FAITH THROUGH VIDEO
by John Wijngaards, Multimedia Year Book, June 1996, pp. 23-25
After the print revolution with its influence on linear thinking came the audio-visual revolution with its reinforcement of image and symbol. In this abridged article, from “The Tablet”, a Mill Hill Missionary who directs the “Housetop” Centre for Communications in London, reflects on the use of the video to help adult Christians to learn their faith.
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 gave 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 held that shared religious belief is crucial for successful marriage.
Video can open our eyes to the possibility of approaching faith through images.
We must shed our reluctance to think in sound and symbol.
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 deepest realities of our lives 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 invincible 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.
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 has 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 are 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 modern 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 realised that stories and images, apart from evoking a better response. often express the core of religious truth. This is what video can help us to do for our time.
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. 1 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.
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.
Scanned courtesy of John Strange