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Do Catholics Watch Film like Fundamentalists?

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The silence of the Catholic critic is so often preferable to his attention. -Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

Too much Christian “criticism” of film revolves around tallies of bare boobs, f-words, and the like, or sounding the alarm at perceived hostilities against Christianity, but Larsen I respect for his willingness to let the filmmakers bear witness in their own way. Maybe their witness doesn’t align with ours. But we can’t negate their experiences, their hopes, their fears. Many times, Larsen shows, their witness does affirm biblical truths and values, however obliquely.-Victoria Emily Jones

If, in some foetid corner of an Internet comment box, a Catholic passingly familiar with apologetics were to encounter someone decrying the evils he accuses God of having commanded in the Old Testament, such as slavery, polygamy, genocide, smashing babies’ heads against rocks, and so on (you’re quite familiar with the litany, I’m sure), whilst self-assuredly asserting that Catholics read the Bible literalistically, and that therefore the Church worships an evil God, the Catholic might respond by discussing the various literary genres of the books in the Bible, outlining a more sophisticated interpretation of some of Scripture’s darker passages, and thusly arguing for God’s goodness. The Catholic might remind the commentator that Catholics are not fundamentalists, neither read the Bible literalistically nor believe that simply because the Bible depicts something it is divinely endorsed, and have had throughout the Church’s history a variety of sophisticated literary tools with which to interpret these assorted difficult passages.

Even though these interpretive tools are available to us, it’s not a failure for someone to find it challenging to know how to understand these difficult passages. However, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says in Verbum Domini,

it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery”.

Even though Scripture is given to all of us, that doesn’t mean that all of us can understand it immediately. Understanding will likely be the result of much effort, under the guidance of trustworthy teachers. That it’s difficult to reconcile our faith with what some of these passages depict is not a reason to reject these passages, as there are certain procedures and interpretive tools of which we should make use when these difficulties arise.

We know how to read Scripture but not fiction

However, there is an incongruous tension between Catholics who would defend the Church from accusations of fundamentalism by citing the many interpretive tools the Church uses and Catholics who abandon those tools and effectively adopt a fundamentalist approach when it comes to similarly difficult fiction. Take, as a relatively recent example, some reactions to Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence.

Silence depicts a Jesuit who apostatizes to save people from being tortured, believing that he hears Christ’s voice commanding him to do so. Obviously, this is, from a Catholic perspective, potentially problematic, and indeed, many Catholics simply asserted that a Hollywood movie depicting apostasy positively should be avoided. Well, perhaps, but that’s begging the question whether this portrayal of apostasy is, in fact, positive, which I doubt. This position does not ask what Endo’s or Scorsese’s purpose is in depicting this sin but wrongly assumes that portrayal is equivalent to an endorsement, that to show a protagonist sinning is to tell the audience to go and sin likewise. It assumes that storytelling, and film, in particular, should be straightforwardly uplifting and inspirational, and should present an edifying message, a useful moral, and a good role model. It draws the fundamentalist conclusion that the events that are portrayed in the story tell the audience how they should live their lives, confirming that which they already know, and leaving no room for interpretation. When these are the basic presumptions with which people approach fiction, there is practically no room left for good storytelling; all that is wanted is propaganda. Even the Bible isn’t like that. Rebecca Bratten Weiss puts it quite well:

The other problematic assumption here is that literature is about heroes, that we tell stories only in order to provide moral paradigms. This is an error that I have to deal with every single semester, as a literature teacher, because from the Iliad to The God of Small Things, we are dealing with characters who are not moral icons. Somewhere along the line, the American Christian imagination lost its roots in the classical tradition, and transplanted itself into a thin weak soil of middle-class moral prejudice, the same in which have sprouted numerous literary and dramatic works that are today, happily, forgotten…

…the point of stories is not to serve as moral propaganda, but to explore what it means to be human. To be embodied, to be sinful, to be lazy, to be longing, to be hungry, to be bored, to do stupid things, to take risks, to save lives, to settle down, to run away, to try to live happily ever after, to give up, to find God.

Learning to be good critics

I don’t take exception to those who argue (with reference to the text, as English professors say) that a story fails to handle difficult themes properly, but I am frustrated by those who simply reject a story out of hand because they believe it will inspire people to apostatize and fails to be “affirming” when the Church deals with equally difficult passages in Scripture itself on a regular basis. Is it not incongruous that, on the one hand, to defend the Church, we say that we read Scripture in many sophisticated ways, which are not always literalistic; but on the other hand, to defend the Church, we say simplistically that we must reduce Silence to meaning literalistically what it depicts and therefore condemn it? What prevents these literary tools from being applied to film and literature?

To return to what Benedict says regarding Scripture, just because a novel or film presents a problematic situation does not mean that it should be neglected (just the opposite, potentially), and we might need a certain degree of critical expertise in order to competently interpret something. Having that expertise does not mean that one will arrive at the conclusion that Silence is unproblematic, but surely it’s a prerequisite for fruitful analysis? We don’t hide our congregations from the difficult passages of Scripture; we still read them at Mass, even though some might not know what to make of them, and the priest offers a homily about them to draw out what truths they have. Similarly, as a community, we should not hide from a film or a novel simply because somebody within the Church might find it challenging, but we should know where to find good critics who can guide us. And if some of us still don’t know what to think of the story, or find the interpretations unsatisfactory, that’s fine, as coming to a positive conclusion is not guaranteed, but at least we’ve put an effort into engaging with the ideas presented to see if there is anything interesting to be found, instead of becoming literary fundamentalists and simply measuring the degree to which the story recites the approved shibboleths, affirms what we already think, or depicts that which is anathematised. That latter option, which Sr. Helena Burns calls a “‘witch hunt’ mentality,” is a wholly impoverished way of engaging with art.

Film and literature are not democratic

The American author Flannery O’Connor argues in “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” from her collection Mystery and Manners, that “if we intend to encourage Catholic fiction writers,” it will necessary to have

a body of Catholic readers who are equipped to recognize something in fiction besides passages they consider obscene. It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read the telephone book can read a short story or a novel, and it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the truth in the Church, we can use this truth directly as an instrument of judgment on any discipline without regard for the nature of that discipline itself. Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels that they don’t have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit.

Now, I want to believe that many of us already have at least some of that fundamental equipment. If we consider the literary conventions of the books of the Bible when reading them, such as genre and metaphor and allegory and foreshadowing and hyperbole, surely we should have the critical acumen to also consider those conventions when reading literature.

It’s understandable that one might not want to watch a film because one does not want to have its disturbing images in one’s head, or because one currently does not want to grapple with certain questions. We shouldn’t act as if just because a movie has a so-called “faith angle” it’s automatically appropriate for everybody of faith, or that it’s blandly inoffensive. As O’Connor says, “art never responds to the wish to make it democratic.” But we also shouldn’t say that my personal decision to avoid a film, thinking that it doesn’t handle certain issues very well, is the only course of action a good Catholic could possibly take, and that Catholics who take a different course of action are eating secular cookies with a little bit of poison hidden amidst the good parts (a real analogy I have actually seen a Catholic use online to describe Silence).

The Medium and the Message

As important as a story’s content might be, merely saying the right things (and the right things alone) does not a good story make. O’Connor says, “Poorly written novels – no matter how pious and edifying the behaviour of the characters – are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying.” It doesn’t matter how wonderful the so-called “message” of an anti-septic story is if the author can hardly write a sentence, can’t create a lifelike character or depict the world effectively, and comes up with a mess of a plot. Reading such a novel would as edifying as watching rank amateurs trying to compete in the Super Bowl; it would prevent the endeavour – and the “message” – from being compelling in any way whatsoever. Indeed, in these cases, it would only be compelling because the hearer already agrees with it, making the medium of fiction redundant, but most of us seem to think that fiction is more than merely redundant, so its value must lie somewhere other than in passing on an anodyne “message.” Literature isn’t about just making an intellectual point because you don’t need a story to pass that point on. If you can completely divorce the point from the story, it’s not a good story.

If literature, for example, is an art that uses words as its medium, then mastery of putting words together is at least as fundamental as what those words are saying; technique is just as important as substance. If literature has elements such as plotting and character, and devices such as symbols, metaphors, and irony, then good literature will use those devices well, and a good critic will be able to evaluate a novel based on its use of these elements. The virtuosic use of those devices is compelling no matter who the writer is or what is being said, and one can become a more discerning reader by encountering the best examples of these devices. And when one becomes a more discerning reader, one is better equipped to grapple with more challenging stories.

True, Scripture and literature (and film) are not the same things. It would be wrong to reduce Scripture to just being literature or to elevate literature to the level of Scripture. Having said that, however, if the proper way of reading Scripture involves paying attention to the literary devices it uses, surely the proper way of reading literature involves paying attention to those same literary devices.

O’Connor believes that art can make demands of its audience and that Catholics especially must be humble and willing enough to acquire high standards of taste and perception before passing judgment. The understanding of Scripture also makes these demands, and the Church has the tools and guidance we need to meet them. Indeed, many of us are more than happy to use them. There is no reason not to apply those tools and that guidance to art.

For more, see Sr. Helena Burns, “How I Review a Film