Popcorn salvation

DrBacchus commented on the “popcorn blog”:

It’s hard to find any half-way decent movie that is not about salvation.…

Strangely, it is the movies that are not about salvation–that is, the movies that have unexpected endings–which are often the more intrigueing ones, and the ones that make you think about your assumptions of what salvation actually is.

Because maybe, just maybe, they are about salvation after all.

This is what makes the “popcorn blog” exciting to me. Although watching movies for specific themes can be disingenuous—DrBacchus warns it might be “a whole lot of hooey”—salvation is a theme that is prevasive. It goes to the heart of how we behave and what motivates us. Aren’t all the great epics about this? And if this project turns out to be a bit “hokey” I’m sure it won’t be the first (or last) time for this blog.

I have to agree with him that movies such as Unbreakable, Unforgiven, and The Shawshank Redemption, can get us to examine salvation, repentance, and forgiveness in ways that traditional Good versus Evil movies do not. It often looks different than we expect.

Salvation in Casablanca

I’m participating in the “Popcorn blog,” a summer film study project suggested by Huw Raphael. Each week we’ll watch a movie and discuss salvation in it. There’s a list of the others who are also participating in it this week if you want to read additional commentary.

We start our excursion with Casablanca, one of the highest rated and most loved films of all time. The winner of the academy award for best picture for 1942, many of its lines are known even by those who haven’t seen the film. I’ve watched Casablanca several times. This time I watched the DVD Special Edition two disk set based on the 1992 re-release.

It’s late while I’m writing this, but since it was “due” yesterday, I’ll just keep at it and get it done.

Sam: You ever going to bed?
Rick: No!
Sam: Well, I ain’t sleeping neither.

What is attractive about Casablanca is that all the main characters (other than than the obvious villains, the Nazis) are good at heart. When we watch movies we get to participate in the lives of the characters. We get to suffer as they stumble and hurt. When the characters do something noble or courageous, we get to enjoy that feeling.

The primary characters in the film each experience or practice salvation in one way or another. For purposes of discussion, I’ll define salvation as being delivered from evil or destruction. This is often evidenced by the characters recognizing the right thing to do and having the courage to do it.

The plot of Casablanca revolves around a love triangle and a war. Rick, the club owner, has had a brief romance with Ilsa in Paris. We later discover that Ilsa thought her husband Victor Laszlo was dead at the time. She has hurt Rick by breaking up with him by letter and then by reappearing with her husband at his club.


It’s clear that Rick has been badly hurt by Ilsa and has lost the joy that we see in the flashback to Paris. Perhaps from this hurt, Rick is stuck and cannot act. We never do discover quite why Rick is in Casablanca, but the location seems a sort of self-imposed physical prison; it symbolizes his moral state of exclusive self-interest. His own statements show his only loyalty is to himself: “I’d stick my neck out for nobody.” “The problems of the world aren’t my problem—I’m a saloon keeper.” Capt. Renault says much the same: “Rick is neutral about everything.”

Rick is only saved when he can break out of his wallowing in self-pity and recognize who he is. “I’m a drunkard,” he admits as a joke that hits the truth. Although Ilsa later calls him a coward and weak, by that point we’ve already seen flashes of his true heart.

His confrontation with Ilsa in his drunken state and her condemning him for it outside the Blue Parrot the next day wakes him up to who he wants to be. “I could have told the Rick from Paris, but not the Rick who looked at me with such hatred.” This is his turning point. He helps the couple win at the roulette wheel. He gives the okay for Victor’s instructions to the band to engage in “political speech.” (What a terrific scene.) When his club is closed he tells Karl that all staff will stay on salary.

His nicest act is to not only recognize that Ilsa needs to be with Victor and to help them escape, but to tell Victor about their relationship and that it was over “years ago.” We can tell he has been set free when he admits to Renault “I could use a trip.”

Capt. Renault

As prefect of police, Renault theoretically has power, but serves the Nazis. Until the end, we’re not clear whose side he’s on. He and Rick apparently respect each other and their dialog hints at an apparent game they are playing together (even aside from their bet.) Renault seems to “get” Rick and yet Rick surprises him. “It seems love has triumphed over virtue,” Renault says right before Rick turns the tables and it turns out the virtuous choice is made after all. We heave a sigh of relief when he saves Rick by ordering “Round up the usual suspects.”


The keeper of the Blue Parrot, Ferrari seems to be all about the financial reward. He demonstrates a selflessness—he can’t possibly profit—when he points Victor and Ilsa toward Rick for the papers.


Victor is the stereotypical super good guy, the hero who will save the world. Yet without Rick’s help, his work wouldn’t be possible. Although he may have doubts about Ilsa’s faithfulness while he was in prison, he is willing to forgive her.


Ilsa chooses to return to her husband when she finds him alive in Paris. She probably thinks that by avoiding seeing Rick again, she can lessen his hurt. I found it interesting that her farewell letter ended with “God bless you.” She wants to do right and tries to be truthful with Rick when she encounters him again. Perhaps recognizing her own emotional turmoil “If you knew how much I loved you — how much I still love you,” she begs Rick to think for her and for all of them.

In the end, Ilsa accepts her duty to her husband and recognizes that some causes are bigger than her individual desires. I believe the WWII generation understood this need to sacrifice for the good of the nation and world. Ilsa also receives Rick’s rejection of her with less apparent pain than when she did it to him. “We’ll always have Paris,” recognizes the good times, as well as what is right, something Rick has finally learned and understood.

Dickens from an Orthodox Perspective

In looking around for an article about women and orthodoxy (more on that in the future) I ran across Russian Pickwickians: Dickens from an Orthodox Vantage (PDF reader needed). Judging from the size of his Dickens collection, I suspect Dr. Bacchus will enjoy it. The article discusses reading Dickens to children, how Dickens presents salvation and Christian happiness, and finding real life people like Dickens characters.

As a father, I’ve been humbled and touched by the church’s prayers for protecting the holy innocence of children, so this quote particularly struck me:

You don’t often see the innocence of young souls, which is still apparent in many Russian girls (and boys). There is a depth of untainted purity here, particularly in the Orthodox.. Young people in the West can be shy and perhaps even modest, but this is completely different. It is so deep and striking when you first see it. You think to yourself, “There really are girls like that, straight out of Dickens.”

There is a lack of innocence “in the air” in the West that affects even young children. Television and an undiscerning adherence to popular standards simply destroy it. There are many sincere Christians who lead moral lives, but you don’t often see the deep unselfish purity of the Lizzie Hexams, the Agnes’s, the Sonia Marmeladovas. Dickens knew girls like that, which is why he wrote so successfully about them. The critics say they don’t exist because we don’t see them anymore.

I see it daily in church in Russia, but not so often in Europe or America. I’ve seen such pure-heartedness among the Amish in America, and, sometimes in young Ethiopian immigrants, rarely in Greece, but otherwise, only here.

The End of the Crusades

Christ is risen! Indeed, he is risen!

It was a long and hard Lent, and I was glad to have time off for Holy Week and Pascha. We were privileged to have not one, not two, but three priests celebrating the Resurrection with us in our little mission. It was a joy to watch a grandfatherly priest playing with our children and blessing them. As a convert to Orthodoxy I sometimes find myself overly serious and so concerned with doing things “correctly” that I miss the joyfulness and beauty. Perhaps someday we will be able to be as comfortable and at home in the prayers as our children and those who have grown up in the church.

Christians have an added reason to rejoice this Pascha—healing has begun between the East and the West. In a visit to Greece in 2001, Pope John Paul II formally apologized for the involvement the Roman Catholic church had in the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. On April 13, 2004 — the 800th anniversary of that terrible event — Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I accepted the apology. “The spirit of reconciliation of the resurrection … incites us toward reconciliation of our churches,” he said. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is recognized as “first among equals” among Orthodox patriarchs.

Perhaps surprisingly for many in the West, for which the Crusades are a faint memory, for the Eastern Orthodox they have been painfully recalled. And no wonder—when you read the account of the sack of Constantinople you cannot help but wonder how Christians could do this to other Christians. After the attack, the city and Great Church were subject to days of looting, during which many of its precious treasures were removed or destroyed.

In his apology, the Pope said:

There is a need for a liberating process of purification of memory. For the occasions past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us the forgiveness we beg of him.… Some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day. I am thinking of the disastrous sack of the imperial city of Constantinople, which was for so long the bastion of Christianity in the East. It is tragic that the assailants, who had set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their own brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret… To God alone belongs judgment, and therefore we entrust the heavy burden of the past to his endless mercy, imploring him to heal the wounds that still cause suffering to the spirit of the Greek people.

During a liturgy attended by Philippe Barbarin, the Archbishop of Lyon, France, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said “The spirit of reconciliation is stronger than hatred. We receive with gratitude and respect your cordial gesture for the tragic events of the Fourth Crusade.”

Icons: Theology in Color

Karl posted some notes from a recent lecture by Fr. John Chryssavgis. Josh took issue with it and critiqued the idea that icons convey theology. Instead of writing a long comment Karl responded on his blog. Something struck me when I read Karl’s notes and I’ll get to that in second, but first I’ve been thinking about what Josh wrote.

From Karl’s notes:

Faces in icons are always frontal—the eyes always look out, look forward toward us, inviting us inward. They are alive and present. Icons show us that we must face the world with our eyes open.

Josh responded:

Of course, the most dangerous possible way of doing theology is proving things from human inventions. Karl will probably retort that the Holy Spirit has inspired and guided EO icon painting, but of course, this is an a priori assumption that has little or no foundation anywhere except the idea that the EO communion is infallible. It bears no material difference from the Roman Catholic doctrine that the Holy Spirit gradually reveals new articles of faith through the papacy. The main difference is that RC’s have a more consistent source of authority—how do you know which sources in the EO tradition are sources of new divine revelation? This is, of course, an argument for sola scriptura, since nothing is more subjective than proving something from your own creation, whether it is writing or icons. I might as well start making theological statements with my own blog as an authoritative source. The fact that Easterns paint icons a certain way doesn’t prove anything about God or heaven.

Josh leans on scripture as an authoritative source and rejects the icons, but I’d say his concerns also apply to the scriptures. The scriptures and the icons developed through the Holy Spirit working in the church. The canon of scripture was decided by the church. It’s not like they dropped out of the sky already intact and created by God.

Josh later writes:

If I want to know about the eternal perspective of reality, I’m not going to look at a painting some guy painted, no matter how holy he may or may not be. He’s not infallible. I’m going to go to the Gospel.

What makes the scripture preferred? Why shouldn’t we say this:

If I want to know about the eternal perspective of reality, I’m not going to read some book some guy wrote, no matter how holy he may or may not be. He’s not infallible. I’m going to go to the icons.

Icons have been called “theology in color” and teach us truth. As with scripture, we must read them with care, and check that we are understanding them in accord with the teaching of the church. They are certainly worthy of study. Saint John of Damascus said if a pagan asks you to show him your faith take him before the holy icons.

And now to the point that struck me when I read Karl’s notes. Faces in icons point outward in direct response to the Old Testament scripture. “No man looks on the face of God and lives.” (Ex 33:20). Moses, hidden under a cleft in the rock, sees only God’s back (Ex. 33: 21-3). In contrast, through the incarnation of Christ, we now know his face. With an open gaze, he invites us to know him. The depiction of the saints in the icons does the same: they invite us to know God as they themselves do.

Short memories

In my journey toward Eastern Orthodoxy, I am surprised and increasingly saddened by how much I did not know about the Church, despite my Christian heritage. I was raised in the Wesleyan-Armenian (Methodist) tradition. My grandfathers were pastors and my parents were active in the church, teaching sunday school, serving as treasurer, singing in the choir, being part of the pastor’s “cabinet”. Others in our family served as missionaries and Christian leaders and teachers. A love for God surrounded me and taught me as I grew. There is no question about who we loved and desired to serve.

Given all this, it has been troubling to learn not just how I was separated and skewed from the Orthodox faith, but how many Protestant denominations are presently teaching or acting in ways that are frustratingly opposed to their own doctrines and history.

Today’s Protestants when learning about Orthodox practice often struggle with the idea of using the sign of the cross and with calling priests “Father.” I recently discovered that not using these is a relatively recent innovation.

In his book, Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith, Fr Peter explains how the sign of the cross has been used from the early centuries of the church. He notes that Martin Luther, who is called the Father of the Protestant Reformation, exhorted his flock to use the sign of the cross. He continues:

Astonishingly, it was not until the seventeenth century, at the time of King James, that a small group of Puritans began writing and speaking against the use of the sign of the cross. Reacting to the ills of the medieval Roman Church, they believed it to be a human invention which catered to superstition. These same English Puritans, who significantly influenced the North American continent, deserted one of the most powerful and cherished weapons of the entire history of the Church.… Today, many American Christians have been deceived by the actions of a vocal minority and have become ashamed of the glory of the cross signed on their breasts.

From the earliest times, Christian practice has been to call spiritual directors “Father” or “Mother.” In an article in The Christian Century, David L. Holmes discusses the question Are ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ Appropriate Titles for Protestant Clergy? He writes:

Protestants would undoubtedly reject both titles. “A wall goes up whenever I hear clergy addressed as ‘Father’ and ‘Mother,’” a Protestant churchwoman recently told me.

Such opposition, however, is ironic in the context of church history. For American Protestants regularly called their clergy “Father” 200 and 300 years ago, and some continued to do so a century ago. And during the same years, Protestants addressed venerated women in their churches as “Mother.”

He then describes various ways that Americans used “father” and “mother” for church leaders. Significantly for me, he notes that “American Methodists, for example, referred to John Wesley not only as ‘Mr. Wesley’ but also as ‘Father Wesley.’” He also shows that missionary pioneers were often called father, including Francis Asbury. Apparently an anti-Roman backlash led to the change in terminology among Protestants: Prior to the rise in Irish immigrants coming to the U.S. in the 1840s, Roman Catholic non-monastic priests were mostly called “Mister,” “Monsieur,” or “Don.” Irish Roman Catholics called all priests “Father.”

Although these are minor examples of differences in practice, it makes me wonder how many other beliefs I took for granted as long-held Protestant dogmas were actually recent changes. Lord have mercy.

What’s a Name Day?

Today the Orthodox Church remembers the holy apostle Timothy. For some unknown reason I’ve been anticipating this day for almost a week. Since early childhood I’ve been aware that Timothy is a biblical name. My knowledge of this special day for remembering him is new. What a gift to have the name of this holy martyr, whose name means “one who honors God.”

Troparion for Timothy, Tone IV
O master of goodness renowned for moderation, you were robed in the purity of conscience that befits a priest. Drawing forth ineffable truths from that chosen vessel, Paul, you preserved the faith and completed a course equal to his. O holy martyr and hierarch, Timothy, beg Christ, our God, to save our souls.

Kondakion for Timothy and Anastasius, Tone I
Let us all faithfully sing the praises of Timothy, Paul’s holy disciple and companion, and the wise Anastasius, too, let us honor, as a star that rose over Persia, that by their prayers the Lord will heal the maladies of our bodies, as well as the brokenness of our souls.

Laura’s Front Porch

One of my favorite blogs to read right now is Laura’s Front Porch, written by Laura Nee, a new catechumen in the Orthodox church. Her struggles and successes with her children during the liturgy sound so familiar that at times I just have to laugh and sometimes cry.

I first found her blog a number of months ago and remember reading back some entries about how she got interested in the Orthodox church. In October last year she wrote that she and her husband Jim were investigating Orthodoxy pretty seriously. As with so many of us converts Bp Kalistos Ware’s book The Orthodox Way helped them along the path. I believe they actually started back in September reading Becoming Orthodox by Fr Peter Gillquist.

When we seek him, God gives us the desires of our heart. Reading “It’s getting spooky” Part I and Part II, I can’t help but rejoice at how God had been drawing them. Although new and different to them, Orthodoxy clearly feels like a kind of homecoming for them. As Laura put it once, it feels like an old fuzzy blanket you’d would wrap yourself into…ahhh. When they were received as catechumens a few weeks ago, she wrote “Jim and I become catechumens today in the Orthodox Church. I am excited, but not overly so. It feels like the natural thing to do…so off we go!” God bless you!

Russian Orthodox Seek Unity

After a recent visit by an official delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II expressed his hope for reunion.

The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia broke off after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. It was founded in 1920 by Russians fleeding Bolshevik rule. It severed all ties with the Russian Orthodox Church after Patriarch Sergiy pledged the church’s loyalty to the communist government in 1927, a move the Patriarch made to save the church from complete ruin.

The spirit and tone reportedly present in the meetings was described as “fraternal love”. Both groups voiced their desire to establish communion in prayer and the Eucharistic communion.

This meeting prepares the way for Russian Church Outside of Russia Metropolitan Laurus to visit early in 2004. It is is expected that official agreements will be signed during that meeting.

Sensitive inaction

The other day I left work and went out to grab a little lunch. As I drove back to my office with my “to go” order and turned into Lexington Green, I noticed a man standing on the median facing outgoing traffic and holding a cardboard sign. I couldn’t tell what was on the sign—I only saw the back of the man and sign—but I immediately thought that it probably said something like “Need Food.”

I recognized that especially during fast periods, such as the present Nativity fast, we should give alms. “I should go back there and give him my food,” I thought. “I don’t need it. I should at least go see what he needs—perhaps I can help.”

“But it’d be inconvenient to go back there,” the argument came. “I’d have to turn around twice and maybe he just is looking for a ride somewhere.” So I didn’t bother to do anything. Needless to say the meal wasn’t very satisfying. I chastised myself for only wanting to give when it was convenient or easy. Real love and charity is often messy.

“May the poor eat and be filled and may they who seek the Lord exult in him, and may their hearts live forever!”

I spoke with father about this and he pointed out that the poor are always around us. He encouraged me in growing a sensitive heart and to pray for another chance to give. He also suggested I remember this stranger in my prayers.

Lord have mercy. Show me and this man your loving-kindness.