Adulterers, deadbeats and proselytizers

KidmanCruiseI know it’s like choosing a pack of nacho-flavored Slim Jims and two cans of Mountain Dew for breakfast, but I often start reading the Sunday newspaper with Parade magazine. The “I hit rock bottom before I learned to believe in myself again” cover stories, the earnest teenagers of Fresh Voices, the fawning celebrity profiles of Jim Brady’s In Step With — all make for a potent brew of hathos and glurge.

As Catherine Seipp wrote for Salon in 1997, Parade is — for some of us, at least — an irresistible guilty pleasure.

The most hathotic of Parade‘s hathos-laden pages, though, is Walter Scott’s Personality Parade, which Edward Klein has written since 1991. Klein is best known, lately, for his voyeuristic biography of Hillary Clinton.

In this morning’s edition of Parade, Klein endorses the folk wisdom that one must never discuss God with an eye toward changing anyone’s mind. He uses what tmatt has often called “the p word,” which these days sounds like a synonym for brainwashing. The occasion for this wisdom comes from reader Betty F. of Houston, who writes with the socially urgent question of whether Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban are romantically involved. Klein responds:

Sorry, but there’s no scoop. Fellow Aussies Kidman, 38, and Urban, 37, say they’re “just friends” who enjoy each other’s company. Just friends or not, Urban — voted Top Male Vocalist at this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards — is an improvement over some of Kidman’s past hookups: He’s never been married, never fathered a child out wedlock and never proselytized his religious beliefs.

A note to believers of all types: Next time you’re inclined to discuss why you believe your faith is true, remember that such behavior places you in the company of that serially married Scientologist, Tom Cruise, and deadbeat dads. Thanks for the guidance, Mr. Klein.

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Two fine entrées & a shot of bile

AtlanticOct05CThe October issue of The Atlantic offers another rich meal of religion references, especially in Joshua Green’s “Roy and His Rock,” an 8,200-word essay on Judge Roy Moore and his traveling granite monument of the Ten Commandments. The Atlantic‘s website limits access to the full article, but I’ll quote some favorite passages here.

Beginning with the headline, Green’s article treats the monument as having its own personality. The device works well, especially in a passage like this:

As running mates go, the Rock is ideal. It is always on message. It is an indefatigable campaigner. It boasts a national following. And it is a terrific fundraiser. Since Moore left office it has been the force behind his political life.

Typically, an image of the Rock is beamed onto a giant screen before Moore takes the stage. Most of his speeches, and even his idle conversations, obsessively return to it. He has even copyrighted the monument. Today the Rock plays a role weirdly analogous to that of a retired Kentucky Derby winner gone to stud: with Moore’s blessing, it is being cloned for a Baptist group in Atlanta.

Green depicts Moore as a man who loves a good fight, and compares him to George Wallace. One of his more effective turns is to cite a poem by Moore, which uses the sort of doggerel you’re likely to see in God & Country emails:

“And we face another war
Fought not upon some distant shore,
Nor against a foe that you can see,
But one as ruthless as can be.
It will take your life and your children too,
And say there’s nothing you can do.
It will make you think that wrong is right,
Is but a sign to stand and fight.
And though we face the wrath of Hell,
Against those gates we shall prevail.
In homes in schools across our land,
It’s time for Christians to take a stand,
And when our work on this earth is done,
And the battle is over and the victory is won,
When through all the earth His praise will ring,
And all the heavenly angels sing,
It will be enough just to see His son,
And hear him say ‘My child, well done.
‘You’ve kept my faith so strong and true,
‘I knew that I could count on you.’”

Green reports that Moore shows a lasting interest in politics, including a possible run in Alabama’s next gubernatorial election. At least we can be relieved that Moore will not stake his future on writing more poetry.

In the issue’s cover story, Joshua Wolf Shenk shows how Abraham Lincoln’s lifelong struggle with depression made him into a great president.

Near the end of the essay, Shenk cites evangelical historian Mark Noll of Wheaton College:

Lincoln’s clarity came in part from his uncertainty. It is hard to overestimate just how unusual this was, and how risky and unpopular his views often were. Most religious thinkers of the time, the historian of religion Mark Noll explains, not only assumed God’s favor but assumed that they could read his will.

“How was it,” Noll asks, “that this man who never joined a church and who read only a little theology could, on occasion, give expression to profound theological interpretations of the War between the States?” Viewing Lincoln through the lens of his melancholy, we see one cogent explanation: he was always inclined to look at the full truth of a situation, assessing both what could be known and what remained in doubt. When faced with uncertainty he had the patience, endurance, and vigor to stay in that place of tension, and the courage to be alone.

Moving from the sublime to the hysterical, we have French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy reacting to publisher William Kristol of The Weekly Standard. Kristol had published an article by Matt Labash about the Clinton Presidential Center‘s grand opening, and he failed to agree with Lévy that the article was “crammed with the vilest gossip about the private life of the former president.” And suddenly we’re staring down the gaping maw of religious extremism:

I sense that Kristol is annoyed when I mention it.

I sense that he thinks a European can’t accept this mingling of politics with such trash, so he plays it down.

Don’t jump to the conclusion that I believe in it, he seems to be saying. That’s just the deal, you understand — supporting a crusade for moral values is just the price we have to pay for a foreign policy that we can defend as a whole.

Suppose it is.

Let’s agree that his annoyance isn’t feigned.

In that case the whole question lies right there, and in my mind it’s almost worse.

When you uphold one goal of a given faction, do you have to uphold all its goals?

Because you’re in agreement about Iraq, do you have to force yourself to agree with the death penalty, creationism, the Christian Coalition and its pestilential practices?

When I have dinner with someone in a restaurant, do I have to order all the courses on the menu?

It takes a special kind of ignorance to perceive Matt Labash and William Kristol as water boys for the Religious Right. Next time he’s staring at a menu, Lévy also ought to consult the wine list.

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Mama mia, that’s a spicy deity

meatballs 01My oh my, am I scared to blog about this story from the Telegraph right now. Nevertheless, rest assured that if I were to interview Bobby Henderson about his faith, I would do my best — iTalk is a wonderful thing — to quote him accurately and make sure that people know where he is coming from. That is what journalists do. Luckily, it does appear that he is rather candid about his views (even though his summary of the Intelligent Design mainstream is laugh out loud funny). But, hey, he is trying to be funny.

In an open letter to the Kansas Board of Education in July, Mr. Henderson wrote: “I think we can all agree that it is important for students to hear multiple viewpoints so they can choose for themselves the theory that makes the most sense to them. I am concerned, however, that students will only hear one theory of Intelligent Design. “I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

Oh, one more thing: I am 99.9 percent sure that the Scopes trial took place in Tennessee, not Kansas.

I will go hide now.

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Still interested in Pat Robertson?

offeringplateIf there is anyone out there in GetReligion land who really, really wants to work their way through 43 more news stories and editorials about the Rev. Pat Robertson, they can demonstrate their free will — I am not a Calvinist — by clicking here and browsing through (scroll down a screen) the always awesome collection of URLs at the Christianity Today weblog. Then again, the whole subject does raise issues of total depravity.

Let me go on the record and say that I remain stunned at the media reaction to this story, in large part because I have considered Robertson a non issue ever since his fade started in the late 1990s. There is more I could say, but I won’t. The key is that there are so many people within evangelicalism who are — for better and for worse — more interesting and influential than Robertson at this point in his career.

I am not alone in thinking this way. Check out this Cal Thomas column, which is a strong call for people on left and right to stop believing that they can vote in the Kingdom of God (and pay people to push for that). Here is the end of the piece:

If people who bear the label “Christian” want to reduce these embarrassments, which interfere with the proclamation and the hearing of “true religion,” they should refrain from sending money to TV preachers and contribute more to their local church. Local giving not only would allow the giver to better monitor how the money is spent, but also, if the pastor occasionally says something he should not have said, the embarrassment will remain within the walls and not be a rhetorical shot heard around the world.

Pat Robertson eventually apologized for his remarks about assassinating Hugo Chavez. His penance should be to retire and to take his bombastic conservative and liberal colleagues with him.

Believe it or not, this is one Thomas column that even drew praise from Andrew Sullivan. Preach it, brother.

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Con man, fake priest, sinner

If there are any screenwriters out there who want a bizarre real-life story about original sin, look no further than this amazing (and oh so depressing) Los Angeles Times feature story by Tonya Alanez about the life and times of con man Federiqkoe DiBritto III.

Where to begin? He just wants to do good, even if he can’t straighten out his own life. And the money was just there for the taking.

And what about the times he managed to convince people that he was a priest?

“Emotionally and spiritually, he did real damage to people here in Phoenix,” said Father David Sanfilippo, vicar general of the Phoenix diocese. “To find out that it was an impostor celebrating these sacraments was very hurtful.”

Brito said he regrets fooling the Arizona parishioners, but he sees things differently.

“When I worked in the parish, I gave my heart,” he said. “When I spoke at the Masses, they applauded.”

Brito describes himself as “very” religious and dedicated to fulfilling the needs of others. “I probably would have made a great priest, a great elected official, a great human being,” Brito said. “But I screwed it up.”

He said he prays for forgiveness.

“God came to heal sinners, not perfect people, and I am one of them,” he said.

So who plays this guy in the DreamWorks movie? This guy gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “born again.” Wow. My only knock on this story is that it really cries out for theological insights. No, I mean it. DiBritto is messed up — in a very specific way. The spiritual element of this story cannot be denied. What do Catholic authorities have to say about his angels and demons?

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Now carrying the NPR imprimatur!

YoungAndChoirFor a few decades now, John Lennon’s “Imagine” has served as a secularist hymn. From the end of The Killing Fields to the post-9/11 America: A Tribute to Heroes broadcast, “Imagine” has been there to tell us that the world could be so much more pleasant if only everyone were inclusive enough to set aside what they believe about God, the afterlife and other trivial matters.

Neil Young played “Imagine” on America: A Tribute to Heroes, and now he’s written a song that could join it in the pantheon of believer-bashing hymns.

Young performed his new song during the Live 8 concert in Toronto on July 2. Weekend Edition Saturday played the song again because, well, let anchor Scott Simon explain it: “One week ago today, at the Live 8 concert in Ontario, Neil Young presented a new song, ‘When God Made Me.’ It was his first performance since suffering a brain aneurysm last spring, and after the events of this week, it seems worth another listen.”

“When God Made Me,” like “Imagine,” is set to a simple and haunting melody played on a piano. Young’s lyrics also are simple — concise but saying a lot, posing questions that also function as accusations. Here’s one stanza:

Was he planning only for believers
Or for those who just have faith?
Did he envision all the wars
That were fought in his name?
Did he say there was only one way
To be close to him?
When God made me
When God made me

If that isn’t enough moral authority for you, the Fisk University Jubilee Choir provided vocal backup and the legendary Spooner Oldham (who played on Bob Dylan’s Saved) offered a brief Hammond B3 solo.

The complete lyrics, and a glowing review of Young’s performance, are available at the Neil Young News blog. You can see a video of Young and the choir performing the song on AOL Music’s comprehensive Live 8 site (here’s the Toronto page, which also includes the lighthearted “If I Had a Million Dollars” by Barenaked Ladies).

You’ll likely hear “When God Made Me” many times in the coming decades, especially at elementary schools’ winter holiday festivals and weddings that favor vows custom-written by the bride and groom. Enjoy.

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“The Way We Were”

thelasthole largeSometimes you just have to let art wash over you.

I don’t know what to add to this Associated Press story (hat tip to Rod FOTB Dreher), except to say that we Baby Boomers are not going to go into middle age and beyond quietly. Is this a Godbeat story? Trends in Baby Boomer entertainment rituals? The liturgy of the media?

So here we go. This is the whole report.

PITTSBURGH (AP) — James Henry Smith was a zealous Pittsburgh Steelers fan in life, and even death could not keep him from his favorite spot: in a recliner, in front of a TV showing his beloved team in action. Smith, 55, of Pittsburgh, died of prostate cancer Thursday. Because his death wasn’t unexpected, his family was able to plan for an unusual viewing Tuesday night.

The Samuel E. Coston Funeral Home erected a small stage in a viewing room, and arranged furniture on it much as it was in Smith’s home on game day Sundays. Smith’s body was on the recliner, his feet crossed and a remote in his hand. He wore black and gold silk pajamas, slippers and a robe. A pack of cigarettes and a beer were at his side, while a high-definition TV played a continuous loop of Steelers highlights.

“I couldn’t stop crying after looking at the Steeler blanket in his lap,” said his sister, MaryAnn Nails, 58. “He loved football and nobody did (anything) until the game went off. It was just like he was at home.”

Longtime friend Mary Jones called the viewing “a celebration.”

“I saw it and I couldn’t even cry,” she said. “People will see him the way he was.”

Smith’s burial plans were more traditional — he’ll be laid to rest in a casket.

Ah, a casket you say? But what kind of casket?

There might be a story there as well, as I discovered a few years ago at one of the stranger events I have ever tried to sneak into religion pages from coast to coast. Enjoy!

Anyone strolling through last year’s National Funeral Directors Association convention could catch glimpses of Baby Boomer heaven.

The Baltimore exhibits included “fairway to heaven” caskets for those especially devout golfers and NASCAR models for true fans that have seen their last race, at least in this life. The goal, said a convention spokesman, is to offer dying consumers the same kinds of choices that they demanded in life.

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A kitschy story as I hit the road

RoadsideCoverNow this is fun.

The Dallas Morning News has a fun book-related feature up today called “Grace Lands: Professor hits the road in search of religious kitsch, and finds true faith along the way.” The book is called Roadside Religion and it’s about a mainline Protestant attempting to dissect the strange people who live in strange lands dominated by traditional forms of faith, which means that, in many ways, it has the exact same journalistic point of view as the entire Dallas Morning News, especially its nationally known religion section.

But I digress.

The basic idea is that the world is full of very strange religious people and sometimes they make strange religious roadside attractions. What happens if a really smart person visits Ave Maria Grotto, Precious Moments Inspiration Park or Biblical Mini-Golf? So what if he interacts with the natives?

Frequent News contributor Mary A. Jacobs sums up the Presbyterian journey of Dr. Timothy K. Beal thusly:

Don’t judge this book by its cover. The kitschy postcard design may hint at snarky humor and postmodern posturing. Instead, Dr. Beal opened his heart on the open road and found hospitality on the fringes of American religious life. His fascination with roadside icons began on an earlier family trip, when he spotted a sign along Interstate 68 in Maryland: “Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here.”

“There was this big reddish brown steel girder structure next to the highway, languishing in a field,” he said. “We wondered, ‘Who would do something like this? And why?’”

By the time the Beals got home to Shaker Heights, Ohio, he’d hatched a plan. The family would take off on a pilgrimage to discover how many other Ark-like attractions there were out there. He found a warm welcome, so to speak, at Cross Garden in Prattville, Ala., an 11-acre park whose wooden crosses and junked appliances are adorned with messages including, “NO ICE WATER IN HELL! FIRE HOT!” and “YOU WILL DIE” and “IN HELL FROM SEX SEX.”

The final quote from Beal captures the whole “everybody has a story in the postmodern world” approach of this bookish trip into the fringes of normal America. Enjoy.

“I went into this as a scholar, and my scholarly tools maybe were a means of steeling myself against being too vulnerable to these ‘strange’ strangers,” he said. “These people welcomed a visitor whom they didn’t know and shared their stories and their deeply felt experiences. I found that disarming.

“We tend to think about faith in terms of belief. I started to think of faith as being about relationship and hospitality — opening oneself up to the other, to the stranger who drives up in a motor home and wants to know what’s going on. It’s about opening oneself to another and being vulnerable.”

With that, I am out the door to the winding mountain roads of North Carolina, where there are more Baptist churches than there are, well, almost anything else other than trees and highway signs. If I find any strange forms of religion, I will try to get to the only local cyber cafe to send out some word.

Meanwhile, everybody pitch in and send Master Jeremy and the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc lots of input on the unfolding Supreme Court drama. We are especially interested, of course, in MSM coverage of the religious left and the Religious Right. Wonder why the latter is upper case and the former is not?

Bye now.

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