Monday, September 23, 2013


Two new guides for the TV series Nothing Sacred have been posted on the Fuller Theological Seminary media blog "Reel Spirituality." Episode 3 "Mixed Blessings" deals with unexpected consequences from the staff's winning lottery ticket, and Episode 4 "Parents and Children" deals with both sides of the abortion controversy when a staff member is impregnated.

Both episodes are taken from You Tube postings, but you do not have to go to another site, just click onto the pictures to sart watching. I started this series of guides because there are so many ethical and theological issues in each episode that could challenge a group of believers to stretch and exercise their thinking faith. Episode 3 includes 12 questions, one of them being a link to the words and a concert performance of the beautiful sacred song that figures so prominently in this story, "Panis Angelica." Episode 4 includes 10 discussion questions.

Next month we will be posting two more episodes. If you use these materials, please let us know, as this would be an encouraging note that someone "out there" is paying heed. To access the blog go to:

Sunday, September 22, 2013


I am happy that ReadtheSpirit has launched the new Visual Parables site. There are lots of features to explore which will add to the fun of viewing movies through the eyes of faith and ethics.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

To the Wonder

 Rated R. Our ratings: V-1; L- 1; S/N -5. Running time: 1 hour 52 min.
Related Scriptures: Psalm 42:1-2; Song of Solomon 8:6-7; Matthew 5:43-44; Mark 9.24.

 From the very beginning we see that this highly unusual film will be more of a visual meditation than the ordinary story-based film. As it opens we hear a woman’s voice musing, accompanied by a montage of shots,  “Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt. Into the eternal night. A spark. You brought me out of the shadows. You lifted me from the ground. What is she dreaming of? How calm she is. In love. Forever at peace.” The shots show a woman and a man playfully teasing one another on a train, walking the streets of Paris while enjoying some of its monuments, lying together in a park, standing on a bridge over the Seine as a boat passes beneath them, and admiring a medieval tapestry, the camera lingering on the Lady in the tapestry as we hear “In love. Forever in peace.”

Director/writer Terence Malick’s film is a meditation on two kinds of love and the yearning or thirst that sensitive humans experience—the first love is that between Neil (Ben Affleck), traveling in France, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a divorced Ukrainian √©migr√© living in Paris with her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana. This Eros love, as the Greeks called it, is juxtaposed with the agape love of Catholic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). The yearning, on the one hand, is Marina’s longing for the love vouchsafed in marriage, and on the other hand the priest’s thirst for the God whose presence he cannot feel. Through much of the film he suffers the dark night of the soul akin to that which afflicted Mother Teresa.

The lovers travel to Mont St. Michel, the island abbey off the coast of Normandy, basking in the wonder of their newfound romance. As they ascend the stairs Marina comments, “We climbed the steps to the Wonder”—this is followed by their walking through a garden and the vaulted nave of the church—which apparently gives the film its title. Most of the reflections and sparse dialogue involve Marina, with Neil scarcely saying more than three lines throughout the entire movie, and the priest’s prayers and sermons. Neil seems withdrawn, unable to express himself and, worst of all, unable to make the commitment that Marina yearned for while she was gazing at a medieval tapestry in which a maiden is flanked by two unicorns.

Neil does invite her and Tatiana to return with him to Oklahoma, where mother and daughter are happy at first, Neil joining in their frolicking in one tender scene. But we see his reticence in the supermarket scene in which Tatiana runs around marveling at the abundance and cleanliness of the place, and then asking if Neil will marry her mother and become her step dad. He makes no reply. In a later brief revealing shot we see him outside their house looking in as mother and daughter dance merrily together.

Neil works as an environmental inspector for an oil company. When a number of people tell him about a pollution problem, he seems very concerned for their welfare. While wading in a stream he speaks on the phone about the lab tests confirming the pollution caused by the oil extraction, but I am not sure what he does about it, because then the scene shifts to Marina reflecting on love. For a while Marina lives off the loving relationship that was so enriched by their experience together in France, but Oklahoma is so bleak by comparison, and Neil is gone so often. Even when he is present, he is so remote.

Tatiana, unable to forge friendships at school due to her poor English, is the first to express dissatisfaction. “Something is missing,” she tells her mother. When her visa is expired, and Neil has made no marriage proposal, Marina returns to Paris where she hopes to reconnect with her former husband for the sake of Tatania. She longingly reflects that had Neil said the word, she would have stayed.

 Neil discovers an old flame, Jane (Rachel McAdams), a lonely widow who cannot manage alone the bison ranch she has inherited. But will this relationship hold up, given Neil’s withdrawnness and inability to make a commitment?

Neil’s inability to commit is underlined in a brilliant earlier scene in which he and Marina are attending mass at Father Quintana’s church, and during the homely the priest declares, “ Man is in revolt against God. The prophet Hosea saw in the breakdown of his marriage the spiritual infidelity of his own people. In that broken marriage we see the pattern of our world. We wish to live inside the safety of the laws. We fear to choose. Jesus insists on choice. The one thing he condemns utterly is avoiding the choice. To choose is to commit yourself. And to commit yourself is to run the risk, is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.” When the camera switches from the priest to Neil he appears uneasy.

The priest himself is wracked with the yearning for God, similar to that of the writer of Psalm 42. Fr. Quintana moves among his people preaching and living a faith that he himself no longer feels. Many of his parishioners are poor, and he faithfully visits them, or tries to, as some will not respond to his knocking at their doors. At a wedding which he presides over he is the unsmiling one amidst the festivities. An elderly woman says that she is praying for him to receive the gift of joy. He replies, “Me?” and she says that it is because he looks so unhappy. This is reinforced when in the nave of the church the bearded church sexton says virtually the same thing to him. As each of them places a hand on a pane of the stain glass window the old man, so filled with God that he speaks in tongues, talks of the warm spiritual light.

Much more occurs in the last half of the film, again Malick giving us just fragments of plot and dialogue, so that I felt like I was working on one of those children’s connect the dots pictures that sometimes surprised me when the full picture emerged. No filmmaker that I know and admire makes me work as much as does this enigmatic film artist. The result, however, is worth all the effort, especially the nearly last scene in which Fr. Quintana recites part of the beautiful hymn known as St. Patrick’s Breast-Plate, set to some moving visuals.

It is sad that the film could find no one willing to distribute it to theaters, but given the poor box office response of his magnificent 2011 film Tree of Life, this is understandable. Again, I thank God for DVD and streaming video for making this masterpiece available to us. The critical response has ranged from calling it “muddled” and “boring” to that of “masterful.” It might not be for you, but I urge you to sum up your patience and give it a try. But do this with several spiritually astute companions who like to discuss films: this is a film that will prove the mantra I teach at my film workshops on the need for group involvement with a film, “All of us see more than one of us.”

The full review with a set of 12 questions for reflection or discussion appears in the Sep/Oct issue of Visual Parables, which will be available on Sep. 23 when VP's new site is launched..

Friday, September 6, 2013

Closed Circuit

                       Rated R. Our ratings: V -4; L -2; S/N-3. Running time: 1 hour 36 min.

Claudia and Martin appear before the special judge, but most
of the drama takes place outside the courtroom.
(c) 2013 Focus Featues

                                           The eyes of the LORD are in every place,
                                           keeping watch on the evil and the good.
                                                             Proverbs 15:3

                                           They sit in ambush in the villages;
                                              in hiding-places they murder the innocent.
                                          Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless
                                                               Psalm 10:8

Director John Crowley and screenwriter Steven Knight demonstrate that a thriller does not have to include blazing guns, falls from great heights that do not injure, or cars making impossible maneuvers through heavy traffic and crowded sidewalk to hold the interest of the audience. (Though there are a couple of foot chases we must admit, but these do not require stunt drivers or CGI effects.) Just give us a story that is relevant and characters that are more normal than the impossible to stop heroes of the CGI-enhanced blockbusters. With all the debate over the US government’s intelligence gathering, no film is more relevant than this one, even though it is set in London and not in Washington, D.C.

The film opens with a split screen showing images from a dozen or more security cameras. We see shoppers and vendors in a large London market. We can hear snatches of the subjects’ conversations as they pass close to a camera. A white truck pulls up, and vendors call out that it cannot park there. Suddenly an explosion demolishes the place. Over a hundred bodies are found amidst the rubble. The police quickly track down the alleged perpetrator, an Arab immigrant Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto) entering the country from Germany.

Barrister Martin Rose (Eric Bana) is assigned to defend the man because the original lawyer had died. Because the Crown wants to protect the secret intelligence the prosecution will submit as evidence, a vetted defense lawyer, Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), also has been appointed as a Special Advocate to review the classified evidence in the government's case. The two are ordered to have no communication between them that would taint the evidence. The problem is that Claudia had once been Martin’s lover, which had led to the breakup of his marriage. How will they relate in their common cause to defend their client?

Two other important figures are the Crown’s Attorney General (Jim Broadbent), who often approaches Martin with warnings about his going too far in his investigation. New York Times reporter Joanna Reece (Julia Stiles), successfully maneuvering to meet Martin at a dinner party, really sets the intrigue into motion by suggesting that the original defense lawyer did not just die, but was murdered because he learned too much about M15 and its operations.

Though this seems far-fetched at first, upon further investigation Martin learns that his client had been arrested in Germany on a drug charge. Despite this he was able to come to London with no problems. How could this happen? Also, Martin is worried because the same taxi keeps showing up when he needs a ride. Hmmmm. The intrigue becomes more complex as the trial at Old Bailey proceeds and a special M15 and Farroukh’s teenaged son Emir are brought into the case.

Interspersed throughout the film are shots of clusters of surveillance cameras and then a screen full of multiple images of people going about their business. Often we see Martin and Claudia in them, so we, and they, know that they are under constant surveillance. With M15 brought under suspicion, the film reminded me of Three Days of the Condor, the 1975 film which was one of the first to portray the CIA as a dark force that could be as evil as the Soviet menace from which it was supposed to be protecting us. That film’s conclusion pinned the hero’s hope for justice on the New York Times’ using the documentation he is shown delivering to it in the last shot. But what if M15 can stop such a transaction “by any means necessary”?

Throughout the film I felt a chill or sense of creepiness each time the cameras and their images were displayed on the screen. The nagging question kept arising, in this world so dangerous that we need to have someone constantly watching for possible terrorists, “Who is watching the watchers?” For the author of Proverbs it was a comfort to believe that “the eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” The Lord can be trusted to look out for our good, but how much trust can we place in those humans watching over us? What if the words from the 10th Psalm apply to them?

For Reflection/Discussion
There are several spoilers later on in these questions!
1. How does this thriller compare to the normal summer blockbuster thriller? Why is this one far more believable?
2. How did you feel during the many shots of security cameras and their images? Where do you see them during your normal day? In stores; government buildings; at traffic intersections; in your own home?
3. In a dangerous world, in order to protect democracy, which do you think most people will choose—security or freedom and privacy? What are the arguments for each side? What do you know of the “Red scare” after WW 1; the “witch hunts” of the McCarthy era; the mood of the country right after the US invasion of Iraq when Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks spoke out against the war? (For more on the Dixie Chicks see
4. Though set in London what relevance do you see the film has for the US?
5. What do you think has caused novelists and filmmakers to change, beginning in the 60s, from depicting the CIA and similar foreign intelligence agencies as good and heroic to an agency capable of evil doing? (Another current example is 2 Guns, a thriller in which Naval Intelligence and the CIA are both depicted as unsavory.) What danger in a democracy do you see in entrusting secrecy and great power (and funding) to a government agency with almost no accountability?
6. Three Days of the Condor, especially at its conclusion, saw hope in the battle against government secrecy and corruption in the power of a free press to get the word out to the public. How is this hope quashed in this new film? Were you surprised by the fate of the NYT reporter?
7. How do Martin and Claudia depart from the usual path of the screen hero up against an opponent of immense power? How is their admission of defeat more realistic? And yet how is their resolve to protect the life of young Emir evidence that they have not totally given in?
8. What do you think of the newscast you hear at the end of the film? How is this necessary for this film to avoid being nihilistic or cynical about the issue of great misuse of power? Do you share the filmmaker’s apparent belief that the truth will finally emerge in a democracy, despite attempts to cover up such a major mistake as was made by M15? Note how the psalmist shares the belief that right will win out eventually, especially in Psalms 37 and 73.