There are Christians who simply write off all of popular culture as being rotten. And then there’s Maria, whose Catholicism has been shaped in a positive way by the sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book characters she admires in film, TV, and literature. Not only that, she sees connections between these strong, fictional women and her real-life role models, the great saints of history.
Maria has now written about the links between the two in her new book “Super Girls and Halos: My Companions on the Quest for Truth, Justice, and Heroic Virtue.”
Maria’s parents escaped Cuba after the communist revolution, and their Catholicism was always important to them. But as Maria entered young adulthood, she became indifferent toward her faith – going through the motions sometimes, but never really invested.
That began to change as she had children of her own who were preparing to receive the sacraments. Though she had given up on God, she now sees that He never gave up on her.
Maria’s movement back to the faith was mirrored in a way by Gillian Anderson’s character Dana Scully on the hit TV series “The X Files.” Scully was a scientist and a skeptic faced with investigating paranormal activities with her partner Fox Mulder. Their quest for the truth sometimes led them into religious subject matter, such as the case of a boy bearing the stigmata. This brought Scully’s strained relationship with her Catholicism to the fore.
After discussing the topics of monsters and guilt with a priest she was interviewing for the case, Scully eventually wound up in the confessional. Maria recalled, “That for me was such a monumental episode because I was in my late 20s, had stepped away from the Church – and in my mid-30s was returning to the Church. Believe it or not, that television episode was the final little pinch that got me into the confessional after a decade.”
Around the same time, Maria also discovered Edith Stein, who became known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. The saint’s intelligence, spirituality, and use of reason resonated with her.
Born to a Jewish family in Germany in 1891, Stein became a committed atheist while studying philosophy in college. But after reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila at a party (yes, she read a book at a party), her conversion to Catholicism had begun.
Though Stein tried to rush through her entrance into the Carmelite order with the impatience of a millennial downloading movies on slow wifi, her spiritual director encouraged her to take her time because her mother took her daughter’s conversion hard. Stein continued to teach philosophy and imparted a foundation of knowledge to many future teachers.
Edith became well-known for her affirmation of women in the workforce, but ultimately was killed by the Nazis in the Auschwitz concentration camp because of her Jewish heritage.
Maria related to Edith/St. Teresa’s Catholic feminism as well as her work as a teacher. Maria writes in “Super Girls and Halos,” “I often felt a measure of guilt that I had gone to work in the public school system instead of teaching in a Catholic school. A kindly priest put me at ease by encouraging me to teach where I found myself. He told me my work was in teaching the students with love.”
As time passed, religion/pop culture connections kept popping up in Maria’s life. She told me, “As I’d watch TV shows and movies, read books, I was always making these connections with my faith. I was lucky enough to stumble into a great group of people about a dozen years ago with Greg Willits, who’s at OSV now and back then was running Rosary Army, and a priest in the Netherlands, Father Roderick Vonhögen, who was doing a podcast with SQ then. I eventually teamed up with them and worked with that org for many years with the idea that the way that we reach people is to go out into the culture and talk about the themes in the culture.”
One of the biggest cultural phenomenons in modern history is, of course, the “Star Wars” movies, and you can count Maria a fan, especially of Daisy Ridley’s character Rey from “The Force Awakens.” This abandoned girl with latent Jedi powers begins to blossom after making new friends who are part of the resistance against the First Order.
Maria said, “If I could use [Rey] as a metaphor for who I want to reach with this book, I want to reach the young women and men who are out on the periphery, who…have a good, strong faith, they’re happy, and they’re fulfilled, and they’re joyful even if their life isn’t great. I see her metaphorically as what we could see when we belong to the communion of saints, when we belong to the church, when we can look at each other as brothers and sisters.”
Rey’s calling toward a certain destiny also resonated with Maria in the scene in which Maz Kanata hands Rey the lightsaber and she rejects it. She explained, “I’m a retired literature professor. I started off as a high school teacher. I went into that vocation – which is so clear to me in retrospect what I was made to do – I went into it kicking and screaming because that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to be writing science fiction novels. Rey rejected [the lightsaber] almost right out of the gate when it was offered to her in a very similar way that I did. I’m so looking forward to this next chapter this December because I want to see what she does. I want to see how she takes that lightsaber and goes running with it, and what magnificent things she can do, just like when we align our will with God’s. As long as I wanted it my way, it wasn’t happening. But the minute that I turned it over to God, things took off and grew.”
Maria also points out the importance of Rey’s relationship with Han Solo, calling him a spiritual father figure to her: “She had no one, right? I think that sometimes we’re in a place in our society that’s so focused on women and empowering girls that we’re forgetting the boys and the men. For all the spiritual mothers that I have had in my life, I’ve also needed fathers and spiritual fathers…We need the balance, the complementarity.”
As she does throughout “Super Girls and Halos,” Maria relates Rey’s journey to a saint: Clare of Assisi in this case. She said, “I loved the play on words with Rey – and that St. Clare was also a ‘ray’ of light in the world…We see a different heroism in St. Clare with the story of the Saracens invading the town and coming up to the monastery gates. She goes to Jesus, to the Blessed Sacrament…She held Jesus up to them and put her trust completely in Him. And the Saracens went away. They stopped the invasion. What a gentle thing to do. There was no violence in that. It was complete and total trust in the Lord’s providence in that moment.”
Maria further elaborates on her favorite pop culture heroes and saints in “Super Girls and Halos,” and her hopes for those who read the book are simple: “I think [readers] can learn from this book that we do have the stuff of heroism. With a little bit of grace and a little realignment, we can be saints.”
(To listen to my full interview with Maria Morera Johnson, click on the podcast link):