I’m back from a vacation in Assisi, where I spent some time at the various sites that are steeped in the generous spirit of St. Francis. Against that background, it was all the more strange to tune in one night to a TV show that featured a fictional order of Catholic monks who serve the church as kung fu warriors. What made it especially jarring was that these monks wore a brown outfit that closely resembles the habit of the Franciscan order.
Since I had trouble following the Italian, it took me a while to figure out that these were not Franciscans but rather members of the secret religious order “Pugnus Dei,” or Fist of God. The plot was Dan Brown meets Bruce Lee, with a hunky blond monk named Lasko kicking, flipping, flying and scampering up and down walls to defend a bishop against a hit squad of hi-tech gangsters. The image of a kung fu fighter in what appeared to be Franciscan clothing was truly bizarre. St. Francis made a point of surrendering to any violence done to him, after all.
The show is a popular German TV series, Lasko: Die Faust Gottes, which is based on an earlier movie. In the Italian-translated episode I chanced on, the monk Lasko, played by German martial-arts actor Mathis Landwehr, used his kung fu moves to beat up bad guys as he fought to get to Rome to report to a cardinal on the activity of a crime syndicate bent on attacking the church. In one scene, he leaps from a bridge to a hovering helicopter to subdue a gunman who was spraying a bishop’s car with gunfire. According to Variety, Lasko is one of Germany’s highest-rated TV series.
What to make of this? I think the show’s popularity suggests a nostalgia for the imagined church of the Middle Ages, of Templars and Crusades, of power and righteousness – an escape from both the secularism of today’s Europe and the moral problems of the contemporary church.