What will Ken do?

RazanneA Barbie doll with a prayer rug and a hijab? I don’t have a lot of experience with Barbie Dolls (seriously!), but this seemingly incongruent combination struck me as one of those “signs of the times.”

The New York Times has the story:

Fulla roughly shares Barbie’s size and proportions, but steps out of her shiny pink box wearing a black abaya and matching head scarf. She is named after a type of jasmine that grows in the Levant, and although she has an extensive and beautiful wardrobe (sold separately, of course), Fulla is usually displayed wearing her modest “outdoor fashion.”

Fulla’s creator, NewBoy Design Studio, based in Syria, introduced her in November 2003, and she has quickly become a best seller all over the region. It is nearly impossible to walk into a corner shop in Syria or Egypt or Jordan or Qatar without encountering Fulla breakfast cereal or Fulla chewing gum or not to see little girls pedaling down the street on their Fulla bicycles, all in trademark “Fulla pink.”

Apparently young girls are crazy about Fulla and their conservative parents are OK with the idea of buying one. I know my parents never allowed my three sisters to have Barbie Dolls, but they did have other, um, more modest, dolls to play with.

According to the NYT article, Fulla will never have a boyfriend, but will appear in plenty of advertising to promote the toy:

On the children’s satellite channels popular in the Arab world, Fulla advertising is incessant. In a series of animated commercials, a sweetly high-pitched voice sings the Fulla song in Arabic (“She will soon be by my side, and I can tell her my deepest secrets”) as a cartoon Fulla glides across the screen, saying her prayers as the sun rises, baking a cake to surprise her friend Yasmeen, or reading a book at bedtime — scenes that, Mr. Abidin said, are “designed to convey Fulla’s values.”

A series of commercials seems more familiarly sales-oriented, starring young Syrian actresses who present Fulla silverware, Fulla stationery, Fulla luggage and, of course, new accessories for Fulla herself. “When you take Fulla out of the house, don’t forget her new spring abaya!” says one commercial.

Not everyone is thrilled about this culture development, but it’s for different reasons than one might think. Oh the fuss over a toy. Apparently the doll is too conservative. Perhaps Osama would approve? Here is what the progressives think:

Maan Abdul Salam, a Syrian women’s rights advocate, said Fulla was emblematic of a trend toward Islamic conservatism sweeping the Middle East. Though statistics are hard to come by, he said, the percentage of young Arab women who wear the hijab is far higher now than it was a decade ago, and though many girls are wearing it by choice, others are being pressured to do so.

“If this doll had come out 10 years ago, I don’t think it would have been very popular,” he said. “Fulla is part of this great cultural shift.”

“Syria used to be a very secular country,” he added, “but when people don’t have anything to believe in anymore, they turn toward religion.”

Can the social impact of children’s play things really be that significant? (It’s important to note that these are not legally Barbie dolls.) My parents certainly felt it could be by banning what so many other girls found a delightful toy. If this is the case, the NYT has certainly grabbed an important story with a clever, if entertaining, catch.

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MoveOn’s lost opportunity?

SarahWestIn an interview with Noel Murray of The Onion‘s A.V. Club, the masterful documentary filmmaker Errol Morris vents that he could not interest MoveOn PAC in some of his anti-Bush ads. More specifically, he says MoveOn took a pass on commercials featuring pro-Kerry evangelical Christians:

I wish the ads could’ve been used. I kept thinking that the only way ads like this could be effective was to just blanket the markets with them. You don’t show one person, you show 50 people. Make it seem as though there’s a bandwagon. And one thing that really interested me is, I shot evangelical Christians, and MoveOn didn’t even put those in the mix! For reasons that, you know . . . I’m speechless. It was assumed that you can’t touch evangelical Christians. “Oh, they’re the Republican Right. Stay away from those people. Don’t even try to talk to them.” Well, what’s interesting is that there were evangelical Christians who were voting for Kerry. There were right-to-lifers who were voting for Kerry. And it’s interesting to listen to the reasons why. To ignore that segment of the electorate is moronic. Particularly if you don’t know who those people are, or what their concerns are.

Morris mentions that he has posted some of those commercials on his website. In the commercials posted under the category of Religion, only two people (Doug West and Sarah West) say they speak as evangelical Christians. Only one (Sarah West) mentions abortion:

I voted for President Bush in 2000, but you can’t just blindly follow someone because they say they are a Christian. You still have to use you mind and look at the evidence. I just don’t see integrity. I don’t see truthfulness. I just don’t see much evidence of a life devoted to Christ. I’m a Christian. I am against abortion, but I’m voting for John Kerry.

Deborah Wood, identified as a lifelong Republican, objects to Bush’s claim that God is on the side of freedom, which Wood reduces to “God is on our side.”

Bob Scott, also identified as a lifelong Republican, takes umbrage at the idea that Bush would ask God for guidance on any policy, which Scott believes means that “[Bush] thinks he is speaking for God.”

It’s too bad MoveOn chose not to air Morris’ commercials. Free speech, especially about politics, is an inherent good, and political nonconformists certainly are more interesting than people who remain undecided until election day. And it would have been entertaining to figure out whether those commercials changed the minds of more than a few hundred people.

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Horrors! Believers keep going to movies!

exorcism of emily rose 0Here is a Wall Street Journal piece that I wanted to comment on when it came out, but the link was only up for subscribers. Now it seems to be there for free.

This news report is linked to the ongoing trend of niche PR in Hollywood, which affects everyone from cultural conservatives to the gay community. In this case, the trailblazing work is being done by a group called Grace Hill Media.

The studio also courted the Christian media with screenings and interviews with director Scott Derrickson, pointing out that he is a churchgoing Christian.

The result: some religious writers recommended the movie in their publications. The film “is a well-crafted and intelligent movie that aspires to engage heads and not just spin them,” wrote the Catholic News Service in a dig on “The Exorcist,” which featured a possessed girl’s head spinning around. “Emily Rose,” by contrast, “tells a story of faith and compassion,” read a review on “Plugged In,” the cultural guide published by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family.

In my own case, I was sincerely interested in the work of Scott Derrickson, who is a graduate of Biola University near Los Angeles. In candor, I should note that Biola is a major player in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the network behind the journalism program I lead here in Washington, D.C. I am also interested in the entire arena of cultural conservatives wrestling with popular culture on its own terms. There are many, many stories to be written in this area. I have, of course, tried to chase many of them and — warning! book plug! — will continue to do so.

It’s hard to see how this trend can be bad for Hollywood, in an era in which the goal is to get more people into theaters and to run off as few of them as possible.

We are settling into an age of niche films and blockbusters, with almost no middle-sized movies in between. If studios can make quality films that manage to appeal to what is clearly a large potential audience — ordinary Americans who go to church quite a bit — then that is good for people in the industry. Right? It is possible to see signs of this trend all over the place. And, yes, it is freaking out some people in the press.

There also is history at work here. People (traditional Christians, even) who believe that some things are absolutely and eternally right, while other things are absolutely and eternally wrong, have been known to write some pretty good stories about murders and trials and related issues. You can look it up.

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Does your iPod get religion?

catholicinsider banner byYou have to admit that this is one snazzy logo.

It belongs to Father Roderick Vonhögen, a Roman Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Utrecht, The Netherlands, and his Catholic Insider website. He is best known for doing a series of podcasts — seemingly stalled at the moment — titled “The Secrets of Harry Potter.” You may have seen that up on the screen behind Steve Jobs during the Potter plugs at the most recent Apple keynoter (click here to view the liturgy).

Father Roderick (who has a fine radio voice) is very positive about the books (ditto for me), and one of his podcasts picks up an interesting Vatican podcast that goes behind the scenes of the mini-media storm in which it briefly appeared that Pope Benedict XVI had dissed Harry Potter. Some of the material in this podcasting series is similar to the work of my friend John Granger at HogwartsProfessor.com, but there are new wrinkles as well. Like, what is the name of Harry’s owl?

Anyway, with the rising prices of gasoline, my commuter train from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., is getting more and more crowded. This makes it harder for me to read books since, as a creaking overweight Baby Boomer, I tend to sway around a bit too much.

So I am turning to my trusty iPod and starting to get into the podcasting thing. I could have sworn that GetReligion has run some posts about Godcasting, but I can’t find them. If we missed some good stories, let us know.

Anyway, I have a question for GetReligion readers. What are the best religion news podcasts that you have found? I have already subscribed to the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly feed at PBS, which is simply the audio track to the television show. You lose something without the visuals, but it is better than missing the broadcasts.

So what are you iListening to these days?

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Cruising the Times for a ghost?

I have a question about the following story in The New York Times. Is there a ghost in this journalistic visit to a Queens parking lot? A snapshot:

One recent evening, a half-dozen mothers stood chatting, waiting for their children to finish soccer. A stone’s throw away, a group of gay men stood narrating the attempt of a man trolling the lot in a tan sedan to woo the cute man parked in the black S.U.V. with tinted windows backed into a spot.

You could make a case that this is a moralistic story, from either the left or the right. It could be a “What is going on here?” story from an AIDS educator. It could also be a “See what these people are really like?” story from, oh, the Family Research Council. It could also be an stunningly amoral travel-page piece. What think ye, readers?

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Hey, soldier, grunt if you love God

armsandman2The Wall Street Journal ran a book review today that raised way more questions than it answered, including a possble hard-news hook to the ongoing tensions among the chaplains who serve the various branches of the U.S. military. Click here for a flashback on those stories.

The book by Robert Kaplan is called Imperial Grunts and the headline on Daniel Ford’s essay has a kicker phrase that will certainly catch the eye of anyone interested in religion news: “God-Fearing Spartans: A look at America’s ‘imperial grunts.’”

So you are reading along and then you crash into this summary paragraph:

One of the more surprising of Mr. Kaplan’s findings is that evangelical Christianity helped to transform the military in the 1980s, rescuing the Vietnam-era Army from drugs, alcohol and alienation. That reformation, together with the character-building demands of Balkans deployments of the 1990s (more important, in his judgment, than the frontal wars against Saddam Hussein), created our “imperial grunts.”

Whoa. What in the world does all of that mean?

And later we meet a soldier who takes the whole “God, country, honor, duty” equation up to a whole different level. Who are the new “grunts”? We are told that they are the heart of America’s military and are dug in deep out in the overseas battlefields that they call “Injun Country,” an environment in which the grunts say that moral absolutes are easy to see and defend (according to those interviewed for this book).

“We’re the damn Spartans,” explains Maj. Kevin Holiday of Tampa, “physical warriors with college degrees.” A civil engineer with three kids, he is a National Guardsman with an attitude. “God has put me here,” he tells Mr. Kaplan. “I’m a Christian. . . . You see this all around you” — the dust, deprivation and anxiety of Injun Country — “well, it’s the high point of my life and of everyone else here.”

And believe it or not, that is about where things stop. Hey, folks, can you tell us more?

It is my hope that, somewhere at the WSJ news desk, some editor who works with the newsroom’s celebrated column-one feature team read these paragraphs this morning, spit out her or his coffee, and said: “What? Can somebody get me some hard numbers on this thing about ‘evangelical Christianity helped to transform the military in the 1980s’ and all of that?”

There’s a story here. I hope that the talented people on the news side at the WSJ report it, find out if this editorial claim is true and then print the results. Just do it.

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Catholic Church bans gays from seminaries

The Catholic Church has banned homosexuals from entering seminaries and those currently in seminaries will be removed, according to this report on the Catholic World News Web site.

The story has yet to fully hit the mainstream press, but that will change soon. 365Gay.com has picked it up, as has The Advocate and Newsday.

Predictions on how the mainstream press will handle this? And please try to keep the debate to the press’s reaction, not the rightness or wrongness of this decision (go here, here, or here to debate that).

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Do black Christians need to be angry?

image003It’s a challenge, in the print context of GetReligion, to do much reporting about the content of broadcast media. We can, of course, look forward to the day of expanded websites in which networks offer interactive print versions of the features that they broadcast in audio and video forms. We are seeing this happen more and more.

Nevertheless, religion-beat reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty at National Public Radio just served up a report that offered a totally new (at least to me) take on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To hear it, click here and fire up the RealAudio player. Here is the brief description of the report from the NPR homepage:

All Things Considered, September 19, 2005 — For African Americans watching Hurricane Katrina unfold on TV, the need to help was especially pressing. But anger has often accompanied that desire to help, and many black churches are struggling to both provide immediate aid and to help black Americans confront the bigger issues the storm raises.

That’s one way to put it, and the key word is “anger,” because the MSM’s storyline post-Katrina has been built on that emotion. But Hagerty’s reporting digs into a not-so-subtle split within the African-American church.

She starts in a logical place — the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church here in Washington, D.C., which calls itself “The Cathedral of African Methodism.” The church responded to the TV coverage of Katrina by quickly rounding up $20,000 in donations and 45,000 pounds of goods and shipping them off to Mississippi in an 18-wheeler.

This is not a big surprise, notes Haggerty, because studies show that black believers regularly give 25 percent more of their discretionary income to charities — especially church causes — than whites. The church aid flowed straight to needy people, while many other agencies were briefly stalled by forms and interview procedures.

This is where the anger comes in.

Many of the church people making these donations were, of course, moved by the images of black people suffering in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. They got mad and this motivated them. As the Rev. Ronald E. Braxton said of the storm’s fallout: “I hope that it keeps us angry, that it keeps us on alert against forces that dismantle people.”Bishop T D  Jakes and the Potters House Mass Choir   A Wing and a Prayer

But is prophetic — even political — anger the best, or the most constructive, stance for the black church to take today?

The word “today” is key, because right now that anger would be focused on President George W. Bush. Thus, the issue looming in Haggerty’s report is black church anger at other black church leaders who focus on a more positive, conciliatory approach to working with, and correcting, this White House. The big, and I mean big, example of this is Bishop T.D. Jakes at The Potter’s House in Dallas. He recently drew a big spotlight speaking at the National Cathedral service to remember those lost in Katrina. This meant he shared a spotlight, by default, with Bush.

As Haggerty notes, all of this raises a big question: “Who speaks for the black church and what kind of message will it have?”

Oh, and will those voters stay angry and solidly Democratic?

P.S. There might be a link between this story and another lurking just over the horizon (and I don’t mean Hurricane Rita). Click here and let me know what you think.

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