GOD ONLINE: Exploring media spirituality

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Archive for December 2008

FILM REVIEW: Marley & Me

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Have you noticed how many movies lately are pro-family? There’s Knocked Up, where a couple’s personal agendas melt in the face of their new baby. There’s Meet the Browns, which shows the lengths a good mother will take in order to raise and protect her children.

Also note: Not all family films are good to bring kids to.

Put Marley & Me in that category. On the surface, the film is a comedy about a lovable though rambunctious dog. But it’s really about how he tests their limits for love, and in so doing, expands those limits. It also explores some very adult life choices.

Child or career? It’s a question young couples often ask, especially if each mate is ambitious and talented. And John and Jennifer Grogan (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston) fit that bill. He’s a news writer for the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. She’s a feature writer for the Palm Beach Post. (Full disclosure: I work at the Sun Sentinel and used to talk to John occasionally, though I didn’t know him well.)

Their solution at first is a large, adorable yellow Labrador puppy. Naming him Marley, for the late reggae singer Bob Marley, they treat him like their child.

That is, if your child chews couch cushions, terrorizes a sitter, howls at South Florida’s many thunderstorms and chases just about anything, dragging along whoever is holding the leash. Marley is even expelled from obedience school.

Jennifer finally becomes pregnant — three times — and leaves her job for the mommy track. The kids plus “the world’s worst dog,” as John calls him, cause quarrels. John withdraws, Jennifer calms down and apologizes, they make up.

But long before then, it’s clear that Marley has pried open the Grogans’ hearts. After all, if they can bear with a big, half-insane dog, they can surely care for human children.

Family values even figure professionally. Jennifer leaves her job to care for the kids. She also supports his decision to move to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

There, he crosses paths with a friend from the Sun Sentinel — someone he envied for his job as a foreign correspondent. To his surprise, the friend seems to envy John, for his beautiful wife and three kids. Thought-provoking stuff on life’s tradeoffs.

The cautions? Some “goddamns” and lovemaking scenes, with a bit of partial nudity (hey, it does portray a married couple, and it does have Jennifer Aniston to show off). There’s also a squick-inducing scene where John has to sift through Marley’s poop for a necklace he ate.

Another question mark is when John and Jennifer want to make love in an Irish inn, but not with pictures of Jesus and Mary in the bedroom. Oh, yeah, there’s also when Marley humps the instructor’s leg at obedience school (Kathleen Turner, in surely her most humiliating role.)

So, yes, Marley & Me qualifies as a family film. It reaffirms traditional marriage and shows how commitment can overcome difficulties. Just leave the youngest members of the family home.

Written by Jim Davis

December 29, 2008 at 4:55 am

TV REVIEW: ‘Jesus in India’

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A major Christian holiday is just around the corner, and sure enough, here comes one of those revisionist “documentaries” attacking cherished beliefs. For Jesus in India, the focus is on historical gossip that has Jesus traveling east during his youth to learn from Buddhist and Hindu philosophers.

The program (9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time Dec. 22) on the Sundance Channel, looks at the “missing years” of Jesus, between his 12th and 30th years, when the Bible reports nothing about him. During those years, some say, he studied ethics and mysticism in the East before returning to the Holy Land. There’s even talk that he escaped crucifixion, returned to India, and died and was entombed there.

Author Edward T. Martin makes a brave, and apparently well-funded, effort to ferret out links between Jesus and India. With Paul Davids as director, he visits St. Thomas Mount in southern India, where Christians say their forebears hearken back to Bible times. He talks to the Shankaracharya, a pre-eminent Hindu leader. He consults a monk in a monastery, where a library is said to hold an ancient account of Jesus’ sojourn. He ventures into tense, violent Srinagar, where some locals say Jesus is entombed.

But you won’t be surprised to know that Martin finds nothing definite; otherwise, it would have been on CNN before the Sundance Channel. Nope. The Shankaracharya says he knows the story of Jesus in India, but the sourcebooks are long lost. And the monk says the head of the monastery is away, and he’s the only one who can approve a search of the books.

Some of the onscreen comments even contradict Martin’s premise. In Srinagar, a police officer and a Muslim leader vigorously deny Jesus’ body is there, saying it’s that of another prophet instead. Jesus in India notes this, then blithely moves on.

Quality control may be one of the problems here. Jesus in India quotes decent sources like a Vatican official, a rabbi from Loyola and two scholars from Georgetown. But it also recruits Elaine Pagels of Princeton, who detours onto her favorite topic, the Gnostic Gospels — a collection of third century Egyptian scrolls that she and others are trying to paint as lost Bible books. Incredibly, another source is a book by Elizabeth Claire Prophet, former head of the New-Agey Church Universal and Triumphant.

Jesus in India spends a lot of time on Martin’s background — perhaps to help us understand his viewpoint, perhaps to pad the program. Scenes abound of sleepy Lampasas, Texas, and the stark Church of Christ where Martin grew up, in a familiar portrayal of conservative Christians as crude and ignorant. However, the onscreen interviews don’t make them sound like the oppressive bullies that Martin makes them out to be.

It shows the immense shadow cast by Jesus that so many people — Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, New Agers, broadcasters, even Bible revisionists — want to claim him. But they’re mainly trying to recast him in their own image. That’s a danger for us all, of course, believers or not. But to get closer to Jesus and his teachings, it’s best to start with something better than revisionism.

Written by Jim Davis

December 21, 2008 at 6:37 am

Something about Mary

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For millions of people, Mary is more than a mere supporting player in Christmas pageants. Devotees, in fact, claim to have seen supernatural apparitions of Mary in Spain and Portugal, Japan and Korea, Egypt and Venezuela.

For the Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Dec. 12, let’s take a look at Web sites that promote these appearances.

Catholic Online gives a typically crisp rendition of the Guadalupeapparition in 1531, to a Mexican Indian named Juan Diego. The story is remarkable for yielding an image of Mary on a cactus-cloth poncho — a picture still visible five centuries later. (See a picture of the original image at the right, from http://www.sancta.org.) It’s also unusual for being among the few apparitions that have gained official church approval.

Yet the many Marian Web sites, like this one and this one, cheerfully lump in the approved with the others. You’ll see not only accounts of the approved Our Lady of Lourdes and Fatima, but the unapproved Garabandal and Medjugorje.

You can even see videos of some apparitions, courtesy of Google Video. One link leads to GodWay, a Coptic Orthodox site.

GodWay has some of the lesser-known apparitions, including Naju, South Korea, and Zeitoun, Egypt. The Zeitoun section has a collection of fuzzy-looking photos purporting to show a woman robed in light, walking the rooftops of Egyptian churches.

Taken together, the reported sightings reveal some unexpected things. One is a quiet, gentle rebellion against the Catholic hierarchy. Even if the Church doesn’t approve an apparition, people flock to them anyway.

Another observation: For many Catholics, even Jesus isn’t enough. They seem to feel a need to see, not just believe.

Finally, some church thinkers are surprisingly indulgent about the apparitions. I once asked Eugene Kennedy, a Catholic psychologist, why people saw Mary so much. His answer: “Why are you surprised? The mother is one of the most powerful images we know.”

I was amazed. He artfully left undropped the other shoe: that people may be inspired by the apparitions, whether they’re real or not.

Written by Jim Davis

December 13, 2008 at 5:14 am

Fangs, but no fangs

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Vampires get organized, though satirical, opposition from Fellowship of the Sun. This self-proclaimed watchdog group gets a ton of mileage from conspiracy-theory thinking. Not to mention movies like Twilight and TV shows like HBO’s True Blood.

Like how? Place tongue firmly in cheek — or, perhaps, fangs in throat — and read on:

  • Opposing the fictional “Vampire Rights Amendment.”

  • Warning that humans can be “perverted” into becoming vampires.

  • Contrasting pictures of simpering, smiling humans with scowling, fanged vamps.

  • Using blog-style shorthand like CoD (Creatures of the Darkness).

  • Listing handy anti-vampire measures: garlic, crucifixes, lights around your porch.

  • Planting family-style fearmongering: “What will you say when YOUR daughter brings a vampire home?”

The group also mocks merchandising, with silver pendants with the triangular FoS logo, and bumper stickers with lame slogans: “Vampires? No Fangs”; “Mortal On Board”; “Vampires Suck.”

So, who is this site aimed at? Well, you think of groups against all kinds of folks: gays, Wiccans, Muslims, racial and ethnic groups. Except for the obit on the fellowship’s founder: “Reverend Theodore Newlin, tireless crusader for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” So much for subtlety.

There is, however, a more nuanced look at vampirism and its religious-psychological facets. See Nicky Loomis’ analysis on this Web site at the University of Southern California. It’s thoughtful and measured. Something to sink your teeth into.

    Written by Jim Davis

    December 9, 2008 at 5:53 am

    Heaven on earth?

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    “God is not the voice in the whirlwind; god is the whirlwind,” says Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, on the homepage of World Pantheism. Devoted to the search for the divine in everything, the Pantheists don’t look for God in the universe — they see God as the universe.

    Their stated beliefs sound nice, at first: the awe of staring at the stars, or the peace in walking through a forest. The group reveres and cares for nature, embracing science, and respects reason and evidence.

    The Pantheists post lots of material in support of their beliefs. A History of Pantheism declares common cause with Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Confucians, native Americans, even Pagans and Wiccans — as long as they see gods and goddess only as metaphors. The site even mentions Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, though it properly calls him a Panentheist — one who sees the universe as part of God, but not the whole.

    It’s when the Pantheists say what they’re not, that another face shows. They shun “grovelling worship or the expectation that there is some being out there who can answer our prayers.” They want to be “free from guilt about original sin.” They value “reason rather than fanaticism,” and “individual choice rather than pushing prejudice down people’s throats.”

    You know, not like those ignorant, groveling, pushy other spiritual groups.

    You can download some interesting back copies of the organization’s Pan magazine, like an issue on ethics. And the Pantheists offer several lists to help find one another.

    A cool device is the Flash map on Frappr.com. Dots on the map show men, women and local Pantheist groups.

    Written by Jim Davis

    December 7, 2008 at 3:14 am

    Young faith

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    Simply Youth Ministry has a lot for sale, but it also gives away an incredible amount, gleaned from sources like Saddleback Church and Youth Specialties. You’ll find videos, games, booklets, tips for mission trips, and good-looking guides for small groups and discipleship lessons.

    Topics are earnest and relevant. A sound file discusses “God’s Extreme Makeover.” Young talking heads reassure us that “Everybody Hurts.” A lesson encourages high school girls to resist society’s obsession with appearance.

    Click the “Forms” icon to find nuts and bolts of youth ministry: event planners and recaps, a thank-you card, a scholarship application, a first-time visitor survey, a student leadership agenda.

    Most of the freebies are in .zip files, so you’ll need WinZip or an equivalent to open them. Once unzipped, some are in Word format, some in .pdf, some in PowerPoint, some in RealPlayer, so you’ll need those applications, too.

    Finally, SYM has 36 free videos, on various inspirational or instructional topics. But watch out: The files are huge, some over 100 megabytes. If you’re on a church or other shared computer, try to pick a time when others aren’t using the connection.

    Written by Jim Davis

    December 5, 2008 at 3:58 am


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    What a relief Jalaluddin Rumi is. A holy man who enjoys family and friends. And who sounds like he’s had some experience with the opposite sex.

    Take this poem, one of the 70,000+ he wrote:

    Come to the orchard in spring.
    There is light and wine, and sweethearts
    in the pomegranate flowers.
    If you do not come, these do not matter.
    If you do come, these do not matter.

    Start with Rumi.net, a very good assortment of poems, essays and biographies. The work of Jewish-Persian poet Shahram Shiva, the site tells of Rumi’s wealthy upbringing in the eastern Persian empire — and the tragedy that may have birthed much of his poetry.

    Some of the poems seem to have a double meaning:

    By day I praised you
    and never knew it.
    By night I stayed with you
    and never knew it.
    I always thought that
    I was me — but no,
    I was you
    and never knew it.

    Don’t leave this site without seeing some of the poems in Flash 10. First you see the poem in Persian calligraphy. Wave your mouse pointer over it, and it morphs into a transliteration. Another wave, and it becomes a word-for-word translation. Wave #4 makes it fluent English.

    You can find more Rumi poems here and here. Also check out Rumi’s masterpiece, The Masnavi. The six-book compendium holds his teachings about Sufism, the mystical Islamic sect he belonged to.

    Another viewpoint on Rumi’s life is in the San Francisco Chronicle. The 2007 article suggests that studying Rumi’s forgiving nature could help ease tensions between modern Muslims and westerners.

    Written by Jim Davis

    December 2, 2008 at 3:28 am

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