2015 was a rich year in music, books, movies, TV, and games, and many of the pop culture artifacts we consumed had spiritual messages, whether we recognized them or not. In Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, if we accepted the novel as canon, we discovered that our hero Atticus Finch was actually a racist--or had to fight against his prejudice as powerfully as most of us do. Star Wars: The Force Awakens explored the power of family, and the idea of being part of something larger than yourself, in both cases, for good or ill. In the Netflix series Jessica Jones, we experienced how paralyzing violation can feel, discovered how sometimes the past can't be buried despite its past-ness. Here are five other significant works of popular culture that were both great and good, successful in their genres and carrying some potent spiritual messages to be teased out by and for their audiences.
Seaway, Colour Blind
Set aside for a moment the spiritual value of a perfect piece of popular art--the beauty inherent in Ella Fitzgerald's "I've Got a Crush on You" or the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows"--if you like, although I see spiritual value in something as well rendered as the catchy and infectious songs from this Canadian punk-pop quintet. While punk sometimes wrestles with political and social questions (think Bad Religion or Green Day), Colour Blind takes as its subject the human being trying to live with authenticity and honesty--what my wife Jeanie extols as "living in reality." Seaway calls out our love of wealth and celebrity in "Growing Stale" ("Someone else's gain is your claim to fame") and marks the importance of being yourself instead of what society says you should be: "There's something comforting about knowing who I am." Perhaps the most clearly spiritual message on the album emerges on "Airhead," whose narrator makes a strong case for living in the real world, with all the pain and sorrow than can emerge from that, as opposed to living outside of reality--or not living at all:
Show me pain
Show me what gravity means...
Make me real
I'm begging you please
'Cos I know that you love me.
Colour Blind is a near-perfect album, full of energy, humor, hook-rich choruses, and a surprising amount of wisdom.
When a show begins with its hero in the confessional--and that priest is an ongoing character on the show--you might expect it to be rich in spiritual content. But what amazes about Daredevil, a particularly fine adaptation of a Marvel Comics property, is how integral faith and ethics are to its storylines. Its antagonist and protagonist both want to make the city a better place, but their means are different. Or are they? As Daredevil writer Ruth Fletcher Gage told me, in the episode of the show she and her husband Christos wrote ("Speak of the Devil"), the religious and ethical debate between Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and his priest are at the heart of everything that happens in the episode. It even takes seriously the question of evil, where it comes from, and religious understandings of it:
Matt: Do you believe in the Devil, Father?
Father Lantom: You mean... as a concept?
Matt: No. Do you believe he exists? In this world, among us.
Father Lantom: You want the short answer or the long one?
Matt: Just the truth.
It's rare that pop culture dares to take religion as an object of positive value, but Matt's Catholicism is as central to the show as it is to the character. His faith evokes both good action and good reasoning. And taking his faith seriously has the effect of grounding superhero action in a real moral universe--one that many of us inhabit.
Spotlight's David versus Goliath story about The Boston Globe's 2001 breaking of the Catholic sex abuse scandal would be a powerful spiritual lesson in and of itself. Perseverance and hard work are not always celebrated in contemporary culture, and people of faith need to be reminded of one of the great failures of the Church. But one of the reasons Spotlight is one of the year's best movies is that it goes beyond this simple binary us v. them, just keep swimming message. Yes, the movie explores the reasons that the Church dealt with the scandal by ignoring it, or by misdirection, or by throwing money at it, and how heinous each of those responses are. But it also considers why the community--including the media community to which the Globe belongs--allowed such widespread abuse to continue year after year. Michael Keaton's Walter "Robbie" Robinson wonders how they could have so badly handled the story--before they finally threw resources at it and broke it. America worships the big and brash (witness our current obsession with Donald Trump), but Spotlight celebrates humility. Too often, we don't know everything. Too often we get things wrong. And when we do, we have a responsibility to make amends.
The Walking Dead
It's one of the world's most popular shows, and as "unrealistic" as a show about zombies walking the earth might be, the story has always carried a freight of ethical and spiritual content. The Walking Dead wrestles with most of our post-9/11 questions about survival. What are we willing to do to remain upright and breathing (as opposed to upright and shambling), and what are the costs of those choices? The show also gives us a chance to--as the characters do--wrestle with grief. Writer/producer Angela Kang told me that she understands one of the central themes of The Walking Dead to be understanding how loss feels: "The death of beloved characters is painful, but the important thing we explore is the aftermath. How do you live with loss?" For all our complaints about the death of characters to whom we've become attached (see also: Game of Thrones), we are getting real-world experience in dealing with grief. Do we turn our backs on that pain (and maybe on the show that caused it), or do we stay engaged, keep pushing on, deal with our loss? Because that's what life is about: managing the ongoing loss of everyone and everything we know.
Coldplay, A Head Full of Dreams
They may be the world's biggest band. But in this joyful new album, Coldplay samples Rumi, and Barack Obama singing "Amazing Grace," and so not surprisingly, there is spiritual insight splashed all across these songs. In addition to that pervasive joy (particularly in "Hymn for the Weekend," featuring Beyonce, and "Amazing Day"), the album draws some lovely lessons from the wrestling that Chris Martin has clearly done with loss and grief since the somewhat morose last album, Ghost Stories. Here he finds a new approach to ghosts, one that is spiritually rich: gratitude. Rather than lamenting the loss of something or someone that one loved, Head Full of Dreams chooses hope, as in this repeated lyric from "Fun":
Don't say it's over
Don't say we're done
Oh, didn't we have fun?
Pain and suffering are leading to something beautiful; they are the pressure that molds a diamond. Gratitude is most profoundly and poignantly explored on "Everglow," which features Martin's ex, Gwyneth Paltrow, on vocals in the intro and outro. Perhaps her presence there--Martin sings in response to her--has pain attached to it. But as he points out, we can choose thanks instead of resentment, and celebrate how our lives may be shaped by our ghosts, but we can recognize that truth as a sum positive, forever to be cherished:
When I'm cold, cold
There's a light that you give me
When I'm in shadows
It's a feeling of ever