Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Story to Finish With

This has nothing to do with Catholicism, conservatism or Ireland, but I thought I would end my blog (for now, at least) on a slight self-indulgence.

I am a fan of the horror genre. A few years ago I wrote a collection of a hundred very short horror stories called A Hundred Nightmares. My idea was that most horror stories are simply variations on a few oft-repeated themes, so I wanted to try to come up with genuinely original plot ideas, so that each tale was different from all the others. I also wanted a range of different sorts of story-- whimsical and serious, supernatural and non-supernatural, mildly spooky and attemptedly terrifying.

I was pleased with the results, but nobody else was, since neither the book nor any of its hundred tales (there was also a framing prologue and epilogue) were ever published.

So I am going to sign off on one of the hundred tales, probably my favourite. It's called:

The Absolutely Worst Thing Imaginable

Under a stone-grey dawn, a man walked through a winter landscape.

He was in his early fifties. There was nothing remarkable in his appearance, except for his presence in this lonely place, at this unlikely time.

He wore faded jeans, a thick black overcoat, and a battered blue bobble hat.

His name was Jude Denning. The day before, he had brought his wife and children to Captain Fun, the adventure park that had opened three years before. He had wanted to let the kids on all the rides, no matter the expense, but that would have made Sabrina suspicious.

She did get a little suspicious, later, when he took her to the Thousand Nights Restaurant, her favourite place to eat. How could she help noticing the way he was looking at her, as though he’d never seen her before? Or as though he would never see her again?

“Are you sure everything is OK?”, she’d asked, three different times, her brown eyes dark with anxiety, her skin golden in the candlelight.

“Everything is better than OK”, he’d said, leaning forward and fondling her knee under the table. “I’m married to the most perfect lady in the universe. What could be more OK than that?”

This morning, before he’d set out, he’d left her a note in her book of Sherlock Holmes stories. She’d find it there. Always presuming, of course…

Don’t even think like that, he told himself, shivering in the morning air.

It had begun five years ago, the journey that had brought him here. They’d been at a wedding in Cardifff, and Jude—well lubricated with cider—had been persuaded to get on stage and belt out a karaoke version of "My Way".

He could remember the moment perfectly. He was singing the line the record shows I took the blows and waving his left hand in the air. He was looking at the barman, who had his arms folded and was sporting a sloppy grin.

And then he heard the voice. A voice from nowhere, a voice in his head. It was a woman’s voice, and she spoke with a plummy BBC accent, like a newsreader from the forties.

She said, Sixty Million.

He stopped. The crowd laughed, thinking he was pausing for dramatic effect, getting ready for the crescendo.

Jude stood there, staring out at the other guests, his left hand still aloft.

Two or three seconds later, the voice said: Fifty-Nine Million, Nine Hundred Thousand, Nine Hundred and Ninety-Nine.

He had stepped from the stage, bewildered, hardly hearing the murmur that ran through the hall.

It had gone on ever since. Every two or three seconds, the faceless woman spoke the next number in the countdown. There was something horribly clinical about the voice, though he never thought of it as coming from a robot or a machine.

He even heard it in his dreams. When he could sleep.

He hadn’t told anybody. Who could he tell? A psychiatrist? Jude was a truck driver. Psychiatrists were for movie stars and managing directors. Once or twice he’d almost told Sabrina, but he’d never summoned the courage. How did you say something like that?

He’d run through the possibilities over and over again, until he felt like a lab rat navigating some impossible, inescapable maze.

First possibility: he was going nuts. He didn’t think that was it, but then, mad people never did.

Perhaps he was a human bomb. That was why he was here now, far away from his wife and children.

Perhaps he’d been gifted with some weird knowledge of the future. Perhaps Gwendoline (he’d even given her a name) was counting down the moments until World War Three. Or to an alien invasion. Perhaps he could pick up an extra-terrestrial countdown from the depths of space, through some quirk of brain configuration. But what aliens spoke with English public school accents?

He’d driven himself to distraction and beyond, trying to think of the absolutely worst thing imaginable, to pre-empt fate. He’d leafed through the Book of Revelations, the prophecies of Nostradamus, and all the local library’s books on the occult and supernatural.

Five…Four…Three….Two….

He gazed into the brightening heavens, took a deep breath of God’s air, closed his eyes, and pictured Sabrina smiling at him.

One…Zero.

He opened his eyes and gazed out at the green country before him. For the first time in five years, he was experiencing silence; sweet, pure silence. And he was alive. Tears began to roll down his cheeks.

And then Gwendoline said: Sixty million…

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Beir Bua agus Beannacht

Dear reader

Distracted by other things, I am putting this blog on ice. Hopefully I shall return to it some time in the future, and in the meantime, I'll leave it up for whoever happens to stumble on it.

I really loved writing it so much. I'm very grateful anyone wanted to read it! Many thanks to you all.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Red C commission an opinion poll that finds...

...that Irish people have become less religious, John Waters questions whether it's possible to define "religion" for the purpose of an opinion poll, he once again quotes the Pope's speech comparing the modern European mind to a rationalistic "bunker" (at this stage Mr. Waters is developing a bunker mentality himself) and the usual zombie army of twitching Church-bashers and militant atheists rush to the comments section to make their howlingly obvious and banal points.

And a good time was had by all.

Personally, I find it irritating when religious people duck and dive around terms like "religion" and "God". Yes, they are incredibly loaded and philosophically dense terms. But so is "time" and that doesn't stop me looking to see what time the next bus arrives. I am sure that two Nobel-winning economists could argue over the precise definition of the term "money" for hours, but both of them have a pretty similar working definition when it comes to getting paid.

I'm really not attacking John Waters. I'm a big fan. I just wish he would stop talking about that bunker.

Can we talk about God in Ireland? I often think about the different audiences there are for God talk out there. As far as I can see there are four groups, and four attitudes to take:

1) The Dawkins-adoring atheists who seriously believe that all their anti-religious arguments either haven't occurred to believers already, or that all believers are hiding behind a barricade of self-deception. Is there any point in talking with these? Perhaps only that, if believers don't engage them, those on the sidelines will think we have no answers. The actual engagement itself is completely stalemated within a handful of moves.
2) The convinced believers. It is always pleasant to converse with those who agree with you, and believers encourage and support each other. But if we are only talking to each other, we can't evangelize the culture.
3) The religiously apathetic; those who don't believe but also don't think about religion very much. Does it seem strange that people can be indifferent to the biggest questions in life? Is the thirst for the sacred within these people simply repressed? Perhaps. I think this group reacts badly to being hammered over the head with religion, but you never know how a stray phrase or snatch of a song or the sight of someone saying a quiet prayer could take them by surprise.
4) The genuinely uncommitted, but interested; the seekers; the true agnostics. I think these are the "floating voters" of the spiritual realm, and they should be the intended audience of our discussions; even when we are talking to each other, or arguing with atheists. The chances are that they have thought deeply about this subject and it could be some very specific argument, consideration or even image or phrase that will make all the difference. They will not be impressed by bluster or rhetoric. But they will be impresesed by graciousness, quiet confidence and composure.

It's the first group that makes all the noise. But it's in the last group that all the real action is happening.

A Thirty-Two County Republic

Look at the phrase I used to head this post. The chances are, if you're Irish, you will have imagined a Northern Irish accent pronouncing those words as soon as you read them. Because nobody South of the Irish border ever seems to talk about a united Ireland. Ever. And yet it is supposedly a national aspiration.

We hear lots of complaints that the Irish only pay lip service to the revival of the Irish language. But we do at least pay it lip service. Ordinary people talk about it in the course of ordinary life. Sometimes, at least.

But, when it comes to the reunification of Ireland, this is simply not the case.

I'm no different. I never think about the North. I think a lot about the preservation of Ireland's nationhood and distinctive culture. I might think about that twenty times a day-- whether it's because I hear someone use a distinctively Irish turn of phrase, or because I notice a a Bed and Breakfast has a name like Iona or Errigal, or because I hear an Irish folk song being played in a newsagent's, or because I find myself looking at a Dublin street sign and comparing the anglicised name to the Gaelic name written underneath, or through a hundred other prompts.

But as for regaining the "national territory" (and even that phrase sounds antiquated)-- never.

Not only do I not feel a burning zeal for a united Ireland, but I sometimes wonder about the thought processes of those who do. If they live south of the border, they are nearly always either liberal-left (Sinn Féin) or even radical left (apparently the Communist Party of Ireland is intensely nationalistic-- and I once worked with a woman who was an ardent republican, an ardent communist, and a strident atheist).

These are the kind of people who take a withering view of sentimental nationalism, who would be first to laugh at the "plastic Paddy" conceptions of Ireland often attributed to romantic Americans rediscovering their roots. Apart from their socialistic castles in the air, which nobody really takes seriously, they seem to have no special vision for Ireland other than "Brits Out", the revival of the language, and perhaps a support for the Gaelic Athletic Association. They are usually hostile to religion and especially the Catholic Church. They want to make Ireland a modern, progressive country-- and (to me) the most obvious thing about a modern, progressive country is that it is barely distinguishable from every other modern, progressive country-- and the things that do distinguish it are historical legacies. Has modernity contributed anything to national uniqueness anywhere? Perhaps in America, with NASCAR and drive-in movies and baseball and hot dogs and Mormonism. But what about elsewhere?

So, if the tricolour flew over all thirty-two counties of Ireland-- what would these purely political separatists feel had been achieved? Do they really consider themselves the heirs of Pearse and Davis and O'Connell?

Sometimes I feel guilty for my lack of interest in a united Ireland. Nietzsche said that blood was the worst of all arguments, and he had a point, but the fact is that many of my forefathers shed blood for the goal of "old Ireland free". And my own family tree is full of men and women who held this as the closest aspiration to their hearts, who even devoted their lives to it. It seems brutal and heartless to simply discard such an ideal.

All I can plead is that the Ireland to which today's Sinn Féin aspires is so utterly different from "the Ireland that we dreamed of", that I am truer to the ancestral cause than they are.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Star Trek, Faith and Conservatism

Yes, I'm a Trekkie. At least, sometimes I am. I binge on The Next Generation and (to a lesser extent) Voyager every few months. The show has happy associations from my adolescence. The Next Generation was a fairly new show back then and I used to watch it every weekday, at five p.m. on the Sky One channel, with my three brothers. It's pretty much the only thing we ever did together and we had a bit of a peanut gallery going.

Deep Space Nine was shown when they'd run out of The Next Generation, and though I enjoyed it at the time-- I even convinced myself I preferred it, because it seemed more sophisticated than TNG-- I wouldn't watch it now. It lacks the very thing which made Star Trek almost unique amongst TV shows-- its galloping optimism and idealism. As for the original series, I tried to watch a few episodes and found it tedious beyond words.

Is it strange for a conservative Catholic to enjoy a show like Star Trek, which is unabashedly secular, humanist and futurist in tone? On the surface, I agree that it seems strange. And not only do I enjoy the show, but-- and this is mildly embarrassing-- The Next Generation was important to me when I was finding my way back to faith. I took genuine spiritual comfort and inspiration from it, ridiculous though that may sound.

Star Trek's relation to Christianity, Catholicism and conservatism is not an original subject. A chap called Kevin Neece runs a blog called The Undiscovered Country Project , which looks at the show from a Christian perspective. And the ever-reliable Catholic text-miner (and all-round smart fellow) Jimmy Akin has a very comprehensive and balanced post on the same subject here. That post goes into far more detail about particular episodes than I'm going to do here.

I'm not going to claim that Star Trek is either a conservative or a Christian show. That would be ridiculous. The show was conceived by Gene Rodenberry, who was an ardent secular humanist. As a later writer of the show put it (I take the quote from the Star Trek website Memory Alpha):

"In Gene Roddenberry's imagining of the future [...] religion is completely gone. Not a single human being on Earth believes in any of the nonsense that has plagued our civilization for thousands of years. This was an important part of Roddenberry's mythology. He, himself, was a secular, humanist and made it well-known to writers of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation that religion and superstition and mystical thinking were not to be part of his universe. On Roddenberry's future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it."

So, while the voyagers of the Starship Enterprise may run into alien religion, they themselves are long past this stage of development. When the major character Tasha Yar dies, in the first series of TNG, her memorial service contains no mention of an afterlife or a soul. In another episode, Captain Picard tells the android Data: "We too are machines, just machines of a different type." And in the episode "Who Watches the Watchers?", where Picard is mistake to be a Deity himself, the estimable Captain is given this speech:

"Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? No!"

So Trek seems pretty clearly anti-religion. As for the conservatism, the very fact that the Enterprise is constantly encountering weird alien species, with the broadest range of values and customs and taboos, would seem to reflect a certain cultural relativism. For instance, in the episode "Half a Life", a scientist who has reached the age of sixty is expected, by his peoples' custom, to commit suicide, and the episode presents this as a valid practice to be respected.

So, what is there for a Christian or a conservative to approve of in Star Trek?

Plenty, I think.

First off, I have to admit that I actually like the bright rationalism of the series. It tends to avoid the grotesque, the morbid, and the surreal and to concentrate upon well-adjusted, psychologically healthy people who seek to solve concrete problems through the use of reason and ingenuity.

This, I think, is quite amenable to the Catholic temperament, which is usually one of philosophical realism-- a realism that is rather more problematic for materialists than for us, since we believe in such immaterial realities as essences and universals and teleology-- without which philosophical realism tends to collapse.

(You may legitimately ask what philosophical realism has to do with "bright rationalism" in drama. I would answer that it has everything to do with it. It's hard to have a spiffing space adventure if you question the very existence of morality, or the self, or the reliability of empirical knowledge. And these are real differences-- they take us from the cool objective atmosphere of Star Trek to the fever-dreams of Blade Runner or The Twilight Zone.)

To quote Chesterton, from his book about St. Thomas Aquinas:

"The philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkeleian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs. The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God."

So I think Star Trek's cheerful realism might be closer to a Catholic outlook than a sceptic might suppose, for all the absence of angels.

Another reason I think Star Trek is religion-friendly is that it is such an unabashedly optimistic show. The universe is seen to be not only a good place, but one swimming with life and wonder and marvels. Conflict is often resolved through greater knowledge and mutual understanding. Star Trek inhabits a Socratic universe where virtue is knowledge, where few men (or should I say humanoids?) would willingly do evil, and where it is better to suffer harm than to commit it. Socrates may not have been a Christian, but the Christian tradition has always seen him as an enlightened pagan who had glimmerings of the Truth. And really, doesn't such a fundamentally benevolent universe hint at a Providence?

The intrepid heroes and heroines of Star Trek are often seen to struggle on even in the direst circumstances, to trust in the intrinsic goodness of their friends and even their enemies, and to make allowances for those who are hostile to them-- for instance, in the episode "The Enemy", where Geordi La Forge teaches an antagonistic Romulan to trust him when they are both marooned on a barren planet. In this way, I think Star Trek actually often draws on the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. And what are those virtues doing in a purely rationalistic universe?

When it comes to conservative aspects of the show, one thing that really jumps out at me is the importance the Star Trek universe assigns to heritage, tradition, custom and ritual. A character such as the Klingon Worf is seen to place enormous importance on his Klingon identity, and the way of life attendant upon it. Star Trek may be a liberal show, but it is not an individualistic one. Not only Worf, but many other characters (such as the Bejoran Ro Laren, upon whom I had a huge crush as a boy) are seen to identify very strongly with some historical and cultural identity, and to sicken psychologically in its absence.

Also, when it comes to collective identities, it would seem that the national cultures of Earth remain vibrant in the twenty-fourth century. Our own Colm Meaney stars as Miles O'Brien, who sings The Minstrel Boy in one particular episode and is, all in all, every inch the Irishman. I find this rather reassuring.

Community is an enormous theme in Star Trek. The Enterprise and Voyager starships are like small towns; everybody works together, socialises together and even pursues a cultural life together. (I love that they have art classes, poetry recitals, and amateur dramatics on the Enterprise.) Characters come into conflict, overcome conflict, and grow together, as though they are part of one extended family. Of course, both liberals and conservatives value community, but it seems to me that there are more "conservative" types of community (nation, family, small town) and "liberal" types (sub-culture, commune, interest group). The more "conservative" types tend to be more rigid and involuntary. And the spaceships in Star Trek, where everyone is more or less stuck with each other, seem closer to a family than a kibbutz or a crash pad.

Finally, physical, technological and scientific reductionism are regularly shown to be inadequate in Star Trek. The ships' replicating machines can make pretty much anything, but characters are repeatedly portrayed as longing for home-made food and to engange in handicrafts instead. The android Data is intrigued by concepts-- humour, imagination, love-- that evade the computations of his ultra-sophisticated positronic brain.

In one of his my favourite moments, Captain Picard-- who is something of a renaissance man-- tells the young Wesley Crusher: "Anyone can be trained in the mechanics of piloting a starship. It takes more. Open your mind to the past. Art, history, philosophy. And all this may mean something.”

And, in another exchange that I cherish, when Picard's stuck-in-the-mud brother says, "You always reached for the future, your brother for the past", Picard (who is an amateur archaeologist as well as a starship captain) says; "There should be room for both in this life."

In short, I think that the humanism of Star Trek is not-- except in its most egregious moments-- a shallow, scientistic humanism, but a deeper and more spiritual variety that isn't a million miles (or light years) from Christian humanism-- and one that isn't really evident in many other TV shows, especially science fiction ones. Ironically, the grungy and bleak Battlestar Galactica, which quite deliberately took a more mystical and less utopian approach than Star Trek, seems to me much less likely to appeal to a Christian or a conservative viewer.

And now the twenty-fourth century is calling me again....

(P.S.: Another difference between Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica is that, as far as I know, you never even see a bathroom in Star Trek, while the latter show features unisex toilets and at least one scene where one character talks to another while sitting on the lavatory. Probably I am lamentably repressed, but I much prefer Star Trek's old-fashioned atttitude that our eliminative functions are best left outside drama.)

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Photograph


I took this photo last October, on a visit to Bull Island. I didn't pay much heed to it at first; it was just one of many that I took.

Then I chose it as the backdrop to my laptop screen. The more I looked at it the more it fascinated me. I took in the brooding clouds, the converging lines of ground and horizon and sea, the streaks of light and dark in the sand, the distinctive pensive melancholy of the seaside on a cold day....

But most of all, the dramatic details; the empty wooden table and bench in the foreground, with no picnickers or day-trippers or young families to fill it on that October day; the two figures together by the sea; and, dominating the picture, the lonely walker with his head down, type of so many similar figures walking along lonely shores in poetry, painting and cinema.

Who was he? What was he thinking of, at that moment? What is he doing now?

Nothing is hauting and evocative in quite the same way as photographs can be. And yet most of the photographs we take are too posed and stereotyped to really capture this special magic. In fact, the more artful the photo, the less likely it is that the magic will happen.

What I really value in photographs is usually what crept in by accident; the faraway look in the subject's eyes; the face in the background, not meant to be in the photo at all, rather spookily staring straight into the camera; the air of event, or non-event; the billboard in the background advertising a discontinued product.

The camera does not capture an event, it makes an event. And the eyes looking out of the picture are not looking into the camera, but into the future, perhaps a future those eyes will never see. I find that rather unsettling.

When I notice, really notice, a scene like the one in this picture, I reproach myself for missing the thousands of similar tableaux and scenes that must pass before my eyes every day. I have this idea that, if only I was imaginative enough, I would see a picture in every sight, a story in every event, a poem in every snatch of speech. What wealth of life slips through my fingers?

Why Groundhog Day is the Best Movie of All Time…

…at least, in my opinion.

(Note: This is not a review. I’m going to assume you’ve seen the movie. If you haven’t-— well, get on it straight way, unlesss you are currently cramming for your Bar exams, or in rehab, or something like that.)

(Note the Second: A few comments that readers have been kind enough to leave on this post, and my blog statistics, show me that it is read by a fair amount of fellow Groundhog Day fanatics. So, if you fall within this demographic, come right on in out of the snow, let me take your coat, and please accept this complimentary glass of mulled wine. Anyone who loves Groundhog Day is a VIP in my book!)

Some people complain that the whole exercise of naming a greatest film, poem, song or President of America is ridiculous, since comparisons are odious, and apples are different from oranges, and it’s all rather subjective anway. Of course, all those things are true. Nevertheless, the human race will cheerfully go on nominating all-time greatests, compiling top ten lists, and arguing for hours in pubs, dormitories and school yards about the best Beatles album or James Bond. It’s one of the things I love about this wacky species of ours.

So why Groundhog Day?

Because I think Groundhog Day, more so than any other film, captures the wonder and joy of life-- and captures what Patrick Kavanagh called life’s “ordinary plenty”. Citizen Kane is a great film, and Casablanca is a great film, and The Lord of the Rings is a great film, and The Godfather is a great film. But it seems to me that the themes of those films are rather removed from the reality of most ordinary peoples’ lives. Strangely enough, I think a film about a man caught in an unexplained time loop reflects more of universal human experience than any of those classics.

While I’m not a Quentin Tarantino type who boasts an encyclopaedic knowledge of almost every movie ever made—- and I have no desire to be-— I’m pretty keen on the cinema and movies. My anoraky “Movies Seen” spreadsheet (which I thoroughly enjoyed compiling, and keep regularly updated) lists 419 films seen in the cinema alone. When I include the films I’ve seen outside the cinema, it’s close to a thousand—- and I only counted the films of which I have some clear memory.

And of all those, Groundhog Day is the clear winner. Nothing else even comes close.

I love pretty much everything about this movie. I love the premise. I love the setting. I love the climate. I love the shop fronts and shop signs. I love the music. I love the overcoats and scarves. I love the décor in the fictional Tip Top Café and Pennyslvania Hotel. I love the back and forth of the radio presenters who wake Phil up every morning. I love the beanie hat that the rather dorky camera-man Larry wears. I love the song ‘The Pennsylvania Polka’. And, of course, I love Ned Ryerson.

I wish life was like Groundhog Day. It’s the kind of world I would like to live in-— and it’s similar enough to the actual world to throw its spell over our reality. The best films, just like the best poems and the best paintings, make us see the real world through more appreciative and wondering eyes, by drawing out one aspect of life and making that aspect sufficiently picturesque and vivid.

Of course, that brings us close to the very theme of the film-— the theme of gratitude and wonder. The very first line, spoken by the (intitially) narcissistic and cynical central character, is “Somebody asked me today, Phil, if you could be anywhere in the world, where would you want to be?”. By the end of the film, Phil learns how to answer that question, “Right here”— even though he is stuck in a small town for which he initially had only a city slicker’s contempt.

In one of his earliest, unpublished poems, G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Here dies another day...and with tomorrow begins another. Why am I allowed two?”. That is pretty much the message of Groundhog Day: that if we could really appreciate one day, like the single day in which Phil is trapped, our minds would be boggled at the insane bounty that God has lavished upon us in giving us so many more days than just one.

Having said that, if I was to be trapped in a single day—- and even that thought is a rather cosy one to me-- I think I would choose a snowy day in a small town like the movie’s Punxsatawney.

One of the reasons Groundhog Day might appeal to religious believers is that it has, in its far-from-heavy way, a somewhat spiritual theme to it. The director Harold Ramis said that various different religious groups “adopted” the film when it first came out, claiming it had a Buddhist or Jewish or Christian message. He himself believed the movie’s theme was more universal, and I agree. There isn’t really anything specifically Christian, still less specifically Catholic, about Groundhog Day.

But I think the movie is pretty Christian-friendly, in many ways. First off, it has a pretty high moral tone. Even the unreformed Phil isn’t the worst kind of jerk; he at least pretends to be fishing in his pockets when he walks past a beggar, he socialises with two small town ne’er-do-wells (and volunteers to drive them when he sees how drunk they are), and his barbs are rather good-humoured even at their worst. When he finally clicks with Rita, their canoodling seems quite chaste.

At one point, before his reform, Phil casually assumes the existence of God when he tells Rita: “Well, maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe he’s not omnipotent, he’s just been around so long he knows everything.” In another scene, he says a short prayer-— and even though he’s only doing it to impress Rita, I like the fact that he thought of it in the first place.

This matter-of-fact acceptance of God’s existence is one of the subtle, background elements of Groundhog Day that I love so much. The whole social and cultural world that the movie evokes is a stable, rather gentle one. It was released in 1993 but it has the atmosphere of an eighties movie; like Planes, Trains and Automobiles or Trading Places. Somehow, in those sort of eighties movies, the more or less stock characters, familiar sources of humour, and focus on everyday life give the impression of a dependable, fairly traditional, slowly-changing world. I don’t think there are any cell phones or computers to be seen in this film. Nor are there any gangsta rappers or metrosexuals.

The movie is a comedy, of course, but it’s not rib-tickingly funny—- and this is actually one of the things I like about it. Laugh-a-minute movies are rarely movies that we want to revisit; and the frenetic pace of the gags doesn’t leave much room for character, atmosphere or theme to develop. I like how the comic exchanges in Groundhog Day are not protracted. At one point, Phil makes fun of a sweater Larry is wearing by saying: “Looking foxy tonight, man! Tell me, is your troupe going to be selling cookies this year?”. Larry’s reponse-- “Ha, ha, ha, that’s so funny Phil!”—is a pretty lame rejoinder that wouldn’t pass muster in a sitcom. But it’s just right for the slow-burning pace of this movie.

There is barely a wrong note in the entire film. The jokes are funny enough for their purpose. The scenes never drag on too long. And, most importantly, the flights of sentimentality are pitch-perfect. There is a rather gormless notion about that sentimentality per se is a flaw. But sentimentality, just like slapstick or shock value or pathos, is only bad when it’s done badly. Admittedly, it’s easier to get wrong, and it does make us cringe when it’s cloying. So I think it’s one of the triumphs of this movie that it features defty-written sentimental dialogue, like these words that Phil speaks to Rita, when she asks him what he knows about her:

“You like boats, but not the ocean. You go to a lake in the summer with your family up in the mountains. There's a long wooden dock and a boathouse with boards missing from the roof, and a place you used to crawl underneath to be alone. You're a sucker for French poetry and rhinestones. You're very generous. You're kind to strangers and children, and when you stand in the snow you look like an angel.”

Perfectly judged. (Even the rhythm of the sentences is masterful.) Ditto this speech Phil makes later on, which is the best moment in the entire film:

“When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

Am I really making a case for Groundhog Day being the best movie ever? Maybe not. It seems to me that anyone who loves it already will know its most obvious excellences, and all I can do is point out some other little things I love about it:

I love that it features a romance between a middle-aged man and a woman who is not that much younger—and that this is almost incidental.

I love that poetry features quite prominently in the movie. Phil, even before his reformation, claims that he loves poetry. Poems by Sir Walter Scott and Joyce Kilmer are quoted. A world without poetry is an uncivilized world, and it only takes a little poetry to raise life (or a film) to a higher plateau.

I love that, during the climactic party scene, two elderly ladies are dancing with each other and nobody cares or even remarks on it.

I love that, in the first scene, Phil’s fellow news anchor mentions a report on “sex and violence in the movies”. I miss the times when sex and violence in the movies was a standard moral panic.

I love the jowly, well-groomed, jovial fellow who greets Phil in the bed-and-breakfast—the one that Phil calls “Pork Chops”.

I love that, when Phil steps in an icy puddle, Ned Ryerson says: “Watch out for that first step, it’s a doozy.” I like the idea of being so familiar with your home town that you know where the puddles are. (I always think of this when I step past a particular loose paving stone in the university where I work.)

I love that Phil says, “I think people place too much importance on their careers. I think we should all go live on the mountains, at high altitude.” Even if he is just trying to ingratiate himself with Rita, it’s a nice sentiment. I like the idea of a society where sentiments like that are aired and not considered bizarre.

I love the moment when Phil, waiting his moment to swipe a bag of money from a security truck, says: “A gust of wind...a dog barks...cue the truck.” There is something very timeless and peaceful about that moment; the kind of complete absorption in the now that you get while sketching.

I love the black bartender who shakes his head whimsically at Phil’s chat-up lines. I like to think that the bartender is, somehow, the only person other than Phil who knows what’s going on.

I love Larry mentioning that he has covered “the swallows returning to Capistrano six years in a row.”

I love the subdued atmosphere and music in the almost-deserted bowling alley in which Phil, Ralph and Gus sit at the bar and sip their drinks.

I love…well, maybe that’s enough. I just love everything about this movie, and I hope that its magic never wears off for me. And, furthermore, I hope that this post might be found and enjoyed by some other Groundhog Day fanatics out there!

It's Not Like You Wrote Anything Clever Before....

I want to be one of the children of God
A lover of sunlight, a man amongst men.
Beauty is nothing hidden or odd;
I will never write anything clever again.

The ballad that my great-grandfather sung,
The proverb that pleases now as then;
Only the ancient is always young.
I will never write anything clever again.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

It's a Funny Thing, But...

...when it comes to Christian history, I find something like the Tractarian Controversy a lot more interesting than something like the Walk to Canossa.

I just think nothing is more boring than power politics and in the "ages of faith", Church history is so intertwined with power politics that it seems to share in its dullness. In the same way, monarchy only really became romantic when King Charles I had his head cut off. Until then-- until royalty itself became a rallying-point for chivalry and loyalty and fidelity-- it was just more dreary politics and string-pulling and faction fighting.

Somehow, it is the contrast between the secular world and the religious life that makes religious history interesting. Newman and Pusey awakening an industrial, utilitarian England out of its rationalistic slumber is a gripping story. Hussites and Lollards and other sects preaching a revolutionary Christian doctrine because it would never occur to them to preach a non-Christian revolutionary doctrine is dull.

I especially find the modern history of the Church of England fascinating. The fact that it retained its position as the spiritual home of most Englishmen-- even if it was a home they didn't spend much time in-- seems miraculous enough in itself. It reminds me of those cartoon characters who run over the edge of a cliff and remain suspended in air for a while, before they realise there is no solid ground beneath them, and suddenly plunge.

There is something fascinating to me in reading the newspaper columns of Keith Waterhouse or watching the TV sketches of the Two Ronnies and realising that, even so recently, the Church of England was accepted as part of the furniture in England's social and cultural life; that the parting of the Red Sea shared a mental world with the speeches of Harold Macmillan, the Angry Young Men, and the growth of the redbrick universities.

Why are Orthodox Christians considered Homophobic...

...just because they believe the sex lives of practicing homosexuals to be immoral?

After all, the chances are that most of a Christian's friends (and often their family) will contravene traditional Christian morality in their sex lives. How many people in our liberal, secular world-- even conservatively-minded people-- observe Christian ethics when it comes to sex outside marriage, contraception, pornography and masturbation?

And yet nobody expects Christians to hand out questionnaires about bedroom behaviour before they agree to go for drinks with colleagues or accept an invitation to a dinner party.

I am not denying that homosexual behaviour may be a graver sin than cohabiting outside marriage. But I do think it seems very unfair to single out Christians for their condemnation of one sin against chastity-- a condemnation that they rarely voice, in everyday life, and are usually baited into voicing when they do.

(P.S.: I have used the term "orthodox Christian teaching" here because I believe that many of the Protestant churches have lost even the orthodoxy they retained on this subject. But there are still orthodox Christians-- orthodox in this respect, that is-- amongst them.)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Saturday Mornings in the Virgin Mary Church, Ballymun

It might be the best part of my whole week.

I wake on Saturday morning, glancing at the time on my mobile phone, and remember-- with a rush of pleasure-- that it isn't a workday and I don't have to haul myself out from the blankets at the usual uncivilized hour. I settle back gratefully into the pillows.

I like settling back gratefully into pillows, sinking back into the pool of sleep. But I am sometimes troubled by the words of Socrates before his execution, when he was facing the possibility that his death might be mere oblivion; he said that few men have experienced anything more serene than a night of dreamless sleep, and that such a death would be an improvement on life. Would a true proponent of philosophical utilitarianism, keen to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, be willing to keep the vast majority of mankind under perpetual sedation?

It is a perturbing thought, and one that makes me feel guilty if I take too much pleasure in slumber. I feel I am voting against life with my eyelids. So I am glad that I have something to get me out of bed early on Saturday mornings, being an appalling sluggard.

I made a stab at becoming a daily Mass-goer a few months back. It never worked out. However I tried to engineer it, it ended up involving mad rushes for buses or long detours from my usual route, and the sacrifice of half the evening.

The only legacy of the attempt is Saturday morning Mass at 10 a.m. in the Virgin Mary Church, ten minutes walk from my house. It's a good legacy.

All the seasons of the year are wonderful, and every hour of the day has its own beauty. But we all have our darlings. And for as I'm concerned, none of the spectacular sunsets and blazing noons and storm-lashed nights ever minted-- no, not even the solemnity of the small hours-- can compare with the thrill of morning. I mean every sort of morning; the exciting winter mornings where it is still dark outside and being out before the sun gives you a strangely conspiratorial sensation; the foggy mornings where everything around is softened and mellowed by haze; the summer mornings when the sky is flooded with glory.

The "sister" churches of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, in Ballymun, gave up trying to hold separate daily Mass more than a year ago. I remember the day the parish priest announced the change; "these are the facts of life, folks", he said, in a heavy voice. He said he remembered the time, not so many years ago, when there were hourly Sunday Masses which often had standing room only. Now there is only one Sunday Mass in each church, and daily Mass alternates between them.

I often wonder about the people who used to come to Mass ten years ago and now don't. Did they suddenly stop believing in God?

The Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary Churches are almost identical twins. They are not beautiful, or even pretty; at least, not to anybody but me. I've even heard them described as "hideous". They are small churches with brown brick exteriors, and the minimum of decoration inside; a few rather bland statues, a biscuit-coloured crucified Christ hanging above the altar, little more. The Virgin Mary church has a stained-glass scene of the Ascension (I think) on the wall behind the altar. I read somewhere on the internet that it was moved from St. Pappin's, the Famine-era church in Ballymun. It is illuminated from behind by a bulb; the light is switched off after Mass and the glowing colours disappear. This always seems a rather comical moment to me.

I walk past Supervalu and then Centra, whose staff are often still wheeling their pallet trucks of milk cartons into their shops. I walk past walls on which are pasted recruiting posters for diehard Irish republican groups, still fighting (in their own minds) the eight hundred year war. I tread the stony, beaten path across a field to the Virgin Mary. There is usually four or five cars parked outside.

In the church porch, a notice informs me that the church is a sacred place and eating, drinking cans etc. is "wholly inappropriate". Other posters and notices dot the porch walls, comforting evocations of everyday life.

I push the door and step into the church, blessing myself in the white bowl of holy water just inside. I genuflect awkwardly, but with a kind of defiant heaviness, trying to mask the self-consciousness I can never seem to quite get over.

There are about ten people in the church by now, scattered across the hard wooden pews. They are mostly middle-aged to elderly women. They are saying the rosary as I enter. The woman leading the recitation rattles off the decades like salvos fired against the gates of Hell.

I go to my accustomed pew, to the right of the altar. That pew, the pew ahead of me, and the pew behind me are often empty. I kneel on the cushionless kneeler and say a private prayer, knowing it is as much for the sake of show as for my own sake, but not feeling guilty about this. Why shouldn't I help build the atmosphere?

There are rarely more than twenty people in the congregation. It is always the same people; mostly old women, a few younger women, an African couple with boisterous chidren, a beaming African man who sits a few pews behind me and is my go-to guy for the sign of peace, a few other characters.

Unlike Sunday Mass, with its fuller congregation, the Saturday morning people tend not to chat before the appearance of the priest. I wish every Irish Catholic went to Mass regularly; but there is something very pleasant in this more intimate, focused gathering.

The priest appears, rings the bell, and we rise.

Sometimes it is the parish priest from Dublin who celebrates; but usually, on Saturday mornings, it is the priest from Burkina Faso. I remember how, when he first celebrated Mass in our parish-- perhaps two years ago-- he could barely get through a sentence of English. It was painful to listen to. People began to shuffle and mutter.

But now it's a different story. Every week he seems more confident, surprising us with new rhetorical flourishes, although he retains some endearing quirks such as "our today Gospel". In his St. Patrick's Day homily, he repeatedly referred to St. Patrick as "our hero".

He is a fine priest, quicker to reprimand and rebuke than our often cosy Irish clergy. He preaches with gusto but seems shy underneath. He often tells us stories of life in Burkina Faso, its poverty, its exploding Catholic population. On Holy Thursday, I came late to a session of Eucharistic Adoration and he was the only one still there, kneeling before the Host, utterly lost in his devotions, breaking into spoken prayer from time to time.

There are no hymns on Saturday mornings. There are no prayers of the faithful, no Gloria, no second scripture reading before the gospel. Is it wrong of me to prefer this slimmed-down, unmusical ceremony? Saint Augustine famously wrote that "he who sings prays twice"; but I find my spirits dampened rather than raised by the banal jingles that we sing on Sunday. To be perfectly honest, I am not even that enthusiastic about the classic hymns (except when they are sung as recessionals, and have a triumphal, valedictory air to them).

I dearly love Saturday morning's silent, sparse, dignified liturgy, celebrated by a little congregation in a chapel-like church, while white sunlight streams through the clear windows and suburban sounds drift from outside. I prefer it to any High Mass graced by a Palestrina choir in a packed cathedral dripping with marble. Somehow, the weight of the mystery-- the unimaginable mystery of consecration and communion-- seems more palpable here.

The sign of peace takes a long time. Most of these people know each other and a token handshake of their closest neighbour won't do. Most of the time I get irritated when the sign of peace is overdone; here it seems appropriate.

We come to the mystical heart of the Mass.

I have given up trying to "take in" what happens when I receive Communion. It is like trying to imagine eternity or picture a completely new colour. I tell myself that is not my mental state that counts; it is the objective reality of the consecrated bread and wine. I remind myself that nothing in the universe, no supernova or black hole, is more amazing than what the priest and the ministers of the Eucharist are dispensing, so undramatically.

We kneel for the closing prayer. In the Holy Spirit Church, they stand for this prayer; here, although most of the congregation attend both churches, they kneel. The contrast pleases me greatly.

The priest gives his final blessing, and (most of the time) disappears into the sacristy. On Sundays, this is the moment the Mass dissolves into social mingling and chatter. Not on Saturday mornings, though. On Saturday mornings, some of the congregation linger for more prayers, while others drift out with only a few friendly exchanges. The aura of devotion still hangs in the air as I leave.

Outside, Ballymun has become a little busier; but only a little. The morning is still dew-fresh. As I walk home, I look forward to the fried breakfast that I am never entirely successful at keeping out of my thoughts during this Mass. There is a whole new day ahead of me; a day the Lord has made.

Friday, August 3, 2012

What Would Prove Catholicism False?

Critics of religion often complain that it is immune to evidence. They say that religious claims simply don't open themselves up to proof or disproof in the same way that other claims do. Religious believers, they say, would cling on to their delusions no matter how much data was brought to bear against them. In fact-- or so many of these critics go on to claim-- religion holds out special praise and rewards for those who believe without evidence, or in the teeth of counter-evidence. After all, didn't Christ himself say "Blessed are those who have not seen, but have believed?"

I think there is certainly a case to be answered here. There may be rare individuals, such as C.S. Lewis, who are dragged kicking and screaming into religious belief against their strongest inclinations. But I think it is true that most religious believers want to believe. They are, to be blunt, prejudiced in favour of God, and in favour of their particular creed.

But is this really so strange? Is there any human being on this earth who is not similarly biased? It is true that there are plenty of people who (as they admit) would like to believe in God, but don't. (I was one of those people myself once; or at least, I thought I was.) Nevertheless, I think even those people would have various pet theories of their own-- perhaps socialism or libertarianism or the dangers of dairy products. And they probably welcome evidence that supports those theories and are suspicious of evidence that doesn't.

(Of course, almost everybody alive has one specific pet theory; the implicit theory that they are somehow special, more insightful, more deserving, especially unfairly treated, and so forth-- and this particular theory is more tenacious than weevils.)

Those who reject religion in favour of a scientific worldview often claim that the existence of God is a hypothesis like any other, and should be treated in the same objective manner. I don't think this is fair. I think it would make more sense to compare theistic belief, not to this or that scientific hypothesis, but to the scientific worldview itself. The corresponding question for those who demand scientific proof is; What would it take you to abandon the scientific worldview? It is obviously conceivable that the most important truths might not be the kind of truths you can prove or disprove in a laboratory. It is at least conceivable that these ultimate truths have been deliberately placed beyond empirical testing. The scientific worldview, at least in its rationalist and anti-religious sense, is in this sense a hypothesis itself.

As I say, I can understand why non-believers sometimes become impatient with believers. It does often seem as though we are having our cake and eating it. Let's say that I pray to find a job during a long spell of unemployment. The next morning I am called to interview for my dream position. I thank God for answering my prayer. But, the sceptic complains, I wouldn't have held it against God if the prayer had apparently gone unanswered. I would have decided that my unemployment was a spiritual testing ground, or something like that. Heads God wins, tails unbelief loses. And isn't this true enough, as far as it goes?

Another example is the famous "criterion of embarrassment" which Christians sometimes apply to Bible criticism. There are undoubtedly passages in the New Testament that are embarrassing to Christians, such as Christ's apparent claim that he would return before one generation had passed. Christians often point out that the very existence of these texts, and their survival through the centuries, shows that the whole Jesus story wasn't one cooked up by the disciples. Because why would the disciples give ammunition to their critics?

At this point, the sceptic throws his hands in the air and says, "You can't have it both ways. You can't leap on evidence when it suits you and then say sacred things are above evidence when it doesn't suit you. You can't jump on Bible verses that seem to contain fulfilled prophecies and then take an unfulfilled prophecy and claim that as support as well. There's just no arguing with you. The deck is rigged from the start."

How to respond, now that I have accepted the prima facie case of the exasperated unbeliever?

One response is that it is ridiculous to expect a settled worldview to be open to revision at every moment. A man or woman's religious faith is usually the result of long experience and reflection. Often it is based upon some insight or event that the believer deems to have been mystical. Why should such a commitment be perpetually tested? What prisoner is permanently in the dock? What friendship is always hanging in the balance?

Another thing I would say is that faith, even faith in the face of apparently hostile evidence, is often seen as a virtue in purely secular contexts. If we go to see a "buddy movie", and we see that one character continues to believe in his friend's honesty and integrity even when the rest of the world has him written off as a villain, we are touched. If we read of an artist who has faith in his own talent in the face of rejection and ridicule, we are inspired. And when we read Anne Frank's famous words, "In spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart", we are moved to tears. Who could take such a beautiful sentiment as simply a correct or incorrect evaluation of the available evidence-- a good or bad "call"?

I have to be honest. I don't think anything could shake my belief in God. I don't think any scientific discovery or natural disaster or historical event could make me an atheist. The universe seems too beautiful, too marvellous, too intricate to require no explanation. The existence of consciousness, of man's thirst for the sublime and the transcendent, also seems to point to a Divine Creator. And, yes-- I admit it-- I would be desolate without God.

But I can imagine situations in which my faith in the Catholic Church might be strained or even shattered. I don't for a moment expect such situations to come about, but I can conceive of them.

If Pope Benedict released an encylical tomorrow morning in which he denied that abortion was always a mortal sin, or that Christ's resurrection had been an historical event, or that eternal damnation was not possible, I would cease to be Catholic. Even if the Pope or the magisterium were to change Church doctrine on a non-dogmatic matter-- for instance, the ordination of women-- my faith would be shaken.

I believe the same is true of many thousands, perhaps millions, of Catholics around the globe. The Church's iron refusal to change its message, in the face of all persecution and tyranny and unpopularity, is compelling to us. And I believe this is why-- to use language that some might find offensive or at least ridiculous-- Satan and his angels are constantly pushing at the door of heresy, just as he urged Christ to turn stone into bread.

There are other eventualities that might undermine my Catholic faith. If the canonisation process no longer required a certified miracle-- as John Cornwell, and possibly other liberal Catholics, recommend-- my confidence in the Church would be rather diminished. If the Church ceased to produce saints and martyrs, that too would make me anxious. If there was a spectacular reversal in the miraculous spread of the Church across the world, that would also-- to a lesser extent-- give me pause for thought.

If one of the visionaries that the Church has declared worthy of belief was proven to be a fraud (and I feel dirty even typing those words), that would seriously compromise my Catholic faith.

I don't have the slightest expectation that any of those things will happen. I only mention them to counter this claim, which is so often made, that religious belief is immune to evidence or disproof.

And what if the sceptic says, "Come on, you are making it easy for yourself! You know and I know that none of these things will ever happen!"?

Then I think I would reply: "My friend, I believe that your own words prove that-- deep down inside-- you also have faith."

Thursday, August 2, 2012

You see the Headline "Internet is Debasing our Public Discourse"....

...and you already know it's John Waters.

Mind you, I agree with pretty much everything he says on this subject. Perhaps ironically, given my writing of this blog, I regard the internet (and the computer revolution in general) with little besides alarm and dismay.

This very week, my own workplace (UCD library) has become even more computerized than ever. Up until now, if there was a book you couldn't find on the shelf, or one you wanted retrieved from storage, you filled out a pink docket, with an actual ink-dispensing pen. Now you have to submit an eletronic form, online.

Once upon a time-- not so long ago-- library assistants in UCD stamped the return date on a label on the book's first page. Every day the stamps had to be set to a new date. The clickety-clickety-click of the stamp hurtling down on several books in a row was pleasing to the ear. And it left a legacy; you could take a book from the shelf and scan down the label, noting the dates it had been borrowed, reconstructing its library career in your imagination. There was a subtle but definite poetry to those labels.

Now, we print a "receipt" (one smarmy academic pointed out that it couldn't be a receipt since it wasn't acknowledging receipt of anything, but let that pass). People throw them away, for the most part. The history and the poetry is gone. And that is only example of many transitions from a friendly, cumbersome process to a cold, efficient, mechanical one.

For several years, I argued against this increasing mechanization, at departmental meetings and so forth. I knew it was vain but I rather enjoyed playing Don Quixote, the hopeless and hapless romantic.

But I don't even bother anymore. Nobody cares; not staff, not students, not anybody else.

Except for John Waters, of course. There's always John Waters, eager to lend his voice to an unfashionable and counter-intuitive cause. Long may he continue to do so!

God at the Movies

I am a confirmed cinema addict. If I haven't walked into that darkened auditorium in more than a few weeks-- and is there any thrill to match that crossing of the threshold, except the moment when the title appears on screen?-- then I feel an ungovernable urge to go and see some film, any film.

I guess Batman was the natural choice. I had actually paid to see the first film, Batman Begins, five times during its theatrical run. (It’s not the only time I’ve seen a film in the cinema five times.) But my grá for the Batman franchise, and my irritation at the hype surrounding it, was already fading by the time The Dark Knight came out. I did go to see it but left after about twenty minutes, deciding that it was—to be blunt—a sick film. But I was persuaded, by the gushing enthusiasm of acquaintances, to try it again when it came out on DVD. Again, I thought it was a sick film, and not even a particularly good one.

Long before The Dark Knight Rises came out, I had resolved not to patronise any more superhero films. What does it say about the infantilisation of our popular culture that, at the time of writing, there are three big superhero movies dominating the multiplexes-- Batman, Spiderman, and the Avengers?

I’ve heard all the apologetics for the genre; that superheroes are the mythology of our era, that infinite variations can be played upon the theme, that the latest caped or masked sensation is a superhero with a difference, or the Citizen Kane of superhero movies, or like no superhero we’ve ever seen.

I’m not buying it. When it comes down to it, they are all films about more or less tortured souls, torn between duty and love, cavorting around in brightly-coloured skin-tight costumes, and finding themselves pitted against villains who—surprise, surprise!—are also dressed flamboyantly and sport bizarre names. That these films take themselves more and more seriously all the time just makes the whole set-up more ridiculous.

So, shunning the caped crusader, I decided to pay in to see Prometheus a second time, even though I hadn’t thought it an especially good film the first time I saw it. But it certainly looks amazing, and that goes a long way.

Prometheus also takes itself very, very seriously. It asks Big Questions about the origin and purpose of life, and the characters even advert to the Bigness of the Questions they are asking. The film also explores (or tries to explore) religious themes. The fact that it does so at all deserves some credit. Unfortunately, they are handled pretty cack-handedly.

The plot is an old one. (Spoilers ahead!) A husband-and-wife team of archaeologists discover that cave paintings from many different cultures seem to be beckoning mankind to a distant planet. The de rigeur Sinister Corporation bankrolls a spaceship journey to the faraway star (this is in the later decades of this century). The expedition discovers, with a remarkable speed and ease, that humanity has in fact been genetically engineered by an alien species.

The female protagonist wears a cross and believes in God. She never really describes her beliefs and Christ is never mentioned (except in the obligatory swearing), but it seems likely she is a Christian of some sort.

Her husband-—a loving and devoted husband, we are given to understand-—comments, when they have made their great discovery, “guess you can take off your father’s cross now” and insists that, as they have now learned, “There’s nothing special about the creation of life. All you need is a dash of DNA and half a brain.”

His wife makes the obvious rejoinder—-where did this alien civilization themselves come from? But of course, even that explanation wouldn’t really explain anything, since we are still left with a universe that is primed to produce life, and—-even more fundamentally-—the bare fact of the universe itself. I have never understood why people like Richard Dawkins believe that Darwinism delivered a knock-out punch to “the God hypothesis”—and why so many Christians seem to go along with their strange logic, desperately trying to punch holes in the theory (holes which might be there for all I know).

But that wasn’t the only thing I found weird about the scene. Would a loving husband really behave so brutally if (as he believed) his wife’s deepest beliefs and hopes were shattered? The character is presented as being rather jaunty and matter-of-fact, even tactless. But he is also portrayed as an adoring husband.

This phenomenon seems to me all too typical of movies, TV shows and novels—-the notion that religious beliefs (or the lack thereof) is something that shouldn’t and doesn’t matter when it comes to marriage or mating. The fact that one of the lovers believes that she has an immortal soul and that life is intrinsically meaningful, while the other believes that every human being is a machine made of meat and that all the things human beings care most about are ultimately illusory, is seen to be irrelevant to True Love.

But Holloway, the husband character, is a rather implausible character anyway. We are given to understand that he is motivated by an insatiable desire to discover—-but this only takes the form (since he believes mankind were created by aliens) of seeking to learn more about our makers, principally the reason that they made us in the first place. Other than that, he is shown to be rather lacking in scientific, intellectual or philosophical curiosity.

On second thoughts, perhaps this combination-—obsessive interest in some empirical question, combined with a deeper intellectual apathy-—is quite realistic. I can think of many celebrated figures that evince it. But it is no less puzzling for that.

But the most questionable portrayal of religious belief comes at the very beginning of the film, when the central character (as a young girl) is seen asking her father what happens when we die. Her father (possibly a Unitarian) tells her that we go to a place for which everybody has different names, but which is undoubtedly beautiful. And when the girl asks (as children are wont to ask) how he knows this, the father’s only response is: “It’s what I choose to believe.”

Isn’t a film delving into deep questions obliged to go a little deeper than that? Yes, there are probably parents who would make such a terse reply if their children asked them for a justification of their religious beliefs, and there are (unfortunately) adults who would do the same in an adult discussion.

Of course there is an element of “choosing to believe” in religious faith. There is an element of choice in many of our beliefs, but especially when it comes to religious belief. God does not coerce the intellect, and the act of faith involves not only dispassionate calculation but also emotional responses and even (I would argue) virtues-—for instance, gratitude, wonder and trust.

But there is a lot more to faith than simply choosing to believe, and if the movie-makers aspired to a serious examination of religious faith, surely they would have given us a character that would at least make a serious case for it.

I did not think the movie was anti-religion. The cross-wearing believer is, after all, the heroine, and at the end of the movie her faith is seen to be intact and (arguably) vindicated. I am grateful to see religious faith even given the time of day in a major movie, but ultimately, Prometheus had nothing deep or significant to say about the big questions it raises. In that, it is all too typical of religion on the big screen.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Why I Believe in Merrie England

First and most importantly, because it's too good not to have been true.

Secondly, because any of the Middle English literature I've read seems positively a-glow with child-like wonder, relish of simple things and naive piety.

Thirdly, because I am currently reading an anthology of Catholic poetry, edited by Shane Leslie, whose introduction quotes this refrain from a Middle English drinking song:

Bring us in good ale, and bring us in good ale;
For our Blessed Lady's sake, bring us in good ale.

How could anyone read those lines and not believe in Merrie England?