Halloween: "The Real Exorcist" arrives

Halloween always stirs up interest in scary movies.   As a child, the mere mention of a ghost or goblin would cause me to cover my eyes.   Yet, I’d find myself sneaking a peek, trying to catch a glimpse of some frightening phantasm.   Why are we so fascinated with horror movies?    What attracts us to evil or at least calls us to confront our fears?

I remember watching Night of the Living Dead on TV as a kid.  A thunderstorm arose in my hometown just as it arrived onscreen.   The verisimilitude caught my attention with each flash of lightning.   Zombies slowly descending upon a Pittsburgh home creeped me out for weeks.    The Exorcist became a cultural phenomenon by taking the devil seriously.  (It also made headlines through some gruesome special effects).  Suddenly, an ancient church rite entered into mainstream discussions.   I am still haunted by Max von Sydow as the priest shouting at the demon, “The power of Christ compels you!”  The cast and crew played the horror straight, as something that could happen to your daughter or friend.   Plausibility made The Exorcist that much scarier.  

While many Christians steer clear of horror, others have leaned into the genre, finding it rife with dramatic and spiritual possibililities.   Wes Craven, the creator of Freddy Krueger and Nightmare on Elm Street, is a graduate of the evangelical Wheaton College.   While he walked away from his religious roots, he still trafficked in the supernatural.  He sees horror as a way to confront our fears, to unleash two hours of chaos before it is corralled and bound.   The Exorcism of Emily Rose points to the existence of evil as an argument for God.   Director Scott Derrickson developed the film from actual taped recordings of Anneliese Michel, a Catholic woman in Germany who underwent a grueling exorcism.  Such historical cases suggest that the presence of this haunting force should draw us to the Light, to deliverance with even greater urgency.

Tonight, the Sci-Fi Channel wades into this scary season with a new series, The Real Exorcist.  It builds upon their tradition of supernatural reality shows like “Ghosthunters” but crosses into the realm of televangelism.  The Real Exorcist follows Bob Larson, a Christian talk show host who has become an expert on demons and the occult.   His traveling ministry offers deliverance from demon possession.   Bob is one of the most animated and captivating characters you’ll see on TV.   Like many televangelists, Larson has also been criticized for the extravagant salaries and riches that his ministry has generated.  Sci-Fi Channel viewers will undoubtedly approach the series with a mix of skepticism and fascination.   You can see an eerie and powerful preview here.

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Rebranding Faith: Christians are ______.

I’m currently teaching a class on Theology and Pop Culture at Fuller Seminary. We’re reading my first book, A Matrix of Meanings, which I wrote with Barry Taylor. Before we study movies, music and TV, Barry and I cover the pervasive nature of advertising and the triumph of celebrity culture in the marketplace. So as my class reflected upon the power of advertising, I challenged them to ‘rebrand Christianity.’ Some resisted the idea of packaging faith. They wonder if a book like Branding Faith by Phil Cooke reduced Jesus to a commodity. Surely, nobody wants to see more Jesus Junk sold at Christian bookstores.  But that’s not what Cooke’s book or the assignment was all about. The question remains, “What is the story we are living and telling?”

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FLOW: For the Love of Water

While many of us have felt the pinch at the pump, what if we compared gas prices to water prices?   We can learn to live without oil.  But who can survive even a few days without water?   When it comes to precious commodities, water is far more essential than silver or gold.   What is our responsibility to provide living waters throughout the world?  And how should we respond to the rise of bottled water, the fastest growing segment of the beverage industry?  Is it a charade foisted upon an unsuspecting public?  A recent study by the World Wildlife Fund points out that bottled water is often no safer than tap water.    The headline grabbing Environmental Working Group just released results that suggest that the bottled water at WalMart and Giant contains just as many contaminants and chlorination as tap water.   Should we be alarmed?
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Tags | Film

Election 2008: Why Dividing Does Not Conquer

It must be exasperating for Republicans to watch John McCain hammer away at Barack Obama. McCain raises questions about Obama’s associates, his character, and his tax plan, and yet still loses in the court of public opinion. In the third and final debate at Hofstra, McCain made his most definitive statement so far, distancing himself from President Bush. McCain also put Obama on the defensive for most of the evening. But polls taken amongst debate watchers indicate that McCain’s unfavorable ratings increased, while confidence in Obama continued to rise. What’s going on here?

Debates can be won on more than points. Intangibles like tone, tempo and demeanor matter. Some who watch my debate with John Marks in Purple State of Mind think I clearly lost. John hammers away at me with a host of historic complaints against Christianity. I mostly just absorb the punishment, agreeing that much of Christian behavior is disappointing and even troubling. But I would maintain that viewers are also evaluating body language, style, and positioning. My goal with John wasn’t to win a debate but to present a more gracious and loving faith. I wanted to prove to viewers that Christians are not all angry, judgmental and reactionary.

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Yom Kippur? Not on Wall Street

Judaism’s holiest season of repentance coincided with comeuppance for corporate America.   Ten days of reflection follow Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  Yet Yom Kippur, the annual day of atonement, was observed everywhere but Wall Street.

Ten days of fasting and prayer sound utterly appropriate after an era of unregulated excess. Surely, the fat cat C.E.O.s who have been gorging themselves at stockholders expense could tighten their belts for at least one day.   Yet, the reports flowing from Wall Street revealed ongoing gluttony in a week of economic collapse.   The day of judgement is uponus.  But where is the atonement?   Why no public confession of sins?   Whither repentance? 

When spendthrift corporations like AIG should have been redecorating in sack cloth and ashes, these ingrates celebrated their federal bailout with a blowout at the St.

Religulous: 3 Different Perspectives

Religulous is a low-budget film, shot on the fly, with a minimal crew. Part of the whole D.I.Y. indie film movement. So why not fire back in the same way--unscripted, unrehearsed, and very low fi? Isn't that what it means to be conversant?

My sharp friends, C. J. Casciotta and Elle Griswold, met me in Pasadena to see Religulous on opening day. Ace cameraman Evan Christensen followed our conversation. And now you have it--a video response to Bill Maher's unfair fight, Religulous. So join our conversation and fire back with your own response--get conversant!

Tags | Film

RELIGULOUS: Not so Ridiculous?

Bill Maher’s Religulous is a bracing slap in the face. Descendents of Moses or Mohammad may consider his cinematic rant a call to arms, another blow in an bloody duel. Christians may consider it an unfair fight, more low blow than gentlemanly engagement. At its best, Religulous serves as a wake up call, a slap to attention, to do more homework, to better inform the faithful.  So how does it strike you?

Maher is an equal opportunity offender. He takes shots at the three major monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Religulous also mocks the more bizarre elements of Scientology and Mormonism. Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism get a free pass, perhaps because they are perceived as less doctrinaire. There is something to offend almost everybody, but Religulous delivers on its first goal—to entertain. I overheard two women exiting the theater say, “It was entertaining, but it wasn’t very educational.” The laughs come often, but enlightenment proves elusive.

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Tags | Film


Last weekend, two smaller independent films opened in limited release. Both deal with sexual addictions. Both hold up Jesus as central to their characters’ transformation. One featured the former star of Growing Pains, Kirk Cameron and a cast of nonprofessional actors. The other won a Special Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival for an ensemble cast that includes Angelica Huston, Sam Rockwell, Clark Gregg and Kelly McDonald. One arose from the famed pen of Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club. The other came from two brothers at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. So guess which movie surpassed expectations and surprised Hollywood this weekend?

Evidently, sex doesn’t sell (or at least, not as depicted in graphic detail within edgy, independent films). Fireproof debuted at number four on the weekend box office charts. It earned almost $7,000,000 in three days with a per screen average of over $8,000. Choke didn’t crack the top ten, netting $3000 per screen and $1.3 million total.   Fireproof will offer a massive windfall for tiny Samuel Goldwyn Films. It is already hugely profitable compared to its modest $500,000 budget. Choke will not duplicate the Sundance success of comedies like Napoleon Dynamite or Little Miss Sunshine for Fox Searchlight. They will struggle to recoup their $5 million purchase. What made one film click with moviegoers while the other fizzled?

Fireproof satisfied an underserved niche. Christians who normally avoid movies came out to support Fireproof. The earnestness and sincerity of Fireproof connected with viewers eager for reassurance. It allows couples to renew their wedding vows in small but tangible ways. Choke is a satirical farce decided to wake up audiences from their self-destructive behaviors. An oversaturated market of independent hipsters greeted Choke’s blatant provocation with a collective yawn. These cult film watchers decided to wait for it on DVD.

Fireproof depicts the pornography addiction of firefighter Caleb Holt with considerable restraint. He has neglected his wife, Catherine.. In Choke, we follow Victor Mancini to twelve step meetings for sex addicts. He doesn’t attend to cure his addiction, but to pick up equally desperate women. Fireproof follows a forty-day “Love Dare” toward marriage recovery. Choke deals with Victor’s downward spiral, his desperate quest to discover his origins before his memory-impaired mother passes away.

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Tags | Film

Wake me up when September ends....

The shuffle on my iPod has a remarkable track record of matching my moods.  Not since those groovy mood rings has a device proved so capable of coming alongside my acedia or my euphoria.   Hurricane Ike put quit a hurting on Galveston.  The stock markets free fall finally illuminated the cost of blowing more than $1,000,000,000 per month destroying and rebuilding another country.  And as I followed the Presidential candidates duel over Friday’s scheduled debate, I found myself vacillating between outrage and incredulity.   One friend text messaged, “Are we witnessing the fall of an empire?”  Even President Bush rose from his slumber long enough to hold his first press conference in a year.

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Tags | Music

Nick Cave at the Hollywood Bowl: DIG!!!

Given the apocalyptic dread flowing from Wall Street, I welcomed the prophetic, rock and roll doom emanating from Nick Cave’s concert at the Hollywood Bowl. No one offers scary, Old Testament warnings with more swagger. Cave has lived so many lives—from heroin addict to rock star to screenwriter. His evocative soundtracks composed with Warren Ellis for The PropositionThe Assassination of Jesse James, and the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are moody, minimalist masterpieces. Alongside his murder ballads, Cave has also remained obsessed with the New Testament, particularly the Gospel of Mark. His concert to close the Hollywood Bowl season was simultaneously frightening, energizing and inspiring.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have been dropping heavy news upon their audience across fourteen albums. The lanky, Australian has always been an acquired taste. For years, only goths welcomed his singular blend of Gospel and gloom. My colleague, Barry Taylor, rhapsodized about Cave’s spiritual insights in our book, A Matrix of Meanings. At age fifty, Cave brings more energy, wit and warmth to his concerts now than ever before. 

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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.