Acton Institute Powerblog

PBR: Film and the Felix culpa

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We welcome guest blogger Bruce Edward Walker, Communications Manager for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. This week’s PBR question is: “How should conservatives engage Hollywood?”

It is true that liberal depictions of dissolute and immoral behavior are rampant in modern cinema and justified as the desired end of hedonistic tendencies, but conservative critics too often come across as cultural scolds, vilifying films and filmmakers for not portraying reality as conservatives would like to see it. For many conservative critics, the only worthwhile contemporary movies made are adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series or those that feature Kirk Cameron in a starring role. The verisimilitude inherent in all compelling storytelling is neglected in favor of presenting idealized worlds in which a clearly defined good always overcomes easily identified evil.

Such an approach is simplistic and insults those of us that can recognize the presence of moral themes in the works of Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor and Tom Wolfe, and don’t automatically blanch at cursing, violence, sex and nudity when it serves a real dramatic purpose. Humanity, of course, is fallen and it’s foolish to expect conservative audiences to respond only to films that depict all marriages as salvageable, all protagonists as heroic metaphors for Christ and all heroines as virgins until the wedding night. Reality teaches us that these scenarios are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Felix culpa – the fortunate fall from whence one can experience God’s grace – is the phrase St. Thomas Aquinas used to explain how God allows evil to exist in order to allow for the greater good of His redemption. For all the decadence he depicted, for example, French poet Charles Baudelaire was perceived by none other than T.S. Eliot as still entering the Church albeit through the back door.

It is in this light that God’s creatures are the flawed but teachable characters in Judd Apatow’s films just as much as the disciples in “The Passion of the Christ.” In any event, Apatow’s characters are more relatable to modern filmgoers who have experienced or witnessed much of the same randy behavior, salty talk and personal challenges. His characters end up doing the right things after recognizing that becoming a true adult requires truly adult behavior, which includes personal sacrifice and accepting responsibility for one’s actions.

In between the laugh-out-loud funny parts of Apatow’s “40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” are tremendously affecting apologia for fidelity and marriage in the context of the predominant hookup culture, having a baby instead of an abortion and, perhaps most radical, displaying the unsexiness and violence of childbirth to young audience members who can’t foresee the logical outcome of a fetus carried to term. Show, don’t tell has been the mantra of fiction writers since time immemorial, and Apatow’s movies sneak their conservative messages under the radar of four-letter words, scatological humor, illegal drug use and raunchiness.

Dramatic films can often teach positive Christian messages by showing us the end results of persistently un-Christian behavior. The 2004 Academy Award Best Picture “Million Dollar Baby,” for example, was attacked by many Christian conservatives for its perceived endorsement of euthanasia. While I admit I was among this group after the first viewing, a subsequent viewing forced me to look deeper.

Frankie Dunn, played by the film’s director Clint Eastwood, is worse than a lapsed Catholic. He delights in taunting the local parish priest, for example, and is guilty of an unnamed sin that has exiled him from his daughter’s life. The loss of his daughter and inability to stop a fight 25 years earlier in which Scrap (Morgan Freeman), a fighter he managed, loses an eye leads him to seek redemption by mentoring a young female boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), who is tragically paralyzed during a championship bout. Maggie beseeches Frankie to help end her life and he eventually complies.

Frankie’s act can hardly be considered heroic, however, as it flies in the face of the counsel given him by his priest. Frankie lives the remainder of his life alone – exiled to the diner he owns, and never reconciling with his daughter, his past or his Savior. He exists in a purgatory of his own making, and we in the audience are left to analyze the morality of this deeply flawed man.

The main theme of Christianity is redemption and often the best way to depict this theme is to document what human actions require redeeming – and what in the eyes of our Creator may be worthy of salvation. One may hate the sins of Graham Green’s Whiskey Priest in “The Power and the Glory” (cinematically recreated by director John Ford and actor Henry Fonda in the 1947 film “The Fugitive”). Or Sarah Miles in the 1999 film “The End of the Affair” (based on another Graham novel) but that’s entirely the point. It is from the depths of their lurid behavior that they finally are able to accept God’s truths.

The modern world presents us with challenges of flesh and conscience that mature Christian artists and audiences alike must address in order to serve as responsible witnesses of Christ’s mercy. To pretend reprehensible behavior doesn’t exist and, furthermore, dwell on our hatred of the sins rather than our love and the belief in the potential redemption of the sinner will marginalize further the cinematic depiction of Christian principles.

Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. Most recently, he was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2007 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past three years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Midland, Mich., with his wife Katherine.