Ron Austin’s In a New Light: Spirituality and the Media Arts

This review was originally published at Sojourners.

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Even at a length of just under 100 pages, Ron Austin’s In a New Light: Spirituality and the Media Arts is four or five books in one, a quality that proves to be both an asset and a considerable stumbling block. Jumping hastily from theological aesthetics to film history to personal testimony, while also proposing a particular, collaborative approach to film production, Austin sounds an important wake-up call to inattentive consumers and creators of popular entertainment. That he moves too quickly at times, leaving certain parts of his argument in sketch form and making occasional factual errors along the way, is perhaps excusable in a book of this length and scope, but it’s a disappointment nonetheless. In a New Light is otherwise a significant little book—not to mention a pleasurably readable one—that reintroduces much-needed terms like “transcendence,” “imagination,” “empathy,” and “art” into a dialogue too often dominated, instead, by celebrity gossip, box office returns, and, particularly in Christian circles, simple moralizing.

Part one reads like it might have been written by Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, who rambles through the suburbs of post-war New Orleans while on “The Search” for some vaguely holy sense of permanence and wonder. For Austin, art should ideally be an open exchange between the artist(s) and audience, both of whom are “awake” and “attentive” to the sacred “present moment.” This is a moral and spiritual issue, he argues—one demanding a selfless and disciplined approach akin to meditation. The goal, ultimately, is to participate in a creative act that transforms our understanding of violence, human worth, and grace. “If a drama does not lead us to the discovery that our own lives are as enmeshed as those of the protagonists in desire and delusion,” Austin writes, “then we will either have to purge our complicity at the expense of someone else, or wallow in self-loathing and the despairing assumption that there is no way out.”

Austin fallows his opening treatise by spotlighting 13 exemplary film directors who “responded to the spiritual needs of the time by advancing the art form.” Beginning with the silent era (Charlie Chaplin and Carl Dreyer) and covering several important movements in film history (Italian Neo-Realism, French New Wave), Austin’s primer is a handy introduction for readers who are new to the spiritual tradition in cinema. As in the first section of the book, where Austin’s borrowings from scholars such as Martin Buber and René Girard necessarily oversimplify their ideas, here he again speedily glosses over the formal innovations of his chosen filmmakers. Devoting only a half-page to Dreyer while according six times that much to Eric Rohmer is an especially odd but typical choice.

Austin’s at his best when he positions a filmmaker in a particular religious or philosophical tradition (Jean Renoir and François Truffaut’s humanism, Ingmar Bergman’s existential despair, Robert Bresson’s icon-like photography), but his tendency to make idiosyncratic and hyperbolic pronouncements gets him in some trouble. Calling Bresson the “most truly avant-garde filmmaker in film history,” for example, would be difficult to justify, as would his dismissal of Jean-Luc Godard. While Austin acknowledges the Western-centric makeup of his list and drops the names of Asian directors Satyajit Ray and Yasujiro Ozu (who he incorrectly calls Sanjiro Ozu), the absence of world filmmakers can be felt here, as can the fact that the youngest artist he spotlights, Martin Scorsese, is now in his mid-60s.

While the blurbs on the back cover of In a New Light tout Austin’s professional résumé—his background as an actor who once worked with Chaplin and Renoir, and his time as a writer and director on network television—the real inspiration for this book, presumably, is his more recent experience as a teacher, workshop leader, and counselor. When, in the first appendix, Austin shares his “personal reflections on faith,” his writing becomes more assured and compelling. He identifies his readers as fellow media artists (directors, writers, actors, technicians, etc.), but his lessons are applicable to us in the audience as well. “What art, including films, revealed to me,” he confides, “was a unity deeper than the disunity of the discordant world around me.” That a film might inspire awe and curiosity in a viewer, rather than consumption and gross spectacle, is a surprisingly radical idea in America right now. With In a New Light, Austin offers encouraging, first-person advice to anyone who would desire to “wake up” at the movies.