By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Editor
Los Angeles (CNN) – For years, Ahmed Ahmed’s acting resume read like a rap sheet.
His first film role was Terrorist No. 4 in “Executive Decision.”
His first sitcom part: Hakeem, a terrorist, on “Roseanne.”
“I realized there was a big market out there for playing bad Arabs,” the actor said with a sarcastic laugh.
Born in Egypt and raised in Riverside, California, Ahmed - a friendly, round-faced guy - carries no trace of an accent and doesn’t look particularly sinister.
But he said he was rarely considered for parts playing doctors, lawyers ... or anything, really, but menacing Muslims during the early days of his career.
Meanwhile, a pilgrimage to Mecca, the spiritual home of Islam, pricked his conscience. He felt responsible, in some small way, for the violent images of Islam broadcast across American screens.
“I realized I was becoming a slave to the industry,” Ahmed said.
The role in which the actor was regularly cast, an Islamic extremist, has become almost as familiar a Hollywood cliché as the noble savage or gold-hearted hooker.
In films and television shows from “24” to “Syriana,” Muslims are the olive-skinned evildoers who cloak their violent schemes in religious rhetoric while cursing their American adversaries.
Ahmed wanted no part of that anymore. He quit Hollywood and went back to waiting tables, where he compensated for the bad food with a bonhomie that would blossom into a standup comedy act.
Opinion by Drew Dyck, special to CNN
(CNN) - The 4-year-old boy sees angels floating toward him. They start out as stars, then slowly become more visible, wings flapping behind orbs of white light.
As they approach, they sing a melodious song. The boy cocks his head, squints into the sky, and makes a strange request. “Can you sing ‘We Will Rock You’?”
The angels giggle.
So do people in the theater.
The scene is from “Heaven is for Real,” the latest in a string of religious movies soaring at the box office. Based on the best-selling book of the same name, the film tells the real-life story of Colton Burpo, a 4-year-old boy who awakens from surgery with eye-popping tales of the great beyond. The film took in an estimated $21.5 million in opening on Easter weekend.
Even Colton’s religious parents (his dad, Todd, is a pastor) struggle to accept the celestial encounters their son describes: seeing Jesus and his rainbow-colored horse, meeting his sister who died in utero, and talking to his deceased great-grandfather, “Pop,” who, Colton exclaims, has “huge wings.”
The book and film are part of a larger trend. Depictions of journeys to heaven have never been more numerous or more popular. There’s “90 Minutes in Heaven,” “To Heaven and Back,” “Proof of Heaven,” and “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” just to name a few.
Does God have a prayer in Hollywood?
So what should we make of such accounts? And what does their popularity say about us?
Opinion by Joel S. Baden, special to CNN
(CNN) - Most modern people tend to distinguish between the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the merciful God of the New Testament.
In our age, the merciful God reigns - or so we like to think.
But every so often, stories or books or natural disasters summon visions of a wrathful God, and nowhere is that more in evidence than in the biblical story of the Flood, now brutally depicted in Darren Aronofsky’s new film “Noah.”
With our notion of a God who loves us all individually, especially the little children, we struggle with a deity who would wipe out all of humanity. Surely there were many innocent people, children, who died in the Flood?
But let’s be clear: This is our problem, not the Bible’s.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Los Angeles (CNN) – Forgive Darren Aronofsky if he’s begun to identify with the title character of his new film, “Noah.”
Like the infamous ark-maker, the 45-year-old director has weathered a Bible-sized storm – and it’s not over yet.
Aronofsky’s epic, which stars Russell Crowe and boasts a $130 million budget (with marketing costs to match), rode a swelling wave of controversy into American theaters on Friday.
Despite fierce criticism from some conservative Christians, "Noah" was the top box-office draw last weekend, raking in $44 million in the United States.
Part Middle-Earth fantasy flick, part family melodrama, the film is an ambitious leap for Aronofsky, director of the art-house hits “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”
Both of those films were showered with praise and awards. “Noah,” on the other hand, has sailed into a stiff headwind.
CNN's Ben Wedeman gloats over what President Barack Obama likely won't get a chance to see on his visit to the Vatican on Thursday. Take a look inside the Sistine Chapel - and gaze up at its famous ceiling.
Opinion by Russell D. Moore, special to CNN
(CNN) – On my Christmas list of gifts to buy my evangelical friends, there's a little book of prayers.
This is less predictable than it may seem, since the prayers aren't from a celebrity evangelical preacher, but from a morbid, quirky Catholic who spent her short life with pet peacocks and wooden-leg-stealing Bible salesman stories.
But I think Flannery O'Connor's newly published "Prayer Journal" is exactly what Christians need, maybe especially at Christmas.
Opinion by Edward J. Blum, special to CNN
(CNN) - Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly sparked outrage this week by insisting that Jesus and Santa Claus are both white, saying it's "ridiculous" to argue that depicting Christ and St. Nick as Caucasian is "racist."
"And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white," Kelly said, "but this person is arguing that we should also have a black Santa."
Kelly was responding to an article in Slate that said St. Nick needs a makeover from fat, old white guy to something less "melanin-deficient."
The Fox News host would have none of it.
"Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change," Kelly said. "Jesus was a white man, too. It's like we have, he's a historical figure; that's a verifiable fact. As is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy, in the story, and change Santa from white to black?"
Opinion by Hussein Rashid, special to CNN
(CNN) - In the world of comics, the news of Ms. Marvel’s return to the world of Iron Man and the X-men is a big deal – and not just because the character’s alter ego is a Pakistani-American Muslim girl from New Jersey.
The previous Ms. Marvel, for those of you not familiar with the Ka-Pow world of comics, was a blond, blue-eyed Air Force pilot.
The new Ms. Marvel is Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old student who favors hipster-geek glasses and Holden Caulfield-style hats. She's also Muslim, though she's no poster girl for the faith, according to G. Willow Wilson, her creator.
"Islam is both an essential part of her identity and something she struggles mightily with," Wilson said in an interview posted on Marvel's website.
By John Blake, CNN
“God, help me!”
Eben Alexander shouted and flailed as hospital orderlies tried to hold him in place. But no one could stop his violent seizures, and the 54-year-old neurosurgeon went limp as his horrified wife looked on.
That moment could have been the end. But Alexander says it was just the beginning. He found himself soaring toward a brilliant white light tinged with gold into “the strangest, most beautiful world I’d ever seen.”
Alexander calls that world heaven, and he describes his journey in “Proof of Heaven,” which has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 27 weeks. Alexander says he used to be an indifferent churchgoer who ignored stories about the afterlife. But now he knows there’s truth to those stories, and there’s no reason to fear death.
“Not one bit,” he said. “It’s a transition; it’s not the end of anything. We will be with our loved ones again.”
Heaven used to be a mystery, a place glimpsed only by mystics and prophets. But popular culture is filled with firsthand accounts from all sorts of people who claim that they, too, have proofs of heaven after undergoing near-death experiences.
Yet the popularity of these stories raises another question: Why doesn’t the church talk about heaven anymore? FULL POST
By Bryony Jones, CNN
(CNN) – Its art collection is the envy of galleries the world over, but until now the Vatican has been better known for Renaissance masterpieces rather than hip modernist artworks.
That may be about to change: the home of the Catholic Church has announced it will exhibit at the ultra-fashionable Venice Biennale for the first time later this year.
In a bold move away from the works of Michelangelo, Rafael and Giotto for which it is renowned, the Holy See picked Italian new media art collective Studio Azzurro, Czech-French photographer Josef Koudelka, and Australian-born U.S. painter Lawrence Carroll to interpret its chosen theme.
But the subject itself is one of the oldest and most traditional: the pavilion, inspired by Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is entitled "In the Beginning."
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.