What Piece of Pop Culture Challenged (or Inspired) Your Faith?

The AV Club over at the Onion recently asked the question, “What early piece of pop culture first challenged your religious faith or lack thereof?’   The staff’s answers unspool like an atheist revival with spirited testimonies of where they first encountered a crack in their convictions.  Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, John Lennon and Marilyn Manson are cited as the creative catalysts of doubt.   Televangelists serve as a rather obvious source of skepticism, but so does the self-centered depiction of Jesus Christ Superstar.   Craig Thompson’s remarkable graphic novel, Blankets, sparked one Onion staffer to put his faith in art.

Rather than raising doubts, the honesty and longing driving Craig Thompson’s art deepens my own faith.   His search for love and passion amidst shame drives me towards a more authentic experience of the Almighty.  (And I’m not alone in my artistic and religious appreciation of Thompson’s autobiographical wrestling with a fundamentalist upbringing).   So can the same sources that inspire faith also inspire doubt?    Did Nacho Libre lead some to pursue the priesthood while others turned to professional wrestling?   In the documentary, Purple State of Mind, my college roommate and I examined our divergent paths.  Yet, Bruce Springsteen’s haunting solo album, Nebraska, spoke into both of journeys.   So for example, what would you make of this short, hilarious, and heartfelt video from King Missile?   (I’d love to bring the Atheist track on Patheos into this conversation).

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As a professor, I’ve asked hundreds of students to name the film, song, or book that inspired them.  I’ve written entire books about the power of general revelation, God’s ability to speak through unlikely sources—from Donnie Darko to Spirited Away.   In my own life, Martin Scorsese’s savage portrait of boxer Jake LaMotta served as a bracing cautionary tale.  The scripture that concludes Raging Bull, “Once I was blind, but now I can see” caught my attention, sparking an extended spiritual search.    So I’ve been challenged to explain how pop cultural artifacts can inspire religious beliefs.   And my students have created wondrous websites like Rednow.

In our forthcoming book, Robert K. Johnston, Barry Taylor and I asked a host of contributors to consider the theological implications of all kinds of pop cultural icons.   Don’t Stop Believin’ covers the television era, from the fifties of Ben Hur to zombies on AMC.   We include authors like Philip Pullman, Jan Karon and Stephanie Meyer (but alas, didn’t create an entry for Craig Thompson).  So I would ask readers, “What early piece of pop culture challenged or inspired your faith?”


About Craig Detweiler

Craig Detweiler is Professor of Communication and Director of the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University. He is a filmmaker, author, and cultural commentator who has been featured on CNN, Fox News, NPR, ABC's Nightline and in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He blogs as "Doc Hollywood" for Patheos.com.

  • Nordog

    Whenever I see a Terrance Malik film my conviction that there is a loving God is challenged.

    • craigdetweiler

      Why Nordog? Because Malick’s cinematic universe seems a bit too ponderous? I know he leaves plenty of viewers cold, but I find his films are almost like a form of meditation…

  • http://www.thebigfilmdiscussion.blogspot.com/ Andrew Gilbert

    The work of Lars Von Trier, particularly “Breaking the Waves”, “Melancholia”, and “Anti-Christ” have impacted me on a deep, transcendental level. This is true cinema.

    • craigdetweiler

      Absolutely, Von Trier offers some mighty strong shocks to our systems, Andrew. Many thought “Anti-Christ” went too far. Why do you think it still worked for you?

  • Rebecca Cusey

    I’m the opposite. Tree of Life reaffirmed and reshaped my faith. Melancholia only annoyed me (and made me laugh in the beginning. The humor is very dark.)

  • http://www.hollywoodjesus.com Greg Wright

    The Last Temptation of Christ put me on the track to ministry and living responsibly. I’d say until that point I was hiding from God.

    • Craig

      Fascinating, Greg. A film that the Christian community actively boycotted becomes a source of calling. Be careful what we oppose–it could be a source of divine revelation.

      • http://www.hollywoodjesus.com Greg Wright

        I specifically went to see it BECAUSE my church was boycotting it, Craig. I thought, “Huh. Must be something worth seeing.” I even cut work early to catch a matinee. I knew Scorsese’s work, so I really didn’t think it was going to be all that scandalous — but I really wasn’t expecting anything spiritually profound, either.

        • craigdetweiler

          Love that line of thinking, Greg. The central question that informs Kazantzakis’ novel is so profound, moving, and timeless. I am also grateful that Scorsese tackled it.

          • http://www.hollywoodjesus.com Greg Wright

            Another work that really set me on different course was Roger Taylor’s cover of Dylan’s “Masters of War.” I was living a pretty self-centered and dissipated life at the time while working in the defense industry, and after hearing that rendition of the song a dozen times or so, I got very depressed for a long period of time and ultimately thought, “I can’t keep working in a job that inspires such hatred.” So I changed industries and went back to church, and got my spending and drinking under control (with God’s help).

  • http://dscottphillipsfiction.com/ D.Scott Phillips

    I’m not a fan of Will Ferrell, but I loved “Stranger than Fiction.” When he handed the manuscript of his life to Emma Thompson and told her “I love your book, and I think you should finish it,” I wept, and immediately thought of both Christ before the Father, and what my own life should look like in his faithful hands.

    • Craig

      Great, somewhat surprising example, D. Scott. That is the metaphorical power of movies. And it also illustrates how God can speak through unlikely means–from Balaam the donkey to Will Ferrell…

    • http://claywrites.com Clay Morgan

      Excellent post Craig! I just want to say that D. Scott’s comment is awesome. I love Stranger Than Fiction and have written about some of the ways it makes me reflect on my faith. Never made the connection he does here though. Great stuff and you’ve got a new subscriber for sure.

      • craigdetweiler

        Thanks for making the connection, Clay. Glad to have you in the conversation!

  • http://adventures-in-cinema.blogspot.com/ Andrew Welch

    Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” is one of the first movies I saw that informed or deepened my faith. And like Greg, I was profoundly moved by the end of “The Last Temptation of Christ.” I might also add the HBO series “Deadwood” to the list. As ugly as it can be, I came away from that series feeling like I had encountered something beautiful and rich.

    • craigdetweiler

      I agree, Andrew–”Magnolia” is such a bravura, tour-de-force. P.T. Anderson was in the zone. It definitely stands the test of time and still contains so much visceral power. Not sure why “Deadwood” never really caught on. David Milch is a bit of a mad genius, never afraid to wade into human depravity. Audiences didn’t grasp what his “John from Cincinnati” was about either.

  • http://daddystimeout.wordpress.com J Ibanez

    I can sympathize with a few of the folks over at the AVClub, to be honest. It may seem shallow but one of the biggest hurdles to me embracing Christianity was its vapid culture and plastic art forms. I felt a pull that was bigger than that, that reassured me that that was not all there was to the faith. However, I still cringe at “Christian” art sometimes and the cheesy culture that is associated with our faith.

    As far as pop culture examples, I can’t think of any that were formative but I have found encouragement in the form of Malick’s “The Tree of Life”; the music of Mumford & Sons and Paul Simon; and the writings of Tolkien. Also, I love Lewis as an essayist but his fiction is almost so blunt with its symbolism that it veers dangerously close to the sort of manipulative works that get produced today, at least to my tastes.

  • http://throughthisnight.blogspot.com Justin Hanvey

    I always get fascinated whenever I hear/read Carl Sagan speak, his fascination with the universe was something that has revamped my faith in God.

    The book American Gods by Neil Gaiman showed me just how important it is for humanity to have a loving God who is present.

    Musically Thin blue Flame by Josh Ritter, Jesus Christ by Brand New, the song We Are Here by Mt. Egypt “cause everyone gets hungry, and everyone needs a way to believe that what we do has meaning.” showed me a side of faith I hadn’t really paid attention to much, the questioning, sometimes bitter side that allows for doubt to be in the tension between us and God. And the Mt. Egypt song in particular reaffirmed that faith even in the midst of doubt.

    • craigdetweiler

      Carl Sagan’s Contact seem like one of those projects that could cut either way. Glad it revamped your faith, Justin. I had an opportunity to talk to Neil Gaiman at Sundance once. What a brilliant man!
      These are some cool, new musical recommendations. I look forward to listening…

  • http://chadthomasjohnston.com Chad Thomas Johnston

    P. T. Anderson’s films have had a major impact on me. Specifically “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love.” Undeserved love, flawed humans who are both lovable and unlovable, and great beauty and creativity pointed me Heavenward. :)

    • craigdetweiler

      Yes, Punch Drive is an underseen gem, Chad. Adam Sandler has never been so vulnerable onscreen. A very compelling, magical movie!

  • http://windowsdown.wordpress.com Meredith Holladay

    Agree with “Magnolia”, and same goes for “I Heart Huckabees.” Musically, Over the Rhine taught me to lament and love – both deeply, and simultaneously. Indigo Girls taught me to hope for real change.

  • craigdetweiler

    Strong recommendations, Meredith. So much love for Over the Rhine and not just because Linford is a Detweiler…:) The younger brother of Amy Ray from the Indigos went to my alma mater–so they came to play on our tiny campus. Very vivid memory.

  • eric

    thanks for the post, craig [and the rednow mention:)]. pulp fiction was one of my first major encounters in the theater. for some reason, as a mixed up college student, a gun-toting, bible quoting killer in search of a brief case made sense to me and of me. the humor, the smartness, the anger, the confusion, the search…it all felt right.

    • craigdetweiler

      And it still does…

  • http://www.thepoachedegg.net Greg West

    For me it was Pink Floyd’s song, Time, from Dark Side of the Moon. It spoke to me in a way the Eccliastes does in the Bible. It made me think of the futility and absurdity of a life live without God and caused me to seriously consider my worldview.

    • craigdetweiler

      Interesting, Greg. Some might cite the Byrds’ ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ but Pink Floyd’s take on ‘Time’ is more subtle and perhaps more powerful.

  • http://www.enriquecrosby.com enrique

    Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles made a large impact on my journey to salvation. I had left the church thinking that Christian culture was too superficial, and I turned to study other world religions. When I read Memnoch the Devil in which Satan and the vampire Lestat talk about the incarnation and whether God or the devil was truly humanitarian, I realized Christianity had realms of depth which I had never considered. I returned to church with new hunger and openness to learn and ask questions. It was then that the gospel truly hit me.

  • craigdetweiler

    What a cool journey, Enrique. Could be that your path resembles Anne Rice’s own process of moving from a consideration of evil to an embrace of the Divine. Thanks for adding your story to the conversation.

  • http://rednow.com Bob Davidson

    Thanks Craig for the (rednow) shout-out. This question (way back in Seattle) eventually changed my life. At the time, I answered U2′s Elevation Tour. Today, there is an abundant list thanks to new eyes. Thanks.

    • craigdetweiler

      So delighted by how a week in Seattle continues to yield such remarkable results…:) Eyes to see and ears to hear–a simple challenge that takes a lifetime (or even eternity) to master.