by Stephanie Cherpak Clary
Moving pictures—shadows and light—like a magic trick, done in plain sight. Why do we love them? Why do we care when they’re just moving pictures that aren’t really there?” –Neil Patrick Harris
Neil Patrick Harris hosted the 87th Academy Awards
Neil Patrick Harris opened the 2015 Academy Awards with an entertaining, musical number that begun by asking just why we all care so much about what was being celebrated that night—actors, actresses, directors, cinematographers, make-up and costume designers, editors, musicians, writers, artists, and more. The vast majority of us do not work in the production industry and will never attend the Oscars as either nominee or guest. Still, many of us care deeply for the work honored at this ceremony because it has entered our theaters, our family rooms, our minds, and our hearts. It has awakened our emotions. It has touched our lives. But, just why does an audio-visual story represented on a screen affect us so significantly? By using the framework of Karl Rahner’s sacramentology, one can see how a categorical expression of existential human experience sacramentalizes these experiences into something that can be meaningful for all who encounter it.
Karl Rahner’s theology of sacrament begins with assertion of the church as the basic sacrament of Christianity:
As the ongoing presence of Jesus Christ in time and space, as the fruit of salvation which can no longer perish, and as the means of salvation by which God offers his salvation to an individual in a tangible way and in the historical and social dimension, the church is the basic sacrament.
The church (as sacrament) does not cause Jesus to exist historically or cause Christ’s resurrection. These are events that have already taken place—historical realities to which the present existence of the church points and simultaneously pushes forward into a future reality by its very existence. Therefore, by saying that the sacrament of the church does not cause the initial existence of Jesus of Nazareth and the risen Christ, one is not saying that the church has no effect on the promulgation of these realities and their subsistence into the future, but is, instead, suggesting that the church is a categorical expression of an event (God’s revelation) that is already taking place and, aided by this categorical expression, will continue to take place in the future.
By understanding the church as the basic sacrament, with past, present, and future dimensions (i.e., the result and proof of the historical Jesus and risen Christ which already existed and exists; the present, tangible manifestation of Christ’s existence and message; the foundation for the continuation of Christ’s existence and message into the future), one
establishes a framework with which to view “the sacraments” as meant by the typical use of the term within Catholic doctrinal theology—the seven sacraments of the church (i.e., Baptism, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Eucharist, Orders, Matrimony, and Anointing). In the same way that the church does not cause the existence and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the sacraments are not magic rites causing miraculous events to occur. Rather, the sacraments are rituals categorically expressing “existentially fundamental moments of human life,” moments filled with God’s grace regardless of whether they take place within or outside of the sacramental ritual. Rahner explains:
We are not people who have nothing to do with God, who do not receive grace and in whom the event of God’s self-communication does not take place until we receive the sacraments. Wherever a person accepts one’s life and opens oneself to God’s incomprehensibility and lets oneself fall into it, and hence wherever one appropriates one’s supernatural transcendentality in interpersonal communication, in love, in fidelity, and in a task which opens one even to the inner-worldly future of humanity and of the human race, there is taking place the history of the salvation and the revelation of the very God who communicates Godself to humanity, and whose communication is mediated by the whole length and breadth and depth of human life.
What the sacraments do is express these experiences of God in a way that is tangible in time and space. Additionally, like the expression of the church as the sacrament of Christ’s presence, the sacraments not only celebrate the ongoing existence of transcendental experiences of God, but also promote future, similar experiences. After recognizing God’s action and presence in the seven sacraments of the church, one should be led to recognize God’s action and presence during other times “when a person believes, when one hopes, when one loves, when one turns to God, when one turns away from one’s sin, when one acquires an inner and positive relationship to one’s death, when one opens oneself in eternal love to another person in an ultimate way,”as well as amidst any other number of existentiell human experiences. It is the act of existentially and categorically expressing existentiell and transcendental experiences that sacramentalizes universal life events into the faith-based, faith-filled, and faith-promoting rituals commonly known as the seven sacraments.
Film as Sacramentalizing Human Experience
Rahner’s strongly anthropological theology allows film to be sacramental because it reveals existential, human experiences. S. Brent Plate highlights this idea in his reflection on Man With A Movie Camera, saying,
by focusing on the profane, the everyday and taking the events to the editing room, the film gives insight into the extraordinary events of life: birth, death, love, community. . . . It is only through the world’s re-creation that the sacredness of such profane activities can occur.
In the same way that a sacrament sacramentalizes an event of God’s grace, calling attention to, expressing, and affecting the reality of the event, film has the capacity to sacramentalize life events. The capturing of oft occurring events of human life onto a screen, within specific constraints of time and space, from particular distances, angles, and perspectives, sacramentalizes these events for no other reason than that they are purely human. Identifying with the events expressed in the film and recognizing the commonalities amongst humanity represented by the sacramentalized events allows one to observe and experience these events in a different way than when experienced in reality. It is because of this sacramentalizing of existential events of human life that a conversation between film and theology is possible.
By approaching study of film and theology in with this methodological framework, one avoids forcefully thrusting a reading of God’s presence into a film’s narrative or lying a theological theme over a film as a filter through which it should be viewed. Instead, the film is encountered on its own, often atheological, terms and theological connections are allowed to be raised by the film’s sacramentalizing of human life. This method of film as sacramentalizing requires one to first discuss the way that the film cinematically represents the existential life event(s) in question and then to discuss the suggestions and implications this representation has for theology.
Near the end of Neil Patrick Harris’s 2015 Oscars’ opening number, he aims to answer the question with which he opened the performance: why do we care so much about films when we know that their stories are carefully planned and presented representations of reality, but nonetheless, representations. His answer, “Moving pictures—millions of pixels on screens—moving pictures, they may not be real life, but they’ll show you what life really means,” proposes nothing advertently theological; but, because it speaks to the experience of being human, of finding meaning in life, and of seeking truth, it suggests that our films are so important to us because they are nothing short of sacramental.
 Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1978), 412.
 Lambert J. Leijssen, “Rahner’s Contribution to the Renewal of Sacramentology,” Philosophy & Theology 9, no. 1-2 (January 1, 1995): 210.
 Rahner, referring to Thomas Aquinas, explains how sacraments are simultaneously signa rememorativa, demonstrativa, and prognostica (Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, 428-429).
 Ibid., 415.
 Ibid., 411; Quotations throughout this paper have been edited for inclusive language.
 Ibid., 429.
 “The two spellings, ‘existential’ and ‘existentiell,’ follow the German usage. ‘Existential,’ as in Rahner’s phrase ‘supernatural existential,’ refers to an element in humanity’s ontological constitution precisely as human being, an element which is constitutive of one’s existence as human prior to one’s exercise of freedom. It is an aspect of concrete human nature precisely as human. ‘Existentiell,’ as in Rahner’s phrase ‘existentiell Christology,’ refers to the free, personal and subjective appropriation and actualization of something which can also be spoken of in abstract theory or objective concepts without such a subjective and personal realization” (Ibid., 16, footnote).
 Leijssen, “Rahner’s Contribution to the Renewal of Sacramentology,” 206-207, 214-215
 Ibid., 52-53.
- Stephanie Cherpak Clary is an M.A. Student in Systematic Theology at CTU, focusing her studies at the intersection of film and theology.