That Incredibles paranoia is still out there

mr incredible2Quite a few of you out in GetReligion land have joined me in the search for liberal paranoia about the smash hit status of The Incredibles.

Keep it up. I think the religion ghost in this is going to break loose sooner or later. At the same time, our comments pages on that last post includes more than a few raves about this film by progressive readers. Good for you.

The way I see it, it is impossible for a piece of pop culture to be identified as a Culture Wars zone without religious/moral issues getting involved. If you have doubts about the Culture Wars status of this Pixar sermonette, check out this recent essay from the London Times, with the lively headline “Pow! It’s an Incredible victory for morality.”

Writing from New York City, reporter Sarah Baxter notes:

After the re-election of President George W Bush by voters who ranked moral issues above terrorism, the economy and Iraq, the hit film “The Incredibles” has caught the national mood.

Just as Bush supporters believe that the president will always follow his conscience, so will Mr. Incredible, the beefy family man who cannot be forced to punch beneath his weight for long, and his wife Elastigirl, who bends but does not snap under pressure. It is as if Hollywood had found the perfect vehicle for the Republican-voting “red” states.

All of the usual parts of the movie are interpreted in all of the usual ways. Baxter also notes the box-office failure of the sexual-revolution tract Alfie, which is leading to more tears and second-guessing on the Hollywood left. But come to think of it, aren’t there enough blue-zone ticket buyers to have made this R-rated romp a hit?

But back to The Incredibles, which is said to be

(Red) state through and through. It opens with a pro-life condemnation of suicide and goes on to attack tort lawyers, whose powers Bush promised to curtail during the election campaign. . . . “Yes, this is a superhero action movie about the sanctity of marriage,” the National Review critic exulted. “As Mr Incredible’s daughter tells her brother, ‘Mom and dad’s lives could be in danger — or worse: their marriage.’”

Now I realize that blue-zone people have morals and marriages, too. What fascinates me is the news media’s perceptions of this film and the company that made it. Might this whole red-friendly image thing become a factor in the tense Pixar dance with Disney? That is a major, major story on the left coast.

I mean, check out this final quote from the London Times:

Liberals are dismayed by the cultural hijacking of a medium that they had once owned. Ted Rall, a newspaper cartoonist, said: “It’s kind of ironic that superheroes now have these fascist, right-wing connotations. The right has stolen our flag and our superheroes, too.”

He added: “I would be in favour of Empathy Man. The man who plants the seeds of empathy into the cold, stony heart of the average red-state American.”

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America needs more coffee shops and fewer churches?

Coffee_1This is a minor little lifestyles feature from last week, but it is still bugging me. There is a ghost in here, methinks. The topic is “third places,” which reporter Sherry Stripling of the Seattle Times defines as:

Today, instead of face-to-face encounters that help what Oregon poet Ingrid Wendt calls “keeping the human spirit in repair,” we communicate by computer, by talk radio or by finger on the freeway.

When we wonder at the divisions of our society, we need look no further, some social observers say, than at the loss of what’s been called “third places” — safe, neutral gatherings spots.

The corner store, the local pub, the coffee shop that doesn’t involve a long car ride. “Third places” cultivate deeper support and a broader range of ideas than you find at your first place (home) or second place (work).

The whole idea, of course, is that this is where people bump into other people who are different and they have nice, friendly, red-on-blue conversations in which divergent points of view are discussed and no one ever gets bent out of shape. This is where closed minds have a chance to become open minds. You got it? Think “Cheers.”

Stripling quotes Ray Oldenburg, author of “The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of the Community” as saying that third places should be:

* Cheap or free

* Close to home or work so you go there regularly

* Amenable to conversation

* A second home for old and new friends, even if it’s just the bartender

* Playful

You can probably figure out where I am going with this. The article is on to something, of course. Modern mass media and zoning laws have killed true neighborhood bars and greasy spoons, even in many American small towns. I have heard rumors that the very red-zone city of Fort Worth still has lots of neighborhood bars and, I would assume, Seattle remains the national capital of coffee sanctuaries.

But something is missing from this article, something major — religious institutions. Anyone who has ever lived in the heart of the Bible Belt knows that there is a Baptist church on every other corner and the Methodists are on every third corner. For many, many people these are third places. Maybe churches fill this role for a different class of people than those featured in this Seattle story. Then again, perhaps coffee is the only remaining sacrament in the Pacific Northwest.

It is also clear that these third places are somewhat idealized, for Stripling and the people she quotes. They may even be anti-churches. Note these comments by Seattle University professor Mara Adelman:

Just look at the polarization of Republicans and Democrats on a whole range of social issues, says Adelman, an associate professor in Seattle University’s Department of Communication. She’s studied the benefits of “weak ties” — the people you meet regularly at the dog park, the coffee shop, the bus stop.

The “strong ties” in our lives — family, friends, workmates — tend to be “birds of a feather,” Adelman says. They have certain expectations of how we’ll think or behave. The “weak ties” provide freedom of self-expression to test out new ideas — “and then you get to say good night and go home.”

Without third places, she says, “you can’t get into the gray areas and complexity.”

Now, it is true that churches — blue churches and red churches — have become some of the most birds-of-a-feather institutions in American life. But somehow I suspect that they still play a major role in public life for millions of normal Americans. Last time I checked, coffee shops and bars are not protected in the U.S. Constitution.

It is interesting that churches play no role in the Seattle article at all. Zip. Nada. Look it up.

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When gods drank human blood

Btc

Retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters has been a byline to watch for since he wrote a famous article for the Winter 2001 issue of Parameters, the deepthink journal of the U.S. Army War College. Titled "Stability, America’s Enemy," the wide-ranging piece argued that the U.S.’s strategic insistence on maintaining a superficial peace by keeping foreign regimes intact was misguided.

Of course, that’s the broadest and dumbest outline possible (I encourage GetReligion readers with strategic geopolitical concerns to give it a read) but the point is, Peters’ creative thinking, his vast knowledge, and his clear, bold prose make it a good bet that you won’t go wrong by reading a piece with his byline attached. You probably will not agree with everything he argues but you’ll go away with something to ponder.

Case in point: He penned an op-ed for the Wednesday edition of USA Today titled "Nothing Islamic about human sacrifice." The piece begins by cataloguing violent, horrific acts that we group under the banner of Islamic terrorism, and then says that we are wrong to do so. We are wrong, Peters says, because, while these men "quote the Koran," "wear Muslim garments," and "perform the daily rituals prescribed by the faith into which they were born," they represent a return to a tradition that pre-dates Mohammad.

Put baldly, "Moses, Christ and Mohammad uniformly rejected human sacrifice," but not so with this current crop of troublemakers. Peters expounds:

The grisly decapitations caught on film and the explosives-laden cars driven into crowds, the bombings of schools and the execution of kidnapped women are not sanctioned by a single passage in the Koran. Nor are they political acts committed by freedom fighters. These are the actions of a resurrected blood cult that has nothing to do with the message of the Prophet Mohammed and everything to do with the bloodthirsty winged devils and gory altars that haunted the ancient Middle East.

There is a lot to argue with in Peters’ piece. At points he almost embraces President Bush’s diplomatic "religion of peace" tag for Islam. It certainly is a religion that is capable of peace but its founder (very much unlike the founder of the Christian faith) was a man of war, and militants have found it easy to ignore any Koranic curbs on jihad.

However, Peters forcefully argues for what I’ve heard a few people say but never well: that this barbarity represents a regression from Islam to a blood cult. If you watch Iraqi militants chanting "Allah Akbar!" unthinkingly as they offer up the latest offering’s head on a platter — and I do not recommend that you do this –  then the conclusion of the op-ed seems all too true: "The terrorists don’t seek to turn back the calendar to the 10th century. They’re reaching back to the sordid epochs when gods drank human blood."

For journalists, this matters a lot because how we choose to tell the story affects the way that people will contextualize it. How much is militant Islam a deviation from the broader currents of Muslim thought? That’s not a rhetorical question for me and the Peters essay has prompted some reading and rethinking. I’ll be very interested to hear what readers have to say after they digest the piece.

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Bush, Clinton & grace

Hp_large_library_3Thursday’s dedication ceremonies for the Clinton Presidential Center offered some stirring images — including the presidential families all standing to watch Bono and the Edge performing (Windows Media) — and generous examples of presidents seeing the best in one another.

President Bush on President Clinton:

Over the years, Bill Clinton showed himself to be much more than a good politician. His home state elected him the governor in the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s because he was an innovator, a serious student of policy and a man of great compassion. In the White House, the whole nation witnessed his brilliance and his mastery of detail, his persuasive power and his persistence. The president is not the kind to give up a fight. His staffers were known to say, "If Clinton were the Titanic, the iceberg would sink."

President Clinton on President Bush:

I don’t want to be too political here, but it bothers me when America gets as divided as it was. I once said to a friend of mine about three days before the election, and I heard all these terrible things, I said, You know, am I the only person in the entire United States of America who likes both George W. Bush and John Kerry, who believes they’re both good people, who believes they both love our country and they just see the world differently?

And President Clinton on our current divisions:

America has two great dominant strands of political thought. We’re represented up here on this stage: conservatism, which at its very best draws lines that should not be crossed, and progressivism, which at its very best breaks down barriers that are no longer needed or should never have been erected in the first place.

The complete ceremony is available on C-SPAN.org, and the center’s website offers various transcripts and videos clips.

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Oy Joy! It's time for holidaze deadlines again

kosher santa2One of the toughest clauses in the basic religion-beat reporter contract is the one that states: “Thou shalt write at least one or two stories every year during every major religious holiday and these stories may not be recycled more than once a decade.” Ugh.

So, you ask, what constitutes a “major holiday”? That depends, in part, on your market and your editors. As America grows more complex and diverse, the challenge only grows.

One story that has always fascinated me — in the way that train wrecks are fascinating — is the cultural reality that church-state specialists usually call the “December dilemma.” In a post earlier today, Doug described one scene in this annual holiday drama that usually receives some attention in the press. I have written many a Scripps Howard column on these issues, as well.

Everyone knows that the slice-and-dice approach to blending Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Winter Solstice is having a major impact in the public square and at the mall. But to really get America fired up — both the red and blue zones — you need a dose of prime-time sex and soap. This is precisely what may be happening with “Chrismukkah,” the interfaith religious season that is being pushed, with a world-weary wink and jolly cynicism, on the teen-hit series called The O.C., which, for the uncool, is a reference to Orange County, California.

Jonathan Eig takes a look at this would-be phenomenon in The Wall Street Journal. The key figure is a character named Seth Cohen, who has a Protestant mother and a Jewish father. He explains that in his house, no one has to choose between Christmas or Hanukkah. The future belongs to “Chrismukkah,” the new holiday that is “sweeping the nation.”

Eig writes:

In case we needed further proof that life imitates art, “The O.C.” inspired Michelle (the daughter of a minister) and Ron Gompertz (a Reform Jew) of Livingston, Mont., to design their own Chrismukkah cards and register ownership of www.chrismukkah.com. If Chrismukkah is not quite sweeping the nation, it’s at least generating a little cash for the Gompertzes in the windup to this year’s holidays.

“It was one of those moments when a spark goes off,” says Mr. Gompertz, describing what happened when he heard Seth Cohen say “Chrismukkah.” “It was so much more elegant that Hanumas or the other jokey names we’d come up with.”

There are several serious subjects lurking in the background, such as the heated debates among Jews over the effects of intermarriage and families that attempt a half-and-half approach to religious faith. Eig notes that when MixedBlessing Inc. started making interfaith cards a decade ago, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the American Jewish Committee issued a joint statement complaining that interfaith cards diminished the sacred symbols of both faiths.

Yeah, right. Tell that to the people at Fox Television and Hallmark. Truth is, it is a short leap from your local television news anchors sweetly singing the joys of “The Holidays” to popular culture that actively attempts to promote the blending of religions. The only people who are offended are the traditional believers in the various religions who actually take the symbols and doctrines seriously.

Nevertheless, notes Eig, the numbers are on the side of the interfaith merchants, at least on the Jewish side of the mall.

A recent study of America’s 5.2 million Jews showed that nearly half of all Jewish newlyweds had married non-Jews. That’s a huge concern to many Jewish leaders, but it’s jingle-jingle to the ears of Chrismukkah merchants. Interfaith couples have been blending their rituals for ages. The only thing new about Chrismukkah, really, is that it puts a name to something millions of families are already celebrating. So don’t be surprised in the seasons ahead if we get some new holiday songs and a few tree ornaments that swing both ways.

So the O.C. angle is simply sizzle on a story that actually contains some meat. That is what religion writers have to look for this time of year. That sound you hear is the clock ticking and the holiday deadlines approach.

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Have a holly jolly winter break

Frosty_1Dawn Eden, a longtime music writer and now a copy editor at the New York Post, today celebrates her first appearance on an op-ed page with her witty piece “The Grinch Who Stole Messiah.” Eden criticizes the South Orange/Maplewood School District’s policy of banning religious music — now including instrumentals — during students’ holiday concerts.

Eden is a Christian, which is clear in her Dawn Patrol blog, but for this commentary she draws instead from her family’s Jewish heritage:

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I missed the era of institutionalized celebration of Christianity in schools. Back when my Jewish father went to public school, it wasn’t unusual for the kids to have to sing hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Even when I was growing up — under the modern rules that require religious music to be presented in a secular setting, as an expression of tradition rather than a devotional exercise — it wasn’t always easy being a Jewish kid in the chorus. The Christmas songs went on about Jesus, while the Hanukkah music usually got no deeper than “dreidel, dreidel, dreidel.”

As Eden points out in her blog item about this same story, all-out bans on religious music have attracted criticism from the Anti-Defamation League, The American School Board Journal, the National Association for Music Education and the First Amendment Center. But Eden shows that a principled atheist also can see the folly of such policies:

Even First Amendment lawyer Ron Kuby, an avowed atheist, is on the side of the angels. “Unfortunately, it’s always easier to stifle the speech than to risk a lawsuit,” he says. “But this serves no one’s interest. It infuriates the religious community without any corresponding benefit to maintaining the separation between church and state.”

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Hear that silence? It sounds like a news story

clerical collar2It is impossible for the nation’s Catholic bishops to gather in Washington, D.C., without making some kind of news.

Most of the soundbites this week were dedicated — surprise — to the lingering effects of the clergy sex-abuse scandals and the campaign 2004 media storm about Sen. John Kerry and Holy Communion.

But one of the most provocative stories this time around centered on — silence.

I am referring to the lengthy report by Godbeat veteran Julia Duin in The Washington Times on the bitter, behind-the-scenes dispute caused by the silencing of a priest named Father James Haley in the Diocese of Arlington. So far, no one has spoken out to trash this story and, at the same time, the only media outlet chasing it is Focus on the Family.

For the bishops, noted Duin, the top fall 2004 talking point on clergy sex is that the crisis is now under control. The problem is, a nearby priest continues to insist that his diocese, and the American church in general, is “honeycombed” with sexually active gay priests. Duin reports:

(Attempts) by the Rev. James Haley, 48, to persuade his bishop of the problem have backfired. After hearing from the priest about numerous instances of homosexual activity among diocesan clergy, Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde ordered the priest silenced Oct. 23, 2001. This “precept of silence” — usually only employed during church trial proceedings — is rarely used to silence a whistleblower.

Thus . . . Father Haley’s case, which also involves accusations of sexual misconduct against him, has become a cause celebre among many Catholics in the Diocese of Arlington. It’s also attracted the attention of the Vatican, which summoned him to appear before an ecclesiastical court in March. Church officials held two more hearings on the matter this summer and last week scheduled a fourth hearing in conjunction with the bishops’ meeting. Less than 24 hours later, after the priest, now living several states away, had bought nonrefundable plane tickets to Washington, the meeting was canceled suddenly.

Haley claims that 60 percent of the priests in his diocese are gay and he insists that he has collected a massive stash of audiotapes, videos, photographs, e-mail messages and 1,200 pages of documents to back up his opinions. If the church won’t listen, he is planning a book. Duin notes that, on paper, the Arlington Diocese is one of a few that refuses to sponsor gay seminarians.

Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde has leveled charges against the priest, ranging from “sexual misconduct to talking with the press.” The whole affair has been turned over to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It will not surprise religion-beat veterans that complications abound and that some of the details are, well, unique. The priest says that the roots of the sexual misconduct charges date back to a conversation with a female friend who, “while describing the effects of her breast cancer, placed the priest’s hand” in the location of the surgery. Her attorney is not talking, and Haley says bluntly: “I’ve never had sex in my entire life.”

What makes this a story is the direct involvement of the Vatican in the investigation, a fact that no one seems to deny.

As one would expect, the usual 80 or so lively Catholic comments on this case are stacking up in Amy Welborn’s always essential Open Book weblog. It does appear that this elephant is not going to leave the ecclesiastical living room in the immediate future. Especially note with Duin stacking up clearly attributed statements such as these:

The Rev. Donald Cozzens, author of the 2000 book “The Changing Face of the Priesthood,” estimates 50 percent of all Catholic priests are homosexual.

Psychotherapist Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest who has written and spoken widely on the priesthood, says 15 percent of homosexual priests are sexually active.If all homosexual clergy were to leave the U.S. Catholic Church now, the church would lose one-third of its bishops as well, added Mr. Sipe. . . .

Father Haley says homosexuality is at the root of the huge priestly sex-abuse crisis in which 81 percent of the cases involved victims who were males younger than 18, according to a USCCB investigation.

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Seeking pure power

Here’s another story from the tidal wave just after the election that has continued to bother me a bit. The headline was “G.O.P. Adviser Says Bush’s Evangelical Strategy Split Country” and the basic concept was that the Christian right has totally taken control of the Republican Party, according to veteran GOP consultant Arthur Finkelstein. It now has veto power over the party’s choice for president. (Hear that, Rudy?) Early on, he says: “From now on, anyone who belongs to the Republican Party will automatically find himself in the same group as the opponents of abortion, and anyone who supports abortion will automatically be labeled a Democrat.” Actually, if you read that statement in a mirror, you’d have a pretty good summary of the 2004 Democratic Party platform.

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