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The Importance of Language
Dr. Allen White

Introducing Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited to the seminarians at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary (March 9-11, 2001), Dr. White discusses in this conference all the implications of the image (TV, cinema, computers) replacing the word (books). In its February issue The Angelus will publish some solutions to resuscitate dying language.

I arrived late last night in Minneapolis and stayed with my brother and sister-in-law and their two children, my nephew and my niece. My little niece, who is three-and-a-half, brought some books to me this morning which she wanted me to read to her. I have wonderful memories from my own childhood of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, memories of reading it to my brother, who is some years younger than I am. I thought now would be a chance to read the Pooh stories to his daughter. They had them on the shelf and I went and pulled them off and opened one of my favorites which is Piglet Meets the Hefalump. I began reading to her and realized that, though she’s a bright little girl, she could not concentrate. The book, you see, is mainly text with some very small black-and-white line art. It wasn’t that she was three-and-a-half. The problem was that the very simple but artfully-rendered pen-and-ink illustrations of Ernest Shepard were not engaging enough for her eyes, so that it wasn’t possible for her to listen to what was being said. I finally realized it was pointless to continue and I stopped. Then she asked her Mother if she could put in a Disney video. It was a little sing-a-long thing and I thought, "This is standard; this is what happens." The first song on the Disney video was a Winnie the Pooh song. Now, there is a world of difference between the Disney Winnie the Pooh and the A.A. Milne Winnie the Pooh. I view it as a tragedy that Disney bought the rights to all the Milne books. The original Walt Disney is long gone; the vultures who now own Disney Enterprises got the rights to the Milne books to use their characters. They re-drew them. If you want a sense of what’s happened to children’s literature, look at the beautiful Shepard drawings and then look what Disney has now done to the Pooh characters: sappy, sentimentalized, over-drawn. It is awful, as are the stories. Sure enough, the video was something about caring and sharing and that sort of thing. It had absolutely nothing to do with any of the original stories, and nothing that rose to the artistic excellence of Piglet Meets the Hefalump, which is a perfectly ordered, structured, and charming story for little children.

Word and Image

This example illustrates the ongoing disaster happening in language and in narrative and its replacement by image and visceral incident. I am going to cover two areas: The difference between word and image; and the other between narrative and thrill. It is important that you understand I will be grounding this lecture in how I view the language I am going to be using. I am a teacher of English. This means that words matter to me, that I love words, that for these reasons I entered my profession. In teaching Shakespeare, I’ve been fortunate to deal with the greatest writer the English language has every known, a master of language who used it with precision, beauty, depth, and genuine spiritual insight. Once I became a Catholic and became more aware of what language is and how it can be used, I was attracted to the opening of the Gospel of John. I think the first chapter of his Gospel may be my very favorite passage in all of Scripture. One of the joys of assisting at the Tridentine Mass is that I get to have it there as part of the liturgy every Sunday:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him: and without Him was made nothing that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men (John 1:1-4).

I’m just going to turn that around a bit and reverse the definition and say: What Scripture teaches us is that the light of men is the life of the Word. It’s an upper-case "W" obviously; it’s a reference to our Lord, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. But, there is a sense that language is an extraordinary gift of God. When we talk about words —with a small-case "w "—we should always in some sense have in our minds that eternal perfect Word, the Son of God made Incarnate, who brought salvation to us.

Now, I want to contrast this with an Old Testament passage. I’m in Exodus, chapter 20. I’m setting this in opposition to John:

Thou shall not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters of the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them:...(Ex. 20:4,5a).

If the Word came to us and brought salvation, we have a strict warning to avoid graven images and to especially avoid the propensity to worship those graven images. We know how the Israelites began worshipping the graven image of the golden calf. Here we have an example of how easy it is to fall into all that. Now, we say and think: "We’re not capable of doing that: we would not do anything like that." On the contrary, we are aware that we live in a world that does worship wealth, that places the material above the spiritual, and we must acknowledge that. But I claim there is something even more insidious going on —that the moving image, the image captured on the screen, can also in one sense be viewed as a graven image, and we live in a world that is coming to worship it. This graven image is finally demonic and destructive and we have been ordered not to worship it.

In saying this I have to make a public confession. I must retract what I said some years ago. I made the statement that the television set itself is an instrument, simply a technological creation, and is not in itself morally wrong. It is the uses to which it is put, and that it can on occasion have a good use. Well, I’m taking 99.99% of that back! I suspect it is increased age and experience, but I’m here to say, "Throw it out!" Better yet, take it out and shoot it! That way, no one else can pick it up and carry it off. The reason I am saying this is because I am beginning to understand the insidious nature of it. I am a man who was raised on movies and TV; they shaped much of who I am. I am now seeing the new uses to which they are being put. There are major changes occurring and the images that are flashed on the screen are doing work that is positively destructive in a profound way, touching the spiritual nature of man in a way that I can only call demonic. I am increasingly troubled by it.

The Gift of Language

I’m making a claim that language is an extraordinary gift of God. It is part of what makes us fully human. In fact, Aristotle says man is a rational animal and that what sets him apart, what raises him above the animals, is that he has the ability to reason, and it is very clear that he cannot reason without language. Language is necessary in order for man to be a rational creature, and only to man has it been given. Some claim that porpoises and gorillas talk. It is only a sign of how far this has gone when I have to defend the proposition that language is unique to man. For years propaganda has come down that the porpoises are squeaking to each other, that the gorillas are talking to each other, and the chimpanzees can push the right button and get their banana. What we know is that language is special, and it is one of the things that defines man. Beyond being a manifestation of his power to reason, language is there so that we can pray, that we can communicate. We can write beautiful things which appeal to reason, such as poetry, etc. But, perhaps first and most importantly, I defer to St. Paul who tells us that faith itself comes by hearing.

If faith comes by hearing then we need language to tell each other the great truths of that Faith. There is no other way in which the Faith can be communicated or understood, and even in the case of infused knowledge we still are in need of language in order to comprehend it. As Catholics, we especially understand its power, its importance, the glorious use to which language is put, every time we benefit from the sacraments of the Church. The form of every sacrament depends upon language. Most obviously, those words said by the priest in the person of Christ at the altar, "This Is My Body," do something stupendous, and we know the words are necessary to effect that sacrament. As a sinner I am very grateful for the words that my confessor can say to me at the end of my confession. They free me from my sins. Words are necessary to do that.

It is not by accident that with the shift in sacraments in the Novus Ordo Church has come a messing with the language. The fact is that these things matter, words are hugely important, and as Catholics we know that. Those words are part of those sacraments, those sacraments come to us from Christ, the Word Incarnate. These things are connected.

What happens to a world that begins to lose language? That is what is happening out there! Language is deteriorating, vocabularies are shrinking, people are less and less able to express themselves linguistically or have a pool of words to draw on to describe what they think and feel. As a result, in its place, they are often compelled instead to wordless action because they are blocked in their very nature. I suspect it has something to do with why there is an increased level of violence in the world. With words no longer available to us, we act physically because that’s what we know and what we’ve seen.

In any case, what language remains is collapsing into obscenity. It is everywhere in public now. The sense that certain words are inappropriate has been lost. One reason for that is that the young —sadly, pathetically —are becoming repositories for filthy language without even knowing that the limited vocabulary they are carrying around with them is inappropriate. I do not think that this is accidental. I think that this is part of the reductive nature of this sick world in which we’re living where words are being taken away.

Language Is Mysterious

Many of you know of the Catholic novelist Walker Percy. He wrote some very interesting novels. Percy had another side, he was very interested in linguistic theory as well. He promoted an American philosopher named Charles Peirce (as in "purse") who developed a theory of language and launched a study called semiotics, a theory of signs and symbols and the way they are used connecting to language.

Peirce claimed that if you look at the way in which we know things in the world and respond to them, almost everything is what he called diadic. By that he simply meant "two-ness," that is, one thing leads to a second thing.

For example, you can see how A leads to B, cause leads to effect, action leads to response. What we know of the world of nature is learned that way. For instance, why were the Dutch elm trees dying in the Midwest back in the 60’s? Scientists found it was a little beetle that had gotten inside the tree and was killing it. The reason the tree was dying? —The beetle was killing the tree. You can see it with children. You say to the child, "Don’t touch the hot stove. If you do, you will burn yourself." Of course, the child immediately walks over to the stove and puts his hand on the stove. (That’s fallen human nature, even in the little ones.) The hand is withdrawn, an instantaneous response. Action —Response, Cause —Effect; that’s how things work in the world of nature.

Peirce believed there was something very mysterious that happened with human beings when they talked to each other. It doesn’t happen anywhere else in nature. He claimed that language is triadic, that it doesn’t work A to B. In fact, it can’t work A to B: it works A to B by means of C. Let me explain.

I have decided that I want you to go to the store and buy one of those little round yellow citrus fruits that make your lips pucker when you bite into it. I could do anything on earth to try to convey that to you: I could hold my hands a certain way, I could pucker my lips, I could try to look yellow. But ultimately I am going to fail. There is no earthly way I can make you understand that I want you to go to the store and buy a little round yellow citrus fruit. That is, there is no earthly way I can make you understand I want you to go from A to B. I cannot get there without this particular jump when I take these strange sounds "l"–"e"–"m"–"o"-"n" —put them together and say, "lemon." At that point, having put those squiggles in that order and assigned those sounds to it, you can reply, "Oh, you want me to buy a lemon. Sure!" Suddenly we have understanding, back and forth. But it’s only possible via that third element, that is, the sign, the symbol.

Remember the round little yellow citrus fruit? Let’s do this to it: I have taken the same series of five squiggles and arranged them in backward fashion; tell me what that is Absolutely nothing! —a "nomel." Tell me why those five squiggles in backward order mean nothing, and the five squiggles in this order are perfectly comprehensible to you. —It is due to an agreed-upon understanding that is dependent on mutual knowledge, so that when I say "lemon" you know what I mean. You’re able to understand this. If I apply a new supposition and say "used car," it takes on an entirely new meaning. If I did, suddenly "lemon" is no longer this little round yellow citrus fruit but a junky machine I used to drive! How did we get from one meaning to the other meaning? —It’s absolutely mysterious. Pierce says this needs to be studied because this is unique to man. The porpoises cannot do it! They cannot say, "Hey Joe, I think there’s a tuna net over there. You probably don’t want to swim over there. You’re going to get hauled in the boat and end up in a Starkist can!" They are incapable of doing that. But we can. And we can do it on a number of different levels, whether it be, "If you’re going to the store, may you please pick up a lemon?" or, "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, thou art more lovely and more temperate," or, "This is My Body." Suddenly, language becomes that which defines us in all sorts of mysterious ways. It is not accidental in this age which is losing its humanness that we are losing our ability to use words.

In one of his essays, Walker Percy examines this by speaking of the young American, Helen Keller, who was born blind, deaf, and dumb, and whose story all of you know. He says that until the moment the language breakthrough came, she was an animal, and we know this of children who are raised either outside of human influence, or in that unfortunate circumstance where they cannot hear language and get to know it. They cannot take in that world of symbols and signs, that extraordinary moment when the child says its first word sitting on daddy’s lap and suddenly Bowser walks by and the child says "Dog." Daddy is so pleased, "Jimmy said his first word!" At that moment something mysterious has happened. The child has made the connection that those sounds connect with that animal, and if I say that to Daddy he’s going to know what I mean. It has to do with the mystery of language and its three-ness.

Young Helen Keller couldn’t make that connection. She was an animal; the family couldn’t control her. They brought in a teacher, Annie Sullivan, to try to do something with her. Annie Sullivan began trying to teach the little girl through language, that is, the printing of letters in her hand, so that whatever they did, she would press Helen Keller to make the connection. Pick up a book, and Annie Sullivan would spell "b-o-o-k" in the little girl’s hand. If they were going down the stairs she would put her hand on the wood and say "s-t-a-i-r" —Nothing. We are at the table, pick up a fork, put it in her hand, "f-o-r-k" —Nothing. This went on for months, but she never stopped. One day they went out to pump water. They picked up the pail —"p-a-i-l." They reached down; they felt the pump —"p-u-m-p." It is a routine now, but still nothing. Annie pumped and put Helen’s hands under the water and spelled "w-a-t-e-r." Suddenly the little girl felt the water, grabbed her teacher’s hand, and repeated, "w-a-t-e-r." The connection had been made. Suddenly the whole world opened up to her. She became human because suddenly she was able to know, identify, and use the signs in order to gain knowledge of what was around her. We might say she became human by acquiring language.

The Consequences of Becoming Dumb

Since everything we do is dependent on this, there is a serious problem when language breaks down, whether it is the ability to say "Please go to the store and buy me a lemon," compose beautiful poems, speak to someone, preach to someone, or discuss ideas with someone else. How do you spread the Faith when language has been destroyed or emptied of meaning? When things began to be written down, Plato puts in the mouth of Socrates a sense of uneasiness that this was not necessarily a good thing. There would be less oral discussion and, no longer needing to remember, memory would begin to fail. I see it in my students. We have gone from the time when the bards would walk around Greece reciting the entire Iliad —look at the Iliad sometime and imagine trying to memorize it! —to the point now where memory is so short almost nothing can be retained. There’s a wonderful line near the end of Brideshead Revisited where Lord Marchmain is talking about the time when the house was taken apart and moved up the hill, the time when the old farmers had long memories. It is a deliberate moment in the book. It is an earlier time when things were remembered. And what was remembered first and foremost were important events. For example, Shakespeare has Henry V’s saying before the Battle of Agincourt, "Old men forget, yet all shall be forgot, but he’ll remember with advantage the deeds he did this day." The Battle of Agincourt would not be forgotten. That our Lord walked in the world and taught will not be forgotten. These things will be passed on; these things will be remembered. It is language, however, that is the vehicle of that remembering.

Guttenberg ushered in the age of the printing press and suddenly books became more easily available. But did the common good of the population improve? I heard when I was growing up that old Protestant diatribe that "Catholics were not allowed to read the Bible." It’s utter nonsense, of course, but we all share a false sense that the easy availability of books is a guarantee of an educated public. During the Middle Ages—the time of Aquinas and of Dante, that time many judge to be the peak of civilization—books weren’t readily available. Only few people had books. There wasn’t a Bible in every home, yet we commonly believe this era to be the Age of Faith. What was needed to be known was known. It was communicated. It was received. The Catholic Church in her wisdom was able to provide what was necessary.

Printing comes, books are distributed, and look what happens! Within 500 years nobody cares to read or, if they do, they read junk. When the barriers of the old Soviet Union fell, great works that were long forbidden to be read there became readily available again. But nobody would read them. The sheer availability of books does not guarantee an increase in knowledge in any way.

Electricity makes its advent into the world. Now, words can travel in the air. We are told to think of the great wonders radio will accomplish, bringing words to everyone who can hear. Words are available to every home coast-to-coast, but this only means a further devolution of language. Curiously, the more available words become, the less attention we pay to them. The more we take them for granted, the greater is the risk that we will lose them or have them taken away from us.

Soon enough, in comes photography and moving pictures. This is the image asserting itself over the word. Up to that point there was painting, sculpture, and stained glass. These in fact are images, too, but they were illustrative of the pre-existing traditions of story-telling to aid hearers with the additional sense of sight. There is a big difference between contemplating a medieval painting of a Madonna and Child and what the image has become today.

Now we’re in a world in which communication is less and less conducted via language. Over the past few decades, a growing share of our knowledge comes via the image, not the word. We now know by movies, TV, and computers. Screens with flashing images invite us to point and click, leading us to travel to more images. Where is the logic of consistently substituting an image for the word?

I live close enough to work so that I can walk between by office and my home. One year, I noticed the "walk" and "don’t walk" signs were gone. When I wasn’t supposed to walk there was this flashing palm in my face. When I was supposed to walk there was this flashing, bizarre figure frozen in mid-stride. A literate populace can read a sign! There used to be words but now there are pictures on all the traffic signs. It reinforces the fact that language doesn’t matter: what matters is the picture, the image, and this is damaging us in a profound way.

I confess I grew up on movies and still am attached to some, but the movie genre is weird! I also love the theater. Anyone who has done theater knows that its excitement is the interaction between live actors and a live audience. No two performances are ever the same because there is this energy between the performers and those who are watching the performance. Not in the movies. You could take The Wizard of Oz and have it played to a theater full of five-year-olds who are loving it and squealing, cheering, and laughing, or an empty theater with nobody in it other than the people picking up the empty popcorn and washing the floor, and it doesn’t matter. There is no change in the performance because there is no real life. Beyond that, it is the freakish fact that we’re looking at images captured in 1939, arranged and clipped together to amuse us. There is something weird going on. The weirdness is to be looking at images on a screen that are not really alive but appear to be so. More weird still is that I’m viewing an image of dead people who appear to be living before me. We know about the raising of images. Read I Kings (ch. 28) where King Saul visits the witch of Endor to have the image of dead Samuel raised before him. In the Book of Acts (ch. 8), Simon Magus, the magician who thought the miracles of the Apostles to be magic and sought to buy this power, in later years is legendary in Rome for raising up images. Scripture declares the divining of images to be evil. Where we find people raising images, or seeming to raise the dead, they are judged to be acting against God’s law. Yet, for decades we have amused ourselves by the images raised in movies.

There is a similar phenomenon in still photography. We have captured the images of people and display them in our home. Many of them are now long dead, yet we hear ourselves say, "Oh, that’s Aunt Sophie. Gee, she was wonderful! We had such fun that day, and look at that hat she was wearing. Wasn’t it great?" But nobody’s remembering to pray for her, because it’s as if she is still with us for having been captured on film when she was alive. It’s quite strange.

A Rival to the Godhead

If the movies and TV, through flickering images, mimic a kind of "raising the dead," they are sporting an omnipotence that rivals our Lord’s. Only those allowed to do so by God may raise the dead and the film media claim a kind of omnipotence.

Television is omnipresent; it’s everywhere. Try to find a restaurant, a place to have a shot and a beer without 14 screens surrounding you —CNN, ESPN, CNBC, MSNBC —with the volume up so loud that you couldn’t talk if you wanted to. So everybody just sits and stares at those screens which are everywhere —airports, bars, restaurants, every home, even classrooms.

Then, of course, comes the omniscience of the computer. All knowledge is now at our fingertips.

Combine these attributes of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience and we have made for ourselves a false god. These images are a false god, and we worship it. We love our movies, we couldn’t be without our television, and we behave as though our computer can tell us everything.

Last spring, I was covering Shakespeare’s sonnets in an English honors class. I got a paper from a bright kid saying Shakespeare wrote Sonnet No. 27 to "Marguerite." I’ve studied Shakespeare for 35 years and had never heard this. Then it dawned on me to try something. I sat at the computer and typed in "Shakespeare’s Sonnets." Up came a list of the persons to whom Shakespeare wrote every sonnet. Sure enough, "No. 27: Marguerite of Valois." I said to myself, "What is this?" and clicked back to "Introduction to Shakespeare." I clicked back again, "Shakespeare: The Man, the Playwright." Another click and I found it was a Sir Francis Bacon website put together by some lunatic claiming that Sir Francis Bacon wrote all the works of Shakespeare. Ludicrous! —Sir Francis Bacon lived in France before the sonnets were written and knew Marguerite of Valois and so it is obvious that he wrote Sonnet No. 27 to her. Go figure!? For all that, it is an impressively attractive website, for sure, but it’s purpose is to deconstruct. The poor student clicked on it and up came its lies. The computer is a medium for lies that we honor as truth because we are habituated to think, "It’s right there on the screen; it can’t be wrong; the computer knows everything." We can find everything on the Internet, yes, except the ability to rationally distinguish truth from a lie. That we cannot find on the Internet. In order to have and preserve the ability to reason, we must thoroughly know language. Those born and bred on the Internet suffer a lack of reasoning power and gradually become incapable of distinguishing.

When we follow the Word, we are led to the Ultimate Reality of absolute Truth. Contrarily, however, the image too easily falsely represents reality, deceiving us that it gives us absolute reality while it only captures an image of a reality which is not real. The image itself —especially the screen image —does not endure. It cannot last. The image changes as quickly as time destroys the very object being represented. The reality on the screen is totally unreal; it is not reality. On the contrary, the words of the Sacrament are real. A Shakespeare sonnet represents a reality of beauty, of a higher beauty that can lead one to the Ultimate Reality. When we ask of someone, "Please go to the store and buy me a lemon," we convey actual and true information to someone and create a bond with another human being in the most simple, practical, and day-to-day way. But those very bonds are being broken when the oral and written traditions vanish.

A Good Story Is Good For Us

Let me make a comparison. The word is to the image as the story is to visceral thrill or excitement. Let me explain.

We know that our Lord, the Word, came to us, and when He did He did not give us more commandments. They were there, of course, and they tell us what to do and not do. But when the Word taught us He taught in parables. When questions were asked, when He wanted to convey information, He taught in stories. And these stories fill the Gospels. They are profound and brilliant and by them we can in the here-and-now know what the Word taught. Our Lord knew that those parables would be handed down because men had memories and language mattered. Our Lord explained significant events using stories, intending them to be remembered and passed on. Would the Creator teach us by this means and fail to create in us a proclivity to listen to stories? It’s the reason why my little niece climbed up on my lap today and said, "Read me a story." It’s built in. It’s there in children. Deep down, it’s still there in all of us. We have a little free time, we want a story, "Tell me a good story"; "Let’s go see a story"; "Maybe (if a can read) I’ll read a book." But it’s becoming more and more a "maybe."

Why do we like stories? —Because they’re ordered; they’re easy to remember. In Aristotle’s Poetics, he defines tragedy as the imitation of an action which is complete in itself and has a beginning, a middle, and an end. My students laugh, "I could have written that," and I say, "No you couldn’t," because it is a profound idea. A story is the shaping of experience that lets us know there is movement in time from an initial starting point, through a development, to a place where it stops. Every story is a pilgrimage, just as every human life is a pilgrimage —coming from somewhere, moving somewhere, ending somewhere. A good story, properly shaped, will be ordered; it will be shaped along those lines, which is not an easy thing. Story is to literature what melody is to music and what line is to painting. It is that which defines the work of art, and it is the reason why plot is the most essential thing in literature. It is like carpentry. You’ve got to take the materials and assemble them piece by piece until your project is completed. On account of its complexity, it takes thought, discipline, art, shaping, craft, and wordsmithing to write a good story. We respond to a good story, which means it will be well told, makes sense, and of course, approach a truth.

But now, even narrative is being destroyed. Narrative is versatile. It can be as simple as Jack and the Beanstalk, "Once upon a time, there was a boy named Jack and his mother told him to take the cow to town and sell it," or it can be as complex as a Dostoyevsky.

At the insistence of some of my students, I watched the movie Gladiator. It wasn’t just that I loathed it, that I was bored to distraction, because I’d figured out the entire plot 20 minutes into the thing and there was another two hours to go. It was that it dawned on me how movies are made. For years I had been joking, "All you do in a successful modern movie is blow something up, then throw two people in a bedroom, then blow something up, kill somebody, go back into a bedroom, then stage a car chase at the end where everything blows up." But as I watched Gladiator, I became aware of why this is so. The reason is made plain by the fact that modern society has come to use digital clocks rather than analog timepieces. We have been habituated to looking at individual points in time disconnected from the flow and sweep of the big picture. On an analog clock face, you will see the big hand going round, the small hand going around, and the second hand going around which turns the minute hand. There is the sense of flow. The analog clock is an illustration of good narrative because it shows time as movement from someplace to somewhere. A digital readout displays isolated moments of time that don’t connect —8:21am, 8:22am, 9:04am. It is, if you will, the fast-food experience —Hungry, Eat, Big Mac, Buy, Swallow —as opposed to, "It’s dinnertime, David. We’ll have the soup I made from scratch with last night’s chicken. And we’ll have salad if you wash out that Romaine from the garden. I bought the thickest roast from the Jones brothers—wait until you see it! —and I’ve baked the last of this year’s potatoes....Remember how difficult the crop was? Then, I’ve got your favorite for desert, including the brandy. And, while we’re eating tonight, I have this great question that came up today when I was over at the Jones Farm." But feeding ourselves is now an animal activity like a seal barking for fish. Movies are now working in the same way: I go in, I sit down, I want a thrill. If something hasn’t blown up in the first ten minutes, I’m out of there. That is why a movie like Gladiator opens with this gigantic war scene. I didn’t know who was fighting whom, why, what had gone on, but they were slicing and dicing. Blood was squirting and I was asking myself, "Who are these people? Do I know any of these people? Do I care about these people? Is there a reason for all this?" In the background was some deep-voiced mumbo-jumbo. But the overall experience had no substantive relation to history; it had no relation to art; it had no relation to humanity. The only relation was between an image on a screen producing a visceral thrill in the one watching. What I’m getting is excitement, a blood-rush if you will. The movie maker is thinking, "We’ve got to keep the audience excited, so every ten minutes we’ve got to have an explosion, or impurity, a car chase, a murder,...something to keep them excited." Decades of this pattern have resulted in my students’ failure to respond to narrative.

In order to have a narrative you’ve got to have a proper exposition at the beginning of the book. You have to set up characters, places, time, background; we have a history, certain threads need to come together so they can be woven into a tapestry. My students have no patience for this. They can’t remember from one chapter to the next. The great books are closed to them because their ability to respond has been taken away from them. A colleague of mine who teaches Victorian literature said to me, "I went in to teach David Copperfield, but they can’t read it. I read Copperfield in ninth grade. I wasn’t particularly bright, but it changed my life." My friend meant they couldn’t remember who the characters were or lock on to a sequence of events. They say, "Nobody’s blown up. Nothing’s happening. This is boring." Of course, the vocabulary of the great books is now beyond them, too.

That ability to respond to a carefully crafted story is dead. They can only respond viscerally. They have been made Pavlov’s dogs. Ring a bell, they’ll salivate. Lop off a head, they’ll get excited: "Oh, it’s a great movie. I loved it!" Simultaneously, there is no way a parable can touch them. The vehicle of a parable is language, not images. And, at the most profound level, if there was ever a great narrative, a hugely Important Story, it’s the one that begins before the beginning, progresses through centuries, and as we know will have a definitive end on earth (though continue for eternity). The works of God form the greatest story ever told, but it is lengthy narrative and they cannot grasp it, nor do they want to grasp it.

I can no longer go to the movies. I cannot follow what is going on. That world is as closed to me as my world of Shakespeare and Dickens and the Scriptures is closed to them.

Speechless

Those things that they know —like Gladiator and The Matrix —will not be much use for teaching them what you need to tell them, what they need to hear. Faith comes by hearing, but they are going to have trouble understanding, because they are not used to serious language. The problem the soldier of Christ is facing has increased a hundred-fold. We are facing a very formidable task. I wish I could offer a quick and easy solution, but I can’t.

However, God will not abandon His people, and you must establish a prayer life. You must hold to what is true. You need to be prepared to be reviled, discounted, and attacked when you say those movies stink, to get rid of the TV, and that the computer is loaded with filth and lies. Try to engage the simplicity of our Lord’s parables which are tiny, simple narratives. Repeat the same buzz-phrases until they stick inside young skulls. Most importantly, trust in our Lady who loves all her children and will be there for them. We know she is going to crush the serpent’s head. It will end this world of images that he has set up that holds us all enthralled. In the meantime, you must win the mental universe of as many souls as possible. You need all of God’s strength, all of your seminary training, a devout life, a recognition of what has happened in the world and who is prince over it, absolute faith in God, a willingness to suffer and die for the truth, and total devotion to the Blessed Mother whose Immaculate Heart will triumph.