Baptizing the culture with the stories we tell

Our call to go forth and baptize all nations must include nothing less than the reclamation of culture.

Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

Of late, an increasing number of authors and filmmakers have this in common: their stories derive from worldviews that hold little understanding or appreciation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and all that the Church has brought to human history. It’s no wonder, then, that their stories are both normalizing and propagating dark, malleable, and self-centered understandings of the human person and, ultimately, of the nature of civilization itself.

For people of faith, especially Christians, this requires a response. Indeed, our calling to go forth and baptize all nations must include nothing less than the reclamation of culture—and one way to do that is through the baptism of the written word, the silver screen, and the smaller screens held in the hands of most everyone walking the planet today.

A better beginning

Several thousand years ago in and around the Babylonian empire, the status quo was informed by a story called the Enuma Elish—a creation myth consisting of a pantheon at war, parricide, and a created order (or, rather, disorder) fashioned from this pre-existing structure of evil. Humanity’s creation came after a series of gruesome battles, when the victorious gods formed us from the blood of their opponents. Our purpose? To serve the gods as a race of slaves.

Opposing this hideous worldview, the inspired authors of Genesis offered something different. They told of a God of love who created all that is, the seen and the unseen, and did so with an innate goodness and order. At the apex of their story, God formed humanity, not out of the blood of warring deities, but as the culmination of something wonderful.

It’s fortunate (and probably not surprising) that much of the Enuma Elish was lost for millennia. Genesis, on the other hand, endured. And wherever Judaism and Christianity went, so did that story, with its deeply optimistic and truthful worldview—a worldview that today is increasingly under siege.

Retelling and revising

Not long ago, readers and movie-goers generally understood the difference between reality and allegory—between the complexities of life in our fallen world and depictions of life as it should, could, or will be. Largely informed by Christianity and Judaism, those audiences accepted that within both allegory and reality, certain actions were either objectively good or objectively evil—and they considered as normative the ultimate victory of the good.

Take the iconic book and then film The (Wonderful) Wizard of Oz. Both L. Frank Baum and MGM catered to readers and movie-goers expecting entertainment rooted in a worldview where evil may win a battle or two, but never the war. Young and old cheered on Dorothy and her companions because they understood that the Wicked Witch was a representation of evil’s activity in the world—and so must be defeated.

Then came Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Both the 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire and the Broadway musical offer a revisionist history of Baum’s source material. In Wicked’s version of Oz, we’re presented with a backstory for the Wicked Witch—the story of a young, idealistic, green-skinned girl named Elphaba, of her mistreatment, especially by the villainous wizard, and her eventual reputation as a witch who is wicked.

With this shift in canon, readers and audiences are encouraged to sympathize with the suffering protagonist. This is all well and good and filled with possibilities, but for those who have rejected Christianity’s Cross, or who had never been properly catechized to begin with, Elphaba’s story can offer no meaningful lessons—other than that evil can only beget meaningless suffering.

In a way, Wicked reanimates the worldview of Enuma Elish. In a post-Christian world, the story finds sympathy among readers and theater-goers who consider Elphaba’s story, not Dorothy’s, to be a more accurate metaphor of reality—one in which the preexistence of evil not only propagates more evil, but justifies it.

Worlds without hope

With its turn to the dark side, the sequels and prequels of the 1970s Star Wars blockbuster film have followed a similar revisionist path. So have action and comic-book inspired movies, such as last year’s Joker, which are filmed in a “more realistic” fashion for today’s audiences that expect a good deal of death and despair with their popcorn.

Then there’s George R.R. Martin’s unfinished series of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, as well as Game of Thrones, the popular HBO adaptation. Unlike J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, from which Martin found inspiration, A Song of Ice and Fire is generally a sadistic and carnal account of humanity—one largely unbaptized by notions of transcendence, the common good, or forgiveness.

Certainly, Martin’s writing can be brilliant. Many of his characters possess thought-provoking complexities and even growth. Occasionally some display (and even preach) sacrificial heroism and decency. But this latter group is in the minority. And they’re often easily outwitted, becoming victims of some gruesome death—and Martin does enjoy his gruesome deaths.

As for mercy and justice, the former is largely absent in the series and the latter most often takes the form of brutal revenge.

All this has left readers wondering why Martin seems unable to convey a loftier notion of humanity. When asked about this, Martin, a self-described lapsed Catholic, said that he believes his books are “realistic.”

“I’ve always liked gray characters,” he continued. “And as for the gods, I’ve never been satisfied by any of the answers that are given. If there really is a benevolent loving god, why is the world full of rape and torture? Why do we even have pain? … Why is agony a good way to handle things?”

Martin’s instinct to explore human failings isn’t the problem. What would storytelling be otherwise? But his interior struggles with the problem of evil leaves the reader with little to ponder about the certainty of the good. Other writers of the genre, such as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, offer more instructive examinations of evil because their Christian worldview informs readers that evil is the exception, not the rule—that even in our darkest hours there is a light that persists. A transcendent light that offers hope and engenders virtue in the here and now.

Futures without faith

As I have written elsewhere, another popular genre, science fiction, rose out of a world that had already begun shedding its Christian heritage. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to H.G. Wells’ lesser-known but more disturbing The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries developed a genre to caution against the use of scientific inquiry untethered by any moral grounding.

So far, so good.

But then the question: Where does humanity find its moral grounding? For many authors of science fiction, faith and reason are not companions. Thus, more often than not, religion isn’t offered as a viable solution to the problem of evil. If religion is mentioned, it’s either mocked, rejected, or presented in some gnostic fashion.

Putting aside the sub-genre of shoot-’em-up space operas, serious science fiction tends to err in one of two ways. When focused on a pessimistic view of human nature, one akin to Enuma Elish, the genre tends toward dystopian tragedies. When focused on human reason alone, and the possibilities of technological wizardry, science fiction tends toward the utopian.

For the casual reader, science fiction rarely offers anything akin to a Christian worldview. Instead, it too often normalizes a human anthropology mired in weakness and failings—one that can be saved only through technology or alien intelligences, not through the promises of grace.

A response and two lessons

I read The Lord of the Rings every summer during my teenage years. While its deepest Christian themes were too subtle for my poorly catechized mind, its Christian messages of hope and goodness drew me back to Middle Earth again and again.

In the winters of those years, I devoured science fiction—mostly Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein. I’m certain that their perspectives—their cosmology and anthropology—contributed both to my decision to study mechanical engineering and to abandon the Church just after my Confirmation.

Today, years after returning to the faith and attaining a degree in theology, I wonder what my life would have been like had the stories I read and watched encouraged an openness to Christ and his Church. And I worry that young people today—and older ones, too—who consume the dark stories of our age, are falling into the same spiral as I did.

Several years ago, having written non-fiction commentary for over a decade, I decided to add a small contribution to the Christian corpus of fiction. I wrote a science fiction murder mystery called A Printer’s Choice (Izzard Ink) to explore some of the Christian understandings of free will. In the process, I learned two lessons that I offer anyone wishing to evangelize through today’s entertainment industry.

The first is to be strategic when acknowledging the sometimes messy nature of faith, especially religious extremism. Many readers today have little exposure to religious people. Much of what they know of faith comes from news or entertainment—two mediums that more often than not portray the faithful through the lens of stereotypical religious fanatics.

In A Printer’s Choice, the Catholic Church is front and center but so is a heretical sect founded by a Mexican drug lord. My intent in exploring the rise and impact of this breakaway group is to offer an antidote to anti-Catholic blockbusters, such as The Da Vinci Code, where the evil Church seeks control for nefarious purposes. In A Printer’s Choice, the warmongering sect achieves their “bad guy” status largely because they’ve rejected the Church and her Gospel of Life. This sets up opportunities for characters to present Catholicism’s true teachings—to give witness to her true mission.

The second lesson is not to shy away from the depths of our faith—a lesson taught to me by a secular editor.

The novel’s protagonist, Father John McClellan, is a priest from Boston, a former atheist, and a retired US Marine who, no matter his imperfections, is able to solve a murder because of his Christian worldview. Worried that such a story might alienate non-Catholic readers, my first draft kept Catholic realities, like the Mass, to a minimum. And so I included only one homily, at the funeral of the dead man.

Then my editor gave some of his highest praise to the funeral sequence. And he demanded a second homily.

“But I want the novel to appeal to a wide audience,” I remember saying. “I don’t want to make it too religious.”

His response? No matter what their faith, he said, real readers will expect a fair amount of preaching from a book with priests as central characters. “The book needs another homily.”

So I added a second homily. Fittingly, it was for the first public Mass said in outer space.

Throughout this process, that secular editor affirmed for me that fiction is decidedly more meaningful when it includes the voice, the influence, and the hope of faith.

That’s a lesson I should have known better. Authors I dared to emulate knew this—authors such as Tolkien, Lewis, Walker Percy, and Walter M. Miller Jr., who penned the classic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, a work loved by many of all faiths, as well as those of no faith.

Given the impact of non-Christian storytellers on new generations, we believers must continue the work of those authors—and soon. In adding to the corpus of Catholic-themed fiction—as writers, editors, filmmakers, or those that fund them—we can tell the story of Christ and his Church to a world growing increasingly hungry for what is beautiful, good, and true.


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About William L. Patenaude 33 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS is an engineer and 30-year employee of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Possessing a master’s degree in theology, he writes at CatholicEcology.net. His debut novel, A Printer’s Choice, examines many of the issues noted above and was reviewed for Catholic World Report by Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin.

6 Comments

  1. Fascinating analysis. I would give more credit to Frankenstein as an insightful tragedy starkly tracing the consequences *to the procured child* of her concoction by science. Shelley wrote this, I believe, out of “other woman” guilt over breaking up a family. Her intimate identification with the child who is searching fruitlessly for the marital hug that brought him into existence pervades the novel. Perhaps if it warns a distant century against frankentube conception, along with the other mockeries of the family, it can have it’s own literary crown.

    With tragedy, one must always write the uplifting, edified “what of it” oneself… in this case, and for all momdadless children of this era, such a capstone would necessarily include our Mom and Dad in heaven.

    • Agree wholeheartedly-FRANKENSTEIN warns, with keen insight, what awaits us with the techno -barbarism of science untethered from Christian Revelation..

  2. The problem for the Catholic writer is that the media (both in the print world and especially the TV and film worlds) is hostile to the Christian vision of reality. So writers with the Catholic metaphysical view have a huge handicap, even if they have adequate talent.

  3. Along with “Frankentein” I would put “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” Another cautionary tale of what happens to the person who believes he or she can dance with the Devil and not pay his piper.

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