Did woman really survive abortion?

Once again (shock!), a movie marketed to religious conservatives is making a splash at the box office. This time it’s “October Baby,” about a woman who survives a late-term abortion.

The subject matter drew the attention of The New York Times, which this week featured the film in a front-page news story.

From the start, the Times — in a passive-aggressive sort of way — shows its skepticism of the notion that someone survived an abortion attempt and lived to tell about it.

This is the headline on the online version of the story:

Film Inspired by ‘Abortion Survivor’ Is Quiet Hit

The quote marks scream: This may or may not have happened.

The top of the story:

As mass entertainment goes, the abortion debate does not typically count as good Saturday-night date movie fare; the subject rarely makes it to the mainstream multiplex. But at a time when the issue is once again causing agitation in political circles, a small film, “October Baby,” about a woman who learns she is, as the movie puts it, a “survivor of a failed abortion,” is making a dent at theaters across the country.

The movie, the first feature by a pair of filmmaking brothers from Birmingham, Ala., opened the same weekend as the chart-topping “Hunger Games,” but with the backing of evangelical groups and churches, “October Baby” managed to open at No. 8 and, through Sunday, had made $2.8 million, more than three times its production budget. It is expected to move to more than 500 screens on April 13.

Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films and the Sony-owned Provident Films, which specializes in socially-conservative religious fare, it benefited from the kind of grass-roots religion-focused marketing (enlisting Bible and prayer groups and ministries) that has carried their other Christian-oriented movies, like “Fireproof” and “Courageous,” to box-office success.

Again, there are quote marks, this time around “survivor of a failed abortion.”

Later, there’s this intriguing paragraph:

It was inspired by the story of Gianna Jessen, who says she was delivered alive at a California clinic after a late-term saline-injection abortion. As a paid speaker at anti-abortion events she tells of her struggles and medical conditions. (The film doesn’t get into the science, but a 1985 study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology examined  33,000 suction curettage abortions and found a failure rate of 2.3 per 1,000 at the 12-weeks or earlier.)

Did you notice that phrasing? Who says she was … 

My journalistic question is this: Are there facts to back up the woman’s claim or not? Medical records? Is anyone claiming that her story is not true? Can any medical experts or journals speak to the question of whether, and how many, babies survive late-term abortions?

In the parenthetical statement, the Times gives a statistic on the abortion failure rate at 12 weeks or earlier. But how does that relate to a late-term abortion? On an anti-abortion website, one blogger noted:

Duh. Jessen was not “12-weeks or earlier.”

Later in the piece, the paper’s skepticism extends to a reference to crisis pregnancy centers. Note the term placed in front of that phrase:

The Erwin brothers said they had earmarked 10 percent of the movie’s profits for a charity they founded, Every Life Is Beautiful, which supports adoption and so-called crisis pregnancy centers.

So-called, as in, “We ain’t buying it.”

There seems to be less skepticism in relaying a pro-abortion group’s concern about the other side’s extreme message:

Given the links to these groups, the abortion rights organization Naral Pro-Choice America contends that the film is tied to an extreme anti-abortion message. A spokesman, Ted Miller, added that his group was “concerned that some proceeds from this film could be going to organizations that may intentionally mislead women about their health-care options.” The film’s credits include a list of anti-abortion Web sites, some in the guise of therapeutic resources, Naral said.

It would be nice to know which websites appear in the credits, and what services they provide, so that readers can make their own judgment on their therapeutic benefit, or not.

Of course, the Times notes the timing of the film:

Though “October Baby” arrives at a moment when reproductive rights and women’s sexual health are again part of a robust national debate, its makers say they weren’t acting with a political agenda.

(That national debate, of course, does not include religious liberty concerns.)

All in all, however, this is not a terrible news story. In fact, it provides ample opportunity for the major players — including the filmmakers — to discuss their perspectives in their own words. That’s always nice.

It’s just that the piece, as the anti-abortion blogger referenced above put it, has the feel of an “anthropologist visiting some far place peopled by exotic natives.”

I’d love feedback from GetReligion readers. Are the scare quotes used in this story appropriate or not? Did the Times handle the overall subject fairly? Was I too harsh in my assessment?

Remember, we want to focus on journalism and media coverage. Comments that advocate for or against abortion will be spiked.

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Define “Christian;” give three examples

Anyone who read GetReligion for more than a week or two knows that we are not big fans of religious labels.

What does “devout Catholic” mean? Beats me.

What does it mean when American diplomats (or journalists) to call someone a “moderate” Mulim, other than the fact this is a Muslim who is acceptable to the interests of the speaker?

Who are what is an “emerging” evangelical? Come to think of it, what does “evangelical” mean (as opposed to a word like “fundamentalist,” which has a precise meaning that many journalists seem to have forgotten)?

I could go on and on — obviously.

The journalistic goal — whenever time and space allows in hard-news coverage — is for reporters and editors to offer readers precise information, rather than vague labels. Labels are great for commentary, but rarely much help when doing straightforward news.

With that in mind, check out this “language cop” piece in The New Republic by Timothy Noah. This is not a news piece, but it is closely related to the journalistic terrain covered by this blog.

The key to his piece is that Noah is sick and tired of how many journalists are using the word “Christian.” I assume that this is, almost certainly, related to the whole messy “Barack Obama is not a Christian” scene. Thus, Noah proclaims:

Today I banish “Christian” — not the word itself, but a specific, erroneous usage.

Every morning I wake up to National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” and this morning my first stirrings of consciousness concerned the new movie October Baby, about a young woman who finds out that she was adopted after her birth mother underwent a failed abortion. Ten percent of the film’s profits will be donated to an anti-abortion charity. NPR’s piece about October Baby (audio, text), described it as one of several “Christian” films that Hollywood studios have started churning out. Jon Erwin, who co-directed the film with his brother Andrew, told NPR that he was “raised in the South in a Christian home and family,” and that the values of many contemporary Hollywood films felt alien to him. Quoting The Hollywood Reporter’s Paul Bond, NPR observed that “Hollywood doesn’t like to leave money on the table,” and noted that Fox and Sony have set up subsidiaries to serve the niche “Christian” market.

As I lay in bed struggling to wake up I thought: Christian? Christians aren’t some twee boutique demographic. Christians represent the majority. About 78 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. What NPR and Fox and Sony mean when they say “Christian” is “Christian right” or “Christian conservatives,” terms that adherents don’t like because they think they’re pejorative. “Fundamentalist” and “evangelical” are imperfect substitutes because a) the two categories, though they overlap a lot, aren’t precisely the same; and b) some of these folks consider themselves political liberals.

There is much that can be said about this, including the fact that the term “Christian conservatives” is usually served up as a term describing political stances that may or may not be linked to 2,000 years of Christian doctrine and tradition. Whenever I hear people — some of my students, for example — use the term “conservative” or “liberal” to describe themselves, I quickly ask them to tell me the issue that they have in mind when they use this or that term. They are a conservative or a liberal when it comes to WHAT question, with what doctrine? Without an answer to that question, the whole discussion is meaningless.

Now, Noah proceeds to offer a wide variety of snarky and at times questionable commentary about the beliefs of evangelicals and other Christian conservatives, which he has every right to do. It’s his commentary, after all. He is upset because NPR used a term that gave comfort to his political and moral enemies. I get that.

However, my goal here is to note the fact that the journalistic point hidden in his angry blog post is solid. The word “Christian” is way, way too broad to describe the niche-market products associated with one chunk of the wide spectrum of believers in this land who can — in one way or another — describe themselves as Christians.

A long, long time ago a young man named Bono told me that he was totally opposed to his band’s music being called “Christian music.” He was not ashamed of the word “Christian,” he stressed. He simply thought it was sinfully presumptive to use the word “Christian” as a mere marketing term for the music of someone as sinful as himself. He had a valid point back then and it remains valid today.

And so does Noah.

Now, truth be told, I would assume that most of NPR’s listeners knew what the word “Christian” meant in the context of this particular news report. It was used by NPR to describe a small market for niche entertainment. “October Baby” may or may not deserve being stuck in that niche. However, Noah is right that listeners could have used a bit more information in order to understand the artists and interests behind this film (which looks rather mainstream to me and I hope to see it).

Vague labels cannot take the place of accurate, balanced journalism. It also helps to allow believers to describe their beliefs in their own words. Might that have been possible in this case?

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Faith is front and center at Whitney’s funeral

Who knew that Kevin Costner is, or was, a Baptist?

Funerals are the kinds of events when it’s hard not to get religion, to feature at least some of those quotes that talk about eternal issues and ultimate choices.

The nearly 4-hour funeral of superstar Whitney Houston was no exception. I watched much of the live-streamed coverage on CBS.com and, truth is, the network’s online wrap-up story about this event — part home-church Going Home celebration at Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church, part celebrity cable-TV special — captured some, repeat “some,” of its religious content.

There was plenty of preaching, of course. The overarching theme on this day was that Houston stumbled and fell at many points in her Christian walk, but that she knew Jesus as her Lord when she was young and that she kept coming back to that spiritual home base throughout her life. As producer-actor Tyler Perry said:

“There are two constants that I know about Whitney Houston,” Perry said. “There was a grace that carried her from heaven down through Miss Cissy Houston, a grace that brought her up through singing. The other thing I know for sure: Whitney Houston loved the Lord.”

The preachers said that, too, but no one expects the mainstream press to focus on what preachers’ say — in part because it’s so hard to yank just one strong quote out of a full-tilt sermon without letting the readers know the context and the larger themes that shaped that quote. That’s hard work for journalists with only a few lines of type to spare. Can I get an “amen”?

That’s why it is so significant that Costner — who spoke for nearly 20 minutes — opened up and talked so bluntly about his relationship with the gospel singer turned Hollywood superstar. Costner knew he was in church.

Costner remembered his co-star in “The Bodygiard” as a movie star who was uncertain of her own fame, who “still wondered, ‘am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Will they like me?’ ”

“It was the burden that made her great and the part that caused her to stumble in the end,” Costner said.

And later, there was this additional content from that Costner eulogy:

When Costner gave his remarks he made the crowd laugh at various points while remembering their friendship and working relationship. He talked about what the pair had in common: Both had been raised in the Baptist church and both liked to sing. He said Houston, of course, was a much better singer.

“I thought she was the perfect choice,” Costner said about casting Houston in “The Bodyguard,” her first movie role.

“Whitney if you can hear me now, you weren’t just good enough,” he said about Houston despite her insecurities. “You were great.” Costner, his voice cracking, ended by saying, “When you sing before Him, don’t worry, you’ll be good enough.”

Of course, it’s much easier to hear the capital “H” in “Him” when Costner’s full final quote is left intact. The ABC News coverage of his talk featured some very blunt material about the actor’s blunt words — including advice to the singer’s own daughter — content so blunt that it will be interesting to see if it surfaces in other reports.

(Costner) offered advice on behalf of Houston to her daughter and millions of other aspiring singers.

“To you, Bobbi Kristina, and to all those young girls who are dreaming that dream, thinking that maybe they aren’t good enough, I think Whitney would tell you, guard your bodies,” he said. “And guard the precious miracle of your own life. Then sing your hearts out. ”

He choked up towards the end. “Off you go Whitney, off you go,” he said. “Escorted by an army of angels to your heavenly father. When you sing before him, don’t you worry. You’ll be good enough.”

I believe, under Associated Press style, that passage near the end should be, “Escorted by an army of angels to your Heavenly Father. When you sing before Him, don’t you worry.” Don’t you think?

There are many other things to point out in the service. I thought, in many ways, that one of the most poignant pieces of content came near the very end, when some of The Winans performed “Tomorrow,” one of their gospel classics that Whitney Houston had performed, as well. The lyrics were powerful, at the funeral of a believer who died too soon after making tragically bad choices.

Here’s a slice or two of that:

Jesus said Here I stand
Won’t you please let me in
And you said I will — tomorrow

Jesus said I am he
Who supplies all your needs
And you said I know — but tomorrow …

Tomorrow is not promised
Don’t let this moment slip away
Your tomorrow could very well begin today

That’s challenging stuff to put into mainstream news copy. I know that.

I mean, it’s so much easier to simply focus on the celebrity details in this kind of event. That religion stuff just goes on and on and takes up so much room.

What does this look like in practice? This final segment of the ABC News live-blogging feed, which includes the “Tomorrow” performance, says it all:

2:59 p.m. ET: Pastor Marvin Winans, a Houston family friend, is delivering Whitney’s official eulogy. He thanks Cissy Houston for her willingness to “forget about everything else” and have the service at their family church.

3:08 p.m. ET: Now the whole Winans family is performing “Tomorrow.”

3:12 p.m. ET: Marvin Winans reveals that N.J. governor Chris Christie is at the church. He thanks Christie for standing by his decision to lower the state’s flags to half mast today.

3:34 p.m. ET: Winans appears to be wrapping up his eulogy. He asks everyone to bow their heads for a prayer.

3:36 p.m. ET: Whitney’s golden casket is covered with flowers — the arrangement is almost as big as the casket itself.

3:38 p.m. ET: Prayer turns to song — the choir is singing “Amen.”

3:41 p.m. ET: The service appears to be over. They’re figuring out logistics of getting the casket out of the church and clearing out the packed house. ”As you can see, we have more stars here than the Grammys,” the man at the podium says. “That says something.”

Help your GetReligionistas watch for the final stories in the newspapers tomorrow. Also, if anyone sees solid video roundups after the evening news shows, please leave URLs in the comments pages. I won’t be watching now, since it’s Saturday night — which means it’s time for Vespers. And Great Lent is coming.

VIDEO: A classic gospel moment with “I Believe,” featuring Whitney and her mother, the great Cissy Houston.

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To love and to cherish till WHEN?

My wife, Tamie, has battled illness for about a year and a half. She hasn’t felt much like going to the movies. But my other sweetheart — my 12-year-old daughter, Kendall — joined me on a pre-Valentine’s Day date to see “The Vow.”

We shared a large popcorn and enjoyed the true story of “a newlywed couple recovering from an accident that puts the wife in a coma. She wakes up with severe memory loss and can’t remember any of her life with her new husband … so he has to fight to win her heart all over again.”

The theater where we saw the film was packed as “The Vow” opened as the weekend’s No. 1 box office draw.

The movie itself has no religious content, as far as I can recall. The wedding does not even occur in a house of worship. Yet the film raises intriguing questions about the institution of marriage.

Kudos to Religion News Service, which recognized a peg for a timely trend story tied to the opening of “The Vow” and other recent examples of “the complexities of love in medically challenging situations.”

Here’s the top of the story by RNS senior correspondent Adelle M. Banks (editor’s note: a veteran speaker at tmatt’s Washington Journalism Center):

Philip Weeks fondly remembers the days when his wife of 56 years, June, was a nurse and an artist whose paintings were compared to Rembrandt’s.

Her paintings still hang in their home in Lynchburg, Va., but almost everything else has changed for the couple after she was diagnosed with possible Alzheimer’s and then an abrupt form of dementia.

In one moment, the retired Charismatic Episcopal bishop said, she would lean over to kiss him. “An hour later, she looked at me and said, ‘Who are you?’” he recalled.

When the person you married goes through a dramatic change, what’s a spouse to do? As Valentine’s Day approaches, clergy, ethicists and brain injury experts agree: There are no easy answers.

The examples cited by RNS (including a recent mainstream news story that drew fierce debate here at GetReligion):

— Last summer, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson initially suggested on his “700 Club” program that a man divorce his wife who had Alzheimer’s and “start all over again” with dating. Alzheimer’s, he said, was “like a walking death.” He later said he was “misunderstood.” (See Mollie’s GetReligion post on media coverage of Robertson’s comments.)

— In early January, The Washington Post Magazine ran a story about a woman whose husband suffered a traumatic brain injury after a heart attack. She eventually decided to divorce him but continue caring for him with her second husband.

— On Friday (Feb. 10), “The Vow” hits movie screens, an adaptation of a rereleased book about a young married couple whose serious car accident left the wife unable to recognize her husband. In fact, she thought she was not married.

The RNS story hints at the role of faith in such decisions. For example, this section of the story provides opposing viewpoints:

Page Melton Ivie, the subject of The Washington Post story, said faith played a role in her decisions on how to best care for her first husband, Robert Melton.

“In the context of my faith, I am standing by him and with him,” she wrote during an online chat after the story was published. “I am fortunate to have found someone who will share this with me.”

Others didn’t look at it that way.

“Some day she will have to stand before God and explain why she put herself before her vows to God and to Robert,” wrote Dennis Babish, a blogger for Prison Fellowship’s Breakpoint Blog.

The original Post story, of course, did not offer any kind of depth on the faith angle of the decision. Sadly, readers of the new RNS report are likely to left wanting more, as well. Part of that undoubtedly has to do with the fact that this is a wire service story of less than 1,000 words. Also, it certainly seems that the principle players in the story are not anxious to discuss the faith details. I couldn’t help but wish for more insight on how faith influenced Ivie.

Similarly, NBC’s TODAY.com brushes over the faith angle of the real-life couple on whom “The Vow” movie is based:

In a family built on determination and faith, Kim and Krickitt Carpenter have learned that love not only conquers all, it also fills seats in movie theaters.

Yet the NBC report — like the movie — offers no elaboration on that reported “faith.”

The RNS story ends with a nod to the faith of the bishop quoted in the lede:

Weeks, who has self-published a book called “A Long Dark Night: A Caregiver’s Journey with Dementia,” said he came close to losing his faith, but not his love. Eventually, he said, he stopped doubting God.

“He was giving me a quality of love for her that I did not have before,” the bishop said of his wife. “I think I’m a better husband now because I’ve learned how to deal with this.”

For those looking for deeper meaning, one of the more thought-provoking scenes in “The Vow” concerns not the young couple but the woman’s mother. The young wife learns that her father had an affair with her young friend and confronts her mother about why she stayed with him. The mother responds:

I chose to stay with him for all the things he’s done right; not the one thing he’s done wrong. I chose to forgive him.

Back to the original theme — the question of what exactly “till death us do part” means — it seems that an enterprising religion writer might tackle issues related to how specific faith groups would handle such a traumatic situation. For example, under what circumstances, if any, would a pastor, priest, rabbi or imam advise a spouse to untie the knot?

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Hollywood rediscovers religion! Again!

Anyone who knows anything about the religion beat knows that there are stories that the pros end up writing time and time again. Holiday stories are the most obvious, but there are others — such as all of those theodicy studies that your GetReligionistas keep pointing out year after year.

Well, I’ve been thinking about this one for some time now and I think I am ready to make the call.

Every three to five years, mainstream journalists — or those at The Los Angeles Times, at the very least — will discover the amazing, shocking, unknown fact that dedicated religious believers who attend worship services approximately once a week like to go see movies just like everybody else.

In fact (gasp!) they can even be thought of as a kind of “niche” audience that deserves special attention and the occasional quality film that takes them and their concerns seriously. I realize that it’s strange to pin the “niche” label on about 20 to 40 percent of the U.S. population, but there seem to be groups that Hollywood has trouble detecting in its focus groups.

Do you remember the stunned newspaper articles that created “The Passion of the Christ”? And then there was the wave of coverage that came soon after that, about the time of “The Blind Side.” I was interviewed for the Los Angeles Times piece on that one and the reporter who talked to me was slightly apologetic about the fact that the newspaper’s editors still thought that this old story (can you say “Chariots of Fire”?) was brand new and fresh as a daisy.

So here we go again. This time, we’re watching a true mini-wave of low- to mid-budget Indie films with a “spiritual” bent, aimed at (gasp!) several different “spiritual” audiences. When you put that into a Los Angeles Times trend story, it sounds like this:

In many quarters, Hollywood has long been regarded as an essentially godless place. But judging by the offerings at the movies this season, and more in the works, Tinseltown is rediscovering religion.

My advice: Someone needs to copyright that phrase, “Tinseltown is rediscovering religion.” You can make some money off it in three to five years.

But back to the story.

In the span of just a few weeks starting in late August, audiences looking for God at their local multiplex have had their choice of titles, including “Higher Ground,” a chronicle of one woman’s struggle with her faith; “Seven Days in Utopia,” an inspirational golf drama; and “Machine Gun Preacher,” about an evangelist who takes up arms in Africa. And the onslaught isn’t slowing down. “Courageous,” about policemen wrestling with their faith after a tragedy, opened this weekend. Emilio Estevez’s “The Way,” about a father on a religious pilgrimage, is set for Friday.

These films follow the success this spring of “Soul Surfer,” about a Christian teen surfer’s comeback after losing an arm to a shark. Released by Sony’s TriStar division, the film brought in nearly $44 million at the U.S. box office.

In many cases, these movies are not filled with unknown actors; they star top performers such as Robert Duvall, Melissa Leo, Helen Hunt, Helen Mirren and Louis Gossett Jr. (all Oscar winners), plus Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen and Gerard Butler.

So why is Hollywood looking to a higher authority?

Because this is America and large parts of American are filled with ordinary Americans? Because millions of regular worshipers also like to overpay for popcorn from time to time?

Actually, this story is one of the better “hot trend” pieces that I have read on this topic. It talks about the days in the mid-20th century when religious films were normal. It discusses the low-budget trend symbolized by the “Facing the Giants” Southern Baptists down in Georgia who recently released “Courageous.”

However, this story should win some kind of prize for daring to mention the following shocking facts.

Ready? Are you sitting down?

Rich Peluso, vice president of Affirm Films, the Sony Pictures division that acquires faith-based and inspirational films, said some in Hollywood still believe that the audience for religious-themed movies is limited to the Midwest and South.

“The reality is that the Christian population in Los Angeles, based on pure population size, is one of the largest populations of Christians in the country,” he said. “In Seattle and Portland, we do extremely well with the faith-based populations there. And Chicago and New York. Faith-based films tend to do well where Christians are, and they tend to be everywhere.”

All together now: Who are those guys?

So here is my request for GetReligion readers. Have you paid attention to these stories through the years? Please send us URLs for some of the best and worst of the “Tinseltown gets religion” coverage. Let’s have ‘em. And which movies should have been mentioned in this latest Times piece, but were not?

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Mel Gibson, Joe Eszterhas and Maccabees, oh my

There he goes again.

If you are into film, alcohol, claims of anti-Semitism and manic mood swings, you may already know that Mel Gibson is developing a film about, well, the man who could justifiably be called the Jewish version of William “Braveheart” Wallace. That would be one Judah Maccabee, the warrior whose story is tightly linked with the celebration of the once low-key Jewish holiday called Hanukkah.

As you would imagine, some Jewish leaders in Hollywood and elsewhere are not amused.

However, the Los Angeles Times coverage of this story notes that another controversial name has been mentioned in connection with this project.

Gibson’s Icon Productions has closed the producing deal with Warner Bros., and Joe Eszterhas will write the screenplay. Gibson’s camp said the filmmaker will decide if he’s directing after the script is done and that he has not ruled out the possibility that he could act in the film.

Maccabee, his four brothers and his father led the Jewish revolt against the Greek-Syrian armies. The role of his father, the priest Mattathias, might be a logical one for the 55-year-old Gibson if he does opt to appear in the film.

Maccabee is a figure who has fascinated Gibson for years, and at one point he considered this as a follow-up project to “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004. Gibson’s camp describes the film in terms that resonate with past Gibson projects, such as “Braveheart” or Roland Emmerich’s “The Patriot.”

Gibson, of course, can be a powerful artist when he is sober and going to confession on a regular basis. But what about this other guy? Later on, readers are told:

Eszterhas, best known for fare such as “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls,” is an intriguing collaborator for Gibson. The screenwriter was awarded the Emanuel Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995 for his writings about the Holocaust in Hungary and two of his projects, “Betrayed” and “Music Box,” speak to Jewish themes.

In a Times blog post on the same subject, this background is stated just a bit different.

For Eszterhas, it’s a possible return to the form that made for his meteoric rise as both craftsman and a generator of big-time popcorn hits like “Basic Instinct” and “Jagged Edge.” …

His 1987 film “Betrayed,” featured Debra Winger as an FBI undercover agent infiltrating a Klan-style white supremacy group in the Midwest, and his 1989′s “Music Box,” starred Jessica Lange as an attorney defending her own father against accusations of collaborating with the Nazis.

This is all very interesting and relevant, including the reference that Eszterhas is trying to “return to … form.”

You see, this infamous screenwriter — one more time, all together now, he made a mint for writing “Showgirls” — has been through some changes. The key is whether these changes are relevant to this new connection to Gibson and to this movie torn from religious history.

You see, after suffering throat cancer and hitting rock bottom, Eszterhas was converted to Christianity. Thus, the title of his memoir — “Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith.” Here’s a slice of a Scripps Howard News Service piece I wrote about his speech a few years ago at Biola University’s annual conference on faith and the entertainment industry.

The turning point arrives with a weeping sinner on his knees, his heart skipping beats, his hands shaking, his voice moaning through his tracheotomy tube. Then Eszterhas hears his own voice mumbling strange words.

“I didn’t know why I had said it. I had never said it before,” he said. “Then I listened to myself say it again and again and again. ‘Please God, help me.’ ‘Please God, help me.’ ‘Please God, help me’ … I thought to myself, ‘Me, asking God, begging God? Me, praying?’ “

Then his pain was gone and he was staring into a bright light. He decided that, with God’s help, “I could defeat myself and win, if I fought very hard and if I prayed. … God saved me from me.”

Condensed into the punchy talking points that sell screenplays, Eszterhas said his life has gone from “Malibu to Ohio, from booze to diet Sprite, from Spago to McDonald’s, from Sharon Stone to Jesus.” Now he walks five miles and prays for an hour every day. With his second wife and their four sons, he worships at Holy Angels Catholic Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where he volunteers to carry the cross in Sunday Mass.

“The twisted little man” who wrote his scripts still lives in his head, he said, but is no longer in charge. The big question was whether Eszterhas could write without the tobacco, alcohol and deadly darkness that fueled his 16 screenplays, which became movies that grossed more than $1 billion.

Can he still write screenplays? How about one that mixes his old talents with some of his new convictions? It’s a Jewish story, of course. But I predict that these radical changes in the writer’s life may have had something to do with the connection to Gibson and this scripture-driven project. It may be just as relevant as his work in “Basic Instinct.”

Sounds like religion may be connected to this piece of a major entertainment-news story. Might the pros at the Times do just a tiny bit of new research on Joe Eszterhas?

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God in the ‘Sullivan Ballou letter’ (updated)

When it comes to filmmaker Ken Burns and “The Civil War,” I am a total, raving, unrepentant fan.

While it’s hard to single out any particular element of those amazing broadcasts, I am especially fond of the way he used letters from that period of time — especially those written by the soldiers — to weave real voices deep into the fabric of the narrative. Thus, I was excited when I started reading a new Washington Post feature about the justifiably famous “Sullivan Ballou letter” that was written just before the Battle of Bull Run.

Here is how this beautiful story opens:

In 1986, filmmaker Ken Burns received a copy of a long-forgotten Civil War soldier’s letter that a scholar thought he might find interesting.

Burns, then working on his award-winning PBS documentary about the war, began to read it out loud to his wife, brother and another staff member in his Walpole, N.H., headquarters.

“My dear Sarah,” the letter began, “the indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days. … Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines which will fall under your eye when I shall be no more.”

The letter, written in Washington on July 14, 1861, continued, as the author bade a heartbreaking farewell to his wife. Burns could barely finish it, and when he did, he looked up and found the others in tears. It was the now-famous “Sullivan Ballou letter,” written by the Union officer a few days before his mortal wounding at the Battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 1861 — 150 years ago Thursday.

As the story notes, the full text of the letter was read at a crucial, summary, moment in “The Civil War.” Viewers were stunned and demanded copies. One newspaper published the full text of this short letter. The soundtrack included the full text, with music in the background as in the film. You may notice that I keep using the words “full text.”

The letter had a profound and permanent impact on the filmmaker.

After Burns finished reading the letter aloud, he made two photocopies. He gave one to his staff, for inclusion in the film. He folded the other and put it in his wallet. Twenty-five years later, as the country marks the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Bull Run, the now-tattered copy of the letter is still in Burns’s beat-up wallet.

“It’s the most beautiful letter I’ve ever read in my life,” he said. “It’s a Grand Canyon of a letter. You can read the strata of meaning. It’s all about love. First and foremost is love of country. … It’s about love of government. … It’s a love of cause. … It’s a love of family.”

All of that is true.

However, the one element of the Post story that disappointed me — this is not a surprise, I am sure — is that it totally ignored the fact that the letter is also about eternal love, faith and a husband’s profound sense of gratitude to God for the gift of his marriage and his family. Indeed, at the heart of the letter we read:

“The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me — perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed.”

There’s more, of course. I know, I know. That is how people used to talk back in those days.

This element of the letter made it into this famous series of documentary films. It didn’t make it into the Post, and that is sad. It’s literally the one thing the newspaper left out.

UPDATE: In a way, this is a semi-correction. As GetReligion readers may know, I live in a rather blue-collar neighborhood just outside of Baltimore, near the BWI Airport. It’s not a wealthy enough neighborhood, it seems, to justify delivery service for the Washington Post. Thus, I normally see the tree-pulp Post at my office on the Hill. Truth be told, I am often so busy that I do not get to the physical paper until I head back home on the train.

So, I need to say that the online version of this story that I saw did not contain the full text of the “Sullivan Ballou letter.” Riding home tonight, I discovered that the tree-pulp edition of the paper contained a sidebar — the letter itself.

The texts of the actual stories were the same and, thus, my comments about that story stand. Clearly, the sidebar does offer needed context.

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Who, what, when, where, why and Harry

First things first: I want to stress that I feel nothing but sincere pity for the world weary and stressed news editors who recently had to sit around conference tables and, perhaps in the presence of oracles who read focus-group tea leaves, discuss one of the big questions of this news cycle.

That question, of course, can be stated this way: “What was this whole Harry Potter thing about?”

There is no need to get into the billions and billions of amazing statistics about this astonishing phenomenon in pop culture and in human culture — period. I mean, we’re talking about miracles, such as teen-agers reading books. Let’s leave it at that.

Who, what, when, where, why and how?

So, we have finally made it to the news cycle for the last movie. Editors knew that they needed an epic Harry Potter story and they needed one now. It must have felt something like the days before Christmas and, in newsroom culture, that is not a good thing. There is this giant thing taking over your city and your land and you have no idea what to write about it. It’s too big to cover. But you need a story.

Over at Poynter.org, the story is that journalists are relieved that this story is finally over.

But what, precisely, is the story? How did J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books end up becoming the saga, the myth, the received text of a generation? What was going on inside those book covers?

Tell me you cannot hear the conversations around that archetypal newsroom conference table as you read the top of today’s Washington Post feature that began on holy ground — A1.

Friday, it comes, the final detonation of the cultural blast that left millions of foreheads metaphorically imprinted with lightning-bolt-shaped scars. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2” is the final installment of the leviathan eight-film series based on J.K. Rowling’s monumental best-selling novels.

Since 2001, the Potter movies have been both a financial freight train and a jobs program for all of Britain’s aging character actors. The books have become almost holy.

“I’m holy. Holey, Fred, geddit?” (Don’t worry, your kids get it.)

It is a franchise that became a movement. A revelation. An era. Friday’s opening is the last chapter in a saga that has affected — at least via “Saturday Night Live” spoofs, mentions on university syllabuses, and in religious sermons — the world’s collective oversoul. Doled out incrementally over 14 years, it taught us patience.

“What has ‘Harry Potter’ meant?” asks Emerson Spartz, who founded the fan site MuggleNet.com as a home-schooled 12-year-old more than a decade ago. “What is the meaning of life?”

That’s a rather big question.

Perhaps the actual Post movie review for final movie captured the stakes best. This is how critic Ann Hornaday dared to open her piece:

It is finished.

That Biblical reference is fully intended when considering “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2,” the final installment of a movie series that surely owes part of its astronomical success to its rich symbolic underpinnings of sacrifice, resurrection and redemption.

This phenomenon was precisely the kind of beat-blurring story that I struggled to get editors to let me to cover when I was religion-beat reporter in Denver and Charlotte, N.C. Everyone knew that there were religious elements to this story right from the beginning, especially when the marketers producing the American edition of book one (“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”) decided to change the title.

But where did religion fit in, other than a few mobs of folks wanting to shred the books?

Harry & Co. received quite a bit of ink in my book at few years ago (“Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture“) and it will not surprise you to know that I returned to the subject this week in my column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

I decided, with the help of a Potter pro who has become a good friend, to try (in my usual 666 words or so) to sum up what the Godtalk side of Potter mania was all about. The expert I consulted once again was the ever quotable John Granger of HowartsProfessor.com, who gave me a few moments in a week in which he was being chased by NPR, The Wall Street Journal, etc., etc.

Here’s a goodly chunk of the column:

… (T)hat very first title — containing a medieval Christian alchemy image for eternal life — was a sign of debates to come. Publishers changed the title image to “Sorcerer’s Stone” in America, assuming Americans would shun “philosopher” talk. Before you could say “Deuteronomy 18 (There shall not be found among you anyone … who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells)” — the Potter wars began.

It mattered little that Rowling soon outed herself as a communicant in the Scottish Episcopal Church and told a Canadian newspaper: “Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said, ‘yes,’ because I do. … If I talk too freely about that, I think the intelligent reader — whether 10 or 60 — will be able to guess what is coming in the books.”

Thus, the series unfolded, with each book containing waves of medieval Christian symbols, including many used by artists to point to Jesus — such as white stags, unicorns, hippogriffs, a phoenix and a red lion. Meanwhile, the plots were built on alchemical themes of dissolution, purification, illumination and perfection, themes shared with Milton, Blake, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others. In each book, Harry Potter the “everyman” tries to sacrifice himself for others, before somehow being raised to new life in the presence of a Christ symbol.

Nevertheless, many critics failed to see how Rowling’s work stands in contrast to the spirits of materialism and individualism that dominate modern life, according to classics scholar John Granger, an Orthodox Christian best known as the scribe behind HogwartsProfessor.com and numerous related books. I met him at Nimbus 2003, an early global conference on Potter studies, and we have compared notes ever since.

“In a secular culture like ours, fiction of this kind serves an almost sacramental function for millions of people,” said Granger. “This offers a hint of the transcendent, a taste of spiritual transformation — but it’s not the real thing. … Reading ‘Harry Potter’ could, however, help some people become more open to transformative experiences and perhaps even to yearn for them.”

Here is where I want the input, indeed the help, of GetReligion readers.

You see, I quickly decided that there was more faith-based content in Potter mania than the one easy news hook, which some people are still using. You know, the “Conservative Christians hate anti-Christ Harry” headline.

That’s out there. I know that. But that doesn’t explain the thousands of conservative Christian home-school moms I met packed into the Orlando hallways of that Nimbus 2003 conference so long ago. We’re talking armies of witches and home-school moms and only the Christian home-school moms thought that the books contained large doses of their own brands of faith.

Thus, in this last column I attempted to create a short typology to describe the most common religious camps that I encountered during the Harry Potter era. The judgments pronounced by these camps went something like this:

* Rowling intentionally wrote occult books, creating a doorway into witchcraft for young readers.

* The books are merely tempting trifles celebrating adolescent behavior and mushy morals. They were not intentionally evil, but simply bad books.

* These fables are a mixed bag, mixing good messages with the bad. But if Rowling used Christian symbolism, it was as mere window dressing.

* Rowling intentionally wrote “Christian books” containing literal, almost mechanical allegories that can serve as evangelistic tools, in and of themselves.

* The books, according to Granger and many other academics, are part of a British tradition of storytelling built on Christian symbols and themes (including clear biblical references) and can be enjoyed on several levels, including as stories of transformation and redemption.

So here is my question. In this round of mainstream and online coverage, which of these Harry Potter religion camps made it into print? What other religion angles were pursued? Who was quoted? Or, to be blunt, did editors simply collapse from exhaustion and throw in the towel?

For example, did any of the coverage note that the Bible verses had been left off the tombstones in the pivotal Christmas Eve scene in the previous film? That’s a nice, crisp factual question. Did anyone bring that up? I mean, other than Sarah Pulliam Bailey in the WSJ.

IMAGES: The infamous Dallas Morning News image of Harry Potter as, literally, iconic savior. Also, the cover of the original British edition of book one.

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