By Cole DeSantis
Popular culture is not known for being the most self-aware phenomena in human society. Many of the trends that constitute “pop culture” are considered fashionable because they are taken to be cool, novel, or because they appeal to us on some visceral level. Pop culture is something to be enjoyed, not really thought about that deeply.
And it is for this reason that, in the rare cases when someone in the popular realm says or does something profound, it causes us to step back and examine the state of the culture.
I believe that one such instance occurred in the recent conversion of actor Shia LeBeouf to Catholicism, something motivated by his preparation for the main role in a recent film on the famous 20th century Italian saint, monk and mystic Padre Pio. LeBouef’s spiritual journey seems to me to be, in many ways, a microcosm of the spiritual journey of most people in contemporary society.
From the time of his debut nearly 20 years ago, LeBeouf was one of the regulars of 2000’s/early 2010’s television and cinema. Yet, in recent years, LeBeouf has been known for his strange and sometimes outrageous performance pieces or forms of political activism. This includes, in 2014, appearing at the Berlin International Film Festival with a bag over his head with the phrase “I Am Not Famous Anymore” written on it; posting a video online in 2015 of him yelling a motivational speech at a camera in front of a greenscreen; his promotion of obscure philosophies such as metamodernism; being the inspiration for a short musical-turned-meme made by the comedian and songwriter Rob Cantor; and his 2017 performance piece/protest titled “He Will Not Divide Us,” an anti-Trump piece.
LeBouef’s behavior was comical enough to make him into a living meme, but his behavior was absurd enough to show something about the nature of most mainstream popular culture: mainstream Western popular culture, rooted in the hyper-individualist, consumerist, and materialist attitudes of the age, is so devoid of any meaning, and anything resembling values it does have is so out of step with the moral realities of the human person, that it can’t but produce absurdism. Sometimes these absurdities are an attempt to fight against or challenge the all-encompassing edifice of mainstream popular culture. They shock us, they attempt to do things differently than in the mainstream, they temporarily disrupt the flow of day-to-day life, and therefore cause us to temporarily step back and have the inklings of critical thought. While absurdism in these settings – at least until it is commercialized by some large manufacturer – can provide us with temporary moments of originality or sincerity, many of these public shows of absurdity fail to help us to transcend the shallowness of our time, in the sense of finding any lasting alternatives, and therefore frequently fall into deviancy and immorality.
Sometimes this absurdity is the result of the shallow, materialist-consumerist-secularist ethos itself. Absurdity in this context, unlike forms of absurdity born out of countercultural tendencies, are not born, at least not explicitly so, by the desire to shock or innovate; rather, they are born out of a mindset created by materialist consumerism or secularism, namely the view that reality is nothing more than matter in motion to be manipulated at our whim, which itself is born out of the notion that WE (humanity) are the masters of reality. There is no immaterial or transcendent source or basis of truth or morality; created intelligent beings are the only ones we know of. We can produce, destroy, and update whenever and whatever we want in accordance with our whims; we buy whatever we want in order to fulfill whatever immediate desire we have, and sell or destroy whatever we don’t like. All of this leads to the mindset that WE determine the parameters of reality.
Martin Heidegger, in his work On Being and Time, asserted his belief that our patterns of thought, our dispositions, our perceptions, are all shaped and molded by the concrete context or setting of our daily life. As Heidegger states, the order and structure of life is “something unobtrusively pre-given,” it is “self-evidently ‘there’”, it is “always already…there in such and such a way.” Most scientific and philosophical inquiry is the result of something that disrupts the daily routine of our lives, which causes us to step back and examine the world, not as one who lives and acts within it in an unthinking manner, but as a third-person observer. The problem with public expressions absurdism, such as those taken part in by LaBeouf, is that, while they often cause us to step back and reflect upon the nature of existence and of daily life, it is not, philosophically or existentially, tied to anything substantial, anything that can truly shake the core of our current way of doing things.
LeBeouf’s career up until now was defined by perpetuating the vapidness of popular culture followed by a period of absurdism. He tried to find meaning through the strange, the different, the obscure, by turning to the bottle or to mind-altering substances. The only thing that created a significant sense of meaning was religion, as something that pointed towards the transcendent.
Think about it in the following manner: the life, teachings and example of a monk and mystic who lived a century ago, who was a member of a religious order roughly 500 years old, which branched off from another religious order that is almost 1,000 years old; a form of worship that was codified in the 16th century, which contains prayers and rituals that date back as early as between the A.D. 3rd and the A.D. 7th century, all of which was a way of celebrating a Sacrament (the Eucharist) that dated back to the 1st century A.D.; a religious book containing stories and teachings dating back roughly three to four thousand years – THAT is what brought about inner peace for LaBeouf. What LaBeouf has experienced in recently is an example of what happens when one attempts to construct a sense of meaning or seek for inner peace by rooting it in something substantial, while the decline in Western culture in recent years is the result of what happens when one becomes obsessed solely with what is “cool” or, on the flip-side, with the absurd.
Cole DeSantis is a researcher, writer, public speaker who specializes in theology. He currently works as a freelance journalist for the Rhode Island Catholic. He holds both an B.A. and M.A. in theology, and also runs a YouTube channel titled Exploring the Faith. You can find it on Twitter at @Theology_Online and on Facebook at @hermeneuticsoftradition.