Who is the Amazing Spider-man? On Identity, Weakness and Power

SPOILER ALERT.  I went to see the latest Spider-man film during the week.  The Amazing Spider-man is the Spider-man story ‘re-booted’: a new version of the original Spider-man rather than a fourth instalment of the Spider-man series which starred Tobey Maguire.

It seems to me that identity is always a central theme of the entire superhero genre, because the story hinges on the alter ego of the main character: who is Peter Parker? Spider-man or a geeky kid?  Who is Superman?  A titan from another planet or mild-mannered Clark Kent?  And so on.  Out of all the superhero cartoons and their movie spin-offs, the identity theme has been most strongly explored in the Spider-man series because Peter Parker is a teenager, and so his discovery of his super-powers coincides with his adolescent search to discover who he is.

Critics would probably dispute about whether the latest installment plays down the identity theme or actually treats it more subtly than in the earlier trilogy of Spider-man films.  I am inclined to think the latter.  While it underlies the whole of the film, it is only in the last scene that this theme becomes absolutely explicit when one of Peter’s teachers says that some people argue that there are ten plots in all of fiction.  She then says that there is really only one plot line: Who am I?

Peter’s quest to find out what happened to his parents is a crucial part of his search to discover who he really is.  And the scenes of Peter trying out his newly acquired spidey abilities like climbing up walls, testing his super-fast reflexes or utilising his superior strength serve as a sort of parable for the journey of adolescent self-discovery of one’s gifts and talents that all teenagers must negotiate.  When Peter fails to remember his familial responsibilities to his aunt and uncle as he pursues his own ambitions and plans we get a glimpse into the frequently bumpy process of individuation that a young person undertakes in order to discover who they are beyond their family dynamics and patterns of behaviour.  Yet another part of the theme of identity is explored as Peter painfully discovers that his moral failures can have catastrophic effects when he fails to stop a burglary.

All of the strands outlined above can also be found in the earlier films.  The novel contribution of The Amazing Spider-man to the theme of identity is found in the character of Dr Curt Connors, Spider-man’s nemesis in the new film.  We are told several times that the goal of Connors’s scientific research is to ‘eliminate weakness’, a goal born of his desire to re-grow his amputated arm.  Connors makes it clear that he wants to transcend humanity’s limits… with tragic consequences.

Peter’s relationship to his weaknesses is different.   His deepest wound – the loss of his parents – can and does cripple him relationally at times, such as when he storms out of the house after an altercation with his uncle Ben about his father.  And his grief at Ben’s death sends him on a vigilante-style quest to avenge him.  Significantly, it is his encounter with a child that brings about a moment of ‘conversion’ for Peter: as he plucks the child from a burning car he realises that Spider-man’s mission cannot be simply about revenge.  After this encounter it seems to me that Peter’s weaknesses no longer cripple him, but are now the wellspring of creative, life-giving energy that now motivates him.   His purpose is now to do good and not to simply find his uncle’s killer.  Paradoxically, while his superpowers make him in some sense more than human, Peter’s true humanity is found in his desire to use his gifts in the service of others.  And Peter’s true power lies not in the elimination of his weakness, but in the desire to allow those wounds to be life-giving rather than destructive.  Contrast this with Dr Connors whose mission to eliminate weakness results in him becoming far more profoundly crippled than his amputation ever did.

This motif of power in weakness is deeply biblical of course.  In 2 Corinthians Paul tells us that his thorn in the flesh is the locus for the Lord’s power to be made manifest, in his life, and for the sake of others (2 Cor 12:9).  We don’t know what Paul’s ‘thorn’ was, but it became the place of grace for him, the place where the creative power of God was made visible in his life.  We all have wounds, weaknesses, and Paul’s point is that they can cripple or create us.  For Paul, the answer to the question, ‘who am I?’ is most profoundly answered by the God who is strangely more profoundly present in our wounds rather than in our triumphs.  I think The Amazing Spider-man makes more or less the same point… with spandex, spider-webs and spectacular stunts of course.

A Bit About the Missionaries of God’s Love

Fr Dave Callaghan MGL has been working away with a bunch of other Missionaries of God’s Love brothers and some of our friends to re-launch our website.  He grabbed a couple of clips of me talking about the Missionaries.  I’ll let you know when the new website goes live, but until then I thought you might like to have a look at these clips:

The Call

The Mission

The Need

Faith and Postmodernism in the Pub

Last night I gave a talk at the young adults event Theology at the Pub in Melbourne, which was more or less a repeat of a talk I had given in May at Guinness and God in Canberra.  The talk was called ‘Faith in a Postmodern World: Insights from Benedict XVI’.  The talk looks at modernity, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s critique of modernity’s concept of knowledge, and some of Benedict XVI’s seminal ideas about the narrative structure of faith, beauty and the encounter with the God of love.

I was trying to offer a logic for faith in a world that remains suspicious of claims to knowledge that lie beyond the scientific method.

My analysis of Lyotard owes a lot to James K. A. Smith’s clever book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church. Thanks to everyone who came out for the talks, and thanks especially to Daniel who allowed me to quote part of our email conversation about atheism in the talk.  Here’s the video of the Canberra talk (with thanks to CatholicLIFE and ACU):

What Would Thomas Merton Have Thought of Facebook? On Being Unplugged in a Digital Age

I would have really liked to have gone to the recent Catholic Media Conference which took place in Sydney last week, but a few different commitments made that impossible.  I’ve heard a few reports from friends who went, which were largely very positive.  And it got me thinking…

As a Catholic priest who blogs regularly (well, semi-regularly) I am clearly an advocate of the Church’s presence in the new(-ish) world of social media.  To say that the Church shouldn’t be a presence on the Web is to turn our back on one of the key places that people gather today.  As Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out, the new means of social communication are one of the new areopagi – one of the new sectors of society – that ought to be the focus of the Church’s new evangelisation.  We don’t want to disregard the potential of a wonderful tool for the communication of the Gospel.  In fact, the Church simply cannot ignore these new means of communication, because like it or not, this is the way people today will want to communicate with us.

At the same time, we cannot afford to be naive about the various concerns and questions raised by the new media, including matters of privacy and safety and the narrowing sources of our information as we are increasingly selective about what and who we read.  I’d also like to highlight a different concern.

In a world where everyone is always online and always connected, the Church may be, in fact needs to be, a ‘place’ where people are able to experience community ‘unplugged’.  I’m reminded of a comment by Thomas Merton, who suggested that watching television was the antithesis of contemplation. The gaze that the television produces is the polar opposite of the contemplative gaze.  What would Merton have made of Facebook?  I cannot help think that he would have thought that  it was an ersatz form of the community that is produced by the contemplative gaze.  Connecting all the time with friends on Facebook is like people forced to drink chicory in deprived, post-World War Europe.  Sure it’s a drink, but it isn’t really coffee.  Facebook isn’t a substitute for embodied relationship, or what we simply used to call friendship and community before the advent of ‘friends’ whom you never see face to face.

The link between contemplation and genuine community is critical, and being online for hours on end militates against both.  And without wanting to deny the human being’s virtually endless capacity for distraction (I’m recalling Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death here) I truly believe that the ersatz form of community to be found online will ultimately prove to be as unsatisfying for people as chicory substitutes for coffee.  Which brings us to a magnificent opportunity for the Church… to be the Church.  To be a ‘place’ which provides a space for genuine contemplation and which produces genuine community.  Our necessary presence on the web can and must meet people in their ‘world’, but it needs to invite them into a different one: the world that is opened up by the Gospel, that is incarnated especially in liturgy, and which produces an alternative and distinctive way of being human.  I’m completely aware of the apparent irony of using a blog to make this argument, but it is only an apparent irony.  It actually reinforces my point that we should make extensive use of the new media in order to connect with people, but we will do that in order to direct them to the contemplative and embodied community of the Church.

In particular, this means that we need to be careful of uncritically importing the practices of the new media into our lives and into the Church’s life.  Let me offer one example: the Facebook timeline encourages us to offer a chronology of our lives online in words and pictures going right back to the moment of our birth.  I am sure there are parents who are even now diligently adding to their infant’s Facebook page, getting them ready to present to their child when they are old enough to read or even see the pictures.  The timeline concept clearly raises questions about privacy, but the deeper reality is that it is also a liturgical practice in which we tell ourselves who we are – we form our own identity – through what we post about ourselves.  The Church offers another kind of liturgy, which cannot compete with the Facebook timeline for being slick, glossy or initially attractive.  But the liturgy of the Church and the other practices of faith like contemplative prayer offer a different account of who we are: that our deepest identity is that we are the beloved of God.

This does not mean dispensing with the exciting avenues that the new media offer for proclaiming the Gospel.  It means recognising that these avenues are subordinate to the Gospel and not the other way round. The evangelical task for the Church is not to mimic the practices of the new media, but to be authentic to her own identity as the community that is formed by gazing at the face of Christ, who is the face of God.

Beyond QandA: Insights into Atheism and Faith with Nikki Gemmell

So last night we had the so-called great debate between Cardinal Pell and Dr Richard Dawkins, and of course today the social media has been atwitter with the postmortems.  I don’t intend to offer such a post- QandA analysis, but rather would like to direct you to Nikki Gemmell’s latest column from the Weekend Australian’s magazine (p14, April 7-8, 2012).  It’s obviously not an analysis of last night’s debate, but it might better serve people who would like to genuinely explore some of the issues around belief and unbelief today.

In the column Gemmell traces something of her own quest for faith, for meaning.  She begins by describing herself in her 20s as “one of those pitbull atheists, a sneerer a la Dawkins”, but she nonetheless would occasionally slip into a church service, a practice which slowly developed into a semi-regular habit in her early thirties. Gemmell no longer goes to church, and now identifies more with the atheism of Alain de Botton, “tipping a hat to the graces within organised religion but not be sucked in by it.  I’ll never be with Dawkins, thumping that believers are deluded, stupid; I’ve too much respect for the mysterious in life, can’t turn my back on wonder”.

Gemmell’s article concludes with a summation of her sense of spirituality:

My spirituality is private, bound by no institution, carved from years of bitsy church-going and from the land and giving birth, carved from the shock of kindness I see again and again in people and am deeply moved by. These attacks of Dawkins and his ilk feel like a violation in some way, but I can’t explain why.  Because my head’s telling me they’re right, it’s true.  Yet, yet…

Dawkins surely has his supporters in Australia, but I can’t help thinking that Gemmell has articulated far more successfully what many Australians feel about the possibility of belief and the seeming inevitability of unbelief.  She has clearly experienced the power of some of the practices of religious faith and the power of sacred sites to engender a sense of peace and invite a return to wholeness.  She is drawn to the values of religious faith: “generosity, compassion and quiet”, as she names them.   And yet her article concludes with her “head”, her reason telling her that the atheists are right; her intellect or reason precludes her from believing, as much as she might in some way like to.

There’s possibly (indeed probably) a whole bunch of reasons running around inside Gemmell’s head making religious belief within an institutional setting implausible for her.  And so there is more that could be said than is possible in a single blog from me.  But in response to her insightful column, I would simply point out this: in the last lines of her article it would appear that Gemmell has articulated a fundamental belief of the age in which we live, namely that the only “reasons” that count are the one’s that belong to her “head”.  As a product of modernity she believes that  empirical proof is the only valid form of knowledge.  But every paragraph of her article points to another mode of knowing that she is not prepared to trust and yet feels so intensely: a mode that has several different names in the Christian tradition, but is probably best known as the way of the heart.  As Blaise Pascal so famously expressed it, “the heart has reasons that reason knows not of”.  The heart’s knowledge is more than emotion or feeling; in fact Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both described this kind of knowledge as a higher part of the mind or a higher reason, distinguishable from the normal processes of discursive thought that we commonly call reason.

Now when the atheist looks in vain for proof of God’s existence, and when Nikki Gemmell’s “head” tells her that the atheist’s arguments are right, they are looking for reasons at the level of discursive thought, at the level of what we usually call reason.  In part that’s because modern epistemology (the philosophy of how we know) has said that such empirical reasoning is the only real way of knowing anything.  But it stands to reason (pun intended) that if God is not a thing in the world, not an object that can be found in the world, but is rather the very foundation of all things and is thus utterly beyond the world, then he is not to be found or discovered by discursive reason at all.  Which is why the Christian tradition has maintained, over and against this modern epistemology, that God is known and encountered by the heart, by the higher form of reason that modern epistemology has excluded or forgotten.  I would contend that Dawkins doesn’t get this.  He is totally convinced that the only form of trustworthy knowledge comes from empirical reason, from the scientific method.  But Gemmell does get it.  She needs to trust her heart, trust the mystery that she intuits within her life experience, the “tugging” that she feels.  Because the heart has reasons that reason knows not of. And they are valid reasons to believe.

Easter Vigil Homily 2012

This is my homily for the Easter Vigil for this year. It was preached at St Benedict’s parish, Burwood, which is the parish in Melbourne that the Missionaries of God’s Love are responsible for. In the homily I explain why the Easter vigil is the night of nights.  I suggest that next weekend may be the atheists’ night of nights as the Global Atheist Conference takes place in Melbourne.  The theme of their conference is ‘A celebration of reason’.  The implication of course is that believers are irrational simpletons. In response to their theme I suggest some reasons to believe that Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, and offer some reasons why we celebrate Christ’s resurrection.  Happy Easter. Christ is Risen! He is truly Risen.

The homily is in two parts below:

Easter Vigil Homily 2011

Last week’s post was a reflection upon the Crucifixion of Jesus, so this week I thought I’d  post this homily from last year’s Easter vigil.  It comes from the Light to the Nations Pilgrimage, a biennial pilgrimage to the Redemptorist Monastery in Galong, NSW.  The pilgrimage is hosted by the Disciples of Jesus Covenant Community, and in 2011 approximately 900 people camped out and celebrated the Easter liturgies in a large tent.  Most of the congregation are young people, and they’re pretty rowdy, but that’s because there’s a fair bit of Easter joy going on. Hope you find the homily edifying.  As St Seraphim of Sarov would say, ‘My joy, Christ is Risen’.  Happy Easter.

The homily is in two YouTube clips.

Paul Kelly, Salvador Dali and the Crucifixion of Jesus

Over the summer I read Paul Kelly’s ‘mongrel memoir’, How to Make Gravy.  It was a lot more insightful than many rock autobiographies, mainly because Kelly is a very intelligent and thoughtful man.  I found it particularly interesting because he was raised a Catholic, but like other artists such as Martin Scorsese who have also jettisoned the faith of their childhood, Paul Kelly’s imagination remains baptised, forever shaped as it were by the faith he no longer holds.  That is, perhaps even despite himself, he still sees the world through the prism of the practices and doctrines of Catholic Christianity, even  though he no longer practices his faith or describes himself as a believer.  And then this Catholic imagination is given expression in his music.

One (and only one) of the ways this Catholic imagination is manifest in his music is Kelly’s frequent recourse to Scripture.  In How to Make Gravy Kelly explains that he often opens up the Gideon Bible in a hotel room for inspiration when he is looking for a lyric.  One such example of this is the haunting ‘Meet me in the Middle of the Air’, a song he composed for the film Tom White.  The lyrics of the song are largely taken from Psalm 23, perhaps the most famous passage in the Bible which begins: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want’.   The refrain that runs through the song: ‘come and meet me in the middle of the air, I will meet you in the middle of the air’ is actually an allusion to 1 Thessalonians 4:17 , but when Kelly uses it he is drawing upon a line that he says has been around for a hundred years in blues, Gospels and spirituals.  Woody Guthrie, Dylan, Led Zeppelin have all used the line, asking God/Jesus to meet them in the middle of the air.  It has become a key phrase in the history of American music for expressing the human being’s desire for God.

This is where Paul Kelly’s use of the line takes a significant twist, because in the past it has been used as an invocation, as as prayer that the singer prays expressing his or her desire for God, his or her desire to be met by Jesus.  But in Kelly’s song, the protagonist is not the human person, it’s God.  It is God who is saying, ‘come and meet me in the middle of the air’.  It is God telling us that he is our true Shepherd, who will lead us home. In this lyrical twist Kelly is being deeply faithful, perhaps more faithful than he realises, to a critical scriptural insight: that our desire for God is superabundantly surpassed and fulfilled in God’s desire for us.

This is because God really does meet us in the middle of the air… he meets us on the Cross, where Jesus is lifted up as the place of union, in his own racked and tortured body, between God and the human race.  “When I am lifted up”, Jesus had prophesied, “I will draw all to myself”.  This is fulfilled in the middle of the air as he is suspended from the Cross between heaven and earth.  This image of the crucifixion as the bridge between heaven and earth is perhaps most powerfully captured by Dali’s famous painting of the Crucifixion, based on the drawing of St John of the Cross.  In the painting, we are as it were looking down from above Christ as he hangs upon the cross, down to the earth below.  This is the mystery of Good Friday, that our desire for God is surpassed by God’s desire for us, most powerfully manifest in the Crucified.

The cover version of ‘Meet me in the Middle of the Air’, below is by Eddie Perfect and Tripod.  Have a listen:

In Praise of Friendship

Last night a bunch of my friends got together with an old friend of ours who was visiting from overseas.  We had become friends about a dozen years ago, and since then some people married and had children while others have been ordained; some have moved interstate and overseas while some of us have returned to Melbourne. We did what any group of friends does when it gets together after a while: we brought each other up to speed on what life is like now, a wide-ranging conversation of windy career paths, buying houses, study and different ministries in the Church.  Of course we also reminisced about times we had shared in years gone by, which by this stage required being reminded of things we had said and done that some of us had long forgotten.  For a part of the evening the Indigo Girls provided the accompanying sound-track, conjuring up memories of similar soirées in years gone by.  I think most of us realised that there were a few ghosts present too: friends who for various reasons couldn’t be there last night.  They were missed.  Mostly though, we laughed. A lot.

As I drove home I couldn’t help but reflect upon the significance of those friendships in my life.  I had been a pretty lonely kid, wounded by the taunts of school yard bullies, and these were among the first friends that let me feel safe in truly sharing myself.  Our friendships have survived mistakes and conflicts and diverging journeys, and in so doing have taught me a great deal about forgiveness, about myself and about friendship itself.  While I was driving I was reminded of Yeats’ famous poem, ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’, in which the poet reflects upon the portraits of his famous friends hanging in the gallery.  My friends will almost certainly never be as famous as Yeats’ friends, but as I revelled in the ordinariness of our gathering, I felt the final lines of Yeats’ poem nevertheless expressed my sentiments too:

Think where man’s glory begins and ends,

And say my glory was I had such friends.

I have recently had cause to wonder about whether young people find friendship more difficult today than in the past.  There seems to be fresh pressures that conspire against deep friendship at work in our culture.  Of course, young people desire friendship as much as they ever have; it is their capacity to forge enduring friendships that I am not so sure about.  Some young people possess a precarious sense of security and self if they have not experienced the love of their parents that can make the levels of trust required to form friendship problematic.  Many voices in our culture are suggesting that the social media can stunt genuine relationships as people spend more and more time online.   The pervasive perception of all relationships through the lens of sexuality can also obscure the distinctive form of friendship from other kinds of love.  And our culture’s obsession with image and success can combine to produce a fear of being vulnerable and a satisfaction with superficiality that militates against the depth and vulnerability that make friendship possible.  Just as the mere sight  of a steak by a starving man only intensifies rather than satisfies his hunger, these impediments only increase young people’s desire for friendship.  And so E.M. Forster’s famous epigraph may well be the most appropriate epigraph for this generation too: ‘Only connect…’

While friendship is one of life’s chief joys, I think it is possible to fall into a certain idolatry of intimacy that paradoxically punctures the very thing it most desires.  Friendship, like all forms of love, needs a little air to breathe, and it can be suffocated when people make it an end in itself.  Our passion for connection, for friendship, actually find its fulfilment in God.  We’re made for communion with God, and in and through him communion with one another.  And so memorable gatherings of friends are signposts to heaven, because they point to the eternal communion we are to enjoy with God and with one another forever.  As C.S. Lewis was wont to say, Christians never have to say goodbye, because we know that our friendships here are elevated by grace to the joys of eternal life.

Lenten Leaves

Here in Australia, the weather tends to connive with the idea that Lent is a time of self-denial and penance.  Or at least that’s true in Melbourne, where I live, and in Canberra, my home town.  The deciduous trees seem to be joining in a communal  ascetical practice as they begin to lose their leaves.  Their act of letting go seems to invite parallel acts of shedding for us during Lent: we too are invited to be stripped of selfishness and pride as we enter into this period of preparation for Easter.

This invitation to self-denial and ascetical practices often seem to some people to capture what is worst about Christianity, and perhaps about Catholicism in particular.  It seems to convey all of the gloomiest stereotypes about Christians: as a pleasure-depriving, joyless, and even masochistic people.  But is that what Lent, and for that matter Christianity, is really all about?

Let’s look to the liturgy to help us get a better handle on Lent.  In the old translation of the preface for Lent we used to say,

Each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed.

In the new translation which we will use for the first time this year it says:

For each year by your gracious gift your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure, so that, more eagerly intent on prayer and on the works of charity, and participating in the mysteries by which they have been reborn, they may be led to the fullness of grace you bestow on your sons and daughters.

The intended meaning in both translations is the same: Lent is a joyful time.  Of course, the Liturgy of the Word during Lent will also call us to fasting, to alms-giving, to prayer, to reflect upon the temptations of Jesus, to deny ourselves and take up our cross… So which is it?  Is Lent a season of self-denial or a time of joy?

The answer of course, is both.

Lent is most definitely a time of self-denial.  But it shouldn’t be a case of simply going without something we like for forty days as a kind of endurance test of our wills.  The practices of self-denial that we adopt during this time are actually to do with expressing who or what is really master of our lives.  And who or what is master of our lives is expressed in and through our bodies, which is why Lent is irreducibly physical and tangible.

When we deny ourselves some food during Lent, we are reminding ourselves that there is more to life than ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’.  When we give alms to the poor during Lent we remind ourselves that the acquisition of wealth is not the goal of our lives.  When we decide to devote extra effort to refraining from gossip or detraction of others, and try to speak more edifyingly of others, or when we fast from always having control of the airwaves around us, we are concretely reminding ourselves that we are not the centre of the universe, that our lives are not about us.

I’m not being dualistic or anti-body here.  We don’t treat our bodies as if they are slaves that must be whipped into shape, or machines that we must master.  If you want that, watch The Biggest Loser.  What we are doing is recognising that it is in and through our body that we  express our deepest commitments: and to commit to the love of God and of others is not possible if our bodily actions are always directed towards ourselves.

Self-denial will usually cost us something, and it can even be painful at some level.  That’s not because we should be damaging our health, but because we often experience withdrawal symptoms from whatever we are trying to cut out from our lives.  The little masters that often have hold of our lives do not give up too easily: it can be very painful to be silent when you would rather hog the conversation, to say no to a drink because you feel you need it to relax or unwind, or to pass up on a movie and give the price of the ticket to Project Compassion.

What we begin to discover as we practice these ascetical disciplines is the emergence of true joy.  Joy is found in the love of God and of others, which is why prayer and almsgiving are as important a part of Lent as fasting and self-denial. The acts of self-denial are for joy.

The word ‘Lent’ actually means ‘Spring-time’.  But maybe we southern hemisphere-dwellers have the advantage here.  Which brings me back to the Autumn leaves. Because before they fall from the trees they change colours, from a fairly uniform green to the most dazzling array of reds, oranges, purples and rich brown shades, with many variations in between.  The streets of Melbourne and Canberra are breathtakingly beautiful during Lent.  The leaves are dying of course, even as they change colour.  But the tree is still very much alive.  Something is dying during Lent.  But that’s so something new can be born.  And even the process of dying is beautiful for those with eyes to see.

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