ANYONE WHO READS this column regularly knows that I think it is difficult to be a religious believer in our society. There is little in the secular humanistic culture that supports faith. Because of this, I am often on the lookout for some play, film, novel or television show that might present some Christian values that might support religious faith.
Cinema to Nourish Faith
Trying to offer some cinematic works that might nourish religious faith is one reason why I initiated the Friday Film Festival at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston more than 40 years ago. There are cinematic masterpieces that are deeply religious that can both challenge and nourish a person’s religious faith. Much of contemporary film presents a vision of the human person that, as a Catholic, I find either superficial or even erroneous.
Among the 300 films that we have shown at the Friday Film Festival through the years, many of them are explicitly religious and others can stimulate reflection that is, at least, indirectly related to religious faith.
Secular culture is also the reason that I have been involved in adult education programs that deal with the Catholic novel. It is also why I created a course on the Catholic novel at St. John’s University. It seems to me that the Catholic novel is like a treasure hidden in a field: too many Catholics do not know about this treasure.
The way I feel about film is pretty much the same way that I feel about legitimate theatre. In our secular culture, I hunger for theater that speaks to my faith.
This is why I am so excited by the works that Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA) produces: plays that in one way or another deal with a Christian worldview. The following is in the Playbill for the current production of William Nicholson’s play “Shadowlands,” being performed at the Acorn Theatre in Manhattan:
“Fellowship for Performing Arts … creates theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience. Founded by Max McLean, FPA has developed and produced theatrical productions such as ‘The Screwtape Letters,’ ‘The Great Divorce,’ ‘Mark’s Gospel,’ ‘Martin Luther on Trial,’ ‘C.S. Lewis On Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert’ and ‘Shadowlands’ in theatres and performing arts centers in New York, London and across America. It has also produced critically acclaimed audiobook narrations of classic Christian works.”
Sign of the Spirit
FPA is like a breath of fresh air, or rather, a sign of the Spirit. I cannot praise its work enough. I have not seen FPA’s production of “Mark’s Gospel,” though I did see a production of it many years ago starring Alec McCowan. I have seen the other five works that FPA has produced. All of them are excellent. I think “Martin Luther on Trial” is really a great play. I hope that it will be performed again in New York in 2018.
I think the production of “Shadowlands” is quite good and I recommend it to all readers of this column. It occurs to me that a viewing of this play would be an excellent outing for high schools, colleges and parish societies. The drama deals with the mystery of human suffering and how religious believers might deal with that mystery. I can imagine many enthusiastic discussions that the play might provoke.
At the end of the play, the director, Christa Scott-Reed, comes onto the stage to answer questions about the production. I think such sessions take place after every FPA production.
My history with the play goes back to when it was first presented on television. The production starred Claire Bloom and Josh Ackland. It went from television to the stage, and eventually to the screen. The film starred Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. I was very disappointed because it could have been a wonderful religious film, but the film’s creators removed the religious dimension from the story.
The reviewer in the Catholic magazine, Commonweal, summed up the film perfectly: “This is a tearjerker for secular humanists.”
The current production of “Shadowlands” at the Acorn retains the religious dimension of Nicholson’s work. The staging is quite good, and I think the acting is exceptionally good. As C.S. Lewis, Daniel Gerroll is exceptionally good and so is Robin Abramson as Joy Davidman, the woman Lewis eventually marries. Gerroll is able to convey both Lewis’ brilliance and his naivete in relation to women. Abramson conveys both the aggressiveness of Davidman and her deep love for Lewis.
Many Christians can wish that there were more plays dealing with Christian themes. Those at FPA have done something about that ”wish” and they have done it by creating first-rate theatrical productions. I am hoping that “Shadowlands” is a huge commercial success and gets the audience it deserves.
Editor’s note: “Shadowlands” will run at The Acorn Theatre through Jan. 7, 2018. For more information about the show or to purchase tickets, visit https://fpatheatre.com.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).