Addicted to Faith Films

You’ve got to hand it to St. Augustine. In his Confessions, he records his evolution from gnostic to Christian with the precision of a dieter. Apart from a few scattered phrases, like the one where he refers to his being “stuck fast in the glue of [sexual] pleasure,” he treats his conversion from sensualist to celibate with the delicacy of a granny. That’s why Augustine’s a Doctor of the Church. That’s why, on every reading, I’m nearly cross-eyed by the time I reach the part where he finally gives Lady Continence the time of day.

This Lent I promised myself I’d re-read him. As God is my witness, I will. But it’s going to be a slog. The Friday before last, right in the middle of his meditation on the divided will, I stalled and broke down altogether, tossing my Oxford Classics paperback edition into the corner where Rusty the Cat likes to sprawl. Rushing back to my computer, I logged into Netflix and downloaded For Greater Glory, which I chased with The Saint of 9/11. For an after-dinner mint, I watched James Cromwell interpret Pius XII in that two-part Lux Vide miniseries.

These days, passivity can seem awfully passé. Between Lumen Gentium, which drafts laypeople into the priesthood as junior auxiliaries, and Chrisfideles Laici, which marches us off to the Lord’s vineyard in sombreros and work gloves, it seems we’re supposed to keep busy. But, though nobody may have come right out and said so, evangelization works like a loop: after I’ve blogged my quota of edifying messages and done my share of good deeds, I, the evangelist, require some evangelizing.

Packaged as an argument, Christianity puts my back up; I feel honor-bound to bicker with the messenger, if not to kick him in the groin. In the long run, this kind of engagement will surely pay big dividends, but for quick pick-me-ups, I prefer the Gospel as anodyne, a bottle-nosed dolphin I can swim with. Faith movies fill this bill. I can see that their production values are often low, and I know damn well I’m being manipulated. But it’s these very deficiencies, and the slight ironic distance they create between me and the message, that make them so enjoyable, and so restorative.

Finding a fellow traveler, someone who appreciates these flawed gems in the same spirit, provides us both with a great opportunity to reinforce our sense of Catholic identity on a positive note, that is, without mentioning the New York Times. That Friday night after my binge, I complained on Facebook that whoever was in charge of the wardrobe for the Pius film had goofed; the Germans’ garrison caps had been blocked wrong. A friend of mine, a Jesuit priest, answered sympathetically. The out-of-period vestment worn by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt, he said, had compromised his ability to suspend his disbelief. (He admitted that the bonnets worn by the Setonian Sisters were on target.)

The two of us went on to reminisce about Heaven Help Us, the 1985 HBO film about a Franciscan boys’ school, which we agreed presented a fair picture of an American religious community in the Vatican II days. The characters struck us as believable types. My friend speculated that bad Brother Constance would have been clapped in irons sometime around 2002, whereas good Brother Timothy would have left the order to marry sometime around 1970. I disagreed — Brother Timothy would have gone straight to glory, via Argentina’s Naval Mechanics’ School; Brother Constance would have been consecrated bishop at Écône. Anyway, we both bedded down that night feeling very Catholic.

It was later that weekeend when I lost control. Once reminded of Heaven Help Us, I simply had to watch it again — sure enough, there it was on YouTube, whole and entire. As it reached its denouement, where the Andrew McCarthy character actually decks someone, I glanced at the menu bar and felt my heart stop. There, I saw advertised: “SHOGUN (1980): Complete 9-hour epic.”

Based on James Clavell’s eponymous potboiler about an Elizabethan privateer who lands in Portuguese-influenced Japan, the Shogun miniseries was the original pirates-versus-ninjas death match. It would have turned my head under any circumstances, but here, in the middle of Lent, Shogun had a special draw: it’s full of Jesuits, lots of ‘em. If Jesuit scholastics were to make it the basis for a drinking game whereby every player has to do a saki bomber whenever some character bad-mouths the Society of Jesus, that would be the flower and future of the order dead on the sofa in the lounge.

I fared a little better, maybe because I watched it sober, maybe because I skipped around, limiting my intake to about 310 minutes. But the bug had nested and her eggs had hatched. Faith movies claimed the better part of my free time the following week. Don’t ask me to list the titles — the only ones I can remember are They Killed Sister Dorothy and Maximillian: Saint of Auschwitz. At some point, I must have exhausted Netflix’ Catholic queue and switched to movies about other people’s faiths. Through my head, like fragments from bad dreams, flicker scenes from Israeli movies about ultra-Orthodox communities that approach fraternal correction with the subtlety of the Medellin cartel.

If ever, in media bender, you’ve ever seen your fifth of Grey Goose topple, unprodded, from your kitchen island, you’ll understand what happened next: Netflix stopped working. For no reason that I could see, the window went blank. I closed it, opened another, and typed in my e-mail address and password. It refused to load. After two or three more abortive attempts, I took a deep breath. Then I took a shower.

Looking back on Netflix’s sudden crap-out, I can spot the hand of God. Don’t get me wrong — God’s got nothing against passive entertainment, per se. In Vermeer’s painting, Mary of Bethany has her shoes kicked off and is leaning heavily into her palm. She is the very picture of zoning out, and Jesus seems perfectly pleased with her. In Psalm 27, the narrator sings of wanting to dwell in the Lord’s house and meditate in His Temple. Well, if wishes were donkeys’ colts, we’d all be the Messiah. At some point, probably to their sorrow, Mary and David had to go back to doing Mary and David things. Just as surely, I must step away from the home theater and get back to being one of the dimmer lights of the New Evangelization.

Well, without any faith films to distract me, I can finally get around to reading Foucault’s To Discipline and Punish. Judging by the first page, which describes how the would-be regicide Robert-François Damiens made his amende honorable on the scaffold, it’s going to read like a cross between The Passion and Saw. The Lord taketh away and the Lord giveth.

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