I did a blog piece for MSPS today. In it I strike at the boring and useless sterility of political correctness and argue why Catholicism actually promotes multiculturalism — the true kind, not the bogus type we see at universities such as the UC’s.
There are two types of people who watch Terrence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life: Those who love it and those who hate it. It’s at once surreal, philosophical, deeply feeling, and confusing — very confusing. In fact, when I watched it last night, more than a few people left the theater before the halfway point, and after the credits had started rolling, there emerged from the audience a big collective, “What?”
At its heart The Tree of Life is an existentialist film. It follows the emotionally and spiritually arduous journey of a religious Texan family, one of whose young children has died. Throughout the movie, a plethora of questions abound regarding the meaning of life: What’s the point of life? Why does God allow people to suffer? Is life worth living if you are a failure and a sinner? Why do we allow ourselves to get attached when we lose everything eventually? How can God exist if life is so painful?
Indeed, one of my friends last night wondered if the movie was suggesting that God does not exist. But I don’t think that was the movie’s message. I think that The Tree of Life is a celebration of all that is life–with all its ups and downs–which only God could have given us.
While the film throughout is indeed a struggle of faith and an intense questioning of life, by the film’s end, we are called to accept life as life and be thankful for it. Two scenes come to mind illustrating this point: 1) When Jack learns that his family is moving from his old home, he feels sad: His childhood there may have been rough and confusing, but he knows that his time has been a worthwhile and meaningful growing experience; life, with all its sad and happy moments, is something for which to be thankful. And 2) Jessica Chastain’s character, at the very end of the film, thanks God for the life of the son she has lost. Life has its high points, and it’ll have its lowest points too. But whatever happens, it’s life. And we have only God to thank for it.
Acting was solid. I thought Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain excellently portrayed deeply human characters–and by human, I mean imperfect. Pitt in particularly turned in a noteworthy performance as a troubled father who can be overly strict and demanding yet is profoundly affectionate and loyal to his family.
In terms of narrative style, potential viewers be warned: This is a very trippy film. There are several symbolic scenes of a lone character walking through deserts or riding up an elevator. Wailing opera music abounds. There is a 30 minute segment of nature scenes (in my opinion, this segment is another celebration of all that is life, as I mentioned above). And even the more normal narrative scenes can be choppy, jarring, and disturbing. To be sure, all the images are loosely woven into a powerful message, but during the film one can’t help but wonder what’s going on.
To some extent, one can joke that The Tree of Life was made by a guy who lost someone close in his life and got high to get over it. To another extent, one can surmise that all the confusion in the film effectively portrays the confusion we actually feel in life. In the end though, the message is clear and powerful especially in our own modern: Life is about questioning, but in the words of Christopher Hollis in Death of a Gentleman
if we are to save ourselves, we need to close our minds, to take honour’s worth for granted, and to escape back into certainty from the atmosphere of eternal questioning.
Content: An initially confusing yet an ultimately powerful narrative on how a family copes with life and all its joy and suffering. It’s a compelling premise because it’s so human and so common.
Style: Very artsy and at times postmodern. Nonlinear and confusing with several cuts to documentary-like nature scenes. The message is coherent and powerful, though.
Catholic?: Very. Catholicism deals precisely with the meaning of life. The Church acknowledges the struggles and questioning of life, but at the same time She also calls us towards certainty and peace in Christ.
Overall: 4 out of 4 stars
P.S. Huzzah for catholicmatters’ first movie review!
St. Justin Martyr proclaimed that aspects of Truth can be found in the philosophies of even the pagans. Indeed, in my own experience, my greatest understanding of Church teachings and values have come from non-Catholic — even non-religious — sources.
Below is a list of 5 books that, I think, have really made me into a better and prouder Catholic. I also write this post to encourage you, too, to seek Truth even where Truth is not obviously manifested; St. Ignatius of Loyola urged us to find God in all things. As we know, God can make Himself be known in the most unexpected of ways.
1) Virgil’s Aeneid
The Ancient Roman nationalistic epic that immortalizes the Trojan Aeneas’ journey to fulfill his destiny. Putting aside personal desire and doubts, Aeneas trusts in Fate and in pietas (duty to family, country, and the gods) and founds a new nation in Italy, a nation whose fame will be limited by the stars: Rome.
Everyone has an ideal, a comfort, a belief that drives them through life. For me, it is my trust in God’s Providence. The Aeneid really propagates the idea that there is a divine plan for us. Even when we suffer, even when we are confused, we should have the humility to let go of our own ambitions and hesitations and allow Providence to take us where we’re meant to be.
The Catholic Church teaches that God puts us in certain situations for a reason. He gives us certain talents, surrounds us with certain people, gives us certain duties because He wants us to do something with them. This is the idea of Providence, and if we only use our free will to submit to God’s will, we can truly find who we are.
2) Keiichi Sigsawa’s Kino no Tabi
Novel series turned anime—follows Kino and her motorcycle Hermes as they travel from city to city. Through her travels Kino sees how man destroys himself. But she also finds beauty in the world, and she learns. That’s why she keeps traveling.
This novel taught me to really reflect on my experiences and to learn from them. As Catholics we are called to live in the world and do good works, but we are also called to withdraw into quiet contemplation and prayer every once in a while. Kino no Tabi really gave me a joy in doing this. Whenever I meet someone, whenever I experience something, I always take some time to ponder why.
3) Beaumarchais’ The Figaro Trilogy
Three plays that celebrate the virtue and wit of the common man and woman against the foolishness and follies of the aristocracy. Beaumarchais was a liberal, and The Figaro Trilogy became a precursor to the French Revolution.
What makes the Figaro Trilogy ironic is that though it helped fuel the French Revolution, which is oft-characterized by its venomous anti-Catholicism, it yet promotes one of the hallmark virtues of the Catholic Church: Forgiveness. Two plays in the Trilogy — “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Guilty Mother”–explore the truth that the ones we love most are the ones who hurt us the most. Yet we are always called to forgive, because ultimately forgiving and being together is more worth it than being vengefully bitter.
As Catholics we too are called to forgive each other. And while the Church always holds us to high moral standards, She is also extremely generous in Her forgiveness. As the deathbed convert Oscar Wilde aptly stated: The Catholic Church “is for saints and sinners alone.”
4) Plato’s Republic
The Good, and how to find it in your soul and in society.
Written in the 4th century BC, this book obviously predates any sort of Christian institution. Yet throughout its history, the Catholic Church has looked to Plato as a model for finding God. For me, the Republic has served as a sort of guide. I need to find God with my whole being, but only after I subjugate my passions and will to my conscience. The Republic has also taught me that if one has truly ordered his/her soul well, the Good will show in his/her works and actions.
5) HW Crocker III’s The Old Limey
The Old Limey follows the adventures of an old British general as he seeks his kidnapped goddaughter in the streets of LA. He is hopelessly lost in the heroic idealism and glories of Britain’s past, which, set against the backdrop of the modernistic, materialistic, and pragmatic Southern California, looks ridiculously yet entertainingly absurd.
The Old Limey is actually written by a solid Catholic, H.W. Crocker III, yet it has no explicit Catholic message. The Old Limey is brilliant because it is essentially a modern Don Quixote. Don Quixote and Nigel Haversham both live and fight for ideals that their modern worlds have discounted. As Catholics it is easy to feel like them: The world is always telling the Church to modernize and progress, yet the Church continues to stay true to her teaching and values. The Old Limey inspired me to really hold true to and fight for Catholic ideals, with the singular devotion of an old Spanish knight or British general.
How sad would the world be if Buffalo chicken wings did not exist? Life with all its flavors would be that much duller. Luckily, Buffalo hot wings do exist, and as the story goes, we have the Catholic Church to thank for them.
Some of you know that I visited the birthplace of the Buffalo hot wing this summer — Buffalo, NY — and needless to say, I made a point to get my fill of them. There are lots of stories as to how the wings were invented, but one in particular struck me: Upstate NY has historically had a strong Catholic population. Like good Catholics, they abstained from meat on Lenten Fridays, but like good Americans, they immediately dug their teeth into meat after 12am on Saturday. Some of the restaurants and bars in Buffalo, seeking to cater to their Catholic patrons, decided to create a unique finger food (with a kick) to be served the midnight after a Lenten Friday to satisfy carnivorous cravings. That food was the Buffalo hot wing.
And look at what’s become of it. It’s a beloved staple at bars, restaurants, football game watches, and even in the Notre Dame dining halls people wait in anticipation for the popular “wing night.” Last night, too, I ate chicken wings at 2 different restaurants with good friends, and while we tried lots of flavors — Jamaican Jerk, Spicy Asian, Garlicky Parmesan, and Honey Mustard — our collective favorite always tended to be the medium-spicy original Buffalo chicken wing.
Catholic culture has made countless contributions to humanity– some things being overwhelmingly influential, and some things being simple small pleasures. The Buffalo wild wing is one of those small pleasures without which the world would be less flavorful and exciting. No big deal, though. Just another (of my favorite) examples of why being Catholic matters.
Sometimes I think that “being true to your heart” is at once the stupidest and the wisest advice ever given to everybody in the world. The reason lies in the fact that we don’t really know what the heart is.
Where we go wrong is when we equate the heart with emotions. Much too often when we are faced with a difficult–even life-changing–decision, our peers will ask us, “Well, what do you feel? You can’t deny following your heart! :]]”
But this is stupid advice…because emotions change far too easily. Everyone knows how ridiculously absurd our emotions can be sometimes (even for our male side of our species). We can despise someone then absolutely love them the next day; or, we’ll agree to go to a dance because we’re in a dancing mood in the morning and immediately bail out on our partner if we don’t feel in a dancing mood at night. If we use emotions as a guide for our actions, we have no integrity. We would never be the same person.
So when is “be true to your heart” good advice? It’s when we equate the heart with our conscience and values. When we define the heart as such, our heart is not some flighty thing with no weight or respect; rather, it becomes the very core and essence of who we are. This is the “heart” that is guided at once by reason and emotion — reason helps us know what is right, and emotion helps us fight for what is right.
The Church realizes the difference. For those of us who went to Catholic school, that’s why we learn in the 2nd grade to make our decisions based on our well-formed conscience and values, not on our emotions.
Emotions change far too easily. And while our values can change over time too, they only do so after long reflection and prayer.
An awesome song to be stuck in your head for the rest of the day