Classic wisdom from a great TV Writer and a classy Man of God
Antagonism between Christianity and a Hollywood establishment is part of the rift between Christianity and much of popular culture itself. But the roots of the conflict go much deeper.
by Ron Austin
Note: Ron Austin wrote for the original Mission: Impossible TV series, as well as many other successful shows and was a key intellectual architect in the shaping of the Act One screenwriting program in Hollywood. This article is a revised version of an address to an Act One conference held at Hollywood Presbyterian Church nearly a decade ago. His wisdom seems as timely now as it was then.
There has always been a Christian presence in Hollywood. In the so-called golden age, the thirties and forties, a Christian sensibility was clearly evident in the films of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Frank Capra—to name only the most prominent examples. There were also stars whose professional personae reflected spiritual values, such as Irene Dunne and Loretta Young. I once had the pleasure of introducing my late friend, Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser, to an audience as “the best known Catholic priest in Hollywood since Bing Crosby.” Bud liked that. Crosby and others such as Pat O’Brien had that kind of positive image.
Later, the countercultural generation of the late sixties and seventies evinced suspicion of all institutions, especially of organized (that is to say, traditional) religion. The dissatisfied and rebellious baby boomers eventually became, and to some extent remain, dominant in Hollywood. Though now they are the establishment, they retain much of their anti-authoritarian posture.
To speak, as many do, of an antagonism between Christianity and a Hollywood establishment is misleading. As I see it, the rift that emerged in those years reveals tensions between Christianity and much of popular culture itself. Hollywood has unquestionably played a role, but the roots of the conflict go deeper.
While Hollywood ‘s subculture has become more open to spiritual values during the last decade, it bears a residual suspicion of religion in general and of Christianity in particular. Many Christians working or trying to work in the entertainment industry encounter some degree of prejudice. Based on personal experience over a half-century in Hollywood, I have theories about the sources of this conflict. Since I’m not a historian or a sociologist, to explain, I must employ the skills I’ve acquired during my years in what we locals call, with revealing provinciality, “the industry.”
I’m going to frame this problem by recasting it as a dramatic conflict between two characters, a Christian and a Hollywood skeptic. Reverting to my previous roles, I’ll treat the conflict as if I were a screenwriting teacher or a producer helping a writer to develop a script.
Two Views of Story
At the outset, we must recognize a built-in tension not unrelated to the story itself. Since the age of classical Greek theater, there have been two tendencies in drama: the Platonic and the Aristotelian. (I call them tendencies because these are not strict categories.) The Platonic tendency, which is attractive to religious people, prefers drama to be a kind of model for behavior or guide to morals. As such, Platonic drama tends to be more ideal than real. Good is represented by the protagonist, and evil, or something akin to evil, by the antagonist. This useful, time-honored approach has produced some of Hollywood ‘s best films. Ford and Capra, for example, often presented idealized heroes who struggled against corrupt villains. The Western genre is rooted in such mythic characterizations.
The other tendency, dominant in modern drama since Ibsen, Shaw, and Chekhov, has a different goal. It may offer some moral instruction, but its primary aim is to achieve what Aristotle called catharsis, a purgation of emotions. This more subjective process leads us into our own inner conflicts. Such a drama allows us, through the relative safety of art, to explore our own fears and desires. Through our identification with the characters, this process purges our hidden, primal feelings, or at least brings them forth so that we might confront them. At its best, this purgation leads to insight, but it does not necessarily offer a clear moral message.
Christians have tended to be more comfortable with Platonic dramas. You often hear religious commentators criticize what seem to them excesses of the Aristotelian tendency: “Why do you want us to see such ugly things?” they ask. Or, “Why do you have to use such bad language?” They are asking, not unreasonably, for a story that presents a model of good behavior, particularly for a young audience. What they don’t understand is that Aristotelian drama needs to confront us with the ugly and unpleasant if it is to take us to those dark places requiring purgation.
As we can see, the two tendencies are often in conflict.
Two Views of Story
In the story I’m sketching now—of the rise of antipathy between the Christian and the secularist in Hollywood —the approach I propose is Aristotelian. I’m not going to offer a tale in which the Christian embodies virtue and the secularist corruption. I want real characters who will provoke us to explore our own inner lives. If we were to develop our story fully, these characters might each make good decisions and bad ones, behave honorably and deplorably. But we won’t get that far, at least not here.
In the initial stage of character development, our task is to allow the characters to grow, and so we must proceed without too much prior judgment. We don’t know where these characters are going to lead us.
As a producer or teacher, I try to guide scriptwriters toward the deepest levels of conflict in their stories, which means probing the unresolved tensions within each character. Writers know this process to be long, difficult, and painful, and I’ll abbreviate it here. In developing a character, a writer must first ask what the character wants, which usually has to do with what the writer wants. Much here depends on the writer’s capacity for self awareness. The process should eventually reach the point where the writer courageously addresses the deepest fears of the characters, which are closely related to his or her own concerns.
In a well-written script that deals with two characters in conflict, the story will explore more than the clash between the goals and desires of the characters, but will offer a more profound confrontation. A mature scriptwriter will look more deeply, working to figure out what each character finds in the other that is somehow missing in himself, what weakness or uncertainty. Usually it’s an unresolved inner conflict that, when triggered, is then projected onto the adversary. I call this mirroring.
Mirroring forms the basis of many classic genres. Take romantic comedy, for example (not farce, mind you, but comedy involving real character conflict). Our hero, though attracted to the heroine, finds himself troubled when faced with feminine traits like tenderness and sensitivity that are missing, or at least repressed, in himself. The man, confounded by having to grapple with this mirror of his missing traits, asks himself in ultimate frustration, “What does she want?” Or sometimes, “What do women want?” That he never fully grasps this provides the basis for comedy. Conversely, the woman, also sensing something missing, usually asks at some point, “Why doesn’t he understand how I feel?” because the man in a romantic comedy seldom does. These gender conflicts may be stereotypical, but they illustrate the process by which each character projects his or her inner conflict onto the other. This mirrored “battle of the sexes” has had audiences laughing since Aristophanes’ day, if not before.
Two Main Characters
I want to use the idea of mirroring to explore our two characters, the Christian and the Hollywood secularist. By a secularist, I mean someone who has not grown up in a religious tradition or (as is quite common in Hollywood) has rejected religion. I do not mean someone of another religious faith. In present-day Hollywood, the secularist is unlikely to hold an opposing ideology or even a fully coherent philosophy. Rather than creating a debate, I want to understand the source of the hostility between these characters. To do so, I must first explore the inner conflicts of each, which the characters project onto each other.
The Christian, I suspect from personal experience, will have at least two largely unresolved conflicts. From a historical point of view, these conflicts come out of the confrontation between Christianity and the Enlightenment that produced modern culture. Hollywood , in many ways, is the embodiment of the best and worst of modernity, both its freedom and its irresponsibility. I seldom defend Hollywood , but I will do so here on the basis of two of its ideals, personal freedom and inclusion, which I consider the gifts of modernity. These two principles, valued to the point of being absolute goods by the secularist, produce inescapable inner conflicts for the Christian. This is ironic since, however misapplied, these two ideals arise from the Christian gospel.
The concept of personal freedom is largely derived from the Judeo-Christian ideas of free will and the God-given dignity of the individual. For Christians, the Incarnation gives us our ultimate dignity, revealing the human as created in the image of God. Nonetheless, freedom presents us with a conflict. Our idea of freedom and its legitimate use differs from the secularist’s. For the Christian, freedom is not an absolute good in itself. Rather, freedom of intellect and conscience is a means of coming to the truth, a truth embodied by Jesus and expounded in the Gospels. As Christians, once we encounter that truth, we see that it has requirements, even commandments. It makes demands on us that may in fact limit the use of our freedom. We don’t have the liberty to create our own world. We discover truth; we don’t invent it. And once we discover it, we are bound by the limits it reveals.
This produces conflict, inwardly and in society. I’m not speaking abstractly: I often see this conflict acted out by aspiring Christian writers. Many feel restricted and inhibited, even afraid of their own freedom. They fear that freedom will lead them to areas that they would rather not explore, or possibly even to condemnation by their church. This anxiety prevents them from exploring those places that involve risk. As a result, there is, in our Christian character, a button to be pushed. We have a fear of misusing our freedom, and perhaps a deeper fear of exploring the dark places in ourselves. We know that we can use our faith as a defense against the harsher aspects of reality to which we feel vulnerable. All this plays into the secularist’s stereotype of believers as repressed, provincial, and inhibited people, afraid to confront the whole of life and hiding inside the church. As unfair as this caricature is, it hits a sore spot, touching on our inner fear and producing defensiveness and antagonism.
The Christian’s other unresolved inner conflict relates to the question of inclusion. In the West, the ideal of inclusion has been enshrined as an absolute good nearly as reverently as freedom. At the contemporary table, everyone is invited, and any hint of elitism or segregation is anathema. Society is hardly consistent in achieving this goal, but the effort is persistent. Again ironically, the compassionate inclusion of outsiders, of strangers and sinners, has its foundation in the scriptures and is at the heart of Christianity.
But this passionate secularist stance brings another Christian inner conflict to the surface. In the first place, we’re not moral relativists. To us, inclusion doesn’t mean condoning every behavior. For that matter, we don’t even believe that all religions or moral views are equal. We are capable of great respect for other faith traditions, but we don’t weigh them equal with the truth we receive from Christ. This is the hard truth of the matter, and we have to face it. Our necessary stubbornness on this question puts a high wall between secularists and ourselves.
We ask ourselves regretfully whether we must always be walled off from others. Or worse, we wonder if we are using our religious identity to keep a wall between ourselves and others. We’re not always sure, and at times we have to make difficult decisions. Again we find ourselves vulnerable to stereotype, this time of the small-minded, judgmental Christian. We may protest that this is unfair, but there is some truth in it. We Christians are, in too many ways, a divided people. We are also inclined to divide others into categories: good and bad, saved and damned. Within my own denomination, I often hear the question, “Well, what kind of a Catholic is he?” To be accepted, you need to perform a kind of ideological lodge handshake.
We have to be truthful. From the secular point of view, we are often a spectacle of division. This perception makes many of us uneasy, and it should, because we are called to be healers more than judges. We fear, however, that there is some truth in this perception, and again it makes us defensive. The walls that we would like to tear down become higher.
A Skeptical P.O.V.
Now that I have sketched the Christian character, let me turn to the Hollywood skeptic. Our secularist has his personal reasons for being critical of Christianity, still the most influential and hence intrusive religion in our society. But what are his unresolved conflicts? I’m going to explore just two.
To understand the first requires some historical perspective. When I was a young man in Hollywood some fifty years ago, religion in general and Christianity in particular weren’t so much denigrated as ignored. They were considered intellectually obsolete. I was a devout nonbeliever then and didn’t convert until my middle years. I was very much an adherent of the “progressive” culture of Hollywood in the forties, a time when strong ideological convictions about the direction of history were prevalent. There were, in other words, powerful rivals of Christianity that offered hope and even claimed some prophetic insight as to the future of humanity.
Left-wing politics were popular in Hollywood , including some undigested Marxism and other more benign forms of utopianism. The engine of history was to be driven by science and technology, and a perfected world was just around the corner. It may seem strange to the younger generation that such transparently naïve beliefs were once so prevalent, but they were. They’re not prevalent anymore. Nor does the promise of sexual liberation hold its previous appeal. In the 1940s, wealthy and successful people in Hollywood might go to their psychoanalysts almost daily, convinced that the Freudian liberation of the ego from the id would solve their problems. Later, in the sixties, a conviction prevailed that if we could just rid ourselves of sexual inhibitions, a new utopia would emerge.
Today, these rival pseudo-religions have failed, and Hollywood is at the center of the crisis of modernity. That is to say, a crisis of disbelief. This is not simply a turning away from traditional religion. That happened a generation ago. The modern crisis comes from the loss of belief in the alternatives to religious faith. There is a lot of noise in Hollywood about politics, particularly of the ultra-liberal variety, but what I hear in that noise is the clamor of those who would drown out their despair. With a handful of idealistic exceptions, few in Hollywood believe any longer that politics can answer the frailties of the human condition. The less the belief, the more the noise.
And this is the secularist’s first unresolved conflict. It is revealed whenever he confronts anyone with a strong belief system. Any person who has a passionate faith that endows him or her with confidence or hope in the future will push this button. This secular character is needled by an ongoing crisis of disbelief in the same way that the Christian is needled by an unresolved ambivalence toward personal freedom. The secularist’s problem is what to do with the freedom that he’s made an absolute good. Does freedom point to anything beyond itself? Does it mean anything? Does it lead anywhere? Simply to encounter a person who has a confident and coherent belief in a reality beyond individual will triggers a great deal of anxiety and antagonism in the modern skeptic.
The other emotional trigger for the secular character goes to his most crucial conflict: the cross. The belief that suffering has meaning, whether or not we comprehend it, is for the nonbeliever the most objectionable of Christian tenets. Chateaubriand said that the genius of Christianity was in its use and transformation of suffering. The path of Jesus requires faith that there is redemption in suffering. It is the path we must take if we are to follow Jesus through Good Friday to the Easter Resurrection. Suffering is at the heart of our Christian identity. For the secularist, deprived of the structure of belief, suffering is something to be avoided at all costs.
At times, however, the secularist senses that all this running from suffering is futile. Worse still, he fears that he may be running from a path of salvation. If only he could stop running and turn around. Even a momentary consideration of this possibility can produce great anxiety and confusion. It’s terrible to fear that the thing you’ve spent your life running from, once confronted, could have answered your life’s most important questions. This unresolved fear produces antagonism toward the Christian, and in reaction, the secularist paints the Christian as a masochist, even a sadist, clearly no fun at all.
The Beginning of an Ending
In an Aristotelian work, these mutual provocations, arising from the unreconciled conflicts within two characters, point us toward a possible story. I would hope that this particular story might reach a level where the conflicts could be better understood and might even induce compassion. I’m not sure where our story is going to go, but maybe this character analysis suggests an ending, or the beginning of an ending.
If this script is to have any significance, it needs to move toward mutual acceptance. One of the characters must move the story forward by taking the initiative and reaching out to the other, and I think it must be the Christian. The secularist, even with the best of intentions, lacks a strong motivation to do so. The confident humanist of the past, simply out of good will, might have made a move toward reconciliation. He might have felt that the Christian could be liberated by the historical forces in which the humanist had such strong faith. But given today’s prevailing skepticism, there’s little in the present-day secularist’s outlook to motivate him to act beyond self interest or self defense. It will be up to the Christian to risk lowering his defenses, admitting his uncertainties, and opening himself to the secularist’s mirrored fears. He must do this without an agenda, without preaching, and without trying to win. If he can truly make himself one with his secular adversary, he will necessarily begin to face his own inner struggles.
Some interesting drama might result. Roles might be reversed, and both characters might be illuminated. The best realized ending would be when the Christian begins to see Jesus in the other, the Jesus in both of them—the same Jesus who is suffering within each of us. This ending might provide real hope for both characters.
For many readers of this journal, the character I’ve been calling the Christian is we ourselves. And if this story has worked, it will provoke some questions for us. For one, are we free and courageous enough to open ourselves to the suffering of our non-believing adversary? Doing so requires confronting our own unresolved inner conflicts, and perhaps much more.
I think the creative process requires that we do this if we are to write honest scripts and make good films. But, whether or not we’re making films, this is what Jesus and the Gospels ask of us.
Ron Austin, a Hollywood writer and producer for over fifty years, is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, and the Directors Guild. A former member of the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America, he is the recipient of a Guild award for lifetime achievement award. He is a founding member of Catholics in Media as well as the Chairman of the Windhover Forum, a non-profit Catholic educational foundation. Ron is a Fellow at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology and author of “In a New Light: Spirituality and the Media Arts” (2006) and “Peregrino: A Pilgrim Journey into Catholic Mexico” (2010). His essays on the relationship of faith and the media arts are in the anthologies Behind the Screen and Things of Heaven and Earth, and his autobiographical account of Christian-Jewish relationships in Hollywood, Star Crossed, will be published by Eerdmans early next year. (Source: DSPT website.)
Visit Ron Austin as Image Artist of the Month for October ’06