My new favorite read: Ex Libris: Fulton Sheen, a book about one of my favorite people written by one of my favorite people!
The past few weeks have been really intense in the carrying out of our mission. Almost immediately after I posted that I would be back to blogging regularly, I was asked to take on an assignment that has basically taken up all my time for the past several weeks. (Which is, of course, not unusual in the world of media!) But now, I am picking back up where I left off several weeks ago, focusing on using God’s gift of creativity to express truth, beauty, and goodness.
The Servant of God, Venerable Fulton Sheen is someone I have greatly admired as a communicator for Christ: he won a television Emmy award for teaching about Christ!
Recently, another Catholic communicator, Emmy-award winning Alexis Walkenstein, published a book introducing the writings, thought, and spirituality of this great man of God. I stole some time this past week to read the entire book and am delighted by the breadth and depth of this easy read.
Alexis focuses on five topics, with excerpts from seven of her favorite books by and about Archbishop Fulton Sheen. She breaks topics into short, 2-3 page chapters. My favorite chapter is “Sanctifying the Moment,” in which Sheen highlights why it is so important for us to live in the present moment:
Every moment brings us more treasures than we can gather. The great value of the Now, spiritually viewed, is that it carries a message God has directed personally to us. Books, sermons, and broadcasts on a religious theme have the appearance of being circular letters, meant for everyone…. But though moral and spiritual appeals carry God’s identical message to all who listen, this is not true of the Now-moment; no one else but I am in exactly these circumstances; no one else has to carry the same burden, whether it be a sickness, the death of a loved one, or some other adversity. Nothing is more individually tailored to our spiritual needs than the Now-moment; for that reason it is an occasion of knowledge that can come to no one else. This moment is my school, my textbook, my lesson….
The University of the Moment has been built uniquely for each of us…. originally from Lift Up Your Heart
I think that the Servant of God had such a profound grasp of the present moment not just from his spiritual life and prayer, but also because he was a communicator. As an exceptionally gifted homilist and TV personality, Sheen knew the value of living in the present moment, because he had lots of practice as a homilist and on TV: it is only by being attentive to God’s presence in the moment that we can receive the grace and inspiration of God to communicate as/what God wants us to communicate.
Venerable Fulton J. Sheen was a tremendous gift of God to the people of the 20th century. With his informal language and rigorous logic, he made divine truth accessible to the ordinary person. Author Alexis Walkenstein shows us how Sheen continues to be a tremendous gift of God to the Church in America today, with his unflinching commitment to the Truth, with his intercession for us, and with his in-depth understanding of what it means to be Catholic in America and how to nurture that ability to communicate Christ with not just our words but with who we are.
This week, I have the opportunity to interview Daughter of Saint Paul Sister Nancy Usselmann, author of the new book, A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics. Sister Nancy is director for the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, but she is here in Boston for a few weeks to prepare for our annual Christmas concerts, so I am taking advantage of her presence!
In her book, Sr. Nancy encourages us to engage with pop culture by becoming mystics: that is, to use our media experiences to recognize the beauty of God and the needs of humanity expressed by the artists of today’s culture. Much of A Sacred Look offers us a theological foundation for doing just that, and the rest of the book is a wonderful, insightful analysis of some of the most prevalent trends and popular phenomena in pop culture, ranging from TV shows such as Netflix’s controversial 13 Reasons Why, to rap music, sci-fi films, and Oscar-winning films such as The Revenant. You can read her initial interview about becoming cultural mystics here.
My plan is to post the interview up here next week. If you would like us to discuss a particular aspect of pop culture (perhaps a favorite or controversial film, song, or TV show), please feel free to send me a message here, on Facebook or Twitter, or in the comments below, before Thursday noon (August 22nd), and I’ll see if we can get to it.
If you are in the Boston area, you may want to join Sister Nancy for her author talk/book signing on this Saturday, August 25:
It’s a delight to be able to offer this little Easter gift for my blog readers!
Here are some guides for reflection and discussion for A Wrinkle in Time, available individually or all in one downloadable PDF. Eventually, these guides will move to the website for the Pauline Center for Media Studies, so if you’re interested in discussing the film or the book, or comparing the two, or simply praying with themes (and Scriptures) from the novel, you might want to download them from here today. Enjoy!
The beloved, classic YA novel A Wrinkle of Time influenced countless young people who read it during their formative years. The 2018 film reminds us of the differences between books and movies—and that one doesn’t always translate well to the other—but it still offers insight into aspects of Madeleine L’Engle’s original story.
A Wrinkle in Time is the story of young teen Meg Murry, whose parents are brilliant scientists who research the universe in a microcosmic and macrocosmic way. Meg’s father disappeared without a trace four years ago, and while Meg and her family desperately miss him and believe his disappearance has to do with his research, they have to put up with their neighbors’ and classmates’ snide remarks that their father purposely abandoned them.
Meg has an exceptionally brilliant brother she is very close to, five-year-old Charles Wallace. Charles Wallace often seems to know things without being told—including Meg’s often unspoken feelings of inadequacy and her struggle to fit in.
Several strange ladies, “fallen stars” (who are really angel-like figures) befriend Charles Wallace and take him, Meg, and Meg’s new friend from school, Calvin, on an inter-dimensional journey to other planets in the galaxy to find Meg’s father and rescue him.
The above description fits both film and novel, but doesn’t capture the emotional impact that the novel had on countless young people since its publication in 1962. This summary might seem a bit formulaic, but at the time, A Wrinkle in Time defied both categorization and expectations. (Eventually, it would help to define the YA genre, and in my mind it remains one of the first—and the best—YA books read today.)
The author, Madeleine L’Engle brings a unique Christian sensibility to fantasy in her book, A Wrinkle in Time:
* the sense of wonder at and gratitude for the marvels of the universe
* an attitude of praise toward the Creator of the universe, who has created everyone (and everything) with a purpose to fulfill
* a solidly Christian foundation for the story, especially evident (but unstated?) in its approach to the universe, to life, the dignity of the human person, and to the struggle of good vs. evil
* a fascination with paradox and humility
* a deep respect for the reader: L’Engle is not afraid to challenge the reader’s ability to grasp scientific theory and to stretch our imagination to its limits
* an integrated way of seeing reality, the human person, and spiritual growth
Unfortunately, very little of this is carried through into the film.
But the film has some strengths and adaptations that make it well worth viewing: Strong acting, inclusive casting, some wonderful lines from the book are included in the dialogue, the fact that it is family-friendy, some delightful touches that nuance certain characters to show that it is their woundedness that gives an entryway to sin. The portrayal of the angelic characters, the Mrs. W’s, totally challenge the traditional image of angels. In the novel and in the film, the angels keep Meg and viewers off-balance and slightly uncomfortable—the way we are supposed to be when in the presence of angels.
Some of the important themes that are explored in the movie are:
* the tyranny of conformity vs. the the gift of individuality
* importance of free will
* the gift (or grace) of our weakness
* growth in self-confidence and integrity
* the struggle between good and evil/light and darkness
* love, especially under the aspect that love is the strongest power in the universe and is the best way to overcome evil
The film also addresses the wonder of creation, but in this aspect, we see lots of special effects, which are dazzling visually, but less of experience of wonder.
The film got a lot right, and is worth seeing on its own. However, it could have been so much more. As a novel, A Wrinkle in Time is practically perfect; the film’s artistry doesn’t measure up to the book, nor is it a great film on its own.
My second biggest disappointment in the film is that, although the characters are likable, we never get to “feel” with them. Somehow, this movie leaves us on the surface. None of the characters get the just development they deserve. As the protagonist, Meg has a credible character arc, but it never makes us feel with her. (And it’s certainly not the wonderful character arc of the book.)Too much time is spent on the visual effects, but again, we experience them from the surface. In L’Engle’s book, creation itself is a character, but in the book, it is simply a colorful background. Choices are consistently made that pull us away from the deeper story of the characters. A chase scene that doesn’t even exist in the book was added in…and it doesn’t even make sense. Unfortunately, this emphasis on the special effects means that we don’t have enough time to go deeper into the characters.
The pacing of the plot was uneven. The film jumps between places and flashbacks in time, but too often the jumps didn’t serve the story.
Translation from Novel into Film
CAUTION: BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD
My first disappointment in the film is that so many of the themes inherent in L’Engle’s novel don’t make it into the film. In the novel, L’Engle’s characters directly quote the Bible at least five times: from Isaiah, the Gospel of John, 1 & 2 Corinthians. (I would have to reread the book just for Scripture citations to be sure how many; I probably missed one or two or more!) I don’t believe that the film used any of those quotes, even though several of them capture these deeper themes so well. By eliminating the reference to these quotes and removing those themes, the filmmakers are removing the major part of the depth and magic of the story.
One of my favorite events which is key in Meg’s character development, is completely left out. Instead, the movie shows her father trying to tesser Meg out and failing, because of Meg’s strength of will (and maybe her temper). From there, the film moves right to the climax of the story. (In the novel, of course Meg has a temper, but after almost dying from her father’s effort to tesser her home, she goes through an inner journey on the planet of Ixchel, which prepares her for the final encounter with It. Her choice to go back to get Charles Wallace comes not from fear, but is a choice of love and trust, even in the blindness of her fear and the knowledge that she isn’t strong enough. By leaving out this journey to Ixchel—one of the most important events of the book and a key event in Meg’s character development—the film reduces the novel’s incredibly rich thesis to a flat journey to self-esteem, with a generic message about the power of love.
My disappointment in the film was made all the greater by the filmmakers claiming to know L’Engle deeply. Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “I wrote A Wrinkle in Time as a hymn of praise to God, so I must let it stand as it is and not be fearful when it is misunderstood.” In taking out many of the specifically Christian elements from the film, the filmmakers also took away the universal elements: the film has a weaker storyline, a generic message that lacks depth and specificity, flat themes, and characters that don’t emotionally engage the audience.
The Foolish and the Weak
The film’s biggest theme — Meg gaining enough self-esteem to learn to trust herself —is a worthy theme that resonates with kids. But in the novel, Meg doesn’t save herself by her own power, just because she believes in herself. Her learning to trust in herself is only a part of one of the book’s main themes: the Christian paradox of weakness and strength, of failure and victory—all of which, of course, refers to the paradox of the cross. This is a far cry from the tagline of the film, “Be a warrior.” I assume that the tagline (and the line repeated in the film) is about being a warrior of love, and having courage. But that is really not the theme–not even of the film.
The novel’s last chapter is titled “The Foolish and the Weak,” and directly quotes 1 Corinthians: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” Meg doesn’t just learn that the power of this world—the power we can see—is not the greatest power in the universe. She learns that love is. But it’s a mutual love. It is in her faults, in her weakness and neediness, that she “grows into” accepting the truth about herself. And that truth, that humility, enables her to receive the love that transforms her into Love for others—to forgive her father and to rescue Charles Wallace no matter the risk to herself. It is Meg’s remembering that she is loved by Mrs. Whatsit (an angelic stand-in for God) that enables her to love Charles Wallace who has lost himself, even as he is fighting her. Meg’s greatest adventure in A Wrinkle in Time is not external, but spiritual.
Is A Wrinkle in Time a “Must-See” Film?
This film got a lot wrong, leaving out: some of the best scenes, all of the biblical references apart from Jesus’ name; the Pauline theme of the foolishness of God being wiser than human wisdom; the sense of divine design in the universe—even the lovely example that human life is like a sonnet. (Our lives have a certain structure, but we are free to say whatever we want to say, as long as we stay within that poetic design.) However, in all fairness, perhaps A Wrinkle in Time is just too great of a novel to do a great film adaptation today. Perhaps in the future, the right filmmaker will come along and do this novel justice.
At the same time, the film does a good job visualizing and dramatizing parts of this great story. If you like fantasy, or if you’d like a fun family movie that has a little more depth to it, or if you loved the book but also like film adaptations, you will probably enjoy this movie. If you haven’t read the book, or you haven’t read the book in a while, then I highly recommend reading the book first, or plan to read it soon afterwards. The movie needs the book to complete it. And the story is more timely today than ever. However, if you are a book purist, then I regretfully caution you that you might not enjoy the film.
A Final Note
Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favorite authors—both her fiction (A Wrinkle in Time) and nonfiction (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art). I suspect this is part of the reason why:
“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” – Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
A discussion guide for the film and the novel highlighting some of these themes will be available in shortly—check back here on my blog or email me if you’d like to be notified when you can download it!
A lot of Catholic kids’ books are written to appeal to girls. Here’s a really brilliant Way of the Cross written by David Goulet and illustrated by Joe Spicer that is directed to today’s preteen and teenaged boys. (Although I think a lot of girls will like it too.) The artwork isn’t my style–and that’s a good thing–because otherwise probably not one kid would pick it up. But the artwork is Manga-styled, powerful and contemporary. The reflections are short, powerful, and moving–and appropriate for middle graders up to teenagers.
There are so few great writing resources that offer solid spiritual and artistic foundations that we can turn to when we feel ourselves “lost” or confused at the crossroads between faith and culture, between the demands of our art and the depth of our spiritual lives. I’ve read a lot of books about writing, and a strong selection of books about the artistic process and spirituality, and I’ve only come up with a handful. These are the resources that I go back to when I need inspiration. Here they are, in no particular order, with links and my highest recommendation for writers and artists!
I know that, as Daughters of Saint Paul, and especially with digital media, we reach people around the world, but it is a special thrill when one of my books is published in another country or in another language! As far as I know, various books have been printed in French (Bread of Life), Spanish (Life for the World), Polish (See Yourself Through God’s Eyes), and our sisters in India have published several of my books in Indian editions. Yesterday, I received word that Soul of Christ: Meditations on a Timeless Prayerhas just been released in India! Here is a review from one of our sisters there.
No, unfortunately I did not become a Jedi knight (unlike Father Roderick, who is holding a lightsaber!).
I finally obtained (note that I did not beg or steal, but borrowed…from halfway across the country!) a copy of Geekpriest: Confessions of a New Media Pioneer, by Father Roderick Vonhögen. I’ve been eagerly anticipating reading Father Roderick’s book for ages (yes, that’s since a whole two years ago when the book was first published by Servant Press/Franciscan Media). One drawback of eager anticipation is that it is easily disappointed. Not only was I not disappointed, but I was fully engaged and tremendously satisfied by this remarkable book.
Most Catholics who work in digital and social media are probably familiar with Father Roderick Vonhögen, the founder of the Star Quest Production Network (SQPN), which uses the media for religious information, evangelization, catechesis, formation, and education. Personally, I first “discovered” Father Roderick through a friend recommending his podcasts, and I continue to listen today. (One of my guilty pleasures is listening to his “Secrets of…” podcasts that explore some of my favorite stories–TV, films, and books.)
I wonder how many of us have actually read this book? A marvelous blend of personal anecdotes and insights on using new media, Geekpriest is delightfully informal and accessible. Anyone who works in Catholic media will enjoy, be inspired by, and learn from this treasure.
Read This Book! (or, My Favorite Parts)
The only way to do justice to this book is to read it in its entirety. However, I’d like to highlight a few of my favorite parts and insights that Father Roderick offers in the hopes of convincing you to read it. Also, all of the keys to communication that Father Roderick points out are actually carried out in his book. (Father truly “practices what he preaches.”) Chapter 1 is my favorite chapter because there he tells the story of his first experience as a new media pioneer (with Star Wars, no less!) and then outlines what he learned from his first foray into the internet as the “Star Wars priest.”
Here are a few of my favorite of Father Roderick’s communication principles, summarized in my own words:
engage with and make a personal connection with your audience; put yourself in their place and begin with the common ground you share, something that you are passionate about
use more than words: use stories, visuals, deeper content—whatever it takes to connect with whomever you wish to communicate
communicate within community: make your communication interactive, build a network, and communicate collaboratively; others’ expertise and insight will enrich both you and and what you communicate
use the “seeds of the Gospel” and longings of the human heart expressed in today’s culture to create a connection with the Gospel itself, and use that connection, that common ground, to evangelize
Throughout the rest of the book, it was both a delight and inspiring to see how Father Roderick carried out these and the other “key principles” that he highlights.
Read the Rest of This Book! (or, More Favorite Parts)
Chapter 2 is very much Fr. Roderick’s personal journey to faith and his vocation as a priest, paired with his discovery and comparison of sanctity and superheroes (a comparison I’ve made when talking to kids in aclassroom). The “Superhero Checklist” is not just a good checklist for vocational discernment (which I will highlight on my discernment blog), but also for how we live out our vocations.
Another of my favorite chapters is the Disneyland chapter, as Fr. Roderick dispels the Disney myth that we are the knights in shining armor (because, of course, it is Christ who is the Savior, not us!), and how he slowly and painfully learned balance in his priestly ministry. His “Disney examination of conscience” is a great way to introduce kids to the examination of conscience. His respect for the mythology of fairy tales and other forms of storytelling as ways which can help us to see with new eyes enlivens the entire chapter.
Chapter 4 tells the story of Father Roderick’s first podcast, and also the 5 “I’s” of Communication that he learned in a course on radio that he took at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and still uses today. They are invaluable for any form of communication—including conversations!
Discover the Rest of Geekpriest for Yourself…
The rest of the chapters follow the same pattern: a fascinating personal story from Father’s life, followed by life-lessons and in many cases, communication- or ministry-lessons. The entire book is so engaging and so personal in tone, that at the end of each chapter, I simply felt that I’d had a great conversation with Father Roderick and wanted to keep on reading. It’s one of the quickest nonfiction reads I’ve ever read, and I’ve already gone back and re-read it a second time…and I will re-read my favorite parts once more before I return my copy shortly.
A final note: if all communicators knew and practiced these principles of communication, boring religious media would cease to exist.
Rediscover Jesus: An Invitation is truly an appealing invite to readers to encounter Jesus deeply. This book answers an urgent need that I have found in Catholics all over North America: people of good will, rooted and raised in the Catholic Faith, who are Catholic mostly just for Sunday Mass and special occasions, who desperately need a personal relationship with Jesus. As a vocation director, I have often been concerned for young people who begin discerning their vocations without having a personal relationship with Jesus–indeed, without knowing that they needed one. They wanted to do God’s will, but how could they hear God’s call if they didn’t know how to have a conversation with Jesus? Helping young people develop a personal relationship with Christ became the starting-point of my work in nurturing vocations.
Rediscover Jesus: An Invitation wonderfully addresses this need, inviting readers in to their own personal relationship with Jesus through:
Conversational style and short, easily digestible portions. Broken down into 40 short chapters, this book covers the basics of what it means to live a Christian life–one nugget at a time. For the most part, this book was simply a joy to read.
Four concrete interactive invitations at the end of every chapter, each of which appeal to a different part of our personhood.To Ponder engages the mind, Verse to Live (taken from the Gospels) can engage almost any part of us, depending on how we read it; Question to Consider engages our memories and life experience, and Prayer engages our hearts. Almost every reader will find at least one of those four points striking. These interactive invites allow us as readers to reflect on the message of the chapter in a way that is deeply personal.
Life-changing introduction to how to live a truly Christian life
Relational approach–not just because of the conversational style, but because of how Matthew Kelly is definitely trying to encourage us to develop our own personal relationship with Jesus–the one relationship that we all thirst for, whether we know it or not.
The topics of the chapters rotate, but I found three main themes running through the book. The first 9 or so chapters seem to focus on who God is and who Jesus is–especially as we can come to know him through the Gospels and through prayer. These first chapters are shorter, extremely inviting and appealing, and motivating. They’re great not just for people who need a personal relationship with Jesus, but also for those who seek to deepen their relationship with Christ. I’ve bookmarked several points to pray with later. My favorite chapters of the book were these first chapters and the last few chapters because they focus so well on the personal. What does Jesus truly want for us? How does Jesus think of us? How do we think of Jesus? How can we give Jesus our all?
Chapters 11 through 20 (or so) seem to focus on the heart of Jesus’ Gospel teaching, especially how we are called as followers of Christ to imitate him.
From the middle of the book to the end, the chapters primarily focus on transformation: how Christ wants to and will transform our lives if we allow him–so that we can be truly, deeply happy, so that we can be our best selves. In a particular way, the last ten or so chapters discuss holiness–in a way that makes it accessible to everyone.
My favorite chapters:
Chapter 10: Learning a true love of self
Chapter 22: Matthew’s act of surrender–in line with the great St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Suscipe and Blessed Charles de Foucald’s Act of Abandonment–is put in such contemporary terms, but so elegantly, that I will be adding it to my favorite prayers
Chapters 23, 25 & 28: How tos and examples of how to pray with the Word of God, especially the Gospels
Chapter 26: How a Christian can begin daily personal prayer
One of the main reasons I agreed to review this book (Note: I received a review copy in exchange for writing a review in a fairly timely fashion!) is because I expected it to be very good, and I was hoping that author Matthew Kelly, who has proven himself to be a wonderful communicator through his books and www.DynamicCatholic.com, would offer us a particularly valuable example of being a great communicator in his newest book. I was not disappointed! He shows what it means to be an effective communicator of Christ in this book by:
knowing one’s readers and their interests, issues, and concerns
creating the invitational space for the reader to encounter Christ
What I enjoyed most about Rediscover Jesus: An Invitation is its circular communication inviting the reader in: from Matthew Kelly to reader to Christ (whom we assume inspired Matthew Kelly to write this invitation in the first place). It’s not one-way communication from author to reader but circular, Trinitarian. Rediscover Jesus has the potential to be life-giving, life-changing.
Although I read the book in just three short sittings, I would recommend instead reading a chapter a day. This will give the reader the opportunity to take time with each chapter’s invitation, and facilitate a 40-day journey for the reader to either begin or actively grow in one’s relationship with Jesus.
My only gripe? The overuse of the word “radical.” I don’t know if it’s the editor in me, or a reminder of how much I used to overuse it when describing Christian discipleship and religious life, but the way “radical” was frequently used to describe Jesus distracted me a couple of times.
Who would especially benefit from this book?
The average Catholic in the pew
Anyone interested in beginning or renewing their spiritual life
RCIA–people learning to live the Christian life as personal relationship with Christ
Teens or young adults starting to make their faith their own. This doesn’t look like a book for those receiving Confirmation, but it would be awesome if every confirmandee read it!
Anyone with a personal relationship with Christ will enjoy deepening that relationship with some of the creative, refreshing and contemporary “takes” that can enrich our prayer.
Those who want to learn how to communicate Christ: fresh, original language; creative suggestions for praying with the Gospels; a contemporary invitation to tradition/faith that is accessible to a “newbie”