Religion and the Arts: Augustine's Netflix

Binge-watching is America’s new pastime. Netflix alone currently boasts 43 million subscribers and counting, who—to adopt a wry turn of phrase from an article in The Economist—are “living the stream.” Netflix­ and its competitors Hulu, Amazon Prime Instant Video, HBO Go, et al have revolutionized how and how much we watch television and film.

They have commercialized entertainment ad infinitum: drama, humor, insight, and a good plot line compel our attention as a kind of dramatic watering hole, something we come back to again and again during our given work week. The plot lines of our favorite shows are familiar, quirky, and dependable like a close friend, and online streaming has only expedited this quality time. Each show and movie slowly gives shape to an entire life that we imaginatively inhabit. In a certain poetic sense, it is not a coincidence that the plot diagram itself figuratively (and literally, if you consider the shape) imitates the human pulse. Thus the comfort and autonomic vitality of a continuous stream of plots packaged in episode form: exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution; …repeat; …repeat; …repeat; …(are you still watching?); …repeat…

Our increasing consumption of television and film provokes if not an explanation, then at least a question: why are we so ritually devoted to television and film? How do we as audience members form relationship with it, and appropriate its meaning? As a partial response, I would like to contextualize the question by considering the ways in which the television and film inform and are informed by religion, particularly via the topic of conversion. In my mind, this entertainment serves as some of the most effective contemporary media for religious reflection on conversion. They are both fundamentally democratic arts in their scope and audience, producing a seemingly endless amount of diverse narratives, while welcoming viewers of every age and race to encounter each new story. Likewise, with regards to thematic content, each story gives an account not only the nature and personality of human relationships, but also our capacity (or lack thereof) for reconciliation in the midst of the conflict-ridden plots of our lives.

Thus, more specifically, we can say that television informs religious reflection with regards to the logistics (the drama?) of conversion. Here, I should be specific about my predication. Whose conversion is this: the character’s, the actor’s, or the audience’s? Whereas the first two may be equally intriguing to consider, let us focus on the audience. How can television and film inspire conversion in the audience, and how can they compromise it? To ask more broadly: how do we as audience members, immersed in narrative, receive and participate in these stories?

There is much to be said about the capacity of television and film to provoke minor and major forms of conversion, and far be it for me to condemn out of hand my own favorite pantry of entertainment after a long day’s work. Nevertheless, I’d like to offer here a more negative thesis not of its use, but its abuse: at its worst, our mass-consumption of television and film tends to idolize human drama. Whether the story be tragic or comedic, romantic or violent, we as consumers can addict ourselves to patterns of conflict and emotional catharsis, and slowly substitute entertainment for—and thus eclipse—true, embodied conversion of heart. Have we as consumers made the Golden Globe into a new Golden Calf?

This all bears some unpacking. Given that the thesis is pejorative, it is not without precedent, if not in one’s personal experience then at least in history. Indeed, Netflix and other forms of streaming media embody a streamlined and well-invested iteration of an entire history (and evolution) of entertainment; its heritage is far from inculpable. A cluster of its significant precursors—and some of my favorites—are recounted in Augustine’s Confessions, a serendipitous moment for us of theological meditation by a Church Father on the relationship between popular entertainment and religion. If we can permit the anachronism, what did Augustine’s Netflix look like?

In the text, Augustine queues two favorite sources of melodrama in his youth: the life and death of Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid, and the tragedies of theater. Recalling a strikingly strong boyhood spite for study (“I had no love for reading books and hated being forced to study them”; “I learnt nothing unless compelled”[1]), Augustine nevertheless identifies more pernicious habits in his study of the Aeneid. He recalls his duplicitous habit of reading “the wanderings of some legendary fellow named Aeneas (forgetful of my own wanderings)” and his compulsion to “weep over the death of a Dido who took her own life from love. In reading this, O God my life, I myself was meanwhile dying by my alienation from you, and my miserable condition in that respect brought no tear to my eye.”[2]

Augustine’s tears flowed liberally in response to literary tragedy, but not to his own spiritual tragedy. It is an ironic compassion: he purports to suffer with Dido by forgetting himself, and yet thereby indulges an empty pity and disregards the truly urgent cause for pity, his own alienation from God. He preferred to rest in oblivious literary sympathy, rather than to truly “read” his own life in Dido’s; his sadness became an end in itself.

But isn’t the Aeneid a literary masterpiece, an exemplar of classical culture? Is not Dido’s tragic love story a work of art? Perhaps, but art and audience as easily imitate and obscure as reveal truth. To many in fact, Augustine observes, “such madness is considered a higher and more fruitful literary education than being taught to read and write.”[3]

Augustine’s self-blinding and cloying pity only continues in his college years in Carthage, which he not-so-affectionately remembers as a city in which all around him “hissed a cauldron of illicit loves.”[4] As all around, so within: Augustine hastened into the Carthaginian cauldron, hoping to plumb the unbridled passions of a hopeless romantic (a hopeless concupiscent?) who was “in love with love.”[5] He recalls:

As yet I had never been in love and I longed to love . . . My love was returned and in secret I attained the joy that enchains. I was glad to be in bondage, tied with troublesome chains, with the result that I was flogged with the red-hot irons of jealousy, suspicion, fear, anger, and contention.[6]

It is not by coincidence that the following paragraph shifts suddenly to Augustine’s memories of the theater, the artistic space where the “red-hot irons” of passion are writ large as public spectacle. Augustine writes,
I was captivated by theatrical shows. They were full of representations of my own miseries and fuelled my fire. Why is it that a person should wish to experience suffering by watching grievous and tragic events which he himself would not wish to endure? Nevertheless he wants to suffer the pain given by being a spectator of these sufferings, and the pain itself is his pleasure. What is this but amazing folly? . . . A member of the audience is not excited to offer help, but invited only to grieve.[7]

Suffice it to say that Augustine in Carthage was the naïve, happy prisoner of passion. He depicts his attachment to love as a self-induced torture, an imperious “flogging” by a tide of emotions, “jealousy, suspicion, fear, anger, and contention.” Theater captivated Augustine by stoking the flames of his newest emotional obsession with impunity. When Augustine did not have to suffer the tragedy directly, and could safely enjoy it at a distance, misery magically transformed into mercy. His tears were salty yet sweet. For Augustine the theatergoer, “pain itself [was] his pleasure.”

By no means is Augustine’s theatergoing a far cry from his boyhood pity for Dido; nor, for us, a far cry from our Netflix-going. As in Carthage, so in television: the romantic spectator, like Augustine, slowly enchains himself or herself to an imaginative love and a safe misery that promises the unadulterated sweetness of sympathy and catharsis.

Thus, the inevitable question: are we so different from Augustine? Sin is our spectator sport of choice, safely enjoyed at the distance of a remote; fictional drama rehearses our own self-righteousness, indignation, and offense at others; an expertly trained, sensitive, “artistic” sympathy binds itself to the mast of cinematic artifice. The sirens are calling, and we listen, bound and entranced. “For the more anyone is moved by these scenes,” Augustine presages, “the less free he is from similar passions.”[8] How often do we escape the pain and sin of our own narratives by instead intoxicating ourselves on sympathy for the misery of others? How have we abused television as a replacement for real and lasting ethical change? How do we insistently stream our own illusions?

To close, let us take Augustine’s interrogation of entertainment seriously: “What quality of mercy is it in fictitious and theatrical inventions?”[9] Because in a definite sense, there is both quality and mercy possible. Television, film, and other “fictitious and theatrical inventions” just as capably can inspire robust and lasting forms of reconciliation, and can teach us how to take up rather than shrug indefinitely the cross of humility and forgiveness. Nevertheless, from Augustine’s time to ours, we have emotionally adapted to binge-watch an artificial mercy, and the first casualty is our understanding of what it means to be human. Unchecked, our horizon of meaning reduces to a secular consumerism: sensuality at the expense of sacrament, in-carnation at the expense of incarnation. Indeed, there is no conversion without true mercy, and the capacity to recognize the difference. And to anticipate the coming post, this is to suggest positively that humility might transform our participation in art into a vulnerable encounter with mercy, and that liturgy in turn might offer the recuperative sacred space in which this humility is exercised and renewed.

[1] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), I.xii.19.

[2] Ibid., I.xii.20.

[3] Ibid., I.xii.21.

[4] Ibid., III.i.1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., III.ii.2.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.


Thomas Graff

Thomas Graff is a PhD candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge. He researches on Augustine of Hippo and Dante Alighieri, and is interested in the relationship between contemplation, literary form(s), and theological reflection.

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