Arts

Today's must-read story: Linger over the @NYTimes multimedia report on Notre Dame fire

Today's must-read story: Linger over the @NYTimes multimedia report on Notre Dame fire

Forget Twitter for a moment.

Forget American politics, in fact and the circular firing squads that both political parties seem anxious to stage at least once a week. Forget You. Know. Who.

What you need to do right now — if you have not, as my colleague Clemente Lisi recommended this morning — is read the massive New York Times multimedia feature that vividly tells the story of the firefighters who risked all to save Notre Dame Cathedral, making decisions in a matter of minutes that kept this holy place from collapsing.

Read and view it all: “Notre-Dame came far closer to collapsing than people knew. This is how it was saved.”

Yes, I know that some readers will say: “You mean the same New York Times that made that embarrassing mistake when covering the fire, confusing a priest’s reference to saving the ‘Body of Christ’ (sacrament) with rescuing a mere statue?

Set that aside for 15 minutes and did into this piece.

The key to the story is the heroism shown by the firefighters who saved Notre Dame’s north tower, where flames were already threatening the beams that held some of the cathedral’s giant bells.

The equation: If those beams broke, the bells would fall. If the bells fell, the north tower would fall. If the north tower fell it was al; but certain that the south tower would, as well.

That would pull down the entire structure of Notre Dame. Here’s a crucial passage linked to that:

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Wall Street Journal pokes fun at vain pastors with flashy, expensive sneakers

Wall Street Journal pokes fun at vain pastors with flashy, expensive sneakers

One of the upsides of paying $19 a month for the Wall Street Journal is that you sometimes find real gems on the religion beat. Like there’s this piece by their Vatican correspondent on growing pressure from secular authorities to force Catholic priests to report evidence of child sex abuse heard in the confessional.

Then there’s this piece about the Catholic Archdiocese of New York suing its insurers, which are making noises about not paying out claims by people who said they were sexually abused by priests sometime in the past 50 or years.

Oddly, none of the above are by the paper’s national religion reporter, Ian Lovett, whose output seems rather low compared to most other national religion reporters. Why Lovett isn’t breaking stories on the beat is the topic for another day but let’s say that the most interesting material in the pages of the Journal is written by folks on other beats.

One of these is a howler of a piece that I knew I had to write up — a cute little number on “sneakerhead pastors” that I somehow missed when it came out in April. Yes, this is a deep trip into my “GetReligion guilt file.”

Written by Jacob Gallagher, the men’s fashion editor, it’s a comic look at how some of America’s hipper megachurch pastors are spending thousands of dollars for their footwear.

MID-LAST MONTH, an Instagram account was launched to catalog a very particular sort of modern style icon: the preacher sneakerhead. @PreachersNSneakers, which is run anonymously, documents the trendy and extravagant footwear choices of popular, social-media-savvy church figures. So far, it has featured photos of megachurch pastors like Relentless Church’s John Gray (wearing long-sold-out Nike Air Yeezy 2s that resale for $5,611 on the website StockX, as @PreachersNSneakers points out), Hillsong’s Nathan Finochio (new Gucci slides that retail for $1,100) and Zoe Church’s Chad Veach (Saint Laurent Jodhpur boots with a sticker price of $1,045). The account has also caused quite a stir, racking up over 123,000 followers and thousands of comments in its short existence. Click on any photo and you’ll find a string of fervid comments debating whether or not it’s OK for pastors to flaunt their conspicuous consumption as they preach the word of God.

Now the clothes worn by these pastors often look pretty commonplace and extremely understated. But please look at those shoes!

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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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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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).

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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.

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