Final “Baylor, Sex and Ink” column is now …

… up online at the Scripps Howard News Service side, if anyone wants to see the final step in the march from the God-beat blogosphere to dead tree pulp. Click here.

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Memo to Hollywood execs: Visit more Hispanic churches

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By now, many dedicated bloggers who are following news developments about “The Passion of the Christ” have seen the acidic Steve Martin memo from the New Yorker, pretending to offer advice on tweaking Mel Gibson’s screenplay.

It’s nasty, but hilarious, with this chatty opening: “Dear Mel, We love, love the script! The ending works great. You’ll be getting a call from us to start negotiations for the book rights. Love the Jesus character. So likable. He can’t seem to catch a break!”

And then there is this memorable series of bullets:

* Love the flaying.

* Could the rabbis be Hispanic? There’s lots of hot Latino actors now, could give us a little zing at the box office. Research says there’s some historical justification for it.

* Possible title change: “Lethal Passion.” Kinda works. The more I say it out loud, the more I like it.

But one of those chuckles probably isn’t very funny for Hollywood insiders and the entertainment-industry wing of the Democratic Party. Everyone (even the New York Times) knows that Gibson has a smash out there in Red-State Pews and that Hollywood is having to rethink the future of biblical epics and faith-friendly films. But what is slowly sinking in is that this blockbuster is knocking down some high walls in American culture.

Take, for example, the divide between the Hispanic audience and suburban Protestants. The Los Angeles Weekly headlined this phenomenon: “The Republicans’ Passion Play — GOP knows Mel’s movie is la bomba for Latinos.”

In fact, according to exit polls:

… The Passion of the Christ is attracting a gargantuan 40 percent Latino audience in the cities tested. Until now, there has been only anecdotal evidence that Latinos, as well as Asians and African-Americans, are flocking to the film. The research shows that Latinos are rating Passion higher than does any other ethnic group, and 76 percent say theyre inclined to pay to see the movie again. Not only do 86 percent of Latinos say the film is excellent, but 80 percent say the movie is better than they expected. And while a whopping percentage of the overall audience say they would definitely recommend it, that figure among Latinos is a startling 91 percent.

Now this trend is probably not a shock to veteran God-beat reporters who have walked through the doors of Roman Catholic sanctuaries in Hispanic neighborhoods. Stunningly literal images of the Stations of the Cross are the norm and the prayers of the Rosary are recited far more often than in the typical Anglo parish. Suffice it to say that most Hispanics will recognize that the Rosary provides the central structure of Gibson’s film, even if most film critics and journalists did not.

What are the political implications of all this? Reporter Nikki Finke continues:

So here’s Mel, not just pulling in Latinos but even Latino families. He did what no one else has been able to. Frankly, it never occurred to the godless Hollywood liberals — as the folks at Fox News Network and wacko right-wing Web sites refer to us — to use religion as bait for Latinos. And it never occurred to the Democratic Party, pal of most Hollywood filmmakers, to embrace Gibson or his movie. Big mistake. Huge!

And the Hispanics are not alone. Research indicates that African-Americans and Asians are highly pro-Passion. Thus:

In one fell swoop, Republicans established a strong bond with the most religious members of those ethnic groups who are supposed to vote Democratic. … Is that enough for Bible-thumping Latinos, African-Americans and Asians to change political sides? It may not matter: Just having made such a significant inroad could be enough for conservatives to build on in the future since Latinos are expected to grow to 14 percent of the nations population in 2010, and half of that population is younger than age 26, and 40 percent is under 18.

P.S. Mr./Ms. noname is back!

interesting also that the democrats during the last dnc attempted to attract young latino voters by hosting a big bash for latinos at the playboy mansion. this was an embarrasment to gore and ultimately to clinton who had just been through the monica lewinsky scandal and the bash was later called off.

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Crisco-free Ashcroft

ashcroftcardJeffrey Rosen’s lengthy profile of John Ashcroft in the April Atlantic is testimony to what makes this magazine essential reading. Let Vanity Fair propagate the urban legend about Ashcroft’s fear of calico cats and express its horror that Ashcroft’s father once anointed him with Crisco. Rosen has better work to do: Engaging Ashcroft as a politician and a thinker.

Rosen’s article is not yet available online, but his Q&A with Sage Stossel, senior editor of The Atlantic Online, offers a good summary.

One of the more remarkable aspects of Rosen’s article is that he refers to fundamentalists without malice:

I asked Ashcroft if he thought that prejudice against fundamentalist Christians might explain some of the more outrageous caricatures of him. My wife, I mentioned, was raised as a fundamentalist Christian; her biological mother was a member of Ashcroft’s church, the Assemblies of God, and she attended fundamentalist schools. Although no longer a believer, my wife has often been struck by the many ways in which secular culture misunderstands fundamentalists. Fundamentalist Christians, my wife believes, are one of the few religious groups that many Americans feel free to hold in open contempt. Did he agree?

“I don’t know,” he said cautiously. He seemed uncomfortable at the idea of casting himself as the victim of anti-fundamentalist prejudice, though the suggestion clearly registered. (At the end of my interview with him, he looked at me earnestly and clapped me on the shoulder. “Tell your wife thank you for helping someone like you understand a guy like me.”)

Rosen does not give Ashcroft a kid-glove treatment. He raises fair criticisms of the Patriot Act and of Ashcroft’s resistance to compromise on some of its far from crucial finer points. And he explores an angle largely neglected by most articles: Ashcroft is a political pragmatist who willingly disappoints his core supporters. Rosen addresses the point in his interview with Stossel:

The further I got into the piece and the more people I talked to, the more I became persuaded that the view of him as politically, as opposed to ideologically, motivated was correct. On all the issues the right cares most about, Ashcroft has disappointed them. Before 9/11, for example, he enforced abortion clinic access laws, and in general he’s devoted himself to universally popular priorities — like safe neighborhoods and the war on drugs — that aren’t all that different from what Janet Reno’s were. Over and over again, his colleagues have told me that he’s not some sort of zealot determined to efface American liberties, but that he reads the polls pretty closely and tends to act based on those.

The most refreshing surprise in Rosen’s profile concerns Ashcroft’s intellectual curiosity, which led him to an unrequited respect for Gore Vidal:

Ashcroft asked me a question. “Did you read that Gore Vidal book about Lincoln?” I confessed that I had loved it. “That’s a great book!” he agreed. “You know, people wouldn’t think of me and Gore Vidal in the same breath, but you gotta respect the guy; he has a tremendous intellect.” (Several weeks later Vidal would deem him part of an “alien army.”)

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Blaming Adventism

Newspaper and TV reporters have begun digging into the bizarre world of Marcus Wesson, the man charged with killing nine of his children and grandchildren in Fresno, Calif., during the weekend, and some have latched onto an overly simple explanation: he may be an Adventist. Reports also suggest that he was a polygamist and that he fathered grandchildren with two of his own daughters.

USA Today showed enough concern for reporting to check with an Adventist church and to end its story with this simple disclaimer: “A church spokeswoman said Monday there’s no record of Wesson’s membership.”

The Seventh-day Adventist Church posted an unequivocal statement that Wesson was not among its members:

“This is incorrect,” said Kermit Netteburg, assistant to the president for communication in the church’s North American region. “We cannot find any record of Mr. Wesson’s being a member of any Seventh-day Adventist church.”

Perhaps Wesson is an Adventist in the same sense that David Koresh was: in claiming to have a fuller revelation than most other Adventists, and in splitting away to teach a fatal distortion of Adventist belief. In 1993 Adventist Today interviewed Charlie Liu, an Adventist pastor who lost some members to Koresh while serving in Hawaii. Money quotes:

A typical response was, “We have the new messenger, the new light. What you are reasoning from is the old light. Our leader is the only one who can open the seven seals and lay before us the truth of the very last days.” I reasoned from Christian principles, pointing out the fallacy of playing to people’s fears and using threats and manipulation.

Koresh and Wesson notwithstanding, nothing in Adventist doctrine logically leads to polygamy, child molesting or incest. Referring back to Koresh’s mass immolation at Waco and to the story depicted in the film A Cry in the Dark, a posting to SDAnet.org stated it well:

I wish to convey my total dismay and helplessness on the news of the killing of the family in Fresno. The word cult and Adventists have once again been adjoined, and we bear the stigmatism of Waco and the Australian family accused of sacrificing their infant.

Much prayer is needed, and I pray that we can all exercise our heritage of a loving relationship with our Savior and fellow humans, and illuminate much love and compassion.

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When does a blog piece turn into actual journalism?

A personal note from Tmatt. In the past week, my longer post on the same-sex marriage editorial flap at Baylor has kind of run off and developed a life of its own. This past Sunday, a shortened version ran on the op-ed page of the Dallas Morning News. And, after noticing that the Baylor story seemed to have some legs, I have re-written the material again for use as my Scripps Howard syndicate column this week. The home page for my columns is www.tmatt.net, by the way.

But this leads me to a question I have wanted to ask, seeking some feedback concerning this blog. The focus of GetReligion.org is the mainstream media’s coverage of religion news. So far, Doug and I have offered quite a bit of short, quick commentary on articles in the media, but we have also ventured into some personal opinion writing about “what it all means.”

So here is my question: When does blog writing actually turn into journalism? When does it turn into an actual editorial column? Another way to ask the question is to ask whether you, the readers, prefer short, chatty pieces with a dash of personal commentary, or the longer pieces (“What would Richard Ostling do?”) that try to weave references to several news articles into a larger trend piece. I mean, is there an official length — 600-plus words, let’s say — where this “blogging” thing evolves into something else? What think ye?

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Perhaps Bush is courting Robert Casey Democrats?

What we have here is a Nixon-goes-to-China case of media bias analysis.

In the new “Look Left” column in The New Republic, Jonathan Chait challenges the basic template that most newsrooms are using as they cover the ongoing same-sex marriage story.

The working assumption is that President Bush is, by backing a marriage amendment, throwing red meat to his religious conservative base and, by doing so, risking the loss of millions of moderate swing voters. This assumes that there are legions of voters who are basically Libertarian — conservative on economics, but with liberal moral views. Here is what that template looks like in print:

“It’s a cardinal rule of politics,” The New York Times declared in a front-page story last week. “Pay attention to the party’s base. In recent weeks, on a variety of fronts, President Bush has done just that. … His impassioned endorsement on Tuesday of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, after weeks of intensive lobbying by social conservatives, was the culmination of this rapprochement. But will he pay a price with the centrist voters who so often decide presidential elections, as the Democrats hope?” USA Today chimed in, “Bush’s support of a proposed amendment had long been sought by conservative Christians, who are among the Republican Party’s most loyal supporters.” And the Post story quoted above asserted, “So when gay marriages advanced in Massachusetts and San Francisco, Bush felt a need to respond to the cries of social conservatives–even if it meant losing some swing voters he needs in November.”

But what if there was evidence that there were still lots of people from the old Democratic coalition — Hispanic Catholics, for example, or black Protestants or even labor folks of many ethnic varieties — who are progressive on economics and conservative on cultural issues? Few journalists, notes Chait, seem to have considered this option. Why is that? Perhaps it is a matter of class. Perhaps it is a matter of religion. Whatever it is, Time magazine is singing the same song:

… (The) voters that Time is referring to — i.e., upper income, socially moderate, economically conservative folks — don’t make up the entire swing vote or even the largest portion of it. A larger bloc of swing voters has essentially the opposite sensibility — culturally traditional and economically populist. “The greatest bloc of contested voters watching politics from a distinct perspective is noncollege and blue-collar America,” writes Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in his new book The Two Americas. “These are the voters for whom church and faith are important and who think values and family are under pressure too.”

Chait says this is all a “perfect case study” of how socioeconomic assumptions influence what happens in newsrooms. Maybe. But perhaps this is another case study that illustrates a genuine lack of diversity in mainstream journalism when it comes to religion and “traditional” ways of thinking. Perhaps we need more journalists who — at least at the professional and intellectual level — “get religion.” Here’s Chait again:

It’s not hard to understand why the national media fails to grasp the continued strength of cultural traditionalism: In Washington and New York, where many journalists dwell, gay marriage is an increasingly mainstream proposition. Unfortunately, in most of the country, it’s not. And, even if the media doesn’t realize this, it’s a good bet Karl Rove does.

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Coming soon to a theater near you: Hollywood Heaven lite

textA comment from an anonymous reader starts with the question of whether “The Passion of the Christ” will receive an attention at the 2005 Oscars. But Mr./Ms. noname ends up somewhere else that is much more interesting.

Money talks. The film may get a costume or cinematography nomination but it probably won’t get a best picture or best director nomination or award because elaborate Hollywood lobbying — often fueled by money — talks louder. And the biggest lobbyists probably don’t like the picture. But now that it is making money they may not want to declare that so loud. …What will probably also happen is release of a spate of other, milder, spiritually themed films. I think Mitch Albom is poised to make a lot of money.

I assume that this reader is thinking of last week’s column by the sort-of-cultural-conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, in which he asked this loaded question: “Who worries you most, Mel Gibson or Mitch Albom?”

For those of you who don’t read very important small-format hardback bestsellers of fewer than 200 pages, Albom is the Detroit sports columnist who grabbed the male side of Baby Boomer spirituality franchise with his book “Tuesdays with Morrie.” His new book is called “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” It had to be five people, because if everybody met 10 people in heaven then it would take longer than 200 pages and that would never work.

Anyway, I think Mr./Ms. noname is dead spot on. The Hollywood establishment is going to interpret Mel Gibson’s success as a sign that Red State America needs a large dose of Blue State Religion, which means lovely, loving spirituality with lots of fuzzy, mysterious stories about What It All Means and none of those mean, nasty, ancient creeds and truth claims about Right and Wrong.

Can you say “narcissism”? I knew you could. What Hollyood is likely to do is offer us a God (or gods) who has evolved into a kind of computer-generated Dr. Phil. Here is how Brooks sums up the Albom version of this higher power.

All societies construct their own images of heaven. Most imagine a wondrous city or a verdant garden where human beings come face to face with God. But the heaven that is apparently popular with readers these days is nothing more than an excellent therapy session. … In this heaven, God and his glory are not the center of attention. It’s all about you.

Here, sins are not washed away. Instead, hurt is washed away. The language of good and evil is replaced by the language of trauma and recovery. There is no vice and virtue, no moral framework to locate the individual within the cosmic infinity of the universe. Instead there are just the right emotions — Do you feel good about yourself? — buttressed by an endless string of vague bromides about how special each person is, and how much we are all mystically connected in the flowing river of life.

This is the spirituality that is selling at the great mall called Oprah America. This is half of the spiritual equation of our times. Clearly, this is not the half reflected in the latest box office totals for Gibson’s stark faith of sin, suffering and sacrifice.

There are legions of A-list directors who can explore Albom’s heaven. Are there any other A-list directors who will dare to reach out to the Gibson demographic?

P.S. Mr./Ms. noname is back. Only how do we know it’s the same Mr./Ms. noname? Ah, cyber-mysteries. Actually, the Hollywood Heaven lite trend kicked into a new era with “Ghost,” about the time that Baby Boomers started hearing their clocks tick. I wonder why churches do not talk about heaven as much as Hollywood studios?

this has been a trend for several years now but it needed a movie such as mel’s to really cause it to kick into high gear. one early catalyst was the film “what dreams may come.” at that time (’98) there was buzz that more “spiritually themed” properties would be in the pipeline but an acknowledgement that they were risky and didn’t do well at the box office. mel’s movie changes all of that. i expect he will do a sequel that will end up in competition with other spiritual genre films.

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Now this is a negative campaign ad


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