There’s a touching story about a letter C.S. Lewis received from a mother with a worried child called Laurence. Laurence was worried because he felt that he loved Aslan (a fictional representation of Jesus in Lewis’ Narnia stories) more than the real Jesus. In his reply, Lewis said: “Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.” This is the consequence of the patristic attitude to secular literature we discussed in Part 1. When someone encounters Christ in another form, the Church’s job is not to tear down and condemn that apprehension because it is ‘pagan’ or ‘secular’; it is rather to build on that link, and to declare to them the true name of ‘the One whom they worship without knowing’ (Acts 17:22). There are few people nowadays who cannot point to a favourite movie or novel; we should never underestimate the power (and the sheer, humble honesty) of acknowledging that even though a work might not be produced by the Church, it still reflects Christ Himself in its own way. And maybe, just maybe, the things which a person loves about that work, are features of Christ Himself.
A sceptical reader might be wondering how popular culture, with all its violent special effects and promiscuity, could possibly reflect anything of true spiritual worth. Granted, as the fathers advised, we’ll have to do a lot of ‘pruning’ and ‘culling’ to get at the spiritual truth in popular culture. But a basic understanding of the universal structure of narratives (especially as it’s revealed in modern movies and books) reveals some surprising things. The mythologist Joseph Campbell (in The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler (in The Writer’s Journey) are the two authors most responsible for promoting the idea of a ‘mythic structure’ or ‘monomyth’: a core structure which is present in almost all works of fiction in human history. Let me present a summarised version of this structure; as you read, think of your favourite movies or novels and see whether you can detect the same pattern in them. In brackets next to each stage, I’ve put the corresponding part of the Christian story of salvation:
- The Ordinary World: the hero’s homeland, where all is well. (Eden)
- Call to Adventure: the ordinary world is threatened by an evil force. (‘Death enters into the world by the envy of the Devil’)
- The Journey: the hero embarks on a quest to save what is threatened; he encounters many trials along the way. (The Incarnation)
- The Trial: the hero makes a terrible sacrifice or comes into extreme personal danger at the hands of the enemy. All seems lost. (The Cross)
- Resurrection: the hero’s sacrifice pays off. He is not killed, but ‘rises’ with new and greater power to defeat the evil force. (The Resurrection of Christ and the founding of the Church on His Blood)
- Return: the evil force is defeated and the hero returns to his homeland (the Second Coming and Heaven)
At the climax of almost every movie, there’s a moment where the hero ‘gives themselves up’ for someone or something they care about (Step 4). In The Matrix, Neo chooses to go back for Morpheus, even though he knows he might well be killed. Harry Potter walks alone into the Forbidden Forest ready to let Voldemort kill him, knowing that only his own death can weaken his enemy enough to be killed by others. In The Return of the King, Frodo and Sam commit to climb Mt. Doom and destroy the One Ring, knowing that it will probably be a one-way journey. The examples go on and on and on and on: the mark of any hero worthy of the word is their willingness to give up their lives for another. Of course, the great ‘surprise’ is that their sacrifice is swiftly followed by a ‘resurrection’; because, to borrow from O Monogenēs, there is something in self-sacrificial weakness that is ‘greater than power’. The Matrix is a perfect example (SPOILER ALERT): when Neo’s mentor Morpheus is captured by the enemy, Neo chooses to go back for him, and this is what happens (look for 4: Trial and 5: Resurrection):
The key is always that the hero, whom we’ve grown to love and admire, gives themselves over to death; destroying the enemy’s power by their sacrifice. Love beats death; humility shatters power. It doesn’t take much effort to see the similarity between this recurring pattern and the Christian story of salvation. In St. Basil’s Liturgy we recount the story of salvation as the story of our liberation from the evil kingship of death. Through sin, ‘death reigned over us’ (in Coptic, ‘aferouro ehreei egôn‘; lit. ‘was king over us’). We were saved from the ‘darkness and the shadow of death’ because Christ ‘gave Himself up for our salvation’, and ‘gave Himself up unto death for the life of the world.’ In the Anaphora of St. Gregory Nazianzen’s Liturgy, we praise Christ for His self-sacrifice, and His willing exposure to the forces of evil and sin: “You have borne the oppression of the wicked, You have given Your back to the scourge, Your cheeks You have left open to those who smite. For my sake, O my Master, You have not hidden Your face from the shame of spitting … You have come to the slaughter as a lamb, even to the Cross.” Christ willingly exposed Himself to the brutal power of death, evil and wickedness to save us from the same; and in so doing, He broke them. It is not a coincidence that our popular culture, so full of meaningless violence and crudity, still reveals an inescapable obsession with the idea that powerful evil can only be overcome with heroic sacrifice: an innocent hero who lowers themselves into harm’s way for the sake of those who cannot help themselves. In the spirit of St. Clement and St. Basil (see Pt. 1), we should not call this mere coincidence; we should rejoice that for all its failings, our popular culture still retains an ancient memory of the Christ-like hero, possessed of a heroic love that ‘is not loath to die the hardest of deaths for those it loves’ (St. Isaac the Syrian).
When a youth admires Frodo’s courage in the face of danger in The Lord of the Rings or is terrified by the dark effect that wickedness has had on Voldemort’s soul in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or wishes (as every reader has!) that they could enter their favourite fictional worlds and join the heroes in the battle against evil, their Church servants simply cannot tell them to stop reading silly books and pick up an Agpia. They cannot, because to do so would be to ignore and belittle their apprehension of a genuine truth. We owe it to our youth to acknowledge that often, what they have apprehended as good and true in popular culture is a reflection of what is actually good and true; to quote St. Basil, they are merely ‘tracing the silhouette of virtue in the pagan authors’ (Address, Ch. 10). Once they have made the connection between the nobility, courage and truth they apprehend in their favourite works of fiction and the nobility, courage and truth of the living Christ, we will have trouble keeping them away from their Agpias, and from serving Christ the Conquering Hero, ‘the King of Glory’ who ‘trampled down death by death’ and ‘redeemed us from bitter slavery’.
To the extent that popular culture reflects truths like this, we ought to acknowledge it and use it for instruction. Only then will the true sense in discarding what is harmful come to light; when compared to the humble and heroic nobility of the Christ-like hero, all of popular culture’s obsession with sex and violence is revealed as empty and meaningless. St. Basil argues that this revelation is one of the benefits of comparing secular texts to the Scriptures: “the comparison, by emphasising the contrast [between the two literatures], will be of no small service in strengthening our regard for the better one.” (Address, Ch. 3) Only by highlighting the good in contrast to the bad, can our healthy disdain for the evil elements of popular culture make sense.
The purpose of drawing out the Christian truths reflected in popular culture is to proclaim to anyone who enjoys it ‘the One whom they worship without knowing.’ As youth servants, by treating secular culture ‘after the manner of the bee’, and drawing out the honey we have a way of uniting the excitement and passion which drives youth to bookstores and cinemas with their spiritual lives. We can show them that the humility, nobility, self-sacrifice and courage in the face of evil that they admire in Harry Potter, Frodo and Batman, are actually traits of Christ Himself, reflected in the lives of martyrs and saints. It would show youth that their servants take them and their world seriously; the sheer honesty and humility inherent in entering their world, rather than dragging them out of it, is itself a powerful testimony. It shows that Christ is worth knowing not simply because we tell them He is, but because He is Truth itself. With the cultural gap between servants and youth being as wide as it is, we can’t afford to leave any resource unused in our service.
For some, the use of popular culture in youth ministry might seem dangerous and unnecessary. But it’s certainly equally dangerous to assume that our youth are incapable of discernment and treat them like babies. We know that the majority of youth are going to watch secular movies and read secular movies regardless of what their servants tell them. St. Basil clearly didn’t think his youth were incapable of discernment, or he would not have written a treatise teaching them how to discern. To do effective youth ministry, we need to find a balance between warning against the dangers and pitfalls of popular culture, and highlighting the good elements contained in it. To take either approach to its extreme is fatal: we must neither condemn all of popular culture wholesale (nor could we if we wanted to), nor become totally ignorant of its dangers. But by employing the cautious process of discernment which the fathers did when dealing with pagan texts, we can achieve a powerful and honest witness to the truth of Christ and make Him more relevant to the lives of youth than we could have otherwise.