This year I’m trying to see as many of the big Oscar nominees as possible. Last Friday I checked off my first film: Philomena, which is about an Irish woman’s search for her son, who was adopted by American parents some 50 years before. Philomena was one of the Magdalene girls, unwed mothers who were essentially incarcerated in various Catholic institutions and forced into unpaid labor as payment for their shameful mistakes.
It’s an excellent movie, though devastating to watch. It brings up any number of issues related to faith. Here are a couple:
The importance of forgiveness. I wished for a more nuanced portrayal of the topic, however. Near the end of the movie, there’s a scene in which a roomful of religious people practically cluck in disdain at the character of Martin Sixsmith (the journalist who’s been helping Philomena), who is livid at the injustice and secrecy that has persisted for decades. The implication in their response (including Philomena’s) is that he needs to let go of his anger and forgive because such negative feelings serve no purpose.
Forgiveness is indeed a gift of grace. And simmering resentments can corrode our lives. But Martin’s anger in that moment was appropriate. Given the magnitude of the injustice, it was more than that. It was righteous.
I’d wager that any anger the real Martin felt provided motivation for the writing of the book, which after all, served to bring this important story to light. Anger, properly harnessed, is a powerful fuel, and it bothers me when religious people are portrayed in such a milquetoast manner in popular culture.
But pop culture didn’t invent that image out of whole cloth. The Church, if I may be so monolithic, has offered plenty of inspiration for such a portrayal.
But it’s not just the anger and forgiveness thing…
Issues of the body and sexuality. We are still so primitive when it comes to talking about sex and our bodies. The young Philomena is doubly disadvantaged: she was not taught enough basic anatomy to understand how to prevent pregnancy. But she wasn’t taught anything about her body and its own pleasures, either—she admits with some chagrin that she enjoyed her “sin,” and exclaims to Martin Sixsmith, I never even knew what a clitoris was!
We in the Church are still dealing with the aftermath of that old Greek dualism in which the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers were steeped: spirit good, body bad. But as Martin’s character asks Philomena, what kind of God would create us with these natural sexual urges and then saddle us with such screwed-up, shame-filled religious baggage at the same time? How can something that feels so good be so very very bad? (Secular culture is not much better. Yes, the contours are different. But body image issues, self-punishment to fit an unattainable ideal, the rise of cosmetic surgery in the age of Photoshop—it’s not like the Church is a lone dysfunctional voice.)
We can rejoice that the Magdalene laundries are a memory (though not a distant enough one; the last one closed in the ’90s). But it’s still hard for us to talk about the body in a mature and meaningful way. The spiritual resources are there; we just have to embrace them.
Last week I wrote an endorsement for a book of spiritual practices for families. It’s a wonderful resource, full of ideas for parents to bring their faith into everyday life, whether it’s offering blessings at bedtime or welcoming a new pet to the family. It was one of the easiest endorsements I’ve written, and you’ll be hearing more from me about the book when it’s released.
But as I reflected on the legacy of Philomena, I realized with a start that there’s nothing in the book about children’s physical and sexual development. And I’m not saying this to knock the book at all—I myself didn’t see a thing missing until the movie prompted me to think about these things.
An obvious one: there must be a way for families (or at least mothers) to mark the occasion of a girl’s first period from a spiritual/faith perspective. My eldest daughter is excited because I’ve promised to take her to Spa World to celebrate this milestone. But there must be more that could be said or done. I’m not talking about a big show or an embarrassing display. I’m talking about some language celebrating God’s good gift of creation and the beauty of our bodies, fearfully and wonderfully made.
How about a teen’s first date? Or a first breakup? Surely the Christian tradition can offer more than a pint of Ben and Jerry’s…
What about a young person’s coming out?
And the real kicker. According to Wikipedia, the average age for a young person to have sex for the first time is 17. That means they’re living under our roofs when it happens. How do we respond to this from a faith perspective?
Can I envision what a faith-filled ritual would look like between parent and young person after she loses her virginity? No, I really can’t. Does such a thing sound easy? Do we need to consider the young person’s privacy and autonomy? No and yes. But that’s all the more reason for the church to be a resource for parents. Don’t we want the kind of relationships with our children such that they could share news of that milestone with us? If so, then we should be ready, with the best our tradition can offer them. (See Tami Taylor’s conversations with Julie on Friday Night Lights—some great stuff to build on there. So simple and authentic.)
I’m not talking about a lecture on abstinence. Parents should communicate their own values, though lectures aren’t terribly effective in my experience. I’m also not talking about the contraception/condoms discussion, though such a conversation is essential; it’s borderline parental malpractice not to have it.
No, I’m talking about making it clear to our kids that their sexual lives are not divorced from their faith, but an essential part of it. I’m talking about repairing the body/spirit duality such that our lives are one integrated whole.
Does a resource containing such rituals exist? If so, I hope my readers will alert me. If not, maybe my friend will write a sequel.
Hey, I’d love for you to join my email list for further inspiration and content. And if you haven’t already checked out Sabbath in the Suburbs, the price has dropped on Amazon! And of course it’s available from Chalice Press, my publisher.
Image: The Dench and Steve Coogan in a still from the movie. If you’re interested in discerning fact from dramatic license in the film, here’s a place to start.