisted on firing Toby in person, against the advice of White House counsel. But instead of patting Toby on the back for his years of service, or wringing his hands over the fact that he can't accept Toby's resignation but must fire him, Bartlett delivered a curt and wounded observation that you could almost see sitting heavily on Toby's shoulders as he was escorted by security out of the building.

This leak, this violation of both trust and federal law, was somehow inevitable, Bartlett said. Toby has always been an aloof character, the kind of guy who was idealistic and uncompromising to the point of being at times uselessly high-and-mighty. But the president-and viewers-had put up with Toby's moral aggrandizement because there was always the sense that he was doing the right thing, serving as the prophetic voice in the wilderness. But it was only a matter of time, the president said, until Toby took that final step and went from advisor to actor, taking matters into his own hands. And with that one treasonous act, all the good will that had built up around Toby over the show's many seasons was drained dry.

So many things got in the way of Toby's clear thinking-raw emotional grief (there was mention of his deceased brother having been an astronaut), frustration at the dwindling time left to the Bartlett administration, and even a genuine ethical dilemma (disclosing the information forced the administration to use a secret space vehicle to rescue stranded astronauts).

Regardless, Bartlett said, Toby is no hero. Future episodes will flesh out that assessment, and perhaps providing some reconciliation. But viewers were left to wonder-is Bartlett himself, who hid his multiple sclerosis from the nation, a hero? Is presidential hopeful Matt Santos, who had Josh fire a devoted longtime employee for him, a hero? Are any politicians heroes? Are any of us?

'Grey's Anatomy' Finds Its Second Soul

Between soap-opera dramas--affairs, hook-ups, unwanted pregnancies--the addictive "Grey's Anatomy" offers the occasional spiritual plotline, and usually does it well (if a little, let's say, overdramatized). The show focuses on a group of medical interns struggling with work and life in Seattle Grace Hospital. When a young Asian woman showed up at the hospital in last night's episode--requisite stern-looking parents by her bedside--I thought, "Here goes another TV show using the 'Asian-American kid with strict parents driving her too hard' plotline." And that was the case here, but this story quickly veered away from the expected.

The woman was just hours away from being completely paralyzed unless she underwent spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Her father said no, he needed to take her home, and the patient insisted on honoring his wishes, despite the consequences. So far, so stereotypical. Then came the reason: They're Hmong--the same ethnic group whose cultural conflict with Western medicine is chronicled in Anne Fadiman's incredible and haunting "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down"--and prior to any surgery, the father said, a Hmong shaman must perform a healing ritual to find the patient's "second soul."

In addition to that plot twist, what set this storyline apart from the trite was that these were not poor, uneducated, non-English speaking immigrants who misunderstand Americans' ways (i.e., the kind that TV tends to show when it features Asian characters). They were wealthy (expensive suits and cigars for dad), literate (daughter was a college grad), and very Americanized--yet still held true to their traditional belief system, and saw it as equal in importance to what Western medicine offered. More incredibly, after initial opposition, the doctors got on board with the family's needs and reached a compromise: The daughter would stay in the hospital and have her surgery, but only after they fly in a shaman to do a bedside healing ritual. Second soul was found, spine was healed, viewers saw parts of a Hmong healing service.

Love The 80's! 'Bar Mitzvah Disco'

The now (relatively) famous and absolutely hysterical website www.barmitzvahdisco.com, compiled by friends Roger Bennett, Jules Shell, and Nick Kroll, is finally a book! Full color photos of teens getting down in the most garish of 80s attire (the kind of clothing that makes you wonder if your parents were indeed evil in your youth) complete with the naked-truth coming-of-age stories behind them will be available at a bookstore near you on November 2.

For Gen Xers (Jewish and Gentile alike) who remember the days when the Bar Mitzvah was not a bigger-than-a-wedding budgeted affair designed to outdo one's neighbor, complete with cascading floral arrangements, big bands, and formal attire, but were more like a middle school prom preceded by a nice-yet-awkward reading from the Torah, "Bar Mitzvah Disco" is a walk down memory lane to a simpler time--a time when families gathered together in retro suits and girls and boys hoped to catch what might be their first slow dance ever. (Just recently at an engagement party I had a long conversation with a big-time NYC event planner about today's "million dollar Bar Mitzvah." Say WHAT??!!)

Ah, the good old days!

Scientology Trouble in Kiwi Country

The proprietors of ScienTOMogy.info, a website devoted to chronicling the antics of Scientologist Tom Cruise, have unwittingly put themselves in a spot of trouble. According to a press release, The Church of Scientology contends that the name "ScienTOMogy" is a bit too similar to their own trademarked moniker, and the New Zealand-based site has "received dozens of faxes and emails in under a week from Scientology representatives including lawyer Ava Paquette of Moxon & Kobrin threatening lawsuits of up to US$100,000 if the domain name ownership is not transferred."

Many free speech and civil liberties organizations are crying foul, claiming the Church of Scientology is threatening the site with unfounded legal action in hopes the owners will comply simply to avoid a costly lawsuit. And, although a disclaimer on the homepage clearly states it "has ABSOLUTELY NO connection whatsoever with the Church of Scientology," plans are already under way to change the site's name from "ScienTOMogy" to the less litigation-prone "Passion of Cruise." All of the legal wrangling has been documented and made available on the site.

Bono Gets Abrahamic

U2's lead singer, Bono, has never been shy when it comes to his spiritual side. His beliefs come through loud and clear in his music, in magazine interviews (from Rolling Stone to Christianity Today), and in his activism. At U2's recent concert at Madison Square Garden, Bono asked the crowd to text-message their names to his One Campaign to Make Poverty History. Meanwhile, on the jumbotron above him, a woman recited the first articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The media often focuses on the Irish star's attitude towards Christianity (his father is Catholic, his mother Protestant). But in the Vertigo tour, Bono is extending his religious reach. At the Garden, Bono sported his "CoeXisT" headband during part of the concert. The bandanna spells the word with a crescent, a Star of David, and a cross. Pointing to the headband's images, Bono led the crowd in chanting "Jesus, Jew, Muhammad, it's true...all children of Abraham."

This Year's Baseball Curse

This weekend, the Chicago White Sox will begin pursuing their first World Series win since 1917--a bigger drought than my Red Sox, who, of course, won their first championship since 1918 last year. But the Curse of the Bambino, which had supposedly held Boston back all those years, was nothing compared to the White Sox bogeyman: the infamous Black Sox Scandal of 1919, in which eight team members took payoffs from gamblers to intentionally lose the Series (a drama immortalized in the book and movie "Eight Men Out").

But if the Red Sox curse was limited to Beantown--affecting the fortunes of only one team and the psyches of its psychotic fans--the shadow of Chicago's curse continues to loom large over all of baseball. Witness Pete Rose's lifetime ban from the game for gambling--a ban which includes the Hall of Fame, where, based solely on his accomplishments, no one can argue he doesn't belong. Meanwhile, first-time abusers of the league's steroids policy get a measly 10-game suspension. And that's under Major League Baseball's new tough-on-steroids policy. So Pete Rose has no hope of Hall of Fame induction, while Rafael Palmeiro--the highest-profile player to be busted thus far for steroids under the new policy--will be eligible five years after retiring, like every other player. Rose can thank the Black Sox for MLB's inability to forgive. Palmeiro can thank the usual culprit: greed. Homeruns drive up fan interest, steroids drive up homeruns.

So here's a Series prediction: Chicago in six. And though they swept the better of the Sox in the first round of this year's playoffs, I'll root for these White Sox to erase the curse of 1919. Then maybe Major League Baseball can celebrate by finding some forgiveness for Pete Rose while also getting real about steroids. In 86 years, will our kids and grandkids look back at steroids as the next great black spot on baseball, or will it be forgotten as the passing scandal of 2005? I suppose we'll only know if the Baltimore Orioles--Palmeiro's current team--are cursed not to win a Series until 2091.

Make That a Grande Double Latte With Soy Milk and a Shot of Faith

I'm an early-to-rise girl and the local Starbucks opens one hour before every other coffee shop in town--meaning I am there every morning. This morning I wondered: Would I get the GOD CUP? This was my hope as I headed up to the barrista (as Starbucks calls it's staff) to place my order. Then I remembered that I'd have to wait for Spring 2006 for this treat. That's when Starbucks' "The Way I See It" coffee-cup quotation series would start carrying the following from Rick Warren's "The Purpose-Driven Life":

"You are not an accident. Your parents may not have planned you, but God did. He wanted you alive and created you for a purpose. Focusing on yourself will never reveal your real purpose. You were made by God and for God, and until you understand that, life will never make sense. Only in God do we discover our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance and our destiny."

(I'll refrain from taking issue with the typical default to the masculine pronoun for now.)

Though I'll need to wait for the Purpose-Driven Coffee Cup to debut, I was not disappointed when I picked up my veinte Americano from the coffee bar on this particular morning. I happened to get what USA Today called the "faith in the human spirit" comment already printed on a multitude of cups. The quote's from sportscaster James Brown:

"I have faith. Faith in our wondrous capacity for hope and good, love and trust, healing and forgiveness. Faith in the blessing of our infinite ability to wonder, question, pray, feel, think and learn. I have faith. Faith in the infinite possibilities of the human spirit."

This led me to think that my receiving this particular cup on this particular morning was no accident! Rather, it was a sign of more godly caffeinated things to come.

Why Good Things Happen to Good Coma Victims

"ER," a show that has been growing more trite and predictable by the episode, attempted a moment of spiritual depth last night, though the single scene ended up being, well, trite and predictable. The scenario: At the end of last week's episode, a coma victim woke up after several years of slumber. The storyline picked up last night with the patient continuing to improve with the help of the dark and brooding Dr. Kovac.

Kovac brings her to the hospital roof for a taste of fresh air. To paraphrase their conversation:

Patient: Do you think it God who made me wake up?

Kovac: I don't know. I've seen devout patients pray intensely for recovery and then die, and I've seen nonbelievers experience miraculous recoveries. I am just glad we're here to wonder about.

This is a doctor who lost his wife and children to the ravages of the war in Croatia and who now grapples with issues of life and death everyday, and all he can come up with is "religious people don't live longer than irreligious people"? I am not expecting in-depth theology here, but after all these seasons, I'd hoped "ER"'s writers could do better than that. (And as an aside, it's interesting that the patient asks whether God took her out of her coma but not whether God caused her to be sent into that coma in the first place.)

PS: Coma patient ended up back in her coma by episode's end. It was unclear if she was a devout praying type or a nonbelieving take-your-chances type.

PPS: The episode also briefly showed several Tibetan monks praying over a sick member of their group. The illness came from some homemade tea that, as it turns out, was inadevertantly made from tobacco leaves. Those crazy Tibetan monks... why can't they just use Lipton like the rest of us?

Is This Any Way to Run a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy?

Can anyone explain how it is that Fox News, which champions conservative causes (including, often, the fight against "cultural degradation") by day, appears on the same network that by night runs four of the 10 shows named by the Parents Television Council as "worst for families" in a report issued yesterday?

If anyone has an explanation, call L. Brent Bozell, president of the PTC. 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," Bozell wrote on Townhall.com last year. "... Only among self-described social conservative groups is there passion on this issue, yet even here it's by no means unanimous." Rupert Murdoch, one assumes, is one of those recalcitrant conservatives.

Losing Faith in "Alias"

Is it just me or are there other Alias aficionados who feel, ironically, as Jennifer Garner's star shines ever brighter in Hollywood, that the show that introduced her gorgeous girl-action-heroine persona Sydney Bristow is leaping far beyond the faith-capacities of its followers?

Gone is Michael Vaughn! Gone is every ounce of romance that kept fans obsessed with the story line! Gone is Sydney's ever-more-complex double agent mother! Gone (at least for now) is the intriguing reality-bending, faith-inspired Rambaldi storyline.

And, did I already mention that Vaughn is dead? Vaughn is dead!

Oh yeah, and Sydney is pregnant with his baby. This, I admit, is a new and intriguing vision for the typical TV-mom role: it is not the norm to see extremely pregnant action heroines crossing the small screen running, climbing staircases with all-speed, gun in hand, after the upper floor of a building has exploded, or, while she is (literally) kicking butt, making snide remarks such as "It's a funny thing about pregnancy. Hormones. Whew!" Working Garner's real-life pregnancy into Sydney's character and storyline seems the one value-added dimension to Season V so far.

Regardless of this interesting twist, and though the show retains the ever-stoic Jack Bristow and the amazingly layered villain/victim Arvin Sloane, and also though the show gives more and more air time to Marshall (who I can't help but love), I wonder if Alias writers and producers are asking fans for too great a leap so early in the new season. The verdict on my end: I'm committing to three more Thursdays and then will reassess whether it's worth keeping the faith.

Read the Bible? I'll Need a Minute

Reading the Bible has never been considered a speedy endeavor, but for those looking for a quick way to complete the daunting task, Broadman & Holman Publishers and editor William Proctor may have just the thing for you. Proctor is the driving force behind the recently released "Light Speed Bible," a hasty alternative to the traditional voluminous text of the old and new testaments. Through a combination of repetitive word placement and underlined passages, this new version was designed to be read at various speeds, making it theoretically possible to absorb the entire Bible in as little as 24 hours. According to the editor, "The Light Speed Bible" is only intended as a study aid and was never meant to replace the Good Book.

Holding to the topic of swiftly-read sacred text, the 100-Minute Press recently released the all-new "100-Minute Bible." That's right, God's Word has been boiled down to a mind-boggling 100 minutes worth of content consisting of "the principle stories of the life and ministry of its central character, Jesus Christ." The publisher's website claims "the 100-Minute Bible is primarily intended for people who have an interest in Christianity but not the time (nor tenacity!) to read the whole Bible." This increased focus on shortened Scripture can only mean one thing: Christians are busy people, too.

Feeding the Forty on "Lost"

Fellowship, togetherness, spiritual connection is most often found over sharing a meal. Christians make it a regular practice to worship while sharing bread and wine. In the last weeks, Jews have experienced an abundance of communal feasting--Rosh Hashanah, breaking the day-long fast following Yom Kippur, and this week's Sukkot, which traditionally involves building a sukkah-a small hut where families and friends gather to eat and drink.

On the ever-more-popular TV-drama "Lost", "breaking the fast" came a day early for the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 last week. The evening of Yom Kippur (the very time Jews are fasting), the island-stranded cast got a one-night reprieve from their long standing fast of fruit, airplane cart remnants, and wild game. Thanks to the light-hearted Hugo "Hurley" Reyes (also behind the island's golf course), the hefty stash of peanut butter, potato chips, and other goodies buried inside the hatch was distributed liberally and joyfully, injected a much needed respite from the typical doom, gloom, and heavy drama typical of the show.

Will the islanders soon regret last week's feast? That they didn't save for a rainy day? Regardless, while writers christened Locke as "Lost"'s "Man of Faith" and Jack as "Man of Science," after "the feeding of the forty," I've come to see Hurley in the much-needed role of "Holy Fool."

Bono Wins Me Over

It's not everyday that the president's meals make news, but that was the case yesterday when President Bush lunched with Bono to discuss world poverty. This is nothing new. Bono has met with world leaders before and his passion for helping the poor is well documented. Yet in spite of this, the Associated Press thought Bono's visit newsworthy enough to run the lunch meeting as a featured wire story for the day and "Rolling Stone" did an interview with Bono just prior to the meeting with Bush for an article on newsstands later this week. Bono reportedly told "Rolling Stone" that he has no fear of meeting with leaders such as Bush because, "They should be afraid, because they will be held accountable for what happened on their watch." He also said, "I'm representing the poorest and the most vulnerable people. On a spiritual level, I have that with me. I'm throwing a punch, and the fist belongs to people who can't be in the room, whose rage, whose anger, whose hurt I represent."

At the risk of sounding tragically unhip, I have never understood all of the fuss through the decades over Bono. Never. I like U2's music, but I have never been one of those people who have felt the need to constantly dissect ad nausaum Bono's comments about God, faith, and the meaning of life. Until now.

Call me a slow learner, a real latecomer to the fan club, but as the press dissected the Bush-Bono lunch, it finally hit me. In a culture where natural disasters are in abundance lately and attention spans (not to mention media coverage) are extremely short in duration, Bono steadfastly, resolutely, continues to keep the spotlight on poverty in Third World countries, week after week, year after year with fearless conviction. Bono is not a one-shot telethon or a 30-second public service announcement and clearly neither is his faith. And his meeting with the president reminded me to not forget that we are all accountable to God for how we help others during our watch here on earth.

Curb Your Eugenicism

This week's New York magazine examines a recent study explaining why Jews are so much smarter than the rest of us. The study, released last suummer by University of Utah evolutionary anthropologist Henry Harpending and independent scholar Gregory Cochran, argues that Ashkenazic Jews had to develop superior intellectual skills because they were banned from traditional, physically-demanding trades in the Middle Ages and had to become brainiac moneylenders.

The magazine's cover shows comedian Larry David (HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm") with the legend, "The Jewish Brain" imprinted on his forehead. That's the first clue that New York has its doubts about the study's validity. Inside, the shticky but well-reported story blisters the study and its authors, to the point that you begin to wonder why they devoted so much space to such a flimsy claim. The piece makes a larger point, however, about how new, snappy science--in this case population genetics--can cloak old, dumb stereotypes. The most haunting detail mentioned in the article is that the study is to be published in an upcoming issue of The Journal of Biosocial Science, formerly The Eugenics Review.

Charlie Brown's Idolatry Teaching Moment

It's no secret that Charles Schultz, creator of the "Peanuts" comic strip, injected Christian themes into his strips. See Robert L. Short's "The Gospel According to Peanuts" for a complete exegesis of Snoopy and the Gang. Schultz's most overtly religious moment is "A Charlie Brown Christmas," the 1965 prime-time cartoon special that features Linus reciting straight from the second chapter of Luke. (Forty years ago, CBS was worried that the show would be criticized for being too preachy, and they were right.)

More spiritually unsettling, however, is "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," which ABC will air this year on Tuesday, Oct. 25. While the rest of the kids go trick or treating, Linus convinces Charlie Brown's sister Sally to stand vigil with him to greet the Great Pumpkin. When the GP doesn't show, Sally turns on the crestfallen Linus, who nonetheless vows to wait for next year.

In his book, Short pitched this tale as a teaching on the costs of idolatry, and certainly, Linus proves himself susceptible to false idols, both here and in 1974's "It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown."

But there's another interpretation that jibes better with what we know about Schultz's (and the Bible-spouting Linus's) experience of life and faith. Linus's passion in the pumpkin patch demonstrates how lonely faith can be when the object of our worship seems to have abandoned us. "All the loves in the strip are unrequited," Schulz once said of "Peanuts." "All the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D-minuses; the Great Pumpkin never comes; and the football is always pulled away."

("It's the Great Pumpkin" also gives a look at quaint American social mores at mid-century: At one point, Linus explains that the three topics one should never discuss in company are religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin.)

Cinema Countdowns for the Faithful this Fall

  • Pride and Prejudice
    Jane Austen's much-beloved character Mr. Darcy will never get old, but will Focus Feature's film version starring the British beauty Keira Knightly top the BBC's starring Colin Firth? In theaters November 18th.
  • For Austen-inspired dating advice with a spiritual twist, check out Sarah Arthur's "Dating Mr. Darcy."

  • Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire
    For J.K. Rowling readers and devotees, the fourth film installment of Harry & Company's adventures reaches theaters November 18. Perhaps movie-goers will face a moral dilemma this weekend: to whom is there greater commitment-Darcy or Harry? Both are good Brits but of a rather different sort. (Coming soon in the blog for Harry fans: Discussion of "The Horcrux" and the shattering of the soul.)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
    The long-awaited release from Disney of C.S. Lewis's first episode of The Chronicles hits theaters December 9th. Religion writers have been busy getting ready to capitalize on the movie tie-in, and this fall sees a slue of Lewis-flavored religion & pop culture books. Among the best is David C. Downing's Into the Wardrobe. Check it out.
  • It's Not a Secret Anymore...

    I just read a fascinating headline over on the Drudge Report. It was a quote: "All will go to hell if they don't turn from their wicked behavior." Who do you think said it? Hmm. a fundamentalist extremist, Christian or Muslim or otherwise, perhaps? No, the quote is attributed to everyone's favorite Kabbalah-loving Material Girl, Madonna. It's one of several controversial comments the pop star makes in her new behind-the-scenes documentary, "I'm going to tell you a secret," which premieres in New York tonight.

    "Entertainment Tonight" covered the film last night by showing a clip from the documentary in which a crew member reveals he doesn't believe in God. Madonna responds by saying, "That makes me very sad." Other controversial comments she reportedly makes in the film include "Most priests are gay" and ""I refer to an entity called 'The Beast'. I feel I am describing the world that we live in right now. To me 'The Beast' is the modern world that we live in."

    Are these strategically planted sound-bytes just another marketing strategy to promote Madonna's new CD, which drops November 15? To me, these quotes don't seem that different than her publicity stunt with her "Truth or Dare" video more than a decade ago. I am still not convinced that Madonna's belief in Kabbalah is more than mere magazine cover photo ops. But of course I'll be tuning in to the documentary, airing on MTV this weekend, to find out if I am wrong.

    Lindsay Lohan Discovers Rosary Chic

    While we're on the topic of Catholic celebrities, teen actress and singer Lindsay Lohan is being raked because she (and her sister, and an actress standing in for her mom) brandish rosaries in a video for her new "Confessions of Broken Heart." "Lohan has discovered rosary chic, a mere year after the trend crested," writes one of her detractors on LA.com. It's true that rosaries were the necessary accessory on Hollywood red carpets this time last year. (At the same time, Lutherans and Episcopalians were adopting non-Marian versions of the prayer beads amid a general trend toward piety and personal ritual.) But Lohan hardly seems to use the rosaries in vain. The video is a mini-dramatization of her family's implosion over the past few years, the first sign of which was her father's alleged assault on her uncle at her brother's First Communion party. If the momentary vogue for rosaries disqualifies them for good and all as a symbol of faith (and particularly faith in crisis), the Fashion Terrorists have truly won.

    Let the Chattering Begin

    The idea for this blog was born sometime around Krusty the Clown's adult bar mitzvah last year. Or maybe it was when William Shatner's character on "Boston Legal" proclaimed, "Massachusetts is a Blue State. God has no place here!". At that time, though, the blog was a passing idea, in and out of my head during commercials. But fast forward a year or so, and suddenly I am editing Beliefnet's entertainment coverage and looking for a way to point out, dissect, opine on, and mock (or cheer) the many examples of religion and spirituality finding their way into our supposedly soulless movies, TV shows, celebrity mags, music, and books.

    Luckily for us--and you, of course--the trend has not slowed down. Quite the opposite. "Idol Chatter" is launching not a moment too soon: Tom and Katie are expecting a little Scientologist, Ashton and Demi tied the knot in a Kabbalah wedding (a what?), and a new TV season brought a spate of shows about the supernatural, a Republican presidential candidate running into trouble with Christian conservatives on "The West Wing," and Larry David scalping High Holiday synagogue tickets. Hollywood (and every other culture-maker), it seems, has found God--or at least, that God and mammon can coexist quite successfully.

    So enough introduction. Let the Idol Chattering begin.

    My Big Fat Scientological Wedding

    Imagine the relief in the Holmes household when a source announced in the British tabs this weekend that son-in-law-to-be Tom Cruise is "old fashioned." Said the Sun's source: "He wants his child to be born in wedlock. He's very romantic and wants everything to be in place before the birth." Martin Holmes, Katie's dad and a fervent Catholic, scolded both Tom and Katie after undeniable evidence of premarital sex between his daughter and the divorced star appeared in the past few weeks, in the form of Katie's rapidly expanding midsection. No doubt his tirade was behind the decision to move up their planned December wedding at the Ritz in Cancun to next month instead.

    Still, Christmas at the Holmes's might be a bit chilly. Plenty of Catholic parents still shiver at the thought of, oh, say, Presbyterian in-laws, never mind at having a Scientologist in the family. A Scientology wedding, it turns out, isn't so different from any other (and in theory, a Scientologist minister would have no qualms about concelebrating the ceremony with a Catholic priest). But for expectant Katie, that rite of passage will be a cakewalk next to delivering the newest Cruise: not only is a painkilling epidural not in Scientology's parturial playbook, but the mom is supposed to stifle her cries, lest she scar the kid's psyche.

    Remember when those 'Free Katie' t-shirts were funny?

    Just Out From CNN: Christians Can Be Music Stars

    While frantically looking for something to wear to church yesterday morning I was also trying to catch the latest headlines on Pakistan and Iraq on CNN. My ears perked up when the reporter announced that this week's interview in a segment called "Faces in Faith" was going to be with up-and-coming contemporary Christian recording artist Bethany Dillon. The 17-year-old Amy Grant lookalike has several projects out, including singing the title track for the new film "Dreamer" as well as one of the numerous soon-to-be released "Narnia" soundtracks.

    Turning up the volume and hoping for some uplifting little sound-byte before I dashed out the door, my hackles were immediately raised as I listened to the reporter introduce Bethany. The introduction went like this:

    Reporter: "In a day and age when many teenagers are indulging themselves by going to rock concerts, dating, and instant messaging, teenager Bethany Dillon has chosen a different path by navigating her way into adulthood by singing her songs of hope."

    Huh? Sweet, humble 17-year-old Christian girls can't instant message or go to concerts or even have a date if they want to sing about God? Has this guy's only exposure to Christian teens been limited to what he has seen in movies like "A Walk To Remember"?

    Then the backhanded compliments continued.

    Reporter: "I have to tell you, I Napstered you last night (chuckles). I 'm not sure that's a word, Napstered, and I expected you'd be good but I am not sure I expected you to be that good."

    I groaned. Was this yet another example of a media personality implying that an artist can't be any good if he or she also openly professes some kind of faith? No, I thought, I am probably overreacting to all of this. And that's when the reporter asked the most deeply insightful question of all.

    Reporter: "Let me ask you one of these anchory-reporter type questions. You're labeled as this Christian singer. Is that who you are or are you a Christian who sings?"

    Was he serious? Even Bethany seemed a little perplexed by the sheer cultural irrelevance of this question in the year 2005. That same question was slightly cheesy but still acceptable back in the '80s when Amy Grant was the only name brand Christian singer on the charts and an appearance by her on "The Tonight Show" was applauded as a major step forward for evangelical Christians everywhere. But to ask that question today--when award winning rock groups like Switchfoot, Reliant K, Pilar, and oh, yeah, U2, are regularly integrating themes of redemption and hope with commercial mainstream success--reinforces my belief that the only people throwing around useless labels as spiritual clichés are out-of-touch representatives of the broadcast media.

    The interview went on for about two more minutes with similar questions of no spiritual significance whatsoever, and I left for morning worship with a touch of sadness that the tolerant and diversity-focused media elite still can't do their homework before sitting down with a pop star... who just happens to be a Christian.

    Just Out from 'West Wing': Faith & Church-State Separation Compatible

    "Mr. Frost," last night's episode of the "West Wing," put the Intelligent Design debate front and center in the show's presidential campaign. When Democratic candidate Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) is asked at a press briefing if supports Intelligent Design, he responds, against his aides' advice: "I believe in God. And I'd like to think He's intelligent."

    This sets in motion a barrage of questions from not only the press but also from school teachers hoping to get Intelligent Design into the science curriculum alongside evolution. As Josh hyperventilates in the background, Santos manages to do what no real live Democratic presidential candidate has of late: speak intelligently about religion, be a person of faith, and hold the line that it's possible to both (A) believe in God and (B) advocate for a separation of church and state.

    Why is it that I'd always rather vote for "West Wing" candidates than the ones appearing on the actual ticket? (The show has never shied away from God talk. (Check out "Two Cathedrals" for one great example).

    Kudos go for "Mr. Frost" for admonishing Intelligent Design backers for trying to sneak creationism into the science curriculum-where it simply doesn't belong and where it leads to misplaced debate about religion in public schools, not to mention bitingly offensive (yet admittedly humorous) comebacks from people who disrespect religion altogether.

    "Mr. Frost," the downside: As things fall apart in the Middle East and the administration goes into crisis mode, Santos's God talk is indeed astute, yet he resists the opportunity to push his Intelligent Design/Church-State commentary to the real kicker issue: that the debate about religion in public schools is mis-labeled. The problem is not about teaching religion but teaching theology. It's a MAJOR CONCERN when our kids go through public education and, in most cases, learn nothing about religions, rendering students unable to fully comprehend why there is a conflict in the Middle East in the first place.

    There is a difference between evangelizing and theology. (I've written about this with an education-policy friend and analyst Andrew J. Rotherham.)

    (And as a total aside, WHERE'S DONNA? Please bring her back! And please re-spark some tension between her and Josh, other than Episode Two's "And if you don't think I miss you every day" line delivered by Josh to Donna. How many seasons do we have to wait?)

    A Visit to "Elizabethtown"

    Cameron Crowe's latest film "Elizabethtown" tries oh-so-hard to be an untypical kind of love story. Forget the commercials that would lead you to believe this movie is a warm and fuzzy romantic comedy in which too cute Kirsten Dunst and dreamy Orlando Bloom meet each other and live happily ever after. Sure, that is part of the movie, but it is actually a very small part of it. "Elizabethtown" is much more about one man's recognition of his own spiritual poverty and how this leads him to fall in love all over again with someone who is no longer alive--his father.

    No other movie in recent memory has celebrated the grieving process as a love story ("About Schmidt" or possibly "Moonlight Mile" are the only other movies that quickly come to mind) in the way "Elizabethtown" does. Which is why I let out a deep sigh of disappointment as I left the movie theater this past weekend. "Elizabethtown" has some profound and delightful moments hidden in what is basically an aimless, self-indulgent mess of a movie.

    The brilliant author Thomas Lynch said in his profound book "The Undertaking" that " ..mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions - only those who do it well and those who don't." Well, in "Elizabethtown," ambitious, narcissistic shoe designer Drew Baylor (Bloom) is confronted with his inability to neither love or grieve well when he returns to his father's hometown of Elizabethtown, Kentucky to bury his father. Already suicidally depressed because he has lost his job after he failed to achieve success with a new product launch, his father's death couldn't have come at a worse time. Drew has let family ties slip away over the years and the trip to Elizabethtown reconnects Drew with his father's family who loved him dearly and reminds Drew of all of the things he too loved about his father when he was growing up. As he establishes new bonds with his relatives, Drew realizes the futility of his material pursuits and concludes there are far worse things in life than "worshipping success," as he puts it, and then failing. Things like not being loved or taking time to truly love someone else.

    Unfortunately all of these sweet revelations are never developed fully because Crowe insists on bogging Drew's personal journey of discovery down with endless other unimportant plot points. First there is the unlikely romance with perky flight attendant Claire (Dunst), who in real life would be considered more of a scary stalker than a viable girlfriend. Then there is the hotel where Drew is staying, which is hosting a huge wedding party where the oddball groom decides to befriend Drew. And to top it off there is the heavy handed classic rock soundtrack that drowns out everything going on up on the screen most of the time.

    Yet I keep coming back to the long, long scene at the memorial service. In it, a giant banner hangs over a stage and says "If it wasn't this, it'd be something else." The widow walks up on that stage and delivers a caustic yet hilarious stand-up comedy routine about the unexpected problems she's encountered being suddenly single. A wannabe rock band plays a mediocre version of the classic rock anthem "Free Bird." Raw, real, tender and true, the human interaction in this scene almost made it worth wading through the other 90 minutes of seemingly pointless meandering. I genuinely reveled in those 15 or so minutes that celebrated the importance of bearing witness to each others' lives.

    Thomas Lynch did say it better, and in less time, when he said, "...if death is regarded as an embarrassment or an inconvenience, if the dead are regarded as a nuisance from whom we seek a hurried riddance, then life and living are in for like treatment." So while some of the film is indeed a nuisance you might be better off without, you might still find a visit to "Elizabethtown" worthwhile after all.

    Pretty-Ugly: Beauty With a Soul

    In yesterday's New York Times Sunday Style magazine, writer Daphne Merkin explores in her article "The Unfairest of Them All," the French phrase "jolie laide." No, this has nothing to do with getting laid in a jolly way. Rather, it translates as "pretty-ugly"-hyphen absolutely essential. In other words, it doesn't mean "somewhat ugly." Jolie laide is far more complex a term, linking pretty and ugly together in an inextricable way. Ugly and pretty. Together.

    The term challenges us to see beauty in ways other than the traditional and conventional--a challenge, Merkin claims, that might be particularly difficult for Americans to rise to, "implacably wedded as we are to commercially viable and easily recognizable images of beauty-think Texas, symmetrical features, blue eyes, small noses, pretty-pretty-it's my guess that jolie laide, with its emphasis on the idiosyncratic and the unplaceable, will remain a hard sell on these shores."

    The term (apparently) applies only to women. Sofia Coppola and Anjelica Huston are good examples, and Sarah Jessica-Parker is a maybe (who interestingly, just a few pages before the article, has a full page advertisement for her perfume called Lovely whose advertising slogan is "Lovely on the Inside," and though it pictures Sarah in a dress that is unquestionably lovely, she is posed rather awkwardly, elbows jagged, head cocked to the side, hair a bit askew).

    "Jolie laide aims to jog us out of our reflexive habits of looking and assessing by embracing the aesthetic pleasures of the visually off kilter: a bump on the nose, eyes that are set too closely together, a jagged smear of a mouth. It points away from the kittenish, pliant prettiness of Brigitte Bardot toward the tense, smolderingly imperfect allure of Anouk Aimée or Jeanne Moreau," explains Merkin.

    Yes, yes, yes, I get that well enough and think I (especially as a woman) can appreciate the spirit of the phrase-it's the kind of appearance that captivates when there is a something-more going on with a person, a radiance, a charisma, a kind of gravity-like force that pulls us toward someone, whether friend or acquaintance. But it's the more-than-this Merkin points to that interests me most about the potential life of jolie laide in American cultural life, since jolie laide "is a triumph of personality over physiognomy, the imposition of substance over surface," and it "recognizes that behind the visceral image lies an internal life."

    Behind the visceral image lies an internal life.

    Is jolie laide perhaps a term for beauty with a soul? The aesthetic-spiritual? Can we stretch it beyond the Sofia Coppolas of culture to apply to the startling beauty that can emanate even within the chaos of disaster and poverty? Does it extend to the widely recognized yet strange, often courageous beauty that emerges in the suffering? That some see on the cross? Can it apply to milder images too, of loved ones we see asleep, or just after waking in the early hours of morning, dressed in a too-big oxford shirt, eyes still sleepy, coffee cup dangling from one hand?

    Don't let the tacking on of "ugly" to "pretty" in jolie laide let you mistake this phrase as a back-handed compliment-it's meant to flatter through and through. Its apparent popularity in Europe of late gives me hope that it will indeed migrate across the pond and broaden our culture's merciless standards of beauty for women and girls, challenging us to look beyond the easy, the conventional, to a beauty that's beyond skin deep. To something more akin to soulfully gorgeous.

    I plan to use jolie laide liberally among friends and acquaintances. It's possibly an as-yet unrecognized spiritual epidemic in American culture.

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