That strange sermonette that Chris Pratt tricked MTV viewers into swallowing

That strange sermonette that Chris Pratt tricked MTV viewers into swallowing

Everyone knows what the angelic nanny Mary Poppins meant when she sang:  "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."

Hollywood superstar Chris Pratt put a different spin on that during the recent MTV Movie & TV Awards. After receiving the Generation Award, he told fans to "listen up," because he was speaking "as your elder." Then he recited what CNN called his "Nine Rules for Living."

It was a strange set of commandments -- part potty humor, part youth-pastor sermon. But Rule No. 4 said this: "When giving a dog medicine, put the medicine in a little piece of hamburger and they won't even know they're eating medicine."

That's what Pratt was doing. The megastar of Guardians of the Galaxy and the Jurassic Park reboots followed the MTV rules and used some mildly off-color humor -- like how to poop at a party without smelling up the bathroom. These MTV celebrity-fests are known for their racy fashion statements and crude language.

That humor was Pratt's "hamburger." What caused a tsunami of Internet clicks was his "medicine," speaking as an out-of-the-closet Hollywood Christian.

Rule No. 2 proclaimed: "You have a soul. Be careful with it."

Rule No. 6 was rather personal: "God is real. God loves you. God wants the best for you. Believe that, I do."

Rule No. 8 was just as blunt: "Learn to pray. It's easy, and it's so good for your soul."

There was more to this drama than the rare chance to hear a "Hollywood A-lister tell people to pray," noted film critic Titus Techera of the Claremont Institute. Pratt was trying to turn celebrity worship upside down.

The faithful soul of Jackie Robinson

Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey knew that the first black player in major league baseball was going to go through hell. That's why the cigar-chomping, Bible-thumping Rickey set out to find a man who would keep believing -- when facing bitter, scathing racial hatred -- that the powers of heaven were on his side. As baseball writers have often noted, Rickey needed someone who could turn the other cheek, as well as turn a double play.

In writer-director Brian Helgeland's new epic, "42," Jackie Robinson states the challenge in blunt terms.

"You want a man," Robinson asks, "who doesn't have the guts to fight back?"

Rickey replies: "I want a man who has the guts NOT to fight back."

The fit was perfect. In Helgeland's script, Rickey offers this churchy equation: "Robinson's a Methodist. I'm a Methodist. God's a Methodist. We can't go wrong."

That's the stuff of movies, alright, but this kind of faith reference remains somewhat unusual in a Hollywood blockbuster, acknowledged Eric Metaxas, who is best known for writing the global bestseller "Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy." The problem, he said, is that "42" omitted many other details that would have demonstrated that faith was crucial to the whole story.

There's no doubt that Robinson was a remarkable man, argues Metaxas, in his new "Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness." But Robinson was also a remarkably courageous and truly devout Christian man. Thus, he included Robinson's story in a book that explores the faith commitments of George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Pope John Paul II, Chuck Colson and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In the classic "Chariots of Fire," which won the Oscar for best picture, the Olympic runner and future missionary Liddell is repeatedly shown preaching, parsing scripture and discussing the beliefs that led to his pivotal decision not to run in Sunday races at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. "Try to imagine that movie without those scenes," noted Metaxas, in a telephone interview.

The key "42" scene -- when Robinson meets Rickey on Aug. 28, 1945 -- could have depicted what actually happened at the time. Rickey pulled out a copy of a classic devotional work, "Life of Christ" by Giovanni Papini, and read aloud the passage in which the author discusses the Sermon on the Mount, including the reference that describes the "turn the other cheek" challenge as "the most stupefying" of the "revolutionary teachings" of Jesus.

It wouldn't have taken long to read the scripture that so inspired Rickey and Robinson, said Metaxas. The Gospel of St. Matthew states: "Ye have heard it hath been said, An eye for and eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."

The reason, quite literally, that Rickey "choose Jackie Robinson was his strong moral character and his Christian faith," said Metaxas. "There were other great black players out there. But could they have taken the stand that Jackie took? ...

"That first meeting is the moment. That scene is the heart of this story and Jesus is right there in the middle of it."

It would have been wonderful if "42" had also noted the strong faith of Robinson's mother, Mallie. Then there was a crucial Methodist mentor named Karl Downs who taught the great ballplayer that obeying the command to "resist not evil" was not cowardly, but heroic, said Metaxas.

But movies are movies and, often, what matters the most are the visual images. Thus, it's crucial that Helgeland didn't include scenes in which Robinson is shown doing what he repeatedly said that he did day after day in those tense early years in major-league baseball -- getting down on his knees, praying for strength and patience.

"I'm not saying that this is a horrible movie," stressed Metaxas. "Yes, Robinson is shown closing his eyes for 0.87 seconds before he runs out onto the field and he's hit by the occasional inspirational ray of sunlight. ... But why are people afraid of showing a true American hero getting down on his knees and praying? What's so scary about that?

"It's like people think that prayer is a sign of weakness. Well, getting down on his knees didn't make Jackie Robinson weak. That's what helped make him strong."

Yet another preying Presbyterian?

Once again, shocked onlookers painted from familiar palettes as they described the latest young man to march into the public square with his guns blazing. The alleged killer was a moody, quiet loner who excelled at school. He was a normal guy who loved movies and super-hero tales, only he cheered for the villains. When seen in bars, he was usually sitting alone.

Journalists also quoted people who knew the family and said that James Holmes was once, as The Los Angeles Times noted, "heavily involved in their local Presbyterian church" in San Diego.

You see, even a kid from a normal church can evolve into someone who dyes his hair red, buys 6,000 rounds of ammo, girds himself in a full body-armor suit and, when surrendering to Aurora, Colo., police, identifies himself as The Joker, the incarnation of postmodern evil.

"What does 'Presbyterian' mean in this context? ... It's like no one really stopped to ask if there was there something about this particular label -- the actual content of this word -- that connected in any way to this event," said Aly Colon, a nationally known journalism ethics consultant.

"Does this kind of label give readers anything to stand on? ... It's like these words are hovering up in the sky, with no connection to the facts on the ground."

Truth is, in Southern California "Presbyterian" can describe everything from evangelical megachurches to oldline Protestant congregations on the religious left.

So was the Holmes family active in the liberal Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or the conservative Presbyterian Church in America? How about the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Synod, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America or the American Presbyterian Church?

Then again, journalists were soon reporting that this family has been active -- for nearly a decade -- in some brand of Lutheran congregation.

The problem, explained Colon, is that journalists assigned to cover these media storms in the digital age are trying to report as much information as they can, as fast as they can, as easily as they can, while competing against legions of websites, Twitter feeds, 24-hour cable news and, often, smartphone videos uploaded to YouTube by eyewitnesses. Reporters are tempted to use as many easy labels and stereotypes as possible, simply to save time and space.

Almost a decade ago, Colon wrote a essay entitled "Preying Presbyterians?" about a similar media blitz in which a gunman who killed an abortion-clinic doctor was constantly identified as a "former Presbyterian minister." As it turned out, Paul Hill had become so radical that he had already been ejected from a small Presbyterian flock that was very conservative, but also opposed to any use of violence during protests.

None of the mainstream news reports he read, wrote Colon, explained why it mattered that this man had once been some kind of Presbyterian. It was just a religious label with no real content.

"As journalists, we choose words carefully and conscientiously. We select nouns and adjectives to advance the story. We connect dots. We make points. We clarify. We explain," wrote Colon. "So when I see the word 'Presbyterian,' I expect an explanation somewhere in the story that tells me why I need to know that. I would expect the same if other terms were used, such as 'Catholic,' 'Episcopalian,' 'Christian,' 'Hindu,' 'Jew,' 'Mormon,' 'Hindu,' 'Buddhist,' 'Muslim' or 'Pagan.' "

What he wrote then remains true today, as journalists try to find and assemble the pieces of the bloody Aurora puzzle. If religion is going to be included in the coverage, stressed Colon, reporters must work to "connect faith to facts."

In other words, it will be crucial to learn the details of Holmes' real life, in the here and now. Journalists must learn how he spent his time, spent his money and made the decisions that appear to have ended and altered so many lives. If faith -- or some other worldview -- is part of that equation, then so be it.

"It's our duty to drill down and to find facts that add clarity," said Colon. "Maybe this young man once had a membership in a particular Presbyterian church with a particular theology. So what? How is that faith connected to the facts of what happened in Aurora? There must be a connection or what's the point?"

Golf as religion, spiritual discipline

If golf is a religion, then the smell of freshly mown Bermuda grass is the incense that drifts through its rituals. For golfers this is the smell of "eternal hope" that they can start over, according to the stressed-out young pro whose story drives the novel "Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days in Utopia," by sports psychologist David Cook.

"Each time a golfer steps to the first tee surrounded by this tantalizing fragrance he stands at even par," muses Luke Chisholm. "We all own par on the first tee. Hope is eternal. It's on the 18th green that one has to face the music."

Death, of course, is the ultimate 18th green.

Which is why Chisholm ends up -- now in a mainstream movie -- kneeling at an empty grave in Utopia, Texas, trying to decide what epitaph he wants on his blank tombstone. Viewers who know anything about cinematic tales of redemption will not be surprised to learn that Robert Duvall plays the wise Southern sage who, with seven days of wisdom, helps save this young man's soul and his golf game.

It's the kind of scene that would have occurred in "The Legend of Bagger Vance" -- if the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had made that golfing parable.

The bottom line is that the independently produced "Seven Days in Utopia" represents another stage in the development of a faith-friendly branch of the movie industry. The film even features the talents of two Academy Award winners, with Duvall and actress Melissa Leo.

In the pivotal graveside scene, Chisholm tries to say thank you to the elderly Johnny Crawford, a golf pro who escaped into ranching. Duvall's character simply points skyward.

"Don't thank me," says Duvall's character, on a Sunday morning that just happens to be Easter. "Thank him, because God is in all of us. Inside each of us, if you listen, there's a still, small voice of truth leading us, talking to us, and telling you that you can see God's face, feel his presence, trust his love."

The novel's version of this scene is even more blunt, complete with a multi-page sermon on the fateful biblical encounter between Jesus, a proud fisherman named Peter and a large school of fish that had evaded the future apostle's nets all day. Chisholm ends up confessing his sins, including that golf had been his god, and being born again.

It's hard to be that blunt in mainstream theaters. The movie also added some new action scenes, a father-son feud and a hint of a love interest for Chisholm -- a lovely horse whisperer whose story may drive the sequel.

"We wanted a big net in the movie," said Cook. "We wanted this to be safe for everybody to go see without being hit on the head with something really explicit."

It's safe, but The Hollywood Reporter noted that the movie still managed to steer its audience toward an altar call -- in cyberspace. The team behind "Seven Days in Utopia" must, noted the lukewarm review, be "given full credit for coming up with something new in movies: To learn what happens at the end, you've got to go online. After carefully building up to a climactic scene in which the underdog hero must sink a long putt to win a sudden-death playoff, the camera looks away, narration intones to the effect that the protagonist now has a higher calling so it doesn't matter much in the big picture whether he won or not and, if you actually want to know who came out on top, you must go to"

That twist may sound corny to film critics, but it's not, insisted Cook, who now lives in Utopia, a real town in the Texas Hill County.

During his professional career, including his time as president of the National Sports Psychology Academy, Cook said it was rare to meet an athlete who wouldn't own up to spiritual struggles in life. Most struggle with fear.

"What I have found is that whatever helps you conquer fear only makes you stronger," he said. "If sports is your god, it's easy to be afraid when everything is on the line. But if you have faith, you can say, 'The sun's coming up tomorrow and God loves me. Why should I fear whether this little white ball goes in the hole or not? Why be afraid?' "

From Denver to the Main Line

Call it the "Rocky Mountain Time Zone syndrome." Journalists in the region know that it's scandalously rare for news events and trends that break in the Rocky Mountain West to gain traction in the elite news outlets of the urban Northeast and the West Coast.

But the massacre at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 was different. The national press came to Littleton, Colo., and stayed -- forced to wrestle with ancient questions of good and evil, as framed in the unfathomable acts of students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Days after the bloodshed, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput -- two years into his tenure -- joined a friend at a movie theater, trying to understand the buzz surrounding "The Matrix." The archbishop left deeply troubled, gripped by the sci-fi epic's blurring of the line between life and death, between reality and a digital, alternative reality.

A week after another funeral for a young Catholic who died at Columbine, the archbishop was summoned to testify before a U.S. Senate hearing, and the Beltway press, on a loaded topic -- "Marketing Violence to Children."

Chaput was not well known at that time. This was before he was selected to serve on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, before he started speaking out on national issues, before a public clash with the New York Times, before he wrote a bestseller, "Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life." This was years before his name began surfacing in rumors about empty slots high in the church hierarchy.

Now, the 66-year-old Native American has been named as the 13th shepherd Philadelphia, an ultra-Eastern archdiocese of about 1.5 million Catholics, only 30 percent of whom regularly visit pews. This is a high-profile throne that has, for every occupant since 1921, led to a seat in the College of Cardinals.

As someone who has known Chaput since the mid-1980s, when he was a pastor and campus minister, I'm convinced that anyone who wants to understand this Capuchin Franciscan friar's priorities should start with Columbine.

In that early Washington visit, Chaput told the senators it would be simplistic to blame one movie, or Hollywood, or corporate entertainment giants for what happened at Columbine. At the same time, it would be naive to ignore the power of popular culture.

"The reasonable person understands that what we eat, drink and breathe will make us healthy or sick. In like manner, what we hear and what we see lifts us up -- or drags us down. It forms us inside," explained Chaput.

The day he saw "The Matrix," he noted, the "theater was filled with teen-agers. One scene left me completely stunned: The heroes wear trench coats, and in a violent, elegant, slow-motion bloodbath, they cut down about a dozen people with their guns. It occurred to me that Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold may have seen that film. If so, it certainly didn't deter them."

Critics were not amused, especially when the archbishop linked this bloodshed -- real and imaginary -- to other hot-button issues on both the cultural left and right.

"The problem of violence isn't out there in bad music and bloody films. The real problem is in here, in us, and it won't be fixed by v-chips," he said. "We've created a culture that markets violence in dozens of different ways, seven days a week. ... When we build our advertising campaigns on consumer selfishness and greed, and when money becomes the universal measure of value, how can we be surprised when our sense of community erodes?

"When we glorify and multiply guns, why are we shocked when kids use them? When we answer murder with more violence in the death penalty, we put the state's seal of approval on revenge. When the most dangerous place in the country is a mother's womb, and the unborn child can have his or her head crushed in an abortion, even in the process of being born -- the body language of that message is that life isn't sacred and may not be worth much at all."

That's the voice that "Whispers In The Loggia" blogger Rocco Palmo of Philadelphia has called "brash, outspoken and fearless -- energetic, colorful, cultured -- indeed, even hard-core."

That's the voice that is leaving the Rocky Mountain Time Zone and headed to the Philadelphia Main Line.

Harry Potter wars forever?

The Harry Potter culture warriors have surged into action one last time, adding their familiar notes of discord to the fanfares greeting the release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2." "It's no secret that the Harry Potter storyline about both good and evil wizards has fueled global teenage increase in Wicca and the occult," according to an urgent Christian Newswire press release. "Stephanie Meyer's The Twilight Saga about good and evil vampires has done the same thing for vampirism. Blood drinking among teens has surged. What's next?"

Whatever comes next cannot hope to match the firestorm sparked by the 1997 release of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," which led to global sales of nearly half a billion volumes for the seven-book series.

Nevertheless, that very first title -- containing a medieval Christian alchemy image for eternal life -- was a sign of debates to come. Publishers changed the title image to "Sorcerer's Stone" in America, assuming Americans would shun "philosopher" talk. Before you could say "Deuteronomy 18 (There shall not be found among you anyone who ... who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells)" -- the Potter wars began.

It mattered little that Rowling soon outed herself as a communicant in the Scottish Episcopal Church and told a Canadian newspaper: "Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said, 'yes,' because I do. ... If I talk too freely about that, I think the intelligent reader -- whether 10 or 60 -- will be able to guess what is coming in the books."

Thus, the series unfolded, with each book containing waves of medieval Christian symbols, including many used by artists to point to Jesus -- such as white stags, unicorns, hippogriffs, a phoenix and a red lion.

Meanwhile, the plots were built on alchemical themes of dissolution, purification, illumination and perfection, themes shared with Milton, Blake, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others. In each book, Harry Potter the "everyman" tries to sacrifice himself for others, before somehow being raised to new life in the presence of a Christ symbol.

Nevertheless, many critics failed to see how Rowling's work stands in contrast to the spirits of materialism and individualism that dominate modern life, according to classics scholar John Granger, an Orthodox Christian best known as the scribe behind and numerous related books. I met him at Nimbus 2003, an early global conference on Potter studies, and we have compared notes ever since.

"In a secular culture like ours, fiction of this kind serves an almost sacramental function for millions of people," said Granger. "This offers a hint of the transcendent, a taste of spiritual transformation -- but it's not the real thing. ... Reading Harry Potter could, however, help some people become more open to transformative experiences and perhaps even to yearn for them."

In the end, the faith-based side of Potter mania produced at least five camps that rendered clashing judgments on these books, including:

* Rowling intentionally wrote occult books, creating a doorway into witchcraft for young readers.

* The books are merely tempting trifles celebrating adolescent behavior and mushy morals. They were not intentionally evil, but simply bad books.

* These fables are a mixed bag, mixing good messages with the bad. But if Rowling used Christian symbolism it was as mere window dressing.

* Rowling intentionally wrote "Christian books" containing literal, almost mechanical allegories that can serve as evangelistic tools, in and of themselves.

* The books, according to Granger and many other academics, are part of a British tradition of storytelling built on Christian symbols and themes (including clear biblical references) and can be enjoyed on several levels, including as stories of transformation and redemption. Thus, the Church of England produced "Mixing it up with Harry Potter" study guides.

After years of debating Potter critics, Granger said he still finds it stunning that so many people can study Rowling's work without seeing her extensive use of Christian themes and symbols. At the same time, her approach is "very English" and there is "no way anyone could call these books evangelical," he added.

"Clearly these books contain Christian content, but there is no altar call at the end of each one," said Granger. "If there was an altar call at the end, there never would have been a Potter mania. People would have seen through that."

Angels and Damon (and free will)

When searching for big ideas, a Hollywood screenwriter can't dig any deeper than "The Epic of Gilgamesh." This collection of Sumerian legends is at least 4,000 years old and is among the world's earliest known stories. Yet this Urak king wrestles with questions that haunt heroes today. Am I free? Am I doomed? Can I fight my fate?

At a key moment, the "woman of the vine" tells the king: "You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh ... cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man."

These big questions transcend specific religions and have inspired artists through the ages, noted George Nolfi, writer and director of "The Adjustment Bureau," a science fiction-romance hybrid starring Matt Damon that opens this weekend. However, these are also the kinds of complicated questions that make Hollywood executives roll their eyes as they search for date-night hits.

Can filmmakers do both? In this film, Nolfi and Damon said their goal was to make a romantic action film that also made people think, a popcorn flick for couples open to pondering predestination afterwards in a coffee shop.

"My influences? Everything that I have studied," said Nolfi, during the New York press events for the movie. "The Greeks were dealing with, 'How much are you fated?' The Sumerians and Gilgamesh -- that first written story -- were dealing with that. ... There are the bigger questions. ... What makes life meaningful? And how much can you choose your own course? They have been an interest of mine as long as I can remember."

The challenge is obvious, said Damon. The religious questions and the romantic chemistry have to mix into one commercial product.

"George Nolfi was a philosophy major and went to Princeton and he went on to Oxford. He'll talk your ear off about that stuff -- which you want," said Damon, describing his colleague, who wrote "The Bourne Ultimatum."

"You want that underpinning. You want quite a bit of understanding about this things, but you don't want people to think that they're coming to a movie that's like this dry, you know, philosophy class."

The movie centers on a congressman from New York City who meets a mysterious ballet dancer on the night of a crushing political defeat. Neither knows that higher powers were at work, since this brief encounter was orchestrated by "agents of fate" from the supernatural bureau that constantly adjust the details of people's lives to keep them in line. At the top of this hierarchy is a godlike figure -- "The Chairman."

These guardian angels in business suits and fedoras watch the unfolding maps of people's lives on devices that resemble GPS units crossed with tablet computers. When needed they can -- within boundaries set by their Higher Power -- intervene to force people back onto their predestined path.

In this case, Norris was supposed to forget the dancer and proceed with his life. But something happened and the two fell in love. Then their paths kept crossing, even though these encounters are not on their life maps. Is this mere chance, karma or free will? Is the Chairman intervening to bring them together? Are moviegoers watching John Calvin caught in "The Matrix," wrestling with caseworkers from "Men in Black"?

"It's certainly not accidental," according to Michael Hackett, one of the producers, "that 'The Adjustment Bureau,' distilled to its purest form, echoes a number of the great belief systems around the world, religious or otherwise."

While the film draws on a wide range of religious influences, Nolfi stressed that he worked hard avoid specifics that would drive away any one flock of believers. Nevertheless, there was no way to avoid the ultimate God question.

"You know, good and evil don't mean much if you don't have any free will," he said. "Yet any conception of an all-powerful and all-knowing Higher Power that is also good. … "

The director left the rest of that sentence hanging. "You kind of hit the shoals there, of explaining things and making them all fit together," he continued. "There are unanswerable questions. I mean, they are questions of faith -- literally."

Patricia Neal and her angels

After her destructive affairs with married men, after the death of her first child, after an accident left her infant son brain-damaged, after the near-fatal strokes that struck months after her 1964 Oscar win for "Hud," actress Patricia Neal faced yet another personal crisis that left her on the verge of collapse. While her marriage to British writer Roald Dahl, the author of children's classics such as "James and Giant Peach," had long been troubled, Neal was shattered when she learned he was having an affair with one of her friends. They divorced in1983.

In her 1988 memoir, "As I Am," Neal admitted: "Frequently my life has been likened to a Greek tragedy, and the actress in me cannot deny that comparison."

That quotation captured the tone of the tributes published after Neal passed away on Aug. 8 at the age of 84. Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in honor of the Tony Award winner and critics sang the praises of one of Hollywood's ultimate survivors, an actress who literally learned to walk and talk again before returning to the screen to earn another Oscar nomination.

But Neal's story contained angels as well as demons. This is obvious in the overlooked passages in "As I Am" that described her conversion to Catholicism and her visits to the cloister of Regina Laudis (Queen of Praise) Abbey in Bethlehem, Conn., where the sisters helped her confess her sorrows and rage.

Finally, the abbess suggested that Neal move into the abbey for a month.

"Lady Abbess," said Neal, "I don't want to join up, you understand?"

The abbess sighed and said, "Believe me, we don't want you to, either. I don't think we could take it for more than a month."

As she arrived, Neal stubbed out the "last cigarette I would ever smoke."

A priest gave her a blessing and, she recalled, "I felt his cross blaze into my forehead. ... I traded my street clothes for the black dress of the postulant and scrubbed off my makeup. I removed the rings from my fingers and covered my hair with a black scarf. I looked at the bare wooden walls of my cell. ... I did not live the exact life of a postulant, but I did my best."

Neal went to church on time, followed the abbey's prayer regime, baked bread, remained silent during meals and, with the help of a spiritual director, began writing the journal that evolved into "As I Am."

Behind closed doors, she unleashed her fury. At one point she screamed so many curses at her counselor that the sister finally cursed right back, urging Neal to be honest about her own faults and mistakes.

The actress finally voiced her secret pain. Monsignor Jim Lisante of Diocese of Rockville Centre (New York) later discussed with Neal the tragedies of her life and asked if there was any one event that she would change.

"She said, 'Forty years ago I became involved with the actor Gary Cooper, and by him I became pregnant. As he was a married man and I was young in Hollywood and not wanting to ruin my career, we chose to have the baby aborted,' " wrote Lisante, at the Creative Minority Report website. "She said, 'Father, alone in the night for over 40 years, I have cried for my child. And if there is one thing I wish I had the courage to do over in my life, I wish I had the courage to have that baby.' "

Several of the obituaries for Neal -- including the New York Times feature -- mentioned this episode in the context of her pain and regret. The Washington Post noted that late in life "she suffered periods of depression and suicidal thoughts before finding peace as a Catholic convert."

In the end, Neal decided that, "God was using my life far beyond any merit of my own making" allowing her to reach out to those who were suffering. "I learned that my damaged brain cannot reclaim what is dead. It has to create totally new pathways that allowed me to make choices I would never have made had I not suffered that stroke -- choices that an infallible voice assures me will be blessed."

One final lesson from the abbess, wrote Neal, stood out: "There is a way to love that remains after everything else is taken from us."

God, movies and cancer

Hollywood bean counters have started calling them "God films." The typical faith-based indie has a tiny budget and most of the actors are amateurs or second stringers from television. It doesn't take much money to promote one because churches are eager to hold pre-release screenings that fire up clergy and volunteers to spread the word -- on foot and online.

Southern Baptist entrepreneurs in Georgia made the pro-marriage drama "Fireproof" for $500,000 and it grossed $40 million at the box office, before the DVDs started reaching Bible bookstores. The new Possibility Pictures team spent only $3 million making its first film, "Letters To God," which opens this week.

Studio people can do the math.

"Lots of people are interested in that 'Fireproof' business model," said Patrick Doughtie, who wrote the original "Letters To God" screenplay and helped direct the movie. "They don't really know what they're looking for in terms of content, but they know that these movies are reaching an audience and making some money."

Doughtie, on the other hand, knew exactly what he wanted to see when "Letters To God" reached movie screens. He began studying screenwriting in order to tell a highly personal story based on the life of his son, Tyler, who died in 2005 at the age of 9 after a battle with an aggressive brain tumor.

After wrestling with anger and depression, Doughtie finally realized how much his son's faith had touched the lives of the people around him, old and young, and especially other members of Grace Baptist Church in Nashville.

This provided the hook for a fictional story about a boy named Tyler who has brain cancer and begins writing letters to God full of questions about his own life, as well as prayers for his family and friends as they struggle with their fears that he will die. The letters end up in the hands of a postal worker who is struggling with alcoholism and the break-up of his own family.

After he had finished the basic script, Doughtie found a notebook in which Tyler had written some letters to God. This made him even more determined to find producers who were willing to tell the story with the faith element intact.

"All kinds of people are touched by cancer and they're going to know what this movie is all about," he said, days before the movie's April 9 release in 900 theaters nationwide. "But I didn't want to write a story that was just about cancer. I wanted to write a story about hope and about what needs to happen after a battle with cancer."

For years, the makers of these faith-driven films have insisted that they can serve as evangelistic tools to reach nonbelievers -- even though they are full of hymns, prayers, church services, mini-sermons and other acts of God that tend to appeal to people who are already in church pews.

Sure enough, most of the crucial scenes in "Letters To God" pivot on confessions of faith, accompanied by lilting flutes or heavenly choirs.

Even the most painful moments are squeaky clean. The alcoholic mailman doesn't shout a single curse when he hits rock bottom or when his wise local bartender refuses to serve him another drink. Tyler's mother, Maddy, is already a widow and, by the end of the movie, knows that she will lose her youngest son. Still, she loses her cool only once -- when her own mother reminds her of a biblical parable about faith. She shouts: "I wish everyone would stop quoting the Bible to me. It's not curing my son."

Doughtie said that he hopes nonbelievers will see "Letters To God," but he knows they will not be the primary audience. More than anything else, he hopes the movie will inspire church leaders to learn how to minister to families affected by cancer.

"People wanted to help us, but they didn't know how," said Doughtie. "They loved us. They prayed for us. They brought us casseroles. They wanted to help. ... But what are you supposed to do after you pat someone on the back and say, 'Hey, I'm sorry you lost your kid'?

"What we have to do is remove the stigma from childhood cancer. People in our churches need to take their blinders off and get more involved with cancer families."