Here’s two quotes I re-encountered while going through my reading notes.
From Lab Girl by Hope Jahren:
My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. The machines drone a gathering hymn as I enter. I know whom I’ll probably see, and I know how they’ll probably act. I know there’ll be silence; I know there’ll be music, a time to greet my friends, and a time to leave others to their contemplation. There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don’t. Elevated to my best self, I strive to do each task correctly. My lab is a place to go on sacred days, as is a church. On holidays, when the rest of the world is closed, my lab is open. My lab is a refuge and an asylum. It is my retreat from the professional battlefield; it is the place where I coolly examine my wounds and repair my armor. And, just like church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.
From Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane:
My sense is that the search for dark matter has produced an elaborate, delicate edifice of presuppositions, and a network of worship sites, also known as laboratories, all dedicated to the search for an invisible universal entity which refuses to reveal itself. It seems to resemble what we call religion rather more than what we call science.
It’s good to know that even in quarantine, my old friend synchronicity can still visit me.
I watched the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox after reading the review from Vox‘s Alissa Wilkinson and am so glad I did. Based on the true story of a young ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman fleeing her community in Williamsburg, it’s just four episodes but packs a powerful punch.
(Spoilers ahead. Just go watch Unorthodox.)
Esty, the young woman, is 19 and married to Yanky, an equally young ultra-orthodox Jew who’s serious and withdrawn. When they don’t immediately conceive a child—as is the expectation in their religious and cultural milieu—their marriage strains to the point where Esty begins secretly orchestrating an escape.
One of the leitmotifs in the series is Esty’s relationship with music. Since in her community it’s considered immodest for women to perform in public, she hasn’t been able to live out her passion for music except through the memory of listening to her grandmother’s favorite choral music, and then only through taking piano lessons in secret with a neighbor.
When she does get the chance to perform later in the series, at an audition for a music academy, she first sings a Schubert piece that was a favorite of her grandmother. When asked to sing another, she digs for something even more personal. In The Thrillist, Esther Zuckerman describes this powerful moment:
In a strong chest voice, she starts to sing in Hebrew. The tune, which is never identified by name, is “Mi Bon Siach,” heard at weddings when the bride and groom are under the chuppah. It’s a melody that played when Esty and Yanky were getting married in the second episode, and Esty’s choice of it resonates with both rebellion and irony. It’s a song that should signify her bond to a man, but she’s turning it into something that can extricate her from that bond, using a voice that she wouldn’t have been able to use in her former world where women’s singing is prohibited.
And this is where synchronicity arrives. The day before starting Unorthodox I read the article “Contrapuntal Order: Music Illuminates Social Harmony” by John Ahern in First Things. A doctoral candidate in musicology at Princeton, Ahern writes about how the musical concepts of counterpoint and harmony relate to marriage and relationships. Counterpoint, he writes,
is the accumulation of multiple melodies. It is like Louis Armstrong playing an improvised tune on his trumpet at the same time as Ella Fitzgerald sings “La Vie en Rose”—two different melodies simultaneously. Neither is subordinate to the other, or, if there is subordination (perhaps we listen a little more to Ella’s voice than the trumpet), they are both melodies, a status that the piano, plunking out chords in the background, does not share. In true counterpoint, all the sound created is produced by people singing or playing melodies. If we lived several hundred years ago, we would say that “harmony” is what joins and holds together those melodies, their counterpoint, in a pleasing fashion.
I’ve always loved counterpoints in music. They’re a great way to juice up a final chorus, like in the climax of “Non-Stop” from Hamilton. And they are the perfect metaphor for the relationship between Esty and Yanky, and between the competing “melodies” within Esty during her time of personal and spiritual upheaval.
As Ahern writes, “when two melodies coexist, the glory is their coexistence. But there is no harmony among things that are too dissimilar. The melodies must have an awareness of and reliance on each other in order to live in concord.” However, “if the two melodies resemble each other too closely, they lose their identity. The glory of harmony, of concord, is that the elements are different.”
Having grown up in the same cloistered culture with a shared worldview, Esty and Yanky were arguably too similar to inhabit true harmony. Especially since as a woman in a severely conservative milieu, Esty had no true autonomy and no identity outside of being a baby-maker (which she says explicit in the show).
Unorthodox is the story of how that changes. Esty’s journey from passivity to power—paralleled by Yanky’s own existential awakening—mirrors the counterpoint view of marriage, which creates harmony in its original sense by allowing and even demanding coexistent voices. This contrasts with the more conservative “complementarian” model of marriage, with one spouse (usually the wife) filling in around whatever space the other (husband) inhabits. In the older sense of harmony, writes Ahern:
one person singing is no threat at all to another person singing. Sounds are not quantities or physical objects; for one to exist in the same space as one another is not only possible but desirable. The challenge is to get them to sound good together. This requires some chronological hierarchy—one party needs to lead and the other follow—but this, as we discovered above, does not mean that one party will sacrifice more autonomy than another. Both must sacrifice independence for the sake of symmetry.
Perhaps you can see now why this article spoke (or sang) to me while watching Unorthodox. Competing melodies in music and marriage can work only if they are composed with intention and care within a shared song. How Esty’s melodies do or do not harmonize within herself and with Yanky are what make Unorthodox so compelling, and I encourage you to seek it out.
(I also recommend reading Ahern’s article in full for a much richer explication of the counterpoint theory.)
We stayed at a beach community in Michigan for the Fourth of July extended weekend and went to the chapel service they had on Sunday. One of the pastors began with a quote from Erma Bombeck:
You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.
I get nervous in churches around the Fourth of July. Celebrating a secular holiday within a religious environment can lead to grotesque displays of nationalistic idolatry, or it can produce something more appropriate for a church that celebrates its country while respecting the benefits of separating church and state. Luckily this was the latter. We sang hymns, heard a good message, and that was that.
What was more powerful to me happened the next evening, when the whole community gathered on the beach to watch a fireworks display, as they do every year. We brought beach chairs and set up facing southward along the beach, where the fireworks would be. Slowly more people congregated and added to the festival-like atmosphere. Families took pictures against the amber sunset, teens tossed a frisbee, kids twirled sparklers, and I read The Iliad until it got too dark to read.
Then we all sat and waited for the twilight to fade to black enough to allow the fireworks to be that much vibranter. When they began, I remembered once again what it was like to share something with a group of people that wasn’t on a screen. I didn’t notice many if any devices out. The rows of heads I saw when I looked behind me were only tilted upward, not downward as they would be with a smartphone in hand.
Many of these families had been partaking in this tradition for decades. I only recently married into it, yet it still impressed upon me the power of ritual, and how, when combined with the spirit of a place, it can foster an acute state of grace. I was grateful for Lake Michigan. I was grateful for the opportunity to look at the stars and contemplate my place in the universe and my nation while watching the fireworks burst before me. I was grateful to lie back with my fellow Americans and enjoy a celebration that didn’t involve guns, tanks, and soldiers.
The scene, like the fireworks themselves, dissipated as quickly as it materialized. We folded chairs, shook off sand, filed off the beach en masse, and trundled to our beds to begin another American year.
First, a disclaimer: I am (briefly) in The Benedict Option. When Dreher put out a call on his blog for examples of Christian-run businesses, I emailed him about Reba Place Fellowship, the intentional Christian community that over the years has spun off church ministries into actual businesses, like a bicycle repair shop and an Amish furniture store. Months later, in a reply to my comment on one of his unrelated blog posts, he told me I was in the book, much to my surprise. And sure enough, on page 189 there was my name and a short paragraph adapted from my email about Reba.
I felt compelled to alert Dreher about RPF not only because I think they are a living, functional example of the Benedict Option in action, but also because I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s blog for a while, really enjoyed his books Crunchy Cons and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and hoped his new one would contribute to the conversation about religious engagement in civic life.
The Benedict Option really does feel like the secular successor to Technopoly. The two books share a pessimism about the Way Things Are Now and a dire outlook of what’s to come. Dreher’s thesis is that Christians have lost the culture wars and need to reconsider their embedded relationship with the wider (Western) culture, in order to strengthen what’s left of the Church before a new anti-religion dark age descends. This seems like a natural response to the trajectory of Postman’s theory of the Technopoly, which he defines as “totalitarian technocracy” and “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.”
Written 25 years ago, several passages in Technopoly would be right at home in The Benedict Option, like the one about the erosion of cultural symbols:
In Technopoly, the trivialization of significant cultural symbols is largely conducted by commercial enterprise. This occurs not because corporate America is greedy but because the adoration of technology preempts the adoration of anything else. … Tradition is, in fact, nothing but the acknowledgment of the authority of symbols and the relevance of the narratives that gave birth to them. With the erosion of symbols there follows a loss of narrative, which is one of the most debilitating consequences of Technopoly’s power.
And Technopoly’s hollow solipsism:
The Technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advantage. It promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside all traditional narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells, instead, of a life of skills, technical expertise, and the ecstasy of consumption. Its purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing Technopoly.
Technopoly offers so much more to unpack, much of it specifically related to technology and education, but another nugget I thought aligned very well with Dreher’s Benedict Option is Postman’s call for “those who wish to defend themselves against the worst effects of the American Technopoly” to become “loving resistance fighters.” He defines a technological resistance fighter as someone who “maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.”
Religious resistance fighters don’t “run for the hills” as critics of the Benedict Option would have it say. (Though Dreher does end the book with Benedictine monks in Italy literally running for the hills after an earthquake destroys their monastery—a reasonable action, but ironic given his frustration for the “run for the hills” criticism.) In fact, the work of resistance requires direct engagement within the larger cultural life. But it also requires deliberate and distinctive separation—if not physically, then spiritually, ethically, and intellectually.
Dreher bemoans the submission of churchgoers to the pressures of secular culture (i.e. the Technopoly), whether it’s the now widespread acceptance of gay marriage, the rootless and self-interested browsing of different churches, or the unfettered access to technology parents allow their children. The principles in the Rule of St. Benedict, originally established for sixth-century monks cloistered away from the chaotic post-Rome Europe, offer a way for modern Christians to shore up their spiritual discipline while reconnecting with ancient traditions.
Most of his proposals (neatly summarized here) should not be terribly controversial among committed believers, though some, like pulling your kids out of public school, seem unduly influenced by his alarmism and are much easier said than done.
But that seems to be his point: Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. Monks don’t join a monastery to sit around and avoid the world; they work hard! They take the claims and commandments of their Savior and Scripture seriously and endeavor to follow them.
Postman has been proven right. He didn’t live to see today’s wholesale surrender to smartphones and Silicon Valley’s tech-utopianism, but he’d have a serious case of the “I told you so”s if he did. Whether Dreher’s predictions for the demise of Christianity also come to pass remains to be seen, but you don’t have to be a doomsday prepping zealot to realize that it is good to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.
I recently watched Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents, a new film set in post-WWII Poland focused on Mathilde, a young French Red Cross nurse compelled to help a convent of Polish nuns with a dark secret. I watched it while in the midst of Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Wonder, which is also told from the perspective of a nurse, Lib Wright, a Florence Nightingale apprentice in nineteenth-century rural Ireland who is sent to observe and care for a girl purported to have survived without food for months, only on “manna from heaven.”
Both Mathilde and Lib are reluctant recruits to their missions. Mathilde is beseeched by a desperate nun; Lib is in it for the paycheck and the desire to debunk the farce of the “miracle girl” with ruthless scientific empiricism. They allow their biases and prejudices—Mathilde’s annoyance with the sisters’ rigid piety and Lib’s anti-Irish condescension—to color their encounters with their patients, which creates tension initially but also allows for surprising connections.
I encourage you to seek both of these works out not only because they are worth the experience, but because both are stories about women, made by women. They each do have interesting male supporting characters (the journalist Bryne in The Wonder and the Jewish doctor Samuel in The Innocents have what could be considered a conflict of interest in helping Mathilde and Lib, respectively, which is what makes their involvement so compelling), but they are above all focused on the lives of women, without calling attention to this focus. They are simply great stories deftly told.
I have a new piece at ThinkChristian on how a book and an album were telling me the same thing at basically the same time:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” You’ve probably seen this quote, the final couplet in Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day, on pictures of sunsets or accompanying “Adventure” boards on Pinterest. I encountered it elsewhere. First, it’s the inspiration for Gungor’s One Wild Life, a trilogy of albums entitled Soul (2015), Spirit (2016) and Body (forthcoming). I had Soul on heavy rotation when on a whim I picked up David Dark’s new book, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, simply because of the provocative title. Together, these distinct works of art share more than just the Oliver quote, which Dark also directly references. They preach a similar message in a way that’s accessible to a wide audience of readers and listeners who crave a richer understanding of religion.
In Station Eleven, survivors of a global pandemic and subsequent post-apocalyptic chaos decamp to an abandoned airport in Michigan and eventually establish a Museum of Civilization, comprised of assorted artifacts from life before “year zero,” when the pandemic paralyzed the world and rendered much of the stuff that had comprised their lives useless. The Museum was a place of remembering — the old ways, the things they had once cared about — but also for preparation. Though the world of Station Eleven is dark and uncertain, if civilization were ever to rise again from catastrophe, the wares and wisdom held in the Museum, however haphazard and incomplete, would form the basis of renewal.
This wonderful and trenchant book popped into my mind as I read a different but just as wonderful and trenchant book: Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher. I’ve followed Rod’s blog for years, and read (and recommend) his memoir The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Though Crunchy Cons was published in 2006, standing as the Republican Party now is before a dark abyss, ready to jump as soon as Donald J. Trump is named their nominee for president, Republicans need the Crunchy Con Manifesto more than ever.
As a self-proclaimed social conservative, Dreher focuses his criticism and encouragement on his fellow conservatives and those under the Republican Party umbrella. But I couldn’t believe, as a moderate independent who tends to lean left but supports some small-c conservative principles, how much I was nodding along while reading this book. Anyone who doesn’t fit into tidy political molds or abide all the shibboleths of establishment Democrats or Republicans will feel at home with one of the topics Dreher spotlights, which include consumerism, food, home, education, the environment, and religion.
The original subtitle lays out the thesis well: “How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).” Bombast aside, the juxtaposition of otherwise contrary stereotypes establishes the general sense of counterculture that pervades the book. Whether Dreher is talking to conservative homeschoolers or liberal organic farmers, their common refrain is a disillusionment or dissatisfaction with the status quo, with the cult of the bottom line and efficiency, or with how “everybody else” does things. It’s why Dreher can find more common ground with liberals on anti-consumerism than the free-trade fanatics in his own party, and why he feels more comfortable spending a little more for quality food at Whole Foods than get unethically produced cut-rate meat at the nearest SuperMegaMart.
Take the chapter on Home, or more specifically houses and how their style and place can affect their owners’ lives. The McMansions and cookie-cutter homes littering suburbia may be efficiently built and ostensibly indicative of financial success, but as bland, soulless carbon copies they fall short on fostering hominess and familial integrity. (One guy in the book likens getting one to dating the prom queen with a drinking problem: it’ll start out nice but quickly sour when someone prettier comes along.)
As an insecure teen I sometimes felt ashamed by my family’s simple, one-story house that wasn’t as big as some of my friends’ houses, that didn’t have its own rec room or backyard golf course or enormous kitchen. But in retrospect I’m glad for it, and glad my parents still live there, in a cozy house with character that they didn’t hastily buy with a bad mortgage and have to dump when the economy crashed. Despite my siblings and I having our own rooms, the more intimate size of the house allowed (or forced as it sometimes felt) us and my parents into closer proximity. It was harder to flee to our rooms and avoid each other. Obviously the size of one’s house doesn’t directly correlate with the quality of the family within it, but it does help create a culture — for good or for bad.
Similarly, the choices we make about education can have profound effects on the quality of the upbringing of one’s kids. The Drehers are passionate about (and financially capable of) homeschooling their children for several reasons, the biggest one seeming to be that they’d rather take responsibility for their kids’ rearing than abdicating it to others:
If you don’t educate your children for metaphysical truth and moral virtue, mainstream culture will do it for you. Absent shared commitment to these spiritual and moral verities, it is hard to see how we renew our families, our communities, and our country with an ethic of duty, self-restraint, stewardship, and putting the needs of people, not the state or corporations, first.
Though I’m a proud public school kid, and made it through without the scars others have (and may still harbor), the idea of forming my own children, rather than letting the state and wider culture do it, makes more and more sense as the state of public education gets bleaker and less hospitable to anyone who deviates from state-sponsored directives.
The same theory applies to religion. Though I didn’t go to a private religious school, those I know who did seemed to have an equal or even less chance of remaining in the faith as those who got their religious education solely from church. What matters most, I think, is the example that’s set by parents and the larger community, more than what is said or dictated. A kid whose parents set a positive example of marriage and life, who let their deeds speak for them rather than adopting a “Because I said so” strategy, will probably be much more likely to buy in to whatever religion or ideology they’re steeped in.
Whatever it is, it has to mean something more than whatever the wider culture is providing. “A religion in which you can set your own terms amounts to self-worship,” writes Dreher. “It has no power to restrain, and little power to inspire or console in times of great suffering. No matter what religion you follow, unless you die to yourself — meaning submit to an authority greater than yourself — it will come to nothing.”
Above all, according to Dreher, the crunchy con values authenticity: “In a world filled with the cheap, the flashy, the plastic, and the immediate, we hunger deeply for things that endure. We are the kind of people who long for the Permanent Things,” a phrase borrowed from Russell Kirk, the putative godfather of the crunchy con movement. The book Dreher is working on now concerns the “Benedict Option,” a model of community and cultural engagement (or lack thereof) for Christians who find the secular world increasingly hostile to people of faith. I suspect it will dovetail directly from the crunchy con impulse for smaller, enduring, and prudent living, and hope it will provide more practical wisdom for how to live out the crunchy con creed.
My fool’s hope for the Republican Party is that whatever emerges from the rubble of the modern GOP will include Crunchy Cons as a foundational text. A party that supports families fully rather than sundering them, that protects rather than pillages the environment, that promotes prudence and virtue over consumption and the bottom line, that values humanity and the living over materialism and Mammon — that’s the kind of party I could join.
My name is Chad Comello and I am a failed novelist.
I’m in the midst of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which issues a lofty goal for aspiring literary types: write 50,000 words in the span of 30 days, no matter what. Budding scribes of every stripe participate in this movement throughout the month of November, all with the goal of a first draft by December 1. The point is not to make it good, only to make it in time. Quantity over quality. Completion over perfection.
So, in late October, I formulated bullet points for a plot, roughly sketched out some characters and determined a setting that I thought would provide me ample room to flesh out a story over 50,000 words. On November 1, my excitement at starting a new adventure into the fictional unknown quickly devolved into existential gnashing of teeth. After writing for what felt like a long time, I’d only gotten down about 500 words and most of it was filler. Was this what writing a novel was like? I quickly fell behind the prescribed 1,667-words-per-day pace and despaired about my chances for achieving literary glory.
Despite the planning, good intentions and hope I had in my abilities, I failed to live up to the NaNoWriMo creed. But through this experience, I’ve noticed that the movement has, over its 15-year span, become a religious practice of sorts that churchgoers of all kinds would recognize. Like the liturgy of orthodox believers, NaNoWriMo writers commit to daily practice of a writing ritual no matter how tired or rote it seems on any given day. Mirroring Bible studies and church small groups, the “write-ins” that libraries and writing groups sponsor provide a place to foster community, pledge accountability and inspire others along the journey. And above all there exists an ultimate goal, a reason for all the fuss. For NaNoWriMo, it’s 50,000 words of something: a novel, a collection of short stories or maybe the first installment of the next big YA dystopian series. Whatever it is, it won’t be ready for bookstore displays on December 1, but it will be a start.
But what of the faith journey? If Christianity were reduced to a month’s worth of daily quotas to hit, would it still be Christianity? Certainly such dogmatic legalism exists within the faith (within any faith at that), but to me that misses the point. There is indeed a righteous purpose for the sacraments and spiritual practices that infuse a devout life. But in fiction as in faith, I believe the story reigns. Whether through the history of Israel in the Old Testament, the poetry of the Psalms or the parables of Jesus, Christianity values stories and storytelling for their artistic value and for their utility. The Christian story, which was crafted over a much longer time span than a month, continues in this vein when each of us writes the lessons of Jesus into our own narratives in the form of works of service as well as acts of faith.
My name is Chad Comello and I am a failed Christian. That’s my story thus far and that’s OK. Tomorrow I’ll come back to the table and try again. Though I quickly and easily fail to keep up with the ideal—in writing or in religion—I’m doing something every day to get better. I’ve stopped worrying about how many words I rack up or how many random acts of kindness I perform and instead focus on cherishing the opportunity to write, to create and to do life better than yesterday. Disciples of Jesus, go and do likewise.
As a reference librarian at a suburban public library, I sit at the information desk, waiting to answer patrons’ many different questions. On Friday evenings, the foot traffic slows and a soothing silence descends on my area. Save the soft clattering of the keyboards in the computer lab, it is mercifully quiet. It’s in these moments I realize: I’m in a holy place.
As civil institutions funded mostly by taxes from the people they serve, public libraries are strictly secular. Patrons can use their space and resources for whatever cause, without regard for politics, religion, race or any other category. But, as we know, there’s no such thing as secular. Writing for Think Christian last year, Caryn Rivadeneira made a similar point about the beauty of art museums:
Perhaps it had something to do with the grandeur of the space. Certainly it had something to do with being surrounded by centuries’ worth of wondrous examples of image-bearing creativity. Definitively it had to do with being drawn into works that speak a mystical language, that communicate through brush-strokes or film or clay and yet speak from the artist’s heart to the viewer’s.
When I look around the library on quiet Friday nights, I see the place itself as holy. I see a cathedral of books, each one comprising a distinct identity and yet functioning as one small part of the larger body. I became much more aware of the library as a place after reading Robert Dawson’s The Public Library: An American Commons, a photographic essay documenting public library buildings all over America. The libraries in Dawson’s photographs range from a one-room wooden structure built by former slaves in California to the imposing, Romanesque Revival-style Carnegie Library in Pennsylvania to the sleek, futuristic Central Library in Seattle. Whether old or new, deserted or bustling, each of these buildings, like the books they contain, tells a unique story.
Considering the uncertain state of public libraries today, I can’t help but see their challenges running parallel with those of the American church. Both institutions, rooted in history but now confronted with modernity, are struggling to navigate the tenuous space between orthodoxy and innovation. They hear the same critical buzzwords thrown at them: outdated, unnecessary, old-fashioned, dull. They are debating internally how to attract young people and the unconverted, how to revitalize their diminishing influence amidst cultural and digital revolutions and how to make their missions feel essential in a world abounding with choices.
But above all, I see them both as sanctuaries—havens for world-weary patrons and all their baggage. I’m sure a pastor could sympathize with the variety of interpersonal issues public librarians navigate gracefully every day. I’ve had people approach me looking for books about divorce, STDs, Alcoholics Anonymous, and for ways to track down someone who wronged them. But I’ve also retrieved books on weddings, suggested new reads to eager patrons and even helped a woman find an image of, in her words, a “whimsical walrus.” Many people, some with mental disabilities, simply want to talk. This often requires an abundance of patience; when there are a dozen other things you could be doing, choosing to serve a patron in need suddenly becomes the most challenging one. But extending grace on the frontlines of humanity, whether in the pews or in the stacks, is a challenge worth taking.
As a librarian and a believer, I see the struggles of libraries and churches up close. I also see their beauty—as institutions attempting to serve the greater good; as places of study, searching and refuge; and as living archives of our shared cultural experiences. These places can transform us if we let them. All we have to do is walk through their doors and take a look around.
The Master of death will come soon enough—and perhaps we can already hear His footsteps. There is no need to forestall His hour nor to fear it. When He enters into us to destroy, as it seems, the virtues and the forces that we have distilled with so much loving care out of the sap of the world, it will be as a loving fire to consummate our completion in union. —The Divine Milieu
There’s a well-known exchange in the documentary Bowling for Columbine wherein Michael Moore interviews Marilyn Manson about politics, media culture, and his supposed influence on Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators of the Columbine shooting. Pretty quickly after the 1999 tragedy, Manson’s violent lyrics, “trenchcoat mafia” look, and anti-authoritarian attitude were scorned by parents and politicians, and the man himself was made a primary scapegoat for the carnage done by two troubled teens. Moore asks Manson what he would say to them if he could have talked to them directly: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them,” Manson said. “I’d listen to what they have to say. That’s what no one did.”
Wise words from a surprising source. I thought of them after seeing Calvary, the new film from John McDonaugh. (Here be spoilers, natch.) The film begins with Father James (Brendan Gleeson), pastor of a small Irish parish, listening in a confession booth to something startling: a mystery parishioner, abused by a priest as a child, threatens to kill him—an innocent priest—as payment for the sins of the Church. The man tells Father James to settle his affairs, make his peace with God, and meet him on the beach in a week’s time. Father James doesn’t fight back, call the police, or flee: he listens, letting the heavy words sink in, and then embarks on his allotted week bearing a new and heavy cross.
But it’s a burden, it becomes clear, he must bear alone. His fellow parish priest (a nervous, judgmental type) doesn’t share Father James’s relative serenity, earned from his pre-priesthood life. As a layman, I’d imagine, Father James experienced the same loss, doubt, and other common plagues of the soul; it’s what makes him unlike the other priests, “too smart” for this parish as one woman puts it and yet faithful enough to abide in it. Yet even as a priest he’s still a sinner, struggling with alcohol and the desire to flee. His parishioners aren’t a reliable source of inspiration or support, their interactions with Father James throughout the week ranging from tepid respect to outright scorn. And his adult daughter, visiting after a botched suicide attempt, struggles to reconcile her father’s new pastoral role with his lack of paternal guidance in the wake of her mother’s death. He’s trying his best with the deck stacked against him, the trauma of the Catholic church sex abuse scandal still fresh for his wary flock.
Simultaneously, Father James tries to deduce his would-be killer’s identity. Like many whodunits, most of the players in his life are suspects: is it the cuckolded town butcher he confronted about beating his wife? the pompous, grandiloquent millionaire whose support he spurned? the sarcastic male prostitute who’s contemptuous of the Church? or the nihilistic doctor hardened by the suffering around him? Father James fields each of these parishioners’ caustic commentaries —against him, the Church, or whatever else travails them. He listens, but also wearies. The parade of sin feels too long, too hopelessly unredeemable. As King Theodin remarks in The Return of the King, “What can men do against such reckless hate?”
And what can we do? Marilyn Manson’s response aside, I doubt merely sitting down with the Columbine killers and listening to them would have persuaded them not to commit their heinous crimes. So for as much as Father James listens patiently to the troubles of his congregants, there’s not much he can do. He can administer absolution, sure, but only to the penitent, of which there are few. But now, with a very real target on his back, the time for talk is over: what is he to do?
Calvary winds through Father James’ (final?) week with that question in mind. It’s Gleeson’s charisma as an actor that keeps things steady throughout this tumultuous journey. Gleeson teems with soulful presence and hard-won wisdom. This differs greatly from his role as Sgt. Boyle in The Guard (also directed by McDonaugh) yet still retains a similar good-heartedness. McDonaugh brings the celestial themes of sin, sacrifice, and redemption back down to earth in this darkly comic story, in a community that really could be anyone’s. It’s a welcome relief from the spate of sterile, overtly “Christian” films that proselytize more than ponder, that make good sermons but usually not good art. Calvary is good art because it isn’t sterile; it’s not afraid to get dirty, to search for truth and beauty in the muck of faith on earth. With life and death as the stakes, Calvary’s search is on indeed.