Christian media

Trying to focus on the future

As strange as it may sound, the head of Focus on the Family is trying to find just the right place in his Colorado Springs office to put a framed copy of an editorial from the New York Times. Under the headline "Super Bowl Censorship," it defended the Christian group's right to buy a prime chunk of airtime, even if the ad focused on the decision by an ailing Pam Tebow to ignore her doctors' advice to abort her fifth child -- a son named Tim. Protests by the National Organization for Women, NARAL Pro-Choice America and others, it said, were "puzzling and dismaying."

"The would-be censors are on the wrong track," proclaimed the Times. "Instead of trying to silence an opponent, advocates for allowing women to make their own decisions about whether to have a child should be using the Super Bowl spotlight to convey what their movement is all about. ... Viewers can watch and judge for themselves. Or they can get up from the couch and get a sandwich."

Where should Focus on the Family President Jim Daly place this memento? After all, it represents a major event during the final days of founder Dr. James Dobson, the child psychologist who over three decades built one of America's most powerful radio franchises and evangelical ministries. Dobson's farewell broadcast was Feb. 26th.

Daly, who became Focus on the Family president in 2005, is thinking about putting the framed editorial between two photos. In one, Daly is standing with President George W. Bush. In the other, he is standing with President Barack Obama.

"I'll find a spot," he said. "That would be a rather symbolic place to put it."

Daly has worked for Focus on the Family for two decades, focusing on building a global audience of 200 million listeners. He is well aware that some loyalists on the legendary Focus on the Family mailing list -- a major resource when raising money or inspiring grassroots support on hot issues -- are worried about recent strategic moves.

Take, for example, Daly's decision to attend an Obama White House conference on fatherhood. Some also questioned the decision not to fight CBS over the right to explicitly mention abortion in the Super Bowl ad.

"I don't want to underestimate their concerns," said Daly. "There are people who want to see more of the hard-hitting approach. The thing is, I'm not sure that approach still works today."

While it's impossible to say if Focus on the Family will take another Super Bowl plunge, the mainstream-media approach used in the Tebow family ad is a sign to what lies ahead, and not just because the Heisman Trophy winner will soon be playing in nearby Denver.

The goal all along was to use the brief advertisement to point viewers toward a longer version of the Tebow story at, said spokesman Gary Schneeberger. Thus, the crucial post-Super Bowl numbers were these -- 92 million of the 106 million who watched the game told researchers they saw the Tebow ad. Among those who did, 6 percent said the spot and the furor surrounding it made them think twice about their beliefs on abortion. In all, about 1.5 million people went online to watch the more detailed Tebow feature.

Daly and Schneeberger insisted that there was no sneaky, brilliant strategy to hide the ad's contents, other than their desire to keep pressure off Tebow as he prepared for his final college bowl game. Nevertheless, a giant media storm was triggered by an early report that Focus on the Family was planning a Super Bowl ad, coupled with a later wire-service story that the Tebows were involved. The result, said Schneeberger, was the equivalent of $32 million worth of free ink and airtime in national media.

"The people who didn't approve of the ad that they had never seen ended up doing all of our talking points for us," he said. "We didn't have to say anything else."

The key lesson, agreed Daly, was that it's possible to "reach out and hold a dialogue" with an audience larger than the Focus on the Family mailing list. The Super Bowl project proved that the ministry could frame a message in such a way that "people outside of our niche had a chance to catch it and it does appear that some caught it. We think that's progress."

The Lion, the Witch and the Fans

Mrs. Dilber is not one of Charles Dickens' most famous characters.

Still, Ebenezer Scrooge's spunky housekeeper became a favorite of director Paul McCusker and his Radio Theatre ( team during its production of "A Christmas Carol." As a tribute, characters named Dilber were written into the Father Gilbert Mysteries and "The Legend of Squanto," while a "Dilberius" appeared in a biblical series.

McCusker also decided to continue this inside joke in his first radio script for "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," turning a housekeeper named "Mrs. Macready" into yet another "Mrs. Dilber." Douglas Gresham, the stepson of author C.S. Lewis, jumped on this tiny change as soon as he saw the script.

"His logic was simple," recalled McCusker, laughing. "He said that the diehard fans will know that it's supposed to be Mrs. Macready because millions of them know these books cover to cover. Diehard fans will know we changed it and, for them, that will affect everything. Then they'll start calling and writing, wanting us to change the name back to Mrs. Macready. Why go through that?"

It was nearly a decade ago that McCusker began dramatizing "The Chronicles of Narnia," the Oxford don's fantasy series that has sold nearly 100 million copies in the past 55 years. Thus, McCusker has already worked his way through some of the creative and even theological issues faced by movie director Andrew "Shrek" Adamson and the rest of the team that has turned "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" into a $150 million epic for Walden Media and Walt Disney Studios. Adamson has also worked closely with Gresham, whose mother, American poet Joy Gresham, married Lewis late in life.

Legions of Lewis fans must realize, said McCusker, that turning books into movies requires changes. Today's digital artists can show in mere seconds what, in print, required many paragraphs to explain. Meanwhile, dramatic scenes that Lewis quickly sketched -- such as massive battles involving talking beasts and magical creatures -- will be expanded because this is what modern audiences want to see fleshed out on screen.

"You have to make choices, but you have to make careful choices. If you take a major scene out, or you make a big change in the plot of a book that is this beloved, you are going to hear about it. Just ask Peter Jackson," said McCusker, referring to the director of "The Lord of the Rings" movies.

Gresham, 60, is serving as co-producer of the Narnia project. He stressed that he has, "for 30-odd years," dedicated himself to finding artists and entrepreneurs who share his commitment to faithfully capturing the themes in his stepfather's books.

"It is my ambition to live long enough to see all seven Narnian Chronicles made into feature films," he said, during a recent visit to Washington, D.C.

Because of recent leaps in technology, insiders realized that "now is the time to make this movie," said Gresham. "If you can imagine it today, then we can film it. ... But I don't want people coming out of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' saying, 'Wow, what tremendous special effects.' I want people to look at each other, slightly bemused, and say, 'Where did they find a real centaur to play that role?' "

But Gresham knows that many viewers will dissect the movie's theology, even more than its production values. They will be especially tense when the Christ figure in Narnia, the lion Aslan, offers himself as a sacrifice.

In a lengthy speech after his resurrection, Aslan explains that the evil White Witch "knew the Deep Magic. But if she could have looked a little further back ... she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards."

This is, as Time magazine noted, "Christianity in a kid-lit veil."

"They can change a speech like that a little. They may need to shorten it," stressed McCusker. "If they stay true to the spirit of what was written, people will understand what is happening. ... Lewis has woven the Christian symbolism so tightly into the story that you can't cut it out without changing the story itself. The people who love this book are simply not going to let that happen."