"Lust" is now taboo during the Super Bowl

ford_superbowl.jpgThe past few months have been strange at the intersection of faith and advertising, beginning with the big three networks’ rejection of the United Church of Christ’s TV spots and continuing with Rolling Stone‘s temporary rejection of an ad promoting a new gender-inclusive version of the Bible.

Now Ford Motor Company has withdrawn an ad it had bought during the Super Bowl, after protests by members of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Stuart Elliott of The New York Times explains:

The withdrawn commercial, by the Dearborn office of Young & Rubicam, part of the Young & Rubicam Brands division of the WPP Group, was intended to introduce the Mark LT, a successor to the failed Lincoln Blackwood pickup. In the spot, an actor dressed as a clergyman finds a key to a Mark LT in the collection plate after services, then covetously appraises it in the parking lot — only to learn from a congregant that it was a prank by his mischievous daughter, rather than a donation.

The spot ends with the clergyman posting “Lust” as the theme of his next sermon.

“Our members find it offensive,” David Clohessy, national director of the advocacy organization complaining about the commercial, said before the withdrawal became known. His organization is called Snap, for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Mr. Clohessy, who commented after watching a version of the commercial on a Web site about Super Bowl advertising, superbowl-ads.com, complained that the actor was dressed as a Catholic or Episcopalian priest and described the child, an actor about 6 years old, as looking “shy and compliant.”

After learning that Ford Motor had withdrawn the commercial, Mr. Clohessy said the decision would “spare a lot of people a lot of pain.”

“We certainly understand that people can interpret the ad in different ways and we never alleged maliciousness,” Mr. Clohessy said. “But anything that avoids rubbing salt into a deep wound is good.”

Ford’s decision has led to outraged posts on the superbowl-ads.com message boards (sample topic: Pride and Christian idiots).

As the Chicago Tribune notes, one prominent Catholic doubts the ad would have rubbed salt into wounds:

Other groups who joined SNAP in their displeasure were the Catholic lay group Voice of the Faithful and StopFamilyViolence.org. Feminist groups were expected to join the protest Thursday.

But at least one religious organization said it was baffled by the idea that the ad was connected to the abuse scandal.

“To say that it trivializes and exploits the sex scandal is absurd,” said William Donahue of the Catholic League. “In short, it does no one any good to read into this silly ad malicious intent on the part of Ford/Lincoln.”

The San Francisco Chronicle provides this link to the ad, which seems to have disappeared. (Truckblog offers this link, which it says will work if you allow popup windows. No success for me, but maybe it’s a Mac-hostile site.)

lincoln ad.jpgA few observations:

• Would there be any irony in an Episcopal priests — the vast majority of whom are not bound by vows of celibacy — feeling lust for a vehicle? The implausibility here is that any theologically correct Episcopal priest would yearn for an ostentatious and gas-guzzling Lincoln Mark LT pickup. A sporty Toyota Prius would be another matter.

• The ad shows a pastor changing a sign at an unspecified “Community Church,” which meets in a white elephant of a building suggesting the worst of post-Vatican II architecture. But as we’ve noted in this space before, ugly church architecture is no respecter of denominations. Might any alert GetReligion reader help us figure out which church rented out its property for the ad?

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Not dead yet

Dove_1I don’t often read The Scotsman, but you have to love a newspaper that puts the “key points” up front, in bullets. Slim chance of burying the lede with this approach. In this case, the highlights are:

-¢ Pope’s condition is “no reason for alarm”

-¢ The pontiff has an inflammation of the breathing passage

-¢ Millions of Catholics flock to churches over the world to pray for his recovery

Also at the head of the piece is a “key quote” that records church historian Michael Walsh as saying, “I don’t think it is time for cardinals to start packing their bags in preparation for the next conclave just yet.”

Indeed. Time‘s account documents how news of the pope’s latest ailment took on a life of its own:

The Pope was hoarse but in high spirits at Sunday’s traditional Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square. Less than 24 hours later, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls released a statement canceling all of John Paul’s appointments for Monday because of what was described as a mild case of the flu. The plugged-in Italian press corps took a light approach to the story by noting that the 84-year-old Pope had caught the same flu bug that had already bitten half of Rome. Tuesday morning another statement cleared the Pope’s calendar for the next two days, but confirmed that there was nothing serious about his condition. But when the Italian newswire ANSA flashed word just after 11 p.m. local Rome time on Tuesday that the Pontiff had been rushed to Gemelli hospital, there was a worldwide perception that the worst had happened.

The pope, we are informed, had trouble breathing, went to the hospital, and will remain there for a few days to recover. The pontiff’s recovery seems to be proceeding at an acceptable pace. Wednesday morning, the pope “held Mass from his hospital bed after a light breakfast and coffee.”

But, of course, that doesn’t stop Time from reiterating the obvious — John Paul II is old, not immortal, and will, therefore, at some point, die — and speculating about possible candidates to warm the chair of Saint Peter.

A cynic who took a good look at the journalism business might compare us to buzzards circling in the desert. After all, we’re constantly updating obits so that we can slot them in on deadline when important and/or famous figures finally die. When the subject of the obit is really important, opinion pages often commission articles that look at his legacy or riff off of his death. In the case of the current pope, the backlog of copy must be something to behold.

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The Bill O'Reilly of MSNBC

OlbermannKeith Olbermann has been on a tear about James Dobson and Focus on the Family for several days now, mostly on his MSNBC blog, but Tuesday night he took his grievances into prime time.

While preparing to interview a United Church of Christ minister about how that denomination’s “Jesus didn’t turn people away” campaign now extends to besieged cartoon characters, Olbermann takes on the “bullying and name-calling” forces of Focus on the Family. Let’s go to the overnight transcript:

Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, I’ll be joined in a moment by the Missouri pastor who invited the cartoon character to her sermon Sunday to try to counter effect what she had described as “bullying and name calling.” First the latest on the bullying and name calling. I don’t want to go back to the beginning on this, but Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family evoked SpongeBob’s name while decrying the producers of a tolerance video for elementary school kids. He said the producers had a “pro-homosexual” agenda.

When we reported this and showed the video, Dr. Dobson’s minions created an e-mail generator on their Web site, so members who did not see our report or did not accept tolerance in public schools could spam me and four other reporters. I’ve gotten about 2,000 them so far. I’m happy to report though, that a lot of people outside that organization have now accessed the Focus on the Family Web site and begun to send e-mail of support. So, they’re running about 50/50.

Then, after tossing four softball questions to the Rev. Katie Hawker of Webster Groves, Mo., Olbermann revealed that — you may need to sit down for this news — some people who send automated e-mails are not exactly the brightest bulbs in the box:

One more note on the Focus on the Family e-mails: Please keep sending them. Besides those that express an appreciation of the complexity of this situation, some of the others are richly entertaining. Two more to share with you tonight.

From Illinois: “It came up a long time ago that SpongeBob was gay. It’s a theory, not a fact. It’s a general belief among society that SpongeBob is gay.”

And this from a correspondent in Denver, North Carolina, who described the makers of the tolerance video as “ranking right up there with child molesters,” and added, quote, “P.S.: I think Jesus said it best when he said, get behind the Satan.”

See, there’s your problem right there. It’s sort of a typo in the Bible somewhere.

As Aaron Altman (played by Albert Brooks) expressed it so memorably in Broadcast News: “Yeah, let’s never forget. We’re the real story. Not them.”

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The Osteen factor

Osteen_coverLouis Romano hits where it hurts in his profile of Joel Osteen in Sunday’s Washington Post by closing on what Osteen would call a negative note:

Indicating his priorities, Osteen’s first hire was the music director, Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff. She and songwriter Israel Houghton create all the original music for the service. “I just think we’re in a society these days that we’re so distracted or busy. . . . It’s harder to hold people’s attention,” Osteen said. “We try to package the whole service — I hate to use the word production or show.”

He knows that some people just come for the music. And that is a good thing, he said. Whatever gets them in the door.

Osteen has been on my mind recently because I recently read through his besteller, Your Best Life Now, for a future review in Christianity Today. Like Norman Vincent Peale before him, Osteen places a heavy emphasis on being “positive” rather than “negative.” Here’s how Romano describes Osteen’s positive mental attitude creed:

Osteen, 41, does not sweat or yell, or cry for sinners to repent. He preaches an energetic, New Age gospel of hope and self-help — simple Scripture-based motivational messages, notably devoid of politics and hot-button policy issues.

The strongest portion of Romano’s 1,900-word story is this description of the tensions between megachurches and sacramental congregations:

“Joel is doing it better than most,” said William Martin, a sociology professor and religion expert at Rice University. “He is purposely seeking to lower the barriers that keep people from going to church. They don’t know the hymns; they don’t have to learn the creed. It’s all there for them.”

Detractors criticize the style as “Christian-lite” — all show and platitudes and no theological depth. Osteen’s older brother Paul, a surgeon who left his practice to help the church, differs. “There is a disconnect between religion and what people need,” he said, calling some sermons in traditional churches impenetrable, “almost goofy.”

“What people want is an unchurch,” Paul Osteen said. “They don’t want pressure. Joel makes faith practical and relevant.”

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Dr. James Dobson tries to lobby the press

Bansp_1Gosh, you go on the road for a few days out into slow dial-up territory and you get behind on your daily barrage email and, lo and behold, you miss something truly interesting like this epistle.

I did not even know that Dr. James Dobson had my home email address.

Thus, I am sure he will not mind me sharing this personal letter with GetReligion’s readers. This story may have legs, so to speak.

Dear Terry,

By now you’ve undoubtedly heard about the controversy surrounding statements I made recently in which I reportedly accused a cartoon character named SpongeBob SquarePants of being “gay.” Although I never made any such comment, the media has repeated the story incessantly, to the point that the truth of the matter has been completely obscured.

Here’s what actually happened. In an address to congressional leaders last month, I briefly took the time to express my concern over a video that is being distributed to elementary schools featuring not only SpongeBob, but more than 100 additional children’s characters including the Muppets, Barney the Dinosaur, Bob the Builder, and Winnie the Pooh. The video itself is relatively harmless and is devoid of any sexual content. However, it is being incorporated into a larger campaign, created by an organization called the We Are Family Foundation, to teach “tolerance” to young children. Unfortunately, rather than simply encouraging tolerance of those who come from different cultural, religious, or socio-economic backgrounds ˆ which we believe is a worthy objective ˆ the curriculum also contains material designed to encourage young children to celebrate homosexual behavior.

To complicate the issue further, soon after this story broke, the pro-homosexual resources to which we took offense were suddenly removed from the We Are Family Foundation’s Web site. However, despite the suspicious disappearance of this material and the public denials on the part of the foundation that it was promoting homosexuality, we have extensive and detailed documentation showing that my original statements are still valid. It should be obvious that my concern lies not with SpongeBob or Big Bird or any of the other characters in the video, but with the way the We Are Family Foundation is hijacking those childhood symbols to blatantly promote the teaching of homosexuality to children in elementary school.

The February edition of my monthly letter, which is being released a few days early, explains this situation in greater detail. It can be accessed on Focus on the Family’s Web site by clicking here. I hope you will take the time to read it and get a better understanding of what has transpired. This is especially important if you are a parent with children in public school. Now, more than ever, we must be vigilant in staying abreast of what our little ones are being taught in the classroom.

James C. Dobson, Ph.D.
Founder and Chairman

Actually, this is not the first story in which embarrassing webpages have vanished once they have been sighted (or cited) by enemies on the other side of a cultural, theological or political fight. This raises an interesting question for journalists who cover the digital Culture Wars: What constitutes proof that these materials existed? If a webpage falls in the blogosphere and the mainstream press is not there, does it make a sound? I am not sure this metaphor makes any sense, but I know what I am trying to say.

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But his wife was the salt of the earth

Lewinsky In the comments thread to my last, a reader pointed out this article from The New York Times Book Review. The reviewer, one Kathryn Harrison, looks at Lot’s Daughters: Sex, Redemption, and Women’s Quest for Authority.

The book, I gather, is a meditation on the story of Abraham’s nephew Lot: how he chose to live in Sodom and Gomorrah; how he attempted to spare the Lord’s messengers by offering his own daughters to would-be assailants; how his family (minus Lot’s salty bride) escaped to a mountain cave; and how the two daughters decided to “preserve the seed of our father” by getting him good and drunk and then sleeping with him.

At least, I think that’s what the book’s about. The review is rather difficult to penetrate, and it’s hard to know where the author ends and the reviewer begins. She waxes faux elegant that “biblical genealogy traces Lot’s seed through David all the way to Jesus.”

She’s not so much wrong as way off the mark: The descendents of Abraham, not Lot, are the primary line that eventually produces a certain carpenter from Nazareth. One of Lot’s daughters is said to have produced the Moabites, and Ruth the Moabite is part of Jesus’ family tree. However, the remove is so distant as to, well, remove the point that Harrison is trying to make: “Ultimately, the hope of mankind, of ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ arrives through an act of incest.”

No, I think the point is that the “hope of mankind” is part of the same messy, blemished historical process that churns us all up before churning us back under. To say that incest is a fact of human history is one thing, but Harrison, whose memoir The Kiss is an account of the incestuous relationship between her and her estranged father, is all about blurring lines and breaking down old taboos. And, in this case, she thinks she’s found the killer argument to stump the sermons and soda-water set.

Near the end, she segues into the story of Monica Lewinsky — apparently on the assumption that while she wasn’t Bill Clinton’s daughter, she was young enough to be his daughter. Harrison writes that “Lewinsky’s refusal to present herself as a victim may be news as good for women as Monica herself was bad news for Bill, ushering in an era in which women needn’t apologize for ambition, even when it’s vulgar and destructive. After all, she didn’t.”

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From Father Richard to T.D. Jakes

Timecoverfeb7As “Meet the Evangelicals” pieces go, Time‘s cover package this week is high-quality work. It revisits familiar faces (Billy and Franklin Graham) but also introduces names that would be less familiar even in some evangelical circles (Luis Cortes, Douglas Coe). The photographs show these evangelicals in their natural elements, looking relaxed, friendly and smart.

One remark, which introduces theologian J.I. Packer, is telling:

When it comes to doctrine, Evangelicals practice the equivalent of states’ rights. Encompassing huge, philosophically distinct denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God and thousands of independent “Bible churches,” the movement has no formal arbiter.

Time‘s list reflects that states-rights assumption, including two Roman Catholics (Richard John Neuhaus — the president calls him “Father Richard” — and Sen. Rick Santorum), proponents of prosperity theology (T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer) and, in Jakes, a pastor who comes from a Oneness Pentecostal background and is affiliated with a Oneness network of churches.

The package claims that “except for his public disavowal of racial segregation, Billy Graham, 86, has stuck to soul saving and left the political proselytizing to others.” That would have been news to Richard M. Nixon, and Graham himself has said he regrets being drawn too deeply into politics by his friendship with Nixon.

Time echoes the doubts expressed in Slate about whether James Dobson is ready for political prime time:

It’s not certain, however, whether Dobson, 68, can translate his considerable influence into political muscle. White House officials consider his demands too absolutist and impractical. “We respect him greatly,” says a Bush aide, “but his political influence is not everything people might think.”

And it presents megachurch pastor Ted Haggard as having a vision beyond opposing abortion and gay marriage:

At a meeting with President Bush in November 2003, after nearly an hour of jovial Oval Office chat, the Rev. Ted Haggard, 48, got serious. He argued against Bush-imposed steel tariffs on the grounds that free markets foster economic growth, which helps the poor. A month later, the White House dropped the tariffs. Haggard wasn’t alone in faulting the policy, and he doesn’t claim to be the impetus, but as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, he gets listened to.

A companion article (“What Does Bush Owe the Religious Right?”) shows a similar nuanced understanding, closing with these observations:

Working with liberal groups, religious conservatives forced the Bush Administration to intercede in the Christian-Muslim civil war in Sudan. They also put political muscle behind global aids funding and legislation against international sex trafficking and lately are becoming increasingly worried about Third World debt.

That’s just the beginning. “You will continue to see this agenda of Christian conservatives broaden out,” says Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, and as it does, the results will sometimes be unexpected. At last week’s annual antiabortion march, activists from the National Association of Evangelicals drew quizzical looks as they paraded under a banner reading stop mercury poisoning of the unborn. It was a protest against water pollution by coal-burning utilities — a cause Ralph Nader or Al Gore would also support. “You can build from the left and build from the right and get something done,” Brownback says. Which, in the end, may be what having power is all about.

The editors of Time show this week that it’s possible to depict evangelicals’ political and theological diversity without staging another name-calling argument between Jerry Falwell and Jim Wallis. Good for them.

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Hey, Dallas, worship is news, too

Arinze_2Here is a principle that I have tried to teach my journalism students in the decade since I left the newsroom and took a full-time gig in a college classroom. All together now: It is better to interview the person who is sitting in front of you rather than the person that you wish was sitting in front of you.

I thought about this when reading the Dallas Morning News’ very short interview with an important member of the Vatican hierarchy — Cardinal Francis Arinze. I am sure reporter Jeffrey Weiss asked the Nigerian-born prince of the church precisely the questions his editors wanted him to ask. I also imagine he asked other questions that did not make it into this, to me, amazingly short article. So I hesitate to focus this little post on what Weiss did or didn’t do.

The headline leads us into the problem: “Cardinal sits down for a rare interview.” Why are interviews with Arinze rare? That is the lead:

Cardinal Francis Arinze was the Vatican’s point man for interreligious outreach for 18 years. Yet, he is famously reluctant to be interviewed.

Partly, that’s said to be tied to his impatience with secular reporters who badger him about his chances of ascending to the papacy. The 72-year-old Nigerian-born cardinal is on any short list of candidates to succeed John Paul II.

Well, you know that old Vatican saying: Men who go into conclaves as future popes come out as cardinals. So there is no surprise that Arinze doesn’t like talking about that question. Yet, is the news what he won’t talk about or what he will talk about? The Dallas Morning News article also makes it clear that the editors consider the stuff of the cardinal’s old job — head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue — to be newsworthy.

But what about Arinze’s new job, as head of head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of Sacraments? After all, the cardinal was in Dallas for a conference on liturgy. Well, it turns out that liturgy is considered newsworthy — if it has an impact on American politics.

Despite the internal focus of his current job, Cardinal Arinze thrust himself into last year’s American presidential campaign when he issued a statement from the Vatican saying Catholic politicians who unambiguously support abortion are “not fit” to receive Communion.

Democratic candidate John Kerry, a Catholic, had said that he was personally opposed to abortion but supported the legal right of a woman to obtain one. Someone who publicly embraces a particular faith has an obligation to live in accord with that faith, the cardinal said. . . .

“A person should be clear on what that person’s religion teaches . . . and make an effort to live it,” he said. “It demands sacrifice. But every student or . . . athlete who wants to win in the Olympic Games knows that sacrifice is necessary if you want a good result.”

I’m curious: Did the state of John Kerry’s soul come up at the Dallas conference? I’m curious: What did the cardinal say at the Dallas conference, to Catholics in Dallas, about their lives at their own altars? We never find out.

I would like to know and, I suspect, that what the cardinal said would have been considered newsworthy to a surprising number of local and national readers. I say this because, in my 16 or so years writing my Scripps Howard column, I have found that columns about worship — especially music — draw an unusually high number of responses from readers. And there are all kinds of controversies out there about liturgy (see this traditionalist site). These kinds of controversies even take place in Dallas.

In other words, I am just as interested — more, actually — about what the cardinal had to say about Texans going to confession and receiving Communion than I am in the state of Kerry’s pilgrimage. Perhaps the same is true of readers in Texas. I am just as interested in what the cardinal came to Dallas to say as I am in what he did not come to Dallas to say. Does that make sense?

My thanks to Theodor Gauss for his permission to reprint a photograph from his webpage about the cardinal’s visit to Heidelberg during the Christmas season of 2003.

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