The statue breakers of Hollywood

BuddyJesusNormally tmatt has written about the articles regarding our friend Barbara Nicolosi, but I’m taking this one — the essay “Can Jesus Save Hollywood?” — because of its appearance in The Atlantic. Hanna Rosin travels to Hollywood in this month’s issue to report on Nicolosi and her colleagues at Act One, who are striving to transform Hollywood one talented writer at a time.

And let’s be clear about this: transforming Hollywood does not translate into convincing studios to film higher-budget versions of any of the Left Behind books. To the contrary, Rosin describes three waves of Christians who represent an increasing comfort believers feel about working in Hollywood and being open about their faith. Here’s how Rosin describes the third wave:

They are the cinematic wing of what the sociologist Alan Wolfe calls the “opening of the evangelical mind,” a cultural renaissance among conservative Christians. Though their parents may have taught them to take refuge in a parallel Christian subculture, the movies these people found in Christian bookstores bored and embarrassed them. To be accepted at Act One you have to believe that Jesus is a real presence in your life. But the worst insult you can deliver there is to say that a movie reminds you of such notoriously low-budget Christian schlock as the Left Behind series and The Omega Code, or that the dialogue sounds like “Christianese.”

Rosin delivers plenty of other satisfying quotes from Nicolosi and her fellow instructors. Here’s an amusing illustration of how much Hollywood has changed since the terrorist strikes of 2001 and the box-office earthquake known as The Passion of the Christ:

The movie industry remains affected by post-9/11 national anxiety, and now studio heads want to make movies that “mean something.” At the same time, it’s well aware of what’s known around town as “Passion dollars” — the previously untapped religious audience that made Mel Gibson’s independently distributed movie The Passion of the Christ last year’s biggest surprise. Recently the entertainment TV show Inside Edition invited Nicolosi to be a guest. “When I first came [to Hollywood], I never thought I’d be on Inside Edition,” she confessed to the host before the show. “Didn’t you know?” he replied. “‘Christian’ is the new ‘gay.’”

This is deeply satisfying religion writing, with minimal editorial intrusions, that makes a sometimes foreign subculture more accessible to a wide audience. Two thumbs up, folks — and hey, I mean that.

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Narnia goes to Hollywood

narniaSince I first saw clips of what is now becoming the first installment of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia last February, I maintained a level of skepticism as a means of protecting myself from disappointment. I was concerned that the film would deviate from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe‘s explicit Christian themes. I was afraid the directors and producers would deviate from the film’s original plot. I was also afraid that they would attempt to make the fourth installment of The Lord of the Rings.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings (I am even preparing to do my second marathon this Christmas season). Thing is, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books are not Lewis’ books, and any attempt to imitate the hugely popular films would be an utter disaster.

Well, my skepticism appears to be unfounded. Newsweek reports, based on a sneak preview, that rather than subtracting from or altering the story, director Andrew Adamson has stayed to the original plot and has even expanded some elements, such as the German bombings of London.

I am also pleased to hear that the film will not be a gore fest. Some of the previews have shown the potential for some Rings-like battles, but apparently the “gentleness” of the movie “may frustrate some bloodthirsty teenage boys.” That’s all I needed to hear.

As for media concerns, because that is what this blog is about (forgive my straying away into movie analysis), watch for how they cover the issue of The Message of the film. This is key. Julia Duin of The Washington Times dubs the film a cross between The Passion of the Christ and The Lord of the Rings in the way it is being pitched to churches.

In an excellent piece of journalism that out-reports both Newsweek‘s and Time‘s pieces on Lewis (Newsweek‘s article strangely fixates on his love for beer, though I did find that interesting), Duin covers the territory with remarkable efficiency, though Newsweek has the better photos and got a sneak preview. Nevertheless, here’s an example of excellent newspaper journalism:

Dennis Rice, Disney’s senior vice president of publicity, hedged on whether the film reproduces the Christian character of the book.

“We believe we have not made a religious movie,” he said. “It’s just a great piece of cinema that is true to a great piece of literature.”

However, Zondervan, the evangelical imprint for publishing giant HarperCollins, is calling the film’s release one of the season’s “biggest religion stories.”

“It is the product for the fall,” spokeswoman Jana Muntsinger said. “In the Christian world, they are just salivating over this. C.S. Lewis is the evangelical gold standard.”

narnia2Newsweek takes on the issue and finds the movie “as Christian as you want it to be”:

Will the movie be too religious for a wide audience? Might it not be religious enough for Lewis’s Christian fans?

The speculation is understandable, partly because the climax of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” can be read as an allegory for Jesus’ death and resurrection — though how many of us read it that way when we were 8? — and partly because, after “The Passion of the Christ,” movies are increasingly regarded as things to play tug of war with, rather than share.

While Newsweek jokes around with the Pevensie children about girls’ underwear, Duin deals with the cultural issues that I believe will have a huge impact on American society:

Key to the film’s success is a fan base of several generations of evangelical Christians who have grown up reading the Narnia books. Motive Entertainment, the same company that promoted “Passion,” was hired by Disney to promote “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” among the church set.

Dozens of churches around the country are listed at as “sneak peak” sites for presentations about the movie from co-producer Douglas Gresham, Mr. Lewis’ stepson, or from contemporary Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman.

The site also is hawking group tickets and “customizable church outreach tools” such as DVDs, door hangers, specialty e-vites and posters.

Mr. Gresham spent six months on the set ensuring that the story line stayed true to its Christian values. In his new book, “Jack’s Life,” Mr. Gresham described his stepfather as “influenced by the Holy Spirit of God.”

These three articles lay the groundwork for Lion. Previous articles could do little but uncover the basic facts of the film (note tmatt’s post on The Palm Beach Post‘s coverage and on the money issue). For a movie that could have a huge impact on culture and society worldwide, the media coverage will be key.

Will it be fair? Accurate? Newsweek says the movie is “as Christian as you want it to be.” Lewis remains the foremost Christian writer, but will his ideas translate well into the foremost means of communication in the world today?

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More on Rice’s return to Rome

AnneRice smI cannot tell you how many times I have had readers ask me why so many religion-news stories seem to turn on the issue of homosexuality.

Actually, the issue at the heart of all this is broader — the moral status of sex outside of marriage and the sexual revolution in general. Behind that looms a mountain range of towering issues linked to ancient Christian doctrines, traditions and biblical authority. But it’s the fights over gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered that are getting the headlines right now. That’s what is making news.

For example, consider this update on the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc’s recent post about the religious revival in the life of the controversial Anne “Interview With the Vampire” Rice. Her new book is titled Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and it is the first installment in a series on the life of Jesus.

Rice made news with her testimony that she has returned to the Roman Catholic faith. However, you just knew that sexuality questions had to be in there somewhere.

This is not surprising, since her writings have always been popular in the gay community. It is also not surprising that sexuality shows up in a lengthy report in The New York Times. Reporter Laura Millier is writing a feature story about Rice’s new home in California, yet we still get to learn:

In 1998 Ms. Rice rejoined the Roman Catholic Church for the first time since suffering a “total breakdown of faith” at age 18. “That was in 1960, before Vatican II, and I was a very strictly brought-up Catholic,” she explained. “I lost my faith because what I had been taught was so wrong.” An overwhelming desire to “return to the banquet table” and assurances from a priest in New Orleans that she didn’t have to resolve all her differences with the church (most notably over the issue of homosexuality) led to the reconciliation.

Well now, I wonder — when these books reach the adult life of Jesus — what we will learn about his relationship with Mary Magdalene? I would not be surprised in Rice’s series turns out to be a major event on the Christian left.

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The return of St. Mad Max

chichenSo Mel Gibson’s next movie is in the Mayan language, but the title (Apocalypto) is the Greek word for “a new beginning.”

It’s about the rise and fall of civilizations, and it would seem that Gibson may be able to have the Maya empire fall before the Catholic missionaries and Spanish conquistadors arrive on the scene. But who knows? Rare is the movie that can make Alpha Males scratch their heads in Hollywood, Colorado Springs and (probably) Rome.

We do know that it’s going to be bloody and the creator of The Passion of the Christ may turn the movie into some kind of parable about the modern world.

As you would expect, the Los Angeles Times had a reporter at the Veracruz, Mexico, press conference in which a bearded Gibson tried to explain his latest renegade, self-funded project. Reporter Reed Johnson made an admirable attempt to stay away from speculation on how this new film will be marketed to born-again Christians and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholics who love warfare and rituals that involve lots of knives.

But there is a hint at the end of his newsy report about the debates that may pop up in the future.

… (While) violence may be an unavoidable ingredient in a story about a civilization in conflict, so too is a quest for understanding, he indicated. Immersing himself in the Maya world, after the Judeo-Christian worldview of “The Passion,” has been “kind of this anthropological journey.”

“It’s amazing, it’s fascinating, and it makes your brain work overtime. In fact, you meet yourself coming and going. I mean, there are some questions that you simply can’t answer. But that doesn’t stop the search.”

Stay tuned. We have not heard from Frank Rich yet.

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Help Jeremy find pop hypocrites

frank02I’m on the road in Kansas City. Can you imagine a national journalism conference with no WiFi? Frustrating.

Anyway, I did manage to notice (hat tip to Amy Welborn, yet again) that young master Jeremy Lott has issued a public call for help as he researches the mass-media angles of his upcoming book on the virtues of hypocrisy. His appeal does not have a strong news hook, unless some link this to Karl Rove, but I think GetReligion readers will find it fun anyway.

Dive in! Help out this young journalist! He writes:

… (This) is one of my rare requests for advice. The fourth chapter of my book will wrestle with hypocrisy in Hollywood. I’m looking for two kinds of information:

1) Quotes by celebs condemning hypocrites or hypocrisy. If you send these in, please identify the source of the quotation.

2) Famous hypocrites in film. Obvious candidates include Captain Renault in Casablanca, Robert Duvall in The Apostle, and Steve Martin in Leap of Faith.

Have at it folks. My e-mail address is JEREMYAL123 — AT — YAHOO — DOT — COM.

OK, I’ll take the challenge. Let’s assume that by “Hollywood” Jeremy means either television or film. If that is the case, I would argue that the most famous and, in some ways, influential hypocrite in the pop-culture era of the Baby Boomers would have to be Maj. Frank Burns of M*A*S*H.

All the key elements are there — a stupid white male conservative who thinks of himself as a puritan while shagging a nearby blonde hypocrite who is later liberated to become a brilliant feminist by the brilliant sensitive liberals (whether faithfully married or gleefully unmarried).

I think Frank Burns, in many ways, was just as powerful a figure as Archie Bunker.

The challenge in this thread is going to be nominating people who are not carbon copies of the old Elmer Gantry template. Jump in, readers. At the very least, let’s come up with a dozen or so five-star pop-culture hypocrites. Let’s go for superstars and not sink into Jim and Tammy Bakker territory.

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Holy Ghost in the Cash story

walk the lineFirst of all, I need to state the obvious. A long time ago I was I was a rock columnist in a mainstream newspaper, and you only have to do that job for, oh, a week or so to learn that Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times is one of the giants. So that is a given.

I also realize that Hilburn’s recent feature story about Joaquin Phoenix was a story about the young actor and his craft. But this story was also about the actor’s attempts to submerge himself into the larger-then-life persona of the late Johnny Cash while filming the Oscar-hot movie Walk the Line.

Hilburn — who actually attended the legendary Cash concert in Folsom Prison — knows he is dealing with material soaked in faith, sin, grace and redemption. At least, I think he does.

But he ended up writing a story that talks about how Phoenix looked into the soul of the country-rock-folk-gospel legend, but never gets around to telling us much about what he saw in there. He says that Phoenix was having trouble shaking loose from some parts of Cash’s story and personality, now that the movie is done. OK, that’s interesting. Like what?

There is even hint that the actor’s own background may have a religion ghost or two in it. For example:

“I’m into exploring characters, exploring the human condition,” he says, squinting from the afternoon sun. “I’m into psychoanalyzing people. I think it’s something I grew up around.”

He was one of five children in a hippie-styled, missionary family that traveled extensively during his early childhood before settling in Hollywood in the early ’80s.

“In the early days, we were definitely poor,” he says. “We didn’t have video games or TV or any of those things. We barely had toys. So I think that forces you to rely on your imagination a great deal. You make up games and act out skits. We were encouraged to express ourselves. I don’t recall ever being told to shut up when I was growing up.”

Now one rarely sees words like “missionary” and “hippie” in the same sentence, but the story of the Children of God — church, cult, movement, all of the above — includes many plot twists and turns. Suffice it to say that Joaquin Phoenix comes from interesting stock. It would have been nice to see Hilburn explore that issue.

Cash, of course, was a famous sinner as well as an evangelist, a man always aware of the blackness of his own heart. This is a key element in his life and legend.

Does Walk the Line explore this side of Cash? How did Phoenix wrestle with those lively angels and demons? It turns out that the iconoclastic Christian T-Bone Burnett helped the actor learn how to handle the musical side of this difficult role. Did they talk about the role that faith played in Cash’s life and music?

Hilburn is a great writer. Maybe he’ll get around to the Holy Ghost side of the story of Cash and Phoenix in another article. Frankly, I have no clue how he avoided it.

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Offensive religious advertising

PlayStationAdReligious depictions in advertisements are nothing new. Nor are offensive advertisements. Put the two together and you have an issue for us to talk about.

Reuters has the story that must have been all over the Italian papers of a Sony ad for the PlayStation gaming system depicting a smiling young man wearing a crown of thorns twisted into the PlayStation’s geometric logo.

The international news service’s story on C-Net’s lamely quotes an editor of a Catholic weekly in an attempt to sum up the controversy:

“This time they’ve gone too far,” said Antonio Sciortino, editor of Famiglia Cristiana (Christian Family), a mass-circulation Catholic weekly.

“If this had concerned Islam there would have been a really strong reaction,” Sciortino was quoted as saying in the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Say what? You want to explain that quote for us, Reuters? That quote, I believe, is an attempt to portray the controversy, but the article fails to explain exactly why the advertisements were offensive. Reuters does offer this background:

In the Bible, Jesus was forced to wear a crown of thorns by mocking Roman guards before he was crucified. In the advertisement, a young man smiles cheekily, wearing a crown whose thorns are twisted into the geometric shapes that are PlayStation’s logo.

Apparently this is not the first time someone has upset European Catholics in advertisements. An IKEA ad attempted to play off the decline of church attendance among Catholic Italians by stating that the furniture chain was open on Sundays and two ads portrayed a modified da Vinci’s Last Supper, one with a female Jesus and “glamorous disciples” and the other showing the followers of Jesus as gamblers and Judas holding his 30 pieces of silver.

I am not one to be offended easily, but I found the ads lacking in good taste. That said, I believe people should find better things to get upset over. Are the faithful in Europe making a mountain out of a molehill? Or are these adverts, as they say across the pond, something Christians — and those of other faiths — should really be concerned about? You can bet your money, as Sciortino said above, that certain radical Muslim groups would have had a few things to say about it.

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God, libraries and Harry Potter

GobletAs GetReligion readers may know, I am starting to get interested in podcasting (in this post-Katrina era of crowded commuter trains). One of my favorites is the weekly Pottercast program put out by the fanatics at The Leaky Cauldron. This week’s episode (No. 6) is linked to the annual Banned Books emphasis by the American Library Association.

Listening to the show reminded me of a recent piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education that was sent to me by the most excellent librarian who is my wife. It’s titled “The Loneliness of a Conservative Librarian” and it was written by David Durant, head of the government documents and microforms desk at East Carolina University. At first glance, this seems to be an article about politics. Durant writes:

The problem is not that most librarians have liberal or leftist views. It is that the overwhelming prevalence of such views has created a politicized atmosphere of groupthink and even intolerance, in which left-wing politics permeate the library profession and are almost impossible to avoid. . . .

The solution is not to replace left-wing with right-wing politicization. Rather it is to leave politics to the individual. Just as we should collect and provide access to materials representing a broad range of beliefs, we should welcome diverse viewpoints within our profession.

And so forth and so on. It seems that ALA meetings may, in the near future, turn into Michael Moore film festivals.

Like I said, this sounds political. But when you listen to the Pottercast, you realize that — at the local level — the conflicts between librarians and their conservative patrons are almost always about (wait for it) — sex, salvation and, OK, some people would say Satanism. The entire story of the challenges to the Harry Potter books is built on the distrust that exists between the powers that be in public libraries and conservative parents.

But there is more to this story than “banned books.” If journalists want to cover this story, I suggest that they dig a bit deeper. Once again, there are interesting people on both sides of these debates. A few years ago, I had a chance to cover Nimbus 2003 — a global Potter studies festival — and I was surprised to find that the two largest flocks in the hallways were real-life witches (Wiccans and druids, mostly) and, believe it or not, evangelical Christians (many homeschool moms). It was interesting watching them study each other before and after the main sessions.

With that scene in mind, I wrote the Pottercast staff a letter. I offer it here, in case it might interest any journalists who are thinking about doing Banned Book Week stories or follow-up reports on faith and the Potter books.


I wanted to make a comment or two about your Banned Books Podcast.

First of all, please know that I am a mainstream journalist who covers religion and church-state issues; the husband of a librarian; a life-long Democrat; and the father of two children who has, after some initial skepticism, read all of the Potter books to them myself — in part because of JKR’s highly intelligent use of traditional Christian images, names and themes. I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, although I was raised Southern Baptist. Art and reading are crucial in our home.

Now, a few quick comments. Much of the protest about the Harry Potter books is, in my opinion, uninformed and knee jerk. Yes, they should read the books and even some of the books about the books, on both sides of the argument.

You should know, however, that there are millions of dedicated Rowling readers out there in church pews — something you have never addressed in your Podcasts. It is wrong to leave your listeners with the impression that, when it comes to things Harry, the world is divided into smart secular people and stupid religious people. You also need to know that many people, when they talk about Banned Books, tend to forget:

* To consider a different form of banning, which is the issue of books that librarians — acting on their own biases — never purchase in the first place. What shape might this bias take? As New York Times columnist David Brooks has noted, in the months leading up to the 2004 election “the ratio of Kerry to Bush donations” by librarians “was a whopping 223 to 1.”

Now, I am not all that interested in the political implications of this. What I wonder about are the religious and cultural implications. What percentage of the best-selling religious books in America never make it to library shelves or are never given multiple-copy status (even with millions of copies being sold across the nation)? What controversial books by cultural conservatives never make it to shelves and are, thus, banned books of a different stripe?

* That many parents do not fear the presence of objectionable books in libraries. They fear that tax-funded professionals will deliberately undercut parental authority. In a school context, they fear that children will be required to read objectionable books — with no alternatives given.

Many parents do not want to ban books. They want alternatives. Try to imagine public school teachers and librarians deliberately assigning objectionable books to, let’s say, Muslim parents. Try to imagine an educator assigning a Unitarian kid a book by, let’s say, Pat Robertson.

Parents have rights. They do not have the right to ban books for other people’s children. No way. But parents should be able to trust librarians and teachers not to actively attack the values taught in their home.

So I would urge you to open up your Podcasts to more points of view, not fewer. I would urge the people who organize the Banned Books events to be open to more points of view (and more books), not fewer.

The bottom line: Liberials can ban books, too, especially if they are in charge of library budgets.

So let’s hear a cheer for diversity and intellectual freedom — beginning in libraries.

Oh, and if Sirius Black died in the (using alchemical terms) black book, and Albus (white) Dumbledore died in the white book, who might die in the RED, or final, sacrificial stage of the alchemical process? Rubeus (Latin for “red”) Hagrid? Someone in a family that is, well, rather red-oriented? Just asking.

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