CHRISTIAN IMAGINATION AND THE MEDIA
I'm here in Orlando to give a speech to the Catholic Press Association and the Catholic Academy of Media Professionals. Here, for posterities' sake, are the notes (in someplaces outline) for my talk.
I. Greetings from the Church in Hollywood! I am very honored to be addressing you. And intimidated. The topic I was assigned seems so much better suited to a theologian or philosopher or historian. I am a screenwriter. And the Executive Director of a small non-profit in Hollywood that mentors writers and business people for Hollywood careers. But it seems to me that the Catholic Press Association knows that, and still asked me here. So, I will do my best to share some of what we have worked out at Act One, as we brood over our young artists. Always, always, we are asking ourselves, "What is the place of Christianity in mainstream culture?" So, forgive me if I am too pragmatic - but I am a practicioner and a teacher of practicioners - and, as artists, we only have a small appetite for philosophy and theology.
a) I want to start by saying a bit about bringing a Catholic lens to bear on the times. Jesus said once in frustration to his followers, “Can You Not Read the SIGNS OF THE TIMES?!” This current moment in post-Passion, pre-Narnia Hollywood, is a distinct one in history. I want to lay out how different in terms of some things that are going on, how we got here in the culture, and where we are headed.
b) I will speak a little about the New Evangelization, and what that means to those of us in media. I want to talk about why the Church has a stake in being a “Patron of the Arts” and why we need beauty in our spiritual lives.
c) I want to finish with scattered musings about some things we can say to the secular media industry, that no one else is saying: about the role of entertainment in human life; about the role of artists in the human family, about truth, about power and responsibility, about beauty;
II. The Cultural “Signs of the Times”
a) I will resist interpreting these for you. Just go down a list…
1. Columbine and Hollywood – Was this our fault? – 2 issues of the WGA magazine dedicated to the debate.
2. 9/11 – One year later issue – from WGA Pres: “This was PARTLY our fault. What have we been putting out there?”
3. “Exhausted with unbelief…” Gen X and Y coming of Age – rejecting the Sexual Revolution (Eternal Sunshine, Lost in Translation, Garden State, Hitch)
4. Music video – 7 of 10 hottest directors from music video – Daily Variety noted that they stand out for their ability to convey meaning through images – not what things look like, but what they mean.
5. LOTR – 1 billion – despite all the producers efforts, the movie was powered by its Christian constituency
6. The Passion of the Christ – biggest indie ever. Biggest 3rd world movie ever. For ten years we Christians in Hollywood have been trying to subtlely put Christian worldview in movies. Then, TPOTC hits and now we are hearing from the industry, "the audience wants overt religion, guys!" We have been very assiduously traiing our students NOT to write that kind of thing. Good grief.
7. 14 pilots this season supernatural elements. 6 Good Samaritan reality shows. Joan of Arcadia was huge – until it moved away from pushing the supernatural edge.
8. The People of God pouring into Hollywood and the Arts. Terrible anger about all the ugliness in the Church arts in the last few decades. Ardent desire to have a new renaissance.
9. Me, interviewed by Inside Edition, “Christian is the new gay.”
Now, you can say to me, but what about the OTHER signs of the times – 1 in 11 men are addicted to porn; The L Word, Real Sex, Queer Eye, Desperate Housewives; Sin City and Kinsey, and Vera Drake and Kingdom of Heaven and Million Dollar Baby and The six primetime shows advocating stem cell and euthanasia since Christmas;
And these are all there. The dividing line between the life with God, and the life without Him will be more and more clear in culture. It's kind of a relief.
III. The New Evangelization
a) Not new in terms of it’s content – still the kerygma.
b) Not new in terms of its end – still that “they become us.”
c) New in terms of its arena, its method, and its means.
1. Arena – has to be considered as the culture. Anything we do on the one-to-one evangelization level will be undermined by the culture unless we make it serve the Gospel. The only way to ensure and solidify individual conversions, is to bring God into every human system. Is it just some kind of cute saying to “renew all things in Christ”? What does it literally mean? We need to speak the Truth to scientists. We need to speak the truth to artists. We need to speak the truth to celebrities and those with the spotlights and microphones. We need to speak the Truth to politicians and pundits. We need to speak the Truth to educators and thinkers. Humanity is innately religious. If we do not make room for the good God, mankind will make himself a bad one. It isn’t a matter of being disrespectful about others beliefs. It is a matter of sharing the Truth that we have as an act of charity to poor lost humanity that is flailing around drowning and desperate.
“Don’t be afraid to throw open the windows to Christ!” JPII
2. Method – New Evangelization will focus on ways of reaching all these groups en masse. Television. Cinema. The Arts, especially music. The Internet. Through celebrity. Through soundbites.
“Ride the horse in the direction in which its going.” Linda Obst
(I know, btw, this goes against your grain. We have been focused on the one-to-one in evangelization for so long, that this sounds like heresy. But that is why it is a NEW Evangelization. And it isn’t to say that we eliminate the need for one-to-one interaction in handing on the Gospel. We’ll have time to fill in the sound-bites later. Right now, the culture is like a mighty river sweeping by us – mankind by the millions crying out in the unnecessary anguish wrought by sin. There are 400,000 frozen embryos in this country. And soon, we will have 700,000 elderly grandparents getting euthanized. The cloning people are standing just there - right outside the door. The time is short and desperate.
3. Means (symbols) – In his Letter to Artists, JPII called for “a new iconography” for the arts. He said we need new images that are revelatory of the Gospel for the people of today. I don’t know what this means. Because the images we have come from the Scriptures for the most part, we are never going to do away with them. Jesus called Himself, sheepgate and vine and shepherd and king – and it seems that the Scriptures will be the first place people encounter those realities. But we can move beyond them to an iconography of the modern Christian life. (ie. Ancient Christian burial site – wrestler oil streaks…) What are visual metaphors that we can derive from modern life for the Christian life?
I have no idea. I'm just asking...
IV. Why Patron of the Arts?
The sad thing is, if you walked on the street and took a spot survey, asking people to name the Patron of the Arts, no one would say, the Catholic Church. People would probably say Ted Turner or Hollywood. And they would be right in that latter. Hollywood does MUCH more to keep alive the arts than does the Church.
How far we have come! But even though most Sunday liturgies are exercises in sensory torture, we have to keep alive in us the fact that despite the ugliness and mediocrity with which we have terribly obscured her, the Church remains as Cardinal Newman wrote,
“…the poet of her children, full of music to soothe the sad and control the wayward; wonderful in story, rich in symbol and imagery. So that gentle and delicate feelings, which will not bear words, may in silence intimate their presence. The liturgy’s very being is poetry; every psalm, every petition, every prayer; the cross, the mitre, the incensor; each a fulfillment of some dream of childhood, or aspiration of youth.”
We can spend a lot of time trying to figure out why we have lost our appreciation for the arts in the Church, or we can try and reclaim the reasons why the historical Church has always had a stake in the arts. Let’s do the latter…
1. Patron of the Arts because our theology is fundamentally analogical. This is what sets us apart from the Islamic imagination, for example. Theology can never precisely define God. But the Christian imagination says, “God is like a mountain.” Islamic imagination says, “God is NOT the mountain.”
A work of art expresses a truth that can not be said in a sentence. It expresses a Truth through the journey of the work of art itself. As Flannery O’Connor says, “If I could say it in a sentence, I wouldn’t have needed the story.”
And we have to insist that the truths that the arts convey are just as important as those that come through on the pages of a catechism. Chesterton again, in Everlasting Man:
“Imaginative does not mean imaginary. Every true artist does feel that he is touching transcendant truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. The natural mystic knows that there is something there behind the clouds and trees; and he believes that beauty is the way to find it; that the imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.”
2. Patron of the Arts because – quoting Cardinal Ratzinger, “there is no surer proof that our faith is true than the works of beauty we make, starting in the lives of the saints.” And in so far as we put the lives of the saints in beautiful art we accomplish a double proof that our faith is true.
3. Patron of the Arts because beauty conveys two different kinds of knowledge:
a) We move from delight to joy to wonder to humility. We become aware of our smallness. It makes us sad, and yet joyful. It teaches with certainty that heaven exists.
“The only way to enjoy even just a weed, is to feel yourself completely unworthy of the weed.” (Everlasting Man, Chesterton)
“At the back of our brains, there is a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life is to dig for this submerged sense of wonder.” (Autobiography, Chesterton)
b) Beauty gives us firsthand experience of spiritual realities. This is contrasted with book learning. (Ratzinger says that the knowledge that beauty conveys is to be preferred to that of booklearning which is essentially second-hand information.)
“The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.” (Orthodoxy, Chesterton)
4. Patron of the Arts because there is nothing that creates community more quickly and more powerfully than sharing something beautiful. It is a sign that something is beautiful that people are moved to share it.
V. Things the Church Can Say to the Secular Media That No One Else Will Say
1. There is a beauty that is good for us, and there is a kind of beauty that is bad for us.
a) Spiritual Beauty – reveals that man has a spirit; leads to transcendant; leads to wonder; begs to be shared
b) Sensual Beauty – revels in man’s physical nature; “Eve saw that the apple was attractive to the eye and GOOD FOR FOOD.” Sensual beauty stimulates the desire to eat; to possess; to consume; to dominate; to collect; to have sex with; it is the opposite of sharing.
2. To restore the Artist to His Essential Place in Human Society
The story of the 20th Century has been the story of the artist in proud isolation. He was told that in order to preserve his voice, he needed to stay on the fringes of the community. Too many other people would pollute his distinct message. This is all wrong. The artist gets his message from association with human society. Without society, the only thing an artist can talk about is the contents of his own navel. We have been looking at artistic guts for too long in the last half a century.
a) The artist is prophet – to reveal the mind of God; to reveal the groanings of the Spirit; to shake us up by reminding us who we are and who God is. The point of the liturgy - which is the primary work of art of the People of God - is always to achieve this two-fold end: to make real the Awesome God, and to make real the desperate need of humanity;
The nature of the revelation proper to art is not confusion. Confusion paralyzes. Art should lead to compunction. (David to Nathan, “I have sinned…”)
This is the primary reason non-representational modern art is not appropriate in churches, btw. It is inscrutable and confusing even when it is excellent, except to those who have studied it. Sacred art needs a mass accessibility.
b) The artist as priest – dedication to his vocation to beauty is the ongoing sacrifice offered by the artist. It disfigures him. But it makes him a worthy vessel of grace.
c) The artist as representative of the Creator – he is the arbiter of beauty; he tells us what is good and what is ugly; we listen to him. Especially we clerics who have no artistic training and who only know what we like, but not what we are talking about when it comes to art.
3. Catholic understanding of media will always be governed by our love of the Truth, and our conviction that human beings need the Truth.
a) It is not the handing on of Truth that is saving, but the knowing of Truth; Knowing here in the Biblical sense in which Adam "knew" Eve. We enter into relationship with Truth. Embrace it. Give ourselves to it without reserve. We cleave to it. It becomes fecund in us. So, our media will be an effort to entice people to set out on this journey of relationship with the truth. A journey that begins in questions, shadows, intimations, reverence.
b) Truth has authority. If we are ignored in the mainstream, it is because we quibble. We dance around. We refuse to commit. We qualify. We say things like, “In my opinion” and “it may be” and “some might conclude” and “perhaps it may seem”. These words are the death of authority. The people of today are starved for a voice of authority.
A good soundbite is one which has substance and style. From a Catholic standpoint, a soundbite is true (if it is authoritative) and beautiful (if it is memorable).
This is a 24 hour sound-bite culture. We have to take the microphone that is offered to us and do the best we can with it.
“About ssm: Kids need a mommy and a daddy.”
“About abortion: I don’t think violence solves anything.”
“About euthanasia: Suffering is not the worst thing that can happen to you.”
“The way you lose your humanity is by denying someone else theirs.”
For God’s sake, if you cannot say something you knowand are willing to put out there with authority, AT LEAST be busy about handing on the literal words of Christ! Don’t dare diminish His power by trying to water Him down to be more palatable. That is our sin in Catholic media.
4. Catholic understanding of media will include the conviction that, “There are some things which should not even be mentioned among you.”
a) Catholic understanding of media will say, “We don’t show THAT because it is dehumanizing to people.” “We don’t look at THAT because it objectifies us.” “We don’t talk about THAT because it popularizes vulgarity which is a precursor to barbarism.”
b) We say with clarity and convition: “Porn is not adult entertainment. It is anti-adult. It is not the stuff of maturity but the stuff of adolescence. Porn is dangerously addictive. It isn’t harmless. It devastates families. It physiologically destroys the brain. It destroys the possibility of intimacy." One therapist I met in NY told me, “95% of my practice can be attributed to porn. For men, it is how to cure them of their addiction. They can not have normal sexual relationships. They can not be turned on by normal women. For women, they either develop body issues (food disorders) to try and fit the porn model, or else they move into a place of hating men for trying to make them fit into that impossible model.”
5. Catholic understanding of media will proclaim that entertainment time is essential time for human development.
a) Most people in the entertainment world see their work as churning out sausage. Especially in television. One tv writer told me once, “In 12 years of comedy writing, it never occurred to me to do anything except keep the viewer from turning the channel.”
“Leisure is the basis of culture.” Pieper
b) We need to watch Frodo lose his hand, so we don’t have to. We need entertainment to stretch us into the heroes that mundane life may never ask of us. Entertainment time is the opportunity for us to experience the fullness of our own nature – to laugh deeply, to be moved to tears with sympathy, to feel outrage at injustice; to yearn to give oneself completely – to die for someone. All of these need to be the stuff of our entertainment. There is no time to waste.
6. Catholic understanding of media will include a commitment to use the power it offers justly.
a) Hollywood will not take responsibility for its power. It wants it both ways: to advertisers “We can make you rich by making people want your product.” To the rest of us, ‘Movies and television don’t change human behavior.”
b) We need to be saying over and over and over about the media, “With great power comes great responsibility.” You have tremendous power as storytellers. You can heal and inspire. You can make people want to be heroes. You can make them want to be better friends, better moms and dads, better citizens, better humans; you can also lead people to be more paranoid, more isolated , more suspicious of their neighbors, more jealous and materialistic; you can make them want to dominate or to serve. Which is it going to be, every damn day on primetime? Which is it going to be?”