In one of his last major talks just months before his death in early 2005, Pope John Paul II addressed media professionals with an urgent and surprisingly hopeful message. This aging sage who had survived both Fascism’s and Communism’s worst manipulations of culture was welcoming this turbulent new era of transformation in media. He said, in part:
“The rapid development of technology in the area of the media is surely one of the signs of progress in today’s society. … The Church is not only called upon to use the mass media to spread the gospel but, today more than ever, to integrate the message of salvation into the ‘new culture’ that these powerful means of communication create and amplify. It tells us that the use of the techniques and the technologies of contemporary communications is an integral part of its mission in the third millennium.”
In short, take it directly from the 20th Century’s most famous theologian:
Media is sacred space! So, let’s drop all of this counterproductive rhetoric about “The Media” as some kind of monolithic, malevolent monster.
As People of Faith, we are also People of Media, a word that simply describes the tools we use to cross the space between us. And the Good News is that, today, we have more powerful media than at any time in human history. That’s what John Paul glimpsed with such eagerness even in his final months of life.
Consider this: Because of advances in digital technology, I am able to write today’s ReadTheSpirit story in a Shaker meeting room at the historic village of Pleasant Hill south of Lexington, Kentucky, while contemplating the simple, graceful doorway you see pictured here.
Thirty years ago, while finishing my studies at the University of Michigan and embarking on a career in journalism, I sat in this same Shaker room with my wife, Amy, and found myself deeply moved by this doorway’s gently rising lines that lift all eyes heavenward. I sat in silence for a long time that day, pondering the hundreds of men and women who had passed through that doorway and had gathered in this room to sing hymns and worship together throughout the century that this Kentucky community thrived. Eventually, in the midst of that silence, I could almost hear the rustling of homespun clothing as Shakers passed through that portal and moved in worship.
That proved to be an important moment in my career. Realizing that there are such powerful spiritual stories behind the tangible sights and sounds we see and hear around us is an insight that has shaped my entire approach to journalism. Ideas both concrete and abstract are passed down through generations in this way.
And, that’s the power of media.
The Shaker attention to simple design and quality craftsmanship is often described as evidence of their belief that everything that they built should be crafted in the firm faith that, at any moment, angels might come to sit among us.
Some years later, I was stunned to pick up a book of black and white photographs by the Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton and discover a photograph of this same Shaker doorway in this same room. It turns out that Merton had paused in contemplation in the same spot where I am sitting writing today’s article 30 years after I first glimpsed this heavenly doorway. Merton was so moved by the sight of this architectural media, left by the Shakers in this village, that he photographed the doorway to share with others.
That’s the power of media in multiple reflections from an original expression through architecture, music, movement, words and photography.
And, right now, a number of cultural threads seem to be converging again around the Shakers. There’s a new collection of Thomas Merton’s reflections on the Shakers, “Seeking Paradise,” that we highly recommend. (Click on the title here to jump to our Amazon bookstore, read our review of the book and buy a copy.) Plus, Ken Burns name is in the news again — and his documentary on “The Shakers” is back in print on DVD. (Again, click on the title to buy a copy of that).
Plus, we’re also recommending the widely respected basic history on the Shakers by Stephen J. Stein, “The Shaker Experience in America.”
Others already are embracing this powerful spiritual truth about media.
Indian poet and playwright Kamla Kapur has produced a marvelous new collection of Hindu stories, “Ganesha Goes to Lunch: Classics from Mystic India” (and you’ve probably got the idea by now: you can click on the title, jump to our Amazon store, read a fuller review and buy a copy).
This colorfully illustrated volume by Mandala Publishing is divided into six sections, each one offering Kapur’s versions of classic tales about mythic figures including Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma and the popular elephant-headed god Ganesha.
If you’re curious about Indian culture, it’s a delight to read a different section of Kapur’s book each night for most of a week. Indian values and theology are embedded in these stories, but this kind of experience—much like contemplating a Shaker doorway—is far richer than picking up a standard textbook or guide to Hinduism.
Plus, the basic themes of many of these stories will resonate with Christians, Muslims and Jews. For instance, a mysterious story about Vishnu’s clever plan to pierce the spiritual pride of a boastful follower reveals a universal lesson in the final paragraphs.
But there is a serious spiritual danger in media. We must be honest about that. Just as easily as we can spread understanding and promote peace, others can use media to champion bigotry and violence between peoples.
John Paul stressed this point at the end of his 2005 talk, which you can read in its entirety on the Vatican web site. He cautioned, “Finally, there cannot be forgotten the great possibilities of mass media in promoting dialogue, becoming vehicles for reciprocal knowledge, of solidarity and of peace. They become a powerful resource for good if used to foster understanding between peoples; a destructive ‘weapon’ if used to foster injustice and conflicts.”
One of the most vigorous American scholars pursuing this point is Dr. Jack Shaheen, who has devoted decades of work to combating bigotry against Arabs and Muslims in American media.
If you don’t have a copy of his “Reel Bad Arabs” on your shelf already, click on the title and buy one. This now is the standard reference work on anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bigotry in Hollywood, indexing Shaheen’s critiques of hundreds of movies that pop up on DVDs or cable TV.
In fact, exploring spiritual diversity in media is even easier than that, these days.
If you prefer to be entertained while you’re being enlightened about media’s sacred possibilities, grab a copy of the Iranian comedy-drama, “Offside,” which has just been released on DVD by Sony Pictures.
The 92-minute movie focuses on a group of soccer-loving women who dare to defy Iran’s ban on women attending live soccer matches. The story is both funny and poignant as these young women try to sneak into a soccer arena and encounter young men who find the ban nearly as absurd as the women they feel compelled to oust from the stands. The result is a farce that humanizes everyone involved. Despite a little rough language in some of the subtitles, this is a great film to watch with friends, a class or a discussion group.
After watching a movie like “Offside,” and spending an evening caring about these Iranian characters and their spiritual longings for a better world, it’s much more difficult to accept the advice of Washington-based hawks who seem to be pushing for an attack on Iran these days.
And, that’s part of the sacred power of media, as well.
But, hey, you understood these truths already, didn’t you?
Conveying our truths—using media—is the lifeblood of all the world’s great faiths. In the Hebrew scriptures, God speaks to unfold Creation. In the gospels, Christians affirm that “in the beginning was the Word.” And, since we’re in the season of Ramadan, a month of fasting in which the Quran is recited in mosques around the world, Muslims are especially aware that the first words revealed to the Prophet Muhammad were, “Recite in the name of the Lord …,” and the word Quran itself simply means: “Recitation.”
Media is a sacred sea in which we all must swim!
TUESDAY: “003: Here Are 4 Great Holiday Gifts …”
WEDNESDAY: “004: A Conversation with Tony Campolo …”
THURSDAY: “005: The Spiritual Lives of Animals …”
FRIDAY: “006: A Major New Voice Is Rising in Islam …”