Salvation through the Vales

JMJ

WHO GETS SAVED HERE? Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) and then Tina Durrance How is this salvation accomplished? Charlotte falls in love and directs that love to something good, sacrificing herself to save Tina as well.

There’s a lot here that can be worked with. Charlotte’s relationship with her mother (Gladys Cooper) seems to be beyond rescuing, although it comes close as she works through her own issues at the Cascade Sanitarium. What happens there is she comes into her own: she manages to be someone other than her Mother’s daughter/servant.

I found the plot line disturbing in a number of ways. The only way out for Davis is through. Mom has to die here for the thing to work. There is even the one spooky voice over “remember ‘honor thy parents’ is still a good idea.” but even that bow to tradition is unworkable here when the only way for Davis to honor her mother is to kill her. That’s a symbol of course. Good Freudian psychology talks of the domineering mother and the absent father. That’s what’s going on here. Of course, Freud usually talks about men in this role, but here it’s a woman. Davis is destroyed, nearly, by her mother’s controlling nature. No man is good enough. No clothing is mean enough. No shoes are sensible enough. Any attempt at looking pretty is frowned upon. Any attempt to “have fun” is decried as “common”.

All of these should, from an “ultra-traditional” Orthodox view, be perfectly fine. From an “Orthodox Taliban” mode, these should all be required. (I’ve seen the “Ortho-burkha” on women who veil their head by wrapping up most of their body.) The only thing missing is fasting and Mrs. Vale frowns on dieting so I doubt that would happen.

So, the plot carries an odd double message to me, one side is good, the other bad. How do you live within a tradition that destroys you? So much of this movie made me stumble… the question must be why do I love it so much?

Then there is the relationship with Charlotte and Jerry (Paul Henreid): it is, from the get-go, right on the dividing line between moral and immoral. It is nearly – but not quite – adultery. They love each other, this is evident even from the meeting on the boat going ashore. They take only a few days to realize it and then, suddenly, just when in a modern movie they would have been “doing it” they are parted. They only see each other three more times in the rest of the movie. But it must be said that Jerry is staying married because he must and that neither he nor Charlotte will cross that line – as much as they desperately want – because of their honor for Jerry’s honoring of that vow.

Is there such a thing as “unfaithful in heart”? Jerry is that… he sends flowers daily to Charlotte. But his love and honor for the vow he made his wife means that he will stay with her, care for her until death do they part.

Every time Jerry and Charlotte see each other, there is torture. There is temptation. There is heartbreak. Until finally, there is no more. And there is, here as well, healing.

And last, there is Charlotte’s relationship with Jerry’s daughter, Tina Durrance (Janis Wilson). Seeing in Tina no small part of herself, she takes it upon herself to care and protect Tina. She shows Tina the love she never had shown to her. In that love the very things that her own mother did to her are healed: yes, she tells Tina how to dress and even how to walk. But she does it in love and in care and with an eye towards Tina’s growth – rather than stunting the same. Charlotte becomes what she had never known by virtue of her willingness to sacrifice herself. She becomes what she is-not by giving up what she has become…

And there the whole thing either falls apart or else transforms into something else.

As mentioned, I was disturbed when I first saw this movie because it seemed to say “deny your family, have illicit affairs and everything will come out right.”

But last night (writing this in 2004) an offhanded line that I had always taken to be sort of Freudian blasphemy suddenly struck me as the key to another level of this movie: a level whereby it all weaves together to tell a very different story, a very Christian one.

Charlotte has a private meeting with Dr Jaquith. She asks to help – or more directly to take over – Tina’s care. After that scene, as Charlotte is running off, this little coda takes place:

Jaquith: But you’re only on probation. Remember what it says in the Bible, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
Charlotte: How does it feel to be the Lord?
Jaquith: Not so very wonderful since the free will bill got passed: too little power!

And therein I hit on a sort of skeleton key that unlocks a whole new corridor of meanings for this movie.

Forget Freud. Jaquith is God. (Jaquith is the family name version of the French Jaques – Jacob. Meaning “God has protected”.) Forget mother: Mrs Vale is the evil one, the destroyer of souls. The only time her name is used, she is introduced as “Mrs Henry Windle Vale”. Henry means “home ruler” or “home power”. Windle means a “winch”. Vale… well it’s not the kind you wear on your face, yes. But it is, at least phonetically, the same. And the tie-in is made once in the movie too when Tina says it quite clearly. Mother’s name could mean “The Home Power which ropes you in, covering your eyes to the world”. Or even it could mean, “The one who rules the home covers you up and ties you down.”

Jerry comes from “Jeremiah” and it means “God has uplifted”

Tina, of course, comes from the name Christina and it has the obvious meaning: Christian, little Christ.

Durrance – to endure.

Finally, the telling name is Charlotte: it comes from the Germanic Karl (via the French) and it means, simply, man. Charlotte is Everyman.

Her story is played out quite clearly thus:

In this world, in the hands of destroyer of souls, we lose, gradually, ourselves. We loose, gradually, our own sanity as we pattern ourself after the Ruler of the Home (the evil one) who has usurped the place of a loving Father. So much of our life is spent fighting him (or her) off on our own. We never notice that even in the fighting we only play into his strength. We never note that, without help, we must surely fall.

Help comes from repentance, from metanoia – herein symbolized by confession and admitting the fall.

Confession: the disturbing scene between Charlotte and the Doctor in her bedroom returns one to paradise that is Cascade: a name meaning “fall”. One has confession and moves up to the Cascade – paradise.

God protects one if one is willing to go through rather than around or away.

God sends one on a journey. The ship is baptism – and the Church. Charlotte is booked on the ship as “Renee” a name which means “born again”. Jerry gives Charlotte, the Born again Everyman, a new name: Camille – which name is the French version (both feminine and masculine) of Camillus, a Latin name meaning “attendant at a religious service”. It don’t get much easier to read than this Folks, sorry. I had no idea it would ride this far.

On the ship they sail into Rio de Janeiro – the River of Janus, the god who looks both ways and watches over new birth. They ascend to the Christus Statue (eventually).

And then she returns home… where, like John in Pilgrims Regress she must slay the dragon and eventually she does.

Thus, in slaying the dragon (her Mom dies) she finally claims what is hers by right: she must return to paradise, although now it is really the Church. We don’t see so much of Dr Jaquith save to confirm her in her new work: that of raising up a Christian.

In this new work, she must build a community – a family of sorts – one that is crafted not on “home rule” but rather on love. She does this in her own home, supporting the Christian that is growing there. She must fend off temptation as she finally does in the last scene. She must learn to love chastely and to use that love to, if I may be forgiven the obvious pun on Jerry’s last name, endure to the end so that she may be saved.

Salvation & John Wayne

This essay was part of a project in 2004 called “Salvation and the Silver Screen“. It was intended to be a bunch of Orthodox bloggers watching old movies and then commenting on the theological content.

JMJ

I WATCHED THE BEST MOVIE last night (that is, in 2004), The Angel and the Badman (Republic, 1947). It is a John Wayne movie, and it is produced by John Wayne, thus I’m tempted to imagine we might learn a good bit more about Mr Wayne here than otherwise.

Synopsis

Wayne plays Quirt Evans, not the Badman of the title I think, but certainly, there are two badmen here – Quirt and his competition, Laredo Stevens (Bruce Cabot). The movie opens with a shootout between Stevens’ gang and Quirt Evans. The chase scene plays behind the opening credits and, just as the credits end, Evans’ horse collapses a few yards in front of a horse and buggy being ridden by Thomas Worth and his daughter, Penelope. They are Quakers and, seeing a sick man, they nurse him back to health. During his several days of near-coma, Evans mutters in his sleep. The Quaker family hear all of it – the shootouts, the bawdy times, the drinking.

Though it all the family doctor (Tom Powers) tells them this is a bad man they must toss out in the street as soon as they are able. The family refuses to, saying they would no more hurt a man just because he was bad than they would hurt the Doctor because he is of a different faith. “Build your house by the side of the road and be a friend to man” quips the doctor.

But of course if you’re determined to watch over him, Penny, you’d better take a pencil and paper with you. His first conscious words should be recorded. They may be of great interest to history…or more possibly the United States Marshal! Who knows what violence is involved with his battered frame and his bullet holes.

When Quirt comes to, the first thing he sees is Penelope weaving a garment on a loom. In short order, for a movie, she falls in love. But this feeling never seems to happen to Quirt. He is mystified by these people, he is awestruck by the beauty of the young woman who has fallen for him, but he can’t bring himself to stay.

The Quakers, of course, will not let Quirt bring his gun into the house. The chase finally catches up and armed men stand on the Worth farm. Quirt sits with an unloaded gun and negotiates with his rival. It is a tense moment, but it is Quirt’s first clue that something – other than the gun – might be stronger. The family never ceases to make light of his gun.

Penelope Worth: Surely you can walk to the barn without that!
Quirt Evans: What?
Penelope Worth: The gun!
Quirt Evans: Oh, well, it balances me. One leg is longer than the other. You know, the weight.

When he finds out that a neighbor, Frederick Carson (Paul Hurst) has damned up all the water, rather than use his gun against the enemy, Quirt uses his reputation – a bad man – to frighten the man into releasing the water. In return, the Worth farm helps Carson – a bachelor – with baked products, canned vegetables, and some home medicine. Quirt is struck by this act of charity – and by the healing it causes to pass in the neighbor rancher.

All through the movie the local marshal, Wistful McClintock (Harry Carey), wanders through the scenes, wondering if Quirt has broken any laws and why it is that he has not yet gotten into a gunfight with his rival, Stevens. McClintock is certain that one day Stevens and Evans will shoot it out and he (the Sheriff) will get to hang the survivor.

Territorial Marshal Wistful McClintock: When are you and Laredo Stevens going to get around to killing each other?
Quirt Evans: Laredo? Well, we water our horses at the same trough.
Territorial Marshal Wistful McClintock: Well, I’m sure looking forward to hanging the survivor.

The family invites Quirt along for a Sunday ride and, surprise, it turns out they are going off to a Meeting. The Quaker Community presents Quirt with a Bible in thanks for his actions that freed up the local water supply. As Quirt looks around he sees the walls closing in: the community standing around him, the young Penelope playing with a baby… He sees the trap about to be sprung and he runs away. Penelope is crestfallen, the family confused, and Evans is stranded.

Out in the world, he returns to bar fights and bawdy women – but he is haunted and distant. His partner in crime, Randy McCall (Lee Dixon), takes up reading the Bible and asking Quirt questions. They plan and procure a cattle heist – stealing a herd from his rival, Stevens, as they, themselves, had already stolen it. There is no gunfight, really, and no one is dead afterward. But Stevens is angry and he, again, sets out on a chase for Evans.

After a celebratory night in a hotel barroom fight, Evans and McCall end up in their room, women sitting on their laps and whiskey on their breath. McCall asks a Bible question and one of the women laughs, saying she never imagined that Quirt Evans would be carrying around a Bible. He picks her up off his lap and throws her on the bed and storms out – back to the Worth farm.

It’s only a day or so of reconciliations before the Stevens gang shows up – they catch Quirt and Penelope picking blackberries. There is a shootout and a chase. Quirt and Penelope fly over a cliff into a river where they hide in the cold water until the gang leaves. Pulling her from the water, Quirt finds that it has all been too much for Penelope who has swooned. Bringing her home, the family sends for the Doctor who announces that she’ll be gone soon.

At that Quirt grabs his gun to storm into town. The doctor advises him that this would not be a good idea – Penelope may be in a coma, but she’ll know. He’ll never be able to think about her again without knowing how she would feel about these actions. Off rides the angry Quirt. At that, Penelope wakes up. The doctor finds her dressed and healthy and pronounces it all to be a miracle. But the doctor and the family are sure that Quirt has ridden off to perdition.

Dr. Mangrum: If I felt cynical, this would be a good opportunity to observe that we’re about to see a perfect example of an eye for an eye. Unfortunately, I can’t quote chapter and verse.

As Quirt calls out into the street the Stevens gang, there is a long few moments in the bar when the gang prepares itself with extra whiskey. Then the entire town clears out of the streets for fear of the shootout that is about to happen. As he leaves his corner and walks through the dusty street to the saloon door, Quirt is called from behind: the Worth family, with Penelope laying in a pile of blankets in the back of the buggy. Quirt walks over to see the miracle and stands there in awe. Suddenly Stevens comes out of the bar and, finding Quirt with his back to them, they move to shoot.

Two shots ring out.

And the Stevens gang drops. Quirt and the Worths spin every which way finding, at last, the Sheriff standing there saying, “I always thought I’d get to kill the one leftover…”

Quirt rides off with the Worth family in the back of the buggy, holding Penelope. Before he can get in, she takes his gun from him. As they drive away, she drops the gun into the dust.

Commentary

Ok, I’m sorry if this seems too obvious but it’s all there. All of it – salvation and the Holy Mysteries. There is confession – in the long scenes of comatose babbles when his past comes out and in several scenes when QUirt recounts his past to Penelope. There is the teaching of the faith to the Catechumen – from the very moment he wakes up:

Quirt Evans: Is that Quaker stuff?
Penelope Worth: Uh huh.
Quirt Evans: You mean that nobody can hurt you but yourself?
Penelope Worth: That’s a Friend’s belief.
Quirt Evans: Well, suppose someone whacks you over the head with a branding iron? Won’t that hurt?
Penelope Worth: Physically, of course. But in reality it would injure only the person doing the act or force of violence. Only the doer can be hurt by a mean or evil act.
Quirt Evans: Are there very many of you Quakers?
Penelope Worth: Very few.
Quirt Evans: I sort of figured that.

There is a believer’s baptism, in the river. There is communion in its most basic form: the Worths constantly feed Quirt and give away their food to their neighbors. There is even ordination in that marriage makes man the priest of his household and the Community has recognized (in the Bible scene) that Quirt and Penelope are a couple, and there is, really, marriage at the end.

I noted that I didn’t think Quirt was the “Badman” of the title. I think the “Badman” is Stevens. Quirt is torn between the path of Life represented by Penelope and the deadly path of Stevens. Whistful McClintock is, really, the serpent in the garden here. The sheriff walks around tempting both men to acts of evil so that, in the final scene, the sheriff may get both of their souls. Quirt’s final choice for Life rather than Death results in the end of temptation – not a very Orthodox teaching, but certainly a valued point in that it ends the movie.

I was several times struck with the odd parallels between Orthodoxy and Quakerism (at least as this later tradition is presented in the movie). The lack of judgment, the insistence on the good of people, the forgiveness, the humility, the service – the parallels were numerous. Parallels ran hand in hand with the perpendiculars though:

Quirt Evans: I thought you weren’t allowed to work on Sunday.
Penelope Worth: Oh, Quirt, there’s nothing we’re not allowed to do. It’s just that we don’t believe in doing what we know is wrong.
Quirt Evans: Well, that makes it pretty much each fella’s own guess.
Penelope Worth: But each fella knows inside.
Quirt Evans: Well, there’s a lot of gents I wouldn’t want to give that much leeway to.

What starts out as a good solid Orthodox idea (“nothing we’re not allowed to do” – which I’m hearing in the same way that I know that breaking the fast is not a breaking of the Law from which we are freed) quickly turns into individualistic western silliness – everyone can do it. John Wayne sees the fault right up front, though.

But it is Quirt’s choices, despite his temptations, despite his giving in to them, that bring about his salvation. He is saved finally because he works it out in fear and trembling: he knows what’s right, he’s even tasted of the heavenly banquet, but in the end, he almost caves in. It is the voice of his love that calls him back though, and in the final shot, it is the bullets of the evil one that bring the curtain down on evil as Love rides off into the sunset.

Salvation in All About Eve

This essay was part of a project in 2004 called “Salvation and the Silver Screen“. It was intended to be a bunch of Orthodox bloggers watching old movies and then commenting on the theological content. Best laid plans… I don’t remember why the other folks didn’t make posts. “I have taken a wife, I have five yoke of oxen…” Anyway, I found the posts buried in my LiveJournal and so now they’er here. This one is All About Eve. There are spoilers so you may want to watch the movie first.

JMJ

ONE THING POPULAR CULTURE DOES does really well is clone things. There was a whole culture called “clones” in the 70s: slender, trimmed mustaches, hair feathered just so, in the “wet look” or the “dry look” as was needed that week. Now there are just different “subclones”. There are clones called bears and clones called twinks, etc. They’re just all clones of each other, roughly interchangeable in a social sense. But outside of the culturally inbred bayous of San Francisco and Manhattan, there are many such cones. In the normal world of there are clones of housewives and clones of jocks, there are clones of movie stars and politicians. They are cloned for a reason: to make plentiful certain traits or genes or memes. What is the difference between a person and a clone? It’ll be hard to tell until judgment day.

Eve Harrington is a clone, a sort of proto-Fembot. We hear several versions of her story through the movie: it changes several times. We have no idea if the last one we heard is right. Eve is a self-made clone. Like all clones today she did it to herself. But there is a way out.

Evidently, the plot of All About Eve (20th Century Fox, 1950) is based on a true story that was fictionalized in Cosmopolitan, sometime in the mid40s. The Director and writer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz rather liked the Cosmo article and developed the story. When the screenplay was done, everyone who touched it liked it: even Bette Davis, notorious for rewriting scripts, had no complaints. Of all the scripts she saved, only AAE hasn’t any markings at all. According to the documentary on the disk, it seems one of the reasons everyone liked it is because everyone realized it was true and not a few people realized that it was true for the stars as well. Was Bette Davis playing Margo Channing or was she playing herself?

The plot is simple: Ms Channing, now 40, feels insecure about her age and her ability to play the young and beautiful Broadway starlet. Her friends – the writer Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), his wife Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), and the director, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) – are all at great pains to reassure her. Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter) arrives, pretending to be a devoted fan, who strives in every way to be like Margo Channing. Finally, conning Margo and her friends, and playing them off each other. she succeeds in her real goal: replacing Margo in her own play and then in a new play written for Margo by Lloyd. She makes a play for Bill – and fails. She makes a play for Lloyd – and fails. She ends up with Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), a bitter critic whose own purposes are not clear, but who values the power politics of the Theatre World and moves well among the temperamental, artsy folks who inhabit it. Addison’s hold on Eve turns out to be blackmail: where Eve had been playing people off of each other, Addison has tracked Eve. Addison plays Eve’s lies off of each other and Eve is thus trapped in the net of lies she created to entrap others.

Along the way, everyone has fights, there are a few choice zingers, at least one oft-quoted line (“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”), and some very memorable dialogue. But who gets saved?

The answer is not only on-screen but off. Everyone who played in this movie and everyone who comments on it, noted the near painful parallels with off-stage life. Bette Davis was, in fact, very much like Margo. Nearly everyone knew of her temper, her rewriting of scripts, her own fear of turning 40. Nearly everyone knew of her developing love for co-star Gary Merrill – Margo Channing not only had the same life as Davis, but she also had the same taste in men. So much is this true that as soon as all the correct papers were filed and all the divorces finalized Merrill and Davis were married.

The hitch comes in the middle of a drive through the winter countryside. The car is stopped. Action is, by virtue of having run out of gas, stopped. But more, the winter snows add another level of meaning to “frozen”. Everything is locked. Margo confesses her sadness, her weakness to Karen:

Funny business, a woman’s career, the things you drop on the way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. It’s one career all females have in common – being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings but you’re not a woman. Slow, curtain, the end.

Without that, you’re not a woman. Indeed, you’re only a simulacrum. The Movie takes great pains to draw a line between real people and simulacra. Hollywood – the world – produces a host of simulacra. We follow along, becoming each, in our own way, Rock Hudson or Larry the Cable Guy, Roseanne or Doris Day. But we do it alone – copying only what we see to “be ourselves” rather than to be in communion with others. And without that – without being in communion – you’re not a person. At all.

There lies the key. When Margo concedes her inability to go it alone, her need for a man in her life to be complete, her need for that man to be Bill Sampson, everything is set aright. It is not good for woman to be alone either.

Coming as it does at the end of the “Rosie the Riveter” era, this portion of the movie may be seen as a call to women to come back to the home. Baxter’s role of a displaced war-widow might be seen as highlighting this. And this is echoed at the end of the movie, where triumphant Eve is lured to Hollywood, instead of her own marriage to Addison, and so is trapped by her own doppelganger in the person of a young High School Girl, Phoebe, liberated on her own by schooling and Urban Culture. She is a simulacrum of a simulacrum – she is only a copy of Eve who is only a copy of Margo. But we go on making copies: because real people, persons in communion, are downright scary.

The rise in divorce and sexual immorality – both hinging on Women’s Lib and “Working Women” – may be seen as a failure to hear the call of this movie. Liberated Women – without the community of (eg) the Home Church are, at best, only females. But there is something more here than just that.

The movie notes not only Margo’s salvation, but also Bill’s. We are not saved alone. Margo’s salvation saves those around her, most especially her husband. They are saved together. Modern Men – without the community of the Home Church are, at best, only males. They are not men.

We are all pained by this loss. Mankiewicz focused on women because that’s what he liked to write about, but this could just as easily be told about men. Yes, some of the cattiness would be missing, some of the issues about clothing, unless we made the movie about the emasculated MetroSexuals, or a group of gay “Bears”, then the cattiness would stay. But masculine men would have a different dialogue and still convey the same truths about communion and personhood – or lack of communion and thus a real lack of real personhood, a relegation to simulacrum status.

There is a final painful parallel: Davis and Merrill divorced after ten years. Davis said, “A strange thing happened. Gary wanted to marry Margo Channing, instead he got me. I wanted Bill Sampson, and instead I married Gary.” This happens in nearly every situation in the world today – we do business with, we interact with, we fall in love with, we lust after simulacra. When reality pops up we run away.

Communion only happens with persons: simulacra can not commune.

My Two Jesuses

JMJ

I was very surprised to discover my LiveJournal account was still around. This is one of my favorite essays (from 7th May 2004). I’ve updated it a tiny bit and edited it a good bit because I hope I write at least a tiny bit better now than then.

Any time one tries to tell the entire Gospel on film, there will be controversy or, at least, someone will not be happy. Events surrounding a recent film (The Passion of the Christ) may underscore that. I’ve not yet seen that film (which doesn’t tell the whole story anyway) so it’s not included in this post, but I have just finished my re-viewing of The Greatest Story Ever Told (United Artists, 1965) and Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977). I’ve noted some marked differences that I thought might be interesting.

First the scope – both purport to tell the story from the beginning to end. In The Greatest Story Ever Told (TGSET), the “beginning” is Christmas. For Jesus of Nazareth (JoN), the beginning is just prior to the Annunciation, the betrothal of Joseph to the Theotokos. Therein lies a clue the biggest difference: TGSET is, at heart, a Protestant Gospel while JoN is Catholic. Yes, all the right parts are there, and yes anyone could watch TGSET and come away moved (or not) but there are many subtle clues that this Jesus opened the local LifeWays bookstore and wouldn’t have anything to do with the Papists up the street. The JoN Jesus knows how to honor his mother and has a Pope. Both movies end just after the Resurrection, with the promise that Christ will be with us until the end of time.

First, the parties involved: JoN has a lot more family in it. The Theotokos is there, St Joseph, his kids. John the Baptist is Jesus’ cousin. The Theotokos visits Elizabeth, and they celebrate their impending birthgivings. There is a life in which Jesus lives here. The Apostles have families, too: wives, mothers-in-law, etc. In TGSET there is only the sketchiest of families involved: the Theotokos shows up and weeps a lot at several points, but she’s really only a decoration. Joseph is not there following the return from Egypt. John the Baptists never once talks about his familial relationship with the Messiah.

Now, I realize that part of this is the time involved: at 382 mins, JoN is nearly twice as long as TGSET with its 199 mins. One just doesn’t have time to go into all the minor details. But the effect is as I have described – to create a Jesus more divorced from all that silly Catholic stuff. This Protestant Jesus has one thing to do, and one thing only, and He needs to do it Himself – everything drives forward to this. This one-note Jesus is not heard of very often among non-Protestants.

Next the locations: yes, neither movie was shot in the Holy Land. George Stevens wanted to film in Israel, but things got heated up there, war wise, just about the time he wanted to film TGSET. There were safety concerns and so he filmed in the American southwest – in a valley that was about to be filled up with water after the building of a damn. The idea was no one will ever be able to film in the same place again. The amazing shots of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount from the top of a pinnacle over looking the Grand Canyon are moving beyond measure – but again they create a decidedly American Protestant Jesus. Think circuit riders and Movie Western Parsons and even Mormon pioneers. Zeffirelli filmed in Italy. The JoN shots of Jesus surrounded by olive branches and rolling greenery, or towns filled with fisherman and whitewash houses with thatched rooves (or is that “roofs”) look more, well… they look more like what one may imagine the Holy Land to look like.

One thing that TGSET does twice is show one-on-one frontier evangelisms: shepherds yelling at each other across a canyon. “Who is that?” “Jesus of Nazareth!” Personal evangelism is decidedly missing from JoN, which shows a lot of people following Jesus, but very few events of “bringing others to Christ”. The Greatest Story Canyons serve to emphasize how lonely people are – even when standing in line to be Baptized, they don’t talk amongst themselves. They do, however, in JoN: crowds are messy, people come in clumps, they climb on top of each other. The only time it looks like that in TGSET is one scene in Capernaum when Jesus is standing on a pier and the crowd is pressing towards Him hands outstretched. They form a wall of hands. In JoN they would have pushed each other way and mobbed Jesus. In TGSET, they just about have to touch each other now, don’t let us go any further along, thank you. Rather unlike all the minorities that tend towards those touchy-feely religions, the WASPs in TGSET never ever get down and dirty.

The actors, of course, help in this respect. Max von Sydow’s Jesus is cold and distant. Robert Powell’s Jesus is warmer and inviting: he touches people, he looks longingly into their eyes. Von Sydow tends to “get a grip” on himself and then look off into the distance. He never really touches folks – beyond a shoulder pat or a handshake.

Much has been said about the “spookiness” of Robert Powell’s portrayal. Having just watched both movies back to back, and having always thought the “spookiness” was in Powell’s creepy blue eyes, I’ve decided to change my tune. JoN’s spooky Jesus is because he is God and Man. He knows it and so does the actor, the director, and all the crew. Jesus does miracles. He multiplies loaves and fishes. He raises the dead. He heals the sick. Max von Sydow only really does three miracles: He makes the crippled man walk. He makes the blind man see, and He raises Lazarus. Yes, He cures Shelly Winters’ flow of blood, but it’s just a cameo miracle. Von Sydow spends a lot more time teaching than healing. Miracles happen in JoN that are not mentioned (or else are mentioned – but not seen) in TGSET. Again, the effect is one of Protestant (mainline) vrs the other, more messy religions. Rome and the East are used to Bleeding statues, myrrh-gushing icons, and saints who elevate when they pray. Not so much in the Protestant mainline world. Von Sydow creates a cold, distant, almost deistic Messiah who comes, does, then goes, thank you. The spooky Powell, however, seems to be standing right here all the time.

This touchy-feely quality carries over into the “evangelism” of the movies. Von Sydow never reaches out to the audience in the theatre. Powell talks, a couple of times, directly to the camera – as do other cast members. Zeffirelli wants to draw us into this ancient story. Stevens wants to show us something. At one point in JoN, Peter says, referring to the Apostles’ abandonment and betrayal of Jesus, “He has forgiven us!” And then Peter turns to the camera and says to the viewer, point blank, “All of us.” Pope inDEED! This one-to-many evangelism is not just a fluke: during many events the camera moves the viewer in and through the action. During the Mystical Supper the viewer is all over the room. We become involved in the life of the Church thereby. We are invited in.

In the Greatest Story, “the story” is presented by Stevens and shown forth to us. We’re as passive as a crowd at a lecture in a Billy Graham rally.

Zeffirelli goes, repeatedly, for iconic images (taken from icons): the crucifixion has three bars. There are scenes in the movie that look exactly like Giotto frescoes. The Mystical Supper looks like icons of, well, the Mystical Supper. The effect is one that some can recognize: one gets the events as one would in Liturgy, accompanied by pictures on the Church walls. The evening light of a campfire only serves to draw Jesus further out of the darkness – like an icon with its only lighting scheme in candlelight. There are moment that look (as I mentioned) like Giotto or other famous artists. But we move through those images. The director wants us to see the images as part of the context. We venerate and move on. That Zeffirelli was producing for TV only makes the experience warmer. A TV – even the huge modern things – is a warm intimate experience. The story is told, not so much by static shots as by moving. Even on wall-sized screens, the picture is never very large so things must keep moving to show everything. Things must be alive. Thus folks have a lot of colorful garments and they wave them a lot. Garments, by and large, in JoN are more exciting. I’d like to wear a good few of them. Not so much in TGSET where they resorted to the classic bed-sheet togas.

George Stevens, on the other hand, tends towards Renaissance and Romantic paintings. The Last Supper looks nearly exactly like Da Vinci’s Last Supper. The crucifixion looks like a Duhrer Woodcut. The Betrayal looks like another Romantic painting. This use of images in TGSET creates an effect that a few folks might recognize: There is story… and it moves towards this staged shot that looks like a famous (often-used-by-Protestants) painting. Everything stops for a moment, then it moves on with more story. The effect is exactly the same as a large, coffee table Family Bible, illustrated with Great Christian Paintings. Stevens’ 70mm “Ultrapanavision” results in a lot of set shots where people are draped about like props, only to fill up the screen. People don’t move so much. They look, they gasp. They sleep, yes, in the corners. But they never really do anything. Also, they all tend to dress alike. It’s spooky, actually, to see a room full of folks and not one of them differently dressed. There is one place where this widescreen is used to the fullest: the betrayal in the garden. One can see the line of torches leave the city gates and proceed, one by one, down the hill. The soldiers do not reach the Garden until they should – the line has left the gate, the end is about halfway down the hill. The first soldier marches into the Garden. It’s very well done and an odd moment of background movement in an otherwise static film.

Yes, TGSET is a cameo-fest, a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood in the late 60s. All the “unknowns” who were unknown when asked to play Apostles or whatnot later became quite well known themselves. Thus the cameo fest is only extended. Instead of an unknown playing St Thadeus, it is our old pal Max Klinger, I mean, Jammie Farr – still in a dress, however. Angela Landsbury as Mrs Pilate is preparing to write a murder. Yes, Telly Savalas is Pilate. But then JoN has Ernest Borgnine playing the Centurion Cornelius (just as campy as John Wayne in TGSET), and Peter Ustinov as Herod the Great is priceless – but no more priceless than Claude Rains in TGSET. JoN, however, uses a large crowd of unknowns who are, mostly, still unknown. All the Apostles look like one might imagine Apostles to look, provided one was looking at the aforementioned Giottos or icons. Where TGSET bows to studio politics, putting blondes in some odd roles, JoN bends over backward to avoid such things.

This is equally evident in the background: TGSET uses a very intermingled crows of blacks and whites. Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene shows up out of the crowd and looks very much like someone walking out of a blacksploitation film. Jesus not only lets him carry the cross, but also grips his arm for strength. It’s very pc in a Great Society kind of way. Love Thy Brotha. In JoN, however nearly everyone is “ethnically appropriate”. The Romans look much as one might expect Romans to look. The masses are, mostly, Semitic youths – or at least Semitic looking. The shots of crowds could easily be shot today in Gaza. George Stevens restricted his crowd to biblical phrases or else to shouting “Hallelujah!” or “Touch me, Master!” Zeffirelli, uses biblical phrases, plus some political ones thrown in: Arab teenagers yelling at Jesus, “You are the Prophet!” I wonder if there is a fatwah out on Zeffirelli.

The divisions between Protestant and Not-Protestant Jesus come to a head, if you will, in the Last Days.

Robert Powell raises Lazarus, rides Triumphantly into Jerusalem, clears out the Temple, has a fight with the scribes, teaches some children to say Hosanna and then has the Mystical Supper. In clearing the Temple, Jesus makes His comments about “tearing down this temple and in three days it will rise…” and he teaches (as in the Biblical descriptions) about the two sons who reply to their father’s requests. Powell’s Jesus is majestic in nearly all his acts. There is one scene when Jesus is returning from scourging, wearing the purple robe of mocking and the crown of thorns. He walks into Pilate’s office with the rising sun behind him. Pilate looks up in shock – in the shadowy profile, an unknown king is standing there and as he walks forward, it resolves into the Bridegroom of the Church, the Suffering Messiah, God.

Von Sydow’s Jesus raises Lazarus, rides Triumphantly into Jerusalem, clears out the Temple – and here things change drastically. Instead of following the Biblical script, George Stevens has Jesus preach a sermon – a full-on revival sermon in the dark with torches and people yelling “Hallelujah!”. Then, when it’s time to end and leave, Jesus walks out of the room like a minister walking up the aisle during the final hymn, patting a few people here and there, working his way to the back door for the meet-and-greet after the service. The Romans march in afterward and slay people in the Temple who stand around reciting the 23rd and 24th Psalms (if you’re using the Western numbering system).

So, by the time these two Jesuses get tried and crucified, there is not a difference of intent, but rather a difference of content. Both are betrayed by very forgivable Judases – but von Sydow lands in the hands of a very angry Jewish Court. Powell lands in the hands of political intrigue. Von Sydow’s words and reported miracles annoy the court. Powell’s non-politics disturb the political types on all sides of the issues – the Zealots, the Sanhedrin, and, after a while, the Romans. The Jesus or Barabbas choice for the crowd TGSET is pretty much 50-50. It includes the priceless line from McCarthy America, directed at a “pro-Jesus” screamer: “That’s traitor talk. He’s a traitor and if you like Him, you’re a traitor, too.” After a little conniving by the Sanhedrin, von Sydow is crucified by the Romans while most of Jerusalem looks on in shock and awe. There is a stunned silence broken only by weeping.

Powell, however, is crucified by nearly everyone. The Sanhedrin, the Zealots, and, a bit unwillingly at first, the Romans, all join in. Zeffirelli, like Orwell, clearly understands how fickle the Masses are. The same folks can be led to believe exactly opposite things about exactly the same events because of whispers. George Stevens may wonder how anyone could have come to hate this “good man” but Zeffirelli knows quite well how that could happen – the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Powell’s Jesus is hailed as king on Sunday and by midweek everyone hates Him. Most folks are yelling and screaming and jeering when Powell walks through with the cross. There is no silent shock.

There is one other curious Protestantism in TGSET. The music. Most of it is standard-issue movie soundtrack. Alfred E Newman is good, although for my taste he’s no Max Steiner. JoN has even more standard-issue music – it’s a TV miniseries, don’t forget. But TGSET uses music from Verdi’s Requiem to create a mournful atmosphere during the Via Dolorosa. Not only that, but the lyrics are “requiem aeternam, dona eis requiem.” This application of mood music – without any sense of context other than “I heard this and it sounded good for here…” is very much like my experience growing up in Protestant churches. All of them used music just where ever it seemed good, without any sense of what the music was written for in the first place. I remember the horror I felt at listening to a four-part acapella mass setting used in a Christmas Eve service, one with communion: the music was just spaced out through the service. Something would happen, and then the choir would sing another “anthem” that was liturgically unconnected to what had happened, but it was pretty, you know. That this happened at an Episcopal church indicates to me that there is no reason to imagine I’m talking about a liturgical/non-liturgical division. No Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church would ever space out random music through the service. The Gloria would be sung where the Gloria goes.

Steven’s use of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah as the Easter Morning background makes sense, at least that’s what it’s supposed to signify in the oratorio, too. But then there are these crowd shots of people running through the streets of Jerusalem hugging each other and jumping up and down as if they had just won a football game. Yet, the Risen Von Sydow, far from being with them, spends a lot of time doing a voice-over from off-camera and then dissolves into a ghastly painting that looks, oddly, just like Von Sydow. Von Sydow gets lost in the clouds and then turns into a Sunday School picture. It’s not only protestant, but it’s also Jesus Seminar protestant: it’s almost like he were alive.

JoN is filled with “ethnic” music – not 50s style orchestrations of ethnic-sounding music, but rather 70s style “you could do this yourself but not quite” television attempts at ethnic music. When Salome dances, you know she’s hot, and when the crowds are singing folk songs, they are songs you can imagine folks singing. When the Apostles gather with no women folks in the Upper Room they are trying to dance like straight men without their wives. It is totally cringe – and hence real. Powell manages to be spooky right to the very end: in this movie, he is playing the God-Man. The scenes after Pascha Morning are both moving (I could watch Anne Bancroft whisper “I’ve seen the Master” a thousand times) and realistic. We didn’t win a football game, we just won eternity. No one knows quite what to do until Jesus shows up.

And John the Beloved rests his head on Powell’s shoulder, along with Peter, and there is a deified man between them. This is not a fresco, but rather an icon: the room is filled with light.

I must underscore both of these are among my favorite movies. They do not show the blasphemously ditzy failed political Jesus of “Superstar” nor the heretical cutesy Jesus of “Godspell”. Yet these movies manage to show two very different Jesuses. That these are both Jesuses I have known is perhaps why I am comfortable with them. That these are Jesuses that have moved me is, perhaps why I love them.

I ask your prayers that I may come to know the real One, though.

Resist. But not what you think.

JMJ

NEIL POSTMAN’S TECHNOPOLY has been a slow-go for me, although I think I’ve had it for about a year. It’s hard reading a fully-valid cultural critique of your industry (and your quarter-century career arc) that was written before your industry or the possibility of your career arc existed. To say Postman was a prophet is an understatement. When I was working at the Seabury Bookstore in NYC, I wish someone had come to my cash register with this. If I had rung Postman up twice at my register at the same time I was learning about email, I might have noticed. So I don’t have a review so much as a recognition that I have not been in the “Loving Resistance”, as he calls it.

Although Bishop Barron has a few comments on another Postman work, Amusing Ourselves to Death, this work seems not to have hit the radar over at Word on Fire, although I may be wrong. It would, perhaps, be seen as a critique of the whole idea of evangelism via the internet and how gleefully we give ourselves up to the mercy of the Algorithm in the hopes of gaining one convert who is not worse than we are.

Rather than a review or even response, by way of capitulation, here’s an extended quote from the final chapter. It really is a description of a proper reaction to everything the internet has become since Postman died.


By “loving,” I mean that, in spite of the confusion, errors, and stupidities you see around you, you must always keep close to your heart the narratives and symbols that once made the United States the hope of the world and that may yet have enough vitality to do so again. . . . Which brings me to the “resistance fighter” part of my principle.

Those who resist the American Technopoly are people:

  • who pay no attention to a poll unless they know what questions were asked, and why;
  • who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations;
  • who have freed themselves from the belief in the magical powers of numbers, do not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as a synonym for truth;
  • who refuse to allow psychology or any “social science” to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense;
  • who are, at least, suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding;
  • who do not regard the aged as irrelevant;
  • who take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor, and who, when they “reach out and touch someone,” expect that person to be in the same room;
  • who take the great narratives of religion seriously and who do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth;
  • who know the difference between the sacred and the profane, and who do not wink at tradition for modernity’s sake;
  • who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement.

A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology—from an IQ test to an automobile to a television set to a computer—is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore require scrutiny, criticism, and control. In short, a technological resistance fighter maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.

From Chapter 11 of  Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman

The World, the Flesh, and All About Eve

JMJ

20th Century Fox’s 1950 masterwork, All About Eve, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who also wrote the screenplay) and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, is a classic of Christian theology. Staring Bette Davis, Gary Merrill, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, and George Sanders, at least for the purpose of the credits, it should also list St Paul, St James, and St John as writers. Even though the eponymous Eve (Anne Baxter) is the seeming focal point, the starring role of Margo Channing, more of a Mary Magdalen played by Bette Davis, is the one who gets saved. How she gets saved should put every post-modernist on edge.

If you’ve not seen the movie I have provided, on another page, a Synopsis. It lists the prologue, seven acts, and an epilogue. The following commentary is more thematic. You may want to read the synopsis first.

Synopsis (Spoilers)

Although it’s not usually classed as such, I treat this as Film Noir. Culturally, the Noir arose in the aftermath of WW2. In the economic collapse of the post-war economy and the cultural confusion that resulted from the sudden peace, men returned home, women lost their war jobs, and people tried to “be normal” again. But many rural families ended up in urban environments, there were also many refugees coming into this country. What was hoped to be “normal” ended up being very strange. Film Noir provided a cathartic release for these tensions: clipped dialogue, shady characters, confusion, but a good ending where all things work out well. And yet an undercurrent of concern and suspicion. This movie has all of the above. It takes place in a few glitzy NYC apartments, a world unfamiliar to most audiences. It has some very cardboard characters – until all the masks come off and people are people. But the ending is classic noir.

During the Prologue we are introduced to all the main characters in turn through a voiceover from Addison DeWitt. By way of this filter we learn more about Addison than we do about others: as Critic who writes for the press, Addison thinks of this world, “The Theatre,” as filled with royalty and a bloodline. He speaks of people being “of the Theatre” by birth or by marriage. Curiously, through the course of the movie, we learn that the only other person who shares this view is Eve herself. Bill will blow this idea of The Theatre out of the water indicating it includes show girls and vaudeville, radio, TV, movies… it’s not just wooden stages and a few blocks on Broadway. Margo will ignore the traditions of the theatre when it suits her, Lloyd married a young college student. Etc. So, most of The Theatre is normal people who are actors. But there are a few cultists, for whom this is everything. Maintaining the purity of the cult is very important.

The characters Lloyd and Karen do not make much of a journey in this movie. They serve as foils for Margo and Bill, but their characters do not evolve much. Karen stays the calm housewife, Lloyd is the hard-working writer. Their actions result in changes in Margo (especially) but they do not change. Addison, too, does not change. He is a snarky queen, of a sort that may be familiar to anyone who watches black and white movies of this era.

Bill does not make much of a journey himself. He’s matured: Margo says as much in one of her famous lines, “Bill’s 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago. He’ll look it 20 years from now. I hate men.” He’s hit where he’s going to be for a while. Margo, however, matures a lot in the course of this movie. In fact, although the movie is called All About Eve it really is all about Margo. This is Margo’s journey. What we learn about Eve is how Margo can go wrong: Eve is Margo’s shadow. Eve falls as deep as she can. Margo rises so far and above all expectations.

Eve is an ingenue -or at least she pretends to be. Margo is in her 40s and yet tends to play 20-somethings on Broadway and act 20-something when she can’t get her way. Eve is begins to learn her own way by copying everything Margo does. Eve thinks that pretending to be like Margo will make her as Margo. Margo does not notice that’s at first, but when pretending to be like Margot results in needing to have Margo’s boyfriend and Margo’s job then things go awry. Margo finally notices the sort of theatrical Invasion of the Body Snatchers just in the nick of time and saves herself from the defenestration that would have resulted in the “cancel culture” of the day, if an elderly matron was seen to be standing in the way of a young darling of the theatre community.

What others do not see (except for Karen and Lloyd and, of course, Bill) is that Margo sidesteps Eve not by killing her or stabbing her in the back or leaking rumors to the press, but by getting married and going TradWife. This quote does not tend to make it into the “Favorite Quotes from this Movie” listing on the internet but it’s important. When Margo and Karen are talking in the car about what would make Margo happy the subject of Marriage comes up:

[Eve is…] so feminine, so helpless. The things I want to be for Bill. Funny business a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forgot that you will need them again when you get back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common: whether we like it or not, being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it. No matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You are something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings. But you’re not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.

The resurfaces later, after Margo and Bill announce their engagement.

Groom! (She’s addressing Bill) You know what I’m going to be? (A cowboy? He replies.) A married lady… I’m going to look up at six o’clock and there he’ll be. Remember Karen? … No more make believe off stage or on.

Salvation has come to Margo by marriage.

Margo realizes that the important things in life are brought to fulfillment in relationship. Her (future) marriage to Bill, her friendship with Karen and Lloyd and Birdie and even with Max, the producer of the play, are the real things in life. Her plays, her acting, what reviewers say about her are nice things – and yes, it’s nice to be on top of her craft – but these are not real things. They do not matter at all compared to looking up at six o’clock.

At the same time Eve falls to the very depths of depravity. Eve goes from copying Margo – especially in clothing, in voice, and in personal style – to trying to steal Margo’s place in the theatre and in Bill’s heart. Since her one goal is theatrical success without any moral underpinnings (such a cold woman with a lack of morals is another Noir trope) she doesn’t imagine love as between Margo and Bill or Karen and Lloyd has any real value. She thinks everything is playacting – not real. She wants to rewrite the script with her in it instead of Margo, but she doesn’t think she’s ruining Margo’s life… that has no value. Margo will just find another playwright, another play to be in. Nihilistic solipsism is also a Noir trope.

As Eve falls further and further she tries to steal Lloyd away from Karen. But it doesn’t matter if she succeeds or not, she only wishes to appear as if she has succeeded. It’s a play: appearance is the only thing that matters. Then she doesn’t care at all only the next part must be hers. And when she gets it she doesn’t see Addison swooping in for the kill. He will ride her coattails, having discovered the truth about her. He can spill the beans (by way of blackmail) or she must take him with her. In the one act of violence in the whole movie Addison slaps Eve and says, “Never laugh at me.” There’s reality when there are no morals, there is only honor and pride.

In the closing scenes as Margot and Bill go off with Karen and Richard and their friends to a party to which Eve should be coming -as she is the guest of honor – Eve realizes no one likes her. Their parting lines are cold. Eve has missed a signal somewhere: this is not about acting. This is about relationship, but she doesn’t know how to do that. She’s only a shell of a person.

When she meets Phoebe, later in her apartment, Phoebe wants to be like Eve. But Eve’s not a person… Phoebe wants to copy the shell that is Eve. And in the final scene, we see hundreds of Phoebe-shells, all trying to be like Eve, like Phoebe. Not persons, just shells. Snatched bodies. Eve is the first of this new race of shallow non-beings.

Slow curtain, the end.

A note on Names:

Margo means Pearl. The thing of beauty that arrises from so much irritation. This is as perfect a symbol of salvation as possible: for we take our cross and offer it to the Lord and the cross, itself, becomes our throne. Margo’s cross – at this point in life – is realizing that she is female but that she has never worked out being a woman.

Channing is an English name meaning either a young wolf (Margo is not that) or else “official of the Church” which is odd. But it also refers to a town in the UK that is named after a town in the Bible: Cana. In this latter case, the (biblical) town is famous for a wedding so perhaps her name is a clue to the ending.

Bill comes from William and it means “Protector”. That’s what Bill is for Margaret: a protector.

Sampson, it goes without saying, is a strong man tricked by a woman.

Karen is a derivative of Catherine and it means Pure. Karen’s motives are pure throughout the movie, nearly naive. But because of the purity of intention the motives succeed – even when Karen thinks they’ve failed.

Lloyd is a Welsh name meaning grey. It comes from the word llywd. It implies worthy of respect, a sort of elder wisdom. It’s a perfect name for a writer, but also for one whose function is basically to be the strong silent type.

Richards means powerful or brave.

Eve means mother of the living, but also implies “new woman”. Eve is the first of the new, shallow women of the modern era.

Harrington also means “mighty” or “powerful”. Hmmm. These names all sound alike

Addison means Son of Adam and Dewitt means “the white one” or “the blond one”. Perfect match for Eve, and a foil for for the Grey Lloyd.

Book Review: The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run

JMJ

Hagiography is a tricky thing. What you say can be nearly eclipsed by what you do not say. I have a friend who was served in a leadership role in a Protestant denomination. After his death, many folks talked about his fierce loyalty: but few mentioned how his fierce loyalty blinded him to the failings and criminal behavior of those around him. We generally do not speak ill of the dead. Hagiography, telling the stories of the lives of the Saints, is another matter entirely. It’s intended for edification: writers tend to gloss over the bits that would leave questions in the reader’s mind or doubts in their hearts about the sanctity of the saint at hand. For this, you must know your audience. If your readers are a bunch of folks from the rural Plains States, you may need to gloss over some things from column A, a reader from the urban coasts, however, might rather not be told about things in column B.

To return briefly to my friend and his loyalty to a criminal: when that other party had to flee away, there was an announcement of their retirement. They were retiring, it was said… and moving far away… because suddenly their husband had a new job. Entirely believable under normal circumstances, but not in this case. Those of us in the room at that moment looked at each other and said, “What? There’s a hole in this story so big you could drive a truck through it.”

The same is true of the Hagiography of Bl. Stanley Rother. It’s good… it’s edifying. But there are some things missing from column A. And so the whole thing doesn’t quite make sense.

Nota bene: there is a Revised Version now. The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Blessed Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma, Revised. These truck-sized holes may be filled in in this edition, but I suspect the main difference is my version did not yet have him as “Blessed”.

By way of full disclosure: Stanley Rother is my Patron Saint. I feel closer to him than I’ve felt to any other saint, in devotion and in personal experience for a number of reasons. None of what follows is intended to deny his sanctity – but rather to point out openings in this book where questions are raised.

In brief, the Martyr’s life looks like this:

Born on 27 March 1935 (a year before Pope Francis was born), and raised in Okarche, OK, Stanley Francis Rother was a farmer and the son of a farmer. But he felt a higher calling and went to seminary where he was a poor student and was sent home. But his bishop believed in his calling and found another seminary for him. He was ordained and served in parishes before answering another calling: to be a missionary. In 1968 his diocese sent him to their mission parish in Santiago Atitlán. He couldn’t learn Latin in Seminary, but by God’s grace he learned Spanish and the local Mayan Dialect. He…

…immediately identified with his parishioners’ simple, farming lifestyle. He learned their languages, prepared them for the Sacraments, and cared for their needs. Fr. Stanley, or “Padre Francisco” as he was called by his beloved Tz’utujil Indians, had found his heart’s calling.

After nearly a decade, the violence of the Guatemalan civil war found its way into the peaceful village. Disappearances, killings, and danger became daily occurrences, but despite this unrest Fr. Stanley remained hard at work, building a farmer’s co-op, a school, a hospital, and the first Catholic radio station, used for catechesis.

In early 1981, his name was on a death list, so he returned to Oklahoma and was warned not to return. But he could not abandon his people, so he went back, and made the ultimate sacrifice for his faith.

His Guatemalan parish was a busy place! “In 1974, for example, there were 649 babies baptized at Lake Atitlán; approximately 2,000 holy communions were distributed each week; 85 couples made marriage vows at a group ceremony during The Village’s annual Fiesta; and about 150 little ones came forward for their First Communion.”

Why was such an active parish life a threat? What is never explained in this book is why the right-wing death squads would be targeting the church here as they did in other places in the 80s – also producing martyrs such as the Maryknoll Martyrs, St Oscar Romero, and the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador. Why was the Church a target? Also never mentioned is that these killings (including Stan’s) were done at the hands of men largely trained in America (or by Americans trained) at The School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, located at Ft Benning in Columbus, GA. These happened during the Carter and Reagan administrations. Our foreign policy has not changed much since the mid 1950s in this respect: Communism is bad. Ergo, rightwingers are good.

It was a CIA-backed dictatorship that was causing trouble. And the “death list” was theirs. The Church, here as in other places, was targeted because the Church knows that human beings in the image and likeness of God, come before politics, before economics, before governments. And those systems that treat icons unjustly must be opposed by those who live the Gospel: not with guns or even votes, but by open disobedience.

I once laid Stanley Rother’s death at the feet of President Reagan, but it was Carter that was in charge at this time. Here’s a fun picture in that context:

My parents, the President and Mrs Carter, and your host.

What clued me into the truck-sized holes was a talk Fr Stanley did in Oklahoma in 81, just before his death. Members of congregation stood up after the talk and said that he was going to report Fr Stan to the gov’t and the Archbishop as a traitor. Why? It was never explained. But if he was speaking in the Clergy Ergot of the time, Liberation Theology, there would be a thing from Column A that might offend someone on the Great Plains. It’s pretty much communism in that context. And from that point on, the author says things like:

“He tended to provoke the right by giving Hospitality to those they thought were guerrillas and by helping the widows of guerrillas… The Army had the idea there was a military organization in the church… Stan tried to do it openly. As a result, from the Army’s Viewpoint, it looked like he was favoring the left.”

Was it just that there were no hospitality needs on the right? No widows on the right? Or is something missing from this paragraph? Father Stanley had taken sides with the poor people of Santiago and that put him on the “left,” as we would say, politically. Of course he was just being Catholic: Standing with the Poor, whom God favors.

Stan writes:

The president gave a speech where he laid aside the prepared text and spoke from the cuff. I haven’t seen the official text, but one remark made was that he wanted to expel all those religious who were catechizing the people.

How is Catechism opposed to the Gov’t? Why are Catechists, above all, and then priests and religious the targets of the Death Squads? These things are never covered. Stan is part of the generation of Latin American Clergy that gave us Pope Francis as well – and yes I think of Rother as part of the Latin American Church. He spoke both Spanish and the local Mayan Dialect spoken by the Tz’utujil. He translated the Mass into Tz’utujil and could understand cultural references. While he was not born there, he lived there from 68 until his martyrdom in 81. That culture formed him in ways as deep as the Oklahoma farm where he was raised.

Stan writes:

Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify attempt to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.

So it’s in light of this “coming of the kingdom” that I want to wrap up this review with this story from the “Traitor” talk I mentioned:

After Mass, one or two discontented listeners accosted Father Stanley. He recalled the incident later, “I got through and one man walked up and said, ‘I don’t agree with anything you say’… The fellow said, ‘I’m sorry I am a Catholic. I’m going to inform the Archbishop.'”

In addition to the letter to the Archbishop, an unsigned letter was sent to the “Embassy of Guatemala, Military Attache” in Washington DC. The author of the letter detailed a long list of grievances and criticisms, noting, “Our local pastor, a frequent visitor to your nation, invited a Catholic Mission Priest from Guatemala, to use God’s puppet to expound a political Dogma urging our local church members to pressure the present US Government Administration into allowing our country to decline military support for your current Administration in Guatemala, in order to provide the basis for a socialist Revolution which would oust the current government of Guatemala…

“In as much as the Catholic church is using the altar of God to influence the Catholic populous in the United States, I feel obliged to warn your nation’s government of the church involvement within the leftist organizations attempting to establish a socialist government in Guatemala…”

The author, however, cast these aspersions aside with a quote from a friend,” Stan was about as apolitical as a man can be.” Then the narrative moves on. This is the Truck-sized hole so big that a right-wing death squad marched into Fr Stan’s house a few months later and shot him. I think the author wants us to read this story as some odd moment in internal Church politics that resulted in the death of a pious man. But in the context of the US political climate, and the actions of clergy all over Latin America… as well as the Vatican’s opposition to “Liberation Theology” through this time, I think we would do well to imagine the letter actually describing Truth. Even if we might disagree (or agree) with what the letter’s author saw: a Catholic priest teaching what the letter describes as “church involvement within the leftist organizations attempting to establish a socialist government in Guatemala…”

Something was up. Stan was a fellow travelor – at least in the eyes of Americans and Guatemalans of the time. Was Stan a “Liberation Theologian” like the great Dominican writer, Fr Gustavo Gutiérrez, OP? This priest who fixes tractors for Guatemalan farmers seems far closer to that theology than the author wants to admit. I think there’s a whole other book worth writing here: a real biography that is less hagiography and more history. But for all that this book fails at the latter, it is quite good as the former. I was moved to pray, to ask for Stan’s intercession at several points in this book.

This book succeeds as the story of a holy man who gave his life for his sheep out of love for them. It seems only to fail in explaining all the ways he did so before his death.

A Dangerous Book

Popular histories can tend to be strident, combative affairs: they carry on arguments on and off their pages, and come with definitive points of view. People love them or hate them. They divide readers and reviewers into camps of good and evil based on reaction to the book. This is very different from scholarly history which is supposed to be “unbiased”.  If you didn’t like the history text in Western Civ I or American History (shoutouts to Dr Doug!) then you were not evil in the author’s eyes: you were only failing in class. Disagree, however, with Howard Zinn’s point of view in A People’s History of the United States and you, Dear Reader, are part of the problem, not the solution. It doesn’t matter if you read Zinn calmly and put it away having done your duty. The author is clear: he’s evangelising with his point of view and if you don’t agree you’re not just “another point of view”, you’re wrong.

A great bucking of this trend surfaced in 2010 when BBC Radio 4 and the British Museum did A History of the World in 100 Objects. This podcast (and radio show), coupled with a website, talked about all of history, while focusing on 100 things ranging from a mummy and a hand axe, to communist propaganda and solar powered products. This history was different on two points: it was not combative, and it was inclusive. Even when discussing something as potentially heated as a war with modern political applications, the British folks managed not to be name callers or to imply you were a dupe if you came to another conclusion. It was so popular that they made a book and a travelling roadshow of the 100 things. (I’ve never seen the BBC’s book, who needs a book when there’s a podcast and a website?) Still, as friendly as they were, they were also very skilled at unveiling history’s events: I found episode #67 on the Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy to be particularly troublesome for me because if its historical honesty. (That’s worth a whole post, maybe later.) Yet even with all these comments and a specific point of view, the Beeb kept saying, “You could have an entirely different history if you took a different 100 objects and read them differently.” And they invited listeners to participate by uploading photos of their own objects with their own histories. So, “Here’s history as we read it: but DIY.”

A History of the Church in 100 Objects, by Grace Aquilina and her father, Mike, falls into the middle. Clearly taking their cue from the BBC’s work (the cover of this book reminds me of the 2010 edition cover on the BBC book as I’ve seen it on Amazon’s website) they write their own history with their own 100 objects. At the same time they have a specific point of view and they are evangelizing.

Christianity is not a religion of mental acquiescence to a few points in a prayer. Christianity is a life of prayer, ascetic struggle, and stuff. St John of Damascus wrote that since God has become flesh, the very stuff of the world has become holy. We can venerate the wood of the Cross, or the image of Christ, or the flesh and bones of a holy dead person – or even of a living person – and know we are venerating the very stuff of God. This is the physical world God gave us, in which we are to work out our salvation. The history of the world is salvation history.

This book uses the stuff – ranging from the star of Bethlehem to the birth control pill – to talk about the history of the Christian Church. The authors clearly believe what they believe: the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ on the Rock of Peter. They are not telling only one possible story of a Christian community, they are telling the Story of the Church. If the reader is not Roman Catholic, however – as with Howard Zinn’s work – the reader will know they’re on the outside looking in. But Mike and Grace do it with such love and, pardon me, grace, that you’ll want to be on the inside, I think. They are evangelizing here.

The book pulls no punches with the bad parts of Church history. The struggle against an invading Islamic army is not covered up as politics in religion sauce. The divisions between the Church and various departing elements is not seen through warm and fuzzy ecumenical glasses. The Vatican’s history of Bad Popes is not glossed over. The presence of Apostate Catholics at anti-Catholic moments is very honestly discussed. Still, popular notions are challenged: the Crusades are presented as defence and there is no “religion of peace” in this book. Missionaries to the New World are presented as missionaries of truth liberating folks from a culture of death and blood sacrifice. The actions of capital and those who worship it either from the left or the right side of its altars taken against human beings is pointed out – and the struggle of the Church to align herself with the poor is highlighted. Popular revolutions of the 18th Century are not seen in a good light. The Second Vatican Council is seen in a positive light that has nothing to do with guitar masses and bad vernacular translations from the Latin.

The presentation is easy to digest. Each of the 100 objects is presented in 2-3 page chapters together with a full page image of the thing in question. Each object is discussed and analyzed and plugged into the over-all story. Unlike the BBC’s work there is no material analysis: the Geek in me would like to know who cut the wood for St Junipero’s cradle and from what tree. But that’s not important in this work: what is important is that one of the greatest missionaries of the world was raised up from that cradle to spread the Gospel in humility to my part of a darkened world. Each chapter ends with a couple of footnotes for more reading and the authors graciously invite more questions and offer themselves to answer them.

As a new Catholic, I felt plugged in by this book: my story is part of this story. My life is part of this life now and this book helped me to connect to people as different as Charlemagne (via his coronation stone) and an auto mechanic in Mexico (via his tools on his tomb). I can’t help but imagine that anyone, new or not to the Church, would be able to draw the same benefit. Like other popular histories, the reader may find himself on the outside of the authors’ point of view. But “you’re part of the problem” is not the attitude of the authors here. Quite the reverse, in fact. If you’re on the outside looking in, why not come in?

Perhaps someone on the outside would want to be drawn into that story which is why is this a dangerous book:

The loving presentation, the careful selection of objects, and the clear goal of evangelism make this a dangerous book. The table of contents alone will show that: the ramble from Bethlehem to the Jerusalem temple, from catacombs to Diocletian, from Helen to Charlemagne, from Homer to Ethiopia and beyond will expose you to the great Catholic claim that there is no secular history. All history is the Christian story. This is the physical world God gave us, in which we are to work out our salvation. The history of the world is salvation history. You’re in it, like it or not. You’ve no choice. Any history of stuff is part of God’s story.

The second reason this is dangerous: you may disagree with their point of view on the Aztecs and you may want to debate – that’s what they’re here for. They’ve drawn you in already. And if you read the chapter on the Aztecs (or Martin Luther or Margaret Sanger) and find yourself agreeing: why are you not Catholic? This book is dangerous because it is covert Evangelism for a History Geek. You can read this story and agree or disagree. But if you agree with the story (and how could you not?) then, you should be going to RCIA. God is using the very stuff of the world to draw you closer to him. That is solid Catholic teaching. Mike and Grace have presented a partial catalogue of how God’s doing that to one end: to get you, the reader, to come home.