The Problem of Moralism, Politics and Art

These rough and undisciplined thoughts begin in politics, touch on art, but ultimately, I hope, plead for thoughtful engagement on persuasion to a more beautiful way of living. They have been catalyzed by the dismaying outcomes of the political processes of this election year. But they have been a realization that has been dawning for some time. Though I am going to attempt to be as charitable as I can in their expression, I doubt I can utterly diminish the deep frustration and irritation I feel at the state of the conservative movement and, relatedly, traditional, or small-o orthodox, conservative Christianity.

Continue reading “The Problem of Moralism, Politics and Art”

Facing the Giants

I recently watched the film Facing the Giants, that little underdog of a movie put out by Sherwood Baptist Church down in Albany, Georgia. For a 100G outlay it made 10 mil. It’s got all the pluses and minuses of such films, but I enjoyed it. I will always love that straightforward, ya-need-Jeezus-as-yer-Savior preachin’ that is all over the film.

Some things it brought home to me are:

  • Football is a divinely ordained sport
  • Smalltown high school football is the purest form of football
  • If the Desert Fathers had known of high school football, it would be all over the Philokalia
  • The “Death Crawl” is a forgotten asketical discipline recovered just in time for the making of the film (see clip below)
  • There’s just something deeply satisfying about that sound of the smack of shoulderpads and helmets, the screaming of coaches, the gruntin’ and the trashtalkin’, the familiar catchphrases–mmm, yeah, breathe it in.
  • Generally speaking, Smalltown USA is where it’s at
  • Sometimes religious cliches are deeper than they appear
  • Music is powerful–which is why the first things I “memorized” in Orthodoxy were the hymns sung every Sunday
  • God answers prayer–and prayer changes us
  • Scripture really is meant to be quoted in the midst of everyday life–even if the application is a bit stretched
  • Psalm 17:1-3 [18:1-3] rocks
  • In life, it’s all about praising God when you win and praising God when you lose
  • One-sentence sermonettes belong in the midst of everyday life
  • Sometimes God will go ahead and honor reckless, shameless faith–which is why sometimes football teams win games
  • The power of prayer is in a humble cry
  • I think more Christians should feel more led more often to say something for the Lord to their fellow Christians: and the story about the farmers and the rain is always a good one
  • Nothing is impossible with God
  • God has a redneck accent

Don’t quit and it’s all heart:

Elijah, Ostrov and Things Not Seen

poster.jpg I have been watching Ostrov (The Island) again (link is official movie site in Russian only). I’ve written about it before. It had a powerful impact on me in the beginning (last fall), and it’s impact has only grown, particularly during this past February.

That impact, put simply (and it joins nicely with the feast day of St. Elijah): the Christian life is more about what is not seen than what is seen. So the writer of the letter to the Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. . . . By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible. (Hebrews 11:1,3 NKJV)

In the movie, itself a piece of fiction, Fr Anatoli “sees” that the young woman standing before him is pregnant, though she has just found out herself and has not told him. He “sees” that the old woman’s purportedly dead husband is alive though unwell in France and wants her to come to him. He “sees” that the woman who brings her son to be healed need not go back to her job, because the company is on a three-day furlough due to busted plumbing. He “sees” the spirit inhabiting the young woman’s body, and, in a marvelously depicted scene, wages invisible battle against it as he casts it out. There is an aspect of reality that escapes most of his fellow monks, but one which, due to his dedication to God and to his own ascetical struggles, Fr. Anatoli apprehends. Even knowing ahead of time the day of his own death.

This isn’t the only, but it is, I think, a main difference between most of us Christians and the saints: the eyes of such saints see more than the empirical reality that is the sole focus of most of our days; these saints see the invisible reality that makes the visible possible. Saints like the Prophet Elijah. St. James tells us Elijah prayed and it ceased raining; and he prayed again and it started raining. The writer of the books of the Kings tells us of St. Elijah’s raising of the dead boy to life. And there are all the pyrotechnics: Mt. Carmel, the two fifty-man squadrons, the horses and chariot of fire. The Prophet Elijah saw what most of us do not see.

How did he do it? Well, by grace. But that grace came to him, as Father Patrick related in his homilies of Vespers last evening and the Divine Liturgy this morning, in that Elijah had a single-minded devotion to God. “Seek first his Kingdom,” says our Lord. Or, to say it another way, we see that for which we look.

In other contexts, this is called confirmation bias, or the believe-see-believe loop. We filter what we see, accepting what we expect to see, and failing to see (mostly unconsciously) what we do not expect (or want) to see. This loop is broken only by trauma or by careful conscious self-reflection. That is to say, either we willfully examine what we see and attempt to look beyond our expectations, or events pile up on one another, creating enough pain and dissonance that we are forced to reevaluate our paradigm, the grid by which we filter our experiences.

This is why, it seems to me, we encounter suffering and pain with such sharp feelings of disorientation. For us, what is real, what is true, is that which we can see and feel and taste and touch and hear. And so long as those things go along pleasantly enough, we are not forced to reconsider whether or not, as Christians, our attention to our reality is properly anchored. But when, either because of random human acts or natural events or because we finally realize that the consequences of our paradigms are not getting us our good but our pain, we are confronted with the shifting sand of tangible reality, then we have the opportunity to refocus our gaze and to look for things not seen, that bedrock of our daily reality.

This is a most difficult step. On the one hand, to immerse ourselves in the invisible reality of God and his saints which underlies the universe without also taking care of the visible reality, can lead us to madness and self-delusion. But on the other hand, to immerse ourselves in the visible reality of our lives and to fail to take care of the invisible, can lead us to faithlessness and despair.

One needs one’s feet firmly planted in, if I may say it this way, both realities. And this is not, we have it on the words of the saints who practice this, difficult to do, for both realities, the visible and the invisible, interpenetrate one another. We believe, after all, in the Incarnation: that the divine is one with the human and the human is one with the divine. We consume bread that is also Christ’s Body, and wine that is also his Blood. Ours is not a two-sided reality: as though one could separate the visible from the invisible. It is, rather, one reality consisting of two things, just as the Incarnation is about one Person and two natures.

So, one takes care to attend to the visible reality which is integral to our moment-by-moment living, and not to let it go. But one also takes care to attend to the invisible, also essential to us, and to seek it first. So, while there is no dualism or separatism here, there is an order, a priority. It is the invisible which founds our visible. It is the Kingdom we must seek first. And to this will be added that which is visible.

Such an orientation, such a single-minded focus will have us looking the fool to the world. But there comes a time when one has one’s fill of worldly wisdom which fails to account for the divine. This wisdom, so-called, is the language of power and leverage and compromise and winning and self-preservation. But there is another language, another wisdom, which orders and prioritizes the wisdom of the world. It goes by the name of Calvary and Golgotha. Against all human reason, that wisdom resulted in the Resurrection, the rebirth and renewal of all things.

For what it’s worth, here are some links that fill in some other details about Ostrov‘s lead actor, Pyotr Mamonov:
The Wikipedia article
An article from the Washington Post, which gives some biographical details
An article from The Moscow Times, which blends some film summary with biography

Thoughts on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

This comes perhaps four years late. But such a tardiness is not without design. I have been quite resistant to viewing The Passion, to some degree from “purist” notions. Not purist in the sense of the silly spats among Orthodox as to whether such a bloody portrayal of the Passion was in keeping with “true” Orthodoxy. Rather purist in the sense of what images I wanted my mind to hold of Jesus’ suffering and death. I wanted such images to be those of the icons and the Church’s hymns. And so, having watched The Passion once after Pascha 2004, I did not watch it again.

I cannot speak as to whether such intentions have been fulfilled, but I do think it accurate to say, I did not as fully appreciate the movie in the early summer of 2004 as I appreciated it this past Friday (when I watched it again for the first time since then), and, unless I am mistaken, as I will further and perhaps more deeply appreciate it in the future. I suspect that such a greater and more understanding engagement with it is due in no small measure to the fact that I have come through more of life in the past four years, including the birth of our second daughter, more Liturgies and worship, more Holy Weeks, and, if I may, more sorrows.

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Into Great Silence

digrossestille.jpg“Into Great Silence” (auf Deutsch: Die Grosse Stille) became available on Netflix, and so it arrived to our home in the mail today. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m really excited. As I did for Ostrov, I’ll probably try to get some of the parish guys together to see it.

I visited Grand Chartreuse back in the summer of ’97, when I joined my wife (who’d been studying in Grenoble all summer) for two weeks of touring through France and Italy. Saw some of the grounds external to the monastery. I brought home some of the good green stuff and a nice postcard or two of Carthusian monks, but of course, that was about it.

Ostrov Has Come

poster.jpg Well, I got in the mail today, my copy of Ostrov (The Island) (link is official movie site in Russian only; the IMDb link is here; and you can order it from Amazon here, but ensure that you are ordering the NTSC version). The movie is only in Russian, but the distributor included a very helpful guide to setting up the English subtitles (for dialogue only).

This movie is absolutely phenomenal. Our beloved deacon purchased a copy and a handful of the parish men saw it a bit more than a week ago. I’ve seen it a couple of times and will watch it again tonight, very likely. The cinematography and musical score are incredible. Everything is very very simple and austere, and yet incredibly beautiful.

It is a fictional tale, but is definitely built on the Orthodox tradition of the holy fool, on the life of repentance and prayer, on humility and suffering. I know nothing about the director or the lead actor (Pyotr Mamanov), let alone of the scriptwriter, but somehow this team captured quite well a truly Orthodox picture of life. (Disclaimer: I’ve only been Orthodox for a few months, so the evaluation is only as good as that.)

The beauty and goodness of the movie so captivates one that one is moved to centering one’s life around simple repentance and prayer. The movie starts with the main character praying the Jesus prayer, and cuts away as he lies face down in the frozen moss, continually reciting the prayer. The movie ends with his blessed and holy, and understated, death, and his fellow monks rowing his body to the very place where the movie starts–and the place where he faces the climactic battle against the devil.

As my blog readers know, I have wrestled so much with the move from head to heart–and still do; I’m so unstable. This movie has helped me immensely by providing fuel for my imagination. As a metaphor, it pictures for me that toward which I must strive: simple and humble holiness of life, infused and suffused with prayer and repentance.

I cannot highly enough recommend that everyone see this movie, and, if possible, acquire it for your own use.


Went and saw the movie 300 with my friends, Tripp and Trish, and Justin and Mae, and Sarah.  They had reconstituted the Justice League of Nerdy Geeks (or is it Needy Gerks, I can’t remember) for an outing to the movies, but unfortunately I did not get the email till I got home (can’t access Yahoo mail at work).  And Anna and I were going out to see a rental property and weren’t going to be done in time to make the originally proposed movie time.

So I called Tripp to let him know I wasn’t going to be able to make it.  But then I found out they had changed the movie time, and Anna generously encouraged me to go out on a last-minute get-together with my friends.  She dropped me off, and away we went.

What can I say?  The movie is just brilliant.  It’s about the comic book, but there’s just enough real history to keep it connected to the actual account (loved several of the quotes that come from the retellings of the battle).  The visual effects are just stunnning and, as far as I could tell, absolutely seamless.  Victor Davis Hanson is right: the move definitely captures the spirit of the historical event.  And the acting in the movie is just great–utterly convincing.  You really feel (despite whatever historical inaccuracies there are: like bronze shields) like you’re back there taking on the decadent Persians.

Color me a prude, but the love scene between Leonidas and Gorgo seemed useless (as, contrarily, the suggested/off screen rape of Gorgo by Theron, which did play an integral part in the plot).  And some of the scenes in Xerxes’ camp seemed a bit overdone in suggesting the decadence of the Persians.

Conversely, however, and perhaps revelant of my own inconsistency, the violence seemed about right.  Sure some of it was Crouching-Tiger-Hidden-Dragon spectacle.   And if you see one slow-motion severed limb scene, you’ve seen ’em all.  Of course, that’s just fantasy.  One generally did not get either the force or have the requisite sharpness of blade to hack through thigh-bone or vertebra.  Finger or wrist, maybe.  By accident.  But severed head with razor-clean edges?  Pure comic book/Hollywood make-believe.  Still the initial phalanx scene was, I think, pretty accurate.  That was classical Greek warfare: pushing, jabbing, and killing.  And that was how Greek warriors defended themselves against arrows, by crouching under their shields.

More importantly, however, the true spirit was captured.  There is a bunch of bravado in warfare.  But there was also enough glimpses of poignancy–Leonidas knowing that he wasn’t going to ever see Gorgo again, Captain grieving his son–to keep it real.  And to fight against the “security” of tyranny is, well, our history.

Go see 300.  I’ll be purchasing the DVD when it comes out.

Classicist Victor Davis Hanson on the Movie “300”

VDH’s Private Papers::History and the Movie “300”

300, of course, makes plenty of allowance for popular tastes, changing and expanding the story to meet the protocols of the comic book genre. The film was not shot on location outdoors, but in a studio using the so-called “digital backlot” technique of sometimes placing the actors against blue screens. The resulting realism is not that of the sun-soaked cliffs above the blue Aegean — Thermopylae remains spectacularly beautiful today — but of the eerie etchings of the comic book.

The Spartans fight bare-chested without armor, in the “heroic nude” manner that ancient Greek vase-painters portrayed Greek hoplites, their muscles bulging as if they were contemporary comic book action heroes. Again, following the Miller comic, artistic license is made with the original story — the traitor Ephialtes is as deformed in body as he is in character; King Xerxes is not bearded and perched on a distant throne, but bald, huge, perhaps sexually ambiguous, and often right on the battlefield. The Persians bring with them exotic beasts like a rhinoceros and elephant, and the leader of the Immortals fights Leonidas in a duel (which the Greeks knew as monomachia). Shields are metal rather than wood with bronze veneers, and swords sometimes look futuristic rather than ancient.

Again, purists must remember that 300 seeks to bring a comic book, not Herodotus, to the screen. Yet, despite the need to adhere to the conventions of Frank Miller’s graphics and plot — every bit as formalized as the protocols of classical Athenian drama or Japanese Kabuki theater — the main story from our ancient Greek historians is still there: Leonidas, against domestic opposition, insists on sending an immediate advance party northward on a suicide mission to rouse the Greeks and allow them time to unite a defense. Once at Thermopylae, he adopts the defenses to the narrow pass between high cliffs and the sea far below. The Greeks fight both en masse in the phalanx and at times range beyond as solo warriors. They are finally betrayed by Ephialtes, forcing Leonidas to dismiss his allies — and leaving his own 300 to the fate of dying under a sea of arrows.

But most importantly, 300 preserves the spirit of the Thermopylae story. The Spartans, quoting lines known from Herodotus and themes from the lyric poets, profess unswerving loyalty to a free Greece. They will never kow-tow to the Persians, preferring to die on their feet than live on their knees.

If critics think that 300 reduces and simplifies the meaning of Thermopylae into freedom versus tyranny, they should reread carefully ancient accounts and then blame Herodotus, Plutarch, and Diodorus — who long ago boasted that Greek freedom was on trial against Persian autocracy, free men in superior fashion dying for their liberty, their enslaved enemies being whipped to enslave others.