When the messenger has a message

sufjanPitchfork is an online site with daily reviews, news and features about indie music. Chris Dahlen writes an interesting and well-written piece this week about why the indie music community has such trouble with Christian themes:

I don’t know why hipsters hate Jesus. I’m not here to explain how the guy behind the Sermon on the Mount turned into a symbol of our blue- and red-state divide, or to narrow down why it’s desperately unhip to admit you’re a Christian and then get on stage at a rock club. Almost no strain of music is as secular as indie rock: It’s quaint when old men on 78s sing spirituals, and a rugged legend like Johnny Cash can pray however he wants, but if you’re a scrawny songwriter with a 4-track, siding with Jesus makes you a leper.

Dahlen looks at Michael Nau, the voice behind Page France. Nau sings about Jesus and other religious themes in some of his music but doesn’t consider himself a Christian artist. This confuses both Christian and non-Christian listeners. Sufjan Stevens, whose album was one of the most critically acclaimed of last year, has the same trouble. Everyone loves him but many of his fans don’t know how to take his religious themes. Dahlen says this is silly:

But the shame here isn’t that people made the wrong assumptions about Page France, but that they would ever have dismissed him over his beliefs in the first place. Even a religious performer can convey doubt and conflict. Sure, the bands that rocked the Christian festival at your local speedway stick to celebration and sin, but consider the work of people who are described as “thinking Christians” — a term that’s about as patronizing as “intelligent dance music,” but let’s go with it for now. Take the quest for spirituality on Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, or the piety and humility of Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans, or to widen the circle, the furious morality of the abolitionist preacher in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, or the scene in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me in which the reverend asks Mark Ruffalo’s drifter if he considers his life important. If we shun the religious content of these works, we’re missing their emotional and intellectual power.

You can disagree with the church of your choice, but to dismiss religion altogether — and to write off the best ideas, the best people and of course, the best indie rockers — that come out of it, seems pointless. Why shoot the messenger just because you’re scared he has a message?

This is a surprisingly open-minded piece from an unlikely source. It’s also a great idea for further study by reporters. Someone should even consider writing a book about pop culture and religion.

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Some sins are okay

poster1 fullI always find it interesting which movies political groups and churches choose to protest against. There have been many stories about the reaction to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain but relatively few about the #1 movie in the country this week: Hostel.

James Pinkerton’s column, which I found in Newsday, suggests that there is a larger cultural significance in its popularity. (On a side note, I never really read Pinkerton but I have been enjoying him recently. I really enjoyed his essay on Maureen Dowd’s book, in which he compared her thoughts with Hugh Hefner’s worldview.) Okay, so here’s Pinkerton on Hostel:

Variety described “Hostel” as “unhinged gruesomeness.” Director Eli Roth explained to Salon.com that he got the idea for the movie from a Thai Web site that purported to offer an online pay-for-kill experience. He said there were “guys out there who are bored with doing drugs” and bedding prostitutes. “Nothing touches them anymore, so they start looking for the ultimate high. Paying to kill someone, to torture them.”

OK, but what’s the social impact of such a movie? Will such a cinematic depiction convince some viewers that it’s “normal” to have such thoughts? Will some be encouraged to copy what they see on celluloid?

And what of the larger social impact? The Web site horrormovies.ca observes, “It is merciless with the torture, the violence, & the sex. I guarantee you will walk out of this film trusting no one.” That is, “Hostel” will make you hostile.

I just find it surprising that more religious groups haven’t protested this film which will be seen, by my rough mathematical calculations, by about a gazillion more people than will see Brokeback Mountain.

Of course, maybe the larger story is that reporters don’t think to ask religious groups what their feelings are about the movie. Perhaps they don’t even realize there might be a story there because they don’t realize how broadly religious morality extends. This review, from Catholic News Service, rates Hostel as “O” for morally offensive:

Lured off the beaten path by promises of carnal pleasures, they find their way to a hedonistic hostel in Slovakia, where they fall easy prey to a pair of temptresses and wind up in a chamber of horrors where wealthy sadists pay top dollar for the most depraved thrills.

Director Eli Roth (“Cabin Fever”) serves up a steady stream of soft-core sex and hard-core gore, as gratuitously pornographic as it is mindless.

The film’s stomach-churning factor is extreme by even the barrel-bottom standards of Quentin Tarantino, who is credited as one of the movie’s executive producers.

crashSpeaking of stomach-churning, can someone keep Paul Haggis away from a typewriter? The man doesn’t write characters so much as one-dimensional cliche vehicles with which to pound you over the head. If I were to protest movies, I’m pretty sure Crash would be my first victim.

The fact that so many critics heap praise on that silly, silly movie makes me question everything they write. Okay, sorry for veering into GetMovies territory there, but I had to get it out.

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Killing that Hollywood pregnancy

oct11sid1tFor a glimpse into Hollywood’s ongoing efforts to empower women, please click here. Actress Kari Wuhrer is convinced that she was fired from “General Hospital” because she became pregnant. Thus, she is suing ABC-TV, seeking $3 million in damages.

“The vile underbelly of the Hollywood Machine encourages female actors to be as beautiful and slim as possible,” the suit said.

It added that an actress who “dares” to become pregnant has one choice: “Terminate her pregnancy or be terminated.”

The short Associated Press report does not answer a question that lawyers would want to know (“Was there a pregnancy clause in the contract that she signed?”) or another question that Dr. James Dobson may or may not want to know before he takes this case on the air (“Is this woman married?”). The New York Times report notes that Wuhrer’s lawsuit says that ABC killed off the contract of the former MTV star because she was not “sexy enough.” It would appear that Google Images disagrees.

All of this soap-opera drama would draw mixed, but predictable, ratings out there in Oprah America, according to a very helpful set of abortion-related materials assembled by the Public Agenda organization.

The culture remains pretty much where it has been for several decades — 20 percent in favor of abortion on demand, 20 percent in favor of banning abortion and about 60 percent saying they want it banned under some circumstances, but legal under others.

In other words, the mushy middle continues to change with the wind, depending on how poll questions are worded. But it is clear that the middle wants political and legal compromise, in part because the middle is willing to accept or look past moral compromise. That’s America.

Meanwhile, what’s on the soaps today?

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The Church of Oprah

poprahThis is slightly outside of the normal media coverage we follow, but I couldn’t help but notice that ghosts and religious terminology abound in recent stories about author James Frey. This is the man who wrote an exaggerated or possibly even fictional account of a drug- and alcohol-addled life of crime and successfully passed it off as his factual memoir A Million Little Pieces, which sold a gazillion copies and recently was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.

The book and Frey were doing quite well until The Smoking Gun website ran a lengthy expose of their “fabrications, falsehoods and other fakery” on Jan. 8. The book hinges on the fact that Frey was a hardened criminal and drug addict, but in order to sell that story to readers, it appears that Frey changed facts. Driving without a license became a felony assault on cops. Possession of a Pabst Blue Ribbon was changed into possession of crack cocaine. Frey’s exaggerations and inventions would be less noteworthy if so many people hadn’t bought his book and if so many people didn’t believe so fervently in his story, according to The Smoking Gun:

While claiming that he does not desire to become the poster boy for unconventional recovery, Frey has nonetheless emerged as a source of inspiration and guidance for countless substance abusers (as well as their friends and loved ones) and other readers who have embraced “A Million Little Pieces” as a forthright, honest, and unconventional look at addiction. For Winfrey’s show, he even traveled to a Minnesota clinic and gave an on-camera pep talk to Sandie, a viewer who checked herself into rehab after learning about Frey’s book via an e-mail from the Oprah club. “If I can do it, you can do it,” Frey told her. A second Winfrey show is in the works, with her web site seeking viewers whose lives have been “dramatically impacted” by Frey’s book. The site asks, “Did ‘A Million Little Pieces’ Save Your Life?”

Last night Larry King had James Frey on his show for a hard-hitting interview. Just kidding. It was a relatively easy interview during which Frey kept explaining that he cannot be blamed for his faulty memory or subjective retelling or exaggeration. Things were not looking good for Frey until the high priestess of American spirituality called into the show to save the day. Here’s what Oprah Winfrey had to say:

“And I feel about ‘A Million Little Pieces’ that although some of the facts have been questioned — and people have a right to question, because we live in a country that lets you do that, that the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and will continue to read this book.”

james freyTalk about a blessing! With Oprah’s absolution, Frey could very well land on his feet. The interesting thing is that the Oprah defense washes over the fabrication by attesting to some deeper truth — but it was the supposed 100 percent unadulterated truth of this memoir that was his biggest selling point. Frey kept reminding people that his words were completely honest and truthful, even recently. Take a look at this Jan. 6 letter from Frey’s attorney that reiterates the claim of complete truthfulness, for instance.

Is there something religious about the current state of memoir-driven literature? This idea that one must experience something personally in order for it to be valid? That these experiences must be dramatic and debauched? The publishing world seems to think the book would not work as fiction. Neither would it have sold — in the current climate at least — if Frey had copped to his banal and relatively comfortable upbringing. A life of unthinkable sin before conversion is what is needed. Do these mythical stories which Americans love find their way into news copy? Are reporters more biased toward dramatic conversion stories?

In any case, Seth Mnookin, a writer for Slate and a former heroin addict, said there was a problem with brushing over the factual discrepancies:

In building up a false bogeyman — the American recovery movement’s supposed reliance on the notion of “victimhood”– Frey has set himself up as the one, truth-telling savior. In fact, it seems clear that Frey would have been well-served by taking the kind of unflinchingly honest look at his own life that most recovery programs demand.

Like I said, religious terminology and concepts abound in this story. Not the least of which surround Oprah and her blessings and sanctions.

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The lion wrestles the big ape

narnia aslan2In the movie King Kong, the giant ape takes out a slew of dinosaurs in dramatic fashion. Too bad he didn’t have a chance to tussle with the Lion!

The storyline in this box office battle is great fun when it comes to pitting the mighty death-defying lion with the seemingly invincible great ape, and it no doubt includes a bit of the culture wars. The Los Angeles Times‘ R. Kinsey Lowe pontificates:

The end of the year played out with a resurgent “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” taking in $32.8 million on its fourth weekend to conquer “King Kong,” which grossed an estimated $31.6 million over the four-day New Year’s weekend.

It does not come as news that Hollywood closed the year with box office down on the order of 5% and attendance off by about 7%, according to tracking service Exhibitor Relations Co. (See related story, E1). But the box office drop of nearly $400 million, to $8.8 billion, is one of the biggest decreases on record, according to rival tracking firm Nielsen EDI. Exhibitor Relations calculates the drop in revenue is even bigger, from $9.4 billion to $8.9 billion.

Disney’s bid to establish a bankable family movie franchise on the order of the “Harry Potter” series appears to have succeeded, as business for “The Chronicles of Narnia” increased enough to beat the newer “Kong,” which opened to much weaker numbers than anticipated.

“King Kong” surpassed “Narnia” over the four-day Christmas weekend with a Sunday-Monday boost, but the Disney movie directed by “Shrek” veteran Andrew Adamson outperformed Peter Jackson’s extravaganza on every day since then.

kongI’ve seen both films and enjoyed both immensely. I would say that a major reason people aren’t seeing Kong as much is due to its length. It’s arguably the better film cinematically, but Narnia appeals to a broader viewing audience and isn’t three hours long (no exaggeration).

Ross Douthat, a regular blogger at the American Scene blog, a reporter at the Atlantic magazine and a recent guest blogger for Andrew Sullivan, has an excellent roundup of the movie box office battles. Here are some of his thoughts on the future of the Narnia series on the big screen:

I’m a little surprised by this turn, in part because in spite of being smack in the middle of the target demographic for Philip Anschutz’s big project, I actually preferred Kong to Narnia (my complaints about the latter are here), though both were miles from perfect. (Steve Sailer has it right — there were two hours of a great movie in Kong, but unfortunately the film was three hours long.) But it’s still gratifying that Narnia’s doing well, if only because it means they’ll film the later books — and hopefully, as with the Harry Potter movies, the adaptations will get better as they go along.

Unfortunately, the one they’ve started on, Prince Caspian, is one of the weakest of the seven — and the one after that, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is pretty dull as well. (If there’s any Narnia book where the religious allegory gets in the way of the story, it’s Dawn Treader.) And it would be a shame if audience interest dries up before they get around to The Horse and His Boy, or The Magician’s Nephew, or my personal favorite, The Silver Chair. (I’m hoping for Jeremy Irons as Puddleglum . . .)

Can the Chronicles of Narnia adapted by Hollywood match the hype and the popularity of the Harry Potter movies? I wouldn’t be able to judge Potter because I haven’t read or scene any of the movies, but I’ll be looking for articles making that type of comparison.

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Shameless self-promotion: back to work

PopGoesCover2I am back home from 10 days of travel near and far (I passed on buying the George W. Bush bobblehead doll in Crawford, Texas), which was hard since I enjoyed (or endured) varying degrees of Internet access. I don’t know how we are supposed to handle travel in the age of DSL, when things work great at home and zippo on the road. How do you folks handle it?

Anyway, some folks during the trip told me that I should be more pushy about my book. So, OK, here is a spot of shameless self-promotion, only I will still try to hook it to a few religion-news related topics we have been talking about here at GetReligion. Then, tomorrow, I will go back to work. Honest. Thanks so much to Mollie and Daniel for hanging in there during the break!

First of all, Dallas Morning News contributor Michael Darling hooked up for a long talk about faith and popular culture. This led to a shorter Q&A piece, that did open with a good question that kind of took me off guard. Thus, I will share it with you guys, too.

How did your time at Baylor influence your career choices?

It was during my junior year that my career interests sort of got switched. I was a writer for Baylor’s campus newspaper, and there was a huge mission festival in town. I went to cover it, and almost nobody showed up.

I thought I had a great story — why didn’t anyone show? But all the other students went, you know, “Grumble-grumble, if nobody shows up it isn’t a story.”

A famous professor, David McHam, one of the deans of journalism education in Texas, told me, “They didn’t get it from me, but they’ve already picked up on the notion that the media doesn’t consider religion all that important. … Religion’s the worst-covered subject in all of the media.”

It was at that moment that I became fascinated with why the media have trouble covering religion.

I still believe that to be true, even though there are signs of progress all over the place. Much has changed in 30 years or so, but now we are at the stage where religion news has become so important that it is getting harder and harder to know what is religion news and what is not.

You think I am joking? Check out the Associated Press list of the top 10 news events — news events, period — in 2005. See any events with religious overtones? What about Katrina? What about the politics of oil? Any faith themes in there?

I know, I know. This keeps coming up — with good reason. This is what this blog is all about, after all. Thus, here is what I said when the good people at Poynter.org, in an end-of-the-year feature called “Journalism’s Highlights and Lowlights,” asked me, “What’s the biggest change you’d like to see in journalism in 2006?” Naturally, I replied:

Like to see? That’s easy: Religion news being treated as a normal, complicated, serious hard-news beat, with skilled specialists. More people asking the question: What Would Dick Ostling Do?

Well, back to work.

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Blunt headline of the day

The Christmas box office race is getting rather interesting, but I think this is taking it a little bit too far, don’t you think? Anyone else seen any good headlines or novelty leads on this one?

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Yes, some are offended by “Merry Christmas”

product 3597At last! It is finally time for old-fashioned religious fanatics like me to haul off and say the words — “Merry Christmas.”

But there is a problem, sort of. The traditional greeting among the Eastern Orthodox is to say “Christ is born!” and then the other person replies “Glorify Him!” And then there’s all kinds of hugging and multiple kisses on the sides of people’s faces and other complicated religious stuff.

But, yes, folks do say “Merry Christmas” in the circles in which I move and we will be saying that for 11 more days, since I am writing this on Dec. 26. We do not, however, do the pear trees, birds, golden rings, maids and other things.

So the Christmas Wars are over, are they? At least for this year?

An essay in the Washington Post by Penne L. Restad yearns for this to be true:

At last, Christmas morning. May we now declare a truce in the Christmas culture war? All those poor salespeople who struggled to remember whether company policy was to greet shoppers with “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” are free to relax and settle down around their Christmas tree or holiday tree or whatever other seasonal symbol they prefer and celebrate in their own private way. For celebrate Christmas is something that almost all of us, apparently, do. A recent poll says 96 percent of Americans observe the holiday in some way or another.

But there is a problem. There are other poll numbers to consider.

Take, for example, that recent poll in which 62 percent of Americans said that generic season greetings such as “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” represent a “change for the worse” in public life. This was music to the ears of conservative news services such as Baptist Press, which added:

In addition, 32 percent of adults say they are bothered when stores use generic holiday greetings on their displays; 68 percent say they are not bothered. By contrast, only 3 percent of adults say they are irked when stores use “Merry Christmas.” The overwhelming majority — 97 percent — says the reference to Christmas doesn’t trouble them. The poll was conducted Dec. 5-8.

“[T]he use of the generic holiday expressions does not bother most Americans in general, including most major political and religious groups examined in this survey. But substantial minorities are bothered — enough, perhaps, to cause concern among some retailers,” Gallup’s Lydia Saad wrote in an online analysis.

Now you would think that this would be good news for cultural conservatives who want to win the Christmas Wars.

But, as Saad noted, there is another way to read the Gallup numbers. For, you see, 24 percent of those polled said generic greetings are a “change for the better.” That’s a lot of people — more than the number of Democrats who vote in primaries, for example.

And then Baptist Press happily reported that only 8 percent of non-Christians told the pollsters that people saying “Merry Christmas” offends them. Now that is a small number, too. However, that is a large number of a significant number of those offended are lawyers, editors, public-school leaders, Hollywood producers and church-state activists.

So will the fighting end? No way. The numbers are absolutely perfect for fundraisers on both sides of the battle lines.

Oh joy.

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