A Catholic Colbert report

For Catholics raised during the head-spinning days after Vatican II, few things inspire flashbacks to the era of flowers and folk Masses quicker than the bouncy hymn "The King of Glory." But what was a goofy nerd doing on Comedy Central, belting out this folk song while doing a bizarre blend of Broadway shtick and liturgical dance?

"The King of glory comes, the nation rejoices! Open the gates before him, lift up your voices," sang Stephen Colbert a decade ago, in a video that is now a YouTube classic. "Who is the King of glory; how shall we call him? He is Emmanuel, the promised of ages."

Inquiring minds wanted to know: Was this painfully ironic comedian mocking trendy Catholics or saluting them? Was he outing himself as a Christian? Was he praising Jesus or risking a lightning bolt?

Legions of 40-something Catholics have strong memories of the first time they saw this clip, said Diane Houdek, managing editor of AmericaCatholics.org. Something in Colbert's performance told them that this was not a random gag.

"Stephen walks this thin line," said Houdek, who runs "The Word: A Colbert Blog for Catholic It-Getters" in her spare time. "He isn't afraid to be critical when it comes to matters of faith, but when he does it's always clear that his critique is from the inside. ... He'll push things pretty far. He'll dance right up to that line, but he will not cross it. He will not compromise what he believes as a Catholic."

Colbert, of course, became the star of The Colbert Report, the fake news show in which he plays a right-wing egotist (think Bill O'Reilly of Fox News) named "Stephen Colbert." Religion plays a major role in the show and there are moments when he speaks sincerely in his own voice.

That's what happened last week when his alter ego came to Washington, D.C., at the invitation of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security. His testimony mixed satire ("I don't want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian") with serious information about the plight of farm workers.

Colbert lowered his mask when asked why this issue mattered to him, slipping in a reference to a Gospel of Matthew parable in which eternal judgment awaits those who deny compassion to the poor and defenseless.

Some of America's least powerful people, he said, are "migrant workers who come in and do our work, but don't have any rights as a result. And yet, we still ask them to come here, and at the same time, ask them to leave. ... You know, 'Whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers,' and these seemed like the least of my brothers, right now."

It helps to know that Colbert was raised as the youngest of 11 children in a devout Irish-Catholic family in Charleston, S.C. Then his physician father and two brothers died in a plane crash and their joyful home plunged into grief. Colbert soon lost his faith.

Years later, a sidewalk volunteer in Chicago handed the young actor a Gideon Bible and something clicked. Today, he lives a private life with his wife and three children, but he never hides the fact that he teaches children's Sunday school.

As he told Rolling Stone last year: "From a doctrinal point of view or a dogmatic point of view or a strictly Catholic adherent point of view, I'm the first to say that I talk a good game, but I don't know how good I am about it in practice. I saw how my mother's faith was very valuable to her and valuable to my brothers and sisters, and I'm moved by the words of Christ, and I'll leave it at that."

But there is more to Colbert's faith, and his theology, than that, said Houdek. For starters, a Jesuit serves as the show's chaplain.

"There is evidence of his faith all through his work, if you know what to look for," she said. "This is what makes him so unique, in the extremely secular world in which he is working -- Comedy Central. Yet he keeps doing what he does night after night, because he never comes off as preachy."

McChurch history 101

In the beginning, revival preachers used their dynamic voices and dramatic sermons -- framed with entertaining gospel music -- to attract large crowds and to pull sinners into the Kingdom of God. This formula worked in weeklong revivals and, when tried, it started working in regular Sunday services. Big preachers drew big crowds and created bigger and bigger churches. Then along came the big media, which helped create a youth culture that exploded out of the 1950s and into the cultural apocalypse that followed. Church leaders tagged along.

"In the '60s and '70s, we started drinking deep at the well of pop culture and we've been doing it ever since," said church historian John Mark Yeats of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Tex. "The goal was to use all of that to reach the young. Evangelicals ended up with own youth subculture."

Big churches created bigger stand-alone youth programs and then children's programs wired to please these media-trained consumers. Youth programs developed their own music, education and preaching, all driven by the style and content of entertainment culture.

Then these young people became adults and began to build and operate their own churches, argue Yeats and his seminary colleague Thomas White, in their sobering book, "Franchising McChurch." For churches that want to grow, the evolving approach to faith that White and Yeats call "theotainment" seems like the only game in town.

"Think of countless children's ministries across the United States. … Most children's Sunday schools quit reading and studying the Bible long ago. Instead, children view cartoon adaptations of the text along with numerous activities that keep them entertained while Mom and Dad worship without distraction," argue White and Yeats, who have worked in local churches, as well as classrooms.

This strategy is cranked up another notch in youth ministries. In many communities, the "religiously oriented youth, savvy shoppers that they are, simply attend the church that has the greatest concentration of entertaining events. … If they buy into Christianity through entertainment, the show must go on to keep them engaged."

This has been going on for decades, noted Yeats. The "Jesus rock" of the '70s moved out of music festivals and into Sunday services. This created a "Contemporary Christian Music" industry that helped churches hip-hop from one cultural style to the next, while striving to find their stylistic niches -- like stations on an FM radio dial. Sanctuaries turned into auditoriums and, finally, into theaters with semi-professional sound systems and the video screens preachers needed to display all of those DVD clips that connected with modern audiences.

That was the '90s. Today's megachurches offer members new options.

Grandmother may attend a service with hymns or -- as Baby Boomers turn 60something -- folk music or soft rock. Pre-teens will bop to Hanna-Montana-esque praise songs in their services, while the young people get harder rock. Over in the "video cafe," evangelical Moms and Dads can sip their lattes while musicians build the right mood until its time for the sermon. That's when the super-skilled preacher's face appears on video monitors in all of the niche services at the same time.

This trend -- multiple, niche services on one campus -- requires changing the traditional meaning of words such as "worship," "church" and "pastor."

But it is one thing for a single megachurch to offer its members a "have it your way" approach to church life at one location, said Yeats. The next step is for the "McChurch" model to evolve into "McDenomination," with the birth of national and even global chains of church franchises united, not by centuries of history and doctrine, but by the voice, face, beliefs and talents of a single preacher, backed by a team of multimedia professionals.

This trend is "very free market" and "also very American," he said.

"In these franchise operations, you don't say you're a Southern Baptist or a Methodist or a Presbyterian or whatever," Yeats explained. "No, you say you attend the local branch of so-and-so's church. The whole thing is held together by one man. That's the brand name, right there. ...

"If your church joins one of these operations you get the video feed, you get the media, you get the music and, ultimately, you get to listen to the dynamic man himself, instead of your own sub-standard preacher. It's a whole new way of doing church."

Finding God on the jagged edge

Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas knows all about strange plot twists and he is convinced that God often sends big messages in the final acts of people's lives. Once a scandalous Hollywood insider, the author of twisted thrillers such as "Basic Instinct" and "Jagged Edge" can quote chapter and verse about life and death in Tinseltown. Consider the ruthless movie mogul who died during a beach vacation when a metal bar fell from a construction crane and pieced his heart. Or how about the Casanova actor whose reputation made his testicular cancer a bit too ironic?

Eszterhas will name names, when confessing his own sins.

The screenwriter's egomaniacal tantrums were the stuff of legends, along with his appetite for alcohol, cocaine and first-person research for the lap-dancing scenes in "Showgirls." Then there was his foul, blasphemous mouth.

It was tempting to connect the dots when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001, said Eszterhas, during his blunt and mildly profane testimony at Biola University's annual conference on faith and the entertainment industry. The resulting surgery claimed 80 percent of his larynx.

"Was it possible," he mused, in his one-foot-in-the-grave voice, "that God had to cut my throat?" Then he heard the harsh commandments for his new life.

"I adored my wife and children, so I tried," Eszterhas told the audience at CBS Studio Center. "I stopped smoking. I stopped drinking. I was trying my best to stay alive. I was trying my best not to die, but I knew that I couldn't do it."

Thus begins the wild conversion story he has shared many times, reading from his book, "Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith." The turning point arrives with a weeping sinner on his knees, his heart skipping beats, his hands shaking, his voice moaning through his tracheotomy tube. Then Eszterhas hears his own voice mumbling strange words.

"I didn't know why I had said it. I had never said it before," he said. "Then I listened to myself say it again and again and again. 'Please God, help me.' 'Please God, help me.' 'Please God, help me' ... I thought to myself, 'Me, asking God, begging God? Me, praying?' "

Then his pain was gone and he was staring into a bright light. He decided that, with God's help, "I could defeat myself and win, if I fought very hard and if I prayed. ... God saved me from me."

Condensed into the punchy talking points that sell screenplays, Eszterhas said his life has gone from "Malibu to Ohio, from booze to diet Sprite, from Spago to McDonald's, from Sharon Stone to Jesus." Now he walks five miles and prays for an hour every day. With his second wife and their four sons, he worships at Holy Angels Catholic Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where he volunteers to carry the cross in Sunday Mass.

"The twisted little man" who wrote his scripts still lives in his head, he said, but is no longer in charge. The big question was whether Eszterhas could write without the tobacco, alcohol and deadly darkness that fueled his 16 screenplays, which became movies that grossed more than $1 billion.

Eszterhas said he sat frozen at his old typewriter, feeling "like Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining.' " He faced a complete mental block until he pounded out: "This is how I found God or how God found me." The memoir had to come first.

Since then, Eszterhas has written two scripts, including a "narco-terrorism" thriller he thinks would fit Nicholson. He also wants to write a small-budget movie about Our Lady of Guadalupe. In an age in which Hollywood keeps remaking old blockbusters, he wonders why no one has produced spectacular, digital versions of "The Silver Chalice," "The Robe" or "Quo Vadis."

While he wants to keep working, what Eszterhas can't imagine is writing the kinds of scripts that made him rich and famous.

"My head's not really in that place. I mean, the thing that I would like to do very much, in the time that I have left, in terms of my own screenwriting, is to … write some things that reflect my faith," he said. The goal would be to put "the same kind of energy, ... into doing faith-based films that I think can really be commercially viable, that I put into other films of a different sort that became commercially successful."

Define "spiritual." Pick three films

The hero is stranded on a dying planet, lonely and yearning for companionship. Then a miracle occurs and his female counterpart -- her name is EVE -- arrives seeking a sprout of new life that says it's time to heal this world condemned by the sins of previous generations. Her mission is to take this green sign of hope back to the giant vessel that has sheltered humanity during this ecological storm.

Recognize any names, symbols and themes from an old book?

This is the story at the heart of Wall-E, the latest hit from Pixar. A panel of judges at Beliefnet.com selected this parable as the year's best "spiritual film," praising it as the story of a "lovable robot who miraculously rids our planet of pollution and causes a global spiritual transformation."

"Of course the robot Wall-E falls in love with is named EVE," said Dena Ross, entertainment editor for the interfaith website. "Some people see this as another Noah's Ark story, too, and it ends with humanity coming home to start over with a new earth. …

"So there are obviously biblical elements here. These themes of stewardship and creation will resonate with Christians, but you'll find these same themes in many other religions, as well."

Critics at Christianity Today reached a similar conclusion and selected Wall-E as the year's top "redeeming film," noting that, "Existential longing, awe and apocalyptic hope form the ambitious thematic terrain of this poetic, mesmerizing film." The biblical symbolism wasn't a shock, since director Andrew Stanton had previously discussed how his Christian faith influenced the film.

It didn't take a giant leap of faith to pin the "spiritual" and "redemptive" labels on Wall-E. But things get more complicated when applying these terms elsewhere.

After all, the 2008 "People's Choice" award from Beliefnet.com went to Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino," the story of a violent, racist, foul-mouthed Korean War veteran and his unlikely path to brotherly love, redemption and sacrifice. Laced together with Catholic threads, it ends with one of the most obvious visual references to a crucifix that moviegoers will ever see.

At the same time, Beliefnet.com judges and readers skipped over the evangelical hit "Fireproof" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," based on the novel by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

What is a "spiritual movie," as opposed to a "religious movie"? Beliefnet.com editors argued that "spiritual" movies "shed light on, or make a serious attempt to grapple with, the big questions. Why are we here? What's the meaning of life? Is there a God? Why is there evil in the world? Of course, this will inevitably include movies with overtly religious themes -- Christian or otherwise -- such as redemption, forgiveness, keeping faith, life and death, good vs. evil, and more. But sometimes they're simply about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity."

Christianity Today critics used this definition when listing their "redeeming" films: "We mean movies that include stories of redemption -- sometimes blatantly, sometimes less so. Several of them literally have a character that represents a redeemer; all of them have characters who experience redemption to some degree. … Some are 'feel-good' movies that leave a smile on your face; some are a bit more uncomfortable to watch. But the redemptive element is there in all of these films."

The critics at Beliefnet.com, for example, struggled with "Slumdog Millionaire," which was named Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The story of a boy's rise from the Mumbai slums wove together themes of destiny, compassion, love and justice. It was a feel-good movie, but was it "spiritual"?

Over at Christianity Today, the same movie was described as a "Dickensian chronicle" that rises above its success story plot to become a tale "about providence and how all things are used for good by something greater than ourselves. As the film clearly says, all things happen 'because it was written.' "

The bottom line is that it's impossible to put these artistic and spiritual judgment calls into simple formulas, stressed Ross. But people who care about the mysterious role that faith plays in real life know a spiritual movie when they see one.

"There are movies," she said, "that appeal to religious people and there are also movies that, in some strange way, appeal to all kinds of people by touching their souls. That's hard to describe, but that's real."

Pullman vs. the Magisterium

Those values viewers in the heartland are at it again, clicking "forward" on yet another wave of hot emails about sin, evil, magic and Hollywood.

Here's the news, as harvested on the Internet by experts at Snopes.com, a giant website dedicated to researching urban legends.

"Hi! I just wanted to inform you what I just learned about a movie that is coming out December 7, during the Christmas season, which is entitled 'The Golden Compass.' ... What is disturbing to me is that this movie is based on the first of a trilogy of books for children called 'His Dark Materials' written by Philip Pullman of England.

"He's an atheist and his objective is to bash Christianity and promote atheism. I heard that he has made remarks that he wants to kill God in the minds of children, and that's what his books are about."

Snopes.com researched the many issues raised in this message -- concluding that these emails are (you may want to sit down) essentially true.

It's even true that Pullman devotees have accused New Line executives of editing out some of the book's juicier heresies in an attempt to offend fewer Christian consumers. After all, the studio has about $180 million invested in this project and would like to make two more movies based on the award-winning trilogy.

"What's really amazing is that all of those evangelical and Catholic critics have been aiming their heavy artillery at J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books, when they could have been firing at Pullman, whose books came out first," said Sandra Miesel, co-author of the upcoming book "Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy Literature."

"Pullman is brilliant at hiding what he's really saying," she added. "Also, his books were marketed for people with more elite tastes. Once they started winning awards, they became more popular. And now, here come the movies, so people are really starting to pay attention."

Pullman has, however, never been soft spoken. In one famous interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, he expressed amazement that Rowling's Potter books took more flak in Bible Belt America than his own.

"I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God," he explained. As for his own beliefs, he added: "If we're talking on the scale of human life and the things we see around us, I'm an atheist. There's no God here. There never was. But if you go out into the vastness of space, well, I'm not so sure."

As a writer, Pullman greatly admires Milton's 17th-century classic "Paradise Lost," with its battles between good and evil to determine who will rule heaven. The "His Dark Materials" trilogy covers similar territory and tries to turn the tables through the triumph of two young adventurers, Lyra and Will. The goal is for this couple -- a new Eve and Adam -- to eat forbidden fruit and, this time around, destroy God.

Along the way, Pullman serves up clergy who kidnap and torture children, visitations from gay angels, fickle witches patrolling the skies, a wise shaman, warrior polar bears, a brilliant ex-nun and plenty of opportunities for children to get in touch with their inner "daemons," the talking-animal spirits who represent their souls.

At the heart of the story is a substance called "Dust," which may or may not be Original Sin in a physical form. Then again, Pullman recently told Atlantic Monthly that "Dust" is evidence of a godlike energy unleashed when people gain wisdom, explore their emotions, challenge authority and -- especially for adolescents -- explore their sexuality.

Meanwhile, evil incarnate has a name in Pullman's books -- the "Church." Its bishops wear purple, its cardinals wear red and there is a Vatican with fancy guards. By the end of the trilogy, the ultimate villain has been identified as, "The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty."

In the movie, however, "Magisterium" is always used instead of "Church." These forces of evil are, however, fond of Orthodox Christian iconography and Bible verses written in Latin.

"I guess it helps to know that the word 'Magisterium' is the term used to describe the teaching office of the Catholic Church," said Miesel. "That's really subtle. ... Actually, it's not very subtle at all."

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 (aintitcool.com) 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.

Blonde, female, Christian, late-night comedian

It's no surprise that Victoria Jackson watches "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," the latest slice-of-elite-life offering from Aaron "West Wing" Sorkin.

After all, one of the main characters in this drama set inside a late-night sketch comedy show -- a fictional West Coast version of "Saturday Night Live" -- is Harriet Hayes, a blonde, female, singing comedian who is a born-again Christian.

This got Jackson's attention real quick.

"I'm the only blonde, female, singing, born-again Christian comedian in the history of 'Saturday Night Live.' I'm pretty sure there's only one of me," said Jackson, in the high, child-like voice that is her trademark. After watching the pilot episode, she asked her husband, "What's going on? Was that me?" It was, she said, "Pretty strange. It hit close to home."

Jackson knows enough about the struggling NBC series to know that the pivotal romance between the Hayes character and the "East Coast liberal Jewish atheist" writer Matt Albie is based, in large part, on the real-life romance between Sorkin and the Tony Award-winning actress Kristin Chenoweth, an outspoken Christian.

"It's hard on a very private level," Chenoweth told the Toronto Star. "I once told Aaron, `Unless you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, then get the hell out,' and he laughed for two minutes. Then I see it on the show in a different way. ... I went on The 700 Club to promote an album of Christian songs I had recorded and, yes, Aaron and I argued about that. But it doesn't mean I want to watch that disagreement flung up on the screen for all America to see."

Chenoweth stressed that the character "is literally me and some of it is not me at all."

Jackson feels the same way. She has seen scenes that appear to have been based on events -- on-stage and off -- during her SNL seasons from 1986-92, when the "Tonight Show" veteran worked with Dana Carvey, Julia Sweeney, Dennis Miller, Nora Dunn, Mike Myers, Jan Hooks, David Spade and others. Take, for example, that "Studio 60" pilot that focused on a comedy sketch entitled "Crazy Christians."

That was the name Jackson assigned to a sketch she was asked to perform, leading her to plead for relief from executive director Lorne Michaels. He heard her out and assigned another actress to do the part. The sketch bombed in dress rehearsal and vanished.

"It was a legitimate sketch that was making fun of what they called extreme Christians," said Jackson. "You know, there are Christians out there that make life rather embarrassing for other Christians. ...

"Now I can make fun of people who have a Jesus toaster and Jesus salt and pepper shakers and Jesus napkin holders. That's fair. But this time they wanted me to kneel down in a comedy show and pretend to pray -- to get a laugh. I just couldn't do it. I told Lorne that I thought I'd start crying or shaking. Prayer is real. I think prayer is talking to God."

Jackson said it's important that her colleagues worked with her and tried to respect her beliefs. Still, it was sometimes hard to do comedy when few -- if any -- of the writers truly understood her faith and, thus, her strengths as a comic.

"Studio 60" is doing a good job of showing this kind of tension, she said. It also helps that Harriet Hayes is not being portrayed as "one of those Christian clich

Facing some giant lessons

Like millions of other American kids, Alex Kendrick couldn't believe his eyes the first time he saw "Star Wars."

"I remember sitting in that theater, looking up at that big screen and thinking, 'I want to do that. I have to do that. If it's the last thing I ever do, I'm going to make movies,' " said Kendrick, the writer, director and actor whose low-budget "Facing the Giants" football flick has made headlines.

The evangelistic indie movie cost $100,000 to make and, showing on 418 screens in faith-friendly smaller markets, has made nearly $3 million at the box office in two weeks. It's backed by Provident Films, Sony BMG and Samuel Goldwyn films, but the critics have been merciless.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted: "It preaches to the converted -- literally." And then there was this Richmond Times-Dispatch love letter to Kendrick: " 'Facing the Giants' may have been made with all the best intentions in the world, but it was also made by writers who can't write, directors who can't direct, editors who can't edit and actors who can't act. And they're all the same guy."

It helps, however, to understand that the Southern Baptist guy at the heart of this movie has had a tough time turning his "Star Wars" epiphany into a career reality. He is learning how to make movies and "Facing the Giants" is only his second try.

Kendrick never had a real chance to study screenwriting, editing, directing or acting. When the time came to pick a career, he did what many young media-driven believers end up doing. He entered the ministry.

It's hard to explain to outsiders how this kind of thing happens.

"I kept trying to find people who felt the same way as I did," he said in an interview just before a ratings tussle with the Motion Picture Association of America that sparked a media firestorm. "I could see that movies were shaping our culture and I couldn't understand why so many other people couldn't see that. It was hard to find people who understood what I wanted to do."

Kendrick tried a Christian college, where there were no classes linked to entertainment and filmmaking, but ended up with an all-purpose degree in communications from Kennesaw State University near Atlanta. Then he went to seminary, but it was more of the same.

Eventually, he heard that Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., was seeking help with its 24-hour Christian ministry on the local cable-television system. This led to Alex and his brother Stephen being hired as "associate pastors of media" at this modern megachurch, the kind where the faithful sit in movie seats and the preacher stands between two giant video screens.

"Basically we were putting church on TV," said Kendrick. "We were filming services, concerts and special events. But my brother and I still wanted to make television shows and movies that told stories that connected with people."

Then they saw some research that helped the leaders of their church understand what they were saying about media.

In their book "Boiling Point," evangelical pollster George Barna and e-commerce professional Mark Hatch put it this way: "The world of entertainment and mass communications -- through television, radio, contemporary music, movies, magazines, art, video games and pop literature -- is indisputably the most extensive and influential theological training system in the world."

That clicked.

Before long, Alex and Stephen Kendrick and their supporters had "prayed in" $25,000 to create a movie called "Flywheel" about a morally confused used-car salesman. It did surprisingly well in a few local multiplexes and on DVD, considering that it was made with volunteer actors and technicians, using store-bought cameras, lights from Home Depot and the video-editing software in desk-top computers.

This led to "Facing the Giants," where a slightly larger budget let the church hire five professionals to run a movie "boot camp" for church members, as well as to film some of the football scenes. It was a strange place to study filmmaking.

The folks at Sherwood Pictures team have learned many lessons, but are well aware that they're just getting started -- at last.

"So many miraculous things have happened to make all this possible," said Kendrick. "We're doing the best that we can and we're learning ... I truly believe that I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing."