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The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

It's easy to capture a kid's attention with cartoons about Noah and the Ark, Joshua's laps around the walls of Jericho and other colorful stories from scripture.

Phil Vischer ought to know, since for millions of Americans under the age of 25 he is best known as Bob the Tomato and the brain behind the original VeggieTales videos. But over time, he realized that he faced a bigger challenge as a storyteller, one symbolized by the sign on his 1990s office wall that proclaimed: "We will not portray Jesus as a vegetable."

At some point, he said, children need to learn the whole story of faith -- including the hard parts. This has to happen quickly in a culture that barrages them with competing signals as soon as they leave their cribs.

"You have to have the big story of what our faith is all about," said Vischer, in a telephone interview. "Our moral beliefs are like ornaments we hang on a tree. The problem is that we've thrown out the tree and we expect the ornaments to keep hanging in the air on their own.

"You can't just tell kids, 'Behave! Because I told you so!' … Without a big spiritual narrative, some larger worldview, you have nothing to hang moral behavior on."

That was the challenge at the heart of Vischer's talk -- "Beyond VeggieTales: Forming the Moral Imagination of Your Kids" -- during a recent Nashville conference on parenting held by the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Speaker after speaker mentioned a media culture that feeds children clashing concepts of good and evil, success and failure, before they enter kindergarten. Digital screens are everywhere, packed with compelling stories.

Churches ignoring the digital playground

GILFORD, N.H. -- Everywhere computer professional Brian Heil looked at SoulFest 2011 he saw packs of young people trying to stay on schedule as they rushed from one rock concert, workshop or prayer meeting to another. But first, there was one more text to send, one more Twitter tweet to tweet, one more Facebook status to update, one more snapshot to share, one more YouTube video to upload, just one more connection to make in the digital world that now shapes real life.

This year's four-day festival drew nearly 13,000 Protestants and Catholics from throughout New England, which means there were about that many cellphones, smartphones, tablets and other digital devices on hand. The screens glowed like fireflies in the crowds that gathered for the rock concerts each night on the lower slopes of the Gunstock Mountain Resort.

"Everyone's connected everywhere. It's continuous. This is how our young people experience life today," said Heil, during his "Protecting the Playground" workshop for parents and youth leaders at SoulFest. "They don't even look at the keys on their phones anymore when texting. ...

"Lots of kids are more comfortable texting than they are talking and having real relationships. They have trouble with face-to-face intimacy because they're so used to living their lives online and in text messages. Texting feels safer."

But the harsh reality is that the digital world is not safer, stressed the 52-year-old Heil, who has a quarter of a century of experience as digital networker and designer. While many pastors and parents have heard horror stories about children straying into dark corners online, few are aware of just how common these problems have become -- even in their sanctuaries and homes.

This is the kind of danger and sin that religious leaders often fear discussing, precisely because these realities have not remained bottled up in the secular world. Thus, Heil urged his listeners to ponder the following statistics in his presentation, drawn from mainstream research in the past year:

* Two-thirds of Americans under the age of 18 have reported some kind of negative experience while online. Only 45 percent of their parents are aware of this.

* Forty-one percent of children say they have been approached online by some kind of stranger, possibly an older predator.

* At least 25 percent of children report having seen nude or disturbingly violent images online. Heil is convinced this number has risen to 45 percent in the past year or so. The vast majority of children exposed to pornography first see these images on a computer in their own home.

"This is why, if I could convince parents to make one change in their homes, it would be to never put a computer behind a closed door. ... Keep them out in an open part of the house," he said.

* Among teens, 45 percent report having sent or received a sexual text message of some kind. One in five say they have sent or received a nude or partially nude image, the phenomenon that has become known as "sexting."

* Among teens with Internet access, 40 percent say they have been affected by cyberbullying activities, such as malicious changes being made to their Facebook pages after the theft of passwords.

"There are Christian kids doing this," said Heil, talking about various forms of cyberbullying. "Young people just go online and they open up. Things get emotional and they share what's on their hearts. They just can't help it. Then, before they know it, things can get mean and kids get hurt."

Meanwhile, he said, it's getting harder for adults to monitor what's happening in this "dark alley," in large part because young people are so much more skilled at social media than the adults who are paying for all of those smartphones and laptops. Many adults also fear legal complications if they try to trace their children's steps online. Some church leaders -- with good cause -- fear getting involved in social media and having the young misinterpret their motives.

Apathy is not the answer, however, since children are getting hurt.

"It's hard to do happy talk about this issue," Heil admitted. "It's painful and it's hidden and it's dark stuff. ... This is a test of whether our relationships really mean anything in the church today, whether there is such a thing as accountability."

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."

Rush Limbaugh, liberal heretic?

The joke was old, old, old and Rush Limbaugh knew that when -- tongue firmly planted in cheek -- he tweaked it for his flock at the Conservative Political Action Convention. So Larry King dies and goes to heaven, where the CNN star urgently asks St. Peter: "Is Rush Limbaugh here?" Not yet, says his host. Finally, their tour reaches heaven's largest room, where a flashing "Rush Limbaugh" sign hangs over a giant throne. King is confused.

"I thought you said he wasn't here," King asks, in Limbaugh's take on this joke. St. Peter replies, "He's not, he's not. This is God's room. He just thinks he's Rush Limbaugh."

The political question today is not whether Limbaugh thinks he's God, but how many religious conservatives still believe that the radio superstar is on the side of the angels. After all, a rich entertainer who for years has proclaimed he has "talent on loan from God," and that his beliefs are the "epitome of morality and virtue," can expect to hear murmurs in a few pews after his third divorce and waves of headlines about Viagra and mysterious bottles of painkillers.

"Of course, Rush does have his faithful listeners," said philosopher John Mark Reynolds, head of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, an evangelical campus near Los Angeles. "But the people at your local Baptist church are not the people that Rush hangs out with. When they go out to play, they don't do what Rush does when he goes out to play. ... Still, it seems that his base doesn't care. What else could he do to offend them that he hasn't already done?"

No one would dispute that Limbaugh is a powerful Republican voice, just as no one can dispute that Oprah Winfrey's strong voice helped President Barack Obama defeat a crowded field of experienced Democrats. But in recent weeks, the White House has campaigned to anoint Limbaugh as -- to quote chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel -- the "intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party."

Ever since, conservatives have been firing salvos at one another in bitter debates about Limbaugh's political sins and virtues.

As a Christian conservative, Reynolds is asking a different question: Are Limbaugh's beliefs truly "conservative," as this term would be defined historically or philosophically? In an online essay entitled "Rush Gave a Bad Speech," he underlined a frequently quoted passage in the CPAC address.

Conservatives, stressed Limbaugh, do not view the "average American ... with contempt. We don't think that person doesn't have what it takes. We believe that person can be the best he or she wants to be if certain things are just removed from their path like onerous taxes, regulations and too much government.

"This is a core. I want the best country we can have. We want the most prosperous people. We want to be growing. ... We want this country to be so damn great and we just cringe to watch it -- basically capitalism -- be assaulted and our culture be reoriented to where the people that make it work are the enemy."

Reynolds noted that the speech was built on the "dubious notion that 'the people' are always good and that they will always do what's right, if the state will just get out of their way. This is completely different than the conservative belief that we must maintain checks and balances because we live in a sinful, fallen world and it's wrong to trust either the people or the state -- or the church, for that matter -- with total power."

Limbaugh's vision of unfettered human potential and his complete trust in corporate America is especially jarring, noted Reynolds, in light of the economic crisis unfolding on Wall Street and in communities nationwide.

The bottom line: Limbaugh seems to have little or no sense of sin, which is a vital component in classic conservatism.

"Why isn't it," asked Reynolds, proper "for conservatives to say that pillaging our laws and economic institutions is wrong and a sin and that the government has a valid role to play in seeking justice? We should be able to say that it's wrong to tell lies and it's wrong to defraud the government.

"But you don't hear Rush saying anything like that. Instead, you hear these Utopian views that are not truly conservative. In fact, they are the opposite of conservatism."

Faith and the Russert Test

The politico facing Tim Russert was Vice Present Al Gore and their testy dialogue was one of the memorable moments during the 2000 White House race.

RUSSERT: When do you think life begins?

GORE: I favor the Roe vs. Wade approach, but let me just say, Tim, I did --

RUSSERT: Which is what? When does life begin?

GORE: Let me just say, I did change my position on the issue of federal funding and I changed it because I came to understand more from women -- women think about this differently than men.

RUSSERT: But you were calling fetuses innocent human life, and now you don't believe life begins at conception. I'm just trying to find out, when do you believe life begins?

GORE: Well, look, the Roe vs. Wade decision proposes an answer to that question --

RUSSERT: Which is?

Liberal critics said this line of questioning veered out of journalism into hostile territory, especially when Russert probed Gore on laws banning the execution of any pregnant woman on death row, somewhere, someday. Gore defenders defended his stunned, befuddled silence -- what one called a "pregnant pause."

But the Gore showdown raised other questions. Was the host of NBC's "Meet the Press" asking this question because of his own Catholic beliefs? Or was Russert pressing hard because he knew that, as a U.S. senator from Tennessee, Gore had an 84 percent positive National Right to Life voting record and he wanted to hear the candidate describe his change of heart?

"Tim wore his Catholicism proudly. He talked about it all the time," noted NBC anchor Brian Williams, who stepped in, after Russert's death, as the featured speaker at a recent Catholic Common Ground Initiative forum in Washington, D.C.

In fact, Russert's faith was not "an elephant in the room. It was the room. It was the room he was raised in. It was one of his great charms, as was how he dealt with it in life and in our public discourse. ... Catholicism was his base. It was never his bias. I think that's absolutely crucial and I will debate anyone who contends to the contrary."

Russert scheduled speech was called "Learnings from the Political Process for Common Ground in the Catholic Church," a natural topic drawing on his lengthy news career and his earlier brass-tacks political work with two major Democrats -- Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

In the days after the 58-year-old Russert's shocking heart attack, the focus changed for this event at the Catholic University of America. Williams, who is also Catholic, said the key question was theological and journalistic: Was Russert's relentless search for the truth a result of his Catholic upbringing?

Williams argued that it was impossible to understand Russert's "beautiful mind" without taking seriously the Catholic life and education that formed him. The newsman was who he was, an Irish Catholic guy from south Buffalo, N.Y., who loved his family and always sang the praises of the Mercy Sisters and Jesuit teachers who inspired him enter public life. In April, he openly brought his rosary to a meeting between elite journalists and Pope Benedict XVI, during his visit to Washington.

Russert vowed to never miss Sunday Mass if his son, Luke, was born healthy and kept that promise. While he had strong ties to Catholic progressives, Russert also admired the work of Pope John Paul II. He once told Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a veteran Catholic writer, than when he died he hoped John Paul would meet him at heaven's gate -- wearing the white NBC News baseball cap that Russert gave him.

There were tensions in Russert's life and work. In particular, the clergy sexual-abuse scandals left him angry and shaken. The newsman saw the crisis as "a test of his Catholicism," said Williams. But he also believed that covering the story required him to do the "job of a journalist."

Russert always "understood that the stakes were high. He knew that better than most of us," added Williams. "He knew that the civility of our dialogue was under attack. He knew that diversity in the public square takes work every day. And he knew that our standards of journalism were being attacked. ?

"He understood what it meant to be 'called' to be Catholic, and I think that's very important. He took the call."

The 30-something days of Xmas

There was a time when Christians did not celebrate a season that could be called the 30-something days of Christmas.

In the year of our Lord 1939, the National Retail Dry Goods Association asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving to the next-to-last Thursday in November. This was strategic, since President Abraham Lincoln had proclaimed the last Thursday of the month as the official holiday. This meant that Thanksgiving was occasionally delayed until a fifth Thursday -- a cruel blow to merchants.

Confusion reigned until Congress reached a compromise and, since 1942, Thanksgiving has been observed on the fourth Thursday in November.

And thus was born America's most powerful and all-consuming season. This later evolved into the shopping festival called "The Holidays," which in the past generation has started creeping into stores days or weeks before Turkey Day.

"None of this, of course, has anything to do with the Christmas traditions that Christians have been observing through the ages," said Teresa Berger, professor of liturgical studies at Yale Divinity School.

To be candid, she said, it does "help to remember that celebrations of Christmas and other holy seasons have always been affected by what happens in the marketplace and the surrounding culture. ... But that isn't what we are seeing, today. The question now is whether or not the shopping mall will define what is Christmas for most Christians."

Here's the bottom line. For centuries, Christmas was a 12-day season that began on Dec. 25th and ended on Jan. 6th with the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany. Thus, the season of Christmas followed Christmas Day, with most people preparing for the holy day in a festive blitz during the final days or even hours, with many stores staying open until midnight on Christmas Eve.

Today, everything has been flipped around, with the Christmas or Holiday season preceding Dec. 25.

For most Americans, this season begins with an explosion of shopping on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, followed by a flurry of office parties and school events packed into early December. The goal is to hold as many of these events as possible long before the onset of the complicated travel schedules that shape the lives of many individuals and families.

Meanwhile, television networks, radio stations and newspapers have created their own versions of the "12 days of Christmas," inserting them before -- often long before -- Dec. 25 as a secular framework for advertising campaigns, civic charity projects, holiday music marathons, parades, house-decorating competitions and waves of mushy movies, old and new.

Needless to say, this is not the Christmas that Berger knew as she grew up in Germany in the post-World War II era. As a Catholic, the days between Christmas and Epiphany were marked by a series of events -- such as the feasts of St. Stephen and St. John the Evangelist -- that were accompanied by their own rites and customs. Lutherans and other Christians had their own traditions for marking this time.

"When people talk about a season called the 'Twelve Days of Christmas,' they are primarily talking about something that was much more common in England," said Berger. "There are many reasons for that, not the least of which was the popularity of the song by that name."

While these traditions took various forms, the key was that the religious elements of the season remained intact. Christians celebrated Christmas during Christmas.

Berger said that it still makes her a bit uncomfortable when she sees families putting up and decorating their Christmas trees before they are even finished using the candles and green wreathes associated with the penitential season of Advent, which begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. There are many more people, of course, who do not observe Advent, which is called Nativity Lent in Orthodox churches.

"Today, people believe they can have whatever they want, when they want it, and Christmas becomes whatever the culture says that it is," she said. "We can, however, revolt against this. We can choose, for example, not to send out 1,000 mindless Christmas cards. We can sit down and write our own cards and even breathe a prayer for the people we love while we do that.

"No one can force us to live according to the laws of the new Christmas. We can make our own choices."

FM radio reality in church

The clock is ticking and soon Jeff Crandall while face the challenge of selecting the right music for the Christmas services at High Desert Church.

This will be tricky, because Christmas is what the 70-member staff at this megachurch calls a "federal" event. This means that these services will unite worshippers from the three radically different services that are held week after week at this booming congregation in Victorville, Calif., about 90 miles outside of Los Angeles.

"Christmas may be the only time when people want to hear traditional music, no matter what age they are," said Crandall, the church's 46-year-old "worship pastor" and the former drummer in a rock band called the Altar Boys. "Even kids who are totally into hard rock what to hear a few carols, which makes it easier to put together a service that pleases everybody. ... We try to do the same thing during Holy Week and Easter."

In recent decades, many churches have been shattered by the intergenerational strife that researchers call the "worship wars." If you want to split a national church, change its teachings about sexuality or salvation. But if you want to split a local church, you toss the hymnal, hire a drummer, unleash the teen-agers or make some other musical change that rocks the pews.

But High Desert Church is the kind of church that has turned this equation around. Its goal is to build a multi-flock ministry that unapologetically offers all rock, all the time, but with bands that appeal to different packs of young people, as well as bands for believers from an earlier g-g-g-generation or two.

Now, this nondenominational flock is poised to become the poster church for this FM-radio-dial approach to worship, after being dissected in the hallowed pages of the New York Times.

"When you start a church, you don't decide who you're going to reach and then pick a music style," senior pastor Tom Mercer told America's newspaper of record. "You pick a music style, and that determines who's going to come."

On one level, the music divides this church. But on another level, the music is at the heart of worship services that create zones of comfort for people who have been raised in a culture in which consumers define themselves by their musical choices.

Thus, High Desert Church offers a "Classic" service for Baby Boomers and others who came of age during the "Jesus rock" explosion in the '60s and '70s. This service offers a softer brand of acoustic rock -- think Byrds or the Eagles -- that is easier on the delicate and even damaged ears of older worshippers, said Crandall.

Meanwhile, other musicians focus on the "Harbor" service for people between the ages of 30 and 50. It features the kind of soaring, inspiring rock that most people would associate with U2 and classic bands from the 1980s. Then the "Seven" service cranks things up another notch, with what Crandall described as a "dark" and "moody" mix of postmodern music for the young.

The bottom line: Church leaders use different technology to create different music for different generations who choose to attend different services.

The music unites and the music divides. The challenge for church leadership, Crandall said, is to unite these flocks around a common vision when doing evangelism and missions -- primarily through 18-person cell groups that focus on fellowship and prayer. Then there are those "federal" events that take place several times a year.

There are still Protestant and even Roman Catholic churches that are trying to create "blended" worship services that appeal to all ages at the same time. "Blended" is the term used to describe a mix of traditional hymns and rock music, switching back and forth between a pipe organ and those electric guitars.

Their intentions are good, said Crandall, but the results are guaranteed to offend people whose musical tastes are simply not compatible. Thus, he believes that "blended" services drive people away rather than pulling them together.

"This is reality," he said. "Everything is about the music. When you go to the mall, you can even tell what kind of people are supposed to be shopping in the different stores just by listening to the music that is playing. Can you imagine kids wanting to shop in a store that is playing the music that their parents listen to? No way."

Hell through the Hollywood lens

LOS ANGELES -- Hell looks really cool, when seen through a Hollywood lens.

The good guys in the upcoming thriller "Constantine" do comment on the sulfur smell in the hell edition of Los Angeles and it's a pain coping with all those extra tortured, brainless, flesh-eating demons on the 101 Freeway. But the city still looks like Los Angeles, even after an eternity of hurricane-force firestorms.

The other place can't compete, when it comes to entertainment value.

"The reason why heaven isn't shown as much in these kinds of movies, honestly, is that no one knows how to depict it in a cool way," said screenwriter Frank Cappello, after the film's press screenings.

"Audiences love to see hell. They want to see demonic images. But if you show them angelic beings, if you show them the light ... it's like they say, 'Oh, gosh.' "

So it's no surprise that "Constantine" offers a mere glimpse of a heavenly reward, before its chain-smoking, hard-drinking, cussing antihero is yanked back to his life as a rock 'n' roll exorcist. The John Constantine character was born in stacks of "Hellblazer" comic books and, as played by the neo-messianic Keanu Reeves, is part Dirty Harry and part Indiana Jones, channeling "The Matrix" and "Men in Black."

How dark is this movie? The angel Gabriel gets ticked off at humanity and decides to cue the apocalypse.

The director and writers agreed that their movie raises big questions about salvation and damnation, sin and repentance, fate and free will. It will raise eyebrows among the 81 percent of Americans who, according to a 2004 Gallup Poll, believe in heaven and the 70 percent who believe in hell.

"I'm a skeptic, myself," said director Francis Lawrence. "For all I know, you die and rot in a box and that's it."

This response was par for the course, as the "Constantine" cast and crew fielded questions from critics and reporters, including a room full of Catholic and Protestant writers. One after another, the Hollywood professionals said they wanted their movie to inspire questions, but remain agnostic about answers.

A Catholic priest among the press agreed that it doesn't make sense to expect coherent doctrine from a horror movie, even one this packed with references to Catholic rituals, relics and art. Yet "Constantine" is precisely the kind of pop-culture event that may cause young people to ask questions.

"It's based on a comic book and looks like a video game," said Father Joe Krupp of and Lansing (Mich.) Catholic High School. "Like it or not, you just know that the kids are going to be talking about this and we need to pay attention. ...

"This movie is messy, but it does say that there is a heaven and a hell and it says that our choices are powerful and matter for eternity. It also says that each of us was created by God for a purpose. It says that several times."

Spiritual warfare is quite literally the key, with the antihero fighting to earn his way into heaven. At one point, Constantine chants Latin prayers and threatens to send the demonic Balthazar to heaven instead of hell in a brass-knuckles version of Last Rites. But just before he pulls the trigger -- on a shotgun shaped like a cross -- he reminds his adversary that he must "ask for absolution to be saved."

Constantine knows how to get to heaven, stressed Cappello. He is simply too angry and cynical to obey. Seek God's forgiveness? Forget about it.

"His pride gets in the way of him asking to be let off the hook," said Cappello. "It's basically, 'I'm going to do it myself.' "

Yet Reeves urged moviegoers not to judge his world-weary character too harshly, because he does muster up one act of self sacrifice. In the "secular religiosity" of this film, that is enough.

"That's what, you know, gives him a chance of going upstairs," said Reeves. "But ... did he make the sacrifice so that he could go to heaven, or does he really mean it?" In the end, "the man upstairs knows, just like Santa Claus, if you're telling a lie or if you're really nice. He knows."

And all the people said: Whoa.

Beyond the Baptist boycott

It was a cheesy ad slogan sure to raise eyebrows during the summer battle for the teen-movie bucks -- "Got Passion? Get Saved!"

An acidic take on a Christian high school, "Saved!" was crafted to make evangelicals punch their boycott buttons. It featured clean queen Mandy Moore as a Bible-throwing harpy from Hades. Macaulay "Home Alone" Culkin played a hip cynic in a wheelchair who shared cigarettes and sex with the school's lone Jewess. Its all-tolerant God offered a flexible moral code.

MGM promoted the film directly to believers who were sure to hate it.

"It seemed like they did everything they could to get a boycott," said Walt Mueller, head of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding in Elizabethtown, Pa. "They wanted a boycott. They needed a boycott. I am sure they were stunned when they didn't get one."

The film cost $5 million to produce and grossed only $8.8 million, after a quiet sojourn in selected theaters. The bottom line: "Saved!" was an intriguing test case for those pondering the impact of media boycotts. Looking ahead, will Southern Baptist executives balk at saying the words "Disney," "boycott" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" in the same sentence?

The crucial word-of-mouth buzz never arrived for "Saved!", perhaps because the conservatives the film set out to bash often turned the other cheek and declined to provide millions of dollars in free publicity.

It helped that the film took so many pot shots that it even offended some secular scribes.

Michael O'Sullivan of the Washington Post said the best adjective for "Saved!" was "condescending" and that it was as "preachy as its finger-wagging victims." Glenn Whipp of the Los Angles Daily News said the movie's creators wanted audiences to "know that it's important to practice tolerance of others -- unless, of course, those others are Christians."

Still, The Los Angeles Times did its part to help the studio by seeking condemnation from the usual snarky suspects -- Catholic League President William Donahue, op-ed columnist Cal Thomas, Christian Film and Television Commission czar Ted Baehr and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Apparently Pat Robertson was busy that day.

But no one uttered the b-word -- boycott. "Saved!" didn't even create a buzz at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"I vaguely remember hearing of that movie, but that's about it," said Dwayne Hastings of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission media office. "I didn't get a single call about it, or a single email. It simply did not make a blip on the Southern Baptist radar."

This is interesting, since Hollywood remains a hot issue for Southern Baptists and other moral conservatives. Years after the national headlines, the 1997 Southern Baptist vote to boycott the Walt Disney Co. remains in effect. The convention cited a wave of "anti-Christian" media products, Disney policies granting benefits to partners of gay employees and "Gay Day" events at theme parks that angered many families and church groups.

There is no sign that the Southern Baptist leadership is re-thinking this stance. This summer, the Rev. Wiley Drake of First Baptist in Buena Vista, Calif., a strong Disney critic, floated a convention resolution commending the studio for producing the patriotic movie "America's Heart and Soul." His motion was ruled out of order.

"I want a specific action commending them for what they are doing," said Drake.

Hastings said it's hard to image the convention retreating and ending the boycott. It's just as hard to imagine Disney apologizing to Southern Baptists. Nevertheless, an upcoming series of films based on the fantasy fiction of the best known Christian writer of the 20th Century would certainly raise questions. What if Mel Gibson provided the voice of Aslan, the Christ-figure lion?

"It's possible that there could be a resolution praising Disney for doing Narnia. Of course, this assumes that they offer some kind of accurate rendering of the Christian vision and beliefs of C.S. Lewis," said Hastings.

"But the whole point of the boycott is for people to stop and think about their choices. I'm sure that millions of Baptists went to see 'Finding Nemo' and they watch ESPN like everybody else. But they are thinking twice about giving Disney their money and support. People are learning to be more selective."