Poetry Friday: “The Spirit of Promise”

image of an individual in a church looking upwards and maybe taking a photo; her back is to the camera.Memories can make good material for poetry. In “The Spirit of Promise,” Daniel Donaghy is remembering his Catholic childhood in the particular church that he’s now re-visiting. At first the poet’s memories are negative: “my grade-school nuns shaking // their heads at me”; the priest “putting down his Chesterfield / to tell me how many decades // of the rosary I’d need to say.” Then he recalls his parents in church: a softer memory, which however ends in their deaths from smoking. The remainder of the poem turns to his interlocutor, who had asked “what church was.” I love the poet’s multifaceted answer. “Church is a building, // or a service, or a group of Christians.” But then it’s even more: “something / you can give, so I’ll give it here”—and this something is “a blessing.” To think of “church” as a “blessing” is very moving to me. And the blessing given carries out the “Spirit of Promise” of the poem’s title: it’s “a blessing to a young woman / at the start of something or, /  like you, the start of everything.”

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Trump and the Borgias: The Stuff of Great TV

Image of Jeremy Irons in the television series The Borgias as the PopeFive hundred years from now our present political confusions, conflicts, and outrages will become the stuff of high melodrama.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would look back on this period of American history as entertainment, but they’re bound to, I expect.

Not Singin’ in the Rain entertainment, but certainly something like Wall Street or The Big Short.

That’s what’s happened to the legacy of Rodrigo Borgia, a.k.a. Pope Alexander VI, and his family of mistresses and illegitimate children. I’m nearly done with the third and final season of Showtime’s The Borgias. Created by Neil Jordan and starring Jeremy Irons as the lascivious, ambitious patriarch, it was advertised as “The Original Crime Family” to draw explicit connections to The Sopranos and The Godfather.

If the stories are true (which, to be fair, some historians are challenging), this Spanish family treated the papacy as a tool for acquiring power and wealth rather than as a profound spiritual responsibility. Rodrigo bought the papacy with a mule-train of gold, sold cardinal’s hats to increase the Vatican coffers, hosted elaborate orgies—even kept mistresses whilst pope. His son Cesare was an amoral cutthroat who wouldn’t flinch at assassination and regularly betrayed people—he became, in fact, one of the “heroes” of Machiavelli’s Prince.

Conflicts of interest and nepotism were almost de rigeur for this family. Foreign entanglements were an explicit strategy. [Read more…]

The Sound of Scorsese’s Silence

By Nick Olson

It’s been nearly a month since I finally saw Scorsese’s Silence, and what I remember most is the cry of cicadas and how crucial sound is to the film’s translation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel. The cicadas’ song is loud, and in Silence, they sound a sorrowful note.

We hear the cicadas and the crickets before we see anything onscreen. When the title screen appears, there is an abrupt cut to silence. The cue is helpful because we’ve learned to ignore most sounds, let alone nature’s song. Scorsese has much for us to see, but we’d better listen, too, or we may miss everything.

In any film there is a relationship between sound and silence. In Scorsese’s film the relationship is fundamentally theological: Does God speak?

The question is old, but in certain times and places God’s apparent silence seems deafening. My sense is that in America—in a culture where incessant distraction and consumption tramples the habit of being attuned to the cosmos—ours is a time when it’s easy to come to consider God silent. [Read more…]

Tweeting my Theology

When I went to seminary, there was concern. Friends whispered. Had I gone rogue? Or worse: been “saved”? Would I suddenly start dropping things like washed in the blood into regular conversation?

Admittedly, the calling to serve the church was sudden and powerful, like lightning. I had always considered myself a Christian, even if I didn’t attend worship. But the closest thing I got to church during those years in North Carolina was dating the daughter of an Assemblies of God pastor. And he didn’t like me.

In the fifteen years that have passed, I’ve grown into the role of theologian. That word—theologian—still isn’t easy to type. To be a theologian sounds laughably grand for a guy like me. That’s the stuff of Tillich and Barth, of thousand page tomes. I write novels about kids who work in grocery stores and talk about professional wrestling.

But if I’ve learned anything it’s this: don’t wrestle the stranger. All you’re going to get is a limp.

So I talk about God online. [Read more…]

The Madding Crowd

Why is it that we so often gain courage or cowardice to do bad from other members of a group, but seldom the courage to do good? Why is it that the herd instinct kicks in mostly when the object is to tear something to shreds, like beasts? Or when we’re put in fear by a despot and cannot dare to be different from the rest of the craven lot who cower in the shadows, too terrified to stare him down? But when it comes to doing good, it is rarely the case that such a thing is done by cooperative effort.

Only mass catastrophes seem to prove the exception, and even then it is not so much the altruism of the crowd that proves influential as the jarring circumstances that jolt us into a selfless mode. More often than not, the good person must stand alone; the bad always has company.

Sadly, it is not particularly shocking that the American university campus, in increasingly numerous instances, has perverted one of its essential purposes—to provide a free exchange of thought and a civil place for debate. Instead of honoring the constitutive American right of free speech, however unsavory that speech may be in its particular iteration, we now have barbarous crowds who rampage over anything with which they disagree. The “heckler’s veto” has ended all discussion, as those who scream the loudest and shout the hardest foreclose any chance of civil discourse. [Read more…]