Saturday, July 12, 2008

Light, Truth, Spirt, and Cinema Part Two: Personal Worthiness

Trevor's stated purpose at the top of this page is "to challenge, develop, define, and encourage a cinema influenced and created by Latter-Day Saint doctrines." I hope this post can help to do that. I'm going to use the dangerous word "should" a lot in this post. I want you to know from the outset that I'm not trying to assert my own omniscience or prescribe inflexible rules. I'm stating principles I believe in, but they are larely based on my own interpretations. Unless otherwise noted, all the quotations below are from Elder Robert R. Steuer's General Conference address given in April 2008.

"To observe the physical properties of light can be exciting, but discovering the properties of spiritual light and truth is even more awe inspiring and essential."

As indicated by part one of this series, I believe that the light we work with as filmmakers is in very fact the Spirit of Christ that fills the immensity of space. It is not only light, but also Spirit and truth. Accordingly, our work can benefit from an understanding of its properties. As says the Doctrine and Covenants, "the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled, only upon the principles of righteousness" (Doctrine and Covenants 121:36). I intend in this post to use Elder Steuer's talk as a guide to discussing how our artistic works benefit from personal worthiness as it relates to our use of the Spirit. I realize that the term "use" when applied to the Spirit may seem offensive. If I were referring to the Holy Ghost, it certainly would be; and yet, all these things are given for the benefit of man. I ask you to remember the paradigm set forth in part one. Elder Steuer continues:

"We live in marvelous times, yet also an hour when peace has been taken from the earth.1 For us to prosper in these times, spiritual light must burn within us. How do we obtain this spiritual light and ensure that the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ fill our souls? I would like to suggest three ways: (1) learn true doctrine, (2) gain pure testimony, and (3) live the gospel courageously."

According to our paradigm, filmmakers of all kinds utilize Spirit inevitably. But LDS filmmakers, in order to utilize Spirit appropriately, must be personally worthy and in tune with the Holy Ghost. It makes sense that a medium governed by truth is best placed in the hands of those who live according to truth. Also, that truth be an essential part of the purpose of any work done in that medium. Now, I'm not saying that film should be didactic or "preachy." To the contrary, we should allow the Spirit to do the teaching throught the instrumentality of our films. However, the Spirit cannot testify to something that isn't true. Films can be a means of provoking thought - inviting questions from the individual that lead him or her to personal enlightenment - but this process is facilitated by the enlightenment of the film's creator. One who is filled with the Spirit of truth can more easily embed within a film the grains of truth or Spirit that will reach out to those in the audience.

Elder Steuer points out that a knowledge of truth is essential to posessing spiritual light. In the context of this discussion, I want to suggest that this means that we should strive to understand the ways in which the doctrines of the gospel apply to the films we make and watch. This really, in my opinion, should be obvious. I've discovered over what few years I have behind me that often, when I think through some radical new idea I've been inspired by, it turns out to be just another way of framing the old ideas. In other words, I add complexity to a simple truth, only to be brought back around to its simplicity. This is an interesting principle for filmmakers too, as it in some ways describes the process we follow in taking an audience through our films. I'm mostly speaking of making film in this post, but I believe film viewing can benefit from these principles too.

The second suggestion, to gain pure testimony, implies that we cannot utilize spiritual light appropriately unless a conviction of its truth rests within our souls. In the mission field I was taught that I could not help convert anyone beyond the level of my own conversion. I believe the same is true in film. While our goal is not necessarily to convert, I find that films are best when they have something to say. In the same vein, saying something false damages both speaker and receiver. Although a good film can present many things without advocating one over the other, if we're going to say (advocate) something, it should be true, and we should know it is true.

This could be construed as a departure from my statement that films should lead others to ask questions. Not so. We shouldn't require our audiences to take what we have to say blindly. Not even the Lord asks us to take His word without confirmation. You realize that I'm not so much talking about structural elements of the film, such as setting and the basic establishing contextual points; I'm talking about message and values. I think that audiences should be able to come away with a clear idea of what is being said in a film - on both sides - and then search those messages for truth. It's obvious that I'm struggling with what I mean, but that demonstrates how difficult and flexible this topic is.

"Elder M. Russell Ballard said: 'Clear declaration of truth makes a difference in people’s lives. That is what changes hearts.'"

It is often said that testimony is found in the bearing of it, and that's what I think LDS film should do. I know that this is done in varying ways, but I think that we, as a whole, abuse the God-given medium if we refuse to use it to build God's kingdom. I'm not prescribing anything in terms of specific form or content, I'm simply stating that our purpose should be in keeping with our values, or we are using film unworthily. Our works can carry the light of Christ. Back to Elder Steuer:

"President Boyd K. Packer reinforced this truth in saying: 'The Light of Christ is also described in the scriptures as ‘the Spirit of Jesus Christ.’ … The Spirit of Christ can enlighten the inventor, the scientist, the painter, the sculptor, the composer, the performer, the architect, the author to produce great, even inspired things for the blessing and good of all mankind.'"

To me, this means that our works should strive to be inspired. Some may say that inspiriation is not ours to demand, and I would agree. Instead, it is ours to cultivate. I believe that the Lord is ever willing to inspire those who seek Him, and our own worthiness opens these lines of communication to us. Mimicking Hollywood or trying to push the envelope for the sake of edginess, ratings, or just to do something because it is new, funny, or possible is in my mind second class filmmaking. There must be some higher purpose. However, like Nephi, we may at times only know what we are commanded to do, without knowing the reason. Indeed, this is probably best. We couldn't presume to know all the ways in which our films could touch others and we shouldn't try. But "the Spirit knoweth all things" (Alma 7:13).

"Recent scientific thinking on the fundamental properties of light is indeed stunning. Today scientists even describe light as a “carrier”6 or “messenger”7 or “mediator.”8 How profound are the doctrines of the Lord!"

I'll leave the implications of that statement to your interpretation, but remember that this is physical light that is being spoken of by the scientists. It is a General Authority in General Conference who is putting it into the context of spiritual light. To me, this is more evidence that they are one in the same.

"President Spencer W. Kimball said: 'The treasures of both secular and spiritual knowledge are hidden ones—but hidden from those who do not properly search and strive to find them. … Spiritual knowledge is not available merely for the asking; even prayers are not enough. It takes persistence and dedication of one’s life.'"

This is my main point, and Elder Steuer's third suggestion. Courageous, personal dedication to truth enables us to become the servants of truth. As its servants, we are eligible to create works that contain this truth in a powerful way. I would argue that we are obligated to do so. If, as Trevor has noted, that which defiles a man is what comes out from him, we should be very cautious that we do not allow anything profane to come out from us in the form of a production, performance, or other contribution to a film. I think I've said this before, but I'm not implying that our films must refrain from depicting anything but the most sanitized saintliness. Neither am I saying that we can only deal in "spiritual" subject matter. The gospel unites the eternal and the temporal. I'm saying that the personal worthiness of the creator, the purity of his or her heart, is vital to the success of the creation and its acceptability before God. Let man do with it what he will, we are - or should be, I think - interested in creating after the pattern of Him who created all things. Remember, in the beginning, the Spirit of God moved, and God said, "let there be light" (Genesis 1:2-3).

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