One Ha’ Penny, Two Ha’ Penny, Hot Cross Buns

My first ever homemade batch of hot cross buns
© 2012 Phil Fox Rose

Every year, I bring hot cross buns to an Easter brunch gathering of family and friends. Sharing food has always been sacred to me, all the more so when it’s around a spiritual event. I don’t know why I started bringing hot cross buns. We didn’t do it when I was growing up; maybe it’s my British roots, but it just seems the thing to do. (Good Friday is the traditional day, but Sunday is when we gather.) This year, for the first time ever, I am making my own, inspired in part by a recent spirituality of bread baking workshop at my church. Based on the test batch, I think it will work out fine.

The hot cross bun is not complicated to make. At its simplest, it’s spiced bread. Flavor and ingredient-wise, its noteworthy for a few reasons. First, traditionally it’s made with currants, an ingredient unknown in America except in its fellow British baked good, the scone. Second, it sometimes includes bits of candied fruit — the same atrocity that afflicts fruitcake and makes it wildly unpopular. (I prefer mine without, if you hadn’t guessed.) Third, it’s only lightly sweetened, which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your tastes.

And of course, most obviously, there’s a big honkin’ cross on the top of it, usually made of white icing.

A pagan past

Behind the description, the hot cross bun carries a surprising amount of intrigue. Even to start to tell its history lands you in controversy. We know one thing: it began in England. When and why, though, is its first mystery. While some disagree, the hot cross bun probably was a tribute to the Saxon goddess Eostre, after whom this Christian holiday got its English name. Eostre was the goddess of light, and her name was given to the month of April, which marked the return of the dominance of light, as well as of birth and new growth. Eostre ties back to the German goddess of the dawn, Hausos, who is also linked to rabbits and eggs. While the specifics of Eostre are based on an account from St. Bede which scholars dispute, the link between the German goddess Hausos, the Saxon Eostre, and the later English name and customs of Easter seems obvious.

(While the English language uses the name Easter and modern German retains Ostern, all the Romance languages and many others use a name based on the Latin Pascha, or the original Hebrew Pesach. In other word, the Christian name for Easter in most languages is Passover. Chew on that one for a minute. A few others use a name based on the Greek Anastasia, which means resurrection. Slavic and Sami languages use other words, though Russian uses Paskha.)

The cross on the bun began as an ancient Gaelic symbol depicting either the four quarters of the moon or the intersection of earth (the horizontal line) and Heaven (the vertical line), the human and divine, the physical and the spiritual. These meanings for the cross don’t contradict its other meaning, they enrich it, and you find them in Christianity, especially Celtic Christianity, sometimes too.

The bun that couldn’t be squashed

Despite its pagan roots, the hot cross bun became so entrenched as a symbol of English Catholicness that when the Protestants took power they actually banned the bun. As with most government attempts to forbid something people want, however, it didn’t last long. A compromise was struck by Queen Elizabeth I, allowing them to be sold, but only during Christmas and Easter.

The fact that the buns are not very sweet — just enough to balance the favors but not enough to taste sugary — is seen as appropriate for Lent. The use of currents rather than raisins, though an accident of location rather than something intentional, furthers this, since currents are less sweet and less juicy. It’s possible that hot cross buns were sometimes made with the same flour used for communion wafers, though this might have been propaganda from the anti-Catholics. I was excited to learn that in Australia they sometimes substitute chocolate chips for the currants, so I made some that way too. (I don’t abstain from chocolate during Lent.) I must say, it felt wrong. Even though the overall effect, despite the milk chocolate chips, was still not sweet, chocolate just seems too… decadent.

There’s a superstuition that you can cement a friendship for the coming year by sharing a hot cross bun, saying, "Half for you and half for me, between us two shall good will be." If you ask me, I’d say that’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. But by all means, share hot cross buns with your friends this Holy Week, and consider those friendships holy and protected for the year ahead! If you’re inspired to try home-cooked buns, I’ve included the recipe I used. Have a blessed Easter.

What Works: The Hunger Games — Is Its Violence Appropriate?

I wasn’t going to write about The Hunger Games movie – I’m a huge fan of the books and had no advance screening, so I just went to the theater with everyone else on opening night as a consumer. But I have to share my reaction to concern expressed about The Hunger Games‘ violence which I’ve read in the days following the movie’s release. I was certainly very interested to see how they makers of the movie would deal with translating the book’s extreme brutality against and among children into a movie that children could watch. I am surprised they went as far as they did and think they came very close to the edge. There’s lots of blood, and a few of the children are killed onscreen — but the violence is never gratuitous.

Much of the criticism is from people reacting without bothering to understand, but Bo Sanders’ interesting post in Homebrewed Christianity caught my eye. Essentially, Bo loved the movie, but expresses some concerns raised by the fact that when he saw the movie there was cheering when a “good” character killed a “bad” character. It’s a thoughtful post and the comment thread is heady and interesting. Perhaps if anyone had cheered at the violence when I saw it, I’d have had the same reaction — as I did last year when I wrote about my repulsion at the celebrations over Ben Laden’s death — but I find nothing to criticize in The Hunger Games‘ use of violence.

The Hunger Games does not glorify violence or desensitize people to it. It is a story of loss of innocence, and the intrusion of violence is a key part of that loss. As a commentary on brutality by an empire against its subjects and the vicarious enjoyment of others’ suffering, it would not work without showing any brutality or suffering.

Yesterday I watched a religious war movie that glorified violence. It held up violence done in the name of religion, honor and freedom as something praiseworthy; it nearly said that this killing was good. That is troubling. In The Hunger Games, on the other hand, we see some of the killers as disturbingly amoral, some as products of their conditioning, and in the few cases where violence is performed by one of the “good” people, it is sad and disturbing. The Hunger Games does not glorify violence or desensitize people to it. It is a story of loss of innocence, and the intrusion of violence is a key part of that loss. As a commentary on brutality by an empire against its subjects and the vicarious enjoyment of others’ suffering, it would not work without showing any brutality or suffering. To the extent that the movie (inevitably) toned down the violence in the book, it made a weaker statement. The fact that some people may watch its portrayal of vicarious viewing of violence and vicariously enjoy it is sad but inevitable. It doesn’t mean the moviemakers missed the mark.

I was troubled by one thing I saw at the theater when I viewed it on opening night: the under-10-year-olds brought by their parents. No matter how important the lesson, I think it’s wrong for prepubescent kids to see children getting killed. Especially with their parents’ endorsement. Even older kids and adults who are easily freaked out may be better of not going anywhere near it. I myself had the misfortune to be seated in front of a fiftysomething woman who kicked my seat any time anything tense or startling happened. I’d have been better off with kids behind me.

I’ve written here before about avoiding the fear-mongering of TV news, and shows like 24 which do the same thing with fiction, uselessly filling our heads with things to make us anxious. But that is not to say that we should live in a puffy-clouded world of denial. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” We should be upset when we see killing. And exposing oneself to thoughtful portrayals of the wrongs in the world can be an enriching and empowering thing, even if disturbing. I believe The Hunger Games is thoughtful and empowering. What do you think?


Let me add these additional comments about the movie, though they’re not about the subject above, since I didn’t write a review:

I think Jennifer Lawrence was exceptional; most critics agree, with the notable exception of my friend Tom Shone, who apparently was watching a different movie. Elizabeth Banks was great too. The rest of the cast was adequate. I was worried about Woody Harrelson, and he didn’t ruin the movie but a talented and inventive actor could have made the Haymitch character memorable; he is neither. Similarly, Cinna could have been amazing in better hands that Lenny Kravitz’s (and should have been over-the-top gay, which is definitely not the way Kravitz plays him.)

On the oft-criticized camera work, I defer to a friend in the industry, Tim Hickson, who nailed it with, “JJ Abrahms called and told me he wants his genre back.” I realize super-tight close-ups and shaky-cam are supposed to add excitement, but it was over the top.

Finally, the music was phenomenal. I’m so thrilled that instead of loading the movie full of predictable indie pop-rock, they did an amazing thing and brought in T-Bone Burnett to give The Hunger Games music appropriate to its Appalachian setting. It’s a dark, mournful alt-bluegrass delight of original songs written and performed by fans of the books — the Civil Wars, Taylor Swift, Arcade Fire and The Carolina Chocolate Drops stand out. I’ve been listening to nothing but the soundtrack for the past week and am nowhere near tired of it yet.

Faithful Departed: Improper Women — Betty Ford (1918 – 2011) and Amy Winehouse (1983 – 2011)

For most of the public history of alcoholism and drug addiction all the way back to Noah, the general impression has been that it is something that happens to men. Women might have gotten “in trouble” with prescription drugs or white wine, but it was men who were drunks. Men were sent to prison; women were sent to mental hospitals. Of course women were drinking and drugging and some of them were getting in serious trouble, just like men. But mostly it was happening behind closed doors. It just wasn’t proper.

In a groundbreaking 1954 article in Good Housekeeping, “Letter To A Woman Alcoholic,” writer Margaret Lee Runbeck appealed to female readers who were struggling with addiction secretly: “If I lived across the street from you and saw you gallantly but hopelessly struggling against your ailment and spoke to you sometimes when you couldn’t avoid meeting me, I’d not dare to tell you what I want to tell you now… I couldn’t tell you that I find nothing in you to despise or ridicule or preach at, for you wouldn’t let me speak about what is your fatal malady. We’d both pretend it doesn’t exist.”

The women’s movement started to change things. Through the 50s, 60s and 70s, as more and more women took charge of their lives and felt freer to express themselves, formerly taboo subjects were being talked about on the bestseller list and TV screens. But there was still a sense that the women doing these things were on the, shall we say, looser side of the spectrum.

A really big deal

Betty Ford used her bully pulpit as first lady to change the conversation. She was a really big deal. God only knows how many lives of addicts and cancer sufferers her actions have saved.

Then came Betty Ford, the first lady of these United States. First, she shocked the world in 1974 by saying out loud that she had breast cancer, something that proper women like her just didn’t do. Proper women would rather die, and did, rather than talk about their breasts even to their spouses and doctors. This one act has led to thousands of women getting checked in time and saving their own lives. Being a young boy, this event only crossed my radar later on.

But in 1982 I definitely took notice when Betty Ford broke tradition again and far more shockingly by publically admitting her alcoholism and prescription opiate addiction, something a proper woman like her certainly didn’t do. Her family had staged an intervention and she had gotten help, but rather than hiding the fact, Ford decided she wanted to create a rehab specifically for women.

While the Betty Ford Clinic has become a punchline of sorts thanks to all the female celebrities who have publicly announced their trips there in this day of too-much-exposure, even that is groundbreaking in its frankness. It is no longer a career-killer for a female celebrity to admit addiction.

Betty Ford used her bully pulpit as first lady to change the conversation. She was a really big deal. God only knows how many lives of addicts and cancer sufferers her actions have saved.

They tried to make her go

Help does not reach most alcoholics and addicts though, even today with all the openness. The addict must accept the help and do their part, and even then, some seem to struggle so much more than others. We had a few examples of female celebrities playing out their addictions in the public eye these last few years, but none more tragic than Amy Winehouse.

Amy flaunted her impropriety. With her tattoos and crazy hair and makeup, she wasn’t trying to fit in. And hers was not a sudden unexpected fall. Winehouse was already struggling with addiction, depression, bulimia and self-harm when we first met her. Forgetting lyrics to songs, canceling gigs due to “exhaustion,” getting caught by paparazzi looking hung over and strung out with cuts and bruises: Some thought she was sad; many secretly enjoyed her blatant decadence. I felt some of both, but mostly I admired her stunning talent as both a singer and songwriter.

Some thought she was sad; many secretly enjoyed her blatant decadence. I felt some of both, but mostly I admired her stunning talent as both a singer and songwriter.

As if she wasn’t already flaunting her addiction issues enough, the apex of Amy’s commercial success came with the 2006 song “Rehab,” her only American top 10 hit, with the notorious chorus, “They tried to make me go to rehab, and I said, ‘No, no, no.'” Betty Ford may have built the rehab, but Amy wouldn’t go.

Winehouse was willing to take anything to get out of feeling the present moment, including inflicting self-harm. When she overdosed in 2007, she had a mixture of heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, K and alcohol in her system. She did go to rehabs several times and reportedly stopped doing drugs two years before her death, but never managed to kick alcohol. It was simple alcohol poisoning that killed her at the age of 27 — with two empty vodka bottles by her side. It’s a tragedy to lose anyone so young, but I can’t help wondering what Amy might have created had she managed to get and stay sober and live to 93 like Betty Ford did.

Faithful Departed: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was never a corporate man. The early personal computer industry was an outgrowth of the radical back-to-the-land ethos and even the name “Apple” was intentionally folksy and home-brewed. For Jobs, the personal computer wasn’t a way to bring work home or improve the productivity and accountability of employees. His goal was always computer as appliance, computer as an empowering tool for regular people. He pointed to Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, which I grew up poring through, as a key inspiration. The story of Apple’s products is a story of getting closer and closer to that vision. The infamous 1984 Superbowl ad set up Apple as the opposite of IBM’s (Microsoft’s) corporate mindset. The only thing that’s changed is that Jobs’ vision has won.

The day after Steve Jobs passed away in October, besides my column on him, Busted Halo bloggers Tom, Annie and Vanessa — a seminarian, a music journalist and a young mother — all posted about the influence he’d had on them. This is one of many testaments to the far-reaching influence Jobs’ empowering technologies have had. As I said then, I crossed paths with Steve Jobs’ companies and creations many times. The first personal computer I ever bought was a hard drive-less Mac 512. A few years later, I wrote a landmark PC Magazine cover article about the Mac’s operating system, and had a column about the Mac for several years after that. In the early 2000s, my burgeoning videography career was made possible largely by Final Cut, Apple’s groundbreakingly easy to use video editing software.

Jobs won

My benchmark of business success has always been Steve Jobs — as anti-corporate bad boy, as gadget guru, and especially as visionary of empowering technology. In his death, and reminded of his Stanford address, I am challenged by his example again. Are there things I want to be doing, ways I want to be living my life, that I’m not taking actions every day to make real? Well, yes. How about you?

I still find it hard to believe Jobs won. In the early 90s, when I was pursuing a semi-back-to-the-land lifestyle myself in rural Maine, raising sheep (and writing about technology), it looked like Jobs and Apple both had had their day. Apple had fired its founder and turned its attention towards the business market, but failed to make any headway. People, including Jobs, were saying, simply, “Microsoft won.” But when Apple hired Jobs back in the mid-90s, two things happened. First of all, he restored Apple’s foundational principles and empowering mindset, which along with his brilliant visionary mind gave us in quick succession, the iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone and iPad. (There’s more about Apple’s technology in my earlier article.) Secondly, the internet changed the whole game. The internet is all about openness and interconnectedness, matching Apple’s strengths and undermining Microsoft’s weaknesses. Apple was briefly the largest company in the world just before Jobs died.

Some pooh-pooh Steve Jobs’ role because many of his ideas are borrowed. He didn’t invent the idea of the graphical user interface, where electronically stored data is turned into a visual desktop with file folders and windows, but when he saw it in Xerox’s labs, he knew how important it was. Same with the mouse; same with desktop publishing; same with simple cabling and networks and wifi; same with music players and smartphones; same with tablets. And same with what a little company called Pixar was doing with animation.

As Nino Amarena is quoted saying in Hedy’s Folly, the delightful new book about actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr, “the inventive process follows a cascade of ideas and thoughts interconnected from previous concepts that for the most part lie separate, unconnected and unrelated… to suddenly or serendipitously see the connection between the unrelated concepts and put it all together to create something new.” Jobs did not “invent” the mouse or the graphical interface or the folder and file metaphor, but he saw how they could all fit together into a broader goal.

Empowering technology

For Jobs, technology wasn’t the end; it was just a means. Jobs’ inventions aren’t lowest-common-denominator compromises designed by committee and driven by marketing research. Rather they are powerfully simple, fun designs, exciting because they are empowering — connecting people with their own dormant creativity, with other people, with music, images and video, in new and intimate ways.

For Jobs, technology wasn’t the end; it was just a means. Jobs’ inventions aren’t lowest-common-denominator compromises designed by committee and driven by marketing research. Rather they are powerfully simple, fun designs, exciting because they are empowering — connecting people with their own dormant creativity, with other people, with music, images and video, in new and intimate ways. An early slogan among Apple Mac developers was “easy is hard,” meaning that to make something easy to use requires a lot of work and thought. Most companies, whether for cost savings or marketing advantages, try to cheat this truth. Jobs had the vision, and the drive, to stick to his guns. The fuel for that drive can be found in his Stanford commencement speech (linked in that earlier article), given soon after he almost died from the cancer that would eventually take his life: “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

While many people have looked to Bill Gates for his business brilliance, or Warren Buffet for his investing shrewdness, my benchmark of business success has always been Steve Jobs — as anti-corporate bad boy, as gadget guru, and especially as visionary of empowering technology. In his death, and reminded of his Stanford address, I am challenged by his example again. Are there things I want to be doing, ways I want to be living my life, that I’m not taking actions every day to make real? Well, yes. How about you? Steve Jobs said, essentially, that he tried to live every day as if it might be his last. Hate and fear and sloth have no place in that context. This is also the Christian message. It is impossible to live out perfectly, but it is worth trying.

There Be Dragons

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For some, it will not be possible to separate the movie There Be Dragons from their views about Opus Dei, as it tells the story of that organization’s founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá. The majority of viewers, though — whose only awareness of Opus Dei is the absurd fictional albino killer monk in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code — will find an inspiring and moving, if at times melodramatic and muddy, film about forgiveness and the choices people make in tough times.

It will be hard to walk away from There Be Dragons without admiring Josemaria. Much of the credit for this compelling portrayal of the future saint goes to British actor Charlie Cox, known for his starring roles in Stardust and Stone of Destiny — the latter a delightful film and one of my favorites of the last few years. (I interviewed Cox about the movie several weeks ago and you can read that conversation here .) It would have been easy to portray Josemaria as either too pious or too worldly, but Cox and writer/director Roland Joffé strike the right balance, giving the character both human vulnerability and the sense of someone following a divine calling.

But, ultimately, the film isn’t even centered on Josemaria.

Roland Joffé has said repeatedly that he was drawn to the project because it was a good and inspiring story, and that he was uninterested in the controversy. But Joffé has been attracted to controversial subjects before. His critically acclaimed 1986 film The Mission deals with the Church’s role in colonizing South American native populations, while The Killing Fields looks at the Khmer Rouge in 1970s Cambodia. And it seems to be with epic stories and foreign locales like these two and City of God that Joffé shines. He has struggled to find that winning formula for over a decade and with There Be Dragons he is back in form.

One of my first thoughts about There Be Dragons, though, was that it does not feel like a Hollywood movie — not primarily because of the Spanish locations and accents, but rather the slightly heavy-handed melodramatic style, epic scope and use of almost gimmicky devices. In one scene, for example, we see the two young boys, Josemaria and his fictional friend Minolo, who are to have profoundly different perspectives on life, through the two lenses of a pair of reading glasses laying on a desk, reminiscent of the opening scene of Joffé’s City of God, which was shot through a mixture of glass and reflections.

There Be Dragons does not feel like a Hollywood movie — not primarily because of the Spanish locations and accents, but rather the slightly heavy-handed melodramatic style, epic scope and use of almost gimmicky devices. But sit through this schmaltz, because once you get into the story, the film comes alive.

Lovers of the craft of filmmaking may be amused or impressed by some of these flourishes. For me they were sometimes moving, but often distracting. Most notably, there’s an axiom that if a movie begins with voiceover narration, run away. Not only does this film begin with narration; one of the characters introduced by the narrator begins narrating himself, this as the prelude to flashbacks that take us (finally) to the main story. Joffé opened both The Killing Fields and The Mission with narration as well.

I’m sure Joffé worried at a present-day viewer seeing the relevance of an historical drama and believed a modern character’s perspective would make it more accessible and interesting. I’m sure he also felt the need to frame the story for the viewer, explaining the setting of 1930s Spain. But these are things that could and should have been done through storytelling within the main story’s time and place. I found both the (two layers of) voiceover narration and the flashback setup distracting, and, as artistic devices, strained.

But sit through this schmaltz, because once you get into the story, the film comes alive.

Spiritual themes

There are several overarching spiritual themes in There Be Dragons. The first and most obvious is forgiveness: forgiveness by the modern-day son for his father; forgiveness by Minolo for himself; forgiveness by Josemaria and his followers for their persecutors. In one scene, after rebels kill a priest and Fr. Josemaria explains to his angry followers that the rebels “see us as part of a system which causes them pain and despair,” they balk and say the rebels are nothing but murderers. Josemaria asks, “What do you want to do to those swine, truthfully?… And wouldn’t you take pleasure in it? And yet, we’re no swine, are we?… No human being, not one of us, is free from human weakness.”

At around the film’s halfway point, we shift gears from this interesting story about the life of a saint to the Spanish Civil War battlefield. All three plots, Josemaria’s, Minolo’s, and the 1980s father and son wrapper, eventually tie back together, but the effect is of another movie taking over.

A second theme is the choices we make, especially in tough times, and how they affect the trajectories of our lives. Both Josemaria and Minolo face hardship and tragedy, as children and as adults. After Minolo’s father dies, Fr. Josemaria visits his old friend and encourages him to use his suffering to go deeper and find his dependence on God, as he has done. Minolo spits back, “Suffering has no purpose.” Instead, he becomes more and more bitter and jealous.

In our conversation with Charlie Cox , he said he hoped the viewer would see some of themselves in each characters, adding, “You’ll hopefully ask yourself, when faced with adversity, which of these characters do I tend to turn to?” Of his character Minolo, Wes Bentley told us, “He didn’t know who he was at all, and in that confusion was the basis of anger.” This contrasts starkly with strength of character, which Cox says he was told repeatedly was Josemaria’s primary characteristic.

The film also presents us with a foundational theme of Opus Dei. Josemaria describes his idea for the organization to an archbishop, who says, “It all seems rather Protestant — that God is to be found in the mundanities of daily life, outside holy orders — no vows, no habits.” To which Fr. Josemaria responds by throwing open the windows of the archbishop’s stuffy office to the light and sounds of city life, saying, “Well, Jesus spent most of his life working in a shop in Nazareth. God’s world is so full of goodness. If we do them for love, each daily task can give Him glory.”

Shifting gears

At around the film’s halfway point, we shift gears from this interesting story about the life of a saint to the Spanish Civil War battlefield, picking up Minolo’s role in the fighting, as Josemaria’s escape from Spain becomes a minor element. The remainder is basically a war movie with new characters and little relationship to the first half of the film. All three plots, Josemaria’s, Minolo’s, and the 1980s father and son wrapper, eventually tie back together, but the effect is of another movie taking over.

My own taste would have been for a smaller film about Josemaria’s early life, without narration, flashbacks and Spanish Civil War battle action — just two hours about how this future saint built what he built and became who he became. But then that movie would not have been made with a Hollywood budget.

Wes Bentley (American Beauty) delivers a solid performance as Minolo past, though the old-man makeup job for his scenes as 1980s Minolo left me unconvinced. Brazilian leading man Rodrigo Santoro (300, Che) and Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) are appropriately melodramatic and beautiful in their roles as the rebel leader and love interest during the war scenes. And a small bright spot in the modern-day portion is Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani (Body of Lies, About Elly).

My own taste would have been for a smaller film about Josemaria’s early life, without narration, flashbacks and Spanish Civil War battle action — just two hours about how this future saint built what he built and became who he became. But then that movie would not have been made with a Hollywood budget. While flawed, There Be Dragons is an engaging exploration of human weakness and strength, and a glimpse into the early life of a modern saint, packaged in a way that gives it hope to be a hit movie. Some will be drawn more to the life of Josemaria, some to the father and son story, some to the best friends turned sour, while others will enjoy the war story; most will walk away satisfied, though none, perhaps, entirely so.

Gaga and Judas

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The video for Lady Gaga’s song “Judas” has premiered, ending weeks of speculation stirred up by several religious spokespeople who denounced it before seeing it. The video is set in a motorcycle gang; Jesus is the leader, Judas a thuggish member and Gaga is torn by her attraction to both. As a quick first reaction, I find it moving, both artistically and spiritually. What has always fascinated and frustrated me is the disconnect between the Gaga haters and what I, and some of my friends, see in her work. Many of my religious young adult friends love Gaga; most of the rest don’t have any serious problem with her. They understand what she’s trying to do, even if it isn’t their taste. This is true across Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals. So, what is it about Gaga that excites one devout person and intimidates another?

Some insist Gaga exploits Christian and especially Catholic symbols for shock value, rather than admitting they could be part of an honest attempt to wrestle with spiritual issues. I think some critics simply have trouble believing someone like Gaga could be sincere. Or perhaps it’s just the easiest way to dismiss her work. Don’t get me wrong. I cringed watching her dressed in a fetishized nun costume in the Alejandro video, which among her hits so far had the least redeeming value. But I do think she was sincerely trying to express something, to externalize her struggles through the imagery.

In the “Judas” video, Gaga (apparently as Mary Magdalene, though some story lines are blurred together in both the lyrics and the video) rides with Jesus in a motorcycle gang, while pining after bad boy Judas, a beer-guzzling thug who’s also in the gang. We see Gaga turning away from Judas in favor of Jesus again and again. At one point, she washes Jesus’ feet just before the most notable lines in the song:

I wanna love you,
But something’s pulling me away from you.
Jesus is my virtue,
Judas is the demon I cling to.

Lady Gaga’s creative director, Laurieann Gibson, described the creative process the team went through in completing the “Judas” video this way: “It was amazing because to have that conversation about salvation, peace and the search for the truth in a room of non-believers and believers, to me, that was saying God is active in a big way.”

This is not the stuff of pop music. It’s a cultural phenomenon. And that perhaps is where we get to the root of the problem some have with Gaga. Unlike any other current pop star at the global level, Gaga writes about, talks about and openly struggles with spiritual issues in almost every song she writes. Most shocking in our current culture, she mentions Jesus by name. In Judas, she says “Jesus is my virtue.” In “You and I,” about an old boyfriend she calls Nebraska, Gaga says, “There’s only three men I served my whole life / It’s my dad and Nebraska and Jesus Christ.”

So while some may like to dismiss her as disingenuous, it is exactly Gaga’s genuineness that is a threat. While an R&B artist singing crudely about sex is clearly defined in their role outside the spiritual conversation, Gaga dares to jump right into the middle of it. And while she’s there, with a bully pulpit speaking to millions, she dares to say things like, “I’m beautiful in my way, cause God makes no mistakes.” This is much more dangerous in some people’s minds than empty pop music. Gaga calls her fans little monsters, her way of saying we are all fallen, all flawed, and that it is the misfits of society who can teach the comfortable a thing or two about God’s love and compassion. And that’s what she’s doing.

Faithful Departed — Roy E. Disney

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Did any among us not grow up with Disney? Children of the 40s marked their years with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. For boomers, it was Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and Jungle Book. By the time I came along, Disney’s animated features had lost their spark. But my family gathered around the family TV set every Sunday night at 7:30 to watch The Wonderful World of Disney — a collection of animation, feature movies, TV dramas and nature documentaries. This brew, rich on American stories like Davey Crockett, helped shape my worldview. For children of the 80s and 90s, Disney animated feature films returned to the forefront and for this we have one person to thank: Disney’s keeper of the faith, Roy E. Disney.

Twice when Disney the corporation drifted away from its basic mission, Roy E. Disney, son of Walt’s brother, Roy O., has stepped in like a prophet to remind them of what matters.

Though his father was CEO and president of Disney until his death, Roy E. was never given control, and held only one percent of the company stock. He did have an executive title and a seat on the board of directors, though, and after Walt’s death in the mid-60s, then through the 70s and early 80s, he watched as Disney Corp. drifted away from its roots. The board’s focus on high-yield activities and careful protection of capital had turned Disney into what Roy E. once called a real estate holding company that happened to make movies.

Fed up, in 1977 Roy resigned his executive position, and then in 1984, he dramatically quit the board, signaling to investors and analysts his lack of confidence in the company’s leadership under Walt Disney’s son-in-law. Roy and other major shareholders brought in Michael Eisner, head of Paramount Pictures, to replace him, and Roy returned as vice-chairman and head of the animation division.

Disney’s animation renaissance

While Eisner knew little about animation and doubted its value, he respected Roy and owed him a favor, so he gave him free reign. What followed was a string of new animation classics that restored the Disney name to the top of the animation, and entertainment, world: The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994).

A clip from Roy E.’s pet project, Fantasia/2000

Around this time, Roy E. noticed an impressive new animation company with breakthrough technology, and began a relationship with Pixar. As the amazing run of traditional animated films started to lose steam, Roy E. was caught up in his pet project, the completion of his uncle Walt’s never-realized sequel to Fantasia. Begun in 1990, Fantasia/2000 was released in 1999 to critical acclaim but lukewarm sales, just like the original.

But Roy’s initial connection to Pixar grew, and in 1995, Disney released Pixar’s Toy Story. Thus began a new era of digital animation at the company. As the decade came to a close, after years of bickering with Eisner, Disney was being sidelined again. Eisner was also threatening to sever the relationship with Pixar, in what many saw as a power struggle and personality clash between Eisner and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs. After Toy Story, Pixar had continued to generate high quality, immensely popular animated features under the Disney brand. Pixar’s first five films for Disney, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo, grossed over $2.5 billion.

Roy E. quit the company a second time in 2003, again making public his views, again complaining that management — this time Eisner — was neglecting animation and had become timid, focused on incremental profits, not great work. Roy E. went so far as to create a campaign with a website, SaveDisney.com, to rally support for Eisner’s ouster.

While the board refused to remove Eisner, the lack of confidence with him among shareholders and the public, instigated by Disney, led him to resign in 2005. Roy E. returned as Director Emeritus on the board and relations with Pixar were quickly repaired, leading ultimately to Pixar being acquired by Disney in 2006 and Pixar’s creative head and cofounder becoming Disney’s Chief Creative Officer. Pixar and Disney have returned to the top with WALL-E (2008) and Up (2009).

Who will be their prophet?

At its core, its heart, Disney is an animation company. The live action shows like Hannah Montana, the TV stations like the Disney Channel, ABC and the Family Channel, the careers launched through the Mickey Mouse Club — like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Keri Russell, Ryan Gosling and Justin Timberlake — the theme parks and cruise ships: all of it grows from winning the hearts and minds of generation after generation through animated features — films that remain in a special place in people’s hearts throughout their lives.

Both times that Roy E. brought the company back to its animation roots, this led also to an overall revitalization of the company and increased success. Now that Roy E. Disney is gone and no member of the Disney family remains at the company, who will be their prophet to tell them they’ve strayed from the path? Will the next generation of children mark their growth with Disney films?

Faithful Departed—Dick Sutcliffe

I had a TV in my room from a very early age, giving me control over the cultural influences that entered my world. Using my command of the dial, the most subversive thing I watched in my atheist home might have been a sweet little show that has been loved now for generations: Davey & Goliath.

Son of a Lutheran minister, Dick Sutcliffe started his career as a journalist, but soon found himself working for the church, as assistant editor for The Lutheran magazine, then with the radio division, then television. Sutcliffe, as director of Lutheran radio and television ministry, was one of the first religious officials to realize the potential of television, starting in the late 1950s. When church leaders told him to put together a new TV show — a typical sermonette type of thing — he had a different idea. How about taking advantage of this new medium to give kids some good entertainment, so the moral and religious messages would go down easily.

Sutcliffe’s next inspiration was to turn to Art Clokey, a former religious education student who had created the wholesome but quirky stop-motion animation phenomenon, Gumby. With Sutcliffe writing the scripts, Davey & Goliath was born.

Davey was a spunky little boy (the opening sequence has him launching a bottle rocket) and Goliath was his talking dog — though only Davey (and we) could hear him speak. While much of the content in each episode of Davey & Goliath was typical children’s show stuff — basic lessons like, honesty is the best policy — there was another message, week after week: that God loves you and you are expected to honor that love by behaving responsibly.

Davey & Goliath was given to stations for free and categorized as public service programming. In those days there were strict rules from the FCC requiring networks to air a lot of public service programming. So they showed Davey & Goliath regularly on TV, to meet their quota.

I can’t say what affect the near-daily dose of Davey & Goliath had on my emerging spiritual thirst. I know I was drawn to the show. That I preferred watching Davey & Goliath to Speed Racer or Scooby Doo. That it nourished my soul. And for that, I am grateful to Dick Sutcliffe, for sending a little of God’s Love through the TV screen into my room, and those of thousands of other children.