Recently, I was presented with a sincere argument asserting that the morality of the real-life Mark Hamill is unassailable due to the fact that he once portrayed the righteous Luke Skywalker. I mention this only to illustrate the point that if you think popular culture and entertainment do not play a role in coloring modern morality, then you haven’t been paying attention.
A well of poison has been installed in your home, and you have been allowed to pay for the privilege of maintaining it and having your family drink from it on a daily basis. Not only that, but you and your children have unhindered and constant access to this well via portable vials that carry its poison and can be sipped from wherever you may be.
I am speaking of the mainstream entertainment media, specifically entities such as cable television (HBO in particular) and streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. These outlets are courting and creating content that is blatantly anti-Christian, anti-morality, anti–Natural Law, and often full-on diabolical. Many who identify as good Catholic Christians are consuming it, and worse still, feeding it to their children. Under the guise of bestowing art, they are delivering venom.
What is art’s true end? What makes a work worthy of rumination and admiration? Art should enrich and elevate the mind and should inspire imagination and reflection. Art should elicit contemplation and appreciation of beauty, truth, and goodness. That’s the ideal. It can do so by itself being beautiful and reflective of the good and the holy or by displaying the inverse or the lack, by making clear through purpose or presentation that this is what should be avoided as an outcome for ourselves and our souls. To say art has any other true purpose is a modern disjunction of ideas. Art with the sole purpose of titillating, producing revulsion, provoking irritation, or intensifying anxiety is not only useless, but also dangerous. Art that does so cannot be said to have as its end anything other than sensationalism, and as its motive anything other than sowing discord (and most likely lining the artist’s pockets).
True art can be accomplished only through grace — either by willful cooperation with it or by it working through the artist for a greater cause. Anyone who has created something truly beautiful has done so with the aid of the Holy Spirit and never in spite of Him. Although many excuses are made for what is vapid, grotesque, or self-serving in the arts, if we take an objective look at work produced in this realm, we must acknowledge that some is good and beautiful, and some is ugly without cause. If we are honest, we can discern a significant disparity in the effect on our souls when hearing the diapasonal compositions of Beethoven, for example, compared to the mordant, vitriolic, and downright demonic sounds of something like black metal or “grindcore.” This is not to say there are no transcendent or worthwhile works of art that on their surface are difficult to look at or to read through, but these are always aimed at showing what is lacking and must be made up for, not glorifying that lack. Their goal is to point out to us the real and transformative power of grace when it is allowed to operate upon us. Creating grotesquery for its own sake is akin to sinning simply to spit in God’s eye, whereas illuminating the grotesque leads our own eyes to see the void in our person which can only be filled by a true love of God, which means knowing and obeying His word.
“Wide is the way which leadeth to destruction” — and the workings of the devil may enter through the tiniest of cracks. If one consumes a steady diet of theology, hagiography, and Catholic podcasts, but then, during evening repose, rewards oneself with an hour or two of mindless, secular programming — rife with anti-Christian themes, absent of any ordering toward morality — then one creates a breach in the dam wide enough for the serpent to slither through.
There is a useful criterion by which we can measure all things. It takes the form of a simple but oft-neglected question: does this lead me closer to God or farther away? In the instance of a narrative work, does the piece display a knowledge of a rightly ordered moral compass? For example, what distinguishes The Lord of the Rings from A Game of Thrones? Both are epic works of fantasy with swordplay, grand battles, fantastical creatures, intrigue, a world full of history, kingdoms and kingships to be won and defended, etc. Yet no character in Game of Thrones can be said to be on the road to eudaemonia. On the contrary, they all seem to advance self-interest through a constant thread of moral abasement through violent immorality. In the world of Game of Thrones, one can achieve his goals only by acting reprehensibly or by cooperating with, or at best being indifferent to, others who act in such a manner. Pure ambition at the total expense of one’s humanity is often rewarded, and indulging in all one’s base desires is often encouraged.
What of the world of Tolkien’s creation? The one character of Tolkien’s epic whose actions may have been lauded in Game of Thrones is Gollum. Gollum’s selfishness, splanchnic disdain for nearly all things pure, and his overwhelming avarice in pursuit of the One Ring, culminates in his destruction. The great enemy, Sauron, has one symptomatic motivation: pride. He wishes to rule all of Middle Earth, to conquer all those he sees as beneath him. To fulfill his ends, he is willing to pervert the very nature of creation. What finally proves to be Sauron’s undoing? The selfless act of an innocent in cooperation with providence. In an analogy lost only on the daft and Christologically ignorant, Frodo, the story’s hero, allows sin and evil to wash over him and buffet him to the brink of death, only then to have it swallowed up in selflessness and love for his “fellowship,” which includes all of creation. For “greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Tolkien’s deeply held Catholic faith informed and permeated his work. Through a supreme mastery of analogy and a deep understanding of the tenets of the Faith, Tolkien made manifest the clear essence of Catholicity in his world without explicitly mentioning God. This makes the reported lack of Catholicism in the recently released Tolkien biopic particularly troubling, if unsurprising. We are now in an age where popular culture considers right reverence of God disturbing and regards egoism, barbarism, prostitution, promiscuity, homosexuality, and incest as not only palatable, but to be proclaimed as the new norms.
I would not go so far as to attribute a singular cause to the rise of these “new norms” (other than Satan), but it would be a slipshod diagnosis I am proposing if I did not at least speculate that their being shoehorned into every television program and foisted upon us in every film plays a large part. If Christians continue to passively accept the malevolence of mainstream media and the hubris of HBO for the contentment of an evening’s entertainment, they will encroach on us further still.
In summation, the things we choose to partake in are absorbed, in some fashion, into our natures, playing a part in informing our actions and attitudes. Our Blessed Lord taught, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man: but what cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” Since Our Lord said it, it is inarguably so. But if the internal well from which a man draws has been slowly fed poison, then whatever will come out of him shall be tainted with poison also.
Christopher Laurence is a freelance writer and revert to the Catholic Faith. Originally from Long Island, he now happily resides in Texas and is engaged to a lovely Texas girl. A recovering connoisseur of all things secular and pop culture, he has since eschewed them for the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Gregorian chant, which he considers quite an upgrade. He can be found on Twitter at @Gropher_Tump.