September 30, 2011

Summer of the Super Hero - Part 4: Good Will Intended

by John-Brian Paprock

This is a review of one of super hero movies during the summer of 2011.

Green Lantern
Released June 17, 2011 Runtime: 114 min
Rated PG-13
DVD/Blue Ray release date: October 14, 2011

All heroes are borne of circumstance.  It is the synchronicity of timing and character that brings to light the potential inner qualities of mortal men. 

Often the circumstance of super hero origins are rather contrived, but when it involves the transformation of a mere  human being, the stories take on a mystical quality and seem to tap into the mythos of spiritual development.  This is sometimes intentional, but in early comic books (especially by the 1960s and 1970s) it was an uneasy incorporation of spiritual principles without the constraint of religion.

However, the age of aquarius and lunar travels inspired a cosmic view of humanity and the possibilty of other races on other worlds.  In most cases, more advanced technologically, socially, spiritually - often with ethics that include all sentient beings in the universe.  There are several comic books stories of "mere humans" becoming super hero born of that cosmic awakening in American culture.

Older comics left the source of these super powers mysterious, coming from another realm or spiritual reality.  Modern comics, starting in the early 1960s, tried to merge that older understanding with science fiction explanations.

The Green Lantern is the name for a hero that wears a ring with special powers. The 1940s Green Lantern has a ring with magical powers. In the movie version, the modern origin story includes a ring of advanced technology.  In both stories, a "mere human being" becomes a cosmic and mystical hero. 

Through the ages, rings have had mystical power.  Rings incorporate talismans, charms and gems, which were believed to hold spirits in obeyance.  Rings of power were the subject of superstition and intrigue.

A modern sect of Sufis, Nasqbandi, continues a teaching of wearing a ring of blessed power on the right hand of men. This ring, they teach, is a protection against enmity and evil, particularly the negativity of others.
     The Prophet Muhammad {s} taught that the use of the Ring on the Right Hand {Because of the Right are Ashab al Yamin people of the Right are Blessed, takes away Enmity.

Green is usually seen as a heroic and healing color.  In the alternative healing of Reiki, colors of auras correspond to charateristics of a person's energy.  A green aura color, in Reiki, is a very comfortable, healthy color of nature. When seen in the aura this usually represents growth and balance, and most of all, something that leads to change. Bright emerald green is evidence of a healer or a love-centered person.

So, we have a superhero given power by a rings of green light!  Rather than rely on religious or alternative spiritual teachings, the first lines of the Green Lantern movie explain the contrived context for the use of green.

Tomar-Re, a Green Lantern instructor of the planet Xudar, also narrates at the opening of the move and at the end. He begins: 

     Billions of years ago, a race of immortals harnessed the most powerful force in existence: the emerald energy of willpower.

Later, Hal Jordan, in training on the Green Lantern Corps home world of Oa, asks:

     What's with all the green?

Tomar-Re responds:

      Green is the color of will. The guardians harnessed will because it is the strongest source of energy in the universe.

In instructing Hal Jordan in Green Lantern ways, legend and lore, Tomar-Re, sets up the movie's climactic conflict that will, of course, be fought on Earth. 

     The greatest threat the Corps ever faced was Parallax, an entity that fed on the yellow energy of fear.

We, the audience, learn that the Green Lantern ring, with a mystical intelligence of its own, found Hal Jordan of earth after a deadly encounter with an escaped and growing Parallax in space that fatally wounded Hal's alien predecessor. Being human, Hal is unsure of his worthiness and the other races believe humans are too weak as a race and too young as a world to have its own Green Lantern.

In human mythology throughout history, humanity's strength seem to flow from perceived weakness and the greatest hero attributes and power needed at the time of crisis prove to be the most human qualities of them all.

Hal Jordan, when confronting a human who has become distorted with the "yellow" fear power of Parallax, says:

      You know... there is a saying in my planet, we say 'I am only human'. We say it because we are vulnerable, we say it because we are afraid, but that does not mean that we are weak.

Hal Jordan succeeds through human courage that boldly acts in the face of fear - through the human ability to take the next step with blind faith, trusting that there is some reason and rationale - somewhere. 

Tomar-Re ends the movie as he would the legend of the Green Lantern Corps for a new batch of Green Lantern trainees:
      Of all the Lanterns who have ever worn the ring, there was one whose light shined brightest. At first his humanity was thought to be a weakness, and yet it proved to be his greatest strength.

Just before the credits, Hal Jordan, in a bright green light, charges his Green Lantern ring, activating the special lantern with his oath:

In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil's might,
Beware my power... Green Lantern's light!

The movie does a very good job with creating the Green Lantern Corps with all the special ring effects as well as the corps' diversity of races. The backgrounds of space and alien worlds is of an expected good quality.  The special effects are able to give the Green Lantern a viable screen appearance.  However, the script and story are rather simple for such a complex scenario.  At the same time, the dialogue is true to the comic books of the 1970s, with updated 21st Century references.

It was a pleasure to see one of the staples of the DC comic book universe on the screen in a CGI live action mixture that really brought the Green Lantern to life.  As a first effort with this hero and the cosmic magnitude  the superhero represents, it suffices and worthy of any superhore fan's time.  It may be lost to the challenge of such a complex source of powers and a rather mundane earthly script, even with its cosmic overtones.

As a study of the inherent conflict within each of us between our will that can propel progress and the fears that divert can divert us from our goals, the movie can work as a beginning place for conversation. That conversation could have happened in the movie, but it did not - at least not in a provocative manner that could lead viewers toward higher aspirations, whether they own a power ring or not.

Nevertheless, Hal Jordan, our Green Lantern, echoes a fan's hope for future movies and adventures when he says: "No matter how bad things get, something good is out there, just over the horizon..."

==== Special Addendum =====
For comic boook fans, the DVD/Blue Ray includes the digital version of best selling printed comic book of 2011: Justice League #1 - see the story:

DC's 'Justice League' #1 Is Top-Selling Comic Book of 2011

September 24, 2011

Fade to black: ‘The Tree of Life’

"Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation ... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"

– Job 38:7

I have never been compelled to scratch notes on the back of a receipt in a dark movie theater, and I have never shushed my husband on the way home to make sure his opinions of a film didn’t contaminate my own before I had a chance to write about it. I did both tonight upon viewing Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”

Watching the trailer will give you some indication of the exquisitely beautiful and mysterious cinematography of the film, which has so far taken honors at both Cannes and San Sebasti├ín, and is generating Oscar buzz. Malick (“Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line”) literally spent decades working on “Tree,” which missed release dates in 2009 and 2010 due to a variety of complications.

Although it features Hollywood superstars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, it’s safe to say that this film will never be particularly “popular” (though it may well develop a cult following). It’s the kind of film a viewer will either love or hate; in fact, audiences nationwide have both applauded it and booed it.

That’s because onscreen ambiguity tends to foster either love or contempt. Maybe because when I was 4 years old, my mother brought me to “2001: A Space Odyssey” repeatedly in an attempt to “understand” it, I deeply appreciated “The Tree of Life” – a film that owes a great deal to Stanley Kubrick’s ethereal masterpiece.

What is “The Tree of Life” about? If I had to choose a single word, I would say “paradox.” In the Biblical Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden with everything they would ever desire, and with two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

While eating from the Tree of Life would offer them immortality, Adam and Eve paradoxically choose instead to eat from the other tree, from which they’ve been forbidden. Thus our spiritual ancestors brought death and suffering to the world – but also childbirth, work, and pretty much everything that makes us human: another paradox.

These kinds of almost nonsensical polar opposites underlie both the film’s plot and its stunning visual imagery. Ostensibly, the story is simple: Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receive the news that one of their three sons has died suddenly, at age 19. They grieve. Years later, Jack (Penn) – another of their sons, now a successful architect, continues to recall his beloved brother and reflects upon their childhood in small-town Texas.

That’s really it. And yet, there is so much more. Everything in “The Tree of Life” is both mundane and deeply significant. “Tree” is about both birth and death … adoration and hatred … the sacred and the profane … tenderness and sadism … the micro and the macro.

This is a film to be savored on the big screen, as the camera captures – with almost unbearable intimacy – scenes of the O’Brien family’s daily life. The three young brothers (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and R.L. Tye) behave so authentically, it’s hard to believe a camera is present. And the lens is so close you can almost smell the dirt and perspiration on their skin.

At first, the O’Briens seem like the idyllic 1950s family, but like everything in “Tree,” the reality is not so clear. As the plot continues, the suggestion of something ugly under the surface begins to develop.

But it’s like a Rorschach inkblot test. I don’t think the film contains a take more than three or four seconds long, and each glimpse is more symbolic than literal. What’s really going on here? Is Father simply a strict perfectionist? Or is he abusing his boys? And if he is abusing them, what is the nature of the abuse? Emotional…? Physical…? Sexual…?

The answer to the question might depend upon the childhood memories of the viewer.

But Malek is not content to let you remain with the O’Brien family, nor in the ‘50s, nor in Texas. Instead, he takes you deep into the atom, and then to outer space. He shows you the wonders of nature and the power of the city. He shows you the origins of life on Earth, and then fast-forwards to show you our planet’s eventual fate.

And after dozens of fade-to-blacks in the film, it fades to black a final time – leaving you with more questions than answers.

Very much like life.

September 15, 2011

Summer of the Super Hero - Part 3: Survival of the Fittest

by John-Brian Paprock

Here is a review of one of this summer's crop of superhero movies that is currently available on DVD/Blue Ray.

X-Men: The First Class
Released June 3, 2011 Runtime: 132 min
Rated PG-13 
DVD/Blue Ray release date September 9, 2011

Can there be humanistic superheroes who are not quite human? What if they consider themselves better than human? 

X-Men: The First Class is an origin story of a team of superheroes whose powers come from significant mutations of genetic code. They have innate powers, not of choice but due to an inherited potential caused by a force of nature known as mutation.  They seem human enough, until their special uniqueness and power emerges. 

As the one that takes the monicker, "Magneto," due to his unique ability to manipulate the power of magnetism, he deems these mutants as a new species, "Homo superior."  The term actually goes back to 1935 Science Fiction writers who coined the phrase to describe "the species that will evolve or be developed from Homo sapiens, with greater intellect or physical abilities, and often possessing paranormal powers," according to the  Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (Oxford University Press Inc, 2007), which also gives the following references:
  • 1935 O. Stapledon Odd John № 271: Homo Superior faced the little mob of Homo Sapiens, and it was immediately evident that Homo Superior was indeed the better man.
  • 1943 J.W. Campbell, Jr. Astounding SF (Feb.) № 158/1: How do you decide whether a man is an abnormally brilliant homo sapiens or a low‐grade homo superior, anyway?
  • 1955 F. Donovan Short Life Astounding SF (Feb.) № 48/2: Now you see why I dared not go even farther and release [...] the true Homo superior, the transcendent man.
  • 1973 J.R. Gregory & R. Price Visitor № 23: When the three returned to Earth, they had wondered what to call themselves. Homo superior sounded [...] well, too superior.
  • 1996 D. Pringle, et al. Ultimate Ency. of SF № 51/1: Sf writers [...] have been most interested in the advantageous mutations which might produce the first specimen of Homo superior.
Read more: 

In this movie (and other X-Men movies as well as the very popular comic books), these mutations allow for diverse abilities. Some of these abilities are particularly powerful. The X-Men are a team of some of the most powerful, put together by a benevolent leader Professor Charles Xavier.  This movie takes place in the early 1960s and reaches back into the 1940s.

There is an underlying back story about the "human problem:" exploitation of the powerful mutants who can be used as weapons or intruments of espionage and blatant prejudice against those with more obvious mutations like wings or scales and more subtle hatred when unobvious abilities are revealed.  The X-Men story focuses on two divergent ways that two powerful mutants deal with that "human problem."  And in the Greek tragedy tradition, these two started in wildly different environments and experiences, become close friends and allies, but the tension of their respective views eventually forces them down different paths.

There is a third way of dealing with the "human problem" that is only alluded in this movie - isolation from "homo sapiens." This is explored in the Marvel comic book universe initially in a comic book series, "The Inhumans."  There is no movie about these mutants in the works. Of course, the X-Men saga has always been one of the most popular comic book series and it remains popular in diverse printed and digital movie forms.

As a story about human values, morals and ethics, the movie X-Men: The First Class dramatically plays out the realness of human evil that is at the core of the "human problem."  But in this movie, the struggle is much more personal as we learn the origins of Magneto's distrust and disdain for homo sapiens as well as core convictions of Professor Xavier, from whom the X-Men have derived their team name.

It starts, without shame or subtlety, in Nazi Germany and ends with an alternative reality for the Cuban Missile Crisis.  In between, some of the most powerful mutants find each other in hopes of being of mutual benefit. They meet in their struggles.  It helps, of course, that Professor Xavier's mutant ablity is enhanced mental abilities, especially strong telepathic abilities.  It helps Magneto hone and develop his powers as well. Xavier learns that he can help mutants learn to use their abilities and sees them as blessings for the entire world.  So, he opens a school for teen mutants, when at the age of puberty, mutants have particular - and many times peculiar - awkwardness.  He creates a home for those that don't seem to belong anywhere else. Magneto, once a lone revenger against the Nazis that killed his parents, learns that the company of fellow mutants is important, but he has great difficulty forgiving "Homo sapiens" for their humanness which he sees as a constant reminder of the ugly underside of human history - before its evolution into the superior species.

X-Men seems to have progressive and humanist teachings rather than overt spiritual or religious teachings.  It incorporates the fantastic along side the mundane, honoring the ideas of science over that of superstitution.  It champions diversity among the mutants, but the rest of humanity seems nearly monolithic.  Mutants, in general, seem to reject much of regular human spiritual teachings, particularly among these mutants.  There is an eclecticism in this movie reminescient of the liberal religious tradition of Unitarian-Universalism, but more likely the feeling is born of the diverse roles of mutants with diverse appearances and even more diverse super abilities rather than being influenced by any religious tradition in particularly.  One can imagine Martin Luther King Junior's dream including hand-holding with mutants as well.

What appeals to modern society in this movie is the common understanding of being rejected for our uniqueness; of not quite fitting in, and of even being overtly harassed for being different. In addition, in this new global society, we all struggle with the humantarian use of individual and collective power inherent in our diverse gifts, skills and abilities. We identify with the dilemma of being exploited if we have desired abilities or completely rejected if our unique qualities are not popular either in appearance or in practice.  This is an intensely spiritual struggle, and one that transcends race, culture and religion.

One of the main issues among mutants is in the control and the improvement of their unique abilities. In spiritual development programs, there is an acquisition of spiritual awareness and certain insights that can be seen in a similar way.  One wholistic program of spiritual and physical discipline is the martial arts of the east. In X-Men, this is mostly encouraged and developed with mental functions like focus of will and clearing the mind. The teachings in X-Men come from the Eastern Traditions of Buddhism, Taoism and Vedic meditative practices.  In the center of these schools of spiritual wisdom, there is the teacher, wise and helpful, who uses his own life force and experience, his special gifts, to assist his students learn control.  All to come into a certain harmony with the people and world around us and unlock the unique potentiality within each of us.

This is played out when two powerful mutants come together - one (Xavier) to help the other (Magneto) heal his painful memories and anger so that he can access his personal mutant power more effectively. Here are several quotes of Xavier when he is speaking with Magneto from the movie X-Men: The First Class.

Professor Charles Xavier: You know, I believe the true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity.

Professor Xavier: There is so much more to you than you know, not just pain and anger, there's good too, I felt it. When you can access all that, you'll possess a power no one can match, not even me.

Professor Xavier: You have a chance to become a part of something much bigger than yourself.
Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto): What do you know about me?
Professor Xavier: Everything.

This is the best overall film of this Summer of Superheroes, from its writing to its direction to its consistent and blended special effects.  It bears the burden of being a prequel to a trilogy of the hugely successful X-Men movies very well. It also reminds us of true friendship and the lasting effects of our decisions, that even with super mental faculties and superior physical abilities we may not be able to help everyone.  But, regardless of the odds, some of us will still try.

September 3, 2011

Summer of the Super Hero - Part 2: Hero in Two Worlds

by John-Brian Paprock

Here is a review of one of this summer's crop of super hero movies that is now available on DVD/Blue Ray.

Released May 6, 2011 Runtime: 115 min
Rated PG-13
DVD/Blue Ray release September 13, 2011

There are many hero stories in mythology that have striking similarities.  Joseph Campbell's popular book, "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" explores the human need for heros and hero story-telling. One of the highest accollades of a hero is in his (yes, most of the heroes are male) capacity to save us.  These saviors' stories are told over and over again emphasizing the deeds and the drama of their saving and heroic deeds.

Where heroes come from in mythology is as diverse as the cultures from which herioes are born, but supernatural ability is always godly and, therefore, in a world of limited technologies (like ours only a few hundred years ago), these ablities must come from a divine source.  The divine ones, the gods, have always resided either symbolically or literally "above" us - in a mythical country or world (Asgaard or Valhalla among the Vikings), or atop mountain (Mount Olympus of the Greeks).  These are also drawn in the night skies with constellations of stars. Anyone coming from "above" or having an ability to communicate with that heavenly abode was at least touched with divinity, blessed and sanctified as bridges to the people of the stories and their interpretations.

In this modern world, with its rational sciences, we do not hold the same things in awe and wonder, but we still look to the heavens for heroic figures to come to our aid in times of distress, in times of turmoil, in times of great need; especially and particularly if the threats to our well-being happen due to a war among the divine ones; between the good and the evil; the benevolent ones and the malevolent ones.  From our mere mortal standing, the good come to our rescue in opposition to the evil that wishes to destroy us.  

In 21st Century film-making, the grand story-tellers of our contemporary society, utilizing the complexities brewed in comic books, the modern re-interpretation of mythology reflects our underlying insecurities even as we have advanced in scientific knowledge and skill.  We still want and need a hero.  And why not choose one proven in another world, another place - a mythological world that is actually a world with humanoid aliens?  And why not take a hero from that world and make him a hero in ours?  Well, why not?    

Thor is an origin story movie of an alien hero from a world that apparently inspired the Norse and Viking mythology.  He who literally crashes into our present world becomes a hero in two worlds.  It does seem that when times are difficult and we cannot seem to save ourselves, hero stories give us hope by having a hero literally drop out of the sky.  And so Thor, waking up after falling into the middle of the southwest desert in America, asks, "Oh, no... this is Earth... isn't it?"

Initially, he is reluctant to help us, obsessed with his own predicament, and, from his perspective, our problems are insignificant. Although, it is not clear we have any real problems except that some scientists don't have enough money for their research. Thor, as an alien, presents some problems for the powers that be, whether they be of a government, a corporation or a shadow government.  They obviously want to exploit, control and gain from this alien.  The <sigh> normal scientists, including one very attractive woman, only want to understand how he may fit into their research and study of deep space.

But Thor comes from an advanced noble race that is lead by Thor's father, Odin the king. This a throne that Thor has been born and bred for. Throughout the beginning of the movie, we are shown how Thor's morality is shaped by his father's ethics and standards, his spirituality. At one point Odin has harsh words for Thor's immaturity as a leader: "I have sacrificed much to achieve peace. So too must a new generation sacrifice to maintain that peace. Responsibility! Duty! Honour! These are not mere virtues to which we must aspire! They are essential to every soldier, to every king!"

Thor truly becomes a superhero for Earth and humanity when he protects us from a mechanical destroyer sent to hurt those humans that were helping him.  That seems rather self serving on the surface, but, as he is beginning to fight this powerful robot, he says to those that sent it, "Forgive me for whatever I did to you. But these lives are innocent, taking their lives will change nothing. So take mine. "  In this statement, Thor echoes the heroes of times past, especially the hero-martyr-saints of the Early Christian Church like Saint George and Saint Demetrios. 

As if to emphasize a spiritual understanding of superheroes, expecially those drawn from historic mythologies, there is a re-separation of our hero from our planet.  But with the advanced technology of Thor's homeworld, he is able to gaze upon the Earth from the distance without a sure way to return (I assure you this is not a spoiler).  As he is looking out toward the chasm of interstellar space separating he from our world, Thor says to his companion, Heimdall:

Thor: So Earth is lost to us...
Heimdall: No. There is always hope.

... And so there is ...

Thor is a delightful excursion into Marvel superherodom and adds excitement as another prequel for the highly anticipated "Avengers" movie that is due in 2012.  "Avengers" is a team of superheros that are brought together to save us from great cosmic and domestic threats that no ONE superhero can defeat.  Thor also stands alone as a decent movie about a fantastic story of mythology come to life with a hero of two worlds.

Summer of the Super Hero - Part 1

Summer 2011 Super Hero Movies:
Thor (upper left); Captain America (upper right); Green Lantern (lower left); X-Men (lower right) 
by John-Brian Paprock

During times of insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty, we all hope for a hero to appear and save us from calamity and tragedy.  We wish that hero would have the qualities and abilities we lack in solving our dilemma - super powers.  Throughout history, the stories of heroes are prevalent.  Some of the oldest artistic renderings are of heroes - great hunters, gods, goddesses, angels, and saints.

During my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, comic books were a constant reminder of what was possible in the fictional worlds of super heroes who saved individuals, cities, nations, worlds and even universes!  Heros with super enhanced human abilities and those with alien abilities and those with technical expertise.  Some came to their super powers by accidents; others, born uniquely gifted; still others, created.

During the 1970s, the superhoeros in the comic books began to show more human than superhuman frailty.  Every super hero, no matter what their abilities, had a weakness - something that could be exploited by their arch-enemies.  But in the 1970s, superheros began to have doubts, struggling with regular human problems and complications of keeping their "secret identities" secret.  The secrecy was important because in the 1970s, the public in these comic books also began to question the moral ambiguity of masked vigilantes. Being a superhero was no longer simple - the seeds of this change can be seen in films that created the anti-hero - most notably "Rebel Without A Cause" and the biker movies of the early 1960s.  Even standard westerns, films that at one time held moral clarity, began to raise the questions like: who can be "good" when everyone is "bad"? 

This cultural shift from heroes of impeccable credentials who traveled the moral high road to the complications of unusual ability (and even appearance) in an increasingly pluralistic society with moral relativism was reflected in the printed comic books of my youth. These multi-media experiences of art, dialogue, story, character development, and serial experiences seemed to me a seemless connection to the TV society that became so dominant.

However, the technology of film-making in my youth was still closely attached to the stage. That began to change exponentially, begining in the mid-1970s.  A steady and ambitious effort to make special effects common to all films made science fiction and fantasy, with aliens and fables coming alive on the screen.  Still, even as the quality of special effects progressed during the 1980s and 1990s, film could not compete with artistic images linked by imagination in the comic books.

In the early part of this new millennium, film special effects and computer animation have finally reached the super level to bring comic books to life on the big screen.  Now everything super seems even more possible.  And the heroes of my youth are the new champions of the silver screen.  There have even been satires and farces of the complicated mythology of modern superhero-dom.

The summer of 2011 may well be remembered for the number of super hero movies released (and the number of announced super hero film projects) have taken over the "blockbuster" genre at theaters throughout the world. 
Four super hero films were top movies the weekend of their theatrical release this summer: "Thor," "X-Men: First Class," "Green Lantern," and "Captain America." 

And I dragged my 19 year old son to every one of them.

It is interesting to notice that only one of these was intended as a pre-quel. Although a good case could be developed that "Thor" and "Captain America" are actually sequels to the two "Iron Man" movies and prequels to the much anticipated multi-superhero team movie, "The Avengers" expected in 2012. All of these are part of the Marvel Comics pantheon of superheros. Except for "Green Lantern" which is from the major rival comic book company - DC Comics. DC Comics is the company that owns the rights to Superman and Batman.

I will be writing a short review of these four summer movies. In reflection, I found each of them had a special message about the spirit of humanity, maybe even a spiritual teaching or two. 

Before that, for your consideration, a passage from H. Michael Brewer's book  "Who Needs a Superhero?"

"We live in a scary world, and hero stories express our longing for safety and security. While we can sometimes hedge ourselves against disaster, life is ultimately beyond our control. If only some more-than-human power would set the world right, we think. If only someone could walk beside us to see us through the perils of life, someone genuinely good and supremely strong.

"So we keep looking for heroes. We idolize our athletes, but they scarcely make any real difference in the world. We elevate our leaders on lofty pedestals, but from that vantage their clay feet are all the more obvious. We expect miracles from doctors, cops, and firefighters, but they all fail us often enough to remind us that they too are only human, after all.

"When real heroes let us down, we turn to the fictional variety. The more troubling our times, it seems, the grander our heroes. In these days of terrorism, war, epidemics, ecological disaster, and shaky economics, we need superheroes, those costumed do-gooders who were born in the frightful shadows of the Great Depression and World War II. ...

"Admittedly, not all superheroes offer sterling role models. Like television, movies and books in general, the comic book field has its share of needless violence, sexual stereotypes, and other offensive material. But if we separate the wheat from the chaff, we'll find comic books offering much heroism, idealism, and sacrificial nobility as any area of the entertainment industry.

"In fact, nobody does heroes better than comic books. As far as I can see, there's just one drawback with these caped adventurers: they aren't real.

"That leaves us in a bind. Flesh-and-blood heroes aren't big enough to save us, and comic book heroes are make-believe. ...

"The spiritual hunger for heroes is woven into the fabric of the human creature. Our Maker built us with a persistent longing for a rescuer who will save us from injustice and suffering. We dream of a champion who will lift us and lead us home. In our bleakest moments, we pray for someone to save us from ourselves.

"Religion is the deepest expression of our longing for a savior; but all our hero stories finally point in the same direction. Every heroic saga, legend, and myth is ultimately a variation on one universal story: When all seemed lost, a hero stepped in to rescue us from the evil around and within us.

"As it turns out, this story happens to be true, and the hero is absolutely real."*

September 1, 2011

Frank believes. Help, Lord, his unbelief.

by Teresa Peneguy Paprock

“God have mercy on a man who doubts what he’s sure of.”
– Detective Frank Pembleton, “Homicide – Life on the Street”

Two detectives are walking away from the scene of a crime – a dumpster in the alley beside a Catholic church, where the naked and battered body of a young woman has been thrown like yesterday’s trash. The victim, Katherine Goodrich, had run a women’s shelter. As random and meaningless murders go, this one seems particularly random and meaningless.

“Damn him!” exclaims Detective Frank Pembleton.

“The killer?” asks his partner, Detective Tim Bayliss.

“God,” says Frank.

“Frank, I don’t think you can ask God to damn himself,” responds Tim. “And if you do, don’t stand next to me, because I don’t want to get hit by lightning. This is a new suit.”

“Homicide – Life on the Street,” a crime drama that ran on NBC from 1993 to 1999, was once called “The Best Show You’re Not Watching” by TV Guide. The series, set in gritty Baltimore, followed the lives of detectives who faced the ugliness of murder every day – and who, for their own survival, had learned to minimize the emotional impact of each case with postulating and gallows humor.

“Homicide” featured few shootouts, and ever fewer car chases. While many critics and viewers now hail it as the best cop show ever on television, viewers apparently wanted more action and less philosophizing. But on “Homicide,” the dialogue was the thing. As they went about their daily business, the cops discussed love and marriage, wealth and poverty, good and evil. And Detective Frank Pembleton was one of the rarest finds on network TV – a practicing Catholic who often struggled openly with his faith.

The character of Frank (played by the charismatic and mesmerizing Andre Braugher) had attended St. Ignatius Prep in his youth. “The Jesuits taught me how to think,” Frank tells people; “I haven’t felt safe since.” As an adult, Frank attends Mass regularly, often before his shift where he’ll be dealing with stabbings and rapes. Frank speaks Greek and Latin, and he takes the teachings of Catholicism seriously.

“You’re not Catholic and you took Communion?” he asks his partner in the episode, “Extreme Unction” (written by D. Keith Mano, a family friend). “Yeah. Why – is that wrong?” asks Tim. “Well, if my God wins, you’re screwed,” Frank says.

Frank has a wife and, eventually, a daughter. Every evening, after experiencing the traumas in Baltimore’s inner city, he goes back to the warmth and innocence of his home. But as the years wear on, and Frank sees slaughtered children and guilty men go free, he finds himself questioning the concept of a loving, omnipotent God.

When it comes to religion, television writers are fantastic at creating caricatures. You have your flashy Baptist … your neurotic Jew … your ethereal Buddhist. But Frank Pembleton, with all his complexity and paradox, is a rare find. Here’s a man who simultaneously trusts God and doubts Him; who loves his church but considers walking away.

In the mornings, Frank kneels and swallows the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ; two hours later, he’s holding his gun to the head of a crack dealer. Religious status? “It’s Complicated.”

Frank gives credit where credit is due. When another detective tells Frank he’s fortunate to have avoided injury in a gunfight, Frank responds, “Luck had nothing to do with it. God reached down and graced a fool with wisdom.”

In addition, Frank doesn’t take God – or goodness – for granted. He’s seen far too much to believe in a “Precious Moments” sort of Bible. “You gotta know the darker, uglier sides of yourself,” he tells his partner. “Virtue isn’t virtue until it slams up against vice. So consequently, your virtue’s not real virtue. Until it’s been tested … tempted.”

And Frank’s faith is tested acutely when – as a young and healthy man with a newborn daughter – he suffers a stroke and must learn to walk and talk again. Having spent his adult life working against evil, he wonders just what God’s done for him lately. He faces a massive spiritual hurdle when it’s time to have his little daughter baptized, and he seriously contemplates denying her the sacrament.

“God has become ‘the great light show,’” he declares. “(He can’t help me because) He’s in the next county making hunchback babies.”

When Frank’s partner Tim is wounded in action, Frank’s anger at God peaks. “There’s no truth for me anymore, not anymore,” he announces to the department. But alone with Tim in the hospital room, Frank’s need to connect with the Creator is desperate and raw. “Dear God, make Bayliss fight,” he says. “God, please. I swear. I will do anything. Let him live. I’m askin.’ I’m beggin.’ Help my friend. I want him to live.”

Tim does live, but Frank’s had enough of the street. He quits the force abruptly, but not before he takes God on one more time. To a fellow detective who is weak in her Christian faith, Frank says, “Let ME box with God. Because in this line of work – be it mutilated priest or overdosed drug addict – faith only gets in the way and twists you up.”

“Homicide” writer Tom Fontana says that his character Frank reflects Fontana’s own struggle with his Catholic faith. “I’m in a constant debate with God on how He runs the universe,” Fontana says.

So often in the Christian life, anger and doubt are placed at one end of the seesaw, while joy and faith are on the other side. It’s wrong to have doubts about God, we assume, and it’s certainly wrong to be angry at him. But the truth is that neither anger at God nor doubt can exist without faith. How can you be angry with an entity you don’t believe exists? How can you feel righteous indignation that bad things happen unless, in your heart, you prefer the good?

Everyone is familiar with Mark 9:24: “The father of the child cried out, and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.’” Here there is no escaping the fact that doubt and faith can exist at the same time. Doubt is not the problem: what matters is one’s willingness to leave a window open for the spirit to come through.

“There should be some desire to believe,” says Bishop Kallistos Ware, author of “The Orthodox Way.” “There should be, amidst all the uncertainty, a spark of love for the Jesus who as yet we know so imperfectly.”