ANGELS AND DEMONS: Rewriting History

I took twenty students in my Theology and Film class to see Angels & Demons. Not because I necessarily expected to see a great movie. But because I knew it would be loaded with theological provocation. From cheap shots at the Catholic Church to enduring questions of science vs. religion, Angels and Demons preys upon our ignorance of history to craft a riveting thriller. The creative team from The DaVinci Code (director Ron Howard, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, and star Tom Hanks) reunites for a much more satisfying movie (and much better hair for Hanks!).

I encourage those who disagree with Dan Brown’s vision (whether scientists or clerics) to see Angels and Demons in order to respond with intelligence and insight. However, as with The DaVinci Code, the film ultimately proves to be so slight that any protest will prove to be much ado about nothing.  While American audiences have responded with mostly indifference, overseas attendance and interest has continued to grow.   Perhaps a thoroughly post-Christendom culture like Europe revels in the opportunity to feed their skepticism toward the institutionalized church. 

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American Idols bury the Culture Wars

Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times has a brilliant article about tonite’s American Idol finale. She points out the cultural divide between Adam Lambert’s seemingly unambiguous homosexuality and Kris Allen’s worship leading ways. “Glambert” hails from San Diego, while Kris Allen’s trumpets his downhome Arkansas roots. Adam likes to rawk, while Kris turns rap songs into sensitive ballads. These Idol finalists should be engaged in a pitched battle, representing their divergent constituencies. But as roommates beyond the show, they seem to have a genuine appreciation of each others gifts and talents. Powers points out how a painted fingernail has become an unlikely sign of solidarity, a bridge between Christians and the gay community.

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Stan Jantz's post about LeBron vs. Tiger, vertical vs. horizontal media couldn't be more timely.   Why?  Because my favorite magazine is in danger of disappearing.  Amidst the free fall of car companies, what happens to the small business owners who are serving people in significant ways? I haven’t heard about bailouts for those who depend upon advertising revenue to thrive. And now, PASTE magazine is in trouble.

PASTE has been such a refreshing alternative to Rolling Stone and Spin. It consistently delivers insightful interviews and previews of upcoming releases. Each issue also arrives with a CD loaded with intriguing tracks from people like Iron & Wine and The National. But as a champion of independent artists, they’ve taken a big hit in the economic downturn. Frankly, the rise of illegal downloading (and the shrinking budget of record companies) has zapped all music publications. So now, it is our turn, as readers and fans to keep Paste afloat.

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How do we carve out a democratic future in these highly uncertain times? My partner on the Purple State project wrote a brilliant analysis of where we are now. As we’ve traveled the country screening our little movie that could, we’ve found audiences are desperate for some viable ways to work together across our political/religious/cultural divides. With television’s talking heads continuing to turn up the volume (Tea parties! Swine flu!, etc.), where can we find both sanity and creativity?

 A bright student of mine, John Lui, sent me this practical suggestion: try Pecha Kucha—an onomonopoetic Japanese word for good old fashioned “chit chat.”

Have you ever suffered through a PowerPoint presentation that felt as if it would never end? Maybe even in one of my classes?! Two Tokyo-based architects came up with a refreshing alternative. They offered a microphone and a projector to creative types with particular restraints. Presenters were allowed to show 20 powerpoint slides for 20 seconds each—just six minutes and forty seconds to make your point, state your case, and dazzle your audience. But this is more than an accommodation to audiences with shorter attention spans.  It is a dynamic way to pack lots of ideas into a compact space and place.   Topics range from “Social Change through Creation with Prison Inmate” to “Kafkanistan.” It may include fashion designers, filmmakers or skateboarders.  But the event is low-fi throwback to the days of magic lanterns and putting on a slide show.

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What Leonard Cohen Knows....

With all due respect to my lifetime faves like Bruce Springsteen and U2, the comeback tour of 2009 belongs to Leonard Cohen. Alas, I was out of town for both of his recent Los Angeles area appearances. Friends reported that his Nokia Theater show was utterly transcendent. At age 74, he even took the stage at Coachella in high style, sporting his snappy chapeau.

The resonance of the Canadian poet/performer’s songbook builds with each passing year. But he undertook this tour out of necessity rather than choice. After almost a decade in a Zen Buddhist monastery, Cohen discovered that his manager had absconded with most of his life savings. So his international tour arises out of legal fees and entanglements, making his lyric ring painfully true: “I’m just paying my rent every day/Oh in the tower of song.” Undeterred, Cohen still approaches performing with a profound sense of appreciation and humor. Onstage, he shrugs, “I’ve spent the last few years in an intensive study of the religions of the world, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.”

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The End of Christian America?: A Way Forward

Time magazine famously announced that “God is Dead” on April 8, 1966. While their cover story captured the zeitgeist percolating through university classrooms and philosophical debates, Time failed to anticipate how grassroots the religious impulse remains. Mainline denominations caught in the theological currents of the sixties (Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians), did experience significant decline. But the evangelicals who stuck to their core convictions during a time of great upheaval saw profound growth over the following forty years. God joined Mark Twain in suggesting that “The tales of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Now, during another Holy Week and Passover observation, a national newsweekly has announced “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” Jon Meacham’s argument in Newsweek doesn’t put God or Christianity on trial. He wrote an additional piece to clarify his intentions (beyond a brilliantly timed strategy to drive sales and light up the blogosphere during Holy Week). Instead, Meacham points to the rising tide of individuals claiming no religious affiliation in the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey. Those who consider themselves outside of faith have doubled since the 1990 survey, from roughly 8% to 15% (with another 5% refusing to even answer the question). Dispute that rising tide, America remains comprised of a remarkable number of Christians. But those Christians must figure out how to navigate a world in which their morality may no longer be a majority.

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SIN NOMBRE: Humanizing Immigration Issues

Why are so many people willing to risk so much to cross the American border? The award winning independent film, Sin Nombre, elects to show us, rather than tell us. It is a poetic portrait of a highly politicized issue. Filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga researched Honduran immigrants’ plight, riding cargo trains loaded with hope-filled sojourners. His resulting first feature is a beautiful and troubling trek towards the Rio Grande. It also immerses viewers in the brutal initiation rites of the Mara Salvatrucha. Started by Salvadorean immigrants in Los Angeles, Mara Salvatrucha’s network has now been exported (or rather deported) across Central America. Sin Nombre is a riveting story of escape and a haunting fight for survival. It is not recommended for the squeamish. But for those who want to get inside the immigrant experience, Sin Nombre puts a compelling face on those who often die ‘without a name.’

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The brackets for the 2009 NCAA men’s basketball tourney are set.   Who have you chosen to make it to the Final Four?  Will the Big East dominate?   How about the Carolina Tarheels?   Will the USC Trojans continue their surprising hot streak by defeating Boston College?   The Road to the Final Four is always loaded with drama.

 Last year, Stephen Curry and the Davidson Wildcats were the darlings of the NCAA tourney.  They upset Gonzaga, Georgetown, Wisconsin, and lost to eventual champion Kansas by two painful points.    As a Davidson grad, I relished the wild, unexpected run.    Unfortunately, March Madness 2008 has turned into March Sadness 2009.   The leading scorer in college basketball hasn’t been invited back to the big dance. 

Key players in Curry’s supporting cast like Jason Richards graduated, pushing Curry into a new role as both point guard and key shooter/scorer.   And while Curry stepped into those responsibilities with great aplomb, the 2009 Davidson team failed to rise to the occasion against nationally ranked opponents.   They lost televised games against Oklahoma, Purdue, Butler and Duke.   While needing to win the Southern Conference tournament, they were upset by the College of Charleston (for the second time this season).   The NCAA selection committee did not extend an at-large invitation to Davidson, relegating Curry and the Wildcats to the NIT tournament.

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The Fanning sisters, Dakota and Elle, carry two refreshing explorations of Lewis Carroll’s classic “Alice in Wonderland.”  Dakota Fanning is the voice of Coraline, a captivating, animated heroine.   Her younger sister, Elle Fanning, delivers a remarkable performance as the talented but troubled Phoebe in Wonderland.   Both girls face daunting personal circumstances.  Well-intentioned parents prove unable to connect with their imaginative daughters.   Coraline and Phoebe find comfort within the fantasies offered by the theater.   But what happens when the show ends?  

Coraline is an eye-popping delight (especially in evocative 3-D).   Each handcrafted, clay-mation frame zings with energy and color.  Yet, Coraline is depressed by her new surroundings.

Obama's Fat Tuesday

On Fat Tuesday, President Barack Obama challenged us to tighten our belts. He called us to live responsibly right when revelers in New Orleans have traditionally let it all hang out. In the official Republican response to the President’s address, even Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal urged restraint while his state celebrated. Lent came early to Washington, DC and our nation. But will we really adopt an economic Slimfast?

Ash Wednesday kicks of forty days of fasting and penance. Lent is a time of scaling back, of cutting out the excess. The question often becomes, “What are you giving up for lent?” Red meat? Chocolate? Video games? We take a break from our routine, pausing to remember the few things that matter. We prepare to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.

As the Christian community ushers in a season of sacrifice, America is going through a bit of soul searching. All kinds of institutions are adopting LEAN measures to respond to the economic crisis. How have we all overindulged? What distractions and excess do we need to pare away? President Obama made no overt connections between his address to the nation and the forty days of lent. But when have we experienced such remarkable alignment between a religious season and a national mood?

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Craig Detweiler, PhD is a filmmaker, author and professor. He directs the Reel Spirituality Institute for the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary.