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Terry Mattingly's weekly column on religion and the media.
Updated: 1 hour 13 min ago

Prayers for the Orthodox bishops of Aleppo, even if #BringBackOurBishops didn't go viral

Monday, May 2, 2016

Once again, the Orthodox bishops of Aleppo ventured into the dangerous maze of checkpoints manned by competing forces along Syria's border with Turkey.

The goal, three years ago, was for Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church to help negotiate the release of two priests who had been kidnapped weeks earlier. Then, west of Aleppo, a pack of unidentified armed men attacked.

The bishops' driver was killed in the gunfire. A fourth passenger escaped and then testified -- consistent with other reports -- that the kidnappers did not speak Arabic and appeared to from Chechnya.

The bishops simply vanished. According to a new World Council of Arameans report: "No one has ever claimed responsibility for the abduction, neither has there been a clear sign of life of the bishops since April 22, 2013." Later reports were "all based on unverified rumors, hearsay and false reports which often contradicted each other."

This kidnapping never inspired global news coverage. For some reason, tweeting out #BringBackOurBishops never caught on with hashtag activists inside the Washington Beltway or in Hollywood.

But millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians -- especially those with Syrian and Lebanese roots -- are still praying for the bishops of Aleppo. These prayers escalated with the three-year anniversary of the kidnappings and then, this week, with the sobering rites of Holy Week leading to Good Friday, Holy Saturday and, finally, Pascha -- Easter -- this Sunday (following the ancient Julian calendar).

On April 21, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, Patriarch John X, and the corresponding Syriac Orthodox leader, Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, released a joint statement urging their flocks not to lose hope.

"If the intention of the kidnapping event (was) to intimidate us, however, we, Christians, are the descendants of those who, two thousand years ago, put on the name of Christ in this particular land," they wrote. "We mold our bread from this land, and from the strength of our belonging to it. Thus, we preserve our identity as Antiochian Easterners, through whatever difficulties or tribulations. …

"We shall continue to live in this East, ringing our bells, building our churches and lifting up our Crosses."

This kidnapping has, from the beginning, created a whirlwind of unanswered questions. Who kidnapped the bishops? Were the kidnappers linked, as would seem logical, to radical Islamists? If so, what group? What were their motives, since there have been no confirmed ransom demands? Are the bishops alive and, if so, where are they? What about the reports that one has been killed?

If undercover agents with governments linked to the fighting have answers, they have not been communicating with the Orthodox.

Some of the most disturbing news came early, noted the World Council of Arameans report, since multiple sources say the kidnappers were associated with "the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda branch in Syria. This terrorist-listed group has been identified more than once as the perpetrator behind Christian massacres such as in the ancient Aramean town of Sadad -- locals testified that Al-Nusra cooperated with the Western-backed rebel group of the Free Syrian Army."

Christians in this battered region have been distressed by the silence surrounding this case, stressed the statement by the two patriarchs. But they said their flocks have been even more troubled by the assumption that it's time to flee their homes and ancient altars to risk "perilous sea travel and ship wreckage" abroad.

"We remain in this land. … We were not a minority, and will never be," proclaimed Patriarch John X and Patriarch Aphrem II. "We appreciate every humanitarian effort of governments or organizations. However, let us put it bluntly: we cannot be protected through facilitating the migration of refugees. We are not petitioning for protection. Rather, we are seeking peace."

Thus, they appealed -- once again -- for the release of the bishops of Aleppo.

"This land of the East is now bleeding, but shall, without doubt, rise again. … Our prayer goes to the Lord of the Resurrection and the Master of Lights to surround with His comforting Light and divine protection all those who are defending their land, and give eternal rest to all the martyrs, and to bring back all the abducted people safe to their beloved ones."

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It's tragic that religious liberty has suddenly turned into something scary

Monday, April 25, 2016

NEW YORK -- Early in his career in Congress, Democrat Tony Hall of Ohio had his politics worked out, but he wasn't sure how to combine them with the convictions of his Christian faith.

Then he took an official research trip to Ethiopia during the great famines of the early 1980s and these two powerful forces in his life came crashing together.

"I saw 25 children die one morning. As I walked among these people, mothers were handing me their dead children, thinking that I was a doctor and that I could actually fix them, take care of them. I was stunned," said Hall.

"I came home from that experience -- seeing death. I had seen so many people die. I thought, this is a way that I can bring God into my work place and not have to preach."

About that time, Hall formed a friendship -- one rooted in decades of weekly "prayer partner" meetings -- with another member of Congress who was equally committed to defending human rights. Together, Hall and Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Northern Virginia excelled as a bipartisan team focusing on poverty, hunger and religious freedom.

They're still working together, even though Wolf left the House of Representatives in 2014. He currently holds the Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom at Baylor University. Hall left Congress in 2002, when President George W. Bush asked him to serve for several years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on food and agriculture issues. Ambassador Hall has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.

Both men agreed that it would be harder for this kind of bipartisan, faith-centered friendship to flourish today, in an era in which the levels of anger and distrust on display in Washington, D.C., have reached toxic levels.

To make matters worse, said Wolf, it has become harder to defend basic human rights when they are linked to faith, because "religious liberty" has turned into a dangerous term in public life, one consistently framed in quotation marks in mainstream news reports -- implying that it has become tainted.

"Talking about religious liberty has become something that divides people, rather than bringing us together," said Wolf, after a forum on global religious freedom issues at The King's College in lower Manhattan (where I am a senior fellow, teaching religion and journalism).

At this point, Wolf added, it's "like religious liberty is something that only old white men believe in. I think we are going to have to switch to using language about freedom of conscience, because no one is listening to what we are saying."

Another key element of this problem, said Hall, is that debates about religious liberty have become linked to another linguistic landmine in the public square -- the vague word "evangelical."

At this moment in American politics, he said, media professionals and other opinion shapers see "evangelicals as judgmental and negative," as "fire-breathing people who have no love or mercy in their lives. … Christians and, especially, evangelicals are people that you are supposed to be afraid of.

"So when you start talking about religious liberty, the first thing people say is that this is an 'evangelical' issue and then that's that. … What's happening in our politics here in America is actually making it harder to help suffering and persecuted Christians around the world, and that's tragic."

In all, Hall added, there are currently 40 armed conflicts in the world and many of them are linked to conflicts rooted in religion and, in particular, the oppression of religious minorities.

During visits to Iraq, Hall and Wolf learned that Iraq was home to 150,000 Jews as recently as 2003, but now there are fewer than a dozen. In this same time frame, the number of Christians in Iraq has fallen from 1.5 million to 250,000.

During visits to refugee camps in the region, Wolf said, they heard Christians ask one question over and over: "Does the West care about us?"

But that wasn't the most haunting question, he said. "The most powerful question was, 'Does the CHURCH in the West care about us?' … The church has been relatively silent and we are seeing the end of Christianity in the cradle of Christianity. …

"We used to care. We used to care dramatically."

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Pope Francis and the shipwreck that is marriage in the modern world

Monday, April 18, 2016

Imagine that there is an active Catholic layman named "Bob" and that his complicated life has included a divorce or two.

But there is no one person named "Bob." Instead, there are legions of Catholics whose lives resemble this case study described by Father Dwight Longenecker in an online essay responding to "Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family)," a 60,000-word apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis.

The fictional Bob is a 1960s survivor and he has "lived that way." His first wedding was on a beach, after he and his lover got high and also got pregnant. Years later Bob married a rich older woman. Years after that he became a Christian in an evangelical flock, where he met Susan -- a lapsed Catholic.

This is where things get complicated.

Bob and Susan "married outside the church, but then Susan rediscovered her Catholic faith and she and Bob started going to Mass," wrote Longenecker. Then Bob converted to Catholicism in a liberal parish "where the priest waved a hand and said he didn't need to worry about 'all that annulment stuff.'

"So Bob became a Catholic and now 20 years later, he and Susan have six kids, a great marriage and are active members in the parish." After a chat with a new priest they discovered that, under church law, they were living in "an irregular relationship. Bob's second wife -- the elderly widow -- was dead, but he reckoned his first wife (the hippie who was married to him for less than a year) was still living somewhere, but Bob has no idea where she might be."

What's a priest supposed to do?

This by no means far-fetched case is one jagged piece of the "jigsaw puzzle" of modern marriage that Pope Francis tried to address in "Amoris Laetitia," said Longenecker, of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, S.C.

Longenecker's own story is also quite complex. He was raised as fundamentalist Protestant, graduating from Bob Jones University in Greenville. Then he studied theology at Oxford University and became an Anglican priest. Eventually, he and his wife and children were drawn to Catholicism and, in 2006, he was ordained under the pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy.

While media debates rage about what "Amoris Laetitia" does or doesn't say, Longenecker said the key is that it "fully affirms the traditional teaching of the church regarding marriage" while making a "valiant attempt to deal with the messiness of real life" at the level of pastors who "deal with the real life situations of ordinary people. We're the ones who have to help them match up their lives with the teachings of the church."

As always, Pope Francis assumes that confession and repentance are part of the path to God's mercy, said Longenecker, reached by telephone. But the pope knows that bishops and pastors work in radically diverse cultures and that there is "no way he could create some kind of step-by-step general rule that would work for everyone, everywhere."

In his introduction, Pope Francis noted: "I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. … Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs."

So what is a priest supposed to do with the Bobs of this world and other sinners who are suffering?

Truth is, the real stories of real people in real life are often "even more complex and heartbreaking," said Longenecker. At ground level, modern marriages and families are being torn apart by mobility, no-fault divorce laws, economic challenges, cohabitation, promiscuity, pornography and other global changes, said Longenecker.

"I relate these stories to remind readers that for many complicated reasons marriage in our society is a shipwreck," he said. "It's hit the iceberg and gone down long ago. … The pope has made a good effort to help us sort through the wreckage, salvage what we can and build a raft to sail on."

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Year 28 -- The crux of religion-news coverage in a digital marketplace

Monday, April 11, 2016

No one is surprised when The Wall Street Journal covers Wall Street, Disney releases a princess movie or Apple creates another wonder framed in aluminum.

Some professionals just do what they do. Thus, anyone who follows religion news knew that The Boston Globe's Crux website, which debuted 18 months ago, was going to be bookmarked by legions of Catholic-news junkies. Reporter John L. Allen, Jr., was going to do that thing that he does.

Alas, as so often happens, an online journalism project that drew millions of computer-mouse clicks failed to generate the stream of advertising revenue Globe executives needed to keep the cyber-doors open. This has led to a partnership -- raising many Catholic eyebrows -- between Allen and the Knights of Columbus, producing a "Crux 2.0," which opened on April 1.

This kind of union is becoming increasingly common. The goal is to marry a commitment to real journalism with financial support from a cooperative nonprofit group.

For this to work, the "people on the other side of the deal have to believe in what you are doing and see the wisdom of becoming part of your brand," said Allen, reached by telephone in Rome. "Your partners also have to be smart enough to realize that a key part of your brand is that you are seen -- by your readers -- as being truly independent."

The Crux project is crucial to anyone who cares about the future of journalism and, especially, quality reporting on specialty news topics like religion. That certainly includes me, after decades of work in this field. That includes, as of this week, 28 years writing this syndicated "On Religion" column.

Those who follow Catholic news know that Crux is not Allen's first journalism rodeo. The former Catholic high school teacher is best known for his 16 years of work with The National Catholic Reporter and as CNN's top Vatican analyst. He is also the author of nine books including, in recent years, "The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution" and "The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church."

Allen said he learned three sobering truths about covering religion news online, while fighting to keep Crux alive.

* For starters, "It's a hell of a lot of work" to feed the online-news beast -- especially with a small staff. But the readers are out there, said Allen, as demonstrated by the million-plus readers that Crux drew in a typical month. Put Pope Francis and Donald Trump in the same story and "we went well north of a million-plus."

Obviously, this pope is "a very compelling story. … We are not having trouble finding eyeballs. I'm having trouble, right now, finding the time and energy to keep putting information in front of those eyeballs, hour after hour, day after day."

* Everyone knows the bottom-line question for websites such as Crux: How does one fund -- in an age when journalism's old advertising-plus-subscriptions revenue model has broken down -- a team that can produce news about Catholic events and trends around the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

Allen stressed: "You have to find people who believe in what you're doing, people who want to support quality journalism and they want to do it for the right reasons."

* Like it or not, the key to finding readers and maintaining a network of supporters is social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. "That's the reality, now. That's just the way things spread," said Allen. "The problem is that no one really understands how that works."

The other problem is that when news "goes viral" online, this often happens because networks of like-minded activists are pushing a particular cause. It would be easy, admitted Allen, to keep pushing these buttons with waves of opinionated prose that preaches to the same choir day after day.

After all, opinion is cheap, while producing truly independent and well-sourced reporting is, and always will be, much more expensive.

"It is our delusional conviction," said Allen, that "we can keep covering Catholic news for readers who are pro-information and don't want to settle for an approach that polarizes everything that happens. … But whatever happens, we are not losing interest in the Catholic story."

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United Methodist vows, the Sexual Revolution and the fragile doctrinal ties that bind

Monday, April 4, 2016

When the United Methodist Church ordains ministers, the rite includes the kind of vow that religious groups have long used to underline the ties that bind.

In this case, the candidate for ordination is asked to accept the church's "order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God's Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?"

The candidate replies: "I will, with the help of God."

These vows may create problems for some clergy -- as noted in a remarkably blunt letter published recently by the independent Methodist Federation for Social Action. The context was the U.S. Supreme Court debate about a Health and Human Services mandate that requires most religious institutions to offer employees health insurance covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives.

Currently, actual churches and denominations are exempt. And there's the rub, for the letter's anonymous author.

"I chose to go on birth control because I didn't want to get pregnant and I wanted to have sex. Because I am a clergywoman in The United Methodist Church, and I'm single, that information could get me brought up on charges, and I could lose my ordination," she wrote.

"Luckily, we don't have an insurance plan that requires the church to sign off on the prescriptions that my doctor writes. … However, because I value my job, I have to remain anonymous in writing this. It strikes me as ridiculous in 2016 that this is necessary, but being a person who is sexually active while single is against the rules. I'm very grateful that … I don't have to justify my prescriptions to my Bishop. I don't think it is any of his business. I hope the US government agrees."

Meanwhile, the UMC Book Of Discipline remains clear on premarital sex, requiring clergy to maintain "personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness."

The letter -- no surprise -- drew strong comments in social media, with United Methodists defending or attacking their church's teachings.

"You body, your sexuality, and your safety are your decisions and I applaud you for your willingness to share, even anonymously," stated one writer, with a "Future UMC Rev." identification. "My fiancé and I (he's going to be a Rev. too) started having sex a couple of years ago and were thrilled with our decision, and it wasn't one we made lightly. … As for the promises of ordination -- perhaps it's time to take a second look at those."

In a typical orthodox response, one UMC employee replied: "I agree, one woman to another, that your body is your business. Your sexual choices are your business." However, she added: "Your 'job,' or part of it, as pastor -- as leader -- is to set an example for your congregation. … If you choose the path of ordination you have to follow the rules set forth in the Discipline. You made a choice to do that. But if that has changed and you are now at conflict with your vows then it may be time for you to reassess your career choice."

This isn't the first time a United Methodist pastor has posted this kind of critique.

A few years ago, the denomination's official General Board of Church and Society published a letter arguing that the church was confused by "years of theological tradition and imaginative biblical reflections on: the 'perpetual' virginity of Mary, a supposedly celibate Jesus. … Imagine a Church without the attitude that a wedding or a hymen is the dividing line between moral and immoral."

These doctrinal debates have been raging for decades, noted John Lomperis, United Methodist Action director for the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy. However, it's "rare to see someone be this blatant when supporting premarital sex," he said. "There has been a kind of understanding that when people openly support an 'anything goes' ethos, it doesn't make their lives any easier."

Thus, he added, "many bishops use a 'don't ask, don't tell' approach at the local level. … But every now and then people say what they actually believe. It's important to pay attention when that happens."

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Mother Teresa's private battles on the long path to sainthood

Monday, March 28, 2016

While no one knew it at the time, 1951 was a pivotal year for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the start of a private battle for the tiny nun millions hailed as a living saint.

"When we talk about Mother Teresa we celebrate her victories and all the good works she accomplished in her life. But what did this victor have to overcome? That's an important question," said journalist Kenneth Woodward, author of "Making Saints: How The Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes A Saint, Who Doesn't, and Why."

"We often miss this spiritual warfare component in the lives of the saints, that whole element of struggle and grace. … With Mother Teresa, this just has to be there or her story is not complete."

It was in 1928 that 18-year-old Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu left her family in Macedonia to join the Sisters of Our Lady of Loreto, first working as a teacher in Calcutta.

Then, on Sept. 10, 1946, Sister Mary Teresa experienced a vision of Jesus calling her to move into the slums while serving the poorest of the poor. After this "call within a call" she created the Missionaries of Charity, beginning the work that produced waves of support for the Vatican to proclaim her a saint -- which will occur in rites on Sept. 4, the eve of the anniversary of her death on Sept. 5, 1997.

But another story was unfolding that remained a secret for decades.

It was in 1951 that Mother Teresa prayed that she be allowed to share the pain and loneliness that Jesus suffered on the cross. Her private letters made it stunningly clear that this prayer was granted. Her visions stopped, replaced by silence.

"Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me?", she asked her spiritual director in 1957. "The one -- you have thrown away as unwanted -- unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer. … Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives. …

"I am told God lives in me -- and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul."

In addition to hearing glowing details about her work and self-sacrifice, it's crucial for Mother Teresa's admirers to learn about this "dark night of the soul," according to the popular Jesuit writer Father James Martin, author of "My Life With the Saints." The most powerful part of her story is that she remained faithful and continued her ministry.

News reports about her upcoming canonization skipped this crisis, but "I think that's likely because it's so confusing for people, and that many in the secular media wouldn't know what to make of her 'dark night,' " he said. In fact, when her private writings were first published, "most commentators completely misread it, and even concluded that she was an atheist."

Truth is, many saints experience similar spiritual challenges. But while other saints -- at least those who left journals -- described episodes in which they felt spiritually attacked, Mother Teresa's struggles appear to have lasted through the entire public ministry that made her famous.

In another letter, Mother Teresa reflected on the source of her suffering: "I am afraid I make no meditation, but only look at Jesus suffer and keep repeating: Let me share with you this pain! If my pain and suffering, my darkness and separation, give you a drop of consolation, my own Jesus, do with me as you wish.

"I am your own. Imprint on my soul and life the suffering of your heart. If my separation from you brings others to you … I am willing with all my heart to suffer all that I suffer."

Martin said the reality of this "dark night" experience should make her a uniquely appealing saint for those who doubt their faith and God's love for them.

"Many saints did what she did -- lead a holy life, work with the poor, found a religious order," he said. "None, however, as far as I know, did so facing complete interior darkness for such an extended period of time. That makes her, in my estimation, the greatest saint of modern times."

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Historic fault lines emerging in evangelical camps in American politics

Monday, March 21, 2016

This hasn't been a run-of-the-mill academic year for Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Everett Piper. 

In December, he made news when he addressed the concerns of a student who told him that a chapel sermon "made him feel bad." 

"Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a 'safe place,' but rather, a place to learn," noted Piper, writing online. "This is not a day care. This is a university."

Weeks later, he was a symbolic guest at President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address. Republicans welcomed Piper because his school is part of the U.S. Supreme Court fight about the Health and Human Services mandate requiring many Christian institutions to cooperate with health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives.

Now, in response to press inquiries, Piper has made it perfectly clear -- in a post called "Trumping Morality" -- that there is one thing Oklahoma Wesleyan will not do that would make headlines. 

"Anyone who calls women 'pigs,' 'ugly,' 'fat' and 'pieces of a - -' is not on my side," he wrote. "Anyone who mocks the handicapped is not on my side. Anyone who has argued the merits of a government takeover of banks, student loans, the auto industry and healthcare is not on my side. Anyone who has been on the cover of Playboy and proud of it, who brags of his sexual history with multiple women and who owns strip clubs in his casinos is not on my side. … Anyone who ignores the separation of powers and boasts of making the executive branch even more imperial is not on my side." 

Piper concluded: "No, Donald Trump will not be speaking at Oklahoma Wesleyan University." 

Yes, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., personally endorsed Trump, soon after the billionaire spoke on his campus. 

It's becoming increasingly obvious that this White House race is prying open painful evangelical fault lines, said historian Paul Matzko, who is finishing his doctorate at Pennsylvania State University. 

"I honestly think many evangelical leaders don't know what to do right now," he said, in a telephone interview. "Some of them seem confused and divided because there are new factors in play in American politics, in our courts and even in our church pews." 

At least one trend seems clear, wrote Matzko, in an academic essay entitled, "What Evangelical Support for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump Suggests About the Future of American Evangelicalism." 

Primary exit polls show that Trump is winning "self-described evangelicals" who "join evangelical churches at lower rates, attend church less regularly, and, I suspect, are less likely to adhere to key evangelical doctrines," he wrote. "They are cultural evangelicals. Think of them as you would Catholicism in France, where a majority of people profess to be Catholic (75%) but only a handful attend mass weekly (4.5%), give confession, or even ascribe to key church teachings." 

Meanwhile, "white collar" evangelical elites have appeared to favor Rubio while "evangelical workers" may appreciate Cruz's hard-line stance on illegal immigration. 

However, Matzko believes a deeper, more complex split is emerging, one rooted in history. 

On one side, he wrote, are "18th Century evangelicals -- a "persecuted religious minority" in American culture that yearned for the "liberty to practice their faith free from State interference. To that end, they allied with freethinkers like Thomas Jefferson. … They had little interest in fomenting sweeping social change, in using State power to make America more pious, holy or Christian. They asked only for the freedom to be left alone."  

On the other side, Matzko argued, are "19th Century evangelicals" who, by the end of that century, had begun to gain cultural influence and political power. This would eventually lead to talk of a "Moral Majority." 

In the current campaign, Cruz seems to have the support of those who believe "holding back the tide of depravity simply requires waking Christian people up to the social changes happening before their eyes." In other words, ballot-box success is certain -- if more true believers vote. 

But other evangelicals are convinced that it's time to focus on religious liberty for all religious minorities, in light of a crucial U.S. Supreme Court decision embracing gay marriage and fading support for religious institutions among young Americans. 

"So this is the big question," said Matzko. "Do evangelicals still think they are part of the American religious establishment?"
 

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'The Young Messiah' -- A new/old Bible movie that tries to stay orthodox

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

 Ages ago, there was nothing unusual about Hollywood producing epics based on Bible stories.

In the so-called Golden Age, these movies had titles like "King of Kings," "The Ten Commandments," "The Robe," "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and "Barabbas." At least one -- "Ben-Hur" -- was a character-driven classic that helped shape blockbusters for decades to come.

"I have watched them all. … No one called them 'Bible movies' back then or considered them strange. They were big movies about big stories and the big studios knew that lots of people wanted to see them," said Cyrus Nowrasteh. He is the director and co-writer, with his wife, Betsy, of "The Young Messiah" from Focus Features, which hits theaters this weekend.

"These movies went away for a long time … Then there was 'The Passion.' "

Nowrasteh was, of course, talking about "The Passion of the Christ" -- Mel Gibson's 2004 blockbuster that rang up $611,899,420 at the global box office. Hollywood's principalities and powers have been trying, ever since, to find the magic formula that will reach that same audience.

That's a challenge. Just ask the creators of "Noah" and "Exodus: Gods and Men."

There are complex questions filmmakers must face before putting biblical characters on screen, stressed Nowrasteh, who is best known as director of another controversial movie about religion, "The Stoning of Soraya M." That brutal 2008 film focused on a journalist's story about an innocent Iranian woman who was stoned to death after false charges of adultery.

Before producing a Bible movie -- big or small -- "you have to ask if you know how to handle this material," he said. "Do you know how to handle all the questions about history and theology? Do you know how to promote it? Do you know how to do the ground game to reach this audience? Do you know how to tell a story that works on its own, but doesn't offend this audience and send people running for the exits?"

The goal, in "The Young Messiah," was to imagine the life of the 7-year-old Jesus of Nazareth after his family's departure from Egypt, where it was living in exile after King Herod's slaughter of male infants after reports of the birth of a Jewish messiah. The story concludes with the young Jesus visiting the Jerusalem temple at the Passover.

The problem, of course, was that there is no universally accepted narrative about other events in the boyhood of Jesus or how he came to understand his mission. "The Young Messiah" is based on "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt" by novelist Anne Rice, who worked with the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas and other sources.

Betsy Nowrasteh said Rice was very helpful during the writing of the screenplay, which made major additions and changes to scenes in the novel. The team behind the film also shared rough drafts with Protestant and Catholic historians, theologians and clergy.

The challenges began in the first few minutes of the action.

In the novel, Jesus -- wrestling with his mysterious powers -- brings clay pigeons to life. He also kills a boy, before reviving him. In the movie, Jesus joyfully resurrects a dead bird. Later, he is attacked by a bully who runs away and dies, after tripping on an apple Satan tosses into his path. Satan then tells the crowd that Jesus killed the boy. Later, Jesus brings the boy back to life.

"I'm not a theologian. I'm an instinctive writer and I'm telling a story," said Betsy Nowrasteh. "Things had to feel right. … Clay birds seemed like magic, to me. Why wouldn't Jesus reanimate something that had been alive? Why wouldn't he perform miracles similar to what we see in the scriptures, later in his life?"

The central mystery, she said, is how Jesus gradually begins to understand his calling. At one point, Joseph asks Mary: "How do we explain God to his own Son?"

This is tricky territory and "we all knew there were landmines" in the story, stressed Cyrus Nowrasteh.

"We were trying create a beautiful 'what-if' story," he said. "At the end we want people to be able to say, 'That's possible. That was an honest shot at what the childhood of Jesus Christ must have been like.' We want people to see that we treated this material with respect."

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