(RNS) — From puffers to pride flags, religion took center stage more than a few times in 2023 — to mixed reviews. Here are RNS’ top picks for this year’s religion and pop culture clashes.
Pope in a puffer
The AI image craze has not left anyone behind. Pope Francis was “photographed” in March sporting a chic long white puffer jacket and jeweled crucifix while taking a walk through the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square. The photo was a deepfake generated entirely by artificial intelligence software Midjourney. Nevertheless, the image of an extra-stylish pontiff fooled millions of social media users, leading to stress as AI gets harder to recognize. “No way am I surviving the future of technology,” tweeted celebrity Chrissy Teigen. In December, the pope issued a call in his annual message for the World Day of Peace for global regulation of AI.
“Jesus was a carpenter”
Former Disney Channel star Sabrina Carpenter stirred up some trouble with the Catholic Church in October after filming a music video for her hit song “Feather.” The video, released on Halloween, pictured the singer in a little black dress and veil dancing among coffins placed at the altar of the historic Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Brooklyn, New York. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn promptly issued a statement saying it was “appalled” by Carpenter’s use of the church and demoted the priest who signed off on the filming a few days later. In response to the controversy, Carpenter had this to say: “We got approval in advance. And Jesus was a carpenter.”
Flamy Grant tops charts
Matthew Blake Lovegood, a drag artist who goes by the name Flamy Grant, made history this year as the first drag queen to top iTunes’ Christian music charts, doing so with her hit, “Good Day,” a hymn addressing the church’s rejection of queer people. The artist, whose name is inspired by contemporary Christian music (CCM) artist Amy Grant, hit the spotlight this year after an interaction on X (formerly known as Twitter) with conservative Christian worship artist Sean Feucht. Flamy Grant went on to attend the Christian music Dove Awards show, sparking backlash from several conservative Christians.
Puerto Rican reggaeton artist Daddy Yankee announced that he will retire from music to focus on his Christian faith. “I am not ashamed to tell the whole world that Jesus lives in me and that I will live for him,” the “Gasolina” and “Despacito” rapper told the crowd at his final concert in December. The 46-year-old added that he will use “the tools that I have in my possession such as music, social networks, platforms, a microphone — everything that Jesus gave me — for his kingdom.”
Come all “Ye” faithful
The rapper known as Ye, formerly Kanye West, is no stranger to public controversy. Though Ye has long been vocal about his strong Christian faith, the artist was criticized late last year for his series of antisemitic rants on social media. But on Dec. 26, Ye issued an apology written in Hebrew on his Instagram account. “I sincerely apologize to the Jewish community for any unplanned outburst… It was not my intent to hurt or disrespect, and I very much regret any pain I may have caused,” he wrote. The ADL issued a response welcoming “this initial act of contrition” but cautioning that “ultimately actions will speak louder than words.”
The Chosen few
During Pride Month this year, a small rainbow flag spotted on the set of the popular TV series “The Chosen,” which depicts Jesus’ life, sparked backlash and a call for boycotts on social media. In response, the show’s creators said: “Just like with our hundreds of cast and crew who have different beliefs (or no belief at all) than we do, we will work with anyone on our show who helps us portray or honor the authentic Jesus.”