Wednesday, October 29, 2008

This Is Infotainment

I’ve never been to Australia, but from what I hear there is a different sense of time down there. This news item from the Macarthur Chronicle confirms my understanding. This article about the video above is from the paper’s October 28 issue, but the video was posted on Youtube a year ago. Hardly breaking news, or even news for that matter. The paper didn’t even bother to get the real name of the person responsible for the footage.

Someone using the handle “tubeoffroad” shot the video, thinking the wispy cloud resembled Jesus with outstretched arms. The video has gotten over 8,000 hits, which is nothing when compared to other similarly themed videos, some of which have been viewed over 400,000 times.

This particular video has also generated a smattering of comments, most notably one from tubeoffroad: “WOW! Today, 28 OCT 2008 I'm on the front page of Macarthur Chronicle local newspaper. Unbelievable! About time I made the front page.”

I’ve never even thought to look at Youtube for these sorts of clips, but I guess that’s because I’m interested in how the media gets hold of these stories. But, in this day and age, Youtube is a very real facet of the media. The viral nature of this website, and many others, is such that if you get enough people viewing whatever it is that you’ve created it becomes news. A great example is the Obama Girl. That video was originally posted in June 2007, and since then more than 10-million people have viewed it with new comments popping up every few minutes. The video and its star, Amber Lee Ettinger, have been topics of pretty much every major news outlet. So, tubeoffroad’s attitude is kind of understandable within this context, as s/he clearly had the expectation of the video translating to news media/pseudo-celebrity status.

I used the word on this blog for the first time a couple of posts ago, but this story is the essence of “infotainment.” I’d much rather squint my eyes and try to discern a religious or secular icon than spend my time figuring out which parts of the news are truly newsworthy and which parts are just people trying to get notoriety. I guess it’s all kind of the same anymore . . .

Monday, October 27, 2008

You Just Have to See, Even If You Aren't Looking


When I returned from Germany, I had waiting for me phone messages and emails from my cousin, a guy I always thought of as the big brother I never had. He had been traveling for work and was in a hotel room in New Orleans, drinking Dr. Pepper out of a plastic bottle, when he discovered what struck him as an image of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. Now, my cousin does not go to church, but he has heard me go on and on about these Madonna of the Toast stories. For as much as I can ramble on about these things, I just assume most people, especially my family, are nodding politely but then getting on with their lives: jobs, significant others, children, hobbies, friends, etc.

But here we see how that intrinsic human trait of seeing recognizable forms in unexpected places is in all of us, no matter our motivation, or lack thereof. We’ve been playing phone tag, but I can assure you that my cousin was not thinking about how he could find me something to blog about. He was just sitting there, watching TV, maybe checking email, quenching his thirst, thinking about anything any of our minds may land on during those quiet moments of aloneness: tomorrow’s meeting, an old pet, politics, the best friend from high school that you haven’t seen since high school, what to have for breakfast, death, the meaning of life. And suddenly, manifesting in some alchemy of condensation and carbonation, a form that looked to him like a scene from a medieval miniature painting: the gowned Virgin swaddling Jesus in the manger.

It’s one of these examples that makes you squint, but it doesn’t really matter what we see. My cousin saw it. He didn’t call any local television stations and you won’t find this bottle being auctioned on eBay. He was surprised to make the discovery, however, because it was not something he ever expected to find. If you sift through previous posts, you’ll find that many of the people were looking for something to help guide them, but just as many were shocked, the same as my cousin. How any of us see and filter the world we inhabit is subjective – and that’s the point. Meaning, or a lack thereof, can be found just about anywhere, even if you’re not looking for it.

Speaking of finding images in unexpected places, I came across this tidbit on what seems like a great food blog: Bread and Honey. The image above is a photograph of a bag of frozen organic broccoli – a vegetable an old buddy of mine always calls the “virtuous veggie.” Obviously, these tiny faces in the florets are the handiwork of some rogue graphic designer, but it just goes to show you: when you take the time to look, you never know what you might see.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Joe the Plumber of the Toast

Geez, you leave the country for a week and lose all sense of what’s going on. What’s the deal with this Joe the Plumber guy? I’ve talked to some people, Googled around a bit and I think I have a handle on him and how he has been inflated into a political idea. Strikes me as little more than a media melee. This eBay auction for the piece of toast above seems to bolster my theory.

This is the world of infotainment, people.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Religulous Review

The Boston Globe’s website reported last week that the Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, will remove the window upon which the image of Virgin Mary was spotted, and subsequently attracted hundreds of visitors. Says hospital spokesperson Mark Fulco, “Removal of the window is not only a prudent decision at this point but is necessary for returning to normal operations.” The widow will be studied and then perhaps made into a display. Fulco, echoing a message from the local Bishop, asked that “attention now be placed on prayers for the people in the hospital as well as the sick and infirmed throughout our world.”

These were the kinds of stories that I had hoped Bill Maher’s new movie would cover. But, aside from the poster’s toasted countenance of Maher, there really isn’t that much directly in common between Religulous and Madonna of the Toast. I thought there would be. I thought that he would be lampooning the commercialization and media sensationalized aspects of religion by making examples of these stories that anyone reading this is fond of, for whatever reason, be it religion or absurdist comedy. But that’s not what the movie is about.

In Maher’s words, he is “preaching doubt,” asking what’s so great about faith. What has made Maher popular, and a reason I have been a fan of his since Politically Incorrect, is his ability to get under people’s skin, pushing all the right buttons so as to bait answers – or more accurately lack of good answers – in order to make his point. He’s done it with politicians, celebrities, activists, writers and now with self-proclaimed true believers.

Unfortunately, the movie only focuses on Christianity, Judaism and Islam, making the glaring omissions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Paganism and really any other –ism you can think of a real shortcoming for a movie that calls into question the notion of “faith.” That’s the disconnect – if Maher were really looking to pick a fight with humanity’s panache for faith, he would really have to go after ALL religions. The movie would have been more successful had Maher better identified what really drives him nuts about faith: hypocrisy and self-serving contradictions that take advantage of people looking for answers to life’s mysteries and hardships.

So, the interviews with Jeremiah Cummings and Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda play right into Maher’s objective: to reveal how religion, for these two, is a means to bilk money from their respective congregations so as to keep them dressed in fine tailored suits.

But, when he talks with Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, an anti-Zionist Jew infamous for going to meet with Iranian President Ahmadinejad, Maher shows his hand; he only really wants to talk to people with answers that are caricatures that he knows are coming, playing into his true agenda – to make these people look like hypocritical idiots (some of them are). But the rabbi does not let Maher get a word in edgewise, which frustrates Maher enough that he abruptly ends the interview. It’s a great scene because both men are accustomed to talking their ways around interlocutors. In this case, Weiss betters Maher by answering questions with orations that Maher interrupts with a different question. The new question only spurs a new oration, however, taking Maher off his talking points.

Maher is preaching to the choir in Religulous. No one struggling with a dilemma of faith will walk out of the theatre with their troubles assuaged because Maher doesn’t really tackle the issue of faith, at least not as it applies to all belief systems. He reminds viewers that the Jesus story borrows heavily from the story of the Egyptian god Horus. This is not news to serious students of religion and myth and I imagine most people who see the film will know this, and will appreciate most of Maher’s points.

There are a few moments, however, where Religulous dovetails with Madonna of the Toast, and that is when individuals are talking about their faith, not as a means to proselytize but to simply get through life. Such is the case with the truckers he interviews at a truck-stop church. One driver in particular tells Maher, “When I seen what I seen, you can’t change what I believe.” This guy isn’t talking about seeing the Virgin Mary on a window. He’s talking about how faith pulled him out of a bleak life of addiction. So, for this guy, faith did factor into making life better. If it had been an image of Mary that got him around the bend, it’s really the same metaphor, right? This guy saw something, thought about what it meant to him and changed his behavior based on this vision.

Maher asks, “Why is faith good?” This isn’t a hard question to answer. Faith on an individual level is inevitable, whether it is religious or agnostic. At one point Maher posits, “Doubt is humble.” That’s tough to argue, but it is a statement of belief, no different than a statement of faith: “I believe . . .” The tough questions deal with how and why faith is used to take advantage of people or to sell a product.

I credit Father Reginald Foster, not Bill Maher, for getting in the best line of Religuous. The Catholic priest and Vatican Scholar tells Maher, as the two are standing outside the Vatican: “You have to live and die with your stupid ideas.” “Your” is the key word here. We are inundated with ideas from friends, family, media, religions, governments and academies. It is up to us to interpret them and live with our interpretations. Yes, certain of these ideas are biased, illogical and inconsistent, but that’s not a secret. Yes, some people are not necessarily equipped to make those distinctions, but is that the fault of the ideas, or the reason for them? I think it is the latter, which is a hugely more profound and complex question than the point of faith.

All of these bodies of ideas are human creations, no different from the wheel, the printing press and computers, and they should be examined as such. While Religulous offers some genuinely funny moments, it only skims the surface of “faith” as an idea. Maybe that’s for the sequel, the one that Maher and his director Larry Charles will let me help write.

I’m off to Frankfurt for the Book Fair, so I won’t be posting for a while. But, if any of you readers have seen Religulous, I’m interested to read your thoughts.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What is the Why?

From Springfield, Massachusetts, a Virgin Mary on a window of a Catholic hospital. Reported by the Boston Herald, this faint iconic shape on the second-floor window of an empty office has attracted hundreds of people, prompting the hospital to up security, according to a spokesperson for Mercy Medical Center.

Mark Dupont of the Springfield Diocese had this to say: “The way the colors cascade would give the outline of a very common artistic impression of the Blessed Virgin . . . It’s understandable how people would see an image in it.” As always when it comes to church officials addressing these events, Dupont was careful not to claim divine intervention, rather choosing to revel in the crowds’ supplications marked by tears, prayers, rosaries and candles.

So, another example of a Virgin Mary appearance garnering the attention of the faithful, and the media. What to make of it?

Recently on the New York Times blog By the Numbers, Charles M. Blow posed the question “Why is America so religious?” His question is rooted in “a study entitled ‘Unfavorable views of Jews and Muslims on the Increase in Europe’ (which is quite disturbing). The report is part of the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project.” Part of the report reveals, statistically, that poorer countries tend to contain more religious populations, with one major exception: the United States. From the study:

Despite its wealth, the United States is in the middle of the global pack when it comes to the importance of religion. Indeed, on this question, the U.S. is closer to considerably less developed nations such as India, Brazil and Lebanon than to other western nations.

See, there's the United States, there "in the middle of the global pack."

By virtue of how religion plays into politics and culture, we know this already. The frequency of these Madonna of the Toast-type sightings also backs up what these statistics suggest. But what does it really mean? What is the why?

I haven’t seen it yet (though I blogged about it last year), but I bet Bill Maher’s new movie, Religulous, touches on this question. I’m aiming to see it this weekend and will report back. In the meantime, the Times has published a review.

Lots of folks don’t like Maher, and I can understand where his detractors are coming from. I like him though because he’s not afraid to ask tough, sometimes unanswerable, questions, knowing they will irritate people. Doubtless he would have plenty to say about the Virgin Mary window and the Pew report.

Bill, feel free to drop me a line. We should talk.