Not Quite Nihilism

Believing in absolutely nothing is harder than it looks. The ultra-skeptical ­Arcesilaus, head of the Platonic Academy in the third century b.c., tried his best: When confronted with the saying “I only know that I know nothing,” which was attributed to Socrates, he is supposed to have replied . . . . Continue Reading »

Suicide at the Oscars

This year two films on suicide took home Oscars: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 for best Documentary Short Film and The Phone Call for best Live Action Short Film. Both speak with quiet eloquence about the power of love in the face of death.

Calvary’s Lost Catholicism

Patrick Cassidy, the composer for the 2014 film Calvary, jokes about the film’s grimness: “It’s not exactly a date movie.” He’s right: The film follows a lonely Irish priest as he shepherds a cold and bitter village. Its harsh realism is profoundly humbling. Heavy as the film is, it is lifted by Cassidy’s classical score. Continue Reading »

Gnosticism 2.0

Humans typically situate their divinities at the border of the cosmos. The Israelites and Babylonians understood the solid sky to represent the edge of the created order and placed gods there accordingly. Whether YHWH or Marduk, deities reside at the farthest limit of the world. Modern science has expanded the cosmos so far beyond the ancient imagination that not only do we now find the idea of divinities living in the sky absurd, but we cannot even place new gods at the edge. There is neither absolute space nor privileged location in the new, constantly expanding universe. Continue Reading »

Grateful Hearts

During the 1970s Paul Williams’s talents as a singer, songwriter, composer and actor were in high demand. His song, “Evergreen”— sung by Barbara Streisand for the film A Star is Born—won an Academy Award and reached number one on the pop charts. He produced similar hits for the Carpenters, Helen Reddy, and David Bowie. He wrote the celebrated score for Bugsy Malone, and appeared in numerous films himself—stealing the show as a wisecracking bootlegger in Smokey and the Bandit. On television, Williams became a ubiquitous presence, co-hosting the Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas shows, and appearing on the Tonight Show an astonishing forty-eight times. In 1979, Williams became even more famous when he wrote The Rainbow Connection, the theme for Jim Henson’s Muppet Movie. Continue Reading »

Fear of Children

In a scene cut from The Exorcist’s 1973 theatrical version, Jason Miller’s Fr. Damien Karras sits with Max von Sydow’s Fr. Lankester Merrin on the stairs of the MacNeil house, and the two Jesuits discuss why the child Regan has become a monster. Continue Reading »

Witch Morals

Upon its release fifteen years ago, the distributors of The Blair Witch Project realized they had a phenomenon in hand. An innovative marketing campaign had built interest in the film by leading people to websites displaying fake news stories and information about the witch and the killings. . . . . Continue Reading »

Filming Desire

Recently, I sat down to watch Desire of the Everlasting Hills, a newly released documentary about three Christians who pursued their attraction to members of the same sex but then—after diverse experiences and disappointments—embraced chastity and their erstwhile faith. One had pursued the New York fast life, another monogamous stability, and the third had attempted to eschew an Evangelical upbringing in response to his inclination toward men. The documentary was produced by Courage, the much-maligned ministry of the Roman Catholic Church that aids those with same-sex attractions who seek to live chastely. Continue Reading »

The Scandal of Calvary

Is it possible for a film to capture the horror of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church while at the same time presenting a case for the necessity of the institutional priesthood? Against all odds, this is exactly what Irish director John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary manages to do. Father James (played with magnificent presence by Brendan Gleeson) is a good priest, if a haunted one. He is a widower and an alcoholic with a suicidal daughter and a parish full of troubled townspeople in rural Ireland. One afternoon a parishioner confesses to him that he was serially raped by a now-deceased priest as a child, and as a way of taking revenge, he will kill Fr. James in a week. Continue Reading »