A holy kind of anger

Anyone who has turned on talk radio, scanned the headlines or visited Capitol Hill lately knows that millions of Americans are angry. Democrats are mad at Republicans who are mad about President Barack Obama's health-care plans. Democrats are mad at other Democrats who are raising questions about hot-button issues in the legislation, especially questions about tax dollars and abortions. Republicans are mad about lots of other things and they have YouTube videos to prove it.

Right now, America's political elites are getting angry about the fact that so many people are angry. It's almost a Zen thing.

All of this anger is supposed to be a bad thing, a sign that the nation is coming unglued. But that may or may not be true, depending on what these angry citizens are mad about and what they choose to do with their anger, noted Leon J. Podles, a Catholic conservative known for his slashing critiques of the church hierarchy's weak responses to decades of clergy sexual abuse of children.

"If the politics of anger can't lead to constructive actions, then all that anger is meaningless and, ultimately, doesn't do anyone any good," stressed Podles. "Still, I would argue that anger is more positive than apathy, especially when citizens are angry about issues that are worth being angry about.

"Anger is certainly better than people sitting back on their sofas and saying, 'Ho hum, millions of unborn babies are dying.' It's better than people saying, 'Ho hum, people are dying because they don't have health care, but so what?' These are issues that should make rational people get angry."

Writing in the ecumenical journal Touchstone, Podles argued that it's especially important for Christians and other religious believers to understand that anger is not always a sin or an emotion that must be avoided. In fact, that there are circumstances in which it is a sin not to feel anger. The ultimate question, he said, is whether anger leads to rational, constructive, virtuous actions.

Who would argue, for example, that it was wrong for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to feel righteous anger about the impact of racism and economic injustice on the lives of millions of black Americans? Who would argue that it was wrong for Nelson Mandela to draw strength from the anger he felt during his 27 years in prison under South Africa's apartheid regime?

It's crucial in both of these cases, stressed Podles, that these men did not allow their anger to turn into hatred of their oppressors. Instead, it led to courageous and strategic acts to accomplish worthy goals.

"Anger must be more than mere emotion," he stressed. "Anger must also be proportionate to the evil that provokes that anger. Take road rage, for example. That kind of anger is completely irrational and it accomplishes nothing."

Then there are cases in which powerful people fail to feel anger about issues that are directly under their control, issues that their actions could affect in direct and positive ways. In his book "Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church," Podles attempts to understand why so many bishops failed to be outraged by the sins committed by some of their priests and, thus, failed to channel that anger into actions to stop the crimes.

"If the bishops had not coddled these priests, if they had not hidden them and then put them back into parishes full of children and parents who were kept in the dark, they could have prevented evil acts against thousands of victims," he said. "There were bishops who could have acted and they should have acted. But they didn't act. … For some reason they never got angry and, as a result, they never acted to protect the laity, especially the children."

There are times that call for unity, diplomacy, conciliation and peacemaking in the church and in public life, said Podles. But there are also times when leaders must feel outraged about corruption and injustice. There are times when anger must be allowed to fuel actions that defend virtue.

"There are evils in this world that we can do something about and we should get angry about them," he said. "In any battle, it's hard to act in an effective manner without a kind of appropriate anger that energizes your actions. Without that anger, innocent people will suffer and evil will win the day."

American exorcist, 2009

It was clear from the man's testimony that all hell was breaking loose in his life and he needed help. However, since this man was a scientist, Father Gary Thomas wasn't surprised that he was a skeptic when it came to supernatural evil. That was fine, since one of the first things the priest learned in Rome while training to be an exorcist was to remain as skeptical as possible, as long as possible. Still, there were troubling facts in the man's story -- such as an episode when a counselor urged him to channel spirits.

Finally, the priest turned to "De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam (Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications)," the Vatican document released in 1998 that contains a modernized exorcism rite. He has been fighting this man's demons ever since.

"When we started, he told me, 'Wait! Can't you just take this thing right out of me?' But that's rarely how things work," said Thomas, the official exorcist in the Diocese of San Jose in northern California. "It's hard to get people to understand that no two exorcisms are the same. Reality isn't like the movies."

The subject of demonic possession remains controversial, as illustrated by the media storm that greeted the revised exorcism rite, which was required by a Vatican II mandate three decades earlier. Later, the Vatican announced that Pope John Paul II had personally performed three exorcisms during his pontificate.

While the new rite warned exorcists not to confuse diabolic possession with mental illness, it also affirmed ancient teachings about the reality of spiritual warfare, as illustrated by biblical accounts of Jesus performing exorcisms.

Truth is, stressed Thomas, the events of Holy Week -- especially Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter -- make no sense without real demons, real temptations and a real hell. But many Catholics disagree.

"There are plenty of bishops and priests who simply do not believe in Satan and demons and they have told me so," he said. "That makes a difference. What most people do not realize is that bishops are like independent contractors and they can do whatever they damn well want to do. ... That's why we don't have many exorcists in America."

At the request of his own bishop, Thomas took a Vatican-approved approved course on demonic possession while living at the North American College in Rome in late 2005 and early 2006. As part of his studies, the second-career priest -- who worked in a mortuary before seeking ordination -- participated in more than 80 exorcisms with a senior Italian exorcist. These experiences form the heart of "The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist," a new book written by American journalist Matt Baglio.

For the past three years, the 55-year-old priest has quietly been using the techniques he learned in Rome. He said that his teachers, from the beginning, emphasized that an exorcist must strive to remain the "ultimate skeptic," pursuing every pastoral option before turning to the exorcism rite as a last resort.

Modern exorcists are urged to work with psychiatrists, psychologists and physicians while evaluating those who are suffering. They also test to see if spiritual health can be restored through confession, healing rites and frequent participation in Mass. However, Thomas noted that these contacts with "holy things" occasionally trigger open displays of demonic powers.

It's one thing to hear the voice of a demon on a recording or to read pages of blasphemies in transcripts. Face-to-face encounters are another matter.

The classic signs of possession have been established for ages. The possessed may exhibit superhuman strength, describe private events in the life of an exorcist or possess the ability to speak languages -- such as Latin -- they have never studied. They often suffer bizarre physical reactions to contact with holy water, crosses or icons.

Most people seeking exorcisms are simply physically sick, mentally ill or emotionally distressed. Some may try to fake "Hollywood-esque symptoms" in order to draw sympathy or attention.

"You may see case after case in which there are other explanations for what these people are suffering," stressed Thomas. "But then, every now and then, you see things that let you know that you are dealing with the real thing. That's when you know that sin is real, hell is real and Satan is real. That's when you learn what the cross and the resurrection are all about."

Waiting for the WHY shoe to drop

You're waiting for the other shoe to drop.

You know the shoe I'm talking about -- the religion shoe. When the Virginia Tech University story broke, you began clicking from website to website, channel to channel, seeking information and, then, something more.

You've seen photos of mourners in pews, offering comfort and seeking solace. You know that believers will pray and that journalists will keep aiming cameras at them, because, that?s what Bible Belt people do. People in southwest Virginia put scriptures on big road signs and build huge crosses next to Interstate highways. They pray. It's a good photo, but it's just prayer. Right?

No, you're waiting for a real religion angle to surface, a crazy one linked to violence and power. After all, religion surfaces in so many bloody stories these days.

Plus, you know there are politicos here inside the Beltway who are sitting, TV remotes in their hands, waiting to grade the candidates. Will Barack Obama get the tone right, with the right mixture of scripture and concern? Will Hillary Clinton look chilly? Will anyone in the GOP herd look both presidential and pastoral?

You know the pope will say something and that -- no matter what he says about the mysteries of life and death, good and evil -- it will appear in news reports as a naive cry for peace and for an end to violence.

Then again, journalists know that the Jerry Falwell's Liberty University is up I-81 from Blacksburg. So maybe he'll come to Virginia Tech and talk about jealousy, broken hearts and the sexual revolution. Or maybe Pat Robertson will say -- something, anything. Then, on the other side, perhaps the atheist version of Robertson could call a press conference and say this tragedy is more evidence that life is random and without purpose. That would work.

You're waiting to find out what video game the shooter played all hours of the day and night. Did he go to see the movie "300" one too many times? Was he driven by Satan or too many "Left Behind" novels? People on both sides of the sacred vs. secular divide need to know.

You're waiting to see if he killed more women than men. You want to know if the big massacre started in the classroom of an evangelical professor who once witnessed to the shooter and made him mad. You heard reporters say the shooter was Asian and you immediately thought: Asia? What part of Asia? What religion was he?

You're waiting for something that points toward the source of this evil. Am I right? And if you remember the Columbine High School massacre, you may be thinking of that column that journalist Peggy Noonan -- a traditional Catholic -- wrote about the "culture of death" hours after that hellish day.

She wrote: "Your child is an intelligent little fish. He swims in deep water. Waves of sound and sight, of thought and fact, come invisibly through that water, like radar; they go through him again and again, from this direction and that. The sound from the television is a wave, and the sound from the radio. ... The waves contain words like this, which I'll limit to only one source, the news:

"... took the stand to say the killer was smiling the day the show aired ... said the procedure is, in fact, legal infanticide ... is thought to be connected to earlier sexual activity among teens ... court battle over who owns the frozen sperm ... contains songs that call for dominating and even imprisoning women ... died of lethal injection ... had threatened to kill her children. ... had asked Kevorkian for help in killing himself ... protested the game, which they said has gone beyond violence to sadism ... showed no remorse ... which is about a wager over whether he could sleep with another student ... which is about her attempts to balance three lovers and a watchful fiance...

"This is the ocean in which our children swim. This is the sound of our culture. It comes from all parts of our culture and reaches all parts of our culture, and all the people in it, which is everybody."

You're waiting for the other shoe to drop. You want to know the eternal "why" in "who, what, when, where, why and how."

I know that I do.

Hollywood doubts and the devil

NEW YORK -- When it comes to real-life exorcisms, movie director Scott Derrickson has read the transcripts and studied stacks of tapes.

He didn't see heads spin 360 degrees or volcanoes of pea-soup vomit. He was, in the end, convinced that demons are real. The results went into "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," a chilling movie that Derrickson hopes will make believers think twice about what they believe and doubters have doubts about their doubts.

"The research phase was horrible," he said, during press events preceding the Sept. 9 release. "I am glad that I know so much about it. That's good knowledge to have. As a writer, it certainly is. I also feel that for me, as a Christian, it is good to have that knowledge. But I will never do that again."

The movie was inspired by the story of Anneliese Michel, a German college student and devout Catholic who died during exorcism rites in 1976. Doctors said her seizures and visions were caused by epilepsy. Her family was convinced otherwise and their bishop agreed to allow a series of exorcism rites.

The ordeal eventually took her life. State officials prosecuted the parents and their priests for criminal negligence, leading to a trial that divided skeptics and believers -- then and now.

Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman moved this story to the American heartland, changing scores of details. The result wraps a horror movie inside a courtroom drama, with Emily's story told in flashbacks. The big question: Is this a story of fatal abuse caused by superstition or an inspiring account of a battle with evil incarnate?

After weeks or terror, Emily writes a letter in which she describes a heavenly vision. In it, the Virgin Mary tells her that she can die peacefully or struggle on, enduring more pain but proving that demonic possession is real. On the witness stand, the family's priest reads this letter and emphasizes this passage: "People say that God is dead. But how can they think that if I show them the devil?"

The movie is light on special effects and heavy on scenes that blur -- but do not erase -- the lines between faith and science, the natural and the supernatural. "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is not a film for moviegoers who avoid the sound of creaky wooden floor planks, the scratch of fingernails on plaster walls, the howling of hellish voices in ancient tongues or the crunch of insects between human teeth. Is this insanity or spiritual warfare?

The timing was good for a movie built on spiritual questions, admitted Derrickson. A studio executive read the script and gave it a green light days after the release of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

The key, said actress Laura Linney, is that the movie doesn't tell "people what to think or to believe." Instead, it shows how people with different beliefs view mysterious events in different ways. The cast and crew included people with a variety of religious beliefs, as well.

Linney plays a doubter who defends the priest. The prosecutor is portrayed as a progressive Christian, a Bible-reading modernist who is repulsed by this encounter with what he considers an ancient, irrational and dangerous form of faith. Similar conflicts are dividing many religious groups today.

The goal, said Linney, was to open up "one of the big mysteries: Where does evil come from? Is it stuff in our brains or is it something outside of ourselves? Some people have very strong opinions about it, one way or the other." Hopefully, this film "will cause both sides to re-evaluate and to listen to the other side," she said.

In the end, Derrickson said he hopes moviegoers will dare to ask tough questions about good and evil, God and Satan.

"Right now, there is plenty of amorphous belief out there about God," he said. "Lots of people are saying, 'God is within us. God is a force. God is everything. God is everywhere.' ... They don't really believe in a God who makes demands, who judges, does things that make us uncomfortable. They're vague about evil, too.

"What we tried to do was make an entertaining movie that scared people. But I also wanted people to stop and think about all of that."

The roots of King's dream

The telephone rang after midnight and sleep was not an option for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., after he answered it.

It was late 1956. Years later, King quoted that hellish voice: "Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren't out of this town in three days, we are going to blow your brains out and blow up your house."

King ended up in the kitchen, meditating on the mystery of evil and worrying about his family. He began praying out loud, voicing his feelings of weakness, frustration and fear. Soon, he fell into a waking dream in which God gave him comfort and courage. He glimpsed the future.

The next day, King told reporters: "I had a vision."

This became a touchstone event and shaped one of his signature themes. But the wording had changed by the time King reached the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963.  By then the voice of the Civil Rights Movement was crying out: "I have a dream."

Four decades later, this speech may be the only exposure that millions of young Americans have ever had to King's preaching and writing, said Drew Hansen, author of "The Dream," a new book that offers an in-depth analysis of the history and content of the speech.

This is sadly limited view of a complex man and his times, said the 30-year-old Seattle lawyer. But many who watch or read this speech may be inspired to learn more. After all, that is what happened to Hansen during a Yale Law School class on civil rights. He dug deeper and what he found was both inspiring and sobering.

"It's easy to focus on this speech and King's victories and all those barriers that fell back in the days when things were so bad," said Hansen, an evangelical Christian who graduated from Harvard and also studied theology at Oxford University.

"Focusing on this speech alone is certainly a lot easier than meditating on all of the barriers that remain. ... But still, this is a wonderful place to start as we give King the homage that is his due as a preacher, public philosopher, field general and prophet."

It is crucial to grasp the context. Hansen noted that King traveled about 275,000 miles and delivered at least 350 speeches during the year of the March on Washington. Witnesses said he worked on the text up to the last minute, literally marking out passages and scribbling in others as he sat waiting to speak.

Hansen's book includes material from rough drafts prepared by aides as well as a side-by-side comparison of the text as King wrote it and then delivered it. This includes detailed descriptions of the preacher's vocal inflections and use of dramatic pauses and repeated sentence constructions that let his listeners to respond to his words like skilled jazz musicians.

"King knew how to read his audience," said Hansen. "That had been part of his training since he was a little boy in his daddy's church. This address was a case of a talented preacher getting caught up in a call-and-response experience, not just with the audience in front of him, but with the whole nation. "That's why these words touched people then and they touch people now."

It was supposed to have been a political speech. Yet nearly every significant metaphor in it can be traced to a biblical source, noted Hansen. Growing up in black Baptist churches, King had been baptized in the words, grammar and imagery of the King James Bible. This provided a solid foundation as he spoke to African Americans and, ironically, to white Protestants in the Deep South. King knew that the Bible had authority --authority to inspire and to judge.

This is what King turned to as he faced the nation. The entire "I have a dream" section of the speech was not in his written text.

"He wrote a political address," said Hansen. "It's not that other people wrote a political address for him. King's own draft was nothing like a sermon. But the speech he actually delivered was not dominated by that kind of political language. He left lots of that out and everything he added was rooted in biblical images and themes. That changed everything."

Tolkien, creation & sin

NEW YORK -- Screenwriter Philippa Boyens gets a tired look in her eyes when she recalls the surgery required to turn "The Lord of the Rings" into a movie, even a sprawling trilogy of three-hour movies.

"It's so hard," she said. "It's hard, it's hard, oh God, it's hard."

One agonizing cut in the screenplay removed a glimpse of the myth behind J.R.R. Tolkien's 500,000-word epic. In this lost scene, the traitor Saruman is torturing the noble Gandalf. "What," asks the evil wizard, "is the greatest power?" Gandalf replies, "Life."

"You fool," says Saruman. "Life can be destroyed. Did I teach you nothing?"

Trying again, Gandalf says, "Creation."

"Yes," answers Saruman, "the power to create life."

Millions of readers and now moviegoers have seen "The Lord of the Rings" as an epic tale of good versus evil.

Many have tried to pin labels on each side. The dark lord Sauron and his minions represent Nazi Germany and the armies of Middle Earth are England and its allies. Wait, said scribes in the 1960s. The forces of evil were industrialists who wanted to enslave Tolkien's peaceful, tree-hugging elves and Hobbits. The dark lord's "One Ring to rule them all" was the atomic bomb, or nuclear power, or something else nasty and modern.

The reality is more complex than that, said Boyens, after a press screening of "The Two Towers." Director Peter Jackson's second "Lord of the Rings" reaches theaters on Dec. 18.

"This is not a story about good versus evil," she said. "It's about that goodness and that evilness that is in all of us."

Anyone who studies Tolkien, she said, quickly learns that the Oxford don rejected allegorical interpretations of his work.

Nevertheless, Tolkien was a devout Catholic and his goal was to create a true myth that offered the modern world another chance to understand the timeless roots of sin. Thus, even his darkest characters have mixed motives or have been shaped by past choices between good and evil. Even his virtuous heroes wrestle with temptations to do evil or to do good for the wrong reasons.

The dark lord Sauron, noted Boyens, "was your basic fallen angel. If you go back even further within this mythology, you have a world that begins with Iluvatar, who is the One, who is basically God."

Iluvatar created the world through music, noted Boyens. But one angel, Melkor, was "jealous of the power of creation" and struck a note of discord, shattering the harmony. Yet Iluvatar did not destroy his creation. Instead, he gave his creatures the freedom to make choices between darkness and light, between evil and mercy.

It is hard to put this level of complexity on a movie screen. Nevertheless, Boyens and Jackson stressed that the "Lord of the Rings" team tried to leave the foundations of Tolkien's myth intact. The ultimate war between good and evil is inside the human heart.

"We didn't make it as a spiritual film, but here is what we did do," said Jackson, who is a co-writer and co-producer as well as the director of the project. "Tolkien was a very religious man. But we made a decision a long time ago that we would never knowingly put any of our own baggage into these films. ...

"What we tried to do was honor the things that were important to Tolkien, but without really emphasizing one thing over another. We didn't want to make it a religious film. But he was very religious and some of the messages and some of the themes are based on his beliefs."

The goal is to retain the timeless quality of the books, said Jackson.

Most of the filming for this three-movie project was done before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, he noted. The director had no way to know his movies would reach theaters during such tense times. Once again, many want to match headlines with events in Tolkien's masterwork.

"You sort of get the impression -- which can be depressing -- that Tolkien's themes really resonate today and that they're probably going to resonate in 50 years and then in 100 years," said Jackson. "I don't think humans are capable of actually pulling themselves out of these basic ruts."