Judge, no more

U2’s Bono meets St. John Paul II

I mentioned earlier, I am not easy with the term ‘countercultural’, because it sometimes connotes self-hatred. There is truth to the claim that the Catholic believer must sometimes stand boldly apart from his or her culture and speak a word of prophetic critique; but, at its limit, the claim to be countercultural strikes me as incoherent.

Whether we like it or not, we are shaped – linguistically, intellectually, relationally, bodily – by the culture in which we live. To stand completely outside of our culture is, impossibly, to stand outside of ourselves. More to the point, the language of counterculturalism can give rise to an attitude both mean-spirited and condescending. A culture is transformed only by those who love it, just as individuals are converted only by evangelizers who love them. — Francis Cardinal George

Mark Judge is a conservative author, columnist and art critic. I have read him with great interest over the last five or so years. He said a year ago that he was leaving the Catholic church because he believed the Catholic Church in America was not interested in supporting what was his life’s vocation: to bring faith and pop culture into a serious dialogue.

I am not interested in contesting his logic or responding to his reasons for abandoing the Church — though there is much to be said in that regard. I simply wish to say that he took with him a vision the Church already possesses and desperately wishes her sons and daughters to make a reality: inculturating the Gospel. Let me share a few excerpts from his apologia of departure:

I’m not angry, like so many other ex-Catholics. I don’t have a problem with the Catholic Church’s position on sexual morality. I didn’t have a bad experience with a priest, or resent any nuns that taught me.In the end, I left the Catholic Church because as an artist I could no longer hold out hope that there would be a place for me in the church. The Catholic Church, which gave the world the Sistine Chapel, Dante, and the genius filmmaker Robert Bresson, has lost interest in supporting artists. God is a dynamic and creative universal force who can be found in movies, rock and roll, and poetry.

The Catholic Church is no longer a relevant player in any of those fields, or in the arts in general.

I was raised by an Irish-Catholic family in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. My father was a journalist, poet, amateur painter, and something of a Catholic mystic. He had gone to college at Catholic University of America in the 1940s, during what was a literary high point for the church. In 1948 Columbia graduate Thomas Merton published The Seven Storey Mountain, a lyrical autobiography that became a bestseller. In 1951 Bishop Fulton Sheen began a hugely popular weekly television show, Life Is Worth Living. That same year Diary of a Country Priest, a brilliant and moving film directed by Robert Bresson, was released. Catholicism and the arts seemed go together.

Then the 1960s happened. Vatican II, the church council convened by Pope John XXIII, exhorted the faithful to go out and engage the modern world. To some conservative Catholics this was disastrous, because the world at that particular time was falling apart.

I have asked prominent Catholic scholars and theologians why the Catholic Church has no foundation, think tank, fellowship or even website for the study of popular culture. St. Augustine wrote entire volumes about paganism, and in doing so managed to baptize millions of new converts. Surely something, perhaps a single fellowship at a Catholic think tank, might not be a bad idea?

In reply came only silence — or worse, contradictory and incoherent arguments. I was lectured that the Kingdom of Jesus is not of this world, and I shouldn’t be so passionate about rock and roll, movies, and other efforts of the secular culture. Soon after I would hear that when Jesus said “the kingdom of God is at hand” it meant that Jesus himself had ushered in a new age, that everything was different now, and that God is now present in the world.

If the second is true, then I want to capture it. I want to film it, write about it, and sing about it. And I want to celebrate others in the culture who do the same. Sadly, it’s been decades since any of the good ones have been Catholics.

We need filmmakers, cartoonists, dreamers, and novelists. We don’t need more think tanks. We need romantics and God-seeking artists. Ten years ago this February, Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ. Rather than a ham-fisted and hectoring right-wing lecture, it was, particularly in the early scenes, a work of gorgeous mysticism. In the decade since, conservatives have done little to follow up. There have been some bright spots, perhaps, pointing to the power such projects can have. There was the television miniseries on the Bible, for example, which had a huge following, and is now set to become a feature film this spring. Some websites, such as Acculturated, have started to engage and review popular culture. But these remain only fits and starts. How many conservative donors have started film production companies or funded graphic novels, comic books, videogames, or apps that stand out in the mass culture? Are there grants for artists alight with the desire to create art, an art that serves God and beauty, grants for those who might not be policy wonks or blonde newscasters?

People don’t hate us [conservatives] for our ideas. They hate us because we consider it silly when someone adores a movie, is moved by a comic book, or is smitten with a pop song. They hate us because we have no poetry. We don’t see—as the left has—that poetry moves more than policy. We should be hiring and engaging with the weirdos and rock-and-rollers who will blossom into the intellectuals who affect the culture.

It’s why I am so serious about engaging the work of Twenty One Pilots.

Here’s to hope that this vision Mark wanted to enflesh as a Catholic continues to become #realitycatholic. JP2, take us out:


14 comments on “Judge, no more

  1. Anthony says:

    He clearly never heard of Communion and Liberation and their emphasis on “engaging the culture”. So sad. :\

    • Yes! I pray that lay movements like CL, that began outside the U.S., might grow larger and more influential here. Especially that they might form intellectally influential, U.S. based think-tanks and influence Catholic institutions of higher learning. You know, think tanks like “Two Catholic Guys Drink Whiskey and Discuss Current Events”, that offer a much more savvy and engaged approach to Catholics and culture than much contemporary Catholic media. I mean, really:
      [audio src="http://www.catholicguys.com/audio/two-catholic-guys-04.mp3" /]

  2. Jennifer says:

    Well, if you’re plugging podcasts, here’s my vote: threedogsnorth.com Three awesome guys (one is a priest, two will be ordained soon) who met at Mundelein. They just talk about life, culture, current events, wonky childhood memories and they always turn into brilliant glimpses into beauty. I LOVE them! (I;m not just saying that because I won their first ever contest and now have a killer original painting hanging on my living room wall thanks to my efforts – Easter egg: if you look hard enough you’ll hear me with my winning entry!)

    We need anchors. Our culture isn’t homogenous, was it ever? But especially now.. anyway, interesting posts. Lots of food for thought.


    • Just a quick listen to threedogs was delightful, as you say! Thanks for this, and for being an anchor, j!

      • Jennifer says:

        If I am anyone’s anchor it is solely and surely because I am desperately clinging to the one true anchor for dear life…

        Eleven of my beloved students are being confirmed tonight. The priest called them up for a blessing at the end of this morning’s Mass and I had to fight back the tears of joy. They are an incredible group of young people and I am so blessed to have taught them for two years. They love Him so much, they humble me with their sincere desire to love, know, and serve Him. Praise God for this beautiful little class and their families and their faith. Here is Catholic culture on the ground at its finest.

      • You are a Matushka! A spiritual mom to those kids, j. Thanks for sharing the joy here of these new culture-makers a comin’!

    • Anthony says:

      I love it when priests show their “normal” side. It’s soooo important especially for kids to see them as healthy, normal human beings who are full of joy and lead an attractive life.

      • Jennifer says:

        Yes, Anthony! And now you all REALLY have to listen to threedogs…. their latest episode (season 4 #27,) at around 9:00 they begin talking about catholic culture vs. all culture being Catholic in that all beautiful art reveals God and Catholic themes. So perfectly mashing up with this post. I’m going to send them this post.

      • Thanks for identifying this particular piece! Great material

  3. Oneview says:

    Shared this blog post with my 23-year-old son who writes an anime blog that has steadily grown in readership over the past few years. I don’t really understand it, but I encourage and support him. He really liked this post, and said, “Hey, that’s what I’m doing!”

    • This is what I see he’s up to — seen his work! —
      “It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this ‘digital continent’. Be sure to announce the Gospel to your contemporaries with enthusiasm. You know their fears and their hopes, their aspirations and their disappointments: the greatest gift you can give to them is to share with them the “Good News” of a God who became man, who suffered, died and rose again to save all people.” –Pope Benedict XVI

  4. dancingcrane says:

    I know I’m late to thr Neal Obstat party, but how much fun it is!

    I grieve Mark Judge, and hope for his return. I can’t help thinking about the troubadour of God, St. Francis, and what the world would have been like, if he had looked around him, seen no Franciscans, and left the Church.

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