Film, Television, And Literature Through A Catholic Lens
By Patrick Malone
What is the point of examining film from a Catholic perspective? We might think of at least two reasons why film isn’t worthy of such contemplation: firstly, many of us just treat films as mere diversions, as something to which to relax after a busy week, and that goal would be defeated if we were to analyze them too rigorously (after all, it’s just a movie); and secondly, we might also say that many films are corrosive influences to be flatly avoided, not engaged or analyzed.
However, from the perspective of a Catholic layperson, film, television, and literature (to a lesser extent) are ubiquitous aspects of the culture, even more than some of the things we might assume to have the most cultural influence; many people will see a particular movie but not follow politics, for instance. It is not necessarily the case that these people are not engaged in their society (even if they might be in dereliction of their civic duties), but they are still engaged in the society’s stories, and may still be formed by those stories. Cinema is a part of the world and public life, just as much as politics or philosophy, but sometimes with more widespread cultural currency, and the role of the laity is to engage that world. This isn’t to say that all laypersons must see every film, or find all films worthwhile, or never watch a film for entertainment, but rather that at least some laypeople should more rigorously analyze and discuss the ideas these stories present, and how these ideas reveal our culture’s preoccupations and priorities, and then present a Catholic response to these ideas and priorities. As Gaudium et spes says, “laymen are not only bound to penetrate the world with a Christian spirit, but are also called to be witnesses to Christ in all things in the midst of human society,” including popular culture.
In that case, what does the Catholic audience or reader have to offer to the discussion about a story, be it a movie or a novel? The American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, in Mystery and Manners, discusses how creating fiction is to take a look at reality. She discusses how the author Joseph Conrad, for example, “subjected himself at all times to the limitations that reality imposed.” The writer must be able to take long looks at the world to contemplate it, come to understand some of its mystery, and finally depict that mystery. The Catholic writer and audience both have their beliefs as the “light by which [they] see,” which enables them to interpret what they see in Creation, and how God acts in Creation, how the indivisible world acts in the visible world.
The Catholic audience, therefore, is able to offer that light and vision which may be lacking in secular criticism. Insofar as a story says something true about reality, the Catholic will be able to identify that and to express how that story presents something that is true about (for example) sin and conversion, or self-sacrifice, or the pursuit of the good. The Catholic can also explain how a story deviates from reality, in (for example) offering too tidy and easy a solution to the problem of suffering. The Catholic audience can understand a character arc in terms of the conversion and salvation of a soul, or its damnation. It is the Catholic imagination, primed to understand the world in sacramental terms, as revealing the mystery of God’s action in the world, that can best respond to stories which grapple with that mystery. And if no Catholics do this, they are leaving the issues to be answered by others, who might understand evil to disprove God and bleakness to destroy hope, mischaracterize sins as mere peccadillos, reduce grace to serendipity, ignore Scriptural resonances, and have a weak grasp of the everyday practice of the religious believers stories depict. Fiction asks questions concerning the good life, hope, transformation, and evil, and while Catholics might already have answers to those questions, they must also go forth to show how those answers apply to the specific questions which stories ponder and filter into the broader culture.
Patrick Malone has a Bachelor of Arts Honours in English from Campion College at the University of Regina, and is shortly to receive a Juris Doctor from the University of Saskatchewan. He has written on literature, film, and culture for Catholic Stand and has also been published in Millennial Journal.
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