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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Have Yourself a Megachurch Xmas

WallpaperVL9Now it’s official: The “Have Yourself a Megachurch Christmas” story is going to roll all the way through Dec. 25, which is the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (to get technical about it).

I think it is safe to predict the presence of the odd network and local news satellite truck or two on the lawns of the more prominent of these superchurches on Christmas Eve, with journalists interviewing the faithful as they enter about their views of the entire affair. Merry Christmas.

Who, I wonder, will be the first to broadcast video clips from the Willowcreek Community Church DVD that this trailblazing congregation is handing out for members to pop into their home entertainment centers on Sunday morning in place of gathering for corporate prayer, praise and, heaven forbid, something resembling the sacraments? (Photos from the church’s website.)

Wasn’t that a nasty way of wording the current situation?

You see, there are at least two stories of substance lurking behind this little media firestorm. The first is obvious and has now officially been locked into Holy Writ by Laurie Goodstein at the New York Times. Here it is right under the lead, with the headline “When Christmas Falls on Sunday, Megachurches Take the Day Off.”

Some of the nation’s most prominent megachurches have decided not to hold worship services on the Sunday that coincides with Christmas Day, a move that is generating controversy among evangelical Christians at a time when many conservative groups are battling to “put the Christ back in Christmas.”

This assumes, of course, that the moderate evangelicals who huddle in some of these megachurches are the same kinds of people who are out there on the front lines of the Christmas wars. This is highly unlikely, I think. But it is true that this particular battle has pounded a wedge into some cracks in the large, but terribly vague, world that sprawls around under that vague umbrella word “evangelicalism.” You cannot say this too often: Not all evangelicals think alike and act alike. Ask Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell.

The other story concerns the decision to cancel worship services at all.

Here, there are two entirely different attitudes at play and Goodstein (and many other reporters) are hinting at a division in doctrine between Protestants and ancient churches, but not really underlining it. However, Goodstein does write:

The uproar is not only over closing the churches on Christmas Day, because some evangelical churches large and small have done that in recent years and made Christmas Eve the big draw, without attracting much criticism.

What some consider the deeper affront is in canceling services on a Sunday, which most Christian churches consider the Lord’s Day, when communal worship is an obligation. The last time Christmas fell on a Sunday was in 1994. Some of these same megachurches remained open them, they say, but found attendance sparse.

This is only part of the story.WillowCreek

Churches that follow the ancient traditions of Christianity and, to one degree or another, honor its liturgical calendar, would never think of not gathering for worship on one of the most important Holy Days in Christianity — period. Sunday, or Monday, or Tuesday or whatever.

Christmas is Christmas. It’s the Christ Mass. You observe it in the early hours of the morning right after midnight and then come back on the day itself. This is part of what it means to be a church.

Or is it? What’s the larger question here and this whole episode helps point out the degree to which there are American churches, following the American calendar and its rites, and then there are, uh, churches that are part of the global history and community of Christianity in the broader, ancient sense of the word.

Here’s Goodstein again:

Canceling worship on Christmas Day appears to be predominantly a megachurch phenomenon, sociologists of religion say.

“This attachment to a particular day on the calendar is just not something that megachurches have been known for,” Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University, said. “They’re known for being flexible and creative, and not for taking these traditions, seasons, dates and symbols really seriously.”

P.S. For coverage of this story from the inside, click here for a new Christianity Today weblog essay.

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Trading one symbolic wall for another

western wailing wall 420I am not the kind of person who lingers over the business pages in my morning newspaper. In fact, that is probably the section to which I pay the least attention and it is certainly not the turf in which I expect to find faith issues covered in a detailed and sensitive manner.

But that is precisely what reporter Bernie Kohn of the Baltimore Sun pulled off in a feature this week about Morris Smith, a superstar in the businesss world who made a highly symbolic leap of faith, quite literally, from Wall Street to the Wailing Wall. Kohn sets up this story with the simple observation that:

Morris Smith was thrust into stardom in the financial world in 1990 when, at age 32, he succeeded the legendary Peter Lynch as manager of Fidelity Magellan, the world’s largest mutual fund. Amid a turbulent market, roiled by the Persian Gulf War and a numbing recession, Smith kept Magellan one of the better-performing stock funds and added $7 billion in new money.

A crucial element of this story is the fact that Smith was already a highly devout, practicing Jew during this high-rolling part of his life. This is not a story about the clouds parting and a man suddenly getting religion. Kohn makes that clear and that is what makes the story so interesting and, for many readers, will give it a special hook of conviction.

One day, in a grocery produce aisle, preparing for Passover, Smith started thinking about the details of his 70-hour-a-week life and asked: “What else is there?”

The something else was a move to Israel, where Smith is both a serious student of Jewish scripture and tradition and, on his own terms, a businessman who is still hooked on the world of stocks. You see, he didn’t cut off his talents and that part of his life. He renegotiated the terms of his life and got what he believes is a better deal. Kohn describes the results in simple, but effective, terms — never eliminating the religious elements of the story.

Smith says that some people cannot understand his decision. Reading Kohn’s story would help them to understand. That is what a good journalist can do, even as he covers a simple lecture and talkback session at a Jewish education center.

Here’s a sample:

Smith said he spends 30 hours a week in religious studies, starting when his alarm clock rings at 4:25 a.m. His nonprofit ventures in the U.S. and Israel include a satellite TV network dedicated to Torah study. …

The 1990s, he says, were “a period of incredible greed. And greed begets bad habits.” Of course, it was pointed out to him, he was in the business of greed. Magellan’s investors expected — demanded, even — that he make as much money as possible.

“The greed that is good is a greed for success,” he responded, playing off the infamous “greed is good” line from the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street. “The greed that is bad is a greed for success at any cost.”

This is a fine story. Please let me know if you see any other excellent religion-beat work lurking in the business pages of your local newspaper.

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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.

RedState.org 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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