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Godzilla and Laudato Si

GodzillaOk, work with me here on this one.

A couple weeks ago, the family went to see Godzilla: King of the Monsters (in IMAX, of course).  It was a hugely exciting experience for the three kaiju fans in the house…and my beautiful wife endured it for the opportunity to see us so giddy.  The movie did not disappoint me and I honestly look forward to getting the chance to see it on the big screen again.

The movie was full of Easter eggs and homages to the old movies (there are 34 others, by the way; most people don’t know that), including the use of one of the most important and persistent themes: Godzilla as metaphor for humanity’s failed stewardship of the planet.

I need to do some spoilers for the movie here, but by this point you’ve likely either seen the movie or don’t care about the plot, so here we go.  It turns out that the giant monsters on the earth have always existed as a sort of balance for the ecological health of the world.  When a scientist throws in with a group of ecological terrorists, they plan to unleash all of the monsters to wipe out humanity and give the planet a fresh start.  However, they failed to account for an otherworldly monster named Ghidorah that has been imprisoned on the earth since pre-history.  When it is released, it takes control of the other monsters and sets about its plan to re-shape the world.  Godzilla, Ghidorah’s ancient rival, rises up to defend the world.  When the dust settles finally, it is revealed that peaceable relations between humans and monsters have started to heal the ecological devastation of the Earth.

Giant monsters as a metaphor for the environment, ecological balance, and a check on humanity’s hubris? Maybe that’s a little odd, until you remember that Godzilla was originally a horror movie about a monster born as a result of the American nuclear weapons used on civilian populations in Japan in 1945.  Less than 10 years after that event, the terror and scars of nuclear abuse were still all too real.  For decades afterwards, Japanese filmmakers returned to ecological balance as a theme again and again, always paired with the foolishness of human confidence in technology unchecked.

These themes perfectly complement Catholic teaching in general, and in particular Pope Francis’ Laudato Si.  To me, the best part of that document is when he talks not only about ecology in the traditional sense of the word, but specifically of human ecology (a term originally used by John Paul II in Centesimus Annus).  In paragraph 155, Francis says, “Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment.”  King of the Monsters aptly demonstrates the connection between the natural environment and the moral environment in the decisions made by overeager scientists, the military, scientists looking to preserve balance, and terrorists who have no respect for human life.  There is an intimate web of relationships between persons and the environment that needs to be nurtured with the cardinal virtue of prudence.

ghidorah.jpgThe movie even gives us an appropriately Satanic figure in Ghidorah, an alien to this world, who seeks to destroy both humanity and natural order, who became a temptation to go beyond the bounds of wisdom, and who is more powerful than humanity alone can withstand.  As a result, the human race needs to rely on a power greater than itself in order to save the world.

Godzilla as Christ-figure? Well, the movie doesn’t actually shy away from such imagery at all, but I don’t think you need to go as far as that.  It’s sufficient for us to realize that we are not the rulers of the earth, but merely its stewards.  We are beholden to a power greater than ourselves, and only respectful submission of mind and will to the Creator can assure us a peaceful existence as persons and as communities.

Long live the King! (And long live Godzilla, too.)

So what has everyone been up to?

HolyCrossAs I noted in my last post, I had to take some time away from posting here to work on another project.  That went pretty successfully, so I have some freedom to come back here.  I didn’t make it back before the end of Lent: I barely made it back before the end of Easter! For those who had a chance to use my Lenten reflection booklet, I hope it was a good companion on your journey.  It seems a little odd to me that we have books of reflection for Advent and Lent, but not ones for the joyous and glorious seasons of Christmas and Easter.  Hmmm…this is something to mention to my editor…

I do have an Advent booklet coming out at the end of the year (though I do not know its final published name yet) and I will be writing another Lenten booklet this summer.  Look for those.

It’s been a busy time if you are an ecclesiologist: Pope Francis has issued a new motu propio and a new draft on structural changes at the Vatican.  I have not yet had the opportunity to reflect seriously on them yet.  There are a couple things that seem very positive, but others that I’m still apprehensive about.  I wish I could approach texts like this with greater openness.  I need to trust the Holy Spirit more.

It’s always a busy time if you are a moral theologian.  Here in the diocese of Worcester, I had the opportunity to be with Bishop McManus when he presented on the topic of transgenderism at the yearly bioethics conference sponsored by Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy.  As I should have expected, this created another tempest in a teacup over what was really a very uncontroversial presentation of Catholic teaching on the subject.  Particular exception was taken to His Excellency’s use of the research done by Dr. Paul McHugh, who has become a high-profile target for suggesting that maybe we think more carefully about modernity’s obsession-of-the-moment: gender identity.  There should be nothing especially controversial about this either, but if a conversation on the subject takes as an indisputable starting point that gender is entirely a social construct with absolutely no meaningful basis in biology, there’s no room for meaningful discourse anyway – just shouting and arguing.

There remain legitimate questions about the best way to minister to persons in the Church who experience gender dysphoria.  This is the new version of the question of how to minister to persons who experience same-sex attraction.  There remains a fundamental divide between acknowledging the dignity of a person and loving him or her and accepting all their actions or their perceptions about reality.  But this is not how the mandated rules of public discourse function anymore: a rejection of a person’s act or a person’s point of view is a rejection of the person.  We are all mere summations of our attitudes and ideas; matter and form matter no longer.

So it continues.  The world remains in travail until the full revelation of the sons and daughters of God (Rm 8:22).  Let’s keep loving.

Beginning of Lent Update

Finding-Forgiveness-In-Lent

Just a quick update and explanation of what happened: I make a resolution for short weekly updates, and then promptly fail to keep my promise.  Man, if that’s not an appropriate reflection on fallen humanity here at the beginning of Lent, I don’t know what is.

The reason I was not able to keep my promise was that other time-sensitive writing assignments have come up and occupied my writing time.  This Advent, in your parish seasonal materials, look for a reflection journal written by me.  Several of you have written to me to tell me that you have picked up Finding Forgiveness in Lent; I pray that that is useful to you this season.

Now I am in the midst of finishing a different writing assignment that is not related to my other professional work, so I’ll still be slow to post here until that’s done.  I missed an opportunity to talk about Momo (don’t bother looking it up if you don’t know what it is), but I do have some other ideas that I hope to get to during Lent.  Soon.

“You seem to have a case of…being a man.”

jesusI’m not going to talk about the Covington kids or MAGA hats or Gillette commercials; you can read more about them just about anywhere.  I wanted to reflect on something that is supposed to be a shade more academic than all that, yet I haven’t seen too much commentary on it in these past few weeks of evidently poisonous men.

It’s a real shame that it has taken this long to have concerted cultural conversation on masculinity and a bigger shame that it is being treated in this way.  Men started having serious conversations about the meaning of being a man back in the ‘90s with Robert Bly and Iron John especially, but also from a host of other writers, many of them good Catholic men.  Some of the excesses of that movement were lampooned in popular culture (shirtless middle-aged guys in the woods wearing war paint and beating drums, men hugging and crying like children because they were “allowed” to have feelings) and maybe rightly so.  But there were also many important ideas that came out of that movement, most notably a sense that what it meant to be a man had been lost and that men were confused about who they were.  Men were drawn to the movement because they knew they had something important to offer specifically because they were men, but that had become lost.

It’s even further lost now.  Many men who actually care what other people in their lives think about them have become scared or embarrassed to act like a man, talk like a man, or even express that they like being men.

(For what it’s worth, I love being a man, and I encourage my two sons to love being men also.)

That’s all by way of reflection on the past.  Now to what I mentioned in my first paragraph.  The American Psychological Association this month released Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men (though it is dated August 2018).  It has missed the mark.  I’m not especially surprised by this: the APA has not been a legitimate source for the truth about the human person for at least 50 years.

In fairness, the guidelines were intended as an overdue companion to their Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Girls and Women, released in 2007.  But there can be no doubt that there is an ideological agenda at work in releasing these guidelines right now.

And what do they include? I encourage anyone interested to read the 36-page document themselves, though it’s a pretty frustrating read.  One encounters problems right from the outset:

  • On page 2, there is a need to define “cisgender,” “gender bias,” “gender role strain,” “masculinity ideology,” “oppression,” and “privilege.” The document’s landscape is defined by a host of ideological buzzwords before men themselves are even addressed.
  • By contrast, these same definitions are included in the guidelines for women, but only after 11 pages of description of the situation of women in the world are provided first. In other words, there is a presumption about “women” that cannot be taken for granted for “men.”
  • The guidelines strive to avoid stereotyping of women and the effects of bias on women. The first part of the guidelines for men instead state that there are competing masculinities.  This calls into question the meaning of masculinity right from the start, which is not done for women.
  • The guidelines for men question behaviors in which men act out against themselves and others, while the guidelines for women discuss behaviors that are done against women. I am willing to believe this was not entirely intentional, but there is a curious narrative here of men doing evil and women suffering evil in these documents.

In fairness, it’s not all horrible: the guidelines note that men die sooner, commit suicide more often, and engage in unhealthy lifestyle choices more regularly, and that these are serious problems facing men.  But I couldn’t get away from the very real sense that the reasons things were so bad was that it was our fault, and that if we were men who were just different than the creatures of the last several thousand years the world would be a better place.

Of course, a different view of the history of the world shows that, without those creatures, we wouldn’t even be able to have this conversation today.

Let me end by reminding us of simple theological truths.  God made us men and women, two different ways of being a body, but both equally made in the Image of God and both equally saved by the redemptive sacrifice of Christ.  But they are made different for more than just reproduction.  The simple observation that we intuitively understand our manhood or womanhood as something more than just a matter of our genitals is built in us for a purpose.  In salvation history, Mary is exalted because of her faith and because she is a woman.  The Incarnation is God-Made-Flesh for the salvation of all and he is also a man.  These are not accidents.  They are part of the perfection of the divine order.

I hope our current cultural moment might spur useful reflections on masculinity and I hope it will continue to shed light on practices perpetrated by men in the name of manhood that have nothing to do with a whole and holy masculinity.  But in the end, I hope we can all appreciate men for being men and stop trying to make them into something else.

The Fish and the Devil

aquaman-box-office.jpg

I’m a little late to the party with some of the more recent superhero media available (it’s finally coming out so quickly and consistently that I can’t consume it all as it arrives anymore), but this past week I finally saw Aquaman with Bridget.  It was a thoroughly entertaining movie, but it does suffer from a number of nitpicks that definitely keep it out of the A-list of big-budget superhero movies.  However, my goal today is not to review the film (though I will happily discuss it in the comments) but rather to draw attention to one particular part of the film and compare it with another superhero property.  In doing this, I will do my very best to keep spoilers to a minimum by not describing the context of the issue in question any more than is necessary.

One of the things that matters the very most to me when watching a superhero movie or TV show is the dialogue used to express what it means to be a hero and why that is important.  As I have written previously, I think this is the most important element of these productions for our popular culture.  The “hero speeches” in Aquaman are fairly brief (and most of the most important one is contained in the trailer, of course).  They do the job but I can’t say I left the theater with a very strong sense of why Arthur Curry is a hero when compared to his peers Superman and Batman.  I came away understanding that being a hero is important, and he was considered a hero, but I wasn’t fully sure what that meant for this character.

When talking about superheroes and virtues, one critical issue for me is the issue of killing.  This is controversial among some comic book fans, I suppose, but by and large, I think superheroes are not good superheroes if they kill their opponents – even when that seems totally impractical (Batman and the Joker readily come to mind here).  A superhero might accidentally kill someone, or he or she might be pressured to do so in order to save the universe, but these decisions are rare and not to be taken lightly, and they should have a lasting effect on a hero.

Without getting into too much detail, there is a death early on in Aquaman, a death that could have been prevented.  When it occurred, my wife and I both said, “That’s not a good thing,” confident that it would come up again later in the film.  It did – but the discussion of it had very little to do with the objective wrongness of the act.  The hero regretted the death because it caused inconvenience to people he had come to care about and had led to other deaths.  There’s nothing wrong with these reasons for regret, but they should have been combined with the realization that we are called to a higher standard – a heroic standard that doesn’t evaluate morality solely by pragmatic or utilitarian terms.

This failure was not enough for me to say I didn’t like the movie, but like I said, there was little to distinguish this “superhero” movie from “action movie with a protagonist who happens to have superpowers.”

Bridget and I also plowed through Season 3 of Netflix’s Daredevil this past week.  It came out a few months ago, but we needed the Christmas break to have time to focus on it.

Talk about a contrast.

There is no question that this show was the best of the 11 seasons of all the Netflix Marvel shows and among the best superhero television or movies so far produced by anyone.  It’s that good.

It also happens to have the issue of killing at the forefront of the hero’s story.  I won’t spoil who does or does not kill, but there are several conversations about what killing means and what killing does to a person.  The show makes it clear that it adversely affects a person no matter how justified the act might be.  We get to see some of these effects on the characters.  Throughout it all, there is a very clear message: killing, even if done for supposedly noble or justifiable reasons, is objectively wrong and always leaves scars.

On a different note (and slightly off topic), this season of Daredevil also does an excellent job of framing specifically Catholic thought in the violent life of a superhero, providing a priest and a nun who, while unconventional in some senses, give real, human portrayals of both the truth of good and evil, God and free will, and the struggle to actually live that truth.  This is worthy of a conversation in itself, but perhaps that should wait for another time.  For now, I’ll just say that any Catholic interested in both the moral life and superheroes should see this show.

Thus, we have two different superhero presentations: one is bright, colorful, clearly larger than life, and aimed at a wide audience.  The other is dark, brutal, and sometimes difficult to watch.  Yet Aquaman fails in its portrayal of a compelling moral vision.  Given how many more people, especially young people, are going to see this movie, that’s unfortunate.  Warner Brothers is still struggling to follow Marvel’s lead in making excellent movies about their characters (Wonder Woman, so far, has been a wonderful fluke).  I believe a significant part of that struggle is the way they portray their characters.  More than trying so hard to get the “cinematic universe” that Marvel Studios has produced, perhaps they should give some thought about what it really means to be a hero in the first place.

Angels and Opportunities

michaelangel

I assume that I am among the hundreds of bloggers who have New Year’s resolutions for their writing.  For my part, I am going to attempt to no longer complain about the difficulty of writing with any consistency and instead I’m just going to try doing it.  In an effort to encourage some accountability on the part of those reading, I’ll even be specific about my intentions: I am going to write on Thursdays, at least for the next several months, as I have no classes on Thursdays.  This means a post should be up by the weekend.  However, in order to also make this a real possibility for me, I am giving up my preference for writing 2000-word essays and instead focusing on shorter, more succinct pieces, at least until I develop some sort of a habit.  Let’s see what happens.

The New Year is normally a time of optimism about new possibilities, and I have certainly experienced (and personally felt) some of that optimism.  However, I have also seen some shades of cynicism about the future in greater degree than normal for only a couple days into January.  For some, there just seems to be “too much,” defined by any number of standards: political incivility, the “culture wars,” the crises in the Church, personal challenges, etc.

A few things come to mind when reflecting on this.  First, this is the way of the world.  This is the legacy of original sin.  And this is the way things have always been.  Are times worse now than they have been before? In some ways, sure.  But the very end of the world has been upon us since the Incarnation, a theme prominent in Advent and still present in this season of Christmas.

Second, “the times are never so bad that a good person can’t live in them.”  This paraphrase of St. Thomas More reminds us that we always have an individual responsibility to face up to the crises of the moment.  We can complain (and we all do), but complaint has to give way to prayer and action.

A third point is that we cannot address the crises of our times alone.  We always do this as Church, as the Mystical Body of the one who took flesh to show us how to live and how to love.  We work with and among all those who share the discomfort brought about by these end times.

In addition to the people we live and love and pray and worship with, we are also joined by an immense host.  Beyond the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant, we work alongside the legions of beings whose very existence is ordered toward furthering the redemption of creation: the angels.

I have been very thankful for the Church’s more explicit acknowledgment of this truth in these last few months.  Dioceses across the country – including here in Worcester – have returned to the practice of reciting the prayer of St. Michael as a community at the end of Mass.  We can never forget that the whole of our natural lives is lived alongside a much deeper supernatural reality – a conflict between truth and lies, unity and division, dignity and degradation, love and hate.

The profound disagreements and discord of our times have their origin in something far more fundamental than differing opinions; ultimately, this is a conflict about the very way we understand reality.  If we get this wrong, we can only be victims.  So at the beginning of this new year, while we’re making all sorts of resolutions about being better people and holding on to all sorts of hopes for the future of our Church and our country, let’s also pray for a more lively awareness of the presence of the angels (and the demons) around us.

St Michael the Archangel, pray for us!

 

 

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.

Strange Thing Mystifying

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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!

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