Idol Chatter

It’s happened to me many times—a mind-blowing coincidence will occur, and I’ll think, “If this happened in a movie or a book, it would be totally corny and unbelievable.” Which is why it takes such great skill to make coincidence unfold in fiction with authentic, goosebump-giving ease. This skill was sorely necessary in making the long-awaited film rendition of the novel “The Celestine Prophecy,” James Redfield’s bestselling (five million copies and counting) new age bible that revolves around notions of synchronicity, energy fields, and our overall cosmic connectedness.

Like “The Da Vinci Code,” on paper Celestine was never known for its literary genius. But it was beloved for the way it named and played out new age spiritual beliefs in succinct, applicable ways. The allegorical adventure tale followed a school-teacher on his unlikely journey to Peru to help uncover and understand a manuscript that had been repressed and literally buried by the Catholic Church for hundreds of years. While there, he learned his way through the nine “insights” held in the scrolls, which included things like understanding “meaningful coincidences” as evidence of humanity’s quickly accelerating consciousness; knowing that subtle energies connect people and the natural world; and relating in a way that responsibly manages that energy for everyone’s good.

The screenplay, also written by Redfield, is relatively faithful to the book. An aloof teacher named John (woodenly played by a pretty, blank Matthew Settle) gets laid off, and meets up with an old girlfriend. She tells him about her recent trip to Peru, encouraging him to go because she thought of him the whole time she was there. She also works in an observation of his relationship issues: “You always want to have someone around because it makes you feel good,” she says, “but it doesn’t work out because you’re not really there.”

Most of the dialogue is equally brain-smashingly obvious. Then the coincidences begin in full: John goes home that night and a Peru brochure is mixed in with his other mail; he doesn’t see it yet, but a zooming, lingering camera makes sure we do. He discovers it the next day as he’s using a phone book to look up a travel agency (do either still exist outside of Hollywood?), while his decidedly current-day computer is sitting right there. And we hear him say to the agent, “Cancellation? Tomorrow? I’ll take it.”

Though the handling of synchronicity is blown, what the movie does better than the book are the scenes in Peru that show auras in action. We first see them as John hits on fellow scroll-studier Marjorie (Sarah Wayne Callies)—his reddish energy bubble starts trying to take over her energy bubble. Marjorie quickly runs off, and bewildered, John asks his guide, Julia, played by Annabeth Gish (of “Mystic Pizza” fame) what he did wrong. “Remember the halos the old masters used to paint around their religious figures?” she asks. “It’s the energy, John. You may not be conscious of it, but you were trying to take her energy. She could see it, and so could I.”

Unfortunately, that’s about as nifty as it gets (though the glowing plant-energy is pretty cool too). The rest is a preposterous unfolding of the insights, plus thriller-ish chases and violence by a church-fueled military. We’re supposed to see a transformation in John as he groks the insights, but not even his hair appears to change as he runs through the jungle for days. As now proven by both “Da Vinci” and “Celestine,” in book form it seems easier to overlook bad dialogue and poor character development to ferret out the juicy spiritual bits. The former is much harder to overlook—and the latter harder to seek—when the medium is a large, unforgiving screen that needs to satisfy in a couple of hours.

I heard a sermon on Broadway last night, and it wasn’t in the nearby Church of Scientology. It is the opening scene of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Doubt,” and it sets the tone for a powerful play that poses the questions: How far do we go in the pursuit of righting a (perceived) wrong? How do we balance our own inner certainty with an always-more-ambiguous reality?

The setting was the 1960s, but the scenario was achingly contemporary: At a Catholic grade school, a nun suspects a young priest of abusing at least one student. No doubt about what to do there, right? Protect the boy, do whatever it takes to separate the priest from his victims and potential victims. But it’s not so simple. The play sets up two alternate narratives, each with its holes but both equally plausible.

The first: A popular priest gets too close with a student and takes advantage of a boy who is in need of attention and love, especially from a male role model. A slick-talker, he’s been in trouble before, but managed to weasel out, and get transferred to a new parish without his new community knowing a thing. And in his new position, like his old one, the church hierarchy handles complaints by asking the accused whether it’s true and believing his denials. Faced with an institution unwilling to act, the individual must step up and do what she can to protect the children.

The second: It is normal–necessary–for a priest to befriend his flock members and to take a special interest in the needs of those shunned by friends or facing difficult, even abusive, family situations. Parishioners and school children can flourish if treated with warmth, friendliness, and a casual approachability, in contrast to the strict, aloof, law-and-order authority figures of past generations. Discipline must sometimes take a back seat to pity, and every gesture of compassion and friendship cannot be subject to dark scrutiny–or else the priest will feel a need to back off, leaving his charges confused, hurt, and vulnerable.

Which narrative is true? Caught in the middle of two strong personalities–the accuser and the accused–a young, naive nun switches beliefs in response to the stronger argument of the moment, and hopes more than anything for peace to return. My wife and I both agreed that through the play’s first half, the story didn’t present enough ambiguity, failing to achieve its titular doubt–but she thought Narrative 1 was obviously true, while I thought #2 was the clear winner. So maybe doubt was achieved after all.

I was sad to hear that this play is closing soon on Broadway, but New York’s loss is the rest of America’s gain: it’s hitting the road for a national tour. “Doubt” is a “Crucible” for our times–a plea to refrain from witchhunts, even in the pursuit of an unambiguously correct goal, and a reminder to question our own beliefs and motives at all times and not let ego and personal feelings get in the way of our morality.

“In the pursuit of wrongdoing, we take a step away from God,” the suspicious nun says twice. In one instance, she follows that remark up by saying, “But it’s in His service.” At another, she repeats the line but follows it with, “Of course there’s a price to pay.” We’d do well to remember both of those sentiments.

It’s generally a sign of a rock star’s age–and fading relevance–when her fans are called “the faithful,” even when the artist in question is the renegade Roman Catholic-turned-Kabbalist Madonna. At 47, the singer kicked off her latest world tour this week with an act patently designed to appeal to her die-hards, who like their irreverence adminstered with a little glitz. Halfway through her accustomed set of costume changes and simulated sex acts, Mrs. Ritchie performed her ’80s hit “Live to Tell” while affixed to a mirrored cross and wearing a crown of thorns. “Just another day at the office for Madonna,” yawned her hometown paper, London’s Daily Mail.

Madonna once earned herself great notoriety, of course, by hashing out her none-too-original but flashily expressed feelings about Catholicism in her videos and stage shows. Once upon a time, before “The DaVinci Code,” the Vatican condemned her “Like a Prayer” video, in which singer frolicked amid burning crosses and danced with a black Jesus. But in a time when the church is fending off claims that Jesus was married with children, and Christ is spurting blood like a geyser from the cross in Mel’s “Passion,” neither Jesus’ sexuality nor his death retains much power to shock.

Her mock crucifixion’s impact is doubtless diluted, too, by Madonna’s own abandonment of Catholicism for Jewish mysticism. (Last night’s show also included a shofar, the ritual ram’s horn blown at the Jewish New Year.) Surely, one benefit of adopting Kabbalah is being rid one’s lapsed-Catholic hangups–unless, as we begin to suspect, Madonna’s martyrdom complex never had much to do with the church or Jesus. In an odd complement to her “Like a Virgin” number, slides of Madonna’s broken bones, suffered in a fall from a horse, flashed behind her on a mammoth screen, like the relics of St. Madge. When you attain the rarified stratosphere Madonna operates in, who but Jesus can really feel your pain?

So while the Catholic League and Madonna’s hometown state religion, the Church of England, have made their usual protests to her new show, their defense of the traditional cross feels off point. Asked an Anglican spokesman, “Is Madonna prepared to take on everything else that goes with wearing a crown of thorns?” Duh, dude, she totally already has!

Beliefnet editors receive dozens of books each week, some memorable, some not so much. Every once in a while, however, a book’s back cover description is so arresting that it lingers in the mind for days. So it was with the Christian “socio-spiritual” fantasy novel “The Dogs of Snoqualmie,” to be published this fall:

Snoqualmie, a valley east of Seattle, is the fertile setting for a new fiction trilogy from esteemed storyteller Calvin Miller, who adds a daring dash of fantasy to magnify his view of Christian truth.

In this first book of the trilogy, a soon-to-be-divorced Jewish psychiatrist is counseling a homophobic murderer who has trained his German Shepherd to kill. The next victim is to be a New Age feminist whose environmental pull has pushed the killer’s hot buttons. Amidst the drama, a demented priest and his wolf companion emerge as Christlike symbols who take these characters to the edge of faith, bringing forth a peaceable kingdom.

Can’t wait for September? Place your order now.

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