c. 2005 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) The ratings for the televised daily miniseries that attended the death of the last pope and the investiture of Benedict XVI were pretty good _ better than day-to-day church attendance. But then, you don’t have to be Catholic to be entranced by spectacle.
Apparently we need something mysterious and ornate amid the mass-produced drabness of modern life. For the past several years, Roman Catholic symbolism and end-of-days theology has been pervasive in American pop culture.
The most obvious example is Dan Brown’s 2003 thriller “The Da Vinci Code” (officially condemned by the church), which has sold more than 20 million copies. Principal shooting of the movie, featuring Tom Hanks, is under way in Europe. A healthy percentage of the people tuning in to the papal funeral and investiture last month (which, according to Nielsen Media Research, numbered in the millions despite the live events’ non-prime U.S. time slots) presumably were fans of the novel, which asserts that the church has led a centuries-long conspiracy to keep the truth of Jesus’ human nature secret in order to elevate an all-male, celibate priesthood.
The “Da Vinci Code” theme is remarkably similar to that in “Dogma,” the 1999 movie in which Alanis Morissette plays God, George Carlin is a marketing-savvy cardinal, and Linda Fiorentino is the last descendant of Jesus on Earth. (“The Da Vinci Code” also features a “Last Scion” of Jesus’ family, who is, again, a woman.)
Keanu Reeves played DC Comics’ spiritual gumshoe John Constantine this year in “Constantine,” a movie with computer-generated Hell effects based on the architecture of eternal damnation set out in Catholic teaching. In last year’s horror/adventure flop “Van Helsing,” Hugh Jackman portrayed the vampire-killer from Bram Stoker’s novel as a Vatican foundling raised by the church to kill Hellspawn monsters. The movie even features a monkish laboratory in the catacombs below St. Peter’s basilica where the clergy manufacture blessed swords, silver bullets and stakes and gas-powered crossbows that shoot silver-tipped arrows. On television, the teenage heroine of “Joan of Arcadia” girds for battle next season with the smirking, handsome Devil behind a paint-ball Catholic church desecration.
There have been spikes of pop Catholicism before in American culture, but usually they involved efforts to bring Catholicism into the mainstream. “Going My Way” won seven Oscars in 1944. In that classic, Bing Crosby played against the eccentric stereotype of Catholic priests at the time, portraying a golf-loving St. Louis Browns fan who revived a decaying inner-city Irish parish with all-American charm.
Lately it’s the secret, incantatory Catholicism that dominates. The heavy in “The Da Vinci Code” is an albino member of Opus Dei (a conservative Catholic organization founded in Spain under the reign of Generalissimo Francisco Franco) who wears a cilice, a leather strap lined with metal hooks that is cinched around the thigh to discourage sexual thoughts. The albino is a holy hit man who whips himself bloody after every murder his “Teacher” orders him to commit. Compared to balmy old Bing, he’s something out of “The Exorcist,” the runaway 1974 hit about satanic possession in a Georgetown townhouse.
In retrospect, “The Exorcist” seems to signal the beginning of the shift in pop culture from the mainstreaming of Catholicism to a fascination with pious perversity.
The real-life backdrop to this shift involves the conservative trend in the church itself since the last years of Pope Paul VI (1963-1978), and the effort to roll back the innovations of the 1960s and Vatican Council II in order to return to old fire-breathing catechisms. Mel Gibson, who belongs to a breakaway Catholic sect that insists on the Latin Mass, is not a member of Opus Dei. But one of his assistant directors for the gore-flecked “The Passion of the Christ” was, and the movie _ the biggest hit of 2004 _ is full of visual inspiration for the self-flagellation practiced by committed devotees of Opus Dei.
Another explanation for what might be called Catholic goth is the global pedophilia scandal among the Catholic clergy, which over the past 15 years (it actually started in Ireland in 1991) offered mounds of evidence that some priests and bishops were indeed engaged in a conspiracy. This year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is “Doubt,” by John Patrick Shanley, which explores gender tensions within the Catholic clergy by having an older, conservative, often-ignored nun accuse a progressive, charismatic young priest of child abuse.
Ultimately, everything in pop culture is about marketing, and religion is part of culture, too. Mainline Christianity (Presbyterians and Methodists, as well as Catholics) may have been losing ground in recent years to a new, hotter, more personal evangelicalism. But if it’s antiquity-based thrills that are particularly wanted now, the Roman Catholic Church has the keys to the basement of Christian eschatology (the theology of the end of the world).
In the end, pop religiosity fits nicely with standard American entertainment genres because there really is very little difference between voluptuaries of the spirit and of the flesh. Both are extremists, and both call on an emotionalism and recklessness that toys with lived experience in favor of a promised revelation.
James Bond meets the Exorcist. Let’s go out and save the world.
MO/JL/PH END BISCHOFF
(Dan Bischoff is a staff writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)
Editors: Search the RNS photo Web site at https://religionnews.com for a photo illustration showing pop culture signs of the times.