“And the Oscar for Best Actress goes to…Jennifer Jones, for her portrayal of St. Bernadette Soubirous in The Song of Bernadette.”
That was not from the Academy Awards of March 2, 2014, of course, but from March 2, 1944, 70 years ago, the first time the Oscars were held at Hollywood’s iconic Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Garnering more nominations than any other film, The Song of Bernadette only lost the Oscar for Best Picture to that rather obscure film—Casablanca.
But neither the actual person who won Best Actress, nor the actual site of the ceremonies reflects the most significant change between last night’s awards show and that of seven decades earlier. No, the most “dramatic” development of the intervening years has been society’s loss of apprehension of the actual—that which truly is, as opposed to what one wishes or supposes things to be.
Exactly what can films teach us about fact? After all, apprehending reality seems simple enough. Science teaches us to employ our five senses in conducting experiments that unravel the heretofore “unknown.” Thanks to science we now know, for example, that the stars are huge spheres of gas and energy millions of light years away. We know that our sun is one of them and that by harnessing its power we can reduce the pollution associated with other means of energy production and so keep our planet safe and green.
Religion, on the other hand, which speaks of things like “God and creation,” or “the soul and sin,” or “heaven and hell”—all of which cannot be scientifically proven—is either an “opiate of the masses” at best or a threat to women’s “reproductive rights” at worst. Thus, in America in 2014, we cannot talk about God in a classroom, nor engrave His Name on a plaque above one, without violating the “establishment of religion” clause of the Constitution. Belief in a “God” is an individual matter best expressed within the confines of one’s own home like other fantasies, such as the “tooth fairy.”
As Anthony Esolen put it in his introduction to his recent recension of Dante’s Divine Comedy: “For us, the setting sun, the number pi, Seattle, a father’s role in the family, have nothing to do with one another. Even those who profess the Christian faith live in a dead and silent world: religion has retreated into the foxholes of the heart and says nothing about the stars.” As Carl Jung, one of the founders of modern psychology put it:
Through his skepticism the modern man is thrown back upon himself…. How totally different did the world appear to the mediaeval man! For him, the earth was eternally fixed and at rest in the center of the universe, encircled by the course of a sun that solicitously bestowed its warmth. Men were all children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for eternal blessedness; and all knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves in order to rise from a corruptible world to an incorruptible and joyous existence. Such a life no longer seems real to us, even in our dreams. Natural science has long ago torn this lovely veil to shreds. That age lies as far behind as childhood, when one’s own father was unquestionably the handsomest and strongest man on earth.
For a Christian, Jung needs to be taken with several measures of salt, but there’s still something to be said for his medieval “symbolist method” of apprehending the totality of reality. In this he was joined by his contemporary, the French intellectual Rene Guenon (d. 1951), also known as Shaykh ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahyar (for whom the same Christian measure-of-salt-proviso holds). As the Jesuit scholar Jean Daniélou explained, Guenon’s
first service to truth was his rehabilitation of symbolic understanding in opposition to scientific epistemology…. For men trained in the methods of the exact sciences, as chemistry or astronomy, any idea of a return to alchemy and astrology is a monstrous absurdity. Guenon held, on the contrary, that the whole direction of modern thought was hugely astray; he found more of the substance of truth in the childish fancies of the astrologers than in all the technical achievements of scientific astronomy…. Science enlarges the dimensions of the cage in which the mind of man is imprisoned, but all the science in the world will not get him out of it. But in the intuitive perception of symbolism, the mind reaches out from material reality to grasp another reality beyond: this is an enlargement of the spirit…astronomy teaches us the mechanics of the heavenly bodies; but this is superficial knowledge. The stars are full of meaning, which is much more important.
The problem with conceding the visible world solely to sense-based scientific knowledge and hiding religion in the attic like a crazed uncle is that if that is the only kind of factual knowledge there is, then not only are God and the tooth fairy neurotic, naïve fancies, so are things like human rights, respect for the environment, and obedience to a lawful constitution. As surprising as this news might come to most people, there’s simply no scientific experiment which proves that one “ought not” kill people, pollute the planet, or shred the Constitution.
When the 1944 Academy Awards were held, Hitler’s Germany was pursuing to its logical end the implications of the same scientific materialism that currently challenges us, and even smothers us, today. If “right” and “wrong” have no scientific factual basis and if that’s the only basis for facts (upon which public education and law and commerce are conducted) then who exactly were America, Great Britain, and their allies to seize the moral high ground and call the Nazis “intolerant” and “evil”?
When one considers our contemporary prevailing notions of tolerance based on scientific rationalism and moral equivalency, one is reminded of C.S. Lewis’ remark: “What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced?” To state it another way, there must be an alternative avenue for apprehending right and wrong besides the sense-scientific method or otherwise civilization itself is ultimately lost. The nihilistic Nazi and Communist regimes of the 1930s and 40s killed tens of millions in war and tens of millions more in concentration camps.
One Jew, who miraculously escaped the horrors of the gas chambers expressed his view that the real “war” of the 20th century was the battle to save the actual—that which truly is—and realizing that the totality of what is transcends the limited spectrum which our eyes and isotopes are capable of detecting:
Not a material but a spiritual principle is at stake in this, the only genuine world war. Today the fronts are still confused and the further developments are not to be foreseen. On the one side strands radical nihilism which no longer regards the human being as the image of God but as an amoral machine in a completely meaningless world. On the other side, on our side, stands the metaphysical, the religious concept of life, the conviction that this Cosmos was created by the spirit and that a spiritual meaning lives and breathes in every atom. It is indeed a war between the principles of life and death.
These words were penned by the Austrian playwright, Franz Werfel. Fleeing the Nazis with his wife, Werfel ended up in Occupied France, finding safe haven in a little hamlet near the Spanish border called Lourdes. Werfel made a vow that if they evaded the Gestapo and made it to America, he would tell the story of France’s great heroine, St. Bernadette Soubirous. In 1858, the illiterate peasant girl was said to have been privileged by the repeated visits of the holy Virgin Mary, under her title “The Immaculate Conception.” Miracles of healing and conversion followed swiftly despite the atheist politicians’ attempts to stop the faithful from worshipping at the grotto of the apparition.
True to his word, having reached the US in 1941, Werfel produced a novel, The Song of Bernadette, which became a bestseller (it sold 300,000 copies in its first week). 20th Century Fox bought the movie rights and Werfel was brought on board to develop the film, which became the biggest blockbuster in Fox Studios history to that point. The Song of Bernadette received 12 Academy Award nominations and scored victories for Best Actress, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Music.
Imagine a time in American history when Hollywood not only produced, but lavished its highest honors upon a film about a Catholic teen who sees “visions” of Christ’s Mother asking people to offer “prayers and penances” for “sinners.” What’s more, the film’s protagonist is persecuted by the town’s scientific materialist prosecutor (expertly played by a young Vincent Price) and ultimately rejects the love of a young man to become a perpetual virgin!
The notion that the most precious parts of human existence—Grace, Love, Paradise—are precisely those that cannot be “proven” resonated with audiences in 1944. In The Song of Bernadette (in contradistinction to the songs of Miley Cyrus!) young women (and men) are given the message that “fulfillment” is not to be found on this earth; Mary tells Bernadette: “I cannot promise to make you happy in this life, only in the next.” That there is a next life, and that it is more real, not less real, for being invisible was at the heart of Werfel’s vision:
The Song of Bernadette is a jubilant hymn to the spiritual meaning of the universe. Through the medium of this simple and charming personality, we see how even in our age of skepticism, divine powers are at work and how they raise an ignorant creature, favored by grace, beyond her own natural limits. Although the story takes place in a Catholic milieu it is not only bound to the Catholic form of life but concerns equally all men—Protestants and Jews—and all men whose hearts intuitively recognize the divine powers which in rare moments gloriously transfigure our daily reality.
Lastly, they say “art imitates life” and so, on that same March 2nd night, as the work of a refugee couple from Nazi-occupied France won four Academy Awards, Casablanca, a story about a refugee couple from Nazi-occupied France, won the Oscar for Best Picture, as well as for Best Director and Best Screenplay. Though not overtly “religious” in nature, Casablanca gives the same witness to the imperishable parts of reality as Song of Bernadette.
Co-writer Howard Koch once explained the film’s enduring appeal: Casablanca shows “values that are worth sacrificing for.” Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), an escapee from a Nazi concentration camp and leader of the resistance is constantly willing to lay down his life for “liberty,” not something demonstrable in a laboratory. Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) sacrifices her happiness for love of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) when she learns not only that her husband Victor really isn’t dead after all, but that Nazi-occupied France would mean a death sentence for Rick. Ultimately, love is another “intangible” without which human life becomes meaningless. Then, at the film’s conclusion, there is ex-pat Rick himself, who, instead of running off to America with Ilsa, puts her on a plane with Lazlo for the sake of Victor’s happiness—and the fate of the free world. “What about us?” she asks him. “We’ll always have Paris,” he consoles her. He cannot promise her happiness in this life, just the certainty of their past—and a foretaste of future beatitude?—“Goodbye, Rick…God bless you.”
Seventy years later, these classic motion pictures have much to offer in the struggle to restore to our society that sense of wonder at reality which makes room for what’s really real—that quality otherwise known as sanity. Would that we should all be so star-struck. “For those who have faith, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, no explanation is possible.”
 C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (Harcourt, Brace and Company; London, K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., ltd., 1933 ), 325.
 Jean Daniélou, The Lord of History: Reflections on the Inner Meaning of History, translated by Nigel Abercrombie (London: Longmans; Chicago: Regnery, 1958), 122-23.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Bk 1.
 Franz Werfel, “Writing Bernadette,” 126, as cited in Hans Wagener, Understanding Franz Werfel (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1993), 156-57.