Monday, March 30, 2020

New Evangelizers Post: Weak Faith is Still Faith

I have a new article up at  

I was listening to a talk by Dr. Jordan Peterson. A few years ago, Dr. Peterson became prominent on the internet for his bold views on many things. This essay is not an endorsement nor is it a condemnation of the totality of Dr. Peterson’s work. However, there is something he said that struck me which I believe is worth engaging.

Dr. Peterson was asked if he believed in God. Many of us could answer that question very quickly, even if it’s not an answer we like. But Peterson said that the answer is not simple. For him, belief in God would be less about an intellectual acceptance of an idea. Instead, belief in God is demonstrated in the way you live your life. But for him it is an all or nothing proposition.

He said in a talk ““To believe, to believe in a Christian sense… to have the audacity to claim that, means that you live it out fully. And that’s an unbearable task in some sense.”

In this sense, to have faith in God is to live the life of a complete and perfect person. What you believe IS how you live. Every action must be done with the complete and total confidence in God’s reality. Any act of doubt, any sin, any break from this way of living would mean that you do not have real faith.

I think that this is an important point to address, because I can imagine some people hearing these words and being very shaken. Who among us has lived a perfect Christian life? And to make the claim that not doing so means you have no faith (as appears to be the conclusion of Peterson’s point), it may leave many to feel despondent about their faith life.

“Do I really have NO faith?” it may be asked.

However, I answer that Dr. Peterson is incorrect on this point.

Weak faith is still faith.

The big mistake that Dr. Peterson makes is that he thinks that the question of faith is a binary question, where the answer is only yes or no. If you were to ask me if I were alive in the biological sense, that would either be a yes or no question. I cannot be both physically alive and physically dead (even “brain death” is still physical life). But if you were to ask me if I was alive in the spiritual sense, that is not a binary question, but a question of degree.

Remember that faith is a virtue given by God. And virtues manifest in different degrees in different people. Take the virtue of courage in a character like Spider-Man. In the most recent movies, Peter Parker has so much courage that he faces deadly enemies head on. But he stutters and stumbles at the idea of revealing his feelings to the girl he likes. Do we say that because he lacks courage in one area that he therefore has no courage at all? Of course not. Instead we point to how he has a greater degree of courage in one area and less in another.

In the same way, we may have areas where our faith is strong and others where our faith is weaker. Maybe we are strong in our belief that Christ is in the Blessed Sacrament, but we struggle with treating all people as if Christ was in them. Do we say because we lack faith in one area that we therefore have no faith at all? Of course not.

We must remember that faith in God is less about accepting a theological position and it is more about a relationship. The Apostles Creed begins with “I believe IN God,” not “I believe THAT God exists.” To believe that God exists is a statement of fact, which could be understood in a simple binary, “yes or no” way. But to believe IN God, implies a relationship. You can believe that I exist because you are reading the words that I wrote. Or you can believe that I don’t exist and these words are the composition of some internet Artificial Intelligence. But it is one or the other, it cannot be both. However, you can only believe IN me if we have some kind of relationship. You cannot believe IN a stranger you just met. You can only honestly say that you believe in the people that you know in a relational manner. And these relationships can have a natural ebb and flow. This means that your belief in someone can be a matter of degree. Maybe you believe in your best friend, but that belief increases or decreases based on how well they keep your secrets.

Even Christ acknowledges this point in the Gospels. When Peter walks out on the water, he begins to look at the waves. This causes his faith to falter and he sinks. Jesus does not look at him and say, “You of NO faith, why did you doubt?” Instead He says, “You of LITTLE faith, why did you doubt?” Peter has so much faith that he walks on the water, something that no one else in the Bible because Christ does. But his faith shrank. It did not disappear. It was “little” faith, not absent faith.

Why is this distinction important?

Many of us struggle in our faith journey. Often it is not a straight climb up the mountain, but it has many peaks and valleys. Very few of us have that perfect faith that Dr. Peterson describes. But that should not drive us to despair. Instead, it should move us to two very important things.

You can read the whole article here.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Film Flash: Knives Out

Knives Out poster.jpeg

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

Fun murder/mystery.  Made-for-TV script with an all star cast.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Film Review: The Way Back

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

For much of this movie I thought, "This is a better Christian movie than most Christian movies."
The Way Back is a heart-wrenching tale about Jack (Ben Affleck), an alcoholic construction worker whose glory days as a star high-school basketball player are far behind him.  With a broken marriage and a worsening addiction, out of the blue he is asked by his old pastor (John Aylward) to coach the high school's wayward basketball team.  Jack knows he's unqualified, but after a lot of drinking and reluctance, he accepts.  Perhaps deep down he knows that this might be his only way out of his death spiral.  He works with the affable assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal), to help him whip this team into shape.  The film focuses on a handful of the underachieving kids.  Jack is bombastic and undisciplined.  But he loves the game and he demands excellence from his athletes, all the while battling with his inner demons.

As a sports movie, I thoroughly enjoyed this film.  I even found myself inadvertently doing a fist pump as the team scored a critical point.  Without even realizing it, I became as invested in their victories as they were.  A lot of credit goes to director Gavin O'Connor for his ability to make the game not only visually dynamic but dramatically interesting.

But the heart of the story is Jack and his potential redemption.  There wasn't a single time I wasn't pulling for Jack to overcome, even when he was behaving like a grade-A jerk.  The movie wisely understands that even if a character isn't the most likable, we have to empathize with them if the journey will have any meaning for the audience.  The movie surrounded by subtle and not-so-subtle Catholic imagery and symbolism that I couldn't help but feel the deep spiritual connection between overcoming addiction and overcoming sin.  In many ways, the struggle is the same.    But this is not a sanitized, G-rated faith film.  Jack is vulgar and sometimes violent.  He is not a saint, just a sinner who is trying.  He is also someone who has lost all faith and this despair fuels his self-destruction. 

One of the things that this film does that not a lot of similar sports films do is that it clearly makes a distinction between the sports victories and the addiction victories.  Often movies like this tie the two things together, which makes things neat and incredibly cathartic.  The Way Back refuses to give you a simple solution and resolution.  I'm not saying this is good or bad, but the movie is not simple.  That is because the movie is about the struggle.

Jack gets his players to struggle because he knows that is when they will grow.  When playing against a superior team, Jack tells his players that they have more heart because they've had to earn it.  Jack doesn't take excuses and he wants every last ounce of devotion from his player, not to him, but to the game.  He is vulgar and clumsy about it at first, but you can feel the bond grow organically.  As a result, his player begin to grow, to mature into young men.  There's even a funny bit where the whole team shames one of their players because of how he treats women.  The point of the game is not to forge great players.  Instead through the struggle for excellence, they hope to create great men.

In terms of greatness, this is one Affleck's best performances.  I never found his performance showy.  Instead, you could feel the depths behind his restraint.  He made Jack someone you know.  Jack is your friend, who you love and enjoy even with all of his flaws.  And there is a stoic, masculine silence that is alternatively admirable and infuriating.  But when the dam breaks, it is devastating.  The other actors do a good job as well.  The players are a little rough around the edges, but I found them to behave in a way that was genuine to my experience as a high school teacher. 

As a Catholic, I loved how respectfully the Church was portrayed.  As mentioned before, Jack has lost all faith.  When you follow the story with his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) you begin to understand why.  I kept waiting for the sucker punch that I am used to for most Hollywood films where the clergy would be shown as hypocritical and vicious.  But thankfully that never came.  As I said, for most of this movie, it was a better Christian film than most.  But it does dip into the muck and mire in a way that doesn't fully deliver on its thematic promise.  If our characters emerge better, they do not emerge saints.  This brings me back to my dilemma when reviewing Bohemian Rhapsody: is partial redemption something to celebrate or is it tragic because it is not complete?

I will leave that up to you, dear viewer.  I do recommend this film.  I was moved and touched by the all-too-human struggles we have when we fall from grace and try, hoping against hope, to find the way back.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Film Review: Marriage Story

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

I do not understand the appeal of Noah Baumbach.

The writer/director is much lauded by critics, but I cannot fathom the appeal.  Frances Ha is boring and The Meyerwitz Stories is pointless.  The same can be said of Marriage Story.

I guess we are supposed to relate to these two characters and how their divorce hurts their lives.  But I could not relate at all to their situation.

The story revolves around Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver).  He is a director and she is an actress.  They are married but are going through horrible marriage problems at the beginning of their story.  Nicole moves away from Charlie in New York to Los Angeles and she takes their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her.  What starts as a separation evolves into an ugly divorce with custody of Henry in the balance.

This movie wants to be the modern Kramer vs. Kramer, which is another movie I detest.  It basically comes down to two people who think that they are the center of the universe and do not realize that when you make the VOW of marriage, you promise to put your spouse and your child first.  Both characters have their dead marriage's blood on their hands.  Nicole opens up in a long monologue about how she lost her identity to becoming a mom.  I've spoken to a number of mothers who could relate to the struggle of always giving to your family and receiving little acknowledgment in return.  But that is what a mother does: she has to put the needs of her children first.  To do any less is utterly selfish.

Charlie is no better.  In a later scene he whines about how he married Nicole in their twenties and how he had to give up hooking up with hot women because he was married to her.  For him, marriage was a leash.  A husband loves his wife and forsakes others he loves her beyond compare and will lay down his life for her.  Charlie even cheats on Nicole and excuses it with the fact that two had stopped being intimate.  Charlie is not a man.  He is an emotional vampire.  He says to Nicole that she shouldn't be angre because he had sex with another woman but because he laughed with another woman.  Because he wasn't having his emotional or sexual needs satisfied, he decided his vows no longer mattered.

Look, there are many people who I know and love who have gone through divorce, my parents included.  This is not an indictment of all of those who've gone through this horrible process.  This is an indictment of Charlie and Nicole.

There is a line in A Man for All Seasons where St. Thomas More says to his daughter Meg:

“When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water and if he opens his fingers then, he needn't hope to find himself again. Some men aren't capable of this, but I'd be loathe to think your father one of them.”

Charlie and Nicole seem to have no understanding that they have taken a sacred vow.  And once they choose to break it, they will not find themselves, but lose themselves utterly.

The only thing that stops this movie from being a total disaster are the performances.  Johansson and Driver are amazing.  As much as I hated their characters I appreciated the depths to which the entered into their emotional journey.  Laura Dern won an Oscar for her slick and (from my interpretation) diabolical attorney who coaxes Nicole into turning the divorce into war.  Alan Alda also provides some nice moments as Charlie's attorney, who rides the line between folksy and incompetent.

As the movie went on, I kept wanting the character to wake up and ask themselves: "What would be best for our child?"   If they had done that, then maybe they could have gotten over themselves and made this marriage story with a happily ever after.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

March 25th: The Great Eucatastrophe

File:One ring.png
image by Jorge Arimany

Today is March 25th, and any good Catholic knows what today is:

It's the day that One Ring was destroyed in Mordor!

This is from the official timeline found in the appendices of The Return of the King.  This was the day that Frodo and Samwise made it to the Crack of Doom and where Frodo was finally fully corrupted by the One Ring.  It was in this moment that all seemed lost, that the great quest had reached its end, only to have the world fall into darkness.  But then Gollum arrived and bit off Frodo's finger and stole the One Ring and subsequently fell into the fiery pits where the One Ring was destroyed forever.

This moment is an example of what Tolkien called the "eucatastrophe."  The word was invented by Tolkien himself as the opposite of its root word: catastrophe.  In a "catastrophe," everything seems to be going well when destruction and darkness come seemingly out of nowhere.  Tolkien did not deny the reality catastrophe in life.  As someone who survived WWI, he was intimately aware of how the rug can be pulled out from under us and great darkness can cover us.

But Tolkien was not a pessimist.  Nor was he an optimist.  He was a realist.  This is why The Lord of the Rings is still so widely-read and so relevant.  It is real in a way that most books are not.  And as a part of that reality, Tolkien acknowledged the eucatastrophe in life.  What happened at the Crack of Doom is not mere wish fulfillment.  It is what happens.  The "eucatastrophe" is when everything seems lost and then victory and joy appear seemingly out of nowhere. 

Why did Tolkien believe this?

Because a great eucatastrophe has historically occurred on March 25th.

March 25th is the feast of the Annunciation.  It is the moment when Christ was Incarnate of the Virgin Mary.

Let us remember the historical circumstances.  Augustus Caesar had declared himself dictator for life and the iron grip of the Roman Empire held tightly to much of the Western World.  Appointed to run the Promised Land for the Romans was Herod the Great.  This is a man who would put friends and family to death out of his own paranoia.  He was hated by the Jewish people because of his greed and cruelty.  The Chosen People were an occupied people, under the thumb of a evil king who himself was the vassal of a foreign tyrant.  They were a people of no independence, no political strength, and no earthly power compared to their mighty Roman occupiers.

And it was in this situation that the King of Kings was to come into the world.

Everything about their world at the time would indicate that they were a people in decline.  But with the coming of Jesus, all who enter into the covenant with Abraham through faith will be part of an everlasting kingdom that has already outlived the transitory Roman Empire.

And this is a good reflection for us today in 2020.

A month ago, life was normal for most of us.  We were working or going to school and going through the motions of everyday life.  But now our world has suffered a catastrophe.  Life as we know it has been put on hold and we are constantly inundated with worse and worse news.

But Tolkien would remind us not to despair.

For in the midst of all this darkness, God may yet be planning some great eucatastrophe.

He has done it before.

He can do it again.

Today, let us remember that today, God became one of us and brought a light into our darkness that will guide us from the shadow into the sunlight.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Hollywood Good Guys - 2020

By now many of you have seen the celebrity montage of stars singing John Lennon's "Imagine" as a way to lift spirits during this time of crisis.  The response from most social media on them has been fairly brutal.

I do not feel like dog-piling on them, but I've always maintained that "Imagine" is one of the most beautifully written songs about straight-up communism.  And in this time of social distancing and uncertainty, Marx's message is not something people need to hear right now.

However, as much as this has absorbed a lot of the celebrity spotlight, I wanted to take a moment to point out some people who are using their fame and wealth for some real good.


These two movie stars donated $1 million dollars to Feeding America and Food Banks Canada.  I know that a lot of people are feeling food insecurity, hence the mad rushes at the super markets.  But these two have donated a significant amount of money to help make sure people will not go hungry.


The pop star is having her foundation give $5 million dollars to help give relief.  These funds are designed to go to food banks, medical testing, and other such supplies.


Best recognized for playing the character "Cameron" on Modern Family, he has donated 200,000 meals to the Kansas City Food Bank.


This Grammy-winning Christian rapper helped set up portable hand-washings stations for homeless people in Atlanta.


The reality star is having her  organization donate 1 million medical masks to hospitals.


They have also $1 million to help, especially in the New York City area.


Her cosmetics company will donate 20% of its profits to food banks in LA and NYC.


The players and coaches are donating $1 million to the employees fo the Chase Center who are affected by the closures.


The basketball star of the Cleveland Cavs is donating $100,000 to help support arena workers who are out of job because of the cancelling of the season.

To clarify, I am not saying that everything that the above celebrities do are good and virtuous.  But especially in these times of struggle, it is not a bad thing to acknowledge those who use their significant influence and celebrity to help people in need.  And maybe it can help inspire others to do the same.

At least it seems more productive and helpful than singing the great Communist Anthem again.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Feast Day of St. Joseph - 2020

I have written extensively online about my love and devotion to St. Joseph.  I owe much, not just in broad terms of salvation history, but in my personal life as well.  He has been my friend and helper through many trials and difficulties along the road of life.

I was reflecting on St. Joseph during this time of social distancing.  Scripture never records any of Joseph's words, but there is profundity in that silence.  St. Joseph is a real man, a man of action.  When he is told to take Mary into his care, he does not question.  He accepts God's will and he acts.  When he is told that they must flee Bethlehem and go down into Egypt, he accepts God's will and he acts.

St. Joseph may have been scared or nervous.  But Scripture does not tell us one way or another.  He was asked to set out on a journey with an uncertain future.  Right now, many of us are nervous, especially because we do not know how long this sojourn will last.  And many of us are trying to be brave for our families.

St. Joseph was brave.  He was brave not because he lacked fear.  He was brave because even in the face of terrifying challenges, he got down to the business of doing God's will and taking care of his family.

I will be praying in a very special way to St. Joseph for our country and our world during this time of social distancing.  Let us model ourselves after him.

Prayer to Saint Joseph for a Difficult Problem
O Glorious St. Joseph, thou who hast power to render possible even things which are considered impossible, come to our aid in our present trouble and distress.
Take this important and difficult affair under thy particular protection, that it may end happily. (MENTION YOUR REQUEST)
O dear St. Joseph, all our confidence is in thee. Let it not be said that we would invoke thee in vain; and since thou art so powerful with Jesus and Mary, show that thy goodness equals thy power.  Amen.
St. Joseph, friend of the Sacred Heart, pray for us.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Film Review: Birds of Prey

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

Those familiar with this blog know that I am a passionate advocate for the DCEU.  I have defended Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and Justice League beyond what general movie-going audiences would.  I think that Suicide Squad and Aquaman are fun popcorn films and that Wonder Woman’s No Man’s Land scene is one of the most iconic super hero moments ever captured on film.
And then we have Birds of Prey…  a complete failure of a film that doesn’t understand its source material or its audience.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)  takes place after the events of Suicide Squad.  The film begins with Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) being dumped by the never-seen-on-screen Joker. She still pretends to be with him so that she can still behave with absolute abandon and no one will cross her for fear of the Joker. But when she blows up one of his bases, it becomes clear that she is no longer under his protection. So anyone who has a grudge against her targets her.

What makes things more complicated is that this is not a Harley Quinn movie but a Birds of Prey movie. In addition to Harley, we are introduced to Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who is working as a bartender/singer for the crazy gangster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Also we have Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who is tracking someone killing gansters, the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). But the plot really kicks into gear when teenage theif Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), steals a diamond from Sionis' henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). If all of that sounds complicated, it is.

But the problem isn't that there is a complex plot. The problem is that the film makers have no idea how to create interest or balance in the story. Easily one of the most interesting characters in the movie is Huntress, but she has one of the smallest part. In fact, the first time all of the characters come together is in the third act. And by then, you'll find yourself not caring.

The fundamental issues is that the director Cathy Yan isn't really interested in making a fun, super hero film. Instead it wants to say something about men and women, while at the same time be a fourth-wall-breaking meta comedy like Deadpool. But that is an ambitious undertaking and Yan is clearly not up for the task.

Christina Hodson's screenplay fails to give us anything resembling a sympathetic lead character. Even Deadpool used its first act to show the tortured Wade Wilson become the Merc with a Mouth. Seeing his horrible pain, we immediately empathize and thus follow him even during his more morally questionable turns. But Harley is simply a woman who was dumped. And while that is a common experience, it isn't enough to follow her horrid violence. Early on, she spills a drink on a man. When he complains, she breaks his kneecaps. And the film makers don't seem to understand that this excess is actually repugnant.

They also don't have any idea how to write these characters. I understand that there have to be adjustments when adapting any character to the screen. And tweaking their circumstances can change how they behave. But all of the great texture of the source characters is lost in big broad strokes. In the comics, Zsasz is a fearsome psychopath on the level of Hannibal Lector. Here, he is just a thug. Sionis was originally written as a sophisticated, cold-blooded mob boss. Here he is insane like Joker-Lite. The worst example, though is Cassandra Cain. In the comics, she is someone who was raised by the world's greatest assassin who only really communicates through fighting. All of that uniqueness is tossed into the garbage can for some super-generic latch-key kid thief. What a waste!

As I said, Yan wants to say something about men and women. And that message comes down to this: men are awful. I wish there was more nuance than this, but there isn't. Every man, and I do mean EVERY man in the entire movie is awful. It was like Yan told every guy in the film, "Okay, in this scene, I want you to look smug and condescending because you are talking to a woman, and all men hate women." If you see this film, you will understand that this is not an exaggeration. A lot of movies can be critiqued for objectifying and demeaning women. But this feels like an over correction. Catholic teaching is clear that men and women, though clearly distinct, have equal dignity.

The performances are mostly awful. Robbie does all that she can with the material and her charisma is still there, but the character lacks any kind of humanity. As producer, I don't feel a lot of sympathy for Robbie, who could have given Harley more of a life. This might also be the worst performance of McGregor's career. Nothing he does is coherent. He plays everything in such utter broad strokes that he feels like a talking mime, over exaggerating every emotion to point where nothing he does seems genuine. In an age of CGI comic book villains, it is sad that Thanos came across as more human than Sionis. But again, Basco is the worst. She is a charisma black hole. I usually give younger actors more of a pass, but 90% of her performances is walking around with a slack-jawed, dull expression. She is the main person that brings the "heroes" together. But she is so unlikeable that you are half-tempted to root for the bad guys.

The only reason that this movie isn't a total waste is that some of the actions scenes are actually pretty awesome. I usually don't do behind-the-scenes research, but some of these scenes where such a jump start in quality that I was curious. It turns out that they got one of the John Wick directors to come in and spice up the film. And it shows. I do not know which scenes were handed off, but when Harley breaks into the police station, there is a noticeable change in style when she frees the prisoners from their cells. From there, the action the movie actually becomes fun and I was hopeful this was a turning point for the rest of the film.

Alas no.

The film itself is also ugly. The production design lacks the complete flair for the over-the-top like Tim Burton's Batman, nor does it have the gritty realism of Nolan's Dark Knight series. It doesn't have to be either of those extremes, but it never finds its visual style. And on a personal note, the choices of jewelry in the nose, eyebrows, and the like served more to distract than to anything else.

The movie remains a failure. In fact, calling it a movie is a bit generous. It is a scream caught on film. And that is not a fun time at the theater.

Monday, March 16, 2020

New Evangelizers Post: Die Before You Die

I have a new article up at  

“Die before you die. There is no chance after.” CS Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Sometimes death scares me.

I wish I was a braver and more stoic person, but I have to be honest. If you are anything like me, intermittent waves of fear hit you, especially during this time during the COVID-19 outbreak. But there are times when even in the face of death, I am filled with a sense of calm and peace.
How do we hold on to this peace in the face of death?

I am going to answer this not as someone who has conquered all of his fears, but as a fellow traveler on the road, seeking his courage along with most of you.

Part of the problem is that we are a very death-denying culture. Yes, we know that death is a reality and its presence is always in the back of our brains. But its firm finality is something we tend to push from our consciousness. It is one of the reasons that we constantly throw ourselves into entertainments and distractions. How many hours do we waste flipping through social media or playing games on our phones instead of coming to grips with death’s reality?

Hamlet summed up one of the reasons death is so feared. It is that “undiscovered country, from whose born, no traveler returns…” (Hamlet ACT III, Scene 1). It something that we have never experienced ourselves, though we have seen others do it. This unknown factor leads to more fear. And we cannot get a foretaste of it to see if it is good or bad.

Or can we?

Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24). One of the central teachings about the Christian life is that we must die to ourselves.

Dying to self means to put our ego and self-centeredness aside. This is the monumental task of all human life. The heart of our existence is love. And real love means to put someone else before yourself. Think about your day today. How often have you already made the internal calculus to favor yourself before someone or something? Did you skip prayer because you were busy? Did you take the last pop tart? Did you fight over a roll of toilet paper at the grocery store?

Inside our hearts we have a little throne. For most of us, if we are honest, we are each sitting on our own throne. The task that Jesus puts us to is to step off of the throne and let Him sit on it. This requires us to die to ourselves.

Jesus said, “pick up your cross every day.” (Luke 9:23) Notice he did not say pick up your work or your responsibilities. He said “pick up your cross.” The cross is the thing on which you will die. In other words, you are carrying death on your back.

What does this mean in practical terms? It means looking at my own desires and seeing how they might get in the way of loving other people. For me, I struggle with laziness. If I am on the couch watching TV, I feel unmotivated to do anything. But I often have stinging at my conscience all of the good things I could do with the time the Lord has given me. I could call my friends and see how they are doing. I could offer my time to the service of my Church or soup kitchen.

And this charity can begin in the smallest ways at home. My wife loves fountain sodas. Can I anticipate her needs and get them for her? My students often have questions and email me while I’m at home. Do I ignore them because this is “my time?” Or do I die to myself and put their needs before my own.

Dying to self does not mean that we hate ourselves or disdain life. I don’t put others first because I believe that my life has less value. We are all children of God. Pope St. John Paul II would often remind us that man finds himself most when he gives himself away. The more we die to ourselves, the more we find ourselves. That is the paradox of Christ’s words about the grain of wheat. This is the mystery that all of the saints learned. St. Francis died to himself in such epic and severe ways. But he was one of the most fully alive people who ever walked the face of the earth.

So how does this help with fear of death?

You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Sunday Best: Top 5 Max Von Sydow Performances

File:Max von Sydow and Alberto Lattuada (Rome, 1974).jpg

A few days ago, we lost Max Von Sydow.  Most actors would kill to have a career as illustrious, if not, as long as his.  He has been a staple in movies for decades with such a distinctive presence that he would leave his mark in everything that he did.

That isn't to diminish his ability to disappear into a role with an incredible range.  It takes a special actor who can go from Jesus Christ to Ming the Merciless without losing a beat.  And he could play anything and everything in between.  His filmography is so extensive that I have only seen a fraction of the films he has made.

So in honor of this late, great actor, here are the top 5 performances of his career (that I have seen).

5.  Vigo in Ghostbusters 2
Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson face the viewer. They are armed with slime throwing weapons resembling guns, with large tanks on their back. Behind them is a large logo of a "no ghosts" sign holding up two fingers. The logo "Ghostbusters II" is printed beneath them.

Until very recently, I was unaware of the fact that Von Sydow voiced the main villain of this film.  Looking back, it seems so obvious.  The voice of Vigo the Carpathian was powerful intense, with the a haunted and hungry tone.  It probably would have been much better to have Sydow play the entire part, not just the voice.

4. Dr. Paul Novotny in Dreamscape

I had forgotten that it was Von Sydow who had played the mentor to Dennis Quaid's hero in Dreamscape.  That is not an insult, but rather a compliment as to how much Von Sydow disappeared into that role.  He played the role of Quaid's conscience, but Von Sydow eschewed all of the normal trappings of his performance, allowing himself to appear smaller than he normally was.  He was an academic who got in over his head.  Some actors can only play larger-than-life people, but Von Sydow could show us his more human side whenever he wanted.

3.  The Lodger in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
A blue eyed boy, with his hands covering his mouth.
Readers of this blog know that I detest this film.  But I have to give Sydow credit for turning in a great performance that earned him an Oscar nomination.  What gives his work here that extra kick is that his character doesn't have any lines.  He has to communicate everything non-verbally.  Despite this, Von Sydow gives his character a rich emotional life, so much so that he completely outshines the main stars of the movie. 

2.  Fr. Merren in The Exorcist
A man with a hat on his head, holding a suitcase, arrives in a house building in the night, with the film's slogan above him while the film's title, credits and billing are underneath him.
What I appreciated the most about Von Sydow's performance here is that it is power and weakness at the same time.  Fr. Merren shows complete conviction that he is on the side of right, but there is a constant sense that he is fighting with forces far beyond his own power.  The strength of the performance lies in the truth of it.  As a priest, he must believe not in his own power but in the power of Christ over Satan.  And that belief is constantly challenged by the outrageous displays of the Devil.  For me, you can see it the most when Reagan is levitating and he repeatedly chants "The power of Christ compels you!"  You can see how feeble he feels on his own to contend with such powers.  But he does not give up nor does he give in.  He continues to chant these words, summoning all of his conviction that even though he is weak, Christ is stronger than all evils.

1.  Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon
Flash gordon movie poster.jpg
For me, this is a performance for the ages.  This Is how you chew scenery without looking hammy.  This is how you convey power and menace, even while have a twinkle in the eye.  His voice was perfect to convey the absolute, irredeemable evil before our heroes.  And he knew that power does not have to be forceful.  Notice how chillingly casual he is when he tells a king in his court to fall on his sword.  He almost whispers it.  It isn't a demand, but a trivial request from an evil tyrant.

And even though he plays Ming as purely evil, it does not mean that he is without texture.  In the scene when he has a face-to-face confrontation with Flash in the floating palace, you can see once again the genius of Von Sydow's performance.  Ming is, maybe for the first time, terrified of Flash.  But he will never show it.  So instead, he is filled with gracious smiles and compliments.  You can see how he is hiding behind this veneer.  It comes full circle in his last scene when we truly see the fear in his eyes before the hero.

One of the greatest movie villains of all time.

Rest in Peace, Max Von Sydow

Monday, March 9, 2020

Film Flash: The Way Back

The Way Back poster.jpeg

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

A very moving, "catholic" movie about addiction, redemption, and basketball with a knockout Affleck performance

Sunday, March 8, 2020


20. Amistad
Amistad (1997) poster.png
This is a brutal film to watch, especially the parts regarding the scenes on the slave boat.  The movie lacks the unique combination of violence and beauty that Schindler's List does.  It also lacks the full sense of immersion into that era as Spielberg does later with Lincoln.  It also builds too much of the movie on a young Matthew McConahay, who had not yet cut his teeth deeply enough to become the actor he is today.

But Amistad gets a lot of things right.  Djimon Honsou's performance is amazing.  He brings such incredible intensity to a part of a man so desperate for freedom and yet he is barely understood.  Spielberg does such an amazing job of getting us into his mind and how he sees the world of 1800's America as so completely alien.  You can see all this when he explodes in desperation and shouts "Give us, us free!"

But the movie has a special place in my heart for how Spielberg portrays Christians.  I don't just mean that he portrays them with respect, which he does.  The way he visually expresses their faith is better than in most Christian movies.  At first the believers who come and visit the prisoners appear like crazy aliens. But then one of the Africans gets a Bible.  Even though he cannot read, he begins to discern the story from the pictures.  This is one of the finest examples I've seen that explains the necessity of art.  From the pictures, he is able to understand much of the story of Christ and so he comes to peace.  The judge in the case is also a Catholic, which was not a popular thing in America at this time.  Spielberg shows the effect of faith has on him with incredible visual strength, brief though it is. 

As good as these moments are, it very much feels like Amistad is Spielberg's rough draft of Lincoln.

19.  Minority Report
A man wearing a leather jacket stands in a running pose. A flag with the PreCrime insignia stands in the background. The image has a blue tint. Tom Cruise's name stands atop the poster, and the title, credits, and tagline "Everybody Runs June 21" are on the bottom.
This is a good film that is often forgotten.  It has a strong sci-fi story base that explores different elements of ethics, fate, and free will.  This also has one of Tom Cruise's most underrated performances.  He is a broken man obsessed with punishing others in his pursuit to punish others.  The production values are through the roof and everything feels like the natural evolution of our own technology.

The most memorable scene for me is the one where his son is abducted.  It is so terrifying because it is Cruise's character is not horribly neglectful.  He turns he looks away only for a moment and then his son is gone forever.  It is a powerful moment that Spielberg captures in a way that makes us feel like that could be any of us.  One small mistake could have lifelong, tragic consequences.

The reason that the movie does not have the kind of staying power as his other films is that this is his first movie after AI.  In the early 2000's, Spielberg began to lose the ability to edit himself.  He started to become indulgent in his visual storytelling.  You can hear him in interviews about Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark about how he wants to put as much of what he filmed into the final cut, even when making the movie slimmer would be better.  I get the feeling that making AI was a liberating experience for him in that he was making a sprawling Kubrick movie instead of a tight-narrative blockbuster. 

Minority Report could be a great deal better if he tightened up the story and did not let the movie linger to long.  As a result, this movie doesn't make the impact that it really should. 

18.  Munich
Munich 1 Poster.jpg
This is one of his most indulgent movies.  It also has an unusually relativistic philosophy underneath it.  You could easily cut an entire hour out of Munich and it would make it much better. 

Eric Bana has his best performance of his career as Avner, the leader of a secret death squad tasked with killing the planners of the Munich massacre.  This movie has some of Spielberg's most intense visual moments.  The scene of the first bombing they plan is harrowing and told almost completely without words.  The Mossad agents plan on killing an ambassador, but they want to wait until his family is away so that they do not get hit by the bomb.  Everything goes according to plan until they miss his little daughter returning home to get something.  It was a scene that will have you absolutely on the edge and remind you of Spielberg's mastery.

Tony Kushner's script is too long, unable to maintain this same level of tension throughout.  It also appears to make a moral equivalency between terrorists and those who hunt them.  He wants to explore the effect of vengeance, even righteous vengeance, on the soul.  And there is nothing wrong with humanizing those who do evil things, since human beings are odd and complicated creatures.  But the overall effect is that the vengeful response is its own kind of terrorism.  Spielberg has such little confidence in his ability to handle this topic that he actual does a forward to the DVD where he tells the audience that the movie is not meant to be an attack on the state of Israel. 

I will say, one of the most heartbreaking moments of the movie is one that Spielberg films with wonderful restraint.  Weightlifter Yossef Romano makes it to a window and is able to escape from the terrorists who will kidnap and kill the Israeli Olympic Team.  But once at the window, as he breathes free air, he turns back and looks in the direction of his teammates.  In that moment, so brief, he has to make a choice that will determine everything for him.  And Spielberg places you perfectly in that moment of agony.

17.  Duel
Duel (1971 film) poster.jpg
Some should say that this shouldn't be on this list because it was originally aired as a TV movie.  But, it did have a brief theatrical run, so it qualifies.

Spielberg said that every few years, he rewatches Duel to remind himself how to make a movie.  And there is good reason for that.

Duel is the story of a man driving through the desert who is targeted by a mysterious oil truck.  This truck menaces him throughout the movie.  As this was before cell phones, the large expanse of the desert means that he is far out from civilization as this mechanical behemoth stalks him like a monster. 

The movie's biggest fail is when it does an internal voice-over that is way too on the nose.  Remove that and Duel is better than any TV movie should be.

Spielberg is able to take something like a truck and turn it into a danger of mythic proportions.  It hulks over the hero with a constant sense of menace, where death is just around the corner.  It never shies away from its B-Movie premise, but it doesn't appear embarrassed that it is a low-budget thriller film.  Spielberg took what should be a simply schlock film and made it better than most theatrical films of the day.

The movie is rough around the edges, but the bones are so solid that you will not care.

16.  The Twilight Zone
Twilight Zone - The Movie (1983) theatrical poster.jpg
This is an odd one since it consists of 4 short films, one of which Spielberg directed.

But that short film is so simple, magical, and insightful, that it ranks this high on the list.

The story is called "Kick the Can," and it takes place in a nursing home.  The residents are all sad because of all of the negatives that come with age: loneliness, sickness, poverty.  One of the residents, Mr. Bloom, tells them that should sneak out at night and play the childhood game "Kick the Can" in the moonlight.  They do and while they play they magically turn into children and are given the chance to relive youth.

That in and of itself is a magical idea.  Spielberg films it with such visual wonder that you cannot help but feel jubilant for this second chance.  And yet, upon reflection, they realize that this will mean ignoring all that they have done in their adult life.  It would mean a goodbye to their children and grandchildren.  It would be a blank slate, but at the expense of the life that they lived.  This is visually summed up when one of the residents notes that her wedding ring has slipped off of her finger now that she is a child.

Most of them decide to return to adult life.  Spielberg is often accused of being a Peter Pan, a boy who never grew up.  But you can clearly see the opposite here.  The ones who return to elderly life make the correct choice.  Only one remains a child and there is something noticeable melencholy, not wonderful, about this decision.  It feels like a kind of death, which it is.  It is a death of all that has come before.

The residents who remain are in a better position.  And here it reveals the true genius of Spielberg's outlook on life: it isn't that you have to remain young, only young at heart.  The residents keep the world of their experiences, their loves, their triumphs, but they now look at their drab golden years with a new child-like wonder. 

Understanding this short movie is the key understanding most of Steven Spielberg.

Monday, March 2, 2020

New Evangelizers Post: The Freedom of Voluntary Sacrifice

I have a new article up at  

IA few years ago, my wife had her job downsized. It was quite a shock to both of us, as you can imagine. We began to worry about making our mortgage payments or if we had enough money for our utilities. We began to look at condominiums and smaller houses that we could afford on only my teacher’s salary. We cut back on all non-essential expenses for a while.

By the grace of God, things worked out well. My wife was able to secure another job and has been stably employed for a number of years. We have been able to manage our finances and we did not have to move. Many good friends, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in years, contacted me with words of advice and support. I was also incredibly humbled when we received some anonymous donations to see us through those rough early times.

Reflecting back, I often think about how God saw us through this time of incredible stress and anxiety. To this day, I am gun shy about any financial turbulence in our lives despite His generous care. But thinking about these events recently I look at what it was that I was truly afraid of: poverty.

As I have gotten older, I begin to think more and more about things like retirement. With life-spans getting longer, I worry about having enough money to live off of after I stop working. And should another unexpected job loss occur, we would be right back where we started. There is much I could write about putting trust in God, especially after His past help. But I was thinking about how living in poverty, living in want, makes me nervous.

But then I reflect on the great saints like Mother Teresa and St. Francis of Assisi. Both of these saints lived in great poverty. Mother Teresa would sleep in a small cell on a simple mattress. She would then spend an hour on her knees on a stone floor during Mass. Afterwards, she would live in service to the poorest of the poor, carrying them on her back when she could, to meet their needs. And while she went through issues of depression and the dark night of the soul, she had within her a real peace.

St. Francis of Assisi was so poor that he would beg for the garbage from the people of Assisi so he could eat. And when they gave it to him he expressed overwhelming gratitude and joy.

Both of these saints found peace and joy in something that caused me great fear and anxiety. Why is this the case? Why were they seemingly unbothered by the suffering that comes from poverty? I think that I may know part of that reason:

They chose to suffer voluntarily.

In his book Twilight of the Idols, the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “”He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” What he meant was that suffering is unendurable if it is viewed as purposeless. Human beings are constantly searching for meaning in their lives. It occurs when horrible things happen to us like sickness of financial catastrophe. We also look for meaning in the small sufferings of everyday life. When I run retreats, if students are asked to do an activity that they don’t enjoy, the question I hear more often than anything is, “What’s the point of this?” Because they see the activity as without a point, they find it difficult to endure.

Remember The Karate Kid from the 1980’s. Daniel is about to quit his tutelage under Mr. Miyagi because all of the exercises he has done seem pointless. It is only when he sees how they have been helping him that he re-commits himself to his studies. In the same way, when suffering enters into our lives, when we cannot see a point, it feels so difficult to endure.

I ask my students how they would feel if they were forced to wipe someone’s butt for them. Most are understandably horrified. Some say that there is no amount of money you could pay them to do something that disgusting. But I tell them that statistically speaking, most of them will be wiping butts for free… when they have babies. “Well, that’s different!” they say. And in a sense they are correct. Besides the fact that there is a clear parental connection to the person you are cleaning, the action is one that is done voluntarily, not forced.

You can read the whole article here.