Seeds of the Word: Movies and Ministry
Popular culture can provide avenues for connecting with individuals and groups
Deacon Steven D. Greydanus Comments Off on Seeds of the Word: Movies and Ministry
People are often surprised to hear that in my seven years as a deacon I have never once referenced a movie or a TV show as an illustration in a homily. Because I’ve been a film critic and culture writer for more than three times as long as I’ve been a deacon, it may seem natural to think that I would draw upon that part of my life when preaching — but I find exactly the opposite to be the case. I’m not necessarily dogmatically against any homilist ever citing a movie or a TV show, although, in practice, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it done well. While I keep them out of my own preaching, movies are a big part of my life, and they do play a role in my diaconal calling.
Most often, after Mass or in conversations at social events, parishioners and others will bring up movies with me the way they might bring up sports or politics with clergymen known for their interest in those topics. They inquire about upcoming movies, request recommendations or ask my opinion about recent films they did or didn’t enjoy. On a superficial level, this may be no more than small talk, though small talk shouldn’t be underrated. More substantially, movies and television are part of the overlapping, interconnected cultural web that links us to — and sometimes divides us from — one another.
When two readers discover a common love for the work of anyone from Jane Austen to Tom Clancy, the instant kinship they feel can be as substantial as that of meeting someone with whom you have close friends in common. The same can be true for people who discover a common love of, say, anime (Japanese animation) or the movies of Christopher Nolan — or potentially even a common dislike of Wes Anderson or superhero movies. And, of course, a bond arising from common interests or from shared likes or dislikes can easily promote meaningful exchanges about the most important things.
While conversations around movies often emerge spontaneously, they can also be organized. Many parishes and campus ministries host regular movie nights, with screenings followed by discussion or a brief talk. Parishes may also maintain a lending library of movies on DVD or Blu-ray; I also frequently lend movies from my personal collection.
I recently gave a Theology on Tap talk, hosted by the Diocese of Trenton, springboarding from discussion of films dealing with demonic possession and/or exorcism (from this year’s faith-based “Nefarious” and the Russell Crowe movie “The Pope’s Exorcist” to the iconic 1973 film) to discussion about the Church’s teaching regarding the demonic and exorcism. The Q&A that followed raised questions I wouldn’t have thought otherwise to address: Which is easier for people to believe in, God or the devil? How should we think about demons and prayer in dreams?
In late September, Gonzaga University’s Faith and Reason Institute hosted a seminar on “Multiverses and Alternate Realities: Other Worlds in Film,” with contributors (including me) addressing the religious and moral implications of various types of multiverses and alternate realities in popular culture. There are opportunities for bringing faith to bear on topics of general interest using popular culture.
Good and Bad in Movies
In some cases, problematic or objectionable themes or elements in movies may elicit a countercultural critique illuminating Catholic teaching by way of contrast. For example, pointing out how the 2019 Netflix movie “The Two Popes” caricatures Benedict XVI as an intransigent reactionary snapping “Change is compromise!” can easily lead to fruitful discussion about the late pope’s real views, and about which aspects of Catholic belief and praxis can and can’t change, and why. This, in turn, might lead to reflection on how the authentic Catholic principle of doctrinal and liturgical development differs from the divergent ideas of “change” in both secular or modernist narratives on the one hand and reactionary or radical Traditionalist ideologies on the other.
In other cases, positive themes in movies lend themselves more directly to constructive moral or spiritual commentary. Some devout parishioners will want to talk about faith-based films made by Christian filmmakers primarily for Christian audiences, like “Nefarious,” last year’s biopic “Father Stu” or the 2016 Jesus movie “Risen.” Others may be interested in mainstream films with positive religious or clerical characters, like the 2014 civil rights drama “Selma” or the 2020 addiction recovery narrative “The Way Back.”
Good and Bad Seeds
The reality, though, is that most movies and TV shows have moral themes, sometimes for ill but often for good, in which we can find “seeds of truth” or “seeds of the Word”: an image derived from St. Justin Martyr and taken up by the Second Vatican Council to describe elements of truth in non-Catholic religions and cultures.
In this spirit, for example, a discussion about the 2015 action movie “Mad Max: Fury Road” can easily lead to discussion about the perils of commodifying human life and even the value of life in the womb. An exchange about this year’s boxing movie “Creed III” can turn to reflection on trust and communication in marriage or the socioeconomic divide between the haves and the have-nots and Martin Luther King Jr.’s theme of “two Americas.” On the negative side, I’ve argued that recent themes in Disney’s Marvel superhero movies, including “The Eternals” and the most recent “Thor” and “Doctor Strange” movies, increasingly portray an essentially nihilistic cosmos, undermining the human sense of a grand design or a meaningful structure to reality by revelations about capricious godlike beings running the show.
The best discussions might include both negative and positive examples. For example, I often comment on problematic portrayals of family relations in animated family films, such as a trope I call “junior knows best,” characterized by heroically rebellious children who win the belated approval of their parents by triumphantly following the course their parents told them not to pursue (see “Happy Feet,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Moana,” etc.). As a counterexample, the 2018 animated superhero movie “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” depicts a father’s words of encouragement and affirmation to his son, coming at the lowest point in the narrative, empowering and enabling the son to rise up and triumph. The contrast highlights the reality that parental support isn’t something children should have to earn by succeeding; parental support should instead empower children to succeed.
Meeting People Where They Are
A few caveats are worth bearing in mind in this arena. As a film critic, but much more as a deacon, I’ve learned the importance of engaging respectfully and sensitively with tastes, opinions and reactions different from my own. I like to bear in mind a wise dictum I heard ascribed to a Boston priest of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary: “The Catholic Church teaches authoritatively, has always taught authoritatively, and will always teach authoritatively, that the visual arts … (dramatic pause) … are a gray area.”
The 1995 Vatican film list is a great reference point for Catholic engagement with the world of cinema (see the forthcoming book “Popcorn With the Pope: A Guide to the Vatican Film List” from Word on Fire). Yet many viewers won’t consider watching movies that are subtitled, black and white, or include R-rated content, which excludes over four-fifths of the list. I love “The Song of Bernadette” and “The Reluctant Saint,” but some consider them saccharine and boring. Faith-based films tend to be heavy-handed and didactic to some yet edifying to others.
De gustibus non est disputandum (“In matters of taste, there can be no disputes”) on individual reactions to movies! I once lent a priest friend the time-bending thriller “Frequency,” starring Jim Caviezel and Dennis Quaid. I thought he would be drawn to the movie’s moral theme of the importance of fathers in the lives of sons. His reaction surprised me: Instead of seeing a moral message, he found unexpected edification in his sheer enjoyment of the movie as escapist entertainment. “It made me realize that it can be a good thing just to enjoy a story for what it is, without needing a deeper meaning,” he said.
Which is one reason I don’t reference movies in homilies: I can’t predict what a movie will mean to people in the congregation. Any time I’m tempted to do so, I think of a priest I knew many years ago who was fond of a movie I don’t think much of, and drew a moral from it that might have been innocuous in the abstract, but which in the context of the film I found downright gross. He did this in two homilies — the second of which he preached at his last Mass before retiring, underscoring how much it meant to him. It left a bad taste in my mouth, and I never want to step down from the pulpit leaving anyone with that feeling.
DEACON STEVEN D. GREYDANUS is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and has contributed to the New Catholic Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy. He has masters of arts in religious studies and theology from, respectively, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University.
“The production and showing of films that have value as decent entertainment, humane culture or art, especially when they are designed for young people, ought to be encouraged and assured by every effective means. This can be done particularly by supporting and joining in projects and enterprises for the production and distribution of decent films, by encouraging worthwhile films through critical approval and awards, by patronizing or jointly sponsoring theaters operated by Catholic and responsible managers.”
— Inter Mirifica (Decree on the Media of Social Communications), No. 14