Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Billy Ray Cyrus has seen great highs in his career – from the superstar status he achieved after “Achy Breaky Heart” became a hit in 1992 to his current role as the on-screen and off-screen Dad to Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus. But Billy Ray’s journey wasn’t always an easy one. The one thing that got him through the challenging times was his Christian faith.

Billy Ray’s grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher in the family’s hometown of Flatwoods, Kentucky while his Dad sang in a gospel quartet that performed throughout Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia. During an interview on the series “Christopher Closeup,” Billy Ray fondly recalled that his earliest memories in life are “of traveling with my Dad’s gospel quartet, going up some hollow in Bear Creek, West Virginia, and seeing…my (grandfather) preach and my Dad’s quartet coming out and singing songs. And then they’d always call me to get up and sing.”

Life became more difficult after Billy Ray’s parents divorced when he was six years old. He was able to handle the break-up fairly well because of his grandfather’s influence that conveyed the love and power of God.

After his grandfather died when Billy Ray was twelve, the youngster became more troubled. He said, “I think I rebelled somewhat…I look back on some of the juvenile delinquent, hoodlum things I did as a teenager and think ‘I must have been a very angry young man.’ But you know, God moves in mysterious ways…I always prayed through it all that God would give me the wisdom and the vision to do the things on this earth that I was supposed to do, to be the man that He wanted me to be. I just feel so fortunate that God never gave up on me. He just kind of stayed beside me even when I didn’t know or appreciate the fact that He was there.”

Billy Ray decided to follow his passion for music and worked hard to establish himself as a singer in the country music field. But this too was no easy task. He said, “By 1990, I had reached a point where for ten years, I had traveled from Los Angeles back and forth to Nashville many, many times and been turned down by every record label. (I was) just going nowhere…I played five nights a week, four sets a night in this little club up in West Virginia and had done it for years and years. All my other buddies I’d grown up with had either passed away, were in prison, or were doctors and lawyers. So here’s me playing in this club, and I’m thinking ‘This is getting embarrassing.’ (Then) my inner voice told me to go to Flatwoods, Kentucky on a Sunday evening. I just got in my car and took off…to my (grandfather’s) church – hadn’t been there since I was probably twelve-years-old when he died…There was this little country preacher in there (saying), ‘God loves a desperate man.’ He was pounding the pulpit saying ‘When you’re desperate, you don’t get down on your knees and say now I lay me down to sleep…You cry and you plead and you say God, I’m desperate! I need your help!’

Billy Ray continued, “I found myself as a thirty-year-old man walking right back up the exact same aisle where I had spent 11 to 12 of the best years of my life…I got down on my knees and I prayed the most desperate prayer. I said ‘God, I’ve always felt and believed that you wanted to use my life, but I feel like I’m at the end. I don’t think I can keep going.’ The devil sent every messenger and every demon he could throw at me that night…But the next morning I got up and that voice from that desperate prayer was saying ‘Call Mercury Records, call Harold Shedd.’ So I call his secretary, go through this desperate story. She agrees I can see this guy for five minutes because I’m sure I sounded like I was ready to commit suicide…So I drive 325 miles to Nashville to see this guy…and I said (to him) ‘Harold, this is the best thing I got. This is a song I wrote about a Vietnam veteran called Some Gave All.’ I finished the song and the guy stands up and says ‘I’m gonna structure you a little deal.’ And I’m sitting there going ‘What did he say?’ ”

That song evolved into Billy Ray’s first album “Some Gave All” which launched him into a successful music career. And Billy Ray Cyrus gives all the credit to God for answering that desperate prayer in a Flatwoods, Kentucky church.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


I want to highlight this recent musical moment from the TV series "Pushing Daisies." It features the wonderful Kristin Chenoweth showing off her Tony Award winning singing chops. Her character Olive Snook suffers with unrequited love for Ned who is in love with Chuck, the girl he raised from the dead. Olive could simply have been portrayed as jealous and bitchy but thanks to the writers and the talent of Chenoweth, she is sympathetic, likable, assertive and fun. In this clip, she pines for Ned in a way that made me smile.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Though the new TV series I've seen this Fall season is limited (Pushing Daisies, Chuck, Bionic Woman, Back to You), the best of the bunch so far is "Pushing Daisies." It's about a pie-maker named Ned who has the ability to raise the dead simply by touching them. However, if he doesn't touch them again (and thereby return them to dead status) within 60 seconds, someone else dies in that person's place.

Ned was able to follow these rules until he brought Chuck, his childhood sweetheart, back from the dead and couldn't bear to let her die again. Now, though the two of them are deeply attracted to each other, they can't make any skin-on-skin contact because it would send Chuck back to the great beyond. It's a great premise because, as most great storytellers know, couples who are destined to be together are more interesting when they're kept apart. It forces them toward a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other that's not just based on sexual attraction. Eventually there comes a time when the couple needs to get together or risk viewers and readers getting tired of the endless back-and-forth. Hopefully the writers on "Pushing Daisies" will be able to maneuver around this question for a while so that the show and the relationship between Ned and Chuck stay as interesting as possible.

The Daily News also weighs in on this aspect of the show here.

EXCERPT: sells big on prime-time TV, which is one reason it's so fascinating to watch "Pushing Daisies" (ABC, 8 p.m. Wednesdays), whose whole premise is that the couple at the heart of the show can never even touch each other.

No, this didn't come about because some Bible Belt group, fed up with Eva Longoria's behavior on "Desperate Housewives," sued ABC and won a settlement requiring equal time for abstinence.

It's even more startling than that. This is ABC gambling that viewers will watch a show in which they know upfront that the charming, good-hearted, immensely likable boy and girl at the heart of the show will fall in love and yet never be able to so much as kiss or hold hands.

Their problem stems from the fact that Ned (Lee Pace) brought Chuck (Anna Friel) back from the dead, which he can do with just a touch. Once he'd done it, he realized this was a girl on whom he'd had a long-distance crush since forever (think "Ed"), and now it turns out she likes him, too, especially since he brought her back to life and all.

So it would be all be good, except Part Two of Ned's gift is that if he touches that person a second time, he or she dies again.

Bad for Ned, Chuck and ABC.

So "Pushing Daisies" becomes the chastest love story this side of Minnie and Mickey Mouse.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, now acknowledges the Bible's influence on her books here.

It deals extensively with souls — about keeping them whole and the evil required to split them in two. After one hero falls beyond the veil of life, his whispers are still heard. It starts with the premise that love can save you from death and ends with a proclamation that a sacrifice in the name of love can bring you back from it.

Harry Potter is followed by house-elves and goblins — not disciples — but for the sharp-eyed reader, the biblical parallels are striking. Author J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books have always, in fact, dealt explicitly with religious themes and questions, but until "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," they had never quoted any specific religion.

(SPOILER ALERT! The rest of this story discusses the conclusion of "Deathly Hallows.")

That was the plan from the start, Rowling told reporters during a press conference at the beginning of her Open Book Tour on Monday. It wasn't because she was afraid of inserting religion into a children's story. Rather, she was afraid that introducing religion (specifically Christianity) would give too much away to fans who might then see the parallels.

"To me [the religious parallels have] always been obvious," she said. "But I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Is there anything funny about a sixteen year old girl getting pregnant? Actually, there's quite a bit in the soon-to-be-released film "Juno" (opening December 14).

It's about a smart/smart-mouthed Minnesota teen named Juno MacGuff who finds herself pregnant after her first sexual experience with a shy, nerdy classmate (Michael Cera). Her first inclination is to abort the child and she even goes to an abortion clinic for the procedure. But an encounter with a friend from school - along with the clinic's comically bizarre atmosphere - results in Juno rushing out and soonafter deciding to give her baby up for adoption. After searching for prospective parents in the local Penny Saver, Juno decides on Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) a seemingly-perfect, well-off suburban couple eager to adopt a child.

"Juno" manages to walk the fine line between edgy, witty, crass, and heartfelt. One of the film's strongest points is its three-dimensional characterizations. These aren't just stock characters but rather people with whom the audience can identify. The reaction of Juno's parents (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) to her pregnancy news is particularly poignant. They're shocked but supportive in a way you hope parents would be in that type of situation. Even Juno's school friend who is the lone Christian protester outside the abortion clinic could have been portrayed in the stereotypical way, as if she were someone to be looked down on and mocked. Instead, she's goofy but genuinely sincere in a way that makes a valid point and gets through to Juno.

Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman also make the most of their roles as a couple whose veneer of perfection shows cracks as the story progresses. The cracks, however, make them more human. Garner especially stands out as she conveys the longing of a woman unable to have biological children. Though she initially appears to be a hard-nosed June Cleaver, her character's vocation to motherhood eventually comes shining through. I'm used to seeing Garner kicking-butt-and-taking-names in "Alias" or being girly-silly in "13 Going on Thirty." But as Vanessa, she conveys a maturity and sensitivity that takes her to a new level as an actress. I'm guessing that giving birth to her own daughter gave her an enlightening perspective on this role.

Ultimately, "Juno" is carried on the more-than-capable shoulders of Ellen Page who plays the title role. She is the endearing outsider created out of the Freaks-and-Geeks mold who combines snarkiness with vulnerability and a growing maturity as she tries to find her identity in the world.

Whether or not it was writer Diablo Cody's intention, the movie contains aspects that many will consider pro-life. Yet I hesitate to see that label put on the movie because it goes beyond that. This isn't a movie that has an agenda; it simply tells an engaging story. There isn't any sermonizing about pro-life or pro-choice. The characters choices and experiences speak for themselves. "Juno" conveys the positive and challenging aspects of one teen's journey through an unplanned pregnancy - how she can't bear to dispose of the life inside her and comes to make the selfless, beautiful choice of delivering the baby because there are many loving people in this world who want it. In one sense, Juno's experience is idyllic because she has the unwavering support of family and friends to get her through. To me, that makes the film pro-life in a larger sense because, if real teens who got pregnant actually had the same kind of support, there's a greater chance they wouldn't choose abortion.

Based on those factors alone, this is a film that could be embraced by a Christian audience. However, I think that audience may take issue with some of the frank sexual dialogue among the teens. These are high schoolers who are sexually active and the film does mine some laughs out of that fact (it's PG-13 so there's no actual nudity, just talk). While there's no sermonizing about either birth control or abstinence, screenwriter Diablo Cody brings her own teenage sexual ethics to the story. Like it or not, that was the experience of her and her friends in high school. In my opinion, if parents are concerned about that part of the story, they should definitely see it with their kids, talk to them about their attitudes toward sex, and make it an occasion for teaching. But since the film's overall message is so positive, I think the film is worth seeing. Frankly, I think the film will attract a teen audience regardless of what parents say so it might be a good idea to see "Juno" anyway. It should be a charming, funny, poignant experience no matter your age.

To see the trailer, go here.


Though "Friday Night Lights" is probably the most critically acclaimed show on television right now, it suffered from anemic ratings during its first season. (I haven't managed to fit it into my viewing schedule though maybe I'll check out the DVD's in the future.) The show may now be trying to draw in Christian viewers through one particular character. Based on this piece on "National Review Online," this isn't a matter of pandering to a religious audience. It's integrating a part of life that's important to many people into a show about life in rural Texas. And it even seems to be done in a respectful way.

This season, one character experiences what the producers call “a religious conversion.” In short, Lyla, who has suffered and sinned as much as any character on the show, joins a church and becomes baptized. For the first few episodes she is insufferable, boldly proclaiming her faith and sneering at Riggins’ hedonistic lifestyle. This constitutes an ironic twist in the story because she was his secret lover when her boyfriend, Street, was in the hospital. Now Lyla has turned away from sex and partying for a new found faith, but hasn’t yet found a way to lovingly convey that to others. However, by the third episode this season, she softens and begins to better reflect the love of her new Savior. Part of the action takes place in a church, portrayed beautifully. It’s a place evangelicals would recognize, full of fervent worship and a passionate message about God’s love and grace. Lyla’s journey to faith is messy, but faith, church, and Christianity are treated with respect by the show. And this respectful treatment of Christianity is intentionally done. Executive Producer and Director Jeffrey Reiner, a self proclaimed New Yorker, announced that the producers went to Texas and met many people as research for the show, saying:
One of the characters is going to find God. And I think a lot of shows would use that to kind of poke fun at it, but I find that I meet the preachers, and I meet people somebody might call kind of weird or zealous. But they're not, you know, and we just end up meeting them as people.
Maybe it’s a revelation into the mind of many people in Hollywood that Mr. Reiner was surprised to find Texas Evangelicals normal, but hats off to him. He was willing to go, to explore, and to create an excellent show that addresses and respects Christianity. Moreover, he created a show that realistically depicts the struggle and the beauty of family life, as well as the toil of high school years lived without parental love and support. In doing so he glorifies what others shows scoff at, and in doing so he offers something remarkably fresh and original. Hollywood would be a better and more interesting place if others followed his example.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007


I received a press release today for a new thriller by author Tom Grace called "The Secret Cardinal." It deals with the repressive and dangerous situation faced by the Catholic Church in China. The story, which is fictional, sounds like it fits into Tom Clancy mode. It is, however, inspired by true events - specifically Pope John Paul II's secret elevation of a Chinese bishop to Cardinal in 1979. For more info on the book or some history of the situation faced by Catholics in China, you can visit the book's web site here.

Inspired by true events, masterful storyteller Tom Grace delivers his most provocative novel yet. In The Secret Cardinal, ex-Navy SEAL Nolan Kilkenny returns in an adventure that races from the grandeur of the Vatican across the vastness of Asia, ultimately involving China, the Mafia, and the conclave of cardinals that will elect the next pope.
When Kilkenny is invited to Rome to consult on the functioning of the Vatican Library, he is still grieving the death of his wife and son and welcomes the distraction of the seemingly simple assignment. But Pope Leo XIV has a startlingly different task in mind for him. In a private audience, Kilkenny learns of an unreported atrocity committed against the underground Church in China and its link to Yin Daoming, the long-imprisoned Bishop of Shanghai who has served thirty years of a life sentence in a Chinese laogai for refusing to renounce the Church of Rome.
The aging pope then reveals the dangerous truth about Bishop Yin, a secret that he has kept for over twenty years. Decades of diplomacy have failed to end China’s persecution of the Catholics loyal to the pope, or to free Bishop Yin. The pope wants Yin free and asks Kilkenny to devise a plan to accomplish this seemingly impossible task.
With help from the U.S. president, American Special Forces, and the C.I.A., he assembles a team of ten men and one woman that will use some of the most advanced weapons, aircraft, and computer technology to execute this extraordinary mission.

Monday, October 8, 2007


"I'm spiritual, not religious" is a common refrain in today's world where people often view organized religion as a negative thing. While organized religion does have some problems, it's also more necessary and beneficial than some would have us believe.

Lutheran theologian Martin Marty offers his thoughts on this topic in the book "The Life of Meaning," a series of interviews compiled and edited by Bob Abernethy and William Bole of the PBS series "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly." Here is an excerpt:

I appreciate the spiritual search of the nonchurched, nonsynagogued people as being full of imagination, discovery and satisfaction for the individual. But I once saw a bumper sticker that said, 'Spirituality doesn't make hospice calls.' Spirituality remains, normally, individualistic. You may gather for a retreat, and then you disperse...The people who are handling the homeless and dealing with addiction and trying to improve senior care and who care about the training of the young - they have to bond together. If they don't do it in old-fashioned churches, they'll do it new-fashioned churches. But I don't think it adds up to much unless there is some development of community, some bonding...

...I'm interested in public religion. And if somebody tells me, 'I'm on a spiritual search,' and they describe what they're on and it has no consequence, I think, 'Hmm, that's interesting.'...I love that they're doing it. I think it's a wonderful thing for the soul. But does it help the nation go deeper in its search for a way of addressing the profound issues of the day? I think it's bound to be superficial unless you have a community, the weight of a tradition, and the negative weight as well, and the grace that's mixed with it

Sunday, October 7, 2007


Supporters of the traditional family (a married husband and wife with kids) are often maligned as being unnecessarily old-fashioned and out-of-touch with the modern, smarter way of doing things. So here is an article by Mort Zuckerman from the New York Daily News that supports the traditional family through actual statistics and facts.

You will hear a lot about the American family in the election campaign. For most of us, that calls up an image of a man and wife and two or three children.
Forget it. Predominant as the social pattern for several hundred years, that American family has lost its place. Households of unmarried couples and households without children outnumber "American family" households. And only about 20% of families fit into the traditional structure with father as the only breadwinner.
Here is what has been happening: In the 1950s, 80% of adults were married; today, roughly 50% are. Why? Partly because people are delaying marriage. Second, divorce rates have more than doubled since the 1960s as marriage evolved from a sacrament to a contract. Third, millions more cohabit before marriage. Fourth, births to unmarried mothers, white and black, have risen from 5% in 1960 to about 35% today.
So the new American family is a household with fewer children, with both parents working, and with mothers giving birth to their children at an ever older age, having fewer children, and spacing them further apart.
This is not good news. Twice as many married people indicate they are very happy as compared with those who aren't married. But it is the children who are most affected. The stable family of two biological parents - surprise, surprise! - turns out to be the ideal vessel for molding character, for nurturing, for inculcating values, and for planning for a child's future. Marriage, or the lack of it, is the best single predictor of poverty, greater even than race or unemployment.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


It turns out that Ron Hansen, the author of the book "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" on which the current movie is based, is also a Catholic deacon. You can read more about him here.
The Ford story, like all Deacon Hansen's novels, has a Christian theme. His characters cope with the forces of good and evil and his settings dramatize the moral struggle.
"A lot of people would be surprised you could find a Christian idea in a story about Jesse James, but I think it's implicit in the text," he said. "A lot of times it's about recklessness, ambition, ego and how those can really ruin your life, and I think a lot of times there is this sense of peace and redemption operative in most of my books."
Deacon Hansen cited the influence of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola on his storytelling. "One of the exercises is you are who you follow – Christ or the evil one?" he said.
Born into a Catholic family in Nebraska, Deacon Hansen attended Catholic grade school, a Jesuit-run high school and graduated from Jesuit-run Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. His twin brother was a Jesuit and a sister was a Dominican nun.
His mother and father were converts to Catholicism. His father's father had been Mormon, and his mother became a Catholic while living in an orphanage run by Dominican nuns.
While working on his 1991 novel, 'Mariette in Ecstasy,' about the phenomenon of stigmata, Deacon Hansen returned to school for a mid-career refresher in the faith. In 1995 he graduated from the University of Santa Clara, also a Jesuit school, with a master's degree of arts in pastoral ministry with an emphasis on spirituality.

Monday, October 1, 2007


Here's a prayer to St. Therese on her feast day that has helped me on a number of occasions:

O Little Therese of the Child Jesus,please pick for me a rose from the heavenly gardensand send it to me as a message of love.
O Little Flower of Jesus,ask God today to grant the favorsI now place with confidence in your hands…..(request)
St Therese, help me to always believe, as you did,in God’s great love for me,so that I might imitate your “Little Way” each day.