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Archive for February, 2013

Willy Wonka

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DarkKnightRisesPrisonThis is my second post on Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises.”  For part one, go to http://www.intothedance.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/dvd-review-the-dark-knight-rises/

Hope is a powerful thing.  The villain Bane (Tom Hardy) takes advantage of people’s inner sense of hope with his hypnotizing promises of a utopian society run by “the People” and free from the corruption of public authorities and bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, a “de-suited” Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is held captive in a dark, dingy, primitive-looking underground prison in an unidentified foreign land.  What’s interesting about this particular prison is that there is, high overhead, an opening.  At the height of the weird, spiraling wall extending upwards from the pit to which prisoners are consigned is a tiny glimpse of the outside world, of freedom…of the possibility of escape.

In other words, this is what you might call a round window of hope.

But in order to get to it, the prisoners have to climb the wall.  How easy is this?  Well, in fact, it’s very nearly impossible…so much so that only one person is known to have successfully escaped in the past.

Nevertheless, people keep trying.  Not only that, but the prisoners wait in fervent hope that one day, one of their own will climb to freedom.

I took this as a symbol, in its own way, of the universal (if unnamed and often unclear) hope that has lived in the heart of every person from the making of the world, and will live in the heart of every person unto the breaking of the world.

That hope cannot be described as anything other than the hope for salvation, the hope for deliverance from an existence in which the reality of death and decay seems to have the final word.

BeowulfI think that in some ways, this takes us to the root of humanity’s perennial fascination with hero figures.  Throughout history, peoples, nations, and cultures have celebrated individual persons — fictional or historical — who somehow embody their hopes and dreams.  By overcoming obstacles against all odds, by attaining honor and glory, such figures give shape to people’s hopes and keep them alive.

This reality casts light on the chanting of Wayne’s fellow prisoners: “Rise! Rise! Rise!”  Having been in darkness for a very long time, they yearn to see someone escape into the light.  Whoever that person is, he will give them — and I apologize for being redundant — hope.

And so when Wayne finally escapes, there is much rejoicing.

Ascension

While watching the prison scenes in “The Dark Knight Rises,” I was reminded of Jesus Christ almost immediately:

No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man (John 3:13).

Mankind, like the prisoners in Nolan’s film, wants to know at least one person who has “escaped” — one person who has ascended beyond death, through the “round window of hope” into a new life.

To this day, the Church proclaims the One Who has realized man’s hopes.  At the same time, She reminds the world that this hope is transcendent in nature.  We sinful human beings are in a trap against which we and the resources that are available to us in this fallen world are totally powerless.

Having “come down from heaven” as God and “gone up to heaven” as both God and man, Jesus Christ raises us to a new life, instilling in our hearts even now the “first fruits” of a transcendent hope that will be fulfilled at the end of our lives and at the end of human history, beyond this present world and beyond all of our expectations.

In fact, by His sacrifice on the Cross, He has turned death itself from the ultimate doom of mankind into the very “round window of hope,” the very place of passage, whereby we will come to freedom.

But does this mean that the world, the physical body (from which our souls depart at death), and the concerns that pertain to the here-and-now are bad, irrelevant, or insignificant?

As St. Paul was often fond of saying, “By no means!”

But I think I’ve rambled on long enough for one night.  I’ll come back to this issue in relation to “The Dark Knight Rises” later.  It should be ready within a week’s time, so keep your eyes peeled.

Top photo obtained through a Google image search; “Beowulf” painting by J.R. Skelton and “Ascension of Christ” by Garofalo from Wikipedia.

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We are now officially in the second week of the Lenten season (for a real short video presentation on Lent, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vm3JK7JYAKs&feature=player_embedded).

For those of you who observe Lent and for those of you who don’t, but would like to try and “get at” what we are observing during this season, here are some movies that you may want to check out between now and Easter Sunday.

The Way (2010)

Emilio Estevez’ remarkable mini-epic “The Way” follows the journey of California optometrist Tom Avery (Martin Sheen), whose son, Daniel (Estevez), died while walking the historic “Way of St. James” in the Pyrenees.  Not a particularly religious man, Avery nevertheless chooses to take the journey in his son’s place, carrying his ashes with him as he does so.

The film is a beautiful, emotional, and deeply personal exploration of a physical and spiritual journey that I think anyone can appreciate.

The Tree of Life (2011)

From the Big Bang to babies, from happiness to suffering, from family to faith, from sibling rivalry to death, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is without a doubt (in my humble opinion, anyway) the most moving film of the last half-decade.  The film communicates a sort of sacramental view of creation and human life.  Through a highly poetic visual and cinematic style, Malick suggests — through a world of the ordinary and everyday — a creation that is haunted by a mysterious and holy presence.

I have to say, there are few films that move me immediately to prayer, and this is one of them.  If you want a movie that stirs up the sense of being personally loved by a God who invites you to love Him, see “Tree of Life.”

The Mission (1986)

The_mission(Trailer unavailable)

Roland Joffé’s 1986 period piece “The Mission” is a great look at the work of Jesuit priests fighting for the rights of natives in 18th century South America.  Fr. Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) is an especially shining example of selfless Christian love and resistance to oppression through nonviolence.

Of Gods and Men (2010)

Based on the true story of Trappist monks facing death at the hands of militant rebels in 1990s Algeria, “Of Gods and Men” is a deep and profoundly affective story of fidelity, forgiveness, and sacrifice.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

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(Trailer unavailable)

If you have some time on your hands, see if you can get a hold of Franco Zeffirelli’s epic miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth.”  Well-directed, well-written, and featuring very good performances, “Jesus of Nazareth” really accentuates the mercy of Jesus and His healing mission in the world.  I would especially recommend this film to people who struggle with scrupulosity and negative images of God.

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

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(Trailer unavailable)

And of course, if you’re up to it, try to check out Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”  Yes, it’s visceral.  Yes, it can be very disturbing.  But for Christians, it is an excellent source of meditation on how much it cost God to redeem us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8).

And last, but perhaps not least…

The Lord of the Rings (Trilogy)

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Yes, Peter Jackson’s unparalleled films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy are wonderful Lenten fare.  Why?  Because they deal with such themes as self-sacrificing love, the value of suffering, and heroic virtue.  They can inspire people to change their lives, if they let them.

For those of you who are interested, here is a link to the first of two videos featuring Fr. Robert Barron’s commentary on “LOTR”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pio5pf-Eoi8.

There you have it.  Until next time, take care, and God bless.

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I finally got around to seeing Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie over the weekend.  This final installment takes place eight years after the events of the previous film, “The Dark Knight.”  Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become somewhat of a recluse, but is inspired to take up the cape, mask, and suit once more when Gotham is threatened by the masked villain Bane (Tom Hardy).

And that’s the point from which I want to take off.  Having seen all three movies, I am struck by the many faces of villainy in the Batman trilogy.

Ra's al GhulRa’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), head of the League of Shadows and the antagonist of “Batman Begins,” represents a sort of right-wing totalitarianism that seeks to impose order and justice using force.

JokerThe Joker (Heath Ledger) represents evil in the form of nihilistic anarchy in “The Dark Knight.”

BaneFinally, Bane is the incarnation of a left-wing totalitarianism that “hooks” people through false promises of establishing an earthly utopia by toppling corrupt power structures and returning all power to “the People.”

In due course, we learn that Bane was once part of the League of Shadows, but was eventually exiled for differences with Ra’s al Ghul.  Bane’s relationship to the League struck a chord in my mind.  It seems to suggest, in its own way, that two supposedly polar realities — namely, right-wing and left-wing tyrannies — are much more closely connected than one might think.

Hitlermusso2_editThe middle part of the twentieth century saw the rise of various forms of totalitarianism from both the right (most notably, Fascism) and the left (most notably, Communism).  Although I am an expert neither in history nor in politics, I think we can safely say that both styles of dictatorship proved to have the goal of reducing society — perceived to be all wrong and unredeemable — to ashes so as to build something new and better from scratch.

But herein lies the problem: We live in an imperfect world, and any “system” of society or government is going to have its problems and, sadly, evils.

Bane2Turning from any attempt at political commentary back to the Batman films themselves, I would have to say that Bane strikes me as the most dangerous of Nolan’s villains.  Although he is not blatantly oppressive (at least not to the masses) like Ra’s al Ghul, nor unprincipled and totally unpredictable like the Joker, Bane is dangerous precisely because he plays off of one of the strongest, deepest, and most innate elements of the human psyche — hope.

Hope is a powerful and dear thing.  If you can get a hold of people’s hope, there isn’t much you won’t be able to do with them and to them.

I will return with reflections on hope in “The Dark Knight Rises” by the end of the week.  Thanks for reading, and stay tuned.

Image of the Joker and second image of Bane obtained through a Google image search; remaining images from Wikipedia.

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First of all, Happy President’s Day!

Now, to business…

Part 1 was more in-depth than this post is going to be — this time I just want to look at some basic elements of leadership that distinguish good leaders from bad, as exemplified by Ned Stark and Joffrey Baratheon.

Again, please be aware that there are some spoilers here.

JoffreyWe covered bad kingship in our look at Joffrey’s father (though not his biological father, as we soon learn), Robert.  But unlike Robert, whose bad kingship is characterized more by a sort of laziness, Joffrey is a full-on tyrant whose mode of government is cold, deliberate, calculated force.

He, too, is a figure of the entrenched ego, but carried farther in the direction of its extreme.

Ned-Stark-Sean-Bean-Traitor

Ned Stark stands out as a good leader.  He is not perfect, by any means, but the way he exercises authority is exemplary and praiseworthy.  That he is not dominated by his own ego is suggested to me by the dungeon scene, which occurs after Ned is arrested on a false accusation of treason.

Rather than betray his honor, Ned is ready to die a warrior’s death.  True, he does end up acknowledging Joffrey’s kingship in order to save his family; whether or not this was the right decision can be debated, but his interest is clearly other-oriented, not self-oriented.

In any case, Ned has no interest in betraying his conscience to save his life.  He explains to Varys the eunuch that a soldier “knows how to die.”

Christians are called to die daily to selfishness by imitating this kind of detachment:

Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it (Luke 17:33).

That’s precisely why Joffrey’s rule is one of terror and force: It’s all about him.  From his perspective, his ascent to the throne is not about service to the Seven Kingdoms, the protection of his subjects, or any transcendent principle.  It’s about his own exaltation, his own glory.

Eddard_1x01

Concern for the greater good on Ned’s part is further evidenced by the quality of mercy.  Ned is just, but he is no stranger to clemency.  In this he shows the depth of his magnanimity.  A true leader will be concerned about the common good, not his own aggrandizement.

And sometimes, the best way to serve the common good and to restore order is to reach out to perpetrators with the opportunity for redemption.

JohannesPaul2-portrait

In his great book “Go in Peace,” Pope John Paul II had this to say about the relationship between mercy and societal well-being:

Forgiveness neither eliminates nor lessens the need for the reparation that justice requires, but seeks to reintegrate individuals and groups into society, and countries into the community of nations.  No punishment should suppress the inalienable dignity of those who have committed evil.  The door to repentance and rehabilitation must always remain open.

Joffrey

The ego, however, cannot take such chances.  As far as it’s concerned, the only good enemy is a dead enemy.

Meanwhile, the good leader will give his neck to his enemy rather than betray his innate sense of what is right.  So we can say that even in death, Ned Stark triumphs over Joffrey Baratheon.

Image of Pope John Paul II from Wikipedia; others obtained through a Google image search.

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I was going to post part 2 of my reflections on Ned Stark and Joffrey Baratheon in “Game of Thrones” today, but I think that can wait a bit longer.  I just watched an interview with Bishop Macram Gassis, of the Diocese of El Obeid in Sudan, who has been working feverishly to help his people in the war-torn African nation.

For reader convenience, I will share two links.  They are links to the same video, but each starts at a different point in the video.

Segment #1 is about three minutes and 29 seconds long (watch up until 39:49):
http://youtu.be/gjNC94DEJGQ?t=36m30s

Segment #2 is about two and a half minutes long (watch up until 43:05):

http://youtu.be/gjNC94DEJGQ?t=40m35s

Note: I realize I haven’t really done anything with movies/media this week — my apologies.  I will post part 2 of my “Game of Thrones” post as well as my DVD review of “The Dark Knight Rises” this coming week.

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Happy Valentine’s Day, all!

Now that we are thinking about love and romance, I thought I’d share some reflections on sex from one of my favorite figures in the world of Catholic apologetics — Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College.

Please be aware that the relevant section is from 3:25 to 5:04 (making it less than a minute and a half).

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Pope Benedict

I was shocked and saddened yesterday morning to learn that Pope Benedict XVI, Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, will be resigning from the papacy effective February 28.  As has been mentioned repeatedly, he is the first Pope to do so in almost 600 years (the last Pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII in 1415).

No doubt, many are confused.  They will ask, “Isn’t the Pope a Pope for life?”

As a rule, yes.  But Canon Law does allow for a Pope’s resignation under certain circumstances, and the circumstances His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has cited qualify.

I have complete faith in the Holy Father’s judgement.  He said his decision was the result of repeated examinations of conscience and based on his sincere conviction that his age (he is 85 years old) and physical deterioration will prohibit him from continuing to fulfill the responsibilities of the Papal office.

True, other Popes have died as occupants of St. Peter’s Chair while quite old and frail (one need only think of the previous Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, for confirmation).  But, as Pope Benedict XVI has noted, the world has changed — and with it the character of the Supreme Pontiff’s responsibilities.

Especially when aggressive secularism threatens the world and ideas contrary to human dignity are widely propagated, the Church needs a strong and fully able leader who will be able to defend the truth not only with words and with personal virtue, but with all his strength (an ability that decreases with age).

I believe the Holy Father may well be responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Who is about to raise up a successor who will prove a force to be reckoned with against the oncoming storm.

My impression of Pope Benedict XVI and his legacy can be summed up like this:

1. He had a unique ability to speak the truth in love.  His unwavering orthodoxy earned him the nickname “God’s rottweiler” as a Cardinal, but I think his gentle and humble manner must have surprised a lot of people.

We shouldn’t be surprised, though.  Our great Catholic Faith recognizes truth and love as the two most fundamental expressions of Who God is.

2. At the same time, as a good pastor, the Holy Father never tired of attending to the deepest hunger of the human heart, which seeks the realization of man’s ultimate purpose — union with God.

3. Like the apostles, he was not afraid to bring God’s answer to the cry of the human heart (that answer is Jesus Christ, by the way) into distant, new and unknown territory — whether this meant traveling all over the map, entering a New York City Synagogue as an honored guest, leading Catholics in prayer at Yankee Stadium, actively dialoguing with the schismatic Society of St. Pius X for the sake of reunion, or braving the “brave new virtual world” of Twitter.

I look forward with excitement to the next chapter in the ongoing saga of Christ’s Pilgrim Church on earth, and I believe that Catholics and all people of good will can and should celebrate the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI during this last month of his Papacy…and for years to come.

Photo from Wikipedia.

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logo-thrones-burning-game-hunt
Here is the second in a series of posts on HBO’s fantasy/adventure series “Game of Thrones” (third, if you count the introductory post, which I don’t).  Anyone interested in reading the first post can access it here: https://intothedance.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/kingship-and-power-in-game-of-thrones-robert-baratheon/

Please note that there are some spoilers here.

This installment will focus on the contrast in leadership between Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean), the main character of Season 1, and Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), the young usurper of the High King’s throne.

In contrast to Robert Baratheon with his lazy egotism, Ned Stark shows us the qualities of a good king (even though he himself is only a lord).

Ned
In the show’s first episode, it falls to Ned to execute a criminal.  We can see that he does not enjoy this task, but he does it without wavering.

We might be forgiven for wondering, however, why he did not assign the task to an executioner.  Immediately after the execution, he explains to his young son, Bran, that a man must never pass any sentence unless he is willing to carry that sentence out himself.

joffrey-baratheon-1024Contrast him with Joffrey, who orders a minstrel’s tongue to be torn out after he sings a comedic song in which Joffrey’s mother, Queen Cersei, comes across badly.  Does Joffrey do the honors himself?  Nope.  He has his soldiers do it.

Ned's Execution

And then of course there is the scene in which he has Ned executed.  Joffrey gives the order, but the executioner does the honors.

Sansa-Stark-women-of-westeros-30785208-1023-571

It’s possible to interpret these instances in terms of regal propriety, but I think any such delusions are dispelled when we see Joffrey with his new queen, 13-year-old Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner).  Sansa makes the mistake of offending him at one point, and he remarks that it would be improper for a king to strike his queen.

So he turns to the guard accompanying them, and the guard promptly strikes Sansa on Joffrey’s behalf.

Obviously, a lot more could be said about both Ned and Joffrey.  But I wanted to start with this detail because it is particularly important when it comes to authority.  What makes the difference between a good leader and a bad leader here is the willingness to assume the greatest burdens of responsibility oneself.

It is, no doubt, hard to give an order of execution, but it is even harder to be the executioner.  I think this is just one instance of how Ned, as a good leader, ensures that the worst burdens of government fall on him rather than on his subordinates.  Joffrey, meanwhile, dispenses sentences of capital punishment very lightly (which I think is another mark of bad kingship — I’ll revisit that in Part 2), but apparently has no courage to take the burden of delivery upon himself.*

Christ_Carrying_the_Cross_1580

Ned’s model of kingship reflects the kingship of Christ, who went even further than carrying out the sentence due to mankind’s sins by actually submitting Himself to that sentence.  As the “Lamb of God,” He takes the sins of the world on Himself and becomes the living sacrifice, the offerer and the victim…the Priest of the human race.

GustaveDoreParadiseLostSatanProfile

Joffrey’s brand of authority, on the other hand, more closely resembles Satan’s.  Like Joffrey, Satan uses others to execute his enemies — he uses the authorities in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, and the Roman soldiers to kill Jesus.

“Rulers” such as Joffrey and Satan, for all their pomp and show of muscle, are cowards at heart.  The magnanimity of one like Ned Stark shows us what a true leader looks like.

*To be fair, I must restate that I have only seen the first season.

Images of “Christ Carrying the Cross” by El Greco and “Depiction of Satan” by Gustave Doré from Wikipedia; remaining images obtained through a Google image search.

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