God in the flames

400px Firemen h0171Nice job, Julie Bloom of the New York Times, for an article about a successful God-themed film written and produced by three Baptist pastors from Georgia. You tackled the interplay between faith, commerce and art, which can be a minefield, clearly and without condescension.

Readers may already be familiar with the Kendrick brothers, associate pastors at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga.

Tmatt covered the flap over their last movie, “Facing the Giants.”

The story of a troubled coach who turns gives his life to God, the movie, which apparently features such salicious acts as Bible Study and evangelism, garnered a “PG” from MPAA — causing a bit of an uproar in Washington.

After her engaging lede, Bloom immediately gives the reader some numbers to demonstrate the new movie’s success –

An almost all-volunteer cast and crew, including a star who was an ’80s teen heartthrob, and a plot about a firefighter who saves his marriage by turning to God — it hardly sounds like a recipe for box office success, let alone a best-selling book. But that’s what the film “Fireproof” has spawned.

The movie features Kirk Cameron, an alumnus of the television show “Growing Pains,” as the firefighter, and it cost just $500,000 to produce. Yet it opened two weekends ago with $6.5 million in ticket sales, good for No. 4 at the box office, just a few spots behind the No. 1 big-budget action thriller “Eagle Eye” and five spots ahead of Spike Lee’s World War II epic, “Miracle at St. Anna.” This past weekend “Fireproof” made $4.1 million more and so far has about $12.5 million total, according to estimates by Media by Numbers, a box office tracking company

While the next few paragraphs allude in passiong to the savvy marketing plan that apparently helped attract the attention of religious viewers, Bloom seems content to let this rather remarkable story tell itself before getting back to the business angle.

Her quotes from the filmakers illuminate the story — no “gotcha” or satirical journalism here.

Just as Mr. Cameron’s character seeks God’s help, Alex Kendrick said that in 2005 “we were praying for an idea, and I was jogging around the block and was inspired to do a movie inspired by marriage.” He jogged to his brother’s house with the idea.

The two weren’t entirely novices; they had made movies as children. After college and seminary they approached Sherwood Baptist, where they are associate pastors, about making movies for the ministry. Their first Sherwood film, “Flywheel,” was released in 2003, and their second, “Facing the Giants” (2006), about an underdog football team, eventually earned more than $10 million.

“For us most of what is coming out of Hollywood does not reflect our faith and values,” Alex Kendrick said, “and so this is one way to throw our hat in the ring.”

Mr. Catt, who has helped lead the church since 1989, said he has supported his ministry’s involvement with filmmaking because Christians are often critical of mainstream entertainment without adding something positive to it. ‘It’s easy to point fingers,” he said in a phone interview from Albany, “but what we need to be doing is offering realistic alternatives.”

Eventually Bloom circles back to the way the movie, and the tie-in book (at first, simply a plot device) written by the Kendrick brothers was creatively marketed directly to influential church leaders (and the religious press) by a sub-division of Sony, Provident Films.

She closes with another quote from Alex Kendrick that focuses the reader’s attention back on the possibility that the movie and book’s success is due to divine, as well as human, intervention:

For Mr. Kendrick, there is only one explanation for the successes of “Fireproof” and “The Love Dare.” “We’re not trained and smart enough to make successful movies and write best-selling books,” he said. “The only way that this could happen is if after we prayed, God really answered those prayers.”

In short, Bloom tells a complicated story in a way that is balanced and nonjudgmental — opening up different perspectives rather than closing them down.

P.S. If you want to know more about “Fireproof” from a Christian perspective you may want to read a thoughtful review from “Christianity Today.”

Feeling less pain?

MadonnaWhere’s the rest of the story?

That’s what I wanted to know after reading Ian Sample’s article in last week’s Guardian.

Sample covers science, not religion, so perhaps his lede, with its rather reverent (ancient and elaborate) approach to its subject, should not be a surprise:

Scientists have uncovered an ancient and elaborate source of pain relief that is based purely on the power of the mind, according to research published today.

The article recounts an experiment by Oxford University researchers who showed 12 agnostics and atheists and 12 “practicing” Roman Catholics students a depiction of the Virgin Mary by the 17-century painter Sassoferrato and “Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci. Then the students were given electric shocks and asked to rank their pain.

What happened?

Brain scans of volunteers who were subjected to electrical shocks revealed that Roman Catholics felt less pain than atheists and agnostics when they were shown a painting of the Virgin Mary.

Images of the volunteers’ brains showed that in devout believers, an area of the brain that suppresses reactions to threatening situations lit up when they were shown the picture.

I’m surprised, as a nonscientist, that the author thought anything worth reporting could be determined from an experiment on 24 people. Does the aura of truth associated with the word science carry that much credibility in the world of journalism?

It would have been wonderful, too, if Mr. Sample had consulted someone who bridged the worlds of theology and science to offer an alternative explanation.

As interesting as the results of this experiment are, the results, as explained by Sample, sorely lack any context — scientific or religious.

And what’s with the sexy, but inaccurate headline — “Religious belief can help relieve pain, say researchers”?

According to reseacher Katja Wiech, quoted at the end of the story, faith doesn’t seem to have had a whole lot to do with it.

The Roman Catholics engaged a brain mechanism that is well known from research into the placebo effect, analgesia and emotional disengagement,” said Wiech. “It helps people to reinterpret pain, and make it less threatening. These people felt safe by looking at the Virgin Mary, they felt looked after, so the whole context of the test changed for them.”

It is highly likely that non-religious people could achieve a similar ability to control pain, perhaps through meditation or other mental strategies. “There’s no suggestion that this effect is specific to religion and we’ve not found the God blob in the brain. This is about the state of mind you can achieve,” said Wiech.

Preliminary studies on lapsed Catholics suggest that images of the Virgin Mary lessen their sense of pain too, the researchers said.

How many lapsed Catholics? What does it mean to say that they are “lapsed”? Does that mean they do not believe in God — or the Virgin Mary, for that matter? And where was this research published, by the way — in case we wanted to know more?

There’s a shadow story here — or, rather, not here.

Lost in the liner notes

March sign 02Too often, we aren’t sure. Do we have a religious story with a political dimension — or a story about politics that has a religious angle? When journalists cover a story about the “culture wars,” the religious convictions that may fuel someone’s position on an issue sometimes end up buried in the end quotes.

Here’s one example from a recent story by David M. Brown from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

There’s a wonderful quote from Catholic nun Patricia McCann that helps illuminate why she is working the telephones for the pro-choice Democrat Barack Obama in the framework of her church’s moral teaching — as she understands it.

“The Catholic church teaches that abortion is an intrinsic evil, along with euthanasia, murder, war, torture, racism, oppression of people,” McCann said. “For me, life means from conception to natural death, so I look at the full range of issues.”

Unfortunately, this McCann quote is the third paragraph from the end.

As evidence that similar convictions about abortion may not determine a person’s vote, Brown began by using the examples of Patricia McCann and Rosemary Horvat. One is campaigning for Obama, the other McCain.

It isn’t until you get well into the story that you have any idea what motivates these two volunteers — it’s never clear (perhaps it’s assumed) how Horvat’s faith drives her choices. Actually, it’s not even clear that she’s a Christian.

While the article offers a useful perspective that impels us beyond the usual polemics, it also has some significant weaknesses.

Take the way we are introduced to the two women who frame the story.

Patricia McCann is described as “an archivist for the Sisters of Mercy and retired teacher of church history at St. Vincent College.”

Rosemary Horvat is a “mother of three of grandmother of nine.” Does she have a profession? The writer doesn’t tell us.

It is also disquieting that Brown didn’t interview any male volunteers — are all abortion activists women? The only men in his story are strategists and pollsters.

In a section of the article titled “Cultural issues take a back seat,” Brown quoted Franklin & Marshall College professor Terry Madonna:

“Catholics are not all pro-life. In fact, they are not much different than Protestants on the issue,” Madonna said. “There are culturally conservative and culturally liberal Catholics, but they have become swing voters in recent years — which is why they are important politically.”

Research indicates pro-choice voters slightly outnumber pro-life voters in the state, he said.

“Abortion is considerably less important to voters this year than the advocates on either side will ever admit. When the economy and war are as important as they are, cultural issues take a back seat,” Madonna said.

It would have been helpful if Brown had questioned Madonna on what it actually means to be “culturally conservative” or “culturally liberal” — particularly since he puts an anti-abortion Catholic nun working for Barack Obama front and center.

In the third section, “Where the candidates stand,” Brown describes the Democrat’s positions this way:

Obama and his running-mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, generally agree on abortion rights. Biden was among a minority of Democrats who voted in favor of banning the procedure opponents call partial-birth abortion.

This terse summary gives us just enough information to be dangerous — clearly Biden’s point of view needs to be explained more clearly.

This isn’t solely Brown’s problem. Biden’s perspective on abortion, let alone on faith, hasn’t gotten much press time.

The article asks an intriguing question — what role does the issue of abortion play in driving people’s voting-booth decisions?

It would have been wonderful if he’d dug a little deeper, and asked all the people he interviewed how their faith informs their decisions. It would have been even more wonderful if he’d put that information near the top.

Think you want some evolution?

Charles and William DarwinA denominational mea culpa to a dead scientist and the controversial resignation of a live one have occasioned both indignation and mirth among the British press.

Over the past few weeks the Church of England and Britain’s prestigious scientific academy, the Royal Society, have both taken their lumps as they stepped into the turbulent waters where science meets religion.

Do they deserve what they got? You be the judge.

Last week an article by the Rev. Dr. Martin Brown on the Church of England’s official website apologized to the late Charles Darwin for having “misunderstood” his theory of evolution, evoking barely disguised incredulity in Daily Mail reporter Jonathan Petre.

Here’s the lede:

The Church of England will tomorrow officially apologize to Charles Darwin for misunderstanding his theory of evolution.

In a bizarre step, the Church will address its contrition directly to the Victorian scientist himself, even though he died 126 years ago. But the move was greeted with derision last night, with Darwin’s great-great-grandson dismissing it as “pointless” and other critics branding it “ludicrous.”

The sources he quotes (with the exception of the kicker quote at the end from one of Darwin’s more charitable descendants), generally give the apology a firm thumbs-down. They range from one of Darwin’s great-great grandsons to the British President of the National Secular Association.

If there are theologians and clergy defending the denomination’s attempt to make reparations, they don’t appear in Petre’s article.

That being said, there is a deliciously guilty pleasure in reading quotes like this:

Former Conservative Minister Ann Widdecombe, who left the Church of England to become a Roman Catholic, said: “It’s absolutely ludicrous. Why don’t we have the Italians apologising for Pontius Pilate?”

“We’ve already apologised for slavery and for the Crusades. When is it all going to stop? It’s insane and makes the Church of England look ridiculous.”

The Telegraph played the story relatively straight.

In a related, and probably more significant story, biologist and Church of England clergyman Michael Reiss resigned from his post as director of education at the Royal Society after making comments in a speech that were interpreted as support for teaching creationism in schools.

British papers have copious coverage of Reiss’s speech and the resulting donnybrook.

This story crossed the Atlantic, where it hit the Washington Times.

Unlike some of the British media outlets, reporter Al Webb goes to the trouble of defining creationism, a service to readers.

But his opening paragraph makes a few assumptions:

One of the worlds leading biologists, who is also an ordained Anglican priest, has sparked uproar in both religious and scientific circles by campaigning to teach creationism, along with evolution and the “Big Bang” theory in science classrooms.

Where is the evidence that Reiss “one of the world’s leading biologists?” The suggestion that Reiss was “campaigning” to teach creationism is hyperbolic, at the least. Nor does Webb point out, as the British papers do, that his fellow scientists were by no means united in condemning Reiss-or in applauding his resignation.

Members of the British commentariat also championed Reiss. Columnists in some British papers seemed to take the stance that Reiss’s comments were misinterpreted, and his resignation undeserved.

Kudos to the Times Online for its more balanced approach to the news that the Catholic Church is going to hold a conference about evolution in March 2009, 150 years after Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared. Reporter Sara Delaney takes a straightforward approach to the story, offering both context and explanation for the Catholic Church’s historical and contemporary position on this controversial topic.

In the fifth paragraph she quotes a Catholic Church official, who distinguishes the Vatican’s position from that of the Church of England with delicate but deadly diplomacy.

Mgr Ravasi termed the Anglican apology for having condemned Darwin both “curious and significant”. He said that it showed “a mentality different than ours”. An open dialogue between faith and science especially in the light of new developments should be encouraged, “without forcing an accord that doesn’t exist,” Mgr Ravasi added. Other organisers cited Pope Pius XII who said in 1950 that the Church did not prohibit the study of evolution, and Pope John Paul II who said in 1995 that Darwinism was no longer considered “a mere hypothesis”.

On the topic of the church’s response to evolution, Delaney plays it straight, while Petre goes for the obvious potshots. Shedding light instead of heat, her article is much more illuminating

About Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans

EEE3I’m very excited about becoming a contributor to GetReligion. It will be a real kick to do what I have often done as a reader — ponder the lens through which a particular article was written.

As an ordained minister who has written for newspapers since I graduated from seminary, I deeply believe that the religion beat demands sensitivity, knowledge, great listening skills — and a willingness to admit that you don’t know it all.

Although I confess that I don’t always like it, I am generally grateful, immediately or after I’ve thought it through, for the folks who took the time to question something I wrote — and make me check my own assumptions.

I would hope to do the same as a constructive critic here at GetReligion.

I’ll ask questions, offer some praise, and question possible factual errors or missing bits in a way that hopefully will open up a door, or new questions.

Meanwhile, here are a few relevant biographical details. I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a family in which politics was a blood sport and religion much more of an intellectual pursuit. After attending a nominally Episcopal prep school, I left the city for college with a great curiosity about what it meant to be a believer. It was while at Hamilton (Kirkland) College, through fellowship groups, chapel services, a group of nuns and the local Episcopal Church, that I really began to experience the presence of God in my life. The Great Anglican divines and poets, including John Donne and George Herbert, led me to the Christian faith.

I began my career as a freelance writer working for weeklies around Princeton, N.J., after graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary. When I was ordained as an Episcopal priest, I moved to Philadelphia, where I began writing for the diocesan paper. After time spent as an assistant chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, I became news editor for the old Episcopalian, until it moved to New York City.

I’ve been a stringer what is now Religion News Service, and a frequent commentator, book reviewer and features writer for The Philadephia Inquirer. I have a monthly column in The New Era in Lancaster, Pa.

I’ve served in a number of parishes, urban and suburban, evangelical and mainstream. But about six years ago I decided that I didn’t want to bear arms in the warfare roiling my denomination, and that I would do better as an observer. Currently our family attends a Lutheran church that marries the Gospel to social justice and an openness to new believers.

While I remain strongly eucharistically focused, I believe that our churches need to do a better job of reaching the indifferent or hurt or lost members of the flock. This can be done without sacrificing the basics of the faith, including creedal orthodoxy. I have also developed a deeper appreciation for the Anabaptist traditions, and their focus on communal holiness — something many of our larger denominations lack.

I can’t close without mentioning that I have two children who continually amaze me (and sometimes make me nuts). Our family lives outside (way outside) the Beltway in exurban Pennsylvania, where you can still see the stars at night — even if you can’t count them.