Which religious group should be blamed for the election results?

Well, everyone, we made it through another presidential campaign year! Congratulations to the winners and condolences to the losers and all that.

With the election over, we’re now in the stage of the airing of grievances and assigning of blame.

It’s usually much easier to do this than this year, where the campaign wasn’t about big issues. Or as it was put in this fantastic Washington Post piece explaining how Obama won:

The campaign bore almost no resemblance to the expansive one Obama waged in 2008 — by strategic choice and by financial necessity. Without the clear financial advantage it had last time, Obama’s campaign relied more on the tools of micro-marketing than on the oratorical gifts of the nation’s first black president.

Gone were the soaring speeches that clarified Obama’s candidacy four years ago. Instead the president focused on Romney. Meanwhile, his campaign spoke early and often with “persuadable” voters, selected for targeted e-mails and doorstep visits through demographic data unavailable last time.

“We turned a national election into a school-board race,” a second senior Obama campaign official said.

Before the effort to define Romney began, before they even knew for certain Romney would be the opponent, the Obama campaign laid the groundwork for victory in a race that would be won in the margins of a polarized electorate.

The lack of big issues led, perhaps, to an obsession with polls. That obsession continues as journalists look to exit polls for meaning. The New York Times has a great interactive page with election information. It begins with the note:

Most of the nation shifted to the right in Tuesday’s vote, but not far enough to secure a win for Mitt Romney.

Weird, right? Most of the nation shifts to the right but the big story is that the right lost. Big time. How to make sense of that? The first thing I might suggest is caution. Whether it’s on election night or the first few heady days after, people are desperate to make sense of things. But sometimes it takes a while for actual vote totals to come in or good local data that explain particular elections.

Just for instance … I really enjoyed this Denver Post/Eric Gorski piece about the Pew data, which mentioned:

The initial speculation and preliminary evidence was white evangelicals and other conservative Christians might not enthusiastically support Romney, either for theological or other reasons, [University of Akron political scientist John] Green noted. Ultimately, though, exit polls showed nearly eight in 10 white evangelicals supported Romney, an improvement over John McCain’s 73 percent in 2008 and on par with George W. Bush’s 2004 numbers.

Perhaps more interestingly, Romney received less support from his fellow Mormons than allegedly skeptical white evangelicals – although it was just 1 percentage point less.

That’s fascinating, no? The evangelical voters increased their support for the GOP candidate in 2012 over 2008 and 2004? And Mormon support was below that of white evangelicals? Crazy! (The piece also has great discussions on the “nones” and why Obama lost seven points among white Catholics — Green suggests the “religious liberty” issue was a factor.)

But what we also need to know are whether those percentages reflect changes in the actual voters. Meaning, did some evangelicals sit out the election this year? And did Mormons come out to vote more than usual? Both of those things could have happened as well. Or not. We’ll have to wait a bit to find that out. Going back to that New York Times map mentioned above, it shows that the country went more Republican everywhere with a few exceptions. One of those areas was the South. Is that partly a religion story? I don’t know. (There’s some great analysis on these questions here.)

One interesting approach taken by Religion News Service was the piece headlined “What’s next for religious conservatives?” Even though the Romney campaign was laser-focused on the economy at the expense of getting out the vote over social conservatism or other issues Americans care about, the piece suggests that the problem lies with … social conservatives. It includes lines such as:

The electorate today is increasingly Latino, and younger, and both those groups are turned off by anything that smacks of righteous moralizing.

I only wish that young people were turned off by anything that smacked of righteous moralizing. But the ratings success of Glee would suggest otherwise. As for this claim that Latinos are all turned off by, um, “anything that smacks of righteous moralizing” … I’m not quite sure how to respond to it. I mean, maybe it’s true. Maybe Latinos were turned off of Romney (and the GOP) not because of his comments about self-deportation, or his lack of outreach to them, or this (from ABC/Univision):

Nationally, 74 percent of Latino voters said that Romney did not care about Latinos or was outwardly hostile to them, with a whopping 56 percent believing the latter. Compare that to what Latino voters thought of President Obama: 66 percent said he truly cares about Latinos.

But maybe RNS is right and the failure to crack 35 percent of the Latino vote — which one analysis says would have changed the outcome of the entire election — had something to do with social conservatism. Journalistically, though, it would be better to substantiate claims such as this about youth and Latinos rather than just assert it without any evidence.

This was an interesting election and one that, despite how narrowly divided the country is, had some decisive results with serious implications for religious adherents and the issues they care about. But it’s always good to proceed with caution when trying to make sense of why voters made the decisions they did.

Note: Please keep comments focused on media coverage as opposed to personal political preferences, etc.

Recriminations image via Shutterstock.

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CNN attempts to bifurcate Jesus

I was reflecting on the interesting election coverage we experienced over the last year(s) and how the religion angles were handled. After 2008, perhaps we can agree that religion angles were handled better in this cycle. Which is not saying much.

The media have never quite figured out how to handle President Barack Obama’s religion, largely downplaying his religious rhetoric and ignoring his religious outreach. Some folks attempted to smear Mitt Romney for his Mormonism, but even that was restrained. Only conspiracy theorists such as the Daily Beast‘s Andrew Sullivan have engaged in the more notable bigotry. That the Daily Beast publishes him is not to their credit, but most publications were more subtle in their pieces skeptical of Mormonism. Some media outlets even seemed earnestly interested in learning about Mormonism as opposed to going for political point scoring.

But there was something about this CNN piece that a few readers sent in that seriously rubbed me the wrong way, headlined “Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?,” it begins:

Here’s a presidential election prediction you can bet on.

Right after the winner is announced, somebody somewhere in America will fall on their knees and pray, “Thank you Jesus.”
And somebody somewhere else will moan, “Help us Jesus.”

But what Jesus will they be praying to: a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?

Admittedly this is because of my personal bias as a Christian, but I don’t appreciate media outlets referencing my Lord and Savior in such a trifling manner. I’m not sure if media outlets are aware of how offensive it sounds to some of us. You’re then invited to take a poll where Jesus is bifurcated in weird ways, frequently in ways that this Lutheran wouldn’t feel comfortable with. Such as:

Do you believe Jesus is going to return one day, descending from the clouds with an army of angels to fight the final battle between good and evil? Or are you focused on creating Jesus’ kingdom “on earth as it is heaven” and not too worried about who’s left behind or whether Jesus is coming back — or perhaps never even left?

Then you get to pick whether you’re for the “‘Left-Behind’ Jesus” or the “Never Left Jesus.” Hardy har har! Or how about this one?

Were you inspired by watching Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” because you thought it showed how much Jesus was willing to suffer to save mankind? Or were you revolted by Gibson’s film and thought its long and bloody depiction of Jesus’ death reflected Gibson’s obsession?

Are you for “Mel Gibson’s Jesus” or “Mel Gibson’s Obsession”? Ooh, good one.

Now, some of the questions were actually fine and interesting, but what is so problematic to me is the inherent politicization of the framework.

Yes, it is true: Some Christians use Jesus to justify progressive political action. And some Christians use Jesus to justify conservative political action. But this framework routinely ignores and marginalizes those of us that don’t view Jesus through a political prism.

If you are going to write about the politicization of Jesus — a great topic, in my view — is it too much to ask that it be done in a less condescending or derisive way? Or, as one commenter put it:

CNN, stop trying to create a false dichotomy. Jesus is indeed the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, but this in no way stops him from being the champion of the oppressed, for example.

I’m genuinely curious what you think about the way this topic was handled.

And I’m also thinking today might be a good day to reflect on the larger coverage of religion this year. What do you think were the high points and low points? I have my own thoughts (which, if you’ve read the blog this past year will not surprise you) but I’d like to hear what you thought was handled well and what you thought wasn’t handled well. Were there any big stories that just got missed? Stories that were overhyped? Let us know.

Diverging paths image via Shutterstock.

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And for the Copts, the winner is … the winner is?

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First things first: I would like to stress that, while I am a member of an Orthodox Christian parish with historic ties to Arab Christianity, I do not speak Arabic.

That said, I would think that this language deficit would make me a highly unlikely candidate to cover a major news event in which the climactic moment was going to hinge on an announcement in Arabic. At the very least, I would think that — if given this assignment anyway — I would certainly want to have someone seated right next to me who is fluent in Arabic.

What am I talking about? Since there was no embed code for the following BBC report, GetReligion readers will need to click here in order to see the influential global network’s coverage of the rite used to select the new leader of Egypt’s Coptic pope. So click on over and watch that video before continuing with this post.

Meanwhile, here is the top of the BBC online text:

Bishop Tawadros has been chosen as the new pope of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, becoming leader of the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. His name was selected from a glass bowl by a blindfolded boy at a ceremony in Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral. Three candidates had been shortlisted.

The 60-year-old succeeds Pope Shenouda III, who died in March aged 88. He succeeds as attacks on Copts are on the increase, and many say they fear the country’s new Islamist leaders.

The other two candidates were Bishop Raphael and Father Raphael Ava Mina. They were chosen in a ballot by a council of some 2,400 Church and community officials in October. Their names were written on pieces of paper and put in crystal balls sealed with wax on the church altar.

Once the crystal ball had been selected and opened, a large scroll of paper was unrolled containing the name of the new pope — written in Arabic. The BBC announcer was placed in the awkward position, as the congregation applauded its approval, of not knowing who had been selected.

Did the executive producers expect the name to be written in English?

Clearly, the BBC crew was not having a good day. If you compare the BBC coverage with the Euronews clip attached to the top of this post, you will notice something else strange. Apparently, while Bishop Pachomius was showing the Arabic scroll to the congregation, a portrait of the monk selected — Bishop Tawadros — was shown on a large screen.

Either (a) the unlucky BBC announcer did not recognize the face of the winner or (b) the reporter was not on site for this event and the camera crew producing the live feed he was using framed their shot so narrowly, and held on to it, so that the large digital image of the new pope could not be seen. D’oh!

The story text is not bad, even if it is rather mildly worded. This passage struck me hard, as someone who has been following the plight of the Coptic believers for years.

The new pope has studied in Britain, and has also run a medicine factory, the BBC’s Jon Leyne in Cairo reports. He is a man of broad experience and with managerial skills, our correspondent says, adding that he will need all those talents to lead the Copts as they face an uncertain future in a country now debating the role of Islam following last year’s revolution. …

Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination by the Egyptian state and the country’s Muslim majority. But when President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year and succeeded by the Muslim Brotherhood, their fears grew.

In October 2011, 25 people died in clashes with the security forces after a protest march in Cairo over the burning of a church.

Suffice it to say, there is much, much more that could be added at that point in the story, in an age in which the Muslim Brotherhood is now considered the moderate party in Egyptian life. To dig into the background material, try clicking here or here.

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Top 10 ways BuzzFeed doesn’t get Christianity

Two minor media incidents yesterday made me wonder if some of the problems we see with how religion news is covered relates simply to language differences. The first came about in a panel discussion about whether Hurricane Sandy had any political implications. (By the way, see if you can find any ghosts in this New York Times video “Lights Out In Rockaway” about the rough situation those in Queens continue to face a week after the storm hit. The folks in the video say that FEMA and the Red Cross have been AWOL, but I noticed that some relief workers had shirts indicating they were part of religious relief efforts.)

Anyway, on Meet The Press, “Today” show host Savannah Guthrie was speculating that the hurricane would help President Obama reach out to independent voters as opposed to the base voters he’d previously targeted:

“This is a campaign built to turn out the base of the party. And here was a moment, handed to him seemingly from above, where he could look like that strong, independent, steady in a storm, very appealing to the middle-of-the-road voters. And I might add to unmarried women voters who are going to be very key in this election.”

See? Secular reporters talk about theodicy, too! They just talk about it a little differently. Sandy killed 110 people, left millions without power, destroyed homes and untold property. But God (or, er, something “from above”) can bring good things out of it, too … such as help to President Obama’s re-election campaign. It does make me wonder if or how Guthrie covered the Senate candidate’s comments suggesting that even those lives conceived in rape are valuable to God.

Anyway, the other minor incident I came across was the powerful BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith’s remarks when he linked to a perfectly typical BuzzFeed article (They tend to hype everything for maximum page views. It works. And yes, the headline is a joke about their style.) about religious outreach by the Romney campaign. The relevant portion for our purposes:

Reed emphasized that it was the religious duty of Christians to cast their ballots, saying the “Bible clearly teaches” that there is an obligation to take part in their government.

“We believe being registered to vote, being educated, and going to the polls is part of our witness as believers, because we are dual citizens,” Reed said, referring to the “Kingdom of Heaven” and the United States.

Ben Smith tweeted out a link with the line:

Hard to imagine a rabbi or imam telling his flock, as Ralph Reed does here, that they are “dual citizens”

Well, as you can imagine, his 112,699 followers had a bit of fun with it. For instance:

@SluBlog: Good grief, dude. http://bible.cc/philippians/3-20.htm …

@BrentSirota: It’s Philippians 3:20. Why would a rabbi or imam make reference to that?

Smith retweeted some of the responses he got and further explained:

I guess it struck me in the context of the frequent accusations that Jews have dual loyalties. Not the concept, just the phrase.

And that led to more interaction:

@JayCostTWS: Read Augustine’s City of God.

It is a great suggestion that reporters read City of God if they want to understand this concept. But Smith surprised me by responding:

Went to a hs called Trinity and read City of God in college. No excuse at all :(

I know it’s what we should all do, but it’s nice to see a journalist who is not defensive and takes correction and admits error.

It’s also interesting that one could have some familiarity with these concepts and still forget them while on the politics beat. Just a good reminder for us all that our own obsessions and frameworks might not be universally shared.

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Pearls before Net commenters (or a Godbeat gem)

A reader sent along this story in the Washington Post headlined “Parents accept daughter’s rare illness as’‘God’s will’” with a note:

Strange that the Post doesn’t ridicule this family for believing that their plight is God’s will.

The piece ran in the Post but it was wisely picked up by Religion News Service and was written originally for The Tennessean. I have been meaning to highlight it for weeks and am thankful to have the opportunity to revisit it. In a way, the reader comment shows everything about what made the piece so amazing. The subtext the reader alludes to, of course, is the ridiculous way in which the media handled a Senate candidate’s theological reflection on why bad things happen if God is God. The media coverage was an embarrassment, it was clearly partisan, and it lacked any nuance or depth.

I had already mentioned Amy Sullivan’s work as a rare exception to this mess but I would also like to point out Jeffrey Weiss’ piece in Real Clear Politics headlined “Richard Mourdock’s Mystery of Faith.” Rather than aim for political point-scoring, Weiss used the Mourdock statement as a hook to explore the various ways that religious adherents address questions of theodicy. Even if just kept to Christianity, there are a variety of ways of looking at this issue.

Now, the Tennessean story has absolutely nothing to do with Mourdock. But it does show how a capable religion reporter can introduce questions of theodicy in a respectful and even-handed manner. The piece, written by Bob Smietana, is breathtakingly beautiful. The subjects are ideal candidates for a deep dig into the questions and the reporter doesn’t avoid dealing with the difficult implications of their beliefs. I don’t even want to excerpt it because I want everyone to read the whole thing, but it begins:

Eric and Ruth Brown of East Nashville believe nothing about their infant daughter Pearl Joy’s life is a mistake.

They say God gave Pearl her bright red hair and wide blue eyes, as well as the genetic disorder that cleft her upper lip and caused her brain’s development to stall in the first weeks in the womb.

“Things didn’t go wrong,” Eric Brown said. “God has designed Pearl the way he wanted, for his glory and our good.”

That belief has sustained the Browns over the past six months, ever since a routine ultrasound halfway through Ruth’s pregnancy revealed that Pearl, their third child, has alobar holoprosencephaly, a rare genetic condition that’s almost always fatal. A specialist told the Browns she would probably die in the womb and advised them to end the pregnancy early.

It’s one thing to talk about God’s will when life is good. It’s another when a doctor is saying your baby won’t live. The Browns were forced to consider religious, medical and ethical issues most parents never will.

And nobody could make their decision for them.

The Browns never even considered not going forward with the pregnancy. They believe that Pearl is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as Psalm 139 puts it, and God alone should decide when she lives and when she dies.

Perhaps it’s not until you read the comments at the various newspapers that either picked up or copied The Tennessean‘s story that you realize how counter-cultural and shocking the Browns are to many people in the world. The comments on some of these stories were just unbelievably hurtful and negative. I wished I hadn’t read them. After I read Smietana’s story, I was so curious about the Browns that I began following Eric’s Twitter feed. At first he was also hurt by the negative comments. But he also noticed that their story was provoking many beautiful comments from people who had made similar decisions to them and from people who were thinking things through about how to handle the challenges of life.

Reading all of these comments further demonstrated to me that Smietana handled all of these questions very well. I should warn you that the article is a tear-jerker. Reading it, I was reminded of the brother of one of my best friends. He and his wife were surprised to find out that their second child had severe health problems at birth. The way they loved and cared for her during the few months she lived was beyond inspirational to me. I have grumbled, at times, about how stories like theirs never make “news,” even though they’re dramatic and fascinating. Well, I was wrong. It just takes a good reporter who is observant and knows the community and how to write a story about how faith is lived.

There is much more to this story, but I think it’s best to just read it for yourself. And hopefully it gives some much needed encouragement about professionalism on the Godbeat.

Pearl photo via Shutterstock.

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Catholic bishops’ not-so-partisan partisan crusade

YouTube Preview ImageThe Washington Post ran a piece from Religion News Service with the headline:

Catholic bishops make last-minute pitch for Romney

Considering that the bishops didn’t even name Vice President Joe Biden when they corrected a false claim he made about the HHS mandate during the debate a few weeks ago, I thought it major news that they’d be making an overt pitch for Romney. Then I read the top of the story:

A number of Roman Catholic bishops are making forceful last-minute appeals to their flock to vote on Election Day, and their exhortations are increasingly sounding like calls to support Republican challenger Mitt Romney over President Obama.

The most recent example: a letter from Illinois Bishop Daniel Jenky accusing the administration of an unprecedented “assault upon our religious freedom” and implying that Catholics who pull the lever for Democrats who support abortion rights are like those who condemned Jesus to death.

Oh dear. Already we have a problem. That bold headline that asserts that Catholic bishops are all in for Romney turns into a lede where we are told that something merely “sounds like” (To whose ear? We are not told.) support for Romney. And the Jenky letter never singled out Democrats who support abortion. Far from it. So why was it written up that way?

OK, before I go on, I do want to point out what the piece does well. It is certainly newsworthy that these bishops are so clearly addressing Catholics on religious liberty. Those of us who aren’t Catholic and would have no idea about any of this going on in Catholic dioceses around the country are well served by reporters sharing this information. And the article has a decent survey of the various bishops who have spoken out.

Let’s look at a quote from the Jenky letter and then show you how it was summarized:

Nearly two thousand years ago, after our Savior had been bound, beaten, scourged, mocked, and crowned with thorns, a pagan Roman Procurator displayed Jesus to a hostile crowd by sarcastically declaring: “Behold your King.” The mob roared back: “We have no king but Caesar.” Today, Catholic politicians, bureaucrats, and their electoral supporters who callously enable the destruction of innocent human life in the womb also thereby reject Jesus as their Lord. They are objectively guilty of grave sin. For those who hope for salvation, no political loyalty can ever take precedence over loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ and to his Gospel of Life. God is not mocked, and as the Bible clearly teaches, after this passing instant of life on earth, God’s great mercy in time will give way to God’s perfect judgment in eternity.

Here’s how it’s changed up:

Jenky also compares abortion rights supporters to the Jewish crowd in Jerusalem that pledged loyalty to the Roman Empire and demanded that Pontius Pilate crucify Jesus.

I’m not entirely sure that changing “a hostile crowd” to “the Jewish crowd” is helpful. I don’t understand why that change was made, in fact. But more than that, I think the significance of Jenky’s statement was completely missed. That is an incredibly strong statement to come from a bishop — even for the issue of the “destruction of innocent human life in the womb.” It’s interesting that it wasn’t included in the story.

The story suggests the bishops don’t really care about the doctrine so much as partisan aims. So we read:

Across the continent in Alaska, Juneau Bishop Edward J. Burns wrote a column in the local newspaper on Oct. 27 comparing Vice President Joe Biden’s support for abortion rights to supporting slave owners in the antebellum South, and he questioned Biden’s character and Catholic faith.

Numerous other bishops, from Newark, N.J. to Springfield, Illinois to Colorado Springs have made similar appeals.

They always stress that they are not endorsing any particular candidate but they frame their statements by listing a set of “non-negotiable” issues that start with opposition to abortion and go on to include other policies that Republicans generally support and Democrats generally oppose.

It’s just a really interesting way to frame the story. But is it accurate? The media’s “exhortations are increasingly sounding like” calls to question the bishops motivation, aren’t they? “See, those bishops claim they care about doctrine but — wink-wink, nudge-nudge — we’ve figured out their partisan aims — something we never seem to notice in our couldn’t-be-fluffier coverage of the Nuns on the Bus.” Also, I’m sure you already noticed that the final excerpted sentence completely negates the headline for the piece.

But what’s really noteworthy is that this is a really bizarre reading of Burns’ column. For one thing, I didn’t see where Burns questioned Biden’s “character.” If you’re going to assert that he did, you should substantiate the charge. What’s more, you would never know this from the RNS write-up but Burns actually critiqued both Biden and Ryan! Failure to mention that fact does help the narrative that the bishops are being partisan, but it certainly isn’t fair. Here’s what Burns actually wrote:

That being said, each vice presidential candidate has been inconsistent in the ways in which they have followed the moral teaching of the Catholic Church. Vice President Biden, while stating that he believes, as his Church does, that life begins at conception, and while professing his personal opposition to abortion, supports the virtually unlimited right to abortion that has resulted in deaths of millions of unborn children since the tragic Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. In addition to this position of his in conflict with the teaching of the Church, Vice President Biden has also come out in support of legalizing same-sex marriage.

By way of contrast, Congressman Ryan has been a resolute advocate of Catholic moral teaching on the defense of the unborn and traditional marriage between one man and one woman. However, the Federal budget that he has proposed could do harm to the poor and vulnerable by neglecting their legitimate needs. For example, Congressman Ryan proposed a budget that has received a critique by the Domestic Justice and Human Development and International Justice and Peace committees of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, stating that “a just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.”

Another relevant item that was missing from this story was Archbishop Charles Chaput’s statement:

“We’re Catholics before we’re Democrats. We’re Catholics before we’re Republicans. We’re even Catholics before we’re Americans because we know that God has a demand on us prior to any government demand on us,” he said in a new interview with the wire service. “And this has been the story of the martyrs through the centuries,” Chaput said.

You can view his remarks at the top of this piece, too. The entirety of his remarks deals exclusively with the partisan issue. If your article is trying to make the claim that the bishops are all partisan, failure to include this Chaput quote from last week certainly helps. But if you read all of these statements, is the grand unifying theme of them really about the Grand Old Party? Or is it something else?

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Calm down about the Vatican and James Bond Skyfall

 

It was three years ago that I read a really interesting story in the Christian Science Monitor about why the Vatican’s “famously staid semi-official mouthpiece” was suddenly doing movie reviews. The reporter explained that Pope Benedict XVI encouraged the paper to discuss cultural issues.

The big error in how the media covers this Vatican newspaper is by giving the impression that it’s the official mouthpiece of the Vatican. So we see stories with headlines such as this one from The Telegraph:

Vatican lauds ‘human’ James Bond, ‘licence to cry’

James Bond’s licence to thrill has been sanctioned by no lesser an authority than the Vatican, through its official newspaper.

Um, no. Now, the headline is completely in error. But the story itself is fine. This is what we’re talking about when we discuss how headlines aren’t necessarily written by reporters.

It is not true that the Roman Catholic Church has officially approved this film or anything. L’Osservatore Romano, the newspaper based in the Vatican State, wrote about the film. Its review didn’t go through doctrinal review and there is significant editorial independence.

So if L’Osservatore Romano gave a thumbs up to the film, that’s all it means. It doesn’t mean Pope Benedict XVI has given a thumbs up. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be much daylight between a given newspaper and the head of state (please, no jokes about any particular American paper) but it’s an error to interpret the actual words published in L’Osservatore Romano as if they came from Pope Benedict XVI himself or the church’s broad teaching authority.

But the story itself doesn’t overstate nearly as much as the headline:

As the mouthpiece of the Holy See, L’Osservatore Romano, which was founded 151 years ago, used to run only turgid editorials on Catholic saints, articles on theology and notices of the Pope’s official engagements.

But since a new editor was appointed in 2007 and urged by Pope Benedict XVI to make the publication more relevant, it has ventured into popular culture, commenting on everything from Harry Potter to The Blues Brothers.

Under the headline “007 – license to cry”, the broadsheet said Skyfall contained all the classic ingredients of a Bond film, from “adrenalin-pumped action to exotic locations, beautiful Bond girls, and the inevitable vodka Martini – shaken, not stirred.”

Sam Mendes, the director, had taken all the familiar components of a Bond movie – “the legendary British Secret Service, MI6″, Miss Moneypenny and an Aston Martin DB5 – and given them a contemporary twist, L’Osservatore Romano said.

The paper said that for his third outing as Bond, Daniel Craig was “even more convincing” than in the first two films, Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale.

Craig’s Bond was “less clichéd, less attracted by the pleasures of life, more introspective and more vulnerable physically and psychologically”.

It’s still interesting that the Vatican newspaper devoted so much space and thought to the latest James Bond film. There’s just no need to overstate what’s happening.

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Here I stand: Martin Luther on film

So while the rest of you are focused on Halloween, we Lutherans are busy celebrating Reformation Day. To be sure, some churches moved their celebrations to earlier in the month or last Sunday, but my congregation is keeping it real with services at 7:00 PM tonight.

You might be surprised how much Lutherans mark the day. Back in my single days, my wonderful Catholic housemate used to let us use her piano while we sang hymns at our annual party. Some mark it in celebration, others in a more solemn fashion. But how is it covered in the media? (I like to tease that the failure of the media to write about liturgical holidays constitutes a “war” on them — a la the “War on Christmas.”)

Well, it’s not a major media occurrence. But I did rather enjoy this Religion News Service piece from a few weeks ago and meant to review it. Today is a better day to do it.

The piece ran in the “Culture” section under “Entertainment and Pop Culture.” Headlined, Searching for the real Martin Luther, the piece begins with some history on Luther’s public life and then goes on to explain how both his critics and theological fans view him — without pulling any punches. Then we get to the real point of the piece — how the English-speaking world has portrayed Luther in film:

The first appeared in 1953 and cast Irish actor Niall MacGinnis in the title role. MacGinnis captured the warmth of Luther’s personality, though not his irrepressible sense of humor. His portrayal underlined Luther’s stubborn and uncompromising refusal to bow to the worried pleas of his friends or the threats of his enemies.

The second movie, released in 1974, featured an impressive cast, including Stacy Keach as Luther and Dame Judi Dench as his wife, Katherine. The original play by John Osborne portrayed Luther as an angry young man in a hurry, whose conflicts with the Catholic Church seemed to be an extension of his fierce conflicts with his father.

The third movie, directed by Eric Till in 2003, featured Joseph Fiennes as Luther and Sir Peter Ustinov as Elector Frederick the Wise. Till saw in Luther’s story a conflict between a repressive conservative institution (in this case, the medieval Catholic Church) and a more liberal and liberating movement (in this case, the Reformation, which with all its violence and disorder marked for Till an advance over the conservative structures it attacked). For Till, Luther is a symbol of an enlightened spirit in an unenlightened age, an age not altogether unlike our own.

Perhaps out of respect for the serious tone of the plot, Fiennes played Luther as an intense, uncertain, humorless and generally liberal cleric, who could tear a passion to tatters, but whose claim to suffer fits of depression sounded more like acute dyspepsia than a bout of soul-wracking melancholy.

Still, there must have been more to the “real Luther” than the uncertain young friar Fiennes creates. Neurotic introverts seldom change the world. And whatever his flaws, Luther was no introvert. He was a great rollicking figure, a creature larger than life, who filled a room with his presence before he uttered a word. He enjoyed good beer, lively conversation, and the sound of hearty laughter. Till’s Luther was certainly brave and in many respects admirable, but remained throughout a diminutive and monochromatic copy of the colorful and boisterous original.

In the end, only MacGinnis in the 1953 film portrayed a leader someone would be willing to follow. Twenty years later, Keach’s leadership, such as it was, was all passion and angry denunciation with no clear direction forward. And Fiennes seemed far too uncertain to lead. But MacGinnis’ Luther attracted followers by the force of his personality and set them in motion on the trail he was blazing.

The piece goes on to discuss how difficult it is to portray the “real” Luther and why it’s a shame that no movie has yet captured it.

Liturgical holidays are very difficult to cover for the Godbeat. Frequently it can seem like you’re just reporting on the same Christmas Eve or Easter traditions over and over again. The lesser holidays are frequently ignored. But I rather liked this approach — taking a somewhat obscure aspect of the celebrations (and watching these movies is something I can assure you my friends have done and do) and just finding something interesting to say about them.

So it’s just a small point, but one that’s interesting and even interests a general audience that might not be part of the typical celebrations.

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