“God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5-7)
There are many illuminating things about Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s excellent new film about the Boston Globe’s groundbreaking 2002 coverage of systemic clergy sex abuse and cover-ups within the Catholic Church.
On one hand the film is an inspiring-yet-unromantic look inside the world of top-notch investigative journalism (the Globe won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for the reporting depicted in this film). And it comes at a good time. Newspapers have lost a lot of ad revenue since the early-Internet days of 2002 (when Spotlight is set), and substantive investment in investigative reporting is a luxury most cannot afford. Meanwhile, “the media” is the whipping boy of politicians and increasingly untrusted by everyone else. A recent Gallup poll showed that Americans’ trust in the media is at an all-time low. The media landscape is such that “instant” coverage feels mandated both by the speed of technology and the appetites of consumers in the age of newsfeeds and infotainment. All of this makes the sort of patient, long-form reporting depicted in Spotlight a bit of a relic and rarity in today’s world. And that’s something to be lamented.
We need more journalistic reporting like Spotlight. We need it because humans are very prone to doing bad things and really, really good at covering up those bad things. Someone needs to shine the spotlight on darkness, even if it means implicating ourselves too.
One of the most powerful things about Spotlight is that as the reporters and editors in the film (played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Liev Schreiber) go deeper and deeper into the story, they realize how much sooner this story could have been uncovered. Leads from years earlier were ignored. The pieces were all there. The signs pointed to this for decades. Even those tasked with truth telling sometimes don’t push hard enough or soon enough, perhaps out of fear or apathy or a wish that it just couldn’t be true. The journalists see just how easily a society can ignore hidden evil if it chooses to. As Stanley Tucci’s character says, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
Yet the film doesn’t belabor this point or overcomplicate the morality of good and evil. And that’s refreshing. The Catholic Church and the pedophile priests are the unambiguous villains here, even if the journalist heroes aren’t overly idealized. This is not one of those movies that leaves you feeling depressed because EVERYONE is just so depraved and the world is an irredeemably awful place. This movie is sobering, to be sure, but also hopeful.
Spotlight is sobering for obvious reasons, vividly exposing the depravity of those who “say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness.” It’s also sobering because it sums up some of the main reasons people leave the church and even stop believing in God. If the leaders of God’s church turn out to be perpetrators of evil (“they didn’t pray for us; they preyed on us,” says one victim in the film), how could that God be trusted? One of the most effective subplots in the film concerns the steady erosion of faith as Globe reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) digs deeper and uncovers more about the church abuse scandal. Indeed, it’s easy to see how something like this could turn a “lapsed Catholic” to a “no longer Catholic.”
Yet the film is also hopeful because it shows that evil can’t remain hidden forever. Lies are far less enduring than truth. Why? Because God created humans in his image: to seek truth, to fight for justice, to bring order out of chaos and light out of darkness.
By God’s common grace, even atheists can be the agents of good who expose sin and reform the church. Even the secular, “liberal media” can be used by God to advance his purposes. The Bible never suggests that only religious institutions or believers can do good or speak truth. Indeed, Scripture doesn’t hide from the fact that sometimes God’s people are no better (and often worse) than pagans: hypocrites, idolaters, sex offenders and so on. God has always used “outsiders” (e.g. the Assyrian or Babylonian empires) to expose and punish his people when they go astray. When God’s people do evil he is not afraid to shine the spotlight of shame on them. Far from a reason to lose my faith, that is a fact that makes me trust God more.