Monday, May 23, 2011

The Christophers: Bearing Christ in the Stories

What do Akira Kurosawa, M. Night Shyamalan, Denzel Washington, Ken Burns, Jason Reitman, Cardinal Avery Dulles, Rod Serling, Bishop Fulton Sheen, David Mamet, Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Heaton, Will Smith, Bob Dole, Clint Eastwood, and Big Bird all have in common?

They have all been honored by The Christophers for outstanding work in media and communications.

When he won a Christopher Award for his work on the 2002 CBS News special, "9/11," writer/editor and Catholic Deacon Greg Kandra counted the prize as especially meaningful. Although the documentary had also brought him an Emmy and a Peabody Award, "Of all of them, the Christopher means the most to me, because it speaks most directly to the higher calling of working in the media—the effort to act as a candle in the darkness and be, somehow, a tiny beacon of hope."

Christopher Awards producer Tony Rossi with Shannon Hickey, founder of Mychal's Message ministry and recipient of the 2011 James Keller Award which recognizes young people who are changing the world for the better.

"It comes down to the power of storytelling," says Christopher Awards Producer Tony Rossi. "Whether they're fiction or non-fiction, stories have the power to make us think in ways that preaching doesn't. Stories don't necessarily tell us how to think or act. Instead, they show us the results of thinking or acting a certain way and let us make up our own minds."

Recognizing excellence in Film, Television and Books for both children and adults, The Christophers presented their 62nd Annual Awards on May 19, 2011 in categories covering both fiction and non-fiction. Honorees in attendance included director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler of the Academy Award-winning The King's Speech. Attendees were addressed by two special award winners whose lives also tell great stories: Shannon Hickey—the 21-year-old Foundress of Mychal's Message and recipient of the James Keller Award in recognition of her ministry to the homeless; and Christopher Leadership Award winner Captain Scotty Smiley—the U.S. Army's first blind active-duty officer and the current commander of the Warrior Transition Unit for ailing or wounded soldiers at West Point.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why "Lost" Still Matters

The ABC TV series "Lost" left the air almost a year ago, yet it continues to generate lots of emotion from fans and detractors. Recently the show's Executive Producers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were blind-sided by insults from popular fantasy author George R.R. Martin, whose book Game of Thrones has been turned into an HBO mini-series, and who continues work on his Song of Fire and Ice book series.

Martin expressed concern about finding a satisfying ending for his series saying, "What if I f--- it up at the end? What if I do a Lost?"

That comment struck Lindelof and Cuse as unnecessarily harsh; they had poured their hearts and souls into "Lost's" storytelling. Both men responded on Twitter—Lindelof with some zingers directed at Martin; Cuse more succinctly with the statement, "We never raise ourselves up by demeaning the work of others."

Having watched "Lost" from the beginning, I think the level of animosity directed at it is completely unwarranted. The show told a brilliant, engaging story in a way that made it matter to people. In fact, it's a story that I believe continues to matter.

For the uninitiated, "Lost" dealt with a group of plane crash survivors who landed on a mysterious, mystical island. Initially, these castaways were emotionally-crippled souls without any genuine human connections, but through the love and responsibility they exhibited toward each other, they were able to grow as human beings—to move past the tragedies, mistakes, and obsessions that haunted them and eventually arrive in a state of grace. Despite everything you may hear about the show's complicated mythology, these are the issues the show was about at its core.

Before the haters and naysayers chime in, I do acknowledge that "Lost's" mythology grew unwieldy, and numerous threads were not tied up. But to paraphrase Shakespeare, "Lost" is a show far more sinned against than sinning. It dared to deal with big issues—faith and doubt, sin and redemption, earthly life and the afterlife—through some of the most well-drawn and acted characters ever created on television.

Take the issues of faith and doubt: There was an ongoing clash between the characters Jack Shephard and John Locke about whether our actions and experiences in life have some unseen purpose, or whether only those things that can be scientifically proven and deduced are real.

In one heated exchange, Locke screams at Jack, "Why do you find it so hard to believe?" Jack responds, "Why do you find it so easy?" Locke exclaims, "It's never been easy!"

Right there, you've got an encapsulated version of questions that most believers of all stripes have grappled with. In a world where earthquakes and tsunamis kill thousands, where people who've made evil decisions live to a ripe old age while innocent children die in accidents or from diseases, there can seem like plenty of reasons not to believe in a benevolent God. Yet if people are humble enough to consider the possibility that a reality exists beyond what the senses can experience, they may come to notice connections and meanings they never knew were there. "Lost" did an excellent job of bringing those questions and struggles to light in a way that resonates with the open-minded.

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Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Hitman, a Priest, and a Confession

When a cold-blooded hitman bursts into a hotel room to execute someone, the intended victim does something unexpected: he asks the hitman for a moment to make his peace with God. The hitman lowers his gun as the victim takes a chain with a crucifix from around his neck, holds it tightly in his hands, kneels down with eyes closed, and begins moving his lips in silent prayer. Now peaceful and resigned to his fate, the victim opens his eyes, looks at the hitman, and says, "I forgive you." The hitman hesitates, looking confused and even regretfully at a peace he's never seen before, but then pulls the trigger anyway.

That's the incident that propels the story in the new online web series on, and across the DBG network, called The Confession. Shot partially in the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in New York City, the series stars Kiefer Sutherland as the hitman, and John Hurt as the priest to whom he contentiously goes to gain an understanding of what he witnessed.

Sutherland's character is definitely complex. He enters the confessional and speaks words from a bygone era of his childhood: "Bless me Father for I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed. I confess to Almighty God and to you, Father. It's been thirty-five years since my last confession."

When the priest asks if he's sorry for his sins, he says, "No," and goes on to explain he killed a man last night. The hitman isn't there for forgiveness, but rather to understand the peace he witnessed come over his victim the night before.

This begins a back-and-forth between Sutherland and Hurt that is intercut with scenes from the hitman's past. Though the flashbacks are interesting and well-done, the meat of the story hinges on the dynamic Sutherland and Hurt bring to their roles and their natural gravitas as actors. I felt like I could listen to the two of them debate morality and theology for an hour without getting bored. Those areas of morality and theology set this story apart.

(To continue reading, go to

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Catholics, Nazis, and Rat-Eating Aliens

It's rare for a TV series to make a Catholic priest one of its primary characters, but that's what the ABC show "V" did when it debuted in 2009. Not only was the character generally positive and even heroic, but as the show has evolved in Season 2, themes that hold special interest for Catholics have garnered a higher profile too.

In case you're not familiar with the basics: "V" is the story of a civilization of human-looking-aliens who come to earth under the guise of being friendly. Dubbed "the Visitors" (or Vs for short) and led by their queen Anna (Morena Baccarin) who promises "We are of peace, always," they provide humanity with healing centers to cure the incurable, clean energy that's free for the neediest, and promises of brotherhood and solidarity. To people whose needs are suddenly provided for, the Visitors are like gods.

That makes Catholic priest Father Jack Landry (Joel Gretsch) suspicious, since he's living out his devotion to the real God. Father Landry and FBI agent Erica Evans (Lost's Elizabeth Mitchell) eventually discover the Visitors are not as peaceful or as harmless as they appear to be; they begin a resistance movement.

Though "V" sounds like standard sci-fi fare, it manages to insert some genuine substance into its storytelling. For instance, one recent episode had Anna setting her sights on Father Jack—a threat because of his anti-Visitor sermons. Though the priest insists he is a man of peace, Anna captures video footage of him breaking up a fight; she edits it in a way that depicts him as advocating violence. When the video goes viral on the Internet, Anna believes she has discredited the priest's moral authority and weakened his opposition.

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