There was a time in American life, not so very long ago, when the only significant relation between religion and popular culture seemed to be the tedious symbiosis enjoyed by such envelope-pushing television producers as Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley and the conservative Christians who loved to hate them. The pattern repeated itself endlessly: Some line would be crossed (a bared buttock, a profanity, a dollop of anti-Catholic bigotry) and the Moral Majority or the Catholic League or the Traditional Values Coalition would mount a protest or a boycott, which in turn only ensured higher ratings for the television show in question and incentives for further envelope-pushing the next time around.
Today those battles are all but finished, and the religious side has lost. It was beaten in part by provocateurs like Bochco and the broader left-wing campaign against anything that even hinted at censorship. But it was also defeated by forces beyond the control of either artists or agitators. Technological change, above all, doomed the fight for decency in American popular culture, as every successive technological innovation weakened the power of regulators, moral and otherwise, while expanding the venues where human weakness could be exploited for fun and profit (mainly the latter). Russell Kirk famously called the automobile a “mechanical Jacobin,” but the fissiparous, fragmenting effects of cable television, DVDs, and the Internet make the Model T look Burkean by comparison.
The result is the unrestrained and unrestrainable popular culture of today, where every concept, no matter how lowbrow or how vile, can find a platform and an audience. A television show that proves too violent for NBC ends up on Showtime; an FCC crackdown on a raunchy radio host only nudges him into a lucrative new spot on satellite radio; a community that manages to keep X-rated movies out of its theaters and video stores is just pushing money into the pockets of sleaze merchants who peddle their wares over high-speed Internet connections. Small wonder that America’s movies and music and television shows make us enemies in traditional societies around the world—and small wonder, too, that many cultural conservatives, despairing of their country’s future, embrace withdrawal from the world into a narrow, well-defended Christendom, where their families and their faith can be protected from the lowest-common-denominator swill that washes against the walls outside.
Yet religious believers have also profited in certain ways from the crack-up of the old middlebrow, PG-rated common culture, even if it’s sometimes hard to see the gains through the gore and exhibitionism. This is the great paradox of twenty-first-century popular culture in America: For all its profanity and blasphemy, the new culture arguably takes religious issues and debates more seriously than it used to in a more decent, less decadent era.
Or perhaps it isn’t a paradox at all: There was a time, after all, when many religious thinkers were skeptical of the kind of mass culture that had its American heyday at mid-century, critiquing its homogeneity and complacency, tackiness and philistinism. They rose to the defense of the old dispensation only because the alternative—the mainstreaming of the 1960s counterculture, with its contempt for every tradition and authority—seemed far worse. ( The Bells of St. Mary’s might not be The Divine Comedy , but it was better than Basic Instinct .)
The counterculture has largely won, and our society is in many ways the worse for it. But there are opportunities in defeat as well as victory, and places where new life can spring up amid the ruins. The old gatekeepers were at best superficially conservative and favorably disposed to religion only because they believed in being inoffensive about every segment of the mass market on which their films and shows depended. Now the incentives to be uncontroversial are far weaker. Which means that, along with all the dreck and smut and mediocrity, there’s more room for idiosyncrasy, controversy, and political incorrectness as well. These can be the raw materials of blasphemy, but they can also be the stuff of popular art that drills deep into issues—theology and human destiny, sin and redemption, heaven and hell—that the old mass media treated with kid gloves.
True, God has to compete with Paris Hilton and Family Guy for attention, but at least He’s in there fighting.
Consider recent developments in science fiction and fantasy. These are genres that have traditionally provided fertile ground for metaphysically inclined fiction, but for a long time their presence in the American mass media began with Star Trek and ended with Star Wars—fun but shallow entertainments whose take on religion mixed Daniel Dennett with Deepak Chopra, secular condescension with New Age mumbo-jumbo. As late as the early 1990s, the only sci-fi show of any merit on television was Star Trek: The Next Generation, a U.N. bureaucrat’s fantasy of the twenty-fourth century, in which a crew of asexual socialists in leotards kept the galaxy safe for cultural relativism and conflict resolution.
A decade later, the landscape looks very different. The cost of bringing what J.R.R. Tolkien called “a secondary world” to life has dropped, and the possibilities for creativity have widened. The two great Christian fantasies of the century just past—Middle-Earth and Narnia—have been given vivid, wildly successful big-screen treatments. The dreadful Star Wars prequels were briefly eclipsed by The Matrix, whose blend of religious allegory, pop philosophy, and balletic violence aimed much higher than George Lucas ever did (though The Matrix descended into pretentious incoherence in the later installments). And the best sci-fi show on television today is Battlestar Galactica, a “reimagining” of a short-lived late-1970s series about the last remnants of humanity fleeing a genocide perpetrated by their own creations—a race of humanoid robots called Cylons—and searching for our species’ last refuge, a mythical planet called Earth.
The brainchild of a frustrated Star Trek scribe named Ronald Moore, Galactica is deliberately designed to be the anti-Trek: Instead of a bloodless, hygienic future in which the human race seemed to have outgrown every recognizable human aspiration on its way to outer space, the show depicts a star-faring humanity driven by familiar motivations—religious faith chief among them. At its best, Galactica is The Longest Day crossed with Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, chronicling a gritty man-versus-machine interstellar war (fought with bullets and nuclear weapons rather than the usual phasers and photon torpedoes) that has as much to do with theology as politics. The original series borrowed from Mormon cosmology, but the newer, better incarnation pits the Greco-Roman polytheism practiced by the humans (they worship the ancient Mediterranean pantheon, and each of their “Twelve Colonies” is named for a sign of the Zodiac) against the crusading monotheism of the Cylons, who are convinced that their human progenitors worship idols and that they themselves are God’s latter-born, perfected children, destined to inherit the universe from a flawed and sinful humanity.
This may sound like an allegory designed for know-nothing liberals: crazy fanatical monotheists (think Osama Bin Laden or Jerry Falwell) pitted against tolerant pagans (think Berkeley, California, or maybe Burlington, Vermont). But Moore’s show is far too clever to slide into that trap. The human polytheists, in practice, have a great deal in common with the Abrahamic monotheists of Planet Earth: They’re a people of the book, divided between fundamentalists who take the sacred scrolls literally and more latitudinarian believers who don’t, and divided, as well, on all the culture-war questions—notably abortion—that divide our own semi-Christian West. And the Cylon monotheism, too, appears riven by theological factionalism, with tenets that are open to quasi-Buddhist as well as Mosaic interpretations.
More interesting still, the fundamentalists in both faiths have a tendency to be proved right, and the skeptics wrong. Prophecies are fulfilled and ancient scrolls prove accurate, and the religious choice, in any given situation, is likely to be the right one. The Old Testament overtones of the show’s conceit—twelve tribes looking for a promised land—aren’t accidental, and as Galactica ‘s quest narrative proceeds, so does the audience’s awareness that the story is unfolding according to some larger design.
Whether this design belongs to the Colonists’ pantheon or the Cylons’ single deity remains uncertain. Both sides, despite their theological differences, seem bound to a common destiny in ways that neither understand; like Jews and Christians after Christ, they’re joined in brotherhood and enmity, till the end of their quest or perhaps the end of time. But however their relation turns out, it’s likely to dovetail with the show’s overarching premise—the idea, at once old-fashioned and subversive, that human history has an Author.
The same set of issues—meaning and purpose, common destinies and divine interventions—dominates the action on Lost, ABC’s addictive serial about the survivors of a plane crash who find themselves marooned on a South Pacific island, cut off from any hope of rescue. Most of the castaways carry secret sorrows or hidden sins: There are murderers and adulterers, drug addicts and former mental patients, an African warlord and an ex-torturer from the Iraqi Republican Guard. And the island is attuned to all of them in some mysterious fashion, speaking to the survivors in dreams and visions, pushing them into strange obsessions and dangerous quests, delivering healing to some and sudden death to others.
The creators of Lost have repeatedly denied that their characters are literally in purgatory, which was a popular theory among early viewers of the series, and most of the evidence from later episodes suggests that they’re telling the truth. Still, the show’s island is at the least a purgatorial landscape—it’s no coincidence that several of the characters are Catholic, lapsed and otherwise—where the things that the castaways carry from their previous lives provide the raw material for suffering, struggle, and growth.
But the show has larger ambitions as well. The island isn’t just a supernatural catalyst for individual redemption; it’s a microcosm of Western modernity (many of the characters, not coincidentally, share names with modern political philosophers—there’s a Rousseau and a John Locke, a Hume and even a Mikhail Bakunin), and a place where the two most powerful forces in recent human history, utopian hubris and scientific arrogance, have worked themselves out with what appear to be disastrous consequences.
At some point, long before the plane crash, the island was the site of an overlapping series of experiments on everything from genetic engineering and radical life extension to parapsychology and magnetism, which apparently involved cooperation between a sinister multinational corporation and a Walden II-style commune of idealistic scientists. The landscape is littered with the detritus of these efforts—abandoned hatches with cryptic instructional videos, empty zoos and laboratories, mysterious processes that may still be working themselves out—and populated by what appear to be the experiments’ surviving custodians, a group of people known only as the Others, whose purposes remain inscrutable even as they emerge as the castaways’ antagonists. The shadow of a larger apocalypse hangs over the narrative as well since, whatever the experiments were meant to do, they seem to have created the possibility of a world-ending cataclysm.
Meanwhile, the castaways are divided among themselves both personally and philosophically, constantly arguing over whether their lives on the island are governed by purpose or blind chance, and whether faith or reason is a surer guide in their strange circumstances. Some of the characters are Christian, others embrace a kind of New Age island-worship, others cling to a stringent materialism. At its best, the show seems capable of synthesizing all these elements and building to a metaphysical battle royale, in which the various forces at work in our own civilization struggle with one another for mastery, and nothing less than the fate of the world hangs in the balance. At it worst—well, Lost is in its third season now, and there are disturbing signs that the show is running out of steam, and that the creators may have thrown too many mysteries into the air without a plan to catch them. (This is known among television doctors as the X-Files Syndrome.)
However the saga of the castaways manages to finish up, though, it’s clear that Lost ultimately shares with Battlestar Galactica a certain degree of cosmic optimism. With God (in some form) taking an active role in the narrative and nothing less than the fate of humanity hanging in the balance, it seems like a safe bet that the gates of hell won’t prevail against the heroes. This is the nature of fantasy and epic, at least in the context of a Christian culture—by raising the stakes, the genre gives away the ending. Frodo will always destroy the ring; Aslan will always defeat the White Witch; Harry Potter will always put an end to Voldemort. A price will be exacted along the way, but, however dark the story gets, the logic of eucatastrophe still holds, and with it the knowledge that the light will overcome the darkness.
This eschatological optimism contrasts sharply with the pessimism of the best realistic show on television today: The Sopranos, which is ending its six-season run on HBO this spring. Where Galactica and Lost are shows about getting through purgatory to heaven, or at least a promised land, The Sopranos is a show about what it means to go to hell. Like The Wire, another HBO production (and the leading candidate for The Best Show on Television title once the Soprano family enters the afterlife of reruns), The Sopranos offers a devastating critique of American life. Unlike the kind of social commentary that Hollywood still churns out—in which everything would turn out better if only conservatives weren’t so busy oppressing homosexuals or women or maybe unionized employees—it isn’t interested in easy sociological answers or cheap political point-scoring. And while even the best episodes of Galactica and Lost are ultimately pop-culture ephemera, HBO’s mob show is closer to real art: Dostoevsky crossed with Emile Zola, a novelistic meditation on the nature of societal corruption and personal sin.
There have been pop-culture portraits of mob kingpins descending into hell before, of course—think of Michael Corleone fading into shadow at the end of Godfather II. But the artistic temptation is always to make this fall splendid and Miltonic, a matter of a few grand and tragic choices rather than the steady accretion of small-time compromises, petty sins, and tiny steps downward that usually define damnation.
The Sopranos dares instead to explore the terrible banality of evil, depicting ordinary people held prisoner by their habits and appetites who choose hell instead of heaven over and over again, not with a satanic flourish but with an all-American sense of entitlement. Sin is never glamorized or aestheticized: The violence is brutal rather than operatic, the fornications and adulteries are panting and gross rather than titillating. The characters’ sins breed even physical dissolution: obesity, ulcers, hemorrhoids, constipation, cancer. The show offers a vision of hell as repetition, ultimately, in which the same pattern of choices (to take drugs, to eat and drink to excess, to rob and steal and bully and murder) always reasserts itself, and the chain mail of damnation—in which no sin is an island, and gluttony is linked to violence, sloth to greed, and so on—slowly forges itself around the characters’ souls.
The only players in this drama who seem capable of escape are Tony Soprano himself, the mob boss and antihero who makes repeated excursions into psychotherapy, and his wife, Carmela, whose guilt over her husband’s lifestyle coexists with an unwillingness to give up the possessions and status that his criminality has won for her. The arc of the show, over six seasons, has traced their attempts to leave their sins behind—Tony’s dialogues with his therapist and halting steps toward self-knowledge; Carmela’s religious forays, adulterous fantasies, and abortive quest for a divorce. These always end in failure, partially because the avenues they choose tend to be therapeutic rather than truly redemptive (the show is particularly hard on psychotherapy’s pretensions) and partially because actually escaping seems to mean giving up too much: the combination of bourgeois comfort and the kind of “freedom” that the Mob life offers, a freedom to do as you please, unhindered by any societal restraint, that is gradually revealed as the worst prison there is.
In one of the show’s darkest and most telling moments, Tony’s nephew and lieutenant, Christopher, plans to betray the Soprano family and go into the witness-protection program with his fiancée, who has been blackmailed into becoming a government snitch. But while refueling his glossy black Hummer in a gas station, he finds his gaze drawn to the family across the pumps from him—the runny-nosed kids, the harried parents, and above all their battered station wagon—and in that instant decides that it’s better to have his fiancée killed than to accept the constraints of life outside the mafia. The freedom to do whatever you like in this world, it turns out, is just another word for choosing your SUV over your lover.
Whether The Sopranos’ creator, David Chase, believes in a literal hell I have no idea—but his show believes in it. Just as Lost and Galactica tease out their metaphysics through hallucinations and dream sequences, The Sopranos deals frequently in private visions—mainly Tony’s richly detailed dreams, which are more psychological than metaphysical, but also a pair of theologically fraught near-death experiences.
The first belongs to Christopher, after a second-season car accident briefly stops his heart, and it lands him in hell, which turned out to be an Irish bar—every Italian’s idea of the inferno—populated by deceased “soldiers” from his crime family, who give him a message to carry back to his bosses: “Three o’clock.” (That hour of the day, with its Good Friday associations, has been associated with bad news for members of the Soprano family ever since.) The second near-death moment, meanwhile, belongs to Tony himself, a several-episode sojourn in limbo following his shooting at the hands of his senile uncle. It concludes with him literally going toward the light and finding himself at the door of a brightly lit family reunion, where his mother (a monstrous woman who once took out a hit on him) and the rest of his departed relatives have gathered to greet him.
Whatever afterlife waits for him aside, it clearly isn’t heaven.
The question, of course, is whether the audience gets the point, or whether The Sopranos’ faithful viewers are in it for the same reasons the mobsters are: the adrenaline rush that comes with any violent or sexual encounter, no matter how degrading it may be. This is the problem for any artist who seeks to show sin as it is. Does depicting an act make you complicit in it, even when you stand in judgment? Last Tango in Paris makes loveless sex look like hell on earth, for instance, but there are still people who watch it for titillation, just as there must be some segment of The Sopranos’ audience—young men, in particular—who spend their time cheering on the killers, identifying with the mobsters instead of profiting from their hell-bound example.
And even if The Sopranos isn’t glamorizing sin, you only have to flip down a few channels to find a dozen shows that are. Battlestar Galactica may be a step up from Star Trek, in terms of both artistry and philosophical seriousness, but is it worth enduring the ever-vaster wasteland of basic cable to make that step up possible? Or again, is the chance to see the story of Christ’s Passion as Mel Gibson reimagined it—blood-drenched and harrowing and brilliant—worth giving the same R-rated carte blanche to Quentin Tarantino, or worse, the makers of torture-porn thrillers like Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes?
This is an important argument for cultural conservatives to have, but for the time being it’s also largely theoretical. The old standards for mass culture, on television and the silver screen—minimal violence, no nudity, and no ideological conflict that couldn’t be solved by asking What Would JFK Do?—are long gone, and no political pressure is likely to revive them. Religious believers can take the risk of competing in this riotous marketplace, where there’s a great deal to gain but even more to lose, or they can withdraw from it and tend their own cultural gardens, like the new St. Benedicts that Alasdair MacIntyre envisioned at the end of After Virtue. There doesn’t seem to be a third way out.
And yet, whether they choose to withdraw or stay, believers should be wary of overstating either the horrors of the present era or the virtues of the American pop cultural landscape gone by. By a host of cultural indicators, American society was better off in the 1950s than it is today, and the constraint and self-censorship of that age’s mass media had a great deal to do with this achievement. But the old order turned out to be built on sand, and the generation that was weaned on the movies and TV shows of the 1950s, with their League of Decency seal of approval, grew up to think of orthodoxy as a dead hand and tradition as an epithet. Today’s generation, if they turn to the right channel and find the right show waiting for them, may instead discover the truth of Chesterton’s dictum: “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.”
None of this means that religious believers, and particularly religious parents, don’t have understandable reasons for trying to wall their families off from the worst of what American pop culture has to offer, whether by canceling their cable subscription or packing up and moving to Ave Maria Town.
But if they do, they ought to at least consider bringing a DVD player along with them.
Ross Douthat is an associate editor of the Atlantic Monthly and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.