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. 

Year 27 -- A monsignor's long, long doctrinal debate with the Gray Lady

Msgr. Daniel S. Hamilton recognizes a source of doctrinal authority when he sees one -- which is why he pays such close attention to The New York Times.

The 83-year-old priest often feels the urge to respond to the Gray Lady and, rather than limiting himself to sermons from a pulpit, he keeps pounding out letters to the editor -- roughly 330 since his first on July 19, 1961.

"I am a citizen, I am a Christian, I am a Catholic and I am priest," said Hamilton, who is pastor emeritus of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Lindenhurst, N.Y. These letters are part of "defending the faith in our day and age. You have to keep saying that there is a profound moral and ethical angle to all of life and certainly to the stories and editorials printed in the Times."

While he frequently disagrees with the Times, the monsignor said it's crucial for the church to take journalism seriously. The bottom line: Hamilton believes more clergy should demonstrate their respect for journalists by reading their work carefully and then arguing with them -- on the record.

To which I say, "Amen." As of this week, I have been writing this syndicated "On Religion" column for 27 years and I have heard from many angry professionals on both sides of the tense wall between church and Fourth Estate.

Lyle Schaller, the church fix-it man in rapidly changing times

All pastors know that there are legions of "Easter Christians" who make it their tradition to dress up once a year and touch base with God.

What can pastors do? Not much, said the late, great church-management guru Lyle Schaller, while discussing these red-letter days on the calendar. Rather than worrying about that Easter crowd, he urged church leaders to look for new faces at Christmas.

The research he was reading said Christmas was when "people are in pain and may walk through your doors after years on the outside," he said, in a mid-1980s interview. Maybe they don't know, after a divorce, what to do with their kids on Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas once had great meaning, but that got lost somehow. The big question: Would church regulars welcome these people?

"Most congregations say they want to reach out to new people, but don't act like it," said Schaller. Instead, church people see days like Easter and Christmas as "intimate, family affairs … for the folks who are already" there, he said, sadly. "They don't want to dilute the mood with strangers."

It was classic Schaller advice, the kind he offered to thousands of congregations during his decades as a physician willing to work with bodies of believers -- if they were willing to admit they had problems. Ask him about Easter and he would talk about Christmas, if his research pointed him in that direction.

Holy Week 2015: Hearing confessions in the Silicon belly of the high-tech beast

It would be hard to live closer to the belly of the high-tech beast than Menlo Park in Northern California's Silicon Valley.

Close to Stanford University? Check. A highway exchange or two from the Apple mother ship? Check. Not that far from Googleplex? Check. It's the kind of home base from which an Opus Dei (Latin for "Work of God") priest -- with the organization's emphasis on leadership among laypeople as well as clergy -- can lecture, as Father C. John McCloskey recently quipped, to "300 actual and would-be Techies and Masters of the Universe."

It's also an interesting place to hear lots of confessions as Catholics near the end of Lent and prepare for Holy Week and then Easter, which is April 5th this year for Western churches. Eastern Orthodox churches use the older Julian calendar and will celebrate Pascha (Easter) on April 12th.

"One thing we stress during Lent is a sense of detachment from the things of this world," said McCloskey, an apologist and evangelist in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before this West Coast move. "We even do this with good things, if they've become temptations. It can be a kind of food or it can be alcohol. It can be other good things, like running and being obsessed with your health. …

"But if you can't be happy living without something, then that tells you something. It tells you that this thing is using you, rather than you using it."

But what if this good thing is woven into most of the details of daily life?

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 unique life, tragic death and legacy of Father Matthew Baker

As a high-school dropout, Matthew Baker worked the graveyard shift at a gas station because he wanted time to read. 

So he read for seven years, digging into philosophy, literature, history and poetry. This helped steer him away from his teen-aged atheism and eventually towards Orthodox Christianity and the priesthood. He never graduated from college. 

But there was marriage and a large family to love. Then a seminary accepted Baker and then another, leading to a Master of Divinity from St. Tikhon's Orthodox Seminary in Pennsylvania and a Master of Arts from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts. This led to Fordham University doctoral work in theology, history and philosophy and a dissertation that was nearly done, allowing him to finally be ordained in 2014 and, this January, to move to his first parish. 

Then the 37-year-old Baker died on March 1, when the family minivan crashed off a snowy road after evening prayers at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Norwich, Conn. His six children -- ages 2 to 12 -- were not seriously injured. His wife Katherine was home, still recovering from a recent miscarriage. 

"This isn't just a tragic story. It's several tragic stories," said Father Andrew Stephen Damick of St. Paul Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pa., whose family shared a backyard with the Bakers in seminary. "You can write so many headlines on this story and they're all true." 

The prayers of a quiet shepherd for the boys in U2

As Bono launched into another mini-sermon on faith, justice and love, Father Jack Heaslip did what he had always done for U2 -- he stood out of the limelight and prayed.

On this day in 2001, Bono wasn't standing at a microphone in a packed concert venue. He had slipped into a private gathering of staffers from Capitol Hill offices, a strategic circle of believers who shared his concerns about poverty, AIDS and oceans of Third World debt.

"God is watching. … Forget about the judgment of history. For those of you who are religious people, you have to think about the judgment of God," said Bono. And don't worry about "asking God to bless what you are doing. Look for what God is doing and get involved in that, because that has already been blessed."

That last saying -- a Bono standard -- was a quote drawn from the Anglican priest standing in the back of the room. As always, the man who for decades had been U2's behind-the-scenes chaplain declined to be interviewed, but quietly met with people on the edges of the crowd.

In notes accompanying its 2014 album, "Songs of Innocence," the band called Heaslip "our North Star," perhaps knowing that motor neuron disease would soon take his life at age 71.

The blasphemy iceberg is much bigger than Charlie Hebdo

The drama began when a Pakistani politician named Salman Taseer criticized the land's blasphemy laws that were being used to condemn Asia Bibby, a Christian convert.

This led to a man named Malik Qadri firing 20 rounds into Taseer's back, according to witnesses, while security guards assigned to the Punjab governor stood and watched the assassination. When Qadri went to trial, cheering crowds showered him with rose pedals. Later, radicals threatened the judge who found Qadri guilty.

The judge, of course, had committed blasphemy by passing judgment on the man who killed a Muslim politician who -- by criticizing the blasphemy laws and defending an apostate -- had committed blasphemy.

"Then you get the question: Can you defend the judge or would that be blasphemous? We are starting to get here very like a Monty Python element," noted human-rights scholar Paul Marshall, speaking on "Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech and Freedom of Religion" at The King's College in New York City.

This kind of tragedy on the other side of the world is not what most Americans and Europeans think about when they worry about violence inspired by accusations of blasphemy, said Marshall, who currently teaches at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, Indonesia. 

Americans remain confused about the many Islams in today's world

A week after 9/11, President George W. Bush told a hurting nation: "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."

Faced with a tsunami of hellish news about the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and the Levant, President Barack Obama updated that soundbite this past fall: "ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents. ... ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple."

The problem, of course, is that Islamic State leaders keep serving up quotes such as the following, part of the judgments rendered by the leader of recent rites to behead 21 Coptic Christians, filmed on a beach in Libya.

"The sea you have hidden Sheik Osama Bin Laden's body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood," said the executioner, as he pointed his knife at the camera. "Oh, people, recently you have seen us on the hills of as-Sham and Dabiq's plain, chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross for a long time. ...

"Today, we are on the south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message."

No wonder many Americans remain uncertain when asked questions about Islam -- such as whether the Islamic State represents one approach, or even the dominant approach, to Islam today.