Easy Things the Church Can Do to Fix the Culture
‘Reducing our cultural appreciation to “family entertainment” makes us look absurd to truth-seekers whose home would otherwise be in our midst.’
Well, maybe not “easy,” but surely not inconceivable for the group that pulled off the conversion of the barbarians and the Counter-Reformation. And, in the span of eternity, “fast” can be, well, a century or so. Which could start today. So there's no time to waste.
Seriously, when the public debate has switched to whether homosexual “marriage” is better for kids than heterosexual marriage, it's a good bet that it's probably too late for our culture to reverse itself. But there are things we can do to slow the relentless assault of societal darkness. The great Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor counseled, “Push back against the age. As hard as it pushes against you.” There is certainly valor in going down fighting, and maybe, in the process, we'll attract a few more lost souls into the light before it is too late.
Change the rhetoric. A crucial step we have to take toward fixing the culture is rallying our own troops. No one wants to enlist in the forces of despair, hopelessness and ultimate defeat. We have to change how we speak about the culture and the arts, emphasizing the positive and essential goods that come to humanity through music, painting, dance, literature, theater and cinema, and yes, even television.
If we are going to get a new generation of young people to make a foray into these influential worlds, we have to stop acting and talking like they are innately evil and dangerous to the soul.
We need to stop talking like we are outsiders on this planet, watching through the windows while the world marches into hell on the other side. Our speech needs to be “my” culture, not “the” culture. We live here, too. We own the airwaves and the museums and the public discourse as much as any other group.
As Pope John Paul II has said, we need to re-enter “that fruitful dialogue” with the arts that used to define the People of God, seeing the arts not just as something to be studied but as a lens through which to study many things — art as a real “source of theology,” as a companion to history, as the response to the sciences.
Move the microphones. The next big step we have to make if we are going to have any influence in the culture is to change our spokespeople. We have to identify people who love Jesus and who know what they are talking about when it comes to art and culture, and then let them begin to lead us back into an appreciation for what makes great art. Just because someone is orthodox in his theology or votes pro-life doesn't mean he or she knows anything about cinema, for example. Just because a man is ordained doesn't make him a reference point on culture.
The fact is, the People of God are abysmally ignorant about art these days. We know what we like but not really what we are talking about. Too many of us confuse personal taste with artistic excellence, and our tastes have been corrupted by fear and suspicion of the age. A devout woman described her artistic sensibility to me not long ago as, “If it's new, it's bad.”
Several good Catholic people have told me how much they liked the new remake of Cheaper by the Dozen, for example, always emphasizing somewhere in their comments, “At least, it doesn't have any sex and violence.” Needless to say, greatness in art is never prefaced by the words “at least.” The fact is, as a piece of cinematic storytelling, Cheaper is a bad film. That so many of our people are flocking to it says much more about us than it.
I am constantly witnessing people of faith reject movies that we should support because we tend to measure everything by the most limited standard. “If it made me feel happy at the end, then it is good.” Did the prophets of old make people “feel good” about themselves? Isn't there a place for the artists of this present Babylon to be crying out “sad songs of Jerusalem”?
Being Catholic is not synonymous with being a prude. Reducing our cultural appreciation to “family entertainment” makes us look absurd to truth-seekers whose home would otherwise be in our midst.
Offer commissions. This is huge. The best way to win back artists is to pay them to decorate for us. “Here, you starving young sculptor. Here's some money. Instead of carving a nymph at the Playboy Mansion, come here and carve the resurrected Christ for our community. First, of course, you will have to brood over this big book of ours … and maybe spend a lot of time talking to people who talk to this resurrected Christ. You will probably have to research by pouring over other artistic images of Christ. And lots of artists have gotten their best ideas by sitting quietly in front of this little box with the candle by it in our place. We call it a ‘church.’”
Artists are compelled to create. It's a kind of drive that many of them equate to breathing and eating. Singers basically want to sing. Painters to paint. Actors to act. My experience of artists is that they will go to whoever will subsidize their compulsion to decorate.
The best way to bring back our artists to the Church is to once again become the patron of the arts.
Take back the training grounds. The sad fact is, with all of the Catholic colleges and universities in this country, there isn't one film program that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best secular programs. I was at The Catholic University of America a couple of years ago to speak to the last screenwriting class before the film program was phased out. What kind of a planet are we on for the paradigm Catholic university in the nation to be “phasing out” studies in the primary art form of our time? Did I miss the memo that said screen productions are going away?
A huge part of winning back the culture will be to provide state-of-theart training in our own educational houses for the next generation of writers, filmmakers, actors, painters and musicians. We need Church-sponsored guilds for our artists that emphasize beauty and the social responsibility of the artist. We need Church-sponsored conferences on the spirituality of creativity and the role of entertainment, and on ethics and responsibility for the mass media.
How about a little outside-the-box thinking here? In a moment in which elementary and high schools have shut down their music programs for lack of funds, the Church could step in and start providing music education at our churches to any kids who want it. Many of our churches already have music departments. What would it take to start offering musical training to young people who would otherwise never darken our church doors? How about a preferential option for the gifted poor? For sure, there would be a lot of corporate partners who would back such ventures. It would be a smart, pastoral and aggressive way to redefine our community to those outside.
Prayer and pastoral outreach. While we get busy about training the next generation of believing artists and entertainers, we also need to turn a pastoral eye to those who are already out there making culture who are not believers.
Eminem and Britney and Howard Stern and Kevin Smith are not the enemy. They are the mission field. We have to stop cursing the people who are poisoning the culture and instead start praying and working for their conversion. The goal is not to replace these people with us. The goal is to turn them into us.
There is a great need for focused spiritual direction for artists and entertainers. Somebody needs to consider the particular cross of creativity and help them craft a strategy to carry that cross to holiness. Once won over, these people will play a critical role in instructing our next generation … because we don't have the masters in our house to do the training we will need to be competitive in the culture.
Most of all, the People of God need to start praying for a new renaissance in the arts. One thing we can say for sure: A sustained, heartfelt cry rising up to the throne of God can change human history. The arts and entertainment community is ripe for harvest.
We need to pray for apostles who can plant our flag in the midst of the Armani-clad, limo-riding, left-leaning, spiritually impoverished cultural elites, bringing God where he is not. There will be no cultural renewal without this prayer first of all.
Barbara R. Nicolosi is director of Act One: Writing for Hollywood.
- February 8-14, 2004