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Archive for May, 2014

Noah Poster

Links: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

I went to see “Noah” on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.  Fortunately, the movie ended soon enough that I could enjoy a nice, leisurely walk outside afterwards.  After seeing this movie, I looked on the beauty of the trees, the birds, and the sunlight, reflecting on God’s sustenance of all things, with greater joy and gratitude.  In this final installment of my commentary, I want to talk about why.

Noah6Let’s have a look at some pretty bad timing: After deciding that the human race must end with him and his family, Noah (Russell Crowe) learns that his son, Shem (Douglas Booth), and his beloved, Ila (Emma Watson), are having a child.  As patriarch and leader aboard the ark, Noah makes a firm decision: If the child is a boy, then he will replace Noah’s youngest child as the last man on earth.  If it is a girl — if it is a fruitful female human being, capable of bearing new life — he will have to kill her.

In spite of the entreaties of his family, Noah will not be moved.  He believes firmly, based on a process of discernment, that this is the will of the Creator.

“This gives me no pleasure,” he says to his wife. “But it is just.”

From that point on, there is an atmosphere of darkness, tension, and impending doom upon the ark — and I sincerely hope everyone who sees this movie feels it.  I certainly did.

Think about this from an existential perspective.  It is one thing to be facing catastrophe and death.  It is one thing to be uncertain whether we will survive or not.  It’s even one thing to intuit that we will not survive whatever ordeal we are facing.

But it is quite another when we come to understand that we should not be spared.

It is not simply, as a materialistic atheist might argue, that there is no real reason for man to be saved.  It’s worse than that.  Rather, it is right that we should die.

Our hearts yearn for life, and our instincts are geared toward survival.  So what do we do when we come to the sobering realization that there is absolutely nothing in justice to plead our cause?

Our hope rests in the…well, in the hope that the Creator will exercise mercy, that He will give us another chance.

Noah and Family

And this is exactly what happens at the end of “Noah.”  When he tries to carry out the execution of the baby girls, Noah finds that he cannot do it.  When he looks at their faces, he feels nothing in his heart but love.

That’s where it starts.  Then the waters of the Great Flood recede, and the family is given a new start on dry land.  And at the very end, in an impressive cinematic display, a rainbow — the sign of God’s Covenant with the world through Noah — fills the sky.

God has chosen mercy.  They know not why, but they know it, and can be glad.

Of course, the Gospel tells us why…

Christ Crucified by VelazquezThe Creator Himself, in the Person of the Word, foreseeing human sinfulness, determined from before the creation of the world to take on our human nature and, in His innocence, to take our guilt, shame, and curse upon Himself.  This He did on Calvary about 2,000 years ago.  The consequences we have earned for ourselves, He suffers in our place.  Having risen from the dead and ascended to the Father in heaven, He, the “spotless victim,” now advocates for us, always pleading that God be glorified in mercy.

As a cradle Catholic, I knew this; but it never really touched me to the core until I saw this movie (which is, no doubt, informed by the larger Old Testament narrative of which it is a part — a story of God’s unwavering faithfulness to His children even in the face of their unfaithfulness).

Now, at last, I truly understand how the greatest witnesses of the Faith could endure so much suffering and martyrdom throughout the years and still remain joyful.  We have been forgiven.  No one who turns to God in sincerity will be turned away.

I’ll say it again: We have been forgiven!  Let us strive to understand what that means.

Images from Wikipedia

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A peak at Fr. Barron and Word On Fire Ministries’ upcoming follow-up to their groundbreaking “Catholicism” series:

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Noah Poster

Links: Part One, Part Two

Let’s start by briefly outlining the film’s plot:

  1. Noah (Russell Crowe) learns through a dream vision that the Creator is going to destroy the world with water.
  2. He discerns that while the flood cannot be escaped, it “can be survived;” so he and his family get to work on building an ark to save “the innocents” — that is, the animals…who, in the words of young Ila, still “do as they did in the garden (of Eden).”
  3. Noah eventually realizes that the same evil that is in the Sons of Cain, who have spoiled the earth, is dormant in him and his family as well; from this, he deduces that his family’s mission is to save what is left of creation and then die out so that God can begin anew…without humanity.

Let’s stop here for a moment.  Keeping in mind that Noah and his family are kept alive after the Flood, to give not only the world but also humanity a new beginning, we nevertheless do sense an echo of some modern environmentalist modes of thought.  There are those who say that in order to avert impending environmental crises, we must of necessity limit the growth of the human population (via contraception, for example), and in some cases even snuff it out (via abortion, for example).

Whatever the case, the bottom line of this kind of thinking is that mankind is the enemy of creation; and if this enemy doesn’t need to be destroyed, it must at least be crippled.

NaamehIronically, it is the woman of the family who argues against this impulse in “Noah.”  Noah’s wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), urges her husband to see that in spite of the corruption that is undeniably present, there is good to be found in humanity.

I call this ironic because the aforementioned environmentalist approach is often associated with the feminine, while the more pro-human approach is associated with the dominating, conquering masculine principle.  “Noah” reverses the situation entirely, giving the family patriarch the “man-must-die-so-nature-can-survive” initiative.

noah8As counter-intuitive as this might appear, it makes sense; in fact, it’s not really counter-intuitive.  A mother loves her children, and the lives of her children, like no one else can.  A mother’s heart, more than any other, will see the good in her children and fuel zeal for their preservation and flourishing.

Pope BenedictPope Emeritus Benedict XVI often spoke of a “human ecology,” noting that an imbalance in the environment always conduces to the harm of humankind (we can see that, for instance, in that way that certain pollutants affect the health of children with asthma).  And, as we observed in part two, humankind’s failure to flourish negatively impacts the rest of creation.  So it’s not an either-or scenario — it is simply a matter of knowing where things stand in the order of creation.

In a sense, Noah’s first impulse (as depicted in Darren Aronofsky’s film) was right: Man must die if things are to be made right.  But this is not a death of annihilation, nor even primarily of the natural death we all must face.  Rather, as I have argued elsewhere, we must learn to deny the satisfaction of our selfish desires and learn to live for God and neighbor…and, in that context, to be good stewards of the world God has given us.

Christ Crucified by Velazquez

Indeed, our model for this way of living must be no less that Jesus Christ Himself, after the pattern of His complete self-offering on the cross.  And that leads us naturally into our next, and final, topic in reflecting on “Noah.”  Stay tuned.

All “Noah” images obtained through a Google image search; images of Pope Benedict XVI and Christ crucified from Wikipedia

 

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burning of seven(If you would like to catch up or refresh: Part One, Part Two)

Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) is introduced to “Game of Thrones” fans with the burning of the seven.  In the name of the “Lord of Light,” she induces the Lord Stannis (Stephen Dillane) to burn the effigies of the seven gods of Westeros as a symbolic gesture of renunciation.  Again, one is reminded of Christianity; Christian missionaries were known to have orchestrated the destruction of idols.  But given the Gnostic/Manichean character of Melisandre’s religion, could there be something else going on here?

George_R._R._Martin_signing

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.  First of all, did George R.R. Martin — author of the “Song of Ice and Fire” series on which “Game of Thrones” is based — have Gnosticism or Manichaeism in mind when crafting Melisandre’s character and religion?

This much is for sure: Martin draws heavily from his studies of medieval Europe in crafting the world of Ice and Fire, and he is very much dedicated to authenticity.  So we should ask whether Gnosticism made an appearance in the Middle Ages.

AlbigensiansWell, in fact, it did.  The Cathars and Albigensians managed to gain quite a foothold in Southern Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries.  Like the Red Woman’s religion — and here it is good to remember Davos Seaworth’s (Liam Cunningham) hard words about Melisandre being “a foreigner preaching a foreign religion” — their belief system came from the East, bringing with it the air of something new and exotic.  St. Dominic fought vigorously against this movement during his life; the Dominican Order,* which he founded for just that purpose, thrives to this day.

faith of the sevenThe attitude of the culture to which Albigensianism came toward its native Christianity was, for the most part, very similar to that of the people of Westeros toward their religion (which appears to be a paganized form of medieval Catholicism).  They held to it as a sort of solid cultural possession, but they didn’t believe in it in too profound a manner (that is, in such a way that it would affect their lives).  So if we are surprised at their susceptibility to something novel and exotic…well, we shouldn’t be.

As Gnostics, the Albigensians and Cathars eschewed the material and the idea that God could be present to it, let alone make Hiimself part of it via the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.  Some of them would publicly burn crucifixes in order to make their point…and here we go back to our first inquiry.  The Cathars were as ready to burn crucifixes as were Melisandre’s followers to burn the effigies of the seven.

*

Innocent VHere’s an interesting historical tidbit: Pope Innocent V (1225-1276) was the first priest from the Dominican Order to become Pope.  When he was elected, he brought the trademark white garments of the Dominicans to the papal office.  This started a whole new tradition…Pope_Francis_in_March_2013…and is why the Pope wears white to this very day.  I just thought it was interesting that such a familiar image came about as an indirect result of the phenomenon on which a key “Game of Thrones” character may be based.

Thanks for reading, and let’s keep an eye on that quirky priestess with the fire-kissed hair.

Images from “Game of Thrones” obtained through a Google image search; remaining images from Wikipedia

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MelisandreLet’s recap briefly: In part one, we explored part of Melisandre’s (Carice Van Houten) conversation with Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram), on which occasion she tells the young princess that there are only two gods — the Lord of Light and the Lord of Darkness — rather than seven; it was also demonstrated that this dualistic theism resembles Manichaeism rather than the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Melisandre_ShireenBut the next thing Melisandre says is even more telling.  Shireen goes on to ask if, since there are not seven gods, there are also not seven heavens and seven hells.

Melisandre replies: “There is only one hell, princess: The one we live in.”

GnosticismThis is a defining characteristic of Gnosticism, the wider (and much older) school of thought to which Manichaeism belongs.  Adherents of Gnosticism proposed that the material world (including our physical bodies) was evil and illusory.  In fact, they believed that it was created and governed by a demon, which many of the early Gnostics called the demiurge.  The true, good God and the spiritual life were accessible only to a chosen few.  Ultimately, the salvation of a spiritual elite was a matter of his/her soul escaping from the cage of the body at the moment of death.

melisandre-2If Melisandre’s religion is of the Gnostic variety, her readiness to do evil despite claiming to be a servant of good makes perfect sense.  First of all, her worldview does not define evil in terms of dishonoring Divinity, humanity, or creation.  Instead, it holds that the material world is evil simply by virtue of of being material.  Many of the early Gnostics, in fact, believed that actions almost all of us would agree are flat-out wrong were not wrong or sinful for them, because they were “spiritual men.”

Secondly, if the body is not part of who a person is but a prison from which to escape, then it really doesn’t matter what one does in and with the body (perverse living was well noted among the ancient Gnostics).

In my opinion, the broader Gnostic nature of the “Red Woman’s” religion goes miles further than its specifically Manichean aspect in explaining its (at best) ambiguous character.

I’ll delve a little bit more into this in the next post.  Hope I’ve gotten you sufficiently interested to continue reading 🙂

All “Game of Thrones” images obtained through a Google image search; other image from Wikipedia

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NOTE: Entire video embedded merely for visual aesthetics; for just the relevant portion, which is about two and one half minutes long, click here.

“The night is dark and full of terrors!”

So speaks Melisandre, the “Red Woman” (Carice Van Houten), priestess of the “Lord of Light.”  Apart from the scoundrels of House Lannister, she is probably the character in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” that everyone most loves to hate.

Rather than attempt an in-depth character analysis, I want to limit my focus to Melisandre’s religion.  I must admit, when I was first introduced to it, I thought it was a crack at Christianity, given it’s emphasis on there being only one true God and on issues such as sin and righteousness (not to mention the destruction of idols).

MelisandreSo let’s break it down: How is Melisandre’s religion similar to Christianity, and how is it different?

First, the similarities.  Like I said, it insists on the worship of one God.  Names and titles applied to the God of the Bible — such as “Lord of Light” and “Our Lord” — are applied here also.  Like Jesus Christ, Melisandre’s god also performs visible miracles — most notably the raising of the dead.

Okay, now for the differences.  The priests and priestesses of the “Lord of Light” practice blood magic and human sacrifice, which are very much repugnant to the Judeo-Christian worldview.  Furthermore, Melisandre is a seductress and an adulterous woman.  She very quickly persuades the lord Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) to make love to her by promising him an heir (something Stannis’ barren wife can’t give him).

Melisandre_ShireenBut the defining moment thus far happened in the third episode of the current season.  In this episode, Melisandre comes to share her faith with Stannis’ secluded young daughter, Shireen (Kerry Ingram).  She starts by telling Shireen that there are not seven gods (as her father’s religion taught), but only — get this — two gods: The Lord of Light, and the Lord of Darkness…and they are always locked in battle with one another.

To me, this came as both clarification and relief.  This is not Christianity.  This is Manichaeism.

ManicheansI won’t give you a history lesson, never fear…except to say that Manichaeism was an ancient religion declaring a dualistic universe in which a supreme good divinity and a supreme evil divinity — both equally powerful and equally divine — were engaged in perpetual struggle.  The turmoil in the world and in each human heart could essentially be traced to that. (St. Augustine of Hippo vigorously opposed this philosophy in the fourth century, as is well documented in his “Confessions.”)

But, as C.S. Lewis argued in “Mere Christianity,” this worldview is untenable.  If the two gods in question are both equal in power and opposed to one another, that means they are finite — which, in turn, means that they are contained by and dependent on Someone or Something Else.  Christian philosophers have long held the monotheistic worldview to be more logically consistent: 1) There is one God, Who is infinite, eternal, and all-good; 2) He created everything good, and that includes the material world; and 3) Goodness is therefore absolute, and evil is to good what the cavity is to the tooth.

melisandre-fire-3Would this explain Melisandre’s questionable morality?  Perhaps.  After all, if her dualistic worldview is true, then right and wrong are relative to one another; good is only good because it is not evil, and vice versa.  What is more, there’s really no question of either side being better than the other; which side you are on is a matter of preference.  One can much more easily justify the use of evil in the service of good as a Manichean dualist.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Wait ’till next time.

Image of Manicheans from Wikipedia; other images obtained through a Google image search

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John_Paul_II_1980_croppedHere I am, nearly a week later, to talk about the second of our two recently canonized popes.  Why did it take me so long?  I suppose it was a combination of occupation with other matters, fatigue, and a bit of routine procrastination.

In any case, here’s what I have to say about Saint John Paul II:

First, I’ll try to address the controversy.  Some people have protested John Paul II’s canonization on the grounds that his response to the priestly sexual abuse crisis was inadequate, and perhaps even negligent.

Fr._Marcial_Maciel_LCMuch of the controversy surrounds the sexual improprieties of Fr. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, under his pontificate.

I’ll state my defense very briefly.  May God have mercy on Fr. Maciel; but without a doubt, he behaved disgracefully and, to make matters worse, fooled a lot of people…and the pope was no exception.  Remember, sainthood does not mean that a person was gifted with perfect insight or circumspection in every situation.

Hammer_and_Sickle_Red_Star_with_GlowFurthermore, it may be useful to keep in mind that the sainted pope — born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland — spent his later youth, early priesthood, and most of his episcopacy under Communist rule.  The governing Communist Party regarded the Catholic Church as a major enemy, and it was not uncommon for them to level false accusations against priests and put out propaganda against them.

That being the case, and knowing the great pressure his fellow priests were under by virtue of their sublime duties and societal misunderstanding, he most likely discerned that accusations against priests like Fr. Maciel needed to be taken with a grain of salt.  And unfortunately, this led to the matter not being looked into as it should have.

Pope John Paul I

Cardinal Wojtyla pictured with his predecessor, Pope John Paul I

But I beg of you, please let’s not allow this to shatter this man’s reputation.  It would be a shame to blind ourselves to all of the good Pope John Paul II did on account of what was undoubtedly a painfully tragic, yet understandable mistake.  What good did he do?  Let’s just run through a few brief examples:

1. Youth Outreach

World Youth DayOne of the late pontiff’s most memorable achievements was the inauguration of World Youth Day, which is but one expression of his constant and passionate outreach to the youth and young adults of the world.  In a time of uncertainty and pessimism, he appealed in a kind, fatherly fashion to the hopes and dreams of young hearts, thereby inspiring a whole new generation of faithful people to live their lives on fire for the Gospel.

2. Catholic-Jewish Relations

Yad VashemRelations between the Catholic Church and the Jews had undoubtedly been improving prior to Saint John Paul II’s papacy.  However, the strides he made in the improvement of said relations are truly legendary.  Having grown up with Jewish people as best friends and having experienced something of the horrors of the Holocaust, he saw it as part of his mission to make peace with the Jewish people, famously begging forgiveness at Yad Vashem for the sins of Christians against Jews over the centuries.  He also exhorted Catholics to look upon the Jews not as enemies or “Christ-killers,” but as our elder brethren in faith.

3. Ecumenical Dialogue

Pope John Paul II worked harder than any previous pope toward the cause of Christian unity.  He reached out in friendship to leaders and members of various Christian denominations, and even went so far as to ask for input into what, from their perspective, the papal office could do to aid the aforementioned cause.  He even signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, a document produced by the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation.

4. Teachings on Human Sexuality

Theology of the BodyThis deserves a whole separate post, but I’ll say a few words here.  About two-thirds of the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality come from Pope John Paul II (not that he just pulled it out of thin air, but it needed to be “unpacked,” clarified, and developed).  Through his world-famous Theology of the Body, he helped people in a hyper-sexualized and sexually wounded world to understand the true nature of human sexuality…in opposition to two extremes: 1) A puritanical attitude that sees sex as evil or taboo; and 2) A vehicle for selfish pleasure.  In truth, sexuality goes right to the heart of what it means to be a human being — and, specifically, of what it means to be a man or a woman.  Indeed, when a man and a woman united in holy matrimony are lovingly engaged in the act of sex, they are imaging the God in Whose image they are made…the God who is self-giving love.

There are a number of other things I could mention (his pivotal role in the collapse of totalitarian regimes, f0r example); but to give you a sense of the great saint’s deep humanity, I want to leave you with a link to a clip.  I know it can be a pain to jump from one Web page to another — but please, just take a moment to have a look at this; it’s less than two minutes long (stop at 24:58): Interview with a former Swiss Guard member.

May we all learn to be more like this in our daily lives.

Saint John Paul II, pray for us!

Image of “Man and Woman He Created Them” from http://www.amazon.com; remaining images from Wikipedia

 

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