Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, February 23, 2009

Muggle she was not: Mrs. Charles Darwin

A friend just sent me this remarkable quotation from Mrs. Charles Darwin, gleaned from an exhibition on Darwin at the American Museum of Natural History. In one sentence, Mrs. D. says it all. Here is the verbatim text from the exhibition, with the quotation:


Letter from Emma Darwin to Charles Darwin,
February 1839 (page 2 of 4)

Dr. Darwin [Charles' father] had advised Charles to keep his spiritual doubts to himself—"some women suffered miserably" if they thought their husbands were not going to heaven, he told his son. But this letter, which Emma wrote soon after their marriage, shows Charles must have ignored his father's advice.

Emma took a much more literal view of resurrection and salvation than did her husband. She believed Charles tended to apply scientific standards of proof to questions of faith, and—as revealed here—his skepticism worried her deeply.

"May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way, & which if true are likely to be above our comprehension."

At the bottom of this letter is a poignant note in Darwin's hand. "When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed & cryed over this. C. D."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Muggles among us (Darwin's anniversary)

Darwin's 200th birthday was the occasion for an outburst of scathing commentary on NPR. The biologists and paleontologists were called in en masse and none of them (that I heard, at least) missed an opportunity to heap disdain upon religious believers. Under gentle pressure by an interviewer, one of them admitted that he had a colleague who was a devout Roman Catholic, but by his further comments he clearly indicated that he thought this was "hypocrisy" (his word) on the part of the colleague. This biologist's concept of hypocrisy is a window into his limitations. He was contemptuous of the idea that science is one realm and the transcendent, unseen world another. Richard Dawkins' assault (see my previous Muggle posting) upon fairy tales for children confirmed my belief that some scientists are unfortunately impoverished in their understanding. (As has long been noted, this is less the case among the physicists.)

As an act of protest against Muggledom, I went to Carnegie Hall to hear Haydn's oratorio The Creation. What a radiant, joyous masterwork! Someone said that Haydn, alone among composers, evokes an unfallen world. (Others have complained "too much C major!") The splendor of this music with its famous "And there was light!" and the humor and delight that Haydn brings to his depiction of the animal kingdom, from sporting whale to soaring eagle to lowly worm, is a rebuke to all Muggles.

There really is a challenge here to all who teach the Christian faith. The ability to hold two concepts of reality in one's mind simultaneously seems to be a gift, not an acquisition. I don't see how this gift is to be nurtured without attention given in earliest childhood to poetry, fantasy, mythology, and literary fiction. It is well known that we desperately need more scientists in the United States. Let us hope that our budding young scientists are readers as well.

There is a bumper sticker showing two fish kissing—one is the familiar Christian fish symbol and the other is Darwin. This is pretty corny, but at least it gets the point out there.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Biblical themes in the film Frozen River

The Oscar-nominated performance of Melissa Leo is only one reason to see this gripping movie about some of the most down-and-out people ever portrayed in an American film. Shot in the seemingly godforsaken territory of northern New York State near the Canadian border, the bleak landscape of snow and ice suggests desperation and the end of the road. Citizens and aliens live in trailers and campers on both sides of the border of the Mohawk "Rez," a land of disentitlement, poverty, and lawlessness. These are people—"trailer trash"—that most of us don’t know, which makes the movie all the more important for revealing their lives to us in full and sympathetic dimensions.

Melissa plays Ray, a prematurely aged 30-something mother of two boys. Ray works part time at the Yankee Dollar store, feeding the boys on popcorn and Tang while her husband gambles away the money they were saving to purchase her dream—a double-wide trailer with a Jacuzzi. When he disappears altogether, and Ray faces Christmas Eve with no presents for the boys and the promise of the double-wide vanishing, an opportunity presents itself in the unlikely form of a young, chubby, nearsighted Mohawk single mother (Lila) who earns fistfuls of cash smuggling illegals into the country from Canada by driving across the frozen river and bringing them back in the trunk of whatever car she has managed to beg, borrow, or steal. The police do not bother to interrupt this trade because it takes place in Mohawk country, where there is no border between legal and illegal activity. Ray's car is just what Lila needs, and splitting Lila's rolls of money is just what Ray needs.

The movie was shot on something less than a shoestring in 24 days, using local Mohawks as actors, with film crew members filling in the non-speaking parts. The musical score is both haunting and unobtrusive. In other words, this is the very opposite of a commercial film, and is all the more impressive for it.

Although Ray holds center stage, the development of Lila as a character is really the principal theme of the movie. Lila’s year-old son has been taken from her by her in-laws, and she has developed a persona of stoic, expressionless impassivity. She maintains this front throughout the drama until almost the very end, when Ray performs a sacrificial act that opens the door to a future for Lila—and indeed, for them both. But the moment in the film that I wish to highlight comes earlier. The two women are smuggling in two Pakistanis who are carrying a bundle. Ray is enraged by this; she is willing to smuggle Chinese but not people she suspects of being suicide bombers. She stops in the middle of the frozen river, grabs the bundle from the back seat, and leaves it on the ice. When they arrive at their destination on the other side, they discover that the bundle was in fact a snugly wrapped infant.

Back they go to retrieve the bundle, Ray driving the car as usual and Lila as passenger in the front seat. When they find it, Ray instructs Lila to hold it and keep it warm as they drive back over the ice. Lila says, "It’s dead." Ray says maybe it’s just cold, and urges Lila to hold it close. "The baby is dead," Lila insists with her characteristic lack of affect. "Whatever," says Ray, but tells her to hold it anyway. When they are almost back across the river, Lila sees that the baby is moving. Ray says, "Hello, little baby," sweetly, with a flicker of a smile. They deliver the baby to the Pakistani mother. As they drive back to their decrepit respective "homes," Lila says again, "The baby was dead." Ray says no, it was just cold. "The baby was dead," Lila insists. "Whatever," says Ray, and then, "See, you brought it to life." Looking straight ahead with her unyieldingly stolid expression, Lila says, "It wasn't me. It was the Creator." (The English subtitles, interestingly, capitalize "Creator.")

My mind went to the story of the prophet Elisha and the son of the Shunammite woman who was restored to life by God through the warmth of the prophet's body (II Kings 4:18-37). Surely the movie director did not intend such a reference, but the words given to Lila to speak are astonishing. Did she mean to refer to some Mohawk creator? I'd just as soon not go in that direction. For a Christian, Lila's refusal to agree with Ray that no miracle had occurred points to the God who raises the dead and calls into being the things that do not exist. Without going into further details I will just note that something subtly transformative comes over Lila, represented in a subsequent scene by the first suggestion of a smile we have seen on her hitherto expressionless face; and the movie ends with the melting of the snow and a hint of a new family coming into being. I'll never pass a trailer camp again without thinking of Ray and Lila and the life-giving power of our Creator.

P.S. I have seen the movie twice but have not been able to hear clearly what is said at one point about Christian converts. The most I was able to gather is that some Mohawk converts are not celebrating Christmas. Ray protests that it is terrible to deprive children of Santa Claus. This reminds me of a saying precious to me: a young clergy colleague of mine who had very young children said that he thought Santa Claus was a way of training a child's mind for transcendence. I agree (see previous Rumination on Muggles.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

The death and life of Alison des Forges

Like everybody else, I was distressed to learn of the death of 9/11 widow Beverly Eckert, a heroic fighter for truth and transparency in the face of an obstinate and dissembling Bush administration. All the news on the first day after the plane crash near Buffalo was about her.

But on the second day, when I heard the name Alison des Forges over the radio as one of those dead, I experienced a shock of particular and personal grief. Anyone who has been interested in the subject of genocide, and Rwanda in particular, will recognize her name. Her book about the killings in Rwanda is the definitive account of the subject. She spent virtually her entire life studying Rwanda, and issued early warnings about the genocide. Only ten days ago she was quoted in news reports about the Goucher College professor accused of being one of the Rwandan genocidaires.

I have sent gifts in memory of Alison des Forges to Human Rights Watch and to Paul Rusesabagina's Hotel Rwanda Foundation. I reached the Hotel Rwanda Foundation at

Friday, February 06, 2009

Gran Torino

There's room for debate about this movie. Just how seriously are we meant to take what must seem to Christians to be a strongly Christ-oriented story? Surely Clint Eastwood does not intend what some of us see in the literally cruciform climax? (Yet I’ve never forgotten a scene from The Unforgiven. Here's the relevant portion from my book The Bible and the New York Times:

"Clint Eastwood's young sidekick has just participated in the shooting and the painful and prolonged death of another man. He is shaken, but he reassures himself by saying, 'He had it coming.' He receives no comfort from Clint, who utters this deathless line, 'We all have it coming.'"

Gran Torino is certainly one of the best, most unsparing expositions in film of the tensions in our multiculti American society. The Eastwood character, Walt Kowalski, uses every epithet in the book and more besides—sometimes hilariously, it must be said—to insult his neighbors. These scurrilous outbursts are offset by the loving attention given by the director Eastwood and his screenwriter, Nick Schenk, to the Hmong people and their customs. Admirable also is the razor-sharp view of the plight of young males in our urban subculture—black, Latino, Asian.

Being no great fan of the early, Dirty Harry Eastwood, I do not look in this film for echoes of his earlier performances, but concentrate on this one, which seems to me a masterpiece. Walt Kowalski, a foul-mouthed racist alumnus of the Detroit auto factories, is no Archie Bunker, but far more subtly observed and portrayed. Perhaps the key lines are the ones in which he admits that he has been a failure as a father to his own sons, and that he has more in common with the "gooks" next door than he does with his own family. In many ways the movie is a meditation on fatherhood. There are explicit references to the failure of the Hmong men in the extended family next door. The movie then shows how Walt tries to learn how to be a father figure to his teenage Hmong neighbor. His attempts are off-key, awkward, sometimes painful, but he is teaching—one of the most valuable forms that love can take.

Redemption is perhaps an overworked theme in American films, and no doubt there is a formulaic quality to this one. Yet the nature of the climax is so unexpected, and the symbolism so striking, and the benediction so fitting, that it transcends formula, becoming a true illustration of the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:5, 5:6).