Pop Culture Joan of Arc
I recently decided, and announced publicly, that I was leaving the Catholic Church.
My argument: there seems to be no room for art in the Church anymore. Rock and roll, modern art, film -- all the great, dynamic art forms of the later 20th century have very few Catholic practitioners and little to no Catholic analysis.
Art is a central part of my life. I couldn't be part of a Church that didn't acknowledge and even support modern music, painting, or film.
Was I wrong? Is art really that important?
Catholic friends pointed out that there are certain truths enumerated in the Catechism that overlap with human reason. Human beings seek the transcendent -- and often find it in love. Men and women are different (thank God) and complimentary. Sin is a reality -- a reality, as G.K. Chesteton put it, that is "as plain as a pikestaff."
These are realities about life. And the Catholic Church explores and defends these truths when -- especially in the age of Caitlyn Jenner -- very few will. These are the fundamentals, my Catholic friends told me. Faith. Reason. The Eucharist. All the rest is noise.
Do I believe these things? I do. So maybe I'm still a Catholic. The truth is I'm not sure, and I'm comfortable with the confusion.
Jesus Christ was like a great rock and roller -- a fearless, truth-telling artist whom the poet Charles Bukowski described, without sarcasm or irony, as having "style." No faith can survive if it is static. The last 50 years in Western popular culture has been decadent, but also incredibly inspired and dynamic, from the music of U2 to the humor of Saturday Night Live and the films of Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese. Yet while the secular left was building an entire infrastructure to develop, report on, give awards to, and support the popular arts, the Church (and political conservatives) offered nothing. Secularists encouraged and promoted their young artists. Christians simply tapped out of the game, despite the massive difference in reach between old way of evangelizing and the potential held by new forms of art and communication.
It is no exaggeration to say that the popular art of the modern and postmodern eras have shaped my psyche and changed the direction of my life. When I was 15 in the 1970s I saw the band The Who play live, and I was never the same again. Here was not nihilism and noise, but poetry and grace. The group's leader, Pete Townshend, was a spiritual seeker whose music was beautifully rugged with truth and volcanic with passion. Quadrophenia, their best work, explores the life of a teenage boy who was desperate to belong to something, only to find that gangs, drugs, and girls could not fill the hole in his soul. Only love could do that.
Yet as I went through college in the 1980s and grew into adulthood, I couldn't help but notice something: the people who were interested in poetry, independent film, punk rock, and experimental television were not Catholics. They were liberals, homosexuals, feminists -- even communists. Yes, the 1960s was a period of political extremism and artistic silliness, but also one that gave us The Beatles, Andy Warhol, and Tom Wolfe.
Of course it is not the Church's job to jump on every artistic bandwagon, especially considering the sex, drugs, and violence that often goes with the avant-garde. Yet Christianity must have some engagement with the culture -- not for some questionable reason of being hip or relevant, but because so much of the popular art surrounding us is fueled by Christian themes and the desire for Christian truth. We need our own Rolling Stone magazine. We need a online journal devoted to exploring and explaining popular culture. Pop music, crime novels, TV shows like Daredevil -- these are the places where the people get their spirituality, their poetry, their mysticism.
To not meet them halfway is to abandon the field to the devil.
The Church needs to support artists and create outlets that address the arts. Many of us who emerged from the punk era became better Christians, even rediscovering a love for the Catholic Church, which today seems as countercultural as any punk song. And many of us never lost the artistic drive that fueled us. To say, as some of my critics have, that we should focus on modern day martyrs and the fundamentals of the faith is to say that no Catholic should consider that he or she may have an artistic vocation. It's to say that Mother Angelica should have ignored her obvious genius for communication and stuck to silent prayer.
When I wrote about leaving the Church, many people responded that I should "be the change" I was looking for. They conceded the point: the popular culture is the poetry that most people speak. It provides the art, joy, and mysticism of their lives, and the Church doesn't have much to contribute.
Many admitted that the outlook for a Christian in the arts can be dire. They said that heeding my advice would go a long way to reverse the exodus from the pews. One even offered that I am a kind of half-mad Joan of Arc the Church needs right now.
But Joan had an army, and it’s difficult to create change if Catholic leaders and foundations dismiss the idea of popular art out of hand. The wealthy Catholics form foundations and think tanks to support environmentalism, marriage, and immigration reform, but these same places have no fellowships in the arts, and no plan to develop young artists.
As I was recently wrestling with these questions and my faith, I got a surprise compliment about a film I made. The praise came from Alec Baldwin, the actor. Baldwin saw the video and sent me a message: "Let's make a weird little film..."
It was a thrill -- but it also frustrated this might-be Catholic. One again it was the sinners, weirdos, and commies praising my work while the Catholics wring their hands, have their conferences and dinners "defending the faith," argue over obscure theological points, and hold fast for the coming of the Lord.