- Catholic Literature and Film: Incarnational Love and Suffering by Nancy Enright
If one were setting out to identify the heart of the Christian faith in general, and of the Catholic tradition in particular, one might very well start with the Incarnation of the Son of God. The Gospel of John opens, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God” (1:1), and it later adds, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us . . .” (1:14). This incarnational emphasis is repeated throughout the New Testament, and it became central to the writings of the Apostolic Fathers and their successors. As Pope Clement I explained around the [End Page 95] turn of the second century: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sceptre of the majesty of God, did not come in the pomp of pride or arrogance, although He might have done so, but in a lowly condition” Indeed, so essential is the Incarnation to the Catholic tradition that Bishop Robert Barron has recently written that “the great principle of Catholicism is the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God.”
But what, exactly, does the Incarnation mean for Christian life? A host of answers could be provided here, but a crucial one involves the arts. Indeed, it did not take long for many (but certainly not all!) Christians to realize that the Incarnation provides justification for religious representation—a view that is famously argued in John of Damascus’s eighth-century writings known as Three Treatises on the Divine Images. After all, if God has “imaged” himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, then it is fitting and even beneficial for human beings to use representation to come into a deeper relationship with God. This perspective has undergirded Catholicism’s historical support of the arts—a tradition that has endured to the present day. And yet, one might wonder, just how does this common stress on the Incarnation occur across artistic media? Indeed, is it possible to trace a medium such as cinema—which is increasingly digitalized and thus, in a sense, disembodied—back to the incarnational principles of Catholic thinking?
One of the key virtues of Nancy Enright’s book, Catholic Literature and Film: Incarnational Love and Suffering, is that it encourages us to ponder just these questions. After an introductory chapter, which establishes that Enright aims to explore how six literary works “have been portrayed, successfully or not, in film with a focus . . . on each film’s depiction of the sacramental quality found in the texts” (1), Enright allots one chapter to each work in question, from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s 1895 novel Quo Vadis (which has been adapted for the screen four times, most recently in 2001) to Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables (which has received several cinematic adaptations, including a major 2012 production). The book’s eighth and final chapter is simply entitled “Conclusion,” and it underscores what Enright sees as the fundamental [End Page 96] intent of this project. As she puts it, “the incarnational aspect of Catholic (and, in general, Christian) theology enables the physical tendency of films to convey spiritual realities since the concept of incarnation allows for visual representation of the holy” (145). For that reason, she determines, cinema can aid in the representation of Catholic thought and of the literary works that convey it.
Enright is aware that this is hardly a novel thesis: “Such depiction of the sacred through images has a long history” (145). Thus Catholic Literature and Film does not so much seek to break new ground as till the soil, so to speak, for deeper engagement and further reflection. It is not, then, a seminal scholarly study on theological aesthetics on the order of a Hans Urs von Balthasar or a Richard Viladesau, nor is it an intensive reading of, say, “theology and film” or “theology and literature.” Still, to make these points should by no means suggest that the book is unhelpful. On the contrary, Enright’s book might serve as a worthy resource and dialogue partner for...