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).
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?”