popular culture

Dave Brubeck's long pilgrimage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Poynter.org 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?"

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 HogwartsProfessor.com 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."

Oprah's liberal prosperity gospel

There was only one way the Oprah Winfrey Show could end after 25 years, 4,561 shows and 30,000 guests -- with a sermon. "Here's what I learned," explained Winfrey, in a monologue now circulating as an online "love letter" to viewers. "Nobody but you is responsible for your life. It doesn't matter what your mama did. It doesn't matter what your daddy didn't do. ...

"You are responsible for the energy that you create for yourself, and you're responsible for the energy that you bring to others. ... All life is energy and we are transmitting it at every moment. We are all little beaming little signals like radio frequencies, and the world is responding in kind."

God is in there, somewhere, along with love, grace, kindness, tears, empathy, consolation, compassion, and, above all, self-acceptance. Put it all together and you have a non-threatening faith that many Americans call "spirituality," as opposed to religion.

Knowing this issue was sure to arise, Winfrey frequently played the God card during her farewell show and even used the oh-so-controversial J-word -- Jesus.

All her success, she stressed, has been built on, "My team, and Jesus. Because nothing but the hand of God has made this possible for me."

Was this any particular God? After all, Oprah's only orthodoxy has long been her conviction that there can be no one, true orthodoxy. What God was she talking about?

"I'm talking about the same one you're talking about," she told her global flock, thus combining many cultures and religions. "I'm talking about alpha and omega, the omniscient, the omnipresent, the ultimate consciousness, the source, the force, the all of everything there is, the one and only G-O-D. ...

"God is love, and God is life, and your life is always speaking to you."

The key is that Oprah has empowered her followers to have a good cry, forgive themselves and move on, urging them to evolve beyond old-fashioned religions built on doctrines linking forgiveness to the repentance of sins, according to Sally Quinn of the Washington Post, a Beltway society maven for several decades.

Americans should celebrate this trend and Oprah's role in it, she wrote, at the newspaper's "On Faith" website.

"Gone were the fire and brimstone, you're-all-going-to-hell-unless-you-accept-Jesus-Christ-as-your-personal-savior, the judgment, the fear, the punishment. ... People don't want to be lectured to and made to feel guilty for common human failings. People want to feel hopeful, as though they matter. They want to feel empowered. Oprah led the way," argued Quinn.

Many traditional religious leaders are not so sure and some, in particular, have linked Oprah's work to trends spotted by sociologists in the lives of young Americans and their parents. Crucial to these sobering discussions is "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," a belief system articulated by researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Denton. Core beliefs include:

* A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over it.

* God wants people to be good, nice and fair to one another, as taught in most religions.

* The goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

* God gets involved when we have problems we need solved.

* Good people go to heaven.

Winfrey's approach fits nicely inside the borders of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, while also combining emotional elements of megachurch evangelicalism with the modernized doctrines of liberal Protestantism, noted church historian Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. Meanwhile, the non-ordained host guided her guests through on-air confessions, taught her own version of tolerance and, literally, sent her most devoted followers on mission trips to help others.

All of this, he stressed, was part of a commercial enterprise, not a religious ministry. Thus, it's possible that Oprah preached a liberalized form of the "prosperity gospel" seen in some churches. In the end, viewers were supposed to heal themselves, and grow spiritually, by consuming products -- especially books -- endorsed by Winfrey & Co.

"In the end, it's all God stuff," said Kidd. "Her whole world is infused with religious themes and images and theories that are all her own. ... I'm not sure how people are supposed to practice this religion, because to do that you would have to figure out what it all means. Oprah offered a form of faith that may only work at shopping malls."

A spiritual year at the multiplex

In one of Hinduism's most sacred poems, the lord and sustainer of the universe chooses to be incarnated in human form -- the ancient term is "avatar" -- to help the Pandava people fight evil invaders and defend what is right. In director James Cameron's blockbuster "Avatar," a U.S. marine is transformed by technology into a blue-skinned warrior on a planet called Pandora, where he helps the Na'vi people fight evil corporate invaders and defend their sacred lands and traditions.

There seem to be some similarities in these epics.

"The ancient Hindu scriptures have forever reiterated that whenever the world would be on the brink of disaster and mankind faces extinction, whenever the vessel of sin is about to spill over to create death and destruction, the divine Lord Vishnu would ... manifest himself in mortal, palpable form to save mankind from the impeding doomsday," noted the Bengali director Sudipto Chattopadhyay, at the Passion and Cinema weblog.

When evaluating Cameron's movie, he added, one thing is clear. "The use of the word Avatar hence could never be an accident. ... The Avatar is meant to be the savior, the messiah of his own race and people."

It was that kind of year at the multiplex, with a parade of films rolling through theaters containing obvious religious images, messages, themes and characters. This made it both easy and hard for the Beliefnet.com team to select nominees for its annual Best Spiritual Film award.

"It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what a spiritual film is, since people have their own ideas as to what spirituality is," said Dena Ross, the website's entertainment editor. "We define it as a film which makes a serious attempt to grapple with the big questions in life: Why are we here? Why is there evil and suffering? Is there a God? Why do bad things happen to good people?"

This year, she said, Beliefnet.com made a conscious decision to nominate "more overtly religious films" for the Best Spiritual Film prize. A second category -- Best Inspirational Film -- focused on movies with uplifting messages, but few specific religious elements.

"We had so many amazing movies this time with strong references to religion," said Ross. "I mean, 'A Serious Man' is about a devout Jewish man. 'The Stoning of Soraya M' deals with serious Muslim issues. 'The Blind Side' is about an evangelical family that is practicing its faith."

Due to the historic success of "Avatar" -- $700 million-plus at the domestic box office -- there was a chance that Cameron's 3D myth would get the Best Spiritual Film nod from both the judges and the website's readers.

Instead, the judges selected "The Road," a bleak drama based on Cormac McCarthy's novel. It told the story of a father who teaches his son to remain "one of the good guys" while "carrying the fire" -- a metaphor for hope and faith -- in a post-apocalyptic world dominated by murderers and cannibals. The boy is shown praying for God's help, and keeps striving to help the people they meet.

To the surprise of the Beliefnet.com team, their readers then picked "The Blind Side" as the year's top spiritual film. In fact, 62 percent of the votes went to the real-life story of football star Michael Oher's journey from a Memphis ghetto into the home of a rich Christian family that, literally, adopted him as a son. "Avatar" got 18 percent.

Meanwhile, Pixar's "Up" was chosen as the Best Inspirational Film. It told the story of a crotchety old man who soars away on an adventure inspired by devotion to his recently deceased wife. Along the way, he forms a strong bond with a young boy who reminds him that his life still has purpose.

"Up" was another hit for Pixar, earning nearly $300 million at the box office, while "The Blind Side" shocked Hollywood with a total gross of nearly $250 million, with most of those tickets selling in the American heartland.

"In past years, we've gone back and forth trying to find films that fit our definitions. But this time it was much easier with all of these big, successful films that dealt with spiritual issues," said Ross. "Maybe it's a sign of the times. In hard times, people may be looking for these kinds of uplifting stories. It seems they went to movie theaters looking for something to inspire them."

The soul in Dave Brubeck's jazz

Any jazz fan who has been paying attention at all during the past half century will recognize the quirky 5/4 riff that means the Dave Brubeck Quartet is swinging into its classic "Take Five." But there's another tune the pianist keeps playing that is completely different. "Forty Days" opens with the haunting, chant-like lines that define the most famous piece in his first sacred oratorio, "The Light in the Wilderness."

"Forty days alone in the desert, days and nights of constant prayer, seeking in the wailing wind an answer to despair," sings the chorus, in verses inspired by biblical accounts of the temptations of Jesus. "Forty days of questioning: Why was he there, in the lonely desert? Forty days of fasting and prayer, searching for his destined role. ..."

Through the decades, Brubeck has struggled to talk about the private journey that has defined his faith. In the program booklet for that 1968 cantata, he explained that he was "reared as a Presbyterian by a Christian Scientist mother who attended a Methodist Church." He also stressed that three Jewish teachers shaped his life -- philosopher Irving Goleman, composer Darius Milhaud and Jesus.

"With 'The Light in the Wilderness' we were really trying to get at ... the heart of the New Testament," said Brubeck, decades after the oratorio -- with lyrics by his wife Iola -- reshaped his work as a composer. "We decided that we would try to provide contemporary settings to help people hear what Jesus was saying."

Last weekend, Brubeck came to Washington, D.C., for a White House reception, a Kennedy Center gala and all the other festivities that accompany being selected as one of the five recipients of America's highest annual award for lifetime achievement in the performing arts. The celebration took place on Brubeck's 89th birthday.

The emphasis, of course, was on his life as a jazz superstar.

"It's understandable that nobody really talked about his work in sacred music," said orchestra conductor Russell Gloyd, who is also Brubeck's longtime manager. "The problem with Dave is that he's been around so long that he's done almost everything." The religious side of Brubeck's repertoire is "something that often gets overlooked, which is sad because this music means so much to him," said Gloyd.

Not long after the pianist became famous, the husband-and-wife team wrote a large-scale work called "The New Ambassadors." It contained "They Say I Look Like God," a bluesy Gospel number written for jazz legend Louis Armstrong that combined a Gregorian chant melody with lyrics based on the book of Genesis.

That led to "The Light in the Wilderness," which was followed by two more major religious works, "Truth Has Fallen" and "The Gates of Justice," which drew on passages from the Jewish Torah and speeches by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then there was a Spanish-tinged Christmas cantata called "La Fiesta de la Posada," the Easter cantata "Beloved Son" and a series of musical meditations based on "Pange Lingua," a Eucharistic hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas.

Finally, the Our Sunday Visitor publishing company asked Brubeck to compose a Mass, which was completed in 1979 and given the title, "To Hope! A Celebration." The experience was so overwhelming -- Brubeck said the complete "Our Father" piece came to him in a dream -- that the composer ended up joining the Catholic Church.

The Brubecks are still hard at work. While the other Kennedy Center honorees arrived a day or two early, Gloyd noted that Brubeck was busy squeezing in another performance in a Catholic church -- performing "Canticles of Mary," which blends jazz, Gregorian chants with a new hymn written by the Brubecks.

For centuries, Brubeck once told me, the world's best composers worked to create music that would appeal to audiences in sanctuary pews as well as in elite concert halls. For him, composing a complete Mass was one of the greatest technical challenges of his career because it had to be challenging and simple at the same time.

"I really wanted it to be something that everyday people could perform," he said. "Most of the time, the faith that really matters and really affects people is the faith out in the local churches. The Mass was written for those kinds of people -- not just for professionals. ... What good is religious music if it can't be performed in churches?"

Define "spiritual." Pick three films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Juno' and pro-life Hollywood

Every year or so, a Cinderella movie leaps into the ultimate Hollywood A-list -- the Academy Award nominees for best picture.

The sleeper this time around was "Juno," the sweet but edgy story of Juno MacGuff, a geeky teen who gets pregnant after a sort-of-bored sexual encounter with a friend. The movie also drew Oscar nominations for Canadian Ellen Page, 20, as best actress, for director Jason Reitman, 30, and former stripper turned screenwriter Diablo Cody, 29.

Now it's time for the winner-take-all round of campaigning, which often includes behind-the-scenes maneuvers in the tradition of Niccolo Machiavelli. Do not be surprised if rival studios try to hurt "Juno" by circulating shocking rumors that many religious conservatives who oppose abortion have praised this movie.

It helps that the rumors are true.

Take former Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, for example. He has listed "Juno" among recent hits -- including "Knocked Up" and "Waitress" -- that suggest American popular culture is "awaking to the reality of life in the womb."

While these films come from the heart of the "bawdy mainstream," they include images and themes that will surprise traditionalists, argued Santorum, in an essay written as a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

"Ultrasound images awakened characters and audiences to the humanity of the unborn. Having a baby, even in the most challenging circumstances, became the compelling 'choice,' " noted Santorum, a devout Catholic and author of the book "It Takes a Family," written during his unsuccessful 2006 bid to stay in the U.S. Senate.

"Adoption was held up as a positive alternative to abortion. And, unlike the news media's portrayal of pro-lifers, protesters outside abortion clinics were authentically depicted as warm and concerned. This stood in contrast to the indifference of the staff within."

In a pivotal scene, Juno calls the "Women Now" clinic -- a parent's signature is not required -- and bluntly tells the switchboard operator she needs to "procure a hasty abortion." But when she approaches the facility, Juno discovers that a high school friend is staging a solo protest outside.

This scene is played for nervous laughs, with the Asian girl chanting, "All babies want to get borned!" But when she realizes that Juno is headed inside, the friend urgently adds, "Your baby has a beating heart! Your baby can feel pain! Your baby has fingernails!"

This last line sticks and, in the waiting room, Juno is haunted by the sound of the other patients around her tapping, clicking and chewing their fingernails. As she flees the clinic, her friend calls out, "God appreciates your miracle!" The pregnant teen chooses -- with strong support from her loving father and stepmother -- to endure the public ordeal of her pregnancy, surrender the baby through adoption and then move on with her life.

The key is that "Juno" is about people struggling to make real decisions in the real world, according to screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi of Act One, a group that trains Christians to work in the Hollywood mainstream. This isn't a connect-the-dots sermon targeting true believers. The movie doesn't preach, because it wasn't created by preachers.

But "Juno" can be called "pro-life, in the way that just about every Gen-X movie about pregnancy is pro-life," wrote the former Catholic nun, at her "Church of the Masses" website. "I would say 'Juno' is a cultural message movie without being a political one. Certainly, that will be an inscrutable nuance in contemporary Christendom in which almost everything is politics. ...

"The movie is also anti-divorce in the way that just about every Gen-X movie about family is anti-divorce. And people with faith are here too, in a decent and gritty way that shows mere secularism to be selfish and shallow."

The bottom line, said Santorum, is that a mainstream movie like "Juno" has a chance to connect with mainstream audiences. Secular critics have, so far, even responded with "thumbs up" reviews.

The most hopeful possibility, he added, is that these movies symbolize a kind of power shift as one Hollywood generation is exposed to the hopes and fears of the next.

"They are ... chronicles from the children of our divorce- and abortion-oriented culture," Santorum added. "There is lived experience, emotional understanding, hard-earned authenticity at the heart of these scripts. And pain."

Final Harry Potter wars? Part I

Harry Potter and his best friend Hermione Granger arrived in the magical town of Godric's Hollow on a snowy Christmas Eve.

Carols drifted out of the village church as they searched its graveyard for the resting place of Lily and James Potter, who were murdered by the dark Lord Voldemort. First, they found the headstone honoring the family of Albus Dumbledore, the late headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The inscription said: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Then the Potter headstone proclaimed: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." Harry was mystified. Was this about defeating the evil Death Eaters?

"It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry," said Hermione, gently. "It means ... you know ... living beyond death. Living after death."

For millions of religious believers who embrace Harry Potter, this pivotal scene in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" -- book seven in J.K. Rowling's giant fantasy puzzle -- offers new evidence that the author is, in fact, a Church of Scotland communicant whose faith has helped shape her work.

The first inscription is from St. Matthew's Gospel and the second -- stating the book's theme -- is a passage in St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians about the meaning of Christ's resurrection. Is this part of what Dumbledore had called an all-powerful "deep magic" built on sacrificial love?

Nevertheless, for millions of Rowling critics the presence of scripture in this final book will not cancel a decade's worth of wizardry, magic and what they believe is vague, New Age spirituality. And besides, Potter clearly didn't recognize the unattributed Bible verses. Right?

Religious battles commenced soon after Rowling released "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." It didn't help that "Philosopher's Stone" -- a term from medieval alchemy -- was replaced with "Sorcerer's Stone" in U.S. editions. After the sale of 325 million-plus books worldwide, there are now at least three camps of Potter critics in these theological debates and three prominent camps of Potter defenders. The critics include:

* Some who insist these books are secular or subtly anti-religious. Writing in Time, Lev Grossman has argued that Rowling shares more in common with atheists like Christopher Hitchens than with J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, whose books were rooted in Christian faith.

"Look at Rowling's books," says Grossman. "What's missing? If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God. Harry Potter lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn't."

* Conservatives who think Potter-mania can lead to the occult. Some even oppose fantasy novels by Lewis and Tolkien -- which contain references to wizards, magic and demonic powers. The key is a Deuteronomy passage: "There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells. ..."

Focus on the Family's James Dobson responded to "Deathly Hallows" by saying: "Magical characters -- witches, wizards, ghosts, goblins, werewolves, poltergeists and so on -- fill the Harry Potter stories, and given the trend toward witchcraft and New Age ideology ... it's difficult to ignore the effects such stories (albeit imaginary) might have on young, impressionable minds."

* Believers who see mixed signals. Evangelical activist Chuck Colson, for example, praised the books in 1999, noting that they contrasted good and evil, while the main characters displayed courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice. "Not bad lessons in a self-centered world," said the founder of Prison Fellowship.

But Colson's latest statement warned: "Personally, I don?t recommend the Potter books. I?d rather Christian kids not read them."

Soon after that Colson commentary, however, current Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley gently praised Rowling's books and, above all, the role fantasy novels can play for readers numbed by modern life.

"The popularity of these books -- and, yes, even of the Harry Potter series -- reminds us that the yearning for hope, for good to win and evil to be vanquished, is no infantile desire," he said. "Rather, it is one of the deepest and most important parts of our nature, placed in us by the God of all truth."

NEXT WEEK: Believers who embrace Harry Potter.