Catholic Pop Culture of 2015

As I have for the last two years I shall recall any good things from the popular culture that are harmonious or helpful to Catholic culture. There were many things past year and many things coming up in 2016 that are antithetical to the Gospel. But there were a few bright spots in 2015.
And as I have previously written it is not necessary to indulge a fascination with pop culture (e.g. you don’t have to care about what awkward deviancy Miley Cyrus is advocating this week), but we should have some awareness of it and maybe (if it is our charism) to engage with it to make it more Christlike.
I would like to focus on the most Catholic moments in pop culture from the past year. As a teacher, I have found that using the language of modern television, movies, and the like can be very effective at illustrating all manner of theological truths.
It should be noted that any mention of positive examples from movies or television shows below is not an endorsement of the entire of the entire project. Some stories have mixed messages. Or some may be too explicit or violent. This is merely a touchstone to highlight any good moments that came out of pop culture in 2015. And feel free to disagree. But here are some points that I intend to use in the classroom.
Beware, in order to discuss the Catholicity of the movies and television shows below, SPOILERS may be introduced.
Explicitly Religious
The biggest Catholic event in American popular culture this past year was, of course, Pope Francis’ visit. There was wall to wall coverage on every major network and it was overwhelmingly positive with incredibly high ratings. Celebrities like Mark Wahlberg were heavily involved in the events that Pope Francis attended. The interest and excitement was all over social media to the point where Twitter has a major ad campaign completely focused on how the Holy Father trended so heavily on the internet. And while its lasting impact on our society has yet to be measured, at the very least it was a major Catholic pop culture phenomenon.

The phenomenal success of the Bible mini-series from 2013 led to the airing of AD: The Bible Continues on NBC. This met with less acclaim than than the 2013 show, but it was a fairly faithful and earnest portrayal of the early Church.

In theaters, fairly sizable stars like Kevin James, Kate Mara, David Oyelowo lent their talents to movies of explicit Christian significance like Little Boy (with James), about a boy who turns to faith when his father is away at war, and Captive (with Mara and Oyelowo), the true story of a hostage situation in Atlanta where reading from the Bible and The Purpose Driven Life to the captor helped affect the outcome.. There were also other the incredibly profitable War Room, a movie about turning to prayer to face the challenges of life, which made back more than six times its budget at the box office.
The Christ Figure
Ever since the dawn of Christianity, Jesus has been the ideal archetype for the hero. He defines what a hero is, particularly His willingness to lay down His life for the greater good.
There plenty of examples of this in movies this year, particularly in classic hero stories. SPOILERS AHEAD. In both Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and Avengers: Age of Ultron, we have important characters who willingly risk and then lay down their lives for others. Particularly we have in one of those films, someone who gives his life in an attempt to save the soul of another from evil. Even the sillier superhero film Ant-Man had the main character make a choice in the end that would likely have resulted in his death. Yet he chose to take the risk because he judged that he was willing to die for others. And in the Disney remake of Cinderella, the filmmakers emphasize how the main character is forgiving and loving to those who wish her harm, just as Christ did for those who persecuted Him.
Christian Culture
In much of the television landscape explicit references to the everyday influence of Christianity on life is often overlooked. This year, The Jim Gaffigan Show on TV Land deals with the main character and his seriously devout Catholic wife. Often there are jokes about how irreligious Jim is in contrast to his spouse, but overall the show gives a very positive reflection of Catholic life. In fact, as Jim often tries to worm his way out of his Catholic obligations, he often gets his comeuppance for doing so. The characters try to enroll their children in a prestigious Catholic school. Images and statues of Jesus and the saints are clearly on display in their home and are often referenced. And the local priest is portrayed a bit overly earnest, but his genial attitude is set up as a nice foil to Gaffigan’s foibles.

Speaking of television priests, the superhero show Daredevil on Netflix often had scenes with a hard-edged, big city priest. The main character Matt Murdoch/Daredevil would often bring up his Catholicism when struggling with his urge to do violence to criminals. Often he would seek the priest for counseling. And while this priest was not gentle and genial like the priest on, it was still a very positive portrayal of the priesthood. He tells the story about his philosophies when he was a young priest: he thought that Satan was just a fictional representation of sin, but he wasn’t real. Yet after traveling the world as a missionary and seeing real evil, he became convinced of the reality of dark supernatural forces and how they need to be opposed. The Catholic characters on Daredevil do not live the ideal, but you can see the Church and the priesthood as an overall positive.

And on the show Fargo, there are a lot of bloody and violent encounters involving the criminal underworld. But the heroes of the show (the law enforcement officers and their family) try to live a life of traditional goodness and decency. One of the characters, Betsy, is wife and mother who is dying of cancer. A teenage girl, who has been reading a lot of French existentialism, tells Betsy that the books she is reading say that life is pointless and absurd. The dying woman very calmly and matter-of-factly says to the girl, “We’re put on this earth to do a job, and each of us gets the time we get to do it. When this life is over, and you stand in front of the Lord, well you try and telling Him it was some Frenchman’s joke.” Even though she is surrounded by evil men and crushing sickness, she finds purpose in the life given to her by God. Her statement wasn’t preachy, but a simple statement of her belief. It was beautiful and refreshing.
There are many more things to be said about the popular culture of 2015. But for now, here are some moments that we can use to help illustrate the truth of the Gospel.

Copyright 2016, W.L.Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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