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The Young Pope — and pop culture in general — can't stop asking one question: where did God go?

From The Leftovers to Silence, movies and TV muse a God-shaped vacuum.

Playing the title character in HBO’s The Young Pope, Jude Law smokes a cigarette.
Lenny, aka Pope Pius XII, would make a good member of the Guilty Remnant.
Gianni Fiorito/HBO
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

HBO’s The Young Pope is much more thoughtful (and much weirder) than the rampant memes it’s spawned would have you believe — and this only becomes more evident as the series continues. The actions of Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law), a.k.a. Lenny Belardo, are unpredictable because the forces driving him are complicated, and the show reveals the specifics of these forces very slowly.

But the main cause of Lenny’s erratic behavior and yen for papal revolution boils down to something simple: a sense of abandonment. Not just abandonment by his parents, who dropped him at the gates of an orphanage when he was a boy, but, more fundamentally, abandonment by God.

In the show’s pilot episode, just as he’s beginning his tenure, Pope Pius whispers briefly of “God’s infinite silence.” He kneels by his bed and cries to the heavens. He tells his confessor that his only sin is that his conscience does not prick him of any sins. And, finally, he tells someone that he doesn’t believe in God at all (and then, upon seeing the man’s horror, says it’s a joke).

Lenny hasn’t heard from God in ages, if ever. God is like the parents who abandoned him, whom he can scarcely remember.

This absence seems to have acted less like a wall and more like a vacuum for Lenny, holding the power to draw Lenny to it. He isn’t driven away from God so much, it seems, as driven toward inserting himself as a replacement for God (or at least Jesus).

He wants to supplant God for the 1 billion Catholics around the world, in the way he understands God to work. He withholds his image from them, he shrouds himself in mystery, and he thunders about the suffering and hard work the people must do in order to feel close to God, something he labors at but doesn’t feel himself.

Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII in The Young Pope
Can you see God from the Vatican?

In episode two, he says, “You want to look me in my face? Go see God first!” And, in a moderately blasphemous statement, he continues, “When you find God, perhaps you’ll have seen me as well.” (He’s echoing Jesus in John 14:9, who reprimands his disciple Philip for asking Jesus to let the disciples see God, the Father. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus replies.)

In hiding his face from the eager supplicants in St. Peter’s Square, Lenny is imitating the God he sometimes believes in. “Absence is presence,” he remarks to someone in an upcoming episode — that is, people feel the gap left by someone or something they long for, as if the longing itself is a presence.

The Young Pope might be taking some cues from Nietzsche

That Lenny is the “young” pope is the joke of the show: Look at this pope! He’s so young! But his youth has significance, too: The pomp and circumstance of the papacy feels deeply medieval, but the show’s director Paolo Sorrentino keeps slipping in jarring juxtapositions of the medieval and the modern.

Nuns play soccer in habits and sneakers on the lawn. Radios (albeit older ones) and iPads appear throughout the Vatican. Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised Lenny and now serves as his chief adviser in the Vatican, wears a humorous (and off-color) T-shirt to sleep. Lenny insists on a Cherry Coke Zero when he comes to breakfast, clad in his medieval-looking robes.

Some of this is typical of Sorrentino’s sense of humor — he loves the juxtaposition of the sacred and profane, the sublime and the ridiculous, which you can see on full display in his Oscar-winning film The Great Beauty.

But this humor also reminds us that while the traditions around the church and the papacy itself have stayed relatively stable (at least compared to traditions of Protestantism) for centuries, the world into which the Vatican has nestled has changed drastically. Putting iPads in the hand of cloak-clad cardinals is a visual clue that the world the church occupies isn’t the same as it was centuries ago.

The Young Pope
It looks medieval, but it isn’t.

One marker of that modernity is the sense of the “death” of God, as Nietzsche put it most famously. Here is the excerpt from Thus Spake Zarathustra in which Nietzsche explains:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Nietzsche didn’t believe God was literally a being that was alive and then was murdered by humans. He meant that the idea or sense of the transcendent God, in Western modernity, had “died,” and the ability to appeal to God as moral authority along with him. The burden for inventing “sacred games” and “festivals of atonement” in a world where God is gone falls to humans, but without any real direction in which to point them. We have, in effect, become our own gods.

Now, obviously, this isn’t a universal statement. Billions of people around the world — many of whom live in the West — still believe in God or a transcendent higher power and engage in religious practice. Plenty of others feel unbothered or liberated by the shift in thinking described by Nietzsche.

But the sense of being “abandoned” by God is still part of the contemporary Western condition. Many people, even many of those who pray and consider themselves religious, believe that meaning is something you have to find in life, rather than drawing it from some intelligence beyond this world. As the philosopher Charles Taylor has put it, the world we live in is “disenchanted,” compared to what our medieval ancestors would have experienced.

Pop culture is interested in the absence of God — especially when it leans on religious themes

As Nietzsche imagined it, this disenchantment doesn’t register with us as newfound freedom, so much as haunting grief or loss, of something having vanished. That vanishing is a consistent theme in pop culture of late, from the symbolic devils of Hannibal and The Knick to the broken doubters of Calvary and The Innocents. The Young Pope’s Lenny is certainly a strong example of this sense of loss.

Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal
In Hannibal, Mads Mikkelsen more or less plays the devil.

But you could look at Silence, too. Martin Scorsese’s film is based on a novel from 1966, written by a Japanese Catholic who’d spent much time in Europe and was always grappling with the disjunction between what he believed about God and what he felt in his own suffering.

Silence is set in the 17th century, but its central characters experience and react to a crisis of faith that deeply resonated with readers in the 1960s and today: Is God silent? Does he even exist? And if he does, why does he allow his faithful to be tortured? Why won’t he save them? These are questions as old as time, but as Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) experiences the anguish of abandonment, readers and audiences resonate with him in a fresh way, in a world where God’s absence can feel more natural than his presence.

Or there’s The Leftovers, also an HBO series, which returns in April. The whole show is about the presence generated by the vacuum of absence, because it’s set in a world in which about 2 percent of the population simply vanished one day, with no warning and no rhyme or reason. Everyone lost someone, or knew someone who lost someone, and because there’s no explanation to offer for the disappearances, the absence is impossible to shake.

The show’s credits sequence for its second season depicts dotted outlines of missing figures in family photographs. It’s not just that those who “departed” aren’t forgotten, but that they, in a sense, remain to taunt the “leftovers” with the meaninglessness of their own grief.

Every episode is about individual people’s responses to this absence, but the entire Leftovers universe is also haunted by the absence of a God to make meaning. The religious characters — those who thought they understood the world — no longer have their moorings. In the wake of the disappearances, cults and fringe religious movements spring up everywhere to fill (and sometimes capitalize upon) that void, the most notable of which is the Guilty Remnant, who as part of their practice do not speak. They literally stay silent.

(The Young Pope would have made a great Guilty Remnant member: His theology is severe and almost nihilistic, he mostly wears white, he exhibits little compassion for others, and he smokes like a chimney.)

Christopher Eccleston as Matt Jamison in The Leftovers.
Rev. Matt Jamison bolsters his faith in HBO’s The Leftovers.

The third episode of The Leftovers’ first season, “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” centered on Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), an Episcopal minister struggling to find meaning in the wake of the disappearances. He lost a philandering brother-in-law and a young niece and nephew, as well as many parishioners, but the defining loss in Matt’s life is his wife. She didn’t disappear, but on the day of the departures, a car that was left unmanned when its driver vanished plowed into her and left her catatonic. So she is present — but also absent. And as he cares for her every day, his life is haunted not just by her but by the injustice God seems to have visited on her life, and his.

Matt and Lenny would have a lot to talk about in a confessional booth, though I’m not sure Lenny would want to make himself available for such a chat. (Matt, on the other hand, grows into The Leftovers’ most sympathetic character over the course of the series.) Like Lenny, Matt cries out for help to the heavens, but God seems silent. Matt’s response is to bewilderedly keep on. In Silence, Father Rodrigues is on a different path and in different circumstances, and he takes a vastly different route. (I won’t say what it is, to avoid spoilers.)

In The Young Pope, Lenny, it appears, has a third path through his abandonment: supplanting God or the Holy Spirit altogether. But as episodes spool out, Lenny becomes more complicated, both more hard-line and vindictive and, in some cases, seemingly more compassionate. The feeling of an absent God, or a silent one, leads to very different outcomes for different characters. Which just means it’s faithfully reflecting all of us.

The Young Pope premiered on Sunday, January 15 at 9 pm Eastern on HBO. The second episode airs at 9 pm on Monday, January 16. Future episodes will air Sundays and Mondays at 9 pm, for the whole of the series’ 10-episode first season. Previous episodes are available on HBO Go.

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