The King of New York: another disappointment

I seem to be in a bit of a slump, movie-wise.  Both of my last selections looked good on paper, but ultimately amounted to far less than the sum of their parts.

The King of New York had a lot of potential.  Christopher Walken is always fun to watch, and a crime drama with him and Larry Fishburne (that's what he went by in the credits), Wesley Snipes, and with a cameo by Steve Buscemi, should have been quality entertainment.

It wasn't.

Walken was wasted, indeed the whole cast was wasted in a bad, dull plot, flat dialog and a film that was tedious to sit through.

This is probably why I didn't remember hearing about it.  I figured that it might have been good and just slipped by me because in the year it came out (1990) I had a lot going.  Moreover, crime drama/gangster movies weren't my thing.  Turns out, it was simply mediocre.

I often rip on modern movies for being less than the sum of their parts, but every era has its share of clunkers, the issue is generally just how bad they are.

Not quite a year ago I watched Castle Keep, which was terrible.  How could a World War II movie be so bad when the memory was so fresh?  I'm not sure, but it's awful.

As a sidebar, looking at Amazon's current offerings, they seem uniformly slick, designed to appeal to modern aesthetics but utterly lacking in anything remotely interesting.  If the movie has an "adult" premise, one can be sure it will lack any actual depth or nuance.  Everything today has been broken down to an intellectual level that would embarrass Warner Brothers cartoons.

It's strong, square-jawed girlbosses as far as the eye can see and all protagonists are effectively Yard Sign Calvinists, people whose essential goodness justifies them being awful human beings.

Such is the spirit of our age.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot: another disappointing 1970s movie

Until today's horrific film offerings were unleashed on a sinful and unrepentant world, I'd have said that the 1970s were the worst decade in films.  Yes, there were great films like Star Wars or Grease, but there was a lot of nihilistic garbage.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot falls into the that category. 

On the surface, this should be an awesome movie, with Clint Eastwood starring opposite Jeff Bridges in a fun buddy-buddy heist movie.  It even has Daisy Duke herself, Catherine Bach.

Yet, despite it's promising opening, it slowly but surely becomes yet another depressing cinematic salute to the "the death of the American Dream."

Part of the problem is that it has George Kennedy essentially reprising his brute, skull-smashing character from Charade.  Kennedy would go on to lighter fare (such as Police Squad/The Naked Gun), but at that time he was often a foul-mouthed heavy.

Seeing him do the same thing in a far less light-hearted film felt derivative.  I get that having a less than happy ending was part of the zeitgeist of diminishing expectations and anti-heroes, but that doesn't make it enjoyable.

I will here note that it was this kind of depressive film making that made Star Wars the outstanding success that it was.  It was a rare happy ending in an age of deep cynicism.

The Deep Freeze

I'm old enough to remember when it was the universal scientific consensus that we'd all be dead by now.  Without immediate, and radical economic reorganization, life on earth would be over by...uh, 24 years ago.

I mention this because the real threat has never been a warming earth, which generally means longer growing seasons, but a new ice age.  If one goes back 10,000 years ago, my house would be under a mile-thick sheet of ice.

Even short of that, the current sub-zero weather is playing havoc the neighborhood pipes and even modern heating systems are struggling to keep houses warm.  A drive through the neighborhood showed that HVAC and plumbing services were not observing the federal holiday.

The cynic in me notes that "climate science" is just another grift, the equivalent of itinerant preachers or snake-oil salesmen in days gone by.  But in a deeper sense, humanity needs to be afraid of something, and if God is no longer a concern, while a 4 degree rise in global temperatures will do the trick.

This meshes well with Yard Sign Calvinism, which requires frequent (and public) affirmation while keeping actual sacrifices to a comfortable minimum.

Nevertheless, it's interesting how dependent the Elect are on sinners for life-giving warmth.

Hammering it home: G.K. Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi

I find G.K. Chesterton somewhat frustrating.  He's a great writer, full of inventive turns of phrases and his social and religious commentary is spot-on, but he has a tendency to go on and on, hammering the point to an extent that it becomes tedious.

I'm reminded of Mel Brooks, who can be very funny, but he also has a tendency to milk a gag too much, so that the laughter fades and you look at your watch, waiting for the scene to end.

That being said, St. Francis of Assisi has its going points, and it is not so much a biography as a portrait and an explanation, an attempt to bring an earlier, more vivid view of the world into a jaded, secular materialist frame.

Chesterton's point is that modern audiences simply can't relate to many historical figures because we've been blinded to the supernatural and have a reflexive need to discredit remarkable things.  Even after my conversion, I remained in this mode of thinking, looking for a "rational explanation" for things.

But what if spiritual warfare is the rational explanation?  It's been documented for thousands of years in every culture.  Are they all wrong and we're the Anointed Few who finally get it?  If so, what are the fruits of our knowledge?  What blessings are we finding due to this discovery?

Well, for starters our birth rates are plummeting, our young people are mutilating themselves and committing suicide, societal cohesion is collapsing and by every measure people are finding less happiness and fulfillment than their grandparents did while living on the oppression of religious teaching.

Chesterton picked up on this trend a century ago, and his vindication is complete.  I think that's why his works have such relevance. 

An additional element that makes this book in particular a timely read is the stark contrast between St. Francis (blunt, plain-speaking without a hint of guile) and the pope who has taken his name.  Pope Francis buries his writings in contradictions and ambiguity, leaving even his supporters wondering what they are supposed to be defending.  The recent fiasco surrounding blessing "irregular relationships" is but one of many examples.

St. Francis of Assisi could quiet flocks of birds with a kind word, and fearlessly approached mighty leaders, even trying to convert one of the caliphs.  Quite the contrast.


Sickness teaches us to appreciate being healthy

I woke last night with a low-grade fever and growing body ache.  I rarely fall ill, so this was something of a surprise.

However, as I sit in a comfy chair, sipping tea and struggling to type, it occurred to me that when I get better, I'll feel much happier about it than I did yesterday.

Since the Exile from Eden, people have always taken things for granted, and in reading the life of St. Francis of Assisi, G.K. Chesterton stresses how the saint always kept a sense of wonder and joy around him.  That's one reason why modern people have a hard time understanding him or even accepting his existence.

We're to the point where we regard bitter, ungrateful and cynical people to be normal, while people who approach life with a child-like expression of joy are assumed to be mentally ill.

I don't know that there's ever a good time to get sick, but this certainly meshes well with my current reading.

A lot of bother about blessings

For reasons known only to themselves and God, Pope Francis and his allies decided to issue a new doctrinal letter just before Christmas declaring that blessing "irregular" (read: sinful) relationships was okay so long as it was spontaneous and done in a casual setting.

This was in direct contradiction with an earlier directive from 2021, which stated very clearly that one cannot bless sinful things - to do so is blasphemous.

Because the clergy was wholly absorbed in the celebrating the Nativity of Our Lord, reaction was uneven, but with the festivities largely concluded, a great many Church leaders are making their opinions known.

They are not happy.

One of the weird elements of the letter was its insistence that this policy was universal and that bishops could not intervene.  I don't know who thought that was smart to put down in writing, but it was guaranteed to provoke a negative response.  Thus we have various bishops, archbishops, cardinals and even entire conferences of bishops forbidding these blessings within their territories.

Because the Catholic Church incorporates various rites, these groups have also stated that they will not comply.  The Eastern Orthodox Catholics, for example, do not do "non-liturgical" blessings, so it was a non-starter for them.

Things got so bad, that a second letter was released, walking back much of the first letter while also doubling down on the concept.  For example, the first letter said the prayers should be spontaneous and not use a set formula; the second letter contains a recommended formula.

The larger lesson from this is that - contra much secular and Protestant propaganda - the Pope is not an absolute dictator of the Catholic Church and "Papal Infallibility" was created to limit rather than extend Papal directives.

Another lesson is that the heart of the Church is to be found in parishes, not the Vatican.  Liberal Catholicism is dying, and the fleeting triumph of Francis' elevation is about to fade away.  The young men coming out of seminary today are fiercely devoted to tradition, and feeble attempts to denounce the Latin Mass or smear American Catholics as reactionary are only strengthening their faith.

While many commentators are upset by this whole affair, I find it helpful insofar as it is very clarifying.  It's important to know where people stand, particularly when those people hold positions of authority in the Church.  We now know exactly which bishops and priests want to endorse sexual perversion and promiscuity.  That will prove very helpful going forward. 

For years, the laity has been monitoring the clergy, and 'vigilante' groups troll hookup apps, hunting down priests and reporting them.  I'm sure similar lists are being prepared for those performing these blasphemous blessings.

This episode also illustrates why "nice" Christianity is a dead end.  You cannot encourage people to reform by telling them that sin is okay.  What this does is reinforce sinful behavior and increase resistance to the necessary repentance.

Indeed, by reinforcing the sin, "affirming" clergy like Father James Martin, S.J. is actually putting the souls of sinners at greater risk.  Such people will have much to answer for at the time of judgement.

What makes the whole episode so laughable is that we've already seen the "embrace the sinner" model in action for decades with the Church of England.  Changing doctrine has brought schism and emptied the pews. 

Indeed, G.K. Chesterton wrote about this a century ago, which is why one cannot help but think the stated goal, isn't the actual goal.  Yes, people can remain remarkably stubborn in their ignorance, but they also use ignorance as a shield for something more sinister.  At this late date, it's a distinction without a difference.  Hiding behind good intentions in for Yard Sign Calvinists, not Orthodox Catholics.


Natural Law and Priest-Kings: The Faith of Lord of the Rings

Yesterday I finally concluded my spiritual re-reading of Lord of the Rings.  I started this project in early October and initially was keeping notes.  However, as I got deeper into the story, I found myself once more captivated by it, reading late into the night even though I know it so well.

I think that's the true proof of Tolkien's excellent writing - one can read through it again and again, and still be entranced.

While I've read this book dozens of times, it was only recently that I came to truly understand Catholic theology and the spirit world.  As an irreligious teenager, this almost totally escaped me.  As an adult, I began to recognize Christian themes, but not their deeper meanings.  Even after my conversion, I was essentially skimming the surface.  I'm sure scholarly dissertations have already been written on the topic, but two things stood out to me: the use of natural law and priest-kings.

Natural Law

There are several expressions of this concept, but the one I am using is that even people with no exposure to God's revealed word have an understanding of basic morality.  Just like gravity, it doesn't have to be explained for people to understand that it exists.

The natural law in Lord of the Rings begins in The Shire, which is something of an English garden of Eden.  While far from perfect, hobbits live their lines relatively free of sin.  They gossip, engage in petty theft (mushrooms and spoons come to mind), and love to eat, but crimes of lust and wrath (like rape and murder) are unknown to them. 

Why this is the case the books never come out and say, and at several points "the wise" openly ponder how they an be so untainted by sin.  The answer seems to be a special kind of grace that leaves them with little ambition beyond a comfortable life and the joy of family and friends.

This grace is of course absent in Smeagol/Gollum, who is irredeemably evil.  He is guilty of treachery, greed, murder and perhaps cannibalism (which he certainly was willing to attempt in The Hobbit).

Gollum's fall is not without resistance, and (as with so many other lives) he might have been redeemed if circumstances permitted it.  I think of addicts who clean up but go back to their old haunts and lifestyle and thereby get hooked yet again.

When the hobbits move into the larger world, they see a more formalized system of religion, more open displays of it, and this is a reference to the formalization of God's covenant with Israel. 

Being close to living in an Edenic state, the hobbits have essentially the faith of the antediluvian patriarchs, honoring their creator, honoring their parents, and refraining from mortal sins.

The realms of elves, men and dwarves, however, are fallen, and thus must practice a faith as a means of redemption.  This results in the creation not of a church, but the ancient concept of the priest-king.

The Priest-Kings of Numenor (and Rohan)

It is noteworthy that on almost every occasion when the hobbits meet and leave the various royalty they encounter, that a blessing is bestowed upon them.  This frequently involves the laying on of hands, but other times they simple told to go with the blessing, as at the conclusion of Mass.

This hearkens back to the customs of the Near East in ancient times, when kings also served as high priest, often due to (claimed) divine descent.  The king blessed the crops, blessed the first fruits and in all ways served as the representative of the patron deity on earth.

The same was true in Numenor, where the kings had certain religious duties.  On the Holy Mountain, only the king could speak aloud.

The "downfall" of Numenor was spiritual before it became physical.  Sauron famously allowed himself to be captured and turned the ruling class towards the worship of Melkor.  This in turn led to a declaration of war against the Valar and the destruction of the realm, with only a handful of survivors escaping the disaster.

The line of priest-kings was spared, however, through Elendil and his sons.  The destruction of Arnor and the extinction of the royal line in Gondor left the men of Westernesse spritually crippled, and facilitated a crisis of faith that almost wiped out the line of the Ruling Stewards.

It is worth noting the many powers Aragorn exercises in his capacity as king.  First and foremost, he is a healer - very much a priestly function and a way to demonstrate the justness of his claim.  It is telling that miraculous healing rather than military conquest are what make a Numenorean king.

These Numenorean concepts are reflected in Rohan as well, and the funeral customs may be consciously borrowed from the Anglo-Saxons, but they nevertheless reflect Christian elements, especially the sharing of wine among the celebrants.

I'm sure a few readers might be thinking "Yes, but lots of pagan societies also shared food and drink with guests, it's not just a Judeo-Christian thing!"  This is true, but from the Catholic/Orthodox spirit realm perspective, that is because these societies were led by fallen angels, who preserved the same customs, albeit often in debased ways.

This also goes back to natural law and the notion that sharing food and drink with someone draws you closer - which it absolutely does.  There's a reason why even in our debauched, post-religious secular materialist world, "dinner and a movie" is still regarded as a way to gain intimacy.  I would argue that the eclipse of dinner parties by social media is one of the driving factors in our ongoing societal strife.

The pandemic crushed much of this social activity and "public health experts" continue to undermine it by exaggerating the dangers of disease while ignoring the greater threat of social isolation and despair, especially among young, otherwise healthy people who now struggle to form in-person relationships.

Tolkien understood the importance of this activity in holding societies together, and that is no doubt why he emphasized taverns and inns as the primary social gathering space and in lieu of priest-kings, the hobbits had a mayor (who presided at banquets) and a Thain (of the Took line) and the Master of Buckland.  It is no accident to the narrative that the heirs to these 'royal' seats (Pippin and Merry) are part of the quest and that they return with a deeper understanding of spirituality to lead their people.

All of this is to say that Lord of the Rings is truly a masterpiece, a multi-layered work of true genius. 

I've remarked on this before, but it's been fascinating to see how Tolkien's work has gone from being regarded as a fringe-fantasy epic for teenagers to a deep and meaningful book about Christian faith.  It is not uncommon for priests to reference it during homilies and even bishops now cite its examples.

Clearly, Tolkien builded better than he knew.



Looking back on 2023: The Year of Tidying Up

Yesterday we hosted a modest gathering by historical standards, but it was a welcome change from the lingering isolation of the pandemic.

In addition to the benefit of companionship, I like having people over because it acts as a spur to clean up the place.  It's easy to get complacent about the state of one's home.  So long as the kitchen sink is clear and the toilets aren't covered in grime, it's all good, right?

No.  I think the accumulation of dust and disorderliness can be felt, even if it isn't consciously seen.  So much stuff get set down here or there and then forgotten and finally buried.  It's nice to clear all that out and replace year-old papers with a plate of snacks.

That's somewhat my feeling about 2023 - it wasn't so much about starting new things as much as clearing out old ones.  While my retirement date was set at the end of 2022, it was not until mid-April that the wrangling with the Air Force was completed.  Only then did I receive my packet, certificates and formal notification.

Similarly, June saw the end of two decades of having kids in school.  I'm finally off the district email list.

Of course, Walls of Men published earlier this year, and due to the current domestic situation, I haven't been able to start anything new.  Walls of Men was something of a commercial disappointment to me.  I figured China's military history was a much more compelling topic than the Spanish Civil War, but I was wrong.

With books being out of reach, I've cranked out quite a few columns for Bleeding Fool, and these are getting more engagement, no doubt a function of their frequency and topics.

While I try to be hopeful and optimistic, I look forward to the coming year with a certain sense of dread.  Politics hold no interest for me, and our electoral system is breaking down.  I've little confidence that it will hold up to the strain.

That being said, God is the prime mover in all of this, and I will continue to work in deepening my prayer life and giving all of my trust over to Him.

Bye, Bye, Barry - Amazon's take on why Sanders quit football

For many years I've used the same response whenever people around me are discussing professional football:

"I'm a Detroit Lions fan.  I don't watch professional football."

It never fails to get a chuckle because the Lions have been a terrible team for decades.

However, in the early 1990s, there was hope that things would turn around.  Detroit drafted Oklahoma State University running back Barry Sanders, and his arrival electrified the team.

Yet despite a promising start, the Lions regressed, and the only bright spot was Sanders' performance.  Devoid of playoff hopes the fan base instead focused on Sanders becoming the greatest running back in pro football history. 

It was not to be.  On the eve of what would have been his record-breaking season Sanders quit, faxing his retirement to a hometown newspaper before going on vacation in London.

Bye, Bye, Barry is a well-done documentary that outlines Sanders' career, the critical part his father played in his life, and why he quit the way he did.

The film is peppered with highlights demonstrating what a phenomenal athlete Sanders was.  Even now, having watched many of those games, my wife and I were amazed with his evasiveness and skill.  Trying to describe his feline grace and reflexes is all but impossible.

Perhaps even more remarkable is Sanders' personality.  He was - and is - a deeply humble man, the antithesis of a typical NFL superstar.  He famously did not show up in person to accept the Heisman Award, college football's greatest honor.  He refused to take extra carries when games were decided in order to boost his statistics because he had no interest in personal glory.

In an age when touchdown celebrations became obligatory, Sanders simply tossed the to the referee after crossing the goal line.  "Act like you've been there before," was how it was described, though Sanders apparently never said it.

When he quit, Detroit and the sports world in general was thrown into turmoil.  How could the preeminent athlete in America's most popular sport just quit?  If he must quit, could he not hold a press conference?

Bye, Bye Barry answers these questions and I took a bit of pleasure in reading the situation correctly.  At the time, I figured he was tired of losing, tired of the spotlight, and wanted to do something else.

And when he quit, so did I.  I haven't watched an NFL game since.

I greatly enjoyed the film, which evoked the time period and used Motown-style music to conjure up the Spirit of Detroit.

The best Christmas in years

This post is a bit late simply because there is so much going on at Chateau Lloyd.  A pair of toddlers is more than enough to keep one's hands full, especially when they are wired on sweets and toys.

Taking it all in, the family has agreed that this has been the best Christmas since 2019 - that is, before the Plague Year.   Indeed, this is the first time that everyone was present for the holiday.

Alas, my parents are not included in that number.  Though both are still alive and alert, travel is a challenge, and kids having sniffles is enough to deter them.  As I noted a year ago, Christmas is never the same because we are never the same.  Christmas at 22 may not be that different from 23, but it certainly is at 32 or 42. 

With children, the differences are more stark, especially the transition from infancy to school age.

I know many people find this time of year difficult, and there are certainly moments sadness, particularly when I recall people who can longer join us.  I miss the big get-togethers with my aunts, uncles and cousins at the homes of my grandparents.  Because I'm an only child and my wife's kin are far away, we'll have to wait for marriages and more grandchildren to fill things out.

That anticipation is somewhat offset by the realization of my own mortality - and that of my parents.  How many years do they have left?  A friend of mine's father is over 100, a remarkable lifetime, and one that is no doubt likely to end soon.

This also causes me to treasure these moments.  I do this not just for myself, but for the children and grandchildren so that they also see Christmas as a happy time, devoid of the drama and regret that so many people feel at this time of year.

I'm not going to close with belated Christmas greetings because Christmas is still in progress.  We won't wrap the season up until January, so Merry Christmas to you all!