In the 3-D eyes of the beholder

A cigar is just a cigar, said Freud. Or is it?

Not when it comes to how people view movies. The bigger the movie, and the more people who see it, the more interpretations that arise. At least that’s what Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times describes in: “You Saw What in ‘Avatar’? Pass Those Glasses!”

Over the last month, it has been criticized by social and political conservatives who bristle at its depictions of religion and the use of military force; feminists who feel that the male avatar bodies are stronger and more muscular than their female counterparts; antismoking advocates who object to a character who lights up cigarettes; not to mention fans of Soviet-era Russian science fiction; the Chinese; and the Vatican. This week the authorities in China announced that the 2-D version of the film would be pulled from most theaters there to make way for a biography of Confucius.

Some conservatives seem certain that their readings of “Avatar” are dead-on:

In a column for the Christian entertainment Web site, David Outten wrote that “Avatar” maligned capitalism, promoted animism over monotheism and overdramatized the possibility of environmental catastrophe on earth. At another site that offers a conservative critique of the entertainment industry,, John Nolte wrote that the film was “a thinly disguised, heavy-handed and simplistic sci-fi fantasy/allegory critical of America from our founding straight through to the Iraq War.”

But should we view “Avatar” as a big-screen cigar? If so, its primary function would be to succeed as mass entertainment. Mission accomplished!

Itzkoff’s article–which probes deeply into matters of postmodern criticism without getting bogged down in pointy-headed lingo–offers other perspectives:

“Some of the ways people are reading it are significant of Cameron’s intent, and some are just by-products of what people are thinking about,” said Rebecca Keegan, the author of “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.” “It’s really become this Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties.”

The “Avatar” camp isn’t endorsing any particular interpretation, but is happy to let others read the ink blots. “Movies that work are movies that have themes that are bigger than their genre,” Jon Landau, a producer of the film, said in a telephone interview. “The theme is what you leave with and you leave the plot at the theater.”

I mistakenly thought this Jon Landau was the same Jon Landau who served as a manager and producer for Bruce Springsteen. A diligent reader gently corrected me.

But if we think about “Avatar” the way we think about Springsteen (or Tom Petty) we can see what “Avatar’s” Jon Landau is saying. Springsteen and Petty are artists who knows the value of big, broad themes that evoke a wide range of feelings in a wide range of listeners. At their best, these artists combine a few simple chords and a few seemingly simple words to create vast idea-worlds that inspire the imagination.

So, is “Avatar,” which may be on its way to being the most financially successful film in history, anti-capitalist? Sure, if you think it is!

Focus’s family squabbles (continued)

You can learn a lot about a family by observing how it handles fights. And Laurie Goodstein’s Sunday New York Times story shows that as the breach between James Dobson and Focus on the Family grows, all parties are keeping quiet and pretending everything is OK.

Earlier this year I wrote on coverage by media outlets in Colorado Springs (where Focus and many other evangelical parachurch organizations are headquartered) about the decision by Dobson to launch a competing organization and radio program called “James Dobson on the Family.”

Given the prominence of both Dobson and Focus, I was shocked at how few media outlets covered this extraordinary story about a major parachurch founder leaving his organization to start a new organization that does basically the same thing. (The silence may be partially due to the shrinking of religion pages and reporting staffs at many news outlets. And I just know the AP’s Eric Gorski would have been all over this story if he hadn’t recently been transitioned off the religion beat).

Goodstein did the best she could when principals aren’t talking: She tracked down other folks for her story, including a former Focus executive and an unnamed Focus board member who commented on Dobson’s potential motives for launching a new radio show with his son, 39-year-old Ryan:

The real reason for Dr. Dobson’s new venture may have been his son. A Focus board member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that because Ryan Dobson has been divorced, it would be against the board’s policy for him to serve as the voice for Focus, which counsels people on marriage and child-rearing. (Ryan Dobson has since remarried and has a son of his own.)

Goodstein also grasped the uniqueness and singularity of this split in parachurch circles:

Experts who study Christian ministries said that whatever the reason for it, Dr. Dobson’s decision was extraordinary.

“I can’t think of another example where the leader of a major ministry organization founded it, built it up, then moved on and did something so visibly competitive,” said Stewart M. Hoover, director of the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Goodstein also shows that in an era of media- and celebrity-driven religion, Focus’s efforts to transition to new leadership (and potentially a new generation of supporters) may have been half-baked:

Dr. Dobson did cultivate a successor as leader of Focus, but he never cultivated anyone to succeed him as its media personality. Focus will continue broadcasting its radio show with a variety of hosts, including Jim Daly, whom Dr. Dobson handpicked as the new president for Focus in 2005.

Focus is talking about one topic that was formerly off limits: its plans to air a Super Bowl commercial featuring Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam. A focus spokesperson told Electa Draper of The Denver Post that it taped a “life- and family affirming” 30-second spot. Pam Tebow faced a problematic pregnancy with Tim while she served with her husband as a missionary in the Philippines, but decided to carry Tim to term nonetheless.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to hear Focus and Dobson reveal the truth about their split.

Vatican’s paper goes pop

I’m always curious to see how the Vatican will take on pop culture, as it did in its recent comments celebrating the 20th anniversary of TV’s “The Simpsons.”

But more recently, the official Vatican newspaper went after “Avatar,” calling the blockbuster sci-fi film “a rather facile anti-imperialist and anti-militarist parable” that contains “stupefying, enchanting technology, but few genuine human emotions.”

I wanted to know more about what’s going on at L’Osservatore Romano (that’s Italian for “the Roman Observer”). Thankfully, Nick Squires of The Christian Science Monitor’s wrote an intriguing and helpful article about recent changes at the once-stodgy paper.

In “Why is Vatican paper reviewing Avatar, the Simpsons?” Squires investigates deeper changes at the paper, which is going pop under orders from Pope Benedict XVI to reach a broader audience.

Founded in 1861 as the Vatican’s paper of record, it still has to cover weighty theological issues and the Byzantine workings of the Roman Catholic Church. But it has also expanded into the world of popular culture, passing judgment on subjects varying from the Harry Potter films and the rock band U2 to the deaths of Michael Jackson and Paul Newman.

The paper, which is sold at news stands for one euro and has a modest circulation of about 15,000, has also started using color photographs for the first time. The makeover was ordered by Pope Benedict XVI, who–despite his rather austere image–has shown himself keen to explore new ways of spreading the Church’s message, including new technology.

…The radical change of tack was introduced in 2007, when Giovanni Maria Vian, a career journalist known to staff as “The Professor,” was made editor-in-chief. “It used to be pretty indigestible,” says Francis X. Rocca, the long-time Vatican correspondent for the Washington-based Religion News Service.

Squires shows that L’Osservatore Romano’s strategy for increasing its coverage of pop culture largely mirrors the mainstream press’s embrace of pop in recent decades. At the same time, he also shows that the Vatican’s critiques of pop culture reflects the Church’s deeper theological concerns.

Instead of glorying in the unbearable lightness of pop, the Vatican provides readers with cultural analysis that goes deeper and seeks for signs of eternity in today’s cultural currents.

What makes Jamaal kill?

This is the voice of the father of Jordanian suicide bomber Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, who blew up himself and seven Central Intelligence Agency workers in Afghanistan in December.

“They say that Jesus gave his life to people. I say that Humam sacrificed his body and soul for the oppressed.”

The father, quoted in a Sunday New York Times story by Stephen Farrell, both mourns his son’s death and embraces the holiness of his motives.

If you’re like me and you are trying to better understand what motivates suicide bombers, you’ll appreciate another piece in Sunday’s “Week in Review” section of the Times: “The Terrorist Mind: An Update” by Sarah Kershaw. We all have our theories, but the piece focuses on real-world data:

Until recently, the psychology of terrorism had been largely theoretical. Finding actual subjects to study was daunting. But access to terrorists has increased and a nascent science is taking shape.

More former terrorists are speaking publicly about their experiences. Tens of thousands of terrorists are in “de-radicalization” programs around the globe, and they are being interviewed, counseled and subjected to psychological testing, offering the chance to collect real data on the subject.

Terrorist propaganda has flooded the Internet and the thinking of sympathizers is widely available. There are entire cable television channels operated by extremists, and researchers have access to the writings and “farewell tapes” of the growing number of suicide bombers as well as the transcripts of terrorism trials.

So, what does this wealth of material tell us? The Times piece serves as a primer on “Terrorist Psychology 101″ and spells out what we can know in five depressing sections that tell us:

(1) The path to terrorism often begins with well known risk factors, such as:

…a strong sense of victimization and alienation; the belief that moral violations by the enemy justify violence in pursuit of a “higher moral condition;” the belief that the terrorists’ ethnic, religious or nationalist group is special and in danger of extinction, and that they lack the political power to effect change without violence.

(2) Group dynamics (including Internet-based networks) intensify the risk: “justification for extremist action, whether through religious or secular doctrine, is either developed or greatly intensified by group dynamics.”

(3) Morality is important: “…terrorists must inherently believe that violence against the enemy is not immoral, but that they also have internal limits, which they often do not learn until they are deeply embedded in a group.”

(4) When a person has decided to be a suicide bomber, the die is largely cast:

Once a terrorist, it is often difficult to turn back. This is particularly true for prospective suicide bombers. Once assigned to their fatal missions, they become known as “walking martyrs.” Backing down would create too much shame or humiliation.

(5) But disengagement from terrorist groups is possible in some cases, particularly when a person sees hypocrisy in the group or discovers that the reality of life in the group is not as satisfying as expected.

This was an excellent piece that presented mounds of data in a clear manner while also giving us profound, eloquent and heartbreaking sentences like this one:

… the overarching motivation of suicide bombers is the quest for personal significance, the desperate longing for a meaningful life that appears only to come with death.

Read it all.

Mary Daly: R.I.P.

MaryDalyMary Daly, who died Sunday Jan. 3 at age 81, was “a Positively Revolting Hag.” At least that’s what she called herself on the back cover of her 1987 book, Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, which defined “hag” as: “a Witch, Fury, Harpy who haunts the Hedges/Boundaries of patriarchy, frightening fools and summoning Weird Wandering Women into the Wild.”

Daly, who earned three doctorates in theology and philosophy, also referred to herself as a “radical lesbian feminist,” and her radicalism was revealed in both her ideas and her actions, as we can see in the contrasting openings of obituaries that appeared in The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

The Globe began with Daly’s ideas:

Fiercely and playfully — often at the same time — Mary Daly used words to challenge the basic precepts of the Catholic Church and Boston College, where she was on the faculty for more than 30 years.

Dr. Daly emerged as a major voice in the burgeoning women’s movement with her first book, “The Church and the Second Sex,” published in 1968, and “Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation,” which appeared five years later. That accomplishment was viewed, then and now, as all the more significant because she wrote and taught at a Jesuit college.

“She was a great trained philosopher, theologian, and poet, and she used all of those tools to demolish patriarchy — or any idea that domination is natural — in its most defended place, which is religion,” said Gloria Steinem.

The Times began with one of her most controversial actions:

Mary Daly, a prominent feminist theologian who made worldwide headlines a decade ago after she retired from Boston College rather than admit men to some of her classes, died on Sunday in Gardner, Mass.

Both obits did a good job of placing Daly’s writing in the context of contemporary feminism (both quoted Robin Morgan, a former editor of Ms. Magazine). And both praised her unique approach to language.

Only The Globe quoted theologians, but these experts don’t really help readers grasp Daly’s theology, which evolved throughout her life. The theologians’ comments have that vague, eulogistic quality that obscures as they summarize.

Daly’s journey took her from being a practicing Catholic to describing herself as “postchristian” (she didn’t capitalize the “C”) to embracing a more non-doctrinal spirituality that, to some, sounded increasingly New Age.

She clearly rejected anything that might be labeled the “faith of our fathers” (all fathers were assumed to be fixtures of the “Cockocratic State”). And she boldly embodied the “Courage to Leave” (“virtue enabling women to depart from all patriarchal religions and other hopeless institutions”).

But readers of these obituaries don’t know precisely what she believed at the end?

In life Daly was a restless thinker and agitator. Now, may she rest in peace as she seeks to journey to the “Otherworld” (“Realms of Metamorphosis, true Homeland of all Hags, Crones, Furies, Furries, and their Friends…the Real World.”)

Race in God’s Kingdom

martin-luther-king-jrGrading religion writers involves evaluating their work on stories both simple and complex. I always offer extra credit to those enterprising and creative journalists who seek out important stories that transcend today’s headlines. That’s why TIME’s David Van Biema gets a gold star for his 2,400-word piece, “The Color of Faith.”

Race has been a difficult issue for Christians since the time of the Apostles. Today, most of us might wish for the beautiful vision described in the song:

Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

But we have largely settled for the much sadder reality described by Martin Luther King, Jr., who said the most segregated hour in America was from eleven to twelve on Sunday morning.

Here in Colorado, where evangelical parachurch organizations grow like the Columbine flower, efforts to transcend racial barriers have met with greater (Promise Keepers) and lesser (Focus on the Family) success.

Van Biema turns his attention to a Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, the suburban megachurch that was America’s most influential congregation before Rick Warren and Saddleback came along. The story shows how Willow Creek’s founding pastor Bill Hybels has worked “to aggressively welcome minorities to his lily-white congregation.”

Van Biema mixes personal stories and national statistics in his powerful story:

Despite the growing desegregation of most key American institutions, churches are still a glaring exception….It is troubling, even scandalous, that our most intimate public gatherings–and those most safely beyond the law’s reach–remain color-coded.

But in some churches, the racial divide is beginning to erode, and it is fading fastest in one of American religion’s most conservative precincts: Evangelical Christianity. According to Michael Emerson, a specialist on race and faith at Rice University, the proportion of American churches with 20% or more minority participation has languished at about 7.5% for the past nine years. But among Evangelical churches with attendance of 1,000 people or more, the slice has more than quadrupled, from 6% in 1998 to 25% in 2007.

Call it the desegregation of the megachurches–and consider it a possible pivotal moment in the nation’s faith.

Willow Creek remains influential, in part because of its Willow Creek Association of 12,000 churches, which fills the role denominations formerly played for many churches. Van Biema shows us what Hybels and Willow Creek have successfully done–and have not yet done–on their long and challenging journey to desegregation.

The light went on for Hybels in 1999 after he read Michael Emerson’s book, “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America” and realized:

…that racism is “not just an individual issue but a justice issue” with “structural and [systemic] aspects” violating dozens of biblical admonitions. “I went from thinking ‘I don’t have a race problem’ to ‘There is a huge problem in our world that I need to be part of resolving.’”

The catch was that “I hadn’t [preached] about it in 24 years.”

Willow Creek hasn’t yet achieved King’s dream of a color-blind society. This reality is most apparent to church members who note “that Hybels never promoted a nonwhite member to a pulpit pastorship or senior staff position at the main Willow campus.”

But as he closes his story in a mixed-race Willow Creek Sunday school classroom, Van Biema eloquently gives credit where credit is due:

Here, today, Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation about Sunday school is finally refuted. In one room of one huge church striving to do the right thing, the harmony of His kingdom has already arrived.

Dobson’s family squabble

Dr James DobsonIt was a busy New Year’s weekend for Mark Barna, religion reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette, who covered the growing split between James Dobson and Focus on the Family, the powerful and prominent evangelical parachurch organization he has led for decades.

Focus, which has struggled with declining income and layoffs, has for years been concerned about its future and its transition to a new generation of leaders. Dobson resigned as chairman of Focus’s board in February 2009 and is scheduled to host his last Focus radio program on Feb. 28, 2010. He recently began spelling out his unexpected plans for what he will do after that.

Thursday’s Gazette story reported:

James Dobson may be leaving Focus on the Family in late February, but he’s not going away.

Dobson, who founded Focus in 1977, announced on his Facebook page that in March he will launch a nonprofit Christian group and host a new radio show with his son, Ryan.

Retiring is attractive, Dobson writes, but “the institution of the family continues to be in deplorable condition, and children are growing up in a culture that often twists and warps their young minds.”

Friday’s story reported that Dobson is now competing with Focus for the donor dollars needed to support his new venture, which is called James Dobson on the Family.

And in a post on his blog, “The Pulpit,” Barna raises questions about Dobson’s motivation:

On his Facebook page, Dobson estimates first-year operation costs to be $2 million. “Your participation will be greatly appreciated, especially during this time when startup costs will be very expensive,” he writes.

Dobson’s new ministry will have a similar agenda to that of Focus, which is to build up family values. The centerpiece of the ministry will be a daily radio show Dobson will co-host with 39-year-old Ryan.

Dobson’s departure from Focus only to start a similar ministry has some outside observers speculating that Dobson was forced out of Focus and that a bitter Dobson decided to create a competing organization. Dobson, they say, may also feel that Focus’ kinder and gentler approach under CEO and president Jim Daly is not doing the trick, motivating Dobson to start a family nonprofit where fiery rhetoric is the norm.

Both Focus and Dobson deny these reasons.

Barna quoted some of the usual suspects (Randall Balmer, John Green) who said Dobson’s actions were unusual, but he didn’t feature any parachurch experts or non-official Focus insiders, some of whom have told me that Dobson has long expressed frustration about the board forcing him to leave before he was ready. “He didn’t jump; he feels he was pushed,” one told me months ago.

On Sunday Gazette columnist Barry Noreen added to the intrigue with this speculation:

Dobson wants to pass the torch to his son, Ryan, and couldn’t do it at Focus because Ryan Dobson went through a divorce in 2001.

Meanwhile Rich Tosches, a columnist at the Colorado Springs Independent, wrote on Dec. 24 that Focus may–or may not be–spending millions to air an anti-abortion commercial featuring Tim Tebow’s mother during the Super Bowl.

A source says the new head of Focus, Jim Daly, spoke at an evangelical conference a few months ago and unveiled the Super Bowl ad plan. Then he begged for donations from like-minded organizations. According to the source, Daly was given about $3 million, and Focus dipped into its general fund for the other $1 million.

This, of course, will come as a surprise to the 150 or so Focus employees who were fired a few months ago, supposedly because of a steep decline in handouts from dwindling legions of followers. In 2008, some 200 workers were fired from the Christian organization just weeks before Christmas.

I’m looking for stories that go deeper into the mystery of why Dobson now seems to be competing with the organization he birthed and nurtured for so long, and will keep you posted if anyone brings this into clearer focus.

God and culture: 2009 remix

Simpsons religionI’ve only been a card-carrying Get Religion-er since August, and in that brief time I’ve been repeatedly drawn to articles that cover the intersection of faith and culture.

And what a year it was for examining Dan Brown and the Masons, Michael Moore and Catholicism, the Coen brothers and Judaism, punk rock musicians and Islam, Ricky Gervais and atheism, Glenn Beck and Mormonism, or the online pranksters of the Assclown Offensive and Scientology.

There were also fascinating books (such as cartoonist Robert Crumb’s Bible project, Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open,” and Carl Jung’s huge (and hugely anticipated) “Red Book.”

The Vatican gave a fitting postlude to the year in culture with its Dec. 22 release of a document commemorating TV’s “The Simpsons” on its 20th anniversary. The Associated Press was first up with the story: “Vatican paper says ‘The Simpsons’ are okely dokely.”

While not ignoring the show’s apparent problems (“excessively crude language, the violence of certain episodes or some extreme choices by the scriptwriters”) the article in L’Osservatore Romano by Luke M. Possati graciously praised the show’s accomplishments:

Religion, from the snore-evoking sermons of the Rev. Lovejoy to Homer’s face-to-face talks with God, appears so frequently on the show that it could be possible to come up with a “Simpsonian theology,” it said.

Homer’s religious confusion and ignorance are “a mirror of the indifference and the need that modern man feels toward faith,” the paper said.

It commented on several religion-themed episodes, including one in which Homer calls for divine intervention by crying: “I’m not normally a religious man, but if you’re up there, save me, Superman!”

“Homer finds in God his last refuge, even though he sometimes gets His name sensationally wrong,” L’Osservatore said. “But these are just minor mistakes, after all, the two know each other well.”

Other reports soon appeared in newspapers, entertainment publications and blogs worldwide–none of them improving on the AP’s original. I can’t comment on the faithfulness of these various reports to the original L’Osservatore Romano article, which I have been unable to find in English translation. But some of the reports generated the ire of Catholics, like these two readers:

You have got to be kidding. It is a crude and vile show that teaches nothing. I can’t believe that the Vatican would sanction this.

Are there not enough good and beautiful works of man that we must sift through his most insulting and degrading work for one shred of value, only to be seen as “cool” in the eyes of the world?

Perhaps that’s the way things will be eternally at the intersection of faith and culture. A work will evoke religious euphoria in one recipient, while another will recoil from the same work in revulsion.

Finally, I can’t let 2009 end withouot praising Religion & Ethics Newsweekly for two fine reports: Rafael Pi Roman’s Nov. 20 piece on Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor and Kim Lawton’s in-depth look at Jewish rap singer Matisyahu.

I can’t wait to see what kinds of culture faith will inspire in 2010.