Over a month ago I was blessed to get an early view of the new movie, Paul, Apostle of Christ. It is indeed wonderful — beautifully filmed and with a moving ending. It is not a simple retelling of the Acts of the Apostles; such films have already been made. Instead, it is a moving portrait of St. Paul (James Faulkner) and St. Luke (Jim Caviezel).
The setting is Rome during St. Paul’s last days. Great persecutions are underway, taking a heavy toll on the Christians there. The movie presents the humanness of these struggles, both individually and communally. It weaves many of Paul’s writings in, but not in an artificial way. It also depicts a personal dimension of Paul by developing certain painful memories he carried with him. While these memories are mentioned in Paul’s writings, their creative treatment in the movie leads to its powerful conclusion.
To avoid having to issue a “spoiler alert” I will not say any more about the movie, but I strongly encourage you to see it. Expect less of a retelling of Acts or a presentation of Paul’s writings and more of a treatment of Paul, Luke, and the early Christians, who endured so as to hand the faith on to us.
The movie “Left Behind” opens today. And while, in a secular culture dismissive of any consequences for unbelief, we can rejoice in any salutary reminders, it is unfortunate that the reminder is riddled with questionable theology and dubious biblical interpreation.
In certain (but not all) Protestant circles, and especially among the Evangelicals, there is a strong and often vivid preoccupation with signs of the Second Coming of Christ. Many of the notions that get expressed are either erroneous or extreme. Some of these erroneous notions are rooted in a misunderstanding of the various scriptural genres. Some are rooted in reading certain Scriptures in isolation from the wider context of the whole of Scripture. And some are rooted in reading one text and disregarding others that balance it.
The Catholic approach to the end times (eschatology) is perhaps less thrilling and provocative. It does not generate “Left Behind” movie series or cause people to sell their houses and gather on hillsides waiting for the announced end. It is more methodical and seeks to balance a lot of notions that often hold certain truths in tension.
I thought it perhaps a worthy goal to set forth certain principles of eschatology from a Catholic point of view, since the movie “Left Behind” is bound to generate questions among fellow Catholics. Most of the teachings offered in this post are drawn straight from the Catechism and the Scriptures. What I offer here I do not propose to call a complete eschatology, only a sketch of basic principles rooted right in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
While we cannot know the exact time of His Coming, nevertheless we can be watchful for things that both remind us and signal us to His approach. These signs give indications only. The presence of such texts cannot be seen to overrule that He will come “on a sudden” and that many will be caught unawares.
Here are some notes from the Catechism (the blue and red texts are my own). I have made the Scripture quotes live by way of hypertext so you can click right over and read them.
1. “Soon + Sudden” – Since the Ascension, Christ’s coming in glory has been imminent (Rev 22:20), even though “it is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority”(Acts 1:7). This eschatological coming could be accomplished at any moment, even if both it and the final trial that will precede it are “delayed” (Mat 24:44; 1 Thes 5:2; 2 Thes 2:3-12). (CCC # 673).
Of all the points the Catechism makes, this one sets the tone of balance that must, most surely, be maintained. On the one hand, Christ says, “I am coming soon” and that His coming could be both sudden and without warning.
Yet this truth must be held in tension with other truths that set forth certain signs and things that must be accomplished first. And these things are not easily or quickly accomplished. This is further developed in point # 2, which follows.
2. Suspended –The glorious Messiah’s coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by “all Israel” (Romans 11:20-26; Mat 23:39), for “a hardening has come upon part of Israel” in their “unbelief” (Romans 11:20-26) toward Jesus. St. Peter says to the Jews of Jerusalem after Pentecost, “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (Acts 3:19-21). St. Paul echoes him, “For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” (Rom 11:15) The “full inclusion” of the Jews in the Messiah’s salvation, in the wake of “the full number of the Gentiles” (Rom 11:12), will enable the People of God to achieve “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”, in which “God may be all in all” (Eph 4:13; 1 Cor 15:27-28). (CCC # 674)
This going forth of the Gospel to all the nations and the acceptance of Christ by the Jews would seem to be matters that would take some time.
Has the Gospel really reached all the nations? Have the full number of Gentiles come in and are they serving God and repenting in sufficient numbers? Perhaps so, one may argue. And yet, on a planet of seven billion people, fewer than one-third are Christians. But on the other hand, there are very few places in the world where there is no Christian presence.
And what is meant by the “full number” of Gentiles? That number is hidden from us and is surely debated.
And has the “hardening” that has come upon Israel been lifted? This too is debated and, despite certain movements of “Messianic Jews,” it does not seem that the hardening has been lifted in any wide sort of way or that Jesus has been recognized by “all Israel.”
3. Sufferingand Sedition – Before Christ’s second coming, the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers (Luke 18:8; Mt 24:12). The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of His Messiah come in the flesh (2 Thess 2:4-12; 1 Thess 5:2-3; 1 Jn 2:18-22). (CCC # 675)
Clearly, many of these troubles have afflicted the Church in every age. There has always been persecution. Many have fallen away, sometimes in large numbers, most into schism, but some into unbelief. There have been times, too, during which it can be argued that the love of many has grown cold.
And yet, clearly, in the times in which we live, these are very severe problems and they have grown to envelop most of the planet. But God only knows when these signs will be present in a definitive way rather than merely present prefiguratively. However, there is no real basis for a rapture of the Church prior to the final crisis. Indeed, the biblical narrative seems quite clear that the end of times will be a time of test and purification for the Church, not something from which we are exempt.
4. Secular Utopianism Rejected – The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the attempt is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism (CCC # 676).
Yes many in human history, but especially in modern times, have advanced the notion that a secular utopia could be ushered in by human effort, and by submitting oneself to a government, worldly power, or charismatic figure to do so.
Many repressive regimes and movements (often typified by powerful or charismatic leaders) of the last century claimed the power to usher in such a utopia. The sad legacy of the 20th Century shows how tragic, bloody, and repressive such attempts have been.
The Church also rejects religious forms of this, which hold that prior to the Second Coming of Christ a period of 1000 years is set aside during which Christ will reign on earth or in which the Church will somehow attain a total victory prior to Christ’s Second Coming. This will be developed more in the final point below.
5. Second Coming follows a final unleashing of evil – The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection (Rev 19:1-9). The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven (Rev 13:1ff; Rev 20:7-9; Rev 21:2-4). God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world (CCC # 677).
Hence, a final and intense unleashing is envisaged by Scripture and the Church. And this final and cosmic conflict will usher in the great triumph and the Last Judgment. This unleashing of the full power of the Devil in the very end is mysterious and difficult to understand, but it is clearly set forth in Scripture, perhaps as a final test for the Church, perhaps as a definitive demonstration of the power of God. Notice again that there is no teaching of “rapture” wherein the Church is spared this final trial. Just as Christ was not spared his crucifixion, neither is His mystical body, the Church, spared a final passover into glory.
Balance! Now please note that while we may wish to focus on one or two points above, each of the five points must be held in balance. In one sense all these signs have been present in the Church’s history, yet not in the definitive and final sense.
Thus, while these are signs that do in fact signal and accompany and usher in the last things, exactly when and how they come together in a definitive sense cannot be known by us. Were that the case, Christ’s clear words that He will come at an hour we do not expect (cfMat 24:44) and that no one knows the day or hour (cfMatt 24:36), would be violated.
The key point is to hold all five principles in balance, and to accept the tension of knowing signs but not the knowing the definitive time or fulfillment of them.
Most errors in eschatology proceed from a lack of balance and a failure to appreciate that the final age in which we live is steeped in mysteries and meanings known fully only by God. Time itself is mysterious, as are the deeper meanings of events and human history. The Lord, while giving us a framework that reminds of us His coming and signaling us in a merciful way to remember, has insisted that it is not for us to know the times or the seasons fixed by the Father, let alone the day or hour.
Humility, prayerful vigilance, readiness through obedience and the gift of holiness, along with an eager, longing heart for the Kingdom in all its glory are our best posture.
Avoid doing lots of mathematical calculations here. The Catholic approach may not be the stuff of movies and bestsellers, but it is the balanced and trusting faith to which we are summoned.
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you all. Amen. (Rev 22:20-21). And again, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men; but what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience (2 Cor 5:10-11).
At the end of the day, the true “preoccupation” we have ought to be with our judgment, wherein nothing will be hidden and all the masks we like to wear are stripped away. Even our most idle words will be part of that judgment. Here is something that should concern us and which is both certain and near: our own particular judgment, of which scripture says, It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment (Heb 9:27).
Just for some fun, and also for a creative reminder, here is a little video I put together over a year ago.
My Father was a great fan of Charlie Chan movies, a series of detective movies from the 1930s featuring a fictional Chinese-American detective. My father had every one on them on video tape. Not only did he watch them often, he also collected Charlie Chan sayings. For in every movie there would be dozens of wise, witty, and insightful sayings. He jotted them down as he watched and once presented me with a collection of the sayings.
On Friday’s I like to blog on lighter fare and this Friday evening is no exception. I simply want to present the list my father gave me with later additions by me. This list is long, but many of the sayings are well worth the read. Not all of them are of equal value, but there are some real keepers in the list. Many indeed are in deep conformity with the biblical tradition.
If you want to print a convenient list, I have put this in PDF version of them here: Charlie Chan Sayings
But for light reading and edification enjoy this list of Charlie Chan sayings:
Admitting failure like drinking bitter tea. (Charlie Chan in Egypt)
After dinner is over, who cares about spoon? (Docks of New Orleans)
Always happens – when conscience tries to speak, telephone out of order. (The Black Camel)
Ancient ancestor once say, “Even wise man cannot fathom depth of woman’s smile.” (The Shanghai Cobra)
Ancient ancestor once say, “Words cannot cook rice.” (Charlie Chan in Reno)
Ancient proverb say. “Never bait trap with wolf to catch wolf.” (Shadows Over Chinatown)
Ancient proverb say, “One small wind can raise much dust.” (Dark Alibi)
Anxious man hurries too fast and stubs big toe. (Charlie Chan’s Courage)
Bad alibi like dead fish – cannot stand test of time. (Charlie Chan in Panama)
Best to slip with foot, than with tongue. (Charlie Chan at the Circus)
Biggest mysteries are not always crimes. (1935 Pennsylvania Referendum Message)
Blind man feels ahead with cane before proceeding. (Charlie Chan’s Courage)
Boy Scout knife, like ladies’ hairpin, have many uses. (Charlie Chan’s Secret)
Can fallen fruit return to branch? (Docks of New Orleans)
Cat who tries to catch two mice at one time, goes without supper. (Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case)
Charming company turn lowly sandwich into rich banquet. (Charlie Chan in Reno)
Chinese funny people; when say “go,” mean “go.” (Docks of New Orleans)
Confucius has said, “A wise man question himself, a fool, others.” (Charlie Chan in City in Darkness)
Confucius say, “Sleep only escape from yesterday.” (Shadows Over Chinatown)
Cornered rat usually full of fight. (Shadows Over Chinatown)
Curiosity responsible for cat needing nine lives. (Charlie Chan at the Circus)
Deception is bad game for amateurs. (Shadows Over Chinatown)
Deer should not toy with tiger. (The Golden Eye)
Detective without curiosity is like glass eye at keyhole – no use. (Charlie Chan in the Secret Service)
Dreams, like good liars, distort facts. (Charlie Chan in Shanghai)
Drop of plain water on thirsty tongue more precious than gold in purse. (Charlie Chan in Egypt)
Easy to criticize, more difficult to be correct. (Charlie Chan at the Race Track)
Elaborate excuse seldom truth. (Castle in the Desert)
Even draperies may have ears. (Charlie Chan at Treasure Island)
Every fence have two sides. (Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case)
Every front has back. (Charlie Chan in London)
Every man must wear out at least one pair of fool shoes. (Charlie Chan Carries On)
Every maybe has a wife called Maybe-Not. (Charlie Chan Carries On)
Favorite pastime of man is fooling himself. (Charlie Chan at Treasure Island)
Fear is cruel padlock. (Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum)
Foolish rooster who stick head in lawn mower end in stew. (Charlie Chan at the Race Track)
Foolish to seek fortune when real treasure hiding under nose. (Charlie Chan at the Race Track)
Front seldom tell truth. To know occupants of house, always look in back yard. (Charlie Chan in London)
Good detective always look for something unusual. (The Red Dragon)
Good tools shorten labor. (Charlie Chan at the Circus)
Grain of sand in eye may hide mountain. (Charlie Chan in Paris)
“Great happiness follows great pain.” (Charlie Chan at Treasure Island)
Guilty conscience always first to speak up. (The Feathered Serpent)
Guilty conscience like dog in circus – many tricks. (Castle in the Desert)
Guilty conscience only enemy to peaceful rest. (Charlie Chan at the Circus)
Guilty mind sometimes pinch worse than ancient boot of torture. (Dangerous Money)
There was movie some years ago that most of you have seen called Toy Story. It had a deep impact on me for it came out a critical moment in my life.
It was my 33rd year of life and my 6th year of priesthood. I had suffered a nervous breakdown that required a week in the hospital, and a month off recuperate. What drove me there was being asked to take an assignment I really wasn’t ready for. I was asked to pastor a parish that was in serious financial trouble.
Invincible? But I was a young priest at the time and was still emerging from my “invincible” stage where I thought I could do anything. I guess it’s pretty common for men in their twenties to figure they can handle anything. In those years opinions are strong, dreams are still vivid, and hard experience has not always taught its tough lessons yet.
So the young priest in me said yes to the assignment, even though I had reservations. It’s proper to say yes to the bishop, but he had asked me to discern not simply obey. Soon enough the panic attacks came, followed by waves of depression, and days where I could barely come out of my room. All this and I hadn’t even reported to the assignment yet. A priest friend, my pastor, reached out and helped me discern I wasn’t ready and that it was OK to ask the Bishop to reconsider. I did so, but felt I was an utter failure. My personal sense of this humiliation had me further decline into depression and that’s when I sought help, with the encouragement of others. A week in the hospital for evaluation, a month off to recuperate, and years of good spiritual direction, psychotherapy and sacraments have been God’s way of restoring me to health.
Somewhere in the early stages of all this I saw Toy Story. And right away I know I was Buzz Lightyear. Buzz begins the movie as a brash, would be hero, and savior of the planet. Buzz Lightyear’s theme was, To infinity….and beyond! The only problem was that he seemed to have no idea he was just a toy. He actually thought he had come from a distant planet to save the earth. He often radios to the mother ship and, hearing nothing, concludes she must be just out of range.
At a critical point in the movie it begins to dawn on Buzz that he is just a toy and may not be able to save the day. He struggles with this realization and resists it, leaping to the rescue not knowing he can’t actually fly. He falls from the second floor and his arm breaks off. (See the second video below) Suddenly he realizes he is just a toy, that all his boasting was based on an illusion. He then sinks into a major depression since his sense of himself has been destroyed.
But God wasn’t done with Buzz Lightyear. In the end Buzz saves the day by simply being what he was made to be, a toy. One of the kids takes him up and attaches a rocket to him. In the end that enables Buzz to fly and save the day at a critical moment, with the help of friends.
The lesson of the movie is a critical one and certainly the lesson I learned in my own mid-life crisis. And the lesson is that our greatness does not come from our own self-inflated notions, but from God. And God does not need us to pretend to be something we are not. What he needs is for us to be exactly what he made us to be. Buzz succeeds by realizing that he is a toy and being just that, a toy. As such he saves the day. For me too, I have come to realize that I am but a man. I have certain gifts and lack others. Certain doors are open to me and others are not. But when I accept that, and come to depend on God to fashion and use me according to his will, then great things are possible. But if we go on living in sinful illusion and grandeur we miss our truest call and place in God’s kingdom. Ultimately we must come to discover the man or woman that God created us to be. That is our true greatness.
All from a cartoon.
Here is another very brief video from the Superbowl ads that makes a similar point. A young boy thinks he is invincible and strives to order about inanimate creatures. But then, like Buzz Lightyear (and me), he discovers his limits and doubts. In the end he actually succeeds. But what we know, and he still has to learn, is that the power is really from his “Father.”
Here is the clip from Toy Story where Buzz discovers he is just a toy:
And here is where buzz saves the day. A kid had attached a rocket to his back, meaning it for ill, (but God intended it for good!).
We have discussed the “culture of death” numerous times before on this blog. This description of Western Culture was used by Pope John Paul II. Fundamentally it refers to the fact that in the modern, western world, especially America death is incresingly seen as a “solution” to problems. Has a child come along at an inconvenient time? Perhaps the baby has been diagnosed with defects perhaps there is some other wrenching problem regarding the pregnancy such as the poverty of the mother. The solution? Abort the baby. Has a criminal committed heinous acts? Kill him through capital punishment. Is an elderly or sick person suffering from a reduced quality of life? Perhaps they are bedridden or experiencing the pains of the dying process. Solution? Euthanize them. Does raising children and dealing with a larger family cause hardships: economic and emotional? Do children cause stress? Simple, contracept so that they don’t exist in the first place. So you see, the death or non-existence of human beings is increasingly the “solution” to problems and this is what is meant by the “culture of death.”
This whole mindset has even reached our entertainment industry which portrays the culture of death in an almost cartoonish way. Notice the basic scenario of most every action or adventure movie:
As the movie begins a villainous individual or group commits some heinous act of injustice. But soon enough “our hero” steps on the scene and commits to resolve this terrible threat and correct the injustice. After about 90 minutes of killing people, breaking things, blowing up buildings and engaging in hair-raising car chases that usually end in fiery crashes our hero triumphs overwhelmingly, restores justice and walks off the set with “the girl” on his arm, burning buildings in the background….fade to credits.
And we love this sort of stuff. At one level it is very entertaining. But it IS a cartoon. In real life villains and heroes are not as easily distinguished (though I do NOT mean to say that there is no such thing as right and wrong). Likewise, in real life blowing up buildings, car chases etc. endanger lives and take serious tolls. Real people do not walk away from high speed car crashes like they do in the movies. If they survive at all it takes months to recuperate from the damage inflicted on a real human body. In real life people who get killed, even if they are villains have people who mourn their loss. The true toll of all this violence is far greater in real life.
Ultimately it is the culture of death on display in cartoonish fashion. It is a parody of real attitudes in western culture. But the message is clear enough, cartoonish though it be: the solution to injustice is violence, mayhem and death. I do not deny that sometimes lethal force must be used to protect society from evil but it is always a last recourse and a moment for deep concern and moral reflection.
“Oh come on Father lighten up!….” OK I admit it is usually “good fun” and most don’t take it seriously. But my central point is that we should be careful as to the messages we send and receive even in diversionary entertainment. It says something about us that we are entertained by this sort of stuff. We ought at least to do a reality check as to this. Every now and then we do well to examine our culture and its premises. Is this movie teaching what Christ did? Just a thought.
Here is a funny video that well illustrates the cartoonish nature of adventure/action movies. It’s really quite funny. It’s entitled “Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions, They Blow Things Up and Then Walk Away.” Just a word of warning there are two slightly vulgar expressions (nothing horrible) used at the very beginning of the video but it’s part of the caricature intended. Otherwise, enjoy this rather silly video that parodies one aspect of the “Culture of Death.”
There is a new movie making the rounds in Christian Circles called Fireproof. It is about a young couple who experience that their marriage is falling apart. There is anger, resentment, accusations, and disappointment. But God isn’t done with them, He’s just getting started.
The husband Caleb is a fire f ighter who often reminds his fellow fire fighters to enter a buring building in teams and NEVER to leave their partner behind. Now he must learn the same thing in his marriage. Under the guidance of his earthly father Caleb receives wise help in saving his marriage but until he meets his Heavenly Father his efforts fall short because his heart is not in it. At a critical point in the movie he receives from Jesus the new heart he needs.
I know some of you may think this sounds a little cheesy and sentimental but the movie does not present any of this in a simplistic or merely sentimental way. Caleb comes to the Lord only with difficultly and the breakthrough he experiences is both realistic and moving. His wife’s struggle too is powerfully and credibly depicted.
In the following scene you see a moment of conversion for Caleb. He is frustrated that his wife is not responding to all his efforts and that she rejects his love. How can he go on loving some one who doesn’t love him and offers no gratitude or love in return? With his earthly father’s help he comes to see that this is exactly what he does to God, who loves him anyway. He rejects God, is ungrateful, and undeserving, but God loves him still. It is a breakthrough for Caleb. I don’t think it will spoil the movie for you to see this scene which is a very powerful description of the unmerited Love of God for us and our need to experience this if we will ever be able to love others.
Make it a priority to see this movie. It is for everyone, married or not; struggling or secure. It’s about love, it’s about marriage, it’s about miracles and it’s about breakthroughs. You won’t be disappointed that you saw Fireproof.
The following video is an interview with Ron Howard by Stephen Colbert. Of course Colbert is a comedian so don’t take any of this too seriously. But what I find most interesting is how uncomfortable Ron Howard seems to be. Most guests on Colbert’s show seem to know that he is playing a role of sorts as an obnoxious and egotistical medialogue. It’s his shtick. Most of the guests know this going in and play along quite well. Howard though, seems unprepared for it or ill at ease. I wonder why? I also find Howard poorly spoken. I had been led to believe by others in the general media that he is some sort of “genius” but here he seem not to know much about what he is speaking. Even when he talks about his own movie it seems more to be memorized talking points that he recites rather than a real discussion. Even Colbert has a hard time trying to get him too lighten up. See what you think.
Westminster Seminary is a Calvinist Seminary, so be careful about there article “What’s the Difference Between Protestants and Catholics?” Otherwise the site is very well done. Hat tip toCanterbury Tales