Major Lott's Law violation?

elmo.jpgI wish John Tierney and Jacques Steinberg had supplied more info in their recent New York Times article on PBS. The piece begins with a pretty good lede — “It was no accident that PBS found itself turning to Elmo, the popular Sesame Street character, to lobby on Capitol Hill this week. There were not many options” — but then drops it without explanation. Google and Nexis were of little help.

I wanted the information to test my hypothesis about the default judgment of human-puppet dustups. That is, “Whenever you debate puppets you lose.” We saw this clearly in Newt Gingrich’s then-quixotic attempt to stuff Big Bird and now we see PBS trying to fan the old flames in order to stave off budget cuts or restrictions of spectrum sale or further Republicanization.

The problem is this: Different constituencies want the web of public broadcast stations loosely organized under the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to do different things. Liberals want cutting-edge investigative journalism and documentaries; conservatives want some balance in the political debate and for PBS not to distribute lesbian rabbit cartoons; pledge drive folks want more British sitcoms; corporations want the “good citizenship” stamp that sponsorship confers, but they don’t want to pay as much for it as they once did.

PBS is going to Whitmanesque lengths to accommodate these requests (witness, for instance, Tucker Carlson’s weekly PBS show, which is actually pretty OK) but it probably won’t be enough to secure much more funding from Congress. In response to the pressures of this impossible Mr. Fantastic act, Pat Mitchell, current president of PBS, plans to step down next year.

Tierney and Steinberg report that PBS wants to auction off some of the spectrum rights after the stations have made the leap to high-definition television, but conservatives inside and outside of Congress are skeptical of allowing this. As Tim Graham of the Media Research Center put it, “They want to create an empire that does not have to answer to the Congress or the people.”

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Magic bullets, stalagmites and The Passion

passion.jpgAnyone who studies conflicts between conservative Christians and Hollywood — think SpongeBob and his co-conspirators — knows that the former tend to go nuts when they see the latter producing material that they think will be harmful to (a) America, (b) their beliefs or both.

In the world of mass-media theory, this means that cultural conservatives often buy into what many call “magic-bullet theory,” the belief that one powerful media signal can lead one person to commit one act. People try to prove this kind of cause-and-effect relationship all the time and it is next to impossible to do. There are always too many other factors at work. Take free will, for example.

This doesn’t mean that media signals are not important. Many people accept what some call a “stalagmite theory” approach, which argues that many media signals, over time, can be shown to have some kind of impact — shown in statistics –n on a culture. People who spend millions of dollars on ad campaigns that start with the SuperBowl tend to accept this theory.

I bring this up because of an interesting article that was featured at Beliefnet the other day, titled “Did ‘The Passion’ Fulfill Its Promise?” Here is author Kimberly Winston’s lead:

A year ago, Mel Gibson’s much anticipated, highly feared and loudly lauded film “The Passion of the Christ” debuted nationwide. And while the film was predicted to usher in everything from a massive Christian revival to an epidemic of anti-Semitism, only one forecast has come entirely true — Mel Gibson and his company, Icon Productions, made a fortune, taking in $370 million for a movie that cost only $30 million to make.

[Read more...]

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Finding typos: Best correction of the year (so far)?

nemo_1.jpgOne of my all-time favorite editors, the late Ralph Looney of the Rocky Mountain News, used to say that he was never amazed when errors made it into the newspaper. He was amazed that the typical daily newspaper contains as few errors as it does.

This does not mean that errors are not serious business.

Heaven forbid. Nothing makes turns off dedicated readers more than seeing their daily newspaper mangle the facts in a story that is especially important to them. This is one reason the Borg here at GetReligion believes it is good to have Godbeat reporters with experience and training on this very, very complicated beat.
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When church buildings die

DarkChurch.jpgG. Jeffrey MacDonald of The Christian Science Monitor has tapped into a goldmine of a topic: What happens to churches when they must be sold to people who have something other than worship in mind.

MacDonald’s story is longer on theory than on examples of misdirected new uses for church buildings, but he understands what’s at stake emotionally:

So sensitive is the territory that even the most respectable of reuses can stir up hard feelings.

For instance, some years ago in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a Baptist congregation outgrew its building and sold it to buy a new one. But those who remember worshiping inside still haven’t accepted that someone turned their church into a private home, according to Lindsay Jones, a religious architecture scholar at Ohio State University.

[Read more...]

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Firing up TypeKey

As of today GetReligion has moved to a new server, as the editors have hoped to do for many months now. We’re happy about this move because it means we’ll begin using the Movable Type publishing platform (from the folks at Six Apart, who created TypePad, our host for just over a year now).

Movable Type will give us greater flexibility, and it will require that we learn a few new skills. I’ll apologize in advance for whatever glitches affect our copy and images as we adjust to walking without the same level of handholding that TypePad provides.

One other welcome change in this move is that we’ll begin using TypeKey, which is Six Apart’s authentication service for blog comments. That means you’ll need to use a confirmed email address to register at TypeKey. It also means, if all works as planned, that we will not need to post your email address on the blog.

Please forgive the inconvenience we’ve created with this transition, and we hope you find it worth the trouble.

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Obligatory Valentine's Day post

heart.jpgI never suspected I would have anything in common with Hindu hardliners, but then I read this report, titled “Hindu Hardliners Burn Valentine Cards.”

The story from New Delhi begins by informing us that “nearly 50″ representatives of a group called Shiv Sena “burned Valentine’s Day cards and posters in the Indian capital on Monday, protesting the international day of love that they say imposes Western values on India’s youth.”

This was actually a restrained protest, as these things go. “In the past,” the AP reports, “Hindu nationalists have ransacked shops selling cards and harassed young lovers seen holding hands in public.” This time, protesters made due with burning their own cards and chanting slogans. Their protest was cordoned off by police and they were prevented from “marching through the sprawling Delhi University campus.”

In fact, it must have been a downer for some protesters, who had to watch in horror as “young students continued to move around exchanging flowers and cards.”

The local chapter head of Shiv Sena charged that multinational companies were promoting Valentine’s Day to earn money off of the kids’ cheap sentiments. He warned: “This is against Hindu culture and corrupts India’s youth.”

No argument from this quarter, but I’m not sure that angry public demonstrations are the best way to go. I mean, if book burning ends up promoting free speech, just imagine what monster could rise from the ashes of those Valentine’s Day cards.

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Christ-haunted GQ

creationfest.jpgGQ + CCM = Laff riot.

At least that’s the formula I would expect. In a PR release on Jan. 18, GQ added to my dread that barrels of snark would be on tap: “Rock music used to be a safe haven for degenerates and rebels — until it found Jesus. Now Christian-rock concerts have become a quiet force in America drawing worship and money and swaying the devoted. GQ correspondent John Jeremiah Sullivan went deep into Creation, the genre’s biggest annual festival, and found that the Lord rocks in mysterious ways.”

In his opening sentences, Sullivan shows just how easy it would be to phone it in:

I’d stand at the edge of the crowd and take notes on the scene, chat up the occasional audience member (“What’s harder — homeschooling or regular schooling?”), then flash my pass to get backstage, where I’d rap with the artists themselves: “This Christian music — it’s a phenomenon. What do you tell your fans when they ask you why God let Creed break up?” The singer could feed me his bit about how all music glorifies Him, when it’s performed with a loving spirit, and I’d jot down every tenth word, inwardly smiling. Later that night, I might sneak some hooch in my rental car and invite myself to lie with a prayer group by their fire, for the fellowship of it. Fly home, stir in statistics. Paycheck.

Instead, Sullivan has written an 11,000-word essay, in which he pokes fun at himself (as he drives a 29-foot RV to the Creation Festival), makes new friends with a group of young men from West Virginia and faces his conflicted past as a onetime believer.

Sullivan has some fun at Creation participants’ expense, but it’s not vicious and much of it is funny:

Their line of traffic lurched ahead, and an old orange Datsun came up beside me. I watched as the driver rolled down her window, leaned halfway out, and blew a long, clear note on a ram’s horn.

Oh, I understand where you are coming from. But that is what she did. I have it on tape. She blew a ram’s horn. Quite capably. Twice. A yearly rite, perhaps, to announce her arrival at Creation.

. . . For their encore, Jars of Clay did a cover of U2′s “All I Want Is You.” It was bluesy.

That’s the last thing I’ll be saying about the bands.

Or, no, wait, there’s this: The fact that I didn’t think I heard a single interesting bar of music from the forty or so acts I caught or overheard at Creation shouldn’t be read as a knock on the acts themselves, much less as contempt for the underlying notion of Christians playing rock. These were not Christian bands, you see; these were Christian-rock bands. The key to digging this scene lies in that one-syllable distinction. Christian rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off of evangelical Christians. It’s message music for listeners who know the message cold, and, what’s more, it operates under a perceived responsibility — one the artists embrace — to “reach people.” As such, it rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability (the artists would say clarity), which in turn means parasitism. Remember those perfume dispensers they used to have in pharmacies — “If you like Drakkar Noir, you’ll love Sexy Musk”? Well, Christian rock works like that. Every successful crappy secular group has its Christian off-brand, and that’s proper, because culturally speaking, it’s supposed to serve as a stand-in for, not an alternative to or an improvement on, those very groups.

But Sullivan takes the greatest editorial chance in revealing that he’s an ex-evangelical who still can’t quite forget Christ:

Why should He vex me? Why is His ghost not friendlier? Why can’t I just be a good Enlightenment child and see in His life a sustaining example of what we can be, as a species?

Because once you’ve known Him as God, it’s hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being — the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things — the pull of that won’t slacken.

And one has doubts about one’s doubts.

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Constantine, faith, reality and politics

Constantine_1One of the classes I teach at Palm Beach Atlantic University is called “Exegete the Culture” and it focuses on the religious content of popular culture and the influence of mass media on the church. The class is built on the concept of the “signal,” defined as a single piece of popular culture that addresses a topic of eternal interest to people of faith.

Once you have found a signal that is of interest to the people you are trying to reach, the next step is to figure out what the creator of the signal was actually trying to say. I call this “finding the secular subject.” Once you have found this big-button topic, you can move on to applying the teachings of your faith to that same subject.

The problem, of course, is that it is often hard to find out precisely what some of the artists of popular culture are trying to say. Often, it seems that they do not know. I mean, “knowing” is such an old-fashioned concept, you know? Also, some artists are not interested in telling potential ticket buyers what the signal is all about. In the end, it is often hard to find interviews with the artists in which they clearly express what they are thinking.

But it’s fun to hunt. More ministers need to try doing this, before stepping into pulpits and unloading.

I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s hard for students to stop and think about the contents of their entertainment. It’s just a movie. Right? It’s just a TV show. It’s just a song. Why ruin it by taking it so seriously? This stuff doesn’t affect us. Right?

At the moment, many of my students are interested in Constantine, the latest franchise to spin off from the world of comic books. It’s a fable about heaven, hell, angels, demons, relics, rites and a shotgun shaped like a cross. I wrote about this recently for Scripps Howard. The lead on that column: Hell looks really cool, when seen through a Hollywood lens.

I was amazed at the degree to which some of the writers and artists were interested in the spiritual content of their film, but not anxious to address the central question: What were you trying to say? Then again, perhaps they knew that what they were trying to sell might now be all that popular in certain American zip codes. This is part of a larger story that we have tried to follow here at GetReligion, even before the fall of Alfie and the rise of The Incredibles.

What do I mean? Check out the end of this New York Times interview with actress Tilda Swinton, who plays the gender-neutral angel Gabriel in Constantine. The angel goes insane. Why? Perhaps he/she was lashing out at the reality-based community?

Hang on, this gets complicated.

Gabriel is not a baddy. He becomes insane because he starts to think that if you wrap yourself in God’s clothes you can do anything you want, and it ain’t true. There is something insane about a lack of doubt. Doubt, to me anyway, is what makes you human, and without doubt even the righteous lose their grip not only on reality but also on their humanity. The idea that Gabriel takes things into his own hands, decides that the way to get the most souls into heaven is to torch the place, is extremely modern.

Q. How so?

In that the attitude of righteousness is a reason for pretty much anything now. What’s shocking is how easily that’s peddled today. It’s like Gabriel’s rationale. I don’t remember the exact lines, but it’s essentially, “My job is to get as many souls as possible to heaven, and I have noticed that you are at your most spiritually open when the place is in flames, so I’m going to torch the joint.” It’s a beautiful piece of reasoning, and it’s a righteous argument, but it’s terrifying.

Q. Religious absolutism can be found in many places.

True, there is all sorts of religious extremism all over the place, but the reason for this partly has to do with the fascist attitudes and language of absolutism coming from Washington. It’s challenging for people outside of America that Bush was re-elected. It means we’re all going to have to work a lot harder to understand what so many more Americans than we thought really want. It’s an identity shift in our minds about America and maybe for many Americans as well.

Q. And you think this film will resonate along those lines? . . .

I don’t think there is any way that it won’t. Actually, there were a couple of moments in my speeches that were more politically on the nose, and they were cut, and I’m actually glad they were. We don’t want to date the film, but also we don’t want to alienate people who need to do new thinking about this. We’re not only preaching to the converted, but we also want to speak to those people who think they know what righteousness is.

Who says Hollywood stars are not interested in evangelism?

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