October 12, 2006

World News

Fox Steps Out on Faith With
New Esther Film

BY JASON ANTHONY                                                                     © 2006 Religion News Service
capIt will play at more than 1,000 theaters across the country. More than 55,000 tickets have been pre-sold. But chances are, you might never even see the trailer.
"One Night With the King," a $20 million biblical epic from Gener8xion Entertainment, is one of the first films to be released in partnership with the new FoxFaith label. While the subject -- the Book of Esther -- is an ancient legacy, the strategy that is expected to fill theater seats is at the cutting edge of the new marriage between big studios and grass-roots Christian organizing.
The film, which opens Oct. 13, tells the story of Queen Esther and King Xerxes. The story focuses on Esther, a Jewish orphan-turned-queen who reveals her nationality at a critical moment and saves her people from extermination.
An example of the film's unorthodox recipe for success: G. Landry Humphries, who works with the homeless in the Los Angeles area, will fill one of the theaters with 350 children from foster care and orphanages on opening night. "Esther was an orphan," said Humphries, who hopes the movie will inspire and lead children to read the Bible.
Because Esther was herself an orphan, ministry leaders are urging churches to bring orphans and foster children to opening weekend in a unique marriage between ministry and moviegoing. Matthew Crouch, the producer of the movie and CEO of Gener8xion Entertainment, hopes to build a bridge of trust between two historically opposed camps: Hollywood and the conservative Christian audience.
In place of more traditional marketing avenues -- fast food tie-ins, say, or network television spots -- Crouch is finding ways to reach out to church leaders nearer to their experience. He gained the endorsement of the venerable American Bible Society (ABS), an institution that is widely regarded as a non-denominational authority, which has labeled the movie "accurate to Scripture."
He has also undertaken a marathon tour of talking personally with pastors-- "pressing the flesh," as he calls it. "Pastors don't ask what you do--they ask why you do it," Crouch said. "If you can answer that question, you can create a partnership."
During his 16-day Pastor Screening Tour, Crouch screened a cut of his movie in 21 cities. Rod Rieger attended in Oklahoma City, and his congregation at Newcastle Christian Church is doing its part. Congregants watched the trailer, put up a cardboard display inside the church and bought out an entire show on Sunday of opening weekend.
Rieger said he got an earful. "They told us that opening weekend is really critical. It decides how long they'll be able to keep it in the theaters. They stressed that to us all."
"We need to support these or they're gonna go away," he said. If Hollywood continues to reach out, Rieger said he and Newcastle Christian Church plan to reach back.
Crouch is the son of Trinity Broadcasting Network's (TBN) founders, Paul and Jan Crouch, whose Christian television network is the most lucrative ministry on the small screen. It is no surprise that a scion of this high-wattage Christian media outlet was one of the first to partner with the newly minted FoxFaith.
FoxFaith is a new division of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment committed to making movies that have "a clear Christian message or (are) based on material by a Christian author." Although the Esther movie was developed by Crouch's Gener8xion Entertainment, FoxFaith will distribute the film in a limited number of theaters and oversee its DVD release.
FoxFaith plans to produce original straight-to-DVD titles and at least six theatrical release movies per year. Though other major studios are making movies with religious content, Fox is the first to take the gamble of devoting a whole division exclusively to Christian fare.
FoxFaith grew out of the studio's recent success with evangelically supported releases, especially Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which grossed $370 million domestically.
"`The Passion' gave us all our MBA's," said Steve Feldstein, a senior vice president at Fox Home Entertainment. "To be honest, we found a demographic that was underserved, and we were positioned to fill a need. It's that simple."
If it seems strange that the studio that brought out "Dude, Where's My Car?" is getting into the Christian market -- and even offering Bible study materials through its Web site -- Feldstein said it shouldn't.
"There's no cynicism where it matters," he said, citing Christian executives at Fox, like producer Ralph Winter, who have been involved on the project from the beginning.
For Crouch, there is only one condition necessary for the partnership to work. "You can have an automatic audience, as long as you don't violate their faith. Do comedies, do action movies, do adventures -- all they ask is that you don't violate their faith."
Heather Hendershot, a professor of media studies the City University of New York and the author of "Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture," said the new partnerships in Hollywood should involve close scrutiny -- on both sides. "FoxFaith is capitalizing on a grass-roots niche. But you have to ask, is Fox playing them for their grass-roots organizing?"
While many have expressed an "anxiety" about an evangelical "takeover" of Hollywood, she said, Hendershot sees a more likely danger in the other direction: big studios taking business away from smaller Christian distributors.
"Pastors will jump on films to be recognized as an audience," she said. The coming years are likely to bring them a sharp learning curve in Hollywood economics.
"One Night With the King" tells the story of Queen Esther and King Xerxes, and the bonds of trust in her marriage allow her to become a hero. Trust -- powerful, rare and hard won.
Indian Catholics Target `Moral Depravity'
Among Call Center Workers

BY ACHAL NARAYANAN                                                                  © 2006 Religion News Service

Roman Catholic leaders in India have launched a "pastoral care" program to help "cleanse" the minds of young people working in the country's burgeoning call center and BPO (business process outsourcing) industry.
A prime focus of the church's program -- which includes a series of retreats and counseling sessions -- is the southern metropolis of Bangalore, popularly known as "the Silicon Valley of India." The program aims to educate young people about the adverse effects of extramarital affairs, live-in relationships and one-night stands.
Many call centers and outsourcing offices handle customer calls, direct marketing and data processing for American companies. Because of the time difference between the U.S. and India, many call center employees work off-hours.
Mumbai's Daily News and Analysis newspaper said that, alarmed by reports of "moral depravity" in call centers, the church has begun a move to "cleanse" young minds which give way under the stress of irregular working hours. It said the church is especially worried about the large number of young Christians in the BPO industry who are "straying from God's path and succumbing to temptations."
The Bangalore program was launched a few weeks ago by the local unit of Jesus Youth, an international Catholic youth movement, in response to a request from Archbishop Bernard Moras. Mass, confession sessions and spiritual counseling will help call center employees who work odd hours.
Moras said, "We don't want to do moral policing, but we want to advise young people that being `modern' doesn't mean losing their family traditions or moral values."
In New Delhi, the Rev. Dominic Emmanuel, spokesman for the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese, said youth programs in every archdiocese would be mobilized to help. "We have to show them we care by giving them guidance and showing them the dangers of adultery and casual sex. It is important to tell the youth what to do and not do to be on the right path. This is not being patronizing towards them, but simply letting them know the price they have to pay for leading such lifestyles."
Industry representatives, however, refuted the church's claim that their offices are dens of depravity.
"It's a misconception that call centers harbor extramarital affairs and one-night stands. These can happen in any industry where men and women work together," said Shanmugam Nagarajan, founder and chief operating officer of the company 24/7 Customer. "Negative statements tarnish the industry's image."
Baptist Church in Amish Country Opens New Worship Center
while Mourning Tragedy
BY DANIEL W. GUIDO                                                                         © 2006 Baptist Press

A Baptist church in the heart of Pennsylvania Amish country moved ahead with celebrating the start of construction of a new worship center Oct. 9 -– sobered, however, by the murder of five young Amish girls in a one-room school 21 miles away.

“Life has to go on,” Dave Pope, pastor of Wrightsdale Baptist Church, said. “We are all still mourning this in our own way. It is so recent and happened so close,” he said, shaking his head as he unlocked the doors and entered the church at daybreak on Sunday.
“But we have a program to keep to, with a four-day revival starting today and the celebration of the new construction planned this morning,” Pope said, as he climbed a flight of steps and turned the lights on in the sanctuary. “You know, maybe in some way, having all this to do is a good thing. Maybe that will help keep our minds off the tragedy and instead concentrate on the future.”
The sermon this Sunday, by North Carolina-based evangelist Royce Williams, appropriately dealt with how Christ calls Christians to deepen their faith and trust in Him in good times and bad.
Wrightsdale Baptist, the oldest Southern Baptist church in Pennsylvania, is nestled amid several large Amish dairy farms some 20 miles south of Lancaster in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Despite the festivities scheduled for the day, various Wrightsdale Baptist members clutched tissues and fought back their tears. Kelli Brandenberger, who grew up in the area, wiped tears from her eyes while eating a piece of cake at the celebration of the church’s new construction project.
“I fear that this sort of thing could happen to our children. This whole thing scares me,” she confided as her two children, ages 4 and 5, played with their father in the church gymnasium.
“I thank God the shooter did not have time to carry out all of his plans,” Brandenberger said, shivering a bit as she contemplated the thought. According to various news reports, authorities believed the killer intended to sexually molest the girls in the tiny Nickel Mines community but was thwarted when police arrived at the schoolhouse.
Brandenberger’s concern was shared by many in the congregation. Several members said they still have not been able to absorb how such a violent act was perpetrated in this rural farm setting of rolling hills where news of murders and mayhem usually are distant reports from major cities.
“This just doesn’t happen here,” John Hardy said as he stood on the front steps of the church and watched an Amish buggy pass by, the horse’s hooves pounding a rhythmic clip-clop on the road. “This sort of thing tries your faith, it really does. But hopefully in the end it also drives you closer to Jesus.”
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Teams Find a Marketing Home Run in Mixing Faith, Sports 

(who writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio)   © 2006 Religion News Service
For months, the Cleveland Indians haven't had a prayer of reaching the playoffs.
But that didn't stop the team from hosting its first Catholic Family Day with a 10:30 a.m. Mass in right field preceding a September afternoon game against the Minnesota Twins. The prayers didn't quite work: The Indians fell to the Twins, 6-1.
The marriage of religion and athletics is nothing new, but with the increasing influence of Christian organizations and action groups, sports teams are realizing religion is big business.
Third Coast Sports is a Christian marketing firm in Nashville, Tenn., hired by teams to stage the increasingly popular Faith Nights or Faith Days, complete with a Christian music concert and testimonials from local sports figures, as well as occasional giveaways of Bibles or bobblehead figures of biblical characters such as Moses or Noah. While the firm sometimes gets a small percentage of each ticket sold, it makes most of its money by selling sponsorships to organizations trying to tap into the expanding Christian audience.
"The current climate has everything to do with the success of our events," said Brent High, president of Third Coast Sports. "The 2004 presidential election, the success of Christian movies ... the crossover hits in pop music by Christian bands ... have made it easier for sports executives to wrap their arms around these events. They see the smart business in aligning themselves with these large, influential groups."
Third Coast Sports is not responsible for all the religious programming that has blossomed this year. The San Francisco Giants held a Jewish Heritage Night earlier this summer, while the minor league High Desert Mavericks in Adelanto, Calif., held Mormon Night.
But the Nashville company is the most widely known promoter of Christian events at sports sites. With a well-established network of church communities as well as direct and grass-roots marketing and advertising campaigns, it promises attendance boosts -- and it delivers.
The Buffalo Bisons, the Class AAA farm team of the Indians, held three Faith Night promotions this season. According to General Manager Mike Buczkowski, the Bisons increased attendance about 1,000 fans -- or 10 percent -- each game.
The concept started several years ago when High, a deacon, youth minister and Sunday school teacher, was vice president of sales for the minor league Nashville Sounds baseball team. In 2004 and '05, five of the Sounds' top 10 crowds were on Faith Nights. High left the Sounds for Third Coast Sports about a year ago and has seen the company's business almost quadruple. Last year, Third Coast Sports put on 23 events in 10 cities. This year, it hosted 76 events in 44 markets, including Atlanta, where the Braves say attendance increased between 10 percent and 15 percent -- by 3,000 to 4,500 fans -- on the first two Faith Days.
The increase pleases High. The attention surprises him."The amount of attention is surprising, for sure, as similar events have been going on for a long time," said High.
"I think the reason these events are attracting so much attention now has to do with the attention we received at the Nashville Sounds in 2004 when we gave away Bible bobblehead dolls of Moses, Samson and Noah. We followed that up with Bible Giveaway Night. Those two promotions attracted a lot of national media attention."
The events are held a decent interval before or after games so fans who do not want to attend will not be inconvenienced.
The only hitch so far came when Focus on the Family, one of eight sponsors of the first Faith Night in Atlanta, was not invited back. The organization handed out literature, as was permitted, but also referred fans to its Web site, www.troubledwith.com, which suggests homosexuality is a social problem similar to alcoholism.
Some religion scholars see the value of Faith Night from a business point of view, but don't know what to make of it from a religion standpoint.
Timothy Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University and director of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and author of the 2005 book, "Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange and the Substance of Faith."
"I think this as a perfect example of a dilemma that goes to the heart of evangelical Christianity: getting the Gospel message out by whatever means necessary versus protecting and preserving the sacredness of the tradition," Beal said.
"From a business perspective, it looks like a no-brainer. I mean, does it move product or not? For evangelicals, it's hopefully a more complex matter, requiring some serious reflection."
Christian sports fans -- and the teams they root for -- seem to be embracing Faith Nights wholeheartedly. If it's a little unorthodox, so be it.
After all, Third Coast Sports has a mission statement from 1 Corinthians 9:22, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some."