Star Wars

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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Think piece from guilt files: The ethics of ambushing Robert Mueller after Easter worship rites

Think piece from guilt files: The ethics of ambushing Robert Mueller after Easter worship rites

It’s one of those surreal scenes that’s hard to imagine ever happened — but it did. More than once.

The setting is a Roman Catholic church in England and the late, great Sir Alec Guinness has just knelt to receive Holy Communion and is quietly returning to his pew. Then someone would do the unthinkable.

To be blunt: Is this the time and place to talk to Guinness about “Star Wars”? The answer is: “No.” As Joseph Pearce, author of "Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief,” once told me:

"All that we really know about Sir Alec Guinness — right down the line — is that he did not consider his life to be public property. ... He was particularly irritated when people would, literally, come up to him after Mass and try to talk to him about his movies."

Ah, but what if it is Easter and all of America is talking about the release of the most important government document in the history of the Republic? What if the person coming out of church is the Special Counsel who millions (OK, it seems that way) of Beltway Talking Heads had designated as the hero who would slay (it’s a metaphor) the evil Donald Trump and allow Blue Zip Code Americans to return to living happy, fulfilled lives free of Twitter insults, other than their own?

This brings us to this weekend’s think piece, which I feel very guilty about because I should have used this earlier. But better late than never. This ran as an “ethics” commentary by Al Tompkins at Poynter.org, with this headline: “Offensive or appropriate? We talked to the reporter who questioned Mueller on Easter.” Here’s the overture:

MSNBC freelance reporter Mike Viqueira was trying to land the interview that nobody else has in close to two years. That’s why he confronted Special Counsel Robert Mueller as he and his wife left a Washington, D.C., church service on Easter Sunday. Viqueira is taking heat on social media for confronting Mueller after church, but some journalists say Mueller is such a high-profile public figure that he is fair game.

There’s a word for this: optics.

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I know this may be hard: But let's take the Jedi faith folks seriously for a moment

I know this may be hard: But let's take the Jedi faith folks seriously for a moment

Can't you feel the excitement building as the holy day draws near?

No, not Christmas. A am referring to the media build-up during this advent period before the arrival of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

I am old enough to remember the early conversations in newsrooms about whether, under the doctrines of the Associated Press Stylebook, stories about the Star Wars franchise should refer to "the force" or "the Force." Just about everyone on the religion beat back in those days wrote features about whether parents should tell their children that the Force was or was not another name for God.

If you follow discussions of Star Wars as a pop-culture religion, you surely know that fans on the other side of the pond took this discussion to a higher level about 15 years ago. Here is the background section of a new story in The Telegraph about the impact of the new film on the leaders of the Church of Jediism.

Jediism started as a joke, ahead of the 2001 census, in which respondents were asked to declare their religion for the first time. At the time, 390,000 people declared that they were Jedis, a number that fell by more than half, to 177,000, at the following census, in 2011.
Now the organisation, described by its members as “a set of philosophies based on focusing, learning and becoming one with the Force”, claims to have more than 250,000 followers. Patrick Day-Childs, a member of the church’s five-strong UK ruling council, said that more than a thousand people a day are signing up for the religion. He said: “It’s gone up substantially in the past couple of days. The real test will be in a couple of weeks when the film hype has died off. “
Daniel Jones, who founded the religion and who goes by the Jedi name Morda Hehol, said: “We’ve been rushed off our feet. People want to know more about it. It’s great for us.”

Now, the "leading figures in the Church of Jediism," as the Telegraph team identifies them, are saying that they are gaining about 1,000 new members a day as the holy release day nears for the new film.

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Concerning the Church of England, the Lord's Prayer and the Star (culture) Wars

Concerning the Church of England, the Lord's Prayer and the Star (culture) Wars

It was a question that nagged defenders of the English monarchy for years: If and when he ever became king, would Prince Charles declare himself to be the "Defender of Faith," as opposed to "Defender of the Faith"?

In a way, the chance that the crucial "the" would go missing was the perfect symbol for decades of tense "multiculturalism" debates in Britain. Drop the "the" and the implication was that Christianity, and the Church of England in particular, would have lost its status as a foundation for English life and culture. The monarch would henceforth defend the IDEA of faith, as opposed to a particular faith. Theological pluralism would be the new norm.

It didn't help, of course, that the Church of England was on the decline, in terms of worship attendance, baptisms, marriages and just about any other statistic that could be cited. Meanwhile, Islam was on the rise. Wasn't dropping this telltale "the" simply a nod to the new reality?

Prince Charles has, fairly recently, stated that his title would remain "Defender of the Faith." However, the cultural identity debates roll on, as witnessed in the stark message of the new report by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life entitled "Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good (click for .pdf)." Its bottom line: England isn't Christian. Get over it. Reactions? Click here for commentary from veteran religion-beat specialist Ruth Gledhill and here for analysis by Jenny Taylor of the Lapido Media religious literacy project.

These painful debates loomed in the background during this week's "Crossroads" podcast. This time around, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the many implications of the decision -- by the principalities and powers of the movie theater business -- to reject the use of that Church of England ad featuring the Lord's Prayer before screenings of the new Star Wars epic. Click here to tune in our discussion of all of this.

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How did 'Christian' — as an adjective in mass media — come to mean shallow and lousy?

How did 'Christian' — as an adjective in mass media — come to mean shallow and lousy?

On one level, this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) is a follow-up discussion of my recent blog here about the New York Times article that, allegedly, tried to look for Jesus at Comic-Con 2015. That event in San Diego is, as I described it in my discussion with Todd Wilken, the great annual gathering of the pop-culture tribes for a "sacred dance" of hero worship and, of course, marketing.

The Times team apparently went to this event looking for evidence that the emerging mini-industry of films and television miniseries targeting "Christian" consumers -- in this case, "Christian" clearly means "evangelical" -- just isn't with it, or cool enough, when it comes to competing in the pop-culture major leagues. But that article, I argued, really didn't pay attention to (a) the work of Christians in mainstream media and (b) the ongoing debates, decade after decade, about aith questions raised in franchises such as "Star Wars," zombie movies, the X-Men, Doctor Who, etc., etc., etc.

In the end, the podcast ended up focusing on how the term "Christian" -- used as a adjective for marketing purposes -- has in our times become another way of saying shoddy, cheap, shallow and derivative. This led to some obvious questions.

Was J.S. Bach a "Christian" composer? Is Christopher Parkening a "Christian" classical guitarist?

Was J.R.R. Tolkien a "Christian" novelist?

How about C.S. Lewis? How about Jane Austen? How about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? When Fyodor Dostoyevsky sat down to write, was he thinking to himself, "How can I please the 'Christian' marketplace?" How about Flannery O'Connor? By the way, her work was the subject of my "On Religion" column for Universal this past week.

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How to miss a few scary angels at Comic-Con, as well as zombie theology debates

How to miss a few scary angels at Comic-Con, as well as zombie theology debates

First thing first, let me offer a cry of personal outrage about one passage in that interesting New York Times piece about God and the annual Super Bowl of American pop culture -- Comic-Con. We're talking about the news feature that ran under this headline: "At Comic-Con, Faith-Based Entertainment Stays in the Shadows."

(Cue mock voice of indignation) What? There is no one on the copy desk of the world's most influential newspaper who knows the Doctor Who canon? That newsroom is a Whovian-free zone?

What does this question have to do with this story? Well, the interesting thing about this piece is that it seems to define the missing "faith" content at Comic-Con 2015 in terms of products produced by the niche-entertainment industry that strives to appeal, for the most part, to pew-sitting evangelical Christians. It seems tone-deaf to the religion content in mainstream culture, including some of its most popular products.

In that context, there is the following passage:

... There was almost no obvious contemporary, faith-based cultural presence on a convention exhibit floor that was crammed with gods, spirits and cultic outcroppings of almost every stripe.
The Christian Comic Arts Society was supposed to have a spot in the small press pavilion, but was not to be found in its assigned spot on Thursday and Friday. If the group indeed showed up, it was lost somewhere in the crowd of 130,000 attendees. The closest approach to Christian imagery was a large drawing that portrayed a dragon-conquering woman beneath a halo.
A couple of “angels” were strolling about, but they were ominously covered, head to toe, in dark makeup.

#DontBlink #WeepingAngels #DUH

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Was there a religion ghost in the life and haunted film career of Sir Christopher Lee?

Was there a religion ghost in the life and haunted film career of Sir Christopher Lee?

Sir Christopher Lee was not able to attend the New York City press events held just before the 2002 release of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," but it sure seemed like he was there, based on the number of times members of the cast and creative team made references to him.

There were members of Peter Jackson's team -- especially co-writer Philippa Boyens -- who knew the fine details of J.R.R. Tolkien's worldview and masterwork, including the ways in which his Catholic faith influenced its symbols and substance. In one famous quote, the author called the trilogy a "fundamentally religious and Catholic work."

However, various members of the team agreed that Lee was, in many ways, the official keeper of the Tolkien flame during the filming, the person whose knowledge and love of the books made him care, fiercely, about getting key details right so that the spirit of the books would soak into the movies. Several people said that they thought Lee was, himself, a Catholic.

Was Lee a believer and, if so, of what stripe? I thought that this detail might surface in the obituaries over the past day or so, but apparently journalists were not interested in the role that explorations of good and evil -- incarnate evil, especially -- played in his life and work. Alas, this didn't happen.

Now I really regret that he wasn't at those NYC round-table interviews. What did Lee say years earlier? I'll come back to that.

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