So what was the point of that 'Tom Hanks goes to church' post the other day?

Hang in there with me for a moment on this one. I want to respond to a few comments I have heard after my recent post on that faith-free Washington Post feature story about superstar Tom Hanks.

But first, let me dig into a topic that "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I discussed in depth while recording this past week's podcast (we're getting to this late because of technical issues). Click here to tune in on that.

Why is Hanks such an important, symbolic cultural figure in the first place?

Let's ponder this for a bit.

Long ago, I had a chance to interview Hollywood director Phil Alden Robinson about some of the cultural and religious themes woven into his famous "Field of Dreams" blockbuster. We discussed, for example, (a) the mental process he went though as he was casting the highly symbolic role of Dr. Archibald "Moonlight" Graham and (b) what he thought of the theory, which some articulated even as he was preparing to film this classic, that he was trying to produce the Baby Boomer edition of "It's A Wonderful Life."

Imagine, he told me, how many people would have connected those two movies if his first choice to fill the Moonlight Graham role had been able to play the part.

The goal was to have an actor whose "face could fill up the whole screen," while serving as a living icon of the Greatest Generation that lived through the Great Depression and then fought World War II. Thus, he had the great James Stewart ready to go -- but Stewart got sick and, at the last minute, Burt Lancaster stepped in. 

What does this have to do with my Hanks post? Many people, throughout his adult career, have compared Hanks with the great Stewart. Hanks the actor is seen as a kind of everyman figure whose character and essential goodness represents something bigger than Tom Hanks the man. In effect, he has become the face of a generation for many people in this culture.

Think back to 9/11. Do you remember the "Tribute to Heroes" television event that was carried on pretty much every cable channel available in North America?

It would be hard to name a media event that had more symbolic clout than this one, after another day that will live in infamy. After a live shot of a boat passing the still smoking ruins of Ground Zero, the producers had to cut to SOMEONE to explain why there would be an evening of solemn, often reverent, entertainment to raise money for the heroes and victims. Who do you get for that task? Who do you aim the camera at first to offer remarks on behalf of the world of arts and entertainment, speaking to all Americans and the whole world?

Tom Hanks, of course. Click here to see that moment.

So this is why, in my post the other day, I argued that it was not enough for The Washington Post to simply say that Hanks works hard to keep his private life and convictions out of the public eye. This is especially true since any kind of Google search that combines Hanks and religion actually yields, quite easily, some fascinating material.

Ah, but why think that religion has anything to do with this kind of symbolic "face of a generation" role in America? Here at GetReligion we refer to this simply as the "ghost" question. If journalists ask this kind of question and pursue it, they will almost always find interesting and valid factual material. As we say around here, it's hard -- statistically speaking -- to do real news about real events in the lives of real people living in the real world without taking religion seriously.

Some people asked if the Hanks situation matters to me (as an Orthodox layman) because Hanks is part of a Greek Orthodox cathedral parish. Frankly, that is interesting, but not because I think it's great PR.

If anything, Hanks appears to represent a kind of liberal Orthodox approach win which his moral, cultural and political views appear -- on the surface, for sure -- to clash with the ancient and consistent teachings of his own church. If anything, putting a spotlight on Hanks is kind of embarrassing for some Orthodox folks.

I really don't care. If this is a case of the Post missing an interesting story on the religious left, then I still think that's a bad thing -- for journalistic reasons.

Again I ask: Why not run one simple "Tom Hanks," "church," "faith" online search and see what you get? If he is one of the faces of America, or even a religiously complex generation of Americans, you might find something interesting and important. It could happen.

Enjoy the podcast.

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