Did Cruise go OT-VII on Lauer?

Mackey2As Tom Cruise makes the media rounds to talk up both War of the Worlds and Scientology, it’s beginning to feel as though he’s reprising his role as Frank T.J. Mackey, the strutting rooster of a motivational speaker in Magnolia. By now it would be unremarkable for Cruise to order that his next befuddled interviewer “respect the Thetan.”

In a piece that ostensibly celebrated Cruise’s freewheeling appearances, TV writer Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times referred to Cruise as a “passionate, stubborn true believer” — and we all know how troublesome true believers can be. Similarly, Cruise’s argument with interviewer Matt Lauer spent considerable time on Cruise’s unequivocal opposition to psychotherapists and the drugs they prescribe:

Cruise: . . . I’m saying that drugs aren’t the answer, these drugs are very dangerous. They’re mind-altering, antipsychotic drugs. And there are ways of doing it without that so that we don’t end up in a brave new world. The thing that I’m saying about Brooke is that there’s misinformation, okay. And she doesn’t understand the history of psychiatry. She doesn’t understand in the same way that you don’t understand it, Matt.

Lauer: But a little bit of what you’re saying Tom is, you say you want people to do well. But you want them do to well by taking the road that you approve of, as opposed to a road that may work for them.

Cruise: No, no, I’m not.

Lauer: Well, if antidepressants work for Brooke Shields, why isn’t that okay?

Cruise: I disagree with it. And I think that there’s a higher and better quality of life. And I think that, promoting — for me personally, see, you’re saying what, I can’t discuss what I wanna discuss?

Lauer: No. You absolutely can.

Cruise: I know. But Matt, you’re going in and saying that, that I can’t discuss this.

Lauer: I’m only asking, isn’t there a possibility that — do you examine the possibility that these things do work for some people? That yes, there are abuses. And yes, maybe they’ve gone too far in certain areas. Maybe there are too many kids on Ritalin. Maybe electric shock —

Cruise: Too many kids on Ritalin? Matt.

Some of the best reporting on the continuing Tom Cruise saga began this morning on Salon, with James Verini’s first installment of a four-part series about Scientology.

Verini discusses whether Cruise has reached the level of Operating Thetan VII, and what that means:

According to experts and the church’s own literature, OT-VII (“OT” stands for Operating Thetan, “thetan” being the Scientology term for soul) is the penultimate tier in the church’s spiritual hierarchy — the exact details of which are fiercely guarded and forbidden to be discussed even among top members. It is where a Scientologist learns how to become free of the mortal confines of the body and is let into the last of the mysteries of the cosmology developed by the church’s longtime leader, science fiction novelist and “Dianetics” author L. Ron Hubbard. This cosmology also famously holds that humans bear the noxious traces of an annihilated alien civilization that was brought to Earth by an intergalactic warlord millions of years ago.

Lee Anne De Vette, Cruise’s publicist and sister, refused requests to comment for this article. And when asked about Cruise, Ed Parkin, vice president of cultural affairs for the Church of Scientology, said only, “We do not discuss the personal religious experiences of our members with the press.” Parkin also would not confirm or deny details of the OT teachings. Responding to questions about them, he wrote: “Scientology, which means ‘knowing how to know,’ is a religion based on the works of L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986). Scientology addresses people as immortal spiritual beings. It gives them tools they can apply to their lives to improve conditions.”

But one Scientologist who left the church in 2003 after 30 years — and who had reached the OT-VII level and become a member of the church’s governing Sea Org — said it was his understanding that Cruise was very near completing, if he had not already completed, the OT-VII level. The former Scientologist would speak to Salon only on the condition of anonymity.

A current Scientologist who has reached the level OT-V, and who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that considering the amount of time Cruise has been in the church, an OT-VII status seems probable. And Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta who has published articles on Scientology and Hollywood, also said that Cruise’s behavior strongly suggests OT-VII.

Cruise is acting as though he “feels he’s more in control over his environment and can convince more people to look into the organization,” Kent said. “In the high OT levels one supposedly gains the skills to master one’s universe. One is removing countless entities that have been holding people back. Cruise feels that he has freed himself from thousands of errant thetans, and he seems to be in a kind of euphoria he hasn’t experienced before.”

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Parsing the Supremes’ tea leaves

Supreme CourtThe pros at the Religion Newswriters Association already have one of their ReligionLink features up on the tightly decided U.S. Supreme Court decision on the 10 Commandments. To check it out, click here. Meanwhile, watch this space for the wave of links that will, in a matter of hours, pour out of Christianity Today‘s blog.

This is going to be a mucho strange story to follow in the MSM, because reporters are having a devil of time finding out if the Religious Right won or lost. And what is the impact of all this on the first open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court and, thus, on the legal future of abortion on demand? After all, this is the ultimate issue. If you don’t believe me, click here.

The split nature of the 10 Commandments decision is well stated in this early Washington Post report:

The decisions, issued by two different majorities of justices using different tests of constitutionality, are likely to continue, rather than settle, the long-running argument over when state, local and federal governments may display religious symbols or allow their display on government property.

“Split decisions make people go and fight again,” said Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization which has been fighting this particular fight for decades.

Let us know about the good and the bad in the MSM coverage in the next 24 hours. I’ll chime in again if and when I see any patterns. Who knows, maybe this decision will be impossible to get into a simple headline — period.

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Batter up

Readers of a more traditionalist bent must have winced when they read the subhed of The Economist‘s “Special report” on the future of religious activism in the United States:

Christian America’s political arm is more complex and more dynamic than it first appears. And it will be hard to stop. (Italics added.)

I soldiered on and am happy to report that it’s not all bad. There’s the usual canned history about fundamentalists and the Scopes trial, and there’s the issue of scare quotes around “Congress’s last-minute intervention to ‘save’ the life of Terri Schiavo,” but the piece as a whole is more rigorous and insightful than one had reason to expect.

The author argues that “Religious America’s switch to the right is rooted in two things: liberal over-reach and conservative organization.” On the first point:

The consistent whinge from the Christian right about “liberal activist judges” exceeding their mandate contains a kernel of truth. In the 1960s and 1970s, judges changed America from a country where every school day began with a prayer, and abortion and pornography were frowned on, to a country where school prayer was banned and both abortion and pornography were protected by the constitution.

The fact that the courts were running so far ahead of public opinion in a generally religious country bolstered the religious right in two ways. It provoked white evangelicals to join the political fray. And it persuaded all religious types to bond together. Protestants and Catholics, who used to be at loggerheads, have now found common ground, especially on abortion.

On the organization front, the report finds that religious conservatives have gotten more flexible and improved their batting average when it comes to playing hardball.

Flexible:

[Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission head Richard] Land and [Focus on the Family founder James] Dobson both personally oppose gay civil unions; but their planned federal marriage amendment does not ban them because, in Mr Land’s words, “it could then become a civil-rights issue rather than a marriage issue.”

Hardball:

This year opened with a fairly typical dance. In a pre-inaugural interview in January, Mr Bush, citing political realities, said he would not push a federal gay-marriage amendment (which needs 60 votes in the Senate to pass). The Arlington Group [an umbrella religious right coalition group] then warned the White House that “this defeatist attitude” would make it impossible for the movement to unite on other difficult issues, such as privatizing Social Security. The White House promptly said it was a priority, though it did not appear on a list of ten legislative priorities put forward by Republicans in the Senate.

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Covering the tense Vatican-China dance

It was hours before the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese government and I was, with a circle of other journalists from around the world, attending a conference on journalism and religious liberty. It was a wild and frantic time to be in what I am told is almost always a wild and frantic city.

There were many memorable discussions that night. But the remark I will always remember came from a major publisher in Hong Kong, who observed that there were really only two people in the world who were truly feared by the leaders of the mainland Chinese government — Bill Gates and Pope John Paul II. Why? One refused to cede control of almost anything that was happening in the world in terms of information and business. The other refused to cede control of the spirit and the conscience.

I thought of that while reading reporter Mark Magnier’s excellent Los Angeles Times update on the tense courtship that is under way between the Vatican and the principalities and powers in China. The story does underplay the crucial Protestant “house church” side of the religious-liberty scene in China, but that’s to be expected since it is not the focus of this lengthy report.

What stands in the way of better Vatican-Chinese relations? The usual stuff, sad to report:

In talks in Rome and Beijing, the two sides have outlined a range of possible compromises to normalize relations that seem to overcome the main sticking points, said Mario Marazziti, spokesman for the Rome-based humanitarian group Community of St. Egidio.

The talks suffered a setback when Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian attended John Paul’s funeral, but Marazziti said he believed it was only temporary.

The main elements of a compromise are now in focus, religious leaders and analysts say. The Vatican would probably end its official recognition of Taiwan and Beijing would allow Rome greater say in church affairs.

Cuba and Vietnam, also ruled by communist governments, may provide a model, experts say. For instance, instead of naming a bishop, Rome could offer three candidates, letting Beijing choose.

Church officials said many of Taiwan’s 300,000 Catholics might feel betrayed by any downgrading of relations between Taipei and Rome. But Msgr. Ambrose Madtha, the Vatican’s charge d’affaires in Taiwan, said the possibility had been floating for years, and many are used to the idea.

This kind of reporting is so difficult, for journalistic reasons that transcend shackles on reporters attempting to do private interviews with real people in China. Face it — studies show that average Americans don’t want to read much about foreign affairs and many editors, well, just don’t get religion. Thus, it is hard for reporters to sell quality MSM coverage of religious issues on the other side of the planet.

Thus, it is important to pay attention when quality stories on these issues appear — such as this report by Magnier. Bravo.

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Your Saturday PBS fun link

On Tuesday, my friend George Neumayr, executive editor of The American Spectator, was a talking head on NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. The subject: funding for PBS and NPR. Neumayr argued a) that the publicly-funded stations are dripping with liberal bias; and b) that Congress should discontinue the subsidy. The letters continue to pour in to the Spectator. For George-Neumayr-go-to-hell letters, look here. Anti-PBS (and PBS viewers) letters here. Neumayr breaks out the f word here. Outraged Media Matters coverage here. Picture of a woodpecker here.

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Nicolosi and the Times, round III

windowAnd now it is time for another episode of Barbara Nicolosi and James the New York Times reporter. Barbara is the leader of the Act One screenwriting workshops in Hollywood and one of the most witty, at times even snarky, former nuns one would ever want to meet. “Snarky” can be a good thing, right?

If you want to catch up on the arc of this mini-drama, the previous acts and a lot of related links, click here. As I said before, Nicolosi is posting her side of her recent telephone encounters with a Times reporter who is writing a story on born-again right-wingers who have an evil plan to take over Hollywood, or something like that.

Barbara, you see, is not fitting into the mold that exists in the reporter’s mindset. She is not playing along.

I think more people involved in complicated, tense journalistic encounters in the blog age might want to try this approach. Let a million transcripts bloom. In the past, I have urged people I interview — if they are worried about being quoted fairly — to use a tape recorder. Then I have a tape and they have a tape. That’s fair, right?

Anyway, let’s get to the latest installment in this series, which is unfolding at Nicolosi’s blog, Church of the Masses.

So, I got a call today from my new friend, James, the NY Times reporter who has been working on the story to unmask the secret scary vast conspiracy to funnel money from rightwing political covert ops into Christian ministries in Hollywood. He was calling to say the piece he interviewed me for is running in this Sunday’s Times — the front page of the lifestyle section. It was very nice of him to call. . . .

James: I hope you’ll be okay with this. In my article, I referred to you as “a Catholic activist.”

Barb: Forgive me, but what the heck is a Catholic activist?

James: (laughing nervously) Well, you know, somebody who is really into organizing Catholic things.

Barb: But, I don’t organize Catholic things. I am the executive director of an interdenominational non-profit –

James: Yeah. Yeah . . . I know . . . but I had to call you something.

Barb: You could have called me the executive director of an interdenominational non-profit organization.

James: Yeah. Well . . . [cough]

Let’s all watch for that story in the Sunday edition of the Times. In a perverse sort of way, I hope that it ends up being pretty good — meaning that the facts are right and there is some balance to it. Hey, it could happen.

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Bizarre Newsweek labor ghost

So you are rolling through the Newsweek story on tensions in American labor and how they may hurt the Democratic Party and then you hit this ghost — which is left unexplained by Howard Fineman, of all people. Boooo! There is, you see, a showdown looming between “Change to Win” coalition leader Andy Stern and AFL president John Sweeney. It’s complicated, so check out the story. But here is the part that spooked me:

Some say [Stern] has another agenda, which is to take over the AFL-CIO from his former SEIU colleague Sweeney, who is half a generation older and cut from a different cloth: a Dorothy Day social activist from the working-class Bronx, N.Y., versus Stern, whose grandparents were members of an exclusive German-Jewish country club and who is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.

OK, so it’s a class reference. But you can’t help but note the Catholic Worker tag on one side and the “German-Jewish” label on the other. Say what precisely is being said here?

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Another win for vague “fundamentalism”

I have been mulling over a Los Angeles Times story about Iran for several days. I get stuck on something like this every now and then. I used to work on a copy desk.

Once again, I am upset about that troublesome word “fundamentalist” being used in a way that leaves it totally undefined. Here, for example, is the headline for the online version of reporter John Daniszewski’s report from Tehran: “Iran’s Runner-Up Puts Fundamentalists in Race.”

Then we have the first two paragraphs.

TEHRAN — From his childhood as the impoverished son of a blacksmith, to his youth as a student activist against the shah of Iran, to his manhood as a soldier fighting in Iraq, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had a fierce attachment to Islam and to the teachings of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Now the 48-year-old appointed mayor of Tehran appears to have the backing of much of the military, fundamentalists and loyalists of the country’s supreme leader in a runoff election Friday with former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. If Ahmadinejad wins, it would be seen as a victory for the most fundamentalist wing of Iranian politics and a devastating setback for reformers.

Forget the outcome of the election for a minute or other recent developments. Just focus on the words. It would appear that “reformers” is the doctrinal word that is the mirror image of “fundamentalists.” Yet “fundamentalist” is defined, by context, as someone with a “fierce attachment to Islam.”

What am I missing? So, essentially, anyone who is unusually devoted to Islam is a “fundamentalist” and some who is not all that devoted is a “reformer”? So the word “fundamentalist” is bad, since it is against reform. Reform is good, since it involves a lack of strong belief in the historic doctrines of a particular faith?

“Fundamentalist” Catholic vs. “reform” Catholic? “Fundamentalist” Protestant vs. “reform” Protestant? “Fundamentalist” Anglicans vs. “reform” Episcopalians? This has all kinds of implications, doesn’t it?

So the goal of American policy — or at least the reporters covering it — is to prevent the rise of “fundamentalists” in the Islamic world and to encourage the “reformers” who are not as devout? What do Islamic religious leaders think of that? Maybe we don’t want to know the answer to that question.

Meanwhile, let us again meditate on these fading words in The Associated Press Stylebook:

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

UPDATE: Election results are in. He won.

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