- GREGORY F. ZOELLER Attorney General State of Indiana
- GREG ABBOTT Attorney General State of Texas
- LUTHER STRANGE Attorney General State of Alabama
- MICHAEL C. GERAGHTY Attorney General State of Alaska
- DUSTIN MCDANIEL Attorney General State of Arkansas
- JOHN W. SUTHERS Attorney General State of Colorado
- PAMELA JO BONDI Attorney General State of Florida
- SAMUEL S. OLENS Attorney General State of Georgia
- LAWRENCE G. WASDEN Attorney General State of Idaho
- DEREK SCHMIDT Attorney General State of Kansas
- JACK CONWAY Attorney General State of Kentucky
- JAMES D. “BUDDY” CALDWELL Attorney General State of Louisiana
- BILL SCHUETTE Attorney General State of Michigan
- JIM HOOD Attorney General State of Mississippi
- TIMOTHY C. FOX Attorney General State of Montana
- JON BRUNING Attorney General State of Nebraska
- MICHAEL DEWINE Attorney General State of Ohio
- E. SCOTT PRUITT Attorney General State of Oklahoma
- MARTY J. JACKLEY Attorney General State of South Dakota
- ROBERT E. COOPER JR. Attorney General State of Tennessee
- JOHN E. SWALLOW Attorney General State of Utah
- KENNETH T. CUCCINELLI, II Attorney General State of Virginia
- PATRICK MORRISEY Attorney General State of West Virginia
Vol. 20 No. 5 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - June/July 2003
By Annie Laurie Gaylor
While on a brief vacation with my parents in Door County, Wis., we dashed into the small-town grocery store to select a video appropriate both for them and my 13-year-old daughter. The pickings were dismayingly slim.
Sabrina couldn't make up her mind, we had a long ride back to the cabin, and it was getting late. So when I spotted a new release ballyhoo'ed by Walt Disney Home Entertainment as an "adventure" story starring Anne Hathaway ("The Princess Diaries"), I promoted it. I was in such a hurry I barely scanned the description and didn't even notice the title, "The Other Side of Heaven." Sabrina, to her future credit, balked a bit but I talked it up and we checked it out.
We started watching the video, with fond expectations of an adventure starring a young man and woman in a wilderness survival film, as promised by the photo on the cover.
The movie, set in the 1950s, began on a jarringly maudlin note: we find out the main character, John, played by Christopher Gorem, is from . . . Idaho? Then a little bomb is dropped. He and his girl friend Jean (Hathaway) are attending . . . Brigham Young University? Next he announces that he has to go away on a three-year "mission"!
We turned to each other in astonishment. It dawned on me that somehow I'd managed to inflict a Mormon movie upon my freethinking family! I didn't even know this genre existed, much less that I should beware of such films at the "new release" rack.
Finding it hard to believe that Walt Disney would put its name on pure proselytizing pablum, I held out hope a few minutes longer for some redeeming plot twist: the Mormon missionary has a faith-shattering experience, or maybe his girlfriend has to come to his rescue. He gets eaten by a South Pacific version of a crocodile, hopefully?
There was no plot twist.
No, it turns out I had chosen a movie based on "the actual experiences of Elder John H. Groberg," and his laughably inflated memoir, In the Eye of the Storm, published by a Mormon book company.
John is sent to the Pacific island of Tonga where he meets his companion Mormon missionary, an ever-smiling young local man who knows the ropes and who speaks the lingo, but who servilely follows his fish-out-of-water colleague around as if John were a young god. (John certainly acts like he thinks he's God.)
This missionary is insufferable. He goes so far as to "forbid" a convert who is twice his age to do something. No matter what is happening--typhoons, near starvation, jungle temperatures, surviving the night in the ocean after a tidal wave, resurrecting a "dead" boy, you name it (he does everything but deliver a baby)--his white-shirt-and-tie wardrobe almost always stays clean and pressed. Now, that's a miracle!
Life on Tonga brings few wrinkles, no sweaty stains to his Mormon uniform, nor does Tonga culture penetrate his vacant commitment to preaching "the Gospel" at them. They obviously know nothing they can teach this 18-year-old "Elder." Actor Gorem's empty righteousness is almost too convincing; I half-expected his character to suddenly do something perverted, or go off the deep-end.
Perhaps the most ridiculous moment comes when the island teenage temptress, Mariama, gamely drops her skirt (off-camera) for John. He virtuously averts his gaze, while coaxing her to come to the beach to learn about "eternal love," pulling out his handy bible! (I wonder if he mentioned the Mormon polygamy and eternal spiritual baby-making awaiting her in "the other side of heaven"?)
By the movie's improbable end, he's converted the entire island, even taking out little skiffs into the vast ocean to missionize other islands. The multitudes are converted. Like transplanted plantation "darkies," the islanders tearfully turn out to sing him a harmonious farewell (with John and Mariama exchanging significant goodbye glances). They ought to have branded a giant "M" on John's Mormon underwear, because this movie is clearly introducing a new action figure: "Super-Mormon."
Hathaway's role was mere window-dressing. They used her name and very pretty face to suck in viewers, even delaying the release of the movie until after her hit, "The Princess Diaries," came out and she could give the film name recognition.
I had assumed the Mormon Church must have somehow bribed Disney into releasing it directly to home video. It turns out it was released theatrically, "in locales such as Salt Lake City."
But it was skewered by the critics, according to the reviews posted at Rottentomatoes.com:
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is a Mormon family movie, and a sappy, preachy one at that," wrote Jeffrey Bruner, Des Moines Register.
"The film's implicit premise is that the faith of the Tonga people is in every way inferior to that of John."-- Jay Boyar, Orlando Sentinel.
"Although based on a real-life person, John, in the movie, is a rather dull person to be stuck with for two hours." --Gregory Avery, "Nitrate Online."
"Its appeal will probably be limited to LDS Church members and undemanding armchair tourists."--Ken Fox, TV Guide's Movie Guide.
"Much of what is meant to be 'inspirational' and 'uplifting' is simply distasteful to audiences not already sharing the movie's mindset."--MaryAnn Johanson, Flick Filosopher.
"There's a disturbing 'Great White Hope' undertone to 'The Other Side of Heaven' that subtly undermines its message of Christian love and compassion."--Al Brumley, Dallas Morning News.
"Insufferably naive."--Harvey S. Karten, Compuserve.
"Your stomach for 'Heaven' depends largely on your appetite for canned corn."--Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post.
Well, you get the idea.
* * *
First-time writer/director Mitch Davis is (surprise, surprise) an alumnus of Brigham Young, who had wanted to make a movie about Mormon missionaries since serving his own mission in Argentina. He modestly described his movie as "swashbuckling and romantic and epic." He added: "There wasn't a lot of door-knocking going on." (Oh boy, we'll rent that one next.)
In investigating how Disney's name ended up on this Mormon movie, I did some sleuthing on the internet. I still haven't figured out how the filmmakers persuaded Disney to distribute the video, thereby ensuring some financial success and that many unsuspecting parties will be duped into renting it. I did learn that Davis was hired by Disney after college, and also worked at Columbia Studios. A Mormon website revealed that Davis obediently put his movie career on hold when he was "called as a Bishop" for five years, but he's obviously back with a vengeance.
Producer Jerry Molen, also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints formerly known as Mormons, counts "Schindler's List" in his co-producer credits. The Mormon website reports that Molen supposedly wanted to "tell the story of Mormonism in the same way 'Schindler's List' tells part of the story of Judaism." As Dave Barry would say, I am not making that up.
Watching "The Other Side of Heaven" was such an unexpectedly silly and incongruous experience that it has now entered the family freethought lexicon. Sabrina is still periodically entering the room singing out "Super-Mormon!" I haven't belly-laughed so much during a movie in years. But, you had to have been there.
Video renter, beware!
P.S. Promoters of "The Other Side of Heaven" heavily recommended an earlier movie by a Mormon filmmaker, "God's Army," released in 2000. The promotion graphic says it all--it shows a row of white-shirted boys invading Los Angeles.
That would be enough to scare any gangs!
Vol. 21 No. 3 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - April 2004
By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Sabrina in front of the play's poster
It might go without saying, but when you attend a children's play, you really need to go when children are there to fully experience this form of theater. We saw Part I of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" at the British National Theatre in the evening. Children were scarce and the crowd was somber, although our daughter Sabrina, 14, sat rapt, on the edge of her seat. When the curtain went up three hours later, she clutched my arm and exclaimed, "This is the best play I've ever seen!"
The matinee for Part II the following day, by contrast, was wild. I have never witnessed such an enthusiastic, noisy, rowdy audience--mostly uniformed school-children and young teenagers. One section was filled by a large group of preteen Muslim girls, their hair already completely covered in black headscarves.
When the live music started and the curtain went up, the theatre exploded in claps, whistles, hoots, and hollers. These kids were primed; it was clear they were hooked on this play (having earlier seen Part I). Their attention never wavered during the remaining three hours (with one intermission only), which is a testament to how fast-paced this play is. There are 100 scenes divided into six hours, so sitting through these plays is no light commitment for kids with TV-influenced attention spans. Kids were so comfortable some even started talking back to the actors at pivotal points, especially after cast members planted in the audience began climbing out of seats during one scene.
Philip Pullman's anti-C.S. Lewis trilogy, "The Dark Materials," is well-named. It is very dark. The first book introduces Lyra Belaqua, the 12-year-old protagonist, a half-wild orphan brought up at Oxford in a world that is a slightly askew version of our own, lacking major technology, where the Church still openly runs the show. Lyra is prophesied by outcast witches to be the one who will kill God ("the Authority") and destroy the Church.
Like everyone in her world, Lyra has a "daemon," a pet-like manifestation of her personality, who is inseparable. The Church is behind the sinister disappearance of many children, including her best friend Roger, snatched off the streets by "Gobblers" who have an unhealthy interest in their daemons.
Lyra's erstwhile uncle, Lord Asriel, is a renegade explorer intent on unleashing "Dust" (a positive take on "original sin") and destroying the Authority (God). Actor Timothy Dalton, still cutting a dashing figure at 60, portrayed the intrepid Lord Asriel.
A Church official orders Lord Asriel's assassination, saying: "You're either for the Church or you're against it." (Where have I heard that before?) The Church decries the "rebellion, dissent, confusion, schism, doubt" fueled by Asriel, who intends to kill the Authority with a "subtle," or "God-destroying" knife.
Book two, The Subtle Knife, introduces the character of young Will Parry, destined to be the bearer of this knife. Will seems to be from our world, and collides with Lyra while on the run, becoming entwined in her destiny as the new "Eve." The third book depicts the battle of creatures from many worlds and Heaven who are determined to unseat the Authority and dethrone the Church, as a backdrop to Will and Lyra's continuing adventures traveling through many strange and dangerous worlds.
The Church, which is relentlessly hunting Lyra via its Zeppelins, is the play's villain. In a brief scene uncomfortably close to what must have been played out in real life tens of thousands of times, Church officials torture a poor witch until she begs for death.
Several ringing freethought speeches grace the play.
Lord Asriel, calling for rebellion, orates: "The doors are open to us. The chains are broken. We can question everything we've been taught. We can challenge every dreary, grey belief that we've had dinned into our skulls."
Lyra's absentee mother, Mrs. Coulter (portrayed by the authoritative stage and film actress Patricia Hodge), is a handmaiden of the Church whose maternal instincts gradually triumph over her loyalty to religion. Realizing her daughter has been declared "an enemy of the Church," she tries to keep her safe.
At one point, as a captive of the Church, she offers this trenchant analysis of God:
"The Authority's useless. Nobody sees him. Nobody hears him. Nobody cares what he thinks. The rich get rich, and the poor and humble die in their millions without so much as a squeak of protest. If he's alive, he's clearly too old and decrepit to think or to act or even die. Wouldn't it be the greatest kindness, to seek him out and give him the gift of death?"
The witch Ruta Skadi declares passionately:
". . . it makes no difference what strange allies we find for ourselves, as long as we know our enemy. That's the Church. As long as it's been on this earth, it's suppressed and persecuted everything good about human nature. When it can't suppress, it cuts it out. . . . They burn witches! All to ravage the joy of life, in the name of that monster, that tyrant, the Authority. If the Church is on one side, then we witches have got to be on the other."
Lord Asriel, raising his armies against God, warns: "Our refusal to submit. Our resistance. Our will to be free," would anger the Authority most of all. He vows: "We will defeat the Authority. We shall topple him from his throne. We shall destroy him."
I could not help thinking of the impact of these speeches on the young girls with covered hair, those "submitters" to Islam, sitting in the audience. This isn't exactly how they speak about Allah at home.
When Balthamos and Baruch, two Authority-opposing angels, floated on stage, it soon became obvious they were gay. The schoolboys near us, many of them Muslim, got restive, some groaning and making derisive sounds. But the boys quieted as those gay Angels proceed to help save Will Parry. Pullman is full of subversive messages.
The books apparently draw heavily from John Milton, of course tweaking Milton's message. The "dark materials" phrase comes from this passage of "Paradise Lost":
Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage. . .
Pullman's trilogy features any number of magical and fantastical creatures, including a harpy, angels, and "Armoured Bears," of whom Iorek Byrnison is the hero. (This bear, who would touchingly do anything to help Lyra, is, I gather, Pullman's counter to Lewis' sacrificial Lion.)
These creatures were effectively portrayed by filmy puppets, manipulated to move naturally and given voice by puppeteers dressed in black, who often seemed to disappear from the stage while in full view.
The play, which took place in the Olivier Theater and was adapted by Nicholas Wright, made use of what Wright calls "that seldom-seen, subterranean monster," a drum-revolve developed in the 1970s. Walking sidewalks led the actors from one scene, or one world, to the next. Mini-stages, or "drums," moved up and down at what looked like perilous speeds, which the 30 actors took in stride.
Youthful twenty-somethings Anna Maxwell Martin and Dominic Cooper managed to embody the 12-year-old leads. Martin's demanding role required her to be in nearly every scene. Amazingly, some showings of the play ran back-to-back for more than six hours. Quite a tour de force.
The difficulty of staging this sprawling, multi-world fantasy was its stated draw for the National Theatre, which apparently loves a challenge. Imagine staging the "Harry Potter" stories, then multiply that difficulty level about five times.
But they did it.
Dan's (cute) assessment of the play: "It made me suspend belief."
Sabrina called it "brilliant" and even "ebullient." But her most revealing response was her request, which will not be granted, to go see it again this fall, when a new cast will restage it at the National Theatre. (Termed a "blockbuster," these plays were a complete sell-out.) Sabrina especially liked the musical score by Jonathan Dove. Eight hard-working musicians, who also provided split-second sound effects, were divided between two raised, recessed alcoves, visible to the audience.
Philip Pullman's provocative trilogy is now one of the most popular fantasy series for children, second only to Harry Potter in the United Kingdom. Its message can be summarized as: "We don't even need to kill God--he's a fraud. But we do need to junk the god and master idea if we are to achieve a happy home on earth."
The play concludes when Lyra and Will, irrevocably separated in distant worlds, tell themselves:
Lyra: You must be where you are . . .
Will: . . . and where you are is the place that matters most of all . . .
Will: . . . where you can build . . .
Lyra . . . where you can share . . .
Both: . . . the republic of heaven.
Pullman has found his own way to say what Robert Ingersoll asked humans to envision more than a century ago: "With love, earth is heaven, and we are gods."
We need Philip Pullman more than ever to counter the classic dogma of C.S. Lewis. Lewis' seven Narnia books are going to be filmed, and will be co-financed and distributed by Walt Disney and Walden Media. The first movie, with a $100 million budget, is expected out by December 2005.
The great news is that Pullman's books are set to be filmed, too. New Line Cinema, which produced the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, has put "His Dark Materials" on the fast track. Let's hope some of Pullman's philosophy survives the cutting room.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today.
Vol. 21 No. 3 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - April 2004
By Annie Laurie Gaylor
I traveled to London last November to speak at a women's conference sponsored by the International Humanist Ethical Union. It was great fun, but I found that the two free days I'd allotted for quick sightseeing were frustratingly inadequate.
During that visit, I spotted a poster advertising the world premiere of a two-part staging of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" at the British National Theatre.
The two ambitious full-length plays are based on Pullman's absorbing fantasy trilogy for older children-- Northern Lights(known as The Golden Compass in this country), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. A few years ago, friend and Foundation member Liz Uhr introduced them to my daughter, Sabrina. Enthralled, Sabrina pronounced them her favorite books, and was even inspired to start (but not finish) writing a play based on them.
British Pullman is unique, so far as I know, as a children's author who is openly atheist and touts a rationalist agenda. In countless press interviews, including The New York Times, Pullman has explained that his "Dark Materials" are meant as an antidote, an alternative, to the sickly Christian sacrificial themes in C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronology.
When I got back from London, I half-jokingly suggested to Sabrina that we should go see the plays, and finish some of my deferred sightseeing. Before we knew it, we had booked ourselves a London adventure (at very reasonable rates for the off-season of March).
When obliging Jennifer Jeynes, Secretary of the South Place Ethical Society, learned we would be in town, she immediately scheduled Dan for a Sunday afternoon concert at Conway Hall on March 7, billing him as "The Singing Atheist."
Dan's "Singing Atheist" concert took place in the library of Conway Hall, bedecked with portraits of famous freethinkers such as Voltaire, Mark Twain and Bertrand Russell, its walls lined with row upon row of fascinating freethought books. Dan had an appreciative audience, and we enjoyed meeting London secularists. The event ended hospitably with tea and biscuits (cookies). Pointing out that the British government has proposed teaching atheism in the schools along with its usual religion classes, Jennifer Jeynes concluded the afternoon with the gracious wish that she could send the "Singing Atheist" into every British school.
Dan and I stopped at the park in Red Lion Square across the street to pay homage to the small bust of Bertrand Russell planted there, surrounded by daffodils.
Taking the advice of several Britons, and abiding by Sabrina's request to see a castle, we toured the Tower of London the next day. (Did you know the Roman conquerors originally built it to keep the Britons out? That fact was mysteriously omitted by the Beefeater leading our tour.) I suggested we skip the tour of the torture chamber. Dan noticed that one of the early King Edwards, according to a sign, was only nominally religious but was a great practitioner of charity. (No surprise there.)
Dan and Sabrina ventured eight miles out of London to Greenwich one day to see the place where "time" begins, straddle the prime meridian and tour the Royal Observatory, a nice science outing. I opted for flowers, taking a long trip to Kew Gardens. Sweeps of daffodils went on for fields, interspersed with blazing patches of purple and white crocuses, quite awe-inspiring to the spring-starved. Did you know freethought played a small role in these gardens? Queen Caroline, a noted Deist who refused to marry a Roman Catholic or to take the "oath," was an early promoter of what became Kew Gardens.
I detoured to the nearby "Maids of Honour" bakery, which originally served kings, thanks to a kind tip and directions from Foundation member and volunteer Phyllis Rose, to indulge in their delicious "cream tea"--tea with fresh scones accompanied by double-whipped cream and jam. In fact, I detoured almost everywhere I went for "cream tea" or "high tea," although finding this tradition is increasingly difficult in Starbucks-infested London.
That evening we went to the National Theatre for the first of the two-part Pullman play. We returned for a matinee of Part II the following day. Sabrina was enchanted. Dan, who was new to the material, was a bit confounded. But the freethought philosophy, even if buried in a dizzying plot, was unmistakable. Lyra, the 12-year-old protagonist, is destined to "kill" God and create "the republic of heaven on earth." Not your everyday plotline!
We concluded our sixth and final day with a "pilgrimage" to Down House, Darwin's home in Downe. I'd longed to visit it ever since reading of its restoration by the English Heritage, which acquired it in 1996.
This excursion involved a ride on the Tube, transferring at Victoria Station to a real train. The 16-mile train trip ended in Bromley, where we discovered the bus to Downe departs only once an hour. We were in luck, and waited only 15 minutes in the unseasonable cold as snowflakes fell. We took that bus to the end of the line, then walked a quarter-mile to the outskirts of the pretty village, and into the welcome warmth of Down House's tearoom. (First things first.)
After warming and fueling up, we took the fascinating self-guided audiophone tour of the ground floor of Darwin's home, where such personal effects as his wife's collection of novels are showcased. Emma Darwin regularly read Dickens, Thackery and Austen aloud to her husband and eight children. (She gave birth to ten, if you can imagine such stamina; two died, including little Annie, Darwin's favorite, at age 10.)
In Darwin's study, where a "water closet" and bath were installed for the invalid's comfort, we learned that the indulgent father let his children run riot among his collections, including his famed barnacles. Children would wheel themselves around in his "microscope chair." A son, imagining all fathers were like his, once asked a neighbor boy, "Where does your father do his barnacles?"
Also unVictorian was the Darwin attitude toward servants. After fixing up the house, which they first considered "ugly," they felt the servants were entitled to comfort as well, enlarging and improving the servants' quarters. When Darwin's mind needed more of a break than could be provided by his three regular constitutionals, he rang for his manservant, and they repaired to the billiards room, both men looking forward to the sport. It makes a cozy picture.
Aside from the children's nursery, where you can spot the children's carvings on shelves, the upstairs has become a museum. The exhibits, including one geared at children, are thoughtful, and include more samples of Darwin's work, equipment and collections. One room is devoted to documenting the outcry, mainly religious, greeting the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859. Origin was followed by the even more controversial The Descent of Man (1871). Darwin's skepticism was not stated outright in the museum scripts, but it was certainly implied.
We saved for last the long-anticipated "Sandwalk," located beyond the gardens and vegetable fields, whose path Darwin blazed pacing back and forth, working out kinks in body and mind. We took a quick but satisfying hike down this "contemplation trail" in the frosty cold.
In the gift shop, we discovered the perfect memento: pretty blue and white decorative plates bearing Darwin's profile, produced by the Wedgwood Company. Potter Josiah Wedgwood had a special place in Darwin's heart as the advocate who had persuaded Darwin's father to let him take his historic voyage of the Beagle. Wedgwood was not only Darwin's uncle, but became his father-in-law when Darwin, in very 19th century fashion, married his first cousin Emma. What could be more appropriate than a Wedgwood plate honoring Darwin? The little plates had been marked down to under US$4. How could we resist? We purchased one for the Freedom From Religion Foundation office and one for our home.
We thoroughly enjoyed our whirlwind trip, and all its details, from riding the Underground and the endangered double-decker red buses to sampling British chocolate bars and gawking at historic sites on every corner. Sabrina, with a 14-year-old concept of time and money, even suggested, "Let's come back every year." The play and the British Museum, which has not lost its charm for one Egyptian-crazed girl, were Sabrina's favorite memories. Dan and I most enjoyed our unexpectedly moving visit to Down House.
Next stop on our Darwin pilgrimage, someday: Galapagos!
Vol. 19 No. 5 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - June/July 2002
But Michelle Kwan Transcends
By Annie Laurie Gaylor
I'm no autograph hound, but several years ago I resolved that if and when figure skater Michelle Kwan ever came to town, my daughter Sabrina and I would go to see her, and even get her autograph. It was as much a promise to myself as to Sabrina, made after I felt Kwan was cheated of her gold at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano.
Could there be a more graceful image than that of Michelle at 17, in her simple blue velvet dress, skating with exquisite technique and emotion during her Olympic long program? She seemed the embodiment of youth, athletic perfection and beauty.
I became an avid figure skating fan while watching Michelle Kwan grow up on ice. There is something poignant about the world's best figure skater seeking and failing to get the gold in two successive Olympics, sometimes struggling on the ice, yet never losing her competitive spirit.
At this year's nail-biting Olympics, Kwan's most memorable performance was her post-competition exhibition skate, wearing a gold dress and skating ethereally to "Fields of Gold," a bittersweet moment for the bronze medalist. Dan, who usually leaves the skating competitions to me, sat spellbound while watching a videotape of her "gold" skate (at my urging). At the conclusion of her touching program, he volunteered: "Michelle Kwan transcends." (I've decided, and I hope Michelle has too, that the Olympics are highly over-rated.)
When it was advertised that "Champions on Ice" was coming to Madison in May (with a shockingly expensive ticket price), Sabrina and I were able to fulfill our longtime ambition of watching Michelle Kwan skate in person.
Unfortunately, the overkill opening, with its flashing flags and deafening rendition of the Olympic theme, couldn't help but make me flash back to news footage of the 1936 "Nazi" Olympics. Once that hoopla was over, I relaxed and settled back to enjoy the rest of the show.
Although I have seen some magnificent skating at live events, I was unprepared for Kwan's remarkable presence on the ice. Her performance was quantitatively different from the other athletes. Michelle took command of the ice and managed, in that huge impersonal venue, to make her performance intimate. The audience hushed--almost afraid to clap lest they break the spell. Every movement was sure and lovely. Michelle skated with a lightness and gentleness that the camera cannot quite capture. It must have been gratifying to Michelle that she received the only standing ovation of any of the performers.
The spell was broken, however, by a pandering finale, an ensemble number. A super-militaristic version of "America the Beautiful," with words to all verses, boomed out as the ice skaters--in the Madison show representing Ukraine, France, and Russia, as well as the United States--skated, decked out in various red-white-and-blue outfits. Russian silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko was practically draped in a U.S. flag.
As I sat bridling at the insensitivity of this nationalistic display, using even foreign skaters like pawns in a patriotic battle, it got worse. The music segued to "Battle Hymn of the Republic," all verses. Julia Ward Howe's song, written as a Union anthem in the Civil War, warns of the wrath of "the coming of the Lord." You may recall it ended the service of "prayer and remembrance" held at the National Cathedral on Sept. 14. The fourth verse is typical of the song's message:
In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom
That transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy,
Let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on.
I can't believe "Champions on Ice" routinely forces its Olympic skaters to perform to Christian hymns! Since the "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is practically the trademark of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I can't help but feel there is some nefarious Mormon influence at work.
Whatever or whoever prompted the inclusion of this overtly Christian song of conquest, it was tacky and disrespectful, both to skaters and the audience. Flags made of lights, the U.S. flag predominating, of course, swirled around the rink with the skaters. I thought it would never end. Finally, three huge U.S. flags dropped ludicrously from the ceiling as fireworks rang out. Nearly everybody (but not this atheist) stood and clapped.
Half-dazed by this assault on eyes, ears and personal conviction, I dutifully lined up with Sabrina and other would-be autograph-seekers. When fans bearing official-looking decals told me we had to have a pass to get in, and we had to know someone to get a pass, I was ready to call it quits. Then a woman with a teenage daughter generously handed us their passes, since they couldn't stay.
A handful of us were eventually led to the bowels of the arena, all concrete and full of equipment, and were told to stand behind a limp bit of rope. As we milled around awkwardly, suddenly there appeared Michelle Kwan, no taller than my 5'2", conferring with a stagehand first before turning to her fans. For an instant, she looked flattened, as though enduring rather than enjoying the moment. Who could blame her, having to skate to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" night after night during "Champions on Ice's" grueling schedule?
Sabrina was second to ask for her autograph. When Sabrina shyly told her, "You're my favorite," Michelle's face lit up in a warm smile. Impulsively, I asked Michelle if she would autograph my baseball hat, which bears an imprint of the same words, "Life is Good," as one of Dan's freethought songs. She laughed, said "Sure!," read the sentiment out loud approvingly, and signed her name with her own felt-tip pen. Tongue-tied, I merely nodded as a woman next to us told Michelle what a beautiful skater she is. As Michelle moved on, we made our escape. Mission accomplished.
When I got home and examined Sabrina's program magazine, I discovered to my dismay that the inside cover features an American flag emblazoned with the words "God Bless America." It was worth putting up with to see Michelle Kwan, but I couldn't help feeling a bit indignant, and a bit dejected, over the unwarranted intrusion of religion and chauvinistic politics into a tour meant to showcase sport, art and internationalism.
Is nothing in our country to be free of this saber-rattling theo-patriotism? Must every store sport a U.S. flag (do they think we'll forget which country we live in?), much less "God Bless America" posters? I had fondly hoped the hysteria was dying down--but it certainly won't be wherever "Champions on Ice" is touring over the next few months.
"Champions on Ice," which is run by Tom Collins Productions (with John Hancock billed as "worldwide sponsor"), appears to be co-hosted by the U.S. Figure Skating Association, and has some connection to the Olympic Committee.
I wrote a heartfelt letter of complaint to the only addresses I could find on the Web, objecting to a Christian hymn being forced on audiences, including substantial numbers of nonbelievers and nonChristians. If you care to join me in decrying the inclusion of a Christian "battle hymn" in the Olympic figure skating show, maybe they'll put such religious displays "on ice" for future tours:
Tom Collins Inc.
3500 W 80th St
Minneapolis MN 55431
U.S. Figure Skating Association
20 First St
Colorado Springs CO 80906
"Chocolat," a sleeper hit based on a fable set in a small French village in 1959, proudly boasts an atheist heroine.
The audience in the packed theater in Madison, Wis., where I recently saw the film erupted in spontaneous cheers and claps of approval when the main character, Vianne, played by Juliette Binoche, gently announces her refusal to go to Mass, and is identified as an atheist.
The plot, based on a novel by Joanne Harris, revolves around the disruptions and transformations that occur when Vianne blasphemously opens a "chocolaterie" during Lent. It's full of great supporting performances by Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Leslie Caron, and Lena Olin. Victoire Thivosol is especially appealing as Anouk, Vianne's young daughter, who has an imaginery kangaroo named Pantouf. (It's PG-13 but was suitable for our unworldly 11-year-old.) The film, with a definite anticlerical bent, is directed by Lasse Hallstrom ("The Cider House Rules").
If you go see this movie, better stick some emergency chocolate rations in your pockets--the chocolate scenes are mouth-watering.
Another new-release Miramax film (not so hot) that features an atheist character is "Bounce," with Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow. Affleck's atheism is briefly revealed when the recovering alcoholic criticizes AA's higher-power routine. Fortunately the movie portrays the secular redemption of this atheist.
These atheist protagonists join last fall's "Contender," directed by Rod Lurie, whose heroine (played by Joan Allen), a U.S. Senator nominated for the vice presidency, coolly admits her atheism and support for the separation of church and state at a confirmation hearing.
And isn't it nice that both Allen and Binoche are up for a "best actress" Oscar for their portrayals of these freethinking characters? In other Oscar atheist trivia, Steven Soderbergh, director of two of the films nominated as "best movie of the year"--"Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich"--recently replied "no" when The Onion asked him, "Do you believe in God?"
Could it be atheism is becoming chic?
--Annie Laurie Gaylor
Vol. 21 No. 5 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - June/July 2004
By Annie Laurie Gaylor
If you missed Peter Mullan's exceptional film, "The Magdalene Sisters," during its short airing in U.S. theaters, it's a must-rent. Even if you caught the foreign release last fall, the movie wears well in a second viewing, and the DVD version contains the bonus of the original BBC documentary, "Sex in a Cold Climate," that inspired the fictional version.
Set in 1964 Dublin, the movie focuses on several wards of the notorious Magdalene Sisters Asylum, the laundry institutes of punishment run for the profit of the Roman Catholic Church. An estimated 30,000 Irish women were condemned to servitude in them in the 20th century. For some of them it was a life sentence.
The institutes originally targeted prostitutes. Then the definition of "fallen women" was expanded to encompass any young woman who had sex outside marriage, or even came "under suspicion." Sex outside marriage was considered by the Roman Catholic Church, like murder, to be a mortal sin.
By the 1940s, a majority of the inmates of the ten Magdalene asylums were unwed mothers, working relentless hours of penance cleaning dirty linen from early morning 'til late at night, six days a week. Work, prayer, silence and atonement were preached.
The film opens by showing how three young women find themselves suddenly enslaved at a Magdalene institute. Upright young Margaret, played by Anne-Marie Duff, is raped by a cousin at a wedding. Breaking a taboo by telling on him, Margaret is hustled off the following morning by the local priest to join the Magdalene Sisters.
Bernadette, a flirty orphan with wide green eyes and glossy black hair, is whisked away simply for attracting too much male attention on the playground. Actress Nora-Jane Noone makes her defiant, occasionally cruel character sympathetic. Rebelling at her unfair fate, she exclaims: "All the mortal sins in the world wouldn't justify this place!"
Warm-hearted Rose, played by Dorothy Duffy, has just given birth and wants only to hold her baby. Her mother won't speak to her in the hospital, and she is coerced into signing away her child, told by her priest that her "bastard child [would otherwise be] rejected and scorned by all decent members of society." The same shell-shocked day she finds herself locked in the grim, barred dormitory behind the unpassable gates of a Magdalene institute, suffering excruciatingly as her milk builds up.
We also meet a young, unwed mother already there--a gauche, trusting girl who has been renamed "Crispina" in a cruel joke by the mother superior. Sister Bridget tells the lank-haired young woman, embodied by Eileen Walsh, that the name means someone with curls.
Sister Bridget is deftly played by actress Geraldine McEwan as a sinisterly soft-spoken sadist. She smiles at her tormentees before inflicting punishment. Busy counting all the cash, Bridget scarcely looks up as she orients the three new inmates. Working in the laundry will cleanse their souls, she tells them.
Scenes will haunt you. In one Oliver Twist-like scene, nuns gorge on a cornucopia of savory dishes as their charges eat gruel. Shaving heads, with lots of gratuitous cutting of scalps and blackening eyes, was a common punishment. After Bernadette's hair is hacked off, the camera shows an extreme close-up of her eye, the lashes coated in blood. Reflected in her pupil is the image of Sister Bridget forcing her to look at herself in a mirror to see "how she really looks."
The most unforgettable scene takes place in the lavatory, where a group of naked inmates is humiliated by two unattractive nuns picking out the "biggest bum," the smallest breasts, and worse.
As a Christmas carol with the refrain "O tidings of comfort and joy" plays, the camera pans the joyless, comfortless dormitory with its huge posters reading: "God is Just," "God is Good."
Margaret, discovering that Crispina is sexually serving the priest, plans a petty revenge on the priest that unwittingly sets up her friend for an even worse fate. No one who sees this film will ever forget Eileen Walsh screaming out: "You're not a man of God!"
At the film's conclusion, a chilling blurb announces that the last Magdalene institute closed only in 1996.
As a former ward recalled in the documentary, "The Sisters of Mercy showed us no mercy."
"The Magdalene Sisters" ends on an optimistic note, with the three main protagonists being "sprung." Perhaps this sugarcoated the reality, but it makes the movie easier to watch. While it all sounds very grim, "The Magdalene Sisters" transcends through art. The script, editing and acting are tight as a poem. It deserved its "Best Picture of 2002" vote by the Venice Film Festival. But I suspect Peter Mullan, the Scottish actor who directed and wrote this movie, was even more pleased by the sharp criticism from the Vatican.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today.