Faith in the Arts: An Interview with Fr. James Martin, SJ

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with the official chaplain of The Colbert Report and culture editor of America Magazine, Fr. James Martin, SJ.

Fr. Martin – who is a frequent commentator for Time Magazine, The New York Times, and numerous other news organizations – is also a member of The LABryinth Theater Company, after his involvement with their 2005 stage production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and featuring Sam Rockwell as Judas). He has also written several bestselling books, including The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.

Being both a Jesuit priest and a cultural commentator, I was curious to hear what Fr. Martin had to say about the relationship between spirituality and the arts. We chatted about everything from the theater, to South Park, to the Fordham University event on September 14 with Stephen Colbert and Cardinal Dolan.

BWOB: As chaplain of Colbert nation – a very esteemed position – you have a unique vantage point on the relationship between spirituality and the arts in popular culture. How would you describe the spiritual role of art in today's world?

JM: Art is a window into beauty and truth, and as such is a window into God's presence in the world. Different kinds of art do different kinds of things to us. Art can inspire us. A beautiful painting, or a touching novel, or a profound movie can inspire us – think of Of Gods and Men or The Tree of Life. Art can provoke us – if you look at something like Picasso's "Guernica," it's quite provocative. Art can console us – if you go into a cathedral and see the stained glass window, you can be consoled by that. Some kinds of art, say, an amusing novel, can help us laugh at ourselves and keep ourselves humble. It has a variety of roles of opening us up to reality and to the presence of God in the world.

Photo by Chris Chrisman
BWOB: You wrote A Jesuit Off-Broadway about your experience as a theological advisor to the play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. You said that before that experience, you knew little to nothing about the theater or acting. What's your perspective now on the theater, particularly its spiritual dimensions?

JM: Theater is somewhat different than the other arts because it's more immediate and more personal. You're seeing actual flesh-and-blood people in front of you go through a welter of emotions, so it can be a more profound experience than an experience of cinema or television or even a book, in some cases. The theater also had its start in religious rites, so there's an underlying religiosity to it.

Also, there's a certain degree of empathy, compassion, and sympathy that goes along with an actor's performance on the stage that is communicated to the audience. Think of something like Death of a Salesman. All the actors have to be compassionate to their characters, in order to play them well, or to inhabit them, which I think naturally evokes compassion in the hearts of the viewers, the audience. That's a spiritual discipline on the part of the actors that evokes a spiritual response in the audience.

BWOB: With regard to that particular play: was there anything you especially liked or took umbrage with, in terms of how it approached Christian themes?

JM: I didn't really take umbrage with anything. I liked the playwright's treatment of some profound Christian themes. Stephen Adly Guirgis did a great job with the idea of grace in particular, and how we receive it or reject it. The play is, at heart, about Judas being on trial for the death of Jesus, and one of the underlying themes is whether Judas can accept Jesus' forgiveness. It's a very profound meditation on how we participate or don't participate in God's grace. I remember saying to the playwright and to the cast at one point that this is the real spirituality, not the sort of ersatz spirituality that's set forth as religion in popular culture.

BWOB: Who are some artists that have inspired you personally?

JM: In terms of writers, people like Thomas Merton, Ron Hansen, Kathleen Norris and Marilynne Robinson. (In addition to the more ancient writers, like St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, and, even further back, the writers of the Gospels.) Some spiritual movies, like Of God and Men and The Tree of Life, and some of the old stand-bys like A Man For All Seasons and The Song of Bernadette.

When I write, I try to hold myself to a high standard of style and structure and pacing, the standard that my favorite writers obviously held themselves to. I think it's important to create something that's beautiful. And on the page, that means a sentence that is elegant, and readable, and, when needed, filled with beautiful words. And I think it's also important to have humor in writing too. I like people like Jean Shepherd, David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, and Fran Lebowitz. Spiritual writing can't be always and everywhere serious.

BWOB: The arts strike me as one area where we Catholics, and religious people in general, have sort of dropped the ball. Do you agree, and if so, why the disconnect between religion and art?

JMFor one thing, there's a lessening of what you call the "Catholic culture" in the United States. The Church moved away from being a largely immigrant church with its own schools and institutions, structures that were focused around the local parish and the archdiocese. That model, for the most part, no longer exists. Catholics have become much more assimilated into the larger culture, so, perhaps as a result there's not as vibrant of a Catholic arts culture.

The second reason is that after the second Vatican Council, there was a desire to encourage more experimentation in the arts, as part of the church's desire to "update," ("aggiornamiento," was the Italian phrase used a the time), which was a good thing. The church was to respond to the "signs of the times," as Jesus said. But that meant that people moved away from some of the great treasures of the Catholic Church in terms of stained glass, statues, mosaics – things like that.

Third, I think pop culture sometimes makes it harder for people to have a sense of art in their lives – not always but sometimes. It can kind of become a kind of the lowest common denominator, and that affects all parts of the culture. The Catholic culture diminishing particularly effects writers. You don't have "Catholic writers" as much anymore. You have writers who are Catholic, but they're not writing as much about explicitly Catholic themes. Overall, of course, the culture itself is also less religious.

BWOB: Speaking of Christianity in the culture – you wrote a piece in 2000 on anti-Catholicism in entertainment. You also just released an article about "American Horror Story," a TV show which features offensive anti-Catholic stereotyping of American nuns. What do you think of the state of anti-Catholicism in the arts today?

JMSince the sex abuse crisis, it's seen more as fair game to take shots at priests and portray them as pedophiles. But the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State reminds people that it's not just the Catholic Church. Here you have this institution that is in no way seen as how the Catholic church was stereotyped, or at least the priesthood – i.e., effeminate; it has nothing to do with religion; it's not connected to the Vatican. So there are some great differences that remind people that child sex abuse can happen in any organization that deals with children. But at the same time it's the same culture that gave rise to these cases (a closed system, a twisted view of authority, an inability to listen to people outside the "system," etc.).  Point being, I still think that the Church is a fair target. And that's no one's fault but our own.

Now, I don't see as much "anti-Catholicism" as some people do. It's quite subjective of course. Having a portrayal of mean priests and silly sisters and dumb Bishops is as fair as crooked cops or conniving lawyers. It's part of fiction and television and movies. But you see the same stereotypes over and over – for example, the mean sisters – and here you have this show, "American Horror Story," that centers an entire season around a sadistic, slutty, screwed-up sister. That's a bit much.

BWOB: When we do see a religious focus in films and television, it often seems to be on evil, or the demonic. What do you make of the increase in exorcism and possession films?

JMThe horror genre is on the rise in general. You see many more horror movies than you did 25 years ago. Every other movie is about vampires, possessions, the occult, or the supernatural. The public seems to have a taste for them; I don't know why. As they try to mine this vein, writers and producers come up short. One old reliable stand-by is exorcism. And the Catholic Church has a lot of aspects that are ready-made for the visual arts. Habits, vestments, holy water, candles, and incense – visually, it's a lot more interesting than something that happens in a Congregationalist church. So that tips the scales to having lots of Catholicism in some of these movies.

Caricature of Stephen Colbert, Cardinal Dolan, and Fr. Martin
by Tim Luecke, Fordham student

BWOB: On a lighter note: on September 14, you'll be hosting a discussion about faith and humor with Stephen Colbert and Cardinal Dolan at Fordham University. How did this event come about, and what do you hope the impact will be?

JM: It was the idea of two young professors at Fordham, Michael Peppard and Charles Camosy, who approached me and suggested it – and I was happy to say yes. Then, the president of Fordham University approached Cardinal Dolan, and we approached Stephen Colbert, and they were both happy to do it. I hope it shows people in attendance that it is possible to be Catholic and have a sense of humor.

BWOB: In your book Between Heaven and Mirth, your list of the top ten funniest movies ever made includes classics like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Some Like It Hot. But I noticed that all ten films are from before 1990. Are there any more recent comedies you find especially hilarious?

JM: Margaret Cho's first movie – I'm The One That I Want. That was hysterical. The Hangover and Bridesmaids were kind of raunchy, but they were hilarious. I saw The Hangover three or four times and I still think the scene when they discover the baby is hysterical. Shaun of the Dead, that's pretty funny. I would also add the South Park movie and Team America.

BWOB: A lot of people get upset about South Park, in terms of the religious jabs. Did you find it offensive?

JM: It's totally offensive; but it's still funny. Also, Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman. I would add them. Funny is funny. I wouldn't recommend them to children (or to people with delicate sensibilities) and I certainly don't agree with everything in things like South Park. But it's funny.

BWOB: Do you think Hollywood has lost something of the art of comedy?

JM: I think films are getting less clever. They're becoming more about gross-out humor and sexual humor, which only goes so far.

BWOB: You mentioned The Tree of Life and Of Gods and Men a few times as examples of great art. What about those two movies did you find inspiring?

JM: Of Gods and Men far out-strips any movie I've seen in that genre. Any movie that can, in a sense, convince an audience that martyrdom is a valid option for the contemporary world is a miracle. By the end of the movie, I would suspect that many in the audience would say: "I would stay with those monks. I would be martyred." That's an astonishing accomplishment. Also, the ability to portray a religious order in a nuanced and sensitive way is also a great accomplishment.

(Watch Fr. Martin discuss "Of Gods and Men" on PBS' "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly":)

I'm a huge Terrence Malick fan, and I find that visually his films are arresting. In The Tree of Life, for example, there's a montage of growing up, where the child goes from an infant to six or seven in about ten minutes, and it's just beautiful. And it's a great mediation on finding God in the everyday: in grass, in wind, in flowers, in running, in playing tag, in eating. It's just beautiful, and I found it very powerful. I'm also a fan of his films Days of Heaven and The New World. They're very poetic and meditative in a dreamy way, which I liked.

BWOB: You also mentioned novelist Ron Hansen earlier. What is it about his work in particular that grabs you?

JM: Ron Hansen is my favorite Catholic writer today. He's also a friend, so I'm a little biased. I think 
Mariette in Ecstasy is one of the greatest books on spirituality in the last 50 years. Just beautiful. And I thought his portrayal of Gerard Manley Hopkins was incredibly compelling. I've read pretty much everything he writes. He's a beautiful writer, and Mariette in Ecstasy for me is his triumph. He's a believer, and he writes about other believers in believable ways.

BWOB: Any thoughts on his latest book, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion?

JM: I thought it was great. I read it in manuscript and laughed when I told him that he was introducing me to a world I didn't know much about! He said he was going to make it more sexually explicit. I said, "More? How much more sexually explicit can it be?"

BWOB: Do you have any new books or speaking engagements on the horizon you'd like to mention?

JMI'm working on a book on Jesus, which will be coming out in a few years. But I'm also doing something that – as they say in the biz – "I'm very excited about." In a few months I'll have an "e-retreat" coming out, which I think is a brand new thing. It will be usable on your handheld device – your iPad – or your computer. It's basically an online retreat in the form of an e-book, with meditations and questions of course, but also with interactive pictures and videos that will help people pray. That's coming out I think in February – it's called "Meeting Jesus by the Sea." It's fun. A friend of mind suggested that I do an e-book, and I wasn't interested. But then I realized I can actually do something with an e-retreat, and we're trying to create this new genre. We're trying to invent it!

(Check out a list of blogs promoting other Catholic speakers like Dr. Peter Kreeft and Fr. Robert Barron at!)

No comments:

Post a Comment