Never let it be said that too much water has passed under the bridge, nor too much missionary under the Hollandaise, for the grand and glorious act of confession to affect reconciliation, both on the vertical and horizontal planes.
In the 1830s, the Reverend John Williams was the most famous missionary of the age. Now, 170 years after his murder the descendants of those responsible invited his family to Erromango, part of the island nation of Vanuatu. Charles Milner-Williams, of Hampshire, was among those who made the journey. . . . Mr Milner-Williams said eye-witness accounts from the captain of the missionary ship “Camden” describe what happened. He said: “Harris [a second missionary], who was the furthest inland, was clubbed down and killed. John Williams turned and ran towards the sea. They caught up with him on the sea shore. They clubbed him and shot him with arrows and he died there in the shallows.”
Lest anyone think this an ordinary clubbing of clergy (and who hasn’t felt a momentary urge to give, if not a right good thrashing, at least an atomic noogie to a preacher of dubious theology):
“It was a Royal Navy ship that went back to the island. The islanders then said that yes they had killed and eaten both Harris and Williams.”
The meal ultimately was well-digested, as the island is now predominantly Christian. And hopefully vegetarian.
So one Steven A. Beebe, professor of communications at Texas State University–San Marcos, was rummaging through C.S. Lewis’ original manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, when he came across a fragment. Not just any tidbit or afterthought but what the good professor came to believe was the beginnings of a work to be co-written by the Lord of the Rings himself, J.R.R. Tolkien.
I was interested in what I could learn about Lewis by reading his original, handwritten manuscripts. I was specifically looking for things such as what he may have crossed out, or what I could learn by observing his editing of his own work. At the beginning of a little orange-covered notebook I read the words, “In a book like this it might be expected that we should begin with the origins of language…” and realized that I was reading a book manuscript about language. As a professor of communication, I knew immediately that his ideas about language and communication were important. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that this was to have been the beginning of a collaborative book with J. R. R. Tolkien. That took another seven years for me to figure out—that the manuscript I was reading was supposed to be a collaboration between Lewis and Tolkien.
The book was never finished, nor published, although odd references to it appear here and there. I have to admit that a book about language, even from the dynamic duo, sounds depressingly dull, except of course to the expert in the field or the most ardent fan, for whom a copy of their dental records would prove exciting. If these gentlemen were going to collaborate, why couldn’t they do it on something more compelling, like a spy novel or a work of anti-modernist polemics or a travel guide—you, know, Best Student Hostels in Narnia or Negotiating the Tube in Middle Earth, something like that . . .
Speaking of Star Wars, Joe, Tesco’s, a retail chain in Britain roughly comparable to a mini Wal-Mart here in the States, wants people who enter their premises to reveal their identity, presumably so a store manager can ID anyone running out the door with that box of Weetabix under his arm. Well, this presents a problem if you’re a member of one particularly troublesome religion, which forbids some of its adherents from walking outside without a head covering.
The religion, inspired by the sci-fi films, is practised by 500,000 around the world and requires believers to cover their heads in public places. But Mr Jones, from Holyhead, said that staff ejected him from the store over security fears when he refused to remove his hood. Mr Jones, also known by his Jedi name Morda Hehol, told The Sun: “I told them it was a requirement of my religion but they just sniggered and ordered me to leave. “I walked past a Muslim lady in a veil. Surely the same rules should apply to everyone.” The handbook of the UK Jedi Church, founded by the Star Wars fan last year, states: “Jedis must wear a hood up in any public place of a large audience.”
Which makes sense, seeing as you probably don’t want anyone to know who you are when you have, in fact, made a sci-fi movie starring Carrie Fisher the center of your life.
So I guess this goes to the question of what constitutes a real religion. Scientology is a tax-exempt creed, at least in the U.S., and it’s the product of a science-fiction writer. (In fact, Harlan Ellison, best known for writing the “City on the Edge of Forever” episode of Star Trek, says he was there the night L. Ron Hubbard got the idea as a money-making scheme.) So why not Jediism? According to the government, all you have to do is fill out one of those nifty IRS 557s, available here. (Although, deciding whether you’re a religion or a black-lung beneficiary trust can be tricky, especially if you insist on all that incense.)
Must you have a membership over a certain size? Have inspired some kind of architecture, art, or music? Do you have to be in possession of a holy land—or be determined to win it back from the infidel? Must there be a sacred text?
Certainly there are plenty of great movies and TV shows that would qualify if these are the criteria. How many people flock to their local googleplex on any given Sunday? Who doesn’t consider the screenplay for The Godfather a sacred text? (“Leave the gun, take the cannoli” is certainly Proverbs-worthy.) I’ve made a pilgrimage to the Warner Bros. studio back lot. And I know there are people who worship Angelina Jolie (but I don’t think Cyborg 2 holds much promise as an organized religion).
Probably best to stick with the old tired-and-true. At least you don’t have to wait for Hulu to get syndication rights . . .
Dan Brown, who is to history what Rasputin was to anti-coagulant therapy, has a new book out. But you knew that. Everyone knew that. Because it sold a million trillion copies in four minutes. It’s called The Lost Symbol and marks the return of Robert Langdon, symbologist (a degree now available online from the University of Phoenix), detective, and former star of Bosom Buddies.
Unlike Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, the purveyors of this week’s conspiracy are not Catholic prelates but the Masons. No, not Jackie and Perry, but the 33-degree kinda Masons. It seems that Washington, D.C. is rife with Masonic symbols—from the architecture to the iconography to the city’s very grid—symbols that encode secrets that belie myths about who truly is in control of our nation’s capital, which was designed to reveal ancient mysteries that would—oh, whatever. Brown gets everything wrong, of course, but would we expect anything less, I mean more, from our author?
I plugged in “Buenos Aires” and “Mounties” and discovered I had a hidden talent that is best kept hidden.
(This does remind me of those “Draw This Pirate” vocational art schools that used to be advertised on matchbook covers many moons ago. Not many people know this, but Picasso got his start in just that way. If you don’t believe me, wait until Dan Brown’s next novel, The Secret of the Sad Spanish Clown.)
Anyone who has read my stuff in the past knows I’m not a fan of the fantasy genre. The minute I see that any story features dwarfs gamboling in the heath, guys in pointy hats wielding black magic (be they wizards or bishops), unicorns, faeries, glow-in-the-dark rings, quibbles, certified public accountants—you know what I’m talking about—I throw the thing down in a nonbiodegradable huff. These loony yarns are always set in the Middle Ages, where there isn’t a decent coffee bar in sight, and there’s always some stupid quest. (Did no one ever just stay home and change shelf paper in 1150?)
So even though I knew author Lars Walker from his incisive comments on my and other Luther-friendly blogs, I had resisted reading his tales of Viking lore, assuming there would be men named Olaf tossing elves at talking dragons while Norse gods played Stratego with virgins and leprechauns. And frankly, the only shields I want to see is Brooke in the first season of Suddenly Susan.
Wow. From the first sentence I was hooked. An Irishman taken as a slave by vikings passes himself off as a Catholic priest in Norway amid warrior heathen—and blood-curdling wackiness ensues. It’s fun, at times funny, and always compelling storytelling. It mixes fiction with history, faith with doubt, and most important, it’s wise and subversive, conveying a gospel message not just to the worshipers of Thor and Odin but to the readers as well. The law has its limits, and human sacrifice is not merely an artifact of ancient civilizations but something still to be excavated from the ruins of every heart.
For reasons that defy reason, The Year of the Warrior is out of print—at least according to Amazon. A book that Hollywood should be snapping up to make into as big an extravaganza as Pirates of the Caribbean is available only from some guy named Dweeble shipping tattered paperbacks to nerds like me out of his parents’ basement. But start there anyway, and buy two copies, in case you lose one in a fire. Then move on to Lars’ latest, West Oversea, then backtrack to Wolf Time, a prophetic spiritual thriller set in the near future.
Before I close, here’s a Douglas Adams-esque taste of what you’re in for with The Year of the Warrior: (more…)
I know that most Readers of First Things have a huge stockpile of Jean-Claude Van Damme films. There’s nothing to be ashamed of here. We can speak frankly about such intimate matters. This blog is a safe space to confess, to come clean. And spare me the whole Chariots of Fire, Man for All Seasons, and Shoes of the Fisherman baloney. If I came to your home right now, I’d see VHS and DVD copies of Hard Target, Blood Sport, Universal Soldier, and Maximum Risk strewn about the house. And you’ve seen Time Cop so many times, you mouth the dialogue and don’t even realize it.
So no doubt you’ve already seen JCVD–Van Damme’s apologia pro vita sua, in which he both mocks and justifies his action-flick career. But you may have missed the theological import of one key scene.
For those who decided to wait until JCVD came out in the Director’s Cut Blu-Ray edition, with alternate endings and voice-over commentary, Jean-Claude Van Damme is here playing himself, an aging martial-arts action hero whose life is filled with court appearances, rabid fans, and no respect. He’s tired of being part of international package deals that make money for everyone behind the camera and leave nothing for the actual budget. He’s desperate for a big-time Hollywood shot–but he can’t even beat out Steven Seagal for a role, and Seagal’s like a hundred and seven.
One day, eager to transfer some money from a bank/post office in Brussels to pay the lawyer who has been seeing him through an agonizing custody battle, Van Damme gets caught up in a robbery of same. To make matters worse, the diabolical dimwits make it look to the outside world as if Van Damme is in fact the one pulling off the caper.
So, will JCVD prove to be a real-life hero? A self-pitying villain? Or a victim of his and others’ success?
As we approach the denouement (French for “If this doesn’t end soon, I’m going to have to put another quarter in the meter”), Van Damme is literally elevated to a privileged position and delivers a surreal, almost Brechtian monologue (I said almost). Staring directly into the camera, our beleaguer, world-weary star talks . . . to God, to us, and to himself. And not necessarily in that order.
So. Here we are. You and me. Hmm. Why did you do that? Or why did I do that? You gave me my dream. I asked for it. And I promised something in return. But I haven’t delivered yet.
You win. I lose. Unless the path you’ve set for me is a path full of
hurdles where the answer comes before the question. . . . It all makes sense. It makes perfect sense to those who understand. . . .
What have I done on this earth? Nothing. I’ve done nothing. I may just die here. . . . So today I pray to God. I believe. It’s not a movie. This is real life. Real life.
And so Jean-Claude has a decision to make–whether to finally become the hero of his own life.
As I was shutting down my Netflix “Watch Instantly” Movie Viewer with full-screen capacity and Dolby sound, I began thinking of Augustine’s famous Credo ut intelligam–I believe in order to understand, which is just the kind of thing you’d expect from him, being a saint and all.
What must Jean-Claude believe before he can understand? That his life has a purpose beyond kicking an opponent in the nether regions? That $1.8 million in producing fees is clearly excessive for a $6 million gross? Or that you can start over–you can win a second chance at life and learn from past mistakes and four wives (one he married twice)?
Or perhaps Tertullian is the more apt interpreter of the Muscles from Brussels: Credo quia absurdum–I believe because it is absurd. Like Double Impact. Or Replicant.
I believe, Jean-Claude. I believe. Help my unbelief. And get another agent while you’re at it.
The woman at the centre of this case says she was approached by church members in Paris more than 10 years ago, and offered a free personality test. But, she says, she ended up spending 21,000 euros ($29,400, £18,400) on lessons, books and medicines she was told would cure her poor mental state.
Her lawyers are arguing that the church systematically seeks to make money by means of mental pressure and the use of scientifically dubious “cures”.
The question is, what constitutes coercion? Was she free to tell the Scientologists no, to walk out without paying a red cent–or at least stop paying one more red cent after a trial run of the putative cure? Or did Scientologists threaten her with a harassment campaign if she didn’t keep coughing up the cash?
But, if the plaintiff was merely taken in by what Scientologists may sincerely have believed was a wonder cure for various mental debilities (as hard as that may be for us to believe), then it could be argued that she alone is responsible for her weak will or gullibility.
Let’s translate this into more familiar language: Say a financially distressed someone is repeatedly invited to attend a local nondenominational church that is big on the prosperity gospel. Everyone’s friendly as can be, and the newbie is told that this church has the answers to her nagging problems.
She is taught repeatedly and emphatically that giving 10% of one’s gross income to the church is absolutely necessary to experience God’s blessings, and the fact that anyone remains unemployed or in debt is due directly to the fact that he or she is robbing God.
So, out of hope, fear, or guilt, the person forks over the tithe Sunday after Sunday. And nothing changes. Nothing. Still unemployed. Still in debt. In fact, the loss of the 10% is making the congregant’s financial situation worse. When she tries to get some counseling from the pastor, perhaps even express doubts as to the validity of his teaching, she’s told that she must continue to give and that God will provide in his own time, and that if she stops–or worse, leaves the church–the wrath of God will abide on her.
So the Italian government has forked over $4 million to buy what it believes to be an original Michelangelo–a 16″ wooden image of the crucified Christ. It’s currently on display in Naples, but critics say it’s a phony:
“When it comes to this statue, it is like comparing a Ford with a Ferrari,” Professor [Tomasso] Montanari said.
“This is way below the standard of Michelangelo,” he added. “It is like it has come off a production line and could have been made by any one of a dozen wood carvers of the time.”
Professor [Francesco] Caglioti agreed.
“It’s a scandal,” he said. “The muscle definition is all wrong.
“Michelangelo rarely worked in wood. He rarely made small pieces like this. His contemporary biographers make no mention of his having made small works in wood,” he added.
Does this convey the technical skill or sublimity that defined Michelangelo’s artistry? I may not know art, but I know what I think I like. And I think the Italians got rooked.
But why spend that kind of geetis on a sculpture of dubious provenance in the first place? Well, the more cynical among the government’s detractors say that it “endorsed the wooden cross as a work by Michelangelo to boost its standing with the Catholic Church, and to burnish its credentials with the electorate as a government of conservative beliefs.”
Wow. Not even a bona fide original by the Renaissance master himself could be expected to bear the sins of the Italian government.
“[M]ajor works of art rarely have supportive documents,” said Cristina Acidini Luchinat, the superintendent of Florence’s state museum and a renowned expert on Renaissance art.
Mrs Acidini has lent her support and considerable authority to the exhibition.
“These pieces don’t come with a written guarantee,” she said.
That’s why it’s so important to hang on to those receipts . . .
A small group of U.S. evangelists have had their Bibles confiscated at an airport in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming—and they’re not leaving without them. Chinese officials say it’s illegal to bring into the country printed religious material beyond that required for personal use. (Does that go for drugs, too?)
Pat Klein, director of Vision Beyond Borders, the group whose Bibles were lifted, says she’s been bringing Bibles into China for 21 years without a problem. She also says the group is staying put until the Bibles are returned.
“We’re being inconvenienced a little, but it’s nothing compared to what our brothers and sisters in China experience for their faith in Jesus Christ,” Klein said.
Let’s hope it remains nothing more than a little inconvenience.
So just when you thought the right was left behind when it came to big-budget Hollywood satire, along comes David Zucker of Airplane! and Naked Gun fame to poke a little fun at none other than multimillionaire mockumentarian Michael Moore. It’s called An American Carol and stars Kelsey Grammer, Jon Voight, Leslie Nielsen, James Woods, and—get this—Dennis Hopper.
The premise is as simple as one of Moore’s anti-American screeds: The Angel of Freakin’ Death pays Moore (played by the late Chris Farley’s brother Kevin) a little visit in order to convict him of his anti-American sins. Among those who slap Moore around are President George Washington, General George S. Patton, and Bill O’Reilly (definitely in that order).
Zucker has made no bones about his contempt for “the new McCarthyism” that silences any pro-American or conservative voice in Hollywood, and I know that Jon Voight has taken a turn to the right of late—but Dennis Hopper? I’m guessing he just has a sense of humor when it comes to Moore’s pretensions about speaking truth to power (more like spoofing truth for ka-ching).
An American Carol is scheduled to open October 3 and could either be rip-roaring snort-your-Fanta-out-your-nostrils funny or … not so much. Here’s a preview:
Imagine The Incredibles meets A Clockwork Orange. You remember The Incredibles, that Pixar sensation about the family of superheroes who are domesticated by a politically correct society that defines pluralism as an egregious egalitarianism and a uniform mediocrity.
And A Clockwork Orange is, of course, Anthony Burgess’ (and, by way of film adaptation, Stanley Kubrick’s) paean to free will, in which a Beethoven-loving thug named Alex makes a deal with the devil (in this case, Britain’s liberal government) by allowing himself to be “pacified’ by means of extreme aversion therapy in exchange for early release from prison. Problem is, once out in the mean streets, Alex is unable even to defend himself without retching. After almost dying at the hands of a man he had once terrorized, our antihero regains his propensity for sadism—the lesson being, the Alexes of the world must be tolerated if we are to remain fully human and fully free. Coerced “goodness” is no goodness at all.
And so a funky melange of these two flicks is what I expected from Will Smith’s new summer action flick, Hancock. At least it’s what I expected from the trailer. And the first hour of the film itself seemed to confirm my suspicions. Smith plays a lonely, drunken, and foul-mouthed superhero named Hancock, whose attempts at crime-fighting wreak as much havoc as they subdue. Only after a public-relations executive (Jason Bateman), grateful to Hancock for saving his life, decides to remake the loathed superman’s image do things really get interesting.
On the advice of his new PR rep, Hancock allows himself to be encarcerated (after evading roughly 600 subpoenas for destruction of private and public property), which gives him time to get in touch with his feelings and the greater Los Angeles area time to realize that a drunken superhero is better than no superhero at all.
With L.A. in chaos, the chief of police places the call we knew was coming, and a revamped touchy-feelly Hancock (now donning a supertight costume that makes him look like a rogue member of KC and the Sunshine Band) hits the streets to the plaudits of the public and the gratitude of the authorities. Suddenly the much-misunderstood miscreant is celebrated and adored. (Watching Hancock try and “smile” for the paparazzi’s cameras—a wince welded to a scowl—is spit-your-popcorn-into-the-neck-of-the-poor-sap-sitting-in-front-of-you guaranteed.)
So far, so good—a weird, moody summer blockbuster in the making, with strange needle-drops ranging from Freddy Fender to the theme from Sanford and Son. Will the new politically correct Hancock continue to rate as a crime fighter? Or will the emasculated man of steel find that he needs to break a few rules to keep law and order after all? And will Will Smith prove once again that he owns the Fourth of July weekend like Lucas and Spielberg own the last week in May?
I wish I had the answers. Unfortunately, as it limps into its second hour, Hancock gets all I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched on us. The second half of the film reveals Hancock’s distaff “Other.” It seems that he had forgotten that he was, in fact, married to a female superhero—his paired opposite—whom he has been alternately repelling and attracting for lo these past 3,000 years.
What follows is a morose muddle of a message: something about conventional marriage being innately disempowering, the perils of interracial dating, and the self-sacrifice that makes every heroic life worthy of the epithet. Or something like that. In the end, the obligatory showdown and a sentimental twist make Hancock a confused disappointment that tried to say too much too late than the really edgy and countercultural phenomenon it could have been.
My disgruntlement notwithstanding, that first fantastic hour is worth the price of admission. And Will Smith proves once again why he is a star, refining what had the makings of a franchise-worthy character by means of an empathetic demeanor and a self-confidence that is never off-putting. (Nota bene: This is not a film for smallish children. The coarse language and affinity for dismemberment should make that “PG-13″ pop for parents.)
Unfortunately, it’s neither Love nor Evil that undoes our hero but a screenplay that needed one more final draft.
So the hottest homiletical tool seems to be a piece of software called Wordle. Cut and paste the text of your sermon into the appropriate window and Wordle creates a verbal mosaic, calling out key words in various colors and designs. (You can also try that with your denomination’s confession of faith.)
Want to know whether your sermon is sufficiently Christ-centered? Wordle will give you a snapshot. Look at the words that pop. Fair chance those are the words that will be ringing in your congregants’ ears.
I, of course, put Wordle to an even higher purpose—I pasted in text culled from the screenplay for Twelve Monkeys, director Terry Gilliam’s underrated fear-the-future sci-fi magnum opus:
(I don’t need you to tell me I should get help, BTW . . .)
So Saturday I caught The Incredible Hulk (not to be confused with Ang Lee’s 2003 merely credible Hulk). I also happened to be working my way through Volume 1 of The Philokalia, a collection of fourth- to fifteenth-century texts that exemplify Eastern Orthodox spiritual wisdom. A strange dynamic formed, and about fifteen minutes into the Hulk, the words of Evagrios the Solitary came to mind:
The demon of anger employs tactics resembling those of the demon of unchastity. For he suggests images of our parents, friends or kinsmen being gratuitously insulted; and in his way he excites our incensive power, making us say or do something vicious to those who appear in our minds. We must be on our guard against these fantasies and expel them quickly from our mind, for if we dally with them, they will prove a blazing firebrand to us.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Hulk myth, Bruce Banner, as originally conceived by Marvel marvel Stan Lee, is accidentally exposed to an immoderate level of “gamma” rays, which literally makes his blood boil. Now every time the otherwise mild-mannered Banner gets angry, he “hulks out,” metamorphosing into a monstrous example of uncontrolled rage and Cold War-era anxiety gone goofy.
As retold in this film iteration, Banner (played by the usually winsome Edward Norton) is a scientist working with the U.S. military on a project intended to create a “super-soldier.” This experiment, being a government experiment, goes awry, and the Hulk is the result. The military is (litotes alert) not displeased with the prospect of a 20-foot-tall killing machine as a foot soldier in the war on everything. Banner refuses to be used as a means to world-dominating ends, however, and escapes to Brazil, where he hopes to control his rages by resorting to the lotus position. Yet Banner comes to discover that this radioactive “thing” in his DNA cannot be harnessed but must be extinguished (“We must,” says St. John Cassian, “with God’s help, eradicate [anger's] deadly poison from our souls”), and so works via email with a scientist in the States to find a cure.
Norton, not exactly synonymous with the action genre, agreed to this do-over of the Hulk if he could rewrite the screenplay. From what I’ve been able to cobble together from various film blogs, Norton wanted a film that concentrated on the loneliness, introspection, and acquired wisdom of Banner: a comic book hero that spoke truth to power about the nature of power.
Long story short, the military, led by a perpetually scowling William Hurt, finds Banner and tries to take him captive. And so begins the contest between the man who knows that the “Promethean fire” burning in his veins belongs to the gods alone and a military machine that sees Banner/Hulk as government property and potentially the ultimate weapon.
So there we are: Banner’s ungodly alter-ego cannot be merely studied or constrained—or even put to good uses. While the U.S. Army is Enemy No. 1 (there’s a stunner), Serious Science doesn’t come off much better. Its representative, the mysterious university researcher whom Banner had been communicating with in Brazil, wants what’s in Banner, too. Yes, his motives are ostensibly more beneficent, as he hopes to find—strangely enough—a cure for all diseases (not to mention a Nobel Prize). But he, too, is on a quest for power and fails to understand the lesson of the Hulk: Ultimate power is for a god (or God) alone. It cannot be man-handled—only relinquished. The way to wisdom is the path of powerlessness.
Herein is the contradiction of the film that finally kills it, in my view: Banner wants to atone for his own role in the creation of the Hulk monstrosity by destroying it—and most probably himself with it. Yet the film’s actual ending has Banner resorting to his old meditation techniques, which had failed him before and—so it is hinted—will fail him again. The way of renunciation, of isolation from the provocations of the material world and all its temptations, as advocated by the Buddhism Banner employs, is a decided dead end. Again, St. John Cassian:
When we try to escape the struggle for long-suffering by retreating into solitude, those unhealed passions we take there with us are merely hidden, not erased; for unless our passions are first purged, solitude and withdrawal from the world not only foster them but also keep them concealed, no longer allowing us to perceive what passion it is that enslaves us. On the contrary, they have achieved long-suffering and humility, because there is no one present to provoke and test us.
Edward Norton probably had come to this conclusion himself. Rumor has it that the original ending to his version of the script had Banner committing suicide as the only sure way to end the threat that is the Hulk. This could have been read as nihilistic despair or the ultimate personal sacrifice, but in any case would have meant the end of endless Hulk sequels. And so we are given an appearance by Robert Downey Jr. as Tony “Iron Man” Stark—and the promise of a future film that unites Marvel franchises.
If only Banner had forsaken one kind of wisdom from the East and taken up another:
See to what a height of glory the Lord’s human nature was raised up by God’s justice through [His] sufferings and humiliations. If, therefore, you continually recall this with all your heart, the passion of bitterness, anger and wrath will not master you. For when the foundations constructed of the passion of pride are sapped through this recalling of Christ’s humiliation, the whole perverse edifice of anger, wrath and resentment automatically collapses.—St. Mark the Ascetic
It is not isolation or renunciation but a recalling of what “the Divinity of the only-begotten Son accepted for our sake” that is the true cure for pride that steals Promethan fire and the passions that light it, to the detriment of the world.
Oh, man…I know, I know, it’s only a stupid cartoon, and this effort at “profundity” is strained and painful, pretentious and ludicrous…
Look, you think it’s easy importing some theological significance into these summer blockbusters? Hah? Cut me some slack, will ya?
I could have walked through the wide gate, taken the broad way, and gone the conspiracy-theory route: The final showdown between the Hulk and the aging military psycho (Tim Roth) who voluntarily undergoes Hulk therapy takes place in the streets of Harlem. Think about it: This is story of a man suffering from an incurable blood disorder, one that alienates him from general society and prevents his consummating his love relationship (his passions must be curtailed in any and all circumstances). This deadly blood-borne condition is the result of secret government hijinks—and ends up decimating 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. Did they really have to give the Reverend Jeremiah Wright more ammunition? Yes, I know that Columbia University is the backdrop for the final experiments on both Banner and Roth, but couldn’t the battle have wound its way south and west, and torn up Riverside Drive? Or simply used LaGuardia Community College and wreaked havoc through Long Island City?
In any event, stay tuned for next week’s post: “Get Smart and Wisdom Literature of the Intertestamental Period.” Oy vey…
Actually, I’ll spare you the suspense. Remember that spy thriller Michael Scott was working on in episode 7, season 2, of The Office, where he played “Agent Michael Scarn”? That’s the script they filmed for Get Smart. Take it for what it’s worth.
M. Night Shyamalan seems determined to kill off his career. I’ll explain.
In his latest film, a would-be Hitchcockian thriller called The Happening, people start killing themselves all along the Northeast corridor. (And no—Amtrak does not figure in this scenario.) It starts in Central Park. Then in a Philadelphia park. Then in out-of-the-way wooded areas. Then in shacks propped up in Who-knows-where-ville.
At first terrorists are blamed. (N.Y. construction workers start throwing themselves off girders in a scene reminiscent of the poor souls who threw themselves from the flaming towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11—a visual and auditory analogue I found in questionable taste.) Then leaking nuclear power plants are suspected. Then the C.I.A.
The first symptom of the mysterious “event” is a neurological misfire that causes people to start speaking as if they were reading the User Agreement for Microsoft Office 2007. (Or perhaps that was just the scripted dialogue.) Then victims start walking backward in a herky-jerky manner, as if Andy Rooney were trying to moonwalk. Finally, they take whatever is at hand—a gun, some broken glass, a mulcher—and off themselves.
Survivors are advised to flee.
The “characters”—wooden, lifeless, inert even when in motion—look perplexed and anxious, which is to be expected, given that their film careers are quickly coming to an end. In the case of Zooey Deschanel, however, who plays the unstable wife of a schoolteacher played by Mark Wahlberg, reactions range from “I’m going to kill my agent” to that of someone undergoing a rather invasive and inappropriately public cavity search.
Why is the “happening” happening? Or, as I came to frame the question, why is The Happening happening?
All I know is that, after about half an hour, I, too, tried to kill myself. First I flung myself from the top row of the stadium seating at our local Regal Cinemas. I did not fling with sufficient thrust, however, and landed in the lap of one Mrs. Marilyn Belfry of Rego Park, who I now owe $12 to cover a dry-cleaning bill. I then tried consuming the box my Sno-Caps came in. After about five minutes I began to experience a profound sense of physical and psychological well-being, proving once again that junk-food wrappers are often more nutritious than the yummies themselves. Finally, I attempted to pick a fight with a gentleman whose height and weight could be measured only by positron emission tomography and whose HGH-inspired acromegaly would qualify him for permanent disabilty in at least four of the non-permanent member nations of the U.N. Security Council. He responded to my taunts with something about his “going through some stuff” and how “hug therapy” was seeing him through this rough patch.
I would clearly have to endure the rest of the film fully conscious.
There simply wasn’t much more plot, unless you count the country folk who are holed up in their ramschackles waiting to kill anyone who spreads the “virus,” or the mean-spirited Christian lady who assumes Wahlberg and Daschenel are going to steal her junk and kill her in her sleep. (Her retreat from the “world” does not protect her from a just comeuppance, however. She, too, becomes a victim of the “event.”)
I just sat there waiting and waiting and waiting to find out why. Why didn’t I go see The Incredible Hulk instead? Because it started at 11:15 instead of 10 o’clock? I missed cameo appearances by Captain America and Tony Stark for this?
I am happy to report that the film did finally end and proffer an “explanation”: It turns out that the “event,” the happening, wasn’t caused by terrorists. (It’s never terrorists, of course. Terrorists are figments of American paranoia.) And it wasn’t nukes—or even government weapons-testing or the C.I.A. It was . . .
Us. People. Or, rather, the extent to which people have threatened, disturbed, or simply ignored Mother Nature, forcing her to emit toxic gases into the atmosphere that compel members of the species homo sapiens—latecomers and intruders as far as the eco-system is concerned—to self-eliminate. The Environment’s self-defense. Gaia as Warrior Queen.
I’m not making this up.
There are a couple of ways to read Mr. Shyamalan’s fable. One way is as a cautionary tale, an attempt to wake us up to what we’re doing to the earth before it’s too late and nature takes its revenge and forces people to run themselves over with their own farm equipment. So Shyamalan has drunk deep the Earth First! Kool-Aid and come to believe that humans are parasites who should kill themselves immediately and leave the poor poison ivy and chickweed alone.
But if that’s the case, then the unexpected and joyfully received pregnancy at the film’s close makes no sense. Wahlberg and Deschanel’s rocky marriage has been healed by the crisis—their alienation ended—and new life is the result. That can only mean more of us—more people. Is that finally what it’s all about—one big Can’t we all just get along? Reconciliation between husband and wife, carbon-based biped and smooth cordgrass?
The other way to read the film, which I believe may be unique to me, is as Shyamalan’s radically heretical and politically incorrect answer to Environmentalism. This isn’t an evangelistic tract for same, complete with apocalyptic doom, but it’s very opposite. Don’t you see—the trees are our enemy! They’re biding their time until they kill us all! Maples, pines, the mighty oaks—all conniving carnivores, just waiting to exert their apical dominance! And so we must kill them before they kill us. Sam Walton is our only hope!
So either Mr. Shyamalan is committing professional suicide here by running against the environmental tide, spurning the Gore Messiah (who sacrificed himself by hanging chad) and inviting the ire of his fellow Hollywoodniks . . .
Or he just made another really incredibly silly movie.
Which is a shame, as M. Night Shyamalan made one of my favorite films of the past ten years—Unbreakable. But it seems that the spell he cast with The Sixth Sense and Signs may finally, regrettably, be broken.
Arguably the most literate, witty, and truly “adult” Britcom ever broadcast was Yes, Minister and its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister. Like any good satire, it skewered both right and left, as this ongoing saga of British political hijinks is told from a bureaucrat’s point of view, played with supernatural ease by Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George). The minister he tries mightily to keep diverted and in check is James Hacker, played with just the right combination of cluelessness and devotion by Paul Eddington (Jerry on Good Neighbors).
As the career bureaucrat Sir Humphrey sees it, parties, parliaments, and prime ministers come and go, but the civil service is here to stay. And the primary goal of any good civil servant is to maintain the status quo and ensure the smooth processing of their next pay rise.
The dialogue typical of this series was stage-worthy, and there was no political topic it was afraid to tackle.
In one episode, Hacker, now prime minister, must choose between two Church of England candidates to recommend to Her Majesty to fill a bishopric. Of course, the C of E, and the bureaucracy, has already decided who Hacker should be manipulated into picking. Between a low-church disestablishmentarianist and a modernist radical, well, the radical will cause the least amount of problems in the long run, especially as his wife is the daughter of the Earl of Chichester.
Herewith are snippets of dialogue:
Hacker: Being a bishop is just a matter of status? Dressing up in cassocks and gaiters?
Sir Humphrey: Yes, but gaiters are generally worn only at significant religious events, like the royal garden party.
Sir Humphrey: Well, the church is trying to be more relevant.
Hacker: To God?
Sir Humphrey: Oh, of course not, Prime Minister. I meant relevant in sociological terms.
Hacker: So the ideal candidate from the Church of England’s point of view would be a cross between a socialite and a socialist.
Sir Humphrey: Precisely.
Bernard: (Of the modernist candidate for bishop) He designed a new church in South London and among the plans was a place for dispensing orange juice, family planning, and organizing demos. But no place for Holy Communion. . . .
Hacker: And the church approved his?
Sir Humphrey: Of course. You see the church is run by theologians.
Hacker: How do you mean?
Sir Humphrey: Theology is a device for enabling agnostics to stay within the church. . . . You could turn both candidates down, but that would be exceptional and not advised.
Hacker: Even though one of them wants to get God out of the Church of England and the other one wants to get the Queen out?
Sir Humphrey: The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England.
Hacker: What about God?
Sir Humphrey: I think He’s what’s called an “optional extra.”
Well, the Right Reverend Dr. N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, is neither an disestablishmentarianist nor a modernist, but is instead one of the premier biblical scholars in the world. His three-volume Christian Origins and the Question of God series, especially volume three, The Resurrection of the Son of God, continues to perform the inestimable service of undoing the bad work of the Jesus Seminar and radical historical critics, as well as providing one of the most important theological and apologetic aids any Christian could ask for.
And he paid us a visit today here at the First Things office.
Off the top of my head, I don’t remember Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, or Harris ever alluding to Wright’s work in any of their respective atheist tracts. Either they are unfamiliar with it—which wouldn’t surprise me; what they know about serious Christian theology and a MetroCard will get you on any bus in New York—or they couldn’t begin to deal with its level of scholarship, and so realized they were in over their heads.
I told Bishop Wright that I was still struggling to come to terms with his teaching on justification and the atonement. He said he hoped his planned “big book on Paul” would help sort things out. I will be scanning Amazon regularly…
Raymond Arroyo and our own Fr. Neuhaus preside over the coverage.
(It may take a few seconds to load fully. Remember the words of St. Augustine: “Patience is the companion of wisdom.” He also contended that the damned will not demerit by their perverse will, for, if they did, their damnation would be augmented. So, plenty to think about on all fronts . . .)
Update: Fr. Neuhaus has just supplied us with fresh commentary on the day’s events.
Also: If you have not already done so, you may want to read Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1988 Erasmus Lecture.
For Immediate Release April 16, 2008
REMARKS BY PRESIDENT BUSH
AND HIS HOLINESS POPE BENEDICT XVI
IN ARRIVAL CEREMONY
10:38 A.M. EDT
PRESIDENT BUSH: Holy Father, Laura and I are privileged to have you here at the White House. We welcome you with the ancient words commended by Saint Augustine: “Pax Tecum.” Peace be with you.
You’ve chosen to visit America on your birthday. Well, birthdays are traditionally spent with close friends, so our entire nation is moved and honored that you’ve decided to share this special day with us. We wish you much health and happiness — today and for many years to come. (Applause.)
This is your first trip to the United States since you ascended to the Chair of Saint Peter. You will visit two of our greatest cities and meet countless Americans, including many who have traveled from across the country to see with you and to share in the joy of this visit. Here in America you’ll find a nation of prayer. Each day millions of our citizens approach our Maker on bended knee, seeking His grace and giving thanks for the many blessings He bestows upon us. Millions of Americans have been praying for your visit, and millions look forward to praying with you this week.
Here in America you’ll find a nation of compassion. Americans believe that the measure of a free society is how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable among us. So each day citizens across America answer the universal call to feed the hungry and comfort the sick and care for the infirm. Each day across the world the United States is working to eradicate disease, alleviate poverty, promote peace and bring the light of hope to places still mired in the darkness of tyranny and despair.
Here in America you’ll find a nation that welcomes the role of faith in the public square. When our Founders declared our nation’s independence, they rested their case on an appeal to the “laws of nature, and of nature’s God.” We believe in religious liberty. We also believe that a love for freedom and a common moral law are written into every human heart, and that these constitute the firm foundation on which any successful free society must be built.
Here in America, you’ll find a nation that is fully modern, yet guided by ancient and eternal truths. The United States is the most innovative, creative and dynamic country on earth — it is also among the most religious. In our nation, faith and reason coexist in harmony. This is one of our country’s greatest strengths, and one of the reasons that our land remains a beacon of hope and opportunity for millions across the world.
Most of all, Holy Father, you will find in America people whose hearts are open to your message of hope. And America and the world need this message. In a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate, we need your message that “God is love.” And embracing this love is the surest way to save men from “falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism.”
In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred, and that “each of us is willed, each of us is loved” — (applause) — and your message that “each of us is willed, each of us is loved, and each of us is necessary.”
In a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong, we need your message to reject this “dictatorship of relativism,” and embrace a culture of justice and truth. (Applause.)
In a world where some see freedom as simply the right to do as they wish, we need your message that true liberty requires us to live our freedom not just for ourselves, but “in a spirit of mutual support.”
Holy Father, thank you for making this journey to America. Our nation welcomes you. We appreciate the example you set for the world, and we ask that you always keep us in your prayers. (Applause.)
POPE BENEDICT XVI: Mr. President, thank you for your gracious words of welcome on behalf of the people of the United States of America. I deeply appreciate your invitation to visit this great country. My visit coincides with an important moment in the life of the Catholic community in America: the celebration of the 200th anniversary of elevation of the country’s first Diocese — Baltimore — to a metropolitan Archdiocese and the establishment of the Sees of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Louisville.
Yet I am happy to be here as a guest of all Americans. I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel, and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society. America’s Catholics have made, and continue to make, an excellent contribution to the life of their country. As I begin my visit, I trust that my presence will be a source of renewal and hope for the Church in the United States, and strengthen the resolve of Catholics to contribute ever more responsibly to the life of this nation, of which they are proud to be citizens.
From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation’s founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God.
The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time, too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideas and aspirations.
In the next few days, I look forward to meeting not only with America’s Catholic community, but with other Christian communities and representatives of the many religious traditions present in this country. Historically, not only Catholics, but all believers have found here the freedom to worship God in accordance with the dictates of their conscience, while at the same time being accepted as part of a commonwealth in which each individual group can make its voice heard.
As the nation faces the increasingly complex political and ethical issues of our time, I am confident that the American people will find in their religious beliefs a precious source of insight and an inspiration to pursue reasoned, responsible and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more human and free society.
Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience — almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad. The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good, and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.
In a word, freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Few have understood this as clearly as the late Pope John Paul II. In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in Eastern Europe, he reminded us that history shows time and again that “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation,” and a democracy without values can lose its very soul. Those prophetic words in some sense echo the conviction of President Washington, expressed in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent “indispensable supports” of political prosperity.
The Church, for her part, wishes to contribute to building a world ever more worthy of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God. She is convinced that faith sheds new light on all things, and that the Gospel reveals the noble vocation and sublime destiny of every man and woman. Faith also gives us the strength to respond to our high calling and to hope that inspires us to work for an ever more just and fraternal society. Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation.
For well over a century, the United States of America has played an important role in the international community. On Friday, God willing, I will have the honor of addressing the United Nations organization, where I hope to encourage the efforts underway to make that institution an ever more effective voice for the legitimate aspirations of all the world’s peoples.
On this, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the need for global solidarity is as urgent as ever, if all people are to live in a way worthy of their dignity — as brothers and sisters dwelling in the same house and around that table which God’s bounty has set for all his children. America has traditionally shown herself generous in meeting immediate human needs, fostering development and offering relief to the victims of natural catastrophes. I am confident that this concern for the greater human family will continue to find expression in support for the patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts and promote progress. In this way, coming generations will be able to live in a world where truth, freedom and justice can flourish — a world where the God-given dignity and the rights of every man, women and child are cherished, protected and effectively advanced.
Mr. President, dear friends, as I begin my visit to the United States, I express once more my gratitude for your invitation, my joy to be in your midst, and my fervent prayers that Almighty God will confirm this nation and its people in the ways of justice, prosperity and peace. God bless America. (Applause.)
In connection with the ongoing controversy over the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod radio station KFUO’s pulling of the popular program Issues, Etc., which has been discussed in this space as well as a host of otherblogs, a prayer service and a demonstration are planned for April 13 and 14, respectively, in St. Louis. The stated purpose is to demonstrate “displeasure at the lack of a comprehensive and believable answer to our question: ‘Why was “Issues, Etc.” canceled?’”
The planned events promise to be “silent to commemorate the silencing of ‘Issues, Etc.’ and to symbolize the synod’s silence on the real reasons for its cancellation.”
Participants also promise to be “peaceful, prayerful, and loving. We will not be loud, angry, or hostile.”
On this day sixty-three years ago, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged (actually slowly asphyxiated to death) at Flossenburg Prison, a mere three weeks before it was liberated by Allied forces. Bonhoeffer had been imprisoned for his role in the July 20 Plot, the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was caught only when money used to help Jews escape to Switzerland was traced back to the pastor.
Today is a day to remember the cost of discipleship:
Suffering then is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master. . . . That is why Luther reckoned suffering among the marks of the true Church. . . . If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow Him. But if we lose our lives in His service and carry out cross, we shall find our lives again in the fellowship of the cross with Christ. The opposite of discipleship is to be ashamed of Christ and His cross and all the offense which the cross brings in its train. — The Cost of Discipleship (1937)
FOR THE MOST COMPLETE VIEW OF THE PAPAL VISIT, you will want to watch EWTN (check your cable listings), where Father Neuhaus will be cohosting with Raymond Arroyo the coverage of all events in Washington and New York. We are hopeful that Father Neuhaus will also have some daily postings on this website.
As you may or may not know, Oliver Stone is making a film based on the life of the president, entitled W, starring Josh Brolin as Bush. It’s way too easy to begin with the jokes—not about W, but about W, and the director’s “gift” for creative re-imaginings: Think JFK and Nixon.
Slate has come across Stone’s (actually Stanley Weiser’s) screenplay and offers some snippets. It reads like an SNL skit meets a Nation editorial meeting wherein the participants, drunk on righteous indignation and still recovering from the failure of that whole communism thing, imagine how decisions were made in the Bush White House. (Warning to the fainthearted: The “president” uses really icky language when he’s angry. You won’t like the fake W when he’s angry. I’m sure there are some of you who don’t even like the real W when he’s clement.)
In short, I doubt the film will have much to say—or imagine—about the president that hasn’t already been said and imagined over and over and over again. How much is truth, speculation, satire, or outright baloney is anybody’s guess. The final product will most probably fall somewhere between a Michael Moore mockumentary (the dime-store psychology stuff and invented intra-family dialogue) and a sad-to-say all-too-accurate depiction of how decisions were made in the Bush White House.
In any event, the film won’t open until the real W is out of office. I suspect that, by then, most people will be Bush-bashed out and happy to focus on the future.
Heston was one of those towering figures you could count on to bring a certain dignity to even the most surreal premises, and who wouldn’t get swallowed up or overwhelmed by CinemaScope. Who’s left of his generation of equal stature? Peter O’Toole. Maybe Connery. That’s about it.
I always wondered if Heston wouldn’t have crafted a better Howard Roark in The Fountainhead than the one fashioned by Gary Cooper. Even Cooper was disappointed with his rendering of Roark’s final court speech, which laid bare his—read: Ayn Rand’s—philosophy. (I am, however, retrojecting an older and epic-tested Heston back into a 1949 film. The original adaptation of the Rand novel would never have been greenlighted with an inexperienced youth in the lead, and it is very unlikely that Heston could have pulled off Roark’s self-assurance and capital-P Presence that early in his career.)
In any event, a few choice lines from the films Heston did, in fact, make:
“A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.”
“There are no strangers among those who seek God’s forgiveness.”
“Soylent Green is people!”
“You may conquer the land. You may slaughter the people. But that is not the end. We will rise again.”
A blog has been started to investigate further the reasons for the cancellation of the popular KFUO.org radio progam Issues, Etc.. Among the bloggers is Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, whose Wall Street Journal piece located the cancellation within the context of larger denominational issues.
Augsburg 1530 offers, among other things, an open letter to the synod president that you can sign.
It takes a lot to get Lutherans to shift into activist mode. We pretty much believe if you’re agitated about something, you’re probably a Baptist. And any kind of ventilation (like breathing) is frowned upon for fear of a charismatic renewal. So believe me, Issues, Etc. is going to come back in some form, somewhere. It’s just not a good idea to get Lutherans angry. Last time this happened, historians ended up calling it the Thirty Years War.*
*For the overly literal—THAT WAS A JOKE, not a call for violence. If you are so inclined, you might want to sign the petition; sign the open letter; if you’re able, support Todd Wilken and Jeff Schwarz financially—and continue to follow the Wittenberg Trail.