Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Frankly, Neo ll

The movies considered in the AFI's selection range from The Jazz Singer (1927) to LOR:The Two Towers (2002) - "My Preciousssssssss!"

Ostensibly, the principal criteria for determining each noteworthy phrase were three:
  • it has to be a direct quote or slice of dialogue from a movie (song lyrics don't count)
  • it must have 'cultural impact'; that is, take on a life of its own, find its way into popular usage
  • it must be capable of evoking the fond memory of the film it belongs to, something the Institute calls 'legacy'

In my mind, this third rule would tend to squeeze out of the running or push to a lower rank on the list great one-liners or exchanges that may have been the only redeeming factor of unmemorable films. It seems to mean that being part of a classic movie is not totally irrelevant to being chosen as a 'best quote'.

On the original ballot Casablanca (1942) led the field with seven quotes. The Wizard of Oz (1939) followed with six and the Godfather (1972) trilogy had a total of nine possible candidates. So I guess the stature of the movie does count, which I find neither unusual or unfair. But it still doesn't explain a lot of the omissions or feeble inclusions to the list.

That said, I pick up where I left off in my last post.

4. Some of the chosen lines, often from universally well regarded films, are arguably not the signature quotes of the movie. For example, is the "box of chocolates" (#40) line from Forrest Gump (1994) more engraved in our minds or more often repeated than "Run, Forrest, run!" ? More than my personal, oft' quoted favorite: "Stupid is as stupid does." ?

Is that slightly nauseating reference to Hannibal's nutritional habits (#21) really the best line of Silence of the Lambs (1991)? I still enjoy answering the phone by hissing softly, "Hello, Clarice." and find no better ice breaker for those awkward silences with cannibalistic serial killers than, "Quid pro quo, Dr. Lecter, quid pro quo!!!". Sometimes if you shout it loud enough they get nervous.

The "smell of napalm in the morning" (#12) line is good, but I probably would have chosen, "The horror, the horror!!" from Apocalypse Now (1979). Kurtz's last words. Classic epitaph.

5. That was the right movie/wrong quote category. Next, I suggest that certain quotes be substantially upgraded on the list, principally because they are heavy in the criteria #2 department.

For starters, numbers 68, 69 and 70 from The Shining (1980), Poltergeist (1982) and Marathon Man (1976) respectively should be way higher than the low third of the chart. "I see dead people." (#44) should be within the top 25 at least. Love that line. It captures the purest of human emotions.

Number 76, from Judgment Day (1991), should probably be moved up, too, if for no other reason than it helps us recall the days when we could actually understand what the Governator was saying. Alas, politics makes idiots of us all.

6. Finally, I think that some of the AFI's choices for top 100 are depriving the list of spaces better filled by other occupants. I love Citizen Kane (1941) but see no reason to include "Rosebud" (#17) as a quotable quote.

Likewise, the lines from In the Heat of the Night (1967), On Golden Pond (1981), To Have and Have Not (1944), and Rocky (1976), (#16,88,34,80) are better suited to a list of the 300 most memorable movie quotes.

That's the last on this most transcendental of topics. What can I say? After 1 am my mind starts to wander...

Hasta la vista, baby.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Frankly, Neo, I see dead people.

We gringos love lists.

It heightens our natural inclinations as control freaks. If I have you on my list, you are somehow under control.

It appeals to our self esteem. If you are on a list, you have been included.

It emboldens our wierd sense of fairness. If I am on the list, my time will come.

It strangely satisfies our suffocating quest for nostalgia. Being on a list, like diamonds, is forever.

The American Films Institute released its list of the 100 all time best movie quotes this month. Some were no-brainers, Hollywood's specialty. Others were questionable. And still others, unfathomable. But perhaps more glaring than any of the inclusions to the list were the obvious, even painful, omissions.

I offer a few tips for the list's betterment. Feel free to add your own.

1. There was not one, NOT ONE, quote from the movie that has penetrated deeply into the psyche of entire generations and provided countless opportunities for folks of my ilk. What were these people thinking?.

The Exorcist (1973) offers many list-worthy jewels. Unfortunately most of them can't be reprinted here. This is a family oriented blogsite. Among those I can mention:

"What an excellent day for an exorcism!" (You know, to this day it's the first thing I say when I get up in the morning.)

"Your mother's in here, Karras. Would you like to leave a message? I'll see that she gets it." (The answering machine from hell. Nice.)

"I am no one. I am no one. Fear the priest. Fear the priest..." (Damn skippy!)

2. Nothing from The Matrix (1999)???!!! Come on, dude. Now I know it's not just me.

"What is the matrix?" (It is the only question that needs to be answered. Millions ask it everyday in their maxed-out, futile, monochrome lives. Anyone who is part of a system that has become an end in itself, that feeds off its members, that uses and discards its own people as if they were short term currency asks it ceaselessly. How did the AFI overlook this one?? I want this quote on the list, dammit!! Don't make me come down there...)

"There is no spoon." (Quite possibly the only correct answer to the previous question.)

"Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony." (So true. Actually all of Morpheus' pithy aphorisms should be candidates for the list.)

Even The Matrix Reloaded (2003), vastly inferior to the groundbreaking original, has its memorable exchanges. For example,

"Me, me, me, me." "Me, too." (Agent Smith to his newly created clone. OK. Guess you had to be there.)

"Dammit, Morpheus, not everyone believes what you believe!" "My beliefs do not require them to." (Commander Lock was always in over his head with Morpheus.)

3. What happened to Fight Club (1999)? That whole screenplay reads like a collection of memorable quotes.

"I know this because Tyler knows this."
"I am Jack's smirking revenge."
"On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero."
"I want you to do me a favor." "Yeah, sure." "I want you to hit me as hard as you can."

And what to say about Tyler Durden's prodigious monologues, sown throughout the film?

"Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."

Gold. Pure gold.

I shall continue in this frivolous vein for one more post. Too pooped right now.

Friday, June 24, 2005

islamic thinkers

Andrea Elliott of the New York Times rankled a stridently anti-American Muslim organization this week with a report that appeared on the front page of Wednesday's Metro section.

Before I go any further, I would advise Ms. Elliott, if she plans to enrage other extremist Muslim groups, that she do it from a safer distance. The clan she ripped on Wednesday hangs out in Queens. Way too close.

The organization that calls itself Islamic Thinkers appears to have historical ties to the followers of the london based radical cleric Omar Bakri Muhammed, self proclaimed spokesman for Usama Bin Laden. Bakri actively recruits fighters for terrorist plots wherever the needs of jihad beckon. Figures like John Major, Tony Blair and Pervez Musharraf have fallen under his fatwas (sentences) and he has declared open season on all Murtaddun (Muslim turncoats).

The Islamic Thinkers deny any relationship with Bakri's group, but the fact remains that until 9/11 they went by the same name, Al-Muhajiroun ('the emigrants'). Regardless, the Queens based group uses its own incendiary tactics to combat - peacefully, we are assured - what they see as the global, US led campaign for the debasement of Muslims. Inflammatory public protests in Jackson Heights, flag burning and the production of videos like Muslim Massacres and Life in Palestine which recently found their way onto Queens Public Television are among the Thinker's most notable acheivements.

Their ultimate goal is to transform the US into an Islamic state governed by shari'a - holy Islamic law. This will, they insist, be done pacifically.

The Islamic Thinkers bristle at Elliott's article, in the first place, because she was denied direct access to the group and chose to write it anyway, based on the testimony of people close to the organization. The group's web site is an endless diatribe against the press and its unfair treatment. Therein lies a first lesson for the Thinkers regarding free society: not talking to the media will not prevent them from talking about you. Usually it incites them to even further unrestrained speculation.

Secondly, there's the moral Catch-22 that always rears its cynical head in these conflicts. The Thinkers defend their right to burn flags and crusade against the US within its borders citing the laws and Constitution of the very society they hope, one day, to destroy. This bit of ethical acrobacy may some day be referred to as 'the Guantanamo syndrome'. For now, it is simply one of the infuriating consequences of being a free country.

Finally, I must admit I am more than a little bemused by the indignation the Thinkers and other radical Muslim organizations profess every time it is even insinuated that their hardline rantings could and often do incite violence. Islam is a path of peace, they insist, the Qur'an is a message of harmony and serenity.

While I would not go as far as to say that violence is an essential part of Islam and I am the first to admit that the Qur'an contains passages of stunning beauty and mysticism, even the uninitiated reader will conclude that vengeance and aggression are not inconditionally sanctioned by the holy book.

Take one example from the sura of The Cow:

"Fight for Allah against those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits. Kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out. Temptation is worse than slaughter. Do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers. But if they desist, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. Fight with them until there is no persecution, and they worship only Allah, but if they desist there should be no hostility except against the oppressors."

(2, 190-193)

There are numerous exhortations to take up arms in the Qur'an, both in defense of Allah and to extend his dominion. The Prophet himself formed an army and, in keeping with the revelation he received, used it to submit the polytheistic tribes of his time to the strict monotheism of Islam. Fighting and killing are not proscribed as immoral in the Qur'an. They are, in some circumstances, deemed the necessary duty of all true believers.

This is in stark contrast with Christianity's moral stance. Not that Christians themselves are morally superior to Muslims. Throughout history and even in our own day many supposed Christians have wielded the Bible as if it were a weapon of mass destruction. But that is in contradiction of and NOT in accordance with the Gospel.

"You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' But what I say to you is: offer no resistance to injury... You have heard the commandment, 'You shall love your countryman but hate your enemy'. But my commandment to you is: love your enemies and pray for your persecutors." (Mt 5, 38-44)

The morality of the Qur'an is more easily compared to the Old Testament of Christian scripture than the Gospel. Jesus of Nazareth, founder of Christianity, preferred an injust and absurd death to lifting a finger against his antagonizers. He even found it in Himself to forgive them, after which they promptly lynched Him. This is what He taught His followers to do. They have not always done it. In fact, they have often failed miserably and tragically. But violence, especially in the form of payback, is categorically forbidden in the Gospel.

My point is, quite simply, that some basis for the provocative rhetoric and the extremist reactions of radical Islam could be gleaned from the Qur'an inasmuch as violence is tolerated under certain circumstances. That, unfortunately, allows a Bin Laden to 'justify' the murder of civilians and a suicide bomber to be regarded as a 'hero'.

A Christian, when he commits an act of violence - be it torture, execution, abortion or war - will find nothing to vindicate him in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

:) :) :)

Some quips from late nite TV I enjoyed and now share.

"At a press conference yesterday, President Bush said he'd learned a lot about what it's like to live in Africa from U2's Bono. The President also said that he has learned a lot about what it's like to live underwater from SpongeBob."
(Conan O'Brien, June 8)

"This story is everywhere. It's been revealed that John Kerry's grades were lower than President Bush. He had a lower grade point average than President Bush. That's like losing a spelling bee to Jessica Simpson." (Jay Leno, June 8)

"It's hot in New York City. I don't know - it's like 120, 130, something like that. I'll give you an idea how hot it is in New York City: coming to work this morning, my cabdriver was steaming vegetables in his turban."
(David Letterman, June 7)

OK. Enough levity for one day. Everyone back to work.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

exorcists can't MONKey around

I always knew that someday my profession would be smeared in the media.

Hey, if they don't respect the President, if even Condi takes some heat, how could I, lowly exorcist that I am, hope to escape an occasional rake over in the press?

Little did I suspect that it would be brought on by a Romanian contemplative monk.

It has been reported that monk Daniel Petru Corogeanu, assisted by four orthodox nuns at the convent of the Holy Trinity in northeast Romania, killed 23 year old Maricica Irina Cornici, also a nun, during an attempted exorcism.

The monk killed the nun. Not the devil. That is an exorcism gone wrong. A real exorcist does NOT off the possessed.

The autopsy revealed dehydration, asphixiation and exhaustion as causes of death. Whether or not she was possessed, Maricica indeed went through hell before dying.

Bound hand and foot to a cross, starved for 72 hours, burlap sack stuffed in her mouth and exposed to low temperatures, she was truly a victim of the demonic,
but in human, not supernatural, form. What was performed on this young lady was not a religious rite, it was torture, plain and simple.

Arcane as Orthodox ritual may seem in some aspects, I seriously doubt that monk Daniel was following protocol in his attempts to "drive the devil out", as he so succinctly put it. Like Roman Catholicism, there is a rite of exorcism in the Orthodox practice. Unlike Roman Catholicism, Orthodox monks do not live in congregations comparable to our religious orders and exorcists are not specifically appointed by their bishops. This means there is a lot of room for free-lancing and not a whole lot of accountability.

The rite of exorcism in the Roman Catholic Church is not a spell, it is not a therapy, it is not a cure. It is a prayer and a blessing. It is also a last resort.

There is no way to know, even after an exorcism has been performed, whether a supernatural evil is or was present in the afflicted person. There is no sure fire sign of demonic possession. The prayer in an exorcism asks for God's grace to protect the subject from evil in all its forms. The blessing invokes God's mercy and clemency as healing for a person troubled in body and spirit.

Exorcism is used sparingly in the Catholic Church. Extreme psychological and emotional pathologies, radical personality disorders and even glandular malfunctions can provoke such startling and lasting effects in a patient that, sometimes out of desperation, sometimes out of faith, the family may have recourse to their pastor or bishop in search of supernatural aid. It is the bishop's competence to discern the true nature of the situation, based on testimony and medical evidence and act accordingly.

An exorcism, in the rare case it is performed, is never done under the impudent gaze of the media. It is done without bondage, without violence, without MONKey business. :l

Friday, June 17, 2005

church sucks.

That, at least, appears to be the opinion of men, young and old, who see their wives or mothers scurry off to church at the established time, progeny in tow, while they dedicate themselves to better things. Golf. Sleeping. Coffee and newspaper. Putzing around in the backyard.

This is not an accusation. It's barely even a criticism. It's just the way things are.

A new book ruminates on the age old imbalance in the pews: women outnumber men in virtually every category of church related activities in places where Christianity is the dominant creed.

Of course, the one category where men still numerically dominate is a bitter bone of contention. The clergy.

The complaints against organized Christianity as sexist or otherwise insensitive to women's concerns are unevenly concentrated in that one, final frontier of male solvency. In all other realms of church life, women constitute between 60% and 80% of active participants.

This is, in a way, a very good thing. Women are the heart and soul of the church in much the same way they are the life force of their families. The proscription of women from the priesthood in the Catholic Church - for reasons grossly misstated in the public fore - is not at issue here. What Murrow's book ponders is the traditional and persistant allergy of men to church-going in contrast to the equally traditional and persistant enthusiasm of women.

The topic is valid and, for those of us in the business, interesting. The huge gender gap that is part and parcel of Christianity does not affect other historical religions: Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam.

Like I said, interesting.

What I found less interesting was the way Murrow resolves the question. Basically he takes a 'men are from Mars, women are from Venus' approach. The adventuresome hunter-warrior type just can't sit still long enough to make church a favorite pastime. Women, on the other hand, are drawn by the emphasis on healing, relationships, family, comfort, etc. given in Christian churches. All this, and pretty much only this, according to Mr. Murrow.

Any incursion to a debate on why men do one thing and women do another is fraught with the risk of political incorrectness. But, the facts are what they are.

The Exorcist offers a few ideas on why, possibly, men avoid going to church.

  • because of their upbringing, they never grasped its importance (obviously, that works for women just as well)
  • many Christian services have turned into a group hug with no greater purpose than feeling good about oneself
  • the emphasis on sentiments and emotions so prevalent in many versions of Christianity, the need to feel the faith and show everyone else that you do, indeed, feel it... definitely a turn off for most guys
  • the hoplessly vague content of the message in many churches makes Christianity no different than any other twelve step program
  • the thought that one's weakness, errors and incoherence might have to be looked at more seriously, that one might be induced to consider changes in lifestyle, that one might be given a higher moral standard to live up to all turn into a real problem for most guys who prefer to make their own rules and don't like hearing that they have to change...
  • the fact that, created in God's image, we tend to recreate Him in our own allows us to think that what's not important to me, probably isn't to Him either

And, let's face it, the world we live in does everything possible to convince us that all religions are basically the same and, therefore, vastly irrevelant - especially if they cramp your style.

True Christianity revolves around being and meaning. Our lives are totally caught up in having and doing. Who's got time for church? Much less prayer and good works...

We like the reality we've created for ourselves: working ourselves to death, spinning our wheels, chasing after 'security' or 'a higher standard of living' or some other mirage of our materialistic world.

But, regardless of who comes to church, men or women, it is the message itself, in all its unbelievable truth, that makes the Christian faith relevant, yesterday, today, always.

That's why it's so hard to keep a good exorcist down. ;)

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

jacko is us. yuck.

One of Michael Jackson's defense team, while righteously chastising those who would slander her now vindicated client, said, "Anyone who doesn't want to hear about Michael should just change the channel!".

Lady, I don't know what cable service you have, but the 138 channels Comcast offers in this town provide no quarter from the Jacko freakshow. Believe me, I have sought refuge.

Luckily there is still tombstone rubbing. And mah-jjong.

How have we brought this upon ourselves? When did we convince the all powerful media that we have no life? That we actually care what MJJ did or didn't do? That HisSentencing or acquittal could be relevant to anything that matters, anywhere, ever?

I console my forlorn self in the knowledge that most folks in the real world, deep down, could give a rat's ass about Michael Jackson. Yet I cannot escape the creeping sensation that somehow Jacko is the embodiment of our frantic, almost panic stricken, flight from reality.

Since the Brangelina rumor mill is quieting, we fix our insatiable gaze on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Now, there's a braindead match worthy of George A. Romero. Katie, incidently, has informed the public that she is opting out of the Catholic Church on Tom's behest to immerse herself in the ersatz world of Scientology. Batman might not even be able to save her from that crowd.

Sean Penn is covering the elections in Iran for the San Francisco Chronicle. Now, who does that flatter? Penn? The Chronicle? Certainly the Iranians are enjoying the sideshow. It apparently wasn't enough that we have to see this guy on the news, now we have to depend on him for it? I think Sean Penn is a great actor, but as a journalist how could he ever be credible?

The NY Times ran a piece on Monday titled Forget About Milk and Bread. Give Me Gossip! The article reports that sales of celebrity tabloids have climbed impressively in recent years. US Weekly, Star Magazine, In Touch, People and others have not only tightened their grip on the check-out line at Waldbaum's, they've actually increased the number of households that subscribe(!!) to them. With such success in view, other publishers are planning to join the ranks. Soon we will have even more authoritative updates on Britney's pregnancy and Lindsay's eating disorders. Whew.

The article ends with a question: how to explain the appeal of all this celebrity saturation? How much of Jessica, Brad, Beyonce and Paris is enough?

In search of answers a high school senior is confronted. She says she reads two or three celeb publications a week. Why?

"To get away from it all."

To get away from all of what? Cheerleading practice? Listening to her Minipod? Hanging at the Mall? I'm curious as to what exactly she's fleeing from. And why she's fleeing to Star Magazine.

Isn't it like escaping from Fruity Pebbles to Cap'n Crunch?

It's like, "Man, I'm sick of McDonald's! Let's go to Wendy's..."

Incredible. We live in banality and we seek refuge in frivolity. Not that people don't need an escape. Not that we can't enjoy a movie, or a TV show, or a magazine without scrutinizing it to death. Not that even the Exorcist couldn't lighten up once in a while...

But I sincerely believe that we, as a society, fear - and therefore avoid - the truth. The big questions. The hard choices. The onerous quest for meaning. We prefer the non-stop motion of a world that chases its own tail. We gladly exchange surfeit for substance. We cling to the uninterrupted distraction of the minutiae that fill the void we hold so dear...

It's the only way I can explain to myself how on God's green earth anyone could stand even hearing about what J-LO's new fragrance smells like, or what Nicole thinks about Tom's new flame. It is inconceivable. We are so afraid of reality that when we tire of our own vacuousness we gratefully indulge in someone else's.

If it were just a filler, something to mop up all the free time and spare cash, maybe it wouldn't be so worrisome. But it has become the life goal of many, way too many, of our young people.

I asked around the sacristy the other day - these are church kids - and, with one exception, they all said they hoped to be singers, dancers, actors, maybe pro athletes. Everyone wants to be the next American Idol. Our kids now aspire to vapid futility as their goal in life.

Am I the only one around here who thinks that we can do better than that?

If Michael Jackson's travails rivet the nation and the world for months on end, there is a reason. We are Jacko and Jacko is us.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

what an excellent day for a ...dog bite?

What ever happened to Linda Blair? When she was posessed I could at least have a rational conversation with her. Nowadays it's not so easy.

A week ago, 12 year old Nicholas Faibish of San Francisco was mauled to death by his pet pit bull. Guess who came to his rescue. The pit bull's, that is.


poster child for the demonically posessed is now official protector of vicious canines.

Come to think of it, she's probably better prepared for the job than most of us.

The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta reports that nearly 5 million people in the US are bitten by dogs annually. Of those, 800,000 seek medical treatment. Pit bulls and rottweilers lead the stats as best biters. Some cities, like Denver, have outlawed ownership of risky breeds to cut down on attacks.

Linda, supposedly free of any lasting effects of her childhood acquaintance with Captain Howdy, says they're cuddly and snuggly. She is spending literally millions to convince others that this is so. Just check out her web site. Pitiful. (sorry)

I swear I liked her better when I could understand what she was up to.

Friday, June 10, 2005

which islam?

The Qur'an does not mince its words when it comes to muslims killing muslims.

"One believer must not kill another believer, unless it be by error... Premeditated murder of one believer by another will have eternal hell as retribution. Allah will be incited against him, He will curse him and level against him a terrible punishment." (sura 4, 92-3)

Yet the daily headlines from Iraq and frequent stories out of places like Pakistan, Indonesia and Afghanistan tell us that the victims of radical Islamic terrorism are, overwhelmingly, Islamic.

The bodies discovered in the mass graves along the Syrian border this week belonged to muslim civilians. The recurring bomb blasts at shi'ite mosques are the handiwork of sunni insurgents. The unspeakable atrocities of the janjaweed militia, financed and encouraged by the Islamic Sudanese government are directed against their own people, native African animists some, Islamic others, in much the same way Saddam Hussein's sunni ba'athist regime waged a genocidal campaign against the sunni kurds in the north of Iraq years ago.

If the Qur'an is taken seriously and literally by shi'ites, sunnis, kharijites and the other factions of the muslim world, whence the wiggle room that allows for the unbridled slaughter supposedly reserved only for infidels? If the fundamental justification for activities like armed jihad and intifada is arguably taken from the Qur'an, how to explain the blatant disregard to the holy text when it comes to eliminating brother believers?

The bare truth is that Islam, far from the imposing monolith it often appears to western eyes, is a violently fragmented world where dialogue and tolerance are seldom popular choices when its different factions cross paths.

Historically, Islam split first into three groups shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad on June 8, 632. Four leaders followed in succession, all relatives of the Prophet. With the death of the fourth caliph, 'Ali, the Syrian muslims declared that future leaders of the islamic community need not be blood relatives of the Prophet, they should be elected and serve as directors of religious worship. Thus began the sunni version of Islam which states that the authority to rule the people of Islam lies in the sunna: the traditional interpretation of the Qur'an and the shari'a, or law gleaned from the holy book.

The shi'ites differ essentially from the sunni in that they affirm that true authority over the community resides in the person of the imam or ayatollah, who must be a descendent of Muhammad and shares in the Prophet's same gift of spiritual illumination. The shi'ites name twelve holy and true caliphs who reigned in succession until the ninth century. The twelfth caliph, Muhammad al-Mahdi, disappeared. His return will mark the end of time and the beginning of peaced and justice on earth.

The shi'ites traditionally blame the sunni for the disappearance of al-Mahdi and, as is well known, historical grudges die hard in the muslim world.

A third group, far inferior in number, broke away at about the same time. The kharijites or, 'those who abandon', wanted nothing to do with either the sunni or the shiites. They are historically the most egalitarian faction of the Islamic world.

Today, sunni account for about 85% of all muslims, shi'ites about 14% and kharijites the remainder. Iran is 95% shi'ite and the ayatollahs are the uncontested religious, political and social authority. Both Iraq and Bahrain also have shi'ite majorities. Most other muslim countries are strong sunni majorities. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Turkey and Algeria are nearly 100% sunni. But the three historical divisions provide only the most basic level of differentiation in Islam.

The shi'ite universe is a patchwork quilt of conflicting sects. Since authority and prophecy are identified with the person of the imam, a community of followers forms around each one, often in conflict or competition with the others.

The sunni population is known for its intolerance based on an ever more extreme quest for purity in the following of the Qur'an and the sunna. The world cringes at displays of shari'a driven justice: rape victims found guilty of adultery and then stoned, beheadings and torture (not necessarily in that order) for minor infractions of the law... The wahhabis ('puritans') of Saudi Arabia are the descendents of a sunni movement bent on ultimate perfection. Their society is one of the most intolerant and rigid on earth.

What is already a confusing scenario becomes damn near indecipherable when ethnic, tribal and national differences are thrown into the mix. The kurds are technically sunnis, but they are despised and discriminated against as infidels by both Turkish and Iraqui sunnis. Al Quaeda is of sunni inspiration, but its thugs will off anyone - muslim, christian or jew - regardless.

Oman is 75% obadi muslim. Azerbaijan is 61% shi'aithna muslim. The druze have taken refuge in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon, where they await the end of the world. The Baha'i consider themselves the perfect evolution of Islam and parade for world peace from their headquarters in Haifa (!). The sufi are the mystics of Islam, venerated by some, outlawed by others.

Among all the infinite divisions of Islam, you would be hard pressed to find one single group that did not consider itself impeccably obedient and faithful to the Qur'an.

A parting reflection: last week a sunni suicide bomber went into a shi'ite mosque in Karachi and detonated himself at the height of the evening prayer session. The surviving shi'ite worshippers, enraged, took immediate action. They charged into the street and torched a KFC.

Get it?

Friday, June 03, 2005

is the answer within?

As reported in the media and duly commented in one of my previous posts, a Vatican official stated recently that no canonical process is being brought against Fr. Marcial Maciel, nor is one forseen for the future.

This week, the National Catholic Reporter dedicates a disproportionate amount of print space to questioning the origin and veracity of the disclaimer. Basically, it is asserted that Ciro Benedetti, spokesman for the Vatican Secretary of State, is not the person who could have authoritatively made such an announcement and that the way it was made public does not square with Vatican protocol on delicate issues like sex abuse accusations. It is insinuated that the Legion of Christ has attempted to preempt any more bad press about the Founder and muddy the waters of the incessant speculation on the case even further.

Without getting into the details that Berry, Allen and the lead editorial of the paper furnish regarding this latest twist in the plot, I think the stage on which the case against Fr.Maciel and, perhaps, many of the complaints against the Legion of Christ stand, is being bared.

What fuels the passion with which, not only Fr. Maciel's accusers, but the writers and media sources that have joined the crusade, pursue their cause? Why is no response good enough? Why is even a Vatican communique held suspect from the instant it was released by the Legion's spokespersons? Newspapers and TV commentators publicize what they believe their audience will find of interest. How did the woes of Fr. Maciel and the Legion fall into that dubious category? Why do even people who don't question the moral probity of Fr. Maciel or accept the accusations made against him feel that, somehow, the Legion has brought much of the antagonism upon itself?

I would like to assume that, at some level, the Legion asks itself these questions. The Legion does well to fly above the din and can certainly not be expected to question itself every time someone lodges a complaint. Nor should anyone ask the Legion to be untrue to itself and its mission in the vain hope of pleasing its critics.

But a little introspection and critical self searching does no one any harm. Might reveal something. Might even help. Might make one better.

Why, then, do people turn so relentless and bitter in their discrepancies with the LC? Why do even the smallest complaints and misunderstandings get rehashed forever with undiminished outrage no matter how much time has passed?

Some thoughts:

1. Avoid the 'conspiracy theory' explanations. That's a breezy, comfortable route if you want to let yourself off the hook without answering any of the tough questions, but it resolves nothing. It ain't the socialists, it ain't the Jesuits, it ain't the freemasons or the scientologists. There's no 'they' there.

2. Don't whine about being mistreated by the invasive, liberal, secular, scandal mongering press. The media is all that and worse. The Catholic Church IS habitually mistreated in the mainstream press. But nobody listens to a whiner.

3. Do not even THINK about simply shrugging it off, taking refuge in that us-against-the-world mentality and chalking it all up to some 'spiritual martyrdom' that is just part of the vocation. It should never be the LC against anyone and there are more than enough crosses to be borne in religious life without heaping self-absorption onto the pile.

4. Understand that the LC frequently, perhaps unconciously, projects itself as aloof and intransparent. Aloof often breaks down into: smug, unaccountable, utilitarian and self seeking. Intransparent generally translates: dishonest, suspicious and suspect, manipulative and ├╝ber image conscious.

It is here, precisely, that a bit of self searching would be in order. It can happen the moment the LC stops thinking, 'Why is everyone so unfair to me?', and says, 'What, possibly, am I doing to create such lasting hard feelings? How do I manage to alienate even those who are potentially on my side?'

Much of the acridity and disenfranchisement that the LC stirs up is due to the way it deals with people, often its own people, often good people, equally committed to Christ and the Church.

It is a shame. But it is not an irreversible shame.

Achieving that elusive and delicate balance between trust and vigilance, between acceptance of others and confidence in self, between fearless transparency and conservation of the gift received, between leading when called upon and following when needed... that will be the sign that the LC has come into its own. It might also be the end of a whole bunch of unnecessary headaches.

It will happen. And hopefully the present unpleasantries can serve as a catalyst.

(Sorry, guys. But it's the feast of the Sacred Heart, so today's post had to come from the heart.)

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Ian Fisher writes for the NY Times about the Pope, the Vatican and the Catholic Church. He does so competently, but without the insider's understanding of what is really at stake.

Fisher's article Sunday about Pope Benedict's view of the Catholic Church's loss of membership in Europe is just a little off the mark, in the Exorcist's opinion. Not that I blame him. The only way the media can be expected to cover Catholicism is pretty much the way it does: from a sociological, scientific, demographic, political or 'comparative religions' viewpoint. The outside view differs from the inside view. That is to be expected.

Simply put, Sunday's article depicts a Pope confronted with a quandry: either tighten up the requisites of orthodoxy and lose people, or warm up to the demands of postmodern society and grow in membership.

No doubt, that's how it looks, at least at first glance, to some observers. In response, the case could easily be made that compromising on moral and doctrinal issues does not necessarily promote church growth. Just ask the Anglicans. Or the Presbyterians. Or the Lutherans.

But the true response from the Catholic perspective is that the real issue is not formulated in those terms. Pope Benedict is not deliberating whether to loosen up and grow or clamp down and decrease. Hard as it may seem to believe, numerical growth is not the Church's priority. It never has been. It never must be.

No one in the hierarchy wants to close parishes, downsize staffs, sell properties, turn schools into office buildings or tear down seminaries. It is done, it continues to be done in many places in Europe and North America, but it is always painful and distasteful.

Growth, like that experienced in Africa, Asia and some countries of Latin America, is good. It is definitely an objective. But it is neither the only objective, nor the most important one.

The Church sees itself, first and foremost, as holder and administrator of a gift, a legacy and a Tradition. That gift is preserved and shared through fidelity, living admiration and care, constantly checking and renewing its efforts to respect and honor what it has received. That is priority.

Whether it be as big as St. Peter's or as hidden as a bamboo chapel in the jungle, it's never about the demographics. Christ was no stranger to smallness and insignificance.

It's that whole mustard seed thang.