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Remembering the real Mister Rogers -- as in the Rev. Fred Rogers

Remembering the real Mister Rogers -- as in the Rev. Fred Rogers

America was divided, tense and angry in 1969, when Fred Rogers faced a U.S. Senate Subcommittee poised to grant President Richard Nixon his requests for deep budget cuts for public broadcasting.

The news was full of assassinations, riots and images from Vietnam. The pain even soaked into the gentle, calm, safe world of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Rogers told the senators why he kept telling children they were unique and special. But he also talked about fear, anger and confusion -- because that's what children were feeling. 

Then he read the lyrics of one of his deceptively simple songs: "What do you do with the mad that you feel, when you feel so mad you could bite? When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right?" 

The song stressed that kids can make good choices: "I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. I can stop, stop, stop anytime. And what a good feeling to feel like this. And know … that there's something deep inside that helps us become what we can."

The senators nixed the cuts, and the Rev. Fred Rogers -- an ordained Presbyterian minister -- continued with his complex blend of television, child development and subtle messages about faith. The Senate showdown is a pivotal moment in "Won't You Be My Neighbor?", a Focus Features documentary just released to theaters nationwide.

"The bottom line for Fred Rogers was that the faith he had in God -- Christian tradition and his own beliefs -- infused everything that he did," said the Rev. George Wirth, a friend and pastor to Rogers for two decades. "He was not a grab you by the lapels man, obviously. He was more careful, and I would say prayerful, in terms of how he discussed faith."

In the documentary, Rogers summed up his approach: "Love is at the root of everything -- all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of what we become." The space created by a TV lens, between himself and a child, was "very holy ground," he said.

Larry Norman: Trapped in Contemporary Christian Music walls he helped create? (Part 2)

Larry Norman: Trapped in Contemporary Christian Music walls he helped create? (Part 2)

When Larry Norman died in 2008 there was one thing the critics -- secular and religious -- agreed on: The controversial singer and music maven helped create the "Contemporary Christian Music" industry.

For Norman, that was not good news.

"In China, if you become a Christian, you may be imprisoned," said Norman, offering a cynical aside during his last concert, in New York City. Seven months later, his fragile heart failed one last time.

"In India, your parents may disown you. In the Middle East, they might execute you. But in America, if you become a Christian, you just have a broader selection of Christian CDs to choose from."

Norman lived to see the fiery folk-rock style he pioneered in the early 1970s -- part "Jesus Movement" evangelism, part social-justice sermons -- evolve into a suburb-friendly genre in which "Christian" was attached to safe versions of old fads in mainstream music.

The album Norman considered his bravest -- "So Long Ago the Garden" -- infuriated many "CCM" consumers because of its symbolic, mysterious language. Then there was the semi-nude, Edenic cover image of the singer.

While writing his Norman biography, "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music," philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury dug into the singer's papers and found an impassioned defense of that album, in a letter to angry fans.

"All of the songs I write are Christian songs, because I am a Christian," wrote Norman. "Is a man any less a Christian because he is a car mechanic instead of an evangelist? … Some people are so conditioned that if a song doesn't have some religious clues like 'blood of the lamb' or 'the cross,' they are unsure of its spiritual qualification."

Part of the problem, said Thornbury, is that Norman had "a glorious way of speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He never wavered from his desire to write Jesus songs. …Yet at the same time, he was constantly blasting Christian music people about making music that was propaganda -- with no art, or poetry, or mystery at all. …

"Larry thought you could be very, very clear on Jesus and the Gospel and, at the same time, go way out there on the edge in terms of art."

Alas, it was hard to be a commercial, secular success while doing both those things.

Larry Norman and the never-ending culture wars over 'Christian' music and art (Part I)

Larry Norman and the never-ending culture wars over 'Christian' music and art (Part I)

When Larry Norman released "Upon This Rock" in 1969, its rock-star sizzle and blunt faith put the album in the soundtrack for millions of lives as the "Jesus Movement" revival surged onto the cover of Time magazine.

Music industry pros were used to hearing The Beatles on Capitol Records. Now there was a longhaired guy on the same label belting out: "Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation to every man and every nation. Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation and let the people know that Jesus cares."

Norman's work did more than shake up church youth meetings. His early success convinced some Gospel music executives to turn up the drums and guitar solos. Soon, "Contemporary Christian Music" grew into a billion-dollar industry with its own written and unwritten rules.

Now it was time for Norman to freak out Christians as much as he did secular-music people in the early years when he shared concert bills with Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Who and others. What were Christian radio stations supposed to do with "The Great American Novel," a song that addressed racism, war, poverty and other hot-button topics?

"You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter, then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water," sang Norman. "And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on, at every meal you say a prayer; you don't believe but still you keep on."

Norman "overloaded lots of people's circuits" and, eventually, even his own, according to philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury, author of a new biography named after one of Norman's most famous tunes -- "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" The subtitle hints at future darkness: "Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock." Norman died in 2008 at the age of 60.

Thornbury calls Norman the "Forrest Gump," a true "holy fool," of American evangelicalism. The scholar — and guitar player — doesn't hide Norman's struggles in business and his private life, adding a painful backstory to a career that put the singer shoulder to shoulder with everyone from the Rev. Billy Graham to President Jimmy Carter, and lots of colorful people in between. As a young man, Vice President Mike Pence was born again at a Christian rock festival -- headlined by Norman.

30 years of 'On Religion' -- Billy Graham, Shirley MacLaine and better religion news

30 years of 'On Religion' -- Billy Graham, Shirley MacLaine and better religion news

Through the decades, the Rev. Billy Graham was known for saying three words over and over -- "The Bible says."

But the world's most famous evangelist quoted another authority during his 1994 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- Shirley MacLaine. A year earlier, Graham noted, the actress, and spiritual adventurer told the editors that religion plays a major role in news worldwide and that it's high time for journalists to accept that.

"What has happened to us?", asked MacLaine. "Why is the discussion of spirituality considered so publicly embarrassing, sentimental or, God forbid, New Age? Why does it make us squirm, when our own founding fathers recognized the spiritual aspect of man as his most fundamental?''

"Amen," said Graham. Journalists and preachers, he stressed, both communicate news about what's happening in life and culture. Both care about people and truth. Both care about injustice, racism and corruption.

"I believe that this is why the founding fathers included both freedom of religion and freedom of the press in the same First Amendment," he added. "In the long run, the loss of one freedom will bring about the loss of the other."

It isn't every day that a religion writer gets to quote Billy Graham and Shirley MacLaine making essential points about journalism.

Then again, this isn't just another column for me. This week marks my 30th anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column. The first piece ran on April 11, 1988 and focused -- wait for it -- on arguments about evangelicals and White House politics. Turn, turn, turn.

Three decades is a long time, so allow me to pause and make something clear. I still believe that if journalists want to cover real news in the real lives of real people in the real world then they need to get real serious about religion.

Yes, there are problems.

Madeleine L'Engle: Yes, there are essential faith elements in 'A Wrinkle In Time'

Madeleine L'Engle: Yes, there are essential faith elements in 'A Wrinkle In Time'

When her children were young, author Madeleine L'Engle used to take them on nighttime visits to the top of Mohawk Mountain, not far from the family's 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse.

The goal was to glimpse the mystery of God.

"If you need one image of God, then go outside on a clear night and look straight up at the stars. That's about as good as I can do," L'Engle told me, in 1989 during a two-hour interview before some Denver lectures.

The wonders of science and heavenly light are at the heart of her classic novel "A Wrinkle In Time." However, she said she knew that she needed to include some specifics to clarify her central message -- without clubbing young readers over the head.

"It's a work of fiction, not theology. I didn't write it expecting to get challenged on every last detail," she said.

However, she was willing to state one fact for the record, offering a variation on a quote she repeated through the years. Yes, she loved stargazing, she said, but ultimately, "I can understand God only as he is revealed in the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth.”

L'Engle died in 2007 at the age of 88, after publishing 60 works of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry and prayers. Her work is back in the news because of debates about Disney's $103-million version of "A Wrinkle In Time," which removed the book's religious images and biblical quotes.

At the time of the 1989 interview, L'Engle was already involved in talks about bringing "A Wrinkle In Time" to movie theaters -- a process that led to a low-budget, made-for-TV flop in 2004. That film downplayed her Christian imagery, as well.

It would be hard, explained L'Engle, to grasp this book's cosmic war between life and death, good and evil, darkness and light without two crucial passages.

The flames outside Waco, the FBI, David Koresh and the mysteries of Bible prophecy

The flames outside Waco, the FBI, David Koresh and the mysteries of Bible prophecy

The recording tape was rolling on Feb. 28, 1993, when Branch Davidian leader David Koresh called Larry Lynch at the McLennan County sheriff's office.

In the background, gunfire continued as Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents raided the 77-acre Mount Carmel complex near Waco. Koresh was wounded early in a two-hour firefight in which four agents and six civilians died.

Koresh kept talking about Bible prophecies. Lynch kept interrupting, trying to get him to pay attention and help stop the fighting.

"All right, we can talk theology," Lynch said, frustrated. "But right now …"

Koresh fired back: "No, this is life. This is life and death! … Theology … is life and death!"

For Koresh, everything hinged on Book of Revelation texts about the Seven Seals and "the Lamb," a mysterious figure who would open those seals in the Last Days.

That was the infamous Branch Davidian drama summed up in one tense exchange, according to the creators of the six-part Paramount Network miniseries "Waco," which runs through Feb. 28. The complex community inside the compound -- including some believers who debated with Koresh -- kept trying to tell FBI leaders and their handpicked experts why they were doing what they were doing and why they believed what they believed.

In the end, federal officials saw everything through a "cult" lens.

"Something dehumanizing happens when you start using the word 'cult,' " said John Erick Dowdle, who with his brother Drew spent four years creating the miniseries. "No matter what happened, no matter what anybody said, the FBI people thought it was just a matter of time before they would kill themselves."

And now a word from Oprah, the pope (and president?) of America's 'nones'

And now a word from Oprah, the pope (and president?) of America's 'nones'

No one has to tell Marcia Nelson about America's rising number of "nones" -- people claiming zero ties to a religious tradition -- because she meets them day after day while working as a hospital chaplain in Chicago.

"Lots of people want you to pray with them, but they'll also make comments that let you know they really don't like the institutional church," said Nelson. "They want you to pray, but they don't want traditional religious language. ... When you're in that situation, what you have to do is try to pray like Oprah."

America had another Oprah Winfrey moment the other day, when the 63-year-old billionaire media maven delivered a Golden Globes sermon that created rapture in Hollywood and a heady buzz among journalists and politicos.

NBC gushed on Twitter: "Nothing but respect for OUR future president."

During her remarks, Winfrey pushed many buttons that have defined her career, noted Nelson, author of the 2005 book, "The Gospel According to Oprah." Surrounded by a media storm about sexual abuse of women, Winfrey also offered praise for journalists, appeals for social justice and criticism of corrupt tyrants. She didn't need to mention the former talk-show host in the White House.

It was a secular speech, noted Nelson, but had the "pastoral touch" that the young Winfrey displayed in services at the Faith United Mississippi Baptist Church, where other girls called her "Miss Jesus."

"Oprah has always had a gift for reading what's on people's minds and this was one of those times," said Nelson.

Winfrey raced from the birth of the Civil Rights Moment to today's headlines, while focusing on the pains and triumphs of abused women.

Yes, those Star Wars theology wars are heating up -- again

Yes, those Star Wars theology wars are heating up -- again

Debates about "Star Wars" theology have come a long way since the first "Star Wars generation" children asked: "Is the Force the same thing as God?"

Later, kids viewing the second George Lucas trilogy faced the puzzling Nativity story of Anakin Skywalker. The future Darth Vader was conceived by bloodstream midi-chlorians -- the essence of life -- acting in union with the Force? His mother explained: "There is no father."

Now the middle film in the new trilogy -- "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" -- has believers debating whether the mythology created by Lucas has evolved into something more polemical, political and commercial, all at the same time. The big question: Can those who loved the early films trust Disney to protect the true faith?

From the beginning, it was clear Lucas was blending the comparative religion scholarship of Joseph "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" Campbell with dashes of Arthurian legend, samurai epics and Flash Gordon. At the heart of it all was the "monomyth" of Luke Skywalker and his epic spiritual quest, noted Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

"A young man (typically) is summoned out of the comfort of his domestic life and compelled to go on a dangerous adventure," argued Barron, at his "Word on Fire" website. "In the process, he comes to realize and conquer his weakness, to face down enemies, and finally to commune with the deep spiritual powers that are at play in the cosmos. … Usually, as a preparation for his mission, he is trained by a spiritual master."

Some of these themes remain in "The Last Jedi," noted Barron, and it's obvious that Rey is a young heroine on her own quest. The problem, argued the bishop, is what has happened to Luke Skywalker and the rest of the ensemble. The old myths and archetypes have been buried in "an aggressively feminist ideology."

Chrismukkah is the reality in modern America: It is what it is ...

Chrismukkah is the reality in modern America: It is what it is ...

It's a question that may pop into the minds of Jewish children at some point when they are little: Does Santa Claus deliver their Hanukkah presents?

The answer must be "no," according to shopping-mall orthodoxy, since the cultural icon called Santa does his thing on Christmas Eve.

Hanukkah gifts have to come from somewhere else and, according to a daring new book for children, that pre-dawn work is done by a Steampunk-styled Jewish hero named Hanukkah Harvie, who flies out of the Statue of Liberty in his Hanukkopter.

But that solution to the presents puzzle raises another tricky question: What happens when Christmas falls during Hanukkah and Santa Claus and Harvie show up at the same house? After all, a 2013 study by the Pew Forum Religion & Public Life found that the intermarriage rate has hit 58 percent for all American Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews. Lots of children are growing up in homes that, to one degree or another, are interfaith.

"The reality, like it or not, is that there are a million-plus children that are doing this, who are trying to make sense out of Christmas and Hanukkah at the same time," asked David Michael Slater, author of "Hanukkah Harvie vs. Santa Claus."

"Do they have a story? What's that like? … I was trying to walk a fine line, while avoiding having to take a stand on all of these hot-button issues. I guess this book's message isn't really religious at all, but it's about people who are trying to live together with some kind of tolerance."

Hanukkah is already a complex and ironic holiday. This year's eight-day "Festival of Lights" began at sundown on Dec. 12th. The season's symbol is a menorah with nine candles symbolizing a miracle -- tradition says that a one-day supply of pure oil burned for eight days after Jewish rebels liberated their temple from Greek oppressors. The center candle is used to light the other candles, with one new candle on each night.

This was once a simple season with simple pleasures.