Faith through video

by John Wijngaards, THE TABLET 17 October 1992, pp. 1296-1297

After the print revolution with its influence on linear thinking came the audiovisual revolution with its reinforcement of image and symbol. A Mill Hill Missionary who directs the Housetop Centre for communications in London reflects on the use of video to help adult Christians learn their faith.

Some time ago I attended a lecture on the divine motherhood of Mary. The speaker defined a mother in these terms: “a woman who, having provided an ovum that is subsequently fertilised by an external agent, prepares it for infusion of a soul and nurtures it from her own bodily substance till it can be physically separated from her”. A girl sitting next to me whispered in my car: “Obviously, the poor fellow never had a mother.”
The lecturer’s attempt to define everything conceptually is characteristic of Western culture. It crippled the thinking of that speaker. When will we slop thinking that faith can be saved by text, or doctrine by a catechism?
Audio-visual media, and particularly video, can open our eyes to the possibility of approaching faith through images. As preachers and believers we must shed our reluctance to think in sound and symbol, and recognise that religious beliefs cannot be adequately expressed in logical concepts. Our Christian perception of reality, though not unreasonable, goes beyond reason.
Clear thinking, indeed, will always be required. We need to view our faith within the framework of rational choices. We also need to rid ourselves of the parasites that tend to infect religious practice: magic, superstition, fundamentalism and fanaticism. This is, perhaps, where a catechism serves a purpose. But our critical faculty should not obscure the more mysterious, exciting, overwhelming, often frightening and always fascinating aspects of our universe. We have to recognise religion for what it is: mystery.
This insight has immediate relevance for the formation of the faith of adults which is rightly being seen as a priority in our parishes and in the upper forms of our schools. It is not a mere presentation of orthodox doctrine that is required, however lucidly explained, but a holistic approach. Research has shown that the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and related programmes succeed best if they combine oral instruction, the presentation of audio-visual “parables”, and critical analysis so as to foster a process of personal growth within the group.
Christian video courses can be a valuable asset for those seeking to deepen their holistic understanding of their faith in this way, but the setting must be right. The group must be prepared to face real questions, to deal with doubt and anger, and to liberate religion from its “infant” status — where it is seen as a childhood toy.
An alarming statistic in the European Values Survey recently published is the low percentage of people who find religion important in their lives. Only 30 per cent give it a high ranking. A mere one in five mention it as a priority worth passing on to their children. No more than 18 per cent hold that shared religious belief is crucial for a successful marriage.
The traditional Christian Churches are losing support, whether we measure this in terms of Sunday practice, confidence in the leadership, orthodoxy or adherence to Christian morals. But the decline of interest in religion itself is arguably much more serious. It affects church-goers no less than the unchurched. Why has our modern world pushed religion to the fringes?
The pundits ponder the reasons and rightly see them in secularism, individualism and the influence of technological change. John Hull of the University of Birmingham has summarised much of this in his book. What Prevents Christian Adults from Learning? He contends that in our modern culture religion has come to be linked with childhood.
Adults look back upon their childhood as a time when they were safely protected in the home, when things were simple, when decisions were made for them, when they were not exposed to the rigours of employment, bureaucracy and rationality. Childhood was also the time when religion came naturally. Think of Christmas cribs, Easter eggs and First Communion. “The age of eight is the high-water mark of religiosity in the life-cycle of many a modern person”, Hull tells us. “Scepticism. secularism, rebellion, boredom, sex and pop songs set in very quickly after that pious age.”
As people enter the rational and competitive world of adults, the majority tend to discard religion with their toys. They lapse, or end up as marginal Christians. Others, who refuse to face the adult conflict between modernity and Christian faith, retreat to their Sunday worship as a safe haven. Under the social influence of the Church, their altitude to their faith remains perpetually that of childhood, Hull says. Others again modify — but only part — of their belief system to make it accord with modern knowledge. Only those who are willing truly to “learn”, according to Hull, can find the right balance between faith and modern life.
Hull is absolutely right in positing the need of “learning” for an adult Christian faith to survive. Our experience in the Housetop Centre shows that such learning requires a wide range of study: recognition of the historical processes in which Scripture and the Church lie embedded, openness to new scientific insights and social values, and acquaintance with other religious traditions. But, most of all, learning needs to pass beyond critical analysis into a renewed appreciation of myth and metaphor.
The deepest realities of our life cannot be fathomed fully by the tools of logic. They reveal themselves in the realm of relationships, of feelings, of ultimate purpose and transcendent mystery. Our rational culture, however, has isolated our awareness from its natural, unconscious roots. Instead of relating to persons and things as they are, we tend to see them in terms of the mental categories in which we define them.
Christians have always instinctively valued symbol and sacrament. Our liturgies celebrate in elaborate and colourful ritual what goes beyond words. Jesus Christ himself has always been understood as the greatest sacrament of all, the eternal and invisible Word made visible in human flesh.
Jesus taught in parables. His deeds were tokens and models. His death and Resurrection were signs of lasting significance. We cannot meaningfully talk of God, of the Incarnation, or of divine life in us, without the use of images. Our critical knowledge has to be supplemented with a holistic approach: a mode of presence to earthly and divine realities that is direct, instead of being mediated through discursive thinking.
“Mystic participation”, to use an expression coined by the French anthropologist Levy-Bruhl. came naturally to us as children. As adults we have to rediscover it and purify it. While leaving the child’s magical fancies behind us, we need to overcome the limitations of a narrow secular, notional, reductionist view of life. The universe has to become once more a source of awe and true religious wonder. Scripture has to disclose a story of love, of a personal Creator who. in spite of his transcendence, cares for us and lives among us as one of us. We need to reappraise the power of God touching us through symbols. It is in this rehabilitation of images that the video revolution can play its part.
Television has become a central fact of modern life. Most homes now possess a colour television set (87 per cent) and a video recorder (60 per cent). Adults view for an average of five to six hours a day; children for four hours a day. We are being flooded with images.
The impact of them is still being debated. It seems indisputable that prolonged viewing will gradually imbue people with new ideological values about happiness, suffering and violence, and the “rules of the game” by which some emerge as winners, others as losers. Will we trust television when it presents models to live by and solutions to the basic questions of life?
The problem is not that television offers us views opposed to our own. It lies in values and assumptions that are not expressed, in the selection of some priorities at the expense of others, in not allowing a free, two-way dialogue with the viewer. The mass media arc organised along one-way lines. They flow from top to bottom, from the centre to the periphery, from the few to the many. The new medium of video, however, is an exception in that it is more under the control of individual viewers.
Video allows us to record a programme, to see it again, to challenge the views expressed, to discuss all the implications. In the context of learning in groups it provides a valuable tool for harnessing the power of sound and image to the process of discernment and growth. The particular strength of video is its ability to make us see values embodied in relationships and feelings, to make us enter other people’s lives. At its best, through stories, video can provide modern parables that capture the heart of religious experience.
We are told in the Gospel not only that Jesus taught in parables, but that he “never taught the crowds without parables” (Mt 13:34). Jesus knew that the reality of the Kingdom defies logical definition. He real-ised that stories and images, apart from evoking a better response, often express the core of religious truth. This is what video can help us do for our time.
The right image
Video is only gradually finding its niche in religious education. In 1990. of the 50 million video cassettes sold in the United Kingdom, 7 million were bought by rental shops, 3 million by commercial firms and 40 million by home users. Religious cassettes numbered hardly 70,000.
As to quality, there is much variation. Some videos just present “talking heads”, when ministers preach at unseen congregations from the screen. Others are documentary-style reports on, say, Medjugorje or Lourdes. Others again serve an immediate pastoral purpose, like marriage preparation or teaching people how to pray. But the most promising development is the emergence of imaginative video courses combining instruction in a course book with story and documentary presented on video.
The Video Forum in Driebergen in the Netherlands aims at stimulating new ideas and at facilitating an exchange of available resources. If English mystery plays found their way to the Continent in the Middle Ages and if Flemish and Italian artists could work on the stained-glass windows of England’s cathedrals, a shared search for religious images and how to integrate them in religious education makes no less sense today; which may well apply to topics like divine motherhood, with which I began.
Research on sexual behaviour in Italy has disclosed the effect of a distorted image of Mary on a high proportion of Catholic men and women. Husbands in this group unconsciously identify their wives with the “sexless” Virgin Mary whose motherhood “was not tainted either before, during or after birth” and so expect their wives to be “chaste mothers” and to have no interest in sex. They seek sexual fulfilment with other women whom they consider depraved like Eve. For wives the situation gives rise to severe psychological tensions. They cannot, without feelings of guilt, admit to having sexual needs.
The sensually sensitive Virgin Mary of Jean-Luc Goddard’s film Je Vous Salue Marie could be the starting-point in a group process of recovering the true Mary from the Gospel text, her warmblooded motherhood (which does in no way diminish her role in the history of salvation) and healthy Christian sexuality. It is just an example of how images say more than words ever can.