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.

Religious persecution remains a controversial reality in our world today

Religious persecution remains a controversial reality in our world today

Early in the Iraq war, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana took part in a congressional fact-finding trip to meet with U.S. troops.

Some of the lessons he learned during his first trip to that troubled land had more to do with religion than with warfare. While meeting with local officials, for example, Pence watched the local imam rush to embrace a friend -- the Catholic bishop in southern Iraq. A translator said the imam thanked the bishop for staying in touch after the recent death of his mother.

That was enlightening, said Vice President Pence, during the recent "Help the Persecuted" summit in Washington, D.C. But he also learned a crucial fact that day. 

"I turned to the diplomatic aide who was with me," Pence recalled, "and said, 'So there's a Catholic church in al-Basrah?' And he said, 'Yes, yes there is.' And I said, 'How long has there been a Catholic church in al-Basrah?' And he said, 'About 1,500 years.' "

That's a sobering fact, since Iraq's Christian population has fallen 80 percent since that 2004 meeting, said Pence. The Christian population of Syria has fallen 50 percent in the past six years.

"As you all know, no people of faith face greater hostility or hatred than followers of Christ," said the vice president. "In more than 100 nations, spread to every corner of the world … over 245 million Christians confront intimidation, imprisonment, forced conversion, abuse, assault or worse."

Nohere is this onslaught more evident than in the "ancient land where Christianity was born," he added. "In Egypt we see the bombing of churches during Palm Sunday celebrations. In Iraq we see monasteries demolished, priests and monks beheaded and the two-millennia-old Christian tradition in Mosul clinging for survival. In Syria, we see ancient communities burned to the ground and believers tortured for confessing the name of Christ. … Christianity now faces an exodus in the Middle East unrivaled since the days of Moses."

Pence has made similar remarks before, but these statements rarely gain traction outside the world of Christian media. The problem is that the words "religious persecution" -- especially when linked to suffering Christians -- remain controversial among some public officials and journalists.

In Britain, for example, immigration officials ruled against the asylum claim of an Iranian national who had converted to Christianity. Here's what made headlines: The Home Office backed this action with claims that Christianity is not a religion of peace, quoting Leviticus 26:7 ("Ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword") and the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:24 ("Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword").

Meanwhile, the Christian Broadcasting Network and other conservative groups have noted, in recent weeks, the deaths of an estimated 120 Christians in central Nigeria.

After wars over Bible, marriage and sex: Union possible for Episcopalians, Methodists on left?

After wars over Bible, marriage and sex: Union possible for Episcopalians, Methodists on left?

Next year, delegates at the United Methodist Church's General Conference are supposed to consider a full-communion plan with the U.S. Episcopal Church.

"We seek to draw closer in mission and ministry, grounded in sufficient agreement in the essentials of Christian faith and order and assisted by interchangeability of ordained ministries," states the current text for "A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness."

This is not a merger proposal, but: "We see this relationship of full communion as a step on the journey. … We are blessed in that neither of our churches, or their predecessor bodies, have officially condemned one another, nor have they formally called into question the faith, the ministerial orders, or the sacraments of the other church."

However, events in the United Methodist Church have given some members of that flock -- especially LGBTQ clergy and laity -- a strong incentive to go ahead and investigate nearby Episcopal parishes.

A special General Conference recently voted to reaffirm current doctrine that marriage is the "union of one man and one woman" and "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." The historic gathering also passed pieces of a "Traditionalist Plan" requiring UMC clergy to follow those laws in their Book of Discipline.

So far, leaders on the United Methodist left haven't announced plans to leave. But that doesn't mean that Episcopal clergy and other liberal Protestant leaders shouldn't be prepared to help United Methodists who come their way, said the Rev. David Simmons of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Waukesha, Wis., a leader in several regional and national ecumenical efforts.

"We have to start with the fact that lots of United Methodists are really hurting," he said, in a telephone interview. "What we should be doing is providing a safe harbor. Our primary motivation shouldn't be to grab members from other churches. … If we do that then we're not being a safe harbor. We can't go around saying, 'United Methodists hare having trouble, so let's recruit them.' "

Thus, Simmons recently posted an online essay entitled, "How to Deal With Methodists at your Red Church Doors" -- referring to the front doors at most Episcopal parishes. His subtitle was even more blunt: "Don't be a Jerk."

Striving to build the Kingdom of Heaven with timber, stucco, brick and iron

Striving to build the Kingdom of Heaven with timber, stucco, brick and iron

When Andrew Gould began designing a sanctuary for Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Charleston, S.C., he started by creating an imaginary backstory for the parish.

Instead of beginning with a circle of Orthodox families and converts in 1996, the art historian and architect imagined that a community of Russian immigrants had moved to Charleston in the mid-19th century. They looked at the city's famous mix of Southern warmth, Colonial style and coastal, Mediterranean influences and then built a church that was thoroughly Orthodox -- but fit into Charleston.

Working with local materials as much as possible, Gould designed a Byzantine church, but with a copper roof, plenty of exposed Heart Pine wood and stucco masonry painted in a gold-yellow tint common in historic Charleston. Then he included a unique saw-tooth cornice design, using local brownish-red brick, a pattern that had the added advantage of resembling traditions in Russia.

"I kept asking myself, 'What parts of Charleston's architecture could be baptized into Orthodoxy? What if this church had been built by Russians long ago and it's been here ever since and it looks totally at home in Charleston?", he said, describing the 2004 project that opened a new stage of his career.

"I have a kind of romanticized fantasy about the history of these churches and I have used this technique in other places. Keeping this kind of story in mind keeps me focused on what I'm trying to accomplish."

This goal shapes the work that Gould and other artisans do with his New World Byzantine Studios in Charleston, whether it's designing an entire church, one of his massive, circular ironwork chandeliers or other forms of liturgical art and church supplies. The goal is to maintain ancient forms and traditions, while blending in cultural, historical influences seen in life in a specific region.

For example, what would a Pueblo-style monastery in New Mexico look like if it were Orthodox, instead of Catholic, and featured altar cloths, carvings and icon-stand decorations influenced by Native American culture?

Doing the United Methodist math: Is the future in the Global South or American pews?

Doing the United Methodist math: Is the future in the Global South or American pews?

For more than 30 years, the Reconciling Ministries Network has openly opposed United Methodist teachings that marriage is the "union of one man and one woman" and that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Now, a special meeting of their denomination's General Conference has affirmed those doctrines and passed laws requiring clergy to follow them -- even in sanctuaries in which they have long been ignored.

Reconciling Ministries leaders were blunt: "The Traditionalist Plan was passed by the efforts of organized opponents to gospel inclusion who … have dared to call out a white nationalist strain of Christianity."

Leaders in Africa's booming United Methodist churches -- key players in efforts to defend ancient doctrines on marriage and sex -- find it "farfetched" to link them to white nationalism, said the Rev. Jerry P. Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia.

It's understandable that many United Methodists are "angry, bitter, discouraged and frustrated," said Kulah, after the St. Louis conference. After all, they invested years of money and work to pass the One Church Plan favored by most bishops, UMC agencies and academic leaders. It would have removed current Book of Discipline teachings on homosexuality and allowed local and regional leaders to settle controversial marriage and ordination issues.

Kulah said United Methodists in Africa and the Global South believe they have centuries of church history on their side.

"For us it is a foregone conclusion that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman -- as taught throughout scripture and as the missionaries from America and Europe taught our parents -- not between two persons of the same sex," he said. "No argument. No compromise."

At the heart of this clash is evolving United Methodist math. Unlike other Protestant bodies, the UMC is truly global, with 12.5 million members worldwide -- a number that is growing. However, there are only 6.9 million in the United States, where key statistics are declining -- especially in the more liberal North and West.

The more converts, the more members, the more votes in General Conference.

The Vatican sexual-abuse summit: Sister Veronica of Nigeria faces the men in black

The Vatican sexual-abuse summit: Sister Veronica of Nigeria faces the men in black

At the end of the movie "Spotlight," the screen went black before a message appeared noting that The Boston Globe's investigative reporting team published nearly 600 stories, in 2002 alone, about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

 The next screen noted, "249 priests and brothers were publicly accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese."

 But there was more. The first time Sister Veronica Openibo of Nigeria saw this film -- which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016 -- she was stunned to see four screens packed with the names of 223 American dioceses and nations in which major abuse scandals had been uncovered.

 "Tears of sorrow flowed," she said, speaking at the Vatican's global summit on clergy sexual abuse. "How could the clerical church have kept silent, covering these atrocities? The silence, the carrying of the secrets in the hearts of the perpetrators, the length of the abuses and the constant transfers of perpetrators are unimaginable."

Didn't any of these priests and bishops, she asked, go to confession? Didn't they wrestle with their sins while talking with the spiritual directors who guide their lives? Later, she went further, asking why these clergy were allowed to remain in ministry after committing these atrocities. Why weren't they defrocked?

"We proclaim the Ten Commandments and parade ourselves as being the custodians of moral standards, values and good behavior in society," said Openibo, who on several occasions turned to speak to Pope Francis, seated nearby. She is the first African to lead the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and one of three women who addressed the nearly 200 bishops at the recent summit. Openibo was the only person from Africa's booming churches chosen to speak.

"Hypocrites at times? Yes," she asked. "Why did we keep silent for so long? How can we turn this around for a time to evangelize, catechize and educate all the members of the church, including clergy and religious? Is it true that most bishops did nothing about the sexual abuse of children? Some did and some did not, out of fear or cover-up."

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."

Modern-day Coptic martyrs: The truly ancient faith of 'The 21' beheaded in Libya by ISIS

Modern-day Coptic martyrs: The truly ancient faith of 'The 21' beheaded in Libya by ISIS

After one trip into Libya as a migrant worker, Tawadros Youssef Tawadros reported that he had been warned that his Christian name -- "Theodore," in English -- might anger Muslim radicals.

His widow, Maleka Ayad, recalled him saying: "Anyone who starts changing his name will end up changing his faith."

Malak Ibrahim Seniut was more blunt, in a final talk with his priest. Told that Christians could be witnesses by living a long, faithful life, the young man replied: "That's not enough for me. I want to do it through death."

On Feb. 15, 2015, both were among the men beheaded by Islamic State soldiers on a beach in Libya. All 21 -- 20 Egyptian Copts and a Ghanan who professed his Christian faith -- were soon declared martyrs by the Coptic Orthodox Church. This is the latest chapter in a long drama, detailed by writer Martin Mosebach, of the German Academy of Arts.

"The Coptic Church, founded by St. Mark the Evangelist, is among the earliest manifestations of Christianity. In 1,400 years of suppression after the Islamic conquest, it has still preserved its original form and it has proven to have the most amazing vitality," he said, at an event this week in New York City, marking the release of the English edition of his book, "The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs."

"The faith found in this church was and is stronger than all of the economic and social disadvantages Christians have to suffer. The Coptic Church has never been broken by political oppression. The Christianity of the first millennium is still to be found there and is … a living reality."

After immersing himself in the village culture surrounding these new saints, the Catholic author reached this conclusion: For these men, liturgy and martyrdom were "two sides of one and the same coin."

There was something truly iconic about those 21 men in orange jumpsuits kneeling on that beach, said Coptic Archbishop Angaelos of London.