About Josh McDonald

A writer, cartoonist, and a movie theater manager; Josh makes his home in New Hampshire where he has a fiancee and a rabbit named Ginger.

‘Tis the Season (Ready or Not)

Hard to believe, but we’re less than two weeks from the beginning of Advent. And only ten days now from that High Holy Day of Consumerism known as “Black Friday” — as well as its cultural counterpoint, “Buy Nothing Day” (or, alternately, blogger Jason Evans’ “Make Something Day“).

Personally, I’m all for anything that helps drive the moneychangers out of our Feast of the Nativity. It feels somehow indecent to start decorating for Christmas before we’ve quite finished with All Souls (to say nothing of Thanksgiving).

But after reading about “Make Something Day” on the Sojourners blog, I found myself thinking of other ways to celebrate the start of the cultural Christmas Season.  “Donate to Your Local Food Pantry Day”, maybe? Or “Visit a Shut-In Day”?

These are just a few off the top of my head; I’m sure creative Christians everywhere could come up with plenty of ideas to reclaim our holy day.  The point is to remember what one of our contemporary prophets said so eloquently:

Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.

A God Divided

There are millions of people around this world praying to their god—whether it’s Hindu, Buddha, Allah—that his [John McCain’s] opponent [Barack Obama] wins, for a variety of reasons. And Lord, I pray that you will guard your own reputation, because they’re going to think that their God is bigger than you, if that happens.

– Rev. Arnold Conrad

This was part of an invocation, made at a McCain rally about a week and a half ago. My basic problems with this are almost too numerous to get into here — starting with basic grammatical and factual errors, and a blatant disregard for the fact that easily as many Christians are praying for Obama’s victory as McCain’s (dare I say, possibly more?). But for the purposes of this blog post, I’ll just stick with my basic religious objections.

As someone who has done more than my share of trying to bargain with God, I understand the frustrations and sense of desperation behind it; I also recognize it an indication of the need to take a step back and re-evaluate my priorities. I’ve gradually come to the realization that any such demands, bartering, or bickering with God should close with a (perhaps begrudging, maybe reluctant, but there nevertheless) “…but Thy will, not mine, be done”. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder; God’s priorities are not ours.

As people of faith, I think we all want to invoke God’s blessings on our particular socio-political beliefs. Ideally, we want to do this because these beliefs have been carefully arrived at through a process of prayer and attention to God’s Word. Less ideally, it’s because we’re stuck in our own way of thinking and don’t want to change. It’s a dangerous spiritual trap, and an easy one to fall in to, to want God’s will to accommodate ours.

We have two men now vying for the position of President of the United States. Both are good Christians, but each brings from his respective faith a different and distinct set of values and priorities. And we, as good Christian voters, are appointed the task of deciding which set is most in line with our own. What it comes down to is two opposing (and, ultimately, limited) views of an infinite and eternal God. Sure, we’d all like for our own view of God to be validated in worldly victories, but we have to understand that God is constant, and will continue to be the God we know and love, no matter who wins this election.

Although I, too, have found myself in private prayer asking God, “you don’t really want them representing You for the next four years do you?” Still, I recognize the influence of God’s Truths coming from both sides. I can (grudgingly) admit that, from time to time, even politicians I don’t like can do good things. Just as people I do like can do things I don’t agree with. And whatever the outcome of this election, I will certainly understand it as the will of the American people, not of one god over another.

This past Sunday, Christ reminded us to keep our priorities straight: give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s. Two weeks from now, we owe it to our country to choose the best, most capable leaders we can. In the meantime, I think we owe it to God to not try and drag Him down into the partisan muck.

Ebony and Ivory

A few months ago my fiancée and I attended our pre-cana weekend retreat. It was a good opportunity for us to consider what happens after the ceremony, and to focus on the sacramental aspects of what we’ll be doing in just about eight months’ time.

Not to mention, it gave me some good ideas for topics to write about …

In fact one of the things we liked about the weekend was how much writing it involved. Before discussing any of the topics they gave us, we would spend some time alone writing about it. Then we would each read what the other had written; then we would talk about it. The process worked well enough that we’ve considered using this same method in the future whenever an important issue might arise between us.

Speaking for myself, I’ve always found writing to be a very prayerful, almost a sacramental activity. There is something about the process — composing my thoughts, arranging them within the rules of grammar and syntax, finding just the right word that best expresses an elusive bit of thought – that seems in a uniquely effective way of opening my heart and my mind to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In her wonderful little book Walking on Water, Madeline L’Engle writes a great deal about the divine inspiration of the creative process, the equating of artistic expression with prayer, of serving one’s art as a way of serving God. It’s a short little book, an easy read which I make a point of rereading at least once a year. The book was a gift — from the very woman, as it happens, that I plan to marry soon.

At some point during our weekend retreat, we talked about how our relationship can serve as a sacramental sign of God’s love, of the love God intends us to show toward all our brothers and sisters, of the bonds of communion within the Church. I was reminded of this on Sunday as we sat together in the pew – one of the only times recently that we didn’t have to lead the music and could simply participate as ordinary parishioners.

Still, as we joined in the offertory hymn, she sang harmony to my melody. Our voices blended, not in unison but always harmonious in our differences. A metaphor, hopefully, for a future together — and also, I’d like to think, for the future of our Church.

The Body Eclectic

Looking at today’s daily Mass readings, I notice that St. Paul is giving us his “Body of Christ” spiel — about how, just as the body is one but made up of many parts, so we are all members of the Christ’s Body, even as we are individuals with unique spiritual gifts.  It’s a particularly interesting passage to reflect on today, as I’m trying to overcome an illness I picked up over the weekend.

Right now my head refuses to think straight, my nose and throat insist upon discharging unpleasant goo; my larynx can barely manage an audible sound, and my body generally just doesn’t want to any of the things it’s supposed to do.

It’s a familiar enough feeling.  We’ve all had days like that, and we generally understand that as uncomfortable as it is now, it does get better.  The body heals itself, and eventually all the parts manage to get themselves working properly — and working together, as they should be.

Thoughts on a Book

The Sarajevo Haggadah is an artifact with an extraordinary history — most of which is lost and long forgotten, and what little is known seems to at once baffle and excite such scholars as let themselves be baffled and excited by old artifacts. But rampant and imaginative speculation about the particulars of this curious ancient book is the basis of Geraldine Brooks’ new work of historical fiction, People of the Book.

A haggadah is a Jewish prayer book. At the center of this story is the Sarajevo Haggadah — one of the earliest illuminated Hebrew texts ever found (and a challenge to the common assumption that Medieval Judaism forbade representational art such as the illustrations in this text. ) Some of the few facts gleaned from its history: the inscription of a Venetian priest named Vistorini seems to have saved the haggadah from being burned during the Inquisition; a Muslim scholar smuggled the book out of Sarajevo to save it from the Nazis; and a Muslim librarian rescued the book from the bombings of the Bosnian war.

And it is from these stories that the novel People of the Book finds its theme. As it imagines the details of the haggadah’s history it tells a tale of faith overcoming intolerance. At those times in human history when ideology and dogma seem to bring out the very worst of human nature, there are always those rare individuals who recognize the larger picture.

People of the Book offers us stories of those who can see beyond their own narrow viewpoint — Christians, Muslims, and Jews cooperating, forming sometimes uneasy alliances, even as the societal structures around them work to turn them against one another.  But it is ultimately the Book — the paintings and handwritten texts, loving tributes to the God they all adore — that brings them to recognize God’s presence, even when God appears in the guise of a different faith.

Film Review: Brideshead Revisited

In general I try to avoid making comparisons between a movie and the original work it was based on. Different versions of a story reflect not only the intrinsic aesthetic concerns of their respective media, but also the particular sensibilities and interpretations of the artists. Each work is its own creation, to be judged on its own merits.

The new film version of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, looked at simply on its own terms, is a lovely piece of filmmaking. The cinematography is rich and sensuous, the actors are excellent — Ben Whishaw, in the challengingly diverse role of Sebastian Flyte, carries the film until Emma Thompson, as overbearing matriarch Lady Marchmain, takes over the dramatic heavy lifting.

The film’s pacing shows nice moments of admirable restraint, lingering lovingly for a moment or two on a particularly intimate moment between characters before moving on with the story. If it seems hurried in other places, it’s only because it has a lot of story to cram into its two-hour and thirteen-minute running time. Yet it didn’t feel like a particularly long movie. Given the depth of character, drama, and metaphor, it could have easily filled another two and a half hours — or five. Or it could have filled out an eleven-hour miniseries.

So much for enjoying it on its own terms.

The fact is that in this story of familial dysfunction among Britain’s gentry, Waugh created a wonderful, rich metaphor for the Catholic Church as it made its way into the Twentieth Century and beyond. Surrounded by one of the finest, most majestic old estates in all of England, the Lords and Ladies of Brideshead Manor fail to see or appreciate the rich legacy they are all heir to. Only their friend Charles Ryder (played here by Matthew Goode) seems to truly appreciate it.

As an artist and historian, Ryder is particularly attracted to the beauty the others take for granted. As an avowed atheist, he is the consummate outsider. Little wonder that Sebastian, the unabashedly homosexual black sheep of the family, and Julia (Hayley Atwell) the self-professed “heathen” daughter, both fall in love with him– even as he falls in love not only with them but with the stately grandeur of their heritage.

Both the novel and the 1981 miniseries are able to take time to develop these relationships — a luxury this movie just doesn’t have. Here, characters are too often reduced to quick, easy stereotypes. Ultimately, I came away feeling that the movie sacrifices too much in order to just get through the story.

It’s been many years since I read Waugh’s novel, and several more since I saw the British TV miniseries.  I came away from this movie with the urge to revisit both these masterful works.   If that was the aim of the film, then it certainly succeeded.  But, much as I enjoyed this new movie version, I don’t expect I’ll feel the same desire to return to it years from now.  So the movie succeeds only insofar as it points back toward its original source.  But as a work of art in its own right, it falls somewhat short.

The Wages of Sin

Today, August 6, we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration when Christ revealed his true nature, the full splendor of his Divinity, to his disciples. And it was on that same date, sixty-three years ago, that the Devil revealed his own true nature, in its full and destructive splendor. In six years of war, the world had seen every form of inhuman depravity imaginable — from genocide to the firebombing of civilian targets. But Satan had saved his coup de grace for the very end.

A city was leveled; over two-hundred thousand people — men, women, children, soldiers and civilians alike — were killed. Some were instantly incinerated; others (the less fortunate) lingered, suffering a lifetime of the degenerative effects of radiation poisoning. With a single, singular bomb blast the world was irrevocably changed.

Historians can (and have, and do, and will continue to) debate the merits or lack thereof of our decision to unleash immense devastation on Hiroshima, but as a Christian and a Catholic I look first toward the judgment of God and the Church. The Catechism tells me that “one may never do evil so that good may result from it”, and that “every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and [humanity], which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation”. I’m not sure what sort of political alibi could take the edge off such censure. In the end, we proved ourselves to be as bad as the enemy we fought against.

Sixty-three years ago, Dorothy Day suggested that as a nation we should cover ourselves in ashes and sackcloth, begging forgiveness from God and from the world. But we haven’t. We have become a kind of international mafioso — benign enough so long as we get everything we want but always relying on a subtext of ruthless brutality. Is it any wonder that those nations we denounce as an “Axis of Evil” would want such super-weapons of their own, just in case? At this point in world history we would all do well to recall the words of Pope John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris:

Hence justice, right reason, and the recognition of man’s dignity cry out insistently for a cessation to the arms race. The stock-piles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced all round and simultaneously by the parties concerned. Nuclear weapons must be banned. A general agreement must be reached on a suitable disarmament program, with an effective system of mutual control. In the words of Pope Pius XII: “The calamity of a world war, with the economic and social ruin and the moral excesses and dissolution that accompany it, must not on any account be permitted to engulf the human race for a third time.”

Our national position in the world is undeniably one of leadership, so it is worth reflecting this day: what sort of world leader do we want to be? Do we want to be a Caesar, living and dying by the sword, instilling terror (which leads, inevitably, to terrorism)? Or do we want to be a King Solomon, seeking only wisdom and right judgment for the good of all? Put another way: when we stand collectively before Christ at the Final Judgment, do we want to be told, “I was hungry and you fed me”, or “born into the wrong country, and you rained destruction upon me”?

Josh McDonald is a writer and a cartoonist living in Somersworth, NH. All opinions expressed herein are his own, and not necessarily those of CTA, its staff, its members, or its supporters.