Thursday, March 29, 2012

Discernment of Heroes - Week 6

[Sorry this is late; life has suddenly become quite busy.] This week we have three remaining questions derived from Matt Bird's insights into what makes characters work.

How might their first actions foreshadow their actions for the rest of the script? As personal discernment is concerned, there are two directions we can take this. First, how do your actions reveal who you are? That's a big question, but one worth asking. Consider thinking through a generic day: what do you do? How do you do it? What does this reveal about your priorities? Your approach? Likewise, consider also an actual day (say, yesterday). Sometimes our sense of how we usually conduct ourselves does not accord with very many actual days. Our actions can reveal a great deal about our moral choices. But I would add one note of caution here: habits can be very confusing. Aristotle says virtue is a habit, so I certainly don't want to dismiss its significance. But often we have grown up with certain habits, or acquired them unintentionally. These habits may be virtuous or vicious, but I think often they are of greater interest for the long-term impact they have on us, rather than what they tell us about our own moral decisions. If one grows up going to church every Sunday morning, this is a good thing and beneficial, but one ought not take too much credit for a practice bequeathed by parents. On the other hand, one who grew up spending weekends doing other things may have trouble consistently remembering to make time for church. The second person would do well to make such time, but ought not infer that his struggle, in comparison to the non-struggle of the person who attends church out of habit. In other words, I think our conscious efforts to shape our habits (which are, admittedly, powerful things) are at least as telling as the habits themselves.

Second, if we consider all of our lives a grand story written by the Master Storyteller, what do the events of our past suggest about our future? This has been a kind of recurring theme for us, as we asked about age, profession, and hobbies in the first week, and considered past secrets last week. The story of the nation of the Israelite nation, God's chosen people, constitutes part of sacred history; but with the incarnation of Christ and the preaching of the Gospel to all nations, with the baptism of believers into the priesthood, prophetic office, and kingship of Christ, all our lives are caught up into sacred history. Thus, just as the events of the Israelite past and the personal lives of the ancient prophets were signs of God at work among His people, so too the events of your life have been telling a spiritual story.

Moral center: Matt Bird asks, "What is the thing they just won’t do? This is an especially good way to define a villain." But it is also a good question to ask of ourselves. Hopefully there are lots of things we won't do (serial killing, grand theft auto, etc., etc.). The key to making the question meaningful is placing it in the right context. What won't I do at work to get ahead? What behaviors - generally accepted by my peers - are beyond the pale for me? For the Christian, our moral center should be God's law. Thus, examining our own moral center should prompt two stages of discernment: (1) What is my own moral center? (2) What do I need to do to better conform it to God's law?

You philosophy: Bird describes this as "an actual line of dialogue that sums up how they think about the world. Every character has a philosophy, whether they know it or not." This is similar, in many ways, to the one-line description we considered in our first week: some statements are more substantial than others. There are two ways to go about discovering your philosophic tag line. You could listen to yourself careful (a task that, in itself, takes some doing) and keep an open ear for something good. But you might also consider thinking about what you'd like your philosophy or worldview to be. If you're not expressing that now and again, why not?

And here, dear friends, I shall leave you, like Virgil leaving Dante. I have pushed this little thought experiment as far as I can take it. I now entrust you to the Holy Week liturgies which begin in a few days with Palm Sunday. Hopefully these meditations have helped you learn just a bit more about who you are and the hero God calls you to be. May the grace of Holy Week and Easter transform these natural insights into supernatural wisdom.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Red State, Blue State - 8 Years Later

Eight years ago at the Democratic National Convention, then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama gave the keynote address.  I recently returned to it and thought it worth sharing for two reasons: (1) The speech is a great example of political rhetoric.  Large passages sound like something Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan might have said.  Any politician who tells you he doesn't dream of giving speeches like this is lying to you.  So whether you support(ed) Mr. Obama or not, the speech is deserving of study.  (2) This was the speech that established Mr. Obama's national reputation (even as the country has moved on and largely forgotten the candidate he endorsed: John Kerry).  To what extent has the president met the expectations he established in Boston?

On behalf of the great state of Illinois, crossroads of a nation, Land of Lincoln, let me express my deepest gratitude for the privilege of addressing this convention.

Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack. His father -- my grandfather -- was a cook, a domestic servant to the British.

But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son. Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that shone as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before.

While studying here, my father met my mother. She was born in a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas. Her father worked on oil rigs and farms through most of the Depression. The day after Pearl Harbor my grandfather signed up for duty; joined Patton’s army, marched across Europe. Back home, my grandmother raised a baby and went to work on a bomber assembly line. After the war, they studied on the G.I. Bill, bought a house through F.H.A., and later moved west all the way to Hawaii in search of opportunity.

And they, too, had big dreams for their daughter. A common dream, born of two continents. My parents shared not only an improbable love, they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or ”blessed,” believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined -- They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren’t rich, because in a generous America you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential. They're both passed away now. And yet, I know that on this night they look down on me with great pride. They stand here -- And I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents’ dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.

Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our Nation -- not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy. Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That is the true genius of America, a faith -- a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles; that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door; that we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe; that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution, and that our votes will be counted -- at least most of the time.

This year, in this election we are called to reaffirm our values and our commitments, to hold them against a hard reality and see how we're measuring up to the legacy of our forbearers and the promise of future generations. 

And fellow Americans, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, I say to you tonight: We have more work to do --  more work to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour; more to do for the father that I met who was losing his job and choking back the tears, wondering how he would pay 4500 dollars a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits that he counted on; more to do for the young woman in East St. Louis, and thousands more like her, who has the grades, has the drive, has the will, but doesn’t have the money to go to college.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The people I meet -- in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks -- they don’t expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead,  and they want to. Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don’t want their tax money wasted, by a welfare agency or by the Pentagon. Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn; they know that parents have to teach, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things.

People don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all.

They know we can do better. And they want that choice.

In this election, we offer that choice. Our Party has chosen a man to lead us who embodies the best this country has to offer. And that man is John Kerry.

John Kerry understands the ideals of community, faith, and service because they’ve defined his life. From his heroic service to Vietnam, to his years as a prosecutor and lieutenant governor, through two decades in the United States Senate, he's devoted himself to this country. Again and again, we’ve seen him make tough choices when easier ones were available.

His values and his record affirm what is best in us. John Kerry believes in an America where hard work is rewarded; so instead of offering tax breaks to companies shipping jobs overseas, he offers them to companies creating jobs here at home.

John Kerry believes in an America where all Americans can afford the same health coverage our politicians in Washington have for themselves.

John Kerry believes in energy independence, so we aren’t held hostage to the profits of oil companies, or the sabotage of foreign oil fields.

John Kerry believes in the Constitutional freedoms that have made our country the envy of the world, and he will never sacrifice our basic liberties, nor use faith as a wedge to divide us.

And John Kerry believes that in a dangerous world war must be an option sometimes, but it should never be the first option.

You know, a while back I met a young man named Shamus in a V.F.W. Hall in East Moline, Illinois. He was a good-looking kid -- six two, six three, clear eyed, with an easy smile. He told me he’d joined the Marines and was heading to Iraq the following week. And as I listened to him explain why he’d enlisted, the absolute faith he had in our country and its leaders, his devotion to duty and service, I thought this young man was all that any of us might ever hope for in a child.

But then I asked myself, "Are we serving Shamus as well as he is serving us?"

I thought of the 900 men and women -- sons and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors, who won’t be returning to their own hometowns. I thought of the families I’ve met who were struggling to get by without a loved one’s full income, or whose loved ones had returned with a limb missing or nerves shattered, but still lacked long-term health benefits because they were Reservists.

When we send our young men and women into harm’s way, we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they’re going, to care for their families while they’re gone, to tend to the soldiers upon their return, and to never ever go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world. Now let me be clear. We have real enemies in the world. These enemies must be found. They must be pursued. And they must be defeated. John Kerry knows this. And just as Lieutenant Kerry did not hesitate to risk his life to protect the men who served with him in Vietnam, President Kerry will not hesitate one moment to use our military might to keep America safe and secure. John Kerry believes in America. And he knows that it’s not enough for just some of us to prosper -- for alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga,  a belief that we’re all connected as one people. If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there is a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

It is that fundamental belief -- I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper -- that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.

E pluribus unum: "Out of many, one."

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us -- the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of "anything goes." Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an "awesome God" in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?

John Kerry calls on us to hope. John Edwards calls on us to hope.

I’m not talking about blind optimism here -- the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.

Hope -- Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!

In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.

I believe that we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity. I believe we can provide jobs to the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair.

I believe that we have a righteous wind at our backs and that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices, and meet the challenges that face us.

America! Tonight, if you feel the same energy that I do, if you feel the same urgency that I do, if you feel the same passion that I do, if you feel the same hopefulness that I do -- if we do what we must do, then I have no doubt that all across the country, from Florida to Oregon, from Washington to Maine, the people will rise up in November, and John Kerry will be sworn in as President, and John Edwards will be sworn in as Vice President, and this country will reclaim its promise, and out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.

Thank you very much everybody. God bless you. Thank you. 

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Discernment of Heroes - Week 5

This is our fifth week of heroic discernment here at the Guild Review, but since we started on Ash Wednesday, we're a week ahead of the official Lenten count. In other words, it's the 4th Week of Lent, which began with Laetare Sunday. Although Lent remains, with its sorrows and penance, the Church reminds us that Easter is coming.

With that in mind, we continue our questioning of the hero that each one of us is called to be. When Matt Bird writes scripts, he suggests several elements which we'll consider. Each of these makes good sense in terms of films, but will require some unpacking for practical discernment.

Secret you're keeping: Bird comments that "no matter what kind of movie it is, this can add a lot. Secrets make it a whole lot easier to add subtext to dialogue." I'd like to consider this in conjunction with a second matter... Secret being kept from you about your past.

Some of us have been keeping real secrets from our employers, our friends, our families, and often even ourselves. I'm not talking about complicated aspects of your life that you've never explained to certain people because, well, it's complicated. I'm talking about those dark corners of our hearts that we wished didn't exist, the kind that make you feel the need to take a shower or get some fresh air just for having thought about. Such secrets often involve shameful sins, the likes of which we should take to confession before Easter. In other cases, our darkest secrets pertain to things that have been done to us. With God's grace, we need to confront those things. Sometimes that simply means being honest with yourself or forgiving someone you haven't seen in years; at other times it means a very long road to healing, one that will require extended support from family, friends, a spiritual director, or professional counselors.

One need only watch a few movies - particularly movies involving super heroes - to realize that not all secrets are dark. A fairly standard plot line involves the hero who does not know that he is a prince or that he has super powers. As Christians, we already know some of the most important facts about our past. We are created in the image of God and by virtue of our baptisms we not only have our sins washed away, but become Priest, Prophet, and King with Christ. That's some serious business! Still, the details involve some working out. Thus, let me propose two questions: First, what "secrets" about yourself have already been revealed to you? Think back to our second week, for example, when we considered "special skills". Was there a time when you did not recognize these? Their presence may have been revealed in a single epiphany, or gradually over time. How did that happen for you?

Second, what kind of secrets might be revealed in the future? You could say, "If I knew that, they wouldn't be secrets!" And you'd be right. So think of this as a kind of brainstorming. What hobbies do you have that might turn out to be more than hobbies? What interests did you drop years ago that you might pick up again? What further education might you pursue? Like all brainstorming, this should include a mixture of whimsy and practicality. Even if you're not likely to ever return to school, you can probably say with certainty that you could go to law school some day, but medical school is definitely out (or vice versa). Likewise, if you are married, a call to the priesthood or religious life is extremely unlikely - and would be unfortunate, in a sense, requiring as it does the death of your spouse - but the call to the diaconate or some third order, lay association, or covenant community is possible. Such brainstorming is not a crystal ball or proof of God's will, but it does help place things on your radar which might not otherwise have been there.

This relates to another element Bird discusses, the biggest shock coming. He comments that "whether they’re the hero or villain, everything shouldn’t go according to their plan. Make them improvise!" This makes sense for a scriptwriter because audiences want to see something that mirrors reality; everyday life is full of struggles, and if the hero has none, it is hard to empathize with him. Just as we can brainstorm about future possibilities, future secrets (in the good sense) revealed, it is worth also considering future downturns. What if I lose my job? What if the relationship I'm currently in doesn't work out? Asking such questions now, before these eventualities arise, offers several kinds of insights. First, having thought through some possibilities ahead of time, you may be able to better improvise if the need arises. Second, you may realize new directions you'd like to pursue. If the thought of losing your job makes you smile, consider a career change!

Finally, there is one more dimension to secrets: the good secret the hero keeps from others. Aragorn, for various reasons, does not reveal to everyone that he is the king; Gandalf often keeps his thoughts to himself, only telling people as much as they need to know. Think too of Mr. Darcy's conduct at the end of Pride and Prejudice. Often your good qualities or good deeds are known to you alone. Indeed, on Ash Wednesday Jesus reminded us to "beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.... When you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." Thus, we should not meditate on our hidden virtues in a way that is an occasion for pride. Rather, we should consider them so that we can lay them at God's feet and ask him how they might best serve him.

Today's image of Mr. Darcy and Lizzy Bennet, by C. E. Brock from 1895, comes via Wikipedia.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Patrick's Day

Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738) was the last of the great Irish bards.

In ancient and medieval Ireland, the bards were poets and musicians who kept the native folklore alive. They traveled from house to house, telling old stories and composing new songs, relying on the patronage of the island's great families. However, in the 17th century, after the Flight of the Earls, most of the great clan-leaders had no choice but to become grantees of the King of England. They were no longer chieftains, but simply landholders.

O'Carolan was born after the Flight of the Earls when the old Gaelic order had already collapsed and was nearly extinct. As a boy, his father took the family to Roscommon so he could work for the MacDermot Roe family, who had formerly been chieftains but were now living as landholders. The MacDermot Roe family, however, still kept up the family's role as patrons of the arts. The young O'Carolan showed promise as a poet, but was blinded by smallpox at the age of 18. Lady MacDermot Roe had him trained as a harper and then gave him a horse so that he could take up the life of a bard, traveling the countryside, performing for what remained of the Irish gentry. The MacDermots Roe remained his patrons for the rest of his life, and he expressed his gratitude to Lady MacDermot Roe in particular with one of his finest compositions, "Princess Royal."

As can be heard in "Princess Royal," O'Carolan was influenced by the European art music of his time. He reportedly went to Dublin to hear the Italian baroque virtuoso Geminiani perform on the violin. Given his affinity for baroque music, it is not surprising that one of his best-known planxties (melodies composed in honor of a patron) has been dubbed his "concerto."

In the past half-century, O'Carolan's music has been revived, beginning with Sean O'Riada, whose group Ceoltóirí Chualann later morphed into the Chieftains, who for the pat fifty years have regularly featured pieces by O'Carolan (above all the "concerto") on their albums and in their concerts. Even Clannad, the Donegal family that became famous for its New Age music and for launching the career of Enya (the stage name of Eithne Ní Bhraonáin, the sister of several of the members), recorded a simple, but beautiful, arrangement of "Eleanor Plunkett" on one of their early records.

After years of wandering as a bard, O'Carolan married and settled down in Leitrim. But, after his young wife died, he returned to Adlerford House, the seat of the MacDermots Roe, and lived his last days there. It is said that upon his return, he greeted Lady MacDermot Roe, went to a bedroom, and composed his "Farewell to Music." O'Carolan is now buried in the MacDermot Roe family crypt.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Discernment of Heroes - Week 4

In the first two weeks we mostly considered what you might call background information.  These are items that Matt Bird or other scriptwriters would use to craft a character.  Last week, when we considered roles, we began getting into the meat of a story, its plot.  This week we'll continue that shift toward our story arc.

In terms of discernment, the shift is similar.  For the past three weeks we have been essentially asking who you are or where you have come from.  This can be quite enlightening, but is, in some sense, water under the bridge.  The bigger questions we often ask tend to involve where we are going.

This may be the week where the fact that these reflections are essentially natural (or literary) and not supernatural (or theological) becomes truly apparent.  Why?  Because ultimately our future is in God's hands.  If you really want to know where you are headed, ask Him.  But grace builds on nature and God often speaks through the rational workings of our minds, so let us probe as best we can our own stories, and hope that divine light will aid our task.

Stated goal: What do you tell others you are pursuing?  For most of us, there are numerous answers to this question: a good job, a nice spouse, holiness, the ultimate home-brew beer...  The list could go on.  The key here is to consider what you tell people.  When you meet someone at work or at a party, what do you tell them you do?  If you are wrapping up one stage of your life (graduating, moving, etc.) and someone asks you what you're doing next, how do you answer?

Secret goal: What are you really after?  This is a classic movie element, the protagonist who has a goal he has not revealed to his love interest.  But it is worth taking a moment to consider the secret goals of our own lives.  In the first place, are the goals you tell others really the things you plan to seek?  In other words, are you being honest with others?  But, secondly, we can take this deeper: What are you really interested in?  One way to approach this deeper meaning is to ask yourself about alternatives.  If you could do things over again, where would you go?  What would you do?  If you had all the money you wanted, what would you buy?  Stripping away limitations sometimes helps us think about what we'd really like.  Often circumstances force us in a particular direction, and we tell ourselves we have accepted that new direction; and yet, we cling to some part of our original dream, working at cross-purposes with ourselves, pursuing both the conscious, limited goal, and the unconscious, unlimited goal.  That can be a lot of baggage, things we need to bring before the Lord.  But you can't give Him what you do not know you have.

Moment the audience decides to trust or loathe them: In some ways this is a restatement of the one-line description we met the first week.  What is the essence of who you are?  And when does this become apparent to others?  The opinions of others can be fickle, and ought not be sought for their own sake.  But I think the question here points to something deeper.  Why would an audience trust you?  Because you revealed your truly heroic side.  And what is that?  Ah, now we're getting somewhere.  If you are a business manager - not merely by occupation, but by vocation - the moment others trust you may be the moment you reveal not merely your competence and your drive, but also you humanity, when you sacrifice your own well-being for that of your employees.  For some of us, we can point to moments in our past when others saw us for the heroes we are called to be.  For others, that moment may not have come, at least, not in a big way.  But thinking about what it might look like in the future can be a useful thing, giving us a source of inspiration for our future actions.

Emotional Arc: How many emotional states do you pass through?  Bird clearly implied "in the course of the movie" to be added to the end of this question.  Our lives are, of course, much longer.  But it may be useful to ask the question for a variety of time intervals.  How many states in a given day?  A week?  A semester or year?  In the last few years?  The answers can tell you a number of things, not only about your propensity to emotional fluctuations, but also about patterns of your usual emotional arc.  And seeing patterns, in turn, allows you to get some sense for where you are now and where you are likely to be in the future.  Patterns can, of course, change.  ("Past performance does not guarantee future returns.")  But even if you deviate from established patterns in the months and years ahead, that change itself may be noteworthy.

Today's image from Star Wars comes via the Business Insider.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Discernment of Heroes - Week 3

This week we'll be exploring two basic questions Bird poses about all characters:

What role do you play in the story?  Hero, villain, love interest, friend?
Within this role, what is your type?
In some regards, Bird's questions don't fit with Christian discernment.  After all, we are all baptized priest, prophet, and king, sharing in Christ' own perfect fulfillment of those roles.  In other words, we're all called to be heroes.  But this is, in some sense, semantics.  Because when Bird uses the term "hero," he refers to not only to someone who defends justice and rights wrongs, but also someone who is the main character of the story.  And let's be honest: not everyone can be the main character.  But even if we cannot all be the center of attention, we are all called to do good.  And we are called to do this not simply at the natural level, but - by God's grace - supernaturally as well.  Thus, being a "love interest" or friend can be just as heroic and important as being the usual hero.

(I briefly considered writing about discernment of villains.  After all, we are all sinners, and thus struggle with that side of things too.  But most villains are super-evil, in ways that may not shed much light on our own temptations.  Moreover, really great villain characters are - in their way - quite lovable.  This might work in stories, but in the spiritual life the glamor of evil is nothing with which to trifle.)

When working on categorizing heroes, Bird asks an important question: Why categorize at all?
What’s the point? Are movies more fun when you pigeonhole the hero into a certain category? Not really. But I do think it can be a useful tool, whether for creating your own heroes or evaluating the work of others. First and foremost, it should remind us that not every “rule” for heroes can or should apply to each particular hero. Some heroes suffer a lot, some hardly at all. Some are proven wrong, some are proven right. Some start from scratch, others show what they know. In order to know which rules apply to which hero, it helps to figure out which type they are.
The same may be said of our own lives.  We are all called to heroic lives of faith and virtue; we are all called to be conformed to the perfect image Christ.  But we live that out in different ways, emphasizing and expressing different dimensions of who our Lord and God is.  Thus, although we all aim to be "little Christs" (to borrow C. S. Lewis' phrase), we all look quite different, and live out our lives in different ways.

Bird proposes nine different kinds of heroes (and a couple sub-types), based on the three following questions:

Are you qualified?  This question, reflecting Bird's background, is story-specific rather than existential.  That is to say: you might be qualified in one circumstance, but unqualified in another.  Movies tend to only show one circumstance (ie, the super-spy doing spying, not failing horribly at accounting).  Nevertheless, there is an important reminder here: Heroes are not always qualified.  Thus, the special skills we considered last week, though important, are not the final word.  God routinely uses the weak.

Are you on the job?  There are two fairly literal ways to read this question.  First, are you currently employed?  Second, at any given time, are you at work?  In and of itself, this is uninspiring, but the implied reminder is that God can use us at all times, wherever we are.  Sometimes we focus on getting back "on the job," when divinely-written adventures await us right where we are.

Are you in you element?  In other words, are you comfortable?  Again, remember: God calls us to be heroes in both comfortable and uncomfortable situations.

In short, we would all like to be "The Pro at Work," the hero who is qualified, on the job, and in his element.  But "The Worst Possible Pick" - and everyone in between - can be a hero too.  Of course, God does not call us all to be all types of heroes.  Some people, for whatever reason, are more often called to missions for which they are not qualified; these things just find them.  Maybe you are such a person.  Or maybe God is calling you in a more obvious direction, one that corresponds to your skills.  Look at your life and consider not merely what your gifts and talents may be, but also where God leads you and how He asks you to use them.

Finally, a brief word on love interests and friends.  These are generally helpful folks who support the big fellow with the flashy cape.  That kind of support can be as essential as the major deeds themselves.  It is worth asking, "What kind of friend am I?"  This may vary from one relationship to another, but chances are you often fill the same role in your relationships with different friends.  Here are a few types of friends and lovers Bird proposes.

1.  The Conscience
2.  The Mentor
3.  The Helping Hand
4.  The Total Bad Ass (that is to say, the sidekick who really helps our hero fight his battles, or even fights them for him)
5.  The Best Friend Seen in a New Light (specific to the role of lover)

There are doubtless other ways that we can be friends and supports to the heroes in our lives.  But Bird also reminds us that friends and lovers can also be stumbling blocks: corrupters, weasels, objects of envy, or nymphomaniacs.  So when you're considering the type of friend or lover you might be, make sure you're always seeking the good for others. 

Today's image of Indiana Jones comes via the Daily Mail.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Seeing Through Political Propaganda

The other evening my wife and I watched Triumph of the Will, a film some of my history students will be watching.  This piece of Nazi propaganda depicts the 1934 Parteitag, an annual week-long festival for the National Socialists at Nuremberg.  There are a number of directions in which to take a discussion of this film.  I will point out to my students, for example, the chilling fact that the Night of the Long Knives had happened only two months before the rally, at which Hitler tried to persuade members of the SA and SS - the latter of which he used to murder the leaders of the former - that there were no disagreements within the Nazi Party.

But the film also reminded me of contemporary US politics.  No, I do not think Barack Obama is the next Hitler or that Mitt Romney is going to establish a totalitarian Mormon state.  Allow me to explain...

Triumph of the Will is, in many ways, a very appealing film.  There is some great cinematography, lots of pomp and spectacle, and thousands of nifty uniforms.  The film - and the party it idolizes - denounces class conflict and Communist revolution, instead calling for national unity and cooperation.  On a practical level, the Nazis highlight the jobs they have created and the roads they have built; on a higher plane, the Nazis utilize religious-style symbolism and Hitler calls upon a generation of young Germans to commit themselves in sacrifice for an ideal larger than themselves.

All of this, in the narrow terms I have described it, is quite good.  The problem is that the casual observer might not think further - indeed, the Nazis hoped they would not.  Because behind the pageantry and the soaring rhetoric are empty lies at best and utter wickedness at worst.

Why all the militant uniforms and talk of "victory" when Germany is not at war?  What is to become of those not deemed fully German?  Why is Hitler identified as the embodiment of both the nation and the party?  What qualities make him pre-eminently German, or who put him in charge?  And to what end is all this national effort and striving?  For what are Germans asked to sacrifice?  The more one considers the Nazis and their program, the less it makes sense.  In the end, it is nothing but the worship of Power for its own sake.

Some in Germany saw through the Nazis' propaganda, and thus Hitler was opposed by the likes of Blessed Clemens von Galen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Claus von Stauffenberg and the July 20 Conspirators, and a number of others.  Some of these men recognized the bankruptcy of the Nazi ideology early on; others only came around later.  Unfortunately most Germans lacked the intellectual insight or moral courage to perceive what was happening in their country and do something about it until it was too late.

Here in the US the stakes may not be quite so high, but the task is the same: we must see through the half-truths and the hollow rhetoric of those who would use our political support as pawns in their own games.  We must wage intellectual resistance against the political shams of our day; we must convert, ourselves first and then others.