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It’s time to turn up the heat, put on a sweater and crack open a good book. The Register’s Autumn Reading issue recommends three interesting reads: Christians in the Movies by Peter E. Dans is reviewed by Steven D. Greydanus; Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait by Peter Seewald is discussed by Franklin Freeman; Father James Schall’s The Mind That Is Catholic is Gerald Russello’s choice.
BY The Editors
Saints and Cinema
CHRISTIANS IN THE MOVIES
A Century of Saints and Sinners
by Peter E. Dans
Rowman & Littlefield, 2009
409 pages, $49.95
To order: rowmanlittlefield.com
By STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
An associate professor of medicine as well as a
serious movie buff, Peter Dans has an understandable interest in the portrayal
of the medical field in cinema. In 2000 he channeled that interest into Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and Just Say Ahh!, an entertaining and insightful study of social
attitudes regarding medicine as illustrated by Hollywood.
a Catholic, has published a second book, Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and
Sinners, a similarly impressive
inquiry into the cinematic portrayal of Christianity and Christians. Like his
first book, Christians
in the Movies is both a highly
readable and informative work of film commentary and a discussion of changing
as doctors enjoyed a “golden age of medicine” before being knocked off their
pedestals, Dans notes how “[t]he movie clergymen of my youth were
tough-yet-good-hearted priests, often portrayed by big stars like Spencer
Tracy, Pat O’Brien, and Bing Crosby. Now it appeared that all orthodox clergy
and believers were either vicious predators or narrow-minded, mean-spirited
not only documents changing images of faith, he sketches the larger social
context of films from The
Passion of Joan of Arc and Angels With Dirty Faces to Dogma and The
Magdalene Sisters. (Full
disclosure: Dans cites my Register review of that last film.)
decade by decade, each chapter opens with a brief consideration of the overall
state of the culture, of Hollywood, and finally of the portrayal of Christians
typical to the period. The bulk of the chapters consists of discussion of noteworthy
individual films, with plot summary followed by commentary on the film’s
overall merits as well as its depiction of Christianity.
schematic procedure is more methodical than the thematic approach Dans took in Doctors in the Movies, enabling Dans to cover more ground in almost exactly the same space:
Both books are just over 400 pages, but Christians in the Movies discusses almost 200 films from the silent era
to the present, while Doctors in
the Movies confines itself to
the sound era and gets through about 70 films.
flip side is that the writing is less organic and more programmatic than Dans’
earlier book, in which plot and critical evaluation are interwoven and one film
segues into another. In a word, Doctors in
the Movies is more literary
while Christians in the Movies is more encyclopedic in approach.
doesn’t mean that the new book is any less informed by the author’s critical
insights and opinions. Dans is an incisive analyst as well as a knowledgeable
annalist, and readers will find him a reliable guide not only to discovering
films that would otherwise have eluded them, but to better understanding the
spiritual and artistic merits or flaws of films they know well.
has no formal film training, which he perhaps rightly feels helps him identify
with ordinary viewers. Those who have struggled with Black Narcissus, say, will appreciate Dans’ frank assessment that “the murkiness and
weirdness of this melodramatic story, as well as the almost stylized stringing
together of the scenes as if they were portraits” may leave viewers wondering
“what the film’s ‘classic’ and ‘four star’ status is about.” (That was
certainly my reaction, despite my film training.)
when Dans’ opinions diverge from the reader’s, his views are always engaging
and thought-provoking, and the reader’s views will benefit from interacting
with Dans’. For serious Christian movie buffs, Christians at the Movies is a must-have.
Steven D. Greydanus is the
Register’s film critic.
That Which Is
THE MIND THAT IS CATHOLIC
Philosophical and Political Essays
by James V. Schall, S.J.
Catholic University of America Press, 2008
330 pages, $24.95
To order: cuapress.cua.edu
By GERALD RUSSELLO
Jesuit Father James Schall is among
the best contemporary examples of how an active intellectual can “think with
the Church” with no loss of academic freedom.
A legendary professor at Georgetown
University, Father Schall has introduced generations of students to the
classics of Western political philosophy.
Those not lucky enough to have
witnessed him in the classroom can take heart. Father Schall is also a prolific
essayist and reviewer. Earlier
collections, bearing playful titles like The Unseriousness of Human
Affairs, mask the profound questions that Father Schall addresses. For he seeks to explain and understand what Plato
called “to on,” Greek for “that which is.” Father Schall recognizes that the
most important things are the most fundamental to human life: play, work,
friendship, the bonds and obligations of family and community and religious
piety. These have been the constant themes of Western thought, and Father
Schall has continued in that great tradition.
new collection of essays wrestles with the question of whether there is a
distinctively Catholic view of considering the world and the enduring questions
of human existence. The Mind
That Is Catholic is divided into
a number of sections, including essays on “Reckoning with Plato,” “Implications
of Catholic Thought,” and “Where Does It Lead?”
core of Father Schall’s understanding of the Catholic mind is contained in his
introductory essay, “A Certain Crime Unobserved”:
is all right to think of political and philosophical things in the light of
revelation. But it is also important that those who consider themselves
recipients of revelation also think and think well.”
“crime” of the title is a quote from Samuel Johnson that illustrates another of
Father Schall’s points: What seems “madness” to the secular world is in some
sense exactly to what Christians are called. The secular world believes that
prayer can be a sign of madness, yet St. Paul calls us to “pray always,” even
in the midst of that world.
The Catholic mind, in other words,
at its best is open to all things, including the possibility that there are
things we can grasp only with the help of revelation. In addition, the Catholic
mind acknowledges that we are not divine, and knows that both our reason and
our reception of revelation are marred by the Fall. This acknowledgement must affect how we
understand ourselves and our society, and it has been a central theme of
Western political thought since Augustine’s great work, The
City of God.
Gerald J. Russello is a fellow of the Chesterton
Seton Hall University.
BENEDICT XVI: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT
by Peter Seewald
Ignatius Press, 2008
260 pages, $24.95
To order: ignatius.com
By FRANKLIN FREEMAN
With all the
near-hysterical brouhaha about Pope Benedict’s reinstatement of the
anti-Semitic Bishop Richard Williamson last spring, it would have helped if
news organizations had shown an inclination to learn or remember something
about the Pope himself.
Peter Seewald’s new book, Benedict
XVI: An Intimate Portrait, would have, despite its faults, been a
good place to start.
describes his own association with the Pope, beginning with his first profile
about him and then the two book-length interviews he had with him which became Salt of the Earth and God and the
World. It also — and this is more
to the point — tells the story of his life.
grew up in Bavaria, and both his father, a police magistrate, and his mother
did not hesitate to profess their contempt for Adolf Hitler and the
Brownshirts. His father applied for early retirement so as not to have to serve
in the Nazi regime, and his mother was fond of telling a joke about Hitler that
scared the other villagers. Benedict’s membership in the Nazi Youth has often
been mentioned without noting he had been conscripted into it against his will.
after becoming a priest and professor, wanted to produce a body of
theological work and had a promising university career ahead of him, but was
called upon to serve the Church in a more and more sacrificial manner, first as
bishop and then as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and
finally as Pope. Contrary to the assertions of former colleagues such as Hans
Küng, Seewald writes, the Pope has neither toed the party line to gain power
nor reversed positions because he was traumatized by the student rebellions of
the late 1960s.
Rather, Pope Benedict has always
striven to serve the Church in both a faithful and revolutionary way: faithful
to the dogma “as the living source that alone made knowledge possible,” but
revolutionary in trying to apply and live out this dogma and not giving into
the zeitgeist of the world.
Seewald also shares fascinating
insights about the Pope, such as the following:
The discovery that had the most
lasting effect [in his student days] was that of one of the really great
figures in the Church, who was to become a kind of alter ego for Ratzinger, a
congenial friend, a second self: Augustine. He was a man of artistic
sensibilities, of all-around capabilities of penetrating reflection and, in
addition, a strict, systematic theologian, whose stormy life led him in the end
to wisdom and adoration. The newly educated student still found it difficult to
approach Thomas Aquinas. “His crystal-clear logic” seemed to him “too firmly
enclosed within itself, too impersonal and ready-made.” In Augustine’s case, by
contrast, “the passionate, suffering, and questioning man” was “always directly
present,” says Ratzinger, someone “with whom one can identify.”
Seewald, however, tells his story
confusingly, especially with regard to chronology. There is also an awkwardness
in tone and syntax. I’m not sure if that is a matter of Seewald’s style, the
translation, the editing or all three. An index would also have been helpful.
Despite these distractions, Benedict
XVI: An Intimate Portrait is worth reading for those who want to
really learn something about the Pope.
from Saco, Maine.