WPost: Confessions of a (liberal) Christian film critic

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The following observations have little to do with the normal work that we do here at GetReligion, since our goal is to dissect the mainstream press coverage of religion news, seeking the good, the bad and the ugly.

Nevertheless, I think faithful readers of this blog will be interested in a new essay by Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, which ran under this provocative headline: “Confessions of a Christian film critic.”

Right. And this very interesting essay opens with the following passage, which is long — but essential.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

It may come as something of a surprise for Washington Post readers to learn that these are the words I silently invoke every time I sit down to write.

It would surely shock the gentleman who recently e-mailed to castigate me for the “evil” review I wrote of the film “Son of God,” the screen adaptation of the “Bible” TV miniseries. “You will have much to account for the day you meet God,” the e-mailer wrote. “It is now evident you cannot write a review without your personal biases surfacing. That is not professional.”

My correspondent’s words stung — not only because something I had written had caused such obvious distress. In just a few short sentences, he summed up the tensions, contradictions and fleeting moments of grace I have experienced as a film critic who also happens to be a practicing Christian.

The truth is, my angry e-mailer had good reason to assume I’m not religious. I don’t make a habit of professing my faith in my writing — a reticence I chalk up to denomination and profession. A cradle Episcopalian, I grew up within a tradition that’s notoriously chary of proselytizing; as practitioners of that most mainline of mainline Protestant denominations, we tend to prefer evangelizing through our lives and actions rather than showier protestations.

Yes, that sound you are hearing is members of some other flocks — you know, the people in all those shallow flocks that are into that whole “showier protestations” and proselytizing thing — snickering just a bit.

In other words, try to imagine a film critic drawing a paycheck at the Post who is a cradle, oh, member of the Assemblies of God or a Catholic who is active in Opus Dei writing a similar essay and feeling free to express sentiments that are exactly the opposite of this.

Then imagine them feeling free to write this next passage in the same essay:

I don’t hide the fact that I attend church regularly — in fact, I’ve been fairly active in my Baltimore parish for the past dozen years, as a member of our pastoral care committee, as a Eucharistic visitor and as a Sunday School teacher (a fact that will surely strike terror into the hearts of those readers who weren’t so crazy about my “Noah” review, either). …

But my resistance to invoking God, Jesus Christ and matters of the spirit in my writing also has to do with something the “Son of God” e-mailer correctly identified: the journalistic habit of not allowing my personal biases to surface, thereby inappropriately using my work as a religious platform and alienating those readers who don’t share my faith or have no faith at all. Those individuals have every right to read a movie review or essay without feeling sermonized, excluded or disrespected.

Wait, there is more:

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So who is Stephen Colbert really? Maybe ask a priest?

A decade ago, when I started writing a Washington Journalism Center syllabus on the history and future of news, I wanted to include a full day of material focusing on some element of the whole “entertainment as news” trend. I wanted to argue that the political commentary featured in settings such as Comedy Central represented, not the future of news, but the future of the old-school op-ed page.

After surveying what was happening in fall 2005-spring 2006, I decided to focus on the work of the hip young satirist Stephen Colbert. The question everyone was asking back then, of course, was: Who is Stephen Colbert, really? What does he really believe?

Well, I delivered that lecture on Colbert again last week, while reports began circulating that he would soon sit in David Letterman’s postmodern-humor chair at CBS. Now it’s official that Colbert has the “Late Show” nod and, once again, the dominate question in the coverage is: Who is Stephen Colbert, really? Will we finally find out who Stephen Colbert is now that he has said that he will stop playing that fictional “Stephen Colbert” character?

In other words, there are journalists out there who do not realize that it is quite common to see Colbert drop the “Stephen Colbert” mask and speak for himself. When? It happens almost every time that there is a Catholic guest or a guest who is on the show to talk about moral/religious issues, as opposed to strictly “political” issues. For example, consider the following exchange with Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University, author of “The Lucifer Effect.”

ZIMBARDO: “If God was into reconciliation, he would have said ‘I made a mistake.’ God created hell. Paradoxically, it was God who created Hell as a place to put Lucifer and the fallen angels, and had he not created Hell, then evil would not exist.”

COLBERT: “Evil exists because of the disobedience of Satan. God gave Satan, the angels, and man, free will; Satan used his free will and abused it by not obeying authority; hell was created by Satan’s disobedience to God and his purposeful removal from God’s love, which is what Hell is: removing yourself from God’s love.”

ZIMBARDO: “Wow.”

COLBERT: “You send yourself there, God does not send you there.”

ZIMBARDO: “Obviously you learned well in Sunday School.”

COLBERT: “I teach Sunday School, motherf****r.”

The Catholic side of Colbert’s work has received significant ink over the years, but very few publications are mentioning his faith in their coverage of his new “Late Night” gig. As you would expect — with Rush Limbaugh raising all holy heckfire — publications are asking political questions about Colbert, since politics are real and, well, faith is not really real.

So the New York Times offers this:

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What precisely pulled Mickey Rooney back from the abyss?

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There are no second acts in American lives.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

Oh really? So how many acts were there in the long, complicated and amazing life of Mickey Rooney? Let’s list a few: Child star, teen star, Army draftee, struggling male lead, Broadway revival star and award-winning older character actor on screens both large and small. And then there was the personal side of the drama, with eight marriages and any number of financial setbacks along the way.

That’s the kind of life that, when you pass away at age 93, earns you this kind of language in a lengthy New York Times obituary:

Although his career was one of the longest in show business history — about 90 years separated his first movie from his last — it was crammed with detours and dead ends. (“There have been crevices, fissures, pits, and I’ve fallen into a lot of them,” he told The Times in 1979.)

His elfin face and short, stocky body were part of the problem: At 28, with adolescent roles no longer an option and adult roles hard to come by, he said he would give 10 years of his life to be six inches taller. Yet most of his wounds were self-inflicted. …

Yet he always bounced back, often higher than anyone expected.

Not including the Mickey Maguire shorts, Mr. Rooney made more than 200 movies, earning a total of four Academy Award nominations — he was nominated for best supporting actor as the fast-talking soldier who dies trying to protect $30,000 he won in a craps game in “The Bold and the Brave” (1956) and as the trainer of a wild Arabian horse in “The Black Stallion” (1979). (Because of his size, Mr. Rooney played a lot of jockeys and, as his waistline expanded, former jockeys who had become trainers. He was the vagabond who helps Elizabeth Taylor turn an unruly horse into a steeplechase champion in her breakthrough film, “National Velvet,” in 1944.)

He was also nominated for five Emmy Awards and won one, for his performance in the 1981 television movie “Bill” as a developmentally disabled man who has spent most of his life in an institution and must learn to live in the outside world.

The final twist in the plot, back to a modest level of stardom late in life, even had a religious twist — which is why this is GetReligion territory. You see, there seems to be some confusion about what, precisely, took place to bring healing to this troubled soul. The Times notes:

Things began turning around for Mr. Rooney in the 1970s. He stopped drinking and became a born-again Christian. In 1978, after two more marriages and divorces, he married Jan Chamberlin, a country singer whom he met through his son Mickey Jr. Their marriage, his eighth and last, brought stability to his life. And a return to stardom was just around the corner.

So he stopped drinking and became a “born-again Christian” and that is that? This matters since this spiritual turn opened the door to his smashing return to Broadway and several other remarkable events, including that Oscar-nomination for “The Black Stallion.” Apparently no other details were needed.

But that was tame compared with the obit in The Washington Post, which went one step stranger with a neck-snapping transition from things spiritual to things earthy.

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And for a change, a ‘Noah’ movie story that sails smoothly

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Last week, I criticized USA Today’s fast-food cheeseburger of a story on the religious controversy over the new “Noah” movie.

Today, I want to praise the filet-mignon level of coverage served up by CNN’s Belief Blog and Godbeat pro Daniel Burke.

Before I do so, I must confess that I have not seen the movie and may not make it soon, as I still need to catch the new Muppet and “Veronica Mars” flicks. Plus, baseball season just started (if you’re a fan, you might enjoy my column on Opening Day in Texas), so my free time is more limited. Smile.

But back on topic: Under the headline “Does God have a prayer in Hollywood?” the in-depth CNN report combines a tractor-trailer load full of meaty material, from the director’s motivation and insight to important background on faith-based films past, present and future. Throughout, the piece provides the kind of details that speak to the beat specialist getting religion.

Let’s start with a big chunk of the top:

Los Angeles (CNN) – Forgive Darren Aronofsky if he’s begun to identify with the title character of his new film, “Noah.”

Like the infamous ark-maker, the 45-year-old director has weathered a Bible-sized storm – and it’s not over yet.

Aronofsky’s epic, which stars Russell Crowe and boasts a $130 million budget (with marketing costs to match), rode a swelling wave of controversy into American theaters on Friday.

Despite fierce criticism from some conservative Christians, “Noah” was the top box-office draw last weekend, raking in $44 million in the United States.

Part Middle-Earth fantasy flick, part family melodrama, the film is an ambitious leap for Aronofsky, director of the art-house hits “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”

Both of those films were showered with praise and awards. “Noah,” on the other hand, has sailed into a stiff headwind.

Glenn Beck and megachurch pastor Rick Warren blasted the film. The National Religious Broadcasters insisted “Noah” include a disclaimer acknowledging the filmmakers took “artistic license” with the Bible story. Several Muslim countries have banned the movie, citing Islam’s injunctions against depicting prophets.

Even Paramount, the studio releasing “Noah,” has agitated Aronofsky, testing at least five different versions of his film with focus groups.

See the deft way that Burke explains the Muslim opposition (the depiction of prophets)? That’s basic journalism maybe, but USA Today mentioned concern by Muslim-dominated nations with no explanation why.

Give CNN credit, too, for understanding the importance of reporting on the director’s own faith background:

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Can we let Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist rest in peace?

There’s no such thing as bad publicity — at least that’s how the saying goes.

I beg to differ when it comes to the late Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church and promoting your business.

From my home state today comes this front-page story in The Oklahoman. Take a moment to read it so we’re all on the same billboard, er … page.

Now then, let’s talk about what constitutes newsworthiness and how that differs from creating news.

Newsworthiness is well defined at this link via Media.com. It offers five factors: timing, significance, proximity, prominence and human interest — and says that stories should meet two of the five criteria to be considered newsworthy.

Sound old school? Some would argue that it is, and those types have added several more categories to the mix, including the bizarre factor and conflict.

The Oklahoman story is banking solely on those two additional categories by printing this story — and it’s written that way:

Moore Liquor, at 914 SW 4, has gained a local reputation for its humorous, frequently off-color marquee signs. The shop marquee even has its own Facebook page and Twitter account, where followers can see regular photos of the latest roadside witticisms.

“Fred Phelps, 1929-2014. Champagne 10% off! Not a coincidence,” is the latest storefront marquee message.

Shop owner Bryan Kerr said he put up the sign this week after Phelps died March 19. Phelps gained national fame after picketing the funeral of gay college student Matthew Shepard after he was murdered in 1998 in Laramie, Wyo.

“Fred Phelps is the kind of guy who is very difficult for reasonable people to like, and I knew I wanted to do something that had just a little bit of humor but wasn’t too disrespectful,” Kerr said.

Kerr tries to keep the liquor store marquee fresh with frequent references to pop culture and current events. “If you’re watching Dancing with the Stars sober, you are doing it wrong,” one recent message said.

Westboro Baptist Church was tipped off about the marquee and used its own Twitter account to let the masses know it would pay Moore Liquor a visit on its way to a Texas protest and that God hates gays.

And this is news. (Alternative punctuation: And this is news?)

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About those rough religious waters for the ‘Noah’ movie

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A USA Today headline declares:

‘Noah’ hits rough religious waters on-screen

The top of the story:

Director Darren Aronofsky has seen his share of controversy in a body of work that has included uncompromising films such as Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan.

But there hasn’t been anything quite like the storm that has erupted over his treatment of the Old Testament tale featured in Noah, out Friday. The maelstrom has battle-tested studio heads reaching for appropriate biblical comparisons.

“It’s been a unique journey,” says Rob Moore, vice chairman of distributor Paramount Studios. “I actually feel like some combination of Noah preparing for the storm, or Joseph, where you feel like you’re in some foreign land and you’re trying to figure out how to make it all work.”

The story of Noah’s construction of a massive ark to save Earth’s animals from God’s flood-borne wrath is sacred text in the Koran and the Bible, and is one of the most popular stories with children.

Keep reading, and the concise report references concerns about the film from some Muslim-dominated nations as well as conservative radio talk show host Glenn Beck. Later, readers hear from the head of the National Religious Broadcasters:

NRB President Jerry Johnson posed the all-important question in a series of articles on the organization’s website: Should Christians organize churches to see Noah, or boycott it?

While taking issue with some of Aronofsky’s vision, Johnson wrote many would “enjoy” the “quality production.”

“Most importantly, you can have healthy gospel discussions about some of the positives, and even the negatives,” Johnson wrote. He also made clear it was not a “buy up a block of tickets” moment for churches.

But what are the positives? What are the negatives?

This vague story allows that the Koran and the Bible contain the story of Noah. Why not report what those texts say about Noah and compare those stories with the one on the big screen? (Maybe those kind of details would give the plot away, but in this case, isn’t that the point?)

In a related story, USA Today reports that Hollywood has found religion and profits at theaters.

That story provides some insight:

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Neon Trees rocker says he’s gay — and still Mormon

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At some point, coming-out stories about faith-claiming celebrities, musicians, politicians — anyone in the public eye — will cease to be newsworthy.

Until then, we put up with the half-written attempts by news outlets and magazines to tell their stories. I say half-written because rarely do these pieces come close to a proper attempt at reconciling the subjects’ claims of sexual orientation with their faith backgrounds in any meaningful way. (For the record, that includes comment from someone representing the denomination with which the newly heralded LGBT identifies himself/herself.)

The latest example is Rolling Stone’s narrative on alternative rock group Neon Trees’ lead singer Tyler Glenn. Glenn, a lifelong member of the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, tells the magazine he is gay and has known since he was 6 that he was attracted to men. He also describes his first date with another man, indicating he will pursue that type of relationship in the future.

Glenn also says that he still considers himself a Mormon, although the church’s doctrinal position on homosexuality is clear: Sexual activity should only occur between a man and a woman who are married.

One might think that Rolling Stone would seek out a quote from a church representative, given the situation. Not in this story. No quote from anyone in the church, although we do hear from Glenn’s mother, also a Mormon, as well as others connected to the group — whose members all profess Mormon faith. And no word from Neon Trees fans, whom Glenn admits might be upset when they hear the news:

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Pod people: There really are two sides to every story, folks

The stories we critique here at GetReligion usually fall into one of two categories. First we have the good stories: well-written pieces that are fair, balanced, properly sourced and complement the outlets they represent. The second category is comprised of the opposite kind of story, the poorly written ones. These pieces have problems such as ghosts, bias, unexplored angles, poor attribution, inadequate sourcing, vague terminology, etc. The possibilities are endless.

Which would you think would be the more difficult posts for your GetReligionistas to write? If you said the well-written ones, you get a cookie. Or a sugar-free lollipop, since that’s more politically correct.

The well-written stories take much more time and thought and energy and work (at least for this girl) to post about for the very reasons they take longer to write. When a journalist does the job correctly, the story is a veritable treasure chest of information. It features colorful writing and multiple angles. Sources are plentiful, selected thoughtfully and allowed to speak without the journalist inferring or labeling or categorizing for them. When I encounter a good story, I read it multiple times — each time I flesh out a new detail or appreciate a particular pattern of thought. Writing about these gems is an extension of reading them. (And then I have to take a timeout to Google the author, if I don’t recognize the byline. Just to give the writer a virtual high-five.)

Todd Wilken and I discussed the contrasts between good stories and incomplete ones on this week’s edition of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. In particular, we looked at my part of a three-post journalistic train wreck from The Dallas Morning News. Three stories about two elderly gay men and one maverick Methodist minister preparing to marry them — and zero quotes from anyone affiliated with the United Methodist Church who might speak to the denomination’s official stance on gay marriage. I feel like I know this couple quite well, as do I all their friends and supporters, after the trilogy. What we don’t know, as Todd astutely pointed out, is why no one bothered to walk inside one of the many, many Methodist churches that line the streets of Dallas and interview someone who felt differently about gay marriage than the journalist, the couple, the rogue minister and those who know and love them.

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