Friday, July 30, 2004

THE STATE OF THE UNION'S ORATORY

In the name of full-disclosure, I am pro-life so I won't be voting for John "I don't let my belief that baby humans are getting killed in abortion influence my voting patterns" Kerry. It is my first and primary reason for opposing Kerry. My second reason is every other position he takes on every issue of which I am aware.

But as an artist, I wanted to say a few words about Kerry's speech last night more in terms of its oratorical style than its content.

Clearly, there is a marked departure in style between Kerry and his predecessor Democratic standard-bearer, Bill "I feel your pain" [pause for crowd to roar and shake fists] Clinton. (Did I just step all over my point?)

My idea of a great speech, is one that combines style with substance. Great turns of phrase decorating essential truths that sting to the heart. A great leader leads his hearers to want to be heros. His audience receives the implicit message, "You have power." It is a sleight of speech in which, by seeming to be reminding them who they are, he actually wills them into being better than they are. His words are weighted with truth and passionate belief, that for most other people would seem idealism. "He speaks with authority, not like the scribes."

Clinton is a true demagogue, and, tragically, his style has become the default oratorical style of the Democratic party in the last twenty years. I marvel when people say what great speeches he gives, because, honestly, I always find him boring, pandering, and so, insulting. A demagogue is someone who whips a crowd into a frenzy by alternately appealing to their sense of superiority and then victimhood. He communicates to an audience, "[Some other group] is taking your power. But you and I are smarter than they are." The demagogue's words are weighted with cynicism in what makes a speech a protracted sneer. A demagogue doesn't so much motivate his hearers as flatter them. He creates a mob not a community.

The usual pattern of a Clintonian speech tends to unfold in the following kind of dialogue with the attendant crowd which invariably transitions into a mob.

Clinton: 'Those people over there,' they are hypocrites [implied: "not like you and me"]!

Crowd: (roaring, stomping and clapping) YEAH!!!!

Clinton: I'm here to tell you something true today. Something 'those people over there' won't tell you. [implied: because they are not as smart as you and I are...or else because they are not as virtuous as you and I, and so they can't face the truth]

Crowd: (clapping, roaring and stomping) BILL!!! BILL! BILL!!!!!!!!!

Clinton: I'm here to tell you, that GRASS is GREEN!!!!!!!

Crowd: (jumping and waving...and screaming) YEAH!!!!! (roars) BILL!! BILL!!

Clinton: Is it green?!

CRowd: (ripping up seats and throwing them in the air) YES! YES! YESS!!!!! GREEN! GREEN! GREEN!


I was impressed with the way Kerry seemed so intent on moving away from the Clintonian style of demagoguery. I was wondering why he was rushing so fast through the speech, but then it seemed to me he was trying to control the impulse of the mob to respond to his every pause with a dutiful roar. You could tell the audience was disconcerted by this new pattern of oratory. The cameras caught people several times with quizzical looks as they were stilted mid-roar by Kerry pushing forward to his next point. They have been so well trained in the last twenty years, that they didn't know what part they were supposed to play if not as punctuators.

Unfortunately, as welcome as the effort to short-circuit the punctuators is, it didn't help Kerry in terms of oratorical effect. In his hurry, he was hard to follow. The opposite of wooden is not fast. The opposite of wooden is passionate. The only issues that Kerry has demonstrated any real passion for in his long senatorial career has been his own political future (not sympathetic), securing the legal right to abortion (also not sympathetic with most Americans), and preserving the planet from over-population by poor people (also problematic with the masses of poor people who vote Democratic).

I found Kerry's hand gestures got really annoying by about mid-point of his speech. He was so clearly trying to counter his reputation of Al Gorish woodenness, that he took to waving and pointing and making little triangles and smoothing gestures. I felt like I was watching a stilted hula dance.

In terms of content, I get the reasons for his constant harping on his Vietnam service, although I found it boorish. A good speech injects personal anecdotes, but shouldn't amount to the speaker saying to the audience, "YEs, Yes Yes I do! I've got medals, how about you?" I thought it was fascinating how the real issues that separate Kerry from Bush were either obliquely referenced or left out at all.

The fact is, the liberals, feminists and gay rights crowd are laying down their lives for Kerry because he will put pro-choice judges on the Supreme Court, revoke all Bush's pro-life Executive orders, support gay marriage, and, yeah, that's pretty much it. These are the principle areas in which Kerry differs from Bush. So, why not mention them? Shouldn't he want to put himself in relief for the issues about which he feels the strongest? Instead, the content of Kerry's speech was an unremarkable catalogue of positions that really don't differ that much in substance from the positions of his opponent. At least Stephen Douglas, who might be reckoned Kerry's ideological ancestor, was very clear in all of his speeches that he was basically about one thing: Preserving the right of people to own other people as property. "If that's your issue. I'm your guy."

I find Kerry's reticence to own his defining issues, oddly comforting.

But as oratory, he's really quite dreadful, unfortunately.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

GOING FOR ONE READER IN A HUNDRED YEARS...

Friend, Jen Waters, feature writer for The Washington Times has the following piece running today. Included are comments from one of our Act One faculty, Tom Provost. When I first met Tom at his house, I saw that he had a picture of Flannery on his refrigerator, and I knew we were going to be friends.

We are always preaching Flannery to our students and most of them think it is cute and quirky of us, but few of them really take her to heart. I have to have patience because I remember when I first read her, I really found her stories annoying. One day, during my sophomore year (ie. wise fool year) of college, I told my older sister that I thought O'Connor was over-rated. She looked horrified for a minute and then she, who is pathologically incapable of exaggeration and never uses three words when two will do, replied, "Barb, it is going to take the Church one hundred years to figure out where Flannery left us in terms of literature."

So, I took another look. Phew.

ETERNAL O'CONNOR
By Jen Waters
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
page A2, 7/29/04

Aficionados of Southern literature are preparing to commemorate one of the
giants of the genre, honoring Georgian author Flannery O'Connor on the 40th
anniversary of her death.
The "Remembering Flannery" event next week will take place at Andalusia,
the author's home in Milledgeville, Ga., which has been open to the public
since March 2003.
Starting at 15 minutes after midnight - exactly 40 years from the moment
of the writer's death on Aug. 3, 1964 - all of Miss O'Connor's stories from
the collection of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" will be read for 24 hours.
An evening Mass on the lawn will be followed by a blessing in the main
house.
"Coupled with the spiritual nature of her fiction, deeply rooted in the
Catholic faith, we thought it would be a good idea to celebrate her death,"
says Craig R. Amason, executive director of the Andalusia Foundation, which
will organize the program.
"The themes of grace and salvation are central to O'Connor," he says.
"For real fans of O'Connor, the commemoration of her death is an opportunity
for a joyous occasion, under the aspect of eternity."
Miss O'Connor died at age 39 from complications of lupus, an autoimmune
disease. Her small body of work earned her a reputation as one of America's
best fiction writers.
Holding the commemorative event at the O'Connor farm will allow her
readers to behold the environment in which she worked, says Bruce Gentry,
editor of "The Flannery O'Connor Review." He is a professor of English at
Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, where Miss O'Connor
studied.
"Every time I go out to Andalusia, I think about the connection between
the stories and the land," he says. "It's really quite a spooky thrill."
Miss O'Connor knew her time was short because of her disease. She shaped
her writing for people who would read her work after her death, says Paul
Elie, who wrote about Miss O'Connor in his book "The Life You Save May Be
Your Own." She didn't waste time on cultural or religious controversies of
the era, Mr. Elie says.
"She focused on metaphor and imagery and the central drama of
Christianity, the moment of grace with Christ," he says.
"She stylized her work for posterity. ... Flannery O'Connor once said
she wished books could be written and deposited in a slot for the next
century. ... She said that a serious writer would gladly swap 100 readers
now for 10 readers in 10 years or one reader in 100 years."
Her body of work consists of two novels, "Wise Blood" and "The Violent
Bear It Away," and two collections of short stories, "A Good Man Is Hard to
Find" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge."
Two other volumes of her writing have been published since Miss
O'Connor's death: "Mystery and Manners," including various articles,
unpublished essays and lectures, and "The Habit of Being," a collection of
her letters.
"She is better known and more widely read today than when she died," Mr.
Elie says. "She was very well-known around serious writers, but her books
didn't have large sales. They didn't win prizes."
After developing lupus, Miss O'Connor disciplined herself to write every
day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., including Sundays. During the last year of her
life, she wrote for at least one hour a day.
"She took a notebook to the hospital and kept it under her pillow and
wrote some of the new passages in longhand," Mr. Elie says. "She took a
draft of [the short story] 'Parker's Back' into the hospital and marked it
up."
Throughout Miss O'Connor's writing, a common character type is the
intellectual who ironically is lacking wisdom, says Donald E. Hardy, author
of "Narrating Knowledge in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction." He cites the
example of Hulga, a character in "Good People Country" who has a doctorate
in philosophy.
Miss O'Connor "had a complicated relationship with academics," Mr. Hardy
says. "She had problems with the notion that humans could understand
rationally and by reason alone their position in the world."
Frequently in Miss O'Connor's stories, a character comes to a
realization about his life. In "Revelation," the main character, Mrs.
Turpin, was given a vision of a stairway to heaven on which many people she
considered lower class were entering heaven before she was.
"O'Connor is constantly playing with the ambiguity between the physical
world and the spiritual world," Mr. Hardy says. "She takes on pride of
various sorts."
Mr. Hardy says the Southern influences in Miss O'Connor's writing come
through in her sense of humor, and her emphasis on social relationships and
the land.
"She is an extremely rich writer," he says. "She is not just a religious
writer. People just keep coming back to her fiction. She is very readable."
Another defining characteristic is her tendency to write about darker
areas of life, says Tom Provost, 39, a screenwriter in Los Angeles who says
he has been inspired by her work.
"It's OK to explore the darkness in the world and society," he says.
"Not every story you tell has to have a happy ending. If you're going to be
honest about the way society is, you need to focus on what's dark."
Some readers have criticized Miss O'Connor's use of sudden violence in
her stories, says Mr. Provost. However, he thinks Miss O'Connor was trying
to get people's attention by going to extremes, such as when the grandmother
is killed at the end of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."
"She would say sometimes you have to use a club instead of whispering to
somebody," he says. "She was trying to say to the world that obviously there
is God, salvation, goodness and beauty, but yes, there is darkness in the
world, and we need to be aware where our society is headed."
The pain in her own life probably prompted her to explore troublesome
situations, Mr. Provost says.
"She really wanted to travel and see the world," he says. "When she came
down with lupus, at 25, she resigned herself to the fact she had to live on
her mother's farm in Georgia. She had fallen in love twice and would have
very much like to have been married. Both times it was unreciprocated. ...
She had this existence and came to see it as God's will. She accepted her
circumstances as what God wanted her to do."

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

STREAMING ACT ONE

The Act One-Hollywood '04 program is featured on a new doc for TV that was produced by the Catholic Communications Campaign. The CCC has been a major donor to Act One since 2000, and we would not be here if they hadn't come on board. The doc features interviews with students, faculty, and alumns, as well as some shots of classes. Click here to watch some of the streaming video.

Monday, July 26, 2004

SPYING ON MY STUDENTS or 'THE ROCKS CRYING OUT'

Bumming around the Web (Add: when I should have been writing), I stumbled over a blog that one of our current Act One students, Jeff Berryman, has been updating during the month. I link to it basically because it is extravagant with praise for our humble selves.

Seriously, it is kind of cool to see what at least one of the students is experiencing. We know what they tell us -- but who in Hollywood is really trusting that any praise is really real?

If you know anybody out there who is wondering if they should apply to the program next year, send them to Jeff's blog here.
BOURNE AGAIN

Don't have time for a full review, but do want to add my voice to those who are raving about The Bourne Supremacy. It is a stylish, top notch action thriller with a redemptive message. I was impressed at the way the fight sequences were filmed - intentionally disorienting. Makes the audience almost a participant in the action - and ultimately a definite point of view on violence.

Film has one of the best chase sequences I've ever seen. The audience here in L.A. actually applauded when it finally reached its crashing end.

My only objection was that, FRANKly, they killed the best part of the franchise in the first half hour. (I say nothing, nothing...)

Two thumbs up. I'm going to tell my mother to go.
EMILY MONDAY

652



A Prison gets to be a friend --
Between its Ponderous face
And Ours -- a Kinsmanship express --
And in its narrow Eyes --

We come to look with gratitude
For the appointed Beam
It deal us -- stated as our food --
And hungered for -- the same --

We learn to know the Planks --
That answer to Our feet --
So miserable a sound -- at first --
Nor ever now -- so sweet --

As plashing in the Pools --
When Memory was a Boy --
But a Demurer Circuit --
A Geometric Joy --

The Posture of the Key
That interrupt the Day
To Our Endeavor -- Not so real
The Check of Liberty --

As this Phantasm Steel --
Whose features -- Day and Night --
Are present to us -- as Our Own --
And as escapeless -- quite --

The narrow Round -- the Stint --
The slow exchange of Hope --
For something passiver -- Content
Too steep for lookinp up --

The Liberty we knew
Avoided -- like a Dream --
Too wide for any Night but Heaven --
If That -- indeed -- redeem --

Friday, July 23, 2004

THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR JUST LEADS TO THE GUTTER

Thanks to friend Frederica Matthews Greene for this great review of the new film Door in the Floor . Based on another novel of John Irving, this film seems calculated to have us all sitting around drinking nostalgically to the insulting propaganda of Cider House Rules. Door has, of course, been getting a lot of buzz here in town for being "important" - which ALWAYS means "morally repugnant" these days.

I am so grateful that Frederica has spared me from having to be smeared with this particular piece of important tripe.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

OVERLY AMBITIOUS?

We are in the last 8 days of Act One-Hollywood. I will be flying back to CT for a week with my family on August 1. So, that means in the next week, I have to meet with thirty students, teach a couple of classes, read a few dozen evaluations and writing assignments, write and deliver a short speech for the program Closing Banquet, and reconnect with the myriad (lovely and wonderful) alumni who will be descendnig on Los Angeles for the annual alumni pizza party and Closing Banquet.

That's just the stuff relates to the month-long program.

Unrelated to the month-long program, I have to make site visits to four different buildings with the realtors who are searching for Act One's future home; have a meeting with a faculty member who will be creating a monthly ongoing formation program for the alumni community; interview a few applicants for the Director position of the new Business of Hollywood program; have a story meeting with the production company that is hiring me to write a screenplay this Fall; read a couple of hundred pages of screenplays that MUST MUST MUST get some feedback from me before August or I will have to change my name and move far, far away; write two columns for the NCRegister, both of which are now officially late; get Tibby the cat to the vet, because he still isn't quite himself, and it would be nasty to leave a semi-sick feline with my roommate.... I would also LOVE to knock-off a few CD-Rom classes for my Fuller studies, but perhaps that is overly ambitious.

Anyway, all this ambition means blogging becomes an indefensible extravagance. At least for the next week, forgive the sporadicness. Send prayers for the students.
SIGMUND VS. CLIVE

My friends from Walden sent the following release about their upcoming PBS doc.

Walden Media, WGBH Present Lewis/Freud Series "The Question Of God"

Special Program To Air On September 15 & 22nd On PBS

The Question of God, a four-hour series on PBS, explores in accessible and
dramatic style issues that preoccupy all thinking people today: What is
happiness? How do we find meaning and purpose in our lives? How do we
reconcile conflicting claims of love and sexuality? How do we cope with the
problem of suffering and the inevitability of death? Based on a popular
Harvard course taught by Dr. Armand Nicholi, author of The Question of God,
the series illustrates the lives and insights of Sigmund Freud, a life-long
critic of religious belief, and C.S. Lewis, a celebrated Oxford don,
literary critic, and perhaps this century's most influential and popular
proponent of faith based on reason.

"It may be that Freud and Lewis represent conflicting parts of ourselves,"
Dr. Nicholi notes. "Part of us yearns for a relationship with the source of
all joy, hope and happiness, as described by Lewis, and yet, there is
another part that raises its fist in defiance and says with Freud, 'I will
not surrender.' Whatever part we choose to express will determine our
purpose, our identity, and our whole philosophy of life."

Through dramatic storytelling and compelling visual re-creations, as well
as interviews with biographers and historians, and lively discussion, Freud
and Lewis are brought together in a great debate. "The series presents a
unique dialogue between Freud, the atheist, and Lewis, the believer," says
Catherine Tatge, director of The Question of God. "Through it we come to
understand two very different ideas of human existence, and where each of
us, as individuals, falls as believers and unbelievers."

The important moments and emotional turning points in the lives of Freud
and Lewis - which gave rise to such starkly different ideas - fuel an
intelligent and moving contemporary examination of the ultimate question of
human existence: Does God really exist?

Airing September 15 & 22, 2004, at 9:00 pm ET on PBS (check local listings)


The Question of God is produced by Tatge/Lasseur Productions in association
with WGBH and Walden Media.

For more information or to schedule an interview with Dr. Nicholi please
contact: Erin Mackey at: Emackey@walden.com

PROGRAM OVERVIEW

All over the world, people are asking the same questions: Why is there so
much pain and suffering in the world? What does it mean to be happy? Is
there such a thing as evil? Does God really exist? This September, through
the brilliant minds and personal struggles of two of the most influential
thinkers of the twentieth century, PBS presents an emotional and
intellectual journey into the meaning of life.

About Part One
The Question of God Part I presents the early stories of C.S. Lewis and
Sigmund Freud, two men with very different ideas of human existence. In
childhood, each embraced the religion of his family. But the early death of
Lewis's mother, and the horrors he witnessed in the First World War tested
his faith. In middle age, Lewis found his once-passionate atheism
troubling, and began searching for faith again. Freud, studying medicine in
the age of Darwin, found he had no use for a creator. As he developed his
theory of psychoanalysis, he came to see belief in God as just another
human fantasy.

To grapple with the questions raised by the lives and ideas of Freud and
Lewis, Dr. Armand Nicholi leads a panel of seven thoughtful men and women
in a wide-ranging discussion of some of the fundamental questions. What
influences us to embrace or reject religious belief? Is the scientific
method, as Freud wrote, the only path to the truth? Does the human longing
for God, as Lewis wrote, actually prove that God exists? Do miracles
actually happen?

About Part Two
As Freud and Lewis entered middle age, their divergent beliefs about the
existence of God were fixed. But tragedy would test each man's convictions.
For Freud, it was the terror of the Third Reich and the death of a beloved
daughter. For Lewis, in his fifties, the brief happiness of new romance was
turned to ashes with the untimely death of his wife, igniting the greatest
spiritual crisis of his life. Yet in the end, each man confronted his own
death with his beliefs intact.

Dr. Armand Nicholi and his panel continue their debate, exploring the
implications of choosing a spiritual or secular worldview for the primary
questions of life - of love, morality, suffering and death: From where do
we get our concept of right and wrong - from the Creator or from human
experience? How do we square the existence of an omnipotent, all-loving God
with all of the evidence of evil and suffering in the world? How do these
starkly different worldviews help us resolve the riddle of death?

Monday, July 19, 2004

EMILY MONDAY

1380


How much the present moment means
To those who've nothing more --
The Fop -- the Carp -- the Atheist --
Stake an entire store
Upon a Moment's shallow Rim
While their commuted Feet
The Torrents of Eternity
Do all but inundate --

Sunday, July 18, 2004

I, TIE-IN

"FIRST LAW: "THE STORY MUST NEVER SERVE STUFF OVER THE AUDIENCE."

The new Will Smith vehicle, I, Robot is not so much a piece of cinema as it a stylish piece of commercial advertising. Although shameless product placement has become a staple of big-budget movies, it becomes peculiarly awkward when you are trying to hawk 2004 goods in a futuristic, sci-fi arena. The only way they could manage it here, was to make Will Smith's character anti-technology, and then hope that we would accept the idea that he has accompanying fetishes to wear hundred-year old shoes and listen to hundred year old stereo systems. I suppose this makes his character an Austin Powers kind of animal -- only here, they are trying to play it straight.

There are three (ultimately insulting to the audience) refereneces to Will's hi-top sneakers, which he proudly describes to his grandmother as being "vintage 2004." I swear, he almost winked at the camera when he said it. Too bad he didn't. It would have provided one genuine laugh for the film. We get two close-ups of the brand of his stereo system, and four or five closeups of the Audi logo on the back of his car.

This is bad for the movie because it yanks the viewer out of the story. It is bad for society, because it makes selling products feel icky and manipulative.

"SECOND LAW: STORIES THAT SERVE AN ACTOR WILL FAIL, PARTICULARLY WHEN THEY ALSO VIOLATE THE FIRST LAW."

I generally enjoy Will Smith, but this project is as close to watching him prostitute himself as I have ever seen. Several times, we get long gratuitous looks at various naked parts of his formidable physique. There is even one long slow shot of the whole of him naked in a shower --from the side, but there he is, standing in a shower, letting the water pour out the sides of the tub onto the floor, because, well, if he pulled the shower curtain shut the camera wouldn't be able to catch him standing there beautifully unclad.

There just isn't much for Will to do here except swagger around modeling clothes and selling cars and sound-systems.

"THIRD LAW: MOVIES THAT POSTURE ABSURDITIES WILL FAIL, PARTICULARLY THOSE THAT VIOLATE THE FIRST AND SECOND LAWS."

This movie is so superficial in its treatment of a big theme, that I thought for a moment I was watching a Steven Spielberg film. It starts to make a point about why robots are not as good as people, and then ends up subverting that point by coming to the conclusion that really, really well-made robots can be as good as people. They can be unique and self-sacrificing and have dreams -- as long as you use a better kind of alloy, you see.

In a society that is so very confused about what makes personhood, I, Robot is just one more thing for thinking individuals to be depressed about. Or else, one more sign of the times for apostolic souls to pray about. Whatever. If it survives at all, it will only be to stand as a marveling point for future human societies. They'll watch the film in sociology and history and theology classes and scratch their heads saying, "You mean they really thought human beings and machines had the same value! No wonder they ended up destroying themselves!"

Saturday, July 17, 2004

RED (V.O.)
I have no idea to this day what
them two Italian ladies were
singin' about. Truth is, I don't
want to know. Some things are best
left unsaid. I like to think they
were singin' about something so
beautiful it can't be expressed in
words, and makes your heart ache
because of it. I tell you, those voices soared.
Higher and farther than anybody in
a gray place dares to dream. It was
like some beautiful bird flapped
into our drab little cage and made
these walls dissolve away...and for
the briefest of moments -- every
last man at Shawshank felt free.

(from The Shawshank Redemption)

Thursday, July 15, 2004

BLIMEY!

Here is a new web-site for Christians in the arts and media coming from some great folks in London. They have a group that has a ministry with a vision very similar to what Act One is busy about here in Hollywood, basically to create community for Christian artists.

The principle visionary, Steve Cole, and I had an interesting discussion about exactly what are the parameters of Christian community. Act One's vision is to create community animated by the organizations keynotes: ARTISTRY, PROFESSIONALISM, TRUTH, PRAYER.

Artisan's keynotes, on the other hand are (from their web site):

UNITY – HUMILTY – PRAYER

It sounds good, but what does it mean in reality?

Unity – We need one another. Life and our relationship with God was never designed to be a solo journey.

Humility – As individuals we all have our part to play, but we are not the key. Only God can transform these industries.

Prayer – As in all of life, prayer must be central. It is so often key to seeing God breaking into nations; people; industries.


It seems to me that you can see an American - European divide in the keynotes...not that there's anything wrong with that. Still, if we are going to renew the culture (HA!) it is going to take a whole lote of different keynotes.

So, God bless the Artisans!
HOLY UNDERDOG! CBS' MAID MARCHES ON!

More kudos to Barbara Hall and her crew at Joan of Arcadia for securing an Emmy Award nom for Best Dramatic Series! In light of the fact that this was the freshman season for the series, this is already an extraordinary achievement. But when you throw in that this is a show in which God is rendered Good, and there are ongoingly positive portrayals of priests and authentic spirituality, this is a miraculous achievement.

Still, part of me can't help feeling like all of this success of and for the show is just a private exchange going on between Barbara and Jesus, who are both loving on each other with efforts and accolades that the rest of us get to enjoy as bystanders on the sidelines...

Anyway, here's a nice new piece on Barb and Joan that CNS just released.

'Joan of Arcadia' asks more questions than it answers, says creatorBy Paula Doyle

Catholic News Service

WESTWOOD, Calif. (CNS) -- Inspired as a child by the girl "icon," St. Joan of Arc, Barbara Hall grew up to eventually create and produce the acclaimed CBS television series, "Joan of Arcadia," a contemporary drama about a teenage girl's visits from God.

The show was both "jinxed and unstoppable," Hall said in a talk at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood to members of Open Call, an entertainment industry spirituality group.

Hall, an award-winning writer and producer of such television shows as "Chicago Hope" and "Judging Amy," said she got the idea for the show thinking about how her daughter would talk to God if she met the creator in person. She would probably argue, Hall figured.

When Hall went to pitch the show to CBS, she had no more than three sentences out of her mouth before network executives said they wanted the show.

The quick acceptance, however, preceded a number of production challenges, including casting the demanding part of "Joan" (played by Amber Tamblyn) and coping with disasters that occurred during the filming of the pilot episode, including the heart attack a crew member suffered.

Just as bad things happen to good people in real life, "Joan of Arcadia" mirrors the kinds of tragedies that people encounter. Joan's brother, Kevin, played by Jason Ritter, lives life in a wheelchair because of injuries he suffered in a car accident.

A recent episode, titled "Death Be Not Whatever," dealt with human suffering over the death of a loved one.

Coincidentally, the script was written just days before the death of Ritter's father, popular actor John Ritter of "Three's Company" and "Eight Simple Rules."

"I wanted the series to be as dark as life is," said Hall. "The show is mainly about questions, not answers."

When Joan sees God, appearing in different disguises, ages and genders, she wrestles with the assignments she is given, many of which don't immediately make any sense.

"I have more questions about God than answers," said Hall.

Raised Methodist, Hall as a young adult was not affiliated with any religious denomination. Seven years ago she became a victim of a violent crime and afterward "sort of had an understanding of something bigger than myself," she said.

She embarked on a spiritual journey where she studied every major world religion. A couple of years ago she became a Catholic.

She decided to "make the leap and figure everything out later," she said.

An underlying principle of "Joan of Arcadia" is the belief that God is available to everyone all the time, Hall explained. Another central theme is self-discovery.

"The most important thing about 'Joan of Arcadia' to me is the idea that everybody is here (on earth) to fulfill their true nature," said Hall.

She believes that depression and alienation occur when people become separated from their nature and purpose in life.

While no one religion is held up over any other one on the show, clergy from various denominations show up to guide Joan as she tries to fulfill God's sometimes confusing requests.

"It's not going to happen that we do a show about God and not mention religion," said Hall, who stood her ground with industry executives wanting a religion-free show.

Hall believes the show's "across-the-board appeal" comes from each episode's unpredictability and, perhaps, the portrayals of God by males and females, dog walkers and punk rockers alike.

"The main thing people like is it's not what they thought it would be," said Hall.

END


Tuesday, July 13, 2004

ART AND THE FORMATION OF PRIESTS

I just got back from a quick trip to Chicago for a presentation to an assembly of people who work in the formation of seminarians. Here are notes of the talk I gave. The notes are sometimes succinct, sometimes verbose - it's all I have. I can't imagine ever being asked to give this talk again, so I am putting the notes here for posterity...

THE ARTISTHOOD OF THE PRIEST

I. Intro –
a) Thank you for having me. I very much appreciate the “vision” required to invite Hollywood screenwriter to speak to your assembly. I feel sure I am the only one of the invited presenters whose last published work was a bold attack on Director Sam Rami for failing to significantly advance the theme of Spiderman II from the franchise precursor.
b) My credentials – an artist, an entertainer (that is storyteller), a former formee (nine years of religious life); not a theologian, but a doctoral candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary
c) I am the Founding Ringmaster of a community of faith-centered artists primarily in Hollywood, who have come together for so many reasons:
- to find all the goods of Christian community: accountability, fellowship, friendship, mentorship;
- to try and bring some community to the heart of the industry and to the arts which are everything but communities;
- to spur one another on to creating and producing a brand of entertainment that would combine mastery of craft with responsibility in content;
- to have a fundamental option for the audience as poor at the table in the corporate, creative and marketing dominated world of entertainment;
- to identify, mentor, nurture and place the next generation of faith-centered artists;
We spend a tremendous amount of time brooding over what we call “the priesthood of the artist” and how to form the kind of artists that the world needs and will need more as mechanization and globalization continue to obfuscate the details of life wherein meaning lies.
d) I have no business talking to you about how to form priests – but I can speak about some of what we have come to in trying to form artists and in the same way that we are trying to realize the priesthood of the artist, perhaps you can begin to brood over the artisthood of the priest?

I am hoping this will be much more of a reflection or a musing on the power of the arts – and specifically what the arts bring to priestly formation. I am going to make a slight distinction between the arts and entertainment. I am going to discuss the arts for the formation of the priest himself, and I am going to spend a bit of time on the central work of art that will be of concern to the pastor of souls, that is the liturgy. Finally, I am going to speak about the role of future pastors in facilitating artistic beauty to the people of God, and even the secular world.

[CLIP from The Mission: Gabriel begins to evangelize the Guarani through playing his oboe] – How did that make you feel? Who do you want to be in this clip? Why? What kind of a pastor is Gabriel? Why does Gabriel start his ministry with the oboe? There is a work that needs to be done in the people, before he starts to use words. He is telling them who he is through his music. He is also telling them who he thinks they are by introducing himself via music.

In our context, I suggest that the young people who are in our care are the Guarani – coming as they are from a climate in which they have lost faith in everything institutional, they are looking at us askance, with more than a touch of suspicion. The arts can get around their barriers and begin to establish the filial relationship necessary for formation.

II. Why We Need the Arts in General

We need the arts because there are truths that cannot be put into words. There are spiritual journeys that are too big for our reason to process and our language to describe.

Of course, the arts are also inadequate. People told me that the movie The Passion of the Christ was too much for them. Without getting into a discussion of the artistic merit of the film, it is still worth saying that, as bad as all the violence was in the film, it still doesn’t even come near to representing with any accuracy, the horror of one venial sin. (Which seems to subvert my point today very nicely…maybe I should leave?) But I guess the point is, if the arts are inadequate at pointing to reality through symbols, parables and metaphors, how much more is theological language?

The Pope notes in his Letter to Artists, “Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must translate into meaningful terms that which in itself is ineffable…[in so doing] it nourishes the intuition of those who look and listen.”

He goes on to make the pretty radical statement - particularly in this moment of ecclesial and artistic “disengagement” - that art is not just an object that proceeds from theological brooding, but is actually a source of theology.

That is, if you don’t reference the arts when you are studying the Annunciation, for example, in theology, you are missing other layers of meaning. You need to listen to the movements in Bach’s Gesu, Word of God to more completely “get” the Incarnation. I love this. It points to the fact that the sacred artists is as much a vehicle of divine inspiration as are theologians.

a) Entertainment as ‘the work between the work’ – to provide calisthenics for the soul. To stretch them so they don’t have to sin. Because Frodo lost his hand at Mordor, you won’t have to.

b) Have to say a word or two about beauty. The understanding of beauty, as with everything else in our post-modern confusion has become one more flag to wave in the strange and wonderful world of Church polarization. I was born in the mid 60’s amidst the impulse in which the Church seemed to be purging herself of dross. I grew up as a Gen Xer, mystified by the missionary zeal with which the Baby Boomers in the Church were stripping every vestige of the rituals, symbols and traditions from our faith.

“The Church that marries the spirit of the age is a widow in the next generation.” (Dean William Inge)

(We need to remember that even the immensely climactic moment of the reforms of Vatican II, are still just a moment in ecclesial history. In watching the backlash against the changes of the last forty years, I can’t help wonder with a little exhausted breathlessness, exactly what will survive. There has been so much damn suffering, I hope something makes it.)

I remember once back in 1990 as a junior professed, it was a big feast day for our community – Solemnity of St. Paul, and I was stationed for the first time away from the Motherhouse. We were celebrating the Feast day at a local parish for the friends of our community…My fellow junior and I wanted to make it as cool and beautiful as possible, and so we set out the nicest vestments and did the flowers, blah blah blah. When father came in, we asked him if he would be okay using incense and he suddenly got inappropriately irate exclaiming, ‘It took us twenty-five years to get rid of all that nonsense, and now you people want to bring it all back?!”

I didn’t know what “people” he was talking about. I wanted to use incense because it is cool and holy, and because I loved the symbol from the psalms of our prayers rising like incense. The priest was reacting against something of which I had had no experience, and associating it to incense. Incense is not the problem. The problem was formalism. More about that later.

Anyway, I think in some ways, it is easier to train artists than priests, because we have a way to tell very clearly if they are in the wrong vocation. If they don’t have talent, we gently encourage them to become a supporter of artists. The Divine Economy seems very unfair at times, but ‘if the Lord doesn’t build the artists, in vain do the gurus nurture.’ (It would be an interesting question as to whether there is a comparable “God-given sign” of vocation in the priesthood….what would mastery of craft look like in a pastor of souls?)

Here are some principles about beauty that have become part of the presuppositions of the Act One program:

1. Beauty makes us homesick for heaven. It is a “holy sadness”.

Some great quotes:

“I have always – at least, ever since I can remember – had a kind of longing for death.”

“Ah Psyche,” I said, “have I made you so little happy as that?”

“No, no, no,” she said. “You don’t understand. Not that kind of longing. It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on the happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine…where we couldn’t see the village or the palace. Do you remember? The colour and the smell, and looking across at the Grey Mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, ‘Psyche, come!’”
(from Till We Have Faces, CS Lewis)

“[When we see beauty] …in the midst of our workaday cares, we raise our heads and unexpectedly gaze into a face turned towards us, and in that instant, we see: everything which is is good, worthy of love, and loved by God…The world is not out of joint after all; everything is moving toward its appointed end; despite everything there is peace, wholeness and splendor in the depths of things; God holds in His hands the beginning the middle and the end of all things.”
(Josef Pieper, Problems of Modern Faith, 1985)

2. Beauty is not necessarily pretty.

“Heaven is revealed upon the earth both in Michelangelo’s David, and in the cup of cold water which is given to the poor.”
(from Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art; Gerardus van der Leeuw

3. Beauty is expensive to produce: time, details, talent, money. The little things like getting the lighting just right, having the flowers arranged, rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. You are going to have to pay your artists to practice and produce. (My sister is a professional opera singer. She used to get $100 a week to cantor at the local Episcopalian church which has an endowed chair for a mezzo soprano. At our parish church, they want to pay her $40 a week, and as she has said to me wth a shrug, “And they want me to sing crap.”

It has to be said. Much of the art we are making as a Church is ugly and painful. It has the opposite effect that it should. There is a problem when the Church is singing music that would be better suited to an episode of Barney, and Nora Jones is singing music that stings people to the heart.

“To put it bluntly, God is not adequately praised and adored with the showy, the pompous, the self-serving, the mawkish, the cleverly casual or the thoughtlessly comfortable forms of art.”
(from Worship and Theology, Don E. Saliers)

I teach RCIA to people in the entertainment industry. These are incredibly talented people. It is most often embarrassing to take them to Church and have them come to the realization that what they do every day professionally is much superior to the artistic expression they find in the Church that is supposed to be a gift of God inspired by the Holy Spirit.

[God accepts whatever humble offering his children make]…”But the lowliness of the origins of the music or art offered cannot be made into a rule against continuing to find forms that best serve to articulate the deeper mysteries of God and the human condition.”
(from Worship and Theology, Don E. Saliers)

4. Beauty is exclusive: it is the harmonious selection of details. There is an elitist aspect about beauty which I know from your homogeneity of age group (Baby Boomers all!) is surely disconcerting to many of you. Take a breath. The principal should be that we strive to produce the best forms to express the liturgical realities. Beauty is not an option. It is not an extra. We have to change the way we think about it.

5. Beauty is not necessarily old, but many old things are beautiful. Best notion is from the Scriptures, “Blessed is he who can bring forth from his storehouse, both the old and the new.

I want to stop and ask you to recall a powerful beautiful arts moment from your past, and what it meant to you. When Fr. Rohr said that healthy celibates NEED a moment of genuine connection with God, it is very often arts moments in which these can be found. I tell you mine, and then I want you to think of yours.

We used to have the custom of saying the rosary from May to October… We would chant the litany of Mary. I used to love it best in the Latin (I had studied Latin for two years so it was more than just the texture and the sounds, it was the meanings too.) I can still remember the power of those evening moments: the coolness of the summer evenings, the colorful flowers in the garden out of which rose the lifesize marble statue of the Madonna; the voices of the sisters, some of them always adding spontaneous harmony. I used to feel my heart swelling with the psalms, “How good it is for us to be here!”

I imagine that if it was photographed, that image of the group of us, all looking the same would remind some people of the horrible loss of individuality. But I didn’t find that ritual diminishing. I found it comforting. There was something so steadying in the knowledge that for fifty years, our sisters had been singing like this together, on a hil outside of Boston, calling down God’s love and mercy on all the hoards of people of the city and of the world.

I used to feel this way at the chanting of vespers. Singing the Salve Regina.

Remember your moment and if you come away with nothing else, recommit yourself to recreating those moments for your seminarians.

III. Seminarians Need Arts and Entertainment for Their Own Spiritual Growth
a) They need more beauty because more renunciation will be required of them. Arts can achieve a “storing up” of intimate encounters with God. They will need to bank these moments for the future. Since leaving the nuns, it has seemed to me at times ruthlessly unfair how beautiful the liturgies were in the Motherhouse…It made the real world outside seem like a vast desert of liturgical ugliness. Sometimes, I look around at the other lay sheep in church and wonder, “Why are you people coming here?” But I think it is as “unfair” as the fact the apostles had three lovely, intimate years with Jesus – tromping around fields and villages, sitting by late-night fires, sharing untold meals and prayers, before they had to all go live and die for Him.
b) Again, we have to know the kinds of things the seminarian can learn in a classroom, and the kinds of things that are learned elsewhere. When I was younger – in college, I used to go around saying, “The truth can change people. If you just expose them to the truth, they will cleave to it.” This is a na├»ve view. You can lead a chicken to a hen house but you can’t make him brood. The sense of “You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free” is the sense of knowing in which the Scriptures also speak of sexual intimacy, “Adam knew Eve.” So, it’s the cleaving to the Truth that makes you free, not having it blare out at you from the speakers in a classroom or in black words on a white page. You can discover reasons for conviction and certitude on the pages of a textbook, but if you want compassion that will motivate someone to sacrifice, you can find it much quicker in a movie like Shine. Ethics can tell me about the disordered attractions of my own soul, but Madame Bovary will sting me to the heart. “The heart has reasons of which reason nothing knows.”

The making people cleave to things inwardly – beyond the province of language - is the terrain of the arts. Compunction, sorrow, sympathy, joy, horror, wonder – and communion besides are the powers here.

With our artists, btw, we are moving more and more out of the classroom and into small groups headed by a master or guru. The classroom is just a rite of initiation into technique. Great art doesn’t come from classrooms, anymore than do holy priests.

c) Will provide them a more profound sense of “what the world without God looks like” which should heighten pastoral urgency. A seminarian I know was deeply impacted by the film Requiem for a Dream…
d) Arts can bond the group. Experience a work of great art together can be an intimate, powerful experience that connects you to another human being in a way as unrepeatable as the moment.

“Celebration is the song of joy and thanksgiving flowing from a sense of unity, but also creating and deepening it…Nourishment comes in those moments when the whole community becomes aware of the current of life which flows through it.”
(from Community and Growth, Jean Vanier)

[CLIP from The English Patient OR Babette’s Feast]

e) The seminarians need to be given a formation to discern healthy entertainment from unhealthy. Again, this should be a common sense discussion, but it has been hijacked by the polarization of the times. So, people on the Right think anything with any sex, language and violence is bad. I spoke to a group at Steubenville and I said to them, “We never want to get to a point in which we would keep our children from looking at Michealangelo’s David. Right?” There was a dead silence in the crowd. Many weren’t too sure… Traditionalists too often over simplify by saying anything old is good. And correspondingly, anything new is bad.

The movie In the Bedroom a couple of years ago made a profound statement about forgiveness, and that we forgive not so much as a mercy for the one who wounded us, but because if we don’t forgive, we will end in doing worse things than they did to us. Yet, most of my religious friends didn’t support the film because there was a subplot of out of wedlock sex, and because in the end, the couple gets away with committing a crime…. “Yeah, but they were insane!”

On the left, people sneer at the suggestion that anything in media is really harmful. These are people who generally get the idea that eating junk food can be physically toxic, but who posture that making careful selections in media is somehow a fascist attempt to thwart the First Amendment. There’s a leftist leaning nun I know who is always getting seduced by flashy looking Hollywwod movies. Several of them have been damnably subversive in their storytelling technique. But she doesn’t see that, because I think she thinks she is immune or something.

It’s absolutely absurd.

The way through all this is to resist oversimplifying what is essentially a complex problem of modern life. We need to help our young people to live in this age in which they live moderately, prudently and pastorally. Priests need to watch media not as fans, but rather as people trying to stay alert to ‘the signs of the times.’ It would be a good thing to have some mandatory courses for pastors to be in cinema as it is the art form of our time. To demystify the screen storytelling process and techniques would serve your men well. First and foremost, it would help them get away from just seeing movies in terms of their story content.

III. Seminarians Need a Formation in Aesthetics and Entertainment for the Rest of Us
a) Once they are ordained, your seminarians will need to enter into dialogue with media-saturated sheep. They need to absorb as a strategy that they should not compete with the arts, but should instead work with them. Especially with young people. It is a pastoral necessity today to be able to talk about what the matrix means, who Joan of Arcadia is talking to and the relative odds that love found with The Batchelor won’t be unconditional and life-long. I would say, you are functionally irrelevant as a pastor in this particular moment if you cannot complete the sentence, “With great power comes…_______?”
b) They will need to minister to and with artists in their future parishes.
c) They will be the ones to commission works of art – Renaissance comes from pastors…
d) They will need to harnass the power of the arts for the Gospel
1. Definitely need musical training.
2. Absolutely they need training in Oratory – Sorry, but that is their art form – Maybe they won’t be Fulton Sheen, but they can be rendered competent. Studies in craft can lead to competence if not genius. They need to learn what it means to “speak with authority,” and what are the principles of good parables.
A. Parable principles:
-The story is enough;
- Story/Metaphor must always be Clearer than the Truth your are trying to explicate
- You say it in a story because you can’t say it in a sentence
- A good story needs Pathos, Logos, Ethos (something for the heart, something for the mind, something magical/memorable)
- A good story has a clear beginning, middle and end which all develop a central point. It ends when it is done. It doesn’t wind down agonizingly in search of a reason to exist…
- Best parables are the ones from their own lives (it will give the preaching passion because there is nothing we would rather do than talk about ourselves)
B. What is it to speak “With authority”?
- Two cardinal rules of Hollywood – and should be for every preacher: Don’t bore me. Don’t waste my time. You bore me when you tell me something that is obvious. (In order not to tell me something obvious, you have to prepare and do research). You waste my time when you tell me something irrelevant. Things that are irrelevant may be fine in themselves, it’s just not the question that is meaningful to me right now. Hence it is irrelevant. It means you need to know your audience. (Can’t speak to every age group out there. Hollywood would never do that. Speak to the adults. Let them translate down.) We tell our screenwriters, “Commerciality is in the intersection of the passion of your heart, with a cry of the world.”
- You take risks. You put what you believe out there without equivocation. I write magazine articles. After I write an article, I always go back and then cross out all the phrases like: “in my opinion”; “I think,” or the corollaries, “I feel” or “I believe”; “it might be said”; “perhaps”;

Removing these phrases gives power to speech. It also enrages people who disagree, but that’s between them and God…
- You are speaking Macro themes that have been derived from your own micro stories. “This I know to be true.”

V. Liturgy as the Priest’s Primary Art Form

“Liturgy is the common art of the People of God in which the community brings the depth of emotion of our lives to the ethos of God. In these acts, we discover who we are, but primarily, we discover who God is in this art.”
(from Worship and Theology, Don E. Saliers)

a) The liturgy doesn’t use art. It is Art. The art of worship includes formation in theology, liturgy and aesthetics.
b) Aesthetic experience is not the purpose of worship. The point is to make the ethos of God at the center with the pathos of human beings
c) We are NOT trying to create an artificial formalism that substitutes propriety for genuine encounter with the living God.
d) Liturgy as an art requires all that art requires: form, material, discipline, imagination and pain
e) The liturgy is symbolic, parabolic, metaphoric
f) It isn’t a performance around the people: The people are the players. We have to rouse them to their best creation: reverence + compunction
g) Again, ecclesial polarization is messing everything up here. On the Right, the focus in liturgy is exclusively about beauty and reverence and solemnity. On the Left, it is exclusiely about community and particularly celebration. The fact is, genuine liturgy must be both and more. It must be a meeting of the truth about God – making the holy present, with the truth about us. The awareness of God leads to awe and wonder. The awareness of our reality leads to humility, anger, sorrow, openness.

[The Liturgy in which God is not experienced] “is a spectacle and a sin.”
(Gerardus van der Leeuw)

III. End
The knowledge conferred by faith is the preeminent knowledge. Yet, it too can be enriched by artistic intuition and the sense of wonder stirred by the beautiful. In his closing of his Letter to Artists the Pope describes a progression that moves a person from beauty to wonder to enthusiasm:

“People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the critical challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, every time it loses its way, humanity will be able to lift itself up again and set out on the right path. In this sense, it has been said with profound insight, that “beauty will save the world.”

Saturday, July 10, 2004

CRITICAL MESS

or

'THERE'S NO AGENDA LIKE SHOW AGENDA'

Here is a great compilation of the critical raves and rages for Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ. Not that any of us are in doubt about the lock-step cinematic correctness that one finds in the mainstream media. It just made me feel all warm and fuzzy to be so damn right again. Thanks to Dom Bettenelli for linking to this, and to Jeff at Beautfiul Attrocitesfor putting it together.

Friday, July 09, 2004

O COME ALL YE FAITHFUL...

Passing on a message someone forwarded me...

BIG EVENT IN ANDALUSIA

Andalusia, home of the celebrated author Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia, will be the site for Remembering Flannery: a special commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the death of Flannery O’Connor. The Flannery O’Connor – Andalusia Foundation will host the program, which will begin with opening comments and acknowledgements from O’Connor scholar Sarah Gordon at the exact time of the writer’s death, quarter past midnight, the early morning of August 3. Activities throughout the twenty-four-hour event will include, by permission of the Mary Flannery O’Connor Charitable Trust, readings of all the stories from the collection A Good Man Is Hard To Find by scholars, teachers, students, and fans of O’Connor’s fiction who wish to participate. The readings will take place at various locations in the Main House where O’Connor lived and worked and also around the house on the beautiful grounds shaded by majestic oaks and cedars, the place that inspired many of O’Connor’s stories.

There will be an outdoor Mass under a tent on the front lawn at 6:30 p.m. followed by a blessing of the Main House. Local choral groups and musicians will provide music before and after these ceremonies. The public readings will continue until quarter past midnight on August 4, the conclusion of the event. The PBS video of O’Connor’s story, “The Displaced Person,” filmed on location at Andalusia in 1976, will be shown in the Main House at regular intervals throughout the day and night. All activities are free and open to the public; however, the Foundation always welcomes donations, which are fully tax-deductible.

The gift shop in the Main House will be open during the event and features books, shirts, hand fans, bumper stickers, note cards by Frances Florencourt (O’Connor’s first cousin), prints of the Stan Strickland Andalusia painting, Josephine King’s O’Connor Perpetual Calendar, and other unique souvenirs. Guests are encouraged to bring folding chairs, snacks, and drinks and are welcome to drop in when they can or stay for the entire event. This special commemoration is already attracting national media attention and will likely be covered by newspapers, radio, and television throughout the state. Andalusia farm is located on Highway 441 North, directly across from the sign of the Ramada Limited, in Milledgeville, Georgia. For more iiformation, call the Foundation at 478-454-4029 or visit the website at www.andalusiafarm.org.

PLEASE MAKE PLANS TO ATTEND. WE LOOK FORWARD TO SEEING YOU!

Craig R. Amason, Executive Director wiseblood@alltel.net
Flannery O'Connor - Andalusia Foundation
P.O. Box 947
Milledgeville, GA 31059
www.andalusiafarm.org
478-454-4029
"WHAT IS THE USE OF A SIGN WHICH IS ITSELF ONLY ANOTHER RIDDLE?"

I have been driven back to C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces lately. This is a book that I only understand in its parts, but its whole is too much for me. It sets me yearning for I know not what. I think this is what Emily was referring to when she said, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” (As related to Thomas Wentworth Higgons, August 20, 1870)

Anyway, all that to share a piece of the greatest writing Lewis ever produced. A truly literary work.

I say the gods deal very unrightly with us. For they will neither (which would be the best of all) go away and leave us to live out our short days to ourselves, nor will they show themselves openly and tell us what they would have us do. For that too would be endurable. But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dreams and oracles, or in a waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and then glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most want to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another; what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman’s bluff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places?

I say therefore, that there is no creature so noxious to man as the gods.

Till We Have Faces, CS Lewis
"ONWARD DAUGHTER OF GOD!" (God to Joan of Arc)

Congrats again to Barbara Hall for winning the 2004 Humanitas Prize for hour-long episodic television yesterday. Barb won for the pilot episode of Joan of Arcadia. She was competing as a finalist against John Wells for an episode of ER, and Joy Gregory, one of the other writers on Joan. I haven't seen Barbara for nearly a year, so it was nice to have a few moments to chat with her again. I'm so proud of her and what she is doing with this show. It seems surreal because I remember hearing about the concept from her three years ago when we were meeting for RCIA. She wanted to know if it would be presumptious to make a show with God as a character. I told her, "Do what you have in your heart." It did seem like a crazy idea at the time, so it is great and weird to go to an awards banquet, packed with elite Hollywood people, and see Joan take an award away from ER! Very cool.

Of course, the viciously unfair propaganda piece Angels in America also won. But in an election year, that kind of thing has to be reckoned an irreistible temptation for the industry, so I'm not going to let it dilute Barb's award in my consciousness. Nope.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

SHAKING OUT THE COBWEBS

[Note to comic book lovers: Sharpen your swords.]

I'm running too much these days for erudite blogging. But I did see the new Spidey movie, and my Sicilian nature just can't resist the opportunity for some life-affirming snarkiness.

Here's what I think about Spiderman II. I will grant that it may be considered the top comic book movie ever (althought I really enjoyed Superman with Christopher Reeve), but ultimately, that is like saying that the Whopper is the best kind of junk food. This is a fun movie to watch for a while, but there really isn't that much here in terms of theme development.

The first movie makes the point (several times, with authority) "With great power comes great responsibility." This second installment can be summed up thematically as, "Great responsibility is, well, great rsponsibility, and that's something that comes with, well, great power." The story gets repetitive as Peter Parker wrestles back and forth with being Spiderman. There is one point in the film which seemed to me to have been edited out of place because it put the character back before he had already made a decision. Can't even remember exactly whether it was his "Yes, I'll be Spiderman" or "No, I won't", because he seesaws back and forth too many times to keep it straight.

Big problem in the project is that there really isn't any suspense over the main issue of the film. No one in the theater is the least bit worried that Peter Parker is going to walk away from being Spidey. So, all the time spent on watching his dilemma is ultimately cinema without suspense.

Several times I thought the characters choices were unmotivated: why would Aunt May be mad at Peter after his confession? What woman - read MJ - would really be pining after an underachieving, schleppy little pauper who keeps letting her down? I mean, really? Why hasn't the Green Goblin's son ever put together that his father was a super villain? Does this mean that every time Peter is in a funk, he will lose his super powers?

It's a fun film. The best parts are watching Spidey fling himself from web to web. But it should have been thematically richer. It should have been funnier. It should have been scarier. It's good fast food, but that's all.

Monday, July 05, 2004

DEJA SCHOOL

We started Act One-Hollywood today. Thirty more writers from 10 states and even Australia. So far, they seem like a good group. We'll all do our part and then it will be up to them.

As this is the fifth anniversary year of Act One, I gave the keynote address for the program's Opening Luncheon. Here are a few notes from my talk. (Sorry they are a bit sketchy. It's all I've got.)

.........

(Started with the Scripture story from Luke of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. The pattern in the story is the pattern of every work of God: Invitation. Sacrifice/Offering. getting blessed and broken. Feeding of the multitudes.)

I. The Invitation

Back in 1998, I wrote the following in my retreat journal. It was the first mention of Act One in my journal, and I write it here to show how far God has taken us from our first concept of what the program was going to be...

“Protestant guy in Hollywood asked me to come up with an event to help Christian screenwriters. Yeah…. It will be two weeks sometime next year.”

“Can you ‘train’ writers? It would be neat to try and do a graduate program where God is a bigger influence than Karl Marx….What would be the main things Christians need: an appreciation for the limits and possibilities of the art form! A commitment to professionalism as an act of charity! …David thinks the point is to partner up new writers with experienced ones. Me thinks there aren’t enough Christian writers in Hollywood to go around.”

The "invitation from God" phase in any new thing seems to be identified by the recognition of new problems. So, for the apostles, the invitation brought with it the problem: “You go and feed them yourselves.”

a) Biggest problem I envisioned back in 1998 was whether we would find enough professionals in Hollywood to teach. The original meeting for the program on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul in 1999, four of us writers went through a list of Inter-mission's rolls and came up with thirty names of writers. None of us thought that we would coax more than ten of the professional writers out of the Christian closet back then… (We have utilized over 100 professionals in the last five years and have now taken to rotating faculty between our various programs. In that first year, twenty-nine of the writers wanted to be part. We ended up lengthening the program to fit the number of writers who wanted to be part. Twenty-nine writers, thirty days.)
b) The second problem was in finding writers worth training. One of our initial consultant thought the program should be limited to only four or five writers a year. When we got 75 applications in that first year, we kept expanding the size of the class to “as many people as could comfortably sit around a table. We figured that number was 24…so we ended up taking 30 students that first year.
c) The one problem I wasn’t conscious of in 1998 was how to raise money. It wasn’t my problem. It wasn’t something I had any experience in. It wasn’t necessary anyway. We had enough money to do our one time event.

II. The Blessings and the Brokenness

Every blessing has, in a sense, come alongside some kind of brokenness. The principal brokenness of these first five years has been in the intense labor and commitment to the establishment of starting this new thing. There has pretty much only been Actc One in my life. But I have seen the same kind of sacrifice in our faculty and mentors, staff, volunteers, donors and alumni.

But the principal blessings have come as insights. These were not things we started knowing back in 1998, but one by one, they have come to define this program. They have almost all come after a being broken, in that we found them generally by banging our head up against doors providentially closed by the Divine Will, or else by being yanked kicking and screaming through other doors opened providentially by that same Will.

I want to go through a few of them here to offer to you all to brood over in the valuable way that the study of history offers. I think this is also valuable for the new students and all of us who are writers, because each of these pretty much applies to every particular work of God with which you might be engaged.

b) A sign of growth is that you always have new problems.
c) Success in ministry, is in finding a way to give your clients more than they asked for or think they need.
d) There is no decision that can not be adjusted. The only thing that can not be harnassed and redirected is inertia.
e) Commerciality is found in the intersection of a wound of the world and the passion of my heart.
f) There is no joy without commitment. The sign of commitment is sacrifice. Sacrifice must hurt or it isn’t sacrifice. (Something has to die in a sacrifice.)
g) The best fundraiser is to do what you do anyway and see if you can get paid for it.
h) Never bridle the Spirit. If anyone in the community has a passion to start something, get out of their way and let them do what they feel called to do.
i) The community that seeks to survive for itself will founder. It is the community that seeks to survive for a need outside itself that is sustained.
j) Christian community is not in the absence of sin. It is proved in the way it reacts to sin. Accountability. Compunction. Repentance. Forgiveness.

III. The Future
a) The obvious dreams: a building. Several more programs. Recognition. The writers fellowship. The actual impact on culture. More money than we can even dream of spending.
b) A sign of the action of God is always that several people see the same light at the same time. The “light” that has been getting progressively harder for us core faculty to ignore, is the need to establish the Act One program as a facilitator of spiritual growth and maturity to our community. A chaplain? Spiritual counseling? Training in theology? Coordinated community prayer?
c) We must internalize the Act One brand: To give the audience more than it asks for. (Projects that haunt them as they walk away and enter into their framework. Scripts that are a saving line to people out in the storm. Giving the audience a seat at the table.)
d) I have to direct myself to the program alumni... (This is not for all of you. But for those for whom it applies…) We need you to be much more ugent and focussed on the task that you have been prepared for. When the Pope went to France, he said, “France, eldest daughter of the Church, what have you done with your baptism?!” Dear alumni, you can sell a few scripts and have a career, or by your determination to add to and pass on what you have learned, you can enter into the history of Hollywood. You can produce work that will feed your family. Or you can produce work that will feed a multitude. You can be a single sign post, or you can be a link in a powerful chain.

I would say to all of us in this unique and wonderful new community, we all need to do more. Being part of Act One isn’t just a nice thing. It is a grace. You either believe in this work of God, or you don’t. It will only continue and thrive, if some of you step forward to die a little, to take it to the next level.
e) Renewing the Model for Creative Christian Community. In five years, we want to see holy cells of masters and apprentices out of which great and beautiful things will come. Art doesn’t come out of classrooms. It comes out of studios. Artistic craft isn’t taught. It is handed on. The artist’s life is one of continual sacrifice: the demands of excellence; the pouring out of personal insights; the brooding over the next generation. The future is to restore artists to their place in the heart of society. To free them from the misery of their proud isolation and navel gazing, and turn their eyes outward in pastoral love.





EMILY MONDAY


1548

Meeting by Accident,
We hovered by design --
As often as a Century
An error so divine
Is ratified by Destiny,
But Destiny is old
And economical of Bliss
As Midas is of Gold --

Thursday, July 01, 2004

WASTIN' AWAY...

...by a pool in Las Vegas for the next three days. Is there a better way for a former nun to celebrate Independence Day? Happy Fourth every one! God bless America -
RECONSIDERING PAC MAN


Here is an article I wrote a couple of years ago basically taking the position that video game playing is an irredeemable addiction. I got a thoughtful dissenting message the other day from blog reader, Rob, who wanted to offer a different take. I reprint his message here for two reasons: A) to help get at the truth about this new technology, and, B) as an example of what respectful discursive looks like.

"...I just came across your article, "Video Game Culture: A Harmless Addiction?" -- now, it's not that I completely disagree with all that you've said, but I thought I'd like to write and offer a point of view you didn't seem to consider when you said, "Video games produce nothing... video games teach nothing."

I would argue that on the contrary, in our modern world, computer game skill can perhaps be compared to "hunting and gathering" skills of old -- archery practice served a valuable purpose, for example, in mediaeval times. Video games, in our modern times, can likewise be the beginning of training in important life skills. We live in a progressively more computerized and "information"-based society (like it or not), and a young person without any kind of computer skills is definitely at a disadvantage in many careers... even car mechanics, today, need to be computer whizzes!

If you ask me, the first (and perhaps most important) lesson that a young person learns from video games is this: not to be afraid of computers. If you've ever worked with a middle-aged person, trying to teach them how to use Windows for the first time, you know how hard it is for them because they are so afraid of "clicking the wrong thing." Sometimes it's like they just have this block. (I can't count how many times I have heard someone tell me, "I'm afraid that if I click the wrong thing, it'll all be deleted!") Computer games, however, tend to encourage and reward such experimentation. They show that the computer isn't just some scary data-crunching monster, but a tool that can be used for recreation, as well as productivity. My three and four year-olds, thanks to some great Disney preschool games, are more adept with a mouse and less afraid of computers than many people I work with in my office!

Of course, there are those who would say that gaming has other benefits as well; here's an interesting article:
http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/05/06/1083635268977.html?from=storyrhs

So, I feel your conclusion is far too harsh. Sure, games can be an addictive "escape" from the problems of real life -- but the same can be said about just about anything. You suggest that learning sports would be a better activity for children, but I know many more fathers who neglect their family to pursue their interests in sports than I do that neglect their family to play video games. (And here in Canada, the sport to play is hockey -- and how can we talk about violent video games when real-life hockey violence is so real and tangible and applauded and cheered while our children watch and play it?) "All things in moderation," of course, and computer games are no exception to the rule.

And, like any other form of entertainment, not all games are created equal: what if we wrote off all films and novels because some people make pornography? Perhaps your Caesar game teaches you "nothing that applies to the broader world as in 'real' experience," but many games have rich stories, deeper plots, and are more than just strategy -- Role Playing Games like Ultima or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic offer much more immersive stories that Real-Time Strategy games like Caesar (I know, I know: RPG = D&D = Evil... ) Just as you can't really compare a film like Kill Bill with The Passion of the Christ (at least not with a straight face), it's not fair to assume all games are like Caesar or Mario Bros. And if immersive storytelling has no inherent value and "produces nothing," then neither do fiction movies or books.

But if I take it a step further -- and if I may be so bold to say this without insulting you -- your statements are possibly irresponsible, coming from a champion of Catholic screenwriting such as yourself. As you yourself pointed out, games are now bigger than Hollywood -- so, we can't just say, "they're useless and/or evil," because obviously, they are too much of a force to be reckoned with. I believe it would be irresponsible for us as Christians to just ignore -- or worse, run and hide from -- computer games. And yet, as far as I can tell, that's exactly what Christians have done... (the only Christian-themed games I've seen are vapid cannibalizations of the exact sort of violent games we claim to reject... Why do they make "Christian" video games like Doom, instead of like, say, Blue's Clues Preschool...?)

I believe, very strongly, that the computer game industry is just as much in need of initiatives like your own Act One organization and Church of the Masses blog. Perhaps, arguably, even more in need of it... because, frankly, computer games look to be the future of the entertainment industry in the coming generations. So, just to get on your nerves , I'm going to pray that Act One begins to find room to include writers of computer games (who are increasingly mingling with Hollywood) under its organizational umbrella... whether you like it or not. ;)

God bless, and thanks again for your wonderful blog.... "

Thanks, Rob!
MORE ON THE NEW RENAISSANCE

Here is an article my friend Jen Waters wrote for The Washington Times. I am also cureently enrolled in one of the new Brehm Center programs.

Art, Christianity reunited, page A2, 7/1/04
By Jen Waters
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Craig Detweiler is hoping for a modern-day renaissance of the arts. He
dreams of the day when members of the Christian church will again be the
primary patrons of respected artistic endeavors, as in the era of
Michelangelo.

As a filmmaker and student at the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and
the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., Mr. Detweiler,
40, says he believes the renewal is happening, slowly but surely. He also is
the author of "A Matrix of Meaning, Finding God in Pop Culture."

"We want to reclaim that grand lost heritage," he says. "We want to not
only be a place where artists gather, but encourage the next generation of
ministers to integrate the arts into the worship experience."

The Brehm Center is a division of Fuller Theological Seminary that aims
to better equip artists with a theological education and better inform
clergy about the arts. The Brehm Center collaborates with Fuller's graduate
schools of theology, intercultural studies, and psychology to develop
curricula.

William K. and Delores S. Brehm of McLean, Va., first pledged $2 million
in 1999 for the center and increased the amount over time to $15 million
total. Mr. Brehm is on the board of directors of SRA International Inc. in
Fairfax, Va. The money endowed by the Brehms provided funds for new classes
to be offered at the seminary.

The center was authorized officially by the Fuller Board of Trustees in
the spring of 2001, which supported the creation of six new degrees, says
the Rev. Clayton Schmit, academic director of the Brehm Center.

"Those artists who are Christians that come to Fuller Seminary tend to
want to inform their art by studying faith," he says. "They tend to be
people who do not want to be known as Christian artists, but Christians who
are thoughtful artists whose faith informs their work."

Students can now earn a doctorate in theology with a concentration in
theology and culture; a master's degree in theology with a concentration in
theology and culture; a master of arts in theology with a theology-and-arts
format; a master of arts in worship, theology and the arts; a master's of
divinity with a concentration in worship, theology and the arts; and a
master of arts with a ministry focus in ethnomusicology in mission.

Starting in the fall of 2005, students will be able to earn a doctorate
in theology with a concentration in worship and culture or a master's in
theology with a concentration in worship and culture.

"Bill Brehm realized there was a poverty of imagination and thought we
needed to affirm the faith-filled artist and equip the next generation of
ministers to affirm the artists in their midst," Mr. Detweiler says. "We
need about 10 or 20 more Bill Brehms all over the country and around the
globe to affirm the faith-fueled art. We have to rediscover that art is not
frivolous. It's essential to the human journey, to humanity's deepest
longings, needs and questions."

As a student, Mr. Detweiler is earning a doctorate in theology with a
concentration in theology and culture.

"I'm learning how to create, express and interpret more creative
metaphors for the glory and splendor of God," he says. "Unfortunately,
Protestants have done a lot of telling in their art, as in more overt
movies. I'm more interested in showing and demonstrating in my art."

As part of the Brehm Center, "Reel Spirituality: An Institute for Moving
Images" (www.reelspirituality.org) provides educational programs about film,
says Justin Bell, assistant director of the organization. On Oct. 22, "Music
to Our Eyes: Music, Film and Theology in Dialogue" will be held at the
Director's Guild of America in Los Angeles.

"We're trying to give artists better tools to do their art," says
25-year-old Mr. Bell, who is earning a master's in divinity with a
concentration in worship, theology and the arts. "We're rethinking inside
the church how we communicate theology. ... It's not just preaching from the
pulpit."

However, the main goal of the faculty is not to teach the students to
create evangelistic art, says Fred Davison, executive director for the Brehm
Center.

"When God asked the Israelites to create the Tabernacle, there were
things in the Tabernacle that didn't have any function, but to be
beautiful," Mr. Davison says. "We know from the Bible that God appreciates
beauty. We can see that all around us. It's a way we communicate as human
beings."

Instead of focusing on evangelism, Mr. Davison would rather have artists
who are Christians correctly represent the worldview they attest to believe.
Further, since he says only a person can be a Christian, he doesn't use the
word "Christian" as an adjective. He tries to discourage his students from
becoming involved in subcultures, such as "Christian music" or "Christian
dance."

"In an effort to engage in popular culture, we get 'love songs for
Jesus,' " he says. "They think the text of the songs are conveying a
biblical truth, but it's not a biblical truth. These songs may be fun to
sing, but what does the song really say? Does it say a truth we believe
about God?"

Michelle Markwart, 26, a student at Fuller Theological Seminary says she
decided to earn a master of arts in worship, theology and the arts because
she wants to display excellence and professionalism in her work. She is a
vocalist. She also plays the piano and guitar.

"If you've ever seen any amount of church drama, it can be a little
sugary, not very artistic, and very trite," she says. "That doesn't
communicate the love of Christ to anyone, because Christ wasn't trite. We're
tired of seeing the word Christian placed on art because of the stereotypes
it places on Christianity. It demeans the arts. The world doesn't want to
see it. The church has to realize it's our fault as the church for allowing
that stereotype to happen. If we can't take responsibility for our own
hypocrisies, it's really foolish."

Without a credible voice in popular culture, the American church becomes
obsolete, especially in the area of the visual arts, says Jack Hafer,
producer of "To End All Wars," staring Kiefer Sutherland. The film, which
had limited release in theaters and is available on DVD, was based on the
book by Ernest Gordon called "Through the Valley of the Kwaii." Mr. Hafer,
along with other professional artists, mentors students at the Brehm Center.

"The church in America has really been behind the times in the support of
the arts," he says. "The church needs to be part of the great conversation,
which is really the great issues of life, talked about in a great way. ...
I'm doing everything I can to encourage them to keep moving ahead in that
area."