Friday, January 28, 2011

Some Films Give Answers, Others Ask Questions

The Academy Awards and Golden Globe Awards are not the only “best of” film lists.

Have you seen “Babette’s Feast,” “The Wind Will Carry Us” or “Ikuru?”

Over the past several years I’ve seen some excellent films, thanks to the annual Arts & Faith Top 100 Films list that comes out every year around this time. This is a “top films for all time” list. It’s compiled every year so as to include films made the previous year and to reflect the viewing of the Arts & Faith community.

The Arts & Faith list is characterized by films of artistic excellence—often beautifully filmed—and which grapple with questions of spirituality and religion.

I must admit, watching some of these movies—many which are foreign and independent—is a stretch. When we’re done watching one of these films, the husband and I talk about it. We ask questions. I often find myself, several days later, still thinking about it.

Like “Ordet,” a Danish film written, produced and directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. “Ordet” is a story about Morten Borgen, a prosperous farmer whose three sons are giving him cause to worry. The oldest, Mikkel, has renounced the religious beliefs of his forebears, claiming that he no longer has even “faith in faith.” The second, Johannes, has gone mad from too much study and now claims to be Jesus of Nazareth. The youngest, Anders, is in love with a young woman whose religion puts her family at odds with the elder Borgen.

The story seems to focus on the Romeo-and-Juliet plight of Anders, while it’s also concerned with Mikkel’s pregnant wife. But then there’s Johannes, in a dazed state, reciting scripture like a running commentary. If you’ve never heard the Bible quoted in this way, it’s quite jarring. As the story unfolds, you wonder who really is nuts.

Several of my all-time favorite movies are on the Arts & Faith list: “Chariots of Fire,” “Magnolia” and “Babette’s Feast.”

“Babette’s Feast,” another Danish film, takes place in 19th century Denmark. It’s about two adult sisters who live in an isolated village where their father had founded a small sect-like Protestant church. One night, Babette, a French refugee, arrives at their door, begging them to take her in. Although the sisters cannot pay her, they take Babette in as a housekeeper and cook. Several years later, the sisters decide to hold a dinner to commemorate their father’s 100th birthday. Babette, who has recently won a lottery, begs the sisters to allow her to prepare the meal.

The sisters and, indeed, the whole village, become concerned about the rich foods and alcohol that Babette (a Catholic and a foreigner) may serve to them. But Babette cooks up the feast of a lifetime for the church members and an unexpected guest.

The Arts & Faith folks are interested in arts of all ilks, with cinema among their favorites. Some are film critics, published in such places as Paste, The National Catholic Register and Relevant. I love reading and, occasionally, participating in their film discussions.

Perhaps when you think of “Christian” movies, what comes to mind is “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Ten Commandments.” Or worse, “Left Behind.”

But, “Christian media have in recent years tended to celebrated art and entertainment for its ‘evangelical potential,’ ” writes Jeffrey Overstreet in his introduction to the Arts & Faith Top 100 Films. “In other words, many Christians have become so concerned about the usefulness of art as a tool of ministry and evangelism, they’ve forgotten—or never known in the first place—what art really is, and how it works.”

Never was this made so clear as when “The Passion of the Christ” was doing its pre-release marketing. Movie trailers played in evangelical churches across the country on Sunday morning with the goal to “train your members to invite their friends …”. Yup. Can you say Corporatist Christian Consumer?

My point being that after you see such a movie, there’s not a whole bunch to talk about, except things like “Did you see this? Did you see that?” Not much mystery there.

The films I’ve seen on the Arts & Faith list have not handed out answers, but invited questions. Asking questions is how we begin searching.

And is it not honest searching that ultimately may lead us to God?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Gather 'Round the Dinner Table

The kids set the table as Mom cooks and Dad relaxes. Dad’s turn is coming after dinner, doing clean-up as Mom relaxes. Everybody is involved with dinnertime.

This scene happens nearly every night at my daughter’s house.

If there were no other advantages to having a family dinnertime, this one thing would be worth it. The kids learn that they have a role to play in the family. They see Mom as she cooks up a nourishing repast for them, an act of love. They see Dad doing his fair share. The whole hour is a communal act.

These days, “most family meals happen about three times a week, last less than 20 minutes and are spent watching television or texting while each family member eats a different microwaved ‘food,’ ” according to Dr. Mark Hyman in a Huffington Post article, “How Eating at Home Can Save Your Life.”

This one thing—eating dinner together daily—is better for you and your child’s health and well-being than anything else you can do.

In 1900, writes Hyman, two percent of family meals were eaten outside the home. In 2010, that number was 50 percent. That’s half of all meals.

My first question is, how can you afford it? At the bare minimum, eating at a fast food joint costs at least $5 per person. For a family of four, that comes to $20 for a meal full of fat, salt and sugar, devoid of nutrients.

Other advantages of family mealtime:
• The average parent spends 38.5 minutes per week in meaningful conversation with their children, according to a study by A.C. Nielsen Co. A family meal immediately ups that to per day.
• Family dinners are more important than play, story time and other family events in the development of vocabulary of younger children, according to Harvard Research, 1996.
• When families dine together, they tend to eat more vegetables and fruits—and fewer fried foods, soda, and foods with trans fats, says an article in WebMD.
• Younger children who eat meals with their families are less likely to be overweight. Recent studies show that 20 percent of American children are obese. That puts them at higher risk for many health problems later in life, including heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, as well as emotional problems.
• Kids who eat most often with their parents are 40 percent more likely to get mainly A’s and B’s in school than kids who have two or fewer family dinners a week, reports the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA).
• Adolescents and teens who eat dinner with their parents are 42 percent less likely to drink, 50 percent less likely to smoke and 66 percent less like to smoke marijuana.
• Adolescent girls who have frequent family meals, and a positive atmosphere during those meals, are less likely to have eating disorders, according to research at the University of Minnesota in 2004.

“One of the simplest and most effective ways for parents to be engaged in their teens’ lives is by having frequent family dinners,” says Joseph Califano Jr., chairman and president of CASA.

My daughter has family dinner together every night because that’s how she was raised. I did it because that’s how I was raised. If that’s not how you were raised, start a new family tradition. Start a new “normal.”

With the $20 you would spend buying fast food, you can buy a whole chicken, a box of rice, a pound of fresh green beans and some salad greens. Involve the family in preparing the meal and table.

Turn off the TV, don’t answer the phone, no texting at the table. Get everyone involved in conversation; keep it positive.

Light a candle and say a prayer together and you’ve got the closest thing to heaven this life has to offer.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Epiphany is the Real Magic of Christmas

It’s still Christmas!

We put up our tree on Dec. 23. Several days before, the husband and daughter rode the tractor “out back” on our 12 acres and found a cedar tree. The size was fine and it generally had the conical shape, but it had long branches on one side and a huge bare spot on the other. I had little hope for it.

But once we strung the lights and placed the ornaments and tinsel on it, it took on a new identity, as though some magic transformed it into an object of beauty.

It graces the dining room. With its gentle light and that of a candle or two on the table, Christmas music softly playing, the room is a peaceful place to linger over a meal or cup of tea.

And so Christmas for us begins on Christmas Eve and lasts until Twelfth Night or Epiphany, a holiday that lasts nearly two weeks. It’s party and gathering time.

Many countries around the world still observe Christmas through Twelfth Night. America’s consumer culture, which prefers to observe Christmas as a secular spending spree, has gypped its citizens of experiencing the depth and width and height that Christmastide has to offer.

Rage against the machine. You are not a consumer.

The last day of Christmas is Epiphany, Jan. 6, the day to commemorate the arrival of the wise men. Epiphany is the revealing of Jesus as the son of God. Epiphany also celebrates the revealing of Jesus at his baptism and at his first miracle at the wedding of Cana. It honors the mystery of incarnation.

Epiphany is not defined as a good idea or an inspiration. The word in Greek means manifestation or appearance. It’s used to describe God coming to Earth as Jesus Christ.

I love this period of time, a time out of time. The kids are off from school, I am off from work, and my daughter is visiting from Belfast. Friends and family come and go. Aside from a few daily chores, it’s like a long Sabbath. I can stay up as late as I want, take naps, read, visit, bake, take long walks, rest, celebrate.

The Christmas tree lights and candles are like the light in the darkness of cold, barren winter. Like the light of Christ in an often difficult world.

Some churches celebrate Epiphany with “mystery dinners,” where a few members host a meal in their homes. Their guests don’t know whose home they’re dining at until a few hours before the meal, and the hosts don’t know who their guests are until they appear. Thus the revealing. Other churches hold a “burning of the greens,” where members and neighbors bring their (real) Christmas trees and wreathes for a great bonfire.

The burning of the greens, in addition to creating a great light, also fills the role of ridding the house of Christmas decorations. In some places it’s considered unlucky to have greens in the house after Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night is the sort of “secular” version of Epiphany. Shakespeare’s play—a great confusion and revealing of identities—was written to be performed on that night. In some places, a special cake is made containing a dried bean and pea and whoever gets them are the king and queen of the night’s activities.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m a bit romantic. Maybe I don’t belong in USA in 2010. I seem to march to the beat of a different drummer. I just think we’re missing a lot with our obsession with shopping, our attempt to be satisfied with the accumulation of stuff, our disconnect from the natural world all around us.

Honestly? I think we’ve been sold a pack of lies. I think Consumerism is a religion concocted by Wall Street to make a small part of our population rich. It’s a distraction from who we really are, why we’re really here, what life is really all about. And so I continue to remind myself and you that there are other, deeper, more satisfying ways to live our lives.

Like our cedar tree, I still believe the magic of Christmas can transform something small and ugly into a thing of beauty and grace.

And so with that I wish you a merry Christmas and happy new year.