204: Here are Two — a Film and a Book — for some Great Summertime Reflections

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H
appy Fourth of July to our American readers!

   Hey, the summer’s half over for millions of Americans — so we’ll send you into the holiday weekend with two great recommendations — a movie and a book.

FIRST: THE CHALLENGE OF “HANCOCK”
   Mainly, “Hancock” is a puzzle because I don’t want to reveal the plot twist that slaps moviegoers halfway through Hollywood’s latest super-hero offering of Summer ’08.
   Perhaps I shouldn’t be so careful. This cinematic “secret” is a lot like the plot twist in “The Sixth Sense” in which countless people found out about the movie’s narrative trick within days of its opening.
   But “Hancock” is a different kind of super-hero, summertime-cinema, big-budget-blockbuster, special-effects extravaganza. To be sure, all of those adjectives I just stacked up describe the movie accurately. But there’s more here in the underlying spiritual messages this movie is trying to convey.
   First of all, we’re stepping into the Church of Will Smith here. Increasingly, Will Smith plays Will Smith –- sort of like Humphrey Bogart eventually became just Bogey, John Wayne eventually played the Duke and Tom Hanks now ranks at the top of some celebrity-authority scales because he is nearly always true-hearted Tom Hanks.
   We’ve now seen enough of Will Smith, I think, that there are some intriguing discussions small groups can have about what spiritual messages are preached in the Church of Will Smith.

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But, before this movie’s over, “Hancock” tries to stretch its narrative like Silly Putty -– in a whole bunch of directions. Lots of questions are raised: Are super-heroes really our gods? And do gods want to be mortal? And does becoming mortal –- well, let’s just say, does it tend toward tragically fatal outcomes? (And, trust me — I’m still not revealing anything.)
   There’s also another intriguing point that our friends the Brussats, the veteran critics at Spirituality and Practice, have been raising this summer about the current crop of movies: It’s the question of duality. The Brussats argue that the flaw in super-hero movies is that they encourage a dangerous spiritual view of the world as simply Good vs. Evil. This can turn into bad old Cold War duality. This can erode our openness to diversity, leading us to suspect that people who are different may actually be evil –- because there are only two baskets left in the world: heroes and villains.
   I’m not sure I buy that argument. Also, I’m not sure I buy the spiritual puzzles that “Hancock” tries to stretch in so many directions.
   But, hey, this is what’s so great about ReadTheSpirit: Tell us what you think! (And, while you’re at it — if you’re just catching up with “Wall.E” this weekend — we’d also like to get more comments on this lovable little guy who adores old musicals.)
   We’re going to be devoting a couple of days in the next two weeks to Reader Comments. This is a terrific time to add your comment by clicking on the link below. Or you can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly. Either way, you can get into the mix of reader responses.

SECOND: HOW ROME CHANGED THE WORLD IN 1960

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No, this isn’t a review of a book about the Vatican. This is a review of a brand-new book released just this week about the Rome Olympics in 1960.
   The world is changing so fast right now that most of us can barely keep up with the daily news that affects our lives, jobs and future. So, it’s a rare and wonderful treat when a book comes along that carries us back to a time and place when the world changed more slowly –- to show us one of those events that truly did change our global culture. When such books come along, they’re usually about wars -– but not this new gem by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Maraniss.
   Given my own background as a journalist, I’ll confess that I was puzzled by Maraniss’ decision in selecting “Rome 1960” for a thick new book of nearly 500 pages (that’s counting all the extras at the end). As I picked up the book, I kept asking myself: Why did he call this particular meet: “The Olympics that Changed the World”?
   As a specialist in religion and culture, I’ve immersed myself in histories of other Olympics: the 1924 “Chariots of Fire” Olympics, the 1936 Nazi-dominated Olympics, the 1972 Olympics when terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes –- and even the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which became a milestone in global culture in part because of Kon Ichikawa’s historic documentary film.

   Now, having read Maraniss’ new book, I’ve got to agree: Rome in 1960 ranks right up there as a milestone in world culture — and, I would argue, in spiritual history as well.
   I missed the significance, because I had not considered the roles of the major players who all collided in Rome that year –- including the now-infamous anti-Semite and pro-Nazi American czar of the Olympics movement: Avery Brundage. If you don’t find yourself drawn to “sports” -– but you are fascinated by 20th-Century history, especially the 1930s, Fascism and the Holocaust –- this is a “must read” book for you. Think of it as a “sequel” to books about the controversial Nazi Olympics in which Hitler, Goebbels and Riefenstahl essentially pulled a fast one on Brundage in convincing him to help them celebrate their glorious new Reich.
   As a journalist, I’m a longtime follower of new research into that earlier era –- and Maraniss picks up the Brundage story in 1960 and pretty much nails the man and his many levels of hypocrisy — as he lets us see how this antique figure collided with many of the realities of later-20th-Century culture. Among the key details Maraniss adds to our understanding of Brundage are personal jottings he made during the Rome Olympics that, among other things, complained of the emergence of “Jews … demanding restitution for everything lost and lot more.” (Of course, Brundage somehow managed to continue at the helm through 1972 in Munich, where controversy continued to surround his decisions.)

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   What’s great about this new book is that everything I’ve said about the Brundage sub-plot is just one of many compelling storylines that Maraniss explores in these 500 pages. Among other things: These were the Olympics in which Cassius Clay exploded onto the global stage, later to transform himself into Muhammad Ali. These were the games of Wilma Rudolph. These were the games in which commercial interests were knocking down old-school barriers that claimed to be preserving an “amateur” tradition. Doping became an issue at Rome. Two Chinas and two Germanys jostled at these games.
   This is summer reading at its best. The next Olympic games are looming. The world is no longer merely tilting on its axis. No, global culture now is spinning at a topsy-turvy rate, it seems.
   Pick up “Rome 1960.” If you’re like me, you won’t stop until you’ve read the whole thing – and you’ll come away understanding just a little more about how we all got to this place we’re standing in this strange new century.

NOTES: No, there’s no typo in the Brundage quote. He jotted “and lot more.” And, yes, that’s Cassius Clay receiving the gold medal in Rome. At his side is silver-medalist Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland. (The No. 3 slot was a tie that year.)

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