Discerning the Culture: Movies and TV Shows (Part I)

by | Oct 23, 2020 | Film, Pop Culture, Social Media, TV

Do you know the real reason we can truly “find God in all things”?

Because God is already there, seeking us before we ever realized we are seeking God. (Spiritual Exercises, 235-236)1

Does that mean God can be seeking us out even through the secular movies or TV shows we love to watch? That’s right. Yet, our ability to find God in these films depends on one thing: our “way of proceeding,” a phrase St. Ignatius liked to use indicating a particular method of approach.  

Here are the first five (out of ten) tips for discerning God’s voice during any and every secular movie:

1. Make a sign of the cross (externally or internally) before watching the film

As Catholics, every time we pray, breathe, eat, sleep, play sports or even watch a movie, we can do it “in the name of the Father, in the Son and in the Holy Spirit.” When we begin this way, we aren’t only watching the film in the presence of God, but we’re watching it through God’s very own eyes. This adds depth to our film-watching experience. It helps us to see more clearly what is true, good, and beautiful in the film.

We are asking for the grace to look at (or more intentionally “contemplate”) this film through the eyes of the Trinity. This is similar to the Contemplation on the Incarnation in which 2  we look at the entire world (with all its sin, grace, order and chaos),from the perspective of the Trinity’s loving and merciful gaze.

Prayer: “Lord, help me to view and contemplate this film with Your eyes and Your heart only. Only then will I seek and find what I ultimately long for. Amen”

2. Ask the question, why you’re watching this film before it starts 

Here are a few questions to ponder before clicking play on that next film or streamed episode: 

    • Firstly, what “grace” do I seek? After asking for the grace of God’s light in prayer, St. Ignatius invites us to ask for a “particular grace” that we long for (i.e. peace, patience, forgiveness, etc). God’s love is so overabundant, that graces can even flow from the images on our screens. Therefore, what is my purpose for watching this particular movie or episode right now? What am I seeking to take away from it? It might be to relax, learn something new, journey into unknown worlds or cultures or merely to be “up to speed” with what everyone else is talking about at lunch. Whatever our reason, make sure it is one that does not exclude God.   
    • Secondly, let us ask ourselves if we are in the right state of mind  or “soul-state” to watch this particular film. Will it help us grow, restore our energies, or drain us further? Are we compulsively watching this episode or movie in order to procrastinate on more important matters, or have we discerned that God is the one inviting us to watch this particular film or episode? Am I really free and intentional in my choice “to watch or not to watch?” Ask God this question, and be honest with how you feel he’s guiding you in that moment. 

Prayer: “Lord, if it is your will that I watch this film, then may I be free enough to watch it. But if it is your will that I not watch it, may I be free enough to turn off my TV or computer in your name. Amen” 

3. Ask the Holy Spirit to speak to you during the movie

If God can speak to us when reading a book, hearing a homily, speaking with a friend over coffee, in an exchange with the poor, why can’t God speak to us during a movie? God is always speaking to us. God’s voice is like the radio station or streaming service that we need to learn to access regularly. To be clear though, discernment of God’s voice requires us to sift through other competing voices that are also speaking to us, vying for our attention at all times. These other voices can include: 

  • The voices of corporations which try to subliminally market to us “happiness” through undiscerned consumer habits (i.e. product placement, ads, etc.) 3
  • The voices of others — i.e. friends, bosses, clients, family members contacting us at all times of the day, especially on our cellphones. Responding to texts, emails and phone calls during the film may interrupt you from entering more deeply into the story and catching that line or scene that God wanted you to experience.  “Silence is Golden” not just to not interrupt others, but also to not interrupt you from listening closely for God’s voice.  
  • The voice of the evil spirit (as our favorite saint calls it) is also constantly, “roaring” and “prowling” 4 for our attention to entice us to sin. The evil spirit aims to decrease our faith, hope and love and yes, can use the very images God wants to use for our benefit against us as well. 
  • Lastly, we sometimes confuse our own voice with God’s voice or even the evil spirit’s voice, which is why St. Ignatius’s “Rules for Discernment” are most helpful in training us to examine which voice we are truly listening to and following. 5

Prayer: “Lord, may we learn to discern and follow Your voice which leads to an abundance of life (John 10:10), and recognize and ignore those voices which lead us to a depletion of life (Matthew 4:1-11). Amen” 

4. What do I do if I am negatively affected by the images on screen? Be Free.

My rule of thumb goes back to St. Ignatius’s “Principle and Foundation” 6 which clarifies that the world is ultimately created “good” and that “all things” on the face of the earth are created to “praise, reverence and serve God”. Now, we are to use them only insofar as they help us to achieve this end. If the image or story on screen is not helping me to praise, reverence and serve God, then I am called to let it go. It’s that simple. 

As we know, some choose to distort these “created goods” for an objective other than the love of God. 

St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” invites us to see true art as a window to God’s essence as creator 7. In that letter, the Pope explains that not all art is created equal, and not all art has your freedom or liberation in mind. As we mentioned above, some “art” has been designed to manipulate your emotions or activate your base desires to achieve some behavioral change 8—whether it be in changing your opinions through hate-driven propaganda or getting you to purchase harmful products through powerfully persuasive advertising. These potential abuses of art need to be acknowledged, and if it is having a negative effect on you, God will give you the grace to either “look away” or “see past the manipulation.”

While we cannot be afraid to be in the world, we are also not called to consume everything the world offers us on a platter. Sometimes being truly “free” requires me to “fast” from certain images, especially images that don’t help me grow in freedom. 

Prayer: “Lord, give us the grace to remember your words: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile” (Mark 7:15). May I consume only that which helps me to grow closer in love with God, others and self and fast from those elements which separates me from the love of God, others and self. Amen”  

5. As you watch the credits, pray the “Litany of Creative Collaborators”

Most of us don’t stay until the end of the credits… unless there is some “easter egg” we heard or read about. Yet, I often enjoy hearing the soundtrack and appreciate the scope of collaboration necessary to put together a single project. Everyone from the director, to the actors, to the ones creating the sets, location scouts, costume designers, lighting, those doing the cinematography, getting the coffee for the employees, cleaning the bathrooms and facilities.  Everyone who worked on the production deserve their moment of recognition. And what better way to “recognize” their role in the film than to offer up a prayer for the litany of names appearing at the end of the screen?

You don’t have to read every name. God knows all the people on that list and what their intentions are. As you watch the credits, turn it into an act of offering every person to the Heart of Christ. This is the greatest applause they can receive. 

Prayer: “You who are the Creative Spirit that moves artists to become co-creators alongside You, may we all be given the grace to co-create your Kingdom with You and all of our brothers and sisters, those we know and do not know. Amen”

In any case, practice some of these tips and let us know in the comments how they worked for you and what graces you received from them. In the meantime, stay tuned for the sequel (five more tips for finding God in the cinema culture)— Coming soon to a screen near you!

Editor’s Note: Updated 2020-10-23T12:22:34-05:00

  1. “This is to reflect how God dwells in creatures: in the elements giving them existence, in the plants giving them life, in the animals conferring upon them sensation, in man bestowing understanding. So He dwells in me and gives me being, life, sensation, intelligence; and makes a temple of me, since I am created in the likeness and image of the Divine Majesty… This is to consider how God works and labors for me in all creatures upon the face of the earth, that is, He conducts Himself as one who labors.”
  2. Spiritual Exercises 101-109
  3. For a great documentary on product placement watch Morgan Spurlock’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
  4. 1 Peter 5:8
  5. Here are some resources to get you started on these rules for Ignatian discernment: https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/making-good-decisions/discernment-of-spirits/
  6. Spiritual Exercises, 23
  7. Letter of Pope John Paul II to Artists (1999)
  8. Watch “The Social Dilemma” for a more in-depth look at social media’s role in this process

Mike Martinez, SJ

mmartinezsj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Mike