When is a coincidence more than a coincidence?
When is it reasonable to look at a remarkable turn of circumstances and see a meaningful pattern?
To discern the hand of Providence at work?
We human beings are pattern-finders. We look for meaningful relationships and structures in the world around us; we try to make sense of the world and interpret it in ways that make sense.
This isn’t just learned behavior. Scientists have found that babies in the womb who have never seen a human face apparently respond to face-like images projected on the uterine wall but ignore random shapes.
Science itself reflects our human propensity to look for patterns and meaningful relationships in the world.
So does religion.
Just as babies are primed to recognize human faces, humans seem to be primed to recognize the divine in the world.
This means, of course, that we can make mistakes.
A face-like pattern in the clouds isn’t necessarily meaningful. One or two plagues don’t necessarily mean there is a deity who wants you to let his people go. Most dreams aren’t messages from heaven.
As the plagues pile up, though, it may start to look as if someone is trying to tell you something. Some dreams are messages from heaven, and while we may struggle at times to discern or interpret them, it can be done.
Which brings me to The Divine Plan.
The Divine Plan
Back in April, New York’s Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought and Culture hosted a special screening of The Divine Plan, Catholic filmmaker Robert Orlando’s documentary about Pope St. John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, and the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
Some readers may remember that I interviewed Robert Orlando about the film back in April. Robert and I were students together at the School of Visual Arts in the 1980s; he was a film major with a special interest in cartooning and illustration, while I was a media arts major focusing on cartooning and illustration with a particular interest in film.
The Divine Plan is both a film and a book cowritten by Paul Kengor and Orlando, based in part on Kengor’s research for his book A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.
The Divine Plan takes as its point of departure the remarkable convergence of the two assassination attempts on these two world leaders within a few weeks of each other in 1981.
Both men believed that they had been spared death for a reason; John Paul in particular connected the attempt on his life with the Third Secret of Fatima. In the convergence of these two assassination attempts, according to The Divine Plan, both men discerned a common purpose: God had spared them, at least in part, to play a role in fighting Soviet Communism and in helping to bring down the Iron Curtain.
Archival footage and still images are blended with a kind of animated graphic novel aesthetic, along with talking-head interviews with experts including historians Douglas Brinkley and Anne Applebaum, Catholic writer George Weigel, Reagan adviser Richard Allen, and Bishop Robert Barron — the last of whom recently screened the film and recorded a video interview with Orlando afterward.
Check out the interview. It’s interesting and offers a good sense of what The Divine Plan is about.
Bishop Barron explores Hans Urs von Balthasar’s concept of “Theo-drama” as an approach not only to history but also to the moral life.
What “Theo-drama” in the moral life means, according to Bishop Barron, is that
You authentically find who you are when you discover that your life isn’t about you, when you’ve heard a call from a higher producer and director who wants to situate your life in [his] play, and then you find your true freedom.
What “true freedom” is, for Barron, is precisely what is at stake between the distinct but converging visions of John Paul II and Reagan on the one hand and the oppression of the Soviet Union on the other:
Your film is … about freedom, because Reagan used that term a lot. So did John Paul. But John Paul famously said that freedom isn’t the ability to do what I want, it’s the right to do as I ought. And there’s a world of difference between those two things…
What bugged John Paul, and I think Reagan too, about Soviet Communism was that it precluded that right. It took away from people the right to do as they ought.
This is not just a political difference of opinion, but fundamentally different views of what human well-being entails.
The heart of Christianity is not just an abstract teaching — it’s a drama. It’s the journey of the Son of God into God-forsakenness so that he might lead us out of that condition back to union with the Father. So it’s an essentially dramatic story, reaching its climax … on the cross, which, viewed from a worldly perspective, is nothing but failure.
Whatever route I take in my Theo-drama will have a cruciform quality to it. It’ll involve my journey under God’s grace into some form of God-forsakenness, that I might bring the light of grace there.
For Bishop Barron, the attempts on John Paul II’s and Reagan’s lives offers a striking illustration of what that “cruciform quality” can look like — particularly in the case of John Paul II, “if the consensus is right that the Communist empire, broadly speaking, was behind his assassination attempt.”
John Paul II’s willingness to confront Soviet rule in Communist Poland, as he had done earlier in his career as a bishop, also demonstrates this “cruciform” approach to confronting evil.
Ultimately, for Barron, the mark of Theo-drama in the shared opposition of John Paul II and Reagan to Soviet Communism is that their pursuit of their vision
redounds then for the good of the world. The ego-drama radiates unhappiness. That’s the sign of it. The indicator of Theo-drama is that it radiates liberation and life and enhancement. And that’s really the story that this film is telling.