Steven Greydanus is the movie critic for Crux and the National Catholic Register, and he’s also a newly-ordained deacon. (Woohoo! PARTY AT STEVE’S HOUSE) But he noted, “FWIW, I have now preached two homilies and have not used any movie references or analogies. No one believes I will keep this up.”
“It’s actually kind of important to me that I *not* use movie references in my homilies, or at least try to avoid them as much as possible,” he continued. He noted that this was a limited restriction, and one that’s pretty specific to him: He doesn’t want his homily to become about him, his aesthetics and opinions. (On this note I love the thing one of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s parishioners told her: “We were taught in seminary not to talk too much about ourselves in our sermons because it’s not about you. But you talk about yourself all the the time in your sermons, and it’s not about you.”)
But let me note a couple troubling features of pop-cultural homily references.
They assume a lot about the common vocabulary of your church. No matter how mainstream a movie is, somebody in your church will have never heard of it: Somebody won’t know that “the dark side of the Force” is a movie reference, somebody won’t know what “an offer you can’t refuse” is. When the references are less hackneyed than that, the chances that your audience just doesn’t know what you’re talking about are even greater.
There are a million ways you can indicate, in your homily, who you envision as the “we” of your church–who is the normative member of your audience–and pop culture references can be one way of drawing that circle a lot more narrowly than it needs to be drawn. It’s obviously not as bad as the homilies about how “we” need to “help” “the homeless” at a church that actual homeless people attend (I’ve heard that more than once) but there is an underlying assumption that the parish shares more common experiences and culture than it really does.
There’s a thing I’ve done now and then at the pregnancy center, where I’ll say, “I really like this line from that movie, ‘Vanilla Sky.’ It’s something like, ‘Don’t you know that when you sleep with someone your body makes a promise, whether you do or not?'” That way I get the advantage of a lovely and thought-provoking image, which we can discuss on its own merits, whether or not the client has seen the film. (I haven’t.) So that’s another possible approach: If you knew that nobody in your church had seen this movie, read this book, or heard this song, and you also knew they weren’t gonna go out and spend their paycheck on it, would you still want to use the example? Could you set it up fast enough to be worth it? (DEAR ALL PRIESTS, END YOUR HOMILIES QUICKER.) What are you using this example for without the feeling of connection (or alienation) forged by reference?
Pop culture is a common vocabulary that keeps us within contemporary American culture, the thing we’re already surrounded by. So many people need the history of the Faith: the vocations we’ve forgotten, the beauty we’ve neglected. People come to church, in part, for beauty and hope they are not already finding in the outside world. If you want to relate to people by using references that are relevant to their culture, that’s sometimes the right way to go–but at least as much time imo should be spent showing people what they won’t find in normal, mainstream American life.
So like, I talk about “Lava” a lot because lots of people have seen it, and they get how its storyline relates to my message, and my impression from audiences is that it is kind of a relief that I’m talking about something they already know and can assess for themselves instead of OH GOD SHE’S TALKING ABOUT KNIGHTS AGAIN. But part of the point of that example is to get people to ask, What are other ways of love we don’t see reflected in pop culture? What would it look like if the lonely volcano could show his love through friendship, service, community, or church? And to make that possibility feel real, instead of vague and abstract, you need to tell people about the real times it really happens in Scripture and in Christian history.
I think priests often ask themselves, “How can I make this idea/moment in Scripture vivid to people, how can I awake their imaginations to it, by showing them how it’s like something they already understand–but goes beyond what they already know in ways a, b, c?” But you can also ask, “How does this idea or moment in Scripture challenge us to imagine things our own time and place ignores?” Or, “How can I awaken people’s hearts to the huge diversity of weird ways the Holy Spirit has blown through people’s lives?”
Pop culture also replicates the heresies of our time, which are the hardest ones for us to see: “God helps those who help themselves,” for example. All the subtle forms of misogyny and the prosperity gospel.
Art movies don’t have this exact problem; then again, if you talk about art movies, it’s easy to come across as talking about your opinion of art movies. Plus you have to explain them more, which makes your homily longer. Different subcultures have different tastes in homily length but I will suggest pretty strongly that longer homilies promote priestly showboating and spread the scourge of opinions.
Obviously if you overthink this stuff it’ll drive you batty. It’s okay to talk about Flannery O’Connor (AGAIN) (THERE ARE OTHER CATHOLIC WRITERS) if you really like her and think she’s got something to say about the readings. The fact that you’re also often sending a signal about in-group membership (Flannery O’Connor yes, “These hoes ain’t loyal!” no–that article is hilarious btw BUT ALSO an illustration of what I’m talking about from a different subcultural perspective…) is something to consider, not a reason to self-censor.
Okay I think I’ve now capslocked sufficiently. Half this post can probably be replaced by a clip from The Avengers…
Cap is most of your parish, Thor is the rest of your parish, you are Joss Whedon but in your mind you are Nick Fury, I am Iron Man because I’m awful