theodicy

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

As most occupants of Planet Earth know, last year's "Avengers: Infinity War" ended with the genocidal demigod Thanos using six "infinity stones" to erase half of all life in the universe.

It would have been logical to assume the sequel, "Avengers: Endgame" would start with lots of funerals, with pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and other shepherds working overtime to answer tough, ancient questions.

That assumption would be wrong.

"People are mourning, but they're going to therapy and support groups," said film critic Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com, also a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. "What we don't see are grieving people in church or even at funerals. … We don't hear anyone asking, 'Where is God in all of this?' "

It's rare to hear the theological term "theodicy" in movies, but people who frequent multiplexes often hear characters suffer tragic losses and then ask, "Why did God let this happen?" The American Heritage Dictionary defines "theodicy" as a "vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil."

This God-shaped hole at a pivotal moment in the "Avengers" series offers a window into the soul of the Marvel Comics universe and the minds of executives who shaped most of the 22 movies in this giant pop-culture mythology, said Greydanus.

"We are talking about a major fail, and not just from an artistic point of view," he said. "This shows a stunted view of how most people on Earth live their lives. Even people who are not religious tend to cry out and ask the big spiritual questions when faced with tragedy and loss. That's part of what it means to be human."

Not that many consumers are complaining. In it's first 11 days, "Avengers: Endgame" pulled in $2.19 billion at the global box office -- the fastest a film has reached $2 billion. Many insiders now assume it will eventually break the $3 billion barrier, passing the current No. 1 movie, the environmental-fantasy epic "Avatar," at $2.78 billion.

Truth is, global-market realities now affect how many blockbusters handle explicitly religious and even vaguely spiritual questions.

From John Henry Newman to Stephen Colbert: Ancient truths on suffering and death

While it's hard to journey from the intellectual legacy of the Blessed John Henry Newman to the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, it can be done.

This is a story worth hearing for those truly interested in centuries of Christian teachings about pain, suffering and loss, according to the social-media maven poised to become an auxiliary bishop in the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

 "God's providence is a mysterious and wonderful thing," noted Bishop-elect Robert Barron, founder of Word of Fire ministries. "One of the most potent insights of the spiritual masters is that our lives are not about us, that they are, in fact, ingredient in God's providential purposes, part of a story that stretches infinitely beyond what we can immediately grasp."

 Thus, a story that ends with Colbert begins with Newman and the 19th Century Church of England. Newman's interest in ancient doctrines and worship led the famous scholar-priest into Roman Catholicism. Called a traitor by many Anglicans, Newman started over -- creating a humble oratory in industrial Birmingham. Eventually he became a cardinal and, today, many consider him a saint.

The next connection, noted Barron, writing online, was the Rev. Francis Xavier Morgan, a priest in that Birmingham oratory who shepherded two orphaned brothers after their mother died in 1904. Her family had disowned her when she became a Catholic.

One of the brothers was J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote "The Lord of the Rings." As an adult, the Oxford don wrote a letter in which he addressed pain and suffering. A key point in the letter directly links this story to Colbert, an outspoken Catholic who is one of the most outrageous, controversial figures in American popular culture.

The comedian -- youngest of 11 children in a devout Catholic family in Charleston, S.C. -- has frequently discussed the deaths of his father, a former Yale Medical School dean, and two of his brothers in a 1974 plane crash. But Barron noted that, in a wrenching new GQ interview, Colbert dug much deeper than before.

During his work with Chicago's Second City troupe, Colbert was taught to risk failure, to push comedy to the point of transforming pain. A mentor told him: "You gotta learn to love the bomb."

Ultimately, Colbert learned to link that concept to the 1974 crash.

The unique life, tragic death and legacy of Father Matthew Baker

As a high-school dropout, Matthew Baker worked the graveyard shift at a gas station because he wanted time to read. 

So he read for seven years, digging into philosophy, literature, history and poetry. This helped steer him away from his teen-aged atheism and eventually towards Orthodox Christianity and the priesthood. He never graduated from college. 

But there was marriage and a large family to love. Then a seminary accepted Baker and then another, leading to a Master of Divinity from St. Tikhon's Orthodox Seminary in Pennsylvania and a Master of Arts from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts. This led to Fordham University doctoral work in theology, history and philosophy and a dissertation that was nearly done, allowing him to finally be ordained in 2014 and, this January, to move to his first parish. 

Then the 37-year-old Baker died on March 1, when the family minivan crashed off a snowy road after evening prayers at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Norwich, Conn. His six children -- ages 2 to 12 -- were not seriously injured. His wife Katherine was home, still recovering from a recent miscarriage. 

"This isn't just a tragic story. It's several tragic stories," said Father Andrew Stephen Damick of St. Paul Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pa., whose family shared a backyard with the Bakers in seminary. "You can write so many headlines on this story and they're all true." 

Two voices on opposite sides of the ultimate cancer issues

As millions of people now know, Brittany Maynard's husband Dan Diaz will celebrate his birthday on Oct. 26. They will gather with friends and family and then, days later, the 29-year-old Maynard plans to take the prescription drugs that will end her life.

The couple cleared legal, professional and financial hurdles to move from California to Oregon, where she is eligible for physician-assisted suicide. The clock was ticking -- due to a malignant brain tumor -- toward a "nightmare" she did not want her loved ones to have to endure with her.

As a spokesperson for Compassion and Choices, which evolved out of the old Hemlock Society, she shared the details of her diagnosis and choice at TheBrittanyFund.org and then through major media.

"Now that I've had the prescription filled and it's in my possession, I have experienced a tremendous sense of relief. ... It has given me a sense of peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty and pain," she wrote, in a CNN.com essay.

"Now, I'm able to move forward in my remaining days or weeks I have on this beautiful Earth, to seek joy and love and to spend time traveling to outdoor wonders of nature. ... When my suffering becomes too great, I can say to all those I love, 'I love you; come be by my side, and come say goodbye as I pass into whatever's next.' "

Columbine, Newtown and our culture of death

Blame it on the guns. No, blame the judges who banned Godtalk in schools, along with most lessons about right and wrong.

No, our lousy national mental health care system caused this hellish bloodbath.

No, the problem is the decay of American families, with workaholic parents chained to their desks while their children grow up in suburban cocoons with too much time on their hands.

No, it's Hollywood's fault. How can children tell the difference between fantasy and reality when they've been baptized in violent movies, television and single-shooter videogames?

Why not blame God?

These were the questions in 1999 when two teen-aged gunmen at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killed 13 people and themselves in the massacre that set the standard for soul-searching media frenzies in postmodern America.

All the questions asked about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are now being asked about Adam Lanza after he gunned down 20 first graders and six employees at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., before taking his life. He began his rampage by killing his mother in the suburban home they shared after the 2008 divorce that split their family.

After Columbine, Denver's archbishop wrote an agonizing reflection that looked toward a future after all the headlines and endless cable-news coverage. Last week the staff of Archbishop Charles Chaput, now leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, circulated those words once again. What has changed?

"The media are already filled with 'sound bites' of shock and disbelief; psychologists, sociologists, grief counselors and law enforcement officers -- all with their theories and plans," he wrote. "God bless them for it. We certainly need help. Violence is now pervasive in American society -- in our homes, our schools, on our streets, in our cars as we drive home from work, in the news media, in the rhythms and lyrics of our music, in our novels, films and video games. It is so prevalent that we have become largely unconscious of it. ...

"The causes of this violence are many and complicated: racism, fear, selfishness. But in another, deeper sense, the cause is very simple: We're losing God, and in losing Him, we're losing ourselves. The complete contempt for human life shown by the young killers ... is not an accident, or an anomaly or a freak flaw in our social fabric. It's what we create when we live a contradiction. We can't systematically kill the unborn, the infirm and the condemned prisoners among us; we can't glorify brutality in our entertainment; we can't market avarice and greed ... and then hope that somehow our children will help build a culture of life."

Columbine unfolded in the Easter season, noted Chaput, a time in which believers are reminded that even the Son of God was not spared the reality of death.

"The Son of God descended into hell and so have we all, over the past few days," noted the archbishop. "But that isn't the end of the story."

Now, the Newtown massacre has shattered the season of Advent, in the days preceding the 12-day season of Christmas -- another biblical event that included violence and the deaths of innocents, as well as the singing of angels and signs of ultimate hope.

Little has changed.

Death is real and life is precious. Innocence is fragile and sin is terrifyingly real. The violence that haunts our culture is real and at times impossible to prevent. America is blessed and cursed with charge cards, computers, cellphones and many other gifts of modern life.

Chaput and other clergy faced familiar questions this week. The only option, he said, is to look in the mirror.

"God is good, but we human beings are free, and being free, we help fashion the nature of our world with the choices we make," he said, in a new letter. "Every life lost in Connecticut was unique, precious and irreplaceable. But the evil was routine; every human generation is rich with it. Why does God allow war? Why does God allow hunger? ...

"We are not the inevitable products of history or economics or any other determinist equation. We're free, and therefore responsible for both the beauty and the suffering we help make. Why does God allow wickedness? He allows it because we -- or others just like us -- choose it. The only effective antidote to the wickedness around us is to live differently from this moment forward."

Bullets, Bibles and Big Questions

By age 14, Cassie Griffin had collected a bedroom full of toy frogs, each a playful symbol of her F.R.O.G. motto -- Fully Relying On God. She was tall for her age, which probably made it easier for gunman Larry Gene Ashbrook to target her on that horrific night a decade ago at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Cursing God and Baptists, he stormed into a youth prayer service, firing 100 rounds and exploding a pipe bomb -- leaving seven dead and seven wounded.

At a recent meeting of the Wedgwood deacons, Cassie's father gave his pastor a message for the faithful at the First Baptist in Maryville, Ill., where another disturbed gunman killed the senior pastor while he preached on Sunday, March 8.

"Let those people know that my son is still struggling," the deacon told the Rev. Al Meredith, who preached to the stricken Maryville flock exactly one week after their pastor's death.

This kind of tragedy, said Meredith, is not "something you get over with three points and a poem," a dose of scripture, a verse of "Victory in Jesus" and a proclamation that, "Everything's fine. Let's move on."

There's a "Greek word" for that kind of theology and it's "baloney," he said, preaching where the Rev. Fred Winters bled and died, his Bible blasted apart by one of 27-year-old Terry Joe Sedlacek's first shots. Police have not announced a motive.

"Every day with Jesus is not sweeter than the day before," said Meredith, in a sermon that swung from tears to gospel singing to laughter. "Some days are evil. In fact, the Bible says, 'Stand that you might be able to stand in the evil day.' Last Sunday was an evil day, and our hearts are breaking. ...

"People are going to ask, 'When are you going to get over this?' You're never going to get over this, but by God's grace you're going to get through it. And God will give you joy and peace in the midst of it, in the midst of the tears and the heartache. Have you learned that? You are learning it. It's the praise you give with a broken heart that is the greatest sacrifice you can offer God."

There are few pastors who have faced the challenge of preaching in a sanctuary that has blood on the carpet and bullet holes in the walls. There are few who have had to face the press after this kind of bloodshed, with most of the reporters asking an ancient question that is at the heart of mature faith: "Can you tell us where God is in all of this?"

Meredith, of course, addressed that question when he faced his own shell-shocked flock. That's why the Maryville church asked him to come preach.

Back in 1999, he said: "If God really loves us, if God is all powerful, why in the world did he let this happen? Why does God allow evil to seemingly abound in this world? Why Columbine? ... Why do a million and a half unborn babies have their lives snuffed out before they have a chance to breathe a breath? Why do children die of hunger daily around the world? Why is there pain? Why is there suffering? Why is there mental illness? ... The question is, 'Where is God when we hurt?' "

The reality is that there is no way to avoid suffering. Thus, the crucial test is whether believers can face trials and tribulations without sliding in despair.

Meanwhile, said Meredith, far too many churches are fighting about the "color of the carpet or the music they sing," while suffering people keep looking for some sense of hope -- in this world and the next. It doesn't help that anyone with a television remote can find scores of "health and wealth boys" who claim that true believers will avoid pain and strife altogether.

"Tell that to every saint that's died. Tell that to the saints that are struggling with unmitigated pain," he told the Maryville congregation. "God never promised us a life without trials. As Americans, we want a carefree and happy life. We think that's God's will for our lives. Get a clue. God's will for your life is to make you into the image of His Son, and that only happens through the heartaches and trials of life."

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.

Going in religion-news circles

Journalists may not know the precise meaning of the word "theodicy," but, year after year, they know a good "theodicy" story when they see one. The American Heritage Dictionary defines this term as a "vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil." Wikipedia calls it a "branch of theology ... that attempts to reconcile

the existence of evil in the world with the assumption of a benevolent God."

There were three "theodicy" events in 2005, so the Religion Newswriters Association combined them into one item in its top-10 story list. What linked Hurricane Katrina, the Southeast Asia tsunami and another earthquake in Pakistan? Each time, journalists asked the timeless question: What role did God play in these disasters?

Last year, it was the schoolhouse massacre of five Amish girls in Bart Township, Pa. The stunning words of forgiveness offered by the families of the victims added yet another layer of drama to the story.

"Every year there is going to be some great tragedy or disaster and that causes people to ask, 'Where was God?' These events may not seem like religion stories, but they almost always turn into religion stories because of the way people respond to them," said Richard N. Ostling, who retired last year after three decades on the religion beat, first with Time and then with the Associated Press.

"This tells us something important -- that it's hard to draw clean lines between what is religion news and what is not. ... Religious faith is part of how people think and how they live. This affects all kinds of things."

This is true in Iran and in Israel. It's true on Sunday mornings in American suburbs and during riots in the suburbs of France. It's true on the border between India and Pakistan and numerous other fault lines around the world.

Religion is a factor when people go to worship or when they decline to do so. For many, faith plays a role when they vote and when they volunteer to help others. Sadly, religion often plays a pivotal role when people go to war.

Thus, noted Ostling, events on this beat often seem to go in circles, with certain themes and conflicts appearing year after year, world without end -- amen.

This is frustrating for editors, who struggle to understand why religious believers "keep getting so upset about what seem to be the same old stories," he said.

For example, mainline Protestants have been fighting for decades over hot-button issues linked to ancient doctrines about marriage, gender and sex. More often than not, this leads to headlines about another round of changes in the U.S. Episcopal Church. One of the major stories of 2006 was the election of the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori -- an articulate feminist from the tiny Diocese of Nevada -- as the denomination's first female presiding bishop.

"This was an important story," noted Ostling. "But was there anything all that surprising about it? Not really." Meanwhile, the bigger story -- a chain reaction among parishes leaving the denomination -- is "probably harder to cover because it is spread all over the country," he said.

The fall of the Rev. Ted Haggard as president of the National Association of Evangelicals was a big story in 2006, but the typical news year always includes at least one sexy scandal of this kind.

The list goes on. Every election year will include a wave of reports about the degree to which religious issues did or did not drive Republicans, and increasingly Democrats, to the polls.

There are annual stories that pit science against religion and Hollywood against people in pews. Can journalists separate politics and faith in the Middle East? Are clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq about religious faith, political power or some combination of the two? What will the pope say that upsets people this year? Which church-state case split the U.S. Supreme Court this time around?

"The problem is that it's hard to know if any one event in this stream of events is the definitive one, the truly landmark event," said Ostling. "At some point, things change and they stay changed."

But journalists have to be patient, he said, because "people are looking for answers to the big questions and they don't change what they believe overnight."

Why God loves New Orleans

Wherever they go, preachers are asked to stand up and pray.

The Rev. Joe McKeever is the missions director for a Southern Baptist regional association, which is rather like being bishop of a flock that doesn't believe in bishops. This means that he gets asked to pray even more than the next guy with a Bible.

McKeever says yes -- on one condition. Before the prayer, he insists on delivering a mini-sermon he calls, "What New Orleans and Heaven Have In Common." McKeever, you see, leads the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans.

"Obviously, people in heaven and in New Orleans love the saints," he said, reached by a shaky cell-phone link in Mississippi. "Both places love a party, since heaven always has a good reason to party and New Orleans doesn't need a reason." And then there's I-10, an interstate highway that will "get you to either place really quick, if you aren't careful."

But the 65-year-old McKeever always slips in something serious. There's a truth about New Orleans he wants other believers to grasp, especially as many of Hurricane Katrina's victims prepare to rebuild.

The other reason heaven and New Orleans are alike, he said, is a "simple matter of diversity. Both places are made up of people from every nation under the sun. ... Whenever I hear people say they want to reach the world for Jesus Christ, I tell them to come to New Orleans -- it's already here."

Life is a blur right now, which is understandable since McKeever's office address is 2222 Lakeshore Drive and the shore in question belongs to Lake Pontchartrain. Before Katrina, he worked with 77 congregations and 63 missions in Orleans and Jefferson parishes and the thin arc of towns south on the Mississippi River.

Many of these churches are fine since they're in the suburbs and exurbs around the flooded bowl that is New Orleans. But some of the sanctuaries are in bad shape or ruined. It's easy to imagine conditions at the Dixieland Trailer Park Mission. After the storm, McKeever's office spent hours trying to find the pastors of his 60 missions and drew a blank, since they are scattered across the nation.

McKeever said he has been overjoyed at the outpouring of support for Katrina's victims, especially from religious groups nationwide. He is convinced that most of the help and the more than $500 million in charity donations are coming from people who acted for religious motivations. He can't prove that, but he believes it.

More volunteers from a wide variety of churches and other faith groups are poised to rush into New Orleans once they get an all-clear signal to do so. Early this week, Southern Baptist Convention leaders reported that their volunteers had already served about 2 million meals along the ravaged Gulf Coast.

When all is said and done, McKeever believes that New Orleans will be flooded again -- this time with compassion. Many of the walls that have long divided church people in the region were, quite literally, ripped down, he said.

This would be remarkable since Southerners have highly mixed feelings about the Big Easy. They consider it a strange, glorious, corrupt and soulful city, a place where demons dance right out in the open and more than a few of the saints, when they do come marching in, are drunk. As former New York Times editor Howell Raines said recently, in highest praise, New Orleans is the "one Southern place where the Bible Belt came unbuckled."

McKeever has seen that side of the city. As a seminarian, he volunteered for street-preaching duty in the French Quarter. But he said he has decided that there is more to the Crescent City than revelry, voodoo, alcohol and temptation. There are the believers in a wide variety of pews who have found their place in its unique cultural gumbo.

"Someone told me before we moved here that to be a true Christian in New Orleans was different from the Bible Belt," he said. "They said that sin was so black here that believers shine like diamonds against a jeweler's black velvet. I've frequently thought the Christianity I've seen here, far from being the weak kind outsiders expect in such a city, is actually of a purer variety for this very reason."