Christianity Seen Through Internet, TV, Film

Culture Council Discusses "Turning Point" of Digital Age

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, NOV. 11, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The Pontifical Council for Culture launched its plenary assembly this year in an unusual fashion: by holding its inaugural session in public, in a hall on the famous Capitoline Hill in downtown Rome.

The setting was intentional and symbolic as the theme of this year's assembly, which runs from Nov. 10-13, is "The Culture of Communication and New Languages." Its aim is to investigate ways of presenting Christian life as an experience valid to everyone in the world of today, particularly through the media.

The Nov. 10 inaugural session was on a sub-theme: "Listening in the City to the Language of the Soul." Cardinal-designate Gianfranco Ravasi, the Pontifical Council's president, opened the round-table discussion by highlighting the vast changes in communications -- a new digital age which, he said, has been a "turning point in history.

He underlined its positive aspects, arguing that people are "no longer isolated" in ways that they might have been in the past, and that the "transcendent Word" can be "manifested in transitory words." But referring to words as "living beings," he also lamented that today's communications suffer from a "sickness" both in quantitative and qualitative terms.

He gave some examples: a tendency to "spice up" television programs to win greater audiences, often by using means of "deceit"; a surfeit of information has meant words have lost their meaning and become "empty" (to illustrate his point, he cited an old Jewish saying: "A scholar knows what he says, the stupid person says what he knows"); and a "frigidity of words" where especially young people interact less among themselves but with "cold computer screens."

As an example, he recalled how students, after lectures, have much less face-to-face contact but instead "go out into the hall and talk to each other on their computers, and interact with a screen, even if they are just a meter away from one another."

He called for words and communication to be "purified": "We are now a globalized tribe. Today words are sick and need to be brought back to their original purity."

Spiritual sells

Patrick de Carolis, a former director general of France Television, spoke about the power of television and movies and stressed they did not need to be "dumbed" down to appeal to audiences.

"The message can be demanding and captivating," he said, and gave as an example the new movie "Of Gods and Men," which he helped produce, about the true story of Trappist monks murdered in Algeria by Islamists in 1996. "Already three million people in France have gone to the cinema to see this film, making it possible for us to understand that highly spiritual stories have an appeal to people," he said.

De Carolis sees his mission as one of "enlightening" others through knowledge, culture and beauty, as he said these are way to fulfill a person's thirst for transcendence.

The challenge, he said, is to make such programs in which the subjects are accessible to others. "Each of us should strive to bring light and knowledge," he said. "When such light is shown, then mediation has been successful."

He stressed that the media "are not the light but simply the projector that helps to steer the light" and that successful mediation requires that the messenger "step aside and place himself at the service of his subject." Today's media can effectively transmit a message concerning transcendence, he concluded, because it is possible in all art and culture.

Living virtually

Aldo Grasso, a professor at the Catholic University of Milan and well-known television critic in Italy, discussed how today's media is affecting people's everyday lives. Recalling the insight of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher and communication theorist, who said that the media are like extensions of the body (the ear becomes infinitely large, and our eyes look well beyond the natural horizon), Grasso said the media no longer act as prostheses but "areas, environments, places we've begun to inhabit."

He also noted that the separation between the virtual and reality is disappearing in that former meeting places (for example, parish youth centers or political party venues) are moving to virtual media locations. "We mustn't make the mistake of thinking that technology is a gadget," said Grasso. "Technology is a process which needs to be governed and studied."

Another development, he pointed out, is how technology is giving young people today an ability to multitask in a way older generations never could.

All of these developments, he said, are taking place in a horizontal manner as opposed to the vertical paradigm of the past in which information flowed in a hierarchical fashion, from the top down. But this means media consumers are left with no one to help guide them and discriminate the information they receive. This phenomenon, while it has advantages, has led to the emptiness and frigidity of communications that Archbishop Ravasi had mentioned earlier, he said.

"The mass media served as an explosive function and led us to discover the world," Grasso said. "But now we're experiencing an implosion where everything is coming back to us through the Internet." This has led many to complain about the new technology, but Grasso advised looking at the positive: to try to understand these changes, discern what is most important about them, maximize their potential and "to listen to the language of change."

Movies and grace

Jesuit Father Lloyd Baugh, an American professor of film studies and theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, focused on how the cinema can serve "as a precious expression of the voice of the human spirit in the city." He drew on a number of films as examples, including -- surprisingly -- Federico Fellini's 1960 film "La Dolce Vita." The film was strongly criticized in L'Osservatore Romano at the time as a parody of Christ's second coming.

"At first glance, the film seems to be a glorification of hedonism and a critique of traditional religious, moral and cultural values," he said. "But I would say Fellini tries to tackle the film ironically." He said Marcello, the protagonist, represents "the deep thirst of the man in the city for truth and moral spiritual meaning," something which Fellini "dramatically underlines" in the movie's final scene.

Father Baugh also drew attention to the German film "Into Great Silence" -- a three-hour film that focused on the silent inner life of the monks of the Grande Chartreuse Carthusian monastery in the French Alps. Despite the subject matter, audiences "thronged to see this film," Father Baugh said.

"I propose to you that an honest and well made film by a director who listens carefully to language of human spirit, in himself and others, may act effectively as a parable of the Gospel message," Father Baugh concluded.

"Furthermore," he added, "I propose that for the viewer, you and me, a viewer led by the spirit in the film, the parable can become [a] 'kairos,' an occasion of grace, a prophetic source of hope liberation and redemption both for us and for all cultures."

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org