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Catholic-Lit Revival: A Review of 'The Mystery of Things',by Matthew Lickona
It’s a love story, a murder thriller, and a religious drama all wrapped into one. Is Debra Murphy’s 'The Mystery of Things' the next great work of Catholic literature?

Father Matrix, by Matthew Lickona
The recruiting poster showed a young Catholic priest in cassock and sunglasses, doing his best impression of Neo from ‘The Matrix.’ The priest as hero. Is there a problem with that?

How Liberalism Fails the Church, by Cardinal Francis George
“Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood. It no longer gives life.” [Commonweal]

Non Serviam: Martin Scorcese's 'The Departed,' by Matthew Lickona
If you look past the brutal violence, the  harsh language, and the stark portrayal of evil (hey, it’s a Scorcese movie), you’ll find that in ‘The Departed’ goodness is worthwhile for reasons deeper than earthly success or happiness.

Swimming with Scapulars: Lent and Its Discontents, by Matthew Lickona
When I was confirmed at age fifteen, I took St. John the Baptist as my confirmation saint. ‘A voice crying out in the wilderness,’ I thought, full of adolescent pride. By Lent of 2003 I was a little older and a little more humble—if only as a result of years of sin and failure to do much crying out... An excerpt from the new spiritual memoir, ‘Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic.’

True Confessions of a Young Catholic: An Interview with Matthew Lickona, by Angelo Matera
In his spiritual memoir, ‘Swimming with Scapulars,’ 30-year-old Matthew Lickona lays bare the soul of a young traditional Catholic. We spoke to him recently about his book, his faith, and what it’s like to be the literary envoy for the ‘New Faithful’ Catholic revival.

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Desperate Episcopalians

If you need proof that liberal religion is completely exhausted, tune in to ‘The Book of Daniel.’ Despite all the hype, NBC’s controversial new series violates television’s most important taboo: It makes sin boring.

Rev. Daniel Webster and 'Jesus'

I'm guessing that it's rare for a television series to jump the shark in its first episode. But I'm pretty sure that NBC's The Book of Daniel, which chronicles the (mis)adventures of an Episcopal priest (Aidan Quinn), did just that. The moment came toward the end of the two-hour premiere on January 6th. Here are my notes: "Fornicating bishops." (Okay, so I didn't use "fornicating.") "Senior fornicating bishops. Adulterous senior fornicating bishops."

The two bishops are Episcopalian, which means one of them can be a woman, so the show didn't take things as far over the top as it might have (gay senior fornicating bishops). And only one of our bishops—the male—is actually married, and his wife has Alzheimer's and doesn't even recognize him most of the time, so you see, it's all very complicated and human.

I really was ready to give this show more of a shot than the angry Christians out there wanted it to get.
Oh, but the female bishop? Early on, she scolded the eponymous Daniel for giving a sermon which noted "the inevitability of sin." But here, when her lover, (who just happens to be Daniel's dad) wonders why he feels guilty, she promptly assures him he'll have to give that upthe feeling guilty, that is. As bishop, she's a bit of a hardliner. But as a person, well ... she's a little more understanding. One face for the pulpit, another for the bedroom.

Let's see, what's the word I'm looking for? Ah, yes: hypocrite. But what do you expect? That's religion for you. Pie-in-the-sky piety masking lives that are essentially just like everyone else's—except maybe for the occasional appearance of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ the Hippie Dude (more on him later).

"Adulterous senior fornicating bishops"for me, it marked the moment when the show threw up its hands and admitted the joke. "Okay, you got us. We're not the least bit interested in religion and the way it informs a person, much less a family. We're not even interested in serious human drama. There's nothing at the center of this show—it's a soap bubble.

"So to keep things hopping, we're throwing in everything we can think of—ratcheting up the buzz until you can't hear yourself think about what else you could be doing at 10 o'clock on a Friday night. Vicodinaddicted priest? Check. Drunken wife? Check. Drunken wife's lesbian-leaning sister? Check. Gay son? Check. Gay son's dead twin? Check. Adopted Asian son who mocks his family and scores like Casanova? Check. Pot-dealing daughter who portrays her mother as a leather-clad dominatrix in her Manga? Check. Catholic priest with mafia connections? Check. While we're at it, let's toss in a racist WASP married to an uptight jerk (racism and rigid parenting—now there are some faults the show is willing to skewer), a hottie secretary who gets brought in for some three-way action, and..."

Exhausted yet? When a man embezzles three million in church funds and turns up dead in Daytona, you almost don't have to be told that he was found naked, with an arse full of implements. Well of course he was. The teaser for the next week's episode said it all: "More scandal! More drama!"

‘Adulterous senior fornicating bishops’—the moment when the show threw up its hands and admitted the joke.
But if the show is a soap bubble, it's a curiously heavy one. (Where are the writers of Arrested Development when you need them?) Daniel's mother, you will recall, has Alzheimer's. This makes for some genuinely funny moments at Sunday dinnerfunny in an uncomfortable way, of course, since you're not really supposed to laugh at people when they're suffering. When she complains that her husband "is always showing me his penis," it's funny. An easy joke—the penis reference at the dinner table, the treatment of her husband as some pervert strangerbut by God, it's something. Then gravity takes over. In a private, lucid moment, she assures Daniel of her great love for him. Touched, he embraces her. "Thanks, Mom." Wait for it, wait for it: she regards him strangely, asks, "Are you my son?" and walks away. Plop. Splat.

Having thus stripped its Comedy gear, the show slams into Religious. Suddenly, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ the Hippie Dude is standing with Daniel. "Can't you do something for her?" Daniel asks. "You know it doesn't work like that," answers Jesus, apparently forgetting all the miraculous cures he worked during his earthly ministry. "Yeah, I know," replies Daniel. "I just don't know why." Pause for moment of serious gazing into space, acknowledging the genuine difficulty posed by suffering. Then it's on with the show!
It's one thing to name the problem; it would have been another to really deal with it, even make it a theme. Alzheimer's brings suffering to Mom and to those who love her. But having Dad take comfort in the arms of another woman isn't dealing with suffering, and certainly doesn't address its role in the spiritual life. The closest we get to that is Jesus saying, "Life is hard—for everyone. That's why there's such a nice reward at the end." What about "take up your cross and follow me"the Christian conforming his life to Christ, losing his life and yet somehow finding himself in the process? What about "we make up in our own bodies what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ?" What about, "Count it all joy?" Now there's a mystery more interesting than "What happened to our three million in school funds?" or even "How am I going to tell my Dad the bishop that my son is gay?"

"Life is hard..." It's a pathetic answer, and Daniel calls Jesus on it, telling him he doesn't find it very comforting. "Aren't you supposed to comfort me?"

"Oh, where did you read that?" laughs Jesus. "Some Episcopalian self-help book?"

Maybe. Or maybe he read it in Scripture: "Comfort ye, my people ... Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." Most of us may not feel that comfort and relief in times of crisis, but then, most of us don't have visions of Jesus on a regular basis. (It has been suggested that this Jesus is nothing more than Daniel's imaginary creation—but if that's the case, why does he say that he talks to everyone, it's just that most people won't listen?)

Here’s a show about a Christian priest, and it seems embarrassed to call a sin a sin.
But let's not nitpick. Life is hard. Still, I could have stood some mention of sacrificial lovehard and terrible, but ultimately salvific. I'm pretty sure sacrificial love is what led the Word to become flesh, and I'm pretty sure it's the best reason to be Christian. If I were Daniel, talking to this silly wisp of a man in white, I would wonder exactly why I had devoted my life to his service in the priesthood. This is the guy I want to help folks know? Jesus mocks the self-help stuff, but he speaks in the same sort of common-sense platitudes as the worst of it: "Don't worry." "Let it ride." Groovy.

And sweet Jesus, is Jesus ever affirming. "Grace will be fine. She's a good girl." About Dad: "He's a good man." About son Adam: "He's a kid, Daniel. Let him be a kid." It bleeds over into the rest of the characters. "You're a good man," says uptight WASP-guy to Daniel. "Peter's happy. He's a good boy," says Daniel of son Peter. "You're a good kidjust take it slow," he says to son Adam. Everybody's good! Hooray! And yet...

I really was ready to give this show more of a shot than the angry Christians out there wanted it to get. Pill-popping priest? Graham Greene had his whiskey priests. The priestly life treated as being similar to any other career? See the short stories of J.F. Powers. Dysfunctional family? Well, every priest is Father to his flock, and he, along with everyone in the pews, is a sinner in need of redemption.

That's where I stumbled. Who needs redemption in the world of this show? There's plenty of unhappiness and stress and even some crime, but who needs anything more than good advice and a little love and support? And who needs to be Christian for that? There are less demanding places to look for affirmation—viz. the adulterous fornicating senior bishops above. Unless, of course, adultery really is a sin, and sin really does violate the order of love, and such violations really do carry consequences in the here and now (to say nothing of the afterlife). Quaint notions, but Daniel does wear a priest's collar and dress in funny robes on Sunday.

It's the oddest thing—here's a show about a Christian priest, and it seems embarrassed to call a sin a sin. The shows I like best have no such qualmsThe Sopranos, Lost, even Arrested Development, God rest its soul. Nobody's portrayed as all bad or all good, but these shows don't have any trouble showing the evil that men do, for whatever reason, as just that: evil. Sometimes it's played for laughs, sometimes it breaks your heart, sometimes it makes you think. But it's acknowledged every time.

‘Oh, where did you read that?’ laughs Jesus. ‘Some Episcopalian self-help book?’
The Book of Daniel
makes a joke out of the notion. "You're living together in sin?" Daniel asks a cohabitating man preparing for marriage. The young man is stunned. Then Daniel smiles. "Just kidding." Daniel gets closer to the truth in a sermon about temptation (which gets neatly conflated with sin), in which he asks, "If there were no temptation, how could there be redemption?" and notes that, "If we never did anything bad, how could we repent and be stronger for our weaknesses?" This is close to the Happy Fault of Adam's fall, which brought Christ to earth and opened the gates of heaven so that man might share in the life of God. But then Daniel ruins it with, "Doesn't good need evil in order to be good?" Does being need non-being in order to be? Is there a Manichee in the house?

The funny thing is, it's Daniel's attempt to minister to this unmarried couple—the ones not really living in sinthat provides the episode its only real drama. It turns out their sex life has gone to pieces since they got engaged—the woman can only have sex while high. As Daniel digs into this, he finds that they're both terrified of actually getting married. As they put it, they can't stand "the pressure of marriageloving each other forever and completely." (The way, say, that Christ loves his church.) But thanks to Daniel's counselthat they face and discuss their fears—they have decided to remain together without getting married. Their sex life is back to its old wonderfulness. Daniel is brought face to face with the fruit of his labors: the couple will forego the sacrament of marriage.

This isn't quite what he had intended.

"Excellent work," says Jesus. 

January 16, 2006

MATTHEW LICKONA is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a weekly newspaper, and the author of the memoir ‘Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic.’

©2005 Godspy. All rights reserved.

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01.21.06   Selah says:
Matthew, I can't figure out why a writer of your stature took this show seriously enough to devote so much time and space to it. I did enjoy your comments, especially the scriptural references. However, I found the one episode I watched to be hopeless garbage, and not even worth commenting on. Except that I felt called to write a letter to the editor of my local paper. I found not one funny moment in the whole show, though I have a well-developed sense of humor. What I did find was inexpert writing turning into mockery of both the Episcopal and Catholic churches, with the inherent danger of causing uninformed people to think it might be real. As I wrote to the editor, the writers took a hodge-podge of bizarre situations, lumped them together and threw clerical garb over the whole. Did you enjoy seeing that obnoxious Jesus figure? Did you find one single character in anyway admirable, including the Jesus figure? I really resented the remark of the Catholic priest, that the nuns in his church "had nothing to do all day but pray and gossip." I hang out fairly often with the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and they are as busy as CEO's and much nicer. Furthermore, it is their discipline to ask themselves before speaking: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? So much for idleness and gossip.Good writers can indulge in the luxury of taste and real humor, and I hope I'm around to see this if it ever comes back!

01.16.06   Felicity says:
Excellent stuff, Matthew. Your review of this show evokes an all too familiar mental atmosphere: "it's all so complicated and human." Dramas like this are like F1 cars roaring around the same old track at monotonous high speeds, every machine the same except for the sponsor's bodywork, their engines souped up with every legal and illegal trick in the book. They don't impress, they only deafen, but the result is that when the whole dog-and-pony show tips into self-parody (adulterous fornicating senior bishops!) almost everyone watching is too numb to notice.

01.16.06   Godspy says:
If you need proof that liberal religion is completely exhausted, tune in to ‘The Book of Daniel.’ Despite all the hype, NBC’s controversial new series violates television’s most important taboo: It makes sin boring.

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