Christopher West goes to the movies

Christopher West is one of the best-known theology of the body educators in the world, but anyone who has listened to him or read his works probably knows he’s also a movie buff who regularly uses examples from popular films. This year, just in time for 89th Annual Academy Awards on Feb. 26, West’s Cor Project has released a free e-book, “Theology of the Body at the Movies,” featuring 22 essays and blog posts about movies from “Braveheart” to “Babette’s Feast.” He recently shared his thoughts on movies, parenting and discernment with Our Sunday Visitor.

Our Sunday Visitor: First, with five kids, how do you see so many movies?

Christopher West: I’m on airplanes a lot. If I’m watching a movie alone, I’m on an airplane. Otherwise, movies are a family event for us. My kids love to see movies; I love to take them to movies. Movies have been a big part of our lives. If I’m watching a movie at home, I’m with family. All my kids are movie buffs.

OSV: All of the movies you address in “Theology of the Body at the Movies” are secular rather than faith-based movies. How do you go about choosing movies what to see, and when you do, how do you tease out the theology of the body messages that may or may not have been intended?

West: Here’s the thing about art. Artists — good artists — are those who look honestly at what’s going on in the human heart, and they express it in their art. It tells the real story about our humanity: the joys, the trials, the darkness, the sin. But to be really good art, it has to give us the hope of redemption.

The classic example for me of secular art that is profoundly sacred would be “Les Mis.” This is a secular movie that Hollywood has embraced, that New York has embraced, that London has embraced, and why? It’s so Catholic. It’s the Gospel. But it tells the honest truth about the human condition. It brings us into abject misery and despair but then it shows the light. It points the way to hope, and then redemption.

A lot of the so-called faith-based movies are bad art. They do not compellingly tell the human story. I say in one of the entries in the book that I would much rather watch an artfully produced secular movie than a poorly produced faith-based movie.

OSV: In secular movies, though, people sometimes miss the message about redemption.

West: Discernment in watching secular movies is very, very important. We must be able to distinguish between the wheat and the weeds. I am not advocating that people just go willy-nilly to see secular movies, because we are weak human beings, and secular movies know how to appeal to what it base in our fallen human nature and elicit our sinfulness. This is certainly true.

But we can and should be able to discern, “There’s the wheat and there’s the weeds.” We don’t have to throw out a movie entirely just because there are weeds in it. A great example is “Titanic.” Clearly, there’s a lot of wheat in that movie. It tells an amazing story of human love, redemption, even to the point of Jack being willing to lay down his life for Rose. This is why women love this move, because Jack is a Christ figure. At the same time, this is a Hollywood movie, this is a secular movie, and there’s plenty of weeds in there. There are scenes it that movie that I wish didn’t exist, and if I’m going to show that movie to my kids, I’m going to fast-forward through those scenes.

You hear a demand that everything be 100 percent pure. Guess what? That’s impossible. There is no such thing. You can’t even invite your neighbor over for dinner because he’s not 100 percent pure. Neither are you. Neither am I. We have to live in this world with discernment. We must help our children to do the same. If we don’t do that ... then we have to separate ourselves from the world, and that’s not the Catholic way to live. The Catholic way to live is to distinguish the wheat from the weeds. Remember what Jesus said: “Don’t be too anxious to pull up the weeds, because you might pull the wheat up with them.”

My project as a father teaching my kids how to watch movies is to teach them the art of discernment.

OSV: Any favorites among the current Oscar nominees?

West: I’ve only seen “La La Land” and “Hacksaw Ridge” (a World War II film about Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who served on the front lines of Okinawa as a medic without a weapon, and who later received the Medal of Honor). I would be delighted if “Hacksaw Ridge” won. It’s not a family movie, though. It’s hard to watch. It’s gruesome, but not gratuitous.

OSV: In the book you talk about the influence “Star Wars” had on you as a child. What other movies influenced you?

West: I went through a huge “Star Wars” phase, but probably an even more intense “Rocky” phase. The character of Rocky has played a tremendous role in my life. It returns to me again and again, with the boxing metaphor, the boxing imagery, what Rocky faced. Rocky is a character in my heart, if you will. I didn’t see the first “Rocky” until it was on television in 1978. When “Rocky II” came out in the theater in 1979, my dad, my older brother and I went to see it, and all three of us burst into tears at the end. The “Rocky” music, fighting against all odds to achieve something, it spoke profoundly to my young boy’s heart. Other movies that made an impact on my childhood: “Old Yeller,” for sure; “E.T.” was a big one.

OSV: What movies will have a similar effect on our kids?

West: The movies that are having a big effect on my kids right now are the Marvel Cinematic Universe series, “The Avengers.” All my kids love those movies. ... I can hear my kids on their own having conversations about what was good, what wasn’t good. It’s been rewarding as a parent to see them take this up in terms of not just absorbing entertainment without being critical and having discernment about it.

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You have to have an authentic understanding of what a human being is and an authentic understanding of what good and evil is. Oftentimes we give evil a reality that it is not. The devil doesn’t have his own clay. What does that mean? It means the only thing that exists is God’s clay, and God looked at everything he made and said, “Behold, it is very good.” All the devil can do is take God’s very good clay and twist it up, distort it... . There’s no question about it. You cannot shelter your children indefinitely. We must teach our children to recognize the good that has been twisted up, and we have to teach our children how to untwist what is twisted. That’s how redemption happens: not by throwing twisted things out the window, but by untwisting them.

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.