I had never heard of Warrior Nun until my fellow Where Peter Is contributors started talking about it earlier this month. I watched the trailer (language warning) and it looks utterly absurd. People dressed like nuns and priests, and a place called the Vatican, exist in this universe. However, it’s unclear what religious (as opposed to aesthetic) significance these labels might have. The fact that Ava, the main character, is rebelling against both heaven and hell (or something—the plot is hard to decipher from the trailer) is a distinctly odd course of action for a nun to take. The trailer also features a character called Lilith who is is shown firing an automatic rifle into the air. The art from the Warrior Nun Areala comic book on which the series is based makes the main character look like a cross between Princess Leia and Betty Grable (or whichever Old Hollywood actress it was who supposedly got her legs insured). And so on. It’s obviously ridiculous, and you wouldn’t think there was much for any serious Catholic to say about it other than pointing and laughing.
Much the same was said of the 2018 Met Gala, with its “Catholic imagination” theme. The Met Gala is an opportunity for some of high fashion’s most ridiculous (yet often beautiful) designs to strut their stuff, so a Catholic-themed Met Gala was bound to be interesting. In the end, it gave us Zendaya dressing up as Joan of Arc, Lana Del Rey as Mary and/or a seraph, and Chadwick Boseman as a conspicuously manly Pope, among other Catholicism-inspired fashion statements. I was spending more time on Catholic social media when that event was held than I do now, so when the Met Gala announced the theme I saw the whole gamut of Catholic reactions to it. Some people did point and laugh, others seemed genuinely and quite deeply offended, and still others observed that if nothing else it might get some people thinking about Catholicism who would not have otherwise.
I’m in the latter camp, and this affects my reading of—and degree of tolerance for—things like Warrior Nun. Thus, I’d like to focus on how secular uses of aspects of Catholicism can legitimately draw people’s attention to the faith–even absurd representations of it. I know people who’ve become interested in Catholicism through a Simpsons episode with Liam Neeson voicing a priest; cinematic adaptations of Brideshead Revisited that seek to render the story anti-Catholic; and even obvious obscenities like Madonna videos and sexy-nun fashion editorials. Obviously none of these things are good examples of how Catholicism should be depicted in the public eye. However, since they often are how it is depicted, I do find that God is, in at least some cases, using them to draw people’s attention Churchward.
For much of my life I was a very serious fan of Japanese anime and manga, and to some extent I still am (although my main geeky interest these days is Tolkien, which was also my first nerd love as a child). “Anime Catholicism” is common enough to be a set phrase, even if it tends to be eyeroll-inducing. The vast majority of anime is made by non-Christian production teams (there are a few exceptions out there), so Christianity is typically used merely to provide an exotic or sometimes sinister flavor. There are any number of anime priests who fight vampires, such as the deranged, bigoted Father Anderson from Hellsing—to say nothing of anime priests who are vampires! (Trinity Blood might actually have a vampire Pope depending on your interpretation of the series.)
There are more sensitive depictions of Christian concepts in anime too, of course. In my late teens I was deeply affected by an early-2000s anime called Haibane Renmei. This was a fantasy show about angel-like people living in an afterlife that appears to exist for the purification of suicide and accident victims—sort of like a cross between purgatory and the “city of those dead by accident” in Chinese folk religion. They live communally, don’t have any obvious romantic or sexual interest in one another, and are kept in semi-voluntary poverty. The town where they live even has Italian-inspired architecture. The show also eschews the usual modern focus on “forgiving oneself” in favor of insisting that, no, you actually do need to be forgiven by other people, including by God if possible.
I don’t want to imply that anime is the only medium in which this phenomenon appears, and I definitely don’t want to imply that anime was ever the only medium I watched. You see many of the same conceits in Western horror movies. There’s The Exorcist and The Omen, of course, and parodies of them like the Good Omens novel and miniseries. I also have a friend who insists that Annabelle Comes Home reinvigorated her faith. The late Roger Ebert was known to observe that, even in the West, no other form of Christianity is as exotic, dramatic, or macabre for cinematic and mediatic purposes as Catholicism. As Ebert famously said in his review of John Carpenter’s Vampires, “Your other religions are good for everyday theological tasks, like steering their members into heaven, but when the undead lunge up out of their graves, you want a priest on the case.”
Outside the horror genre one finds bastions of “culturally Catholic” filmmaking like The Godfather, with its unforgettable climax of Michael Corleone renouncing Satan at a baptism while a series of hits are carried out on his orders. I’d even argue that Pan’s Labyrinth, which is textually an anti-Catholic film, can serve a catechetical function in that it depicts the danger of the Church aligning itself with the worldly powers and petty bigotries of the age. One can also find increasing numbers of young Catholics who first became curious about the faith through strategy video games dealing with the medieval world, such as Crusader Kings II.
I am almost certainly not going to watch Warrior Nun now that it’s out. I’m a grown adult, and trailers showcasing machine gun-wielding nuns don’t work on me the way they might have when I was sixteen. (Much of this essay had to be aggressively edited for the benefit of readers who haven’t happily wiled away the best years of their lives on schlock media the way I have.) I don’t really trust the show even to be worth watching by the standards of the nunsploitation subgenre, much less compared to other media. However, watching the trailer was an interesting blast from the past for me. It reminded me that I, too, sifted through quite a lot of cultural detritus to find the treasure of the Catholic religion buried within.
Image: Yves Saint Laurent’s Statuary vestment for the Virgin of El Rocio, 1985. Photographed at the 2018 Met Gala.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.