Faith & Thought

Power of Art to Influence And to Humanize People

There are so many influences that play a part in shaping and forming our experience of ourselves and others that the word “mystery” seems applicable to everything involving human persons. Writing this series using Bernard Cooke’s “Power and Spirit: Toward an Experience-Based Pneumatology” (Oxford University Press, 2004) as a springboard has been a very provocative experience for me.

Re-reading the book has helped me reflect more deeply on the mystery of every human person and, of course, helped me rejoice over the loving presence of the Holy Spirit in my life and in the life of every human person.

The mystery of God is never completely understood, but entering more deeply into that mystery can be not only challenging but inspiring. If at times God seems silent or even absent, perhaps it is we who are deaf or absent. God wants a relationship with us even more than we want a relationship with God. Isn’t that amazing?

Commenting on various experiences that might influence our relationship with the Holy Spirit, Cooke writes, “It would be a mistake in studying the culture-changing power of new ideas to overlook the role played by the arts. In subtle but important ways, the evolution of art forms, whether painting, sculpture, music, or poetry, forecasts — almost in a prophetic way — and helps create new cultural movements and societal developments.

Certainly, the theater has played a key role, almost a religious role, holding up a mirror to society, challenging its mores and values, revealing the deeper currents of motivation that drive it, suggesting a conversion to more authentic humanity. With the current explosion in communication media, the extension of the theater into film, television, and the internet promises to be one of the principal forces in the societies of the future” (pp. 140-141).

Cooke’s comments on art have moved me to reflect on how works of art, especially literature, theater, and film, have played an exceptionally important role in my life. When I was in grammar school and high school, there were nine movie theaters within walking distance of my home. At that time, every theater played double features and changed the films at least twice a week.

This meant that in any given week, there were approximately 35 films available for me to view. I did not see all the films, but I saw most of them. All those films must have influenced me. Some philosophers have pointed out how heroic stories have had a special power to influence people.

In most of the films I saw, there was a hero, a very attractive and moral person who dominated the film. To what extent did the films play a positive role in my life; to what extent negative? I guess I will have to wait for heaven to know the answers to those questions.

At some time when I was in graduate school, I began to take film and theater very seriously. I took film so seriously that for almost 20 years, I conducted film festivals at Cathedral College Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, six films in the fall, and six films in the spring. My guess is that I probably screened close to 200 films.

I chose the films very carefully. I saw each film at least twice, once before the screening to prepare the remarks I would make after the film and once with the audience. These film festivals convinced me, if I needed any convincing, of the power of film to influence and humanize people. Great art can do that.

There are a few truths that greatly influence my view of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. Perhaps the most important is that if by “the natural order” and “secular” we mean some areas of reality in which God is not present, there are no such areas. Because of the Holy Spirit’s presence, there is nothing that cannot be the occasion of grace.

Another truth that is central to how I view the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives is that faith is a special way of knowing. Cooke, describing faith, writes: “Openness to and acceptance of this revealed word leads to a unique way of knowing that, though grounded in the witness of other believers, is not just a blind and unjustified agreement with official teaching. The authenticity and power of this belief flows from the prophetic Spirit” (p. 144).

There is one real world and many ways of experiencing that world. Art is one wonderful way of experiencing it. Conscious openness to the Holy Spirit’s presence is an even more wonderful way of experiencing it. Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed a marvelous truth when he wrote the line, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

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.