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Using Popular Culture as Christians


LIGHTS, CAMERA...FAITH!: A Movie Lectionary, Cycle A, by Peter Malone, M.S.C., with Rose Pacatte, F.S.P. Pauline Books & Media. 393 pp. $24.95.

EYES WIDE OPEN: Looking for God in Popular Culture, by William D. Romanowski. Brazos Press. 171 pp. $12.99.

Reviewed by MICHAEL J. DALEY, who teaches at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has a B.A. in theology from Xavier University (Ohio) and an M.A. in religious studies from Villanova University (Pennsylvania). His articles and book reviews have appeared in St. Anthony Messenger, Momentum, Catholic Update, Youth Update and Religion Teacher's Journal.

ONE THING EVERY first-year teacher learns is the adage: "In order for students to go through your door, you first have to go through theirs." If there is to be any learning, then the teacher must be aware of and perhaps use things that the students are seeing at the movies and on TV, listening to on the radio and their CD players, or reading in books and magazines. All of this is done in the attempt to draw them to the teacher's goal: the door of truth. This process can and, given the day in which we live, must also be applied when it comes to the intersection of faith and culture. So, put another way, "In order for the door of faith to be entered, the door of culture must first be opened."

It is with this premise in mind that Lights, Camera...Faith!: A Movie Lectionary, Cycle A should be read and used. The authors, Father Peter Malone, president of Signis, the new Catholic organization for cinema, TV, radio and electronic media and a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and Sister Rose Pacatte, a media-literacy education expert and director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies, are serious about the possibility of creating a dialogue between faith and culture through the use of movies. They realize that film, like the Gospels, speaks to the human condition, which cries out for meaning.

This book was born when a friend challenged Father Malone: "Why don't you find a movie that links to the Sunday Gospel? It might make a good homily."

Lights, Camera...Faith! is the first in a three-part series, which follows the Lectionary cycles A, B and C used by the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations. Each chapter presents the readings for that Sunday, followed by a synopsis of the paired movie, commentary on the film, dialogue with the Gospel, key scenes and themes from the movie, and ends with questions for reflection and conversation. It includes not only Sundays, but also feast days and national holidays, like Thanksgiving and Mother's Day.

So whether it's Terminator or It's a Wonderful Life, the drama of popular culture is used as a bridge to connect us with the drama of the Mass—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Before turning to Lights, Camera...Faith!, though, it may prove beneficial to have a better understanding of why popular culture should be used in the first place to search for, connect us with and comment upon faith. This is the goal of Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture, by William D. Romanowski, professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College. In it he wants to provide the reader with a "fascinating, easy-to-read guide for interpreting and evaluating popular culture as a Christian."

Romanowski begins by acknowledging that popular culture is part of our lives. Its presence is here to stay. This is perhaps illustrated best by that most significant anniversary recently "celebrated"—the 20th anniversary of MTV. For Romanowski, though, it's not the presence of popular culture which is problematic but our response to it.

Arguing "that we have not thought deeply enough about the nature of popular art and its role as a cultural communicator," Romanowski believes this "...leaves us with very little to contribute to the discourse about popular art and culture."

Neither reviling nor embracing it, Eyes Wide Open echoes the refrain of "looking for God in popular culture." He stresses that "Christians have to be actively engaged with culture: studying it, discerning positive and negative aspects, and working to redeem it." If this is not done, the shadow side of popular culture—its consumerism, violence, individualism and privatization of life and religion—will carry the day.

Eyes Wide Open allows us the opportunity to discover what our response to popular culture is—condemnation, appropriation or consumption—or should be as Christians. Romanowski takes seriously the possibility that some expressions of popular art have serious application and comment on our lives.

At the same time, Romanowski challenges us to consider what process of discernment we bring to popular art—why do we watch what we do; what stories (or myths) are presented through the music, magazines and movies of popular culture?

Taken together, Lights, Camera...Faith! and Eyes Wide Open serve as powerful aids in allowing us to respond to popular culture not as passive consumers but as active believers. There is something here for all who are concerned about the direction of our children and the culture which influences them. They should be a welcome resource for all—parents, teachers, homilists, adult religious educators and youth ministers—who seek to make the Gospel relevant and meaningful in today's popular culture.

You can order LIGHTS, CAMERA...FAITH!: A Movie Lectionary, Cycle A and EYES WIDE OPEN: Looking for God in Popular Culture from St. Francis Bookshop.

BEYOND THE MIRROR: Reflections on Death and Life, by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Crossroad Publishing Company. 93 pp. $14.95.

Reviewed by MARY LYNNE RAPIEN, wife, mother, grandmother, clinical counselor, bereavement minister, catechist and homily writer for St. Anthony Messenger Press.

NO ONE COULD EVER accuse Henri Nouwen of living an unreflective life. In fact, he shares his reflections during and following major "interruptions," as he calls them, by writing books. This slender sharing is just such a work, written after an accident that brought him to death's door. He was hit by the mirror of a passing truck while walking on an icy road in 1989.

Robert Durback gives the value of the book in his Foreword. He says, "Led by Nouwen, we can walk through our mirrors into the real world of our true selfhood, designed by a loving God and destined for a future beyond our imagining."

In Beyond the Mirror, Nouwen draws us into his intense religious experience, to a new freedom, a deeper realization of God's unconditional love, of the divine presence, "the Lord of my life, saying, 'Come to me, come.'"

Nouwen shares that it was not the fear of leaving loved ones behind that caused him to cling to life here. He said it was his "unfinished business." "The pain of forgiveness withheld, by me and from me, kept me clinging to my wounded existence."

It was in the hospital, surrounded by caring people while totally dependent on them for his needs, that Nouwen understood at a new level the peace and freedom of "becoming like a little child." He says he glimpsed "beyond the mirror" and "had a taste of the Kingdom."

Nouwen's book is easy to read in one sitting and contains kernels of wisdom and gems of insight. Purchasing this work is like buying a Tommy Hilfiger shirt: You get the quality, but you pay a premium for the name. Other books that deal with facing our mortality, like Gift of Peace by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom and Lessons From the School of Suffering by Father Jim Willig, offer at least as much for the money.

You can order BEYOND THE MIRROR: Reflections on Death and Life from St. Francis Bookshop.

AT THE WELLSPRING: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, by Brother John of Taizé. Alba House. 93 pp. $9.95.

Reviewed by ANTHONY ADENU-MENSAH, O.F.M.Conv., who studied social communications at the Gregorian University in Rome. He did an internship at St. Anthony Messenger last summer and has returned to Ghana to edit a Franciscan magazine, Catholic Messenger.

ONE ALWAYS NEEDS some sort of guide to appreciate fully the various meanings present in a piece of art. One often hears people exclaiming, "I never thought of that," when they come to discover something new in a familiar artistic piece.

This is comparable to the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, reported in the Gospel of John. It's really a piece of art full of meanings and calls for a guide to point them out. Brother John of Taizé, who spends most of his time giving biblical introductions to young adults, plays that role, bringing out the beauty of the episode. In an easy-to-follow style, Brother John divides his book into two main parts: foreground and background. But what is remarkable about his style is his blending of Jewish folkloric tradition and Scripture to bring out a meaning for the modern-day reader.

He writes with the conviction that Jesus "is the tangible expression in the world of the unseen God" and that "this encounter with an unnamed Samaritan woman at a well...reveals more about God and his 'thirst' for a human response to the love he freely gives."

Brother John first situates the theme of wells and water in the general context of Hebrew tradition and Scripture. He uses this style to throw more light on the fact that in Jesus one finds the continuation of God's revelation to the Jews. To this end, three texts, which reveal a patriarchal connection with wells, water and women, are cited.

The first is the episode of Rebekah meeting a servant of Abraham at a well and leading to her marriage to Isaac (Genesis 24). Then there is the Jacob-Rachel encounter at a well also ending in marriage (Genesis 29). Finally, there is Moses who meets the daughters of Reuel at a well and later marries one of them (Exodus 2).

It is interesting to know that water and wells play the significant roles of "source of life; gathering place; site of conflict and reconciliation; meeting place, notably between a man and a woman with the view to marriage; and symbols of a God who takes care of his people."

The second part of the book is devoted to a step-by-step treatment of the episode between Jesus and the Samaritan woman with a style that captures the attention of the reader. Never abandoning the rich Jewish traditional background, Brother John leads the reader to the understanding that Jesus is "the fullness of what these symbols [wells and water] always wished to communicate."

Through the use of questions intended as points for reflection, the reader is led to prayer and to action, the goal of the many young adults who flock to Taizé every year. Years of encounter with them show in the writings of Brother John and especially in this book. It is really a wellspring from which one can draw inspiration and strengthen Christian life. No one can read it and remain untouched by the words.

You can order AT THE WELLSPRING: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE POEM AS SACRAMENT: The Theological Aesthetic of Gerard Manley Hopkins by Philip A. Ballinger. William B. Eerdmans. 272 pp. $30.

Reviewed by the REV. DONNA SCHAPER, pastor of Coral Gables Congregational Church in Miami, Florida. Prior to that, she was the western area minister for the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.

HOPKINS IS WELL-KNOWN for two very complex terms of a spiritual nature. One is inscape, the other is instress. Both are words Hopkins coined himself so that he could say what he wanted to say. Spell-check hates both words: it keeps substituting unstress or escape. Neither manages to get close to the spiritual security implied by the deep internality Hopkins means by these words. Both refer to internal strength, grounded by God, what people mean by "guts" or "belly." And then both, though different, mean more.

In "Wreck of the Deutschland," one of Hopkins's poems, we get as close to what he is trying to say as possible:

"Since tho' he is under the world's splendor and wonder
His MYSTERY must be stressed, instressed
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand."

The meaning of these words is terribly important to the preacher. It is where our deepest parts meet God in a mysterious salvation- and security-giving encounter. It is conversion from our deep insides.

Hopkins's goal as a poet was to bring beauty back to faith. He believes we can access God by using our senses. He achieves the goal by showing what he sees poetically. Whether it's through sea or sunset, or human interaction with the divine, Hopkins writes a sacramental poetry. He shows what God is up to in creation.

From God's point of view, the issue is sacramental, normally defined as the outer experience of an inner grace.

Ballinger's survey of Hopkins's work is, unfortunately, not for the novice. Such a book would be useful for preachers and other students of the Word of God. Nevertheless, this beautiful book of criticism takes a believer's perspective on poetry often only approached aesthetically. In that approach, the book finds its value.

Hopkins is a linker, a maker of matches. He was trying to match faith to beauty, and this is not an easy task.

You can order THE POEM AS SACRAMENT: The Theological Aesthetic of Gerard Manley Hopkins from St. Francis Bookshop.

CHRIST FOR ALL PEOPLE: Celebrating a World of Christian Art edited by Ron O'Grady. Orbis Books. 159 pp. $39.95.

Reviewed by JEANNE KORTEKAMP, art director of St. Anthony Messenger.

HOW DO WE see Jesus today? This is the question that is explored in Christ for All People through an examination of Christian art in a variety of media.

The book begins with a brief overview of historical depictions of Jesus (16 pages). These images and others like them have shaped our perceptions of how we see God. Who is not familiar with the Jesus in DaVinci's Last Supper or in Michelangelo's Pietŕ?

The bulk of this book, however, deals with contemporary Christian art from around the world. And that is exactly what will fascinate readers. For we have become so accustomed to classic European religious art that we tend to forget that it was created for a specific audience in a particular time and place.

As the reader leafs through the pages of the book, it becomes quite evident that Jesus is much more than the familiar presentations of him. I found myself not only seeing Jesus in new ways but also asking over and over, "Who is this artist? What is her background? Where does he live? When was this piece of art created? What is the story behind this art?"

The commentaries of the international writers that accompany the images create a context and illuminate each piece.

In the mural by Tanzanian artist Charles S. Ndege, Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem, Jesus and the women appear as Africans. Jesus embraces his cross as the women kneel with their children in the road before him, weeping and wailing. Do they cry for him or for the pain of their own lives? Both perhaps?

Two paintings entitled The Good Samaritan place the scene in Latin American countries in the 1980s. The one by Rudolfo Arellano depicts a Nicaraguan setting; the other by Josué Sanchez Cerron is Peruvian. The story takes on a whole new dimension when we see it in the context of these countries where the people have suffered so much. What fate befell this stranger found lying on the road? Have we not viewed this very scene in the photos of journalists who bring us the stories of massacres?

To my delight, another side of Christ's humanity is brought forth in a paper collage by Kim Jae Im of Korea. In very simple shapes of torn paper, Jesus smiles broadly as his hands rest on the heads of a young boy and girl. How refreshing to see the evidence of his pleasure in these little ones! In contrast to this abstract image, the adjacent page shows in great detail Jesus blessing the children in a pen-and-wash drawing by Ketut Lasia of Indonesia. Whereas the children in the paper collage could be any children, the children in the pen-and-wash drawing are definitely Asian.

Gazing at a crucifixion scene in a tapestry entitled I Will Choose Life by Swedish artist Sandra Ikse raised many questions in my mind. A woman's face appears at the head of the cross. Beneath her face are the faces of a man, two young children, a child in the womb and a blank face. At the foot of the cross are the profiles of an older man and woman, and the outline of a mother cradling her baby over the face of a boy. The making of the tapestry became a tool for healing from a tragic event in the life of the artist—the drowning of her four-year-old son. This is her personal cross with the hope for new life, the baby in the womb, anchored firmly in the center.

The good news of Christ for All People is that, whether we live in Jerusalem or Chicago, Jesus can be found. As the works of these artists show, people will seek him and find him in the faces that surround them. Our God is alive and present to us—and that is good news, indeed!

You can order CHRIST FOR ALL PEOPLE: Celebrating a World of Christian Art from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE NURSE'S CALLING: A Christian Spirituality of Caring for the Sick by Mary Elizabeth O'Brien, Ph.D., R.N. Paulist Press. 141 pp. $11.95.

Reviewed by KATHLEEN J. WILKINS, R.N., B.S.N., whose 25-year nursing career has included the surgical floor, hemodialysis and ICU/CCU. For the past 10 years she has worked as a surgical nurse in the operating room, and now at Bethesda North Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio.

IN THE BOOK The Nurse's Calling: A Christian Spirituality of Caring for the Sick, Mary Elizabeth O'Brien shares her experiences as a nurse, as well as her religious background, to offer job-related inspiration. O'Brien deftly takes some of her favorite passages from the Old and New Testaments and shows how they are reflected in the nursing profession of today.

Many of the stories are from O'Brien's personal experiences, but she also uses experiences and thoughts on caregiving from other medical professionals. She includes quotations from religious leaders and saints to support and add dimension to each chapter's theme.

O'Brien demonstrates that caring for the sick has been as important throughout history as it is now. "From the time of Jesus, Christian nursing of the sick has been guided by a spiritual call to care. This spiritual ministry was directed especially toward the care of the poor and the vulnerable: 'For I was ill and you cared for me. Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for these least brothers of mine, you did for me' (Matthew 25:35-36,40)."

In a later chapter O'Brien empathizes with today's nurses who are continually aware of the cost restrictions put on the organizations they work for. "When cost reduction is mandated, nursing is often one of the first services affected....Nurses are concerned that they will be required to focus on simply getting the work done rather than on truly caring for patients."

It is nice to hear a word of sympathy, yet O'Brien goes on to show examples of nurses rising above those constraints to meet more than just the physical needs of their patients. She also reminds nurses how to "touch with love" and shares several biblical quotations exemplifying Jesus' touching and healing.

Perhaps the most inspirational message comes in a deeply moving prayer offered before the book even begins. "The Sacred Covenant: A Nurse's Prayer" reminded me of how special this calling can be. I was reinvigorated with the spirit of why I chose this profession. It helped me to see God in each of my patients. Now my care seems a little more loving and a little less like work.

Caregivers in any walk of life can draw strength and inspiration from the stories and biblical quotations.

You can order THE NURSE'S CALLING: A Christian Spirituality of Caring for the Sick from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

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Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop at www.StFrancisOnline.com or 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45210, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 6.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.


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