Finding God on a TV Screen

By Fr. Jim McDermott, SJ 

 

I have been a Jesuit nearly 24 years and completed a million retreats, but I am no good at the classic Jesuit “Imagine yourself in a Bible story” prayer. I am supposed to be. I have seen it help many people, but it does not usually work for me.

Maybe related, I watch a lot of television. OK, it is probably related. Cable dramas, Tina Fey/Amy Poehler-type sitcoms, foreign series — I want it all. Even if I have not seen it yet, I still know much more than any person should.


I can justify this. I studied screenwriting at UCLA and work as a writer on a television show. But I also grew up learning TV was the “boob tube,” a way of inducing a zombie-like, mindless state. Today we often talk about watching TV in “binges”  not exactly a sign of healthy living.   


Personally, I wonder whether our televisions contain a reservoir of grace just waiting to be discovered. The stories we choose, the characters we follow, the plot lines that affect us — they are not arbitrary. We watch what we watch, because on some level, it speaks to our hopes, fears, and needs.

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This sounds abstract, priest-y, and not at all fun, but try an experiment. The next time you watch a favorite show or movie, do the following 

1) Ask God to be with you and bring you light.  

2) Enjoy the show like you always do.  

3) When it is over, put the commercials on mute where they belong, and consider what stirred you when you watched. Where did you laugh or feel infuriated? Who is your favorite character? Why?  

 

That is it; just a couple minutes of sitting with what you watched and noticing how it affected you. You might be tempted to ask “bigger” questions, like why does that character make me so angry? Why do I wish the mom on Mom were my mom? What does it all say about me?

But that is a slippery slope. This is not analysis, after all; just your favorite show. If questions come up, fine. But instead of trying to answer them yourself, leave them with God. “God, what is it about Barry Allen/Peggy Carter/Lisa Simpson that I love so much?” Trust if there is something to know, God will show you in good time.  

 

My experience is that doing this little by little helps you notice desires, dreams, and questions, all the good background stuff that gets lost in the midst of the busy.


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For example, I love The Good Wife, the CBS show about the spouse of Chicago’s district attorney, who struggles to forge her path after her husband is caught philandering. A series about navigating impossible conflicts between a public and private life, the show presents a conflict that I can relate to as a priest.

Taking time to notice my reactions watching the show was like shining a light inside myself. It gave me a clearer sense of something I wanted to pay attention to and bring to God.


Television is entertainment, but it is also a lot like Jesuit prayer, a practice where we put ourselves in the hands of a story, sit back, and let it surprise and nourish us. Here, too, gifts come to us, emotionally and even spiritually. We just need to pay attention to notice them.

As Ferris Bueller said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Tonight, when your show is over, take a minute to look around.
 Whatever is on, you will not want to miss it.


Fr. Jim McDermott, SJ, is a former associate editor of America magazine. He completed his M.F.A. in screenwriting at UCLA and also studied literature at Marquette University and Harvard University. Fr. McDermott has worked in the development department of AMC Networks Inc. and currently works as a writer on an upcoming AMC TV show. 
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