November 10-16, 1996 Issue | Posted 11/10/96 at 1:00 PM
READERS MAY still wonder at our reflections on literature, rare as they are. It's subject matter rarely dealt with in the mainstream Catholic press. The Register was pleased to present Dr. Ralph McInerny's series on 20th century Catholic authors, as well as Jesuit Father John McIntyre's meditations on modern American authors, with a cycle being completed this issue with a look at William Faulkner. Both contributors are alive to the importance of Catholic reflection on the arts, of recognizing the great opportunity of interacting with and influencing the world-views that help shape the culture. The Church is no longer in a position to be a powerful patron of the arts, but its contributions to the world of film, visual arts, music, literature, etc., though perhaps more subtle and indirect, can play a vital role in the New Evangelization.
In the popular educated mind, Christians are thought of as cultural philistines. To a degree, that image is deserved, while, on the other hand, it is also a convenient charge to silence critics of publicly-funded poor or even blasphemous art. Be that as it may, it is urgent that believers, with the encouragement of their leaders, become active participants in the arts and transcend their status as perennial outsiders and nay-sayers.
One hurdle to clear is the mistaken insistence that so-called “Catholic”or religious films or literature, for example, should feature explicitly (Judeo-)Christian characters and themes. Reflections on faith and the search for truth need not be obvious. Religious themes can be anonymously present in a work of art. The moderately successful film “Spitfire Grill”is one of example of this approach as it presented characters who were clearly motivated by notions of duty, sacrifice and love.
More obscurely, perhaps, the winner of the Cannes film festival, “Secrets & Lies,”arguably contained a hidden pro-life theme alongside its primary message that stresses the importance of genuine communication and intimacy—the very lack of which renders contemporary life so barren.
Sometimes a biblical theme is crystal clear. Catholic author Ron Hanson's Atticus, which at press time was up for a National Book Award, is a modern-day version of the story of the Prodigal Son. Set in Mexico, the son of a wealthy Colorado rancher hits his physical, emotional and moral bottom. His devout father's search for his son, a presumed suicide, and their eventual reunion bring healing and renewal to both. Those who might pass on such a heavy theme should know the novel reads like a detective story set in an exotic locale. Literature's calling, after all, is to (in)form and to entertain.
Music, of course, has been the vehicle of many conversions. Literature, too, can powerfully serve that purpose, if only people would get a little direction from those in the know. Imagine, as Father McIntyre explains, that Faulkner's technique demonstrates that the past is never absent from the present and that his characters—and, by extension, all of us, of course—live with the effects of Original Sin at any given moment. How few listen when this given of Christianity is merely stated dogmatically; how delicate and subtle, yet powerful, is the artistic rendering of the same. Art, one could say, persuades stealthily, amusingly, movingly. Can there be a more powerful argument made for the moral duty to avoid evil and the perils to do otherwise than Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment ? Despite excessive violence and its catering to the public's unhealthy obsession with the occult, the new show Millennium on the Fox television network deals meaningfully with the objective existence of evil, presenting it as a reality that exists not only in the hearts of men.
Art can help galvanize the New Evangelization and help it accomplish the huge task set before it by Pope John Paul II: the re-Christianization of Western culture, which, in turn, would affect the world at large. The Church cannot simply preach and teach; it must learn to convince, prompt and delight. Art captures the imagination, lowering the mental defenses that are quick to throw up doubt when we are confronted with painful or challenging truths. Art can overcome sloth and spiritual laziness. Planting seeds, the arts can vivify and make fruitful the culture. Long live the arts.
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