The night before …

narnia4No, not Christmas — Narnia.

Here’s the rundown of some of the journalistic hackery out there right now, most good, others not so good. I am curious as to how many of your loyal readers will be seeing the film tonight or this weekend. I will not be seeing it this weekend, as I will be out of town. Please feel free to leave links to other reviews of the film and let us know whether you think they accurately portray the movie. Actual news features are even better.

So let’s start on the not so good. The Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee doesn’t pull any punches, writing that “Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion,” and that’s in the headline. Everything from Aslan representing “everything an atheist objects to in religion … he is pure, raw, awesome power,” to C.S. Lewis weaving “his dreams to invade children’s minds with Christian iconography that is part fairytale wonder and joy — but heavily laden with guilt, blame, sacrifice and a suffering that is dark with emotional sadism.” Toynbee clearly does not like Lewis, Christianity or The Chronicles of Narnia.

And here’s more:

Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart. Every one of those thorns, the nuns used to tell my mother, is hammered into Jesus’s holy head every day that you don’t eat your greens or say your prayers when you are told. So the resurrected Aslan gives Edmund a long, life-changing talking-to high up on the rocks out of our earshot. When the poor boy comes back down with the sacred lion’s breath upon him he is transformed unrecognisably into a Stepford brother, well and truly purged. …

Over the years, others have had uneasy doubts about the Narnian brand of Christianity. Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight. Philip Pullman – he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials — has called Narnia “one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read”.

Why? Because here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America — that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. I once heard the famous preacher Norman Vincent Peel in New York expound a sermon that reassured his wealthy congregation that they were made rich by God because they deserved it. The godly will reap earthly reward because God is on the side of the strong. This appears to be CS Lewis’s view, too. In the battle at the end of the film, visually a great epic treat, the child crusaders are crowned kings and queens for no particular reason. Intellectually, the poor do not inherit Lewis’s earth.

We have already established that those who say Aslan as a lion does not truly represent Jesus Christ do not truly understand the nature of Jesus. We also know that Lewis was no neo-fascist. Toynbee fails to support most of her allegations with facts, but that said, those who need Toynbee’s I’m Angry at my Dad, Christians are all Evil attitude, social critique mirroring pieces in the New Yorker and The New York Times can have it. The only difference is that Toynbee is not nearly as hard on Lewis as her American counterparts.

On the other side of the pond, The Detroit Free Press‘s religion writer David Crumm found a local angle, profiling the local folks who made short films that helped build Lewis’s legacy. Crumm is much more factually focused in this straight news story and it’s a solid local portrait of individuals who loved Lewis’s writings. has a page devoted to watching the “hate” directed towards the Narnia film, highlighting the Guardian piece mentioned above. Feel free to browse through that long page of comments, but there’s little there worth reading. I say chill out folks, ignore the “hate,” otherwise known as criticism and enjoy the movie.

And onto my favorite Narnia piece of the week, The Washington Post‘s William Booth takes us on a rapid ride through the multitudes of literary criticisms, hypotheticals regarding Lewis’s life and writings. Here’s what I’m talking about:

C.S. Lewis scholarship has long been viewed as kind of fuddy-duddy-retro in academe, populated mostly by enthusiasts toiling away at religious colleges who often come to the massive Lewis output with an appreciation for its Christian message. “There is the feeling that it would be relegated to a corner,” says Christine Mather, a Lewis scholar and a lecturer in gender studies at Vanderbilt University, “that it would be a lesser area of study for a lesser scholar.”

Not now. Narnia Studies, with a minor in Harry Potter, are hot. “My goodness,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College in Illinois, which houses the most comprehensive collection of Lewis material in the world. “There is a ton of stuff coming out right now. It’s a publishing frenzy. Everyone is trying to capitalize on the movie.”

Over the years there have been dozens of Lewis biographies, and they trace the common narrative about the life of Lewis, which was actually odd and troubled. Where they differ is in what it all means. Lewis is often portrayed in split-screen images: the reactionary, red-faced Oxford don who dislikes children but is described by friends as humble and generous to a fault, who spends his evenings answering letters to his 10-year-old fans (and, by some accounts, every letter was answered — can you imagine?).

I liked and enjoyed the Booth piece. It covered the spectrum and quoted everything from Christianity Today to our friend Toynbee from above. It’s an example of a thorough cultural critique of what is likely to be one of the more significant movies of the year.

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Why do they want to live long enough to take revenge?

suicide bomberThree cheers for the intelligent commenter who raises issues that journalists must consider in covering their beats, particularly involving a beat that is not sole dealing with religion. In this case, I’m thinking of terrorism.

Commenter Deacon John M. Bresnahan raised a great point in this post on telling the story when it comes to female Muslims and terrorism:

Since so much of Europe has lost any enthusiasm for the Christian Faith it looks like G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “those who believe in nothing, will believe anything” may be coming into — at least — partial play. Since it is part of the human condition for most people to believe in at least something of a “higher” spiritual nature — take away strong faith in he who said “love your enemies” and it looks like some will then choose a powerful faith that says — “Even if it means killing yourself, take out your enemies and their mothers and their wives and their babies.”

And another commenter Lucas gave us this link to an article dealing with the western roots of Islamic terrorism.

Both are solid contributions to the discussion of terrorism, female Muslims and the United States’ war on terrorism that is slowly starting to encompass more than just the Middle East. So I was pleased to see the cover story in Newsweek Tuesday:

Jihad used to have a gender: male. The men who dominated the movement exploited traditional attitudes about sex and the sexes to build their ranks. They still do that, but with a difference: even Al Qaeda is using female killers now, and goading the men.

The article is very newsy, as it should be, but it utterly failed to deal with the theological underpinnings of the female Jihadist. Rather it relied heavily on relatively recent trends in the Islamic world. Here’s what I’m talking about:

“Chivalry” is not a word normally associated with terrorism, at least not in the West. But the world in which Osama bin Laden would like to live, and the vision that inspires so many of his followers, is literally about days of old when knights were bold — and fair maidens were kept behind veils, their virtue protected, their lives entirely controlled by men. Since the 1990s, bin Laden has cast his fight as one against “crusaders,” and the most important ideological tract by his right-hand man, Zawahiri, bears the title “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner.”

While gender roles are evolving in many of today’s societies, Al Qaeda has hoped to freeze them in a time of feudal traditions. Many of the organization’s leaders have been intellectuals, doctors, lawyers and engineers who are perfectly at home with other aspects of modernity. But they differ violently with the West about the way women should be allowed to participate in daily life, viewing females as chattel in some cases, as revered mothers in others and almost always as icons to be protected from outside influences.

In jihadist propaganda, the invasion and violation of Muslim lands is intimately tied to the violation of Muslim women, either directly or through the corrupting role of Western values and attitudes. In its 1988 covenant, the Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas laid out its view of “the Muslim woman” as “the maker of men” and the educator of future generations—the person who prepares future fighters. “The enemies have realized the importance of her role,” says the fundamentalist manifesto. “They consider that if they are able to direct and bring her up the way they wish, far from Islam, they would have won the battle.”

The article does a very good job grasping and understanding that these female suicide bombers signal a changing of tactics from the enemy. Is it a sign of desperation or a sign that the movement is gaining strength? It’s hard to say.

But I’m still left wondering why these women are blowing themselves up other than the current factors mentioned here:

The tales of these Chechen women are as much about tawdry victimization as battlefield heroics. They come from a rugged society where an old tradition, made worse after years of gunslinging war and anarchy, allows men to kidnap the bride of their choice. The kidnappers can settle disputes with the woman’s family in cash, or with violence, according to Lida Yusupova of the Memorial Human Rights Center in Grozny. But once she’s been taken, she’s unlikely to find another husband. “No intelligent, nice young man in Chechnya would marry a nonvirgin girl,” says Yusupova.

Some Chechen women who have lost husbands or sons in the war want to live only long enough to take revenge. The first attack by a “black widow,” in the summer of 2000, killed 27 members of the Russian Special Forces. Then the spectral, silent presence of 18 “widows” during the deadly hostage siege of a Moscow theater in 2002 heightened their mystique. Over a four-month period in 2003, Chechen women carried out six out of seven suicide attacks on Russian targets, killing 165 people. Women bombers allegedly brought down two Russian airliners last year, killing all 90 passengers and crew.

So revenge is the reason these women are blowing themselves up? Is it that simple? Tell me why a nonvirgin Muslim woman doesn’t stand a chance of getting a husband? Why is it so important for Muslim women to get a husband?

There are historical and theological answers to these questions and rather than merely digging up the most relevant facts and news for their in-depth articles, reporters must dig deeper into the history of the Middle East and the teachings and beliefs of Islam to allow us to understand this story in its entirety.

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Parsing that Jesus and Santa joke

20051206 4 p120605kh 0147 515hLet me jump in with a note about Mollie’s post about the White House and the raging armies of Christmas, since all of us here at GetReligion are getting boat loads of email about this topic. For me, there are two newsworthy topics linked to this (in addition to all of those that discussed by Mollie, such as the interesting Americans United angle).

First of all, it is a sign of how tone deaf the whole Bush clan is about the cultural style and lingo of evangelical Christianity. I know there are people who think that George W. is a raging theocrat, but I just don’t see it. I still think of him as more of a Texas pragmatist who had a personal experience with God linked to kicking alcohol, yet he remains married to a tough Texas country club lady and his girls, well, do not seem to be Campus Crusade chicks.

Meanwhile, my all-time favorite Bush-ite story about religion and the Bush clan remains this one, as I told it in a column about George Bush, the elder:

George Bush never did learn to open up when anyone asked about his faith, salvation, family values and all those messy spiritual issues. On one campaign stop, he was asked what he thought about as he floated alone in the Pacific Ocean after his plane was shot down during World War II. His response was chilly: “Mom and Dad, about our country, about God … and about the separation of church and state.”

Now there is a guy who is comfortable in his own skin, when it comes to faith. Not.

So what can you say about that joke that George W. Bush tried to pull off the other day at the lighting of That Tree? It seemed that he was trying to wink at the ACLU and Focus on the Family at the same time and just could not pull it off:

“The lighting of the National Christmas Tree is one of the great traditions in our nation’s capital. Each year, we gather here to celebrate the season of hope and joy — and to remember the story of one humble life that lifted the sights of humanity. Santa, thanks for coming. Glad you made it.”

Actually, if you read the White House text for that remark, it seems obvious — or perhaps punctuation spin — that the speechwriters were trying to gently nod to Jesus in one paragraph and then veer into a new paragraph that opened with a Santa gag. However, if your run the two paragraphs together, you get the now infamous one-humble-life-equals-Santa joke.

It is, however, interesting to contrast the president’s remarks this year with those from 2002, which used stronger language while still managing to avoid the call-the-lawyers J-word:

The simple story we remember during this season speaks to every generation. It is the story of a quiet birth in a little town, on the margins of an indifferent empire. Yet that single event set the direction of history and still changes millions of lives. For over two millennia, Christmas has carried the message that God is with us — and, because He’s with us, we can always live in hope.

The second point that I find interesting about this whole flap is the degree to which, in the post Harriet Myers-world, many MSM journalists are paying attention to alternative conservative media — including blogs — as a way to gain insight into that key subculture in the wider Republican Party world. You can see this by noting who gets quoting in the big papers. To some degree, this trend started with Rush Limbaugh and the 1994 revolution, but it seems to me that we are now in a second wave.

This is perfectly valid, to me. If you are covering the left, you read the left — all kinds of people on the left. If you are covering cultural conservatives, you need to find out what they are talking about, both the good, the bad and the angry.

So is this a case of the Washington Post chasing WorldNetDaily? Stranger things have happened.

P.S. About the photo with this post. Someone needs to tell the White House that the lighting of the first Hannukah candle or lamp this year will be at sundown on Dec. 25th and, by the way, you are supposed to light them one day at a time. I believe that Dec. 25th is also a holiday in another major world religion.

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Cue the theme from Jaws

Suffice it to say that, yes, your friends here at GetReligion have recived dozens of tips about Mel Gibson and his proposed television miniseries about the memoir of Flory A. Van Beek, a Dutch Jew whose Christian neighbors hid her from the Nazis during the Holocaust. Yes, this story may turn out to have some legs. Meanwhile, this was certainly a gracious quote in the New York Times piece that started the buzz:

Reached at her home in Newport Beach, Ms. Van Beek, who said she was in her early 80′s, said she had not seen Mr. Gibson’s last movie because it seemed “too traumatic.”

“I don’t know him, all I know is he’s a staunch Catholic, and the people who saved our lives are Catholic,” she said. “I respect everybody’s beliefs.”

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No room at the White House

grinchReporters and editors have been deluging viewers and readers with Christmas culture war stories. And who can blame them? Stories abound throughout the country of public school principals secularizing lyrics to Christmas carols, retail outlets forbidding employees from wishing Christmas shoppers a Merry Christmas, and members of Congress having to fight over what to call Christmas trees. And then on the other side you have folks who see nothing wrong with cancelling church on Christmas Sunday vilifying those on the other side.

Washington Post religion writer Alan Cooperman capitalizes on the Christmas Wars meme with his indepth story on presidential greeting cards:

What’s missing from the White House Christmas card? Christmas.

This month, as in every December since he took office, President Bush sent out cards with a generic end-of-the-year message, wishing 1.4 million of his close friends and supporters a happy “holiday season.”

Cooperman quotes, as he says, the “generals” on the pro-Christmas side reacting to the banal greeting card.

“This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture,” said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Bush “claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn’t act like one,” said Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative Web site “I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it.”

What’s interesting about Cooperman’s angle on the imbroglio the Bush White House finds itself in — this year at least — is that the story has not been pushed by the groups cited in the article but, rather, Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Here’s how their Nov. 30 press release begins:

The Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Religious Right cohorts have been complaining for weeks now about government agencies and store clerks saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” but it looks like Falwell forgot to tell President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush and the Republican National Committee about the preferred religiously correct greeting.

The White House’s 2005 holiday card is just out, and it doesn’t mention the word “Christmas” once.

A Boston Globe reporter mentioned the watered down White House greeting in a Dec. 4 piece, giving proper credit to Americans United. I’m not sure why Cooperman doesn’t but either way, he does a great job of providing historical context for Presidential greeting cards:

Like many modern touches, the generic New Year’s card was introduced to the White House by John and Jacqueline Kennedy. In 1962, they had Hallmark print 2,000 cards, of which 1,800 cards said “The President and Mrs. Kennedy Wish You a Blessed Christmas” and 200 said “With Best Wishes for a Happy New Year.”

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson continued that tradition for a couple of years, but it required keeping track of Christian and non-Christian recipients. Beginning in 1966, they wished everyone a “Joyous Christmas,” and no president has attempted the two-card trick since.

Cooperman writes that the White House and retailers use the same explanation for why they don’t mention Christmas (a desire not to offend non-Christians). And that is undoubtedly true. In this article, the context Cooperman provides is historical perspective on Presidential greeting cards. Perhaps he or another reporter should now dig deeper into why the White House, whose massive card distribution is funded and managed by the Republican National Committee as part of its fundraising strategy, shares its motivations with retailers, who are driven by profit.

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Osama’s school days

BinLadenIn the Dec. 12 issue of The New Yorker, Steve Coll shows how it’s possible to write about the student years of Osama bin Laden without larding up one’s manuscript with cheap-shot adjectives. After all, when a reporter has uncovered enough troubling details, it’s best to let the details speak for themselves. Here’s what Coll turned up about a soccer and study club that met at the Al Thagher Model School in Jedda, which bin Laden graduated from in 1976:

The after-school study sessions took place in the Syrian gym teacher’s room, on the second floor. The teacher would light a candle on a table in the middle of the room, and the boys, including bin Laden, would sit on the floor and listen. The stories that the Syrian told were ambiguous as to time and place, the schoolmate recalled, and they were not explicitly set in the time of the Prophet, as are traditional hadiths. “It was mesmerizing,” he said, and increasingly the Syrian teacher told them “stories that were really violent. I can’t remember all of them now, except for one.”

It was a story “about a boy who found God — exactly like us, our age. He wanted to please God and he found that his father was standing in his way. The father was pulling the rug out from under him when he went to pray.” The Syrian “told the story slowly, but he was referring to ‘this brave boy’ or ‘this righteous boy’ as he moved toward the story’s climax. He explained that the father had a gun. He went through twenty minutes of the boy’s preparation, step by step — the bullets, loading the gun, making a plan. Finally, the boy shot the father.” As he recounted this climax, the Syrian declared, “Lord be praised — Islam was released in that home.” As the schoolmate recounted it, “I watched the other boys, fourteen-year-old boys, their mouths open. By the grace of God, I said ‘No’ to myself. . . . I had a feeling of anxiety. I began immediately to think of excuses and how I could avoid coming back.”

Coll also offers this explanation of the uses (or misuses) of the word Wahhabism:

The kingdom’s dominant school of Islam is often called Wahhabism by non-Saudis, in reference to Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, an eighteenth-century desert preacher who allied himself with the al Saud family when it first established political control over the Arabian Peninsula, and whose descendants are still among Saudi Arabia’s most important official clergy. Many Saudis reject the term “Wahhabism” as pejorative; they regard Wahhab’s ideas as Islam itself, properly interpreted, and they argue that no other label is required. Some Saudis acknowledge their country’s dominant theology as a distinct school of Islamic thought, but they will typically refer to this school as Salafism, a term that refers to the beliefs and practices of the earliest followers of Islam. With some exceptions, adherents of the Salafi school steer away from purposeful political organizing; instead, they often emphasize matters of personal faith, such as the strict regulation of Islamic rituals, and of an individual’s private conduct and prayer.

Finally, there is this wry level of detail about the career path of Osama’s son:

Abdullah bin Laden, Osama’s son, today lives in Jedda and enjoys good health, according to several people who know him. (He did not respond to requests for an interview.) In a story published in a London-based Saudi-owned newspaper in 2001, Abdullah said that he left his father’s household in the mid-nineties, when Osama was preparing to leave Sudan, where he had been living in exile, for a new and uncertain exile in Afghanistan. Not wishing to endure such hardship any longer, Abdullah sought and received his father’s permission to return to Saudi Arabia, where he has since taken up a career in advertising and public relations.

Abdullah runs his own firm, called Fame Advertising, which has offices near a Starbucks in a two-story strip mall on Palestine Street, one of Jedda’s busiest commercial thoroughfares. “Fame . . . Is Your Fame” is the company’s slogan, according to its marketing brochures. Among the firm’s advertised specialties is “event management,” which refers to the staging of attention-grabbing corporate galas and launch parties for new products or stores. The firm makes this promise: “Fame Advertising events are novel, planned meticulously, and executed with efficiency.” On the back of this brochure is printed a single word: “Different.”

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Three cheers for consistency

AntiBushDemonstratorsA group best known for its defense of the free-speech rights of traditional religious believers has decided — acting in a totally consistent manner — to get involved in the defense of a protestor for a case that most would consider “on the left,” in terms of politics. The group to which I am referring is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The problem with discussing the MSM coverage of this case is that I cannot find any.

Thus, here is the opening of its press release on the matter.

Hampton University in Virginia has decided not to expel at least five of seven students for passing out anti-Bush flyers without university approval. …

“While we are relieved that the students were not expelled merely for passing out flyers, the fact that Hampton punished the students at all contradicts its alleged commitment to free speech,” remarked FIRE President David French.

Seven students at the private institution faced trouble with Hampton administrators after November 2, when they and others spent about half an hour in Hampton’s student center passing out flyers on issues including Hurricane Katrina, the Sudan and the Iraq war.

Maybe the news reports are out there, but I can’t find anything to read about this fascinating case. Am I missing something somewhere?

And, not to serve as this group’s press aide, but it seems that it just won another victory in a case that kind of blurs the lines between left and right. This time around, FIRE was fighting on behalf of the free-speech rights of a Muslim who spoke out against homosexuality. Once again, I am forced to turn to the press release for information.

A Muslim student employee at William Paterson University (WPU) in New Jersey has finally been cleared of baseless sexual harassment charges. With the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Jihad Daniel forced the public university to officially revoke the punishment it inflicted on him after he expressed his religious opinion of homosexuality in a private e-mail to a professor.

Alas, I cannot find coverage of this case in mainstream media, even through it contains hooks linked to a number of highly controversial issues.

Doesn’t anyone out there in a newsroom or two care about the free-speech rights of minority groups and anti-war protestors? Or is there some other dynamic at work here?

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Can anyone out there speak “British”?

thumb dcameron05 1Is there anyone out there in GetReligionLand who speaks the English dialect called “British” well enough to help me break the code in the following story by John Daniszewski (God bless you) of the Los Angeles Times? It concerns the rise of the ever-so-slightly modish David Cameron as the new leader of the Tory Party at the ripe old age of 39, which is even younger than a TV cyberanchor here in the USA.

Please understand that I know all about the rising tide of secularization in modern Great Britain and I know that social issues do not play much of a role over there.

Please understand that I also know that the Brits are horrified by what many consider the rise of the insane theocrats on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Nevertheless, I sense some cultural issues lurking between the lines of this part of the story:

With British voters having given the Labor Party’s Tony Blair a third term as prime minister in May, Cameron was expected to pledge to put the Conservatives back in touch with ordinary people — just as the last three party chairmen have promised. …

The Conservative Party has been dogged by the perception that it is a declining club for white, elderly, hunt-riding, middle-class, rural and suburban southern Englanders who belong to the Church of England. (Cameron noted Tuesday that women are “scandalously underrepresented” in the party and pledged to correct that.)

Can anyone out there help me with the translation?

You see, I tend to think of the Church of England as a force on the left side of the cultural divide and, sorry, but I get that impression by reading British newspapers as well as following the political and doctrinal exploits of the Episcopal Church here in America and the Anglican Church of Canada. And what does the phrase “back in touch with ordinary people” mean in England, as opposed to here in America? Does that have religious or secular overtones in politics over there? And, if you read on, you will also notice that Cameron is using “compassionate conservatism” lingo and we all know where that came from.

Input. Need Input.

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