and the Arts:
A Religion Teacher's Reflections, Ideas and Practices
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Three Little Birds (ITV, Sunday) is the best of the current crop of TV drama series. Written by comedian Lenny Henry it tells the story of three feisty Jamaican women who come to England to seek out a new future. It’s warm, humane, vey funny at times, but has its darker moments when the women experience ugly racism and predatory behaviour. One of the women, Hosanna (Yazmin Belo), is very religious and finds the local Anglican service uninspiring. Her enthusiastic singing, Jamaica style, doesn’t go down well, and the minister encourages them to worship elsewhere – with people more like themselves! Hosanna’s father was a minister back home but it seems he left his church when he felt he wasn’t doing a very good job. Flashbacks reveal that things weren’t wonderful back in Jamaica, though it looks a lot better than the way the grim English streets of the Midlands are portrayed. Romances are handled subtly and deftly, alternating between optimism and realism – both angles were very much in evidence in last Sunday’s episode, as was consideration of moral behaviour during courtship.
Time (BBC One, Sunday) is the second series of the prison drama by Jimmy McGovern, this time joined by Helen Black on writing credits. This series sees a change to a women’s prison, the only character reappearing being the Catholic Chaplain Sr. Marie-Louise, played sympathetically by Siobhán Finneran. As might be expected, it is very much adult drama, grim stuff, heartbreaking at times, but suffused with an understanding of and empathy for people that have fallen on difficult times and struggle to cope with life getting beyond any control of their own. One of the women is Kelsey, a young pregnant girl (superb performance by Bella Ramsey) who considers an abortion until she realises the judge might be more lenient if she stays pregnant. Her ultrasound moment is moving and transformative. Chats with the chaplain are also touching but quite challenging as well. Last Sunday night’s episode was particularly intense as Kelsey gives birth in prison. We also learn that the chaplain has secrets of her own, though this revelation felt somewhat contrived and tokenistic.
I was never into the crime series Shetland (BBC One, Wednesday) but, now in its 8th series, there’s a change of characters so I thought I’d have a look. DI Ruth Calder (Ashley Jensen) returns to Shetland reluctantly – her father was a minister and they didn’t get along. Her brother has now taken over the ministry – it’s not often we see a young clergyman portrayed sympathetically. The plot lines could be more riveting but the characters and locations are interesting so I think I’ll stick with it for now.
The new TV drama series The Woman in the Wall (BBC One, Sundays), three episodes in, is full of unsubtle messages and is certainly preachy. The story of the Magdalen laundries is mined yet again for didactic fiction, but sadly, more for insult than insight. I wrote last week about cardboard characters in Fair City, but in this one the cardboard factory was working overtime. Right from the credits, religious imagery was overlaid with creepy music, so we knew where this was going, and it scattered a rake of clichés in its path. There was more than a scattering of foul language, much of it directed against religious targets. It would be easy to make a case for this show being incitement to hatred. It felt like the demonising of a whole group of people for the awful offences of some. In one scene a woman heads off with an axe, bent on destruction – I felt the programme makers had an even bigger axe to grind. If it wasn’t so busy trotting out turgid wads of campaign lines, it might have been an affecting drama, because there is a sad and dismal story here, but I don’t think this show does the victims and survivors any favours. They are largely reduced to ciphers and tokens, weaponised, I felt, for an agenda.
I found Ruth Wilson’s acting, as the troubled Lorna, to be riveting if a tad overwrought at times. I’ve been a big fan of hers since the film Saving Mr Banks and the TV drama series Mrs Wilson. Ardal O’Hanlon plays effectively against type as a rough character somehow involved in the murder of a priest – he’s the only priest in the show so far, and he’s a sinister, manipulative type. There was a passing acknowledgment that families were complicit in sending unmarried pregnant girls to the institutions, and that some of the thrust of the survivors’ concerns were towards the state. An elderly nun offered a boilerplate defence of what happened in the past, but she was crabby and evasive.
The clichés aren’t just in relation to religious matters – when a character says something like ‘I’ll tell you everything tomorrow’, you know they’re done for. The guards are portrayed as dopey culchies, Simon Delaney’s Sergeant Massey being just a small step above the pantomime of Killinaskully. Well done BBC!
I’m not a great fan of sumptuous costume dramas – sometimes there is too much costume and not enough drama. I was inveigled, not entirely against my will, to watch several episodes of Downton Abbey (Netflix). I found it very contrived, predictable and cliched. And yet because some characters and plot lines were interesting, I gritted my remaining teeth and stuck with it. Downton Abbey (RTE One, Wednesday), the first of the spin-off movies, just felt like a double episode of the TV show. There were a few cinematic flourishes, but they didn’t push the boat out for the big screen. We got a few lavish set pieces (e.g. a parade for the King’s visit), but the touching human moments were few. There was a promising sub-plot about a princess in an unhappy marriage who resolves to make a go of it, but her husband was a cardboard cad and we got little insight. The poncey poshness and privilege is off-putting. I did however like the sharp one-liners given to Maggie Smith as Violet – she asks another character ‘Will you have enough cliches to get you through the visit?’
I thought religion would have a more of a central role in the community surrounding Downton Abbey, but in the series the minister was dragged out only for weddings and funerals, and he didn’t make any appearance in the film. At one stage a character wants prayer for good weather for the King’s visit, and, when she gets it, concludes that ‘God is a monarchist!’ And of course, there was the obligatory gay subplot, handled less discreetly than in the TV show. The film outdid itself in Mills and Boon vibes in the great ball at the end, but for me it was all veneer hiding an empty shell.
In contrast, Just Mercy (RTE One, Friday) was a more intense, more humane film. It told the true story of a case of racism and injustice involving the death penalty in Alabama. It was by turns moving and disturbing as young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) represented prisoners on death row, many of whom had poor legal representation at trial, and at least one of whom, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), was innocent. One execution scene was particularly upsetting – the man was guilty this time but there were mitigating circumstances that were ignored. The young lawyer was distraught after it, describing it as ‘the most horrific thing’.
Religion figured strongly in the background, as you’d expect in a black community in the Deep South. We got a lively church scene, bible reading, plenty of incidental gospel singing and prayer before the execution. But it wasn’t simplistic or preachy at least not in relation to religion. You could say it was rather preachy against the injustice and the death penalty, but I suppose preachiness is a little easier to take when you share the values being promoted. Maybe there can be inherent values without preachiness, but then too much neutrality can be passionless. Can you hunger and thirst for righteousness and still be detached? Perhaps it’s all about subtlety, especially when it comes to the arts, but then the emotional manipulation can sneak in unnoticed. As you can guess I haven’t got this figured out fully yet! This film was sentimental at times but was a worthy story full of heart.
The Sixth Commandment (BBC One, Tuesday) came to an end last week and it was one of the most engaging drama series I’ve seen this year. It tells the story of a charismatic young man, training to be a vicar, who inveigles his way into the lives of vulnerable elderly people, and was eventually convicted for murdering one of them – retired teacher Peter Farquhar (Timothy Spall). Éanna Hardwicke is enthralling as the young man, and it’s never quite clear if his religiosity is delusional or just cynical and manipulative. It’s an uneasy experience watching him give a sermon on the sixth commandment (in this case it’s ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’) and even dressing as a Catholic priest and giving ‘communion’ to an elderly person who is ill. I’ve complained before about TV drama and films being too inclined to show religion as deranged, but this is different, as the genuine faith of the victims and their families is portrayed and respected.
Farquhar is a retired teacher, a lay preacher in his local Anglican church and genuinely struggles to integrate his celibate homosexuality with Christian teaching, though he is not well served by wishy washy advice from his spiritual advisor, who is more affirming than challenging, muddled between orientation, intention and action. Another victim Anne Moore-Martin is also a retired teacher, a devout Catholic who falls for a while for the young man’s romantic advances. The series is a fine reflection on faith, loneliness, guilt, family dynamics, delusion and arrogance, A convincing human drama, it works well also as a crime thriller, especially for those who love a police procedural.
On the edges of the culture wars the Angelus (RTE One) gets criticised sometimes, but RTE’s audience research shows strong support for it. Recently they launched a new series of films to accompany the chimes. The first featured a family pilgrimage to Oileán Mhic Dara in Carna, Gaillimh. On Saturday we had inspiring scenes from the Field of Dreams horticultural centre for Down Syndrome adults in Curragheen, Cork. On Sunday we saw artist Aideen Connolly (pictured) getting inspiration at Ballindoon Abbey in Sligo. Produced by Kairos Communications these are well filmed, and while the religious content is present it is muted as the films are aimed at providing reflection opportunities for those of ‘all faiths and none’, an approach that raises questions I may return to.
The Centenary Commemoration of the Civil War (RTE One, Sunday) was low key and dignified. The ceremony was short, with no speeches – the centrepiece was the laying of a wreath by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Fine Gael) and Tánaiste Micheál Martin (Fianna Fáil) rather symbolic given the context – the civil war parties now in a coalition government, however shaky. The theme was peace and reconciliation and the focus very much on the families of survivors. As presenter David McCullagh said, there was nothing here to give offence –good to get relief from the fractiousness that marks so much of public discourse.
Army chaplain Fr Dónal Mac Cárthaigh, read the prayer of St Francis – being in Irish gave freshness to a well-worn prayer. The healing power of the arts was recognised, and among the artistic elements there was a reading of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘Peace’, but most striking of all for me was a beautiful rendition of ‘Meet Me Here’, from youth choir Cór Linn.
I’m uneasy about repurposed churches – sad that worship no longer goes on there, what is left being like an empty shell. If its new purpose is something artistic it takes away some of the sting. The Sea Church, with Jesus prominent in its stained-glass window, is the venue for the Ballycotton Sessions (RTE 2, Thursday) and last week’s episode featured performance and interviews with Mom + The Rebels, an unusual band that is all about contrast and comparison, with balance between Irish and American, banjo and bass, red hair and dreadlocks - a funky fusion of trad and gospel music. It was hard to tell if the whole thing was underpinned by a strong faith, an open curiosity drawn to faith or another empty shell, with only the musical trappings or flavour of gospel remaining. Part of the problem was not being able to hear all the lyrics clearly (maybe it’s my hearing!) – I’d certainly recommend foregrounding the lyrics more. Whatever the case I loved the vibrant delivery – it’s so good to see performers enjoying their work on stage, and all enhanced by the fluid camera work. Capturing the essence and energy of a musical performance on film is an art in itself.
The lead singers and writers are Lisa Canny from Co Mayo and DeJay Edmund from Maryland USA, via the UK and France and their rendition of the gospel flavoured song ‘Follow’ was a highlight – catchy and sung with confidence. ‘Down by the River’ was inspired by the Baptism scene in Oh Brother Where Art Thou. Their material is available on Spotify and of course you can listen back to the show on the RTE Player – see what you think!
Recently, 25 years of relative peace were celebrated in Northern Ireland, but recent events also show that it's fragile, and there are legacies that linger and threaten to disturb it. A minority won't let go of a Troubles frame of mind, but I'd suspect most want to move on to a time when sectarianism fades away, and political divisions become what you'd expect in a normal functioning democracy.
These thoughts were prompted by drama series Blue Lights (BBC One, Mondays). It was a police drama set in Belfast and was of a high standard, though it avoided for the most part any treatment or exploration of sectarianism or even of political differences. The series ended last Monday night, and throughout it was a tense and emotional treatment of PSNI officers responding to various crises on the streets. There were gang activities, domestic disputes, racism, complicated romantic relationships, collusion between elements in the police, security agents, and the gangsters. Sometimes plot threads were teased out to a point when another crisis interrupted, and some threads were left without closure, sometimes left hanging, but this was to a great extent a slice-of-life approach, and closure can be elusive in real life.
Considering the setting, I thought it was unwise and unrealistic to avoid religious themes – no sign of clergy, or anyone praying or going to church. There were plenty of moral dilemmas, even police cutting corners and taking shortcuts when the long way round would have been the way to integrity. The language was consistently foul, and there was a relatively discreet sexual encounter, but the best thing about it was the humanity – I felt the writers actually like humanity, and so many scenes captured genuine emotion and compassion among the colourful characters. The acting was consistently fine, particularly for the multi-layered female characters.
The Secret Peacemaker (RTE One, Easter Sunday and BBC One, Monday), told the story of Redemptorist priest Fr Alec Reid, who efforts were instrumental in bringing about the peace. It was a timely and hard-hitting docudrama that carried a huge emotional impact. Fr Reid died in 2013 and it was great to see extracts from a comprehensive interview he gave in 2010. It was partly his own story but also a history of the Troubles. It was good to see the inclusion of other clergymen involved in the peace process – including fellow Redemptorist Fr Gerry Reynolds, Rev Ken Newell of the Presbyterian community and Methodist Fr Harold Good who had appeared in that service mentioned above.
The dramatic re-enactments were not necessary, though Marty Rea did a fine job as the younger Fr Reid and, if the story is ever made into a feature film, I hope he gets the role. However, the dramatization had impact in the scenes that involved Fr Reid trying in vain the save the lives of, two British soldiers set upon by a mob during a Republican funeral in Belfast. I remember it being shocking when it happened and it was most tense and disturbing watching the footage again. A recent survey showed poor knowledge of the Troubles among young people today – this programme should be seen widely, so that people can realise the horrors of all that violence and do everything possible to avoid drifting back into it. Catch it on the RTE Player at this link.
The Last Days (EWTN) was a filmed version of a staged passion play set in a church. It packed an emotional and spiritual impact as those events always do. It was noteworthy for the fact that Jesus was played by Jonathan Roumie, who also plays that role in The Chosen, the hit mini-series on the life of Jesus. He was also involved in the writing and producing for G.K. Chesterton Entertainment. I thought he came across as a warmer Jesus in The Chosen, but then the Holy Week events are deadly serious. The filming was adequate – best when a hand-held camera was used for closeups, especially during the dramatic Way of the Cross down the aisle of the church where the work was staged. Some of the fixed-camera zooms were a tad awkward and amateurish.
The script was mostly scriptural, but was fleshed out respectfully. I can understand why some dramatisations stick strictly to scripture, and they have their role, but can come across rather stilted on film. I loved the soliloque of Mary as she held the body of Jesus. It was emotional, so very human and personal as she reflected on her life with Jesus, right from the Annunciation – ‘It started with the wind’. The scourging at the pillar was unnerving – so realistically portrayed. Passion plays always have a dilemma – whether to include the Resurrection, and if so how to portray it. In many of the plays I’ve seen it tends to be included, but obliquely or briefly. In the traditional Stations of the Cross it does not form part of the fourteen. It was hinted at here, with an unusual scene that I felt didn’t quite work, where a female character, perhaps Mary Magdalen, visits the tomb, delivers a reflection over the body, and then the body mysteriously disappears as she and Joseph or Arminathea cover it in the shroud.
I didn’t like the generic ‘foreign accent’ used by most actors, including Jonathan Roumie – I prefer either the original language or the normal English of the actor. For that reason I was impressed most by those playing Peter, Pilate’s wife, and Mary.
Also on the drama front there was another Mary, but this one felt God was walking away from her. This was Mary from Young Sheldon (RTE One, Friday), back recently for a sixth season. Mary is Sheldon’s mother and while always the most religious character she has felt rejected by her fellow Baptists because her son Georgie and his pregnant girlfriend Mandy aren’t getting married – he wants to, she doesn’t, yet. I’ve always felt, and still do, that the show, while always funny and often moving, is jaundiced towards religion, which wouldn't be great for young students of fragile faith. However Mary’s current crisis has biblical resonance - at one stage she asks God if He is trying to make her into a ‘Mrs Job’. And it has echoes of that famous phrase of Jesus ‘My god why have you forsaken me’.
Love and understanding for humanity are evident in the crime drama series Unforgotten (UTV, Mondays). Back for a 5th series the character Cassie (Nicola Walker) is no longer in the frame and her replacement, DCI James, played so well by Sinead Keenan, is a different character altogether, more prickly and abrupt. Cassie’s former work partner DCI Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) has trouble adjusting. The plot, involving the unravelling of a historical unsolved crime, follows the familiar pattern of this series - in particular there’s high impact in those scenes where a compromised character, up to now getting away with it, sees the police arrive and knows the past is finally catching up. Though the plot follows familiar patterns the characterisation is excellent, across - police, perpetrators and victims.
There was one outstanding scene in last week’s episode, when Khan and James finally cleared the air – he tells her about his fiancée having a miscarriage, and she reveals why her focus has not been firmly on the case – 54 minutes before she started her new job, she learned her husband had been having an affair, and it turned out it was with her sister. It was a tense conversation and the acting deserves a BAFTA for sure. An award for writer and show creator Chris Lang would be great too!
Unfortunately the only time religion gets a look is in relation to a cult. Of course there are cults, but creating some balance with a portrayal of some ordinary religious practice and service would be good.
The trailers for the new comic drama series The Dry (RTE One, Wednesdays) looked promising as were the first few minutes, with recovering alcoholic Shiv trying to engage in conversation with a guy in the airport drinking morning pints. But he accused her of being ‘an f#!* religious nut’. Then they launched into a shouting match with constant and intense swearing combining the F-word with the name of Jesus. It was a gratuitous insult to Christians, in a way that wouldn’t happen to any other group, and showed a complete lack of respect, at a time when ‘#Respect’ is fashionable in some quarters. It came across to me as a studied insult, someone trying to childishly push boundaries. You’d expect such juvenile stuff on RTE 2, but this was prime time RTE One, and heavily promoted.
Last Sunday Songs of Praise (BBC One) came from the Lincoln area, with presenter Sean Fletcher, who described Lent as a time when people challenge themselves, ‘dig deeper into their faith’, a ‘season for reflection and compassion’, with a ‘focus on prayer and care’. We saw children from a Catholic primary school in the area visiting the local cathedral to learn more about the striking Stations of the Cross – known as ‘The Forest Stations’, made from a variety of woods by artist William Fairbank,. The group was introduced by their teacher Pippa Tapfield as the ‘Shining Star’ liturgy team – what a great idea! Later we visited them in their classroom involved in another Lenten project – painting ‘positive pebbles’ to distribute in their local area. Canon Nick Brown explained how the Stations devotion grew from pilgrims’ desire to re-live their pilgrimages to the Holy Land to re-trace the Way of the Cross. The youngsters were inspiringly articulate in their expressions of faith. The music tied in with Lenten themes, but Sean Fletcher said they’d get in one more celebratory hymn before the solemn season started – ‘Raise a Hallelujah!’ from a mainly youthful congregation in Derby was the highlight for me – upbeat and very contemporary in style. I liked the sentiments too – ‘up from the ashes hope will arise’.
Temperance themes fit well with Lent, so it was particularly appropriate for Temperance Sunday to takes place just before Ash Wednesday. The televised Mass (RTE One, Sunday) explored such themes in such a positive way. The celebrant was Fr Robert McCabe, Central Spiritual Director of the Pioneer Association, which, we learned, was almost 125 years old. He was in the company of friends of Cuan Mhuire and Tabor House. Beautiful music was provided by the Schola choir from St Joseph’s Mercy school in Navan, under the direction of liturgical composer Ephrem Feeley, with accompanist David Burke. As with the previous programme it gives so much hope to see young people so involved in the life of their church. In his homily Fr McCabe made generous reference to his ‘teachers’ in the area of addiction support – Sr Consilio and Sr Catherine. He still had ‘lots to learn’ and spoke of the support available to those ‘unwilling or unable to admit addiction’. He called on us to ‘learn the vocabulary’ of addiction so that we would be in a better position to help those in that grip – this year the Pioneer calendar linked the 12 months with the 12 Steps of the AA programme. Also recommended was a Lenten Pledge as a sign of solidarity. Check it all out at pioneers.ie.
Making fun of other people’s religion is disrespectful and can contribute to something more sinister. Everyone Else Burns (Channel 4, Mondays) makes fun of an ultra-religious family that is expecting the Apocalypse any day now. The series starts with a middle of the night dry run organised by the vain overbearing father. The young son is disappointed that Armageddon hasn’t really arrived, that sinners aren’t burning in tarry pits, but the daughter is less enthusiastic. She gets straight A's in a school test but the parents are disturbed - worried about how much valuable preaching time has been wasted. She’s attracted to an ex-member of their sect, but, as we discovered in last Monday’s episode, in this vaguely Christian religion dating is reserved for marriage!
Admittedly it’s funny, even touching at times as genuine humanity vies with excessive religious zeal. This is especially so when the father tries to rekindle romance with his frustrated wife. However, three episodes in, it’s mostly pot shots at easy targets and little if any insight into what religion is really about.
26/1/23 Happy Valley (BBC One, Sunday), recently returned for a third series. This is also adult drama with crime violence and bad language, but it is so much more genuine on a human and dramatic level. It can be emotionally searing – after a one hour episode you can feel you’ve been through the ringer, and each episode packs so much in that it feels like a feature film. The acting, especially by the three female leads – Sarah Lancaster, Siobhán Finneran and Charlie Murphy is outstanding – BAFTAs ahead I hope. There’s a crime plot as expected but also the ongoing story of jailed psychopath Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton, the minister from Grantchester) and the ongoing effect on his traumatised victims. There’s an odd plot device where a prison chaplain (a clergyman of indeterminate denomination) tells the police something presumably told in confidence. In one episode there was a touching but difficult discussion on forgiveness in the most challenging of situations in Happy Valley – ironic title or what!
Big Sky (Disney+) yet another US crime drama series. Don’t be fooled by the Disney branding, this one is from their more adult orientated Star channel, and this is certainly for adults, with grim crime violence and bad language, though not overly graphic. It started well with quirky characters and occasional humour topped off with a shocking end to the first episode. However, 3 episodes in, the appeal is beginning to fade as it becomes more formulaic and predictable. The Montana scenery is striking but if the plot isn’t up to it you might as well watch a travelogue. Religion figures, but, as so often happens in TV drama, the supposedly religious people are weird. There’s a cult in the woods but so far this seems random and not connected to the main plot, which concerns disappearing women and human trafficking. We get a wad of transgender promotion from one character who also says that psychotic people are usually religious! To appeal to the psychotic man keeping them hostage the victims start singing hymns – musically excellent but in context it felt rather cynical. Further, the kidnapper has a dysfunctional relationship with his overbearing mother who, wouldn’t you know, has a crucifix on her wall. There's a visit to this household from a Catholic priest who is concerned. It gets violent, but the priest is portayed sympathetically. After 9 tense enough episodes, but still in the first season, the plot largely changes and the break in continuity does not work well.
I was unenthusiastic about Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power (Amazon Prime) after the first two episodes. It is certainly eye-popping on the visual front, and is best watched on a big screen with big sound. I thought the script often sagged under its own weight, though the plot had promise - with a quest that seemed part justice and part revenge. I did stay with it, enjoyed it and finally finished the last episode of the current series. It built up to an impressive Episode 6 – full of tension, action and important plot developments. The absence of Harfoots/Hobbits helped! Things eased off for the final two episodes, with fallout from Episode 6, the return of the Harfoot/Hobbit sub plot, some interesting revelations and much setting up of the next series – rings appear at last! There were subtle religious elements – various rituals and one scene looked downright Eucharistic as a good wizard wielded a monstrance-like staff. There was much reflection on duty, selflessness, sacrifice and the temptation of power.
A credibly conflicted clergyman featured in the film First Reformed, shown on TG 4 last Monday. it is unpredictable and well scripted to a point (by Paul Shrader). Ethan Hawk does a tremendous job as Rev Toller of the First Reformed – a quaint ‘tourist church’ affiliated to the more prosperous mega ministry nearby. He has developing health issues and is very troubled after a family tragedy. He finds it difficult to pray, but, though full of angst, he is good with the parishioners and in particular finds himself counselling a young married couple. The woman (Amanda Seyfried, never better) is pregnant and looking forward to being a mother, but the husband is overcome by climate doom and doesn’t want to bring a child into this world that, as he sees it, has a grim future. Drawing on his own tragic experience Rev Toller says to him: ‘the despair you feel about bringing a child into this world cannot equal the despair of taking a child from it’.
Largely driven by set pieces where the reverend speaks to a variety of people, and by the reflections he writes in his journal, the film teases out so many important issues, like reason, discernment, pride, hope, despair, family, courage, prayer, relationships, desolation and much more. The atmosphere is frequently grim, emphasised by the dark lighting in many scenes and suitably conveying the Rev Toller’s state of mind. ‘It’s hard to struggle against torpor’, he says. His pastor boss, sympathetic to a degree but more worldly, says to him, with Gethsemane in mind, ‘You’re always in the garden, for you every hour is the darkest hour’.
Concern with climate change, pollution and planetary destruction is central, but there are implied warnings against extremism. The only character I found stereotyped and predictable was the businessman who owns the local factory but who funds many church activities.
For most of the time I found this one the most engrossing films with religious themes I have ever seen, but I thought it went off the rails somewhat in the last quarter, and I wasn’t all happy with the ending.
The set piece conversations mentioned might be suitable for RE, but on the whole the film is too grim, downbeat and even a bit twisted for young people. There is an implicit admiration of service, but joy is in short supply.
The Aran Islands is a place where singer Deirdre Ní Chinnéide finds inspiration. She gave a very reflective interview on Rewind With James Kilbane (Shalom World, Wednesday). She had gone from being a primary teacher to psychotherapy, and was much influenced by her experiences in Bosnia and Kosovo during the war there. The Pieta in one of the Aran island churches resonated with her as she thought of the mothers who had lost their sons during that war. She said she was always a ‘searcher’, wanting to explore ‘the mystery of it all’. She came from a Catholic family with a –‘consistent faith’ though she experienced her faith journey more as an adult. She has released two albums, and if the two beautiful songs she sang on the show - ‘Little Bird’ and ‘I Will Sing to You’ are anything to go by these must be very special indeed. James Kilbane (pictured) was a relaxed and confident presenter on this new show (available online, via Shalom World websites and apps) – the only flaw was the distracting background music during the interview – no need! Deirdre's music is on Spotify.
Last week's The Leap of Faith (RTE Radio 1, Friday) featured poet Mary O’Malley, a native of Connemara who taught in NUI Galway. She loved music – it ‘gives you the beat of the world’, and she found music and poetry ‘as necessary as breath’. She linked it to the element of incantation in every religion and referenced traditional rituals and practices – ‘most of what we practised wasn’t in the Roman Church calendar at all’. Yet, unlike many today, she found no tension between these elements. I liked her poem ‘The Blessed Well’ with its image of ‘bracelets of ripples’ and how the stone that was dropped in 'disappeared like a confessed sin'.
The Secrets She Keeps (RTE One, Tuesdays, BBC One Saturdays) is a gripping Australian thriller series now into its second season. It tells the story of a disturbed woman guilty of the kidnapping and manslaughter of children. Sympathy for her is garnered somewhat by the fact that she was abused as a young girl (by a religious elder wouldn’t you know) and had a baby taken from her. But she is clever and manipulative and in this second series has contrived to become pregnant in prison, much to the embarrassment of the prison authorities who immediately want her to have an abortion. They won’t let her see an ultrasound scan of the baby, but a kindly prison nurse passes it on anyway. So far she is refusing the termination – she now has her longed for baby and hopes this will guarantee her a place in a low security facility. However engaging the plot, the characters are short of likeable – the married ones are having affairs but at least these are shown as destructive, with secrets that eat away inside. As usual the children end up as collateral damage.
24/6/22 Conflicts between Church and State can cause a lot of grief to both, but can also help to clarify principles. These themes were explored in the rather unusual film Servants (Film Four, Tuesday of last week). Set in a Czechoslovakian seminary during Communist times, in 1980, it told the story of young seminarians resisting the imposition of state power and trying to protect the integrity of the Gospel message. Unfortunately some of the college authorities were inclined to compromise to keep the State from closing the institution, which led to investigations, informing on colleagues and even one priest being blackmailed to break the seal of Confession. The title conveys the idea of service – to Church or State and the efforts to maintain that balance.
Filmed in black and white it was a bleak, grim affair with a claustrophobic visual style. It wasn’t what we’d normally regard as entertainment, with an episodic approach, some confusing flashbacks and a largely static cinematography. Yet there were some striking visuals – the large group of seminarians on a spiral staircase, a courtyard football game filmed from above, a truckload of confiscated typewriters, two giant torch-carrying fists in stone butted against each other as seminarians play snowballs (see pic), a deliberately demeaning medical examination of one seminarian, the disposal of a priest’s body under an illuminated railway bridge at night.
I felt it was weakest on character, not helped by the sparse narrative. I’d like to have understood more about why these young men were training for the priesthood and how they became so courageous and conscientious. The older men were more easily understood – the tired and conflicted priests in charge, collaborating for survival, and the tired and diseased state security man unhappy in his surveillance work but carrying it out routinely, almost robotically.
In more familiar entertainment territory the latest season of Young Sheldon (RTE One, Fridays, E4, Sundays) has taken a somewhat darker turn, hence, I suspect, the later time slot. The family is under pressure – George, the father, isn’t doing so well at his school team coaching work, a story line that came to a head in last Friday night’s episode. For a while he was enjoying the company (just that) of the divorced woman next door who is quite interested in him. Mary, the very religious mother, is fraying a bit at the edges too, and has been enjoying the company of a trendy young pastor at her church – they even have some guilty cigarettes together! Despite the crises there have been some really funny and touching moments.
A prominent plot line in recent episodes has been the 17-year old son Georgie getting a girl pregnant – and she’s in her late 20’s! She’s Catholic and her parents want nothing more to do with her – believable but it does feed a lazy stereotype. Georgie’s parents are shocked but eventually react with acceptance and some generosity. Mary sees marriage as the desirable option and wants the baby to be brought up in their family’s Baptist faith! George isn’t so sure and all reactions are coloured by the fact that Mary was pregnant when he married her.
Things get quite serious when folks at Mary’s church get all judgemental and attendance at her Bible studies group dries up. She admits that she might have been one of the judgemental ones if it wasn’t her son that was involved. Last Friday’s episode on RTE was the last of the season and was one of the weaker episodes, involving some silly clowning about Sheldon’s first pimple, with celebrity magicians Penn and Teller playing the pimple and the pus in fantasy sequences. Yuk!
Recently I visited the exhibition relating to St Colmcille (aka St Columba) in the National Museum. It was modest enough but well-presented and informative. So, I was already in the zone for Colmcille – An Naomh Dána (TG 4, last Thursday). It was certainly interesting, but hard to figure out what was historical and what elements were added by later hagiographers. There was general consensus that the monasteries founded or influenced by Columba/Colmcille were centres of great learning. This was true especially of Iona. One contributor described it as ‘the birthplace of Irish literature’. Dr Niamh Wycherly from Maynooth Universitty credited the saint with creating a ‘swathe of ecclesiastical foundations’ which were home to a variety of historical artefacts. Earlier she pointed out that lives of the saints, the hagiography, can reflect more the times they were written in rather than the times they were about, and indeed some stories seemed designed for purposes other than mere history. And so there were stories of the saint sailing on a floating rock, or spreading his cloak miraculously wide to claim a large amount of land. Very often political agendas were at play in these anecdotes, for example as various powers tried to claim Colmcille for themselves and their own purposes.
At one stage it seems the saint was excommunicated or exiled after a row over copyright! Allegedly he had surreptitiously copied a Psalter belonging to another holy man and wouldn’t give it back, which supposedly let to real bloody battles, but again this seemed to serve the agenda of the storyteller. Overall I found lots of historical and folklore interest in the programme but not a lot that was spiritually inspiring. I’m not sure they captured the essence of the man, and maybe that is beyond us now anyway, though one of the points frequently made was that we know much more about Colmcille than about St Patrick or St Brigid. I don’t think the dramatic reconstructions helped – they seemed a bit forced and the saint didn’t come across as very appealing.
This ties in well with the currulum, in relation to people of faith or Irish Christian heritage and teachers may find the full programme or clips from it useful.
I came to Kenneth Brannagh’s film Belfast with high expectations and I wasn’t disappointed. It was humane, wistful nostalgic, optimistic but not oblivious to sadness. Set against the backdrop of the Troubles it wasn’t excessively violent. An opening scene where Catholic families were attacked in a mixed area gave us a sense of the sectarian context, so we understood the fear and tension, but the focus for the most part was on decent people – in particular a Protestant family with no interest in getting involved with sectarian strife.
Most if not all of the action is seen through the eyes of Buddy (Jude Hill, excellent), a young boy negotiating family and social background. I’ve never seen Jamie Dornan so effective in a role – here he plays Buddy’s father, coping with debts, protecting his family and working in England. Caitríona Balfe is entirely relatable as Buddy’s mother, hoping to be able to carry on and not have her children drawn in to the street violence. The emphasis is mostly on ordinary family life, the politics is mostly peripheral, and there’s a welcome lack of melodrama and cliché.
Maybe it’s a bit preachy at times, but in such a good and subtle film I’m inclined to forgive – the story is so absorbing and I didn’t feel I was being browbeaten by agendas.
Religion is part of the social background, just accepted as part of life, the way things are. There are some funny scenes early on when the youngsters discuss Catholic practices like Confession – the misunderstandings are very funny. There’s a fire and brimstone sermon from a Paisley-like preacher who gets himself into a lather of sweat describing the horrors of hell in the most lurid terms. Later he seems much more humane and restrained at a funeral. One could argue that there is a slightly jaundiced attitude to religion, as if it’s the cause of sectarianism, rather than seeing the sectarian strife as a failure of people to be truly Christian. And yet at other times religion seems an integral and accepted part of one’s existence. I’m looking forward to seeing it again.
Dramas based on true stories can be fascinating, but mixing fiction and history can produce odd results. So it is with The Terror: Infamy (BBC Two, Fridays). The first series is still on repeat on RTE 2, Sunday nights, and is an absorbing but very grim story on the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin in the Arctic – one of his ships was called The Terror. The unique aspect of the series is the way it blends in supernatural elements as the historical story is embellished. This new series is running with double episodes, and this time the historical background is the internment of Japanese citizens and US citizens of Japanese origins after the attack on Pearl Harbour. That in itself would have provided an intriguing story, but the ‘terror’ element this time involves a malevolent spirit stalking the camps, leading to some pretty gruesome deaths. The central story concerns Chester, an American of Japanese origin who gets his Catholic girlfriend pregnant. Her parents are unsympathetic to put it mildly. An abortion is planned and this seems to spark the awakening of a nasty spirit who has designs on the baby.
Even as they are considering it the proposed abortion it is described as an ‘offence against God’ and the woman who provides the deadly potion comes to a sticky end. The story is most touching when the woman also considers why she should keep the baby, and in the developing relationship between her and Chester’s family – the personality and cultural differences are huge obstacles, but there was a moving encounter in last Saturday’s first episode between her and Chester’s father.
The second episode last Saturday spends a lot of time on backstory, which drains the tension somewhat. We see an historical adoption and a baby handed in to a Catholic orphanage by a mother who can’t cope. The nun who receives the child is courteous, but doesn’t seem to be caring about the ongoing welfare of the mother. Well, that feeds in to a familiar narrative!
The third and apparently final series of The Spilt ended last week on BBC One. As I’ve written before (see below) it is excellent adult drama, adult in a good way. Mature themes abound but the story is largely character driven, enhanced by marvellous acting and scripting, and for the most part controversial issues are handled with a light touch. For example assisted dying was a recurring theme but I didn’t feel I was being browbeaten by an agenda as a character feared the onset of motor neurone disease. I found it nudged towards choice and autonomy but also flew the flag for palliative care.
The series is aptly named as the main characters are a family of divorce lawyers with their own marital difficulties, with children the victims of the adults’ self-indulgence. I thought that last episode was a tad preachy, not typical of the whole series, with some rather wordy rationalising on the concept of ‘the good divorce’. I don’t buy it. On the plus side the issue of grief was handled beautifully as one character had to deal with the death of her husband. In that episode there was a heart-breaking graveside scene, all the more so as the character didn’t seem to believe in an afterlife. And then, in one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever seen in TV drama, we saw her listening to her husband’s beating heart – in the chest of a man who had benefitted from her generous willingness to donate that organ. There’s also a very touching and subtle friendship between a woman and a widowed vicar. If I’m being vague here it’s just that I want to avoid too many spoilers – for when it turns up later on RTE.
Also noteworthy were the fine original songs contributed to the series by Olivia Bradfield – you’ll find the album on Spotify.
The Thief His Wife and the Canoe concluded last Thursday on ITV. The story itself was quite bizarre – it told of John Darwin, who faked his own death for the insurance money. As portrayed here his wife was reluctantly persuaded to be complicit – even to the point of lying to their two sons, his father and her brothers and parents. This went on for over 5 years and for most of the time he was living in a rented house next door! Later they attempted to move to Panama but a random photo taken there helped to expose the whole thing. The deluded families were devastated and understandably there was a huge family rift. The acting was superb – Eddie Marsan played Darwin as a self-absorbed manipulator with zero empathy (we could have done without his bit of brief gratuitous nudity!), Monica Dolan impressed as the shy and sheltered mother who went along with the scam. Unlike him, you could have some sympathy for her, despite the awfulness of the crime. There was a great humanity about the characters, especially the two sons who had to endure the tragedy of their father’s ‘death’, the joy of his return, (he claimed amnesia) and the sense of betrayal when they discovered the truth. Yet, in the final episode, themes of forgiveness and redemption were beautifully explored. We learned that Anne Darwin was Catholic and we did see her praying at one stage, and later engaging with a prison therapist and chaplain but this side of her life was not deeply explored and her faith didn’t seem to impinge on her calculations.
Even better is the third series of The Spilt, currently on BBC One, Monday nights. This is emotionally searing stuff as a divorce lawyers slug it out in court and in their mixed up private lives. It’s so well acted by Nicola Walker, Stephen Mangan and Fiona Button in particular – I’d give them all BAFTAs. Walker plays a wife who has been unfaithful, Mangan her husband who has been unfaithful and their split is getting acrimonious, especially as he has a new and pregnant girlfriend. Their children suffer hugely as the adults indulge themselves, though they remain very human people we can relate to. Button is one of three sisters, a most likeable character who has her own issues to deal with. In the process she has an interesting friendship with the local vicar who is understanding and supportive. Religion is treated respectfully throughout, but the sexual morals are all over the place. The show mainly shows them and lets us draw our own conclusions. It’s all about the characters and the story and I didn’t feel creator Abi Morgan was browbeating us with any particular agenda.
Usually there are loads of religious programmes on mainstream media over Easter. Mostly it’s biblical epics and religious services, but I’m always on the lookout for something different and creative. Walled City Passion (RTE One, Easter Sunday) certainly had those qualities. It imagined a peace festival in a certain walled city - Derry, but not identified as such, with a guildhall and a governor! The format was a brash news programme reporting on the event, with reporters and commentators on the scene, when news breaks of a disruptive incident involving ‘Christopher, a Jesus-like character who was allegedly inciting the crowds and fermenting revolution. There were several nods to the familiar passion narrative – the ‘Caiphas Organisation’ out to get Jesus, Christopher falling a few times, the Governor’s release of another prisoner instead of the Jesus figure, the wiping of Christopher’s face by a Veronica character, a news reporter, the security man injured in the arrest (and healed by Christopher) doubling as Simon of Cyrene, and unusually but effectively a devil-like character (actually a high-profile gangster) tempting Christopher with the lure of power.
Yet I found it hard to get very enthusiastic about the drama. At times it felt stilted and awkward, and the shrill reporter on the scene, Jenny, was thoroughly irritating. The kind of things Jesus said were pretty bland (‘vague niceties’ according to one unsympathetic commentator in the show - that may be too harsh!) and certainly not the fullness of the teaching of Jesus. He came across as just a peaceful social reformer, without much of a spiritual context, though at one stage in his agony he cried out ‘Father!’ but no one seemed curious as to what exactly he meant by this. Thankfully they didn’t hedge on the Resurrection and I liked the way that was portrayed, however briefly. That scene stood out as did the scene where he met his mother at the end of his 'via dolorosa', minus an actual cross, which of course would have seemed anachronistic.
More info here: https://walledcitypassion.com/
These days you’d need some infusion of hope and joy. Lent at Ephesus (EWTN, last Sunday) was just what the spiritual doctor ordered. We followed the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles from the USA as they recorded a Lenten CD of their tranquil chants and hymns. One observer reckoned they sang more than they talked! There was a regularity to their daily routine of prayer, chant, work and modest meals, but the music was central. Mother Cecilia spoke of her music education and how she played in an orchestra for a few years after graduating. She had a house and a car but all along felt God’s call to religious life, and eventually found peace in following that vocation.
Kevin and Monica Fitzgibbon of De Montfort Music heard their singing and worked with them to produce the Lent at Ephesus CD (available on Spotify). The tracks played in the background during the programme, though I would have liked better synchronisation with footage of the sisters singing. This wouldn’t be my own favourite kind of music, but I was particularly drawn to ‘God of Mercy and Compassion’ and ‘O Sacred Head Surrounded’ with Bach’s familiar melody (also borrowed by Paul Simon for ‘American Tune’).
I was struck by the age profile of the sisters – most were young and it seemed quite a large community. I’d love to have heard vocation stories from more of the sisters. Mother Cecilia was glad to be able to ‘share the beauty of sacred music’ and prayed it will help many to love God all the more.
Listen to the album on Spotify
Sister Boniface Mysteries (Drama channel, Fridays) started recently. It is old fashioned in style but recently made and could be described as ‘cosy crime’. Lorna Watson stars as the perky Sr Boniface, described as a ‘nun … and part-time forensic scientist.’ The character appeared previously in the Father Brown series, and apparently she got her skills working in a security role in Bletchley during World War 2 – these stories are set in the 1960’s. It really is rather corny and cringy, with stereotypes in abundance, including some religious ones, though if you’re weary of the ‘adult content’ in modern dramas you might enjoy the mystery frolics. In last week’s episode there are some plot elements with resonance for our times – a real bullet being fired on a film set (like the recent Alec Baldwin case) and a reference to ‘sadistic Soviets’. The whimsy is laid on thick, though some uses of the crucifix might be deemed disrespectful. I did notice a policeman praying – you don’t see that too often in TV drama.
18/3/22 Yes, Prime Minister, currently on repeat (BBC Four, Wednesdays and Saturdays), is as fresh as ever – the political satire still bites sharply. Last week’s episode ‘The Bishop’s Gambit’ is one of the funniest. Very specific to the UK and its Church of England, Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) the eager-to-please PM has to appoint a new bishop. He is torn between a genuinely religious candidate who has conservative social views, and a liberal who is probably an atheist but whose politics are left leaning and don’t sit easily with the Government. The quips come thick and fast and I can imagine Anglican clergy and Christians more broadly saying ‘ouch’ as the barbs hit their target, but the barbs surely compete with the laughs.
There are so many quotable gems. At one stage the Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne) says: ‘bishops tend to live long lives, apparently the Lord is not all that keen for them to join Him’. The PM suggests letting the Holy Spirit decide which candidate is deserving, but Humphrey is doubtful. Assistant Bernard (Derek Fowlds) says: ‘No one is confident that the Holy Ghost would understand what makes a good Church of England bishop’. I’m not sure that many would agree with Sir Humphrey’s claim that ‘Theology is a device for enabling agnostics to stay within the church’! The PM’s wife is a church goer and she has sound advice: ‘I’d prefer you to choose a man of God’. Hacker responds: ‘I was offered one of them. But he wants to turn the Church of England into a religious movement’. The best joke I thought was Humphrey’s reference to a candidate who had been waiting for very long to become a bishop: ‘Long time no See’.
20/1/22 On a humorous note Young Sheldon (RTE 1, Friday) returned for a fifth season last week. It’s a funny and endearing sitcom which many deft human touches, though with an ambiguous attitude to religious faith. In last week’s episode George, the father, had too much to drink and mildly flirted with the woman next door whose husband had done a runner. Before things got out of hand he had a heart attack and the family rows that carried forward from the last series were all forgotten as everyone rallied round. When he recovered daughter Missy thanked God but Sheldon thanked modern medicine. Perhaps that is the main fault of the show – the tiresome and outdated pitting of science against religion – curious in our fluid times when anything binary is frowned upon.
Sheldon was puzzled that he didn’t get punished for his misdeed of running away from home. He wondered how, in the absence of a divine being (as he sees it), morality and societal rules were to be maintained. He sought advice from his grandmother – with typical directness his opening line was: ‘you’re the least moral person I know’! She didn’t seem to get her punishment either, so Sheldon further wondered - where’s the incentive to be moral? There was a respectful ending as the narrator, the adult Sheldon (from Big Bang Theory) -reflected on where people get their comfort – some , like his mother Mary, get it from a Higher Power as we see her asking God to protect her family, others seek refuge in fictitious worlds (Sheldon is a big Star Trek fan), still others rely on lighter fluid and matches – we see Missy burning a copybook on which she had artistically written the name of the boyfriend who had been guilty of two timing. Nice!
Last Sunday we had the feast day of the Baptism of Jesus, and Songs of Praise (BBC One, Sunday) had a special on Baptism for the occasion. Sean Fletcher reported from Liverpool cathedral where the main baptismal font was quite impressive. It was near the entrance to the cathedral and featured several tableaux in stone as well as a symbolic water feature on the surrounding floor area. There was also a colourful icon of Jesus’ Baptism, among the several artistic depictions of the event. It was great to see young couples enthusiastic about having their babies baptised, with young Godparents conscious of their responsibilities. We saw several total immersion baptisms, from a Pentecostal Church and an Orthodox Ethiopian community whose celebrations were dramatic and colourful. Most of the songs were from packed congregations pre-coronavirus, though my favourite was a recent outdoor performance by vocal group Stellina, who sang, appropriately, Wade in the Water.
Niall Carroll’s Classical Daytime (RTE Lyric fm) also caught my attention leading up to Christmas Day – it featured The Universal Mass, a new setting of the sung parts of the mass by J.J. O’Shea which was given two outings. On the Thursday the Irish based African Gospel Choir, led by Tomilola Allen-Taylor, got to perform these new pieces in the Yoruba language. The singing was beautiful as they gave their interpretation of the medieval chants, though in marrying the styles we didn’t get the usual infectious rhythms you’d expect from a gospel choir. (Listen here, at around the 1:02:20 mark). On the Thursday it was the turn of Cork singer-songwriter Emma Langford and her interpretation was very different, featuring an arrangement by guitarist Paul de Grae, with a string quartet. Langford’s vocals soared as she committed wholeheartedly to the pieces. Listen here, around the 1:00:55 mark. For the composer’s vision for this imaginative venture see this article on the RTE website.
One of my regular Christmas time favourites was A Christmas Leap of Faith (RTE Radio 1, Christmas Day) with Michael Comyn. While the regular Friday night Leap of Faith can deal with thorny topics this was a relaxed exploration of some seasonal themes, but also touching on deep and challenging human issues. There was a diverse group of guests – clerics, poets, musicians and writers. There were Christmas memories, an awareness of giftedness, an appreciation that Christmas can be difficult for some people, a consciousness of the empty places around the Christmas table, whether from bereavement or varying degrees of isolation. Musically we had Blanaid Murphy and the Palestrina Choir, along with Angela O’Floinn’s songs from a new album of carols in Irish, Glór na nAingeal – what we heard was beautiful (check it out at irishcarols.ie and the Bandcamp website, where you can hear samples). Covid did cast a shadow for the second year running, but the concluding song, Joy to the World, was the perfect song to finish the programme. Listen back here.
I saw The Exorcist years ago and had no inclination to see it again, but I was very interested in the documentary Fear of God: 25 Years of the Exorcist (BBC Four). The background to the film was intriguing – on an artistic level it’s always interesting to see how a novel becomes a film script, how actors are chosen for various roles. When it all works it can often seem to be a result of happy accident. Linda Blair, who plays the possessed girl Regan (definitely no relation!) wasn’t even proposed for the part originally. The adult Blair, describing herself as a Christian, told of the foul language she had to speak to convey the demonic possession and I felt there was something decidedly dodgy about having a young child actress doing this. The film had two theological advisors, and at least two priests acting in the film (one told of getting his provincial’s approval). The director William Friedkin said he could only get such sanctity from a real priest! Friedkin told of how some regarded the film as a great recruiting tool for the Catholic Church, while others saw it as a monstrosity with the devil embedded in the fabric of it. There were stories of movie goers rushing to churches afterwards or getting medical treatment. The writer William Peter Blatty had been to the Jesuit Georgetown University and based his story on newspaper reports of a real possession case in Washington D.C. – we were shown the newspaper headlines of the time – the boy, as it was in the real case, had been messing with a Ouija board, his Lutheran pastor was very disturbed by the accompanying phenomena and referred him to a Catholic priest for exorcism.
7/10/21 There I was scouring Netflix (it needs cleaning up for sure) and noticed Midnight Mass. And it was only 1 pm. So, it wasn’t a livestream, but a new ‘limited series’ drama with a Catholic background. The first episode was creepy and intriguing. A young man returns to Crockett Island on parole after serving a four sentence for the death by drunken driving of a young girl, who still haunts his dreams (or does she?). A new young priest who doesn’t seem to know his appropriate vestment colours (niche!) arrives with a mysterious trunk, which may or may not contain the previous parish priest who is observed (or is he?) roaming the island in a storm. Cue a plague of dead cats landing on the beach after a storm, eaten by some unseen creature with the wingspan of an albatross. The unfunny thing is, they could have had an interesting story if they dropped the weird stuff and the gratuitous foul language.
The ex-prisoner lost his faith in prison - the opposite of the usual pattern he says. A young pregnant teacher has returned to church and likes it. We see an ultrasound of her unborn baby. The ex-prisoner’s mother is very religious and welcoming, his father is very religious and wary. He insists on the adult son going to Mass, but says he shouldn’t go to communion as he hasn’t been to Confession (someone with splinters of a Catholic background must have written the script). Oddly the priest draws attention to this in front of others, suggesting that Jesus was most interested in sinners anyway. The sacristan-teacher is very religious and a fussy pious woman (or is she?), the sheriff-shopkeeper is a Muslim (not tokenism) and he prays with his son, who smokes dope to fit in with the foul-mouthed altar boys. Oh boy.
After that first episode it’s a mixed bag. There are some moving moments involving forgiveness and redemption, relatable characters searching for purpose in life, some interesting sermons, gorgeous hymns throughout, some surprisingly long theological discussions between people of faith and non-believers, a strong emphasis on Eucharist … why didn’t they just develop these intriguing strands? Instead, like the witches adding ingredients to the cauldron in Macbeth, they threw in bits of Fr Jekyl and Mr Hyde, Sr. Carrie, The Walking Deadly, Angels or Demons, with nods to the X-Files - one character has a picture of Scully on his wall, AND Annabeth Gish, who starred in later seasons of that creepy show, plays a unbelieving local doctor trying to cope with the occult shenanigans – she gets to carry the pointless obligatory gay sub plot (POGS) in a rather box ticking way to keep the diversity police away. I didn’t notice any garlic though.
All seven episodes are named after a book of the Bible and with each one the horror gets worse, as implausibility descends into absurdity and a mighty blood fest. And to please everyone a smidgeon of almost every life philosophy is thrown into the mix. Ultimately religion doesn’t come well out of it and I felt the atheistic or agnostic perspective fared better. Also it’s more than distasteful to see aspects of faith we hold dear being exploited for schlock horror. Some scenes are quite disgusting and repulsive – the horror genre is not known for subtlety and nuance. Yes, we get it, religious extremism is destructive, but the entertainment business too often seems happier dealing with psychotic religious people than with people of genuine faith.
Stockholm Requiem (All Four) is is pretty dark, starting as it does with a two-parter, ‘Unwanted’, about the kidnapping and murder of children – rather grim and unsavoury. Religion figures in that a religious anti-abortionist, wouldn’t you know, is a suspect. Sinister pro-lifers make for handy scapegoats. Yet in another way it has a pro-life message. Women regret abortions, it’s seen as an ongoing deep down pain. The explicit message is ‘Love Them All’, and one woman seems sad that that she didn’t, as she effectively admits to having an abortion, and now is having difficulty having any more children. There are hints too of sheltered religious families not showing compassion. In another two-part story, ‘Bloodline’, a priest and his wife are killed in an apparent murder-suicide, but of course in cop shows, things are not always what they seem. At least the priest (Lutheran I think) is involved in charity work as are his daughters, though there are suspicions of dodgy dealings in the charity, and credibly the sense that the couple were so involved in their charity work that they didn’t give their own children the attention they needed. Another minister, a woman, is upset and speaks of ‘her wife’, ticking the diversity box and going nowhere with it. As the series went on there were many moral dilemmas, but there was also an understanding of the fragility of human nature that was endearing. A regular chat in a taxi between the two main characters served as a motif for reflection and continuity through the series.
Floodland (All Four) is another dark thriller series, this time based in Belgium and the Netherlands as police tackle human trafficking and their personal demons both sides of the border. The lead character is Tara Dessel (Jasmine Sendar), an insomniac detective with issues who has the knack of annoying just about everyone else in her dogged pursuit of the trafficking network and the murders that follow in its wake. She partners with a police psychologist Bert Dewulf (Koen de Bouw) who has his own troubles at home and in his private practice. So many police characters have damaged home lives, caused it seems by the all engrossing demands of their professions. Maybe there should be a celibacy rule for detectives? At one stage a young migrant is discovered to be pregnant and we get a touching scene where she is delighted to see her baby on an ultrasound. Dessel immediately says she should have an abortion, but the girl wants to keep the baby and the psychologist seems to support her in that choice. As in so many TV dramas I’ve seen the message is that there ought to be the choice, but keeping the baby is the better choice – not exactly the pro-life position, but perhaps heading in the right direction. Nevertheless it’s hard to recommend the show. There are some skewed vales, and while acceptably gritty it’s occasionally grotty as well, with some unsavoury scenes.
I’ve been catching up on Hinterland (Netflix) an older drama that I missed on live TV. Again child abuse figures, but not so much of the clerical kind, though one clergyman does have regrets about not speaking out about his suspicions relating to a care home, while another minister is anything but religious in his home life. It’s a strange show, sometimes classified as ‘Welsh Noir’, but it has a certain hypnotic effect, especially if you binge watch. Dialogue is sparse – often characters just give each other knowing looks instead of speaking, as if they’re telepathic. There’s an inordinate amount of driving around the Welsh countryside, and as is often the case, once the new detective arrives in town the body count goes up – only once is he even suspected of contributing. It’s relatively free of ‘adult content’ or bad language, but the crimes are violent and there are way too many instances of suicide, perhaps to the point of irresponsibility. At one stage it seemed that many of the criminals cornered by the detective (DCI Matthias, played by a glum Richard Armstrong) ended up killing themselves or trying to at the end – disconcerting to say the least.
Worrying concerns about life and death were the subject of The Salisbury Poisonings (RTE One, Tuesdays), a four part BBC-made drama series about the true story of the poisoning, by nerve agent novichok, of Sergei and Yulia Skripal allegedly by Russian agents. Even though we knew the broad outlines of the case (from 2018) the drama was absorbing. The characters, even the minor ones, were well drawn, credible human beings caught up in a potentially drastic incident. The absence of a central villain was actually a bonus – the authorities had enough of an adversary in the poison itself. The human perpetrators were peripheral as the focus was on the investigators and the victims.
The family members of one infected policeman were not affected at all, though he had shared a home and physical contact with them. One investigator said he was a scientist but that one word for this was ‘miracle’. Also there was mention of a woman lighting candles in church with her daughter and the religious funeral ceremony was very moving. So, though grim, it was uplifting at several levels – not a bad achievement.
Mystery drama Manifest is back on SKY One for a third season and I’ve been working my way through the 13 episodes ... I’m not superstitious at all! The drama is about survivors who return years after their plane crashes, with no evidence of aging. It’s take on religion is rather scattershot, as if Uncle Thomas Cobbley was one of the scriptwriters. In the first episode of the new series a young girl is criminally oppressed by her overly religious parents, with ongoing psychological effects on her. Of course this can happen but it’s a bit of a worn out cliché at this stage. A lead character Ben (Josh Dallas, over emoting at times), having witnessed strange phenomena, wonders if he should now start believing. His sister Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh, consistently strong performance) wonders if the visions the survivors get are messages or ‘callings’ from God. A Government agent wonders if they’re experiencing ‘divine intervention’, others personify the Universe. There’s talk of resurrection, the pocalypse and themes of redemption, doing miracles without God, some dabbling in Egyptian mythology. At one stage a mysterious box arrives from the Vatican and it felt like they were going full Dan Brown. While adult fare, it’s mostly free of the graphic excesses of other shows, there’s no bad language I can remember, but there are generous helpings of corn and soap. A gay relationship feels like diversity box ticking.
The science-religion debate gets aired a few times, with one no-nonsense scientist saying 'perhaps faith has a seat at the table after all'.
It’s trying my patience as it goes on and on and gets repetitious, with new plot angles pulled out of the hat in what feels like random efforts to prolong the series. But many of the characters are likeable, so it’s easy to care what happens to them.
22/7/21 The first time I heard of the town of Arundel in England it was in connection with the intriguing poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’ by Philip Larkin. Unfortunately the tomb, in nearby Chichester , with its romantic husband and wife statues did not figure in last Sunday’s Songs of Praise (BBC One). We did learn about the Dukes of Norfolk that stayed true to their Catholic faith despite persecution. One of these, Philip Howard was canonised under Pope Paul VI. He had tried to adapt to the new Protestant ways under Queen Elizabeth I, but reverted to Catholicism and then wrote her a letter explaining why he felt he had to flee the country. Unfortunately he was intercepted in the Channel and jailed in the Tower of London for 10 years until he died. Henry, the 15th Duke had the local church built for his 21st birthday, and this later became a cathedral, as explained by the Right Rev Richard Moth, Bishop of Brighton and Arundel.
Also in Arundel are the Poor Clare Sisters, who established their community there in 1886. Last year they became famous when their album ‘Light for the World’ topped the classical charts. The sisters hoped it captured the essence of their way of life and would bring God to people. It came at a particularly suitable time, the start of the pandemic. The music in the show was uplifting as always, though it was tinged with sadness as we watched older recordings with the massed congregational singing that is no more for now. I particularly liked Newman’s hymn ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Highest’ and the more contemporary ‘Everlasting Arms’ from an outdoor summery worship gathering in Eastbourne. I was also much taken with the more pared back ‘Standing on the Promises of God’, sung by Monique McKen, winner last year’s Gospel Singer of the Year. And what better way to end the programme than with ‘Lord of All Hopefulness’. [added to, 23/7/21]
15/7/21 I enjoyed last Sunday night’s Vaticano (EWTN) an exploration of the work of Renaissance artist Raphael who died 500 years ago. The art historian Elizabeth Lev gave us an enthusiastic overview of his work in the Vatican for the reforming Pope Julius II. She described the harmony and peacefulness in his work, the patience desirable to appreciate it and the spirit of teamwork that he exemplified. Now these are qualities worth cultivating in these fractious times. EWTN often repeats such shows and if so I'll flag the repeat on the TV/Radio page.
I’ve largely enjoyed the new crime drama series The Pact which finished on BBC One, Tuesday of last week. It was the story of a group of female brewery workers who engaged in a conspiracy (not far right!) to cover up a potential crime, a prank gone wrong. One of them kneels at her bedside to say her prayers after insisting on the cover up and later we see her in Church in a touching conversation with one of the others who is an ex-prisoner on probation and can’t afford to get mixed up in anything remotely illegal. She has several touching conversations with her local clergyman about her purpose in life though at another level she is morally compromised. The clergyman has issues of his own but his character is underdeveloped.
It’s an effective mix of conspiracy, paranoia, moral dilemma, tight plotting and excellent ensemble acting, though with the usual woke elements, especially in relation to same sex relationships, and relatively restrained ‘adult content’. We also get to see people for whom religion is an important part of their lives, however much they struggle with its challenges. Another struggle features an unplanned pregnancy- the father tries to bully the woman into having an abortion but she resists, and there’s a touching scene where we see the unborn baby in an ultrasound. The pro-choice rhetoric is there but the pro-life choice is seen as the better one. There were several high impact plot developments in last week’s episodes, though I wasn’t so enamoured with the morally questionable ending.
Mare of Easttown (Sky Atlantic) is another hard hitting drama series just finished last week. It’s a tightly plotted crime drama, but like the best of them the emphasis is as much on character and relationships as it is on figuring out whodunit. There are plenty of surprises and unexpected plot twists as the murder of a troubled girl is investigated by Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet), a cop with quite an amount of her own baggage, as is the way with most TV cops these days.
The treatment of religion is pretty positive overall, though the spectre of clerical child abuse hovers. There are a few excellent sermon scenes and themes of forgiveness and redemption are strong. Church attendance is unnaturally large in one of these scenes, but it’s a useful dramatic device for gathering most key players in one place. There’s a benign view of a same sex relationship, prominent enough though ultimately it feels tokenistic, ticking the diversity box. The language is foul, worse than I’ve come across for a long time. The profanities are particularly grating and strangely gratuitous. Does the scriptwriter not trust his story to be gritty and hard hitting enough without all this? Mare Sheehan is particularly foul-mouthed, but Winslet excels in the role, conveying a wide range of troubled emotions.
new series, Time (BBC One, Sunday) got started last Sunday. I’m not particularly a fan of prison drama, but when I heard this one was written by Jimmy McGovern (Broken, Moving On, The Street) I thought I’d have a look, and I’m hooked after the very promising first episode. Sean Bean plays a teacher jailed for killing a man while driving drunk. The disorientation, even terror, he feels in his first few days in jail is palpable and makes for uncomfortable viewing. There’s a low level of unpredictable violence, and certainly some arrogant and even psychotic prisoners, but there’s also a warm and understanding humanity. This is particularly evident in the emotional visiting scenes, where we see a variety of prisoners engaging positively with their families. Middle aged Mark (the Sean Bean character) is visited by his aging and worried parents in a particularly poignant moment. Mark is uncertain when asked about his religion and ultimately declares himself a lapsed Catholic. Always kind and obliging he agrees to help when Sr Marie-Louise (Siobhan Finneran) from the Catholic chaplaincy asks him to help with some young students on a visit to the prison. When she asks he says ‘I’m not into God I’m afraid’, whereupon she replies cheerfully ‘You don’t know what you’re missing!’
The current series of Line of Duty (BBC One) ended last Sunday night with much fanfare in advance and much criticism afterwards. This show is unique in the way it has brought people together for unmissable live TV – no binge watching here! It’s pretty much essential to watch it live, or better still on slight delay so you can rewind to catch the smallest of details that might be significant. If you wait too long you might be exposed to spoilers that will ruin the twists and turns of the convoluted plot. That last episode, while gripping as always, lacked the big punch people were expecting, and once again Twitter blew up, this time with the term ‘disappointing’ trending.
The world of the show is almost entirely secular, though last Sunday Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) worried about the judgement of God on a, error of judgement he had made that had tragic though perhaps unintended consequences. His iconic phrase ‘Mother of God’ doesn’t come across as disrespectful, and on a recent show he topped this with an expression of exasperation ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey’, which set the internet alight with searches for images of St Joseph to use in Twitter memes. Maybe in this year of St Joseph the saint had a wry smile at the sudden renewal of interest. Heaven knows what it might lead to.
added another confession scene to my collection from drama series Viewpoint (ITV) last week. It was a pretty intense adult thriller with a ‘Rear Window’ vibe as a surveillance team kept watch on a murder suspect. In one episode the police officers followed a person of interest and found him in a church, coming out of a confession box … so ha! he must have something to hide! One officer blessed herself and sat down respectfully, the other approached the sinner and reminded him that it doesn’t count, that it’s only words, if you don’t do restitution. So, he urged the man, who had provided a fake alibi, to come clean.
It’s sad I know, but as those of you who've attended my workshops know, one of my hobbies is collecting Confession scenes from film and TV drama. I added a new one to my collection last week. A Confession scene in Fair City (RTE One) caused a bit of a stir. Unfortunately I came across the controversy first and caught up with the offending scene in omnibus edition last Saturday morning, so I did have pre-conceived notions. Artistically, I found it rather stilted, contrived and inevitably soapy – a woman claims she wants Confession but it turns out she was the priest’s old girlfriend (from pre-seminary days!) and, unknown to him until now, the father of her 30-year old daughter, thanks to a one-night stand the night before his wedding to another woman. Potboiler or what! Sounds like the extended title to a Dr Phil episode.
The scene took place in an oratory (featuring the lectern put to more respectful use in RTE’s studio masses), and though it starts like a Confession, it quickly gets derailed into recriminations and insult trading – he berates her for causing misery as a money lender, leading to messes he, as a priest, has to clear up. It's a fine social justice speech, but the context of Confession is hardly the place for it. She accuses him of hypocrisy and fires off a few standard broadsides against the Church ‘bishops in palaces’, ‘Catholic hocus pocus’ … I was surprised our old friend Catholic Guilt didn’t have a cameo. I’ve seen a lot worse on RTE, but I think it did wander over the border into disrespect, especially with the smoking and drinking in the oratory. And there was no ‘firm purpose of amendment’ in the room!
There were some really interesting radio items over Easter. On Sunday (BBC Radio 4) there was an interview with singer Harry Connick Jnr, a Catholic (didn’t know that), whose experience of lockdown led him to record an album of faith songs – Alone with My Faith. I wasn’t too keen on his version of ‘Amazing Grace’ but ‘Benevolent Man’ was worth a listen. Spotify here I come. On the same programme actor David Suchet (Poirot!) spoke of his reading of the Bible. Listen back here.
On a different musical note, and also well worth listening back to, on The Leap of Faith (RTE Radio 1, Good Friday) Michael Comyn explored the different musical settings of The Passion with Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan, Prof Deborah Kelleher, Director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music and choral director Mark Duley. The insights were thoroughly engaging and of course they all had a nod towards J.S. Bach as indeed did Paul Simon when he borrowed from Bach for his ‘American Tune’, the song that opened the programme. But then Bach had borrowed from much earlier songs for his catchy melody. Listen back here.
At Home With the Gettys on BBC One last week was a profile of singer songwriters Keith and Kristyn Getty at home in Northern Ireland. They are best known for their hymn 'In Christ Alone', but I have found that all their work is marked by well crafted lyrics set to beatutiful and memorable melodies. While their songs have been sung by millions all over the world their own renditions still make an impact – in this programme we got clips from big concerts in Nashville (they lived and toured in the USA for 15 years) but also intimate fireside songs with just the two of them (I want that stove and those logs!). In particular I loved ‘My Worth is not in what I Own’ (see video above) – a message eternally relevant.
Both were influenced by being brought up in Christian households with early exposure to music in church. Keith said that despite the international dimension to his work, he owed so much to his Northern Ireland Presbyterian background. He said it was important to tell the full truth and while the music speaks so much of love and beauty he said he got into controversy over including references to God’s wrath and hell, and when requested he wouldn’t remove the ‘offending’ verse from ‘In Christ Alone’. He claimed that song started a revolution in 21st Century hymn writing, but I’d like to have heard more about the development of hymn singing and litutgical music across all the Christian traditions and across the whole of Ireland.
Unforgotten has been back on ITV for a fourth series, with yet another historical crime being unearthed much to the discomfort of those originally involved. Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar are always watchable in the lead roles, though the idea is getting a bit formulaic at this stage. The drama has its woke moments. The race issue is handled in an interesting way - an Asian policeman plays the race card frequently to avoid being brought to book for dodgy activities. A high ranking female officer is involved in a same sex relationship though it seems tokenistic, ticking the diversity box (curiously this is the third cop series I've seen lately where a senior female police officer is involved in a lesbian relationship). In one plot thread a married woman is contemplating abortion after a tentative diagnosis of disability. The husband is initially supportive, though expressing pro-choice sentiments of going through with the pregnancy but pulls back when he gets drawn in to the ongoing investigation. The mother is hugely conflicted and at one stage describes abortion as ‘this brutal really horrible thing’. Now there’s a frankness we don’t get very often. The final episode is emotionally gruelling, touching and very human. And there's a beautiful attitude to to the prospect of a Downs Syndrome baby.
The issue was also treated in a noteworthy way in a new Irish thriller series . Smother (RTE One, Sundays) started reasonably well with a tight enough plot and good acting (Dervla Kirwan stands out). By episode three it was wilting a bit, but I’ll probably stay with it at this stage. One plot thread features an arrogant bullying father who, despite making the pro-choice spiel, effectively forces his young daughter into having an abortion – with serious knock-on consequences for her wellbeing. In last Sunday’s episode the baby’s father apologised years later for not being there for his girlfriend, but again the scriptwriter made sure to put in a pro-choice sentiment.
19/2/21 It was striking how many prejudices and stereotypes relating to Catholicism were in the UK cop series Waking the Dead, (Drama channel, last Tuesday). This melodramatic potboiler featured among other things, an Opus Dei assassin, a pro-choice seductress of bankers who was also an Opus Dei member, a sly dig at a ‘good Catholic girl’ and an old favourite, Catholic Guilt. Maybe they should have hired a theological adviser! Artistically it was something of a hotch potch, with overly dramatic music and scene cuts. If felt older but at the end I was surprised to find it was made in 2007. It was the subject of some controversy at the time - read this article.
Young Sheldon (RTE One, last Fri) turned its attention to youth and religion, in a Baptist context. Sheldon, a young atheist, doesn’t want to go to Summer Bible Camp (his sister Missy is quite OK with it, though I'd for mere social than religious reasons), but, when the alternative 'Stamp Camp' is cancelled due to lack of interest, his very religious Baptist mother Mary insists. He gets a sudden interest in Bible Trivia when a rival prodigy seems to know more than him. There ensues fierce competition for prizes like a Psalm verse bookmark, a Noah’s Ark rain poncho and a John the Baptist pencil topper! The almost ever cheerful Pastor Jeff tries to rustle up some Bible enthusiasm. Missy wonders about God, hell and ‘monkey heaven’ while Sheldon insists on his atheism, being a champion of science and buying into the unnecessary notion of a conflict between religion and science. The show is endearing, moving and funny, but its take on religious faith is often jaundiced, and I fear could provide other budding young atheists with a simplisic rationale. The show could do with a character who is religious and rational, and more nuance would help, though young Sheldon himself isn’t much blessed with that particular quality.
I recently saw the film Hidden Figures - about three feisty African American women who play an important part in the US space programme in the early 1960's. Performances from Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe in these roles are top notch, while Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons do well in other roles. The women encounter multiple prejudices - racism and sexism primarily even as they excel at their work. There is a particularly intense scene where the Costner character finally loses patience with the segregated bathrooms. The film is well disposed to religious faith without being preachy - their are positive scenes of church and grace at meal time.
Wonderful visuals effect were evident in the new animated drama Angela’s Christmas Wish (Netflix), based on characters created by Frank McCourt, and following on from the touching ‘Angela’s Christmas’. This time little Angela is still having conversations with baby Jesus in her local church’s crib. The focus this time is on her trying to get her father back from Australia as a Christmas surprise for her mother. The animation, by Brown Bag Films, is marvellous, beautifully coloured with an amazing attention to detail - just look at those floorboards, and the breaths of the characters in the cold air. But effective technique would be rather empty without the engaging, genuine and believable characters, and a Christmas story to draw in the viewers. Highly recommended.
The Night Watchmen’s Nativity (Sky Arts, last Sunday) was a contemporary and imaginative take on the seasonal story, with vibrant gospel music from the Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir. The emphasis was on the night watchmen that were, according to this version, hired by the better off shepherds, at the original nativity. These were outsiders, marginalised people who were transformed by the light of the stable. There was a modern social justice slant, but the treatment was entirely earnest and respectful. The musical is built around a series of songs, some quite familiar, e.g. The City by Stevie Wonder, and the filming style was quite distinctive - very dark but ultimately joyful. It was unusual, but great to see people doing something different with the familiar story while respecting its essence. (repeated Sun 13 Dec 7.30 am)
Who would have thought that an absorbing drama could be made of someone playing chess! Up to now the best chess film I’d seen was Queen of Katwe but drama series The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix) is making quite a stir and everyone I know that has seen it is impressed. Anya-Taylor Joy plays the enigmatic Beth, a chess prodigy who sweeps all opposition before her as she rises to the top of her game, literally. But is she happy? She has had a troubled past, was orphaned at a young age, was raised for a while in an orphanage that wasn’t brilliant but wasn’t as harsh as the usual clichés and was eventually adopted by a childless couple where the father is not enthusiastic and eventually drifts away. The mother is supportive but drinks a lot and finds some validation in Beth’s successes. Beth has addiction issues and seems to have difficulties with emotional connections. Chess is her obsession and others do warn her about negative aspects of her life.
It is filmed and scripted brilliantly and holds the attention through all seven episodes. Like so many good dramas the secondary characters are interesting and three-dimensional and suggest their own internal dramas – the mother, the chess opponents, the amiable chess-loving twins who are her true friends. The story arc is unpredictable, and though it’s based on a novel it has the feel of a true story. We could have done without the relatively mild ‘adult content’, the intermittent crude language and one particularly offensive profanity. Otherwise it would have been a drama that parents and teens could profitably enjoy together.
I found a jaundiced attitude to religion where it did feature, which wasn’t very much. The orphanage is religious run, and Beth frequently skips hymn singing to practice chess - it's presented as an either or. At one stage Beth decides to accept funding for a Russian trip from a Christian
group intent on using her fame to get a Christian message into that Communist country. Things don't go well when she gets a visit from two stuffy Christian ladies about a statement they'd like her to make - now she must decide as to whether she'll take the money and be a hypocrite.
It was ironically titled and decidedly weird - the TV drama Perfect Parents (Virgin Media 3, Friday). Subtitled 'The deadly consequences of a simple lie) and originally from ITV (2006), I was drawn to it by the always excellent Christopher Eccleston being in the cast. The plot was bizarre – parents want their young daughter to get into a well-regarded Catholic school because the local schools are rough, but they’re not Catholic and so they pretend to be and get the sweet daughter to lie and go along with the fiction. They forge a baptismal cert and bribe a priest to write references. The priest is also being blackmailed for allegedly abusing a young boy years ago. Beatings and deaths follow. Vitriol is directed at Church teaching on divorce, homosexuality and contraception, while the Catholic school’s admission policy (catering mostly but not exclusively for the Catholic community) seems to be the root of all evil. It’s a hotch-potch of every anti-Catholic trope you could imagine (even the obligatory dig at Catholic Guilt!) and the scene where the parents go to Communion just to look Catholic is quite jarring.
Despite the deception the young girl takes enthusiastically to the faith much to the surprise of her parents. The compromised priest (David Warner) gives them a thorough drilling in the basics of the faith so they can pass muster at the school interview and they swot from ‘Catholicism for Dummies’ (there is such a book!). The principal of the school, a nun, is prissy at times, but is sharp enough and has a good heart.
I may be wrong, but insofar as the drama has a consistent viewpoint it seems to be that of a lapsed Catholic with an unresolved love-hate relationship with their faith and Church. That’s common enough.
The film Hope – Our Lady of Knock (EWTN, last Friday) marked the anniversary of the apparitions of 1879. Directed by Campbell Miller it was a historical docudrama and regular readers know I’m not a fan of the genre, preferring either documentary or drama, but this was quite acceptable. I liked the scenes where we saw the witnesses giving evidence and trying to be as accurate as they could be. A scene where a tenant farmer saw his potatoes turning to mush in the famine was effective, and the subsequent eviction scene was suitably unsettling, but I wasn’t a fan of the uninspiring background music that seemed rather randomly added – it was especially irritating during interviews. And those interviews were quite effective and interesting – speakers included Archbishop Eamon Martin, the Rector of Knock Fr Richard Gibbons, as well as staff members of the shrine and museum at Knock, including the youth ministry.
I liked the way the historical context was set, with special emphasis on the famine, though at times I felt a little too much time was spent on that. I found the latter sequences about the investigations and miracles particularly engaging, as was the coverage of Knock Shrine today (or at least pre—Covid) with its emphasis on Confession – described as ‘the engine room’ of the shrine, where people often leave in tears having unburdened themselves and received absolution. This sequence has huge catechetical application, as has the theological analysis of the apparitions.
I checked out the drama series Sacred Lies on Facebook Watch - the half hour episodes are unusual for a crime drama, but the production values are on a par with mainstream TV. This one looks promising – a young girl escapes from a cult and an FBI psychologist tries to piece together what happened. Too often religion is portrayed in drama as weird, but so far it’s a little more nuanced here. The FBI guy says he investigates ‘religious crimes’ – he wants to find out ‘why people hurt each other in the name of God, and try to stop it from happening ‘. The young girl is described as ‘a crazy cult person’ she has no hands, can be violent, says she attacked a man because she thought he was God and wanted to kill God. She firmly denies she’s a Christian, not surprisingly. As a regular cop puts it, referring to the cult leader – ‘What kind of nuts follow a prophet named Kevin ’? It is a dark show and I don’t know what direction it will take, but I’ll find out!
Added 3/9/20: After watching a few more episodes I find the story still engaging, but though it's exploring the world of a cult mainstream religion does not fare very well. There are too many isulting swipes at religion, even God, without any apparent understanding of it, or any awareness of the love that's preached and practised by so many. One could argue that these are just the views of particular characters, but there isn't any balance. The religious characters are portrayed as naive, gullible or superstitious. One cynical character, a young woman in prison, who seems to be clued in to reality at a certain level posits the lazy assumed notion that science and religion conflict with instead of complement each other. Yet she quotes the Big Bang Theory, unaware I presume that this was developed by a Jesuit priest-scientist. Asked by the young girl who's an ex-cult member what was there before the Big Bang she says we don't know ... yet. The girl is confused but knows she's had a strange experience that can't so easily be explained away.
Added 4/9/20: As well as dismissing the idea of God, the cynical young woman is also, significantly dismissive of the idea of love, and is both blasphemous and violent. The hard shell seems indicative of inner trauma - both characters are in a reform institution for young offenders.
Finally got Season 1 finished - quite intense. Lots of interesting developments in the religious elements - one episode explores the age old question about why bad things happen to good people. The FBI psychologist, a troubled but good hearted man himself, who is interviewing the young girl, whose name is Minnow Bly, says this question is one of the reasons why people turn to God. Despite Minnow's awful experiences at the hands of the cult, he says that 'not all things done in the name of God are bad'. He says that faith can inspire charity, loyalty and compassion and that religion can give people a sense of meaning. In a later episode Minnow, thoroughly disillusioned with her cult's version of religion, explores the approaches to faith of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim girls in the juvenile detention centre. In response to her atheist cell mate she says that 'science is great but it doesn't have all the answers I'm looking for'. When she hears a Bible quote urging us to beware false prophets it really resonates with her. In the final episode she concludes 'no matter what you believe it's no excuse for hurting someone'.
All in all this is for very mature audiences. Religion takes a lot of stick and while the counterbalance is there it's not as strong. There's some, but not enough distinction between cults and genuine mainstream religion. The violence and cruelty in the cult is disturbing and there are same sex relationships among some of the girls in the detention centre. There are themes of anger and redemption, but there's also a warmth towards genuine humanity despite the delusions and evils perpetrated by some.
20/8/20 Elements of Jewish religious ritual featured in the unsettling US TV drama series The Plot Against America (Sky Atlantic/Now TV). I was expecting a tense political thriller, and it was that but so much more. Based on a novel by Phillip Roth, it imagined an intriguing alternate reality where famous aviator Charles Lindbergh became President, America stayed out of the Second World War and the country slowly descended into fascism and anti-Semitism. The main focus was on a Jewish family – some were blind, some saw what was coming, some protested, some adapted and the children observed in confusion and fear. That fear was palpable and almost unbearable as it moved through the last few episodes.
Zoe Kazan gave an outstanding performance as Bess, the wife of hot-headed Herman, while Winona Ryder was excellent as Evelyn her naive sister who marries a Rabbi (John Turturo, intense and magnetic as always) who co-operates with the authorities in supposedly voluntary re-locations of Jews to the rural heartland – he thinks this ‘absorption’ is best for his community. They also also like the limelight as they are favoured by the First Lady, Mrs Lindbergh.
The drama has some unsubtle anti-Trump messages for today, and at times pursues a simplistic ‘Democrats good Republicans bad’ narrative. We get more insight into Jewish race and culture than into the religious beliefs, though there are as indicated elements of ritual. Catholics get a mention as one of the groups targetted by the Ku Klux Klan.
This was adult drama, with plenty of gratuitous bad language and some ‘adult content’, relatively mild by modern standards (low bar!).
As with many of these dramatic explorations of history you wonder how fair it is to the real people involved and their familes, some of whom are still living.
I’ve been catching up on the TV drama series Mrs America (BBC Two) which came to an end last Thursday. It was an absorbing dramatisation of the culture war between radical feminists and activist conservatives over the Equal Rights Amendment in the USA in the 1970’s. While I found the show, predictably, much more favourable to the leftist side, it wasn’t quite as biased as I expected, with both sides humanised, and major flaws shown on both sides. Neither side is happy with the portrayal – some from the conservative side complain about the way their home life is portrayed, feminists accuse the show of promoting the ‘Catfight Theory of History’, and also claim the film over estimates the role Schlaffly plays..
Leading conservative campaigner Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) was portrayed as a tough campaigner, politically astute, a loving family woman, perhaps imperious and patronising at times and sometimes insensitive to her friends. These negatives became more pronounced as the 9-episode series developed, but as with all such dramatisations of history the average viewer has no way of knowing whether this truly represents the actual person, so there’s always the strong possibility of deep and hurtful injustice.
On the other side Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), is a young feminist activist, flaky at times (politically and personally), unsure of herself, a gung-ho advocate for abortion, though a flashback seems to show her pushed into having an abortion when she was a vulnerable young woman. Principles struggle with pragmatism as she tries to get the Democrats to support abortion – in the wheeling and dealing prior to a key vote at a convention she wants ‘right-to-lifers’ not be allowed to speak – she doesn’t want to hear anyone calling abortion ‘murder’ just before a vote. The pro-life position isn’t articulated as strongly as the pro-choice argument – the humanity of the unborn and the human rights argument against abortion barely feature.
The race issue surfaces, mainly through efforts to get a black woman, Shirley Chisholm on the presidential ticket, which leads to more splits among the feminists – again principles v pragmatism. At one of Schaffley’s meeting she is uneasy at the racist talk of one of her supporters and quickly ushers her off stage. The other side however is quite enthusiastic about throwing around unfounded slurs about involvement of the Ku Klux Klan in her movement.
Most of the focus is on the feminist activists. They are given more attention, are seen as heroes, especially in the last episode, though it’s warts and all – in these ranks there is considerable in-fighting and disloyalty, and personal lives are characterised by broken marriages, threesomes, sleeping around and more. And yet we see at times that women on both sides of the polarised debates have common concerns – all have to put up with chauvinistic men, two-faced politicians, and family problems. In one episode we see both Schlaffly and one of the feminists hugging their daughters in times of difficulties. And yet they seem to be from different planets, with gaps in age, attitude, dress sense, politics and temperament. In one pre debate meeting in a washroom Schlaffly and radical feminist Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) trade smart remarks, yet in a couples debate Schlaffly and her husband have a friendly chat with the opposing couple.
Content wise this is a show for adults. Same-sex relationships are portrayed rather frankly.An anti-marriage play is particularly crude, and there’s a bizarre sequence when a ‘Mass’ said by a feminist nun is attended by a conservative woman, Alice (a fictional composite character, played by Sarah Paulson) who has had too much to drink. This is somewhat clichéd - conservative woman, sheltered, very interested in her family and her recipes, gets out for a political convention and goes off the rails. More realistically she does pull back a little from the campaign - she feels somewhat taken for granted by Schlaffly and can see some common ground with the feminists as regards generaly equality issues in society.
There's a strange Confession scene as well where Schlaffly
expresses angst about having, possibly, a gay son. We don't get the priest's reaction. This must surely be the most unsatisfactory use of poetic licence. The scenes where the family says grace are more appealing and present a more positive view of faith. As if to match this the feminists are seen having a secular moment of meditation.
As drama it is riveting, with brilliant performances all round, but, apart from names, facts and looks, how much is historically true? For the uninformed the drama may become the history.
I wouldn't see much application for this show in a school setting, apart perhaps for the grace scenes.
Strong people of faith are rare enough when it comes to film and TV drama. One noticeable exception was the film Greyhoundwhich landed on Apple TV last Friday with very little fanfare. Tom Hanks played a navy captain escorting a merchant fleet across the Atlantic during the Second World War, and in an early scene we saw him praying by his bedside. Right through the drama he was a man of faith and honour. He fought against the German submarines attacking the fleet in mid ocean, too far out for air support, but was conscious of the unfortunate casualties when they sank a sub. He said grace before several meals that he never got to enjoy because some crisis distracted him. In an emotional scene he conducted a dignified and prayerful service of burial at sea but was also a calm, competent commander.
The violence was not graphic, and while there was one F-word it was apologised for immediately. The sea battle scenes were tense and exciting, though the digital effects were rather obvious. As often in war films it was hard to distinguish some of the young navy men from each other but I did like the way camera focused on their worried expressions. Hanks wrote the script himself and it was rather minimalistic, with lots of technical detail about radar, sonar and the like. The inclusion of Elizabeth Shue as the love interest was also minimalistic – she had little to do, and perhaps a longer lead in to the sea voyage might have been helpful for more effective character development.
The prayer scenes would certainly be useful in RE class.
21/5/20 Away from the fractious debates, last Sunday’s Songs of Praise (BBC One) was a tonic. The focus was on modern hymn writers, and while presenter Aled Jones’ pieces to camera and some of the interviews were new, they relied, as so many shows do these days, on archive material. Among these featuring was Catholic composer Bernadette Farrell and we got a fine rendition of her well known song ‘Christ Be Our Light’. She was humbled to hear how her songs connected with people – particularly so when she heard from a prison chaplain about how this song of hers was popular with inmates. She thought hymns should be challenging and we learned how her work sometimes dealt with modern issue like threat to the environment. For Graham Kendrick hymns were a blend of experience poetry and theology – he wanted to sing his faith and wrote so that people could ‘sing the truth’ – he performed one of his best known modern worship songs ‘Shine Jesus Shine’.
Kendrick was one of those featured in the YouTube hit ‘UK Blessing’ which was replayed on the show – it’s one of those virtual choir split screen performances, and if you liked that try also the wonderful version of ‘Be Not Afraid’ on YouTube by Catholic Artists From Home.
I’ve never been that much of a lover of Barbara Streisand’s music or acting but I have been a long-time fan of Leonard Cohen and have fond memories of seeing him live in the 3 Arena. What connects them apart from music is their Jewish heritage, which was explored with Michael Comyn by historian Yanky Fachler on The Leap of Faith (RTE Radio 1) last Friday. Both were proud of this heritage – Fachler pointed out whimsically that Streisand changed neither name nor nose to get ahead in the entertainment industry though she was advised to do both!
Leonard Cohen didn’t change his name either and right to the end his Jewish heritage was important to him. For his last album before his death he got the cantor and choir from the synagogue in Montreal where he had his own bar mitzvah to sing on the title track ‘You Want It Darker’ with its haunting refrain ‘I’m Ready Lord’.
Of course Cohen’s influences and related allusions ranged far and wide from Judaism to Buddhism to Christianity – for example he co-wrote the beautiful ‘Song of Bernadette’ with Jennifer Warnes and duetted with her on the intriguing ‘Joan of Arc’.
Coming to an end last Sunday was the costume drama Belgravia (UTV), adapted from his own novel by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey). I was lukewarm at first and yes it had many of the clichés of the genre (including hidden family secrets and the inevitable cad!), but it had a certain humanity, the characters were reasonably engaging, and the acting was classy. It was interesting to see Tamsin Greig and Paul Ritter from Friday Night Dinner in very different roles, showing how versatile they are, and they were joined to great effect by other stalwarts like Tom Wilkinson.
Though not particularly religious or spiritual, the drama was infused with themes of morality, family devotion, sin, redemption, hope, class privilege and judgementalism. One of the most obnoxious characters was a vain pastor with an addiction to gambling, a total lack of personal insight, and a repulsive sense of his own importance. The one time he had to deliver a sermon (pre-written by an absent colleague) it was all about his own sins! A better man might have taken it as a sign, but he just took it as a nuisance. In one key scene a woman of loose morals actually referenced Christ when she tries to convince her husband of his own worth, in that while he was tempted, as Christ was, he did the right thing. I found the ending quite acceptable – enough closure to be satisfying but enough openings for a potential second series.
19/4/20 I've been listening to Liam Lawton's new CD collection High Is the Heaven and it's a wonderful treaure trove for those looking for spiritual choral music or just relaxing religious music for personal reflection. Lawton shares vocal duties with Hannah Evans, Ardhú and the Dublin Chamber Singers, providing a varied interplay of voices. The Psalms are prominent, so expect some of these arrangements to surafce in your local churches as choirs get acquainted with the material.
One of these, the opening track 'The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor', was written for the Papal Mass of Pope Francis on his visit to Ireland. 'There's a Star' is a beautifully atmospheric Christmas song - "There's a whisper on this cold, cold, night". Most of the songs are slow and reflective, but the title track 'High Is the Heaven' has a nice lilt to it, and a creation/ecological theme - "what of the world, that it may reflect/the presence of God, this beauty on earth". Likewise with one of the older songs 'In the presence of the Angels' - "Praise God, O sun and moon/and all you shining stars/and in the waters deep'. What is probably Lawton's greatest 'hit', 'The Cloud's Veil', is given a new outing here as a bonus track and it's a fine choral version.
There are subtle Celtic elements throughout - as Lawton says in his sleeve notes (why I still love physical CDs!) - 'The beauty of the spirituality of this ancient land is found in all these pieces'.
Funny for sure, though questionable as a children's show Young Sheldon (E4, last Thursday) explored the matter of prayer. In the episode ‘Slump, A Cross and Roadside Gravel’ (also this Good Friday, RTE 1) Missy, Sheldon’s twin sister, was doing poorly at baseball so she prayed about it, much to the delight of Mary, her mother. She even was willing to wear a cross that was special to the mother. All was going well until it turned into superstition – Missy’s game improved and the cross became a talisman – she was even rubbing it on the other players’ sporting equipment! At one stage the mother got frustrated – in her prayer space in the garden she lamented that she had one child who didn’t believe in God (young Sheldon), one who thought God was a magic trick (Missy) and one (Georgie) who wasn’t interested because God was not a teenage girl! I liked her parting words – ‘Lord … give me the strength to keep guiding my family to you, I can’t do it on my own’.
One of the religious programmes that caught my attention during the week was a new film I Am Patrick that landed on Netflix last Thursday. I’m not a fan of docudrama (two stools and all that) and this film didn’t cure me of that prejudice. I was glad that the film makers (Christian Broadcasting Network) relied almost exclusively on St Patrick’s own writings, the Confessio and the Epistola, using the translations of Fr Pádraig McCarthy and Thomas O’Loughlin so there were no snakes scurrying away. The drama sequences were naturalistic for the most part and the visions the saint spoke of were there but rather low key.
Three actors played Patrick at different stages in his life – I was particular impressed by John Rhys-Davies (Gimli in Lord of the Rings)as the older Patrick. He added a certain gravity to the part, a certain modesty and dignified tiredness as he settled down to write his Confessio, partly to defend himself and his ministry against accusations from church authorities in Britain. I’d like to have seen more focus on this role as the rest of the dramatization was somewhat stilted. The cultural setting was well done and the cinematography well succeeded in capturing the rugged Irish landscape – much of it from Clare and Mayo and hardly changed since the saint walked those paths.
I found the documentary sections more engaging, including interviews with Dr Tim Campbell from the St Patrick Centre in County Down, Dr Elva Johnston and Dr Charles Doherty from UCD, biographer Thomas O’Loughlin (‘Discovering St Patrick’) and Fr Billy Swan who concentrated on the saint’s close relationship with God, following the line of his book ‘The Experience of God in the Writings of St Patrick’.
As regards school use, I'd say students might find the whole film too long for one setting but use of selected clips could be very effective in exploring the life of St Patrick as a person of faith, and dealing with the topic of Christian heritage. The justice theme of human trafficking could likewise be explored via the fate of Patrick in his early days.
6/2/20 Messiah is an intriguing 10-part drama series on Netflix. One of the more striking scenes was a dramatic march on Washington led by a character thought by his followers to be the Messiah returned. It is not a theological work and some of the premises don’t sit too easily with Christianity (e.g. at one stage he seems to be negative about Scripture), so some faculties have to be suspended to enjoy it. Some of his activities have echoes in the life of Jesus (e.g. with his followers in the desert, being interrogated by authorities, slipping through the crowds unnoticed). He has some wise sayings alright (e.g. ‘if you seek comfort you won’t find truth, but if you seek truth you may find comfort’) but these may have been lifted from other sources. It’s all very ambiguous and mysterious but quite intense, absorbing and rather unpredictable. Michelle Monaghan excels as a conflicted CIA agent and there are other interesting characters – an angry Israeli agent who won’t confront his many demons, a disillusioned Baptist Minister who finds new purpose in following the guru. So is this mystery man really a/the Messiah or a charlatan or a fantasist or political extremist?
As far as any objectionable content goes, we could have done without the fairly frequent F-words and unfortunately it is also marred by a gratuitous sex scene that’s fairly graphic. Apart from that I think it would be unsuitable for school use as I reckon it would cause more confusion than anything!
The US comedy Young Sheldon often hypes up the alleged conflicts between religion and science, with Sheldon the science-obsessed atheist child sometimes dismissive of religion. Yet the show does show warmth towards its religious characters, especially Mary, Sheldon’s mother who is kind, loving and fiercely protective. In an episode on E4 last Wednesday, Sheldon was overwhelmed by his father getting him to keep a secret from his mother. The burden was too much and he turned to his Catholic friend Tam, whose family is Vietnamese. Tam told him about Confession which Sheldon thought was “a great idea”, so he wanted Tam to hear his Confession. After puzzling it out Sheldon reckoned that if he wasn’t a Catholic and Tam wasn’t a priest, it made “perfect sense” to proceed! After the ‘Confession’ Sheldon felt “a weight lifting off” his shoulders and “felt like a new person”. I’ve always thought the Sacraments made so much sense on a human level, but I wasn’t expecting to find this view validated from such an unlikely source!
I didn't find the scene disrespectful and I have a very curious addition to my collection of Confession scenes. The clip might be useful for teaching the Sacrament of Reconciliation in class.
25/1/20 A Hidden Life, directed by Terrence Malick (Tree of Life) tells the story of Austrian Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector, who refuses to fight for the Nazis in World War II, or to swear allegiance to Hitler. It’s a challenge film – slow moving and nearly three hours long, but patient viewers will be rewarded. It’s a poetic and beautiful film enhanced by the wonderful classical soundtrack.
The story is told in a rather episodic and sometimes oblique way, but the characters are riveting and the acting excellent. The central characters are Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), but the secondary characters are fleshed out really well – especially Fani’s sister, Franz’s mother and the local priest.
Throughout the film there is much play (in the home scenes), prayer, generosity, romance, faith and in the prison scenes there is much cruelty (not really graphic) but also, even in prison there is hope, liberation, prayer and faith. And there’s temptation too – one prisoner tries rather intensely to deflect him from his religious faith.
The film is multi-layered – there’s the historical story of Franz and family, much allegory with biblical resonances (e.g. two very different prisoners reminded me of the two thieves crucified with Christ), conflicts of conscience, contrasts between people and nature, between rural and urban, and deep and true human emotion – a prison visit is particularly heart rending.
Faith underpins the values and choices of Franz and his wife, but it’s not all easy going, and this is not a sentimental or preachy film. Characters wonder about what compromises they can make, about how God can seem to be silent when things are going wrong.
I was reminded by plot themes and script of films like A Man for All Seasons (e.g. the prison visit) Sophie Scholl (the interrogation), Hacksaw Ridge, (conflict with superiors), even The Passion of the Christ, (the temptations)and of Malick’s own Tree of Life (style). For school and Religious Education those other films, or at least clips from them, are more accessible for students, but there are useful scenes here too – especially conversations between Franz and others – his priest, his bishop, his interrogator, his lawyer and his judge. Dialogue is sparse enough but there’s an urgency and intensity about these scenes that should hold students’ attention.
10/1/20 In the Studio – Singing for the Pope (New Year’s Eve, BBC World Service)). This fascinating documentary explored the work of the Sistine Chapel Choir as they prepared for the Christmas vigil Mass in the Vatican. Presenter Glyn Tansley told us that this choir is one of the oldest choirs in the world dating from before the building of the Sistine Chapel itself – with its origins in a group of Vatican singers from the 4th Century. Tansley himself wasn’t particularly religious but found the chapel awe-inspiring and was hugely enthusiastic about the music. I liked his idea that the music breathed life into the amazing paintings in the chapel. We learned that one of the famous composers for the group, Palestrina, worked in the chapel at the same time as Michelangelo, and that the choir gallery even had some historical graffiti – from 16th Century composer Josquin Des Prez. Pope Francis had described the choir as ‘a high place for artistic liturgical expression' and there was a funny story about how he inadvertently interrupted a choir recording by ringing the chapel doorbell to pay a visit. One chorister, a Polish man honoured to be the first Polish singer in the choir, spoke of how it helped him to feel ‘completely connected’ with his religion, making feel like a ‘true person’ – the music wasn’t just something nice and aesthetic. You can listen back here.
5/12/19 The Royal Family in Britain has been hitting the headlines recently and it’s not all good stuff. Coincidentally, I presume, the latest series of The Crown landed in its entirety on Netflix last week and I’m enjoying getting through it.
First hurdle for the programme makers was to effect the transition of actors – especially the role of Queen Elizabeth, with Olivia Colman taking over from Clare Foy who had made the role her own in the first two series. The transformation was handled rather tongue-in-cheek, with the powers that be changing her face on a stamp to reflect that fact that she was getting older – but the profiles were so different! Jason Watkins is superb as Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson – all the more because he is more used of late to play comic roles – in the excellent BBC send-up W1A and the lacklustre John Cleese sitcom Hold the Sunset.
So far I’ve seen two exceptionally good episodes. Episode 3, ‘Aberfan’ centred on the disaster in 1966 when a coal mining pit collapsed killing 116 children in that small Welsh village. There was an emotional intensity that was fully genuine. The mood was sober and sobering throughout as the country and the royals tried to come to terms with the scale of the disaster. The mass funeral scene was almost unbearable to watch. The drama centred on what might be the appropriate response of the royals to the tragedy – whether to remain distant and aloof in the tradition of the office or to show a human side and bring comfort to the bereaved locals.
The following episode, ‘Bubbikins’, was as good if not better. With huge echoes of another event from last week, we saw a royal (Prince Philip in this case) giving a car crash interview on TV. To mend that and give better PR to the Royal Family they agreed to do a BBCdocumentary and that went down like a lead balloon. Early on we were introduced to an elderly chain smoking nun looking after the poor in Greece, a feisty woman who turned out to be Princess Alice, mother of Prince Philip. Her arrival in the rarefied atmosphere of Buckingham Palace provided some of comic moments. But she was also devoted to prayer and stressed the vital nature of faith to Phillip who said his faith was ‘dormant’.
Faith themes were picked up again in Episode 7, ‘Moondust’ which explored Philip’s religious life in more detail, and tied his faith development into his obsession with the 1969 moon landings. His private audience with his moon walking heroes (different planets, almost literally!) contrasted with his heartfelt opening of heart and mind with a group of troubled clergymen in a retreat house he supported. Rarely has religion been treated so seriously and maturely in a TV Drama.
The main historical events are presumably accurate, but obviously all the private conversations are imagined, and I’m not sure that’s quite fair to people who are still living. However as drama it is intense, emotional, powerful and surprisingly relevant.
I saw the film Unplanned a few nights ago and have mixed feelings about it. It tells the abortion related story of Abby Johnson, clinic director at Planned Parenthood, who eventually saw the wrongness of abortion and became a pro-life advocate. It’s a hard hitting exposé, and may well change hearts and save lives. It’s fairly graphic in the early stages, especially with one suction abortion at the clinic, and Johnson’s own chemical abortion. It’s good to see it getting a wide release in Ireland, though its impact will depend on whether it is attended by more than already-convinced pro-life advocates. For them it will be a huge motivator for continuing their work. It comes very much from a pro-life perspective, though all the usual pro-choice arguments are given an airing, especially by the sympathetic Johnson character herself as she promotes abortion to other young women.
The message is important and we get insights into the workings of the abortion industry, but I wasn’t impressed with the film on the artistic front. Ashley Bratcher did well in the central role, but other characters, especially the original clinic director and the men were quite wooden, with stilted performances. They were two-dimensional characters, often just used as ciphers for particular pro-life and pro-choice arguments.
I did however see some artistic value in the scenes at the fence of the clinic – the fence acted as a useful symbol for the divisions on this issue, and some of the scenes there were quite moving – e.g. when Johnson, now on the outside, speaks to a young girl heading in for an abortion. An earlier scenes feature an African-American mother frantically trying to dissuade her daughter from aborting a grandchild. Early on we saw some aggressive anti-abortionists at the clinic but they were not treated sympathetically and to some extent the film was a promo for the initiative known as ‘40 Days for Life’, which relied more on prayer and gentle persuasion.
As regards school use, the graphic abortion scenes are not appropriate, but the scenes at the fence are certainly worthwhile for illustrating various aspects of this controversial issue. There’s also an emotional scene about forgiveness when Johnson discusses with her husband her regrets about the abortions she facilitated.
There are useful clips on Wingclips - https://www.wingclips.com/movie-clips/unplanned
In drama land there has been a glut of new shows on TV. Manifest (Sky One, Tuesdays) has an intriguing premise – passengers on a plane from Jamaica experience severe turbulence and when they finally land it’s five years later! Life has moved on without them which causes quite a few relationship issues, and to cap it all they have visions and premonitions (characterised as ‘callings’), which seem benign.
There’s speculation that there might be a religious dimension and some take that too far, regarding the ‘returned’ as saints or divine or at least as miraculous healers. One of the returned sees potential, sets up the Church of the Returned for the devotees and passes the collection basket. Melissa Roxburgh makes for a feisty heroine, a prickly, sometimes surly cop whose boyfriend has married her best friend in her absence. At one stage she has a chat with a priest about her situation, but this plot line hasn’t been developed yet. Needless to say shadowy elements in the military want to weaponise the special powers of the passengers and intrigue ensues. It bears comparison to Lost in plot terms (mystery flight etc.), though it’s more ‘Lost Lite’, at least so far.
Some of it is clichéd but the characters are sympathetic, there are some interesting speculations on science and religion, meaning in life is regarded as important, there are residues of traditional morality (e.g. family is vital, a particular adulterous one-night stand is seen as morally wrong) and it moves along at a sprightly pace.
An interview that caught my attention was on last Sunday’s Songs of Praise (BBC1). Lord Julian Fellowes is the creator and writer of Downton Abbey, the popular TV series which has a movie version due for release shortly. Aled Jones interviewed him in the Catholic Brompton Oratory in London where he went to Mass as a child. Still practising, he said he’d like to believe more firmly, and envied the “unbounded childlike faith” of his wife and stepmother. He described his Downton characters as “essentially good people trying to do their best”. He became quite emotional when introducing a favourite hymn of his – ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’ – written by Cecil Spring Rice after exposure to the horrors of World War I. Again, he felt the message was “all we can do is our best”.
29/8/19 I like films where conscience is taken seriously and all the more if the film making is of high quality. The film Hacksaw Ridge (Channel 5 last Sunday, RTE 2 last Monday) left me conflicted. It has so much good stuff going for it, but I have serious reservations. Directed by Mel Gibson it tells the true story of US Army medic Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who saved the lives of many soldiers in the war against the Japanese. Andrew Garfield is excellent as this most appealing and admirable character who stands his ground despite misunderstanding and bullying, standing up for principles largely based on his religious faith – he was a 7th Day Adventist. There’s a sweet and innocent love story involving Doss and a young nurse, interrupted by his conviction that he must serve his country, despite being unwilling to kill another human being. There’s a touching scene where she visits him in jail as he awaits court martial for refusing to follow orders – reminiscent of that scene in A Man for All Seasons when his family visits St Thomas Moore in jail to see if compromise is possible. That court scene along with earlier scenes where he defends his conscientious objections to army authorities are quite compelling and tease out lots of conscience issues - suitable for school use when exploring themes of conscience, principle, virtue and church-state relations.
Doss prays, holds his little Bible dear, especially as there’s a picture of his wife in it, but others who will take part in the war say they also hold to the same values but are willing to kill in what they regard as a just war. As one officer says to him – the Biblical ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ is usually taken to mean a prohibition on murder.
However the big problem for me is the graphic violence – despite the overall theme it seems to wallow in the bloodletting to an unhealthy degree (the Gibson factor?). This is particularly the case in the opening scene and in the last quarter or so. No doubt it’s a realistic portrayal of the horrors of battle, but I’m not convinced that such repulsive detail is necessary to make the point. Further, I don’t think it’s intended to be an anti-war film as such – the film doesn’t question the need for this particular war, or even the need for the army to keep on attacking Hacksaw Ridge despite the huge losses. There’s a few uncomfortably gung-ho moments towards the end, but I did like the final sequence where we get to see some of the real people the film is based on.
22/8/19 I had the pleasure of seeing the Blind Boys of Alabama live in Cork Opera House a few years ago and thankfully they’re still going strong. Gospel music is a central part of their repertoire as was clear from their slot on Edinburgh Nights (BBC Two) last Friday. Nish Kumar looked in on their rehearsals and got an informal chat as well. I’m not a fan of imposing gospel words on secular songs, but when, acapella style, they turned ‘Cryin’ Time’ into ‘Prayin’ Time’ I was hooked – ‘It’s prayin’ time again you’re gonna need him ..’. Kumar even got to sing with them, which I’d say made his day. Two of the current line-up were interviewed in more depth on Outlook (BBC World Service) last Friday morning. They said the one song they sing in every concert is Amazing Grace, though in the version we heard the melody sounded more like the House of the Rising Son than what we’re used to. Jimmy Carter, last surviving member from the original group and now age 90, was confident he was doing the work of the Lord.
I was also impressed by the music in last Thursday’s Mass of the Assumption on RTE One, the annual Eurovision broadcast. Fr Thomas McCarthy OP introduced the Mass from the beautiful cathedral in Le Puy-en-Velay in the south of France, starting point for many pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. The art work inside the cathedral was particularly impressive and the cameras lingered long on their beauty – whether paintings in more traditional style to those that looked more modern. There’s a devotion to the Black Virgin of Puy, and the statues and paintings that enhance this were quite striking. As expected the music was also of high quality - I particularly like the settings of the Gloria, the Lamb of God and the final Hail Holy Queen.
16/8/19 Films and TV programmes, when dealing with religious themes often go for the cultish, extreme or even twisted versions of faith, but on good days it’s just the pleasantly offbeat. Last Saturday night’s film on BBC Two was all of the above. Stations of the Cross is a German film, serious, well made, but not easy viewing. It told the story of a teenage girl receiving Confirmation preparation from a traditionalist Catholic group who reject the Pope and Vatican II. I found it absorbing, disturbing, sad and challenging. The traditional stations are compared to a series of 14 key events in the girl’s life over a short period. I think militant atheists will be confirmed in their distaste for religion, traditionalists will be displeased about the way they are portrayed and more mainstream people of faith will be uneasy (especially with a Communion scene) but also glad that their outlook is reflected in one of the most sympathetic characters, a French au pair named Bernadette. Apart from confronting the difficulties of being a traditionalist religious teen in a secular society it’s also about the idealism and naiveté of youth and how it much be carefully nurtured, and neither exploited nor crushed.
I gathered another confession scene for my collection. It starts in an ordinary way, but the priests delves too much into sexual matters when the young girl has a delightful innocence. And it's not that that the priest is particularly creepy, but he probably feels he is just doing his duty. This sequence is matched to Simon helping Jesus, but it seems ironic here. Scenes with the girl in the hospital are tough going and belivers may wince when the medical staff have a problem with the girl reciving the Communion host, even though she has asked for it.
The minor characters are interesting - the mother comes out the worst - loving at times, but frequently cranky and very harsh and lacking in understanding.
The father is almost an invisible presence, uneasy at what's happening but ineffectual. The young priest is cheerful, articulate and sincere but too much inclined towards legalism without human understanding.
All in all it's hard to see this film being useful in RE as it may put students off religion unless they have a very mature and solid faith.
15/8/19 I've been getting some laughter therapy from US sitcom The Kids Are Alright (RTE 1, Friday nights). The show features a US Catholic family in the 1970’s – eight boys (we get it – large Catholic family) with no-nonsense parents. It’s fast paced, witty and avoids sentimentality.
Much of the time Catholic element is background. The eldest has left the seminary, there are references to the mother going to church, the boys cover the eyes on a picture of Our Lady so she won’t see their mischief – and there’s a lot of it! Despite bringing the boys up strictly the mother has a certain moral flexibility – in one episode she gets a fancy hairdo and leaves what she thinks ought to be the price rather than the actual charge, which is greater. The local priest, Fr Dunne, doesn’t get much of a look in – given that he’s played by Paul Dooley I hope he features more prominently in future.
References are made to his sermons and in one episode the father insists on bringing one of the boys, 18 year old Eddie, to Confession after he comes home at 3 am having visited his girlfriend. These are suspicious parents and usually their suspicions are well grounded – I’d say most parents can relate to staying awake restless until all the family members are in bed.
Last Friday's episode tackled the family planning issue, with the parents trying to find ways and means in line with Church teaching. This leads to a hilarious Confession scene that treads a shaky line on the respect front. The moral flexibility surfaces again and the advice from the priest is not of much help. The mother has a sly dig at the Church for not being scientific, which begs a few questions. At times the parents show that are loving, at times they seem even dismissive of the kids' concerns e.g. in a rather offputting scene where a meaningful child's toy is binned.
Creator Tim Doyle has created a show that’s entirely credible, based it seems on his own upbringing. He does the role of narrator himself and it has to be said this show reminds me particularly on The Wonder Years, and to an extent Malcolm in the Middle and Young Sheldon. And that just means the show is in pretty good company.
I have mixed feelings about US sitcom Last man Standing (new episodes 5 Star, Tuesdays) starring comedian Tim Allen coping with a house full of women – a wife and three daughters. It can be funny, moving, and annoying too – e.g. I’m uneasy with how much the Allen character likes guns (he runs an outdoor sports store). The Allen character Mike Baxter is a Republican, in the past has thrown plenty of digs Obama’s way but other characters, including one of the daughters and especially son-in-law Ryan have different views leading to lots of political banter. At times it seems to promote traditional family values and we often see the family saying grace or attending church.
In last week’s episode however some of the adult children casually try a séance as if it’s a harmless joke – complete with Bernie Sanders ‘Keep the Flame Alive’ candles! We are reminded that Ryan runs a pot shop which he has taken over from Mike’s father, with Mike’s reluctant approval – marijuana is legal in Colorado where the show is set, and that’s often seen as a joke too. So, it’s a rather odd mix of values.
I’ve written previously that I’m not a fan of the approach to religion in US comedy series Young Sheldon (RTE 2 and E4). Too often it seems rather dismissive, patronising and maybe even mocking, though sometimes what is being sent up is the poor attempt at religiosity by some of God’s children, a bit like The Simpsons. So, teachers might find some clips useful to illustrate a point, but might have reservations about directing students towards a show whose overall thrust might not be conducive to faith, expecially among those whose faith is immature or shaky anyway.
Whatever the case, I found last Wednesday’s episode on RTE 2 rather moving. The most genuinely religious person, Mary, young Sheldon’s mother, has a crisis of faith after the death of a young girl in a car accident. Pastor Jeff, a rather ambiguous character constantly harried by the awkward questions Sheldon poses in church, says he has doubts too but deals with it by throwing himself into even more intense religious practice. Mary tries, and there’s a striking scene where she prays in her newly constructed faith garden. But it doesn’t quite work for her – next she cuts loose with a night of drinking with her mother! Unsurprisingly the experience isn’t enlightening. In a genuinely touching scene at the end Sheldon, a science obsessed non-believer, assures her that considering the precision of the universe belief in a creator is quite logical, but more importantly she is moved to tears when he says that of all the people in the world she is exactly the perfect mother for him – ‘What are the odds of that!’ You can watch the clip here.
In a related episode on E4 last Friday Mary got upset, fearing she wasn’t a good mother. Her own mother Meemaw puts her right – ‘you’ve done a fantastic job with those kids’, and reminded her that mothering is ‘not a job that gets a lot of compliments’. Nice one.
11/7/19 Life and Soul (RTÉ1 and Radio 1 Extra) is a new addition to RTÉ’s Sunday morning religious services slot and based on last weekend’s first episode it has a lot going for it. Among other positive topics the Gospel Rising festival was covered, with a focus on the Virginia Gospel Choir from Cavan and the faith story of their director Carmel Reilly. I was impressed with the other musical interludes, – the songs from Will Reagan and United Pursuit, All Sons and Daughters and Allan Kinlay were suitably reflective and performed with obvious sincerity. They were all contemporary praise and worship music, and maybe as the show continues there might be a more varied range of musical genres.
I have mixed feelings about Wild Bill (ITV Wednesdays and Virgin Media One Mondays). It’s a crime thriller with an American cop taking over a UK police department, ironically in the English town of Boston, Lincolnshire. Cue some predictable cultural differences with mild comic effect. Played by US actor Rob Lowe (comical in Parks and Recreation) Bill Hixon is a cranky enough cop, not strong on social skills and not popular as he has the task of effecting redundancies. There’s some gratuitous, though infrequent, bad language and his affair with a local judge stretches credulity. All that being said, the crime stories are well plotted, there’s a dedicated police woman who has some difficult moral dilemmas, the minor characters are well drawn but most of all the show has a warm humanity at its heart. In episode 3 a criminal has turned his life around and retreated to a Jesuit institution to make a new life. But he has left a daughter behind and the story of their relationship is ultimately quite touching. Likewise there’s a prickly but interesting relationship between the chief and his teenage daughter – she is coping with a new school and life without her mother who has died, and he is having trouble coping with her. Curiously in that episode the Jesuit institution has a sign outside ‘No women beyond this point’ which I thought to be anachronistic. A Jesuit source tells me such a sign would never appear on any of their houses.
In Episode 4 we find that Bill is familar with scripture as he meets with a suspect who, as in the above case, is
trying with the help of religious faith, to reform himself after previous brushes with the law. Again, the end of this episode is quite poignant.
I was delighted to get to see Matt Maher in concert again last Thursday night in the beautiful venue that is St Paul's, Arran Quay, centre for so many initiatives to do with young people and religious faith. Encourage your senior students to connect! Or maybe bring them to an event in the next school year? It was as much a worship event as a concert and spirits were high. It helped to have the lyrics on screen, and even so I was surprised by how many people (mostly young) were so familiar with his music. Many of his songs are pretty much anthems by now - I especially like 'Lord I Need You', 'Because He Lives' and 'Your Love Defends Me'. And he didn't just stick to his own material - there was a powerful rendition of '10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)' by Matt Redman. I also like the songs that were less overtly religious – e.g. the tender ‘As Good as it Gets’. He accompanied most songs on guitar but towards the end he showed how accomplished he was on piano as well - I'd love to see more of this! Also, his patter between songs was both light and deep, witty and insightful.
13/6/19 One of the contemporary problems in the area of religious belief is the mistaken assumption that science and religion are in conflict. You get people quoting the Big Bang theory as if it contradicts religious belief without realising that the theory was developed by a Jesuit priest - Fr Georges Lemaitre, and that Soviet scientists rejected it because they thought it came too close to supporting a religious view of the world and creation!
The false polarisation between religion and science is a bugbear with some RE teachers and unfortunately was evident in comedy drama Young Sheldon (E4, Monday of last week) which, ironically, is a spin off from another show, The Big Bang TheoryIn this episode Sheldon declares he doesn’t believe in God but accepts the challenge of the pastor (who says he has ‘the coolest boss’) to do some research, like a good scientist would do. The mother is not too happy when he starts exploring other religions for his database – ‘Your database is Baptist – that’s all the date you need!’
Sheldon takes to the study with his usual thoroughness and makes some learned comments about the Gospel of John. His discussion with a young Catholic, student, Tam, is less enlightening, though of course these are little children talking about religion, always interesting even if the theology is a bit off. This Catholic says Jesus is not God, but ‘the Son’, and adds that there’s a ‘Ghost’ as well, but not the scary kind, more like Casper (the friendly ghost!). Sheldon says he doesn’t have any sins, but Tam says therefore he has the sin of pride. Eventually Sheldon invents his own religion, Mathology, where the only sin is stupidity! This is after he has a dream about binary code being God! Among other things this version of God says that without evil and suffering there can be no good and happiness.
Though very funny at times, and the mother is certainly a likeable character, Christians may have reservations about a somewhat negative attitude to religion in the show, and in relation to any possible school use, it might well reinforce nagative prejudices towards religion among young people.
6/6/19 Is there anything funny about the battle between good and evil? Can it be be taken lightly in any context? Even in the world of fantasy fiction?
These questions were prompted by the new drama series Good Omens which was launched in its six episode entirety on Amazon Prime last Friday. I binge watched in the line of duty! Considering that the original book was co-written by Terry Pratchett (with Neil Gaiman) it should come as no surprise that the plot is silly and that all sorts of religious faiths, legends mythologies are jumbled together in a comically occult, but entertaining, hotch potch. The storyline features a rather foppish angel, Aziraphale, (Michael Sheen) and a sleazy demon, Crowley (David Tennant) who get along quite well with each other as they go about their business on earth. But they have in a sense gone native, got to like the earth so much that they are not too keen when they hear that Armageddon is imminent and their cosy lifestyle will come to an end. The demon delivers the anti-Christ to a hospital run by satanic nuns but, in a staple of many comedies, the babies get mixed up, and so the anti-Christ is lost.
If a mature believer could get over unease about the ludicrous premise and the digs against God about suffering you might enjoy some of the dubious theological banter. At times there’s a serious edge to it, as when a modern witch-finder says the Churches don’t do the battle against evil anymore, in this ‘desperate age’, or when the demon having being described as ‘fallen’ says ‘I didn’t mean to fall, I just hung around with the wrong people’. Other times it’s just comical, as when God is described as liking The Sound of Music or when the Angel Gabriel smells something evil about the Aziraphale’s ’s book store, the latter says ‘That’ll be the Jeffrey Archer books’!
Frances McDormand plays the Voice of God, as a rather detached narrator making quirky comments – I thought this aspect could have been better developed, and the series could have done with a theological advisor. I was reminded of TheScrewtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, but that had a spiritual depth sorely lacking in this outing. The brief Garden of Eden nudity could have been handled more discreetly (bummer!) and the occasional foul language struck a sour note, especially in a show featuring children. Apart from one dodgy comment the crucifixion scene was handled with respect – thankfully they resisted the temptation to make a skit of it.
If there’s any philosophical coherence it’s an unsubtle humanistic one – with the other-worldly forces of good and evil seen as capricious and uncaring, and the real battle being between heaven and hell on one side and humanity on the other. As for artistic flaws, it went on too long, and as it was about Armageddon, could have had more dramatic tension.
18/4/19 Comedian is Tim Allen stars in the sitcom Last Man Standing (currently on satellite channel 5 Star). Allen is Mike Baxter, an American conservative who sells guns and sports gear but often finds himself at a loose end with his wife and three daughters, not all of whom share his views. It can oscillate between cringy and touching, but prayer, church going and the value of family are central, though any trace of sentimentality is usually dispatched with a joke. In a recent episode the show tackled an issue that I’d say causes lots of heartbreak to religious parents – when the offspring stop going to church. Mike values church going, though he frequently sleeps through the sermon. His wife points out that church services don’t have to be entertaining. Initially Mike advises the reverend to liven up his sermon with jokes and initially this seems to go down well and bring the youngsters back, but the effect is just temporary. He realises that for a more permanent solution the young adult offspring must become more invested in what’s going on, and so one does the collection, one designs new robes for the gospel choir and one leads the singing. The idea that people would flock back to church if the songs were better is rather lame, but the involvement message is spot on.
Another recent episode tackled the dificult issue of what religious parents do when their adult offspring don't want to get married in church. Christmas episodes often get in plenty of humourous digs at the secular or politically correct approches to Christmas.
The movie Unplannedwas released in the USA last week. It tells the story of Abby Johnson, formerly a clinic director for Planned Parenthood and now a pro-life advocate and it may well give quite a shake up to the abortion industry. Unplanned – Behind the Scenes (EWTN, Wednesday of last week) gave us an insight into the making of the film. What struck me most was the passion and faith inspiration of those involved. Of course this can sometimes lead to a film that’s overly preachy and therefore less effective with those who most need to get the message. Judging by the clips show it seems the film has avoided the pitfalls. I was impressed by the performance of Ashley Bratcher in the lead role – for her it wasn’t just another role, and in a quirk of fate she found out during the making of the film that she was minutes away from being aborted but her mother left the clinic in time – previously she was aware in a general sense that her mother had considered an abortion.
The real Abby Johnson and several other pro-life leaders, including Lila Rose, founder of Live Action, and Shawn Carney, co-founder of 40 Days for Life, were enthusiastic about the project and I was inspired by how committed the creative team were to religious faith and the pro-life cause. They even have a supportive prayer campaign accompanying the movie. There’s no sign of the film being released here yet, and when is does arrive I suspect the secular media will be knocking it, but then if the artistic standard is high maybe it will get a fair hearing. In the meantime clips are available at Wingclips.com – worth a look.
Bella is one of the most moving films I've seen in quite a while. Set in New York the plot concerns a young chef José who is damaged by a tragedy in the past and a young waitress, Nina, who feels her future is threatened by an unplanned pregnancy. It's slow moving at times, and as the story is not told entirely in a linear fashion it can be hard to figure out at times what's happening - but I see this as a virtue - it keeps the mind working on the figuring out and avoids predictability. The film largely avoids sentimentality too - there's a positive life affirming message, but it's not preachy and is all the more effective for that. The filming is excellent and Tammy Blanchard is outstanding as Nina, giving it an emotional credibility. There's a nice contrast of cultures too, especially when Nina visits José's family - I particularly liked the grace scene as they sit down to eat. The Latin interest in food family and music comes across strongly and it's like a warm blanket for Nina. There are conflicts, but they are handled with such empathy. There are subtle faith elements e.g. José using rosary beads and the grace before meals. As regards educational use the full film should suit senior classes - it's PG rated but juniors might find the pace slow and the plot development confusing. However I'd say they would appreciate that grace scene as one of José's brothers introduces his girlfriend to the family.
For exploring the theme of forgiveness it might be worthwhile having a look at the film Amish Grace. This is based on a school shooting in the Amish community – it was noteworthy at the time because of how quickly that community offered forgiveness and engaged with the family of the shooter. The film is a bit stiff and wooden at times, and in the efforts to avoid it being too graphic or upsetting the shooting is treated so obliquely that it’s hard to know for a while what exactly has happened. Tammy Blanchard gives a fine performance as the shooter’s distraught wife and deftly captures the gamut of emotions she experiences. Kimberly Williams-Paisley does pretty well as the fictional mother of one of the victims – not surprisingly she has difficulty in being so forgiving and her inner turmoil gives rise to much of the dramatic conflict. Fay Masterson plays a reporter – the media view gives something of an outside perspective on the events, reflective how difficult it is for outsiders to understand the Amish commitment to forgiveness in the face of such tragedy. Likewise students may find the whole Amish thing a bit strange and hard to relate to, but some scenes may be useful – e.g. the community’s first visit to the home of the shooter. There are some strong discussions on forgiveness between the husband and wife of one of the victims, and a touching scene near the end where the mother visits one of the survivors in hospital. There is also the problematic issue of ‘shunning’ – where the community shuns those of their own who have abandoned the community. Background historical information would be useful here for context, and there is plenty of material online giving coverage of the original shooting.
I've been watching a new comedy series, Home (Channel 4, Tuesdays) which I find funny and warm, unfortunately with bad language, that was pointless, gratuitous and grating, especially so with a child actor taking a central part. This series tells the story of Syrian refugee Sami, an English teacher who stows away in an English family’s car while they are passing through Calais. When they unpack they get more than they bargained for. The script is sharp, smart and funny and the characters are likeable, which always helps. The mother is generous and wants to help Sami - at one stage all she has for him is a loyalty card from a coffee shop – if he buys a few more coffees he’ll get a free one! The mother’s new boyfriend is very suspicious of Sami but he’s also something of a blow-in to the family and after a row ends up sleeping on an adjoining couch to Sami.
There are touching moments as Sami tries to re-connect with his family, lost in transit, and between the many funny situations there are timely reminders of the plight of asylum seekers and reflections on welcoming strangers. Sharp points are made about attitudes to refugees through the prejudice that Sami meets.
In Episode 2 the young son prepares a prayer space for Sami, complete with Muslim prayer mat, but he has to tell the parents discreetly that he's Christian!
Left to himself, in a touching scene, he does pray in his own way.
Last time around I thought Derry Girls (Channel 4) had potential but was spoiled by the gratuitous profanity and bad language. I had faint hope that the new series (started last week) would be an improvement, but no, right from the start the language was profane, foul and gratuitously crude. The sad thing is that it would have been just as funny without it, and could have been a warm but quirky drama most of the family could enjoy. And admittedly it was very funny – this time the girls from the Catholic school in Derry went on a bonding exercise with boys from a Protestant school in in order to build bridges between the communities during The Troubles, but it wasn't that kind of bonding the girls had in mind. The accompanying nun, Sr Michael, a tough nut seemed to have no time for priests, especially the suave philandering cleric who led the wishy washy workshops. Eventually she found common cause with a prim teacher from the Protestant school, a lay woman who couldn’t see the point in getting them together at all. There was particularly funny scene where the priest tried to get the youngsters to outline what Catholics and Protestants had in common, but all they could come up with were differences - what appeared on the blackboard during that scene is taking on iconic status.
The second episode this week featured much less foul language, which was welcome, and most if not all was from Michelle, for whom it's a character trait. There was nice interplay between idealism and cynicism as a new English teacher inspired some of the girls with a love of poetry ... but it wasn't that simple and avoided sentimentality. It was a bit like the film Dead Poets Society, but edgier. However it was marred by a very offensive remark about a statue of the Child of Prague (which was being kidnapped at the time!). Easy target - I'd suspect this would not have been made about a Buddha. It's such a pity as there so much to be admired abou the show, including a very low key Tommy Tiernan, and the usual drawn out pedantic shtick from Kevin McAleer.
28/2/19 Having missed it last year due to the big snow event I was delighted to get back to one of the Emmanuel concerts last night. As always there was a varied selection of liturgical music sung with gusto by hundreds of secondary schools students, under the excellent musical direction of Ian Callanan and accompanied by a really fine band composed of professional musicians and students. In particular the percussionists played a blinder, with piano and sax quite impressive, along with a brass section that shone especially in the several songs that had a Latin rhythm. The works of prominent composers were included, incl Callanan himself, Liam Lawton, Chris Da Silva, Kirk Franklin, Darlenev Zschech and Irish teacher Ciaran Coll. It was a nice touch to have video greetings from some of these - incl Da Silva, Sarah Hart and Holly Star.
For some reason water was a prominent theme in many of the songs, including the mid-tempo 'Gather at the Water' (Sarah Hart) and the upbeat 'My Lighthouse' (Garth Gilkeson, Chris Llewellyn). There were two Irish language songs, including the swing flavoured 'Molaigí an Tiarna' (Lawton, arr Callanan). As always the choir from the Holy Family School for the Deaf provided a graceful presence.
The songs are available on Spotify - click here and on Youtube click here.
RTE’s War of Independence drama Resistance (RTE 1 Sunday nights) was preceded by much hype. Now two episodes in, it is better than I expected. So far the pacing is brisk, the acting quite good, and the script serviceable. The creative team are obviously keen to highlight the role of strong women, but for a particular group of women their strength and service is reduced to caricature and stereotype, especially in the first episode. Yes, it was the nuns! No doubt there were unpleasant nuns and cruel practices, but that was far from the full story. Unfortunately that’s all we’ve got so far in the forced adoption story here – no nuance for the nuns. The Black and Tans were rather one-dimensional also, though two-tone by name, but even one of them was shown as having a heart, uneasy with the arbitrary violence of colleagues.
Last Sunday’s second episode featured the reappearance of one of the nuns, and it was an improvement, with her being a strong woman, defending the rights of a child in her care not to be bartered in return for intelligence information for the IRA. But then she had a private off-screen chat with a republican priest and hey presto the young boy is spirited away by shadowy figures. There were harsh words too for the IRA gunmen, though their characters are more diverse and three dimensional, from those who are trigger happy, through those turning a blind eye, to those with qualms about an armed struggle.
[Added 13/2/19: This show held its tension fairly well to the end. The priest kept his strong Republican activities - even having rifles stashed for the IRA in a tomb! Not sure how historical this was. He was a one-dimensional character - no effort to explore how he squared his Christian principles with violent revolution.]
BBC has also launched a new dramatic adaptation (no singing!) of the Victor Hugo novel Les Miserables and as of last Sunday night it’s two episodes in. So far it’s reasonably good, and of particular notes is the character of the Bishop (Derek Jacobi), a generous man whose striking kindness turns a convict’s life around. The convict, Jean Valjean (Dominic West) has been treated with severe cruelty, given 19 years hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread. Needless to say his attitude to humanity is rather jaundiced, but his inherent goodness is sparked into life by the selfless hospitality of the Bishop, not at all the typical villainous or vain Bishop character of so many dramas. Like all the BBC’s costume dramas the attention to detail is impeccable, but attention is also given to pace, plot, script and character, with a strong empathy for suffering humanity included. Some elements were spiced up, sometimes to excess (presumptions about what a modern audience is looking for?) so showing it after the 9 pm watershed made sense. Last Sunday’s episode was particularly tense as it detailed the descent of Fantine (Lily Collins) into prostitution. It inspired reflections on the kindness and cruelty that humans are capable of, with the themes of redemption and forgiveness to the fore.
The scene with the Bishop in Episode 1 might be suitable for classroom use, when exploring themes of forgiveness and redemption.
The Bishop's comment at the end of the scene 'I have bought your soul ... you belong to good' might need some debriefing!
One interesting new TV drama, with some religious elements, is Mrs Wilson (BBC One). This is an intriguing true story of a woman who finds out she doesn’t know her husband very well when secrets surface after he dies suddenly. Ironically this Mrs Wilson is played by her granddaughter Ruth Wilson – and she’s really good at portraying the dismay as she discovers layers of secrecy. Again there are some suggestive scenes and a somewhat skewed morality at times, but it is engaging. The husband in question was Catholic, at least in name – in one bizarre moment we see him saying a guilty Rosary after a pre-marital fling with the future Mrs Wilson. In the second episode we saw the confused and betrayed Mrs Wilson in a church, apparently saying the rosary, or at least hanging on to the Rosary beads when she is approached by a kindly priest (Ian McElhinney), her late husband’s pastor. This plot strand is further developed in the third and final episode, where the priest guides Mrs Wilson through some frustrating times. At one stage she takes out her frustration on that Rosary beads and on pillars in the church, but later there are surprising developments on the faith front. This final episode is intense, strong on themes of understanding, forgiveness and redemption. The drama has more than its fair share of family conflict but it feels like it is marked by an understanding and love of humanity, with so many characters you could empathise with. The final scenes where we get to see the real characters on whom the drama is based is quite moving. And it's rare to find a TV drama so positive to religious faith.
I found it hard to warm to Death and Nightingales, a BBC-RTE co-productionbased on a Eugene McCabe novel I haven’t yet read, but this drama does it no favours. The Catholic-Protestant background in 19th Century Northern Ireland is interesting enough but under-developed, as are the political plot threads. The script is dull, the pace slow-moving and the plot rather hackneyed (young girl escapes brutal stepfather and takes up with poor but handsome young lad). Jamie Dornan is passable in the latter role, while Ann Skelly shows some potential as the young girl. The Dornan character is Catholic in name though he has a picture of devils beside the Sacred Heard picture and makes a disparaging remark about the latter. There are some unnecessarily suggestive scenes, as has become all too common. There’s major guilt on behalf of the abusive step father, but for once it’s not ‘Catholic Guilt’! In last week’s episode the pace slowed down further and it really was turgid, when, with a crime plot afoot, it should have been tense. I nodded off twice! At least the priest character (Sean McGinley) is pleasant enough though I’m not sure he’s entirely genuine. The third and final episode improved slightly, but there were unconvincing monologues from the Skelly character, though these might have worked well in the novel. It was as if chunks of poetic dialogue were plonked in characters' mouths without an appreciation of how it would transfer to screen. The ending had potential but I though the possibilities were wasted. Maybe a 90 minute film would have served the novel better.
Drama series Blood ended recently on TV 3. Minor spoilers ahead! I had to duck all the axes being ground as agendas were served with cavalier disregard for art. And so we got mean spirited digs at the Church and at priests in particular. Gay sex was featured more strongly than heterosexual sex (the main character’s brother fell for the window cleaner), and for good measure there was a pitch made for mercy killing. Yup, all the boxes ticked! As if it wasn’t bad enough they drained out whatever little tension there was when the last episode was almost entirely taken up with a dismally slow flashback to explain away all the mystery.
Carolina Main is obviously talented and did her best as Cat, but could somebody please give her a better role! Likewise Adrian Dunbar was poorly served in his role … I may be wrong but I’d say he was longing for a return of Line of Duty or Broken. The script was turgid, the pace painful, the plot clichéd, and it was almost completely humourless, except where it was laughable.
15/11/18 I’ve been following Informer on BBC 1, Tuesday nights, and the main policeman, Gabe, played with nuance by the versatile Paddy Considine, is certainly a troubled soul and morally ambiguous in the extreme. He handles informers in counter terrorism operations, often leaning heavily on vulnerable minor offenders to get them to ‘snitch’. But his own undercover past is catching up with him, and it seems he had infiltrated a white supremacist group in the past and gets drawn back into this world. There was a disturbing scene in last week’s episode where he treated an Asian Pizza delivery man like dirt just to keep his street cred with his racist ‘friends’ - though this week's episode threw a different light on the incident.
An acquaintance from this ugly world was trying to rehabilitate with the help of a Christian community centre (apparently he crawled upm to a church and was rescued by a priest) but Gabe treated him with contempt and pushed him over the edge, dismissively tossing his Bible at him and leaving him drink though he knows the guy is trying to stay off it. The storyline is intriguing, cleverly worked around flashbacks after a mass shooting and the acting especially good, but the whole thing leaves a sour taste.
Helena Connolly was a guest on last Friday night’s Leap of Faith on RTE Radio 1. Helena has just launched what sounds like an attractive book, ‘Prayerful Ireland’, a combination of her photographs of prayerful places around Ireland combined with extracts from Scripture. She’s had a versatile career so far, working with the dioceses of Clogher and Kerry in youth and liturgy ministries. Growing up in a Catholic family in the border area, she had a strong identity as a Catholic though she did admit to falling away somewhat from the faith when she was studying music in Queens University. Now she was passionate for the Word of God to be heard.
Music is a major part of her life – from gigging with bands in the past to writing spiritual songs and being involved in liturgical music. She sang live, a touching song ‘Where You Lead’, inspired by her grandparents and drawn from her CD ‘The Reason Why’. She had important messages about religion and young people – she found them attracted to pilgrimage (e.g. to Taizé and Lourdes) and to the idea of faith linked to service. She found them drawn to social justice and to being with other young people in faith. All in all it was a relaxing, easy-going and positive interview.
The second item on the show also featured an artistic woman, Ciara Ní Cheallacháin, the creative person behind the art installation currently in St Patrick’s Cathedral – a stunning display of 36,000 paper leaves, each one representing an Irish life lost in the First World War. I was glad the focus was on what the Very Reverend Dr. William Morton, Dean of the Cathedral, called 'the sheer magnitude of loss', and the ongoing need for reconciliation and healing. He hoped the installation would inspire visitors to constantly pray for peace. Listen back here.
I finally got around to see Lady Bird, Gretta Gerwig’s film starring Saoirse Ronan as Christine/Lady Bird, a teen nearing the end of High School trying to find her unique way in the world, while attending a Catholic school for girls. Despite some reservations I enjoyed it thoroughly.
It’s an entirely credible and touching portrayal of family life – there are plenty of loving frictions, testy exchanges, naiveté, predictable outcomes, unwholesome behaviour, pettiness and great tenderness. The mother daughter relationship is particularly fraught – Laurie Metcalf is excellent as the mother – while that of father and daughter is low key but quite touching.
In some ways it’s a typical US indie teen movie and there are a few clichéd elements – how many times have we seen a genuine character trying foolishly to impress the cool kids while abandoning their true friends but later learning some sense. But it’s done so well here – largely thanks to Saoirse Ronan’s fine performance, capturing innocence and a darker side equally well.
The Catholic school background is positively portrayed – the priests and nuns are cheerful and dedicated, with a very human side – an approach that’s a rarity in modern films. There’s a priest who is dedicated to develop school dramas and a nun who responds kindly to a prank because she enjoyed it - some students tie a ‘Just married to Jesus’ sign on the convent car, but eventually Lady Bird says Jesus is ‘a lucky guy’ to have nuns of that calibre married to him! It’s all portrayed with a warm humanity.
The students are shown as not being that interested in religion – sometimes we see them respectful at Mass, but then again we find two of them, including Lady Bird, wolfing down communion hosts – while stressing that they are not consecrated. She declares very certainly that she does NOT want to go to Catholic colleges after high school. In her more rebellious phase she ridicules a teacher giving a pro-life talk, but it may be more the character than the film that is mocking her. She says just because something looks ugly doesn’t mean it’s morally wrong. Towards the end there is a church scene that is quite positive, but to say more would be a spoiler.
There are some stereotypes – the large Catholic family, the Irish girls getting ‘sloshed’ before noon on St Patrick’s Day. Though Catholic schooling is presented in a positive light, there is much in the values on show that are not in harmony with Catholic teaching (predictably in attitudes to pre-marital sex). There is quite a bit of foul language, the inevitable gay sub plot, very frank sexual dialogue and a few scenes of sexual activity that are strong enough but perhaps relatively restrained by modern standards (which aren’t very high in this area!) I’d suggest there’s little to suit school use in terms of suitable clips, though perhaps the scene where we expect the nun to scold Lady Bird because of the prank might be useful to portray kindness and understanding, and the scene where the priest tries to get the drama class to cry on cue is rather moving.
There's quite a collection of music on the soundtrack including Rosa Mystica, Performed by the University of Notre Dame Folk Choir with Music by Chrysogonus Waddell, OCSO.
Last Friday night it was a relaxing Leap of Faith (RTE Radio 1), when presenter Michael Comyn covered ‘Aifreann’ a new Irish language Mass setting with music composed by Kevin O’Connell and premiered in the Pro-Cathedral last Sunday. This was a timely commission by seven families mostly connected to UCD.
From one of these families Linda O’Shea-Farren spoke of how excited, ‘almost giddy’, they were in anticipation of the first performance. Those commissioning thought it was time to advance from the familiar O’Riada Mass, but wanted something accessible, something that could be sung by school and parish choirs. For the premier they were thrilled to have the Palestrina Choir under the direction of Blanaid Murphy – a ‘magnificent choir’ of ‘high calibre’.
O’Connell explained that this was his second Mass composition, having previously done one in Latin. He regarded the commission as a privilege, but also a big responsibility – this wasn’t just a concert performance but had to fit right in with an actual liturgy. He thought music could be an ‘intensification of prayer’ rather than a distraction and this is what he had tried to achieve. We could also sense the enthusiasm in choir director Blanaid Murphy and we heard from two very articulate and enthusiastic young singers from the choir.
20/9/18 Couched in the context of ‘cultural appropriation’, last weekend’s Sunday Sequence (BBC Radio Ulster) raised the question as to why Jesus is usually portrayed in art and film as being white, instead of a skin colour more appropriate to the Middle East, and whether this really matters anyway. I suppose this is partly because here we mostly consume Western art, and it doesn’t always go for the naturalistic approach (a point that wasn’t made). Bruce Clarke, Religious Editor of The Economist didn’t seem too concerned and thought genuine religious art (which he distinguished from art that was self-indulgent) had to be transcendent and universal, and was received and ‘refracted’ in different ways by different cultures, like the words of the Apostles at Pentecost. He also instanced the Black Madonna of Częstochowa with her black child Jesus, and hundreds of similar images in France, as departing from the alleged norm.
Presenter Audrey Carville wondered whether the approach underscored racism – effectively promoting the idea that the default human is white, and therefore giving us little empathy for someone from the Middle East. Writer Raquel McKee shared some of those concerns – e.g. the problem for Caribbean Christians, enslaved by white masters and then seeing Jesus and even God the Father portrayed in that way.
I did like her remark that God made just one race, the human race.
Running through the whole event was an exhibition on ‘Religious Art in the Home’. The art works were produced by artists resident in Ireland in response to the Pope's letter Amoris Laetitia. Probably the best known contributor was the late Patrick Pye, who produced a striking work on the Crucifixion. There was a huge richness in the other works – I was particularly impressed by the Christmas image of Brónach McGuinness from Belfast, the large dramatic pieces by Ann McKenna from Kildare and the colourful treatments on the theme of Family by George Walsh of Dublin. The catalague (pictured) is a fine resource in itself. Many of these works will feature in an exhibition at the Limerick Diocesan Centre Wed 29 August until Fri 21 September.
Just back from the papal Mass in the Phoenix Park ... a great event that went so smoothly. The music was of a very high standard as it was during the week at the RDS masses, though being a long way back from the altar and with no big screen that close it didn't feel as involving. The opening WMOF theme 'The Joy of Love' set the scene effectively, and I was glad to hear the familiar 'In Christ Alone' near the start. Liam Lawton (pictured, just about!) was in fine form with the responsorial psalm, 'The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor' and I also loved the fresh makeover given to the old hymn 'O Sacrament Most Holy'. The event was such a fitting and uplifting end to a joyous week.
‘Domestic Devotion - A History of Visual Piety and Religious Practice in the Family Home' was the title of one of the workshops I attended on the Wednesday morning, delivered by Prof Salvador Ryan from the Pontifical Universityof St Patrick’s College Maynooth. Much of the material was from his own family archives and it was an engaging exploration of of those holy prayer books and pictures our grandparents would have been very familiar with. Images of the Sacred Heart were prominent as would be expected and we saw images from a Sacred Heart Prayer Book from the 19th century. There were many lace trimmed prayer cards from France and some of the images were quite unusual .e.g. one strange one showing Mary giving the Eucharist to Jesus, another showing Our Lady giving a cross to a lady, a scary one featuring an unrepentant sinner with devils ready to grab him. Images. Sometimes images of saints appeared on memoriam cards and sometimes there were used as bookmarks, both practices continuing, though with less frequency to the present day.
The Festival of Families event at Croke Park was such a treat. The presentation was spectacular and far exceded my expectations. The atmosphere in Croke Park was electric. It wasn’t entirely my kind of music, but there were so many standout moments - e.g. Rita Connolly singing the ‘Deer’s Cry’, with the World Festival of Families Choir. And I loved the artist combinations we don’t often see - Andrea Bocceli with our own Celine Byrne singing 'Ave Maria', The Priests with Tríona and Mairead Ni Dhomhnail (a striking version of ‘Deus meus Aduva Me’). Sean Keane (pictured) sang a wonderful version of ‘Never Alone’, and Cathy Jordan performed a soulful version of 'Rainy Night in Soho'. I’m not a great fan of Nathan Carter but he really nailed ‘Everybody Hurts’ with the help of several choirs, including two choirs for the deaf. There was a most dramatic and spine tingling moment when Patrick Bergin sang a marvellous version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’ as the Holy Father entered the stadium. I don't know if the two events were meant to coincide but it was magic!
The visual effects were eye-popping - in one awe-inspiring sequence aerialist Lee Claydon did some aerial ballet as the Palestrina Choirs sang ‘From Way Up Here’ with a solo from young Davide Antochi from the Croke Park sky walk. I thought the imagery on the back screen while breathtaking could have featured more religious images - e.g. images of Christ during ‘The Deer’s Cry’ which features the Christ-centred prayer of St Patrick’s Breastplate. Some might have wanted the music to be less secular, but it wasn't meant as a liturgical service, rather a festival of celebration and it certainly was that.
World Meeting of Families - more Arts Events: This morning in the Family Arena a group from Comhaltas Ceolteoirí Eireann provided a lively presentation of music, song, dance and poetry on the theme ‘Families of Faith in the Irish Tradition’. The young performers were excellent, and while the presentation wasn’t overtly that religious there was a Rosary motif with references to the ‘Sorrowful Mysteries’ of life, including emigration, and later the ‘glorious Mystery of the Irish tradition’.
(Audrey Assad at World Meeting of Families)
Again with the morning show the crowd was small but increased when American singer-songwriter Audrey Assad took to the stage. I’ve long been a fan and was really looking forward to this. With just herself and piano she turned the huge RDS arena into an intimate space for reflection and prayer. She sang some of her best known songs like ‘Sparrow’ and ‘Garden’ (co-written with Matt Maher) and her voice soared beautifully, the performance enhanced by graceful hand movements.
Her chat between songs was worthy of note. She said she was coming to us as she was, with her doubts and scepticism. Her songs, she said, were often addressed to herself - she was preaching the Gospel to herself. Despite her doubts she was ‘leaning’ towards faith, joy, hope and love, while wrestling with Scripture (as in her treatment of Psalm 23 - ‘I Shall Not Want’). It wasn’t one of her own songs but I loved her heartfelt rendition of Chris Tomlin’s ‘Good Good Father’.
Assad’s performance was entertaining, challenging and inspiring, and all delivered with plenty of good humour.
(Rend Collective at WMOF)
World Meeting of Families - more Arts Events: This Thurs morning in the family arena I was delighted to see the group Kisi Kids performing their musical ‘Song of Ruth’. It was vibrant and celebratory but with touching quiet moments as well. The music seemed to be on backing tracks but the vocals were fine and the harmonies especially good. The cast was huge, with a mixture of young children and older teens, all performing with gusto and very professionally. Kisi is a movement within the Catholic Church and hails from Austria, but has branches worldwide. Their primary work is performing Biblical musicals. Check out www.kisi.org
Unfortunately with so many other activities, including talks, panel discussions and workshops going on the crowd for the morning performance was small and it deserved wider exposure. It struck me that a Catholic arts festival would be an excellent idea for the future.
Fortunately crowds were bigger in the afternoon for the beautiful music of the Mullingar Cathedral Choristers and the Lynn Singers as they sang well known songs like ‘Christ Be Our Light’ and ‘Cead Míle Failte Romhat a Íosa’. The singing was enhanced by some fine piano and harp accompaniment, with violin and horns as well.
Later the group ‘Factor One’ sang the catchy children’s song ‘Please, Thanks You and Sorry’ inspired by the words of Pope Francis.
Mid afternoon there was an unexpected set from singer-songwriter James Kilbane at the Veritas stand, and I stumbled on various young trad groups in the Tech Hall.
Then back to the Family Arena for the day’s Mass when again the music was exceptionally good. Not sure who was leading the music, combined choirs I think, but I did spot some of the talented folks from Newman University Church, including composer Steve Warner. The Congress theme song ‘The Joy of Love’ by Ephrem Feeley was an apt opening hymn and I’ve rarely heard the recessional ‘Laudate Dominum’ sung with such gusto by choir and congregation alike - I even saw young children singing it out.
Finally, in the evening folk-rock Christian band Rend Collective took to the stage and got the crowd moving. It was great to see young nuns and monks bopping with the teens and young adults. The band had energy to spare and sound Christian messages, and style-wise had something of a Mumford vibe. The effect was enhanced by the variety of instruments, with the addition of fiddle, accordion, and distinctive percussion. ‘My Lighthouse’ is one of their best known songs and they gave a fine performance of that one. It’s not my favourite kind of religious music, but there was no denying the confidence and conviction. Pity it was on at the same time as the Rex Band was playing in the Teen Space as the prospective audience would have been similar.
(Our Lady of Victories Gospel Choir)
So, my first day at the Pastoral Congress of the World Meeting of Families was most enjoyable. Apart from catching up with friends there were plenty of arts based activities to enjoy.
First off, over at the Teen Space the Rise Theatre Group, a Christian drama group from Reading UK put on a little drama, ‘Race of Life’ where life in general was compared to a race, with participants having a choice between the ‘Quick Fix’ stop or the ‘Living Water’ rest stop. The former was chosen initially but it led to greed and cut-throat competitiveness, with the Living Water meeting the deeper needs eventually. It was a simple sketch with a simple message but hopefully the teens were provoked to deeper thought and got a chance to tease out the relevant issues in the workshops that followed.
Still in the Teen Space the Elation band were equally at home rocking it up or calming the teens with in the lead in to workshops with the chant-like ‘Trust, Surrender, Believe, Receive’
Gospel music fans weren’t disappointed with three groups performing today. The Dublin Gospel Choir livened things up early in the morning, unfortunately the crowd was small. They concentrated on familiar material that was borderline Gospel - e.g. ‘Something Inside So Strong’, ‘Lovely Day’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, all performed strongly and with confidence. A few weeks ago I heard ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ in the same venue, this time sung by its writer Paul Simon - he said it came from somewhere outside of himself, though he didn’t pin down the source of the inspiration. Later Ciaran Coll directed a lively set with the Our Lady of Victories Gospel Choir of Ballymun (pictured above). It seemed more focused on the Gospel and I enjoyed the fact that much of the material was less familiar. Both choirs were in the Family Arena, and in the evening The Gardiner Street Gospel Choir livened up the audience in the Teen Space. From the songs I heard they concentrated on broadly spiritual songs from the mainstream catalogue, e.g. ‘You Got the Love’.
Heading back to the family arena I caught an impressive set from the Rex Band, a rock-gospel group from India. I counted about 15 on stage and they certainly exuded lots of Gospel energy. Much of it was upbeat praise and worship material, but some songs had an Indian flavour, and there was a slow pro-life song/presentation ‘Cry of an Unborn Child’, with its plaintive chorus line ‘Let Me Live’. It was a tad more preachy than I like in a song and I’m not a fan of spoken parts in a song, but it was well received, albeit by the small crowd that remained after the main Mass of the day.
The liturgical music at the Mass was beautiful, delivered by a choir (particularly from the ecclesiastical province of Armagh), and small orchestra. The responsorial psalm sung by Karen O’Donovan was a highlight. A link with the Eucharistic Congress from a few years in the same venue came with the inclusion of the theme song from that event ‘Though We Are Many’ by Bernard Sexton. Before the Mass Archbishop Eamon Martin delivered a keynote address, and introduced it by singing a song of joy - never knew he could sing so beautifully!
10/8/18 On RTE 1 last week I watched Spotlight, a challenging film that outlined in dramatic form the Boston Globe’s investigation into child sexual abuse by priests in that diocese and the subsequent cover-up by Church authorities. The film’s approach was restrained, but of course the abuse highlighted was appalling and any discomfort of Catholic viewers pales into minor significance by comparison. On an artistic level the film was absorbing as the newspaper’s ‘Spotlight’ team forensically investigated the abuse and how it was handled by Church authorities. Civil society, including journalism, didn’t escape lightly either – there was considerable reluctance in police circles to bring abusive priests to book, lawyers facilitated confidential settlements, and even staff at the Boston Globe ignored or missed information sent to them years previously. The film proceeded almost thriller-like with its investigation of the facts, and certainly there was no cheap voyeurism or melodrama. And yet the crusading narrative was somewhat simplistic at times – too often it felt like ‘journalists good, priests bad’. At one stage it was suggested that 6% of priests were likely to abuse, but we got to see precious little of the 94% (there are passing references to two priests who helped, including one auxiliary bishop). I thought there was little of broader context or insight into the phenomenon, e.g. in a throwaway remark it was suggested without evidence that celibacy was at the heart of the problem, and there was no sense that abuse figures for non-Catholic clergy and other professions are similar. There was one scene where an elderly priest tried to rationalise his behaviour to one of the journalists but this intriguing conversation was cut short by the priest’s sister who shut the door on the journalist.
The film should act as a salutary tale to faithful mature Catholics, a warning against moral blindness, lust, arrogance, clericalism and abuse of power. For others, especially younger viewers, I fear the effect will be to increase prejudice and alienate them from this community of sinners we call the Church.
Anne With an E (Based on the children's novel Anne of Green Gables) is back on Netflix for a second series and judging by the first few episodes it's still maintaining the high quality. From the gorgeous autumnal tones and catchy music of the opening credits to the exemplary acting of young Amybeth McNulty from Donegal the show is a real treat. There's a warm gentle humanity about most characters - the longings and lost loves of the unmarried brother and sister that adopt orphan Anne are particularly touching. It's a glorious tribute to a child's imagination as we journey with Anne's flights of fancy.
There’s more prayer (and scones!) in this show than in most TV dramas though the show is not at all preachy and any sentimentality is subtly handled. Adult themes like prostitution and childbirth are touched on and so far there's a hint that one of the schoolboys is having gender identity issues, perhaps a sop to the politically correct requirements of our time, which feels like an imposition on the original and beloved novel.
The Split is a British legal drama currently on RTE 1 Tuesday nights (recently on BBC 1). Divorce and adultery are strong themes and certainly the irresponsibility and devastation involved are strongly portrayed. There's quite an array of intersecting characters, many of whom are having or contemplating affairs with each other. The central character, Hannah, is powerfully played by Nicola Walker, previously brilliant in River and Unforgotten . She brings several shades of nuance and edginess to the role and thankfully the lesser characters are given detailed attention as well, with the help of a strong supporting cast, including Stephen Tompkinson of Ballykissangel and DCI Banks. There was one peculiar scene where one of the sisters in the central family attended a pre-marriage advice session in a church. The vicar does well but the girl is giggly and doesn’t seem to be taking it seriously. The groom-to-be tries to be more serious, and later says ‘I believe in Jesus’ but then blames the girl for the awkward situation as she’s the one who wanted the wedding in a church. This may well be a common situation though it’s not clear yet if it relates to the main plot or is just some shorthand character development. It's definitely an adult drama though so far relatively restrained by modern standards. I think I’ll stick with this one.
Episode 2 featured another scene from the informal pre-marriage
course - this time the couple disagree on how soon they want to have children. For each person the attitude of the other seems to come as a surprise. The vicar listens and seems bemused. So far the prospective groom features only in these scenes .. I'd like to see his characer developed more. His bride-to-be is one of three sisters whose father returns after walking out on them years previously. The reunion with the father is emotionally intense and I found it quite moving.
16/6/18 Scientists and philosophers have always been fascinated with the concepts of intelligence and consciousness. Channel 4’s Humans (Thursday nights), now in its third season, explores these ideas in dramatic form – with robots (‘synths’) moving from artificial intelligence to consciousness. The conscious synths are an anomaly and become an oppressed minority, suffering all the prejudices that human minorities suffer. Perhaps the parallels made are rather obvious but the appeal of the characters and plot twists are sufficiently engaging. Previously we’ve even seen some synths developing a sense of God, even attempting prayer. In this latest series one of them seems to be thanking God, but we learn that his attention is directed towards his human scientist ‘creator’ – he even has built a small shrine to him.
Despite some unsavoury elements there is a strong sense of morality. In last Thursday’s episode for example, a character who sought revenge is upbraided by the original victim: “I asked you not to…you did it just for you”; a young girl is distraught that an innocent man may go to jail for her crime; a woman who commits adultery has immediate regrets; a female synth gives guidance to a separated man who still loves his wife – “maybe you didn’t put Laura’s needs before your own”. She has motherly instincts, and most interestingly is upset that her programing won’t let her put herself in danger for the synth child she is looking after – “I can only protect Sam if it poses no threat to my own well-being …I can’t be a mother”.
In this week's episode the synth child is trying to figure out death. in a graveyard he meets an elderly man talking to his deceased wife, and is puzzled because he thinks the man is talking to the ground. One of the main humans, Joe, tries to explain but doesn't get beyond suggesting that rituals around death are merely to console those left behind.
this doesn't entirely exclude the religious view of life and death, but so far there is no religious figure to give a fuller picture.
11/6/18 The latest episode of Friday Night Dinner had a religious element but it was not in good taste - the Goodmans' annoying neighbour Jim has a funeral ceremony for his dog and proceeds to carry a large white cross to the grave - I'm uneasy with the Christian iconography used for a cheap laugh. Mrs Goodman says they can't have a huge cross in their garden because they're supposed to be Jewish (we never see them taking their faith seriously).
7/6/18 Families, warts and all, are essential communities in society, and the Goodman family in Friday Night Dinner has more warts than most. This Channel 4 sitcom is mildly crude, unfortunately peppered with gratuitous profanities, but is really funny and has a warm sense of family. The Goodmans are Jewish but relatively little is made of this, a lost opportunity I think. The awkward neighbour does get a bit confused about Jewish rituals and ends up assuming a few Shaloms will impress, and thee was a funny Christmas episode when the Goodmans celebrate Christmas anyway, not convinced it has much to do with Jesus! Last Friday’s episode, The Violin, was the second last in the current (fifth) series, and featured that most embarrassing of family moments – offspring being made to perform for relations and friends of parents. It also saw a hilarious guest appearance from upcoming Irish actor Jonny Holden (a past pupil of mine!) as Spencer, a failed medical student with doctor delusions. Nice one!
11/5/18 Recently have been catching up with Madam Secretary on Sky - just a few episodes in but I like it - more thoughtful than Designated Survivor, but some similar crises in the White House. The Secretary of State is well played by Tea Leoni and Tim Daly plays her husband, who is rather unusually a theology professor and much given to quoting St Thomas Aquinas! So far he is a person of conscience, rather more so that his wife who sometimes goes for political compromises she's not too happy with. However doing what's right is important to her as well. Generally it's not corny, and while not radical, it does sometimes question US foreign policy in specific matters, while not doing much questioning of the larger issues. Sometimes it doesn't ring quite true - e.g. an early Season 1 episode where a priest who is a human rights activist is caught drug smuggling to improve the lot of his people.
I saw the film Goodbye Christopher Robin twice recently and think it's brilliant. Domhnall Gleeson is so good in everything he does. Prayers figure a few times in a very positive and endearing way in the early stages as the young 'Christopher Robin/Billy Moon' says prayers at his bedside. Faith doesn't play much of a role other than that, even in times of crisis, but the film is full of warm humanity without being mushy about it. The film is about the life of A.A. Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh stories. Whether you love the stories or not, I think the film is endearing - the prayer scenes might be useful in RE class - maybe teasing out how childhood prayers could become mature adult prayers, rather than being left behind.
Arena: Bob Dylan – Trouble No More graced BBC 4 on Good Friday night. This was a newly released film version of one of his Gospel concerts from the 1980’s, when he had found God in Christianity. Not all his fans were impressed and in the opening scenes we saw a few of them complaining that he wasn’t signing his usual songs. Instead there were gospel songs like 'Slow Train Coming' (from Dylan's first Christian album) 'Saved' and 'Gotta Serve Somebody'. It was quite a passionate performance from Dylan, joined by a gospel group singing backup and first rate musicians. Most peculiarly, the songs were interspersed with recently filmed sermons, from a fictional evangelist who preached about everything from sin, through the ‘demon alcohol’, to how fast food damages our bodies, temples of God. It was a strange mixture of contemporary concerns in old style revivalist mode, reportedly approved by the unpredictable Dylan himself.
Recently I've watched a few episodes on The Crown on Netflix. It wouldn't be my favourite show by any means, but the historical background is interesting, and Claire Foy's performance as Queen Elizabeth is impressive. Of interest here is the way it shows her as taking her sense of duty to the State and her religious faith seriously - after all she is head of the Church of England. In some episodes we see her saying her night prayers kneeling beside her bed - not often you see a main character doing that in a TV drama. Such clips might be useful in dealing with the theme of prayer in RE classes. In one episode (Season 2, Episode 6) she is impressed by the teachings of evangelist Billy Graham (who died recently), and she invites him for a discussion in person. Others in her circle are sceptical, even cynical. Also any teacher dealing with themes of Church and State might find some useful material. The show is slow moving and anything but short clips wouldn't go down too well in class I'd suspect, not with boys anyway. Also there are some unsavoury scenes, especially relating to the amourous liaisons of Pricess Margaret, which is a pity and unecessary considering the audience the show appeals to.
The funniest show I saw during the week was last Sunday morning’s episode of Everybody Loves Raymond (Channel 4). In this episode (from Season 4) Debra’s sister Jennifer announced she was going to become a nun, much to the surprise of the family as she had been a freewheeling hippy in her younger days. The family was awkward about it (an uneasy grace before meals) and of course the situation was thoroughly milked for comedy, though the vocation was treated respectfully. There were references to ‘the nun thing’ and ‘the nun phase’, and to The Singing Nun with her 60’s hit Dominique. When Jennifer wanted to go to 6.30 am Mass, Ray asked ‘Is God even up then?’ There was a touching moment when Debra finally explained why she was upset – she hadn’t seen much of her sister in recent years, and now she is off on the missions, to Zaire. She declared, tearfully, ‘I want a sister, not a Sister sister’! The programme, or clips from it, would be suitable for classes on vocation.
Over the Christmas period you expect lots of feel-good movies and carol services, which is all very good, but every year I look out for something new, something different , a programme that engages in a creative and contemporary way with the Christmas story of the Gospels. Happily I found a few such programmes this year.
Best of all and useful for the younger classes in schools is Angela’s Christmas (RTE 1 Christmas Eve). Based on a short story by Frank McCourt this short animation came from Brown Bag films who brought us the marvellous Give Up Yer Aul Sins cartoons. It told the story of a young Limerick girl, Angela, who didn’t want the crib Jesus in her local church to get cold. She wanted to warm him up ‘like a little holy sausage’ so she brought him home, leading to some consternation. The animation was gorgeous, the storyline simple and the characterisations excellent. Baby Jesus is said to hold his arms out to the world, and there was a great quote from Angela’s mother – ‘that’s what families do – they shelter each other from the storm, they bring joy where there is sadness and warmth where there is none.’ One for the World Meeting of Families!
The Alternativity (BBC Two)whichstarted with a‘making of’documentaryon the Sunday of Christmas week was an unusual piece of work – the artist known as Banksy had asked film director Danny Boyle to direct a nativity play in Bethlehem, in the car park of his ‘Walled-Off Hotel’, billed ironically as having the worst views – of the huge security wall erected by the Israelis.
It was most enjoyable watching the play take shape – finding a suitable donkey and making artificial snow were two of the most entertaining sequences. Predictably there were political undertones to all of this, but Boyle said he didn’t want to exploit the children for adult concerns, and it was all sweet and innocent, though under the watchful gaze of an Israeli guard tower, which made some parents uneasy about their children taking part. The plight of the Palestinians in this divided Bethlehem was highlighted but Boyle also understood that security measures followed from shocking acts of terror. Banksy wanted it to be a Nativity for everyone, so consultations were conducted with Muslims and Christians. It was harder to engage with the Jewish settlers due to security concerns, but that was a pity considering the origins of Jesus.
On the Wednesday following we got to see a film of the impressive live performance. The Palestinian children were excellent, the young girl playing Mary especially so. In a nod to contemporary concerns the characters had to pass through a metal detector (‘Herod’s Checkpoint’) and the annunciation was Mary getting a text from an unknown number with the crucial news! It was great to see the joy and wonder on the children’s faces, especially when the artificial snow fell on them. There were tears from proud parents.
The original story was respected and if it got too political at any stage it was in the song by rap group the Shoruq Girls as three wise women (‘behind every wise man…’), especially when they revealed a babygro with the slogan ‘Free Palestine’. Banksy, as always, remained unseen, but Danny Boyle and local director Riham Isaac were like little children themselves as they enjoyed the show from the audience.
Hopefully this will be replayed next year, and those in NI or UK may be able to find it on the BBC iPlayer, but it will certainly be a useful resource for classes in Advent next year, and for studying how contemporary culture engages with the Gospel story.
14/12/17 It was a treat earlier in the week to see the new film in the Star Wars series. Star Wars: The Last Jedi has some eyer popping moments, and while many popular characters return (especially Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill) there are many fresh elements in the plot and visuals - including the scenes shot in Iceland - the red and white motif is particularly striking. Of course Skellig Michael in Kerry figures large and those sweeping aerial shots make it look hugely impressive. Little did the monks of early Christian Ireland think their secluded location would become so popular. The fictional place is described as being one of the remotest places in the galaxy! The beehive huts are central, and there are ancient texts, though I think it's the first time that Jedi is referred to as a religion in the films. I'm open to correction on that. And I realise that some people today declare themselves Jedi when asked about their religion! Commentators have often drawn parallels between religion and 'The Force', though it seems more Buddhist or New Age than Christian. One of the rebels (the good guys!) at one stage says 'God speed' as others leave on a dangerous mission, but this isn't explored further. The universal struggle between good and evil is is noteworthy throughout - evil is clearly recognised for what it is - and the process of temptation is intensely played out in the character of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) - some ket temptation scenes might be useful for RE.. It was good to see the late Carrie Fisher still in the role of Princess Leia, but a pity that she's not around for the release. s
30/11/17 Sometimes one series of a TV drama is enough, as quality can deteriorate, but I was delighted to see The A-Word back for a second series on BBC 1, Tuesday nights.
This is the story of an autistic boy, Joe, and the struggles of his parents and wider family to cope with the situation. It’s a tough subject, but the tight pace, the excellent ensemble playing of the cast and most of all the large dollop of humour save it from being too grim, too preachy or too sentimental. As well as being hugely entertaining it is moving as well, and I’d say there’s been quite a few viewer tears.
There are lessons about accepting children with special needs, and not only autism. In a subplot there’s a Downs Syndrome young man seeking employment and doing well at it. The show exudes a warm humanity and a noteworthy appreciation of family as well – Joe’s grandfather provides much of the humour (a fine turn by Christopher Eccleston) and there’s all sorts of confusion in the extended family – Joe’s uncle has split from his wife but they pretend to be still married so as not to offend her parents, one of whom is a philandering clergyman! But they’re splitting too, leaving the clergyman staying behind to mend his daughter’s marriage. It’s complicated.
The young actor playing Joe (Max Vento) is totally credible, while there are touching performances from Morven Christie as the mother and Lee Ingleby as the father, loving each other, loving Joe, but struggling to cope. Some of the language is quite frank and the sexual morals could do with some tweaking, but an adult audience with any bit of heart should enjoy it immensely. Due to content I doubt it would be suitable for school use in RE .. a lot of careful clipping would be needed.
Last week’s episode was particularly impressive, with a nice thawing between the clergyman and his daughter, a note of caution on the appropriate boundaries between married men and their female friends and a subtly emotional last scene as Joe gathered his family as if for a photo.
On the home drama front I’m rarely enthusiastic about what passes for comedy on RTE 2 but last ThursdayI did enjoy the first episode of The School a mockumentary set in an Irish primary school. Being a teacher, albeit at secondary level, I suspect the writer must have insider knowledge as it rang entirely true, but of course with comic exaggeration. There’s the new principal whose patience is sorely tried by the overbearing secretary, an incompetent teacher and Department inspectors. The show needs a few more quirky characters – apart from the main three the other adult parts are weak, though engagingly naturalistic performances are elicited from the young pupils. The school Nativity play figures in the plot and so far the treatment is mostly respectful. Apart from a few iffy religious references the usual crudity is absent and a bit of trimming in that department could have made it an enjoyable family show, with enough humour to keep children and adults alike laughing all the way to the staffroom.
It was a low key, but quite enjoyable event - last Monday night I went to the arts event in Newman University Church in St Stephen's Green. It was a relaxing combination of the impressive uileann pipe playing of Mark Redmond, the graceful harp playing of Anne-Marie O'Farrell, and most enjoyable poetry reading by Stephen Rea. Hearing all this in such a sacred space made it a spiritual experience by default, even if much of the material wasn't explicitly religious. Most of the poetry was by Heaney and Montague but I was particularly taken with the Dennis O'Driscoll poem 'Missing God' - moving and ironic at the same time, perhaps a useful resource for Senior RE, on the theme of Search for Meaning.
Last night I went to the beautiful Holy Rosary Church in Bohernabreena, Tallaght to see gospel recording artist Sal Solo, who has been a long time favourite of mine. He is best known for his hit single 'Sam Damiano', and I found his album Look at Christ, an acoustic rock version of the Rosary, most useful for RE classes. This is hard to find now but some of the songs are repeated on later albums that you'll find on the various music streaming services. I was delighted to get to chat with him before the show and am glad to say he is most approachable.
It was billed as 'a night of music and inspiration', and while there was plenty of inspiration and thought provoking material in his multimedia presentation
there wasn't enough music for my liking. He did sing 'San Damiano' at the start and the song of faith and mission 'We Believe' at the end and they were enjoyable. Local pastoral worker Frank Brown also sang a few songs. It's such a pity there weren't more people in attendance - I think the presentation would have gone down well with a big youth audience, especially if more music accompanied the teaching.
I should have paid more attention to this note on his website www.salsolo.com : 'In 1999, he left the UK for the USA, where he continues to this day speaking at large events, conferences and retreats. Sal no longer gives concerts but is busy mentoring, producing and managing young up and coming artists.' More of the latter anon.
13/10/17 It was great to meet lots of dedicated RE teachers at the RE Congress last Saturday - inspiring as always! Leonardo Franchi's keynote address had lots of food for thought in relation to Catholic education and I was delighted to see him using some classical religious paintings for brief moments of reflection during the talk - incl 'Our Lady of the Pilgrims/Our Lady of Loreto' by Caravaggio, 'Ecce Ancilia Domini' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and 'The Sermon on the Mount' by Fra Angelico. Also I thoroughly enjoyed Steve Warner's music workshop. It was a relaxing meditative experience, and songs included 'Set Your Hearts on the Higher Gifts', 'All Will Be Well' and 'Make of Our Hands a Throne'. Apart from the music the background information and general reflections on liturgical music were enlightening.
I also got to Brenda Drumm's workshop on social media and as I do websites and Facebook that was hugely useful.
It was great to meet the RE teachers gather at the diocesan inservice day in Longford yesterday. The enthusiasm and dedication always impresses. I was presenting on 'Senior Cycle RE, Non-Exam', (help!) and 'Faith on the Internet'. I got a preview of the NUA films initiative and it looks interesting. They are introducing the series at a few venues in the next few weeks (starting tonight in Cavan). Click here for details. Afterwards I paid my first visit to the newly refurbished St Mel's Cathedral (pic above) - I was hugely impressed by the design and marvellous artwork. Click here for more information and images. Local RE teachers are lucky they have such a wonderful venue, e.g. for pilgrimages.
14/9/17 Finally finished series one of Anne With an E (Netflix) and was really disappointed that it's over, for now at least. The high artistic standard was maintained throughout, as was the positive attitude to religious faith. There was a little sentimentality, and some stock situations, like the fire that gets the community into supportive mode and the farm running into financial trouble, but the show has such a warm humanity that you'd forgive a lot! The Christmas episode was quite touching and didn't get overly mushy. I still feel it works better as a drama for adults about children, though I'd say many girls will find lots to relate to in the spunky, independent minded, imaginative heroine. Her arrival to puberty was handled rather frankly, and another modern touch that was hardly in the original novel was the hint, with approval, of a long term same-sex relationship involving an elderly lady who visits a neighbour, and who becomes a role model for Anne.
5/9/17 Have just started watching the show Anne With An E on Netflix. It's based on the well known classic Anne of Green Gables and is treat to watch. The plot features a lively young orphan girl, Anne, who brightens up the lives of an aging brother and sister on a farm in Prince Edward Island off Nova Scotia. It's a warm, human, optimistic show, confident in human dignity and decency, all heart but with no little pain as well. Amybeth McNulty is outstanding in the title role - the girl who has seen tough times and a rake of disappointments, but who still manages to maintain an optimistic outlook despite everything. He problems stem from her orphan state, the fussy and unfeeling adults around her and her own distaste for her appearance - all red hair and freckles. The opening episode (feature length) has a wonderful scene or two where she takes enthusiastically to prayer, especially the Lord's Prayer. Anne is infused with a marvellous sense of wonder and a very fertile imagination which leads to an amount of tall tales, but she is basically honest and good hearted. This makes it difficult when she comes up against the petty spite of some adults, and the mean-spiritedness of both teacher and fellow students when she starts school (Episode 3). As she realises herself, and has it pointed out to her, she talks a lot which often brings unwarranted attention on her, and so far she is struggling to cope.
In a way it's a programme for adults, challenging themto reflect on how they treat children, though there is nothing so far that might be termed 'adult content'. There are dark flashbacks to times when she was mistreated, and some risqué conversations about sex among the students, a fact which lands Anne in more trouble.
The cinematography and music are excellent (check out the marvellous opening credits), and all in all so far it's a fine work of art.
The State (Channel 4), which finished on Wednesday of last week was sad, disturbing, absorbing, and the recent terrorist attacks made this story of people joining ISIS all the more topical and unnerving. The four young central characters abandoned their old lives, leaving England for Syria in the dead of night. The question of motivation wasn’t explored enough, nor was the issue of how they were radicalised. Even more so, the motivations of the Westerners who joined were vague, but there was a dig at the converts knowing the rules better than the average Muslim! Their motives seemed largely religious, but they were marked by a striking naiveté – one young woman wanted to be a “lioness among the lions”. Another woman, a doctor, brought her nine-year-old son, and thought she’d be able to do some good for the cause by tending to the wounded. Considering the attitude of ISIS towards women they were in for a shock. One young man was following his brother, allegedly a martyr for the cause, but he was misinformed and hadn’t the stomach for the brutality.
And iIt was all there – the beheadings, the slavery, the child soldiers, but it was less graphic than it might have been, though they could hardly have done the drama properly without showing some of the horrors. Thankfully the camera turned away at some of the most violent moments. In fact at various stages I felt that ISIS was being a little sanitised. The severe and sometimes graphic violence makes it highly questionable for school use.
Yet in all this madness of violence and propaganda there were crises of conscience and acts of kindness. One of the new English recruits bought two Christian or Yazidi slaves to protect them. He also tended to the wounds of a local chemist whose torture he had just attended, passively.
It’s impossible for me to know for sure, but it all seemed authentic. Every now and then Islamic terms were explained in dictionary-like subtitles. There were arguments among the Muslims as to whether their principles allowed the barbarity. There was a key scene where the father of one of the Englishmen tracked him down and berated him for the dishonour he had brought on his family, accusing him of being selective as to which bits of Islamic teaching he’d follow, and also for turning his back on the country (England) that had taken his family in, in their time of need.
A few of the ISIS fighters seemed cruel by nature, others seemed very ordinary, even pleasant, enjoying the cheerful camaraderie even as they partook in the butchery because they thought their cause justified it. It showed how it’s so much more important to be right rather than be sincere and think you’re right.
The film The Lady in the Van
turned up on BBC 2 last Saturday - my expectations were low but I really enjoyed it. And I was pleasantly surprised by the faith content, which I wasn't expecting. The film tells the story of Miss Shepherd, a homeless lady who parks her van in the driveway of writer Alan Bennett and stays for years. It's a warm human story about unusual relationships. Bennett claims he put up with her out of laziness but I suspect he is just being modest. I also liked the way the story is populated by quirky secondary characters, most of whom are kind to the lady, apart from the ex-policeman who blackmails her periodically. He manipulates the burden of guilt that she carries - relating to a traffic accident from the past. This guilt haunts her and she seems to be a regular at Confession over the matter, though in a new Confession scene for my collection the priest assures her that absolution doesn't expire! She had spent some time in a convent and the nuns don't come out of that too well, reinforcing some negative stereotypes, but I don't think the film is bashing religion. Bennett's homosexuality is obvious and portrayed sympathetically but treated subtly. And I loved the way he has two personas, both well played by Alex Jennings, so that we get an insight into his inner debates and conflicts. As usual Maggie Smith in the title role makes excellent acting look effortless.
Last night I got to hear theologian Christopher West speaking about St Pope John Paul's Theology of the Body in Clarendon St Church in Dublin, and I was glad to see plenty of arts content. West used plenty of illustrations from modern culture, especially the songs of Bruce Springsteen and scenes from The Shawshank Redemption. His talk featured some very positive and challenging content, which I couldn't hope to do justice to here, but basically it was about promoting Catholic teaching on sexuality in a positive joyful way, and we could sure do with plenty of that. The American preacher style was relatively muted but still a bit too strong for my liking! But the content was really good. A bonus was his friend singer-songwriter Mike Mangione who sang some interesting songs throughout the presentation. Most unusual of all, both of them took to Grafton St afterwards for a busking session (see pic above, West on right), where U2 songs were prominent. It was the icing on the cake in more senses than one as Mangione was presented with a birthday cake! For more on West and the Theology of the Body check out West's website, and Facebook page. For Mike Mangione, his website is here, and his Facebook page here.
Well, I'm glad to report that Broken (BBC 1) was back on form last night with a deeply moving sixth episode to bring the series to an end. I suspect the return to top quality was due to the fact that, like the first two episodes, Jimmy McGovern, the show's creator, was the sole scriptwriter. Many of the storylines were brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and perhaps the ending was a tad sentimental, but I'm not complaining! What struck me most about this episode was the way the theme of forgiveness was woven through the story. Fr Michael (Sean Bean) was described by Fr Peter (Adrian Dunbar) as a man who forgave others quickly but was slow to forgive himself. Past guilt plagues him particularly at the consecration . He feels he's an imposter and hypocrite at this high point of the priesthood .. but is being too hard on himself. His crisis gets worse in this episode and his personal journey is painful but deeply human. Other strands from the series get some sort of closure, especially his touching relationship with his mother, though it wasn't always that good. There's an incredibly tense inquest sequence which works really well and is totally absorbing. The gambling issue is somewhat resolved, with a stirring sermon against such evils, but the consequent breaking up of slot machines was rather melodramatic. I felt for the sympathetically portrayed betting shop worker who had to sit through that sermon.
Actually, on of the many great points of the series has been how those who would, in more clichéd dramas, be portrayed as nasty villains, were humanised to varying degrees. Even the betting shop owner is in forgiving mood at one stage after his machines are broken, like so many hearts in the story. I've seen some critics giving out about the misery in the show, and there is certainly social deprivation and personal disaster, but it's thoroughly human and sympathetic to, and understanding of people, especially those who are broken in so many ways. Though sad at so many times I found it ultimately positive and uplifting.
Religion fares better than in most other mainstream shows. It's an affirmation of the priesthood, of prayer, of sacrament and of service. I don't think I've ever seen so many prayer and Confession scenes in TV drama. Yes I'd have issues on the general absolution issue and on attitudes to Church teaching in the middle episodes. It's an adult show and teachers looking for scenes to use in RE class with have to choose carefully!
Finally I must say something about the haunting and most appropriate music - the show opens with Randy Newman's 'I Think It's Going to Rain Today' sung soulfully by Nina Simone - the key words are "human kindness is overflowing". At the end there's Ray Davies song 'Broken' - "We might be bruised but we're not broken"
- see video above.
29/6/17 Last Tuesday night I saw the fifth episode of BBC's drama Broken, and my disappointment after initial enthusiasm continues. The suicide related story continued briefly but the focus this time was on homosexuality. To me it felt like it was dragged in to tick some diversity box as a new character was created for the occasion, a sort of gay deus ex machina. Carl McKenna (played by Irish actor Ned Dennehy) was a neighbour of Helen, whose son Vernon was treated unjustly by the police in an earlier episode. Though the area figured large in earlier episodes there was no sign of neighbour Carl until now. Cue the arrival of Helen's brother Daniel who is so homophobic that he won't even shake hands with Carl. Wouldn't you know it the one person who objects most to homosexuality is offputting, unkind, holier-than-thou - in one bizarre scene he goes to Confession to Fr Michael (Sean Bean) to convince the priest that he hasn't sinned! The specific incident was when Daniel punched Carl because Carl used the 'n' word after Daniel hadn't made his children apologise for using the 'q' word. Carl is no saint either, and eventually Helen gets annoyed with both stubborn men. This takes place during a meeting facilitated by Fr Michael to ease the tension - a rather awkward sequence where various perspectives on homosexuality are spoken by the characters - more dcumentary and even ideology driving than drama. The usual myth is perpetrated that the Church teaches it's a sin to be gay. Fr Michael largely toes the Catholic line in public though his main approach is to practice kindness and tolerance and also seek reconciliation.
I think the programme makers could have left it that, opting for subtlety
and prompting viewers of all shades to think. But for me they spoiled it all with a heavy hand by have Fr Michael going on a foul mouthed rant against Church teaching on sexuality, in private with his mentor Fr Peter, who doesn't even disagree or challenge him. In case we didn't get the point Fr Michael says all priests he knows feel the same. It felt like a case of cynically using the character to push an agenda rather than letting the character breathe.
Another thing worth mentioning is how much this series is about mothers. Fr Michael has had a troubled relationship with his mother in the past but now in some of the drama's most touching moments he looks after her now that she is very ill, praying and singing with her on his weekly overnight visits. In the first two episodes we had single mother Christina (Anna Friel) and issues with her own mother. The suicidal gambler was also a mother, to teenagers, and this made her intentions all the more painful. Helen suffers much frustration as she looks after her son Vernon who has serious mental health issues. Carl, who is in his 40's, has always lived with his mother and is grieving after her recent death. The betting shop owner wanted to become a mother but couldn't and was upset about that. Easy to see why the show is called 'Broken'.
Well, my initial enthusiasm for Broken (Tues nights BBC 1), is wearing off some more after this week's fourth episode. It's still absorbing, and, largely unique amongst modern drama series, takes religion seriously. But Tuesday night's episode, focusing on the suicidal gambler who came to Fr Michael in an earlier episode, was disturbing to say the least. The woman in question is in some respects a victim (of addiction), and Fr Michael wants to campaign against the proliferation of betting shops in a poor area, but much of the time she is quite unsympathetic, in her dealings with her family, the workplace she has stolen from and with Fr Michael who is doing his best to keep her alive, offering practical advice as well as assurance of God's love. Her chief sin seems to be that of pride - she is not really sorry for the wrong she has done, and doesn't want to live with the shame of people knowing what she has done. There were so many twists and turns in this episode that had me going through a gamut of intense emotions. I'm not sure how pleased suicide prevention services would be with the way this was treated. That being said, the emotions rang true and the acting, especially by Sean Bean as Fr Michael and Paula Malcolmson as the woman in question was outstanding. Catholics will also be bothered by the way the seal of confession is treated, and by the unecessarily crude suggestion made by the woman to the priest. There wasn't much in this episode that would be useful for school/RE classes, and considering the theme, quite the opposite.
16/6/17 Have just caught up with the third episode of Broken, shown last Tuesday on BBC 1. While still very good and emotionally credible I found it the weakest episode so far. It focused on a police cover up after the events of Episode 2, and went all 'Line of Duty', with many of the stereotypes of the genre, e.g. conniving police authorities. The main emphasis was on a young policeman who is pressurised to conform to the official account of what happened. His crisis of conscience is dramatically portrayed, and Fr Michael plays a central role in advising him. This policeman prays with his young child, has the support of his mother, but fears he hasn't the courage to tell the truth. Fr Michael also feels compromised as he failed to take a call on the night of the incident, because he was tired and didn't grasp the urgency of the situation.
His flashbacks continue and it becomes clearer that he was
a victim of clerical child abuse and cover up - there's an intense scene when he confronts an the now aging ex-priest who abused him - this guy is pathetic but also arrogant and unrepentant. We've had so many portrayals of clerical child abuse, and it does feed in to an unjust stereotyping of priests, but this treatment is marked by a sense of the importance and credibility of genuine religious practice, as seen in Fr Michael and many of his parishioners.
There's also an early scene where Fr Michael, normally subtle in his approach does a bit of a rant on the Church's attitude to women and the need, as he sees it, for women priests, bishops and popes! Somehow it didn't ring as true as the rest of the show and felt like a big glob of somebody else's agenda landed in Fr Michael's mouth ... the art suffering at the hands of the ideology.
15/6/17 I must again admire (see below) the new drama series Broken (BBC 1, Tuesday nights), with Seán Bean excellent as city priest Fr Michael. Last week’s second episode featured a beautiful and extended First Communion sequence, useful for classes on the sacraments in general or Eucharist in particular - we see a poetic scene where people converge on the church, mostly walking (no limos!). The church scene is done respectfully, and there's a touching moment of gratitude for the organising teacher who had come across as rather fussy in the first episode. One of the distinguishing features of the show so far is the way it humanises thoses who might be cast as minor villains in more standard drama fare. There are also some emotionally intense Confession scenes with Fr Michael and a suicidal gambler - probably too intense for young viewers. It takes place in a cordoned off confession area rather than the traditional box, but there's still a kind of grille for privacy.
The priest’s troubled past keeps resurfacing in disturbing flashbacks and this latest episode hinted at his mother having had a backstreet abortion (though I suppose it could be a difficult birth). It will be interesting to see how this plot strand develops. Everything rings emotionally true, though the incident with a knife-wielding young man who has mental health issues might have been a tad melodramatic, but no less heart-breaking. It makes important points about social care without being heavy handed.
It puts to shame that other priest-centred drama Redwater (RTÉ Sunday nights). A few weeks ago (see below) I wrote positively about the first episode, but since then it has taken a severe nose dive into amateur dramatics. Increasingly the dialogue is dire, the acting stilted and the plot convoluted as it moves around at snail’s pace. Last Sunday night’s Baptism scene with Fr Dermott was downright creepy, and the increasingly awkward and passionate gay couple’s country jaunt in a Nissan Micra to collect a Baptism cake was laughable, reminding me of Basil Fawlty’s expedition to collect a duck dish for his gourmet night. I'll probably stick with it to the bitter end to see what happens, but I've rarely been so bored and annoyed at a TV drama.
It's been a great time for good spiritual concerts. I got to see US Catholic singer-songwriter Matt Maher in concert last Saturday night in St Paul's, Arran Quay in Dublin. It was just himself and guitar and keyboard but he held the lively crowd with his songs and conversation. He was insightful on both fronts. Material varied from praise and worship songs to more reflective pieces. Highlights included his anthems 'Lord I Need You' and 'Your Grace Is Enough' - the packed crowd joined in prayerfully. I was particularly taken with 'Come As You Are', a song he wrote with David Crowder, with a catchy melody and simple but important lyrics - 'Come out of sadness/From wherever you've been/Come broken hearted/Let rescue begin/Come find your mercy/Oh sinner come kneel/Earth has no sorrow/That heaven can't heal'. Check out the many performances of this song on YouTube.
8/6/17 Last week saw the start of the much anticipated drama series Broken (BBC One, Tuesday nights). It was postponed by a week out of sensitivity over the Manchester bombing, though I’m not quite sure as to why.
Sean Bean stars as Father Michael Kerrigan, an inner city priest struggling with his own demons and the problems of his varied parishioners, and I think it’s one of the best things Bean has ever done. He manages a quiet but strong empathy, portraying Fr Michael as a gentle soul, confident in his work but bothered in private by flashbacks from what seems a difficult childhood.
The show, written by Jimmy McGovern (Brookside, Cracker) is reminiscent of the work of director Ken Loach, sharing some of his concerns about poverty, social welfare, bureaucracy and more. I was reminded of Kes (the hawk in the flashbacks) and Raining Stones (parents splashing out more than they can afford for first communion outfits), and there were similarities to a US show from the mid 90’s Nothing Sacred, which also featured a priest in a socially deprived parish.
I was most impressed by the touching prayer scenes, and any of these would suit class work on the theme of prayer. In one, after saying he wasn’t Our Lady’s greatest fan, which a bit jarring, he turned it around by saying a heartfelt Hail Mary with a woman who has just found out she can’t have children, while in another he prays the Our Father with a woman, Christina, whose mother has died. Christina is the other main character so far, a vulnerable single mother not coping very well with the demands of family life. She is so well played by Anna Friel, a versatile actress who can do everything from whimsy (Pushing Daisies) to psychosis (Marcella). Adrian Dunbar (Line of Duty) appears as Father Peter, but his role is as yet undefined - in his only scene the role seems to be that of counsellor, for now.
On the whole it’s an adult drama, with a modest amount of bad language and some dirty jokes at a comedy club but overall it has huge heart and sensitivity. The cinematography and music are excellent, though the flashback scenes feature a poetry-quoting priest who cruelly slaps the young Michael because he reckons he got help writing a poem for class. It’s not all nasty church imagery though, and the young Michael seems imbued with a sense of wonder in the church, and inspired by the poetry of Hopkins. In an early scene, Fr Michael seems dismissive of the idea that first confession children would have any sins at that age and is strong on the idea of general absolution for all at the ceremony, but apart from that he is neither trendy liberal or cranky conservative.
I really enjoyed the documentary 50 Years With Peter, Paul and Mary (Sky Arts, last Sunday night). I remember once a student thinking these three were Biblical characters (I suppose they are in a way!) instead of the influential US folk group. Their repertoire often included traditional gospel songs and in this retrospective we heard them singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” among others. They also sang contemporary religious songs, mainly thanks to Paul (Noel Paul Stookey) who has a few Gospel albums to his credit (he wrote 'Wedding Song' ("He is now to be among you ...."). Towards the end of this show, after seeing moving footage from Mary Travers’ memorial service, we learned that now, along with his wife, Paul presents multi denominational music and faith oriented events, while Peter Yarrow continues to perform with his daughter. There was much emphasis on their social activism - we saw them singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” at Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and involved in campaigns against the Vietnam War and US interference in El Salvador. The show is currently on the Sky Arts catchup service.
BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Worship programme last weekend focussed on the Big Church Day Out, a contemporary multi-denominational Christian festival in the UK. Among those featured was US Catholic singer-songwriter Matt Maher (performing at St Paul’s in Dublin this Saturday). He had provided music for that morning’s Mass of Pentecost and made some sensible points – e.g. suggesting that as Christians we fussed too much about the small stuff. Also, he found that as a society we were not good at getting on with people we disagreed with, and thought that Christians coming together and loving each other despite differences showed good example that was badly needed. The awful London attack that dominated the media from last Saturday night was unwelcome evidence of that.
Damilola, Our Loved Boy (BBC One, last Sunday night) told the tragic story of Nigerian schoolboy Damilola Taylor, stabbed to death in London in 2000, and the efforts of his parents to come to terms with his loss and seek justice. I was glad it avoided sentimentality and didn’t gloss over the family conflicts caused by the death. Guilt, blame, regret and anger provided for a totally credible emotional landscape. The murder was heart-breaking, but the emotional fallout in the family was also painful, and communication deteriorated, often to the point of stony silence.
The mother, Gloria, was played by Wunmi Mosaku, who deservedly won this year's BAFTA Best Supporting Actress award for the role, and was adept conveying the spectrum of emotions from joy to shock. She was the rock of sense and strength in the family and the one most committed to her Christian faith. She was the focus of the many impressive prayer scenes – especially praying for the strength to cope. These would be most useful in classes on prayer. In one scene, before the court case, she stresses to her other son – ‘God did not give us a spirit of fear’. The husband, Charles Taylor, played by Babou Ceesay in an equally impressive performance, is loving but authoritarian, inclined to blame and subject to dark moods. He finds some relief in helping troubled juveniles, but as he genuinely stresses the need for father figures, discipline and respect he seems often oblivious to the needs of his own family. Eventually, in a particularly poignant scene, Gloria has to confront him with some home truths. I wonder what the real Charles Taylor thinks of the portrayal.
I was delighted to get to last Friday night's concert with Audrey Assad at the Button Factory - one of my favourite gigs of the year so far. Her music is quite serious so I was pleasantly surprised that her banter between songs was so funny, in a subtle, understated, self-deprecating kind of way. There was just herself and keyboard, but that was plenty - the quality of her voice and songs stood out strongly, no need for embellishment. I loved the balance - the first half of the show featured individual songs, mostly spiritual but she also sang a fine version of Bonnie Raitt's 'I Can't Make You Love Me'. The second half was more of a worship experience, with lyrics on screen and an impressive amount of audience participation. She sang old songs and new - I was particularly impressed by her versions of 'Lead Kindly Light' and Psalm 23, and the concluding song , Matt Maher's 'Lord I need You', was particularly well placed.
RTE launched a new TV drama series, Redwater, last Sunday night. It was a bit of a hybrid – an RTE/BBC co-production that featured characters (Kat and Alfie, pictured) from BBC soap Eastenders. For the most part I liked it – the acting was mostly confident and relaxed the script was witty, and the profanities relatively infrequent. The Waterford seaside setting (Dunmore East location) was used to good effect and some of the cinematography was downright poetic. The plot, and especially the relationships, were hard to follow at times and I had to pause the credits to get a handle on how the main characters were connected. Oisín Stack was interesting and as local priest Fr Dermot, sympathetically portrayed, at least until the rather melodramatic ending, which included a rather tasteless scene involving the Eucharist. Stack was interviewed on the Ryan Tubridy Show (RTE Radio 1) last Monday morning, when he said they researched the look of modern young priests to guide them for his portrayal.
[added 25/5/17: I must admit I was disappointed with the second episode of Redwater. Maybe the novelty is wearing off, but the acting seems stiff and stilted, and plot development has slowed down considerably. Fr Dermot is still the main focus of religious interest but he's going off the rails big time. How often have we seen in drama that the religious person is the disturbed one. I did however get a bizarre new clip for my collection of Confession scenes - where Fr Dermot confesses to him himself!]
Meanwhile, US disease drama Containment (RTE 2 Saturday nights) has a religion problem as well. The virus that has a chunk of Atlanta under quarantine may be highly contagious but I doubt if enthusiasm for the show will catch so quickly. As is often the case, the initial premise had the makings of tense drama, but too much of it has sagged under the weight of soapy plot developments and clichéd platitudes. In last Saturday’s episode some characters went to what seemed a Protestant Evangelical church complete with healing preacher . One described the place as creepy and blamed the nuns (!) for being ‘sadistic’, sending them there for Bible study when they were young. Looks like they’ve also got the prejudice infection. Really, I think it's a problem of religious literacy - the idea of nuns sending schoolchildren to a bible-belt style church. Either that or it's just plain nasty.
I’ve also been following Designated Survivor on Netflix and after a promising start, dramatically speaking (US President and Congress blown up in a terrorist attack), it has dwindled substantially into a humdrum political drama. It feels more and more like a vanity project for Kiefer Sutherland, who, as the new inexperienced President, takes off his glasses for significant moments more than is artistically healthy, and while he’s independent of party affiliation the Democrats come out best, wouldn’t you know. Natacha McElhone is shamefully wasted as his wife and in fact she didn’t appear at all in a few recent episodes. It’s often uncannily topical, as in an episode that was partly about difficulties in appointing Supreme Court judges. I dozed during a recent episode when one of the main plot lines was controversy over an arts grant! They also fitted in a political demagogue addressing an alt.right rally, and the President attending a children’s choir recital where at least they sang a Gospel song! Last Thursday's new episode improved a little, and had a satisfyingly tense ending with a bomb about to go off in three minutes ... there's hope for it yet.
Clerical crime drama Grantchester is back on ITV Sunday nights and be3 on Mondays. Now in its third season, it’s creaking more than a tad. The friendship between Rev. Sidney and the copper Geordie is interesting but unlikely – would the policeman really take the Rev on all his murder cases, and really, aren’t there too many murders in such an otherwise idyllic town? Looks like Rev Sidney is a murder magnet, like Father Browne, Inspector Morse, Lewis et al
His crusty housekeeper is softening, his gay curate is gaining in maturity and common sense in the parish , (though he has taken on a girfriend and pretends to drink beer), but there must be something weird in the water. At least there was in the beer in last Sunday’s episode which featured a mass poisoning at a cricket match, some ugly racism, pertinent reflections on male-female relationships and a gratuitous sex scene.
Rev Sidney has a problem in that he is very friendly with a divorced woman he fancies, and she is living alone with her baby. The archdeacon is not amused and wants Sidney to give good example to his parishioners. So far Sidney is just about toeing the moral line, though his cop friend Geordie is having a steamy affair with a colleague, despite having a lovely wife and lovely children at home.
[added 11/5/17 - Spolier warning! Well, Sidney just crossed the line in last Sunday's episode! It's getting all a bit Mills-and -Boony now with not enough attention being given to the crime stories. It was quite funny in a way - Sidney gave a stirring sermon about grabbing happiness in the here and now, and then rushed off for an adulterous fling with the married girl he has always fancied. And earlier he confronted his gay curate for developing a romantic friendship with a local woman. Oh it'll all end in tears]
16/3/17 Broadchurch has returned for a third season (TV3 and UTV, Monday nights) and while it’s not as good as the first season, I still enjoy the prickly chemistry between Detectives Miller (Olivia Colman) and Hardy (David Tennant – it’s a great double act. The story is slow moving so far, centring on a sexual assault case. The story writers, and the fictional cops, handle the crime sensitively, but there’s lot of graphic descriptions, and a sense that we are being subtly preached at as to how such cases should be handled - preaching does not mix well with fiction.
Characters from the earlier series, including the local clergyman, are blended in quite well. In one episode there was a touching scene with the vicar agonising over his role in the parish, and in last Monday's episode misbehaving students from the local school were sent to him for graveyard cleaning work as punishment! The man who brought them had a very dismissive remark about religion. The Rev has been presented in a mostly positive light in the series, a supportive and moderate voice when emotions run very high.
What another great Emmanuel Concert last night at the Helix! It was such an uplifting experience to hear hundreds of young teens singing high quality spiritual songs with such gusto, all under the musical direction of Ian Callanan. I was thrilled to see students from my former school Arklow CBS doing so well, with several solos. It was great to experience the confidence of all the solo singers who sang so well. Some definitely have potential careers in music - the way they comfortably 'owned' the mic and the whole auditorium. It's a winning formula, though this year there were some changes, and they worked well - gone were the slides and instead a few prayer moments led by Callanan and Diocesan Advisor Anna Maloney, who impressed with her striking singing voice. Talk about hidden talent! I was also glad to see music teachers singing on stage or on the balcony with their students. I thought this year's songs were generally more mellow than before, but there were upbeat songs as well - a standout was Callanan's arrangement of 'Wade in the Water'. There were songs for the varying liturgical seasons, but it was strange to be be singing Christmas songs in March - even if it was Liam lawton's beautiful 'Nowell, Nowell'. The audience got a chance to join in on 'Marvellous Things', while the atmosphere was electric when the waving phone lights came out for Matt Maher's 'Abide With Me'. And, as always, the choir from the Holy Family School for the Deaf was impressive. I'm looking forward to listening to the CD.
In the past few weeks I’ve been following the English crime thriller series Unforgotten on ITV. This is series two and the high artistic standards set in series one are thankfully maintained…though really it’s the same plot with different characters – a body is found that has been hidden for years, and gradually the police work out what happened. Several people who have moved on with their lives now find themselves with the truth closing in and their new lives unravelling. Nicola Walker is again superb as Detective Cassie Stuart, incisive, perceptive and sympathetic, while Sanjeev Bhaskar is impressive as her colleague Sunil Khan.
As seems obligatory these days, the cops have their own personal baggage but it never gets in the way of the main story (a lesson for the makers of Sherlock?). The actors who play the chief suspects are impressive also – the only one who appears to be thoroughly nasty is the victim, and you alternatively feel sympathy and revulsion for the suspects as they struggle, often dishonestly, to confront the past. Their respective spouses, largely in the dark, have their own challenges coping with the dramatic revelations.
There is some bad language, child abuse figures more strongly as the story progresses, and a gay couple trying to adopt a child is a significant plot element. Religion figures very little. On lady with dark secrets in her past is now part of a Muslim community and at one stage we learn that parties where child exploitation took place were supposed to be Bible study sessions to put parents at ease! Oh well.
Last Monday I headed for the National Concert Hall for the second monday in a row to hear the Original Elvis TCB Band and gospel group The Imperials (who sang with Elvis). I was interested in hearing the gospel music, but also three session musicians who had played with Elvis and whose names I'd been seeing on album sleeves for years (incl on many early Emmylou Harris albums) - James Burton on guitar, Glen D. Hardin on piano and Ronnie Tutt on drums. I wasn't disappointed - it was a marvelously uplifting concert. Dennis Jale filled in for Elvis and thankfully, as well as performing the Elvis songs really well, he was his own man, not trying to be a tacky Elvis impersonator. There were plenty of rock 'n roll songs but gospel music was very much to the fore and many of Elvis' gospel favourites were revisited - 'This Train', 'How Great Thou Art', 'Where Could I Go', 'He touched Me' and many more. One of the highlights was American Trilogy, witten by Mickey Newbury, a medley which included 'All My Trials'.
Last Monday I attended one of my favourite concerts ever! It was at the National Concert Hall and featured Olivia Newton-John, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Amy Sky, touring their Liv On album. Able support was provided by Ruth Trimble from Belfast. The vocals, both solo and in harmony were excellent and the musical backing largely acoustic but just right to complement the songs. A few of the songs had spiritual themes, for example Newton-John's song 'Grace and Gratitude', and the Christmas themed 'There's Still My Joy' co-written by Chapman. Ruth Trimble's touching 'Pray For You' comes from her new album Before the Rain. There were sad moments as bereavement was one of the themes on the night, but altogether the warmth of the performers made it uplifting.
20/01/17 The new channel 'be3' started a re-run of Ballykissangel last Sunday night, and I really enjoyed it all over again. It was whimsical and thoughtful, with some colourful characters, all the better because it wasn’t trying too hard to be a comedy. The first series is definitely the best, written as it was by creator Kieran Prendiville. My memory is of later series losing the deft touch of these early episodes. And so, in last Sunday’s opening episode we had the arrival of the hi-tech Confession box, complete with fax machine - and it literally fell off the back of a lorry! The Confession scenes were very funny, though the moral advice given by the young priest was decidedly dodgy, so I'd be wary of using that in class. There was a touching scene where the new priest, Fr Peter, heads out on a night call to attend to a dying man. From later episodes I've used scenes where the local garda feels he has a vocation because a falling statue narrowly missed him (very funny and useful for classes on vocation), and another where Fr Peter tries to protect a family from eviction by a local businessman. Of added interest is the fact that I live near Avoca where the series was filmed and occasionally I spot some past pupils turning up as extras!
I really enjoyed the film Love and Friendship which I rented online a few nights ago. It is based on a lesser known Jane Austen novel, Lady Susan, and was filmed in Ireland. Lady Susan herself, well played by Kate Beckinsdale, is a thoroughly unlikeable character - manipulative, cynical and not very loving towards her daughter, but the joy of the film is its wit and irony, and its barbed social commentary. Religion figured here and there ... there's some funny confusion over the fourth commandment, the obligations of which commandment are teased out several times. There's a young clergyman who is quite enthusiastic but not very intuitive - Lady Susan's daughter comes to him for advice, but gets a learned sermon instead. Mind you he's not as silly as Rev Mr Collins in Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I'd love to see it soon again as there's quite an array of characters and sub plots, mostly based around relationships, so on a second viewing things might make more sense, especially in the opening scenes.
15/12/16 Review of Silence
I was lucky enough to get to the Irish premier of Martin Scorcese's new film Silence a few nights ago. It was quite a challenging experience and I'm still conflicted about it. In writing about it I must be constrained as I must do my best to avoid spoilers.
It's great to see such a highly regarded Hollywood director taking such a deep and serious interest in religion. I doubt it will be a huge commercial success, so I reckon it must be a labour of love. It seems Scorcese has been dedicated to the project for quite some time. Based on the novel by Shûsaku Endô the film tells the story of Jesuit missionaries to Japan in the 17th Century, when many were martyred and some renounced their faith.
There was much to be admired about the film – the cinematography was superb, right from the misty and moody beginning which portrayed a gruesome martyrdom, with the lush greenery and hilly landscapes of Taiwan standing in for Japan. The acting was excellent, especially from Liam Neeson as a Jesuit who has allegedly gone native and Andrew Garfield as a young priest on a mission to find him. Though nearly 3 hours long I found it absorbing throughout, whether in the action scenes (quite violent) or in the more talky scenes where varying approaches to life, religion, culture and universal truths are teased out. Some characters display an intensity of faith and willingness for self-sacrifice that will leave many in a modern audience scratching their heads, mystified. There are deep conflicts between courage, compromise and cowardice – to say these conflicts are thought provoking is putting it mildly. Much of the action is filtered through the Garfield character, whose faith is sorely put to the test.
Trying to discern the overall point of view of the film isn't easy, and maybe it's deliberately so. I didn't find the overall impact uplifting though it was certainly inspiring at times and challenging throughout. The attitude to religion I found ambiguous, and I suspect that Christians, Buddhists and non-believers alike will all find something to lift them and something to cast them down. The ambiguity was there right to the end. What's not ambiguous is the reality of human weakness, especially in the face of tortuous dilemmas. In some respects it seems to show martyrdom in a poor light, and yet one could also find admiration for the courage of martyrs. There was little ambiguity in the matter of religious intolerance – the suffering inflicted on the local Catholics and the visiting priests came across as a thorough indictment, with plenty of resonance for modern times. I felt that the motivation of the local political figures in seeking to crush Christianity could have been clearer.
There are negatives. I though the inclusion of the 'voice of God' in a few instances was rather random and presumptuous, even if it was possibly in the mind of one of priests. The cruelty portrayed was intense throughout, and some will find it overly graphic. For the most part the best lines and prominence are given to priests who renounce their faith while those who don't are under-developed as characters. No doubt the director found their struggles the most interesting and complex. It is worth noting that those who renounce their Catholic faith seem spiritless after that but were passionate and energetic before it.
At times I thought this was a truly unique film, and in many ways it is. But then I was frequently reminded of other films – The Passion of the Christ (extreme violence in an artistic religious film), A Man For All Seasons (martyrdom, conscience v state), Apocalypse Now (seeking a prominent figure who has gone rogue), The Mission (historical, cultural differences, epic sweep). There were plenty of Biblical parallels, especially linking the sufferings of the priests to the Passion of Christ. For example, in a Palm Sunday moment, though reversed somewhat, the Garfield character (who looks like traditional images of Christ at this stage) arrives into a town on horseback (or was it a donkey?) a prisoner reviled by the people. There are resonances of Gethsemane and several crucifixion motifs. At one point the Garfield character is accused of arrogance for relating his sufferings to those of Christ.
As regards educational use I'd be doubtful. Apart from the length of it, the vicious cruelty, torture and graphic killings are a big problem for school use. As regards faith I suspect young people might just find it weird, and it could as easily shake their faith as nourish it. At the very least it's a film for those of mature and firm faith. Plenty of background information and context would be needed beforehand and a lot of guided discussion afterwards. That being said individual clips might be useful – for example there's a striking scene of Eucharist and quite a few Confession scenes, including several featuring a Japanese man who confesses the same sin of apostasy several times, is always sincere and always sins again – to the point of these scenes acting as comic relief.
My reactions to the film are still in a state of flux, so I may revisit!
9/12/16 As regular readers know I like collecting Confession scenes, always useful in teaching about the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I got an impressive one last week in an episode of Humans, a futuristic drama series on Channel 4, now in its second series. The story is about robots, or synthetic people ('synths') that develop consciousness. There is some questionable adult content, but also a thought provoking take on the future, humanity, human consciousness and how we treat those who are different. In last week's episode a newly conscious synth is searching for meaning, and goes into a church. His Confession scene is funny, touching and respecful. He says that service to others satisfies him, which the priest encourages, but his fist post-confession attempt at helping an old man with his shopping doesn't go too well. It wasn't the first time the show turned its attention to religion - in the first series one of the kindest and most morally aware of the conscious synths actually said a prayer.
Needless to say there are shadowy government departments getting involved as well as dubious corporate entities. There may be no certifiably mad scientests but the question is certainly raised about how far one can wisely take artificial intelligence. There's also the issue of robots replacing humans in the workforce - in one episode it seems like a man was made redundant by a an artificial intelligence. In another there's a town that is, by choice, synth-free.
Relationships between humans and synths are tricky, and even include some of the joys and heartbreaks of human to human relationships.
Modern identity issues are referenced by a new phenomenon to the second series - humans, especially children, identifying as synths - speaking robotically and affecting glazed eyes. Also new is the creation of synthetic children with none of the down sides of real children! Last week's episode started with a disturbing TV ad for this 'product'.
Brave new world or what!
The Missing (BBC One Wednesday nights) is the second season of this mystery series about people going missing in the most criminal of ways. The plot is complex and there’s lots of time shifting between the time of a missing girl’s return and later investigations. You couldn’t afford to miss any of it - hard enough to keep up when you are fully focused. The best thing about it is the fine acting, the emotional intensity and the very human characters. Tchéky Karyo is superb as Baptiste, the French detective investigating the disappearances of young girls. It’s an international affair as the action takes place in France, Germany, Switzerland and even Iraq where Baptiste even comes under fire from ISIS fighters. All in all it’s the humanity of the characters that impresses – Baptiste is conscientious, troubled, ill, and passionately committed to finding the truth, way above and beyond the call of duty. Keely Hawes delivers an award-potential performance as Gemma, the mother of the missing girl, traumatised by her daughter going missing and her husband’s adultery. There’s some ‘adult content’, especially in the first episode – I suspect such scenes get into first episodes to get a higher rating or to ensure broadcast after the watershed. An abortion was discouraged in last week’s episode yet predictably, the pro-choice perspective was driven home as well, as it was in this week's episode. Surrogacy has surfaced as a minor theme, but as dark secrets are revealed, sometimes to devastating effect, things can go from major to minor in a hurry. This week's episode was the second last and ended with a startling revelation, but I try to keep this a spoiler free zone!
Meanwhile, a more gentle drama, My Mother and Other Strangers, continues on RTE 1 Tuesday nights and BBC One Sunday nights. The setting is Northern Ireland during World War II when the arrival of US soldiers to a rural air base causes predictable conflicts with the locals. In the first episode a young airman is physically warned off dating a young local girl, Emma Coyne, while in the latest episode there’s a slowly growing chemistry between an older army officer and Emma’s mother, a local married teacher, Rose – a strong performance from Hattie Morahan, better known as the neurotic Jane in the comedy series Outnumbered. So far it’s all very principled, touching and innocent but if the cliché route is taken the outcome is predictable. The events are narrated from the adult perspective of her son Francis, a young boy at the time of the war and it’s all very human and credible, though being set in Northern Ireland it’s unusual that the sectarian divide doesn’t figure, at least not in the first two episodes. Religion or church going hasn’t featured much, which is hardly a fair representation of the place and time, whichever community is involved. In this week's third episode (coming up on BBC one Sunday) there is a short funeral scene, followed soon by a Confession box scene (another one for my collection!), so we finally find out that the Coynes are from the Catholic community. Rose's husband Michael (Owen McDonnell) goes to Confession and is sincere. The priest (Michael Colgan) does his job but is rather worldly and unappealing, wangling restitution of stolen goods to suit himself, and not in any 'lovable rogue' way ... not a good role model! The clip could be a teaching moment though on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
24/11/16 I’ve been following a particularly entertaining crime drama, Paranoid, on ITV Thursday nights. It’s adult drama in a good way, with a sense of morality that’s sometimes dodgy and sometimes strong but with a multi-layered plot and strong belief in humanity and intriguing characters. Lesley Sharpe is wonderful as Lucy, a Quaker women with an appealing calmness in the midst of dark events related to dubious drug trials. In fact excessive pill popping is a strong motif throughout. A chemical company has a giant see-though statue of Jesus full of pills in the lobby – troubled cop Bobby (Robert Glenister) takes offence and smashes it in one visually dramatic scene. Indira Varma is the annoying-appealing detective Nina who makes questionable relationship choices but is thrilled at an unexpected pregnancy. Alec, (Dino Fetscher), her colleague, has to be one of the nicest, most obliging and unflappable cops in TV crime drama, with quirky German detective Linda (Christiane Paul) coming in a close second. Though only on ITV for now, it will probably come to UTV Ireland before too long. More info at IMDB.
18/11/16 I was saddened last week to hear about the death of Leonard Cohen, wrote about it in the email newsletter but should have put something here sooner! I enjoyed much of Cohen's work especially those songs that used religious imagery or touched on spiritual themes. Favourites include 'Joan of Arc' and 'Song of Bernadette', both collaborations with the wonderful Jennifer Warnes. There are so many excellent versions of 'If It Be Your Will', and 'Come Healing' is a fine reflection on mercy. 'Going Home' is a particularly apt reflection on death...now he really has gone 'behind the curtain'. It seemed to me that Cohen was in some ways haunted by the idea of God, that he was playing a kind of hide and seek with God. I hope they have now found each other. The refrain on one of his last songs, 'You Wan't It Darker' was 'I'm ready Lord'. I was glad I saw him live at the 02 in Dublin in Sept 2013 ... a marvellous concert. I've used some of his songs in class when exploring the topic of faith and the arts, though I'd be cautious with use in the RE classroom - not everything he wrote seemed to be consistent with Christianity and there's plenty of 'adult content' in his romantic songs.
27/10/16 I enjoyed the eclectic collection of contemporary God-related songs on last Friday’s Spirit Level on RTÉ Radio 1. This series, presented by John McKenna, was originally broadcast in 2002 so the focus was on late 20th Century material. Some seemed dated, like the Byrds' repetitious Jesus Is Just Alright, and George Harrison’s Hindu related My Sweet Lord. As McKenna suggested, Johnny Cash gave new life to U2’s One and most appealing to me was the Roches’ Each of Us Has a Name, a gentle song based on a Hebrew prayer. Chuck Brodsky’s Our Gods was a hard-hitting broadside against the way we often manipulate God and religion – “we serve our gods in such humourless ways…how often do we say I love you?”Challenging!
6/10/16 I was very saddened to hear of the death (Sept 10th) of religious artist Elizabeth Wang. She was very generous in allowing use of her work for educational use and I've used her works many time on Faitharts. You can read about here on the Radiant Light homepage.Hopefully her artwork will continue to be available.
It was great to meet yet another group of enthusiastic RE teachers yesterday at the Killaloe Diocese cluster day. My own presentation was about using films in RE and I've created a Blendspace lesson that includes some of the clips I used and others. I'm including it here below. Great also to meet teachers and friends at the RE congress in Maynooth last Saturday ... Blendspace also featured in my IT workshop. Well worth signing up for a free Blendspace account and using it to gather and present resources. This online tool requires no downloading of software and is particularly useful for arts resources.
Robert Duvall is one of my favourite American actors so I was glad to see him interviewed on The World Over Live (EWTN) last Thursday afternoon. Presenter Raymond Arroyo was well informed on Duvall’s films and had some acting experience himself which helped when they discussed various acting coaches and styles. (see video above - the interview starts around the 29 min mark)
I had forgotten that Duvall had played Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, but well remembered powerful performances in The Apostle, Apocalypse Now and his 2010 film Get Low which was the main focus of the interview. Unfortunately, one of my own favourites, the low-key Great Santini didn’t get a mention.
Duvall’s philosophy on life was to travel on the journey from cradle to grave doing positive things and not stepping on too many toes. He admired the black preachers in the USA, sometimes they were like ‘surrogate fathers to their communities’, but took issue with preachers who thought one’s final destination was predetermined – judgement, he said, was on the other side of the grave.
The interview was at times a little awkward - sometimes Arroyo seemed to be trying too hard to impose a pattern of redemptiveness on the films but Duvall was reluctant to agree entirely, pointing out some of the unsavoury characters he had portrayed, like Stalin and Eichmann. But he accepted that he had played many characters forgotten by the world but with depths to their lives, secrets to be told, amends to be made.
22/9/16 A few weeks ago I reviewed the start of BBC drama One of Us (see below). After many plot twists, an unsavoury scene or two and some muddled morality, that show came to an end last week. I must admit I didn’t see the shocking denouement coming. And the most overtly religious person being so villainous smacked of the cliché and prejudice.
I stumbled on the last episode of TV3’s drama Smalltown last week. I missed earlier episodes due to its low key arrival on screen and maybe it was all the better for the hype deficit. Yes it was slow, felt stilted at times, had unnecessary profanities, but I thought that it rang true on an emotional level. That episode was tough to watch, focusing on the death of a mother. I doubt if anyone who had suffered a recent bereavement would have been able for it. Pat Shortt, as the woman’s husband, showed yet again how good he can be as a serious actor, and Barry Barnes excelled as a sympathetic priest character who was portrayed very positively. There was a touching Rosary scene at the death bed, and the priest was good with the two brooding young sons. He had no glib answers to suffering and death, was rather vague on the afterlife, but was very much there for the grieving men. I was surprised then that he didn’t figure in any funeral scene, the concentration being on aspects of the funeral that took place in the home. I liked what one of the lad’s foreign girlfriend said, finding the locals nosey – ‘they stare, but they care’. Likewise the father’s suggestion that they give the house ‘a rub’ so the gossips visiting will have one less thing to talk about.
1/9/16 Usually you have to wait for the new season to find some good new dramas, but BBC One got off to an interesting but early start Tuesday of last week with an intriguing new crime drama, One of Us.
It was all a bit confusing at first with an array of seemingly unrelated characters, but one thing was for sure – a newly married couple was murdered rather gruesomely. They were just back from honeymoon, and she was visibly pregnant. Rightly there were warnings of disturbing scenes. We could see from wedding clips that they were very much in love, but showing the bride heavily pregnant was a curious choice. When the news broke with both families, one parent naturally enough asked about ‘the child’. Another early scene was set at a church service where the clergyman explored the nature of suffering – it was in reference to the destructive weather, but had a resonance for what was to come. One young fellow at church spent more time playing with his phone than listening. Between that and his father playing Hank Williams on the way home, Sunday morning was not a happy time for him!
The families were of course devastated by news of the murder, and it seems they have some dark secrets, but the plot took a peculiar twist when the murderer had a car crash near the victims’ families and was seriously injured. Unbelievable coincidence I thought, but then we learned he had their addresses in his pocket. Cue a major moral dilemma for both families when they discover he’s the one who murdered their children, and there are varied responses to the situation, some decidedly more moral than others.
Two veteran actors add substance – our own John Lynch (recently in Dickensian)and Juliet Stevenson (who played Mother Teresa in The Letters), while the lesser parts are well filled. A good start, so I’ll be tuning in again.
4/8/16 Apart from the catechesis and general spiritual uplift World Youth Day is always marked by a creative use of the arts. Last week in Krakow was no exception. To keep track I relied mostly on EWTN and Salt and Light TV, US and Canadian stations respectively that provided live coverage of the major events. The Knights of Columbus Channel on YouTube was also excellent – it was there I caught up on a musical worship experience with Matt Maher and Audrey Assad, two of the most prominent Catholics on the contemporary Christian music scene. I'm posting here that full concert/worship experience.
RTE deserves credit for broadcasting the closing Mass last Sunday morning, with our own Michael Kelly ably taking care of commentary duties in a most gentle and unobtrusive way. Pope Francis wove a challenging homily around the Zaccheus story, while the choir and youth orchestra were amazing, both musically and visually. Towards the end of the Mass a small singing group gracefully sang an infectious WYD anthem as they sang: ‘Jesus Christ, you are my life’.
14/7/16 I love a good ghost story and BBC does it better than most.
Their latest offering is The Living and the Dead, a drama series running on BBC One on Tuesday nights. Colin Morgan is intense as a young 19th Century psychologist taking a while to realise that strange goings on in his locality have a supernatural basis. He assumes psychological origins at first when the vicar’s daughter starts acting strangely, but is open to other ideas and in the first episode performs a sort of emergency Baptism when he finds out that the person allegedly possessing the girl was never baptised. And it seems to work.
Fair enough the plot is ropey enough – young couple moves into new house, things go bump in the night, man naively reluctant to accept there’s anything spiritual going on … we’ve seen it before many times, but the creepy mood is well created and there’s a fine attention to period detail, with some striking cinematography. Like the best dramas it is character driven, and best of all you can care about the characters – flawed individuals trying to do their best in a difficult situation.
In last Tuesday’s episode the focus shifted from the possession of the vicar’s daughter to ghosts of young boys killed in a mining accident, with a loss of focus on the initial story, and I wondered if it wasn’t going to be ghost-of-the-week stuff . If so this rural area must be a hot bed of dubious spiritual activity, as, say, Midsomer attracts more than its fair share of murders! There was a curious discussion between him and the vicar, with the vicar being the one to dismiss the idea of ghosts, but when they got down in the mine the vicar was the one praying and the psychologist the one questioning God.
Children figure large in the storyline but the show certainly isn’t suitable for children, though any ‘adult content’ is fairly restrained.
10/6/16 As regular readers of this blog know I love a good crime drama and I find English ones far better than their American counterparts.
So I was glad to see the start of a new series Unforgotten, on RTE 1 Tuesdays. It’s a 12-parter, generous by English standards, and originally made for ITV. The leading role is played by the excellent Nicola Walker (brilliant as a dead woman in last year’s River) as a police inspector, Cassie Stuart, investigating a 40 year old death when a body is found buried in an old cellar. She’s supported by an impressive cast including Tom Courtenay, Trevor Eve, Gemma Jones and Cheri Lunghi. The first episode threw a dizzying array of seemingly unrelated characters at us, but of course towards the end it became clear that all these characters were connected in some way to the dead man and no doubt some deep dark secrets will be revealed over the coming weeks. One such character was an Anglican minister comfortably played by Bernard Hill – Rev. Robert Greaves is likeable, down to earth and charitable but having some low level domestic issues, though I’d better not get too enthusiastic about this positive portrayal of a clergymen until I found out what he was up to in the past! There's already a hint of financial irregularities in the parish, and the second episode saw him pawning his wife's jewellery to make up the difference.
Meanwhile, over on BBC One, Sunday nights, Wallander is heavier stuff. Based on an original Scandinavian noir, Kennet Branagh again plays the Swedish detective in this latest season. The opening episode a few Sundays ago was just about tolerable, with Wallander transported to South Africa investigating a political crime in the wide open spaces. Two of the characters were missionaries and religious faith figured briefly but positively. However it could have been any detective, and not at all typical of the series, but the last two episodes have seen a return to form in the more brooding and claustrophobic Swedish landscape, with Wallander’s family and health issues back in the frame. It seems modern cops have to have psychological or health issues!
Last Sunday night’s episode brought the short season to a close in a most intense manner. The crime story was well up to scratch but Wallander’s deteriorating health was, if anything, more central, and it was handled in a most humane way. One could even argue that it was pro-life in the broadest sense, with kindness, empathy, concern and family support the hallmark of an approach to serious illness. I won’t give away the ending but it was one of the most touching and satisfying I’ve seen for a long time.
Earlier in the week I got to see the Notre Dame Folk Choir from Indiana USA in Harold's Cross Church and as always the choir exuded faith and ehtusiasm. This was their 'Pilgrimage 2016' tour taking in Scotland and Ireland. Their programme was a wonderful mixture of quiet inspirational songs and upbeat songs of joy. The choir was directed as usual by Steven C. Warner and Karen Kirner who wrote or arranged most of the songs. There was some fine instrumental backing - keyboards, flute, violin, percussion, cello and guitar which greatly enhanced the performance. It wasn't just a concert - early on we were invited to sing-pray the Lord's Prayer, Warner's version from the 'Mass for Our Lady'. One of my favourites on the night was 'Bless the Corners of This House' based on an old Irish domestic blessing and an Irish reel. I was glad to see a George Herbert poem 'Come My Way, My Truth, My Life' set to music. 'Send Forth Your Spirit, O Lord' was an exhuberant song for Pentecost - I've added a version to my new page for arts resources for Pentecost and the Holy Spirit - check it out here. 'Path of Mercy' is a special song for the years that's in it and I've added a 2015 performance of it to my page for arts resources for the Year of Mercy - here. It was the feast of the Annunciation and they sang a striking Magnificat, with African rhythms - 'Jina La Bwana'. They finished with 'How Can I Keep on Singing' which has become an anthem for the choir, though I wasn't too keen on this uptempo version! All in all a great night and I hope they'll be back before too long.
25/5/16 I suspect everybody has their own favourite style of church building. Personally I like small intimate oratories as they convey a sense of the close personal relationship we can have with God, but I can also appreciate the great cathedrals with the splendour of their artwork, conveying the awesome wonder of God.
These thoughts were prompted by a fascinating series, Extraordinary Faith, on EWTN. Last Wednesday’s episode focused on modern church buildings, designed and constructed in classical style. The programme was partly about architectural concepts but was made accessible to the average or ‘lay’ viewer.
Presenter Alex Begin spoke of a revival in Catholic traditions and classic church design. Among the experts he consulted were Duncan Stroik and Denis McNamara, who had lots of inspiration to convey on church architecture. Some designers just considered the functional nature of churches, but they recommended taking into consideration a much wider field of meaning, asking what was the ‘essential nature’ of a church building, and speaking in sacramental terms. Churches should convey joy, radiance, elevation, glory, and what Vatican II said about sacred art was quoted in support. It was suggested that much of relevance would be found in the rite of dedication of churches and the theology embedded in it.
Several impressive church buildings in the USA were used to illustrate these points – e.g. the Mundeline Seminary in Chicago, Our Lady of the Trinity Chapel in Santa Paula, California, and the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Cross Wisconsin. In all cases the internal artwork was regarded as hugely important – the architect designed the frame and then handed it over to the artists.
I was glad to hear an engaging interview with children’s author Megan McDonald on The World Over Live with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN last Monday morning. She has written the ‘Judy Moody’ and ‘Stink’ series, and is also a librarian and spokesperson for school libraries in the USA. She was so insistent on the importance of books for children in this screen-focused age and was convinced that children still want ‘the tactile experience of real books’, and noticed how they even hug the books they make their own. Even more so she stressed how important it was for parents to read aloud to children, in spite of how busy we may have become. Her own father had little formal education but inspired his children with his own stories. Her mother gave her the simple present of a notebook for her to write her thoughts, and in this way she began to find her own distinctive voice. I was surprised to learn that presenter Raymond Arroyo was also a children’s writer (check out ‘Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls’), and delighted to find that EWTN (the US Catholic channel) was involved in a literacy initiative, ‘Storyented’. At storyented.com you can find previous interviews with well-known authors and lots of encouragement to read!
13/5/16 It’s the time of year when we can expect various series on radio and TV to come to an end as the summer season kicks in and so it was withthe last episode of The Leap of Faith, RTE Radio 1 last Friday night.
The main item on the show was a touching piece about the late Fr Michael Paul Gallagher SJ, and I’m sad even writing this as I had the benefit of his lectures in UCD and later got to meet up with him at conferences in Dublin. I particularly remember an enthusiastic presentation he gave on Pope Francis at The RE Congress some two years ago. On the show he was remembered by his friend and fellow Jesuit Fr Donal Neary, who journeyed with him on the final months of his terminal cancer, a time captured in his final book of reflections ‘Into Extra Time’, described by presenter Michael Comyn as being an ‘intimate read’ and like a ‘mini-retreat’.
Fr Neary felt that his friend had lots more to give, but at the end he was definitely ‘ready to go’. One of his main concerns, was the question of faith. He often reflected on ‘atheism Irish style’, which, he thought was more a case of ‘angst, alienation and anger’, and of course these ‘A Words’ leave room for hope. He was also deeply interested in the interplay between faith and culture, and was inspired by Cardinal Newman’s ideas on imagination. Fr Neary’s most touching tribute to him was when he said that his friend played to people’s strengths.
Two of Fr Gallagher’s great passions were imagination and literature and I’m with him on both fronts.
You can listen back to the item here.
The programme also features an interview about the Gospel Rising music festival coming up in Ennis this weekend (see News page).
7/5/16 During the week I finally got to see the film Sing Street, having heard it praised widely. In a way it's a well worn plot, with young people starting a rock band (this time in 80's Dublin) - reminiscent of The Commitments, School of Rock and That Thing You Do. In fact there's even a nod to Romeo and Juliet. On the plus side it was very funny in spots, especially in the early stages, as the students assemble the band and find their musical identity. Teachers will find lots to laugh at and even some stuff to shiver at as the students get up to mischief, not all of it a matter of harmless larks. Bullying and domestic discord also darken the mood. The original music is excellent as well, and lead actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, effectively subtle in his role as Cosmo, does all his own singing. However there is an element of Catholic bashing and some lazy stereotyping of Christian Brothers (the film is set in Synge St!), which spoils the overall good-humoured nature of the proceedings. Yes, teachers can be bullies as well as students, but tarring a whole group with the same brush wouldn't be tolerated in other circles. I won't include a spoiler but I found the ending rather weak and stretching credulity.
People (Koreans in this case) encountering racist attitudes was central to the plot of the film Gran Torino, shown on TV 3, last Sunday night. I was never a fan of Clint Eastwood’s macho anti-heroes from his early days, but he has matured wonderfully as an actor and director – he filled both roles with distinction for this film. If anything he flipped his usual persona this time, especially towards the end, but to say more on that front would be too much of a spoiler!
One engaging plot strand had the Eastwood character, Walt, in an ongoing skirmish with the young local priest who promised his now deceased wife that he’d try to get Clint back to the Church. This culminated in a touching and funny Confession scene – the priest, suspicious of Walt's motives, expected some atrocity from Walt’s time in Vietnam, but what Walt was most worried about was kissing another woman at a Christmas party, short changing another person in a deal over a boat and not knowing his sons well enough.
What another wonderful night at Emmanuel! This year the event for school choirs was spread over four nights in The Helix theatre, and I got there on Wednesday night to support my own school Arklow CBS. I was delighted to see quite a few of the Arklow boys getting solos, and they were impressive. In fact all the soloists were excellent .. growing in confidence from year to year. The choice of music was, as always, top notch, with a mixture composers rerepresented, including John Rutter, Liam Lawton, Ian Callanan (music director for the event), Sean O Riada, Dan Schutte, Marty Haugen and many more. I loved the soulful rendition of Matt Maher's 'Lord I Need You' - anthem-like with all the students waving the lights on their mobile phones. The Year of Mercy was acknowledged in many songs, including 'Blest Are the Merciful', the theme song for this year's World Youth Day in Poland, and 'Prayer for Mercy', a medley of 'Kyrie' songs. Unfortunately there was only one song in Irish - 'Ag Críost an Síol', but that was beautiful and enhanced, as all the songs were, by a wonderful slide show presentation that gave me new insights into a familiar song. The musicians were top class on the night and especially noteworthy was the sax and electric guitar work on Callanan's 'Let My Prayer Rise to You'. The Emmanuel event is always a visual treat, but it manages the difficult feat of balancing spectacle and intimacy.
In, Babylon, the recent second last episode of the revived X-Files there was an interesting conversation between Mulder and Scully. They were in a reflective and touching moment after a troubling story of Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers. Mulder wondered about the ’angry God’ of the Bible (he must have missed the Great Commandment to love) and Scully said something similar about the Koran, but a strand of the plot impressed him. He had seen something ‘that trumps all hatreds’ - the deep and unconditional love of a mother, which had a resonance for Scully as her mother died in the previous episode and some years ago she had given her son for adoption to protect him from nefarious forces. While Mulder had seen love in the episode Scully had seen hate and they wondered how the two could be reconciled. Mulder referenced the Tower of Babel story and Scully reckoned that maybe it was God’s will that we find a ‘common language’ again. Scully thought we needed, like the prophets of old, to ‘open our hearts and truly listen’.
There was certainly openness to belief in God and at the end Mulder, but not Scully, hears a mysterious sound, the sound of trumpets - a phenomenon referenced in an earlier scene – ‘music as if from the heavens themselves ... as if God himself was making music’. I wasn’t too impressed with Mulder taking banned substances to help him communicate with a dying terrorist. It didn’t help that his tripping was treated comically, with a welcome guest appearance by his old and deceased pals The Lone Gunmen. This surreal sequence featured a pieta-like image that was in poor taste, but maybe it was redeemed somewhat by the way it was linked at the end to a mother’s love.
29/1/16 It's been around 14 years since the last episode of the TV series The X-Files was broadcast. The final moments included a touching gesture of friendship between Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) and a discussion that reflected on the afterlife and the people who have died and gone before us. The series featured many religious themes over its nine year run and I've written about it all here. With great hype and anticipation it returned to RTE 2 last Tuesday and Wednesday night and for the most part I wasn't disappointed. The same creative team is reunited, especially creator Chris Carter and the main actors, and even the opening credit sequence is the same. The main plot line so far focuses on the alien story arc, with lots of messing about with alien DNA. The conspiracy paranoia is stonger than ever, giving Mulder great big wads of turgid dialogue. The style remains so true to the original (better than messing with a winning formula) that they seem to have felt the need to keep reminding us it's 2016, in case we thought these were leftover episodes from the old days! So we get references to Edward Snowden, Obama Care, greater cultural acceptance of gay relationships and Scully makes a knowing comment about finding information in pre-Google days. There isn't much to celebrate on the religious front. Scully, who comes from a Catholic background and still wears her cross, is working in what seems to be a Catholic hospital (Our Lady of Sorrows) but wouldn't you know she discovers there what seems a nasty experimentation programme run by a dodgy doctor renowned for his work to help the unborn. There's a nun who seems a throwback to bygone days ... she supposedly looks after single mothers with problematic pregnancies, has a poor opinion of men and their lies and calls desire 'the devil's pitchfork'! It's all a bit ropey, and some of the violence is more graphic than I remember from the earlier series, but I'm enjoying the nostalgia. There's still a considerable chemistry between Mulder and Scully, and though it was platonic for most of the time, there seems to have been some biology as well as late in the original series it seems they had a son together, and his fate is a central mystery this time around.
Reflecting on Rebellion again - last Sunday night’s third episode was less favourable to religion. Several characters made snide remarks about the Church, while Barry McGovern did a predictable turn as that most familiar of stereotypes, the nasty bishop (I’m not saying there aren’t any!). On the other hand one of the nurses said she felt called by God to look after the wounded, while another was critical of the treatment of Catholics in the North.
One thing I did like about the latest episode was the way it showed some characters having second thoughts about their roles - Arthur (Barry Ward), in a firing squad, couldn’t bring himself to shoot a civilian and contemplates desertion, Frances (Ruth Bradley) the Pearse acolyte, gets upset after shooting a young British soldier (and finally gets a chance to be more than a cardboard character) and Elizabeth (Charlie Murphy) seems to have given herself totally over to nursing having originally been part of the attack on Dublin Castle.
The series was discussed on Liveline (RTE Radio 1) last Thursday. A very articulate and moderate history teacher complained about the bad language and sex scenes as otherwise she could have used the programme for her history classes. Other callers agreed with her, but guest presenter Philip Boucher Hayes, who thought the show was ‘absolutely brilliant’, wasn’t having any of it. I thought he was particularly patronising and downright silly, when, in response to a caller objecting to the sex scenes, he pointed out that people did have sex in 1916. Duh! I normally like his style, especially his work on Drivetime (RTE Radio 1), and he was back on form when the programme moved on to a challenging discussion of the morality of the 1916 Rising, with Fr Seamus Murphy developing some points he made in these pages a few weeks ago.
I was rather lukewarm about RTE's new series Rebellion after the first episode. The second episode last Sunday didn't improve my opinion of it. Yes, it's interesting and holds the attention but I often found myself getting annoyed with it, whether for the stilted dialogue, the sluggish pace or the gratuious sex thar rules it out for family viewing which is a pity. However I did get some scenes to add to my collection of clips for the 'Religious Themes in TV Drama' Course! In one scene a priest gives Confessions in the GPO, and in another leads the Volunteers in the Rosary. This is probably true to history, but it does raise issues of approval for warfare. Mind you the priest was just obliging Pearse who requested all this and wasn't in any way pushing it.
Watched plenty of films and TV dramas over the holiday period. Finally caught up with the film Gravity, with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock.
Eye-popping visuals and a tense storyline, and I was surprised to find some faith elements. At one stage, on a Russian space station attention is given to what looks like an icon of St Christopher carry the baby Jesus, and later in a crisis Bullock's character expresses regret that no-one taught her how to pray.
Then there was the new drama Rebellion on RTE 1 last Sunday. This is one of the broadcaster’s most high profile programmes to commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising and after viewing the first episode I’m inclined to stick to the documentaries. The productions values are top class, especially the location work - for example around Dublin Castle and the GPO. They’ve even re-instated Nelson’s Pillar! Like the other two shows reviewed above the ambiance of the times is well created, but while fairly interesting the storyline has too much of the taste of soap about it, with the focus on romance and politics in the lives of three very different women of the time, all three fictional.
Pearse, Connolly and others make occasional appearances, but others are too much like representative types rather than three-dimensional characters. All the romances are unappealing – one woman reluctantly being rushed into marriage by her family, another enthusiastically in an adulterous relationship with a Dublin Castle official, and the third possibly infatuated by Pearse. And we could have done without the crude language that seems obligatory in RTE dramas these days.
There was little reference to religion considering how much faith was important, even as a motivation, to the 1916 leaders and to society in general in those days. There was a priest in background when the woman was being pressurised into marriage and I think that was about it!
Happy New Year to Faitharts followers!
There was certainly no shortage of Christmas music programmes over the Christmas period…loads of the expected carol services, but also a few that were off the beaten track.
One of my favourites was a Roots Freeway special on the Saturday before Christmas. This has become an annual tradition for presenter and veteran Irish bluegrass player Neil Toner – presenting Christmas music with a rootsy flavour. Most it was gospel orientated, though I did like the instrumental Sleigh Ride by mandolin virtuoso Sam Bush. There were traditional and contemporary songs from the likes of Doc Watson and Emmylou Harris, with some Irish flavour as well - John Spillane’s musical version of Kavanagh’s Christmas Childhood poem was particularly evocative, while The Voice Squad sang an excellent version of the Enniscorthy Carol. All well worth listening back to on the RTE Radio Player.
Also recommended viewing on the RTE Player, and also focused on music, is Higher Hopes, a wonderful documentary shown on RTE 1, on the Wednesday leading up to Christmas. Conductor David Brophy and his team, having made such an impact with the High Hopes Choir in 2014 developed this work with people touched by homelessness by setting up a new choir in Cork. The show was aptly named, as it exuded hope, with plenty of joy, good humour, optimism and insight. It was useful to have a catchup section at the start where the previous participants spoke of the changes the initiative made in their lives… they had found greater self-confidence, some had found housing, some had found work and some had gone back to education. Brophy wasn’t giving all the credit to the choir venture, but hoped it was an important influence. The Cork choir thrived, and like those in Waterford and in Dublin, was full of interesting characters.
There wasn’t any overt religious element but that was fine. You could see however that charities like Vincent de Paul were involved and most practices, along with some performances were based in religious houses, churches or oratories, so the support is there in the background.
There were two big highlights - one was when the choirs were visited by Christy Moore and got to record a single with him. Moore was as moved by the venture as much as the choir members were. In a relaxed way he opened up to them about his own struggles with alcohol addiction, an experiences that resonated with many of the singers, and said it was one of his most enjoyable recording sessions in years.
The other special occasion was when the choirs got to sing at Aras an Uachtaráin after President Michael D. Higgins expressed an interest in their work. Choir members were awed and enthused by the prospect and were pleased that people in the corridors of power were listening to them. It was good to see the President taking a low key role, being a facilitator and appreciator rather than the centre of attention.
It wasn’t the only appearance of the President or the Áras over Christmas. Carols from Áras an Uachtaráin was broadcast on RTE 1 Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. I loved seeing the RTE Concert Orchestra performing in one of the living rooms rather than on a formal stage, and I was impressed by how the biblical Christmas story was told in sand art throughout the programme, enhanched by the fiddle and whistle playing of John Sheehan of The Dubliners. Other musical performances were a matter of taste. Generally I like Imelda May’s musical style but I’m not sure that the Wexford Carol suited her, though I did enjoy her soulful rendition of A Cradle in Bethlehem, an old Nat King Cole song. Lucy O’Byrne did a fine version of O Holy Night, while Iarla Ó Lionáird sang the haunting Don Oíche Úd I mBeitheal. Mick Flannery played a rather downbeat love song, Christmas Past and suitably the programme ended with a lively version of We Three Kings by the young Aspiro choir from Carlow – the young performers were stationed throughout the Áras and the fluidity of the camera work weaving through the building perfectly matched the grace of the sand art as this part of the Christmas story was told.
The first Faitharts concert, featuring Ian Callanan and Eilidh Patterson took place last week in St Paul's Arran Quay. Attendance could have been highrer but the music and venue were brilliant I thought. I'm used to seeing Ian Callanan conducting at the wonderful Emmanuel concerts in The Helix, but this time he was in solo performer mode, accompanied by a tight band - 2nd keyboards, bass and guitar. Mostly he performed his own well crafted work, but his cover of 'Winter Song' was also a treat. Derry singer-songwriter Eilidh Patterson's songs were also a hit and since the concert she has released a new EP, six songs including some of the spiritual songs she sang on the night, incl 'Your Love' and 'God Has a Plan'. (Buy it here for £5). Hopefully I'll get to organise another concert in the new year.
Very sad to hear during the week of the passing of Fr Michael Paul Gallager SJ.
Apart from his theological work he had a great interest in the arts and how the arts impacted on modern culture. I had the pleasure of listening to many of his talks, in UCD many moons ago and more recently at RE Congresses in Dublin. Apart from being intelligent and inspiring he was a lovely gentle man. May he rest in peace.
Last Thursday evening a creepy new drama series with strong religious content started on UTV Ireland. Midwinter of the Spirit features a female clerical exorcist of the Church of England confronted with a bizarre murder in which a man was crucified, an act she regarded as sacrilege as well as murder. When I saw that her character was called ‘Merrily’ I thought it was going to be lighter, but this show is light years away from Vicar of Dilby – it takes the presence of intense evil very seriously. It opened will a training session for exorcists , when the trainer insisted that when something apparently supernatural happens all natural explanations must be ruled out first. He declared that ‘deliverance ministry requires a wide skillset’ and believes Merrily has potential in the area because she’s neither fundamentalist nor ‘happy clappy’! He warned that she’s vulnerable because her husband has died recently and because she is a female minister. She encountered a canon who feels he is failing in his struggle against a great evil in the parish, and a deeply nasty man whose evil seems to live on after he dies in Merrily’s presence. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and apart from that I’m always uneasy to see religious symbolism used in gruesome horror stories. The ‘joy of the gospel’ isn’t in evidence, but at least evil is recognised for what it is, faith is prominent, and there are good, but flawed, people struggling to cope as well as they can. Of interest to those into faith and the arts, but of dubious value for school use considering the dark nature of the material!
11/9/15 One programme last Sunday afternoon had a lot of timely messages about prayer – that it's not about manipulating God, that you can't expect all prayers to be answered immediately in the way you expect, that it shouldn't be about selfishly seeking to accumulate material goods.
This was brought to us by an episode of The Simpsons on Channel 4. Homer notices how neighbour Ned Flanders was falling into lots of good fortune, and credited prayer (as well as flossing!). Homer tries his hand and after a few initial successes (like finding his TV remote) prays for a bigger house, whereupon he gets the deeds of Rev Lovejoy's church after a lawsuit. His wife Marge is not pleased – God, she scolds, is not some sort of holy concierge and you can't keep bugging Him. Lisa tentatively sees the move to God's house as offering her more opportunities to 'cloister' herself, but soon Homer has turned the place into a den of ill repute. There is much Biblical resonance as God gets displeased with the goings on and sends a flood, but Rev Lovejoy, having abandoned Springfield to its sins returns dramatically (by helicopter) and pleads with the Lord for mercy. Sin gets a whipping, there's valid commentary on sin and human vanity, God is portrayed in a good light, though there are a few digs at his smiting and anger. Seeing the church getting thrashed is unsettling, and Homer playing the cross like a guitar was more than a bit off - Homer's disrespect certainly, but it was in no way approved.
Was lucky last weekend to attend the annual Bluegrass festival in the Ulster Folk Park in Omagh .. what a great venue! The music was excellent if you’re into roots music, and it was great to hear bands including gospel music in their sets .. I was particularly impressed by Viper Central (pictured above) from Canada and delighted to come away with their gospel album Live at the Street Church.
Here’s a flavour from a 2011 concert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJT3P-WNPBM
20/8/15 I was away at the Edinburgh Festival ... and wow what a huge range of music and theatre events! The amount of religious content wasn’t great, but it was good to see St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral involved with lunchtime concerts and also shows on in the attached Camino theatre space. The Protestant ‘kirks’ also featured some fine music and I was lucky to see a performance that included some religious music from Irish group Ardú in St Giles Cathedral.
One of the musicals I saw was an American High School production of Zorro which was quite colourful and energetic. This featured a confession scene that reminded me of the one in Hamlet ..as in the latter one man’s confession was used by another to plot revenge.
Best wishes to all teachers for summer holidays finally arrived.
I'll keep up the email newsletter for the summer (use contact details
on left to sign up) as I'm sure there will be plenty of events worth noting
and plenty of useful programmes on the media. Summer's a good time to
build up a stack of resources for the coming school year. I'll keep posting
on the Facebook
page as things arise but I only do 'Resource of the Day' during school
On that page I've flagged two songs for the Trinity Sunday
(May 31st) - 'Lord of Love' sung by Michael Card and Charlie Peacock from
the album 'Coram Deo'. (clip above) and 'Patrick's Shield' by Ronan Johnston
and Emmaus from the album Mountain Top https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDfKHLnVFD4
to get to a few of the Bible Week events during the week, and arts
wise I was glad I got to Frank Brown's presentation on film and the Bible
in St Paul's Arran Quay. There were interesting film choices and some
news of upcoming films about Pontius Pilate, the Council of Nicea and
more ... seems like biblical films are 'in' at the moment .. e.g. the
recent Noah and Exodus Gods and Kings. Frank is a pastoral
worker in Rathmines parish and runs a film series 'Movies that Matter'
with young people in the parish.
Whenever I review a programme in Irish it's usually from TG 4, but An
Coláiste Éireannach was broadcast on BBC 2 Northern Ireland, Monday
night of last week. Dr Art Hughes presented an enthusiastic celebration
of the life of 17th Century Franciscan Luke Wadding, who set up two Irish
colleges in Rome. Hughes described it as 'phenomenal achievement' that
the colleges were still thriving today. Wadding's back-story was fascinating.
Of Old English stock he left Ireland at age 16, but kept a strong commitment
to Irish culture and spirituality. Eventually he was sent to Rome by the
King of Spain to promote the teaching of the Immaculate Conception but
in parallel set up the Irish colleges and kept Irish cultural identity
alive - seen in the many Gaelic inscriptions and the pictures of St Brigid
and St Patrick. In fact we were told that Wadding was the responsible
for St Patrick's Day becoming a national holiday - apparently this happened
for the first time, in Rome, in 1630. This informative programme was as
much about art as it was about faith as we were treated to a guided tour
of the many wonderful frescos, especially in St Isodore's College, though
one chapel was largely empty however having been looted by Napoleon's
sure some would dispute The Simpsons being regarded as art, but
last Thursday's episode 'The Simpsons Bible Stories' on RTE 2 was imaginative,
topical and religious. In the opening sequence Bart writes his punishment
on the blackboard, 'I cannot absolve sins', and the notice board outside
the First Church of Springfield declares - 'Christ Dyed Eggs for Your
Sins', perhaps a dig at our peculiar Easter habits! At church on the 'hottest
Easter ever' (!) Rev Lovejoy' long readings from the 'Good Book' send
the Simpsons asleep when the bible stories mingle with their dreams. Homer
and Marge play Adam and Eve (with pre-banishment fig leaves) and Flanders
is a generous God until the whole apple eating thing ('Applegate') when
he is portrayed as a God who bears a grudge, something of a sour note
there that should prompt discretion where young students are concerned.
But then I think it would be naive to regard the Simpsons as a children's
programme, despite the colourful cartooning. At the end of the show the
Simpsons wake up (or do they?) to find an empty church. Outside it's the
Apocalypse in full swing! The Flanders family ascends to Heaven and Marge
wonders why her family doesn't, until she remembers, ' Oh right, the sins'!
Cue descent into fiery pit, which Homer takes to be a barbecue.
The Ark (shown Monday of Holy Week) was an original BBC drama
based on the story of Noah. The advance publicity said it was based both
on the Bible and elements of the Qu'ran, but there certainly was as very
modern sensibility about it, with the ancient background being used to
air more contemporary debates. For example, Noah discusses the science-religion
debate with a rich trader, talks agnosticism with his son, while another
son wants himself and his wife to have their 'own space'. The best thing
about it was the touching and credible relationships in Noah's family,
under severe strain when Noah (well played by David Threlfall) tells them
that God wants him to build an ark in the desert during a drought.
Noah is a sympathetically portrayed man of strong, well-articulated faith,
and, while other viewpoints are aired, there is no attempt to be cynical
or debunk religious faith, very much the opposite in fact. Noah's relationship
with God is reasonably well teased out. The news about the oncoming flood
is delivered by a messenger, who appears miraculously, presumably an angel.
Noah trusts God and sets about the strange task, and he hopes that his
own sons will trust him the way he trusts God, but it doesn't entirely
work out that way. The location work and cinematography are impressive,
with the desert being almost like another character, while the nearby
town is a den of iniquity and permissiveness.
This film is much less concerned with spectacle than the recent Noah film
featuring Russell Crowe. If anything the flood when it comes is a bit
of an anti-climax and I did think it all ended too quickly. Clever, though,
how the flood is portrayed as a tsunami. Once again the BBC has produced
a religious drama that is imaginative, modern and respectful, taking religion
seriously and working well on an artistic well.
With the feast of the Annunciation coming up next week I've been
looking at various relevant resources. On the Faitharts Advent
Poems Page there's a poem Disclosure by Daragh Bradish, then
there's the Denise Levertov poem Annunciation and at this
link it's accompanied by the Fra Angelico painting of the Annunciations.
the way BBC's Liverpool Nativity gave the event a contemporary
twist. The video clip above features the Annunciation like you've never
seen it before!
another wonderful Emmanuel event last night! School choirs gathered
from all over Dublin Diocese to sing the best of modern and traditional
liturgical music under the direction of Ian Callanan. I was particularly
struck this year by the quality of the solo singing. I loved all the songs
but a few stood out as exceptional - 'Holy Ground' by Liam Lawton was
a most appropriate opening song, 'No Greater Love' by Irish composer Feargal
King was blessed with a fine solo and some tasty sax work, 'God Is' a
beatiful song recorded by Holly Starr was noteworthy by the students waving
their lit up mobile phones. Callanan's own 'Holy Is His Name' had all
the choirs signing along with the wonderful choir of St Mary's School
for Deaf Girls in Cabra, whose presence has enhanced the Emmanuel concerts
for many years now. There were songs in Irish, English and Latin, older
songs like 'Veni, Sancte Spiritus' and modern anthems like Matt Redman's
10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord).
cloistered religious life featured Tuesday night of last week in the fictional
Midsomer Murders (UTV Ireland). Misdsomer is one of the these quaint
English towns that attracts murder at an alarming rate. The series must
be quite popular to have lasted so long but I find it rather limp. Last
week's episode had a nun and a priest murdered, so the police had to enter
the cloisters. I don't remember the convent being mentioned before and
indeed one of the characters didn't even know the place existed until
the nun's murder. It was a dwindling congregation, struggling financially,
but, typical of the genre lots of people, including the remaining nuns,
had secrets. I thought I detected a faint distaste on the scriptwriter's
part towards the nuns and religious life. One of the police forensic team
called the nuns 'crows' and said her convent education had led her to
be a 'rational atheist'! The nuns were dedicated, but some weren't that
pleasant, and the detectives seemed bemused by their lifestyle - e.g.
one asking what an elderly nun's name was 'in real life'. The stereotypical
Reverend Mother put him right on that one. A younger nun was very enthusiastic,
modern and spiritual, though she too had a secret, one that turned out
to be innocent. The main detective asker her at the end how she was going
to get more entrants in these modern times and she answered that it would
be through faith and prayer. Could hardly argue with that. The hard-drinking
local priest was generally disliked and came across as a rather slimy
character. It was hard to get any sympathy worked up when he became the
second murder victim. The bishop however was portrayed sympathetically
and the young nun's final vows ceremony was touching, with a muted interior
kind of joy. A few clips would be useful for RE - especially in scenes
involving the young nun, Sr Catherine, talking about her vocation.
got to see the film Selma last night and it was certainly worth
the trip. David Oyelowo was excellent as Martin Luther King and even better
was Carmen Ejogo as his wife Corettta. Their relationship was one of the
most interesting aspects of the film, but it wasn't thoroughly developed...
things were more hinted at and the actors, especially Ejogo, conveyed
the emotional subtleties really well.
The film seemed to accept to some extent the stories of King's womanising
tendencies, while at the same time hinting at FBI plots to discredit him.
King came across as confident and sure footed in public, but conflicted
in private, as he tried to steer a non-violent path on the way to getting
for black people vindication of their right to vote - the right was there
in Alabama, but country officials threw so many obstacles in the way of
registration that it was practically impossible.
The filmmakers were wise to concentrate on this one particular phase of
King's life, culminating in the famous civil rights march from Selma to
Montgomery. The first effort to cross the iconic bridge in Selma was met
by brute force on the part of the police and that is conveyed in an effective
but quite frightening way. Moments like these are unbearably tense and
necessarily violent, but at least our sympathies were with the victims
and not the perpetrators.
Conflicts within the movement were acknowledged and highlighted which
guards against the film being overly sentimental, though there's an understandably
triumphal mood at the end.
Religious faith is prominent in the film and sympathetically presented.
King, a pastor, is obviously motivated by his faith, as are many of his
supporters. At the march, supportive priests, ministers and nuns are very
much in evidence. I thought some early scenes were a tad lethargic and
overly talky which would make classroom use of the full film tough going,
and with hints of King's affairs and a little bad language it mightn't
be appropriate for juniors anyway.
Overall I found it an inspiring and moving film and can see plenty of
opportunities for school use, especially using clips, in teaching themes
like human dignity, justice, politics and faith, courage, maturity of
conscience and more. Suitable scenes include one, early on, where a black
woman, played by Oprah Winfrey, is thwarted in her efforts to register
for voting. Any of King's speech scenes are excellent, including an early
one on the importance of the right to vote. The attack on the first march
will hold the attention of any class and encourage a strong sense of injustice,
though the violence is rather strong. There's a useful scene as well at
the second march where King leads the crowd in a silent prayer.
Good to meet some Faitharts subscribers at the workshop in Blackrock
Education Centre last night, on Religious Themes in TV Drama. The blizzard
at the start time didn't help numbers and Blackrock Education Centre has
suggested I offer it again in better weather ... so maybe mid to end of
March, before Easter holidays. I used lots of clips from TV dramas and
will discuss some of them here and on the Facebook page over the next
few days. For starters the clip above I have found useful in teaching
Eucharist. It's from BBC's Manchester Passion and is an unusual
and contemporary take on the Last Supper, with the song 'Love Will Tear
Us Apart' integrated rather well. It makes a good contrast with film clips
on the Last Supper from films like Jesus of Nazareth.
Today I came across a useful website for Junior Cert RE. This is edited
by a working RE teacher and has lots of resources, including arts resources.
Check it out at http://jcreled.weebly.com/
to see the film St Vincent on Monday night ... always a
fan of Bill Murray's deadpan style and so was looking forward to this.
Overall I enjoyed it, but it is no classic. The story concerns Vincent,
a bit of a rake (Murray of course), a grouchy old guy with many bad habits
who softens up when he takes on the job of baysitting a young boy. The
film goes between the extremes of crude and sentimental, and perhaps if
it had stepped back from both extremes it would have been much more appealing
and could reach a wider audience. Too much effort goes into showing exactly
how much of a rake he is - excessive drinking, foul language, sloppy and
regular trysts with a pregnant prostitute.
I loved Chris O'Dowd's turn as a Catholic religious brother, one of the
boy's teachers. He's comic and quirky and the classroom scenes are most
entertaining. It's refreshing to see a positive portrayal of Catholic
religious and Catholic education.
You could also argue that the film is pro-life as we get an extended sequence
of the prostitute having an ultrasound scan, and there's no doubt but
that it's a baby! There's also a touching relationship between Murray
and his wife who is in a care home. The title comes from a school project
- the O'Dowd character, Brother Geraghty, gives the students an assignment
to find a modern day saint, and we get some interesting classroom discussions
THe film has a good heart, but there are moral ambiguities to say the
discovered some more wonderful resources for Advent/Christmas ...
it's a very rich field! Gerard Kelly has two strong poems exploring the
waiting theme and fortunately they are available online. His poems tend
to take a quirky look at things and these are no exception - especially
true of 'Christmas
is Waiting'. The other one is 'Behold
I Stand', with its insistent refrain "Behold I Stand at the Door
and Knock". It reminds me of the painting 'Light of the World' by
William Holman Hunt - check it out here.
There is so much good Christmas music out there - there's a fine version
of 'Angels We Have Heard On High' by the group Home Free here.
and one of this year's new releases is the album A New Irish Christmas
by the New Irish Choir and Orchestra. It's a mix of Christmas standards
and new material, well played and well performed, with some striking solos,
including Eilidh Patterson from singing her father's song 'Jesus Is His
you'd like to combine poetry and journaling for Advent, or just want to
explore some more Advent poetry, there's a fine resource here.
It was probably
coincidental, but last Thursday night's documentary The High Hopes
Choir (RTE 1) was particularly well timed. David Brophy, formerly
of the RTE Concert Orchestra, set about establishing two choirs for homeless
people and the results were inspiring. The programme was well named as
the choir work gave new hope to the homeless and much more - greater confidence,
discovery of hidden talent and a new sense of community. As one woman
put it she didn't know she had a voice until she joined, and it felt like
she meant more than singing. The individual stories of hard times and
degrees of recovery were varied, touching and often surprising. Sadly,
one of those interviewed at the start was Jonathan Corrie, the homeless
man who died recently near Dail Eireann. I wasn't expecting that. The
homeless charities figured, and rehearsals took place in churches, but
these were in a supporting role. Even their work seem transformed at times
- for example as the men in Waterford hostel went around singing during
Sunday night I had the pleasure of attending the Fuaimlaoi concert
in Harold's Cross Church. It was a wonderfully musuical and spiritual
experience. It wasn't really a seasonal concert, no harm in that, but
there was at least one song suitable for November-Remembrance theme -
'Song for the Last Farewell'. Some of the songs were also suitable for
Advent, especially the moving 'Seacht nDólás na Maighdine',
with its gorgeous harmonies and outstanding solo (thanks Karen O'Donovan!).
Most songs were written or arranged by the choir's director Ronan McDonagh
and the style is certainly and distinctively Irish, with a blend of Celtic/liturgical
influences. This was enhanced by the use of whistle and uileann pipes,
but there were also classical elements, with the choir accompanied by
violin, viola, cello and organ. You can check out Fuaimlaoi at their website,
where you can also find details about their CD Ancient Promise.
being surprised by the amount of good resources out there for teasing
out Advent themes. In particular this week I've been looking at resources
for the Annunciation. I know it's not fully seasonal, but it's
certainly relevant! I was impressed by the poem 'Annunciation' by Denise
Levertov which focuses on Mary's choice. It can be found here
along with Fra Angelico's painting on the same theme. There are some beautiful
religious art works, including some modern takes on the Annunciation and
the Nativity on the web page of artist Agata Padol Ciechanowska. You can
check it out here.
Film-wise I still love the Annunciation scene from Jesus of Nazareth
but there's a modern take on it in BBC's Liverpool Nativity, a
live presentation from the streets of Liverpool, featuring music written
in the area. You can check it out two minutes into this
28/11/14 With Advent coming up this Sunday I've been sourcing Advent
resources useful for school use. I've gathered many of these on my
Advent and Christmas Resources page, which I
hope to be updating during Advent. On the Facebook
page some resources I've flagged this week include the poem 'Advent'
by Patrick Kavanagh, the song 'Prepare Ye the Way' by John Michael and
Terry Talbot (clip on left), and 'Advent Suite' by John Michael Talbot,
all of which should be useful in school prayer services and as illustrations
in classes on Advent - perhaps to start a class or bring to a satisfying
looking forward to the the three 'Advent with the Arts' reflection nights
for the Thursdays of Advent. I will be leading these reflection nights
in O'Connell House, 58 Merrion Square, Dublin 2, 7.30 pm to 8.30 pm with
refreshments to follow. All are welcome to attend .. it's free, just contact
me in advance using the contact link on the left. There will be music,
poetry, film, visual art and tea.
RTÉ has been
turning its attention this November to matters related to dying, and it
can hardly be denied that dying matters! My favourite treatment of the
matter was the documentary One Million Dubliners shown last Thursday
night on RTÉ 1.
Director Aoife Kelleher showed a confident hand in this tribute to Dublin’s
Glasnevin Cemetery and the people associated with it. I loved the reflective
and respectful tone of the film – Kelleher’s contributors mused on the
nature of life, death and beyond, sharing a wide variety of views, from
those like the cremation technician who believed death was the end, through
those who weren’t sure but had hopes to those who were more convinced,
like Derek O’Brien who believed he’d meet his musical hero Luke Kelly
in the afterlife. Kelleher showed an admirable warmth towards her interviewees
and a respect for the dead.
I was surprised by how many famous people were buried there – Daniel O’Connell,
Parnell, de Valera and Michael Collins among others. Collins was a particularly
interesting case – apparently he continues to receive adulation, including
roses on Valentine’s Day. But it wasn’t only about the famous dead – we
saw Danielle Doyle visiting the grave of her mother Nicola, and Bridget
Sheerin at the very moving Holy Angels plot visiting the grave of her
stillborn baby Maria.
In so many ways, the central character of the film was tour guide and
historian, Shane MacThomáis. I was particularly taken with his account
of his father’s death and funeral in Glasnevin and how it felt strange
for him to go back to guiding tours through the cemetery after that. He
was well used to death, but the Holy Angels plot really got to him. He
informed and joked with his audiences and I thought the best footage was
of him giving a guided tour to primary school children – their expressions
were priceless as he told a scary story about grave robbers.
I knew that MacThomáis had died after the filming, which must have had
quite an impact on the film crew, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional
punch of the film’s ending – it began and ended with a funeral, but whose
funeral was revealed for sure only when we were shown the name plate on
I wonder if documentaries can be classified as works of art, but if so
then this one made the grade - I loved the subtle music in the background
and the way the camera captured the moods of the cemetery. I thought the
aerial shots were particularly striking, as were the autumnal colours
in many scenes.
One of the most intriguing resources I've come across for a while is a
clip from the TV programme Rev featuring Liam Neeson as God.
Rev Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander) has been having a rough time and it's
also Good Friday, so he has his own 'Way of the Cross', with parallels
to the original one, culminating in this meeting with the Neeson character
who seems to be God! It's quite funny and even touching and may be useful
in classes on 'Images of God'. I had reservations about the broader story
though - is it cheeky and maybe reven cheesy to draw such parallels with
the Good Friday events? Rev's problems are largely of his own making and
there's an element of self pity and vanity going on. Overall I've had
a love/hate (!) relationship with the series and apart from carefully
selected clips I wouldn't regard it as suitable for school use. Adam is
certainly sincere, prays quite a bit and struggles to keep his parish
going. He is often vain, weak, worldly and ineffective. He has to put
up with a variety of odd characters, and there's quite a bit of foul language
and other 'adult' elements there, perhaps, to give the show an 'edge'
but it's unecessary and offputting. You can watch the clip here.
film clips are worthy of note: I've often used the Baptism scene from
the film Nacho Libre to illustrate how NOT to Baptism, to emphasise
the voluntary nature of Baptism for adults, and to add some humour to
the subject, perhaps to grab the students' attention at the start of a
module on Baptism! In the film Jack Black plays a monk who wrestles to
raise funds for an orphanage and who is concerned for the spiritual welfare
of his wrestling partner .. hence the impromptu dunking! You can watch
this clip here.
the trial scene from the film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. In
my experience this holds the attention of students really well, as courtroom
scenes often do, and the clip is excellent for illustrate themes like
conscience, courage, morality and state law. If you think the judge is
way over the top here, a stereotyped Nazi, just look at some YouTube clips
of the actual judge, Roland Freisler, in action. You can watch the trial
I've added an intriguing song to the Facebook page and will add it here
too. This is 'Prayers of an Atheist' by Beth Nielsen Chapman. The
background to this is interesting - when her first husband was very ill
she asked friends for prayers. An atheist friend offered to do his best,
which prompted the reflection in this song ... "The prayers of an atheist
... even they find the way back home".
one of my favourite film scenes - the marriage sequence from the
animated film Up - a wordless review of Carl and Ellie's married
life with all its ups and downs. What a great way to start a class or
module on marriage! The quality on this version isn't great but the beauty
still shines through. Also it has the original music which is important.
Some versions on YouTube have added a different soundtrack and it's just
not the same. Catch it here:
During the week I've added some more resources to the November/Remembrance
page. With permission I've included a poem 'Last Supper' by Fr Joe McDonald,
a touching poem about his mother who died in 2013. I've also included
links to Patrick Kavanagh's poems In
Memory of My Mother and Memory
of My Father. These could be used as readings during prayer services
or at the beginning or end of classes, with due regard to any recent bereavements
in the students' families.
I find the latter poem more accessible and students may well be studying
it in English class. Of course Heaney's Mid-Term
Break is another poem on bereavement that students will be familiar
It was great
to meet another bunch of enthusiastic RE teachers at the PDST RE/IT
inservice in Blackrock last Wednesday night. Mainly we concentrated on
Blendspace, an intuitive online tool for gathering resources and lesson
is useful for all subjects and has many applications for RE and related
arts resources. If you missed it you can catch up on another Blendspace
course I'm delivering, for teachers of all subjects, at Blackrock Education
Centre on Wed 19 Nov 5 pm to 7 pm. Booking here.
With November coming up I'm looking at arts resources suitable
for the themes of remembrance and bereavement. Dealing with such
themes in school can be challenging, especially in the case of recent
bereavements, but can also be rewarding. Most of us have deceased friends
or family members and many will welcome the chance to remember them in
some sort of formal way. It might be an annual school remembrance service,
a box with the names of the deceased set up in the school prayer room
or oratory (like a school version of the Altar List of the Dead), or a
prayer wall or board with the relevant names o brightly coloured post-its.
Two songs suitable for prayer services spring to mind for starters - 'Now
is the Time for Tears' by Charlie Peacock from the Various Artists album
Coram Deo, and 'Life Goes On' by Judy Bailey from her album Travelling
(see video above). Some of you might remember her standout
performance of this beautiful song at the last World Youth Day. Any version
of 'The Lord's My Shepherd' or 'Be Not Afraid' would be appropriate also.
Beth Nielsen Chapman's album Sand and Water featuresmany
appropriate songs, written after the writer's own bereavement when her
first husband died.'Felix Randal' the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins,
is particularly appropriate, featuring both bereavement and remembrance.
I'll add some more resources here during November and add them to the
dedicated 'November Page'.
was great to meet a bunch of enthusiastic RE teachers at the Tuam Archdiocese
inservice yesterday in Knock. It was my first time in Knock in quite
a while, and I discovered to my surprise that I was distantly related
to one of the Knock visionaries! And the Knock House Hotel was an excellent
place to stay and to do a workshop.
I delivered a workshop on using Film in RE and for the first time in quite
a while a workshop on using the Beatitudes in school. As part of this
I worked up a list of songs that could be used for the Beatitudes, to
enhance classes on the Beatitudes or for prayer services. I'm including
the list below but no doubt there are many songs that could accompany
each Beatitude, this is just a personal selection. Individual tracks like
these are readily accessible though iTunes, YouTube, Spotify or 7Digital.
Music for the Beatitudes
- Behold Now the Kingdom - John Michael and Terry Talbot (album The Painter)
The Beatitudes - Monks of Glenstal (album Biscantorat)
Blessed Are the Ones - Audrey Assad (album Heart) Poor in Spirit - I Need You - Matt Maher (album All the People
Said Amen) Meek/Gentle: Servant Song - Bobby Fisher (album One Breath) Mourn: Now Is the Time for Tears - Charlie Peacock (album Coram
Deo) Hunger and Thirst: We Shall Overcome - Bruce Springsteen (album
The Seeger Sessions) Pure Heart: Create in Me a Clean Heart - John
Michael and Terry Talbot (album The Painter) Merciful: Mercy -
Zach Adamson (album 51 Must Have Modern Worship Hits 2) Peacemakers: Make me a Channel of Your Peace - John Angotti (album
Extraordinary Love) Persecuted: Shot Down - Michael Anderson (album
One Way - The Songs of Larry Norman)
Some recent resources I've been flagging include scenes from
the film 'Gandhi'. In particular I have found two scenes particularly
useful - one where Gandhi is thrown off a train on racial grounds in his
early days in South Africa, and one (clip above) where he stages a burning
of racially based permits. The latter scene is quite tense and works well
with students. Themes include racism, discrimination, courage, rights,
standing up for your principles.
'Wherever you go you seem to leave a trail of corpses'. So said Inspector
Valentine in last Saturday afternoon's episode of Father Brown
(RTE 1). I have found this new, BBC produced, take on Chesterton's priest-detective
rather underwhelming. Mark Williams does a fine job in the title role,
but the pace is sluggish, the plots fairly predictable, the minor characters
somewhat clichéd and no amount of tasty period flavour makes up for that.
Most lacking however is much in the line of spiritual or theological insight.
In this most recent episode, which was mildly entertaining we did get
Father Brown trying to get a sinner to repent and being astutely pastoral
in his approach to a girl with dyslexia, and there were two fairly useful
scenes for my Confession collection, and possibly of use in RE classes
dealing with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but on the whole it was
The character of the priest-detective in TV drama is nothing new, and
many have fond memories of earlier versions of Father Brown and even Father
Dowling, so I was looking forward to ITV's new drama, Grantchester
(ITV, Monday nights) which features a young vicar (well played by James
Norton) who does a bit of part time sleuthing. The literary origins this
time are the 'Grantchester Mysteries' by James Runcie.
So far it has been relaxed and easy viewing with no major brain crunching
required. The 50's Cambridge setting gives it an air of nostalgia, though
I'm not convinced that the period setting has been used that imaginatively,
though it is well created, typical of this kind of show. The vicar is
an appealing character, curious, concerned and courageous, though, like
Miss Marple et al., I'd stay a mile away from him as he looks set to become
another murder magnet. One of the most interesting plot lines is his relationship
(platonic perhaps, for now) with a young woman who becomes engaged to
another man, but the show shies away from attempting much in the line
of theological insight, so the fact that he's a vicar is underused. The
plot of the first episode was predictable enough and I spotted who the
guilty party way before the Big Revelation. There were superfluous flashbacks
to the murder scene (typical of the genre) as if the viewers had faulty
imaginations, and within the flashbacks of Episode 1 some pointless sex
scenes, designed I'd suspect to attract a post-watershed slot or to slap
on some designer 'edginess'. The second episode last Monday night was
Another popular ITV detective drama, Lewis, returned last Friday
night. In the past it has featured a scattering of theology, especially
related to the Detective Hathaway character. In this opening episode it
was hinted early on that he had done the Camino (he spoke pointedly of
a significant walk in Spain!). Later he confirmed this but insisted it
wasn't a pilgrimage. The plot was complex, the scriptwriting confident
and the depth of characterization above average. Detective Lewis had retired
in the last series and his retirement issues got a perceptive treatment,
as did his convenient return to police work as a temporary consultant.
This of course created a certain tension with his old mate Hathaway, now
his superior. I was reminded of King Lear's attempts at retirement though
the consequences weren't so drastic this time! Lewis is a spinoff from
the old Inspector Morse series, and so the university town of Oxford is
the setting for all those murderous goings on.
I have found that when you ask students to draw symbols of reconciliation,
forgiveness and other topics hands figure large! With that in mind I've
been flagging this week two videos featuring songs about hands. These
should be suitable for classes on service and vocations in particular.
These are 'Hands' by Texas singer-songwriter Jewel, and 'These Hands'
by Dave Gunning. There are several versions on Youtube, but I particular
like Jewel's performance of the song at a Vatican Christmas concert and
Gunning's concept video where he visits a young person's facility. Both
videos are available on the videos page.
'Resource of the Day' to highlight - this time I've chosen this supper
scene from the wonderful film 'Of Gods and Men'. It comes near
enough to the end of the film when the monks who are under threat from
insurgents in North Africa. They have decided, despite the danger, to
stay on and serve the local community, largely Muslim. The film has many
wonderful moments suitable for classes dealing with inter-faith relations,
sense of community, the religious life, ritual and more, but this scene
is particularly powerful, especially if you have watched the film up to
this point so that you know the characters involved. Not a word is spoken,
but the scene is beautiful and emotional. The parallels with the Last
Supper are clear, and this clip is a wonderful resource for classes on
table fellowship. My study guide to the full film is here.
Yesterday's 'Resource of the Day' is a link to Decent
Films , a film reviewing website that takes a faith perspective
into account. The writer, Steven D. Greydanus, has written for many American
catholic publications. His reviews are detailed and perceptive and should
help any RE teacher looking for suitable films for the classroom. Maybe
I'm calling him perceptive because I agree with most of what he writes!
For example there's his recent review of Calvary (here),
the best I've read so far, and also of Noah (here).
Going back to 2003 I liked his review of Bruce Almighty (here)
, often used in RE when studying images of God.
Yesterday I highlighted the last interrogation scene from Sophie
Scholl: The Final Days, definitely my favourite film for RE.
The film tells the true story of Sophie Scholl, a young woman and
marvellous role model who campaigned against the Nazis in Munich in the
early 1940's. The film packs a powerful punch, and this scene is one of
the most useful for RE - touching on themes of racism, conscience, discrimination
and more. If you start with this scene you may be persuaded to continue
... shortly after there is a very intense trial scene (the ranting Nazi
judge was just like that in real life). As for the ending ....
Among this week's 'Resource of the Day' selections on the Facebook
Page were two songs that are excellent for use in school/classroom
prayer services - 'Be Still and Know' sung by Kim Hill from her album
Kim Hill and 'Be Still My Soul' by Beth Nielsen Chapman from her
album Prism. I've also found them useful for Junior Cycle classes
when we've been exploring the need for quiet time and contemplation. I've
added both of these to the Videos Page.
Resource of the Day was 'Shed a Little Light' by James Taylor (it's
on that videos page as well) - especially apt as I went to his wonderful
concert in the 3 Arena last Tuesday night (see pic on left). I first heard
this song on the excellent 'Squibnocket' DVD and have used it in class
many times, especially study music and faith in Transition Year. It wasn't
on the setlist on the night, but there were some Christian spiritual references,
for example in the songs 'Fire and Rain', 'Country Road' and 'Lo and Behold'.
It was the first time that I saw him live and I wasn't disappointed. Apart
from the great music he had a warm rapport with the audience and sat on
the edge of the stage signing autographs through halftime break.
I realised recently that this September marks the 10th anniversary
of Faitharts! Doesn't feel like it though. I had hoped to blog about the
'Resource of the Day' that I've been posting on the Facebook
page but haven't been doing too well on that. Today's resource is
the song 'Now Is the Time for Tears' by Charlie Peacock from the album
Coram Deo. I have used the song many times in the school prayer
room and it is particularly suitable for the month of November or on occasions
where there is sadness in the school. Based on Job: 2:11-13 and Romans
12:15 it offers advice when we don't quite know how to console those who
mourn - 'Cry with me don't try to fix me friend/That's how you'll comfort
me'. It would be particularly suitable as well as a musical illustration
of the Beatitude 'Blessed are those who mourn ...'.
Now that I've got the email newsletter back up and running for the school
year, and have restarted the 'Resource of the Day' feature on the Facebook
page I can turn my attention to the blog. Perhaps it would be a good
idea to flag the 'Resource of the Day' here as well, for those who are
not on Facebook. Today's resource was the song 'What About the Love' by
Janis Ian and Kyle Fleming. In class I've used the version by Amy Grant
(video clip above). I find the words rather striking - themes of love,
compassion, power delusion and being judgmental. I particularly like the
last verse punchline. The lyrics are here.
I've a few courses lined up for this term: Using Film in Religious
Education is on in Blackrock Education Centre on Thursday 25th Sept 7pm
to 9pm and at the time of writing there are just 6 places left, booking
I'm giving the same course in Eniiscorthy, at the Co. Wexford Education
Centre, on Thurs 16th October also 7-9 pm and booking for that course
I'll be doing a similar course at the Tuam Archdiocese Inservice in the
Knock House Hotel on Wed 22nd October.
Still catching up. This week I've been attending events for the Ecumenical
Bible Week. In particular there are presentations on the Bible
and Film and the Bible and Music. On Monday I got to the
film presentation in the Presbyterian Church in Arklow and it an excellent
night. David Shepherd, Assistant Professor of Hebrew/Old Testament in
the Loyola Institute and Trinity College, explored many aspects of the
Bible and film, focussing especially on the recent film Noah and
what director Darren Aronofsky intended. He reflected on the biblical
and non-biblical aspects and had plenty of clips to illustrate the point.
He also looked at Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ especially
the portrayal of the non-scriptural Veronica, and where her story might
have originated. He related this to a much earlier portrayal of her in
a film by French director Alice Guy Blaché, who started making
films in 1896 and died in 1968!
there was another good session, this time in the local Methodist Church,
with Ian Callanan speaking about The Bible and Music. Mr
Callanan treated to the audience to lots of background information on
how music features in the Bible and what instruments were used in Biblical
times. He had the audience singing as well as he took us on a musical
journey from Creation to the Revelation. Finally there was a helpful handout
for people to reflect on what they had learned.
of catching up to do here. I've been fortunate to attend several wonderful
events in the last while. One of the best was the Michael Card
concert in Liberty Hall last Friday night. I've been a fan of Card for
years and it was great finally get to see him live, and I wasn't disappointed.
The night was like a kind of musical sermon - apart from the great songs
his chat between songs featured much thought-provoking reflection of scripture,
and while it was challenging it was also easy on the ear, gentle, witty
and wise! The familar songs were there - Joy in the Journey, Immanuel
and a fine rendition of Why, songs I've used many times in school
prayer services. It was great to get added insights into the songs from
his introductions. El Shaddai was notable by its absence, but he
did try some new material, all of it good.
A bonus on the night was the support act, husband and wife team John and
Michelle Thompson from Nashvile. They sang some folk-gospel duets - hope
they back for a full tour.
a great concert in Arklow last Thursday night with Beth Nielsen Chapman.
I think I can safely say it's the first gig I ever ran when somebody sang
in Latin! She did a lovely version of Mozart's 'Ave Verum Corpus', and
also another spiritual song 'Pray' that she sang recently on BBC's
Songs of Praise. And she sang her moving song about bereavement, 'Sand
and Water'. What a treat, and what a lovely person! I was also inspired
by her encouraging words about creativity and her songwriting advice given
at a workshop with the music students in Arklow CBS. Chapman
was accompanied by Ruth Trimble from Belfast who also impressed with her
own thoughtful and well-crafted songs.
to songs on her recent album 'Uncovered' I was struck by how useful
many of them would be when studying marriage, especially with senior classes.
'Simple Things' suggests we concentrate on what's important in a relationship,
'Here We Are' reflects on a relationship that grows strong through challenging
times, 'Sweet Love Shine' could be taken to address a loved one or God
perhaps, 'Pray' reflects on the role of prayer when relationships run
into difficulty, 'Maybe That's All It Takes' deals with forgiveness as
a way to overcome relationship difficulties, 'Strong Enough to Bend' suggests
compromise and flexibility as way to overcome. Songs can be previewed
or purchased individually here.
have mixed views about the film Calvary and I suspect it will polarise
audiences. It has quite a bit going for it, but many downsides as well,
a bit like the flawed humanity it portrays.
Brendan Gleeson gives a powerhouse performance as a priest in the West
of Ireland who is told in the opening confession scene that he will be
murdered in a week. The rest of the film develops as a sort of countdown
to that fateful Sunday on a local beach. Gleeson's Father Lavelle is portrayed
as a good man, surrounded mostly by crude and/or vain locals. He goes
about his priestly work with empathy and care for his parishioners and
we also see him saying Mass and hearing confessions. There's little of
the support structures that priests usually have in a parish, and most
of the surrounding characters are quite off-putting from the dodgy guard
to the drunken businessman living in the big house and the foul-mouthed
It's an interesting twist that the priest was previously married and has
a troubled daughter. She felt that by joining the priesthood after his
wife died he had left her with two parents lost to her. She is one of
the few sympathetic characters as is the American writer that the priest
supplies with provisions. There is some good-natured fun between the priest
and a canny altar boy. There are lots of anti-Catholic jibes, especially
about paedophile priests, which is a prominent theme, but one could argue
that these come from the obnoxious characters and therefore may not form
part of the viewpoint of the film.It's
not only these elements that that makes the film fit only for mature audiences.
The language is frequently though not relentlessly crude and some of the
violence is graphic. Suicide is also a strong theme. In its favour Gleeson's
performance is a standout, eliciting our sympathy for this good but troubled
Themes of forgiveness and redemption are woven into the plot and if anything
the film has a very favourable view of the work of a priest, and there
are harsh words for his fellow priest who is not very dedicated to the
work, though he is a bit of a cliché - I've seen so many dramas where
a passionate priest was paired with a wimp of one sort or another. I felt
that some of the worthy themes were handled in bite-sized snippets and
that the treatment often lacked depth.
Due to the adult content I don't see a lot of use for this film in RE
for young people. The confession scene at the start is too crude, but
there's a beautiful sequence where the priest anoints a foreigner who
has been fatally injured in a car crash, and consoles his wife immediately
afterwards. The local doctor's cynicism seems all the more ugly in this
light. The forgiveness theme is highlighted in two matching phone call
scenes near the end, both involving the daughter, but without context
these scenes, especially the latter, won't make much sense.
There are clichéd and melodramatic scenes (e.g. the pub shoot up) contrasted
with some beautifully filmed scenery, making for an interesting but unsatisfying
whole. It's heart is in the right place but a dose of subtlety wouldn't
have gone astray.
last Friday's God Slot (RTE Radio 1) had Barry McMillan's perceptive
review of the film. He seemed to like it, especially its message of mercy
and respect, but called it 'relentlessly odd', 'quite mad' and a 'spectacular
grand folly'. He thought the film adhered to the spirit of the original
text in Genesis, even if some odd unusual elements were added.
Review. Got to see the film Noah tonight, and so these are
first impressions. I may add more later, after 'mature reflection'.
Well first of all the good stuff. Noah is an impressive film on
many levels. Sometimes the visuals are poetic and the special effects
dramatic. The acting in the main roles is excellent. Russell Crowe seems
able to bring a striking humanity to epic roles (eg Master and Commander,
Gladiator), Anthony Hopkins dominates his scenes as Noah's Grandfather,
Jennifer Connelly is convincing as Noah's wife though she doesn't seem
to age as much he does! Emma Watson is fine as an adopted daughter though
the characters of Noah's sons are underdeveloped.
There are two sequences that RE teachers may find particularly useful
- a poetic creation sequence as Noah tells the story to his children,
and the beautiful rainbow event near the end. This ultimately gives the
film a sense of hope and optimism that was absent from much of the film.
The bleakness is because Noah is convinced that God, referred to throughout
as 'The Creator', is punishing all of humanity and is just going to save
the 'innocent' animals, using Noah as his vehicle. At times it seems that
director Darren Aronofsky is pushing a trendy environmentalist line, a
bit like the way the Noah story is treated in Evan Almighty. But
it's not that simple, as faith and hope in a loving humanity is restored,
a humanity that hopefully will have respect for creation.
The film takes major liberties with the Genesis story, the most bizarre
aspect being the 'Watchers', a bunch of giant rock creatures that are
reminiscent of the walking tree creatures (The Ents) in the Lord of
the Rings films. It turns out that these are angels that The Creator
is punishing for siding with human beings and trying to help them. They
protect Noah from other humans who want to be taken on to the Ark and
a great big battle scene ensues, a field day for the CGI artists! The
Ark itself is more like a fortress, all square shaped and ugly, looking
like something that couldn't possibly float. The deluge is spectacular
when it comes, not just rain but geysers rising from the earth and the
scenes of people drowning are quite distressing. That, the strong violence
and a brief suggestive scene rule out the very young.
film drags a bit after that, complete with sub-plot about an evil stowaway!
The film teases out issues of good and evil, love, discerning the will
of God, temptation, choice and free will, and in that way is a cut above
many current films.
As usual last night's Emmanuel concert in the Helix Theatre was
superb. It was inspiring to hear the massed choirs from the schools of
Dublin Diocese joining together for some excellent liturgical music. Congratulations
to the music teachers and to Ian Callanan and his team for pulling it
all together. Schools will once again have a fine body of music to use
throughout the school year. We were treated to 21 songs, all with fine
vocals and a tight backing band. All songs were signed gracefully by the
girls of St Mary's School for the Deaf, a moving experiece. The lively
'Enter God's Kingdom' (Chris De Silva) was an excellent choice for the
start; the uplifting 'Here I Am to Worship' would be useful even for discussing
the whole idea of worship; Dana's 'We Are One Body' was probably the most
familiar song along with 'Joyful, Joyful' which featured a fine solo singer'
Sr Marie Dunne's 'Lúireach Phádraig' was a beautiful song,
beautifully arranged, while the rap song 'Another Day (Jesse Manibusan)
was another of the highlights ... still going round in my head! Many of
the songs had a water theme, to link in with Trócaire's Lenten
campaign. These included 'You Have Been Baptised' which will be very useful
to teachers exploring Baptism in class.
too long since I've written here. Note to self for Lent - update more
often! Biggest update for now - I'm organising a concert with Nashville
Singer-Songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman in the Arklow Bay Hotel
on Thurs 1st May at 8.30 pm. She has at least two Emmy nominations, her
songs have been recorded by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris,
Bette Midler, Elton John, Neil Diamond, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride,
The Indigo Girls, Michael McDonald, Amy Grant, Keb Mo’, Roberta Flack,
Waylon Jennings, Faith Hill, Willie Nelson, and many more. Of interest
to Faitharts readers is the fact that she has released some spiritual
albums, the most striking being Hymns, beautiful versions of the
Latin hymns of her childhood. See Faitharts reviews of some of her albums
here. He most recent album Uncovered
(pic on left) has her own versions of songs recorded by others and features
a most beautiful song 'Pray', with Amy Grant and Muriel Anderson on backing
vocals. Tickets are 25 Euro, but you can buy a pair for 40 Euro up to
April 30th. I'm organising ticket outlets at the moment, but for now you
can order by emailing me at email@example.com.
Chapman provided the best performance on last Sunday night's Songs
of Praise when she sang 'I Find Your Love' The choral work and congregational
singing was fine as well, and there was a particularly seasonal song 'Forty
Days and Forty Nights' that I hadn't heard before. There aren't too many
songs specifically about Lent. Check out my 'Resources
for Lent' page to hear that song.
the Feast of the Presentation I took another look at T.S. Eliot's
for Simeon, where explores the account of the Presentation in
Luke 2:22-39. The hyacinths reference struck a chord as we have them in
a pot in the house. When I studied the poem as a student I don't think
I knew what a hyacinth was! Now I'm older but not quite 'waiting for the
death wind'! What I've always liked about Eliot's religious poetry is
the way he can introduce elements of bleakness ('I am tired with my own
life and the lives of those after me,'), as he did in Journey of the
Magi. This is no happy clappy religion, though that has its place
too - Pope Francis has been reminding us recently of the Joy of the
Gospel. The imagery of persecution ('the time of cords and scourges
and lamentation') reminds me of the current persecution of Christians
in the Middle-East, while his references to martyrdom ('Not for me the
martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,') remind me of how he teased
out this issue in his play Murder in the Cathedral, where St Thomas
a Beckett wanted to do the right thing in his struggle with King Henry
II, but was afraid of courting martyrdom for selfish reasons. Lots of
fascinating issues to tease out in the classroom and beyond.
to hear of this week of the death of Pete Seeger, legend of American
Folk music. His protest songs, like 'We Shall Overcome', often had their
origins in gospel music, and so much more of his work was dedicated to
the cause of justice. He had at least one album of Christmas carols -
'Traditional Christmas Carols' (pictured left). He was a huge influence
on singers like Don McLean, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Arlo Guthrie
and so many more. Check out his performance (Video clip below) of a recent
song - 'God's Counting on Me, God's Counting on You'
always liked reading and teaching the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins,
though I'll admit to being challenged by the quirky use of rhythm and
language that has made his work so distinctive. Like Emily Dickinson he's
definitely one of a kind!
Recently RTE 1's Drama on One series featured an unusual drama
based on Hopkin's poetry. No Worst There is None was described
as 'a sonic journey into the mind of Gerard Manley Hopkins as he approaches
death', presented by the Stomach Box theatre group. It was an effective
combination of readings from Hopkins' poems and letters, finishing suitably
with the poem that gave the programme its title.
The drama concentrated on the latter end of Hopkins' life and he was far
from content. He spoke of the 'wicked thoughts' that assailed him, the
'old habits' he couldn't shake, some 'dangerous subject' he dwelt too
much on, the laziness that led to 'wasted time'. If he tried to make excuses
for himself he felt guilty about the rationalising. Though he was at times
'pitched past pitch of grief' he had some happy moments, times when he
felt he was the 'most placidist soul in the world'. The drama ended with
him declaring 'I'm happy' at the end of his life, though after all the
angst that preceded it, this felt a bit arbitrary, and I though the drama
could have created more of a basis for this to make it seem less random.
It was indeed a 'sonic journey', with poetry reading interspersed with
sound effects, echoes and songs from the singers of Dublin Choral Foundation
and St. Patrick's Cathedral Choir. The solo singing was effective, but
the children singing gave it somehow an eerie and unsettling feeling,
which may well have been the intention. Anyone not familiar with Hopkins
may well have found the whole experiences somewhere between intriguing
It was helpful that this production was followed immediately by a short
programme, Hopkins and the Sonnet, in which Abbot Mark Patrick
Hederman of Glenstal Abbey reflected on Hopkins' pain filled 'terrible
sonnets', which he described as 'therapeutic' and not originally intended
for publication. He provided some interesting historical background -
how Hopkins was alienated in England because he had become Catholic and
in Ireland because he was English! He ended up mainly correcting the copies
of students in Newman's new university in Dublin. No wonder he had dark
Abbot Hederman gave a more rounded view of the Hopkins from his giving
up on poetry on becoming a Jesuit, through his return to the art with
'Wreck of the Deutchland' a tribute to a group of nuns who had died in
a shipping accident, to his dark moments later in life. Though describing
the poet as a 'psychosexual mess' at one stage, he stressed that one needed
to consider Hopkins, not primarily from a psychological angle, but by
considering his life and work in terms of his 'great relationship with
God', the relationship that led him to a final happiness at the end.
You can listen back to these programmes here.
13/1/14 Looking through the Journal Work titles for Junior Cert 2015, I can
see some openings for an arts based approach. Best bet is probably D2
- 'Research into the factors that have contributed to the development
of two different images of God'.
finally caught up on the rest of The Bible series. Fair play to
TV3 (Irl) and Channel 5 (UK) for giving such a huge chunk of prime time
TV to a religious series. As the series moved on through the life of Jesus
it grew on me. I got to like Diogo
the role of Jesus, and the women characters were well done, especially
the roles of Mary Mother of Jesus (played by co-producer Roma Downey),
Mary Magdalen (Amber Rose Revah) and Pilate's wife Claudia (Louise Delamere).
For school use there are some useful set scenes - for example the sequence
from the start of that fateful Passover week was well handled, with considerable
attention given to the atmosphere and political background. The violence
was still strong as in the Old Testament sequences, even at times gratuitous,
though not on the extreme level of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ.
could see however the influence of that other film - e.g. the devil figure
moving through the crowd, and the atmospheric scene in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Pilate character, though a bit one-note, was one of the most menacing
Pilate's I've seen on film, thanks to the acting presence of Greg Hicks.
Of the apostles, Peter, John and Judas made an impression but could have
The Resurrection always poses a challenge to film makers and this version
takes an approach very like that seen in BBC's The Passion from
a few years ago - Mary Magdalen heads out to the tomb on her own, finds
it empty and meets Jesus, though all too briefly. The meeting on the road
to Emmaus is conflated into the apostles breaking bread and meeting the
risen Jesus in the upper room (this setting is reminiscent of Zefferelli's
Jesus of Nazareth).
There's not much on Jesus' time on earth after the Resurrection, but the
Ascension is done reasonably well. At least Jesus doesn't take off like
a rocket as in one version I saw. Unlike many film versions there is some
coverage of events from the Acts of the Apostles. The coming of
the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is handled innovatively - lots of wind and
speaking in tongues but no tongues of fire. The martyrdom by stoning of
Stephen (Irish accent!) is fairly rough and I don't remember ever seeing
that on film before. There was a touching scene of the apostles praying
the Lord's Prayer. Paul is shown as a particularly nasty bit of work before
his encounter on the road to Damascus, and unfortunately this side of
him creates a much stronger impression that his post-conversion persona.
What I thought the series missed out on was the poetic side of the Bible
- the Psalms and the parables in particular. Indeed while the series was
technically adept I thought an innovative artistic hand was missing. All
in all it was an impressive series in its broad scope, technically it
was a fine achievement and there were some worthy performances and a few
striking set pieces, but I wondered, especially in the Gospel sequences
whether anything that new or exceptional had been done compared to other
TV or big screen versions. However this series may bring the Bible stories
to a new generation and make them curious enough to follow it up. Certainly
the character of Jesus was portrayed in an appealing way, and now that
the Gospel segments are being re-edited into a movie version called Son
of God, due for release in February 2014, the reach of this project
should increase considerably.
One of the many religious shows over Christmas was a new dramatization,
The Bible, a mini-series from USA's History Channel that premiered
on TV3 and Channel 5. From advance reading I knew it was well meant and
stemmed from the faith of producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnet. I wanted
to like it, but my initial reaction wasn't too enthusiastic. In particular
I wasn't enamoured of the Old Testament sequences. Partly it's a problem
inherent in trying to cover the whole Bible - the full text is just too
unwieldy for filming. A mini-series helps in that it allows more time,
but this version didn't escape some of the common pitfalls, like the one-dimensional
characterisations. A lot of it was without context, and the intermittent
use of a narrator didn't solve the problem. Dramatic coherence was damaged
by time jumps - captions like '40 Years Later' are never a great idea.
The spectacular aspects of the Old Testament stories were overemphasized
- obvious example being the parting of the waters as Moses led his people
to freedom. The violence was quite strong and some scenes were downright
disturbing (e.g. Pharaoh's men throwing babies over a cliff). If you knew
the stories you'd have some idea of how they fit in to the story of God's
people, but to anyone without the background and sound catechesis it must
have seemed all very strange and unappealing. For school use it's a way
to familiarise students with Old Testament stories that were very familiar
to an older generation. One scene that struck me as useful for classes
on images of God was Moses encounter with God in the burning bush (clip
So far the New Testament section is much better. The actors playing
Mary and Joseph do a good job, and their part of the story has more coherence,
a tighter focus and a more personal approach. The strong violence is still
there, and while some scenes, like the miraculous catch of fish and Jesus
walking on the water (clip on left) are well done , others are stilted.
Diogo Morgado does reasonably well as Jesus and becomes more appealing
in the role as you get used to him. More anon as I catch up on the final
I got even more into the Christmas spirit last weekend by attending an
Anúna concert in St Bartholomew's Church, Ballsbridge, last weekend.
In fact it was the Christmas material that I liked most about the concert
- there was a particularly fine version of 'Away in a Manger', a sprightly
'Ding Dong Merrily on High', and some traditional songs like the 'Coventry
Carol' and the 'Wexford Carol'. Of the less seasonal material I loved
the round 'Jerusalem', especially when the singers moved around the Church
with candles (as they did for several songs) to create an interesting
soundscape and a striking visual effect. Michael McGlynn added some quirky
humour, and also worth noting is his comment as to how he regrets the
Catholic Church making enough of its musical heritage. Probably true,
in some parishes at least, but then you can also have churches with hugely
impressive choral work, but so good that it deters the congregation from
participating, and could direct more attention to the choir than to God!
really got into the Christmas mood last Wednesday when I got to Liam
Lawton's 'Celtic Christmas' concert in the Civic Theatre Tallaght.
I was won over straight away when he opened the concert with one of my
Christmas favourites 'It Came Upon a Midnight Clear'. The night was a
mixture of Christmas standards and Lawton's original material, including
some songs not directly related to Christmas, like his song 'The Coud's
Veil'. Most of the Christmas songs were from his new album Bethlehem
Sky, just released. The title track is particularly beautiful and
was inspired, Lawton told us, by a visit to the Holy Land. One of the
standout moments of the night was when Lawton took to the piano himself
and sang a medley of familiar carols. A few years ago I was at a Lawton
concert and thought there was too much use of electronics, and while there
was a little of that, the backing band provided some fine live music -
especially effective was Nigel Davey on button accordeon. Lawton's easy
manner won the audience over and he had them singing along with gusto.
Never have I come across so many poets in the one place! It was 'Soundings
for Simon' a brilliantly conceived event in the Yellow House Rathfarnham
Dublin last week, combining a fundraiser for the Simon Community with
nostalgia for the old Leaving Certificate poetry book Soundings.
And, like Soundings itself there was quite a bit of religious or
The organiser Daragh Bradish read one of his poems - a clever one about
running the same event last year in the city center and the irony of walking
past homeless people on the way home carrying the proceeds on the night!
Nessa O'Mahony had some touching poems about her family. In one such I
liked her image about the rhythm of childhood prayers coming back to her
on the death of her grandfather. Seamus Cashman read an extract from a
poem he wrote inspired by the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and in a
more contemporary vein read one of his about a visit to the Holy Land,
where he came across a cemetery sacred to the locals that had been largely
built over. Ironically a Museum of Reconciliation was to be built on the
John F. Deane was also inspired by the Holy Land. He told of a visit to
the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, a visit that inspired poems in his new
collection Blessed and Broken. The poem he read from echoed his
introductory words about reclaiming the Old Testament, which was also
part of the Christian tradition - 'I have come to take possession of the
songs, the psalms, the lamentations'.
Paul Bregazzi read Hopkins' 'The Windhover', while Tom Conaty read Kavanagh's
seasonal 'Advent', both old favourites from Soundings. I'm looking
forward to next year's event.
Time to recap on a few gigs I've been at recently, where I've
heard a few songs that might be of use to RE teachers. A few weeks ago
I got to see US singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes in the Seamus Ennis
Centre in The Naul, Co. Dublin, a fine venue if a bit out of the way!
Rhodes sometimes includes spiritual material in her recordings, and one
the best at this gig was her song God's Acre, a simple and optimistic
song about death and the afterlife - 'I'm going home to God's Acre/Where
my loved ones wait for me'. Another one to add to the list of suitable
songs for remembrance in November.
More recently I went to see upcoming singer Joanna Burke from Dublin
singing in the 'Third Space' cafe in Smithfield, an excellent venue with
an emphasis on hospitality and good food, with good music on a Friday
night. Her rendition of Patty Griffin's song 'Forgiveness' was a standout
- 'Don't need to tell me a thing, baby/ We've already confessed/ And I
raised my voice to the air/And we were blessed/Everybody needs a little
forgiveness'. Apart from lines like this the imagery is challenging at
times and it's not entirely clear what the overall message is.
Best gig of all was last Friday in Waterford's Garter Lane Theatre. Krista
Detor from Illinois USA gave an excellent concert with songs that
were literate and entertaining. One of the best was 'Clock of the World',
just about the only song I know that marries the beauty of faith and the
beauty of science without any conflict between them. In her introduction
Detor referred wryly to having a mixed Catholic and Lutheran background,
which, she said, left her 'confused'! But she was critical of arbitrary
conflicts between science and faith, as she urged people to allow them
to work away on their own distinctive paths.
Finally, I was impressed by a gig with Leslie Dowdall and the String
Factory in the Conary Arts Centre near Avoca last Saturday night.
Dowdall was an engaging performer and was hugely complemented by John
Nolan and John Hunt on guitar, bouzouki and vocals. They did a fine version
of the old gospel song 'Wayfarin' Stanger' along with many originals and
Just came across a 'How Not To' guide for showing video in the
RE classroom. Lots of interesting points, followed by suggestions about
how to do it right. Have a look here.
weekend I got to the City of Derry International Choral Festival,
and what a musical feast! There was a sacred music competition on the
Sunday which was an impressive mix of modern and traditional, from Avro
Part's setting for 'The Deer's Cry', sung by the Clermont Chorale of Dundalk
and Cór Mhaigh Eo, to the gospel sounding 'My Soul's Been Anchored
in the Lord' by Moses Hogan, performed by the winning choir Voci Nuove
from Cork (pic on left). In the high profile international competition
on the Saturday night it was also noteworthy how many of the choirs sang
religious music as part of their programme. The Cois Claddaigh choir from
Galway sang the beautiful 'Beannacht' by Eamon Murray, the charismatic
Polifonica choir from Belarus sang an 'Easter Canon', the youthful Ad
Solem chamber choir from England sang 'Behold, O God Our Defender', the
New Dublin Voices included a version of Psalm 96, while the winning choir,
Voci Nuove again, had the most striking 'Molaimis go léir an tAon-Mhac
Críost' by Ben Hanlon from Waterford. That competition had a guest
performance from the Gospel Singers Incognito, a choir that featured prominently
on Britain's Got Talent. After the wonderful acoustic performances of
the competing choirs it was a bit jarring when they got mic'd up, but
they certainly got the crowd going - all the phone lights were on for
'This Little Light of Mine'. They were more spontaneous and delightfully
informal later on at the Festival Club. The festival also featured a dedicated
gospel music competition, school choirs and a 'Sacred Trail' of music
in churches on the Sunday morning, when I managed to catch the fine music
of the local St Eugene's Cathedral Choir and their guests the St Mary's
Pro-Cathedral Choir from Dublin. It was the inaugural festival for Derry's
City of Culture year and all in all a wondererful integration and celebration
of faith and culture.
24/10/13 A friend recently asked me about resources
on the theme of remembrance for November, which got me thinking.
As a result I've created a special page dedicated to such resources. It
will be a work in progress - I'll add to it through the month. Click here.
Had a great time at the RE Congress last Saturday in Mater Dei
Institute. The keynote addresses were thought-provoking (Archbishop Martin's
talk is here),
it was great to meet so many dedicated RE teachers and I hope my own workshop
on Senior Cycle RE, Non-Exam was helpful to teachers. Thankfully the arts
were not ignored! The music was varied, from Bernadette Farrell's familiar
'Christ Be Our Light', through Sebastian Temple's 'Make Me a Channel of
Your Peace', to newer works like the Congress theme song, 'Fan the Flame"
(Liam Lawton), Tom Kendzia's version of Psalm 103 and the upbeat recessional
'I Send You Out' (John Angotti). There were liturgical dancers early in
the day and much attention given to symbolism, especially that of flame.
Two recent events reassured me that the faith is alive and well! I was
down at the Faith Gathering in Ennis last week to give a workshop
on 'Finding Faith on the Internet' (good to meet some from the Faitharts
list) and was impressed by the huge crowds that attended and the large
number of intetresting workshops. Great attention was given to the prayer
services and ceremonies. One song that made an impact was a version of
St Patrick's Breastplate composed by David Kauffman. I've added this workshop
to the list of available workshops I can give. Check out the list here.
Meanwhile back in my home parish of Arklow there was a parish Mass for
the start of the academic year involving participation from all the local
schools - great to see effective parish-school links. Again one song grabbed
my attention - 'The Lord is My Shepherd', by Ingrid DuMosch, performed
with soul by local student Ciara O'Connell. The clip on left is a duet
version, not sure who the male vocalist is!
Wed night's Leonard Cohen concert at the O2 was one of the best
concerts I've ever been at. It was an expensive night but the audience
wasn't short changed as Cohen gave it his all including several encores.
The words that spring to mind as I try to describe the event ... beauty,
dignity, grace, presence, depth, humour, mischief, intensity, intimacy.
Cohen was masterful as expected, and funny too, but his backing band and
and singers were also superb, in particular the Webb Sisters and Sharon
Robinson. I don't know where Cohen is at on his spiritual journey or what
kind of a journey he is on, but his songs are and always have been suffused
with religious language and imagery. I won't go into any deep analysis
here but a few songs struck me as particularly noteworthy. After the romanticism
of 'Dance Me to the End of Love' there was the hard-hitting 'The Future'
with its repentance theme and these chilling words: "Destroy another
fetus now We don't like children anyhow I've seen the future, baby: it
is murder ". 'Come Healing' was particularly beautiful - "And
let the heavens hear it, The penitential hymn, Come healing of the spirit,
Come healing of the limb", enhanced by the gorgeous backing vocals.
'Going Home' was a gentle reflection on mortality with an eye to the afterlife
- "Going home Without my burden Going home Behind the curtain Going
home Without the costume That I wore". After Cohen's opening recitation
the Webb Sisters gave a moving performance of 'If It Be Your Will' - "If
it be your will, To let me sing, From this broken hill, All your praises
they shall ring " (see them perform it here).
Like many of Cohen's songs it came across as a kind of prayer. In fact
he performs many songs as if they were prayers, and maybe they are.
I've rarely used Cohen's work in school, as there is frequently 'adult
content' and the messages are often obscure and open to all sorts of interpretation,
though I have used Jennifer Warne's versions of 'Joan of Arc' and 'Song
of Bernadette' (which he co-wrote with Warnes) when covering arts and
faith in a Transition Year module.
Wednesday I went to see Joe Henry playing a concert in Whelans.
Henry is a US singer-songwriter who is widely known as a producer as well
- recently he produced albums for Bonnie Raitt and Lisa Hannigan. His
songs sometimes feature spiritual or religious themes or imagery, the
best known example being 'God Only Knows' which featured on Bonnie Raitt's
recent album. Unfortunately he didn't sing that one on the night, but
the gig was really enjoyable. Henry's songs repay repeated listenings
as their meanings are certainly not yielded up easily. He said onstage
that his wife regards his songs as 'obtuse'! They are definitely genuine
and thought-provoking, performed with passion! The icing on the cake was
Lisa Hannigan doing backing vocals and playing mandolin (see pic).
Very sad, but inspiring, to be listening to coverage of the funeral of
Seamus Heaney RIP. Only last year I had been covering Heaney's poetry
in 5th Year English. As far as religious faith goes two of his course
poems stood out over the years - in the early days on the new English
course there was St
Kevin and the Blackbird, a quirky poem about prayer and much more.
I got some fun, and hopefully a good learning experience for the students
when we re-enacted St Kevin's discomfort, 'arms outstretched'. Also quirky
viii with it's odd scenario of the monks at Clonmacnoise at prayer
when 'A ship appeared above them in the air'. The students produced some
great artwork to illustrate that one! No doubt, speculation will be rife
that they'll surely put Heaney on next June's exam paper!
Delighted to get my copy of Seek and Find, the new RE Text for
Senior Cycle in the post today. This is the text co-written by Katherina
Broderick, Elaine Costelloe and myself, and edited by Ailis Travers. It's
now available from Veritas - details here.
Needless to say there are plenty of arts based resources - film, music,
visual arts and poetry.
I had my first visit to the Albert Hall in London for one the BBC
Proms concerts. What an impressive venue - (see pic above)! Performers
included the Irish Youth Chamber Choir, the National Youth Choirs of Great
Britain and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. First up was
Vaughan Williams setting of the Walt Whitman poem Toward the Unknown
Region, but the highlight for me was the climax of the evening - the
familiar fourth movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 with it's uplifting
Ode to Joy - 'up above the starry vault/a loving father must surely
dwell'. The concert was filmed for BBC Four and will be broadcast on Fri
7/8/13 Looking back through highlights of WYD
in Rio I came across this striking performance by Matt Maher, of 'Lord
I Need You'. I think it's the first time I've seen anyone performing from
a kneeling position!
that one of my favourite films The Execution of Private Slovikis now available on DVD (e.g. here
at Amazon). This is a 1974 TV movie starring Martin Sheen in the true
story of Eddie Slovik, the only US soldier executed for desertion in World
War 2. Have ordered it from Amazon, but I did get to see it again few
years ago and here's what I wrote at the time: 'It was simple basic and
hard hitting, and as moving as ever. It
is not in the least heavy handed in it's message, and some viewers may
even find Slovik a somewhat unsympathetic character. Two
scenes in particular are useful for class - around the middle of the film
the chaplain talks to the firing squad about the morality of it all, and
towards the end there is Slovik's final experience of the Sacrament of
Reconciliation. He prays on the way to execution, but this scene is tough
going and may not be suitable for younger classes at least. And without
the context of the full film the emotional impact wouldn't be the same.
caught up with the film Stella Days last night. I was well disposed
towards it, being a fan of Martin Sheen, but though it has its good points
I found it hard to warm to. Clichés abound in yet another of these awful-Ireland-of-the-past
films. The storyline has Fr Barry (Sheen) starting up a cinema in Borrisokane,
out off his love for the art form but also to raise funds for a new Church
he's not too enthusiastic about. Predictably the cardboard cut-out cranky
old bishop (Tom Hickey, in an unsubtle performance) is against it on moral
grounds (the filth!) until he sees the money being raked in by other cinemas.
Even more opposed is the local politician, right wing Catholic of course
(one-note surly acting from Stephen Rea).
In a way there are too many plots, many of them predictable, for any of
them to be handled with any depth - the story of Fr Barry's vocation,
whisked away to seminary at age 12, the handsome new teacher who falls
for the lonely abandoned wife, the young boy waiting for his father to
come home from England, the EBS woman promoting rural electrification,
the old lady whose faith is dodgy but who thrives on multiple anointings.
The verdict isn't all bad however. Martin Sheen brings a certain warmth
to his role that is largely absent from the rest of the film. We can empathise
with his efforts to live out a vocation he may never have had, and yet
see the vanity that motivates to want to get back to the academic life
in Rome. I can't remember any instance of him praying, he's overly distracted
by the cinema controversy and in one scene seems unconcerned or even tacitly
approving of the adulterous relationship between the teacher and the lodger.
Yet he cares for and is kind to his people without in any way trying to
lord it over them as the politician and the bishop would like him to do.
They're big on control while he wants to be of service.
Though largely dark in mood, the films tries hard at the start to be whimsical,
with a pleasantly light-hearted music score and some entertaining confession
scenes to add to my collection - most of the time it's people confessing
that they've taken the Lord's name in vain. We see him performing several
of the Sacraments, for the most part treated respectfully, though one
scene seemed to suggest that the new electric cookers were 'magic' like
the Eucharist. I couldn't see myself using the full film in class, but
the confession scenes might be useful.
I was most
impressed by the art work and music at the World Youth Day ceremonies
that I saw on TV and online. However what stood out for me was Judy Bailey's
performance of her own song 'Life Goes On' at the WYD vigil. I'm including
the video here. It seems to be about saying goodbye to a loved one who
has died so it may well bring a few tears, but what a beatiful and touching
song! The full WYD vigil is available for viewing here.
I did my usual monthly slot on Spirit Radio, and this time I visited
their new studio in Bray. The songs I used were 'These Hands' by Dave
Gunning, 'Broken (I Will Wait' by Chris Taylor (see below, entry for 19/7/13
for both songs) and 'Watchmen' by an interesting California band Castles
been listening to some good new music recently (new to me at least) -
Canadian Dave Gunning's song 'These Hands' (above) would be particularly
good on the vocation/service theme. It's on his current album No More
Pennies. The song has already inspired a children's book of the same
name. The book features 17 vibrant, original illustrations by Meaghan
Smith, as well as the lyrics and sheet music to the song. More info here.
into Love (Songs for the Road) is a fine new album by Chris Taylor,
which includes some well crafted meditations on St Paul's words about
love, a contemporary version of 'Amazing Grace' and more. 'Broken (I Will
Wait)' is one of the best tracks (see below)
Wednesday I got to attend a concert featuring L'Angelus, a Cajun
band from Louisiana. As always the performances were high energy stuff
with lots of great music and instrumental prowess. As usual with this
band there was some spiritual material - fine versions of 'Be Thou My
Vision' and 'Ave Maria'. They sand a beautiful version of 'What a Wonderful
World' and by conttrast lots of Cajun dance music. If there was any fault
it was the lack of enough new material - I had heard most of the songs
on previous tours. The venue was Tobar
Mhuire Retreat Centre in Crossgar, Co. Down, and an extra treat was
to have dinner with the band before the gig and supper afterwards as we
were staying over. First class hospitality from the Passionist priests
and and all the staff! We got to visit their new meditation garden which
was very attractive with its meandering paths, nooks and crannies and
an outdoor Mass venue
(pic below) .
missed the first Nightfever event I was determined to check it
out last Thursday night, and what a beautiful experience. The format was
simple - a prayer vigil in Clarendon St Church off Grafton St on a Thursday
night, shopping night in the area, with volunteers on the steet in their
day-glo jackets inviting people in to pray with candles and petitions.
Many passers by were taking up the invitation and what they found inside
was a calm prayerful vigil, with beautiful live music and an altar lit
by candles whose numbers grew steadily as more and more people, most of
them young, came in. One could pray for a while, go out for a chat or
tea and come back in again. Some priests were available for those who
wanted Confession or just a chat. It struck me that this was the kind
of format that suits a lot of people nowadays - informal, deeply calm
and spiritual, prayerful and social. A Holy Hour in the old style might
seem daunting to some, but this was a holy three hours or more that to
me at least flew by. The next Nightfever event will be on Saturday night
21st September - worth putting in the diary straight away.
I have been doing GM Hopkins in 6th Yr English - my notes are available,
including on religious themes. Just request through contact link on left.
In 3rd Yr
RE we've been covering issues of law and morality, and I'm using the superb
film Sophie Scholl to illustrate some of the ideas, and to give
an end of term treat! Going down well so far. As I have three 3rd yr classes
I see every segment three times (sometimes in one day!) but I still love
it! My study guide to the film is here
when spirits are waning at this time of year and exams loom large I do
stuff in RE non-exam that may be useful in exam classes - eg looking
at religious themes in Macbeth with 6th years, or doing religious themes
in course poetry. The Sophie Scholl film should help with German aurals!
I'm sure many links could be made with other subjects. Of course some
have state RE exams and therefore enough to do in RE class.
Saturday I went to see a TeenspiriT concert in the Arklow Bay Hotel,
and it was quite a lively night of gospel songs and secular music that
had a positive message. I'm not sure where 'Sweet Caroline' and 'Waterloo'
fits in there, but everything from 'Ave Maria' to 'Don't Stop Believing'
worked well, and the enthusiasm of the young teens was infectious. It
was good to see the vocal solos spread around so many from the choir,
and the small backing group was excellent, with some tasty lead guitar
Have been exploring the topic of prayer with 3rd year students.
Needless to say there's a wealth of resources. Music-wise, in class or
in prayer room I used 'Be Thou My Vision' by Michael Card from his Starkindler
album, 'Where Do I Go' by Gary Chapman and Ashley Cleveland from the
great 'Songs from the Loft' album, 'Only in God' by John Michael
Talbot (his albums are great resources for all sorts of topics) and 'Dare
to Believe' by Randy Stonehill from his album Edge of the World. Some
of these songs are actually about prayer and therefore particulary
useful. Most of these songs are available online at sites like iTunes,
7Digital and YouTube. Powerpoints have also been useful to show various
types of prayer, locations for prayer and aids to prayer.
2/5/13 Last weekend I got to attend a brilliant concert featuring Sarah McQuaid,
a Cornwall based singer-songwriter with Irish, English, Spanish and American
influences. Venue was the excellent Conary
Arts Centre near Avoca, Co. Wicklow. McQuaid's performance was marked
by an emotional and musical warmth, aided by the intimate nature of the
venue. Her repertoire includes many traditional songs like'In the Pines',
and some fine original material. I'm glad she included 'In Derby Cathedral'
(clip above) from her current album The Plum Tree and the Rose, it
must be one of my favourite spiritual songs from 2012. Also in a spiritual
vein was the old folk song 'Uncloudy Day' from her album I Won’t Go
Home ’Til Morning, while the touching 'Last Song' from the same album,
was also one of the highlights.
my Spirit Radio
slot last Monday I reviewed these songs along with another spiritual song
'Wondrous Love'. You can listen to all of Sarah's songs here.
I also reviewed the ITV drama series Broadchurch, full review below,
entry for 25/4/13.