Narnia goes to Hollywood

narniaSince I first saw clips of what is now becoming the first installment of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia last February, I maintained a level of skepticism as a means of protecting myself from disappointment. I was concerned that the film would deviate from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe‘s explicit Christian themes. I was afraid the directors and producers would deviate from the film’s original plot. I was also afraid that they would attempt to make the fourth installment of The Lord of the Rings.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings (I am even preparing to do my second marathon this Christmas season). Thing is, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books are not Lewis’ books, and any attempt to imitate the hugely popular films would be an utter disaster.

Well, my skepticism appears to be unfounded. Newsweek reports, based on a sneak preview, that rather than subtracting from or altering the story, director Andrew Adamson has stayed to the original plot and has even expanded some elements, such as the German bombings of London.

I am also pleased to hear that the film will not be a gore fest. Some of the previews have shown the potential for some Rings-like battles, but apparently the “gentleness” of the movie “may frustrate some bloodthirsty teenage boys.” That’s all I needed to hear.

As for media concerns, because that is what this blog is about (forgive my straying away into movie analysis), watch for how they cover the issue of The Message of the film. This is key. Julia Duin of The Washington Times dubs the film a cross between The Passion of the Christ and The Lord of the Rings in the way it is being pitched to churches.

In an excellent piece of journalism that out-reports both Newsweek‘s and Time‘s pieces on Lewis (Newsweek‘s article strangely fixates on his love for beer, though I did find that interesting), Duin covers the territory with remarkable efficiency, though Newsweek has the better photos and got a sneak preview. Nevertheless, here’s an example of excellent newspaper journalism:

Dennis Rice, Disney’s senior vice president of publicity, hedged on whether the film reproduces the Christian character of the book.

“We believe we have not made a religious movie,” he said. “It’s just a great piece of cinema that is true to a great piece of literature.”

However, Zondervan, the evangelical imprint for publishing giant HarperCollins, is calling the film’s release one of the season’s “biggest religion stories.”

“It is the product for the fall,” spokeswoman Jana Muntsinger said. “In the Christian world, they are just salivating over this. C.S. Lewis is the evangelical gold standard.”

narnia2Newsweek takes on the issue and finds the movie “as Christian as you want it to be”:

Will the movie be too religious for a wide audience? Might it not be religious enough for Lewis’s Christian fans?

The speculation is understandable, partly because the climax of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” can be read as an allegory for Jesus’ death and resurrection — though how many of us read it that way when we were 8? — and partly because, after “The Passion of the Christ,” movies are increasingly regarded as things to play tug of war with, rather than share.

While Newsweek jokes around with the Pevensie children about girls’ underwear, Duin deals with the cultural issues that I believe will have a huge impact on American society:

Key to the film’s success is a fan base of several generations of evangelical Christians who have grown up reading the Narnia books. Motive Entertainment, the same company that promoted “Passion,” was hired by Disney to promote “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” among the church set.

Dozens of churches around the country are listed at narniaresources.com as “sneak peak” sites for presentations about the movie from co-producer Douglas Gresham, Mr. Lewis’ stepson, or from contemporary Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman.

The site also is hawking group tickets and “customizable church outreach tools” such as DVDs, door hangers, specialty e-vites and posters.

Mr. Gresham spent six months on the set ensuring that the story line stayed true to its Christian values. In his new book, “Jack’s Life,” Mr. Gresham described his stepfather as “influenced by the Holy Spirit of God.”

These three articles lay the groundwork for Lion. Previous articles could do little but uncover the basic facts of the film (note tmatt’s post on The Palm Beach Post‘s coverage and on the money issue). For a movie that could have a huge impact on culture and society worldwide, the media coverage will be key.

Will it be fair? Accurate? Newsweek says the movie is “as Christian as you want it to be.” Lewis remains the foremost Christian writer, but will his ideas translate well into the foremost means of communication in the world today?

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The Washington Post salutes the “good” Jesus

va62BEvery now and then, major newspapers run articles that really don’t have strong news hooks, but it seems like the editors believe these articles state fundamental truths about American life. It’s like they are saying to their readers, “We think we just learned a fundamental truth about American life and we’d like to share it with you, so that you can be enlightened. Behold, here it is.”

That’s how I felt as I read the Jennifer Moses piece in The Washington Post titled “Why Jesus Is Welcome In the Public Square: Religiosity Isn’t Just the Right’s Territory.” It’s a fun little piece that includes some nice zingers. Think of it as an aftershock to the aftershocks from the red vs. blue “values voters” earthquake of 2004.

Here’s the big idea that Moses brought back from the bayou (where there are old churches like the one in this photo). This is a paraphrase: There sure are a lot of conservative people down here in Baton Rouge, and some of them are not as dumb as I thought they would be.

Here is a direct quote of her point of view:

… (Perhaps) I’m naive, but I tend to believe that the Christian religiosity that’s the common currency of great swaths of our country generally does more good than harm, giving people a sense of purpose and community where they might not otherwise have either. But I’m talking mainly about what I call the “good” Jesus — the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, the one who, through his people, clothes the naked and feeds the hungry.

As you would expect, the people who serve this “good Jesus” are an interesting gumbo of folks, down Louisiana way. Moses has even discovered that the Democratic Party includes people who go to church and that some of them — sit down for this one — are even kind of conservative when it comes to religion and culture. African-Americans, for example, are not fond of new definitions of marriage. Even the Democrat in the statehouse has to embrace public prayers.

The writer can see this. She is uncomfortable with it, but she can see that this kind of public-square faith is not all bad. Maybe. She’s struggling.

This brings us to the roller-coaster quote of the day. Hang on.

If one common mistake liberals make is assuming that the great majority of Bible-thumping (or tapping) comes from the right, a second — and to my mind, more important — mistake is equating this style of religiosity with something as simple as narrow-minded ignorance. Rather, bringing God and his word as expressed in the Bible into the debate points to a profound lack of meaning and vision in our public discourse, and a searing pessimism that anyone, or any institution, in public life might put things right. It points, also, to disgust: disgust not only with our elected leaders but also with the cheapening of life around us, whether by blatant sexuality on television, soaring drug abuse, the acceptance of out-of-wedlock birth or the loss of the communal ties that once grounded us.

As far as I can tell, progressives and liberals of all stripes don’t even begin to fathom the despair and confusion most ordinary Americans feel when they hear the latest violent rap song or see a billboard plastered with an image of a 16-year-old clad only in Calvin Klein underwear.

And all the people said: “Say what?”

Clearly Moses has been drinking the water down in Louisiana. So I decided to ask Rod “Friend of this Blog” Dreher what he made of this piece. Rod has more bayou water in his blood than anyone else I know (and family near Baton Rouge). Here’s his reaction:

That’s a tough one. It’s something like, “These people down here are more or less Jesus freaks, and you wouldn’t believe the kind of crap a normal person has to put up with living among them, but they seem to be onto something, though I can’t quite figure out what it is and really would rather not.”

That’s about right. What those Louisiana people need to do is go to church less often and watch PBS more often. Then more of them will buy newspapers and let journalists tell them all about what is happening in their lives.

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The illegal sacramental tea

hallucinogenic drugsIllegal narcotics, a 130-member church that likes to do those drugs and a Supreme Court with a history of restricting drugs all make for an interesting law/religion story that will certainly divide traditional political alliances in all sorts of interesting ways.

The American branch of the Brazilian church O Centro Espírita Beneficiente União do Vegetal wants to import a sacramental hallucinogenic tea — banned from the U.S. because it is a Schedule I drug — that is key to the church’s rituals. Rather than affecting First Amendment law, the case deals with a federal law that gives greater protections to religious exercise than what the Supreme Court had previously given.

Here’s the essence of the issue, as written by The New York Times:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 1 — The Bush administration tried to persuade the Supreme Court on Tuesday that federal narcotics policy should trump the religious needs of members of a small South American church who want to import a hallucinogenic tea that is central to their religious rituals.

Two lower federal courts have barred the government from seizing the sacred drink, known as hoasca tea, which is brewed from indigenous Brazilian plants that do not grow in the United States. The tea’s hallucinogenic effect comes from a chemical, dimethyltryptamine, usually known as DMT, which occurs naturally in the plants and is listed as a Schedule I banned substance in the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The Supreme Court refused last year to lift the preliminary injunction issued by the federal district court in Albuquerque. But the justices did agree to hear the administration’s appeal. As the major church-state clash of the court’s new term, the case has drawn the attention of mainstream religious groups, including the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals and the American Jewish Committee.

The article is clearly by a legal writer, not a religion writer (Linda Greenhouse has been covering the Supreme Court for nearly 30 years) and for that, it suffers a bit (though it is a great piece of legal journalism). We don’t learn much about the church or why and how it uses the hallucinogenic tea (some answers can be found here).

The American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the National Association of Evangelicals, among other groups, are filing briefs in support of the church, which makes me wonder, what is their stake in this matter?

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But is he a Catholic Catholic?

NastTheocracyIn Slate’s tradition of contrarianism, William Saletan argues that someone has indeed played the Catholic card in re Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court: President Bush and his fellow Republicans.

Whatever it is, Catholics are clearly in vogue as reliable choices of this White House. Among the eight names circulated on Supreme Court shortlists this year, I count three known Catholics. One got the first open seat; another is getting the second. If you’re pro-life, the fact that these nominees are Catholic doesn’t mean they’ll vote the way you want. But it does make it easier to label anyone who challenges their abortion writings a bigot — and to cash in that label at election time.

Saletan contends that opposing a Catholic nominee because of that nominee’s pro-life convictions is not anti-Catholicism unless opponents clearly make the link:

Two years ago, Republicans found a new way to play victim. They were trying to get Bill Pryor, the attorney general of Alabama, confirmed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Pryor had called Roe v. Wade an “abomination” that had led to “slaughter.” Such rhetoric, according to Democrats, suggested that Pryor was incapable of subordinating his moral convictions to constitutional law. A well-connected conservative lobby, the Committee for Justice, fired back with ads depicting a warning on a courthouse door: “Catholics need not apply.” The ads accused senators of attacking Pryor’s “‘deeply held’ Catholic beliefs.”

In truth, no opposing senator had mentioned Pryor’s Catholicism. The inference was drawn purely from questions about his sharp moral rhetoric. Republican senators took the campaign further, suggesting that criticism of judges who supported abortion restrictions was inherently anti-Catholic.

Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review Online addressed some of these points around the time of Pryor’s confirmation hearings:

I think a plausible case can be made that during the confirmation debate over John Ashcroft, Democrats really were playing on widespread prejudices about certain Protestant sects. (The Ashcroft fight, by the way, was a dress rehearsal for the current debate. The Democrats reacted exactly as they are reacting now to the charge of bigotry, and their anger then was a sign of political vulnerability, as it is now.) That case can’t be made now with respect to Catholicism.

So Republican rhetoric about the Democrats’ having adopted a “religious test for office” is not true. It is true, however, that the Democrats have adopted the next best thing. They have a viewpoint test for office that has the effect of screening out all Catholics faithful to their church’s teachings on abortion. The fact that the test screens out a lot of Protestants, too, makes the problem worse, not better. It really is true that faithful Catholics “need not apply” as far as most Democrats are concerned. A Catholic can win their support only by ceasing, on the decisive issue, to be Catholic — by breaking from his church’s teaching, as Senator [Dick] Durbin has done. (It is rather disgraceful for a man who went in six years from supporting the Human Life Amendment to supporting partial-birth abortion to keep carrying on about the extremism of people whose beliefs have been less supple.)

Saletan makes a fair point that claiming anti-Catholicism bigotry against Supreme Court nominees is “becoming numerically preposterous.” What’s not becoming preposterous is the concern that certain Senators will indeed seek to scuttle a Catholic nominee who declines to make the right noises about the sacrosanct nature of Roe v. Wade. Someday, perhaps, we will have the luxury of seeing whether a pro-life agnostic or atheist nominee would encounter the same resistance. Would anyone else enjoy the thought of Nat Hentoff serving his remaining years on the Supreme Court?

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A newsworthy one-year anniversary

MachetesOnce again, let me share an angry parable (with a timely tweak). Some of you don’t think it’s appropriate and I know that. But I do. So here goes (with a hat tip to Pat Sajak, of course).

Today is the one-year anniversary of one of the most shocking events in the history of American pop culture. I am referring, of course, to the shocking murder of filmmaker Michael Moore. It took place shortly after the release of his film Submission, which set out to prove that President Bush and his White House are totally controlled by the radical Religious Right.

In broad daylight, on a city street, Moore was attacked and slashed to death by a fundamentalist Christian, who shouted that Moore deserved to die because of his blasphemy and sins against unborn children. As a final symbolic act, the fundamentalist stabbed the fimmaker one last time, using the blade to pin to his chest a copy of a Four Spiritual Laws pamphlet.

Total fiction, of course. But how would this story be covered by the mainstream press? Do you think we would see MSM coverage of this event on its one-year anniversary?

I think we would.

This brings me, of course, to the one-year anniversary of the murder of Dutch filmmaker, political gadfly and liberal icon Theo van Gogh. If you search for his name today at Google News, you will find some coverage of this story — in the foreign press. I read about this story again, of course, in The Wall Street Journal. For some reason, this act of terrorism remains a “conservative media” story on this side of the Atlantic. The essay by Francis Fukuyama (“A Year of Living Dangerously: Remember Theo van Gogh, and shudder for the future”) begins this way:

One year ago today, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh had his throat ritually slit by Mohamed Bouyeri, a Muslim born in Holland who spoke fluent Dutch. This event has totally transformed Dutch politics, leading to stepped-up police controls that have now virtually shut off new immigration there. Together with the July 7 bombings in London (also perpetrated by second generation Muslims who were British citizens), this event should also change dramatically our view of the nature of the threat from radical Islamism.

This sounds, to me, like a newsworthy topic.

Now that you think about it, so does this story, which I first read about through another commentator on the political right, sort of. That would be Andrew Sullivan. The pope is talking about it, too. That’s two very sharp, and diverse, guys.

Once again we are talking about a shocking crime — the beheading of Christian schoolgirls in Indonesia. Alas, this appears to be a conservative news story, too. If you want information you need to go to foreign news sources or to Christianity Today. An online news story by reporter Deann Alford informs us:

In what one Indonesian human rights activist describes as the latest attack in an ongoing terror campaign against Christians of Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, three teenage girls en route to school through a cocoa plantation were beheaded Saturday morning, apparently by Muslims. …

Two of the girls’ heads were found near a police station five miles from the village of Poso. The head of the third was left in front of Kasiguncu village’s Pentecostal Church of Indonesia (GPdI), eight miles from where the bodies were found in the cocoa plantation.

Read these stories and weep. Or don’t read them. I wish you could pick up your local newspaper and have that choice.

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Calling key conservatives

questionsSome solid reporting by The Washington Times‘ Ralph Z. Hallow on how the administration notified key conservatives, both economic and religious, of Bush’s choice to nominate Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the U.S. Supreme Court. In referencing conversations with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission chief Richard Land, Hallow shows how Bush wanted to pick someone “who could rally the troops.” Here’s the gist:

Karl Rove called key conservative interest group leaders yesterday morning to give them a heads-up just before the White House made public President Bush’s nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court.

Many of the same conservatives had been labeled “sexist” and “elitist” by the White House for their criticisms of Harriet Miers, Mr. Bush’s previous court choice. But all seemed forgiven yesterday as leaders across the Republican spectrum, from economic libertarians to religious conservatives, united in praise of the Alito nomination.

The chance to heal a rift between the president and his conservative supporters brought the personal involvement of Mr. Rove, the political strategist who just days earlier had been the object of press speculation that he might face criminal indictment.

What other unreported conversations have Bush and his aides had with religious leaders? At what point does this become a religious test? Harriet Miers clearly passed some people’s religious test as they found her adequate for the highest court in the land based largely on her personal faith in God and personal integrity.

Those are questions that I believe reporters should start asking more often, and Hallow should have found room for these questions somewhere in his story.

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Again: Who is calling who a “moderate”?

Supreme Court 02This is one of those days when it is hard to be a Godbeat blogger. Where do you begin with the ghosts in the stories about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito Jr.? It is hard to cover the territory, even if you limit yourself to The Washington Post. Let’s try to tiptoe through the minefield. But let me warn you right up front: I remain convinced that the key to this whole story is the old question, “Who gets to control the word ‘moderate?’”

This is a variation on the question I keep asking: If liberals are in favor of the status quo, which used to be called “abortion on demand,” and conservatives support a complete ban on legal abortion, what do the “moderates” want?

Of course, we already know the MSM answer to these questions. Moderates want to maintain the legal status quo and so do liberals. Thus, there are no real liberals. There is no far left on the issue of abortion.

• For example, Michael A. Fletcher was assigned the “fire up the fundraising letters” story, in which activists on the far right and on the far middle gear up to raise money and support. But, behold, right there in the lead is the “L” word. No, not that “L” word, the other one — “liberal.”

Within two hours of President Bush’s nomination of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. for the Supreme Court yesterday, the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way had e-mailed hundreds of thousands of its members, contacted journalists across the country and released a report on Alito’s jurisprudence — all in an effort to derail the nominee.

The conservative Third Branch Conference, meanwhile, spent the hours after the president’s announcement happily planning ways to back Alito. In a conference call with leaders of about 75 right-leaning groups, the organization extolled Alito’s conservative credentials and urged grass-roots support of his nomination.

The word “liberal” shows up again a few lines later and then again and again. In fact, does the word “moderate” appear at all? I didn’t think so.

• But much more traditional language dominates the Charles Lane report with the headline “Alito Leans Right Where O’Connor Swung Left.” That’s a nice headline, by the way, if the issue is abortion (which it is). This report begins with the case everyone is talking about. Note the return of centrist/moderate langauge:

In 1991, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. voted to uphold a Pennsylvania statute that would have required at least some married women to notify their husbands before getting an abortion; a year later, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cast a decisive fifth vote at the Supreme Court to strike it down. …

The record is clear: On some of the most contentious issues that came before the high court, Alito has been to the right of the centrist swing voter he would replace. As a result, legal analysts across the spectrum saw the Alito appointment yesterday as a bid by President Bush to tilt the court, currently evenly divided between left and right, in a conservative direction. O’Connor “has been a moderating voice on critical civil liberties issues ranging from race to religion to reproductive freedom,” said Steven R. Shapiro, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In this case, the centrist position is to defeat a restriction on abortion rights. What would the liberal position be? The story says that the court is, at the moment, perfectly balanced. Is that accurate, if the issue is abortion (which it is)? What would the court look like if it tilted to the left? How could it tilt further to the left on this issue?

By the way, Lane later reports this interesting information:

Alito struck down a New Jersey law that would have banned the procedure known by opponents as “partial-birth” abortion — just as O’Connor did. His ruling, following the one O’Connor voted for, said the statute was unconstitutional because it did not include an exception for cases in which the woman’s health was at risk.

• That important word “center” shows up again in a Dan Balz story on President Bush and the political right. Here we read:

Whether the upcoming battle, which is likely to focus heavily on the divisive issue of abortion, ultimately helps a president whose approval ratings are scraping 40 percent, and whose support among moderates and independents has plummeted even lower, is an open question — and one hotly debated among strategists yesterday. Given the state of his presidency and party, Bush may have had no other choice than to name a Supreme Court candidate who would help to heal the divisions within the GOP coalition, even at the risk of further alienating voters in the center.

Here we go again. In most polls, one small camp of hard-core liberals wants an absolute right to abortion while a similar camp on the right wants to ban abortion altogether. In between is the mushy middle, consisting of people who resist a total ban but want to see abortion limited to one degree or another, depending on how a poll question is worded.

In other words, compromise is in the middle. Restrictions are in the middle.

But, to read Balz literally, the way to reach the center is by defending the legal positions taken by the left. Once again, the key question is this: What would it take to create compromise legislation on abortion, some stance between a complete ban and abortion on demand? If the key to this story is finding and defending the center, what policy is in the center?

• Here is one final example, right there in the headline of a report by Charles Babington: “As Democrats Lead Opposition, GOP Moderates May Control Vote.”

We do not have to read far past the lead to see the dilemma facing reporters and their old-fashioned templates for this story. I am sorry if this is boring, but here goes:

Senate Democrats will lead the opposition to Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s Supreme Court nomination, but a handful of Republican moderates could ultimately decide its outcome, several analysts and lawmakers said yesterday.

The roughly half-dozen GOP senators who support abortion rights are scrutinizing Alito’s dissent in a major 1991 abortion case. If they determine that his judicial record or his answers to questions signal a willingness to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion, they will fall under heavy pressure to oppose him, said congressional scholars and analysts.

Again, we have the obvious question: What is the difference — if abortion is the issue (which it is) — between a liberal and a “moderate” Republican? If Roe is preventing compromise and compromise is the policy option that is located between the far right and the far left, how does one get to a “moderate” policy option without overturning Roe or radically redefining it?

I do think that some journalists, when they are making decisions about these kinds of style questions, need to do some more reading on the left and the right. Notice that both of these pundits support abortion rights. But both are seeking, well, moderation.

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Football and faith

prayer circleIt seems that we all were a bit ahead of the curve when it came to faith and football. A week ago, a number of you readers engaged in a vigorous conversation on whether religion should be considered when a coach/general manager makes football personnel decisions.

One of those engaging in the debate sent me this excellent New York Times article published Oct. 30. The article deals with many of the issues explored last week, many of them wonderfully drawn out with solid detail.

Here’s the heart of the story:

Every preseason for 30 years, Coach Bobby Bowden has taken his Florida State football players to a church in a white community and a church in a black community in the Tallahassee area in an effort, he said, to build camaraderie. He writes to their parents in advance, explaining that the trips are voluntary, and that if they object, their sons can stay home without fear of retaliation. He remembers only one or two players ever skipping the outing.

Since becoming the football coach at Georgia in 2001, Mark Richt, too, has taken his team to churches in the preseason. A devotional service is conducted the night before each game, and a prayer service on game day. Both are voluntary, and Mr. Richt said he does not attend them.

On game days, Penn State players may choose between Catholic and Protestant services or not go at all. Coach Joe Paterno and the team say the Lord’s Prayer in the locker room after games.

As in politics and culture in the United States, college football is increasingly becoming a more visible home for the Gospel. In the past year more than 2,000 college football coaches participated in events sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which said that more than 1.4 million athletes and coaches from youth to professional levels had attended in 2005, up from 500,000 in 1990.

Is it right for faith to play a role in football? What about athletes who are of different faiths from the majority of their team? When is the ACLU going to get involved? How has the Supreme Court affected faith in football? These are all great questions that go to the heart of some of the church and state debates. Also a great example of why sports are a superb microcosm of life.

On a similiar note, The Indianapolis Star ran a great profile of Danny Granger. He is the Indiana Pacers’ first-round draft pick who will hopefully lead them to the NBA finals this year and he also happens to be a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Read on for an interesting profile of a green NBA player with a great deal of potential to become a bright star in the professional sporting world.

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