Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents

two nuns walking through an empty alleyway into light.After World War II devastated eastern Europe, the Red Army pushed into the countries allotted to them as spoils, such as Poland. There, they continued the destructive work that the Nazis had begun. Among those hardest hit were the women religious of Warsaw.

French Red Cross physician Madeleine Pauliac, sent to find and repatriate the French who were still in the Polish countryside, discovered that whole convents of nuns had been gang raped by pillaging Russian soldiers. Some of the women were molested thirty to fifty times each. Unsurprisingly, a good number died in the process, and those who survived often fell pregnant. Lives of avowed purity were changed forever into lives of violent desecration.

Pauliac, who herself died in an automobile accident while still on duty in Poland, wrote of these women in her diary. That work formed the inspiration for Anne Fontaine’s 2016 film, The Innocents. The movie provides a careful, respectful, and convincing portrayal of the emotional array that comprises such a tragedy. For nuns do not stop being women when they take the veil, nor are women who have not consecrated their lives to God any less called to the courage that nuns must possess. [Read more…]

To Run and Not Grow Weary, Part 2

eric-liddell-public-domain-via-wikimediaGuest Post

Maybe it was instinct that sent me back to relive the 1924 Olympic Games.

Yesterday you found me despairing, feeling a sudden collapse of my lifelong will to write. Slumped on the couch, I was watching, of all things, Chariots of Fire.

As a child, I loved this movie. But it wasn’t until college that I saw how it stands in stark contrast to so much evangelical entertainment, how it avoids a faith will make your dreams come true pep talk.

In fact, its most fervent evangelical figure, Eric Liddell’s sister, Jenny, is frustrated when her athletic brother postpones his missionary work in China in order to become an Olympic runner. Straightforward evangelism, Jenny believes, is the real work. If people are dying without hearing about Jesus, what is running but self-indulgence?

The tract-peddling, altar-calling culture in which I grew up would have loved Jenny.

And yet, Eric argues with her: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

His father supports him: “Eric, you can glorify God by peeling a potato if you peel it to perfection.”

And we still hear about Liddell’s faith today. Why? Because he ran. He ran like a holy fool. [Read more…]

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea

The cast of Manchester by the Sea dressed up for the release of the movie, standing under a title of the movie. It’s impossible to speak of Kenneth Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea without alluding to its major premise: Some events in life simply can’t be overcome. However, stating that conclusion does not betray the work’s plot, because from the outset the story depicts a man upon whom a terrible blow has been dealt.

There is no hiding the reality of Lee Chandler’s all but palpable melancholy. Casey Affleck (the much more talented actor of the two Affleck brothers) shows the quiet range of his skills in the glassy-countenanced depiction of a suburban-Boston janitor whose sorrow is wrought into every movement of his mundane life. One doubts that he even feels the cold of the snowy New England winter as he loads a dumpster with trash and brushes off the advances of bored tenants.

So when news comes that Chandler’s older brother has passed away back in his hometown, the loss, though felt, has the effect of another stripe added to the back of a whiplashed mule; the animal winces, but is far too calloused from old, deep injuries to cry out in any audible way. Still, what he finds when he arrives for the funeral is a complication that adds new dimensions to his burdens. [Read more…]

Making Contact: A Christian-Atheist Friendship, Part 2

shadow-friends-by-monika-on-flickrAn introduction: Decades ago, in the faraway land of Orange County, California, two young women made contact. Jen and I shared a number of classes but traveled in different social circles. I was scary nerdy awkward—E.T. and Laura Ingalls’ lovechild, and she was scary sexy cool—black eyeliner, skateboards, and bands I couldn’t pronounce. Only in the past few years have we developed a deeper relationship, sharing our lives with one another on Facebook.

Recently, during an intense chat about religion, science, and philosophy, Jen told me that the movie Contact—a 1997 sci-fi flick based on Carl Sagan’s novel that engages the intersection of science and faith—is the key to understanding her spiritual struggles.

Maybe we can write something about it together, she said, comparing our points of view as a Christian and an atheist. Well, that was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Yesterday’s post featured Jen’s letter to me, using Contact as a central theme. Today I respond.

Jen,

If someone told me thirty years ago that one day I’d be writing you a letter about God, a letter that virtually anyone in the world could access on a pocket-sized screen with the click of a button, I would have called it science fiction.

And today, as we write to one another about aliens, science, and spaceships—the stuff of Contact—I realize how quickly those thirty years have gone. [Read more…]

Making Contact: A Christian-Atheist Friendship, Part 1

star-formation-region-ngc-2035-by-the-european-southern-observatory-on-flickrAn introduction from Tania Runyan:

Decades ago, in the faraway land of Orange County, California, two young women made contact. Jen and I shared a number of classes but traveled in different social circles. I was scary nerdy awkward—E.T. and Laura Ingalls’ lovechild, and she was scary sexy cool—black eyeliner, skateboards, and bands I couldn’t pronounce. Only in the past few years have we developed a deeper relationship, sharing our lives with one another on Facebook.

Recently, during an intense chat about religion, science, and philosophy, Jen told me that the movie Contact—a 1997 sci-fi flick based on Carl Sagan’s novel that engages the intersection of science and faith—is the key to understanding her spiritual struggles.

Maybe we can write something about it together, she said, comparing our points of view as a Christian and an atheist. Well, that was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Today’s post features Jen’s letter to me, using Contact as a central theme.

Contact features Jodie Foster as Ellie Arroway, an athiest research scientist, who has devoted her career to making contact with extraterrestrial life. She and theologian Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) are drawn to one another in their passion for seeking the truth, despite their differences. When Ellie receives a message from the star Vega, millionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt), who has anonymously funded her research, deciphers blueprints for a transporter to the distant star. With challenges from her self-serving supervisor, Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), and support from blind fellow astronomer Kent (William Fichtner), Ellie prepares for an astounding, yet controversial, trip.

My response follows tomorrow.

Tania,

I often imagine you luxuriating in your cozy home workplace or snoozing in an airplane on your way to a workshop, a convention, or a scarf sale. Always a scarf; never a church. I imagine this from my dank living room—a space I share with dog hair, flung afterschool socks, and a constant TV hum. Always a TV; never a church.

You revel in the community of God and grace. I search for connection in activism and apathy. You love a deity. I love controversy. You are a woman of scripture and wine. I am a woman of Facebook and whine. That part of us so alien to the other is the beauty of our similarity: “In all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”

You are the Palmer Joss to my Ellie Arroway. We’ve made contact.

To watch Contact is to bear witness to my spiritual struggle. As Ellie travels a wormhole between our sun and distant Vega, I too travel between the pain of my Catholic upbringing and the atheistic reality that I have spent a lifetime constructing. It’s a lonely reality, devoid of hope for an afterlife, for reunion with loved ones, for any post-death reward.

If only I had the world’s wealth of support. If only I could discover a hidden second machine untouched by Western fanaticism. If only they’d let me float freely—no harness, no bolts, no stiff straps. If only they’d send a poet to document my strange spiritual journey.

But they have.

Like Palmer and Ellie’s post-lovemaking pillow talk, you and I connect secretly and sincerely—as humans, not as spiritual opposites. Your private empathy quells my fight. Your humor and worry are familiar.

But I wonder: Do you delight in the fall of religious and scientific leaders as I do? Do you understand the sounds of the universe as I do? Can you understand that I am as willing to die for my nonbelief as you are for your faith? Can we, as Palmer and Ellie have, find common ground in our profound regard for transcendence?

Can we together decipher the Big Message from the Beyond—whatever shape our Beyonds take?

You and your scarves, your coffee selfies, and your Facebook tags are rewriting my alien schema. You speak to me in primes—the simplest complexity of a universal language.

A truth that eludes us both is the blueprint for our friendship.

Ellie’s grueling search for the primer—the connective tissue between the alien language and human understanding—is feverish and frustrating. She is unable to unlock the relationship between the equations of Earthly science and the fuller dimension that comes only from considering the transcendental—in this case, alien knowledge and promise.

Oh, how I envy her moment of revelation—a moment, unfortunately, handed to her from Hadden, an eccentric man who floats in the sky.

This is my issue: I don’t want a floating man to provide my ultimate answers. I will find the primer, I promise myself. I will discover these new dimensions on my own.

As Ellie prepares to launch—an obvious rebirth—she loses contact with her reality: with NASA scientists, her roots; with blind Kent, her hopes; with wise Palmer, her support. She is alone, afraid. Her life’s work teeters on the precipice of validation, yet her doubt shakes her. We see her breathless, eyes closed, chanting, “I’m okay to go…okay to go.” But is she really okay?

Am I really okay?

The moment she truly breaks free from her human harness, she reaches out and grasps Palmer’s gift—a gift of direction that she has until this moment rejected. It’s a quietly gorgeous moment in which the mundane and the unknown come softly together. Hers is a rebirth into beautiful confusion, of reconnecting with the awe of a child’s innocent wonder.

For over thirty-five years, I’ve searched for a wormhole to fling me between the majesty of the universe, the comfort of scientific logic, and the peace of spiritual community. I’ve tried so many –isms: atheism, apatheism, humanism, Buddhism. None yet has truly transported me to a place of understanding and connection. And so I turn to science. To ancient philosophy. To the literature of those both lost and found.

And now, to you.

When Ellie lands in the Vegan system, she remains safely in a bubble of awe, humility, and hope. She can see the place she has never touched in all her years of study and rejection.

Is our Facebook friendship my alien bubble, or is it my wormhole? And are you my compassionate alien?

Because of you and your acceptance; because of your humor, compassion, and success; because you ease my existential frustrations—you are at once my Kent, my Hadden, and my Palmer. Essentially, you are my Contact.

What I’ll find out about myself through our union, I’m not sure. How I’ll grasp the compass you’ve given me, I can’t yet imagine. The only thing I’m confident in:

I’m okay to go.

Jen

GL banner
Jennifer Hawk is an atypical Southern California native, an edgy mother, and a former professor of English. She has left the academy in pursuit of less formal, more tangible discourse. Her publications include poetry, short stories, and scholarly work. This is her first blog post and her first joint writing project.

The above image is by The European Southern Observatory, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.