Voters at the Toronto International Film Festival created a stir in 2006 when they gave the long-shot drama "Bella" the People's Choice Award, a prestigious salute that often precedes Oscar nominations.
Then critics began focusing on a key detail: The unmarried waitress at the heart of the indie flick's plot struggles to decide whether to have an abortion, but then decides not to after being befriended by Jose, a former soccer star with a complex, tragic past. Also, the film was drawing public support from pro-life groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Was this a "Christian," or even "anti-abortion" movie? Meanwhile, a New York Times review called "Bella" a "mediocre cup of mush" and an "urban fairy tale."
"The minute someone wrote that this was a 'pro-life' movie, there were some people who set out to destroy it," said Eduardo Verastegui, who played Jose. "We saw 'Bella' as a movie about faith and family in Latino communities and the importance of relationships built on respect. … But soon people were talking about the labels, instead of our movie."
Now the same creative team is back with "Little Boy," an indie film about faith, family, friendship and the ties that bind, along with one or two near-miraculous plot twists. Once again, writer-director Alejandro Monteverde, actor-producer Verastegui and other "Bella" veterans are headed into the tense territory that divides theater seats and sanctuary pews. "Little Boy" hits theaters on April 25, after early screenings backed by churches, veterans groups and nonprofits that help the poor and homeless.
This parable, set in a small California town during World War II, centers on a boy who seeks divine intervention when his soldier father is captured and sent to a Japanese prison camp. In a pivotal scene, the "little boy" asks his priest: "How could I get bigger faith?" Rather than promising a miracle, Father Oliver, played by Oscar-nominee Tom Wilkinson, gives him an "ancient list" of good deeds that help build faith.
"For centuries people believed that if you do this list it'll make your faith powerful," says the priest. "This is what you have to do: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit those in prison, clothe the naked …"
"Naked?" the boy responds.
"Visit the sick, and bury the dead," adds the priest.
The "Little Boy" cast includes Wilkinson, Oscar-nominee Emily Watson, Kevin "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" James, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Verastegui and other mainstream actors. However, critics will surely note that its executive producers include Roma "Touched by an Angel" Downey and her husband Mark Burnett, best known as the powers behind the 2013 television miniseries "The Bible" and the current "A.D. The Bible Continues." Also, Monteverde and Verastegui work through a production company called Metanoia Films. The ancient Greek word "metanoia" refers to life changes inspired to repentance and spiritual conversion.
Verastegui stressed that there is no need to deny the role that faith plays in this film and in the lives of some of its creators. The question is whether mainstream artists today can -- as they did in Hollywood's past -- make family-friendly movies about these kinds of stories without being stuck with a "Christian movie" label that many view as limiting, if not a cultural curse.
"We see this as an American story, with a universal message, that happens to have been made by Mexicans," said Verastegui, the son of a sugar-cane farmer near Xicotencatl, a village in northern Mexico. The movie is "almost a tribute to that whole Norman Rockwell side of America. … If people have to label this movie, they can start there."
Test screenings have been good, he said, and that includes the kind of spiritual reactions that don't show up in endorsement quotes in advertisements.
"You may hear from someone who says, 'This movie helped me forgive my father.' Or maybe its, 'This movie made me want to spend more time with my family,' or 'This movie helped me decide to keep my baby,' or 'This movie made me want to help the poor and the needy.'
"If people are going to say things like that after seeing this film, then thanks be to God. That will be our Oscar. … We are very open about our goals. We want to tell a story that brings some healing and unity and hope and charity. That's the deal."
Msgr. Daniel S. Hamilton recognizes a source of doctrinal authority when he sees one -- which is why he pays such close attention to The New York Times.
The 83-year-old priest often feels the urge to respond to the Gray Lady and, rather than limiting himself to sermons from a pulpit, he keeps pounding out letters to the editor -- roughly 330 since his first on July 19, 1961.
"I am a citizen, I am a Christian, I am a Catholic and I am priest," said Hamilton, who is pastor emeritus of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Lindenhurst, N.Y. These letters are part of "defending the faith in our day and age. You have to keep saying that there is a profound moral and ethical angle to all of life and certainly to the stories and editorials printed in the Times."
While he frequently disagrees with the Times, the monsignor said it's crucial for the church to take journalism seriously. The bottom line: Hamilton believes more clergy should demonstrate their respect for journalists by reading their work carefully and then arguing with them -- on the record.
To which I say, "Amen." As of this week, I have been writing this syndicated "On Religion" column for 27 years and I have heard from many angry professionals on both sides of the tense wall between church and Fourth Estate. This was especially true when I taught in a seminary in Denver, before I began teaching journalism in Christian colleges. We urgently need dialogue.
Tragically, it appears these tensions are getting worse, creating a giant, two-sided blind spot inside the First Amendment.
Consider that recent Times column by Frank Bruni entitled, "Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana." He stressed that it's time for traditional faiths to change their doctrines and that they "must be made" to do so.
"Homosexuality and Christianity don't have to be in conflict in any church anywhere," argued Bruni. "That many Christians regard them as incompatible is understandable, an example not so much of hatred's pull as of tradition's sway. … But in the end, the continued view of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as sinners is a decision. It's a choice. It prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since -- as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing."
For Hamilton, this demonstrates the "relativist" worldview he describes in his book, "Jousting With The New York Times 1961-2014: Worldviews in Radical Conflict." While the editors appear to believe that there is "good religion" as well as "bad religion," he said, the key is that they attack those who defend "absolute, transcendent" doctrines about moral issues.
At the Times, "truth is not eternal -- it's constantly evolving," said Hamilton. In particular, the editors "believe that sexual morality has changed and that this is a good thing. Their ultimate standard is a radical individualism" that trumps all other arguments.
Meanwhile, he said, these same editors often seem to endorse, and even praise, some absolutes. In a Sept. 22, 1980, letter he noted: "What would you say if the issue, instead of 'abortion rights,' were slavery rights, segregation rights, euthanasia rights, sterilization-of-the-weak rights or genocide-of-the-Jews rights? But, you reply, no political candidate is supporting any such enormity or the funding thereof! At the moment, no; in the past, yes."
In an unpublished Feb. 19, 1993 letter, the monsignor noted: "Acclaimed as moral prophets when they declare Church teachings on, and actively campaign against, racism, anti-Semitism and social and economic injustice, Catholic clergy are severely criticized (by some) as 'politickers' and 'lobbyists' when they declare Church teaching on, and actively resist, policies that promote abortion, fornication and homosexual activity."
Hamilton keeps writing letters, while encouraging others -- especially young priests -- to interact with journalists. Unfortunately, many appear to be "too busy to pay attention," even when dealing with highly influential newsrooms.
"Some will say, 'Who cares what The New York Times is saying?' They just don't realize how important the Times is when it comes to shaping the world we live in," he said. "The church must continue this struggle. … We can't fall silent. We have to let them know that we have principled, consistent views on public issues and that we are not going to go away."
All pastors know that there are legions of "Easter Christians" who make it their tradition to dress up once a year and touch base with God.
What can pastors do? Not much, said the late, great church-management guru Lyle Schaller, while discussing these red-letter days on the calendar. Rather than worrying about that Easter crowd, he urged church leaders to look for new faces at Christmas.
The research he was reading said Christmas was when "people are in pain and may walk through your doors after years on the outside," he said, in a mid-1980s interview. Maybe they don't know, after a divorce, what to do with their kids on Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas once had great meaning, but that got lost somehow. The big question: Would church regulars welcome these people?
"Most congregations say they want to reach out to new people, but don't act like it," said Schaller. Instead, church people see days like Easter and Christmas as "intimate, family affairs … for the folks who are already" there, he said, sadly. "They don't want to dilute the mood with strangers."
It was classic Schaller advice, the kind he offered to thousands of congregations during his decades as a physician willing to work with bodies of believers -- if they were willing to admit they had problems. Ask him about Easter and he would talk about Christmas, if his research pointed him in that direction.
Schaller died on March 18 in Oklahoma City, at the age of 91. As a United Methodist, he was known for his work with America's older, declining mainline churches, but he was also popular in evangelical megachurches. Between his 55 books -- such as "The Change Agent" and "The Ice Cube is Melting" -- and countless articles, he published around 3 million words.
A master of edgy sound bites, Schaller had a seminary degree as well as a graduate degree in city planning and he constantly connected these two sides of his intellect. The result was a kind of "sanctified pragmatism," said the Rev. Harold Bales, who for years led what Southerners call "tall steeple" United Methodist churches. Bales also worked on his denomination's General Boards of Evangelism and Discipleship -- key issues for Schaller.
"He was a great planner and knew how to prioritize among positive values," noted Bales. As a strategic thinker, Schaller "drew insights from a broad universe of data and distilled them into simple and usable ideas. … A person with strong faith, a good theological footing, high energy and a pocket full of Schallerisms could get a church moving."
Anyone who knew Schaller knew that he constantly asked leaders to face one essential question: "What year is it?"
"Most of our churches -- as organizations -- are living in the past when it comes to how they handle the changes taking place all around them," said the Rev. Scott Field, who was Schaller's pastor for a decade in Naperville, Ill., starting in the mid-1990s. "Many of our pastors think that it's still 1955 and that if next year 1956, then they're read for that. Then there are pastors who still think it's 1965. …
"Lyle was always looking toward the future. If he was talking to church people today the main thing he would be trying to get them to face is that next year is 2016, whether they like it or not."
Ironically, Schaller became known as a church fix-it man during an era in which America's mainline flocks endured staggering losses in their pews. His own United Methodist Church now has less than 7.3 million members, a decline of more than one-third since its glory days in the 1960s.
Being hailed as a "United Methodist church-growth expert," Schaller once quipped, was rather like being called an expert in "military intelligence." Truth is, some people are afraid of growth and change. His goal, he told me, was to find leaders who would face tough questions and then not "go into denial" when he proposed answers.
For example, if church leaders want to be evangelistic, he said, that requires knowing what they believe about salvation. To talk about salvation, they must be of one mind on issues of sin, repentance and forgiveness. That's hard for some modern clergy.
"I heard Lyle say it many times," said Field. "If you really know what your mission is, then you don't have to be afraid of the future."
It would be hard to live closer to the belly of the high-tech beast than Menlo Park in Northern California's Silicon Valley.
Close to Stanford University? Check. A highway exchange or two from the Apple mother ship? Check. Not that far from Googleplex? Check. It's the kind of home base from which an Opus Dei (Latin for "Work of God") priest -- with the organization's emphasis on leadership among laypeople as well as clergy -- can lecture, as Father C. John McCloskey recently quipped, to "300 actual and would-be Techies and Masters of the Universe."
It's also an interesting place to hear lots of confessions as Catholics near the end of Lent and prepare for Holy Week and then Easter, which is April 5th this year for Western churches. Eastern Orthodox churches use the older Julian calendar and will celebrate Pascha (Easter) on April 12th.
"One thing we stress during Lent is a sense of detachment from the things of this world," said McCloskey, an apologist and evangelist in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before this West Coast move. "We even do this with good things, if they've become temptations. It can be a kind of food or it can be alcohol. It can be other good things, like running and being obsessed with your health. …
"But if you can't be happy living without something, then that tells you something. It tells you that this thing is using you, rather than you using it."
But what if this good thing is woven into most of the details of daily life? In this case, McCloskey is talking about his trusty Apple laptop and iPhone. After all there is a smartphone app he often uses to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and his computer is crucial to his writing and "distance learning" teaching. And how big is that Twitter account -- @Pontifex -- used by Pope Francis? The English tweets alone currently reach 5,747,028.
Yet when hearing confessions, the priest said he is becoming increasingly aware of how -- for many people -- these doors into cyberspace also serve as links to pornography, violent video games that are truly addictive, social-media sites that provide gossip more than useful information and wave after wave of emails that seem to bury exhausted users in busywork.
Perhaps this is why, in this year's OpenBible.info study of what Twitter users planned to give up for Lent, the Top 30 items included Twitter itself at No. 3, as well as "social networking," "Facebook," "Netflix" and "Instagram." Apparently, no one thought it was possible to give up email.
Church leaders must wrestle with these technological ties that bind or they are not being honest about the real lives of real people, stressed McCloskey. Thus, in an online "The Catholic Thing" commentary and in a telephone interview, he offered suggestions to help believers evaluate their high-tech lives. Priests may want to ponder these issues in sermons, he said. The list included:
* First, there are issues of time, he said. "On average, how much time you spend online and watching television?" How much money is linked to the use of technology?
* How much time daily do people spend with family members? "Is it more or less," he asked, "than the time you spend online?
* Do believers spend more time consuming entertainment in a typical day -- or even on Sundays -- than in Mass, Bible readings or prayers? What is the ratio?
* How do these online activities compare with the time and money spent helping the poor?
* Could your family exist with one television, which would require family members to discuss what programs they will share and when?
* Can people even imagine going on a completely silent spiritual retreat, with no computers and no smartphones?
McCloskey said that when he meets with students who are serious Catholics, most have never even contemplated whether their omnipresent high-tech tools are shaping their souls.
"Let me stress that many of the things we do online are very good and that technology is a good gift, when used in the right way," he said. "But we only have so much time in this life. At the very least, we have to ask whether -- with all of this technology -- we have much time left for a deeper life, a life that includes room for contemplation."
After decades of listening to his critics, Bob Dylan has learned to shrug, look to the heavens and keep on going.
"Critics have always been on my tail since day one," he said, at the gala saluting him as 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year. "Some of the music critics say I can't sing. I croak. Sound like a
frog. … Why me, Lord?"
Critics insist that the problem is that he keeps "confounding expectations," he said. "I don't even know what that means. … Why me, Lord? My work confounds them obviously, but I really don't know how I do it."
Maybe its time, he said, for another Gospel album, perhaps with the legendary Blackwood Brothers, including the hymn "Stand By Me." Dylan quoted the lyrics, ending with: "In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me. In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me. When I do the best I can, and my friends don't understand, Thou who knowest all about me, stand by me."
For decades, armies of experts have pondered the contents of Dylan's mind. Secular critics and religious scribes of various stripes can quote chapter and verse while debating whether the alleged voice of his generation, now 73 years old, is a true believer in their various causes.
Now, in two revelatory blasts -- his MusiCares speech and a lengthy AARP the Magazine interview -- Dylan has gone out of his way to stress that there is no great mystery. The bottom line: He is an American songwriter and artist, one with roots deep into America's spiritual and musical soil.
"Dylan has made it absolutely clear that he is a serious student of country, folk, blues, rock, Gospel and every other kind of American music. That's just a fact," said movie director Scott
Derrickson, a lifelong Dylan fanatic who wrote the forward for the book, "Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan."
"It's clear that he is fluent in the language and symbolism of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. … It's hard to dip your toe into his music without sensing the deep respect he has for the role that faith has played in the music of our culture. There has always been a sense of transcendence in his songs."
The AARP interview focused on Dylan's new "Shadows in the Night," a set of 10 classic songs often connected with Frank Sinatra. Still, the discussion kept returning to matters of faith and music.
* Asked if these songs will strike young listeners as "corny," Dylan launched into a discourse on virtue. "People's lives today are filled on so many levels with vice and the trappings of it. Sooner of later, you have to see through it or you don't survive. We don't see the people that vice destroys. We just see the glamour of it on a daily basis, everywhere we look, from billboard signs to movies, to newspapers, to magazines. We see the destruction of human life and the mockery of it, everywhere we look."
* Discussing key early influences, Dylan called the Rev. Billy Graham a "hellfire rock 'n' roller," adding, "I went to two or three of his rallies in the '50s or '60s. This guy was like rock 'n' roll personified -- volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution. When he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved, sometimes 30- or 40,000 of them. If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever. … I saw Billy Graham in the flesh and heard him loud and clear."
* On economic justice, Dylan said the rich should strive to help others, "because there are a lot of things that are wrong in America and especially in the inner cities that they could solve. Those are dangerous grounds and they don't have to be. There are good people there, but they've been oppressed by lack of work. …These multibillionaires, and there seem to be more of them every day, can create industries right here in the inner cities of America. But no one can tell them what to do. God's got to lead them."
* What if he lived his life over? "I'd be a schoolteacher," he said. "Probably Roman History or theology."
As a high-school dropout, Matthew Baker worked the graveyard shift at a gas station because he wanted time to read.
So he read for seven years, digging into philosophy, literature, history and poetry. This helped steer him away from his teen-aged atheism and eventually towards Orthodox Christianity and the priesthood. He never graduated from college.
But there was marriage and a large family to love. Then a seminary accepted Baker and then another, leading to a Master of Divinity from St. Tikhon's Orthodox Seminary in Pennsylvania and a Master of Arts from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts. This led to Fordham University doctoral work in theology, history and philosophy and a dissertation that was nearly done, allowing him to finally be ordained in 2014 and, this January, to move to his first parish.
Then the 37-year-old Baker died on March 1, when the family minivan crashed off a snowy road after evening prayers at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Norwich, Conn. His six children -- ages 2 to 12 -- were not seriously injured. His wife Katherine was home, still recovering from a recent miscarriage.
"This isn't just a tragic story. It's several tragic stories," said Father Andrew Stephen Damick of St. Paul Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pa., whose family shared a backyard with the Bakers in seminary. "You can write so many headlines on this story and they're all true."
There's the story of a father who dies after years in near poverty, leaving behind a grieving wife and young family. There's the missing priest and his new parish, left mourning a lost future. There's the loss of a unique intellectual whose works were already being translated into other languages.
After the funeral, a friend read comments by Metropolitan Zizioulas, a world-famous Orthodox theologian at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. Baker's work, he said, had "forced me to answer new questions which I had not thought of before. … We had the one, and we lost him."
Seraphim Danckaert of the Orthodox Christian Network in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., quickly opened a GoFundMe.com drive to support Baker's family. Early this week, the total topped $600,000, including gifts from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, Princeton Theological Seminary scholar George Hunsinger and Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu, an Eastern Orthodox convert. Hunsinger worked with Baker on annual conferences about early Christianity and once hailed him as the "most brilliant theologian of his generation I have ever met."
Baker was "our next great voice," stressed Danckaert. "We expected to rely on his counsel for years, for our children to be taught by him, to read his books and for his mature voice to be one which transcended our own tradition. … The unexpectedly large outpouring of love in the wake of his death is proof that he was already doing that. But so much more has been lost."
Truth is, this man's approach to life was truly radical in this age of narrow academia niches, stressed Father Eugen Pentiuc of Holy Cross seminary, who knew Baker as a student and as a research colleague.
"Matthew was crazy about theology, a total idealist about studying theology. … But he wanted to learn history and philosophy and art and everything else," said Pentiuc. "I don't know anyone else who read so much and absorbed so much, so soon. It was going to take him 10 or 15 years to fully synthesize what he knew and to find his mature voice."
Friends joked that they could say "Go!" and challenge Baker to connect random subjects -- such as "Duran Duran," a rock band, "GMOs," a genetics term, and "Apollinarianism," a 4th Century heresy -- and "he would come up with authentically deep links between them," said Damick.
It's easy to imagine three or more books emerging from existing lectures, papers and research by Baker, noted Damick. But all the books and academic tributes in the world cannot answer the ultimate questions being asked by loved ones and friends mourning this loss.
"This is how Father Matthew will now be introduced to the world," said Damick. "Yes, people will read his books. … But rather than a brilliant 50-year academic career, people will hear about him as a Christian, a husband, a father and a priest. His legacy will be all of us who loved him and are determined to keep his legacy alive."
As Bono launched into another mini-sermon on faith, justice and love, Father Jack Heaslip did what he had always done for U2 -- he stood out of the limelight and prayed.
On this day in 2001, Bono wasn't standing at a microphone in a packed concert venue. He had slipped into a private gathering of staffers from Capitol Hill offices, a strategic circle of believers who shared his concerns about poverty, AIDS and oceans of Third World debt.
"God is watching. … Forget about the judgment of history. For those of you who are religious people, you have to think about the judgment of God," said Bono. And don't worry about "asking God to bless what you are doing. Look for what God is doing and get involved in that, because that has already been blessed."
That last saying -- a Bono standard -- was a quote drawn from the Anglican priest standing in the back of the room. As always, the man who for decades had been U2's behind-the-scenes chaplain declined to be interviewed, but quietly met with people on the edges of the crowd.
In notes accompanying its 2014 album, "Songs of Innocence," the band called Heaslip "our North Star," perhaps knowing that motor neuron disease would soon take his life at age 71. It was a rare glimpse of the man the U2 quartet knew as a guidance counselor and English teacher when they were boys at Dublin's nondenominational Mount Temple Secondary School. In the book "U2 by U2," Bono described him as "a source of inspiration and calm over our lives."
Heaslip eventually became an Anglican priest with his own flock, while frequently touring with U2. He attended the band's prayer and Bible study sessions and, on one occasion, someone recorded his blessing before the 2001 "Elevation" tour. He began with Isaiah 61, as quoted by Jesus.
"The spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor," said Heaslip, before his own blessing. "What we want God to do tonight is to pour his anointing. And that's not just a dab on the forehead, that's a rich anointing of his oil. We're told the oil would flow down from the top of your head -- and in my case into your beard -- and down your front and make a mess. But that's the richness of God's anointing.
"And what I felt God wanted me to do today was to pour out, in his name, an anointing on everything to do with this tour -- everybody, everything. We think of the band, but we think of every piece of equipment and everyone who works that piece of equipment, everyone who packs up, everyone who drives a car, everyone who does the catering, everyone who is responsible for technology, every joint of wire, every plug, every soffit, every light. …
"Come, Holy Spirit, and reign. Pour out your rule and anointing on this tour. Let nothing be an obstacle. Just melt away anything that is not of you."
Anyone who knew Heaslip recognized those convictions, noted Mark Rodgers, a former top Republican aide in the Senate, who worked closely with U2 on social-justice issues. Before each concert the priest would walk through the arena, blessing the stage, the equipment and the grandstands that would soon be packed.
"During shows he would often stand with his back to the stage, praying for the people in the crowd and, literally, everything that was going on," said Rodgers. "He didn't care that no one saw him doing it. … This was part of his ministry, for the band and for everyone there."
Father Kenneth Tanner, a Charismatic Episcopal Church pastor near Detroit who knew and corresponded with Heaslip, noted that -- at the February 25 funeral for their chaplain -- Bono once again read from Isaiah 61.
Even though Heaslip had been with U2 through many changes, including an early crisis when tensions between faith and art almost split the band, he never "talked about U2, as this big famous band," said Tanner.
"The ties there were not about him knowing U2. For him, it was all about those four boys he knew so long ago and all they went through to become the men they are now. It was all about helping those four guys."
The drama began when a Pakistani politician named Salman Taseer criticized the land's blasphemy laws that were being used to condemn Asia Bibby, a Christian convert.
This led to a man named Malik Qadri firing 20 rounds into Taseer's back, according to witnesses, while security guards assigned to the Punjab governor stood and watched the assassination. When Qadri went to trial, cheering crowds showered him with rose pedals. Later, radicals threatened the judge who found Qadri guilty.
The judge, of course, had committed blasphemy by passing judgment on the man who killed a Muslim politician who -- by criticizing the blasphemy laws and defending an apostate -- had committed blasphemy.
"Then you get the question: Can you defend the judge or would that be blasphemous? We are starting to get here very like a Monty Python element," noted human-rights scholar Paul Marshall, speaking on "Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech and Freedom of Religion" at The King's College in New York City.
This kind of tragedy on the other side of the world is not what most Americans and Europeans think about when they worry about violence inspired by accusations of blasphemy, said Marshall, who currently teaches at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, Indonesia. Instead, most people think of the recent attempt to kill cartoonist Lars Vilks during a Copenhagen free-speech forum, the slaughter of the Charlie Hebdo magazine staff in Paris or the murder of "Submission" filmmaker Theo van Gogh in broad daylight on a busy street in Amsterdam.
"People in the West tend to notice these things only when they happen in the West," said Marshall, co-author of "Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide," with Nina Shea, a Hudson Institute colleague. It's crucial to understand that the Charlie Hebdo attack and similar cases are, he added, "markedly atypical of accusations of blasphemy or insulting Islam, worldwide. … This is a worldwide, global phenomenon and the things of which we are aware are simply the tip of a very large iceberg."
While attacks "close to home" dominate the news, thousands of other blasphemy accusations are made against groups representing millions of people around the world. According to Marshall, journalists and diplomats should note the trends that loom behind recent headlines.
* The vast majority of the accused fall into one of four groups inside majority-Muslim cultures, said Marshall. The first are believers -- such as Baha'is or Ahmadis -- in faiths historically linked to Islam, but rejected by most traditional Muslims. Then there are atheists, skeptics and those who have converted to another faith, usually Christianity. Also, Sunni Muslims in the majority may persecute minority Shia believers, or vice versa, and Sufi Muslims are often at risk -- period. Finally, there are Muslims whose political or doctrinal views offend ruling elites.
* Even when specific laws exist, most blasphemy charges are stated in vague terms that are hard to debate, with the alleged blasphemers being accused of offenses such as "insulting a heavenly religion," "creating confusion among Muslims," "imitating Christians," "friendship with the enemies of God," "fighting against God," "dissension from religious dogma" or "propagation of spiritual liberalism."
In regions controlled by the Islamic State, he noted, regime leaders argue, "if you disagree with us then you are not a true Muslim, therefore you have left Islam, therefore you are an apostate, therefore we can kill you. Then they kill you."
*Blasphemers are usually killed by "spontaneous" riots, assassinations or police misconduct before trials can take place. No one has been officially executed, he noted, under Pakistan's blasphemy codes -- yet hundreds of people have died.
* Political leaders often manipulate blasphemy accusations in order to create a climate of fear that helps crush dissent.
Of course, people can act because of motivations that are both political and religious, stressed Marshall. "In order for a government to manipulate a sentiment, … the sentiment has to be there in the first place. You can't stoke people's religious beliefs, unless they've got religious beliefs."
The bottom line? It should trouble anyone who cares about human rights.
"When politics and religion are intertwined, as they necessarily are in debates about blasphemy," he said, "then without religious debate there can be no political debate, without religious disagreement there can be no political disagreement and without religious freedom there can be no political freedom."