Friday, August 29, 2014

Blogging Around

Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now by Walter Brueggemann

It’s a weekly retirement from your career. You can find out who you are without your job getting in the way, without your purchasing and competing distracting you from who you are rather than what you’ve won.

It’s a different kind of economy he’s talking about. Six days, we labor and buy and compete, which keeps the market economy moving forward. But then, for a day, we take part in an “economy of neighborliness.” We rediscover who we are.
Orson Scott Card discusses both keeping the Sabbath and Brueggemann's book. As someone who long ago gave in to obeying the 3rd commandment I can tell you that I'd deeply resent going back to treating Sunday like any other day. I'd feel cheated. Card's commentary is part of his Uncle Orson Reviews Everything column so you'll need to scroll down a bit.


SFFaudio's Spin-Offs and Origins

Later episodes take more inspiration from a show called Forgotten Classics.

And, subsequently, The SFFaudio Podcast has spun off, one with Julie Davis of Forgotten Classics, a couple of other podcasts (taking with them SFFaudio.com’s co-founder Scott D. Danielson):

Reading Envy with Jenny Colvin and Scott D. Danielson
A Good Story Is Hard To Find with Julie Davis and Scott D. Danielson
SFFaudio's got me coming and going. I recall when they were not podcasting but simply blogging about science fiction and fantasy audiobooks. They were one of my "must reads" every day and I was surprised and excited when they noticed Forgotten Classics. I'd never have foreseen at the time that I would become good friends with Jesse and Scott and others who have come on board since then.

So naturally I'm proud that my Forgotten Classics was a bit influential and just as proud to tip my hat to SFFaudio for providing some of the impetus to begin A Good Story is Hard to Find.


The Christus Experiment

Melanie Bettinelli at The Wine Dark Sea has a good review of The Christus Experiment, which I recall liking very well. If time travelers kidnapped Jesus for research what would happen? Not blasphemous at all, which is the first nice surprise. Read Melanie's review.


Eat Man Food and Lose Weight

The Art of Manliness repeats it yet again. Forget the fad diets. More calories in than calories used equals overweight. No matter what those calories came from. Twinkies. Pizza. Kale. Your choice. You've just got to keep track. And they've got guidelines for helping do just that.


Touching Story of a Once-Doomed Girl's New Life

In these 244 words, we have the basic elements of the story: Haleigh, whose life once hung in the balance, is alive today. Her adoptive parents are churchgoing evangelical Protestants who, in their faith-infused life, provide her with "a family and community" that bring her joy.
GetReligion points out all the good things about a story full of Christians who "walk the walk" in this story about a girl whose supporters fought to keep her on life support. It's inspirational.


James Foley and Shifting Thoughts on Martyrdom

As a theologian, I see the discussion of martyrdom advancing out of necessity. There are an increasing number of people dying for or because of their faith, including non Christians. What does their witness tell us about them and the type of people they were? Were they people who clung to the truth, insofar as they knew it, to the point of death? I think the conversation began with St. John Paul II. Pope Francis seems to be continuing it. Time will tell.
Pia de Solenni is someone who I've come to rely on for thoughtful consideration of the intersection of current news and faithful Catholicism. If you haven't come across her before this piece is a good place to begin. As well as providing some good context for the question at hand of martyrdom and James Foley.

In which Olfan is noble, Otter is clever, and Nam is treacherous. ...

... As usual. While on the lam. Will our adventurers escape? Chapters 36-37 are ready for your listening pleasure at Forgotten Classics podcast.

Lagniappe: Washington

From my quote journal.
I love to go to Washington--if only to be near my money.
Bob Hope
It's funny because it's true.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Lagniappe: The minister's bride and lunch

The minister's bride set her luncheon casserole down with a flourish, and waited for grace. "It seems to me," murmured her husband, "that I have blessed a good deal of this material before.
Irma Rombauer, The Joy of Cooking
It made me laugh to think of leftovers as twice blessed, especially with a father who frowned upon leftovers. Perhaps from contrariness, perhaps just because I like the flavor that comes to many dishes from settling for a day, I love leftovers. Luckily my husband does too!

Worth a Thousand Words: Laundresses before the Wasserturm


Samuel Prout, 1783 - 1852, Laundresses before the Wasserturm, Nuremberg
via National Gallery of Art
The inspiration for today's art came from Lines and Colors which features a lovely French street scene by Samuel Prout. I don't recall having heard of this artist before but I was enchanted with his drawings.

I was drawn into the Wikipedia piece on him which begins:
Samuel Prout (/praʊt/; September 17, 1783 – February 10, 1852) was one of the masters of British watercolour architectural painting. Prout secured the position of Painter in Water-Colours in Ordinary to King George IV in 1829 and afterwards to Queen Victoria. John Ruskin, whose work often emulated Prout's, wrote in 1844, "Sometimes I tire of Turner, but never of Prout". Prout is often compared to his contemporaries; Turner, Gainsborough, Constable and Ruskin, whom he taught.
It is all worth reading and the art samples are lovely.

Julie and Scott have an unnecessary fist fight on the ark ...

... over what Julie thought was a cheeseburger but was actually a previously unknown variety of armadillo. They talk about the guy that built the boat: Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky.

All at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Bellwether by Connie Willis

BellwetherBellwether by Connie Willis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sandra Foster studies fads and their meanings for the HiTek corporation. Bennet O'Reilly works with monkey group behavior and chaos theory for the same company. When the two are thrust together due to a misdelivered package and a run of bad luck, they find a joint project in a flock of sheep. But series of setbacks and disappointments arise before they are able to find answers to their questions.
This is my favorite Connie Willis book, hands down. She blends pop culture, scientific discovery, chaos theory, Robert Browning, fads and an infuriating office assistant to produce a book where thinking for oneself gets you blank looks of incomprehension. Willis's books come in two flavors, either funny or grim (as she herself describes her serious works). This is definitely one of the funny ones.

This was written in 1996 so it is interesting to see that certain fads have evolved and that some have floated away. (It's been a long time since I thought about Pet Rocks or mood rings, for example.) Listening to the audiobook, courtesy of SFFaudio, I realized that it gave me a real sense of perspective on a lot of things that drive me crazy by reminding me that these are simply the most current fads (Paleo / gluten-free diets, smart phones, SnapChat, etc.).  These too shall pass although the chaos will probably remain. And I'm actually ok with that.

Kate Reading's narration really brought the book alive. I especially enjoyed her characterizations of Flip, Management, and Shirl, all of which added extra fillips of humor to the story. Having read the book several times before listening, I was impressed how well she captured the main character that I "heard" mentally. I will definitely be listening to this the next time I need a dose of anti-fad sensibility.

This is a light, fun book which nonetheless has a core of common sense and deeper meaning.
Why do only the awful things become fads? I thought. Eye-rolling and Barbie and bread pudding. Why never chocolate cheesecake or thinking for yourself?

Well Said: Fasting

Fasting is a medicine.
St. John Chrysostom
No wonder I hate it. And no wonder it is ultimately good for me. I can see that. But I do hate it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Well Said: Roger Ebert on Chocolat

"Chocolat" is about a war between the forces of paganism and Christianity, and because the pagan heroine has chocolate on her side, she wins. Her victory is delayed only because, during Lent, a lot of the locals aren't eating chocolate. [...]

I enjoyed the movie on its own sweet level, while musing idly on the box-office prospects of a film in which the glowing, life-affirming local Christians prevailed over glowering, prejudiced, puritan and bitter Druid worshippers. That'll be--as John Wayne once said--the day.
I miss that man so much. His clear vision, calling it like it is, and the grace with which he expressed himself. Yes, I miss him.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Well Said: I feel His pleasure

I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.
Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire movie dialogue
Saw this over the weekend in prep for my movie discussion group. The look on Liddell's face as he ran was almost ecstatic at times.

It made me think of my own life. What is a God-given ability that makes me come alive? That makes me "feel His pleasure?"

And what is it for you? It doesn't have to be something we use to make a living. Liddell was a missionary, after all. I have a friend who loves gardening. Hannah loves animals and nature, especially trees. Rose loves story, however it is told.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Worth a Thousand Words: Wood Sandpiper

Wood Sandpiper
taken by Remo Savisaar
We don't often get the chance to see an inquisitive little fellow like this eye-to-eye as we do in this photograph. I feel incomparably fortunate to have discovered Remo Savisaar's photography and that he allows me to share it. He takes me into nature in a special way.

Well Said: Authors' personal opinions and their writing

Readers, never tell yourselves you can determine an author’s personal opinions from his writing, unless he is, like C.S. Lewis or his warped antimatter image Phillip Pullman, someone who declares his partisan loyalty from the outset.

I wrote stories with nakedly religious endings of pure hope when I was an atheist because the story logic required such an ending. Likewise, I wrote stories with a nakedly atheist ending of pure despair when I was a Christian because the story logic required such an ending.
This makes me think of our priest who once said, "I never judge a book by an author's personal life."

I've got to honor an author who is able to serve the story honestly instead of letting it become their bully pulpit while pretending to be completely neutral. A favorite author of mine who does this is Ted Chiang who is an atheist but whose stories often look at faith and humanity in extremely thought provoking and original ways which are always true to the needs the story dictates. Sometimes religion wins, sometimes it doesn't but both believers and atheists are given excellent food for thought.

If you go and read John C. Wright's original article, his example of reactions to what he wrote when an atheist versus what he wrote as a Christian, both in the same book, is both amusing and instructive.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Well Said: A little cloud all around your head

I've never listened to an audiobook before, and I have to say it's a totally different experience. When you read a book, the story definitely takes place in your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled a down over your eyes.
This was such an entertaining, light read with all sorts of observations that resonated. Just like this one about audiobooks.

Worth a Thousand Words: The Red Horses

Franz Marc, The Red Horses, 1911
I came across this painting and loved it immediately. Then I thought maybe I'd featured it before. It certainly seemed familiar.

Of course it did. I hadn't featured it but a kissin' cousin by the same artist back in January. Obviously this is a look that grabs me!

Blogging Around: More Randomness

Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison

My review is at Meanwhile, Back in the Kitchen.

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"When the Game Stands Tall" is Not About the Game

Pia de Solenni agrees with me that When the Game Stands Tall is an unusual football movie and one that you need to see in the theater. Unlike me, she isn't a football fan so now you know it's got something special going on.

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All the Mass Readings for 2015 in One Book

Jennifer Fitz at Sticking the Corners has a great group of resources ranging from free to pricey, and takes you through them so you know what you're getting.

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We Are Living in Historical Times

I've been reading Catholic history books lately. We're going to discuss one at A Good Story is Hard to Find in November as our book selection. I wanted a one-volume history so we're reading The Catholic Church Through The Ages: A History by John Vidmar, OP. I've just begun but thus far it is an excellent overview.

As I go, I've been dipping into other Catholic histories I happen to have at hand. Reading through the tempestuous time of the Church Fathers, the Council of Nicea, the attack of the barbarians on civilization, and the many heresies reminds me that the Church was born into a world of chaos from which She has never escaped. She has always needed defending, explaining, and God's grace given to those who take Her into the world.

There never really were any of those "good old days" in the way our memory likes to paint with a golden glow, blue sky, and sweet background music. It was always like it is now: chaotic, confusing, tempestuous, and unsure. Some were luckier and more secure than others, to be sure. Just as we are now as we watch with agonized impotence while the innocent are herded and slaughtered like sheep because they are different. Because they are Christian.

I've already talked about what we can do in these terrible times. Here are some good pieces by others who are pondering the same question:
  • What are we willing to die for? Pope Francis asked that question at the beatification of Paul Yun Ji--Chung and 123 martyr companions in Korea. It's a question I've been asking myself, to be honest. His homily is here and it's a good one to ponder.

  • The use of force can be justified to stop "unjust aggressors" such as Islamic State militants in northeastern Iraq. Pope Francis again on his way back from Seoul as he answered reporters' questions. Again, as I read that St. Augustine developed his just war theory when the barbarians were literally at the gates, leaving no one living in their wake, I understood it better than ever as I saw photos of people slaughtered by ISIS for being the wrong religion. By the way some publication jumped on the chance for a catchy headline about the Pope calling for a new Crusade. Aaargh. Just go read the story and see what he actually said.

  • "Prayer is the glue that enabled my freedom, my inner freedom first ..." These are the words of James Foley, the American journalist who was beheaded by barbarians. He'd been captured in the line of duty before and his testimony to the power of prayer is one that The Anchoress has been pondering. Like me, she is being turned back to the essentials. I like her comment about praying The Apostle's Creed line by line. I have written about praying St. Patrick's Breastplate and St. John XXIII's Daily Decalogue daily. It is the same effect that she describes. I am taken into the prayer and come out the other side changed somehow.

  • Who will stand up for Christians? The head of the World Jewish Congress asked this in an op-ed piece at The New York Times. And I appreciate it. It didn't escape our household that Christians were being slaughtered with very few comments from our government or media but when Yazidis came under attack then the bombs started falling. There's a subtle attitude toward Christians from a lot of public quarters that this exemplifies. So it comes as a welcome relief to have someone from the "outside" pointing it out. I picked this story up via The Deacon's Bench.
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Just to Remind Us That the Media are People Too

Check out this 1 minute video at The Deacon's Bench. Shocking? Maybe. Heart warming? Definitely.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

New Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

New Watch (Night Watch, #5)New Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Scored a copy from Amazon Prime! Huzzah!

I've been waiting for this for a long time. And now here we are:
This is a dubious text for the cause of Light. - The Night Watch

This is a dubious text for the cause of Darkness. - The Day Watch
After Last Watch, which was the 4th book in the Night Watch series, I didn't know what else Sergei Lukyanenko had to tell us.

Oh wait, what about an element of this world that is so pervasive and so unusual while remaining completely unknown?

The Twilight.

This book begins with Anton walking into an airport and hearing a 10 year old boy predict that a plane will crash. That sets a train of actions into motion which lead us to London, Taiwan, and to Baba Yaga's hut. We also ponder the nature of prophecy, humanity versus Others, and what we will do for love.

The book itself was not the strongest of the series but was satisfying and it was a really superb concept ending.

What an accomplishment. A series of 5 books, all of which make good reading and all of which have deeper underlying thoughts about human nature for us to ponder. Highly recommended.

NOTE
Scott Danielson and I discussed Night Watch on A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast.

Other books in the series: Night Watch, Day Watch, Twilight Watch, Last Watch

Search Marketing Explained: Reviewing "Marketing in the Age of Google"

Getting ahead in search marketing requires many people to reverse their thinking at levels they have never considered. This book is particularly good at helping you understand that.
Tom's review is at General Glyphic's blog. Tom's fascinated by marketing via search engines and knows whereof he speaks when he praises this book. So much so that he's been able to help two small customers move up in rank without charging the tens of thousands that the big companies tell you is absolutely necessary.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Well Said: Nothing is really work ...

Nothing is really work unless you'd rather be doing something else.
James Barrie, Peter Pan
Profoundly simple, when you think about it.

Worth a Thousand Words: Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Parmigianino, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1524
Via Arts Everyday Living where there are many other self portraits in mirrors to enjoy. I especially enjoyed this one as I thought about the challenge to the artist's skill and creativity in making that image come out correctly, posing himself, etc. So clever!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Movie Review: When the Game Stands Tall


Coach Bob Ladouceur: Winning a lot of football games is doable. Teaching kids there’s more to life? That’s hard.
Most sports movies show us the underdog team fighting their way to the top by the end.

When the Game Stands Tall, however, begins with an unusual premise.

It poses the question of what happens to the team who breaks their school's incredible 151-game winning streak. How do they cope with failing the community, not to mention their teammates and themselves? And how do they view not only themselves but the game of football afterward?

Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) built the winning De La Salle Catholic high school football team by emphasizing personal excellence and team brotherhood. That worldview informs all aspects of this film.

Ladouceur's personal journey winds through the story as he faces the challenge of being a father, husband, and coach. Bookending his story are those of two football players, one poor, one wealthy, one with no father, one with a father he can never please, one who feels cursed, one who seems to have everything. Taken together, all three stories weave a much more layered tale than I have come to expect from sports movies in the past.

When the Game Stands Tall has its fair share of cliches, as do most football movies, but it also has some welcome surprises. We know most coaches have to teach classes but I was surprised at Coach Ladouceur's area of expertise. We know there will be a big game, a "Super Bowl moment" if you will, against the powerful nemesis but I didn't expect what came afterward. We know there will be a special training moment that helps bond the team into brothers but I definitely did not expect the unconventional method we saw. We know there are often boys without fathers or those whose fathers fail them but I didn't expect to have the Book of Job repeatedly come to mind with modern resonance.

I also liked the fact that this movie doesn't hit you over the head with a hammer most of the time. It is not afraid to leave some questions unanswered so that viewers may mull them over. It is not afraid to show characters who are lost and then not give an easy fix for their problem.

This movie is about brotherhood, fatherhood, and finding our way in a difficult world. It is about forming our souls through decisions made in times of trouble and hardship. It is about the intentions behind our actions and living for others more than we live for ourselves.

It is about football but it is for everyone.

For me it was head and shoulders above The Blind Side or Remember the Titans. It even gives Friday Night Lights a run for its money. Not in technical know how, though the movie is well enough made, but in heart. Extraordinarily, this movie is based on a real story and many of the coach's lines in the movie come from real life. That just gives it more emotional heft.

Go see it.

Blogging Around: The Random Edition

Why the Public Library Beats Amazon — For Now
A growing stack of companies would like you to pay a monthly fee to read e-books, just like you subscribe to Netflix NFLX +1.46% to binge on movies and TV shows.

Don't bother. Go sign up for a public library card instead.

Really, the public library? Amazon.com AMZN +2.69% recently launched Kindle Unlimited, a $10-per-month service offering loans of 600,000 e-books. Startups called Oyster and Scribd offer something similar. It isn't very often that a musty old institution can hold its own against tech disrupters.

But it turns out librarians haven't just been sitting around shushing people while the Internet drove them into irrelevance. More than 90% of American public libraries have amassed e-book collections you can read on your iPad, and often even on a Kindle. You don't have to walk into a branch or risk an overdue fine. And they're totally free.
When I saw the Kindle Unlimited plan, I instantly thought of the young ladies in Georgette Heyer's Regency novels. The bookish ones were often lucky enough to have a relative paying for a library subscription. Amazon's plan simultaneously turned the clock back and forward. A neat trick. And one that could cost a lot of money every year.

So naturally I enjoyed reading this Wall Street Journal story pointing out that many libraries offer free access to e-books, many of which aren't available free on subscription services.

I'll go him one better though. Take some time to look at all the books being offered, not just e-books. I've been really happy to find audiobooks widely available also. And, then, there are the plain old vanilla print books. (My favorite actually.) They've got lots of them too.

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Sean Bean Death Scene
If you love Sean Bean the way we do in our family, you'll appreciate this Funny or Die bit which riffs off of how many times Bean's characters are killed off in movies.

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Ratting Out Landmines
From DarwinCatholic comes this story of African Giant Pouch Rats trained to find land mines with their exceptional sense of smell. And, bonus, they're light enough that they don't set off the mines when they step on them.

If this doesn't put a smile on your face, nothing will!

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Praying for Your Conversion
I’ve seen this attitude before. If I say, “I wish you were a Christian,” a certain type of mind hears, “I want to force you to be a Christian. I want to take over the government, and use the coercive power of the state to make you act the way I think you should.” But I’m not saying that. I’m simply saying, “I want you to be a Christian.”

And I do want that. I want you to be a Christian.

Let me lay it out for you.
  • I believe that eternal life with Jesus Christ is the ultimate good for any human being.
  • I believe the alternative is considerably less pleasant.
  • I am commanded, as a Christian, to love those around me.
  • If I love someone, I seek their good.
  • Their ultimate good is eternal life with Jesus Christ.
  • Therefore I seek that.
I know someone out there is sputtering, “How dare you! Who are you to decide what my ultimate good is?”
Somehow I feel as if most of us have been on one side or other of this issue in one way or the other. Go read all of Will Duquette's logical and moving piece.


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Who Among Us is Thirsty?
Last night, as I drove home from work, I listened to the NPR tribute to Robin William’s legacy, and there were tears on my face. They were genuine tears. I love what Williams gave the world.

When I arrived at home, I sat on the couch and shared the news with Anne, who was shocked and saddened like most of us.

And in those moments of sorrow, there was a knock at our front door.

[...]

I am not making any of this up. And what’s more — at the time, I was completely blind to the stark contrast between my distress over Robin Williams’ loneliness and despair and my attitude toward the man who had knocked on my door.

Now, it seems like the farthest thing from coincidental timing.
Jeffrey Overstreet's moving reflection on real life, faith, and the loss of Robin Williams.

Friday, August 15, 2014

What Can We Do in These Terrible Times?

These are chaotic, sad times in the world and I am encountering a lot of people who are beat down by it.

I myself would be beat down by it too but I have had to deliberately distance myself from the things I can't do to help people in the Ukrainian fight to keep their freedom, in Israel's fight against Hamas terrorists, in the path of ISIS terrorists, who are victims of terrorist Boko Haram. Equally distressing is how each new atrocity seems to push the others out of public consciousness. The suffering continues even when the news forgets to mention it.

Then, of course, we've got people without jobs and with the sorts of problems of which Robin Williams' sad end is all too emblematic.

I have to remind myself that I was put here, in this place, in this time, by God to make the world better in the things I can influence. I've got to depend on leaders like Pope Francis to move the larger world to better actions as he has been doing.

So what can I do? What can we do so far removed from all the anguish we see?

PRAY.
Let's not forget that we've got the most advanced "internet" in the world. Instantaneous communication from our hearts to God's ear. Remember those victims and even the perpetrators in your prayers. You can change the world right from your church, living room, or office desk.
  • The U.S. Bishops have called for Catholic parishes nationwide to join in prayer for peace in Iraq on August 17.
  • Diana von Glahn has a piece on pilgrimage at Dappled Things which discusses this topic (she hits this part about halfway down the piece).
  • Jennifer Fitz at Sticking the Corners talks about praying for a secret prayer partner, very much in the style of a Secret Santa gift exchange. I like it. It works both ways you know ... on them but also on you.

GIVE.
Look at it not only as supporting those who need the cash but as an opportunity to fast financially and offer that sacrifice as a prayer also. Speaking of which, you can also fast as well as pray for those who are suffering. It's not just for Lent.

ACT WHERE YOU ARE.
We don't have to look far in our own homes, workplaces, and community to find people who need help from circumstances that hurt them personally. Mother Teresa said it best:
I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time—just one, one, one. So you begin. I began—I picked up one person. Maybe if I didn't pick up that one person, I wouldn't have picked up forty-two thousand. ... The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community. Just begin—one, one, one.*
After all, that's how Jesus did it.Collecting disciples one, one, one; healing people one, one, one; loving each of us one, one, one. Let's follow in those footsteps.

It can seem frightening because it is personal. We are putting ourselves out there. But, speaking as a very imperfect practitioner of this action plan, it works. It is rewarding to both involved. It can change the world.

How do you get started? Help a neighbor, ask your parish office, read the bulletin. Cook for a sick friend or bereaved family (My Catholic Kitchen has a lovely piece on Funeral Ham and Cheese Biscuits that shows the difference a small effort makes.) Sometimes it just takes looking at the world around us with newly opened eyes.

And you can, once again, pray. If you ask God to send you someone to help, He will answer in a jiffy.


* I came across this quote in Brandon Vogt's excellent book Saints and Social Justice which not only contains many examples of people stepping up personally in love of Christ, but has very solid suggestions in how to do this in your own life. Don't wait to read it though. While you're looking for the book, pick something close to your heart (or your home ... how about that lonely neighbor who you see getting her paper every morning?) and begin today.

All images are public domain from Wikipedia.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Worth a Thousand Words: The Garden of Earthly Delights

(Center panel) The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-1504) by Hieronymus Bosch,
the best of his forty works that survive, uniquely combines medieval and renaissance,
horror and humour, religious and secular values, and figures and landscape. (Paul Johnson)
I read an entire large art book on Bosch and wound up with a real appreciation for his work, as bizarre as it often looks. The author's premise was partly based on disproving what Paul Johnson mentions in his Art: A New History, that Bosch was a member of a quasi-heretical congregation. This was the first time, to be honest, that it occurred to me that these large art books could be written to prove or dispute others' scholarship. Silly of me, I know, since that goes on in every other field so why wouldn't that be the case for art?

At any rate, the point I enjoy the point Johnson makes about how "reading art" was a popular pastime. Popular or not, it's something we've lost in our age and which I appreciate learning a bit about under Johnson's tutelage.
Yet there was laughter in art, even if double-faced. It is a common modern view that Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) painted the horrors of life and death, and aimed to terrify and to enforce repentance, by his alarming compositions. ... But he also aimed to excite, to thrill, to fascinate and to amuse. There is literary evidence, unearthed by the sharp reader of texts as well as pictures Ernst Gombrich, that collectors bought Bosch for that reason. He made them laugh at folly and its consequences, as Hogarth was to do 250 years later. The minute events of his gruesome tales were fantasies and obviously so. Yet by painting them in the Flemish tradition of realism and attention to detail, he made them seem credible at a certain level, and because credible hilarious. So the men laughed uproariously when, alone with their wine, they collectively considered a Bosch work, and put on straight faces and didactic expressions when their women fold appeared and asked to have the painting "explained."

Scott wants a semaphore tower and Julie never wants to hear of steam engine valves again.


We're discussing Pavane by Keith Roberts, an alternate history from the times when that genre was new — way back in 1966. With lots and lots of Catholic stuff to talk about! Join us at A Good Story is Hard to Find.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Frozen Coffee Cubes

Who says reading mysteries doesn't make real life better? My coffee - mystery connection is at Meanwhile, Back in the Kitchen.

Worth a Thousand Words: Into the afternoon

Into the afternoon
Edward B. Gordon
There is just something about Edward B. Gordon's work that draws me. I have to resist posting it a lot more than I do. This one makes me think of when we were in St. Augustine last month on vacation. We lunched later than most of the other tourists and wound up being an an empty Spanish restaurant, enjoying excellent food and watching them try to lure others in for a meal.

What We've Been Watching: Wordplay, Lego Movie, and The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wordplay (2006 documentary)

★★★★

A thoroughly enjoyable look at crossword puzzles, both those who create them and those who solve them including Will Shortz of the New York Times and those who compete annually in the national crossword tournament.





The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

★★★★½

There is a plot about a will, a painting, a looming war, and several murders. But they are all an excuse for this delightful froth of a movie, accented by charming details which take the viewers into a fairy tale which somehow references a history that we all know.

Underlying the whole thing is the mentorship and friendship that grow between a master hotel concierge and a lobby boy. This is a movie which will reward repeated viewing simply to take in all the details, if not to enjoy the effervescent story.


The Lego Movie (2014)

★★★

Both my husband and I had heard interviews with the directors talking about this movie. Hence our interest in viewing it since we have no little ones to drag us to it.

Overall it was clever enough and the voice actors definitely delivered, especially Will Arnett as Batman. However, we both understood why a movie executive, after seeing the first draft, told the creators that it was fun and full of action but had no heart to ground the story.

The solution they came up with, which I won't spoil here, was creative and worked perfectly in my estimation. It turned an entertaining enough movie into something solid. I also appreciated the message about creative teamwork instead of simply falling back on the ubiquitous "you're special, you can change the world" message.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Worth a Thousand Words: The Beheading of John the Baptist

Rogier van der Weyden, in his Beheading of John the Baptist (c. 1455-60),
transforms a horrific act into a scene of
elegance, subtle feeling and beauty-in-depth. (Paul Johnson)
This selection and the appreciation below are from Paul Johnson's Art: A New History which I have been enjoying very much as an unusual window into history. This does not show us history as much as help to understand what the artist was trying to get across. It certainly helps me to understand why so many artists portrayed historical scenes with contemporary clothing and details.

If this seems like too much text to bother with, be sure at least to read the last couple of sentences. It is the essence of the thing and also may pique your interest for the rest.
... Rogier introduced many cunning innovations in presenting his work—shifting the angles, moving the main figures closer to the viewer, then pushing them back, framing them in architectural fantasies, windows and painted surrounds, devices which then become standard in northern art.

But in one respect, Rogier was faithful to his tradition. He loved detail, and it was always contemporary detail. Of his many large-scale works, the one which brings this out best is his Scenes from the Life of John the Baptist in Berlin. These three pictures convey an enormous amount of detail. Salome has certainly not been performing a dance. She is dressed in the height of Brussels fashion, c. 1450, and holds the dish to receive the severed head disdainfully, as though she was not accustomed to handling platters of any description. Every detail of her presentation is perfect. The executioner must have been done from life at a ceremonial chopping, of which there were many the artist could have witnessed. The way the man has stripped himself of most of his garments to get a perfect swing to his sword, itself rendered in fearsome detail, is unforgettable. Behind the pair and the ghoulish head, which glows with recently dead pallor, is a passageway, closely guarded, which opens in to the banquet scene itself, in the far distance but lovingly rendered so that we have a good idea of what was being eaten before the head made its entrance. The story of the head, which never failed to arouse interest anywhere in Europe for a thousand years—it was still going strong in the days of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley—is here used as an excuse for a piece of dramatised genre painting. The details told the viewers two things. First, "All this is true," and secondly, "Take note of these events,they are part of your life also."

Monday, August 11, 2014

Lagniappe: Chopin and Liszt

I write to you without knowing what my pen is scribbling, for Liszt is at this moment playing my Etudes and he transports me out of my proper senses. I should like to steal from him his way of playing my pieces.
Chopin in a letter
I just find this fascinating ... and also endearing.

Worth a Thousand Words: Friendship Forever

Friendship Forever
via Not Pulp Covers
This is just striking. And doubtless a classic example of some type of poster art, which the Soviets were so good at. But that's beside the point for me.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Worth a Thousand Words: Lemon Still Life

Paul Coventry-Brown
I haven't featured anything by this artist for a while but every time I go through his online gallery and blog I find so much to love. He is truly an extraordinary artist.

A Movie You Might Have Missed #41: Spinning Plates

It's not what you cook. It's why.

41. Spinning Plates
(documentary)


This was a fascinating comparison of three very different restaurants - one high concept where the chef is like an artist, one Iowa restaurant that holds the community together, and one Mexican restaurant where the family has placed their hopes for a better life on its success. The flow is masterful between the places as their stories progress and we get to know the main restauranteurs.

It was also interesting in that none of these were about going somewhere to get a bite to eat. All these places were the focus of hopes, dreams, and fulfillment on an entirely different plane than mere sustenance. It compares well with Jiro Dreams of Sushi and, in fact, I liked it better.

We found ourselves afterward in terms of our own business, our own hopes and dreams, and our own lives. Highly recommended.

Well Said: Community Life

The companionship of girlfriends was very different from the community life I live now; but in none of those relationships did I really feel my gifts were so valued, or my weaknesses so accepted and cared for.
Brother Guy Consolmagno, Brother Astronomer
I was especially struck by the phrase "my weaknesses so ... cared for." Isn't that what we need? Not just acceptance but to be helped in our weaknesses.

Brother Guy is talking, of course, about being a Jesuit and a Vatican astronomer. But I looked at that description and thought it might be the perfect one for what we long for in a community. My family is that way. Many of my friends, especially my Catholic women's book club, give me that too. I also think of another group to which I belong from which I do not get that feeling somehow, especially about my weaknesses. I used to but it has changed enough that it does not provide that support any more. They long to grow larger but I wonder if they can without providing more depth.

Does every group have to give us those feelings? No, of course not. But the ones that matter most to us are the ones that do.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Well Said: Doing as He tells you

Do you ask, "What faith is in him?" I answer, the leaving of your own way, you objects, you self, and the taking of His and Him ... and doing as He tells you. I can find no word strong enough to serve the weight of this necessity—this obedience.
George MacDonald, The Truth in Jesus
George MacDonald's writing was formational for C.S. Lewis as a Christian, who consequently held obedience to be very important. Interestingly this is what has been emphasized to me repeatedly by my spiritual director. In my own case it has been through conversation about Abraham and various other Biblical figures that have happened to come up before my conversations.

I say happened to come up as if there was coincidence to it. When one is meeting with a spiritual director and goes in armed with passages about obedience, even if one cannot see it until it is pointed out, it is not coincidence but the Holy Spirit making a point.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? - Guy Consolmagno, SJ, and Paul Mueller, SJ

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-box at the Vatican ObservatoryWould You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-box at the Vatican Observatory

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is structured around a half dozen particular questions we've been asked time and again—questions that are interesting in themselves but that tend also to presuppose a conflict of some sort between religion and science.
This intent leads to rich, interesting dialogues. I use the word dialogues intentionally because the book is structured as a conversation between the two authors who are astronomers for the Vatican. Each is a highly accredited scientist and a Jesuit. The broad topics they discuss:
  • Biblical Genesis or the Big Bang?
    (how science and religion can have different but complementary ways of viewing the same subject)
  • What Happened to Poor Pluto?
    (how scientific theories and ideas change over time)
  • What Really Happened to Galileo?
    (how religion can or should respond when science changes)
  • What Was the Star of Bethlehem?
    (how can God be active in a universe governed by scientific laws)
  • What's Going to Happen When the World Ends?
    (How can humans be important to God in a universe that will come to an end)
  • Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?
    (what could the message of Christ mean in an endless universe with countless planets and possibly countless other intelligent races)
The list above doesn't properly convey the riches contained within. Each chapter careens from science to faith to history and then back again. It is really like following an actual conversation where you can never tell exactly what sorts of ideas will flow from the give-and-take.

Also, each chapter asks you to image a different setting which helps to illustrate the points they are making. One is in the Chicago Art Institute, another at Antarctica, yet another at the Restaurant at the End of the World. If that last one makes you think of Douglas Adams books you are correct. These fellows have active senses of humor and a love of science fiction to boot.

As an example, the Star of Bethlehem chapter was set in the Papal Summer Palace with the Vatican Observatory telescopes. It went something like this:
  • Scientific possibilities for unusual events in the sky around the time Jesus was born, including conjunctions of planets
  • Possible interpretations of scripture (Matthew) about the event including how standards in interpretation have shifted over the ages
  • Who were the Magi, why did they come from the East and what part could astrology play
  • Ancient cosmology of the spheres
  • Comets
  • God's actions in human history and the true nature of a miracle
  • Old versus new ways of thinking about the physical world
  • What is a mystery: scientific versus religious mysteries
  • How do men of science and faith see this event as opportunities for encounters with the divine
Every chapter was like a roller coaster ride of new ideas, melding of concepts, and considerations of different opinions ... exactly like following a lively conversation with a couple of friends.

The authors are really good at talking about both science and faith in ways that are eminently reasonable and understandable. I was wary of the dialogue format but wound up enjoying it a lot because they could use it to show a variety of points of view, including the points where they disagreed with each other. I think this would be an excellent book to share with all sorts of folks, whether Catholic or not.

This seems like the perfect book for someone who is interested in both faith and science. And if you are interested in one and wary of the other, I think it could be very fruitful if for no other reason than to understand how the other side thinks. If you keep an open mind, you may be surprised at how well faith and science go together. Like a couple of folded hands, in fact.

Very highly recommended.

Well Said: Ants and our expectations

Ants have played havoc with my belief that anything is interesting when known. Having come prepared to loathe crawling things and stayed to admire them, I came full of copybook reverence for the ant and remain filled with the desire to exterminate the last one. In a still predatory world, good and evil are not fixed values, but are relative. "Good" is what helps us or at least does not hinder. "Evil" is whatever harms us or interferes with us, according to our own selfish standards. The ant as a symbol of industry, of social organization, of superb community instinct, has been extolled by science as well as the Bible. But for whom does the ant function so industriously and so socially? No one has troubled to point out that it is for the ant.

... It is disconcerting, too, to be outsmarted. I lost a birthday cake placed on a pan inside a basin of water sitting on a table whose legs were bound with ant-proof "Hoodoo Tape," because I forgot, and the ants did not, that a wire leading from the wall to an electric fan on the table made the easiest of runways.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Cross Creek
I was really startled when I read this because it hadn't occurred to me to view ants as adversaries. I think that goes to show that I live in a city and Rawlings lived in the country, not to mention many decades ago. It does make me reflect on a year ago when ants started invading the kitchen and practically drove us crazy trying to figure out where they were coming from. So I guess I'm not as removed as I'd like to think.

Worth a Thousand Words: A Village in the City

Edward B. Gordon, Ein Dorf in der Stadt
The artist's story explains the title. Click through to read it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Well Said: Bulls and the Bullring

It is not the same to talk of bulls as to be in the bullring.
Spanish proverb
Every culture has a way of saying this, I think, which just goes to show that human nature never really changes. There is always the person holding forth theoretically, as if it were the same as real life. And then there is the experience of getting in there and facing the bull. You can't beat hands on experience for really understanding something.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Worth a Thousand Words: Sunflowers on the Banks of the Seine

Gustave Caillebotte, Sunflowers on the Banks of the Seine, c. 1885-1886
via Arts Everyday Living
My mother and I were recently talking about sunflowers. During her recent spell in the hospital I sent her a bouquet of them. And this picture makes me think of her and the pleasure she says everyone has taken in those flowers.

Interview: "Calvary" Writer-Director John Michael McDonagh on Good Priests, Integrity, and H.P. Lovecraft

I had the opportunity for a round-table interview which, as it turns out, only consisted of me and Methodist pastor Kenny Dickson speaking with John Michael McDonagh about his new film Calvary (my review here).

McDonagh is engaging and thoughtful in conversation and punctuated our questions intently with "Yes." "Yes." "Yes." as we proceeded. This had the dual effect of ratcheting up the energy level and turning it from a staid interview into a lively conversation.

I had no idea an interview could be so much fun.

Please note, this interview contains spoilers.

==============

Julie D.: When I left your movie there was a quote that kept rolling around in my head. I'd like to read a little of it.
The Church is always God hung between two thieves. Thus, no one should be surprised or shocked at how badly the church has betrayed the gospel and how much it continues to do so today. It had never done very well. Conversely, however, nobody should deny the good the church has done either. It has carried grace, produced saints, morally challenged the planet, and made, however imperfectly, a house for God to dwell in on this earth. (Ronald Rolheiser)
McDonagh: Yes, well that's just it, isn't it. We're left with that fallout and I kept wondering how it affected the good men who are still carrying on. What is it that the priest has to deal with, where people won't trust him even when he's trying to do the best for them.

Where he can be judged just by the uniform he wears. Like when he [Brendan Gleeson] has the scene with the girl in the country lane. Although you could say, you know, it's reached a place now in the world that a man talking to a girl on a country lane would be seen as just bad. But, you know, you can see the priest coming from a long way off now, so it's a courageous thing to do now in the priesthood.

Maybe that's why it's declining in numbers because people who have that kind of impetus to help their community are looking at other forms of social work or social areas to get into, because they don't want to be judged in that way, you know.

Dickson: Because of the baggage.

McDonagh: Yes, exactly.

Dickson: I was going to tell you that I'm a Methodist minister. That's my day job and my passion as a film student is connecting issues of life and faith as portrayed or reflected in film to people of faith. And I usually prefer secular films or not-faith-films because I think there's a better resonance with true life and again with these issues of faith. 

But what I just wanted to compliment you on is this is probably one of the top one or two accurate portrayals of being clergy. In terms of not only bearing the burden of walking people through difficult times in life but, as Father James was, carrying the baggage of, in his case the Catholic Church, in my case ministering to people who want the Word preached and who proclaim faith but who then profane that faith because they don't want to live up to the Word. And so when we preach a prophetic sermon we get pushed back, we get slammed, and that is just burdensome.

McDonagh: Brendan summed up the attitude of those villagers is that they just want to destroy the priest but they actually don't want him to be destroyed because if he is destroyed, if he does cave in, they have kind of destroyed the last little hopeful spark in themselves. So what other kind of iconic figure will they have if he's gone.

Which is kind of the reason for - spoilers - but, you know the montage sequence at the end is all these people are going to have to deal with the aftermath of what's happened at the conclusion. We don't know, they may be better people after it or they may be worse; you know, we're not sure.

Dylan Moran's character, the rich guy, for all of his bluster and all of his talk about how much money he's got and everything and how confrontational he is, he is one of the few characters at the end of the movie who is sincerely asking for help. So he has actually gone through a spiritual journey in a way. He's not fully there because we're not quite sure is he sincere or not. I think he is because he's at such a low ebb. So he's there at the end in the montage, he's got his pen, he's got his watch, you know, but behind him is the shotgun. So which way is he gonna go?

I guess people ultimately have to save themselves in a way. So the aftermath is will these characters save themselves or won't they? But then that would lead to twelve sequels and you'd have twelve more movies. (laughing)

Julie D.: But you also have those two core things to me, one of which was integrity. I loved the way you put those two priests together. The one guy, he wasn't a bad priest, he just didn't get it. And then the other thing ...

McDonagh: Yeah exactly. Sorry, just a second, but the whole line of "I don't hate you. You just have no integrity and that's one of the worst things I could say about anyone." I had that as a dialogue note before I even started ... that the priest was gonna say that at some point and that led to, ok, say it now. Sorry to interrupt.

Julie D.: No, no, that's fine because that was key and that went with Father James' conversation with his daughter where she says, "I belong to myself and not to anyone else." And he says, "True. False." Because that goes back to integrity from other people can help change us but we have to be willing to change and everything we do has ripples. 

McDonagh: Well it's also interesting that you picked that up because initially his response was just, "True." And Brendan says, "I don't think he would say that. He'd give the other option as well that it's false. Yeah, some of it's true but a lot of it's false. There's no easy answer."

I thought, "Yeah, that's a good line of dialogue." (laughs) Don't tell anyone Brendan wrote that. You know when actors come up with lines of dialogue, improvisations, then they go off and tell other actors they cowrote the movie.

Julie D.: If you'd have just left it at "True." I'd have gone no, no.

Dickson: Can I ask you a couple of things. At the end when he decides to go back and he's walking up the stair and he looks and he sees the casket, what in your mind led him back? Why did he go back?

McDonagh: I think there's two things going on in that scene. Just before it, when he meets Marie-Josée Croze who's the French widow she is the one other person in the movie whose faith is as strong as his.  And yes her husband dies but she talks about how she had a good life with her husband, she feels sad for the people who have no love in their lives at all. That's the tragedy.

So obviously, he's fleeing at that point. I guess everyone however brave they think they are, now he knows they'll go through with their threat after burning the church down, that you have a moment of physical cowardice. So it's physical cowardice is why he's there. Then it's her line about "Sometimes you think you can't go on. But I will go on." And then he goes up the steps and they're waiting.

Now there's two ways you can look at this. I mean they're baggage handlers. They're dealing with baggage every day I guess and they often probably have to deal with coffins. You know, are they really bad people, those two guys leaning on the coffin? It's a job to them. They're probably not thinking about the guy. I guess the guy leaning on it doesn't mean to be disrespectful. He's just not thinking enough. And this is the argument the priest has with the naive priest, "You're not thinking about anything. You haven't thought through anything. It's all superficial."

And I guess when he's on there and he's looking down, he must assume if Marie-Josée has such great faith that her husband probably did too. And now he's dead. He's in a coffin. But does that mean he has to be treated in a disrespectful way or ignored? It doesn't. His life, the husband's life goes on in his wife. And there's a lot of complicated things going on but to me that's what makes him go, "Ok, these people's faith is so strong. Mine should be as strong as theirs. And I've had a moment of weakness but now I'll go back. "

And then to me the ending of the movie is - again spoilers - but what's happened to him on the beach leads on to the moment of grace with Kelly Reilly where all of his faith is now in her so he still goes on in her. Whatever arguments they had going on in the movie were kind of resolved and so she has taken on the mantle of all his teachings.

Dickson: He's living in her just like the husband was living in his widow.

McDonagh: Yes. So however somber the movie obviously appears to be, it does end with what I think is a moment of grace. That final shot of her face.

Julie D.: Also, if I might add, I think if he hadn't gone back we don't know what that other character might have done. The fact that once he's shot, he's not detached anymore as you said last night at the Q&A, Father James never takes his eyes off him.

McDonagh: No.

Julie D.: Of course he doesn't want to get shot, but Father James cares about him. He is present to him and that's his moment of grace living on in this other character too, I think. He [the murderer] really felt touched by Father James so much that he would even listen to the daughter. And that's the other path of grace that God gives through this guy, going on.

McDonagh: Yes. And he can see the suffering in that man's face but he's still saying, "It's not too late."

Julie D.: Right. He's not saying, "Don't shoot me." He's saying, "Save yourself."

McDonagh: Yes. Which goes right back to the thief on the cross, you know. He's on the cross but he still redeems himself because it's never too late.

He also earlier goes to see Veronica on the beach, where he says to her ... and what we have to remember is that's soon after the church is burned, so he's gone to see the wife of the man he thinks has done it. That's kind of the hidden subtext in the film. And he says to her, "No one is a lost cause." Because in my mind it was always, "Does she know? How much does she know?"

So saying, "No one is a lost cause" means "Will you help me? Will you speak to him? Is there some way we can resolve this?"

So "no one is a lost cause" and "It's not too late" ... that's Father James's message I guess, right up to the end.

Dickson: And also one other question on the very end, where he sees the writer for the last time and the writer uses his name and says, "Goodbye James." 

McDonagh: It's funny because it's only used twice. I think the bishop who's kind of a facile character calls him James as well. That kind of came out of ... in an original draft, M. Emmet Walsh was also a confrontational character and Brendan said, "Can there not just be one person in town who gets along with me?" And I thought, "Yes, that's true. And so let's give them a final moment." Because that character's been cantankerous but we know how they kind of respect one another. So let's give them that dialogue, that moment of connection where he calls him by his name.

So you're always trying to find those little moments in movies where the audience can watch the film again and see another nuance that they missed. That's what I'm always trying to put in. It's not that there's lots of hidden moments but just nuances that once you've seen the film and realize how it's played out you can then watch it again and see other subtext going on.

Julie D.: I just want to ask one question before they make me leave. Who picked H.P. Lovecraft?

McDonagh: Me! (laughs)

Julie D.: That was brilliant! I have to say at that point in the movie I was sitting there going, "These characters are all so quirky and pointed that they're not real people." I felt as if I was in a morality play or a passion play at that point and I was thinking, "Hieronymus Bosch? No, it's not weird enough for him." And then I saw the cover of that book and I read a lot of weird fiction and I went, "I know that!" And so I missed most of the conversation in that scene because I was trying to see the author.

McDonagh: The book is Dreams in the Witch House and the cover has a woman lying down with a homunculus on her chest. I think they used to do it to represent nightmares in those old books.

Julie D.: Those demons in dreams.

McDonagh: Yeah, that demon on her chest which to me there's a demon in her emotional outlook in a way. That's a signifier for that.

It was also that I wanted to suggest that she's her father's daughter. They're both very literate, erudite people. They have very literate, philosophical conversations all the time. There were little bits and pieces in it which I cut because I thought it was a bit too much, an early scene in the bar where they both quote the Dorothy Parker poem about suicide, "Nooses give, you might as well live." I thought that was going a little bit too far.

But there is a very literary, erudite relationship. Because he's reading a book, she's reading a book. I like those little bits of character building.

Julie D: Well, and also the way that Lovecraft looked at the world was there is no God here and those eldritch gods in space who we only exist for them to consume.

McDonagh: Yes, the darkness controls the world.

Julie D: And I went, "Wow. This is like you took this Lovecraftian world and then you dropped a good priest into it." And I went, "Oh holy moly. What a parallel for this world with people who don't believe in anything." You blew my mind.

McDonagh: Yes and I guess if you talk about aliens it's almost as if Brendan's like Sigorney Weaver in Aliens battling all the creatures coming to try to kill him. Yeah, yeah, the cosmos of darkness that surrounds this lone, good man.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Movie Review: Calvary

Not for the faint-of-heart. But simply astounding. 
A real masterpiece that provides food for thought for everyone from Catholics to atheists.
============

"No point in killing a bad priest. I'm going to kill you because you're innocent."
Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is hearing confessions when the parishioner on the other side of the screen tells him about five years of childhood abuse at the hands of a bad priest. The man plans to exact revenge by murdering Father James, who is given a week to wind up his affairs. It is a small community and the priest recognizes his parishioner's voice, although that identity is not revealed to the audience. Father James takes no immediate action but spends the week tending to his small flock. They are an erring lot who are flawed, wounded, and deeply critical of Father James, who they verbally flay for the suffering, real and imagined, that they have experienced at the hands of the Catholic Church.

Father James' life is further complicated by his tenuous relationship with his daughter, Fiona. (Father James entered the priesthood after his wife died.) We also see him contrasted with his bishop and a fellow priest, both of whom are not bad men but who are not fully engaged in their vocations. This leaves the audience in the position of trying to suss out the mystery while observing a truly good priest struggle to live his vocation under seemingly impossible circumstances.

Writer and director John Michael McDonagh has given us a layered and nuanced film made for anyone who has ever struggled with faith, forgiveness, betrayal, and revenge. Above all, he looks at the cost to good priests who must struggle with the human fallout and suffering caused by bad ones. Brendan Gleeson, heading up an excellent cast, portrays the good priest with subtlety and depth which allow you to see into his soul as the week progresses.

Some reviews have criticized the villagers as quirky, broad caricatures. I felt that was intentional and that it would be a mistake to think they are intended as realistic personalities. The sharply drawn characters give Calvary the feeling of a morality play where each is a personification of a different sin or modern struggle with religion. Yet McDonagh doesn't allow it to rest there. In each case we are given glimpses, however brief, below the brittle facades to the human beings beneath. The director does not intend to allow us the detachment which has led to the problems his film highlights.

The most fully realized characters and relationship are Father James and Fiona who translate the struggles to live an authentic faith into real human terms for us. The insistence on the value of each person when combined with Father James' absolute integrity are the messages at the core of this movie.

You may see this billed as a dark comedy. I think that is inaccurate. It is a drama, straight up. Yes, there are some lighter moments but that is because life itself has some lighter moments even in the midst of trouble and darkness. It is no comedy.

Fundamentalists of both sorts, from atheist to Catholic, will either celebrate or mourn this movie as an attack on the Catholic Church. That approach is far too simple. Those who know real truth is never that easy will appreciate the way McDonagh shows both sides without setting up straw men to knock down.

The movie never felt like an attack on the Church to me. Instead of looking at the "evil clergy" McDonagh took the novel and welcome approach of presenting a good priest who doesn't defend horrific actions of bad men but also never denies his own vocation in the very Church to which they all belong. In fact, the inclusion of an angry Buddhist highlights the point that the problem of authentic faith is not constrained to any one religion but is a matter of each person's cooperation with God and others in their community.

If Calvary makes you uncomfortable, it is meant to do so. That's what the truth does. In this magnificent film we are shown Truth shimmering beneath the surface of a week in the life of this good priest. And given grace for viewers to take back into the world with them.


Rated R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use.

NOTE
I had the opportunity to interview the director/writer John Michael McDonagh. That interview appears here.

SECOND NOTE
Here is a featurette about Calvary which shows some insights into Father James's character from Brendan Gleeson and others. It doesn't really spoil anything that I can tell and I liked it much better than the trailer I saw.