Wednesday, May 31, 2023
Tuesday, May 30, 2023
I had my major conversion experience the summer after high school. As a result, I was a particularly zealous Catholic (though perhaps not the wisest) during my time at college. During those years, I made it a point to attend daily mass at noon. And of those hundreds of masses I attended, I am sad to say that I don’t remember most of the homilies given.
But one has always stuck with me.
The priest sat in a chair in the small chapel area and spoke in a soft, deliberate tone. He then told the story of Abba Joseph of Panephysis, an early Church Father and desert monk. One day, another monk named Abba Lot came to see him because Lot was struggling. The story goes thus:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said: “Abba, as much as I am able I practice a small rule, a little fasting, some prayer and meditation, and remain quiet, and as much as possible I keep my thoughts clean. What else should I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten torches of flame. And he said: “Why not be turned into fire?”
The priest at mass told this story without fanfare or drama, yet I have never forgotten it. Something about it struck a chord with me. Here I was, running around as a young Catholic doing all of the things that I thought were necessary for a good Catholic to do: daily mass, daily rosary, adoration, confession, prayer groups, retreats, etc. And to be sure there those are all good things. But the question still hits me:
Why not become fire?
As I have gotten older, I have understood this question to be at the heart of the Christian life. Habit and routine, even of the spiritual and religious kind, make life easier. But they also have disadvantages. The first is that we can go on “auto-pilot” and lose that intentionality and intensity of the spontaneous. When you are in a conversation with someone and they give the prefunctory responses to your problems without really listening, we know that their hearts are not in it. It can be the same with us in our spiritual habits where we “rattle on the pagans do.” (Matt 6:7).
But the other problem is that we think that the activity is the end in itself. If we asked the average Catholic about what makes them a good Catholic, how many would say things like “I go to Church on Sunday, I went to Catholic school, I give to charity, etc.?” And all of those are good things. I think of my instinct to answer that question by laying out a laundrey list of the prayers I pray or the activities to which I give my time.
But these activiites are the means and not the end of the Christian life. What is important is what is at the heart. As CS Lewis wrote, “A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people) like a crutch which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it is idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits etc.) can do the journey on their own.” (Letters of CS Lewis, 18 July 1957)
The crutch is good, but the goal is the healthy leg. The activities are good, but they are there to help transform us into who we are supposed to be.
And we should be fire.
Monday, May 29, 2023
I do have some friends who are cautious about the elevated status we give those in the armed forces. They worry about the glorification of war or that it trains citizens to put too much trust in their government agents. There are some arguments to be had there. To be sure, while war may make soldiers into martyrs, it does not always turn soldiers into saints.
But in this moment I will not speak for them. I will speak for myself and why this day is especially reverent for me.
Some answered the call to fight for our nation.
I did not.
Some left spouses and children to enter into violent conflict for their country.
I did not.
Some lost their innocence, their friends, or their health in the crucible of war.
I did not.
Some gave every last measure of devotion down to their lives for our country's freedom.
I did not.
I write this not as some kind of admission of guilt. Being a soldier is not my calling.
But some did answer the call. Some paid a price higher than I have had to pay. I am in this present moment enjoying the fruits of their sacrifice.
Winning and preserving freedom is a bloody business. I do not want to be in a blissful bubble where I treat my freedom too casually, not remembering that it was purchased at a price of blood.
Today as we rest from our labors, let us remember the fallen martyrs of our freedom.
Let us pray for them and for our country.
Sunday, May 28, 2023
There are many ways to honor our fallen heroes this Memorial Day by attending parades in their honor, donating funds to their memories, and praying for their souls.
One way that I like to remind myself of their heroism is through the art of movies. Understanding that the dramatic representation of their experiences is nothing compared to the reality, I find that I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude when I see the price of freedom presented on screen.
Here are the best Memorial Day movies to watch.
1. Saving Private Ryan
3. We Were Soldiers
4. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
This story is important because it reminds us what Memorial Day is all about: we must remember those who sacrificed. Unfortunately, this story is such a political football that people forget that it is primarily about soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect others even with no help in sight.
5. American Sniper
6. Hacksaw Ridge
Everything that is ideal in a soldier is displayed in Desmond Doss. He is valiant and compassionate. He placed himself into harm's way to help others while not condemning those who used violence to defend us. And all at the same time he witnessed to his faith in God as his guiding light while suffering through the hell of war.
7. Midway (2019)
Saturday, May 27, 2023
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable
The original Guardians of the Galaxy was lightning in a bottle. I've said before on this blog that I was supremely confident that the movie was going to be terrible and Marvel's first big bomb. But because writer/director James Gunn threaded the needle perfectly, GOTG was one of the best things the MCU produced. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has some wonderful moments, but it is nowhere nearly as magical as the first.
So where does Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 rank?
Better than Vol. 2, but does not match Vol. 1.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR PREVIOUS MCU GUARDIANS ADVENTURES, INCLUDING THE CHRISTMAS SPECIAL.
The movie takes place a little bit after the Guardians of the Galaxy Christmas Special. Our heroes are leading the community on the floating Celestial head of Knowhere. Star Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is still pining for his lost love Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who died and had an alternate timeline version of herself return who does not remember her romance with him. Gamora's adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillen), has taken a kind of de facto leadership role along with Rocket (Bradley Cooper). The plot kicks off when the Soverign (antagonists from the last film) send Adam Warlock (William Poulter) to capture Rocket. In the process, Rocket is injured, but the Guardians discover that he has an implant that will kill him if tampered with. In order to save Rocket's life, they need to find the implant specs and figure out a way to deactivate it. This takes them on a collision course with the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) the one responsible for turning Rocket into what he is. Along the way we get extended flashbacks with Rocket during his time as a prisoner along with fellow lab animals: an otter (Linda Cardellini) a walrus (Asim Chaudhry) and a rabbit (Mikaela Hoover), all of whom have endured horrible experiments. This all comes to a head with final showdown where all of our heroes may not make it out alive.
The biggest criticism I have of this movie is that there is not enough room to give all the characters enough space to breath. To round out his trilogy, Gunn works very hard at giving satisfying conclusions to all of his characters, to which succeeds for the most part. But because he has SO MANY characters to close the loop on, it feels like some of them get slightly short shrift. And because so much has to happen in the plot, the funny diversions sometimes feel like the rob from time that could be used to greater character development.
My other complaint is more of a fanboy problem: Adam Warlock. In the comics, he is a serious, stoic, and intelligent being who goes toe-to-toe with Thanos. In Vol. 3, he is petulant baby in the body of a superhero. As a character in this universe, it works fine. But it bothers me slightly that they couldn't find a place to include the characters inherent dignity.
Other than that, the movie was incredibly enjoyable. I have several issues with the way Gunn portrays characters in most of his movies. But you can tell that he has such an affection for the Guardians that he wants to have a cathartic conclusion to the journey. To that end, he does everything in his power to make us care about the characters and their connections to each other. I like that the main impetus for the journey is not some universe-saving plot. The heroes are taking on this task simply to save their friend.
You can also tell that Gunn put all of his visual story-telling efforts into this final film of the trilogy. The movie is gorgeous. Some may complain about the heavy CGI, but Gunn knows how to use it. I even love the simple aesthetic of the brightly-colored space suits they use in their adventures. The action sequences are incredibly fun to watch. And with this final outing, there is a real element of danger. There is a part in the film where some of our heroes are surrounded by three great monsters. I was actually on the edge of my seat, worried that this may actually be the moment they meet their fate.
Thematically, I think it is the strongest of the GOTG movies. The High Evolutionary is obsessed with creating a perfect race of beings. So he does horribly cruel experiments in the name of the "greater good." The most telling moment for me comes towards the last part of the movie where someone confronts him and says that he is not God. His response is: "There is no God, that's why I had to step in."
This line hit me like a ton of bricks. Whether he meant to or not, James Gunn just showed us the horrors of atheistic ethics. To be clear, I am not saying that atheists are immoral. What I am saying is that there is nothing in an atheistic philosophy that can ultimately constrain evil actions. We Christians are forbidden from using an evil means to achieve a good end. But the High Evolutionary is not bound by such restrictions. He inflicts unimaginable horrors because he believes his intelligence and power give him the right.
In fairness, Christians thorughout the centuries have also commited such abominations. But those atrocities are antithetical to Christianity. There is nothing about the High Evolutionary's actions that is incompatible with atheism. And it is scary to see this play out in the real world today. It can be small things like enviormental activists who destroy beautiful art and justify it by saying they are "saving the planet." Or you can see it in horrific ways, like Canada expanding euthanasia program beyond the terminally ill. Without God, people will use whatever horrible means to achieve ends they believe are good. And like the High Evolutionary, they believe they can do this because (whether they know it or not), they are taking the place of God for themselves.
The performances in this movie are all around excellent. Pratt is still able to switch effortlessly from action to drama to comedy. The way he and Saldana play their relationship of familiar strangers works because of their chemistry. Gillen carries a weight on her character, a self-inflicted penance for all the evil she has done in the previous films. Cooper turns in his best voice performance as Rocket, giving him real drama and pathos. Other characters like Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (Vin Diesel), Cosmo the Dog (Maria Bakalova), and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) all have their time to shine and play into their comedic strengths. And it is a testament to Gunn that even though it feels like they don't have enough time on screen, he makes the most of when they are there.
Martin Scoresese complained that superhero films weren't cinema, but more like amusement parks. I understand what he meant, though I disagree with his dismissal of the genre. I bring this up, because this movie does have its thrills. At any moment you don't know when you are going to laugh, cheer, gasp, or cry. I can tell you people in the theater did all of these things. Part of the power of the GOTG movies is that they do a great job of balancing all the emotional tones so that when the story shifts, it never feels like it shifts falsely. Gunn does a fantastic job of marrying the visuals to his iconic musical tastes to create an emotional experience out of a movie about saving the life of a raccoon.
I would say that this is the best MCU movie since Spider-Man: No Way Home and it deserves the success that it has generated.
Friday, May 26, 2023
(Dear Reader, thank you for your patience. I am hoping to pick up my regular blogging schedule now)
15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)
Better than the last 2, fun action at beginning and end, but the middle drags.
Monday, May 15, 2023
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts of the Apostles 9:4)
This is the very strange question that Jesus asks Saul of Tarsus on the Road to Damascus. Saul was on his way to find followers of Jesus and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. Famously, Christ appears in a blinding light to Saul, changing his life forever. What is strange about the question is that Saul had never met Jesus.
Nowhere in the four Gospels is Saul ever mentioned. And yet, Jesus asks why Saul is persecuting him. This would be like waiting at a bus stop and having a total stranger come up to you and say, “Hey, man! Why do you hate me?” It is almost as if the question makes no sense.
Jesus does not ask him “Saul, why are you persecuting my people?” but “Why are you persecuting me?”
That is because there is no separation of Christ and His Church.
The Church is born from the side of Christ just as Eve was born from the side of Adam. When Christ was pierced in His side, Blood and Water flowed out. In John’s Gospel, the author thinks that this is such an important detail that he briefly pauses the narrative to remind you that he is an eyewitness to these events. The Blood and Water have the spiritual significance of Eucharist and Baptism, representing the Sacraments of Initiation (along with Confirmation) into the Church.
The love that Jesus has for the Church is so complete that any attack on one is an attack on the other.
I ask my students to imagine that they are hanging out with a buddy in their basement. I then ask them to imagine that their mom comes down and offers to buy them a pizza. Once their mom retreats upstairs, I ask them to imagine their friend turning to them and saying, “I’m sorry, I just have to say it… I hate your mom! Don’t get me wrong, I like you, but your mom? Oh, I can’t stand her and I wish she’d just leave us alone!”
At this point, even though this is an imaginary exercise, many of my students are incensed at the mere thought of someone insulting their mother. When I ask them to articulate why, they essentially say, “Because she’s my mom! I love her!”
When I respond that their buddy wasn’t insulting the student but the student’s mom, the response is “It doesn’t matter! When you insult her, you insult me.”
When you love someone profoundly, an attack on them feels like an attack on you. If someone you love was attacked, wouldn’t their pain be yours?
And that is why Jesus asks Saul “Why are you persecuting me?”
Over the years teaching theology, I’ve heard people say things like “I love Jesus, I just hate the Church.” This is not possible to do. To hate the Church is to hate Christ. To attack the Church is to attack Christ. Saul, who we more commonly call St. Paul, explained this connection in 1 Corinthians 12 when he showed us that we are all one body in Christ.
The objection to this is that there has been great evil in the Church throughout history. We have had wicked Catholics, even among the clergy and religious. Are we supposed to ignore this?
Sunday, May 14, 2023
(Hello all, I am sorry I have been a bit absent recently. It isn't anything tragic or bad. Right now I am getting towards the end of several projects at work as well as the beginning of a new project this summer. All of the deadlines are converging at once and as a result, this time has taken me away from blogging for the moment. I should be back to my regular schedule sometime next week.)
Happy Mother's Day!
My prayers and well-wishes go out to all mothers today. You shape the lives of your children in ways that no one else in the world can or will. Today is a day when we honor not just what you do but who you are.
I was reflecting today on how I no longer have any earthly mothers. My mother, mother-in-law, and all of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers have gone home to heaven. And yet, they are all still a part of me.
I pray for them every single morning, and I make special note to tell my mom and my mother-in-law that I love them still. I know I had many failings as a son (and son-in-law), but I know that my relationship with them has not ended nor will it ever.
CS Lewis once wrote, "Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. " Every great physical work of man will one day come to dust. But the souls of men and women are immortal.
Mothers: your work is the work that lasts. Your work is the work of immortality. Long after the Mona Lisa has turned to dust, the masterpiece you crafted in your children's hearts and souls will last for all eternity.
May God bless all of you mother today through intercession of our Most Blessed Mother Mary!
Sunday, May 7, 2023
After going over the movies that are coming out this summer, I always enjoy trying to predict the summer box office for the following year.
Michael Crichton once said that studios spend millions of dollars every year trying to predict box office. But in the end, it is all guess work. There is no magical formula and no one gets it right all the time.That is certainly the case with me.
I am going to try again this year. I am not going to bet as heavily on Disney and Marvel. Unless something specatcular happens like Spider-Man: No Way Home, the MCU is beginning to get diminishing box office, as are other Disney properties.
1. Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1
This is a very risky bet for the biggest movie of the summer. But I am not going to underestimate Tom Cruise again. His commitment to giving audiences a thrilling cinematic experience that feels as visceral and real as possible paid huge dividends with Top Gun: Maverick. This Mission: Impossible film looks to be as spectacular as all of the others. And all of the overflow of good will from Top Gun is going to raise this movie to be the highest grossing of the franchise. At least that is my prediction.
2. The Flash
If this movie was being fueled by the popularity of the title character alone, I think I would place it much lower. But all of the marketing as been pushing this as the third Michael Keaton Batman movie. I don't see that strategy changing much between now and the release. And as we get closer, I think the excitement will build. If the movie delivers on the Batman parts, I think people will be very happy with this and see it multiple times.
4. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
This is also a franchise in decline, but I think that it will have enough box office steam to make it into the top 5. They are billing this as the beginning of the end, hoping that long-time fans of the series will want to come out and bid it a fond farewell.
Unlike a lot of other Disney kids' movies, there doesn't seem to be any hidden adult messages being promoted here. If parents think that this could be a simple fun time at the movies for the kids, this could be a decent hit.
7. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
Each of the last three Transformers movies has made less money than the one before it. It feels like they are trying to do another reboot of the series, with new characters and driving home the classic look from Generation 1. I don't think this will be a bomb, but it will not shatter box office records.
8. The Little Mermaid
Maybe I am too pessimistic on this. Live-Action Disney remakes tend to make a ton of money. But I think fan fatigue along with Disney controversies have made people a little gun shy. But I don't know if that is just my perception as a pop culture insider and not the view of the normal movie-going public.
This is my counter-programing choice. If people want something more dramatic and cerebral this season, they know they can count of Christopher Nolan. Even though Tenet was a bit inaccessible, Nolan still has enough good will to draw people in, especially with this World War II historical drama with an all-star cast.
10. Blue Beetle
If The Flash does well, the good will could spill over to this movie. The action looks fun and exciting. If they can market this movie correctly, it could bring in the kids right before school starts up again.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
I think it looks terrible, but I know little kids are excited for it.
If they can find the right tone, this will be a hit. I just don't think they understand what kind of film they are trying to make. It looks like a fun movie for kids, but the humor is too adult.
On the strength of the trailer, this might be a sleeper hit. People want to go to the movies for laughs and escapist humor. This might be that ticket.
Friday, May 5, 2023
Wednesday, May 3, 2023
It is now May, so it's time to look forward to one of my favorite seasons of the year: Summer movie season.
It used to be that Summer movie season would begin in June. But then it became standard for the big movies to come out in May.
I know as a cinephile I should be more interested in when the "important" movies come out just before the major awards. But I think the movies of summer are pure cinema and tend to be the ones remembered long after people have forgotten the plot of whatever film won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Here is a list, with a few brief thoughts of my own, including on a scale of 1-5 stars my likelihood of seeing it in theaters (1 being “Not at all” 5 being “Cannot wait!”).
While the second volume was not great, I enjoyed it. And the good will from the first volume is still with me. I am a sucker for conclusions to trilogies and I am very excited to see what happens. I am tamping down my expectations, but I already have my tickets ready. (*****)
This will be the first Fast and Furious movie that I will see in the theater (not counting Hobbes and Shaw). Only during the pandemic did I get caught up on this series. To be sure, this does not look like it is the best of the series, but this is one of the last chances I will have to experience this franchise at the cinema. (*****)
The Little Mermaid
I have never been a fan of Ezra Miller as Barry Allen. But they are adapting one of Geoff Johns' most impactful stories and Michael Keaton looks fantastic in his return to the role of Batman. I am very curious to see how this will turn out (****)
No Hard Feelings
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
If I'm honest, this looks worse than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But I want to be there to see one of my childhood heroes one last time on the big screen. Of course if they give him The Last Jedi treatment, I will definitely regret it. (****)
As I just mentioned about No Hard Feelings, I don't mind raunchy comedies as long as the raunch is a replacement for actual humor. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem much humor beyond the vulgarity and grossness of this film. (*)
Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part I
Tom Cruise is riding high after Top Gun: Maverick. On top of that, this series has only improved since Part 2. I also like the fact that this is looking to reach back all the way back to the original movie. Everything about this movie tells me that this will be a supremely entertaining movie with some stunning stunts. I think this is going to be a such a fun time at the theater. (*****)
Here is the thing that boggles me about this movie: it is a movie about a kids' product that is filled with adult jokes. If this movie wanted to be a big hit, it would be a kids' movie. But instead it seems strangely ironic and cynical. This is a terrible idea for Mattel to hand over their intellectual property like this. Maybe I'm wrong, though (**)
I will see any Christopher Nolan movie in the theater. He has earned that much good will, even after the mediocre Tenet. This is his biggest attempt to finally get an Oscar. I'll be there opening night. (*****)
While the trailer is funnier than I was expecting, it still isn't grabbing me as a "must see." (**)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
This looks like the worst interpretation of TMNT that I have seen. I have no desire to see it (*)
Meg 2: The Trench
The first one was some dumb fun. I'm not sure I am interested enough to see this one in the theater. (**)
Monday, May 1, 2023
I’ve come across some interesting internet chatter about the real face of Jesus.
In the Bible, it is interesting that Jesus is never explicitly physically described (except in the book of Revelation where everything is symbolic). Most of our ideas about how Jesus looks comes from centuries of art.
There are some, especially those who are interested in attacking the Christian faith, who push online the “real” face of Jesus. This “real face” is usually one that tends to be ethnically different than the majority of Christian art. His skin color and his facial features resemble that of a person from the Middle-East and less like a European.
What I find interesting is that often the people who pass along this image think that they have made some kind of attack against the faithful. Perhaps there is an underlying belief by the enemies of Christianity that there is an element of racism in the faith. This is incredibly illogical and goes against the demographics of the Church. Currently, there are more Catholics on the continent of Africa than in all of North America.
It is true that in the majority of Christian art throughout history, Jesus is depicted like a European. This is more of a cultural element of art history than it is a theological point. In different parts of the world, the Gospel story has been depicted in ways that made them as relatable to the predominant culture. I remember once seeing a beautiful Japanese painting of Jesus calming the storm where He and the apostles were depicted as Japanese men.
In fact, sometimes heavenly visions take on the ethnic character of the local population. The most famous is probably Our Lady of Guadalupe, where the Virgin Mary appeared in the form of a beautiful Indigenous woman. There are also other stories like Our Lady of Lavang, where Mary appeared to a village in Vietnam in the 18th Century. The accounts of her appearance describe her as looking Vietnamese. We know that Christ’s glorified body can change what it looks like (Luke 24 and John 20-21). It stands to reason that this would be true of the Virgin Mary as well.
On the other hand, I read a Catholic was incensed by the shifting ethnic depictions of Christ and Mary. His point was that the Incarnation means that Jesus became human at a specific time and place. To take liberties with that is to divorce his real-life human nature from his divinity. To make his ethnicity malleable is to dehumanize Jesus.
Looking at both sides, I think it is important to have the proper perspective.
As a Middle-Eastern man of Jewish ethnicity, the Jesus who walked around 2000 years ago probably did not look like a European. It is important to acknowledge that Jesus entered into real human history and took on a specific human nature.
The depictions about Jesus that differ from this historical reality are not necessarily bad. In any art, there is an element of interpretation. We do not worship the image as the pagan idolaters did. Instead, we worship the God Himself. The images are merely interpretations of that God as He was incarnated. In a similar way, we always have to keep in mind that Private Revelations carry with them an incredibly subjective element, as Fr. Benedict Groeschel made clear in his masterful book A Still Small Voice. In that book, Fr. Groeschel makes the point that a Divine experience, which is beyond human understanding, must be filtered through mind in ways that the human being can apprehend. This means, that the visionaries may bring some of their subjective viewpoint to the experience.
But above all, any depiction of Christ should be reverent. The goal should be trying to lead man to God and not to try to remold God after the image of man.
However, the best answer to the question of what does Jesus look like came from my pastor.
When talking about this question, he pointed us to Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me…’
And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40)