The Bells of St. Mary’s – An OCF Classic Movie Review

This week is Thanksgiving and that means we’ve reached the Holiday season.  And going hand in hand with that is my annual holiday movie watching and reviewing ritual.  In years past I’ve especially concentrated on versions of “A Christmas Carol.”  And rightly so.  It is almost a transfiguration of the generosity of the Christmas holiday into a mythic experience.  There is an actual catharsis associated with experiencing Scrooge’s repentance and rebirth.  So, without a doubt I will have something new to say about Dicken’s classic again this year.

But let’s return to the task at hand.

Tonight, I watched again “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”  I’ve seen it many times before.  First off, it’s not actually a Christmas movie.  The movie begins in the Fall and ends in the late Spring.  There is indeed a scene or two associated with Christmas as it relates to the eponymous Catholic grammar school that is the focus of the film.  But it is incidental, not central to the plot.  Strictly speaking, there is no holiday theme to the movie at all.  What there is, is a representation of an American Roman Catholic parish grammar school from the middle of the twentieth century.  And when I say it is a representation and not an actual reflection, I can speak with all the assurance of thirteen years of Catholic school experience to back it up.  Without a doubt, the priests and nuns that I encountered in school and church bore not the faintest resemblance to the kind, patient, loving and wise religious figures that exist in the film.  Quite the contrary, I know without a doubt that some of the priests, brothers and nuns that I knew were truly evil and committed atrocities for which they can never be forgiven.  So, I have no illusions as to the reality of Catholic education and those administering it.

Also, this is a movie from 1945.  America was close to defeating the Axis powers in World War II when the movie was being made.  The populace was united and determined and looking forward to winning the war and returning to normal life including marriage and children.  Everything about the movie reflects a societal view that was carefully orchestrated by Hollywood and the Federal government to maintain morale for the civilians at home and the troops abroad.  Wholesome entertainment and Christian values were the coin of the realm.  And they were especially important around Christmas time.  So, what we see is the Hollywood idealization of Catholic grammar school life.

Put all that together and you have to conclude that this movie is a lie.  A deliberate fabrication.  Shouldn’t it be derided for deluding the public?  Maybe.  After all, if the Catholic Church has been enabling predatory pedophiles for decades maybe movies like the present one are part of the front that allowed this practice to exist.  That may be true.

But if you watch this movie you see a story about people working together to raise children not only by educating their minds but also by nurturing their spirits.  The pastor and the nuns spend the time to find out what problems the children are experiencing and giving them practical advice and help to overcome their problems and face the real world they will soon be joining.

The portrayals by Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman are extremely enjoyable.  Both of them radiate warmth, intelligence, humor and vitality.  Bergman especially shows us a sensitive woman enduring an extremely confusing and demoralizing reversal in her life.  Some of the other characters and circumstances have some predictable tropes and stereotypes painted on but these do not greatly distract us from the central plot lines and some are quaint in and of themselves.

Overall, I found this movie to be a beautiful story.  Whether it’s classified as a story, a fantasy or propaganda it is emotionally powerful and very enjoyable.  For the Christmas season it provides an idealized version of what the Christian religious community is supposed to be.  If only it truly were like the movie.

Plug for An Article on the Z-Blog – On Atheism

The Z-Man has a very interesting article on faith, skepticism and atheism.

On Atheism

That he is a skeptic but sees the hollowness of the militant atheists is I think quite perceptive.   His final statement,  “I do know I’d never want to live in a world ruled by atheists“  resonates for me.  I imagine that almost all reflective religious people wrestle with questions about how to reconcile an omnipotent, benevolent God with the world such as it is.  But the world view of people who feel their highest calling is to mock Christians speaks of individuals nursing an enormous inferiority complex whose egos need to be constantly revalidated.

Andrew Klavan’s The Great Good Thing: A Short Book Review

Andrew Klavan is a multi-faceted individual.  He is an acclaimed suspense novelist whose stories have been adapted into movies starring Clint Eastwood and Michael Douglas.  Since the 2001 terror attack he’s produced a series of web based videos that allow him to advocate for conservative views on a range of topics.  It was in this capacity I first noticed him.  In my opinion Klavan is one of the brightest and funniest people on the conservative side of the fence.  I’ve read several of his novels and found them equally engaging.   He is undoubtedly a gifted and entertaining writer.  But the full title of his present work, “The Great Good Thing (A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ),” made me stop and consider whether the traits that resonated with me in his other work would translate well in an autobiographical story of religious awakening.

Well, I’m glad to say they do.  I won’t specify my own religious beliefs but I do come from a background where upbringing has steeped me in the Christian world.  And my feelings are very sympathetic to religious people.  We’ll leave me at that.  Of added attraction is that Mr. Klavan and I are of about the same age and both grew up in the New York City area.  The world he speaks of is extremely familiar to me.  All these factors made the material comfortable for me.

So, now you know I liked it.  Will you?  Let’s review what this book is and isn’t.  It’s not an in-depth story of every facet of his life.  We do not find out all the technical details of how he honed his writing style.  We will not hear anecdotes of his acquaintanceships with famous actors and writers.  We don’t hear details of his other conversion, from a liberal to a conservative.  What we will hear is the personal history from early childhood right up to fairly recent years that impacted and informed his spiritual journey.  His family life and his education, much as they are with most men, are the arenas where his search for meaning and truth began.  His circumstances are unique but the questions are universal and timeless.  Unless this is the subject matter you are looking for, you shouldn’t read this book or this review.

Okay, if you’re still there, let’s move on to what I’d like to say about “The Great Good Thing.”  I found it to be an interesting read. Klavan is writing about some extremely difficult, sometimes depressing events in his life.  But the writing is never slow.  The story propels itself along.  The emotions represented run the gamut from comical to desperate but the writing style is never over-wrought which is especially unusual when describing religious experiences.  I would describe the effect as lyrical.  And this I attribute to the combination of the experience the author is describing along with his very great talents as a writer.  If I were to compare this book it would be to C.S. Lewis’ “Surprised by Joy.”  Both books describe the journey of an intelligent witty author from atheism to faith.  Both books include a measure of humor and pain.  Both books are well written.  Both men reveal themselves down to their very souls.  I found the book inspirational and satisfying.  The title is apt.