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Can writing be sacramental?

May 31, 2013

Barbara Nicolosi

I was out early this morning (a Saturday, as I write this). I didn’t want to listen to the fishing show or the NASCAR show, and so I surfed and found the local Catholic station in the middle of a program called Christopher Close-up.

The guest was a woman named Barbara Nicolosi, a screenwriter who has worked on The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s movie that dealt with the Godliness of Jesus’ life, and Saving Grace, Holly Hunter’s television series that could seem anything but Godly, given Hunter’s characters serial promiscuity. She was also instrumental in founding Act One, a Christian organization that trains screen writers.

During her interview, done several years ago, Nicolosi says that Act One teaches its students “don’t try to teach the world through your movies…but facilitate their connection with their best self, their God, and other people.” If the movie connects people to one of those three, she says, it’s a beautiful thing. Otherwise, don’t bother.

For Nicolosi, Battlestar Galactica–the reboot, not the original–is an example of great art, in part because of the way it approaches the divine. According to Nicolosi, the show isn’t gratuitous in its use of sex and the frailties of humanity. In fact, she says it would be lying if it didn’t contain that. But she says it doesn’t tell you want to think. It just lays out the moral dilemmas and lets you decide. In fact, she calls out one episode in which both sides of a moral dilemma are presented and the view has to wrestle with it yourself.

Ron Hansen

The writer Ron Hansen, author of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford echoes that sentiment. In his essay Writing as Sacrament, he says that Jesus’ parables are the best representation of this. In the Gospels, Jesus’ parables are so confusing that he has to explain them afterward to the Apostles. It’s not the explanation that matters, according to both Hansen and Nicolosi, but the struggle to figure out the truth from the story.

According to Hansen, Thomas Aquinas says that a work of art is good in and of itself. It’s goodness, in the sense that a piece of art shows the power of the gifts God bestowed upon the artist, is good because it uses that gift to produce something good.

Saving Grace‘s main character is an Oklahoma City cop whose wild ways prompt God to send her a last-chance angel named Earl. It’s not something you’d see on the family channel. It shows human frailty with honest and though there’s plenty of sex, lying, and abuse of power. Not of a bit of it is gratuitous.

And though it might be a little heavy handed to name the primary character Grace, the show deals with some transcendent themes, chiefly the fact that Grace falls far short of what’s required, but that God still loves her.

In dealing honestly with the concepts of sin and grace–and showing it honestly, Saving Grace is a good use of the gifts provided the actors, writers, and others involved in the show.

In fact, Nicolosi says that in order to clearly demonstrate grace, you must show some disturbing things and make people uncomfortable. So even edgy work that angers or confuses some of the people who experience it can be appropriate.

So in the sense that you use the gift that God gave you to produce beauty, writing can be sacramental. In the sense that you struggle with the human condition and the questions of whether we’re good or salvageable, and when you battle with your talents to produce the best thing you possibly can, you’re honoring the gifts you were given, even if your characters and themes don’t seem to be sacramental.

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