WWJV: Where Would Jesus Vacation?

Thaibeach1postcard_1I just got off an airplane returning from a brief research trip to Tampa, where I spent a wonderful day at the Poynter Institute talking to the usual cast of bright people about newspapers, blogs, religion news, editors, reporters, producers, the future of news and all kinds of connected stuff. What can I say? It’s what I do.

And what I normally do not do is read the travel pages of daily newspapers, especially USA Today. I guess I don’t do a good job of relaxing or dreaming of spending large sums of money in exotic locales. The travel pages don’t have much to do with how I live. Whatever.

Anyway, I happened to glance at the bottom of the travel page in today’s McPaper travel page and, lo and behold, I think I saw a religion-story ghost. I am sure that I saw and ethical ghost. I’m not sure about the religion part. I’ll let you decide.

The story is about the moral — religious? — questions raised by people whose first response to the tsunami in Asia and Southeast Asia is to . . . well, let’s let reporter Laura Bly describe what some people did.

The day after the earthquake-spawned tsunami killed thousands and ravaged coastlines across the Indian Ocean, Jeff Burleson posted a message on FlyerTalk.com, wondering whether the disaster would translate to lower Asian airfares.

Slammed by fellow posters, the Encinitas, Calif., globetrotter was unrepentant: “Did airfares & room rates fall after 9/11? Yes. By your logic, you would have encouraged everyone to avoid NYC & DC because going would afford those who went with an ‘unseemly disaster discount,’ ” he wrote. “I plan on going to Asia this spring, and I invite all of you to join me in a tangible demonstration of goodwill & sympathy vs. useless pity.”

So there you have it. You can send aid to the region, aid that may get caught in all kinds of government lockboxes and global red tape and, dare we say it, corruption, or you can grab your wallet and your flip-flops and head to the beach? Clearly, the major source of income in some of these regions is tourism. Is it unethical to attempt to pour money back into those economies?

Or, as Bly puts it, does it show an immoral disrespect for the 150,000 dead to jump into the beach chairs with a parasol drink in hand? Which will help the survivors more? Which form of direct aid will work best? Here is another piece of the feature:

“Nobody is making light of the huge human cost of the disaster (or) suggesting we should go and get in the way of the clear-up. But for many in the developing world, no tourists this morning can mean no food on the table tonight,” says Lonely Planet guidebooks co-founder Tony Wheeler, writing in London’s Independent newspaper. “We can all dig into our pockets to contribute money to relief efforts. But in the longer term the best thing we can do is, simply, go there.”

Simply stated, what happens to the living if the bottom drops out of their economy? Yet the mind spins at the thought of this. Mine spins for religious reasons. Yet I can see why people are asking this question.

"Countless Souls Cry Out to God"

Thai_waveIt took several days for the mainstream media to find a way to focus on the religious element of tsunami tragedy in South and Southeast Asia. This often happens with events that are simply too stunning and too important for the leaders of major print and electronic media to see them as “religion stories.”

How can this be a “religion story”? Many newsrooms do not even have a religion reporters (especially in television). The story is too big for the “religion niche.” It demands major attention, right now and for weeks to come.

Good grief, the “religion beat” doesn’t even have a travel budget, let alone extra funds for high-end graphics, photos from the other side of the world and, on the networks, its own epic/sad musical theme.

How can this be a religion story? It’s too BIG to be a religion story.

Then the religion questions start getting asked and, eventually, they make their way into the news.

Kenneth L. Woodward, the veteran Godbeat specialist at Newsweek, has been through this process many times through the decades. Thus, his religion sidebar looks at the obvious questions — Why us? Why here? Why now? — but with a twist. Simply stated: Different religions will ask different big questions. The headline called this event a “a cataclysm of biblical proportions,” but Woodward stressed that most of those affected — Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists — do not think in biblical terms. Here is a crucial section of his piece:

Caught up in the disaster, they had no time for religious ceremonies of any kind. In Sri Lanka, as in coastal southern India and along the beaches of Indonesia, there was only time to dig huge holes in the ground and shovel in the dead. “In this kind of tragedy, there is no religion,” said Syed Abdullah, a local imam in the ancient south Indian port of Nagapattinam, where Muslims, Hindus and Christians have lived together peacefully for centuries. “Let the dead be buried together. They died together in the sea. Let their souls get peace together.”

Woodward offers sketches of the faith issues that will arise in the region’s various faith traditions. In south India, for example, “Hindus tend to worship local deities, most of them female and far down the Hindu hierarchy of divinities. But like Shiva and other classic gods and goddesses, these local deities are ambivalent: they have the power to destroy as well as to create. The ocean itself is a terrible god who eats people and boats, but also provides fish as food.” Sooner or later, Buddhists will have to ask questions about karma and how their actions — individually or collectively — were connected to the tragedy. For Muslims, “All that happens is Allah’s doing, and nature itself wind, rain, storms constitutes signs of his mercy and compassion. Even the destructive tsunami, therefore, must have some hidden, positive purpose.”

Woodward’s conclusion is sobering: “Little wonder that from Sumatra to Madagascar, innumerable voices cry out to God. The miracle, if there is one, may be that so many still believe.”

For better or for worse, many journalists will try to see this tragedy in a Judeo-Christian context (even if they do not actually know much about Christianity or Judaism). As Doug LeBlanc has already noted, they will be led to the timeless questions of Job and other mysteries about the reality of evil, free will, a fallen creation and a loving Creator.

These are not trivial questions and, in many cases, news sources are not going to provide easy, sound-bite-friendly answers. Thus, as Philip Kennicott notes in the Washington Post, many media professionals are starting to get uneasy. In a brutally honest piece, he accuses many reporters — especially television reporters — of dashing through the bitter realities and tough questions in order to get to the heartwarming, photogenic, emotional happy endings.

We want hope and we want it — right now. We want good news and we want it — right now.

Here is Kennicott’s money quote:

Add this to the debate about whether religion is too absent, or too present, in American public life: The stories we tell about disasters such as the Asian tsunami are through and through religious narratives. The basic lines of the hope story are essentially theological — pain is viewed as a trial, followed by the redemption of hope and healing — and they break down into a neat, two-act structure. There may not be resurrection, but there are at least tales of miraculous survival.

Disaster also forces the skeptical mind to question God’s existence, and yet the media — supposedly so skeptical — do a virtuoso dance around the problem of God and His mercy. There are complicated theological ways around this problem, this dilemma of two Gods, one who wields earthquakes and waves like Zeus throwing thunderbolts, the other filled with compassion and alert to the power of prayer. While the media will occasionally raise the issue of doubt — or how religious leaders deal with doubt — they revert quickly, effortlessly, to an endorsement of orthodoxy. It is easier to report on people praying (the visuals are better) than it is to write about doubt. And doubt makes people angry. It shakes faith at a time when faith is under stress.

There is much more to this essay. But one point is essential. This is one case where orthodox believers are far more likely to be up front and honest about the Big Questions of faith and doubt than are many of the journalists who want to dash through to the glowing visuals and happy endings, if they can find any.

Journalists need to realize that, yes, this is a religion story. There are life-and-death issues at stake. People are asking questions for which there are no, absolutely no, easy answers. This is not sound-bite territory. People are looking way past deadlines and into eternity. The goal is to listen to their voices and tell their stories, even when what they have to say is mysterious and complicated.

P.S. Ted Olsen of Christianity Today Online has called in Rudy Carrasco as a guest blogger on the tsunami while Olsen and his assistant Rob Moll churn out their usual dizzying array of links on other topics. Also, the Religion Newswriters Association has assembled a ReligionLink site dedicated to resources to help reporters. Check it out.

Regarding the photo with this post: Jeff Hock shot it at Phuket, Thailand, on Dec. 26, and it appears with plenty of other images on waveofdestruction.org.

Can the U.S. left play the Blair card?

Blair_churchAnyone who has been reading GetReligion in the wake of 11/2 knows I am convinced that one of the major stories of 2005 will be the early signs of what the religious left will do to help the political left address the “pew gap.”

On one level, the press will simply cover this as an attempt by the Democratic Party to “get religion,” to (cue: trumpet flourish) quote the headline on Nicholas Kristof’s post-election column. But the reality is more complex than that. This is not a matter or pro-religion vs. anti-religion. For starters, there are different brands of religion “to get.”

Anyone who wants to see this process in action can look across the Atlantic at media coverage of faith and the career of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Rachel Sylvester provided an update on this story recently in the Telegraph, under the headline, “Mr Blair has a strong belief in mixing religion and politics.”

This is controversial stuff, especially since “God” has become a curse word on the British left. Besides, if Blair talks about God and President George W. Bush talks about God, then this suggests that Blair’s faith might in some way resemble Bush’s — which is, as everyone knows, hard-core fundamentalist Christian insanity — which could mean the death of modern England.

Nevertheless, as Sylvester’s essay makes clear:

 . . . (This) Government is, in fact, more Christian than any of its recent predecessors, of either political persuasion. There is a divide on the Left between those who adhere to Marx’s view that religion is the opium of the masses and those who agree with Keir Hardie that Labour politics derive “more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than all other sources combined”. The Blair administration is well and truly in the latter camp.

Indeed, and here is the point. It is true that there are British journalists and elite thinkers who are appalled at Blair’s open embrace of Christian faith. This is a true secular reaction to any claim of the sacred. We will see this in America, as well, as soon as more Democrats tap into the new, progressive, “purple” religious language flowing out of upstate Illinois and other locations.

Blair knows what is going on. He knows that some forms of religion are more dangerous than others. Again, here is the Sylvester essay:

Tony Blair, meanwhile, is the first Prime Minister since Gladstone who keeps a copy of the Bible beside his bed. . . . According to his biographer Anthony Seldon, the Labour leader thought seriously about going into the Church when he left university, and a political career is not that different, in his mind, from a religious calling.

“My Christianity and my politics came together at the same time,” he once said, explaining to The Telegraph that his Christian values led him “to oppose what I perceived to be the narrow view of self-interest that Conservatism — particularly its modern, more Right-wing form — represents”. Naturally, his is an outward-looking faith that accepts the validity of other religions. What he does not have time for, however, is non-belief. “Religion should remain the bedrock of civilization,” he told a multi-faith service held to celebrate the Millennium.

So there is the secular option. Then there is the right-wing, traditionalist option. In between is a progressive yet pro-faith option. This middle position accepts some religious claims, some emphasis on absolute truths and absolute evils. In Britain, this is currently affecting foreign policy debates, with Blair solidly left on moral and cultural issues. But even there, he is trying to sound Clintonian on some cultural and family issues, while avoiding any compromise on the big issues such as abortion and gay rights.

It also helps Blair that when the British press says “the church” this usually means the Church of England, which leans way left on moral and cultural issues (or at least it does in England and North America). When the U.S. press says “the church” this could mean anything. This usually means the church of the candidate. For a progressive, this is OK if you are a member a liberal mainline church. It is troublesome — ask Sen. John Kerry — if one is a Catholic. Clinton, of course, was a Baptist — a word that is defined differently from person to person, from congregation to congregation.

Meanwhile, here is what Blair has started saying: “There is right and wrong. There is good and bad. We should not hesitate to make such judgments.” And there you have it. Can the American left say that, without too great a firestorm in, oh, Hollywood and the New York Times editorial page offices?

2004 in review (I): God and the AP

Abu_scarecrowMore than two decades ago, my graduate advisers at the University of Illinois gave early approval to the idea of me writing my final project about the state of religion coverage in mainstream American newsrooms, which I also condensed for The Quill. One professor was skeptical, until I brought him a copy of the Associated Press’ top 10 stories for the previous year. At least six of the stories were linked to religion.

I have watched the AP’s end-of-the-year list closely ever since, and I can’t think of a year in which the number of stories containing major religion “ghosts” has fallen below four or five. I am not saying these stories were COVERED as religion stories. I am saying it would have really helped to have had a skilled religion reporter on the team covering each of these stories.

This year, as I stressed in my Scripps Howard column this week, it is hard to tell the difference between the AP’s list and the annual top 10 list from the Religion Newswriters Association. OK, maybe it’s not that hard. The release of “The Passion of the Christ” tied with the re-election of President Bush in the RNA poll. More details in a few days in part II of this end-of-the-year review.

Here is a GetReligion-annotated version of the AP’s list, with quotes from the wire story:

1. U.S. ELECTION: After vanquishing Howard Dean, John Edwards and other Democratic rivals, Kerry seemed to have a strong chance of ousting Bush. But the Massachusetts senator struggled to explain his stance on Iraq, underestimated the sting of negative ads and — in the end — narrowly lost the pivotal swing state of Ohio.

Comment: I seem to remember a few news stories on the toll of “values voters” and the role of moral and cultural issues, as well. Let’s call that a “freaking” ghost.

2: IRAQ: Throughout 2004, Iraq was a striking mix of bloody turmoil and tantalizing promise. Anti-American insurgents wreaked havoc with car bombings and videotaped beheadings of hostages.

Comment: I think this one speaks for itself. The entire drama of Iraq is haunted by religion and, more and more, the possible war between the Shiites and Sunnis.

3. FLORIDA HURRICANES: Four major hurricanes — Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne — devastated Florida and other southern states in August and September. … Not since 1886 had one state been hit by four hurricanes in one season.

Comment: For me this hits close to home. As I noted at the time, a major topic of discussion among Floridians the question: Why us?

4. ABU GHRAIB: Photographs came to light showing U.S. military guards at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad forcing naked Iraqi detainees to pose in humiliating positions. . . . (The) scandal fueled anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world.

Comment: What can we say? Both GetReligion and The Revealer made the case that this story raised unavoidable religion questions.

5. SEPT. 11 REPORT: After painstaking research and dramatic public hearings, the commission formed to investigate the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, issued its report.

Comment: Well? Anyone see any ghosts in Sept. 11 stories?

6: GAY MARRIAGE: From coast to coast, gay marriage was a volatile topic throughout the year. Massachusetts became the first state to have legal, same-sex weddings, and local officials in several places — including San Francisco and Portland, Ore. — also wed gay and lesbian couples before courts intervened. However, each time the issue reached the ballot — in 13 states in all — voters decisively approved constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

Comment: I have no idea which GetReligion post to link to, at this point, because there are so many.

7: ARAFAT DIES: For three decades, Yasser Arafat was a hero to most of his fellow Palestinians but considered unreliable — or worse — by leaders in the West and Israel.

Comment: Nope. No ghosts in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

8: REAGAN DIES: Alzheimer’s disease had kept Ronald Reagan out of the public eye for a decade. But when the nation’s 40th president died in June, at 93, Americans responded with an outpouring of affection and respect.

Comment: Simply stated, the Reagan era was the coming-out party for the religious right.

9: RUSSIAN SCHOOL SEIZURE: Even in a world grown all too accustomed to terrorism, the drama in the Russian town of Belsan was shocking because children were so clearly prime targets.

Comment: Seizure? The religious elements of this story really spooked the mainstream press. When fanatics preaching a warped version of Islam massacre “infidels” while screaming praises to Allah, is this a religion story?

10: MADRID BOMBINGS: Another stunning terrorist strike occurred in March, when 190 people were killed after bombs hidden in backpacks exploded on four commuter trains during Madrid’s morning rush hour. Soon after the attack, which was blamed on Islamic militants, angry voters unseated Spain’s pro-American conservative government.

Comment: See no. 9, only the religious elements were quieter in this case.

PERSONAL COMMENT: I am currently hiding in the mountains of North Carolina, in a place so remote that some of the public libraries still do not offer Internet access. Our only local cyber cafe — 20 minutes away — went out of business. We have no telephone here (cell or otherwise) and I am able to download email every day or two through the kindness of our friendly tobacco farmer next-door neighbor. Web work is out of the question. Special thanks to the maestro LeBlanc for posting this item for me, including nabbing some relevant URLs and art!

Next on Entertainment Tonight: Celebrity sacraments

BeckhamsSo the lavish Sawbridgeworth, England, estate of soccer megastar David Beckham and his wife, Victoria — formerly known as pop tart “Posh Spice” — contains its own private chapel. Who knew?

This is merely one of the too-good-to-be-true details in a recent USA Today story by reporter CÃ(c)sar G. Soriano that could open up an entirely new niche for professionals on the Godbeat. Weddings are old hat for the paparazzi and gossip columnists. Now the super rich and fabulous are hitting a new stage of life — celebrity-party christenings. (Tip of the hat to friend of the blog Roberto Rivera y Carlo for catching this one.)

This may also be a major boon for the Church of England, which needs all the good photo opportunities it can get in these days of global strife over moral theology. After all, Anglican rites give most media stars precisely what they need, which is Catholic visuals with liturgical and doctrinal flexibility that resembles a trip to Starbucks.

Soriano’s report opens with some of the details of the recent “baptism bash” for sons Brooklyn, 5, and Romeo, 2. You want some of the details, now don’t you? Who was there to back the parents in taking their vows?

The pre-Christmas party at the Beckhams’ home in Sawbridgeworth, England, looked more like a Hollywood premiere than a religious ceremony. Pop star Elton John and partner David Furnish, the children’s godfathers, arrived by silver Rolls-Royce. Elizabeth Hurley showed up in an ivory gown with a plunging neckline. (The invitation suggested “modest attire.”)

Three of Victoria Beckham’s former Spice Girls bandmates also turned out: Emma Bunton, Geri Halliwell and Melanie Chisholm. Only Melanie Brown (“Scary Spice”) was absent.

The Church of England baptism . . . was followed by a six-course dinner and dance. Reported cost: $900,000. Thursday’s party might be just a rehearsal for what’s to come, because Victoria, 30, is expecting the couple’s third child in March.

It will surprise no one that one of the pioneers of this new trend was (musical cue: “Vogue”) Madonna. Soriano noted that the interfaith mystic/siren held an elaborate baptism, along with beau Guy Ritchie, of baby Rocco in Scotland in December 2000. This was part of a multi-sacrament program in Scotland, since they baptized their baby the day BEFORE their wedding. Oh, Sting and Stella McCartney were witnesses for the baptism. Does anyone remember who stood in as best man and maid of honor?

The USA Today report also notes that Latin singer Marc Anthony and ex-wife Dayanara Torres got together for the Aug. 14 christening of their 1-year-old son, Ryan. It has been an eventful year. Anthony’s new wife, Jennifer Lopez, did not attend the rites.

Minister of Defense drew cheers and jeers

Reggie_1 Many of the mainstream obits today for the Rev. Reggie White contain a photograph taken at one of the high points of his Hall of Fame career. In the photo — which I wish we had the rights to show you — White is kneeling near mid-field moments after his team has won the Super Bowl and the man they called the Minister of Defense appears to be preaching a mini-sermon before he leads a circle of players in prayer.

The caption for this photo in the dead-tree-pulp edition of USA Today says, "Moving figure: Reggie White (92) huddles the Packers in a prayer service after their Super Bowl XXXI win against the Patriots in 1997."

Close, but this caption misses one of the major themes in White’s career. In the photo, his tree-limb-sized arms are embracing several players — from the Patriots. This is one of those post-game prayer meetings for Christians from both teams. There are Packers next to Patriots and it is very clear who is the leader of these men from both teams. Viewers have never seen one of these post-game prayer and fellowship rites, because officials at Fox, CBS and ABC have always declined to show them. But they happen and White was one of the people who started them, reminding everyone that football was football and life was life and it should be clear to everyone which was more important.

This is one of the reasons that White’s still mysterious death at age 43 stunned so many people. While the sports world is controversial for a lot of reasons — from drugs to murder to various forms of abuse — White was controversial because he was, of all things, a minister who was not afraid to preach. He was a leader outside of football. He was, for many, a role model and that made him many enemies as well as friends.

Translate that into the obit language of the New York Times and his work sounds like this:

White created a stir in March 1998 with a speech to the Wisconsin State Assembly. In it, he referred to homosexuality as "one of the biggest sins in the Bible" and used ethnic stereotypes for blacks and whites. At the time, White, considering retirement, was on a list of candidates for CBS’s N.F.L. studio show, but he did not get the job.

White’s wife, Sara, charged that CBS had "wimped out" because of pressure from homosexual groups, but a CBS spokeswoman said that the network "never had a finalized agreement" with White and that the decision not to hire him was not "influenced by outside groups."

White’s words did offend many and he apologized. But it was pretty clear what had happened. White had taken the kind of vivid images used in thousands of African-American pulpits and pulled them into the public spotlight in a progressive context. He had, in other words, spoken his mind — yes, very bluntly — in public. His words were offensive, especially the stereotypes he served up in what he said was a joking tribute to the strengths and weaknesses of various ethnic groups. Here is how I described that controversy in a column at the time.

The Green Bay Packer legend recently offended legions of people with a sermon to Wisconsin lawmakers that attacked abortion, called homosexual acts sin and offered up a colorful series of ethnic anecdotes, while arguing that all racial groups must see each other as part of God’s image.

White had, as the old Southern saying goes, "gone to meddling." He was attacking racism and defending traditional church teachings. While most obits have mentioned the Wisconsin controversy, most have said that White "blasted" homosexuals or some other combination of words that might make it sound that the NFL star singled out gays and lesbians. His words can certainly be read that way and coverage in the gay press will focus on this with good reason. However, White actually set out to make all kinds of people mad. This was not a man who was afraid to talk about sin — in all kinds of places affecting all kinds of people.

As a professor who tries to get cultural conservatives to look at the flaws in their own lives, I have always been fond of this passage from one White speech in Washington, D.C. I imagine that the White story will continue to draw ink in the days to come. There are the reports about his growing interest in Hebrew and some say that he no longer considered himself a minister. But let’s end here, for now.

… (White) stood up in the nation’s capital and said God wants to start messing with the ordinary day-to-day sins of people who think of themselves as conservatives. The man that many call the greatest defensive lineman ever even had the audacity to sack a purple dinosaur.

"How many of you wives have a hard time getting your husband’s attention when he’s watching TV?", he asked, drawing nervous laughter at a luncheon in which he and his wife Sara were honored by the conservative Family Research Council. "How many of you husbands have a hard time getting your wife’s attention when she’s on the telephone? … How many of us can get our children’s attention when they’re watching cartoons?

"Why are Barney and Mickey so much more popular than Jesus? Because the world is trying to feed us … and trying to get us to idol worship."

The Paranoia Express rolls on and on

PolarExpressOne of the most important facts to remember in discussions of red zones and blue zones — right up there with the reality of allegedly red people pigging out on blue culture all the time — is the fact that the blue zones coalition consists of both highly religious people and people who are secularists.

The religious right has a tendency to forget that the religious left is out there and has its own way of parsing scriptures and traditions.

However, it is clear that there are some people on the blue side of the aisle who are so mad right now, in the wake of 11/2 and other cultural battles, that they are seeing the red-zone, faith-based, values-voter enemy in all kinds of places that, when you stop and think about it, seem out and out wacky. It seems, in particular, that anything in popular culture that draws stark lines between right and wrong, good and evil, and offers a glowing view of family or even (gasp!) faith is going to be labeled a White House plot.

Exhibit A in this syndrome was the wave of paranoia that greeting the smashing success of The Incredibles (and the flop of the new Alfie). That story is not over yet, of course. To add fuel to that fire, check out this National Review Online chat with one of the Pixar czars.

Now, the trend-watching folks at SlateWashingtonPostNewsweek have found another evangelical plot to sway the nation away from reason. For, you see, one of the marketing people for The Polar Express is Paul Lauer, who was one of the people who led the drive to get red-zone people to turn out for (cue theme from Jaws) that movie — The Passion of the Christ.

Thus, as a public service, Slate’s David Sarno asked the ultimate nasty question:

But wait, is The Polar Express an evangelical film?

You’d certainly think so, considering the expansive campaign of preview screenings, radio promotion, DVDs, and online resources that Lauer unfurled in the Christian media this fall. This Polar Express downloads page includes endorsements from pastors and links to church and parenting resources hosted by the Christian media outlet HomeWord. There are suggestions for faith-building activities and a family Bible-study guide that notes, for example, the Boy’s Christ-like struggle to get the Girl a train ticket. “The Boy risked it all to recover the ticket,” the guide observes. “Jesus gave His all to save us from the penalty of our sins.”

HomeWord Radio, which claims to reach more than a million Christian parents daily, broadcast three shows promoting the film. At one point, the show’s host wondered excitedly if the movie “might turn out to be one of the more effective witnessing tools in modern times.” Motive also produced a promotional package that was syndicated to over 100 radio stations in which Christian recording artists like Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, and Avalon talked about the movie as they exited preview screenings.

There’s more. The marketing troops even sent free promotional DVDs to churches, urging them to buy tickets for children, Sunday school classes, etc. These DVDs even included commentary from the evangelical superstar Max Lucado, noting how at least eight scenes in the movie affirm — oh my God — biblical principles.

Yes, it is true that the movie does not seem to contain anything that is specifically Christian, in terms of doctrine, and it certainly is not evangelistic. But the protectors of blue culture cannot be too careful. It would not be good too Hollywood try to reach out to middle America with products that affirm any of its alleged values. Stay tuned. Who knows what the GOP and the religious right will come up with next.

It's Christmas Day: So what's the story?

Bethlehem_church_of_the_nativity_2Pick up the newspaper on a typical Christmas morning and you know that certain items are sure to be inside.

The local copy desk will have managed to get an early dateline story out of Rome, complete with whatever quotations the pope’s sermon included that have anything to do with politics or the peace process in the Middle East. It’s usually best to just read the sermon for yourself.

You also know that there will be a report and a photo about conditions in Bethlehem. Conditions there are almost always somewhat more bleak, or somewhat less bleak than the year before. Bleak is measured in terms of police and-or tourists.

This is particularly interesting to me, since I attend an Eastern Orthodox parish that is about 70 percent Arab. Our church has members from Bethlehem and Jerusalem, part of the great exodus of Christians out of the Holy Land. I was particularly struck, this year, by the Los Angeles Times report by Laura King. It had all of the usual political themes that one expects to see in a religion story from that part of the world. Here is a sample:

Most of the celebrants were local Palestinians, including throngs of young Muslim men and boys seeking any excuse for a night out from one of the city’s grim Palestinian refugee camps. The few foreign tourists were mostly organized church groups, rather than the travelers who could commonly be found venturing to the West Bank on their own in the years before the second intifada, or uprising, broke out in September 2000.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestine Liberation Organization chief who is favored to win the Palestinian Authority’s Jan. 9 presidential election, attended midnight Mass in the chapel adjoining the nearly 1,500-year-old Church of the Nativity, in what aides said was a message of interfaith solidarity.

Now note, if you will, an interesting point in that last paragraph. The story covers the politically colored events in the chapel next door to the ancient church. If you have been to Bethlehem, then you know that this means that the reporter covered the Roman Catholic services in the rather modern Franciscan sanctuary that adjoins the ancient sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity (shown in photo). Let’s hope that when Christmas arrives on the Julian calendar on Jan. 7, at least a few reporters visit the ancient church for the Orthodox rites there — even if those rites are not as politically symbolic. We’ll have to see. Or perhaps we will not see, if major U.S. media fail to cover it.

Meanwhile, back to the main theme of this post. Another staple of Christmas Day newspapers is the glowing human interest story about nice people doing nice things. There will be photo packages on volunteer Santas and short accounts of volunteers helping people out in a wide variety of ways. These are the "good news" stories that consultants tell news executives that readers what to see and, every now and then, editors assign them and get them into the main pages. If GetReligion readers see any fine examples of this genre today, please leave us a comment or two.

One of my local newspapers — the South Florida Sun-Sentinel — led page one with a nice-people story of this kind, only with a twist.

Veteran religion reporter James D. Davis (a friend of this blog), came up with a Christmas feature that I have to admit I have never seen before. He focused his feature story — entitled "A Newly Found Faith" — on individuals who are seeing Christmas 2004 through a unique lens. He found people who had been converted to Christian faith in the previous year and asked them how this affected the Christmas season. The stories of these converts are not spectacular. Most, it seems, are built on quiet changes over time. But it is still clear that these lives changed and, thus, in subtle ways, Christmas changed.

However, the copy desk at the Sun-Sentinel appears to have made one major online mistake. They misplaced Davis’ prologue — which explains what the these stories are all about. Imagine that. They forgot to include his lead on the body text of his story.

So here it is. Read the lead and then you can go read this rather unique set of Christmas stories:

In a way, Christmas is always the same: a bright, joyous tide of gifts, colors, carols, festive foods. And also, of course, a rushed, stressful time; a commercial polyglot; a TV season of black and white feel-good movies from yesteryear. Yet today, it will be different for some people in South Florida: new Christians.


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