Movies

Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

The lengthy New York Times obituary for the Franco Zeffirelli features lots of material — as it should — about the legendary director’s off-stage and off-screen private life, which was colorful, to say the least. The headline proclaimed: “Franco Zeffirelli, Italian Director With Taste for Excess, Dies at 96.”

The word “bastard” plays a dramatic role in this story, since that social stigma loomed over Zeffirelli throughout his life. The word “homosexual” is in the mix, as well. The Times also noted that, in his political career, Zeffirelli was a “conservative” who fiercely opposed abortion. Then again, he also fought with the Communists opposing Mussolini’s Fascists and the German Nazis.

Zeffirelli lived a sprawling, complex life that, at times, was almost as dramatic as the designs for his opera productions.

But there was something else that, when describing his life, Zeffirelli always stressed — his faith. In fact, the word “Catholic” never shows up in the Times piece. Also, there is only a passing reference to one of the works that, via television, made him famous with mass audiences around the world — his popular 1977 mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth.”

That’s rather strange. As my colleague Clemente Lisi noted, in a Religion Unplugged feature about Zeffirelli’s complex career and faith:

“Faith has been my life,” Zeffirelli said in an interview two years ago with Italian state television RAI. “How can you live without it?”

The Times piece covered so many bases. So why ignore this man’s faith — which he openly discussed — as well as his complex personal life? Here is one large chunk of the obit:

A whirlwind of energy, Mr. Zeffirelli found time not only to direct operas, films and plays past the age of 80, but also to carry out an intense social life and even pursue a controversial political career. He had a long, tumultuous love affair with Luchino Visconti, the legendary director of film, theater and opera. He was a friend and confidant of Callas, Anna Magnani, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Coco Chanel and Leonard Bernstein.

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Is the (refreshingly) modest Aladdin movie a marketing tool for the Muslim world?

Is the  (refreshingly) modest Aladdin movie a marketing tool for the Muslim world?

I took my daughter to see the new “Aladdin” film on Wednesday. I know it’s been panned by some reviewers, but we enjoyed it.

The costumes were gorgeous but hard to place. They were an Indo-Persian mix with actresses in sari-like bodices and petticoats but also wearing head scarves that drape but don’t conceal their hair.

Turns out there may be a religion story in all that costuming but if so, reporters missed it. Folks did notice that the female heroine Jasmine was more covered up than in previous incarnations.

USA Today suggested that was no accident.

Jasmine's signature outfit from the animated "Aladdin" is iconic. You know the look: low-riding turquoise harem pants paired with a tiny off-the-shoulder top that leaves the princess' belly button out in the open.

That is not an outfit that exists in the new world of Disney's live-action "Aladdin."

"The (animated) movie was done in 1992. We wanted to modernize the movie, and some things are inappropriate these days for families," says "Aladdin" producer Dan Lin.

So there was a rule on the "Aladdin" set to make sure the movie achieved that goal: "No midriff," Lin says.

And … why? Since when has Hollywood embraced modesty? Oh, yes, when money is involved. And since the movie has that Middle Eastern setting and might appeal to audiences in that neck of the world, we can’t have anything too racy, can we?

I’m only guessing, but this is a good time to ask if Hollywood has actually gotten serious about marketing realities in the Muslim world.

Fans of elaborate costume design will likely support the filmmakers' decision to keep the famous princess more covered up. Instead of wearing monochrome bra tops and baggy pants, Jasmine is dripping in sumptuous gowns with gold detailing, elaborate trains and vibrant jewels that highlight her regality over her sexuality.

Again, huh. I’ve just finished watching the final episodes of “Game of Thrones” and “regality over sexuality” was not emphasized there. Hollywood doesn’t embrace restraint unless forced to.

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Question for reporters and preachers: Is there a God-shaped hole in the Avengers universe?

Question for reporters and preachers: Is there a God-shaped hole in the Avengers universe?

It was Christmas Eve as Harry Potter and his best friend Hermione Granger arrived in the town of Godric's Hollow, searching through the snowy church graveyard for the graves of the teen wizard’s parents, Lily and James Potter.

Here’s how the scene is depicted in the final novel — “"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" — of J.K. Rowling’s seven-volume set. Christmas carols are drifting out of the church when the duo discovers the tombstone for the family of the late Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. The inscription is from the Gospel of St. Matthew: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

That’s just the start of the faith content in the Potter-verse rooted in the author’s worldview. Hang in there with me, because this is going to link up with this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) and the national column that I wrote about the God-shaped hole in “Avengers: Endgame.”

Now, about the Potter family tombstone: In a 2007 “On Religion” column on this topic, I noted:

… The Potter headstone proclaimed: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."

Harry was mystified. Was this about defeating the evil Death Eaters?

"It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry," said Hermione, gently. "It means ... you know ... living beyond death. Living after death."

This is another Bible verse — one that Rowling said stated the theme at the heart of her Potter series. It also helps to know that the Harry Potter stories grew out of the author’s grief after the death of her mother. Rowling wanted to make a statement that death is not the end.

It also matters that Rowling has been upfront about the fact that she is active in the Scottish Episcopal Church and, based on her remarks through the years, it’s pretty clear that she is on the left side of Anglicanism. Her academic background in classics (and love of Medieval Catholic symbolism) also shaped the Potter-verse.

So what is the context of the verse on that Potter headstone?

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That mass-media firestorm surrounding 'Unplanned': Is 'censorship' the right word here?

That mass-media firestorm surrounding 'Unplanned': Is 'censorship' the right word here?

So, there’s another one of those “Christian” niche-market movies that’s about to come to a theater near you. Maybe you’re heard about it? Or maybe you have even seen the trailer for “Breakthrough” before one of those family friendly movies at your local multiplex?

There’s a good chance that you have been able to see the trailer, as explained in this Religion News Service piece. That fact alone turns this into a somewhat different “Christian movie in the marketplace” story than the one that “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I discussed during this week’s podcast (click here to tune that in).

Why? Hang in there with me, because this will take some explaining.

Producer DeVon Franklin was “blown away” by the Smiths’ story several years ago when he met Joyce and John Smith and their pastor, Jason Noble, while promoting his film “Miracles From Heaven.” …

The producer said “Breakthrough” builds on the success of the other films he has produced with explicitly Christian messages: “Miracles From Heaven,” which also is based on the true story of a mother holding on to faith as her child faces a health crisis, and “The Star,” an animated film telling the story of Jesus’ birth from the viewpoint of the animals.

And it’s well positioned to reach even more people, he said. Franklin said he was surprised how many movies the trailer has accompanied in theaters since then and by the positive response they have received. He’s seen “unprecedented interest in this type of content,” he said.

Now, if the trailer for this movie is showing in front of lots of mainstream films — like the superheat “Mary Poppins Returns” — and reaching family friendly audiences, then that would mean that “Breakthrough” is rated PG — which it is. The film has also been welcomed, without rancor, into the world of social media.

So how is this different from that other Christian-market movie that is in the news right now? What have you read about “Unplanned” and its attempts to reach the emerging marketplace for faith-driven films?

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Regarding Israel and the End Times, what is Dispensationalism? What is the rapture?

Regarding Israel and the End Times, what is Dispensationalism? What is the rapture?

THE QUESTION:

Regarding Israel and Bible prophecies about the End Times, what are the meanings of such terms as Dispensationalism, the rapture, premillennialism, the great tribulation,  pre-tribulationism and Armageddon?

THE GUY’S ANSWER:

A March 31 New York Times article on how religion may influence U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s approach toward Israel had this headline: “The Rapture and the Real World: Pompeo Mixes Beliefs and Policy.”

One key point was that the then-Congressman told a religious audience in 2015 that humanity faces “a never-ending struggle” until “the rapture.” Yes, think “Left Behind” books and movies.

The move of the United States embassy to Jerusalem, and U.S. recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over Syria’s Golan Heights, were thought to boost both President Donald Trump’s evangelical support and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s April 9 election prospects. Analyzing those decisions, the Times explained that “white evangelicals,” Pompeo included, believe “God promised the land to the Jews, and that the gathering of Jews in Israel is foretold in the prophecy of the rapture — the ascent of Christians into the kingdom of God.”

The Times wording was truthy but confusing, and the standard rapture belief is not taught by evangelicalism as a whole — but only one segment. Also, the “white evangelical” reference is strange, since this doctrine can be found in quite a few different kinds of evangelical sanctuaries.

So let’s unpack some elements of these complex matters.

Secretary Pompeo is a member of the Michigan-based Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a small body (89,190 members, 207 congregations) that forsook the more liberal Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1981. It upholds the Westminster Confession and catechisms proclaimed by British clergy and politicians assembled by Parliament in the mid-17th Century. Churches that follow such Reformation-era credos affirm Jesus’s Second Coming and the Last Judgment, but not the modern rapture belief formulated two centuries later.

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How a past and (maybe) future pope are providing crucial leadership in age of Francis

How a past and (maybe) future pope are providing crucial leadership in age of Francis

The events of the past few days have truly been monumental for the Roman Catholic church.

You may not have noticed — unless you’ve bothered to read the ever-growing list of Catholic news websites on both the right and left. While liberals and conservatives within the church continue to wage a very public war over everything from the future of Christendom in the West to the ongoing clerical abuse crisis, two prominent voices have led the charge when it comes to these two issues.

Again, it was conservative Catholic media that proved to be the preferred mouthpiece for Cardinal Robert Sarah and Pope Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. Both men — with help from right-leaning news organizations — have been very vocal about the problems plaguing the modern church in our ever-secular world.

It is fitting that these two men — one considered a potential future pope, the other already a pope — are the ones leading the charge as the church continues to become polarized. Under Francis’ papacy, the ideological split has become more pronounced. As the curia continues to polarize itself in public on issues like immigration and homosexuality, church leaders like Sarah and Benedict refuse to be silenced. Once again, it’s those Catholic media voices on the right that are helping to spread their message.

Case in point: this past week. At a time when Christians around the world continue on their Lenten journey, Sarah and Benedict are making a statement about the direction of Catholicism, the legacy of Vatican II and where the church is going. Sarah, who hails from the majority-Muslim nation of Guinea in Africa, contrasted Pope Francis’ statements in telling Christian nations they should open their borders to Islamic refugees.

The 73-year-old cardinal, in his new book” Evening Draws Near” and the “Day is Nearly Over,” argues that it’s wrong to “use the Word of God to promote migration.” Sarah laments the “collapse of the West” and what he calls “migratory processes” that threatens Europe’s Christian identity. As birthrates continue to drop across Europe, and workers from other continents are needed to take jobs, the culture of the continent is changing.

“If Europe disappears, and with it the priceless values of the Old Continent, Islam will invade the world and we will completely change culture, anthropology and moral vision,” he wrote.It’s worth noting that Sarah has been at odds with Pope Francis and his allies over an array of issues, including liturgical matters and translations of Latin texts.

The excerpt was largely ignored by mainstream news outlets.

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This may be a tough question: Does Rupert Murdoch have a soul? Does this question matter?

This may be a tough question: Does Rupert Murdoch have a soul? Does this question matter?

Every semester, in my Journalism Foundations seminar at The King’s College in New York City, I dedicate a night to the role that Stephen Colbert’s Catholic faith has played in his life and career.

It’s important, of course, to spend some time looking at the humorist’s break-out show — The Colbert Report, on Comedy Central. This show was, of course, a satire focusing on the flamethrower commentary of Bill O’Reilly for Fox News work.

With Colbert, every thing on the show was upside-down and inside-out, with his blowhard conservative character making lots of liberal political points by offering over-the-top takes on some — repeat “some” — conservative stances. I argued that to understand what Colbert was doing, you had to understand O’Reilly and then turn that inside out.

Thus, I asked: What kind of conservative is, or was, O’Reilly? Students always say things like, a “right-wing one?” A “stupid one”? An “ultra-conservative one”? I’ve never had a student give the accurate answer — a Libertarian conservative.

I realize that there have been lively debates about the compatibility of Libertarianism and Catholicism. However, it’s safe to say that most Catholics reject a blend of liberal, or radically individualistic, social policies and conservative economics. Turn that inside out and you have what? Conservative morality and progressive economics?

This brings me to the massive New York Times Magazine deep-dive into the life and career of Rupert Murdoch. Here’s the humble headline on this long, long piece (150 interviews, readers are told) by Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg: “How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World.”

So the question: What kind of conservative is Murdoch? Is it possible that there is some kind of moral or even religious ghost in this story?

It opens with a rather apocalyptic scene in January, 2018. The 86-year-old press baron — on holiday with his fourth wife, Jerry Hall — has collapsed on the floor of his cabin on a yacht owned by one of his sons. Is this the end? The big question, of course, is, “Who will run the empire after the lord and master is gone?”

So here’s what’s at stake:

Few private citizens have ever been more central to the state of world affairs than the man lying in that hospital bed, awaiting his children’s arrival.

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Opening Day memories: Was Jackie Robinson's Methodist faith part of his epic life story?

Opening Day memories: Was Jackie Robinson's Methodist faith part of his epic life story?

A lot has been said and written about Jackie Robinson. The baseball great — famous for breaking baseball’s color barrier — was known for many things. Robinson’s athletic abilities, courage in the face of racism and the dignity with which he went about it all remain the focal points.

What is often ignored, and even forgotten, was Robinson’s Christian faith.

This past January 31 marked the day the trailblazing Robinson would have turned 100. He died at age 53, meaning that he’s been gone almost as long as he lived. Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947 when he donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform — that now-iconic No. 42 emblazoned across his back — at Ebbets Field and how his relationship with Branch Rickey, the team’s general manager, forever changed race relations in the United States.

“I think there are different explanations why his faith has been ignored. One of them is that Robinson — unlike Rickey — was private about his religion. It wasn’t something he talked a lot about,” said Chris Lamb, who co-authored a book in 2017 with Michael Long entitled Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography. “The book of Matthew quotes Jesus as telling us to avoid praying publicly. Secondly, Robinson’s significance comes more in his work in baseball and in civil rights and not in religion. That said, he couldn't have achieved what he did without his faith and his wife Rachel.”

The centennial of Robinson’s birth (and the many events associated with the celebration that will culminate in December with the opening of a museum in his honor in New York City) has allowed Americans of all ages to recall Robinson’s great achievements in the diamond — including helping the Dodgers win the 1955 World Series and having his number retired by every Major League Baseball team in 1997 — and the impact he would have on ending segregation and helping to spur the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Robinson died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 53.

Robinson’s famous quote — one etched on his tombstone at his Brooklyn gravesite in Cypress Hills Cemetery — reads: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

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'End Times' thinking: Do biblical prophecies explain why so many evangelicals back Israel?

'End Times' thinking: Do biblical prophecies explain why so many evangelicals back Israel?

Hey journalists, can you say “Premillennial Dispensationalism”?

Believe it or not, the odds are very good that, in most elite newsrooms, some editor or reporter on the political desk knows — or thinks that he or she knows — the meaning of this theological term. Hint: It’s a modern interpretation of apocalyptic passages in the Old and New Testament, producing a kind of “how many Israeli fighter jets can fit on the head of a pin” view of the end of the world.

After all, there are all of those “Left Behind” novels all over the place. Then the books led to several movies that, in some corners of the evangelical subculture, are kind of like the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” They’re so over the top that they have become high-grade camp.

The key is that there are some modern Protestants who can accurately be called “Premillennial Dispensationalists.”

Repeat after me — “some.”

As in, “not all.” As in, not even a majority of conservative evangelicals fit under this doctrinal umbrella. Why does this matter, in political terms? Here is David French of National Review to explain, in this weekend’s think piece. If fact, this is a think piece inside of a think piece. Hold that thought.

It never fails. Whenever a Republican president makes a controversial or contentious move to support Israel — such as moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, or yesterday’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — you’ll see various “explainers” and other stories that purport to inform progressives why the American Evangelical community is so devoted to the nation of Israel.

The explanation goes something like this — Evangelicals believe that the rebirth of Israel is hastening not just the second coming of Christ, but a particular kind of second coming, one that includes fire, fury, and war that will consume the Jewish people.

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