mass media

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

As most occupants of Planet Earth know, last year's "Avengers: Infinity War" ended with the genocidal demigod Thanos using six "infinity stones" to erase half of all life in the universe.

It would have been logical to assume the sequel, "Avengers: Endgame" would start with lots of funerals, with pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and other shepherds working overtime to answer tough, ancient questions.

That assumption would be wrong.

"People are mourning, but they're going to therapy and support groups," said film critic Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com, also a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. "What we don't see are grieving people in church or even at funerals. … We don't hear anyone asking, 'Where is God in all of this?' "

It's rare to hear the theological term "theodicy" in movies, but people who frequent multiplexes often hear characters suffer tragic losses and then ask, "Why did God let this happen?" The American Heritage Dictionary defines "theodicy" as a "vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil."

This God-shaped hole at a pivotal moment in the "Avengers" series offers a window into the soul of the Marvel Comics universe and the minds of executives who shaped most of the 22 movies in this giant pop-culture mythology, said Greydanus.

"We are talking about a major fail, and not just from an artistic point of view," he said. "This shows a stunted view of how most people on Earth live their lives. Even people who are not religious tend to cry out and ask the big spiritual questions when faced with tragedy and loss. That's part of what it means to be human."

Not that many consumers are complaining. In it's first 11 days, "Avengers: Endgame" pulled in $2.19 billion at the global box office -- the fastest a film has reached $2 billion. Many insiders now assume it will eventually break the $3 billion barrier, passing the current No. 1 movie, the environmental-fantasy epic "Avatar," at $2.78 billion.

Truth is, global-market realities now affect how many blockbusters handle explicitly religious and even vaguely spiritual questions.

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

As the flames rushed through Notre Dame Cathedral's wooden rafters -- each beam cut from an individual oak -- a squad of firefighters began a strategic mission.

Their leader was Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. The goal was to save a crown of thorns that pilgrims have venerated for centuries as part of one worn by the crucified Jesus. King Louis IX brought the relic to Paris in 1238, after receiving it as a gift from the embattled emperor of Constantinople.

Fournier and his firefighters were, according to KTO Catholic Television, able to "save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament." Forming a human chain, they retrieved as many relics and works of sacred art as they could, until the flames won.

Meanwhile, American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

That's an interesting way to describe the world's second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter's in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a "cultural artifact"? Is "in shock" the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing "Ave Maria"?

For several decades, I have been asking these kinds of questions while covering religion news and studying how our mass media struggle with religion. This past week marked my 31st anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column.

Was the Notre Dame catastrophe a "religion" story or a drama linked to cultural changes in post-Christian France? I think the answer is "yes" -- to both.

The mass-media holy wars surrounding that 'Unplanned' movie about abortion

The mass-media holy wars surrounding that 'Unplanned' movie about abortion

If "Unplanned" was an ordinary movie, its creators would be busy right now studying second-week box office numbers while starting negotiations with the digital giants that stream products to the masses.

But this has never been an ordinary movie, which is why it's an important test case for religious believers trying to bend Hollywood's unwritten rules about religion and hot-button moral issues.

Backed by a company called Pure Flix, "Unplanned" was filmed in secret in Oklahoma, using the code name "Redeemed" in an attempt to postpone controversy. The filmmakers behind "God's Not Dead" and similar Christian-market projects had a $6 million budget for their take on the story of Abby Johnson, a young Planned Parenthood executive who in 2009 quit to join the protestors outside her own clinic in Bryan, Texas.

Mainstream entertainment's powers that be have made it clear that the images and themes in "Unplanned" are not acceptable, said Cary Solomon, who wrote and directed the film with Chuck Konzelman.

"We offered them money for TV advertising and they turned us down. Now Netflix doesn't want us," said Solomon, earlier this week. "We've made a good movie and people want to see it. … We'll be getting close to $20 million at the box office in another week or so. Why won't some of these companies let people see our movie?"

Most of the "Unplanned" press coverage has focused on the marketplace controversies swirling around the film, as opposed to the film itself. One of the best summaries of the fine details in the drama about this drama ran as a column in The Washington Post.

"They gave the movie an "R" rating -- which meant the trailer could only run before R-rated movies and no one younger than 17 under could see it without a parent's permission," noted Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. "A half-dozen major music labels refused producers' requests to license music for the film. Many major television networks except Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network refused to run ads promoting it. Then, curiously, the movie's Twitter account was suspended through no fault of its own during opening weekend. … Tens of thousands of users (myself included) mysteriously found themselves involuntarily removed from the account's followers and/or unable to follow it in the first place.

"Get the feeling someone doesn't want you to see Unplanned?"

Should busy pastors spend time and energy in the 'dumpster fire' of life in social media?

Should busy pastors spend time and energy in the 'dumpster fire' of life in social media?

If there are problems in the pews these days, most pastors will learn about them the way they learn about almost everything else -- their smartphones will blow up.

It may be a text messages, a blitz of tweets or an online post that ignites a long comments thread with the faithful trading theological jabs or making pious, passive-aggressive remarks about church life. Other messages will be specific and personal, often leaving pastors confused about the urgency of these terse signals.

"People can create online personalities that are simply not real. … A lot of what they say in social media has little to do with who they really are and all the fleshy, real stuff that's in their lives," said the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, of First Baptist Church in Pasadena, Calif.

Thus, Alvaro and the church's other clergy are committed to this strategy: Always move "one step closer" to human contact. "What we want is coffee cups and face-to-face meetings across a table. … You have to get past all the texts and emails and Facebook," he said.

In fact, Alvaro is convinced that online life has become so toxic that it's time for pastors to detox. Thus, he recently wrote an essay for Baptist News Global with this blunt headline: "Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever." His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.

To quote one of Alvaro's Duke Divinity School mentors -- theologian Stanley Hauerwas -- today's plugged-in pastor has become "a quivering mass of availability."

"Any benefit you perceive social media is giving you pales when compared to the real losses of cultivating your online social presence," wrote Alvaro. "Or take it from the other direction. If everyone in your congregation got off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., your ministry and your pastoral life would improve immediately. Well, not immediately. First there would be withdrawal, anger and other addictive reactions. Drugs don't leave your system peacefully."

After evaluating his own experiences in ministry, and talks with other pastors, Alvaro thinks that many people don't understand that social media programs are designed to amplify messages -- especially "negative emotional content" -- so that they spread as far as possible, as fast as possible.

This commercial system is "built to make you angry or sad, but with the promise that good news is one more scroll away. It is a slot machine of empty promises," he wrote.

Spiritual journeys: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson's instrumental art on strings and keys

Spiritual journeys: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson's instrumental art on strings and keys

While recording his "Beyond Nature" album, Phil Keaggy spent many hours doing three things -- playing acoustic guitar, taking long walks in the woods and reading books by C.S. "Jack" Lewis.

"I took all that in and it influenced the music, which was quiet and contemplative and that fit with that moment in my life," said Keaggy, in a recent interview. "All of that was connected. … I think you can feel a spirit behind that music."

So it isn't surprising that this 1991 classic included song titles such as "Brother Jack," "Fragile Forest" and "Addison's Walk," referring to a Magdalen College footpath that Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Oxford friends often walked while discussing literature, faith and life.

While "Beyond Nature" was an instrumental recording, the liner notes included this Lewis quote: "Nature is mortal; we shall out-live her. … Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects. And in there, and beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life."

So this was a "Christian" album, one inspired by the apologetics of Lewis? That's the kind of question musicians often hear after recording instrumental music during an era in which "Christian music" debates almost always focus on lyrics.

"I just play," said Keaggy. "I don't try to analyze all that."

In recent years, Keaggy has recorded a series of instrumental albums with keyboardist Jeff Johnson, who -- like the guitarist -- has for decades mixed folk, rock, jazz, classical and Celtic music into a style that writers struggle to label. Both record most of their music in home studios on their own terms. Both draw the attention of critics outside the "contemporary Christian music" niche.

The duo's latest work, for Johnson's Ark label, is "Cappadocia" -- taking its name from an arid, volcanic region in what is now Turkey. Early Christians hid in this isolated haven during persecutions and the Apostle Peter addressed his first epistle to "exiles" in several places, including Cappadocia.

Johnson visited this region in 2017 and was stuck by remnants of Christian life, from pieces of frescos and engravings to a rose-shaped window in a sanctuary carved into a hillside. Thus, the disc includes song titles like "Chapel of Stone," "Parousia (A Presence)" and "That Which is Hidden."

Memory eternal -- Preacher Jess Moody

Memory eternal -- Preacher Jess Moody

Months after the end of World War II, leaders of Youth for Christ sent evangelists to work in the battered cities of Europe.

The rally teams were led by two of the new ministry's rising stars. The preacher in southern Europe was the Rev. Billy Graham of North Carolina and, in northern Europe, the Rev. Jess Moody of Texas filled that role.

That says something about the oratorical skills of Moody, whose life story was later turned into a Gospel Films feature called "Riding the Pulpit."

So it was no surprise that Moody later served as president of the Pastors' Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention and, in 1969, was asked to address tensions in the Vietnam War era. Moody's sermon -- "The Christian and War" -- left many pastors stunned and others infuriated.

"My country is sick and cannot seem to get well," he roared, offering what he called a "personal paraphrase" of the Prophet Jeremiah. "My countrymen have not been ashamed when they commit all kinds of hell-raising. … It has become impossible for them to blush. This means they are going to fall."

Then Moody veered into another life-and-death issue affecting those committed to ministry in urban America.

"This is my blood I'm spilling in this sermon," he said. "I've been loyal to this convention for the past 25 years and I intend that every breath I take of God's free air will be a Baptist breath, but you listen. … It takes the black and the white keys to play the Star Spangled Banner! And you can't do it without both.

"We must solve the problem of racial hatred within the next 10 years or prepare to become the dinosaurs of the 21st century."

Moody died last month at the age of 93, after several decades out of the spotlight. He lived to see Southern Baptists slowly, but surely, denounce the sin of racism. In 1995 the SBC repudiated "historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past." America's largest Protestant flock apologized to African-Americans for "condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime."

Tensions lingered, and in 2017 the SBC made headlines by repudiating "white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil" that continues to attack America, while urging advocates of "racist ideologies" to repent.

Holiday mystery to ponder -- Where are all the Hanukkah movies?

Holiday mystery to ponder -- Where are all the Hanukkah movies?

In the last decade or two, cable television's holiday-movie season has expanded to the point that it starts soon after Labor Day and weeks before Thanksgiving arrives.

Many titles are classics: "White Christmas," "A Christmas Story," "Miracle on 34th Street," "Home Alone" and the grandfather of them all, near the end of the season, "It's a Wonderful Life."

Alas, then there's "Bad Santa," "The 12 Dogs of Christmas," "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," "Silent Night, Deadly Night," "Jingle All the Way" and way, way too many others to count.

Occasionally, TV executives add something strange -- like "The Nativity Story."

Consumers who pay attention may note an intriguing gap in this "holiday" entertainment blitz. To be blunt: Where are the Hanukkah movies?

Yes, there is comedian Adam Sandler's "Eight Crazy Nights," which critic Michael Arbeiter once called "a travesty." Writing at Bustle.com, Arbeiter stretched to create a holidays essentials list for Jewish viewers with titles such as "The Producers," "Barton Fink," "Annie Hall," "An American Tail" or even -- "bite the bullet," he said -- "Scrooged," "Muppet Christmas Carol" or another take on "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens.

Part of the problem is that many American Jews -- secular and religious -- have a complex relationship with Hanukkah, the eight-day "Festival of Lights" which this year begins at sundown on Sunday, Dec. 2. For starters, many are offended by all efforts to turn this relatively minor holiday into a "Jewish Christmas." Is it really necessary to create copycat "carols" like "On the First Day of Hanukkah," "I'm Dreaming of a Bright Menorah" and "Maccabees are Coming to Town"?

Meanwhile, some rabbis are not all that comfortable with some "militaristic" themes woven into the Hanukkah story, said veteran religion writer Mark Pinsky of Orlando, Fla., author of "The Gospel According to The Simpsons" and "A Jew among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed." Hanukkah isn't a season that leads to easy sermons, he said.

Hanukkah centers on events in 165 B.C., when Jewish rebels led by a family known as the Maccabees defeated their Greek and Syrian rulers. The familiar rite of lighting menorah candles – one on the first night, increasing to eight – is based on a miracle linked with this victory. According to tradition, when the defiled temple was recaptured it contained only one container of pure lamp oil. This one-day supply is said to have burned for eight days.

A December dilemma: Why turn this holiday into a big deal?

Trying to bring the rest of the 'Unbroken' story to the screen, altar call and all

Trying to bring the rest of the 'Unbroken' story to the screen, altar call and all

The lanky young evangelist from North Carolina was starting to attract media attention by the end of his 1949 tent revival in Los Angeles -- which means that professionals recorded his sermons.

So historians know exactly what the Rev. Billy Graham said during the sermons that changed Louis Zamperini's life. And because of author Laura Hillenbrand's 75-plus interviews with the Olympian and World War II bombardier, millions of readers know what happened inside his heart during the altar call.

In her 2010 bestseller "Unbroken," she wrote: "Why, Graham asked, is God silent when good men suffer? He began his answer by asking his audience to consider the evening sky. … 'I see the stars and can see the footprints of God. … I think to myself, my father, my heavenly father, hung them there with a flaming fingertip and holds them there with the power of his omnipotent hand … and he's not to busy running the whole universe to count the hairs on my head and see a sparrow when it falls, because God is interested in me.' "

Zamperini flashed back to his 47 days in a lifeboat after crashing in the Pacific, including the moment when he stared at the heavens and whispered: "If you will save me, I will serve you forever." Stunned, he tried to flee the tent, but Graham said: "You can leave while I'm preaching, but not now. … Every head bowed, every eye closed."

There's no way around the fact that this was the moment when Zamperini escaped his demons, said Matt Baer, producer of the 2014 movie "Unbroken" and of the new "Unbroken: Path to Redemption."

"At the end of the day, this is a true story," said Baer. Thus, they needed to show Graham in the pulpit and Zamperini on his knees, because "this was Lou's life. This was what happened. We had to show -- in a cinematic fashion -- that this is when his life changed."

This does, however, create a problem for a Hollywood moviemaker. The 2014 film directed by Angelina Jolie contained the camera-friendly scenes in which Zamperini competed in the Olympics, encountered Adolf Hitler, fought sharks in the Pacific and triumphed after brutal standoffs with prison-camp commander Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe.

The movie "Unbroken" ended with Zamperini coming home. That's where "Unbroken: Path to Redemption" begins, with a broken hero trying to wash away Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder nightmares with bottle after bottle of beer and whiskey.

Letter from Catholic women: Papal silence isn't going to lessen pain, anger in the church

Letter from Catholic women: Papal silence isn't going to lessen pain, anger in the church

After a week of headlines and dissent, Pope Francis delivered a sermon that -- once again -- offered silence as his strategic response to critics.

The "father of lies, the accuser, the devil" is trying to divide Catholics, said the pope. When faced with "people who do not have good will, with people who seek only scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within families" the proper response is "silence, and prayer."

This echoed earlier remarks when, asked about a scathing epistle by the Vatican's former U.S. ambassador, Pope Francis said, "I will not say a single word on this."

Silence isn't what the authors of a "Letter to Pope Francis from Catholic Women" want to hear, right now. They want the pope to answer Archbishop Carlo Vigano's key accusations -- especially claims that Francis ignored evidence of sexual abuse against children and seminarians by ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C.

"Our hearts are broken, our faith tested, by the escalating crisis engulfing our beloved Church," said the online petition, with more than 30,000 signatures at midweek. "The pain and suffering of the victims never ends, as each news cycle brings more horrific revelations of sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, cover-ups, and deceit -- even at the Church's highest levels."

Several of the Vigano's charges "require neither lengthy investigations nor physical evidence. They require only YOUR direct response, Holy Father."

Tensions have worsened in recent weeks, especially after a hellish grand-jury report about the crimes of 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses. Then came news coverage validating decades of rumors about McCarrick, including testimony about his seduction and abuse of seminarians. Then came Vigano's blast, including charges that Francis trumped efforts by Pope Benedict XVI to push McCarrick out of the spotlight.

The women's statement was triggered by a "wave of problems that has produced so much anguish, confusion, dismay and anger," said Mary Rice Hasson, a Catholic scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "It's not like there has been one problem that we could solve with a few reforms. … The problems just keep coming at us, one after another."