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Archive for November, 2012

To recap the main point of part one: Nature shows us the reality of death, and the wolves in Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” represent this aspect of nature.

Where does this come from?  And how does it fit into the Christian meta-narrative?

The answer, from a Christian perspective, is the Fall.

We all know the story.  Adam and Eve were told not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they did it anyway.  Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about this:

The harmony in which (our first parents) had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground” (CCC 400 — bold added)

C.S. Lewis drew on this Christian insight when he sent his beloved Pevensie children back to Narnia in “Prince Caspian,” the second book in his Chronicles of Narnia.

If you have read this book or its predecessor, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (or seen the films), you will remember that when the children had left Narnia, it was a place where: 1) animals spoke; and 2) they and human beings enjoyed each other’s friendship.

Now, the throne of Narnia is occupied by a usurper who does not rule according to the will of Aslan (the Christ-figure of Narnia), and many of the animals are wild, mute, brutish, and hostile.

“Cursed is the ground because of you!  In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life.  Thorns and thistles shall it bear for you…” (Genesis 3:17-18, The New American Bible)

Human beings have sinned.  The animals, the trees, and the rest of nature have not.  But when we turned away from God, we dragged the whole of creation down the road to destruction with us.

From that perspective, we can see the hostilities of nature as a sort of “judgment” or “accusation.”  Creation, while also tending to our needs and showering us with beauty, will not let us forget that we have turned away from our loving Creator.

This leads me to draw once again from the writings of Dr. Peter Kreeft, whose magnificent book “Love is Stronger Than Death” I would recommend to anyone.  A basic assertion he makes is that from the standpoint of human reason, we only have hope if death is our fault.

Here is the explanation:

It means that our ultimate hope is not in ourselves, our innocence … To blame ourselves (as the story of Adam does in Genesis) is to clear reality, being, truth, the cosmos … (and) God.  We may yet be reconciled to reality … If reality were out of touch, there would be no hope … all hope of meaning would be gone (Kreeft 16, italics and first parentheses his)

So as depressing as the guilt-death relationship may seem, it dispels the fear we have of a meaningless universe in which all men are simply stuck on an obstacle-laden collision course with death.

And though we find hostility and, in a certain sense, the “taunts” of death in nature, we can find hope and meaning even in these.  I would argue that we can find in them the “sparring partner” that Dr. Kreeft speaks of in his book and to which I referred in my November 26 post, “Why ‘Into the Dance’?”

As I was typing this part of my reflection on “The Grey,” I realized that it is too long for one post.  I tried to avoid this, but as I said, this is a complex subject.  Therefore, I will have mercy on my readers and turn this into a four-part post (as opposed to the three-part post I had originally intended), with “The Grey” comprising three posts.  But the final part of my review of “The Grey” is ready, and will be up tomorrow.

Both photos of “The Grey” from http://www.guardian.co.uk; picture of “Adam and Eve” by Albrecht Dürer from http://www.metmuseum.org; picture of “Prince Caspian” from http://www.e-reading.org.ua (all obtained through a Google image search)

Reference

Kreeft, Peter.  Love is Stronger Than Death.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992.

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The past year has seen the release of two films that offer very different — one might say polar opposite — reflections on man’s relationship with nature.  Joe Carnahan’s thriller “The Grey” fits into the classic “man vs. nature” theme, whereas Ken Kwapis’ family drama “Big Miracle” has more to do with the man-nature relationship in its positive aspects.

I have a lot to say about both films, so I will review them separately.  Let us begin on the “dark side” of things and delve into “The Grey.”

We could say that the essence of the worldview suggested by “The Grey” is nature as death.  Let’s face it — living in a comfortable world of technological advancements, we modern Westerners are very good at denying the reality of our ultimate demise.  Maybe we don’t explicitly deny it, but we have at least a subconscious tendency to think of death as something far off … if we think of it at all.

Partly, this is because death is not a lot of fun to think about.  I’ll be the first to admit that.  But the fact that we live in the midst of advantages and luxuries that even the kings of ancient times would never have dreamed of has something to do with it as well.

Without the challenges of living in the midst of nature and her wild ways, without the constant reminder of mortality she holds before the eyes of anyone left to her embrace, without the awe-inspiring sense of dependence on something larger than ourselves that she elicits, death is simply not an immediate concern.  In one way or another we accept that it exists, of course; but I would say that we generally take it as an abstract concept rather than a concrete reality that crouches in the shadows, eyes fixed on each one of us, poised to lunge at our throats.

And sooner or later it will not only make its move, but will do so successfully.

I can’t help but think of this when I recall “The Grey,” which follows a band of arctic oilmen who have survived an airplane crash in the Alaskan wilderness.  Led by an experienced hunter named Ottway (Liam Neeson), they struggle for survival in the face of extreme cold, lack of sustenance, and — worst of all — a pack of wolves into whose territory they have unwittingly stumbled.

Those of you who have seen the film will recall the scene in which they are all huddled around a campfire in the woods at night, and out of the darkness the glowing, ravenous eyes of the wolves shine all around them.

Fr. Robert Barron, whose review of “Skyfall” I posted yesterday, did a video commentary on “The Grey” around the time it came out in theaters.  With background reference to the thought of German existentialist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Fr. Barron suggested that we could see the wolves as symbolic of death.

In the eyes of the wolves, we see something like what we see in the eyes of death — something that is against us, not for us; something without mercy or sympathy; something that forces us to be on our guard and to fight with every resource we have available, and yet always gets us in the end.

Fr. Barron sees a definite existentialist bent in Carnahan’s film, and who can blame him?  Still — and I say this with due humility, since Fr. Barron is obviously a far smarter man than I — I think we can glean more from the movie than that.

For my purposes, the wolves represent the “dark side” of nature.  Following our train of thought so far, we would then have to say that the dark side of nature relates to death.  This begs a multi-part question: “Why is it this way?  Why is nature hostile to man?  Why does the reminder of death seem so ingredient in its being?”

This relates to an even bigger question: “Is life really a cosmic absurdity?  Does death have the last word?”

Having addressed the fundamental issue of death, I intend to explore these questions next.

As the representative of the more negative view of the man-nature relationship, “The Grey” is decidedly more complex than “Big Miracle.”  For that reason and in order to give the reader a break, I will divide my reflection on this film into two separate posts and conclude it tomorrow.  Stay tuned!

“The Grey” poster is from http://www.imdb.com, the second photo from http://www.dailyfilmdose.com, and the third photo from http://www.guardian.co.uk (all obtained through a Google image search).

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Fr. Robert Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, recently reviewed the newest James Bond flick.

As a Catholic and a movie buff, I was very excited to discover Fr. Barron’s Youtube reviews five years ago.  Whether you are a Catholic, a 007 fan, or both, you should find some good “food for thought” in the above review.

P.S., Stay tuned for my reflection on the different views of nature in Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” and Ken Kwapis’ “Big Miracle.”

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In the award-winning HBO series “Game of Thrones,” the sword master Syrio Forel introduces his young apprentice Arya Stark to swordplay through “dancing lessons.”  No, he is not teaching her to waltz Matilda…he is teaching her how to fight.  But to learn to thrive in combat is, from his perspective, not much different from learning to master the intricacies of a dance.

In his 1973 film “Mean Streets,” director Martin Scorsese gives audiences a bar fight that is set (I might even say choreographed) to the tune of the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.”  I like to use this scene as an example of Scorsese’s genius as a director, having as he does the ability to create a sort of “dance” even out of a portrait of violence.

Cinema – along with its distant relative, television – is a kind of “dance of images,” like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave.  And with these images come circumstances, which involve characters faced with challenges and adversity…all ingredient in the beauty of the dance.

To those who question how I can believe in God when the world is so messed up, I posit a question of my own: If filmmakers and swordsmen can bring beauty out of otherwise unwholesome images and sticky situations, then how much more can the Creator do so with the disorder of the universe?

Here is what I believe and hold to as a Catholic: All of creation, and all of history, is a dance, designed to reflect the eternal Dance of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (see my Thanksgiving post for a reflection on the Trinitarian character of creation).

But as with any dance, life is not one dance partner puppeteering the other.  In such a case, the dancers are not partners at all.  Each party must be free to cooperate with the other.  Unfortunately, free will entails the ability to err – and as we know, creatures have indeed erred.

To turn again to “Game of Thrones,” there is a scene from a later episode of Season One in which Jaime Lannister, one of the story’s primary villains, questions the existence of the gods on account of the world’s dysfunction.  He asks the age-old question: If the gods are real, then why is there so much evil in the world?

Catelyn Stark’s answer is striking: “Because of people like you.”

God respects our freedom.  He invites us – and through us, all of creation – to join in the divine Dance, but He will never force us.  In the words of Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College: “God seduces, but He never rapes.”  But what He will do is incorporate our mistakes, our transgressions, into the Dance in such a way as to maintain – and ultimately, by His infinite power, enhance – its integrity and beauty.

The shining instance of this is the Cross.  In the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, we see that God’s response to evil is not to snap His fingers and cancel out its existence.  His answer, rather, is to assume the consequence of evil unto Himself and swallow it up in the ever greater Divine Mercy.  He thus affirms the free will with which He endowed all human beings while at the same time sharing His redemptive love.

That is why the Cross is the point of reference for all Christians regarding life on this earth.  Because of what Christ did for us, all of humanity’s sufferings and trials, all tribulations in this world that “groans in travail, waiting for the revelation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19), can now take on redemptive value.  Passing through these struggles as through an Exodus, we can lead the world into renewal, shedding light along the path as signs of hope.

Let’s return to the combat metaphor.  Dr. Kreeft wrote a book titled “Love is Stronger Than Death,” a philosophical reflection on the ultimate evil of human life.  He explores five stages of humankind’s relationship to death – Death as Enemy, Death as Stranger, Death as Friend, Death as Mother, and Death as Lover.  In the chapter on death as a friend, he compares death to a sparring partner whose thrusts and jabs put us on guard and force us to exercise our skills a bit.  I think we can apply this metaphor to suffering and life’s troubles in general, not just death.  Even the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche understood this: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

And doesn’t the darkness sometimes make the light shine all the clearer?  Doesn’t the light at the end of the tunnel look so much brighter for our having passed through the tunnel itself?  Don’t the lofty mountains look all the more majestic for the depth of the valleys?  And don’t experiences of surviving adversity in the company of others have the power to forge strong and lasting bonds of fellowship?

It’s almost like the contrast of lights and darks in a painting, high notes and low notes in a symphony, or even complementary dance moves in a ballet.

Suffering is part of the fabric of human experience.  Yet the resilience of the human spirit comes from hope, and I believe mankind’s primal hope comes from being made in the image and likeness of the God Who loved us enough to redeem us and Who will one day renew the cosmos, filling creation with the glory of His Kingdom and lifting humanity to an inheritance which “eye has not seen, nor ear heard” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

I believe that in every human heart rests this hope, a hope that manifests itself in a variety of ways: The sense that in the midst of the apparently impossible circumstances of this world, there is always something worth fighting for; the sense that suffering and loss are not all there is, or at least the conviction that they shouldn’t have the final word; dedication to preserving and sharing what is good, beautiful, and true in life…the “Seeds of the Word.”

What’s my point in all this?  My point is simply that life, in both its seen and unseen elements, is a dance.  It is a wonderful, terrible, exalting, humbling, heartwarming, terrifying, comforting, challenging, community-building, isolating, healing, ferociously painful, mysterious dance.  And for better or worse, we are all in it together…not just we who are alive today but we as in the whole of humankind, past, present and future.  As the great British writer G.K. Chesterton once said, “We’re all in the same boat, and we are all seasick.”

So there you have it.  That’s the idea behind the name of the blog, and the blog itself.  You may still be wondering, however, why I am choosing to focus primarily on the movies.

Sobchack

Film is unique as an art form.  Vivian Sobchack, professor of theater arts and film at the University of California at Santa Cruz, defines this uniqueness very well in her book, “The Address of the Eye.”  All art forms use creative means of expressing the realities of direct, lived experience for our reflection; but what sets film apart, as Sobchack says, is that it expresses direct experience (part of the “dance”) using direct experience.

Therefore, I feel that it is the most profound way for me to present my faith and to dialogue with the Seeds of the Word in contemporary culture.  If you have read this far, I assume you have some interest in joining me.  I don’t know what this journey will bring, but I look forward to the adventure.

And so onward, upward, and into the dance!

Note: All images were obtained through a Google image search except for the pictures of “Love is Stronger Than Death” and “The Address of the Eye,” which were obtained from Amazon.com.

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Greetings,

I just posted information on the “About” page — click on the tab at the top of the page to read.

As I said in my November 20th post, I had intended to include an explanation of the name of the blog on the “About” page.  However, I started working on that early this afternoon, and it still needs some work.  I don’t want to rush it just to “get it on there,” so I must ask for your patience for another day or so.

I hope everyone had a joy-filled and restful Thanksgiving, and I wish you all the best as we venture into the Holiday Season!

 

Best Wishes,

-Dan

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I am a big fan of Brandon Vogt, a popular Catholic blogger, writer, speaker, and advocate for use of the new media.  Every Friday, he holds a “Weekly Giveaway” on his blog.  I can do no better than to share his description:

“Since I’ve built up a large collection of extra books and resources, every week I give some away absolutely free, no strings attached.

“Each giveaway lasts seven days with a new one beginning every Friday. You can enter any time during the week. Check out past giveaways here.

I’m using Rafflecopter to help with the giveaway, which is cool because it allows you to gain multiple entries by commenting, posting on Facebook, sharing on Twitter, etc.”

This week, Brandon is giving away five copies of Pope Benedict XVI’s most recent book, “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.”  So if you like to read and you like free stuff, go for it!  Catholics and other Christians should find the book to be a a helpful resource.  Others might find it interesting from a world religions perspective.  Either way, you have nothing to lose!

More from Brandon Vogt:

“The five winners will be randomly selected next Friday and the giveaway item will be sent out, free of charge, shortly thereafter.

In the future I’ll be giving away more books and resources, sometimes multiple items per giveaway! So subscribe via feed reader or email to ensure you never miss your chance to win.

(Since I’m covering the shipping costs, only residents within the continental United States are eligible to win.)

Brandon has given me permission to share his Weekly Giveaways on “Into the Dance” every Friday, so stay tuned for future opportunities.

For more information and for directions on how to enter to win, click here.

Photo from http://www.brandonvogt.com

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Happy Turkey Day, all!  Hope you’ve enjoyed yourselves.  Today, I would like to venture beyond film into the wider scope of the “dance” – the great meta-narrative that informs all other narratives, the great Dance that informs the dance of images and sounds in the film medium – with a reflection on Thanksgiving.  Not just the holiday, but the concept itself, and its deepest meaning for human life.

I will begin with a quote from Captain Obvious: “Thanksgiving is a time for celebration.”

Indeed, that is very true.  But what we tend to forget is that in some very real sense, thanksgiving and celebration are, in fact, the same thing.

Jean Vanier, the great Catholic writer, philosopher, and humanitarian, speaks of celebration as the whole purpose of life.  But he emphasizes that celebration is about more than just “partying” – indeed, genuine celebration can be trying at times.

At its heart, celebration is about living in community with others.  Family, friendship, fellowship … love –that’s what it’s all about.

Being surrounded by people who care and being situated in a place where we belong helps to affirm us in our individual worth, reinforcing our dignity as human persons with something to offer the world.  At the same time, this same situation can be very uncomfortable.  In the faults and weaknesses of others, we see mirrored our own faults and weaknesses; and it is often easier to harp on their deficits than to acknowledge our own.  In having to bear with other imperfect and flawed creatures, our virtue is tested.

Celebration, if we think about it, is all about the process of individual and community growth.  Thorns and roses alike are sure to abound (sometimes one seems to outnumber the other), but if we approach community in the right way, we are sure to be better for the journey.

So how does the act of giving thanks play into all this?  I would suggest that it relates to one of the harder and more disconcerting aspects of being with others in community: being naked.

Let me explain.  “Nakedness,” in this case, means the removal of all defenses, all “walls” we might erect between ourselves and others – sources of division and tension that, at their absolute height, can set nations at war and dampen the fire of charity in human hearts.  Let’s call it “nakedness of soul.”

Nakedness of soul can be just as difficult – and even humiliating – as nakedness of body.  And of course, prudence and reality forbid us from revealing everything of ourselves.  But think about what thanksgiving means, and how it relates to nakedness of soul.

Thanksgiving implies relation.  It implies receiving from another as well as giving gratitude in return.  Relationship always implies risk, and risk requires venturing outside of one’s comfort zone – especially the comfort zone within ourselves.

I’m not saying I’m good at this.  Unfortunately, I am not.  I hope I’m getting somewhat better at it, however slowly.  But it’s something we can all aspire to, especially at this time of year.

One final thought: Those of us who are Christian can celebrate the spirit of Thanksgiving year-round by remembering that God Himself is a community, a Family.  In the eternal relationship of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is infinite joy.  This is a joy so perfect and so abundant that God wishes to share it by the free and totally gratuitous act of Creation.  That being the case, I think we can say not only that all of creation is about celebration, but that all of creation is a celebration.  It is a celebration of the eternal love between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit that is its origin and end.

So when we offer up our harvests, when we gather to enjoy earth’s bounty, let us not be afraid to enter the joy of relationship with one another in which we catch a glimpse of the very life of God.

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