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Good Is God (With an Extra ’0′)

posted by donna freitas

William Safire, in his weekly “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine, writes about the origins of the word “good,” in an effort to explain its common contemporary usage in the phrase “I’m good,” which usually means something along the lines of “I’m Okay,” or “I’ve had enough,” or “I can handle it.” Safire explains:

Here we have one of the basic words of the English language–originally used in the place of God to avoid irreverance–gaining currency in an unremarked new sense. Early on, I’m good meant “I am without sin,” but that is now seldom the meaning.”

So the word “good” was originally “God” plus an extra “O.” Who knew?

“Country Boys”: What A Difference Faith Makes

posted by donna freitas

Frontline, one of PBS’s flagship programs, most famous for controversial political reports on issues such as the use of torture by the United States, brings viewers a different kind of story–”Country Boys,” airing tonight through Wednesday, Jan. 11, at 9pm EST. “Country Boys,” a documentary directed by David Sutherland, follows the teenage years of Chris Johnson (above, right) and Cody Perkins (left) as they navigate the ups and downs of The David School, an alternative high school that is a last-stop option for teens struggling with drugs and alcohol, while at the same time managing extreme tragedy and poverty in Appalachia, one of the poorest and most rural regions of the United States and the place they call home.

Faith places a central role in both boys’ lives, but in vastly different ways. One of the most striking and moving moments of the documentary comes early on when Chris talks about his alcoholic father–who is shown drunk literally throughout the six-hour documentary–and the creative, resourceful way Chris has made up for the role model he lacks but desperately needs. Chris introduces viewers to Xavier, holding up a hand-drawn picture of this character who is “his own personal hero” and has the characteristics of “power, strength, intelligence, bravery, and can win against the odds.” Chris explains: “Even though Xavier is fictional, he keeps me going,” and “whenever I begin to feel invisible, I think of Xavier.”

Created as an incredible act of self-preservation, Xavier is not only the role model that fills the void Chris’s father has left, but also serves as a god-figure in Chris’s life. The fragility of the fictional nature of Chris’s makeshift savior becomes obvious as his story unfolds and he struggles deeply with isolation, his efforts and failures at friendships and romance, and an overall faith in himself and his ability to follow through on all the many creative endeavors he starts but can’t quite finish. Chris’s faith life is a lonely one.

Cody, on the other hand, is a classic example of the American born-again teenager, but with a not-so-classic family history. Cody is saved by Jesus shortly after his father murders his stripper stepmother with an AK-47 and then turns the gun on himself, committing suicide. Even before that tragic incident (Cody is 12 at the time), Cody is no stranger to family violence: His birth-mother killed herself with a gun when he was younger. At age 15, when audiences first meet Cody, he is a mass of contradictions: a sweet-natured boy with a similarly sweet-natured, devoted girlfriend, who tries his best at school and strives to be himself–yet he’s someone with a shockingly disturbing family past and a personal history of drug addiction. Cody wears a Goth persona on the outside (his dyed black hair grows ever-longer in tune with the documentary), complete with his own Goth-style band, yet he critiques Goth culture for lacking faith in Christ and having no morals, and in his spare time he plays in the decidely tame youth band at the Faith Baptist Nondenominational Church. Cody wears his faith on his sleeve–quite literally, in his choice of t-shirts–and never stops talking about the role of God in making him who he is today. At one point, he explains that “before I was saved I was suicidal, but then I found a new reason to live.”

Cody’s Goth band is twice shown playing a song he calls “Death.” If you can stand the sound and make out his lyrics–which are delivered Marilyn Manson frightening-style–listen carefully to the story the song tells about experiencing the murder of his stepmother and suicide of his father. I quote in part: “God is the only one keeping me sane, otherwise I would just put a bullet in my brain.” In a moving moment late in the documentary, Cody reveals to his girlfriend Jessica his aspirations to become a preacher.

While both Chris and Cody face intense struggles and each has his own unique moments of success, the strength and compass Cody finds through his relationship with Christ makes all the difference as he moves forward in life–a unifying center and path that Chris lacks but sorely needs. It is interesting to watch how faith makes the difference between the two boys’ lives.

Chris and Cody’s story is slow-moving overall, but with commitment, it yields many small moments of reward that will be moving for viewers who stick with them through the lulls, loneliness, and occasional joys of life as a teenager in the Appalachian hills.

Try Your Luck With “Match Point”

posted by donna freitas

Woody Allen’s newest film, Match Point, starring Scarlett Johansson as Nola Rice, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Chris Wilton, is a far cry from the typical screwball comedy for which he is famous. Opening nationwide today, this well-acted (for the most part) drama will surely lure audiences well beyond Woody Allen’s usual fan base, but don’t expect a single laugh from the experience. Matchpoint is intense drama through and through.

The story revolves around the life of Chris Wilton, a former tennis star trying to make a living in London who lands a job at a prestigious country club as a tennis pro. Despite humble origins, his well-mannered demeanor and good looks win him friends in the highest of places–most of all, with the Hewett family, who will offer him, among other things: a wife, a prestigious job, a home, a driver, all the money he could ever want, a best friend, and most of all, a family that loves him dearly. Chris rises from rags to riches within minutes of the opening credits.

Despite Chris’s good fortune, or luck as he might put it, as far as social connections go–and the unconditional riches lavished upon him, both literally and figuratively–he remains emotionally set apart from everyone around him, not quite happy, and this listlessness becomes the driving force of the film: his affair with Nola Rice, the American transplant, struggling actress, and former fiance of his brother-in-law, Tom Hewett. He decides to risk everything for the one thing that is missing in his life with the Hewitts: passion.

The central theme of this film, that life is not so much about the choices we make, how hard we work, the values we uphold, or the commitments we fulfill, but instead is really about how lucky we are is revealed from the very beginning in the opening narration. This idea is illustrated by a tennis ball striking the net in such a way and bouncing straight up in such a way that it is impossible to know on which side of the net it will land, and therefore, which player will end up the winner. The theme of luck–that ultimately, outcomes, consequences, and responsibility is not really about doing right, being faithful, and living honestly–is kept aloft throughout the film and grows more shocking and disturbing as the web Chris weaves between himself and Nola on one end, and the Hewitts on the other, grows ever more complicated.

Viewers will surely be left asking hefty questions about morality, fidelity, and whether the lives we live have any purpose or meaning at all, or whether the difference between jail and freedom, despair and happiness, keeping everything or losing it all, is rather more like the tennis ball that strikes the net just so, randomly falling on one side or the other.

Matchpoint is a feast for the existentialist. (I couldn’t stop thinking of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” throughout, though Wilton’s character seems to prefer Dostoevsky.) But this film will more likely leave the traditional moralist starving and even angry at the outcomes. Regardless of which audience you are, it’s Woody Allen’s best effort in years and well worth the trip to the theater.

“Earl” Goes Spiritual

posted by holly rossi

NBC’s “My Name is Earl” is predicated on the spiritual idea of karma–and while it may fall somewhat short of the concept’s traditional Hindu meaning, Earl has doggedly tried, week after week, to right all the wrongs he’d done in his life. Despite the premise, the show is hardly spiritual. Except for last night’s episode.

In it, Earl and his brother Randy return to “The Right Choice Ranch,” a summer camp for troubled boys, so that Earl can make up for having burned down a barn in 1982, earning the brothers a ticket home. Earl is wracked with guilt because, with that act, he had ruined not only his own chance to finish the program and lead a better life, but also his brother’s. But it soon becomes clear that it was Randy, not Earl, who was responsible for lighting that fateful fire. Angry, Earl punishes Randy by turning over to him the infamous “list” of wrongs to be set right.

There was one item on the list that Randy couldn’t complete in his brother’s stead, however. It was a broken promise Earl had made to take his sons to Mystery Fun Land for a day of skee-ball amusement. Grudgingly, Earl accepts, loads the boys into the car, and heads out… only to discover that Mystery Fun Land is no more.

Here’s the “out of the mouths of babes” moment that was a pleasant jolt of human kindness in an otherwise hilarious show. While Earl is crushed that he can’t cross that item off the list because Fun Land is gone, his young son looks at him and says those three healing words: “I forgive you.” Earl doesn’t have to un-do, or re-do, the failed outing, his son explains–he just has to express his remorse and be forgiven. His son crosses the item off Earl’s list himself, a smile on his face.

Re-invigorated, Earl can then return to Randy and take the list back, paying forward the forgiveness he has experienced. It was a reminder that there are many ways to right a wrong.

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