Comment remains one of my favourite journals, publishing thoughtful pieces on a wide variety of subjects, often asking how best to think as Christians and what practices emerge from our reflections about God’s redemptive work in the world. Readers care about a lot of stuff, and want to learn how to live in these times fruitfully and faithfully.
Of course, as a bookseller, it is a joy to talk about books that might be of interest to this exact sort of engaged, open-minded, and discerning reader. Here are a few choice titles that Comment readers might enjoy.
The Messy Quest for Meaning: Five Catholic Practices for Finding Your Vocation by Stephen Martin (Sorin Books, 2012)
There are many good books about the notions of calling and vocation—from Os Guinness’s eloquent and insightful meditations in The Call: Finding and Fulfilling Your Highest Purpose, to classics like Lee Hardy’s The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and The Design of Human Work, to studies of the ways our jobs can become greater avenues of seeking the common good, such as the thorough and inspiring Kingdom Callings: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good by Amy Sherman. I am always on the lookout for new works on this same subject, books that can help us in ways that are interesting and that might enhance the conversation.
Welcome to the relatively brief and exceptionally interesting new book by Stephen Martin. The first half is nearly a memoir as Martin tells of his growing dis-ease at his journalistic job, his struggle to understand his ill-health and growing anxiety, his religious confusion, and his mental state—worrying about death, almost unable to finish even a simple task.
Interwoven within this narrative, though, is another story, and it becomes the heart of the book. Martin was raised in a serious Catholic family, and has an uncle who is a priest. A conversation about calling, vocation, purpose, “the distribution of talents,” and such soon put him on a quest: how do monks come to learn that they are called to their particular vocation? Might insight from that process—monastic insights about desires and vocations, the will of God and the grace to pursue our callings—help him in his struggle to make sense of life and to find his purpose and place?
Well, indeed it did, and he lived to tell about it. The Messy Question is not a career-guidance handbook, but something more profound, more foundational. Early on, Martin dabbles with existentialism and other faddish philosophies, but through a particularly scholarly mentor at Duke University, he returns to his childhood faith; the book therefore draws overtly on Catholic teaching. Yet, non-Catholics (perhaps especially non-Catholics) might find that this moving story and the process he chronicles resonates with them. Drawing on hefty chunks of his own life, as well as inspirational anecdotes from his own acquaintances—from basketball star Danny Hurley to literary star Reynolds Price to movie star Martin Sheen—he highlights the stages of discerning and living into a clear sense of calling. Merely listing those stages would not do justice to his storied and nuanced telling of them, but here they are, with the aim explored in each phase: Desires (Digging for What You Really Want), Focus (Channeling Your Passions), Humility (Embracing What You Don’t Know), Community (Getting Outside Yourself), and The Margins (Probing Your Potential), followed by the concluding chapter—”Holy Ambition: Sustaining What You Start.” In each chapter, he tells of his life and his discovering of various Catholic mystics and activists, and shows how seekers can integrate the wisdom of the saints into their own journeys of faith.
Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies by William D. Romanowski (Oxford University Press, 2012)
This is one of those important books which may change the discourse in a discipline. It is erudite, inspiring, meticulously researched, and published by the world’s most prestigious academic publishing house; it sets out, explicitly, to retell the standard history of its field. Romanowski made his mark young by helping write a definitive book on how rock music soundtracks were used in mid-20th century film; he also argued that attention to the popular arts is essential for serious youth ministry work, since movies are so formative for young adults. Later, in the extraordinary Pop Culture Wars, arguably one of the most important Christian books in the field of popular culture studies, he offered a major contribution, suggesting that attitudes that are dismissive of pop culture, especially in Christian reflections, fundamentally mis-read artifacts such as TV shows, rock songs, and video games, relegating them to a lower half of a dualism, the world of so-called “low culture.” Credit philosopher (and Comment contributor) Calvin Seerveld for helping Romanowski develop this aesthetically informed view of cultural artifacts, and for informing his serious critique of the typical evangelical way of evaluating entertainment. Not long after that watershed work, Romanowski published Eyes Wide Open, still considered by many to be the best entry-level book for those open to, as the subtitle puts it, “finding God in popular culture.”
Since those busy years more than a decade ago, Romanowski has been travelling the country, visiting important centres of film studies and doing research in their archives and libraries. He has become one of the world’s leading experts on the history of religious engagement with film, especially in Hollywood’s golden era, when early relationships with church bodies and film producers were eagerly intermeshed. He has had extraordinary access to obscure collections of documents and letters and has scored interviews with key players with vital memories. His grasp on how religion has influenced the film industry is solid.
You may know that in 1934 the Roman Catholic church developed what they called the Legion of Decency, which attempted to influence Hollywood through boycotts and pressure. That same year, a Catholic layperson was installed by the movie industry as the head of the Production Code Administration. Romanowski describes this era—which is important, for therein lies the seed of what has become a standard narrative of religious people as blue-nosed and censorious, part of the story that this new book hopes to counter.
A more thorough review would be needed to even lightly retell the fascinating and nearly epic tale Reforming Hollywood sets out to counter. In a nutshell: Film historians know that religion played a notable role in cultural developments throughout the twentieth century and that film grew as an avenue for relaying values, worldviews, meaning, and what some might even consider propaganda for the American way of life. Catholic and progressive Protestants who cared about the common good were concerned that “talkies” would fail to nurture goodness within the land and offer the wholesome American dream to youth and immigrants. Hollywood was often self-regulating about immorality or dissident visions, in part because of concerns from the likes of the Legion of Decency. This is a commonly told trope, part of the story.
Protestant views, though—as Romanowski makes clear in his critical use of the standard reigning works on the subject—have been misrepresented; Protestants are usually portrayed as essentially negative in film histories. This, although it was not simple, simply was not the case.
Romanowski is a professor of media studies at Calvin College and has a reputation for being a fun, if demanding, teacher. This will not be surprising to those who take up this book. It is fun to read as any good history must be, and certainly as any book about the entertainment industry should be. I found myself flipping to the back to check endnotes, wanting to know more. (This is, by the way, a sign, I think, of a good writer and good editing; the author tells enough to keep readers informed and engaged, increasing our curiosity about the subject so that we simply have to know more, at least discovering the sources of his remarkable citations.)
But make no mistake, this is not a quick, inspirational read, or even an argument for a Christian view of the subject (as in Eyes Wide Open). It is bone fide history, and the author’s many years slogging through letters from the 1930s, transcripts of committee meetings from the 1940s, and industry press releases from the 1950s (and so on) pays off: this is first-hand history unfolding, as the unique role of Protestant faith—of the progressive, social gospel sort and the pietistic, fundamentalist sort—responded to the new challenges of the new world of nickelodeons, movie houses, theatres, and, eventually, drive-ins, home videos and the growing cable industry. Reforming Hollywood is a treasure chest of interesting information about the history of film, the history of Protestant cultural engagement in the so-called “Christian Century” and the ever-changing way in which art, commerce, values, and faith intermingled.
It is a finely nuanced and careful bit of Christian scholarship, indeed, and explaining its main point does it an injustice—the argument of Reforming Hollywood must be read carefully to be fully appreciated. Still, in the spirit of a Hollywood “coming attractions” reel, the point of this exciting, dramatic tale is this: unlike the more censorious Roman Catholic instincts, mainline Protestants—with a few notable exceptions who garner the only mentions in standard film history texts and documentaries—argued for artistic freedom, for the artist’s role in improving the common good, and for responsible self-regulation. Romanowski is not being partisan; that is, he is not just re-framing the historical facts to make Protestants look better. He is convinced that, despite many gaffes and failings along the way, Protestant faith has been misrepresented in film studies conversations, and that this misinformation needs to be countered with a narrative that is more accurate to the historical record, and more insightful about the motivations and sensibilities of most 20th century Protestants. In some notable ways, the Protestant contribution has been helpful, even laudable.
Is this a tidy narrative? No, it is not. Romanowski realizes that worldviews are imaginative constructs that shape and inform how we do our work, and they are often at odds. There are deep imaginations galore: the visions of Hollywood insiders, the concerns and attitudes of the Catholic, Jewish, liberal and conservative Protestant watchdogs, and the storied scholarships of those historians who have told the tales. To set out to capture such a wild and interesting story—some of which rubs up against true legends and iconic images at the heart of 20th century North American culture—is itself daunting. That this book informs us of so much, corrects inaccurate scholarship, and re-tells the narrative with as much zest and grace as it does, is itself a remarkable feat. That it does so with a citation in those myriad of footnotes from his old friend and mentor Calvin Seerveld makes the book that much more special.
The books listed above are all available from Byron Borger’s bookstore—Hearts & Minds Books.