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After winning Best Picture with their suffocating somber No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading marks a return to the eccentric brand of screwball comedy that produced such classics as The Hudsucker Proxy and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?. At least that’s what I had been told and believed upon entering the theater. Though Burn After Reading was certainly eccentric with a touch of screwball here and there, the movie certainly doesn’t comfortably fit any category currently available; indeed, what makes the Coen comedies great is the sheer impossibility of marketing them accurately to consumers. Familiar labels like the broad and inclusive genre “comedy” or even more narrow subgenres like “screwball comedy” cannot even come close to conditioning our expectations accurately to what we see on screen. What we end up seeing is more expansive and complex than what we signed up for.

In typical Coen-esque fashion, Burn After Reading hurtles the audience into an impressively interwoven plot. Characters as widely diverse as an ex-CIA analyst, two oddball clerks at Hardbodies Gym, a philandering federal marshal, and an icily condescending pediatrician are elaborately connected in a web of philandering, light treason, involuntary manslaughter, absurd plain-view homicide, and bucket loads of pure bungling and human folly. The appropriate backdrop for this mayhem is Washington D.C., our country’s center of intelligence, and the Coens derive a couple of their best laughs from their send-up of CIA culture.

“Intelligence,” we’re told in the movie’s tag-line, “is relative.” Most everything in Burn After Reading is relative. The plot veers slightly towards coherence before losing all meaningful intelligibility. Relativism hangs over this movie like a palpable cloud, and we’re forced to watch the moral confusion, chaos, and irrational paranoia that results from losing contact with the light of day. The characters and the events they get inextricably wrapped up in are elaborately and smartly connected, yet one cannot call Burn After Reading a story, since that implies a beginning point and movement toward a meaningful conclusion. The vast array of characters grope towards happiness that the Coens continually tell us doesn’t exist.

What separates Burn After Reading from the Coen’s previous unclassifiable comedies is the nature of the laughter. In previous Coen offerings the facile label of “screwball comedy” hid a more complex movie; in Burn After Reading the label is entirely misleading. Sure I laughed a lot, but not in the way I’m used to laughing having been bred on the Marx Brothers, the Stooges, and David Zucker. Burn After Reading relies on absurdity, the same comedic formula as Groucho Marx; yet it hits uncomfortably close to home in a way no true comedy ever does. The absurdity is terribly discomfiting because it’s an awfully accurate portrait of our culture, and the Coen’s trademark comedic exaggeration barely veils the nihilistic reality underneath.

At several points in the movie, the Coens make it patently obvious that Burn After Reading was never intended to be a conventional comedy. Without blinking an eye they break the cardinal comedic rule of “do no real harm” to startle us from the feeling that this is a true comedy and thus a caricature and removed somewhat from reality. An unexpected and particularly brutal homicide forces us to judge their “comedy” in a different light; perhaps the farce is not so much a farce as a depiction of a real disease. The characters are indeed overly eccentric, but their obsessions, paranoia, and blind groping for transient happiness could be found in every city in America.

Burn After Reading could, as Michael Medved labeled it, be considered a “dark comedy”, though even that genre tag is misleading since dark comedies traditionally accentuate and dwell on the darkness, while Burn After Reading does no such thing. Despite its genuinely hilarious screwball moments, Burn After Reading is still a thoroughly uncomfortable movie. Most of the laughter it generates can be aptly compared to raucous mirth that reportedly followed novelist Franz Kafka’s private reading of his short story Metamorphosis, a particularly morbid tale of a traveling salesman who copes with the horror of having been transformed into vile bug. Metamorphosis certainly isn’t known for its clever zingers, but the laughter was generated by the story’s spot-on encapsulation of the modern dilemma of man’s plight severed from God. In Burn After Reading we also laugh at what we see in the mirror, and I think most of us would rather not pay for the pleasure.

It makes sense that Burn After Reading’s initial boom of box office success was short lived, considering they marketed it with one of the most misleading trailers in film history. Our culture hungers for meaning, and postmodernism will never sell outside of academies. If only the Coens had the faith to offer a little transcendent meaning and a little hope that there’s a way out of our predicament. Unfortunately, all we get is terrible absurdity.

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by Michael Barber, Professor of Theology, Scripture and Catholic Thought at John Paul the Great Catholic University, San Diego, CA

 

Unless, you’ve been living in a cave, you know that Batman is back and like never before. The Dark Knight has received critical acclaim and broken just about every record on the books, setting numerous all-time figures:

  • Best midnight opening ($18.4 million) (that doesn’t count the 3am and 6am showings which were slotted after all the midnight showings sold out, which also sold out!)
  • Best opening day / single day gross ($66.4 million)
  • Best opening weekend ($158 million)
  • First movie to make $300 million dollars in 10 days
  • Best IMAX midnight preview ($640,000)

Moreover, this is the first blockbuster movie to ever be filmed on the specially made, high resolution IMAX film (certain action scenes, meaning about half hour of the movie, which runs for 2 ½ hours). The reason it’s the first is not because IMAX technology is new. Rather, the IMAX film requires extremely heavy cameras which are very difficult to use. Director Christopher Nolan didn’t let that stop him, however―he even used them to film fast paced action scenes. The result is breathtaking. 

 

From whatever angle you come at it―economic, creative, technological―the film has emerged as more than just a movie―it’s a cultural event.

 

In fact, when I went the first time to go and see the film―a full week after it had opened!―I was disappointed to discover that all the IMAX showings screened in a cavernous theatre were sold out. Next available: 1:20am.  And yes, that’s 1:20am! I learned that the theatre simply remained opened all night long, selling out IMAX screenings around the clock. Again, this was more than a week after it had already opened in San Diego where movie theatres abound!

 

Yet, this did not deter me. You see, from as early as I can remember I have been a Batman fan. When I was really young I enjoyed the campy 1960’s Adam West show. By the time I was in grammar school, I was addicted to the comic books―a passion that led to a growing frustration with the Adam West series, which I came to view as a spoof of Batman. Throughout high school, college, and even graduate school I continued to read Batman graphic novels and comics like they were going out of style. These days I don’t really have any free time―but if I did, there are a couple of recent ones I would love to work through!

 

So I’ve been anticipating this movie for a very long time. As I’ll explain, it did not disappoint. But I want to do more than offer a review of this particular movie. I want to explain why Batman endures, highlighting some important points of contact with Catholic theology and philosophy.

 

Just Another Comic Book Hero?

I realize my affection for this character might sound a little ridiculous. Why would a professor of Catholic Theology and Scripture be drawn to this particular superhero? It all just seems a little bit too silly. Isn’t Batman just another man in long underwear like Superman or Spiderman?

 

My appreciation for the Batman is especially hard to understand if you’re only familiar with the previous on-screen versions of the character―the Adam West show or the previous films by Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher. Suffice it to say, for most of us who know him from the comics these versions of the Dark Knight were so different from the source material that they often felt like movies about an entirely different character. Yet, throughout it all, we fans never gave up hope something more would come our way. Why? Well, because the character is so interesting he deserved a second chance―not to mention a third, a fourth, and so on.  

 

Here I want to explain why Batman is not just another superhero.  I want to explain the real appeal of Batman and how this movie finally got it right. The man who ultimately deserves the credit for the successful reboot is Christopher Nolan, the director.

 

A New Start: Christopher Nolan and the Batman

After the absolutely disastrous Schumacher versions of the Batman movies―the last starring George Clooney (Batman) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr. Freeze)―everyone was delighted to hear that Warner Bros. had decided to go in a different direction with the franchise. Then word came out that Darren Aronofsky, famous for his bleaker than bleak pictures, was going to take over. Batman fans everywhere were more than just a little concerned. Initial reports of Aronofsky’s vision for the franchise were dreadful.

 

Then, all of a sudden, it became known that director Christopher Nolan was interested in the project. Nolan was a young director whose first film, Memento (2000), was an instant film classic. The movie told the story of a man who had lost the ability to retain short term memory. To tell his story, Nolan did something genius.  The movie had two alternating storylines, one presented in black and white and the other in color. The one in color was told starting at the end of the movie and circling back to the beginning. In other words, each scene picked up at the beginning of the last scene. So if the previous scene in color showed the main character walking into a restaurant the next scene would reveal how he got there. This way the audience identified with the main character, who, arriving at the restaurant, couldn’t remember why he had come there in the first place or even how he had got there! At the end of the movie, the audience discovers the initial event that had set off the entire plot of the movie.

 

Momento was a smash hit. It has an incredible 94% rating on rottentomatoes.com, the site that tabulates all reviews published by critics.  Nolan’s second film, Insomnia (2002), starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams, was also a huge critical success (92% rating).  

 

Nolan apparently began to leverage his reputation with Warner Bros., keen to work with him after two huge successes, in an attempt to take the Batman franchise away from Aronofsky.  Fans, of course, were rooting for him. Why? Nolan explained: he was a true Batman fan. In fact, he had always wanted to do a Batman film and he knew how to present the character right. In 2003 he told Variety:

“All I can say is that I grew up with Batman, I’ve been fascinated by him and I’m excited to contribute to the lore surrounding the character… He is the most credible and realistic of the superheroes, and has the most complex human psychology. His superhero qualities come from within. He’s not a magical character.”

It became clear that Nolan didn’t simply see Batman as another project; this was a labor of love. 

Nolan rebooted the whole franchise. His first Batman film, Batman Begins (2005), represented the first time the Batman of the comic books really came alive on screen. Of course, like everything else Nolan does, it was great. But what made it great was not its unique take on Batman. It was great because it was Batman. 

 

What Makes Batman Special

Batman is not just another superhero. As Batman Begins highlighted, unlike Superman or Spiderman the Bruce Wayne has no superpowers. He is just a man. So what is it that made him a superhero? The answer: the example and inheritance of his parents. 

 

Bruce Wayne’s family helped to build Gotham City, the world’s largest city (modeled, of course, on New York City). Their influence on the city went back as far as anyone could remember. His parents were known for their generosity and virtue. His father was a doctor, known for helping the poor, the destitute and the desperate. While the mob ended up owning the city, Bruce’s parents represented a beacon of hope. Bruce was their only child and the center of their universe. 

 

Of course, everyone knows the rest of the story. One night the Wayne family went to the theatre. On their way home they ended up down a dark alley. There Bruce watched on helplessly as his parents were murdered by a run-of-the-mill mugger (not the Joker, as Tim Burton’s movie suggested), named Joe Chill. It was just another random act of senseless violence.

 

The event scarred Bruce for life. However, although he could have allowed himself to be swallowed up by despair, something else happened. Instead of indulging himself in a hedonistic lifestyle, wasting away in extravagance as only a rich orphan could, Bruce decided to bring something good out of the tragedy of his parents’ death. Bruce’s parents had given him an example of selflessness and love that could not easily be forgotten. Instead of pitying himself, Bruce came to the conclusion that something had to be done about the injustice that took his beloved parents’ lives. The police department, civic officials, the courts, etc.―they were all in the pocket of organized crime. Something extraordinary had to happen―and he realized that the virtually unlimited wealth left to him by his parents enabled him to do what no one else could. 

 

Bruce ends up becoming a model of temperance and virtue. He learns to master his emotions, channeling his anger. He becomes a model of the Platonic or Aristotelian virtuous individual, overcoming his passions and making proper use of them.   

Young Bruce in prayer (Source: Secret Origins #6, 1986)

 

In one famous Batman graphic novel, Dark Victory, it is revealed that most of the mansion he lives in alone sits unfurnished. Though he performs public acts of extravagant spendthriftness―often in the form of charitable donations, though also appearing to live a profligate lifestyle―the real Bruce Wayne lives a Spartan existence. Self-discipline and virtue―that’s how he will fight crime. 

 

This is what sets Bruce apart from Superman and other such heroes. He has no superpowers.  Every time he goes out in costume, he puts his life on the line. He cannot rely on a “spidey-sense” to alert him of an enemy sneaking up behind him. He has to rely on his training and the habits he has worked to develop. Superman can come bounding in on his enemies and afford to get caught up in a trap―he can play it by ear. Batman, on the other hand, has to prepare, investigate, study, train, etc.―only then can he face evil. 

 

This dimension of the Batman character is laid out beautifully in Nolan’s first Batman film, Batman Begins (2005). In one movie Nolan laid out what volumes of comic books have explained about Bruce Wayne’s character and motivation. The success of Batman Begins was due to the fact that it treated the key dimensions of the character neglected by the other theatrical installments: his relationship with his parents and their incredible example of generosity, the impact of the death of his parents, his own self-sacrifice and resolve, his commitment to never take a life (or, put another way, his commitment to life), etc. Most of all, Nolan has helped his audience appreciate not only Batman, but also Bruce Wayne.

 

“It’s What I Do That Defines Me”

My favorite scene in Batman Begins sums up the whole Batman philosophy. Batman saves the great (unrequited) love of his life, Rachel Dawes, who, like everyone else in Gotham, has been fooled into believing Bruce Wayne is nothing but a shallow, billionaire playboy.  Earlier in the movie Bruce is about town, ditzy supermodels on either arm, appearing to be little more than a party animal. Unexpectedly he runs into Rachel. He is obviously mortified that she has seen him acting like a fool and bought his act. He says, “Rachel, this isn’t me. Deep down, I’m more.” Rachel replies, “It isn’t who you are underneath that counts, it’s what you do that defines you.” Later, at a climactic moment, Batman saves Rachel’s life. Before jumping back into the fray of the battle, Rachel pleads, “Tell me your name. Tell me who you are. You might die!” Batman replies, “It’s not who I am underneath that counts. It’s what I do that defines me.” 

 

In fact, as a professor of Catholic theology, I recognized this philosophy. It is called “personalism,” and it was laid out in works such as The Acting Person and Person and Community, written by Karol Wojtyla, who, of course, would later become John Paul II.  In sum, we are what we do. What we do defines us.     

 

But all this was just a prelude to the main event―Nolan’s follow-up, The Dark Knight. 

 

The Triumph of the Dark Knight

Batman Begins was spectacular, but the Dark Knight far surpassed anyone’s wildest expectations. The casting is, once again, inspired. Michael Caine (Alfred) and Morgan Freeman (Lucias Fox―a character known well to fans of the comics) return as supporting actors and are simply fantastic. Heath Ledger’s Joker is arguably the finest villain ever to appear on the silver screen. Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal of Harvey Dent / Two Face is also brilliant, as is Gary Oldman’s outstanding performance of Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. And, although Ledger’s death has highlighted his contribution, the real star is, once again, Christian Bale, who nails the Batman character as he did in Batman Begins.  Christian Bale is to Batman what Christopher Reeves was to Superman―he simply is the Dark Knight. Moreover, he does what most never thought could be accomplished―he nails both characters: Batman and Bruce Wayne.  

 

Of course, there is more to the movie than just the casting and the acting. As with all great films, it is the story and character development that makes this movie a true masterpiece. Once again, the excellence of the movie is due to the fact that Nolan truly captures the essence of his characters. This time he highlighted a dimension of Bruce Wayne / Batman that had been entirely ignored by all past moviemakers. Here I totally disagree with Roger Ebert, who, in his glowing review of the film writes that Nolan’s Batman has “leaped beyond” the comics. Wrong. This is Batman.

 

In the Dark Knight Batman has to make impossible choices. I am not going to give away the whole movie, but, suffice it to say, Bruce Wayne learns that fighting evil means sacrificing everything. In particular, this means sacrificing the one small satisfying part of being Batman―being known (as Batman) as a hero. Now Bruce discovers that conquering evil means assuming its consequences. The Batman must now bear the darkness of evil himself. Not only must he fight crime. To truly defeat evil he must also, in sense, bear the punishments others cannot. In a sense, Batman is forced to become a curse. Thus, Batman becomes the “Dark Knight.” Not only is he going to fight evil, he now takes upon his shoulders its burden.   

 

This is the dimension of Batman that has always fascinated me the most. It is the aspect of the character that I have always felt to be the most misunderstood, though the most important. Without sounding sacrilegious, one cannot help but note a sort of Christological image here. Batman becomes, if you will, a curse. His dark costume is much like the black garb of a priest―he takes upon himself the curse of evil and death. 

 

Now contrast this with, say, Spiderman, who revels in his hero status. As Peter Parker, he takes pictures of his heroic actions and gets them plastered on the front page. Bruce Wayne would never do such a thing! Peter Parker is crushed when the public turns against Spiderman. Contrast that with Bruce Wayne. While he at first thinks he must become a “symbol of hope” he soon learns to renounce his own hero-status to help save Gotham.

 

The Joker and Postmodern Deconstructionism

Of course, the villain, the Joker, is completely consumed with a postmodern, deconstructive attempt to dismantle goodness. For the Joker―like philosophers such as Michel Foucault―all that really matters is the will to power. All attempts at goodness are self-seeking. There is no goodness, only selfishness. “Goodness” is really just a ploy to pass an agenda.   His is truly what Benedict XVI would call “a dictatorship of relativism.”

 

Incidentally, the movie explains that, like Bruce Wayne, the Joker’s character was defined by his relationship to his father―a cruel, heartless, abusive man who scarred him for life. While Batman has a deep hope that people in general want to be good, the Joker is intent on somehow proving that all people are―deep down―twisted like himself. Family―particularly fathers―have helped define the character of their sons, leaving a legacy of goodness or mayhem, hope or despair. For while the Joker is convinced that goodness is a ruse, Bruce Wayne still hopes in it. 

 

When the innocent people in the Joker’s diabolical social experiment are put to the test they end up confirming Batman’s hope for the goodness of humanity. However, it should not go without mentioning that they do not do it without prayer. Confronted with the horror of the Joker’s trap, the film clearly shows people making the sign of the cross. Evil cannot be conquered on human resources alone. It takes prayer. It takes grace. In fact, in one scene of redemption, an ex-con get up, surprises everyone, and then appears to return to his seat in prayer.

 

This truth is also illustrated in the downfall of Gotham’s “White Knight,” Harvey Dent.  “I believe in Harvey Dent”―that’s the campaign slogan of this promising reformer. His is the promise of long-awaited reform. For a while, he is successful, exposing corruption and putting away those thought to be untouchable. However, when put to the ultimate test by the Joker, the messianic political figure falls far from grace. The cost of righteousness is too high and he inevitably crumbles. He proves to be an inadequate object of faith. He who thought he could handle anything and be the great reformer is defeated, unable to bear the crushing weight of profound evil.

 

The Dark Knight’s Dark Night of the Soul

Unlike Dent, Batman, however, realizes that he cannot be an object of faith. Even the Dark Knight goes through his own dark night of the soul. He never expected the cost to be so high. He has no delusions of grandeur. He questions whether or not he is responsible for the crimes of the Joker. He has no illusions about his own frailties―he knows them all too well. Humanity is, after all, still fallen and Bruce Wayne knows he is only a man. He is not a Superman or a mutant X-Man. Nor can he pretend to be a “White Knight”. 

 

Bruce’s own awareness of his frailty is intrinsically bound up with his decision to become “Batman”. “Why bats, Master Bruce?,” asks Alfred in Batman Begins. “Bats frighten me,” replies Bruce. Bruce chooses a symbol of his own fear, his own weakness. In order to fight evil, he must face his own weaknesses. He must confront them, not pretend he is superman.

 

Nevertheless, despite his frailty, Bruce becomes the greatest possible human comic book hero. He’s not in it for the glory. His costume is not flashy―it hides him in the shadows.

 

Moreover, Bruce Wayne aims at bringing victory out of suffering and tragedy. Batman understands the depths of the consequences of evil. While at first the black of the Batman’s cape and cowl was chosen as a tool to place fear in the heart of criminals it becomes a symbol of his willingness to take upon himself the darkness of evil. This willingness to take upon himself the burden of evil and become an object of scorn closely resembles something of the Gospel message. He fights evil by bearing it himself.  

 

Again, this is what sets Batman apart from characters such as Superman. He does not simply swoop in and save the day and, once again, take-off in flight. Batman fights injustice, but he also knows that arresting the villain does not simply erase the consequences of evil. He confronts it by bearing its full brunt, with all its consequences. In a sense, he is like Christ who “knew no sin, but has become sin for us”.  He is a wounded man whose commitment to goodness and stand against injustice means greater and greater sacrifice―but despite the pain of loss he never wavers in his commitment to do the right.  Thus it is that in becoming the Dark Knight, Batman shines brighter than any other superhero.

 

This deeper message is why the Dark Knight is such as huge success. As the theology professor at John Paul the Great Catholic University, a school that teaches college students how to use the media to evangelize, this is what I want my students to take away from the film.  The movie taps into a spiritual hunger. It whets the appetite for the truth.  It represents a real hero, who conquers evil in a way far more profound than any other fictional caped crusader.  In many ways it embodies the hope for redemption that can only be truly found in the God-Man and in the greatest story ever told―the Gospel.  

 

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Stephenie Meyer

Who is Stephenie Meyer?

Friday August 8th’s WSJ lists her as the author of 4 of the 6 top selling “fiction” books this week. She is clearly well known to thousands of teenage girls – who devour her books.

WSJ’s Donna Freitas writes

As clergy and parents and even a few teachers struggle to make a case for abstinence among the young, it may seem strange that Ms Meyer has served up one of the most compelling and effective arguments for abstinence in mainstream American culture – through a teen vampire romance.

Stephenie is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or Mormon) and it has a huge influence on who she is and her perspective on the world, and therefore what she writes (though she has been asked more than once, “What’s a nice Mormon girl like you doing writing about vampires?”).

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In a disturbing study released by the Parents Television Council, and highlighted in this Forbes article, the amount of sexual content on prime time network television is absolutely astounding. While most readers of this blog have long recognized the problem, the true extent of the issue is hard to imagine.

How did we get to the point of allowing such content into our homes?

The biggest problem is a lack of well-told stories. We often hear that there will always be an audience for good stories that are well-told. Unfortunately, the networks usually resort to lowest common denominator fare. Thankfully, in the small glimmer of hope, these oversexed shows have generally done nothing to improve ratings.

TV is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.” -David Foster Wallace

In 1954, 74% of American TV households chose to watch “I Love Lucy” every week.  Is it only because there were so few alternative choices? Is it really any wonder why “American Idol” is currently the most watched TV show, routinely beating these oversexed competitors?

Let’s pray that the students at JP Catholic will soon be creating entertaining content that the whole family can once again enjoy.

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I was able to join the Batman hysteria by seeing The Dark Knight on Tuesday. Check out my review on my Film Blog.

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Here is the letter I wrote to the Wall Street Journal concerning their stance on the Gay Marriage debate in California:

Vauhini Vara’s July 19th article (Moral Dilemma: When Weddings Are a Career Risk), which chronicles the challenges that several California clergy members face in following their personal convictions against the teaching of their denominations, is a compelling elucidation of the roadblocks facing liberal clergy. What’s lacking is equally insightful reporting on the real threat to religious expression for conservative clergy who stand steadfastly by Church teaching against the dictates of the State.

Liberal clergy may face a difficult choice – but clergy on the other side of the ideological aisle, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, will soon face no choice at all. If the marriage amendment fails in California, those who uphold traditional marriage will be persecuted, as has happened in New Mexico, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and our sister country Canada—there are serious consequences for conservative denominations that follow their Biblical convictions. In 2006, Catholic Charities in Boston have stopped providing adoption services after they were compelled to grant adoptions to same-sex couples, even though they were willing to provide referral services. Also in 2006, the New Mexico Human Rights Commission found against the Evangelical owners of Elane Photography for refusing to photograph a gay commitment ceremony, infringing on both religious and artistic freedom of expression. In New Jersey, the Methodist church faces a loss of $20,000 in tax exemptions for refusing to let its worship space be used for a gay ceremony. In Canada, the Human Rights Commissions run slipshod over due process to convict conservatives of thought crimes. The list of Canadian thought criminals is too lengthy to be contained in this letter.

Ms. Vara is concerned that Rev. Linsday will be barred from preaching in United Methodist churches. I am concerned that many others will be barred from preaching at all.

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I’ve reviewed Pixar’s wonderful new film WALL-E on my movies blog, Fides and Film. Click here to read the review.

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