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Thursday, May 27, 2004
POOR RORY

I wanted to blog last week about the season finale of The Gilmore Girls. I thought it was very thought provoking and, even though it portrayed a character making a bad choice, it was a very responsible and poignant portrayal.

Gilmore Girls is one of the only shows I actually watch with any regularity just for enjoyment. It's a fun show in which the characters are quirky and over-the-top in a O'Connoresque kind of "better than real" mode. I also love the relationships between the various mothers and daughters in the show. Particularly the main characters of Rory and her mother are fun to watch because they are so close that they commuicate on a level most people will never achieve.

So, after a couple of years of leading up to it, in the season finale, Rory ended up sleeping with her former boyfriend Dean, who is currently married to someone else. Lorelei stumbles onto the situation, and the ensuing dialogue bewteen mother and daughter was really amazing for primetime television. "It's adultery, Rory. And that is always wrong." Is pretty much Lorelei's position. She is thoroughly disappointed and even shamed by her daughter's action. Rory countered weakly with the argument, "But we really care about each other. Doesn't that count for anything?" Lorelei's response was strong and clear. "No. He doesn't belong to you...You are 'the other woman', Rory. This isn't who you are." There was really some great stuff in the exchange.

But best of all, at the end, when Rory finally storms out, there was a lovely closing moment in which she ends up alone on the back porch. She breaks down into sobs - we presume not only because of the fight with her mother, but also because of the sordidness of her sin. She doesn't know herself anymore. In the background, her mother's feet appear quietly behind her. They make a move toward her and then stop. The scene fades out. It was a great visual about love, and the isolation of sin, and also how things will never be quite the same for Rory and her mother now. Fabulous stuff.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004
"WILL YA STILL READ ME, WHEN IT'S '64?"

I go to a lot of writers conferences that are called "Christian", but which in fact could be called, "Non-Catholic Christian" writers conferences. Catholic writers and publishers tend to be mostly absent on the speaker's rosters and generally absent in the rosters of attendees. I don't think this is from any real sense of exclusion as I am friends with many of the conference organizers, and they have impressed me as being wonderful, godly people. I think it is mainly a problem of promotion - they don't tend to advertise their events in Catholic circles. There is also a little bit of style concerns - the way Evangelicalism tends to pray and worship is not the way most Catholics pray and worship.

The other problem comes from the fact that Catholics don't have anything like the gallumphing marketing elephant of the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) to make writers into little sub-cultural phenomena. I've been to both the overwhelming overkill of the CBA annual convention and the teency weency "Is that all there is?" of the Catholic Marketing Network conference, and there really is no comparsion.

It is an interesting meditation as to whether it is necessary to start up a "competing" network of Catholic Christian conferences. I think it is necessary because topics of interest to Catholics would not be acceptable to most of the CBA publishers. I would always rather integrate than innovate, but I just don't think Catholics would go to a conference that doesn't have "Catholic" in the title. Maybe I'm worng? Maybe we should try an interdenominational writers conference that will have room for both sides of the worship aisle?

Well, anyway, I was chatting with a friend writer recently about getting together a Catholic writers conference next year, but then we hit on a problem. Who would be the star writers whom we could invite, who would attract legions of Catholic writers out of their solitude and onto airplanes, and then to a faraway city for a convention? Who are the Catholic writers today whose work will be read in fifty or a hundred years? Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, Tolkien and Chesterton were all stars while they were alive. People knew they were great. Who are the great writers today, whose work will last? I am thinking primarily fiction here, although even non-fiction circles would make for an interesting debate. My sense is, there is a lot of assimilation and identification going on with writers who say things we like, but there isn't a lot of great writing going on. So, I put the question out, who are the great writers today who we could identify as Catholic? And be careful... Just because someone has written a few books for Ignatius Press, does not make him a great novelist. Au contraire. t is always a red flag to me that these writers wouldbe published by a Catholic house. The great Catholic writers of the past were absolutely commercial in the secular marketplace.

So, where are they? Who would you come to a Catholic writers conference to see?
WWW IS SO LAST CENTURY

People are emailing me to tell me that blogger has made some kind of change in which its blogs are inaccessible with the "www." in the address. This means all of the web-logs that have links to blogger blogs have to go and delete the "www."'s or the links won't work. You think they could have let us knowww, but, wwwhatever. I wwwon't complain.
SEE BARB TONITE IN DC!

Sorry for the late notice... I am giving a talk that is open to the public tonight in downtown Washington, DC at the Catholic Information Center, on 1501 "K" Street. The talk is a reprise of the only talk anybody seems to want to hear from me these days, "The Art of The Passion of the Christ." Go here for more information. And here for directions. Hope you can make it.
Friday, May 21, 2004
So, I'm sitting here in the Senate Hart Ofiice Building in DC. It's as good a place as any from which to blog. More tax dollars well spent, is how I look at it...

POPE JOHN PAUL II: 'MEDIA: IT IS WHERE IT'S AT.'

[Lifing this from blogger Sanctificarnos.]

John Paul II speaking to a group in Italy yesterday:

"We know well the penetrating influence that the media exercises today on ways of thinking and on behavior, personal and collective, orienting toward a view of life that, unfortunately, often tends to corrode fundamental ethical values, in particular, those that affect the family.

The means of communication are presented to be used also for different ends and results, contributing in a notable way to the affirmation of positive models of life and to the very spread of the Gospel."

The Pope went on to commend the Italian bishops' commitment to contribute to "a qualified Christian presence in the realm of radio-television."

"I desire profoundly that all Italian Catholics understand and share the importance of this commitment, contributing to making the cultural atmosphere in which we all live more positive and serene," he said."
Tuesday, May 18, 2004
IT'S ART STUPID

I admit it. I am now officially sick and tired of the sanctimoniousness of so many Christians who have to let all the rest of us know that they haven't seen The Passion. I am sick of the foreboding tones with which they hint that the film contains some dark, cancerous infection from which they are keeping themselves safe and pure. I was at a party last night and had yet another exchange with "Another Holier Than Mel Christian." I got mad when he had to interrupt a group of us talking about the beauty of the film by shaking his head piously and looking at some gnostic horizon, saying, "I haven't seen the film yet. I don't think I will."

BRN: Oh? Why is that?

GNOSTIC ANTI-TPOTC GUY: (Slightly surprised at being put on the spot, but liking it too) Well, I am afraid to see it.

BRN: Really? Is it the violence? Because, for anyone who has grown up with the Passion narratives, there really isn't that much new in the film.

GNOSTIC ANTI-TPOTC GUY: (Suddenly not wanting anybody to think he is a wimp or anything) No, no. It isn't really that. Violence doesn't bother me.

BRN: Then, what?

GATG: Well, I don't want Gibson's images to replace the ones I have in my head.

BRN: Interesting. Are you afraid of other kinds of art too?

GATG: What?!

BRN: Do you avoid Medieval and Renaissance Churches, old prayerbooks, and pretty much any museum with an art collection worth showing?

GATG: I am not against art.

BRN: No. I don't think you are....Just so we're clear.

Monday, May 17, 2004
BARB ON SOLPIX

Here is a new interview with me for a web-site called SolPix. I think it is primarily European. Anyway, thanks to Bob Morris for persevering with me over the course of about a month to get the interview completed. Here is a snip...

It wasn’t so long ago that a character holding a Bible was a sign that person was a societal menace. Movies like Contact, Misery - too many to name really - all spewed this kind of anti-religious bigotry. In recent years, things are getting a little more fair. Movies like In The Bedroom and Magnolia, as well as TV shows like Joan of Arcadia, all have featured characters who love God and who are not, say, idiots, hypocrites, or bomb-throwing terrorists.

I am more intrigued by recent projects that question some of the lies of the prevailing culture. For example, movies like The Ice Storm and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind really slam the cinematic coffin on the ravages of the Sexual Revolution. In America carried a wonderfully compelling cinematic doubt about money and stuff being an essential element to human happiness. Monster trashed forty years of pop-psychology by making the case that even people who have had tough breaks still have free will.

All of this is stuff religious people have been saying for thousands of years. That must be very galling to the atheistic or agnostic materialists out there. You can’t get away from human history. God wins. Over and over.


AH, VALENCIA!

I’m in the airport here in Valencia two hours early, of course. I came ready to check in early, figuring that the recent bombings in Madrid would mean even tighter security. But no. The Air France desk has a sign in the window, “Come back one hour before the flight.” This only proves that after these five days in Spain (and now three trips to Europe), I have still not internalized the intricacies of southern European efficiency. It seems to me best summarized in the expression, [shrug shoulders, make little pouty expression with lips and say with a Spanish or Italian accent] “Eh.”

I had absolutely no business making a trip to Spain this month. We are in the first week of Act One-DC, a program that has been in the planning since August of last year. My desk back in L.A. is overflowing with grant applications, budgets and Board business, curriculum and faculty notes, speaking invitations, scripts and books to read – basically, lots and lots of reasons not to go to Spain, even if I wasn’t already committed to being in DC for the month to supervise Act One. But here I am wrapping up five fabulous days on the Mediterranean coast, I think, fundamentally, because the Divine omnipotence knew last November that I was going to really, really need a happy break in about seven months in a lovely place with wonderful, gracious people.

The excuse God used to get me on this break was an international symposium – which sounds so much lovelier in espanol as “SEEm-pOH-si-Um EEN-TERRRR-nah-SEE-OH-nal” (say it again now fast for the full lovely effect) - at the Catholic Unversity of Valencia (don’t ask me which one of the two Catholic universities it was – they have been explaining it to me all week, and I’m still not sure whether we are the one dedicated to St. Vincent Martyr or not – although I did get that ours is the smaller of the two) on cinema and education. I gave a talk on day one of the symposium, and then spent the next three days being fed at various unbelievable restaurants, meeting many important people and walking around Old Valencia, forgetting most of the time to take pictures, which only means I will have to come back and bring a friend with a camera.

Muchos, muchos gracias to Prof. Pablo Vidal, who was the coordinator of the symposium – and who acted as my personal tour guide, chauffeur, translator and, all right, baby-sitter, for the five days. Pablo, if you can hear me from here, you get the official Act One Academy Award for being “Most Gracious and Thoughtful Person of 2004.” Thanks too, to everyone else connected with the symposium. I only wish I was a fraction as important a personage as you all made me feel during my visit.

“Aiiiii!” (Translators note: European expression for slight dismay.) The Air France people have just shown up. Will continue this probably in the air on the way to Paris.

…..

Okay, back again. Some impressions of Valencia…No especial order acqui. (aqui? Acui?…el ratso.)

Valencia….Sidewalks and streets paved with pinkish brown marble. In some places weathered and cracked, but, damn, it’s still marble. I watched some workman in the city center laying down shiny new marble sidewalks that looked like they should have been in the foyer of Donald Trump’s nicest house. It got even weirder when I saw an elderly lady letting her stupid dog do his disgusting business on a marble sidewalk. Reason no. 4256386735457293423 to annhilate the canine species….

Weather more like the U.S. South than L.A. – some humidity, but not oppressive…..

Always that weird, weird European contrast of thoroughly secularized native people walking past unbelievable religious art in the fabulous gothic, renaissance and baroque churches, sometimes two or three on a block. – What is that about, anyway? Why would you build an immense church next to an immense church? I want to know….

Evidence of amazing history everywhere. I loved that they preserved a little alcove on the outside of the basilica with a tiny altar in it. Back in the 13th Century, it was the site of a huge Arab mosque – the central mosque for the whole region. When the catholic prince conquered Valencia in 12 hundred and something, he had a Mass said on the side of the mosque. Then, they leveled the mosque and built an amazing basilica. But I just loved the closet sized altar in an alcove. Emily said (paraphrase) “In a hundred years, No one will know what tremendousness transpired here.” Part of the European “thing” is to have nearness to way too much tremendousness….

Turned on the TV one night after mid-night and was shocked to see actual pornography on a regular station. I mean, real gross, disgusting and perverted pornography. I switched it off fast and sat on my bed feeling truly defiled. Jesus couldn’t have meant this when He said, “It is not that which comes from the outside of a man that defiles him.”…… Spain, what have you done with your baptism?!….

Food amazing. I repeatedly had the sensation of wanting to photograph my food it was so beautiful. For five days, I ate many things I couldn’t identify, but which were always amazing. There was a moment of hesitancy when Pablo had them set in front of me a black, pasty looking dish with one lonely looking crawfish on the top. But he hadn’t let me down yet, so I bravely took a bite. “Hmmmmmmmm,” I murmured, “I’ve never eaten black food before. What is it?” Pablo shrugged. “It is the ink of calamar.” “Ink?’ I paused in my chewing. We figured out it was the black stuff that squirts out of squid. Don’t think. Just eat. Oh, and did I mention…..

AH, FOIE! Almost feeling a kind of annoyance that I have gone this long in life without any experience of foie. Then, I decided to buy some to take home with me and discovered 100 ounces of the stuff sets you back a score of euros. I was horrified for a moment to think that the foie I had consumed in the last five days, cost the Catholic University of Valencia more than my plane ticket… But, ah, foie! Smooth, elegant miraculousness on a cracker. Stunned when they finally told me it was goose liver. Hating liver has been one of the most defining characteristics of my whole life. But by the time I found out foie was liver, I was already long gone into a new passion. I greedily handed over about a hundred euros at the Paris airport to take some back to the States with me, “For gifts.” I slunk through the airport gate, feeling triumphantly smug - like Ronnie Biggs escaping the continent after the Great Train Robbery. Stupid Europeans! I have lots and lots of your foie in my bag, and you are letting me slip your fingers….

I met my first European aristocrat (EA), and the experience went a long way towards helping me understand why my ancestors would have fled everything they knew and owned to come to America. This fellow was a filmmaker from a country which shall go unnamed, and he had barely sat down at the table before he started insulting America, Hollywood, Americans in general and me in particular. The exchanges between courses went something like this…

EA: So, you have sixty writers who teach for your Act One?
BN: Yes.
EA: (sniff) I am amazed that there are sixty writers in Hollywood who have something to teach.

EA: So what are the movies that some of your Act One instructors have worked on?

I named five or six films like X-Men, X2, Hoosiers, Rudy, What Women Want, Where the Heart Is, Remember the Titans, Batman Forever, Return to Me. None of which were known to the EA. Finally, I mentioned Braveheart

EA: Ah, at last a film of some note.

So, - okay, a little wickedly – I asked him to name the movies had made. He noted that he had collaborated on one project with Maia Morgenstern who plays Mary in TPOTC. He asked if I had seen that project.

BN: No, I haven’t seen that.

EA: (looking away with disgust) Americans!

BN: (with growing annoyance) When you didn’t know the films I mentioned, I did not say, “Europeans!” like you were ignorant.

EA: Because that I have not seen those Hollywood films is a reason for pride.

In the course of the dinner, I noted to the other civil people at the table, that I often encourage young filmmakers to master the work of one American Master at a time.

EA: (loud sniff): Such a term! ‘American Master.’

BN: (Slapping foie on bread)….like, for example, Hitchcock –

EA: Hitchcock was not a good director. He went to America because he couldn’t make it as a director in Europe.

BN: (tearing off chunk of bread with teeth) In one hundred years, people will still be watching Hitchcock. Whereas, you and I will be forgotten.

EA: (disdainful shrug) It is a pity.

He went on to opine the next day that anything the masses like is ipso facto lowly and unworthy of attention. It was fascinating to me how infuriated I became being around this kind of attitude.

BN: (smouldering to self) There's never a guillotine around when you need one.

I will blog more later about more serious stuff. Particularly, more on the whole Europe vs. America thing. In brief, I can say that they don’t hate us really. But, as a group, I found that even Christian Europeans tend to be shruggingly anti-Semitic -- or, at least, if WE said the kinds of things they say, it would be considered anti-Semitic in America. I trust I make myself obscure.... Even now, with the aroma of the Nazi’s furnaces still wafting in the air. And so, U.S. support for Israel is the real lynchpin. I had no idea.


Tuesday, May 11, 2004
21ST CENTURY HOLLYWOOD: REASONS FOR HOPE

I'm sitting in a lobby waiting for my ride to the airport. Might as well blog, right? It feels more redemptive than another losing round of Jedi Academy...

Here is a snip of the talk I will be giving in Spain on Thursday. They made me write it out for the translators in advance -- so I actually know EXACTLY what I will be saying. I never generally read my talks, but rather work from an outline. Oratory is truly another whole art form -- and it is a very different thing than reading out loud. For preachers who have ears to hear, let them hear...

Anyway, here's some of the talk...

a) The Movies Search for Spirit

A big reason for hope in Hollywood is related to the search for the spiritual, which comes down to a rejection of the idea of a completely material universe. To borrow from The Wizard of Oz, in the Gen X and Gen Y artistic community, ‘Darwin is not just merely Dead, he is really quite sincerely dead.’ (Does that rhyme work in Spanish?)

A hundred years ago, the greatest American poet, Emily Dickinson, made a journey through doubt and materialism to come to the conviction, “This World is Not Conclusion.” She was talking about more than simply the notion of immortality. She meant that reality goes beyond the stuff we see, the material things that surround us. There is an artistic movement crowding in on Hollywood which is pushing this idea more and more. It is changing cinema, or in many ways, restoring cinema to its roots in the lyrical, poetic imagery of the Silent Screen.

I call this movement, The “Don’t Show How Things Look, Tell Us What They Mean” Movement. It is being driven very much by a young crop of directors who made their way into the business through the music video world. Music video is all about what things mean, as opposed to how they look. The best music video directors freely distort real colors, shapes, dimensions and points of view, in an effort to complement and interpret a song. Rejecting the demand for gritty "realism" (as though that were possible in a movie...) of the Baby Boomer filmmakers, these young filmmakers are pushing for a cinematic lyricism that could mirror and echo the emotional power of music. Films that reflect this movement include Donnie Darko, Levity, and TV shows like HBO’s Carnivale.

This new trend toward meanings as opposed to appearances is showing up particularly as regards the portrayal of human sexuality. In forty shameless years of the Sexual Revolution, cinema has shown us every possible permutation of two naked bodies writhing around. Suddenly now, many filmmakers consider it pedestrian to simply show what sex looks like. This is not because of any ethical-moral sense, but from we could call an artistic-moral sense which rejects the idea of being unoriginal or uncreative. “We’ve seen sex before. Don’t go there in the movie unless you are going to show us what sex means for the two characters.”

The films we are starting to see from this new generation tend to reject the suggestion that limitless sex leads to freedom or happiness. They tend to have a sadness about relationships that is appropriate considering what they have been through as the children of “sexually liberated” parents. My friend, screenwriter Craig Detweiler, calls these filmmakers “a generation in exile, singing sad songs of Jerusalem.” Films that exemplify this movement are Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

This is a great opportunity for the Church. We are all about the sacramental sense in which everything we see points to a reality we can’t see. Frank Sheed said that, “The secular writer is confined to what he sees. The Christian writer speaks about what is really there.” It is for us to respond to this new generation of filmmakers yearning for meaning. We need our theologians and then educators to translate the Theology of the Body for the creative community, so they can bring it to their art, and then expand our understanding, in the way that Pope John Paul II has called art “a source of theology.”

3) “Beauty is not Pretty.”

My students are very concerned with creating movies that “tell the truth about sin.” Again, part of this is driven by the fact that their generation has been the victim of the lies of the Sexual Revolution, but for my students from Christian homes, this is actually a rejection of the artistic sensibilities of their religious parents.

Religious people have responded to the excesses of sex and violence in mainstream cinema, by clamoring for an art that is “non-offensive.” They want happy stories, with no challenging ideas and images that will be “safe.” Hence, Christian parents are embracing really bad movies – in terms of their lack of artistry - like Cheaper By The Dozen, Walk to Remember – which are, in fact, over-sentimentalized G-rated lies.

They reject movies like In The Bedroom, In America, the new remake of Peter Pan, and even Prince of Egypt, which they should actually embrace as well-crafted, PG and R-rated truths. Essentially, many good Christian people have convinced themselves that the arts are optional, and even dangerous. They certainly deny that the place of the arts in society is, as the Pope has said, “a prophetic role.” Prophets in the Biblical sense are supposed to shake people out of their complacency by reminding them who they are. We need our artists to help us see and hear. To make us feel. To break up our stony hearts and give us fleshy hearts.

The new generation of young Christians coming into Hollywood are all about telling hard truths honestly. The problem is, in their urgency to show sin as being very ugly, they run the risk of violating the audience. Again, as Emily Dickinson said, “Tell the Truth, but Tell it Slant, or All the World Be Blind.” We need to help these young filmmakers figure out how to dramatize hard truths in ways that will respect human freedom. We need to help the People of God reclaim a sense of their need for the arts, and to embrace and support our faith driven artists.

We can propose to even secular cinema a whole new understanding of beauty: why human beings respond to beauty, how it works on us, and most importantly what it is.

Hollywood understands beauty as being technical artistry. If all the parts are done well in an movie, and they all the parts are harmonized together that equals a great film for the business. We should suggest that it is absolutely true that these elements coming together produce a “great film”, but also that it can still be an ugly film. We need to make the case that beauty is more than the harmonious arrangement of parts. It has also to do with truthful content. What a movie communicates is as important as how it communicates. Films abound from mainstream Hollywood that fit the description of “well-crafted lie.” American Beauty, The Hours, and pretty much every episode of Friends, just to name a few.

In the same way, there can be films that have true content, but which because of their technical problems are also ugly. Films like this would be A Walk to Remember, Gods and Generals. After 8 years of working in Hollywood, I can not understate the importance of technical excellence in the art form – the mastery of craft – for Christians who want to work in mainstream cinema. Artistry and talent are not extras. They are the essential doorways in to influence in the popular culture.

4) The Power of The Passion

Undeniably, the release and astounding global success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has been the most significant event for the Church in Hollywood and in cinema probably ever. “The Movie” has everybody in the industry rethinking many long-standing assumptions about the global audience. It has many people in the Church rethinking their long-held assumptions about screen violence and the potential power for good of cinema. It is outside my scope to spend too much time here on this, but I do want to run down some of the ways the movie is opening doors in Hollywood and in the Church that could be very positive in the long term.

a) Serving the Audience of The Passion

Three days before The Passion opened in the States, the industry trade magazines predicted, “This movie might even make $30 million dollars in its first week.” Actually, the movie made $27 million dollars on its first day. It went on to make $127 million dollars in its first week.

The main impact of the film in the industry is that it has created an awareness that there are huge numbers of people out there who went to this movie, but who generally don’t go to the theaters. How to get “the audience of The Passion” back to the theaters is now an agenda item for all the studios. Of course, they don’t know what we Christians want to see, but they will be open now to create product for our consumption. This is probably good.

b) Getting Jesus in the World’s Face

I never thought I would live to see Jesus, beautifully and devoutly rendered, carrying His cross on network television. I was astounded every time I saw a commercial for the Movie run at any hour of the day. I was at a restaurant with some friends one night and they had a television over the bar. Suddenly, an ad for The Passion came on, and everyone in the bar fell silent in a weird kind of awe and respect. I started to cry.

Beyond the power of the film itself, The Passion brought God out of our churches and into the center of mainstream culture. He was front and center, in His most compelling posture as Lamb of God, and many millions of His sheep heard His voice – some for the first time. Undeniably, this has been an opportunity for dialogue and evangelization that the Church has rarely experienced before. As the Pope has said, “The Church would be sadly remiss” if she were to ignore the potential of the cultural marketplace, and I would add especially after The Passion phenomenon.

b) Good Screen Violence Vs. Bad Screen Violence

For half a century, religious people have been complaining that there is too much violence in movies. Now, a movie comes along that is – in the words of one Los Angeles critic, “a two hour execution,” and people of faith everywhere are embracing it, and being moved to compunction, repentance and spiritual renewal.

What we are learning from all this is that the problem is not with violence on the screen. It is meaningless violence that is wrong in entertainment. The Passion reconnects violence to its source in rebellion against God. It never objectifies the subject of the violence, nor does it dehumanize the perpetrators of violence. It shows the effects of violence in all its horror.

This movie will challenge future filmmakers to make the violence in their films just as meaningful. It will also open the People of God to a broader artistic sensibility. This too is good.

c) The Power of Visual Imagery

Director Quentin Tarrantino recently went on the record as being stunned by the use of imagery in The Passion. He said some of the inter-cutting between two different images was so far-reaching it made him laugh at loud in sheer surprise at the level of craft. Perhaps the most theologically sophisticated of these juxtapositions was the cutting from the stripping of the Jesus Body in preparation for the sacrifice on Calvary to the image of the unwrapping of the bread about to be offered in the Eucharistic sacrifice. There were many such theological juxtapositions in the film, and these were truly what made the film such an incredibly singular experience for many serious Christians.

Further, the images in The Passion are truly lyrical in the sense that the primary symbolic devices of the piece absolutely work on two different levels: as themselves, and as realities beyond themselves. The principal images in the film are, of course, the violence, then the Body of Christ (as both the Church and the Savior), and then the characters of Mary, the Mother of God and Satan. All of these represent historical realities, and then theological realities as well.

Altogether, The Passion establishes a new benchmark in religious cinema. It has set the bar very high for future projects with similar themes. And that is very good.

d) Artist as Part of the Community

For most of the 20th Century, artists saw themselves as isolated from the rest of society. The idea was, their job was to get away from anything or anyone that might condition or alter their original artistic self-expression. This movement was countered in Hollywood by the rise of the blockbuster in the 1970’s, but the sense of filmmaker being able to put out there whatever he has inside of him is still a very compelling notion for many people in the industry.

This is changing lately. There is a sense that many artists in general, and filmmakers in particular, have been self-indulgent in their projects. They have been all about expressing honestly whatever they have inside of them, but not at all concerned about whether what they have inside of them may be poisonous for the rest of us. After all, vomit is very honest. But that doesn’t justify it being spread all over the walls in somebody else’s house. A lot of art in the last few years has been like that – artists throwing up their issues on the rest of us.

My young filmmaking students are very concerned about the place of the artist in the world. They want to talk about an ethics that would go along with the power of the mass media. They want to know what is good for people to watch and what might harm people to watch. This is very good.
Monday, May 10, 2004
ACT ONE-DC -- MAY 9 - JUNE 5TH

I will be mostly consumed with our new class of writers for the next four weeks. Blogging will be light to non-existent.

Pray for safe travel for our faculty. Pray for the students to be free from fear and sloth. Pray for protection for all of us on the streets of the nation's capital.

Thanks! God bless -
Friday, May 07, 2004
BIZ BUZZ

[The run-down formally known as SPICY BITS.]

...The Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild and the Recording Industry of America have all joined together to express their shock and outrage that the FCC has fined Bono for using the expression "f*cking brilliant" during the live Golden Globes telecast last year. The industry organisms are all very clear that when Bono said it, the F word was NOT indecent. They haven't decided what it was. But we can all be relieved to know what it wasn't.

...Mike Leigh's "abortion film" (those are Daily Variety's words, not mine) Vera Drake has been picked up by New Line's shingle, Fine Line, for a fall release. The film is about a kindly woman in the 1950's who helps women, you know, kill their kids in utero. Mychial Lynne of New Line is staking his word of honor that this film isn't an insulting, pro-choice propaganda piece noting, "It's a very emotional and sympathetic film which deals with the controversial issue of abortion, (but) raises the debate to the level of asking how you deal with guilt and innocence in a society." I suppose any attempt to "raise the level of debate" on the pro-choice side past "KEEP YOUR LAWS OFF MY BODY!!!" is welcome. But why don't I feel happy?

...There's an indie film in very limited release this weekend that represents my first screen credit. (Well, except for that Sorority System at Northwestern blockbuster I produced.) A Foreign Affair is a sweet romantic comedy that stars David Arquette, Tim Blake Nelson, Emily Mortimer and Megan Follows (Anne of Green Gables in a former screen life). I worked as script doctor on the piece, and they kindly put my name in the credits. The two fellows behind the script also have the distinction of being two Christian producers who actually took every piece of advice I gave them - and look what happened?! They got some stars attached. They got into Sundance. They got into some other festivals. They got theatrical distribution! "For those to have ears to hear..."

...ANNOYING QUOTE OF THE MONTH: (We're talking about the new ClearPlay DVD machine that blocks smut.) "What the new sex-blocking, language-skirting, violence-busting DVD player does is homogenize everything into a single chaste and wholesome standard. And when that happens, the big loser is creative expression." (Ray Richmond, writing in Hollywood Reporter) Okay I want a show of hands from all the non-baby boomers out there. Does this move any of you to tears? Kids on this hand, creative expression over here....nope, time to let it go guys.

...Lots of Hollywood people are nervously watching the release of Van Helsing this weekend. With a cost of around $200 million, Van Helsing represents "the new threshold" (Daily Variety, 4/19/2004) for major studio releases. Spider-Man 2, Troy and Polar Express are other projects also nudging up against that - almost immoral - budget number. A lot of people in town are secretely hoping the film will fail and then diffuse the upward momentum in making movies that literally represent a studio betting the whole farm on one project. In this sense, these movies aren't tentpoles, they ARE the whole tent. The success of these projects will make it that much harder to get movies made that do not justify themselves in terms of sequels, TV spin-offs, merchandisizing, DVD tie-ins and, what Variety labels, "other synergistic opportunities."
Wednesday, May 05, 2004
"THE ARTS CAN PREPARE PEOPLE FOR CHURCH"

Here's an interview that just appeared today in ZENIT. It is in anticipation of my speech in Spain next week, hence all the questions about European cinema.

VALENCIA, Spain, MAY 5, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The film industry won't change with criticism, but with the positive contribution of believers, says the director of a school for Christian scriptwriters in Hollywood.

Barbara Nicolosi, program director of Act One, was interviewed by ZENIT before participating in the first International Symposium on the Cinema, organized by St. Vincent Martyr Catholic University of Valencia. The symposium takes place May 13-15.

Q: What is Act One and what is its mission?

Nicolosi: Act One provides formation, training, mentorships and Christian fellowship for writers and executives who are looking to become part of the mainstream entertainment industry.

We were founded in 1999 and have since evolved many programs that advance the program's keynote values of artistry, professionalism, ethics and spirituality in the context of mainstream Hollywood.

Q: What are the main differences you find nowadays between European and American cinema?

Nicolosi: I am not an expert on European cinema. Clearly, however, the main difference between our cinema and that of the rest of the world's is that ours is more successful at finding and entertaining the global audience. In pretty much every country, American movies are eight of the top 10 at any given time.

American movies tend to reflect a sense of individual destiny that we call "the American dream."

That is, our movies tend to tell stories about the promise and value of the individual person to surmount obstacles and attain to a kind of heroism that in some way heals the world. This makes our stories very compelling for people.

American movies also pay a great deal of attention to the needs of the audience. It's less about an artist expressing himself or herself, and more about what we call "the contract with the audience."

That is, the goal of our cinema is to take the audience on some kind of emotional journey in which they will be engaged intellectually and emotionally. I find many European projects much more about the filmmaker's needs than about serving the audience.

Q: You are going to participate in a symposium where the educational role of cinema will be discussed. Are you sure that the current cinema is educationally oriented in general?

Nicolosi: For a film to work with audiences, there has to be some kind of new information offered to the audience. Aristotle called this the "logos" element of drama. However, it is a mistake to try to make cinema into something it is not.

It is not the best medium to teach particular theological or intellectual formulations. Cinema is at its best when it is providing a meditation to the audience, as opposed to a message.

Q: Do you think that it meets the youngest audience's expectations or specific needs regarding spiritual issues?

Nicolosi: Probably not. It will be up to the filmmakers of the current generation to bring their spiritual questions onto the screen.

The problem is, not too many people who take theology seriously opt to become part of the filmmaking universe.

Religious people are trapped in the mode of criticizing instead of creating. I find media criticism pretty much useless. You really have to earn the right to criticize by putting your own artistic efforts out there first.

Q: Do you think that cinema is able to be an active player for religious teaching purposes? In this sense, do you prefer films offering religious-related information -- historical facts, saints' lives, etc. -- or those ones including topics or values from the point of view of Christian faith?

Nicolosi: The goal is never going to be to replace what needs to happen at church. We will always need churches. In the same way, we will always needs arts and entertainment.

The arts can prepare people for church. They can lead people to the Church. They can deepen what happens at church. But a movie theater is never going to be a substitute for the Church.

People of faith have much more to offer the creative communities than just sacred art. If our faith is true, it has something to say about every area of human life.

The Church's preoccupation is always to have a "preferential option for the poor." In terms of cinema, who are the poor? The corporate world, advertising world and artistic worlds are all well-represented in the global culture.

The one group who has no voice is the audience. The Church could and should represent the needs of the viewing public, asking questions that only we can ask, and providing guidance that is informed by our faith.

Questions like: What is the role of entertainment in human development? What is healthy entertainment? What is the role of the artist in society, and what is the authentic prophetic role of the arts? How should the sacredness of the human person affect dramatic content, and even the way dramas are produced? What does the theology of the body have to say about the portrayal of sex and violence on the screen?

We have things to say to the secular world about all of these things. We don't need to make reference to God to share our insights in these areas. We just need to translate what we have to say to people who do not speak our language.
RECLAIMING THE OTHER F-WORD

Friend (and co-Founder with me of the currently in ideological utero but destined to be earth-shattering Association of Cool 21st Century Women Saving the Planet...) Zoe Romanowsky-St. Paul (I'm so jealous that she gets to have MY PATRON SAINT as her last name!) has a good piece on Godspy this week. Here's a snip...

"When Pope John Paul II used the f-word back in 1995, it got my attention.

Not that f-word. I'm talking about the other one—feminism. In his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, the Pope challenged women to promote a "new feminism that rejects the temptation of imitating models of 'male domination' in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation."

...As a young adult, I didn't readily identify with the word feminism. Women who proudly sported the feminist title seemed to hang most of their ideas on one main belief: that abortion is a necessary and fundamental right of women. That's what my feminist sociology professor sold my class for an entire semester. That's what I saw in the papers and on television. As much as I agreed with many planks in the feminist platform—like better healthcare, maternity leave, reform in the workplace, and programs and services that better women's lives—I couldn't buy a label that came with abortion. Until the day I discovered I didn't have to...."


I have the same experience as Zoe. Even though I have always been a Type A, over-educated, achievement oriented female, I have always shrunk from the label "feminist."

My agent and her partner are both grey-haired warriors from the women's movement of the 70's. They are members of NOW and NARAL and count Steinem as one of their close friends. They asked me over an entree once if I would consider myself a feminist. I remember shrugging in confusion, "I have never thought of myself as a victim." They looked at me with a kind of melancholy, the way honest atheists must feel when they see a funeral procession go by. The gleam of irrelevance is on the horizon.


THE PARTING OF FRIENDS

I reasonate with Jan the Maven about the final episode of Friends this week.

Friends started the year I walked out of the convent, and I will probably always think of it as background music for things I did in my thirties: working in Cambridge, graduate school at Northwestern, moving to L.A., working at Paulist Productions, starting Act One.

One Friends related memory: At Northwestern, I was a grad student R.A. to an all female dorm of mostly freshmen. We were living in a renovated mansion that had recently been reclaimed from a defunct sorority, and so I actually had my own large suite of rooms with a good size living room. Every Thursday night at about 7:45pm, the girls would start to arrive in my living room, packing the sofas, window ledges, floors, until the room was filled to over-flowing. I took to providing snacks, so that it became even more of a community experience. It really was Must-See TV for us all to watch Friends together, and then most of them would drift back to the books.

It's true that the show has been one that I have at many times hated to love. Having just migrated from NYC when the show first started, I remember watching its first episodes with disdain for the absurd premise of an all white group of mostly under-employed twenty-somethings in Manhattan being able to afford apartments that would probably cost $1,000,0000 a year.

From a moral standpoint, it depicts a world without God and really without any moral framework outside of tenuous loyalty to one's friends. It's a show which glorified and normalized pornography, homosexuality and promiscuity.

But the core of the show which caught on with 18-35 year old viewers, was once again, the fantasy community it provided. Most of my generation, the Xers, have grown up in fractured families, with aborted siblings, watching every authority structure of church, state, ivory tower, fifth estate, everything, reveal nothing but clay feet. Because our parents were more mobile than past generations, we have had little if any relevant extended family.

Hence, Xers are always irresistably drawn to any entertainment that offers a vision of people belonging to each other, staying together no matter what and especially "when the rain starts to fall." The show never fell into the cynicism and shrill irony that critics tended to love in shows like Roseanne, anything by Norman Lear, a lot of David E Kelley, but which always sets me wondering if that kind of thing isn't an undermining of the nature/purpose of comedy. (Sorry about that sentence structure. It's worth it to work it though...wink wink)

As Jan notes, Friends has consistently been one of the funniest half-hours in prime-time, and offered the weekly delight of getting to watch Jennifer Aniston's fabulous comic timing. I really think she's one of the great commedienes of our time.

I'm ready for Friends to go. But it does feel strange to see it end.
Tuesday, May 04, 2004
'GOD IS AVAILABLE TO ALL OF US.'

Here's an interview with TV showrunner, Barbara Hall (Joan of Arcadia) on Beliefnet. I don't know how old it is. I just found it. It is careful, but still has some vintage Hallisms. There's one in here...

One thing I want to do is to debunk the notion that science and spirituality are natural enemies. Joseph Campbell said it's impossible to live without a mythology and it always baffled him how we live without one. But we don't. Our mythology is science—actually it's shifting now to celebrity, but we believe deeply in science. We don't realize that science is a very spiritual concept. There are aspects of it that are completely in line with spirituality. Theoretical physics to me is just the math of God. I didn't make that up—Einstein thought so.

My premise is that it's no more ridiculous to believe in God than it is to believe that there are basic forces keeping us glued to the planet. People embrace gravity because someone in a lab coat said so. It's a fascinating theory, but so is God.


CALL FOR PAPERS

I will be speaking at this conference in November. Have some thoughts about art? Go on, send it in...


Epiphanies of Beauty: The Arts in a Post-Christian Culture
November 18-20, 2004
University of Notre Dame
Sponsored by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture



“Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close
affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where
culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to
religious experience.”—Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists


Pope John Paul II addressed his 1999 Letter to Artists “to all who are
passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty, so
that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts
to the world.” In using the word “epiphany,” the Holy Father drew
attention to art as the manifestation, or “shining forth,” of the glorious
beauty of God’s creation. Accordingly, as the pope says elsewhere in the
letter, beautiful works of art serve as “a kind of bridge to religious
experience,” and thus as a genuine source of moral, spiritual and cultural
renewal.


The Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture’s fifth annual fall
conference will examine the variety of ways in which the fine arts can
help build a more genuinely Christian civilization in an era that is ever
more deeply post-Christian in its character. Our first triennial series
culminated in proposals on how to build a genuine culture of life, and
last year’s conference reflected on the renewal and formation at the heart
of such a culture. This conf! erence will focus our reflection on the fine
arts and their place in a culture of life.


We welcome the submission of abstracts drawing on a wide range of moral
and religious perspectives and academic specialties. Possible themes to be
explored are:


- art as cultural formation
- the relationship between art and religion
- the various Christian approaches to art
- the place of art within a culture dominated by mass media
- the economics of contemporary art
- the distinction between artistic excellence and moral character
- the Catholic novel
- art’s reflection of the beautiful
- the place of aesthetics in contemporary philosophy
- past and current movements within the arts
- historical figures in the arts
- the arts and popular culture
- the arts as a means of political expression
- new developments in the arts
- new social and political initiatives involved with the arts
- in-depth examinations of particular techniques and works of art


The Center is especially interested in attracting to the conference as
many working artists as possible, both to speak from their own experience
as artists and to illustrate their commitment to their crafts through live
performance and exhibition.


One-page abstracts for individual papers should include name, affiliation,
address, and e-mail address (if available). Session presentations will be
limited to twenty minutes. Proposals for live performances, panel
discussions and artist-meets-critics sessions are also encouraged.


Deadline for submissions is July 30, 2004. Notification of acceptance
will be mailed by August 31, 2004. One-page abstracts, along with your
full contact information, should be emailed to ndethics@nd.edu or mailed to:


Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture
Epiphanies of Beauty
1047 Flanner Hall
Notre Dame, IN 46556


Up-to-date conference information can be found on our web site: http://ethicscenter.nd.edu.

Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture
1047 Flanner Hall
Notre Dame, IN 46556
Tel: 574.631.9656
Fax: 574.631.6290
Email: ndethics@nd.edu
Web: http://ethicscenter.nd.edu
Monday, May 03, 2004
WHY ACT ONE-DC?

One of our Act One alumns, Erik Lokkesmoe, works in Washington and wrote a thoughtful piece for our Act One community letter which deserves a wider audience.

Why A Creative Renaissance Is Needed In Our Nation's Capital, and How Act One Can Help

By Erik Lokkesmoe

It was more of a statement than a question. "Why Washington?" the senior
government official responded, words heavy with skepticism, when I
shared the news of Act One's month-long session in the nation's capital.
His query conveyed a doubt of both place and purpose: what utility does
a group of screenwriters provide in a political city - a city anxious
about elections and budget hearings - an administrative city that is
impatient with ambiguity, nuance, and imagination?

The question could just have easily been: "why art?"

Politics may be the art of the possible, but is art possible in
politics? In a city of architectural grandeur, National Galleries, the
Kennedy Center, and marbled monuments engraved with poetry and prose,
discussions (or debates) about the arts rarely stray from stale,
predictable exchanges about NEA funding and FCC fines. Art is a
second-thought, a first cut of a bloated budget, a weekend dalliance
with lobbyists. Drawing congressional district maps is often the closest
thing some Members of Congress come to artistic activity.

So, it's an appropriate question for Act One, and for all "creatives"
that live and work in the shadows of federal buildings, "Why
Washington?"

Last year I stumbled across a new book, now a best-seller, by Carnegie
Mellon professor Richard Florida who claimed that economically vibrant
cities have two common factors: a thriving artist community and a large
gay population. The Rise of the Creative Class became the instruction
manual for mayors across the country, as economically-stagnant cities
sought to attract a hip, young workforce by offering bohemian and
business-friendly climates. What caught my attention, however, was
Washington's rank as one of the top "creative cities" in America, as
determined by the proportion of creative workers per total workforce
population. Although Florida uses defines the "creative class" liberally
- including scientists, journalists, and entrepreneurs in the category -
it confirmed a growing suspicion: DC was more than starched shirts and
above-the-ear haircuts; it was, as the professor wrote, that "ultimate
creative center."

Certainly, such a claim will cause New York and Hollywood to shudder.
Many don't even consider Washington a city, let alone a creative center.
Yet the evidence is clear: from bureau reporters to think tanks,
legislators to art galleries, dot com survivors to event planners, the
capital city is not only America's backyard, it is the home of
culture-creators.

A handful of us who work in government are quick to proclaim that the
creatives in the city - and across the country - often hold more power
than the senior politicians seated on the most prestigious committees.
Certainly, these lawmakers affect millions with decisions to raise
taxes, declare war, and fund Social Security. Artists and creatives,
however, are shaping the hearts and minds of the culture, informing the
moral imagination and instructing its beliefs and behaviors.

It is no wonder, then, why so many distrust or fear artists. Through the
subtle brushstrokes in a painting, the complex melodies in a song, the
layered meanings in a film, creatives can exercise a power politicians
could only dream of possessing: to shape the imagination through words
and images and sounds that cascade to the depths of the soul. Only art
has that ability, something Plato realized early on when he declared,
"Let me write the songs [or stories] of a nation and I care not who
writes its laws."

Artists are more than well-trained decorators, adorning culture with
nice and pretty things. Artists create space for dialogue, for circles
of conversations in galleries and theaters, book clubs and concert
halls. They invite us to gaze upon mystery and beauty and to "see with
other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other
hearts, as well as with our own," as C.S. Lewis wrote.

Last September, a group of us at The Voice Behind - a 501c3 non-profit
organization dedicated to creating, commissioning, and celebrating
transcendent works of art and media - started Brewing Culture, a
community of "creatives" that meets monthly at a bar just across the
Potomac. Our hope was to do just that: brew culture by creating space
for creativity and conversation.

It's a speak-easy, really. A haven amidst stiff political life for
ozone-scraping creativity and gritty-as-a-country road conversation. We
invite everyone - left and right, churched and unchurched -- into an
intoxicating exploration of the good, the truth, and the beautiful as
revealed through the works and words of artists. From Damah films to
Johnny Cash tributes, we enter life's big themes - wonder, sacrifice,
discontentment - and wait expectantly on the other side to see what
happens.

As painter Makota Fujimura said over a recent dinner, echoing our
passion for Brewing Culture, "We need secular places for the Church, and
sacred places for the culture." In other words, we need common ground
where we forget to be tame, timid, and temporal in our artistic
endeavors and expressions; we need places that capture the imaginations
of a weary and watching world.

Responding to the launching of Brewing Culture, many have had the same
reaction as that government leader, "Why Washington?" And we respond,
"Above all, here." This is a place where creativity that "flies beyond
the stars," as Francis Schaeffer said, can teach us about common grace,
the Imago Dei, and our innate human need to participate in recreation
and re-creation.

This need is evident in the hollow eyes of passengers on commuter
trains, the rush hour pressing their bodies together in a rhythmic,
synchronized dance as the train halts and jerks away from the city.
Imprisoned in cubicles without windows, passing the time with
predictable days of the same old work, the creative muscle atrophies. It
is no surprise that Washington's suburbs have beautiful homes and
gardens, where workers - free from the confines of gray file-cabinets
and top-down management - can design and create and decorate their own
space.

Artists are oxygen for a city, and people are gasping from asphyxiation.

What Washington - the whole Washington, from the pinstripe suits of
Capitol Hill to the perilous slums of Capitol Heights - needs more than
anything else is an encounter with beauty, that astonishing handiwork of
the Master Artisan and his co-creators. Beauty manifested in eloquent
and honest oratory. Beauty evidenced in grace to political adversaries.
Beauty extended in neighborhoods ravaged by boarded-up homes and lottery
advertising. Act One's presence in this city, if only for a month, can
remind us of our desperate need for beauty, for stories that awaken the
moral imagination and allow glimpses of a world, as Os Guinness says,
"that should have been otherwise."

It is the right time and the right place for Act One, and our prayer is
that these DC screenwriters, like dropping a large stone in a still
pond, will reach the boundaries of our city, soften its dry and cracked
edges, and bring new life to the surface.

Sunday, May 02, 2004
MARCH FOR WOMEN'S SELFISH LIVES

I watched quite a bit of the pro-choice march on C-SPAN last weekend. I found it weird and sad. I was struck by how old the legendary pro-choice heroes looked - Sarah Weddington, Eleanor Smeal, Kate Michelman, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi - they all looked like foolish old ladies way too wrinkled and gray-haired to be seriously screaming "Keep your hands off my body!" I think they were aware of it too, because nearly every one of them made a point of dragging on stage a daughter, grand-daughter, neice -- any female who wasn't alive when Kennedy beat Nixon, and whose presence might indicate that time will not tell in this fight. My Mother always used to say that pro-lifers are bound to win because our side has babies who invariably grow up to be voters.

I was actually shocked by how little progress there has been in the pro-choice movement's arguments. It's still about waving around hangers and anti-rightwing hatred, and fury about being told what to do with their bodies. Nothing at all about any kind of identity for the fetus. This kind of argumentation has been rendered almost null against all the technological developments of the last forty years. The polls show that Americans poring over ultrasound photos for twenty-five years are coming to different conclusions about the existence of another party in the abortion transaction. It's funny that the pro-choice people would use the powerful forum of the march to reiterate essentially failing arguments....But then, as my Mother said, "What else can they say?" Indeed.

The most striking comment from the unoriginal and generally painfully stupid screaching came from a very staid Gloria Steinem. I admit I have always had some weird sympathy for Steinem. Anyway, she stood at the podium looking calmly over the assembled hoard and noted, "More than any other issue, abortion reveals a person's entire worldview. Support of abortion, or opposition to it indicates where a person will stand on a whole gamut of positions: healthcare, education, environmentalism."

I was talking with Janet Smith about it today over breakfast and we marveled together at how telling this statement is. Janet said, "She really gets it." Yup.
ANNIVERSARY

Yesterday, May 1st, marked the 10th anniversary of my leaving the convent. I was in for 9 1/2 years, and now I've been out for 10. As I seem to experience major, life altering changes every decade ending in "4", I have to admit I'm a little curious about what might happen to me before the end of this year...

If I had to distinguish between the two decades, I would say that my decade in the convent went much slower partly because I was younger, but also because I was so bored so often. And because it had so much more suffering.

I can divide the two decades by the things I learned in each.

In the convent, I had an almost inconceivable -- to anyone in lay life -- amount of face time with Jesus. In just about ten years, I didn't start a single day without Mass and a half hour of meditation. I made an hour of adoration every day for the first four years, and then a daily hour and a half for the last six. It's really quite amazing. Most of the time, I was reading the Scriptures in an effort to keep from falling asleep. This basically meant I read the Scriptures over and over and over and over and over. In between all of that struggling to stay awake, I learned a lot about prayer - "Praying for your personality type" ; "Praying with St. John of the Cross" ;"Praying with the Liturgy"; "Praying Alone"; "Praying in Groups"....

The convent years were also about every kind of theological study - Church history, ecclesiology, Christology, Patrology, Catechetics, religious sociology, sacramental and moral theology - plus the special studies concerned with religious life. I read a tremendous number of books in thsoe years. Probably two or three a month.

Finally, religious life taught me things about human psychology. We were very concerned with getting very good at friendship, dialogue and collaboration. And I lived with some people who had severe emotional and psychological baggage in those years. I had two years of vocational/discernment counseling and then eight more years of spiritual direction..."Why did you do/say that?" "How did you feel?" "How do you feel about it now?" "Why?"

My decade out of the convent has been about feeling a lot of compassion - for the world (because it doesn't have to be so hard...just don't sin, okay?), for the People of God (because they have been so let down by their shepherds), for young people (it's not that they don't care -- they have just learned to mask their pain), for artists (they are so generous and vulnerable, and they've gotten such a bad rap).

Besides all the practical information about art and writing and movies, my decade in the world has meant ten times as much personal maturity as that required of me in religious life. It is frighteningly possible to live as a perpetual adolescent in the convent. It seems like the minute I left the convent, I started ending up teaching, explaining, mentoring - drawing on all the lessons that the corporate Church had lavished on me in the decade before. I've learned a lot about what you can teach people (mostly in sharing stories) and what they have to learn themselves (...suffering...no other way to courage, insight, compassion, patience...).

All in all, I'm grateful for both decades. Many, many good friends and lots of love in both worlds. "May God who has begun this good work in you, bring it to completion in Jesus Christ the Lord."