Signs of Hope: The Many Times Pop Culture Embraced Jesus and the Church in the 2000s

When Bishop Robert Barron asked every Catholic to invite somebody to Mass this year in his YouTube video “4 Ways to Grow the Church” it struck a deep chord with me. He refused to be resigned to the expectation that the Church is in decline. It is time for the Church to grow, not shrink, he said.

I agree, and have been pointing to evidence that the Church is growing ever since. One of my favorite signs of hope is the witness to faith in popular culture. Here are some examples from just the last 10 years.

First: In a popular culture surprise, priests are heroes in many movies today.

When Father Stu hit theaters last year, he wasn’t the first priest-hero movie in years; he was the latest..

Adam Driver is a priest who makes the ultimate sacrifice in the 2016 movie Silence, which I greatly preferred to the book. That same year, Martin Sheen was a priest in The Vessel. Robert DeNiro turns to a priest to grapple with his sins in 2019’s The Irishman, and Shia Labeouf’s interviews about his Padre Pio movie caused a stir last year.

These are the highest profile priest movies among many others. In 2013, Superman consulted a priest in Man of Steel, Javier Bardem was a priest whose faith struggle was taken seriously by filmmaker Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. Exorcist movies such as 2013’s The Conjuring depict the power of the priesthood, but so did the movie Les Miserables, which won three Oscars in 2013. Movies such as 2014’s Calvary and 2021’s Man of God took an artistic look at priests, and popular streaming series Daredevil and especially Father Brown made priests important characters.

And this is to say nothing about Catholic films such as Fatima (2020) and Love and Mercy: Faustina (2019) or movies with small but positive priest roles such as Lady Bird (2017).

Second: There has been a new interest in the Bible in theaters.

Russel Crowe will play a priest in The Pope’s Exorcist this year. It remains to be seen how that movie will treat the priesthood — but he is one of several stars to play a Biblical figure in the past 10 years. He played the lead in Noah in 2014, when Christian Bale was Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings. 

Alongside the many B-movies about the Bible of varying quality — for instance 2013’s The Book of Esther, 2014’s Saul: The Journey to Damascus, 2013’s The Book of Daniel, and 2016’s The Book of Genesis — there have been bigger budget films about the Bible, such as 2018’s Paul, the Apostle of Christ.

But the biggest impact was made by the miniseries The Bible on the History channel, and its follow up A.D.: The Bible Continues, two series that the most unlikely people were watching and talking about.

Third: Christian heroes great and quaint have been celebrated in the movies.

Then there have been several high profile movies about Christian heroes in the past decade, including Hacksaw Ridge (2016), Unbroken (2018), and A Hidden Life (2019).

But many other movies are worth mentioning not because they are flawless, but because they show bona fide cultural trends embracing Christianity. These include Evangelical Christian movies — comedies from 2014’s Moms’ Night Out to 2022’s Family Camp, and dramas from 2014’s Left Behind to the 2018 drama I Can Only Imagine. Then, there are Christian evangelization vehicles from 2014’s God Is Dead to 2017’s The Case for Christ.

The Hallmark Christmas movie phenomenon in general was fueled by a longing for wholesome movies that accept faith as a normal part of life, but explicitly Christian Hallmark movies have been among the channel’s greatest successes.

Fourth: But by far the most exciting development is the new interest in Jesus.

I was editor of the National Catholic Register when Catholics were worrying about The Da Vinci Code book and 2006 movie. One thing struck me in our coverage of the phenomenon: Several Catholic thinkers predicted that the Da Vinci Code would increase faith in Jesus, because whenever people start paying attention to him, they are more likely to embrace Jesus than to reject him.

That turned out to be very true, and we have seen a renaissance in interest in Jesus in popular culture in the past 10 years. The Son of God (2014) movie followed the cable Bible miniseries mentioned above, as did the tailcoat docudrama 2015’s Killing Jesus. Then, the year 2016 saw several Jesus movies, including a new Ben Hur, Ewan McGregor in the strange Last Days in the Desert, Anne Rice’s story in The Young Messiah, the movie Risen and others, including the Coen Brothers’ movie Hail Caesar, if that counts. Joaquin Phoenix was Jesus in 2018’s Mary Magdalene.

The leaders of the pack, though, have to be 2017’s The Star animated story of the Nativity, Mel Gibson’s upcoming much-anticipated sequel to The Passion of the Christ coming soon and above all The Chosen.

And this is far from an exhaustive list.

The point is, this is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel or to think that Christianity is on the wane. It most certainly is not.

So, decide who you will invite to Mass. You may be surprised to hear that they have already met Jesus in the popular culture.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.