Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Litany of Yoda, the Church, and Social Media

This weekend I saw a few minutes of a special on ILM (Industrial Light and Magic), George Lucas' company that started (and has since continued to constantly be on the leading edge of) the special effects era of Hollywood. Lucas started the company to help him pull off the effects he was looking for in Star Wars, and the company has gone on to be involved in basically any movie that has had revolutionary special effects - E.T., Indiana Jones, Terminator, Transformers, and countless others that I'm sure I've missed.

I bring this up here because I like the word at the end of the company's name - MAGIC. Since the first cave man made a rock disappear and then pulled it out of his friend's ear, magic has been something that has made us do two things a) partly believe that it actually happened, and b) wonder how they pulled off making us believe that it actually happened. Special effects in movies, then, are just a continuation of magic; we believe, on some level, that it is actually happening, and we also wonder, in real time, "how are they doing this?"

There is a problem with magic, though, in terms of how we sometimes respond to it. If a "magician" (or "movie director" or "entertainer") is using magic to entertain and to inspire wonder. However, if a "magician" is using magic to get people to be impressed with him or her, so that THEN the magician can "preach"; if magic is used as a way to wow crowds into THEN listening to a message (much like a medicine man rolling into town) then there are problems. And we must admit that many are wowed today by magic, and will much more readily listen to a "magician's" message simply because they are impressed with the magic.

Which brings me to Yoda. In the Empire Strikes Back, Yoda says "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." That is, to me, a very jarbled and confused litany. I don't pretend to say that George Lucas had an evil or delusional purpose in making Star Wars (although one must admit that there is a vague spirituality behind the movies); Lucas' intent doesn't really matter, what matters is that lots of people, impressed by the magic of Star Wars, more readily listen to the philosophy spouted by a puppet than would listen to a real flesh and blood person. When I coached football at Chatard, each week a senior gave a reflection on Scripture. One week, one of our seniors stood up and gave a reflection on the above quote from Yoda. Yoda over the Scriptures? Really?

Thus we come to the Church. There is a tough balance that the Church is trying to walk. The question we need to ask seems to me to be two-fold: 1) how much magic should we employ to get our message across and 2) if we get in to the game of using "magic" to make our message seem more credible, how much are we validating the idea that it is in fact the case that magic does make the message more credible.

Perhaps an example would be best at this point. In the lead-up to the 2008 election, the Bishops of the U.S. put out a 40 page document on how a Catholic should approach the voting booth. The message, if you could cut through all the theology and philosophy (no small task), was that "you can't vote for Obama, McCain isn't ideal either, but he is a way better option. Obama no, McCain, maybe." You can disagree with that message if you want, this post isn't about that, what it is about is that no one actually READ the document because no one reads 40 page documents anymore. The message was not heard, and the vast majority of Catholics voted for the candidate who was (and is) committed to making abortion/embryonic stem cell research/euthanasia/homosexual marriage etc. some of his top priorities.

People who have a message that is the direct opposite of the Church crank out videos and tweets and songs etc. that get people to listen to their message because they use "magic." What the Bishops of our country need to look at is the question of how to speak to that type of culture. How many dioceses have an office devoted to publishing youtube clips about the messages they are trying to send? How many Bishops are on Twitter and Facebook, how many Bishops use this "magic" to help get the message of the Gospel out? Those that enter the fray and join in the social media crusade and who are involved and passionate about film and so forth also need to constantly remind themselves and others that the "magic" is simply a means to make the message more appealing; that the magic is not the pill, it is simply the coating around the pill to make it more digestible, because we will never win going head to head with ILM and the many other organizations that have billions of dollars to devote to magic. How do we use this "magic" to draw people in so that, some day, they will be people who will want to look at a 40 page election document that talks about forming one's conscience, objective truth, the hierarchy of truth, etc.?

May we be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.