Will Merely Pious Movies Reach Them?

Secular reporters always get around to asking me the same question: “So why do we need Christians in Hollywood?”

They aren't asking why the Church might have an interest in the most influential technological pulpit on the planet. They don't care about the fact that there might be such a thing as a Christian artist who is driven just like other artists to communicate through film and television.

What they mean is, “What's in it for the rest of us that Christians should be in Hollywood?”

I'm always tempted to query back, “Do you ask homosexual artists why they are here? Or have you ever asked Latino artists why Hollywood needs them?” But I never do because I know they don't think of us as a cultural group. And frankly, they are right. Cultural groups are those who make culture. For the last half-century, there hasn't been a lot of culture-making in the name of God.

We religious people tend to be busy about subculture-making — but because these efforts are generally so artistically mediocre, they are completely irrelevant to our secular friends. If we were producing fabulous sacred art, we would necessarily come to the attention of the broader culture.

Most of the “pagans” I know have been to see St. Peter's Basilica. They can't ignore it. It's just too good. One of my sisters sat in a classroom at the University of California-Berkeley and heard her Birkenstock-clad, Karl-Marx-loving music professor proclaim, with a tear in his eye, that “Gregorian chant was the summit of Western civilization's music.” Whoever makes something beautiful wins the culture.

But we have more to give to the world than just sacred art and theological formulations.

It is a good exercise to try to justify ourselves as a distinct cultural group by what it is that we might bring to the mainstream table in every different discipline. What defines a Christian doctor? What makes a Christian teacher? Or lawyer? Or soldier?

Or, as a reporter from Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, asked me, “If you took all the Christians out of Hollywood, what would be missing?”

Lots of young people have been inspired by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ to come to Hollywood and do more of the same.

That's all well and good, but making sacred art isn't being the “yeast” that Jesus said we believers are supposed to be in the world. Yeast does its work by vanishing. It doesn't make the lump turn into yeast. It gets lost in the lump, which then becomes a different kind of lump, a better lump.

So, the goal for Christians in arts and entertainment isn't just that we produce a continuous stream of movies about the Bible, saints and religious themes. I say this because I know of several people who are fund-raising for production companies to do just that.

As one aspiring Catholic producer put it to me, “I want to make movies that put positive images of priests and nuns back on the screen! Like Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's.” The obvious objection is that we already have those movies. If they were enough, we wouldn't be where we are today culturally, would we?

We also have to be about more than just setting up ministry centers for the creative community. Although one or two would be nice … Eventually, someone in the Church is going to follow through on the bright idea of setting up a beachhead in Hollywood to form, counsel, provide spiritual direction and offer a fellowship of faith to the artists, writers, actors and technical people who get up every morning and define the global culture. And that will be a great and holy thing that will exert a tremendous influence on Hollywood and then the screens of the world.

But even that is not the extent of what Hollywood needs from the Church.

We have things we might say about entertainment and creativity that no one else is saying and that the people who work in the arts and media desperately need to hear. We need to speak not as religious people separate from the world but as human beings in the world who happen to be informed by our religion.

Applying Pope John Paul II's philosophy of personalism to entertainment and the arts would be a wonderful beginning.

How can some methods and themes in entertainment inhibit broad human freedom? How can certain stories make us want to be more of who we are supposed to be? We can propound the idea that entertainment is not optional but a constituent element of human development.

There are places we need to go in our entertainment time to stretch the muscles of our inner person, our soul and psyche — places our normal worlds of work and activity will not take us. There are diseases of the human spirit that mere reality cannot heal.

What is it going to take for some Catholic scholars to apply the theology of the body to the arts? And to do it in a way that will be intelligible to artists, who do not tend to be scholarly?

We might propose to the industry a whole ethics of entertainment built around the sacredness of the human person. How about extending the “right to privacy” to the viewer so as to not violate someone's innocence or healthy sensibilities? What are healthy sensibilities for viewers? As consumers of the arts and entertainment, people today are generally either poisoned beyond knowing what is making them sick or else so reactionary that they reject even things that could heal them.

The Church's constant preoccupation must be for the poor, to recall to the broader society those who otherwise would have no voice. In popular culture, the one group who is “voiceless” is the audience. The Church needs to stand for the masses of viewers, championing their developmental needs and their rights to the advertisers, corporations, artists and executives who will otherwise have nothing but self-interest as a guide.

As people operating in a post-Christian context, we need to bring all of these insights — and many more — into the temporal order without making any reference to God. And we absolutely can. The Gospel is either relevant to every aspect of human experience, or it is a sham.

We have something to say, and all we have to do is figure out a way to translate that to people who don't speak our language.

Screenwriter Barbara R. Nicolosi is the director of Act One:

Writing for Hollywood. She writes from Los Angeles.