Louis Zamperini: A life transformed by … Billy Graham?

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Louis Zamperini had an amazing, amazing life.

Actually, he had two of them since — pardon my French — he was a born-again Christian.

You can get the amazing details of his first life in all of obituaries that are running in major news publications. However, if you want to know much about how this amazing man made sense of all of the pain and suffering in his life, how he was healed (in several senses of that word) and then moved on, well, good luck with that.

Here is the top of the almost fine obit in the pages of secular holy writ, The New York Times:

Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who as an airman during World War II crashed into the Pacific, was listed as dead and then spent 47 days adrift in a life raft before being captured by the Japanese and enduring a harsh imprisonment, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 97. A statement released by his family said he had had pneumonia.

Mr. Zamperini’s remarkable story of survival during the War gained new attention in 2010 with the publication of a vivid biography by Laura Hillenbrand, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” It rose to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

The story is to be retold in a film adaptation of the book directed by Angelina Jolie and scheduled to be released in December. Jack O’Connell plays Mr. Zamperini.

The details of his ordeal must be read to be believed. Yes, please read them. Yes, he shook the hand of Adolph Hitler.

It is perfectly understandable that this kind of trauma and, at one point, daily torture left scars. The news coverage of Zamperini’s death has handled that angle, sort of. Here is the Times, again:

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Memory eternal: The life and quiet ministry of ‘Ann B.’

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One of the complicated subjects that religion-beat professionals talk about behind the scenes, if they are themselves religious believers, is how to pick out a safe congregation to join in the city that they are covering. The goal is to find a good one, but not one that has a history of making news.

During my Rocky Mountain News days, for example, my family joined what I thought was a nice safe, rather low-key parish near downtown (at this stage in our pilgrimage we were evangelical Anglicans). Lo and behold, the priest promptly became active in ministry to urban teens and gang members. Go figure.

That parish also put me in the path of a major news complication. Before long, one of my closest friends in the parish was a young man who was a leader at the local St. Francis Center for the homeless. On top of that, he was the son of one of the state’s major newsmakers, the charismatic (in multiple senses of the word) Bishop William C. Frey, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. I immediately told my editors and then met with the bishop to establish ground rules for contacts with his family which were acceptable to him, to me and to my editors. I will leave the details private, but it helped that the bishop was not the kind of man who ducked questions.

Why bring this up?

You see, over the years several branches of the Frey family tree lived in a rambling old home in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood at one time or another, along with a wide variety of other interesting families and individuals. If you went over to watch a Denver Broncos game with one of the Frey sons and his family, that meant the bishop was probably going to there too, most of the time.

Members of this household community — think small commune — shared most finances, cleaning duties, cooking, etc., etc. This kind of idealistic arrangement was actually not that unusual in the era in which charismatic renewal swept through many mainline Protestant bodies, and Catholicism as well. There were many wonderful households of this kind and a few with dark sides (See the amazing Julia Duin book — “Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community” — about one terrible fall in Houston).

One member of the Denver community kept her Emmy Awards in the household’s television room, where they served as bookends high up on some shelves. She wasn’t very good at cooking (tacos were her norm) and she admitted that she struggled a bit with childcare. Her name, of course, was Ann B. Davis and over the years she became a friend, too.

The woman millions thought of as “Alice” was far more than her character on The Brady Bunch, or her trailblazing “Schultzy” character on “The Bob Cummings Show.” She was the kind of person that, after the conversion experience that turned her life upside down, would spend her days hidden in the back of that homeless center quietly doing laundry or sorting through donated clothes. You should have heard her cackle when she finally managed to make stray socks match.

Now Ann B. is gone at age 88. Needless to say, I have found it interesting to read the short passages in the major media obituaries that have tried to deal with the Christian content in her life story.

I think the best overall piece I have seen, so far, was in The Los Angeles Times. For example, readers were first given this short bit of information:

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WPost: Avoiding Maya Angelou’s soul, if at all possible

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In the world of political, cultural and social studies theory there is a term — “civil religion” — that scholars have been arguing about for decades. You can talk about Rousseau and you can dig into Tocqueville and travel on to Martin Marty, but sooner or later you end up with the 1967 Robert Bellah essay entitled, “Civil Religion in America,” written by Robert Bellah in Daedalus in 1967. As the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society notes:

Bellah’s definition of American civil religion is that it is “an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation,” which he sees symbolically expressed in America’s founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses. It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called “God,” an idea that the American nation is subject to God’s laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States. Bellah sees these beliefs in the values of liberty, justice, charity, and personal virtue and concretized in, for example, the words In God We Trust on both national emblems and on the currency used in daily economic transactions. Although American civil religion shares much with the religion of Judeo-Christian denominations, Bellah claims that it is distinct from denominational religion.

Back in by Church-State Studies days at Baylor University, I wrote my thesis on a topic linked to all of this, a 290-page work called “A Unity of Frustration: Civil Religion in the 15 October 1969 Vietnam War Moratorium.” Amazingly enough, you no longer have to go to my office or to the main campus library in Waco, Texas, to read it (although I have been pleased at how many researchers have used it through loaner programs). Now Google Books has made it available (sort of).

Anyway, while most people look at civil religion as something rooted in the belief of a great, unified, majority, I argued — with extensive material from interviewing Marty (key: a community of communities) — that some minority religious or semi-religious movements have, over time, been absorbed into the majority and thus into the civil religion.

Who can imagine American civil religion without the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement? I argued that the religious wing of the protest movements against the Vietnam War — with the massive, coast-to-coast Moratorium as its peak — represented a very important, yet ultimately unsuccessful, example of this process in civil religion.

So what does all of this have to do with Maya Angelou and with, when it comes to religion, her great popularizer — Oprah?

Angelou lived a roller-coaster of a life and she ended up being a religious voice, as much as anything else. What kind of religion? It was a mixture of African-American religion, readings in deeply religious literature and Unity Church, a New Thought movement that I have heard referred to as a prime example of the “old” New Age.

In other words, some would see this as a kind of lowest-common-denominator religion branching off of Christian roots. A kind of mystical civil religion? Here is an interesting take on that from the conservative Catholic Peggy Noonan at The Wall Street Journal:

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Near-death experiences: Is ‘Heaven Is For Real’ for real?

MICHAEL-ANN ASKS:

How well do you think [the current "Heaven Is For Real" movie] addresses communicating out-of-body spiritual experiences?

AND ART ASKS:

[Regarding the "countless books" on near-death experiences such as "Heaven Is For Real"]: Is there any legitimate connection between these and Christian views of the next life?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Since maybe a few folks out there haven’t bought this bestselling book, or seen the movie, or read about the book or the movie, here’s a summary:

In 2003 Colton Burpo, not yet age 4, underwent emergency surgery for a burst appendix and had a close brush with death. At various times afterward he told parents Todd and Sonja about experiencing his soul taken to heaven while his body was on the operating table. He reported information the family said he couldn’t have known otherwise, most notably meeting a second sister in the afterlife though he’d never been told about Sonja’s miscarriage.

Years later father Todd, the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in rural Imperial, Nebraska, wrote this hugely popular book. Eventually Hollywood came calling.

Now, for some background information on this phenomenon. Burpo’s book sales pale compared with the various books written by the secular Raymond Moody, an M.D. and Ph.D. who coined the term “near death experience.”

In “Life After Life” (1975) he compiled more than 100 accounts of people who suffered “clinical death” and revived. Many shared such perceptions as moving through a tunnel, glorious light and feelings of great peace. Such matters had received little public notice till then, but subsequent polls indicated millions of Americans have reported “out of body” experiences.

Moody later explored reincarnation, including awareness of his own past lives while under hypnosis. That belief breaks from Judaism and Christianity and fits Eastern religions (though minus beliefs, less popular in the West, about the law of karma and reincarnation into sub-human species). Moody helped establish one of several centers that collect and analyze near-death accounts.

While the Burpo book typifies the theme’s common-folks appeal, elite near-deathers help counter assumptions that people telling such stories are unusually imaginative or suggestible and maybe a bit off.

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Short 30 for 30 slam dunk that gets the faith angle just right

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You have to be a pretty intense hoops fan to remember many of the details of the career of Shawn Bradley.

Other than, of course, you know what.

Take a look at the YouTube at the top of this post some of the details will come back to you. Or even click here for a short video dedicated to one of the most famous dunks — the Tracy McGrady classic — in which the 7-foot-6 Bradley was, as the saying goes in pro basketball, “posterized.” That’s the term for the man caught underneath the basic when a high-flying ace goes in for a picture-perfect slam.

“In your face” is the kind way to express the results.

However, there is much more to Bradley, the man, than posters. The purpose of this post is to encourage GetReligion readers, even those who don’t care about sports, to CLICK THERE and spend the mere 12 minutes it takes to watch an amazing little ESPN film called “Posterized,” which is a fantastic example of a piece of news-feature material that gets the religion angle of a story just right. Did I mention that it’s really short?

As hoops scribe David Astramskas noted, in an online piece about this short film from the 30 for 30 branch of the ESPN kingdom:

If you search “Shawn Bradley” on YouTube, the majority of the results will be videos of people dunking on him or trying to fight the 7’6 center that was picked in between the much loved Chris Webber and Penny Hardaway during the 93 draft. Now, I don’t mind those videos dominating the video results, but I do mind hearing people that have never watched him play in the 90?s say he was a “horrible player” or just some useless big man — which could be said about a long list of big men in the past 14 years that were lottery picks and sometimes #1 picks.

Keep reading for the faith angle.

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A flood of reactions to Hollywood’s ‘Noah’

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DAVID SAYS:

(Regarding the feature film “Noah”) I would love to read your personal reaction.

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Personally? The Guy is no fan of science fiction or slam-bang special effects. Those hulking stone monsters with flashing light bulbs for eyes didn’t thrill and otherwise Hollywood’s puzzling ark-aeology seemed, so to speak, all wet.

But who cares about The Guy’s taste in movies? “Noah” is a conversation-starter so let’s survey the conversation.

Preliminaries: There are well-known literary parallels between the Bible’s famous Genesis chapters 6-9 and other flood narratives from the ancient Mideast. Skeptics use that to debunk the Bible while traditionalists say that only undergirds Scripture’s authenticity. The movie’s phantasmagoric visuals present the story as fiction without even a kernel of primordial fact. Whether viewed as total myth, literal history or some mixture, both Noah and “Noah” raise deep questions about the Bible and, more, about the Bible’s God.

Given past scorn and ridiculous mistakes, believers are understandably apprehensive when showbiz folks get their hands on religion. The director of this biblical blockbuster, Darren Aronofsky, is a self-described atheist apt to drop F-bombs.

The wary National Religious Broadcasters got Paramount Pictures to state in publicity that “while artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.” That disclaimer seemed like an implicit endorsement from conservatives.

Others bestowed outright hallelujahs. Blogger Billy Kangas, a doctoral candidate at Catholic University of America, thinks the film takes “every single word of the text in Genesis seriously.” President Robert Barron of the Catholic Mundelein Seminary says “God, creation, providence, sin, obedience, salvation: Not bad for a major Hollywood movie!” He sees the God of “Noah” as “personal, active, provident, and intimately involved in the affairs of the world that he has made.”

President Jim Daly of the evangelical Focus on the Family says much the same.

The Bible’s account says God raised the flood to destroy much of what he created due to unbearable human sin and violence. One of the most perplexing sentences in Scripture is Genesis 6:6: “The LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (RSV). Seeking to comprehend this, Kenneth Mathews of Beeson Divinity School writes that “the making of ‘man’ is no error; it is what ‘man’ has made of himself.”

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Shocking news! T.D. Jakes doubts something!

“Replate 1A.” That was a favorite dry reaction at my old newspaper whenever someone announced something obvious, as if were front-page news.

That’s what I said when the Hollywood Reporter labeled T.D. Jakes as “a man of God who admits he has wrestled with doubt.” Clearly, the reporter hasn’t read Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama, let alone St. Paul or the prophet Elijah.

It’s one “revelation” of the Reporter’s lengthy profile on the Dallas-based author, pastor and filmmaker. The 2,200+ word story reads like a rambling patchwork of bio, indepth, newsfeature and inside baseball.

In the process, it veers among trade savvy, admiration and more interest in Jakes’ business side than his spiritual side. But at least it seems to get the facts right. Mostly.

It trips up, predictably, on the matter of homosexuality. And it seems to want to make Jakes sound more like a diplomat than a minister.

The Reporter’s reporter extravagantly calls him a “towering figure in the evangelical world” — indeed, a “6-foot-3, 250-pound giant whose low, rumbling voice only adds to his gravitas.” But he softens that with a closer look:

In person, as I discover when we sit in Jakes’ windowless office suite the day after the ceremony, he is a gentle man whose style is more considerate than commanding. He has the faintest hint of a lisp, which softens his powerful appearance.

The article reports extensively on Jakes’ multi-sided ministry, starting with an enthusiastic look at his Potter’s House megachurch. There’s a wrenching but happy-ending anecdote as a former inmate tells congregants how her life turned around. Perhaps a bit too enthusiastic, with phrases like “Waves of emotion course through them.”

We trot through Jakes’ books and TV appearances, but this being the Hollywood Reporter, we’re quickly directed to his four films and his upcoming movie Heaven Is for Real. The story also mentions his friendships with “an armada of celebrities, from Tyler Perry to Oprah Winfrey.”

There’s a brief bobble as the story says The Passion of the Christ “resurrected the religious movie.” That ignores earlier releases like 1998′s Prince of Egypt and 2003′s The Gospel of John. It also doesn’t account for the lack of subsequent films in the supposed revival.

The Reporter then delivers a heavy six paragraphs of biographical material, going back to his janitor father dying when Jakes was 16. We follow his success as a pastor in Charleston, W.Va., then his fateful decision to move to Dallas with its big-city problems.

Here, the story seems to blame that move for exposing his children to urban vices: first his daughter’s unwed pregnancy, then his son’s alleged experimentation with homosexuality. And here is where the narrative begins to wobble:

In 2009, he discovered his son Jermaine had been arrested for allegedly exposing himself to an undercover male officer. Back then, Jakes was circumspect in his comments about his son’s possible homosexuality; today he is bolder. “In a world where we all have to live together, I think everybody has a right to pursue their own life and their own beliefs and their own passions,” he says, “and that’s what makes this country great.”

Um, howso? Up to now, the article has said nothing on Jakes’ beliefs about homosexuality. And if the direct quote shows his boldness, how did his circumspectness sound?

Yet the article goes on to say that Jakes has critics “slinging arrows from the left and the right” on a wide swath of topics — including being accused of “hostility to homosexuals.”

Jakes did, in fact, speak frankly on the topic in a 2012 interview on Oprah’s Next Chapter:

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New York critics, heaven and a very busy religion week

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OK, think of all of the stereotypes that you have heard about elite critics in New York City, those powerful mainstream-media scribes who are said to have the power to determine what is good and what is bad at the highest levels of American culture.

Do you have that picture in your mind? Now, don’t discuss the details — because what would be dangerous.

Actually, you don’t need to say anything because of editors of The New York Daily News just WENT THERE at the top of an interesting feature-ette about the movie “Heaven Is for Real” and, to a lesser degree, the current wave of God movies at your local multiplex.

Yes, I remember that I cranked out a post the other day that mocked a Los Angeles Times piece on the whole “Hollywood wants to sell tickets to Christians!” trend. This piece has a bit more focus and a sense that this is not really a trend, but part of a longer story about Hollywood trying to “get” people who embrace traditional forms of faith.

But first, about that daring opening:

The movie is about heaven. The primary audience is devout Christians. And the only screening for New York critics is on Monday — when many will be marking the first night of Passover.

Yes, a “devout” Christian alert. Actually, this movie is getting some harsh reviews from defenders of conservative, “devout” Christian orthodoxy (more so than the original book).

But keep reading. As you can see, that “devout” thing is not the key religion stereotype in that lede.

But throwing out the normal marketing playbook is part of the strategy with “Heaven Is for Real,” a Hollywood film based on the best-selling story about a boy who claims to have met Jesus during a brief visit to the hereafter. TriStar Pictures, a division of Sony, said, if necessary, it would set up another screening for local critics on Tuesday. But that, of course, is also Passover.

In any event, Joe Roth, one of the film’s producers, said he isn’t aiming his movie at big-city tastemakers anyway.

Which, of course, means that big-city tastemakers are almost all, well, you know, the kind of people who are busy on Passover. As opposed, you know, to the kind of people who are headed into sanctuaries during the second half of this very busy religion week.

Well, this Eastern Orthodox scribe is part of a community that spent about seven hours in church yesterday and and is headed back today on Good Friday (great Dante meditation here by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher) for multiple doses of liturgy. And then tomorrow is Holy Saturday (a day, in Eastern Christianity, that actually deserves more news coverage than it gets) followed, in the earliest hours of Sunday, by the great feast of Pascha.

I say all of that to note that, if I vanish from from the blog in the next day or two, you know where I am. The same goes for Father George Conger, of course, who is an Anglican priest.

So what is the Daily News crew actually saying about this movie? What’s the big idea? As it turns out, there is a big idea here and it’s a valid news hook.

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