Brokeback stone table story hangs around

091205 brokebackIf, while visiting the usual online newspapers and blogs, you clicked this gay-based Golden Globes story in Variety (“It’s red meat for the culture warriors.”) and then happened, by chance, to click on this sobering summary of movie and DVD trends in 2005 (“Plummeting 2005 box office sparks Hollywood crisis”), would one be justified with a click here and even over here to touch base with the American mainstream?

If Variety is going to start using what it thinks is “culture wars” language, at what point does someone write the end of the year round-up (that’s cowboy lingo) that explores the moral, cultural and, yes, religious angles of the whole brokeback stone table showdown? Of course, King Kong may drive this out of the headlines. But I think not, especially if blue zip-code writers such as Ken Tucker of New York Magazine are going to write reviews that wave red flags in front of easily provoked leaders out in flyover country. Check this out the twist in his “Brokeback Mountain” hymn:

When, a half-hour into the film, Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist and Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar, both drunk, cold, and lonely on a remote Wyoming campsite, fold around each other and commence an act of sex that manages to be both rough and tender, romantically intimate and lustily intense, Brokeback Mountain achieves its own early climax: You either buy into this tale of men in love or you join the ranks of those who’ve been snickering during the movie’s prerelease trailers, and who can be divided into the insecure, the idiots, or the insecure idiots.

Well, on to the Oscar races. Let’s see how many of the insecure idiots out in middle America tune in this year and how that affects both the ratings and the advertising revenue.

Wait a minute: I thought Hollywood was all about making money and that, if someone wanted to send a message, they were supposed to call Western Union?

topnav aslanMeanwhile, the newspaper of record on all things Tinsel has raised the stakes as high as they can possibly go. Forget about a showdown between the gay cowboys and the Lion King of Kings. For some folks in Hollywood, says the Los Angeles Times, it is past time for the ultimate symbolic showdown (cue the theme from “Braveheart”):

“Brokeback Mountain’s” future in the heartland will offer a classic test of whether what the movie business considers its best work will be embraced by audiences whose values may be more conservative than Hollywood’s. In some ways, “Brokeback” could prove a counterpoint to the phenomenal success of last year’s “The Passion of the Christ,” a film disparaged by Hollywood power brokers and many film critics that still emerged as a blockbuster.

The controversial cowboy movie, which is rated R in part for its sexuality, also is hitting theaters at a time when filmmakers and studio executives are worried they are losing touch with audiences, as reflected by a yearlong box-office slump.

Really? Hollywood insiders are still shook up about “The Passion”? You think so?

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Talk about mingling church and state

repentThere has been some amazing coverage surrounding this morning’s execution of convicted murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams. The gang leader, who killed four people in two separate robberies in 1979, unsuccessfully tried to receive clemency from various courts and Gov. Schwarzennegger.

With many Christian churches and other religious groups taking different positions on whether the state has the right to enact the death penalty, all capital punishment stories invite religious angles. But I can’t recall such an open embrace of religious terminology as what we saw in headlines and copy today. The first few stories I read pounded the themes of redemption, mercy, and atonement. I wasn’t sure if I was in church or reading the news.

Many of these “redemption” stories gave second or third billing to redemption’s sidekick: repentance. The stories that did mention atonement, such as this one from the San Francisco Chronicle, used an unlikely source:

“Clemency cases are always difficult, and this one is no exception,” Schwarzenegger wrote in a six-page statement rejecting Williams’ bid to have his sentence commuted to life without the possibility of parole. “After studying the evidence, searching the history, listening to the arguments and wrestling with the profound consequences, I could find no justification for granting clemency. The facts do not justify overturning the jury’s verdict or the decisions of the courts in this case.”

Williams said he was a changed man and of value to society because of his anti-gang writings from behind bars. Schwarzenegger noted, however, that Williams had never apologized for the murders. Williams maintained he did not commit them.

“Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption,” Schwarzenegger said. “In this case, the one thing that would be the clearest indication of complete remorse and full redemption is the one thing Williams will not do.”

The Governator articulating an understanding of the relationship between repentance and forgiveness is not what I expect when opening my California papers. What a day.

Reporters also managed to include the religious motivations of many of the death-penalty opponents. For instance, Washington Post writer Evelyn Nieves quoted these Williams supporters:

“The first thing you learn from the Bible is about forgiveness,” actor Jamie Foxx told CNN in criticizing Schwarzenegger’s decision. Foxx portrayed Williams in “Redemption,” a made-for-television movie.

and, later:

“Schwarzenegger could have called for a moratorium today,” said Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who is co-sponsoring a bill that would impose a moratorium on executions until January 2009 to review the fairness of how the state imposes the death penalty. The bill was introduced in August and is scheduled to be heard in committee next month.

“It would be refreshing to see the state articulate the values of grace, mercy and redemption,” Leno said. “Unfortunately, the governor has missed an opportunity to do just that.”

The idea that the state, traditionally the arm of justice and law, should take over the church’s work, traditionally that of forgiveness of sins, is a radical idea. And yet almost every source quoted — from Leno here to Schwarzenneger — engaged the idea. The lack of quotes arguing against such mingling of church and state was striking. When some Christians advocate for a ban on abortion or resolutions against same-sex marriage, the media is quick to identify opponents who claim church-state violations. Do they not see the state taking over the work of forgiveness of sins, dispension of grace, etc., as a mingling of church and state? Surely there are folks who could speak to this. Where were they in the stories?

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Thank you, Eugene Robinson

pryor4Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has put into words part of what I was struggling to say in my post about the God-haunted side of comic genius Richard Pryor.

When the main hook for comedian is that he is going to talk openly about the dark side of life, that implies that there is some light — somewhere. When that comedian openly states is that his goal is to tell the Truth, with a big “T,” then that implies that such a thing exists, even when talking about the racist sins of a society or the drug-based demons in his own soul. So how did Pryor handle all of that, when he was on stage?

… (Along) with the fallen, Pryor also portrayed men of the cloth — black preachers whom he cleverly used to deliver social commentary. It didn’t matter how puffed-up he made them sound, or how foolishly he had them preen and strut; it didn’t matter that they might be paying undue attention to shapely female parishioners or the contents of the collection plate. Pryor always gave his preachers an air of dignity and command that their sins could not diminish. On a 1975 album — “. . . Is It Something I Said?” — Pryor complained that “white church” was “too scary for me,” with its otherworldly music and somber iconography. “In black church,” he said, “you get a show for your money.”

It makes perfect sense that the most influential comedian of his time would identify with preachers who knew how to put on a proper show, who gave a committed performance, who refused to hold anything back — and who told the truth. If the preacher was delivering a eulogy and the dearly departed had been a no-good dirty dog, well, that’s what the preacher said. And the church said amen.

Yeah. That’s what I’m talking about. Has anyone else seen solid MSM coverage of this side of Pryor’s work?

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The missing abortion debate

babyThe European papers are all over this study from Oslo University on the trauma abortion can cause, which appears to be greater than the trauma caused by a miscarriage. The interesting thing here is that while European journalists jump all over this story, there is relatively little noise over in the United States. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Here is London’s The Daily Mail‘s take on the subject:

Women who have an abortion can suffer mental distress, anxiety, guilt and shame even five years afterwards and sometimes even longer, research has shown.

The study compared a group of 40 women who suffered a miscarriage with 80 women who chose to have an abortion, questioning them 10 days, six months, two years and five years after the event.

The team from Oslo University, found that women who had a miscarriage suffered more mental distress up to six months after losing their baby compared with those who had an abortion.

There is a certain Supreme Court decision known as Roe v. Wade that prevents any true debate in the United States on abortion. It’s perceived as a settled issue so journalists have little need to explore the deeply compelling story that is the actual act of an abortion rather than the horse race that is Supreme Court nominations.

It’s considered a right as basic as voting, which keeps it out of the political arena and thus largely the journalistic arena. There are exceptions of course, graphically seen here in the Los Angeles Times (for more commentary spurred on by that article, click here and here).

As the Economist wrote so eloquently this week (no link, sorry folks, I read this one while at the dentist and it’s blocked on their Web site), abortion in the United States remains a hot button issue precisely because there is no true debate on the issue. The issue of abortion is largely settled throughout most of the world (in favor with some restrictions), but in the U.S., the debate rages onward and has started to negatively impact our judicial system and take time away from other much more pressing issues that must be debated such as terrorism and a flu pandemic. And all because a few judges believed that the right to an abortion was akin to the right to vote. Clearly, the issue is not that simple.

Fox News’ Salynn Boyles seems to be the only American journalist to have jumped on this story, and she does so in great detail. The Australian Doctor.com covered the story as did the Hindustan Times. The BBC has an article on this, as does the Telegraph and The Independent. I know this story is only a day or so old, so it might take time for it to catch on in the U.S.

For reporters who coverage laps into this area of health and abortion issues, don’t let a legal decision stop you from covering this story. This Web site might be a good place to start as might the local church or abortion clinic. One way or another, there’s a story to be told and one way or another, the truth will get out. The question is whether American journalists have it in them to cover the story.

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Muslim hero

good muslimI’ve caught most of Showtime’s Sleeper Cell. The 10-hour miniseries follows an Al Qaeda terrorist group in Los Angeles and the FBI agent who infiltrates it.

Permit me to get my complaints out of the way. The show suffers from too much exposition. In a desperate bid to cater to the whims of the politically correct, the terror cell has fewer Arabs than non-Arab Muslims. This includes a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Californian; a French ex-skinhead; a Bosnian and a Black American Muslim. And to take advantage of being on cable, the nudity and premarital sex is more fitting of the Sopranos than a show about Muslims.

But I have been sucked in for two reasons: Michael Ealy and Michael Ealy. I kid. But the actor who plays the Muslim hero who infiltrates the terror cell is incredibly easy on the eyes.

On a less shallow note, the show has highlighted something that I wish reporters and editors would pay attention to. Apart from the artistic merits or lack thereof, it provides a valuable news service by showing the difference between the violent Islam of the terrorists and the Islam of the FBI agent.

At a time when every politician repeats the mantra that Islam is a religion of peace, even the most culturally unaware American knows that the September 11 hijackers were Muslim, the July 7 London bombers were Muslim, the Madrid bombers were Muslim, the kids who rioted in Paris earlier this fall were Muslim, Osama bin Laden is Muslim, etc.

People aren’t stupid. Or, if they are, they still understand that there is something that all these folks have in common. What Sleeper Cell does is show various interpretations of Islam. And with the current climate, learning more about Islam is good.

Which brings me to the media analysis. Detroit Free Press writer David Crumm wrote about Sleeper Cell last week before it debuted. His story describing the show and community reaction to it is genuinely interesting:

In the first hour alone, the troubling images include a Muslim father killing his teenaged daughter for sleeping with a boyfriend and Muslims burying a friend, who they believe has betrayed them, to his neck and stoning him to death as he screams for mercy.

The Free Press hosted a screening this week for Alawan, two other adults and a religiously diverse group of seven seniors from Salem High School in Canton.

Afterward, all three adults called the series disturbing and said they hope no one sees it. But all of the students said they’ll recommend it to friends, mainly because of a key detail that appeared to mean much more to them than to the adults.

The teenagers noticed that “Sleeper Cell” is the first major TV series with a Muslim hero. Darwyn al-Sayeed (played by actor Michael Ealy) joins the terrorist cell, but viewers find out that he is an FBI agent trying to stop the terrorists.

Crumm’s story doesn’t just take national story and make it local, it doesn’t just find a new and creative way of reviewing television, it is also illuminating. It would be interesting for other reporters to look at how youth and adults react to seeing Muslim heros in various media.

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’Tis the journalism season…

… For editors to require religion-beat specialists to pull dozens of holiday and Holy Day stories out of a hat. Here is the official Religion Newswriters Association tip list for stories this year.

Mary of Nazareth
A Merry Hindu Christmas
The soundtrack of this Christmas
Happy Christmakkah!
When it’s not your holiday
Home for the holidays
Homeless for the holidays
Christmas: A Muslim-American Parent’s Dilemma
Religious toys and games
A gift to be simple

Behold! No sign of empty megachurches. Visit ReligionLink to see the interactive resources there.

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“God made me funny”

1Face it — it’s very hard for someone who grew up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s son (that would be me) to feel very comfortable with the kind of language that the late Richard Pryor used on stage.

At the same time, I think I know a God-haunted individual when I see one and, as soon as I was able to dig into his work in any way, it was clear to me that Pryor was one of those individuals who was utterly clear-eyed, much of the time, about the power of his own sins and of the sins he witnessed in the hilarious and terrifying world around him.

This was a man who lived, we are told, in a state of agony, fury and pain. What was the source of all of that?

By the way, when I use the term “God-haunted,” I am referring to someone who is not a religious believer in a conventional sense of the word (as far as we know), yet cannot seem to stop airing her or his religious questions, fears, speculations and other forms of artistic commentary. Think Woody Allen or Bill Cosby. Think Clint Eastwood or Robert Duvall. Think Madonna or Sting.

Back to Pryor. If you spent any time this weekend reading all of the usual mainstream media reports on Pryor, you saw — along with the obvious salutes to his talent and stunning impact on television, film and the stand-up comedy of others — a steady stream of references to him wrestling with his angels and his demons and commentary about his unique childhood. What happens when you grow up in whorehouses run by family members, while your parents and grandparents also want to force you to go to church? You get Richard Pryor. You get a man who can argue with God about the state of his own flawed heart — his physical heart and his spiritual heart, too — and perfectly capture the sound of church deacons primping as well as ghetto studs pimping.

I was struck by this brief passage in the Los Angeles Times obituary by Lynell George, which ran under a headline that said, “Richard Pryor; a Groundbreaking, Anguished Comedian.”

In later years, Pryor’s life was a blur of bad choices and reckless acts. Scarred by drugs, violence, quadruple bypass surgery, broken marriages and estranged children, Pryor tried to take his own life. The initial reports of June 9, 1980, were that the comedian accidentally set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Pryor finally revealed the truth in his autobiography “Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences,” co-written with Todd Gold:

“After freebasing without interruption for several days in a row, I wasn’t able to discern one from the next. … Imagining relief was nearby, I reached for the cognac bottle on the table in front of me and poured it all over me. Real natural. Methodical. … I picked up my lighter. … I was engulfed in flame. I was in a place that wasn’t heaven or earth.” …

But Pryor was best known for his searing analysis of race relations. He was honored by the Kennedy Center with the first Mark Twain Prize for American humor. … The comedian was poignant in his remarks to a Washington Post reporter shortly after winning the honor: “I’m a pioneer. That’s my contribution. I broke barriers for black comics. I was being Richard Pryor; that was me on that stage. But I was on drugs at the time.”

He told the Post: “The drugs didn’t make me funny. God made me funny. The drugs kept me up in my imagination. But I felt … pathetic afterward.”

Call this a missed opportunity. I wonder if this sensitive subject is a job for Beliefnet.com? However, I have to admit: How can anyone write about this topic without quoting many of Pryor’s most famous routines on topics such as these? And how do you do that in a public newspaper?

“God made me funny”? Is that a statement of thanksgiving or anger or both?

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Movers and Quakers

jesusbombNearly four out of five folks in this country self-identify as Christian. And (to understate widly) there are very few political issues that 80 percent of the country agree on. The war in Iraq certainly is not one of them. Many of the soldiers fighting the war are Christian. Many of the people opposing the war are Christian. Christian lawmakers voted for the war. Some Christian lawmakers voted against the war. One Christian voted for the war before he voted against it.

I bring this up to point out one of the weaknesses in coverage this past week of the four Christian anti-war activists who were kidnapped at gunpoint by Muslim militants in Iraq. It’s a horribly sad, if not altogether surprising, story. The Muslim Swords of Righteousness Brigade threatened to kill the men if their demand that the United States release all prisoners in Iraqi and U.S.-run detention centers was not met by Saturday, Dec. 10th. They accused the four of being coalition spies.

Concern for the group grew over the weekend as the deadline for their execution Saturday passed. The four men — Tom Fox, 54, of Clearbrook, Virginia; Norman Kember, 74, of London, England; James Loney, 41, of Toronto, Canada; and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, a former Montreal resident living in Auckland, New Zealand — were affiliated with Christian Peacemaker Teams a pacifist group of Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers. The group sends teams of workers to intervene in war zones and other dangerous areas. Their motto is “committed to reducing violence by getting in the way.”

The Christian Peacemakers require its corps members to be “deeply grounded in Christian faith.” So you have a group of peace activists who may have already lost their lives because of their interpretation of the Bible. Leaving apart the possible merit or naivete in their political understanding, why aren’t reporters teaching us more about their Quaker-infused theology? Even after reading through dozens of accounts of the hostage situation, including a BBC profile of Christian Peacemaker Teams that was anything but, the religious motivation angle was only mentioned in passing. The best I could find was this story in the Buffalo News that used quotes from Kathleen Kern, an acquaintance of the hostages:

Kern described Christian Peacemakers Team as committed to peace and human rights. In Iraq, the group initially sent members ahead of the U.S. invasion to protest the war. Later, it focused on detainees, collecting stories about their disappearances and treatment.

The activists don’t engage in proselytizing overseas, she said.

But, she added, “We are not ashamed to say we are doing this, that we are doing human rights work, because Jesus is on the side of the marginalized.”

Christians have been struggling with how to live simultaneously in secular and spiritual realms for millennia. The media tend to see this conflict on the right very easily when they cover conservative Christian battles in the public square. But it seems harder for them to look critically at the equivalent struggles among liberal Christians. In defense of the media, their poor coverage of religious attitudes toward war might be a reflection of the complete lack of debate on the issue in most American denominations.

In any case, are there different standards for justice in the church and in the world? Have Christians discussed this issue before? Does this play into separation of church and state? If there are different standards for how to handle conflict in the church and in the world, what does that say about current hot-button political issues? I hate it when I have nothing but questions after reading two dozen articles from different perspectives about the same situation.

If these four hostages are going to die at the hands of their captors, one of the few things we might expect from reporters covering the saga is an exploration of the hostages’ motivations.

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