Dallas Willard on cinema’s fumbled vision of freedom

Russell Minick Leave a Comment

Here is the first and last paragraph of a paper about satisfaction and cinema by Dallas Willard:

The aim of this paper is to cast light upon the moral vision—the vision of what is good and what is obligatory—that governs many if not most of the motion pictures produced in the United States in recent years. I especially have in mind productions such as PleasantvilleCider House Rules, and American Beauty, and will give special attention to these three movies in what follows. But the phenomenon in question extends far beyond these cases. The basic idea governing these films is now a wide-spread and deep-lying conviction in the contemporary American soul. It is that moral rules and rigorous moral order in life, as traditionally understood, are meaningless or pointless at best, and really are repressive of the best aspects of human relationships, individuality and creativity. What would have traditionally been thought of as moral propriety and human goodness is now generally thought of as arbitrary and as harmful to life, if not downright vicious (at least in its effects), largely because they eliminate or repress feelings, the true elixir of life.

The broader and more basic problem underlying the tendency in contemporary movies I have tried to bring out here is the problem of establishing a certifiable knowledge of human goodness that gives us a third way between the two alternatives noted. Since the dominance of a refined version of Judeo-Christian ethics vanished at the end of the Nineteenth century, we have had nothing that could pass as moral knowledge in Western culture. Nietzsche saw clearly the cataclysmic nature of the historical passage beyond that ethics into Nihilism, but neither he nor anyone else has been able to find a replacement for it in human life. In the vacuum that remains, there is little we can do but vacillate between outward conformity to rules (that’s what “political correctness” is, a secular Phariseeism) and the indulgence of feelings. Neither comes to realistic terms with the human heart and personality. This explains many things about out culture, such as how highly addictive we are, how our essential individual and communal covenants cannot be maintained, the abysmal failure of education, and the incredible percentage of our population that is ensnared in the legal and penal system. Cinema and TV can, of course, only reflect this sad situation. They cannot correct it. But we should at least understand what they are offering to us and not mistake the vision of liberation through sensuality as a vision of reality.

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