Word is continuing to spread about For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles, the latest film series from the Acton Institute, which seeks to expand the Christian imagination when it comes to whole-life stewardship and cultural engagement.
Every episode features at least one visual illustration that later becomes an analogy for the teaching. A Rube Goldberg machine that attempts to cook Evan’s breakfast backfires and become an example of the banality of utilitarian work. A ruined paper lantern that lands in Evan’s front yard is later used as a moving visual illustration of how our lives in the world are offered up to God as a prayer. A punk motorcyclist arrives on Evan’s front porch and uses puppets to tell a illustrating the importance of a believers call to hospitality…
…Anyone who watches the series will be introduced or reminded of these doctrines, but Evan is not content to let such truths sit dormant on the view’s mental shelf. He brings them home by closing every episode with a “letter to exiles”, a hand written monologue. In these letters encourages us with the reminder that we carry these truths into our lives as the redeemed children of God, not through our own power but through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Admittedly, this writer attended a viewing of Noah last week with trepidation. A March 17 New Yorker profile on director Darren Aronofsky gave good cause for suspicion the film would be yet another Hollywood environmentalist screed wherein humanity is depicted as a cancer on God’s creation. Instead, the film (largely) avoids such proclamations in favor of some pretty intense – make that very intense – family psychodrama and a spun-from-whole-cloth story involving Watchers, clan rivalry and allusions to other Old Testament stories.
Before the first fistful of popcorn, Aronofsky provides a decent CliffsNotes version of Genesis. The filmmaker deftly avoids religious controversy until depicting Cain’s wickedness as not only manifested by the slaying of his brother Abel but — much worse by Hollywood standards — his subsequent career as an “industrialist.” About here I’m thinking, “Oh, boy, we’re in for a slog.”
Described by Aronofsky as “a fantasy film taking place in a mythical quasi-Biblical world” and “the least Biblical Biblical film ever made,” Noah takes great liberties in its re-imagining of the Great Flood and the eventual reboot of humanity. Whereas other artists focused on Noah obsessing over the building of the Ark, Aronofsky depicts Noah (Russell Crowe) as a man clearly in communication with the “Creator” but – just as clearly – somehow getting his prophetic lines crossed as to what exactly his mission entails after the deluge. (more…)
In this edition of Radio Free Acton, Paul Edwards goes behind the scenes at the premiere of For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles, the new curriculum produced by the Acton Institute that examines God’s mission in the world and our place in it. Edwards looks at the curriculum itself, speaks with some of the folks who made it, and gauges audience reaction to the premiere. You can listen via the audio player below:
Those familiar with the story know that the tale develops around the conflict between Prince Humperdinck and Westley (aka The Dread Pirate Roberts) over Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in Florin. I frame my piece with the confrontation between another prince and another pirate, an encounter which Augustine famously relates in his City of God. As Augustine writes, Alexander the Great rebukes a captured pirate for his crimes, only to hear the pirate’s retort tu quoque.
In “The Use of Alexander the Great in Augustine’s City of God,” Brian Harding describes Alexander’s “restless ambition for further conquests and power,” which leads him “to search constantly for new lands to conquer; in the same way the pirate captain is always on the look-out for merchant ships which he can harass.” Similarly Humperdinck’s constant competitive drive and lust for power are exemplified in his hunting prowess and his designs to conquer Guilder. He is a prince who would be emperor. (more…)
Now one could argue about the details of the DIA’s day-to-day operations, the compensation package for its director, and so on. But apart from these details of stewardship of the DIA itself, the real object lesson in bad stewardship has to do with the city government. Rife with structural corruption, cronyism, and incompetence, the city has been unable to provide the basic services and protection that it is responsible for, despite the best efforts of so many individuals working within the city government. So when the city cannot do the primary things it needs to do, it should lose the privilege of overseeing the secondary things, at the very least until it proves itself to be a responsible steward. (more…)
In Businessweek late last year, Jason Zinoman noted the Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino as Levine. The play, says Zinoman, “speaks as directly to the economic anxieties of today as when it opened on Broadway in 1984, at the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term. Then, the play was widely seen by critics as a left-wing attack on a free-market system run amok.”
But as he also notes,
Glengarry Glen Ross is often compared to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but the fundamental difference is that Mamet shows us in concrete detail the value of work. He lets the audience see salesmen doing their job, and then distinguishes between those who do it well and those who don’t. In fact, as corrupt as the office may be, there is a meritocratic ethos at its core—the most impressive salesman, Roma, is also the most successful. Levene, by contrast, repeats himself, caves in negotiation, lies poorly. It’s easy to have sympathy for him, but hard to conclude that he doesn’t deserve to get paid less than Roma. Look closely enough at this play and you’ll find a belief in the market as well as a critique of it. Like most great dramas or novels, its ideas are far too complicated to fit into a slogan.
As another great work of fiction that likewise doesn’t fit neatly into a simple binary pattern, in between Death of a Salesman (1949) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), I’d like to also highlight a short novel I recently read, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1956). Seize the Day follows the travails of hapless Tommy Wilhelm as he tries to scrape out a living in New York, or at least as he tries to appear to try to do so. There’s some serious engagement with the realities of internalized expectations, competition, envy, hucksterism, and the phenomena of commodity speculation. (more…)
Immediately after watching For Greater Glory, I found myself struggling to appreciate the myriad good intentions, talents and the $40 million that went into making it. Unlike the Cristeros who fought against the Mexican government, however, my efforts ultimately were unsuccessful.
The film opened on a relatively limited 757 screens this past weekend, grossing $1.8 million and earning the No. 10 position of all films currently in theatrical release. Additionally, the film reportedly has been doing boffo at the Mexican box office. Clearly, word of mouth and the temperament of the times are driving folks to see a movie wherein good overcomes evil, and, more specifically, militarily enforced secularism is defeated by religiously faithful armed-to-the-teeth underdogs.
It’s not that the subject matter of For Greater Glory isn’t historically accurate and compelling. Nearly 10 years after the Mexican Revolution, President Plutarco Calles decides to enforce the anti-clerical laws written into the 1917 Mexican Constitution. Calles (portrayed blandly if not refreshingly free of Snidely Whiplash mustache-twirling by the otherwise fine actor and recording artist Ruben Blades) forced not only the closure of Catholic schools, but also the expulsion of foreign clergy. His oppression hat-trick was completed by the government confiscation of Church property. When the archbishop of Mexico City expressed his concerns, Calles had his agents bomb the archbishop’s home and the chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe. (more…)
Kuyper posits that now, after the fall into sin, “we can arrive at the knowledge of things only by observation and analysis. But that is not how it was in paradise.” Adam, by contrast, “immediately perceived the nature of each animal, and expressed his insight into the animal’s nature by giving it a name corresponding to its nature.”
It struck me that another “common grace” kind of reminder of this primal state appears in the narrative of Doctor Dolittle. Dolittle, of course, gains insight into the life of animals in a way that is not available to most other people. While he doesn’t have the direct intuition of Adam, his ability to communicate with animals gives him a unique perspective: “After a while, with the parrot’s help, the Doctor got to learn the language of the animals so well that he could talk to them himself and understand everything they said.”
Dolittle’s home even evokes our picture of the Garden of Eden:
The house he lived in, on the edge of the town, was quite small; but his garden was very large and had a wide lawn and stone seats and weeping-willows hanging over. His sister, Sarah Dolittle, was housekeeper for him; but the Doctor looked after the garden himself.
He was very fond of animals and kept many kinds of pets. Besides the gold-fish in the pond at the bottom of his garden, he had rabbits in the pantry, white mice in his piano, a squirrel in the linen closet and a hedgehog in the cellar. He had a cow with a calf too, and an old lame horse twenty-five years of age and chickens, and pigeons, and two lambs, and many other animals.
Doolittle has a special calling, it seems, and so he gives up being a “people” doctor and embraces his role as an “animal” doctor. In his relationship with animals Doolittle is a figure of Adam in the garden, and in his role of healing and renewal he evokes the second Adam, Christ.
Word spreads of Dolittle’s abilities, of course, “And so, in a few years’ time, every living thing for miles and miles got to know about John Dolittle, M.D. And the birds who flew to other countries in the winter told the animals in foreign lands of the wonderful doctor of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, who could understand their talk and help them in their troubles. In this way he became famous among the animals all over the world better known even than he had been among the folks of the West Country. And he was happy and liked his life very much.”
The film Lt. Dan Band for the Common Good kicks off with the Abraham Lincoln quote, “Honor to him, who braves for the common good.” The words are appropriate. In 2003, wanting to do even more for America’s service men and women, Gary Sinise formed the Lt. Dan Jam Band. The band name was easily decided because many soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen did not know Sinise by name and just called him “Lt. Dan.” The moniker is based on his well known portrayal of an Army lieutenant who lost his legs in Vietnam in the Hollywood film Forrest Gump.
Sinise likes to joke that expectations are low because the band leader is an actor, but in truth the band is made up of professional musicians. Director Jonathan Flora followed the band all over the world for two years as it performed for America’s military and charitable organizations that support the military.
The filmmakers focused a lot of the attention on all the band members and their commitment to those sacrificing for the nation. One touching scene comes on a bus when somebody off camera mentions that Sinise is a hero to the military and the moment leaves him visibly emotional. The film also includes interviews from Sinise’s wife and children and they share how much they miss having Sinise at home but are fully supportive and proud of his service.
Sinise, who was awarded a Presidential Citizen Medal by President George W. Bush in 2008, said in the film that after he started hearing casualty reports in the War on Terror, now almost ten years old, he had to do something. A 2008 Washington Times piece traces much of Sinise’s work with the military and the love and affection they have for him. Also quoted in the article is Deb Rickert of Operation Support our Troops. Rickert declared of Sinise:
In an age when the public often lavishes epitaphs of greatness on celebrities merely because they are famous, the military community bestows the simple title of friend on Gary Sinise truly because that is what he is to us.
While Sinise and the band members are visibly central in the film, many of the stories, tributes, and attention are reserved for the men and women in uniform and the first responders at Ground Zero on 9/11. Gripping testimonials are woven throughout the documentary, especially from family members of those who are deployed overseas in a war zone. An example of notable figures who offer words during the film include film actor Robert Duvall and American hero Colonel Bud Day, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Most importantly, Lt. Dan Ban for the Common Good is simply a powerful reminder of what one can do when gifts and talents are put in service of others. Sinise is a natural because his heart and his authenticity shines. The director does a fine job of pointing out what is already widely known among the military and their families, that Sinise is known as somebody who genuinely cares about their service and circumstances and is not hanging around for a photo-op.
St. Ephraem declared, “Blessed is the soul that is adorned with charity.” For those who wear the military uniform Gary Sinise is affectionately known simply as “Lt. Dan.” But many others have rightly noted that he is the Bob Hope of this generation. Hope was the face of USO tours and he entertained service members for half a century. It is a serious comparison and if America’s military has anything to say about it, a deserving one.
The Roman philosopher Cicero once said to his son, “You are the only man of all men whom I would wish to surpass me in all things.” The form this sentiment takes collectively is a good summation of the universal hope for humankind. We want our children in particular, but also the next generation and the world more generally, to be better off than we are.
We want them to surpass us “in all things,” not simply in terms of material wealth, but also with respect to their development as whole human persons, body and soul.
Earlier this week I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion hosted by Common Sense Concept at AEI on the current debt crisis facing America, focusing particularly on applying the concept of “intergenerational justice” to the problem. You can view the entire event at the AEI page. A highlight of my comments appears below:
One of the things we talked about during the discussion was the idea of “opportunity” and how it relates to intergenerational justice. Cicero’s sentiment assumes this idea: his son needs to have the opportunity to surpass him, to be better than him “in all things.”
I think of how this applies to the hopes and dreams of so many Americans, not particularly for themselves, but for their children. Consider the people you know or stories you’ve heard about parents who work extra shifts and second, sometimes third, jobs to put away money so that their child can have the opportunity they have never had: to go to college, to get a well-paying, rewarding, and fulfilling job, and to see flourishing on an intergenerational scale.
It reminds me of the film “The Pursuit of Happyness” that came out a few years ago. This is a story based on the real-life experiences of Chris Gardner. One of the takeaways from the film version is that so much of what drives Gardner to work harder, to never give up, to continually seek a better life, is that he is doing all this for his son. Lending the portrayal special poignancy, in the film Gardner and his son are played by Will Smith and his own son, Jaden.
A great deal of what we are talking about in this ongoing conversation about the public debt crisis and intergenerational justice centers on this idea of opportunity. Ryan Streeter mentioned it explicitly in our discussion, and Ron Sider’s explication of what the biblical picture of “economic justice” is like could be summed up as focusing on guaranteeing opportunity across generations. In his essay, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” (appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality) the theologian Herman Bavinck describes the Old Testament polity as one in which “the basic necessities for a life of human dignity were made possible for most Israelites.”
The fiscal reality today, however, is that we are rapidly facing a situation in which the coming generations will be constrained from having the opportunity to surpass us because of the profligacy of federal spending, the deleterious commitments to transfer wealth from younger and poorer workers to older and wealthier Americans, and the simply unsustainable levels of spending pursued for decades by politicians.
This is why in the key economic factor to consider in the debates about the ethics of intergenerational justice is that of opportunity cost. As David Henderson writes, the concept’s “virtue is to remind us that the cost of using a resource arises from the value of what it could be used for instead.”
The Social Security system is perhaps the most obvious example in this regard. It is the single largest piece of the federal budget ($695 billion in FY 2010), taking large sections of income out of the checks of working Americans every pay period, that could otherwise be put to a variety of other uses. Depending on the situation, some of these uses might be more immediate and temporary (like food and rent) and others might have longer-term implications (such as investment and savings).
When we ignore opportunity cost and its intergenerational implications, we are constricting the range of options available to current and future generations. We are, in fact, infringing on their rights to liberty and “the pursuit of happiness.”