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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Popular Media as Preparation for the Gospel

Further thoughts inspired by my conversation with Monsignor Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council of Social Communications…

To talk about communication, Monsignor Tighe stressed, is to talk about the culture of communication, not just the means of communication. What is a culture? A culture is a group of people sharing a way of life, sharing an understanding of what it means to be a human being, and the means they use to communicate with one another, be they smoke signals or Tweets, are extensions of this shared understanding. A culture, however, may not possess a very good understanding of what it means to be a human being, and its means of communications will reflect this impoverishment. Listen again to Zadie Smith: When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility.” But the soul-shrinking aspects of Facebook are only an extension of our culture’s attenuated understanding of what it means to be human and to “connect” with one another. 

How does the Church communicate in such an environment? What are the means of communication at her disposal? Above all, Scripture and the liturgy, where the Word itself is communicated. But however primary, Scripture and the liturgy are rich fare, an acquired taste. Milk is necessary before meat. So Monsignor Tighe spoke of the need for “entry-level languages” that serve, one might say, as a kind of preparatio evangelii, a preparation for the hearing of the Good News. And popular media can serve as one such entry-level language, and a very powerful and compelling one at that. But in order for the Church to use popular media effectively, Monsignor Tighe urged, she must begin by listening. Popular media forms the filters through which many people take their understanding of what the Church is all about, and so the first job is to come to grips with what this filtered understanding is. How many people only see the Church through the funhouse mirror of films such as Angels and Demons?—the kind of film whose name is Legion (see here and here). We must have a self-awareness of how the Church is being portrayed, and then—and here’s the difficult part—provide a captivating alternative.

How to do this? Here Monsignor Tighe underscored the importance of entertaining stories (for a similar call, see Dr. Stan Williams’ post, “First Entertain,” on today’s Catholic Exchange.) The desire to be edifying alone won’t cut it. We need people with the capacity to tell stories that are humanly engaging. This is more important than whether or not the story’s setting is explicitly Catholic. Nothing that expresses something of the dignity of the human person is alien to the Church, so that we shouldn’t just be thinking of stories from the Bible, or of saints, or of other Christian heroes. The entire human predicament must be of concern to the Christian storyteller, as long as the portrayal of that predicament reveals a yearning for something that transcends, to quote Jacques Maritain, “our sense needs and sentimental egos.” We need stories that at least point toward the true fulfillment of the human person. A special need in our time, noted Monsignor Tighe—a need that has been made brutally clear with the despicable debut of MTV’s new reality series, Skins—are stories that tell the truth about human relationships, about sexuality, marriage and the family. Today’s Christian storytellers must shoulder the enormous responsibility of picturing an engaging alternative to the way in which the popular media tends to tell stories about these topics.

What better way to sum up these thoughts about Christian storytelling than by quoting Pope John Paul II’s most eloquent expression of them in his 1999 “Letter to Artists”:

Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. 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 (no. 10).

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