The last point is especially important. In this age of the image and the soundbite, when the range of entertainment choice available is seemingly endless, the moral imagination is a key battleground for those of us who wish to defend and spread the Catholic faith. This is because the stories we know and remember shape the way we see and understand the world, and how we understand human actions.
The moral imagination is a key battleground for those of us who wish to defend and spread the Catholic faith.
This point has been well made by the bestselling children’s author Philip Pullman – a fierce opponent of Christianity. Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, recognises (as we all should) that the stories and images with which we fill our minds is deeply important in forming the kind of person we become and the things that we value. Pullman once admitted in a newspaper interview that he was “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief” with his own fiction. Another time he stated that “Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but once upon a time lasts forever”. He was talking specifically about children’s stories, but the general point about the moral impact of fiction applies to all ages (albeit books and media for children and young people are especially important in this regard).
Us Christians have our own big guns in the literary field. The ones that are often mentioned are JRR Tolkien, Dorothy L Sayers, CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor. But all of these writers are dead, and have been for some time. Chesterton died before the Second World War, and Sayers in 1957; Lewis, O’Connor and Waugh all left us in the Sixties, Tolkien in 1973, and even the long-lived Greene died nearly thirty years ago.
Of course, great literature endures. Works like Brideshead Revisited, the Narnia series and Greene’s The Power And The Glory – a novel about holiness and humanity and heroism – remain hugely popular and will continue to be read for many years to come.
Nevertheless, there is a danger in relying on the old classics, rather than seeking to create new works that address the unique dilemmas of our modern world. To do so creates a temptation to look backwards, to wallow in a comforting but impotent nostalgia rather than looking at our own time – its opportunities and risks – through the eyes of faith. My children love The Famous Five and Narnia, and the idyllic, fantastical England of the Winnie-the-Pooh books (which are, curiously enough, banned in China). But my children are going to grow up in this era, with this era’s problems to confront. Whatever moral and imaginative defences I might equip them with, they will have to navigate social media and the internet and a highly sexualised culture. As a parent, I might yearn for the more innocent world in which the Pevensie siblings or Julian, Dick, George and Anne have their adventures, but as the poet TS Eliot wrote, “we cannot restore old policies or follow an antique drum.” Children need to learn how to have a secure and fulfilling life in the twenty-first century.
There is a danger in relying on the old classics, rather than seeking to create new works that address the unique dilemmas of our modern world.
And we cannot afford to neglect new media, including TV, music, film and internet content. As the mainstream culture becomes ever-more corrupting – think of the recent release of Cuties – we need desperately to get serious Christians into positions of influence, to counter that deterioration rather than simply complaining about it. There are Christians remaining with influential positions in politics and entertainment (just recently the actor Chris Pratt has been the centre of a minor controversy over his Christian beliefs) and they must be supported and upheld.
In 1999, St John Paul the Great, who was himself a playwright and poet, issued his Letter To Artists, calling on Catholics working in creative fields “to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in its noblest forms in every age.” This appeal has only become more important in the two decades since it was made, as the internet has transformed human interaction and the workings of the media. All of us need to think about how we can support and promote Catholic artists, so that we can once again capture the public imagination.
Niall Gooch is a Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.
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