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A film like Penny Serenade has more to say to us about not tearing asunder what God has joined together, than any number of lectures in theology.

For I find this black mark impinge the man,
That he believes in just the vile of life.
Low instinct, base pretension, are these truth?
     – Robert Browning, from The Ring and the Book

In my last essay I suggested that we should welcome our allies wherever we may find them, particularly among the creators of films that celebrate marriage and innocent life, piety and faithfulness, before such things became controversial. The unconscious witness of people who are not party to our current confusion can be most powerful indeed. A film like Penny Serenade, about a marriage that hangs by a thread, between a good man who is a failure at work and a good woman who cannot bear children, has more to say to us about not tearing asunder what God has joined together, than any number of lectures in theology. 

Or turn to the three main characters in The Member of the Wedding: a lonely, troubled, and difficult teenage girl (Julie Harris), a small boy who possesses the uncomplicated beauty of childhood (Brandon de Wilde), and the black housemaid (Ethel Waters) who must care for them and for other troubled people when no else will. We can deduce from a sane philosophy of man that we are united only by a common devotion to what transcends us. But that deduction will be fleshless and bloodless. We must see it, hear it, even grasp it with our fingers. So we see those three people, different in sex and race and age and social class, coming together with matter-of-fact simplicity, as they sing the Negro spiritual, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”

The forming of the imagination is not a part of a Christian education. It is a Christian education.

Here someone will object that the people who made those films were often not at all pious. Some of them did things that, if you knew about them, would make it almost impossible for you ever again to take any pleasure in their work. What then separates them from the people who make films now? Aren't they all sinners like the rest of us? And cannot bad people make great art?

Yes and no. There are sinners who feel the pain of their sin because they acknowledge how far they fall short of the glory of God. That might have described the hard-drinking, fist-throwing Catholic director, John Ford; and the womanizing Gary Cooper, who became a Catholic shortly before he died, partly because of the example of Ford. But then there are sinners who are numb to their sin, because they no longer acknowledge the glory of God. They are like the wicked man whom Robert Browning's pope describes in the quote above. They believe “in just the vile of life.” For them, all piety is sanctimony, all patriotism is bigotry, all chastity is prudishness, all innocence is naïveté, all tradition is hide-bound, all judgment is arbitrary, and all love is but selfishness with sugar.

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Such people cannot make great art. They can be a part of great works of art only to the extent that they are borne up by the faith of better people around them. They cannot otherwise raise themselves out of the mud.

They can be quite clever. But that makes their works more poisonous, not less. If your child hangs around young people whose best laughter is a snigger, it won't help matters if they can turn a phrase. The obscene acts of Miley Cyrus on stage are made more poisonous, not less, by the expensive and flashy choreography around her.

We wish not only to tell our children what the truth is, but to show it to them. This we can do by the example of our lives, but because children so often feel the need to place some distance between themselves and their parents, if only to win their separate identities, we must turn to others to confirm that truth. We can do much on our own to form their memories. We can do little on our own to form their imaginations. That is what good art and great art are for.

We cannot hand over their imaginative catechesis to people who, en masse, reject or despise our trust in God and in the coherence and beauty of the nature which God has created and sustains. That is not because they are bad people. As people they may be much better than their principles. It is because their principles are bad; the well is bad from the source. They are like people who have been shut up in a tawdry little apartment all their lives, with no windows and no skylight. It isn't then just that they have sinned against the stars. They have no real memory of such sin, because they have no real sense of the stars to begin with. They are not worse than murderers and thieves who know what they are doing. They are not nearly so bad; but they are less.

And since, for most people, imagination leads and reason follows, we are fooling ourselves if we think we can ignore it. The forming of the imagination is not a part of a Christian education. It is a Christian education.

That does not mean that we turn to specifically religious art. Again, a religious vision of the world often strikes home more powerfully when it is like the fresh air, or like health. The people who made the movie A Night to Remember had no intent to convert anyone. But when the band consign themselves to die, playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” to hearten their fellows in the disaster of the Titanic, both those who will sink with the ship and those in the lifeboats listening from afar, we are surprised out of our complacency. Politics falls away as nothing. We confront the tremendous mystery of life: the smallness of man, the inscrutable providence of God.

But I hear an objection: “Our children cannot watch the old movies!” Their attention wanders if they are not regularly needled and sparked by noise, a visual and aural and neural overload, an induced Saint Vitus' dance. If that is true, their imaginations need more than formation. They need healing.

How to do this? More to come.

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Anthony Esolen is a Fellow at the Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, NH.  He is the translator and editor of Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House), and is the author of more than a dozen other works, including Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery) and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press).  He regularly writes for The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, Touchstone, and Magnificat.