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Stephen Colbert vs Be Not Afraid: The case for Catholic art

Kristina Glicksman

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

American comedian Stephen Colbert prepares for interviews with Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, and other Salt + Light Media staff in 2015 (Salt + Light Media)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that no other video produced by Salt + Light Media could hope to rival the popularity of Fr. Thomas Rosica’s Witness interview five years ago with American television star, comedian Stephen Colbert.
That is, it was a truth. But times they are a-changing.
Ever since I arrived at Salt + Light Media two years ago, Stephen Colbert’s interview has sat at the top of our list of most popular YouTube videos with impunity, taunting us with its unassailable position and challenging us, too, by showing us what was possible even for a small, independently-funded, special-interest media organization. But with over half a million views, it seemed as unconquerable as Mount Doom.
But the moment has come at last. On Saturday, May 2, Salt + Light Media released “Be Not Afraid by Catholic Artists from Home”. This beautiful seven-minute video features the words and music of the well-known and much-loved hymn “Be Not Afraid” by Bob Dufford, SJ, recorded at home by over 50 Catholic artists and brought together through the magic of technology and the hard work and skill of senior editor Richard Valenti.
By the time I logged on to work on Monday morning, the video had over 100,000 views and was increasing steadily, and by midnight on the following Sunday, it had surpassed the 505,540 views of Stephen Colbert’s 2015 Witness interview, and the number continues to grow.
Of course it is a moment of triumph for all who were involved, and there is a sense of achievement even for those who weren’t, at Salt + Light Media’s improvement on a “personal best”.
For me, the juxtaposition of these two videos also brought into sharp relief a question I often think about as an avid consumer and a producer of art, and also as a thinking Catholic: What is Catholic art?
In placing Stephen Colbert side-by-side with “Be Not Afraid”, I saw an unexpected representation of the dichotomy within Catholic art – one which, I would say, is not clear to many people both inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church.
On the one hand, we have art that is explicitly religious in nature: music written for devotional or liturgical use and expressing an aspect of our relationship to God. I think that’s what most people think of when they talk about Catholic art.
And then we have Stephen Colbert: an artist who happens to be Catholic. But is that enough to qualify his work as “Catholic art”? Yes. I think it is.
Art is a work of creativity which expresses the inmost thoughts of the one who creates it. Catholic artists, even when creating works which do not speak of God in any obvious way, imbue their art with aspects of their own identity and worldview, which include but are not limited to gender, culture, social and economic status, religion, education, and spirituality. Of course, not all of these aspects are on obvious display all of the time, and the art will suffer if we try to extract certain aspects and divorce them from one another in an attempt to analyze what the art “means”.
(Art is also in part a dialogue in which I as the viewer bring my own experiences and prejudices to the conversation, but that is a discussion for another time – and perhaps another blog post.)
But even though Catholic art can and does encompass a broad range of material, from sacred music to late night comedy, again and again I encounter an entrenched perception of Catholic art as being only that which at least deliberately implicitly, if not explicitly, addresses matters of faith. Why is this so? And why might this be a problem?
I think one major source for this lack of understanding is that without intending it and perhaps even without realizing it, we in the West have accepted the secular lie that religion belongs in its box and is appropriate only in certain places and parts of our lives. We Catholics know that our religion, our faith, and our relationship with God permeate every aspect of our existence. I could no more confine my Catholicity to specific parts of my life than I could my femininity.
But as our society trends generally away from its Christian roots, away from religion, and away from God, we face a greater and greater struggle to express that faith in meaningful ways outside of certain safety zones or to find it in the culture we consume. And as the culture around us expresses more and more dramatically values and morals contrary to those upheld by the Catholic Church, we feel ourselves driven more and more toward art and entertainment we can trust, art that keeps us fed and keeps us grounded.
So far so good. But why should this be a problem? To answer that question, I want to look at the issue briefly from two perspectives: the problem for “us” and the problem for “them”.
The problem for us is that this divide between art which is out there in the wide Western world and the art which we would prefer to consume exacerbates an “us and them” mentality. Faithful Catholics feel embattled and beleaguered. Their choice seems to be either to live a double life or to live disconnected from most of society. The more we are marginalized, the more we embrace and increase our marginalization. We are finding ourselves not so much living “in the world but not of it” as existing in its remotest regions. How can we transform the world to Christ if we have disconnected ourselves from it?
The other problem is that we risk impoverishing ourselves. For centuries upon centuries, European cultures especially have produced a wealth of non-sacred art all arising from Christian values and a Christian – especially a Catholic – worldview. Faith and religion are too vast to be expressed and explored only in theological texts and praise-and-worship songs. They encompass all of humanity and all of human existence. We need art to help us come to terms with who we are and to grasp what it could all possibly mean. If we abandon the majority of our art and our modes of self-expression, we are cheating ourselves.
We are cheating the world, too. The American poet Dana Gioia wrote a superb article in 2013 called “The Catholic Writer Today”, in which he looks at the heyday of Catholic writing in America in the mid-twentieth century and compares it with the state of things today. And what he points out, quite rightly, is that a decrease in Catholic writing means an impoverishment of American literature.
It is a fairly well-known paradox, I think, that the more “diverse” we have become in name as a society, the less diverse we have become in fact. Certain voices are not welcome. But those voices need to be heard. Catholics have something important to say, not just about God and religion, but about politics and justice and dignity and relationships and just what it is to be a broken person living in a broken world. It’s true it’s harder than it ever was for a Catholic voice to be heard in the arts, but that’s no reason why we should self-select out. Let’s remember that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is fortitude.
And, please, let’s be kind to our Catholic artists. I don’t mean the sort of faux-kindness which overlooks poor craft for the sake of the “message”. I mean true human kindness which acknowledges that we’re all in the same boat: we’re all poor, ignorant, sinful people stumbling our way through this life to the next. Catholic artists do not speak for the Church, and we should not be examining their work or their personal lives in order to pronounce judgment on how Catholic they are. They’re artists, and their voices are important. Let them do their work because in that way, we all win.

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