If there is one subject that provokes more complaints of media bias than religion, it would probably be abortion. From the time of the legalization debates in the 1960s, most pro-life groups have believed their message has been suppressed or misrepresented, and I would not be surprised if some pro-choice groups have felt the same way.

But one thing about the debate that has changed is the addition of a free-speech component to the moral and religious issues.

Avatar's sappy, 'dumbed down' spirituality

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Hardly a week into its inaugural run, Hollywood’s big Christmas release, Avatar, evolved from just another holiday blockbuster into a full-scale cultural phenomenon. It skipped past $1 billion in box office receipts faster than any film in history and by the end of January it had become the first movie ever to gross more than $2 billion.

Millions have seen Avatar, critics have heaped praise on it and it’s currently up for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (James Cameron.)

Important Canadian periodicals feel government's wrath

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The economic downturns in North America over the last 100 years, paradoxically, have often been times of strong creative upsurge in the arts. American painting, poetry, theatre and music flourished in the 1930s, despite the crushing Great Depression. In the midst of financial turmoil in the 1970s, the Canadian non-profit parallel gallery movement covered the country with incubators for visual artists who would later go on to national and international careers.

Such innovation in difficult moments has traditionally been made possible by active public-sector investment, without which the many small-scale artistic enterprises that dot the cultural landscape would languish. Since the Second World War, Canada has believed that this public investment in new art, film, theatre, music and the other arts is an important contribution to building a national artistic fibre strong enough to resist the powerful cultural influence of the United States. But this long-standing conviction has become old hat in the Harper government’s ruling circles, if Ottawa’s recent changes in magazine funding policy are anything to go on.

The daring and beautiful belongs in God's church

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{mosimage}For centuries of Western history, Christian churches were the outstanding expressions of the architect’s art and craft. There are many reasons why this is no longer the case. Among them is the widespread decline of church-going and revenues, and the opinion that churches should occupy a more low-profile place in the urban fabric, and, not least important, an attitude of alienation (if not hostility) on the part of the church-going public toward the accomplishments of modern architecture.

But as long as new churches continue to be built, the opportunity of making them excellent and beautiful remains open. Catholics surely should not settle for second-rate church buildings in the Toronto archdiocese.

Trying times continue for charities

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Natural disasters that inflict heart-wrenching human suffering, such as we’ve seen in the Haitian earthquake, show us the best and the worst of the changes we’ve witnessed in recent years, particularly in the media.

Through the immediate spread of eyewitness accounts, often through the use of social networking tools such as Twitter and cellphone videos, we learn of the devastation almost as it happens. As a result, faster ways to send help to crisis areas and faster ways to donate money have developed very quickly.   

Discovering Jesus in the sounds of the Deep South

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I first heard black gospel singing in the fields of my father’s cotton farm, deep in the American South. No sound was more Southern: slow, serious and melancholy, like the lives of those hard-up blacks who worked in the cotton patch.

In one sense, this sad, unforgettable music was foreign to a white child spending the day with his father in the fields. Yet in another, it was close, familiar: for Southern rural religion in those days, whether black or white, was very much a matter of supplicating the beloved Jesus for deliverance from the sorrows and tribulations of life. It probably wasn’t exactly orthodox, this near-exclusive adoration of Jesus and corresponding neglect of the remote Father and ungraspable Spirit. But such religion sprang from a true place in the heart, especially the hearts of rural black Southerners, and found expression in their sincere and devout melodies.

Blair's non-Catholic approach in Iraq

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The year comes to an end with what may well be one of the most significant political admissions in recent history. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated that even if he had known Saddam Hussein possessed no weapons of mass destruction he would still have declared war on Iraq. In other words, the WMD casus belli is, as many of us assumed, utterly bogus. It also seems likely that Blair never believed that there were any such weapons and that intelligence experts had told him and U.S. President George W. Bush this for months before the invasion.

It’s particularly important in the case of Blair because, unlike Bush, he still enjoys enormous international prestige, has a thriving political career and is known to be a highly sophisticated man. He was also received into the Roman Catholic Church with little scrutiny or apparent formation by a notably liberal British hierarchy. He had led Britain through a period of infamously anti-family, anti-marriage and anti-Catholic legislation and has never shown any contrition for his failings.

Obama upsets Catholic right - again

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{mosimage}Whatever you think of the current U.S. president, one thing is beyond dispute: Barack Obama certainly makes life interesting for the Catholic right.

The latest kafuffle started with the appearance in early December of a New York Times profile of White House social secretary Desirée Rogers. In this piece, we learned that the Obama family had toyed with the idea of breaking with White House tradition and not putting up an antique manger scene in the East Room of the executive mansion. (A White House official later confirmed that there had indeed been a discussion of whether to make Christmas more “inclusive” — apparently by excluding the crèche.)

Most understand Christmas is the season

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Most of the advertising media and much of our public space at this time of year is devoted to Christmas. While creches, angels and peace candles are often part of the mix, there is no doubt that most messages are concerned with the cultural holiday, not the religious one.

It’s no wonder that Christians have been expressing concerns for half a century or more that Christmas has become too commercialized and that religion has been pushed to the back of the line, if not out of the public space altogether. Since much of the grumbling seems to concern exchanges in shops and restaurants, I suspect merchants aren’t the only ones who regard the season as a business event. We’re all part of it.

King Tut's glory bought at great human price

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{mosimage}In the enormously rich drama of dynastic Egypt, the pharaoh Tutankamun played a very minor role. He was born around 1343 B.C., a century after the traditional date of Israel’s Exodus from Egyptian subjugation and during the period when the People of God were settling in Canaan. He assumed the crown of his politically troubled empire at age nine, and died when he was just 19. During his short reign, Tutankhamun (“living image of the god Amun”) appears to have backed a restoration of Egypt’s elaborate polytheism, which had been forcefully suppressed by his father, the pharaoh Akhenaten. If so, Tutankamun was still never forgiven for being the heretic Akhenaten’s son: His statues were defaced after his death and his name was largely written out of Egyptian history.

But despite his long obscurity, no ancient Egyptian is more popular today or more familiar to us than this royal young man. We know his serene and handsome face from the portrait-casket of solid gold that enclosed him in death. We know the games he liked to play, the beautiful wooden boxes he handled, even the bed he slept on. We know Tutankhamun so well because, in 1922, the British archeologist Howard Carter broke the seal on his tomb and found its treasury of grave-goods unplundered. The discovery of this trove of household furniture, jewellery, statuary and much else — interred for the king’s use in the afterlife — made headlines around the world. It also set in motion a wave of Egyptomania that persisted through the 1920s and, in some sense, has never subsided to this day.

Faith groups' hiring rights under the microscope

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Arguments will begin Dec. 15 in Ontario Divisional Court in the appeal of the decision by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal against Christian Horizons . The tribunal ruled against the social service agency in April, 2008, stating that it cannot insist on faith requirements in its hiring, nor require employees to sign agreements attesting to such requirements.

The decision raised significant concerns about the freedom of all religious organizations to require employees to pledge to adhere to tenets of a religious faith. Christian Horizons operates more than 180 residential homes for people with developmental disabilities and provides support and services to about 1,400 people. It is funded almost entirely by the province, receiving about $75 million each year.