As we move past periodic COVID-19 lockdowns (God willing!) and see family and friends for the first time in what seems like forever, we may reminisce and cringe over how much time we spent on the couch watching TV, or staring into the maelstrom of YouTube on our phones, or binging whatever we could via our favourite streaming service. Many of us would have turned to ‘bingeworthy’ shows to fill the 23 hours in the day when we couldn’t go outside.

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli observed at the start of Lent this year that ‘As we spend ever greater time with our screens, that which we watch on them is squashed into ever more compact timeframes.’ Some of the shows now to be found on streaming services originally took years, or even a decade, to complete, often leaving fans agonising over dramatic cliff-hangers; now we can consume an entire series in a month, without having to wait between episodes or seasons. Some of us may still wrestle with feelings of post-lockdown guilt, recalling how, over a period of nearly three years, we ignored opportunities to grow or to do something productive in favour of time-wasting pursuits.

Was all the time we spent in lockdown really a waste? As we bunkered down in our homes, did we turn to all these recreational and entertaining time-fillers simply to fill a void, or were we looking for more? Post-COVID, could they still have a part to play in our mission as disciples of Christ to bring the Good News to Australia and to the ends of the earth?

Ignatian Spirituality famously exhorts us to ‘find God in all things’. We usually interpret this as a call to find the presence and will of God in both the joy-filled and shadowy times of life. Could we also find God—and God’s good purpose for our lives—in the things we deem superfluous, the things we use to drown out the white noise? Might we even find the divine sparks of which Jesuit poet Gerard Manly Hopkins speaks, glinting in the stubble and straw of our popular culture ‘like shining from shook foil’? Even that Netflix show, that video game, that anime series, that Korean drama, that novel or web series, that Disney movie that comes to mind when I look back at that strange time between 2020 and 2022—is there an evangelical use for it?

To evangelise well, we have to meet people where they are and on common ground. In our postmodern, secular world, though, God is being pushed out, both explicitly and implicitly. Moreover, we find that religious and spiritual formation has been so poor or absent that many are more familiar with The Legend of Zelda than with the Gospel of Matthew and can recite the names of the original 150 Pokémon better than the 10 Commandments. We cannot then assume those we meet have any familiarity with the traditional foundations upon which to build or discuss Christian faith. Yet for those disciples with eyes to see and ears to hear, popular culture can provide just the common ground we need to discuss the kerygma and bring it to others, moving us from Disney to discipleship.

These cultural products—be they video games, TV series or graphic and written novels—provide a mutual meeting ground, bridging age, gender, educational, ethnic, racial, professional and various other divides. They belong to no one in particular, and people from all walks of life share them in common. They are a safe, shared space where the deeper things of life can be spoken about and explored through narratives that provide both a window into other experiences and a mirror to help us reflect on our own.

The fact that not everything in our popular culture is conducive to the Gospel can certainly be problematic. At its worst, popular culture can be like a noxious weed, exploiting the full range of human creativity to produce entertainment that is designed to be addictive. It can prey on our human frailties, furthering destructive goals or ideologies, or consuming our disposable income while lining the pockets of its producers. While we hope that what we create will always draw us closer to the Supreme Creator, we nevertheless fall short, and our tendency towards sin can corrupt the way we use our gifts and talents.

Yet all hope is not lost. At its best, popular culture explores and expresses our humanity and the transcendental properties of the Good, the True and the Beautiful that run through our deepest yearnings for wholeness. True artists, musicians, content creators—indeed all manner of gifted and talented people—seem to know instinctively that these are what we long for. As we wrestle with the many mysteries that saturate our lives, we often find ourselves turning to artists who imbue their creations with a taste of those three things that seem to truly satisfy us. Since these transcendental properties point us ultimately to God, who alone satisfies the restless human heart, our encounters with these artistic works captivate our minds and hearts, giving us a sense of what it means to be fully alive, fully human.

Since we must take our world as it is, not as we would have it, we must be willing to go into the deep and interact with a culture that is like the parable of the wheat and darnel (Matthew 13:24–30), where both are mixed in together. There are video games that call the human spirit to self-sacrifice as well as those that entice us to sacrifice others for our entertainment. There are anime, television and web series that encourage us to pursue virtue and also those that fuel our vices. There are films that call us to lives of self-sacrificial love and those that see no meaning in a life lived for the sake of others.

We must discern, retaining what is good and discarding what is not. Thankfully, the secret ingredients that produce a ‘hit’—the elements that move a work from something that amuses only for a while, to something that resonates deeply with the human heart and mind so that we want to encounter it again and again—are often those transcendental properties that belong to and ultimately point to Christ himself. Admittedly the Gospel and person of Jesus Christ are not often explicit in whatever is before us, but with ears to hear, we can pick up his voice echoing in those works of creativity, scattered through our culture, that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable and praiseworthy. From this place, we can start the journey of accompaniment with others.

In order to hear these echoes of Christ, we first have to know his voice, which means becoming familiar with him through Sacred Scripture, through the magisterial teachings of his Church, and through a relationship with him cultivated in prayer, meditation and adoration. With these spiritual tools close at hand, we can take that imperfect, created thing—a cultural work that speaks to our souls and vivifies our common humanity—and use it as a launching pad to lead others to the one who is fully human and fully divine, in whom we live and move and have our being. The better we know him, the more we can recognise him in those good things that have marked our experience of 2020, 2021 and 2022.

We are called to be a light for the nations (Isaiah 49:6). So, as intentional disciples answering the call to sanctify, evangelise and restore the world to Christ in a missionary territory marred by postmodern secularism, we must learn to ‘find God in all things’, and to use whatever we have to spread the Gospel of Christ. Whether it’s that series you binged, the game you played or the movie you streamed, works of popular culture can open up a shared space with those who also hunger for Christ to shine and an opportunity to begin that journey of accompaniment towards a deeper relationship with God.