Little support for ‘Nativity Story’

Congregations not expected to flock to film in ‘Passion’-like numbers

So far, “The Nativity Story” is not getting a passionate response in Boulder.

New Line Cinema’s film about the Immaculate Conception, Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus premiered Sunday at the Vatican — the first film to debut there — and more than 100 churches across the country hosted screenings Monday, including one each in Denver and Colorado Springs.

The film opens nationwide, including at Boulder’s United Artists Village 4, today.

But despite the apparent hype elsewhere, and the way Boulder County congregations eagerly seized on Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004, the local reception to “The Nativity Story” seems to match the weather — chilly.

Scott Kelly, associate pastor of Cornerstone Church of Boulder, said his church is recommending parishioners see the movie, and he’s encouraging the leaders of the church’s small groups to take friends and family. But Kelly hasn’t planned a big event around it. The church considered holding a private screening, but the logistics didn’t work out, and it would have been expensive.

Kelly saw the film a month ago at a pre-screening for pastors, and said he suspects “The Nativity Story” won’t make as much money as the much-hyped “The Passion of the Christ.” Churches in Boulder and across the country organized trips by the busload to the see that film, which also was the topic of Sunday sermons and study groups.

“Obviously, a bleeding man on a cross is more controversial than a baby taking its first breath,” Kelly said.

“The Passion” became a spectacle, Kelly said, a cultural phenomenon full of controversy and gore. The story of the Nativity is easier to deal with and less controversial.

Pastor Pete Terpenning, of Community United Christian Church of Boulder, hadn’t heard much about “The Nativity Story” on Thursday, but said unlike the Passion, the Nativity story is too nice to fight over.

“‘The Passion’ was controversial, probably because it was so clearly atonement theology,” Terpenning said. “But the Nativity — no one wants to mess with that, I suppose.”

“The Passion” was visceral, but “The Nativity Story” is benign, said Jeff Davenport, director of emergent worship at First Presbyterian Church in Boulder, adding that he hadn’t heard many people talking about the film.

Davenport, who earned an MFA in script and screenwriting at the University of Southern California, said he likes the idea of bringing creativity to worship, and noted that his church frequently uses movie clips during its Sunday evening services. However, Davenport said he believes many of First Presbyterian’s parishioners prefer their movies and books to be more subtle and symbolic.

“A lot of people are a little more savvy,” Davenport said. “They don’t need a story laid out for them in biblical terms.”

Since the huge box office success of “The Passion,” it’s become clear that evangelicals have a large share of the market, Davenport said, but many churches are tired of being targeted by promoters.

“A lot of people got slammed with ‘The Passion’ paraphernalia,” he said.

Cornerstone’s Kelly said he hasn’t sensed nearly as much buzz for “The Nativity” as has accompanied other “Christian” movies, despite its opening at the Vatican.

“We were getting ‘Narnia’ characters in our Happy Meals for a month before it came out,” Kelly said of last winter’s Christian-themed C.S. Lewis adaptation, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

“‘The Nativity’ doesn’t have the same marketing opportunities.”

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Dalai Lama: War is wrong

Tibetan leader focuses on compassion, nonviolence in speech

Nearly 15,000 people gathered at the Pepsi Center on Sunday to see a man who calls himself a simple monk, nothing special. They waited in lines that stretched far from the main doors toward the CityLights Pavilion, and once inside, some paused to buy $20 T-shirts bearing his name.

When Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper introduced the simple monk, these 15,000 people all stood, nearly in unison. Gaining the stage, the simple monk, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, placed his hands together and bowed humbly to the crowd over and over.

“Hello everybody,” he said, and then laughed about the large images of himself plastered on the Pepsi Center’s screens.

His public talk, “The Science of a Compassionate Life,” focused on compassion, positive thoughts and nonviolence.

The 71-year-old political and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people said his compassion comes from his mother’s love and care for him when he was a small child in Tibet.

“This is the basis of the idea of compassion — a sense of concern, a sense of care,” he said. “Sometimes, I think we take for granted these things and don’t pay much attention. As a result, our emotions are closer to negative emotions.”

If you have compassion and respect for others, you will benefit, he said.

“This is an extreme, only to think of oneself,” he said. “Of course, by nature, we are selfish. But be a wise selfish, not a foolish selfish.”

Also, he said, using force creates more problems.

“Violence and war are, morally speaking, wrong,” he said. “That is the wrong method.”

The audience showed their approval with applause.

“He’s just, to me, the epitome of compassion,” said Kathy Emery, of Boulder. Emery’s daughter attended the weekend PeaceJam conference, which the Dalai Lama participated in on Friday and Saturday. Emery and her husband, Jamie, saw the Dalai Lama speak at PeaceJam, and on Sunday, they took three young friends of the family to the Pepsi Center talk.

Emery is Buddhist, but the Dalai Lama’s message is universal, she said.

Jody Stege would agree.

“I’m Taoist, but this transcends ‘isms,'” she said. Stege came from Las Vegas, New Mexico, to see the Dalai Lama and said she’d just met someone who arrived from Atlanta this morning to attend the talk.

“It’s great that people are making this a priority,” Stege said.

Following the talk, the Dalai Lama answered select questions sent in by e-mail ahead of time. One person asked the Dalai Lama how to change his impression of Islam.

“The whole world could learn the rules of religion,” the Dalai Lama said. “They all carry, basically, the same message, but from a different approach.”

He said he, as a Buddhist monk, is a defender of Islam.

The Dalai Lama’s public address was sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute, which started in Boulder in 1987 as a collaboration of Western science and Eastern contemplative traditions. It was founded by the Dalai Lama and longtime Buddhist practitioners Fransisco Varela, a neuroscientist, and entrepreneur Adam Engle. Mind and Life has since grown from a dialogue into an organization that supports research, conferences and retreats.

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Coming soon to a theater near you: God

A growing trend of people seeking out meaning in movies

It’s a Tuesday night in September, and more than 700 people are jamming the hallways of the Boulder Theater to see a limited release movie. Many are Buddhist, some monks in maroon robes. The show starts at 7, but at 6:35 only five tickets remain. When the director enters the theater, a thunderous applause greets him despite the fact that many have clasped their hands together in a silent bow to the lama/director, Neten Chokling Rinpoche.

Steve DeGennaro, of Boulder, is there to see the film, “Milarepa,” because it’s hard to find movies with meaning.

“A couple of hours,” he said, shrugging. “I feel like it’s a waste if it doesn’t have meaning.”

Two nights later, a similar crowd gathers at Unity of Boulder, where 650 seats sold out weeks prior for a sneak preview making the rounds at many other U.S. churches — “Conversations with God: the Movie.”

People squeeze into the pews, tighter and tighter. The aisles fill with folding chairs, then the back of the sanctuary until it’s standing room only, and people are still streaming through the doors.

Donna Sutton is in one of the pews with her niece.

“With more movies like this, we can see more similarities in religion rather than divisions,” she said. “Lord knows we need it!”

The 2004 film “What the Bleep Do We Know!?,” a part documentary, part fictional look at life’s big questions through a mix of science and religion, was not expected to be a box office smash.

But at the Denver Film Society’s Starz Filmcenter, moviegoers repeatedly filled the theaters to see it. The runaway success of “What the Bleep?” left many at the film society scratching their heads, said Keith Garcia, program coordinator.

“People seem hungry for these types of films,” he said.

For Stephen Simon, the director of “Conversations with God” and a founder of the Spiritual Cinema Circle, there is no doubt that many people are turned off by Hollywood.

“In the audiences we’ve shown the film to, the audience feels better about being human,” Simon said. “That sounds simplistic, and it is.”

Simon’s Spiritual Cinema Circle sends subscribers a DVD with four movies each month for $21 plus shipping. Members own the movies, so unlike Netflix, they keep the DVDs. The circle’s Web site calls its films “a mixture of shorts, features and documentaries, all hand-picked for their quality and content.” Although it is only two years old, the circle has members in every state and 70 countries.

The circle has been a success, Simon said, because people wanted to see movies about love and compassion, not fear and violence.

Neale Donald Walsch, author of the “Conversations with God” books, also believes many people crave positive stories they’re not getting from Hollywood.

“Stop already with the exploding cars!” he said.

This is why Simon, a man who grew up in Hollywood, the son of a producer and director of Abbott and Costello movies, made “Conversations” independently.

“There is a real deep desire to see this kind of material, and fortunately, we had the creative means,” Simon said. “Subscribers to the Spiritual Cinema Circle are the financiers of the film.”

“Milarepa” was also independently made by people with positive intentions.

“It’s hard to change people,” said Chokling, the film’s director. “But at least we can try to influence them in a good way.”

The story of Milarepa has been told countless times over the centuries, but the story can reach new audiences through a movie, Chokling said.

“It’s difficult to make a movie, but if you can, it can be much more powerful than a book,” he said.

Simon and Walsch also expect their movie to reach a new audience and believe in the power of film.

“Spiritual Cinema is the 21st century version of shamanic storytelling,” Simon said.

In fact, the “Conversations with God” books don’t lend themselves to a movie, Simon said. But the story of Walsch’s life — a car accident plunged him from prosperity to the street before he began his now-famous conversation — is a great metaphor for anyone who has had what Walsch and Simon both call “a dark night of the soul.”

Ultimately, Simon wants these kinds of films to form more than a loose collection.

“It’s the passion of my professional life to have spiritual cinema defined as its own genre,” he said, and gain recognition for movies that ask the big questions: Who are we, and why are we here?


Movies sent out to Spiritual Cinema Circle members so far this year included:

“Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” a documentary about a homeless musician and his relationship with a flock of wild parrots in San Francisco.

“Dysenchanted,” a short that brings female fairy-tale characters to a therapist’s couch to share their neuroses.

“Travelers and Magicians,” a film by Tibetan Rinpoche Khyentse Norbu that pairs a modern journey with a monk’s storytelling to make a point about finding your way right where you started.

For more information, go to or call (888) 447-5494.

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A traditional Tibetan tale on the big screen

Jenn Fields, For the Boulder Daily Camera

People are sometimes tempted by revenge. The temptation can be so great that it persuaded one mother to send her boy to sorcery school so he could punish his greedy aunt and uncle by conjuring an epic storm that flattened their village.

That’s how the title character in “Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint” learns that revenge isn’t an answer and becomes one of the great sages of Tibetan Buddhism.

Although the film tells a story from 11th century Tibet, its director, Neten Chokling Rinpoche, said the tale of revenge is universal and timeless. Milarepa’s reversal from murderer to monk can give anyone hope.

“Milarepa is a really normal guy — nothing special,” Chokling said. “If he can do it, anybody can do it.”

Though born in Bhutan, Chokling, 33, grew up in a Buddhist monastery in the tiny village of Bir, India. There was one black-and-white television in Bir by the time he was a teenager. When the film “Little Buddha,” starring Keanu Reeves, was being filmed back in Bhutan, he went to see the shooting.

“I thought it was interesting, but I never thought I would do it,” he said.

Prior to “Milarepa,” Chokling had experience on two other movies. First, he played one of the main characters in “The Cup,” a film about a group of monks who go to great lengths to see the soccer World Cup. He also worked behind the scenes on “Travelers and Magicians.” Both films were directed by another Buddhist lama, Kyentse Norbu. “Milarepa” follows Norbu’s style of film making — many of the actors and crew are monks with little or no movie experience.

But Chokling had some help that many Westerners would consider unorthodox. Any time a tough decision or problem arose, he would call for a mo, a Tibetan form of divination. The mo said they should start filming in September, so they did, despite the fact that September was a few months away and Chokling didn’t have a screenplay. The mo also helped them decide what to do with sand-damaged cameras and when to end filming to avoid being stuck in the Himalayas through the spring thaw.Making and distributing a film independently are a community effort, said Gretchen Holland, of Boulder. As a member of Mangala Shri Bhuti, a Tibetan Buddhist organization with a center outside of Ward, Holland was one of many local volunteers who helped promote and organize the sold-out Boulder screening of “Milarepa” on Sept. 19.

Chokling has a close relationship with Mangala Shri’s director, so the movie has become a labor of love for many in the organization.

“It’s not just for yourself,” she said. “It’s for others.”

Some of the proceeds from the movie will go to Chokling’s monastery in India, which recently took in more than 40 orphans, said Sasha Meyerowitz, associate producer and a member of Mangala Shri Bhuti. In fact, he said, one of the benefits of self-distribution is that more of the money can go to charity.

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Night rides

My friend Gen send me an article from the New York Times about mountain bike races in the snow in Minnesota. It took me back the first winter I rode a bike as an adult.

(I’m sure as a child it would not have occurred to me to ride my banana-seated Schwinn in the winter. An adult with a Schwinn is quite another matter.)

I’d planned an ice climbing trip to Ouray. A colleague said, hey, ice climbing requires more leg power than the rock you’re accustomed to. You should start riding your bike.

“But I don’t have a bike,” I said. I recalled the ancient yellow road bike I’d left at a boyfriend’s house in college. Desperate for a quick escape and unable to fit it into my little Honda Civic (or ride away on it), I’d abandoned it. Blast!

“Jean has an extra bike,” he said. “It should be your size.”

He was right. I bought the mountain bike from Jean, and Jeremy set it up for me. I married him later. That’s another story, but for now, know that I didn’t marry him just because he adjusted the seat on my bike.

In the winter, you run out of daylight quickly. So after falling back, Jeremy’s friend Paul organized a weekly night ride from his house. Paul lives close to the back, unmotorized entrance to a state park that had fantastic trails (especially for Missouri). He rode there from home all the time, and the lack of sunlight wasn’t about to stop him.

Actually, nothing stopped Paul from riding. Dark? Power up the headlamps. Snow? Dig out the studded tires. Broken wrist? Keep riding, pull the pins out of the bones yourself (against doctor’s orders) when they get in the way.

Jeremy was the same way about road riding. He would always start training on January 1. January and February in St. Louis can be cold, but he had to ride, and riding inside is boring. If it dipped below 20 degrees, he would wear this cycling “jersey” that seemed to me more like a space suit. Sure, it was fairly thin as far as space gear goes, but it was made of a waterproof, non-breathable material designed to withstand the rigors of a trip to the moon, or in his case, four hours at an average of 22 m.p.h.

I though I was pretty tough with my little ice climbing trip, but these people were putting me to shame. I had to keep up with the Pauls and Jeremys, even though it was ridiculous to think I could keep up with people who had decades of endurance training over me. Lucky for me, Jean wanted to keep up, too. We joined the night riders.

Jean and I were the only girls in this fairly exclusive club. We were also the least experienced. The boys usually dropped us as soon as we hit the single track in the park. But we didn’t care. We girls rode hard, and we celebrated when we fixed a mechanical problem or survived a crash without blood (made easier by being bundled up against the winter night). We rode for ourselves, not for the smelly boys up the trail, regardless of the fact that we were each dating one of those smelly boys.

I probably wouldn’t have gone on many of the night rides without Jean. I had a healthy dose of youthful arrogance to push me to get out there, but the camaraderie sure helps when you get a flat or your headlamp goes out and the others are long gone. It also didn’t hurt that Paul’s wife often had a huge pot of chili on the stove for us if we made it back up the gruelling final hill to his house.

Happy Prairie Dog Day

Not to be outdone by other rodent-based holidays, Boulder’s mayor has declared February 2 to be Prairie Dog Day.

The Daily Camera, my alma mater, reported that no one’s sure what it will mean if prairie dog sees its shadow today. Nor does Boulder have an official named mascot for the holiday as yet.

(When we woke up this morning and tried to head out for breakfast, our thermometer read -10 degrees and all but one of our car doors were frozen shut. We opted to stay in, and surely any sensible prairie dog, named or unnamed, did the same.)

Boulder is a battleground county in the prairie dog wars. The developers and equestrians are surely much chagrined by this clear bias for those hippie dirt-worshippers who protect the plaque-carrying rodents. However, it would be much easier to side with those who dislike the ubiquitous prairie dog if 1) developers hadn’t gassed a bunch of them to build a Wal-Mart on the southern end of the county (no Wal-Mart in Boulder city limits, of course) and, 2) the little critters are so darn cute, especially in the spring when the litters of babies come out, gosh they’re adorable…did I mention their reproductive capabilities rival rabbits? Well anyway, like them or not, Happy Prairie Dog Day and enjoy my haiku to the prairie dog.


Where have all the protests gone?

Well, they’ve come back — a little. I talked with someone earlier today for the book I’m working on (in its infancy) and he had to let me go by a certain time to call his Senators for MoveOn.

“Do you work for MoveOn?” I asked him.

No no, he said, they just make it super easy to do things like this. They’d e-mailed him the numbers to call, and he just had to punch in a few numbers. That’s it.

People can’t exactly run off to Washington to protest things anymore. Much of the protesting is happening online, which is good, but it doesn’t make the same statement as hundreds of thousands of people gathering at the capitol, he said.

I wonder…Could anyone organize a gi-normous protest nowadays? Not online. Outside. Not for a movie. A real protest. I’d go, but I’m too busy blogging…