As I have in years past, I shall recall any good things from the popular culture that are harmonious or helpful to Catholic culture. There were many things this past year and many things coming up in 2020 that are antithetical to the Gospel. But there were a few bright spots in 2019.
And as I have previously written, it is not necessary to indulge a fascination with pop culture, 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 2020. 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.
This year, we had a few explicitly religious films like Breakthrough, Overcomer, and Unplanned. While all the films were modest hits, grossing between $20-$50 million, their smaller budgets make them profitable. This is especially interesting regarding the controversy with Unplanned, which garnered protests for its message and portrayal of abortion.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was biopic about Mr. Rogers starring Tom Hanks. One of the very nice things about the film is that it does not shy away from Roger’s Christian faith. We see him praying and asking for prayers throughout the film. You can see his relationship to Christ as an integral part of understanding him as a person.
The Christ Figure
As I’ve written before, 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.
This most important example is probably Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame. This movie is one of the few unifying pop culture flashpoints in modern society as it is now the highest-grossing movie of all time. In class, I have found it to be incredibly potent in explaining sacrificial love, as we find in the Gospel. The analogy to Christ is explicit and strong, where Tony stands up to the living embodiment of death in Thanos. The story makes clear that there is only one way to save everyone and it must involve Tony laying down his life for everyone. To be clear, Tony is not a perfect Christ figure, as he is a fallen and sinful person like all of us. But what makes him heroic is what makes him Christlike.
God and the Catholic Church on TV
There have been a number of times that God and the Catholic Church have been referenced and, quite frankly, mercilessly abused on television this year.
Shows like Preacher and His Dark Materials, are based on source material where the main quest of the heroes is to find God and kill Him. The TBS comedy Miracle Workers has God portrayed by Steve Buscemi as an out of touch, incompetent moron. The Amazon show The Boys has one of the “heroes” say something so vulgar about god that I cannot rewrite it here. Also on Amazon, the show Fleabag portrayed an atheist slowly drawing a foul-mouthed “cool” priest into a sexual relationship.
Showtime particularly targeted the Catholic Church for its ire. The L-Word made sure to bring up the Catholic Church as a source of negativity and oppression. The show Work in Progress had the main characters scream at a nun saying “Your religion is at the heart of my misery!” And not to be outdone, SMILF had a woman break into a Catholic Church, shout “Abortion!” at the top of her lungs, gorge on communion wine and then steal a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Other smaller channels like IFC had a show like Brockmire demean God and call Jesus “The Mayor of Auschwitz.” Trevor Noah on The Daily Show indulged in the tired trope of attack the Church’s teaching on marriage by calling the clergy pedophiles. The SYFY series Happy! has the main villain mock Catholicism and Easter in ways that are incredibly distasteful. To make matters worse, the story revolves around this villain getting the Pope to agree to an evil plot to “Make Easter Great Again!”
Mainstream network television were not immune. The now cancelled The Kids Are Alright said that the Catholic faith only works if you don’t think about it too much. NBC’s Bluff City Law had the main characters attack the Catholic Church over its teaching on IVF and the show portrayed a priest misrepresenting the moral teaching on euthanasia. CBS’s The Young Sheldon consistently has the title character mocking Christian beliefs. One disgusting thing this season occurs when a teenage girl was baptized. Sheldon’s brother is sexually attracted to her and when she emerged from the baptismal font, she is filmed from his character’s perspective in a rather sexualized way. To take the primary sacrament of forgiveness and sanctifying grace and turn it into a homage to the pool scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High is in rather poor taste. In addition to this, CBS’s show Evil makes sure to show a priest commit fornication.
But Netflix gets special mention for two programs. The first is The Two Popes. Bishop Robert Barron has a wonderful review of the film that he says gives a very nuanced portrayal of Pope Francis, but turns Pope Benedict XVI into a caricature. The former pope embodies, according to Barron, the film makers fantasy of a what a traditionalist pope is: someone with a withering faith who hides it behind doctrinal rigidity.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was The First Temptation of Christ. A Brazilian comedy, the story portrays Jesus as a gay man who comes out fo the closet to Joseph and Mary and mocks all that is holy. As a result, many people, including myself and my wife, plan to cancel their Netflix accounts. As usual, Christ and the Catholic Church are the strongest visible representations against the corruption of the fallen world. Even with all of the scandals that the Church continues to endure, it represents the pillar of Christian culture. Christ and the Catholic Church His Bride will always be the target of attacks in a fallen world.
© W. L. Grayson, 2020