movies

'The Young Messiah' -- A new/old Bible movie that tries to stay orthodox

Ages ago, there was nothing unusual about Hollywood producing epics based on Bible stories.

In the so-called Golden Age, these movies had titles like "King of Kings," "The Ten Commandments," "The Robe," "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and "Barabbas." At least one -- "Ben-Hur" -- was a character-driven classic that helped shape blockbusters for decades to come.

"I have watched them all. … No one called them 'Bible movies' back then or considered them strange. They were big movies about big stories and the big studios knew that lots of people wanted to see them," said Cyrus Nowrasteh. He is the director and co-writer, with his wife, Betsy, of "The Young Messiah" from Focus Features, which hits theaters this weekend.

"These movies went away for a long time … Then there was 'The Passion.' "

Nowrasteh was, of course, talking about "The Passion of the Christ" -- Mel Gibson's 2004 blockbuster that rang up $611,899,420 at the global box office. Hollywood's principalities and powers have been trying, ever since, to find the magic formula that will reach that same audience.

That's a challenge. Just ask the creators of "Noah" and "Exodus: Gods and Men."

Making the case for a great Christmas comet over Bethlehem

It's hard to imagine Christmas without images of a giant star in the night sky over Bethlehem, with one supernaturally bright beam pointing toward a stable.

For carolers, the key words are in "We Three Kings of Orient Are" where everyone sings: "Star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light."

"The Christmas carols are surprisingly accurate when it comes to the details of what we know" from scripture, said New Testament scholar Colin Nicholl of Coleraine, Northern Ireland. "In many cases where they fill gaps in the biblical narratives, they end up including material that is pretty sound -- at least based on my research."

The problem is that this heavenly object simply does not behave like a star. Thus, in his new book "The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem," Nicholl blends material from history and science to argue that this phenomenon can best be explained by charting the path of what he calls "undeniably the single greatest comet in recorded history."

The language familiar to most readers is found in Matthew's Gospel, which states: "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he that is born King of the Jews?' for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."

Concerning those British battles about 'Star Wars' and the Lord's Prayer

Imagine this scene in a London movie theater, moments before the archetypal fanfare signaling the Dec. 18 arrival of the new "Star Wars" epic.

Imagine a beautiful, dignified advertisement appearing onscreen in which Muslims -- workers, refugees, artists and imams -- each recite one of the opening phrases of the Quran.

"In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds. Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek."

How would this be received in modern England, a tense land rocked by decades of debate about multiculturalism and whether it remains "Christian," in any meaningful sense of the word?

That's an intriguing question, after the decision by the dominant managers of British theaters to reject a Church of England advertisement -- targeting throngs at "Star Wars" rites -- in which Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and others recite phrases from The Lord's Prayer. It's important to ponder this comparison, argued theologian Andrew Perriman of London, at a website called "An Evangelical Theology for the Post-Christendom Age."

"Context is everything. It seems to me that the assumption that the Lord's Prayer is culturally and religiously innocuous points to some complacency on the part of the church," wrote Perriman, author of "The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church."

The decision to use this symbolic New Testament prayer in this public-square context, he argued, suggests that, "we have not let go of the Christendom mentality that expects everyone in this country to be, deep-down, innately, whether-they-like-it-or-not Christian."

Dark Halloween nights vs. bright All Hallows' Eve rites

It's Halloween in suburbia and most of the houses are decorated and glowing, waiting to serve treats to Disney princesses, superheroes, movie pirates, zombies. Minions and tiny people disguised as puppies, pumpkins or other innocent options.

But a few houses are dark because, for reasons of safety or theology, their inhabitants have made the countercultural decision to avoid contact with a season they believe has grown too dark and dangerous. Others believe "pagan," evil influences have shaped Halloween, deep into its roots.

"It's hard to know precisely what people mean when they use a word like 'pagan.' For many people it means anything that's ungodly or disturbing. … That's what some Americans think Halloween has become -- a clash between good and evil," said Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research.

A recent LifeWay telephone survey, he said, found that 21 percent of Americans have decided to avoid Halloween altogether, while another 14 percent specifically try to avoid "pagan" elements of the festivities. Nearly 60 percent said Halloween is "all in good fun," while 6 percent of survey participants were "not sure" what they thought.

While some people are worried about ghosts, goblins, devils and other images of death and decay, Americans are much more likely to see Hollywood symbols of "good and evil" arrive at their doors shouting "trick or treat."

Short, candid sermon about faith and life -- from Denzel Washington

As often happens on a campus with strong religious ties, the commencement speaker began with a personal story about life and faith -- with a hint of the miraculous.

The speaker flashed back to a specific date -- March 27, 1975 -- when he had flunked out of college and was poised to enlist in the U.S. Army. Then, during a visit to his mother's beauty parlor, a woman he didn't know gazed into his eyes and demanded that someone bring her a pen. 

"I have a prophecy," she said, writing out key details. She told him: "Boy, you are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people."

That's the kind of thing Pentecostal Christians say to future preachers all the time. But in this case she was talking to Denzel Washington, a future Hollywood superstar. The key, he recently told 218 graduates at Dillard University in New Orleans, is that her words rang true.

"I have traveled the world and I have spoken to millions of people. But that's not the most important thing," said the 60-year-old Washington, who received an honorary doctorate in the ceremony. "What she told me that day has stayed with me ever since.

"I've been protected. I've been directed. I've been corrected. I've kept God in my life and He's kept me humble. I didn't always stick with him, but he's always stuck with me. … If you think you want to do what you think I've done, then do what I've done. Stick with God."

Indie flick 'Little Boy' fights big labels in movie marketplace

Voters at the Toronto International Film Festival created a stir in 2006 when they gave the long-shot drama "Bella" the People's Choice Award, a prestigious salute that often precedes Oscar nominations. 

Then critics began focusing on a key detail: The unmarried waitress at the heart of the indie flick's plot struggles to decide whether to have an abortion, but then decides not to after being befriended by Jose, a former soccer star with a complex, tragic past. Also, the film was drawing public support from pro-life groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

Was this a "Christian," or even "anti-abortion" movie? Meanwhile, a New York Times review called "Bella" a "mediocre cup of mush" and an "urban fairy tale." 

"The minute someone wrote that this was a 'pro-life' movie, there were some people who set out to destroy it," said Eduardo Verastegui, who played Jose. "We saw 'Bella' as a movie about faith and family in Latino communities and the importance of relationships built on respect. … But soon people were talking about the labels, instead of our movie." 

 Now the same creative team is back with "Little Boy," an indie film about faith, family, friendship and the ties that bind, along with one or two near-miraculous plot twists. Once again, writer-director Alejandro Monteverde, actor-producer Verastegui and other "Bella" veterans are headed into the tense territory that divides theater seats and sanctuary pews. "Little Boy" hits theaters on April 25, after early screenings backed by churches, veterans groups and nonprofits that help the poor and homeless. 

Why me, Lord? Bob Dylan and the spiritual, musical ties that bind

After decades of listening to his critics, Bob Dylan has learned to shrug, look to the heavens and keep on going.

"Critics have always been on my tail since day one," he said, at the gala saluting him as 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year. "Some of the music critics say I can't sing. I croak. Sound like a
frog. … Why me, Lord?"

Critics insist that the problem is that he keeps "confounding expectations," he said. "I don't even know what that means. … Why me, Lord? My work confounds them obviously, but I really don't know how I do it."

Maybe its time, he said, for another Gospel album, perhaps with the legendary Blackwood Brothers, including the hymn "Stand By Me." Dylan quoted the lyrics, ending with: "In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me. In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me. When I do the best I can, and my friends don't understand, Thou who knowest all about me, stand by me."

For decades, armies of experts have pondered the contents of Dylan's mind. Secular critics and religious scribes of various stripes can quote chapter and verse while debating whether the alleged voice of his generation, now 73 years old, is a true believer in their various causes.

Now, in two revelatory blasts -- his MusiCares speech and a lengthy AARP the Magazine interview -- Dylan has gone out of his way to stress that there is no great mystery. The bottom line: He is an American songwriter and artist, one with roots deep into America's spiritual and musical soil.

The broken soul at the heart of the 'Unbroken' movie

For decades, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's World Wide Pictures unit produced many films with titles like "Souls in Conflict," "The Heart is a Rebel," "The Restless Ones" and "The Prodigal."

Critics relentlessly noted the formula that drove most of these films: The sins of the main character would cause a crisis, then -- somehow -- he would hear a Graham sermon and be born again. Roll credits.

That was cinema. But the drama was real in 1949 when a shattered sinner named Louis Zamperini attended Graham's historic "canvas cathedral" crusade in Los Angeles.

Come judgment day, warned the evangelist, "they are going to pull down the screen and they are going to shoot the moving picture of your life from the cradle to the grave, and you are going to hear every thought that was going on in your mind every minute of the day ... and you're going to hear the words that you said. And your own words, and your own thoughts, and your own deeds, are going to condemn you as you stand before God on that day."

When Zamperini told his life story -- a rebellious childhood, Olympic glory, then the horrors of World War II, including 47 days adrift in the shark-infested Pacific, followed by two hellish years in prison -- this was the climactic scene.

Religion news 2014: The pope, ISIS, persecution and the rest of the Top 10 stories

Soon after his elevation to the Chair of St. Peter, Pope Francis warned that the world was entering a time when Satan would increasingly show his power, especially in lands in which believers were being crushed.

Looking toward a rising storm in the Middle East, he warned that the persecution of religious minorities is a sign of the end times.

"It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world," said Pope Francis. "Religion cannot be spoken of, it is something private, no?"

A year later, the pope was even more specific in a letter to churches in the ancient lands of the Bible.

"I write to you just before Christmas, knowing that for many of you the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs. Nonetheless, the birth of the Son of God in our human flesh is an indescribable mystery of consolation," said Pope Francis.