I’ve finished reading Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. I’m sure there will be much discussion of the document over the next few weeks, and much reflection. As the Pope says in the introduction, “Given the rich fruits of the two-year Synod process, this Exhortation will treat, in different ways, a wide variety of questions. This explains its inevitable length. Consequently, I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text.”
So rather than a rushed discussion of everything in the document, I wanted to pull one aspect out since it relates to what we do here at Ignatius Press Novels. And that relates to stories.
Here are three points to consider.
Parents need to be models of marriage for their children, and also provide them with examples in media. The Pope quotes the Relatio of the Synod on the Family, saying “one of the fundamental challenges facing families today is undoubtedly that of raising children, made all the more difficult and complex by today’s cultural reality and the powerful influence of the media”. He also says that to be properly educated, “Children need symbols, actions and stories.” Children absorb messages from media very quickly, and it’s incredibly easy as a parent to just sit back and let kids read or watch whatever is on. You can’t just go by ratings: there are many G or PG movies out there with harmful messages about family, identity, and love. Kids learn from stories, and if the story they absorb is that, for example, love is magic (as Roger Thomas puts it in this great essay here on IPNovels.com), the reality of adult relationships will hit hard. And don’t just watch things, read with your kids, play them music, show them art. Give them the stories that matter.
Some good resources to check out in this regard: A Landscape with Dragons by Michael D. O’Brien (I have some quibbles with him on various particulars, but he’s a wise voice worth listening to AND the book includes a wonderful list of suggested children’s books at the end.) For films, I often look to Steven Greydanus at DecentFilms.com, as his moral guidance and observations are far more sensitive than the average movie guide site. I’ve also found some great recommendations from Joseph Susanka at his blog Summa This, Summa That.
Adults and teenagers aren’t immune to bad narratives. Often books, television, and films only lead people to think of a wedding as the culmination of a relationship. Francis says we should make sure couples “do not view the wedding ceremony as the end of the road, but instead embark upon marriage as a lifelong calling based on a firm and realistic decision to face all trials and difficult moments together.” There is also a tendency, as the Pope says, to “dream of an idyllic and perfect love needing no stimulus to grow.” When we absorb these stories, we can end up viewing conflict of opinion or fluctuation of desire or imperfections in our spouses as being an indication that the relationship is doomed because of incompatibility. Other bad narratives abound: the idea that men must have sexual variety and experience with multiple partners, the normalization of pornography, women needing to meet certain standards of beauty at all times. An almost endless list could be drawn up.
So where can we find good narratives, even ones that directly address the brokenness that can afflict marriage and family? Some can be found here at Ignatius Press Novels: Ida Elisabeth by Sigrid Undset is a powerful depiction of brokenness and marriage. The Accidental Marriage by Roger Thomas subverts the modern clichés of romance with a story that manages to be deeply traditional and wildly unconventional at the same time. We’ll Never Tell Them by Fiorella De Maria explores the feelings of restlessness and unrooted nature that young people face today by having her young protagonist face the past as she listens to a story told by an old man.
Beauty isn’t a luxury or something superfluous to “add on”, it is essential. In giving an example of joy, the Pope recounts a scene from a film: “We can think of the lovely scene in the film Babette’s Feast, when the generous cook receives a grateful hug and praise: ‘Ah, how you will delight the angels!’“ Joy, sorrow, love, pain, loss… we all will experience these in life, and the beauty to be found in art is an essential way to explore the human condition. As our Pope Emeritus Benedict said, “All true human art is an assimilation to the artist, to Christ, to the mind of the Creator.” Ignoring beauty in music, art, literature, and architecture (or regarding it as some kind of luxury for aesthetes) has led to a widespread impoverishment in society. We should be unafraid in saying these things are essential. And raising our families to appreciate these things will result in adults who are able to ground themselves deeper and be open to the beautiful without the sort of easy cynicism that often passes as sophistication. To quote from Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’: “By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism. If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple.”
There’s much more, of course, to absorb from Amoris Laetitia and I plan to read it again—especially the marvelous passages on family life. But hopefully these reflections on the power of narrative to either help or harm the way we view marriage, sexuality, and family can prove of use to readers. And if you have recommendations for reading, viewing, or listening: add them in the comments!
Image: Family reading The Betrothed by Manzoni. Painting by Emilio de Amenti, 1876.