Counter Culture

The website of moral theologian Christopher Klofft

New Myths, Same Old Virtues

The-Uncanny-X-Men-126.jpgNote: This post first appeared as a special article in a February issue of Assumption College’s student newspaper Le Provocateur.  With the imminent arrival of Infinity War in theaters this Thursday, I decided to re-print it here.

I wanted to offer a witness, a side of my personal story that I don’t often get to tell.  The story begins back in my childhood, but the love that was born there became a bigger part of my life over time.  I don’t think I realized how important it really was to me until I was an adult.  And now it is something that has become a part of my life every single day.

I’m speaking, of course, about my love for superheroes.

The image that began the journey was the cover of a comic book: Uncanny X-Men #126.  It was a splash shot of colorful characters bursting through a hole in the wall and towards the viewer.  The motif was a pretty standard one back in the day and it captured my attention: Who were these people? What were their powers? Where were they going in such a hurry? So began the love affair that has only grown over the years.

My comic book collecting had actually started earlier, back in 1977 with Star Wars #7.  Episode 4 had just come out (we just called it “Star Wars,” of course) and I was thrilled that there were more stories involving these characters.  But after a few years of reading Star Wars, I wanted to learn more about the superheroes that dominated the comics rack in the local hobby store.  It started with the X-Men, but I quickly devoured everything I could get my hands on.  I picked up the pace of my collecting in high school, slowed down in college and grad school, and then stopped altogether when it became way too expensive.  Now I do all my reading thanks to public libraries and the Marvel Unlimited online service where, for six bucks a month, I can read all the Marvel comics I want.  I highly recommend it.

However, the point of my story is not about comic collecting or even comic reading.  It is very specifically about superheroes and why they became so important to me.  American comic books have created new myths in the 20th century.  Just like the stories of the gods of old, there are noble truths to be unveiled and poor choices to be condemned.  The stories are constantly revived to respond to new times and new cultural circumstances.

Why do we need new stories of new gods? I think there are a couple reasons for this.  The first is that these stories often fill the place that our old gods used to occupy.  In a world that has maintained a lively desire for the spiritual while denigrating the religious traditions that gave birth to the Western world, the image of the superhero and the virtues of heroism on display serve a quasi-religious purpose in teaching moral truth.  The second reason is, for those who already recognize the role of the divine in the world and in their lives, these stories of god-like beings can often give us new ways of understanding important truths about a God we already know.

For example, when Ben Parker tells his teenage nephew Peter that “with great power comes great responsibility,” he wasn’t only providing a maxim to inspire 50 years of motivation for the most popular superhero in the world; he was also re-telling the words of Jesus in the parable of the faithful servants: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48).  Spider-Man needs to live up to his call, and so do I.

For me personally, no one is better at conveying the connection between superheroic motivation and my own desire to be virtuous than Captain America.  In my life, I hold Jesus to be the most important guide for living my life…followed closely by Captain America.  The examples I could give from his life and words are many, but I’ll just share what is widely considered the most famous (it is quoted in abbreviated form by Sharon Carter in the movie Captain America: Civil War).  This version was written by J. Michael Straczynski in Amazing Spider-Man #537:

Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say.  Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.  This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world: “No, you move.”

In fairness, Cap is quoting Mark Twain (and the original comic states this explicitly).  Also, it is worth noting that you can take this exact same quote and use it to defend any number of otherwise contrary propositions.  But I really think that the context here matters: it’s coming from Captain America, a paragon of virtue, who always stands up for the best of what America can be, rather than any specific instantiation of it.  This can be understood in a broader context than the original quote in order to inspire one to always live according to the Truth, beyond any ideological constraint (see John 14:6).

Other than being consistent money-makers, there is a deeper reason that superhero movies now come out every couple of months with no sign of going away (there are several dozen superhero films and TV projects already greenlit through the year 2022).  Superhero stories give us new ways of looking at our contemporary circumstances and re-kindling ideals to fight the problems of our world.  They give us a safe, entertaining environment to look at conflicting perspectives on how to fight injustice and how they can be resolved by striving to be our best selves.  Most especially, these stories give us hope that righteousness will triumph, evil will fail, and the fight necessary to secure victory for truth is always worth it, even when it comes at a high cost.  In other words, these stories inspire reflection on the theological virtue of hope:

The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every person; it takes up the hopes that inspire our activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps one from discouragement; it sustains us during times of abandonment; it opens up our hearts in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, one is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1818)

The heroic exploits of superheroes inspire reflection on the life of virtue.  Just like the myths of ancient cultures, these stories provide a narrative way of teaching moral truth.  The grandiose nature of the stories appeals to our longings for a bigger, better world than the one we deal with in our everyday lives.  For all these reasons, we need superhero stories in our world.  We should all be thankful that they are so easy to come by.  I know I am.

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Strange Thing Mystifying

john-legend-jesus-christ-superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar Live aired Sunday night on NBC and in many ways, I’d say that it exceeded expectations.

The performances, the choreography, the staging, the visual effects, the camera work, the use of the live audience – all were excellent in bringing the show to life.  John Legend gave us a Jesus that was not nearly as whiny as Ian Gillan on the original soundtrack, which made his divinity more plausible.  Brandon Victor Dixon was fantastic in the role of Judas, especially in really conveying not just his ambivalence about betraying Jesus, but his strong desire not to do so.  As I said before, we can easily reduce Judas to the cardboard role of “villain” in Jesus’ actual life, but the reality of his situation had to be more complicated than that.  The show last night provided ample food for thought in this regard.  Sara Bareilles was also excellent as Mary Magdalene.  She conveyed her own confusion about Jesus’ identity (aided by the inclusion of “Could We Start Again Please?” from the movie version of the show) while Legend did not show any reciprocity in Mary’s feelings of conflicted romantic love for Jesus.

Nobody failed to deliver among the rest of the cast either.  Norm Lewis and Jin Ha exuded menace as Caiaphas and Annas (costuming really helped here as well), Jason Tam did a lot with the mostly wordless portrayal of Peter, and Ben Daniels had great moments as Pontius Pilate, especially one simple pause where he stared into the eyes of Jesus and suddenly recognized the man from his dream.

I could continue to praise the performances themselves (and I would love to hear your thoughts about the show), but instead I want to comment on how the show succeeded in creating opportunities for spiritual reflection.  I already mentioned a couple points above: first, Jesus was more believable as the Son of God.  In the show, one of the most un-Christ-like lines occurs during the second part of “The Temple,” when the wounded and diseased crowds mob Jesus (my sons found this scene to be particularly uncomfortable, which means the director hit it right).  As the mob piles on top of him, Jesus shouts, “Heal yourselves!” In the original soundtrack, it’s a loud frustrated growl that conveys the idea that Jesus is annoyed with healing the crowds.  By contrast, Legend said the line with exhaustion and a hint of desperation.  Either way, the line seems wrong coming from the mouth of Christ, but at least this version made it less troubling.

Several lyrics were changed throughout the show (I haven’t yet found a site with all the changes collected in one place).  In some cases, I wondered why the changes were made, as they felt merely “different,” not necessarily “better.”  But in a couple places, they made a big difference.  In particular, there was a change at the end of “Gethsemane” that “fixed” the song for me.  This song occurs during the time in which we are seeing Jesus at his most human.  His fear and anxiety make total sense to us.  However, in the original soundtrack, the end of the song suggests that Jesus is just a man who is begrudgingly doing what God has asked and is frustrated by it: “God, thy will is hard/But you hold all the cards.”  The lyric in the live show was changed to “God, thy will be done/Destroy your only Son.”  The line is still poignant, but it better reflects the Gospel and Jesus’ decision to place his fear aside to fulfill His Father’s plan of redemption.

I guess I was right and wrong about the Resurrection.  There was no Resurrection in the show, but the ending was still not as final as the original recording, which ends with his burial.  Instead, they used the music for the burial during an extraordinary technical achievement: Jesus on the cross was lifted high above the crowds and faded away into a blinding white light.  While this was not a literal resurrection scene, the important implication was very clear: Jesus was no longer among us.  I thought this was a nice compromise between those who prefer the ambivalence of the original show and those who want the show to be about the Christ of the Gospels.

There were other things that I liked and there were some nitpicky things that I could critique, but overall, it worked to bring an emotional and reverent end to the Easter Solemnity for our family.  What do you think? Did you watch it? What parts did you like or dislike?

A Meditation on Good Friday

CrucifixionOn this day, He shares His love with us in the most intimate way.  He descends to the depths of darkness – not to be lost Himself, but to join all of us trapped in the twilight of our sinfulness.  In these shadows we see only by the dimness of the light we have willingly left behind by our thoughts and our actions and our omissions – our failures to love.  We listen for his heartbeat…but it has stopped.

Dead on the cross, there is no light left in the universe – darkness doesn’t only cover the Earth.  It covers all of creation.  How can we comprehend it? How can we dare to imagine continuing to exist in a universe in which God has died?

But in the bright darkness of His embrace, we are found in the shadow of his heart.  He has come down to us, the Light had become one of us.  And when we see the light, when faith is aroused in our hearts, we can then see nothing else.  We live because He lives, we find our way back to Him, because He beckons us forward in the darkness.  Towards Resurrection.  We have to keep walking.

The inspiration for this Good Friday reflection was drawn from the words of this song.  I pray that you’ll keep walking in this twilight towards the sound of His Sacred Heart as it renews the entire universe in three days.

Everything’s Alright

JCSMy appreciation for the diversity of styles in musical theater is entirely due to my wife and her family.  When I was growing up, my own family didn’t listen to a lot of musicals.  Except for one: Jesus Christ Superstar. My siblings and I listened to those records over and over.  I got so used to the skips on the album that when I finally replaced the records with CDs as an adult, I was thrown off by their absence.  There was just something about this “rock opera” about Jesus that was fascinating to me.  When my faith life really expanded when I was 17, the show became a whole new subject for my reflection.

Once again, thanks to the wonderful influence of my wife, my two boys have also come to appreciate musicals.  It started with Joseph and Annie, but those were just the prelude to their obsession with Hamilton (the clean version, of course).  So after listening non-stop to the story of the “ten-dollar founding father without a father” for months, I decided to introduce them to Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS).  It took quite a bit of time for them to warm up to the radical change in style, but the subject matter of the show finally took hold of them and inspired new conversations about the last week of Jesus’ life.

This Easter Sunday, April 1, NBC is going to be airing a live show of JCS, so if you are unfamiliar with the show, here’s a chance to check it out.  Most of the cast are Broadway stars, but the more mainstream performers include John Legend as Jesus, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, and Alice Cooper as King Herod (trust me: it’s perfect casting).  It is probably no accident that the producers have cast black actors to play Jesus and his disciples and white actors to play Pontius Pilate and the Jewish authorities (which is fine – the show can operate on several levels at once).

Jesus Christ Superstar was written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1970.  They would not consider themselves believers and they didn’t set out to write a faithful adaptation of the Gospel.  They wanted to write a show that explored Jesus’ humanity, seen largely through the lens of a questioning Judas Iscariot.  The question of Jesus’ divinity is never affirmed, but it is never outright denied either.  It is this ambivalence that makes some Christians uncomfortable with the show, but I think there are some elements of it that are really worth exploring.

Let’s start with what I think are the most problematic parts of JCS.

First and foremost, Jesus comes across as petulant and even weak.  Only rarely do we get glimpses of the charismatic man that formed this movement that is perceived as a threat to the establishment.  He is by turns grumpy, whiny, and angry, and most importantly, he never really seems convinced that he himself is God.  (It is worth noting, though, that in the original recording, Jesus was played by Ian Gillan, the lead singer of Deep Purple, and he constantly reminds us vocally of why he is at least a rock god.)

Mary Magdalene is clearly in love with Jesus.  This is not a problem in itself; there is very little about Mary in the Gospels and the idea that she could have been in love with Jesus seems quite plausible (and it would have been a detail that would not have interested the Evangelists, so they wouldn’t have commented on it).  Some see Mary’s attraction in the show as mutual and even physical, but that has more to do with the way producers and directors stage the show, not with the lyrics of the songs themselves.  Mary is also clearly presented as a prostitute, which is not supported by the Gospel text.

The apostles generally serve as a sort of clownish choir in the show.  Only three of them get any individual attention.  Judas Iscariot is ostensibly the lead character in the show, Peter has one brief part where he denies Jesus, and Simon the Zealot gets his own song (one of my favorites in the show) to play up the show’s emphasis that Jesus was perceived as a political revolutionary.  But as a group, the apostles are clueless hangers-on, hoping to achieve everlasting fame by their association with Jesus.  It’s not accurate to see the historical apostles as fame-seekers (they chose a poor, dangerous way to do so if that was their intention), but they are often clueless in the Gospels.

Some people see it as anti-Semitic that the Jewish authorities (Caiaphas, Annas, and some other priests) are unequivocally villains in the show.  However, Rice and Lloyd Webber were basing much of their presentation on John’s Gospel, in which the Jewish authorities (“the Jews” in John’s language) are unequivocally the villains in the story, so I don’t see a problem with this.

The final problematic aspect of the show is that, as it was originally written, it ends with Jesus’ burial, not with his resurrection.  However, many performances of JCS now include the Resurrection as the end of the show.  I would be surprised if the NBC version, airing on Easter Sunday surely to court Christian viewers, ended with his burial without at least an implied resurrection.

So what is good about this show? What about it can offer us fruit for reflection for growth in our own spiritual lives?

I think the portrayal of Judas is provocative and compelling.  Considering his importance to the Passion, there is very little in the Gospels to tell us about the man.  He is obviously the betrayer of Jesus, but what else do we know? John alone says that he carried the money-bag for Jesus and the apostles (and John accuses him of being a thief).  We know he regretted his betrayal (to the point of despair).  Luke says, “Satan entered him” and John says “the devil induced him” to betray Jesus.  That’s it.  Jesus Christ Superstar presents Judas as a man who thought he was following a good teacher, but this teacher became caught up in his own hype and was ill-equipped for the political revolution he was fomenting.  Is this an overly-gracious portrayal of Judas? None of it conflicts with the Gospel material about the man.  The Christian tradition has developed a view of Judas as the worst of sinners – Dante has him eternally consumed by Satan at the bottom of Hell – but maybe he was legitimately skeptical of Jesus’ divinity.  Just before he killed himself, perhaps he realized who Jesus really was, but couldn’t believe he could be saved after what he had done.  The show gives us an occasion to consider this critically-important figure in Jesus’ life – and to see in him many other searchers and questioners among our own friends and loved ones.

I’ve already mentioned that the show emphasizes the idea that Jesus was being groomed to be king of the Jews.  This is a historically viable presentation of his story.  The concept of a Messiah whose power was secular not supernatural was prominent in 1st c. Judaism.  This has to be remembered when reading the Gospels in order to better understand why Jesus was such a controversial figure in his day; the show does well to focus on this.

One of the highlights of Jesus’s songs is the Garden of Gethsemane.  This is the part of the Gospel that most clearly aligns with the writers’ intentions to see Jesus as a human being.  While the lyrics show Jesus as skeptical of God’s plan, his sadness about the lack of clarity regarding the success of his mission and his desire to not die a horrific death come through powerfully in the performance.  We can feel with Jesus the anguish he might have felt in facing the day of his death.  The show presents the song as a protest of a man before God, not of the Incarnate Son praying to His Father, but the Jesus of the show does finally consent to offer himself to fulfill the will of God.  As humans, we can sympathize when following the will of God in our own lives seems difficult.

This leads to a final observation: the title song of the whole show, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” sung by Judas right before the crucifixion.  The words of Judas (yes, he’s now dead at this point in the show) could really be the words of Tim Rice himself, and also the words of so many other people who sincerely seek to know Jesus.  What is at stake in believing Jesus is the Son of God? Why did he have to die on the cross? What is the relationship between the Christian revelation of Truth and other religious traditions in the world? The song only raises these questions, it doesn’t answer them.  But the recognition that the questions are worth asking is a necessary prerequisite for eventually finding the answers in the man who told us he is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6).

The show is airing on Easter Sunday, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fruit for reflection now as we come closer to the end of Lent.  Take the opportunity to listen to it now before watching it.  Let the music speak to you and draw you in to a more emotional engagement with the story of Christ’s Passion.  Reflection on Christ’s humanity can actually help us grow into a greater appreciation of his divinity.  We can be more thankful of the God who gives His life to save us because we better understand that he has shared with us in our weakness.

I hope the last days of the season bring your initial Lenten commitments to a profitable end through Christ’s grace.  Let me know what you think of Jesus Christ Superstar: the good, the bad, and everything in between.

Let me know what other aspects of popular culture you’d like me to write about!

Wonder Counselor, Wonder Woman

wwblogOK.  Let me address the elephant first. Yes, it has been a full year since I last posted here.  I have no good excuse.  I had set myself what I thought was a reasonable writing schedule and I, uh, failed utterly.  So I’m going to set more modest expectations and focus on much shorter pieces and see if I can’t generate some interest and momentum that way.  Moving on…

There is so much that I would like to write about Wonder Woman both as a character and as a movie.  I am especially interested in the success of a superhero movie with a female lead and the amusing controversy that surrounds this idea.  I am also interested in whether the Wonder Woman on screen matches the character as portrayed in the comics presently and as her designer originally conceived her (the answer, by the way, is no on both counts, and that is a very, very good thing).  And I am interested in the portrayal of the Greek gods in the film, which ultimately looks a lot less like Greek mythology and a lot more like a Biblical text.  This too has caused controversy.  Spoilers ahead.

Wonder Woman (let’s just call her Diana from this point forward; it’s a lot shorter) has not had a consistent origin in her 75 year history.  To simplify things, let’s reduce her origins to two basic variations: the first is that she was sculpted from clay by Hippolyta and brought to life by her entreaty to the gods.  The second is that Diana is herself a demi-goddess, the daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta.  The movie chooses to go with both options, as Diana is raised believing the clay story and learning the truth about her father later on.

Ares, the god of war, is one of Diana’s long-standing antagonists in the comics (and it should be noted that Wonder Woman has really crappy villains overall – in fact, with a few exceptions, I’d even go so far as to say that if your name isn’t Batman or Flash in the DC Universe, your villains are lacking).  In the movie, Ares is portrayed as the last of the gods, excepting Diana.  He is the source of all the conflict, strife, and hatred in the world.  Zeus, the creator of humanity, instilled his creatures with a nobility that the Amazons were to especially embody and protect, and thus Diana leaves the island of Themyscira and goes out into “Man’s world.”

Amusing hijinks and lots of explosive action ensue.  How’s that for a summary statement?

In the end, Diana learns the truth from Ares.  Her sacred sword is not “the god-slayer”; she is – and she does so, explicitly in the name of love.

One can rightfully complain about this resolution, I guess.  For example, Steve Kenson complains that defeating war in the name of love by blasting someone into oblivion seems paradoxical, to say the least.  But I also understand that the movie needed a big finale in the third act and so Ares is destroyed.

Steven Greydanus, who generally loved the movie (and who I usually trust as both Catholic and a fan of comic books), saw a different problem: according to what is revealed in the movie, Zeus really is the creator of humankind and Ares really is the source of discord in the world.  These are not mere stories, but reality in the world of the film (and thus, presumably, of the whole DC cinematic universe).  There is no room for the One True God, for the saving action of the Christ, or the role of the devil in the subversion of man’s innate goodness.

To which I am inclined to say: so what?

The truth is, we have Zeus as Creator, Ares, the son of the Creator who hates and manipulates mankind, and Diana, the daughter of the Creator who saves the world and destroys the power of sin through the power of love.   Essentially, we have a loose re-telling of the Truth about creation, the Devil’s influence, and the mission of God to save the world He has created, only with a female Christ figure and a lot more explosions.

Some see this as dangerous: in a world that so blithely ignores God and is so confused about gender, we don’t need ancient stories that offer easily ignored versions of divine action in the world and feminine savior figures.  I prefer to see the movement of the Spirit in a more positive light.  I think that if we can find God hiding in the images of the story, as I suggested above, then I think we can walk away from the story with a closer relationship to our Creator, if we allow ourselves to do so.  This isn’t to minimize the importance of clear catechesis and good theology – but after all, we’re talking about a Wonder Woman movie, not an Apostolic Exhortation.  And if that leads us to reflect on the power of love, and sacrifice, and virtue, then I think we have a good thing.

Like I said at the outset, there’s a lot more I’d love to talk about regarding Wonder Woman.  If you’re interested in more, let me know in the comments!

Martyr for Marriage

baptist

Well.  It’s been awhile.  I have discovered that, while blogging itself is not difficult, maintaining a blog consistently is a considerable effort if you are not a professional blogger or journalist.  A particular challenge I’ve found (and this is totally my problem to fix) is that when something happens in the world or the Church that is especially blog-worthy, the major Catholic blogs have already addressed the issue so thoroughly so quickly that I feel like there’s little left to say by the time I can get around to writing.  I’ll have to work on that.

Today, I thought I’d offer a very brief observation for reflection, and I have to be honest and admit that it isn’t even my own: an elderly priest mentioned this in passing in his homily this morning, and I was so struck by it that I thought I’d share it here so others may profit as I did.

Today is the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist.  Obviously, there is plenty to say about John, but there was an element of his death – his martyrdom – that I had not thought about before that seems especially germane to the situation in our world today.

According to the Gospels, John’s imprisonment and subsequent beheading were directly a result of his public critique of one particular event: Herod’s marriage to his brother’s ex-wife Herodias.  She was evidently especially incensed by this, as the texts say that Herod liked to listen to John and at least Mark suggests that Herod was reluctant to kill John at Salome’s request.  But he did anyway, probably because he was drunk and in front of all his important friends.

The specific issue of marriage to a former in-law is not entirely relevant to our present situation, but more simply, John the Baptist was martyred because he spoke out for the truth about the meaning of marriage.  He was, quite simply, a martyr for marriage.

This observation immediately increased my devotion to St. John the Baptist.

To add to this, we also celebrated the feasts of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher this week.  They too were martyred because they refused to sign the oath of supremacy demanded by King Henry VIII over his leadership of the Church in England, a situation brought about because of Henry’s desire to control the meaning of marriage.

This week offers us feasts of multiple saints who died in defense of the meaning of marriage.  This occurs in the midst of the USCCB’s 2016 Fortnight for Freedom (a now annual event that I dearly wish was unnecessary), in which we are emboldened to stand up for religious freedom, these days so caught up with the meaning of marriage and the meaning of manhood and womanhood.

We have powerful intercessors gracefully aligned together at this important time! St. John the Baptist, St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, pray for us!

Risen on Easter Monday

risen_poster

Easter Monday: A day celebrating the day God laughed at pulling a fast one over the Devil with the Resurrection. I decided to spend my Easter Monday afternoon taking my mother to see Sony’s Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes.  In short: I liked it a lot.  The rest of this post is hereby labeled totally spoiler-riffic, but really, if you know the premise of the movie, you can fairly well predict what’s going to happen.  Clever plot twists are not really the point, after all, and the basic structure of this film has already been done previously in both 1961’s Barabbas and even more so in 1953’s The Robe.

Joseph Fiennes is Clavius, a Roman soldier assigned by Pontius Pilate to basically deal with the “Yeshua problem’: attending to closing up his crucifixion at the beginning of the movie, securing the tomb so the body wouldn’t be stolen, and then investigating what happened after the body goes missing. This, of course, leads to meeting the Risen Christ, using a storytelling conceit that is not entirely unlike Jimmy Kimmel imposing himself in the background of movie scenes: Clavius ends up present for some key post-Resurrection Gospel moments, making him a Roman spectator on some rather important events.

If this had been intended to be a “Bible movie,” purporting only to tell the Gospel story, this approach would be ridiculous. But this is not supposed to really be an attempt at an accurate portrayal of Biblical events; it is a story, plain and simple, about how one is changed by an encounter with Christ.

Because of this, the portrayal of Jesus is very important, and I was definitely pleased with Cliff Curtis’ Yeshua. These days, some readers may be more familiar with Curtis from his work on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, but here he plays “Follow the Walking Resurrected,” instead.  (That was terrible; please forgive me for that.)

For me personally, the two characteristics I always want (and only occasionally get) in a film portrayal of Jesus are 1) that he be charismatic and 2) that he be masculine. Curtis does very well on both scores.  Yeshua doesn’t have a lot of dialogue in the movie, which is a good choice, because, to paraphrase the Scriptures, “In a flurry of words, you will not avoid sinning.”  Giving too much dialogue to Jesus increases the chances that his portrayal will suffer at the hands of an all-too human actor.

Aside from the insertion of Clavius into Gospel scenes as a storytelling device, I also found very little that grated on me theologically…except for one thing: poor St. Mary Magdalene once again gets reduced to being a prostitute. Boo.  But there were a number of other little details that I liked a lot.

It’s very easy to miss, but the film shows us what Barabbas did after he was released by Pilate. It’s a much different ending than Anthony Quinn’s version.

The film takes a pretty clear stand on whether the Shroud of Turin is actually the burial shroud of Christ.

I liked that Jesus and the Apostles smiled, without being goofy about it (Bartholomew’s first appearance was a little off-putting, but I got over it). They certainly weren’t overly pious “sad-faced saints.”

I liked that the Apostles expressed that they didn’t know what to make of Jesus before the Resurrection, and they were still clearly confused after the Resurrection. That seemed quite plausible to me.  Despite their confusion, though, they had joy in their faith.

The Ascension was not how I would have done it, given the details in Acts, but they certainly made it appropriately supernatural (and accurately quoted Matthew 28 as well). Since the event of Pentecost was referenced two or three times by Simon Peter, I really hoped the movie would end with that event, but I didn’t get it.  Instead, the film ends on a much quieter note, which perhaps leads one to more introspection.

And in the end, that’s what the movie did. It moved me in places and, when it was all over, it made me want to pray. That made it an excellent choice for Easter Monday.  I recommend it.

Sex, Lies, and Magazine Surveys

BostonThis week in class, one of my seminarians brought up a new article in Boston magazine on sex in the city (it’s in the February 2016 issue, but at the time of this writing, I couldn’t find an online version of it).  It was a series of 10 anecdotes about various non-traditional elements or approaches to sex and dating, along with some statistical “data” gleaned from a poll offered by the magazine.  By way of review, I found the article occasionally appalling, often predictable, and mostly pathetic.  What I “learned” is that the single life is hard, some people like to act kinky behind closed doors, and it’s OK to have sex for money if it pays your way through school.  I also learned that the average number of times people have sex per month averaged between three (for people not in a relationship – telling in itself) and nine (for people who have been in a relationship for less than five years, but who weren’t married).

There is nothing especially new in this survey, other than perhaps the article’s introduction, which praises Massachusetts as being so “ahead of the curve” in misunderstanding the meaning of human sexuality. But this style of survey can be found in any number of other magazines.  In fact, it seems such a survey is found pretty much every month in that bastion of forward thinking, Cosmopolitan.

The relevance of this statistical data is dubious at best. The Boston survey notes that it is the compiled results of 612 Bostonians aged 18 to 54.  So we have a self-selected anonymous survey of readers of the magazine that represents less than 1/1000th of the population of the city.  I seriously suspect even less work was done on other such surveys; perhaps an impromptu poll around the office.  No one should take these results seriously.  No one.

Of course, I doubt anyone does take these surveys very seriously.  Or, at least, that’s what most of us claim.  The problem is that many people read them, even if it is only out of prurient curiosity, and this becomes an element of one’s own particular brain-washing.  You see, every one of us is brain-washed.  It is absolutely unavoidable in our culture.  But, in truth, we have a good amount of control about what actually washes our brains.  This form of discernment, especially in light of these surveys, is part of the virtue of chastity.

When we fail to exercise this discernment, even as we laugh our way through the stats on display, we are subtly affected by what we read. We logically conclude that these kinds of quotes and anecdotes about unusual sexual behavior are not the norm, but we sometimes fail to see the brokenness of the persons involved in these tales.  And we start to think that maybe if there is one person like this, maybe, just maybe, there are more people also secretly just like this.  And then we might think: if I find this behavior unusual, maybe I’m the one who is prudish, or out of touch, or not as progressive as I might want to think.  At that point, even if we never change our behavior one bit, our momentary confusion, a consequence of brain-washing, has hindered us in our responsiveness to the grace of Christ that makes us fully human.

So we have to practice discernment. We must, to use one of those old-fashioned traditionalist phrases, “discipline our senses.”  We need to make prudent choices about what we allow to live in our brains, to become strongholds in our mind, and when we do hear about or read these surveys, we have to turn to prayer for ourselves and for our whole culture that the Kingdom might become more fully alive among us.

In the meantime, if you happen to be one of those people who enjoys the acts proper to your sacrament in a loving, unitive embrace that is open to new life, or if you’re a single person who respects yourself and those with whom you are in relationship because you recognize that you are wonderfully made in the image of God, or if you are a celibate who lives a holy vocation as a sexual human being, offering yourself in acts of love and service, then according to these surveys, we’re the freaky ones.  Let your freak flag fly, baby!

Hope and Joy in a Time of War

spiritual warfare.jpg

On this Gaudete Sunday, I thought I would take a much different approach to this Feast of Joy. Those of you who know me personally know that I take the notion of spiritual warfare very seriously.  By “spiritual warfare,” I am referring to the idea that our lives here are part of a cosmic struggle in which evil tries to undermine the glory of God before the final consummation of all things.  Despite this being an element of my personal spirituality, it sometimes requires a little more prudence for me to address this concept as a professional theologian – which, honestly, doesn’t make much sense, but I guess there’s an expectation of an academic to be more “grounded.”  Be that as it may, as we move through the liturgical drama of the Advent season, instead of reflecting on the joy of Christ’s coming directly, I want to offer a reflection about why we need Christ to come into our world – the spiritual battle still raging between Christ’s Kingdom and the power of evil.

The battle that seems most obvious to so many these days is the one involving the actions of violent, radical Islam against the West. I think Pope Francis is right when he calls these actions (both by and against ISIS) part of a “piecemeal World War III.”  For myself, for the purposes of this post, I am going to sidestep trying to navigate through the complexity of discerning how to act against terrorist violence without stereotyping all the adherents of an entire religious tradition (something Christians should be more sympathetic to than many examples I’ve seen in the past month or so), or of offering aid to refugees while being vigilant against covert infiltration by dangerous extremists.  These are important and complicated issues, and while I certainly have thoughts on them, they are not my concern right here, right now.

More germane to our prayerful reflections this season is the fact that all of the anxiety, fear, heartache, anger, and violence associated with these events are aspects of the spiritual war in which we are all engaged. It is consuming our attention at the moment, and not without good reason.

But the satanic scheme to undermine our confidence in God’s love and providence is rarely as blunt and in-your-face as brutal violence perpetrated in the name of God Himself. It is undoubtedly effective (as evidenced by the evergreen-but-historically-inaccurate notion going around that “religion is the cause of all the violence in the world”), but in truth, I suggest that this is merely a smokescreen.

At this point, I need to be very clear. I am in no way downplaying the significance of these terrorist attacks or attempting to minimize the horrific tragedies introduced into so many lives.  I am not suggesting that this is only a problem of misunderstanding or that if we ignore this issue, it will go away.  But I am trying to demonstrate a higher level, if you will, to the problem.

By way of further explanation, let me use a much different example that is another battlefield in this spiritual war. Here in Massachusetts, the State Senate recently passed a bill that would make Planned Parenthood’s sex ed curriculum the default curriculum for all public schools that have a sex education program, grades K-12.  This is just a single assault in the ongoing battle over the truth about human sexuality, but it is an important one, as the arguments that allowed this bill to pass 32-6 demonstrated ideologically and emotively driven arguments that proved unusually resistant to reason and documented fact.

I suppose a traditionalist Catholic moral theologian bemoaning the sad status of sex education in a secularized culture is hardly novel. But this is a far more insidious attack on the Kingdom of God than jihadist ultraviolence because of its subtlety.  As a professional observer of the sexual revolution and its effects, it is fascinating and unsettling to see how slowly but surely, from many different angles, we have come to the place our culture presently finds itself.  While obviously many factors contribute to this, a spiritual primary cause must be recognized: the desire of personified evil to undermine the wisdom and beauty of God’s plan for love and sexuality.

And before we have a chance to consider how to respond to such a situation, the enemy launches an attack from a different angle: the unusual circumstances of the recent shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood facility, giving numerous outlets for the nation’s largest abortion provider and its supporters to play the martyr in the press, noting their righteous plight in offering “essential health services” while threatened by “Christian domestic terrorists.”

This move has temporarily undermined the brilliant work of the Center for Medical Progress in revealing, not just the legality or illegality of Planned Parenthood’s practices regarding body parts of aborted children, but more importantly, the thoroughly inhuman attitude towards human life on display in these videos. The Colorado shooting has turned the tables back around in favor of Planned Parenthood, however.  From the higher perspective of spiritual warfare, one can see the influence of spiritual forces moving a mentally challenged man to violence and making it look like it was motivated by Christian devotion.

(Of course, in the rapid movement of contemporary news cycles, however, someone evidently forgot to check with Screwtape before motivating another shooting so soon in San Bernardino. )

In all of these instances, human decisions bring great evil and suffering into the world. I am not suggesting that these people have no responsibility for their actions; that would clearly be an irrational conclusion.  But behind all of this human agency are the notes of a cosmic symphony, and those looking to play out a beautiful song of creation contend with those who only seek discordance.

Recognizing this symphony is what Jesus meant when he said we need to be as “shrewd as serpents” (Mt 10:16) and what John meant when he said we must “test the spirits” (I Jn 4). We are baptized as prophets and kings to give witness to the truth and to be responsible stewards of the Kingdom.  We are formed in Christ during a time of war, since the final battle and the end of the world began at the cross.

As Christians, we cannot see these situations from the comfortable perspective of a worldly ideology that neatly categorizes the world along the lines of political positions. This too is part of the enemy’s plan: to keep us thinking small, to allow us to diminish ourselves – not only by our sinful actions, but also by our superficial, sinful judgments of others.  This is not just about seeing Christ in everyone we meet (a truthful command that has unfortunately been diminished to the level of a platitude), but also seeing the stakes involved in this battle: the very soul of the human race.

The whole season of Advent is, of course, a season of joyful expectation. But in addition to participating in the drama of the Incarnation in history, we are also look forward to the Second Advent – the final revelation of Christ at the end of all things.  Our lives here now exist in a time of tension between what has been and what is still to come.  We should feel ill at ease, like we’re waiting for something to happen at any moment.  Like a soldier on a battlefield, knowing the Enemy is near.

Yet today reminds us that, in the midst of darkness and strife, we should also hold onto hope, knowing that our enemy’s final defeat is swiftly at hand and we only need to hold the line until He comes. Let’s keep alert to the battle behind the evidence of our senses, the battle beyond our reason too often focused solely only on this world and the mad, mad events going on around us.  The war is bigger, the enemy greater and more powerful, but our salvation stronger and surer still.  Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! A Blessed Advent to you all.

Naked Reality

Gomez

Over on mtv.com, stacey grant (hey, she doesn’t bother to capitalize her name, so I won’t either) has written against the body shaming of Selena Gomez after Gomez posted her new album cover on Instagram. I’ll be honest in saying that I wasn’t sure how one should properly define “body shaming,” but grant provided me with a working definition: “For a society that’s heavily focused on our own personal gain, we sure do spend a lot of time obsessing over other people’s — especially women’s — bodies. She’s too fat, she’s too thin, she’s too tall, she’s too short, etc. No matter how a person looks, someone will point out a “flaw” they personally deem unattractive. Which, in all truthfulness, has gotten really, really old.”

As a culture, we do obsess over women’s bodies, to the detriment of us all. Women are dehumanized when we see them as objects of erotic longing rather than as persons made in the image and likeness of God. Men are dehumanized when they are encouraged to see their own meaning as men in their ability to categorize, evaluate, and use women’s bodies without recognizing their personhood.

But this definition of body shaming seems to suggest that one is not allowed to make a subjective evaluation of appearance, even with the most chaste intent. To suggest a preference of some kind is evidently an implicit attack on anyone who lacks the characteristic in question. This is an irrational degree of sensitivity that has become all too common.

The rest of the article is loaded with more irrational contradictions. My favorite is that while Gomez admits that her image has been Photoshopped, the author points out, “she still looks absolutely flawless.” This isn’t sarcasm or irony; this is an utter triumph of illusion over reality. It doesn’t matter how things really are – as long as everything looks good, reality is unimportant. Evidently, even the reality that we don’t question when 23-year old young women feel the need to pose naked to promote music.

If we want our relationships to be more truthful, more real, more authentic, we have to really know and love persons as persons. When our first parents ate from the tree of knowledge, they imagined they would be like gods (Gen 3:5). But we didn’t become gods; instead, we just pretend that we are. We look in a mirror and see whatever we want to see and pretend that it’s real and that it’s good and that we don’t really need to SEE anyone else. But in truth, we only see through a mirror darkly (I Cor 13:12). Very darkly. But in the light of Christ, we can see one another “face to face” and then, only then, will love triumph over illusion.

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