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Sunday, March 16, 2003
REJOINDER: ELEMENTS OF A CHRISTIAN ENTERTAINMENT

Last week, I made a list of some values that one would expect to find in entertainment stories created by a follower of Jesus. My next project will be to discuss further elements that might come through a specifically Catholic worldview, as opposed to a merely Christian worldview. Finally, I want to consider the ethics of filmmaking method for believers. That is, are there ways to tell a good story, which might in themselves vitiate the goodness of that story?

First, however, I want to answer some emails generated by my earlier post about "Mere Christian Entertainment."

One reader took issue with my assigning the sacramental vision to "mere" Christianity, arguing that it would more properly belong in a Catholic worldview. My use of the sacramental sense does not refer to the rituals established by Christ to obtain sanctifying grace. It refers to the conviction that the universe has both spiritual and material aspects, and that the material very often points to and reveals the spiritual. This sense belongs to all Christians.

Another person suggested that writers who seek to imbue their work with Christian values will ultimately be creating just another kind of propaganda. I could not disagree more. This thinking is the residue of a dreadful error of the 20th Century that has caused most of the problems we see on the screen.

Propaganda is the effort to manipulate people by playing on their base instincts. It works on them the way animals could be driven - by fears, instincts for survival, dominance, etc. Propaganda subverts human freedom.

Writing stories from a Christian worldview - we'll call it parable-making - is the effort to throw a line to people who are drowning. With a parable, we call into play what is most human - the ability to make distinctions and to arrange them in a hierarchy. People remain free to cleave to what is laid out before them.

For most of the 20th Century, artists abandoned the prophetic aspect to art. Artists were taught to perceive their work as essentially self-expression rather than as the service of communication. The impulse to make art is fundamentally a desire to connect, but this has been perverted in the last several generations. Artists have been told that art is completely personal. The only ethics have to do with whether they are honest about putting out there whatever is inside of them. The fact that some of what is inside of them is disedifying, and should STAY INSIDE OF THEM has not been explored as an ethical problem.

So, we've seen a lot of self-indulgent projects that were all about artists pointing to themselves instead of pointing to the world, and specifically the world beyond the senses. As the creative community wandered further and further from God - their life source - their art got deader and deader. At its worst, much of 20th century art and literature was more explorations of all that was left to artists without God: isloation, fear, depression, depravity, meaninglessness.

Another emailer suggested that there is no need for Christian writers to try and imbue their work with the values I listed. The idea seems to be that a writer who is a beliver will sit down, write a story, and bang, in the end will find a brilliant parable that reflects saving truth. From the Scriptures, "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks," and, "A good tree cannot produce bad fruit."

The problem is, Christ also said, "No one is good but God alone." (And Italians. I'm sure he said, "And Italians" there. Someone, look it up...)

The fact is, a good tree can produce very bad art. Evidence the four drafts of this post that I have already gone through (although the first two were lost thanks to blogger's being possessed periodically by demons...). There will be some good things that show up by accident in a writer's work, but the "priesthood of the artist" (to borrow from JPII's Letter to Artists) comes down to the willingness of the artist to labor and die a bit to render his or her work a means of grace.

Flannery O'Connor, unquestionably a genius, would spend time every evening poring over the Summa Theologica. Then, the following mornings, she would work at bringing her theology into play in her stories. She wrote once that she would spend weeks and weeks to find a way to make a story "work" not just dramatically, but in term of its presentation of the theological truths she was working to convey. The primary theological obsession in her work was, as she noted, to convince people of the reality of grace.

No, there will be no compelling and clever parables of the Kingdom without hard work from Christian writers.

Next, I'll talk about what a "Catholic" cinema might look like, and whether I think the efforts to constitute a Catholic cinema would be blessed by God. (Did I just tip my hand?)