Monday, June 30, 2008

"The Real Patron of the Arts"

Back in March I was interviewed for the online version of the magazine of Catholic United for the Faith, which is called "Lay Witness." In opening the stack of mail waiting for me back at the Act One offices, I just found a letter from the magazine telling me that the interview is posted here.

They enclosed a copy of the print version of the magazine with the letter. INterstingly, my interview didn't make the print version. But there was a one page essay from the president of CUF, explaining how and why he had thrown out his television. Ha! I love us. I have to... To be fair, Mike goes on to say that the Church needs to be engaged in media. Of course, whether we could do that without actually watching media is up for debate. (Not really.)

There was another essay in the magazine balancing out Mike's piece from Prof. Eugene Gan of Steubenville, making the case that perhaps we Catholics should try and engage the media, and quoting extensively from the last apostolic letter of JPII, "The Rapid Development."

Here's a snip from that great and timely letter:

"The Church is not only called upon to use the mass media to spread the Gospel, but, today more than ever, to integrate the message of salvation into the 'new culture' that these powerful means of communication create and amplify." (Letter of JOhn Paul II, The Rapid Development, January 24, 2005)

ANyway, the lonnnnnnnnnnnnng interview was over the phone, so I was walking back and forth across my apartment in my pajamas ranting, scaring my cat, and probably freaking out my neighbors. It's my usual shtick...only more so...and intended for an orthodox Catholic readership.

The first part of the interview was about broader issues concerning the Church and the arts. I find I always have to start here with more conservative Christians because they have almost lost all interest in and appreciation for the arts. They are basically living in a cultural void, and it is always an effort to try and convince them that that is a morbid choice. Here's a snip:

Tell us about the topic of your presentation tonight: “The Real Patron of the Arts: Hollywood or the Church?”

I was talking to my undergrads at a college in Los Angeles—Christian kids, there are 60 of them from colleges all over the country—and I mentioned the phrase “patron of the arts.” One of the kids in the front row raised his hand and said, “And who’s that?”

And I realized, looking at these 18-year-olds, that they didn’t know the phrase “patron of the arts.” So I said to them, “Well, who do you think the patron of the arts is? Talk about it among yourselves and then tell me what you think.” And so they came back five minutes later and they had two things that they had decided. One was Hugh Hefner of Playboy Magazine, and the other one was the Bravo channel.

And when I said to them, “No—the patron of the arts is the Church,” they looked at me and they were like, “What art, and what Church?”

And I have to say, they’re right. They’re right. Hugh Hefner spent more on the arts in the last month than the Church probably spent in the last year, and maybe even the last decade. He hired hundreds of actors and models and photographers and writers and designers and directors, etc. And we wonder why people like Hefner have cultural power, and we in the Church have been relegated to cultural irrelevance? Who is the real “leaven in the lump of the world” here? We’ve so lost the value of beauty and art and storytelling in the Church that we don’t deserve the moniker anymore—“patron of the arts.” We’re not.

Why is it important for the Church to regain that?

This is a huge question. Let me point to a couple things that would help. One thing to read is Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” that he issued in 1999, where he talks about the epiphanies of beauty through which God speaks to human hearts, and how the arts are a medium of revelation in the world, and how a sacred artist, or someone who’s prayerful, is absolutely a way for God to speak to the world today.

I read an essay that Pope Benedict XVI wrote before he was pope called The Beauty and the Truth of Christ in which he says that if the Church could have the knowledge that comes through beauty or the knowledge that comes through theological texts, She would prefer the knowledge that comes through beauty because the knowledge that comes through beauty brings to people the conviction of their own smallness and humility, and also the sense of the grandeur and order and intelligence of the cosmos. And that these two awarenesses are the beginning of real prayer.

So when people experience the beautiful, the problem of the Garden of Eden is fixed. You know, the Garden’s temptation in Genesis was “You will be like God.” And this is still the paramount temptation for human beings. Well, when you experience beauty, you know you’re not God and you also feel that that’s OK. You feel good about your life and your very “un-Godness” because you’re filled with awe and gratitude. So, Pope Benedict makes the case that you can know everything in a book of theology and make a prayer that is proud and cold. Or, you can know almost nothing of theology but respond to a sunset and feel God’s presence there and it can be a prayer that is holy and that will be heard.

So just briefly, there are many, many, many goods that come to the Church through the arts, but the idea of the beautiful is the main one.

The second part of the interview was about Act One. I loved that she put the word "whispers" in there! Is it wrong to be pleased with oneself so thoroughly at moments? I would like what follows after that whispers to be one of quotes for which I might be remembered.... Anyway, here's a snip:

What does it take? What kind of person are you looking for to participate in Act One?

Well, the first thing we’re looking for on the writing side is people who can spell! I wish I was kidding! I get people all the time that come to me and they want to be writers but they can barely write two sentences that are clear. It’s very rare to find somebody who actually has a good writing style.

And then we need people who have been reasonably well educated in storytelling. We give our writers a list of the hundred most influential novels ever written. And we ask them to check off how many they’ve read—not how many they’ve seen in the movies, but how many they’ve read. The young people coming to us on the average have read only seven of the hundred most influential stories ever written. And these people are top of their classes! We’re not talking obscure stuff here. I’m talking Hemingway and Hawthorne and Austen and the Greeks. So we have a huge problem. This a particular challenge for these two up-and-coming generations—the Gen-Xers and the Millennials—they’ve been completely cut off from their cultural heritage.

And then they need to be somewhat culturally savvy. They ought to have a sense of what is the best work that is out there and why. Often, the real conservative Christian kids that come to us have seen every movie done in the Golden Age but they haven’t seen anything since Star Wars. And it’s the same problem because if you haven’t seen The Matrix, you don’t know your audience today.

On the executive side, we want people from top schools, top undergraduate programs, and even grad programs, who are primarily law and finance oriented. So we want lawyers, law students, MBAs, people with finance degrees and any other people with corporate or business experience. We’re preparing people there for the executive suites of Hollywood, and that’s the talent pool the industry draws from.

I would say the next thing we want is committed Christians. We have all denominations. I’m very sad that we have had so few Catholics go through the program. I have gone to these schools—the Catholic schools, the special Catholic schools—I’ve gone to them all several times and spoken there and pleaded, and what I find there is that kids do not have any apostolic drive. After getting these great Great Books educations, what they want to be is maybe a DRE in a small country parish in the backwoods where nobody will notice them and they can just shut the world down and out. You know, there’s nothing apostolic in that. St. Paul could’ve done that—the Church would be nothing if we had done that. We have not received a mandate to head for the hills.

There is something wrong in a Church in which we are preparing kids to only play in the Catholic subculture. [whispers] There was never supposed to be a Catholic subculture! You know what disciples do in the Catholic subculture? They have personality fights and power struggles. Well, I’d rather be martyred by the world and the devil than be killed by a fellow Catholic because they don’t like the way I say the Rosary or something.

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