Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch
A return to the Western with ‘Appaloosa’; books examine Catholicism in World War II Germany, and the question of human suffering

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Nov. 13, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)

Movie Review

Actor Ed Harris has gone back to directing in the new western Appaloosa. The film is named after the town where Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) is running over any notion of law and order. The sheriff and two associates have just been killed by Bragg.

Town fathers ask two law enforcers who appear before them to take over the protection of the town against Bragg and his gang. The two wandering men are Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his sidekick, Everett (Viggo Mortensen). The movie is about their friendship through the years and its probable break-up as Virgil becomes infatuated by the new woman just off the train. She is Allison (Renee Zellweger) and she moves rapidly to have Virgil begin the construction of a home at the end of Main Street. Allison is loaded with surprises as the movie progresses.

Everett is threatened by the relationship that may well break up his long friendship with Virgil and force him to go out on his own. The lawmen for hire are so close that Everett can finish Virgil’s sentences, especially if Virgil is looking for just the right word.

Eventually Virgil finds an eyewitness who is willing to testify against the cruel Bragg. Thus begins the movement to bring Bragg into Appaloosa’s small jail and the two-week wait for the traveling judge to come for Bragg’s trial for the murder of the three lawmen.

Many complications ensue after Bragg is declared guilty and is being transported by train to the territorial prison.

Appaloosa is a Western in the traditional sense, with some new twists and turns. The scenery of New Mexico is breathtaking. The principals are always dressed up quite formally by today’s standards. The story moves rapidly, and yet the scenes allow for quiet and slow discussions of loyalty and principle.

Early on we see Virgil beat up a guy in a bar with a violence that gives us a sense of his anger within. His partner pulls him away and slowly calms him.

I thoroughly enjoyed Appaloosa. The acting is excellent and the character development allows the viewer to identify with Virgil and Everett, even though they both have dark sides. Rene Zellweger plays a femme fatale in the tradition of noir detective films.

Westerns are few and far between now days. Even though Appaloosa keeps many of the traditions of the genre, it appears fresh and new. It is well worth seeing.

Appaloosa is rated R – Restricted – because of violence and sexuality by the Motion Picture Association of America. Under 17 are required to have a parent or an adult guardian. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film A-III – for adults.

Book Reviews

The Shack, by William P. Young in collaboration with Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings, is published by Windblown Media of Los Angeles. It is available in softcover for $14.99. There are over two million copies of the book in print. It has become a publishing triumph.

The story starts in western Oregon, where Mackenzie Allen Phillips lives with his wife, Nan, and their three children. As the plot develops the family takes a trip to the Lake Wallowa State Park, south of Walla Walla in northeastern Oregon. Here the novel turns melodramatic as Mack seeks to save his daughter Kate and her friend Josh from drowning in the lake. Meanwhile, another daughter, Missy disappears and evidently has been captured and eventually killed by a rampaging sexual predator.

The main focus of the novel is on a grieving father answering a letter that appears to be from God, to meet in the shack in northeastern Oregon where Missy was evidently abused and killed. It is here that the novel takes a more didactic approach that would be in the tradition of Christian apologetics. A hurting Mack meets the three persons of the Trinity in different modes, and confronts the various persons on the problem of evil and the cruel death of Missy. God the Father, who is called Papa, is a woman who is often cooking very appetizing meals as she answers questions from Mack. Later in the story, Papa becomes a man. The Son is Jesus, who appears in a traditional mode and has Mack walk across a lake as he explains theological questions. The Holy Spirit is a woman named Sarayu. Also there is a meeting with the Wisdom of God under the traditional name Sophia.

All the persons are clearly visible and appear as humans with special gifts. As Mack carries on discussions with the various persons, the author emphasizes relationship with God as the key. He de-emphasizes the idea of Church and sacrament. And he uses very contemporary terms from popular culture. You can see overtones of movies such as The Matrix and The Lion King and Robin Williams in What Dreams May Come.

The novel ends with a return to the main story, along with a trick ending of sorts.

Several people have told me how much they enjoyed this sincere effort at bringing readers closer to an understanding of the loving God.

The opening and closing book-ends of the story certainly held my attention. I found the meeting with the persons of God slow reading. I was put off by the somewhat magical meeting with the persons of God in an idyllic setting. The author is dealing with one of the most difficult aspects of theology with the question: How can a good God allow pain, suffering and evil? Some will find the give-and-take of Mack and the differing persons of God very helpful; others will find it over-the-top in its fantasy setting that makes it difficult to connect with the author’s well-meaning ideas.

• In a review of a book on Pope Pius XII and World War II (“Media Watch: Holiness and history mix on summer’s bookshelf,” IR 7/31/08) there was mention of a biography on Bishop von Galen, who gave a series of sermons speaking out in Germany in 1941 against policies of Hitler. The biography by Beth A. Griech-Polelle is titled Bishop von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism. It was published in 2002 by Yale University Press of New Haven. The book would be available through library interloan or as a used book on the internet or at a used book store.

Clemens August Graf von Galen is held up as one German bishop who spoke out against the Nazis. His three eloquent sermons given as Bishop of Munster are in the Appendix at the end of the book. The first two are fiery responses to persecution and removal of Catholic Religious communities of men and women by the Nazis, plus denunciations of Nazi policies against Catholic Church institutions. The third sermon is a vibrant call for human life against Hitler’s euthanasia project to rid the country of sick, elderly, mentally retarded and disabled Germans.

The author argues that von Galen spoke out against Nazism on narrow Catholic issues and that he failed to speak on the broader crisis of Jews being taken from homes to concentration camps, although she states clearly that the Nazi leadership wanted von Galen removed after his three sermons and some people were killed or imprisoned for distributing written copies of his sermons. She argues that von Galen was so afraid of another 1870s-style Kulturkamph, where as many as 1,800 priest were imprisoned or banished from the state, that he sought to speak out only for Catholics.

An interesting point of history is that after taking the oath of loyalty to the state in line with the

recent Concordat in front of Prussian president Hermann Göring (Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses went to concentration camps for not taking the oath), von Galen returned to Munster for his consecration as bishop. At this ceremony in 1933, “The cathedral was the scene of columns of SA and SS men marching in procession with the swastika flags flying. The SA lined the roads leading to the cathedral and in the evening participated in a torch-lit procession in front of the bishop’s palace. As part of the ceremony, Nazi Party officeholders, from the Gauleiter to the lowest-raking SA member, filed past von Galen, giving him the Nazi salute.”

One fascinating point of history that Griech-Polelle reveals about Pope Pius XII is this: “Pacelli’s fears of Communist-induced anarchy and barbarism had been reinforced years earlier when a Communist revolutionary held a pistol to his head and threatened to kill him. Eyewitnesses reported that Pacelli, who was then a nuncio, remained eerily calm and was able to avoid any injury to himself or to the others present as he faced down the would-be shooter. He was, however, haunted by this 1919 incident for the rest of his life, still noting that he relived the incident in his dreams even into his 80s. This brief but powerful encounter with German Communists in Munich in 1919 had left an indelible mark on Pius XII.”

I noticed two mistakes in the text. When referring to von Galen being made a cardinal in 1946, near the end of his life, the author uses the term “raised to the purple,” which would refer to becoming a bishop, not a cardinal. She also refers to the American ambassador to the Vatican meeting with the pope in 1941. My memory is that there was a representative to the Vatican from the U.S., but it would be years later before the U.S. would formerly have an ambassador to the Vatican.

Bishop von Galen is written with a strong point of view that he and other Bishops should have spoken out more forthrightly against the Nazis in their persecution of Jews. The book provides much material on this dark period of history in Germany and the world. It could well be supplemented by the German film The Ninth Day, which tells the story of the 2,500 priests and ministers held in the Dachau concentration camp where, half of them died.

(Father Caswell is archivist and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent contributor to this publication.

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