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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Reviewing the Brokeback story, so far

oscar statuesThis post is really late and I apologize for that. However, I have not been anxious to get back into the Brokeback Hollywood story. However, it is clearly not going away. I told the folks at Poynter.org — in an email poll they sent me — that I think it’s going to be one of the three or four hottest religion/cultural stories of the year in 2006.

More than one friend of mine out on the left coast has said that “Brokeback Mountain” is a dead lock for the best-picture Oscar, in part because the competition is so weak and all of the true blockbusters this year are films for young people that the academy will laugh at.

One thing is certain, it’s going to be a very political year at the Oscars. Forget Brokeback Mania for a moment. Here is USA Today on the political atmosphere right now:

Take a look at the early front-runners, and most aren’t pulling any punches. Syriana is a searing take on the relationship among the U.S. government, oil companies and Mideast leadership. Good Night, and Good Luck is an examination of the press’ will to stand up against big government. Munich takes a cold look at eye-for-an-eye justice when it comes to terrorism.

“Politics are all around us, you can’t escape it,” says Jeff Goldstein, a distribution executive with Warner Bros., which released Syriana. “It’s natural that the best movies are going to reflect what’s going on in people’s everyday lives.”

Politics? Right now that means the war and religion (and or social issues).

So back to Brokeback. According to most people, the film is a quality piece of work and has layers that are not showing up in the cheerleader MSM reviews. And then there is the short story itself, with the hints that each man was, as a child, abused and in some way bent.

Will all of this turn political somehow in the age of blogs, listservs, fundraising lists and talk radio/television? Is water wet? Is fire hot?

We can see the complexity of this situation in the reviews of the film that are starting to emerge from religious publications and organizations.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, had much to say about “Brokeback Mountain” and most of it was positive. This resulted in a “L” (limited) rating that said the film was for mature viewers, but was not morally offensive in and of itself. Sure enough, that started a firestorm in an age when the Vatican is learning to read its emails and follow the blogs.

Thus, the rating was changed to an “O” (offensive). As you would expect, Andrew Sullivan is not amused.

Then there is this review from Christianity Today, which dances through some of the same minefields of quality, politics and moral theology. This is not a positive evaluation of the movie, at all. But the fact that it has ANYTHING positive to say could lead to pull quotes in magazines and websites that are more conservative than the CT circle.

And there is the heart of the story that is going to have legs.

Can anyone conservative say anything positive about the film at all, even while debating it? Will anyone in the Kingdom of Hollywood be allowed to raise critical questions about the movie or the wisdom of declaring it to be the gay (or bisexual) Gone With The Wind?

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Blaspheming the American god

Jesus2I have a friend who makes fun of the stories that repeat every year on local news stations. His favorites are “Grocery scanners rip you off!” and “Our blacklight shows hotel comforters are dirty!”

My personal favorite annual story is the one where someone trusted in the commmunity accidentally blasphemes Santa by questioning his existence. I mentioned before that I think I might be the one American among the masses who celebrate Christmas who never believed in Santa Claus — so that may be part of why I am so intrigued by stories like this. But consider also this passage from Dell DeChant’s fascinating book The Sacred Santa:

Santa is not the embodiment of secular “commercialism.” He is the embodiment of our culture’s greatest religious myth: the myth of success and affluence, right engagement with the economy, and the acquisition and consumption of images and objects. Santa is the incarnation of this myth. For this very reason he functions as a profoundly religious figure in our postmodern cosmological culture. This reason may also account for his seeming immunity to criticism from a religion still following the cultural logic of a previous time. In short, Santa is not secular. He is sacred. To attack him as secular is to attack his shadow.

Now consider last year’s cautionary tale to those who might break orthodox teaching on Santa. It came from an extremely unlikely perpetrator and place, a priest at St. Pius X school in Whittier, CA.

Yes, Virginia, there really is no Santa Claus.

That’s what a priest at St. Pius X School here told students as young as 5 during morning Mass last week, causing a furor among parents who claim the priest overstepped his boundaries by speaking so frankly about the much-loved Christmas figure.

During the Mass, school officials admit, the Rev. Ruben Rocha repeatedly told the students in grades kindergarten through third that there is no Santa Claus.

So it was major news that a priest at a Roman Catholic school taught something true from the pulpit. This year, according to CNN, it’s Chris Rock, or his Everybody Hates Chris show, at least:

“Everybody knows there’s no Santa Claus,” Drew said to Tonya on the UPN sitcom. “Come here, let me show you something. I’m taking you to the toys … Santa doesn’t come down the chimney. We don’t even have a chimney. We have radiators.”

Disillusioned, she stomps out of the room.

But wait. It gets worse.

Put on the spot, Tonya’s dad Julius tells her the Easter bunny and tooth fairy don’t exist, either.

The story describes the network as “blindsided.” I just find it so odd that children’s belief in Santa is such a widely-held cultural belief that reporters run stories about people telling part of the truth about him.

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Who went to heaven with Walters?

thefiveYes, Barry Garron of the Hollywood Reporter is right — that ABC News production on heaven does sound like a TV-ratings-friendly variation on an old joke: “So a priest, a minister, a rabbi, the Dalai Lama, an atheist and Barbara Walters walk into a studio and …”

I did not see this report, because I was working on my Scripps Howard column and — speaking of alternative religions — getting my son to a Lego robotics team meeting. So I am not in a position to debate with Garron when he says that Walters and Co. did not deliver on the outrageous title for this “news” special: “Heaven. Where Is It? How Do We Get There?’”

Here is a clip from the Reporter summary:

What you are likely to learn from this ABC News production, if you didn’t know already, is that religious leaders have not only the sketchiest of notions as to what heaven is but also contradictory ideas of what goes on there. Cardinal Theodore E. McCerrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C., says there’s no sex in heaven. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, an Islamic scholar, says there’s plenty of sex there — and with virgins, no less. He’s kind of vague on where the virgins come from, though.

That there is so little agreement about heaven might suggest that most of us have been making it up as we go along. Ellen Johnson, president of the American Atheists, says as much. If we really believe heaven is that great, she says, we’d be busy hanging ourselves to get there. It’s a point the others don’t address, except for the would-be suicide bomber now serving 24 years in an Israeli prison. His goal was despicable but there’s no denying he believes in a better afterlife.

Based on the print feature posted online, this Walters “special report” does seem to offer the usual grab-bag of interviews with clerics, scholars, scientists and pop-culture stars. That is what ABC pays Walters to do.

But there is an unspoken subtext to this approach that is much more interesting. There are three basic ways to interpret what Walters serves up. (1) All of these believers are crazy and out of their minds, (2) all of them are, to one degree right and to another degree wrong, but their yearning for heaven points to some vague reality that makes them all right in the end or (3) since so many of their beliefs clash and cannot be reconciled, some of them must be wrong and, somehow, one of the many different doctrinal positions must be right.

You will not be surprised that Walters seems to have flirted with (1) and ends up with (2) as the usual MSM all-roads-lead-to-one-god (or set of gods) orthodoxy. What is her alternative?

How does it end? Once again, it is not surprising that she ends up seeking wisdom from the postmodern version of a celebrity evangelist — journalist Mitch Albom, author of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” for his universalist benediction.

Albom tells Walters, “There’s one thing I would say about heaven. If you believe that there’s a heaven, your life here on Earth here is different. You may believe that you’re gonna see your loved ones again. So the grief that you had after they’re gone isn’t as strong. You may believe that you’ll have to answer for your actions. So the way you behave here on Earth is changed. So in a certain way, just believing in the idea of heaven is heavenly in and of itself,” he said.

I am sure that, at this point, Walters gently nodded her head.

Who can give us a report on how this played out in prime time?

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Hollywood vs. homes and cellphones

ht02Forget all those raging debates about art, truth, commerce, faith, tolerance and free speech. It turns out that Hollywood thinks its box-office woes are rooted in — cell telephones, home theaters, rude adults, on-screen ads, ticket prices and fidgety tots. At least, that is what the National Association of Theater Owners told the gatekeepers at the New York Times.

But even in this “Problems? We ain’t got no stinkin’ middle-America problems” story by reporter Sharon Waxman, there is a hint of the topics being discussed much more openly in the Los Angeles Times.

Let’s listen in on one or two conversations with customers at the movies:

“It’s gotten too expensive to go the theater,” said Lauren Schneider, 49, who was strolling along the Santa Monica pedestrian mall on a brisk evening recently with her husband, Sascha. “You need a baby sitter. Tickets are $10, the popcorn is another $10. Before you’re done it’s a $50 night out.”

When they think a movie is a must-see — like “King Kong” or “Good Night, and Good Luck” — they will go, said the couple. Otherwise, “if it’s borderline, I’ll wait to rent it on DVD,” Mrs. Schneider said. …

Among a dozen moviegoers interviewed at the Santa Monica AMC theater, almost all cited ticket prices as a major factor in deciding whether to attend a movie. Several said ads were a nuisance. Most cited the caliber of the movies as the biggest issue.

“There’s a lack of quality stories,” said Lisa Martin, 40, from Bakersfield, Calif., who was on her way to see “Syriana.” “We feel like if we’re going to spend this amount of money, we want to see something good.”

What we have here are some powerful buried and unpacked pronowns — “they” and “we” — in phrases such as “when they think a movie is a must-see” and “we feel like if we’re going to spend.”

Who are these people?

Truth is, we don’t know. And, truth is, the American public is way too complex these days to provide a simple answer.

So Dr. James Dobson and Co. are wrong when they say Hollywood is out of touch with America. But they are right when they say that Hollywood is offending millions of Americans.

You see, different parts of Hollywood, with differing degrees of clout, are in touch with different Americas. The lords of the PG-13 blockbuster coalition are finding ways — sometimes — to punch the buttons of Red Zip Code America and fairly large numbers of that cherished 15-40 male demographic. An emerging niche of “values” moviemakers are just starting to explore ways to tap the 10 to 40 percent of the American public that is, in some sense, practicing a fairly traditional form of Christianity. The highly, highly skilled world of edgy, progressive Hollywood artists — religious and secular — who want to send messages just as much as they want to make cash are reaching their niche and helping shape the values and public image of Hollywood as a whole.

Are they a majority? Are they a gatekeeping elite? Are they too powerful for the good of their own industry?

We can debate that forever, I guess. Meanwhile, the values wars are only ONE PART of the tsunami of change that is hitting Hollywood. The pop-culture wars are real, but they may not be as powerful as the changes in technology that are allowing ordinary Americans to see and hear the movies and shows that they love in home theaters. And those cell telephones and ticket prices matter, as well.

So there are multiple forces pulling at the “they” and “we” groups in this complex and diverse culture I call Oprah America. What I called the “Brokeback stone table” issue is real, but it is only one part of a larger story. Many on the cultural right want to say it’s the whole story. Many on the cultural left want to ignore it. Both are wrong.

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Blessed be the ties that bind

bonohelmsOK, it’s just a little cute Associated Press story about the Alpha Male rock star hanging out with the once powerful arch-conservative U.S. senator.

Some would say that it doesn’t need to be taken all that seriously. But I have my reasons for wishing that Paul Nowell had done more with his recent “Bono Dines With Former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms” report from Charlotte, N.C., that ran all over the place.

Here’s a chunk of the short text, which seems to think it is breaking news that these two men are friends:

Before U2 opened to a raucous crowd of 17,000 at the city’s new downtown arena, Bono had dinner with Helms.

“He (Bono) called us a couple of weeks ago and said he wanted to see his old friend the senator,” said John Dodd, president of the Jesse Helms Center, who accompanied Helms and other family members to Monday’s meeting.

Since they were introduced several years ago, the Republican Helms and Bono have become close allies in the fight against the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

Helms, who is 84 and suffers from a number of serious health problems, arrived backstage before the show and was joined by Bono for a casual meal. On the menu: grilled chicken, roast beef and salmon. “It was nothing fancy,” Dodd said. “They ate in the cafeteria with the roadies and the rest of the crew.”

Now, to be fair, it is possible that Nowell had zero access to Bono or the senator and, thus, he was not really able to talk about what pulled them together for this meeting or, of course, what they talked about. Note, however, the assumption that the main tie that binds them is political. This is the font of all life, of course, in the worldview of many or most mainstream reporters.

But I suspect that politics, or even foreign affairs, was not the main topic of discussion. I suspect this because (a) that is not really what knit the two together in the first place and (b) Helms is in bad health and it seems that Bono may have wanted to lend him comfort and friendly support — even though Helms is no longer one of the principalities and powers inside the D.C. Beltway.

Having listened in on at least one short chat between these men — click here for details — I can tell you that they probably talked about faith, compassion and love. It would have been interesting to see what the senator’s spokesperson would have said if Nowell had asked a simple question: Did Bono and Helms spend some time in prayer?

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Brokeback stone table story hangs around

091205 brokebackIf, while visiting the usual online newspapers and blogs, you clicked this gay-based Golden Globes story in Variety (“It’s red meat for the culture warriors.”) and then happened, by chance, to click on this sobering summary of movie and DVD trends in 2005 (“Plummeting 2005 box office sparks Hollywood crisis”), would one be justified with a click here and even over here to touch base with the American mainstream?

If Variety is going to start using what it thinks is “culture wars” language, at what point does someone write the end of the year round-up (that’s cowboy lingo) that explores the moral, cultural and, yes, religious angles of the whole brokeback stone table showdown? Of course, King Kong may drive this out of the headlines. But I think not, especially if blue zip-code writers such as Ken Tucker of New York Magazine are going to write reviews that wave red flags in front of easily provoked leaders out in flyover country. Check this out the twist in his “Brokeback Mountain” hymn:

When, a half-hour into the film, Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist and Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar, both drunk, cold, and lonely on a remote Wyoming campsite, fold around each other and commence an act of sex that manages to be both rough and tender, romantically intimate and lustily intense, Brokeback Mountain achieves its own early climax: You either buy into this tale of men in love or you join the ranks of those who’ve been snickering during the movie’s prerelease trailers, and who can be divided into the insecure, the idiots, or the insecure idiots.

Well, on to the Oscar races. Let’s see how many of the insecure idiots out in middle America tune in this year and how that affects both the ratings and the advertising revenue.

Wait a minute: I thought Hollywood was all about making money and that, if someone wanted to send a message, they were supposed to call Western Union?

topnav aslanMeanwhile, the newspaper of record on all things Tinsel has raised the stakes as high as they can possibly go. Forget about a showdown between the gay cowboys and the Lion King of Kings. For some folks in Hollywood, says the Los Angeles Times, it is past time for the ultimate symbolic showdown (cue the theme from “Braveheart”):

“Brokeback Mountain’s” future in the heartland will offer a classic test of whether what the movie business considers its best work will be embraced by audiences whose values may be more conservative than Hollywood’s. In some ways, “Brokeback” could prove a counterpoint to the phenomenal success of last year’s “The Passion of the Christ,” a film disparaged by Hollywood power brokers and many film critics that still emerged as a blockbuster.

The controversial cowboy movie, which is rated R in part for its sexuality, also is hitting theaters at a time when filmmakers and studio executives are worried they are losing touch with audiences, as reflected by a yearlong box-office slump.

Really? Hollywood insiders are still shook up about “The Passion”? You think so?

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Thank you, Eugene Robinson

pryor4Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has put into words part of what I was struggling to say in my post about the God-haunted side of comic genius Richard Pryor.

When the main hook for comedian is that he is going to talk openly about the dark side of life, that implies that there is some light — somewhere. When that comedian openly states is that his goal is to tell the Truth, with a big “T,” then that implies that such a thing exists, even when talking about the racist sins of a society or the drug-based demons in his own soul. So how did Pryor handle all of that, when he was on stage?

… (Along) with the fallen, Pryor also portrayed men of the cloth — black preachers whom he cleverly used to deliver social commentary. It didn’t matter how puffed-up he made them sound, or how foolishly he had them preen and strut; it didn’t matter that they might be paying undue attention to shapely female parishioners or the contents of the collection plate. Pryor always gave his preachers an air of dignity and command that their sins could not diminish. On a 1975 album — “. . . Is It Something I Said?” — Pryor complained that “white church” was “too scary for me,” with its otherworldly music and somber iconography. “In black church,” he said, “you get a show for your money.”

It makes perfect sense that the most influential comedian of his time would identify with preachers who knew how to put on a proper show, who gave a committed performance, who refused to hold anything back — and who told the truth. If the preacher was delivering a eulogy and the dearly departed had been a no-good dirty dog, well, that’s what the preacher said. And the church said amen.

Yeah. That’s what I’m talking about. Has anyone else seen solid MSM coverage of this side of Pryor’s work?

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