Christian movies try to be better, but still. . .

From an article entitled “Growing quantity of `Christian’ films now focus on quality”:

In addition to “To Save a Life,” [about basketball players facing a friend's death] other upcoming 2010 Christian movies include “Letters to God,” a Possibility Pictures film about a cancer-stricken boy who writes to God in letters carried by a troubled postal worker. “The Revelator,” a Pure Flix Entertainment production about a terminally ill orphan who tries to save his doctor’s marriage, also is scheduled for release next year.

OK, I’m glad the filmmakers are focusing on better quality. I salute you. But take some lessons from the past. I am currently teaching a course entitled “Major Christian Authors,” covering such authors as Dante, Spenser, Herbert, Bunyan, Hopkins, Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor. NONE of them wrote about people’s personal problems. There is not one terminally ill orphan in the whole lot. No scenes about broken marriages or friends dying or sports teams winning the big game. These classic Christian authors–who actually did influence their cultures–saw Christianity as being rather more than a means of solving life’s problems, and none of them lapsed into the deadly aesthetic sin of SENTIMENTALITY.

These aesthetically more ambitious movies still have a soft-spot for sentimentality. Try making movies that do not attempt to make us cry. That means no diseases, no thrilling comebacks, no dying children. Try making movies that are exciting, or send our imaginations reeling, or that are funny. You will be surprised how well such stories can express and even explore the Christian faith.

Conversation with the Wittenberg playwright #4

More of my correspondence with David Davalos, author of the play Wittenberg, shared with his permission. My answer to his answer:

Fair enough, David. I get what you are trying to do.

It just seems that a Faustus without the devil is hardly a Faustus–like Ahab without the whale, or Hamlet without his father getting killed. The whole point about Faustus is that he DOES believe in the devil, but considers the fulfillment of his desires worth the price of eternal unhappiness. You did get close to that when you had your Faustus say something like, “I will do anything, ANYTHING, to find my answers.” I’m trying to think of an archetype of someone who believes in no God, no devil, no heaven, no hell. Nietzsche? That architect in the Ayn Rand novel? Slim pickings, I admit.

But now you raise an even more puzzling question. Why believe in a Christianity without the supernatural elements? The supernaural elements are surely the best parts! Jefferson’s censored, cut-up Bible–you wouldn’t want anyone to do that with your plays!–leaves nothing but dried up moralism. He cut out all the parts about grace, redemption, atonement, forgiveness, suffering, resurrection. I admit that a lot of conservative Christians, in effect, do the very same thing. But they too are leaving out what makes Christianity so profound.

For example, you honor Christ, even worship him, agnostic that you are. Well, Christianity teaches that Jesus is God. That is to say, the true God, according to Christianity, is not the abstract deity that looks down upon the earth–how easy it is not to believe in that kind of God–but a transcendent deity who became a human being. Furthermore, this incarnate God turns out not to be like the deity of our speculations and projections, but someone gracious and compelling. That God, according to Christianity, is incarnate complicates issues in some important ways (even though, unaccountably to me, many Christians still imagine God as purely transcendent and not incarnate). Take the reason not to believe in God because how could there be a God when there is so much evil and suffering in the world. That assumes the imagery of a transcendent God looking down, separate, onto His creation. But if God, as Christianity teaches, became flesh and entered the human condition, and specifically took into Himself all of the evil and suffering in the world, which Christ did when He was crucified, that surely complicates the argument in some important ways. (It was your friend and character Luther who said that we ought never to think of God apart from His incarnation in Jesus Christ.) It seems to me that the problem with Christianity today is that it has already thrown out much of this supernatural stuff, to its great detriment.

Anyway, one of the things I appreciate about you as a writer and about your play is that, unlike many writers today, you are fair-minded when it comes to these religious issues. You give Luther his due, just as you give Faustus his due, and Hamlet his due.

Another question, if I may: How do you know so much about the Renaissance? Were you an English major who went on to get a Ph.D. in the field, like I did? If not, you seem to have learned about as much as I did with all that effort, what with your multi-valent references and allusions to the texts, personages, and ideas of the time. Or did you just pursue your own research on your own? If so, was this because you are interested in the area or because you wanted to write this play and needed to research the background and in doing so plunged so deeply into the scholarship?

And, finally, what are you working on now?

Conversation with the Wittenberg playwright #3

Picking up on my exchange with David Davalos, author of Wittenberg–the play about Luther, Hamlet, and Faustus, this is his answer to what I posted yesterday:

Gene,

Again, thank you so much for your thoughts and encouragement. Emerson to Whitman? Wow. You may of course post my comments on your blog — I’m flattered to be asked.

Not to beat a dead horse-courser here with Faustus at the end of the play, but I did want to respond to your perfectly valid (and thorough!) analysis of the situation. My response is threefold: the first two parts are technical, the last a bit more esoteric. First, as you note, the play is, after all, a comedy. A serious comedy, perhaps (hopefully), but a comedy nonetheless. Faustus’ tragedy is still to come (maybe), but in another play (as is Hamlet’s, for that matter: the prince is last seen in my play embracing his philosophical acceptance at a moment of relative triumph). Second, Faustus is singing his final song in the here and now — his voice is the melody, with Luther and Hamlet speaking as temporally-displaced harmony — but I can’t really show him both in the present and the future simultaneously. So the perspective on Faustus at the end is less about where he’s headed and more about where he is. The last point is that I wanted to allow the possibility of Faustus meeting an end outside of the established tradition about him. The actual, “historical” Faustus, after all, allegedly met his fate as the result of an alchemical explosion, with neither the Devil or the Christ as active participants. Every age, it seems, reinvents its own Faustus — I wanted my reinvention to at least on some level address the possibility of having a fate beyond either salvation or damnation, a fate comprehensible to those in the audience who profess no particular beliefs, and one which takes the beliefs of the play’s Faustus at face value: no God, no Devil, no heaven, no hell. This gets back to my original point about each audience member bringing his own beliefs and judgments to the play with him — for those who want to see him damned, he can be damned. But I wanted my Faustus’ fate as open-ended as possible to accommodate as many different points-of-view about it as possible.

This also brings me to my answer to your question about my own theology. I was raised Methodist (with a set of Catholic grandparents) but have at this point in my life come to describe myself in the same way Vonnegut did in Palm Sunday, as a Christ-worshipping agnostic. I find the story of Jesus’ life and teaching profoundly moving and inspirational, but withhold judgment on the supernatural aspects of it. This makes me a reader of Jefferson’s Gospel, I suppose.

I will of course keep you up-to-date on further Wittenberging and the like. And as I mentioned, if you have any further comments after reading the play, please don’t hesitate to send them my way.

Once more, thank you, Gene. Your words are genuinely and deeply appreciated.

Warmest regards,
David

Conversations with the Wittenberg Playwright #2

Continuing the conversation with David Davalos, the author of Wittenberg, this is what I wrote back after the message I posted last time:

David,

How good of you to write! I had wanted to come back to Maryland on the day you were speaking and to hear the reading of your play about Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli. That would have been some long drives, but then I got sick, making it all a moot point. So I greatly appreciate your responding to my review, and going so far as to address some of my questions. And to give me a copy of your play is extremely generous and helpful. Just leafing through it shows me an abundance of things I missed.

Would you mind if I posted your comments about your play on my blog? Speaking as the English professor that I am, what you say about your intentions could be of great help to future students and directors of your play, which I really do believe has artistic staying power. Would that they had blogs in Shakespeare’s day so that he would explain what he had intended with that Hamlet character!

Your explanations about the points I had some problems with are very helpful. With Faust, it is true that he is an archetype. But he is an archetype of a man who sells his soul to the devil; that is, the archetype of a man who wants something so badly (knowledge in Marlowe; experience in Goethe; artistic success in Thomas Mann; the American dream in St. Vincent Benet) that he would give up his soul for it (in all the senses that can mean). So for the archetype to fully work, it seems to me, the character has to pay a price, a tragic price, for what he yearns for. Yes, in Marlowe, he is damned, though it’s evident that he doesn’t have to be, that he can repent and is close to repentance till the very end, but in that last scene, when he opens his mouth to pray for rescue to Christ, he ends up praying to Satan instead. In Goethe’s version, he is indeed saved, but only because Gretchen, an innocent and naive girl whom he seduced, got pregnant, and drove to suicide, nevertheless forgave him and interceded for him in Heaven. Thus, he is saved because he is redeemed–by the innocent suffering and death of Gretchen rather than Christ, but the meaning is the same–but this also involved his guilt and his attempt to atone for that guilt by using his powers in an effort to do good. All of the manifestations of the Faust archetype have that tragic dimension that I missed in yours. I do recall some lines that might point in that direction, and I suspect when I read your script I will see it more, and, after all, you were writing a comedy rather than a tragedy, but still. From another angle, there is this: Goethe’s Faust is all enamored with the Eternal Feminine, of course, but what he forgets is that Gretchen is not just his ideal, but an actual, particular human being, whom he ends up, with all of his narcisstic idealism, destroying. You did have that great moment in your play in which the prostitute refuses to go along with Faust’s Eternal Feminine fetish to his great agony, but she isn’t quite the Gretchen figure whom he victimizes, feels remorse for, and yet surprisingly experiences her unmerited love. I think that kind of humanizing of the Eternal Feminine character a little more would have also made the sexual stuff seem less coarse. But, again, my dissatisfaction with the Faust figure–my sense that his destiny is not prefigured in the way Luther’s and Hamlet’s is–does not mean that I don’t love the play!

The depth of learning that has gone into this play is staggering. I mean, I have taught “Hamlet,” Marlowe, and Goethe for years and have a personal interest in Luther, being indeed a Lutheran, but your references and allusions and underlying structures and all are rich and perceptive. So you knew about Rheticus, who inspired you for the masterful things you do with the Copernical cosmology and how disorienting that had to be. Knowing more than you actually use, while drawing on it, is a sign of true scholarship, and that you handle it so lightly and so wittily is a sign of true mastery.

Can I ask where you come down on these issues? You know your theology. Do you consider yourself a Christian of any kind? I know artists don’t like to answer questions like that, but I won’t categorize you. I am just curious.

Anyway, as Emerson said to Whitman, with the same sense of discovery that I feel, I greet you at the beginning of a great career. (Though I’m sure “Wittenberg” isn’t the actual beginning, since you must have gained a lot of experience already to have written such a good play.) I’d like to follow what you’re doing–hearing about other productions of “Wittenberg,” hearing about what else you are working on, and just being a fan.

With many regards and accolades,

GENE

Conversations with the Wittenberg playwright #1

You may recall that I recently blogged about a play I recently attended entitled Wittenberg, which is about three denizens of that university interacting with each other: Faustus, Hamlet, and Luther. Click here for my review, which you may want to review for what follows.

Well, David Davalos, who wrote the play, read what I had to say and was kind enough to respond. This has provoked an interesting correspondence, parts of which, with his permission, I thought I’d share. After all, wouldn’t it have been great if we had blogs in Shakespeare’s day, and he could have explained what he REALLY meant? Mr. Davalos, I think, is an extraordinarily promising writer, so I post this exchange in the interest of future literary historians.

Guten tag –

I just wanted to take a moment to thank you so much for your comments about the Rep Stage production of the play. I’m so glad — relieved! — that you enjoyed it and found it worthwhile, especially given your background and area of expertise.

I also wanted to address some of your questions/concerns, to at least explain what my intentions were with the specific issues you raise. Working in the theatre can sometimes be like playing in a hall of mirrors, with the playscript reflected in the specific production reflected in the given performance before a particular audience — ultimately every audience member brings his own constructivist context into the theatre with him and walks out with his own personal reaction/interpretation — but I can tell you what I was thinking when I wrote the damned thing, for what it may be worth.

Regarding Faustus’ fate at the end of the play, I looked at it like this: Luther is an actual person, Hamlet is a literary character, but Faustus is in many ways primarily an archetype. Accordingly, Luther’s fate is determined by history and Hamlet’s by the conclusion of Shakespeare’s play, but depending on whether you read Marlowe or Goethe (to pick the two preeminent versions of the legend) Faustus is either damned or redeemed, respectively. I liked that ambiguity, that uncertainty, and wanted to leave some of it in place for the audience to decide Faustus’ ultimate disposition for themselves (choice, after all, being one of the main concerns of the play).

The Song of Songs section is there to depict Luther and Faustus each in communion with their respective conceptions of the divine: Luther’s a spiritual loving God and Faustus’ the ecstatic consummation of carnal union with the woman he loves. The dual scene is also an illustration of the play’s concern with hermeneutics (e.g., Luther’s interpretation of Paul, or the various interpretations of Hamlet’s dream). Luther posits the traditional interpretation of The Song as an allegory of Christ’s love for His church, where the Faustian interpretation takes the text literally as an expression of erotic desire. (Granted, Benedict splits the difference in Deus Caritas Est, but that’s just under 500 years too late for the purposes of the play.) I make it a point not to compare different productions of the play and their various interpretative solutions, but I will concede that the depiction of the scene in this particular iteration could come off as a little over the top for some audiences. It’s always a balancing act.

I actually encountered Rheticus very early in my research, and it was in fact his relationship with Copernicus that first suggested to me the use of heliocentrism as a central issue in the play. But, as you note, Luther’s attitude to the theory was not quite so accepting.

But enough about me. I’ve taken the liberty of enclosing a copy of the play for your perusal. Should you have any other questions/comments, I would be very interested to hear them.

Again, Gene, thank you for taking the time to see the show and for your generous evaluation of the experience.

Best,
David

I’ll post my reply next time.

Old English treasure horde

Do you remember in Beowulf about the dragon’s gold-horde, and how after Beowulf died killing the dragon his people rejected the treasure, burying it under a burrow? Well, a bloke with a metal detector may have found it.

The treasure has over 1500 pieces–gold, silver, weapons, ornaments, all rudely-wrought– dating from the 600′s or 700′s, which would be when Beowulf was written–soon after the Angles and the Saxons converted to Christianity. Historians and archeologists are blown away with the find, which vastly multiplies the artifacts that have survived from that era.

Beware, I say. According to all the old tales, such a treasure–one that has been buried and thus gotten rid of rather than kept–comes with a curse. And recall that just carrying away a cup was enough to wake up a dragon.


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