Is Superman Returns the next Passion or Da Vinci Code?

superman returns3We knew Superman Returns contained some pretty heavy religious imagery, the Christian and Jewish type to be specific, but the film is now drawing positive comparisons with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. On top of that, the film contains some un-Christlike imagery — unless you believe the researchers behind Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code — that has drawn some fascinating speculation from movie reviewers.

Here’s Manohla Dargis of The New York Times:

Near the end of the second film, Superman, realizing that he and Lois have no future, wipes away their boudoir encounter with an amnesia-producing kiss. Mr. Singer expends much more time and many more resources to do pretty much the same, erasing part of the past to create what is essentially a new and considerably more sober sequel to the first two films, one that shakes the earthiness off Superman and returns him to the status of a savior. There’s always been a hint of Jesus (and Moses) to the character, from the omnipotence of his father to a costume that, with its swaths of red and blue, evokes the colors worn by the Virgin Mary in numerous Renaissance paintings. It’s a hint that proves impossible not to take.

Intentionally or not, the Jesus angle also helps deflect speculation about just how straight this Superman flies. Given how securely Lois remains out of the romantic picture in “Superman Returns,” now saddled with both a kid and a fiancé (James Marsden), it’s no surprise that some have speculated that Superman is gay. The speculation speaks more to our social panic than anything in the film, which, much like the overwhelming majority of American action movies produced since the 1980′s, mostly involves what academics call homosocial relations. In other words, when it comes to Hollywood, boys will be boys and play with their toys, whether they’re sleeping with one another or not, leaving women to weep, worry and wait to be rescued.

Every era gets the superhero it deserves, or at least the one filmmakers think we want. For Mr. Singer that means a Superman who fights his foes in a scene that visually echoes the garden betrayal in “The Passion of the Christ” and even hangs in the air much as Jesus did on the cross. It’s hard to see what the point is beyond the usual grandiosity that comes whenever B-movie material is pumped up with ambition and money. As he proved with his first two installments of “The X-Men” franchise, Mr. Singer likes to make important pop entertainments that trumpet their seriousness as loudly as they deploy their bangs. It’s hard not to think that Superman isn’t the only one here with a savior complex.

So the Superman (Savior of the World) theme could be an interference measure in an attempt to dissuade talk of the big guy’s sexual orientation? That’s a conversation starter if I ever saw one. I’m pretty certain that the film’s producers didn’t purposefully consider that in including the religious themes, but then again, this is a summer blockbuster, intended to keep the movie studios happy with box-office receipts.

Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News gives us additional perspective:

That’s almost straight out of the Gospel of John, said Reg Grant, a professor of pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary. But there’s a vital difference from the message of Christianity: The caped, comic book “savior” is not sent to save people from their own evil. “He comes to help us find our potential,” Dr. Grant said.

In fact, the new movie, despite its Christ imagery, could hardly be less theological. There’s nothing of prayer or heaven. Superman offers salvation only from the perils of this world.

To hammer that point, Luthor steals a quote from science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Or, though he doesn’t say so, from divinity.

Mark Pinsky of the Orlando Sentinel draws similiar conclusions in an article posted Monday, but also expounds on the theory that Superman may be more like the Old Testament’s Moses.

Perhaps the film’s Christian themes are just an attempt to draw in the red state types, which the Times seems to suggest in its lead:

Jesus of Nazareth spent 40 days in the desert. By comparison, Superman of Hollywood languished almost 20 years in development hell. Those years apparently raised the bar fearsomely high. Last seen larking about on the big screen in the 1987 dud “Superman IV,” the Man of Steel has been resurrected in a leaden new film not only to fight for truth, justice and the American way, but also to give Mel Gibson’s passion a run for his box-office money. Where once the superhero flew up, up and away, he now flies down, down, down, sent from above to save mankind from its sins and what looked like another bummer summer.

Peter Chattaway, who blogs here and whose review of the film just came up on Christianity Today‘s movie site, first suggested in a comment on my previous post on this subject that Superman Returns could be compared with The Da Vinci Code.

While there seems to be plenty of surface material for Christians to appreciate about this film, beneath the surface there is the potential for the movie to attract a Da Vinci-ish controversy. But since this is a comic book-based movie, no one will really care. Or will they?

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Muddled millennial musings

millennialismThis is a few days late, but we need to look at that Los Angeles TimesEnd Times” story. I’m not sure if the problem with the story is that it is disorganized or that the reporter just doesn’t get the topic about which he is writing.

Speaking of not knowing about the topic, I’m Lutheran and we think Left Behind is where you get a penicillin shot. Still, I think I’d put any catechumen from my church up against the Times‘ Louis Sahagun. His breathless piece is about how an unspecified number of religious groups of unspecified population — some of which don’t even share the same religion – are using technology to hasten the end times and/or apocalypse and/or the arrival of a Jewish, Christian or Muslim messiah.

I mean, is it me, or is this kind of a big umbrella for one story? Compounding the problem is that some of his examples don’t have anything to do with technology. Maybe it’s a new Times exercise in free-association stories. But since this is GetReligion and not GetOrganized, how about I move on . . .

Sahagun fails to prove his point. If you’re going to claim that people are wacky, it’s important to be specific and substantiate claims with evidence the reader can check:

With that goal in mind, mega-church pastors recently met in Inglewood to polish strategies for using global communications and aircraft to transport missionaries to fulfill the Great Commission: to make every person on Earth aware of Jesus’ message. Doing so, they believe, will bring about the end, perhaps within two decades.

In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a far different vision. As mayor of Tehran in 2004, he spent millions on improvements to make the city more welcoming for the return of a Muslim messiah known as the Mahdi, according to a recent report by the American Foreign Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank.

Maybe these unquantified megachurch pastors were trying to bring about Armageddon. Or maybe they were doing what Christians have done since, well, Day 1: evangelism. And mayors improving the infrastructure of their city? Well, that is crazy, isn’t it? Put another way, how hard does a reporter have to work to make Ahmadinejad seem like a sensible bureaucrat? This is the man who spins the Holocaust, for crying out loud. I kid you not when I say Sahagun also acts like it’s news that Jews want to rebuild “a temple on a site now occupied by one of Islam’s holiest shrines.” A temple? You don’t say . . .

Sahagun glosses over different Christian beliefs about Revelation:

Though there are myriad interpretations of how it will play out, the basic Christian apocalyptic countdown — as described by the Book of Revelation in the New Testament — is as follows:

Jews return to Israel after 2,000 years, the Holy Temple is rebuilt, billions of people perish during seven years of natural disasters and plagues, the antichrist arises and rules the world, the battle of Armageddon erupts in the vicinity of Israel, Jesus returns to defeat Satan’s armies and preside over Judgment Day.

Generations of Christians have hoped for the Second Coming of Jesus, said UCLA historian Eugen Weber, author of the 1999 book “Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages.”

“And it’s always been an ultimately bloody hope, a slaughterhouse hope,” he added with a sigh.

armageddon 01Oh, so that’s the “basic Christian apocalyptic countdown”? And we Christians have always had a “slaughterhouse hope” in the end times? That’s good to know. I wonder why my pastor and every other Lutheran pastor and, for that matter, most of Christendom is keeping this from me. I mean, Lutherans, for instance, reject all forms of millennialism. (Happy birthday, Augsburg!) And even among folks who do believe in millennialism, you have your Historical Premillennialists, your Dispensational Premillennialists, Pre-Tribulation Rapture folks, Post-Tribs, Mid-Tribs and Pre-Wrath Rapturites and Partial Rapture folks — all of whom have disparate eschatological views.

Sahagun confuses evangelism with Armageddon (maybe this explains other problems in the newsroom). There are many examples but here’s one:

Apocalyptic movements are nothing new; even Christopher Columbus hoped to assist in the Great Commission by evangelizing New World inhabitants.

Sahagun is unaware that not all Christians are millennialists, part 246:

For Christians, the future of Israel is the key to any end-times scenario, and various groups are reaching out to Jews — or proselytizing among them — to advance the Second Coming.

No. No, no, no. Israel is not the key to any end-times scenario for Christians. There are billions of Christians in the world, all of whom believe in the world to come, as we say. And religious support of Israe? That’s certainly of concern to some Baptists and Pentecostals, for instance. But not everybody.

Complete lack of context. Reporters should use specific words. Avoid the word “some” as much as possible. Sahagun used the word eight times. The article gave the impression that statistical outliers — a farmer in Mississippi trying to breed a herd of red heifers — represent average Christians. And Christian thought is fleshed out much more in the story than Muslim or Jewish thought.

I know I’m not the Times‘ only reader who wants to learn more about millennialism and religious support of Israel. It’s a shame we’re still waiting.

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Pardon the interruption

printingpress 01 01As some of you have noticed, we are currently having some technical difficulties. This has required us to turn off the comments sections of the blog. Our tech friends at hope to have matters straightened out by Monday or thereabouts. So we’ll take today off and, maybe, swing back into action late Sunday with comments about religion coverage in the weekend editions.

Hang in there with us. Cyberspace can be complicated, sometimes.

Oh, what the heck.

Did anyone else see that “Blessed be the Bloggers” story in the Raleigh News and Observer? On one level, it’s a short feature about the role that blogs are playing in all kinds of denominations, from totally free-church Protestantism to American Catholicism. But it opens with a very concrete test case that deserves more inspection — the role of bloggers in the minor earthquake at the recent Southern Baptist Convention.

Reporter Yonat Shimron opens the door, but it doesn’t look like her editors gave her the room she needed to flesh out this major story.

Blogs give ordinary people a pulpit and make clergy one of a crowd. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the weeks leading up to the Southern Baptist Convention, held last week at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. In recent years, the convention of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has offered up unchallenged candidates for the presidency.

But this year, many Southern Baptists were unhappy with the endorsed candidate, the Rev. Ronnie Floyd of Springdale, Ark. The bloggers among them got online and vented. By the time delegates — called “messengers”– arrived in Greensboro, they were ready to give challenger [Frank] Page their vote. It’s impossible to say how many of the messengers actually read any of the blog entries. But there was no question the bloggers created a buzz.

Actually, the “moderates” over at Associated Baptist Press had this story going into the convention. Click here to see their story on the rising tide of Baptist bloggers. And, of course, I mentioned this angle here at GetReligion in my post on the surprise election of Page. Since then I’ve continued to receive emails from old Baptist sources of mine about the blogging hooks in this story.

No doubt about it. There’s a story in there that affects everybody from the Southern Baptists to the Episcopalians. As the old saying goes: Freedom of the press belongs to people who own one.

I hope ours is back up and running very soon. See you in the comments pages in a day or two.

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Name of the mainline game is “local option”

rainbow altarIn the end, it was the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that made the biggest news on the front lines of the liturgical culture wars this week. However, it should be noted that the most important action taken by the oldline Presbyterians was to adopt precisely the option that the Episcopalians have been using for quite some time now.

The name of the game is “local option,” meaning that officials in blue pews get to read the Bible (and the denomination’s own teachings) in a way that allows them to move foward on issues such as the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians and the creation — semi-officially, of course — of church rites to celebrate same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, people in red pews get to keep believing what they have believed for centuries and, of course, they get to keep sending in their pledge dollars to support national agencies that act as if basic points of doctrine and moral theology are moot, even if they remain on the books.

This is called compromise. The problem is that there are true believers — on the left and the right — who keep acting as if they believe they are actually right and that there is such a thing as truth and that it should be defended. It’s the people in the middle who keep asking: What is truth? It’s the people in the middle who want to wrap their seminaries and pension funds in a protective layer of doctrinal fog. And that’s the story that is hardest to write, because it is impossible to say that one side lost and the other side won.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been poised to make this leap for 30 years, while watching the people in its pews age and its statistics slide as traditional believers drift away to other churches. Here is how religion-beat veteran David Anderson summed up the story for Religion News Service:

The nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination, in a seismic shift on the role of gays and lesbians in the church, voted on Tuesday (June 20) to allow local and regional bodies to ordain gays to the church’s ministries.

After nearly three hours of debate, delegates voted 298 to 221 to approve a complex proposal that allows local congregations and regional bodies known as presbyteries to bypass the church’s current ban on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. Current rules from 1996 that require “fidelity in marriage … and chastity in singleness” will remain on the books, but local bodies can now allow exceptions to those standards if they wish.

The question now is: What happens next?

Once local option is in place, any attempt to overthrow it is viewed by the establishment as an intolerant attempt to create schism. This is precisely the stage of the game facing traditional Anglicans who remain in what has now formally been named The Episcopal Church, as opposed to the old name, which was the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. What does this name change mean? Is this the formation of a new, multinational church that will sooner or later stand opposite the Anglican Communion? That’s a good question.

But I digress. Back to the mainline Presbyterians, a shrinking flock already rocked by $9.15 million in budget cuts at the home office in Louisville. As Richard Ostling wrote in the main Associated Press story, the move to “local option” on hot issues is a bold and even courageous move, if one is a progressive who depends on offerings from conservative pews.

Consider the dice rolled.

The Presbyterian establishment, including all seminary presidents and many officials, promoted the local autonomy plan, which was devised by a special task force. The idea is to grant modest change to liberals but mollify conservatives by keeping the sexual law on the books.

It’s not clear whether that will work.

“We have been painfully aware that in some ways our greatest challenge was not preparing for this assembly but preparing for what happens after this assembly,” the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, chief executive at denominational headquarters, told delegates after the votes.

So what are the key issues affected by “local option”? Issues linked to homosexuality get all the headlines, of course. But there are other sexual issues that are — behind the scenes — just as controversial. What about the status of premarital sex? How about adultery? Why are conservatives so slow to talk about divorce and the Bible?

I’ve been covering this story since the early 1980s and, long ago, I came up with three basic questions that I always ask when covering battles in oldline pews. Some of you will say that these questions are rooted in my own bias and beliefs. I can honestly say that I can justify them as a journalist because they are the questions that, for me, have always led to the most revealing questions, the most interesting quotes. Here they are.

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Was this a real — even if mysterious — event in real time? Did it really happen?

saint john the divine 20021214(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Is Jesus the Way or a way? Thus, it was highly symbolic that the Episcopalians tabled a resolution declaring the church’s “unchanging commitment to Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the only name by which any person may be saved” and acknowledging “the solemn responsibility placed upon us to share Christ with all persons when we hear His words, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). …”

(3) Is sex outside of the sacrament of marriage a sin? The question is a matter of moral theology, not national policy. The controversial word is sin.

Want to find out who is a true liberal and who is a waffling conservative? Who is a person who worships the institutional church and its pension fund? Want to see the full scope of “local option”? Ask those three questions. I have asked those questions in press conferences and seen bishops simply refuse to answer.

OK, here’s a bonus question: Should the (insert name of mainline Protestant flock here) ban the worship, by name, of other gods at its altars? That’s a hot one, especially at seminaries with covens.

“I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have none other gods but me.”

Well, that depends on the zip code. “Local option” is a powerful thing.

P.S. If you want a gigantic collection of links to MSM reports on the events of the past week, click here and head over to the Christianity Today weblog.

If you want to see veteran London Times correspondent Ruth Gledhill look ahead, attempting to read the mind of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, then click here. Here’s a sample of what she hopes he is thinking:

As a Welshman who by instinct supports a degree of antidisestablishmentarianism, I would privately welcome the opportunity to dismantle the old system of fixed parochial, diocesan and provincial boundaries and set about doing so. I would do this while ensuring that my office remained the “focus for unity” for the worldwide Church, thus making me a kind of Anglican Pope. Without any real power. Which I don’t want anyway, so that’s all right.

I would contemplate once more some of the liberal principles I had when first I took office. I would find some way of reassuring the liberals who have deserted me as I strive for truth and unity that I may still hold those views, albeit privately. I would tell them that in a deconstructed globalised Church, parishes and dioceses would be at liberty to seek episcopal and primatial oversight from almost whomever they wished. There would be room for Episcopalians and Anglicans, and everyone could focus then on promoting the message of Christ. Or Christa.

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Does the G in PG stand for God?

ftgmovieposterfinaltweakTwo weeks ago, I wrote a little column for Scripps Howard about a little movie called Facing the Giants that seems to have started a little controversy. I have given up trying to predict when people are going to react to a column. You know?

Anyway, I’ve been on a radio show or two and done interviews with Variety and the Los Angeles Times (more on that in a moment). I don’t want to replay the whole mini-drama, but the news hook is that the Motion Picture Association of America has given this ultra-low-budget film — which comes from a Southern Baptist congregation in Albany, Ga. — a PG rating because it contains “thematic elements” that might trouble some parents.

Ah, but what are the troubling thematic elements? Here is what I wrote:

“What the MPAA said is that the movie contained strong ‘thematic elements’ that might disturb some parents,” said Kris Fuhr, vice president for marketing at Provident Films, which is owned by Sony BMG. Provident plans to open the film next fall in 380 theaters nationwide with the help of Samuel Goldwyn Films, which has worked with indie movies like “The Squid and the Whale.”

Which “thematic elements” earned this squeaky-clean movie its PG?

“Facing the Giants” is too evangelistic.

The MPAA, noted Fuhr, tends to offer cryptic explanations for its ratings. In this case, she was told that it “decided that the movie was heavily laden with messages from one religion and that this might offend people from other religions. It’s important that they used the word ‘proselytizing’ when they talked about giving this movie a PG. … It is kind of interesting that faith has joined that list of deadly sins that the MPAA board wants to warn parents to worry about.”

Now, according to a story by Jim Puzzanghera of the Times, the MPAA has been swamped in emails — 15,000 or so — protesting this rating. That’s 10 times the previous record and, sure enough, this mini-revolt has even spread to Capitol Hill, where there are people who know a good fundraising letter headline when they see one.

… (The) third-ranking House Republican has written to MPAA Chief Executive Dan Glickman demanding answers.

“This incident raises the disquieting possibility that MPAA considers exposure to Christian themes more dangerous for children than exposure to gratuitous sex and mindless violence,” said Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

The MPAA rarely discusses its decisions about ratings, electing to work in a cloud of mystery. This is, I think, a strange way of doing business in the age of the Internet and all of its helpful niche reference materials. However, Puzzanghera did get a response.

Joan Graves, chairwoman of the MPAA’s rating board, said Tuesday that the decision had nothing to do with Christianity but was based on football violence as well as the inclusion of mature topics such as depression and infertility. In a rare interview granted in an attempt to defuse what she calls a controversy born of miscommunication, Graves said that although infertility and depression are involved in the coach’s “crisis of faith,” the religious story line itself did not raise a red flag.

“If we see somebody on the screen practicing their faith and indicating they have a faith, that’s not something we PG,” Graves said. …

“We think our rating is correct,” she said of “Facing the Giants.” “I think it gives parents an alert that there may be something in the film they’d want to know about.”

cast granttaylorFrankly, I think the PG rating is fine, if the MPAA is going to be consistent. If the goal is to warn parents about movies that contain scenes that may offend a sizable number of modern Americans, then Facing the Giants should get a PG rating. There are tons of secular and liberal people out there who, if they wandered into a theater without a warning, would be very offended by this movie’s in-your-face evangelistic content.

So when Puzzanghera and others have asked me what I think of this application of the PG rating, I have tried to give them a three-part answer. (1) I think the rating is appropriate. (2) I agree that there are legions of parents, some of them with lawyers, who would be offended by the pro-Jesus material in the film. However, I also think that (3) the MPAA now faces the challenge — if it wants to be consistent — of applying this standard to other films.

But that is a big “if.” Will other world religions be considered equally offensive? Vague environmental pantheism, perhaps? How about political viewpoints that would offend many parents? If the MPAA is worried about offending blue-zip-code parents, will it also strive to protect the children of red-zip-code parents?

I think that’s an interesting story and, you know, I may just have to write that one myself. So far, other journalists have not been very interested in that angle. Maybe my three-part answer is too nuanced for a headline or a sound bite. You think? It doesn’t work on religious talk radio and it also flopped with the Los Angeles Times. I’ll let you know what Variety ends up running.

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About the best job in the world

merryn baptism2I am blessed and honored to have nine godchildren (that’s me with one of them and her mum). Oh how I love them, and I take my vows very seriously. As a Lutheran, being a baptismal sponsor means I am to pray for them daily, and assist with and ensure their catechesis. I am closer to some than others, but they all are the subject of my prayers. Having these godchildren is a huge part of my life. As such, I was so pleased to see a religion reporter write about being a godparent.

Mark Pinsky, of the Orlando Sentinel, uses Reynolds Price’s new book Letter to a Godchild as a hook to explore the views of local parents and godparents:

Godparenting has its roots in the early church, when adults being baptized had a sponsor who guaranteed their good character, according to Elaine Ramshaw, author of The Godparent Book and numerous articles on the subject. Children were first sponsored by their parents, but about the sixth century, nonparents replaced parents as sponsors, although it is not clear why this shift occurred.

Today, the honor of godparent still is usually bestowed during a baptism, although for non-Christians it can be an informal arrangement.

The limitations of the article are evident in that last paragraph. Being a Christian godparent is very different from being a special adult friend who is called a godparent — but Pinsky throws both groups together. Still, he does a good job of showing how it works in the Christian faith:

Michael and Leanne Brunton had several concerns when looking for prospective godparents. They wanted a local family, not too old, who could take care of their sons if anything happened to them. But they also wanted a couple who share their strong Southern Baptist beliefs.

“We looked for somebody who would raise them in the same faith as my husband and I,” says Leanne, 32.

Their choices were Teri and Emmett Hummel, who they knew from First Baptist Church of Orlando.

“They are a very strong Christian couple, a very strong, godly couple,” Leanne says.

Of course, at this point I’m thinking there is a further distinction that would be interesting to explore: the difference between godparents who are present (or asked to be present) at an infant’s baptism and those who are chosen by people who don’t baptize infants. When do the parents ask people to be godparents if it’s not related to baptism? If the Baptist parents do wait until their children are baptized at an older age, how does that work? I’m full of questions and wish that Pinsky had the time or space to look into this. I demand a follow-up!

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Goodbye to the White House evangelical

gersonThe departure of President Bush’s close adviser and longtime speechwriter Michael Gerson ends an era in which an evangelical Christian had unprecedented access and influnce in shaping American foreign and domestic policy. Thanks to Gerson’s humility, he never came close to receiving the attention from journalists of the likes of Karen Hughes and Karl Rove, but few were as influential.

Fortunately, a few journalists were smart enough to spot the influence of Gerson, particularly Carl Canon in this National Journal cover story, which received a Aldo Beckman Award for repeated excellent White House reporting, and Jeffrey Goldberg in a New Yorker profile that received a high level of attention. Appropriately, his exit is receiving attention from Washington’s heavyweights:

Here’s The Washington Post‘s Peter Baker:

Michael J. Gerson, one of President Bush’s most trusted advisers and the author of nearly all of his most famous public words over the past seven years, plans to step down in the next couple of weeks in a decision that colleagues believe will leave a hole in the White House at a critical period.

Gerson said in an interview that he has been talking with Bush for many months about leaving for writing and other opportunities but waited until the White House political situation stabilized somewhat. “It seemed like a good time,” he said. “Things are back on track a little. Some of the things I care about are on a good trajectory.”

Since first joining the presidential campaign as chief speechwriter in 1999, Gerson has evolved into one of the most central figures in Bush’s inner circle, often considered among the three or four aides closest to the president. Beyond shaping the language of the Bush presidency, Gerson helped set its broader direction.

The WaPo article was a bit more thorough than the New York Times piece, but that’s to be expected. I did have one small beef with the Baker piece, though, in his reference to Gerson’s sharing Bush’s “conservative Christian faith.”

Gerson stood out in a White House known for swagger. A somewhat slight, pale, bespectacled and soft-spoken Midwesterner, he nonetheless forged a strong bond with the outgoing, backslapping Texan president, in part through their shared conservative Christian faith. He found a way to channel Bush’s thoughts, colleagues said, transforming a sometimes inarticulate president into an occasionally memorable speaker.

I won’t contest Bush’s conservatism or Christian faith, nor will I contest either for Gerson. But it’s just not that simple, as Cannon’s profile clearly demonstrates:

Gerson, in what amounted to a self-directed continuing education, had been immersing himself in Catholic social thought, to try to understand the intellectual underpinnings of these issues. (He currently attends the Falls Church, an evangelical Episcopal church in suburban Virginia that was organized in 1734; George Washington served there as a warden.) Gerson had also been studying how Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services delivered services to those in need. And Bush — in part because of Colson’s work in Texas’s prisons — had become a convert to the idea that government could work in concert with faith-based programs.

“Catholics have long believed that the state has a role to play in alleviating poverty, but that this is not necessarily a role it plays directly,” says Catholic scholar Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “What has happened in the U.S. is that Protestants have embraced this — first with school vouchers, and later with prison outreach, poverty, and other issues. It’s a growing alliance between Protestants and Catholics to help the less fortunate, and Mike Gerson is at the intersection of these two traditions coming together.”

Does description of Gerson’s faith dovetail with what we know of Bush’s faith and politics? That’s a difficult question because much of Bush’s personal faith and its connection to his politics is relatively shrouded by political necessity. Perhaps we will learn more once Bush has left office, but until then, the comparison cannot be made.

It’s clear that Gerson stood out in the White House. It’s not so clear that he and Bush necessarily saw eye-to-eye on everything Christian and conservative. I believe it would be more accurate to say that Gerson’s conservative Christianity influenced Bush just as Karl Rove’s cutthroat politics influenced him.

To wrap up, I’d like to say that without Gerson, one cannot imagine the course of the Bush presidency. Gerson turned Bush into one of the most articulate presidents of all time at various points in the last five-plus years.

Where would Bush be without Gerson? I point you to the White House transcript of a press conference held Wednesday:

Q: Is the tide turning in Iraq?

THE PRESIDENT: I think — tide turning — see, as I remember — I was raised in the desert, but tides kind of — it’s easy to see a tide turn — did I say those words?

President Bush is already missing Mike Gerson.

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Daaaaaaaaa-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum. (continue)

PassionLastSupperWell folks, I really don’t know what to say about this news except: Cue the theme from Jaws. Let’s go straight to the Hollywood Reporter story by Paul Bond, which I am amazed has not inspired more coverage. Where is Frank Rich?

The bottom line — literally — is that Sony Pictures is attempting to appeal to the evangelical slice of the mainstream audience that flocked to The Passion of the Christ by making a sequel about the events after the resurrection.

Who are the key players? Wait for it:

Using the Bible for its source material, “Resurrection” will tell the story of Jesus Christ beginning the day he died on the cross and ending about 40 days later with his ascension into heaven. According to insiders, Sony’s mid-budget Screen Gems division commissioned a script several months ago from Lionel Chetwynd, the veteran screenwriter, producer and director whose credits include the feature “The Hanoi Hilton” and the Emmy-nominated TV movie “Ike: Countdown to D-Day.”

Set to produce is Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling “Left Behind” series of books. A popular minister and frequent TV news pundit, “Resurrection” will mark LaHaye’s first foray into mainstream filmmaking.

Now, we know that the words “Mel Gibson” freaked out a lot of folks on the left coast. However, his name also thrilled a lot of people who were excited that a heavyweight, A-list talent was going to make a serious film about Holy Week. Gibson is a love-him or hate-him kind of man, but no one doubted his talent and his commitment to quality. He had that Braveheart thing going for him, after all.

But Tim “Left Behind” LaHaye? His involvement will excite many on the Christian right, but it will also — needless to say — raise questions about artistic merits of the project. I mean, is this a direct-to-video project?

It is possible that this movie will not cause controversy. It is also possible that it will. Bond’s short report noted:

The film will focus on these dramatic encounters and their implications for the Roman garrison in Judea and the broader Roman Empire, insiders said.

“This is not a fanciful rendering. It’s a serious attempt to understand the Roman world in which Christ moved and the Christian era was born,” a person familiar with the project said.

Does “the broader Roman Empire” include the complex and divided world of the Jewish authorities of that day? It goes without saying that LaHaye’s beliefs may also raise concerns among Jewish groups, especially on the cultural left.

Meanwhile, it is clear that The Passion raised issues in Hollywood that are not going away anytime soon.

After all, the crew at Entertainment Weeklywhich is known (cough, cough) for its mainstream views on religion — has just named Gibson’s bloody epic as the single most controversial film of all time.

That’s right, hotter than The Message by Moustapha Akkad, which offered a take on the origins of Islam that lead to riots and terrorism. Hotter than the epic racism of The Birth of a Nation. Hotter than JFK, Deep Throat, Fahrenheit 9/11, A Clockwork Orange and, of course, The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese. And EW thought that Gibson’s film was way, way more controversial than that historic film Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl that helped build the legend of a secular messianic figure of some importance — Adolf Hitler.

It’s safe to say that anything hailed as Passion 2 will cause a bit of heat among the powers that be in the world of entertainment.

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