In the Confessions, Augustine describes what happened when his friend Alypius, a gentle soul, encountered for the first time the mass entertainment of his day, namely the spectacle of gladiatorial combat. Alypius was cajoled by several of his backslapping comrades to accompany them to the Coliseum. He refused at first, but then, trusting rather too much in his own will power, believed that as long as he didn’t look, nothing would harm him.
As he sat there with his head in his hands, he suddenly heard a tremendous roar from the crowd. He had to look—one of the gladiators was at the point of putting his opponent to death. The spectacle was appalling, and for that very reason it was fascinating: there was flesh, and blood, and the rush of adrenalin, and a man’s very life hung in the balance. Alypius was hooked.
The young man eventually would break the addiction—that is to say, God broke the addiction in him, and he was baptized a Christian along with Augustine, and, like Augustine, later became a bishop. He did not set out to minister to gladiators, or to provide a Christian gladiatorial league, with milder outcome for the poor fellow hooked on the trident or knocked senseless by the mace.
People will counter that the gladiatorial combats were in themselves wicked, and that movies are not obviously so. I concede the point, and so I think would Hutchens; and we’d be readier to concede it, if those who took up the standard for the mass entertainment spectacle would acknowledge that there is something deeply problematic about what appeals in the first instance to the lust of our eyes. It would also help if they would acknowledge that reading is not the same as sitting in a live audience, and that that in turn is not the same as watching what is presented as life itself, not acted but merely photographed. There are some images I wish I could rub out of my memory, not from life but from the pseudo-life of bad movies, images made all the more difficult to forget by the accompanying and seductive music.
I’m not—I repeat, I’m not arguing that films are to be abandoned. Film can be a medium for magnificent art. Yet I do think the burden of persuasion rests upon those who want Christians NOT to abandon it. And they cannot simply say, “This is a part of the world, and the world can be redeemed.”
For while Alypius was in the grip of his fascination, he was not in the world. That is the horror of some of the worldliest of our sins: they remove us from any deep and natural contact with the world. Alypius at the arena was not Alypius noticing the beggars in the Esquiline, or Alypius stopping to chat quietly with an old man, or even simply Alypius looking up at the sky. Now consider our own empty streets, and our own children who find it too demanding, too engaging, to read a book. Sometimes the redeeming thing to do is to raze the structure to the ground. Sometimes—at least it ought to be considered.
Friday, February 25, 2005, 5:09 PM