In the air with the LA Times

WindowViewI know that I have said this before, but every time that I head out to Southern California, I pick up the Los Angeles Times and I’m reminded of how much news there is in the dead-tree-pulp edition, compared with what I usually see reading the same newspaper online. I always see extra religion stories and religion-haunted stories on paper that I don’t see in the digital world. Why is that?

Anyway, I have already mentioned that mysterious Robert Shullers (plural) story that was in the Sunday metro pages. As it turns out, that was just the start of the religion stuff in that one section of the Times.

* There was, for starters, a column that could have been given this headline: “So an agnostic journalist and a gay Roman Catholic priest walk into a bar. …” Instead, the headline on this Steve Lopez piece read: “Gay priest is true to his faith, at odds with his church.” This was, of course, a follow-up column about a controversy that I wrote about earlier, focusing on Father Geoffrey Farrow and his divided flock at the St. Paul Newman Center near Cal State Fresno University.

This is one of those cases where, in a way, the journalist is cheering for the brave oppressed priest, while also criticizing him — from the left. But the key thing that pro-Vatican Catholic readers need to know did make it into the column, which is that Farrow’s view of the Church is rather, well, not to mince words, Protestant. He has a promising future in some (but not all) United Church of Christ congregations or in some Episcopal dioceses. Here’s the key slice of the story:

Farrow conceded that he has considered church teachings “monstrous,” especially given the history of violence and suicide victimizing gays. But he said he has always believed in the church, if not in the men who led it. It’s like loving a family member despite a falling out, or loving your country even as you doubt its leaders.

“I’m not happy with the current administration,” Farrow said, “but I haven’t shredded my passport.” …

Among the critics in his own parish and beyond, there are those who quote the Bible to condemn homosexuality and gay marriage.

“The Bible is not a book, it’s a library written over 15 centuries,” Farrow told me, suggesting that Christianity has and should continue to evolve. “People who approach scripture in a literal fashion are attempting to manipulate God himself.”

* To no one’s surprise, the Times is also doing a lot of writing about Proposition 8, the effort to define marriage as between a man and a woman. I noticed the following reference hear the top of an obvious story — “Clergy on both sides of Proposition 8 speak out” — that would cause the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway to go into shock.

With the Nov. 4 election fast approaching, rabbis, priests and ministers across California are ratcheting up their public appeals over Proposition 8 — using their religious platforms to alternately highlight the perils of passing or rejecting the same-sex marriage amendment.

More than a dozen Lutheran ministers are to appear after services today at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in North Hollywood to urge a “No” vote on the measure, which would define marriage in the state Constitution as between only a man and a woman.

On Tuesday, Presbyterian ministers are to issue a similar verdict during simultaneous gatherings in Los Angeles and San Francisco, arguing that Proposition 8 would rob same-sex couples of their civil rights.

Yo! Reporter Duke Helfand (or your copy desk people)! There’s more than one brand of Lutheran in this land of ours. You were dealing with some — repeat some — people in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a flock that is not to be confused with the traditionalists and evangelicals over at the Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church.

It helps to get specific about these kinds of things when throwing ink around. And, in the next paragraph, you might want to note that there are more than few different brands of Presbyterians out there, too.


* You know what? There are evangelicals out there who are voting for Sen. Barack Obama. Honest! You may have heard about that. As it turns out, there are even young evangelicals over at Biola University who are thinking about taking the plunge. The Times story notes:

Biola University has long been a Republican citadel, helping its La Mirada precinct deliver 93% of the vote in each of the last two elections to George W. Bush, the president’s best showing in any Los Angeles County polling area that cast more than 20 ballots. But change has come this year to the 95-acre campus on the border of Los Angeles and Orange counties, and not without turmoil.

For the first time in memory, a Biola College Democrats club has formed, marking campus walls with slogans such as “You are the change you hope for” and “If you want peace in the Middle East, you’re a Democrat.” After GOP groups protested that the content was “offensive,” the posters came down. Joint debate-watching parties with the Republicans were nixed after some political invective was aimed at Democrats at an early gathering.

The story does contain it’s share of stereotypes, as you would expect. Take, for example, that laugh to keep from crying reference to the fact that “Biola today is an accredited university,” as if the school has made the jump into real academic life in the past year or two. The article also talks about issues brought on by racial diversity, which is fitting. Still, it would also be good to note that on doctrinal and moral issues, students of color are often among the most conservative. Ask professors at the University of California at Berkeley about that.

You know where the pre-election story has to end up, don’t you? These quotes come from a discussion at Biola about Proposition 8.

“Civil unions are still allowed to exist; [the proposition] just has to do with the title,” said Zach Hartley, 19, a mass communications, film and television major. No one spoke in opposition, although students later said there was a range of opinion on campus about the measure.

“Biola is not a one-issue school,” Alica Stevans, 19, said as the meeting broke up. “We are interested in ethical issues, but they include social justice issues, gay marriage and abortion. Rwanda genocide is a big issue here.”

Once again, there is a hint at the broader news story.

Some young evangelicals are actually question ancient church traditions on some crucial issues, like the definition of “marriage.” But many more are involved in a different kind of change. They are trying to apply ancient church teachings to a wider spectrum of issues. I am still not sure that the Los Angeles Times understands the difference between these two pursuits.

ILLUSTRATIONS: No, these are not from my flight headed east.

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Hurrah (sort of) for brave liberal priest

rainbow altar 02Your GetReligionistas have been jumping all over the Los Angeles Times, in recent months, because of its cheerleader reporting on issues linked to gay rights and gay rites.

This is not another post like that.

But I thought that it was going to be one of those posts. And here is why, at the top of a recent story by Duke Helfand and Catherine Saillant:

… Father Geoffrey Farrow stood before his Roman Catholic parishioners in Fresno and delivered a sermon that placed him squarely at odds with his church over gay marriage.

With Proposition 8 on the November ballot, and his own bishop urging Central Valley priests to support its definition of traditional marriage, Farrow told congregants he felt obligated to break “a numbing silence” about church prejudice against homosexuals.

“How is marriage protected by intimidating gay and lesbian people into loveless and lonely lives?” he asked parishioners of the St. Paul Newman Center. “I am morally compelled to vote no on Proposition 8.”

Then Farrow — who had revealed that he was gay during a television interview immediately before Mass — added a coda to his sermon. “I know these words of truth will cost me dearly,” he said. “But to withhold them … I would become an accomplice to a moral evil that strips gay and lesbian people not only of their civil rights but of their human dignity as well.”

Now, you knew that Fresno Bishop John T. Steinbock could see this coming because Farrow was the leader of the St. Paul Newman Center — at Cal State Fresno University. Rare indeed is the American Catholic parish with a name ending in “center” or “community” that backs the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.

And that is what this story gets right. While it has elements of the “brave priest stands up for reason against the horrid forces of the past” template, it also makes it very clear that this fight is about doctrine, not just politics. The story here is about a division INSIDE this Catholic parish and, as it turns out, there are two sides.

The larger story — still to be reported — is the degree to which this doctrinal division inside Catholicism is affecting this major political story all over the state of California.

Oh and, yes, this state story is part of the national news story about the fighting within Catholicism about Sen. Barack Obama and his stand in favor of a strong, national level commitment to end any and all restrictions on abortion rights, while changing the language with which the Democratic Party talks about life issues. But that is a doctrinal story, too. Not just a political story.

Parish leaders concluded two morning Masses on Sunday with an apology to parishioners. Farrow’s statements, they said, were not in accord with church teachings. Also, the priest did not inform church elders about his plans before delivering his sermon, said Deacon John Supino, who read a letter from Steinbock reaffirming the Catholic Church’s support for Proposition 8.

Quoting Steinbock, Supino said the church teaches that sex is a gift from God to be acted on only by a man and a woman within marriage. But Proposition 8, he insisted, does not represent a condemnation of gays or lesbians.

“The teachings of the church on these matters did not arise with Proposition 8 but have been in place for over 2,000 years,” Supino said.

Several parishioners inside the church applauded when Supino finished Steinbock’s statement. A few rose and left as he was reading it.

There you have it. Some people see this as a political fight, because it is hard to come right out and openly say that you oppose the teachings of the Catholic faith. But that is what happened here and the priest was brave enough and candid enough to say that.

This time, the Los Angeles Times was also journalistic enough to print those facts. Thus, readers were able to know what is going on in that parish. Bravo.

PHOTO: This is not the St. Paul Center, but you get the idea.

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Sins of a fallen civil rights hero

jameslbevel narrowweb  300x413 0It was one of those ugly newspaper stories that makes you read and read until it becomes hard to turn away — kind of like seeing a car wreck happen in slow motion.

The details are terrible enough in and of themselves, focusing on the sentencing of former civil rights leader James Luther Bevel to 15 years in prison for having sex with one of his daughters.

Bevel is, in his own right, a lesser known but still historic figure (details here). He was a key aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was especially influential on matters related to Vietnam. He was the composer of many “freedom songs” in the Civil Rights Movement and helped organize the March on Washington. Later in life, he shifted to the right and was a vocal supporter of the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House.

What made me keep reading was Bevel’s refusal to take responsibility for his own actions. Why is that so important? Keep reading.

We are told, in reporter Jonathan Mummolo’s Washington Post story:

When Bevel took the stand at his sentencing hearing, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Gigi Lawless asked whether he accepted responsibility for his actions. He said he did not but added that he hoped to reconcile with his family.

Bevel was convicted of unlawfully committing fornication with his daughter Aaralyn Mills sometime between 1992 and 1994, when she was 14 or 15. The Washington Post does not identify victims of sexual assault without their permission. Mills agreed to be named. …

In testimony… Mills, 30, said she was saddened by the fact that Bevel had not owned up to what he had done to her.

“I never imagined he would lie,” Mills said. “He’s been violent, mean, abusive, but he’s always been honest.”

Putting this into religious language, Bevel refused to repent. This kind of language is important because of a several key details that a buried far down in the Post account.

This story, you see, is haunted on several levels and the details get worse and worse.

During the trial, Bevel said repeatedly that he did not have sex with Mills. He said he has had 16 children through relationships with seven women and testified that as a minister and teacher, he has often educated people, including his children, on the “science” of sex and marriage. …

Outside court, Mills said she has forgiven her father.

“Forgiveness is not about him; it’s about my peace of mind,” she said. “The reality is, he doesn’t forgive himself.”

On one level, the former copy editor in me was left asking this question: If Bevel is still a minister, what kind of minister is he? Why wasn’t he identified on first reference as the Rev. James Luther Bevel? At the same time, what kind of minister has 16 children through relationships — note, not marriages — to seven women?

Attempting to look up the details only makes matters more confusing. It appears that Bevel is a graduate of an American Baptist Seminary, yet one biographical site identifies him as “pastor of the Hebraic-Christian-Islamic Assembly in Chicago” and that, as a minister, he was also a leader in “Chicago’s Council of Mothers, West Side Baptist Minister’s Conference, WorkShip Coalition and the Nation of Islam.”

See what I mean? This story identifies Bevel as a minister or allows himself to identify himself in this manner. Is this true? Is he connected with a church or a religious movement of some kind? Why not include these crucial details in a story about such a terrible — dare I use this word — sin?

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Another Florida sex scandal

ht mahoney 081010 mainI think part of the requirement of being a libertarian is that you have to be very suspect of all politicians.

Let me make this personal. I once deemed it safer to walk home alone after midnight in my not-the-safest neighborhood rather than accept a ride from one of the senators I was hanging out with. I’m always surprised that people place their hopes and dreams in the political class considering how completely corrupt and immoral the group is. I’m sure there are exceptions, but how do you know which ones are the exception, you know?

All of which is to say, we have another sex scandal on our hands! And in a delicious twist, it involves the congressman who was elected to replace Mark Foley after he was embroiled in that famous 2006 sex scandal linked to Congressional pages and IM software (not in that order).

This new scandal hasn’t gotten a lot of media coverage but ABC News has had some coverage. In a blog post that featured the image depicted above, the story mentioned lots of juicy details:

West Palm Beach Congressman Tim Mahoney (D-FL), whose predecessor resigned in the wake of a sex scandal, agreed to a $121,000 payment to a former mistress who worked on his staff and was threatening to sue him, according to current and former members of his staff who have been briefed on the settlement, which involved Mahoney and his campaign committee.

Mahoney, who is married, also promised the woman, Patricia Allen, a $50,000 a year job for two years at the agency that handles his campaign advertising, the staffers said.

The story goes on to note that Democratic leaders are aware of the affair and the settlement. There’s also this:

The affair between Mahoney and Allen began, according to the current and former staffers, in 2006 when Mahoney was campaigning for Congress against Foley, promising “a world that is safer, more moral.”

At the time, Mahoney’s campaign ads featured a picture of him with his wife, Terry, with the line, “Restoring America’s Values Begins at Home.”

The story talks about some of the ethical problems such as the hiring of Allen at taxpayer expense and the phone call he made firing her. Friends say she broke off the affair when she learned he had other extra-marital relationships going on concurrently with theirs. After she was fired, she threatened to sue the Congressman for more than $1 million.

Anyway, this is all very interesting but it’s interesting how the faith and values of the Congressman aren’t mentioned at all. As the reader who sent in the story wrote:

For ABC News to include a Campaign Flyer that lists “Faith and Family” and to never refer to the faith of a congressman accused of an affair seems a little bit negligent.

It would certainly help to know.

It’s also interesting to me the disparity in coverage between Mahoney and Foley. The two situations are different — Foley was inappropriately IMing teenage boys while Mahoney was engaging in extramarital affairs. Foley was hypocritical for sponsoring legislation aimed at protecting adolescents from predators and Mahoney is hypocritical for claiming he would remove the ethical cloud caused by Foley. But when Foley’s tawdry exploits were unveiled two years ago, it was huge news and might have played a role in devastating Republican electoral hopes that year. I really doubt that Mahoney’s sexual indiscretions and pay-offs will register. And I’m curious about why this is. Why do some sex scandals generate so much media coverage and others don’t?
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Hey Times: Is the pope Catholic?

respectI have been surprised, quite frankly, that the annual “Respect Life” emphasis in Catholic churches has not received more coverage in the mainstream press this year.

After all, as a famous American political pollster told me a year or two ago: “All of American politics today basically comes down to Catholics in Ohio who go to Mass once a month instead of once a week.” If you can read between the lines of that quote, then you’re ready to parse the sermons being given in many Catholic pulpits right now.

As you would expect, the New York Times aimed one of its best reporters at this topic, which led to David D. Kirkpatrick’s recent story under the headline, “Catholic Church Is Riven by Internal Debate.”

Now let me stress that I have the highest respect for the work that Kirkpatrick has done in recent years. I mean, how would you like to cover political and religious conservatives for the Times? Do you think his work gets dissected from time to time?

Nevertheless, I have one or two problems with this report. Consider, for example the top of the story:

As the Roman Catholic Church observes its annual “respect life” Sunday in this heated presidential election season, the unusually pitched competition for Catholic voters is setting off a round of skirmishes over how to apply the church’s teachings not only on abortion but also on the war in Iraq, immigration and racism.

In a departure from previous elections, Democrats and liberal Catholic groups are waging a fight within the church, arguing that the Democratic Party better reflects the full spectrum of church teachings.

Now, that is a hot story this year. However, it was also a hot story in the mid-1980s when I started receiving entire folders and, from time to time, books from Catholics and, yes, progressive evangelicals (they existed even back then) making precisely the same arguments. This is news, but there is no way that this strategy represents a “departure from previous elections.”

That said, Kirkpatrick does a fine job of showing that many of the tensions between the Catholic left and right can be traced into the tense and divided world of “voter’s guides” that attempt to select quotes from various church documents in order to build a case for or against a particular candidate. That’s easy to do with Catholic social teachings, which are vast and deep and at times confusing to those not used to the terrain. There are times, as E.J. Dionne, Jr., likes to say, when it seems that the goal of Catholic doctrine is to make sure that each and every Catholic feels guilty about something whenever they enter a voting booth. That’s the reality, folks.

So what does all of this look like in practice? Here is a large chunk of the story that tunes in some of the conflict.

The two sides disagree over how to address what the church calls “intrinsic evils,” including abortion and racism — the two examples singled out last year in a guide for Catholic voters put out by the United States Conference of Bishops. The escalating efforts by more liberal Catholics are provoking a vigorous backlash from some bishops and the right.

In Scranton, Pa., every Catholic attending Mass this weekend will hear a special homily about next month’s election: Bishop Joseph Martino has ordered every priest in the diocese to read a letter warning that voting for a supporter of abortion rights amounts to endorsing “homicide.”

“Being ‘right’ on taxes, education, health care, immigration and the economy fails to make up for the error of disregarding the value of a human life,” the bishop wrote. “It is a tragic irony that ‘pro-choice’ candidates have come to support homicide — the gravest injustice a society can tolerate — in the name of ‘social justice.’ ”

In response, a coalition of liberal lay Catholics is pushing back, criticizing the bishop’s message for neglecting other aspects of “life” talked about in Catholic social teachings, like concern for the poor.

To underscore the point, a nun is collecting the signatures of prominent Catholic leaders there for a newspaper advertisement reminding those who may be wary of voting for Senator Barack Obama that the church also considers racism a sin that threatens the dignity of life.

And so forth and so on. The article does feature a wide variety of voices, from a wide variety of Catholic groups on the left and right. At one point, it mentions that the conservative Catholic group Fidelis is claiming that the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage rank higher than other vital moral issues. Catholics on the left, as a rule, strongly disagree.

It was at this point in the article that I began to wonder about something. There seemed to be a major voice missing from this debate. While there were many quotes from the U.S. Catholic bishops, the Times seemed to have left out a major player in the world of Catholic thought.

pope benedict xvi 01You got it. This guy is missing in action:

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable. Among these the following emerge clearly today:

* protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death;

* recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family — as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage — and its defence from attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union which in reality harm it and contribute to its destabilization, obscuring its particular character and its irreplaceable social role;

* the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.

These principles are not truths of faith, even though they receive further light and confirmation from faith; they are inscribed in human nature itself and therefore they are common to all humanity. …

This quote is, of course, from Pope Benedict XVI’s March 30, 2006, address to members of the European People’s Party.

The only reference to anyone named “Benedict” in this article is to Benedict Arnold.

Now, before you click “comment,” please know that we will not be debating who is right and who is wrong in this very complicated debate about Catholic doctrines and the public square. Leave the candidates out of this, please. What we will be discussing is whether it was wise for the Times to cover this life-and-death debate — at length — without a single reference to what the pope and the Vatican have to say about the matter.

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Wars over sex, scripture and what? (updated)

christenthroned1Something very interesting is going on in the mainstream media’s coverage of the decision by the Diocese of Pittsburgh to leave the U.S. Episcopal church and align with conservative Anglicans in the Province of the Southern Cone in South America.

As I mentioned before, journalists have finally grasped that there is more to this story than a fight over an openly noncelibate bishop in New Hampshire. So what is the fight really about? Reporters and editors are still stuggling to get that into words.

Consider this breaking news story about the Pittsburgh vote by the Associated Press. Here’s the lede:

Clergy and lay members of the theologically conservative Pittsburgh diocese voted overwhelmingly Saturday to break from the liberal Episcopal Church, with which it differs on issues ranging from homosexuality to biblical teachings on salvation.

Now that’s interesting. There certainly are doctrinal disputes among Episcopalians and Anglicans about salvation, especially the question of (tmatt trio alert) whether salvation is found in the name of Jesus Christ, alone. You may remember some very interesting quotes about that issue from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. She bluntly said Jesus is the way to salvation for Christians. Period.

But what are these doctrinal wars actually about? How should reporters describe this wider dispute, in an age of fewer and fewer words and inches of type in newspapers? Later in this same AP report, we read:

Clergy and lay members on both sides of the aisle were impassioned before Saturday’s vote. Several opposed to splitting from the national church acknowledged disagreeing with its more liberal teachings — including a more “inclusive” salvation that doesn’t rely on Christ’s crucifixion alone. But many said staying in the church was the only way to remedy those teachings.

Say what? The word “inclusive” is helpful, I guess, but the rest of that statement makes it sound like the Episcopal left believes that salvation is found through the cross — plus something else. What does that mean? Frankly, it sounds like the reporter is paraphrasing comments made by conservative Anglicans, but is not sure what the words mean.

For another glimpse into this struggle, let’s take a second look at that New York Times story that I praised earlier. It included this passage that is causing some of the Episcopal Church’s media pros to get upset at a newspaper that ordinarily is their bread and butter.

The dispute includes complaints that the national church allows open debate on whether Jesus is the Son of God, or that the only way to God is through Jesus — tenets of faith that conservatives find indisputable.

Over at the conservative online fortress Stand Firm In Faith, people are discussing an objection to that paragraph that has been raised by the Episcopal powers that be on a listserv.

Here’s the heart of the matter from former New York Times and Washington Post reporter James Naughton — now the communications director for the powerful Diocese of Washington, D.C.

To my knowledge, there is no debate in our church over whether Jesus is the Son of God. I don’t know whether everyone who finds his or her way into a church on Sunday believes it, but it isn’t as though the issue is open to dispute in any serious way. We proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God in our Prayer Book. This understanding infuses our hymns. We profess it every Sunday as part of our Creed. We teach it in our seminaries. There is absolutely no movement to change this bedrock element of our faith.

To suggest that we do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God is to call the integrity of our faith into question.

I guess the key word in this debate is “debate.” There are, of course, many different viewpoints in the modern and post-modern Episcopal Church about the nature of the divinity of Jesus — from the traditional point of view to Newark-ian views that use traditional language, but who knows precisely what those words mean?

But note — are these views openly debated? Not really. They’re just out there, part of on ongoing effort to hold a church together with the words of worship, but with the precise definitions of the words left up to the local diocesan bishop to enforce or not enforce. At the heart of the dispute is this question: Are Anglicans supposed to have precise, common doctrines on these kinds of issues in the first place?

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to note that Naughton does not argue that the liberals and conservatives are united in the belief that the “only way to God is through Jesus” (at least, he does not mention this in the listserv items Stand Firm has chosen to circulate). And if Jesus is not the way, the truth and the life — instead of a way, a truth, etc. — then this raises questions about the status of Jesus as the Son of God, as traditionally understood.

This is complicated material and hard to condense into crisp, short phrases. Reporters are going to have to ask lots of follow-up questions and be very careful when they paraphrase the results. May I make a suggestion? This is a perfect chance to offer back-up online materials, using verbatim question-and-answer transcripts to let people on both sides — left and right — explain their views in their own words. Just do it.

UPDATED: The New York Times story on the actual vote stuck to the wording that is being protested by the establishment Episcopal communicators:

The movement is driven by theologically conservative leaders who believe the church has turned away from traditional biblical teachings on issues like whether Jesus is the son of God and the only way to salvation.

So here’s a question: What do you think that the conservatives said, that the reporter is trying to paraphrase in the statement about Christology?

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Where does 007 kneel?

james bondReligion is not the first topic that comes to mind for James Bond, the MI6 agent portrayed in dozens of movies, numerous print productions, more than a handful of video games and who knows how many parodies. I know the next Bond film Quantum of Solace is scheduled for released in November, but this weekend isn’t too early to take a light-hearted look at the possible religious faith of this womanizing, fearless secret agent thanks in large part to The Times “>Faith Central blog.

Libby Purves, a Times columnist, novelist and radio broadcaster, asks the question that most people probably think when they consider whether Bond ever knelt at church: “Does James Bond have faith in anything but himself?”

However, Purves brings out some of the cultural influences shaping the Bond character and describes the character’s worldview in a manner that brings out some of the morality behind the Bond movies (which is a much better conversation starter than “Who is your favorite Bond girl or actor?”):

Ian Fleming gave Bond a Scottish father Andrew Bond, which for this blogger indicates 007 was a protestant of some description. Fleming himself was brought up in the non-conformist tradition and from time to time worried about the moral effect Bond was having. ….

The apparent lack of moral framework in the novels caused some reviewers to label them “anti-Christian” but Kingsley Amis put it well when he rebutted those accusations.

“I should have thought that a fairly orthodox moral system, vague perhaps but none the less recognizable through accumulation, pervades all Bond’s adventures. Some things are regarded as good: loyalty, fortitude, a sense of responsibility, a readiness to regard one’s safety, even one’s life, as less important than the major interests of one’s organization and one’s country. Other things are regarded as bad: tyranny, readiness to inflict pain on the weak or helpless, the unscrupulous pursuit of money or power. These distinctions aren’t excitingly novel, but they are important, and as humanist and/or Christian as the average reader would want. They constitute quite enough in the way of an ethical frame of reference, assuming anybody needs or looks for or ought to have one in adventure fiction at all.” (From The James Bond Dossier 1965)

I doubt any future movies will give us a sense for Bond’s religious faith. Some actions movies, like the 1999 gangster movie The Boondock Saints draw religion right into the central plot and design of the movie with intense religious imagery and spiritualism. Others seem on the surface to be more humanistic such as the Bond films or perhaps Mission Impossible (though I could be forgetting something, and I never saw MI3).

The gangster movie Pulp Fiction is rather famous for the fabricated quotation derived from various Bible passages by the contract killer Jules Winnfield (played by Samuel L. Jackson). The main theme of this past summer’s blockbuster The Dark Knight was goodness triumphing over evil, moral choices, the corruption of the public’s virtues and (false?) redemption.

Which movie best portrays the real world: one that merely pretends that human drama plays out in a world without higher powers or one that recognizes that religion plays a real role in people’s lives. Perhaps this is something movie reviewers should highlight more often?

Photo of Ian Fleming’s image of James Bond used under a fair use license.

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Building an image

palm islandDubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, has long been known as an influential port city. But it’s a huge tourist destination as well. The city is constantly building, allegedly claiming 15-25 percent of the world’s cranes. It has the tallest man-made structure, the only 7-star hotel, massive man-made islands in the shape of a palm tree. Half the time I see pictures of Dubai, I’m unsure if what I’m seeing is real or computer generated.

Reuters had an interesting report this week about how the huge tourist industry is creating a culture clash with the city’s permanent population. Here’s how it begins:

Sex on the beach or drunken trysts may not raise eyebrows in many cities, but a recent case in Dubai has exposed a growing cultural divide between native Muslims and Western residents seeking fun in the sun.

The story of a British pair facing possible jail terms on charges of having drunken sex on the beach made headlines around the world, but in Dubai, reports are frequent of hapless foreigners falling foul of local laws that strictly control drinking and ban homosexuality or kissing in public.

Um, correct me if I’m wrong, but public sex on beaches actually raises eyebrows most anywhere, right? I have been on many beaches in my day and I’m pretty sure public sex was a major no-no on them all. As in, you would get arrested if caught. Have laws in the West changed without me knowing?

Certainly a discussion of traditional Muslim life versus wild, crazy, drunken tourist life is in order. But I think the reporters may have oversold us on the lede.

Still, the article is really interesting. Expatriates comprise 90 percent of the population in Dubai and nationals say that their identity is under threat. Dubai has worked hard to build its image as a cosmopolitan and modern city. Nationals receive free housing, education and healthcare and rulers redistribute oil wealth in return for political loyalty, according to the article.

The story paints a very black and white picture. Westerners are crazed and the Muslim population is law-abiding. It may be convenient to set the story up that way, but it’s not very nuanced. To that end, readers may also want to check out Michael Slackman’s piece in the New York Times about the religious climate for young Muslims in Dubai:

In his old life in Cairo, Rami Galal knew his place and his fate: to become a maintenance man in a hotel, just like his father. But here, in glittering, manic Dubai, he is confronting the unsettling freedom to make his own choices.

Here Mr. Galal, 24, drinks beer almost every night and considers a young Russian prostitute his girlfriend. But he also makes it to work every morning, not something he could say when he lived back in Egypt. Everything is up to him, everything: what meals he eats, whether he goes to the mosque or a bar, who his friends are.

Dubai marina view9 big
The story uses Galal and other men working in Dubai to show the differences between the vibrant city and their home cultures. Here’s the crux of the story:

Dubai is, in some ways, a vision of what the rest of the Arab world could become — if it offered comparable economic opportunity, insistence on following the law and tolerance for cultural diversity. In this environment, religion is not something young men turn to because it fills a void or because they are bowing to a collective demand. That, in turn, creates an atmosphere that is open not only to those inclined to a less observant way of life, but also to those who are more religious. In Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Algeria, a man with a long beard is often treated as an Islamist — and sometimes denied work. Not here in Dubai.

“Here, I can practice my religion in a natural and free way because it is a Muslim country and I can also achieve my ambition at work,” said Ahmed Kassab, 30, an electrical engineer from Zagazig Egypt, who wears a long dark beard and has a prayer mark on his forehead. “People here judge the person based on productivity more than what he looks like. It’s different in Egypt, of course.”

I’m not sure if the implication is that young men only turn to religion in other places because “it fills a void” or because they are “bowing to a collective demand.” I get the point, but such declarative statements should be better sourced.

Still, Slackman’s piece is fascinating. I particularly like the way he compares the experiences of Muslim expatriates who have lived in the West and in Dubai. In both places they have freedom, but the difference is the surrounding culture. Well worth a read.

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