Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Very UU Movie Disguised as a Catholic Movie.

On the way home from the movie theatre, our exchange student from Germany commented that there are way too many fat people in movies and TV shows and even cartoons who happen to be German. Add that to the current rash of movies about the Nazi era, and one would feel a bit awkward being German in America just now.

So it's no surprise that she did not want to see "Doubt" with us since she is also Catholic! From the trailers, the movie appears to be another Catholic-bashing vehicle, with Meryl Streep playing a dour, spiteful nun, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman a misguided/misunderstood/miscreant (you will wonder about this all through the movie) priest.

Let me begin by saying that these are Oscar-level performances, and Amy Adams as the naive, trusting nun is no slouch, either. But, for me, the movie raised far more questions about my own faith than it did about Catholicism. My faith, the Unitarian Universalist faith.

The film begins with a homily given by the genial priest who serves a parish as well as a middle school. It's all about doubt. Bottom line: it is doubt that makes us human, uncertainty that unites us and keeps us humble and real. Doubt is not a bad thing. It's good.

Needless to say, this homily triggers the suspicions of Sister Aloysius (Streep) who becomes more and more convinced that the priest is talking about his own doubt in himself, and who targets him in a kind of gender-reverse witch hunt.

I won't reveal the end, even though it is subtle and far from shocking.

But the story line is tight and the acting thoroughly convincing. It's a film about humanity, and there will be no doubt, by the film's end, that the way of questioning, what I call the UU way of "living with uncertainty" is far better for our souls than unwavering commitment to any set of guidelines, rules, commandments, or dogmas. It's not an anti-Catholic movie so much as an anti-certainty movie. See it and see whether you agree.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Curious Movie Called "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"...

At first, I tended to agree with Roger Ebert. He gave this newly released film starring Brad Pitt only two and a half stars even though it's being promoted as a sure thing for the Oscars. Anything that starts out with a cancer death-bed scene and a dead man's journal as the framing device can not be good. Perhaps it is because, as a minister, I've been through enough real ones, but dramatic/untimely/extended movie deaths have been a huge turn-off to me since "Love Story." Especially hospital ones. Add to that the fact that this one was taking place in a hospital in New Orleans, just as Katrina was hitting the city, and you have a recipe for disaster... the movie kind, not the hurricane kind.

Don't worry.. I won't give away the big surprise, because there really isn't one! It's a film based upon the conceit that a man's life is lived in reverse. Born old, he ages to infancy. We should be moved to some insights about life, death, and all that's in between, no? Instaed we go away thinking about how cute Brad Pitt was back in the Thelma & Louise days. I fell asleep halfway through (we happen to be on the Gulf Coast, rebuilding a house felled by the real Hurricane Katrina) and found out later on Wikipedia what happened in the middle. Strangely enough, I didn't lose the thread when I awoke 15 or 20 minutes along. Let's just say I found the movie mildly interesting.

But then, as it ended, I looked at our 17 year old exchange student, a German girl named Anke, who was nest to me in the theatre. She was sobbling. And next to Anke, my own daughter Marjorie was in tears. I touched Anke's cheek. It was wet! Now THIS was curious. I'd not seen the girl cry since she arrived in August. Homesickness, calls from Mum, the second anniversary of her father's death, Christmas in a foreign land, illness & soccer injuries.. all had passed with nary a tear. But now she was sobbing. The girls continued to cry as we left the theatre, found the rest of our team (who were not sobbing after seeing "Seven Pounds") and walked to our van. They had a beautiful cry! I envied them. I wish that curious movie had moved me to tears. I need a cry, too. Sometimes the good cry is worth the price of admission. All I got was a nap!

The literature fiend/English major/theologian in me wanted to discover some redeeming depth in this mess. All I could think was that it was like a sermon that tries to do way too much, and ends up doing exactly nothing. (I'm thinking of some of my own! )

In addition to the cancer-mother-daughter-farewell-Katrina thing, there was the whole prelude about the clock that was built by a man whose son was lost in the war... a clock that ran backwards! He wished that time could rewind itself so that dead soldiers could get up and live again. At the end of the movie the water from Katrina comes in to the basement where the clock is stored, and, presumably, stops it running backwards (I hope that's not the big surprise). Then there was Benjamin's father, who makes buttons! He comes back into Benjamin's life sporadically, and leaves him lots of money when he dies. I guess that explains why BB doesn't really need to have a real job. I've been puzzling this all out since last night, and it's taking way too much brain energy. I now understand how sermons that take on too many themes and have too many layers can be annoying and disconcerting to people! So all was not lost, for me!

I did love one part of the film. There was an old-age home in New Orleans where Benjamin was raised by Black parents who found him. (Writing this makes it seem even more contrived than watching it). It was the best place ever! The old folks, all white, accepted the old man baby who became a baby old man. The Black folks who ran the place were saintly. Somewhere in that house is the heart of the film for me. I'll be thinking about it today, and wondering what happened to the folks who were still there when Katrina hit... while sawing wood and toting boards for a real house. I am curious about what the movie meant. To be continued.....

Sunday, December 28, 2008


UU Church of Lexington Biloxi Team 2008

It's not difficult to understand why people go down to the Gulf Coast to volunteer. Three years after Katrina, many folks are waiting to have their homes rebuilt and their lives restored. There is work to be done and a system in place that makes working and helping possible. Folks from Lexington, Kentucky have been going, alone and in groups, since the week after the storm. It's possible to drive to New Orleans or Biloxi in one day, and to work for a week or a long weekend and make a difference. It's a no-brainer! The organization that our church works through has hosted more than 1, 600 volunteers just this fall. Religious organizations, civic groups, and schools send teams of volunteers and find a warm welcome. People like to be useful. Most people enjoy doing something that helps others. And people like to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Thank God people still go.

But here's a question: why do people go back?

Doug Roederer, the man who coordinates what appears to be evolving as the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington's annual Christmas Biloxi trip, has been back dozens of times. He's helped restore houses and built entire homes from the ground up. Yesterday, out first day on the job this year, a volunteer asked me: what do you think drives him?

After all, we could work closer to home. There are plenty of folks who need homes in Kentucky. But there's something about Biloxi that makes me convince people ages fifteen to sixty to leave their homes and families on Christmas Day and head south to sleep in cramped quarters and pound nails or carry boards. It's about so much more than the work. After all, we could probably contribute the funds we raise to travel and rent accomodations for the week, and skilled laborers could be hired to do the job better in half the time, if all that mattered was the product.

It's the process.

Driving South, we see that the Gulf Coast is miles, not worlds away. Meeting the family whose home we will build, hearing their stories, we understand why they want to stay in the neighborhoods their people have lived in for generations. On the job site, we can't help but compare the gleaming casinos a few blocks away, rebuilt within months, to the tattered and still vacant shells of homes begging for attention around us. Nowhere is a more stark and visual symbol of the ineffectiveness and inhumanity of our government and our institutions apparent than in East Biloxi. Why, one cannot help asking, are these people dependent upon volunteers to build their homes more than three years after the storm? Why are billions of dollars available for war and bailouts, when private foundations and donors must restore neighborhoods and dwellings devestated through an act of Nature? Hard questions, inadequate answers.

But then, there's the joy. Neighbors come by with food. Local folks stop to admire the progress. A pile of lumber becomes a home. Since our group invites some of Lexington's exchange students, people from Africa, Europe, and Asia meet one another and form the deep connections only possible through shared work. Love grows and barriers tumble as walls go up.

Humans need that kind of love. We need, as our Wendell Berry says, real work to do and we need real connections. We need the process as much or even more than the recipients need the product. That's why we go back, and why we will go back, for as long as we can.