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Archive for January, 2013

This is the accusation from Naomi Wolf, in an open letter to Zero Dark Thirty‘s director, Kathryn Bigelow:

Your film Zero Dark Thirty is a huge hit here. But in falsely justifying, in scene after scene, the torture of detainees in “the global war on terror”, Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race – something that has historical precedent.

Your film claims, in many scenes, that CIA torture was redeemed by the “information” it “secured”, information that, according to your script, led to Bin Laden’s capture. This narrative is a form of manufacture of innocence to mask a great crime: what your script blithely calls “the detainee program”.

What led to this amoral compromising of your film-making?

This is Bigelow’s defence:

I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.

This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.

And this is Slavoj Žižek’s response to Bigelow’s response:

One doesn’t need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.

Imagine a documentary that depicted the Holocaust in a cool, disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators. Where is Bigelow here?

Without a shadow of a doubt, she is on the side of the normalisation of torture.

I saw the film at the weekend, and I think Wolf is right.

It’s not, as Žižek argues, the supposed neutrality of the depiction; some of the most powerful indictments of evil have come about through stark, cool-eyed, non-judgmental descriptions of the reality of what has taken place – bringing the horror into the moral daylight, even without explicit  moral comment.

Nor is it, as Wolf herself writes, the factual question about whether torture was or was not effective in helping the US to locate Bin Laden.

It’s much simpler, and it’s to do with the nature of film and not with arguments about historical truth. It’s the fact that in the dramatic arc of the film, torture is justified; whatever ethical unease we may have as thinkers and moralists, in cinematic terms, we identify emotionally with the protagonist, the heroine, so that the plot device (in this case torture) becomes – whether we like it or not – emotionally justified.

The plot is very simple: men are captured; men are tortured; some of them give information; Maya, the intrepid CIA agent, won’t give up on her hunt for Bin Laden; some of this information, combined with other information, leads Maya to discover the whereabouts of Bin Laden; Bin Laden is killed. Even if your conscience says that torture is always wrong, even if the horrific portrayal of torture in this film actually makes you firmer in your opposition to torture, at an emotional level you can’t help wanting Maya to find him (this is what we do in films, we root for the protagonist, we long to find the ‘MacGuffin‘), and as a viewer caught up in the chase, you can’t help being grateful that the information was finally found – whatever the means.

As a film, it’s gripping and beautifully produced, but still slightly disappointing. There is very little context or background; we never really understand what makes Maya tick; it’s two-dimensional.

Another moral issue, equally important, gets completely ignored in the film: whether it is right to assassinate someone in these circumstances. Everyone in the film, on Maya’s side, wants to find Bin Laden and kill him; no-one asks whether this is justified, morally or legally. I’m surprised and even worried that reviewers don’t seem to have commented on this (but let me know if you have seen a review that has).

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Every month in the seminary we have a Day of Recollection: a brief moment of silence and retreat, from supper on Friday until the Vigil Mass on Saturday evening. It’s not a long time, but it means that we are forced to put the brakes on every few weeks, even in the middle of a busy term; and a lot can happen in 24 hours if you really give yourselves over to the silence, the times of Office and Exposition in the chapel, and the reflections that are offered by the retreat giver.

Last weekend we had Fr Christopher Jamison lead the Recollection, the Benedictine monk from Worth Abbey who is now Director of the National Office for Vocation. I won’t even try to summarise the talks he gave (which connected the writings of Cassian and the Desert Fathers and Mothers with our own spiritual lives). A number of thoughts stayed with me, including what seemed to be a throwaway line about St Teresa of Avila.

Historical Portrait Figure of St Teresa of Avila by artist-historian George Stuart (1)  by mharrsch

Fr Christopher was talking about the famous ‘different ways of collecting water’ metaphor in the Autobiography of St Teresa. And just by way of background, he spoke about how he had come to know the Autobiography not as a monk, but when he was an undergraduate studying Spanish at Oxford. Why was this masterpiece of the spiritual life on the curriculum at a secular university? Because, he explained, it was the first major literary work in Spain to use the ordinary language of ordinary people to describe the everyday occurrences of ordinary life. OK, you can hardly call St Teresa of Avila ‘ordinary'; but the autobiography, as well as being a guide to the mystical life, is one of the clearest, funniest, wisest, most honest and compelling accounts of what it is simply to be human, to get through a life, to get through a day. And – this is the point – it was one of the first.

Her faith, in other words, didn’t just use one element of the culture to communicate itself, it almost singlehandedly created a new form of culture, a new genre, to express something that couldn’t be expressed in any other way. It’s like St Mark (if he was the first!) deciding to write a ‘gospel’ when there was no such thing as a gospel before then. It’s like the Cathedral builders of the Middle Ages searching for new forms of architecture that could express the Christian mystery in ways it had never been expressed before.

These people, and many more (please add your own examples from other centuries) were not just using the culture, they were transforming it; they were inventing new forms of culture in order to communicate the faith that had already transformed their own hearts and vision.

We often talk as Christians about being more engaged with contemporary culture, or about allowing the Christian culture we have inherited to have a greater influence on the culture of the contemporary world. The harder and more interesting question, however, is whether it is possible for us today to create new forms of culture in order to express and share our faith. What are some examples today? What are the signs or even the seeds of this renewal?

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CaFE have just published a new DVD resource called The Sacraments: Transforming Everyday Life. Take a look at the promotional video here. Stay with it (it’s only 7 minutes): as well as the teaching input at the beginning, there are some wonderful short interviews with lay people about how their lives have been transformed by their faith, and a brief introduction to your hosts Paschal and Pippa as they wander around Rome. They should be given their own TV series.

You can order the DVD pack from the CaFE website here.

Here is the blurb:

The Sacraments (Part 1) is a four session, TV quality series by CaFE, exploring the topics (i) Why Sacraments? (ii) Baptism. (iii) Confirmation. (iv) The Eucharist.

Each session includes a short film featuring laypeople living out the sacrament in their daily lives, plus in-depth explanations from experts on the theology of the sacrament, with examples of practical application. Ideal for those exploring the Church, and for Mass-goers seeking to refresh their faith. It is also suitable for use in schools and with confirmation groups (of all ages) and their parents.

Presented by Paschal Uche and Pippa Baker, with an introduction from Archbishop Bernard Longley. Filmed on location in Rome and around the UK.

Featuring Sr Catherine Droste OP, Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, Jo Boyce, Stephen Rooney, Fr David Oakley, David Wells, Barry and Margaret Mizen, Fr Paul Keane, Fr Stephen Wang, and more…

I get a few minutes in each film, sitting in a cafe (a real one!) near the station in St Albans, pretending to drink tea, being grilled by Paschal and Pippa. Maybe next time I will get the trip to Rome…

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There’s a polar bear in Sloane Square. No-one told me about it! I just stepped off the bus, and there it was, in the snow, opposite Peter Jones. It’s magnificent.

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I was enjoying the ‘thisness’ of the bear, the pure ‘being-there’ and ‘being-a-bear-there’ of the sculpture, the art that shows without the need to tell; but then I found it also has a purpose. Camilla Horrox explains:

A SPECTACULAR 12ft polar bear sculpture called Boris has been unveiled in London’s Sloane Square to symbolise the plight of the critically endangered animal.

Boris Johnson’s father Stanley unveiled the statue on Monday in one of the capital’s most iconic locations, Sloane Square where the ‘new’ Boris in town will reign until February 10.

Throughout the 28-day period the public, celebrities, organisations and corporations will be encouraged to register their support for the campaign online and visit Boris in person if they are able to.

Adam Binder said: “If people stop for just a moment to contemplate Boris and the plight of the polar bear, it will have served a purpose. Art should make you think. Wildlife art, particularly a piece on this scale, will hopefully be poignant and remind us that we’re all part of nature and have a responsibility to every creature on our planet. The endangered polar bear symbolises this better than anything else and Boris carries an important message for us all.”

Adam Binder, Jim McNeill (founder of the Ice Warrior Project) and environmentalist Stanley Johnson (father of the other Boris) unveiled the sculpture on Monday.

Throughout the 28-day period the public, celebrities, organisations and corporations will be encouraged to register their support for the campaign online and visit Boris in person if they are able to.

Boris, who is cast entirely of bronze and weighs 700 kgs is the brainchild of the award-winning artist Adam Binder, whose work in ceramics and sculpture has won him critical acclaim throughout a career spanning 20 years. Adam won the David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year in 2010, and was elected a Member of the Society of Wildlife Artists in 2011.

Conservationist, David Shepherd CBE FRSA said: “It is fitting that Adam Binder’s first monumental sculpture should be this beautiful polar bear, a species that is, quite literally, on thin ice. If Boris’ lonely vigil in a London square makes people stop and think, even for a minute, Adam will have achieved his aim.”

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I had a discussion this week about public confession, prompted by the Lance Armstrong/Oprah interview. It wasn’t so much about the cyclist or his past exploits, but the more general question of whether this kind of public ‘confession’ is good for the individual and good for society; and whether there is always a natural and swift movement from repentance to rehabilitation to reconciliation to redemption if we finally take the step of admitting we were wrong. So I don’t want to judge an individual here (I try not to write about people’s misdeeds or misfortune), but to think about the general question.

oprah by story acccents

Is public confession necessary? In Catholic sacramental terms, of course, you never make a public confession – it’s between you and the priest and God, and it’s protected by the seal of the confessional, which is inviolable and absolute. But is it sometimes necessary, or at least important, to admit your wrongdoing in public and to say sorry in public? Yes, I think so. If, for example, you have persistently lied in public, then simply in terms of justice you are (all things being equal) duty bound to correct the untruth, and in terms of the reconciliation you seek with those you may have misled and hurt by your lies, you owe them an apology.

There may be situations where this isn’t prudent, or where the public retraction and apology may do more harm than good, to individuals or to the common good; but in ordinary circumstances, we need to apologise for and try to put right the things that we have done wrong; and if that has involved some great public harm, then the correction and the apology should normally be public.

Does that mean we can always say, categorically, that a public confession or apology is a good thing? Well, to borrow the language of sacramental theology, you need more than just the ‘confession’ (saying to another what you have done wrong) to make a good confession: you also need genuine sorrow in your heart (‘contrition’), and a sincere and practical intention to put things right and avoid wrongdoing in the future (a ‘purpose of amendment’); and – as a supplementary – to take on a penance, as a part of the wider ‘putting right’ and as a help to your ongoing conversion.

And this is also where the tools of moral philosophy are very helpful. At an objective level, if someone has lied in public, then it is good to correct the lie and apologise. The objective moral ‘act’ is, in this case, good: it’s good to tell the truth, it’s good to put things right, it’s good to say sorry. But as well as the objective act, you need to factor in the subjective motivation (the reason why someone has chosen to do this), and the circumstances surrounding the act.

What are the deepest reasons why someone is choosing to do this thing at this time? Are they morally good reasons? And what are the circumstances that colour the whole decision and the act itself? Maybe we can’t know for the moment in a given case; sometimes we are not even aware of our own real motivations. But these are, in one traditional way of understanding moral actions, the three elements that we need to consider when we think about our own moral choices: the objective good or harm that is done (whatever our motivations); our personal motivations themselves; and the circumstances. If we choose to do what is good, for good reasons, in appropriate circumstances, then we have – usually – made a good choice.

I say ‘usually’, because another factor (now it’s getting extra complicated: he said there were three elements, now there are four…) is whether there is also a better or greater good that we could have chosen instead. The Ignatian motto, remember, is to do all things not just for the glory of God, but for the greater glory of God.

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It was good to visit the relics of St John Bosco at Westminster Cathedral at the weekend. You may have seen the photos: it wasn’t just a relic-sized casket, but a life-sized effigy of the great man himself, in his priestly vestments, looking very serene.

Don Bosco Relics Pilgrimages to Westminster Cathedral  by © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk

I had a classic pilgrimage moment. I got in the queue, waited patiently for three minutes, started analysing why the queue wasn’t moving quicker (it was incredibly slow), began to lose my patience; then a moment of self-knowledge – realising that I was in ‘Tesco-queue’ mode, like a Pavlovian response, dashing to get out the door; then a grace-filled letting go, just being in the queue with my fellow pilgrims, remembering that I had nowhere to go and nothing to do, praying, thinking, interceding; then a moment of shame and interior humiliation, as I got near the destination and realised that the reason the line was moving so slowly was not because of some inefficiency in the logistics of the operation, but because people at the casket were actually (wait for it…) praying – devoutly, humbly, reverently, silently, patiently, taking their time, showing their heartfelt love for Don Bosco; and then, when it was my turn, I tried to do the same.

I’m not proud of this – I’m just sharing the interior craziness that often goes on in my soul when I step from the rush and distractions of Victoria Street and my own worldliness into the sanctuary of the Cathedral and in this case to St John Bosco’s shrine. Maybe (I say this to console myself) this is not too uncommon – the fact that the transition takes a few minutes, and that being in a place of sanctuary is what creates the possibility of seeing the habits of mind (healthy and unhealthy) that have unconsciously been shaping one’s life in the ordinariness of everyday living.

I have a great devotion to St John Bosco. For about ten years, I spent two or three weeks each summer as a helper (a ‘brother’) on the St John Bosco Boys’ Camp in Colchester. It’s run by the Society of St Vincent de Paul, but the whole philosophy of the camp is very Salesian, modelled on the educational vision of Don Bosco. It was great fun; and I learnt a huge amount; and I’m not sure I would be here today as a priest (or at least my vocation would have taken a very different path) if I hadn’t been touched by the priests, religious and laypeople on the camp – and the boys.

I don’t want to pretend to understand the whole Salesian pedagogy, but there were some simple principles about working with children that lay at the heart of the work there, and I think they go back to Don Bosco himself: keep them busy; lots of fun, lots of physical activity; always be kind; be a good example, a good role model; slip in some prayer and mini-catechesis during the day, but not too heavy and not too long; use stories and examples to bring the beauty and heroism of faith alive; and always be kind. Now I think about it, I’m sure there was some Salesian motto that was on the wall of the office somewhere, something like: ‘Reason, Religion, Kindness’. You can remind me in the comment box. And that wonderful photo of Don Bosco smiling benevolently.

When I went to Rome in 1992 to start seminary formation at the English College, I took the train from London (via boat – this was before the Chunnel) and stopped off at Turin to say hello to Don Bosco in thanksgiving and to ask for his prayers. His main shrine is there, in the church he built, next to school he founded. What an amazing priest he was. It’s good to meet him again here in London, and give him some more intentions!

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Richard Ben Cramer died this week, author of the magisterial What It Takes, about the 1988 US Presidential campaign. It’s a must-read book for anyone fascinated by American politics: over a thousand small-print pages about the Primaries and then the Presidential campaign itself.

what-it-takes-book

I devoured it about three years ago, and even at a great pace it took me nearly a month of reading into the early hours of each morning.

It’s not really about an ephemeral moment in US politics; it’s about character – what makes people tick, what forces influence them, what strange combination of personality, circumstance, chance, choice and fate conspires to guide some people through to the very end. It’s really six heavyweight political biographies woven together into an epic drama. If you have enjoyed even a single episode of The West Wing, you will love this.

Joe Klein pays tribute to Cramer and to his masterpiece:

Beautifully written, precisely observed–and with a larger point that beggared the cheap cynicism that had become, and remains, the default position for so many political journalists. Cramer actually dared to appreciate the incredible intelligence, hard work, courage and, yes, character that went into running for President. At a time when most of his colleagues were calling the Democratic candidates for president “the seven dwarfs,” he found a blissfully compelling Irish champion in Joe Biden and reported the anguish of the impassive midwesterner, Dick Gephardt, as the Congressman and his wife struggled with their son’s cancer.

But it was on the Republican side that Cramer found his two classic heroes–George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole. Both of them combat-scarred veterans of World War II, both dedicated to service, both easy to weep, both open to making political judgments that might harm their careers. Cramer’s account of Dole’s remarkable recovery from a grievous wound and the post-traumatic stress that accompanied it was the heart of the book. (I’ll never forget one precious detail: As he struggled to rebuild muscle strength, Dole listened to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” over and over again.)

Cramer defiantly became friendly with his subjects, especially Biden, Bush and Dole. That may have been a bridge too far for those of who of us don’t dive in, as Richard did, and then leave the political scene. It’s hard to criticize politicians who are also friends (as Daniel Patrick Moynihan became for me). But Cramer’s appreciation of these politicians’ skill and humanity became an example I tried to follow in subsequent campaigns, a crucial antidote to the wall-to-wall ugly that corrodes the political process. (Thus, in 2012, it was  important for me to write about the incredible strength of Rick Santorum’s family, even if I disagreed with him on almost everything.)

Cramer’s clear-eyed fairness is a quality badly needed now. A new generation of journalists, without the time or budgets to get to know the people who would lead us–and a new generation of politicians, burned by the gotcha TV reporting  and tweeting of the moment (and over-protected by their handlers)–have taken the juice and joy, and a larger accuracy, out of political journalism. There are exceptions. But if you don’t know Mitt Romney, and all he’s willing to say in public is pablum and baloney, it is extremely easy to assume the worst. The hardest story for any young political journalist to write is a positive one about a politician.

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