Listening to Spiritual Queries In Mass Media


(OPINION) During the 1990s, legions of kids could quote chapter and verse from “The X-Files,” the adventures of FBI special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

Scully was the skeptic who put her faith in science, while Mulder plunged headfirst into the supernatural. But in one case, Scully experienced mysterious visions that helped her save a life. Stunned, she returned to church. Confessing to a priest, she asked why she witnessed a miracle but her partner did not.

Maybe, the priest said, God was only speaking to her. “With the Lord, anything is possible. Perhaps you saw these things because you needed to. … Why does that surprise you?”

Scully answered: “Mostly it just makes me afraid. … Afraid that God is speaking, but that no one is listening.”

Father Casey Cole grew up in that era. While he wasn’t an “X-Files” fan, many of his friends were, hooked by the show’s mantra, “The truth is out there.” Thus, this confession scene has become one of many video clips he uses as a chaplain at three schools in Macon, Georgia.

When exploring pop culture, the young Franciscan friar is looking for good questions — the kinds of questions he thinks the church needs to hear.

That’s easier with some forms of entertainment than others. It’s possible for savvy pastors, youth leaders and teachers to respond to high-quality movies and television programs, especially those that address spiritual issues, said Cole, describing the approach used in the “Upon Friar Review” videos he makes with Father Patrick Tuttle of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Macon.

Then there are “times when Father Patrick closes his eyes and says, ‘This is awful.’ … There are times when I want to say, ‘This is the worst thing ever.’ But when we’re at our best, we can say, ‘Let’s take a step back and let’s analyze this. What question is being asked here? … These things ask important questions, and maybe questions the church seems unwilling or unable to answer. Well, we need to be the ones to answer these kinds of questions, because people are going to be asking them anyway.”

Critics of this approach should heed the warnings woven into “Upon Friar Review” episodes — that it’s wise to err on the side of caution when consuming mass media because “you can’t unsee things,” said Tuttle.

But blanket condemnation is not enough. This is especially true with young people.

“I’m a white-haired man, and if I start talking, as a white-haired man, with a white beard, about, ‘Ah! You know, all this TV is nothing but evil, all these movies are bad,’ everybody’s just going to say, ‘Wha, wha, wha,’” he said, making the noise “Peanuts” characters hear when adults talk.

Perhaps parish leaders, said Tuttle, could focus — in retreats and education efforts — on young believers sharing their own concerns about social media, video games and mass entertainment.

“What if a young person, in a testimony of some kind, says, ‘This is what I used to watch 12 hours a day, and this is how I felt most of the time. Now, I am guarding myself. I watch these sorts of thing and I avoid these other sorts of things, and I have come alive, and I have helped other people come alive.’ Why aren’t we doing things like that?”

It would help, of course, if these issues were discussed in seminaries and by national church leaders. Tuttle said parish leaders should try pointing people to dramas, cartoons and online resources that are worthy of praise.

Truth is, mass media shapes the lives of millions of ordinary people, whether mainstream religious leaders are willing to face that reality or not.

The goal, said Cole, isn’t to hang digital screens in sanctuaries and try to entertain the masses during worship. But, at some point, preachers will need to find a way — even in the pulpit — to wrestle with the world of mass media.

“Popular culture should be used, it should be discussed, because the point of the homily, really, is to connect two worlds — the world of the Gospel and the world that we live in — to make it relevant,” he said. “We need to have our finger on the pulse of the people. We need to understand what they’re going through. … We have to try.”

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