Pop Culture Mysticism
So that’s it then, I thought, standing in the darkness. I’m a Catholic conservative, and the most dynamic expression of my faith is pop culture.
Being what I call a conservative pop-culture mystic is why I rejected liberalism, and also why I never have fully fit in with conservatism. It’s why liberals can’t figure me out—wait, he’s pro-life and loves punk rock?—and why conservatives are losers, and will continue to be losers, in politics and popular culture. The left doesn’t believe in God, yet rapturously praises a popular culture suffused with beauty and Christian imagery, and the right—with some honorable exceptions—doesn’t understand, admire, or support popular art, from movies to painting to rock and roll. This has led conservatives to lose touch not just with people but with God. It’s why conservatives will no longer win elections due to popular affirmation, but only as a result of a crisis created by liberalism.
It’s why people hate us.
I was thinking about this last year while standing on the upper level of the Strathmore Center, a gorgeous $100 million concert hall outside my hometown of Washington, D.C. I was alone in the dark, the hall empty. I was waiting for a call from a man who would help me make a movie about Whittaker Chambers. I had approached conservative editors, foundations, and politicians about financially supporting my film, and I had been turned down by every last one. But I had been approached by a director, a moderate, who was interested in the documentary. The experience had led me to a sad conclusion: the most dynamic form of Christian evangelism, the popular culture, has been almost completely abandoned by the right.
It’s why we lose. When you not only don’t understand or support, but frequently mock, the common cultural archetypes that provide the spiritual and artistic experiences for the majority of the people you hope to lead, then you deserve to lose. America is still quite religious; it’s just that its people are getting reinforcement for their beliefs in Hollywood, music, and the publishing industry. A lot of these products aren’t typical expressions of faith, and may in fact be harmful, but many have powerful elements of mysticism.
I’ve felt a powerful attraction to mysticism my entire life. My father, a poet, painter and, in his official job, a writer for National Geographic, was a Catholic mystic until his death in 1996. Mysticism wasn’t static like much of religious tradition, and it wasn’t anti-intellectual like the far right and modern liberalism. I had come to believe in a truth and a knowledge that doesn’t jettison reason or creativity or the intellect, but supersedes them to attain a greater and ineffable intellect and creativity—all while offering an immersion in love. It was not a rejection of love, sensuality, or reason, but pushing through your limitations and even your senses to connect with a greater love and feeling and intellect. Mysticism takes many sharp turns in pursuit of a direct experience of God. It embraces poetry, music, sensuality, the dark night of the soul. It’s like the best rock and roll.
One of the pivotal moments of my life was in the 1970s, when I saw the band The Who in concert. I was going to Catholic school and learning good things about God, discipline, and suffering, but here on this stage in Maryland were played out reflections of the churning in my soul. In the windmill chords and poetry of Pete Townshend, a poetry at once gritty, beatific, absurd, and hilarious, I saw myself and the world. It was OK to have adolescent physical longings, to be confused, angry, and (trying to be) holy. The point was to channel those things into sound, into a sound exploding with life while also contained in chords and even grounded in a structure (structurally, pop music is very orthodox) and some conservative common sense. Not for nothing did National Review call The Who’s “ Won’t Get Fooled Again,” one of the greatest conservative rock songs of all time.
But then, that’s the problem. National Review and other conservative outlets will occasionally run a light piece about how this movie or that pop song is actually conservative, as if they had found a gold coin in a landfill of dung. In fact, religious mysticism, if not Republican dogma, radiates through the popular culture. And as mysticism is a more universal and exciting form of religious expression than dogma, it’s also where the American people are increasingly getting their spiritual nourishment.
They don’t need to know St. Thomas Aquinas or Hans Urs von Balthasar to understand the awesome beauty of God and the splendor of creation—they just have to see the film Gravity. They don’t need Billy Graham to tell them that love is stronger than death—they just have to turn on the radio or listen to the Beatles. They don’t need a National Review subscription to tell them that liberals and central planners are often resentful people with emotional problems who are simply out for control—they just saw The Dark Knight Rises. The popular culture is exploding with art, creativity, and mysticism. And in response conservatives get an occasional Star Trek joke from Jonah Goldberg.
We need filmmakers, cartoonists, dreamers, and novelists. We don’t need more think tanks. We need romantics and God-seeking artists. Ten years ago this February, Mel Gibson releasedThe Passion of the Christ. Rather than a ham-fisted and hectoring right-wing lecture, it was, particularly in the early scenes, a work of gorgeous mysticism. In the decade since, conservatives have done little to follow up. There have been some bright spots, perhaps, pointing to the power such projects can have. There was the television miniseries on the Bible, for example, which had a huge following, and is now set to become a feature film this spring. Some websites, such as Acculturated, have started to engage and review popular culture. But these remain only fits and starts. How many conservative donors have started film production companies or funded graphic novels, comic books, videogames, or apps that stand out in the mass culture? Are there grants for artists alight with the desire to create art, an art that serves God and beauty, grants for those who might not be policy wonks or blonde newscasters?
A few months ago Joseph Bottom, a conservative Catholic writer and former editor of First Things, caused a dust-up by arguing in the New York Times that conservatives should care less about same-sex marriage and more about “re-enchanting the world.” In a follow-up piece he elaborated: “Start [changing the culture], instead, with re-enchantment: Preach the word of God in the trees and rivers. The graves giving up their dead. The angels swirling around the Throne. Existence itself figuring the Trinity, in how we live and move and have our being. Christ crucified and Christ resurrected. All the rest can follow, if God wants.”
But such experiences and cultural events are all around us, and the conservative establishment has missed most of them. We could start with the music of U2, or some of the recent neo-folk or progressive rock bands. Or the films of Terrence Malick—or even Star Wars. Or The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer’s amazing novel about time, friendship, morality, and the grace of friendship. Or Frank Miller’s brilliant graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which says more about liberal dystopia and conservative re-enchantment than any conservative publication you could name. Or the amazing music of the Scottish band The Twilight Sad, a combination of noise, Camus, and poetry.
I became a political conservative in the early 1990s, but I never lost my spiritual connection to the popular culture. I come from a family of actors, painters, and writers. It’s part of who I am. Yet every attempt I have made in the last two decades to persuade “movement” conservatives to support popular artists and cover pop culture in their magazines has fallen short. This included my desire to make a film about Whittaker Chambers.
And here let me be bold, indeed even a bit delusional: had conservative leaders then supported me and my ideas, and those like me, conservatism would not be the rejected, ridiculed, and limping movement it is today. People don’t hate us for our ideas. They hate us because we consider it silly when someone adores a movie, is moved by a comic book, or is smitten with a pop song. They hate us because we have no poetry. We don’t see—as the left has—that poetry moves more than policy. We should be hiring and engaging with the weirdos and rock-and-rollers who will blossom into the intellectuals who affect the culture.
After a brush with a serious illness in 2008, and twenty years of failed attempts to get the right to take popular culture seriously, I decided I would follow my bliss: I would make a film. I wasn’t going to move to Hollywood. I simply wanted to make a movie about Whittaker Chambers, a film that should have been made years ago, but for which lefty Los Angeles has little taste (and likely some fear).
Chambers is remembered, if at all, as a man who exposed communist infiltration in the United States government. In 1948 he fingered Alger Hiss, a prominent government official and former president of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, as a Soviet spy. His Maryland farm was made famous when he stored some microfilm in a pumpkin there—the famous “pumpkin papers.”
Chambers was a defector from communism—he had joined the party in 1925 and left in 1937—and a conservative, but his philosophy went well beyond normal politics. He believed that the West was on the losing side of history because we had lost the spiritual resolve to fight communism and its cousin, the encroaching liberal state. Although liberals denied his accusations for decades, Chambers was right. He was also an intellectual, a polyglot, and a Christian mystic who wrote a classic autobiography, Witness, which is as much a religious as a political document and has been compared to the work of St. Augustine. His mysticism might be why even many conservatives don’t fully get him.
I knew Hollywood would not be interested in celebrating a conservative hero, no matter how great the project’s potential in both economic and artistic terms. Because of my father I had grown up surrounded by National Geographic writers, photographers, and visual artists. I learned by watching the best. I had done short movies and a lot of photography since then, but there was always a financial barrier to making a full-length feature film. But the digital revolution has reduced many barriers, and I had desire and some skill, which now make up much of what is needed for anyone to make a film.
In college I had wanted to make films from the books of my favorite writer at the time, Jim Thompson—the great crime writer whose dark pulp world would, in one book, foreshadow my future bout with cancer. Savage Night, my favorite Thompson title, tells the story of Carl Bigelow, a five-foot hit man sent to a small town to knock off a potential mafia witness. Bigelow has tuberculosis, and Savage Night opens with a paragraph that I consider one of the best openings of any novel:
“I’d caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York—three days of babes and booze while I waited to see the Man—hadn’t helped any. I felt lousy by the time I arrived in Peardale. For the first time in years, there was a faint trace of blood in my spit.”
I never forgot that trace of blood in the spit—the reminder of mortality and the inevitability of illness. I would recall it years later when I felt my body weakening from lymphoma before I was hospitalized in 2008. Things eventually end badly for Carl Bigelow. The conclusion of Savage Night is terrifying and unforgettable. Bigelow has a couple limbs hacked off by an ax-wielding femme fatale, and is kicked into a basement and left to die. As he fades the chapters get shorter and shorter. Finally he is face to face with death—“and he smelt good.” It’s like Camus crossed with The Catcher in the Rye. Still, I could never raise the funds to make a film out of Savage Night.
I had my great education in cinema after college in the late 1980s, when I worked at the amazing Bethesda Cinema ’n’ Drafthouse. It had been an art deco theater when it opened in the 1930s, but over the years it had fallen into disrepair. By the 1970s it was showing porn, but then a guy named Pete Carney bought it. He put in a bar and kitchen, new seats and tables, and started showing second-run movies—that is, movies that had already played in theaters but weren’t yet released on video (the internet and downloading was still years away). As the life of Quentin Tarantino has proven, there’s no better way of getting to understand movies than by having a job where you do nothing but watch them all the time. I can—unfortunately—screen the entire movie Top Gun in my head with nothing but the musical score playing. By seeing Little Shop of Horrors two hundred times, I was able to break down the acting, scenery, and actual second-by-second cuts that make Steve Martin and Bill Murray’s dentist scene so uproarious. These were the experiences that shaped my generation, experiences which many conservatives consider beneath their notice, which is why they cannot comprehend how media convey a message.
And now, years later, I was in the Strathmore Center, not far from the old Cinema ’n’ Drafthouse. I was waiting for a call from a talented documentary filmmaker. While not as conservative as I—what true artist is?—he wanted to talk. There was no concert that night, but some of the upper-floor studios were holding dance practice so the building was open. Still, it was dark on the main floor when I walked in. I sneaked into the concert hall, cavernous and filled with a kind of energized holy silence. I started climbing toward the upper levels.
It was hard to see; I felt like I was in a cloud. In his great book on mysticism, The Ascent to Truth, Thomas Merton says that you have to enter a dark cloud surrounding the mountain before ascending to the top, to truth. Even with my joints still sore from chemotherapy, I made it to the top. Like Carl Bigelow in the early pages of Savage Night, there is sometimes a trace of blood in my spit. But I’m not done yet.
I reached the uppermost level and looked down. The stage, the only thing lit, was a lovely yellow rectangle. Just then my phone buzzed. I said a prayer and reached into my pocket to answer it.
Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker who writes regularly for The Daily Caller and other publications.
Posted: February 2, 2014 in Essays.
Did you see this one?
An Augustine for Our Age
Jeffrey O. Nelson
Volume 34, Number 2 (Fall 1994)