No complexity, please, we’re Americans

WelcomeNeighborhood2Based on the previews ABC already had shown for Welcome to the Neighborhood, it was going to be a touchy-feely and maybe even pleasant version of a marathon course in cultural diversity. Sure, the premise had a creepy whiff of exploitation, which set people of various cultural backgrounds in competition for a house in a white suburb near Austin, Texas. Still, it held out the promise of crumbling stereotypes and group hugs and, well, at least a few hours of transcending the culture wars that even some of us culture-war-vultures sometimes find wearying.

Reuters, among others, reports today that ABC — which joined the two other major networks in turning away the United Church of Christ’s famous velvet-rope church ad — has backed away from Welcome to the Neighborhood:

“Our intention with ‘Welcome to the Neighborhood’ was to show the transformative process that takes place when people are forced to confront preconceived notions of what makes a good neighbor, and we believe the series delivers exactly that,” Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC said in a statement carried by Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.

“However, the fact that true change only happens over time made the episodic nature of this series challenging, and given the sensitivity of the subject matter in early episodes, we have decided not to air the series at this time.”

Daily Variety said ABC could eventually air a condensed version so that the feel-good ending comes sooner.

Groups ranging from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the National Fair Housing Alliance to the conservative Family Research Council had raised concerns about the show, the papers said.

GLAAD was concerned that the gay couple might get grilled by the neighbors, while the Family Research Council was worried that the conservative neighbors might be ridiculed for their Christian beliefs.

GLAAD expressed its mixed feelings about the show’s shelving in this statement. The Associated Press also reported that the Family Research Council expressed concerns about the show. As of early Thursday afternoon, FRC had not posted a response to ABC’s announcement.

Reuters being what it is, its report compared Welcome to the Neighborhood‘s plight with that of The Reagans, the soap-opera treatment of President Reagan’s career and family life that CBS bumped over to its Showtime cable channel.

Somebody, please, send out a distress signal to the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy crew. It sounds like at least a few groups need remedial lessons in humor, irony, dramatic tension and storytelling.

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Like a virgin . . . who won’t shut up

This is going to be a tough one. My assignment is to give some comment on Jeff Sharlet’s “here come the virgins” piece from the last issue of Rolling Stone, and I suddenly wish that magazine hadn’t taken this blog’s advice.

Sharlet’s is the sort of piece that everybody — and I mean everybody — will filter through the high-magnification lens of personal experience. As a result, anything I write is likely to be sifted for double entendres, prudery, libertinism, or hints at my own sex history.

Bother.

Well, I admit nothing and deny everything, which is both less and more than I can say for the subjects of Sharlet’s analysis.

At one point, our scribe finds himself in a bar, at a birthday party, surrounded by a bunch of twentysomething true-love-waits types. Sharlet wants to interview one of girls and he asks his guide, “How should I broach the subject?”

The response: “Just tell her you want to talk about her virginity.”

The whole article is an interesting mix of Johnny-on-the-spot reporting and theorizing about the deeper meaning of it all. Sharlet noticed that an awful lot of youngish Christians are rediscovering and reinventing old ideals of virginity and chastity, and so he decided to ask them about it.

The resulting Rolling Stone piece is a sort of answer, but the author gets a few things wrong and underplays some important elements of the story.

Wrong: Sharlet tries to draft James Dobson into the anti-masturbation movement when Dobson has clearly signaled that he is not onboard that train. And he uses fundamentalist as more of a catch-all veneer than a precise description. I mean, call me crazy [You're crazy -- ed.] but the interviewee who refuses to say that anal-sex-only enthusiasts aren’t virgins because he doesn’t want to get caught up in “legalism” . . . just cannot be a fundamentalist. Trust me on this.

Underplayed: Sharlet’s vision of why a new abstinence movement has sprouted is heavy on theological inquiry — decent theological inquiry, mind you — but light on more mundane explanations. I grew up in the Eighties and Nineties as part of the subculture that Sharlet likes to play anthropologist to; the true-love-waits thing seemed as much a response to the AIDS crisis and related spikes in STDs as a theological innovation.

Speaker Josh McDowell (pictured), in particular, used to scare the hell out of young audiences with the message that premarital sex could kill them or render them infertile. The newer crop of preachers and speakers has come up with different justifications, but the old anguished struggle is still there and the response to kids getting hot and bothered hasn’t changed all that much: This is bad for you; it could lead to physical or spiritual death, or both; abstain and trust in Jesus and your fellow believers to get you through.

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What James hath wrought in the Times

I have been watching for several days to see what kind of online reaction screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi might offer to the long-awaited piece in The New York Times about the state of covert right-wing operations in Hollywood. Alas, Barbara appears to be away from her computer keyboard for a few days. Must be talking strategy with Vatican operatives.

As noted in the comments section on the previous chapter in this saga, reporter James Ulmer’s “On the Right Side of the Theater Aisle” came out over the weekend.

The story confirms several shocking facts.

(1) There are quite a few people on the right (as on the left) who want to make agenda-driven documentaries that club people over the head. What this has to do with mainstream entertainment is not explained in the article. Thus, it is best to ignore all of the references in Ulmer’s piece to people who want to make documentaries.

(2) Many people of faith are convinced that Hollywood doesn’t understand them. Most are upset about this.

(3) There are cultural conservatives/people of faith in the film industry who want to learn how to do a better job of working in mainstream Hollywood on its own terms, producing products that millions of people want to buy (as opposed to lots of family movies featuring babies). These people are even, for example, willing to work with Disney to do so. These religious believers think it is time to stop whining and learn how to do a better job of telling good stories.

That’s it folks. So, here is what ended up in print about Nicolosi and her Act One army, including that “Catholic activist” thing and its link to a meeting in California — organized by the Wilberforce Forum and some other culturally conservative movie lovers in Washington, D.C. — to discuss issues of faith and entertainment.

A co-host for the Santa Monica gathering was Act One, a nonpolitical group of Christian screenwriters based in Los Angeles and led by Barbara Nicolosi, a Catholic activist and former nun. Ms. Nicolosi said one of the goals of the meeting was “for Wilberforce to find some intersection of policy and story ideas” for future Hollywood content.

Ms. Nicolosi added that while religiously motivated filmmakers can “obviously find it difficult enough” working in Hollywood, “some of us think we should stop calling ourselves Christians, it’s become such a political liability here.” Building political connections hasn’t been easy, either. “The Christians in Washington just don’t trust us, because we’re part of the Great Satan called Hollywood,” she said.

Here is Nicolosi’s first somewhat sarcastic reaction to the Times piece:

If you really want the lowdown on all the top-secret, undercover, back theocratic rooms of Christian Hollywood, click HERE for your own top-secret copy of our clandestine plans and scary agenda. Our undercover secret publisher is Baker Books, and we are hiding the project on Amazon.com at rating #198,463. All the rest of you who are wondering how to facilitate the secret scary doings of the Church in Hollywood, please click above and order our book.

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The creeping menace of diverse voices

BillKellerSometimes you know you’re doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. Other times, you know it’s right because you’re ticking off the right people.

Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, might take some comfort from the quality of responses to his memo (PDF) announcing that the Times will cover religion more seriously.

Keller sent his memo to all Times staff in response to an earlier report (PDF) by the Times’ Credibility Committee. (Terry commented on the committee’s report in this post.)

Like the report, Keller’s memo mostly addresses questions of responding to the Times’ critics and assuring that anonymous sources are both necessary accurate and preventing errors (or correcting them punctually).

Here’s what Keller wrote about the importance of giving more serious attention to religion:

Of course, diversifying the range of viewpoints reported — and understood — in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. This is second nature for many of our reporters, especially on the national staff, and there have been some exceptional successes — the coverage of conservatives by David Kirkpatrick (including the splendid piece on evangelicals in the class series) and Jason DeParle, and a number of recent Magazine pieces. I intend to keep pushing us in this direction.

I also endorse the committee’s recommendation that we cover religion more extensively, but I think the key to that is not to add more reporters who will write about religion as a beat. I think the key is to be more alert to the role religion plays in many stories we cover, stories of politics and policy, national and local, stories of social trends and family life, stories of how we live. This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.

Editor & Publisher ran a concise report on the memo Monday.

Southbound Cinema offered this commentary:

The aim, [Keller] wrote, is “to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation.”

In other words, Rush Limbaugh has spent fifteen years whipping idiots up into a frenzy, making people perceive bias that isn’t there. We helped beat the drum for the Iraq war, but we’re still a favorite whipping boy for jack-offs who take Fox News and the Washington Times seriously.

So, we give up. Here’s more right-wing shit on our editorial page. Here’s a bunch of religious crap that isn’t news.

Here’s the end of the end of the New York Times.

Screw em.

And Echidne of the Snakes wrote this:

Let’s see. Why would the New York Times want to diversify its coverage of news by hiring more ex-military, more Evangelical Christians and more Republicans? For that’s what the bland statement above boils down to. Isn’t this just a way to pretend that one is increasing diversity while hiring more and more white men? Just consider the recent hirings among the opinion columnists: John Tierney and David Brooks. We don’t need women columnists on the Times. One is plenty, even if she’s on leave. After all, we have John Tierney telling us that women can’t compete, and all the columnist boys telling us what their wives think.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that both the Credibility Committee and Keller cited these examples of how the Times has sometimes painted with too broad a brush (quoting from the committee’s report):

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist “inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme.” We often apply “religious fundamentalists,” another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

We particularly slip into these traps in feature stories when reporters and editors think they are merely presenting an interesting slice of life, with little awareness of the power of labels. We need to be more vigilant about the choice of language not only in the text but also in headlines, captions and display type.

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What we have here is a reindeer ruling

Readers who want a quick way to evaluate today’s MSM coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the Ten Commandment cases can follow these simple directions.

Go to Google News and type in the words “Ten Commandments,” followed by the word “reindeer.” This will help you find the reporters who listened carefully and realized that, in church-state studies terms, what we have here is another reindeer ruling.

And what, you ask, is that? Here is a clip from the Los Angeles Times report by David G. Savage that nails the crucial facts:

In the past, the court has struggled to decide disputes involving religious displays. Often, the outcome turned on trivial details. For example, the court in 1984 upheld a city’s display of a manger scene during the Christmas season, but only because it included reindeer and colored lights. Several years later, it struck down a more solemn depiction of Christ’s birth that sat during the Christmas season on the steps of Pittsburgh’s City Hall.

In other words, public displays of religion are acceptable. However, they must feature a number of religious items displayed in such a way as to communicate that the various faiths are of equal truth and stature.

The tension is obvious. The goal is to show that all religions are equal in the eyes of the state. The problem is that it is hard to do this without drifting into a state-funded proclamation that all religions are equal in the eyes of God. Religious toleration is not the same thing as theological toleration. The state must avoid the latter because it is, well, a theological belief that cannot be backed with tax dollars.

A few newspapers caught the reindeer angle. Many did not. Washington Post columnist George Will dug into this angle in his op-ed piece, under the headline “Thou Shalt Split Hairs.” The massive opening paragraph captures the mood felt by many church-state lawyers on both sides of this dispute:

The Supreme Court rendered two more hairsplitting, migraine-inducing decisions yesterday about when religious displays on public property do and do not violate the First Amendment protection against “establishment” of religion. In a case from Texas, where a Ten Commandments monument stands outside the state capitol, the court, splintered six ways from Sunday, said: We find no constitutional violation. The second case came from Kentucky, where the Commandments displayed in several courthouses are surrounded by historical symbols and documents — e.g., copies of the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Star Spangled Banner — to comply with the “reindeer rule,” more about which anon. Yesterday the court recoiled from Kentucky’s displays, saying, they are unconstitutionally motivated by a “predominately religious purpose.” Not enough reindeer?

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Why God made bishops

I think it is safe to say that this story represents the end of the Romanian convent-from-hell episode. Bishop Corneliu Barladeanu stepped up and did what bishops are supposed to do — protect the faith. You know things are totally out of control when the nuns start attacking a bishop, attacking as in physical assault. Here are a few more interesting details from a wire update:

The church, which is faced with a shortage of priests, had granted Corogeanu the right to work as a priest, despite the fact that he had not completed his theological studies, Barladeanu said. He added the church now planned to introduce psychological tests for men entering the monastic life. The Holy Trinity convent was built in 2001 by a lawyer and had not been sanctified by the Orthodox Church, Barladeanu added.

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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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