The Gospel According to Terry

The Gospel According to Terry

When I was 17 I went to the cinema to see Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. At that age I’d not long graduated from kids’ movies and my cinema-going diet consisted mainly of James Bond movies and disaster films (it was the 70s). I don’t know why I’d chosen Days of Heaven. Back then, I didn’t choose films based on their directors, and Richard Gere, Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams weren’t exactly big stars. But when it ended, I sat in stunned silence as the credits rolled. I’d never seen anything like it. I think it is perhaps the most beautiful picture ever made. The visceral effect of a Terrence Malick film is hard to describe. It just washes over you. Days of Heaven tells the story of a troubled love triangle set on a vast midwest ranch in 1916, but the story doesn’t sit at the front of the film. It is subsumed under layers of beautiful, languid photography, frequently shot at magic hour, eliciting a kind of heavenly vision. Except that heaven is here. It’s in the light on the grass, the waving fields of wheat, the romantic aura of an unlikely mansion, the images of lonely panoramas, even in the darkness of a locust plague. I was hooked. I watched Days of Heaven many times over during

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‘Midnight, Christians‘: the most radical Christmas song ever written

‘Midnight, Christians‘: the most radical Christmas song ever written

In my previous post I didn’t have many good things to say about the Christmas song, Mary Did You Know. So I thought I’d balance things out by reflecting on my favourite carol. O Holy Night was written in 1847 by two very unlikely songwriting partners. Placide Cappeau was an irreligious French wine merchant and part-time poet. He also had one hand, having lost his right one in a shooting accident. In 1843, he was commissioned to write a Christmas poem to celebrate the recent renovation of the local parish church organ in his home town. Cappeau was happy to do it but, being an irregular church attender, he had to reread the gospel of Luke to brush up on the nativity story. Nonetheless, he completed it in time for a reading at midnight mass on Christmas Eve. That’s why, in French, the piece was called Minuit, chrétiens (Midnight, Christians) after the opening line in the first stanza: Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour,  When God as man descended unto us To erase the stain of original sin, And to end the wrath of His Father.  The entire world thrills with hope On this night that gives it a Saviour. Some years later, Adolphe Adam, a French composer best known for the opera Giselle, set Minuit, chrétiens to music. Adam

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Is this the least biblical, most sexist hymn ever written?

Is this the least biblical, most sexist hymn ever written?

I’m sorry if you really like it, but I think Mary, Did You Know? is the least biblical, most sexist Christmas song ever written. Least biblical because if you reeled off the 17 patronizing questions contained in the lyrics of that song to the real Mary, she might have thrown a rock at you. The real Mary, who had tramped heavily pregnant 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to give birth in a stranger’s home, and who then hauled her child 400 more miles to safety in Egypt, well, she wasn’t one to be trifled with. More than that, she was under no illusions as to who she had just given birth to. Listen to the song of praise she sings upon discovering the enormity of the task that has befallen her: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty

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Christians in the movies: the good, the bad and the ugly

Christians in the movies: the good, the bad and the ugly

This is the third in a three-part series of posts exploring Christianity and mainstream cinema. In the first post I looked at how Jesus has been depicted in film, suggesting he hasn’t been treated terribly well as a cinematic hero. In the second post I looked a Christ-figures, non-religious characters whose lives have mirrored Christ’s in some way. In this post I want to look a some of the best examples of overtly Christian characters in film. The religiously pious aren’t always depicted in the most positive light. Hollywood movies are full of religious nuts. There’s a whole sub-genre of films about mad evangelists like Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and his counterpoint, the tongues-speaking, Max Cady (Robert De Niro) in Cape Fear (1991). Then there’s obsessive fundamentalists, like the albino priest, Silas (Paul Bettany) in The Da Vinci Code (2006), and the Bible-thumping Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) in There Will Be Blood (2007). Similarly, there’s been a regular parade of somewhat unhinged nuns in film, like Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) in Black Narcissus (1947), Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly) in Agnes of God (1985), and the crusading Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) in Doubt (2008). But it’s not all bad news. Mainstream cinema has presented us with some powerful, complex, and authentic depictions of

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Stealth Messiahs: Christ figures in film

Stealth Messiahs: Christ figures in film

In a previous post I complained about how many films about Jesus are so lame. I suggested it was because filmmakers tend to be overly reverential with their central character, as well as appearing to be paralyzed about using speculative or non-biblical dialogue (unless their name is Scorsese). A more satisfying, and frankly more successful, approach is to avoid a sword-and-sandal epic about Jesus himself and opt for a stand-in, a redemptive Christ figure who doesn’t crumble under the expectations of Christian viewers.  So to that end, here are some films I think do well at depicting part of the gospel story by using a character who looks like Jesus in disguise. To begin, allow me to get a couple of my pet-hates out of the way. Firstly, the cruciform sacrifice scene is just downright lazy, if you ask me. Whether it’s Ripley at the end of Alien 3 (1992), or Robert De Niro’s rope-prone boxer in Raging Bull (1980), or the sacrifice of Neo at the end of The Matrix: Revolutions (2003), it’s just all too obvious for my liking. I really enjoy a film that depicts the salvific effect of self-sacrifice, but I don’t need it shoved down my throat. And nowhere is it more obvious than in Cool Hand Luke (1967), where the religious symbolism is laid on

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If Jesus was such a great scriptwriter, why do his movies stink?

If Jesus was such a great scriptwriter, why do his movies stink?

Most viewers will take a biopic at face value, not knowing enough about the subject’s life to know whether it’s an historically accurate portrayal or not. But if you make a film about Jesus you know you’re going to have 1.2 billion Catholics and 800 million Protestants picking it apart frame by frame. That’s because Christians aren’t just fans of Jesus. They adore him. This might explain why nearly every screen portrayal of Christ has to make trade offs like artistry versus accuracy, and accessibility versus reverence. To appease Christian audiences, most filmmakers go for the latter (accuracy and reverence), which turns their Jesuses into vapid, unremarkable messiahs, who often seem either confused or downright smug, or too small for the epic drama they’re part of. But when a filmmaker like Pasolini or Scorsese tries to play with the narrative to make Jesus more accessible or to bring out a particular element of the story, they are pilloried by Christian audiences, and their films are condemned. Here’s eleven depictions of Jesus, most of which prove that while Jesus could write a brilliant script, his movies can be real stinkaroos.   King of Kings (1927) We might as well start at the beginning. This was the first film to portray Jesus using an actor (H. B. Warner). The director Cecil B

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Bruce, Freddie, Elton and the sounds of sehnsucht

Bruce, Freddie, Elton and the sounds of sehnsucht

In Danny Boyle’s new fantasy film, Yesterday, a young musician wakes up from a bike accident to discover he is the only person on earth who remembers the Beatles. So what does he do? He passes the whole Beatles’ back-catalogue off as his own and soars to fame and fortune, of course! Meanwhile, in an upcoming film, Blinded by the Light, a 16 year-old Pakistani boy growing up in England in the 1980s is given some Bruce Springsteen cassettes by a friend and quickly finds inspiration, using the anthems to navigate his way through life as an aspiring young writer in a difficult environment. Much of the inherent charm in the Bruce Springsteen-inspired film is the fact that a geeky Asian boy in northern England could relate so strongly to the muscular New Jersey working-class sensibilities of the Boss’ music. When you also consider the recent success of the Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, and the Elton John rock opera, Rocketman, it’s beginning to look like cinema is getting taken over by the Classic Hits of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. And those songs seem to be everywhere these days. I was waiting in line to buy ice cream at a very cool ice cream truck in New York recently. The customized 1978 Chevrolet step van was pumping out hits

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Grand designs – where heaven and earth come closer

Grand designs – where heaven and earth come closer

Recently, I set myself the modest challenge to list the ten most joyous buildings I’ve ever seen. By joyous I mean in the simple sense that they make me feel happy.  I love looking at them. They bring me a sense of delight, or elation, or contentment. I see the fingerprints of God all over beautiful design, no matter the motivation of their designer, and for me magnificent architecture, like all great art, draws me nearer to God. The Celts believed that the veil between heaven and earth was three feet thick. But in thin places, they said, the veil has worn through. Heaven seems closer. They used the term to describe rugged, breathtaking places like the wind-swept isle of Iona or the rocky outcrops of Croagh Patrick. But for me meditating in the Cathedral of Brasilia or the Rothko Chapel is a thin place. As is laughing at Frank Gehry’s Dancing House or the nuttiness of Habitat 67. Sometimes I’ve stumbled upon thin places in great architecture. Like finding the SR Crown Hall in Chicago. I hadn’t expected to be so touched by it’s elegance and simplicity. Other times, I’ve gone looking for a certain building, knowing it is famed for its transcendence, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Some of the buildings listed here I see every day. Some,

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Was Christ sexually assaulted?

Was Christ sexually assaulted?

Catholic blogger, Mary Pezzulo stirred up a bit of controversy this Lent when she published, Was Jesus Really Sexually Abused?  I must admit, it was a question that hadn’t even crossed my mind before. Pezzulo’s basis for raising it comes from both a reading of the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion as well as historical research into the torturous methods of the Romans. Pezzulo wrote, “The ancient Romans were, as a culture, sadistic. They got off on hurting and humiliating people. And a gang of sadistic Roman soldiers ripped a Man’s clothes off and whipped Him while He was stark naked, then they forcibly dressed Him in a humiliating costume, beat Him up again, ripped the costume off, and threw His own clothes back on Him. That’s sexual abuse.” Some of her readers pushed back on this. They agreed it was abusive behavior, but questioned whether his forced public nakedness constituted sexual abuse. Pezzulo countered with, “Pretend it’s the first time you’ve heard that story.” And when you do try to imagine encountering it for the first time, being forcibly disrobed and mocked certainly has the elements of a sexual assault. But Mary Pezzulo lost a lot of readers when she pushed her argument even further, speculating on what she claimed was standard operating procedure for those brutish Romans. She began

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Follow Me, You Cannot Follow Me

Follow Me, You Cannot Follow Me

In my previous post I mentioned I’m spending Lent meditating on Andrea Mantegna’s astonishing Renaissance painting, The Lamentation of the Christ, also known as The Dead Christ. This week in particular, as I’ve been contemplating it, I find my eyes drawn again and again to Mantegna’s depiction of Jesus’ feet. When you think about it, not many artists concern themselves with the soles of Christ’s feet. We get lots of pictures of his sandaled feet. And plenty of pictures of his feet anchored to the cross with nails as thick as your thumb. But not the soles. Which is odd really. I mean, this is the man who called people to follow him, to walk in his footsteps. You’d think we’d be more familiar with the feet of the one we’re trying to emulate. Alongside my reflections on this painting, I have been re-reading John’s Gospel. This week, I came to the lengthy conversation Jesus has with his disciples while sharing the Passover feast on the eve of his arrest and trial. The feast begins with Jesus performing the scandalous duty of washing his disciples’ feet, a necessary and routine practice, but one never undertaken by a teacher or master to his followers. Peter voices the feelings of all the disciples when he recoils in horror and says, “No, you

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A month with the Dead Christ

A month with the Dead Christ

I’m going to spend 40 days sitting with the dead Christ. I was inspired by one of my teachers telling me he spent every day in Lent contemplating a single image, Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross. Spending forty days sitting with Dali’s God’s eye view of the crucifixion, running his eye down the length of Christ’s cross-anchored body to the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee, centered my professor on the sacrifice of Christ and the love of God the father. So I’m trying the same thing this year, but with a different painting, although one that takes a no less unlikely perspective on the Easter story. Andrea Mantegna was a Renaissance master from Padua in northern Italy. Some time in the 1480s he painted The Lamentation of Christ (also known more bluntly as The Dead Christ). It’s an Easter composition unlike any other. Mantegna’s perspective is so rare, it takes us aback. Christ doesn’t writhe in agony on the cross. He’s not wracked with anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. He doesn’t stand blood-soaked and humiliated before us, a crown of thorns gouging his head, a garish robe of red around his stooped shoulders. We are accustomed to all these views. In Mantegna’s vision, Christ is dead. He’s like stone. Like the marble slab upon which

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The Best Films of 2018 (for people who want to grow in their soul)

The Best Films of 2018 (for people who want to grow in their soul)

“Some people want to grow in their souls. Film must start to take that seriously. We must stop telling them stories they can understand.” – Howard Barker   There were some great movies released in 2018. Black Panther managed to break box office records and represent the African (American) experience unlike any film in recent memory. Isle of Dogs and Game Night were enjoyable diversions. The Coen Brothers’ foray into Netflix, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was terrific. As were American Animals and Roma. But a surprising number of really good films in 2018 addressed really big themes. Themes like love, injustice, white supremacy, religious faith, hope and despair, death and grief. These are the kinds of things some people go to the theater to avoid. But as film writer Howard Barker notes, some moviegoers like films that expand their souls. They don’t necessarily want easy-to-understand fare, and are willing to watch less mainstream films that address important issues. So, here’s five of my favorite soul-growing films of the year and the themes they address:   1. SWEET COUNTRY Theme: INJUSTICE “Sweet Country is Old Testament cinema, with an almost biblical starkness in its cruelty and mysterious beauty, set in a burning plain where it looks as if the sun-bleached jawbone of an ass could at any moment be picked up and

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