I was a skeptic. For years books have been coming across my desk about the theology of The Matrix, or the religious significance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I watched fascinating debates within conservative Christian media in which editors dismissively reviewed popular movies like Shrek or Harry Potter—only to be met by an outcry from readers and theologians proclaiming such stories to be brimming with substance that is good for their children. That's interesting, I thought, but not fodder for our program. Then this past year, the success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ seemed to wake Hollywood and journalists up to the fact that there is a demand, even a hunger, for entertainment with spiritual and religious themes. So for this week's program, I asked a wise watcher of culture, Phyllis Tickle, whether this hunger was new or had simply gone unnoticed up to now. She sent me to revisit my own skepticism.
I first met Phyllis Tickle under poignant and charged circumstances. In April 2002, I interviewed her at a conference on the spiritual effects of 9/11. The conference took place at Trinity Church on Wall Street, in New York City, and we had to stop and restart our interview a few times. The hotel room in which we were taping was adjacent to Ground Zero. Periodically, our voices would be muffled in the sound of cranes moving rubble just outside the window.
The remnants of violence that surrounded us three years ago seem significant in light of Phyllis Tickle's insights in this program. I've been critical of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example—which, of course, swept last year's Academy Awards—because of its violence. I wouldn't take my children to see it. In my mind, whatever remained of Tolkien's theology was buried in action-packed darkness. Oh, but that is exactly the point, Phyllis Tickle says: reality is full of darkness that threatens to snuff out the light. Today's children are growing up in a world that is indeed full of ominous threats, from multiple forces of darkness. And in fact that's always been the state of the world, but for a few decades of "Protestant whitewash," she says, we sheltered Americans convinced ourselves otherwise. That was fantasy. To name reality, she says, is not to give in to darkness but to take it with appropriate seriousness, to grapple with it honestly. Movies are providing resources for making that step, perhaps more potently than religious traditions, especially for the young.
Phyllis Tickle is 70, and she laughs as she notes that, for her, anyone under 50 is young. But she is an intensely inquisitive 70, and for years as a writer and an esteemed, roving religion editor of Publishers Weekly, she's been watching a shift in the way new generations of Americans process religious ideas. She observes, with an unsuppressed delight, that the Internet is retraining spiritual imaginations. We live in the presence of virtual reality, a landscape of "non-locative" geography. By way of high technology, we've landed in a renewed, heightened world of mystery.
And at the very same time, Tickle says, information technologies have outstripped the Enlightenment motto, "I think, therefore I am." Computers think too, but the burning, unanswerable questions remain: What makes us human? Where does our soul reside? Of what is it constructed, and how do we nurture it? We are revisiting these questions in part by recreating ancient forms of story; hence the medieval themes and images that link popular movies like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Matrix.
One could counter, of course, that magic on the screen is nothing new in American culture. But the other guest in this week's program, Lynn Schofield Clark, has conducted large-scale studies of the response teenagers have to spiritual messages in popular culture, especially the omnipresent medium of television. And here's what she says has changed: in previous generations, most American children were growing up steeped in the stories of their families and religious traditions. They balanced these stories with the images they received from movies and television. In our time, media images often assume the place of family or religious stories. They are the only significant body of meaning-making stories many children are inheriting.
Like Phyllis Tickle, Lynn Schofield Clark's close attention to popular culture has made her less alarmist about its influence than some critics. She points out that the best-loved, spiritually evocative movies and television stories all center around a young protagonist. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Neo in The Matrix, Buffy the vampire slayer, and Joan of Arcadia have all been "chosen" for a noble purpose. They all have a calling. That's what young people long for, like all human beings since time immemorial. Moreover, Schofield Clark points out, these young heroes wisely surround themselves with friends and companions they can trust and adults they can learn from.
So when we first created this program last summer, I spent a weekend watching all three Matrix movies. Like many reviewers, I felt that series deteriorated after the first installment. But looking beyond that, I saw and heard what Phyllis Tickle lauds as the trilogy's rich "theology" for the first time. I've been watching all kinds of media differently ever since. Taking the lead of Phyllis Tickle and Lynn Schofield Clark, I look for the possibilities and connections they're planting in my children's imaginations. And I try to imagine ways to take those as openings, and as new resources in my quest and theirs to live the age-old questions that faith attempts to address.