Thursday, November 25, 2021

Desert Heritage

Simon of the Desert

I have never been a fan of monks claiming God has called them to live the life of an ascetic hermit.

Jesus told his disciples, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” and “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” To me, this sounds very different from “Go hang out in a cave.” Or “Go sit on a tall platform.”

Sitting on a platform is what Simeon Stylites the Elder did for over three decades in the third century in the country now known as Syria. As a teenager, Simeon joined a monastery, but he was booted out for his extreme practices of austerity. He shut himself up in a hut for a year and a half, it was said without food or water, and his survival was hailed as a miracle. He then went to live on a rocky mountain slope, but too many people sought him out, which is when he came up with the idea of living on a platform.

He found a platform ten feet off the ground in Taladah, where he allowed local boys to use a ladder to bring him food. As the years went on, he moved to taller platforms, eventually settling on one 50 feet off the ground. He allowed letters to be passed to him and would occasionally teach the crowd below, but he strove to stay away from people as much as possible.

Nothing about this sounds appealing to me. The Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel made the saint's life a mockery in the 1965 film, Simon of the Desert. Buñuel believed everything about the Church and the Christian faith to be subjects for mockery, but in this case, he may have a point.

The film begins with a middle-aged Simon being presented with a new, taller column from a benefactor who was healed by Simon’s prayers. Simon’s mother comes to see him while he is momentarily on the ground, but he refuses to hug her, saying, “My love for you must not come between my love for my Savior and His servant.”

Simon is also offered holy orders by a bishop of the church, but he refuses that as well, saying, “I am not worthy of holy orders. I am an unworthy sinner.”

After ascending the new platform, Simon asks people to leave him alone to pray, but they continue to gather below the platform. Some say they are hoping to see one of Simon’s miracles, which does come about. A man whose hands were cut off for stealing comes to Simon with his wife and two children. He asks Simon to heal him so he can provide for his family. Simon prays and the man’s hands appear. The man uses one of those hands to cuff his daughter’s ears as they walk home.

Some monks approach him as well. One young monk asks Simon to mentor him, but Simon tells the monk to leave and that the monastery is not a good place for him. He tells the man that he is very clean. He thanks Simon, but Simon isn’t complimenting him. “You look very clean. But remember that cleanliness in body and clothing, innocent enough in ordinary men, is a sin to those dedicated to God.” (Reminds me of one of my favorite sayings, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Why settle for second best?”)

A woman comes among the monks, and Simon asks the monks to drive the woman away. They refuse. Simon says the woman has an evil eye and tells them to remember the commandments, “Lay not your eyes on a woman” and “Be thou not seduced by a woman’s gaze.” (I’m not familiar with these commandments.)

Turns out, Simon's right: the woman is trouble. She's the devil in human form, and throughout the rest of the film, the devil tempts Simon to deny God. In a surrealistic conclusion, she takes Simon to a discotheque in 1960’s Mexico. She shows him the latest dance craze, “The Radioactive Flesh,” hoping to make him despair in the state of the world. Which he pretty much does. The End.

Simon as depicted in this film is a surly misanthrope. He seems to hate people. He says he cares about God, but Jesus said that people would know His disciples by their love for one another. Simon doesn’t demonstrate that love, but because of the healings, I’m not going to give him our lowest Movie Church rating. I hope the real Simeon Stylites was more gracious and loving, but Buñuel’s Simon receives a Two Steeple rating.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

European Heritage

A Hidden Life

Franz Jägerstätter” is a name officials of the Third Riech hoped would be forgotten. He was an Austrian peasant farmer who lived in the small town of St. Radegund, and there was no obvious earthly reason why he should be remembered. 

Until Nazi officers did the very thing that would make his name remembered: they killed him.

One way Jägerstätter has been remembered is by Terrence Malick’s 2019 film, A Hidden Life. The film opens in 1939, and Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is working his farm along with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner). We also see Franz sweeping the floors of a church and ringing the church bells. We see him playing with his children. (We also see many shots of the lovely valley in which they live and the pretty blue sky and lovely white clouds. This is a Terrence Malick film -- which means many long, lovely views of pretty scenery.) Franz says in a voiceover, “I thought we could build our nest high up, in the tree. Fly away, like birds - to the mountains. It seemed no trouble could reach our valley. We lived in the clouds.”

But trouble does come. Franz is drafted to military training in the Austrian army (which is serving alongside the German military). When he comes back to his village after training and is greeted joyfully by his family, he knows he cannot go back to serve in the army. He tells his priest, Father Ferdinand Fürthauer (Tobias Moretti) about his mistrust in the Austrian government, “Father, if they call me up, I can’t serve. We’re killing innocent people, raiding other countries.”

The priest is not happy to hear this. He says, “Have you spoken to anyone else? Your wife, family? Don’t you think you should consider the consequences of your actions, for them? You will almost surely be shot. Your sacrifice will benefit no one. I will speak to the Bishop about your case. He is a wiser man than I.”

The Bishop (Michael Nyqvist in his final role) tells Franz, “You have a duty to the Fatherland. The church tells us so.” 

So Franz learns he will have no support from the church in his decision not to serve. So he continues to work his farm. Someone comes to his farm and says, ”We are collecting for the war effort.” 

He responds, “I don’t have anything to give.” 

His family refuses to accept Austria’s “family allowance,” and when someone passes him on a trail and says, “Heil Hitler!” Franz responds… Well, let’s keep this as a family blog and just say he has another suggestion for Hitler.

Franz is arrested and held by the German authorities.

And Franz’s wife and daughter are left to work the farm in St. Radegund, and Fani must also care for Franz’s mother, who blames Fani for “changing her son.” The people of the village look at the Jägerstätter family as traitors and refuse to support them.

Perhaps worst of all, the local Catholic church treats Fani and her daughters as pariahs. On Corpus Christi Sunday, as is the tradition of this village, a parade of children walk past; Franz and Fani’s children are not allowed to participate. Father Ferdinand apologizes but tells her it would just cause too many problems if they joined in.

Many other political prisoners are in prison with Franz. He cares for the other prisoners, sharing his food with them and sharing the love of Jesus. For many months visitors are forbidden, but eventually, Fani and Father Ferdinand are allowed to visit.

Franz’s lawyer has what he thinks is good news for his client. He says Franz doesn’t have to serve as a soldier, he could serve in the medical services. Surely that wouldn’t be against his conscience, the lawyer argues, but Franz asks if he will have to pledge his allegiance to the Fuhrer. The lawyer tells him that yes, he would.

Franz refuses to say those words.

The priest tells him, “The charges will be dropped, I’m sure, if you just change your stand. I beg you. The war will soon be over. We might never again have to face the situation of doing the opposite of what you’re called to do. You have time to change. God doesn’t care what you say with your mouth, only what is in your heart. Say the oath and think what you like.”

But Franz believes that the words he says matter.

Jesus seemed to be of the same opinion that words matter. He said, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in Heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in Heaven.

The priest urges Fani to speak sense to her husband, and she says, “I love you. Whatever you do. Whatever comes, I'm with you. Always. Do what is right.”

Franz wouldn’t relent. He was tried, sentenced (by a judge played by Bruno Ganz in what was also his last role), and executed. The German and Austrian authorities assumed he would be forgotten.

But Franz Jägerstätter was not forgotten. He was declared a martyr and beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. And, of course, Terrence Malick made this magnificent three-hour film about his life that screened at the Cannes Film Festival. His life did make a difference

As for our Movie Churches rating for the clergy and church in this film, I am tempted to give the lowest Steeple Rating. After all, Franz’s priest and the Catholic Church in Austria didn’t just stay silent about the evils of the Nazis, they supported them. But Franz’s priest was at his parishioner’s side until his death, and the Catholic Church did eventually recognize and honor this hidden life. Two steeples. 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Southwest Heritage

The Father Kino Story (Mission to Glory: A True Story
) 1977

Let me admit something right up front. Through most of this film, I was distracted trying to remember which roles various actors in the film played in the original Star Trek series. 

There are plenty of actors in The Father Kino Story (aka Mission to Glory: A True Story) who are familiar faces in films. Richard Egan (who plays Kino) starred in many films according to IMDb, just not things I’ve seen. But other faces caught my attention. Keenan Wynn, a priest in the film, is recognizable for his many Disney comedy villains and as Col. ‘Bat’ Guano in Dr. Strangelove. Cesar Romero, an admiral in this film, appeared in many movies I’ve seen, but I think of him as the Joker on the Batman TV show. John Ireland, another priest, and Aldo Ray, a mine owner, were legitimate movie stars.

But as I said, I was distracted by the guys playing Native Americans who’d been on Star Trek, though neither was a Native American. Anthony Caruso played the chief of a “friendly” tribe in this film, but I knew him first as gangster boss Bela Oxmyx in the “A Piece of the Action” episode of Star Trek. Michael Ansara played the chief of an “unfriendly” tribe, but I knew him first as the Klingon officer in the “Day of the Dove” episode of Star Trek. But best of all is Ricardo Montalban, who plays a general here, but you may well know him as KHAN from the “Space Seed” episode of Star Trek and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Michael Ansara

Anthony Caruso

Richardo Montalban

I should have been thinking about the topic of this blog, how the church and clergy are portrayed in this film, but as I said, I was distracted.

This is a film based on the life of a historical figure, Eusebio Francisco Kino (1645 - 1711) “the Padre on Horseback,” a Jesuit priest and missionary to the natives in what would be Mexico and the southwest of what would be the United States. The film looks at his ministry as he tried to bring peace among the native tribes and between the native people and the Spanish government.

Kino is shown in the film as a defender of the native people. He confronts the manager of a mine who is treating the natives as slaves (and dealing with them very harshly). The man tells him that the church accepts money from the mines. When Kino finds the man is telling the truth, he rallies against the church working with the mines if they continue to abuse the natives.

He also confronts the Spanish army when they attack the natives (leading to attacks on the soldiers, which lead to further attacks on the native people). The escalation continues until Father Kino negotiates a truce.

Kino is also remembered as an explorer and cartographer. It was believed in his time that “Baja California” was an island, and at one time, Kino began to build a boat to travel from “Mexico” to “California.” He wasn't able to make that voyage, but his travels led to the discovery that Baja California was a peninsula.

Primarily though, Kino was a priest who founded at least twenty-four churches in Mexico and the Southwest, and it's fascinating to see him performing the sacraments of baptism and confession without buildings. According to the film, he was greatly beloved by the native people because he loved them. So Father Kino would receive our highest Movie Churches rating, but -- since the Roman Catholic Church is portrayed as an oppressive institution in the film -- the steeple count goes down to just three. 

(Oh, one more casting note. Joseph Campanella, who plays a priest at the San Bruno Mission, played a Federation Arbitrator in Star Trek: Voyager. But I never watched that show, so that didn’t distract me.)


Thursday, November 4, 2021

Martin Luther, Luther, Luther

Martin Luther (
Luther (1974)
Luther (2003)

I was duped by contemporary holiday priorities. 

Last Sunday was Reformation Sunday and this post should really have led into that day, but instead, like most of America, I thought first about last Sunday being Halloween

As penance, I watched not one, not two, but three films about Martin Luther. This really makes no sense at all because Luther was all about getting rid of penance and seeking forgiveness through faith in Christ alone. So my bad twice.

But let's move on, shall we?

Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) was one of the most influential men in history. His life and work led to the foundation of not just the Lutheran Church, but all Protestant churches. Because of Luther, religious and also political authority became open to question. His translation of the Bible into the German vernacular had the same kind of impact on the language that the King James Bible did on English, and furthered the cause of popular literacy. And he changed the kind of beer consumed in his homeland, as drinking hops was an act of rebellion against the Catholic Church (the whole beer thing never comes up in any of the films below.)

1953’s Martin Luther very much has the feel of an educational film, because, well, it is. Though the opening crawl reads that it is the work of “historians of many faiths”, the film was a co-production of the Lutheran Churches of Germany and America (sponsored by Luther Filmgesellshaft and the Lutheran Church of America.) and Luther comes off well throughout.

The film opens with Martin (Niall MacGinnis) leaving law school to go to the monastery, much to the displeasure of his father who had pinned hopes on his son’s success as a lawyer. Martin had hoped to find peace after taking the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but as a monk, believes God doesn’t approve of him. His superiors send him to Wittenberg to serve as a priest saying, “We’ll keep him so busy, he won’t have time for his troubled soul. He’ll find his peace in Christ.”

Luther is sent to Rome and is encouraged to see one of Judas’ silver coins and the Pope, Julius the Second, for his spiritual benefit. But he is disappointed by what he sees. He sees the relics as not symbols of salvation, but “crutches to uphold a faltering faith.” Luther claims to have found true hope in “Romans 1:17” (though the numerical system for denoting New Testament verses was popularized by Robert Estienne in the 1550’s, after Luther’s death).  Luther says, “The just will live by faith. Is there anything about relics? Faith in what God has done for him through His Son.”

Luther speaks out against relics as a means of grace, much to the displeasure of Duke Frederick, the sponsor of Luther’s professorial chair at Wittenberg University. Luther also preaches against indulgences (the theology of giving financially to the church to shorten the years loved ones spend in purgatory). Johann Tetzel, a representative of the Vatican, was most displeased about this since his chief work was selling indulgences.

Tetzel threatens Luther, “I’ll burn his books, and I’ll burn him, too.” The Vatican begins to take Luther seriously as a threat. The German people admire Luther for standing up to Rome, and one of the locals says, "For the first time in a hundred years, someone has told the Pope where to get off!” 

Martin’s supervisor, Augustinian Father Johann von Staupitz, sees nothing but pain for Luther, “Martin, Martin, I see nothing ahead of you but the Cross. May God have mercy on your soul and those who try to follow your preaching.”

The Vatican condemns Luther, but he is protected by the Emperor of Germany, leading to the country's break from the Roman Church. We see Luther working on his translation and his joy in seeing his servant read the Gospel for himself for the first time. And we see his marriage to Kate the nun. And the narrator assures us that all of this led to the still prospering Lutheran Church. “A Mighty Fortress” (lyrics by Martin Luther) plays during the end credits, in case we had doubt who produced this film.

1974’s Luther was most certainly not a production of the Lutheran Church but rather a production of the American Film Theater. This production company was made with the goal of bringing important stage plays to the screen, including this adaptation of John Osborne’s 1961 play. Osborne was interested in the themes of rebellion against society; he was best known for his plays Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer.

Stacy Keach plays Luther as a man who can be understood by psychological rather than theological drives. He is dealing with daddy issues and toilet troubles. (Both of these things were certainly influences on Luther, but the play and the film make these Luther’s primary drives.)

The film opens later in Luther’s life, during the Peasants' Rebellion when Luther encouraged the authorities to crack down on the rebellion. A peasant accuses Luther of being a butcher with blood on his hands. “My father is dead, and you’re alive and well and cuddling in the arms of your nun.”

But then we go back earlier in Luther’s life when he stripped down to a thong to take his vows and was told, “Choose God or the world, if you choose the order, you are not free to reject it.” He chose the Augustinian order, but of course, would later reject it.

He is shown dealing with digestive issues as he struggles with the question of his salvation (“I wish my bowels would open”). And when he does rebel against Rome, he talks about it in scatological terms, “If I break wind in Wittenberg they might smell it in Rome.” But he does break with Rome, saying, “It is as hard for me to do what I must do as for a man to truthfully call his mother a whore.” And he says, “When the words emerged, ‘The just shall live by faith’ and my (intestinal) pain vanished.”

The film ends as it begins in the Peasants' Rebellion. He sees violence all around, but says “There’s no such thing as an orderly revolution… In the teeth of death we live, if He (God) butchers us, then we live.”

2003’s Luther is my favorite biography of the man, and certainly the most entertaining. It features a great cast: Joseph Fiennes in the title role, Peter Ustinov as Frederick the Wise, Claire Cox as Katrina, Alfred Molina as Tetzel, and especially Bruno Ganz as Luther’s Augustinian mentor. This film was also produced by the Lutheran Church (“Thrivent Financial for Lutherans” reads the production credit), so there is little doubt as to where its sympathies lie.

This film begins with Luther's conversion, his decision to give his life to God to become a monk. Caught alone on a road during a fierce thunderstorm, he fears for his life. “Help me!” he cries out. “Don’t let me die like a dog on the road! I give myself to God!” (One can’t help but be reminded of the conversion of Saul to Paul on the road to Damascus.)

Again we see Martin confront his disappointed father who hoped his son would become a lawyer. We see him struggle with fear of judgment, “I’m too full of sin to be a priest!” 

His Augustinian father tells him, “After two years of confessions I’ve never heard you confess anything remotely interesting.” He encourages Martin to “Bind yourself to Christ and say, ‘I am yours, save me.’”

Again we see Martin travel to Rome, to his great disgust. He hears barkers hawking relics, such as, “This way for the John the Baptist’s head!” On these sites, he is encouraged to “Give generously!” He is distraught to learn there are brothels for clerics in Rome. “You can buy anything, sex or salvation,” he frets.

After this, he is sent to Wittenberg to be a priest and study the New Testament. This perplexes him. But he is told it is there, as a preacher, he will find his faith.

We are shown two events that, in the film, change him greatly. In a class lecture, the priest teaching the class assures them that there is no salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther asks, “There are no Christians outside of the Roman church, so you consider Greek Christians damned?” 

The teacher asks, "Do you question the authority of the church council?” 

Luther responds, “Salvation can be found outside of the church, but not outside of Christ.”

We see Luther come across a boy who has hung himself. Against the orders of the church, he buries the boy in the church graveyard, arguing that the child is no different from a man killed by the robber in the woods because the boy was killed by the lies of the devil.

As in the other two films, we see Luther preach against relics and indulgences, but in this film, his preaching is genuinely funny. “God once spoke through the mouth of an ass, and He may be about to do it again… 18 of the 12 apostles buried are in Spain... Enough nails from the cross are available in Rome to shoe all the horses in Saxony.” His preaching is not just funny, but gracious and enlightening.

We also see Tetzel's preaching, which is the epitome of fire and brimstone. “Can’t you hear the screams of your parents? Grandparents? Aunts and uncles? For a few coins, you could rescue them.”

When Luther learns that a poor widow, mother of a young child, gave money to Tetzel, he is outraged, “This paper means nothing. You must trust in God’s love, use your money to feed Greta.”

But Tetzel claims, “I can save the soul of a man who violates the Holy Mother herself.”

Luther preaches against putting hope in relics and indulgences. He says, “Christ isn’t found in the bones of saints, but in your love for one another, in His sacraments, and in His Holy Word.”

So again we see Luther in trouble with Rome. He is called to appear there but is warned, “The Rome Inquisition doesn’t give rulings, it gives death sentences.” When the German authorities refuse to hand him over, the trial by Rome is set for the Diet of Worms.

When he refuses to deny his work, he gives one of the most famous of history’s speeches, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and by plain reason and not by Popes and councils who have so often contradicted themselves, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. I cannot and I will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”

Luther’s relationship with Katrina von Bora is shown with humor and tenderness. Katrina is one of a dozen or so nuns who escaped a convent hidden in herring barrels, and she's the only one who can't find a husband. She has to settle for Martin (and he didn't especially want to marry her -- or anyone) The marriage eventually becomes a delight to both. 

Luther, as presented in these films, is a man who would be a pleasure to know as a preacher and a companion in a pub. That’s why he earns our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.