Thursday, 20 June 2013

Man of Steel

Today, after a good feed at the Westbourne (Steak Fajitas* in a Tortilla basket and a pint of Gower Gold Ale) and a mandatory Joe's Ice-Cream (Strawberry Marshmallow Sundae), I had the pleasure of watching Man of Steel, the latest re-incarnation on the Superman franchise. It was film which I thoroughly enjoyed.

*See Mack's comment below!

I am not a comic aficionado and what little I know about Superman or any super hero is largely garnered from film or the odd visit to Wikipedia. I appreciate that to many, what I have to say about the film is largely irrelevant because I don't have the depth of character knowledge required to make a judgement so I offer my opinions as a casual observer. 

Without apology, My reaction to Man of Steel is largely predetermined by my childhood memories of the original Superman films with Christopher Reeve. I'm sure it's true for every generation but there are certain films which I remember watching in my youth with have stayed with me. When I watch films like Star Wars, Back to the Future, E.T. and The Goonies, it's like reliving the past, as they evoke memories of good times, family and friends. 

The Good

Man of Steel is a good film which is easy to watch and it runs along at a pace appropriate to the super hero genre. The running times feels just about right and a clever use of flashbacks at appropriate times creates a smooth and flowing narrative. Thanks to CGI, there is a far greater dichotomy between the scenes on Krypton than those on Earth compared to the previous films but I found the iconography and landscape of the former to be quite appealing. The plot is fairly simple and will be familiar to anyone who has watched the original films but it works as a tool for Clark Kent as he discovers his place in the universe as Kal-El. With that said, I do feel that as franchise starter, the plot is fundamentally flawed (A little about that later).

The casting, on the whole, seems to have been a success with particular success in the titular role as played by Henry Cavill, that of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and their antagonist General Zod (Michael Shannon). The acting likewise is of a good standard with few superfluous characters but I feel the dialogue could have been more polished, particular in the interactions between Amy Adam's Lois Lane and Superman. I got the impression that Cavill took his role extremely seriously and was trying to squeeze everything out of the role he was given. I gained most satisfaction from the scenes between Kal-El, Jor-El and General Zog as they argue over Krypton's past, present and legacy.

The film is truly epic in scale and the action scenes are gloriously played out with the full grunt of CGI behind most scenes. For that reason, some of the fight scenes appear Playstation-esque - this is most evident in the personal combat scenes. With that flaw aside, the scale of Superman's powers is more evident because of what can be achieved with modern filmography.

The soundtrack Is suitably epic but it unsurprisingly can't live up to the original John William's score. Though the themes are not particularly memorable, I will be giving the soundtrack a second hearing on Spotify.

The Bad

Man of Steel is one of those films which, though you come away from the cinema satisfied, you are instantly aware of its flaws. This often leads to a harsher than necessary final analysis, but I think I have managed to set that aside for this film.

As I watched the film, two problems instantly came to mind. The first was the wanton destruction that Superman engaged in as he battled his nemesis (Christopher Reeve never indulged in a spot of collateral damage) and the second was very little time was devoted to why Clark Kent felt so attached to the Earth and it's inhabitants. Aside, from his parents, pretty much every other human being treats the six foot plus good looking hulk with contempt. When we finally get to see Clark Kent in glasses at The Daily Planet, he's squeezed into an ill-fitting shirt and jacket - there's no way he could be the nerdish nobody that everyone likes but largely ignores played to perfection by Christopher Reeve.

As the film ended, I found that though I had thoroughly enjoyed the epic nature of the film, I missed the playfulness of the original films. This leads me to the fundamental flaw in the film as a franchise starter - it's too epic! For me, the charm of the original films is that Superman is operating in the world in which we live. Even when his fellow Kryptonians arrive and duke it out, the world in which Christopher Reeve lives is not fundamentally altered. By the time the credits role, the Earth upon which Cavill's Superman resides is fundamentally altered, on Independence Day proportions. How can Lex Luther possibly live up to that?

Had the film been less epic, we would have had more time for Clark to develop a camaraderie with his fellow human beings thus creating a greater bond between Superman and the world he has placed under his protection. Though I didn't appreciate it at the time (typical bloke reaction, I know), there is very little chemistry between Superman and Lois Lane. For my money, Lois finds out Clark Kent's true identity far too early and this spoils the opportunity to have fun with the meme as the original films did to aplomb.

The Ugly

Thankfully, aside from the odd canine in peril (he survives), there aren't any truly ugly scenes in the film. I do question Kal-El's judgement on kissing a girl with which he has little chemistry on what is effectively their first date however. The violence in the film does mean it's not suitable for younger Superman fans which will greatly disappoint my three year old nephew.

The Lens of Faith

Action films aren't known for their fine theological nuances but Man of Steel has one scene dedicated to the exploration of faith whilst the structure of Krypton society offers ample material for debate. As Kal-El is debating whether or not to turn himself over to the authorities and from there into the hands of his enemies, he seeks the advice of a priest. The priest, tending to an empty church seemingly devoid of faith, counsels a conflicted Kal-El, who sits in front of a stained glass window of Christ in the garden of Gethsemene. As Kal-El leaves, the priest advises him that sometimes a leap of faith is necessary before trust is established. As Christ, the only Son of God was delivered into the hands of death so save us all from sin and death, so Kal-El, the only son of Jor-El, is delivered into the hands of General Zod to save the Earth.

The primary issue that a cursory analysis of Kryptonian society unveils is that of freewill. At a crucial stage of its development, Krypton introduces artificial population control - as a result, all Kryptonian children are artificially conceived according to a grand "codex" which produces the right balance of scientists, warriors, governors etc to optimise Kryptonian society.  As such, they are predetermined creatures, so that when the last vestiges of Krypton are seemingly lost, General Zod, whose sole purpose as a warrior was to protect Krypton, accuses Kal-El of taking his soul. This naturally raises the question - to what degree is Zod culpable for his actions? Is he a victim of his own society? By contrast, Kal-El, as the first child born naturally on Krypton for tens of thousands of years, is in full possession of freewill. He can choose whether to be a force for good or for evil and his decision to choose good is therefore of greater merit.


Man of Steel is a well worth a cinema visit. It is suitably epic and entertaining but lacks the true depth of character and humour which made the originals a childhood favourite. Cavill is an able Superman but judgement has to be reserved on his Clark Kent credentials.

Rating 75/100

Scale of Ali-G to Star Wars: X-Men 2

Monday, 17 June 2013

Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned....

Though each of the Sacraments can be said to equal in value, sharing as they do in the unity of God's plan of salvation for mankind, it is recognised that primary of place is to be given to the Eucharist which is after all the source and summit of the Church's mission. With that said, it is still possible for believers to have favourite Sacraments, often corresponding with different stages of the Spiritual Life. Since my teenage years, I have always had a particular appreciation for the Sacrament of Confession, which, over the years, has becoming an increasing source of consolation for me as I make my pilgrim way through this life.

Give a Little Whistle

One of the great graces I appear to have had bestowed on me, whether I like it or not, is a well informed conscience (plus I suspect a rather busy guardian angel). In the western world where recognising the existence of sin has become unfashionable, the concept of guilt has become a modern pariah. Much is made of the damage that guilt does to the human psyche with special vehemence and ridicule reserved for "Catholic Guilt", that unique brand of guilt fostered by repressive Church teachings and sadistic nuns. Some catechists may over emphasise the terrors of the Fires of Hell and relish describing the horrific torments that await the unrepentant sinner to their own detriment but authentic Christian teaching on sin and guilt should fill us with hope.

For me, the ability to discern right from wrong is one of the defining characteristics of the human person and it is a life's work. "The education of the conscience is a lifelong task... prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency... The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart". [1] True freedom exists not in licentiousness and doing whatever one wants but rather being unfettered in doing what is right. The fact that we sin shows that we are not truly free because if we were, we would always choose to do good. In essence, we are "slaves to sin". [2]

Far from being an agent of repression, guilt serves an essential role - it is part of the feedback mechanism which helps us recognise that we have fallen and that we need to get back up. True, if left unchecked, guilt can destroy the human spirit but we have not been abandoned to guilt by God. Rather, through the death and resurrection of his Son and in the Sacrament of Confession, we have been given a remedy which far surpasses our fall. Indeed, the Easter Exultet goes so far as to proclaim :

"O happy fault,
O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!"

whilst in "Praise to the Holiest in the height",  John Henry Newman as saw fit to write :

"O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
a second Adam to the fight
and to the rescue came."

(Those lines always gives me goosebumps)

I always remember being told that a good rule of thumb was to go to confession once a month but I now tend to go whenever I feel I need to. Sometimes, there can be several months between visits, sometimes only a few days. I have made a habit of going to confession before making a long journey - it's the best form of travel insurance on the market and can't be found on any comparison websites, even those operated by Meerkats.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

The tricky thing about conscience is that the better informed it is, the more responsible the individual becomes for the consequences of their actions. The greater one grows in knowledge and understanding and the deeper one's love of God becomes, the graver the effects of one's sins, both in guilt and consequence. Ignorance is certainly not bliss in this regard but planks and splinters often come to my mind when I am tempted to pour invective onto behaviour which displeases me amongst the public at large. 

Of all the Sacraments of the Church, Confession appears to be the most underused. This may be a reflection of the general shying away from recognising the existence of sin in society in general but I suspect it also has much to do with the unavailability of priests, a paucity of good catechesis and a fear of what the priest may think of the penitent (itself a result of poor catechesis). We need a new generation of great confessors like St Jean Vianny and St Padre Pio to rectify this grave shortcoming in the spiritual life of so many. Confession, like Mass, should be available daily in every deanery in the morning and evening, in every diocese in the world. If you want to know more about Confession, try and get hold of a copy of Confession: The Forgotten Sacrament, or check out some of the material available from CTS.

Yo! Adrian, We Did It

The church teaches us that the Sacrament of Confession obtains forgiveness from God and achieves reconciliation with with the Church and society. Its benefits are not limited to the spiritual domain, extending as it does to individual psychological and emotional wellbeing and personal relationships. I was once told by an Psychologist who was consulting on a court case that though he had no spiritual convictions whatsoever, he thought confession was a practice which the whole of society could benefit from, if only for it's cathartic value. It really is a wonderful feeling as you emerge from the confessional having removed the monkey (or meerkat) from your shoulder.

One of the greatest spiritual difficulties I have to admit to facing is dealing with habitual sins - those sins so long entrenched that they have become fixed behaviours. With Saint Paul I have to admit, sometimes in anguish, that the things I do not wish to do I always end up doing. [3] Much is made of the fact that God will never tire of forgiving us and for this we must be extremely grateful. The problem for many however is not that God will tire of forgiving our sins but that we will tire of asking for forgiveness. The soul who reaches this state is in great peril indeed. It is all too easy to wallow in our sin and think about throwing in the towel but as Rocky says,  "it ain't about how hard you hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done! [4]

Act of Contrition

O Lord, upon Your altar of expiation, I offer You all the sins and offenses I have committed in Your presence and in the presence of Your holy angels, from the day when I first could sin until this hour, that You may burn and consume them all in the fire of Your love, that You may wipe away their every stain, cleanse my conscience of every fault, and restore to me Your grace which I lost in sin by granting full pardon for all and receiving me mercifully with the kiss of peace. [5]

[1] The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1784 
[2] Romans, 7:14
[3] Romans, 7:15
[4] Rocky Balboa
[5] The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Cause I Gotta Have Faith (Schools)

Stephen Fry Up

Following Stephen Fry on Twitter can be quite exasperating. Most of his Tweets either ridicule my beliefs or take positions diametrically opposed to my own. Why then do I continue to follow him? I think it's because If you stop engaging with people with different views to yourself, you stop growing as a person and you may find that the ultimate casualty is your own beliefs as they decay through atrophy. That, and I do like his sense of humour.

Faithless Admissions

One of Mr Fry's most recent wind up tweets was his support for the "Fair Admissions" Campaign [1] which aims to "open up all state-funded schools to all children, without regard to religion", asking the following questions:

"Are you facing the prospect of your child being unable to gain admittance to your local school, because of religious selection?"
"Or have you had to game the system in order to get them in?"
"Are you happy to live in a society in which children are discriminated against on these grounds, while parents feel compelled to behave in this manner?"

The campaign is supported by the usual suspects like The British Humanist Society but is also curiously endorsed by Rt Revd John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, The Diocese of London and The Methodist Church of Great Britain.

The Fair Admissions websites suggests that it is not the religious "ethos" which makes some faith schools perform better, but their selectivity, which is taken advantage of by more articulate, better off, parents. I have little doubt that this does take place but it is fallacious to suggest that the problem is is limited to Faith schools. Indeed, a purely secular state system of education will effectively discriminate against less affluent families who cannot afford to send their children to private schools.

The campaign "Faith Admissions" is misnomer- if it succeeds, by processes of attrition and dilution, Faith schools will cease to exist because they will be populated by children whose parents will unsympathetic to the original ethos. One of the main reasons parents want to enrol their children into these schools is that they have good reputations and there is much to suggest that the unifying characteristics of a shared Faith creates an environment in which children feel valued,confident and able to succeed. If this ethos is eroded then they risk lowering standards. As a friend has suggested, the banner of "fair admissions" hides the true agenda, which is to drive religion out of public life entirely.

Render Under to Caesar

Those who support the campaign (especially those of a religious disposition) may genuinely believe that a Faith school education does more harm than good, perhaps on the grounds that a mix of opinions will foster greater debate and more tolerance. Of course, others will go further and suggest that Faith Schools are breeding grounds for intolerant brain washing.

During an exchange on Facebook, one keen observer suggested that the state had the right and duty to decide the rules and conditions under which public funds are given out and used, and it had been doing so for schools ever since it started funding them in the nineteenth century. This may be so but the right and duty of the state to educate is only afforded because the state represents the people and can arrange education with public funds. Parents have a right and duty to educate their children as they see fit and it is not the state's place to interfere with that right. As tax payers, they also have the right to have the type of schools that they want for their children. The state establishes schools to facilitate and vindicate the rights of parents, not to abrogate them.

The Faithful Remnant 

Like many of the issues affecting the Faith today, this issue has only developed any momentum because common religious ground is being removed from the public sphere. One the one hand, the inexorable juggernaut of aggressive secularism continues to progress unabated and on the other, the number of practising faithful continues to decline. In this, we really are reaping what we sow. Still, even the faithful remnant have a right to educate their children as they see fit.


Tuesday, 4 June 2013

On the quality of the paving slabs of the Red Light District of Amsterdam

Whenever I am thrust into new friendship groups for any length of time, the nature of my Faith is usually one of the first topics which attracts a lengthy discussion. Though I may dare to hope that this is due to the excellent character of my witness, I suspect it is more to do with the novelty of the answers I give to everyday questions and scenarios. The topic which sparks off the most interest, particularly and perhaps predictably amongst men, is sex. Having recently survived two stag parties and several interrogations, I have recently been given plenty of opportunities to express my opinions.

Sex Bomb

The nature of the discussion (at least with men), usually follows a predictable pattern. I decline to acquiesce to what has become an acceptable norm for the modern man (commenting on a particular woman in a sexual manner, looking at page three, discussing pornography or sexual exploits etc) and am then subjected to an interrogation regarding my views on sex and on my sexual experience and activity, largely from a derisive point of view. The ultimate conclusion invariably is that I must be gay.

Some commentators may understand the concept of saving sex until marriage [1] (though dismiss it as a quaint Christian practice) but few are able to contemplate a single life without compensating sexual practices such viewing pornography or masterbation. After enduring many of these these discussions, I have come to the realisation that modern man is actually a slave to what is he is told is the sexual norm - sexuality is to be expressed where and when desired, subject only to the law of "consenting adults".

Image and Likeness

Sexual identity and the sexual appetite are undeniable facets of human existence. Indeed, the Church teaches that they are good, even great things. "Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity... The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out." [2] Indeed, in a mysterious way, in the division of humanity into male and female we are made in the image of God and given a unique vocation with the capacity and responsibility for love and communion which is itself a reflection of the personal loving communion which exists between the three persons of the Trinity. "The union of man and woman in marriage is a way of imitating in the flesh the Creator's generosity and fecundity". [3]

Masturbation, viewing pornography and engaging in other sexual practices cannot therefore be a natural end point of this appetite because they do not promote a communion of love - they are inherently selfish acts. In reality, they are addictive, acquired behaviours which become habitual to such a degree that it seems impossible for some to live without them. Though differing wildly in degree, masterbation is akin to biting one's nails, though I suspect the former has greater spiritual consequences than the latter.

Control, control! You must learn control!

A useful angle on the topic was afforded to me as I read "Difficulties in Mental Prayer" by Fr Eugene Boyle. In discussing prayer, Fr Boyle makes a distinction between feelings which arise out of the senses (sorrow, joy, elation etc) perhaps provoked by a beautiful church or a picture of the crucified Christ and those which arise from the intellect and the will. Man possess a sense appetite which desires any good or attractive object set before the senses, either in reality or through imagination. This facility is automatic and is traditionally referred to as a passion by philosophers. This desire is outside of the will and it is only when the will recognises the object and chooses to desire it that a moral choice is made. In other words, temptation is not a sin, nor does it demand that man give into it. The intellect and the will have the final say.

Some of my closer non-Catholic friends have told me that they admire my "control" with regards to not indulging in any sexual activity. Chastity is regarded by the Church both as a moral virtue, the mastery of the senses by the intellect and will, and a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort. [4] This certainly has a massive part to play in what is rightly regarded as a position of temptation but I suspect that my burden is far less than their own simply because I am not weighted by their habitual behaviours. Indeed, pastoral guidelines on offenses against chastity recognises this fact. [5]

Things to do in Amsterdam when you're Catholic

Paradoxically, it is often the most overt temptation that is easier to resist. I found it a lot easier to acquaint myself with the excellent paving slabs of the Red Light District of Amsterdam when walking between pubs than I find it to guard my thoughts on a particularly nice summer's day. I am often asked "How I do it?", namely not lust after women and the answer I give is "I try and follow the advice of a good priest - 'Whenever I see a beautiful lady, I thank God for his creation, and move on'". In essence, the sense appetite is presented by a good (an attractive lady), the will consents to the goodness of this thing in the created order but declines the opportunity to regard and internalise it in a sexual manner.

Chastity has real benefits and perhaps the most obvious is friendship. I suspect many of my friends are unable to have meaningful, non-sexual relationships with members of the opposite sex largely because they are preconditioned to regard them in a sexual manner. Again, the Church teaches that "chastity blossoms in friendships", allowing us to imitate Christ who has chosen us as his friends. [6]

A failure to communicate

This leads me onto the final fallacy of the conversation, a classic false dichotomy, that failure to express the normative sexual behaviour for a heterosexual man must necessitate what is regarded as its opposite - homosexual behaviour. Though one mighty churlishly suggest that such an attitude is indicative of a mindset which fails to understand a concept, preferring to ascribes a derisory antithesis to it in order to maintain a particular world view, it demonstrates that the notion of chastity really has lost all resonance with the society in which we live.

Of course, none of this suggests that chastity it easy. It is a life's work which must constantly be reinforced with self-renewal, dedication and prayer. Contrary to modern thinking, it is not however impossible and certainly not irrelevant.

Prayer for Chastity

O my God, teach me to love others with the purity of Your holy Mother. Give me the grace to resist firmly every temptation to impure thoughts, words or actions. Teach me always to love with generosity and goodness, to respect myself and others in the way I act and to reverence the way that You have given us for the creation of new life

[1] Reducing the Church's teaching on human sexuality to the concept of "saving sex until marriage" does it a terrible disservice. The focus should not be on abstinence but rather on living a continually chaste life. Arleen Spenceley writes very well on the topic at and specifically at

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2333

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2335

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2345

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2352

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2347