Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.
Sr. Nancy Usselmann is the newly appointed director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA, a position formerly held by Sr. Rose Pacatte. Believing Christians of all catechisms can learn from each other, we're excited to feature Sr. Nancy's distinctly Catholic vision for how we can all become more spiritually aware movie-goers and how we can share that experience with the world. You can find her entire series archived here. - Editor
Being a firm believer that popular culture can be a conduit for experiencing transcendence, I was convinced of this once again after watching the Best Picture nominee, Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley. The lushness of the script and the cinematography drew me into a heart-felt connection with Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) who leaves 1950s Ireland for new pursuits in New York. Her crushing homesickness and longing for friendship coincide in a developing romance with a tough Italian-American from Brooklyn. She faces options when she returns to Ireland because of a family tragedy and this causes her to discern her future. I was in the midst of a transition myself when watching this and found a new courage to make the hard choice, just like Eilis, in order to pursue the higher good, that something more, which was calling to me. It is ultimately the call to self-giving love. It was a moment of profound grace.
Human beings experience the world in and through the self. We become self-aware as we come to knowledge of the world around us and develop language. These are functions of the non-material dimensions of personhood. We exist in the world both as material and spiritual beings since we do not exist completely immersed in the material. As persons, in the philosophical and theological sense, we are metaphysical substances while also being relational subjects. There is a dimension of our personhood that is not influenced solely by the world in which we live. This is the experience of transcendence. Since we are free, intelligent creatures we can reflect on the transcendent realities of our lives and have hopes, dreams, loves and question the ultimate purpose of our existence. To acknowledge these fundamental questions is to recognize that we are ultimately oriented to mystery. We are constantly seeking and searching for these transcendent realities that are beyond us and we yearn for that something more that they represent.
These existential structures of self-awareness, transcendence, and freedom are present in all human existence, constituting personhood. An understanding of the human person, and the person’s existential desires, yearnings, and purpose provide a lens with which to view popular culture from a theological-anthropological perspective. This then will lead to a recognition of the supernatural existential in each human being, that longing for ‘the more’ that is made visible through the symbols of popular culture’s artifacts.
At the dawn of the Enlightenment and into the postmodern era, humanity has seen an increase in the denial of human personhood. Considering the extreme destructive forces of the two great world wars of the twentieth century along with the many incidences of genocide we have come to realize that an ideology that disregards human dignity is lurking beneath the surface of human intelligence and power. When there is a denial of transcendence, as the postmodernists purport, then there logically follows a denial of the concept of person, since transcendence is essential to this concept of personhood.
The market economy can also diminish personhood. Our technological consumerist society blocks human beings from recognizing the deeper realities of human existence because it focuses on a manipulated surface reality. The television show Mad Men effectively portrays Madison Avenue advertising executives in the 1960s, who persuade people to buy products they do not necessarily need as long as it brings in big money. It all ultimately proves unsatisfying, as in season 7’s episode, "The Forecast," when Don Draper dictates orders from his office couch for a campaign, not really sure that he has anything to say and feeling dissatisfied with life. The compelling impulse to consume, which drives popular culture, is what Pope Francis calls the “poison of emptiness”  that threatens true happiness. It devalues the person by insinuating that having things and profit is what brings fulfillment to life. Consumerism treats the human person as a commodity reduced to an object—either one that is consumed or one that continually consumes. This limits the human being’s freedom to seek the true, the good, and the beautiful, since authentic freedom is to actualize oneself as a person.
In our imaginary and sometimes not-so-imaginary worlds, this view of the human person naturally leads to dystopian societies where the destructive forces of our fallen human nature reign. Evolutionary biology dissipates the concept of the human person so that, “In the dismal view of things, love, personhood, and virtually all of human existence would be reduced to the struggle for genetic continuity in which selfish individuals seek to maximize their own little niches in a competitive and hostile environment.” This is poignantly portrayed in the film, The Giver, where society has become so controlled in a faux-utopian community as to impede human freedom, love, and creativity. The young man Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is selected to be the Receiver of Memory and so comes into contact with The Giver (Jeff Bridges) who shares the secrets and knowledge of the past with him. This opens Jonas up to the deceits of the leaders and their control on human freedom and knowledge as a way of preventing war and destruction through new ideas.
The Christian perspective is that the human person is not fungible, meaning that the human person is not interchangeable with any other similar or identical item. Each person has a non-transferable uniqueness. Just as there is completeness within the unity of the Persons of the Trinity, there is also differentiation in the relationships that glories in the uniqueness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as distinct Persons in the One God. The human person’s personality, then, is a uniqueness that cannot be replicated. This is compatible with the concept of human dignity. Human beings are made in the “image and likeness” of God and because of that have meaning and purpose.
Postmodernism’s Denial of Grace
Postmodernism as a philosophical mindset began in the 1930s but did not become all-pervasive in society until the 1970s. Philosophical postmodernism displaces the optimism of the Enlightenment worldview with a growing pessimism and wholly rejects the former era’s perspective that knowledge is objective. It is an intellectual mode that calls into question ideals and values of the Modern era, such as the quest for timeless truth and an elevated perspective of human capabilities. Postmodernism dismantles not only the intellectual constructs of universal truth, the human person in relation to the universe and the natural moral law, but also denies the concept of personhood, transcendence, and ultimate truth and so removes the very possibility of grace. Frederick Nietzsche developed an idea of redemption where human beings redeem themselves. He called it the “gospel of the future” where the will to truth is replaced by the will to power in which values are self-created by the powerful. This view has become postmodernism’s mantra.
Tony Soprano and his mobster family in The Sopranos present such a perspective. In the vein of The Godfather, Part II and Goodfellas, The Sopranos offer an insight into the self-destructive behavior of crime families who have created a world of distrust versus acceptance, personal truth versus universal truth, murder versus forgiveness. Considered one of the greatest television series of all time, this brilliantly written crime drama provides insight into the postmodern creed, “There is no absolute truth, so my truth reigns, for me.” At the end of the series, Tony Soprano (James Galdolfini) deals with the death of a hit man that results in mistaken identity and forces he and his family to go into hiding. Their life of crime comes full circle, leaving them insecure and unhappy. Even though the characters have Christianity as their cultural heritage, they really have created their own set of beliefs and values irrespective of the rest of society. Yet, in this murder-laden, undercover, crime world, redemption seems far removed.
A challenge to Nietzsche’s assertion remains: how can human beings redeem themselves when they are absorbed in the mire of fallen human nature? If they can possibly redeem themselves then why is self-destruction an ever-present threat and constant suffering so overwhelmingly oppressive? Obviously, self-redemption is a contradiction. Only someone that is above and beyond human nature can redeem human beings. Only a belief in God who is Creator of all things can save human beings from self-inflicted idolization.
Nietzsche sees that power and violence are the law of life, the Christian view is that power and conflict are transient and that power can be the servant of the good, as is shown in the television series, Madame Secretary. Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), supports the education of women in Saudi Arabia by inviting the young outspoken Saudi woman, Noura al-Kitabi, who was assaulted with liquid acid by extremists, to speak at an education conference in Washington, DC. While also halting further terrorist activities, Elizabeth discovers that the Saudis are after this young woman, and she alerts security just before a suicide bomber enters the conference room. She helps to save the life of Noura and many others. The Secretary addresses major international threats daily while seeking the most humane and ethically suitable response. It is through love, the good that is directed toward the other, that power be elevated. Selfish use of power only leads to diminishment.
Grace as Divine Gift
Christian theological tradition holds that deep within the human being is an inherent tendency to evil that is activated through an immorality leading to social disorder and disintegration. This can only be healed by grace. We have the ability to make choices, however, and we are capable of recognizing, even when violence and hostility seem natural reactions, the possibility of the grace offered to us by God to act in a way that appeals to our higher selves. Grace is God giving of himself to humanity. This gift of grace alone allows Father James (Brendan Gleeson) in the film Calvary to respond to a murder threat with supernatural forgiveness and self-sacrificing love. Grace does not diminish human nature or supersede it, since Father James continues to struggle with his own humanity. Rather, it builds upon it and is “an unsurpassable perfectioning of nature.”
Grace is a foundation of the reality of faith. It is grace that exclusively mediates salvation, which is at the core of revelation. Through grace, God imparts himself to humanity. This gift of grace, of God’s own life in the soul, means that something of God’s light and uniqueness shines within the human person, who when God chooses that person and acts within him, his own light shines through. Art has this unique ability to express that light in the grace of perseverance, as in the film The Martian, in which the undying spirit of the human person is so expressly communicated in Mark Watney’s (Matt Damon) persistence to return to earth after being left for dead on Mars by his fellow astronauts.
There is a restlessness in the human spirit that longs for this supernatural gift of grace, one that cannot be attained by any natural means. No matter how much human beings long for it, this world alone cannot satisfy all our deepest longings, as is expressed in Before Midnight, the last of a trilogy of films created and directed by Richard Linklater about a man and a woman who met eighteen years earlier on a train in Vienna. In this film, they have become a couple and have twin daughters. Their conversation centers around their deep, profound longings and needs. Celine (Julie Delpy) tells Jesse (Ethan Hawke) that each of their personal fantasies and dreams of communion, love, and happiness will never match the imperfections of daily life. They will always desire something more.
The human need for grace is evident in the world, especially when we see and hear of destructive forces at work. If God is not active in human existence we would have destroyed ourselves long ago. Instead, there is the power of God’s self-communication present at every moment, to every person, in every circumstance. That is the gift of grace. This grace is what gives us the ability to reach for the more, to the supernatural world, to what is beyond our material existence.
The transcendental experience of our personhood is our starting point for speaking about God. Yet there is another existential structure through which grace becomes present. That is the “supernatural existential,” the understanding that the finite, material world is not enough to sufficiently quell the deepest longings of our being. There is a longing for the infinite, the non-material, the supernatural that is present in every human being. It is in this self-aware desire for freedom, transcendence, and the supernatural that grace is present.
Based on this assertion, popular culture, too, can become a means for experiencing the transcendent. There is a pursuit for 'the more' in contemporary television shows, film, music, and social media. We see this supernatural existential in television shows such as The Simpsons whose religious satire pokes fun at human foibles and religious practices while addressing issues of belief in the supernatural through its cleverly concocted scripts. Supergirl is a superhero who is living a teenager’s life with her foster family but is burdened with her struggle of how to use her special gifts. Madame Secretary and The Good Wife continuously address religious and moral issues, often showing that some things are just beyond human control and must be left to the realm of the supernatural.
Our lived human experience leads us to seek that which transforms our existence into a life with God. Everything authentically human can be an experience of grace – God’s self-communicating love. This gratuitous love of God is what gives human beings the ability to contend with the darkness and weakness that overwhelms us. Humanity struggles with the angst of disunion, alienation, and separation causing spiritual disintegration and darkness. We address this angst in every era and throughout the centuries. Yet, the angst remains. When knowledge cannot answer a profound human question then often the arts are a place to turn as a means to give expression to what cannot be fully communicated academically. Artists reach down deep in the human psyche and, with sounds, images, reflections, tastes, and feelings, express the inexpressible in order to give voice to the groaning of humanity. It is often here, in the deep recesses of our beings, where grace is at work. Pop cultural artists, then, are the conduits of grace if they let themselves truly experience and give expression to these existential anxieties of humanity.
Receiving Grace through the Supernatural
When humanity is open to receive the divine gift of grace, it means that there is the ultimate desire for what is true, good, and beautiful, for these are the essence of every gift. This is the notion of grace building on nature. These transcendentals are present in creation and most clearly presented to us in Christ, for our relationship with God actualizes the true, good and beautiful in us. What is false and ugly is an entirely different category than gift. It is the opposite of gift, since sin turns in on itself and cannot give or receive. We only give of ourselves and receive the gift of others in love. Love alone is what confirms the presence of these transcendentals in the human soul. Love is a mystery since it surpasses time and space. It is that power within human beings that propels us toward the supernatural, the transcendent. It is the gift of grace.
Sr. Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA. She has over twenty-five years experience leading retreats, teaching workshops, and giving presentations helping spiritually-minded media creators and consumers understand media relative to their faith and vice versa. You can follow her on Twitter and read her regular musings on media on her website.