Why Hollywood Needs a Spirituality of Its Own

Barbara Nicolosi Looks Through a Window of Opportunity

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VALENCIA, Spain, MAY 27, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Is there life for Christian cinema in the wake of "The Passion of the Christ"? Barbara Nicolosi thinks so.



The founder of Act One, a Christian scriptwriters group in Hollywood, gave an overview of the movie-and-television industry, and the hopes she sees for the Church in its mission of evangelization. Here is an excerpt of an address she gave at the Catholic University of Valencia in mid-May.

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Reasons For Hope From Hollywood
by Barbara Nicolosi

I do not often have the opportunity to speak to audiences that bring together both sides of my personal reality as both a Catholic and a filmmaker. Sadly, there have been far too few of this kind of discussions in the Catholic Church. For many reasons, including a kind of intellectual elitism, Catholic scholars have been slow to appreciate the power of cinema as both an art form and as a means of evangelization.

I will talk today about a few recent movements in the secular entertainment industry, and how these might be positive for the Church. I want to demonstrate why the Church should embrace this art form as a powerful gift of God, using as an example "The Passion of the Christ." Then, I will suggest some areas in which the Church can help mainstream cinema.

In January 2003, I got a call from a woman who was recently profiled in the Writers Guild of America magazine as one of the top 10 women in television. As the executive producer and head writer on a hit TV show, this woman belongs to an elite club of people on the whole planet. Her prime-time CBS show gets a weekly audience in the States of around 20 million people, and globally probably twice that many more.

The gist of her call to me was that after 20 years of a completely secular life in mainstream show business, she wanted somebody to talk to her about Jesus. She said to me in our first meeting, "Frankly, I'm just exhausted with unbelief. I just can't keep it up anymore."

The attack of 9/11 certainly played a role in this woman's search for meaning, as it has for countless others particularly in the American entertainment industry. But beyond the simple urge to seek answers to the murderous hatred of Islamic terrorists half a world away, this woman was reflecting a positive sea-change that is sweeping through the American baby-boomer generation in general, and the Hollywood entertainment industry in particular.

After 40 years of being ravaged by the license of the Sexual Revolution, and just as many years rejecting any and all connection to any authority -- whether it was the Church, state, or just the simple wisdom of the ages -- there is a growing exodus in search of rest. They are exhausted with unbelief and its ideological stepchildren: hedonism, cynicism, alienation, isolation.

This exhaustion is being manifest on the sound stages and in the executive offices of Hollywood as a new openness to spiritual themes. A friend of mine is the creator of this season's biggest new television hit "Joan of Arcadia." When she pitched the idea to CBS, she said to the network executives with some trepidation, "Now, there is a lot of God in this show." The executives shocked her by replying with enthusiasm, "God is good. We like God." Believe me, even just four years ago, God was not "good" at CBS or any other major network offices.

All of the major prime-time dramas have been exploring more and more overt religious themes. Any prime-time special that features any kind of religious angle is certain to garner good to great ratings.

The cinema side has also been experiencing a spiritual awakening. "Bruce Almighty" was one of the top five movies of 2003. "A Walk to Remember," a positive portrayal of a Christian teen-ager, brought in a huge profit at the box-office. And of course, the box-office success of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and now "The Passion of the Christ" (which, in Hollywood, we all just call, "The Movie") are the stuff of industry legend. Other recent films while not being overtly religious, do demonstrate a profound rejection of the lies of postmodernism. Films like "In America," "Lost in Translation," "Changing Lanes," "In the Bedroom" -- are just a few examples of this new exhaustion with the legacy of unbelief.

From a creative standpoint, this is a happy trend for filmmakers like us who unite our passion for cinema with a passion for God. Any producer can get a hearing from Hollywood right now if they say, "I have a movie for the audience who loved 'The Passion.'"

Of course, part of this is because nobody in Hollywood understands who the audience for The Movie is, and what it was about The Movie that they so loved so much. One studio executive confessed his frustration about "The Passion" at a recent party I attended. He said, "I don't get it. Aren't Christians the people who hate violence in the movies? Well, this movie is a two-hour execution, and they like it?"

There is a warning for us religious filmmakers in this moment. While this new openness to spiritual truths is an exciting opportunity, it also carries a huge creative challenge.

The fact is, movies about transcendent realities, that are not really great works of art, tend to be really, really terrible. Movies about faith and spirituality that are not haunting and profound, tend to be insulting over-simplifications. Movies about the conflict between good and evil that are not intense and grueling, tend to be sickeningly sentimental and easy. Movies about the search for meaning that are not probing and insightful tend to be laughable and pretentious.

This kind of movie is best made by those who are mature as filmmakers and believers. One of the reasons "The Passion" is such an overwhelming film, is because it has both technical mastery and profound content. Despite Hollywood's eagerness to serve "the audience of 'The Passion,'" we aren't going to see another film like it until we see another filmmaker who, like Mel Gibson, actually believes this God stuff.

Not what things look like

Another reason for hope in Hollywood is related to the search for the spiritual, which comes down to a rejection of the idea of a completely material universe.

A hundred years ago, the greatest American poet, Emily Dickinson, made a journey through doubt and materialism to come to the conclusion, "This World is Not Conclusion." She was talking about more than simply the notion of immortality. She meant that reality goes beyond the stuff we see, the material things that surround us. There is an artistic movement crowding in on Hollywood which is pushing this idea more and more. It is changing cinema, or in many ways, restoring cinema to its roots in the lyrical, poetic imagery of the Silent Screen.

I call this movement the "Don't Show How Things Look, Tell Us What They Mean" Movement. It is being driven very much by a young crop of directors who made their way into the business through the music video world. Music video is all about what things mean, as opposed to how they look.

The best music video directors freely distort real colors, shapes, dimensions and points of view, in an effort to complement and interpret a song. Rejecting the gritty demand for realism of the baby-boomer filmmakers, these young filmmakers are pushing for a cinematic lyricism that could mirror and echo the emotional power of music. Films that reflect this movement include "Donnie Darko," "Levity" and TV shows like HBO's "Carnivale."

The films we are starting to see from this new generation tends to reject the suggestion that limitless sex leads to freedom or happiness. They tend to have a sadness about relationships that is appropriate considering what they have been through as the children of "sexually liberated" parents. My friend, screenwriter Craig Detweiler, calls these filmmakers "a generation in exile, singing sad songs of Jerusalem." Films that exemplify this movement are "Lost in Translation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

This is a great opportunity for the Church. We are all about the sacramental sense in which everything we see points to a reality we can't see. Chesterton said that, "The secular writer is confined to what he sees. The Christian writer speaks about what is really there."

It is for us to respond to this new generation of filmmakers yearning for meaning. We need our theologians and then educators to translate the "theology of the body" for the creative community, so they can bring it to their art, and then expand our understanding, in the way that Pope John Paul II has called art "a source of theology."

Power of "The Passion"

Undeniably, the release and astounding global success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" has been the most significant event for the Church in Hollywood and in cinema probably ever. "The Movie" has everybody in the industry rethinking many long-standing assumptions about the global audience.

It has many people in the Church rethinking their long-held assumptions about screen violence and the potential power for good of cinema. It is outside my scope to spend too much time here on this, but I do want to run down some of the ways the movie is opening doors in Hollywood and in the Church that could be very positive in the long term.

Three days before "The Passion" opened in the States, the industry trade magazines predicted, "This movie might even make $30 million in its first week." Actually, the movie made $27 million on its first day. It went on to make $127 million in its first week.

The main impact of the film in the industry is that it has created an awareness that there are huge numbers of people out there who went to this movie, but who generally don't go to the theaters. How to get "the audience of 'The Passion'" back to the theaters is now an agenda item for all the studios. Of course, they don't know what we Christians want to see, but they will be open now to create product for our consumption. This is probably good.

I never thought I would live to see Jesus, beautifully and devoutly rendered, carrying his cross on network television. I was astounded every time I saw a commercial for The Movie run at any hour of the day. I was at a restaurant with some friends one night and they had a television over the bar. Suddenly, an ad for "The Passion" came on, and everyone in the bar fell silent in a weird kind of awe and respect. I started to cry.

Beyond the power of the film itself, "The Passion" brought God out of our churches and into the center of mainstream culture. He was front and center, in his most compelling posture as Lamb of God, and many millions of his sheep heard his voice -- some for the first time.

Undeniably, this has been an opportunity for dialogue and evangelization that the Church has rarely experienced before. As the Pope has said, "The Church would be sadly remiss" if she were to ignore the potential of the cultural marketplace, and I would add especially after "The Passion" phenomenon.

What's needed from the Church

Last year, I was interviewed by the magazine of the Writers Guild of America. The reporter asked me, "What do Christians bring to the table in Hollywood, such that, we non-Christians would miss if you were gone?"

It is a great question that Christians in every discipline need to ask themselves. "What defines a Christian as a doctor? As a scientist? As a teacher?" If our faith is true, it has something to say about every aspect of human life.

I have noted above, that the Church can help the industry find real meaning for realities like human sexuality, violence, good and evil, the yearning for the transcendent, human personhood, the importance of the family, etc. I want to end with two specific things that the secular industry needs from the Church, that, to answer the question of the journalist last year, will be sadly missing from the world of entertainment if we do not bring them to the fore.

Spirituality for artists

The first is a specific spirituality for artists. There are very specific spiritual challenges that creative people have to go through to bring, what the Pope calls, "new epiphanies of beauty" into the world. Their first cross is their craft which will demand many sacrifices of time, labor, study, isolation.

In order to bring beauty into the world, an artist will have to descend to the darkest, loneliest places in themselves. Their art will have more power insofar as it is, what writer Flannery O'Connor called, "A wrestling with their angels and demons, not certain if they will come out of the struggle at all."

Artists have to abide in the suffering of insufficiency, that the work of their hands is never as potent as was their original vision. Their lives will be characterized by instability, poverty and then possibly the burden of celebrity. In an average year, a professional actor, writer, singer or artist will face more rejection than most people do in their lifetime. It is a lonely and painful process especially because artists tend to be more sensitive souls as it is. Many of them find ways to cope in drugs, sex, alcohol, because they have no Jesus to whom they could bring their burden.

We need to help these artists carry the cross of the vocation to beauty. We need to give them spiritual strategies, a practical theology, ethical training and then, we have to be big enough to let them be who they are -- a little crazy, a little needy sometimes, but also the bearers of many wonderful gifts to the whole world.

An ethics of art

Secondly, Hollywood needs help from us in crafting an ethics of art and entertainment. Without giving artists a list of "Thou Shalt Nots" that they will just ignore anyway, we can still have an impact by reminding them of the huge potential for good that is in their hands through the cinema.

The cinema can make people want to be heroes. It can connect us to each other through the pathos of drama and the joy of comedy. The cinema can draw us into solidarity with those who suffer and leads us to want to make a better world.

The ethical question to put to artists is, "If you have the power in your hands to do all these good things, isn't it an ethical problem if you choose not to do them? Isn't that the secular man's biggest complaint against God -- that he doesn't use his power to circumvent evil?"

We need to help the industry move from the famous "right to privacy" towards a sense of sacredness for the human person that is both the object and then the receiver of cinema. The Church could posit a definition of healthy entertainment that would flow from the desire to promote authentic human freedom and development. What kind of cinema helps humans grow? What kind of cinema coarsens the human soul and retards our development?

The corporate machine that drives Hollywood will never stop to brood over these questions, but the artistic community which also has tremendous power is hungry for guidance, and has a passionate longing to make a positive impact on the world. There are many opportunities for the Church in this moment. The only question is, do we have the energy, hope and pastoral love to take them?