Thursday, March 5, 2015

Biblical Films: What Would St. Paul Do?

When is a movie not “just a movie”?

I’ve mentioned before that I listen to a popular Catholic call-in radio show on my drive to work in the morning.  The host and his guests normally do such a great job that it really stands out when they misfire.  When they do, it often leads to a blog post [such as here].  I want to be clear that my purpose in such posts is not so much to criticize the show or the host: you would be hard-pressed to find anything better anywhere on the radio.  I simply want to discuss a particular point of importance that needs further exploration, and where I believe they were off the mark.

Russell Crowe as the protagonist in Noah

     Having said that, on this morning’s show (which was originally broadcast the night before) the guest, himself a very well-known Catholic radio personality, made the following remark (as close as I can remember):  “There’s nothing much your kids can see that will really damage them, as long as you’re watching with them.”  He quickly qualified (contradicted, really) his statement, saying “I’m not saying you should watch steamy sex scenes with them” (why not, if nothing much will damage them?).  These remarks came up in a discussion of the recently released movie Noah The host, who had seen the movie and had a mostly positive view, added, “after all, it’s only a movie”!

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

     Where to begin?  I was amazed, first of all, that two intelligent, well-read, orthodox Catholics would be so dismissive of the power of images, and the emotional experience wrought by drama, to permeate our consciousness.  This is something the Church has always understood:  why else the great art, stained-glass windows, cathedrals and Gregorian chant, the whole “smells and bells” routine?  Why else the traditional condemnation of “impure” images, and the stern warnings to steer clear of their dangers?
     The findings of modern neuroscience tend to confirm this ancient understanding.  Research shows that pornography, for example, has profound and possibly permanent effects on brain development and chemistry [see here], and the same is true (although perhaps not as dramatically) of other powerful experiences. Children and adolescents are particularly susceptible (see here and here), but even as adults our brain is still developing to a certain degree. According to the Brain Institute [my italics]: “New findings on the adult brain establish two principles. First, the adult brain continues to grow and develop throughout our entire life.  Second, brain development in adulthood is shaped mostly by outside stimuli” [here].  Simply explaining something to our children after the fact can’t take away the effect of the images and emotions they have experienced, and by exposing ourselves to such experiences we expose our own psyche to influences we are better off avoiding (hence the old Catholic maxim: “Avoid the near occasion of sin”).  And, given all that, a movie is never “just a movie”: it is a visual and emotional experience that can have far-reaching consequences.

Even the Devil can quote Scripture

     Biblical films, such as last year’s Noah and Exodus, present complications beyond ugly, frightening, or impure images.  We all understand that a movie maker will need add things to a story, or change some things, or leave certain details out in order to transform a written work into a viable film. Of course that’s the case.  In the case of the story of Noah, for instance, the Book of Genesis provides only the barest outlines of a story: a filmmaker must necessarily supply quite a bit of his own imagination to make it work on the big screen.  If in the process you significantly change the underlying meaning, however, and still sell it as the same story, that’s an injustice to the original work, and a false promise to your audience that they’re getting “Story A” when in fact it’s “Story X” in disguise (I discuss my ideas about this topic in greater details in a series of posts on Peter Jackson’s misbegotten adaptation of The Hobbit, here).

Christian Bale gives a unique interpretation of Moses in Exodus

     In the case of a purportedly Christian film, and particularly a Biblical film, we Catholics have a serious responsibility that goes far beyond the concern we might have for the integrity of a particular story.  The Bible, after all, is the Inspired Word of God.  While it is understood that certain liberties must be taken in order to turn a written text into a viable film, we need to be on the lookout for an adaptation that trivializes God’s word; both a proper sense of reverence, and a need to prevent giving the impression that Holy Scripture need not be taken seriously, compel us.  
     Not only that, a poorly conceived or executed film that distorts the underlying message of the Biblical proclamation can cause serious harm, much more substantial than the harm done to the work and reputation of a secular author.  We live in an age in which Biblical literacy is at lower ebb than it has been for centuries.  Films like Noah and Exodus may be the only sustained exposure a very large number of people will have to the Biblical account, and given the powerful emotional impact of such images, it can be a profound and lasting exposure.  People will assume that a movie billed as the Scriptural story will, in fact, be the Scriptural story.  A seriously flawed film can give a false understanding of Christianity, and even drive people away.  It’s not alarmist to suggest that, for some people, such an experience may jeopardize their salvation (don’t laugh: some years back a person I know, a well-educated person, cited The Da Vinci Code as a major factor in her decision to leave the Church).

Hold fast to what is good . . .

     So here we are. There is a great temptation on the part of us Believers, disheartened by the unrelenting secularity that has engulfed our culture, to jump on the band wagon whenever a remotely Christian-looking film emerges from the fetid swamps of Hollywood (as we saw with Noah).  We need to remember that movies are a money-making venture.  After the unexpected (by the movie industry, at least, and elite "opinion-makers") success of The Passion of the Christ ten years ago, Hollywood realized that there was a badly underserved market for religious films, and nature abhors a vacuum.  They’ve been trying to replicate the success of Mel Gibson’s film ever since.  While some filmmakers may share Gibson’s zeal, others surely do not, and many will understand neither the material with which they’re working nor the audience they’re targeting.  Still others will have a consciously subversive intent.  
     We do have some guidance in Holy Scripture for this sort of situation: St. Paul tells us, “Test everything; hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21-22).  This should be our standard in evaluating purportedly Biblical or Christian films: we should ask ourselves, What Would St. Paul Do?

(This throwback contains parts of two earlier posts from 31 March and 1 April of last year)