'Gone Girl'... Surprise! Ugh!

By Bonnie Anderson & Dan Webster

No spoiler alert. Nothing in this commentary will ruin this film for you. Just go see it.

Gone%20Girl.jpgLuckily, Gillian Flynn, author of the bestselling book, “Gone Girl,” also wrote the screenplay for the film. It’s a good thing, too, because the story is complicated, intricate, surprising and could have been another book-to-movie disaster. Unlike the American version of the film, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” also directed by David Fincher, “Gone Girl,” can be easily followed without having read the book. However, if you have read the book, “Gone Girl” easily transforms your personal visuals to the big screen.

Amy Dunne goes missing on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, and so it begins. Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck respectively, deliver stellar performances as Amy and Nick Dunne, each with their personal foibles and creepy, but distinct, behaviors. Police, media, Amy’s parents, Nick’s twin sister Margot (Carrie Coon) and ultimately Nick’s attorney (Tyler Perry) all serve as supporting actors to emphasize the bizarre unfolding of this psychological and often startlingly, physical, thriller.

If you plan to see this film, know before going that the breath-taking and graphic physical violence, coupled with the intense mental gymnastics exposes a form of evil that is unknown to most of us. Buckle up.

Amy and Nick start out gaining sympathy from the audience. Two young professionals find each in New York City (no small feat), get married, lose their jobs in the recession, and move to middle America to care for Nick’s dying mother.

Like many Americans who lost jobs in the 2008 crash their lives were stressed. Then a move…another stressor. Then the death of a parent. A lot of such stress on even the healthiest of marriages can bring out flaws or even worse, shatter them.

Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), lead detective in the “find Amy” investigation, keeps a calm and measured demeanor amidst the craziness of the media and the drama of the plot. She holds tight to the law of innocent until proven guilty and is the one sane and even somewhat kind, character in the film. Nick’s sister stands by him, but she’s as wacky as her brother.

There are enough twists and turns, deep valleys and high plateaus to remind us of an amusement park roller coaster ride. But the film is not amusing. Sex and violence are used as forms of manipulation. Trust, betrayal, and the critical background noise of the media, effectively shape the fickle public perception of Nick’s innocence or guilt in Amy’s disappearance. Perhaps coincidentally, the portrayal of the role of the media in this film effectively rings true to the manipulative role that media often plays in “real life” during high visibility situations. Lesson to be learned by the public perhaps.

Just about anyone’s life, when it comes under microscopic evaluation, can turn up disappointing decisions and callous mistakes. In church language we call that, sin. We know that we all fall short of God’s hope and plan for our lives. That’s why in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church, other Christian denominations, as well as other religions, there are rites for the admission of sin, an opportunity for amendment of life and a commitment to do better.

As the pathology unfolds on the screen and the worst of the human condition presents itself, the question arises: Where is God in all this? Hard to say. It wasn’t obvious. But the words that came to mind are those said before many Holy Communion services in the Episcopal Church: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires knows and from you no secrets are hid.”

Secrets can damage the soul and destroy lives. When we can share those secrets with the Almighty there is the possibility of hope; a chance at redemption.

Bonnie Anderson is senior warden at All Saints-Pontiac, Michigan and immediate past president of The Episcopal Church General Convention’s House of Deputies. Dan Webster is a priest in the Diocese of Maryland and former broadcast news executive.

Beyond Cynicism: The Fault is in Our Stars

by Donald Schell

I enjoy reading movie reviews. I find them a good way to listen for themes and ideas in popular culture. Sometimes the best reviewers get me wondering about the philosophy (and even theology) of the moment – what it has to say to our proclamation of Gospel or what the Gospel we preach and mean to live might say to cultural perspectives we hear in the movie reviews. Reviews also help me decide whether to see or avoid a movie. Though occasionally it’s my argument with the reviewer rather than his/her endorsement that makes me eager to see the movie.

Fault_in_our_stars.jpgA couple of very good, dependable reviewers seemed to agree that it would unfair to expect “The Fault in our Stars,” the purportedly comic movie about young cancer patients in love, to escape being emotionally manipulative. Both offered a very guarded recommendation of the film “The Fault in our Stars.” They admitted they were reluctant to recommend the movie, because, though found it appealing – they agreed the script well-written and the film-making and acting were very good, but, they warned, since it ended more or less as we knew it had to, it would impossible for the movie not to be manipulative. Expect to find yourself crying, they said, though the film’s other rewards might make it worth putting up with that.

Tears? Manipulated to tears? This warning made the movie all the more appealing to me. Not because I look for tearjerkers, but because I mistrusted their fear of manipulation. Yes, I can feel manipulated, but I welcome a movie that can give me a moment of honest tears. I have a similar sensibility in liturgy. While I’m very suspicious of liturgical manipulation, I enjoy the moments in ordinary or extraordinary liturgy when tears come unsought. And I deeply appreciate Maggie Ross’s re-contextualizing tears as a Christian tradition in her book The Fountain and the Furnace, The Way of Tears and Fire. Our best thinking, whole person, wholly embodied thinking isn’t just rational – it united mind and heart. Or should I say, “Restores heart to mind?” Sentiment, feeling, and beauty meet skepticism and suspicion in some quarters of our culture and media, but without them we’re not fully alive.

So, reading between the lines of warning or cautions from reviewers we usually trust, my wife and I went to see “The Fault in our Stars.” We both enjoyed it a lot and talked about it for several days. Each of us noted that we had laughed at places we wouldn’t have expected to find ourselves laughing, cried a bit and welcomed that, and had been moved in deeper and quieter ways, sometimes in the parts where we guessed those reviewers were probably warning of manipulation. And we liked the movie enough to go on to read the John Green novel that the film had adapted.

I suspect that we need to be clear that there’s a difference between manipulation and invitation to feeling, between sentimentality and honest sentiment if we hope to speak Gospel in our post 9/11 world, politically polarized culture and context.

Our youngest son - a twenty-seven year old actor - and I have had some satisfying conversations about his generation’s version cynicism of our culture’s pervasive cynicism. He calls it “sarcasm” and thinks it partly stems from fear of seeming un-cool. One day at a time he persists in the holy, unpromising commitment to a life making art while he works a couple of day jobs to pay the bills. Feeling is at the heart of his work as an artist, being honestly present to his character, the other characters onstage and the whole weather system of feeling that brings any scene from a play to particular life. And giving real voice and embodiment to characters’ feelings touches the feelings of the audience. Rehearsing and performing a part in a good play invites substantial exploration of the psyche, the actor’s own psyche, the character’s psyche, the playwrights’, and the audiences’.

Recently our actor son performed at San Francisco Playhouse, a theater that says of itself,

“Our theater is an empathy gym where we come to practice our powers of compassion. Here, safe in the dark, we can risk sharing in the lives of the characters.”

Part of what we do together liturgically invites taking the same risks.

Seeing my actor’s commitment to compassion practice in his art, I’m fascinated at what he has discovered and come to love in classic and popular culture from the past. I introduced him to Ella Fitzgerald, and he became an enthusiastic listener until he found Billie Holliday. “Don’t you think Ella’s voice is beautiful?” I asked him. “It is, dad,” he says, “but there’s something in Billie Holiday’s singing that I crave.” He doesn’t go to church any more, but his description of what he looks for in a theater ensemble working with a director and with other actors and the audience sounds to me a lot like a movement of the Spirit. And when I tell them that, he gets it. He also believes deeply in love, in fairness, in honesty, and (it’s important not to miss this one) in beauty.
So when I asked him about his generation’s version of cultural cynicism he recognized it immediately. “Dad, people my age don’t have a lot of hope,” he said. “Don’t forget that we’re the first generation in human history to know humanity could be extinguished from the earth in our lifetime.” He was surprised to learn that many people my age (including me) had our own expectations of a secular apocalypse as we lived through the Cuban Missile crisis and all the nuclear saber-rattling of the 1950's and 60’s. I told him the Summer of Love was another response to the prospect of imminent annihilation. “Wear some flowers in your hair” and ultimately my generation’s version of cynicism came from the seeming certainty that we’d see the end of it all. I told him about the assassinations of leaders who carried different kinds of hope - Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, JFK, RFK, reminded him of Kent State and Johnson’s escalating the Viet Nam War and suggested that perhaps by the time Nixon ended it my generation had exhausted its hope.

How do we renew our willingness to risk feeling? In addition to church, I go to a lot of theater and a good selection of movies. In fact my wife and I see plays about as often as we go to church. And my average church attendance is definitely more than once weekly. When I go to theater or the movies, I’m usually looking for something SF Playhouse’s “empathy gym.” Yes, I do go occasionally for simple pleasure and escape, but even then, I’m looking for artists risking a trustworthy integration of human story and Spirit, a storytelling that can see all that threatens us and all the ways we threaten each other, and still risks hope, still takes the care to draw the contours of love.
I don’t expect the reviewers of “The Fault in our Stars” are listening, but I do encourage readers of Episcopal Café to see the movie. Watch it and see where and how it engages feeling? Ask if it’s trustworthy. My actor son and I have often talked about plays and movies that risk imagining that love is possible, the big risks that’s well worth taking. We’re inspired by the courage of artists who don’t flinch from ugliness but also aren’t afraid to offer and celebrate beauty, fragile as it is. Dostoyevsky said beauty would save the world. Beauty connects something real in us to something real at the heart of existence, the territory where faith meets the hidden work of the Spirit, and there’s ultimately no beauty without compassion and forgiveness.

“The Fault in our Stars” is a movie worth seeing. Augustus and Hazel Grace, the young couple that meet in the cancer support group, have more questions than answers and struggle deeply with hope. They’re believable as adolescents in love. A lot turns from them on the one deeply cynical character in the movie, and in his encounters with them his cynicism remains brutally intact. There are some telling moments of a church worker leading a support group (in an Episcopal church) – he offers impossibly facile answers to kids with cancer. Both the cynical character and the over-eager apologist felt real, and their voices confirmed the bigger picture are larger hopes John Green and his central characters showed us.

As a pastor, as a writer, and as a person who has seen friends go through some terrible losses, “The Fault in our Stars” rang true. I’m grateful to a young writer, young director, and young actors for giving witness to tough Good News, offering us desperately mortal young people un-resigned to cynicism, staring death in the face, and gambling that love is stronger the death.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

"Calvary" ...a case of misplaced atonement

By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster

The striking austerity and dramatic contrasts of the Irish coast landscape is the setting for this remarkable film. Like the dangerous beauty of Sligo County, Ireland, this film is a masterful study in the juxtaposition of gentleness and violence, humor and seriousness, life and death, sin and forgiveness.

Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is the seemingly gentle priest of a Roman Catholic parish in this rural Irish village by the sea. In the confessional, during the opening scene, an unidentified parishioner tells Father James of his repeated and merciless childhood abuse by a now deceased priest. Father James is then told that he has one week to get his affairs in order before the parishioner will kill him. Father James is to be the sacrificial atonement for the sins of an abusive priest and the neglect of the church to successfully address child abuse on a large scale. We do not know the identity of the threatening parishioner, but it doesn’t really matter. This film is not a “who-dun-it” (or is going to do it) but rather a well-crafted glimpse into the depth of the human heart where both love and hate reside.

calvary.jpeg“Calvary,” beautifully directed by John Michael McDonagh, may be one of the ways Ireland is trying to heal from such a catastrophic breach of trust. The church is more part of the social fabric of Ireland than nearly any other country. The church runs the schools, hospitals, and other social welfare agencies that in other countries are operated by local or state governments.

The struggles of faith in “Calvary” are bluntly visible in the lives of the sometimes comical, but tragically vulnerable people of the village. Yet the priest stays aloof, and demonstrates none of his own vulnerability as he attempts to address questions of faith posed to him by the people. We watch as he experiences this same distancing by a church superior to whom he has gone for advice regarding the threat to his life. As Father James explains the threat, the bishop noisily licks his fingers and gives more attention to the delectable edible in front of him than he gives to Father James, who, by the way, doesn’t seem to notice. No wonder Father James is aloof with his own parishioners, he has a good mentor.

After the threat to his life and his visit to the superior, Father James maintains his “business-as-usual” routine, visiting parishioners and gently confronting them with their sinful behaviors, all the while maintaining a profoundly subtle detachment from them that appears as impenetrable as the seaside rocky cliffs they all inhabit. He mourns the loss of his dog in solitude, we see him pray only in solitude, his decisions are made in solitude. No surprise that the parishioners are non-pulsed as they watch the church burn. It appears there is no tended community of the faithful and it is this aloofness that permeates the relationships between the priest and the people and ultimately between the priest and God.

Calvary, also known as Golgotha or the Place of the Skull, is believed to be the site of the crucifixion of Christ and it is in this contemporary Calvary that Brendan Gleeson (Fr. James) and a fine supporting cast, show us the changing social circumstances of practicing religion in the context of a society that appears to have little use for it.

For Fr. James it’s his own passion week complete with blessing bread and wine, harsh words, flawed characters, and his own agony in the garden (well, actually it’s in a pub). There are acts of violence against the church and its priest. But it’s clear that gospel values of goodness, mercy and non-violence are respected as is the gospel story of an innocent victim atoning for the sins of others.

Even with all that, forgiveness appears to transcend the contemporary social context and remain as a common denominator in the language of faith.

“Calvary” should be seen by most anyone who has served in parish leadership, or been the recipient of or given pastoral care. Victims of clergy sexual abuse, however, may wish to consult their therapist before seeing this.

Bonnie Anderson is senior warden at All Saints-Pontiac, Michigan and immediate past president of The Episcopal Church General Convention’s House of Deputies. Dan Webster is a priest in the Diocese of Maryland and former broadcast news executive.

Overcoming xenophobia ... a Biblical and movie theme

By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster

Food fights can get pretty messy, but this film, produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey is one Dreamworks product where the mess is downplayed and overcome by personal dignity, unspoken forgiveness and a “can’t we all just get along” appearance where food is the common denominator.

Steven Spielberg (“Schindler’s List”) and Oprah Winfrey (“Their Eyes were Watching God”) recently produced this film that, in a small, but significant way, belies what many filmgoers think of as their professional commitment to truth-telling and advocacy for justice.

“The Hundred-Foot Journey” for all appearances is a light hearted film that amicably deals with dueling culture foodies.

Set in an idyllic village in southern France, the Kadam family, displaced from India with a son, Hassan (Manish Dayal) who is cast as an ingénue chef, settle across the road from a well established, Michelin-starred French restaurant run by officious Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). The “immigrants” from India, (although no tasteful French village would overtly label them as such) go about setting up an Indian cuisine restaurant within 100 feet of the established French restaurant.

The film is about the courage and faith it takes for these political immigrants to seek asylum and start over in a new country and the courage for people to welcome “the stranger” into the stayed and comfortable lives of their communities. It is about the ridicule and violence that can be wrought by “respectable people”. And it is about speaking up (or not) about the sins of omission when people of faith witness injustice and racism. To say the least, Madame Mallory could have raised a big stink in the community about the ugly writing on the front wall of the Kadam’s restaurant.

Lasse Hallstrom (“Chocolat”) directs a luscious production with a superb soundtrack, though some of the colorful sets were a bit Disney-esque. And he seems to gloss over the racial antagonism that the Kadam family faces as they start a new life in a new country.

Yet some will see this movie taking its place with “Chocolat” (2000), “What’s Cooking?” (2000), or “The Mistress of Spices” (2005), in using food as a way of tackling xenophobia. Others will see this as a predictable “feel good movie” neglecting the flat out racism and subtle classism. They will need to settle for the romance, the success of Hassan, the turn around of Mdm. Mallory, the lovely food, the beautiful photography and the picturesque setting.

But we can’t help but wonder, given Winfrey’s and Spielberg’s history of strong stands for justice and righteousness, if they have settled for subtlety in action.

Bonnie Anderson is senior warden at All Saints, Pontiac, Michigan, and immediate past president of The Episcopal Church General Convention’s House of Deputies. Dan Webster is a priest in the Diocese of Maryland and a former broadcast news executive.

Lucy: a film where violence and theology coexist

By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster

91px-Lucy_%282014_film%29_poster.jpgDon’t let the trailers of “Lucy” deter you. The new Luc Besson film starring Scarlett Johansen and Morgan Freeman is smart, philosophical, and offers great questions about afterlife and evolution. Warning: It is filled with more violence and destruction of property than any of the worst vestry or buildings and grounds committee meetings you’ve encountered.

One has to hand it to Besson, (almost). For a male action writer/director, Besson, keeps trying to get it right with female action leads (La Femme Nikita). But really Mr. Besson, near the close of the film Lucy was using 90% of her cerebral capacity and was smarter than anyone on the planet. Did she really have to ask the gaggle of guy scientists for help?

Aside from that backward slide, Johansson as Lucy, is singularly focused, tough, and violent. An American student in Taiwan, Lucy is unwittingly roped in to being a mule for a crime ring involved in smuggling and selling a synthetic drug that enhances brain power. The blue colored drug is in a pouch sewn into her stomach, then it leaks, and she begins her transformation. It doesn’t kill her. It gives her incredible powers to control time and consciousness.

The film’s special metaphysical effects, time travel, morphed body parts, magnanimous car crashes and lots of gore, keep the film goers who like that kind of stuff grinning happily and only having to use 1% (or less) of their brain capacity.

But the truth is, there is something quite courageous in this film. But you have to watch for it. The film is full of raging action and outrageous special effects, which are gently tempered by the occasional appearance of National Geographic-type clips of animals – doing normal animal stuff but placed in juxtaposition to the bizarre stuff that is happening to Lucy in the film.

It’s a movie about self-awareness, transformation, drug smuggling, eternal life, and even the interconnectedness of all creation. At various times this movie has elements of “2001 A Space Odyssey” (evolution of consciousness), “The French Connection” (drugs and a marathon car chase), “Tron” (human existence in cyberspace), “Phenomenon” (brainpower) and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (for those who like women action figures killing men).

But the film artfully shows the links between humans and nature, and gives filmgoers glimpses of creation spirituality, whether they recognize it or not. The links between Lucy and the ape that appears in the film are particularly profound. As Lucy time travels in the film, she and the ape touch fingers, providing viewers with a strange knock-off version of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”.

For an “in your face” action film, the theological subtleties are even more striking. For example, the ape scenes are subtle, yet critical. The title of the film is the name of a 3.2 million year old fossilized skeleton, discovered in 1974 by Donald Johanson. The fossil skeleton, named Lucy by the crew of archeologists who discovered her, is the first in the Hominid Family Tree to walk upright.

Anyone who has studied Teilhard de Chardin or Matthew Fox will appreciate this movie. As earthly forces continue their greedy journey for power and control, Lucy becomes more aloof to them and more concerned with her deepening consciousness. She wants to share her knowledge as her mortal existence faces a violent end.

A person of faith might see her journey as headed in the direction of the “Omega Point” (de Chardin) or the cosmic Christ consciousness (Fox). A person of science might see it as a natural, albeit speeded up, step in evolution.

“From evolution to revolution”, says Professor Norman (Freeman). “There are more connections in the human body than there are stars in the galaxy”, Professor Norman continues as he drones on about the minimal use of human cerebral capacity (3-5%) and compares humans to dolphins at 20% brain use. At the same time he sets up the filmgoers to anticipate the possibility of what increased cerebral capacity might mean.

During the spectacular car chase the Paris police captain who is helping her confesses his fear of dying. “We never really die,” says Lucy. Immortality for all? Where else have we heard that?

And in the beginning of the film Lucy says,“Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?”

Well, after many special effects, lots of shooting and car chases Lucy gets her full injections of the blue drug. At 100% cerebral capacity, Lucy melts away like the wicked witch of the west.

“Where is she?” they ask. The cell phone vibrates with a text, “I’m everywhere”, it reads.

So is God. That kind of leaves the theologians in the audience (all 2 of us) wondering if the writer/director gets it after all.

Bonnie Anderson is senior warden at All Saints Episcopal Church, Pontiac, MI. She is the immediate past president of the House of Deputies in the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. Dan Webster is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and former broadcast news executive.

"Lucy (2014 film) poster" by http://www.impawards.com/intl/france/2014/lucy.html. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Lucy (2014 film) via Wikipedia

Redemption by repetition

By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster

Live. Die. Repeat. Is that the story of Jesus in our church’s liturgical calendar?

98px-Edge_of_Tomorrow_Poster.jpgNo. It’s the marketing slogan on the one-sheet for “Edge of Tomorrow,” another Hollywood shoot ‘em up, blood spattering 3D (and 2D), and wildly loud film that released June 6.

That it opened on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion was likely no accident. The battle in “Edge” is also an invasion on the beaches of France against slithery, tentacled creatures from outer space that spit fire bombs. The images are reminiscent of those from Normandy in WWII with its overwhelming casualties.

Like Bill Murray in the 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day,” Major Cage (Tom Cruise) finds himself in a time loop repeating the same day (and many of the same lines) again and again in this sci-fi/action flick.

Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, intentionally or not, has interspersed a very subtle message of renewal and salvation into the film. Or he’s put on the big screen what happens in a violent video game that keeps taking you to deeper levels.

But unlike the insidious and elusive evil that slithers through today’s real world, the forces of evil in the film, called “mimics,” are right in your face with their slimy but glittering, tentacles (Even mimics wear Bling in Hollywood).

As Cage and the misfit J squad soldiers, dressed up like Robo Cop wannabes, train for the fight against the mimics they are “evangelized” as their Kentucky drill sergeant yells, “All men truly share the same rank. Through readiness and discipline we are masters of our fate. Tomorrow morning you will be baptized. Born again.” This mantra could capture a wide audience of Buddhists, Christians and perhaps even the “spiritual but not religious.”

Redemption and baptism appear only in the context of a military battle and only on this earthly plain. If there is any solution to the threat to humanity it will only come from technology, science or another explosion.

That’s a popular belief in our society. There seems to be no room for God or a spiritual side. Those who have the most weapons, the most trained fighters, regardless of their motive, will come out on top. That’s how the world works. Could that be changing?

In the beloved community we’re told love overcomes death, estrangement and alienation. Maybe there was good news from the box office receipts on opening weekend. “Edge” finished third behind “The Fault in Our Stars,” a story about love being stronger than death. But, by the third week, “Edge” was drawing more than “Fault.” The audience appetite seemed to shift for another Hollywood formula movie that glorifies the military, righteous violence (or “might makes right”) and defines gender equality as women acting like men. It took nine weeks for “Edge” to drop out of the top ten box office draws.

After big bombs, blow-ups, screeching mimics and repeated deaths and wake ups for Cage (and some of the filmgoers), and Rita (Emily Blunt), the Angel of Verdun, a symbol of hope, leads Cage and the rag tag J Squad into battle to deliver the final zap to the Omega mimic and conquer evil once and for all.

It is no mere baptismal font for Cage’s final death and new life scene. He takes the full immersion option and dives deep into the clear water dwelling to destroy the “Omega” mimic and save the world.

Right there the power of death is defeated and the newly baptized is reborn for the last time into a safer, saved world. Ahhhh.

“All things come of Thee,” even in Hollywood.

Bonnie Anderson is a lay leader (senior warden) at All Saints Episcopal Church, Ponitiac, MI and past president of the Episcopal Church General Convention’s House of Deputies. Dan Webster is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and a former broadcast news executive.

"Edge of Tomorrow Poster" by May be found at the following website: IMP Awards. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Edge of Tomorrow (film) via Wikipedia

Stories and truth

by Derek Olsen

I appreciated Linda McMillan’s recent piece in Daily Episcopalian on the movie Noah. In particular, I like the way she talked about stories. In that piece, she compared different interpretive approaches to Genesis under the rubric of stories. She spoke of how her story was confirmed and challenged and stretched by the story portrayed in the movie. I find this a very helpful way to speak of what we encounter in the biblical text.

As a biblical scholar, one of my main fields of research is the history of interpretation. How have faithful people read, understood, and made sense of the text over time? Stories are one of the key lenses, particularly when dealing with narrative material like the events of the flood.

Where I begin to grow cautious, though, is when we see an assertion that all stories are equally true. Don't get me wrong, I could agree with the statement that all stories are bearers of truth – but that's not the same as saying all stories are true. I think we do better if we suggest that all stories are on a sliding scale; some contain more truth than others. Why does this matter? Because stories are important. Stories shape the way that we understand ourselves, understand the world around us, and the relationships, how we understand God, and the relationships between all of these things. Stories matter because stories shape actions. The way in which stories shape our actions requires us to value and weigh our stories.

In reading Linda’s thoughts about the movie Noah, I was reminded of one of my favorite stories of the interpretive past. It's a reading of the Garden of Eden story from a text called “The Apocryphon [Hidden Book] of John.” It's a delightful story that challenges our received readings, and helps us look at the text with new eyes.

Eve.jpgYou see, most of us come to the Garden of Eden story bringing with it several other stories. In fact, when most of us open the second and third chapters of Genesis, we’re not so much reading the Bible as we are inserting our own abridgment of John Milton's Paradise Lost. It's hard to overstate the influence that Paradise Lost has had on how we understand this text. Ask anybody who the snake in the garden it was – they'll tell you straight off that it's the devil. And yet, that's not what the text says! Rather, there is nothing in the vocabulary, grammar, or syntax of the original story that suggests that the snake is a supernatural being at all – except for the fact that it talks. The only real descriptor that we get of the snake, is that it was wiser than all of the other creatures. Certainly the received interpretation isn’t unique to Milton—the Book of Revelation alludes to it—but the version that most of us carry around in our heads owe more to Milton than anyone else.

“The Apocryphon of John” turns this received wisdom completely on its head by means of noticing and interpreting bits of the story that we normally skip over. It carefully notes that the snake is the wisest of the creatures, that it offers to share wisdom with humanity, and, indeed, enables humanity to become like God—a process like theosis where humanity puts on divinity. With these observations in hand, it confidently identifies as the snake as a different supernatural being: Jesus!

Yes—in this text, the snake in the garden is Jesus! You have to admit, it does give a transgressive thrill to read this text the opposite of the way that we usually hear it. Too, from this direction, Eve is a much more sympathetic character, and can be seen as a real person exhibiting real agency rather than the serpent’s gullible pawn. Shaking us out of our usual patterns, this interpretation helps us hear the text anew, from a radically different angle, and to see elements in it that we’d likely never noticed before.

All in all, it’s an interpretive win—right?

Well, maybe not…

There is one problem here. If you respect the narrative structure at all, there is one essential pattern coded into the story’s dramatic fabric that cannot be altered: the snake-character and the God-character are diametrically opposed. If the God-character is “good,” the snake-character has to be “bad.” If the snake-character is “good”—the God-character has to be the villain. And that’s precisely how “The Apocryphon of John” reads it. While the snake is Jesus, the “god” referred to in Genesis is the evil (or at least thoroughly ignorant) creating demiurge, the sub-divine maker of the material world. In this interpretation, the demiurge is so threatened and challenged by humans “becoming like one of us” (Gen 3:22) that it punishes them by enclosing them in “garments of skin” (Gen 3:21). Thus, it takes the incorruptible souls who are Adam and Eve and encases them within decaying flesh, corruptible matter, by giving them physical bodies. This, then, sets up the religious problem to solve: humans need the wisdom from Jesus to realize the truth about their real spiritual nature, and to escape the corruptible material world for a purely spiritual existence.

If this sounds rather Gnostic to you, there’s a reason for that—it is. “The Apocryphon of John” is a heretical text. Its teachings were condemned by Irenaeus, writing around AD 185 or so, and those condemnations were reiterated for centuries after.

The problem with this kind of reading isn’t just the interpretation itself, it’s the beliefs and actions that are derived from it. Historically, the logic communicated by this text has tended to go in one of two directions. The first is a complete denigration of the physical world and materiality. This is the attitude that says that the world doesn’t matter, physically-based issues like hunger, poverty, and injustice don’t matter, and that the chief concern of the religious should be fleeing the material world for a purely spiritual existence. And, yes, strands of this thinking have been present in strands of Christian thinking through the centuries—and usually have received (and deserve) push-back for it either in their time or in our own. The second is the notion that since real reality is properly spiritual, anything that occurs on a material level is incapable of touching the soul, and therefore any kind of material excess is theologically fair game whether that’s gluttony, lust, or what have you. And, yes, male cult leaders have been laying this one on impressionable young women for literally millennia…

The stories that we tell matter. Stories shape identities and actions. Yes, stories bear truth—but not all stories bear the same kind, quality, and degree of truth. Humans are story-telling creatures and the stories we tell do profoundly shape what we believe and how we act. Cicero’s classic definition of rhetoric, borrowed by Augustine and transmitted hence is that it should “teach, delight, and persuade.” Stories often foreground the “delight,” to the point that we sometimes forget that in their pages and structures are tucked “teaching” and “persuading” as well.

I said above that “The Apocryphon of John” is one of my favorite stories. That’s not because I believe it. On the contrary, I think it’s flat wrong. The reason why it’s one of my favorites is because it dramatically illustrates the need for interpretive boundaries. It demonstrates that for a text to be read consistently and coherently by a given community, that community needs agreed-upon limits for what constitutes acceptable readings.

It’s not enough to declare a reading like this “heretical”—we have to be able to answer the question of why. What is it about the interpretation that makes it heretical? For Christianity as we have received it, there’s a very simple answer. We say “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” That’s the Apostles’ Creed. In two phrases, it shuts down this line of interpretation in two different ways. First, it establishes that God, the one referred to by Jesus as “Father,” is the Creator of the material world. Second, it establishes that Jesus and God really are on the same team. Jesus is not opposed to the Creator, nor is the creator a sub-divine demonic entity. The interpretation put forward by “The Apocryphon of John” fails the creedal test at the outset. (And in quite a lot of other places too numerous to mention. I dramatically simplified the story. Eve isn’t just Eve; she’s actually Sophia in disguise who has been put to sleep and given amnesia by the evil archons who want to defile her. It’s like a complicated “Days of Our Lives” plot but with metaphysical allegories…)

Early on, the Church recognized that stories weren’t enough. Scripture by itself was not enough. Any text can be re-read, misread, and tortured to say something different given enough time and creativity. As a result, we developed a set of inter-related strategies to help keep this from happening: the threefold combination of canon, creed, and apostolic succession. The first is just this: we know which books we’re going to read together. The second: we know which direction we’re going to go on certain controversial points. The third, if we’re not sure about a reading, we have a living body of teachers who have an organic connection (demonstrated symbolically and liturgically by means of laying-on of hands) going back to the Apostles themselves. As Episcopalians, we reaffirmed our commitment to this threefold structure (with the addition of the two great sacraments) in the definition of Christian unity laid out in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral found on page 877 of your Book of Common Prayer.
The creeds are interpretive guides, not straight-jackets. My favorite image for them is the boundaries of a playing field. You can play anywhere you like within the field. Interpret however you like as long as you remain within them. You can go out of bounds, but there are consequences. If you do go outside, the readings you find out there aren’t going to be considered Christian readings. They might be interesting. They might even be instructive. But we won’t able to claim them as our own. The readings found inside the boundaries are the ones that must have the greater claim on what we teach, what we do and—ultimately—who we are.

We should—we must—interpret. We should tell stories and even tell stories about our stories. And we should do so with a spirit of play. But in doing so we need to mind the boundaries; the boundaries exist for a reason.

Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves on the vestry at the Church of the Advent, Baltimore, and as Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede's Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc.

Noah: the movie and the myth

by Linda McMillian

For three years I taught English for Academic Purposes and English for Business in a university in eastern China. It was a fun and exhilarating time, and I found many things to interest me. But in the evenings, when all of us expat teachers would gather for a cool beer, the one thing we often spoke of was the wacky western names our students had chosen for themselves. Oh, sure, there were plenty of Peters, Marys, and Janes too. But there was also Dime, Tomcat, and King. Who could forget River, Sheriff, or Jupiter? And Ark. There was a boy named Ark.

I never asked my students what they might have been thinking when they came up with their western names. As long as they were happy, that was good enough for me. But I happened to be friends with Ark's mother, and, one day, I asked her about it. She is a passionate and expressive Chinese woman, middle-aged and newly middle class. "Oh, teacher," she said, grabbing my forearm, "Ark have all my hope, my mother hope, my grandmother hope. All the hope in Ark." And I asked her if she had heard of Noah and his famous ark? Turns out, that's where she got the idea.

So as I watched Noah's ark twist over the raging seas and across the silver screen last week, I thought of Ark Ding and the hopes that he carries. And I've been thinking about arks and their stories quite a lot since then.

There are only two genuine arks in the Bible: Noah's now-famous ark, and the ark that floated Moses to safety. (The other ark, the Ark of the Covenant, is actually more of a chest; the ancient word is not the same, so modern translations may be confusing on that point.)

They have quite a lot in common, these two arks. Both were made for floating: one on a river, one on flood waters. Both arks hid their occupants: The ark that held baby Moses hid him from death, and Noah's ark hid him from the power of the accusing angel. Moses’ ark protected him from the violence of the Egyptian city-state, and Noah's ark protected him -- and whoever else was with him -- from the wrath of God. Thus, the Hebrew people were saved by Moses, just as humanity itself had been saved by Noah and his followers. Both arks protected a precious cargo, both became famous, and both have been the star of a Hollywood movie.

In general, it shouldn't take too long to build an ark, but the Christian Bible says that it took Noah 120 years to build his. Why so long? Well, Islamic tradition holds that Noah had to first grow the trees before he could start building -- so that would account for a good many years. I don't know much about ark building, but I do know that 120 years is the number appointed for man to live (Genesis 6:3). I don't know of anyone who has actually made it to 120, but the detail is there for us to use in our storytelling. So when I read that it took Noah 120 years to build an ark, I think that the ark must have been the work of his lifetime, the crowning achievement of his days on Earth. So, I think that we can re-frame those words as "It took the best years of Noah's life, and was his crowning achievement."448px-Noah_mosaic.JPG

This makes Noah a lot like my friend in China. Her Ark, too, is the crowning achievement of her life. Building the child into a man is her work and her reward. It is her full-time job to get Ark into the best schools, to arrange the best tutors, to schedule the examinations and interviews. She is building an ark for all her hopes. I wonder if crusty old Noah could ever have imagined that, one day, he would inspire a delicate and sophisticated woman in a land he had never heard of?

Of course, we can't know that Noah was crusty at all. We are just telling stories... all of us. Darren Aronofsky, the director of the new film Noah, is telling us his story on the big screen, but he is not the first one to tell a story about a flood. The one closest to our own Christian version is probably the Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells of how Utnapishtim built an ark to save himself and his family. In this story, God is called Ea, but he appears to be the same character who was previously called Enki by the Sumerians, and who would later be called Yahweh, the Lord God, and A'llah.

Search out the histories of such diverse places as Malaysia, Burma, and Australia and you will find stories of a great flood. Closer to hime, the Hopi, Inca, and Caddo all have flood stories. And I imagine that my Chinese friend, Ark Ding's mother, would be happy to tell you about their flood story in which A-zie and his sister, survived in a bottle gourd. After a bit of wrangling, they managed to repopulate the world but it's a bizarre story. You should look it up.

So, you see, there are lots of stories. In fact, there are as many stories as there are storytellers because, if we are honest, we all put our own spin on things.

In the weeks since the movie Noah has come out, we have been treated to a variety of "What's wrong with Noah" commentaries. So let me just be clear about something—there is nothing at all wrong with Darren Aronofsky's Noah story, my Noah story, or your Noah story. There may be parts of the story that are also historically, archaeologically, or scientifically true, but these are theological stories that we tell one another so that we can know God more fully. Their historical or scientific significance is secondary.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I love the science. Science, or history, or archeology can be true or false, and they broaden our understanding. But stories are true. That's the nature of stories. So, when Darren Aronofsky tells his Noah story, it is as true as any other story.

There were some things I liked about the movie, and some that I wished were different. You will no doubt have the same experience if/when you see it.

For one thing, I did not care for Aronofsky's depiction of the fallen angels, or for his portrayal of Methusaleh’s death. But his depiction challenged me and caused me to revisit my own Noah story and to clarify my thinking about it. Isn't that what a good story does?

I did like the film’s juxtaposition of fire and water. Both are destroyers. Both are purifiers. And they are both the gatekeepers to the Hebrew concept of Shalom which begins with a Shin (the kabbalistic letter for fire) and ends with a Mem (the kabbalistic letter for water.) Lamed, the middle letter in shalom (Shin, Lamed, Mem) is thought to be a grand and broad place. Lamed is the chief of all the letters, towering above the rest. We only arrive at the Holy Lamed of Shalom after we have been through the water or through the fire. Maybe both. So somebody did their Kabbalah homework when they wrote that bit in.

As for the "Crazy Noah" motif, I didn't have a problem with it. It wasn't part of my own Noah story when I entered the theater, but I am glad that Darren Aronofsky introduced that to me. I think it makes a lot of sense. After all, the process of deciding to build an ark far from water with nary a rain cloud in sight should make one a little bit crazy. The movie shows Noah struggling, consulting with others, and sometimes missing it altogether. Frankly, I can relate. I don't need a hero who is perfect. But my take-away from Aronofsky's Noah story is that, if a guy like Noah can be a hero, so can I. Because I make big mistakes too.

Noah_islam.jpgOne of the big mistakes Noah makes in Aronofsky’s film is that at one point he decides to ensure that all humanity is erased. But there is a funny take on this in the Islamic tradition. In that tradition, Noah preached and begged the people to repent. He really did do his best. But in the end he had only convinced 76 other people to join him in the ark. Even one of his sons didn't get on board (Koran 11:42). It was in utter frustration and despair that Noah prayed to God that he wipe everyone off the face of the earth (Koran 71:26). Later the writers of the Psalter would be equally passionate in their frustration and anger (Bible, Psalm 137), but we don't say that they were crazy—just that they were frustrated and angry. Darren Aronofsky let this facet of the story play out in a different way, but it is not something he made up out of thin air—it's part of other stories too.

Some people have made a lot of the fact that Darren Aronofsky does seem to make things up to fill in the canonical gaps. One of the things that I’ve heard is that Noah's wife is named and her character is fleshed out into full humanity. (Yeah, people complain about that.) But just because she wasn't named in the canonical version doesn't mean that Noah's wife did not have a name or a history. Just turn to Bereshit Rabba 23:3, where you can read that her name was Na'amah, which means “pleasant one.” The passage goes on to say that she was the sister of Tuval Cain... just like in the movie.

The biggest complaint I've heard from Christians is that it just doesn't seem very good of God to destroy the whole world. They think it makes Christianity look bad. But that is part of the story too. It's a story, remember? I think the story of Noah is a colorful reminder to us that we are living in a world that really is going straight to Hell, but that those of us who have been given an ark have also been given a responsibility to fill it up.

The good news is that there is a way out of the overwhelming waters, an escape from the smoke and fire. If you have the good news, if your ark is sitting high in the water, then it's time to get busy and fill it up. If Jesus comes back tomorrow -- we're telling stories remember -- then I want him to find my ark so crowded with joyful converts that it is about to capsize! I don't want to drift into heaven on the QE2. There's not a story about that.

So go see the movie. It's a good story. Think and re-think your own stories and tell them to one another. We're all going to get through the water, and we need our stories to help us on the way.

Linda "Lindy" McMillan is a native of the American state of Texas. She currently resides in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Lindy's vocation is adventure, expressed in the ministry of loving the world back to its peace in God.

The angry priest or the boorish photographer?

by Andrew Gerns

Nearly everyone has experienced the insensitive photographer. Especially if you’ve ever presided at a wedding or a baptism.

My favorite moment came when I was doing a baptism and as the infant-candidate, the parents and sponsors gathered with me around the font, and after I invited all the children in the room to come forward and join us there, I looked up to see nearly every single adult friend and family member holding up a camera, video camera or phone.

My first thought was “I wish I had a picture of this…!”

Here was an image of how we have come to mediate our experience of the world: through a screen. We see only what we record.

But there have been times when things were more annoying. When a photographer
searches for the perfect shot but is completely unconscious of his or her context, they end up just getting in the way.

I once did a wedding where, just as the wedding party was gathered around the couple, a guy with a video camera was prowling around the group like a tiger getting reaction shots of not only the bride and groom but each member of the wedding party. I could see faces of each member of the wedding party as they reacted to the lens. The act of recording the moment had become the moment.

I was lucky. The mother of the bride, using nothing more than “The Look,” firmly directed the guy to “Sit! Stay!”

So when a video went viral showing an Episcopal priest telling a videographer, who had been shooting over his shoulder, to leave, I was sympathetic. First of all, it is clear from the video that the wedding was not in a church but at a park or catering facility, so he was doing a sacred rite at a secular location. This can be awkward because the priest tends to be seen as nothing more than 'hired help.'

When he said that the ceremony was not about the pictures but “about God,” I knew what he was saying: that this is a sacred moment, and the videographers were stealing from that by their intrusion. So part of me cheered a bit because the videographer earned the admonition.

On the other hand, the only image we have is of “The Angry Priest,” and the meme is the ruined wedding. That has become “The Story.”

The on-line comments appear to split 50-50. I have seen blog posts taking both sides. Interestingly, while there are lot of people mad at the priest for tossing out the cameraman and ruining the couple's wedding, no one appears to be mad at the cameraman for posting the altercation on YouTube and defining forever how the wedding is remembered.

Mark Twain once said “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” These days, when electrons are cheap and when everyone can be both a producer and publisher of content, it will not do to make a frontal assault against a culture that mediates experience through the screen. All it does is makes us look angry.

Although this never occurs to us when we are tripping over an over-zealous shutterbug, the truth is that we can’t be angry at the photographer one day and then the next bemoan that our message is not getting out. We can’t have it both ways.

Christians are in the story-telling business. And our story is Good News! We want to use these tools to communicate. As a parish priest, I love having pics and videos of worship because, well done, they tell people what we do and who we are. That means we can't snarl at photographers while expecting to use their product.

So I try to negotiate and educate. Sometimes it even works.

During the process of wedding and baptismal preparation, I direct the couple or family to tell their guests to limit their photography so that everyone can give their full attention to the moment. They should tell their friends that there will be one or two official photographers and that there will be pictures of the liturgy available later from them via e-mail, Facebook, Pinterest or some other form.

For weddings, I also have the couple give me the names of the photographers and I call them and invite them to the rehearsal as well as the wedding. This helps the photographer understand the blocking and timing, it also helps me clarify expectations and solve any unique problems. And it gives the photographer a wealth of candids.

Additionally, I have developed a list of photographers that we recommend, just as we do florists. They know our space and how we work and will make life easier for the couple.

And lastly, I ask both official and unofficial photographers to send me the pictures and grant the church the right to use them for our own communications.

All of this still doesn't prevent an intrusive photographer from happening. Just two weeks ago I did a wedding where the bride’s son, all 6'4" of him, was trying to catch the action on a pocket video camera. It was a small church and his large frame was going to block everyone's view. Of course, everyone was looking at him and not what was happening. Also, the official photographer--who was doing as I asked-- did not appreciate that she was being limited while this unpaid visitor was doing as he pleased. I did not stop the liturgy, but I did walk over to him (and, yes, still in full view of the group) at the first “break” in the action and quietly asked him to step aside and park himself in a spot where he could still take the pictures of his mother and not distract people from witnessing and blessing her marriage.

In a world where we more and more mediate experience through screens, one of the things we can do as a church is remind people that the best photographs, films and videos describe, highlight and interpret a much bigger world. The idea is to both communicate and take us back to a moment in time that is bigger than our perceptions and means more to us than we even realized in the moment. In other words, what photography does is very much like what liturgy does.

Both can connect us, aid in interpreting our experience, and help us makes memory.

Both liturgy and media help us know, tell and live our story.

But bad photography (and unconscious photographers) can like bad liturgy (and unconscious celebrants) get in the way. This is what happened in the video when it went viral: the conversation became about “The Angry Priest vs. The Boorish Photographers” when we should have been celebrating the couple’s marriage.

Photographic technology is so accessible that we forget all the work that goes into a good production. Similarly, a good liturgy should look easy because all the practice has paid off. One of the pastoral challenges of our day is to bring the two together in ways that allow us to see more deeply into the world God has placed us in and contribute to the ongoing story of God’s unfolding, creative love.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania, President of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Bethlehem, and a member of the newsteam of the Episcopal Café.

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The Possession

by Maria L. Evans

Psalm 91 (Tanakh translation:)

He who dwells in the covert of the Most High
will lodge in the shadow of the Almighty.

I shall say of the Lord [that He is] my shelter and my fortress,
my God in Whom I trust.

For He will save you from the snare
that traps from the devastating pestilence.

With His wing He will cover you, and under His wings you will take refuge;
His truth is an encompassing shield.

You will not fear the fright of night,
the arrow that flies by day;

Pestilence that prowls in darkness,
destruction that ravages at noon.

A thousand will be stationed at your side,
and ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not approach you.

You will but gaze with your eyes,
and you will see the annihilation of the wicked.

For you [said], "The Lord is my refuge";
the Most High you made your dwelling.

No harm will befall you,
nor will a plague draw near to your tent.

For He will command His angels on your behalf
to guard you in all your ways.

On [their] hands they will bear you,
lest your foot stumble on a stone.

On a young lion and a cobra you will tread;
you will trample the young lion and the serpent.

For he yearns for Me, and I shall rescue him;
I shall fortify him because he knows My name.

He will call Me and I shall answer him;
I am with him in distress; I shall rescue him and I shall honor him.

With length of days I shall satiate him,
and I shall show him My salvation.

One of the more interesting happenings of late in northeast Missouri is the debut of the movie, "The Possession." In that typical Hollywood way, when they say "based on a true story," the story is actually based on three stories, one of them the book, "The Dibbuk Box." I have known the author of the book ever since he was a college student at Truman State University. The premiere of "The Possession" has been one of the more interesting happenings around here, and it's been fun to watch someone I know get a bit of notoriety for his work.

In the movie, the Psalm above is used to help get the evil spirit back in the dibbuk box, after it has possessed a little girl. Episcopalians would recognize it as one of the Psalms we often do at Compline. In fact, when I went to see the movie, I immediately recognized it as one of the Compline Psalms, even though it wasn't quite the same translation--which, oddly, took the wind out of the movie being "scary" for me. I'm sure my mind was going, "Well, nothing evil can stand up to THAT."

Perhaps what makes this movie intriguing--this whole concept of "possession by an evil spirit"--is that, ultimately, we recognize that each of us has our own dibbuk box inside of us, as well as our own Ark of the Covenant. Movies about "possession" grab our psyche because we are already possessed by not just one, but two mindsets. Our internal Ark of the Covenant strives to unite that God-box inside of us with the totality of God, but at the same time, that dibbuk box inside us works overtime to instead, get us to unite it with the false god of self. Our own dibbuk boxes whisper just as mysteriously as the box in the movie did, telling us that we're special, that it really IS all about us. The possessed girl in the movie displayed a ravenous appetite--the evil spirit inside of her needed to be fed, and several scenes show her wolfing down her food and tearing into the refrigerator. Anyone who has ever struggled with addiction or substance abuse knows first-hand an equally desperate hunger caused by the substance or behavior of choice.

Part of the process of subduing the dibbuk in the movie is that it has to be called back into the box by name. Interestingly, the name of the dibbuk in "The Possession" was discovered by breaking the mirror in the inside lid of the box--by shattering the thing that, when we look at it, simply reflects a backwards self into our eyes. Calling our own dibbuks by name is an important part of the process of moving from thinking "it's all about me," to "it's all about God."

What does it take for each of us to, instead, open the lid of the Ark of the Covenant inside ourselves and gaze back at our true reflections, rather than false ones?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

The Hunger Games and moral formation

by Michael Russell

Just after the first Persian Gulf War began we took a family trip to Antietam to show our children, then aged 10 and 13 the place where the bloodiest since day battle of the Civil War as fought. We wanted them to understand, as best they could what the real dimensions of war were like, the close quarters and how it was possible for 23,000 people to die in them. But I did not know how well the lesson sank in until two years later when we sat having pizza after seeing “The Last of the Mohicans”. My daughters were visibly shaken. Both had seen horror films and sci-fi films, so I inquired about why they were particularly affected by this film. One of them replied, “Oh, Poppa, those are just made up stories, this was real.”

I suspect that “The Hunger Games” touches the “this is real” button in teens not because the violence in it is real, but because it is a powerful metaphorical narrative for their middle and high school experiences. There are adults who are either distant and clueless or manipulative and malevolent; social straitjackets in which they feel trapped; and, in the arena, the very embodiment of school cliques. There are the strong, good looking, popular and privileged who join forces to lord it over and inflict a variety of emotional or physical injuries or indignities on nearly everyone else. Bullying and intimidation are the order of the day.

The emotional work of teen years is to differentiate from parents and find their own voice. Peeta’s challenge to the games comes the night before when he tells Katniss he does not want to let the Capitol people win by making him someone he is not. The moral challenge of the film is the moral challenge all teens face, to find a self to be true to and to survive.

In that world, whether we like to hear it or not, parents and most adults are as Mark Twain characterized his father, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Those who are asking the question about their own parental role as moral guides are asking a question about a cohort of humans for whom peers and culture are vastly more important than parents. Moreover, just as Katniss, Peeta, Gale and Rue see the injustice and horror of these games, they see the adults’ acquiescence to its horrors. Teens are hypocrisy meters and these young people identify it as they proceed through the appalling adults they encounter along the journey.

Thus the moral question the movie poses for parents and other adults is, “How are we not like the adults in the movie?” We think we are there to guide the teens, but perhaps we would do better to examine our quietism in a world of injustices. Because, you see, we already live in Panam’s Capitol.

Every three seconds a child dies from totally preventable poverty related causes. Ten million children a year since the mid 1960’s when they started keeping count. Tens of millions more have their brains stunted, hobbling their capacities because they do not receive adequate nutrition between birth and age five. We in the US routinely spend in excess of $450 BILLION dollars in retail sales between November 1 and December 31 on holiday sales: $465bn in 2011, $453bn in 2010. Each year we spend on the holidays for the Prince of Peace more than we spent on the first three years of the Iraq war. To make it real, Jeffrey Sachs in his 2005 article on ending poverty asked the world to increase its assistance from $80bn a year to $160bn a year for ten years. The U.S. was asked for $25bn a year but said it could not afford it. We spend 18 times that much each year on Christmas alone, yet could not afford $25bn a year to end poverty.

Just these past months the Kony 2012 / Invisible Children campaign emerged and sparked remarkable attention to the use of children in fighting civil wars. It used Kony as a focal point to capture the imagination of 85 million viewers on behalf of all the children who were hurt and killed. But then Jason Russell and his colleagues found themselves severely critiqued by adult news media because the LRA had been driven from Sudan in 2005. The adults blistering the film and the foundation missed the point entirely, parsing journalistic issues into what was an exposé of the subjugation of children for war. And of course the journalists themselves had not the same success in rousing the conscience of a society as Mr. Russell had with his movie. We could go on to look at the trafficking of young men and women, honor killings and acid attacks on young Muslim girls, the bombing of schools in Nigeria; on and on go the attacks on children

We are, at the moment, in a broad discussion of when and where governments should intervene in the affairs of other governments. We are as a society exploring the boundary between individual rights and the rights of nations to govern as they please. But so far we have not seen fit to exert moral or military force on governments which simply exploit their citizens to death to enrich the oligarchs. Cell phones and Coca-cola have deeper penetration into Africa than clean water or mosquito eradication. That, too, is a moral issue for those of us in Panam’s Capitol. What moral obligation do we have to the children of other nations?

The Capitol exists in parallel with our other districts, intermingled and international, but it is there none the less. This nearby coexistence is perhaps more cruel than segregating people into districts because every day those whose lives are being sacrificed get to see the Capitol people flout economic and political fairness as they flaunt their wealth.

So the “Hunger Games” is not posing a question for how we as adults oversee the moral formation of our teens. It is our teens who, in seeing this, pose the issue of the moral formation of us adults. We are the ones who are quiescent in the face of the holocaust of children worldwide; we are presumably the ones with the power and wisdom to make a difference and who choose not to take to the streets, the churches or the ballot boxes to demand it stop. We dither over a thousand other issues because to really look at what is happening about us is so painful, so horrendous that it might well drive us mad, as it does to some of the Tribute Victors. And yet, if we hope to be a moral influence we could start in no better place than demanding an end to all the holocausts of children everywhere.

The Rev. Michael Russell is rector of All Souls', Point Loma, in the Diocese of San Diego. He is the author of Hooker's Blueprint: An Essence Outline of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, is a third time Deputy to General Convention, early adopter of technologies and blogs at Anglican Minimalist.

See also film review at The Lead.

Claiming our voices

By Lauren R. Stanley

Finally, finally, FINALLY, I went to see The King’s Speech.

I did not see this movie because of the cast – although Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush all do magnificent jobs.

I did not see it because it is nominated for awards everywhere.

I saw this movie because as a child, I, too, had a speech impediment, and from one line I head in an NPR interview with director Tom Hooper – the King yelling, in Westminster Abbey, “I have a voice!” – I knew this movie was telling part of my story as well.

Unlike King George VI, I did not stutter. I had a lisp. It was an awful lisp some days, which I had until I was in seventh grade, and for which I was made fun of by classmates and playmates and even my siblings at times.

When the NPR interview last November began, I wondered: “A movie about the King of England during World War II? He had a speech impediment? Really? I thought he lifted up his people with all kinds of speeches on the radio?” I knew that George VI wasn’t supposed to be king, that his brother David abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, and that as king, George inspired his people.

He had a stutter?

And then I heard that powerful line – “I have a voice!” – and shivers went down my spine and I thought, “I HAVE to see this movie!”

I had to see it because I remember thinking, in my childhood, when people where making fun of me, “Just because I lisp doesn’t mean I can’t speak. Listen to me!”

The lisp was the result of losing my two front teeth when I was 2. I was in a car accident, caused, I’m told, by a drunken driver who ran a red light and plowed into our station wagon. It was back in the early ‘60s, when no one thought to put their children in car seats, and seat belts weren’t a huge priority. I was, I’m told, standing on the back seat, clinging to the front bench seat and doing what 2-year-olds do: goofing off. When our car was hit, my mother told me, I flew into the nice metal strip that was on the back of all bench seats in station wagons in those days (don’t ask me why they were there … they just were).

Now these were my baby teeth that I lost; my adult teeth weren’t due in for years. We didn’t do implants in those days (again, don’t ask me why) or spacers. So what happened?

I spent the next four years without my front teeth. Which meant that I had problems whistling (this was huge in my family), and I developed a nice, pronounced lisp. It was so pronounced that at times, my stepfather would joke about taking me down to the woodshop in the basement and fitting me with wooden teeth, like George Washington supposedly had (I learned later that his teeth were made from hippopotamus ivory). That threat used to scare the bejesus out of me.

And then there was the jealousy factor: one of my older brothers got to sing All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth when he was in first grade. But he HAD his front teeth, so it had no meaning for him. Me? I was soooo excited about getting to sing that as well … until my front teeth finally came in just weeks before it was my turn, and the song lost its significance.

But the coming of new teeth did not end the lisp. It hung in there for years, until at last, my mother put me in speech therapy. I had to do “exercises” involving strings and small weights, and others pronouncing letters and sounds, and every day, I literally had think about my tongue and where it was positioned in my mouth, not just when I was speaking but also when I first woke up … when I was watching TV … when I was sitting in class. I had a little notebook and had to record, with smiley faces and frowns, where I found my tongue at any given moment. (To this day, I still catch myself checking my tongue placement.)

When my friends found out what I was doing, they made even more fun of me. I was mortified on the playground at school when I found some of them imitating my therapy exercises. I’ll never get over this, I used to think. Never!

But all those exercises paid off. Within a year, I was lisp-free. And when I conquered that lisp, I truly found my voice. I no longer had to worry about what I would sound like when I was speaking. Instead, I could concentrate on what I was saying.

Now, to be honest, I haven’t thought about the days of my lisp in years. I’m a public speaker now; anyone who knows me will tell you that I’ll preach the Gospel at the drop of a hat, and that getting me to shut up can be very hard indeed. For me, my lisp was a thing of the long-ago and forgotten past.

Until I heard that one line – that powerful, spine-tingling scream from the movie – and all of my frustrations and fears and tears came back, and I realized: I have to see this movie!

Not to relive those frustrations and fears and tears, but to see this message that yes, we DO each have a voice, and yes, our voices, individually and corporately, ARE important.

God gives each of us that voice, and God wants to hear it. God wants us to raise our voices to the heavens, to proclaim God’s love and glorify God’s name and strengthen and inspire God’s people and, yes, to tell our stories.

Even when we stutter.

Even when we lisp.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is a priest of the Diocese of Virginia and church consultant who served for five years as an overseas missionary.

Monks, movies and futbol

Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Leo Campos

There are few religious spectacles more important, more poignant, more powerful than the World Cup. For those of you who might be following my advice from earlier notes and staying away from TV you may not know that the World Cup Finals are being held in South Africa. Furthermore you may not know that "World Cup" is the shorthand for the only truly global sport - soccer/futbol/football

I was thinking about a couple of movies which might help those who need a little extra to get them in the mood. For a game that is so appealing and so dramatic it is sad to note that there have been very few movies which actually did any justice to either the sport or to the passions it arouses. There was Victory with Pele, a pastiche from The Great Escape, and not really that good.

When I do a quick search of Netflix and IMDB for movies with the word "soccer" and "football" I get things like Soccer Buddy, about a soccer playing dog, and other inanities. But of the many movies out there I do see two which I find actually seem to bring across something of value. The first is La Gran Final (The Great Match) by the Spanish director Gerardo Olivares. It is a tale spread across the globe as people from different countries gather to watch a World Cup game: from a tribe of Amazonian indios, a family of Mongolian nomads and a caravan of Tuareg people in the Sahara Desert. It has many funny moments, and it much subtle social commentary. Overall it tries to show how, for just a little while, there is a peace, well a truce, across the globe.

It reminded me of the story from World War I, though the events have been repeated more than once, where Germans and British climbed out of their foxholes to play a game on Christmas Day 1915 to play a match, declaring a temporary truce.

But my absolute favorite movie has to be The Cup by the Bhutanese director Khyentse Norbu. I am slightly biased, since the director is also a monk. It is full of richly drawn characters, with masterful performances by its young main protagonist. The story centers on a young Tibetan refugee and their misadventures at a monastery/boarding school in exile in India. While undergoing Buddhist training the young boy's mind is filled with news about the World Cup. He attempts to explain its importance and its appeal to other monks who are confused, bemused, or downright annoyed at his constant conversations about soccer players. This boy's meditation is constantly on the game.

What is the attraction of this sport, which seems to be unlike any other? Surely when you compare sport by sport it does not stand out as requiring anything special. It is not the fastest, or the most violent, or even the one that requires the most coordination or skill. There is the counter-intuitive requirement of moving a ball only using your feet, but that hardly seems to justify the strong passions it arouses.

I am content with the mystery of soccer/football. There may be no particularly logical reason for its appeal. It is more akin to falling in love – why are we attracted to some people and not others?

So there it is - I do hope you will take this opportunity during this most holy month to catch a couple of these movies - they are well worth the watch!

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude, a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the "tech guy" for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).


By Margaret Treadwell

Departures takes on the tricky subject of death and won the 2009 Academy Award for best foreign film. Masahiro Motoki plays the protagonist who suffers a startling job loss after which he decides to learn the Japanese trade of being an encoffineer – one who prepares bodies for burial. The various families who gather to watch the beautiful ritual he creates for their departed loved ones are in various stages of acceptance, denial, anger or sadness, reminding viewers that when a person has unfinished business with the deceased he or she will struggle longer and more intensely with grief.

We often think of only one response at the time of death – grief, but it’s much more complicated than that. While director Yojito Takita focuses the eye of the camera on death, Departures paradoxically becomes a movie about the value of life and how we confront our own lives. It made me ask, “How can human beings prepare for the death of a parent, husband, wife, child or beloved friend in ways that add value to our lives as well as to the lives of our family members?” I think the film’s response is:

• Honor your own life and develop your passions
• Create the best possible relationships, especially in your family
• Believe in a Power greater than self
• Seek satisfying work that contributes to the well being of others, and learn to do it well
• Understand that all of the above actions will benefit future generations beyond your own

Four months after my mother’s death at age 99, I know that my years spent developing relationships with extended family have been an invaluable preparation for the loss of both my parents. In 1996, the year my father died, 18 of my first cousins from his family had never met or had only passing acquaintance with each other. Our fathers, seven brothers who lost both their parents way too young, married strong women who preferred their own family of origin. As my mother explained it, “I just liked my family and your father was contented with them too.” Drifting apart is the way many families solve the unresolved emotional attachment to their parents, siblings and larger family.

In our generation, we cousins of cut-off parents were repeating this pattern, joining our spouse’s family like an “appendage.” But now our fathers were dying and when a childless uncle’s bequests made it necessary to locate all of us, we began to bridge those distances out of legal requirement. My cousin Betty and I decided the fun way to fulfill this duty was to create the first McDonnell Family Reunion, a biennial event now since 1996.

For 14 years we have developed our friendships through sharing play, secrets, laughter, and celebration of joyous life events – new marriages, babies, personal successes and yes, death. I believe the lighthearted pleasure we share is what keeps us returning to reunions and staying in touch throughout the year. We’ve mourned the loss of our cousin Barbara through a tragic death and now my extended family has sustained my nuclear family during this tender time of my mother’s death. During these last fragile years, three beloved cousins from her side were consistent companions by telephone, and as my cousins from Dad’s family grew to know and admire “Aunt Flo,” she also developed an interest in them. They reciprocated with calls, notes and visits. Expanding the circle was life giving for both Mother and me.

Only children are especially susceptible to feeling like orphans when both parents have died, but on Mom’s Nov. 14 funeral day, cousins surprised me by coming from Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee and south Alabama and sending notes from Guatemala, Vermont, Illinois, Texas, Kansas and Florida. Their presence meant the world, and their continued involvement has prevented the orphan perception from taking hold.

As intimated in Departures, we can never really prepare for death, but we can prepare our lives to accept death as a further step in making important connections. When the going gets tough, one conversation with an extended family member can work wonders to give perspective, a smile and a sense of calm. How fortunate that this is the year for Reunion 2010 on Mobile Bay.

Margaret M “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice.

A "Great Debater" looks back

By Carol E. Barnwell

"I told Denzel Washington he should play the part," Henrietta Bell Wells said, when we spoke recently at the Houston facility where the 95-year old now resides. Wells, a longtime member of St. James’ Episcopal Church, Houston, was seated in her wheelchair, wrapped in a soft white sweater, the same snow white as her perfectly coiffed hair. Her manicured hands rest in her lap and periodically dance to punctuate a vivid memory of Wiley College debate coach Melvin B. Tolson, a character in the Christmas release, The Great Debaters.

Wells was the only female member of the debate team from Wiley College in Marshall, TX that Tolson coached to national attention. Washington directed the movie, produced by Oprah Winfrey, and took the story to the big screen this Christmas. It’s a good thing that Washington took Wells’ advice. The movie has garnered a Golden Globe nomination for best drama and may also receive an Oscar nod.

"He just wanted to direct the movie," Wells said, "But I told him he was perfect for the part of Mr. Tolson and if he wasn’t the star, he would lose a lot of people." Wells met Washington at Wiley College during the planning stages of the movie. She looked through old yearbooks and found texts she used nearly 80 years ago to help with the research, she said.

Wells has done television and newspaper interviews and has turned down a number of others. "I never expected the movie to cause so much interest, so much attention to my inner life," she said. It has been exciting and stressful all at the same time, but bring up "Denzel" and a smile lights up her face. "He is a jewel and a gentleman. The first time he saw me, he said, ‘Well, I’ve got another grandma.’ I felt so proud," Wells beamed.

Although growing up during the Jim Crow era was a challenge, Wells said she encouraged Denzel Washington to play down the racial prejudice in The Great Debaters. She remembers state troopers raiding her home in 1917 to look for black soldiers during race riots in Houston, but said the debate team was more motivated to please their coach, "rather than a race issue."

"We worked hard and we weren’t intimidated," she said.

Jurnee Smollett, the actress who plays Samantha Booke, the character based on Wells, visited Wells and practiced with the Texas Southern University debate team in Houston to prepare for the part.

Wells was born in Houston’s Fourth Ward in 1912. "Church has always been a large part of my life," she said. Her maternal grandfather was a "strong Episcopalian" in the West Indies and her mother Octavia made sure it was part of their life in Houston. In 1923, Wells was the first African American child baptized at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church (re-chartered as St. Luke the Evangelist in 1927) by Bishop Clinton Quin and was later confirmed at Trinity, Houston.

Wells graduated valedictorian from Houston’s Phyllis Wheatley High School and attended the all black Wiley College on a modest scholarship from the YMCA. She worked three jobs to make ends meet and said, when her English professor asked her to try out for the debate team, she wasn’t sure what it was. "We didn’t have debates in high school," she said. "I guess I did alright. He stood at the back of the chapel and I read from the front. That was his test."

"Bell," as Tolson called her, made the team, the only freshman and the only woman.

The team practiced at Tolson’s home several times a week during debating season and since she was the only female on the team, the college’s president arranged for a chaperone during tournaments. Friends filled in for her at work.

"We would sit on the floor in the Tolson’s living room and discuss topics," Wells said. "Mr. Tolson was very serious and very strict," she said, adding, "There were no frills, everything had to be correct. It was fun being the only girl on the team, but it was a lot of hard work." Wells said Tolson remained her role model all through college.

The Wiley team first beat almost every black college, and eventually broke the color line, facing white law students from the University of Michigan. The team, Henry Heights, Hobart Jarrett and Henrietta Bell Wells lost only one debate out of 75 leading to the national 1935 championship. They triumphed against the national champions, the University of Southern California, with topics of civil rights and freedom of speech at a time when lynching was frequent in the deep South.

Wells returned to Houston after graduation where she met and later married Wallace Wells, the brother of one of her high school teachers. Wallace, who received his masters in music from the University of Southern California, added his rich baritone to St. Clement’s church choir after the couple first met. When they married and moved to Gary, Indiana, Wallace worked as a church organist at St. Augustine’s. Henrietta worked as a caseworker and later, as a case supervisor for the welfare department. "I always wanted to be a social worker, and I turned out to be a pretty good one," she said.

Wallace’s musical career was interrupted by World War II, but he attended seminary at Seabury Western after returning from his tour of duty, was ordained and served churches in Indiana for the following 25 years. In 1963, the couple moved to New Orleans where Wallace was dean of chapel at Dillard University and Henrietta served as dean of women. In 1967, the Wells returned to Houston where Henrietta became the first African American teacher at Bonner Elementary School.

What’s her advice for college students today? "Learn to speak well and learn to express yourself effectively," she said. Her training as one of the "Great Debaters" carried Wells through a successful life and career and, at 95, continues to serve her well as the interviewers line up at her door.

Carol E. Barnwell is director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.

Steve Saint and the End of the Spear

"Steve Saint was only 5 when his father, Nate, a Christian missionary working in Ecuador, was killed by a group of Waodani tribesmen, who speared him and his four colleagues as the Americans prepared to bring the message of Jesus to the inhabitants of the remote Amazon jungle, whose endless cycle of revenge killings had brought them to the brink of extinction. It was 50 years ago this month, but despite his youth, he remembers it vividly."

So begins Michael O'Sullivan's story on Saint, and the saga of forgiveness that inspired the movie End of the Spear.

"I had no way of knowing," Saint says during a phone interview with O'Sullivan, "that the feeling, the yearning I had for my dad -- that bond that was yanked out of my heart -- that those same feelings I had for my dad I would one day have for the man who's half asleep here on the other bed in my hotel room: Mincaye, who is the man who killed my father."

I have to admit that I can't comprehend forgiveness for a loss of such depth. If I am honest with myself, I must admit that I am not even sure that I admire it. No doubt this indicates unflattering things about my character, but I ask you, could you do what the Saints have done?

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