Here we are on a Tuesday afternoon at our local coffee shop with our laptops. We teasingly call ourselves the Tuesday Trailblazers. There are eight of us. Our trails are movie trailers. We blaze them by stepping into the film clips and stories they offer, seeing where our footsteps might lead us.

Today we hope to have a soulful conversation about letting go, addiction, and parenting. We open our laptops, get online, and read the review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Beautiful Boy. “It’s the story of a teenager who gets addicted to crystal meth and, despite the loving support of his family and his own best intentions, can't stop using it.” We watch the trailer of the movie embedded at the bottom of the review. Then we talk about some of the scenes in the trailer.

In the course of our discussions the trailer and the scenes become, for us, what Parker Palmer calls a third thing. A third thing can be a poem, a work of art, piece of music, a story, a case study — something that friends step into and have a dialogue with, making space for their souls to come forth in an indirect way. This is what happens as we discuss the scenes in the trailer for Beautiful Boy. A few of us are struggling with addiction ourselves. We each approach the trailer in our own way, together weaving what Palmer calls a “tapestry” of truth exploration. After the discussion we are all a bit wiser, and we say to one another: “I must go see the movie.” But, even if we don't get to the theater or stream the whole film, the trailer has been our teacher.

We will meet next week and do the same. One of us is a gardener, and we decide to let our focus be the trailer for Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf, along with the Brusssat’s review of it. Most of us have never heard of Piet Oudolf, but that doesn’t matter. We want to discuss ways in which the more-than-human world, especially the world of plants, can be a teacher for us and for all. We’ll read the review and watch the trailer and then talk, as usual, with the trailer and review as our springboard.

Envoys as Teachers

What I’ve offered is a hypothetical example of something that can happen in many different settings: coffee shops, living rooms, churches, synagogues, mosques, and libraries. In an age where people’s attention spans are increasingly limited and many people don’t have time to see very many full-length movies, trailers and film clips can function as third things: short works of art in their own right that can evoke and inspire, even as they are also teasers for what some might consider "the real thing."

For my part I am not comfortable with considering trailers and film clips only as proxies for something more "real." It seems to me that trailers now function in two ways: (1) as lures for thought and reflection that have artistic merit of their own, and (2) as envoys or diplomats for the films they want to “tease” us into seeing. My suggestion is that, in a hurried age such as our own, it is alright for them to function as envoys even if we do follow up on their diplomatic function. Let the teasers, especially those with evocative clips and narratives, be our teachers.

Fragments as Wholes

There is nothing unique about this; most of us do this all the time with written texts. Think of reading a short passage from some inspirational literature without reading the text as a whole: a parable from Jesus, a saying from the Qur’an, a passage from Torah, a verse from a poem, an opening paragraph from a novel. Yes, it would be good to read the text as a whole, to have the larger context. And yet the text can have meaning for the reader even if not linked with the larger whole.

In this function, so I believe, something of the Spirit of Creative Transformation is at work which, for process thinkers like me, is God at work in the world. The reader brings her own life experience to the passage or the paragraph, and Spirit works in her and with her as she learns from the text. We do not always need wholes. Sometimes fragments are what we need and all we have time for. Moreover, in their own way, textual fragments are wholes, too.

And so it can be with trailers and film clips. They are cinematic fragments that are also wholes. And they are plentiful. There was once a time when trailers only appeared before you watched a movie at a local theater. Now they are online everywhere where there is internet service. If you doubt their abundance, check out the Top Movie Trailer section of Rotten Tomatoes.

Reviews as Third Things, Too

If you adopt the practice of viewing trailers as third things, I suggest that you also consider reviews as third things. You will find many to work with at Spirituality & Practice. The combination of moving images and verbal texts yield immense rewards, not only because the Brussats cover movies so well, but also because their Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy helps provide a spiritual lens for viewing the films; every film review indicates one or more of the alphabet practices in the "Related" coding.

I’m a huge fan of the spiritual alphabet offered in Spirituality & Practice, with its inclusion of qualities of heart and mind, of forms of relatedness, that I might otherwise neglect. Often, when I think of spirituality, I think of compassion, kindness, and justice, all of which are part of the spiritual alphabet; but I sometimes neglect imagination, play, yearning, and zeal (or, as I put it, zest for life). The alphabet is, for me, a consistent invitation to be on the lookout for the many ways we humans seek and sometimes find wholeness, often in community with one another.

In the spiritual alphabet “A” is for attention. The spiritual alphabet is an invitation to attention, including the attention we can bring to watching movie trailers and film clips. Spirituality & Practice does this all the time in its marvelous film section. We can do it, too.