“Let’s Talk” Contemporary Catholics: Writers, Artists, and Filmmakers

The staff and faculty here at Harmel Academy of the Trades hope that the Catholic members of our community had a prayerful and meaningful experience during Mark Wahlberg’s 40-Day Challenge! For those of you who do not know what that challenge is, it is Lent. During a morning show interview on Ash Wednesday this year, many Catholic viewers were entertained by the caption of “Mark Wahlberg’s 40-Day Challenge” as he talked about his Lenten resolutions. It is truly comical, yet shows the disconnect between media culture and religious tradition. With the rise of agnosticism, casual paganism, and the trendiness of astrology, Catholicism may seem like a thing of the past in the media.

Many times, the work of Catholic individuals across all media is so overt that Catholics fly under the radar. In the case of actors, they are immersed in the roles that other individuals have written for them, and therefore, their art does not reflect their own beliefs, morals, and values. In the case of writers, they use Catholic themes to navigate their stories’ plots. 

Today, we would like to introduce or remind you of the plethora of Catholics in the mainstream and how their faith has influenced their art.

Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor is likely the best place to start. During her brief life, she wrote two novels and over thirty short stories, all of which are now considered classics of American literature. O’Connor was a devout Catholic who saw her writing as a means of exploring her faith and the human condition in a fallen world.

O’Connor’s stories are known for their vivid characters, Southern gothic atmosphere, and often shocking violence. Her work is frequently categorized as “dark” or “grotesque,” but O’Connor herself saw her stories as fundamentally hopeful, demonstrating the possibility of grace even in the most unlikely of circumstances. As she wrote in a letter to a friend, “I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement.”

O’Connor’s most famous story is probably A Good Man Is Hard to Find, which tells the story of a family who is murdered by a group of escaped convicts. Despite its bleak subject matter, the story is riddled with humor and a deep sense of irony. O’Connor’s characters are never one-dimensional, and even the most unsympathetic among them are shown to be capable of redemption.

Other notable stories by O’Connor include The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which explores themes of pride and self-deception, and Good Country People, which features a conniving Bible salesman and an intelligent, yet prideful disabled woman who ends up the victim of his schemes. O’Connor’s novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, are also highly recommended for their incisive explorations of faith and doubt.

Martin Scorsese

Scorsese seems to logically follow O’Connor due to their shared use of the grotesque and violent. Scorsese was raised in a Catholic family in New York City, and he attended Catholic school as a child. He has described his upbringing as deeply religious and has said that his faith has been a guiding force throughout his life and career.

In his films, Scorsese has explored Catholic themes in a variety of ways. Some of his most notable works, such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas, are known for their depictions of violence and moral ambiguity. However, even in these films, Scorsese often uses Catholic imagery and symbolism to explore questions of sin, redemption, and salvation.

Scorsese’s most overtly religious films include The Last Temptation of Christ, which explores the humanity of Jesus and the struggle between his divine and human natures, and Silence, which tells the story of Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan who face persecution for their faith. Both of these films are deeply personal for Scorsese, and they demonstrate his willingness to grapple with complex theological questions on the big screen.

JRR Tolkien

The fantasy genre has grown both as a genre as well as in popularity in the past 100+ years. It is no surprise that JRR Tolkien and his work have been a large influence on the genre. Tolkien was a devout Catholic throughout his life and his faith played a central role in shaping his worldview and his writing.

Tolkien’s most famous works, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, are often viewed as allegories of Christian themes, particularly the battle between good and evil and the importance of free will in making moral choices. The character of Gandalf, for example, has been compared to Christ as a wise and benevolent guide, while the figure of Sauron represents the forces of evil that seek to corrupt and destroy.

In addition to these overtly Christian themes, Tolkien’s work also incorporates elements of Catholicism such as the sacramental nature of the world and the importance of stewardship and conservation. Tolkien’s emphasis on the power of language and his creation of an entire world with its own mythology and history have also been seen as reflections of his Catholic faith and his belief in the power of myth and storytelling.

Overall, while J.R.R. Tolkien may not have set out to write explicitly Catholic literature, his work is imbued with Catholic themes and ideas that continue to resonate with readers around the world. His exploration of the human condition, his emphasis on the importance of a free will, and his commitment to the power of myth and storytelling have made him a beloved and influential figure in both literature and Catholic thought.

Frank Capra

When it comes to Frank Capra, it is hard not to think of the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra as a filmmaker was extremely influential, working mostly with stars such as Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper, creating American classics celebrating the American spirit…with that touch of spirituality. Capra was raised Catholic and his faith played a central role in shaping his worldview and his approach to filmmaking.

Capra’s films often explore themes related to morality, individualism, and the search for meaning and purpose in life, all of which are central to Catholic thought. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for example, Capra portrays a naive and idealistic senator who becomes disillusioned with the corruption and cynicism of the political system but ultimately finds hope and redemption through his commitment to doing what is right.

Similarly, in It’s a Wonderful Life Capra explores the importance of community and the impact that one person can have on the lives of those around them. The film’s central character, George Bailey, struggles with his own sense of purpose and worth but ultimately discovers the value of his life through the love and support of his family and friends.

Capra’s Catholicism also influenced his approach to filmmaking, as he saw his work as a way of promoting moral and ethical values in society. He once said, “I made films for people who wanted to feel good about themselves and their country.”

Alec Guinness

Yes, Obi-Wan Kenobi himself. As I mentioned before with actors, because they immerse themselves in the roles that others write for them, it is very difficult to witness the influence of their faiths in their work. Alec Guinness, however, must be included because of his work in The Bridge on the River Kwai; this film being the first film after his conversion to the Catholic faith. 

In his autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, Guinness recounts his spiritual journey, which led him to explore a range of religious traditions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, before ultimately finding a home in the Catholic Church. He describes the role of the sacraments and the liturgy in his conversion, noting that he was drawn to the beauty and transcendence of Catholic worship.

Following his conversion, Guinness became a devout Catholic and remained active in the Church throughout his life. He frequently spoke publicly about his faith, and his writing often explored themes related to spirituality and the human condition.

In his roles, Guinness often portrayed characters who were grappling with moral and ethical questions, and he was known for his ability to convey complex emotions and inner turmoil through his performances. One of his most famous roles was as the title character in The Bridge on the River Kwai, in which he played a British officer who became obsessed with building a bridge for his captors during World War II. The film explores themes of duty, honor, and the moral consequences of one’s actions, all of which are central to Catholic thought.

James Joyce, Andy Warhol, and F. Scott Fitzgerald

When thinking about all three of these influential artists within their own mediums, it is not likely that any of them are first thought of as Catholic artists. Each of these figures was raised Catholic though, and despite their struggles with their individual faiths, were all influenced by Catholic ideology.

Despite his personal skepticism toward Catholicism, Joyce’s writing is filled with Catholic imagery and symbolism, and his exploration of Catholic themes has had a profound impact on modern literature. His most famous work, Ulysses, is widely regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, and it includes many references to Catholic theology and philosophy. In addition, Joyce’s earlier work, Dubliners, includes several stories that deal with Catholicism and the role of religion in Irish society.

Joyce’s complex relationship with Catholicism has been the subject of much debate among scholars and critics. Some argue that his writing represents a rejection of traditional Catholic beliefs and a move toward a more secular and humanistic worldview. Others suggest that Joyce’s work is a continuation of the Catholic intellectual tradition and represents an attempt to reconcile the tensions between faith and reason in modern society.

Andy Warhol was raised in a devout Byzantine Catholic family and attended church regularly throughout his childhood. His faith played an important role in his early life, and he even considered becoming a priest at one point.

Although Warhol’s later work is not typically associated with Catholic themes or imagery, his faith continued to be an important part of his life, and it had a profound influence on his art. In particular, Warhol’s work can be seen as an exploration of the relationship between the sacred and the profane, and between high art and popular culture.

Fitzgerald was raised in a Catholic family and attended Catholic schools as a child, but he struggled with his faith throughout his life and ultimately converted to Catholicism only a few months before his death. Despite this, his novels and stories are not typically associated with Catholicism, but rather with the Jazz Age and the cultural changes that characterized the early 20th century.

That said, Fitzgerald’s work does explore themes related to morality, individualism, and the search for meaning in a rapidly changing world, all of which are central to Catholic thought. In The Great Gatsby, for example, Fitzgerald portrays a society that has lost its moral compass and is driven by a reckless pursuit of wealth and pleasure. Similarly, in Tender is the Night, he explores the breakdown of a marriage and the struggles of a man trying to find meaning and purpose in his life.

Donna Tartt

Every person mentioned previously has had a strong impact on culture to the point where their names are still recognizable today. Yet, with the exception of Scorsese, none of these figures have worked in the 21st century. Most of these individuals were deceased before our students were born. This generation still has Catholic artists, in the mainstream, using the influence of Catholicism to tell stories through whatever medium is necessary. 

Donna Tartt is an American author known for her novels that explore themes related to morality, spirituality, and the human condition. While Tartt’s engagement with Catholicism is not explicit in her work, her exploration of complex moral dilemmas and the ways in which individuals grapple with issues related to sin, guilt, and redemption bear a resemblance to Catholic theological themes. 

In her debut novel The Secret History, Tartt tells the story of a group of classics students at an elite New England college who become embroiled in a murder plot. The novel explores themes of morality and sin, as the characters are forced to grapple with the consequences of their actions and confront the darker aspects of their own psyches. Similarly, Tartt’s later novel The Goldfinch examines issues related to guilt, shame, and the search for meaning, as the protagonist Theo Decker navigates a world marked by tragedy and loss.

The Goldfinch won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was adapted into a film in 2019. And although most would not realize the influence that her faith has had on her work, it continues to be celebrated for its exploration of the human condition, and her influence on contemporary literature is widely acknowledged.

Harmel Academy of the Trades

As interesting as the influence of Catholicism on all that is above, this is not to say that Harmel humanities classes read all of these books or study Scorses’ films. There is not enough time in two years to cover all of that. Especially since our students don’t even study strictly Catholic literature—that is no way to learn. This is to say that Catholic artists are there and finding ways to communicate Catholic theology, themes, and culture to those not a part of the faith, or who have forgotten what Catholicism is. 

Catholics are here, not just during Mark Wahlberg’s 40-Day Challenge, not just during Christmas, not just during the Renaissance. We are here in philosophy, in film, in literature, in the office, in the factories, rich, poor, in a culture of the grotesque, in a culture of wholesomeness, in even a fantasy world. 

Do you have any Catholic artists you’d like to share? Let’s talk!

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