Pop Culture

Bob the Journalist has the scoop: 'VeggieTales' is coming back (for those wondering, it did leave)

Bob the Journalist has the scoop: 'VeggieTales' is coming back (for those wondering, it did leave)

“Are you watching VeggieTales?” asked my wife, sounding surprised as cartoon vegetables sang in our living room.

“I’m watching the trailer,” I said. “It’s coming back.”

“Did it ever leave?” she replied.

For those wondering — including parents such as my wife and me whose now-grown children were raised on Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber and friends — actually it did leave.

Bob (the journalist, not the tomato) has the intriguing, behind-the-scenes story for Religion News Service.

Before I get much deeper into this post, I should point out that I have a history with this story. Back in 2002, while serving as religion editor for The Oklahoman, I interviewed Mike Nawrocki, the squeaky voice of Larry the Cucumber and a co-creator of “VeggieTales" and Big Idea Productions.

I asked hard-hitting questions befitting a serious journalist, as I noted at the time:

For example, my first question: "Can you please sing me a Silly Song?"

"I'm taking requests," Nawrocki joked.

Wonderful! How about "The Water Buffalo Song," "The Hairbrush Song" and "I Love My Lips?"

I also pried into Nawrocki's eating habits. "I'm a big vegetable fan, as long as they're not talking," he told me.

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Yo, MSM: Anyone planning to stalk Jesusland religion ghosts lurking in 'The Hunt' movie?

Yo, MSM: Anyone planning to stalk Jesusland religion ghosts lurking in 'The Hunt' movie?

What a country we live in, these days. If you have been following the controversy surrounding the now-delayed movie “The Hunt,” you know that this is — according to mainstream media reports — yet another controversy about politics, anger, guns, violence and America’s Tweeter In Chief.

Oh, and there is no way to avoid the dangerous word “elites” when talking about this Hollywood vs. flyover country saga. However, if you probe this media storm you will find hints that religion ghosts are hiding in the fine print — due to the movie’s alleged references to “deplorables” and “anti-choice” Americans.

But let’s start with a minimalist report at The Washington Post that ran with this headline: “Universal cancels satirical thriller about ‘elites’ hunting ‘deplorables’ in wake of shootings.” Here’s the overture:

Universal Pictures has canceled its plan to release “The Hunt,” a satirical thriller about “elites” hunting self-described “normal people,” amid a series of mass shootings and criticism that the film could increase tensions.

“We stand by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, like those associated with this satirical social thriller, but we understand that now is not the right time to release this film,” Universal said in a statement.

The studio already had paused its marketing campaign for the R-rated movie, which was slated for release on Sept. 27. … “The Hunt,” directed by Craig Zobel (“Z for Zachariah”) and produced by Blumhouse Productions, follows 12 strangers who are brought to a remote house to be killed for sport. 

Everything in this media-drama hinges on how this movie is alleged to have described the beliefs and behaviors of these “normal” Americans — who are stalked by rich, progressive folks defined by high-class culture and political anger issues. The elites are led by a character played by Oscar-winner Hilary Swank.

If you are looking for facts in this oh so Donald Trump-era mess, journalists at The Hollywood Reporter claim to have details deeper than the innuendoes glimpsed in the hyper-violent trailers for the movie (trailers that appear to be vanishing online). Here is a chunk of that story, which is referenced — aggregation style — in “news” reports all over the place.

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What is 'purity culture'? Why is this term in the news right now?

What is 'purity culture'? Why is this term in the news right now?

THE QUESTION:

What is “purity culture,” and why is it in the news?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This was a particular U.S. Protestant campaign born in the 1990s that sought to urge teens and young adults to follow the age-old Christian (also Jewish, Muslim, etc.) teaching against sexual relations before marriage.

Outsiders and opponents called this the “purity culture” movement, and it’s currently in the news and the subject of intense online debate.

That “purity” label is confusing because critics of the phenomenon are not just secularists or those who scoff at old-fashioned morality. Conservatives who likewise advocate the sexual “purity’ taught in Christian tradition raise some of the most pointed objections to this movement’s specific theology, techniques and claims.

The cause originated in 1993 with sex education materials under the “True Love Waits’ banner issued by the publishing arm of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Within just one year of existence a Washington, D.C. rally drew 25,000 youths and displayed 210,000 sexual abstinence pledge cards on the National Mall.

The movement appealed to many moms and dads who were wounded by the sexual libertinism that began in the 1960s and wanted more wholesome relationships for their own children, fretting over increases in sexually transmitted disease, unwed pregnancy and divorce. The pledges of abstinence until marriage were reinforced by wearing rings popularized from 1995 onward by The Silver Ring Thing organization, reconfigured last year as Unaltered Ministries. Instead of high school proms, some churches held “purity balls” where dads escorted daughters.

The movement is back in the news due to its primary celebrity guru, Joshua Harris, who at a tender age 21 wrote “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” This 1998 book eventually sold nearly a million copies and fused the effort with a highly influential how-to methodology.

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Hey, team CNN: Isn't there some Catholic DNA linked to Halloween being on Oct. 31?

Hey, team CNN: Isn't there some Catholic DNA linked to Halloween being on Oct. 31?

It’s hard to understand what happens in American life, and when it happens, without understanding what I like to call the “liturgical calendar of the shopping mall.”

The best example? That would be the locked-solid fact that the cultural steamroller called “Christmas” now begins somewhere around the start of the National Football League schedule and it kicks into high gear with Black Friday after Thanksgiving. Forget that whole holy season called Christmas, as in the 12 days after Dec. 25.

Oh, and when is Thanksgiving? That was a question for the U.S. Congress and the Chamber of Commerce, as well.

Some people would argue that “The Holidays” — at the level of candy, music and decorations — now start after Halloween. And when is Halloween? At the moment, Halloween is on October 31. Why is that?

That question brings us to an interesting, and rather hollow, CNN story with this headline: “A petition to move Halloween to the last Saturday of October nears 100,000 signatures.” Here is the overture:

There are lots of reasons to hate holidays: traffic, awkward family reunions, expensive gifts that would wring a tear from anyone's wallet. But if there's one celebration absent from all of this holiday drama, it's Halloween.

It's too bad that, more times than not, the sugar-laden holiday is set right in the middle of the week, when would-be revelers have to get to bed early.

But there's a petition aiming to change that. … It’s lobbying to bump Halloween from October 31 to the last Saturday of the month.

The petition, launched last year by the nonprofit Halloween & Costume Association, argues that moving the date of Halloween will lead to a "safer, longer, stress-free celebration."

Wait a minute. A “safer, longer, stress-free celebration” of WHAT, precisely? What is Halloween and why is it observed on October 31?

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Yo, Los Angeles Times: Crystal Cathedral's architecture raised all kinds of Catholic questions

Yo, Los Angeles Times: Crystal Cathedral's architecture raised all kinds of Catholic questions

If you have ever been part of a well-researched tour of a great cathedral, then you know one thing — these sanctuaries are packed with symbolism. Almost everything in these buildings has some connection to centuries of Christian tradition.

The biggest symbol is the shape of the cathedral itself. It’s all about processions (think pilgrimages) through the cross to reach the high altar.

This brings me to the Los Angeles Times coverage of the transformation of the iconic Crystal Cathedral — an soaring version of a Protestant megachurch — into Christ Cathedral, the spiritual home of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

Here’s the key: The late Rev. Robert Schuller made an important request when he asked the legendary architect Philip Johnson to design the Crystal Cathedral — build a church that is also a giant television studio.

That’s precisely what Johnson did. Thus, ever since the Orange diocese bought Schuller’s masterwork, I have been waiting to read a Times story explaining how this giant symbol of TV Christianity could be turned into a cruciform Catholic sanctuary. Here is the top of the recent story that ran under this headline: “Crystal Cathedral, the original evangelical megachurch, has a conversion to Catholicism.”

… The former Crystal Cathedral, a Southern California landmark that has long stood at the intersection of kitsch and postmodernism just three miles from Disneyland, was officially rededicated by the most unlikely of saviors: the Catholic Church.

When the soaring Philip Johnson-designed megachurch opened in 1980, the Crystal Cathedral was, strictly speaking, neither crystal (the structure is composed of more than 10,000 rectangular panels of glass) nor a cathedral (it housed a televangelist, not a Catholic bishop).

That televangelist — late pastor Robert Schuller — once called the compound a “22-acre shopping center for God.”

This short feature — there’s no real coverage of the dedication rites — focused on how Schuller symbolized a shiny era of Southern California, offering drive-in church services during the “same year Disneyland opened its doors and Ray Kroc launched his first McDonald’s restaurant.”

The text is snappy and packed with details — about Schuller. The new Christ Cathedral? Not so much.

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Childless sex in the city? No doubt about it: America's supercities will impact religion news

Childless sex in the city? No doubt about it: America's supercities will impact religion news

A quarter of a century ago, I started teaching journalism in big American supercities — first in Washington, D.C., and now in New York City.

From the beginning, I heard students (most from Christian liberal arts colleges) asking poignant, basic questions about the impact of journalism on their future lives, in terms of job stress, economics and, yes, marriage and family life. These questions were often asked in private. Needless to say, these questions have continued, and intensified, with the ongoing advertising crisis that is eating many newsrooms.

I continue to urge my students to talk to real New Yorkers (or Beltway folks) who are living the realities — rather than accepting stereotypes. It’s crucial to talk to married folks with children and discuss the communities and networks that help them thrive or survive. The challenges are real, but the stereotypes are — in my experience — flawed and shallow.

These subjects hovered in the background as we recorded this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in). This podcast digs into the implications of my earlier GetReligion post — “Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?” — about an Axios story on the economic and political clout of American super-cities.

If you want a deep dive into the marriage and family issue, check out the stunning essay at The Atlantic by staff writer Derek Thompson that just ran with this dramatic double-decker headline:

The Future of the City Is Childless

America’s urban rebirth is missing something key — actual births.

The opening anecdote will cause a shudder (perhaps of recognition) among many New Yorkers that I know:

A few years ago, I lived in a walkup apartment in the East Village of New York. Every so often descending the stairway, I would catch a glimpse of a particular family with young children in its Sisyphean attempts to reach the fourth floor.

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Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?

Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?

I have a question for GetReligion readers, especially those who have experience in journalism or online publishing.

Here it is: Are readers “trolls” if they constantly write comments (and sends emails) that have little or nothing to do the journalism issues covered in our posts, but also provide — on a semi-regular basis — totally valid URLs for stories that deserve the attention of your GetReligionistas?

One of our readers, for example, is offended by references to “elite” newsrooms or “elite” U.S. zip codes, especially those along the East and West coasts. All of those studies showing that places like New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley have more clout than cities and towns in flyover country? Who has more power to shape the news, editors at The New York Times or The Oklahoman?

This brings me to a fascinating Axios piece that ran the other day with this headline: “The age of winner-take-all cities.” You have to see the simple, blunt, graphic that Axios editors used to illustrate data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (there’s a screenshot at the top of this post).

Now, what does this story have to say about religion news and trends?

Absolutely nothing, in terms of specific information or explicit references.

However, if you read this piece carefully and think like a reporter who covers issues linked to religion, morality and culture (and, yes, politics) it’s easy to see a burning fuse in this piece that is attached to many explosive stories in the news today. Here is the overture:

For all the talk of American cities undergoing a renaissance, economic success has been concentrated in a few standout metropolises while the rest either struggle to keep up or fall further behind.

Why it matters: This winner-take-all dynamic has led to stark inequalities and rising tensions — both inside and outside city limits — that are helping to drive our politics off the rails.

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Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Donald Trump is not going to be beaten just by insider politics talk. He’s not going to be beaten just by somebody who has plans. He’s going to be beaten by somebody who has an idea what the man has done. This man has reached into the psyche of the American people and he has harnessed fear for political purposes.

“So, Mr. President — if you’re listening — I want you to hear me please: You have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So I, sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win.”

— Marianne Williamson’s final statement in first debate for Democrats seeking White House in 2020.

Anyone want to guess what this particular candidate might use as the anthem that plays at the beginning and end of her campaign rallies?

I’m thinking that it might be something that honors the 1992 bestseller — “A Return to Love” — that made her a national sensation back in what people called the New Age era. Something like this: Cue the music.

I focused quite a bit on that book’s old New Age theology in my recent post (“Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new”) about a fascinating New York Times feature about Williamson and her decision to seek the White House. I thought it was appropriate that the Times gave so much attention to the religious themes and concepts in her work, instead of going all politics, all the time.

But, truth be told, the key question discussed in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — focused on mass media, celebrity, religion and, yes, politics, all at the same time.

Look again at that debate quote at the top of this post and give an honest answer to this question: Would that quotation be receiving more attention if the candidate who spoke it was someone named Oprah? How about this person’s candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination?

Williamson is being treated as a bit of a novelty, frankly, even though millions of Americans — on the elite coasts, but also in the heartland, because of her role as a spiritual guide for Oprah Winfrey.

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