Friday, September 28, 2007

Religion, Violence, and The Godfather Saga

It is well known that images of religion and violence are intertwined throughout key moments of The Godfather saga. At the end of the first movie, Michael Corleone attends a baptism as godfather while his orders to commit the unprecedented murders of top mafia bosses systematically takes place. This theme intensifies somewhat in the second movie, as the young Vito Corleone kills Don Fanucci in early 20th century New York at the same time a prominent priest is administering an outdoor Mass and benediction during the Madonna procession. At the end of the movie, Fredo Corleone is reciting the Hail Mary on a small boat when he is shot in the back of the head on the orders of his brother Michael. The interweaving of religion and violence comes to full fruition in the third and final movie. Again, during a Madonna procession in New York, there is a shootout in which Joey Zasa is killed by Santino Corleone's illegitimate son Vincent. At the end of the movie, as the Corleone family watches Michael's son perform the lead role in Cavalieria Rusticaha (an opera filled with Christian imagery), an assassin (disguised as a priest) quietly kills a number of people and ultimately kills Michael's beloved daughter on the steps of the concert hall. In addition, on the orders of Vincent, a corrupt archbishop is murdered inside the Vatican itself.

This interweaving of religion and violence in all 3 movies has been fodder for a variety of interpretations about what the director, Francis Ford Coppola, is trying to tell us. Is he suggesting that religion and violence go hand in hand? Is he trying to contrast the goodness of religion with the evil of violence? I suspect there are numerous legitimate interpretations of this theme. In the remaining part of this post, allow me to give you my interpretation, and then comment on why this whole issue might have applicability beyond a coffeehouse debate.

I don't think Coppola is suggesting that religion directly causes violence with premeditation, or even that religion is indifferent to violence. Instead, what he may be trying to say is that the outward expressions of a compromised religion are ultimately ineffective in stopping violence. Consider the following:

1) If Coppola was using these movies as a vehicle to condemn religion generally, the Cardinal Lumberto character in the final movie doesn't make much sense. Cardinal Lumberto is clearly portrayed as a 'true priest', a good man, someone who is not corrupt, and genuinely cares about the physical and spiritual well being of people as evidenced during Michael Corleone's confession to him. When Lumberto becomes Pope, the corrupt elements in the Vatican quickly see him as a threat, rather than someone they can manipulate or even someone who will just look the other way and not rock the boat. Predictably, violence comes to visit Lumberto precisely because he provides no comfort for those who are corrupt and violent.

2) In addition, Tom Hagen's son, who maintains a cordial personal relationship with Michael Corleone, heads off to Rome to enter the priesthood. When Michael's new consigliere tells the son to keep him apprised of the Vatican's affairs from the inside, Michael nixes the idea on the grounds that Hagen's son has 'the true faith'. It is actually quite startling that a man as completely morally compromised as Michael Corleone still has the ability to discern purity from corruption. I think this says something about Coppola's view of religion as well.

3) At the beginning of the second movie when the boy Vito is smuggled out of Sicily for his own protection, the older people who are protecting him seem to be faithfully religious, saying that they are praying for Vito's safety. These people are not just superficially praying for Vito, they are risking their own lives in aiding his escape.

So Coppola is giving the impression that he believes authentic, faithful, heartfelt religion is still a force for good in the world. But of course, these hints are juxtaposed by clear indicators that religion has also compromised itself and has been corrupted as a result. Consider this:

1) The Corleone family has their own family priest. This priest officiated at the baptism in NY at the end of the first movie, and then officiates again at Anthony's first communion in Lake Tahoe years later at the beginning of the second movie. While the priest seems like a nice guy, he can't be oblivious to who he has chosen to associate with. Given that the Corleones have a long history of buying influence, it is a reasonable deduction that the priest has been compensated in some earthly way for uniquely providing his services to a mob family. And of course, the outward trappings of baptism and communion do nothing to change the violent nature of the family.

2) Most obviously in the third movie, the archbishop is thoroughly corrupt and is heavily involved in a scheme to defraud Michael Corleone out of $600M. At the beginning of the third movie, Michael is presented with a prestigious medal from the Catholic Church in recognition of his 'charity work'. Michael's 'Vito Corleone Foundation' is ostensibly devoted to helping poor children in Sicily, but in reality, it is primarily devoted to bribing church officials, most notably the archbishop, to grease the skids for Michael's planned takeover of a major European business conglomerate that the Church has a major stake in. As Michael's bitter ex-wife Kay later observes, this is a disgusting ceremony because she knows Michael is trying to buy respectability and the Church is more than willing to partner in this unholy effort if it means they'll be richer for it.

3) In a number of places in the second movie, priests are friendly with known mob bosses. This is true of Fanucci and of the young Vito in Sicily. Again, priests are depicted as being entirely too cozy with prominent crime figures they must know are heavily involved in brutality.

4) In the third movie, the assassin, who is disguised as a priest, easily blends in with other priests who are attending the opera. While these other priests do not know he is an assassin, it is still a bit unnerving that an assassin with a well known reputation can so easily blend in among priests. We get the impression that the priests are oblivious to the monster that's in their midst, and lack any level of discernment and interest in getting to know this man who has suddenly latched onto them in order to get into the opera house and go on a killing spree.

So it seems to me that Coppola, while certainly not anti-religious, is still giving us a very difficult but sage message. Coppola seems to think that while there is a true and good religion, and that this religion does have its faithful followers, it is the exception rather than the rule. And because the majority of religion has chosen to be cozy with corrupting agents who commit violence, it has largely lost the ability to effectively combat corruption and violence. Again, it's not that religion causes violence or is indifferent to it. It's that religion can't stop violence because it is impotent to do so because of its compromise with evil men. Particularly with the first movie's baptism, and the murder of Fanucci in the second movie, we have this impression of religious ceremonies blissfully taking place while violence occurs all around it, with religion being powerless to stop it. It's as if religion is largely out of touch with what's going on all around it because it itself is too compromised to see how ineffective it is. In Coppola's world, violence wins because the 'true faith' has become entirely too rare and has been largely replaced by a compromised cultural, ritualistic, and/or civic religion that has lost its good power due to its unholy accommodations.

This message is obviously relevant for us today. Whether it's violence, corruption, sexuality, or peacemaking, we have to ask the hard question of whether the church has lost the ability to prophetically speak to these areas because of its own less than savory practices and associations. As one example, how is the church supposed to prophetically speak against the hookup culture among young adults when the church itself has adopted superficial approaches to relationship and community? As I've blogged about previously, the question of how cozy or not cozy the church should be with the world around it has been a thorny issue from the beginning. Within the context of a mafia drama, Coppola warns us of the danger of accommodating culture in order to gain earthly relevancy or influence. While few of us are providing comfort to mob bosses, we need to ask who and what we are aiding and comforting, and why. A failure to thoughtfully examine this question and courageously act on what the Spirit shows us will result in the kind of largely impotent religion that Coppola painfully presents.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

"Truth Before Friendship"

The title of this blog has gained traction in Reformed circles since the days of Machen. It is meant to connote an unwavering commitment to truth, even when it hurts. This sentiment is alive and well today. The "Split P's" phenomenon of dividing (both formally and informally) over almost anything has become a standard characteristic of American Presbyterianism in particular, and the Reformed movement generally. John Frame has often said that the conservative Reformed movement in America has too often been filled by what he calls "Machen's Warrior Children". By this, he is referring to the spiritual descendents of Machen who took Machen's battles against liberal theology and turned that mentality toward fellow conservatives. The result has been faction after faction among people who consider themselves Reformed and evangelicals.

So am I saying that the "truth before friendship" mentality should be done away with because it is the enemy of unity? No. Scripture is clear that there are regretable instances in which we must defend the truth even if the cost is breaking fellowship (1 Cor 11, 2 John 10, etc). Clearly, the truth can't be sacrificed on the altar of maintaining a false unity that's not based on normative standards of belief. The current state of the mainline denominations sadly demonstrate that using constantly shifting abstract human ideas about what constitutes unity as the basis for trying to build a lasting tangible unity is a fool's errand. But does that mean that "friendship" and fellowship are commodities that are as expendable as toothbrushes? No.

Perennial issues like the role of women in formal vocational ministry, the 'worship wars', and the millennial debate have more recently been joined by other divisive issues such as the NPP and 'subscription' debates in Reformed circles. And let's be clear - the "warrior children" of Machen are on both sides of each one of these issues. Different faithful Christians will come down differently on all of these issues, and determining where lines of division need to be drawn is something that must be constantly reevaluated. But Scripture is not silent on the principles and values that need to be employed in our dealings with other Christians, and these principles have been dangerously compromised by the "truth before friendship" mentality in ways that I increasingly believe are unfaithful to the whole counsel of God.

Among the biblical principles we need to operate with in handling potentially divisive issues:

1) Gentleness. Scripture regularly cites 'gentleness' as a virtue and something we should cultivate (2Cor 10.1, Gal 5.23, Php 4.5, Col 3.12, 1Ti 6.11, 1P 3.15, 1Th 2.7, 2T 2.24, Tit 3.2, Jas 3.17). Gentleness is not an afterthought in the NT, but is something that multiple NT authors implored the early church to emphasize.

2) Avoiding a contentious spirit. Again, Scripture regularly instructs us to beware of harboring an itch to fight and create dissension (Prov 13:10, 18:6, 26:21, Hab 1:3, 1 Cor 1:11, 11:16, Tit 3:9, Jas 4.2). 1Tim 6.4 is particularly vivid in describing how a yearning for quarreling negatively impacts the correct ascertaining of truth. While few of us are eager to admit that we enjoy and even seek out conflict because we like to argue and debate, the fact is, way too many of us are guilty of it and just aren't honest enough to admit it and deal with it.

3) Guarding our tongues. James in particular strongly denounces division through words (1.19, 1.26, 2.12, 3.5-8, 4.1, 4.11, 5.6). But as Acts 20.32 says, the word of grace given to us by Christ can build up the church in sanctification.

4) Be peace-loving. Everybody wants peace, but nobody wants to do what's necessary to obtain it. But the fact remains, Mt 5.9 and James 3 commend peacemakers because they are an extension of the Prince of Peace.

Again, none of this is intended to minimize the absolute necessity of loving truth and being committed to the truth that Christ died for. There are indeed times when divisions are unfortunately necessary when truth is being heavily compromised or tossed aside altogether and replaced with cultural categories of acceptability. What we have to avoid is a deminimus view of truth that narrows truth to a few preferred theological propositions and correct definitions of technical terms, while failing to see that truth also encompasses practical behavior and ethics toward others (3 John). Eph 4.15 says that we need to 'speak the truth in love'. As Frame has said, "We must not speak the truth without thinking of the effect of our formulations on our fellow Christians, even our opponents." This, I fear, has gotten lost in our desire to be right and in the faulty pursuit of a negative theology of sanctification. As increasing numbers of respected Reformed voices have openly begun airing great concerns about the way we're treating each other, those of us who credit Machen with helping us to solidify our Reformed categories need to stick up for him now. Machen deserves a better legacy than having his "warrior children" rip the church to shreds.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

From 'United We Stand' to 'United We Stood'

It has now been 6 years to the day since the United States was attacked. Buildings fell, people died. In the wake of the most contentious presidential election in recent memory, it was thought that the events of 9/11 would spur a renewed unity, a renewed sense of shared purpose and struggle, and a return to civility in our land. It did not.

I admit that it is very hard to keep the cynic in me at bay on a day like this. It is very easy to join the often angry laments coming from both sides of the spectrum about how and why we've arrived at the place we find ourselves today. And while what follows is certainly influenced by the cynic in me, I hope that this is not a cynical post for two reasons. First, those who are in harm's way to protect me deserve better from me than smug cynicism. Second, cynicism is not a virtue and should not be nurtured as if it were some mark of sophistication. It's not.

With all that said, I have three points to make, the first two of which are not particularly inspiring.

It was often said in the days after 9/11 that '9/11 changed everything'. As my wife sometimes reminds me, I was disagreeing with this sentiment almost from the get-go. I didn't believe that 9/11 had changed everything, and I had serious reservations that in the long-term, 9/11 would change much of anything fundamentally. I took no pride in feeling this way; I just thought it would prove to be true in the end. Six years gone, this is indeed the conclusion I have arrived at as we sit here today. Today, instead of saying that '9/11 changed everything', people are now asking whether 9/11 has been or should be forgotten. While the instinctive answer is to say 'no, we shouldn't forget', I fear that at the basic levels of our societal grid, most of us have already forgotten.

The lasting legacy, the lasting impact, of 9/11 has been its potency in amping up pre-existing attitudes. There was an already existing urge to go after 'enemies', and 9/11 provided justification for it. There was an already existing attitude that America is largely to blame for much of the world's problems, and 9/11 provided cover for that too. 9/11 proved the reality of God's judgment to some people who were already inclined to believe it, while proving to others that there's no way God exists when that's what they were otherwise inclined to believe anyway. As best I can tell, very few people actually moved across these kinds of aisles as a result of 9/11. Most people opted to interpret 9/11 in such a way as to stay put with where they already were on the spectrum, and just get more dug in. For most of us, we individually processed 9/11 through particular pre-existing lenses we were all already wearing.

The result is that 9/11 changed almost nothing at the root - we all just found ways of using the tragedy to strengthen the belief systems we were all already operating with on 9/10. The only thing that's changed is that many of us feel even stronger about what we were already believing. No doubt, many of us were shaken up, and I'm sure there were some people who fundamentally thought certain things on 9/10 and changed their minds as a result of 9/11. But such a phenomenon has been very rare in my experience, and I have lived and worked 10 miles from the Pentagon. One would think that if a broad-based change in outlook could be found, it would've been here. But no such thing ever happened.

One practical manifestation of the above is the second point I'd like to touch on. It is now commonplace in the media and in much of the culture to see the continued divisiveness that defines our nation, and put the primary blame on the current Administration. There are many columns and stories in the press that dream about the fictional legacy of 9/11 that could have been, if only someone else had been president. Underlying these dreams is the basic assumption that 9/11 would have indeed brought the nation together if just about anyone else had been president. This sentiment, echoed today by Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, is deeply flawed.

Fisher unfortunately parrots the general media sentiment that the current administration is primarily to blame for the fact that we are still a divided nation. But last I checked, George Bush is incapable of bringing people together who don't want to come together. I'm not saying that Bush is blameless; he's not. I think Bush himself succumbed to what I said above, in that he allowed his pre-existing tendencies to be ratcheted up by 9/11, with the result that he embraced the 'wartime president' motif irresponsibly. But only the most self-absorbed and delusional among us can truly believe that there was any real chance that 9/11 would magically wipe away the very deep divides in this country that both sides are hell-bent on maintaining. Pick any leader you want and put them in charge at the time of 9/11 - today's landscape still wouldn't look much different. The country isn't gonna rally around anyone for any significant amount of time for any significant reason. We just like to fight our ideological battles way too much to do such a thing.

In the end, sentiments like Fisher's are a complete abdication of individual responsibility in failing to own up to the part each one of us has played in why 'United We Stand' so quickly became 'United We Stood'. Blaming Bush is the cause celebre of our day, and it's certainly not without foundation. But it's also a very lazy cop-out to justify our own rancorous stances and boorish public dialogue, both of which pre-date the 2000 election. America has become a great paradox of embracing at the same time the contradictory notions of individual responsibility and scapegoating. This is what happens when large segments of the country become very hardened in their established positions. They lecture the hardened folks in the other camp to take some responsibility, while refusing to see how their own hardened stance has equally contributed to the problem. Again, 9/11 has amped pre-existing attitudes, and the divided house we're living in is the lasting legacy.

But thankfully, there is a glimmer of hope. While giving blood, and donating time and treasure were natural responses in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, any real realignment of priorities is something that is proven over the longer term. While many of us lament the sparse change that seems to have resulted from 9/11, there have been inspiring glimmers of something better. Six years later, it is still fairly routine for churches to pray for the victims of 9/11 and to provide tangible support to those left behind in the form of monetary aid and faithful community embrace. Six years later, there are still many grassroots efforts to support the troops with cards, care baskets, and reassimilation to civilian life. People continue to open their homes to families who have a soldier currently serving in a hot spot overseas. Tears are still shed over what happened on 9/11. None of this gets any airplay in the press, but it's there, and it's real. The kind of commitment it takes to maintain these good works is far more laborious than being committed to sniping and whining, and it's far more virtuous too. If we are going to take comfort in humanity as made in the image of God, it is here where we must look to find a redeeming legacy of 9/11.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

To Resign or Not To Resign

For purposes of this post, I will assume that most readers know the background concerning Larry Craig's political trouble. This past weekend, he held a press conference in his home state of Idaho to announce that he would shortly resign from public office and relinquish his Senate seat as a result of a firestorm that erupted over a disputed arrest and subsequent guilty plea in a Minneapolis airport bathroom. Yesterday, it was widely reported that Craig is now having second thoughts about this decision, and may not resign after all. In my view, Craig should stick with his first decision.

I don't know what happened in that bathroom, and frankly, I don't care that much. It's the classic he said-he said kind of thing The whole incident rests upon signals, inferences, and subtle suggestions that are subject to a great deal of interpretation and potential misunderstanding. My position about Craig's resignation is not based on either his or the officer's take on the incident. It's also not based on Craig's guilty plea. It's not entirely clear what motivated Craig to plead guilty. Maybe it's because he was guilty, but Craig now says he shouldn't have pled guilty and intends to fight the plea in court. So again, who knows.

My position about Craig is actually pretty simple. The issue is that right now, he can't be an effective voice for the people he represents. At the very least, he is a distraction (to put it nicely) rather than an advocate, and that's not what his constituents voted for. It's not fair to them to put his interests above theirs by wasting everyone's time trying to save a political career that he himself jeopardized. If he wants to try and dig out of the hole he dug for himself, he should do it on his own time. When he's a US Senator, his time is the people's time. This is my position whenever a member of Congress runs for president as well. It's perfectly legitimate for Senators to run for president - but as former Senators, not sitting Senators. John Edwards did the right thing in 2004 by resigning his Senate seat when he ran for president. People who vote for politicians deserve their full attention. When politicians get distracted either by political scandals they created or by aspirations of higher office and all the campaigning and traveling that goes with it, constituents get cheated of effective representation. While one can (rightly) argue that the current necessity of massive fundraising as an extensive requirement of the job already compromises the ability of politicians to effectively represent their citizens, cases like Craig are particularly egregious.

This is not about what did or didn't happen in an airport bathroom. It's about putting the good of the voters ahead of a desperate campaign to hold onto a political title. If Craig wants to clear his name, I wish him all the best. But he should step down and do it as a private citizen, and allow the people of Idaho to have a Senator who is focused on representing them.

Latest CiC Post

I posted on the CiC blog this morning. The post offers some links and reflections on what has become an obvious reality - the balance of power in the Christian church has largely shifted from the West to the Global South...