|Homily Pop Culture and Orthodoxy Gvien on the 4th Sunday after Pentecost 2010 with reference to Rom. 6:18-23|
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen; glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
It would probably be an understatement to say that I had a real ‘eye-opener’ this past Friday. This week I switched out Tuesday for Friday for my “day off” and drove down to Miami to witness the wonder that is SuperCon. Now, for those who are unitiated (probably 99% of us here), SuperCon is a comic book/science fiction Movie and literature/Japanese Animation/costumed role playing and gaming convention all rolled into one. Now in my youth, I was a big fan of comic books and Science fiction and I’d seen some of the recent movies made from comic book novels and I still read the occasional science fiction novel, so I thought I’d go down there and see what had happened to the industry. I had other motives that I will discuss too.
Does anyone remember the car commercials that said, “This isn’t your dad’s Chevrolet….?” Well, I can say confidently that today’s comic books and all that other stuff was not my father’s version of it. It’s not even what I was reading when I was twelve, I can tell you that! It was fascinating to see how much the comics and other things have changed….much of it not for the better; there is a darkness to a lot of this material that made me literally weary to see. However amid much of the darkness, I’d on occasion find some light, someone who was struggling to create a comic book (yes a comic book) that represented the difficulties in making moral choices by showing the consequences of each possible action a person decides to take. Another had a super-hero whose name was Penitence. The authors would not say what the person felt he had to atone for, but it was a fascinating premise that a person would fight crime to pay for his a great sin that haunted him.
I met “paranormal investigators,” ghost hunters that assured people that while there was a scientific side to what they did in studying or debunking hauntings, they also wanted us to know that demons were real and that there were things one should not play around with. They warned people away from many occult practices (while at the same time surrounded by people dressed like wizards). Some of these people were associated with the groups that are on some popular TV shows which discuss this issue. They even let me say a few words about the Orthodox perspective during one of their lectures Q & A sessions. They called me up to the front to answer a question. Of course the first thing I had to do was assure everybody that I was not just some old guy in a costume…. (that was a theme that ran throughout the day for me).
I met authors who were researching the links between Ireland’s monastic tradition and the tradition of the Byzantines and the Desert Fathers, believe it or not. I met a voice over artist from one popular children’s fantasy cartoon, Thundercats, and he said to me (recognizing that I was in real clerical garments before I had to explain), “Father, we need you here! There’s a lot of evil here, but there is some good too.” He hinted that there were a lot of people who were lost and needed to find their way to the light.
I also saw people who wanted to be vampires. I saw comic books that were openly blasphemous. I saw a lot of things that simply made me sad….and a lot that just bewildered me.
I’m sure you’re wondering by now what the point of all of this is that I’m telling you. One of the Greek Orthodox Bishops who came to visit St. Tikhon’s is a student of Popular Culture…he’s one of my face-book friends. He gave a lecture to the student body about how it’s important for us as priests to know the popular culture around us so that on the one hand we can combat against its negative aspects and on the other hand use what is there that is good to draw people to Christ. The Church fathers, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory the Theologian wrote about learning Greek culture and philosophy and taking from it what is good and leaving the bad aside. They studied the Iliad and the Odyssey. They studied the classics and were able to pick out lessons that would help them reach the un-churched. While Star Wars is not on the same level of the Odyssey by Homer, there is still something there in the fall and redemption of Darth Vader that we can use in looking at the Gospels. The struggles of the superheroes have got nothing on the stories of the martyrs and saints. The point is that we’ve got stories that are as compelling and as exciting…more so….than any ghost story, science fiction or fantasy epic, or comic book out there…..because our stories are true. Our stories carry eternal values and teach us how to reach eternity itself.
Driving home from the convention, I did a search through my radio dial, briefly I heard a radio evangelist say that for the vast majority of teenagers “even the children of believers” the faith seems irrelevant to them. I saw that day what was more relevant to many of our young people today. Superman is more important than the Godman, Jesus Christ. He’s more fun, it seems. It’s more fun to dress up like a zombie than to be clothed in righteousness. And I can understand that to a certain extent. I was not particularly interested in organized religion when I was a teenager. I was interested in spirituality, though. I was interested in thinking deeply and wondering about the big questions. For me the science fiction and fantasy I read asked a lot of the same questions. The authors there had zeal for the ideas they pursued, however off the mark they might have been. The religious people I met did not seem interested in those questions much. They didn’t seem interested in much other than getting good jobs, having a nice family, and getting their children into the right colleges.
Discovering Orthodoxy and its deep and rich literature was such a breath of fresh air for me. Perhaps that is what we need to try to bring back into our spiritual life, this zeal for knowledge that is according to God.
When a teenager thinks that the faith is not relevant to his life that is an indictment on us all because we haven’t been able to truly show them by our own lives how relevant it is to us. Looking at Paul’s Epistle today (yes, I was eventually going to get there!), we can see just how relevant the faith is. One of the key passages is: “For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness.” When we are slaves of uncleanness, of lawlessness, it leads to more lawlessness. Sin begets sin. The bad habits of youth which don’t seem so bad now or we see as just a phase, are building the foundations for more sin, worse sin in adulthood. It is creating or allowing habits to grow which are harder to break away from.
Where does this lead? As Saint Paul says, “the wages of sin is death…” By this he doesn’t just mean mortality of the body. Do you want to see a zombie, the living dead? Go to a prison. There are many people there who died inside a long time ago (but they are not lost yet, I am quick to add). How many more people do we know, that aren’t such obvious zombies, walking dead people…whose spirits are so far from God that they are numb to the life and goodness around them? I’m sure that we each one of us knows many. If we look at ourselves, do we see ourselves just going through the motions at times? Do we have the life of Christ in us? One of the things that attracted me to science fiction and the like was the sense of wonder there. The same sense of wonder and awe, the mystery is also in Orthodox worship and spirituality…only in Orthodoxy it’s directed toward that which is real. It is directed toward the very foundation of the universe, God Himself.
So, here is my pop-culture reference. One of my favorite movies is a comedy that is considered one of Tom Hanks’ most mediocre films (though Roger Ebert liked it for some of the same reasons I do). I love it…mostly for one scene. The movie is Joe Versus the Volcano. In one scene, Joe has had his yacht sunk by a storm at sea. He is floating on his luggage, huge steamer trunks, somewhere in the South Pacific. He’s starving and dying of thirst. He is also sacrificing all his water to save the life of his friend the yacht’s captain who had been knocked unconscious. Late one night, Joe rises from lying down in misery as he sees a giant moon rise into the sky. Bathed in light in this awe inspiring image we see him struggle to rise to his feet, raise his hands in the manner of a priest, then fall to his knees and cross his arms over his chest (Tom Hanks is an Orthodox Christian after all) and he prays, “Oh God, whose name I do not know, thank you for my life….I had forgotten how big….thank you for my life.” It is an incredible scene, especially because we’ve seen all along just how bad, boring and mundane Joe’s life had been up until he began his adventure in the movie. Now this is what pop culture can remind us of in the best of ways. Do we come to Church and pray in awe and wonder, “Oh God, whose name I do know, thank you for my life…”
This is what people are looking for, I think, and this is what we have to offer, for while the “wages of sin is death….the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” How can we not be simply bowled over with awe each time we enter a place of worship? How can we not be in awe when we realize that the bread and wine we offer to God really and truly become His Body and Blood and we are invited to partake of them and become united to the creator of the universe? Let us allow this awe to fill us, let us allow this mystery to envelope us, let us truly live the life in Christ which leads to eternal life but which brings the Kingdom of Heaven into our presence even now as we gather and which we can take with us out into the world. Let us treat the holy things with holiness and respect and awe, and we’ll see how relevant we become to the culture around us in Jupiter, In Florida, and in the world. This is our calling and our great privilege. Let us embrace it with joy and with awe and with a child’s wonder.
© 2010 Fr. Philip Kontos