GOD ONLINE: Exploring media spirituality

Web sites, TV, films, books, holidays, and the search for meaning.

Archive for July 2009

Breaking Christian stereotypes

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“Liberal”, “evangelical”, “catholic”, “protestant”, “left-wing”, “traditional”, “progressive”, “religious”, “secular” . . . when one organization is branded with that many labels, it’s probably doing something right. And Ekklesia appears to be, with a fresh approach to religion and public policy.

Church symbolsRather than collusion or confrontation with secular powers, the U.K.-based think tank seeks to make the church an “alternative-generating ‘contrast society’ within the wider civic order.” It draws its main inspiration from the historical “peace churches” (Quakers, Mennonites, etc.), while relating to more mainline streams.

Like how? Well, on the one hand, it approves an Equality Bill, which would outlaw discrimination by age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

On the other hand, a closely-reasoned paper explains four laws passed on religious rights and freedoms over the last 11 years.

Other reports on the Web site deal with:

For those who assume all evangelical Christians are alike, Ekklesia may well be an eye opener.

Written by Jim Davis

July 31, 2009 at 4:35 am

Angry diapers?

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OK, so maybe it sounds like a bad SNL sketch. But founders of Feminist Mormon Housewives are serious about women’s issues. And whether you’re a housewife, a Mormon or just a feminist, Templeyou’ll likely find something interesting here.

Originally bearing the tongue-in-cheek subtitle “Angry Activists with Diapers to Change,” fMh was birthed in 2004 by Lisa Butterworth, a 30-something believer in Idaho. Her blog handles a range of issues like abortion, climate change, homosexuality, parenting, polygamy, witchcraft, Mormon history, finances, even the shadowy topic of the “feminine divine.”

But the posts also take some unexpected turns:

  • Still another post suggests feminist lyrics
  • for nursery rhymes, to avoid painting women as passive.

The contributors write with wit and charm — though they often overwrite — and surprisingly without the anger and narrowness of many blogs-with-a-cause. Although some, like one NatalieK, seem to clutch at anything to draw hope for a more feminist church.

Housewives they may be, but they’re also media savvy. There’s also an fMh Facebook page and Yahoo chat group.

Written by Jim Davis

July 28, 2009 at 4:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

For next-gen Jews

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With a clean design and sharp writing, Tablet offers thoughtful coverage of Jewish issues for younger believers. A project of Nextbook, a New York-based nonprofit publisher, Tablet is designed as a hybrid of blog, magazine and newspaper.

These guys know what they’re doing, journalistically. The site indexes its four torah05main departments — Arts & Culture, Life & Religion, News & Politics, The Scroll blog — across the top, and gives the top stories for each on the homepage. Each section is further broken down: for instance, Life & Religion includes food, sex and technology as well as the more traditional Ritual & Observance.

Or maybe not so traditional. One piece relates the animated movies G-Force and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs to a Bible lesson on Balaam’s talking donkey.

The news is varied: a money-laundering scandal involving a Syrian-American rabbi, an analysis of a meeting between President Obama and Jewish leaders, pitfalls in a plan to save the shrinking Dead Sea. Some features are predictable: reviews of Kings, the NBC drama on the biblical David; and a profile of Anvil, the Jewish-led rock group from Toronto.

Nor does the magazine avoid squickier topics. One is a porno being shot on gays in Israel. As author Wayne Hoffman notes, most journalists call it the first all-Israeli gay film. “But they’ve missed the larger story: Men of Israel is a landmark because it is the first gay porn film to feature an all-Jewish cast.” Good idea? Good question.

Make sure to check out The Scroll, the brisk-reading blog with several contributors. The amazingly diverse content looks at Jewish billionaires in the Ukraine, the Jewish style of a new song by the Black Eyed Peas, and the new willingness of Netanyahu’s Israel to accept a two-state peace plan.

Written by Jim Davis

July 26, 2009 at 3:49 am

Posted in jews

Secular Islam: A contradiction in terms?

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Talk about your tall orders: The name of the Institution for the Secularization of Islamic Society says it all.

minaret02, grn, 72dpiPart of the Center for Inquiry, an affiliate of the Council for Secular Humanism, the ironically acronymed ISIS seeks to loosen the hold of Sharia, honor killings, sexist practices and bigotry toward other religions.

But it goes further, claiming that Islam is sexist, that it denies human rights, and is even inherently totalitarian.

How tall is the order? Well, for one thing, ISIS’ manifesto, the 2007 St. Petersburg Declaration, includes the name of Ibn Warraq, a secular thinker who uses a pen name for fear of being killed. Also on the list is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Dutch legislator who has been threatened with death for opposing terrorists there.

The site, of course, is a bit contradictory. How can you be a secular Muslim? The heart of Islam is a creed: the statement that “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.”

Another contradiction: Some ISIS founders, like Tawfik Hamid, are themselves believers who oppose radical interpretations. But the Center for Inquiry rejects even philosophies that accommodate faith. On the ISIS site itself, one author argues that all religion is lethal.

So the site has some incisive critiques of injustices done in the name of Islam. Just be careful when, for example, ISIS accuses Islamic law of “a soul-destroying pedantry” — when its parent organization doubts the very existence of souls.

Written by Jim Davis

July 23, 2009 at 4:27 am

Posted in beliefs, islam, muslims, religion

A warped mirror of religion

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Remember those funhouse mirrors in carnivals? God Spam is a lot like that. It holds up a mirror to religion — a warped one that makes you laugh.

A nativity scene made of Jawas from Star Wars is among the God Spam.

A nativity scene made of Jawas from Star Wars is among the God Spam.


  • Jesus Junk, including Christmas nativity scenes with leprechauns and Jawas from the Star Wars movies.
  • Playing Gods, a board game for spiritual world domination. The game’s Web site even boasts a video of (gasp!) Buddha blasting with a chain gun.
  • A recent log of Tweets about Jesus on Twitter. One gem: “Wasn’t Jesus the first zombie? He came back from the dead.” Ahr, ahr.

Delivering this hilarity is Gwynne Watkins, a New Yorker whose profile rather defensively calls her “a Christian, but not the kind that sucks.”

Some of her most perceptive reflections come under “Find the Religion.” In January, she spotted at least seven religious references during Obama’s inauguration ceremonies. More seriously, she asks why the TLC cable channel is afraid of religion, in interviewing Mayim Bialik about her wardrobe but not about the Conservative Judaism that prompts her to dress modestly.

On basic cable TV, Gwynne notes, “there are two kinds of religion: extreme and nonexistent.” She could have said the same of most secular media.

Written by Jim Davis

July 21, 2009 at 4:39 am

Moral stats of movies

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Last in my series of movie review sites is Movieguide.

Want to know how many bad words are in Weather Girl? Or what kinds of sex show up in Cheri? Or how many ways people are killed or maimed in The Hurt Locker? Then Movieguide is for you.

CB031428The Christian-oriented site looks like it was designed by a moralistic statistician. First, there’s a four-star scale for production values and “entertainment quality” of a movie. Then there’s an eight-level scale — from +4 to -4 — for “acceptability,” meaning moral and theological viewpoints.

Moral content is further broken down into language, violence, sex and nudity, with a four-level scale for each — a total of 16 possible combinations. Finally, a detailed paragraph in the review itself details how the objectionable stuff shows up. (How does a writer track all that while paying attention to the plot?)

Still, the site can surprise. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince might have been one to beat up on for its occultic atmosphere. But Movieguide gives it a partly good review for “some direct encouragements toward cardinal virtues” — though it advises parents to steer their kids away.

And a favorable morality rating doesn’t win automatic smiles. My Sister’s Keeper, according to Movieguide, was low on sex, violence and nudity. But it still got a mixed review for a “nihilistic humanist tone that results in a depressing ending.”

Movieguide’s founder, Ted Baehr, does know his stuff. He holds a degree in literature from Dartmouth and a law degree from New York University. He’s also a former director of the Television Center at the City University of New York.

Annnnnnd, Baehr also gives you tools for giving feedback. Each review names not only the director and producer, but also the president of the film company — with its mailing address, email address and phone number.

Written by Jim Davis

July 16, 2009 at 4:31 am

Posted in culture, film, films, movies

Moral movie mavens

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Going overtime on our “week” of religious film review sites, we visit a guardian of morality tonight. Plugged In Online, created by religious right leader James Dobson, picks out every “damn” and flash of flesh in movies.

But not always skillfully. In his review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Paul Asay says the soldiers “boast more boom sticks than the 1927 Yankees.” In reviewing Drag Me to Hell, he says “you CB031428know where” three times. And in his review of Star Trek, he says James T. Kirk is a “ne’er-do-well” with a “penchant for derring-do,” and the starship Enterprise is the “snazziest set of space wheels.” Memo to Dobson: Hire copy editors who grew up after the 1940s.

Still, Asay has his moments. He praises Star Trek’s sense of fun and optimism. He also notes: “While some films use CGI to set up a story, Transformers reverses the process: It uses a halfhearted story as an excuse to string together some cool special effects.”

A better writer is Lindy Keffer. Her takedown of The Hangover is crisp and efficient, except for occasional clunky words like “debauchery.”

Each review labels spiritual, sexual, violent and drug/alcohol content, in discrete segments. Sometimes it gets picky — will you really get upset at a woman in a flannel shirt, showing her legs? — but it’s an improvement over the past, when many ministers simply condemned most movies. Now you can evaluate for yourself, before you buy a ticket.

And if you have small kids, be honest: Wouldn’t you like an idea of what’s in that film they’ve been hounding you to take them to?

Tomorrow night, we’ll look at a somewhat more sophisticated site, though just as moralistic.

Written by Jim Davis

July 15, 2009 at 3:22 am

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