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Religious Themes in Drama - Blog Entries

5/7/17

Well, I'm glad to report that Broken (BBC 1) was back on form last night with a deeply moving sixth episode to bring the series to an end. I suspect the return to top quality was due to the fact that, like the first two episodes, Jimmy McGovern, the show's creator, was the sole scriptwriter. Many of the storylines were brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and perhaps the ending was a tad sentimental, but I'm not complaining! What struck me most about this episode was the way the theme of forgiveness was woven through the story. Fr Michael (Sean Bean) was described by Fr Peter (Adrian Dunbar) as a man who forgave others quickly but was slow to forgive himself. Past guilt plagues him particularly at the consecration . He feels he's an imposter and hypocrite at this high point of the priesthood .. but is being too hard on himself. His crisis gets worse in this episode and his personal journey is painful but deeply human. Other strands from the series get some sort of closure, especially his touching relationship with his mother, though it wasn't always that good. There's an incredibly tense inquest sequence which works really well and is totally absorbing. The gambling issue is somewhat resolved, with a stirring sermon against such evils, but the consequent breaking up of slot machines was rather melodramatic. I felt for the sympathetically portrayed betting shop worker who had to sit through that sermon.
Actually, on of the many great points of the series has been how those who would, in more clichéd dramas, be portrayed as nasty villains, were humanised to varying degrees. Even the betting shop owner is in forgiving mood at one stage after his machines are broken, like so many hearts in the story. I've seen some critics giving out about the misery in the show, and there is certainly social deprivation and personal disaster, but it's thoroughly human and sympathetic to, and understanding of people, especially those who are broken in so many ways. Though sad at so many times I found it ultimately positive and uplifting.
Religion fares better than in most other mainstream shows. It's an affirmation of the priesthood, of prayer, of sacrament and of service. I don't think I've ever seen so many prayer and Confession scenes in TV drama. Yes I'd have issues on the general absolution issue and on attitudes to Church teaching in the middle episodes. It's an adult show and teachers looking for scenes to use in RE class with have to choose carefully!
Finally I must say something about the haunting and most appropriate music - the show opens with Randy Newman's 'I Think It's Going to Rain Today' sung soulfully by Nina Simone - the key words are "human kindness is overflowing". At the end there's Ray Davies song 'Broken' - "We might be bruised but we're not broken" - see video above.

29/6/17
Last Tuesday night I saw the fifth episode of BBC's drama Broken, and my disappointment after initial enthusiasm continues. The suicide related story continued briefly but the focus this time was on homosexuality. To me it felt like it was dragged in to tick some diversity box as a new character was created for the occasion, a sort of gay deus ex machina. Carl McKenna (played by Irish actor Ned Dennehy) was a neighbour of Helen, whose son Vernon was treated unjustly by the police in an earlier episode. Though the area figured large in earlier episodes there was no sign of neighbour Carl until now. Cue the arrival of Helen's brother Daniel who is so homophobic that he won't even shake hands with Carl. Wouldn't you know it the one person who objects most to homosexuality is offputting, unkind, holier-than-thou - in one bizarre scene he goes to Confession to Fr Michael (Sean Bean) to convince the priest that he hasn't sinned! The specific incident was when Daniel punched Carl because Carl used the 'n' word after Daniel hadn't made his children apologise for using the 'q' word. Carl is no saint either, and eventually Helen gets annoyed with both stubborn men. This takes place during a meeting facilitated by Fr Michael to ease the tension - a rather awkward sequence where various perspectives on homosexuality are spoken by the characters - more dcumentary and even ideology driving than drama. The usual myth is perpetrated that the Church teaches it's a sin to be gay. Fr Michael largely toes the Catholic line in public though his main approach is to practice kindness and tolerance and also seek reconciliation.
I think the programme makers could have left it that, opting for subtlety and prompting viewers of all shades to think. But for me they spoiled it all with a heavy hand by have Fr Michael going on a foul mouthed rant against Church teaching on sexuality, in private with his mentor Fr Peter, who doesn't even disagree or challenge him. In case we didn't get the point Fr Michael says all priests he knows feel the same. It felt like a case of cynically using the character to push an agenda rather than letting the character breathe.
Another thing worth mentioning is how much this series is about mothers. Fr Michael has had a troubled relationship with his mother in the past but now in some of the drama's most touching moments he looks after her now that she is very ill, praying and singing with her on his weekly overnight visits. In the first two episodes we had single mother Christina (Anna Friel) and issues with her own mother. The suicidal gambler was also a mother, to teenagers, and this made her intentions all the more painful. Helen suffers much frustration as she looks after her son Vernon who has serious mental health issues. Carl, who is in his 40's, has always lived with his mother and is grieving after her recent death. The betting shop owner wanted to become a mother but couldn't and was upset about that. Easy to see why the show is called 'Broken'.

22/6/17

Well, my initial enthusiasm for Broken (Tues nights BBC 1), is wearing off some more after this week's fourth episode. It's still absorbing, and, largely unique amongst modern drama series, takes religion seriously. But Tuesday night's episode, focusing on the suicidal gambler who came to Fr Michael in an earlier episode, was disturbing to say the least. The woman in question is in some respects a victim (of addiction), and Fr Michael wants to campaign against the proliferation of betting shops in a poor area, but much of the time she is quite unsympathetic, in her dealings with her family, the workplace she has stolen from and with Fr Michael who is doing his best to keep her alive, offering practical advice as well as assurance of God's love. Her chief sin seems to be that of pride - she is not really sorry for the wrong she has done, and doesn't want to live with the shame of people knowing what she has done. There were so many twists and turns in this episode that had me going through a gamut of intense emotions. I'm not sure how pleased suicide prevention services would be with the way this was treated. That being said, the emotions rang true and the acting, especially by Sean Bean as Fr Michael and Paula Malcolmson as the woman in question was outstanding. Catholics will also be bothered by the way the seal of confession is treated, and by the unecessarily crude suggestion made by the woman to the priest. There wasn't much in this episode that would be useful for school/RE classes, and considering the theme, quite the opposite.

 

16/6/17
Have just caught up with the third episode of Broken, shown last Tuesday on BBC 1. While still very good and emotionally credible I found it the weakest episode so far. It focused on a police cover up after the events of Episode 2, and went all 'Line of Duty', with many of the stereotypes of the genre, e.g. conniving police authorities. The main emphasis was on a young policeman who is pressurised to conform to the official account of what happened. His crisis of conscience is dramatically portrayed, and Fr Michael plays a central role in advising him. This policeman prays with his young child, has the support of his mother, but fears he hasn't the courage to tell the truth. Fr Michael also feels compromised as he failed to take a call on the night of the incident, because he was tired and didn't grasp the urgency of the situation.
His flashbacks continue and it becomes clearer that he was a victim of clerical child abuse and cover up - there's an intense scene when he confronts an the now aging ex-priest who abused him - this guy is pathetic but also arrogant and unrepentant. We've had so many portrayals of clerical child abuse, and it does feed in to an unjust stereotyping of priests, but this treatment is marked by a sense of the importance and credibility of genuine religious practice, as seen in Fr Michael and many of his parishioners.
There's also an early scene where Fr Michael, normally subtle in his approach does a bit of a rant on the Church's attitude to women and the need, as he sees it, for women priests, bishops and popes! Somehow it didn't ring as true as the rest of the show and felt like a big glob of somebody else's agenda landed in Fr Michael's mouth ... the art suffering at the hands of the ideology.

 

8/6/17
Last week saw the start of the much anticipated drama series Broken (BBC  One, Tuesday nights). It was postponed by a week out of sensitivity over the Manchester bombing, though I’m not quite sure as to why.
Sean Bean stars as Father Michael Kerrigan, an inner city priest struggling with his own demons and the problems of his varied parishioners, and I think it’s one of the best things Bean has ever done. He manages a quiet but strong empathy, portraying Fr Michael as a gentle soul, confident in his work but bothered in private by flashbacks from what seems a difficult childhood.
The show, written by Jimmy McGovern (Brookside, Cracker) is reminiscent of the work of director Ken Loach, sharing some of his concerns about poverty, social welfare, bureaucracy and more.  I was reminded of Kes (the hawk in the flashbacks) and Raining Stones (parents splashing out more than they can afford for first communion outfits), and there were similarities to a US show from the mid 90’s Nothing Sacred, which also featured a priest in a socially deprived parish.
I was most impressed by the touching prayer scenes, and any of these would suit class work on the theme of prayer. In one, after saying he wasn’t Our Lady’s greatest fan, which a bit jarring, he turned it around by saying a heartfelt Hail Mary with a woman who has just found out she can’t have children, while in another he prays the Our Father with a woman, Christina, whose mother has died. Christina is the other main character so far, a vulnerable single mother not coping very well with the demands of family life. She is so well played by Anna Friel, a versatile actress who can do everything from whimsy (Pushing Daisies) to psychosis (Marcella).  Adrian Dunbar (Line of Duty) appears as Father Peter, but his role is as yet undefined - in his only scene the role seems to be that of counsellor, for now.
On the whole it’s an adult drama, with a modest amount of bad language and some dirty jokes at a comedy club but overall it has huge heart and sensitivity. The cinematography and music are excellent, though the flashback scenes feature a poetry-quoting priest who cruelly slaps the young Michael because he reckons he got help writing a poem for class. It’s not all nasty church imagery though, and the young Michael seems imbued with a sense of wonder in the church, and inspired by the poetry of Hopkins. In an early scene, Fr Michael seems dismissive of the idea that first confession children would have any sins at that age and is strong on the idea of general absolution for all at the ceremony, but apart from that he is neither trendy liberal or cranky conservative.

(a version of this review appeared originally in my column in The Irish Catholic newspaper).

 

2/6/17

Damilola, Our Loved Boy
(BBC One, last Sunday night) told the tragic story of Nigerian schoolboy Damilola Taylor, stabbed to death in London in 2000, and the efforts of his parents to come to terms with his loss and seek justice. I was glad it avoided sentimentality and didn’t gloss over the family conflicts caused by the death. Guilt, blame, regret and anger provided for a totally credible emotional landscape. The murder was heart-breaking, but the emotional fallout in the family was also painful, and communication deteriorated, often to the point of stony silence.
 The mother, Gloria, was played by Wunmi Mosaku, who deservedly won this year's BAFTA Best Supporting Actress award for the role, and was adept conveying the spectrum of emotions from joy to shock. She was the rock of sense and strength in the family and the one most committed to her Christian faith. She was the focus of the many impressive prayer scenes – especially praying for the strength to cope. These would be most useful in classes on prayer. In one scene, before the court case, she stresses to her other son – ‘God did not give us a spirit of fear’.  The husband, Charles Taylor, played by Babou Ceesay in an equally impressive performance, is loving but authoritarian, inclined to blame and subject to dark moods. He finds some relief in helping troubled juveniles, but as he genuinely stresses the need for father figures, discipline and respect he seems often oblivious to the needs of his own family. Eventually, in a particularly poignant scene, Gloria has to confront him with some home truths. I wonder what the real Charles Taylor thinks of the portrayal.

18/5/17
RTE launched a new TV drama series, Redwater, last Sunday night. It was a bit of a hybrid – an RTE/BBC co-production that featured characters (Kat and Alfie, pictured) from BBC soap Eastenders. For the most part I liked it – the acting was mostly confident and relaxed the script was witty, and the profanities relatively infrequent. The Waterford seaside setting (Dunmore East location) was used to good effect and some of the cinematography was downright poetic. The plot, and especially the relationships, were hard to follow at times and I had to pause the credits to get a handle on how the main characters were connected. Oisín Stack was interesting and as local priest Fr Dermot, sympathetically portrayed, at least until the rather melodramatic ending, which included a rather tasteless scene involving the Eucharist.  Stack was interviewed on the Ryan Tubridy Show (RTE Radio 1) last Monday morning, when he said they researched the look of modern young priests to guide them for his portrayal.

[added 25/5/17: I must admit I was disappointed with the second episode of Redwater. Maybe the novelty is wearing off, but the acting seems stiff and stilted, and plot development has slowed down considerably. Fr Dermot is still the main focus of religious interest but he's going off the rails big time. How often have we seen in drama that the religious person is the disturbed one. I did however get a bizarre new clip for my collection of Confession scenes - where Fr Dermot confesses to him himself!]

Meanwhile, US disease drama Containment (RTE 2 Saturday nights) has a religion problem as well. The virus that has a chunk of Atlanta under quarantine may be highly contagious but I doubt if enthusiasm for the show will catch so quickly. As is often the case, the initial premise had the makings of tense drama, but too much of it has sagged under the weight of soapy plot developments and clichéd platitudes. In last Saturday’s episode some characters went to what seemed a Protestant Evangelical church complete with  healing preacher . One described the place as creepy and blamed the nuns (!) for being ‘sadistic’, sending them there for Bible study when they were young. Looks like they’ve also got the prejudice infection. Really, I think it's a problem of religious literacy - the idea of nuns sending schoolchildren to a bible-belt style church. Either that or it's just plain nasty.

I’ve also been following Designated Survivor on Netflix and after a promising start, dramatically speaking (US President and Congress blown up in a terrorist attack), it has dwindled substantially into a humdrum political drama. It feels more and more like a vanity project for Kiefer Sutherland, who, as the new inexperienced President, takes off his glasses for significant moments more than is artistically healthy, and while he’s independent of party affiliation the Democrats come out best, wouldn’t you know. Natacha McElhone is shamefully wasted as his wife and in fact she didn’t appear at all in a few recent episodes. It’s often uncannily topical, as in an episode that was partly about difficulties in appointing Supreme Court judges.  I dozed during a recent episode when one of the main plot lines was controversy over an arts grant!  They also fitted in a political demagogue addressing an alt.right rally, and the President attending a children’s choir recital where at least they sang a Gospel song!  Last Thursday's new episode improved a little, and had a satisfyingly tense ending with a bomb about to go off in three minutes ... there's hope for it yet.   

 

4/5/17

Clerical crime drama Grantchester is back on ITV Sunday nights and be3 on Mondays. Now in its third season, it’s creaking more than a tad. The friendship between Rev. Sidney and the copper Geordie is interesting but unlikely – would the policeman really take the Rev on all his murder cases, and really, aren’t there too many murders in such an otherwise idyllic town? Looks like Rev Sidney is a murder magnet, like Father Browne, Inspector Morse, Lewis et al
His crusty housekeeper is softening, his gay curate is gaining in maturity and common sense in the parish , (though he has taken on a girfriend and pretends to drink beer), but there must be something weird in the water. At least there was in the beer in last Sunday’s episode which featured a mass poisoning at a cricket match, some ugly racism, pertinent reflections on male-female relationships and a gratuitous sex scene.  
Rev Sidney has a problem in that he is very friendly with a divorced woman he fancies, and she is living alone with her baby. The archdeacon is not amused and wants Sidney to give good example to his parishioners. So far Sidney is just about toeing the moral line, though his cop friend Geordie is having a steamy affair with a colleague, despite having a lovely wife and lovely children at home.

[added 11/5/17 - Spolier warning! ell, Sidney just crossed the line in last Sunday's episode! It's getting all a bit Mills-and -Boony now with not enough attention being given to the crime stories. I was quite funny in a way - Sidney gave a stirring sermon about grabbing happiness in the here and now, and then rushed off for an adulterous fling with the married girl he has always fancied. And earlier he confronted his gay curate for developing a romantic friendship with a local woman. Oh it'll all end in tears]

 

16/3/17
Broadchurch has returned for a third season (TV3 and UTV, Monday nights) and while it’s not as good as the first season, I still enjoy the prickly chemistry between Detectives Miller (Olivia Colman) and Hardy (David Tennant – it’s a great double act. The story is slow moving so far, centring on a sexual assault case. The story writers, and the fictional cops, handle the crime sensitively, but there’s lot of graphic descriptions, and a sense that we are being subtly preached at as to how such cases should be handled - preaching does not mix well with fiction.
Characters from the earlier series, including the local clergyman, are blended in quite well. In one episode there was a touching scene with the vicar agonising over his role in the parish, and in last Monday's episode misbehaving students from the local school were sent to him for graveyard cleaning work as punishment! The man who brought them had a very dismissive remark about religion. The Rev has been presented in a mostly positive light in the series, a supportive and moderate voice when emotions run very high.

 

 

8/2/17

In the past few weeks I’ve been following the English crime thriller series Unforgotten on ITV. This is series two and the high artistic standards set in series one are thankfully maintained…though really it’s the same plot with different characters – a body is found that has been hidden for years, and gradually the police work out what happened. Several people who have moved on with their lives now find themselves with the truth closing in and their new lives unravelling. Nicola Walker is again superb as Detective Cassie Stuart, incisive, perceptive and sympathetic, while Sanjeev Bhaskar is impressive as her colleague Sunil Khan. 
As seems obligatory these days, the cops have their own personal baggage but it never gets in the way of the main story (a lesson for the makers of Sherlock?). The actors who play the chief suspects are impressive also – the only one who appears to be thoroughly nasty is the victim, and you alternatively feel sympathy and revulsion for the suspects as they struggle, often dishonestly, to confront the past. Their respective spouses, largely in the dark, have their own challenges coping with the dramatic revelations.
There is some bad language, child abuse figures more strongly as the story progresses, and a gay couple trying to adopt a child is a significant plot element. Religion figures very little. On lady with dark secrets in her past is now part of a Muslim community and at one stage we learn that parties where child exploitation took place were supposed to be Bible study sessions to put parents at ease! Oh well.

20/01/17
The new channel 'be3' started a re-run of Ballykissangel last Sunday night, and I really enjoyed it all over again. It was whimsical and thoughtful, with some colourful characters, all the better because it wasn’t trying too hard to be a comedy. The first series is definitely the best, written as it was by creator Kieran Prendiville. My memory is of later series losing the deft touch of these early episodes. And so, in last Sunday’s opening episode we had the arrival of the hi-tech Confession box, complete with fax machine - and it literally fell off the back of a lorry! The Confession scenes were very funny, though the moral advice given by the young priest was decidedly dodgy, so I'd be wary of using that in class. There was a touching scene where the new priest, Fr Peter, heads out on a night call to attend to a dying man. From later episodes I've used scenes where the local garda feels he has a vocation because a falling statue narrowly missed him (very funny and useful for classes on vocation), and another where Fr Peter tries to protect a family from eviction by a local businessman. Of added interest is the fact that I live near Avoca where the series was filmed and occasionally I spot some past pupils turning up as extras!

 

24/11/16
I’ve been following a particularly entertaining  crime drama, Paranoid, on ITV Thursday nights. It’s adult drama in a good way, with a sense of morality that’s sometimes dodgy and sometimes strong but with a multi-layered plot and strong belief in humanity and intriguing characters. Lesley Sharpe is wonderful as Lucy, a Quaker women with an appealing calmness in the midst of dark events related to dubious drug trials. In fact excessive pill popping is a strong motif throughout. A chemical company has a giant see-though statue of Jesus full of pills in the lobby – troubled cop Bobby (Robert Glenister) takes offence and smashes it in one visually dramatic scene. Indira Varma is the annoying-appealing detective Nina who makes questionable relationship choices but is thrilled at an unexpected pregnancy. Alec, (Dino Fetscher), her colleague, has to be one of the nicest, most obliging and unflappable cops in TV crime drama, with quirky German detective Linda (Christiane Paul) coming in a close second. Though only on ITV for now, it will probably come to UTV Ireland before too long. More info at IMDB.

1/9/16
Usually you have to wait for the new season to find some good new dramas, but BBC One got off to an interesting but early start Tuesday of last week with an intriguing new crime drama, One of Us.
It was all a bit confusing at first with an array of seemingly unrelated characters, but one thing was for sure – a newly married couple was murdered rather gruesomely. They were just back from honeymoon, and she was visibly pregnant. Rightly there were warnings of disturbing scenes. We could see from wedding clips that they were very much in love, but showing the bride heavily pregnant was a curious choice. When the news broke with both families, one parent naturally enough asked about ‘the child’. Another early scene was set at a church service where the clergyman explored the nature of suffering – it was in reference to the destructive weather, but had a resonance for what was to come. One young fellow at church spent more time playing with his phone than listening. Between that and his father playing Hank Williams on the way home, Sunday morning was not a happy time for him!
The families were of course devastated by news of the murder, and it seems they have some dark secrets, but the plot took a peculiar twist when the murderer had a car crash near the victims’ families and was seriously injured. Unbelievable coincidence I thought, but then we learned he had their addresses in his pocket. Cue a major moral dilemma for both families when they discover he’s the one who murdered their children, and there are varied responses to the situation, some decidedly more moral than others.
Two veteran actors add substance – our own John Lynch (recently in Dickensian)and Juliet Stevenson (who played Mother Teresa in The Letters), while the lesser parts are well filled. A good start, so I’ll be tuning in again.

14/7/16
I love a good ghost story and BBC does it better than most. 
Their latest offering is The Living and the Dead, a drama series running on BBC One on Tuesday nights. Colin Morgan is intense as a young 19th Century psychologist taking a while to realise that strange goings on in his locality have a supernatural basis. He assumes psychological origins at first when the vicar’s daughter starts acting strangely, but is open to other ideas and in the first episode performs a sort of emergency Baptism when he finds out that the person allegedly possessing the girl was never baptised. And it seems to work.
Fair enough the plot is ropey enough – young couple moves into new house, things go bump in the night, man naively reluctant to accept there’s anything spiritual going on … we’ve seen it before many times, but the creepy mood is well created and there’s a fine attention to period detail, with some striking cinematography. Like the best dramas it is character driven, and best of all you can care about the characters – flawed individuals trying to do their best in a difficult situation.
In last Tuesday’s episode the focus shifted from the possession of the vicar’s daughter to ghosts of young boys killed in a mining accident, with a loss of focus on the initial story, and I wondered if it wasn’t going to be ghost-of-the-week stuff . If so this rural area must be a hot bed of dubious spiritual activity, as, say, Midsomer attracts more than its fair share of murders! There was a curious discussion between him and the vicar, with the vicar being the one to dismiss the idea of ghosts, but when they got down in the mine the vicar was the one praying and the psychologist the one questioning God.
Children figure large in the storyline but the show certainly isn’t suitable for children, though any ‘adult content’ is fairly restrained. 

10/6/16
As regular readers of this blog know I love a good crime drama and I find English ones far better than their American counterparts.
So I was glad to see the start of a new series Unforgotten, on RTE 1 Tuesdays. It’s a 12-parter, generous by English standards, and originally made for ITV. The leading role is played by the excellent Nicola Walker (brilliant as a dead woman in last year’s River) as a police inspector, Cassie Stuart, investigating a 40 year old death when a body is found buried in an old cellar. She’s supported by an impressive cast including Tom Courtenay, Trevor Eve, Gemma Jones and Cheri Lunghi. The first episode threw a dizzying array of seemingly unrelated characters at us, but of course towards the end it became clear that all these characters were connected in some way to the dead man and no doubt some deep dark secrets will be revealed over the coming weeks. One such character  was an Anglican minister comfortably played by Bernard Hill – Rev. Robert Greaves is likeable, down to earth and charitable but having some low level domestic issues, though I’d better not get too enthusiastic about this positive portrayal of a clergymen until I found out what he was up to in the past!  There's already a hint of financial irregularities in the parish, and the second episode saw him pawning his wife's jewellery to make up the difference.
Meanwhile, over on BBC One, Sunday nights, Wallander is heavier stuff. Based on an original Scandinavian noir, Kennet Branagh again plays the Swedish detective in this latest season. The opening episode a few Sundays ago was just about tolerable, with Wallander transported to South Africa investigating a political crime in the wide open spaces. Two of the characters were missionaries and religious faith figured briefly but positively. However it could have been any detective, and not at all typical of the series, but the last two episodes have seen a return to form in the more brooding and claustrophobic Swedish landscape, with Wallander’s family and health issues back in the frame. It seems modern cops have to have psychological or health issues!
Last Sunday night’s episode brought the short season to a close in a most intense manner. The crime story was well up to scratch but Wallander’s deteriorating health was, if anything, more central, and it was handled in a most humane way.  One could even argue that it was pro-life in the broadest sense, with kindness, empathy, concern and family support the hallmark of an approach to serious illness. I won’t give away the ending but it was one of the most touching and satisfying I’ve seen for a long time.

 

24/2/16

In, Babylon, the recent second last episode of the revived X-Files there was an interesting conversation between Mulder and Scully. They were in a reflective and touching moment after a troubling story of Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers. Mulder wondered about the ’angry God’ of the Bible (he must have missed the Great Commandment to love) and Scully said something similar about the Koran, but a strand of the plot impressed him. He had seen something ‘that trumps all hatreds’  - the deep and unconditional love of a mother, which had a resonance for Scully as her mother died in the previous episode and some years ago she had given her son for adoption to protect him from nefarious forces. While Mulder had seen love in the episode Scully had seen hate and they wondered how the two could be reconciled. Mulder referenced the Tower of Babel story and Scully reckoned that maybe it was God’s will that we find a ‘common language’ again. Scully thought we needed, like the prophets of old, to ‘open our hearts and truly listen’.
There was certainly openness to belief in God and at the end Mulder, but not Scully, hears a mysterious sound, the sound of trumpets - a phenomenon referenced in an earlier scene  – ‘music as if from the heavens themselves ... as if God himself was making music’. I wasn’t too impressed with Mulder taking banned substances to help him communicate with a dying terrorist. It didn’t help that his tripping was treated comically, with a welcome guest appearance by his old and deceased pals The Lone Gunmen. This surreal sequence featured a pieta-like image that was in poor taste, but maybe it was redeemed somewhat by the way it was linked at the end to a mother’s love. 

29/1/16
It's been around 14 years since the last episode of the TV series The X-Files was broadcast. The final moments included a touching gesture of friendship between Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) and a discussion that reflected on the afterlife and the people who have died and gone before us. The series featured many religious themes over its nine year run and I've written about it all here. With great hype and anticipation it returned to RTE 2 last Tuesday and Wednesday night and for the most part I wasn't disappointed. The same creative team is reunited, especially creator Chris Carter and the main actors, and even the opening credit sequence is the same. The main plot line so far focuses on the alien story arc, with lots of messing about with alien DNA. The conspiracy paranoia is stonger than ever, giving Mulder great big wads of turgid dialogue. The style remains so true to the original (better than messing with a winning formula) that they seem to have felt the need to keep reminding us it's 2016, in case we thought these were leftover episodes from the old days! So we get references to Edward Snowden, Obama Care, greater cultural acceptance of gay relationships and Scully makes a knowing comment about finding information in pre-Google days. There isn't much to celebrate on the religious front. Scully, who comes from a Catholic background and still wears her cross, is working in what seems to be a Catholic hospital (Our Lady of Sorrows) but wouldn't you know she discovers there what seems a nasty experimentation programme run by a dodgy doctor renowned for his work to help the unborn. There's a nun who seems a throwback to bygone days ... she supposedly looks after single mothers with problematic pregnancies, has a poor opinion of men and their lies and calls desire 'the devil's pitchfork'! It's all a bit ropey, and some of the violence is more graphic than I remember from the earlier series, but I'm enjoying the nostalgia. There's still a considerable chemistry between Mulder and Scully, and though it was platonic for most of the time, there seems to have been some biology as well as late in the original series it seems they had a son together, and his fate is a central mystery this time around.

23/1/16
Reflecting on Rebellion again - last Sunday night’s third episode was less favourable to religion. Several characters made snide remarks about the Church, while Barry McGovern did a predictable turn as that most familiar of stereotypes, the nasty bishop (I’m not saying there aren’t any!). On the other hand one of the nurses said she felt called by God to look after the wounded, while another was critical of the treatment of Catholics in the North.
One thing I did like about the latest episode was the way it showed some characters having second thoughts about their roles  - Arthur (Barry Ward), in a firing squad, couldn’t bring himself to shoot a civilian and contemplates desertion, Frances (Ruth Bradley) the Pearse acolyte, gets upset after shooting a young British soldier (and finally gets a chance to be more than a cardboard character) and Elizabeth (Charlie Murphy) seems to have given herself totally over to nursing having originally been part of the attack on Dublin Castle.
The series was discussed on Liveline (RTE Radio 1) last Thursday. A very articulate and moderate history teacher complained about the bad language and sex scenes as otherwise she could have used the programme for her history classes. Other callers agreed with her, but guest presenter Philip Boucher Hayes, who thought the show was ‘absolutely brilliant’, wasn’t having any of it. I thought he was particularly patronising and downright silly, when, in response to a caller objecting to the sex scenes, he pointed out that people did have sex in 1916. Duh! I normally like his style, especially his work on Drivetime (RTE Radio 1), and he was back on form when the programme moved on to a challenging discussion of the morality of the 1916 Rising, with Fr Seamus Murphy developing some points he made in these pages a few weeks ago.

14/1/16

I was rather lukewarm about RTE's new series Rebellion after the first episode. The second episode last Sunday didn't improve my opinion of it. Yes, it's interesting and holds the attention but I often found myself getting annoyed with it, whether for the stilted dialogue, the sluggish pace or the gratuious sex thar rules it out for family viewing which is a pity. However I did get some scenes to add to my collection of clips for the 'Religious Themes in TV Drama' Course! In one scene a priest gives Confessions in the GPO, and in another leads the Volunteers in the Rosary. This is probably true to history, but it does raise issues of approval for warfare. Mind you the priest was just obliging Pearse who requested all this and wasn't in any way pushing it.

16/10/15
Last Thursday evening a creepy new drama series with strong religious content started on UTV Ireland. Midwinter of the Spirit features a female clerical exorcist of the Church of England confronted with a bizarre murder in which a man was crucified, an act she regarded as sacrilege as well as murder. When I saw that her character was called ‘Merrily’ I thought it was going to be lighter, but this show is light years away from Vicar of Dilby – it takes the presence of intense evil very seriously. It opened will a training session for exorcists , when the trainer insisted that when something apparently supernatural happens all natural explanations must be ruled out first. He declared that ‘deliverance ministry requires a wide skillset’ and believes Merrily has potential in the area because she’s neither fundamentalist nor ‘happy clappy’!  He warned that she’s vulnerable because her husband has died recently and because she is a female minister. She encountered a canon who feels he is failing in his struggle against a great evil in the parish, and a deeply nasty man whose evil seems to live on after he dies in Merrily’s presence. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and apart from that I’m always uneasy to see religious symbolism used in gruesome horror stories. The ‘joy of the gospel’ isn’t in evidence, but at least evil is recognised for what it is, faith is prominent, and there are good, but flawed, people struggling to cope as well as they can. Of interest to those into faith and the arts, but of dubious value for school use considering the dark nature of the material!

11/9/15
One programme last Sunday afternoon had a lot of timely messages about prayer – that it's not about manipulating God, that you can't expect all prayers to be answered immediately in the way you expect, that it shouldn't be about selfishly seeking to accumulate material goods.
This was brought to us by an episode of The Simpsons on Channel 4. Homer notices how neighbour Ned Flanders was falling into lots of good fortune, and credited prayer (as well as flossing!). Homer tries his hand and after a few initial successes (like finding his TV remote) prays for a bigger house, whereupon he gets the deeds of Rev Lovejoy's church after a lawsuit. His wife Marge is not pleased – God, she scolds, is not some sort of holy concierge and you can't keep bugging Him. Lisa tentatively sees the move to God's house as offering her more opportunities to 'cloister' herself, but soon Homer has turned the place into a den of ill repute. There is much Biblical resonance as God gets displeased with the goings on and sends a flood, but Rev Lovejoy, having abandoned Springfield to its sins returns dramatically (by helicopter) and pleads with the Lord for mercy. Sin gets a whipping, there's valid commentary on sin and human vanity, God is portrayed in a good light, though there are a few digs at his smiting and anger. Seeing the church getting thrashed is unsettling, and Homer playing the cross like a guitar was more than a bit off - Homer's disrespect certainly, but it was in no way approved.

 

16/4/15
I'm sure some would dispute The Simpsons being regarded as art, but last Thursday's episode 'The Simpsons Bible Stories' on RTE 2 was imaginative, topical and religious. In the opening sequence Bart writes his punishment on the blackboard, 'I cannot absolve sins', and the notice board outside the First Church of Springfield declares - 'Christ Dyed Eggs for Your Sins', perhaps a dig at our peculiar Easter habits! At church on the 'hottest Easter ever' (!) Rev Lovejoy' long readings from the 'Good Book' send the Simpsons asleep when the bible stories mingle with their dreams. Homer and Marge play Adam and Eve (with pre-banishment fig leaves) and Flanders is a generous God until the whole apple eating thing ('Applegate') when he is portrayed as a God who bears a grudge, something of a sour note there that should prompt discretion where young students are concerned. But then I think it would be naive to regard the Simpsons as a children's programme, despite the colourful cartooning. At the end of the show the Simpsons wake up (or do they?) to find an empty church. Outside it's the Apocalypse in full swing! The Flanders family ascends to Heaven and Marge wonders why her family doesn't, until she remembers, ' Oh right, the sins'! Cue descent into fiery pit, which Homer takes to be a barbecue.

 

10/4/15
The Ark (shown Monday of Holy Week) was an original BBC drama based on the story of Noah. The advance publicity said it was based both on the Bible and elements of the Qu'ran, but there certainly was as very modern sensibility about it, with the ancient background being used to air more contemporary debates. For example, Noah discusses the science-religion debate with a rich trader, talks agnosticism with his son, while another son wants himself and his wife to have their 'own space'. The best thing about it was the touching and credible relationships in Noah's family, under severe strain when Noah (well played by David Threlfall) tells them that God wants him to build an ark in the desert during a drought.
Noah is a sympathetically portrayed man of strong, well-articulated faith, and, while other viewpoints are aired, there is no attempt to be cynical or debunk religious faith, very much the opposite in fact. Noah's relationship with God is reasonably well teased out. The news about the oncoming flood is delivered by a messenger, who appears miraculously, presumably an angel. Noah trusts God and sets about the strange task, and he hopes that his own sons will trust him the way he trusts God, but it doesn't entirely work out that way. The location work and cinematography are impressive, with the desert being almost like another character, while the nearby town is a den of iniquity and permissiveness.
This film is much less concerned with spectacle than the recent Noah film featuring Russell Crowe. If anything the flood when it comes is a bit of an anti-climax and I did think it all ended too quickly. Clever, though, how the flood is portrayed as a tsunami. Once again the BBC has produced a religious drama that is imaginative, modern and respectful, taking religion seriously and working well on an artistic well.

26/2/15
The cloistered religious life featured Tuesday night of last week in the fictional Midsomer Murders (UTV Ireland). Misdsomer is one of the these quaint English towns that attracts murder at an alarming rate. The series must be quite popular to have lasted so long but I find it rather limp. Last week's episode had a nun and a priest murdered, so the police had to enter the cloisters. I don't remember the convent being mentioned before and indeed one of the characters didn't even know the place existed until the nun's murder. It was a dwindling congregation, struggling financially, but, typical of the genre lots of people, including the remaining nuns, had secrets. I thought I detected a faint distaste on the scriptwriter's part towards the nuns and religious life. One of the police forensic team called the nuns 'crows' and said her convent education had led her to be a 'rational atheist'! The nuns were dedicated, but some weren't that pleasant, and the detectives seemed bemused by their lifestyle - e.g. one asking what an elderly nun's name was 'in real life'. The stereotypical Reverend Mother put him right on that one. A younger nun was very enthusiastic, modern and spiritual, though she too had a secret, one that turned out to be innocent. The main detective asker her at the end how she was going to get more entrants in these modern times and she answered that it would be through faith and prayer. Could hardly argue with that. The hard-drinking local priest was generally disliked and came across as a rather slimy character. It was hard to get any sympathy worked up when he became the second murder victim. The bishop however was portrayed sympathetically and the young nun's final vows ceremony was touching, with a muted interior kind of joy. A few clips would be useful for RE - especially in scenes involving the young nun, Sr Catherine, talking about her vocation.

3/1/14
I've finally caught up on the rest of The Bible series. Fair play to TV3 (Irl) and Channel 5 (UK) for giving such a huge chunk of prime time TV to a religious series. As the series moved on through the life of Jesus it grew on me. I got to like Diogo Morgado in the role of Jesus, and the women characters were well done, especially the roles of Mary Mother of Jesus (played by co-producer Roma Downey), Mary Magdalen (Amber Rose Revah) and Pilate's wife Claudia (Louise Delamere). For school use there are some useful set scenes - for example the sequence from the start of that fateful Passover week was well handled, with considerable attention given to the atmosphere and political background. The violence was still strong as in the Old Testament sequences, even at times gratuitous, though not on the extreme level of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ.
You could see however the influence of that other film - e.g. the devil figure moving through the crowd, and the atmospheric scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Pilate character, though a bit one-note, was one of the most menacing Pilate's I've seen on film, thanks to the acting presence of Greg Hicks. Of the apostles, Peter, John and Judas made an impression but could have been stronger.
The Resurrection always poses a challenge to film makers and this version takes an approach very like that seen in BBC's The Passion from a few years ago - Mary Magdalen heads out to the tomb on her own, finds it empty and meets Jesus, though all too briefly. The meeting on the road to Emmaus is conflated into the apostles breaking bread and meeting the risen Jesus in the upper room (this setting is reminiscent of Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth).
There's not much on Jesus' time on earth after the Resurrection, but the Ascension is done reasonably well. At least Jesus doesn't take off like a rocket as in one version I saw. Unlike many film versions there is some coverage of events from the Acts of the Apostles. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is handled innovatively - lots of wind and speaking in tongues but no tongues of fire. The martyrdom by stoning of Stephen (Irish accent!) is fairly rough and I don't remember ever seeing that on film before. There was a touching scene of the apostles praying the Lord's Prayer. Paul is shown as a particularly nasty bit of work before his encounter on the road to Damascus, and unfortunately this side of him creates a much stronger impression that his post-conversion persona.
What I thought the series missed out on was the poetic side of the Bible - the Psalms and the parables in particular. Indeed while the series was technically adept I thought an innovative artistic hand was missing. All in all it was an impressive series in its broad scope, technically it was a fine achievement and there were some worthy performances and a few striking set pieces, but I wondered, especially in the Gospel sequences whether anything that new or exceptional had been done compared to other TV or big screen versions. However this series may bring the Bible stories to a new generation and make them curious enough to follow it up. Certainly the character of Jesus was portrayed in an appealing way, and now that the Gospel segments are being re-edited into a movie version called Son of God, due for release in February 2014, the reach of this project should increase considerably.

31/12/13
One of the many religious shows over Christmas was a new dramatization, The Bible, a mini-series from USA's History Channel that premiered on TV3 and Channel 5. From advance reading I knew it was well meant and stemmed from the faith of producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnet. I wanted to like it, but my initial reaction wasn't too enthusiastic. In particular I wasn't enamoured of the Old Testament sequences. Partly it's a problem inherent in trying to cover the whole Bible - the full text is just too unwieldy for filming. A mini-series helps in that it allows more time, but this version didn't escape some of the common pitfalls, like the one-dimensional characterisations. A lot of it was without context, and the intermittent use of a narrator didn't solve the problem. Dramatic coherence was damaged by time jumps - captions like '40 Years Later' are never a great idea. The spectacular aspects of the Old Testament stories were overemphasized - obvious example being the parting of the waters as Moses led his people to freedom. The violence was quite strong and some scenes were downright disturbing (e.g. Pharaoh's men throwing babies over a cliff). If you knew the stories you'd have some idea of how they fit in to the story of God's people, but to anyone without the background and sound catechesis it must have seemed all very strange and unappealing. For school use it's a way to familiarise students with Old Testament stories that were very familiar to an older generation. One scene that struck me as useful for classes on images of God was Moses encounter with God in the burning bush (clip above).

So far the New Testament section is much better. The actors playing Mary and Joseph do a good job, and their part of the story has more coherence, a tighter focus and a more personal approach. The strong violence is still there, and while some scenes, like the miraculous catch of fish and Jesus walking on the water (clip on left) are well done , others are stilted. Diogo Morgado does reasonably well as Jesus and becomes more appealing in the role as you get used to him. More anon as I catch up on the final episodes.

6/6/12
It pushes a few agendas and takes a few digs at religion (or at least at its flawed practitioners) but I find it hard to take offence at The Simpsons. Two of the "religious" episodes turned up last week on the innumerable reruns on RTE 2 and Channel 4. In "I'm Going to Praiseland" (Channel 4, Wednesday of last week) the indefatigable Ned Flanders decides to set up a Christian Theme Park (a dig I'd say at those Evangelicals who try to Christianise popular culture). A gospel singer laments that her band had changed from gospel to pop - they just changed "Jesus" to "baby" in their songs. But, not surprisingly, the venture fails. At one stage people praying at the statue of the late Maude Flanders get visions of Heaven - we could relate to that I suppose we all have our own visualisations. The comic store sci-fi man imagines Heaven as an episode of Star Trek, Disco Stu meets Frank Sinatra at a heavenly disco (after St Peter helps him skip the queue), but for Sinatra that's hell! Entertaining though the visions are it turns out they are only hallucinations brought about by a gas leak. Oh well.
In "Bart Sells His Soul" (RTE 2 last Thursday), cynical Bart is hard up for cash and sells his soul to friend Millhouse for five dollars. Later he offers to sell his conscience and even his sense of decency. But gradually the loss of soul has a detrimental effect - automatic doors won't open for him, his breath leaves no fog on the shop's ice cream freezer, he looses his sense of humour. A dream sequence (always worth a try if you want to try something wacky) sees all his friends playing happily with their souls, leaving him miserable while his soul rows a boat for Millhouse. Eventually Bart is desperate to get his soul back and when he does, thanks to the love of his sister he gobbles down the soul-selling contract. A religious believer could have no complaint about such a ringing endorsement of the existence of the soul, though people looking for orthodoxy might quail at Lisa's suggestion that perhaps people are not born with a soul but have to earn it. But then, she is only 8!

18/11/11
Last time round I wasn't too enamoured with Rev., BBC's comedy drama about a Church of England vicar. When it returned for a new season last Thursday night on BBC 2 I thought I'd give it a second look. The programme opened with the Rev, played by Tom Hollander, saying what seemed like heartfelt prayers while on retreat. So far so good, you don't see too many people praying on TV drama. (The next startling innovation should be a lay person praying!) The episode got a bit silly then when the Rev was treated as a hero because he was wrongly credited with tackling a mugger. At least this led to a worthy scene where his rationalising about accepting an award crumbled in a conversation with the Bishop of London - a charismatic cameo by Ralph Fiennes. Another plot strand about a school tour was more troubling. I got the impression that the show was struggling towards some insight when the Rev was called a "pedo" in the street and when he was struggling with huge child protection requirements for the tour. But there was a cheap shot at the Catholic Church - suggesting that you'd certainly need the protective measures if a Catholic school was involved. Admittedly the man making the slur was a dodgy character, but then in the "happy ending" the same character went off with the children on the outing despite child protection warnings, and the last shot saw the children and himself making obscene gestures from the back of the minibus. It left a queasy feeling, and there were some unnecessary crude elements as well, as if someone felt they had to make it "edgy".

7/6/11
Last Sunday BBC 1 Wales carried the first part of The Passion of Port Talbot, an intriguing documentary on a community based passion play in the Welsh town that had suffered over the years from poor development. The initiative was led by local man, Michael Sheen, now a famous actor (he played Tony Blair in The Queen)but it seemed he mainly wanted to tell the story of Port Talbot using the Jesus story as a vehicle, complete with crucifixion scene. At one stage he said this was all he wanted to do, but later when local clergy became uneasy about the direction the play was taking, he did listen and reassure them that it actually was the story of Jesus (in the guise of "The Teacher"), told in a different way. Fascinating theatrically, but I thought it felt somewhat empty spiritually. The performance itself will feature in part 2 this Sunday night.

13/7/10
There was much to like and much to dislike about Rev. the new comedy series that started recently on BBC 2. Practising Christians will easily relate to the mild mannered vicar who struggles to make ends meet in an inner city parish. His Archdeacon (on the way to the launch of atheist Christopher Hitchens' latest book!), is breathing down his neck and mocking his puny fund raising ideas - he needs the money to repair a vandalised window of artistic merit. In an unlikely plot twist the congregation is swelled by new members who are there only to gain some Christian credentials so that their children can attend the highly rated local Church school. The new attendees don't know whether to stand or kneel, mobile phones go off, brats play with their games consoles, others read the newspaper in church.
There are interesting, if stereotyped, secondary characters - the inevitable foil Nigel, the Rev's assistant who is rather stuffy, revelling in the chance to flush out a few hypocrites, the rather underwritten vicar's wife, and the eccentric parishioner Colin who deeply resents Richard Dawkins for writing a book about God being deluded! Then there's the attractive young headmistress that the Rev fancies, and regularly compliments, though it's not clear how much he's aware of this attraction.
The show goes over the top in showing the Rev to be an ordinary guy - he smokes, swears and sometimes drinks to excess. Unfortunately the programme is unnecessarily crude at times, probably alienating quite a segment of the show's natural audience, which is a pity, as the show is relatively positive towards the Rev, and isn't negative to religion as such, but does skewer hypocrisy, vanity, politicking, and religious pretence.
In one of the best scenes, the Rev has a little prayer to God where he apologises for his vulgarity and reflects on his problems - I hope such a set piece will be a regular feature.

30/11/10
Lately I've been doing my Transition Year module on Religious Themes in Drama. You can get an idea of what I do from the "Previous Blogs - Drama" link on left, or here. I've many of the old reliables, but have added some new material. Covering TV drama I was delighted to be able to use the final scene of US drama Lost - (clip on left) where all the main characters gather in a church to get ready to move on into the next life. When Jack meets his decesed father in the sacristy you can see a rather unusual stained glass window in the background - featuring the symbols of the major world religions, though the church seems predominantly Catholic, and certainly Christian. Even playing it in class I found it quite moving, though I've seen it several times. It certainly held the attention of the class. In general the clips that worked best were those from programmes the students were familiar with, like Lost, Prison Break, The Simpsons. The latter I used in a class on animated drama - I used a clip from the episode where Homer and Bart become Catholic. There are some crude references and what might by some be considered anti-Catholic prejudice, but, employing judicious selectivity, I played a scene that includes the vision of Protestant Heaven (very sedate, like a refined country club) and Catholic Heaven (much more fun, including Jesus bouncing on a trampoline!). This year I also inclded clips from The Miracle Maker (life of Jesus) which uses cartoon and claymation. Some students were familiar with this from Primary School, and it did hold the attention.

28/5/10
Had to watch that ending of Lost again! And still very moving. (See clip on left) And what about that beautiful background music - simple but effective.
Interesting that in its final moment the show opted for what's a largely religious approach. The main characters from the show gather at a church, which apparently is some sort of Limbo or Purgatory state, before they move on to the afterlife. One character, a man with the significant name of Christian Shephard (!), opens the door to reveal a heavenly light, as the characters take their seats in the church as if for a service. The light pervades the church in a beautiful optimistic moment. These scenes, and the earlier scenes where the characters re-unite emotionally in this most attractive of afterlife scenarios, are intercut with scenes of Jack dying. It's not that the characters were dead all the time on the island (at least I don't think so) - but that they all died at various stages on or off the island, and find each other in this "church" state where time doesn't matter and they prepare to move on together. It seems like a Christian church - there's a large welcoming statue of Jesus outside and most of the imagery is Christian, even Catholic, but the ante-room where Jack Shephard meets his deceased father features symbols and icons from many religions - in particular there's a stained-glass window with the symbols of the major religions - suggesting perhaps that there's room in heaven for people of good will from all faiths. I could see myself using this scene, as a discussion starter in RE class when dealing with the afterlife, and it has already sparked some discussion in class. There's also a lovely scene just before they go into the church where Ben (one of the show's nasties, who achieves a measure of redemption) asks Locke (one of the show's most enigmatic characters) for forgiveness and gets it very graciously.
Definitely a good one for forgiveness and reconciliation themes. I mustn't get carried away however. The show doesn't coincide neatly with orthodox Christian thinking. There doesn't seem to a consistent purification process in this purgatory state. Some of the characters have very serious morality deficits that aren't really sorted out (murder, promiscuity and more), more a case of them being ignored. But I do like the way a good character like Hurley can find the residual goodness in Sayid, who is very down about the evil he has done. The most obvious omission in this afterlife scenario is God, unless we are to take "Christian Shephard" as some sort of God figure as well as being Jack's father, or unless we are to take Hurley as some sort of rotund Jesus figure. Maybe one could assume that the next phase in this death experience is to meet God, and I suppose it's not surprising that the programme makers didn't get too explicit about such a meeting.
Looking at reaction on the web it's evident that many fans were disappointed at the ending, but I don't share that. Some complain that all the questions were not answered, but isn't that ambiguity what gives the show its appeal? One of the most puzzling things for me was what to make of the alternate life scenarios we've been getting for the characters throughout this 6th series. It was a clever move for the script writers who haven't been content to sit on their laurels. In early seasons we got to see lots of flashbacks, telling us about the character's backstories. Then, in a startling move, it was flashforwards to how some of the characters got on when they managed to leave the island. Later we had time-shifting. Finally in series 6 we saw the characters having alternative lives - where they all met and interacted, but in different ways (impossible for the casual viewer to follow!). Gradually however this seemed to be a façade, one that in some way the characters created as a way of finding each other again (as Christian Shephard implies) and one that crumbled away as characters remembered their island lives - sometimes remembering how they died, and realising, with remarkable calmness and serenity that they were dead. But even in death there was solidarity, the bonds of friendship surviving death and becoming even stronger. That "church" reunion scene resonates with what we'd all aspire to - meeting those we love as we move into the afterlife.

29/3/10
Picture this: an obviously repentant man, on the verge of execution, goes to Confession seeking absolution for his sins. A scruffy priest refuses, telling the man he hasn't time to repent and that the devil awaits him in hell, and then walks off taking the man's Bible with him!
So it was in the latest top-notch episode of Lost, the cult drama series on RTE 2 (Thursdays) and Sky One (Tuesdays). And it gives me another worthy addition to my collection of Confession scenes from TV and movie drama! (this episode is due on Sky One this Tuesday 30/3)
This scene, set in 1867, was part of the backstory of Richard Alpert, the character who never seems to age. After accidentally killing a man he is taken in chains to the new world only to crash land (in a ship!) on the Lost island. Gripping as that was, far more interesting were his encounters with the island's two main protagonists - Jacob and a nameless man in black that I'll call Black Smoke Guy (BSG) - he turns into a black smoke creature to wreak destruction.
I've written here before about Lost being a kind of Purgatory experience (here), but in the flashback Richard believed BSG that the island was Hell and that Jacob was the Devil, who had stolen his humanity and trapped him on the island. Richard believed this for years and assured the modern-day crash survivors that they were all dead and in Hell. But Jacob seemed more likely to be the good guy - he explained how the island was like a cork in a bottle, keeping evil (BSG) imprisoned. He brought people to the island to find "candidates", people worthy to replace him, and to help people learn right from wrong on their own - he says it's meaningless if he has to step in and force them. BSG, he claimed, thinks people are corruptible and likely to sin by their very nature. It's an intriguing stand off with cosmic implications, and the philosophical implications are as complicated as the mind twisting plot developments.
Are these two meant to be God and Devil slugging it out? It's hard to see it in purely Christian terms - e.g. Richard asks Jacob if he can absolve his sins, but Jacob says he can't so he's hardly meant to be God. The show certainly makes more demands on people's brains that the average drama series, yet it doesn't lack a strong emotional content - there was one particularly touching scene last week when Richard's deceased wife from 1867 paid him a visit in the present.

22/3/10
I've been doing the "Images of God" theme with 2nd Year students - always a popular section of the course. Getting them to draw God produces some interesting questions as usual. There were a few blank pages and lots of bearded old men! Doing Images of God on film we looked at the scene in Bruce Almighty where Bruce meets God for the first time. This is mentioned specifically in the book we're using (Know the Way) and despite it's being a few years old now many students recognise it. I also used clips from some of the old "Insight" videos Veritas used to sell - God as a young man in a white suit in The Walls Came Tumbling Down, God as an office clerk in Packy, God as Trinity in Jesus B.C. (see clip on left - some silliness, but the only film I know that makes a stab at showing the Trinity in this way). There's a very stereotyped God in the movie Almost an Angel - in a scene near the start the main character (Paul Hogan) meets a probation officer God played by Charlton Heston - robe, big beard, judgemental but grudgingly forgiving. Not the best image of God, but it raises interesting discussions about stereotypes and pre-conceived notions.

15/2/10
Lost? How many viewers still watch this US drama series that returned to RTE last week? It started with a total recap episode which might have brought the casual viewers up to date with the deliciously convoluted plot, but I'd say they were re-established in a state of confusion once the season opener got going. It didn't disappoint. Earlier seasons have had flashbacks, flashforwards and people going backwards and forwards through time - this season there's an even more intriguing plot device of having parallel or alternative futures. Not much religion yet, but the Sayid character, as he approached death reckoned he'd be going to a bad place because of all the torturing he had done, and later he has a sort of resurrection experience. A hidden temple was discovered on the island - seemed like a sort of religion, but the devotees there certainly didn't have hospitality as a core value - their first reaction to a bunch of strangers was "Shoot them!".
These are the "Others", a mysterious group that have been on the Lost island since the beginning. Their mystical leader Jacob was mentioned but never seen for the first few series - making his appearance last year all the more dramatic. One could see him as a sort of god-like or prophet figure and perhaps his nemesis (smartly named Esau by some smart ones on the web), the black smoke guy, is a sort of devil figure. But it would be a headbreaker to try and fit the plot into some orthodox version of the Christian story.

Caught an episode of EWTN's youth magazine show Life on the Rock last weekend. It highlighted the work of Epiphany Studio - a Catholic-Christian US theatre group that specialises in spiritual material. In particular we got to see clips from Lolek, a one-man show by Jeremy Stanbary on the young adult days in the life of John Paul II. In the studio interview Stanbary explained how he found the world of secular theatre creating conflicts with his faith, leading himself, along with his wife Sarah into their present work. No sign of an Irish tour yet, but I've emailed to see if this might be a possibility for the future. Some of their performances can be ordered on DVD from their website's store. Clips, previews, and interviews are also available on their YouTube channel.

16/1/10
As outlined below I've been using an extract from Jesus of Nazareth to illustrate classes on the moral teaching of Jesus. Part of that extract has come in handy when I've been doing "table-fellowship" with second year students. There's a useful segment where Jesus goes for a meal to Matthew's house (Luke 5:27-39). Matthew being a hated tax collector the apostles try to convince him not to go - danger of scandal and defilement! In the Prodigal Son story Jesus tells towards the end of the extract another meal figures - the feast thrown for the returning son. When I've asked to students to name events in the life of Jesus that centre around meals many suggested the Last Supper, which was reassuring. I showed the Last Supper scene from BBC's Passion, which I've referred to here many times before. You can see it in the clip on left - Last Supper begins about 3 minutes in, but the lead in is interesting too. I also used the Last Supper scene from The Manchester Passion, another BBC production that presented a modern version of the story with contemporary music. This held the students' attention, though I found that it worked better with older classes. I'm enjoying the table-fellowship theme from the Junior Cert course - meals, eating, feasts figure rather prominently in the Bible stories, whether Jesus is eating with people or telling stories about eating - e.g. comparing the Kingdom to a feast.

13/1/10
With 5th Year students I've been doing the moral teachings of Jesus - I usually start by showing what I think is a powerful extract from Jesus of Nazareth - from where Jesus meets Peter on the shores of lake Galilee to where Peter and Matthew reconcile after Jesus tells the Prodigal Son story - about 20 minutes or so. There's so much in this for the moral teaching topic. You have the apostle John wanting scripture to come alive in people's hearts; there's the scene of the miraculous catch of fish (beautifully portrayed) which emphasises the value of generosity; there's trust - Peter has to trust Jesus and head out again even after catching nothing so far; hospitality is highlighted when Peter invites Jesus to his house (along with quite a crowd!), and when Matthew welcomes Jesus into his house; the concepts of invitation and challenge are strong in Jesus' efforts to get Peter and Matthew together; there's a powerful lesson in reconciliation and forgiveness when they do put aside their differences, which they must do if the are to follow the Lord; forgiveness of sins is an issue when Jesus cures the crippled man who is let in through Peter's roof ; the apostles try to argue Jesus out of visiting the despised tax collector Matthew, but Jesus stresses that the heart of the law is mercy, and that he has come to call sinners, not the virtuous. This extract has always held the attention of the senior boys, and did again this time, but one thing I noticed this time was the giggles when Jesus is shown with a heavenly expression or aura - this just happens briefly at the start of the extract, but most the time the portrayal of Robert Powell in the role of Jesus is very moving and naturalistic - Powell holds the viewer as Jesus holds the listeners in the telling of the Prodigal Son story - all the more affecting as we can see the parallel with the reconciliation of Matthew (the prodigal) and Peter (the grouchy older brother). You can watch the start of the extract here, and the telling of the Prodigal Son story here.

23/12/09
I've been catching up on the US drama series Heroes via the box sets -I find it a strange way to watch a series. When it was first broadcast I didn't think I'd be interested as I'm not that much into superhero stories. But this time the characters are not super heroes in costumes, but humans with extraordinary abilities - some can read minds, some can be invisible, some can time travel and some can even fly. Episodes start and end with philosophical reflections on what evolutionary or other processes have lead to this phenomenon, and the series seems quite open to the idea of God. Themes of choice and personal responsibility abound as some characters use their powers for good, some for evil. And there is political resonance for today - in the third series, for example, shadowy government forces start to discard civil liberties and round up the ones with special powers - in one scene, as they are hauled off to some unknown destination chained and hooded in their orange jumpsuits, there's an obvious suggestion of rendition flights and Guantanamo Bay. A few days ago in school I was doing classes on the 10 Commandments and when I came to the 8th and 9th there was the usual difficulty in explaining the meaning of "covet". I was able to refer to one of the villains in Heroes (Sylar) who admits that he covets the special abilities of other gifted/cursed ones - and goes to murderous lengths to get these powers. One of students maintained that this greed for abilities is one of Sylar's powers/abilities/curses which raised the issue of choice - how much control does he have or is this lethal coveting something he can't help? In some episodes he tried to be one of the good guys but it didn't last, and in one of the posssible futures shown Sylar is seen as a reformed family man!

27/10/09
On holidays at last, and I get to catch up on Hamlet. Act I Scene iii features the departure of Laertes for France. He warns his sister Ophelia to mind her honour with Hamlet, but she's a sharp one, reminding him to practice what he preaches, giving Shakespeare a chance to get in a dig at hypocritical clergy who don't follow their own teaching. Ah the timelessness of it!
" ... But, good my brother
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads"
I have found that saying farewell to family members going on long journeys is a special but sometimes painful experience. Laertes recognises how much of a blessing it can be, especially as he gets a chance for a second farewell:
"A double blessing is a double grace;
Occasion smiles upon a second leave".

18/10/09
Finally I get to Hamlet. As I'm doing this with a 5th Year English I thought I'd reflect on the religious references that abound in the play. When he sees a ghost (Hamlet's father) in Act I Scene i Horatio, Hamlet's friend, on seeing a ghost declares "Before my God, I might not this believe /Without the sensible and true avouch /Of mine own eyes." - this reminded me of the apostle Thomas not believing in Christ's resurrection until he could feel the wounds. The ghost disappears when the cock grows for dawn leading Marcellus to say that there's a legend that approaching Christmas the cock crows all night long so that ghosts can't appear at all, even at night: "Some say that ever, 'gainst that season comes/Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated, /The bird of dawning singeth all night long; /And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad". In Scene ii Hamlet is heartbroken that his father is dead and his mother remarried to his uncle Claudius. He won't however commit suicide as it's against God's law: "O … that the Everlasting had not fix'd /His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!" Needless to say Hamlet is shocked to hear that his father's ghost is appearing, and reckons it's a sign that evil has been afoot, but will be revealed: "Foul deeds will rise, /Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes". To be continued ....

1/10/09
Kings Episode 12 - The New King 2: And so it ends. This episode sees the end of the series and it won't be back - it was cancelled in the USA when it didn't get enough audience support. It was obvious from the finale that certain plot threads were opened up for the second series that was originally envisaged. There are some interesting comments from the show's creator Michael Green (also involved as a producer on Heroes) on the Kings website.
On the religious angles here's what he had to say: "The network had no negative reaction at any stage to religious content within the show. In fact, they encouraged it and found it hopeful…. It was only when time came to market the show that a decision was made not to promote the show as a biblically inspired tale. Fear of reprisal from the religious audience was the described cause. Something NBC has had bad experiences with before. As such, any references to 'King David' were actively avoided, in favor of the limited marketing campaign that many of you saw and have commented on with derision … There was no "religious agenda" among the writers. The writing staff was deliberately comprised of a diverse group of geniuses. Including believers and non-believers, lapsed and actives, people who are atheist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim. All had done their homework. All their perspectives were invaluable…. Most religious viewers actually quite liked the show. Understanding that our creative task was not transcription".
And what a finale! (see highlights in video clip above) It was high-tension stuff all the way as the political and personal conflict between King Silas and his son Jack came to a head. Rev Samuels pays the price for being involved in the plot against Silas - but before that he has an excellent scene of repentance - a heartfelt prayer to God. I'll certainly use that in RE class when I'm doing the topic of repentance. Samuel's remorse is certainly genuine, and it's a powerhouse performance by Eamonn Walker in the role. And his character has a really interesting role to play towards the end of the episode. Samuels wouldn't give his blessing or benediction to the crowning of Jack as King and so fell out of favour with the arch conspirator, Silas' brother-in-law. We got the incongruous scene of a civil servant reading out a pre-prepared blessing instead - saying something about church-state relations perhaps, or about how some states and some politicians can use the trappings of religion to suit their own very secular purposes.
The presence of God is felt strongly in this episode - at one stage Silas begs God for a sign, challenging Him to knock over a whiskey glass! God appears to oblige, but Silas wasn't looking. Later in a knockout scene reminiscent of King Lear, we see Silas in a thunderstorm, talking to God, and apparently being told by God that David is the chosen one to take over the kingdom (no spoiler to those who know their Old Testament David!) - this has been pretty obvious all along, but David hasn't seen it - has just doggedly persisted in his duty to be loyal to the King. He now knows of Silas' evildoing but helps him back to the throne because the plotters are worse and planning war when Silas favoured peace. Silas is not pleased at this news from God, and while at first he seems grudgingly resigned, he declares himself an enemy of God and plans to stop David who must escape into exile.
I hope these reviews have been of interest. After going back to school and having less time I sometimes regretted committing myself to reviewing every episode, but at least the work is done now. Maybe when I get more time I'll write a shorter article to bring all the threads together in a more compact way.

30/9/09
Kings Episode 11- The New King 1: It's a pity they didn't do this as a two-part finale for the series - it would have been a heck of a conclusion. However there was plenty in this episode to satisfy. There was one scene I could see myself using in school with senior classes when dealing with issues relating to forgiveness/reconciliation. King Silas makes his son Jack go through a humiliating and grovelling apology for his actions during the dramatic trial scene conclusion in the previous episode. Obviously I'd see this a lesson in how NOT to do forgiveness! It would make an interesting contrast with the prodigal son story. Without giving too much away the romance between David and Michelle is in trouble, and no-one but Michelle and Queen Rose knows about the baby resulting from the affair between David and Michelle. The political machinations become even more twisted, with David threatened with execution and an assassination plot on Silas. The final scenes are high octane as the fates of the main characters hang in the balance as the political intrigues reach a climax. Roll on the final episode!

27/9/09
Kings Episode 10 - Javelin: As I expected this was a very dramatic episode. The Americans do trial scenes better than anybody and the trial of David for treason was very tense. I was reminded of the trial of St Thomas Moore, at least as portrayed in A Man for All Seasons. David protested his loyalty to the king even as the king was part of the plot to get him condemned on trumped up charges. He remonstrates with Silas saying his only offence was to keep his affair with Michelle, the King's daughter, a secret - no sign of the affair itself being regarded as a sin! The concluding scene was one of the most dramatic scenes in the series so far. Again the scenes between Rev Samuels and the King are intense and really well written - at one stage he cautions Silas that David is becoming only what he is intended to be - presumable king at a later stage. "Don't give God reason to tear from you this kingdom", he also warns, suggesting his spiritual powers by causing a blackout in the store where they meet. But Samuels has been compromised by an incident in the past and Silas resents him taking the high moral ground now.

20/9/09
Kings: Episode 9: Chapter One. A very scriptural episode you might say! While there are various interesting plot developments in this episode, the most interesting angle is the writing of the show's equivalent of Scripture. A scribe in the court of King Silas is writing the Book of Silas. David has been sent on a dangerous mission, to recover the charter of Gilboa (similar in appearance I thought to the American Declaration of Independence) and with him out of the way Silas wants to be the hero of his own story. David's plight is not the only example of someone being sent into dangerous territory, perhaps with a view to his convenient demise (what King David story does that remind you of?). However the writing of this particular scripture takes a different turn and we end up with the writing of the Book of David. It's fascinating and subtle. On the plot level the Queen and King are up to their usual machinations, abusing their power in secret, while often appearing magnanimous to the general public. There is an interesting discussion between King Silas and David's mother about David's destiny - a destiny that will not appeal to mother or king ("You and I will wish it never happened", she says to him). Ian McShane continues to chew the scenery as Silas - I'm be disappointed he's not nominated for an Emmy Award. Silas' relationship with God continues to intrigue - in this episode he again feels that he is not in God's favour (not surprising!) - he asks "Why does he reject all my offerings?". The dramatic ending of this episode, the arrest of David, promises some intense scenes to come.

13/9/09
Kings Episode 8, Pilgrimage:
David joins King Silas on a "pilgrimage", but to his surprise it's a visit to Silas' lover - it seems he is rekindling that affair after abandoning it in some sort of deal with God (as he imagines it) to save the son he had in this relationship. David is not so forthcoming about his affair with the King's daughter Michelle, leading to major trust issues. Meanwhile the Queen is desperate to keep her son Jack's gay affair out the public eye, increasingly difficult after his lover tries to go public and commits suicide. Quite a potboiler. Of course the Bible stories on which all this is more than loosely based features lots of immoral goings on, but the moral perspective was clear, whereas in Kings the moral perspective is far from Biblical! David's affair with Michelle is, I think, seen in a favourable light (though the deception aspect of it threatens to cause them serious trouble), while a modern gay rights agenda seems more and more strongly to inform the story of Jack's difficulties. The lover who commits suicide is, to an extent, worryingly portrayed as a hero (even by Rev Samuels who presides at the funeral and is seen by many of the kingdom to have the voice of God), while Jack is tempted to come out of the closet - the programme seems to take the point of view that he should embrace his homosexuality.

31/8/09
Kings Episode 7: The Sabbath Queen. I've just started watching the series Heroes and may write about that at a later stage, but I notice that the creator of Kings, Michael Green, was also a producer on that show and wrote some of the episodes (a point made in the interview - clip on left - with Susannah Thompson who plays Queen Rose Benjamin in Kings). Not surprising in a way, as both shows are interested in philosophical issues.
I've started adding the programme titles to these reviews as there is some variation in the episode numbering on various websites - depending on whether the opening double was numbered just as episode 1, or as 1 and 2. The official website doesn't number the episodes, and for some reason leaves out the episode "Judgement Day".
This "Sabbath Queen" episode slowed down the pace. The city of Shiloh is hit by a power blackout and various characters take advantage of the darkness - Jack to resume briefly his gay love affair, David and Michelle to have a one-night stand and an unidentified assassin to make an attempt on the king's life - you'd think these people never got out! I was reminded about various Biblical quotes about sin and darkness - e.g. this one from John 3:19: "Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil", or this from Ephesians 5: 8-13: "Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible".
Apart from the assassination attempt, it wasn't clear that the one night stands were seen as sinful - yes, they were furtive, and in the case of David and Michelle, you'd get the impression it was going to come back to haunt them, but you could argue that the programme was portraying these events as good, hardly a Biblical perspective. And again they were portrayed in a way that would make teachers hesitant in using the material in schools.
David still seems to want to do God's will, but wonders which of the voices in his head come from God, and there was an another interesting God-thread in is episode, conveyed mostly through flashbacks - the whole idea of making deals with God. When Michelle was young she was at death's door, in fact what appeared to be a personification of death arrived to take her, but Silas bargained for her life. Ironically, so did Michelle herself, vowing a life of service to humanity rather than to herself, if she survived. She seems to regard this as precluding her from marriage, but curiously not from an affair with David! Not exactly a vow of celibacy. So, which deal, if any, saved her life? Stay tuned.

23/8/09
Kings Episode 6: Brotherhood. Yet another shift of mood in Kings this episode as two new plot lines develop. The city of Gilboa is struck by a plague (very Old Testament!) and King Silas orders a curfew reminiscent of the Passover - he even mentions a passing over and avoiding the "angel of death", as every household is asked to put a candle in the window as a sign of solidarity. Of course the Passover is out of sync chronologically with the Saul/David story in the Bible which provides most of the characters and plotlines, but the writers of Kings are not setting out to provide an exact parallel and there are all sorts of resonances from elsewhere in the Bible and from more modern events. In the plague story for example Michelle annoys her mother the Queen by tending to a young boy who is dying alone from the plague - "she can't be mother to them all", a phrase which brought Mary, the mother of Jesus to my mind at least.
Silas blames God for the plague - He tests me beyond endurance, he complains to Rev Samuels, who suggests the problem is something rotten within his kingdom, a poison that needs to be purged (hints of Macbeth and Hamlet?)
Meanwhile on the political front David and the King's son Jack are on a mission to capture a terrorist - the visual style here, as they fight in the forests, reminded me of stories about partisans in World War II (as in the recent film Defiance).
The relationship between David and Jack (Jonathan in the Bible) develops - Jack resents David, seeing him as a usurper of his father's attentions, yet he says he doesn't regard him as an enemy, in fact he can't understand David. There are hints of the Prodigal Son story here (actor Sebastian Stan as Jacks exudes an intense anguish of jealousy), and it's a plot that figures strongly in films like Gladiator and Road to Perdition - the inadequate son replaced in the affections of the leader by a newcomer, who becomes the son and heir the leader wished his real son had been. The relationship between Jack and David gets more intricate as each saves the other's life during the mission, and both end up in the embrace of King Silas, who has just seen off another challenge to his authority.

11/8/09
Kings Episode 5: Judgement Day: One of the things I like about this programme is the way each new episode (so far) has something distinctive - a change of location, a change of tone, a new character or whatever, so there are always surprises. This episode centres around Judgement Day - a special event in the Kingdom of Gilboa when the King takes on ten cases to deliver his own personal judgement - "divine wisdom my only counsel" he says. Sounds a bit like Solomon, and sure enough his son Jack passes some sarcastic comment about cutting babies in half. Petitioners make their pleas in orange envelopes and the dramatic sight of thousands of these strewn around the palace floors is a powerful image of dashed hopes. David is torn between loyalty to the King and loyalty to his family as his brother Ethan goes on trial for treason. Chris Egan as David (pictured above with Ian McShane as Silas) portrays the pain so convincingly. Struggling with his dilemma he says he doesn't even know if there is a God, but later in an interesting discussion with the king feels he understands the ways of God - he sees God working through King Silas, as he seems to accept Silas' declaration: "I am justice".
The romantic subplot between David and Michelle the King's daughter (Michal, daughter of Saul from the Bible) takes a few interesting twists, while the mysterious Edward (Macaulay Culkin), the Queen's nephew, returns from exile. The best scenes I think are those intense discussions between King Silas and David (as at the end of this episode) and the king and Rev Samuels, usually about faith and God's will. Some of these would be useful for RE teaching. Unfortunately I can't say the same for an unpleasant sex scene, fairly strong by US network TV standards, at the start of this episode.

2/8/09
Kings Episode 4: As expected, a much more political episode this time and quite a political thriller, with lots of tension crammed into the 45 minutes. Lots of Holy Land suggestions with the people of Port Prosperity rebelling against the King's decision to hand back this land to neighbouring Gath as part of the peace process. The locals don't want their God-given "promised land" to be handed over or divided. You couldn't help but see parallels from Bible times to the modern Middle East. And in the portrayal of the shipyard riots there was surely a visual reference to the Solidarity protests in Poland.
Ian McShane continues to excel in the role of King Silas while Chris Egan perfectly captures the pain of the innocent David - trying to be loyal to his King and to his family in Port Prosperity. A political coup is thwarted, the King's son Jack (presumably a parallel for Saul's son Jonathan in the Bible) is even plotting against him. There's even a possible dig at CNN - the TV news in the Kingdom of Gilboa is UNN, and there's interesting talk of the news being "crafted"! Fascinating stuff, and if you weren't aware of the Biblical connections you'd probably find it so and even more intriguing.

26/7/09
Kings: Episode 3 (Shown on RTE 2 last Thurs). Episode 3 moved at a slower pace than usual and had a very different mood. The King's son Jack took young David on a sleazy night out in the city, but despite Jack's best efforts he kept his virtue (though there are photos that falsely suggest otherwise) - he still seems smitten by the King's daughter. We learn that the King's wife has been the architect of the kingdom and it's royal family ("we are the performance" she says as the great and good of Shiloh come to a ballet), a kingdom that she has moulded from when it was just a place of warring tribes, and she'll be as manipulative as it takes to keep it that way.
Since his alienation from God King Silas complains "My plans are frustrated", and he returns to God and Rev Samuels for help when his love child gets seriously ill leading to some interesting exchanges about what God wants by way of sacrifice - he accidentally knock's over a deer and wonders if that will do! The Biblical flavour is present, and not just in the storyline - King Silas's love child is called Seth, in the Bible one of Adam and Eve's sons; there's talk of David's star "shining bright"; talk of an alternative sacrificial lamb; and when a sponsor wants to pay ten times more for a seat beside David than for a seat beside the king, the Queen feels the sense of threat - "David commands his 100,000, the King commands his 10,000".
The next episode promises to be more political as resentment is brewing over Silas giving away some Gilboan territory to seal a peace treaty with Gath. Rev Samuels disapproves as part of the deal with God (covenant?) seems to be "undivided lands, as promised", perhaps a suggestion of present day issues in the Middle East as well as in Biblical times. You could even see and Irish political reference in that, though somehow I doubt it was intended!

20/7/09

The only thing disappointing about Episode 2 of Kings (the Old Testament modernisation on RTE 2 Thursday nights) was the fact that it was only 40 minutes or so in length - the pilot had obviously been a double episode. Though settling into series mode the quality remained as high.
Plot wise, David continues to serve King Silas in the city of Shiloh, not realising that Silas plans to have him assassinated as he considers him a threat. David's character (sympathetically played by Christopher Egan) is appealing - though he can be naive, he is gentle and idealistic, and in most cases is diplomatic, always finding the right word to say in awkward situations. The Biblical King David's interest in music is reflected in David's interest in playing the piano. In this episode he takes drastic action to save the peace treaty with Gath, without which he reckons his brother's death will have been pointless. In this episode there's a strong emphasis on a sense of destiny for David. His mother Jesse feels this and wants him home because he thinks it will be dangerous. Silas feels it, feels threatened and wants him dead. David himself wants to follow the signs given to him. He gets some very strong "Don't go" messages, including one dramatic scene where he apparently dreams that Silas is calling out "Don't go" to God in the Heavens. His dead brother appears with the same message, but it takes David a while to figure out how he should apply it.
Rev Samuels doesn't figure so much this time, and Silas believes he can manage without his benediction. The political shenanigans continue in the kingdom as the King's brother in law tries to ruin him by withdrawing gold from the treasury, while welcome comic relief is developed through two of the temple guards who have to clear some birds (pigeons or possibly doves) out of the palace. The birds have a symbolic role interfering in the assassination plot on David in the dramatic conclusion. There is excellent background material on Matt Page's Bible Films Blog, while the official website for the series features some useful material, though the clips and full episodes are for US viewers only.

19/7/09
I watched the first episode of Kings again last night (see entry for 12/7) and found it useful to have a second viewing. Since then I've also done some revision on the Old Testament stories on which this modernisation is based. I'm still positive about the show - it's visually appealing and intelligently scripted. The Biblical parallels are fairly clear - King Silas (a great performance from Ian McShane) is Saul, Rev Samuels is the prophet Samuel, the kingdom of Gath (with their Goliath tanks!) is presumably the Philistines (in the Bible Gath was one of the royal cities of the Phillistines). Jesse is David's mother rather than his father as in the Bible. Apart from such clear references there is an "Old Testament flavour" permeating the show - e.g. in the names of other characters and places - Eli (David's brother), Benjamin (the surname of the royal family), Shiloh (King Silas' new city, and in the Bible an important city for the people of Israel), Gilboa (Silas' kingdom in the show, but a mountain where King Saul was killed in battle in the Bible). You could even detect a New Testament element - in one emotional scene when David offers his blood to Gath people in order to make peace, the sense of self sacrifice was reminiscent of Jesus' own sacrifice. And I was further reminded of the American political background with the reference to "the Vineyard" - seemed to be a summer palace for the king, reminiscent of Martha's Vineyard in USA, which had links with US politicians including the Clintons.
Review of episode 2 to follow soon.

12/7/09
Kings is a new American drama series that started on RTE 2 last Thursday night and it certainly is different. It's a modernisation of the story of the kings in the Old Testament, with David being a central character.
The setting seems vaguely American, present day, but the leader is a king, King Silas. He presides over a powerful kingdom and as the story starts dedicates the new city of Shiloh, an urban landscape not unlike New York. He's at war with the neighbouring kingdom of Gath a conflict that provides a background of political intrigue. Silas is convinced that he has God's approval, symbolised by a mystical experience with butterflies, and has been anointed to his role by the mysterious Rev Samuels. He is quite upfront about declaring this despite the unease of his political advisors ("God isn't popular at the moment"). However he is no paragon of virtue, not averse to bumping off political opponents, and having a mistress on the side despite his loving family and finally Rev Samuels tells him he has lost God's favour and protection because he agreed to a treacherous war at the behest of a ruthless businessman to whom he is beholden. David appears as a David Shepherd (clever!), a country boy who has risen to prominence in the war because he saved the king's son Jack (does every series have to have a Jack?), and in the process knocked out a tank called Goliath!
Earlier Rev Samuels had met him and in wiping a car oil smudge off his face seemed to anoint him for great things in the future. By the end of this episode David is visited by the butterflies while Silas looks on ruefully, while the shadowy businessman is plotting to put the pliable, grumpy and secretly gay Jack on the throne - in a modern nod to political correctness Silas tells him that if he lives his life "as God made him" he won't be fit for the throne. The programmer works on a least three levels - firstly it's a reasonably good political thriller, featuring all the usual conniving, with some of the clichés of the genre balanced by many imaginative touches. Secondly it could be viewed as a political allegory - a way of teasing out the political power issues of modern America - the war scenes for example take place in a desert where the visual imagery is suggestive of Afghanistan or Iraq. And thirdly of course there's the obvious Biblical parallel - I watched it before I revised my Old Testament so I could judge that it stood on its own as a good story, but these Biblical references make it fascinating, adding that extra layer that makes it stand out. So far I find it respectful to religion. Of course you'd squirm at the idea of a modern despot (even if he's benign at times) claiming divine approval, but Rev Samuels provides a moral grounding in his role as prophet or conscience - "don't pretend I don't know" he says to Silas on several occasions.
This show has been running for some time in the USA where it has met with mixed fortunes - it started out in prime time but has since been bumped to a less prominent slot, though not as bad as what RTE has done with it - virtually ensuring obscurity by plonking it after midnight.
As regards using it in school, I'll certainly be adding clips when I do religious themes in drama with Transition Year, but there are many useful clips for other topics, especially those encounters with Rev Samuel - could be useful for classes on conscience, on anointing in the sacraments, on church-state relations, relevance of bible stories for modern times and more.

6/4/09
The US drama series 24 has returned and started on RTE last Monday night with a two hour drama special to lead into the new series. 24: Redemption has been out on DVD for a few months, and the cover tells us that Jack Bauer has been working as a missionary in Africa, so I was intrigued, as Jack has been a rather ruthless anti-terrorist agent up to now, a bit of a fascist actually, torturing prisoners, even the innocent. As always it was a tense and riveting drama, but I felt they could have done more with the redemption theme. If anything, redemption comes for a friend of Jack's who is seems to be a missionary of sorts working with disadvantaged children in a troubled African country. Jack is helping out at the school, though whether to make up for his sins as one character suggests, or just to hide out from the American authorities (sleazy stereotypes as usual!) isn't too clear. The issue of child soldiers is central to the story and Jack certainly shows courage in defending them, but I can't help feeling that for the programme makers this is just an excuse, a plot on which to hang some vicious fighting and blood letting. Maybe I'm too cynical about this. I'll watch the new series for the drama and tension, and hope that the redemption theme is continued, but I wouldn't be hopeful that religion teachers will find much in 24 that they can use in class. Check out a video trailer for 24: Redemption at Amazon's page for the DVD.

5/3/09
Yesterday in school we had our annual visit from the Covenant Players, a group of travelling Christian actors. This was part of the Religious Themes in Drama module in Transition Year. Once again it went well - apart from some interesting and entertaining plays the actors involved the students in various drama exercises.

On other fronts I'm doing the last days of Jesus as part of the 3rd Year exam course - we read the different scriptural versions and then after each segment I show the relevant clip from Jesus of Nazareth for the most part. I used the Last Supper scene from the BBC Passion, with Joseph Mawle as Jesus. When I get to the Resurrection I'll use that again as it presents it in an unusual way - with two other actors playing Jesus - to convey how Mary Magdalen and the disciples on the road to Emmaus didn't recognise him. For the arrest, trial and passion of Jesus the Robert Powell portrayal in Jesus of Nazareth is fine.It's interesting to see how the different gospel accounts are blended. The clip on left is of the questioning of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and also Peter's denial.

7/12/08
A recent episode of The Simpsons on RTE 2 was of particular interest to Catholics. In this episode Bart was expelled and had to find an alternative school, which turned out to be a Catholic school. There was a sort of a compliment to Catholic education ("the most affordable private schools") followed by a huge dose of Catholic (and Irish) stereotypes. For starters the teacher was a ruler-wielding tyrant nun with an Irish accent - at one stage Bart moved back his desk to avoid getting a thump of her yardstick, but due to his poor grasp of measurement moved back only 33 inches and got a whack anyway! However, inspired by a friendly priest (voiced by Liam Neeson) and comic book lives of the saints Bart eventually decided to become a Catholic, and later, inspired by the pancakes at a church event, Homer joined him. Protestant Marge was not pleased ("Catholics are a peculiar bunch"), nor was neighbour Flanders and Rev Lovejoy - ecumenism isn't strong in Springfield. There were sly references to clerical child abuse and mutterings about "no birth control" (Marge said she didn't want another 12 kids).
Protestants were sent up as well - efforts to reconvert Bart included a tacky Christian youth festival (with aging rockers Pious Riot who had turned to God), until he was finally turned by a Christian paintball event! His final message of Christian tolerance ("The little stupid differences are nothing next to the big stupid similarities!") got everybody all friendly again, though Flanders planned to get his hand re-blessed after shaking hands with the priest. A flash-forward of 1,000 years shows the later devotees of Bart's message falling out violently over some sliver of difference.
I thought some of it was mean spirited, and some of it crude, but it certainly was hilarious, mostly sending up the foibles of believers rather than their faith per se, though some distinctively Catholic teachings got a lash, and yet Homer spoke of the Catholic Church's "time-tested values". It was hard to know whether anti-Catholic prejudice was being practised or satirised - probably both, in the show's typically scattershot style.
In religion class I'd use clips from this with caution - e.g. there's a very funny depiction of Heaven - Protestant Heaven is very sedate and refined, while in Catholic Heaven there's great fun, including Riverdance (!) and Jesus having fun on a trampoline.

Still in fiction territory I've been enthusiastic before about Prison Break (see article) due to the interesting characterisations and tight plotting, but mainly because of the distinctive moral concerns of the main character, Michael Scofield (an intense Wentworth Miller). But the fourth season, currently on RTE 2, is very disappointing. There are tell tale signs of deterioration - the plot is breeding red herrings at a fierce rate, a character we thought was dead suddenly reappears (we had seen, or thought we had seen, her head in a box!), the main character develops a potentially fatal illness, but what is most objectionable is the brutality and sadism that has crept in. It was always rough, but now even some of the likeable characters resort to excessive violence - most repulsive of all was when one character viciously tortured another in an extended sequence - OK they're both murderers, but the torturer had shown signs of softening, even redemption. His violence wasn't unmotivated, as the victim had murdered his child, but the programme just wallowed in the scene, going way beyond what was necessary to make the point, and some sympathetic characters, especially the female doctor (she of the head) turned their backs. Nothing yet in this series I could see myself using in RE class.

18/7/08
Today's main event at World Youth Day was the Stations of the Cross - a dramatic re-enactment on the streets of Sydney. (Video clip on left gives a flavour). I can see myself using this in school in the coming year - at least one new resource of substance! It lasted about three hours but highlights will be shown on RTE 1 on Sunday (20th July) at 10.30 am, and there are also highlights at the official WYD website.
As for the Stations, it was a most striking presentation - the actors playing Jesus and the apostles were in the usual outfits we expect, but to see them walking through the highways of Sydney made the story entirely contemporary. Each station took place at key locations in Sydney (Opera House, Art Gallery, etc). At one stage Jesus, carrying the cross, was carried by barge across Sydney Harbour, a most unusual setting for the stations.
The main actors did an excellent job - there weren't speaking roles but the physical gestures and facial expressions were spot on, especially as the sufferings of Jesus increased (the sufferings were portrayed quite realistically). The actress who played Mary was particularly good, reminding me of Olivia Hussey from Jesus of Nazareth.
Though it was a vast canvas there was also a sense of intimate theatre in the close-ups. Throughout there was beautiful music accompanying the presentation - I was particularly struck by the windswept choir in black.

9/7/08
Doing some catching up here. TV series Lost came to the end of its fourth series on RTE recently. Hadn't time to write it up at the time, but a few days ago I got to have another look at the last few episodes - all in one sitting! More intense than watching many feature films.
Not much in the line of religious themes of late, though there was a funny scene when Hurley came into his house that seemed abandoned, suspected an intruder and took up a statue of Jesus for self defence. He walked into a surprise party brandishing the statue whereupon his mother admonished him: "Jesus Christ is not a weapon"! (see clip over). Food for thought there! I was reminded of how statues of Our Lady were used earlier in the series as hiding places for drugs, rather dodgy on the respect front.

In another episode recently Hurley, in a flash forward to when he's off the island, muses on the nature of life now (see clip over), wondering if they're already in the next life - We're dead he declares about the six that got off the island, and says that Jack's life is "just like heaven", though Hurley himself is in a mental institution. As Jack falls apart pretty soon, the heaven theory doesn't hold much water! The flashforward technique continues to work well, but must make it entirely confusing for those who don't watch regularly. With some exceptions the flashforwards have been in reverse chronological order, getting closer and closer to the present time.
The most moving of these scenes was the arrival home of the "Oceanic Six", those who got off the island (see clip over) - there were emotional reunions, and different kinds of emotions for Kate as she had no one to welcome her home. But we had to wait for the final double episode to see how they actually escaped. Jack's funeral oration for his father also packed an emotional punch. The show's moral compass is shaky at the best of times. Along with the heroism, friendships, loyalty, self-sacrifice and love, there's been adultery, revenge, murder, kidnapping, deception, manipulation and perjury - a bit like Shakespeare, or real life, I suppose, but sometimes the sins are not recognised as such.

While I'm at it I'd better say something about 7th Heaven - this US drama series about Rev Eric Camden and his large extended family lasted 11 series which is a pretty impressive achievement. They should have left it at 10! The 10th series ended on a high note, as if the series was ending (see clip over), but apparently a different company picked it up for another season, and while it always teetered on the borderline of wit and corn, the corn got the upper hand this season. Even that final episode had its cringe moments - the whole family, friends, dogs the lot, decide to head off on a road trip in the new RV (camper van). And there's so much silly fuss about the three items each person can bring - one brings a Bible, one brings the Da Vinci Code (the minister doesn't bat an eye), one brings Valley of the Dolls (the minister does bat an eye). There wasn't a lot here that could be of use in R.E. class, but there was a mysterious character (Stanley) who could be God, or an angel. He has been enigmatic during Series 11, and appears in the final scene when Eric says to him words to the effect that he may not be what he seems to be. The last eight minutes of the show, including this scene, are I this clip:

29/4/08
US drama series Lost returned last night with a bang. Those following the series regularly will not have been disappointed. I've written before about the religious themes in Lost (click here for article), and have used various clips in my classes on religious themes in TV drama (see below). However the religious themes have not surfaced lately, and though the story is still intriguing and absorbing, it has become more violent. Most of the characters are very flawed human beings and it's getting harder to empathise with them, as they show little moral insight.
Much of the time Jack has been something of a moral character, but lately we've seen him trying to kill Locke in a temper, and commiting calculated perjury in court - in one of the flash-forward scenes (a brave an innovative move in the show which relied so much on flasbacks until this series). In fact many of the main characters are murderers, and some aren't showing much regret or need of redemption. I think the purgatory theme is well and truly ditched, especially as some of the flash-forwards show the characters off the island and still seriously messed up.
Some of my students are still watching it, and I even heard one muttered reference to it today when the issue of Purgatory came up.

14/4/08
I’ve been following 7th Heaven on RTE Sunday afternoons since it returned for a new series (11th I think). I have to admire a show with such staying power, even praying power, and have enjoyed watching the child characters grow up with, and sometimes grow away from, the show. But of late it’s getting incredibly corny and cringe inducing. About the only thing worth watching for at this stage is the mostly dignified and often touching performance of Stephen Collins as Rev Eric Camden, the minister with a heart of gold, whose life is now threatened by an enlarged heart. But for a recent episode he donned a kilt, in public, more embarrassing for the viewer than for him. And I must confess the remaining children in the show are becoming increasingly irritating. As for Happy the dog ….. grrrrr
Yesterday’s episode sought to highlight the humanitarian situation in Darfur, fair enough in itself, but the scriptwriters don’t do subtle. I have to confess I was getting sick of Darfur by the end of the show as they laid on the message with a heavy trowel. Than, in case we hadn’t got the message already, the show ended with a prolonged photomontage of scenes from Darfur. Also there seemed to be a political edge to the show – it was stressed over and over that the USA was doing great things about Darfur, including being the prime movers in declaring what was happening there to be genocide.
Still, I've used several clips from the show in school over the years, including some where the characters pray - you don't see too much of that in TV drama.

8/4/08
As promised I’ll outline some classwork I did recently with Transition Year students (c 15 year old boys) on religious themes in TV drama. I’ve built up a collection of clips over the years, most still on video but I’m hoping to transfer them to DVD soon. I always like to add new material and this year I used some clips from Prison Break (Scofield’s confession box scene) and Lost (this time I used the scene where Desmond, who was training to be a monk, was “fired” by his genial but firm superior who concluded that life held something else in store for Desmond apart from the monastery). I used the scene from BBC’s Manchester Passion where Judas sings Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now. Old faithfuls included scenes from Ballykissangel (they like the scene where the guard Ambrose, announces to his fiancée that he wants to become a priest) and its US imitator Paradise Island; a confession box scene from the X-Files (with a new X-Files movie due this summer this show will become more familiar); a scene from cop show The District where the boss tells a young cop-in-crisis that he can do God’s work by catching criminals.
On the animation front I use some Simpsons clips, (conscious that not all Simpsons episodes are respectful to religion) especially the latter half of the episode where Homer makes up his own religion and chats to God (left) after his house burns down. Always hilarious no matter how many times I see it, and always popular with the students. From God, the Devil and Bob I use the scene from Episode 1 where God meets Bob for the first time. There are plenty of clips from this series on YouTube.
This year after Easter I also included some clips from BBC’s The Passion shown over Holy Week – in particular I showed the Resurrection sequence as I thought this was cleverly done and also was topical just after the Easter holidays. Earlier in the previous term we had studied other film versions of the life of Jesus so this made for an interesting contrast. Reactions were generally positive but quite a few found the remote location of the tomb in the desert rather odd. There were divergent views on whether different actors should have been used for Jesus to convey the Bible’s indication that for some reason they didn’t recognise him at first. Some didn’t like what they saw as Mary Magdalen’s over reaction at the tomb. The Bible says she cried, but here she screamed and threw stones around. One student commented that this version showed that “special effects don’t always have to be used to create an amazing movie”.



27/3/08
Last word on The Passion for the moment - must get on to other topics! Overall my opinion of this drama hasn't changed much. The portrayal of Mary I'm still not happy with, while I really got to like the portrayal of Jesus. My media column in today's Irish Catholic newspaper was devoted entirely to the programme and my review was generally positive. On the back page columnist David Quinn wrote a negative piece about it - he found this depiction of Jesus "the most unconvincing ever to come our way". Jesus as played by Joseph Mawle he found "insipid, uncertain, uncharismatic, unprepossessing". He wondered how such a man could ever attract any followers. He didn't like the way the apostles were quarrelsome, not just among themselves but with Jesus. In trying to avoid the error of making Jesus too holy and divine he reckoned they fell into the opposite error and portrayed Jesus as "effectively a man and no more". Thus miraculous events were portrayed in an ambiguous way.
Funny enough I shared many of these observations, though not as strongly, after watching the first episode. However this production grew on me as the episodes progressed and I found the resurrection scenes in particular very strong on the miraculous, though I realise not all critics I've read agree on that.
I followed a few of these reviewers as they too engaged with this drama through Holy Week. Matt Page's Bible Films Blog was especially comprehensive in it's coverage, while Doug Chaplin posted detailed and interesting reviews after each episode on his Metacatholic Blog. Giving a Catholic perspective various contributors reviewed it on the Jesuit Thinking Faith website.

24/3/08
Thinking today about how I might use clips from BBC's The Passion in my religion class. Had been doing religious themes in TV drama with my Transition Year students so this would be a suitable follow on, and normally after Easter I do some classes on the Resurrection with third year students. Up to now I've used the Resurrection scenes from Jesus of Nazareth, which haven't at all become dated and are still powerful and moving. Maybe for variety I'll use the last 20 minutes of The Passion this year, with plenty of discussion as the students may find the use of different actors for Jesus rather confusing. I'll be interested in hearing their reaction. When I come to do the Eucharist with Leaving Cert students prior to Graduation Mass I'll use the Last Supper scene, another of my favourite "set pieces" from this new production.

23/3/08
The Passion on BBC: Have just finished watching the final half hour episode of The Passion, so these are some preliminary thoughts. At the start I was a little disappointed - I began to wonder if the film was going to be coy about the resurrection. There were two Temple Guards instead of Roman soldiers, half guarding the tomb, no sign of any angels, lack of clarity about how much time had passed before the empty tomb was found by Mary Magdalen, talk of some of the apostles planning "something".
Then there was a gradual yet dramatic transformation - Mary met a man at the tomb, who didn't look like Jesus but she felt it could have been him. What was this - getting a new actor to play Jesus, after getting so used to Joseph Mawle? The producers keeping their options open on whether it was Jesus or not?
Then after lots of realistic bickering two apostles headed off on the road to Emmaus and met another mysterious stranger, more charismatic, which helped. What's this, I thought, now we have three actors playing Jesus? I thought this was a really bold way to convey the Emmaus story when Jesus was not recognised initially. The apostles invited him for a meal, and in a most powerful and emotional moment they really did recognise him in the breaking of bread - the way Jesus did it was just the way he had done it in the Last Supper scene. At that moment Mawle appeared again as Jesus, Jesus that had conquered death and really risen. Shortly after that he appeared to the doubting apostles and that too was a moving scene.
There wasn't exactly an Ascension scene. Jesus just departed into the crowds after a chat with Peter, reassuring him that he would be with them always. All in all this was a most striking presentation of events after the crucifixion.
If there was anything unsatisfactory apart from what I mentioned at the start it was that many post resurrection events were not portrayed - e.g. the doubting Thomas incident (James seemed to be a bigger doubter initially). Yet a lot of attention was given to the conflict between Caiphas and Joseph of Aramathea (left), and relatively speaking I'm not sure this plot line was worth pursuing in such detail. Caiphas was not portrayed as sympathetically in the previous episode when he handed over Jesus, but in this episode he was softened again. He felt he had done what was best for his people, and that as he saw it, he had not agreed to the death of an innocent man - he still regarded Jesus as a blasphemer (or so he said). He got a happy ending of sorts as his wife delivered a new baby.
Pilate was played fairly straight throughout, not rehabilitated, not a psycho, rough by our standards, perhaps half civilised in the context of the time. Even he had a return to Rome to look forward to.
Once again I wasn't that keen on the portrayal of Mary, still too bitter, complaining that God had broken her heart. In general I felt she was underused, as was Mary Magdalen throughout. I'll return to this topic for some more considered observations on the whole series, with some ideas for using parts of it in class when I get back to teaching religion after the Easter holidays.

22/3/08
Have just watched the third episode of BBC's The Passion. Preliminary thoughts: Once again I find the programme growing on me more and more, especially the central performance.
I particularly liked the way the Last Supper was done - starting cheerfully and ending on a sombre note. There was no hedging on the Eucharist. After the usual words Jesus added - "this will be your sacrament … this is how you'll bring me back among you", a rather interesting addition I thought. The presentation of the agony in the garden was reminiscent in visual style of the way it was done in Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, but Jesus got to express his agony in much more detail. Unlike the latter film however the scourging at the pillar was played down (perhaps in reaction to that film?) - we just got three representative lashes, with the camera focussed on the face of Jesus.
The way of the cross was quite short, with Jesus being crowned with thorns on the way, and a repeat of the children throwing red petals as they did in the Palm Sunday scene. This hurry seemed to be designed to convey how quickly the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus put to death, hoping it would defeat his cause and scatter his followers. There was no crowd on Golgotha, suggesting this might just have seemed an "ordinary" crucifixion to the locals at the time. Mary and John arrived a bit later, but in time for Jesus' death.
Jospeph Mawle's central performance was really genuine, affecting and convincing in the crucifixion scene. One curious thing - it was particularly obvious in this episode how the use of the word Jewish was being avoided - e.g. Jesus was described several times as "King of the Judeans". Was this to avoid any accusations of anti-Semitism? Maybe so, but it didn't really sound right. Maybe Jewish people will be even more offended by this ignoring or making bland of their name, race and religion. Would the title King of the Jews not also include Gallilleans, not just Judeans? One more episode to go Easter Sunday night. Interesting to see how the resurrection will be done.

20/3/08
I have lots to write about recent activities in school especially in relation to religious themes in TV drama, but I'm going to try and keep all my commentary on BBC's The Passion in one place here, and will get to other TV drama next week.
Already this year in class I've dealt with films on the life of Jesus, but after Easter I may use clips from the BBC production to update this module, but also to show yet another example of religion in TV drama. So far I really like the Palm Sunday scene and Jesus' conflict with the apostles over what's going to happen to him.
I have to be careful this week to concentrate more on the Holy Week story itself rather than this particular representation of it! However, because of the serialisation of it, as it runs through Holy Week it is in my thoughts quite a bit and new ideas occur to me daily.
As regards the human/divine issue, this production seems more to veer towards the human side of Jesus, especially in the first episode. The second episode balanced it a bit in what Jesus was saying about his mission and his resurrection. I'm looking forward to how they will represent the resurrection, and also to how they'll do the Last Supper. I doubt if we'll get a Leonardo type tableau, like director George Stevens went for in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Focussing entirely on the holy week events seems to me a good approach to a Jesus film, as it gives a tighter focus and avoids the excesses of sprawling Biblical epics. Mel Gibson used the same approach in The Passion of the Christ, using an even tighter time frame - from the striking Garden of Gethsemane scene to the Resurrection.
The only down side is that some of the great stories and incidents from the earlier parts of Jesus' life are missed, so we don't get the context of the Easter story. Gibson's film was much criticised for this, but he did try to overcome the problem by some of the intriguing flashbacks. If only we had more of those and less of the graphic violence!
The BBC production is particularly good at context, in the gritty atmosphere of Passover and in the conversations of the main players. There is plenty of Jesus' teaching, not always exact quotes from scripture. The fresh wording does grab the attention, as we can get too familiar with the well known sayings, but there's always a danger with people taking liberties with scripture. Yet, when only the words of scripture are used, as say in the Matthew series, when Bruce Marchiano played the warmest Jesus I've seen yet, it comes across as stiff and stilted in film terms.

18/3/08
Last night I got to see the second episode of the BBC's The Passion, this time a half hour episode. I’m getting to like Joseph Mawle’s portrayal of Jesus, perhaps just a matter of getting use to him in the role. I liked the scene where he discussed what was going to happen to him with the apostles. John, often portrayed as a gentle soul, had a particularly negative reaction to this and became quite shirty with Jesus!
It’s still hard to distinguish the apostles from each other – more work could have gone into giving at least some of them more distinctive personalities. Jesus was quite strong on the idea his sacrifice saving us from our sins, and in a neat ironic touch, Caiphas also spoke of one man being offered up to save the rest.
The softening of Caiphas continues, but he is edging his way towards having Jesus arrested and handed over to the Pilate (James Nesbit,above) for execution if he doesn’t repent and stop causing unrest during Passover. Other Jewish leaders, including a black Joseph of Aramathea, are not in favour of such a move. With this balance so far, I don’t think there’ll be any accusations of anti-Semitism against the programme.
A few more thoughts occurred to me about Sunday’s opening episode. I was just thinking how lacking in colour the whole production is – it’s all dull browns by day and dark blue by night, but the portrayal of Palm Sunday was striking – apart from the palms, the people were showering Jesus with red petals, perhaps a foreshadowing of the blood to come.
I’m still not enamoured by that scene with Mary the mother of Jesus. Obviously she loves him and seems grouchy on his behalf, but it’s as if she resents having been chosen for her role, as if it was foisted on her without her permission – she has a line that says something to the effect that the baby was in her belly before she knew it. But this doesn’t necessarily clash with the biblical version – maybe this is something that Mary says in the heat of the moment, under the pressure of seeing her son heading inexorably towards a horrible death.
Last time I noted that the production seemed to shying away from miracles. This time there was at least a mention, by Caiphas, of miracles that Jesus was reputed to have performed, though Caiphas himself was sceptical. And in this latest episode Jesus is very clear that he will rise again, leaving the apostles looking sceptical!
It’s useful to have the programme serialised through Holy Week, though I would have preferred to see six half hour episodes spread through the week rather than two one-hour and two half-hour episodes. For those who would like to see it again or catch up there’s a recap edition next Sunday afternoon at 2.15 pm before the final episode on Sunday evening at 7.30 pm (BBC 1).

17/3/08
Full marks this year to BBC for taking the Holy Week and the Easter story so seriously. With HBO they have produced a high budget dramatisation of the last week of Christ's life on earth leading up to the Resurrection. The Passion started last night on BBC 1, continues tonight and Good Friday and will finish Easter Sunday night. Based on last night's opener the signs are pretty good.
As with all film versions of the life of Christ the key issue is how Jesus himself is played. Joseph Mawle (left) is a more bedraggled than usual Jesus, but he has an appealing smile, a gentle and compassionate manner. At this stage he seems quietly confident of the mission he has from his heavenly Father. We see him preaching, tending to the sick, and forgiving sins, but so far there seems a reluctance to show physical miracles - even where the scriptural context seems to call for it - there was one scene reminiscent of the sick man by the pool of Bethsaida and the healing of another crippled man. He says to this man that his sins are forgiven, but there's no talk of taking up the bed and walking. This naturalistic approach was evident from the beginning when it was hard to pick Jesus out from the crowd of apostles - no telling music or reverential camera angles, unlike Jesus of Nazareth when there wasn't any doubt that the magnetic and intense Robert Powell was Jesus. For me Powell's is still the definitive portrayal.
Jesus' mother makes a brief appearance, but she's rather grouchy about the trouble Jesus is getting himself into ("I didn't ask for this" she complains, not quite the Mary of the Magnificat), but they part on good terms at least.
The highly charged atmosphere of Jerusalem at Passover is captured well, with its intermingling of political and religious culture. Jesus causes a stir by his arrival. Pilate is in town worried about unrest, and anxious to show that Rome is boss. The Romans are rough and cruel as always but the Jewish temple guards are portrayed more sympathetically than in Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, while the Jewish high priests are also given a softer than usual treatment. So far Caiphas is a fairly sympathetic character, a family man trying to keep the peace and adopting a grin-and-bear-it approach to the Roman occupation. Judas is a spy for the Jewish religious establishment. At one stage tries to get him to see into his heart, but Judas is evasive and rather curiously, when he runs away Jesus says: "I'm sorry Judas".
The other apostles are hard to distinguish from each other at this stage.
I'll expand on these preliminary evaluations as the week goes on.

7/2/08
I've doing morality with 5th year students and over the last few days concentrating on choice, responsibility and consequences. By chance that very topic came up on the TV series Prison Break on Tuesday night last so I was able to use the relevant clip in class. ("He's a fan" muttered one student when I explained the storyline!) The main character Michael Schofield is a moral character - in the first series he had to break his unjustly imprisoned brother out of jail, and now is trying to break another prisoner out because the life of his nephew is being threatened. He wants to do the right thing and feels really bad about the harm he has inadvertently caused to innocent people along the way. In this week's episode he told his brother how tired he was of all these responsibilities and consequences. Then, having not allowed a young prisoner to join the latest escape attempt, he allows him to make the choice, but says he won't be responsible for this young prisoner. In between the two conversations we see a striking drawing on one of the walls of the jail - an upside down man skewered by a spear surrounded by what looks like the fires of hell! A symbol for the way he feels perhaps?

3/2/08
I'm continuing with my drama and religion module with Transition Year students - in the most recent class we looked at religious themes in Shakespeare - using extracts from Macbeth, Hamlet and Merchant of Venice, so it's all wonderfully cross-curricular! The extracts I use are on my Teachnet project site (here) and I use video clips of these extracts, borrowing from the English Dept video collection. The three extracts, with the accompanying texts on handout fit nicely into a double class, and of course it helps if you remind the students that they might be doing some of these plays for Leaving Certificate exams. The court scene from Merchant of Venice is particularly riveting for a class, especially if they don't know what's going to happen. Following Portia's great speech about "the quality of mercy" there is great tension as Shylock prepares to cut a pound of flesh out of Antonio.

20/1/08
Had a few spare classes with 6th year students after finishing my module early. Some of them complain about having to do religion when they could be doing Leaving Cert study (!) so I got together a worksheet (available on request - use contact link on left) on the moral issues in Othello, which they are studying as part of the English course. I thought it went reasonably well.
First we looked at how almost all of the seven deadly sins figured strongly in the play - they're all there except perhaps sloth, couldn't think of an example of that. Envy is one of the big themes of the play - the "green-eyed monster". Iago is envious of Cassio getting promoted over him and of Othello because he thinks (probably in the wrong) that Othello had an affair with his wife. Othello becomes envious of Cassio because, thanks to Iago's malicious rumour mongering, he thinks that Cassio is having an affair witrh his wife Desdemona. Lust is central too, though it features mostly when Othello wrongly imagines that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. Avarice is a strong motivation for Iago - he wants Cassio's job as Othello's lieutenant and he wants Roderigo's money. Gluttony didn't seem like an obvious one, but Cassio looses his job by overindulging in drink and allowing himself to be provoked into riotous behaviour. Because of his unjust suspicions Othello falls victim to wrath towards Desdemona, entirely loosing the run of himself and eventually murdering her. Finally, Othello also shows plenty of pride, especially nursing his wounded pride over the suspected affair, the way he tries to take the high moral ground in murdering Desdemona, fooling himself into thinking it's justified because she's dishonourable and he doesn't want her to ensnare more men! And his final speeches are dripping with pride as he seeks to ensure he'll leave a good reputation behind him when he dies (by his own hand).
Then we looked at how the seven moral commandments are broken by the characters in the play - fourth: Desdemona, it could be argued, dishonoured her father by eloping with Othello (the father certainly felt hard done by); fifth: there are several murders in the play; sixth: there are various hints and rumours of adultery, though mainly it's Iago spreading malicious rumours to bring down Othello; seventh: Emilia and Iago, her husband, effectively steal Desdemona's handkerchief - not a major crisis in itself, but it's a special one Othello gave her, and when Cassio innocently gets it thanks to Iago's machinations, Othello sees this as proof of the affair; eight: Iago's campaign against Othello is based a series of lies that has fatal consequences; ninth and tenth: there's a fair bit of coveting going on - Iago covets Cassio's job, Roderigo's money and even, briefly, Othello's wife.
So much ground to cover - I could have spent a week of classes on the topic.

I got great mileage out of the Three Wise Men in the first week back to school after Christmas. My freshest resource was the recently broadcast Liverpool Nativity (BBC) - a modernised version of the Nativity Story (see below for full review). Junior Cert students were quite positive but some 6th years were critical (they often are, and grouchy too!), not liking the use of modern music in such a context and criticising the acting and singing (I can see where they're coming from on that score). Mostly I just used the clips featuring the Wise Men, and even after seeing it several times I still enjoy it, especially where they bring the gifts and sing Lady Madonna. I also used some poetry, like Eliot's Journey of the Magi, but a few found this a bit downbeat fore the season. I got more positive feedback than I expected from the Powerpoint I did on the Wise Men in artwork through the centuries. Finally I used some music - including We Three Kings, the Roches' version, which was quite popular, especially with the juniors, as they liked the upbeat tempo. All the printed materials I used and the Poweroint show, are available on request (use contact link on left).

27/12/07
The most striking programme I saw over Christmas was The Liverpool Nativity on BBC - shown live on BBC 3 and then repeated on BBC 1 on the Sunday before Christmas. It was a modernised nativity play recorded live on the streets of Liverpool, featuring rock and pop music associated with the area. There was some slight controversy beforehand, but I thought the whole affair was entirely respectful of the Christian story.
It was the style rather than the substance that was unorthodox. The narrator was the Angel Gabriel! Soap actor Geoffrey Hughes (ex Coronation St I think) had "Gabriel" printed on his leather jacket, and wings painted on the back of it - subtle and imaginative I thought, rather than tacky. As the Annunciation approached he declared that Mary was a virgin, saving herself for her marriage to the beloved Joseph. Mary was a waitress in a Liverpool café, Joseph an asylum seeker trying to fit into his new country. Herod was transformed into Herodia, a ruthless and power hungry government minister with her own slimy spin-doctor, anxious to crush any messiah that might threaten her position. The Three Wise Men travelled by Rolls Royce, delayed on their way by the rush of last minute shopping on Christmas Eve!
The political subtext was less than subtle, with Herodia eroding civil rights to pursue her "war on terror", and talk of "régime change". She decided to score some political points with a roundup of asylum seekers, causing Joseph to have to be registered. To an extent I felt that a modern political agenda was being imposed on a timeless story, but then the political realities of the time were part of the original Christmas story, and pleas for a compassionate treatment of vulnerable people are still at the heart of that story. This wasn't claiming to be a historical presentation of the nativity, but a revisiting of an crucial event, seeing it through the lens of modern times, not a cheap effort to make it "relevant", but a creative and bold attempt to shake us into looking again at a story whose impact may have been dulled by everything from over familiarity to crass commercialism.
Much of the story was conveyed in song, and instead of opting to write new material for the occasion the producers chose songs associated with Liverpool. Obviously they weren't written with the nativity in mind, and not every word of every line fitted the context, but broadly they captured the spirit of the event, and this reworking gave them a whole new set of meanings. I, for one, won't hear them again without being reminded of this new layer of meaning related to the birth of Jesus. Needless to say, Beatles songs were prominent. Not surprisingly, All You Need is Love was the main anthem for the night, while Let It Be (sung as the shepherds and other visitors approached the crib) and Lady Madonna (sung by the Wise Men in the crib) seemed particularly suitable. Mary got to sing My Sweet Lord, but here it was in reference to her devotion to Joseph - their love story was very tasteful and convincing. I cringed when I heard one of the "shepherds" stating into John Lennon's Imagine. I know it's often seen as a deep meaningful song, but personally I find it bland - "imagine there's no heaven … and no religion too" as if such ideas were too divisive and had to be dumped to achieve world peace! Yet, whether by design or happy accident, the song was placed rather crucially - sung by a shepherd before the angels arrived to announce the good news. No need for such wishy washy and aimless sentiments after that!
Considering that the event was live across several Liverpool venues, with the actors dancing, running and singing, the few bum notes were understandable, and I loved the understated musical accompaniment - most songs were backed by simple guitar, violin and accordion arrangements, busker style, with an orchestra and choir for the big numbers.
On TV and Radio over Christmas there were plenty of carol services, plenty of religious songs on the mainstream music programmes, good coverage of religious services, and all that was welcome and important, but here was an imaginative programme that got thousands of people onto the streets of Liverpool to celebrate the Nativity without diluting the story, that got thousands more watching it on TV, and that blew out of the water any idea that the Christmas story hasn't got something compassionate and challenging to say to a 21st century audience.
Watching the programme I wondered what use I could make of it in religion class - mostly for next year. I normally show the Annunciation clip from Jesus of Nazareth, but this will make for an interesting contrast - Mary gets the news as she works in a café - Gabriel announces it to her in a disembodied voice only she can hear, and how she and Joseph cope with the news is really well done. After Christmas I normally do some classes on The Three Wise Men (more of that soon) and this year I will use some of the clips showing them meeting Herodia, and visiting the crib. When I do classes with Transition Year on religious themes in music and drama, many of the scenes should prove useful.

8/11/07
In English class have been studying Philadelphia Here I Come! by Brian Friel (comparatively with The Truman Show and The Importance of Being Earnest). Religion is part of the social background, but it’s not presented that positively. The Canon is in a long tradition of doddery/figure-of-fun clergymen, like Dr Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest, Fr Mulcahy in MASH, Rev Lovejoy in The Simpsons, you know the type. There’s the usual thing from Irish writers about the repressive/oppressive Church, especially in sexual matters, but there was one striking quote in a scene towards the end – the main character Gar is frustrated at the poor relationship he has with his father, it’s heartbreaking really, and he desperately wants to make sense of it before leaving for Philadelphia in the morning. As his father and the Canon play draughts/checkers the Private Gar makes a silent plea to the Canon: “you could translate all this loneliness, this groping, this dreadful bloody buffoonery into Christian terms that will make life bearable for us all … Isn’t this your job? - to translate? Why don’t you speak then? Prudence, arid Canon? Prudence be damned! Christianity isn’t prudent – it’s insane!”. In the context I take this to be a roundabout compliment to Christianity. Discuss!

5/11/07
Had a look at The Tudors on TV 3 recently. The production values are high, the costumes and sets are impressive, the actors are excellent - Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Katherine of Aragon, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII to name but a few, but I couldn't warm to it. It was unnecessarily crude, the foul language seemed anachronistic, and Henry made for a particularly repulsive character, especially played by Myers as a spoiled, selfish, petulant young fellow, a 16th century rock star! Henry's divorce case and the resultant conflict with Rome were central at this stage - as Henry was increasingly thwarted he started toying with the idea of becoming his own little pope in England. Thomas Moore figured increasingly coming across as a calm man of conscience, Henry insisted on him becoming Chancellor, though Moore was reluctant, aware of the storm clouds ahead. Henry knew Moore's opinion of the marriage dispute, but promised that it wouldn't cause him any trouble in his new office. Oh well, that didn't work out so well.

9/10/07
Meanwhile, in class I’ve managed to use a good few artistic resources. Continuing the “Images of God” classes in third year I used clips from Oh God You Devil, with George Burns as a genial old God – I used the scene late in the film where the main character contacts God by phone! The Insight video Jesus B.C. has its problems but the scene where Father Son and Holy Spirit discuss what to do with the rebellious human race is a useful attempt (the only one I know of) to portray the Trinity – with three actors – the Holy Spirit is portrayed as a black woman! Martin Sheen’s portrayal of God as a cocky young man in a white suit in the Insight video The Walls Came Tumbling Down sparked a few interesting comments – I used the opening 10 minutes. Would have used the scene from Bruce Almighty where Bruce meets God for the first time (hilarious) but my copy of that has gone astray. Tomorrow I’ll complete this module with a prayer service, which I’ll write up soon as I’ll be using some appropriate music along with scripture readings.

30/9/07
After a month back in school I still don't feel settled in. Trying to use some artistic resources as usual, but it's hard to find time to use new ones. Did use the Confession scene from Prison Break when I was doing the Sacrament of Reconciliation with 6th years, along with my older material e.g. confession scene from X-Files. Taped another recently, though too late for class, from Only Fools and Horses. Not my favourite programme. The confession scene had the main character feeling bad that a scam he got caught up in involved swiping lead off the Church roof. He seemed genuine, but the resulting leak in the ceiling inspired him to set up a weeping statues scam to raise funds to save an old folks home. Not really offensive, but not sure of it's educational value! You'll get a flavour of the episode here on YouTube. Might add it to the video page later.

27/9/07
I didn't think I'd be disappointed with Prison Break, the US drama series back for a third season on RTE 2 last Thursday night. Fair play to RTE for getting it first on this side of the Atlantic, but I'm beginning to wonder if the producers should have ended it on a high last season. The first season concentrated on efforts to break an innocent man out of a Chicago jail, the second serried followed the exploits of the prisoners on the run and maintained high standards of plotting and character development. Now, rather implausibly, many of the same characters are back in jail, this time in Panama, and we're set up for another jailbreak. The Chicago jail was bad enough, but this one is completely savage, making for some very uncomfortable viewing. I won't be surprised in the Panamanian government starts kicking up.

6/9/07
I see a spectrum - on one end obvious respect, and on the other blatant blasphemy. The difficulties arise when you get near the middle, where artistic expression in particular treads a fuzzy borderline.
The Simpsons treads that line often, digging more at our human expressions of faith rather than the faith itself. Another animated series, God The Devil and Bob, offended some religious people with influence and it was pulled from the schedules in the USA, while others saw it as being quite respectful even if it was a bit raunchy at times. Jesus: The Guantanamo Years is a comedy show by Aibe Philbin Bowman, working the conceit that Jesus, being a Middle Eastern bearded man on a mission, would have been hauled in by US immigration and sent into internment. On Saturday Edition on Newstalk last weekend he defended the show against DUP councillor Christopher Stalford from the North, who took issue with him using Jesus like this. Stalford insisted he wasn't against freedom of expression, or seeking for the show to be censored or banned and it was worthwhile hearing his point of view getting a good airing. But his case was seriously undermined when he made out that this kind of thing wasn't funny, even though he hadn't seen the show! I don't subscribe to the idea that you can't criticise anything unless you've experienced it personally (e.g. drunkenness, or an infamously pornographic film) but Stalford just wasn't convincing in his arguments, while Bowman came across as being respectful of Jesus, and actually supportive of what he taught - arguing that the prejudice shown towards those of Middle Eastern origin was not consistent with the teachings of Jesus. Mind you his claim that his show "totally understood" Jesus was over the top. He covered other bases carefully - he was quite happy with any terrorists in Guantanamo being jailed after a fair trail, appreciated that the USA was a much better country than many others, but felt that it was undermining the values that had made it so good. I checked out a clip from the show on the internet (www.myspace.com/aibelaughs) and while I was a bit uncomfortable with him playing Jesus in comedy stand up (complete with symbolic crown of thorns), I really couldn't argue that it was disrespectful, though I thought it would be funnier and more dynamic.

30/7/07
Meanwhile, drama series Prison Break is becoming more intense by the week. Now that RTE 2 is showing double episodes it's like watching a movie every Monday night. Last week's episodes had the main character becoming so paralysed with guilt for all the unintentional destruction he has caused that he goes to confession (to see this scene go to the videos page). Michael Scofield is basically a moral character, worried about how he has let the ends (freeing his innocent brother, who had been sentenced to death) justify the means (allowing destructive people and forces to be unleashed to further his plan). It's a rough show and well deserving of the mature audience tag, but the moral viewpoint is way ahead of the competition.

6/4/07
Just before the holidays I did a class on religious themes in animated TV drama, bringing the drama module to an end. I had previously given as homework an assignment to write about religious themes in a drama of the students' choice, and some wrote about The Simpsons, South Park or Family Guy.
After discussing some of these we concentrated on The Simpsons, and the students were very quick to come up with examples from a wide variety of episodes - chiefly the one where Homer invents his own religion, the time when Bart sells his soul, the episode where Flanders is portrayed as the Devil (one of the Halloween specials). The general consensus seemed to be that The Simpsons wasn't disrespectful to religion as such, but was just a laugh, not to be taken too seriously. Of course some critics do take it seriously, some finding fault, some finding it disrespectful, but then some say it's one of the main shows on TV that feature religion regularly, and while fun may be made of the foibles of some believers and clergy, there is never an attack on religion as such, and the show can be quite positive at times - e.g. the negative consequences of Bart selling his soul, Marge getting her children and husband to church every Sunday. Click here for an article that discusses these issues. Personally I enjoy the show, and would be inclined towards the positive interpretation, but I can also see that children may just see it as knocking religion, and may miss the subtleties. There are obvious problems with Flanders or Rev Lovejoy being seeing as the typical "religious" people. In class I used clips from the episode where Homer invents his own religion that makes no demands on him (could be seen as a send up of a la carte Christians). God appears in this one so it's also useful for classes on images of God. I also used a clip from the Halloween episode where Homer sells his soul for a doughnut. The students weren't familiar with it but I also used a clip from God The Devil and Bob, an animated series from a few years ago. A rather genial God challenges a fault ridden Bob to put things right in the world, while a suave devil tries to derail his efforts. It caused lots of controversy in the USA where it was eventually pulled off the airways, while BBC and RTE showed the full series. It had a Catholic religious adviser, (the late Fr Ellwood Keiser, who produced the imaginative Insight videos that are still used in some schools), and is very positive towards God and humanity. I really like it and used a clip from an episode where Bob's wife nearly looses her soul to materialism and gambling. It is quite raunchy in spots, so care has to be taken in school use.
I'm conscious that using programmes like The Simpsons in RE class could be seen as dumbing down the religion class, as being overly trendy, but in small doses, especially in the context of a course on religion in the arts, I think it's useful to tease out certain religious themes in a fun way, hopefully encouraging the students to be more critically aware of the media culture they are immersed in. It's an opportunity to highlight the good will in so many programmes, and on the other hand to draw attention to negative religious stereotypes.

17/3/07

In class I've been doing religious themes in TV drama. I started with a brainstorm from the students on what TV dramas they've seen that featured religious themes, and among the programmes that featured in the feedback were Father Ted, The Simpsons, Lost and Ballykissangel. I then showed some relevant clips, which were spread over two double classes. These are clips I have built up over the years and keep adding to, though not as diligently as before. Hard to find the time. I don't like using too many old clips, so I was glad to be able to show a clip from an episode of Lost which been on a few days previously - this was a scene where the Hurley character had prayed for enlightenment and got it. I also used a few earlier Lost clips - including the scene where Claire and her baby are baptised by Mr Eko. Some of my Lost clips are actually lost, so I had better trawl through my videos and catalogue everything. I used some clips from the X-Files as well, though as time goes on students are less familiar with this series. My article on the religious themes in the X-Files is on the articles section of the website. In one scene one of the main characters, Scully, is saying the rosary (you don't see that too often in TV drama), while her partner Mulder is blowing the lid on yet another government conspiracy. I also used a clip of Scully going to confession, where she talks about being afraid that God is speaking but that no one is listening.
I used a short Father Ted clip just to illustrate a point about stereotyping of nuns and priests and to raises issues relating to the respectful treatment of religion. However I don't particularly like the underlying attitudes in the show and was somewhat reluctant. The attitude of the boys was that it was only a bit of fun. Joan of Arcadia got a look in as well - the US show where God appears to a young girl in various guises. A clip from 7th Heaven was necessary to be comprehensive, though I got the feeling some of the lads didn't like it. I used a nice clip from a popular (but rough and sometimes adult in nature) series Band of Brothers, which is about the aftermath of D-Day. In an early episode a captain reflects and prays on the day's events, and promises God that if he survives the war he'll live a peaceful life. My Ballykissangel clips tape has gone missing, but I showed clips from Paradise Island, the American version, a short-lived series which was quite enjoyable. Next week I hope to do a class on relevant animated series, especially The Simpsons and God, The Devil and Bob. More of that anon. I plan to turn these clips into digital files so I can play them from the laptop, perhaps as Powerpoint presentations.

30/1/07
Last Friday we moved on to religious themes in Drama. After a general discussion on why drama is a good vehicle to convey the gospel, we worked on three extracts from Shakespeare. All the scenes I used, complete with commentary and audio clips of the speeches are on my second Teachnet site (http://www.teachnet.ie/boregan/Shakespeare/) These were the scene from Macbeth where he wonders about killing the king (great for discussion of conscience), the scene from Merchant of Venice where Portia outlines the value of mercy, and the scene from Hamlet where Claudius tries to pray, but his efforts to repent are thwarted because he isn't willing to give up his ill-gotten gains. In class we read through each scene first and then I showed the relevant video clip - most schools should have copies of the plays on video/DVD. I used the BBC versions of Macbeth and Merchant of Venice and the Kenneth Brannagh version of Hamlet (some versions omit this great scene). A nice touch is the way he sets this attempted repentance in a confession box, but as always check it in advance as the scene ends with a gory moment that isn't in the script! I usually stop the clip just before it.

16/10/06
I'm doing Images of God with third year boys at the moment. Got the first to "draw God" - a great exercise that provides many talking points as I ramble around the classroom, giving as much praise to the blank pages as to the human-looking depictions of God. Mind you I'd say the blank pages are more a reflection of students being off-task than reflecting on God as invisible spirit. I get great fun out of asking why so many put beards on God. Some student will usually talk about beards being a sign of wisdom at which point I stroke my own beard and say thanks very much! Today I continued with the theme by showing video clips with various depictions of God. Many of these are hard to get now, but are from the old American Insight videos that Veritas shops sold. For example there's the scene in Packy where the main character meets God (Bob Newhart) after he dies eating a chicken sandwich. This deals with the expectations people have about God. In a clip from the film Almost an Angel, Paul Hogan meets God (Charlton Heston) also after death. This is a more conventional representation - old guy, big white beard, cloak and floating on clouds with heavenly music in the background. A young Martin Sheen plays God in the Insight video The Walls Came Tumbling Down. A young God makes for an interesting image but he comes across as rather a show off - perhaps the old character he appears to needs to be gizzed up in this way. Bruce Almighty is a very funny film, though it has its crude moments. I used the scene where the Jim Carey character meets God (Morgan Freeman) for the first time. It's popular with students and makes some useful points. This is one of the few "black" god images I've come across, and he comes across as caring and powerful but also playful. I do point out that of course Jesus is the ultimate image of God, but at this stage I don't get into the ways Jesus has been portrayed on screen. An Insight video Jesus B.C. tries to portray the Trinity using three actors (the Holy Spirit is a black woman!), it's an interesting effort but the dialogue is a bit stodgy in spots and it is too American in flavour. And you have the silly notion of the three persons of the Trinity arguing with each other, with the Holy Spirit accusing Jesus of chauvinism! All in fun of course.

8/6/06
I stumbled on an American sitcom today (RTE 1 12.30 pm) in which prayer figured strongly - rather unusual. In The King of Queens the main characters are in a Catholic parish in New York, and in this episode a husband and wife argue over prayer. He thinks she's overdoing it, but she persists, and anyway he prays for his own stuff - like success for his team in a crucial match. . As the dialogue hots up the exchanges are very funny, but always respectful and even warm. The husband says it's like they're on a prying spree, like the Bonnie and Clyde of prayer! He reckons prayer should be left to those who know how to use it. He accuses her of praying for trivial stuff, but she knows God is "a smart guy" and can distinguish between the trivia and the serious issues. Might watch this again, though daytime TV goes against the grain.

19/5/06
There's something to be said for this time of year when some students start to drift away. Had a much better than usual 6th year religion class today with small numbers. We were doing the Eucharist, and the other day one of the students mentioned seeing The Manchester Passion over Easter on BBC (see entry below for Easter 2006) so I brought that in today and played my favourite scene - the Last Supper. It seemed to go down well, prompting plenty of questions. Have wearing out the new Springsteen album - Ok so there's no original material, but those old songs, icluding a few gospel numbers, are given a major revival, or as Bruce puts it on the accompanying DVD "recontextualised". We have some great old hymns that could do with the treatment, but are enough of our top contemporary performers well disposed enough? Any chance of Christ Moore singing Soul of My Saviour (soulfully!), or Mary Black doing Sweet Sacrament Divine? Any more ideas?