Arts

Priest rushes under the flames inside Notre Dame Cathedral to save a ... STATUE of Jesus?

Priest rushes under the flames inside Notre Dame Cathedral to save a ... STATUE of Jesus?

OK, Catholic readers of GetReligion (and you know who you are), we have a solution to a journalism mystery that many noticed in the wave of coverage following the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral.

The big question raised by The New York Times: What’s the difference between a “statue” of Jesus and a priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament”? Hold that thought.

Let’s start with Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade and one of the heroes of efforts to save what could be saved inside the iconic cathedral. Quite a few people are reporting stories about the actions that he took when it became clear that there was no way to stop the flames in the wooden structures holding up the cathedral roof.

Here’s the top of my “On Religion” column for this week, which led with this angle of the story:

As the flames rushed through Notre Dame Cathedral's wooden rafters -- each beam cut from an individual oak -- a squad of firefighters began a strategic mission.

Their leader was Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. The goal was to save a crown of thorns that pilgrims have venerated for centuries as part of one worn by the crucified Jesus. King Louis IX brought the relic to Paris in 1238, after receiving it as a gift from the embattled emperor of Constantinople.

Fournier and his firefighters were, according to KTO Catholic Television, able to "save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament." Forming a human chain, they retrieved as many relics and works of sacred art as they could, until the flames won.

Meanwhile, American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

So here is a basic religion-beat journalism challenge: How does one describe the “Blessed Sacrament” in a few phrases? Some journalists struggled with that.

For some reporters, the crucial issue was trying to turn “sacraments” and holy relics into “art” and “artifacts.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The Godfather’s Catholic symbolism is often overlooked during book’s 50th anniversary

The Godfather’s Catholic symbolism is often overlooked during book’s 50th anniversary

The Godfather, before it was an Academy-Award winning film, was a book. The crime novel, written by Mario Puzo, was released on March 10, 1969. The fictional account of Vito Corleone’s life is chronicled during a 10-year span starting in 1945.

The book’s 50th anniversary has been a great opportunity for newspapers, magazines and websites — especially the ones that cover the entertainment industry — to unleash nostalgia pieces looking back at the book and the three movies that later grew out of Puzo’s book and Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece films, the first of which was released in 1972.

Amid all the immorality, crime, violence and ultimately Michael Corleone’s final despair (for anyone who could sit through The Godfather III) isn’t just a series of mob movies. The Godfather book and movie trilogy is loaded with religious symbolism.

Anniversary journalism is a very big part of what reporters write and what Google search thrives on — so it’s important that The Godfather get the proper treatment. This is something another book/movie from that era, The Exorcist, also suffered the same lack of religion coverage.

Since Corleone (played by Marlon Brando and by Roberto De Nero in the sequel during the flashback scenes) is an immigrant from Sicily, the story’s symbolism is largely Roman Catholic. Like The Exorcist, The Godfather has suffered the same journalistic fate when it comes to lack of a religion angle. Even the book’s name, The Godfather, refers to a male godparent in the Christian tradition tied with baptism and original sin.

This is not to say the Catholic angle has been totally ignored. In 2013, The Georgia Bulletin, the newspaper of the Atlanta diocese, ran an opinion piece by Dr. David King, an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University.

Though Coppola himself has struggled with his Catholicism, his imagination is so steeped in Catholic practice and atmosphere that he can never fully abandon the faith, any more than his greatest character Michael Corleone can. Coppola has often said that his favorite word is “hope,” and it is that sense of hope and belief in redemption that best defines “The Godfather” films as Catholic art.

King goes on to say that the films are “full of Catholic themes, including justice and mercy, fate vs. spirituality, the dialectic between family and country and community, the letter and the spirit of the law, and time and timelessness, they are also charged with a deep Catholic mise en scene, or atmosphere.”  

The Church is everywhere in “The Godfather” films: baptisms, funerals, confessions.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The Seattle Times waxes lyrical about anti-Trump 'Chick tracts' created by 'Patriotic Christians'

The Seattle Times waxes lyrical about anti-Trump 'Chick tracts' created by 'Patriotic Christians'

It’s not often that you read a religion story in the Seattle Times arts and entertainment section, but on Tuesday, there appeared this feature on about a pair of local artists — they are self-identified as “Patriotic Christians” — who put out “tracts” satirizing President Donald Trump.

Which raises some questions. What if a group was distributing tracts making fun of someone else, ie former President Barack Obama or “crooked Hillary”? Would it be a cute political joke still or would they be racist or sexist screeds?

Is it safe to only mock someone like Trump — and his supporters, of course — but no one else? And should a story of this kind include people who are offended by these products?

The article is clever, I do admit.

Little Dickie Glitz was born rich. His parents gave him lots of stuff, but he was never satisfied and always hollered for more. His parents were lax in the manners department, so Dickie earned a reputation as the loud, spoiled neighborhood brat. The other kids didn’t like to play with Dickie — every time he started losing a game, he stormed away, yelling: “I quit! This game is rigged!”

These habits continued into adulthood, and Dickie became a rich, arrogant loudmouth who made a deal with a devilish-looking guy (who bore a striking resemblance to Vladimir Putin) and somehow got elected President of the United States.

That’s the basic narrative arc of “I’m Rich!,” a roughly 3-by-5-inch comic-book tract printed on cheap, newspaper-grade paper and lightly sprinkled with gallows-humor wit and relevant Bible verses: “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24), “Everyone who is arrogant is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 16:5), “Beware! Keep yourselves from covetousness” (Luke 12:15).

“I’m Rich!” and its companion tract (“Good Morning Amerika”) were created and published by an enigmatic group called Patriotic Christians for a Better America (PCBA), who have been anonymous — until now. (Its national headquarters is in a cozy house in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

As the story goes on, I learn some facts about the artists and see examples of their work.

But here is a very important journalism issue: Readers are never told, or shown, what sort of Christianity they follow, much less how they are “patriotic Christians.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Ubiquitous Shen Yun ads spin off Twitter memes and profiles on Falun Gong

Ubiquitous Shen Yun ads spin off Twitter memes and profiles on Falun Gong

If it’s spring it must be time to see Shen Yun, the mysterious Chinese dance troupe that charges a small fortune for its performances in top culture venues around the country.

Their ads are so widespread, there’s a Twitter discussion about how their billboards can be found even on Mars.

Few people know that Shen Yun represents a quasi-Buddhist group known as Falun Gong and that the Chinese government seems to persecute its followers even more than they hate Christians and Muslims. Which, considering the Nazi-style internment camps for Muslims in western China and the government’s crusade to destroy Christian churches, is saying a lot.

Fortunately, there’s been a few articles out about the group, including one by the Seattle-based The Stranger that calls the dance spectacles “dissident art.” There’s also one that came out last month in the San Francisco Chronicle that begins thus:

Unless you live under a rock, you've probably seen a billboard or heard dozens of ads for Shen Yun Performing Arts.

In the Bay Area, people are so used to seeing the ads on TV and on the sides of buses come December, people even joke winter should be renamed "Shen Yun season." Since I started writing this article about two minutes ago, I've already seen a Shen Yun spot run on KTVU…

Shen Yun bills itself as "the world's premier classical Chinese dance and music company." They have performances in 93 cities around the country, from Billings, Mont., to Little Rock, Ark., to three Bay Area locations. The dress code suggests you might want to wear a tuxedo or evening gown since you're "in for a special treat." If you buy a ticket to a show (which run from $80 to $400 in San Francisco), you can expect two hours of traditional Chinese dance accompanied by a live orchestra.

And yes, it’s here in Seattle from April 2-7.

And if you're to believe Shen Yun's own advertisements, you'll get so much more. The hyperbolic 2018 ad promises the performance will "move you to tears" and change how you see the world…

Some people who go to the show complain they didn't know what they were in for. Because nowhere in the effusive advertisements is it mentioned that Shen Yun has a political bent. Shen Yun translates to "divine rhythm," and according to the show's website, the artists who put on Shen Yun practice Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, a belief system that encompasses meditation, tai chi-type exercises, and "strict morality" (smoking, alcohol, and extramarital or same-sex sexual relations go against the teachings).

Please respect our Commenting Policy

News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

There were a lot of different subjects swirling around during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, so I don’t know exactly where to start. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes.)

On one level, host Todd Wilken and I talked about church buildings and sacred architecture. You know, the whole idea that church architecture is theology expressed in (List A) stone, timber, brick, stucco, copper, iron and glass.

Ah, but is the theology different if the materials being used are (List B) sheetrock, galvanized steel, plastic, concrete, rubber and plywood?

What if you built a Byzantine, Orthodox sanctuary out of the materials in List B and accepted the American construction-industry norms that a building will last about 40-50 years? Contrast that with a church built with List A materials, using many techniques that have been around for centuries and are meant to produce churches that last 1,000 years or more.

These two churches would look very similar. The provocative issue raised by church designer and art historian Andrew Gould — of New World Byzantine Studios, in Charleston, S.C. — is whether one of these two churches displays a “sacred ethos” that will resonate with the teachings of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, while the other may be both modern and more temporary.

Here’s another question along those same lines: Why did farmers, merchants and peasants in places like Greece, Russia, Serbia and Romania for many centuries insist on building churches that would last for generation after generation of believers? Also, why are the faithful in many modern, prosperous American communities tempted to build churches that may start to fall apart after a few decades?

Here’s the end of my “On Religion” column about Gould and his work, based on a lecture he gave at my own Orthodox home parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn. — which is poised to build a much-needed new sanctuary.

“If you build something that looks like a Byzantine church, but it isn’t really built like a Byzantine church, then it isn’t going to look and sound and function like a Byzantine church — generation after generation,” said Gould.

“The goal in most architecture today is to create the appearance of something, not the reality. ... When you build one of these churches, you want the real thing. You want reality. You want a church that’s going to last.”

Now, is this a very newsworthy subject?

Maybe not. But some of these issues can be spotted looming over big headlines some big stories in places like New York City.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Vogue does Justin and Hailey Bieber, their pre-marital abstinence and hipster churches

Vogue does Justin and Hailey Bieber, their pre-marital abstinence and hipster churches

There’s been a glut of news pieces recently about hipster churches that attract famous people such as pop icon Justin Bieber and new wife Hailey Baldwin.

According to this month’s Vogue cover story, complete with gorgeous photography by Annie Leibovitz (see above), the couple opens up about their marital struggles.

There’s a bunch of features out there, all of which have Bieber’s name in the headline (good for SEO), asking if the recent glut of Hollywood celebrities finding religion is ruining Christianity.

The big takeaway from the Vogue piece was the couple admitting they both refrained from sex before getting married last fall, mainly because of their faith. That one admission, hardly a shock to anyone who knows basic Christian doctrine on sexuality, made headlines in other outlets.

In an odd way it proves that at least some teachings are getting through to people who go to a new breed of megachurch that specializes in the rich and famous.

Sprinkled amidst the Vogue piece were observations about the churches Bieber/Baldwin attend, including the Manhattan branch of Hillsong, a church network originating in Australia. The couple is also connected with Churchome here in Seattle because its pastor, Judah Smith, is one of Bieber’s mentors. Vogue noted this:

On a rainy night in Beverly Hills, a thousand or so 20-somethings in leather jackets, hoodies, skater T-shirts, and stoner pajama bottoms filter into the Saban Theatre for the weekly Wednesday service of Churchome, Judah Smith’s Seattle-based ministry, which is part of a new wave of evangelical congregations attracting young Angelenos. High fives and bro hugs ripple through the auditorium.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The Intercept: The mix of hijabs and high fashion do Muslims no favor

The Intercept: The mix of hijabs and high fashion do Muslims no favor

In this age of bare-bones journalism, a number of private investigative websites have sprung up to report on news that’s important to their owners. One is The Intercept, an online news site dedicated to “adversarial journalism” and funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

Such sites tackle education, politics, the environment and more — but surprisingly not religion, even though huge percentages of Americans are involved in some kind of faith. Recently, The Intercept made its religion debut with a piece on Islamic fashion and its relation to capitalism.

Its main point was that although the hijab and the flowing robes of the Saudi abaya may be glamorized on the world’s catwalks, actual women who wear them are vilified.

NIKE RELEASED ITS first sports hijab last December, heralded with sleek, black-and-white photographs of accomplished Muslim athletes wearing the Pro Hijab emblazoned with the iconic swoosh. The same month, TSA pulled 14 women who wear hijab out of a security check line at Newark Airport; they were then patted down, searched, and detained for two hours.

From February to March, Gucci, Versace, and other luxury brands at autumn/winter fashion week dressed mostly white models in hijab-like headscarves. Around that time, two women filed a civil rights lawsuit against New York City related to an incident in which the NYPD forced them to remove their hijabs for mugshots.

Gap, a clothing brand known for its all-American ethos, featured a young girl in a hijab smiling broadly in its back-to-school ads this past summer. Meanwhile, children were forced to leave a public pool in Delaware; they were told that their hijabs could clog the filtration system.

Muslim women and Muslim fashion currently have unprecedented visibility in American consumer culture. Yet women who cover are among the most visible targets for curtailed civil liberties, violence, and discrimination in the anti-Muslim climate intensified by Donald Trump’s presidency.

Then comes an utterly clueless paragraph.

By selling modest clothing or spotlighting a hijabi in an ad campaign, the U.S. clothing industry is beckoning Muslim women to be its latest consumer niche. In order to tap into the multibillion-dollar potential of the U.S. Muslim consumer market, large retailers have positioned themselves as socially conscious havens for Muslims, operating on a profit motive rather than a moral imperative.

Now when has Gucci, Prada, Nike, Gap or all the other brands out there ever had a moral imperative?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

I have been in and out of Nashville since the mid-1980s and I have heard that great city called many things.

Of course, it is the “Music City,” but I am more fond of the nickname “Guitar Town.”

Southern Baptists used to refer to the national convention’s large, strategically located headquarters as the “Baptist Vatican.” Then again, the United Methodist corporate presence in Nashville is also important.

This points to another reality: The historic synergy between the country music industry and the world of gospel music, in a wide variety of forms (including Contemporary Christian Music). Nashville is also home to a hub of Christian publishing companies that has global clout. All of that contributes to another well-known Nashville label: “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

It’s an amazing town, with a stunning mix of churches and honky-tonks. As country legend Naomi Judd once told me, in Nashville artists can sing about Saturday night and Sunday morning in the same show and no one will blink.

This brings me to a massive New York Times feature that ran with this sprawling double-decker headline:

Nashville’s Star Rises as Midsize Cities Break Into Winners and Losers

Nashville and others are thriving thanks to a mix of luck, astute political choices and well-timed investments, while cities like Birmingham, Ala., fall behind.

That tells you the basic thrust of the story. What interested me is that the Times covered the rapidly changing face of Nashville — many Tennesseans moan that it’s the new Atlanta — without making a single reference to the role that religious institutions have played in the city’s past and, yes, its present.

That’s really, really hard to do. But the Times team managed to pull that off.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

THE QUESTION: Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” — the Easter cantata that is so frequently heard at Christmastime — is probably the most-performed and most-beloved piece of great music ever written. What explains this long-running appeal?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Underlying this theme is the poignant reality that our culture and many of its churches are gradually losing historical moorings that include the excellent fine arts created in former times. So how and why does “Messiah,” which exemplifies the “classical” musical style and faith of 276 years ago, so hold its own today?

By most estimates, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) does not quite equal a peerless fellow German composer and a contemporary he never met, J.S. Bach (1685-1750). But in terms of popularity and number of performances, not to mention seasonal sing-alongs, this one among Handel’s 30 oratorios overshadows Bach’s monumental Christian works such as the “Christmas Oratorio,” “Mass in B Minor,” “St. John Passion” and “St. Matthew “Passion.”

Handel biographer Jonathan Keates tells the remarkable story of the famed oratorio in his 2017 book “Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece” — a good gift suggestion.

In a fit of inspiration, Handel dashed off all of his oratorio’s 53 sections in just three weeks. (Of course tunesmith Bach was expected to turn out a new choral number almost every week.) The first performance in the Easter season of 1742 — in Dublin, Ireland, instead of England — was a triumph.

The London premiere the following March is remembered because King George II stood during the “Hallelujah Chorus” and was imitated by the audience. Listeners have done the same ever since, a tribute normally limited to patriotic anthems. George never officially explained his deed. But it has always been assumed he believed a Christian king should express obeisance to the eternal “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” per the text sung from the Book of Revelation.

There was some trouble with the London gig.

Bluenoses thought it faintly blasphemous that a Christian oratorio was being performed in the secular Covent Garden theater instead of a church.

Please respect our Commenting Policy