Ingmar Bergman is dead, dead, dead

sealDuring the Culture Wars era, the U.S. Supreme Court has been forced to wrestle with this question: Can a government-supported advocacy of “secular humanism” (scare quotes were the norm) become a form of religion? I think the more important question is whether government-supported advocacy of Universalism is a form of doctrinal entanglement, but the hot-button phrase “secular humanism” was what grabbed the headlines.

The Supremes always answered this question with a resounding “no.”

However, it is hard to argue that there is no such thing as a religion of secularism — or at the very least, that there are no secular saints and prophets — after reading the mainstream coverage of the death of the gifted filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.

Consider this language in a tribute offered by Desson Thomson in The Washington Post:

And what does it mean when we declare that Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker who passed away early yesterday at 89, was the greatest artist in the history of film?

What did the son of a Lutheran minister, with five wives, four divorces, three Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and at least one out-of-wedlock child, do to deserve this?

… the movie that would establish him as a great film artist — certainly in critical circles — was 1957′s “The Seventh Seal.” A drama about a medieval knight who rages at an indifferent God in the face of plague, it became an allegory for modern man. One scene in particular, in which the knight plays a game of chess with Death himself, a spectral figure in a monklike robe, became one of cinema’s iconic moments.

Or how about this quote in the Los Angeles Times feature essay by Myra Oliver?

Critic Peter Rainer wrote for The Times in 2005 that “Bergman is undeniably one of the great directors, but he has always stood for more than the sum of his films. From the first, he was regarded … as a visionary who grappled with the Big Questions of God and Man. His symbol-thick films were drenched in the night sweats of mortal torment. He was the kind of artist we had been brought up to believe was the real deal: He suffered for our souls.”

However, the newspaper that Woody Allen reads every morning is The New York Times, the holy writ of the high church of art and cinema and, thus, the veneration of Bergman.

It’s hard to know where to begin, when it comes to citing the religious themes, images and language in the “appraisal” offered by Stephen Holden, which ran with this perfect headline: “In Art’s Old Sanctuary, a High Priest of Film.”

There is, of course, the ultimate issue that is everywhere — death.

“Not a day has gone by in my life when I haven’t thought about death,” Mr. Bergman mused in “Bergman Island,” a recent, extraordinarily intimate documentary portrait, filmed on the island of Faro, where he lived in semi-isolation for four decades. The image of a chess game, he said, was inspired by a painting in a church he visited as a boy with his father. Until many decades later, when he underwent anesthesia that left him unconscious for several hours, he harbored “an insane fear” of death. Losing, then regaining, consciousness partially alleviated that fear, which seeps into the core of many of his finest films.

Mr. Bergman’s ruthlessly honest investigation of his demons is what lends such images their crushing weight. However fictional, they are undeniably truthful expressions of one artist’s personal torment, redeemed by fleeting glimpses of eternity and redemption in a long, dark night of the soul.

Intimations of divinity, he says in the documentary, can be found in classical music, in which he finds “human holiness.”

GodDeadEven the director’s technical genus becomes a form of religious practice.

Even Mr. Bergman’s comedies have a powerful undertow of sadness, of time rushing by and of dark shadows gathering. Geography has a lot to do with it. The chilly winter light of his films, most of them exquisitely shot by Sven Nykvist, emanates from a sun low on the horizon. Looking for the sun is tantamount to searching for God.

And on and on it goes, with more material on that stern Lutheran father — the symbol of a remote, judging God — and the “existential dread” that drifted over everything in the era defined by Freud, Sartre, Bergman and, later, Allen.

But here is the passage that really lets you know why Bergman’s passing is such a major event for a generation of movers and shakers in culture, academia and media.

Let us attend!

Attendance at Mr. Bergman’s films was a lot like going to church. Though many of those films are steeped in church imagery, God is usually absent from the sanctuary.

As a college student and avid art-film goer in the early 1960s, I was overwhelmed by Mr. Bergman’s films, with their heavy-duty metaphysical speculation and intellectual seriousness. In those days, you would no more argue with Mr. Bergman’s stature than you would question the greatness of the modern Western literary canon; like Mann, Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner, et al., Mr. Bergman was an intellectual god whose work could reward a lifetime of analytical study.

Over the past day or so, I have read other mainstream tributes to Bergman and I cannot find the answer to a logical question, after all of these references to God, doubt and death. Here is the question: What did Bergman believe, if anything, about the ultimate issues? Did he ever make a clear statement about his religious beliefs?

According to the Celebrity Atheist List site, he did not. That would have been a good thing to mention, just as a point of information.

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How great thou art

Golden SummerWhen I first read Eric Gorski’s piece on evangelicals and art last week, I thought it was another home run for one of my favorite religion reporters. But I’m always praising Gorski — and Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times, among others — and I thought it might be best to let the piece pass. But so many GetReligion readers — from a wide religious spectrum — have commented favorably on the article that I want to make sure we highlight it.

Gorski begins by telling the story of Makoto Fujimura, an abstract painter and elder in a Presbyterian Church in America congregation.

There are no crosses in Makoto Fujimura’s paintings. No images of Jesus gazing into the distance, or serene scenes of churches in a snow-cloaked wood.

. . . After the 2001 terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center, three blocks from Fujimura’s home, his work explored the power of fire to both destroy and purify, themes drawn from the Christian Gospels and Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.”

“I am a Christian,” says Fujimura, 46, who founded the nonprofit International Arts Movement to help bridge the gap between the religious and art communities. “I am also an artist and creative, and what I do is driven by my faith experience.

“But I am also a human being living in the 21st century, struggling with a lot of brokenness _ my own, as well as the world’s. I don’t want to use the term ‘Christian’ to shield me away from the suffering or evil that I see, or to escape in some nice ghetto where everyone thinks the same.”

By making a name for himself in the secular art world, Fujimura has become a role model for creatively wired evangelicals. They believe that their churches have forsaken the visual arts for too long — and that a renaissance has begun.

The story makes the case that Fujimura is part of a larger movement: galleries in churches, seminaries opening centers devoted to the arts and films being made by graduates from evangelical film schools. He speaks with observers of culture and Christianity and compares the new movement with Christian artistic efforts from the past. Rather than aping the culture as much of contemporary Christian music does or selling accessible but artistically unimaginative paintings like, well, Thomas Kinkade, the new movement is about making good art first and foremost, the story contends.

The story is not terribly long but does get some important details — and history! — into the piece. Gorski notes that some evangelicals are uncomfortable with abstraction:

“The Bible is full of abstraction,” said Fujimura, an elder at a Greenwich Village church he helped start. “Think about this God who created the universe, the heavens and the earth from nothing. In order to have faith you have to reach out to something, to a mystery.”

It isn’t always an easy sell.

Evangelical unease with the visual arts dates to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Andy Crouch, editorial director for Christianity Today’s Christian Vision Project, which examines how evangelicals intersect with the broader culture, notes that Protestantism traces its origins to an era when noses were snapped off sculptures in a rejection of Catholic visual tradition while the word of God was elevated.

Attitudes began to change in the 1960s and 1970s, when Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer and Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker challenged believers to emerge from their cocoons and engage the culture, including in the arts.

Just a great piece overall. One of the things that makes being a reporter in this day and age so interesting is that sources can also publish their interactions with reporters. One of the people Gorski interviewed for his article mentioned their conversation back in June. He says that Gorski was asking about an arts conference he’d learned about weeks before when he was attending the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting.

The Austin blogger/arts pastor David Taylor says the conversation was good and lasted for 40 minutes. And what’s interesting is that he doesn’t show up in the article at all. Or, rather, he isn’t quoted in the article. Their discussion seems to have helped shape — in some capacity or another — Gorski’s well-rounded study of a very broad trend.

Image is Makoto Fujimura‘s Golden Summer.

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Please define ‘evangelical’ (yet again)

USA evangelicals2If you type the word “evangelicals” into Google Images, the art attached to the top of this post is the very first thing that turns up. This tells us quite a bit about how most Americans now define the vague word “evangelical.”

Even Wikipedia is better than this strictly political image and — horrors — you can see the battles over what the word means by reading the start of the “evangelicalism” entry at that mixmaster site:

The word evangelicalism often refers to a broad collection of religious beliefs, practices, and traditions which are found among Protestant Christians and some Catholics. Evangelicalism is typified by an emphasis on evangelism, a personal experience of conversion, biblically oriented faith and a belief in the relevance of Christian faith to some cultural issues. Historically, the movement began in the early 18th century as a response to Enlightenment thinking. It stressed a more personal relationship with God at the individual level; as well as activism based upon one’s biblically based beliefs.

Current media usage of the term (especially in the United States), is often synonymous with conservative Protestant Christians. This is only partly accurate, as the movement embraces a wide range of expressions of faith around the four core characteristics.

Notice, again, the entire history of the term Protestant, yet somehow we now have Catholics who apparently vote evangelical, which means there are Catholics who are now evangelical Protestants. The terrible phrase in the Wiki definition is the one that says evangelicals share a “biblically oriented faith” — which could mean just about anything. Thus, all the confusion. But it is not my intent to open up that subject for debate, yet again.

No, what caught my eye this time was a recent New York Times story by veteran religion writer Laurie Goodstein, which makes a solid attempt to add some clarity on the diversity of “evangelical” views on at least one issue that is hard to label as “liberal” or “conservative.”

Thus, the headline: “Coalition of Evangelicals Voices Support for Palestinian State.” This coalition is stressing that both Jews and Palestinians have rights “stretching back for millennia” to territory in the Holy Lands. These leaders have issued a letter calling for the creation of a Palestinian state that includes the “vast majority of the West Bank.”

Now, who are these people?

The letter is signed by 34 evangelical leaders, many of whom lead denominations, Christian charities, ministry organizations, seminaries and universities.

They include Gary M. Benedict, president of The Christian and Missionary Alliance, a denomination of 2,000 churches; Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary; Gordon MacDonald, chairman of World Relief; Richard E. Stearns, president of World Vision; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; and Berten A. Waggoner, national director and president of The Vineyard USA, an association of 630 churches in the United States.

“This group is in no way anti-Israel, and we make it very clear we’re committed to the security of Israel,” said Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, which often takes liberal positions on issues. “But we want a solution that is viable. Obviously there would have to be compromises.”

Once again, you can see how hard it is to use political labels in this context — especially in a short news report.

What in the world does it mean that Sider and company often take “liberal positions on issues”? That is simply far too vague. What issues? Is it “liberal” to favor economic justice? Is that politically “liberal” or theologically “liberal”? Sider, by the way, is consistently pro-life and a doctrinal conservative on sexuality issues.

You can see this struggle later in the article, as well:

In the last year and half, liberal and moderate evangelicals have initiated two other efforts that demonstrated fissures in the evangelical movement. Last year, they parted with the conservative flank by campaigning against climate change and global warming. This year, they denounced the use of torture in the fight against terrorism. Some of the participants in those campaigns also signed this letter.

I do not fault Goodstein in any way for this confusion between political “evangelicalism” and doctrinal “evangelicalism.” Truth is, the word is all but meaningless right now. The reporter is caught in an impossible situation.

9780801025778However, by the end of the piece Goodstein manages to squeeze in an authoritative voice (and I must confess that he is a friend and former teaching colleague of mine) who can crisply note the nature of the doctrinal debate that looms behind this debate over Israel and Palestine.

There is a crucial theological difference between Mr. (John) Hagee’s views on Israel and those expressed by the letter writers, said Timothy P. Weber, a church historian, former seminary president and the author of “On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend.”

Mr. Hagee and others are dispensationalists, Mr. Weber said, who interpret the Bible as predicting that in order for Christ to return, the Jews must gather in Israel, the third temple must be built in Jerusalem and the Battle of Armageddon must be fought.

Mr. Weber said, “The dispensationalists have parlayed what is a distinctly minority position theologically within evangelicalism into a major political voice.”

Now, most run-of-the-mill newspaper readers who make it this far are almost certainly going to have to ask, “What in the world is a dispensationalist?” And, there is no way around it — this is another big word worth arguing about.

But at least it’s the right word and a highly precise one at that.

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Saints without halos

mormon historyIn a country where the only Mormon story reporters can conceive of involves Mitt Romney, Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack is a treat. It seems as if she’s one of the only reporters who doesn’t view Mormons as a monolithic group. This weekend she has a story on Mormons’ views about their own history.

A few months ago, Mormon historian Richard Bushman spoke with religion reporters at a Pew Forum. It was a fascinating discussion that we’ve already covered. One of my favorite excerpts was when he described how Mormons view some of their own history:

On the radical versus conservative question, Mormons actually love their radical roots. It’s like all these neo-cons that once were Marxist. (Laughter.) I think there is a feeling that somehow religion was more intense then. We were willing to give all, consecrate all of our property to the church. We were willing to give up respectability by practicing plural marriage. The plural marriage is sort of covered up by the church because it’s a public relations disaster, but in terms of Mormons themselves, they’re willing to honor those people as having done a lot.

So it’s sort of our glorious flaming youth when we did many daring things.

I thought of that when reading Fletcher Stack’s story. Bushman’s comments are good to keep in mind when writing about Mormon history. Whether or not it’s fair, certain historical incidents in the church have given it a reputation for not being forthright about its history or reputation. But there’s also a strong current of documentation in each Mormon family — not to mention the passion for genealogical research:

Now a new survey reveals many Mormons want accounts of their history “to be inspiring, but not sanitized,” says Rebecca Olpin, director of audience needs for the LDS Family and Church History Department. “They want it to be frank and honest. They are looking for the whole story, accounts of real people and a wider scope of history than early 19th-century pioneers.”

It’s not a trivial conclusion.

Mormons believe God commanded them to keep a record of their lives and actions beginning with the church’s founding in 1830 and continuing to the present. To them, history is a kind of theology, and writing it is a sacred responsibility.

That perspective long has put LDS historians and their scholarship at the center of controversy, as they tried to balance accounts of the miraculous with knowledge of human fallibility and flaws.

Fletcher Stack explains some of the back and forth about history writing, focusing on Leonard Arrington. The official church historian in the late 1970s unnerved LDS leaders for his approach, she writes.

The church surveyed 2,000 members who are active Mormons interested in genealogy. Many receive their history from novels or church-sponsored historic sites.

“I wish there were an easily accessible and authoritative source that would separate fact from speculation on true but troubling events in [LDS] Church history,” wrote one respondent.

Respondents also said they wanted to see official history expand beyond the church’s first decades to include family histories from more recent converts, pioneering Mormons in other countries and varied cultural traditions. They want to understand the lives and challenges of ordinary believers, not just celebrity Saints.

And they said they wanted it all to be easily available online, which neatly coincides with the LDS historical department’s goal to open its holdings to the public.

Fletcher Stack notes that some worry the church’s approach doesn’t help professional historians, non-Mormons and critics. And secrecy is still an issue, she says:

Though minutes of church meetings, disciplinary hearings, temple discussions and some diaries will remain off-limits, historical department researchers, staff and volunteers have digitized many microfilmed documents, including many pioneer family histories, and personal journals.

“Digitization really is going to be a liberator,” says [Jonathan] Stapley, an independent Mormon researcher in Seattle. “Entire collections have been restricted because of a single paragraph. Now the church can excise that and make the rest available.”

It does seem that the church is opening up a bit about its sometimes controversial past, and Fletcher Stack shows how this is being driven more by the membership than outside criticism. And we can be sure she’ll stay on the story.

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A ghost in the Buddhist bowl

gr1962If you were a traditional Muslim parent, how would you feel if teachers in your public school brought a “Tibetan singing bowl” into the classroom and taught your child how to “meditate,” drawing on techniques found in Buddhism?

How would you feel if you were Buddhist?

How would you feel if you were an Orthodox Jew? Would it be different if you were active in Reform Judaism?

What if you were a traditional Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian?

Would your feelings be different if you were a progressive Episcopalian, Lutheran, United Methodist or Presbyterian? What if you were part of a conservative church in any of those traditions?

What if you were Unitarian, or simply a parent who considers herself a “spiritual” person who is not part of a specific religious tradition? Would you feel in any way threatened or concerned?

In other words, would you feel different about this classroom emphasis on “mindfulness” if the religious tradition practiced in your home was highly specific and orthodox, as opposed to open-ended, evolving and, well, universalist?

You probably would. And this is the ghost floating through a recent New York Times story focusing on efforts to promote a kind of vague form of meditation in inner-city schools in Oakland, Calif. The story is very careful never to use the word “prayer,” and that is the big problem (in my opinion, as a guy with a graduate degree in church-state studies).

It’s safe to say that reporter Patricia Leigh Brown knew about the ghost in the story. After all, the story does say:

Asked their reactions to the sounds of the singing bowl, Yvette Solito, a third grader, wrote that it made her feel “calm, like something on Oprah.” Her classmate Corey Jackson wrote that “it feels like when a bird cracks open its shell.”

Dr. Amy Saltzman, a physician in Palo Alto, Calif., who started the Association for Mindfulness in Education three years ago, thinks of mindfulness education as “talk yoga.” Practitioners tend to use sticky-mat buzzwords like “being present” and “cultivating compassion,” while avoiding anything spiritual.

Sticky-mat buzzwords? Of course, the entire story has a strong “spirituality” theme to it. I would say that the novelty of drawing on Buddhist techniques in a school classroom was the essential news “hook” in the first place.

Brown also makes it clear that this is not a tax-funded program, even if it is taking place in regular classroom time in a tax-funded school.

During a five-week pilot program at Piedmont Avenue Elementary, Miss Megan, the “mindful” coach, visited every classroom twice a week, leading 15 minute sessions on how to have “gentle breaths and still bodies.” The sound of the Tibetan bowl reverberated at the start and finish of each lesson.

… The experiment at Piedmont, whose student body is roughly 65 percent black, 18 percent Latino and includes a large number of immigrants, is financed by Park Day School, a nearby private school (prompting one teacher to grumble that it was “Cloud Nine-groovy-hippie-liberals bringing ‘enlightenment’ to inner city schools”).

But Angela Haick, the principal of Piedmont Avenue, said she was inspired to try it after observing a class at a local middle school. “If we can help children slow down and think,” Dr. Haick said, “they have the answers within themselves.”

I want to stress that I think this is a very good and solid news story, whether you are interested in the church-state separation angle of it or not. I simply think it raises more questions about people thinking that “vague spirituality” is acceptable in the public square, while specific, doctrinal forms are not. This raises questions, for me, about the establishment of some forms of religion by the state over others.

Could you use classroom hours to teach Islamic prayers, complete with mind-calming prostrations? How about lessons in the rosary? A charismatic pastor teaching about “private prayer languages” and spiritual warfare?

I imagine that a story about any of those news “hooks” would be quite different.

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Finding Mormon sources

RoughStoneRollingOne of GR’s regular commenters, Rathje, drew our attention to one of the most lively discussions about religion I’ve read in a great long while.

On May 14, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life sponsored a discussion — “Mormonism and Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible?” — at its biannual Faith Angle conference. Pew helpfully provided a transcript. With Mitt Romney’s candidacy and the number of journalistic inquiries into Mormonism multiplying faster than a mathlete lightening round, the topic couldn’t be more timely. In attendance are too many journalists to shout out here, but suffice to say those participating in the discussion included some heavy hitters on the Godbeat and the politics beat from major publications.

But the real star of the discussion is the featured speaker, Richard Bushman, Governeur Morris Professor of History emeritus, Columbia University and author of Rough Stone Rolling, a well-regarded biography of Joseph Smith.

As both an Ivy League historian and a practicing Mormon, Bushman has a knack for explaining even the most controversial aspects of the church in ways that are colorful and illuminating. One aspect of the church that journalists writing about Mormonism consistently struggle with is reconciling its 19th century history of radicalism (polygamy, violent skirmishes with the federal government, etc.) with the contemporary view that many outsiders have of a slightly insular and conservative institution. Here is Bushman’s take on the church’s historical evolution:

On the radical versus conservative question, Mormons actually love their radical roots. It’s like all these neo-cons that once were Marxist. (Laughter.) I think there is a feeling that somehow religion was more intense then. We were willing to give all, consecrate all of our property to the church. We were willing to give up respectability by practicing plural marriage. The plural marriage is sort of covered up by the church because it’s a public relations disaster, but in terms of Mormons themselves, they’re willing to honor those people as having done a lot.

So it’s sort of our glorious flaming youth when we did many daring things.

While obviously that perspective isn’t going to justify the practice of polygamy in any non-Mormon’s mind, for those paying close attention, Bushman is performing a great service in explaining how Mormons perceive themselves. I think one of the reasons Mormons are often unhappy with media coverage of the church is not that they necessarily get upset over the focus on Mormon controversies. Most Mormons are actually prepared to deal with that approach. It’s just that journalists either don’t understand or explain how Mormon believers reconcile the issues for themselves.

But part of the reason that journalists and outsiders don’t do a better job explaining how Mormons perceive themselves or their history is that the Mormon church is more than just a set of beliefs. For such a young church it has an entrenched culture. Because the the doctrine of the church encompasses a belief in active revelation for every member of the church from the Prophet to the lay people, the doctrine often changes to reflect the church’s culture, even in ways that seem contradictory. Again, Bushman provides an illuminating way of looking at Mormon doctrine:

Well, when you get those switches back and forth, you know that there is a contradiction or a polarity inside the culture. Someone has said that Mormon doctrine should best be described as a set of dilemmas — as contradictory goods posed against one another.

Bushman also goes on to explain how this is played out in the political arena with some concrete examples that are helpful. Here he discusses changing positions on birth control:

When I was first married and a little alert to such things — (laughter) — there was a lot of talk against contraception, and that all just faded. You never hear a word about it now. And that is also one of the things that moderates the reception of this kind of teaching authority. That is, there are times that something seems relevant, and then it sort of fades, and other things come to the fore. So there is sort of a give-and-take between the needs of the people, who are always talking to their bishops and stake presidents — look, I have a problem; what could be done about this? — and that seeps up to the higher levels of the church. Over time, these teachings change coloration.

But the discussion is also helpful in that you see a variety of journalists respond to Bushman and the give and take is also quite edifying. Here Newsweek‘s Ken Woodward makes an interesting comparison that helps explain the Mormon approach to doctrine:

WOODWARD: It seems you have a magisterium, but what you lack is that informal body of theologians or thinkers whose job is to reflect on the content of faith, and magisterial teachings. So there is no placenta like that — am I right — for these things to go through?

BUSHMAN: That is true. And you must add the fact that there is no professional clergy, which means no clergy trained theologically. No one seeks to situate every teaching of the church against a broader Christian tradition. The process has a kind of informality to it.

The whole discussion is heartening in that many of the journalists present ask thoughtful and perceptive questions, even though their knowledge of the faith varies wildly. (One exception might be when The Washington Post‘s Sally Quinn asks Bushman about a notorious memoir by an ex-BYU professor that is as critical of the church as the author’s motivations are suspect. But even that discussion is meaningful.)

The conversation about Mormonism is sprawling and touches on number of interesting subjects, from the relationship between Mormons and evangelicals to the differences in worldviews from political candidates that come from hierarchal churches vs. congregationalists. It’s a long transcript but well worth the time to read.

In fact, the discussion is so successful that it inadvertently highlights a real problem for journalists seeking to write about Mormonism. Sally Quinn notes there is a dearth of members of the church willing to speak about their religion frankly, either to journalists or in public forums:

We have a new website on The Washington Post/Newsweek called On Faith, and we have about 80 panelists from every different religion. The hardest group to find panelists for is Mormons. We have one Mormon, and that’s Mike Otterson, who is the spokesperson for the Mormon Church, and we keep saying, get us Mormons, get us Mormons, but nobody wants to do it. The only other problem we have is with Catholic priests. (Chuckles.)

We did get some guest voices when we had a question on Mormonism. We wanted Bill Marriott and Harry Reid, and they both turned us down, and then I called Mike and he got them to speak out. But Marriott’s PR person told him not to do it, that it would be dangerous for Mormons. Basically what he said was, I love my family, I care about my community — you know, all the things that you would want to hear from somebody, and yet there is this real reluctance. I think that’s one of the things that lead people to believe that there is a secrecy, when in fact what they finally wrote was lovely and very compelling.

For his part, Bushman suggests that journalists deal with this problem by checking out some of the better voices in the Mormon blogosphere. And that’s a good suggestion, but given his candid and compelling performance, it wouldn’t hurt for journalists interested in Mormonism to have Bushman on speed dial either.

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Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens

TimeMostInfluentialTerry and I had trouble agreeing on the method of counting religious leaders in “The Time 100: The Most Influential People in the World.” Terry pointed me toward his recent quip about last year’s list:

In a list of 100 men and women who are “transforming our world,” Time editors included 27 “artists and entertainers,” 16 “scientists and thinkers” and many other powerful people. However, the list included only three religious leaders. This is the planet earth we are talking about, right?

I enjoy lists like these primarily as exercises in cheekiness, the journalist’s equivalent of singing “My Favorite Things” off-key and then declaring it definitive. I don’t suffer any illusions that the editors of Time (or Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone) have a foolproof way of determining who should be on a list of the most powerful, or It People or the most important rock & roll songs ever. Lists by magazines are so clearly subjective that they could just as easily be about tastes in cheese, pipe tobacco or kitschy television shows.

I was most interested in identifying the people on this year’s list who are known for embracing — or, in one case, regularly attacking — religious faith. I present the list here and quote from relevant passages in Time. Where I am stretching the boundaries (Sacha Baron Cohen, Rick Rubin), I acknowledge this. I’ve left off Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Edwards, Al Gore, Garry Kasparov, Oprah Winfrey and Queen Elizabeth II because their profiles do not engage questions of faith that could have been engaged).

For the sake of continuity, especially for anyone following along at home in the paper version, I’ll follow the same order as Time‘s package.

Barack Obama:

From his very first moment in the national spotlight — his keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004 — Barack Obama has attached himself to the notion of audacity. He spoke that night of the “audacity of hope,” a phrase he borrowed from his minister at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Condoleezza Rice (in a strikingly warm tribute by Democratic consultant Donna Brazile):

Condoleezza Rice knows who she is and remembers where she came from. Early in her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State, she brought then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to her home state of Alabama. She took him to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four little girls had been murdered by an act of racist terrorism. She took him to the Civil Rights Institute, the South’s finest museum about its worst embarrassment. And she took him to attend services at the church where her father served as pastor during the turbulent 1960s.

John Roberts (by Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School):

His early decisions and questions from the bench suggest that Roberts has figured out how to achieve substantive results without appearing to be results oriented or activist. He accomplishes this through the technical mechanism of “standing,” which means a litigant’s power to challenge the actions of the government. . . . Roberts’ statements suggest that he would deny standing to citizens who challenge on First Amendment grounds the Bush Administration’s giving money to church groups that proselytize.

[Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei:

The intimates of [Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, call him “the great balancer.” They could as easily call him “the great hedger.” The reticent cleric refuses to make peace with the West but eschews open confrontation. He obstructs democratic reform but holds the country’s most hard-line radicals in check.

Osama bin Laden (a masterpiece of pithiness by Martin Amis, though I do not share his sense that so many moderate Muslims are sympathetic with bin Laden):

What he has is charisma — the visionary smile and a talent for asceticism. Moderate Islam has had to decide whether Osama is a good Muslim or a bad Muslim. That many have opted for the former view owes much to the sacrifices that seem to have been made by this rich but stoic troglodyte.

Pope Benedict XVI:

What makes people rush to this fragile man who speaks softly and politely without moving his hands, without ever acting? Evidently, there is a sort of secret attraction, as if many can sense the fascination of the sacred through the witness of Benedict’s thoughts and his modest and humble life.

Sonia Gandhi:

Imagine if the U.S. were run by an Indian Hindu woman without a college degree. It’s tough: the U.S. has never elected anyone who’s not Christian, white and male — even as Vice President. But India, which is an even bigger democracy, is run in all but name by an Italian Catholic widow with a high school education.

Peter Akinola:

Full schism would be achieved if Anglicanism’s conservative southern provinces decided that even the Anglican Church’s top official, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is too liberal and chose their own leader — perhaps Akinola.

Sir John Templeton:

The native Tennessean, 94, began awarding the annual Templeton Prize in 1972. Valued at more than $1.5 million, it is for those who exhibit “progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities,” from philosophers to physicists.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud:

With his $20 billion fortune, he has endowed American studies at Middle Eastern universities, given $40 million to underwrite Islamic studies at Harvard and Georgetown and helped fund the construction of an Islamic wing at the Louvre in Paris.

(Disclosure: John Templeton and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud are mentioned in a sidebar on “Power Givers.”)

[Army Capt.] Timothy Gittins:

Based at Fort Campbell, Ky., the 31-year-old Southern Baptist is devoted to his wife Shelley and their two sons T.J., 6, and Cole, 4. He drinks Bud Light and tries to find time to zoom around on his new Harley.

. . . The Army recently recognized Gittins as one of its most outstanding young officers. The highly decorated Ranger says he loves leading troops in combat. “We have liberties that we stand to lose if we aren’t willing to fight for them,” he says.

Tony Dungy. The tribute by his former colleague and fellow Christian, coach Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears, does not mention Dungy’s faith. But you’d have to live in a cave not to be aware of Dungy’s evangelical Christianity, and I say this as a person whose exposure to professional football is limited to an annual indulgence in the Super Bowl.

Amr Khaled:

At a time when conservative clerics have become primary arbiters of power, Khaled, a layman, has one of the Arab world’s most popular websites; regular shows on Iqra, a Saudi-owned religious satellite channel; and an influence that prompts comparisons with everyone from Dr. Phil to Pat Robertson. But Khaled may be most like Rick Warren, who has built an empire around his “purpose driven life” philosophy.

Richard Dawkins (in the most brilliantly counterintuitive pairing of author and subject, this one is by Michael Behe):

Dawkins had a mild Anglican youth but at 16 discovered Charles Darwin and believed he’d found a pearl of great price. I believe his new book follows much less from his data than from his premises, and yet I admire his determination. Concerning the big questions, the Bible advises us to be hot or cold but not lukewarm. Whatever the merits of his ideas, Richard Dawkins is not lukewarm.

Rick Rubin. Natalie Maines uses her tribute as another opportunity to vent about the angry response to her criticism of President Bush. Still, any Buddhist who shared a daily Holy Communion with Johnny Cash during Cash’s waning months is a figure worth watching.

Sacha Baron Cohen (Roseanne concentrates on Cohen’s comedic talents rather than his observant Judaism, but that’s Roseanne):

The bigot comes to America and insults its most genteel members, agrees with its most ignorant, and sets out to pursue the Big Breasted Virgin Blonde, the real American male dream. He gets broken, abandoned, betrayed and cuckolded, and then born again. And at long last, he finds his true love in the form of a fat hooker with the proverbial Heart of Gold.

. . . The heart of America honored by Arabs, Jews and vice versa, and versa vice! That, as Borat would say, is NIIIICE!!!

Rhonda Byrne (by Jack Canfield):

I first met Rhonda Byrne in July 2005, when she asked if she could bring her film crew to a meeting of the Transformational Leadership Council and interview our members for a movie she was creating called The Secret.

I’ll stop there in Byrne’s item, because to continue would be to drown in a vat of spiritual molasses.

Religious figures also make a few appearances in Joel Stein’s wonderful “Alt Time 100,” in which Stein gathers the collective wisdom of “Xzibit, rapper and host of MTV’s Pimp My Ride; Bridget Marquardt, 1/3 of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend and star of E!’s Girls Next Door; Eddie Sanchez, UFC fighter; Tommy the Clown, krump dancer; Dr. Boogie, hairstylist and contestant on Bravo’s Shear Genius; Jimmy Jimmy Coco, spray tanner; Glenda Borden, party planner.”

Here are some of their choices:

3. Russell Simmons, owner[,] Phat Farm
Simmons appeared on a surprising number of the panelists’ lists. It turns out that’s because most of them knew him. “He’s a really nice guy,” said Bridget Marquardt. I had a chance to work and live with him,” said Dr. Boogie. Russell Simmons, despite all the meditation, is not a quiet homebody type.

25. Osama Bin Laden, head of Al [Qaeda]
The panel pointed out that he’s likely to outlast Bush as head of an organization.

28. Jesus
When I made it clear that only living people could make the list, the panel — in loud unison — pointed out that he’s very much alive. There was no talking Jesus off this list.

45. Bono, singer
All that Africa stuff.

48. Rhonda Byrne, author, The Secret
The real Time 100 will probably be nice to Ms. Byrne. But the Alt Time 100 panel was much more honest. Which was striking for a bunch of L.A. celebrities. “People have to watch this to figure that stuff out?” asked Xzibit[.] Still, he wanted her on the list for pulling one over on people so well.

53. Tyler Perry, actor [and friend of T.D. Jakes]
He makes those movies all by himself, basically.

64. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran
“Not because of his mental disabilities, but because he always has a tight blazer on,” explaned Xzibit.

73. Virginia Tech victims’ parents
The group suddenly turned into a group of Time editors. “How do we handle the shooting on the list?” the asked out of nowhere. There was no way they were putting the shooter, even though that seemed the most intellectually honest. At first the victims were considered. Then the grief counselors. Then someone suggested the parents, and everyone was quite pleased. It was exactly like being at a 10 a.m. meeting at Time.

77. Coco Brother, host of Spirit of Hip-Hop
Corey Condry hosts a radio show where he bridges hip-hop with the gospel. And it’s sweeping the nation! Maybe not, but Tommy the Clown thinks it’s important.

90. Barack Obama, senator
A huge hit with the panel. Bridget particularly liked his proposals on health care.

100. Dog the Bounty Hunter, bounty hunter [and self-identified born-again Christian]
Xzibit likes that show. I’m just mad because he was out of town and couldn’t make the lunch.

Grand totals of religion citations:
The Time 100: 17
The Alt Time 100: 10
Inside joke about Time: 1
Clerics: 3
Deity: 1

Thank you for playing, and please visit us again next year!

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Mama tried

ChoOne of the more nagging questions about the mass killings at Virginia Tech is how the parents of killer Seung-Hui Cho related to him. Their earlier statement to the public clearly expressed agony about their son’s rampage. The Washington Post‘s front-page story from Sunday fills in more blanks, especially regarding the killer’s mother, Hyang In Cho.

The story by staff writers Amy Gardner and David Cho (with help by Tom Jackman and Theresa Vargas) is saturated with religion, beginning with the lede:

Hyang In Cho was so desperate to find help for her silent, angry son that she sought out some members of One Mind Church in Woodbridge to heal him of what the church’s head pastor called “demonic power.”

But before the church could act late last summer, Seung Hui Cho had to return to Virginia Tech to start his senior year, said the Rev. Dong Cheol Lee, minister of the Presbyterian congregation.

This paragraph captures Cho’s chosen life — not just of solitude but of self-imposed exile. It stirs up memories of the opening pages of The Great Divorce, in which C.S. Lewis imagines Hell as an ever-expanding city because its inhabitants are so determined to get away from one another:

He played video games, but students from the gaming club never met him. He came from a Christian family, but the campus ministers don’t remember him. He knew something about video editing, but the regulars at the student television station had not heard of him. [Suitemate Karan] Grewal never heard his voice, didn’t know what classes he took. Those in the suite next door, he said, never knew of Cho until April 16.

Cho took misanthropy to a certain hellish conclusion. The Post takes no side in whether Hyang In Cho was on the right track in seeking spiritual deliverance for her son, nor must it do so. Simply turning up the facts conveys this mother’s distress, and her effort to intervene in her son’s destructive spiral. For those people in many different religions who believe that evil is real, and that people can resist evil through prayer, the story can make Hyang In Cho a sympathetic and even heroic figure. Good for her. Good for the Post.

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