The real Big controversy

I just finished watching this season’s second to last episode of HBO’s Big Love soap opera, and I believe there may be another hidden reason that the show makes Mormons uneasy. Much of the media’s attention has been on the fact that this episode portrayed a scene in a Mormon temple, however, the show did have one line that caught me: the main character expressly claimed that the Mormon church was just as corrupt as the show’s main antagonists who are practicing polygamy and generally in trouble with the law.

This theme has underlined the entire season of the show. Without giving away the details of the show, it is fair to say that the Mormon Church is not portrayed favorably. The Church noted as much in their non-statement regarding the temple portrayal. And true to form, the show continues to portray the main characters as sincere individuals who truly belief their faith and way of life (polygamy) will lead them to eternal salvation.

As many of the comments noted, the Mormon Church has officially said they were disappointed by the show’s attempt to portray a temple scene, along with this season’s general theme involving the Mormon church, but have not officially opposed or boycotted the show.

It would be interesting to see less focus on the temple scene and more focus on the veracity of the show’s attempt to portray the Mormon Church as somehow corrupt and sinister. There has hardly been any noise on this issue as compared to the controversy surrounding films such as The Da Vinci Code and The Last Temptation of Christ. That seems to be the deliberate strategy of the Mormon Church, but that doesn’t mean journalists can’t look into it.

True to form, much of the media’s discussion involves the portrayal of plural marriages. Here is The Chicago Tribune‘s The Seeker blog:

Wilde can relate to much of the show, which often illustrates how plural wives usually get along.

“One thing I have especially liked about the show so far is the family solidarity; even though the three wives have disagreements, they usually support each other in the long run,” she said. “I also like the fact that the Hendrickson family lives in a relatively upscale community, is not in an isolated area, is able to support themselves … dispelling the stereotypes that all polygamous wives are controlled and uneducated, dress in different styles, depend on government assistance.” . . .

But Wilde hopes more people do watch the show and realize that all Americans (including polygamists) should be granted equal civil rights. She said plural marriage between consenting adults should be a constitutional guarantee.

“By learning more about this lifestyle, they hopefully can see that a polygamous family is very similar to a monogamous family in many ways,” Wilde said. “Except there are usually more members of the family, thus more people to love and more people to love you.”

The show certainly has a significant element that is about polygamy, but there are questions that journalists aren’t asking about the portrayal of polygamy.

For instance, earlier this season the show briefly considered why the polygamous family only has multiple wives, and not multiple husbands in a relationship. The beliefs of the show’s protagonists only allow for a solo man to marry a plural number of women, not the other way around.

Under the current constitutional scheme for determining due process rights such as marriage, if the Supreme Court were to declare state bans on polygamy as unconstitutional, it would be almost certain that the restriction would apply equally to both genders. In other words, any number of people, regardless of their gender, could marry any number of other people. Not that there are cases at this point that would come close to advocating for this, but an interesting question for plural marriage advocates would be whether they are comfortable with that sort of interpretation of constitutional guarantees.

Irony in the Big apology

There is some real irony in this week’s apology from HBO regarding their anticipated controversial portrayal of a Mormon temple’s “sacred endowment ceremony” in the amazingly entertaining and insightful Sunday night soap opera Big Love. The show, which features a Utah polygamous family dealing with the challenges if interacting with both the secular world and with their fundamentalist roots, is genuinely known for portraying conservative religious beliefs quite sympathetically. Some would even say that it is (arguably) “one of the most sympathetic portraits” of such beliefs.

I watched the occasional episode during the first two seasons, but for one reason or another became hooked starting with this season. As the season winds down, the plot is hurtling towards a collision between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the polygamous family’s fundamentalist faith that maintains that multiple wives continue to be a mandatory element of achieving one’s exaltation and is consistent with the original teachings of Joseph Smith. The Mormons portrayed on the show object.

The fact that the collision occurred over the portrayal of a Mormon temple ceremony, which is considered sacred, and secret, shouldn’t be too surprising, but I’m amazed it didn’t happen sooner because the show is not afraid of wrestling with some very difficult hot-button social issues like teen pregnancy and family relationships. (Thanks to the Arts Admin. blog for first bringing this to my attention.) Here is the Associated Press:

SALT LAKE CITY — HBO on Tuesday defended its plans to depict a sacred Mormon temple ceremony in an upcoming episode of “Big Love.”

The drama about a Utah polygamous family will show an endowment ceremony in the episode airing Sunday.

HBO said it did not intend to be disrespectful of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and apologized.

“Obviously, it was not our intention to do anything disrespectful to the church, but to those who may be offended, we offer our sincere apology,” the cable television channel said in a statement issued Tuesday.

But the ceremony is an important part of the “Big Love” story line, HBO said.

The AP’s coverage seems spot on to me, noting that HBO and the Church negotiated an agreement whereby HBO would disclaim in the show’s credits the fact that the beliefs portrayed on the show were distinguishable from the Church’s modern position on polygamy. The current dispute appears to be not merely over the ceremony scene, but also includes other instances that seem to blur “the distinction between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the show’s fictional non-Mormon characters and their practices.” From my perspective, the distinction is made quite clear, at least once one gets the general gist of the show.

The fact that overall the show tends to be very respectful towards a group of people who maintain a rather obscure and minority faith isn’t reflected in the AP story, but that’s a detail that’s probably best left for the commentators and columnists. The article points out that the show employs advisers to vet the show for accuracy, and to my knowledge the show portrays the faiths fairly accurately.

The rest of the entertainment industry should take a serious look at how Big Love pulls it off. The show doesn’t play on stereotypes and portrays the individuals’ faith as genuine and meaningful even if most Americans do not relate to that particular faith and its practices.

Faith ghosts in the global recession

469px-la_fe_ls_carmona_mrabasf_e-108_01The world’s economic troubles have many journalists writing articles about how the global society is changing as a consequence of the recession. For example, the Atlantic had this cover story on how communities like New York City will benefit from the financial crash (not exactly original or surprising considering the author). The Economist writes about how we may see a return “of economic nationalism.”

On the other hand, as Tmatt noted here, some are predicting the collapse of the Christian evangelical community.

The two hypothetical narratives for the future are not connected in any of the articles, but they should be. Regardless of the merits of the predictions that communities like NYC will benefit and evangelicalism will diminish, the two issues are connected in ways that reporters should explore.

For one reason or another, Anthony Faiola did not touch for a minute on religion in this Washington Post report on the drying up of the global economy. The article does a great job exploring the affect the economy has had on individuals all over the world, but not once is religion mentioned:

Globalization took years to reach Mae Sot, a remote town surrounded by jade-colored hills and tropic streams on Thailand’s border with secretive Burma. It did not stay long. …

When the global economy went code red, Thailand’s exports collapsed. In December, the factory where Lamin worked began losing contracts. In mid-February, her employer joined dozens of others shutting down in the region and adding to a swelling refugee crisis. All 800 Burmese workers at Lamin’s job site were fired.

Tucking away her $350 life savings, she tried to join many of her jobless co-workers crossing back into Burma. On the way, she was shaken down by Thai police who are conducting crackdowns in the area as public opinion shifts against foreign workers in hard times. Now penniless, she is living in a halfway house in a dusty corner of town, sleeping on a concrete floor and hoping to persuade her old employer to fund her return home.

“I don’t want to go back to Burma. It is a horror, there is only poverty, no jobs,” she said, eyes downcast as she spoke through a translator. “They only wanted us in Thailand when they needed us. Now, they just want us gone.”

I don’t recommend this story if you’re not prepared to be seriously depressed. The picture is not pretty, and the consequences of the global economic meltdown appears to be getting uglier by the day.

But how does religion affect the economic crisis, and how will the economic crisis affect religion? Will Christianity continue to grow in the countries that used to be considered developing? Will Western countries continue to send missionaries? How will Islamic countries respond to the drying up of their oil revenues?

News stories deal with these subjects are difficult to report on because it does require some level of informed speculation and prediction. But as we have seen with both stories dealing with the economic crisis and with the future of Christianity, it is not impossible to report on predictions for the future. In addition, things are happening today with massive amounts of migration as demonstrated in the Post story that has to involve religion:

Thousands of foreign workers, including London School of Economics graduates with six-digit salaries and desperately poor Bangladeshi factory workers, are streaming home as the economy here suffers the worst of the recessions in Southeast Asia. Singapore is an epicenter of what analysts call a new flow of reverse migration away from hard-hit, globalized economies, including Dubai and Britain, that were once beacons for foreign labor. Economists from Credit Suisse predict an exodus of 200,000 foreigners — or one in every 15 workers here — by the end of 2010. …

As exports crash worldwide, factories from China to Eastern Europe are shuttering. The World Bank estimates the crisis will trap at least 53 million more people in poverty in the developing world this year. Last week alone, $1 billion fled emerging markets — the largest weekly loss since October, according to Merrill Lynch. Some of the hardest hit are migrants and foreign contract workers. Malaysia is expelling 100,000 Indonesians as part of a new policy to put Malaysian workers first as the recession sparks job losses. In Britain, strikes broke out nationwide to protest the hiring of foreigners at one the country’s largest refineries even as thousands of Eastern European immigrants headed home anyway because they could not find work.

Migrations and immigrations have always impacted religion both in the destination country as well as the home country. People tend to rely and return to their faiths during times of hardship. Will churches in countries with large populations of returning migrants see a boost in church, mosque and synagogue attendance? Which religious institutions will see the most increase and if so, will they end up stronger as a result?

The faith ghosts in this story should not be ignored. Please let us know if anyone has seen the subject addressed. I would not be surprised to see publications like The Economist or The Atlantic deal with it, but to date, I have yet to see anything.

Image of Allegory of faith, by L.S. Carmona (1752-53), used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

Trying to avoid religion in Lahore

coocosviewjpegWhy did Lahore, Pakistan, think it was different? And different from what? Much has been made about how Lahore was perceived as different since the brutal, daylight attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team.

The city’s history and culture are unique. The people are relatively diverse and there is a large concentration of Christian groups, particularly in the rural areas. Context is necessary to understand what makes this city different from its neighbors.

This Los Angeles Times piece does a good job explaining the shock the tragedy delivered to the culture, but does nothing to explain any of the religious elements of the culture that make the place unique:

Residents consider Lahore the arts capital of Pakistan and feel proud of its free, open atmosphere, its tolerance, sense of fun and vibrant street life. It’s the home of Pakistan’s Lollywood, the nation’s film capital.

But Tuesday’s brazen attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team has shaken the residents of this city of 10 million people.

The gun and grenade assault left seven people dead, not eight as initially reported, officials said. Six of the dead were policemen.

Because the identity of the attackers is unknown at this point, it is difficult to even speculate on the attackers’ motivations. Here the BBC works hard to avoid the religion angle, but near the end, something compelled them to mention it:

Another potential suspect are the Pakistani Taleban, or Islamist militants who are conducting a bloody insurgency in the north-west of the country.

They have been blamed, or claimed responsibility, for a number of equally spectacular attacks in Pakistan in the past.

One of the groups was even accused by the government of having carried out the December 2007 assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

But they largely depend on suicide attacks or remote-controlled improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and their targets have been either state officials or members of rival sects.

Al-Qaeda, which many believe to be an umbrella organisation of most militant groups active in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir, appears to have had a role in planning previous attacks against high-profile targets in Pakistan, such as foreign dignitaries.

A key reason western authorities have struggled battling groups such as Islamic militant groups is that their organizational structures and motivations are so little understood. Unfortunately, I don’t expect the media to explain the tragic consequences that result when a free, open society clashes with the brutally nihilistic attitude of Islamic fundamentalists. Reporting on the fundamental incompatibility between those worldviews needs to be reported in order for people to understand the nature of those who attack cricket teams

Image of the Minaret of Badshshi Mosque, viewed from roof top of Coocoo’s Den, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Waiting for death with an expert

column_temple_artemis_ephesos_bm_sc1206_n33One would think it might be a challenge to write about the subject of death and dying without discussing religion and faith. Of course, the absence of religion or faith in the subjects’ lives could limit the range or scope of the discussion. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t part of the story.

That seems to be the case in this excellent Los Angeles Times piece by Thomas Curwen on “Waiting for death, alone and unafraid,” as the headline states. The article profiles Edwin Shneidman, a well-known expert in the area of suicide and the death of human beings, as he waits to die.

The article is timely for a couple of reasons. The state of Washington recently made effective a new law on assisted suicide. News organizations are responding by researching the subject that the LAT article points out that people don’t experience their own death, but rather, they experience others’ death. I think it’s fair to classify that as an opinion, depending on one’s perspective of life and death issues.

The science of death and dying is a huge part of the story, but so is religion. Early in the Shneidman profile there is a hint of religion and faith, but that’s about it:

Edwin Shneidman looks at the clock — an hour and a half since turning off the TV and closing his eyes.

“Mrs. Wiggles,” he shouts. He knows that that’s not her name, but he likes the joke.

Sitting in another room, Pauline Dupuy turns down the CD player and puts her Bible and crossword aside. She stands and walks down the hall into his room.

This brief mention of the Bible is interesting because Shneidman is Jewish. One can only speculate though what type of Bible Dupuy (one of Edwin Shneidman’s caregiver) had with her crossword puzzle.

Later in the article, Vernette Elijio, another caregiver, helps readers understand more about Edwin Shneidman’s view on religion and faith, but it’s almost an incidental part of the story:

The meaning of death is loss and sadness and inevitability. On the wall above the bed, he has hung a print by Breughel that covers a crack in the plaster. Here an army of skeletons wages war against humanity, and compared to the Chagall overhead, it’s a bleak and macabre picture of the final hour that without angels or signs of salvation is unremittingly godless.

The other day Vernette said he was blessed. True enough, he thought, but not quite right, not blessed. On a napkin on the TV tray he scribbled down the Greek prefix, eu, for good, and then through association and sound, fell upon doria. This is what he does. He coins words, and this would be the word for his good fortune. Eudoria. He spoke it out loud: gratitude without an object, no one to credit, no one to thank. No Jesus, no Yahweh, Muhammad, Vishnu or Buddha.

Because he believes life isn’t contingent upon a god or upon prayers. There is no heaven, no hell. Happiness lies in the here and now and the satisfaction of living a good life without religion or myth to guide you. He takes nothing away from others’ beliefs. He just prefers “Moby-Dick” to the Bible.

Death is quite simple. Life is more mysterious, and he never tires of its wonderments: How he — a Jew at that — survived the war, how he and a girl from the corn country of Illinois fell in love and married and had four children and such a long and happy life.

Yes, religion likely won’t ever headline a story like this, but I believe the level of attention it received is appropriate. It does raise the interesting point that religion is almost obligatory in a story about death and dying, even if the subject wants nothing to do with faith or a belief in a life of some sort after death. Perhaps that is responding to the readers’ desire to know, or just something innate about human nature. Either way, I’m glad it came up here because it gives us a fuller understanding about a fairly significant individual at a captivating point in his life.

Image of Thanatos, a personification of death and mortality in Greek mythology, used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

Faith in the backdrop

Amidst this country’s discussion on race, the subject of religion appears more often than not, but not always in the appropriate context. The importance of churches, religious groups and faith in the civil rights movement cannot be overstated. A striking area that should not be forgotten is the effect race has played, particularly in the south, in scholastic athletics.

ESPN’s Outside the Lines program profiled an amazing story Sunday morning of how race plays an invisible role today due to a horrific incident that happened 93 years ago and how faith helps heal those wounds:

You’re Marty Cann, and you told the reporter from the Columbia paper that the accused murderer must have been some other Cann. You know your dad, and you knew your granddad, and you know yourself, and a Cann simply couldn’t kill a man, let alone lead a lynching. But the reporter showed you his research, and you were crushed. Then it got much worse: A great-grandson of the victim, Darrell Crawford, is also a coach at Abbeville High. You soul-searched for weeks, months, now years, as you and Darrell saw each other every now and then without really talking. What does it mean to be a Cann? Your dad doesn’t want you talking about it. But part of you wonders why he didn’t talk about it with you. “I was never told about this,” you say. “I got a great mom and dad … but I never have been someone that has shared with them how I feel. And so this is an emotional-type thing and so, you know, I just …” You don’t know how to finish that thought. Who could?

The story is about love and the role of forgiveness. Although the article doesn’t mention religion much, other than the fact that Darrell Crawford is a preacher in addition to his role as a high school track coach, the television version of the story did explore some of the religious issues that go to the heart of the story today. The narrator of the show described Crawford’s preaching as “a message of compassion to a community that was once torn by racial conflict” and talks about how Cann still prays about it.

As for the relationship between Cann and Crawford today, the Outside the Lines interview described it in this manner:

“Forgiving the ones who are here now is like laying blame on them, and they didn’t do it. So I’m at peace with it,” says Crawford. …

Knowing Coach Cann as a Christian man, and one who loves the children and one who works with all children no matter what their race is, I couldn’t hate Coach Cann because of something that happened in the past. You have to endure hate with love. Instead of hating, my family has always dwelt in love.

Unfortunately, the print version of this story seems to ignore the topic of sin and the fact that Crawford is a pastor. Here is a snippet of the article that does discuss the role Crawford’s status of a preacher plays in this story:

You are Darrell Crawford, 39 years old, and you weren’t expecting to run into Marty Cann here. But Abbeville doesn’t have a lot of gas stations, so it’s not exactly a shock. You are still struggling with the fact that your family tragedy has become a public discussion, but you’re a preacher, so you’re used to having people watch you.

Overall, the Outside the Lines version of the story does a much better job discussing the religious issues at the core of this story. Perhaps that is because the television version allowed the individuals speak more in their own voices. Overall, these are the types of stories that must be told. The role of religion must be reported for the simple reason that it is part of the story.

Faith and the big family

dionnequints21The last couple of weeks have seen a significant amount of coverage on the issue of big families. Much of this has been sparked by the single mother of six who gave birth to a set of octuplets in January in California. The story is full of issues relating to morality and what one believes about the significance of children, the family, procreation and life in general. Central to many individual’s beliefs on these issues is their faith, but that is not what is getting the attention in the news stories.

The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s article on the subject, published Wednesday, is a case-in-point. The headline of the article put me off initially because it implies that the controversy relating to the California octuplets related to large families in general:

Octuplet case increases scrutiny on large families

The rest of the article isn’t much better.

The more central controversy to the octuplets story relates to the use of in vitro fertilization and doctor’s efforts to increase the chances of having children by implanting more embryos than necessary, which increases the chances of multiple births. Large families are in a way the side issue.

Why does the scrutiny have to be on large families? In an interview on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air program Monday, reporter Liza Mundy talked about how it has become routine for doctors to reduce the number of babies in a multiple-birth situation induced by IVF. Significant morality issues arises that go beyond the more basic decision of whether to have an abortion, particularly when the intention is to have as many “options” in terms of gender, health and even the number.

Whether or not this is ethical in the medical community is very much up for debate and does not divide along the traditional choice/right to life lines.

Overall, the Inquirer article focuses mostly on the trends relating to large families and only briefly mentions religious issues:

Society looks most critically on those furthest from what’s typical, said Arnold, herself a mother of six. If a family is Catholic, “that’s a good excuse for why you would have so many children,” she said.

For others, religion is not the driver. Large families just feel right – something couples experienced themselves as children or never experienced and therefore always wanted.

In an age when many parents want to provide every advantage to their children and hover endlessly, large families often talk about a team spirit that gets them through the days.

Stereotypes about people with large families are frustrating for me because people often assume I come from a Catholic family since I have five wonderful siblings. (People also make presumptions about couples who do not have children yet.) I wish the article had explored more whether there were “non-Catholic” religious reasons individuals decided to have large families. The Catholic assumption relates to the faith’s official rules regarding birth-control, but there can be other religious reasons people decide they want more children than is considered normal these days.

The article also quotes a Rabbi discussing how prejudice against large families is one of the last remaining in our society. But the controversy surrounding the California octuplets relates less to the size of the family and to the medical issues surrounding medically induced multiple births. Focusing on that issue, I believe, would have made for a stronger article and for better overall coverage.

Photo of the Canadian Dionne sisters, the first quintuplets known to survive infancy, used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

Telling it how it is

We are always pleased when news reports tie religion into stories about social celebrations and holidays. Celebrations like Mardi Gras — known today by most for its explicit expressions of drunkenness and lascivious behavior — have religious roots that go back centuries. Reporters would be amiss in neglecting to report that angle. However, when dealing with celebrations such as Mardi Gras, it is always refreshing to see news reports that tell just it how it is today.

When National Public Radio reported on a religious angle to Carnival, the Mardi Gras equivalent in Brazil and many other countries with Catholic cultures, they focused on the “Sons of Gandhi” also known as Filhos de Gandhy and their religious roots in the nation’s celebration of a mix of cultures and religions. It is an interesting angle that mixes many of the aspects of Carnival and its history in Brazilian culture:

Although the holiday may be an excuse to party for most people, the parade of the Filhos de Gandhy is intended as a spiritual experience. The group, named for the late leader of India’s independence movement, marches at several major religious festivals throughout the year. Carnival is their biggest event.

“The Sons of Gandhi serve to bridge the sacred and the profane, a connection that is characteristic of Brazilian culture — and above all, Carnival,” says anthropologist Goli Guerreiro.

The article has a nice reflection on the group’s lofty aims. It mentions briefly that the chants sung by the group during the celebration are in honor of Afro-Brazilian gods and that religious beliefs from Africa were discriminated against in Brazil’s Catholic-dominant society. But that is the only implied mention of the Carnival’s roots as a Catholic celebration.

As a reader submitted to us, failing to mention Carnival’s connection to Lent and Easter is surprising considering that the story is about syncretism and the blend of religion and cultures.

Nevertheless, the article accurately notes what celebrations like Carnival and Mardi Gras in the United States have become today:

But in truth, not everybody who joins the group is looking for peace. Saba says that when asked, almost all of the Sons of Gandhi will say the same thing: They’re in it for the women.

“The women go crazy for the Sons of Gandhi. Many women come from other states just to have the chance to go out with one of us,” Saba insists.

Of course, Gandhi himself spent much of his life celibate. The Sons of Gandhi also have their rules — since the beginning, they’ve never allowed women to join their ranks. They also forbid members to consume alcohol or drugs during marches.

The prohibitions aren’t a matter of keeping pure, but rather of keeping the peace. In the macho society of Brazil, the Filhos de Gandhy believe that where you have men mixing with women and alcohol, you have fights.

One has to wonder whether a reporter’s tone would change if a group such as this in the United States refused to allow women to join. Somehow I imagine it would be given a greater significance than rules about not drinking or doing drugs during a parade march.