Some sins are okay

poster1 fullI always find it interesting which movies political groups and churches choose to protest against. There have been many stories about the reaction to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain but relatively few about the #1 movie in the country this week: Hostel.

James Pinkerton’s column, which I found in Newsday, suggests that there is a larger cultural significance in its popularity. (On a side note, I never really read Pinkerton but I have been enjoying him recently. I really enjoyed his essay on Maureen Dowd’s book, in which he compared her thoughts with Hugh Hefner’s worldview.) Okay, so here’s Pinkerton on Hostel:

Variety described “Hostel” as “unhinged gruesomeness.” Director Eli Roth explained to that he got the idea for the movie from a Thai Web site that purported to offer an online pay-for-kill experience. He said there were “guys out there who are bored with doing drugs” and bedding prostitutes. “Nothing touches them anymore, so they start looking for the ultimate high. Paying to kill someone, to torture them.”

OK, but what’s the social impact of such a movie? Will such a cinematic depiction convince some viewers that it’s “normal” to have such thoughts? Will some be encouraged to copy what they see on celluloid?

And what of the larger social impact? The Web site observes, “It is merciless with the torture, the violence, & the sex. I guarantee you will walk out of this film trusting no one.” That is, “Hostel” will make you hostile.

I just find it surprising that more religious groups haven’t protested this film which will be seen, by my rough mathematical calculations, by about a gazillion more people than will see Brokeback Mountain.

Of course, maybe the larger story is that reporters don’t think to ask religious groups what their feelings are about the movie. Perhaps they don’t even realize there might be a story there because they don’t realize how broadly religious morality extends. This review, from Catholic News Service, rates Hostel as “O” for morally offensive:

Lured off the beaten path by promises of carnal pleasures, they find their way to a hedonistic hostel in Slovakia, where they fall easy prey to a pair of temptresses and wind up in a chamber of horrors where wealthy sadists pay top dollar for the most depraved thrills.

Director Eli Roth (“Cabin Fever”) serves up a steady stream of soft-core sex and hard-core gore, as gratuitously pornographic as it is mindless.

The film’s stomach-churning factor is extreme by even the barrel-bottom standards of Quentin Tarantino, who is credited as one of the movie’s executive producers.

crashSpeaking of stomach-churning, can someone keep Paul Haggis away from a typewriter? The man doesn’t write characters so much as one-dimensional cliche vehicles with which to pound you over the head. If I were to protest movies, I’m pretty sure Crash would be my first victim.

The fact that so many critics heap praise on that silly, silly movie makes me question everything they write. Okay, sorry for veering into GetMovies territory there, but I had to get it out.

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Speaking in God’s name

nagin comments I’m having trouble keeping up with the Rev. Pat Robertson’s obnoxious comments. Was his last one about New Orleans and God’s wrath? Assassinating South American leaders? Or was it regarding some Pennsylvania town? Or on the health of a Middle East head of state?

I’m waiting for Robertson to say that the reason the Indianapolis Colts lost Sunday was the State Supreme Court’s ruling that prayers invoking Jesus Christ are unconstitutional.

The sad part of it all is that Robertson does represents a certain slice of American thought and, thus, I think his comments will always be news. So do his pronouncements represent the thought of that section of Americans that follow this guy, or are they merely goof-ups that few in their right minds agree with? Most likely, as with most things, it’s somewhere in between.

All apologies from Robertson aside, now it’s time to talk about another person’s coffee-spewing comments. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin managed to insult just about everyone yesterday by overgeneralizing and claiming (in jest) to converse with the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Almighty, stating that last summer’s hurricanes were signals that “God is mad at America” and black communities for shooting at each other too much.

Of course comments like these this will happen when a person speaks from the heart. This is something Nagin has been praised for and one of the reasons for his (former?) popularity. Again, all apologies and excuses aside, Nagin’s comments certainly deserve press coverage. He was rightfully elected to his position and could be out soon. Meanwhile, Robertson’s position as Spokesman for Saying Idiotic Things is self-appointed. His removal could prove difficult, despite tmatt’s call for his excommunication.

mayor naginIn a solid piece of journalistic craftsmanship, Los Angeles Times writer Miguel Bustillo places the comments in context and provides some much-needed explainers on what exactly got into Nagin’s head and why he made things worse later with comments on how you make chocolate milk. Here’s Bustillo:

The remarks by the mayor, who is black, appeared to be an attempt to foster racial unity and appeal to disgruntled African American voters. Black activists and community leaders have criticized a rebuilding plan, proposed by a mayoral commission last week, that would give residents of badly flooded New Orleans neighborhoods just four months to prove the viability of their areas before possibly being forced to sell to the government.

Asked by a television reporter afterward whether his vision of a “chocolate” city might be racially divisive, Nagin explained that he hoped for a racially diverse New Orleans.

“Do you know anything about chocolate?” the mayor said. “How do you make chocolate? You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk, and it becomes a delicious drink. That’s the chocolate I’m talking about.”

Nagin’s statements came a day after a traditional parade in the city was disrupted by gunfire that wounded three people. The parade was attended by many black evacuees who had made their way back for the occasion. Police say they do not have any suspects or motive in the shootings.

As part of his imaginary conversation with King on the state of New Orleans, Nagin called the suspected shooters “knuckleheads” and demanded an end to black-on-black violence.

CNN leads with the race comments, while the LA Times and the Associated Press stories open with the God is punishing us angle. Go figure. A casual, completely unscientific study of my own tells me that CNN likes to lead with issues regarding race.

The question for reporters is how to now treat someone such as Nagin. What about his comments criticizing the handling of the recovery efforts? Can they be taken as seriously?

Over at Christianity Today‘s blog, Ted Olsen wonders if Nagin’s recent comments will get the same level of media play as Robertson’s earlier comments on Ariel Sharon:

One might think that a government official’s declarations on the mind of God would be more newsworthy than those of a broadcaster. …

Equating the hurricanes with God’s wrath is theologically problematic. But it’s even more theologically problematic to invoke God directly in your plans to rebuild the city: “This city will be a majority African American city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have New Orleans no other way. It wouldn’t be New Orleans.”

Of course, saying God wants a place to be majority one race isn’t just un-Christian. It also runs directly against Martin Luther King’s dream.

The daily grind of the news will pick up stories likes these and my own personal observation tells me that the media handles them all about the same. It would take a more scientific effort to say for sure. I’m sure Jon Stewart will comment on these matters in his set tonight, but here’s hoping that journalists focus on serious stories, not on these comments by Nagin and Robertson.

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Religion reporter, columnist, blogger?

crozier 2 smallGetReligion readers who want insights into religion news in Great Britain need to know that veteran London Times Godbeat scribe Ruth Gledhill has started writing a blog.

I think this is interesting because many will say that it further blurs the lines between the personal and the journalistic for someone who is still the reporter of record on the newspaper’s hard-news coverage of religion. You could, of course, make a similar comment about me (as many have). However, my weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service is precisely that — a column.

In the past, some editors have expressed discomfort about having reporters on a hard-news beat, such as religion, also serve as columnists who write material that blends opinion and news. It’s part of the whole “How can you cover religion if you go to church?” question. The blogosphere takes that question and turns it up another notch — 24/7.

However, let me be the first to confess that it is interesting to read behind-the-scenes material from Gledhill that fills in some of the cracks on major stories from the news pages. For example, she recently offered this straight news lead on a report about the explosive issue of female bishops in the already splintering Church of England.

The Church of England is to press ahead with the ordination of women bishops despite warnings that the move could tear it apart.

Then, in the blog she is able to turn right around and offer some personal reflections, such as:

One of the most thrilling aspects of being a journalist is being “leaked” information, being handed a report, a document, a “secret”, perhaps passed under a table in a smoky sawdust-filled bar in Fleet Street or, as was given to me once, in a Macdonald’s in Basingstoke. It doesn’t happen often to me, maybe once a year if I’m lucky. The latest document to reach me like this is the deliberations of Bishop Christopher Hill’s Guildford Group on women bishops. …

The document, stamped “restricted” or “strictly confidential” on every page, sets out how the new proposals for TEA, or transferred episcopal arrangements, would work.

Much of the content of the blog is precisely what newspapers in the cyber age must begin offering — especially links to the real documents, transcripts and other forms of information that let the most dedicated of readers go the extra mile. This also lets readers make some of their own judgment calls about the decisions made by reporters and editors. When in doubt, more information is amost always an improvement.

church 20050713 wed4artAt the same time, you have to wonder what the leaders of a traditionalist group like Forward In Faith UK — which opposes the ordination of women as priests or as bishops (photo by ENS) — think when they read a passage such as the following from the beat reporter who covers their organization. As it turns out, the Gillian Warr praised in this passage as a pioneer worker on behalf of women’s ordination was both a friend and the godmother of — wait for it — Ruth Gledhill.

But as for the bishops of the Church of England, well some of them must be hoping the lights will be permanently on red. That way, they will not have to cope with the consequences of what Gillian’s father Percy Dearmer fought for so bravely and so long ago.

In memory of Gillian, I urge them to go crashing through that episcopal glass window. They might even find that the only criticism, in the end, is that they simply did not open the door fast enough.

Believe me, I know how easy it is to find yourself making friends with the people that you cover on your beat. I have also had many a conversation with my editors about what happens when, as a reporter, you find yourself covering your own denomination or even your own parish.

When in doubt, I believe that as a reporter you have to level with your editors and let them help you make decisions about what you cover and what you do not cover (or when you need to share a byline with another reporter). Sometimes you simply have to pull yourself off a story or take the unusual step of writing about it in the first person, so that readers know your connection to the events. In the end, the crucial thing is that the people you are covering believe that you quoted them accurately and presented their views in a manner that was as fair as possible.

Anyway, I, for one, am glad that Gledhill has started a blog. It will certainly make for more lively, and better informed, discussions of her work at the Times. It will almost certain lead to more speculation about the sources of future leaked documents.

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A Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde story

billboardLast week I suggested reporters cover what women go through after they have an abortion, and today the New York Times, of all papers, has a story that mentions counseling done for some women who regret their abortions. The story, by John Leland, profiles A Woman’s Choice Resource Center, which provides ultrasounds, counseling, diapers, baby clothes and adoption referrals to more than 4,000 women each year. The story says the country has 2,300 to 3,500 crisis pregnancy centers nationwide, compared with about 1,800 abortion centers.

The women in this Bible study, a postabortion recovery group, are far from the public battles over abortion laws and the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. But in their quiet way, they represent a dimension of the anti-abortion movement that is just as passionate and far-reaching, consisting not of protesters or political activists but of Christian therapy groups, crisis pregnancy centers, adoption ministries, and support programs for single mothers and their children.

The first ten paragraphs or so of the story were fairly descriptive and interesting. I’ve been interested in the abortion issue for decades and I found it educational. And it’s nice to see that as abortion opponents prepare to march in Washington a week from today, papers are ramping up their coverage of the folks on that side of the issue. Unfortunately, the Times story veered off into viscerally one-sided territory, portraying crisis pregnancy centers as sneaky organizations that obtain clients by deceiving women and tricking them. It’s not news that abortion clinic personnel and supporters loathe crisis pregnancy centers, but a news story should probably try to obtain more balance:

A Woman’s Choice links the church to a national network of crisis pregnancy centers and postabortion groups that share marketing strategies, legal advice and literature emphasizing what they say are the harmful effects of abortion — including increased risk of breast cancer and a psychological condition called postabortion syndrome, which are considered scientifically unsupported by the National Cancer Institute and the American Psychological Association.

Like many crisis pregnancy centers, A Woman’s Choice is designed to look and feel like a medical center, not a religion-based organization with an agenda. Becky Edmondson, the executive director, said the center chose the look and name to reach women who were bombarded with pressures to abort and might think they had no other choice.

“A religion-based organization with an agenda.” Nice! I guess abortion clinics and the New York Times don’t have an agenda, but crisis pregnancy centers do. And what’s worse, they’re “religion-based.”

I also love how the reporter, rather than quoting recent peer-reviewed research (also ignored by the Times when it came out in December) about the increased trauma experienced by women who have abortions, invokes the American Psychological Assocation to discredit the possibility that women who have abortions might suffer from it. Now, maybe the American Psychological Assocation was too busy publishing papers saying conservatives were crazy or that paedophilia should be given a value neutral term, such as adult-child love, but I have news for the New York Times: the American Psychological Association has an agenda. Now, that’s not bad. It turns out that everybody has an agenda. But Times reporters shouldn’t just notice it when it’s the folks they disagree with. Here’s more along the same lines:
article bigpic 1

Surveys of postabortive women about their experiences have produced mixed and inconclusive results, allowing advocates on either side of the abortion issue to claim support for their view of whether abortion leaves regrets or psychological damage. Two analyses published in the same peer-reviewed medical journal, using the same data, came to opposite conclusions about whether women who have abortions suffer more depression than women who give birth after unwanted pregnancies.

I just have to mention one of my pet peeves. Now, I know it’s impossible to conceive that any Times reporter would ever make stuff up out of whole cloth, or that if that happened, the editorial process at the paper of record would quickly catch it, but if you’re going to mention studies with inconclusive and mixed results, go ahead and name the studies or at least which medical journal they appeared in. Don’t expect readers to just trust the reporter. Give readers enough information so they can check out the studies and determine whether the reporter characterized them accurately.

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Truth? What is truth?

cost3Before I launch into the morning cyber-papers, let me share a glimpse of what I will be looking for on this holiday.

The writing team that works with Chuck Colson has some interesting quotes from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the BreakPoint radio script that came out today. The quotes come from the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” text, the part in which a circle of ministers challenged the civil rights leader to explain his belief that Christians have a right to disobey some civil laws.

King went further and said that Christians had a moral duty to disobey unjust laws. This leads to the logical question: How does one know when a law is unjust?

A just law, King wrote, “squares with the moral law of the law of God. An unjust law … is out of harmony with the moral law.” Then King quoted Saint Augustine: “An unjust law is no law at all.” He quoted Thomas Aquinas: “An unjust law is a human law not rooted in eternal or natural law.”

This is the great issue today in the public square: Is the law rooted in truth? Is it transcendent, immutable, and morally binding? Or is it, as liberal interpreters argue, simply whatever courts say it is? Do we discover the law, or do we create it?

Many think of King as a liberal firebrand, waging war on traditional values. Nothing could be further from the truth. King was a great conservative on this central issue, and he stood on the shoulders of Augustine and Aquinas, striving to restore our heritage of justice rooted in the law of God.

This is, of course, a variation on the “Culture Wars” thesis of sociologist James Davison Hunter at the University of Virginia, who stated that our culture is divided into two groups: The “progressives” who believe that truth is personal, experiential and evolving and the “orthodox” who believe there is such a thing as eternal, absolute truth. Click here for more info on that.

All of this, on a personal note, reminds me of that famous issue of Sojourners in November of 1980 that made a progressive case for opposition to abortion. It was the Jesse Jackson essay that really hit home for me at the time, arguing that abortion could be used as a form of institutionalized racism. Jackson even wrote an article that was published by National Right to Life that ended with this statement:

What happens to the mind of a person, and the moral fabric of a nation, that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience? What kind of person, and what kind of society, will we have 20 years hence if life can be taken so casually?

Colson and his team are convinced that King, if he had lived, would have asked similar questions about abortion and would have kept asking them — right up through last week’s U.S. Senate hearings for Judge Samuel Alito.

Perhaps. However, I am sure of one thing. I have trouble seeing MLK having much to do with the pseudo-libertarians — moral on one side, economic on the other — who dominate our political life today.

Now it is time to go see if any of this makes it into the newspapers today, of all days. Help me look for those quotes from Birmingham. It’s the kind of language that, today, will make people sweat on the left and the right. If you find anything interesting, let us know.

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Pat Robertson has a bad week

grimAfter several days of silence, I wanted to let GetReligion readers know that, yes, we have been following all of the Pat Robertson news. The MSM coverage has, however, been rather straightforward and there was not much to comment on.

We certainly saw the New York Times story stressing that Robertson’s controversial statement about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might undercut plans for an evangelical tourism complex in the hills near the Sea of Galilee.

Actually, it was the edgy — some would even say snarky — Sunday Times article that caught my attention. Here’s a sample:

Ministers in Jerusalem were furious after the millionaire preacher suggested that the Israeli Prime Minister suffered a stroke in divine retribution for carving up the Holy Land in withdrawing from Gaza.

The future of the project, nicknamed Jesusland and criticised by some for commercialism in an area of undeveloped rolling hills, is now hanging in the balance. Mr. Robertson released a statement saying that he was merely pointing out the Old Testament perspective on the division of Israel.

Truth be told, I would have liked to have known who created the “Jesusland” label. Was it someone in the Israeli government or at the Sunday Times copy desk?

Then, yes, we followed the Robertson statements that led up to his hand-delivered letter of apology to Sharon. How do you hand deliver a letter to a man in a coma? To read the actual letter, click here and then here. We also saw the White House statement slamming Robertson.

But if you were looking for responses to what Robertson said, I thought it was interesting that Baptist Press released a lengthy article this week by the Rev. Paige Patterson, one of the czars of the conservative era in Southern Baptist Life, entitled “Does Israel still matter?” The goal of the essay, it seemed, was to spell out some of the basic beliefs held by the leaders of America’s largest non-Catholic flock, rather than let people assume that what Robertson was saying was the norm. Maybe there was no connection. But I thought the timing was interesting.

Through it all, many people kept talking about Robertson himself and the question of whether or not he remains a major, symbolic leader among mainstream conservatives and evangelicals. At one point, Dallas Morning News religion-beat scribe Jeffrey “Got Jeff?” Weiss sent out and note to his reader listserv that said, in part:

So does Mr. Robertson have less support today than he did a couple of decades back? Did we pay too much attention to him then? Not enough now? Vice versa?

Here what I’m asking from the list: Are you a fan of Pat Robertson? Do you have a relative or friend who is a fan? Maybe you used to like him but have been turned off by some of his statements? Or vice versa? Or you know someone in either of those positions?

However, I think that many people are missing the point of what Robertson said and why so many traditional Christians are so angry about it.

The key is not God’s point of view on Israeli real estate, although that is a hot topic. And people are not rejecting Robertson’s belief that God can judge the actions of men and women in the modern world. The key to all of this is the religious broadcaster’s suggestion — in this case and others — that he, Pat Robertson, can know and proclaim the will and the mind of God on mysteries of this kind.

Thus, I began my weekly Scripps Howard News Service column this way:

Once again, inquiring media minds wanted to know: Does the Rev. Pat Robertson’s telephone actually have a speed-dial button for the angel of death?

Which brings us to the real question: Has anyone seen anyone calling a press conference to express support for Robertson on this point? Has anyone seen a good news story in which major Christian leaders speak up to defend him or what he is saying?

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The return of the caliphate?

muslim worldThis morning’s Washington Post contained an example of something I believe we need to see more in America’s newspapers. Karl Vick of the Washington Post Foreign Service details in an A1 story a current hot issue in Muslim communities regarding the ground swelling of support for the return of a caliphate to unite believers of Islam.

How often do Americans hear terms like caliphate or khalifa and names like Ataturk or Hizb ut-Tahrir? We’re used to simpler terms like radical and extremist that do not come close to explaining the historical and religious background surrounding the United States’ recent military actions in the Middle East. Part of this is due to the nation’s leaders, but that does not absolve journalists and the organizations for which they work.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Yet the caliphate is also esteemed by many ordinary Muslims. For most, its revival is not an urgent concern. Public opinion polls show immediate issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and discrimination rank as more pressing. But Muslims regard themselves as members of the umma, or community of believers, that forms the heart of Islam. And as earthly head of that community, the caliph is cherished both as memory and ideal, interviews indicate.

That reservoir of respect represents a risk for the Bush administration as it addresses an issue closely watched by a global Islamic population estimated at 1.2 billion. Already, many surveys show that since the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Muslims almost universally have seen the war against terrorism as a war on Islam.

“Why do you keep invading Muslim countries?” asked Kerem Acar, a tailor in central Istanbul. “I won’t live to see it, and my children won’t, but one day maybe my children’s children will see someone declare himself the caliph, like the pope, and have an impact.”

For news purposes, the article focuses on the “what if factor.” The headline — Reunified Islam: Unlikely but Not Entirely Radical — is lame and doesn’t represent the true nature of the story very well, but I should not complain as I am a less than average headline writer and the more appropriate “history of why Muslims are not united” would not draw many eyeballs.

Tmatt has for months called for newspapers to do this type of background story — magazines tend to be a bit better — and while this article is a good step in the right direction, it is limited by its narrow focus. Perhaps a series of articles is justified at this point? With key political events occurring in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan this month, Americans would be well served to know the historical backgrounds and the significance of the events.

The final paragraphs of the Post story point to the future and deserve a significant follow-up, somewhere:

“Bush is saying they would establish a caliphate from Spain to Indonesia,” said Abdullatif, the group’s spokesman in Copenhagen. “The establishment of the caliphate will come by those who work hard.” He said Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Iraq were working to coax a united front with insurgent groups.

As the Hizb ut-Tahrir meeting in Copenhagen broke for evening prayers, Muziz Abdullah, an affable native of Lebanon, surveyed a hall still with standing-room only. “Ten years ago, when I started, it was totally unrealistic to think there could be a caliphate,” he said. “But now, people believe it could happen in a few years.”

Could there be a caliphate representing Muslims from Spain to Indonesia in the next few years? If it were somehow to happen, it would be the most significant event of the century so far. It’s certainly something worth following.

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A heroine gets her due

KateCoverYesterday, the Washington Post ran a profile of Kate Michelman. I’m not sure if they were trying to push her new book or push her appearance before the Alito hearings today, but they were pushing something. If NARAL Pro-Choice America itself had written the piece, it probably would have had more perspective.

Yes, it was in the Style section. But really. Beginning with the headline (“Kate Michelman, The Public Face of a Woman’s Right to Privacy“), the piece is just puffy. I can think of many controversial people who would like such unblinkingly positive coverage in the Post.

Kate Michelman is the face of reproductive rights. It’s a thin face with high cheekbones, dark eyes that can light up and a mouth with a corner that upturns at comic moments.

Staff writer Linton Weeks delves deep to teach us that Michelman organized sales to benefit Mexican farm workers as a teenager. She makes food from scratch and loves to wash dishes. She reads a lot (“every word in every paragraph”) and watches “24.” And then this:

Personality tests, she said, always told her what she already knew. She is an introvert. Her personal story, she said, pushed her into prominence.

Maybe it was reflecting earlier this week on that wonderful Los Angeles Times piece that makes this saccharine hagiography so difficult to stomach. Apparently the rest of the media did not get the memo that more even-handed coverage of abortion issues was permissible. While I’m sympathetic to writing so positively about controversial figures who have since retired from public life, this very controversial woman was testifying against Alito today, not 20 years ago.

While no critics of Michelman were found, Linton did share this quote from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright:

Albright told everyone that Michelman had provided “a voice for those who didn’t have a voice and a brain for those who didn’t have a brain.”

Yikes. No comment.

Next time the Post profiles someone, I hope they can provide a bit more perspective. I certainly got nothing out of this piece. And that’s a shame, because I’d love to know more about Michlelman.

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