Saturday, July 2, 2016

Catholicism Without Apologies 8: Pop Culture, Historical Feuds, and Religious Vows

A Divine Double Feature


As I was pondering what to write for this issue’s ‘View from the Pew’, one subject seemed to suggest itself automatically. On the very day that I type these words, the Irish movie Calvary has been released. Most readers will probably know that this is an Irish movie starring Brendan Gleeson, and a sequel to The Guard, a well-received comedy that appeared some years ago.

The ads for Calvary show Brendan Gleeson in clerical garb walking along a beach, and the tag line is: “Killing a priest on a Sunday, that’ll be a good one”. I know from seeing the trailer, and from pre-release publicity, that it features a priest who is an idealist, rather than one of the collared monsters or idiots that we’ve been accustomed to seeing on the screen in recent years. Previews of Calvary have been enthusiastic.

I did go to see....and hated it

As well as this, of course, we have the Biblical (or quasi-Biblical) saga Noah hitting the big screen. This has been stirring up controversy (and attendant publicity) for months before its release. Not unreasonably, given the difficulty of turning four chapters of the Book of Genesis into a Hollywood epic, it embellishes heavily upon the Biblical account. The generally reliable Fr. Robert Barron, however, has given it a good review and defended its additions to the Scriptural story.

So, for a keen cinemagoer like me, this seemed like the obvious way to go. I would watch both these films, and surely find plenty to say about their treatment of God, the Catholic Church, and the place of religion in modern Ireland.


Entertaining Doubts

…I felt a strange reluctance to do so, and it took me a little bit of reflection to figure out why.

This is why. It bothers me that we are today so infatuated with the entertainment industry, and with pop culture, that the release of a Hollywood blockbuster based on the Bible is guaranteed acres upon acres of coverage, both in the Catholic press and on Catholic websites. And it’s not just coverage of the movie itself that is guaranteed, but coverage of its subject matter. How many articles about Noah’s Ark will have appeared in the last month or so, just because Russell Crowe happens to be playing that Patriarch on the big screen?

It’s not that I have anything against movies themselves. If I had no other duties, I could happily go to the cinema every day of the year. And I’m not complaining about people enjoying television shows, popular music, comic books, professional sport, or computer games. Life is hard enough without its entertainments, and many’s the movie or TV show that not only entertains, but also inspires and uplifts.

What really troubles me, and what I think should trouble all of us, is how pop culture has become our whole mental landscape, our whole mental atmosphere.

I am scared by the extent to which our attitudes, our vocabulary, our quotations, our jokes, even the metaphors we use, are drawn from pop culture. Pop culture is our lingua franca. It’s our mythology, our folklore, almost our entire way of life. Even supposedly ‘serious’ newspapers and radio shows seem obsessed with it.

Not so long ago, I spent a fair amount of time (reluctantly) overhearing the conversation of a group of colleagues, all in their thirties and forties. These were educated, intelligent, well-read people. And their conversation revolved, almost exclusively, around TV, celebrities and the entertainment industry. I’ve met adults whose mental energies seem more or less devoted to pop culture. It’s not a recreation to them. It’s almost the meaning of their lives.

Well, So What?

At this point, you may be asking what business it is of mine if people choose to take pop culture so seriously. Who are they hurting, after all?

I think we are all hurt by this. I think we are impoverished in our intellectual, social, cultural and spiritual lives. If we live in a pop-culture-obsessed society, we can’t help breathing its atmosphere.

Pass the sick bucket.
I’m not claiming that all TV shows and movies and pop songs are unwholesome, or banal, or a bad influence in some other way. Many are just the opposite, on all counts. But pop culture is less concerned with content than with style and attitude. It’s not the stories or themes or melodies themselves that lodge in the collective mind. It’s the images (‘iconic images’), the snatches of dialogue, the styles of dress, the makes of car, the physiques, and so on.

The bits of pop culture that tend to rise to the top, the ones that we see pictured on tee-shirts and posters,  that we hear quoted as latter-day proverbs, and that are endlessly ‘referenced’ in internet ‘memes’, tend to celebrate brashness, insouciance, wealth, power, irreverence, a casual attitude to sex, and that indefinable but poisonous concept known as ‘cool’. 


Think of James Dean with his collar raised. Or Marilyn Monroe having her skirt blown upwards. Or the line ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ from Gone With the Wind. Or a bejewelled Audrey Hepburn smoking a cigar in the lobby of a luxury hotel. Or Quentin Tarantino’s gangsters strutting along in slick suits. Is there any ‘iconic’ piece of pop culture that reflects humility, or reverence, or charity, or poverty, or remorse? I can’t think of any. 

And if we have all this tawdry stuff swirling around our brains, poisoning our imaginations, how can it fail to impact our spiritual lives?

 An Unholy Rosary

Now think about the prayer that often concludes the recitation of the Rosary: “Grant, we beseech Thee, that while meditating on these mysteries of the most holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise.” We meditate upon the images of the Rosary in the hope that they will raise our thoughts to higher things, that they will nourish our souls. This is also the idea behind icons, sacred art, stained glass, stories of the saints, and other devotions like the Stations of the Cross and the Sacred Heart. The Church, in its supernatural and human wisdom, has always known that our souls are shaped by what comes in through the eyes and ears, by what the mind and the imagination dwell upon.

Pop culture, on the other hand, gives us a kind of unholy rosary of its own. Instead of the Blessed Virgin kneeling before the Archangel Gabriel, we have Rolls Royces being driven into swimming pools. Instead of ‘”I am the handmaiden of the Lord”, we have “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more”.  These are the scenes and sayings that modern society ‘ponders in its heart’. I think the effects of this have been simply inestimable. In the words of Emerson, “You become what you think about all day long”. It may not make us violent or anti-social, but it makes us that much more disposed towards arrogance and egotism and worldliness, without our even realising it.

I still look forward to seeing Calvary. (Noah seems a little too overwhelming for my taste.) I happily watch Star Trek, The Office and other TV shows. My point is not that we should boycott popular culture. My point is that we should resist the insidious process by which it is becoming the new religion. And part of that resistance is to avoid treating cinema releases, and hit TV shows, as though they are momentous social and cultural events. Because even when they are, they shouldn’t be.

Over it, or Just Past it?

The State visit of President Michael D. Higgins to the United Kingdom has been the subject of much celebration. The general view seems to be that this is a welcome sign of improved Anglo-Irish relations, and of the animosities of the past being finally overcome.

I don’t disagree with that view, and (being a lifelong anglophile, as well as an Irish patriot) I’m certainly in favour of good Anglo-Irish relations. But I can’t help wondering if—on this occasion, and on many others—we are mistaking indifference for tolerance.

For good or for ill, the centuries of conflict between Ireland and Britain were based upon the idea that national identity was something precious, almost priceless. Both countries now seem to have more or less jettisoned this idea. (When is the national anthem of either country ever played anymore, outside sporting fixtures?) So what is there left to be at odds about? To have genuinely reconciled the ancient bitterness would have been a noble thing indeed. But I fear it has simply been shrugged aside, a case of two bald men being magnanimous over a comb.

Prince Charles. Not a Catholic.
This reminds me of the controversy, raised every now and again, about the right of succession to the British throne. As we know, a Catholic cannot succeed to the throne, nor can the spouse of a Catholic. Today this is often viewed as a ridiculous anachronism—which is exactly why I would not rejoice in its removal. It would not be religious tolerance, but rather religious indifference, which would lead to its abolition.

In the same way, we like to make fun of the Dublin theatre-goers who rioted against The Playboy of the Western World back in 1907, or the draconian censorship laws under which so many celebrated Irish writers had their works banned here in the first few half-century of independence. But are we really more tolerant today? Or do we simply take ideas and the written word less seriously? I suspect the latter.

The Vow Factor

There is an interesting article in the March/April issue of Religious Life Review, a Dominican Publications magazine, entitled ‘Christ Received in Religious Profession’.

 The article, by Bonaventure Chapman OP, examines the concept of religious vows, using the ideas of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, founder of phenomenology.

That might sound pretty heavy stuff, but the article is very readable. I especially liked these lines, on the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience: “Each vow gives something to us, presents something as given and only as given in a mode appropriate to the vow itself. Of course the ultimate given of each vow is Jesus Christ, and each vow allows Jesus to give himself to us in a particular way, as the poor Christ, the chaste Christ, the Christ who is obedient.”

In his final lines, Br. Chapman calls for religious orders to “go back to the very foundation of all religious life, back to the poor, chaste, and obedient Christ himself.” The author entered the Dominican Order in 2010. I hope he is typical of the new breed of consecrated religious.

"I have a vison of the future, chum..."

Why are religious vows so difficult for the contemporary Western mind to understand? I suggest that it is because we lack an appreciation of specialness. We cannot, for instance, understand that God is indeed omnipresent, but present in a church or holy place in a special way, and present in the Blessed Eucharist in the most special way of all. We struggle with the idea of special times, such as Lent, when fasting and prayer and alms giving are especially appropriate. We struggle with the idea of intercession, of a patron saint having a special charism.

It's a pity, because a world without specialness is a drab and dreary world, a world where everything is equally boring. Here's hoping contemporary society gets bored of such uninspiring sameness sooner rather than later.


  1. I totally agree with you about pop culture. Nice to hear someone say it. I'm always a bit embarrassed when mature people reference 'celebrities' or priests quote films or songs to make a point. I suppose a society can be judged, to an extent, by its pop culture- God help us!

    1. I wonder have I been too hard on it here. There are some very good movies, songs, etc. (I think). But I also wonder if pop culture, no matter how good, is flawed by its very naure. I tend to vacillate on this subject.