Striving to save churches, ancient and modern, in Iraq and Syria

The small chapel in ancient Dura, near the Euphrates River in western Syria, is not a spectacular historical site that tourists from around the world travel to see.

However, the diggings yielded priceless insights into life in an early Christian community, and a synagogue as well, in the days before Dura was abandoned in 257 A.D. The frescoes, for example, include an image of Christ the Good Shepherd -- one of the earliest surviving images of Jesus in Christian art.

Then came the Islamic State. Has the Good Shepherd fresco been destroyed?

"Religious heritage sites throughout ISIS held areas of Iraq and Syria have been suffering enormous damage and face constant risk. The targeted extermination of religious minorities by ISIS results in mass death and also the erasure of the outward manifestations of the minority religious culture, threatening the continuity of their religious practices," said Katharyn Hanson of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, in a recent House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing.

In her litany describing the destruction, she gave this verdict on what has happened in the "Pompeii of the Desert." The Dura-Europos site "has been extensively looted and is currently under ISIS control," she said. Scientists estimate that "some 76 percent of the site's surface area within the ancient city walls has now been looted."

The hearing's goal, of course, was documenting what is happening to flesh-and-blood believers -- especially women and children -- in minority faith communities inside the borders of the Islamic State, not just the ancient ruins and holy sites that symbolize their deep roots in the region. As Jacqueline Isaac of the organization Roads of Success testified: "We cherish ethnic and religious diversity. ISIS hates it."

The most anticipated testimony was by Sister Diana Momeka of the Dominicans of St. Catherine of Siena convent in Mosul, who was the only member of the delegation of Iraqi religious leaders invited to testify who was initially denied a visa by the U.S. State Department. She was the only Christian from Iraq in the group.

Dave Brubeck's long pilgrimage

Dave Brubeck had a problem and, as a short concert intermission turned into a long and mysterious delay, the jazz master sheepishly came back on stage to make a confession. It seemed that his son Chris had locked his electric bass in a dressing room and the Baylor University stage crew couldn't find the right key. Without that bass, the Two Generations of Brubeck ensemble -- pianist Brubeck backed by sons Chris, Dan on drums and Darius on electric keyboards -- was in trouble.

"I really don't know what to do," said Brubeck, on that night in the mid-1970s.

High in the Waco Hall balcony, a voice called out: "Play the piano!"

Brubeck laughed and went to the keyboard. First he played some Bach, which evolved into gentle jazz improvisations that eventually turned into a stomping blues that roared on and on -- until Chris Brubeck finally had his bass.

Afterwards, Brubeck explained that for him music was music and he never could separate the many forms of music that he loved. In later interviews -- four in all, over three decades -- it became clear to me that his religious beliefs followed a similar path down the years. Brubeck died of heart failure on Dec. 5th, the day before he would have been 92.

As a composer, Brubeck was haunted by themes of justice and faith and, even during the glory years of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, he expressed his yearnings in explicitly religious classical works, often with lyrics written with his wife Iola. These compositions continued for the rest of this life.

"Really, I have trouble expressing myself about these things. I still do," he told me, during a 1984 interview that was published in the National Catholic Reporter. "Have you ever seen the notes in 'Light in the Wilderness'? ... I really said it all there. That still says what I believe -- although I guess no one's beliefs ever really stay the same.

"To me it all seems like the same journey."

In the liner notes for that 1968 recording, Brubeck wrote: "Although reared as a Presbyterian by a Christian Scientist mother who attended a Methodist church, and, although this piece was written with the theological counsel of a Vedanta leader, a Unitarian minister, an Episcopal bishop and several Jesuit priests, I am not affiliated with any church."

In particular, he cited the influence of "three Jewish teachers" -- philosopher Irving Goleman, classical composer Darius Milhaud and Jesus.

"This composition is, I suppose, simply one man's attempt to distill his own thought and to express in his own way the essence of Jesus' teaching," wrote Brubeck.

The soaring, chant-like theme from that oratorio's most famous piece, "Forty Days," became the hook for jazz improvisations in Brubeck concerts for decades to come. In the choral version, the verses cry out: "Forty days alone in the desert, days and nights of constant prayer, seeking in the wailing wind an answer to despair. Forty days of questioning: Why was he there, in the lonely desert? Forty days of fasting and prayer, searching for his destined role. …"

Eventually, Brubeck -- who had never been baptized as a child -- stunned his family by making the leap from his liberal Protestant background to Catholicism. The decision grew directly out of his experiences composing a Mass, completed in 1979, at the request of the Our Sunday Visitor publishing company.

Brubeck wrote "To Hope! A Celebration" in stages and, once it was complete, discovered that he had failed to write an "Our Father" anthem. During a family vacation in the Caribbean, he dreamed the entire missing piece -- jumping out of bed to sketch parts for chorus and orchestra.

The experience left Brubeck so shaken that he decided to be baptized as a Catholic, at Our Lady of Fatima parish in Wilton, Conn. While many insisted on calling him a convert, he always resisted that term and repeatedly explained that he found it impossible to describe precisely what he was "converting from" when he decided to enter Catholicism.

"You could say I was a lot of things or you could say I was nothing in particular" before becoming a Catholic, said Brubeck, the last time I interviewed him. "My wife and my kids didn't understand why I wanted to join the Catholic church. I'm not even sure I completely understood what happened. ... It was a calling."

The heretical art of Thomas Kinkade

When describing his painting "Candlelight Cottage," the late Thomas Kinkade said its "candlelight has a cozy, intimate quality -- especially when it's suffused in the soft mist of this fine English evening." Actually, the cottage windows are glowing so brightly that the entire interior appears to be in flames.

This painting, noted National Catholic Register critic Simcha Fisher in 2011, only makes sense as "a depiction of an oncoming storm, with heavy smog in some spots and total visibility just inches away (blown by what wind, when the chimney smoke rises undisturbed?), several cordless Klieg lights, possibly a partial eclipse and that most cheerful of pastoral daydreams: a robust house fire."

This is as lovely, she argued, as music created when "all of your favorite instruments play as loudly as they can at the same time. Listen, and go mad."

Secular critics have long detested Kinkade's art, in part because of his great popularity among heartland evangelicals who were eager to claim the University of California at Berkeley trained painter as one of their own. Now, three months after his death at age 54 -- while struggling with alcoholism, bankruptcy and a shattered marriage -- some religious writers are focusing on what they see as another troubling question.

The bottom line: Was Kinkade selling bad theology, as well as bad art?

Believers often reject fine art and embrace "mediocre substitutes just because they're labeled 'Christian,' " noted John Stonestreet of the Chuck Colson Center, in a recent BreakPoint radio commentary. "We've created for ourselves a kind of 'artistic ghetto.' ... 'Christian art' has become a synonym for anything that's charming, quaint or makes us feel good. It often portrays a one-sided world where evil doesn't exist and only 'positive' and 'uplifting' messages are allowed."

The problem is that this isn't the real world, which is full of sin and brokenness, as well as grace and beauty, he said, in a telephone interview. At it's core, art should be "a reflection of what it means to be human," he added. Believers who create culture are "supposed to look at all of creation, at all of human life, the good and the bad."

This issue looms over the Kinkade debates, he said, but it also shapes arguments about music, movies, fiction and other forms of popular and high culture.

"Squishy songs that turn Jesus into your boyfriend are not good art," said Stonestreet. "Christian romance novels are not good art. Naked little chubby angels in Christian bookstores are not good art."

Many debates about Kinkade have centered on his use of light, since he billed himself as the "Painter of Light" and said his glowing images represented God's comforting presence in the world. While the artist consistently avoided painting traditional religious scenes or symbols, he frequently said he was trying to capture the meaning of Bible verses, such as a lighthouse image that was said to represent John 8:12: "I am the light of the world."

Yet, in painting after painting, Christian critics note that Kinkade used light in a way that was completely different than in Christian iconography or the work of master painters. For centuries, religious artists have used light as a depiction of God's presence and activity in the real world -- often in the faces and forms of uniquely blessed people.

Thus, the source of this light is "explicitly God Himself," noted Fisher. Yet in Kinkade's work glowing, unreal, unnatural light is found everywhere -- seemingly at random. This matters because if "you follow the source of the light, you will find out where the artist thinks God is," she said.

For artists who are believers, the goal is to show God's light in the midst of the world's darkness, the work of God in the brokenness of real life.

Kinkade, on the other hand, sees "nothing beautiful in the world the way it is," argued Fisher. "He loves the world in the same way that a pageant mom thinks her child is just adorable -- or will be, after she loses 10 pounds, dyes and curls her hair, gets implants, and makes herself almost unrecognizable with a thick layer of make-up. ...

"Kinkade-style light ... doesn't reveal, it distorts. His paintings aren't merely trivial, they're a statement of contempt for the world. His vision of the world isn't just tacky, it's anti-Incarnational."

Lent and Easter, in blood, sweat and ink

The graphic tattoos that cover the bodies of millions of Russian prisoners symbolize their sins and crimes, their pain and suffering. Some of the tattoos are beautiful and hint at redemption. Others are disgusting, especially those etched involuntarily into the faces of victims by other prisoners as punishment for especially shameful crimes behind bars or on the outside.

Put all of these images together, said artist Scott Erickson, and they tell the stories of broken people. That's the big idea that gripped him as he studied tattoo culture while creating a set of "Stations of the Cross" images for a Lenten art exhibit at Ecclesia Church in hip, edgy Montrose neighborhood near downtown Houston.

For many young Americans, it's impossible to talk about their tattoos without needing to candidly describe the peaks and valleys of their own lives. The tattoos are like emotional maps that are hard to hide.

"We have lots of people who have tattoos. Some members of our church have criminal records. Some have been shamed and abused. Some have struggled with drugs," explained Erickson, who serves as "artist in residence" at Ecclesia.

"A lot of these people thought that needed to cover up their tattoos when they started coming to church. They weren't sure that they wanted to share those parts of their lives with others. ... What we're trying to do is tell them that their tattoos are part of who they are and now we want to talk about who they are becoming."

Thus, the leaders of Ecclesia Church -- created in 1999 by a coalition of Southern Baptists, Presbyterians and others -- have raised eyebrows and inspired headlines by embracing tattoos as the artistic medium for their eighth annual art exhibit during the 40-day season that leads to Easter. The title is "Cruciformity: Stations of the Cross on Skin."

The plan, explained the Rev. Chris Seay, was for 10 members to have Erickson's images permanently tattooed onto their bodies shortly before Ash Wednesday. These volunteers would stand in the church's gallery on the first night of Lent, surrounded by photos of their tattoos -- photos that would then remain on display throughout the season.

Instead, at least 60 members of the church have visited one of the dozen or so nearby tattoo studios to mix blood, sweat and ink and another dozen have scheduled appointments. Seay said as many as 150 may end up taking part, out of a flock averaging about 1,500 worshippers in five weekend services.

"I have spent way more time than I ever expected trying to talk some people out of doing this," he said. "People need to give this decision some serious thought. ... It's also good to seek the permission of your spouse."

The pastor decided to cover his right upper arm with an image of a tree growing out of an empty coffin -- Erickson's symbol for Jesus rising from the dead. Seay had a tattoo artist inscribe a tribute on the trunk in honor of his grandfather, a prominent Southern Baptist pastor who died this past year.

"I was a bit worried at first," he said, "but my grandmother said she thought it was beautiful."

One church member, who works with cancer patients, had the "Jesus is Laid in the Tomb" image -- a rose in a coffin -- tattooed on one foot and plans to add the resurrection image on her other foot. One mother selected the "Jesus Meets His Mother" image, which is a rose surrounded by symbols of suffering. Another member, with his wife's blessing, plans to have all 10 images tattooed onto his body.

The project has already created buzz in the tattooing community, said Erickson.

But the key is not that some members of this church decided get tattoos. The key is that more than half of its members already had tattoos -- like 36 percent of Americans between 18 and 25, according to a Pew Forum study.

"Our invitation to do this was not for everybody," said Erickson. "We're not creating a tribe, here. You don't have to have a tattoo to come to this church. ... But we already have so many people here who do have tattoos and those images are part of their stories. We're telling them that it's good for them, that it's normal, to add Christian symbols into that mix. They get it."

Fix your ugly Catholic church?

The sanctuary walls are, as a rule, made of flat wood, concrete and glass wrapped in metals with an industrial look -- often matching the furnishings on the stark altar. The windows are frosted or tinted in muted tones of sky blue, lavender, amber or pink. If there are stained-glass images, they are ultramodern in style, to match any art objects that make sense in this kind of space. The floors are covered with carpet, which explains why there are speakers hanging in the rafters.

The final product resembles a sunny gymnasium that just happens to contain an abstract crucifix, the Stations of the Cross and one or two images of the Virgin Mary.

"The whole look was both modern and very bland," said Matthew Alderman, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's classical design program who works as a consultant on sacred art and architecture.

"It was a kind of beige Catholicism that was ugly, but not aggressively ugly ... and these churches looked like they were in a chain that had franchises everywhere. It was that whole Our Lady of Pizza Hut look that started in the1950s and then took over in the '60s and '70s."

The problem is that many Catholics believe that this look that represented an urgent response to contemporary culture -- especially after Vatican II -- has now gone painfully out of date.

Few things age less gracefully than modernity. However, few parishes can afford to "take a wrecking ball" to their sanctuaries. This is also highly emotional territory, since any attempt to change how people worship, whether they are modernists or traditionalists, will collide with their most cherished beliefs.

Thus, after years of studying intense debates on these issues, Alderman recently drafted a manifesto offering easy, affordable ways for make these sanctuaries "less ugly and more Catholic." He posted it at "The Shrine of the Holy Whapping," an online forum created by several Notre Dame graduates to host lighthearted discussions of serious Catholic subjects.

While some of his proposals are specific -- such as removing carpeting to improve church acoustics -- the designer said the key is for parish leaders to find a way to "bring a sense of tradition and beauty to their chancels and naves without having to break the bank." His basic principles included these:

* Do everything possible to return the visual focus to the main altar and the tabernacle that contains the reserved sacraments, the bread and wine that has been consecrated during the Mass. This can be accomplished with a few contrasting coats of paint, stencil designs in strategic places, the rearranging of altar furniture, a touch of new stonework or even the hanging of colored drapes. In many cases a platform can be added under the altar to make it more visible or a designer can darken the lights and colors around the pews, while increasing the light focused on the altar and tabernacle.

* Reject any strategy that tries to hide decades of modernity behind a blitz of statues and flowers in an attempt to create "a traditional Catholic theme park," he said. Too often, the result is "strip-mall classicism" that assumes that anything that looks old is automatically good.

"You don't want something that looks like its fake and plastic," said Alderman. "The worst case scenario is that you have bad taste stacked on top of bad taste, with some of the worst excesses of the old layered on top of all those mistakes that were driven by modernity. ... This kind of schizophrenia is not a good thing in a church."

* It's important to "work with what you have, and don't work against it" while focusing on a few logical changes that actually promote worship and prayer, he said. A chapel dedicated to Mary can appeal to those who are devoted to saying the Rosary. Candles and flower arrangements can focus attention on a statue of the parish's patron saint.

In the end, argued Alderman, "You may not be able to turn your 1950s A-frame church into Chartres, but if you try to find art that harmonizes with its perhaps now rather quaint attempts at futurism, while at the same time seeking to reconnect it with tradition, the result may have a pleasing consistency. ...

"While it may lack the grandeur of Rome or Florence, it can still become a beautiful, unified expression of the faith."

Symbols in the Texas hills

KERRVILLE, Texas -- The bracelet is both simple and a bit strange, since it consists of six or seven fishing lures connected end to end. Some people look at this piece of silver or gold jewelry in the James Avery line and they see fishing lures -- period.

But other shoppers see the same item and they think of these words of Jesus: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." This is especially true if they have completed a United Methodist Walk to Emmaus weekend, or some other renewal program inspired by the Catholic Cursillo movement.

"Most of our customers purchase and wear that for the religious symbolism," said Paul Avery, executive vice president of the company that his father started in a garage. "But there is a group that has no clue what it means. ... They just happen to like it. They like to fish or whatever."

So one man's ring of fishing lures is another man's symbol of faith.

The key is that there is an element of mystery to symbols of this kind, said another veteran of this family-driven firm based in Kerrville, an arts-friendly community in the Texas Hill Country.

"It's interesting that you would never find this in traditional church history, this symbol, but you would find the scriptural reference to being fishers of men," said Howell Ridout, the company's vice president of marketing and development.

This particular bracelet started out as a "grassroots thing that just happened," he explained. Emmaus Walk veterans "actually started using fishing tackle from the hardware store" to remind themselves of the importance of this biblical passage. Now, this modern bracelet is one of the company's most popular items.

Then again, the current catalogue also contains the very first cross that founder James Avery designed in 1954, a variation on a classic Latin design. Some of the Christian and Jewish symbolism used in this jewelry is truly ancient, while other pieces offer modern variations on biblical themes -- such as a bare cross made of nails.

In recent years, Ridout explained, religious items have made up 25 percent of the company's line and about 25 percent of its sales. However, nearly 80 percent of all James Avery customers at one time or another purchase at least one item of religious jewelry. Clearly, these items are central to the company's identity, he said.

For centuries, religious symbolism has been at the heart of some forms of faith. What is unusual about the James Avery story is that almost all of the company's stores -- there will be 59 by the year's end -- are in the Bible Belt and 49 are in Texas.

While its customer base includes a wide range of believers, the chain could not succeed in the region in which it is succeeding without appealing to Baptists and other conservative Protestants who for generations have viewed religious symbolism as too "high church," if not too Catholic.

Then again, the Hill Country location is crucial. Its culture blends art elements from the American Midwest, from Germans settlers, from rustic ranches across the Southwestern and, of course, from Spanish influences. The result is a unique aesthetic expressed in stone, leather, wood and pounded silver.

"Texas is, geographically, a very unique area," said Paul Avery. "You have the deep Hispanic culture that is so rooted in that Catholic base. Then you have more of the Protestant side of that, the non-Catholic. And there's a blend of those two cultures that probably allows a lot of ... natural evolution."

These hills also are full of church youth camps, a network that exposed James Avery's work to young seekers as the 1960s veered into the "Jesus Movement" of the 1970s, which led into an era of charismatic renewal in mainline churches and waves of changes in how many Americans worship.

These days, art and even elements of liturgy can be found in a wide variety of Protestant sanctuaries, Ridout said. Churches of all kinds are moving in a more visual, experiential direction.

It has become common to see Texans wearing crosses -- or perhaps symbolic fishing lures -- as they go to work, to school, to the grocery store or to church.

"I think there are some clues there, both as to what is acceptable and to what's sought after and comfortable," Ridout said. These changes symbolize "what's meaningful to people, what truly motivates them."

Hitchens, Hitchens and God, too

When Peter Hitchens was eight years old, and his older brother Christopher was 11, their father asked the two hotheaded young Brits to sign a peace treaty. "I can still picture this doomed pact in its red frame, briefly hanging on the wall," noted Peter Hitchens, in a recent essay published in The Daily Mail. "To my shame, I was the one who repudiated it, ripped it from its frame and angrily erased my signature, before recommencing hostilities. ... Our rivalry was to last 50 years, and religion was one of its later causes."

Under ordinary circumstances, a column in a London newspaper about a fractured relationship between two brothers would not warrant much attention among readers who care about matters of faith and doubt.

The Hitchens brothers, however, are not your usual brothers.

As an adult, Peter Hitchens regained his Christian faith, after years as an atheist and his new book is entitled, "The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith." The title of this column was more conciliatory: "How I found God and peace with my atheist brother."

Big brother Christopher, meanwhile, has become famous as an evangelist for atheism, a scribe who revels in stabbing sacred cows with his pen -- as in his book, "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice." Then there is his bestseller, "God is not Great: Religion Poisons Everything."

"There are," he argues, "four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking. ...

"God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization."

Hitchens the younger understands that logic, in large part because he once walked the same road. As a teen, he burned his Bible outside his Cambridge school. To his disappointment, "Thunder did not mutter." He set out to rebel against everything that he had been taught was good and right and holy. This is what smart British boys of his generation were supposed to do.

Eventually, he stopped avoiding churches and great religious art -- leaving him open to unsettling messages from the past. While gazing at one 15th century painting of the Last Judgment, he found himself emotionally and intellectually moved.

"These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their own age by time-bound fashions," noted Hitchens. "On the contrary, their hair and the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me, and people I knew.

"I had a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time. My large catalogue of misdeeds replayed themselves rapidly in my head."

Then came the great oaths of his wedding rites, followed by the baptisms of his formerly atheistic wife and their daughter. A fellow journalist heard that Hitchens had returned to church and, with "a look of mingled pity and horror," bluntly asked, "How can you do that?"

The twist in this story is that while Peter Hitchens has returned to faith, and Christopher has grown more and more outspoken in his crusade against faith, the brothers have gradually regained their affection for one another. And while many have urged them to turn their personal debates about God and the nature of moral truth into an intellectual traveling circus, neither of the brothers wants to do that.

"I am 58. He is 60. We do not necessarily have time for another brothers' war. ... I have, however, the more modest hope that he might one day arrive at some sort of acceptance that belief in God is not necessarily a character fault," noted Peter Hitchens.

"I can only add that those who choose to argue in prose, even if it is very good prose, are unlikely to be receptive to a case which is most effectively couched in poetry."

The ultimate movie stigma

As a rule, movie producers do not enjoy seeing America's most influential newspaper crucify their films.

"Reeking of self-righteousness and moral reprimand," spat Jeanette Catsoulis of the New York Times, a movie entitled "The Ultimate Gift" could be considered "a hairball of good-for-you filmmaking coughed up by 20th Century Fox's new faith-based label, Fox Faith."

Wait, there's more, because this "cinematic sermon" makes sure that its "messages -- pro-poverty, anti-abortion -- are methodically hammered home."

There were other reviews, good and bad. Still, the nastiness in strategic corners of the media caught veteran producer Rick Eldridge off guard, in large part because he truly thought that he was producing a mainstream movie, with mainstream talent, that was going to have a chance to reach a thoroughly mainstream audience.

What he didn't count on was getting stuck with two dangerous labels -- "Fox" and "Faith." Those words can turn your average media insider into a pillar of salt.

That's what happened to "The Ultimate Gift," turning this quiet cinematic fable into a cautionary tale for others who want to make movies that can appeal to viewers in Middle America, including folks who frequent sanctuary pews.

"I really felt this story had strong values that would hit home with the general market," said Eldridge, who is now pushing to promote the DVD of his movie. "I thought this was a moral-message film, but I was determined to make a movie that would speak to a wide spectrum of people. ... Then we got pigeon-holed into this little 'Christian' niche that really limited who would get much of a chance to see this movie."

The pivotal moment was when this 20th Century Fox project was moved to the new Fox Faith division, which meant "The Ultimate Gift" was sent to theaters with all kinds of faith-based strings attached. As the Fox Faith website bluntly stated: "To be part of Fox Faith, a movie has to have overt Christian content or be derived from the work of a Christian author."

Thus, mainstream critics were determined to find those moral messages and make sure potential moviegoers were warned in advance. This also meant that mainstream performers such as Academy Award nominee James Garner, veteran character actor Brian Dennehy and the young actress Abigail Breslin of "Little Miss Sunshine" discovered that they were -- surprise, surprise -- starring in a "Christian movie."

Crucial scenes were, as a result, seen through this lens.

The movie opens at the funeral of Howard "Red" Stevens, an oil tycoon who left behind both an impressive portfolio of good deeds and a bitterly divided family. The minister at the graveside, in addition to reading scripture, quotes the famous British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge as saying, "Every happening, great or small, is a miracle by which God speaks to us and the art of life is to get the message."

At another pivotal moment, the prodigal grandson whose coming-of-age story drives the plot is shown in a Catholic hospital chapel, consoling a leukemia patient. The girl is thinking about butterflies, heaven and her stressed-out single mother's future -- while facing a large statue of Jesus with his arms open wide. "I don't know much about God or Jesus, but I can promise that those arms are meant for you," says the young man.

But the statement that upset critics the most is offered by the young mother, as she describes their struggles after the girl's father abandoned them. The one thing she knows for certain, she says, is that her daughter Emily is the "best decision I ever made."

There is no need to deny that the movie contains religious and moral themes, said Eldridge. But for generations, Hollywood executives made successful mainstream movies that contained these kinds of words and images. Those movies were aimed at a broad, mainstream market -- not a narrow, political, sectarian, "Christian" niche.

"I told the Fox people this movie was going to resonate with the Christian audience and that's fine with me, because I am a Christian," said Eldridge. "But I was worried that this movie would get tagged as a little 'Christian' movie, like that was some kind of Good Housekeeping seal for the Christian marketplace. ...

"I think it's obvious that this is what happened and that caused some people to distance themselves from this movie. There was no need for that to happen."

Graphic novels, big questions

Doug TenNapel isn't your ordinary guy who doodles on a church bulletin when the sermon gets boring.

Instead, the Eisner Award-winning cartoonist scribbles in his daily calendar -- creating a bridge from the pew to his studio. The result is a pocket universe of character sketches, strange movie ideas and graphic "plot wheels" in which he works out the twists and turns in his stories.

These days, swarms of Kid Elves on flying logs bump into sketches of Bigfoot, next to rough ideas for a violent, at times profane graphic novel that TenNapel is creating about crime bosses, invading aliens and an inquisitive priest.

"I can write 10 of these stories a year, but I only have time to draw one," he said. "When I see these things in my head, it's like I'm watching movies. ... But in the past they've been too far out for Hollywood."

TenNapel is a cult figure with online fanboys who admire his work in cartoons, video games, television and, especially, his book-length graphic novels with complex plots and images that resemble movie storyboards. But things will change if his "Creature Tech" reaches movie theaters.

What is the graphic novel about? Publishers Weekly said: "It's the story of the battle between the abrasive good-guy scientist Dr. Ong and the resurrected Dr. Jameson, a malevolent 19th-century occultist-mad scientist who sought to rule the world. Ong ... returns to his hometown after being appointed to direct a research facility locals call Creature Tech. There, he opens a crate housing the Shroud of Turin. Things get complicated when the ghost of Jameson ... steals the shroud, resurrects his own body and resumes trying to take over the world with the help of an army of conjured hellcats and a gigantic space eel."

Wait, there's more. Ong is also a seminary dropout and his father is a pastor who used to be a scientist. Then there's the 7-foot mantis the U.S. government sends as a security team and the symbiotic alien parasite that clamps onto the hero's chest and, strangely enough, makes him a better person.

This is a normal TenNapel plot.

It helps to understand that he grew up in rural Turlock, Calif., in a home that, during his childhood years, contained many religious influences -- from atheism to evangelicalism. He studied art at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego and eventually took a TV animation job with "The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes."

Then he moved into video games, leading to his 1994 hit "Earthworm Jim." Two years later, Steven Spielberg hired him to create the "Neverhood" games for Dreamworks. TenNapel was a digital success, but he also spiraled into burnout. Then, in 2002, he created "Creature Tech."

The key moment came when the blogger called "Moriarty" posted the following at the Ain't It Cool ( site for film insiders.

"There's no doubt. It's weird. ... It's also very funny, profoundly sweet and heartfelt, touching in a strange way, and serious about concepts like faith and family without being in any way preachy or corny," he wrote. "Simply put, Creature Tech is the best American animated film since The Iron Giant. ... Better than anything from any studio. ... It's a movie that just happens to be in print."

Within minutes, studios started calling his agent. Regency Enterprises and 20th Century Fox won the bidding war and early work began on a live-action movie.

Part of the challenge, admitted TenNapel, is capturing his blend of fantasy and Christian faith. Some critics wish he would quit weaving sin, redemption, politics and science into his plots. Then there are church people who think he should be drawing evangelistic, "Christian comics" and avoiding his occasional blasts of sci-fi potty humor.