Recently I came upon a really good definition of culture. It is from the social scientist, Clifford Geertz. Describing a culture, he wrote the following:
“An historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.”
Reflecting on Geertz’s definition, I think that I belong to several different cultures. This is probably true of readers of this column. For example, I belong to the culture of the United States, the culture of New York City, the culture of the Roman Catholic Church, and perhaps other cultures.
Some of these cultures nourish my religious faith and some do not. The thought has occurred to me that I have to pick and choose carefully what will help me as a Christian believer and what will not. I especially have to be aware of patterns of meaning that actually contradict what I believe as a Catholic.
I have a habit, because of my own interests, to ask friends two questions: “Are you reading anything interesting?” and “Have you seen any good films on television?” One of my friends almost always answers both questions with the comment, “Just junk.” The comment saddens me. If you are going to read, why read just junk? Why not read something that will enrich you, help you to understand yourself and others and even help you to better understand the mystery of God? To find such books or such films may take a little bit of a search in a culture that is very secular, but certainly there are many books and many films that can enrich a person’s religious faith.
In the last 30 years, certainly since the time that I began to teach at St. John’s University, I have been involved in two apostolates that greatly enriched my faith and I hope the faith of those who were involved with me in the two apostolates. One apostolate was running film festivals, the other was moderating adult education courses on the Catholic novel. The pandemic has put both apostolates temporarily on hold, but I hope that at some time in the future they will be revived.
During the many years that the film festivals were running, over 300 films were show. All the films were either classics or near classics. A diet of such films has to influence a person’s consciousness and conscience. I cannot think of one great film that was not part of any of the festivals. Showing the films was a labor of love for me. I viewed each film before showing it to an audience and gave a few brief remarks after each film. The festivals had a profound effect on me. I suspect they also did on people who attended regularly.
In the Catholic novel courses over a period of 30 years, the students and I either read or re-read over 100 Catholic novels. Some of those novels were masterpieces; most were excellent; all were at least interesting.
I realize now that what I was trying to do for myself and for those attending the festivals or reading the novels was to create a Catholic culture that would co-exist within other cultures. The two programs were attempts to keep our faith nourished and challenged within a secular society. I was hoping that both programs would provide symbols that would help participants to see more deeply into their religious faith. The programs were to provide symbols other than the thoroughly secular symbols that surround us and some of the symbols that almost attack our religious faith.
Both of these programs could be run in parishes. What would be needed to run a film festival would be someone interested in film and ready to do a little homework reflecting on the history of film. If the person running the festival was willing to read a book or two about film, that would help. To run a discussion program, someone would have to be sufficiently interested to choose a set of Catholic novels. If help was needed, I suspect a librarian would be more than willing. Many of the novels, if not all, are probably available in paperback and might even be available on Kindle.
More and more, I see the necessity in my life to create my own “culture” by picking and choosing symbols that in one way or another support my Catholic faith. I suspect my experience is not unique. In the contemporary world, we are bombarded with images telling us explicitly or at least implicitly what it means to be a person and what our goals should be in life.
None of these messages can match the Good News of Jesus Christ. I think each of us needs a culture to remind us of this.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.