Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike has died

John Updike, whom Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the NYT dubbed (here) a "kaleidoscopically gifted writer," has died of lung cancer at the young age of 76.

This one is hard for me to take, for Updike has seen me through all the various stages of my life from college through the current time. We read Updike in every religion-and-literature course I ever took. And I personally enjoyed reading him very much: Especially his "Rabbit" novels were theological treatises on the human condition. But even his less worthy ones (IMHO) were similarly illuminating and challenging. (I have to laugh, however, when I think that he earned a lifetime achievement award from Britain's Worst Sex Writing in Fiction awards committee. I never learned how he felt about that!)

Raised as a Lutheran, he was, I think, a pretty serious Christian all his life, ending his days as a Congregationalist, I understand. (Given where he lived most of his years, that's not too surprising, I suppose.) His roots were enough (so the story goes) that a Lutheran seminary in this country invited him to be the commencement speaker one year. Apparently, Updike suffered some from a stammer or stutter. In any event, he replied with a terse telegram: Thank you, but no. I am a writer not a speaker.

His writing spoke to me and to countless others through his illustrious career. And we should all mourn the passing of a serious and talented writer. (Feel free to comment on your favorite or least favorite Updike classic.)

May his memory be eternal. And may the Lord grant him eternal rest and let perpetual light shine upon him.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Gran Torino

Gloating is most certainly not a Christian virtue, but I take the risk of sinning boldly here (before you jump on me, I know that's not what Luther meant!). We saw the movie Gran Torino last night, and it proved finally that Clint Eastwood can't do everything: For his latest few movies, he has acted, directed, produced, written the music, and for all I know designed the costumes (and he was a mayor, too, or a while). But in Gran Torino he proves that he CAN'T SING. Glory Hallelujah. (He's sung in three of his movies, but in this one, it barely even qualifies as croaking!)

The actor I first knew as Randy Yates in Rawhide, is a fantastically talented guy! And while this may not be the greatest movie ever made -- or even the best he's made -- it is eminently worth seeing. OK, so it's predictable and formulaic: He's able to pull it together.

This is a Minnesota picture, and I don't know why it wasn't set in Minnesota. I suppose my good old state was too cheap in the tax credits, but c'mon guys! This story was written in Minneapolis, set in the Twin Cities (there's a stronger Hmong presence in Saint Paul than on this side of the River), using language and images out of Minnesota life (if you know what to listen for). And I'm told that Bee Vang, the kid around whom the story revolves, is a non-actor from The Cities. Good grief. Even the final scene, driving along the Lake, could have been filmed here!

There are some amazingly funny lines in this movie, even though it is violent (Dirty Harry lives) in word and deed, and it is just plain ugly in some senses. I won't give away the funniest line that make me guffaw, but there is one scene in which Walt asks Sue how the Hmong happened to be in an area of the country "covered with snow six months out of the year." She notes that the Lutherans brought them in. His response is, "Everybody always blames something on the Lutherans." (And don't we know it.)

On a final note, to make this post fit the general theme of this blog, Brad (my movie partner) and I discussed the portrayal of the priest in the movie. It's an interesting handling, above average among movies which have priests as supporting characters. The guy who plays the priest, Christopher Carley, looks the part -- fresh faced, red haired and freckled, young, very innocent. And at the beginning we're led to believe that he's a real light-weight. But through the course of the movie either he changes or our (through Walt's eyes) perspective on him changes. Because he ends up being kind of sophisticated: He is persistent to the extreme about getting Walt to confession, enduring some really crunching insults. He has insight into some aspects of Walt's personality -- although he can't quite get down what he should call him, whether Mr. Kowalski or Walt (and his maturity is reflected in the way he ultimately resolves that). And he has commitment to the Church, not just a religiosity-in-Catholic garb.

I take issue with one thing in the movies' handling of the priest: Father Janovich serves an aging, apparently conservative congregation (although we don't see much of the place except for funerals). Yet he makes many of his visits to Walt in a sport jacket and shirt with no tie. Now I don't know even one Roman Catholic priest who goes about daily work without his collar; I can't believe that any of them would go on missions without their collar (and to that extent they are most certainly trained to look different from Protestant pastors). So I'm not sure what the deal was with that.

I wouldn't give the Oscar to this movie (my vote goes to Slumdog Millionaire), but this is worth seeing -- and on the big screen, if only to get a great view of the eponymous 1972 Gran Torino.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Who are you?

Check out this dandy, very short diagnosis of your similarity to one or another of the early Witnesses:


It would be fun to hear how you do.

For my part, I "am" Melito of Sardis -- about whom I apparently share "a great love of history and liturgy. You’re attached to the traditions of the ancients, yet you recognize that the old world — great as it was — is passing away. You are loyal to the customs of your family, though you do not hesitate to call family members to account for their sins." (My daughter would certainly nod in agreement on that last point.)

Are there other know-thyself "tests" that are of note? (Don't give me any of those puzzles that require you to subscribe to something in order to get the results. They are fundamentally dishonest and I want no part of them.)

Peace and self-knowledge be yours.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

MLK "Not Serious" Today

Here's a thought-provoking call to repentance from Matthew Yglesias:

It's nicely reasoned and said -- if all too brief.

The 2009 CCET Conference

It's never too early to reserve time for the conferences of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology -- and this year is no exception. (As many of you know, I'm on the Board of the Center and subscribe its mission wholeheartedly. I do what I can to encourage people to attend the conferences (which are always more than wonderful both for the content and for the conversation with some of the Church's most interesting people) and to subscribe to the Center's journal, Pro Ecclesia (which is one of the finest theological journals on the market -- and often for much less money than the other good comparable ones).

This year's conference is scheduled for Washington, DC. It will be located at the John Paul II Cultural Center there (the John Paul II Center is cooperating with us on this conference) -- fittingly enough, since the theme of the conference is "Vatican II: Its Continuing Challenge to All Churches." The conference speakers, drawn from a variety of traditions, will address such questions as whether the promises of Vatican II remain unfulfilled; what paths have proven to be dead ends; what possibilities remain to be explored. And those speakers include George Lindbeck, professor emeritus at Yale, who served at all four sessions of the Council as the Lutheran World Federation's official "observer."

It promises to be a splendid conference, and I hope to see you there.

Check out more details (and go ahead and register online) at the CCET website: www.e-ccet.org.

The conference page says to contact Michael Root, the Center's Executive Director, with any questions. But feel free to contact me, too, with any questions or concerns you have.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Practical Request

How many deaths of other people's children by bombing or starvation are we willing to accept in order that we may be free, affluent, and (supposedly) at peace? To that question I answer pretty quickly: None. And I know that I am not the only one who would give that answer: Please. No children. Don't kill any children for my benefit.
-- Wendell Berry, "The Failure of War," 29

Friday, January 09, 2009

Epiphany Hymn

My daughter's "other" church choir (she is an active member of 2 Lutheran congregatioins) sang a beautiful and affecting setting of this Healy Willan (fabulous church-music composer) carol in their Christmas "concert." While Ray Brown (of blessed memory) may have determined that the Three Kings is a Christmas story (and he's probably right, as we he was on most things), I offer it in Epiphany:

The Three Kings
Healey Willan

“Who knocks tonight so late, so late?” the weary porter said.
Three Kings stood at the gate, each with a crown on head.
The serving man bowed down; the inn was full he knew.
Said he, “In all this town is no fit place for you."

A light the manger lit; there lay the Mother meek.
Said they, “This place is fit; here is the rest we seek!"
They loosed their latchet strings so stood they all unshod.
Come in, come in, ye Kings, ye Kings, ye Kings!

And kiss the Feet of God.

R.I.P., Richard John Neuhaus

I can hardly claim any credibility if I fail to note the death of one of the foremost, eloquent, biting, brilliant, and irritating persons to address the faith/world interface: Richard John Neuhaus. A quite decent obituary appeared in the Times here.

I have been reluctant to post the notice because of my feelings about Fr. Richard. I have followed him, read him, admired him, and torn hair out because of him for decades -- back to his days as a Lutheran and the sharp-tongued editor of the (Lutheran) Forum Newsletter (I think it was still called that in the old days). And I have been puzzled by his progression from parish pastor (well, never quite just that, I guess) to sycophant to the neo-conservative political-theological synthesis. I wish someone had ever called him publicly to account for many of his positions, but he was simply too powerful. But now it is too late, and I was enjoined by my mother decades ago from speaking ill (or even critically) of the dead.

I must give him credit as a faithful servant of God as his own lights guided him. Certainly, he was brilliant, sometimes eloquent (and usually readable), passionate, and influential -- a powerful example of simul justus et peccator. I understand he could be charming and witty: In the couple of occasions I met him, he was not so, but then the witness of others is likely more reliable in that regard. He was one of a kind, I think, and one wonders about the direction of First Things without its guiding principal.

Eternal rest, grant him, O Lord;
and let perpetual light shine upon him.

And if there be such a thing as purgatory (and I'm not sure about his position on this matter), may it work! (That's a joke for those of you who would model your wit and humor on RJN's.)

And may his memory be eternal.

We must wake up with respect to the Middle East

I don't know that placing blame is particularly helpful in thinking and praying about the current outrages against Gaza by the Israeli armed forces. I'm sure there is plenty of blame to go around -- and I would lay a substantial portion of that blame at the feet of the government of this country. But one thing I think the Church should be especially concerned about is telling the truth. The adage is true (is that the meaning of "adage"?): Truth is the first casualty of war. And that seems eminently demonstrable in the current assault.

This article is worth reading both for the research it reports and for the questions it implies about the reliability of the mainstream media, the veracity of politicians (gasp! what a revelation.), accountability for any of the atrocities that have taken or are taking place, and the complicity of Christians (and by extension, the Church catholic) in the entire mess. The Church's failure to give voice to the revelation of God has contributed to the horror.

Unfortunately, the article fails to nuance the difference between a Katusha rocket and Israeli arms. The Katusha are fairly unsophisticated, ineffective, often home-brewed "missiles". (See the number of casualties they have wrought, and compare that to the Palestinian deaths.) To highlight them as somehow the equivalent of or justification for Israeli responses is to fail in any effort toward proportionality. Even by the loosest just-war standards, the war against the Palestinians fails.

It is written that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Lamentably, it is also the case that those who live under the control of those who live by sword also die by the sword. The numbers of genuinely innocent civilian deaths is sickening; the apparently intentional targeting of schools, hospitals, and UN humanitarian workers only brings additional bile.

The Church must speak out -- and by speak out I mean "speak" in the sacramental sense: We must speak, write, scream, demonstrate, go to Palestine to sit in witness to peace. Until Christians put their lives on the line (in many cases, in support of our Palestinian fellow Christians), we can only hang our heads in shame.