The reason “Christian films” continue to prosper is because they are incredibly effective in winning their target demographic. However – this is the exact reason why they are ineffectual toward any other kind of viewer. This is what makes them “films for Christians” – not “Christian films.” “Films for Christians” are ego-centric forms of entertainment that represents the target viewer as the central protagonist, then so desperately tries to cram the Christian message into the contexts of the narrative that it completely ignores what made the narrative work in the first place – conviction, honesty, brutality, creativity, passion, beauty; in short – artistry. Without artistry the formula falls apart – we don’t engage with it – it feels contrived. This is not unique to Christian films only – it is evident in all kinds of films, always has been and always will. But the “Christian” genre is unique in that the vast majority of films produced for Christians suffers from this lack of artistry, and so it falls down in front of any viewer that can’t project themselves as the “hero” of the narrative. So what is the problem? Are Christians just bad artists? Not exactly…
I think the systemic problem is due to the fact that Christians are bad art appreciators.
So, what does it mean to be a Catholic and a good art appreciator, specifically in the world of narrative art? There are a lot of discussions out there about what it means to be a Catholic and an artist, but what does it mean to be a Catholic audience?
Ultimately, the question of what it is to be a Catholic audience is a subcategory of the question of what it means to be a Catholic layperson. Francis Cardinal Arinze, in The Layperson’s Distinctive Role, says that the laity “carry out their own part in the mission of the whole Church by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God.” According to him, the laity are quite often best placed to bear witness to God in the secular order, and there are many areas in which the laity have a special expertise that the clergy does not have. Indeed, “there are areas where the clerics are not called to function,” and is in these areas especially that the laity must make use of their special knowledge and expertise in some matters. Arinze goes on to list many of these temporal affairs, such as “family, work, leisure politics, government, trade, science, and technology.” Elsewhere he includes the arts among these temporal affairs, but they are not something he discusses in any particular detail or even mentions every time he describes the temporal order. In that case, what does it mean for a person to be engaged in the world of art, specifically fiction, as a Catholic layperson?
The stories a culture tells reveal and shape a society’s preoccupations and values. Clearly, storytelling and analysis of these stories are vital aspects of culture, just as much as politics, but it is politics that dominates the discussion of how the laity shapes the temporal order. Because of this influence, both storytelling and criticism, just like politics, require expert lay participation, in order to bend the arc of culture towards Christ. In that case, what does it mean to be a critic?
The Object as it Really is
One of the more important explorations of criticism is Matthew Arnold’s “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” For Arnold, the point of criticism is “to see the object as in itself it really is.” This is “slow and obscure work,” requiring that the critic possesses great knowledge and learns to be disinterested, instead of applauding things that accord with his biases. This is to live in the world of ideas, which Arnold describes as
when one side of a question has long had your earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged, when you hear all round you no language but one, when your party talks this language like a steam-engine and can imagine no other, – still to be able to think, still to be irresistibly carried, if so it be, by the current of thought to the opposite side of the question, and, like Balaam, to be unable to speak anything but what the Lord has put in your mouth.
Arnold rejects a parochialism that prevents the aspiring critic from being able to see past his own bubble. A critic must be able to understand art and life in order to write good criticism. He warns that there is always the possibility that the best a given art has to offer might not belong to the critic’s native tongue, and so the critic must come to possess literature that is as different as possible from his own. Possessing this wide knowledge is becomes possible to place objects in a larger context and to evaluate their virtues.
The Humility to Raise Oneself
The American author Flannery O’Connor speaks of this necessity for expertise in the Catholic context in Mystery and Manners. In the same way that, for Arnold, a critic must understand art and life, O’Connor argues that a writer is an observer of the world. The Catholic critic’s world, however, is larger than a materialist’s because it includes the workings of God.
Furthermore, O’Connor argues that the Catholic writer cannot coast on the confidence of possessing the truth; the writer must also be able to write well. As she says, “because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist.” The same goes for critics. Therefore, she privileges expertise when it comes to one’s craft, saying that art is not democratic, and that
we hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards. And this is certainly the obligation of the Catholic. It is his obligation in all the disciplines of life but most particularly in those on which he presumes to pass judgment.
A Catholic audience needs to do more than just, well, like, pass on their opinion, man. Stories have elements such as setting, plot, and characters that need to be properly integrated, and a Catholic critic who has come to be able to recognise expertise in these areas will be able to offer better analysis. Stories use devices such as irony and symbolism that can be difficult to parse, and therefore they may require some degree of experience to interpret. Stories don’t just upload a “message” into a reader’s head, without the reader having thought about what’s coming in; experienced readers’ minds aren’t at the mercy of the last thing they unthinkingly read. Instead, the work of interpretation and understanding is always being done, especially in the cases of difficult stories, and like any skill, it requires practice to get good at; it’s not all innate. A “Catholic” story might not be a family-friendly one. The Catholic subculture is especially prone to ignoring these elements in favour of measuring the degree to which the film makes them feel “uplifted” (forgetting that being “uplifted” is not a Christian virtue) and counting profanities, sex scenes, and violent acts, without considering how the film treats these elements. We forget that there is work to be done in interpreting stories when we treat all films and novels as mere entertainments, as escapism, as distractions. They’re not. For O’Connor, you can know a people by their stories, so we need to take these stories more seriously than something for which we turn off our brains.
You Can’t Run Away When the Shadow is Yours
These are the skills that allow one to distinguish between clueless trash and challenging but accurate depictions of the darker moments of life. O’Connor says many Catholic readers
are overconscious of what they consider to be obscenity in modern fiction. They are not equipped to find anything else. They are totally unconscious of the design, the intention, the meaning, or even the truth of what they have in hand. They don’t see the book in a perspective that would reduce every part of it to its proper place in the whole.
Yes, there are many troubling stories out there. They don’t all need to be declared excommunicate and anathema, cast into the outer darkness, judged damned with the devil and his fallen angels and all the reprobate, to eternal fire and everlasting pain. As O’Connor notes, “If the writer uses his eyes in the real security of his Faith, he will be obliged to use them honestly, and his sense of mystery, and acceptance of it, will be increased. To look at the worst will be for him no more than an act of trust in God.” Life is not “uplifting.” People suffer. People sin. Stories that force us to confront fictional sin and suffering train us to understand real sin and suffering instead of ignoring them. We can learn to look at the suffering that is never resolved with sunshine and rainbows without losing trust. We learn to engage with the mysteries of the real world instead of the world as we would like to pretend that it is. Stories can be more than escape from the things we must learn to grapple with.
And often, to look at the worst will reveal hope for the best; as Pope St. John Paul II says in his Letter to Artists, “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.” Just because the worst is being shown does not mean that the worst is being endorsed. Showing the worst may be to show the consequences of evil as evil, to show the need for salvation, and to emphasize that the world is fallen. Anyone who’s spent any time in a high school English class has encountered Shakespeare doing this. An audience that knows something of criticism will be able to draw the line between these last possibilities and endorsement, and therefore will be able to enter the cultural conversation more fruitfully and credibly.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI expands upon this in his meeting with artists,
Indeed, an essential function of genuine beauty, as emphasized by Plato, is that it gives man a healthy “shock”, it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum – it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it “reawakens” him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft. Dostoevsky’s words that I am about to quote are bold and paradoxical, but they invite reflection. He says this: “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.” The painter Georges Braque echoes this sentiment: “Art is meant to disturb, science reassures.” Beauty pulls us up short, but in so doing it reminds us of our final destiny, it sets us back on our path, fills us with new hope, gives us the courage to live to the full the unique gift of life.
Even though an audience might be disturbed by a story’s content, this disturbance might be a good thing. It prevents the viewer from never considering anything outside his or her own head, and shows the consequences of evil that the viewer may never otherwise encounter. Moreover, a greater critical expertise will make the audience able to put the darkness in its proper context. The disturbing content will not shock a good critic into baffled incomprehension because the critic will have the tools to draw upon to understand it.
Beauty and Ugliness
But how can something disturbing be beautiful, as Benedict suggests? The Thomist philosopher Ed Feser says,
In a sentimental culture like our own, the notion of beauty, like that of love, is often misunderstood. Like love, beauty is often taken to be something schmaltzy, and certainly to be something that appeals primarily to the affective side of our nature. But as with love, that is in fact not the case. Love is primarily a matter of the will, even though it has, of course, an affective side. And beauty is primarily a matter of the intellect, even though it too has an affective side.
When the object of an artistic representation is itself beautiful – a beautiful woman, say, or a beautiful natural setting – it can seem that it is what the senses take in, rather than what the intellect grasps, that primarily accounts for the beauty of the representation. But when the object of the representation is ugly, and yet we nevertheless judge the representation itself to be beautiful, the intellect’s essential role in the perception of beauty is more evident. The intellect “sees past” the ugliness of the object of the representation and focuses instead on the virtues of the representation itself.
One way to understand kitsch is as art that leans too heavily on the sensory and affective aspects of a work of art and too little on the content that the intellect alone can grasp, and which is thus superficial. And one way to understand modern art is as an overcompensation in the opposite direction. The modern artist wants to avoid kitsch but often falls into the opposite error of making art an entirely theoretical exercise that can appeal only to the intellect and not at all to our senses or passions. Hence the obsession with highly abstract modes of representation or with extremely ugly subject matter. Art becomes meta-art.
So, don’t be afraid of the dark. The dark stories are often, for many, the difficult ones to understand and engage with. That’s why they demand understanding and engagement, especially from Catholic critics, and something more than just avoidance. The dark can be portrayed beautifully, and disturbing art can bring fruit. If there are stories for which this is not the case, the Catholic critic can explain why, by pointing to artistry and craftsmanship. And if there are Catholic lay critics who can get out of their comfort zones and engage with these stories, either way, and help people see stories and therefore the world in new ways, this will shape the culture in a way that even politics cannot.
So much art grapples with questions of faith and sin and suffering, and much of the art of the last couple millennia deals quite explicitly with these questions. Especially today, given the state of religious literacy, Catholics should be in a prime position to offer insight because of their familiarity with the religious symbols and concerns that art borrows, but this cannot occur if Catholics do not know how to engage with art on its own terms and retreat to the comfort of “uplift.”
As Benedict describes, beauty is not an optional part of human existence. Because beauty is so necessary to the world, it is necessary for there to be Catholics discussing it, otherwise, somebody else will fill the void and shape the culture’s understanding. Because beauty and storytelling shape culture, discussing these stories by drawing upon the faith has the potential to shape culture in a way that ignoring that which disturbs does not. And if it is the role of the laity to shape that secular culture, the laity have a responsibility to engage with all stories, not just the easy ones, or the reassuring ones, or their own shibboleths and propaganda.