Doubter, seeker, journalist and Christian

981206wehmeyherWhile I was in Key West (I am still catching up after that fine conference and being stuck in a train much of yesterday), I read a note from a reader pointing me toward an interesting FaithInTheWorkplace.com interview with former ABC News correspondent Peggy Wehmeyer that focuses on journalism, faith and journalists who cover news about faith. Click here to go straight to the interview.

I should mention that I consider Wehmeyer a friend and I talked with her and with thelate Peter Jennings about some of the issues that she discusses in the interview. She now works with World Vision in its media projects. I still hope that, someday, a cable news outlet that wants to explore the religion-news demographic will bring her back to major media.

The interview speaks for itself. However, I will point out that Wehmeyer uses the word “objective” in describing her work, which in my experience leads to endless debates about philosophy, the fall of man and other topics that make eyes glaze over in newsrooms. Here at GetReligion we prefer a word like “balance,” which isn’t perfect either. But you can tell that what Wehmeyer — backed by Jennings in this experiment — was trying to do was get intelligent, informed voices into her reports about hot-button issues.

This was controversial, especially in the wake of a 1998 USA Weekend cover story (source of the photo) with the headline “My faith makes me a better reporter: ABC’s Peggy Wehmeyer seeks something higher than ratings for network news.” But this new interview makes it clear what she was trying to do. Here’s a sample:

Your job description was to get to the bottom of stories involving different faiths and to tell them fairly. Did an assignment ever cause you to struggle with your own beliefs?

Of course. And at times my own faith got wobbly. As a good journalist, you try to see the world through the eyes of the people you’re interviewing. You want to understand what they believe and tell it as closely to what they believe as possible. To do that well, you must empathize and understand both sides of a contentious issue. Yes, it challenged my faith. It made me question many things I had just assumed. It also broadened me greatly, caused me to think deeply, and to reassess what core beliefs in my faith I really could hold and count on.

I’ve always been a truth seeker; what I wanted was the truth regardless of the cost. What I found to be true — that I wished weren’t true — is that we have to live life much more in the gray than in the black-and-white.

So you still have doubt?

I’m a huge doubter and a skeptic. It’s part of what makes me a good journalist and a lousy Christian. My friends say it makes me a good Christian. Let’s say it makes me a sometimes overly intense and troubled Christian. …

So how did you take your Christianity into your work world?

Right in the beginning, I had to decide: would I stay in the closet, or would I be as unashamed of who I am and what I believe as my colleagues were about who they are and what they believe? Because of the kind of person I am, for me to hide the core of who I was would be almost lending credence to the argument that I was ashamed of being a Christian or that there was something inferior about it.

There were times when I wished my personal life were invisible and not an issue. I sometimes had to jump through three extra hoops as a religion reporter, because my colleagues thought that a Christian covering religion was an inherent conflict of interest. I would argue: is an atheist, a Jew, or an agnostic inherently less biased than a Christian? Why would a Christian be less able to be objective than anyone else? All of us have personal worldviews and biases. Why would mine disqualify me and others not disqualify them?

Wehmeyer was open about her faith in the workplace and stressed that, because she took her faith so seriously, she wanted to go the extra mile to take seriously the beliefs and viewpoints of those she covered. Most of all, she wanted the people she covered to believe that she had accurately reported their beliefs, as part of reports that also included the viewpoints of other, often clashing, voices in the same story.

That does create tension and it’s hard work. But Jennings once told me that Wehmeyer’s reports used to draw the highest positive-response ratings of any produced in his newsroom. That probably isn’t bad for ratings.

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Asking the obvious Clinton question

238px Clintons2004conventionNow it’s official. That mysterious New York Times story about the state of Hillary and Bill Clinton’s marriage is officially the buzz topic of the week here inside the Beltway. We know that because the official voice of the old D.C. journalistic establishment — that would be David S. Broder — has written a column about it.

So let’s slide backward in search of the ghost in this mess. We start with Broder describing the New York senator’s Tuesday morning appearance at the National Press Club.

For the better part of an hour, the senator from New York held forth in a disquisition on energy policy that was as overwhelming in its detail as it was ambitious in its reach. But the buzz in the room was not about her speech — or her striking appearance in a lemon-yellow pantsuit — but about the lengthy analysis of the state of her marriage to Bill Clinton that was on the front page of that morning’s New York Times.

So what did this all-important Times piece say? Almost nothing. And that’s the news. It is very, very hard to write a boring story about the Clintons. Click here if you want to explore it for yourself. Even the headline is a yawner: “Clintons Balance Married and Public Lives.” Here is the thesis statement:

When the subject of Bill and Hillary Clinton comes up for many prominent Democrats these days, Topic A is the state of their marriage — and how the most dissected relationship in American life might affect Mrs. Clinton’s possible bid for the presidency in 2008.

Democrats say it is inevitable that in a campaign that could return the former president to the White House, some voters would be concerned or distracted by Mr. Clinton’s political role and the episode that led the House to vote for his impeachment in 1998.

You think so? Would these moral concerns be more intense in some zip codes than in others? Would concerns be more common in pews and pulpits than in faculty lounges and newsrooms?

I really don’t have to ask any snarky questions about the article because Jack Shafer of Slate.com has already asked most of them in an essay entitled “The Bill and Hillary Code.” Shafer really doesn’t nail Times reporter Patrick Healy for anything, in part because the piece has the feel of a story that was worked over by legions of editors and lawyers and the lawyers working for the editors. It is impossible to ask the question that the so-called “values voters” out there want to see asked.

Healy could directly ask, “Is Bill cheating?” Instead, he writes a donut around the subject. As the piece spirals out to 2,000 words, the donut grows into a 20-inch Michelin radial, and the radial becomes a NASCAR oval. The experienced reader finds himself searching the infield of this great expanse for what appear to be clues.

hillbillyThe morality questions will not go away, for sure. However, I found myself wanting an answer to a simple question that would have been very easy to ask and pretty easy to answer. Bill and Hillary probably — maybe — would have wanted to answer it.

Note that Healy and his army of anonymous, but gentle, sources give us chapter and verse on where the Clintons live and work and how they spend their time (no GPS data, however).

Now, it may have been hard to find out if they share a bedroom at either of their homes and how often said New Democrats are in those bedrooms at the same time. That’s what the buzz is all about, but I think that’s a bit much to ask, don’t you?

But would it have been hard to find out if and when and where these moderate/centrists go to church?

Faith is hot right now. Even Howard Dean says so. Before you know it, journalists will need to know that information about the Clintons in order to prepare for campaign 2008 photo opportunities.

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Scary ghosts in Key West talks

2004 02 28 WeddingSunset OceanKeyResort KeyWestFL 5143 CUT 640For the past few days, I have been down in Key West, Fla., for one of those amazing “Faith Angle” gatherings, sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, for journalists and scholars.

As always, the topics were timely and the discussion — almost all of which was on the record — was lively. The speakers this time were Michael Cook of Princeton University, on “Understanding Muhammad and Islam”; longtime Democratic insider William Galston of the Brookings Institution on “Religion, Moral Values and the Democratic Party”; and James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia and Alan Wolfe of Boston College debating the question “Is There a Culture War?” (a preview of their forthcoming book).

I don’t even know where to start when it comes to offering URLs on all those people and those topics. But if you want transcripts of their talks and the discussions, watch this site. Or you can read one journalist’s take on the proceedings, because Rod “Friend of this Blog” Dreher of the Dallas Morning News live-blogged the whole thing for his new Crunchy Con blog over at Beliefnet.

I do not have the time or the energy to cover all that Capt. Crunchy’s flying fingers produced during the sessions. But I will say this: There were two powerful ghosts in the room.

One was the ongoing issue of whether American evangelical Protestants have become so disheartened by trends in the second Bush White House that they have already started a quiet retreat from the nasty business of politics and back into the garden of compassionate deeds and evangelistic words. Is the Rev. Rick “Purpose Driven” Warren of Saddleback Church a sign of this trend? There were many references by reporters and forum leaders to his session with reporters a year ago in Key West.

So, should we look for a louder evangelical left and a quieter evangelical right? Here are two short Dreher notes on that discussion:

Why should Evangelicals lay down power?

The question is put to Wolfe: Why would you think that conservative Protestants, having spent 40 years building a powerful political machine, would abandon it? Because, says Wolfe, its leaders are having an epiphany about what their role as Christians in this culture are supposed to be, and to do. Leaders like Rick Warren are genuinely more interested in fighting poverty and relieving suffering, not fighting in the political realm. There is an authentic re-thinking of Christian mission, of Christian public purpose, among the younger generation of Evangelical leaders.

The coming Evangelical Left

Hunter says that because Evangelicalism is more and more defined by emotional experience, a nascent Evangelical political progressivism is easy to foresee. You can see this especially among the emerging Evangelical elites. Says Hunter, “Most of the Evangelicals I know at the University of Virginia, I only know one who voted for Bush in the last election.”

The second ghost was like unto the first.

Galston’s presentation was excellent and it, of course, raised a fundational question about the current direction of the Democratic Party. Will the party’s elite leaders be willing to do more than talk about religion? Will they be able to actually compromise on hot-button cultural issues — such as abortion and gay rights — in order to reach the massive, mushy, “incoherent” (Wolfe’s word) middle of the American marketplace of emotions (as opposed to ideas)? That’s a hard question, as noted by Ruth Marcus in a Washington Post piece entitled “The New Temptation of Democrats“:

The risk is that, in the process of maneuvering, Democrats’ reframing and rebranding could edge into retreating on core principles. It was unsettling to hear (Howard) Dean — in the process of cozying up to evangelicals — mangle the party platform, saying, incorrectly, that it states that “marriage is between a man and a woman.” In fact, while deliberately silent on marriage, the platform supports “full inclusion of gay and lesbian families . . . and equal responsibilities, benefits, and protections.” …

(By) all means, let Democrats woo evangelicals and cast the message in a way that speaks to religious voters. But in doing so, keep in mind: What does it profit a party to gain a demographic but lose its soul?

Ct 241690Abortion is always a hot topic for Democrats, but it wasn’t the issue lurking in the background in Key West. Terry Eastland of The Weekly Standard was there and, at one point, I wished he could have handed out copies of Maggie Gallagher’s recent cover story, “Banned in Boston — The coming conflict between same-sex marriage and religious liberty.”

The basic question: Will the leaders of the Democratic Party do what the Clinton White House was willing to do, which is defend the basic freedom of association rights of traditional Jews, Christians, Muslims and others? During private conversations, Galston said it would be political suicide for the Democratic Party to support an attack on the First Amendment rights of millions of traditional religious believers. That simply is not going to happen, he said.

But numerous sources — left and right — quoted in the Gallagher article are not so sure. Consider these remarks from a strategic leader in a Jewish organization that is, needless to say, not part of the Religious Right.

As general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, Marc Stern knows religious liberty law from the inside out. … (He) sees the coming conflicts as pervasive. The problem is not that clergy will be forced to perform gay marriages or prevented from preaching their beliefs. Look past those big red herrings: “No one seriously believes that clergy will be forced, or even asked, to perform marriages that are anathema to them. Same-sex marriage would, however, work a sea change in American law. …

Consider education. Same-sex marriage will affect religious educational institutions, he argues, in at least four ways: admissions, employment, housing, and regulation of clubs. One of Stern’s big worries right now is a case in California where a private Christian high school expelled two girls who (the school says) announced they were in a lesbian relationship. Stern is not optimistic. And if the high school loses, he tells me, “then religious schools are out of business.” Or at least the government will force religious schools to tolerate both conduct and proclamations by students they believe to be sinful.

That got my attention, seeing as how I teach at the national headquarters of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

Want more?

Will speech against gay marriage be allowed to continue unfettered? “Under the American regime of freedom of speech, the answer ought to be easy,” according to Stern. But it is not entirely certain, he writes, “because sexual-harassment-in-the-workplace principles will likely migrate to suppress any expression of anti-same-sex-marriage views.” Stern suggests how that might work.

In the corporate world, the expression of opposition to gay marriage will be suppressed not by gay ideologues but by corporate lawyers, who will draw the lines least likely to entangle the company in litigation. Stern likens this to “a paroxysm of prophylaxis — banning ‘Jesus saves’ because someone might take offense.”

It was great to be in Key West and surrounded by some amazing journalists and scholars. But the topics were not what I would call “relaxing,” at least not for folks who worry a lot about about religious-liberty issues.

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Noticing faith

Protest6The snark is gone, for now.

Kudos to Newsweek for its thoughtful new weekly feature, Beliefwatch, written by Beliefnet editor in chief Steven Waldman. This week’s column, on the topic of immigration and what the Bible teaches about it, is particularly noteworthy.

With all the posturing recently from politicians attempting to get God on their side in the immigration debate, it’s refreshing to see a magazine take an honest and straightforward look at what the Bible actually teaches:

Opposition to the Iraq war energized the “religious left.” Now immigration is extending the life of the coalition. The most vocal have been Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Rabbis David Saperstein and Arthur Waskow, Christian ministers Bob Edgar and Jim Wallis and — to stretch the definition a bit — Methodist lay leader Hillary Clinton, who said that some anti-immigrant measures would “criminalize the good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself.” There are divides, of course: almost half of Roman Catholics say “immigrants are a burden because they take jobs, housing and health care,” according to a Pew Religion Forum survey last month. But the study also showed that those who attend church more often are warmer to immigrants. As with any issue, dueling Bible verses are never far behind.

The column links to a Beliefnet piece that lays out the various passages in the Old Testament, New Testament, Qur’an and Hadith that deal with immigration.

I might have missed previous Beliefwatch articles, but as far as I can tell, last week’s was the first. The topic was not as straightforward — books on Jesus that tell a story other than what is traditionally taught — but adequately handled. I’ll be keeping an eye out for this feature, because it will be interesting to see what type of material Waldman finds.

Photo: day of protest #6 by Kris Kros.

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Newsweek turns maudlin

Newsweek5 29 06The cover story of the May 29 Newsweek is an oddity. Much of the story is driven by the popularity of The Da Vinci Code (both as pulp fiction and as popcorn movie), although Newsweek dispenses with most of Dan Brown’s alternative reality in a handy sidebar.

The story also is odd in that it calls the Magdalene an “inconvenient woman,” a sort of white martyr of the church’s patriarchy, even while it mentions that throughout church history she has inspired admiration and devotion.

Even in dealing with Pope Gregory the Great’s declaration that the Magdalene was the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair, Newsweek cannot decide whether the Pope was “attacking” Mary or holding her up as a model of penance:

It was only a matter of time before the Magdalene also came under attack. The moment arrived on an autumn Sunday in the year 591, in a sermon preached at the heart of the Catholic Church. Taking the pulpit at the Basilica San Clemente in Rome, Pope Gregory the Great offered a startling conclusion about the Magdalene: she had been a whore. Before she came to Christ, Gregory explained, Mary’s sins were manifold: she had “coveted with Earthly eyes” and “displayed her hair to set off her face.” Most scandalously, she had “used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.” Looking out at his audience, a somber mass of monks, Gregory gave Mary a new identity that would shape her image for fourteen hundred years. “It is clear, brothers,” he declared: she was a prostitute.

But it was not clear at all. Gregory’s remarkable assertion was based on the idea that Mary was the unnamed “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’ feet in the seventh chapter of Luke — a conflation many contemporary scholars dismiss. Even if she were the sinful woman, there is no evidence in any Gospels that her sins were those of the flesh — in the first century, a woman could be considered “sinful” for talking to men other than her husband or going to the marketplace alone. Gregory created the prostitute, as if from thin air.

The pope made his new Mary a reformed whore because he knew that the faithful needed a story of penance that was at once alluring and inspiring. The early Middle Ages were a time of tremendous social tumult — war and disease roiled nations and sent destitute women into the streets. Gregory’s church needed a character from Jesus’ circle who provided an answer to this misery, who proved that the path of Christ was an escape from the pressures of the sinful world. The mysterious Magdalene of the Resurrection story was peripheral enough to be reinvented. Finally, the church fathers were able to put the inconvenient woman to good use.

Newsweek interviews the familiar academic admirers of Gnosticism such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman. Karen King of Harvard offers some critical words about The Da Vinci Code as too retro:

The current Magdalene cult still focuses on her sexuality even though no early Christian writings speak of her sexuality at all. “Why do we feel the need to resexualize Mary?” wonders Karen King, author of “The Gospel of Mary of Magdala.” “We’ve gotten rid of the myth of the prostitute. Now there’s this move to see her as wife and mother. Why isn’t it adequate to see her as disciple and perhaps apostle?”

The story would have been more informative, and may have even offered a clash of ideas, had Newsweek interviewed Da Vinci critics such as Darrell Bock, Greg Jones, Sandra Miesel, or Amy Welborn.

At least we can be thankful the story doesn’t indulge in hysterical Gospel of Judas-style predictions that Sunday-school teachers will have to rethink the entirety of their message because a Gnostic text preaches Gnosticism.

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Harpo America

baby namesForgive my snarkiness, but stories about baby names are just dumb. I have particular disdain for stories on those unusual names that suddenly become popular. First, it ruins the offbeat quality of those names, and second, who cares? Anybody with an Internet connection can look up the popularity of a name.

So the cynical writers here at GetReligion were especially appalled to see The New York Times write about the historic boom in the number of babies named “Nevaeh,” which is, for those clever enough to figure it out, Heaven spelled backward. Whoop-de-do (the story’s headline is, well, lame, despite my own use of the technique):

The spectacular rise of Nevaeh (commonly pronounced nah-VAY-uh) has little precedent, name experts say. They watched it break into the top 1,000 of girls’ names in 2001 at No. 266, the third-highest debut ever. Four years later it cracked the top 100 with 4,457 newborn Nevaehs, having made the fastest climb among all names in more than a century, the entire period for which the Social Security Administration has such records.

Nevaeh is not in the Bible or any religious text. It is not from a foreign language. It is not the name of a celebrity, real or fictional.

Nevaeh is Heaven spelled backward.

The name has hit a cultural nerve with its religious overtones, creative twist and fashionable final “ah” sound. It has risen most quickly among blacks but is also popular with evangelical Christians, who have helped propel other religious names like Grace (ranked 14th) up the charts, experts say. By contrast, the name Heaven is ranked 245th.

Spectacular indeed is how the Jennifer 8. Lee got this puff piece in the pages of the Gray Lady. Stories on baby names are much more appropriate for things like magazines. This simply isn’t news.

Much to my amazement, as the gossip blog Gawker pointed out, not only is a piece on an “insignificant trend” in the Times, it was also on the front page. I kid you not. Perhaps it is Miss Jennifer 8.’s interesting middle name that makes this story front-page material? Go figure.

One can only imagine our disgust when the article dipped into the realm of the religious. We blame this on Oprah. It’s all her fault. Anything can be religious these days. Even generic religious words spelled backwards. Welcome to Oprah America.

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The alleged rise of the religious left

MichaelLernerGood political reporters do their best to cover both ends of the political spectrum. With American politics nicely divided into “liberal” and “conservative” camps — at least on the surface — this is easy. So with the “sudden” emergence of the powerful “religious right” in the 2004 presidential election, articles on the “religious left” in American politics have been on the to-do list for political and religion reporters.

I won’t take the time here to fully challenge the idea that the “religious right” suddenly became influential or even the myth that it is as influential as it is made out to be. To make it brief, the political influence of religious conservatives did not appear overnight, and reporters routinely overestimate their influence on national politics.

With that introduction, I have a few comments on Saturday’s front-page Washington Post piece by Caryle Murphy and Alan Cooperman on the arrival of the religious left, whatever that means, in politics:

Some groups on the religious left are clearly seeking to help the Democratic Party. But the relationship is delicate on both sides. “If I were the Democrats, the last thing I would do is really try to mobilize these folks as a political force . . . because I think some of this is a real unhappiness with the whole business of politicizing religion,” said Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

The Rev. Joseph W. Daniels Jr., senior pastor of Emory United Methodist Church in Northwest Washington, said a key question for him is whether the religious left will become “the polar opposite to . . . the religious right” or be “a voice in the middle.”

“What this country needs is strong spiritual leadership that is willing to build bridges. We don’t need leaders who are lightning bolts for division and dissension,” he said.

Nonetheless, some observers doubt that the revitalization of the religious left will lessen the divisions over religion in politics. “I do think,” said Hertzke, “that, if in fact this progressive initiative takes off, we will see an even more polarized electoral environment than we did in 2004.”

Religious Left3With that, religion in American just got that much more political.

A few issues with the article. I know Washington is a political town and the Post is a newspaper that thrives covering politics, but how about a little religion in a piece about religious groups? I got all excited when the article suggested that it would explain what “religious liberals” believed, but nada, other than references to abortion, and the cozy categories of mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics. There is no mention of the authority of the Bible, not to mention key theological issues that are at the root of the differences between liberal and conservative denominations.

This is an interesting reversal of roles. The mainline denominations are outside the sphere of influence looking in while conservative, traditional denominations supposedly hold all of the influence and power in Washington.

There was little direct mention of the doctrine of separation of church and state in the article. It does not really fit with the story line, but are there those in the liberal religious left who are concerned about violating that constitutional concept?

While the Post‘s version of the current status of religious liberalism in America is all rosy, the New York Times offered a starker picture a day earlier:

WASHINGTON, May 18 — They had come to All Souls Unitarian Church, 1,200 of them from 39 states, to wrest the mantle of moral authority from conservative Christians, and they were finally planning how to take their message to those in power.

After rousing speeches on Wednesday by liberal religious leaders like Rabbi Michael Lerner (pictured) of the magazine Tikkun and Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, participants in the new Network of Spiritual Progressives split into small groups to prepare for meetings with members of Congress on Thursday.

Yet at a session on ethical behavior, including sexual behavior, the 50 or so activists talked little about what to tell Congress about abortion or same-sex marriage. Instead, the Rev. Ama Zenya of First Congregational Church in Oakland, Calif., urged them to talk to one another about their spiritual values and “to practice fully our authentic being.”

It is essentially the same story, but the contrast in outlook is amazing. I’ve complained about this before, but I wish NYTimes.com would tell us what page the story was published the way washingtonpost.com does, because I’m curious what kind of play this received.

I know the Post has long practiced the tradition of getting beat by the NYT on stories and then playing it up a day or two later on the front page with a different angle, but I wonder whether this was actually the case in this instance.

Religious LeftLastly, revealing more of the “religious left” movement than the Post or the Times combined, Julia Duin of the Washington Times was also able to scoop both papers in publishing a preview to the event on which both the NYT and the Post stories were centered:

[The conference's spiritual covenant] supports a national health plan, suggests members of Congress “spend part of one day a week feeding hungry people at a shelter or other … hands-on service activity,” the public funding of all state and national elections and many other innovations.

“Have you ever heard a Democrat talk like that?” the rabbi asked. “They have down one dimension of the problem, and we’re behind that. But we’re trying to add a spiritual dimension.”

The guest list for the conference, posted at www.tikkun.org, includes anti-war activists such as Cindy Sheehan, who will help lead a “pray-in for peace” outside the White House on Thursday afternoon. A range of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu speakers are also slated.

There you have it, folks. The political influence of the religious right in America is being met by a coalition of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindus. All you ever wanted to know about the booming religious movement that will rock the nation come November. I have my doubts.

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Who does Dan Brown say that I am?

ChristSinai 01And Jesus went out, and his disciples, into the towns of Caesarea Philippi: and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Who do men say that I am?

– Gospel of Mark 8:27

Please do not blow a fuse, dear readers.

I am not opening this post with a Bible verse in order to veer into evangelism. For most of the week, I have been looking for mainstream press reports about The Da Vinci Code that found a news hook other than (a) evangelicals trying to use the movie for evangelism, (b) scholars shredding the novel’s historical claims, (c) movie executives insisting that their product was only fiction or (d) speculation about the impact of the lousy reviews on the box office and the future of what was supposed to have become a major franchise for Sony Pictures. Weeks two and three are the keys.

On that final point, I do wonder if Tom Hanks is locked in for the future. And here is another question about the future: How do you film Angels & Demons — much of which happens in churches in Rome, and much of the final act actually in the Vatican — without the cooperation of the Holy See?

Well, there is a different angle out there. Reports indicate that the movie has softened the novel in at least two key ways.

First, it has edited out or weakened much of the oh-so-sexy pagan roots of the plot. Where’s that passage in the book about sacred sex inside the Jewish Temple’s Holy of Holies between the priests and holy women representing an ancient Jewish goddess?

But, most importantly, the movie has tried to adopt a slightly less hostile stance toward Christianity. The movie strives for a more mushy, spiritual, “dialogue”-oriented approach that, at crucial moments, says, “maybe,” “maybe,” “maybe.” As Associated Press religion-beat veteran Richard N. Ostling notes in an analysis piece:

An early clue that the film is trying a different tack from the novel comes when it omits the book’s thesis: “Almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false.” The script instead turns that concept into a question: “What if the world discovers the greatest story ever told is a lie?”

The chief alterations, however, pop up during a pivotal theological discussion between the story’s two experts on religious history, Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen). The maniacal Teabing makes the claim (disregarded by real-life scholars) that Christianity considered Jesus a mere man and turned him into a divinity in A.D. 325. Good-guy Langdon mildly objects, inserting a critical viewpoint that the novel lacks.

The bottom line is that the novel said Jesus was a remarkable man — bright, charismatic, hot and all that — but just a man. This is the Jesus of the old liberal mainline Protestant world. But the novel added another layer of commentary, saying that the true Christianity of the Gnostics and other believers in the “sacred feminine” was buried by the evil, sexist, frumpy men who were setting up the Catholic version of a Roman empire. This is the modern, sexy, almost Wiccan gospel of some segments of the liberal mainline Protestant academic world.

The movie says most of that, but adds a crucial word — maybe. In the end, it says that the most important thing is for believers to believe something and only nasty traditionalists care about the details. But the bottom line remains the bottom line: Dan Brown is acting as an evangelist for a syncretistic, pluralistic, at times neo-pagan version of Christianity.

Thus, one of the best news hooks right now can be summed up in this statement: “Who do men say that I am?” As USA Today noted:

At one climactic point, Langdon says, “History shows Jesus was an extraordinary man. Why couldn’t Jesus have been divine and still have been a father?” That line was not in the book.

The filmmakers try to back off from a hard-line stance on the question of Jesus’ divinity. Says Langdon, near the end of the film, “What matters is what you believe.”

Wasn’t there a way to work Oprah into the movie to deliver that line?

I would imagine that some mass-media people may not be happy about this change (and the fact that the script is terrible and most of the performances wooden or cheesy). Over at Entertainment Weekly, reviewer Owen Gleiberman cuts to the chase. Is that disappointment we hear between the lines?

A crucial change from the book is that Langdon has been made into a skeptic, a fellow who doesn’t necessarily buy that official Christianity is a lie. This is a sop to the film’s critics (i.e., the Catholic Church), but it feels cautious, anti-dramatic. Yes, a soupçon of research reveals that the Priory of Sion is a hoax invented in 1956, and surely it can’t be proved that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were ever intimate . … But what we want from a film of The Da Vinci Code is the fervor of belief. … As a novel, The Da Vinci Code has a resonance that lingers. It may be less history than hokum, but it’s a searching product of the feminist era, when even many true believers have grown weary of the church as an instrument of moral reprimand and male dominion.

2795So here is the question, and it’s one that I think is at the heart of the movie story: Who is Jesus, according to Dan Brown (and thus, the Sony Pictures franchise)?

This is a question linked to millions and millions of dollars worth of tickets. What does Brown believe? Will he stand up for his own beliefs or will be compromise, in order to give his actors and directors wiggle room? In novels one and two in this series, Brown had firm, blunt beliefs. He waffled a little, but not much. It seems that the movie has retreated into an Oprah-esque world of “maybe.”

This may be The Matrix all over again, in a strange sort of way.

The siblings Larry and Andy Wachowski — the word “brothers” is problematic right now — were also pushing a gospel rich in neo-Gnostic images and themes, with a literal union of the divine feminine and the male savior.

The Matrix gospel worked when it was visual, vague and exciting. It sank into irrational, wordy quicksand when the siblings attempted to explain their beliefs. They refused to retreat and the result was a disaster that still made lots of money, but it was clear that the franchise declined with each film. It had nowhere to go.

Will Brown be honest? Will he answer questions? Will he have the courage of his convictions, or compromise in an attempt to be safe? No wonder there are rumors of writer’s block on the third book.

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