treating human life like a Joker

Joker movieI saw the movie Joker yesterday. This is possibly the most satanic film I’ve seen since Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. I’m referring to its vision of the human person, and its insistence on a world without forgiveness, and thus a world without hope.

It is dark in a way that is more extreme than the truth, and political in a way that is even more polarizing than our current climate.

And then there is the gratuitous, intimate on-screen violence.

I predict it will leaven the culture in a very bad way. Two thumbs down.

I’m reminded of a quote from Dietrich von Hildebrand in his book titled Image of Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi:

Amorality is worse than immorality. The immoral man can repent his moral failure, he can turn back to his depth, whereas the amoral man has condemned himself to the periphery and finds no way back, when he has committed something objectively immoral.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight had a moral compass I could accept.

But the Joker truly is the hero in this new film, convinced as he is of humanity’s total depravity. Nothing in this movie ultimately proves him wrong. I’m not a Calvinist, so I find that problematic.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck (aka Joker) is very compelling. However, I thought the character study was quite uneven… at times nuanced and thoughtful, and at other times, as hyperbolic and binary as a two-year-old in the throes of a temper tantrum. I suppose one could argue that faithfully reflects a certain sort of mental illness; I don’t know.

The movie never suggests that the evil that overtakes Arthur Fleck is anything more than of human origin; it never makes a nod to the supernatural (either divine or demonic), which is another reason I consider this movie satanic in character.

As a result, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the movie is willing to — at least partially — scapegoat those who suffer from mental illness. And our culture needs that right now like a hole in the head.

On the other hand: I felt the movie consistently allowed the Joker to claim victim status, without ever really holding him to account… It was more interested in shaming the aggressors than in recognizing that the Joker had choices.  For instance, the talk show host played by Robert De Niro was portrayed as a hypocritical scold. In this sense, Joker rather reminded me of Mystic River; my review of that movie can be found here.

I do think the story touches on several wounds in our culture: among others, our fascination with posturing, shaming and scapegoating (three catalysts of the phenomenon of social media); the modern tendency to descend into narcissism and solipsism; and the insistence on denying transcendence, which reveals itself in the myth of self-manufacture, most especially through gender ideology.

One story problem — something shared by many films today — was the lack of an ending. At a certain point in the film, after one of Arthur Fleck’s unmitigated victories, the screen just went dark, after throwing up a stylized title screen with “The End” on it.

Maybe the audience was supposed to feel like the Joker’s next victim at the end: lights out, so to speak. We, too, had been victimized, or at least robbed. The Joker is on us:

There are a lot of mirrors in Joker—many shots of Fleck looking at himself, his clown makeup smeared by blood and tears. But the ghastly images of Fleck are less disturbing than what the film reflects back to us: a society strangely intoxicated by macabre spectacles but oddly resistant to confronting the realities of evil, least of all in our own hearts.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers may be laughing all the way to the bank. Joker has broken box office records for October, raking in $93 million on opening weekend, with a $55 million budget. If the filmmakers had any reservations about what they created, that kind of windfall is sure to anesthetize their consciences. I do hope they set aside some of the profit to pay for support for those left behind after the next mass shooting; it’s not a question of if, but only a question of when.

What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verse 26

The movie has nothing beneficial to say to us; it is devoid of what Pope Benedict XVI once described to educators in the United States as “intellectual charity”:

Within… a relativistic horizon the goals of education are inevitably curtailed. Slowly, a lowering of standards occurs. We observe today a timidity in the face of the category of the good and an aimless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom. We witness an assumption that every experience is of equal worth and a reluctance to admit imperfection and mistakes. And particularly disturbing, is the reduction of the precious and delicate area of education in sexuality to management of ‘risk’, bereft of any reference to the beauty of conjugal love.

How might Christian educators respond? These harmful developments point to the particular urgency of what we might call “intellectual charity”. This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love. Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and happiness of those to be educated. In practice “intellectual charity” upholds the essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth. It guides the young towards the deep satisfaction of exercising freedom in relation to truth, and it strives to articulate the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life. Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do. Here they will experience “in what” and “in whom” it is possible to hope, and be inspired to contribute to society in a way that engenders hope in others.

Lately, I’ve been listening with great interest to Eric Weinstein’s new podcast, The Portal. I find it fascinating as an analysis of the conversations we are not having as a culture because of a de rigueur climate of political correctness and shaming which inhibits the free expression of ideas. He describes a global phenomenon of preference falsification, with the 2016 US presidential election as an example of how disastrous it is when people no longer express their political opinions in the open, but save them for the ballot box alone. The idea of preference falsification is one I think it would be valuable to explore, and a Joker movie could provide a powerful dramatic way to examine the theme. But this movie had nothing meaningful to offer in this regard. Alas, it was too much to hope for from Hollywood.

I do recommend The Portal podcast. The topic of preference falsification is discussed most thoroughly in episode 4: Timur Kuran: The Economics of Revolution and Mass Deception.

“What if everything we are taught in economics 101 is not only wrong, but may even be setting us up for populism, dictatorship or revolution? On this episode of the Portal, Eric is joined by renegade Economist Professor Timur Kuran whose theory of Preference Falsification appears to explain the world wide surge towards populism, and is now threatening to rewrite the core tenets of modern economics.”

Eric Weinstein

Last night, after wasting 150 minutes on Joker, I spent 15 minutes watching Rabbi Sacks. Very clarifying:

For a slightly different take, see the review by friend and fellow Act One alumnus Carl Kozlowski: Sympathy for the Devil.

Also: Steven Greydanus critiques the film in his characteristically thoughtful and nuanced style; he mentions a dimension of the film that I omitted, and does so in a way that includes no spoilers (kudos, Steven):

Arthur’s descent into violence seems to have a liberating, empowering effect on him. By making spectacular use of a gun, he gets the attention and even apparently the celebration that all mass shooters desire.

Or does he? One can choose, not unreasonably, to regard some or all of the denouement as a self-gratifying delusion. (I know where I would draw the line between reality and fantasy.) Regardless, though, Joker does nothing to cross-examine the Joker’s experience of triumph. On some level the film offers a mass-shooter fantasy fulfilled.

You can read his full review in the National Catholic Register.

my memories of Archbishop Flynn

Flynn-1I meant to write a post about my experiences with Archbishop Flynn last week, but instead chose to prioritize posting audio from some of his retreat conferences.

And as I began to think about him, I struggled with conflicting emotions, given the circumstances of recent years. I’m not writing today as a journalist but as a friend. I’m not here to point out his shortcomings, still less to explain them away.

Over the years, I told Flynn a number of things about the abuses happening in the seminary. He always listened, but he never offered a word of response and never promised to do anything. He allowed me to be vulnerable in this way, but would never reciprocate.

I love him still, and I love him sorely.

I remember his arrival in the Twin Cities vividly, because I was in my first year of seminary at the time.

As I became acquainted with him personally, and particularly as he served as my spiritual director for two years after I left the seminary, I became more familiar with the warmth of his personality; it was inseparable from his commitment to prayer. The words which G.K. Chesterton once attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi could have come from Archbishop Flynn:

Be not troubled in your thoughts, for you are dear to me, and even among the number who are most dear. You know that you are worthy of my friendship and society; therefore, come to me in confidence whenever you will, and from friendship, learn faith.

Saint Francis of Assisi, as quoted in G.K. Chesterton’s Life of Saint Francis, speaking to a friar struggling between humility and morbidity

His warmth of character and his sense of humor made me comfortable in his presence.

What is the meaning of comfort? How does it come about? Certainly not by reasoning and reckoning. Advice and argument are no comfort: they leave us cold. They leave man alone in his need and suffering. Nothing comes to him from them. But comfort is full of life; it has an immediacy and an intimacy that makes all things new. To comfort, you must love. You must be open and enter into the other’s heart. You must be observant; you must have the free and sensitive heart that finds the paths of life with quiet assurance; you must be able to discover the sore and withered places. You must have the subtlety and strength to penetrate the living center, to the deep source of life that has dried up. The heart must combine with this source of life, must summon it to life again so that it can flow through all the deserts and ruins within.

Monsignor Romano Guardini

He also had a great love for the priesthood, and for the celibate life as Christian witness. His presentation to the seminarians about celibacy was the best thing we received on the subject.

Defining celibacy only as giving up sex is just as unrealistic as seeing marriage [only] as giving up all other women. Neither marriage nor celibacy is liveable without a commitment of love so deep as to cause one to want to give up all else.

Bishop Harry Flynn, “Celibacy: A Way to Love”, Address to the 1990 World Synod of Bishops

He wrote me a good number of letters over the years. A few highlights from the correspondence we shared:

Every once in a while, it is good to step back from our intended paths and give some thought to what we are about…. I am convinced that the unhappiness that seems to pervade in so many hearts in today’s society is because people do not take time to listen to the Lord, and the Lord will always tell us how much he loves us, but he will always keep us on the right path.  (May 13, 1996)

Keep searching for the will of God. Our Lord will let you know what His will for you is, and then have the courage to embrace it.  (May 29, 1997)

I want to impress upon you once again the importance of prayer in your everyday life. Find some time when you can be alone with our Lord. Then ask Him what He wants to do with your life, and then learn to listen for the answer, and you will find it within your own heart…. Our Lord has a plan for you, and eventually that plan will be revealed to you, and you will have the courage to embrace it, and do it, whatever it might be.  (December 23, 1997)

Now the archbishop has moved from one life to the next. From my point-of-view, the transition seems like the fulfillment of the kind of life he lived.

Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we ‘live.’

Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, paragraph 27

May you find the life you so often reminded us to seek, Archbishop Flynn. And may the angels lead you into Paradise.

40th anniversary of John Paul II’s apostolic visit to the US

index_jp2_usThis week marks the 40th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic journey to the United States of America (October 1-8, 1979).

In honor of the event, I’ll be posting short excerpts from the words he delivered during the journey.

From the welcome ceremony in at Logan Airport in Boston on October 1, 1979:

From so many quarters—Catholics, Protestants and Jews—America has opened her heart to me. And on my part I come to you—America—with sentiments of friendship, reverence and esteem. I come as one who already knows you and loves you, as one who wishes you to fulfill completely your noble destiny of service to the world. Once again I can now admire firsthand the beauty of this vast land stretching between two oceans; once again I am experiencing the warm hospitality of the American people.

Although it is not possible for me to enter into every home, to greet personally every man and woman, to caress every child in whose eyes is reflected the innocence of love—still, I feel close to all of you, and you are all in my prayers.

Permit me to express my sentiments in the lyrics of your own song: “America ! America ! God shed his grace on thee, And crown thy good with brotherhood, From sea to shining sea.”

And may the peace of the Lord be with you always—America!

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn

After learning that Archbishop Flynn had passed away last Sunday, I came across some audiocassette tapes from one of his annual vocation retreats at Villa Maria in Frontenac, Minnesota. I attended in December of 1997.

I’m making his four conferences from that retreat available online on my SoundCloud site.

He was an exceptional man, priest, and retreat director.

May the Angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs greet you at your arrival
and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem.

May the choir of Angels greet you
and like Lazarus, who once was a poor man,
may you have eternal rest.

In Paradisum