Brandon's Notepad

August 28, 2014

The Vatican Diaries

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The Vatican Diaries
This is a short review of The Vatican Diaries, written by John Thavis, narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner.

John Thavis, a native of Minnesota, enjoyed a thirty-year career as a journalist covering the Vatican for Catholic News Service. He was first hired in Rome in 1978 as a headline writer, and after returning home for a brief time, he decided to relocate the family to Italy, where he soon found a home at CNS. He retired in 2012 and moved back to the States to focus on his own writing fulltime. The Vatican Diaries was published in early 2013.

What a book! Thavis shares his unique perspective on life in the Vatican, drawing from various events of two papacies, both mundane and spectacular. His main themes are these: that the Vatican isn’t the well-oiled machine that many people think it is, and that just about every news story that emanates from within its walls is usually backed by another, more obscure, and usually more interesting story.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of this work. Early on, the sarcasm meter spiked so high that I started to wonder if this was an honest work or some sort of anti-Catholic rhetoric written by a particularly cynical insider. I had nothing to indicate that the author was even Catholic! He told of the frustrations that journalists face when following the Supreme Pontiff around the globe, and how even if the press corp misses an event altogether, the stories still get written, often using secondary sources like televised event coverage. After a while, though, it started to sound like this guy really knew his stuff. Some stories you just can’t make up. I eventually decided that the sarcasm was just a product of his style. After all, journalists are supposed to write provocative pieces, balanced or not, right?

Many of the topics covered will not come as a surprise to anyone who pays even mild attention to Catholic headlines. There is ample (and vividly frank) discussion about various scandals of course, particularly the recent ones concerning priestly abuse. Also covered are the schismatic foundation of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), impediments in the cause for the canonization of Pope Pius XII, and Pope John Paul II’s visit with the rock band U2. Some stories, however, cover very obscure topics and are not the stuff of mainstream journalism. These stories are intricately detailed and are admittedly interesting, but were surely included not for their widespread appeal, but because Thavis himself found them amusing. One such story (perhaps my favorite in the whole book) describes how a vast Roman burial ground was discovered during excavation for a new Vatican underground parking garage. Is it always this interesting when archaeology meets politics? Thavis’ admiration for John Paul II cannot be veiled, but you can tell he wasn’t quite so enthused with Benedict XVI; well, that is until he finally discovered what really made the German prelate tick…but, you’ll just have to read the book to find out what that is.

Malcolm Hillgartner’s narration is excellent. Non-fiction books are very often narrated by the author, especially those written by politicians, professors, or others whose professions require a high capacity in public speaking. I thought I was listening to Thavis reading his own work, and it was only after I noted the steady cadence in this recording that I looked to the jacket for verification that I was listening to a professional narrator. Hillgartner’s performance is in no way flat. He puts emphasis on all the right words and is able to keep the listener engaged, which is why I first assumed it was Thavis.


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July 24, 2014

People Of The Covenant

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People of the Covenant: An Invitation to the Old Testament
This is a short review of People of the Covenant: An Invitation to the Old Testament, written by Dianne Bergant, CSA. Publication information can be found under [Bergant-1] in the Bibliography

People of the Covenant is a nice primer on key figures of the Old Testament. The author summarizes their stories and provides insight regarding the spiritual importance of each. It is a short read and might prove to be a good survey of the Old Testament for someone preparing to embark on a more in-depth study. It’s not in-depth enough to be a considered a good reference book in my opinion.

The figures are classified into general categories, such as the Ancestors, Judges, Kings, Prophets, Priests, etc. These categories should sound very familiar to those who already know Scripture. The list of figures covered is not exhaustive. For example, the Ancestors include Adam, Abraham, Issac, Jacob, and Joseph, but there is no specific treatment of Noah. Also, only three of the twelve Judges whose stories are contained in the Book of Judges — Deborah, Gideon, and Samson — are covered, though both Joshua and Samuel are (correctly) included in this section. Eli is classified as a Priest, even though he was also a Judge. The Prophets include Moses and a mix of (five) major and minor Prophets after whom books of their teachings are named. Understandably, not all of the Kings are covered, only Saul, David, Solomon, and two of the (eight) good kings of Judah. There are additional sections covering some of the Wisdom writings, the poems and songs, and the novellas. Finally, there is a discussion about certain mysterious figures described by the Prophets that foreshadow the Christ.

This book was written for those who have an interest in a Catholic interpretation of Sacred Scripture. The author, Dianne Bergant, is a sister in the Congregation of St. Agnes in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and is a professor of Old Testament Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. It was refreshing to find a primer that gives preference to a literary interpretation over a literalist (fundamentalist) one. It covers quite clearly the meaning of the novellas (including Tobit and Judith) as works of contemporary religious fiction of the time, as well as a cursory view of the Hellenistic period and Maccabean Revolution. All of these are omitted from the Protestant version of the Bible, of course.

I felt it necessary to comment further on the literary/literalist distinction mentioned above. By literary I mean to say that the Scriptures are read and understood as literature of various genres, some of which lean heavily on figurative language. This doesn’t mean that the Bible was written in a secret code, but that linguistic semantics and phraseology (e.g. idioms and euphemisms) can change one’s interpretation if they are not understood. In contrast, a literalist interpretation means that all of Scripture is taken as strictly literal in meaning. This sort of interpretation strips away any meaning intended by the authors based on cultural and historical context.

Some may find Bergant’s analysis of Scripture somewhat shocking because Christians (Catholics included) are generally taught (or at least assume) that Bible stories have some basis in historical fact. It seems that Bergant (implicitly) begins with the assumption that these stories are actually pure myth, not based on any historical fact but that nonetheless convey profound truth. [p. 22] Consider the stories of the Ancestors, for example, which are primordial and have survived far longer than the historical evidence that might substantiate their accuracy. [p. 19] Even though the stories of these patriarchs form a genealogy and family history, Bergant claims that they were contributed by various tribes as they joined together to form the Hebrew nation and were later stitched into a single tale. [p. 20] Moreover, with no evidence to the contrary, important figures could very well be hypostatizations of various concepts that are central to the faith. Likewise, she also claims that the Jewish feasts began as seasonal celebrations and were eventually given historical meaning, such as the commemoration of the release from slavery in Egypt (Passover) and the giving of the Law at Sinai (Pentecost), and that over a long period of time, the agricultural reasons lost their importance and the historical meanings remained. [pp. 15-17] Claims such as these are what draw such strong criticism against Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis, since they appear to reduce Scripture to a mere fabrication that (contrary to the definition of myth) holds no truth at all, only simple fiction. Afterall, if these stories can be so easily dismissed, why not dismiss the stories of Jesus as well? Bergant does not claim that Jesus is a fictional character, of course. In the final analysis, even if the entirety of the Old Testament is indeed myth, it would still point toward the very real Redeemer and Savior. And if so, perhaps this was the Holy Spirit’s way of preparing the people of God for his advent.

This presupposition that Old Testament stories is pure myth is still problematic for the Catholic, however. The story of Adam and Eve is a good example. These characters are often discounted as mythical people by those who cannot reconcile their faith with the discoveries of science. It was definitively asserted at Trent that sin originated with one man, Adam, and that all of mankind was injured as a result. [Session V, Decree on Original Sin; c.f. Romans 5:12] Pope Pius XII later expounded that polygenism (origin from two or more distinct ancestors) is irreconcilable with the doctrine of original sin. [Humani Generis, ¶37] Thus, the Church teaches that a single male ancestor did indeed exist, strongly implying that Adam is not a hypostatization of sinful tendencies, nor is the story of the Fall an etiology of the same.


July 17, 2014

The Last Lecture

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The Last Lecture
This is a short review of The Last Lecture, written by Dr. Randy Pausch, narrated by Erik Singer.

This is one of those books that creates a real buzz in the American popular culture. Of course, to that end, it doesn’t hurt one bit to be invited to speak on the Oprah Winfrey Show. I had seen the book on the shelf when it came out, and because (despite age-old advice) I almost always judge a book by its cover, I was under the impression that it was going to be a very depressing book. I’ll pass. I guess it’s a good thing that I also often read books just ‘because everyone else is doing it’. Most of the time, I am pleasantly surprised by what I find. This was one of those times. This is not a depressing book at all. It is an inspiring book, and well worth the read.

Dr. Randy Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2006. A year later, the doctors gave him only months to live. He had been invited to give a lecture at his university about his life journey, something akin to the tradition amongst academics to giving a ‘last lecture’ in which they impart whatever wisdom they feel would be most valuable to their students and colleagues. For Pausch, this was an opportunity to leave his legacy for real, not just in the realm of the classroom on one afternoon, but far more importantly for his children. Pausch died in July 2008, survived by his wife and by three small children, the youngest of whom will only know him from this work, his last magnum opus.

Pausch didn’t write an autobiography in the traditional sense. He didn’t write about his achievements and his regrets in life, harping on what he had done in the past and lamenting those things that he will never have a chance to do in the future. He didn’t even address his thoughts on death, though he didn’t ignore the elephant in the room by any means. The title of his lecture was “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”. He wrote about how to live life. He wrote about persistence, attitude, and the true meaning of experience. His advice is as practical as it is upbeat. In a nutshell, he continued to do his job — teaching others — drawing examples from his own life to support a set of fundamental principles.

I hesitate to write anything specific about his message and his stories, because I found a lot of value in listening to them in his words, and I know that I would not do them justice. It’s just one of those books you have to read for yourself.

I will add one small caveat for any Christians reading this review. Whenever I read things like this, I am always interested in finding out more about the author’s faith tradition. The only clues Pausch gave throughout most of the text is that he had a deep understanding of how Moses must have felt knowing that he would die before the Hebrews would enter the Promised Land, and that he did discuss end-of-life issues with his pastor. Obviously, these clues point to his identity as a Christian. He later discloses that he views faith as a private matter and that he did not discuss faith in the lecture or the book on purpose, because he felt that the advice he had to offer had more universal appeal. So, he came off as one of the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ types. It is also apparent from the text, as well as his presentation on Oprah, that he believed in karma; thus, while I totally appreciate his joy and enthusiasm for life and optimism in the ability that people can indeed achieve their childhood dreams, I cannot endorse the Universalist/New Age underpinnings of his ethos.


May 30, 2014

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Filed under: Book Reviews — Brandon @ 3:31 pm
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Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
This is a short review of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, written by Dr. Oliver Sacks, narrated by John Lee.

Once in a while, I pick up a book at the library that covers a topic outside of my normal areas of interest and I force myself to read it. I do this to branch out, to learn something completely new. This exercise is much less painful (and believe me, it can be painful) when I listen to a recording of these sorts of books during my commute. Sometimes I don’t even read the jacket, only the title, and thereby break that golden rule about judging a book by its cover. This is one of those books.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks discusses musical disorders in patients with autism, dementia, Parkinsonism, Alzheimer’s, and a host of other afflictions. The range of such disorders is wide. Some patients experience an onset of tone deafness and lose all interest in music, whereas others gain perfect pitch or may become musically inclined. Still others who suffer from chronic memory loss are able to sing or play music as well as they always had, and those whose conditions leave them in a mesmerized state can become animated at the sound of music. Hallucinations can be auditory as well as visual. Sacks covers all of these and more by relating firsthand experiences with his own patients as well as stories from professional correspondents.

I enjoyed this book, even though it was very dry at times. I will admit that if I had picked up the paper version and not the audiobook, I probably would not have finished it. I know someone whose daughter is entering the field of music therapy, and I’m sure this information will come in handy in conversation someday. The narrator does a wonderful job. It helps that his voice ‘fits’ the picture of Sacks on the cover. If you are looking for something different, you may want to give this one a try.


May 27, 2014

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

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The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
This is a short review of The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, written by David Remnick, narrated by Mark Deakins.

The Bridge is a thorough examination of the early life and career of President Obama. It is a story of a man raised in culturally diverse Hawaii who has a deep desire to help the oppressed, but who must first learn how to identify with those he strives to serve by redefining himself. Metaphorically referring to Obama as a bridge, the image is used in varied and sometimes-subtle ways. For example, as part of the Joshua Generation he connects the old ways of the Moses Generation (the Civil Rights Movement) to the Promised Land (a new future of real freedom in America). As such, he acts like a bridge over the waters of the River Jordan. Also, early in the book, the conflict at the Edmund Pettus Bridge is recounted, the crossing of which is finally upon us with the election of the first United States President who happens to also be black (you’re welcome, Gen. Powell).

While I cannot say that it is an unbiased work, I do believe that the author remained fairly objective and faithful to his sources. [Of course, as with any piece on history, the degree to which it accurately represents the absolute truth in all matters may never be known.] It certainly paints a rosy portrait of Obama, which actually fits my needs well. It built upon what I had already learned about his ancestry and my basic knowledge of his candidacy and tenure, and it will provide a good mental backdrop for when I read the more critical assessments written by his opponents. Also, many details that previously drew my attention only as news bites were adequately connected and explained by the narrative.

As usual, I listened to the audiobook version. The narration by Mark Deakins is excellent. He varies his voice when reading quotes and has a distinct sound when quoting Obama himself, making it very easy to visualize the text and prevent the user from getting lost in a sea of words.

May 8, 2014

The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family

Filed under: Book Reviews — Brandon @ 5:50 pm
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The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family
This is a short review of The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family, written by Peter Firstbrook.

This story is not about President Barack Obama, so much as it is about the twenty generations of his father’s family that preceded him. It covers Kenyan history beginning with the migration of the Luo tribe from Sudan four centuries ago to British colonial rule in the early Twentieth Century and the politics of Barack Senior’s generation. It certainly attempts to settle some of the controversies surrounding the President, namely the “birther theories” that he was born in Kenya and not in Hawaii (thereby making him ineligible to hold the office of President), as well as the claim that he professes the Christian faith publicly but is actually a Muslim (and therefore sympathetic to anti-American regimes and organizations). The author, an Englishman, begins the book by noting how foreigners often watch the workings of American politics with an acute understanding that the results of our elections have global impact, something that United States citizens take for granted. He ends with commentary on the difficulties one encounters when gathering family history data, especially a history that has been passed down orally for many generations. It is a very interesting story and well worth the read!

April 1, 2014

Catching Fire


After reading Hunger Games, I immediately started listening to the Catching Fire audiobook. Just as with my post about the first book, this post is not meant to be a complete summary, but a brief synopsis and a handful of observations and supporting research.


Synopsis

This is the second book in the Hunger Games series. If necessary, read my synopsis of the first book.

At the time of this writing, I still have not yet seen the movies, so I cannot attest to their faithfulness. As the storyline progresses, however, I do find myself contemplating how they portrayed this event or that on screen, so I may have to bite the bullet and watch them after all. [As a sidenote, while I was reading this book, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died tragically in a drug overdose. He played a key role, and it will be interesting to see if/how they change the storyline to accommodate for this loss.]

* * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *

Six months after Katniss and Peeta win the Hunger Games, they must participate in the Victory Tour, travelling to the other districts to deliver speeches as part of the Capitol’s never-ending propaganda campaign. She is paid a surprise visit by President Snow who warns her to calm the people in the other districts. The trick she pulled to win the 74th Hunger Games has been popularly interpreted as an act of defiance against the Capitol, and Panem is potentially on the brink of rebellion. On the Victory Tour, Katniss and Peeta must maintain the appearance of being star-crossed lovers who were tragically cast together into the Hunger Games Arena as mortal enemies and who, through the benevolence of the Capitol, were allowed to share the victory. The tour begins in District 11, home of Rue (Katniss’ former ally) and Thresh (who showed her mercy). After her speech, the people salute Katniss in unity. This is seen as a dangerous sign by the Capitol and several members of the crowd are publicly executed on the spot by the Peacekeepers. Their visits to the other districts are given little treatment. When the tour arrives in the Capitol, in an effort to convince President Snow and Panem that they are still deeply in love, Peeta proposes marriage to Katniss and she accepts. Snow is not convinced, however, and Katniss knows it. While still in the Capitol, Katniss meets the new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee, who secretively discusses plans for the next Hunger Games as they dance at a private reception. Katniss and Peeta return to District 12, the final stop on the tour. After learning that there has been an uprising in District 8 and making a failed attempt to escape the district herself, Katniss colludes with her friend Gale to escape with their families. Gale is subsequently captured and tortured by a new Head Peacekeeper for hunting illegally outside the fence that surrounds the district. Katniss then turns to Peeta and their Games mentor Haymitch to determine what the right course of action should be. Escaping to the woods to hunt and think, Katniss encounters two refugees from District 8 travelling through the woods to District 13. They believe that District 13 has not been destroyed, despite what Capitol propaganda claims, but continues to thrive in isolation, a last bastion of freedom in Panem. As Katniss tries to return home, she discovers that security in the district has tightened significantly. Months pass and a special announcement is made regarding the 75th Hunger Games: it is a the third Quadranscentennial of the Capitol’s victory, which they call a Quarter Quell, and to celebrate, tributes will be reaped from living victors. Katniss is the only living female victor from District 12, so her return to the Arena is inevitable, and she will be joined by either Peeta or Haymitch. The three begin to prepare themselves, not only physically, but also by reviewing footage of prior Hunger Games so that they may better understand their pool of potential opponents. After the (pointless) Reaping, they travel to the Capitol for the opening ceremonies, training, etc. The action then shifts to the Arena, and the Games play out in much the same way as they did the previous year with a few notable exceptions. In this Games, Katniss and Peeta have no shortage of allies, some of whom willingly sacrifice themselves to protect them. Also, the Arena is unique in that it does not appear to be a merely natural terrain of unknown shape and size, but a circular design with twelve regions that resemble a clock face. Each region contains a particular danger that is made manifest at the top of each hour in clockwise fashion as the day progresses. A tidal wave, poisonous fog (nerve gas?), and violent monkeys are three of the plagues used by the Gamemakers. The allies eventually understand the pattern and try to find a way to leverage these dangerous traps to their advantage. Katniss eventually realizes that her odd exchange with Heavensbee in the Capitol months before could have been a warning, a clue about the mechanics of the Arena. In the end, Katniss and at least one other victor-tribute escape the arena when the force field is short circuited by one of Katniss’ arrows (cleverly grounded by thin wire). Katniss is nursed back to health only to discover that Heavensbee, Haymitch, and the victor-tribute named Finnick are co-conspirators in a plot to incite a revolution in the districts. She also discovers that Peeta and a few other tributes were captured during the escape.

Analysis

Maps. Maps are invaluable tools, always in the real world, but sometimes in literature too. Just imagine traversing Middle Earth with out a map! I know I can’t. Search for a map of Panem online and you will find a wide variety of them, most of which are drawn by fans based on clues in the text. Of the ones I’ve seen, almost all of them place District 12 in the vicinity of Pennsylvania, which is a logical choice since coal is the primary export. Districts 13 and 11 are to the north and south respectively and the Capitol is situated in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. This placement of the Capitol makes perfect sense as the high elevation would ensure that it would survive the longest in another global flood. Districts 1 and 2 (and usually 3 and 4) are somewhere near the Capitol, but there is a lot of variance in relative placement and whether these are west of the Capitol or if the Capitol is the westernmost territory on the map. The remaining districts could be just about anywhere, and most people center them around major existing U.S. cities.

Sea Level. A major variance amongst the maps is the coastal boundaries of Panem. We know from the first book that the sea levels rose as a result of large-scale natural events. Curious to know how accurate the maps were in general, I used the Calculated Earth website to get a feel for what the basic shape of Panem might actually be. Using this simulator to create a map that resembles most of the Panem maps out there, one can reasonably conclude that the seas rose somewhere between 50 and 150 meters. In this range, most of New York and Pennsylvania remain dry, and the Virginias start to disappear at the high end. At 50 meters all of Florida and at least half of Louisiana are gone. At 150 meters, all of the Southeast is under water. Interestingly, it seems that most map makers assume that changes in sea level will engulf both coasts at the same rate. Most Panem maps show arbitrarily that the West Coast is flooded as far inland as the East Coast. This, of course, is not realistic. Again using the simulator, waters would have to rise 800 to 1000 meters to cover California, Oregon, and Washington, and at that level all of the states east of the Rockies would be submerged.

District 11. This is the first stop on the Victory Tour for the 74th Hunger Games. Katniss notes the warm climate and wonders just how far south they had travelled. Using this as a clue, most map makers place the heart of District 11 in the Deep South, encompassing Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Some include Florida, though most show that state to be completely covered by ocean waters. Some show the district extending into Texas and as far north as Ohio. Whether the Carolinas are in District 11 or District 12 is a toss-up. This placement is also supported by the fact that the chief industry of District 11 is agriculture. From a cultural perspective, it is interesting to note that the citizens of District 11 live in a walled and heavily guarded city, are forced to labor in the fields, are treated with unusual cruelty by the Peacekeepers, and are all dark-skinned. [Note: stills from the movie show a mixed, but predominantly black citizenry.] This reference to the oppression of African-Americans is pungent, though I hardly guess we should label them as such, for in the story there is no ‘America’ anymore and it is doubtful after seventy-five years of Capitol rule that they know much of their African heritage. This begs the question of how this demographic came about. Were people organized into districts based on outward appearance when Panem was formed? Or was segregation implemented by the Capitol after the first revolution? More innocently, did it start to occur naturally because humans undeniably tend to form closer relationships with those who resemble themselves? Katniss notes several times in the series how the people of District 12 share certain physical traits, especially those from the Seam, the poor community where her family is from. Is it then that prolonged isolation within a district results in the breeding out of certain traits and the homogenization of the people therein? Would this even be possible in only seventy-five years? Or is this a politically charged innuendo by the author that, regardless of circumstance, people with dark skin will always be oppressed? The books, of course, are silent on this issue so you are free to draw your own conclusions. The real question in my mind is whether or not the depiction of a segregated Panem adds any value whatsoever. At best — and I use that word with all possible cynicism — it spawns a few reactionary articles and blog posts on racism, a little controversy to help sell books. At worst, people start saying stupid and hateful things, which is exactly what happened on Twitter when fans of the book saw the first Hunger Games movie and decided to announce their disappointment that Rue and Thresh are black.

Quarter Quell. Every quarter-century the Gamemakers add some cruel twist to the Games. In the First Quarter Quell (25th Hunger Games), the tributes from each district were elected by popular vote instead of being selected at random in a lottery, and in the Second Quell twice as many tributes were reaped, thereby doubling the number of youth killed. As mentioned in the synopsis above, the Third Quarter Quell called for a reaping from a pool of all living victors in each district, and since Katniss is the only surviving female victor from District 12, she is guaranteed a second appearance in the arena. This is not an insignificant development. The Quells were defined when the Games were founded, and it is suggested that President Snow overrode the rule for the Third Quell in the hopes that Katniss, who he sees as a political threat, may be killed in the arena. The word quell is is an Old English verb for killing with violence, to torture, to murder, to suffer pain. The Quarter Quell is meant to be an especially painful time for the districts, and an opportunity for the Capitol to reinforce some lesson. In the case of the 75th Hunger Games, the lesson is that even the strongest of those in the districts (symbolized by the victors) remain subject to the Capitol’s rule. With the threat of rebellion mounting, this message from Snow is intended for the would-be rebels.

The Mockingjay. This bird is a hybrid species descendent from the genetically engineered Jabberjay and common mockingbirds. Jabberjays were used by the Capitol for reconnaissance in the first revolution against the rebelling districts, but were turned against them when rebel counterintelligence started feeding them misinformation. No longer considered dependable, they were abandoned for military use, released into the wild, and mated with mockingbirds to bring forth mockingjays. The image on Katniss’ mockingjay pin becomes an effective rallying symbol for the rebels because the bird itself represents the idea that something better than the Capitol will naturally evolve from it. For the pre-game interviews, President Snow mandated that Katniss wear her wedding dress as a painful reminder that she will never actually see her wedding day (perhaps to also tell Panem in a subtle way that nothing in their lives is either certain or sacred); however, her cunning stylist, Cinna, modifies the dress to transform into a mockingjay costume. In a sense, Katniss becomes the Mockingjay — not only the spirit of rebellion, but a representation of the very ideals that are antithetical to those of Snow and the Capitol. The Jabberjay later returns to confront the Mockingjay in the arena (as a psychological weapon) but ultimately fails to defeat her. As this conflict mounted, I couldn’t ignore thoughts of Georg Hegel and his dialectic political philosophy.

The Arena. While reading Hunger Games, I assumed that the arena was simply a natural terrain, irregular in shape and surrounded by a fence or a wall. I also assumed that different arenas had been built across Panem to take advantage of climate differences (it seemed like a big stretch when I found out that the Gamemakers could manipulate the weather). After all, Panem is recovering from both an earth-changing natural disaster and a civil war. Why am I to assume that they possess technology far greater than that which exists today? Certainly, if they did, they would not choose to settle differences in barbaric death matches. In Catching Fire, however, I discovered that all of my assumptions were wrong. The arena in the 75th Hunger Games is round, surrounded by a force field, and is artificially arranged to resemble a clock face. Each “hour” (region) of the clock contains a hidden danger and at one point the entire arena spins on an axis to disorient the tributes. The infrastructure to support this arena must have taken years to plan and construct, and thus, several arenas must exist at one time. It would make practical sense to leverage existing sites on a rotational basis; however, there is a claim that the arenas are preserved as historical sites, and that they are not reused. There is no indication in the text that the tributes travel far from the Capitol and it is somewhat implied that the arena is always nearby. Like the map of Panem, the arena provides another opportunity for artistic fans to render their ideas.

Bizarre Love Triangle. The embedded teen-romance story began in the Hunger Games, but I didn’t cover it because I felt it added little to my analysis. This subplot thickens in the second book, however, as Katniss is required to maintain her staged affections for Peeta and her hidden ones for her friend Gale. Actually, she claims ad nauseam to be uncertain how she feels for either of them throughout. It goes something like this:

Oh Peeta! He’s so sweet. But I don’t know if I can trust him. It’s all a show for the cameras, right? I really wish I could confide in Gale right now, but we’re not talking. Not that it matters, because I’ll be dead soon anyway.

Yep, that just about covers it. This oft-contrived melodrama is the only thing that keeps this book out of the mainstream sci-fi section of the library. What I can’t figure out is why they let this situation get so out of hand in the first place. The whole idea is that Katniss made her bluff with the berries based on the premise that she and Peeta were so overcome with love for one another that they would rather die together than face life alone. It was an irrational move based on emotion. It is pretty obvious that she doesn’t love him in real life, so why not end the relationship a few months after the Games were over? Make it look natural? Why did Katniss feel compelled to play it out forever? They are just teenagers after all. Relationships do end badly sometimes, right? And why couldn’t Gale just deny having feelings for her instead of claiming to be her cousin? That really complicated things unnecessarily, as did Peeta’s exorbitant lie about their secret marriage and pregnancy. I would have preferred a legitimate rivalry between Peeta and Gale over the soap opera we were given.

Conclusion

I started listening to Catching Fire immediately after Hunger Games and began stubbing out this post shortly after. Unfortunately, life’s circumstances slowed my writing and added even more delay to editing and publication. So, I waited for Mockingjay to be returned by another library patron and then proceeded to listen to it straight through before I had a chance to return to these words again. As a result, I have several sections that started here, which I decided would best be covered under the next post. Having said that, it is difficult now to write this conclusion without being tainted somewhat by Mockingjay, making me wonder if I should have waited.

I found this book less realistic than the first, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing considering it is science fiction. I started this series expecting realism, and between the two books my expectations were reset. Seeing movie stills online didn’t help. This leg of the story also changed my mind about the overall value of the work as well. There is definitely a hint of the rebellious American spirit emerging, and human compassion and self-sacrifice take a front seat to barbarism. Since I already know now how it turns out, I will say no more.


February 3, 2014

The Hunger Games


I never intended to read this book, but with the second movie in the theaters, I thought it was high time to get caught up. There is a lot of information about this story online, including this very informative wiki site, so I chose to provide a brief synopsis and to expound on a few observations I made while reading the book.


Synopsis

This synopsis is on the book. At the time of this writing, I have not yet seen the movie, so I do not know how faithful it is to the original story. Based on what I’ve read in the wiki pages I know that there are at least a few minor differences.

* * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *

The story is set in a future North America, now called Panem. Following the destruction of modern civilization by natural forces, a totalitarian government called the Capitol arose and established rule over twelve districts. Each district provides different goods and services to the oppressive government. After a failed revolution by the districts against the Capitol, the Treaty of Treason was enacted. It contained penitential provisions including the institution of an annual contest called The Hunger Games in which every district must enroll one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen, chosen by lottery, to fight to the death in an outdoor arena controlled by the Capitol’s Gamemakers. These youth are called tributes and the lottery is called the reaping. This is the story of the 74th Hunger Games.

District Twelve is one of the poorest districts and has not had a Hunger Games victory in a long time. The tributes from Twelve, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, make a stunning impression during the opening ceremonies and are cast as star-crossed lovers. The 74th Hunger Games begin as normal, but as it becomes more likely that Katniss and Peeta must face one another as enemies in the arena, the Gamemakers change the rules, announcing that if the final two tributes are from the same district then they will be declared co-winners. This results in the formation of natural alliances between various remaining tributes, including Katniss and Peeta. The team from Twelve eventually win, but when the Gamemakers retract the rule change, Katniss proposes a suicide pact. She presumes that the Gamemakers will not allow them to end the games without a winner for if they were both to die then they would be martyrs in resistance against the Capitol and that could lead to civil unrest and even rebellion within the districts. When the Gamemakers realize what they are about to do, they quickly announce the two tributes as winners just before their plan can be fully executed.

My Initial Reaction

I really wanted to hate this story. Pitting children against one another in a death match, much less making it a game that some youths spend their whole lives in training to win, is not what I consider a very wholesome theme. To be honest, the thought still turns my stomach. What’s more, I heard nothing about the movie but how violent it is. This is why I didn’t read the book or see the film for so long. In the end though, I did enjoy the book, not just because it was fairly well-written with good characterization and subplots, but because it did not glorify the murder of children as I had first expected. Instead, it actually reinforced moral arguments against it.

Analysis

Basis. The story was much easier digest once I understood that it was loosely based on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. In one version of that story the city of Athens must give up nine courageous boys and nine beautiful maidens every nine years as a tribute after suffering a major military defeat to Crete. The children are sent into Daedalus’ labyrinth where the Minotaur monster lives, and there they are killed and eaten. Theseus, who is secretly the son of the Athenian king, volunteers as a tribute with the intention of killing the Minotaur and ending the bloody ritual. With this in mind, I was able to force myself to stop pondering how the surviving descendants of Americans living in Panem could totally abandon Judeo-Christian morals in favor of the Capitol’s version of justice and focus more deeply on the story at hand.

Self-Sacrifice. The only overt expression of the Christian ethos is Katniss’ choice to volunteer to be a tribute in place of her younger sister, Prim. One might hope to see the tributes stand united, refusing to fight one another and accepting death at the hands of the Gamemakers. In this way, they would resemble early Christian martyrs. But this is not the plot the author chose, so we must trudge forward toward a less edifying treatment of the human condition.

Violence. Insofar as the book is concerned, the depiction of violence was no worse than any war novel I’ve ever read, and was actually far more tame than some. Fans of Stephen King and Clive Barker have no voice in this debate whatsoever. Some of the tributes are developed as characters easy to hate, the career tributes in particular since they are trained to be killers. Katniss is different. She is not a killer but a survivor and all of her ‘kills’ are presented as justifiable. Glimmer and the girl from District Four die from stings when Katniss drops a nest of genetically enhanced wasps on them. Katniss was cornered at that time, trapped in a tree, and if she had not done this then her own fate was imminent. She shot the male from District One after he kills her only ally, Rue. This happened so quickly that I interpreted it as an instinctive reaction, the elimination of an immediate threat, and not a vengeful murder in cold blood. The slaying of her final adversary, Cato, was depicted as a mercy killing for he was already being torn to shreds by mutant beasts created by the Gamemakers. As for the suicide pact with Peeta, that scene was reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet.

The Twist. The rule change made by the Gamemakers was very predictable in my opinion, and because it came at the point in the plot where it did, its reversal was even more so. Though I wasn’t necessarily expecting Katniss’ suicide wager, it was an obvious course of action given that neither tribute could bring themselves to kill the other and then pretend to live a normal life afterward. The biggest question left on my mind was whether or not the rule change (and/or its retraction) was announced to the watching public or only within the arena. After all, the Gamemakers do control what footage is released to the masses. That the star-crossed lovers had formed an alliance under the assumption that one of them would eventually be killed at the hands of another tribute would not have seemed unusual, and a final battle between them should they be the last two standing would have provided the ultimate in entertainment. The Gamemakers did not expect the suicide pact, however, and if Katniss and Peeta had succeeded then the secret rule change would have been exposed and the two from Twelve would had won the games together, at least in principle, for the Capitol would have had no way to cover up their rebellious act.

Etymologies. As long as its done well, I really appreciate it when authors give meaningful names to their characters. It just adds a different dimension to the characterization, a deeper sense of personality. Subtlety is key.

The name Katniss is a prime example, referring not only to an edible plant, thereby underscoring her ability to survive off of the land, but also to Sagittarius, the famous archer in Greek mythology, as a testimony to her skill as a hunter. Peeta is the son of a baker in District Twelve and so he known to Katniss as ‘the boy with the bread’. I found no official word that this pun was intended by the author, but many have noted online that the sound of his name is strikingly similar to ‘pita’ which is, of course, the name of a pocketed flatbread. (Because I was listening to the audiobook version, I thought at first that his name was actually Peter and that the narrator was pronouncing it with a slight English accent, that is until I looked it up online.) The names of some of the other tributes were really just nicknames, such as Foxface, whose name was derived not only from her red hair and slender facial features but also from her stealthiness. Similarly, Thresh’s name is certainly derived from the agricultural term, he being from District Eleven where agriculture is the primary industry. He seeks refuge in a wheat field because he is familiar with that type of terrain and knows how to prepare food from the crop. Moreover, the threshing of grains involves beating them until they separate from the chaff, and Thresh’s primary asset is his strength, which he uses to crush the head of Clove with a rock. I do find the selection of Cato’s name puzzling in a way. Based on baby name sites, it means wise or all-knowing. I find this ironic, not because he wasn’t a smart contender, but because we was immature and emotional, traits that overshadowed any real wisdom he may have possessed.

The application of meaningful names isn’t limited to the human characters in this story but extends to places and things as well. Consider Panem. At first glance one might assume it is a futuristic transliteration or abbreviated form of “Pan-American”. Indeed, the author may have banked on this illusory reference, but anyone who has studied even basic Latin should pick up on the root word for bread. The Latin phrase panem et circenses (“bread and games”) is used to refer to a superficial means of appeasement of the people through the satisfaction of shallow needs (i.e. the need for entertainment in this case). This phrase was used to describe Rome during its decline when the people lived in luxury with an insatiable appetite for entertainment, including games in which human captives battled beasts in an arena. Though the term was certainly borrowed from the Theseus myth, the word tribute literally means something that is paid, such as a tax paid to a ruler for protection. Tessera is a Latin word for inscribed stones or tiles that were commonly used as theater tickets. In Panem, tesserae are tokens for food rations given to a youth in exchange for additional entries in the reaping lottery (or to put it more morbidly, extra tickets to the Games).

As you can see, the author’s borrowing of terms from antiquity is far from trite and should earn for her some respect from the intellectual reader. I just find it curious that a culture having limited knowledge of history beyond the previous seventy-five years or so employs so much ancient vocabulary in their vernacular, especially since the meanings of the words often depend on historical context. Perhaps those in the Capitol are not so ignorant, and knowing that knowledge is power, they keep the inhabitants of the districts uneducated about the culture of their ancestors.

The Art of War. I’ve read a few books on military strategy in my time and I couldn’t help but notice how some parts of the narrative sounded like the excerpts from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. For example, Katniss preferred not to travel in the valley, because she felt exposed to predators, but would much rather traverse the hills, allowing her to fight down hill. She also knows how important it is to learn your enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, skills and tactics, and to know your own limitations as well. She uses incendiary warfare to disrupt the enemy’s supply lines. The Gamemakers understand that there are different types of terrain (ground) and that the tributes may enter them only under certain circumstances. They use disruptions to guide the tributes’ movements. Espionage and alliances definitely play a role. It should come as no surprise though. Sun Tzu is a short treatise on warfare that can be easily digested and is probably used quite often as a quick reference by authors when writing battle stories. Plus, she’s the daughter of an Air Force officer and Vietnam War veteran, so she has a subject matter expert close at hand.

Rule By Fear. The Hunger Games has an effect beyond the simple penance they impose. They reinforce the Capitol’s dominion over the districts, but they also hinder the districts from organizing an effective force against the oppressive government. There is the preparation for the games themselves. That several districts raise and train elite youths to be tributes expose where their resources are expended. Other districts are poor and must work hard to survive. Rivalries between districts also reduce the likelihood that rebellious alliances will form. Over time, the Games have been accepted as part of life in Panem, as horrific and as wrong as they may be, and the people are desensitized to the violence. To paraphrase the author, after the children are reaped everyone in the district rejoices save but two households, which close tight the shutters on the windows and figure out how they are going to make it through the coming weeks. This is a potentially volatile environment, so the Capitol is careful to put down any action that might encourage resistance or rebellion through police action.

Political Message. I was told by a friend that the book was published shortly after the tragic events of 9-11 and (more pointedly) the passage of the Patriot Act…well, by shortly I mean within a year or two. The implication was that Panem and the Capitol are warnings of what will happen to the U.S.A. should we continue to follow leaders like George W. Bush. Now, this is just his opinion mind you, though he did said “he read all about it on the Internet”. Honestly, I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to substantiate his claim, but if I have a chance to do so in the future then I will update this section with my findings. All I can say is that The Hunger Games wasn’t published until 2008, and it appears that the author was quite busy writing other books in the meantime. One might surmise that the timing of the book’s first publication less than two months before the 2008 presidential election was a little too coincidental. But then, the case can also be made that political conservatives could be just as likely to interpret the work as warning against the “evils” of a possible liberal administration. Just maybe, if any political message was intended at all, it was kept vague and flexible enough to make the story seem timely regardless of the current political atmosphere. If that was done with purpose, then well played, Mrs. Collins, well played indeed!

Conclusion

Though I enjoyed the story as it unfolded and the opportunity to reflect more deeply on its intricacies, I still question whether or not this book contains a theme too mature for pre-teen readers. I remember reading the story of Theseus and the Minotaur around that age, and fighting against a vicious beast to survive may be acceptable, but I do not see the need for a twelve-year-old to wrestle with the moral dilemma of being forced to kill their friends, classmates, and neighbors. With regard to the culture statement made by this work, I ended the book with the notion that the sequels will contain the story of a second revolution, a small seed of hope that liberty will indeed survive the wrath of the Capitol. When I mentioned this to a friend I was reassured more with a smile than with words that I won’t be disappointed in the outcome. With that, Catching Fire is already loaded into my vehicle’s six-disc changer and I brace myself for another eleven hours of agony and adventure.


January 10, 2014

Max Lucado’s “You Are Special”


You Are Special
This is a short review of You Are Special. The story was written by Max Lucado with illustrations by Sergio Martinez.

This story is available in both picture book and board book formats. We were given the board book as a gift several years ago. Though my wife has read it numerous times to the children, I pulled it from the shelf at storytime for the first time the other day.

This is the story of Punchinello, one of the small wooden people carved by the Woodworker “Eli” known as the Wemmicks. The Wemmicks spend their days communicating their approval or disapproval of one another through the application of stickers, gold stars and black dots respectively. Punchinello only receives black dots. He finds a girl Wemmick to whom the stickers will not adhere. She advises that he visit Eli to discover the secret as to why. When Punchinello learns that only Eli’s opinion really matters, he starts to lose his dots.

The meaning of the story is pretty clear: only God’s opinion really matters. He is our judge after all. The invitation for Punchinello to visit Eli daily is our call to prayer, for prayer transforms us by shifting our focus from the things of the world to the things of God. [Of course, Catholics can come to know God better through more ways than simple daily prayers: daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, meditation on the life of Christ in the Holy Rosary, Lectio Divina, etc.]

There is no real room for doubt that this story was inspired by Pinocchio. The Wemmicks resemble marionettes, lacking only the strings. Could this be an expression of free will? So many accuse Christians of being puppets of God and Church, when ironically it is free will that gave rise to original sin as well as the faith and love that save us.

The artwork is fantastic! Martinez is a master at his craft.


January 3, 2014

The Christmas Candle


I had the pleasure of seeing The Christmas Candle over the Thanksgiving weekend. Based on the book by Max Lucado, this great little production tells the story of a minister in Nineteenth Century England and his mission to supplant a local Christmas superstition in the village of Gladbury. This gem of a film will likely become a new Christmas tradition in our household.

And for those who knew I was writing this, thank you for waiting so patiently. I did not intend for it to take more than a month to write.


Synopsis

See the movie, read the book if you like, and then come back here and read my analysis. It will probably make far more sense if you are familiar with the story.

* * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *

Reverend David Richmond, a charismatic preacher from London has suffered a terrible family tragedy and has given up the pulpit to work in the Salvation Army soup line. He is offered the pastorship of the Parish of Gladbury by Lady Camdon, a woman of means. When he arrives, he must contend with the local legend of the Christmas Candle. Generations before, the village chandler was visited by an angel who blessed a single candle. When the candle was given to someone in need with the instruction to “light it and pray”, the prayer was answered with a Christmas miracle. The angel returned to bless a candle every twenty-five years and each time a miracle followed. The year of Richmond’s arrival happens to fall on the year of the next visitation. Hard times have fallen on Gladbury and the villagers are desperate for personal miracles. Edward and Bea Haddington, the current generation of chandlers, receive many requests for the Christmas Candle and are faced with the task of choosing the recipient. Meanwhile, friction with the Haddingtons mounts as Reverend Richmond preaches the message of faith and charity in opposition to the superstition of the Candle. He shows the villagers how to produce miracles for one another through good works and the power of prayer. As expected, the angel visits the Haddington candle shop and blesses a single candle; however, when the bumbling Edward Haddington knocks over the rack of candles, the Christmas Candle is lost amongst twenty-nine other identical candles. Their only recourse is to give away all of the candles, thereby ensuring that someone will receive the Christmas miracle. At the Christmas Eve church service, it is tradition for the recipient of the Candle to express gratitude for the miracle they received, but when a multitude stand, each thinking that he or she had been the recipient of the one Candle, the Haddingtons must explain what happened. As it turns out, the blessed Candle had been given to none other than Reverend Richmond himself, unbeknownst to him. The service is interrupted with the news of a wagon accident in which a young mother and her child are left trapped in the cold. A search ensues, and Richmond lights the Christmas Candle to provide light. He must have been praying, even if only in his heart, for a brilliant light begins to emanate from the Candle, providing light and safe travel through the blustery weather. The woman and child, which happened to be the Haddington’s would-be daughter-in-law and only grandchild, are rescued. There are several important side plots, such as the courtship of Reverend Richmond and Emily Barstow, the introduction of electricity and the lightbulb to Gladbury, the debate between the Haddingtons as to whether or not they should keep the Candle for themselves, the loss of faith of the Haddingtons’ son, a fire in the Church, etc.

My Initial Reaction

Honestly, when we made the decision to see this movie, I wasn’t expecting much. I hadn’t seen any trailers for the movie. I was simply trusting my wife’s ability to pick a good film. I knew Max Lucado’s name from his books, not because I’ve read them, but because they are often prominently displayed in local bookstores. At best I hoped for a quaint yet inspirational Christmas movie having little to do with the birth of the Lord, and at worse a blatant attack on traditional liturgy-based Christianity. Boy, was I in for a surprise! When the credits finally rolled, I felt like I had been sitting in church for an hour and a half. I caught myself before nearly genuflecting in the aisle, which made me feel pretty foolish until my wife shared that she had felt the same urge. The film occupied my thoughts for several days. As I tried to get my head around the whole plot, I read a few reviews online only to find that others had completely different interpretations. I ended up with questions about the author’s intended message, so I decided to turn to the book for some answers.

The Book

Originally published in 2006, the latest reprint weighs in at just over 200 pages, but the small format and generous spacing make this an easy read during a long session at the library. The basic premise is the same in the book as in the movie, but almost all of the details are different. The year is 1864 and not 1890. The name of the village is Gladstone instead of Gladbury. Reverend Richmond is a sharp graduate from Oxford and not a charismatic former preacher from London. The tragedy that shakes his belief that God continues to work through miracles is the loss of a friend in a wagon accident after a night of excessive drinking, and not the loss of wife and child from consumption (tuberculosis). The Haddington family are still the village candlemakers, but the Hopewells in the movie are the Barstows in the book, and the Barstow family, as they are presented in the movie, do not exist. Emily Barstow, the love interest, plays a much smaller role, and a part of it is transferred to Agnes Chumley. The Chumley family may have been recast as the Hopewells in the movie. There is no pronounced conflict between Richmond and the Haddingtons, no competition for the hearts of the parishioners as is presented in the movie. The whole business about technology and the introduction of the light bulb is absent, which would have been anachronistic considering that Edison’s first successful trial didn’t occur until 1879. In both movie and book, the miracle of the Christmas Candle is tied explicitly to the Haddington family business, but different circumstances threaten its continuance: the possible obsolescence of candles by the lightbulb in the former and the lack of a male heir in the latter. The legend of the angel and the Candle in general, the dire needs of the villagers and their hope of receiving the candle, the mixup that leads to the gifting of all of the candles in the lot by the Haddingtons, Richmond’s disbelief in miracles and concern regarding superstition, and the events that conclude with the Christmas miracle in response to Richmond’s own prayer all remain intact.

Analysis

Ultimately, I condensed my unanswered questions down to a basic two:

  1. What is the theological context of the story?
  2. What was the thesis of the story (if one exists)?

Reading the book did provide the clarity I was looking for, though sometimes more so by what it didn’t say than what it did say.

Theology. The denomination to which the Gladbury parish belongs is never identified explicitly in either the movie or the book. Given that the story takes place in England in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, it is logical to assume that they are probably members of the Church of England. The church building is definitely traditional, Richmond wears a Roman chasuble during church services, and he lights candles in an Advent wreath to mark the weeks in the season. There are, however, several details that suggest that they are actually Methodists:

  • Methodism promotes the holy life through (austere) humility, charity, fasting, and prayer. Richmond’s message to the parishioners is that they can work miracles for one another through acts of kindness. His frustration that this core teaching has been supplanted by reliance on the Candle is evident.
  • In the 18th and 19th Centuries, Methodism was known for its “enthusiasm”. Fanatic preaching and superstitious beliefs gave rise to controversies between the Methodist and Anglican churches (e.g. the ghost of Cock Lane). Anglicans might not have been so convinced of the Candle’s efficacy as the people of Gladbury seem to be. Also, Richmond would probably not have sought refuge from the enthusiasm for miracles following his tragic experience if he had been an Anglican priest.
  • That Richmond served in the Salvation Army is unique to the movie and could not have been the case in the book because the story took place one year before that organization was established (1865). The Salvation Army branched from the Methodist denomination in London. Again, if Richmond were an Anglican priest avoiding superstitious beliefs, the Salvation Army might not be the most natural alternative.
  • This is a minor observation, but Reverend Richmond is never called Father Richmond. While “Reverend” is not an incorrect form for addressing an Anglican priest (though it is grammatically incorrect to use “Reverend” as a noun), using “Father” is much more traditional.
  • Save for one Christmas play, the church service scenes focus completely on Richmond’s sermons. The sanctuary and the altar serve only as a darkened backdrop for the pulpit, and I recall no mention of the Sacraments which are so much a part of the Anglican life. This omission first struck me as a subtle message that the altar isn’t necessary (i.e. an anti-liturgical, anti-sacramental bias), and I finally dismissed it, concluding that references to certain things (even if only visual) would add little to the storyline and possibly introduce unnecessary confusion for Evangelical audiences. The omission would not be so stark, however, if they are Methodists.
  • Similarly, when an Anglican priest is called to the bedside of a dying person, one would expect him to administer Last Rites to help prepare the soul for death; however, Richmond refuses to pray for William Barstow on his deathbed because he didn’t want to provide false hope with a prayer for miraculous healing. It is eventually revealed that Richmond lost his wife and daughter to the same disease, that his own prayers for miraculous healing went unanswered. When he does finally agree to the visit, there is no anointing with oil (much less, penance or viaticum) — Richmond simply reads passages from the Bible.

The theological context was probably left ambiguous on purpose. Doing so allows the filmmakers to set a very ecumenical tone, thereby making the film more appealing to a broad Christian audience. In any case, the book was originally inspired by Anglicanism according to the author. Lucado told John W. Kennedy in an interview that the idea for the story first came to him while attending a Christmas banquet at his daughters’ Episcopalian high school.

Thesis. Almost every synopsis, review, and interview transcription related to the movie imparts that the story is about a preacher who struggles with his faith (including interviews with Rick Santorum who often refers to Reverend Richmond as the ultimate doubting Thomas). While I understand where they are going with that statement, I do not think that it is an adequate description of the main idea at all. There is no indication that Richmond is on the cusp of losing his belief in God’s existence or that his faith in the redemptive power of the Cross is shaken in any way. He simply does not believe that God works miracles for man any longer. If anything, I would describe the story as the struggle of a disenchanted preacher with the superstitious enthusiasm of his new parish. The reason for my interest in establishing the theological context of the story should now be clear.

The word superstition means different things to different people, but in general it has two connotations. The traditional meaning is an excess fear of God (or the gods) often characterized by a separation between the outcome of a religious practice and the underlying reason for that practice. A more modern (and decidedly humanist) definition is the belief in any supernatural causality, which technically encompasses all religion. The practice of reciting the Rosary is a good example of this connotative difference. For the Catholic, the Rosary is a normative devotional for prayerfully meditating on the mysteries revealed in Sacred Scripture. The superstitious Catholic (or other person) might impute special protective powers onto a set of rosary beads, believing for example that using them (or even just possessing them) guarantees physical protection from harm. In contrast, the Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christian professes a belief in the power of prayer but condemns the use of rosary beads because he perceives that they are used either to circumvent God and to seek blessings from some other source, or as an attempt to force God’s grace like some sort of magic spell. At the far end of the spectrum, the atheist believes only what science reveals and considers all prayer to be superstition.

Votive candles are used by traditional Christians to represent personal prayers, usually for the intentions of others. Both Methodists and Anglicans use votives though they differ in the practice of asking for saintly intercession. This being the normal practice, Richmond observes how the villagers of Gladbury cling to legend of the Christmas Candle and the Christmas miracle it secures for the one who lights it and prays, and he condemns the legend and the practice as superstition because he believes that there is a difference between the purpose of the practice and the expected result.

And he would be right, if not for one thing: in the story, the legend is true and the miracles are real! What’s more, it doesn’t even require the person to believe in the legend. This is made clear when Richmond lights his Christmas Candle. I found no indication in the movie or the book that Richmond lit the Christmas Candle for any reason other than the simple need for light on a dark night. Whether he prayed for the safety of the lost mother and child or simply that the candle would light in the blustery snowstorm we do not know, but in the movie both he and Emily Barstow seem to be quite surprised when the Candle turns night into day so that they may find the wrecked coach.

Idolatry. I spent most of the movie trying to decide if the main theme was actually about idolatry and not superstition at all. Yes, the villagers all go to church, but they express extreme disappointment in Richmond when he does not preach about the Candle in his sermons. This certainly sounds like they had turned to a different gospel, even if it was one delivered by an angel (Galatians 1:6-10). And Lucifer (Isaiah 14:12, Vulgate) does mean “bringer of light” does it not? An iconic image of the Candle strikingly adorns the front of the priestly vestments, where one might expect to see a symbol of Christ, such as a cross or perhaps a monstrance. The same icon can be found carved on the front of the pulpit as well.

Despite several clues that this was not the case (e.g. children praying the Lord’s Prayer in front of the Candle) I finally dismissed the idea completely after reading the book. When explaining the legend of the Candle to Richmond, Edward Haddington acknowledges explicitly that the villagers credit God for the miracles. Perhaps the movie could have been more clear on this point.

Sacramentals. The Christmas Candle might properly be considered (in the context of the fictional story of course) a sacramental, which is a prayer accompanied by a specific sign (CCC 1667-1679). Obviously, the lighting of the Candle is that outward sign. Unlike the Sacraments though, a sacramental doesn’t confer God’s grace directly, but prepares one to receive and use it in cooperation with God. In the book, Bea Haddington explains that the Candle has no power of its own, but it is only a vessel. The real power belongs to God alone.

It is appropriate now to consider one key point that is treated differently between film and book. In the movie, it seems that the decision as to who should receive the Candle rests solely with the Haddingtons, that they have to power to choose at their own discretion. We discover, however, that the Candle is indeed reserved either for an intended (or dare I say predestined) recipient or at least for one who is truly in need. When Bea Haddington attempts to light the Candle with the intention of praying for their own need, noble as it may be, the flame is blown out by a mysterious breath. The message is clear: God will decide how best and by whom his gift will be used. This is presented a bit more plainly in the book: the Haddingtons are allowed to participate, but God guides them through prayerful discernment as to who should receive the candle.

Catholicism. I found more than a few commentaries that try to inject a Catholic-Protestant conflict into the story where one does not actually exist. I heartily agree that the same trappings that lead people to assume that the characters in the film are Anglican make them look very Catholic as well, but there are no references whatsoever to the primary differences in dogma, such as the means of salvation or the role of Sacred Scripture in the life of the Christian. Case in point, when I first read the Wikipedia entry for the movie, it stated in the Theology section the following:

The viewpoint of the movie is a mixture of Protestant and Roman Catholic theology, where the main character is struggling between the two.

Two weeks later, the last words of this line were changed to “struggling to find his lost faith”, but the notion that the movie is about the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism remains. Whoever added this line may have had an agenda. Christian Fundamentalists have no use for miracles (Matthew 12:39 & 16:4) and are often just as cynical as Richmond. Indeed, that the movie portrays the Candle as real and Richmond as wrong must certainly be interpreted by them as a victory for the Roman Catholic Church.

Mr. Stephen Rives, pastor of Eastside Church of the Cross in Louisburg, Kansas expresses just that in his egregious review. Focusing completely on the doctrines of solus Christus and sola fide, he makes the argument that Richmond has lost his faith in God after the loss of his family, and though he resists the legend intellectually, he eventually relies on the miracle of the Candle as a sign to restore his faith. He is therefore accursed according to Saint Paul (Galatians 1:8). He states:

The pastor in the movie appears (at first) to want the biblical definition of faith. But it depresses him. So in the contest for a right view of Jesus, he finally embraces the Charismatic and Catholic notion of faith. And it is a package deal. He also gets a Catholic love of robes, liturgy and candles. He not only gets the Charismatic meaning of miracles, he becomes an apologist for the American desire to be touched by an angel.

Mr. Rives begins his analysis with the false assumption that Richmond is an Evangelical Fundamentalist. He wants Richmond to embrace the five solae, so much so that he has abandoned the story line altogether and tries to contort the details into an anti-Catholic message. Richmond didn’t fall in love with robes and candles after the Candle restores his faith; these were things he used from the start as either an Anglican or a Methodist minister in the normal course of worship. As for liturgy, as I have already mentioned above, there wasn’t much of that depicted in the film at all. Apologist? I don’t remember him explaining how faith in a magic candle is better than faith in Christ. Consider this quote as well:

And by being touched in holy visitation, the candle undergoes transubstantiation and becomes a self-working sacrament. The person who lights it must only make a prayer, and they automatically receive their request.

Nothing in the film or the book even implies that the Candle’s substance changes, nor is there any indication that the use of the Candle makes one holy as do the Sacraments. Pastor Rives obviously has an axe to grind with Mother Church. Indeed, he goes on to accuse Lucado of wrapping a non-Christian message with Scripture, thereby “calling all pastors everywhere to leave Christ and return to the Catholic Church in Rome.”

[As an aside, since Richmond focuses so heavily on acts of kindness, I did a brief search for commentary regarding (the false dichotomy of) faith versus love (i.e. good works of charity) with respect to the story. The results were minuscule, but I did find two items worth mentioning. The first is Max Lucado’s answers to direct interview questions that broach the topic. Lucado tells us that this is a story of hope more than anything else (i.e. the third enduring thing; 1 Corinthians 13:13), and that “God enters the world in common places and does uncommon things.” He has a plan for everyone and performs his works through common people — and of course, Catholics believe that cooperation in these works is imperative to salvation.

Lou Baldwin (CatholicPhilly.com) draws the following conclusion in his review:

Rev. [Richmond] is a former highly effective preacher, who after suffering a personal family tragedy loses his faith in intercessory prayer, concluding that only good works count.

Once I got over the consistent references to Rev. Richardson and the visual of him replacing the lectionary with the complete works of Stephen Covey, I recognized that Baldwin’s assessment is probably more accurate than most, but the latter part of the statement above is problematic. Only good works count for what? Salvation? That’s the usual context but that’s not what Catholics believe.]

Reception

Some consider The Christmas Candle a success because it fulfilled its purpose, to provide wholesome, family holiday entertainment. Christian reviewers have emphasized the spiritual benefits of the film, how it reminds audiences about the season of Advent, puts Christ back into Christmas without simply retelling the Nativity story, and brings Christians of all stripes together for the holidays. Those involved in the production of the movie had high expectations based on the audience feedback they’d received.

Having said that, it’s no secret that The Christmas Candle didn’t do very well at the box office, grossing somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 Million. The production quality of the film is good but its distribution was limited. It also received bad reviews across the board except, to everyone’s surprise, from the L.A. Times. Peter Sobczynski of RogerEbert.com gave the film a dismal 1.5-star review and predicts that it will sink into obscurity rather than become a “perennial” favorite.

And it should come as no surprise that any film produced by religious conservative (former) politician Rick Santorum (EchoLight Studios) is unlikely to gain much favor with the secular liberal media — and that includes the film critics. Take for example Eric Nicholson’s review in the Dallas Observer. From the title alone it is clear that he wants to firmly plant in the minds of his readers the message that Rick Santorum’s film failed. The name of the film really doesn’t matter. I’d have a little more respect for his opinion if I felt like he had actually watched the movie. According to Nicholson, it is “a holiday parable about the residents of a quaint English village protecting traditional values (a miracle-producing candle) against the forces of modernity (electricity).” If you’ve read my analysis above then you’d know that this brief synopsis misses the mark by at least a few miles. At least Nicholson didn’t resort to poking fun at Santorum’s last name.

Conclusion

I rarely agree with the critics on any movie and I personally refuse to accept that the intrinsic quality of a film can be measured completely by its box office earnings. I enjoyed this film greatly. It gave me an opportunity to do some research and provided an interesting backdrop for my own Advent preparation. I don’t know exactly what it will take to turn this into a “classic” in the long run, but I do look forward to its release on home video formats in early 2014.


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