Saturday, December 27, 2008

Beyond Our Differences: I was absorbed yet again by Bill Moyers Journal. Beyond Our Differences presented a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak religious scene. Just when I thought there was some hope I checked the news in the morning, as I always do, only to see that Gaza was in flames again. This time Israel struck in significant fashion. So far nearly 200 Palestinians are dead and 400 wounded. There are Israeli dead too. Hamas has been striking Israel consistently breaking the cease fire time after time after time. They must know the Israelis will not sit back and take an onslaught. So the beat goes on. Tit for tat again and again and again people’s bodies are dismembered and death reigns supreme. Nothing gets resolved except the willingness of each side to inflict more death and more destruction on each other ad infinitum until, I suppose, the end of time if necessary.

The hopeful aura of Bill Moyers Journal of “Beyond our Differences” showing the commonality of the religions of man to me this morning was rescinded as reality spoke otherwise. I know the voices of peace are out there. I know it because I am one and am no less a Jew than many who are more militant. Our voices though soften with the reality of the tears we shed, and by the incredulity and powerlessness we feel. How many more, for what and for whom? Is a life worth land, dirt, stone, pebbles, a 5000 year old text or a less than 2000 year old text? What is a life worth and who says so? Who wrote these edicts? Did a sky god come down from on high? Each group claims that He did and claims He did for that particular group and no other.

The criticism I have of this episode of The Journal is that for every sentence of peace in the Torah, the New Testament or the Koran one can find an equal and opposite sentence of violence. Those sentences of violence serve as justification for the never-ending mayhem inflicted by religionists. The Journal in its effort to seek common ground fails to state the very elements of those texts which are NOT non-violent and from which fundamentalism gets its fuel.
One of the statements on this part of the Journal said that 95% of humans on this planet believe in a Creator of our universe. 95% is very high. I must be among the five lonely percent who does not believe in a Creator who personifies himself and takes one side of man over the other. I am sure in the Middle Ages one could say 95% of all men thought the earth was the center of the galaxy and the sun revolved around it. They were consummately wrong. So what does 95% mean? As an agnostic I labor about the question of the first cause and as Bill Maher says in his wonderful film “Religulous” I don’t know. I just don’t know what the first cause for the creation of the universe was.

What I do know is one can pray until infinity and no god is going to answer your particular prayer. Why would He answer your prayer and not the other fellow’s? Why would he save one five year old from Israel and not another from Gaza? Could there have been some all powerful something that began our universe? I suppose there could have been but is that all powerful something going to reserve particular plots of land for certain people and not for others? Most emphatically NO He, She or It will not. That, man will have to do either by taking the land or blowing someone’s head apart for it and he does that very well, indeed, on his very own.
No Doubt about “Doubt” I saw the newly released film “Doubt” yesterday and loved it. This serious multi-faceted enigmatic film starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams was, in my opinion, extraordinarily thought provocative and perfectly cast. The film was excellent.

The movie takes place in a private Catholic school – perhaps in Boston -- shortly after the death of President Kennedy. It involves Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the strict, sour, humorless nun and principal of the elementary school, who makes accusation against a humane and likable parish priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). She accuses him of committing an immoral act and mortal sin with the lonely and lone African American student and, perhaps, somewhat effeminate, church altar boy whom Father Flynn has befriended.

It is thought that by the younger, sweeter, more innocent Sister James (Amy Adams) on Sister Aloysius’s order to “keep an eye on Father Flynn” because of his sermon on the subject of doubt. Sister James believes, on circumstantial evidence, that Father Flynn may have committed an immoral act with the boy. She has, though, no concrete proof of its occurrence. Sister Aloysius is happy to do the obligatory assault on Father Flynn’s character when Sister James provides her with this salacious ammunition however flimsy it may be.

As I watched this, other excellent films came to mind. I thought about Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour,” a film about a child’s lie and the suicidal consequences of that lie as well as that lie’s element of truth. I thought about Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and its false accusation of immorality when people see things even when they don’t see them and what they will confess to seeing even when it is not there. I thought about how easy it is to bear false witness, to think we see what we do not and to believe false witness testimony, holding the fate of others (perhaps innocent others) in our hands. I finally thought of the Christian element of this film. It is about the possible accusation against a humane and potentially innocent man. It is about the surety of his accuser (Rome) and the torment of the accessory to the punishment (Pilot) because he knows he is condemning an innocent man.

This film, though, is not about certainty it is about doubt. Sister Aloysius is, perhaps, the most interesting character. What made her the Dickensian menacing character she was? It is hard to tell but we are told she had a married past -- a nun with a married past? That’s all we are told. Sister Aloysius is hard pressed to show an ounce of humanity and in true Dickensian fashion derives glee from whatever gossip she can acquire.

She, however, shows us another side. She shows us doubt. What does she, though, have doubts about? I do not know. That is one of the enigmas of the film and that is what the viewer must weigh. Does she doubt her own possibly false consequential accusations against Father Flynn or does she have her OWN personal doubts about her faith, the church and the existence of God. When she puts up "any old pope" on the blackboard despite the fact that it is not the right one she says oh who cares you just want to use it as a reflective mirror to watch the kids and "make them think you have eyes on the back of your head." This is not exactly what one would expect from one who is supposed to love the church and its hierarchy. She is really quite cynical about church hierarchy and knows how the power game is played. She is shrewd and smart as she lies to Father Flynn about her knowledge of his allegedly sordid past in other parishes. She has none but she told him she did. He never questions it. Why would an innocent man not question that? More room for doubt this time of Father Flynn’s innocence. We never really do know if he is truly innocent even though I rooted for him to be so.

The once innocent Sister James says she now never sleeps. I have no doubt that she does not. Sister Aloysius cries with doubt at the end. Why? I do not know. I have my own doubts. This film is about good and about evil, truth and lies and shades of gray. It is above all, I think, about doubt of all that we are and all that we know. There is no doubt in MY mind that “Doubt” is a film not to be missed.