Religion Archives

April 4, 2013

Catholic Church shifts gay

Cardinal Dolan loves gay people

(I've fallen behind lately, so now I'm catching up on stuff from the past few weeks.)

We've all been hearing how our nation's recent pro-gay shift is one of the fastest cultural swings anyone can remember. Just a few years ago, most Americans were against same-sex marriage and most of the red states were busily amending their constitutions to ban it forever. Now the majority is pro-marriage equality, it's legal in more states, the Supreme Court is hearing important cases, Bill Clinton apologized for DOMA, and a few Republicans might even be starting a cute but probably doomed flirtation with equal rights (when it benefits them and their immediate families, of course.)

But the biggest surprise for me has been seeing some evidence that the Catholic Church might be reconsidering. This is an institution was still doing Mass in Latin in the mid-60's. But did you see the Times' article from a few weeks ago about Pope Francis and his behind-the-scenes attempt to get the church to support same-sex civil unions in 2010? Apparently while debates were going on in Argentina, where he was Cardinal, most bishops were flat-out against gay marriage. The Cardinal was publicly against it, too. But in private, the future Pope was trying to change the church's opinion--if the church still wouldn't perform same-sex marriages, what's the harm in supporting the government doing civil unions?

Anyway, he was voted down, gay marriage went through, and now it's legal. The Catholic Church lost, but Francis showed that he considers human rights and political realities in his doctrinal thinking. It will be interesting to see what he says now that he's Pope.

A few days ago, New York's Cardinal Dolan also spoke about marriage equality on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. It sounds like he was going for an approachable, humanist tone, but he came off with a standard "hate the sin, love the sinner" message that's more about being nice to gay people than making sure everyone has equal rights.

"We've got to do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people," he said. "And I admit, we haven't been too good at that. We try our darnedest to make sure we're not an anti-anybody."

[That "try our darnedest" stuff is exactly what he really sounds like--I happened to hear him speak at a marriage prep class, and he's full-on small town Midwest gee whiz. I can't tell how much of an affectation it is.]

He went on to say that gay people are entitled to happiness and "friendship", but they're disobeying God if they want to get married.

These aren't radical shifts, but with Cardinal Dolan happily proclaiming on national TV that he loves gay people and joyfully hoisting his disco stick (above) the new Pope's history of advocating for equal rights, it's going to be interesting time ahead.

February 17, 2012

More from the Linky

Jeremy Lin Hey Girl

The Robot Linky over there on the right of the screen is still having technical problems (how 'bout supporting an RSS feed for Plus, huh, Google?) so here are a few things from the past few days:

  • Inevitable: Jeremy Lin Hey Girl Tumblr.
  • A good piece about the ongoing battle between Presbyterian minister Jane Spahr (an old family friend of mine) and her church. Spahr was the first out lesbian minister leading a congregation and has been marrying same-sex couples within the church for years. She's an inspiring crusader for gay rights in a religious context, and has always spoken about marrying same-sex couples within the church as her spiritual calling, which pretty much means the Presbyterian church is arguing that God is wrong.
  • Nicolas Cage has been talking for years about his innovative acting technique he calls "nouveau-shamanic" and the rest of us would probably call "mental", but now he's comparing his inexplicable career choices to Led Zeppelin, which I hope means he's going to play a Norse hermit blues guitarist wizard soon.
  • Ken Jennings' response to yesterday's "aspirin between the knees" attempt at folksy contraception humor by Foster Friess that became an instant self-parody:

    I call b.s., BOTH my kids have been conceived with an aspirin between my knees. (Long story, pharmacy-themed roleplay.)

[tx, Cushie!]

October 20, 2011

Women in Cults! double feature

Elizabeth Olsen and Vera Farmiga

I've seen two movies lately that would make a great double feature if you're interested in creepy patriarchal societies and how they squash independent-minded young women: Higher Ground, starring (and directed by) Vera Farmiga, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, starring non-twin Olsen sister Elizabeth Olsen.

I really like both of these movies. Each of the protagonists first conform to the rigid and oppressive rules that other members of their group have accepted as the only way to live, then start to rebel against them, and ultimately look outside their groups for something else.

And it's pretty amazing how much they have in common. Both are about insular communities led by charismatic, charming, authoritarian male leaders. These communities appear to be about cooperation and togetherness and love, but as soon as our quietly rebellious female leads step out of line, all that goes out the window, and suddenly the purpose of the group seems to be the men controlling the women and not a whole lot else.

The two leads even look a lot alike: they both have those luminous, translucent, moon-like faces and big bright eyes. It's easy to be interested in the inner struggles of these women to figure out who they are when they're as expressive and beautiful as Vera Farmiga and Elizabeth Olsen.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (which I keep wanting to call Maggie and Milly and Molly and May) is a lot more extreme. People are talking about it as the Girl Escapes a Cult movie, which is accurate, though no one in the movie ever says the word "cult". Martha doesn't know she's part of a cult, which makes watching her decide to leave it and struggle to get her head together afterwards kind of maddening, because neither she nor anyone else around her realizes how completely fucked in the head she is. I kept wanting to grab her oblivious older sister, whose house she goes to after escaping the cult, and shake her shouting "Your sister was seduced by an evil brainwashing cult and is now extremely obviously displaying every PTSD symptom that exists! Call a shrink NOW!" It's a little frustrating sometimes, but it's still good.

Higher Ground is a lot less culty (and less violent and rapey.) The community Vera Farmiga lives in is like a Christian fundamentalist version of a '70's hippie commune or the Dharma Initiative from "Lost". It's a more subtle movie than MMMM, but it also didn't make me feel like hiding under my bed after watching it. I'm still a little shaken by MMMM.

That's mostly because of the one actor who's in both movies: John Hawkes. This is the year that everybody starts knowing who John Hawkes is. This guy is phenomenal. He plays Vera Farmiga's dad in Higher Ground, who loves his family but blows it as a husband and father, and the suave, manipulative cult leader in MMMM. He said in an interview that he didn't research cult leaders in preparing for the role, but he nails every quality that famous cult leaders possess. He's totally terrifying and great. (coincidence: he also played Lennon, member of the Dharma Initiative!)

Potential Future Oscar Nominee Elizabeth Olsen
is getting a lot of attention, and she's good, but it's hard to see what kind of character is underneath all that clinically diagnosable crazy-girl stuff. I wonder if people would be exclaiming about her so much if she were less beautiful or less naked in front of a very unhurried, lingering camera, but she does OK.

But Vera Farmiga--wow. I could watch her in anything. She's one of the best things about every movie I've seen her in, probably one of the better actresses around now. And a pretty great director, too! Hope she keeps getting good parts in movies without having to direct all of them.

March 6, 2011

The Book of Mormon is really, really nice

The Book of Mormon on Broadway

The "South Park" guys' musical, The Book of Mormon, is still in previews, but when this thing opens, it's going to be a gigantic hit. These guys know how to write songs that are breathtakingly vulgar, and as light and catchy as the best stuff Rodgers and Hart ever did. They're funny, they're shocking, and they have a chorus you'll be singing (very, very quietly) all week. People are going to be doing these songs at karaoke bars by this summer.

So is it offensive? I'd seen the "All About the Mormons?" episode of "South Park" [video] from a few years back that actually was pretty mean-spirited. So I was a little concerned that all that unfunny, mean "dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb" kind of stuff from that episode would work its way into the Broadway show, and I'd come out of it feeling like a jerk.

The show is like the opposite of that "South Park" episode. I don't know if they changed their approach in order to have a successful show that people would genuinely love, or if they realized that, as Parker said, "A show that just bashes Mormons for two hours wouldn't be fun."

Sure, there are some aspects of Mormon beliefs that are odd and questionable and easy to make fun of, but what religion doesn't have those? The play includes all that stuff, but it's good-natured and, as many early reports are calling it, sweet. A brave Mormon family who attended the first performance found Matt Stone afterwards to tell him they loved it.

So, OK, one Mormon family thought it was good--we'll see if what happens once Glenn Beck decides to see how it measures up to "Spider-Man".

It's obscene and vulgar and totally profane, but the core value of Mormonism that's referred to over and over again is that you should always be really nice to everyone. As the creators say, it's a pro-faith, traditional, big Broadway musical, with a singing, dancing Johnnie Cochran. By the end it's sincerely devout, in its way. If you want to see it, it's probably a good idea to get your tickets now before all the gushing reviews come out.

August 25, 2010

Movie trailer by anti-Muslim cab stabbing guy

Last night a "very drunk" 21 year-old guy was arrested for stabbing the driver of his cab after asking him if he was Muslim.

From the Times article:

After falling silent for a few minutes, the passenger began cursing and screaming, and then yelled, "Assalamu alaikum -- consider this a checkpoint!" and slashed Mr. Sharif across the neck, and then on the face from his nose to his upper lip, the alliance said. ("Assalamu alaikum" -- "peace be with you" -- is a traditional Muslim greeting.)

The assailant, Michael Enright, was an SVA film student who had recently been in Afghanistan shooting his documentary, Home of the Brave, about US soldiers.

The trailer is on YouTube:

It features young soldiers talking about what inspired them to enlist (9/11) and what it's like to be part of a tight-knight group of soldiers (they've got your back) and, actually, makes being a soldier in Afghanistan look pretty fun. There's basic training and motivational speeches in an auditorium, and also Christmas and birthday parties and playing with a friendly dog. Doesn't look like the film includes combat, probably because as a film student he wasn't allowed to see any action.

But clearly Hollywood has defined what we think war is supposed to look like, because there's a trailer for another movie called Home of the Brave that looks far grittier and more violent. This one is about Iraq, not Afghanistan, and it stars Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel, and 50 Cent, but when you watch the trailer, the on-the-ground scenes look a lot more war-like than the documentary. It was directed by the guy who produced all the Rocky movies.

More bombs, fewer birthday cakes.

Anyway, it seems like Michael Enright was deeply attached to the US soldiers he met and other friends who were deployed, and somewhere along the way he went nuts. Interestingly, he was also a volunteer for Intersections International, a nonprofit that works to overcome racial and religious boundaries, in their veteran's dialogue program.

The cab driver is going to be OK.

November 30, 2009

Switzerland and its nuanced form of bigotry

Anti-minaret signs in Switzerland

In a spasm of racist panic, Switzerland voted in a referendum to ban all new construction of minarets. Muslims make up only 5% of the Swiss population, and there are only four minarets in the entire country, but enough people are scared of Muslims to "want to stop further Islamisation in Switzerland," according to the leading political party that sponsored the referendum, which sounds about as reasonable as hetero Americans being afraid of the approaching takeover of the country by the 5% of the population that's gay. Which, well, right, OK.

Yeah, minarets are just symbols: it's not like Islam itself has been banned. The Swiss just hate hate hate minarets! Muslims will just have to practice their religion more quietly and unobtrusively. Sort of like, say, sitting in the back of the bus.

Despite the fact that it's got a lot of reactionary bigots in it, Switzerland is a little like the New Hampshire of Europe. They're as close to libertarian as Europe probably gets: taxes are relatively low and they seem to want the rest of the world to just leave them alone and let them shelter questionably-gained cash for the world's shady businessmen. The Swiss are not joiners. They're not quite members of the EU, they're into direct democracy, and they still half-pretend to be neutral.

On the positive side, Switzerland offers civil unions for same-sex couples with most of the same rights and benefits as married couples. And true to its libertarian tradition of not messing around in other people's business, New Hampshire legalized gay marriage this year. It's helping to push the US in its jerky, slow-motion lurch toward marriage equality.

But come on. Switzerland just violated international human rights conventions by banning the religious buildings of a small minority. They look like backward morons.

So the real lesson of this story is: New Hampshire beats Switzerland in the battle of libertarian non-conformist weirdo states.

October 21, 2009

New Catholic membership campaign

Pope Benedict

You like being an Anglican, but you're not so thrilled about gender equality and gay people messing up your church.

Now's the time to let Catholicism wrap you up in the warm embrace of sexism and homophobia! No forward-thinking here -- just centuries of bigotry and denial.

Here with the Catholics, conservative Anglicans can still enjoy priests whose sexuality, gay or straight, has been kept hidden until it turns into something sick and illegal. And women who want to participate in the church can do so through only the following roles:

-choir leader
-secret lover of priests who gets to raise their child in secret with tightfisted financial support.

We're waiting for you!

October 1, 2009

Coen Brothers make fun of their movies, their fans, Judaism...

A Serious Man

The funniest and most aggravating interview subjects working in movies today have got to be the Coen Brothers. Getting them to talk in a revealing, insightful way about their movies seems to be just about impossible. The experience of interviewing the Coens about what their movies mean is probably not far off from asking a marginally observant Jew to explain exactly what's so important about circumcision.

They're doing press for A Serious Man, which comes out tomorrow, but the interviews shed more light on how much fun it would be to hang out with these guys in regular life, and not so much on the writing/directing movies part.

In an interview in Time Out, they reveal that they wrote this screenplay at the same time they were doing Burn After Reading and No Country For Old Men, which is pretty funny if you think back to how many critics slammed Burn for being inconsequential and fluffy compared to the weighty metaphysics of No Country. Both were funny, dark movies about ordinary people trying to get something more than what life has offered them, and failing completely. The main characters either end up right back where they started, or burned from their failure, or dead. You could say that about most of their movies. Yeah, I liked No Country better, but both movies were perfect examples of what the Coens are good at.

But after that big reveal, and the statement that "There’s a big difference between 'prairie' Jews and coastal Jews," (a big difference they don't define), they go on to jab the Big Lebowski fans who participate in Lebowskifests in bowling alleys across the country:

"Maybe [A Serious Man] will become a cult film…" Ethan says, and Joel finishes the thought: "…and then they’ll start holding conventions."

"'Gopnikfest' has a nice ring to it, I think," his brother muses.

"They could have them in Vegas, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv…" Joel continues.

"…and you’d drink Manischewitz every time a character says 'Meshbesher,'" Ethan adds, referring to the film's oft-mentioned unseen lawyer.

Other useful information: Joel calls his wife Frances McDormand "Frannie" (??!!).

A reporter for the Canadian press asked them if they considered themselves serious men, and Ethan replied, "I don't think either of us would. I don't know. It's just, you know, the weakness for fart jokes and the like."

A Serious Man has zero big stars in it, which after the superstar megacast of Burn After Reading should make for a less distracting, undiluted Coen experience. Sort of like Blood Simple.

The Times has done two features about A Serious Man lately, neither of them reviews. One from a week or so ago is structured like an interview with the filmmakers, though since they offer so little in the way of insightful comments, ends up being a musing about the Jewishness of this movie and other Coen Brothers movies. The brothers do report that their professor father ate bacon in his Welsh rarebit at the campus restaurant, and that they used to sneak ham at their neighbor's house. They seem to acknowledge that this movie is in part about what it means to be Jewish (it includes a disclaimer: "No Jews were hurt in the making of this motion picture") but they brush off speculation that other movies like Miller's Crossing make any kind of Jewish statement, or as is sometimes speculated, anti-Jewish statement.

The Coens obviously aren't anti-Jewish, but they clearly take pleasure in the suffering and misery of their lead characters. "For us," Ethan said, "the fun was inventing new ways to torment Larry."

Then today A.O. Scott came out with a feature on Jewishness in recent movies, which is really great. He looks at Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen in Funny People and everybody in A Serious Man, and notices the two movies could have traded titles. And he has to bring up Inglourious Basterds: "now even the Holocaust has become a safe subject for pure entertainment."

Both Times features begin with Jewish jokes, but A.O. Scott's is better, and it sounds like it could be the opening quote of the movie: "'Why does a Jew answer a question with a question?' my grandfather — an atheist, a socialist and a righteous man in the best Biblical sense — used to ask. 'Why not?'"

UPDATE: A.O. Scott wrote one of the best reviews he's ever written for A Serious Man, and also has really smart things to say about the Coens' movies in general. Good stuff.

November 13, 2008

Gay big love rally

Rally outside Mormon church, NYC

Gay marriage supporters held a rally last night outside the Mormon temple in Midtown to protest the same-sex marriage ban in California. It might not totally be the Mormon church's fault that the proposition passed, but the church did rally its members to vote in support of the ban.

But there were some awesome signs! This photo captures two of the best ones, "I Heart My Gay Mormon Husband" (a retake of the memorable and endlessly useful line from Heathers, "I love my dead gay son!" [video]), and the one next to it, "Share The Big Love".

That second one is really clever for a few different reasons:

  • It frames marriage as an expression of love, not just a state-regulated contract
  • It promotes the 3rd season of HBO's Big Love, which will start in January
  • It points out the hypocrisy of Mormons making gay marriage illegal while those same people at one time engaged in polygamy, a form of marriage which is also illegal, and maybe stopped doing it largely due to legal pressure.

Maybe Mormons are jealous of the gains others have made in legalizing their non-traditional form of marriage?

June 6, 2008

God is my co-pilot

As if pro-life license plates (now on the road in ten states) weren't bad enough, South Carolina has approved these cross-bearing license plates. Apparently anyone opposed to them is closed-minded:
“I didn’t see a constitutional problem with it,” said Mr. Grooms, a Republican who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “We have other plates with religious symbols on them and phrases like ‘In God We Trust.’ Just because it’s a cross, some very closed-minded people don’t believe it should be on a plate.”

May 19, 2008

NY Times on purity balls

Today's Times features a piece on purity balls, evangelical father-daughter dances in Colorado Springs that encourage abstinence in girls and interest in their kids' lives in fathers.

Considering the hokey and overtly sexist subject matter, the article is impressively open-minded and even has some positive things to say about these events. But the accompanying slide show of freaky ceremonial hooey suggests a different attitude, more like "Hey, check out these creepy lunatics!"

Case in point:

purity ball


purity ball with swords

Nice sword, dad.

The part of these events that focuses on fathers having good relationships with their daughters sounds great. But there's also the part illustrated above with the sword-arch stuff and the white roses at the foot of the cross. The fathers make the following pledge: "to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity," like their main function as a parent is to act as a spiritual pair of granny panties.

One of the girls at the dance creepily confirms that slutty girls are just working out their daddy issues. She says, "Something I need from dad is affirmation, being told I’m beautiful. If we don’t get it from home, we will go out to the culture and get it from them."

I can just see "the culture" waiting right outside the event hall in the form of horny pantless 17 year-old boys who don't get to attend a ball, make any pledges, or have their pure genitals covered by their authoritarian moms.

April 16, 2008

Pope paraphernalia

The news media is up to its chasubles in photos of Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Washington, DC and New York. So here are a few non-Ratzingerian shots of America's response:

Papal merchandising: bumper sticker and "Papa Ben" mug, which bestows upon Benedict a far catchier nickname than anything he probably had earlier in life (Joey Ratz is the best he could have hoped for):

Pope Benedict merchandise

Conceptual Pope/Mary/Jesus/hearts/flowers collage by a little girl in DC:

Pope collage

Meta-Pope: picture of a guy taking a picture of a cardboard Pope cutout in the Bronx:

Meta Pope photo

November 12, 2007

Georgia prays for rain

Dog River Reservoir runs dry

Georgia and much of the southeast have been in a serious drought for months now. One town in Tennessee ran out of water a couple of weeks ago, and the Dog River Reservoir in sububuran Atlanta (pictured above) is nearly dry. Bans have been instituted on "secretive late-night lawn watering" with violators getting their water supply shut off.

So tomorrow, Georgia governor Sonny Perdue is going to pray for rain, along with state legislators and religious leaders. Some residents think this makes total sense. As Rocky Twyman, the organizer of a recent rain-dedicated gospel concert, said:

We need to call on God, because what we're doing isn't working. We think that instead of all this fussing and fighting, Gov. Perdue and all these others would come together and pray.

Uh huh. I guess by "fussing and fighting" he means "conserving water". Given that greater Atlanta has become synonymous with "urban sprawl hell", and the fact that there are no lakes that aren't man-made in the entire state of Georgia, then yes, it's true: what they're doing isn't working.

Not everyone likes that the state government is turning to prayer to address the problem. The Atlanta Freethought Society is staging a protest. "The governor can pray when he wants to," said Ed Buckner, who is organizing the protest. "What he can't do is lead prayers in the name of the people of Georgia."

But the last time the governor prayed for rain, it worked! Kind of. In 1986, then-governor Joe Frank Harris sent out a proclamation asking Georgians to pray for rain. A few days later began "several weeks of almost daily rains," he claims, though the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that they actually started getting some rain a few days before the magical state-wide prayer intervention.

October 30, 2007

Maybe crime would pay if criminals weren't such morons

Firefighters arrested for firehouse arson

Lots of funny, sort of pathetic stories in the papers today about crimes gone wrong:

  • More details have surfaced about the two firefighters who apparently torched a firehouse over the weekend, whose movements were all captured on surveillance video in what the Times calls "hardly a well-planned caper." Richard Capece and Michael Izzo bought a gallon of gas at the BP gas station on 38th St and 10th Ave, using Capece's debit card, and carried it in their own gas can. The NY Times story notes, "they also took a blue cigarette lighter from the station without paying for it, but no theft charges have been filed."

    The Daily News reports that Capece "was all smiles" on the W. 38th St firehouse's surveillance video, which caught Izzo "holding a lighter against the gasoline-soaked door" 15 minutes after their gas purchase, then a minute later, running back to their car and driving away. Neither firefighter worked at the station they burned, and a FDNY source says they didn't appear drunk in the videos, so everyone is pretty much assuming they're just a couple of pranking idiots. Izzo "was not well-liked by [his first] firehouse, or by his current one for that matter," as the FDNY source told the Daily News. He was also recently charged with assault in NJ. No one was injured in the fire, which was quickly put out.

  • Alleged crime boss Michael Uvino got busted on tape for pistol-whipping and threatening two enemies who robbed his card game in Long Island. In his bail hearing yesterday, Uvino's lawyer claimed that all he was packing during the taped threat was a BB gun. Judge Jack Weinstein didn't buy it: "I've never heard of Mafia members carrying BB guns... Most people in New York, if they are going to brandish a gun, will brandish a real gun. Unless they're suicidal." On the tape, you can also hear a handgun being cocked, and Uvino complaining to his informant associate, "I was trying to hit him with that fucking chair... Catch him with the metal part across his neck. All I did was fucking hurt my wrists."
  • Two men charged with calling people while posing as Equifax employees and scamming them for their credit card numbers now claim that they were targeting Bangladeshi people. Because, they say, Bangladeshis are "the ones who brought down the towers." So now they'll likely be charged with grand larceny plus a hate crime, because "targeting any ethnic group - even mistakenly - exposes them to additional penalties," according to prosecutors.
  • And in another story of confusion over terrorism and ethnicity, Brooklyn jeweler Rimon Alkatri is on trial for framing five other jewelers for plotting a suicide bombing. He apparently called the police, mobilizing a $100,000 operation, when he heard one of them saying "Allah akbar" on the phone. The defense lawyer points out that this is a common expression among Arabic speakers (known as the takbir), not a call to arms, and also that all five of the supposed conspirators are either Christian or Jewish.

September 17, 2007

Esther and Shimon, BFF

L'shanah Tovah, Madge

In celebration of the Jewish New Year, Madonna has been "talking peace" with Shimon Peres. Madonna, Guy, and Shimon reportedly met for two hours , surely enough time to hash out a peace plan.
Apparently, Orthodox Rabbis are disgusted by her whole visit to Israel:

""It is a known fact in Kabbala that impurity and evil are inherently attracted to sanctity," said a director of one of the most respected Kabbala yeshivot in Jerusalem who preferred that he and his institution remain anonymous.

"That's why people of Hollywood, a place of iniquity and lasciviousness, are naturally attracted to the holiness of Kabbala."

August 31, 2007

Niche dating

Yesterday we noticed that the usual JDate billboard on the corner of Broadway and 47th had been replaced by a new ad for


JDate billboard


Black Singles billboard

Hm! Did JDate's lease on the space run out, and another dating service, eager to attract the attention of single tourists waiting in line at the Olive Garden who have some very culturally-specific dating preferences, snapped it up?

Or could the same company operate both services?

Yep, it's Spark Networks, a provider of online personals for, as they put it, "likeminded" singles to connect. Now that and Craig's List have been totally overrun by hookers and phone sex lines, this company covers the spectrum of identity politics in dating.

They've got religiously oriented sites, like JDate, Catholic Mingle, Christian Mingle, Baptist Singles Connection, Adventist Singles Connection and both the Mormon MySpace-y LDS Mingle and the somewhat more cut-to-the-chase LDS Singles.

You can screen your future sexual partners by race and ethnicity with sites for people of Asian, Greek, Italian, and Latino descent, and the all-American Interracial Singles. Some sites make some culture assumptions about the purpose of dating, like the Indian site called Indian Matrimonial Network which "facilitates Indian dating and marriage". There are sites for deaf people, college students, military personnel, old people, single parents, and people who want to get busy within the next 15 minutes. And of course, a site for people who admire big beautiful women (BBW Personals Plus).

With one company representing all these different kinds of people, how culturally sensitive can each site really be? It seems like they've tried in most cases to use language on each site that will appeal to each niche, with the Catholic dating service sort of confusingly described as "clean, safe, and fun" but not surprisingly with nothing in there about God, while Christian Mingle offers the chance to meet "singles that share your values and love for God in Christ." And the College Luv site's tagline-- "Sign up, Look up, Hook up!"-- shows an intimate understanding of its target demographic.

What about sites for gay people? This is interesting. There is no gay dating site on Spark Networks, and almost all the sites only include searches for heterosexual dating. The exceptions are College Luv (young people aren't as uptight maybe?), Hurry Date (because people who want to get laid ASAP are of all persuasions), American Singles (for people who are so bland they don't have any niche identity), and JDate! Good old non-homophobic JDate. The gay Christians out there can stick to the Minneapolis airport men's room, I guess.

November 21, 2006

Free-for-all on science and religion

A recent conference at the Salk Institute in La Jolla brought together internationally famous scientists to talk about how to advance scientific thought in a world increasingly full of religious nutcases. But proving that Nobel Prize winners might not have the greatest social skills, it descended, after a day or two, into what one scientist called a "den of vipers"--looks like even the science side of this increasingly messy and circular debate can't agree on what to do.

The Times covered the conference, and included tons of snippy little comments and smackdowns. Here are a few of the better ones:

Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics: “Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.” Whew.

Francisco J. Ayala, evolutionary biologist at UC Irvine: “There are six billion people in the world. If we think that we are going to persuade them to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming — it is like believing in the fairy godmother.” Snap!

Champion blood-vessel burster Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion: “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we — all of us, including the secular among us — are brainwashed into bestowing on religion. Children are systematically taught that there is a higher kind of knowledge which comes from faith, which comes from revelation, which comes from scripture, which comes from tradition, and that it is the equal if not the superior of knowledge that comes from real evidence.” Stamp those little feet, Dawkins!

Then Melvin Konner, an anthropologist at Emory, called Richard Dawkins “a remarkably apt mirror image of the extremists on the other side,” and said views like his “generate more fear and hatred of science.” Is he calling Dawkins a snake-handler?

Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University: “I think we need to respect people’s philosophical notions unless those notions are wrong. Science does not make it impossible to believe in God. We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.” Meow!

But Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of NYC's own Hayden Planetarium, may have been the only one there to take a communications class as an undergrad. He advised, "Persuasion isn’t always 'Here are the facts — you’re an idiot or you're not.'"

Sounds like they have their marketing jingle.

October 16, 2006

Deliver Us From Evil

Deliver Us From Evil priests

A new documentary called Deliver Us From Evil about the Catholic priest sexual abuse cases just came out, and after watching it I was up all night thinking about this situation and what a horrifying mess it is. The movie focuses on one of the worst cases of institutional corruption to come out when these stories broke four years ago--Father Oliver O'Grady, who was moved from parish to parish around northern California, molesting dozens of children over two decades.

Three of O'Grady's victims, now adults, participated in the movie and talked about how their abuse has impacted their lives. But the most devastating segments of the movie are probably the interviews with parents, who were very close to O'Grady for years, invited him to their home many times for dinner and overnight stays, and let their sons and daughters go on trips alone with him. They trusted their parish priest implicitly, and even supported him when allegations started coming out, so their feelings of betrayal and rage are massive.

There's not much in the way of new information in the movie, but the personal stories are compelling, as are the interviews with the local bishop (now cardinal) who clearly knew what was going on with O'Grady, and continued to move him to new parishes when reports of abuse started up. The most illuminating interviews are those with theologians and canon lawyers, who describe the Catholic church and its role as intermediary between parishioners and God himself, the concept of grace that is accessible only via going to Mass and receiving communion, and the power that this bestows on priests and the entire hierarchy of the church. If you're a good Catholic, you need your parish priest in order to follow all the rituals of religious practice. And if that priest is raping your kids, well, you can imagine what this does to people's faith in the church.

All human institutions can be corrupted by power-hungry people who care more about their own success than the people they're meant to be responsible to, but when you're talking about kids getting raped and people's core spiritual beliefs getting shredded, it's a lot more gut-wrenching than Enron.

Another interesting thing about these stories is that the priest in question, who went to prison for 7 years, now lives a free and unrestricted life in his native Ireland. He participated extensively in the movie, and discusses what he did and how he felt about it in a seemingly open and reflective way. But he also downplays his own responsibility for his crimes, and he has clearly thought a lot more about his own struggles and mistakes than how his actions have ruined dozens of other people's lives. He seems to have agreed to do the movie mostly out of a desire to keep control over his own story and image. In one particularly sick, manipulative gesture, he even sends letters to some of his victims, inviting them to come and talk with him about everything that happened, as though venting their feelings to the sadistic psycho who raped them as children is going to help. They read the letters together and are like, "are you kidding me?"

Of course, an interviewer asks O'Grady the inevitable question towards the end of the movie: "Did a priest ever touch you inappropriately when you were a boy?" Yep, a priest sure did, and so did O'Grady's older brother. O'Grady went to prison and was defrocked; his victims are still all messed up and will be dealing with this for the rest of their lives; but O'Grady was a victim, too, even if he can't articulate how his own abuse made him into the compulsive rapist he is. In this way, the movie reminded me of another great documentary Capturing the Friedmans (which ADM wrote about in 2003.) There's no doubt in Deliver Us From Evil that the abuse really did happen, but both movies are about the confusion about how and to whom justice is served, and how there can be an unclear distinction between criminal and victim. Nothing happened to the cardinals and monsignors who knew what was going on, protected the abusers, and let them continue attacking kids.

The offical site has a map of clergy abuse, with the number of accused priests detailed for each diocese all over the country. LA still takes first place at 247; Boston has 208. The movie is playing only in NY, Boston, and LA, but opens in more cities over the next few weeks.

August 24, 2006

Christian Coalition's state affiliates split off, enraged at new liberal agenda

The Christian Coalition, which at its height had an active presence in every state of the nation, has lost three state affiliates so far this year--Iowa, Ohio, and most recently Alabama. These departures were precipitated by some focus issues the Coalition has adopted in recent years, which the states perceive as a drift from their core values.

The traditional, "good" Christian Coalition issues: keeping gay marriage illegal, making abortion illegal, keeping stem cell research from developing.

The new, "bad" Christian Coalition issues: net neutrality, protecting the environment.

Well! How dare they work on issues that might actually help people instead of just restricting rights and preventing innovation! Check out this great quote from Chris Long, the leader of the defected Ohio chapter, about the Coalition's recent lobbying for net neutrality: "We were surprised that the national office took such a lead role on such an obscure issue, at a time when marriage protection and stem cell research were being debated."

Of course, the recent demise of Coalition founder and former leader Ralph Reed's political career might have something to do with their sliding popularity too.

August 21, 2006

OBL: saving all his love for Whitney

To demonstrate just how pervasive celebrity worship has become in our world, Page Six today has quotes from a new book by Kola Boof, Osama bin Laden's alleged mistress/slave, in which she describes Osama's obsession with Whitney Houston.

Boof writes in Diary of a Lost Girl, "[He would say] how beautiful she is, what a nice smile she has, how truly Islamic she is but is just brainwashed by American culture and by her husband - Bobby Brown, whom Osama talked about having killed, as if it were normal to have womens' husbands killed." Sounds like love!

Perhaps his devotion to Whtney is tied to her (ongoing?) affiliation with the Black Hebrews and her visit to Israel in 2003 during which she repeatedly stated, "This is MY land!"

It seems that Whitney's coquettish looks and unconventionally Zionist tendencies may have been enough to make Osama want to overcome his racism and become a giving, generous lover: "He said he wanted to give [her] a mansion that he owned in a suburb of Khartoum." Though he told Boof that "African women are only good for a man's lower pleasures," he said "he would be willing to break his color rule and make [Whitney] one of his wives."

Hey, CIA: now is the time to secretly reopen Alec Station and get over to Pakistan with some copies of the unrated version of The Bodyguard!

May 16, 2006

Readers: dumber than you think they are

Da Vinci Code maybe taken a little too seriously

If you're like me, you probably think the Catholic church and Catholic-affiliated organizations are making way too big a deal out of The Da Vinci Code and the ways its story deviates from Biblical assumptions about Jesus. I mean, come on. Nobody really thinks that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children together, or that Opus Dei are a bunch of power-hungry murderers, just because that stuff is part of the plot of some popular airport novel.

But the chuch has gone so far as to appoint an archbishop to counter all the non-factual elements of the book, produce a documentary called The Da Vinci Code: A Masterful Deception, and Opus Dei wants a disclaimer about the fictional nature of the story to be shown at screenings everywhere. Which is ridiculous--doesn't the Vatican have bigger issues to worry about than a movie? Don't they know that people can tell the difference between a novel and a history book? How stupid do they think the general public is?

Well, pretty stupid, as it turns out. A group of Catholic leaders in the UK recently sponsored a survey to compare the beliefs of people who have read The Da Vinci Code and those who haven't. It turns out that the book does appear to influence what people believe about Jesus and Catholic institutions.

A Reuters piece on the survey says, "They interviewed more than 1,000 adults last weekend, finding that 60 percent believed Jesus had children by Mary Magdalene -- a possibility raised by the book -- compared with just 30 percent of those who had not read the book.

"The novel, which has sold over 40 million copies, also depicts Opus Dei as a ruthless Machiavellian organization whose members resort to murder to keep the Church's secrets. In the survey, readers were asked if Opus Dei had ever carried out a murder. Seventeen percent of readers believe it had, compared with just four percent of non-readers."

Considering that over 20% of the adult UK population has read The Da Vinci Code, maybe the Catholic church has some basis for concern. We all know that surveys can be biased and skew results in favor of a particular position. And I don't believe that writers and movie producers should be held responsible for some viewers' beliefs being overly influenced by their work. But if that many people out there don't understand that movies and novels aren't real, maybe Dan Brown is actually a frighteningly powerful figure in modern theology.

April 17, 2006

Why God hates America

Easter Egg Roll

Westboro Baptist Church protest

Here's some photographic evidence of exactly what has prompted the legendary and energetic Westboro Baptist Church, of the famed / scuffle, to start picketing funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq with placards saying "Thank God for Dead Soldiers".

From the NY Times article about state legislation banning them from funerals: "Embracing a literal translation of the Bible, the church members believe that God strikes down the wicked, chief among them gay men and lesbians and people who fail to strongly condemn homosexuality. God is killing soldiers, they say, because of America's unwillingness to condemn gay people and their lifestyles."

Gee, and all this time I thought soldiers were being killed because our government deployed the military to fight a war in Iraq.

Above, top: Same-sex couple Christina Burke and Victoria Burke, both from Salisbury, Maryland, pose with Mrs. Bunny and their daughter, Phobe (6 months old), on the South Lawn of the White House during the annual 2006 White House Easter Egg Roll in Washington, April 17, 2006.

Above, bottom: Members of Westboro Baptist Church demonstrating in February in Anoka, Minn., near the funeral for Cpl. Andrew Kemple, who was killed in Iraq. People opposed to the church's views carried flags nearby.

See also: God Hates Shrimp

April 7, 2006

PR Rule Number 1

When promoting your new show, make sure you send releases to ALL of the Post's gossip columnists.

Cindy Adams, 04/06/06:

"For two years, National Geographic has secretly worked on a project dealing with religious history. Their deep pockets financed an architectural dig in biblical desert land. Its ultimate was to yield a scriptural trove and, in fact, has unearthed what they will soon proclaim are ancient scrolls.....These scrolls have painstakingly been translated by a group of scholars, and the revelation is that they deal exclusively with Judas...For more, for answers, questions, facts, widening of this information, you are directed to spokespersons at National Geographic."

Liz Smith, 04/06/06:

"On Sunday, the National Geographic Channel airs "The Gospel of Judas," which purports to show us the authentic carbon-dated manuscript of a book definitely left out of the New Testament. This gives a new view of the villain who betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Judas Iscariot is given a makeover as the deus ex machina behind the Crucifixion, necessary for the Resurrection and the beginning of Chistianity. I've seen these documentaries, and they are absolutely marvelous!"

February 6, 2006

Fake news, real news

Michael Jackson, the Pope's composer

Remember in 2004 when Maureen Dowd referenced a joke in an Ali G interview with James Baker about the similarity of the words "Iraq" and "Iran" and the potential danger of attacking the wrong country ("Bomb Ira-")? She pointed out that this joke had sort of come true: "Well, as it turns out, we did bomb the wrong Ira-."

In recent years there have also been some easy jokes made about the Catholic church and its child abuse scandals that went like this:

You know who the Catholics could bring in to see them through these scandals and restore their public image? MICHAEL JACKSON! Or:

You know who would be a good new Pope who could show the world that the church is in touch with recent events? MICHAEL JACKSON!

So today there's another joke:

You know who the Catholics should hire to set John Paul II's prayers and chants to music? MICHAEL JACKSON!

And like "bomb Ira-", it's come true.

December 7, 2005

Why religion in America makes no sense +

You may have noticed when looking at your employer's holiday schedule and trying to figure out how many consecutive days you can go without showering that Christmas falls on a Sunday this year. For many of us, this happily means additional days off. And for those people who are more traditional and Christian and think of Christmas as a religious holiday, it means that they can go to church once and take care of Sunday church and Christmas church all in one go.

Unless you are an evangelical Christian. How many times does an evangelical Christian go to church for the combined super-holy Christmas/Sunday double shot? Twice? Once? Once for twice as long?

Nope: they go zero times.

Many evangelical churches in places like Grapevine, TX and Nicholasville, KY and Alpharetta, GA are actually going to be closed this Christmas. Some megachurches that regularly bring in many thousands to their Sunday services say that having services on Christmas would be a bad use of staff time, and their congregations see Christmas as a "family day".

Aren't these the same people who accuse secular forces of trying to destroy Christmas and take away its religious significance? The "America is a Christian nation" people? Aren't there a whole lot of lapsed Christians out there who probably only go to church on Christmas and Easter?

These no-church-on-Sunday-or-Christmas churches say they're just trying to accommodate their members' busy holiday schedules. A spokesman for Fellowship Church in Grapevine, which is apparently large enough to have a spokesman and has a purpose statement page that reads like a marketing theory textbook, says his church decided to offer services in the days leading up to Christmas instead. "Doing them early allows you to reach people who may be leaving town Friday."

Great! Maybe next these churches can mobilize to get Thanksgiving moved a day earlier so that everybody can be better rested when they have to get up at 3:00 am on Black Friday to go shopping.

UPDATE: ADM alerted me to a story about some violent Jesus-loving creationists who recently hospitalized a University of Kansas religious studies professor. The professor had been planning to teach a course called "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies."

Christian love.

November 1, 2005

Update on Fundamentalist Desert Sex Cult Fugitives

There have been some developments in the case of Warren Jeffs, the charismatic and psychopathic leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who runs a polygamist community in Arizona. Jeffs has been on the run from the law for having sex with underage girls and for arranging illegal marriages between underage girls and married men. All in the name of the Lord. Yeesh.

Anyway, Warren's brother Seth was caught by the police on Friday while driving in southern Colorado. He was taken in and charged with harboring a fugitive--presumably he knows where Warren is hiding.

But wait, just wait. When the cops caught him, Seth Jeffs had $142,000 in cash on him, and the driver of the car was a MALE PROSTITUTE that Jeffs had solicited for $5,000!

This is in contention for best story of the year.

Those LIFE demonstrators are back, as nonsensical as ever

We got more than our fill of those weirdos with pieces of duct tape with LIFE written on it over their mouths during the Terri Schiavo mess. And prompted, I guess, by Bush's nomination of Alito to be the next Supreme Court Justice, they've returned to the steps of the Supreme Court to stand around, looking like idiots, and are making some vague political point that is too nuanced and metaphorical for me to understand.

LIFE demonstrator

So what does this guy mean to say, exactly? His eyes are shut, his mouth is taped closed, he's listening to Hoobastank or some shit on his headphones, and this all means... OK. I admit it. I have no idea what this is meant to signify. Supporting a political platform that defends that lives of fetuses is akin to sensory deprivation? Our secular government or culture or media or whatever silences religious extremists?

And look at this freak.

Woman worshipping the Supreme Court building

Is this woman worshipping a building? A building of the U.S. Government, that secular den of corruption? Is she asking God to come to America in the form of a judge from New Jersey?

OK look, demonstrators. I hate to tell you this, but the right wing of our government is never going to make abortion illegal. Why not? Because then there would be no issue left that can get all of you so worked up. They want to keep using you. They've got to keep the political contributions coming and the voting booths filled, and no other issue can do that like abortion. Making it illegal would be the death of the conservative movement as we know it.

So go ahead and ride the bus to D.C. and afix tape to different parts of your bodies. I don't think it's going to get you anywhere, but it will encourage the political right to keep manipulating you.

October 25, 2005

Fundamentalist Desert Sex Cult!

A community of 8,000 people who live in the desert area on the Utah-Arizona border and call themselves members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has inspired a sensational and implausible-sounding NY Times article. Religious frontier outlaws who rape children and force women to leave their husbands and take up with old men! Renegade zealots who run the Mayor's office, the school board, and the police department, despite the presence of outside law enforcement! A charismatic leader who is on the run from the law, but still controls everyone who lives in the township, has as many as 70 wives, and urges his followers to go on welfare to "bleed the beast"! Except of course it's all true.

Full-time law enforcement was brought in from outside to try to bring some order to this community, but to no avail. The charismatic outlaw leader, Warren Jeffs, teaches that men cannot get to heaven unless they have at least three wives, so the town's women are constantly being reassigned. A resident who left the church when it made his daughter leave her husband to marry her husband's father says, "This just makes me want to cry. I've lost my daughter and her children to this church. I have to stand outside on the sidewalk and beg if I want to see my grandchildren."

But the leaders of this church aren't just into forcing 16 year-olds into marriages with bigamists and controlling the lives of the its members, it's corrupt too. The church owns all the town's land, and recently used public education funds to buy a $200,000 plane, while teachers hadn't been paid in weeks.

Any other reporters who venture into this town had better watch out to make sure they don't get kidnapped, tied to a bed, and forcibly infected with a really big parasitic slug that crawls up your spine and into your brain, like what happened to Scully in "Roadrunners" from season 8 of The X-Files. Residents of that town (north of Sugarville) said they were "just a few like-minded people trying to keep the modern world at bay." Then in one of the creepiest scenes in the history of the show, the big mob of cult-members approach Scully with the God-slug and tell her, "Your life is about to take a wonderful turn. You're going to become a part of something much, much greater than you are. You're going to be... so loved."

Amen. Shudder.

July 20, 2005

David Lynch hearts Sexy Sadie

David Lynch and the Maharishi

Since the day I found out that Giovanni Ribisi was a Scientologist, I should have known it was only a matter of time before more of my favorite famous people started publicly embracing embarrassing cultish celebrity religions. Today in Page Six, David Lynch discusses his love of transcendental meditation and his devotion to John Lennon's old friend the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

And much like Doug Henning before him (whose plans for a TM theme park called Veda Land would have cost $1.5 billion,) Lynch says he hopes to open a number of TM schools, and will raise $7 billion to run them through the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace.

I've loved David Lynch for a long time, particularly his reported frequent use of phrases like "okey dokey" and "I'll be ding-danged" while making great and unsettling movies about all the dark sick stuff of life. So reading a passage like this in the New York Post... well, I hardly know what to think: "Despite 'hating speaking in public,' Lynch, 59, says he decided 'to stop being quiet' about his passion for the 47-year-old Hindu chanting technique after observing the sad state of education in U.S. schools. Today's students 'are even more stressed out. Their schools are hellholes. They're getting pathetic educations. They're not going forward with full decks of cards.' [OK, true enough, but just wait. -Amy]

"Students who meditate will start shining like a bright, shiny penny, and their anxieties will go away. By diving within, they will attain a field of pure consciousness, pure bliss, creativity, intelligence, dynamic peace. You enliven the field, and every day it gets better. Negativity recedes.'"

OK, I like doing some yoga on a Sunday afternoon after a particularly toxic Saturday night, but DAVID LYNCH? The man who put white makeup on a weirdly beautiful Dean Stockwell's face and guided him in mincing around with a lamp lip-synching "In Dreams", a perverse image that will haunt me forever?

Pure consciousness and DYNAMIC PEACE?! For crying out loud.

As a side note, the unifying element of celebrity religious/mystical institutions such as TM, Scientology, and Kabbalah seems to be that they are all unbelievably expensive.

May 10, 2005

Sure, Renee Zellweger Might be Married....

But did anyone else realize that "Britney Spears" is an anagram of "Presbyterians"? I was just wondering.

April 20, 2005

Rejoice, Opus Dei!

New Pope in Times Square

Our friend Norman K. pointed out a quote in one of the NY Times analysis pieces on the selection of Ratzinger as the new Pope, in which a priest from Oklahoma City who was watching the events yesterday in St. Peter's Square said of him, "He'll correct the lackadaisical attitudes that have been able to creep into the lives of Catholics. He's going to have a German mentality of leadership: either get on the train or get off the track. He will not put up with rebellious children."

Perhaps not the best choice of metaphors. Norman K. says, "Yes. The Germans have always been quite good at putting people on trains. And the last time it happened, I believe the Catholic church signed off on it. Not an auspicious metaphor for a Pope who was a member of Hitler youth. As a coworker of mine said yesterday, this Pope is a great choice for atheists, since he'll kill the church in Europe and North America."

It is a telling move when the church selects as its new leader someone who will appeal to the growing body of politically and socially conservative people in wealthy countries. I can only assume that the church has written off young or progressive Catholics who had already become disillusioned with the church, but this move will certainly push even more people away. It might be a good strategy for the next few years, as the world moves toward conservatism, but the next generation of Catholics will just keep getting smaller.

Another Times article takes a biographical view of Ratzinger, and refers to a biography by John L. Allen, Jr., who wrote about how Ratzinger's early experience with the Nazis helped form his (totally creepy) ideas about the role of the church. The biography says, "Having seen fascism in action, Ratzinger today believes that the best antidote to political totalitarianism is ecclesiastical totalitarianism. In other words, he believes the Catholic Church serves the cause of human freedom by restricting freedom in its internal life, thereby remaining clear about what it teaches and believes."

It's basically the opposite of liberation theology, which was central to Latin America's revolutions.

Meanwhile, German New Yorkers were celebrating yesterday, but many admitted it was largely for reasons of national pride, rather than admiration of Ratzinger. Peter Bleeser, a German priest at a parish in Westchester who knew Ratzinger in Munich says, "I'm happy it's a German, but I'm not very conservative and he is. He's an excellent theologian, very intelligent, but he's a strong conservative. Not much is going to change under him."

April 13, 2005

Revelations: pseudo-spiritual schlock


Tonight on NBC is the premiere installment of "Revelations", a new mini-series, excuse me, "six-hour event series," about the end of the world. Given the subject matter, this could be some outrageous and fun television, or it could a lot of talky pretend-spiritual bilge. Inspired by the loopiest and also the most televisually adaptable book of the Bible, the series will show what happens at the end of days: a little girl gets struck by lightning, a little girl is magically revived from a coma, and a little girl is spawned by Satan in a roiling ocean. I guess whatever happens at the end of the world primarily happens to little girls; the rest of us just wait to get raptured or vaporized.

The series was written by David Seltzer, who also wrote the 1970's schlocky yet deeply satisfying The Omen. Hopefully his knack for methodically setting up inventive and gruesome deaths (like the guy with the line through his neck in a photograph getting decapitated by the flying windowpane) will be in effect here. The show also features the guy who played Ira Gaines in season 1 of 24 as a satanic murderer, and Fred Durst as a satanic kidnapper.

Tom Shales' review of the series is typically dismissive and very funny: "Although it's true that "Revelations" hippity-hops like mad around the globe -- from Mexico to Boston to the Adriatic Sea to Miami to dear old Harvard in 15 minutes or less -- you still may get the feeling that most of it was shot in Toronto, the way most of everything still tends to be." He assumes that the series is headed for some kind of climactic end of the world event, "that showdown of showdowns, a High Noon between Christ and Satan -- the ultimate Wrestlemania." But are we actually going to get to see the end of the world happen as a televised event? Shales writes, "Budget constraints being what they are, the parameters of battle are likely to be limited, however, and really now, how can a movie end with the world ending too? Like, if the world ended, then how could we be sitting there watching TV? The conclusion, in other words, seems a trifle foregone."

Alessandra Stanley over the the NY Times is surprisingly positive about the series, which she calls "spooky and suspenseful." She takes the meta-view that serious issues of life, death, morality, and political issues are more likely to be addressed on fictional TV shows like "Law and Order", "The West Wing", and series like "Revelations" than on actual news programs, which are busy covering celebrity gossip and human interest stories. She writes, "There is nothing soft about "Revelations," which opens with a montage of violent images from civil wars in Africa to a person jumping 40 stories off the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001."

However good or bad this show may be, it's sure gotten groups of activist communists riled up. One NYC-based group is staging a protest of sorts outside the NBC studio building in Rockefeller Center this afternoon. From an email promoting the event: "Protest NBC's "Revelations": Propaganda for the Christian American Taliban- Wed. April 13th (and continuing) 4:45 pm at NBC, 1250 6th Avenue (near 48th Street, Rockerfeller (sic) Center)."

At the event, the communists "intend to intervene and change the national discourse on morality, biblical literalism, science, and what kind of world we want to live in." They will also hand out a satirical pledge form in which "Christian Warriors" can pledge that they believe our leaders understand God's plan, accept that they are called upon to overthrow countries ruled by the Anti-Christ, and invade health clinics and kill abortionists, etc. etc. It sounds like this event won't really be a funny piece of satirical street theater, so much as a sarcastic exercise in ridiculing religious people.

The email ends by encouraging all like-minded communists to please watch the "Revelations" series.

April 8, 2005

Bush loves the Pope, now that he's dead

Bush loves the Pope

Looks like Bush went a little overboard in his praise of John Paul II at the funeral today. He pretty much tripped all over himself to say what an amazing and holy leader he was:

"I think John Paul II will have a clear legacy of peace, compassion and a strong legacy of setting a clear moral tone," Bush told reporters on Air Force One as he flew from Rome to the United States just hours after the funeral. He said he wanted to amend his remarks to add the word "excellent."

"It was a strong legacy," the president said. "I wanted to make sure there was a proper adjective to the legacy he left behind, not just the word 'clear.'"

Then he goes off on some totally American-Protestant stuff about the living God that shows exactly how hokey evangelical types can be. As quoted in an AP article:

"Bush talked about his time in Rome in extraordinarily personal terms, saying it strengthened his own belief in a 'living God.'

He remarked on how affected he was by the services, particularly the music and the sight of the plain casket being carried out with the sun pouring down on it. As he viewed the pope's body, Bush said, he felt 'very much at peace' and 'much more in touch with his spirit.'

'I knew the ceremony today would be majestic but I didn't realize how moved I would be by the service itself,' the president said. 'Today's ceremony, I bet you, was a reaffirmation for millions. No doubt in my mind the Lord Christ was sent by the Almighty,' Bush said. 'No doubt.'

Bush said attending the funeral mass reminded him that faith is a long-term process, using a description of religious life common to evangelicals. 'Faith — it's a walk, not a moment, not a respite,' he said."

It's too little too late, Bush. And even the Pope himself would probably not be able to make any sense of your "no doubt" brand of religious faith. But I guess it's easy to praise the Pope after he's dead, and just ignore everything he said while he was alive. Like about what a bad idea it was to go into Iraq, and how the best way to change the world is through social and economic justice. Definitely easier to use his funeral as an excuse to talk more about your own creepy "faith."

March 30, 2005

Worker Protections+

I'm just saying, if I had Parkinson's, pneumonia, a breathing tube, and a feeding tube stuck up my nose, my employer would at least let me go out on disability.

Update: The Amy's Robot Specialist for Employment Rights notes: "In a similar case in the UK, a union was organizing Church of England vicars. However, they were deemed to be office-holders employed by God, and therefore not covered by employment law. Perhaps God does not offer disability?"

Other things God does not cover: contraceptives
Things God presumably does cover: Durable Medical Equipment (wheelchairs, canes, Popemobile); feeding/breathing tubes.

March 28, 2005

I'll decide what drugs you can take, missy +

The latest group of control-freaks advocating for legislature that would allow them to tell lots of other people what to do appears to be pharmacists. The Washington Post today has a terrifying article on a topic I have been trying to avoid in the hope that it would all get sorted out before articles like this started getting written.

The topic is this: some pharmacists decide that the drugs doctors prescribe for their patients are unethical, and therefore refuse to dispense them. So which drugs are these pharmacists so morally opposed to? Viagra? Xanax? OxyContin, or other addictive drugs that are often abused? Nope! The drugs they most commonly refuse to dispense are birth control pills and morning-after emergency contraception pills. Women's rights and reproductive rights organizations are freaking out, anti-birth-control Christian fundamentalist groups are desperate to protect pro-life pharmacists, many of whom get reprimanded or fired from their jobs, and the American Pharmacists Association and lawmakers aren't sure what to do.

And women are terrified.

Kathleen Pulz and her husband got a prescription for the morning-after pill when the condom they were using broke. Their local Walgreens pharmacy in Milwaukee refused to fill it. "I couldn't believe it," said Pulz, 44, who with her husband had long ago decided they could not afford a fifth child. "How can they make that decision for us? I was outraged. At the same time, I was sad that we had to do this. But I was scared. I didn't know what we were going to do."

Suzanne Richards, 21, had a prescription for the morning-after pill that was rejected by a drive-through Brooks Pharmacy in Laconia, N.H., and by the time she found another pharmacy that would fill it, the 72 hours in which the pill had to be used had long passed. "When he told me he wouldn't fill it, I just pulled over in the parking lot and started crying," said Richards, a single mother of a 3-year-old who runs her own cleaning service. "I just couldn't believe it. I was just trying to be responsible."

Responsibility is certainly not something these renegade pharmacists are thinking about, especially those that not only refuse to fill a perfectly legal prescription, but also refuse to pass it along to another pharmacy. The American Pharmacists Association's policy for their members is that pharmacists can conscientiously refuse to fill prescriptions as long as they support their customers' legal right to get their medications some other way.

But that's not how pro-life advocates see it. The seriously misguided and delusional Karen L. Brauer, president of Pharmacists for Life, thinks it's fine for pharmacists to hold legal prescriptions hostage, refusing to transfer them to another pharmacy. She says, "That's like saying, 'I don't kill people myself but let me tell you about the guy down the street who does.' What's that saying? 'I will not off your husband, but I know a buddy who will?' It's the same thing." Yes, she is equating using birth control with assassination. Brauer was fired from a Kmart pharmacy in Delhi, Ohio, for refusing to fill birth control prescriptions.

Now this one will really drive you crazy. Brauer goes on to say, "Our group was founded with the idea of returning pharmacy to a healing-only profession. What's been going on is the use of medication to stop human life. That violates the ideal of the Hippocratic oath that medical practitioners should do no harm." Who is she suggesting is being harmed when a pharmacist fills a prescription for some birth control pills? Some unfertilized eggs? People who are being responsible and avoiding a future of child-support payments for unwanted children? Durex stockholders? The Pope?

The issue hasn't hit the courts hard yet, but here's what the article says about what's coming down the pipeline: "Pharmacists are regulated by state laws and can face disciplinary action from licensing boards. But the only case that has gotten that far involves Neil T. Noesen, who in 2002 refused to fill a University of Wisconsin student's birth control pill prescription at a Kmart in Menomonie, Wis., or transfer the prescription elsewhere. An administrative judge last month recommended Noesen be required to take ethics classes, alert future employers to his beliefs and pay what could be as much as $20,000 to cover the costs of the legal proceedings. The state pharmacy board will decide whether to impose that penalty next month.

Wisconsin is one of at least 11 states considering 'conscience clause' laws that would protect pharmacists such as Noesen. Four states already have laws that specifically allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions that violate their beliefs. At the same time, at least four states are considering laws that would explicitly require pharmacists to fill all prescriptions."

This could turn into a huge mess on the state level, and might precipitate yet another federal case on an issue that really has nothing to do with anybody besides patients and their doctors. - Amy

Attempting to regulate healthcare issues like they are ethical issues is total bullshit. Due to the sad, broken state of our healthcare system these women are most likely paying for these medications out of their own pockets, not through any kind of federal program or even private insurance (which is a whole other issue). It's ludicrous for the government to attempt to limit access to FDA-approved medications for which they are not paying, and it's a pharmacist's job to safely and accurately dispense those medications, not to pass lifestyle judgements.

To paraphrase Will Ferrell, these kinds of arguments make me feel like I'm taking crazy pills. How do people object to family planning, but allow children to live in poverty with no health coverage? How do people decide it's unethical to let a vegetative woman die, but also propose $15 billion in cuts to Medicaid with no regard for the family that will be bankrupted paying for her care? - Emily

Some World Leaders Doing Better Than Others

Could it be that our own President George W. Bush is sapping the life force of Pope John Paul II?

Stay with me here.

On the one hand, you have the Pope, whose rapidly failing health left him, according to the Daily News, "speechless",

speechless pope


anguished pope

and "grimacing"

grimacing pope

on the most Pope-centric day of the Catholic year.

Is it just a fluke that this sharp decline coincides with reports of George Bush's recent "frisky" and "impish" behavior? According to biking buddy (and sometime chief media strategist) Mark McKinnon, the President is "as calm and relaxed and confident and happy as I've ever seen him."

fruity bush kisses

Far-fetched, you say? Well, how else to explain this bizarre quote from the President's rather creepy Saturday radio address?

"In this season of renewal, we remember that hope leads us closer to truth, and that in the end, even death, itself, will be defeated. That is the promise of Easter morning." [emphasis mine]

Before you get any ideas, I'm already pitching this to HBO.

February 25, 2005

Pope Watch '05

John Paul II

Much speculation today on the health of Pope John Paul II. Although the Vatican claims that yesterday's surgery was successful, New York Newsday points out that the Vatican PR machine has historically had only two categories for the Pope's health: Fine, and dead.

Newsday also offers this handy graphic timeline of the Pope's many ailments. And if you're feeling reflective, you can go ahead and buy JP II's recent book, which received mixed reactions from Amazon customers. But let me tell you, it's a braver person than me who would give the Pope a negative review.

One can only assume that someone like the Pope got his flu shot, so what happened? Maybe it's that deadly strain of bird flu?

February 11, 2005

United Farm Workers, Morons +

Nonprofit direct marketers are living a nightmare. A number of direct mail solicitations went out to potential donors that were addressed like this: "Herbert Kaiser, Jewish." Some of them even included those free personalized address labels with the same religious identification on them. The organizations that sent out these mail pieces are exactly the kind that would sooner torture an enemy combatant than promote stereotyping or profiling, including the ACLU, Amnesty International, and Drug Policy Alliance. Some other mail recipients had tags like "Catholic" or "Hindu" after their names.

Turns out the tainted names originally came from United Farm Workers, who apparently had asked a list broker they hired to add demographic information about donors to their address records. Anyone who has worked in marketing knows that a lot of market research information and potential donor screening is based on making assumptions, like that someone is Jewish based on their last name. Two of the people who reported receiving mail designating them as Jewish are not, in fact, Jewish.

As once private information becomes more and more accessible, easier to manipulate, and available to anyone willing to pay for it, it's hardly a surprise that organizations start segmenting and targeting their customers or donors. Even the ACLU. But when this typically invisible process gets printed right on an address label, it sure looks ugly. A Stanford Law professor commenting about the enormous income nonprofit groups make from renting their donor lists says, "If you talk to people doing marketing for nonprofits, you hear them saying that this is all publicly available information that is being passed around, so what's the problem? The problem is that what's publicly available has changed dramatically because of technology, and it can be easily manipulated to produce unforeseen outcomes, some of which can be terrible."

The ACLU is telling people who call them to ask why their assumed religious affiliation was printed on a solicitation, "We do not collect or store religious information on our members." But the fact that they buy their name lists from a company that does store this kind of information, and sells its valuable segmented lists at a premium, makes them complicit in this kind of privacy breach.

Comments from the Official List Broker of Amy's Robot (via Emily):
What happened in this case is, the UFW farmed out the job to a large, well-known list broker in California, Triplex, who left the coding in the file. The broker was at fault, and they knew better. It’s really complete stupidity on their part, to not have two people checking the list, but many people who are employed to do data entry just don’t notice or don’t care, and mistakes like this really end up hurting all the charitable people who rent lists. But even through non-profits make such a huge amount of money by selling their lists, it’s not all profit. Many people may stop giving you money, or drop out of your organization if their name is used too often. For example, I subscribe to The Nation, and was furious when they sold my name to the Communist Party of America. It's particularly bad when you rent lists to politicians, because the letter the politician sends for approval can be completely different from what they end up sending to your list. Organizations that are very cautious will do the mailing themselves, rather than give out their own list. This way, they still make a profit without releasing any confidential information.

February 1, 2005

World leaders not doing very well with doves lately

pope dove

"GIMME PRETTY BIRDIE!" [Pope looks at a dove from the window of his private apartment]

Related: Yushchenko tries to eat a dove at his inauguration. [Low Culture]

April 12, 2004

The confusing mess of politics and religion

Religion has played a central role in the current political landscape, and two Op-Eds published today highlight how the trend will probably continue into the next election. The LA Times has a piece by Susan Jacoby, a historian of American secularism, and she's predictably enraged at the blurring of that old-fashioned church/state division that our country was built on. She recounts a number of examples from history when U.S. Presidents resisted pressure from evangelical religious groups to insert their beliefs into public policy: Jefferson refused to publicly thank God for blessing America; Lincoln ignored ministers' requests to amend the Constitution to "declare Jesus Christ the supreme government authority" (!) But Bush stands alone in his tendency to move in the opposite direction. Jacoby writes, "The Bush administration, by contrast, has consistently taken aggressive measures to favor the most conservative religious elements in American society." What I wonder is why Bush's overt and widely proclaimed religious beliefs are not subject to the same suspicion as were JFK's, our first (and only) Catholic President. I guess Presidential religiosity is OK as long as it is Protestant Christian.

Over at the Washington Post, columnist Jabari Asim questions the assumption that black people are more religious than white people. He makes some interesting points about the assumed connection between race and religion, and quotes a professor from Brown: "What makes me slightly nervous is there's a sort of venerable intellectual tradition that goes back to 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' and beyond that blacks are more spiritual and emotional while whites are rational, cerebral, restrained and civilized. The notion that somehow blacks are these incredibly spiritual people often alarms me because it smacks of familiar racist drivel dressed up in new ways."

What I wonder is whether the Bush administration shares the assumption that black people are more religious. It would certainly be to his party's advantage to appeal to Christians of all races, rather than solely white Southern Christians, which seems to be their strategy. I think the political division of the South along race lines, courtesy the Republican party, points out the flaw in Bush's use of religion as a political strategy. He talks about bringing Christian values to politics, but he seems to mean only those values that benefit wealthy white people. Eventually, everybody else will start to notice that his "Christian" values have little to do with religion, and will hopefully remember that religious beliefs have no place in politics.

April 7, 2004

(Un)Intended Consequences of 'The Passion'

The Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta is making news today for two conservative actions: Women are banned from foot-washing ceremonies at Holy Thursday masses this year, though they have participated in previous years, and two employees who complained that the diocese wasn't doing enough to combat sexual abuse were fired. The women who got fired were coordinating the diocese's sexual abuse victims assistance program, and spoke out against the continuation of reporting alleged abuse first to church officials, and not to law enforcement. The diocese also rejected their training program for priests on recognizing signs of abuse, and its effects on victims. In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made sexual abuse victims assistance staff positions a requirement for all dioceses. The Archdiocese of Atlanta has paid $1.5 million in settlements to victims of sexual abuse in recent years.

Neither of these events are directly related to Mel Gibson, an ultra-conservative Catholic, and his movie. However, it's not surprising that The Passion's enormous popularity among conservative U.S. communities and support from the Church would push the Catholic church away from progress, and toward the kind of policies that keep women excluded from church leadership and permit sexual abuse to continue.

February 29, 2004

Movie Review: The Passion of the Christ

This is pretty long, so:

basic review
adherence to gospel
love vs. violence


So much has been made of this film's possible anti-Semitism, sustained violence, and approach to Jesus' teachings, that most reviews have, in many ways, been meta-reviews, dealing with issues about the movie, instead of the movie itself. As other reviewers have noted, this seems to be because it is almost impossible to get any kind of emotional distance from the film: if you are Christian, you're likely to be too overwhelmed by the depiction of suffering to make much of a qualititative judgment, and if you're not Christian, the media coverage of the film has made it difficult not be skeptical before you've seen even a frame.

That said, before looking at some of the meta issues, I'll attempt to offer a conventional review of the film. [Or, skip to the meta analysis now.]

Qualitative Review

The movie is well-made, but the Hollywoodization of its story and style are evident throughout. Gibson provides nuances like character motivation and scenic details where the Bible offers none, and he spices up his narrative with flashback scenes that -- had they actually appeared in the Bible -- would have to have been written something like, "And then Jesus remembered the time..." (If you think about it, it takes quit a lot of nerve to allow your script to present what Jesus was thinking about at any given time, especially when he's lying face down in the dirt with a cross on his back.) Regardless of these liberties (the impact of which I'll get to later), the film is engaging throughout, although the number of people leaving the theater once the scourging started is a clear indicator that the violence may be too much for some people.

On the whole, the acting in the film is fine, and never noticeably bad, although with everyone speaking in Aramaic and Latin, it's tough to pick up on the subtleties of some of the performances. The only character who even gets a chance to do much hammy scenery-chewing is Herod (and maybe Caiphas), and although Herod strikes me as a sort of Galilean Liberace, his performance strikes a remarkable contrast with both Jesus's silence before him, and with Pilate, for whom practicality is a defining trait. Jim Caviezel is fine as Jesus, and although much has been made of his non-Semitic appearance, he blends in well enough with his disciples, who are cast more appropriately. His manner is calm, stoic, and confident, but he usually hits the emotional high notes when called for. It's virtually impossible to ask an actor to portray how Jesus felt when he asked God, "Why have you forsaken me?" so it's enough to see Caviezel give it his best effort, which is more than passable. Regardless, it's far better than the performances in Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ which threw a bunch of New Yorkers into Jerusalem and expected them to appear and sound native.

Stylistically, the film is like most big-deal Hollywood dramas: a few compelling shots mixed in with a lot of conventional ones. The scene in which Jesus is arrested at Gethsemane is probably the most visually interesting, with the cold blue of the night punctuated by the soldiers' torches as they make their way towards an expectant Jesus. The scenes of Jesus on the cross are photographed well, too, though not as iconically as you might expect. Most of the other shots are standard, and the editing is as well. It's possible the filmmakers did this so as not to distract from the story at all, but I wish they had taken a few more chances. The set design is similarly non-intrusive. Only Herod's quarters are distinctive, and that is mainly due to the leopard and exotically-dressed attendants who are the subjects of a few too many reaction shots.

All in all, it is a good film, not a great one. Had Gibson taken a few more chances and given some of his actors a chance to shine through a bit more, it might have been the better for it. Although I think it's possible for a film about Jesus to transcend itself, this film does not, though at times it comes close.

Now, on to the meta-analysis.


Before discussing whether the film is anti-Semitic, I want to first define that term as I intend to use it. In the context of movies, I think anti-Semitism can be loosely defined as the uncritical use of negative stereotypes about Jewish people, the advocacy of hatred towards or bigotry against Jews, or, in the case of a film like this one, the promotion of the idea that the Jews, as a religious/racial/ethnic group, were and/or are responsible for the death of Christ. (I acknowledge my definition may not be not be exhaustive for all cases, but maybe it suffices for this context.)

The film portrays its Jewish characters in one of two ways: as a mob who is deeply offended by Jesus's teaching and actions, or as kind and sympathetic characters who go out of their way to help Jesus, even though they do not necessarily believe he is the Messiah. With the exception of Caiaphas and his fellow high priests, the characters who call for the crucifixion of Jesus are mainly depicted as a mob, not as individuals. I think this shows the effect that the mob mentality had on the group, and serves as a partial explanation for their behavior, not as an indictment. Also, the film includes dialogue both to and from Caiaphas that clearly explains that Jesus's actions "violated the Sabbath" and that he threatened to destroy the temple. In other words, the people's desire to see Jesus punished is explained. From our perspective today, we can see that Jesus meant no harm, but I think at the time, both the priests and the religious devotees must have felt not just threatened, but deeply offended by Jesus' words and actions. Our society has become so secularized that it's hard to imagine wanting someone to be so brutally punished for offending us morally, but look at the outraged, hateful reaction of many Americans to same-sex marriages in recent days even as they claim to be defending "sanctity," and it's clear how emotions can interfere with judgment when one feels his religious beliefs are under attack. I think if Gibson had intended to portray the Jews as savage and bloodthirsty, he would have omitted these explanations, or at least have left them more vague.

And this is exactly what he has done with his portrayal of the Romans. Although it is a Jewish high priest who advocates the death of Jesus, it is a Roman governor who allows it to happen, and Roman guards who perpetrate the unspeakable violence against Jesus. Nearly all Romans in the film are portrayed as bloodthirsty sadists who take delight in beating and torturing Jesus with increasing cruelty and an absolute lack of remorse. The gleeful expressions on the guards' faces as they whip Jesus with thick saplings and then metalized whips are some of the most disturbing and unforgettable images in the film and make the violence even more unbearable and inexplicable. Pilate repeatedly and publicly declares Jesus to be innocent, and the guards' superior officer asks them to punish -- but not kill -- Jesus, and yet they beat, torture, and humiliate Jesus from the moment they get their hands on him and do not stop even after he is dead, when they thrust a spear into his side. Despite repeated warnings from their superior officers, they continue their assault on his body and mind, seemingly unable to quench their bloodlust. The negative portrayal of Romans in this film is far more one-sided and critical than its depiction even of Caiaphas, who at least had a reason to advocate the punishment of Jesus. Even the mob of Jews calling for his death have mass psychology as an excuse: the Roman soldiers can't even claim they were "just following orders." Merely arguing that the Romans are portrayed in a more negative light than the Jews does not establish that the film is not anti-Semitic, but I think the fact that Caiphas is shown to offer a rationalization for his followers' attitude may help to make that point.

But, of course, there are other indications that the film may be anti-Semitic. For instance, nearly all discussions of this film's portrayal of Jews mention the line of dialogue in which the Jewish crowd says, "May his blood be on us and on our children." Under pressure from various groups, Gibson eventually cut this line, but I have read that the line is still actually spoken in the film in Aramaic, but the subtitle translating it does not appear. The line comes from Matthew 27:25, but is given some context by the previous verse, in which Pilate famously abrogrates his responsibility as he tells the crowd, "I am innocent of the blood of this just person. You see to it." By responding the way they supposedly did, the crowd seems to be accepting responsibility for Jesus' death. If Gibson had depicted this, would that have made it anti-Semitic? I guess that depends on whether you think the line was actually spoken by the crowd. If it was, then it would be tough to argue that including it would be an anti-Semitic gesture. But if Matthew made it up as a means of spreading hatred towards the Jews (who he believed killed his Messiah), then including the line in the film would be an anti-Semitic gesture, at least according to my definition, since it would be intended to assign perpetual blame to the Jewish people. And so now we hit upon the obvious problem: without corroboration (the line does not even appear in the other Gospels), it is unknowable whether this line was spoken or heard by anyone at the scene. (Unless you believe the Gospels were aided by divine intervention, and are infalliblly accurate, a belief that's hard to maintain in the face of various contradictory accounts contained in the Gospels.) So given the uncertaintly over whether such an inflammatory comment was made, should Gibson have included it, either with subtitles or without? In my opinion, no. The presence of the line can only serve to divide, and opens the door to charges of anti-Semitism, which can only further divide. Gibson was right to remove the subtitle, but that move by itself is a cop-out, an insincere gesture. He should have deleted the line completely.

Adherence to the Gospels

Certain Christians, in their efforts to defend the film and Gibson against the charges of anti-Semitism, have said, loudly and ad nauseam, "It's in the Bible!" as if that answers everything. This is an invalid argument for many reasons that are probably obvious to non-believers but may be difficult to grasp for others. I believe that it is possible to believe in the general account of the Gospels, but still find that Gibson's film is anti-Semitic. In fact, one has very little to do with the other. There are two primary reasons for this: (1) the Gospels, while a testimonial of what happened, are a product of their time, and not necessarily infallible, and (2) Gibson took many artistic liberties with the Bible elsewhere in the film, and in doing so, invalidates the "it's in the Bible" argument completely, since he both fails to portray everything that's in the Bible and presents many things that are not in the Bible. In other words, he picked and chose what he wanted to include, and what he didn't. Therefore, the depictions of Jews, Romans, and everyone else were subject to his interpretation. I realize that this point is blatant to non-Christians, but I cannot even count how many times I've heard an uncritical defense of the film from fellow Catholics, and so I want to answer the argument here.

Defenders of the film can only rely on the "it's in the Bible" argument if Gibson offered a strict depiction of the Gospel accounts, and used no artistic discretion whatsoever. Anything added or omitted by him is by its nature subject to debate. This includes any characterization, dialogue, or physical behavior not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. It even includes the ways that Gibson deals with certain ambiguities in the Gospels. Take, for instance, the crucial moments in which Pilate washes his hands and the crowd utters the "his blood be on us" line. Matthew 27:24-25 reads:

When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it."

And all the people answered and said, "His blood be on us and on our children."

So who is the "you" in the sentence "You see to it"? It sounds like it's the crowd, right? Not in Gibson's movie. In the film, Gibson addresses the first part of his statement to the crowd, and then says "You see to it" to an assistant. It seems like a small thing, but if he said it to the crowd, wouldn't it seem like he was commanding them to kill Jesus? In Gibson's interpretation, it seems like the crowd is commanding him and he in turn commands his assistant to take care of it. Gibson's decision to portray the moment this way is one of several in which he is more sympathetic to Pilate than he is to Caiaphas and the Jewish crowd. Perhaps this small detail isn't enough to make the point that Gibson's interpretation (not that of the Gospel authors) colors the depiction of Jesus's persecutors, so consider a much greater bastardization of the Gospels that appears to have been almost entirely invented by Gibson: the role of Claudia, Pilate's wife. We first see Claudia waking up in Pilate's bed, as if startled. This is explained in Matthew 27:19:
While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, "Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of him."
Fair enough -- even if you set aside the question as to how Matthew would have been privy to this exchange -- but Gibson goes on to imagine a whole dialogue between the two of them in which Pilate bares his doubts and insecurities to her as she looks at him searchingly. He asks her how she knows what truth is, and she answers him. Later, as he prepares to send Jesus off to be scourged (so as to appease the crowd and avoid crucifying him), he looks at Claudia several times, as if to strengthen himself against the crowd. None of this is in the Bible, and yet all of it serves to make Pilate a more sympathetic character. He gave in to the Jews despite his own better judgment, he had no choice, etc., the film seems to say. Where are the scenes in which Caiaphas shares his deepest emotions with his wife or his friends, and says he has doubts about whether to kill Jesus? The Bible says the high priests decided it would be "expedient" to sacrifice someone (much as Pilate did), so why doesn't Gibson portray the scenes where this is discussed? Because they're not in the Bible? Well, neither is the extended exchange between Claudia and Pilate. Later, as Jesus is being scourged, a teary-eyed Claudia brings towels to Mary, who exchanges meaningful glances and uses the towels to soak up her sons blood. Where is all this in the Bible? The inclusion of non-Biblical scenes that serve to make certain characters sympathetic and others unsympathetic should have been avoided, especially if Gibson later wanted to rely on the "it's in the Bible" argument.

Gibson also apparently manufactures several other incidents that (as far as I can tell) cannot be found in the Bible. The most noticeable of these is his treatment of Satan, who is embodied by a female actress, but voiced by a male one. According to John 13, Satan enters Judas at the last supper, but Gibson assigns Satan some extra-curricular activities that are not included in the Bible. Satan visits Jesus as he prays alone at Gethsemane and attempts to undermine his confidence. (I thought this was in the Gospels, but I couldn't find it. One gospel says an angel shows up and helps him find strength.) But then, a snake crawls out from between Satan's legs and Jesus stomps on it. Satan later shows up as Jesus is being scourged and as he's carrying his cross, all of which seem to support the general theme that evil was among the guards and the crowd, but this interpretation is not supported by the Gospels. But no matter how liberal your interpretation of the gospels might be, nothing could prepare you for perhaps the oddest of Gibson's amendments to the Bible. As Judas contemplates his suicide, he is viciously taunted by some children who transform into grotesque "little Satans" (his words) with distorted features who eventually start biting his arm. What chapter and verse is that one, Mel? I'm still looking. Soon after, a group of these devil children chase/lead Judas up a hill where he hangs himself next to a rotting, maggot-infested animal. The satanic-children motif pops up again in the scourging scene as Satan walks by carrying what appears from the back to be a large infant caressing Satan's gray face. As Jesus looks up at the pair, the infant turns its head, revealing itself to be a grotesque, unnaturally aged creature -- a cross between an old man and a baby. All effective imagery, but once you start throwing stuff like this in your film, how can you, or your defenders, rely on the "it's in the Bible" argument for anything?

Similarly, when the Gospels conflict on certain matters, Gibson tends to take the path that is narratively expedient. For example, in Matthew 27, both robbers on the cross next to Jesus "revile him," but in Luke 23, one of the robbers asks Jesus to remember him when he enters His kingdom, and Jesus tells him he will. Gibson goes with Luke's version. In John 19, Mary, her sister, and Mary Magdalene are present at the cross. Mark 15:40 has a slightly different cast of characters, but notes that they watched from "afar." In Gibson's version, Mary spends the entire crucifixion period right next to Jesus. She is there when the soldier offers the vinegar on the sponge to Jesus, and Jesus says "I thirst" to her, although according to John 19:27, she left immediately before that incident. Gibson's narrative also projects itself into Mary's mind during Jesus' carrying of his cross. As she watches him fall, she remembers his falling as a boy and how she ran towards him. This memory inspires her to find the strength (after her "swoon") to run up and comfort him. The moment is awkward, both because you're wondering whether it's necessary to show a mother's motivation for running to aid her son, and you're trying to remember back to the early parts of the Gospels to the time when young Jesus was running and tripped. (Keep looking.) The incident is one of several that borrows heavily from the Catholic ritual of the Stations of the Cross, a ritual rooted more in tradition than the Gospels. (Only about half of the "stations" are depicted in the Bible). In any case, it's disingenuous to pick and choose the parts of the Gospel that suit your story-telling goals, then fall back on the Bible as a defense of your depictions. It is also disingenuous for defenders of this film to accept scenes like these and then argue that Gibson was merely portraying what the Bible says. I want to make it clear that I think it's fine that Gibson took artistic liberties with the Gospels. I just think it's wrong for anyone to then argue that everything in the film is justifiable because it adheres to the Bible.


Much, too, has been made of the violence in the film, and whether it is appropriate or necessary. I feel that Gibson may have strayed too far from his Biblical sources, but the violence itself is essential to the film's religious message. (n.b. I'm choosing to respond here to the argument that the film is unnecessarily violent, setting aside for now the idea that the violence does not belong because it is not detailed in the Gospels, a position that I think is reasonable, but one which I haven't actually heard anyone take. At this stage, I'm also going to begin evaluating the film more as a religious work, and less as a conventional film.)

The central point of the film is that Jesus suffered and died for us. It opens with a quote from Isaiah 53 ("by his wounds we are healed") that attempts to establish a context for what we are about to see. For non-Christians, it is apparent that the film is so violent, it's not really worth sitting through, because it is merely a film about a man being tortured, but for Christians, I think the film reminds us of something that has been too easy to forget: the extent of Jesus' suffering for us. Christians who object to the violence in the film might argue "We know he suffered for why do we have to see it?" I would ask these people, particularly if they are relatively well-off in life, to consider just how much they truly understand what suffering in the name of God is. Though he was the son of God, Jesus showed us through his intense suffering just how much a human can endure and, compared to what he went through, what we are asked to do is not really all that difficult. In Mark 8:34, Jesus says:

Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it.
Jesus showed that a man can take up a cross in the most literal sense, and bear physical and psychological torture while still maintaining faith in God. Although Jesus had doubts about being "forsaken," he still gave himself over to God, a sign of faith far exceeding anything we are asked to endure. In portraying the violence, Gibson reminds us of what Jesus sacrificed for us and for God, and puts our own pain in perspective. I think Gibson's intention was to shock the audience a bit, so they would wake up and be cognizant of the reality of Jesus's pain. In a time when "Christian" has in many ways become more of a political label than a religious one, I think it's important for people who identify themselves as Christian to take a step back and consider what that means in their daily lives. In Catholicism, the notion from James 2 that "faith without works is dead" is a central tenet. You can follow all the rules of the Church, but unless you actually do things to help other people, you cannot really consider yourself Catholic. I think that in recent times, this idea has been overlooked. Everyone is so concerned about getting to Mass on time and not eating meat on Fridays that they forget that Catholicism is really about putting others before yourself, and doing everything possible to help them, even when that means bearing hardship yourself. In other words, you must give up your life to save it. It's difficult for us, but Gibson depicts Jesus doing exactly that in his film, and offers him (as Jesus offered himself) as an example to follow. On top of that, as a culture, many of us have forgotten what suffering is. We don't weart hair shirts or self-flagellate anymore, so how are we supposed to understand Jesus' suffering on any kind of profound level? If the violence were not portrayed as it is, would the message come through as clearly? I don't think so. Without presenting shocking images, Gibson would have risked a complacent reaction from his audience, and I think that was exactly what he hoped to avoid. In fact, I think the whole point of the movie was to wake people up and say, "This is what Jesus did. What does that mean to you?" Answering that question, I think, is a meaningful way of exploring one's Christian identity, and I think that for too long, people have avoided it.

Violence vs. Love

Several reviews have complained that the film all but ignores Jesus' teachings and concentrates on his suffering. Although it's my belief that his suffering is an essential part of his teachings, I want to point out that the film does present Jesus' message of love and forgiveness throughout. Repeatedly, he utters the "Forgive them for they know not what they do" prayer, referring to both the Jews and the Romans, and in flashback, he is seen preaching to the disciples about forgiveness and love, including the "Love your enemy" speech that is critical to the concept of Christianity. Although few in number, these moments are made all the more potent by their sharp contrast to the violence that permeates the rest of the film, and they serve to show Jesus' message, and, I think, to tell both his disciples and the film's audience to forgive those who were responsible for his suffering.

There are other emotionally resonant scenes that convey love and kindness, and these show some aspects of Jesus existence that are often missing from other accounts. First, Simon, who helped Jesus carry his cross, was picked at random from a crowd of onlookers. It is not clear whether he believes Jesus is the Messiah, but it's implied that he doesn't. Nonetheless, as he carries Jesus' cross, he begins to understand his suffering, and at one point, angrily defends Jesus from the assault of the guards and the surrounding mob. Although Simon exists in the Gospels, this is more dramatic license from Gibson, but it shows Jesus as a human, deeply in need of another human's love and assistance. Simon is presented as one of the most admirable characters in the film, and it should be pointed out that he serves as a counterbalance to some of the portrayals of other Jews (namely Caiaphas) in the film. The other relationship that clearly shows Jesus as a man is his relationship with his mother, Mary. Unlike Jesus' disciples, Mary is motivated by love, not worship or religious belief. This is clear in nearly every shot that she looks at her son, and it helps the audience to see Jesus as a human, too, a perception that can be overlooked when reading accounts of miracles, resurrections, clairvoyance, etc. Mary's constant presence at Jesus' side grounds the film, and engages us in his suffering (and hers) in a way that otherwise would not be possible. Since many accounts of Jesus are intended to put us in awe, it's a refreshing change to look at him, in a sense, through his mother's eyes.

The themes of love and suffering combine when Jesus speaks of his choice to take up his cross and die for us. He says he does it out of love for his disciples. The fact that it was his choice is another critical element of Christianity, in part because, as I mentioned earlier, it provides the ultimate lesson for his followers. Reviewers who say that his message of love is missing from the movie should consider that Jesus didn't endure this torture just for the sake of being tortured. He did it in an attempt to show what love really is, and he (and Gibson) makes this explicit in the film.


Although Gibson takes some questionable artistic liberties with his source material and is less circumspect in his portrayal of the some Jewish characters than he might have been, the film is an engaging depiction of Jesus' final hours, and in certain cases illuminates relationships and incidents in new ways. It is understandable, but unfortunate, that the movie has led to further divisions between Christians and Jews, as the film might have been a strong ecumenical tool. Although many Christians are touting it as an evangelical resource, its graphic violence seems more likely to bolster the beliefs of existing Christians rather than encourage non-Christians to join the faith.

February 17, 2004

The Troubles and John Kerry

The British press is interested in the continuing social, political, and religious problems in Northern Ireland, and today, in how John Kerry proposes to respond. A rash of suicides among Catholic teenage boys in Belfast highlights the ongoing problem of violence and terror, especially for young men. Depression and other forms of self-destructive behavior, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, are also common, but the suicides are raising greater alarm. Meanwhile, Kerry has criticized Bush's failure to advance the peace process, and is also urging the IRA and the all republican and loyalists paramilitary groups to disarm. Kerry's criticism of the Unionists for "refusing to form a government with Sinn Fein" should also be popular with the Irish-American population. However, these recent suicides and the violence around Belfast is largely attributed to the Irish National Liberation Army, a paramilitary offshoot of the IRA that has probably gotten a lot of its funding from Irish-Americans, who don't understand the realities of the terrorism they support. Kerry can gain a lot of supporters in the US by siding with Republican Irish activists, but he might want to keep focusing on the disarming part.

February 3, 2004

Swing State Catholics

The Guardian reports on US Catholics, and how their allegiance has apparently shifted from Bush in the 2000 election to Kerry in this one. A lot of the Catholic vote is Latino of course, a population that is growing and historically votes Democrat, but may also be growing more conservative. The real surprise is the Catholic vote in the NH primary, an overwhelmingly white state that is about 1/3 Catholic. The Catholic vote, and especially the Catholic male vote, was large in turnout, and decisively in support of Kerry (himself an Irish Catholic, though a divorced and remarried one.) White Catholics tend to be fairly conservative and not particularly politically active, so when a lot of them get out to vote in a Democratic primary, the Bush administration will definitely take notice. In the last election, Catholics were Bush supporters: "Men - particularly Catholic men - carried enough states for Mr. Bush in 2000 to make the Florida decision decisive. Without their help, the Republicans would have lost at least Missouri, so even the Supreme Court's intervention would not have plucked the presidency out of Democratic hands."

Bush has clearly been trying to gain popularity among Catholics. Dick Cheney just scuttled out of his crypt to visit the Pope, and efforts are being made to legitimize Mexican migrants, which won't make anti-immigration conservatives happy. Since the Catholic population is so diverse, there's no one way to gain their support, but as the article states, "If the German Catholics of Missouri towns such as Hermann are angry enough to go to the polls, and if they cast a ballot for Mr. Kerry, Mr. Bush could be on his way to becoming the second one-term president in his family."

December 29, 2003

Marriage, Divorce, and the Catholic Church

While the Pope continues his anti-gay-marriage stance, the people of Chile are fighting for their rights too, the right to get divorced. Chile is the only country in the western hemisphere where divorce is illegal (Malta and the Philippines are the only others in the world. ADM notes that divorce only became legal in Ireland in 1997--it was passed by 1/2 of one percent in a referendum.) The only legally sanctioned method of dissolving a marriage is annulment, which is a popular option among US Catholics as well. Annulments are acknowledged by both the Catholic church and governments, and allow marriages to end by claiming that they never legally took place. Common reasons given for the invalidity of marriages are usually "blatant fictions": couples often claim some administrative error or the emotional immaturity of either partner. Chileans also are allowed to end a marriage by claiming that a spouse who leaves them is "presumed dead" if the absent spouse is not available to prove otherwise. It's not much of a surprise to learn that wealthy and powerful people are often the ones who are able to pay the applicable lawyers' fees and marry many times, using the nullification system to their advantage.

Perhaps the Pope would be interested to see how the sacred institution of matrimony is being practiced in Chile, and maybe reassess the "divine gift" that has already been degraded very handily by straight people. -amy

But Catholics in America don't really have to worry about all this, since there are so many non-Catholics. If we marry one of them, and get divorced, we don't even need an annulment. The marriage is invalid by its nature, so we can move right on to the next one! Besides eternal salvation, this is probably one of the few unmitigated perks Catholics get. -adm

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