Finding God in the Dark: Spirituality and the Cinema

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As some of you could imagine, for me to return here to Banyo is a nostalgic moment. I lived here for four years when I was a Toowoomba seminarian. After I left Banyo, I went to University of Queensland and finished my undergraduate degree. It was from there I was accepted into the Jesuits. I will never forget going to see a venerable Monsignor in the Toowoomba Diocese to tell him of my decision to enter the Society. “Oh well, Richie”, he said, “I can see you’re jumping off the tug boat and boarding the cruise liner.” And then he offered this insight. “You know the Jesuits, they take a man, break him apart and put him back together the way they want him.” To which he added, “And in your case that’ll be a bloody good thing.”

All Jesuits of the Province, but especially those who hail from Queensland, hope that this centre will be a great blessing for the church here. Jesuits do not own Ignatian spirituality. It started as a lay spirituality, and in recent years has rightly been reclaimed by laypeople. It is the shared heritage of several congregations of women and men, who have enriched it and made it their own. And one of the reasons it works for a variety of people in the church, is that at its heart, and at its best, it is missionary - a style of prayer and reflection that is not in retreat from the world, but finds God in the everyday, and replenishes one’s personal and spiritual resources so that he and she can go back out there and live the good news.

And we need such a spirituality these days more than ever, because some in the church act as though we can sit at home and wait for the world to come to us – often expecting it to talk our talk and walk our walk. The problem here is that when we ponder the great commission of Mark 16:12, and its parallels, Jesus does not tell the disciples to wait at home for the throng to come to them, but to do - go out and meet the world where they are - as they are.

The patron of this centre is Blessed Peter Faber, the first Jesuit priest and the famed giver of the Spiritual Exercises. I think invoking Peter Faber’s patronage is inspired, not just because of the obvious link to Ignatian spirituality, but for two other reasons besides. During his lifetime Peter Faber spent a good deal of time in Germany where he was, arguably, the church’s first modern ecumenist. At the time, Germany was the toughest place for a catholic priest to be. But when Peter died aged 40 in 1546 the German Lutherans grieved as much as the Catholics did. You see, even in hostile surroundings, Peter was famous for his friendship and his respectful conversation.

Similarly today, the Church can find itself in strange, sometimes hostile territory, competing in the modern market place with the media, among other things, for the minds and hearts, souls and values of the very people to whom we are sent. The issue is, are we ready to befriend the world of our compatriots sufficiently to demonstrate that we respect their sources of spiritual nourishment.

The question tonight is not whether God can be found in the darkness of the cinema, on TV, or in any other form of media – the question is how is God present there - and whether we are going with God’s programme or not.

I want to change the dynamic of this lecture now, by seeing how much we all know in regard to the media world to which we are sent. There is a new cultural language spoken around here and if we want to influence this culture for good we have to learn its tongue. For as Faber came to see, we cannot effectively evangelise a culture we do not know, or worse still, one which we actually despise.

So I want to conduct a simple and unscientific survey about the context in which we undertake our mission.

How well do we know the reality of the people’s lives with whom we are trying to talk?

What were the top 10 box office films in Australia in 2005?

What were the top 10 TV programmes in 2005?

By virtue of how much money they made, what were the largest entertainment events held in Australia in 2005?

How long does an average Australian spend in front of the TV each day?

What are the top three magazines in Australia?

Name the two books that have dominated the bestseller lists in 2005?

Until last year, and apart from the Bible, what was the largest selling book ever in Australia’s history?

The top 20 box office films in Australia in 2005?

1. Star Wars Episode III $35m
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire $33m
3. Madagascar $25m
4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory $24.3m
5. The Chronicles of Narnia $23.8m
6. War of the Worlds $21.4m
7. Mr & Mrs Smith $20.1m
8. King Kong $18.1
9. The Wedding Crashers $16.5m
10. Batman Begins $15.4m
11. Hitch $14m
12. Robots $13.7
13. Fantastic Four $12m
14. The Pacifier $11.02m
15. The Longest Yard $10.8m
16. Wallace and Gromitt $10.6m
17. The Dukes of Hazzard $10m
18. Bewitched $9.7m
19. Herbie Full Loaded $9.2m
20. 40 Year Old Virgin $8.9m

Australia’s top 20 TV programmes in 2005?

1. AFL grand final (10) 3.39milion (Aus Open Final 4.1m)
2. Rugby League Grand Final (9) 2.56m
3. Melbourne Cup race (7) 2.51m
4. Soccer: Australia v Uruguay (SBS) 2.48m
5. Desperate Housewives (7) 2.36 million

6. Dancing With The Stars series two final (7) 2.34m
7. Big Brother winner (10) 2.28m
8. Dancing With The Stars final (7) 2.22m

9. One Day Cricket - Australia v The World

10. Logies Arrivals (9) 2.15m

11. Nine news Sunday (9) 2.07m

12. Everybody Loves Raymond final (10) 2.06m
13. Border Security (10) 2.00m
14. 60 Minutes (9) 1.95m
15. CSI (9) 1.93m

16. Australian Idol final (10) 1.90m
17. The Logies Awards (9) 1.89m
18. The Supernanny (9) 1.85m
19. Frasier final (9) 1.84m

20. Getaway (9) 1.83m

The largest entertainment events held in Australia in 2005?

1. The Gay and Lesbian Madi Gra $99.3 m
2. Melbourne Grand Prix $99.1m
3. Australian Open Tennis $89m
4. National Air Show $68m
5. Indy Grand Prix $51m
6. Sydney Festival $26m

7. Rugby League Grand Final Series $6.9m

8. Melbourne Comedy Festival $17m

9. Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race $15 m

10. AFL Finals series $8.2

How long does an average Australian spend in front of the TV each day?

3 hours and 13 minutes

70 year old has spent nine years in front of the TV

What are the top three magazines in Australia?
Women’s Weekly, Woman’s Day and New Idea

Name the two books that have dominated the bestseller lists in 2005?

Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter

Until last year, and apart from the Bible, what was the largest selling book ever in Australia’s history?

“The Living Parish Hymnal.”

If we are in the dark about the details of this world, then we are in good company. Chances are the earliest Ignatian missionaries knew next to nothing of the countries to which they went. So not knowing is one thing. Not wanting to know, and not caring about not knowing is quite another. The problem with finding God’s presence on the small or large screen is that many in the Church feel with often-exaggerated justification, that the media culture is always hostile toward our concerns. This argument cannot be sustained now, given the blanket and respectful exposure the Australian media gave the Papal events last year.

The problem is that all some Catholics want from the media is for it to be kind to the Church, report it well and take up its positive messages. Some of us rarely want to risk entering the media world, where we may not be in control, tainted by the worst of its values.

For more than forty years now, the Church has said many laudable things about the relationship it wants to foster between the message of the Gospel, the media and our culture. In 2002, for example, John Paul II wrote, “The impact of the media can hardly be exaggerated. For many the experience of living is to a great extent an experience of the media.”

So if that’s true, how do we find God in the dark? One of the first things we cannot do is bail out of our media saturated culture. It rarely works out as well as it did for Fr Browne.

It may not come as a surprise for you to learn that one of the few people to get off the Titanic before it set sail across the Atlantic Ocean was a Jesuit.

Irish Jesuit Frank Browne finished his theological studies in England in 1912. His Uncle Robert Browne, the independently wealthy Bishop of Cashel, sent him a first class ticket for the maiden voyage of the Titanic from Southampton to Cherbourg to Queenstown in Cork. While on board an American family befriended him and offered to pay his fare all the way to New York. He went to the now famous Marconi room and sent a telegram to his Provincial in Dublin asking for permission to accept the offer.

A reply telegram came back quickly from Fr Browne’s Superior. It read: “GET OFF SHIP- PROVINCIAL”

Browne went ashore in Ireland and took the last known photographs of the Titanic as it disappeared on the Atlantic horizon. Fr Browne carried that telegram with him until his death in 1960. He was fond of saying that it was “the only time when Holy Obedience saved a man’s life”.

Taking his exit from the ill fated liner as a metaphor, we should not count it a blessing if we could abandon our cultural ship, no matter how treacherous we think the way ahead might be. As an Easter people steeped in Ignatian spirituality we have the lifeboat of hope, the courage to go out and meet the world and the intelligence to make the best choices we can when we get there.

In Matthew 13 we are told that Jesus would not speak to the crowd without a parable, or a story. We cannot take this line literarily because even in Matthew’s Gospel there are many times when he speaks to the crowd without a parable. What the text signals to us, however, is that Jesus understood that the most important lessons in faith and morality can be learnt through stories – while we are laughing, crying, being confronted and consoled. Jesus also knew the art of communicating his message simply. In our proclamation of the good news, we may have become too serious for the Gospels’ good.

At their most basic level, films are visual and aural stories writ large.

The best films are simple and direct communications telling the most human of tales, often with a profound message. Whether we like it or not, the cinema is the place where an increasing number of people encounter a world of otherness, ethical systems, personal and social mythologies which transcend the everyday. Within the cinema we can contemplate our place in a larger frame of reference where physical laws count for less and a relationship with a metaphysical and, often, a meta-ethical world, is taken seriously. Either in the short or long term this leads us to a new consciousness of our surroundings, ideologies and moral imperatives.

The problem is that some Christians believe that unless a movie is about Jesus, the Pope or the Saints, if it does not speak of religious matters, or explicitly wear it spirituality on its sleeve, then it is cannot be counted in the cinematic Christian canon. Some believers go as far as to say, “Only sex and violence sells at the cinema”, or, “There is nothing good at the movies anymore”. These uninformed and unfortunate comments do little for contemporary inculturation, betraying the fact that the person making them is unable to read anything into, or draw something out of a film, which might be consonant with the Christian message even though it never mentions the name of Jesus, the Bible or the Church.

In fact, the first thing to note is that the biggest box films in recent years have been, generally, family entertainment. They are not overly sexy or violent. Now, I do not minimise that explicit and dehumanising portrayals of sex and violence in film has a significant following, but if a filmmaker really wants to do well at the box office they should make a film which the whole family can watch.

The second aspect of the cinema that should catch the eye of people committed to the spiritual path, is the dominance of science fantasy. Six of the top ten films are set in other worlds where metaphysics is of a high order, transcendence is a given within existence and belief in other beings is assumed. These worlds may not be Christian, but science fantasy reveals that there is a genuine thirst for the spiritual in the world, and the younger generation, especially, are not lacking in the ability to imagine big stories, other worlds and sacrificial values. The Christian story is one of the biggest stories going. As in other things, it is not what we are saying that seems to be the problem, but how we are saying it.

Finding God in the dark is easy if we are alerted to a number of signposts. Firstly, we can start by not being against everything. Whenever the media explores the cardinal virtues of justice, fidelity, self-esteem, prudence, or the Christian values of mercy and hospitality, then, named or not, Christ is present. Again Jesus is our model. The parables in themselves never mention God. They rarely have a religious setting. Jesus takes the ordinary events of daily life in first century Palestine and draws out of them lessons about life and God. At its best visual media can provide us with a venue in which we can begin to fulfill the great commission by being exposed to some of the reality that is defining and forming our culture, especially our young.

The second signpost we have is not to be immediately frightened of the darker world the cinema often explores. Though we all would like it to be otherwise, we hold to faith in a world which is broken and sinful. Helpfully, the Christian tradition has summed up some of the worst excesses of destructive behaviour as the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony and sloth. The problem is not that a film explores the Seven Deadly Sins, or the countless other names we can give to our worst behaviour. The question we ask is whether they are made to look glamorous and seen to be normal. By glamorous I mean that there some films that tell us that a proud, greedy, envious, angry, lustful, gluttonous and slothful life is not deadly at all – it is life giving. It is a lie and we need to say so.

Furthermore, some films promote the idea that destructive behaviour is normal, that is, there is nothing we can do about it because it is the reality of the human condition. Christianity holds that seven deadly sins are not the normal destiny of a human being. We are better than our worst behaviour and we can pick ourselves up when we fall, make amends, new choices and start again. Films that tell us that dark behaviour is normal are disempowering – they are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Parables of sinful behaviour on the silver screen can be put at the service of the Gospel as long as it is clear that the behaviour on display never leads to life, and that the wages of sin is death, in all its varied forms.

A third signpost is to look at the trends that are emerging in the movies which intersect with our concerns. For now, let us look at seven of them - community, lifestyle, sexuality, violence, context, cultivating judgment and personal story – and see how a sane spirituality helps us find God’s traces in the media.

As Western society becomes more fragmented, families break down and communities are less defined, we are longing to know one another, be known and belong. Finding Nemo, Cast Away, Gladiator, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, American Beauty, Erin Brockovich and Notting Hill are hit movies where community is central.

For Christians the ideal of community is a good thing, and the relationships they enshrine are the cornerstones of what the Church is trying provide for people. The worrying trend in the cinema and television is where the blood family is denigrated or dismissed, where faithful relationships are undermined, and the peer group is established as the primary source of care in a person’s life. While we want to generally endorse the building up of communities we cannot do that at the cost of undermining the ways in which the vast majority of people have been emotionally and spiritually fed, nurtured and cared for over the centuries.

The second trend in the movies that is a mixed blessing is the lifestyle it, and its associated industry, can promote. So much of the way in which money and fame is explored in the modern cinema adulates unbridled greed, rewards deceit and promotes a dangerous insularity. As expanding of worldviews as the cinema can be, it more often promotes a lifestyle that can be overly focused on me and my comfort. By contrast, Christianity holds that money is value neutral - what we do with it defines its morality. In Luke 12 Jesus proposes as a guiding principle, “those to whom much has been given, much will be required.” This means that the wealthier our nation and we become, the more obliged we are to share our wealth with those who have nothing. St Paul tells us in Galatians that the best lifestyle is characterised by looking at how loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, generous, faithful, and self-controlled we are.

Sexuality is the third trend to which we should be alert. As Christians our approach to sexuality in general, and its portrayal in the cinema, is to see it as a gift - to be enjoyed, nurtured and developed. As with the best gifts in our lives we should relish it with care. Our sexuality is not meant to bring us shame and guilt. We hope that people involved in sexual relationships will flourish as human beings, become more enhanced people.

The worrying trend of the portrayal of sexuality in contemporary cinema is that sex is seen as one of many recreational options, and that people walk away from sexual encounters with less dignity than they walked into them. In the former case presentations of casual sex in all its forms - adultery, prostitution and pornography - reduces sex to a commodity we trade for fun, favours or power, rather than a special and important gift we celebrate with our beloved as an expression of the free, but sacrificial love we are already living.

The usual counter weight to sex in the cinema is movie violence. Nearly every general survey of parents in the last twenty years tells us that parents are more worried about the effects of violence in the cinema than they are about the portrayal of sex. Christians need to be careful about how they blame media violence for all the ills that beset us. It can be a convenient scapegoat. No study has ever been able to definitively prove that watching violent films leads to violent behaviour. A simple causal link cannot be established. Human psychology is much more complex than that. There are now authoritative studies, however, that clearly establish that the more we watch violent material the more desensitised we become to it, on and off the screen.

Until The Passion of the Christ, church leaders were rightly circumspect about promoting graphically violent films, arguing that if violence is essential to the story then implied and modest presentations of violence are always to be preferred. We shot ourselves in the foot with The Passion of the Christ, with some church officials now on record as saying that the graphic violence was justified as a way of shocking people into realising the extent of Jesus’ suffering.

Rather than focusing on blockbuster violence, however, I suggest that we would do better to focus on two violent realities absent and present in the media that have a direct impact on many of us.

Domestic abuse is the most perpetrated violence in the Australian community, yet it is rarely shown on television or film in any way that presents the gravity and number of cases. Why is that?

Another violence we endure on the small and large screen is language. Most censors around the world talk about a film having low, medium or high level coarse language. This is category mistake. Swearing is not an offence against decency. It is a violent activity. It is something I do which inflicts harm. When we hear people in the movies tell one another “fuck off”, we are privy to a violent verbal assault.

This is further compounded by religiously violent language, when we hear “Jesus” or “Christ” used as though there are just two other words in the dictionary to be added for emphasis or as a verbal exclamation. For us, Jesus and Christ are not two words in the language, but the focus of the most important spiritual relationship in our lives. Unlike the name of Jesus, we should note here that in our appropriately tolerant society we never hear “Buddha, you’re a dickhead”, or, “Allah, I had a great weekend.”

Anything that we can do to attend to the contexts and habits of our own speech is a real contribution to lessening some of the verbal violence in the world. It also the background out of which we agitate for change, demand respect for our beliefs, and lodge our protest in regard to what we are exposed to on television and at the cinema.

The fifth signpost is to look at what the context in which we consume the media. Three examples. If we take boredom to the television we will become a channel surfer. If we take loneliness to the Multiplex then we will go to the very next film that’s on, rather than looking at film criticisms to guide our choices. If we take lust or arousal to the Internet then guess which Web Sites we can end up in?

While we seem to be good at blaming the media for what it is giving us, we are often poor in looking at what we took to it in the first place. Yet so much of our disposition toward it destines what we take away.

The sixth signpost is that we need to recover their right to judge. We have been seduced into believing that we should no longer judge anyone or anything. We hear expressions like, “we’re in no position to judge”, “you can’t judge them”, “they can’t judge us”. On this point we are quite confused. One of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit is Right Judgment. It seems odd that God has given a gift which she never intended for us to exercise. I assume that when we say “don’t judge”, what we are trying to say is “don’t condemn.” But there is world of difference between these two ideas.

There is not a page in the Gospels when Jesus did not judge the people around him. But we are explicitly told in John 8, and in many other places besides, that Jesus never condemned anyone. Condemnation belongs to God alone, but we need to be good judgers especially in regard to the media. We need to cultivate the gift of discernment where we can sift out the wheat from the chaff, resist the pressure to conform, and the hype to buy. The sort of judgment we want to develop is the same one as Jesus exercised – compassionate judgment where, in the first instance, we imagine the world from the other person’s point of view. Armed with critical consumption and compassionate judgment there is less likelihood of us being seduced by attitudes, responses and appetites that are not life-giving and life-sustaining.

The final signpost we have in the regard to finding God in the dark has, on first sight, nothing to do with the movies, but it is in fact critical to it. The best consumers of other people’s stories, value their own. If we do not think we have a personal story of any real worth or importance, then it is easy for the movies to fill the void. If we do not think our experiences are worth sharing, that no one would want to listen to our story, then we can give greater power to the seemingly more glamorous, exciting and action packed life in the cinema. The old saying rings true, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Most of the stories represented on the silver screen are different to our lives; they are unreal, whereas our lives are very real. The stars we grow fond of do not know us, and probably do not want to. No matter how many fan clubs we join, chat rooms we engage in, articles we read and how many details we know of their personal lives and careers, we do not know them. We find God in the cinema because it entertains us, cast light on our lives, challenge and provoke us, move us to tears, help us grieve, reduces us to peels of laughter, opens up other worlds for us and exposes some darker realities. But we know that the world of the cinema, and the stars and stories within it, is not our world. Our everyday and ordinary story is of far greater value than the tales in the dark because we are living it. Our lives matter more than anything else.

Armed with a spirituality like that of Peter Faber, we might have to learn the new language spoken in the modern market place where, these days, we have to unashamedly compete with other groups for minds, hearts and values. I am certain, however, that if we continue to wait for the world to come to us, on our terms, then the media will assume even greater responsibility for shaping the values and the construction of meaning for our compatriots.

This can all seem a little overwhelming. Some might respond that all we should do is pray harder, and leave it all up to Jesus. This attitude is like the Irish Jesuit who was trying to be a trendy catechist with the communion class in the Junior School In his RE class he drew analogy from hi science class about how all parents feed their young. He asked the class, “What’s small and furry and eats nuts?” To which there was bemused silence. So Father tried again. “What’s small and furry and eats nuts?” There was now stony silence. Father then picked out Billy and asked him for the answer. After several awkward moments, Billy tentatively replied, “Father, this is religion, and I know the answer to all your questions in religion is “Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”, but it sounds like a bloody squirrel to me.”

The answer is not always, simply, Jesus. We certainly need Jesus and we need to pray to him, but in our prayer we might ask Christ to enable us to be shrewd and committed in the way we view media, careful about the way we speak about it, consume it, blame it and boldly use it in the service of the Gospel.

So, as the women and men of our Ignatian spiritual tradition did before us, let us go out to our world of lights and shadows. Let us befriend that world through conversation, wherein God is found. Let us go out with grace, courage and imagination. But for Christ’s sake, let’s get going.

Fr Richard Leonard is the director of the Australian Catholic Film Office, and author of Movies That Matter: Reading Film Through the Lens of Faith. This keynote address was given at the launch of the Faber Centre for Ignatian Spirituality, Australian Catholic University, Brisbane.



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Our CLC group is thinking of starting a movie night using the book, Finding God in the Dark, as our guide.
I enjoyed your article very much and will present it to our group.
Thank You
Brad Waters | 12 May 2007

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