pop culture

Is there a dark side to all of those fun funerals?

For centuries, religious believers in many cultures have held solemn funeral rites that were then followed by social events that were often called "wakes." 

The funeral was the funeral and the wake was the wake, and people rarely confused their traditional religious rituals with the often-festive events that followed, noted blogger Chad Louis Bird, a former Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary professor who is best known as a poet and hymn composer. 

But something strange happened in American culture in the past decade or two: Someone decided that it was a good idea to have fun funerals. 

"Our culture is anxious to avoid dealing with death. It seems that the goal is to keep your head in the sand and not have to face what has happened to your loved one and to your family," said Bird, in a telephone interview. 

Warnings to believers in a consumer culture

Since the goal was to explore the cultural ties that bind, Father John Kavanaugh asked the young Catholics in a St. Louis classroom a basic civics question: How many national and world leaders could they name? The Jesuit didn’t allow the seventh graders to include celebrities and entertainers, which meant that actor Tom Cruise didn’t make the list. In the end, they ended up with 12 names.

"You started off with the pope and the president, of course. Then things got harder after that," said the St. Louis University philosophy professor, describing this scene during a 1990 Denver lecture that I covered for The Rocky Mountain News.

The questions got easier, for youngsters baptized in untold hours of commercials on cable television. When asked to name brands of beer, the list on the chalkboard topped 40. How about designer jeans? The seventh graders came up with more than 50 different brands. They were experts when it came to the shopping-mall facts of life.

The Regis University crowd laughed, but it was nervous laughter, as the author of "Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance" walked them through a slideshow demonstrating the power of advertising in shaping the minds of materialistic modern Americans.

Yes, it was funny when the priest offered Freudian interpretations of popular cigarette ads. But no one wanted to laugh at the images demonstrating how professionals were using bleak, depressing, yet erotic images of children in advertising aimed at adults.

Is this, the philosopher asked, what our culture's powers that be think real life is all about? If that is the case, he said, "then let's be freaks. Let's be tourists. ... We must remember this is not our home."

Kavanaugh died on Nov. 5 at age 71, after a career in service and scholarship that took him from St. Louis to India and then back home again. His perspectives on suffering and poverty were shaped by his early work with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and then with the Jean Vanier communities for those with disabilities in Bangalore.

In addition to his work as a professor and spiritual director for seminarians, Kavanaugh was known for his columns in America magazine, film criticism in The St. Louis Review and numerous books. "Following Christ in a Consumer Society" was reissued twice in new editions, to keep its cultural criticism up to date.

Kavanaugh pleaded guilty to tilting at his share of conservative windmills, but anyone who was paying close attention knew that he was trying to prod the consciences of Catholics on the left as well as the right.

The priest raised eyebrows with a 2002 column entitled "Goodbye, Democrats" in which he argued that America's political culture had collapsed to the point that it would be wise for believers to cut their partisan political ties by registering as independent voters. He stressed that he thought Catholics in the Republican Party needed to bail out, as well.

Writing to his fellow progressives, Kavanaugh proclaimed: "One thing the Democrats really stand for, however, is abortion -- abortion on demand, abortion without restraint, abortion paid for by all of us, abortion for the poor of the earth. I am not a one-issue voter, but they have become a one-issue party. … If traditional Democrats who are disillusioned with the selling out of the working poor and the unborn simply became registered Independent voters, would not more attention be paid?"

The problem, of course, is that it’s sinfully easy for ministers -- once again, on the left or the right -- to keep preaching easy sermons that they know their flocks want to hear, said Kavanaugh, when I interviewed him once again in 2008. It's easy to keep lashing away at the same familiar straw men, while avoiding topics that could offend the faithful in the home pews.

The Jesuit summed up his message with a quote that rings as true today as it did the final time that I talked with him.

"Whether you are preaching to liberals or conservatives, it's hard to tell people truths that they don't want to hear," he said, in that telephone interview. "It's hard to tell people to love their enemies. It's hard to tell people to repent of their sins and to forgive others. ... It's hard, but this is what good preachers have to do."

Seeking the hipster antithesis

Christopher Kerzich is preparing to permanently embrace a truly retro, timeless look. The basics -- black jacket, black pants and black shirt -- will be stark and radical, providing a kind of "this is who I am" vibe. Black fedoras, scarves and long overcoats are optional. For accessories, he'll have a silver cross and a white collar.

In other words, Kerzich is a seminarian at the North American College in Rome, preparing for his 2014 ordination as Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Although this wardrobe will stand out in almost any crowd, the last thing Kerzich expects to be is "hip." If anything, he hopes people his age and younger will see him as the antithesis of hip, which he believes will help him relate to the masses of fashionable young people known as "hipsters."

"If you are going to try to reach out to hipsters, the main thing you have to be is authentic. You have to be real. You have to be rooted in your faith," said the 28-year-old seminarian, during a recent home visit. "The one thing you cannot try to be is hip. You can't try to be something you're not. That would be a fatal mistake."

Defining the term "hipster" is a task that has baffled researchers -- from advertising executives to the college administrators. Kerzich finds it interesting that whenever he types a word like "hipsterdom" into his computer, the software underlines the term with the red, squiggly line that suggests this is not a real word.

The problem is that the hipsters do exist and their culture is real and it's growing. If religious leaders want to understand what is happening, he said, they must realize that there is more to the hipster ethos than Rat Pack hats, '50s dresses, plaid blazers, skinny ties, skinny jeans, rumpled hair, flashy accessories and occasional flashes of androgyny.

In his book, "Hipster Christianity," the evangelical writer Brett McCracken noted: "The only real requisite to being a hipster is a commitment to total freedom from labels, norms and imposed constraints of any kind. And this attitude must be very public, which is why hipsters are fairly easy to spot. ... The hardest part of the whole endeavor is also the most crucial: they must look like they don't care how they look."

There is more to this stance than mere appearances, he stressed. While there is no hipster creed, there are common attitudes.

"Chief among them is the instinct to be better than anyone else," noted McCracken. "Hipsters view any sort of prescribed system or hierarchy as absurd. ... They project themselves as being totally independent of any controlling influence, and masters over their own life and meaning."

The result is a brand of fierce individualism "verging on or leading to apathy," said Kerzich. At the same time, however, many hipsters see themselves as true originals, seekers and deep thinkers who want to escape the shallow, mundane, ordinary world of mass culture. For some, the radical demands of an ancient faith may actually seem countercultural -- not boring.

Thus, in an online essay on evangelizing hipsters, he urged pastors and youth workers to start frequenting places that hipsters tend to congregate, such as coffee shops, pubs and bookstores. Yes, a minister wearing a clerical collar is sure to be greeted with skepticism in such a setting. However, before long some of the locals will start asking tough, honest questions -- if the minister is truly accessible.

Also, more religious leaders are going to have to dive into social media, said Kerzich. It is no longer optional for faith groups to have a presence on YouTube or for bishops and other leaders to dialogue with critics, seekers and the faithful through Twitter and Facebook.

Once again, being "hip" is not the goal. The goal is to be available.

"No one likes someone who tries to belong to a group unnaturally," wrote Kerzich. Those attempting to reach "hipsters do not need to act like a member of their subculture. This movement focuses on being 'original' and 'different.' Thus, one should communicate how the message of Christianity is different than the messages emanating from society.

"For priests and seminarians remember your ministry is different, so confidently accept this reality. … One key to evangelizing this group is to become accepted by them without trying to become one of them."

Titanic sermons, a century later

The White Star Line publicists pulled out all the stops when promoting the Titanic and its sister ship the Olympic, even claiming in one brochure that these giants "were designed to be unsinkable." By the time Titanic put to sea, this language had evolved into a boast -- reportedly shared with passengers -- that "God Himself couldn't sink this ship."

Thus, when the liner sank on April 15, 1912, preachers on both sides of the Atlantic were among the first commentators to raise their voices in judgment, as well as consolation. Newspapers promptly printed many of these sermons.

One fact gripped preachers more than any other: In an age a great power and wealth, the Titanic carried only 20 lifeboats for its 2200 passengers.

This was a deadly form of pride, said the Rev. William D. Moss at the Washington Heights Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. But it would be wrong to condemn only the businessmen who built the Titanic and plotted its course.

"Yonder where the ruthless deep yawned to receive its unwilling and innocent victims, the law of life exercised its ancient prerogative that whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. ... In the tragedy of this hour we have witnessed the wrong-doing not of one man or a body of men, but of the age," proclaimed Moss.

"The fact is driven home to us today that as an age, as a nation, and as individuals we lack moral vision. We worship success. We worship money. We worship luxury. We worship display. We worship the material. We worship the ephemeral. We worship self-interest. We worship competition. In other words, we worship speed. … And so this tragedy of the ocean has its daily counterpart on the land."

The moral messages captured in these sermons were completely different than the vision offered in 1997 by Hollywood director James Cameron. His "Titanic" blockbuster portrayed the doomed ship as a symbol of the corrupt values of an old-fashioned culture that would soon be conquered by science, social change and the sexual revolution.

For the preachers of 1912, the Titanic was the ultimate symbol, not of the past, but of modernity and the dawn of a century in which ambitious tycoons and scientists would solve most, if not all, of humanity's thorniest problems.

The liner was, in other words, a triumph of Darwinian logic and the march of progress. It's sinking was a dream-shattering tragedy of biblical proportions.

The events of Feb. 14 and 15, 912, are the "closest thing that we have to a modern day Bible story," according to Douglas Phillips of TitanicSociety.com, in an essay saluting the men who went down with the ship. "Everything about Titanic was larger-than-life: her conception, her launch, her sins, her heroes and her judgment. …

"Many perceived the ship to be a modern incarnation of the Tower of Babel. The sinking represented God's unwillingness to allow man to build any edifice of invincibility or to seek salvation through technology."

However, days after the tragedy, a young pastor in Switzerland stressed that technology itself was not to blame, but the "playful arrogance" of those who wielded it.

"God has not set a limit to technology, to progress, to the human mind," said the Rev. Karl Barth, who would become one of the new century's most famous theologians. "Quite the reverse! … When we become godless about the headway we have made, i.e. when we become bumptious and conceited and childish, then we need to be called to order." Thus, he argued: "It is true that God set the iceberg on its course, but no one was compelled to get in its way."

There was, however, an inspiring side to this story, as well. While there was cruel logic behind the decisions that caused the disaster, there was a radically different belief system at work in the heroic, self-sacrificial acts on that night, noted the Rev. Henry van Dyke, a Princeton University professor.

The bottom line: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Thus, van Dyke concluded: "Only through the belief that the strong are bound to protect and save the weak because God wills it can we hope to keep self-sacrifice, and love, and heroism and all the things that make us glad to live and not afraid to die."

Glimpse of Bono as a young believer

One thing was clear, back in the winter of 1982. No one at the famous Record Service store near the University of Illinois campus could figure out the hot new Irish band that was about to hit town.

The guy behind the front desk cranked up the group's new single so that everyone could ponder the lyrics.

"I try to sing this song," sang the young singer called Bono Vox. "I, I try to stand up, but I can't find my feet. I, I try to speak up, but only in you I'm complete. Gloria, in te domine. Gloria, exultate. ... Oh Lord, loosen my lips."

That was Latin, but what did it mean? A Newman Center priest told me that the first phrase, perhaps a Mass fragment or drawn from chant, meant, "Glory in you, Lord." The next meant, "Exalt Him." Then again, it was hard to hear the second Latin phrase.

The priest apologized and said he wasn't used to parsing rock lyrics.

Yes, the band 30 years ago was U2 and its mysterious second album was called "October." Both were surrounded by clouds of rumors, which I explored in a News-Gazette column on Feb. 19, 1982. What I needed to do was meet the band before its Feb. 23 concert in Champaign-Urbana.

Luckily, the 20-year-old Bono was willing to discuss "Gloria" and "October." Describing that interview, the reference book "U2: A Diary" notes: "Although the band have gone out of their way to avoid talking about their faith up to this point, they speak candidly now."

That column ran on March 5 and it apparently was the first mainstream news piece in which Bono and company discussed their faith. I immediately pitched the story to Rolling Stone, where editors decided that U2 wasn't all that important or that it was bizarre for a guy like Bono to talk about God -- or both.

All of that changed, quickly.

Thirty years down the road, what is striking about that interview is the fact that the issues that drove Bono then still dominate his life today. For example, he stressed that U2 had no interest in being stereotyped as a "Christian band" or in allowing "Christian" to become a sad marketing term for its work.

"The band is anxious not to be categorized," he said. "You know, if, for instance, people are talking about U2 in a spiritual sense ... that becomes a pigeonhole for people to put us in. That worries us.

"Also, from the point of view of coming from where we come from, Ireland is a place that's been cut in two by religion. I have no real time for religion and, therefore, avoid those kinds of stereotypes. I would hate for people to think of me as religious, though I want people to realize that I am a Christian."

Decades later, tensions remain between believers who work in the so-called "contemporary Christian music" and believers who work in the mainstream music industry. The latter often cite U2's work as a prime example of how religious imagery and themes can be woven into successful popular music.

The goal, Bono stressed, is to avoid making preachy music that settles for easy answers while hiding the struggles that real people experience in real life. When writing a song about sin, such as "I Fall Down," he stressed, "I always include myself in the 'we.' You know, 'we' have fallen. I include myself. ... I'm not telling everybody that I have the answers. I'm trying to get across the difficulty I have being what I am."

At the same time, he expressed disappointment that so many people -- artists in particular -- attempt to avoid the ultimate questions that haunt life. The doubts, fears, joys and grace of religious faith are a part of life that "we like to sweep under the carpet," he concluded.

"Deep down, everyone is aware. You know, when somebody dies, when somebody in their family dies. ... Things that happen around us, they shock people into a realization of what is going down," he told me.

"I mean, when you look at the starvation, when you think that a third of the population of this earth is starving, is crying out in hunger, I don't think that you can sort of smile and say, 'Well, I know. We're the jolly human race, you know. We're all very nice, REALLY.' I mean, we're not, are we?"

Steve Jobs, saint of the '60s

It was in 1994 that author Umberto Eco, drawing on his studies in symbols and philosophy, looked at the evolution of personal computers and saw theology, doctrine, spirituality and, yes, icons. The modern world, he argued in the Italian magazine Espresso, was divided between Macintosh believers and those using the Microsoft disk operating system. The DOS world was "Protestant, or even Calvinistic" since it demanded "difficult personal decisions" and forced users to master complicated codes and rules.

"The Macintosh is Catholic," wrote Eco. "It tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach -- if not the kingdom of Heaven -- the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons."

Nearly two decades later, the hagiographers producing eulogies for Steve Jobs produced evidence that Eco was close -- but that he needed to soar past Rome and around the globe to India and Japan. In essay after essay, journalists have argued that the so-called "cult of Mac" was driven by the Apple leader's "Zen-like" state of mind.

It seems those iMacs, iPods, iPhones, iPads and MacBooks really were religious objects after all, with their gleaming surfaces of glass, aluminum and white or black plastic. There must have been a grand scheme behind that yin-yang minimalism.

"The Zen of Steve Jobs," proclaimed CNN.

ABCNews.com added: "Steve Job's Mantra Rooted in Buddhism: Focus and Simplicity."

HBO's "Real Time" provocateur complained that too many normal people -- even conservatives -- were rushing to claim Jobs. "Please don't do it, right-wingers," said Bill Maher. "He was not one of you. ... He was an Obama voting, pot-smoking Buddhist."

One image of Jobs dominated the media barrage. In 2005, the prophet from Cupertino visited one of California's most exclusive pulpits, giving the commencement address at Stanford University. It was one year after doctors discovered the rare form of pancreatic cancer that took his life at the age of 56.

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life," he said. "Almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

A quick summary of Jobs' spiritual life is that he followed his heart right out of a traditional Christian background and into the spiritual maelstrom of the 1960s. Raised as a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, the young Jobs was already breaking bread with the Hare Krishnas near Reed College in Portland, Oregon, when he dropped out and headed to India seeking enlightenment.

It's hard to know how much the secretive Jobs practiced Buddhism during his often-stormy life, which included an out-of-wedlock daughter (he denied paternity for years) and his legendary rise and fall and triumphant rebirth as Apple's visionary. Buddhist monk Kobun Chino Otogawa did perform the 1991 wedding of Jobs and Laurene Powell and the Zen master served as a spiritual advisor for NeXT, the computer company Jobs founded in between his two Apple eras.

Critics noted that Jobs was a relentless and abrasive perfectionist who left scores of battered psyches in his wake. Whatever the doctrinal content of his faith, it seemed to have been a Buddhism that helped him find peace while walking barefoot through offices packed with wealthy, workaholic capitalists.

In his Stanford sermon, Jobs urged his young listeners to "trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."

For Jobs, the bottom line was his own bottom line -- even when death loomed on the horizon. His ultimate hope was that he, alone, knew what was right.

"Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking," he concluded. "Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition -- they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

God, Barbies and girlie girls

It's a question that can cause tension and tears in a circle of home-school moms in a Bible Belt church fellowship hall. It's a question that can have the same jarring impact in a circle of feminist mothers in a Manhattan coffee shop.

Here it is: Will you buy your daughter a Barbie doll? Other questions follow in the wake of this one, linked to clothes, self esteem, cellphones, makeup, reality TV shows and the entire commercialized princess culture.

The Barbie question is not uniquely religious, which is one reason why it can be so symbolic for mothers and daughters in liberal as well as conservative circles.

Yet questions about religion, morality, health, culture, education, sexuality and, of course, "family values," loom in the background, noted Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former Wall Street Journal editor who is best known for her writing on faith, education and the lives of modern young people. Many parents simply worry about the powerful forces that keep pushing their daughters -- as experts put it -- to "grow older, younger."

"Mothers are divided on this whole issue and some can get very upset just talking about it. Yet others are not upset," noted Riley. "You'll see all kinds of women, religious and non-religious, who taking their 6-year-old daughters to get manicures and to get their hair done, trying to look pretty just like the girls on TV and in all the magazines.

"Then there are women who are the total opposite of all that. They may be evangelical Christians or they may be feminists, but they see this as an attack on what they believe."

Barbie dolls are not the only products that define this dilemma, but they are highly symbolic. In an essay for the journal Books & Culture, Riley noted the power of a story recounted in "Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture," a book by feminist Peggy Orenstein. The anecdote begins with her filmmaker husband approving a Barbie purchase for their young daughter.

"I demanded that he take it away from her. She started to cry. So I gave it back," wrote Orenstein.

The parents argued some more and the Barbie went back on the Target shelf.

At that point the debate evolved into a clash over quality. Orenstein explained: "I promised I would get her a well-made Barbie instead, perhaps a Cleopatra Barbie I had seen on eBay, which, at the very least, was not white or blond and had something to offer besides high-heeled feet. As if the ankh pendant and peculiar tan made it all okay."

The daughter began crying and said, "Never mind, Mama. ... I don't need it."

Many mothers will tear up reading those lines, said Riley, because the scene is so familiar and can be triggered by so many products in shopping malls and just about anywhere on cable television. Moms may be urged to buy a pink Ouija board ("Who will text me next?") or a Monopoly Pink Boutique Edition. They can dive into the parallel universe of Disney Princess products for toddlers, tweens, teens and young women ("Disney Bridal Gowns: Have a Disney Princess Wedding"). The list goes on and on.

Then there are the television shows. Riley, who has a 4-year-old daughter, noted that the style and content are essentially the same -- whether the stars are preschoolers or aged veterans such as Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry. These shows lead young viewers into the world of reality television, with offerings ranging from "Teen Mom" to "Bridezillas," from "Jersey Shore" to "Say Yes to the Dress."

Once again, these subjects are just as likely to be discussed by girls gossiping after a suburban church service as by those chatting at the local mall.

This commercialized, highly sexualized culture, said Riley, has become the dominant culture. The question is whether parents dare to challenge it.

"There's more to this than parents trying to be countercultural," she said. "The big question is whether they will -- for religious reasons or whatever -- dare to take a stand and say, 'I have a right to be THE major influence in the lives of my children.' ...

"It's hard to say that, in this day and age. It takes a certain amount of courage for a mom to say, 'Look, I don't think padded bras are appropriate for 10-year-olds.' "

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.

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."