What’s so mysterious about the Jesus Prayer? It’s one of the shortest and simplest prayers you can find: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” It’s one of the most ancient prayers, too; think of how often in the Gospels people ask Jesus for mercy. A prayer for mercy would likely have been one of the variations when the Desert Mothers and Fathers (AD 2nd-5th c), who sought to pray constantly, were trying out different short, repeated verses of Scripture to discipline the wandering mind. (St. Augustine reports that they “have very frequent prayers, but these are very brief.”) Those ancient monasteries and hermitages are the spiritual nursery in which the Jesus Prayer had its birth.
[National Review Online; Feb 10, 2011]
The Illusionist has been nominated for Best Animated Feature (I mean the new animated film, of course, not the 2006 live-action movie by the same title), and no one who has seen it was surprised. It is simply a beautiful motion picture. Our protagonist, slipping past middle age, watches mountains and rivers flow past his train window; rain is drizzling, summer is fading into fall, and on the soundtrack someone is wandering around the piano keys in a Gallic sort of way. Sigh. What could be more delicately poignant, or more lovely?
I was once asked to give a talk at Washington’s National Cathedral on prayer in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. I brought with me a large icon, one familiar to many people, showing the Holy Trinity as the three visitors who came to Abraham (Gen. 19:1-8); it was painted by St. Andrei Rublev in 1410. I set up the icon on an easel, but after saying a few words about it, focused on the Jesus Prayer. This simple, repetitive prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”— was developed by the Desert Fathers, as a help toward learning to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).
But when we re-gathered for a workshop later on, I found that the participants wanted to know more about the role of the icon. What is its function in prayer? What are the prayers used when looking at an icon?
How bad can a blind date be? When Eric Messer (“Call me Messer”) shows up an hour late at Holly Berenson’s apartment, invites her to climb onto his motorcycle in a sheath dress and high heels, then answers his phone and makes a date for later (“11:00”—a glance at Holly—“no, 10:30”), it could hardly be worse.
Who thought these two would mesh? Pete Novack, Messer’s best friend from high school, and Alison, Holly’s best friend from college. After the disastrous date, we see a montage of home-movie clips of Pete and Alison’s life—wedding, dinners, parties, and baby Sophie’s first birthday—with Messer and Holly eternally sparring in the background.
When people with strong religious convictions live alongside people who hold different but equally strong views, the results can be explosive. That’s not only a matter of historical record, but a global tragedy as fresh and raw as today’s headlines. The United States, however, somehow defies both human history and faith-based brutality all too common in the contemporary world. What is America’s secret to maintaining social peace, relatively high levels of religious engagement, and increasing diversity?
To answer that question, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, just published by Simon & Schuster, draws on the most comprehensive surveys yet on American religion and public life, taken under the auspices of the Templeton-funded Faith Matters project.
Fans of Bella and Juno will be glad to welcome Expecting Mary, another film showing how an unexpected pregnancy can lead to a happy ending. This time around the mom-to-be is Mary, a 16-year-old runaway; she is headed for California and her dad who, she thinks, will be more understanding and “cool” than her uptight mom.
“I’m only having it because they [her mom and stepdad] don’t want me to,” she tells another character. Is that because of financial pressures, and too many mouths to feed? No, Mary replies, her parents are rich, and “could afford to feed twenty more mouths.” Mary has spent her life in fancy boarding schools while her parents traveled the world. The pregnancy is unacceptable to them because it is an embarrassment, considering their social circle. “They said, ‘Come home, have an abortion, we’ll say it was appendicitis.’” Instead, she ran away.
Among the illustrations in this volume there is an AP news photo from the Russian district of Bogorodsk, dated 1950, of a crowd of people carrying icons out of a church. This isn’t a religious procession; instead, they are handing the paintings up to a man standing in a farm cart. Though it is cold—you can tell from the bundling garments and fleece-lined caps—the crowd looks energetic and happy, and a pretty young woman at the center of the photo looks particularly joyous. In the foreground a boy is holding a small icon, perhaps of Christ. The cart is already overflowing with these paintings of saints and biblical figures on wooden plaques. The load is going to be hauled out of town and burned.
[Christianity Today Movies; August 24, 2010]
Cast: Madeline Carroll (Juli Baker), Callan McAuliffe (Bryce Loski), Rebecca De Mornay (Patsy Loski), Anthony Edwards (Steven Loski), John Mahoney (Chet Duncan)
Can it be love at first sight if you’re seven years old? “Flipped” proposes that, yes, it can, if you’re a bold and lively little girl; the little boy who is the object of her affection might need a few more years to catch on. When Juli Baker spots the Loski family moving in across the street, she strides right into the moving van and tries to lend a hand. Bryce and his dad are put off by her intrusiveness, and Bryce escapes under the pretense that his mother is calling him. In his telling of the story, goofy Juli just can’t take a hint and runs after him, pursuing him to the point that he has to hide behind his mom.
But then the episode is run through again, this time from Juli’s point of view. What Juli sees is that Bryce is just as smitten as she is. When he pushes her hand away, he’s trying to hold it, she thinks. She reads in his “dazzling eyes” a love that is fully requited. He’s “walking around with my first kiss inside of him,” she tells herself.
Thus begins “a half-decade of strategic avoidance and social discomfort,” Bryce tells us. Juli continues to get starry-eyed whenever Bryce is around, even leaning forward from her school desk to sniff his hair, to his overwhelming embarrassment. Through the years Bryce continues to be discomfited and irritated by her attentions. It doesn’t help that Juli’s family is weird: her overworked mom cooks, cleans, and holds down a job while her dad stands outside painting landscapes. Their front yard is a wreck, the embarrassment of the neighborhood, and Juli develops a habit of spending hours sitting in a sycamore tree.
Then, when Bryce is in 7th grade, his recently-widowed grandfather Chet comes to live with the Loskis. About this time Juli learns that her tree is going to be cut down, to make way for a house. She occupies the tree in order to save it, and the newspaper runs a story headed “Local Girl Takes a Stand.” For Chet, this is the kind of spunkiness his dear wife would have shown, and he begins to encourage Bryce to get to know Juli better. For Bryce, however, tree-sitting is more of the weirdo behavior that has had him running in the opposite direction for years.
The novel Flipped, by Wendelin Van Draanen, has been a hit with kids in that 10-14 age bracket for whom feelings about romance are new—exciting, confusing, and seldom efficiently in synch. Van Draanen’s technique of telling an incident from both points of view amounts to a tutorial in adolescent romantic communication.
But director Rob Reiner has brought the story to the screen aiming, I think, at a different audience. Youthful fans of the book can be taken for granted, but Reiner has transposed the action from the present day (as it is in the book) to 1963, angling for a catch of baby boomers as well. The result is a relentless exercise in nostalgia—clothes, hair styles, cars, and doo-wop soundtrack—that begins to feel manipulative.
In a way, the film is a throwback to two of Reiner’s hits from the 1980s, “When Harry Met Sally” and “Stand by Me”. “Flipped” may have looked like an opportunity to emulate the first by depicting a romantic relationship as it evolves over time, and the second by setting events in the context of sentimental Boomer adolescence. The result feels labored. In “Stand by Me” there was a much-quoted, delightful sequence in which the boys discuss whether Mighty Mouse or Superman would win a fight, and what kind of creature Goofy is. In “Flipped,” Bryce’s best friend Garrett complains that there aren’t Three Stooges, there are five, and that Curly-Joe shouldn’t be counted as a Stooge at all. This patch of dialogue sounds like something developed after consulting a focus group.
Dramatically, the film doesn’t quite snap together. Though the young actors do their job well (as do the older ones), there’s little urgency or narrative drive. The various episodes are strung along in sequence, each with its single point to make (Juli is ecologically sensitive, Bryce’s daddy is a jerk), and the net effect is airless. While there are two sequences that are stirring and effective (one depicting a couple’s dinner-table fight, and another a mentally-disabled man’s meltdown in an ice cream shop), neither episode advances the main plot. On either side of them are yards and yards of bubble wrap.
Julie spends some time puzzling over the concept of how something can be either more or less than the sum of its parts. In “Flipped” we get a parade of highly-polished, overly-controlled parts, but the whole is disappointing. A screening audience is often grateful and eager to applaud, but when the last line of this movie was spoken, accompanied by swelling orchestration, the audience of youthful book fans sat in silence.
This is one of those movies where you have to ask, well, what are you looking for when you buy a movie ticket? If you’re happy with a somewhat-entertaining story of young love, mostly free of offensive elements (when did it become OK to use barnyard epithets in a PG movie?), then you’ll be satisfied with “Flipped.” But if you want to be surprised and delighted with a movie that is funny and true, you’ll be happier with some of Reiner’s earlier films. “Flipped” tries so hard to sell itself that it is the sales pitch we hear, rather than the ostensible subject: the unaffected charm of first love.
Talk About It
1. Juli is a lively and interesting character, and she has a strong sense of integrity. But Bryce shows that he is not able to stand up for himself, and when a friend says something cruel about Juli, he does not voice any disagreement. Do you think Juli will be disappointed in Bryce in the long run?
2. Juli’s dad has chosen to devote himself to his painting, though it means that his wife is overworked. Bryce’s dad gave up a similar artistic pursuit in order to earn a good living. It is Bryce’s dad who is depicted as making the wrong choice, a choice that has rendered him touchy and bitter. Yet in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the main character is viewed as heroic for giving up his dreams of being an explorer in order to support his family. When did this viewpoint change, do you think? Is it possible to re-imagine the story in a way that would treat Bryce’s self-sacrifice as heroism?
3. When Bryce’s family invites Juli’s family to dinner, Juli’s mom is so thrilled and excited that she is overcome with “nervous energy”. Why does this invitation delight her so much? What does it represent, to her?
The Family Corner
There are a handful of crude 4-letter words. A provoked dad slaps his daughter on the face.
[Frederica Here and Now; April 22, 2009]
When my daughter-in-law brought in the harvest from her very diligent vegetable gardening, she sent me a photo of the bounty. I felt immediate wonder and gratitude—that with the sweat of her brow (and the much smaller brows of her 6 little ones) God had made this miracle, had made little brown seeds and little green sprouts turn into a basketful of robust edibles. How grateful to God they must feel, I thought. When I want vegetables, I have to pay for them.
The fallacy became clear a few thoughts later. The vegetables I buy at the store are just as miraculous as those in her back yard. But the miracle is hidden from me, because I have to go buy them. I have to hand over my credit card before bringing my vegetables home, so I have the vague impression that they are won by my own labor. God doesn’t get any credit.
Now, admittedly, God isn’t the only factor in a successful vegetable garden. There’s an old joke about a city feller who was taking a drive in the country, and pulled over to watch a farmer tending his fields. Impressed by the abundance stretching acre after acre, he said to the farmer, “Isn’t God good, to provide all this bounty!” The farmer replied, “You should have seen this place when God had it all to himself.”
Yet the fact that we encounter such foods in gently-misted produce displays, rather than sprouting from the dirt, camouflages God’s role. This doesn’t apply only to foods, of course. We do almost everything with money. Earlier generations had to seek God fervently for healing from diseases that we now cure with medication or treatment, bought with our hard-earned money. Earlier generations prayed for clement weather, but we evade extreme temperatures with heating-and-cooling systems, bought with our hard-earned money. An orange used to be a Christmas treat; now we have them year-round, and virtually any other food we desire, from any part of the world. Frankly, there’s not much left for God to do.
We’ve brought so much under human control that only the things left uncontrollable are the biggies: a tsunami, a car accident, a fast-moving cancer. It is for those remaining troubles that we turn to God for help, and, enough of the time, he doesn’t do the job. When I want something done, if it’s under my control, well, it gets done. If it’s something no one can control but God, results are not as reliable. God just doesn’t do as good a job as humans do. When it’s time for performance review, he receives a report of “Disappointing.”
Every night I pray Psalm 50 (51), and in the translation I use there is a line that has long perplexed me:
“That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and prevail when Thou art judged.”
I always wondered, When is God judged? It dawned on me that *now* is when God is being judged. The recent profusion of atheist and skeptical arguments often point to the existence of evil: if there is suffering in the world, either God is not capable of restraining it (he’s not omnipotent), or he doesn’t particularly care what happens to us (his will doesn’t require that things turn out well for humans). As the formula goes, either God is God and he is not good, or God is good and he is not God.
The funny thing about this current theme is that it doesn’t seem oriented toward saying that there is no God at all, as much as saying that God is failing to perform. It’s not a matter of facing a universe that is empty, as facing one where the guy in charge is a senile dufus. We live in an economy where our primary identity is that of consumer; we grow used to making hundreds of judgments every day, as we decide which product will earn our hard-earned bucks. Almost everything that could be under human control has been subjected to our desires; God has only one thing to take care of, the problem of evil. Why does he keep goofing up?
Those lines from the psalm are the end of a sentence; they are conditioned on something that comes earlier. God prevails when he is judged because something else has happened.
“Against Thee only have I sinned and done this evil in Thy sight,
That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and prevail when Thou art judged.”
God prevails when we have an accurate view of the universe. It is one in which we ourselves have sinned, and sinned specifically against Him. The illusion that we are isolated individuals minding our own business, working hard for the things we want and acquiring them fair and square, must dissolve if we are ever to grasp the truth: that God’s life and energy runs through all Creation and underlies everything, including our own bodies; that we exist solely by his grace, and we offend that gift every day. But we are continually being worked over by advertising messages that teach I-me-mine, and assure us that we deserve whatever we want. The only cure for that is repentance, but repentance is bad for the economy. So we are conditioned to be self-indulgent, and conditioned not to feel gratitude. Why be grateful, when we paid for it with our own money? Who does God think he is, anyway?