Sunday, June 29, 2008


On a recent episode of “Christopher Closeup,” I had the opportunity to interview Barbara Nicolosi. Barbara is a talented screenwriter, founder of the Act One Screenwriting program, and partner in Origin Entertainment. The interview covered a lot of ground including Barbara’s insights on improving the work of Christians in Hollywood and why films & TV programs shouldn’t shy away from portraying sin in their stories. But the high point came when Barbara and I discussed one of our favorite TV shows, “Battlestar Galactica.” (Okay, it’s actually an obsession for Barbara. And she’ll admit that too.)

For those not familiar with the show’s premise, it deals with the near-obliteration of a human society by the machine-race they created called Cylons. Humanity’s survivors are on a mission to find the mythical planet Earth where they can start life anew while fleeing from the Cylons who are out to kill them and claim Earth for themselves.

Barbara discussed this premise from an artistic and religious viewpoint. Here’s an excerpt:

TR: I’ve been reading your blog “Church of the Masses” for years…I pretty much have a sense of what you like and don’t like…Then in January 2008, I go to your blog and read you geeking out about “Battlestar Galactica.” What happened to tilt the earth off its axis so that you’re now praising a sci-fi show?

Barbara Nicolosi: All my friends think I’ve lost my mind (Laughs). But…when you see powerful, well-done, really-well-executed work that’s hitting at all the different levels of meaning that are possible in the screen artform, you have got to say that this is an achievement. And you have got to say this show does that. The funny thing about the show is that…it’s very sexy in some episodes. But I don’t find it gratuitously so because I think that it’s about a post-religious, licentiate human society that’s grown fat with its own excess. And so I think that in that sense it would be a lie not to show that. It’s an adult show, this is on at 10:00 at night, it’s not for kids…

In the very first episode they ask the question, ‘You human beings talk about…struggling to survive. You never ask the question if you deserve to survive.’ The rest of the series then unfolds over this question of ‘do we deserve to survive because of what we’ve become?’ I think that’s a valid question…(And) the cool thing about the show is it never tells you what to think; it just keeps posing questions that have been raised in this post-9/11 America.

For example, an episode that was just aired recently of Season 4 was about the President and the Admiral – the two leaders in the society – (deciding) they have to break the law a little bit and not be open about what they’re doing because there’s a greater threat out there. Then (the government) starts having a fight…when it comes out – ‘How can we do this? This betrays who we are.’ Well, isn’t that what we’re talking about as a society now? And…I don’t think we’re really talking about it as a society. I think there’s a lot of screaming going on. But Battlestar’s actually trying to dialogue it out.

TR: It almost doesn’t come down on either side as being right. You see both sides.

Barbara Nicolosi: You’re right. In fact I talked to the writers at length, we were picketing together during the strike. And they said that is one of the most paramount points that we discuss as a staff. We’re going to lay out in a fair way both sides of these questions and let the audience have to wrestle with whether they think the choices the characters are making are ultimately moral or immoral. I love that! I’m so sick of having a particular worldview jammed down my throat…and seeing the other side so badly represented. I mean, look at ‘West Wing.’ They never could represent a Republican or a conservative – until the very end of the series – without making them a buffoon or an ignoramus…So it’s just refreshing (on Battlestar) to have two characters that you really love and admire be on opposite sides of something, both making a compelling case for where they’re coming from, and then you have to decide who is right or wrong.

TR: Ron Moore, the executive producer of the show, said about it, “There’s a search for truth that we explore continually.” Looking at things from a religious perspective, is the search for truth in a story enough to make it deserving of being embraced by a Christian audience?

Barbara Nicolosi: I think so. I think that one of the things we’ve been getting wrong in Catholic media is that we try and do all the work for the viewer in terms of stories. A story is a car, for example, that you provide out of respect for your viewer. They’re going to go on a journey in that car. It’s a very respectful thing to set them up on this journey, but they have to do the work otherwise it’s not going to mean anything in their life. So if you make it too easy for them and give them the answers, they’ll forget...We say to our students in Act One all the time, “It isn’t telling people the truth that saves them; it’s getting them to wrestle with the truth that saves them.” It’s the reason that when you end a Flannery O’Connor story, you’re furious at her because you say, “Well what did that mean?!” You always think there were three missing pages where she was supposed to tell you what everything meant. And what you have to do is keep going over it and over it and over it until you figure it out. That’s the process of saving you. But Flannery really respects her audience. Now granted a lot of the audience misses the deeper level. But you know what, the ones who get it – it saves their soul.

TR: Galactica is also one of the only shows that deals with religion and faith in an overt manner. At the beginning I was unsure what to make of it because the seeming bad guys were worshippers of the ‘one true God’ whereas the seeming good guys had multiple gods. How do you think the story represents religion? Is it doing it in a good way?

Barbara Nicolosi: I think it was a stroke of genius to make the humans the pagans/polytheists and make the machines the monotheists. In one sense it could just be that the machines are supposed to represent the fanaticism of the Islamic fascists who took down the towers...But it’s not that because Christianity is also a monotheistic religion. So I think that by twisting it on its head, by making the Cylons monotheists, it made it even safer for the show to talk about issues of faith and how they impact daily life...Having said that, this struggle of the people in the show (asks), ‘Are we missing something when we make decisions that aren’t guided by transcendent faith?’ That’s what the human characters on the show are struggling with.

You have some of them, like the most screwed up one, Starbuck, but she really believes that the gods know her name and that she owes them fealty. Then you have the admiral and his son who are just such agnostics, and now they’re struggling to believe because they don’t know what to do, they have nothing else to lean on. And that’s the question of the show – when you have nothing else to lean on, does it then make sense to reach for the divine or are you just grasping at some kind of straw to save your psychological life? The show hasn’t resolved that yet, but I think it’s setting up to do that very clearly.

(To listen to the full interview, visit

Sunday, June 22, 2008


As a member of the Vatican press corps, Delia Gallagher has traveled extensively with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. After a two year stint in New York as CNN's Faith and Values Correspondent, Delia recently returned to Rome to serve as Senior Editor of 'Inside the Vatican' magazine. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Delia on 'Christopher Closeup' about her work, her journalism career, and her insights on Pope Benedict's vision for the future of the Catholic Church. Here are some excerpts:

Tony Rossi: Even though you’ve worked for the secular press like CNN, you seem to be most at home working in the Catholic arena. What’s the appeal of covering Catholicism in general and the Vatican in particular?

Delia Gallagher: The difficulty of working in the secular press for religion is the medium itself. Television doesn’t lend itself to any kind of in-depth discussion of (religion) so there is a frustration for somebody like me who knows a lot about it and who would like to get into some of the more interesting aspects or the deeper issues behind it or the history. But you just can’t do that on television...I’m happy to do television when there are big stories but it’s always at a very superficial level. To get any satisfaction out of the work, you have to work for readers and listeners who are interested in some of the bigger-picture things.

TR: How did your Mom and Dad pass on the faith to you in such a way that it’s not only an important part of your life but that you’re also devoting a lot of your career to it?

Delia Gallagher: My parents are from Ireland. I have 4 brothers...We grew up in an Irish-Catholic household...Every night at the dinner table, it was religion and politics. That was the basic theme in our family. Faith was very important, going to church...There was never any real intention on my part to go into reporting on religion...I didn’t even know that kind of job existed. But I was interested in it and I did study it. I studied philosophy and theology…at the University of San Francisco which is a Jesuit university. At that university, there was a program called St. Ignatius Institute which was founded by a Jesuit named Father Joseph Fessio who was a student of Cardinal Ratzinger. So frankly I’ve been studying the Pope for about 20 years now. But it was just an interest. And if there’s one thing I can say to young kids today, it's ‘when you go to university, study what you’re interested in.’ Unfortunately people say when you study philosophy and theology ‘what are you going to do with that?’ We’re so geared toward the career. But at the university level, you should be thinking about what’s going to enrich you, not what’s going to make you money. So that’s what I did and, of course, the money follows afterward. And I think a lot of it’s providential frankly. You just go along a little bit blind most of the time but things tend to come full circle as you follow what you feel like doing.

TR: I know you’re father was a playwright. What kind of plays did he write – and did his writing career have any influence on the fact that you yourself are a writer?

Delia Gallagher: Probably. He is still a playwright by the way. He likes Catholic martyrs. In most of his plays, the protagonist dies in the end. But (Dad) does have a theater company in California; it’s the Quo Vadis Theater Company so I’ll give him a little plug. I think it’s also maybe something in the Irish blood, an artistic leaning towards writing.

TR: You’ve written that the Pope’s larger vision of the Catholic Church is often overlooked. What is that vision and why do we not get it sometimes?

Delia Gallagher: The vision is, as he himself as said...some people have called it pessimistic. In other words, maybe the Catholic Church of the future is going to be a smaller church. I think when people think of evangelization and making fishers of men and certainly (words) from the Pope, the idea should be ‘We should go out and get as many people as possible.’ I think the Pope understands his role right now to be a re-enforcing...of the basics of the Catholic faith precisely so that in the future – if the world is going to become increasingly secularized and so on – this smaller but more faithful group of people can carry the light...

(Though) he doesn’t directly make parallels, he chose the name Benedict...Think of St. Benedict creating these small monasteries to see (his era) through the dark ages and then another flourishing of monasticism and of Christianity in general after the dark ages. You have to remember with this Pope – this is what we don’t understand – he’s got this very broad vision of history...He’s saying we may have to accept that it’s a smaller church right now, but who knows in 100 years and who knows in 500 years.

It’s connected to an idea he’s also talked about which is pruning. It’s the same thing for every individual person. In agriculture, you have to prune back the flowers and prune back the vines in order for them to flourish. So I think this concept is important to him both on this very large historical scale and also on the personal scale.

(For the free podcast of the full interview with Delia Gallagher, go to

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


It’s astounding to me that Luke Russert got through the heartbreak of the last few days with as much courage, composure and eloquence as he did. I couldn’t help misting up at some of the tributes to his much-loved, force-of-nature father Tim. The fact that this 22-year-old didn’t crack in public is a sign of inner strength, and maybe, divine grace at work in his life.

At a time when his father’s family, friends and fans should have been comforting him, he stood strong as a comfort to all - as a sign that life will go on and, to quote Tom Hanks in Cast Away after having faced loss and disappointment of his own, “Tomorrow the sun will rise.”

Maybe I’m reading into it, but at the end of the televised memorial service for Tim Russert this evening, Luke looked worn out, like he’d given almost all he had and was spent. This young man now deserves some private time to grieve with his Mom and family. It’s a gift the media and the public owe him.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


Mike Hayes at Busted Halo shares a thoughtful remembrance of Tim Russert on the sad and shocking occasion of his passing.

The lecture hall was packed as the crowd awaited a speaker known by millions for his enormous insight into American politics. Every Sunday, Tim Russert spoke to the titans of American politics as moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press” where his grilling of public figures on the issues of the day had become legendary. But tonight people came from far and wide to hear him speak about a topic far more dear to him: his Father. The publication of his riveting memoir, Big Russ and Me, offered a window into the values and experiences that were at the core of this well-regarded Washington newsman’s life. The book’s success had a surprisingly large impact on the American public.

His dad, Tim Sr., a hardnosed working class guy, who worked two jobs, neither of them particularly elegant—he delivered newspapers and picked up garbage for a living—and yet Russert talked about him as the epitome of class. Big Russ taught him the values of living with faith, discipline and simple honesty. He made an honest living and family always came first. What more could a son ask for? (Full story here.)

Sunday, June 8, 2008


On October 15, 2000 - the morning after she became the 1st teacher and 1st Filipino-American to win the title of Miss America - Angela Baraquio Grey’s initial thoughts weren’t about fame or glamour. Instead, Angela told her handlers, “I need to carve out one hour to go to Mass.”

While working as a physical education teacher at a Catholic school in Honolulu, Hawaii, Angela had been involved with beauty pageants but was reluctant to be portrayed in any way that would set a bad example for her students. A priest told her that more Catholics need to be in the forefront of our culture and convinced her that she could pursue pageants without betraying her principles.

Angela’s new approach led her to think of all her pursuits in terms of God wanting to use her as an instrument. She won the title of Miss Hawaii which led to the Miss America competition.

As the eighth of ten children from a devout Catholic family, Angela was used to attending Mass every Sunday. But in the 2 weeks prior to the Miss America pageant, officials pressured her into not going because they had rehearsals all day Sunday from 6:00am to 10:00pm. Though she was upset, Angela complied with the rules.

The morning after her win though, Angela had a request – she wanted to attend Mass. With a slate full of media scheduled, her handlers at first looked “appalled.” On the radio show “Personally Speaking,” Angela recalled, “Then my manager said to me, ‘You’re Miss America. You can do whatever you want.’”

With the revelation of the importance of her Catholic faith, Angela got a surprise. Out of twelve members of her entourage, six revealed they were Catholic too. Two people who would be her traveling companions were ecstatic that they would be able to go to Mass with her every week. They did however point out that the time away from official pageant duties would cost her some money. Angela’s response – “I need to go to Mass every week for the next year – every Sunday, no matter what city I’m in, traveling 20,000 miles a month...That’s the way it’s going to be.”

Angela’s devotion to her faith was cemented by a time of doubt in her life. Prior to turning 18, an age she considered the marker of adulthood, Angela asked herself if she wanted to keep believing in something her parents told her to believe or if she should take responsibility for her faith. Instead of just saying Christianity wasn’t true, she found a number of theological books and read up on the Catholic faith. The more that she delved into it, the more she thought, “What a beautiful faith! And I totally took it for granted (because) I was a cradle Catholic.” She looked at the faith of people who’d been converted to Catholicism in their later years and found inspiration in them because they “actually do their homework. I went and I did the research, and that strengthened my faith and my connection with the Lord.”

That connection with the Lord has been a major source of support in recent years. In November 2006, Angela’s brother Albert, who suffered with bipolar disorder, committed suicide. The Baraquios never saw it coming because Albert acted happy whenever they saw him. Struggling to find a sense of healing, Angela’s brother John presented his siblings with an idea. Since they’d all grown up singing together as a choir in churches, why not record an album that would serve as a tribute to Albert - and as a source of hope to others who had lost loved ones to suicide? The Baraquios agreed and have recently released this moving album called “Lost and Found.” (More info here.)

Large families like Angela’s are a rarity in today’s culture because people often see having a lot of kids only in terms of financial inconvenience. But Angela’s parents held a very different view.

Angela recalled the story of her Mom who had just given birth to twins (her fifth and sixth children). Right after the birth, the doctor said to Angela’s mother, “I’m going to...tie your tubes okay. I just need your permission, sign here.”

In shock, Angela’s mother responded, “Are you kidding me? I just gave birth to these beautiful twins!”

The doctor said, “This is a lot of kids. It’s going to be very expensive. You have no idea how hard it is.”

Angela’s Mom and Dad looked at each other and decided that they would follow God’s plan for their lives, not the doctor’s. They used a different physician when children #7 through #10 (including Angela who was #8) were born. Years later, Angela’s brother Jerome ran into the offending doctor who told him, “Congratulations, we’re so proud of your...sister!” When Jerome relayed this message to his parents, his mother exclaimed, “She wouldn’t even be here if we’d followed this doctor’s advice!”

The blessing of that large family has paid off in unexpected ways. As Angela says, “My Mom has always taught us that whatever God wants, do His will. Everyone talks about another mouth to feed, but the blessings have been endless. I wouldn’t be here with my children and have the blessings of them, their love, my husband, and the life that we lead today if my parents didn’t trust in God the way they did. My family has come together in such a difficult time after my brother’s death…In our darkest hours, we were there for each other to pull each other together and strengthen our love for each other as a family.”

Monday, June 2, 2008


For anyone who had doubts about the positive makeover Judas received a couple of years ago when the book and documentary about the Gospel of Judas were released, here's an article that strongly suggests the revelations were more spin than substance (h/t to Kevin Knight at New Advent):

One of the seven million people who watched the National Geographic documentary was April D. DeConick. Admittedly, DeConick, a professor of biblical studies at Rice University, was not your average viewer. As a Coptologist, she had long been aware of the existence of the Gospel of Judas and was friends with several of those who had worked on the so-called dream team. It's fair to say she watched the documentary with special interest.

As soon as the show ended, she went to her computer and downloaded the English translation from the National Geographic Web site. Almost immediately she began to have concerns. From her reading, even in translation, it seemed obvious that Judas was not turning in Jesus as a friendly gesture, but rather sacrificing him to a demon god named Saklas. This alone would suggest, strongly, that Judas was not acting with Jesus' best interests in mind — which would undercut the thesis of the National Geographic team. She turned to her husband, Wade, and said: "Oh no. Something is really wrong."

She started the next day on her own translation of the Coptic transcription, also posted on the National Geographic Web site. That's when she came across what she considered a major, almost unbelievable error. It had to do with the translation of the word "daimon," which Jesus uses to address Judas. The National Geographic team translates this as "spirit," an unusual choice and inconsistent with translations of other early Christian texts, where it is usually rendered as "demon." In this passage, however, Jesus' calling Judas a demon would completely alter the meaning. "O 13th spirit, why do you try so hard?" becomes "O 13th demon, why do you try so hard?" A gentle inquiry turns into a vicious rebuke.

Then there's the number 13. The Gospel of Judas is thought to have been written by a sect of Gnostics known as Sethians, for whom the number 13 would indicate a realm ruled by the demon Ialdabaoth. Calling someone a demon from the 13th realm would not be a compliment. In another passage, the National Geographic translation says that Judas "would ascend to the holy generation." But DeConick says it's clear from the transcription that a negative has been left out and that Judas will not ascend to the holy generation (this error has been corrected in the second edition). DeConick also objected to a phrase that says Judas has been "set apart for the holy generation." She argues it should be translated "set apart from the holy generation" — again, the opposite meaning. In the later critical edition, the National Geographic translators offer both as legitimate possibilities.

These discoveries filled her with dread. "I was like, this is bad, and these are my friends," she says. It's worth noting that it didn't take DeConick months of painstaking research to reach her conclusions. Within minutes, she thought something was wrong. Within a day, she was convinced that significant mistakes had been made. Why, if it was so obvious to her, had these other scholars missed it? Why had they seen a good Judas where, according to DeConick, none exists?