Christmas

100 Best Movies for Christmas

By Deal W. Hudson

As with my list of Catholic novels, I am not following any rigid theory of the “Catholic film” in making these recommendations. Rather than advance a thesis about what constitutes an “authentic” or “orthodox” Catholic film, I’m hoping that you, the reader, will discover on this list some films that will bring you enjoyment. Perhaps you will find some inspirational or edifying and be moved to a renewed aspiration toward the source of all beauty.

It’s regrettable that Catholic educators have yet to regard cinema as an important artistic tradition, one that should be studied along with literature, painting, theater, and music. The advantage of studying film is its relative youth, having been born only a little over a century ago. The other, more obvious, advantage is that students will have spent literally hundreds of hours watching films of various kinds, as opposed to their time spent with books, or much less in a museum with the masterworks of painting and sculpture.

Here’s the good news: It’s still not too late for the diligent and perhaps obsessive student, with a few years of study, to gain a satisfactory overview of film history.The “Catholic film” is actually a good place to start on such a journey, since both Catholic filmmakers and Catholic subjects have been a part of film’s history from the beginning of the “silent” era to the present. (Remember, there were very few silent films since musical soundtracks were used in films since 1920. And, to add a curious side note, the capacity for “talking” films had been available for several years prior to the 1928 Jazz Singer but was considered unnecessary to film as a rapidly developing, and primarily visual, art form.)

You will see below my list of 100 Best Catholic Films in chronological order. The only difference between this list and the book list is that I am not insisting that the author be Catholic. My choices are made film qua film, not by any reference to the faith of the producer, director, or writer. Given that any object of art should be enjoyed and understood in itself, apart from its creator, I regret somewhat not using this criterion in making my list of 100 Best Catholic Novels, but then, what is done, is done.

Thus, I ask the reader not to take me to task if the director of a particular film is a notorious this-or-that, as is definitely the case with a number of the films listed below. And, after all, how do we know under what inspiration, or whose inspiration, an “unbelieving” director brought a film into being.

Unlike the 100 Best Catholic Novels, I have not added links to all my recommendations. The reader can easily search them out at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any of the many film vendors on the Internet. If you don’t wish to buy them, you can find out the basic information on any of the films by making use of the International Movie Database at http://www.imdb.com.

1.Carl Theodore von Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928.
2.Cecil B. DeMille, King of Kings, 1927.
3.Frank Capra, Lady for a Day, 1933.
4.John Ford, The Informer, 1935.
5.Frank Borzage, Strange Cargo, 1940
6.Henry King, The Song of Bernadette, 1943.
7.John M. Stahl, The Keys of the Kingdom, 1944.
8.Leo McCarey, Going My Way, 1944.
9.Leo McCarey, The Bells of St. Mary’s, 1945.
10.Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946.
11.Robert Bresson, Au Hasard Balthasar, 1966.
12.Michael Powell, Black Narcissus, 1947.
13.John Ford, The Fugitive, 1947.
14.John Ford, Three Godfathers, 1948.
15.Leo McCarey, Make Way for Tomorrow, 1947.
16.Vittorio De Sica, The Bicycle Thieves, 1948.
17.Roberto Rossellini, Stromboli, 1950.
18.Roberto Rossellini, The Flowers of St. Francis, 1950.
19.Gordon Douglas, Come Fill the Cup, 1951.
20.Robert Bresson, The Dairy of a Country Priest, 1951.
21.Akira Kurosawa, Ikiru, 1952.
22.Vittorio De Sica, Umberto D, 1952.
23.Alfred Hitchcock, I Confess, 1953.
24.Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront, 1954.
25.Raffaello Matarazzo, The White Angel, 1955.
26.Carl Theodore von Dreyer, Ordet, 1955.
27.Alfred Hitchcock, The Wrong Man, 1956.
28.Luis Bunuel, Nazarin, 1959.
29.Fred Zinnemann, The Nun’s Story, 1959.
30.William Wyler, Ben Hur, 1959.
31.Robert Bresson, Pickpocket, 1959.
32.Mervyn LeRoy, The Devil of 4 O’Clock, 1961.
33.Richard Fleischer, Barabbas, 1961.
34.Nicholas Ray, King of Kings, 1961.
35.Otto Preminger, The Cardinal, 1963.
36.Peter Glenville, Becket, 1964.
37.Pier Paolo Pasolini, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964.
38.Carol Reed, The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965.
39.Luis Bunuel, Simon of the Desert, 1965.
40.Fred Zinnemann, A Man for All Seasons, 1966.
41.Robert Bresson, Mouchette, 1967.
42.Michael Anderson, The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968.
43.Franco Zefferelli, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, 1972.
44.William Friedkin, The Exorcist, 1973.
45.Anthony Harvey, The Abdication, 1974.
46.Joseph Hardy, The Lady’s Not for Burning, 1974.
47.Franco Zefferelli, Jesus of Nazareth, 1977.
48.Robert Bresson, The Devil Probably, 1977.
49.Ermanno Olmi, Tree of the Wooden Clogs, 1978.
50.John Huston, Wise Blood, 1979.
51.Francesco Rosi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1979.
52.Hugh Hudson, Chariots of Fire, 1981.
53.Charles Sturridge & Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Brideshead Revisited, 1981.
54.Ulu Grosbard, True Confessions, 1981.
55.Martin Scorcese, The Age of Innocence, 1982.
56.Paolo & Vittorio Taviani, Night of the Shooting Stars, 1982.
57.Jerry London, The Scarlet and the Black, 1983.
58.Robert Bresson, L’argent, 1983.
59.Norman Stone, Shadowlands, 1885.
60.Alain Cavalier, Therese, 1986.
61.Roland Jaffe, The Mission, 1986.
62.Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire, 1987.
63.Gabriel Axel, Babette’s Feast, 1987.
64.Rodney Bennett, Monsignor Quixote, 1987.
65.Maurice Pialat, Under the Star of Satan, 1987.
66.John Huston, The Dead, 1987.
67.Krzysztof Kieslowski, The Decalogue, 1988.
68.Krzysztof Kieslowski, A Short Film About Love, 1988.
69.Ermanno Olmi, Legend of the Holy Drinker, 1988.
70.John Duigan, Romero, 1989.
71.Denys Arcand, Jesus of Montreal, 1989.
72.Bruce Beresford, Black Robe, 1991.
73.Stijn Coninx, Daens, 1992.
74.Nancy Savoca, Household Saints, 1993.
75.Mel Gibson, Braveheart, 1995.
76.Liv Ullmann, Kristin Lavransdatter, 1995.
77.Lee David Slotoff, Spitfire Grill, 1996.
78.Marta Meszaros, The Seventh Room, 1996.
79.M. Knight Shyamalan, Wide Awake, 1998.
80.Joe Johnston, October Sky, 1999.
81.David Lynch, The Straight Story, 1999.
82.Agnieszka Holland, The Third Miracle, 1999.
83.Patrice Leconte, The Widow of Saint-Pierre, 2000.
84.Jim Sheridan, In America, 2002.
85.Alexander Payne, About Schmidt, 2002.
86.Bruce Beresford, Evelyn, 2002.
87.Denys Arcand, Barbarian Invasions, 2003.
88.Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, 2004.
89.Tommy Lee Jones, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005.
90.Christian Carion, Joyeux Noel, 2005.
91.Pavel Lungin, The Island, 2006
92.Alejandro Monteverde, Bella, 2006.
93.Jean-Pierre Dardenne, L’enfant, 2006.
94.Martin Provost, Seraphine, 2008.
95.Mark Pellington, Henry Poole is Here, 2008.
96.John Patrick Shanley, Doubt, 2008.
97.Klaus Haro, Letters to Father Jaakob, 2009.
98.Xavier Beauvois, Of Gods and Men, 2010.
99.Philip Groning, Into the Great Silence, 2007.
100.100. Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, 2011.

Published at Catholic Online, December 12, 2014.

Christmas is for Children

Published December 1, 1997
DEAL W. HUDSON

I heard our president on the radio this morning, announcing, “We must make sure that parents are able to spend time with their children whenever they can.” If the “we” had been the American people, not the government, then the comment was merely an obvious truism. Apparently, though, the president feels that the facts—a fifty percent divorce rate, the spread of the two salary family— require that the government step in and ensure children get enough quality time with their parents.

Sad, isn’t it, that we have created a society in which we must talk about children in this way. In a country where forty-five percent of all children under a year old are in day care, it’s no wonder manger scenes are banned from public places. We don’t like reminders of the family we have lost.

The Christmas season reveals the fault lines everywhere— inside ourselves, within our families, and throughout society. It’s not simply a matter of our anxiety about meeting emotional expectations. At Christmas we relive the definitive entrance of God into the world, establishing himself for all time as “the way, the truth, and the life.” Christmas inevitably reveals the direction of our spiritual compass.

It is ticklish, to say the least, to raise the issue of childcare in this way. So many heroic parents are raising children by themselves, so many others are working hard together to support their families. But as much as those parents want our sympathy and support, I would imagine those same parents deeply wish for a world of intact families where every child is raised by a parent at home. In other words, it is one thing to sympathize with the present situation, and quite another to hope for what children really need.

We have lapsed into the cynicism of accepting the status quo, speaking vaguely for the need for sympathy, and resolving to “face reality.” What troubles me, however, are the deeper currents that course through the culture. I notice, for example, how a kind of gay chic has taken hold of the popular mind. The call for toleration has been replaced not merely by normalization but by positive celebration. Nothing could spread messages more at odds with either Catholic social teaching or the natural law.

We have seen it all before. Remember the speech in Plato’s Symposium extolling the superiority of homosexual love over heterosexual? The argument is based upon the supposed advantage of begetting ideas and “beautiful conversations,” rather than the gross matter of human life. Heterosexual couples, or “breeders” as they are now sometimes called, are naturally inclined toward shaping their lives around the creation of a family, specifically for the purpose of raising children. With the mainstreaming of homosexuality into our culture, children are pushed more and more into the background of our attention and our caring.

In the context of Greek culture, we understand why abstract ideas are given more importance than the life of a human person. Even Aristotle, for all his realism, didn’t base his argument for heterosexuality on the creation of life, but on proper biological functioning. With the coming of the Incarnation, however, it was no longer possible to misunderstand the unique value of the person, or the fundamental purpose of marriage, family, and sexuality to beget and nurture persons.

Charity requires a great deal more than sensitivity and concern for the heroic efforts of single parents who raise children, or for those parents whose two salaries combine to put their children in private schools. Charity requires that we actively work and pray for a transformed society, one that does not depend upon government daycare to do the job of parenting, but one where fathers and mothers are actually present.

At Christmas time, we focus primarily on the perfect humility of Mary but in the midst of these thoughts my mind turns to Joseph. Joseph married the woman he loved, but found that he would never consummate his marriage or receive its physical comforts in the expected fashion. Despite this, he remained chaste and true to his family. He is the purest example of a true promise keeper. Joseph understood his role as one of taking care of his family, not of using his family as a means to his own personal fulfillment.

Gay chic, following on the heels of the “pro-choice” movement, only throws fuel on the fire of the culture of death. It is for this reason the Church has wisely chosen the term “objective disorder” in describing the tragedy of homosexual orientation. Since lay Catholics have been invited to join a dialogue on homosexuality, we at CRISIS think that the gathering of the Holy Family at Christmastide is an ideal occasion for beginning that conversation.

Not Your Usual Christmas Gift Recommendations

Deal W. Hudson
Published December 6, 2010

As I was thinking about making some recommendations for Christmas gift giving, I thought I would challenge my friends by asking them to send me only one item – the kind of thing, I said, “you grab running out of a burning house (after the family, of course).”

Most of my friends responded as requested – though some disobeyed by sending two, and others clearly weren’t quite in the “burning house” state of mind when they hit “send.” (I can say that because I know these people well enough to know what they would grab!)

For example, when Jim Towey, former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, recommended the DVD The Hangover, he was having a little fun, saying, “It reminded me of a White House party with Vladmir Putin and Karl Rove – to this day neither of them remembers what happened.”

After rereading my criterion, Towey said the book that came to mind was Jesus of Nazareth (2008, Ignatius Press) by Pope Benedict XVI. “The good news about getting a book that has been out for years is that you can buy it at the discount rack. The bad news is that this is one book that should have been planted in the soul immediately.”

That’s what I was asking for – the kind of books, music, and movies that should be “planted in the soul,” and I thank Jim for that eloquent phrase.

Speaking of Karl Rove, he recommended another book about Jesus (2010, Viking) by Paul Johnson: “For a subject about which so much has been written, a powerful and insightful volume from an original writer and unusual mind.”

Since Christmas is about Jesus, Rev. Roger Landry, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Massachusetts, suggests going back to the original sources in the spirit of Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic declaration Verbum Domini. “I’m suggesting that people pick up a new or used copy of the Bible, such as theIgnatius Catholic Study Bible, and read it – or at least acquire and read a good commentary on the Word of God, like the recent editions of the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (BakerAcademic).”

Bishop James D. Conley, auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Denver, recommended a book I did not know, A Memory for Wonders by Mother Veronica Namoyo Le Goulard, P.C.C. (1993, Ignatius Press), calling it “an extraordinary autobiographical story of grace and conversion.” Lucette is a French girl who becomes a Poor Clare and an abbess, though she was raised by aggressively atheistic parents in Morocco. She receives the gift of faith but somehow remains obedient to her parents whose own lives are remarkably changed.

Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Baker, Oregon, calls his contribution “a bit startling” – a video created by Mark Crutcher at LifeDynamics called Maafa 21. According to the bishop, this video “details the plan to rid America of blacks after the civil war and is a severe indictment of Planned Parenthood and their continued attempt to rid America of those some would describe as undesirable.”

Meanwhile, Bishop David Ricken writes from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to recommendThe Impact of God (1995, Hodder & Stoughton) by Iain Matthews, “a tremendous introduction to the thought and spirituality of St. John of the Cross.”

Damian Thompson, who writes about the Church for the UK’s Observer, suggests a set of CDs by Haydn – all twelve of the London Symphonies by Mark Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre of Grenoble. Calling Minkowski a “genius,” Thompson says these “white-hot live performances of this period-instrument band” made him realize just “how adventurous [the symphonies] are.” “In the Military Symphony No. 100, it’s as if the Turkish army has just marched across your living room.”

David Quinn, who is the former editor of the Irish Catholic and a columnist with the Irish Independent, and can be followed on Twitter here, offers Covenant & Conversation by Britain’s wonderful Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. This book, consisting of weekly reflections on the Book of Genesis, gave Quinn “a new appreciation of the Old Testament” and shows Judaism to be “one of the most civilizing forces in history.”

I was glad that Frank Hanna, president of the Solidarity Foundation in Atlanta, recommended Beautiful Dreamer, a CD of Stephen Foster songs rendered by 22 different artists including Yo-Yo Ma and Allison Krauss. Hanna rightfully describes these songs as full of “joy and wistful melancholy” and Foster himself as “an American classic who at times had been relegated to a cliché, now enjoying a rebirth.”

My friend Anne Hendershott, who teaches at King’s College in New York City, is buying copies of the DVD Restrepo “for my husband and for our son,” which she found to be “one of the most moving films I have ever seen.” Based on the book by Sebastian Junger, Restrepo tells the story of American soldiers in Afghanistan. But, as Anne explains, “The film is really for anyone who might want to learn more about what our courageous soldiers are experiencing as they fight the War in Afghanistan.” “This film,” she says, “transcends political viewpoints; you cannot help but feel more optimistic about the future of our country (and the world) knowing that there are still many brave soldiers willing to do the things they do in this movie.”

David Carlin teaches political science at the Community College of Rhode Island but recommends a classic French movie, The Red Balloon (1956). It’s only 30 minutes long, but I will never forget seeing this magical film. As Carlin says, it’s about “the Parisian adventures of young Pascal and his anthropomorphic balloon and is ideal for watching with your grandchildren.”

Patrick Lee, a professor of bioethics at Franciscan University, reminds us of a modern theological classic: Germain Grisez’s The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vols. 1-3. Lee writes, “In my opinion, this is a truly great work in moral theology and contains a wealth of philosophical insight as well. In a faithful, analytically rigorous, and original manner, it answers Vatican II’s call for a renewed moral theology that emphasizes the unity of theology and the moral life. It is truly an inspirational work as well.”

Jack Smith, editor of the Catholic Key newspaper and blog for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, suggests we read The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten (Vintage Books, 1998).

Smith says, “It’s recommended for foodies, grouches, and those prone to praise God for his carnal gifts.” That should get the reader’s attention! “Beyond the food porn,” Smith writes, “the best reason to watch Iron Chef America is to enjoy the acerbic commentary of judge Jeffrey Steingarten, whose barbs are most often directed at fellow judges who don’t take the subject of food as thoughtfully as he does.” Steingarten evokes “an unmistakably Catholic joy in the created world,” though Smith has “no reason to believe he is Catholic.” Steingarten also philosophizes – “amidst his virtual prayers to fine bread and ultra-fresh Northwest seafood, his criticism of pan-Asian ‘cuisine’ and salad fanaticism, and his decimation of vegetarianism (as it is practiced), and the puritanical and unscientific decrees of government nutritionists.” Steingarten’s explanations often raise the question: “Isn’t that a teleological explanation bordering on the religious?”

From Michael Sean Winters, who writes for the National Catholic Reporter, I received the recommendation of a “small” academic book. He reminds us of Ignatius Press’s The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion, which contains a discussion between German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Winters says he keeps lending the book out and is forced to buy a new one. “This discussion between two of the leading, and very different, minds of our times is compelling in every regard, clarifying the often confusing debate about the dictatorship of relativism, the relationship between faith and reason, the limited value of natural law in crafting a public morality in today’s culture, and many other important themes.”

The novel Wheat that Springeth Green (2000, NYRB Classics) by J. F. Powers “bowled over” David L. Holmes, Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies at William and Mary. This was Powers’s second and last novel, and dealing – “as his stories invariably do – with the life of priests and with their loneliness, friendships, conversations, consumption of alcohol, and daily routine.” The novel moves between moments of humor and deep seriousness. For example, “The story of how its priestly protagonist in the Twin Cities refuses to call the archdiocese for the information (for he dislikes the monsignor who would take the call) and instead tries to learn his new assistant’s name by telephoning the division of motor vehicles is hilarious. But late in the novel, when a shady night-club operator with ties to organized crime declares that the priest “is an [expletive-deleted] saint” and a reader in surprise agrees, this enjoyable novel suddenly becomes serious indeed.”

Andrew Rabel, whom I met with in Australia earlier this year, writes and blogs about the Church from Melbourne. He strongly recommends God’s Invisible Hand: The Life and Times of Francis Cardinal Arinze (2006, Ignatius Press) by Gerard O’Connell. He calls Cardinal Arinze “one of the most impressive churchmen in the last 30 to 40 years.” I wish I could quote Rabel at length, but here is the gist of his admiration: “Arinze was the first native born person to head the diocese of Ontisha in Nigeria. When he took over the helm, virtually the only priests there were missionary ones. Today Ontisha is sending priests as missionaries, to the formerly Christian parts of the world.”

I’ve known Rev. James Massa for many years, now executive director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue at the USCCB. He recommends a book he owned for “well over a year” before he read it: John Adams (2008, Simon & Schuster) by David McCullough. “Adams emerges from this stupendous biography as a truly heroic figure – not only for his role as statesman and diplomat in the American Revolution, but also for maintaining his personal integrity in the conflict-ridden aftermath of the war.” Father Massa was also struck by “the troubled friendship” between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. “How could they have been so similar in their devotion to family, country, and book-learning, and yet differ so dramatically on the concrete decisions that needed to be taken for the good of America?”

Denis Coleman, former board Chair of InsideCatholic and Covenant House, likes the new book by British prime minister Tony Blair, A Journey: A Political Life (2010, Knopf). Coleman finds the “quality of the writing is head and shoulders above anything that I have read in years” and praises its “balance.” Blair explains “how, coming from two different philosophies, he and George Bush arrived at the same intersection point” and how old Labour, new Labour, Thatcherism, and neo-conservatism were “built upon each other.”

I’m no longer surprised when our intrepid music critic Robert R. Reilly comes up with something I’ve never heard of. His recommendation is a “tale of high adventure and extraordinary courage” first published in 1922, Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier (2010, Nabu Press) by Theodore Leighton Pennell. “I put this book down with awe and reverence.” Pennell, a British missionary doctor working near what is today the Afghan-Pakistan border, delves into Afghan tribal culture during the years 1890 to 1906. Reilly says, “If you want to understand Afghanistan today, you must read this book. But what shines through this book is Pennell’s heroic Christian charity. If you wish the privilege of encountering a great-souled man, here is such an encounter.”

Martin Anderson, who writes from London, is the founder and president of Toccata Classics. Martin comments, “As a regular reviewer of recordings, I get sent so many CDs that I run the risk of growing blasé: it takes something special to make a jaundiced critic sit up and pay attention.” But Anderson commends to our attention the late Pehr Henrik Nordgren’s The Lights of Heaven (Taivaanvalot in Finnish), calling it “one of the most deeply impressive compositions by any recent Finnish composer that I have heard in years.” Anderson, who probably knows Scandanavian repertoire better than anyone alive, describes it as “one of the least orthodox, too, in content and form, setting creation myths from the Kalevala with a primal energy, a fierce joy, which brings up the hair on the arms. It mixes together different musics, too: Finnish runic folk songs sit alongside sophisticated western art-music (you can hear echoes of Szymanowski, Hindemith, Sibelius, Mahler, Tormis, and more) and shamanic ritualism. The scoring should pique your curiosity as well: to a chamber orchestra and chorus, Nordgren adds five five-stringed kanteles (the Finnish folk zitmher), three 36-stringed kanteles, two goat’s horns, reed pipe, herdman’s flute, bullroarers, percussion plaque, shaman drum, bowed harp. Somehow he manages to pull this ragbag of styles together in an epic score that is cathartic in its elemental sweep and constantly fascinating in its unusual colors and procedures.”

It’s conducted by Nordgren’s long-standing friend and colleague Juha Kangas, on the Finnish label Alba (ABCD 269). Anderson adds, “Nordgren, who died in August 2008, was a very gentle man himself, but The Lights of Heaven proves that he had the spirit of a giant.”

Anthony Esolen, a professor of English at Providence College, lauds The Way of the Lamb (2000, T&T Clark) by Rev. John Saward as “an eminently readable and joy-filled book on the ‘little way’ of holiness, manifest in the lives and the works of Saint Therese of Lisieux, Charles Peguy, G. K. Chesterton, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.” High praise, indeed! “Father Saward,” Esolen explains, “puts them in dialogue with one another – a book that will encourage you in the quest for holiness.”

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League and one of my personal heroes, tells me that “one of the more inspiring, yet tragic, books” he has read in some time is Haiti: The God of Tough Places, the Lord of Burnt Men (2010, Transaction Books) by Rev. Rick Frechette, a Passionist. “It’s a riveting tale of human suffering, and what one man – a priest and a physician – is doing to combat it. It makes one proud to be a Catholic.”

Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring, likes the recently published The City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010, Moody) by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner. “It provides a fresh and balanced look at one issue squarely in the center of Catholic consciousness in this time of remarkable political realignment: just what is the proper role of Christians in politics and public policy?” Colin describes it as “a short book and a quick read, but the subject it tackles is both vast and relevant.”

Paul and Evelyn Vitz both teach at New York University, though Paul also teaches at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. Paul recommends The Shadow of His Wings: The True Story of Fr. Gereon Goldman, OFM (2000, Ignatius Press), while Evelyn suggests the “unusual sound of Alfred Deller’s The Holly and the Ivy,” and The Best of Nowell Sing We Clear, 1975-1986 by John Roberts and Tony Barrand. Evelyn adds, “These two Englishmen are specialists in the traditional British song; they have interesting voices and sing wonderfully together. Not every track on these two CDs is totally in the spirit of Christmas (as I understand it), but the best tracks are, I think, really grand!”

Karen Swallow Prior, a friend who invited me to speak at Liberty University on the topic of beauty, is chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages. Karen’s contribution, The History of Beauty and On Ugliness by Umberto Eco, explores this subject. “Through these two companion texts – which together serve as a veritable crash course in art history – an acclaimed literary theorist, novelist, and philosopher provides a critical, historical, and visual exploration of a central paradox of the human condition, one that reflects both our divine and fallen nature: We are compelled to indulge our morbid fascination with the grotesque, while at the same time we seek to fulfill an inherent and insatiable desire for beauty. In this stunningly illustrated hardcover boxed set, form and content beautifully unite.”

Frank Keating, former governor of Oklahoma, submits In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex – the real story that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. Keating calls the tale of how the Essex was destroyed by a sperm whale, “a portrait of Man at his best and worst. The book is a nail biter of all ten fingers.”

Akiva Eldar, chief political columnist and editorial writer at Haaretz, calls The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prison to Peacemaker (forthcoming in February, 2011) “the most authentic account of the painful ordeal of the Palestinian refugees I have ever read and is essential reading for anyone interested in a deep understanding of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.”

Jean Duchesne, an adviser to the archbishops of Paris since 1981, commends Le Prix à Payer (The Price to Pay) by Joseph Fadelle (2010, L’Oeuvre publishers, Paris). This books tells “the hair-raising story of a young ruling-class Iraqi who becomes a Christian after reading the Gospel and has to face death threats in his family and torture in Saddam Hussein’s prisons before he narrowly escapes to France where he now lives with his wife and children (also baptized) under a fictitious identity to avoid the fatwa against him.” Duchesne’s second recommendation is one he edited: Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger on Christians and Jews (2010, Paulist Press) about “the common roots Jews and Christians share, but also and above all what they are now called to accomplish together.”

Former senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum likes Washington’s Crossing(2006, Oxford) by David Hackett Fisher. “Through the prism of these revolutionary war battles, we see from the words of both British and American leaders insights as to the fundamental differences between the two countries that is essential in understanding the nature of the fight we are engaged in today.”

James Coffey, vice president of the Papal Foundation, confesses that he was “floored” by Matthew Kelly’s CD, Becoming the Best Version of Yourself. Coffey explains that Kelly “takes you through the readings for the four weeks of Advent – you’ll still have time to listen and prepare for Christmas like never before. He also has a plan for making four New Year’s resolutions that will change your life!”

Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press, suggests Peace, Like a River by Leif Enger (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002). Brumley describes it “as a marvelously delightful, spiritual novel, set in early 1960s small-town Minnesota, that recounts a young boy’s experience of his janitor-mystic father, outlaw brother, and precocious, literary sister.” This family encounters great tragedy and “responds with faith, sacrifice, and undying love, in a story in which the miraculous seems commonplace and the ordinary, extraordinary.”

Walter Simmons, an independent record producer, author, and classical music reviewer for Fanfare, suggests a recording of American music I dearly love – theNaxos recording of Flagello’s Missa Sinfonica (1957) and Rosner’s “Symphony No. 5, Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina” (1973). “These are two works scored solely for orchestra,” Simmons explains, “and whose structure and expression are based on the Roman Catholic Mass; both are based on traditional Chant melodies as well, and in that sense they are symphonic Masses.” Both composers are best characterized as “neo-romantic,” although their actual musical styles are dramatically different from each other. “While Flagello was Catholic and Rosner Jewish, the latter chose the form and spirit of the Mass as an expression of his pacifist beliefs.”

Russell Shaw, Catholic journalist par excellence, has recently discovered the greatness of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. He writes, “I am dismayed that it took me so long to get around to it, but I rejoice that I finally did. But this tale of adultery and marriage is, quite simply, the best, most penetrating, most thoroughly honest account of the relationship between the sexes that I’ve ever come across, bar none.” Shaw concludes this novel “should be required reading for homilists, lecturers, writers, and every literate person.”

Marjorie Campbell, another regular contributor to InsideCatholic, also recommends a classic: Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley. Campbell thought she had read this book at some point but nonetheless downloaded it on her Kindle. After starting to read, she realized that she had only seen a few of the film’s versions. “What a treat to discover the gripping saga of man as Creator and his creation Frankenstein. A science fiction classic, this volume plumps bioethical questions more relevant today than when first published anonymously in 1818.” Campbell pulls this quote for your consideration: “You must create a female for me with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being. This you alone can do, and I demand it of you as a right you must not refuse to concede.”

Bishop Rene Henry Gracida, bishop emeritus of Corpus Christi, has “no hesitation” in recommending Karl Richter’s 1958 recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on DG. The bishop has “played it over and over again” because he finds it “so moving artistically and spiritually.” I have a special fondness for this recording myself, because these were some of the LPs through which, in college, I discovered the greatness of classical music.

David Barton, president of the national pro-life organization WallBuilders, likes the DVDs How Great Is Our God and Indescribable by Louie Giglio for a better understanding “of the splendor and majesty of God our Father, the Creator of everything that exists.” The images on these DVDs, shown from the Hubble Telescope, give “new and unimaginable meeting to Psalms 19 – ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows His handiwork.'”

Michael Voris, president of St. Michael’s Media and RealCatholicTV, writes to recommend The Desolate City (1990 HarperCollins) by Anne Muggeridge: “To completely understand the crisis of faith that has gripped the Catholic Church, this book is indispensable.”

The president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Rev. Terence Henry, TOR, writes about the visit of Newt and Callista Gingrich to Franciscan University last fall to present their movie Nine Days That Changed the World, about John Paul II’s historic 1979 pilgrimage to Poland. “This movie inspires and fills the viewer with hope in the power of truth and love by powerfully conveying how John Paul II’s first visit to his homeland as pope triggered the fall of this godless government.”

The President and Editor-in-Chief at Catholic Exchange, Harold Fickett, recommends a film that has haunted him since seeing it three years ago: Danish director Susan Bier’s After the Wedding. “This film captures humanity in a way rarely seen on film and moves through a series of suspense drama premises that finally give way to a universal ethical dilemma: How much do we owe to those closest to hand versus those far away?” Fickett says, “It begins with Jacob Peterson (Mads Mikkelsen), a Dane pursuing humanitarian work in Africa, who returns to his homeland, ostensibly, to court a potential funder. The donor turns out to be married to Jacob’s ex-wife, and Jacob suspects revenge may be at hand for his formerly dissolute life.”

Matt Pinto, president of Ascension Press, has for years, he tells me, “lamented being off in the clouds during my middle school days, but I have now discovered at least one benefit from this past laziness – reading.” He’s now discovered and recommends Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2006, Simon & Schuster). Calling it “a fabulous read for anyone who is historically-challenged,” Matt marveled at how providential the election of Lincoln was for this particular moment in history, as well as the tragic loss of so many lives.

Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, recommends Politics – According to the Bible (2010, Zondervan) by Wayne Grudem. Land admires all of Grudem’s work, but this work is “both extremely readable and comprehensive” and “destined to be a classic reference on the subject for years.”

Patrick Langrell, director of Young Adult Outreach in the Archdiocese of New York, recommends a book by his boss: To Whom Shall We Go? Lessons from the Apostle Peter (2008, Our Sunday Visitor) by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan. Langrell describes it this way: “This short yet profoundly deep and spiritually uplifting series of reflections on the words and actions of St. Peter provides all of us with the perfect reading material that will help us cultivate and flourish in an even deeper relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. Without a doubt, this book is a must-read for all Christians, and due to its simplicity and clarity is the perfect Christmas gift for a family member, friend, or ‘on the edge’ inquirer.”

Janet Sahm, executive assistant at InterActiveCorp and contributor to InsideCatholic.com, also writes from New York City to suggest Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility(2007, St. Anthony Messenger) by Edward Sri. “The summarized version of John Paul II’s ‘Love and Responsibility’ literally rocked my world. It changed the way I approach every relationship in my life; between friendships, dating, and even family members. This book is vital for young adults, yet relevant for every age.”

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, likes the present he is receiving from his wife Samah: Magic: The Complete Course (2008, Workman) by Joshua Jay. “I have not yet begun the book that is my entry point to my next ‘fun project’ – magic. It comes with magic tricks and promises years of frustrating fun.” I’m going to avoid the obvious comment about the difficulty of lowering taxes…

An associate professor of English at Liberty University, Carl Curtis recommends a DVD that is already on my Santa list: The Complete Metropolis (Kino International). All previous versions have given way to the recent discovery in Argentina of a nearly mint-condition print of the 1927 classic silent film. “What should one call it – sci-fi classic, dystopia run amok, Marxist nonsense, materialist nightmare, German decadence on a platter, Christian vision, touching romance, sloppy romance, farce? Something for everyone. The perfect gift.”

Francis Fusco calls The Lord by Romano Guardini (1982, Gateway) “the book that keeps on giving, one foundational to the thought of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, including John Paull II, Benedict XVI, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Henri de Lubac.” He adds a recommended DVD, The Andy Griffith Show. “What reader of Inside Catholic would not want their children to watch good, wholesome The Andy Griffith Show instead of the current children’s drivel on television and DVD?” I second that thought!

Quin Hillyer, senior editorial writer at the Washington Times, recommends “an inspirational story of the meeting of mind and will along with a faith once lost that was found anew.” Hillyer is talking about Clarence Thomas’s My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir (2007, Harper), the story of “Justice Thomas’s rise from abject poverty; his willingness to question socio-political shibboleths and think, with integrity, for himself; and his rediscovery of his Catholic faith, all combine to create one of the most unforgettable and highly treasurable memoirs of the past quarter-century.”

Joseph Susanka, a regular writer for InsideCatholic, has finally discovered Renaissance music, finding “the melodic ideas expressed by most composers of that era a trifle too dissonant for my Baroque-trained ears, I fear.” Now he shares his “growing obsession” with the work of Christopher Bell and the Praetorius Consort on their album Praetorius: Dances from Terpsichore & More. “Most people have heard of Praetorius, but it is the works of the recording’s secondary composers – Arbeau, Holborne, and Demantius – that really captured my attention. I challenge even the most decorous of listeners to give this one a whirl without succumbing to a fair bit of toe-tapping.”

Anyone who knows Ray Flynn, former mayor of Boston and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, knows two things: He is a pro-life Democrat and completely unpredictable. In keeping with his reputation, he sent neither a movie, nor a book, nor a CD recommendation, but rather a story about “the decency of baseball fans.” Flynn says that “after hearing the following story, I said to my son, ‘God must be a baseball fan.'”

That game was June 1, 2010, in Detroit, when the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga missed out on a perfect game when first-base umpire Jim Joyce incorrectly called the batter safe at first with two outs in the ninth inning. Galarraga, who got the next batter out to finish with a one-hitter, was extremely gracious over the missed call, saying, “We’re human. Nobody is perfect. He’ll [Joyce] probably feel bad after he sees the replay.” Joyce did just that, admitting: “It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked it.” Joyce was the home plate umpire when the two teams met again the next day, and Galarraga was sent out with the Tigers’ lineup card. The two men shook hands, and Joyce tearfully apologized to the rookie pitcher, who had just been called up in May, for costing him a chance to go into the baseball record books.

I’m glad Ray Flynn sent me that story to cap off this wonderful group of Christmas recommendations. Merry Christmas!