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Archive for February, 2011

It was interesting to note that two megastars from the secular worlds of football and film/TV – Carlo Ancelotti and Martin Sheen – were both happy to talk about their Christian faith in public in London last week. I don’t think it was a coordinated plan of evangelisation, but it might be a small sign that it’s becoming slightly more acceptable to ‘do God’ in public these days.

Martin Sheen playing President Bartlet in The West Wing

First, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti, gave this interview with Simon Johnson in the Evening Standard:

Still, at times like these one wonders how the 51-year-old continues to cope living under such intense scrutiny.

Some cynics will look at his £6million-a-year salary as motivation enough, yet the Italian has found greater comfort in his religious beliefs rather than his bank balance.

“I am a Catholic, like 99 per cent of people from Italy, and I think my faith has helped keep me strong,” he tells me. “Sometimes religion helps you. I don’t have time to go to church but I pray every day.

“I get comfort from praying. Obviously I don’t pray because I want Chelsea to win. This is not the reason to pray. I think God has to think to other things in this world, not Chelsea.

“Religion has been in my life since I was a boy and my parents would always take me to church.

“Also at school there were some hours spent every week to teach the children to understand religion and the Bible.

“But my strength also comes from the experience I have had in my career. I know that things can’t be okay every time and sometimes you have to work through the difficulties.”

And Martin Sheen, star of Apocalypse Now and The West Wing, was in London to promote his new film The Way. He speaks here about his concern for his son Charlie Sheen:

The West Wing star said the actor, who has fought a well-documented battle with drugs and checked into rehab last month, had the backing of his family.

When asked how he was supporting his son, Sheen replied: “With prayer. We lift him up and we ask everyone who cares about him to lift him up, and lift up all those who are in the grip of drug and alcohol abuse, because they are looking for transcendence.”

Speaking at the UK premiere of his new pilgrimage film The Way at London’s British Film Institute, the 70-year-old – who acted alongside Charlie in the 1987 film Wall Street – said he would be happy to work with him in the future.

“That would be another miracle and we’d look forward to it, very much so,” he said.

In the film – directed by another of his three sons Emilio Estevez – Sheen plays Tom, an American doctor who embarks on the 500-mile Camino de Santiago walk to collect the remains of his dead son.

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Did you know that one of the 6,404 people who vote for the Oscars is a Roman Catholic nun? Dolores Hart, who stole a kiss from Elvis Presley in the 1957 film Loving You, retired from the film business and became a nun at the Benedictine abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut – but not before she had entered the inner sanctum and won the right to vote. She’s now 72, and continues to vote when the review copies are sent to her monastery each year.

In case you are not sure, it's Woody Allen

I’d never quite understood who gets to vote for the Oscars, and how the whole process works. Tom Shone explains everything:

There are 6,404 of them, mostly living in the Los Angeles area, with further pockets in northern California, New York City and London. They are, by a small majority, male. Their average age is about 57. Rupert Murdoch is one, as are Pedro Almódovar and Sasha Baron Cohen. George Lucas, Woody Allen and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are not. And on 27 February they will announce to an audience of more than 30 million people the results of a secret ballot that will determine the course of careers, cause corporate stock prices to rocket, and induce howls of outrage in office pools and viewing parties around the world.

“They”, of course, are the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group of entertainment industry professionals responsible for handing out the Oscars every year. The Academy’s headquarters are housed in an impassive, mirrored-glass structure on Wilshire Boulevard, suggestive of the fact that Ampas does not like to reveal much about its inner workings. Membership is by invitation only, requiring sponsorship by two existing members and the approval of a board of governors; but once in, you’re in for life, a fact that has been used by the organisation’s critics to conjure up an image of doddering retirees, too entangled in their oxygen tanks to fill out their ballots. When Henry Fonda and James Garner admitted their wives filled out their ballots for them, there was uproar.

Ann Thompson is a columnist with the Indiewire website, who recently attended the governor’s ball thrown by the Academy in honour of Jean-Luc Godard. “One of the things I noticed is there’s a huge bubble of baby boomers at the Academy. They’re all very knowledgeable. They’re very liberal. They’re over 50 for the most part, but it’s a fairly hip demo[graphic]. It’s that group of people who grew up in the 70s and were shaped by a film-maker like Godard. They voted for Silence of the Lambs for best picture, they voted for Traffic, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But it’s not a monolithic body. You can almost track the fate of any one film by tracking its course through the different branches.”

The Academy comprises 15 branches, of which the biggest and most powerful voting bloc is the actors, with 1,205 members, 22% of the total; they are the ones who ensured a win for The Hurt Locker last year, after they remained unconvinced the blue people in Avatar were delivering real performances. They are closely followed by the producers (452 members) and executives (437) who, together with the publicists (368), says Thompson, trend “a little more to the mainstream, for movies such as The Green Mile, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat. They’re the group Harvey Weinstein knows how to play to.”

Finally you have the various crafts guilds – sound, effects, sets, costumes and so on – who tend to get more male and red-blooded the further down the credits you go. Thompson calls them the “steak-eaters”: the set-builders and property-masters who are attracted to “large-scale solid narratives such as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, The Town, True Grit. Even Inception plays to the steak-eaters. It’s a big group. It probably describes most of the Academy.” It’s this group that bailed on Ang Lee’s gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain in 2006, thus ensuring a win for Crash – one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history – and this year helped keep the nominations for Lisa Cholodenko’s same-sex marriage drama, The Kids Are All Right, down to a minimum.

“The steak-eaters are the reason Annette Bening keeps losing,” says Jeffrey Wells, who runs the Hollywood Elsewhere website. “Call it the steak-eater vote, call it the old geezer vote, call it the babe vote. They always vote for the babes.” More recently, though, Wells has detected signs of a fresher breeze sweeping through the Academy’s ranks. “For most of the history of the Academy, going back to 1927, the film that wins best picture tends to be the one that makes you cry. That gets you where you live. It says something that’s true and recognisable about the state of our lives that gets you on an emotional level. But [Ampas president] Tom Sherak has been aggressively bringing in newer members, and over the last few years the emotional gut-punch movies have not been winning. Except when Brokeback Mountain lost: that was the last surge, the last stand of what I call the ‘geezer vote’. That was basically the people like Tony Curtis, the 70-plus crowd who couldn’t abide the idea of two sheep-herders getting it on. That was the last time.”

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I was teaching philosophical ethics yesterday and came across these quotations I’d saved up about the possibility of human freedom.

Isaiah Berlin

The first, from Thomas Nagel, simply describes what a hard-core version of determinism looks like:

Some people have thought that it is never possible for us to do anything different from what we actually do, in the absolute sense. They acknowledge that what we do depends on our choices, decisions, and wants, and that we make different choices in different circumstances: we’re not like the earth rotating on its axis with monotonous regularity. But the claim is that, in each case, the circumstances that exist before we act determine our actions and make them inevitable. The sum total of a person’s experiences, desires and knowledge, his or her hereditary constitution, the social circumstances and the nature of the choice facing them, together with other factors that we may not know about, all combine to make a particular acting in the circumstances inevitable. This view is called determinism… [quoted in Alban McCoy, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Christian Ethics, 34-35]

The second quotation, from Isaiah Berlin, is about how freedom is in fact a presupposition of ordinary personal and social life, whether we like to admit it philosophically or not:

The whole of our common morality, in which we speak of obligation and duty, right and wrong, moral praise and blame – the way in which people are praised or condemned, rewarded or punished, for behaving in a way in which they were not forced to behave, when they could have behaved otherwise – this network of beliefs and practices, on which all current morality seems to me to depend, presupposes the notion of responsibility, and responsibility entails the ability to choose between black and white, right and wrong, pleasure and duty; as well as, in a wider sense, between forms of life, forms of government, and the whole constellations of moral values in terms of which most people, however much they may or may not be aware of it, do in fact live. [Liberty, 324]

If you want to follow all this up, you can read Alban McCoy’s very helpful chapter about determinism here on Google Books.

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I was staying at my parents’ home last week and didn’t have a bible, so I went searching through the bookshelves to see what I could find. I came across a dusty copy of the King James Bible, which was the one given to me at my baptism by my Great Uncle Ernest and Great Aunt Sybil – the dedication was there on the inside front cover.

First edition of the King James Bible

It’s a pocket edition with about 20 full-page colour illustrations. Looking at the images of Noah and King David and Jesus took me right back to my childhood. I don’t remember reading it very often, but it was there! And I certainly looked at the pictures.

I was looking for the readings from the Mass for the day, which happened to be the story of Noah in Genesis Chapter 8. I don’t think these are particularly well-known passages, in terms of the language, but it is just one random example of the beauty of the translation.

[6] And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made:
[7] And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.
[8] Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground;
[9] But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark.
[10] And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark;
[11] And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.
[12] And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more.
[13] And it came to pass in the six hundredth and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from off the earth: and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and, behold, the face of the ground was dry.

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Take a look at this interactive guide to the year’s best picture nominees for the Oscars from the Guardian website. It gives you reviews, interviews, videos, news, etc., for each of the ten nominated films. And there are some great films here!

Here is the list:

Black Swan
The Fighter
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
Inception
The Kids Are Alright
127 Hours
True Grit
Winter’s Bone
Toy Story 3

My choice? I liked The King’s Speech and The Social Network a lot, but the winner has to be Toy Story 3 or The Fighter – and I can’t decide which.

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I had the pleasure of meeting Vincent Aubin last week, a French philosopher who works in Paris and Marseilles. He writes a WordPress blog called L’esprit de l’escalier: philosophie, politique, religion – an infinitely more cultured and reflective version of Bridges and Tangents! If you have a little French, do take a look.

By way of a taster, this is the introduction to his latest post, about the nature of totalitarianism:

Décrire le totalitarisme comme une religion séculière est une idée qui doit sa fortune, en France du moins, à Raymond Aron. Il était frappé, comme quelques autres esprits clairvoyants, par le fait que le long déclin de la religion en Occident, à partir du XVIIIe siècle, n’amenait pas tant la disparition du sacré que son déplacement et, bien souvent, moins l’avènement de la raison que celui de nouvelles mythologies.

L’idée de « religion séculière » est à première vue très séduisante. Si elle est une forme de « religion séculière », on comprend que l’idéologie totalitaire se présente comme une « voie de salut » dans l’immanence – de la race ou de la société sans classe ; qu’elle soit polarisée par la lutte entre « le bien » et « le mal » ; qu’elle adopte si volontiers le style messianique ou apocalyptique ; qu’elle mette en place des liturgies glorifiant « le peuple » ou « la race », qu’elle instaure le « culte » du chef, etc.

You can keep reading here.

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Fr Ronald Rolheiser writes about our addiction to being digitally connected:

And so we are, daily, becoming more enslaved to and more compulsive in our use of mobile phones and the Internet. For many of us it is now existentially impossible to take off a day, let alone several weeks, and be on a genuine holiday. Rather, the pressure is on us to constantly check for texts, e-mails, phone messages and the like. The expectation from our families, friends, and colleagues is precisely that we are checking these regularly. The sin du jour is to be, at any time, unavailable, unreachable or non-communicative.

He quotes some friends who work in Christian ministry on Sunday mornings, but then begin to celebrate their own digital sabbath in the late afternoon on Sunday:

We start our celebration of the Sabbath at 4 PM on Sunday and we begin it symbolically by unplugging our computers, turning of our mobile phones, disconnecting our hour phone and turning off every information gadget that we own. For the next 29 hours we don’t receive any calls and we don’t make any. We are on a cyber-fast, non-contactable, of the wheel, unavailable.

At 9 PM on Monday night we end our Sabbath as we began it, symbolically. We break our cyber-fast and fire up again our phones and our computers and begin answering our messages. We get back on the wheel for another week.

Sometimes making ourselves unavailable like this irritates our families and friends, but if we are to celebrate Sabbath, given our pressured lives, this pulling away is the most important single thing that we have to do.

He ends the article with this wonderful quotation from the mystic poet Rumi:

I have lived too long where I can be reached!

[The Catholic Herald, 18 Feb, p 20]

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