Love

Top 10 of 2012

THE BEST experiences I had at the cinema last year were nostalgic—re-releases of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Lawrence of Arabia were uncanny reflections on the cost of war to soldiers and some roots of contemporary Middle East strife. Here's my list of the best films released in 2012:

10. A tie:The Pirates! Band of Misfits, a gloriously rich, smart comedy for all ages, full of life and self-deprecating humor, and Life of Pi, which envelopes its audience with visual wonders and spiritual questions.

9. Wes Anderson's delightful treatment of childhood first love amid dysfunctional adults, and a film not afraid of the shadow side of growing up, Moonrise Kingdom.

8. The Cabin in the Woods, a gruesome horror comedy that not only enacts and portrays, but understands the lie of redemptive violence.

7. The sprawling, operatic imagining of love-transcending-all that is Cloud Atlas, which made me feel the way Star Wars might—if it were written for adults.

6. The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion to a truly epic film series that imagined heroism as self-giving rather than merely slaughtering every bad guy in sight.

5. A disturbing, unpleasant, and utterly compelling vision of religious searching and abuse, relational longing and exploitation, holistic change and psychic torture, The Master.

4. Looper, the most fully realized and coherent future sci-fi world since Blade Runner, and over-the-top entertainment invoking both The Wizard of Oz and just war theory.

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Pastor Terry Jones is No Match for the Beatles’ LOVE

photo   © 2011   Mark Taylor , Flickr
Pastor Terry Jones leads a Islamaphobic march. photo © 2011 Mark Taylor , Flickr

Many will remember pastor Terry Jones as the champion of the “Burn a Quran Day” event, intended to fan anti-Islamic rhetoric on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Though many shouted him down and criticized his motives, he continues to have somewhat of a national platform for his agenda.

In this video produced by the New York Times, we get to witness what I consider a momentary intervention of God’s spirit in a beautifully, creatively nonviolent way. As Pastor Jones condemns Muslims and their religion, a man in the crowd pulls up the lyrics to the Beatles song, “All You Need is Love” on his phone. He stands next to jones and begins to sing, inviting the crowd to join in. It is beautiful because his hate is repaid with song, and the sting of his venomous words is neutralized without a hand or another voice being raised in anger (though I could do without the “idiot” sign, thanks).

Thanksgiving Everyday

Jaren Jai Wicklund / Shutterstock
Photo: Baby asleep on his father's chest, Jaren Jai Wicklund / Shutterstock

NEW YORK — In the afterglow, I give thanks for Thanksgiving Day.

It might be our most spiritual holiday, dealing as it does with that most spiritual of experiences: feeling gratitude.

Despite the commercial drumbeat for the aptly named "Black Friday," Thanksgiving Day itself tends to be about family, food, and free time. On Facebook, people shared recipes for stuffing, answered questions posed by nervous first-time cooks, told stories about traveling to be with family, and flooded the web with photos of people just being together.

I realize that those are ambiguous realities. Not everyone is blessed with healthy families, not everyone has enough food. Many work hard to prepare food and cheer for others to enjoy. But the promise is there — and unlike the promise of material hyperabundance that has come to dominate Christmas, the promise of Thanksgiving Day seems worth pursuing and attainable.

A Series of Curious Events ... and a Chicken

Hildegard von Chicken, with Mexican blanket.

HILDEGARD BLEW in on a late summer storm. Sleek and ebony, eyes a bright chatoyant gold. Between the Supercans and downed tree limbs, she was scratching up worms, plucking at bugs. In this nation’s capital of a little more than 600,000 souls, a loose hen was highly unusual—but there she was, in all her Gallus gallus domesticus glory.

Of course, she didn’t arrive with the name Hildegard. And certainly not Hildegard von Chicken, after a favorite Rhineland mystic. That came later. After she’d been interviewed and photographed for the DCist news blog; after she’d become a destination point for recently migrated hipsters; and after a woman running for local office asked if she could take Hildegard on the campaign stump to make her candidacy “more memorable.”

Hildegard received her name after a chance encounter with La Señora at the 11th street bus stop. “I rescued a chicken,” I told her. “What color?” she shot back.

La Señora is in her 70s and from Paraguay. She is knowledgeable about many things. “Black ... with a green undersheen,” I said. “This is very good. You have most likely rescued it from a religious ritual where it would be sacrificed for evil intentions.” “Wow!” I replied. “What should I do?” La Señora stared at me a moment: “You must pray the rosary with the chicken. Hold her and pray the rosary.”

THIS WAS THE series of curious events that led to my being perched on porch steps on a hill in the imperial city of Washington, D.C., holding my grandmother’s rosary and praying with a chicken, whose name I decided should be Hildegard, “Sybil of 11th Street,” because she was consulted by so many of high and low estate.

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Battles for Self

Philip Seymour Hoffman, center, in The Master.

THE MASTER, Paul Thomas Anderson’s stomach-punching, fingernails-down-a-chalkboard psychological thriller loosely based on the founding of Scientology, might be more deeply understood as a tale of two egos. We witness a titanic battle for self-control by a man who knows nothing of it (Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell), while another struggles to distinguish imagination from delusion, his simmering rage emanating perhaps from the terror that the truth he has found may not be enough (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s L. Ron Hubbard surrogate, Lancaster Dodd). Neither of them knows how to love; both are desperate to be loved. They find in each other a conversation partner, a patient, an unrequited lover. They are two of the most human characters the movies have brought us in a long time; their power trips are terrifying, because they may remind us of our own.

There are many key moments: The first meeting between the war veteran and new religious leader, the dictator bonding with his subject over mutual substance abuse; the master holding court in New York society, first offering tender words of potential healing to a grand dame, then exploding at a guest who dares question the source of his “knowledge”; the protégé being experimented with, commanded to walk up and down between a wall and a window until he is both capable of imagining unbridled freedom and driven nearly mad in the process; a science-fictionesque digging for buried treasure on Arizona flatlands that could pass for Mars.

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A Call to Conversion

AS LARRY WATSON arrived by charter bus at the Corrections Corporation of America in Nashville, Tenn., apprehension pulsed through his body. An ex-offender, Watson had been at prison facilities before, but never for this reason—and never willingly.

Watson had been incarcerated three different times—in 1978, 1983, and 1990—for distribution of drugs. The last time, he was sentenced to up-to-30 years in jail. He was released on Jan. 14, 1993, after serving 36 months.

Now he found himself on a very different path. Watson and 17 others, mostly ex-offenders, had trekked nearly 700 miles in May 2010 on a pilgrimage from Washington, D.C., to Nashville. As they pulled into the grandiose Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) headquarters, home to the largest private prison company in the United States, a swarm of security officials greeted them. Watson and his fellow sojourners became increasingly mindful of the spirit in which they journeyed.

Their plan was creatively simple: Purchase a share of stock in the Corrections Corporation of America, the behemoth corporation that owned the private prisons where some of the group had been incarcerated. Attend a CCA shareholders’ meeting. Then, as stockholders, tell their personal stories as a way of witnessing to the “spiritual crisis” occurring within the prison industry, while also building relationships with key CCA personnel.

In essence, using their experience from the inside, members of the group planned to tell CCA how to do its job better.

The Corrections Corporation of America board knew that Watson and his companions planned to attend the meeting. The board deployed the armed security guards to greet them. “They went with us step by step into the CCA building,” said Watson. On the way inside, he considered his physical surroundings. “It’s a very nice property. It looks like money.”

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On Love: 'Looper' and C.S. Lewis

John Chillingworth / Getty Images. Looper poster design by Ignition Print
John Chillingworth / Getty Images. Looper poster design by Ignition Print.

As the credits rolled after Looper in a packed Chinatown movie theater in Washington, D.C., I simply sat in reverent silence. Moviegoers on all sides began to rise and quietly leave the theater, but for a brief moment all I could do was just sit there. Quite simply, the movie blew my mind.

When I snapped out of it my thoughts started racing, analyzing the ending, which I won’t ruin for you, and the movie as a whole. It wasn’t a question of whether it was “good” or captivating — those were givens. Rather, I started mining the film’s rich themes and questions, particularly what it said about love.

While sitting there, lost in my mind, I began to notice the music accompanying the names moving onscreen. The song’s chorus sang something like, “I loved you so much that it’s wrong.”

I don’t think the song choice was an accident.

That lyric, I think, illuminates the crux of the film: can something like “Love” — not just romantic love — become perverted? Or, in other words, can our love for one person lead us to do horrible things to others?

Because He Loved Us: A Call to Action

Cloud image, Yurchyks / Shutterstock.com
Cloud image, Yurchyks / Shutterstock.com

In a world that seems completely and irrevocably divorced from the teachings of Christ, where in contemporary society is there a place for the Christian voice? Politicians shamelessly use Jesus’s name to justify their authority and gain influence without bothering to unpack the full depth of theological and ethical implications of their words. Corporations are granted the rights of individuals, but some individuals are denied the resources they need in times of crisis to support their families and livelihoods. And the public debate is so full of vitriol and hyperbole that dehumanization and outright hatred of those with whom we disagree has become the norm. In light of the situation in which we find ourselves, how then should Christians behave? 

While it might seem appealing to remove ourselves from secular society altogether and forsake the world in all its brokenness in favor of a uniquely Christian ethic that appeals and applies only to us, Christians have an obligation to serve as active participants in public discourse— elevating the conversation rather than abstaining from it so that we may try to live the truth and convictions of our faith. 

A World Without Immigrants?

IT WOULD BE strange if any segment of the liturgical year left out the theme of migration. The Bible is riddled from end to end with the journeys of nomads, pilgrims, exiles, returning exiles, and the risky intrusions of strangers across boundaries erected to deter them.

This season’s poster child for divinely inspired mobility is the lovely figure of the Moabite “alien” Ruth, who chooses to leave her own country and accompany her beloved Jewish mother-in-law when she returns as a widow to her native Judea. Ruth’s story is romantic, even erotic, as she daringly slips into the arms of Boaz during the sexually charged siesta at the threshing floor. But our readings are no mere novelette. Scripture shows how much hinged on her pluck and her allure. Her great-grandson will be David, and her descendant Jesus the Messiah!

“Where would we be without immigrants?” is one of the many questions between the lines of the scriptures. The Bible has lots to say to us about the divine impulse active in migrations, and the opening of the heart to “strangers within our gates”—things guaranteed to alarm defensive nationalists of every stripe.

I remember the deep spiritual emotion that caught us all up in Boston’s Faneuil Hall during my naturalization ceremony—Cambodian refugees, Vietnamese grandmothers, Salvadoran families, and all the rest of us. I think of the migration of my own great-grandparents to Russia, and the adventures that have scattered my own family from New Zealand to Mexico. How God revels in mixing us all up!

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.
 

[ NOVEMBER 4 ]
What Kind of 'One'?
Ruth 1:1-18; Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Psalms 119:1-8; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

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Sheer Christianity

DURING HOLY WEEK this year, columnist and practicing Catholic Andrew Sullivan wrote a Newsweek cover story titled “Christianity in Crisis.” He argued that Christianity is being destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. This would “baffle Jesus of Nazareth,” Sullivan wrote. “The issues that Christianity obsesses over today simply do not appear ... in the New Testament ... It seems no accident that so many Christians now embrace materialistic self-help rather than ascetic self-denial ... [and] no surprise that the fastest growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity.”

My sense is that people are leaving organized Christianity because it has left behind the radical message of its founder. This has been a long and continuing struggle. Jesus taught and embodied a revolutionary, transforming love. Forsaking wealth and power, he constantly reached out to those on the margins of society. Renouncing violence, he loved not just his friends but his enemies. Condemning religious self-right-eousness and hypocrisy, he healed broken lives and opened eyes and hearts to the near presence of the kingdom of God.

The church confesses him as the risen Savior and Lord. But then, so often, it tries to domesticate him, explaining away those sharp, demanding edges of his compelling words, and finding theological excuses for not following his radical ways. We call upon people to believe in Jesus. But the question is whether we believe Jesus.

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