All posts filed under: Arts

What Mary Oliver Knows About Death and Beauty

Like many of her devoted readers, I spent the months after Mary Oliver’s death re-reading her poems. Her books boast the most worn spines on my bookshelf, but I have to admit that they have seen some neglect since I started an MFA program in poetry two years ago. Mary Oliver is not the kind of poet you are supposed to talk about in class, especially when you are asked to talk about poets that inspire and challenge you (I learned this the hard way on about the third day of class). I get it: her poems do not have an overt political edge, they do not do anything shocking in terms of form, and they do not seem to be scared of being sentimental. One of my favorite poetry professors, a sharp editor, once critiqued a poem I wrote for a workshop: too much wonder in too small of a space. He would hate reading Mary Oliver. I stopped mentioning Mary Oliver on the first day of workshops, when we would customarily introduce ourselves …

The (Video) Game Is On

The remarkable growth of various forms of electronic gaming in our culture may strike us as an ambiguous phenomenon. Yet, it must be admitted that video games are worth taking seriously as an influential popular art form. Even non-gamers like myself can appreciate their visual design, narrative intricacies, and other distinctive qualities. Artists in other media have paid homage to the allure of video games. The AMC television series Halt and Catch Fire nodded to the creativity of early game designers and programmers. Steven Spielberg’s recent film Ready Player One showcased the excitement and power of games. A live-action television series based on the celebrated game Halo is on Spielberg’s production docket. My own interest in popular culture has been an asset to my work in campus ministry. Movies, television, music, advertising, fashion, sports—all of these have currency in young adult culture, and carry the potential for serious reflection. They provide opportunities to explore personal and social issues, or to delve into philosophical and theological questions. A personal case in point involved a college student …

Facing Lent Discouragement

This week’s liner notes unpack the second half of the contemporary/secular portion of the playlist, in which many of the songs touch upon themes of journeying, of seeking out light in the midst of darkness, of the hope of transformation. Many people—myself included—begin Lent in a spirit of zeal, energetically embracing practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that have been thoughtfully discerned and chosen. However, by the second or third week, the energy around these practices often begins to lag, and it is not unusual for minor slip-ups or major falls to occur, which, in turn, can lead to a sense of discouragement in the face of one’s own limitations. When failure occurs, the easy thing to do is to give in to discouragement: to wallow in self-pity or self-loathing, to rationalize, justify, excuse, whatever the case may be. Such is the way of pride, for it curves us inward and keeps the focus on the self, rather than on God, who is the only possible source of healing and strength. Humility provides the only …

The Solemn Joy of Lent

T he beginning of a new liturgical season calls for a new Spotify playlist: 40 Songs for the 40 Days of Lent. Curating this list has presented a unique challenge: there is a lot of really beautiful music out there that would lead one deeper into Lent, but much of it is very somber. Taken in context, this is not a bad thing; it is certainly appropriate for music to reflect the penitential austerity of the season, but it seems unlikely that anyone would want to listen to an entire playlist of funereal minor music. Lent, after all, is not a season without its joys, and these are not simply restricted to Laetare Sunday. Even in the midst of our penitential practices, each Sunday we still witness with growing anticipation the dismissal of the catechumens and candidates for full communion, knowing that it will not be long before they will gather alongside us around the Eucharistic table. Even as we acknowledge our sinfulness, we rejoice as we hear the Gospels: we marvel in awe at …

Who Is an African Without Ancestors?

SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD! For each child that’s born a morning star rises and sings to the universe who we are We are our grandmothers prayers we are our grandfathers dreamings we are the breath of the ancestors we are the spirit of God —Ysaye M. Barnwell of Sweet Honey In the Rock, “We Are” I. Who is an African without ancestors? One of the great challenges of diasporic African life is a constant memory of the loss of home, lineage, and spiritual patrimony. The South African Bantu word ubuntu which translates most literally into something akin to the abstraction “humanity,” is also said to embody the proverb, “I am because we are.” Lasting effects of the Atlantic slave trade have included a cultural dislodging from a holistic worldview tied to land, language, religion, and history. Living in culturally Western societies, whether in Europe, or Latin or North America, has meant that the cultural and aesthetic values that undergird said societies will often be neutral to the flourishing and validation of black life at times, …

Friendship and Freddie Mercury

Bohemian Rhapsody is not a very subtle movie. In the first moments of Bryan Singer’s Queen bio-drama, we get a montage of preparation for Live Aid, the famous 1985 all-star charity concert. The jorts-clad roadies move equipment, thousands of people make their way into Wembley Stadium, the members of the band wait in their trailer, guitars are tuned, costumes are donned, and Queen’s “Somebody to Love” plays on top of it all. Although we soon cut to fifteen years earlier and will not return to this time for another 90 minutes. The movie has successfully telegraphed to the audience: Live Aid is an important climax of this movie. As I said, not subtle. Much of this story is well-known, not only because of the popularity of Queen and Freddie Mercury (a Best Actor nominated Rami Malek), but because it is cliché. In 1970, four young British men form a band to rock on their own terms and for a different audience: “We’re four misfits who don’t belong together . . . playing for other misfits,” …

Roma’s Wounding Confession

SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD! Roland Barthes’s mother died. As the renowned critic and semiotician reflectively sifted through old photos, he stumbled on an image that floored him: there she was, a little girl, in a “Winter Garden” (i.e., a glassed enclosure), radiating some undefinable quality that, he recognized, would characterize her whole future life. Barthes devotes many pages of his book Camera Lucida to this encounter and struggles to analyze the dynamics at work. As an ineffable event, language ultimately fails him, but he comes closest with a paradoxical summary of his mother’s aura, miraculously and photographically transmitted: “Her assertion of a gentleness.” Lying beyond categorization, much of the power of photography lies not in information, Barthes surmised, but in the ability to poignantly “prick” and “wound” us. So, he called this effect (and others sharing a similar immediacy) the punctum of the photograph. Some have summarized his now-famous studium/punctum dichotomy to be the social/cultural meaning of a photo vs. its “personal” meaning, but this falls short. It is clear that punctum encompasses more than …

An Inadvertent Critique of Scapegoating?

SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD! In the beginning of his speech, the just man is his own accuser. —St. Bernard Vice, Adam McKay’s spoof of Dick Cheney, is a feature-length ritual of scapegoating, America’s entertainment du jour. Let me be clear: I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. First, because I enjoy feeling moral outrage, provided it is not directed at myself. Second, during the early years of the Bush-Cheney administration that the film covers, I was more preoccupied with reading every single Agatha Christie mystery than attending to policy decisions. Vice’s plot, like that of The Big Short—McKay’s other darkly educational comedy—was instructive. Yet, something in Vice’s tone is perturbing. It is not the mode of story-telling: McKay’s artistic gimmicks and fourth-wall-breaking create an aptly absurd arena for his faux-Machiavellian tale of Cheney’s rise to power. The cast, particularly Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, impersonate the public figures of Vice with great gusto. Christian Bale seems to really enjoy sinking into a silicone mummy and rolling around halls of power …

Is Truth and Reconciliation Possible?

Director Peter Farrelly’s Green Book seems like obvious Oscar bait: a road trip dramedy centered around two men from very different worlds who find their assumptions challenged as they get to know one another. An unexpected friendship develops, and everyone learns a valuable lesson about not judging people by the color of their skin. We have seen versions of this story before, and when I related the premise of the film to a friend, his response was simply, “That sounds cheesy.” He is not wrong. It does sound cheesy. Yet, his uninformed judgment of the film proved to be an example of exactly the kind of behavior the film seeks to challenge: making uninformed, unfounded judgments. Based on a true story, Green Book is set in 1962. Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a stereotypical “fuggeddaboudit” Italian-American from the Bronx, is hired to chauffeur Dr. Donald Shirley, a refined African-American pianist, who has chosen to perform a series of popular music concerts throughout the Deep South, where the Jim Crow segregation laws are still very much in effect. …

The Wayward Daughters

“All my days I have longed equally to travel the right road and to take my own errant path,” confesses Kristin Lavransdatter, a wealthy Norwegian noblewoman and titular character of Nobel Prize-winner Sigrid Undset’s three-part novel.[1] Set in the fourteenth century, the saga follows the life of Kristin, one of the most complex female characters of 20th century literature, from womb to tomb. She wrestles with the weight of sin, her refusal to reconcile her will with God’s, and the suffering that accompanies her wayward decisions. In Brideshead Revisited, British novelist Evelyn Waugh brings another multi-layered female character to life: Lady Julia Flyte, a wealthy heiress living decadently in 20th century England. Each woman is raised in a devout Catholic home and yet is caught between her own passions and her love for God. Separated not only by geography and several centuries, Kristin and Julia’s lives are very different. Kristin is a mother of many and she lives to become a grandmother. Julia is childless. But Kristin Lavransdatter and Brideshead Revisited share the same themes …