Archive for the ‘TV’ Category

It is no secret that Stephen Colbert is a devout Catholic, but in a just-posted profile at The New York Times writer Charles McGrath offers this glimpse:

In 1974, when Colbert was 10, his father, a doctor, and his brothers Peter and Paul, the two closest to him in age, died in a plane crash while flying to a prep school in New England.

“There’s a common explanation that profound sadness leads to someone’s becoming a comedian, but I’m not sure that’s a proven equation in my case,” he told me. “I’m not bitter about what happened to me as a child, and my mother was instrumental in keeping me from being so.”

He added, in a tone so humble and sincere that his character would never have used it: “She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that’s directly related to the image of Christ on the cross and the example of sacrifice that he gave us. What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain — it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.”

That’s as far as the discussion of faith goes in the article, leaving me curious to hear more.  For on-air expressions of Colbert’s faith, see here, here, and here.

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In this time when the Civil Rights movement can feel too much like a distant memory we find a stirring reminder of its importance in “Thurgood,” in which Laurence Fishburne turns in a magnificent portrayal of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

In this one-man stage performance, now showing on HBO, Fishburne arrives on stage as the elderly Marshall, deftly shifts back to Marshall’s youthful self and carries us through the justice’s life and work. And what a journey it is, with a central theme that Fishburne returns to several times: The law is a weapon.

Of course, by this he means that the law is a weapon against injustice and oppression, as opposed to its use today as a tool for the powerful’s pursuit economic and political advantage. 

In Marshall’s story, we see how he first takes the sinister intent of “separate but equal” and turns it against itself before eventually defeating the concept in his argument before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. Fishburne regales us of many other stories, from harrowing (voting rights in the South) to hilarious (his dealings with President Lyndon Johnson).

Throughout, we see a primer on how the law can be used to help the United States live up to its highest ideas. A weapon, indeed.

Fishburne brings a sense of urgency and intensity to the performance that reminds us that we cannot treat Marshall’s story as a nostalgia-fest or an exercise is smug self-satisfaction. Marshall’s story remains prophetic for us today, a challenge to reach for the fullest meaning of our nation’s Constitution.

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The Super Bowl is known as much for its advertising as its football, with many corporations using the event — and its mass audience — to launch new advertising campaigns. Companies even run ads in advance of the game in order to build interest in their new ads — as if advertisements are events in their own right.

But not all advertising is acceptable for Fox and other broadcasters. The ad at the top of this post is among those rejected for Sunday’s game. Unlike the caustic Jesus Hates Obama spot, this ad is mildly evangelistic, highlighting John 3:16, the Bible verse most likely to appear in fans’ posters and players’ faces during games. It concludes by pointing viewers toward a web site.

As Mark Oppenheimer observes in today’s New York Times:

The network’s rejection of a 30-second spot centered on John 3:16 is just one example of an advertising culture that can be allergic to expressions of faith.

Oppenheimer doesn’t explain what he means by “advertising culture,” and he only supplies a pair of anecdotes to support his point. For example, he compares the Fox’s rejection of the Super Bowl ad with a recent case in Portland, Ore., in which radio stations pulled ads by Living the Questions, a liberal Christian organization. The ads asked: “Ever feel like Jesus has been kidnapped and taken hostage by the Christian right?”

In explaining its rejection of the John 3:16 ad, Fox told the Times:

Fox Broadcasting Company does not accept advertising from religious organizations for the purpose of advancing particular beliefs or practices.

Based on that line of reasoning, it is hard to see how Fox and other broadcasters would distinguish these ads from the political ads that dominate the airwaves near election time — ads that also advance particular beliefs and practices, to say the least.

But to take Fox’s logic another step, all advertising communicates about beliefs and practices, be they consumerism, materialism, beauty, status, fun, etc. In fact, most advertisers now try to identify their products with what audiences value most. The beliefs and practices that arise from these values, whatever they may be, are not seen as a problem.

In this context, Fox and other broadcasters don’t offer a particularly coherent approach to the selection/rejection of advertising. Some will see this as evidence of media hostility toward faith — even the Times story raises that question with its reference to allergies.

Discomfort with religion may well be part of the mix, though Fox’s rationale may also have a pragmatic side — avoiding the culture-war crossfire that religion ads inevitably kick up, even though the tone of the John 3:16 ad is entirely different from Jesus Hates Obama.

On this point, the network’s statement to The Times clarifies very little.

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Over the holidays, PBS aired an ambitious four-hour documentary “The Calling,” an exploration of how seven young people of differing faiths pursued their entry into ministry. Aside from its imposing length, the documentary is both fascinating and frustrating.

On the human level, we meet a group of engaging individuals who are exploring what it means to care for the faithful, either as pastors, priests, rabbis or imams. Still, even after four hours, what we gain in breadth we miss in depth. I found myself wanting to know more about these individuals and their journeys than time permitted. Beyond that, viewers are left to surmise what might be meant by “calling” because there’s little direct discussion of the concept.

(As a side note, it is interesting to see how much reviews in The New York Times and World Magazine tend to agree on this point.)

The result: While it is enriching to observe these journeys, one is not likely to gain a deeper understanding of vocation or calling. We are left with mystery amid the concrete circumstances of real lives. Perhaps that’s what the creators of “The Calling” intended.

But don’t stop with watching the documentary — go to the film’s website. Better yet, go to a related but separate website called whatsyourcalling.org. There you will find additional mini-profiles of people who feel a “calling” to pursue a range of vocations.

That’s where I found the video at the top of this post: Mark Horvath of invisiblepeople.tv, who has devoted himself to documenting the lives of homeless people through new media. He and others don’t necessarily remove the sense of mystery that surrounds the idea of calling, but they do talk more directly of their experiences and struggles with the idea.

It’s interesting, but in these short pieces I find more reflection on the idea of calling than I do in the four-hour documentary. Moreover, these vignettes expand the topic beyond that of ministry, exploring what calling means within lines of work both sacred and secular — reminding us that such a distinction is dubious at best.

If you want to explore the notion of calling and don’t have the time to watch the documentary, go to the web site. In this case, less feels like more.

And if you want to see more about the documentary, you can go to the web site. Here’s the trailer:

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On Christmas Eve, while many believers gather at churches to celebrate the birth of Christ, others in America will experience little of the hope that animates this day.

They are women trapped in the sex trade, and for those of us tucked away in our suburban cocoons their plight is beyond our sight. But if Jesus’ birth means anything at all, it is in the hope he offers for all who are enslaved and forgotten.

I confess that this was not a topic I planned to blog on today — until I read an article in Salon that led me to the reality TV series “Hookers: Saved on the Strip,” a reality TV series on the Investigation Discovery cable channel. And if you didn’t know there was a channel called Investigation Discovery, well, neither did I.

The program features Annie Lobert, a former Las Vegas call girl who escaped from prostitution, embraced the Christian faith and founded an organization called Hookers for Jesus. The TV show follows her as she works to bring women in Las Vegas out of the sex trade, and she does everything she can to refute the myths of glamor that some attach to prostitution.

I watched the most recent episode the other night, and in some ways it lived up (or down) to all my worst fears. In terms of production values, the show embodies every possible reality TV cliché, from melodrama and visual franticness to wrenching displays that border on emotional voyeurism. Then there’s Lobert herself, who is as over-the-top as Las Vegas.

I suppose this is what qualifies as “good TV” these days, and I wonder if the women who are seeking healing through Lobert’s ministry are best served by having their journeys displayed so vividly. Are those who have been exploited by so many being exploited once again? Perhaps, but that question is balanced against the fact that Lobert is working with those who are forgotten and treated as worthless — and that counts for something.

Most important is Lobert’s central message: Legal or not, prostitution exploits most of its women as slaves. That message challenged Tracy Clark-Flory, whose profile of Lobert in Salon is worthwhile reading  — and in many ways the article is a more effective testimony than the show itself. After recounting the many cases in which Lobert endured abuse at the hands of pimps, Clark-Flory writes:

… it’s bracing to me, in particular because I am one of those young feminists who philosophically believes that prostitution should be legal. For the first time, though, I viscerally understand the anti-legalization stance. I can’t say my position has changed, but seeing the scars and tears firsthand makes the issue appear infinitely more complex.

Too often, I have focused on the best-case scenario: the “high-class” hooker who is a free agent. These women, and men, do exist, but they are not the majority. Of course I already knew this, but talking to a teenage girl whose kid sister is being sold for sex puts your political priorities in check.

No doubt. For that reason Lobert’s story is worth considering this Christmas Eve, a reminder of the hope that is born along with Jesus, a hope meant most of all for those dismissed as the least of these.

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If you have access to HBO I can’t recommend enough that you find 30 minutes to watch a wonderful documentary, “Top Ten Monks.” It is the examination of monks at the Stift Heiligenkreuz Abby near Vienna, where for nearly 800 years the monks have prayed six times a day with Gregorian Chants.

Oh, recordings of their music are now topping the pop music charts throughout Europe.

When I started watching the documentary, I feared I would see a clichéd rendering of an out-of-nowhere pop sensation. But I found quite something else — a meditation/reflection on the meaning of vocation. While the film does explain how the monks found “success” in the music business, that success only supplies context for a larger discussion in which the monks explain how they view their lives, their work, and the centrality of prayer in all they do.

And if you think of monks as dour old men tucked away in serious work, here you find men of all ages possessed by a profound sense of joy and excitement as they fulfill their callings. They are funny, too.

Though the film was so short, its brevity doesn’t come at the expense of depth. In fact, the film really is about what true depth looks like in one’s life. These men remain anchored amid all the fuss that now surrounds them.

A helpful reminder for the rest of us at this time of the year.

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The Crystal Cathedral’s fall into bankruptcy — $43 million in debt — is as breathtaking as the scale of its facilities (as shown in the video tour). Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times captures the state of affairs:

The 10,664 windows did not get washed this year at the Crystal Cathedral, the iconic glass church founded by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, one of the original religious broadcasters. Volunteers are tending the church’s 40 landscaped acres, now that the gardeners have been laid off. And its renowned Christmas pageant — with live camels and horses, and angels flying overhead on cables — has been canceled for now.

I was never a fan of this kind of misplaced opulence, but I also do not want to gloat over others’ misfortune. We all have our share of folly in our lives. But from the beginning, the hard truth was that the Cathedral was a monument to our hubris, not to God.

That’s why the Wittenburg Door awarded Schuller the title of “Loser of the Month” back in 1990 when Schuller announced plans for an additional Prayer Chapel and Spire (which you can see in the video). Though their appeal to Schuller had no impact, the Door’s tough words are a reminder that all of us who follow Christ should take to heart.

We are not angry, we are disappointed and appalled. The Crystal Prayer Chapel and Spire is more than the Loser of the Month, it is a monument to what happens when the isolation of fame and notoriety clouds a person’s thinking.

This is not a monument to God, or even to Robert Schuller. This is a monument to Southern California, where wealth and materialism have become God, and where waste and insensitivity to the rest of the world are a way of life.

One need not live in Southern California, be a member in a megachurch or own an opulent home to fall into this trap. So many of us live with so much good fortune that we lose track of what really matters. As we witness the Cathedral’s financial fall from afar, it is better to reflect on where our own treasures — and hearts — reside.

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So, the Vatican’s official newspaper has an article declaring that Homer Simpson is really a Catholic. Seems like a bit of a stretch, especially considering the Simpsons’ First Church of Springfield is characterized as “Presbylutheran.” As Al Jean, one of the show’s producers, told the website EW.com:

We’ve pretty clearly shown that Homer is not Catholic. I really don’t think he could go without eating meat on Fridays for even an hour.

The Vatican article was correct on one point:

‘The Simpsons remain among the few programs for children in which the Christian faith, religion and the question of God are recurring themes. The family recites prayers together before meals and, in its own way, believes in heaven.

In the end, Homer’s denomination is beside the point. With its skillful use of satire, “The Simpsons” is one television’s most intelligent shows when it comes to dealing with faith.

But for now the Vatican will enjoy its 15 minutes of media attention. And that’s 15 minutes that won’t be dedicated to asking when the church will finally make right the countless cases of sex abuse perpetrated by priests.

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The TiVo is warmed up and ready to go for this week’s six-hour survey examining the place of faith in U.S. history, “God in America,” which begins tonight on PBS. (The bigger challenge, as always, is carving out the six hours I need to watch it).

This isn’t the first time that PBS has explored this topic, and even at six hours it is likely that the series will sacrifice depth for the sake of breadth. Today The New York Times gave the series a mixed review, while noting that much attention is given to the relationship between faith and politics.  

However, the review ends with this interesting note, one to keep in mind if you watch the series:

Throughout “God in America” the focus stays resolutely on “in” — the program never considers how the notion it documents of a special relationship with God has affected America’s relationship with the rest of the world. It’s there, however, in a clip from one of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s amazingly prophetic antiwar speeches, when he refers to America as “a sort of policeman of the whole world” and says: “It seems that I can hear God saying to America, you’re too arrogant. If you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power.” It’s left to the viewer to wonder whether that, in the long run, will be the real story of God and America. 

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In the midst of last Friday’s testimony during a congressional hearing, Stephen Colbert stepped out of his fine-tuned persona and (as Andrew Sullivan notes) let his Catholic roots show through:

I like talking about people who don’t have any power, and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come in and do our work, but don’t have any rights as a result. And yet, we still ask them to come here, and at the same time, ask them to leave. And that’s an interesting contradiction to me, and um… You know, “whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers,” and these seemed like the least of my brothers, right now. A lot of people are “least brothers” right now, with the economy so hard, and I don’t want to take anyone’s hardship away from them or diminish it or anything like that. But migrant workers suffer, and have no rights.

It’s a moment like this that makes Colbert much more than just another comedian. He is a jester in the king’s court, and his best satire does more than shred our pretensions and expose our folly; it exudes the expectation that people owe one another a sense of decency and care.

With a statement like that, I know I risk overhyping Colbert, for I’ve watched plenty of moments when his bits misfire and I cringe. But still, there’s something different that emerges from Colbert’s comedy when you watch him consistently and see how his gems outweigh the chunks of coal.

He does not forget the least of these.

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