Horrors! Believers keep going to movies!

exorcism of emily rose 0Here is a Wall Street Journal piece that I wanted to comment on when it came out, but the link was only up for subscribers. Now it seems to be there for free.

This news report is linked to the ongoing trend of niche PR in Hollywood, which affects everyone from cultural conservatives to the gay community. In this case, the trailblazing work is being done by a group called Grace Hill Media.

The studio also courted the Christian media with screenings and interviews with director Scott Derrickson, pointing out that he is a churchgoing Christian.

The result: some religious writers recommended the movie in their publications. The film “is a well-crafted and intelligent movie that aspires to engage heads and not just spin them,” wrote the Catholic News Service in a dig on “The Exorcist,” which featured a possessed girl’s head spinning around. “Emily Rose,” by contrast, “tells a story of faith and compassion,” read a review on “Plugged In,” the cultural guide published by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family.

In my own case, I was sincerely interested in the work of Scott Derrickson, who is a graduate of Biola University near Los Angeles. In candor, I should note that Biola is a major player in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the network behind the journalism program I lead here in Washington, D.C. I am also interested in the entire arena of cultural conservatives wrestling with popular culture on its own terms. There are many, many stories to be written in this area. I have, of course, tried to chase many of them and — warning! book plug! — will continue to do so.

It’s hard to see how this trend can be bad for Hollywood, in an era in which the goal is to get more people into theaters and to run off as few of them as possible.

We are settling into an age of niche films and blockbusters, with almost no middle-sized movies in between. If studios can make quality films that manage to appeal to what is clearly a large potential audience — ordinary Americans who go to church quite a bit — then that is good for people in the industry. Right? It is possible to see signs of this trend all over the place. And, yes, it is freaking out some people in the press.

There also is history at work here. People (traditional Christians, even) who believe that some things are absolutely and eternally right, while other things are absolutely and eternally wrong, have been known to write some pretty good stories about murders and trials and related issues. You can look it up.

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Does your iPod get religion?

catholicinsider banner byYou have to admit that this is one snazzy logo.

It belongs to Father Roderick Vonhögen, a Roman Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Utrecht, The Netherlands, and his Catholic Insider website. He is best known for doing a series of podcasts — seemingly stalled at the moment — titled “The Secrets of Harry Potter.” You may have seen that up on the screen behind Steve Jobs during the Potter plugs at the most recent Apple keynoter (click here to view the liturgy).

Father Roderick (who has a fine radio voice) is very positive about the books (ditto for me), and one of his podcasts picks up an interesting Vatican podcast that goes behind the scenes of the mini-media storm in which it briefly appeared that Pope Benedict XVI had dissed Harry Potter. Some of the material in this podcasting series is similar to the work of my friend John Granger at HogwartsProfessor.com, but there are new wrinkles as well. Like, what is the name of Harry’s owl?

Anyway, with the rising prices of gasoline, my commuter train from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., is getting more and more crowded. This makes it harder for me to read books since, as a creaking overweight Baby Boomer, I tend to sway around a bit too much.

So I am turning to my trusty iPod and starting to get into the podcasting thing. I could have sworn that GetReligion has run some posts about Godcasting, but I can’t find them. If we missed some good stories, let us know.

Anyway, I have a question for GetReligion readers. What are the best religion news podcasts that you have found? I have already subscribed to the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly feed at PBS, which is simply the audio track to the television show. You lose something without the visuals, but it is better than missing the broadcasts.

So what are you iListening to these days?

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Cruising the Times for a ghost?

I have a question about the following story in The New York Times. Is there a ghost in this journalistic visit to a Queens parking lot? A snapshot:

One recent evening, a half-dozen mothers stood chatting, waiting for their children to finish soccer. A stone’s throw away, a group of gay men stood narrating the attempt of a man trolling the lot in a tan sedan to woo the cute man parked in the black S.U.V. with tinted windows backed into a spot.

You could make a case that this is a moralistic story, from either the left or the right. It could be a “What is going on here?” story from an AIDS educator. It could also be a “See what these people are really like?” story from, oh, the Family Research Council. It could also be an stunningly amoral travel-page piece. What think ye, readers?

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Hey, soldier, grunt if you love God

armsandman2The Wall Street Journal ran a book review today that raised way more questions than it answered, including a possble hard-news hook to the ongoing tensions among the chaplains who serve the various branches of the U.S. military. Click here for a flashback on those stories.

The book by Robert Kaplan is called Imperial Grunts and the headline on Daniel Ford’s essay has a kicker phrase that will certainly catch the eye of anyone interested in religion news: “God-Fearing Spartans: A look at America’s ‘imperial grunts.’”

So you are reading along and then you crash into this summary paragraph:

One of the more surprising of Mr. Kaplan’s findings is that evangelical Christianity helped to transform the military in the 1980s, rescuing the Vietnam-era Army from drugs, alcohol and alienation. That reformation, together with the character-building demands of Balkans deployments of the 1990s (more important, in his judgment, than the frontal wars against Saddam Hussein), created our “imperial grunts.”

Whoa. What in the world does all of that mean?

And later we meet a soldier who takes the whole “God, country, honor, duty” equation up to a whole different level. Who are the new “grunts”? We are told that they are the heart of America’s military and are dug in deep out in the overseas battlefields that they call “Injun Country,” an environment in which the grunts say that moral absolutes are easy to see and defend (according to those interviewed for this book).

“We’re the damn Spartans,” explains Maj. Kevin Holiday of Tampa, “physical warriors with college degrees.” A civil engineer with three kids, he is a National Guardsman with an attitude. “God has put me here,” he tells Mr. Kaplan. “I’m a Christian. . . . You see this all around you” — the dust, deprivation and anxiety of Injun Country — “well, it’s the high point of my life and of everyone else here.”

And believe it or not, that is about where things stop. Hey, folks, can you tell us more?

It is my hope that, somewhere at the WSJ news desk, some editor who works with the newsroom’s celebrated column-one feature team read these paragraphs this morning, spit out her or his coffee, and said: “What? Can somebody get me some hard numbers on this thing about ‘evangelical Christianity helped to transform the military in the 1980s’ and all of that?”

There’s a story here. I hope that the talented people on the news side at the WSJ report it, find out if this editorial claim is true and then print the results. Just do it.

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Catholic Church bans gays from seminaries

The Catholic Church has banned homosexuals from entering seminaries and those currently in seminaries will be removed, according to this report on the Catholic World News Web site.

The story has yet to fully hit the mainstream press, but that will change soon. 365Gay.com has picked it up, as has The Advocate and Newsday.

Predictions on how the mainstream press will handle this? And please try to keep the debate to the press’s reaction, not the rightness or wrongness of this decision (go here, here, or here to debate that).

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Do black Christians need to be angry?

image003It’s a challenge, in the print context of GetReligion, to do much reporting about the content of broadcast media. We can, of course, look forward to the day of expanded websites in which networks offer interactive print versions of the features that they broadcast in audio and video forms. We are seeing this happen more and more.

Nevertheless, religion-beat reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty at National Public Radio just served up a report that offered a totally new (at least to me) take on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To hear it, click here and fire up the RealAudio player. Here is the brief description of the report from the NPR homepage:

All Things Considered, September 19, 2005 — For African Americans watching Hurricane Katrina unfold on TV, the need to help was especially pressing. But anger has often accompanied that desire to help, and many black churches are struggling to both provide immediate aid and to help black Americans confront the bigger issues the storm raises.

That’s one way to put it, and the key word is “anger,” because the MSM’s storyline post-Katrina has been built on that emotion. But Hagerty’s reporting digs into a not-so-subtle split within the African-American church.

She starts in a logical place — the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church here in Washington, D.C., which calls itself “The Cathedral of African Methodism.” The church responded to the TV coverage of Katrina by quickly rounding up $20,000 in donations and 45,000 pounds of goods and shipping them off to Mississippi in an 18-wheeler.

This is not a big surprise, notes Haggerty, because studies show that black believers regularly give 25 percent more of their discretionary income to charities — especially church causes — than whites. The church aid flowed straight to needy people, while many other agencies were briefly stalled by forms and interview procedures.

This is where the anger comes in.

Many of the church people making these donations were, of course, moved by the images of black people suffering in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. They got mad and this motivated them. As the Rev. Ronald E. Braxton said of the storm’s fallout: “I hope that it keeps us angry, that it keeps us on alert against forces that dismantle people.”Bishop T D  Jakes and the Potters House Mass Choir   A Wing and a Prayer

But is prophetic — even political — anger the best, or the most constructive, stance for the black church to take today?

The word “today” is key, because right now that anger would be focused on President George W. Bush. Thus, the issue looming in Haggerty’s report is black church anger at other black church leaders who focus on a more positive, conciliatory approach to working with, and correcting, this White House. The big, and I mean big, example of this is Bishop T.D. Jakes at The Potter’s House in Dallas. He recently drew a big spotlight speaking at the National Cathedral service to remember those lost in Katrina. This meant he shared a spotlight, by default, with Bush.

As Haggerty notes, all of this raises a big question: “Who speaks for the black church and what kind of message will it have?”

Oh, and will those voters stay angry and solidly Democratic?

P.S. There might be a link between this story and another lurking just over the horizon (and I don’t mean Hurricane Rita). Click here and let me know what you think.

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Washington Nats say no God in baseball?

God and baseballI guess the management of the Washington Nationals didn’t share my sentiments regarding Sunday’s Washington Post feature on the Bible in baseball. Team management particularly didn’t like a section of the story in which team chapel leader Jon Moeller nodded when asked if Jewish people are doomed to hell because they don’t believe in Jesus Christ.

Our own commenter “Michael” first noted this story on the website of the Washington radio network WTOP that Jewish leaders were not pleased with this part of the Post story:

The players not only pray, but they also discuss personal matters — marital tension, addiction issues, family illnesses, financial stress — drawing sometimes surprising lessons. Church was concerned because his former girlfriend was Jewish. He turned to Moeller, “I said, like, Jewish people, they don’t believe in Jesus. Does that mean they’re doomed? Jon nodded, like, that’s what it meant. My ex-girlfriend! I was like, man, if they only knew. Other religions don’t know any better. It’s up to us to spread the word.”

A friend and fellow blogger gave me the heads up that Jon Moeller had since been suspended for his comments in the Post (the AP covers Moeller’s suspension in this story). Blogger Tim Ellsworth has notified us that he has blogged on the controversy and is promising more tomorrow.

To sum things up, Moeller has been suspended for a nod regarding a controversial subject that has been raging for centuries, the player involved has made an apology in a statement and now the team will receive a dose of negative publicity as it makes a desperate attempt for the playoffs.

But in all seriousness, the comments in the Post do have theological significance, and I wonder if the reporter realized that when he included them in his story. It’s also clear why the significance of these comments sailed right over my head. As a Protestant, I am not all that sensitive toward things that would be seen as “bringing hate into the locker room,” as one Jewish leader put it.

Whoever said religion didn’t matter in sports? The irony of this story is that the original article was based on the premise that bigtime athletes were more open about religion and teams were readily embracing it, some with the hopes that God would somehow favor their team. Now the team chapel leader has been placed on the DL and has angered Jewish leaders in Washington.

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That ’70s faith

Explo72 01A friend who called my attention to Mark Lilla’s New York Times essay (about leaving behind his faith) raised this question: Will the Times ever publish a similar essay about a person who comes to faith?

As “my former faith” essays go, Lilla’s “Getting Religion” is well above average. He builds the piece around Billy Graham’s crusade in Queens and the menagerie of anti-Graham protesters the crusade attracted. When Lilla is critical of individuals, such as an unnamed member of A True Church, it’s usually because they reflect some aspect of his days as a zealous convert to evangelical faith during the groovy 1970s: “Mr. True Church is one of those energetic types you find in every evangelical church and prayer group: the amateur scholar. I was surrounded by them in my teens and eventually became one myself. Ours was not a bookish home, and no one in my family had graduated from college.”

Lilla, a former editor of The Public Interest, now teaches at the University of Chicago.

His worst misreading of contemporary evangelical culture is in thinking that it’s bereft of serious theology:

A half-century ago, an American Christian seeking assistance could have turned to the popularizing works of serious religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, John Courtney Murray, Thomas Merton, Jacques Maritain and even Martin Buber and Will Herberg. Those writers were steeped in philosophy and the theological traditions of their faiths, which they brought to bear on the vital spiritual concerns of ordinary believers — ethics, death, prayer, doubt and despair. But intellectual figures like these have disappeared from the American landscape and have been replaced by half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery self-help books or are politically motivated. If an evangelical wants to satisfy his taste for truth today, it’s strictly self-service.

Well all right, then. The editors at Baker Publishing, InterVarsity and Zondervan should call an end to their decades-long parody of academic publishing and find other work.

Lilla is more on target when he critiques the opening act at Graham’s last American crusade:

There was no joy to be felt in Corona Park the night I was there. To my disappointment we never got around to singing “How Great Thou Art.” Instead, two Christian pop bands opened for Graham, playing their own insipid music before the television cameras, as if they were recording an MTV video. When I pulled my eyes away from the visual vortex caused by the screens, I realized that no one was singing along with them; the crowd just watched and clapped. I wanted to shout out the joyful words of Moses: “The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation!” (Exodus 15:2). Or the exhortation of the prophet Isaiah: “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth!” (42:10). But this was not an evening for the God of Sinai and the Judean desert. Nor was it an evening for the song in every believer’s heart to rise up and draw him lovingly into the mystical body of Christ. Tonight that body was plastered to its seats, each member gazing forward in private, rapt silence. Sixty thousand iPods would have had the same effect.

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