Too hip by half?

Every_voice_adWilliam Lobdell of the Los Angeles Times touches all the right bases in his report about churches that think of more than their address and service times when they design advertising.

Lobdell begins his story with a Top Ten list that’s popular in Episcopal congregations (the list includes "You can believe in dinosaurs," "Free wine on Sundays" and the ever-hilarious "No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you").

To his credit, Lobdell does not attribute the list to "a Robin Williams HBO special," which is the most common apocryphal mistake among Episcopal churches that traffic in this sort of thing. (In his Live on Broadway in 2002, Williams identified himself as "an Episcopal[ian]" and used one joke about the Church of England offering the "same religion, half the guilt" as Roman Catholicism. He mentioned no snakes or dinosaurs.)

Lobdell mentions a $30 million campaign by the United Church of Christ and a $20 million campaign by the United Methodist Church that increased first-time attendance by 19 percent and total attendance by 9 percent.

He also mentions the Church Ad Project, which began developing slick ads in the early 1980s. One of its better-known posters announced, in classic "We’re not those Christians" language, "Our church welcomes you. Regardless of race, creed, color or the number of times you’ve been born."

As Lobdell notes, "most of the cutting-edge marketing is being produced guerrilla style by individual churches whose pastors want to attract younger members. To be successful, they must wrap ancient biblical concepts within the trendiest of secular packages."

Every Voice Network, which offers resources to progressive Episcopal congregations, has developed an ad series that depicts Jesus — Sacred Heart and all — in the style of South Park (a sample is at the top of this post).

Lobdell gathers great context-setting remarks from a sympathetic critic:

There’s a danger of "trivializing the spiritual/religious experience in favor of glitzy superficial stuff," said Shel Horowitz, author of "Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First."

Horowitz said church marketing works when advertising messages and sermons match. "The user experience must match the marketing message, or both are discredited," she said. "So if a church’s message is congruent to the user experience, it should work well."

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Poynter appeals — again — for better Godbeat coverage

poynter courtyard2A few days after 11/2, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel did some local enterprise reporting, trying to find out if there was a common theme among African-American voters who went against decades of conventional wisdom and voted for George W. Bush over John Kerry.

It didn’t take reporters Gregory Lewis, Alva James-Johnson and John Maines long to spot the pattern. The headline was blunt: “Bush makes inroads with black Christian voters.” Once again, those old words kept showing up in familiar combinations — like “family values.” The president’s vote totals in the black community didn’t rise much, but in the tight Florida race every little bit helped. What was the news hook?

“Even though [Caribbean-Americans] tend to be Democrats, when it comes down to moral and cultural values they may lean more toward the Republican party or independents,” said Marlon Hill, a Jamaican-American who led a Soca D’Vote campaign to register new Caribbean voters and educate them on political issues.

“Not that any one particular party has an exclusivity on faith, but it’s clear to me that this election was a testimony as to the moral and cultural compass of the country,” said Hill, a Democrat.

Does this mean that these African-Americans have become “conservatives” on other issues? Of course not. Does this mean that, all of a sudden, their priorities are aligned with the Rev. Pat Robertson? Of course not. Might this mean that they do not see a contradiction between cultural conservatism and being politically progressive on other issues?

Did the Democrats need these votes? Yes. And, to switch to a related topic, do journalists need these people to continue buying newspapers and watching the evening news? Yes. Might journalists do a better job of covering people in pews — before, during and after elections — if newsrooms contained more people who “get religion” or want to learn how to cover these issues?

I’m happy to report that the journalists over at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. (pictured), have used the surge in “values gap” reporting as a hook for another yet effort to appeal to newsroom managers to get their act together on faith issues. Aly Colon, leader of the think tank’s ethics and diversity programs, wrote the lead article in the package and, I am happy to report, urged journalists to take advantage of the information and opinions expressed at websites such as The Revealer, ReligionLink and, yes, GetReligion.

“Moral values,” he noted, is a term that gets

. . . (Pinned) on people who oppose same-sex marriage, abortion, and stem cell research. Reporters use such terms as evangelical, religious, Christian and conservative to describe them. And often, journalists use these terms interchangeably. But what do they know about the topic? And what do they need to know?

We need to look behind the “moral values” label to address such questions. When we do, we will come across a host of descriptions. They show a spectrum of differences that get overlooked when we lump them under just one term. . . .

Cover the full spectrum of people who see values as a critical component of their lives. Look beyond the labels. Visit their places of worship. Look into the programs they say reflect their values. Offer fuller profiles showing how they live them out.

And all the people said, “Amen.” There is much more to quote from this piece, but we will stop at this point. The Poynter package also includes an article by Steve Buttry, who was raised among Baptist progressives — yes, that left-of-center evangelical crowd again — and thinks it is time for journalists to start listening to the stories of evangelical believers. Buttry, by the way, is now a Roman Catholic who says that he has become rather uncomfortable in that flock, as well.

The bottom line: If journalists cannot understand the faith stories of evangelicals, and report them accurately, then journalists are going to struggle to understand these people. In the most fascinating essay in this collection, Dr. Roy Peter Clark hauls off and admits that he is struggling — big time — to do precisely that. You need to read it all. But here is a taste.

I am now taking seriously the theory that we mainstream journalists are different from mainstream America. “Different” is too pale a word. We are alienated. We may live in the same country, but we treat each other like aliens. Maybe it’s worse than that because we usually see and suspect the alien in our midst. The churched people who embrace Bush, in spite of a bumbling war and a stumbling economy, are more than alien to me. They are invisible.

I see the cheering crowds at the Springsteen concerts. I tap my feet while celebrities rock the vote. I imagine pro-Kerry college students heading for the polls, getting hernias from lifting Michael Moore on their shoulders. But there’s stuff I can’t see. . . .

• I don’t know the difference between evangelical and charismatic, but I can argue about who has sluttier videos, Britney or Christina.

• I know little about the “born again” experience but can celebrate the narrative structure of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

• I’ve never listened to a religious radio program or attended a church supper, but I can tell you whatever you want to know about Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge.

It’s clear, writes Clark, that going to Sunday Mass is not helping him understand this other America. It’s also clear that he needs to understand the other side of the values divide, or it is going to hurt his work as a leader in the industry that is supposed to help Americans make sense out of the news about their lives and the lives of other people.

Honest. That is what he says. You don’t believe me? Here is the final kicker:

This is starting to sound like a confession. Maybe it is. I once was blind — and still can’t see. My blind spots blot out half of America. And that makes me less of a citizen, and less of a journalist.

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Islam Hadari

This story is old, but still very important. I ran into it while cleaning out the newspaper clips pocket of my shoulder bag after the last road trip. Why is it worth calling to your attention? Reporter Paul Wiseman has packed it with color and information and it contains the following paragraph: “Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, an Islamic scholar by training, is trying to promote what he calls Islam Hadari. Roughly translated, it is Arabic for ‘Islamic civilization.’ Abdullah’s somewhat vague version of Islam emphasizes economic and technological development, social justice and tolerance for other religions.” However, as a legal activist there puts it: “While all of us are equal some of us are more equal than others.”

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Is there a ghost in "The Incredibles"?

Menu_03OK, do the math. Let’s say that a president wins a second ticket to the White House with the help of a “values vote” coalition built, in part, on people that have very old-fashioned beliefs on issues of morality, family, marriage and the existence of eternal, transcendent moral truths.

Then, before you can say KAPOW!, WHAM! and NEOCON!, there is a movie in multiplexes in which characters are heard claiming that the demise of a marriage is a fate worse than death and that “doubt is a luxury that we cannot afford anymore.”

The Bush army praises strength, marriage and family values. This hit movie praises strength, marriage and family values. Oh my. Could it be?

That’s right. There are people out there in medialand that are quietly worried that “The Incredibles” is a right-wing recruiting device. I mean, the folks at Focus on the Family even like this movie.

Pixar can’t seem to make even a single mistake when it comes to elevating the artistry of animation. Likewise, while illustrating the value of an intact family or the beauty of individuality or the negative results of pride, The Incredibles is, well, incredible.

Needless to say, this is not going to fly over in the pages of The Nation, where Stuart Klawans is not amused by the political — theological? — implications of the Parr family. Part of the problem is that, according to writer-director Brad Bird:

… (The) Parrs’ strange talents are rooted in normal family traits. Fathers are supposed to be strong, so Bob can bench-press a freight engine. Mothers are always being pulled ten ways at once, so Helen is elastic. Young Violet can become invisible, as teenage girls sometimes want to do, and Dash is just a wonderfully energetic little boy, ratcheted up to 200 mph.

Bird’s biggest achievement in The Incredibles is to have inflated family stereotypes to parade-balloon size. His failing is that, in so doing, he also confirmed these stereotypes, and worse. Helen mouths one or two semi-feminist wisecracks but readily gives up her career for a house and kids; women are like that. Bob’s buddy Frozone, the main nonwhite character in the movie, can instantly create ice; black people are cool. The superheroes are in hiding because greedy trial lawyers sued them into retirement; and, while concealed, they chafe at their confinement, like Ayn Rand railing against enforced mediocrity.

The family is the foundation of our society. Freedom is on the march.

And that just cannot be good for America and the world, now can it? Things get even more complex over at the New York Observer, where writers Suzy Hansen and Sheelah Kolhatkar let loose under the cheerfully paranoid headline, “It’s Super Bush!” While it’s clear that they like the film quite a bit and believe that it might even cheer up gloomy blue-zone liberals, they conclude:

While The Incredibles’ battle against conformity and mediocrity screams anti-oppression to some, it’s obviously Randian to others. In that sense, the film is being touted as the latest proof that, on top of everything else, the right wing has even wit and creativity on its side these days: This is a world turned upside-down!

And even as James Carville threw in the white towel in The New York Times on Nov. 9, admitting that he’d finally got the message that the Democrats were nothing but an opposition party, the conservatives were raking in millions of potential philosophical converts at the movies, the way the liberals used to during the Easy Rider-Graduate days of the 1960s, when the right wing couldn’t catch a break in the culture. … It’s very much in the eye of the beholder, but at the moment, to the butt-kicked, discouraged liberal team, the Pixar-built shiny, muscle-bound cartoon characters seem to come very much from the other team.

Ah, but as we like to note from time to time here at, not all political conservatives are moral and cultural conservates and, for sure, the tensions between the Libertarians and the religious right are only going to increase in the months ahead.

So, is there a “religion” ghost in this blockbuster hit or not? Is the mere fact that a film promotes a traditional view of marriage and family now evidence that its creators are in-the-closet Christian neo-fundamentalists?

What about it? Has anyone out there in readerland seen any reviews or articles about “The Incredibles” directly linking the film to theocrats? Was the Iron Giant a Christ symbol?

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Putting the Holy! in Holy Land

NunYasser Arafat was laid to rest Friday at his former West Bank headquarters. As Reuters related the story, "A chaotic crush of mourners filling the air with gunfire forced a hasty burial." In response to this mob action, "only a small clutch of beleaguered senior officials and security officers in a tight circle saw his casket lowered into a black marble grave."

Now, amid accusations of poisoning and denials by the State of Israel that the government had anything to do with his death, as well as calls for an autopsy, people are taking stock of Arafat’s legacy, and trying to figure out what comes next.

According to a recent piece in Christianity Today by Rob Moll, "Palestinian Christians view Israel, not Arafat, as the problem." A pastor of Peace Jerusalem Baptist Church told Moll, "The Christian community particularly will regret the departure of Arafat because he was very, very much at peace and also in solidarity with the Christian community in the Holy Land."

A rejoinder to this might be a Thursday Jerusalem Post story about the slow but steady disappearance of Christians from the Holy Land. The number of Palestinian Christians continues to drop as later generations either convert to Islam or leave the region. And the picture on the other side of the wall is far from a rosy one. According to Motti Levy, an adviser to the Jerusalem government, maybe 10,000 Christians now live in the town of 700,000 people. Strict laws against proselytizing make that number unlikely to increase dramatically.

Levy stressed that Christians in Israel enjoy the full complement of rights but he also blanched at the recent "Spitting Jews" incident — in which a yeshiva student hocked a lugi at a cross that was being carried during a procession near the Holy Sepulcher — which led to a minor brawl and international headlines.

It used to be that Christians — evangelical and otherwise — would flock to Israel by the planeload to get a better feel for the setting of much of the Bible. But Jesus tourism has taken a hit in the last few years, as Palestinian-to-Israeli suicide bombings and Israeli retaliations have blown most plans to walk on the Sea of Galilee right out of the water.

Bad news all around, I’m afraid, but the Post did carry this nice little feature (if it makes it any easier here are both pages) on the nuns of the Monastery of St. Claire, in Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood.

The story does a good job of letting readers in on little details of the rules and ways of this cloister. The sisters are generally silent except for the hour or so a day of recreation time. One exception to this rule is when the nuns are "having a horrible day" and "need to vent in order to get on."

And "closed," in this case, is far from clueless. A nun is assigned to listen to radio broadcasts at least once a day in order to know how to advise the nuns how to pray for the wider community. At the peak of the intifada, "she would turn on the radio several times." Hopefully, the sister won’t have to go back to frequent updates any time soon.

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Christ vs. Four Out of Five Experts

Reason managing editor Jesse Walker on the Jihadist/Reality-Based divide: “I hate the Red America/Blue America cliché, this idea that the country can be painted in just two colors. But if I had to speak in terms of that map, I’d say the most successful culture warriors come from the blue states. The authoritarian conservative wants to maintain the old taboos. The authoritarian liberal wants to introduce some new ones, and he’s had a lot more success.”

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And the healing has begun

GarrisonkeillorSaturday’s edition of A Prairie Home Companion was called a Bonus Joke Show and it followed the presidential election, so the mind naturally turns to Christian-bashing — or, to use host Garrison Keillor’s more specific target, "born-again Christian"-bashing. Keillor poured himself into fundraising for the Democrats this year, as the Associated Press reported in September, so his indignation about the election’s results is not surprising.

Keillor’s anger emerged even before he finished singing Prairie Home‘s theme song, "Tishomingo Blues." Keillor improvised a closing stanza: "Ah, three days since the election and I am doing fine [laughter] / though I woke up on Wednesday morning and the sun refused to shine [applause] / And the American people, bless their hearts, did not do as they should do / Democracy is fine with me / but sometimes I’m not so sure about you."

Keillor joked that he will work with other citizens for a constitutional amendments that denies the vote to born-again Christians, which met with vigorous applause and cheers. This is the closest Keillor came to explaining his understanding of born-again Christians who vote:

If you feel that war in the Middle East is simply prophecy fulfilled, if you believe that tribulation and suffering are just the natural conditions of life, if you believe that higher education is vanity, unnecessary, there is only one book that one need to read, if you feel that unemployment is simply is God’s way of making you more dependent on him and drawing you closer to him, if you feel that lousy health care is simply a portal to paradise, then you don’t really share our same interests, do you? No, you do not.

What born-again Christian on earth doesn’t believe all that?

Keillor’s routine caught the attention of, edited by a friend of this blog. Gospelgal wrote:

Just after he finished his monologue/rant/tirade/otherwise simply wonderful introduction, Keillor introduced the show’s musical guest. It was gospel singer  Jearlyn Steele. During the course of the show, they sang "We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder" and "Let Us Break Bread Together On Our Knees."


Keillor lent his warm, steady bass to these beloved gospel numbers — two of the most precious to the most traditional of the flock — as if he hadn’t just trashed the folks who wrote and sang those very songs.

Garrison Keillor is no dummy. For years I’ve enjoyed his folksy wit and admired his ability to convey truths about the human experience through his work. I’ve even gotten used to his heavy breathing, the dark, sonorous speaking voice and the wheezing of nose hair.

I should add, too, that I don’t know if he is currently a part of any faith tradition. So I don’t know if he was being ironic, thumbing his nose at born-agains or even saying, "Hey, everybody, even the sharpest barbs are offered in good fun. Let’s sing, shall we?" Perhaps he’d booked Steele for the show months before the election, and just happened to be in a particularly foul mood about the red-state victory. Maybe the opening monologue is completely spontaneous. I don’t s’pose I’ll know soon. But I think this incident presents the readership with an interesting question:

What does gospel music mean in the public imagination?

Keillor has performed gospel music throughout his career on A Prairie Home Companion, and he recorded one album dedicated solely to gospel. During his years in New York, Keillor spoke of attending an Episcopal Church. But one thing came through clearly on Saturday evening: Keillor expresses contempt for Christians to his political and theological right.

In a spirit of what she calls "bipartisan sauciness," Gospelgal turns her attention to a London Times article about Democrats campaigning in African American churches:

The article continues:

"Mr. Gore looked utterly incongruous, failing miserably to tap his foot in time to the febrile mix of gospel music, electric organ and wailing worshippers inside Jacksonville’s Abyssinia Missionary Baptist Church …"

*Sigh* We get it. He’s out of his element. And puh-leeze, can somebody describe an Af-Am church service without using words like "febrile" and "wailing?" I guess that’s how it looks if you haven’t grown up attending those sorts of services, but I’ve read so many of these descriptions that sound like some sort of freakish voodoo ceremony … the natives are getting restless …

" … President Clinton, a Southern Baptist whose ability to connect with black congregations — he could even sway in time with the music — has seen him become the first white politician included in the [gospel gal's note: Arkansas] Black Hall of Fame."

I hope any budding politicians out there are taking notes: ability to sway + ability to clap on 2 and 4=ability to connect with black congregations. Because that’s what really matters. *Shaking head*

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All together now: Thank God for the ACLU

I was stuck in a Southern California airport for a few hours the other day and, of course, this meant spending some quality time with a dead-tree-pulp edition of the Los Angeles Times.

As you would expect, it contained large doses of post-11/2 “values” news. Some of this was fairly predictable, such as metro columnist Steve Lopez going out of his way to find a Baptist preacher — I predict from the American Baptist flock in the blue pews — who was upset about the role of Bible-thumpers in American life and politics. If you know any left-of-center Baptists and/or evangelicals, you might want to tell them to call the switchboard at their local newspaper and the odds are good someone will do a story on them right now. Hey, I’ve done one or two of those recently myself.

Then there was feature writer Robin Abcarian’s “It’s a deeper shade of red,” which offered a nice look inside the red-state numbers in Indiana. She talked to a wide variety of people whose religious and political views are much more complex than they appear when shoved through the grid of an exit poll. It is still interesting, however, how almost every interview kept pivoting on issues of sexual morality. Let’s face it, the 10 Commandments are hot.

But the story that really got me fired up was right out there on page one, in column one — Scott Gold’s report from Las Vegas about the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of some very blunt, non-PC street preachers. This was a reminder that there are times when the ACLU gets quite logical and consistent and defends everybody’s right to offend people on public sidewalks (unless those public sidewalks are too close to abortion facilities).

You want quotes and colorful details? Gold’s got ‘em from the get-go and they lead straight into a thesis paragraph that grabs you:

The way the American Civil Liberties Union sees it, the 1st Amendment was made for nights like this. The organization in recent months has turned a small band of street preachers into unlikely symbols of free speech — fighting, sometimes in noisy confrontations with police and casinos, for the preachers’ right to spread the gospel on the Las Vegas Strip.

The alliance is an awkward one. The preachers openly despise the ACLU, which they view as an insufferably liberal institution, albeit one that had lately seemed like their only friend in town. The ACLU doesn’t think much of the preachers’ condemnations of, well, a lot of people, including “fornicators,” Democrats, women who seek abortions and people who have not accepted Christ as their savior.

And the Las Vegas establishment doesn’t think much of the whole issue; evangelical preachers bellowing about “homos,” “porno freaks” and the devil don’t exactly fit with the anything-goes marketing scheme that has served this city well.

But sidewalks are supposed to be for everyone, so the ACLU has waded into this decade-long fight between preachers, casinos, lawyers, labor leaders, anti-war activists, erotic dance-club staffers and cops. There ought to be a Country & Western song in here somewhere.

Gold also has to cover the local laws and customs, which, since this is sin city, are colorful in and of themselves. When the case hit the courts, it turned out that the bottom line remains the bottom line:

“What the court said, basically, is that if it looks like a sidewalk, smells like a sidewalk and functions like a sidewalk, then by golly it’s a public sidewalk,” said Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada ACLU.

And, by golly, free speech is supposed to be free speech, even when somebody is waving a Bible and telling people that they may or may not go to hell and the choice is up to them. That’s what happens when someone has a constitutional right to say that he is on a mission from God.

Fire and brimstone are awkward, no doubt about it. Here’s the end of the story:

For the most part . . . the Griners were simply ignored. After their lengthy struggle to be there at all, they made clear that they were satisfied with that. And some onlookers were impressed with their fortitude, given the surroundings.

“If you believe in it, you should push it,” said Garrett Midkiff, a 24-year-old student visiting from Arizona. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to go gamble and drink some more. But I look up to them for doing this. And what better place to do it than the city of sin?”

And all the people said: “Amen.” OK, some of the people said: “Amen.”

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