This interview was from the May-June 2006 Issue of Homiletics
Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, California. She has a M.Ed in Media Studies from the University of London. Her primary work is media literacy education for parents and teachers within the context of culture, education and faith formation. A great fan of the movies, she is the Film/TV columnist for St. Anthony Messenger Magazine (americancatholic.org). With Peter Malone, MSC, she is the co-author of the series Lights, Camera … Faith! A Movie Lover’s Guide to Scripture.
She is a popular speaker at media conferences throughout the country. Some of her presentation titles include: Character Education and Media Literacy: One Calls for the Other; How to be a Media- Savvy Religion Teacher/Youth Minister in 10 East Steps; Globalization, Catholic Social Teaching & Hollywood: A Media Literacy Response; Media Saints: the Human Face of Technology; Healthy Families: How to use Television & Movies to Build Better Relationships.
In addition to her many responsibilities, Sr. Rose also writes the movie links for Homiletics.
We met with Sr. Rose in the chapel at the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City in late January, only days after NBC had pulled the plug on The Book of Daniel.
HOMILETICS: Let’s start with the Book of Daniel and its brief run on television. Our readers may need to be reminded of this show that got so much hype in January, and was shown once and cancelled before the second episode ran. What happened? Why did the network mavens really think they had a hit on their hands? Was there no one in the screening room to tell them that the show wasn’t funny and was pretty awful?
PACATTE: Yeah, it was a flat-liner. I don’t know what they were thinking. They got the externals right, they got the vestments right. They even did a nice, creative job with that stained glass that they used to fade out of every scene when they were cutting to a commercial.
What they failed to realize was that their theology was uninteresting. A very postmodern show, it was all about acceptance. But there wasn’t anything that challenged us. Sure, Jesus sets us free, but if you really have a faith life, you’re more engaged. It’s not just about singing in the choir, or just dressing the part. There has to be some sort of interior struggle going on to make interesting television.
HOMILETICS: It was interesting to see that this so totally dysfunctional family that — one might think — could use the help of the parish priest for guidance, example and leadership is, in fact, the priest and his family! Contrast this family to the family in Seventh Heaven.
PACATTE: Seventh Heaven is a family show that found a young audience right away. Book of Daniel was trying to get the Desperate Housewives audience. They dumped all of Wisteria Lane inside that rectory. It wasn’t going to work. There was no contrast. And then this whole thing about acceptance — accept the gay person, accept the drug-crazed daughter, the mafia and everyone — and that’s fine because Jesus did open the doors let everyone in. But he didn’t just sit around and drink tea. He challenged people to live a better life and to take the higher road. So dramatically it had a problem. There was no contrast. It flat-lined — early.
HOMILETICS: Television is fascinated with spirituality and Jesus. What are some of the better shows that deal with these subjects?
PACATTE: The West Wing is one, for me, and I’m sorry it’s going off the air.
HOMILETICS: The West Wing?
PACATTE: Oh yes. For example, last year when Alan Alda’s character (Sen. Vinick) was running for president, and he was talking with President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), and they’re both Catholic. Vinick hadn’t been to mass since his wife had died. And he and the president were talking about that, about their relationship with God and how the death of a spouse can affect that. I loved that little conversation they had.
More recently — this was about a social issue — C. J. was negotiating with the Chinese ambassador and she was willing to make some concessions so that they would agree to some sort of U.N. censorship of some other country and Iran’s nuclear program, and the way she did it was to agree that they could buy arms from France and Germany, two of the major arms producing countries in the world. The Chinese guy looks at her afterward and says, “You know, democracy for Americans is about profit, not about conscience. You’ve taught us well.” That’s quite strong.
So I see spirituality in real life as an integrated whole, so that scene hit me on a spiritual level.
HOMILETICS: But what about shows like Revelations, and Angels in America, and Joan of Arcadia.
PACATTE: I loved Joan of Arcadia! It died from apathy. Preachers could’ve used this show every week. What great material was in there! It’s true that the writing did fall off some the second year. But why wouldn’t we support this? We gripe and complain about bad television — sex, violence, and so on. When something really good comes along, well, it’s not good enough for us, and we don’t watch it. What is that? We should’ve paid attention to Joan of Arcadia.
I was on an airplane. A lady was sitting next to me. Her husband had been a cop who was murdered in Anaheim a few years ago. We got to talking about Joan of Arcadia. Her father-in-law told her that he never missed that show. “For me, it’s like going to church,” he said. We had this lovely conversation. We held hands and prayed together. The show was an entry point to talk about spiritual things. It caught the imagination of people.
HOMILETICS: Now, there’s nothing on television. Seventh Heaven is gone, Arcadia is gone.
PACATTE: I think they were trying to do something with The Book of Daniel but it missed the mark entirely. It wasn’t interesting. It didn’t engage us. We didn’t care. As for Revelations, they dress it up as “Catholic.” But they don’t make the theology Catholic. Those nuns were heretics, or at least schismatics. They were not in obedience to the pope. For Catholics, that’s going to turn them off immediately. If they’re going to be nuns, be nuns! Don’t be some sect. I got bored with that after two or three episodes. Once again, the end times has a limited amount of interest, and Tim LaHaye has the corner on that anyhow. Don’t get me going on him.
HOMILETICS: No, no! Let’s go to the movies! Movies have become the new canon in the annals of cultural literacy. Like, can a person be considered an educated person if he or she hasn’t seen Citizen Kane, for example? My kids don’t have books on the shelves, they have DVDs. Movies are the new canon. My kids can cite chapter and verse, or scene and dialogue.
PACATTE: Sure, I think we like movies. Movies tell stories. Movies are where we go to figure out things. I was at a theater not long ago, and was leaving a showing of The Missing. There weren’t too many people, and as I was leaving, I stumbled and this lady sort of jumped up to help me, and then I asked her, “Did you like it?”
She said, “Well I majored in Indian studies. I come from North Dakota, and I think the Indians got short-shifted.” So we stood together and watched the credits. And then she said, “Why are you so interested?” I dress down when I go to the movies. I don’t wear my habit — less distracting for everybody. I said, “I’m a Catholic sister and I write for a Catholic magazine and I’m here to review the film.” Then I asked, “Why are you here?”
“I came here today to figure out my life. This is the third movie I’ve seen today. Me and my friend — whenever we need to figure out our lives, we go to the movies.” She had a bag with her, and in it she had The Five People You Meet in Heaven, a journal and another self-help book. She said, “I think my boyfriend is going to propose to me, and I don’t know if I’m ready. I’m a health-care professional, he’s a doctor, but I just needed today to sort things out.”
I said, “You need a retreat, some spiritual direction. What about going to church on Sunday.”
She said, “I really don’t get a lot out of church. My boyfriend is Catholic and he goes to mass, but I get more out of movies.” So I invited her for a cup of coffee at Starbucks and we sat there and talked for an hour about spirituality and all these issues.
A lot of people use the theater as church, and they go there to think about their lives. I did a survey on the Internet not long ago and I asked people, “Do you think about God when you go to the movies?” One lady said, “What a stupid question! Of course not!” Another lady: “I always do. You’re the first person who’s asked me. I always do.”
HOMILETICS: When The Passion of the Christ was released, it was panned by the critics, but the public reaction was quite different. There’s this huge disconnect. What happened?
PACATTE: I’ll tell you what happened in my community. People saw this as the real thing — stayed close to the gospel narrative. There was a sense that it told the story the way “it really was.” To see the gospel come to life was very important to them.
I reviewed the movie as a horror film and the nuns of my community were horrified. I said, “Folks, this is not a papal document. It’s a movie.” It’s someone’s interpretation of the gospel. It’s a horror film in the best sense of the word — it matches the genre perfectly. The critics never like anything religious. They’re afraid of being caught showing sympathy to religion because traditionally they don’t want to be taught, they don’t like being preached at.
HOMILETICS: Yet, no Jesus movie will satisfy everyone.
PACATTE: No. I was interviewed for a documentary that’s coming out in England for Easter. It was all about Jesus movies. They asked me, “Which Jesus do you think of when you think of Jesus.” And I had to admit, it was Robert Powell, the guy who played Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth. A blue-eyed Jesus. He’s the one who comes to mind. Jim Caviezel? No, he’s not the one who comes to mind.
HOMILETICS: William DaFoe?
PACATTE: No, not for me, and certainly not Jeffery Hunter. But just in general, I’ve found that people would rather have movies about Jesus figures than movies about Jesus.
HOMILETICS: For example?
PACATTE: Erin Brockovich. Her life, even though it’s flawed, suggests, very strongly, a “good shepherd” figure. The Insider. Norma Rae. These are Christ figures. People who resist dominance, they speak up for freedom and the rights of people. And in so doing, they’re showing love, putting themselves in danger.
Jesus himself used parables. He took us the long way around. We enjoy that, we like to figure things out, and stories captivate us. We’re people of the story. So you’ll get your devotional Jesus movies and they will do more or less well. Sometimes spectacularly well. It’s going to take a while to figure out why The Passion of the Christ did so well. I certainly was not comfortable with that extreme violence. Younger people didn’t have a problem, and it could be that they’ve grown up with media that’s been more violent; something that I’ve had to grow into, they’ve grown up with.
HOMILETICS: In an article for the Journal of Religion and Film, Jeffrey Mahan cites W. Barnes Tatum, who says that our reaction to the portrayals of Jesus in film often depends on the religious or sectarian lens through which we’re viewing them. Mainline Protestants tend to evaluate Jesus in the movies on the basis of social relevance and the humanity of Jesus. Evangelicals focus on fidelity to the biblical text and the divinity of Jesus. Catholics are more open to portrayals of Jesus, perhaps because they’re more comfortable with religious images, and the Jewish response is always concerned about anti-Semitism and the question of responsibility for Jesus’ death.
PACATTE: I think that’s a fair assessment. A Catholic response might involve not only the imagery, but we’re also interested in fidelity to the Scriptures. That is there, very strongly. So when you get The Last Temptation of Christ, even though it was made by Scorsese as an homage to his Catholic upbringing, Catholics had a fit. It took so many liberties. Whereas with The Passion, Catholics and Evangelicals embraced it, while mainstream Protestants were quite cool to it.
When it comes to portrayals of Jesus, most Catholics like a suggested Jesus figure rather than a movie about Jesus. Take Ben Hur, for example, where Jesus was in there, but we never saw his face; therefore we weren’t required to spend time analyzing whether the movie really follows the gospel narrative.
HOMILETICS: That was true of a number of those “sword and sandal” movies of the ’50s.
PACATTE: The Robe, The Silver Chalice. Yes, they were movies about Jesus. And I think people like them more than King of Kings and certainly The Gospel According to St. Matthew by Pasolini didn’t have a huge following, but that’s one of your canon movies — if you have seen it, you know, well …
HOMILETICS: As a pastor, how do I recover or capture stuff that I see in movies, or do I wait for the DVD and take notes then?
PACATTE: When I go to the movies, I always take a pad of paper, and when I get home I write about it.
As for the scene, you don’t have to look for it, it will look for you. That’s a part of cinema divina. Think about it. In the lectio divina, we wait for the biblical text to call out to us. It’s not a Scripture study. It’s a reading and contemplation of the Scriptures where all of a sudden something will speak to us. I think that happens in movies. We are already people of faith, we have this lens on anyway, because that’s how we see all of life. When something happens, it’s going to speak to us.
I went to see The End of the Spear. There’s one part in there where the young lady who had left the tribe, comes back later and tells them the whole Jesus story, how the name of their god came to earth and left markings in the trees like “our father did” and “we follow the markings and it will cross over the boa” — I guess the big snake at the end of life. I said, “I am going to get that DVD and use that clip because that’s about language and communicating in a language that people can understand.
HOMILETICS: Pastors are only now beginning to realize what a huge source of illustrative material exists in movies, perhaps because only recently do we have the visual means to show these stories or clips.
PACATTE: There’s an exploding sub-genre in Christian publishing about film. Ed McNulty works with visual parables. Robert Jewett who did St. Paul Goes to the Movies, and St. Paul Returns to the Movies. If people are at a place that they can acknowledge that there are good things in the culture, that’s a good thing. Jesus came into the culture to transform and redeem it, not condemn. So if you’re in a mode that you can see the positive in the culture and see the seeds of the gospel that are there, then all of a sudden our position and relation to the text changes. We’re open to whatever speaks to us. These are modern parables. Some people have called movies a sort of modern stained-glass window.
HOMILETICS: How could pastors promote a movie study night, or even Bible study?
PACATTE: First, the pastor has to understand that this is where young people are. They go to the movies. This is what they do. So we can use movies as a “place” of dialogue, a table as it were. There we share our insights and values and respect for each other, and respect for everyone’s interpretation, because there’s no one way to interpret a film. Everyone’s interpretation is valid because everyone comes to that table with different experiences, different levels of education, moral and spiritual development.
Dead Poets Society. Great film, but you have to remember that you have a kid committing suicide, so with what group do you really want to study this film? But we have to look at things like this. We condemn Hollywood for being a dream factory, but we live in a dream. We don’t want to talk about the dark sides of life, or when we have to go into the depths of our spiritual life. We fall into sin and error. But, of course, there is redemption.
HOMILETICS: But what about the logistics? Is this a club? Do you go out to the movies and come back and talk? Do you rent a DVD and gather around the TV, watch and talk?
PACATTE: All of the above. You hit just about all of them, except you could use clips instead of showing the whole film. You go through the film and select certain scenes that hit the high points.
HOMILETICS: Which could work, especially if the movie was popular and most people had seen it anyway.
PACATTE: Absolutely. Here’s one format — what we do. We have the Scripture readings for Sunday. We read the Scriptures. We light a candle. We have the word of God present. Then we see the film. No intro. No one wants to know the story ahead of time. Don’t tell them the story! Afterward, we break for refreshments. Then we gather together. Ahead of time we’ve given out pieces of paper with sentences from one of the readings, and maybe one of the things that are dominant in the film. Doing this gives even the most timid a way “in.” They see something and then they have something to share. Everyone really wants to talk about a movie. At some level, we see something — we want to talk about it.
Doing this also requires people to focus on the film and to make a connection, whereas if they were on their own they might not. Another thing to do is to give them a character in a film, and put that character together with a gospel quote, and then the conversation goes on for about 45 minutes. But you see the entire film, from front to back, including the credits. The thing really isn’t over until the last credit rolls. You have to let a film conclude itself.
The film should be well chosen. If you have a very sensitive congregation — or you think you do — you should start with films that work very obviously. Then once the trust has been established you can move into something that’s a little more difficult.
The clip format. I know a priest in Pasadena. They have soup and bread, and see about an hour’s worth of clips and then they have a conversation afterward.
Another way is to go as a group and then come back to meet in a coffee shop or somewhere people could talk together. Any one who is a good group leader would be able to figure out how to use a movie effectively.
The big hurdle in some churches is: “Should we?” I know of one church where the only place where a movie could be seen in the building was the sanctuary. Some members really objected to the movie being in the sanctuary itself, whereas it would have been okay in a classroom, or the fellowship hall. When I heard that, I just wanted to say, “We’re meeting with the word of God. Jesus is in our midst no matter what. We’re doing a holy thing. Why do you feel that you need to protect Jesus? He suffered, died and rose again. How can you worry about taking a movie with human problems and connecting it with the Scriptures?”
I mean, there are seeds of the gospel in all of life because God is present to us here on earth. God cares. The stories are the products of human genius and productivity. Those are God’s gifts. Somewhere in the products of what human beings do, there’s some transcendence there. That could be simply doing a good deed for someone.
Like in Shrek, when the donkey gets mad at Shrek and Shrek won’t apologize, but he finally does, and the donkey says, “That’s what friends do, they say they’re sorry.”
So the movies offer so much of a chance to make the world a better place, and to develop personally and as a community. Let’s mine the movies. Let’s take advantage of them. If preachers went to the movies, they’d be better preachers.
HOMILETICS: In some circles years ago, going to movies or to a movie theater was a bad thing, a sin.
PACATTE: True, but movies got better. For years there just weren’t very good movies. So they got to be better stories. More engaging visually. Theaters began to have more than one screen, and more and more movies were produced, and people began to see movies as a destination — something to do with someone else. People rarely see the movies alone.
HOMILETICS: Favorite movie of 2005?
PACATTE: Crash. Or The Constant Gardener. Crash is one of the most theological movies to come out in a long time. It took place against the backdrop of nativity scenes at Christmas time. Even when the little girl runs out to save her father with the magic cloak, she runs right by the nativity set. It was asking through the whole movie: “Is redemption possible? Did Jesus’ coming even mean anything to us as a human community?” I thought that movie was about communication, not about racism. It worked for me on many levels.
HOMILETICS: Favorite movie of all time?
PACATTE: Very hard question to answer. At the top of my list is The Searchers, a 1956 John Ford film, with John Wayne. Worth seeing. I saw it when I was a kid. It’s about an Indian raid on these Texas pioneer families — one of Ford’s themes — and this man goes searching for his niece, not to get her back, but to kill her, because she’s probably married an Indian and now she’s dirty. It’s a fascinating character study, a mystery story. The Sound of Music is still a favorite. Trouble With Angels, and The Song of Bernadette. Those were movies that influenced me.
HOMILETICS: How did you get interested in movies?
PACATTE: We had to go get discarded Coke bottles and turn them in for 3 cents each to collect the money to go to the movies. We had to go to the drive-in because it was cheaper. We were a large family, so if we wanted to go to the movies, my mom said, “You’ve got to get the money,” so we did. I guess I’ve always liked the movies, but when I entered the convent, we didn’t watch too many movies for a long time. But when the VCR came along, then all of a sudden our thinking changed, and also our approach to culture changed, even though our mission is in communication.
But our mission isn’t just preaching the word, it’s also reflecting on the culture, and critically engaging the culture, and it was the rise in our awareness of that corporately that I think led me to wonder, “How do I get a master’s degree in this?” So I did. I went to England and got a master’s in education and media studies. Came back, and proposed to my community that I do this full time. I was commenting on movies because I was invited to be a part of a program Fuller was sponsoring. So I started paying more attention to movies and watching more movies, and then St. Anthony’s Messenger called and asked me to review movies full time. I’ve had a long interest in visual media.
HOMILETICS: You have a series of books called Lights, Camera, Faith! And they’re based on the lectionary cycles. What do you do in those books?
PACATTE: We, Fr. Peter Malone and I, take a major motion picture and we put it in dialogue with the gospels.
HOMILETICS: How many lectionary texts for each Sunday?
PACATTE: The first year we did only the gospels. The second year we started bringing in the first and second readings as they applied. Sometimes they aren’t too much in sync. That second reading sort of stands out there. We started integrating them more in the second and third cycles.
HOMILETICS: Now you have a book that just came out [March 1] that focuses on the Ten Commandments.
PACATTE: That’s right. We used the same format for Lights, Camera, Faith!: The Ten Commandments. We took three Scripture readings: an Old Testament, New Testament and gospel text. What was nice about it was that we were free to take a film that spoke to that commandment, and then find the Scripture text that went well with it. We do a synopsis of the film, then we do a professional commentary of the film, and then there’s a focus that ties the film and the Scriptures together in one or two sentences, followed by key scenes and sequences that people can use as a basis for questions. Then there are three developed questions for conversations. We end with a prayer.
HOMILETICS: Is there an index in the lectionary-based series, so that no matter what lectionary you use, you can find the reference you’re looking for.
PACATTE: Yes, there are several tables in the back. For example, we have the MPA ratings, we have the ratings from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which, by the way, is great Web site: usccb.org.
HOMILETICS: Some other cool Web sites to visit for analysis or information?
PACATTE: The Internet Movie Database, imdb.org. Lots of information. HollywoodJesus.com is a wonderful resource. RealSpirituality.com from Fuller. They have study guides. Now HollywoodJesus.com is going to have study guides, too.
HOMILETICS: What movies are you looking forward to seeing in 2006?
PACATTE: The Da Vinci Code. It’s going to make people talk. That’s what the book did. They want to talk about Jesus. They want to talk about questions. There is so much in it. What are the implications of what this book proposes, this giant conspiracy theory about Jesus getting married? And what if he did marry, would it make any difference?
HOMILETICS: No others?
PACATTE: Okay. Pirates of the Caribbean.