August 31, 2006
The Extent of the Atonement 101
But he is also a Calvinist! And therefore he is troubled by two, related aspects of Lutheran theology:
I have to admit that since being led to this site by a friend, and that as a bit of humor, I have spent some more time exploring what these Lutherans are all about. Much of their "-praxy" is self-consciously shaped by their sacramental theology, and that interests me a great deal—so much so that I was beginning to wonder if I should put some weight on the fact that I was baptized in a LCMS church as an infant, the grandson of a long line of German Lutherans. I was quite disappointed to find out, however, that even the conservative LCMS denies such doctrines as Election and Limited Atonement. I guess I’ll be staying where I am ...So, my Lutherans: What do you have to say to our friend Jeff? How can we—IN A FRIENDLY AND TEMPERATE MANNER—persuade him that Christ died for all, including those who will reject him, and that as the second Adam, Our Lord must, therefore, represent all those in the first Adam? (THERE, I'VE GIVEN YOU A HEAD START! MUST I DO EVERYTHING?)
August 30, 2006
Dysfunction Is the New Black
So Grandpa’s a heroin-snorting pervert with a foul mouth. Dad is a bankrupt “power of positive blah blah” huckster. Brother Dwayne is a Nietzsche-worshipping malcontent who sports a T-shirt that reads “Jesus Was Wrong.” Uncle Frank is the No. 1 Proust scholar in America who most recently tried to kill himself because one of his students, Nick, spurned him for the No. 2 Proust scholar in America. Mom smokes a lot. Olive, the adorable little girl, just wants to win her beauty contest and be named Little Miss Sunshine.
The family is a mess and constantly at each other’s throats, yet they must live in close quarters as they travel 600 miles to Los Angeles in a broken-down VW bus in order to enable Olive to live her dream—the only member of the family who has any real hope of “achievement.”
You can smell it from here. Actually, I could smell it from the Snack Bar, which wasn't easy, given the rancid effusions from the popcorn topping dispenser, which must never fall into the hands of terrorists, my Lutherans!
In any event, what was intended to be a heartwarming tale about love and loyalty trumping chronic screwed-upness is a thoroughly superficial B-movie from the 1950s, with the “F” word, of course. This is one of those “everyone’s a phony, the world is phony, middle-class values are phony” tirades that are reminiscent of ancient teen rebellion flicks. Now, in 2006, everyone’s rebelling—the “Rebel Without a Cause” dysfunction is blatant, acknowledged, even celebrated. After all—who is to judge? You? You probably voted for BUSH!
The moral is: Stick together! Keep all the freaks in one room (or one VW bus)! It’s all going to be all right—so long as we don’t break ranks! And anyway, that world OUT THERE, the world of the kiddie beauty contests where trashy know-nothings prostitute their eight-year-olds in order to win some stupid prize is more screwed up than we are! We’re on to you, man!
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the sappier-than-thou ending is stolen straight out of About a Boy—a film in which Toni Colette, the mother in this epic, also co-starred! If you’re going to make me sick, at least do it with your own rancid victuals—don’t steal off others’ plates!
What’s so sad, is that this film had Lutheran leanings! Both the father, played with earnest blandness by Greg Kinnear, and the son, played with appropriate sturm und drang by Paul Dano, are will-worshippers and hungry for power. And both learn just how powerless they are when their respective dreams are dashed and all the will power and affirmations in the world will not save them. But when this realization comes, they merely move to plan B—they flip the bird to the world and go about their merry way. If they acknowledge any dependence outside themselves at all, it is a dependence on other family members who support them—but what good is that in this fallen world, especially when family members are dropping dead before your eyes and one of them is even stuffed in the back of your van!
I give this film 55 Theses—if for no other reason than it might have said something powerful about a sick culture that is destroying families, and damaged families that are slowly killing themselves to win the favor of that very same sick culture. Instead, it decided to paint its slow suicide with rainbows.
August 27, 2006
A Lutheran Sensibility in Cinema: Part II
From what I could discern from the comments, some of Cranach’s visitors were enmeshed in debates about whether it was even proper to speak of Lutheran distinctiveness, thereby alienating non-Lutherans, while visitors to LATM were beguiled by noble Rahab!
As to the former, if Lutherans suffer from some sort of triumphalism, I have yet to see it. They more likely suffer from some variety of somnabulism! Rise from your slumbers, my Lutherans! As to the latter, let the debates rage! That is how theology should be done—in rage, pain, and blood! (And let’s not forget caffeine and refined carbohydrates!)
Before I offer some other examples of films that evince a Lutheran sensibility, let me clarify a point or two.
I have seen on the Cranach blog comments from some who suggest films whose themes revolve around honor, family, and some sort of personal heroism as examples of the unique genre under discussion here.
What, I would ask, makes films such as Cinderella Man or Gladiator Lutheran? They feature main characters who demonstrate personal courage and integrity. All well and good. But is this a Lutheran, or even a Christian quality exclusively? In Cinderella Man our hero seems to have quit his faith and trust in a just and loving God and is determined to fight to the very end whether heaven is with him or no. While his wife and friends may pray for him, what motivates him? An innate sense of dignity and familial duty. Fine. But why is this Lutheran? The characters are Roman Catholic. Are not Catholics people who prize family? Are not even pagans? Does not Maximus fight, in part, to avenge his slaughtered family?
Some would say that any film about the individual standing against unjust authority is Lutheran, and use my witness before Eck and Cajetan and the bull of excommunication as evidence. Would that criterion apply to, say, The Fountainhead? Here we have a story about a gifted architect who employs his vocation according to the dictates of his conscience and unique creative sensibility, and takes his stand against mediocrity, lies, envy, and the fickleness of the mob. Some would say, Yes! Exactly! Howard Roark! The Fountainhead—very Lutheran!
I say, nein! Think, my Lutherans, think! Howard Roark is utterly self-centered—that is the key to understanding Rand’s gimcrack philosophy. He fights from a sense of pride, to slake his own thirst and feed his own appetites, which is why, when he see a woman he wants, he takes her—no preliminaries. Roark’s sensibility is utterly solipsistic and utilitarian. Form follows function in his art, as was the case—and here is the grandest irony for über-capitalist Randians!—in socialist architecture, which is why housing in communist countries looks like prison barracks. They are puritans—no frill, no extraneous design, nothing that could be spoken of as gratuitous! We see this principle working itself out in much of Europe today—the sick, the elderly, the mentally damaged, the fetus with a cleft-palate, that is, the extraneous, the useless, the un-beautiful—destroy them! We want what suits our purposes, meets our needs, and no frippery!
When you ask "Is this Lutheran?" about a film, a novel, any work of art, also ask, "Where is the cross?" For Lutherans, this is the primary issue at stake! In our context here, the cross is the presence of the hidden God—hidden in seeming defeat, ignominy, ugliness, evil! While a film need not be explicitly religious, and the Gospel need not be preached in its biblical particulars, for it to be Lutheran, there needs to be a sense that one's purpose, meaning, reconciliation, and peace are found, not in fulfilling the Law written on every man and woman’s heart—like caring for one’s own children or refusing to be a bane on society—but by means of something we would never have found on our own, something that comes to us from outside—as startling gift—even as the world is confounded and even repelled by it!
A Lutheran sensibility sees God hidden in what the world says is useless, meaningless, futile! The hidden God masks himself in seemingly useless suffering, seemingly useless vocations, seemingly useless people! What is Lutheran is the exact antithesis of what Howard Roark represents!
Let me give you two more positive examples.
Bridge on the River Kwai—Lutheran
Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) sits with his men in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. In the great battle between the Allies and the Axis powers of World War II, evil apparently is in the ascendancy. At the very least, Nicholson has failed in his vocation, and now is in the hands of his enemy.
Where is God? Has he ceded the stage to the forces of fascist neo-paganism? What does a military man, a soldier, do when he is stripped of his authority and must watch his men reduced to virtual slave status? This is what Nicholson does: He maintains his moral bearings and the dictates of his calling. He refuses to allow the enemy, who ostensibly holds the key to his jail cell, to violate his office by making nonsense of right hierarchy in the building of the bridge over the River Kwai. He is willing even to be tortured in the sweatbox, to ensure, not his own standing among his men, which is assured because of his character, but that his men do not become demoralized and descend into despair. Outwardly, all has changed—they are no longer free and must take orders from Col. Saito. Inwardly, they must find a way to continue steadfast in their original calling.
Once Nicholson has made his point and is released from the sweatbox—proving that his refusal to engage in manual labor had nothing to do with laziness or haughtiness—he must still assist in the building of the bridge by putting his men to the task. And so he encourages his men not just to build the bridge as a man-pleaser, to avoid punishment, but as a sign of what British civilization has wrought in the souls of its subjects—the capacity to excel for its own sake. They will build a bridge that will stand for the ages!
So even though they have failed on the battlefield, they now see how their calling can be reinvigorated, they can now discern the will of Providence—they will build this bridge as a testimony to British greatness!
And yet, the great irony of the film, and the great paradox of faith in the hidden God, is that even as Nicholson reorients his calling and bolsters his men to take pride in what to the naked eye is merely slave drudgery, he is working against the very interests of the cause to which he is so devoted. Building this bridge is merely aiding and abetting evil—an unconscious act of rebellion!
At the very point when he is made aware of his error—“My God…what have I done?”—even when all seems lost, futile, pointless, when his British pride is decimated, only THEN is Nicholson able to fulfill his vocation. He blows up the bridge, which was always the aim of the Allied cause, and in his own small way defeats the enemy. His "good" work as a POW is lost—that bridge will not stand for the ages as a sign of what the mighty British are capable of even under extreme duress—but once enlightened as to the truth of the matter, Nicholson is finally, truly able to fulfill his calling to defend to the end the forces for good in a world gone mad.
Remember, my Lutherans: We must be saved not only from our sins but from our good works, as well...
A man survives a terrible train crash in which everyone else is killed. Why? Why is he singled out? He is not a great man, he is not a lucky man (as most commonly regard luck). He is not even a particularly good man—we see him clumsily try and seduce a fellow passenger, but not before slipping off his wedding ring.
Who is this seeming nobody who is afforded this protection? And for what purpose? We eventually learn that he has a secret. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) was once a football player. He might have had an extraordinary career, but the girl he loved, now his wife (Robin Wright Penn), deplored the violence of it. But when his football career is ended due to a car accident, this obstacle to a life together is removed, and David and Audrey marry and have a son.
But the marriage is falling apart. David is looking for work in another city and preparing to his leave his wife and son behind. Why? It would seem that David never got over losing his vocation. Why this should affect his marriage is only made clear when we learn that he lied to his wife about that car accident. He did not sustain injuries that would have ended his career. He used it as a pretext to remove this obstacle and ensure Audrey’s commitment to him.
But this lie, even though for a higher purpose, has meant saying no to his calling. He now earns a living as a security guard at a football stadium, and every day he must watch young men do what he could have done, and probably with greater skill. He is bitter, even if he does not express this bitterness.
But God also has a secret. Football was but one way his TRUE calling would have been revealed. “Mr. Glass”—played with artful asceticism by Samuel L. Jackson—comes into his life with a disturbing question—“Have you ever been sick?”
As it turns out—no, Dunn has never been sick. He has never even been hurt. He, in fact, possesses supernatural powers that grant him extraordinary strength and resistance to injury. Only under the prodding of this mysterious Mr. Glass, a buyer and seller of classic comic books, as well as that of his young son, who clings to him, not wanting him to leave home and split the family, does this gift reveal itself to him.
But now think about it: Had he fulfilled his original vocation and played football, his "powers" would have made themselves known in a much more timely fashion. Imagine a football player with comic-book-hero strength and who is immune to injury.
But he forsook his calling. Yet God did not forsake him. His true calling wills out. Football would only have been a means to revealing it. Now, as a security guard (no accident there!), it is revealed finally. He is to protect more than just quarterbacks and working-class football fans. He is to protect anyone anywhere evil lurks. He is to assume his place as a “superhero”—and by so doing, save not only the innocent, but his family.
Yet, great evil is unleashed by Mr. Glass in the process. Great evil becomes the occasion of this revelation. Hidden in the seemingly senseless tragedies of train wrecks is the greater purpose of the hidden God. Whereas Mr. Glass took his cross—bones that break at the mere touch—and threw it in the face of God who made him thus, David Dunn takes up his cross—protecting the innocent by means of powers he must keep hidden from the world.
Let me reiterate, my Lutherans, films such as Gladiator, Cinderella Man, even The Fountainhead may be first-rate: well made, well acted, entertaining. That is not the point. The point is: Are they Lutheran in the sense we are investigating here? And I insist on narrowing the definition so that you will have to be at least as keen about your faith—about distinguishing the Gospel from its counterfeits—as you are about discriminating between good and bad films.
I am not making this EASY for you. I want you to see films with new eyes, I want you to dig deeply, I want to be critical in the best sense—to develop a vocabulary and artistic palate that will enable to you separate wheat from chafe, and semi-pelagianism from the gracious God who gives to his own freely, but only on the basis of the cross—that cross that hid the face of God even from his only begotten son.
Until next time…
August 24, 2006
A Lutheran Sensibility in Cinema
First, let us define our terms.
What is a Lutheran—someone who follows the teachings of Luther? FLATTER SOMEONE ELSE! To be a Lutheran is to live a life under the cross. To be a Lutheran is to find one’s justification in Christ and Christ alone. To be Lutheran is to abjure idolatry in all its forms, not because it is false worship, which it certainly is, but because it is an attempt to wrest from God—through devotions, sacrifices, multiplied pleadings, pilgrimages, penances, etc.—what is God’s alone to give freely.
To be a Lutheran is also to heed the frequently uttered command of our Lord: Do not be afraid. With the cross at the heart of our very being, death has died, and so of whom should we be afraid? The cross frees us to love our neighbor, not as a means of pleasing God, but out of gratitude that Christ has already pleased God by redeeming us. We are free to enjoy the good things of this life as coming from his hands and within the purview of his providential care.
A Lutheran also has a high respect for the means of grace: the preached word, Baptism, and Holy Communion*. Christ's humility in becoming man is now mirrored in the paper, water, bread, and wine that conveys his true presence. In these elements Christ is both the giver and the gift, which we can only receive with the empty hand of faith. But it is truly Christ who comes to us, who lives with us, and who enables us to be his disciples.
And so, to be Lutheran is to be people of the cross, fearless, eager to aid our neighbor, even sacrifice ourselves for him or her as Christ did for us, and to love and be loved. To be Lutheran is also to be church people, part of that congregation of faith that comes together to hear the Word, which is Christ, and to receive the sacraments, also Christ himself. We reject the lone Christian, who in his room "hears" the voice of God and becomes then a party—a church—of one, who will neither recognize ordained authority nor the necessity of a sacramental life.
So what would a distinctively Lutheran film look like? Is it enough to say that a filmmaker was raised in a Lutheran church, as was Bergman? But does Bergman evince a Lutheran sensibility—or is he merely gloomy? And is that what has come to pass in common parlance as the synonym for Lutheran?
I will take time with this and set out my list over several post over several days. Let me begin with one movie that is distinctly NOT Lutheran and one I would argue IS:
The Apostle—not Lutheran
Despite Robert Duvall’s praiseworthy performance, and his honest depiction of a type of fundamentalist mindset, this film portrays a semi-pelagian theology of glory. Why? This self-ordained preacher has reduced the august Master of the Universe, the Lord and Giver of Life, the Alpha and Omega, to a good-ole-boy who merely excuses the preacher’s gross sins in order to enable him to fulfill his destiny—the salvation of the great unwashed. It is not God who saves—or who alone saves—but Sonny Dewey.
While Sonny truly believes in God's existence, his God is in his service, even as he claims the very opposite. His God is too familiar. It is true that when we see Jesus, we have seen the Father, and that Jesus is both elder brother and friend. But this is a condescension on Our Lord’s part. He is never an equal. The preacher treats the Lord as an equal, a co-redeemer.
That Sonny is able to whip his congregants into a frenzy of regret and mourning is not a sign of his “anointing”—something that transcends his sinful life, much as the presence of Christ in Holy Communion transcends the personal foibles of the pastor who administers it—as much as it is his ability to manipulate the spiritually hungry.
Sonny’s fearlessness in the face of the law, given his crime, is also not an expression of that peace that passes all understanding but is a spiritual hubris. Sonny thinks himself marked out by God for a mission, and therefore is excused from the mandates of civil justice. This is not Lutheran.
There is perhaps no character is cinema so aware of his own capacity for evil as Karl Childers. Thought to be mentally defective and dangerous, he is in fact quite spiritually acute, to the extent that he knows he is a sinner.
In this story, Karl comes to the aid of a young boy whose life is about to be ruined by a man of violence and indolence allowed into his home by an ignorant and lonely mother. Karl is willing to sacrifice himself, his own very fragile standing within the community, i.e., his own “righteousness,” in order to “save” the boy.
But first, he must be baptized. He is baptized into Christ’s death, identifying himself with the cross, before he descends into hell. The boy is then freed from an evil destiny.
Is it ever licit to do evil that good should come of it? While our Lord certainly never sinned, but was “made sin” for us, we in our fallen state perhaps may find ourselves in such a position that we must sacrifice our righteousness and take sin upon ourselves for the sake of our neighbor. Think of Rahab, whose “lie” is lauded as an act of faith in Hebrews and a “justification” in James.
And think of our great Lutheran martyr, Dietrich.
Some Lutherans will take exception to this. So be it.
*Why two sacraments and not seven? Besides being specifically ordained by Our Lord, they are also explicit identifications with his death, in a way that confession, ordination, confirmation, and marriage are not. (Well, I guess it depends on whom you are married to...)
August 23, 2006
Cruise's Future Paramount
Jump on one sofa and it's like ... ach!
My Lutherans—I want you to take to prayer today that Mr. Cruise will forsake that "religion" of his and come to the true faith! Then he can produce and star in my new screenplay, Marty Luther, P.I. I solve crimes, subdue jackanapes, and abjure works-righteousness, all in the guise of an immigrant stale-meat vendor! Imagine the sequels: Marty Luther, P.U. (private ufologist) and Marty Luther, F.U. (forensic undertaker).
The possibilities are endless!
August 22, 2006
An Immodest Proposal
I can see that, left to themselves, too many of the churches which were once rooted in the great Evangelical Reformation have lost their ecclesiastical minds. What they teach, preach, and confess sounds more like The View than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And so, just as I had need to fall back on the protection and oversight of the great elector of Saxony, Frederick III, in order that the reform of Christ’s church would be allowed to flourish unmolested, I am calling on the elected officials of the United States to come to the aid of the oldest churches within your borders. Without a revitalization of your Christian heritage, your republic will perish.
Since it is a matter of historical fact that the Christian churches have rested on a core list of essential beliefs embodied in such documents as the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasius Creed, and the Augsburg Confession (perhaps there are some other Reformation-era documents that fit the bill, I do not know), the purpose of which was first and foremost to declare who our Lord and Savior was—that is, both God and man—it should be left to the civil authorites to determine what is and is not a Christian church and who will have the legal right to advertise itself as such.
In short, my Lutherans, I am seeking a seal of approval regulated and dispensed by your Federal Trade Commission. Since no one denominational authority—never mind the authority and testimony of the Holy Scriptures—will be accepted by everyone, your federal government must finally become the court of last resort.
I know what some of you are thinking: This is inimical to the separation of church and state we enjoy in our land. Really? Does not your government regulate what is and is not a church when granting it so-called tax-exempt status? So why not take this regulatory function one step further? Previously, churches have not been subject to intense scrutiny for fraud the way other charitable organizations have, the state preferring to leave such supervisory duties to church leadership. Listen to me, my Lutherans—church leadership has failed in those duties and it is now time for the civil authorities to step in!
Imagine something along these lines: If you are a 501(c)(3) organized as a church and intending to self-identify as Christian, your bishops, pastors, vicars, elders, and deacons, as well as all members, lay and clerical, of governing bodies must be willing to profess and affirm in all its parts the following:
1. The Apostles Creed
2. The Nicene Creed
3. The Augsburg Confession and Book of Concord. (There may, in fact, be other worthy confessions that are biblically sound and that affirm the Reformation evangel of justification by grace through faith, but I have not done any extensive research in this area. Until such time as I do, please rely on Augsburg.)
A certificate of authenticity will be placed in a piece of stained glass in every church that has survived FTC scrutiny. No longer will an unsuspecting “church hopper” enter a building thinking it is Christian only to hear encomia to the Mother, Sister, Daughter, or the Ground of Being, or the Grand High Exalted Mystic Vague, or discussions of how Jesus was not only married to Mary Magdalene but was a woman himself. Any church with tax-exempt status that advertises itself as Christian but does not possess such a certificate of authenticity will be subject to fines and ultimately seizure of property.
Once this legislation has been passed and implemented, Episcopal, ELCA, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, United Methodist, and other assemblies that remain obstinate in their many errors will be allowed to operate so long as they do not present or promote themselves to the public as Christian denominations. Those particular parishes within these denominations that have valiantly tried to maintain the historic Christian faith in the face of a soul-crushing heterodoxy will have to consider reorganizing as a distinct church or fellowship or leave en masse for another denomination that is certified Christian.
Now I know some will object that this is just a brutal swipe at the radicals only. Not true. How many storefront churches pastored by some jackanapes whose credentials consist of a website printout from the “Wax Lips School of Ministry” are just as heterodox as the Jesus Seminar berserkers? Pastor Jedediah Poindexter, Apostle, of the Hail and Amen How-Do-Ya-Do First Church of Baltimore, Maryland, may be preaching a gospel as alien to the Gospel that converted Rome and reformed sixteenth-century Europe as any main- or oldline fraud in traditional clerical garb.
And so, I call upon Christians of goodwill everywhere to join me in a Second Reformation of the Church! Petition the government of your great nation for a seal of Christian orthodoxy! I am open to suggestions for different criteria, the satisfaction of which would constitute certificate-worthy status. Again, this will not mean other “churches” will no longer be able to operate. They will simply no longer have a legal right to call themselves Christian.
After all: You have a right in this country to sell dog food and you have a right to sell steak. What you do not have a right to do is sell dog food and call it steak.
August 21, 2006
I Have Been Tagged! And It's Going to Leave a Mark!
Yes, all right, I'll see what I can cook up within the next day or so should I manage a break in my very busy schedule. But please keep in mind, aside from answering the calumnies of all those addlepates and nincompeeps who dare challenge my exegetical expertise—all my favorite cooking shows are on today!
August 20, 2006
As usual, I was feted to six hours of commercials and trailers. Three of the latter caught my eye. They have begun advertising Steve Zaillian's adaptation of All the King's Men, mentioned in my review of the original just a few days ago. Penn looks like he is in fine form, and it was other-worldly listening to Louisiana dialect coming from the mug of James Gandolfini, whose usual dialect is just east of whack this.
Another trailer had me laughing unintentionally, in that, it was not intended to draw laughs. Infamous is the story of Truman Capote and the writing of In Cold Blood, particularly his relationship with one of the killers. His disreputable and reprehensible use of people for his own purposes is also highlighted, as is his relationship with To Kill a Mockingbird author—wait! Didn't we just see this film? Didn't Philip Seymour Hoffman recently win an Academy Award for portraying Capote?
Ach! The producers of Infamous must be pulling their respective lymph nodes out, as they were probably shooting their version of this tale just as Capote was walking away with all the awards and kudos. The tag line for Infamous is "There's more to the story than you know." There had better be! Why would anyone pay to see the same story twice, just with a different cast? (Toby Jones, whose credits include Elizabeth I, Ladies and Lavender, and one of the 32 Harry Potter epics, plays Truman Capote in this one. While he looks more like the original than did Hoffman, he also seems to be doing an impersonation of him, something Hoffman avoided, to his credit.)
The Last King of Scotland is the story of Idi Amin's rise to power in Uganda. If the movie proves to be as compelling as the coming attractions, then Forest Whittaker is already the No. 1 prospect for Best Actor. And it is about time! Ever since he stole a scene from the inimitable Paul Newman in The Color of Money, he has been impressing me with his sly, skulking, yet compelling screen persona.
Now on to our feature presentation!
Edward Norton, no relation to a once-quite-famous subterranean sanitation engineer, plays Eisenheim, a magician—a conjurer—in nineteenth-century Vienna in The Illusionist, an entertaining bit of historical-revisionist fun.
Eisenheim, the son of a cabinetmaker, flees Austria as a child when his love for a young girl of aristocratic origins proves...problematic. He returns fifteen years later as a popular theater performer, a nineteenth-century David Copperfield, whose tricks include conjuring the spirits of the departed.
One evening, the Crown Prince of Austria, Leopold, heir to the empire, deigns to attend a performance with his fiance—the now grown long-lost love of Eisenheim, Sophie. The trick entails Eisenheim's taking of her life, releasing her spirit, and raising her from the dead, which he does with the aid of a magic mirror.
Sophie comes to recognize that little boy who long ago promised to take her away to faraway lands—to help her disappear from a "destiny" that was more a prison than a privilege. They resume their romance—much to the displeasure of the Crown Prince, played with dessicated honor and fury by Rufus Sewell, and Chief Inspector Uhl, played by the one and only Paul Giamatti.
Giamatti does not disappoint—once again. Uhl shares Eisenheim's love of tricks as well as his humble origins. While the Chief Inspector is willing to play the sycophant to the Crown Prince in hopes of one day being made chief of police and even mayor of Vienna, he is hoping against hope that this will not entail imprisoning the young Eisenheim for disturbing the peace with his astounding and seemingly miraculous theater tricks—not to mention his affair with the Crown Prince's fiance.
But the Crown Prince decides to take matters into his own hands. He is unwilling to lose Sophie to some sleight-of-hand artist, and have his plans for marrying her—and uniting Austria with Hungary in one great empire decidedly un-democratic empire—ruined. And so he makes Sophie disappear in his own inimitable way.
I will say no more. The subtext of this story, based on a short story by Pulitzer Prizer winner Steven Millhauser, is that Eisenheim is the freedom that awaits the common people when their imaginations and deep-seated hungers are given room to vent themselves, whereas the Crown Prince is a symbol of a dying demand for order, and the elimination of all mystery and wonder, which threaten his absolute control.
Eisenheim asks, "Where does power flow from? Skill, destiny, or divine right?" The Illusionist seeks to provide an answer. So whether or not you are taken in by the bit of scriptwriting trickery that supplies the surprise ending, this film will at least give you something to think about and someone to root for.
I give this film 85 Theses. Giamatti's turn as a Holy Roman Detective Columbo is worth the price of admission alone!
And now ... lunch!
August 18, 2006
I'm So Phat!
And now ... lunch.
What's in a Name?
How many times have I gone just to get my mail when I was confronted by some addlepate who reeked of semi-Pelagianism from every pore! (I have taken to sliding under their doors neatly typed copies of the Canons of the Second Council of Orange.)
Just this morning, I am in the elevator, trying to avoid unwanted attention, my head buried in a copy of my Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer (a work of mellifluous beauty and profound spiritual insight), when some jackanapes recognizes me. He is surrounded by a passel of children who resemble raw material for a double-blind study in mycological infestation. I try to ignore him by turning my face to the wall of the elevator, but he persists. I suppress the Old Adam’s urge to wither him with a look of utter contempt and instead ask his name.
"Witt, August Witt. Herr Luther. And these are my three daughters."
"Ah," I lie. "And what are their names?"
"This is Mildew, Porcine, and Osteopenia."
Thank goodness we had reached the lobby! I immediately pulled out my cell phone and began dialing social services. "Excuse me, Herr Witt. But I am making a citizens' arrest. Your children will no doubt be cared for in a foster home run by semi-competent Lutherans."
"What kinds of names are these? Mildew, Porcine, and Osteopenia? These are conditions to be avoided, not names for children. You have condemned them to a lifetime of bullying, abuse, and psycholanalytic therapy! Hello? Is this social services? This is Luther, you idiot! I want an ambulance from Bellevue for Mr. Witt here—what was your Christian name again? Half or Nit?! Yes, and I need some kind of large cage for these young ones—hello? Hello?!"
As usual, my call was dropped. My miserable assistant has put me on his family plan. Of course, he has chosen the least-expensive carrier imaginable. Alexander Graham Bell got better reception with his call to Watson. You have to be impaled on the transmitter itself or standing on the surface of the sun just to get a dial tone. Ach!
"I think you are an abusive bully yourself, Herr Luther! What do you think of that?"
"I think New York State knew what it was doing when it passed its draconian gun-control laws!"
Listen to me, my Lutherans! Think twice—no, three times—before naming your children! Ask yourself, Would I want to go through life called Feather or Honorious? From now on, I want all male children born in the West to be called Martin, and all female babies to be named Katherine! There! I have done the work for you, you self-absorbed beasts!
*From this point forward, now and forever, the plural form of nincompoop will be nincompeeps. First, it has the virtue of imputing to a group the demerit of nincompoopdom without discrimination as to degrees of nincompoopitude. It also proves that Martin Luther, Doktor, is jiggy with it! (I have no idea what that means...)
August 17, 2006
All the King's Persons
So says Willie Stark, populist hero of All the King’s Men, based on the bestselling novel by Robert Penn Warren.
Why watch this now? Sean Penn will be starring in a remake come December, for one. And with dissatisfaction mounting with your president—who will play Willie Stark come November 2008? Who will play the judge who won't be bought? Who will play the tarty girlfriend? Who will play the honest, earnest journalist who wants to chronicle the amazing story and keep everything on the level? Who will play the thug gofers and hack propagandists? More important, who will KEEP ME SUPPLIED IN RAISINETTES SO A PERSON CAN GET THROUGH A 109-MINUTE DVD WITHOUT HAVING HIS BLOOD SUGAR PLUMMET LIKE MY STOCK IN DELL LAPTOP COMPUTERS?
Directed by Robert Rossen, director of such classics as Body and Soul and The Hustler, All the King's Men tells the story of a Louisiana idealist, played magnificently by Broderick Crawford, who begins a political career just wanting to clean up the graft and give the poorest and least-regarded a voice in their government. He's defeated by the bosses and the special interests. But he comes back with a vengeance and quickly turns into everything he hates. Once governor of the state, he abandons his family, uses his friends, tortures his enemies, and uses bribery, scandal, and every manner of manipulation to build yet another monument here, another four-lane boulevard there, to his memory.
And that is the problem with this "classic"—while the performances are quite memorable—Crawford all bellicose bullying and Mercedes McCambridge (aka the voice of Satan in the original Exorcist) making her screen debut as a hard-boiled hanger-on, who both loves and loathes the man she helped get elected governor—the adaptation has all the flaws of so-many "Hollywood" productions. Years of Willie's personal transformation are elided with a wipe or a cut, making it impossible to determine if Willie became corrupted by the power he had won or was always a megalomaniac covered over by a thin veneer of populist sentiment that was never more than clever hucksterism.
But Rossen knows how to gin up passion in his performers (think Newman, Scott, and Piper Laurie in The Hustler), and he ably captures how "just plain folks" can quickly degenerate into monomaniacal mobs almost as well as Capra does in Meet John Doe. (Emphasis on almost.)
Nevertheless, I couldn't help but think I was watching a poor man's Citizen Kane (which is no mean feat, given Kane's vaunted status). But it also makes you appreciate Welles all the more.
I will be interested to see what Steve Zaillian, a gifted screenwriter (Schindler's List, Searching for Bobby Fischer, A Civil Action, Mission Impossible—all right, cancel Mission Impossible. I never figured out the whole business with the noc list either!) and now director, will do with this material, especially with a cast as talented as Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini, and Anthony Hopkins!
As an aside: I would like to ask Kodak, Fuji, and whoever is making black and white film stock for major motion picture companies these days—why is it you cannot achieve the rich contrasts as in the pre-1970 pictures anymore? I have heard it has something to do with the silver nitrite in modern film stock. I don’t know. But no one can make a black and white picture without negotiating merely degrees of gray.
When it comes to great cinema, even shadows aren’t what they used to be.
August 16, 2006
In it, he argues that a sacramental worldview—a belief in the Real Presence, specifically—imbues one with an appreciation for the tactile and concrete, namely, the objective, as opposed to merely what an object signifies or symbolizes (this is a simplification—read his article for more). This worldview thus serves as a muse to the artistic imagination.
Had I won the eucharistic battle at Marburg, Herr Leithart argues, and the Zwinglians been defeated, Protestants would have been united, and our imaginations enriched.
While I am flattered that Herr Leithart, a Calvinist, would side with the Lutheran cause in this instance, and I am more than willing to blame the Zwinglians for all manner of evils, including flat imaginations, a truncated understanding of worship, soy cookies, and the final episode of Seinfeld, I nonetheless wonder if his thesis holds.
My Lutherans have produced some great minds and great names—Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, to name just two—but have we produced writers of fiction to rival Miss O'Connor, Mr. Greene, Mr. Percy, et al.?
Leithart asks why there is no Protestant Joyce. I would argue that before you can write Ulysses, it would help to have read Homer. How much more comfortable are the Romanists with the classics of Greece and Rome, with their great art, with things pagan, than we Protestants? Our trajectory is to shy away from whiffs of idolatry. That this has cost us artistically is no doubt true. But did Christ die so someone could write The Power and the Glory?
Yet, Christ did promise us Life, and that more abundantly. And a fertile imagination that sees the Creator in created things and natural beauty as everyday reminders of ultimate Beauty is no small gift from Our Lord. And did not the Incarnation give new meaning to the Father's original imprimatur: "And he saw what he had made and it was good"? And so perhaps Herr Leithart is right to lament the paucity of evangelical and Protestant writers of the first rank. (Yet, one must first discount the Anglicans: Swift, Sterne, Donne, Sayers, Lewis, et al.)
I leave it to you to debate, my Lutherans. (In any event, I heartily recommend Herr Leithart's commentary on First and Second Kings, soon to be released by Brazos.)
August 15, 2006
Today Is Mary's Day
Mary is truly the God-bearer who fed, taught, and nurtured the Word made flesh; sought him out at the Temple as he astounded the scribes and Pharisees; feared for his life as his teaching was distorted by evil men; shared in his sufferings as flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood hung from the cross; persevered in the hope of his vindication; waited in the upper room and shared in the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit; and remained in the company of his disciples as the gospel was taken to the nations. She is the first and greatest disciple.
Scripture attests that Mary, having no other children after Our Lord, was entrusted into the care of his beloved disciple. Now, by grace through faith, we too are his beloved disciples and are entrusted with Mary as our mother, to care for her name. No one would deny she is in heaven and sees God face to face. Whether she was spared death or having died she was spared the decay that is natural to the dead is a matter of pious speculation. I do not fault anyone for believing so. But Christian consciences should not be bound to such speculation.
Nevertheless, I would enjoin all Christians, especially all Lutherans, to remember Mary today, to keep her holy name on your lips, and to reflect on her holy life as the perfect model of total dedication to her son.
Now, I can imagine some jackanapes turning red in the face, barely able to restrain himself: “Herr Doktor: Wouldn’t it be wiser to remain silent where the Scriptures are silent? Even to engage in such speculation is to tread a slippery slope to Rome or Constantinople, with its elaborate legends about Mary and the saints.”
To which I would reply: “Perhaps, you would like to say to Christ, ‘I always believed your mother was a miserable sinner like me and lies rotting in the ground today.’ ”
“But,” our addlepate continues, “that is an argument from mere sentiment, not biblical theology.”
“SILENCE, IMAGINARY INTERLOCUTOR! Silence, before some intemperate Christian is compelled to grind you into a fine paste and use you for a dentrifice (preferably with extra whitening properties)! Or better yet, strangle you with a length of piano wire until your tongue pendulates with such ferocity that your head is confiscated by government officials as a source of alternative energy!”
Not that I would think of doing such a thing …
I have said what I have said. Take from it what you will.
And now … breakfast.
August 14, 2006
Cranach, My Old Friend!
Listen—I must sit for you again! I am in desperate need of a new portrait! These old canvases that they throw around the Internet cannot possibly do me justice. For example: I have added a third chin! Its name is Hubert, and it is a good German chin. No evidence of ambiguity or Zwinglian tendencies whatsoever! The minute you lay eyes on it, it says to you—CHIN.
I see some of these faces in this apartment building I am stuck in, and ACH. I feel like I'm lost in a Picasso exhibit. An eye that looks like an ear, a mouth that looks like an eye, a nose that looks like Dabney Coleman.
As Norma Desmond was fond of saying, "We didn't need sound. We had FACES then!" Today, you're lucky if you see something that isn't just shy of a masticating tumor.
So what are you charging these days, old man? My resources are not yet what they should be, given the royalties I have been robbed of by that den of thieves commonly known as publishers!
But wait—WAIT!—until they see the size of the advance I will demand for my new tome: It's Luther, You Idiot! In it, I opine on every subject under the sun, including current ecclesiological controversies, a German in the seat of Peter, and why Jennifer Aniston would marry someone so tall—how can it last?? (I will need, perhaps, a photo for the dust jacket. I am thinking a nice chiaroscuro close-up—something that will strike fear in the hearts of Anapbaptists and canon lawyers from here to Tubingen!)
And now ... lunch.
August 12, 2006
I Am Martin Luther—Who WOULD HAVE GUESSED?
| You scored as Luther. You are Martin Luther. You'll stick with the words of Scripture, and defend this with earthy expressions. You believe in an orthodox Christology. You believe that the bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Christ, but aren't too sure about where he goes after the meal, and so you don't accept reservation of the Blessed Sacrament or Eucharistic devotions.|
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Thanks for setting me straight. For a minute there, I thought maybe I was Isabella Rosselini...
(Ach! I just realized—I forgot to return that hat! I rented it from Fadennudein & Sons! And if you return it just one minute after midnight, they make you pay for another day! Does anyone have $765,000(US) they could lend me?)
The Official Lutheran Movie Ratings System
Masterwork: 95 Theses
Excellent: 90 Theses
Good—but just falls short of great: 85 Theses
Goodish—needed another rewrite or a new director: 75 Theses
Fair—so why bother: 65 Theses
Poor—should never have been green-lighted: 55 Theses
Bad—no one involved should be allowed to work in cinema for two years: 45 Theses
Eck-xecrable—dehumanizing and should be denounced by the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament, the UN Security Council, the Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters: One Thesis—It sucks!
So, for example, Scoop would have garned 65 Theses. Thank You for Smoking—85 Theses; United 93—90 Theses; Lady in the Water—55 Theses. And, if my assistant's taste is to be trusted (a dubious surmise, I assure you), World Trade Center—90 Theses.
"But Herr Doktor, your theses were a list of complaints. Shouldn't the system be reversed? Shouldn't "95 Theses" denote 95 "problems," while Zero Theses would mean no complaints whatsoever?"
Listen to me, you literal-minded, albeit wholly fictitious, excrescence: My theses, had you bothered to read them, rather than just read about them, were more than just complaints. They were also statements of theological and scriptural fact, intended to highlight error and emphasize truth. Also—who would go to motion picture that had a big fat ZERO attached to it? Play along, you crypto-Calvinist!
August 09, 2006
World Trade Center and Other Pressing Matters
I know what you are thinking, my Lutherans: Why, O why, are you being so cordial to someone whom you have systematically abused with such abandon and delight? You have even used his name!
Ach—what a time I've had of it! I must admit to certain...difficulties that have arisen of late and with which my Chief Inferior has agreed to help me cope.
It all began last weekend, when I STUPIDLY asked Calvinus to answer the questions to the Book Tag that is making its way through Confessing Lutheran Blogland. WHAT WAS I THINKING? First, he comes back with "Holy Scriptures," "Holy Scriptures," "Holy Scriptures"—nine times "Holy Scriptures."
"Yes, we are all impressed with your love for the Word, you French-fried jackanapes. What do you think I read all those years in Wittenburg—toothpaste packages?! Did you even look at these questions? Book you wish had never been written—to which you reply 'Holy Scriptures'! Go back and do this again, and spare us the pluperfect piety!"
So I am fast asleep, my Lutherans, dreaming that I am conducting a study of the Book of Galatians with Dina Meyer, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Kirsten Dunst. Suddenly, I am awakened by "you know who." That Picardian nincompoop is standing over me with another copy of his book list. I struggle to keep my eyes open long enough to read nine Latin titles so obscure, I have no reason to believe they had even been written, never mind read!
Imagine my frustration! Dina, Michelle, and Kirsten—gone. And here is Johannes Calvinus in his jammies and stupid Genevan headgear, smug as a bug in a rug. I leapt out of bed (well, "leapt" is a relative term, given my bulk), grabbed four feet of raw twine (which I keep at the ready at all times), and began choking him! Yes! The Old Adam was revived with a vengeance! Calvinus began kicking at the walls, waking the rest of the house and finally bringing hotel security to our front door.
We were warned that if there were any more complaints about our behavior (there had been 75 so far), we would be expelled from the premises.
I released Calvinus from my grip and went back to bed, fuming.
Then the next night, I'm again fast asleep, helping Elke Sommer (circa 1965) with her catechism, when I hear a young woman scream. First, I think perhaps I have tripped and fallen atop Ms. Sommer and crushed her delicate bits. Then I realize it's coming from the common room. I "leap" out of bed only to find one of the young hotel maids running out the front door half-dressed. And there is Zwingli with that unctuous smile of his. It seems he had invited one of the staff to play some stupid party game called Twister and wound up a tangle of extremities.
Next thing we all knew, we were all of us on the street, nowhere to go. I immediately cried out to Our Lord for help, for guidance, for a decent all-night Chinese place—when that idiot angel reappeared.
"I didn't ask to speak to you! Be gone! Go back to wherever you angels hang out. Los Angeles, no doubt! Get it? Angel...Los Angeles...The Angels...Get it?"
"Shut up, you Saxon stinkpot! The Lord has heard your prayer. He will alleviate your suffering—why I have no idea—as well as this obviously futile attempt at ecumenical rapprochement, but only on the condition that you be reconciled to your assistant and do as he says."
"Rapprochement? And what fancy school did you go to? Oooooh, listen to me, I say rapprochement and foie gras and tintinnabulation....ooooh—" And with that, this angel from hell blew me through the front doors of K-Mart and right into the "Back to School" ring-binder aisle.
"Reconciliation—or you will return to the abode of the undead." And he disappeared, leaving behind a faint odor of Old Spice and barbecued chicken. Don't ask...
When I returned to the street, the whole sixteenth-century gang was gone: No more Zwingli, Calvinus, Brenz, Jonas, et al. I was finally at peace! But I had to seek out my assistant. Seeing as the sun was just appearing over the East River, I decided to get coffee and think up a good ruse.
Ah! I would appear at my assistant's place of work and make nice with his colleagues. Once I had won over the staff, he would have to be accommodating.
And so I walked into the offices and introduced myself. "I am Martin Luther, Doktor." I was then regaled with 72,000 questions: "Do you now repudiate The Bondage of the Will seeing as the Lutheran churches do not teach double predestination? Do you believe Philip Melanchthon faithfully represented your views? Would you have ever left the Catholic Church if you could have foreseen the 29,000 Protestant denominations? Is confession a sacrament or isn't it? Do you approve of the congregational form of church governance? Exactly how fat are you?"
Before I had a chance to open my mouth, my assistant popped his head from his office. "You. In here."
He already knew the score and laid down the ground rules. I was to stop abusing him. I was to stop calling him names. I was to stop making anti-Italian slurs. I was to stop eating after 10pm. I was to stop hogging the remote. I was to stop cursing in German. I was to stop playing "Sugar, Sugar" by The Archies morning, noon, and night. I was to apologize to his next-door neighbor for calling her a spastic hyena. I was to stop eating with my fingers. I was to stop slopping Hershey's chocolate sauce over my breakfast cereal. I was to stop praying for fire from heaven to fall on my enemies. I was to stop making enemies morning, noon, and night. I was to start wearing underwear."
"And what have you been doing in the past three months—getting a law degree? All these rules! This...this is a violation of my constitutional rights!"
"You're DEAD. You have no rights. You don't even have a functioning lymphatic system."
"Fair point. All right. I will accede to all your demands, except two. I must be allowed to call you one harsh name and make two ridiculing remarks per blog post."
"I WANT MY CHOCOLATE SAUCE!"
So here I sit, my Lutherans, back in the cozy confines of Queens, New York, watching repeats of Becker, munching Almond Joys and the occasional Krackle. "And bring me my Dinkelacker, you Mediterranean Menace!" Ah ha ha ha! It doesn't get better than this!
August 08, 2006
Caveat emptor! I am familiar personally with only a handful of these blogs. Some are of great value, some are merely entertaining, others may, in fact, be of no use to anyone whatsoever. Should some Lutheran blogger listed here be found one day in his parents' basement making fertilizer bombs or appearing in nudie pictures or selling human body parts on eBay—I don't want to hear about it!
You will also notice that below the Confessing Lutherans is a shorter list of "other" blogs. Among them, as will no doubt be a source of great consternation, are Roman Catholic bloggers. These are either friends or acquaintances of my miserable assistant (yes, the "ex" has been removed, now that he has managed to make himself useful again) or merely sources of interesting and useful information, especially as regards the many anti-Christian blasphemies of the wider world.
Some will say, "You are getting soft, Herr Doktor!" Thanks for reminding me—but 32 pints a week of Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey will do that to you.
Look at it this way, my Lutherans: In this world gone mad, with whom do we have more in common—Romanists who take their faith seriously, or the nutcakes on the television with the plastic hair and the hippodrome churches who tell me Jesus died so I can win the Lotto of Life?
I will leave it for you to decide...
August 06, 2006
It's much too early to say Mr. Allen's career is going to hell, especially when his most previous effort, Match Point, was an entertaining and well-acted bit of nihilism. But I'm afraid that Scoop, while good for a laugh or three, is a poor imitation of Manhattan Murder Mystery, with the occasional flashback to Love & Death, a movie so funny, it should be used instead of defibrillators to restart dysrhythmic hearts. (Rewinding to the Napoleonic War battle sequences certainly would take no longer than recharging those things between jolts.)
Scoop is set in London, Allen's new favorite city, and Scarlett Johansson plays a Brooklyn-born college reporter who, one afternoon, finds herself used as part of "The Great Splendini's" (Allen) magic act. While locked in a Chinese box, in which she is supposed to dematerialize, the ghost of a recently deceased reporter (Ian McShane) materializes and gives her the clues to the identity of the "Tarot Card Killer." The suspect? The son of an English lord, played adequately by Hugh Jackman, sans metal talons.
Once Allen becomes convinced that Johansson isn't mad, the two plot to win the confidence of Jackman and gather the evidence necessary to convince British authorities that he is their latter-day Jack the Ripper—and win the young journalist her first front-page scoop.
There are plenty of Allen's trademark anxiety-induced non-sequiturs, which when played before the upper crust of English society induces both a wince and a giggle. For example: Allen is playing poker at a posh club. He tells Lord Such-and-Such that he bought his first Reuben with poker winnings. "You bought a Rubens' painting?" the lord asks. "No—the sandwich," Allen replies. The audience in New York howled—but would anyone who has never spent time in the Carnegie Deli and enjoyed one of those corned-beef and Swiss-cheese dreams get the joke?
I enjoyed watching Johansson read lines written for Diane Keaton—30 years ago. And there seemed to me to be problems with continuity in this picture: References that are intended to elicit laughs fall flat, as if scenes that would have explained them had been edited down or edited out. Also, day turns to dusk in one scene in a matter of two seconds, and Allen has a hard time not looking into his own camera.
Ach—but these are quibbles. All in all, if you're an Allen fan, this is a throwaway, a mildly amusing, albeit unoriginal, 90 minutes on a summer day. No more, no less. But if you're one of those who just never "got" Woody Allen to begin with, I promise you—you won't get him here either.