“The Road” Revisited

Posted by Webster 
I don’t really want to walk another mile on this road, but I have been thinking about Jason Patterson’s thoughtful comment on my review of the new movie “The Road,” based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. I want to expand on my earlier thoughts about the film and about such films in general. This is not so much a rebuttal of what Jason wrote as my own meditation on it.

Jason wrote (and you can find other comments beneath the original post here):

I personally like the book, and like McCarthy. I’ll agree with you that it is an incredibly bleak world, but there are themes in this book (not sure about the film) that Catholics can relate to: the love of the father and son that rises above the nihilism of this godforsaken world; the sacrifice analogies withing the Father/Son relationship; the discussion of morality (the son wanting to help other survivors while the father wants just to survive); and keeping the spark of hope alive.

Yes, it seems absent of God, but I do believe you can see the book/film as a bleak answer to the question “What does the world look like when God is absent? And what takes His place?” the answer is nihilism. It is a cautionary tale in that sense.

Let’s take the merits Jason imputes to the film, one at a time:

The love of the father and son that rises above the nihilism of this godforsaken worldI have written elsewhere that, because I have two daughters, I am a sucker for father-daughter stories. Since my father died a year ago, I am also, frankly, a sucker for father-son stories—which I guess just makes me a sucker. In fact (didn’t mention this the first time around) I went to see “The Road” because I expected to be moved by its father-son story. I was not. Maybe Mortensen is unable to move audiences; maybe the boy actor was chosen only because he looks so uncannily like Charlize Theron (shown as his mom in flashbacks). Maybe the screen connection just doesn’t crackle. But I think it’s more than that. There is no value for which father and son are striving together, except the ocean, and the film shows that to be without redeeming value. Further, there is no hope of the fire or whatever they say they are carrying being transmitted to the next generation. (If you think the boy is going to marry that little girl at the end and become another Adam to her Eve, you’re not counting for the cannibals.)

The sacrifice analogies within the father/son relationship—Sorry, Jason, but this alone is just not enough to warrant my two hours or $9.50. I’ll just pull down the Bible from my shelf (free!), and reread Abraham and Isaac.

The discussion of morality—The son wanting to help while the father only wants to survive is, admittedly, an interesting character difference. But in the world, the cosmos, given us by the film, the only value is survival. There is no hope, there is no redemption. I wonder whether there can even be morality in such a world.

Keeping the spark of hope alive—Hope, as Father Luigi Giussani (probably others) teaches, is only real or at least durable when founded in faith, a faith that is founded in experience, in fact. Given nothing in which to have faith, there can be no objective hope. A glimmer that one might survive tomorrow, maybe, but ultimately nothingness, death, obliteration. I think Jason’s most challenging point is his last one:

You can see the book/film as a bleak answer to the question “What does the world look like when God is absent? And what takes His place?” The answer is nihilism. It is a cautionary tale in that sense.

First, I think it would be a better “cautionary tale” if God—some belief system that arcs above the human level—were even posited by the film. The film decidedly does not say what the world would be like without God, because the film never mentions God (except as an imprecation muttered by Robert Duvall).

Second, and to me more important, and this goes back to my statement that my criteria for judging art have changed radically since I became a Catholic—For art to be worth the effort of creation and worthy of the name art, I think it has to draw us to a new state of ourselves. That’s why so much in the media these days is not art, but entertainment: It only reinforces our own passivity, our suggestibility, our appetites. Premodern art—from Homer and Greek tragedy to Dickens and Hugo—described dire conditions and states of being but it always (right?) gave us something positive to contrast them with. It gave us something better than our lives, as normally lived. Dante showed us hell, but he also showed us heaven.

“The Road” only drags us down—Where? To despair. I, for one, will do my best to avoid such “art” in the future.

While I was mulling this post, Frank sent me a thought from his mentor, Blaise Pascal. Did Blaise see a sneak preview of “The Road”?

693. When I see the blindness and the wretchedness of man, when I regard the whole silent universe and man without light, left to himself and, as it were, lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death, and incapable of all knowledge, I become terrified, like a man who should be carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island and should awake without knowing where he is and without means of escape. And thereupon I wonder how people in a condition so wretched do not fall into despair. I see other persons around me of a like nature. I ask them if they are better informed than I am. They tell me that they are not. And thereupon these wretched and lost beings, having looked around them and seen some pleasing objects, have given and attached themselves to them. For my own part, I have not been able to attach myself to them, and, considering how strongly it appears that there is something else than what I see, I have examined whether this God has not left some sign of Himself.

Because This “Road” Leads Nowhere

Posted by Webster

I’ll wager that only an atheist or a child will shed a tear over “The Road,” the new film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel. Like the book, the movie describes a post-apocalyptic world so godforsaken that not only is there no Second Coming, there was never even a First. In “The Road,” God isn’t dead; He was never born.

The story is grim and uniformly gray. A father (Viggo Mortensen) and preteen son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wander through a desolate landscape that has been stripped of life by an unknown global catastrophe. Nuclear war? An environmental disaster? A meteor shower? Neither McCarthy nor screenwriter Joe Penhall offers conclusive clues. What’s clear is that the world is ending, first in calamity, then in cannibalism. Because animal and plant life have been wiped out, the only fresh food is human flesh. Most of the shocks in “The Road” are delivered with all the subtlety of a slasher film whenever a would-be cannibal gang appears.

Steering clear of these gangs when they can, father and son walk south, away from the cold and toward the sea, seemingly a symbol of hope. But when they get to the coast, the water is not blue, as the father promised, but another shade of gray. “What’s on the other side?” the son asks. “Nothing,” the father says, “or maybe it’s another father and son.” When I typed that line, I thought for a second, maybe Father and Son were meant to be capitalized. But then I thought, naaah; what the line is describing is a solipsistic world in which humans look back at humans, with no higher power anywhere in sight.

Father’s moral code is to save his son. The son speaks repeatedly of the “good guys” and says the two of them are “carrying the fire.” But the only values in this world, and they aren’t enduring or dependable, are creature comforts and human companionship—as long as your companions are “good guys.”

The remarkable thing, the sad thing about McCarthy’s novel and director John Hillcoat’s film version is that God isn’t even part of the discussion. There’s a mumbled reference or two to God by Robert Duvall, wonderfully cast as a grizzled loner whom father and son run into, then leave, but the references are more imprecation than imploring. When Mortensen and son find a huge cache of food in an underground shelter, they fold their hands and say a little “prayer,” thanking not God but—“friends”? And when our antiheroes take refuge in the bombed-out shell of a church building, where the frcscoes look more Roman than Christian, a brief shot of sunlight coming through a cross-shaped window looks more like an effect than a symbol. If symbol, it’s in stark contrast to every other detail in the film. The storytellers might at least have placed faith in the discussion by making one of the wandering characters a priest or someone who had lost their faith. But there’s nothing here to suggest that human beings once believed.

Why did I bother going to see “The Road”? Because I had read several of McCarthy’s novels, including this one, before my conversion to Catholicism, and I had been duped by the hype about this novelist of violence in a godless world. That hype culminated with Oprah recommending “The Road.” Now I can only wonder, What was she thinking?! The cynic in me says Oprah chose this book not because she thought it was any good but because in choosing it, she went so dramatically counter to her viewers’ expectations that she created tremendous publicity for . . . Oprah.

My thoughts about movies and other art forms have changed radically since I became a Catholic. Ten years ago, I might have seen “The Road” and left talking about the artistic filmmaking, the acting, the script, the Oscar potential. Now, I only see emptiness. There is nothing to be gained from seeing this film; Catholics may not be moved by it at all, they may be annoyed, they may yawn. A world without even a hint of belief in God is a false world—like looking at a modern painting in which the sky is not blue but fuchsia, a baseball game played without bat, ball, or even players.

Conceivably, an atheist might cry at the ending of the movie, which offers scant consolation, but consolation all the same—if you don’t believe in God, that is. Children will cry because the film is scary in a primal way. With the boy of the film, children will whimper, “I’m scared, Daddy.”

Catholics, meanwhile, should take a detour and avoid this “Road.”

To Be Frank, Part 2, “A Change of Course Thanks to Blaise Pascal”

Posted by Frank
I left off last time with the prospect of broadening my mind with the great works of Western thought in the Harvard Classic Five-Foot Shelf of Books (HCFFSB). I was ready to wade into the deep valleys and high pinnacles of the works that molded Western civilization as we know it today. But where to start?
I looked over the choices by scanning the titles embossed in gold lettering on the spines of the volumes. I wasn’t in the mood for poetry so Volume 4, Complete Poems in English, Milton, was out. So was Volume 6, Poems and Songs, Burns (but I would be back for that one). The Aeneid? I had read that already when I was a young warrior. Ditto for Emerson. I was all about Self-Reliance anyway—yawn. Two Years Before the Mast? Sorry—I’ve been at sea for a year with the Royal Navy, fella, via Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and it’s time to hit port! [Read more...]

So That a Bunch of Nine-Year-Olds Can Be Reconciled With God

Posted by Webster
When I told my father that I was converting to Catholicism, he said, “My Methodist mother would roll over in her grave.” Five minutes later, he said, “There are some things in my life that I am deeply ashamed of, and I haven’t even told your mother about them.” My mother was sitting at the table with us as he spoke.

I’m not giving away any family secrets here. Everyone in the world has things they’re ashamed of. If my father was an exception, it was on the side of virtue. My father was a highly moral man, my spiritual role model if I ever had one—Dad didn’t just preach it, he lived it—and I have no idea what he could have done that would have caused him shame.

But I think I know why he said this right after I had told him that I was converting to Catholicism. He associated Catholicism with confession. And I understood. As a former Episcopalian who sat and watched in uncomprehending silence as my friend Herbie Moloney went inside “his” Catholic church for Saturday-afternoon confession, while I sat ogling girls from a park bench outside, I confess: Confession was the thing about Catholicism that I found most intimidating, unusual, foreign, weird.

Wednesday afternoon, as a teacher of religious ed, I have to stand in front of sixteen fourth-graders and help them prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which will be offered to them by Father Barnes the following Wednesday. This frankly intimidates me, about as much as if someone had told me I had to go to confession with Herbie Moloney.

Who am I to teach these children about confession? What do I know? These are two questions with distinct answers. It helps me to answer each clearly.

Who am I? Just a guy, what Bill Parcells called a JAG, apparently borrowing the nuttiness about acronyms that Frank picked up in the Marines. I am a guy (other than a seminarian, the only guy and fill-in father among twelve religious ed teachers on Wednesday afternoons). What’s more, I’m a guy who loves being Catholic. Somehow I am consoled by the conviction that my ordinariness and my love for the Church—bolstered mightily by the Holy Spirit—may just be enough to make the hour useful and enjoyable for those sixteen squirmers. I suspect that some of them don’t have perfect fathers. Some may not have any fathers at all. Few, I imagine, have anything like a spiritual mentor. While I can’t fill any of those roles adequately for them, I can at least let them see that such people exist. Isn’t that a source of hope?

What do I know? I know my own experience. Confession was every bit as scary for me the first time I went in that room and had to choose (behind the screen? face to face?) before even saying a word. And then there he was, Father Barnes, the priest I had come to respect so quickly and whose respect I surely wanted to win or retain. And suddenly our roles were going to shift and I was going to tell him all the worst things I had ever done in my life, it being my first, “general” confession.

That was terrifying. Yet almost the very moment it began and I got some wind in my sails (was that the Holy Spirit I felt powering me along?), it was an unimaginable relief. Somehow, I think I have to share both my fear and my great relief with the kids this afternoon.

Peter Kreeft, in his Cliff Notes for Religious Ed Teachers (a/k/a Catholic Christianity), offers me excellent bullet points for discussion: I figure the kids need to get a few definitions down: sin, contrition, reconciliation, penance, absolution. But I think there’s something much more fundamental at stake, and I have no idea whether I can or even should get this across to nine-year-olds. The issues at stake are:

1. We don’t believe in sin anymore, only mistakes.

2. We don’t think we need a priest to get over our mistakes.

So we don’t go to confession, and our souls are imperiled. Kreeft makes a statement and I’m going to copy it and put it on my bulletin board and somehow try to get it across today in nine-year-old terms:

“There is simply nothing that more quickly and effectively strengthens the average Catholic’s moral and spiritual life than frequent and regular confession.”

OK, I get it. I’m ready. Now I just have to get it through their thick little heads.

Because of the Church’s Position on War III

Posted by Webster
I’ve outlined the teaching of the Catechism on “just war”; I’ve presented the pacifist case, represented by Dorothy Day and effectively endorsed by CCC 2304–2306. I’d like to return to a homily by St. John Chrysostom that I quoted on Thanksgiving Day, while throwing a bouquet to a man who combined aggression and pacifism in a historic way, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (pictured here).

The homily, on Matthew, makes an odd proposal: Be a sheep, not a wolf, it says; and at the same time, be both a snake and a dove.

Sheep over wolf? I get that. Blessed are the poor, the meek, the mournful, the peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. According to St. John, the shepherd (Jesus) tells us,

Do not be upset that, as I send you out among the wolves, I bid you be as sheep and doves. I could have managed things quite differently and sent you, not to suffer evil nor to yield like sheep to the wolves, but to be fiercer than lions. But the way I have chosen is right. It will bring you greater praise and at the same time manifest my power.

If Jesus had wanted us to be wolves, He would have told us so. Wolves show off their own power (as our government and most other governments often do); but He wants us to “manifest” His power. Yep, he’s asking us to be martyrs, and martyrdom is not in the contemporary code of conduct of our culture. But it is what He asks for.

Then He asks for something else. He wants us to “contribute something,” according to the early Church Father, “lest everything seem to be the work of grace . . . ” 

Therefore he adds: You must be clever as snakes and innocent as doves. . . . What cleverness is the Lord requiring here? The cleverness of a snake. A snake will surrender everything and will put up no great resistance even if its body is being cut in pieces, provided it can save its head. So you, the Lord is saying, must surrender everything but your faith: money, body, even life itself.

In other words, He is asking us not merely to lie down in front of the sword and lay everything to grace. We have to make an effort. It is an effort of surrender (an oxymoron? no), also an effort of holding on to our faith when everything else is gone. And we have to do all this while remaining innocent as doves. St. John puts a spin on snakes, as passive: They “will surrender everything and will put up no great resistance . . . ” I’m not qualified to contradict a saint, but I wonder if there isn’t something more here, as well.

A snake was the Original bad animal, the serpent in the garden. A snake can be deadly. But a snake is also clever, cagey, sly. A snake waits and calculates the moment for striking. It may “surrender everything” but it is also capable of delivering a lethal blow suddenly and with chilling efficiency. The Navy motto “Don’t Tread on Me,” featuring a coiled snake, originated in the American Revolution as a symbol of the Colonies’ willingness to resist aggression. The coiled snake takes a defensive posture, but will go on the offensive if provoked, and woe to the aggressor.

In this rich symbol, as in the model of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, I think I see another example of the Church taking a position not of either/or but of both/and. Under St. Bernard the Cistercians (later “Trappists”), a reformed order of Benedictines and ideally as peaceful as they come, emerged as a growing, vibrant force in the High Middle Ages. Yet, Bernard also preached the Second Crusade, inciting Christian knights to take back the Holy Lands. (For my knowledge of St. Bernard I am indebted to Frank, as well as Wikipedia. My knowledge runs deep!)

While I was on retreat a few weeks back, Father Matthew, our retreat director, cited St. Bernard as a conundrum: How could he have been a monk, a general, and a saint—all in one? I guess I prefigured an answer to that question with the title of my post about the retreat: Because Monks Are Just Soldiers in Awkward Clothes. Remember this about St. Bernard next time you think about just war and pacifism: He was a monk, he was a general (though he stayed home in his bunker), and he was a saint. Is there a lesson in that?

Because of Half-Baked Thoughts Like These

I like to learn new words. It is a strange thing for a guy to admit maybe, but it’s true. My Mom turned me on to Anu Garg’s A.Word.A.Day web service when we moved back to my hometown in the summer of 2005.

Mom knows I love to read, and she loves to play the board game SCRABBLE. Heck, all of her kids love to play that game! We used to have tournaments in an attempt to beat her at this wonderfully simple, yet stimulating word game. And don’t let her Southern demeanor fool you: she is one tough competitor and doesn’t like to get beaten. [Read more...]

Because This May Be My Last Mass

Gulp . . . My eyes water, and I get a lump in my throat just looking at this photograph.

That is Our Lord on Iwo Jima, and a priest providing comfort and solace to the sheep of His flock. Young Marines in a crazy, mixed-up, madhouse of a world with death staring them right in the face. Death from a thousand angles, at any second, in diverse manners and forms, all of which are horrible.

How do they do it? I mean function in that environment? The same thing is going on in Kandahar today. How do they do it? I can’t put “it” into words that you would understand—not yet anyway.

One of my favorite Marines in the Marine Corps Roll of Honor is Sergeant Major Daniel Daly, winner of two Medals of Honor. He is famous for saying (as a Gunnery Sergeant) the following immortal phrase—”C’mon you sons-of-bitches! you wanna live forever?”—at the WW I Battle of Belleau Wood.

Looking at this photograph, whether you agree or disagree with the “reasons” for either World War (see our recent post), the Chaplain Corps provides much comfort to us troops. I wasn’t a Catholic when I was serving in the line as a Marine. (Wow, I would seriously recommend it now!) But many of us took advantage of the comfort the Padres provided.

Semper Fidelis


Note to Ferde: I messed up the Liturgy of the Hours this morning. You know how I was trying to explain to you the order of readings on Saturday morning? Fuggedaboutit! This navigator’s lost! Take the wheel, take the wheel! After posting on today’s second reading, I realized at Mass that it is not today’s second reading.

Father Barnes, in his homily, said that in a way he is sorry when, already on the first Monday of Advent, the Advent readings are interrupted by a feast day. Readings interrupted? Feast day? Something in me woke up, a part of me that apparently had remained in bed when my body went vertical at 3:30 a.m. I had to drive my daughter to the airport at 5 a.m., but not before making a cup of tea and reading the Office, and then posting a brilliant meditation on a pastoral letter of St. Charles Borromeo.

Father Barnes noted how much he loves the Advent readings, and then made a nice segue into St. Andrew—whose heart was open to the appearance of Christ by the Sea of Galilee, just as Simeon’s heart was open to the arrival of the baby Jesus in the temple, just as our hearts can be open too at Advent.

I hustled back to the Liturgy after Mass to find I had overlooked not one but two readings for the feast of St. Andrew, Apostle. I’m sure Ferde has found them already.

I can save that post on St. Charles for next year, when the feast of St. Andrew will not fall on the first Monday in Advent. Meanwhile, I think I have discovered a great new publishing opportunity: The Liturgy of the Hours for Dummies.

Because Advent Has Never Been Better

I remember the feeling last year: my first Advent as a Catholic! What a thrill that was, to experience the anticipation, joy, and depth of meaning fully for the first time in my life. This year? With apologies to B.B. King, the thrill is definitely not gone. I picked up today’s Office of Readings and found a reading that just couldn’t possibly have been there last year! How could I have missed this?

From a pastoral letter by Saint Charles Borromeo, bishop

Beloved, now is the acceptable time spoken of by the Spirit, the day of salvation, peace and reconciliation: the great season of Advent. This is the time eagerly awatired by the patriarchs and prophets, the time that holy Simeon rejoiced at last to see. 

The story of Simeon has always touched something deep in me. I think I knew it even as a child and it gave me a shiver then. He’s happy to die! Now that he has seen the Lord, he’s happy to die. 

This is the season that the Church has always celebrated with special solemnity. We too should always observe it with faith and love, offering praise and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and love he has shown us in this mystery. 

How I celebrate Advent is really important. In recent years, I had become something of a Scrooge. The period between Thanksgiving (all that food) and Christmas (all that shopping) had become more stressful than I could bear. Last year, its meaning was completely transformed: I am a Catholic now. It’s time to be vigilant! Emmanuel is coming!

In his infinite love for us, though we were sinners, he sent his only Son to free us from the tyranny of Satan, to summon us to heaven, to welcome us into its innermost recesses, to show us truth itself, to train us in right conduct, to plant within us the sees of virtue, to enrich us with the treasures of his grace, and to make us children of God and heirs of eternal life.

Get a load of that one long sentence. Imagine that every promise in that sentence is precisely, literally true! To be welcomed into the innermost recesses of heaven? To be trained in right conduct? To be a child of God? I want in! 

Each year, as the Church recalls this mystery, she urges us to renew the memory of the great love God has shown us. This holy season teaches us that Christ’s coming was not only for the benefit of his contemporaries; his power has still to be communicated to us all. We shall share his power, if through holy faith and the sacraments, we willingly accept the grace Christ earned for us, and live by that grace and in obedience to Christ.

Christ is born today! Isn’t that what the carol says? Have you ever considered that these words are not a fragment of dialogue from 2,000 years ago but a statement of fact? 

The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace. 

This is the best explanation of the Second Coming I have ever heard. I mean, I’m willing to believe that Christ will come again as in a sort of Cecil B. DeMille epic in the full splendor of IMAX some day. But I’ve never marked the date on a calendar, and I’m not moving to Waco or some remote mountaintop to wait for Him. Too busy today, sorry. But to remove all obstacles to his presence so that he may dwell spiritually in our hearts? I’ll do my best.

In her concern for our salvation, our loving mother the Church uses this holy season to teach us through hymns, canticles and other forms of expression, of voice or ritual, used by the Holy Spirit. She shows us how grateful we should be for so great a blessing, and how to gain its benefit: our hearts should be as much prepared for the coming of Christ as if he were still to come into this world. The same lesson is given us for our imitation by the words and example of the holy men of the Old Testament. 

We are all Simeon! And the words of the prophet Isaiah, also from today’s Office, were written expressly for us:

     In days to come,
The mountain of the Lord’s house
     shall be established as the highest mountain
     and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
     many peoples shall come and say:

“Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, 
     to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways, 
     and we may walk in his paths.”
For from Zion shall go forth instruction,
     and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,
     and impose terms on many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
     and their spears into pruning hooks;
One nation shall not raise the sword against another, 
     nor shall they train for war again.

That last statement—no more sword-raising, no more war colleges—suggests that the time might not quite be at hand, that I’d best not mark my calendar “Second Coming Today.” Better far to “remove all obstacles to His presence.”

YIMC Book Clubbers Update!

The honored roll of charter members of the YIM Catholic Book Club has been expanded to eight names by imperial fiat. There’s still time to put your name on the list. No entry fee, no obeisance is required. Just send a comment on either of the first two posts: this one or this one.
(Signed) His Excellency 

The YIMCBC Roll of Honor
Kneeling Catholic
Frank the Jarhead
& Your Ob’d’t S’v’t