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

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.

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How 2016's movies and TV reflected Americans’ changing relationship with religion

I started 2016 as chief film critic at Christianity Today and ended it on staff here at Vox. Religion and pop culture has been my beat for a long while. So it's not surprising I spot it around every corner.

But even by my heightened radar's standards, 2016 feels like a banner year for onscreen treatments of religion. I don't mean what we’ve come to consider “Christian movies,” though there were a few of those, most notably the moderately commercially successful God's Not Dead 2 and the crashing box office failure Ben-Hur (executive produced, by the way, by Mark Burnett of The Apprentice). “Christian films” are made for a sizable but still niche market and bent to the tastes of that segment: biblical or inspirational tales, or (in the case of the God's Not Dead franchise) legends of the culture wars. They’re meant to preach to — or shore up — the choir.

“Christian movies” had their most recent heyday in 2014 and 2015 and seem to be tapering off, at least in terms of box office returns. But 2016 belonged to a different kind of onscreen religion, aimed at mainstream audiences. In 2016, films and TV shows that portrayed religion — organized or not — were less interested in preaching or caricaturing and more in exploring how faith and (especially) doubt fit into the frameworks of people’s lives today.

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