All posts filed under: Articles

The Grace Lurking in the Midst of an All-Consuming Anger

 SPOILER ALERT: This review does indeed contain spoilers. Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) reads Flannery O’Connor. This is not a defining feature of his, and no neighbor would probably note his reading choice. But to the viewer of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, writer-director Martin McDonagh’s momentary close-up of A Good Man is Hard to Find in Red’s hands early in the film is full of meaning. I suggest that it may be the key to understanding what this film is trying to say. In spite of the cycles of anger that seem to define and consume the world, there are moments of grace that shake our expectations and show another path. It is up to us to choose whether we will walk that new path, or continue down our current road. Three Billboards is the story of Mildred Hayes (Best Actress nominee Frances McDormand), an acerbic woman who rents the titular billboards outside of her southern town to call attention to the unsolved rape and murder of her teenage daughter. Mildred’s message tries to …

The Shape of Water: An Accidental Allegory of the Sheep and the Goats

SPOILER ALERT: This review does indeed contain spoilers. The Shape of Water is a strange fairy tale about a mute cleaning lady named Elisa who falls in love with an anthropomorphic river creature. Despite the film’s oddity, and partly because of it, the selfless Elisa shines as a witness of how ordinary acts of charity can lead to unexpected happiness, or, dare I say (?) beatitude, after the pattern described by Christ in the judgment of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. Elisa is a thirty-something mute woman working maintenance at a government research facility in the 1960’s. One day in a lab where Elisa is cleaning, a new specimen arrives: an Amazonian water creature that looks part human, part fish, and part Pokémon. The scientists in the lab see him as an object of study. His primary captor, Richard Strickland, sees him as an object of disdain. Elisa, his eventual lover, sees him as a creature desperately in need of help. Elisa, One of the Sheep When Elisa encounters the creature for the …

Desire Can Also Be Destructive

SPOILER ALERT: This review does indeed contain spoilers. Is it a video? Call Me By Your Name’s final moment is an elegantly enigmatic yet unambiguously poignant shot of Elio (Best Actor nominee Timothée Chalamet) staring into a roaring winter fireplace, transfixed by the memories of his summer romance with Oliver. The long unbroken take as the credits roll over his face is accompanied by the repeated refrain of Sufjan Stevens’ “Visions of Gideon” murmuring its yearning question: “Is it a video? Is it a video?” This last moment crystallizes the course the film charts: the troubling ambiguity of falling in love (or not) with an Other. Call Me By Your Name, based on André Aciman’s 2007 novel, is a tour-de-force portrait of desire which has prompted flurries of controversy concerning power imbalance, pedophilia, agency, and the depiction of queer romance on screen. This review will not attempt to enter those debates, but instead will attempt an explanation of why this film would necessarily raise those discussions. The project of a theological sexual ethics is interested …

Our Children Might Return to the Church, but Our Grandchildren Most Likely Won’t

It is no surprise that the children of the Church are growing up and growing out of Church. What is surprising is that they are not returning. Worse still, they are not bringing their children. A priest once told me that he was not worried about kids going to college and starting their careers out of the Church, because eventually they too would have kids and that that is when they would return. That way of thinking about Church attendance and growth just won’t do anymore. The problem is not just that the Church is hemorrhaging in attendance[1]; rather, the underlying problem, the reason why church association is hemorrhaging is that the American church has consistently communicated to the younger generations that their formation, membership, and involvement is worth less than that of their parents, who by the way have the money. I am routinely surprised by how often we suppose that children are too uneducated, too unsophisticated to understand the depth of faith. Having grown up in a fairly anti-intellectual tradition, I came to …

Could Dialogue Between Science and Religion Be the Disease Rather Than the Cure?

During the past year I had the privilege of working with the McGrath Institute for Church Life’s Science & Religion Initiative at the University of Notre Dame. Recognizing that polling data consistently indicates that the apparent conflict between “science” and “religion” is the leading cause of young people leaving the Catholic Church, the McGrath Institute developed this initiative with the goal of aiding high school teachers in both fields re-imagine curricula that would explore the relationship between science and religion and challenge the notion that the two are fundamentally opposed. In the course of my interactions with the participants, I was amazed at their expertise in their given field, their willingness to thoughtfully engage core concepts and thought patterns from different fields, and their commitment to their vocation as educators. I am sure that I learned far more from them than they did from me in the course of our time together. Perhaps the most important insight I gained from the experience of facilitating the online forum, in which participants reflected on various attempts to …

Where Does the Healing Power of Music Originate?

“Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast.” —William Congreve, The Mourning Bride (1697), Act I, Scene I Music seems to possess a boundless capacity to ease the suffering of a wounded heart. Whether at a funeral, a prayer service in the wake of a local or national tragedy, a reconciliation service, a regular Sunday Mass in Ordinary Time, or even in the car on the way home from work, music speaks to the heart in ways mere words never could, often requiring no words at all to bring a sense of peace and solace to those who suffer from emotional, spiritual, even physical wounds. Why? Woundedness, at its core, is the result of disintegration. There has been a rupture of some kind, and life’s relative equilibrium has been suddenly and perhaps even violently thrown out of balance, leaving a person feeling like she is no longer herself, like she no longer even knows who that self was in the first place. This spectrum of disintegration is vast and varied, including anything from minor events like …

MacIntyre’s Philosophy of Mercy’s Clandestine Work in a Secular World

Alasdair MacIntyre is most well-known for his scathing critique of liberalism and modern moral philosophy, contrasting this mode of thought with the classical tradition of the virtues found especially in the works Aristotle and Aquinas and in communities embodying this ethos. But what is less well known is a second, but more far-reaching critique of the entire Western tradition of moral philosophy for failing to take seriously the facts about disability, vulnerability, and dependence that are part and parcel of the human condition. Overlooking this strand of MacIntyre’s thought obscures important insights concerning both his politics and the relationships between philosophy and theology in his work. What this account makes apparent is how MacIntyre offers a genuinely Christian but non-sectarian politics of mercy, an account that speaks directly to the contemporary political crisis. A noteworthy passage from Dependent Rational Animals[1] captures this second critique: [T]wo related sets of facts, those concerning our vulnerabilities and afflictions and those concerning the extent of our dependence on particular others are so evidently of singular importance that it might …

Gravity and Grace and Lady Bird

Given its setting in a Catholic high school, Lady Bird is a natural draw for Catholic audiences, especially those who attended Catholic grade schools or high schools. Nearly all of the typical Catholic school jokes are there in some way, shape, or form: nuns performing random spot checks to make sure uniform skirts are the appropriate length, stolen glances between the boys and girls across the aisles during the all-school Masses, even leaving room for the Holy Spirit during school dances. What distinguishes Lady Bird is the fact that these jokes, these moments, are never mean-spirited toward the Catholic school or the Catholic Church as an institution. These moments are wryly-observed, lovingly crafted, and beautifully acted with a quietly joyous humor that disarms audience members who would view the Catholic school with scorn, and thaws audience members who would place the Catholic school on an idealized (and utterly unrealistic) pedestal. Even the moments that could be considered borderline irreverent never cross the line into sacrilegious, because these moments, too, are rooted in truth and joy …

The Exodus and Apocalypse All in One Human Flow

What does a world look like in which there are now 258 million migrants and refugees, representing 3.4% of the global population, or, one in every 300 people? To gain some kind of mental image, let’s begin with the extraordinary new documentary film from Ai Weiwei, Human Flow, filmed in 23 countries and 40 refugee camps. This film is sweeping, immersive, and artful at moments, drawing us in with its use of high-altitude drone cameras looking down at a beautiful cobalt Mediterranean, across which a boat overflowing with orange life preservers gradually pulls into harbor at the island of Lesbos. As the director Ai Weiwei helps the passengers unload, he speaks with a young man from Iraq, a country that now has 4 million displaced people, internally and externally. An Greek aid worker comments to the director that in a single recent week (during the period of the film’s shooting, 2015-2016), some 56,000 refugees arrived in Greece, with another 5,000 drowned en route. The film moves on to Iraq, with another high-altitude shot, this one …

The Human Condition Is Not Pain Only

The human condition is not pain only. Yet pain rules us and has much power. Wise thoughts fail in its presence. Starry skies go out.[1] The sense of touch is the building block of the five senses. The largest internal organ in humans might be the liver, but the conduit of touch, the skin, dominates overall. Touch is the basis for how we commune with the world. The Incarnation also means that Christians believe God touches us directly, especially in the Eucharist. As you read this piece you are either touching your keyboard or device screen. You are absorbing the rest through other senses that rely upon touch. The priority of touch is encoded in idiomatic phrases such as, “This is touching,” or, “That touched me.” They denote a profound encounter that touches the whole person (the Biblical heart), that is, mind, body, and soul. Touch is so ever-present and inescapable, because it both opens us to the world and (one might say “therefore”) vulnerable to the world and dependent upon it. The constant intrusions of …