Category Archives: Movies

Posts that feature a movie

Ham Awry

Ham, in the movie Noah, is a conflicted figure. I felt a slight chill, I’ll have to admit, when the carnivore Tubal-Cain asked him his name, reminiscent as it is of pork. Of the sons of Noah he alone bears the impossibly stylish short hair his father seems to favor, and yet, he is one of four men alive and the only one without a mate. Japheth is young enough to wait for his twin nieces to grow up, and the ancestor of the Semites, Shem, has already begun his fruitful multiplication, just when humanity seemed at an evolutionary bottle-neck. Ham found a wife but couldn’t keep her. Noah leaves her to be trampled to death as he takes his son to the gentlemen’s club known as The Ark. The rain has already begun to fall.

In the Bible Ham gets short-shrift as well. Having seen Noah naked after he discovers alcoholism, Ham bears the brunt of his father’s wrath. Noah, perhaps still hungover, curses Ham’s son (not appearing in the movie), Canaan. From the biblical point of view, the reason is perfectly clear: when Israel arrived in the promised land, the Canaanites already lived there. Given that the promise was to Shem’s descendants, a genocide was ordered and probably the more liberal among the marauding Israelites felt a bit of guilt about that. No worries—like ethnic minorities in horror movies, the Canaanites were created to be killed. Ham, however, isn’t cursed for his voyeurism. Still, according to later interpretation, he is the ancestor of the Africans as well, and the “curse of Ham” was used for a biblically literate society as a justification of slavery. After all, Ham had had an eyeful, and it was only fitting, they reasoned, that his n-teenth-hundredth generation should suffer cruelly for it. How’s that for air-tight reasoning?

According to the movie, Ham decided to leave in voluntary exile. Perhaps he hoped that like Cain he might find an unlikely spouse in an unpopulated world. He had grown apart from the new Adam, welcoming Tubal-Cain aboard the ark, and keeping him hidden until Noah threatened to kill the future of all humankind. Strangely, it seems that Ham is the proximate cause of the salvation of all humanity, and he become a self-sacrificial scapegoat in the Icelandic scenery. He declares that his deceased chosen mate was good, and Noah had cursed her as well. In the Bible cursing is freely dispensed, and it is considered adequate to its task. Somehow that curse transmuted to a nobility in the film, for Ham is the most like Noah of all his children. And even today that self-same Bible is used to justify a genocide in a world where myth is taken for reality.

Noah doesn't like Ham

Noah doesn’t like Ham

Better Watch Out

Among the more intriguing mythologies of Noah, the movie, is the presence of the “Transformer-like” Watchers. The more biblically literate of the film’s viewers will know that Watchers are mentioned in the Bible, but in the book of Daniel—chronologically the latest book in the Hebrew Bible—and not in Genesis. Daniel does not tell us what Watchers are, but it uses the term in parallel with Holy Ones, implying that they are angels. In the apocryphal book of Enoch, there is quite a bit of mythology concerning Watchers, and they are tied back to the flood story by the strange first four verses of Genesis 6 that note the sons of God saw human women were beautiful and took them, populating the earth with giants as a result. The Bible, as typical, is very cryptic about all of this, leaving imagination to fill in the gaps. Watchers were later associated with fallen angels, and they are sometimes referred to as Grigori, the Slavic form of the name. Biblically we know practically nothing of them.

Watchers have long had a home in the paranormal speculation crowd. Associated with ancient astronauts, a modern mythology has grown up around who the Watchers supposedly really were. This is an outgrowth of the Judaic myth that came from the non-biblical texts that themselves grew out of such esoteric references as those to Enoch, nephilim (fallen ones), and giants, in Genesis. That antediluvian world was a fascinating period in which just about anything goes, but nothing is explained. Even the ark itself is described in terms so vague that it really can’t be reconstructed precisely. The Watchers, according to Genesis in any case, weren’t there. One gets the sense that ancient readers, anxious for a logical roadmap of the divine world, were quick to fill in the gaps that the Bible leaves.

Although Christian theology would eventually declare God omniscient, this does not characterize the deity of the Hebrew Bible. Even before the discovery of Oceania or the New World, the ancient Mediterranean and West Asia were too large for any one God to know it all. Watchers were, most likely, members of the divine council whose purview was to view. Keep an eye on what people were up to. Fallen angels, later equated with demons, were a convenient way to explain evil in a world made by a deity who is only good. And who doesn’t know that feeling of being watched, especially when being naughty? According to Genesis 6 not even the children of God are exempt from such behavior. The Bible gives us plenty to work with, if we’re only willing to use our imaginations.

Somebody's eye is watching...

Somebody’s eye is watching…

Heaven Can Wait

“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” So the jingle goes. Or went. I’ve only met my upstairs neighbors once. Twice now. Apparently last weekend I slept through the fire alarm—one of the dangers of awaking ridiculously early on a daily basis. The neighbors found the source of the smoke and turned off the furnace in the basement, but told me first thing in the morning before the coffee really kicked in. I avoided a close call, perhaps. What if they’d not been home?

I have no delusions about understanding how the Internet works. I’m still trying to figure out the telegraph. Perhaps having this inconsequential blog has put me on somebody’s radar, or maybe it’s just some bored robot that searches for strange combinations of words in the wee hours of the night. In any case, I ended up with an email with the trailer for Heaven Is For Real embedded in it. I recall when the book was on the New York Times bestseller list, and I suppose the Easter weekend release date is no coincidence, but the trailer still bothered me a bit. It’s not the resurrection part—the film industry wouldn’t get very far without that trope—but it is the implications of what heaven would be like. I haven’t read the book, but apparently Colton Burpo had a near-death experience and then for a considerable time afterward began describing things that were impossible for him to know. A miscarriage where his sister died, what his grandfather looked like as a young man, what his parents were doing when he was dead in the hospital. Talk about your spooky effects at a distance!

Despite my penchant for watching scary movies, I don’t think I’ll see Heaven Is For Real. There’s just too much emotional build-up here, and Life After Life traumatized me for weeks a couple decades back. Still, I am very interested in the possible explanations for what might have been going on. Near-death experiences have never been adequately explained. Scientists suggest that a lot can happen in a complex brain in a matter of nano-seconds, and we have no chronograph precise enough to know whether the thoughts and images happened before death, during death, or during resuscitation. Still, how people frequently know precisely where others were, who were not in the room at the time, and how they heard things that, medically speaking, they couldn’t have heard, remains eerie and hopeful at the same time. What does appear to be without question is that consciousness is far from being explained.

Botticini's vision

Botticini’s vision

Heaven is always described as pleasant. That concept differs radically for people, and you have to wonder how it can be one-size-fits-all. Some people prefer to be in crowds, while others like to be alone. Some like it hot. Some like it cold. And those who experience near-death phenomena often report having a body of some sort “up there.” Some people would prefer a different body. According to the trailer, Colton says we’re all young over yonder. For me, such things are far more about questions than answers. We don’t know what goes on after death. Nearly every religion ever invented says that clearly there’s more to the story. Some say we come back, others say we stay away. Maybe it is different for each. Maybe it is just a matter of having good neighbors after all.

Clash of the Watchers

NoahMovie

I don’t know about you, but I think I got gypped with my Bible. I have just come out of Noah where I saw amazing sights and a seriously troubled Noah to whom God refuses to say a single word. Controversy still swirls around the web concerning the movie, but I honestly have to say that it was more like Clash of the Titans (2010) than anything else. Except a thin part of the plot—and a few character names—that were borrowed from the Bible, this could have been Herodotus rather than Moses. I don’t recall finding any exploding lava angels in Genesis 1-11, and magic rocks that seem to fit better into a Mormon worldview than a biblical one. Gopher-wood trees grow incredibly fast, and Noah sure fights very well for being a six-hundred year-old man. So why all the fuss? This is a movie folks, not scripture. For the price of the ticket you can buy yourself a new Bible and read the entire story in fifteen minutes (it’s just over two chapters long). If it’s an action movie you’re looking for, I thought The Avengers was better.

What struck me most about the movie, apart from the watchers, which were admittedly an improvement on Holy Writ, was the subtext of evangelicalism. Noah, when he decides to build the ark appears suddenly with an evangelically approved haircut. He also had grown decided misanthropic, insisting that the ark is only for the animals’ sake, and that he only allows Shem to have a wife because he thinks she is barren. When he considers finding wives for Ham and Japheth, there is a huge meat for sex kind of deal going on in Tubal-Cain’s city that disgusts Noah so much that his vegetarian righteousness declares that all people will die off once the ark runs aground. And, of course, he will have to kill his granddaughters. This is a dark and tormented Noah who drinks to forget his problems in a world where God only speaks in cryptic dreams and one gets the sense that Noah is very Republican in his lack of compassion. Take out the whole human race while you’ve got the chance.

The movie is filled with mixed messages. Noah certainly doesn’t appear to live up to his name (“comfort,” by simple translation), and although the supernatural is everywhere, a compassionate deity is utterly lacking. Species die off when Tubal-Cain gets hungry. And the very sign of blessing is the skin shed by the serpent that led to the fall. What are we supposed to learn from this? A vague, Avatar-esque “the planet is good” message does give me a little hope, but seeing Noah poising a knife above an infant’s head only because she’s female makes me a bit squeamish. Noah obeys simply for obedience’s sake and people are mere stains on an otherwise ideal world. Before the fall Adam and Eve veritably glowed. Adam stoops to pick up the serpent’s skin while Eve engineers the fall of all. The special effects are good, but the story, it seems to me, is all wet. That’s the gospel truth.

No Noah

Noah2014Poster

I haven’t seen Noah yet; the timing didn’t work out this past weekend. Besides, you don’t always get to see what you want. Nevertheless, the critics are already having a go at it, and the movie is gathering such attention because it is of biblical proportions. Or more properly, of biblical origins. One commentary in The Guardian suggests that, since knowledge hasn’t moved since Aristotle, that gods really have no place in movies. I have to wonder about that. Sure, the wealthy and powerful seldom have a need for gods, being the captains of their own destinies. Until it comes time to face the flood that all mortals face, and even the rich have to acknowledge that no ark is big enough to take it with them. Who wouldn’t want to have a little divine intervention then? Indeed, God strikes me as the almost perfect antagonist. Before you begin to hurl your stones this direction, think of the book of Job, underrepresented at the box office, but about as honest as they come. We, like Noah, are not in control of this vessel.

To quote Tom Shone, in his review, “[God] has no desire, no needs, no social life, no private life, no self-exploratory intellectual life to speak of.” Of course, the biblical view is quite different. God in the Hebrew Bible is not omnipotent. In fact, he (and he is generally male) comes across as quite lonely. He has anger issues, to be sure, but he is a troubled character rather like a Disney Hercules who doesn’t know how to control his power. Add him to the mix with willful, self-satisfied human beings and it sounds like an afternoon at the movies to me. Perhaps film makers don’t present God with weaknesses—that would be the worst of heresies—but it is also perhaps the most biblical of heresies.

Going back to Aristotle, perhaps it is not that gods should be left out of drama, but that human ideas of God are what writers call a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a perfect character with no flaws, the kind of person we first learn to write, since we believe people—and gods—are only good or evil. Then we begin to discover shades of gray. More than just fifty. Characters are complex and experience conflicting wants and wishes. Thus, as Shone notes, God wants people to procreate, but then wants to destroy them. Afterwards he is upset at what he has done. What could be more human than that? The perfect god who knows no struggles, and who never has to fight for what he wants, would be a boring deity indeed. That’s not the divinity skulking around Genesis, however. I’ll have to reserve judgment on Noah’s god until I get to the theater. It seems to me, at this point, that a wee touch of evil makes for deities that are closer to those we experience in our own workaday lives.

The Search for Khan

Star_Trek_II_The_Wrath_of_Khan

Continuing with the series, I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan last night. Since weekends are the only time I have for the media, I also threw in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Now, I haven’t seen either of these movies since their theatrical release longer ago than I care to admit, but many of the details, particularly from II, had stayed with me. Clearly The Wrath of Khan is superior in every way, but I hadn’t realized how literate it was until I saw it again. From Tale of Two Cities to Moby Dick to the Bible, the viewer in 1982 was given a sci-fi movie with classics sprinkled through it. I hadn’t read Ahab’s famous words on the dying lips of Khan when I first saw it, but I still realized that they were powerful words nevertheless. The premise of both movies, however, is biblical—the Genesis project, which even gets Spock quoting the Bible, is creatio ex nihilo, well, not exactly ex nihilo, as we do have a Big Bang to start the thing. Throughout the language of creating in six days is juxtaposed to morality, for in order to create, you must destroy.

We all know that Spock dies, citing a utilitarianism that would’ve made John Stuart Mill proud, but in what is really a biblical trope: self-sacrifice. And this leads to speculations of resurrection, always lurking in the background of the biblically minded. But theology (and the acting) turn bad in III. We’re all glad to see Spock alive again, but it turns out that Genesis destroys itself after just a short time, and that “Genesis is a failure.” Where do we turn back from the first page of the Bible? There is no preface here. There is, nevertheless, a temporary garden of Eden on the Genesis planet, and it is a federation-level secret. You just can’t keep anything from the Klingons, however. So the Bible implodes and Kirk’s son sacrifices himself so that Spock might live. Can I get a concordance here?

I’m not a trekkie, but I had noticed from the original series through the original cast movies, the assumption was for a biblically literate audience. That assumption can no longer be presumed, although, if pressed, many people could guess that Genesis is in the Bible. Meanwhile, the flood of Noah is also upon us. Exodus comes next. Movies featuring Leviticus are rare. Even as the cast ages visibly from the young, brash Kirk of the 1960’s to the bespectacled, patrician father with regrets in The Search for Spock, society itself has also aged. Some would say, matured. But we need directors telling us now that the flood story is found in Genesis. The Bible has been on self-defense mode for some time as religion has become equated with fanaticism. And yet, even as resurrection looms, we can’t help but to wonder if better things lie ahead.

Jesus of Hollywood

What hath Hollywood to do with Boston? Not enough, apparently. In this week’s Time magazine, an article entitled “Films Are His Flock” by Josh Sanburn revisits the ark. Actually, it throws the doors open a little wider—it looks at Hollywood’s effort to woo the religious. Ironically, although universities all across the country offer courses in religion in popular culture and the Bible in popular media, they are constantly trying to rid themselves of the detritus known as biblical scholars. High brow is in, while Hollywood makes no secret of its love to the common people. For Americans the common person is religious, or at least doesn’t block out religion like the educated crowd does. And they come with pockets lined. Religious movies, if marketed well, can be phenomenal successes. In my four years teaching at a secular state university, my Bible classes were filled to capacity each semester. Still, Rutgers coyly refused to hire me full-time. “There’s no interest,” they seemed to say. “Nobody reads the Bible.”

Meanwhile, according to the article, Jonathan Bock, founder of Grace Hill Media, a marketing firm that sells the Bible to Hollywood, knows a good thing when he sees it. Noah is about to come splashing into theaters. Son of God has already incarnated. Exodus is yet to come. And those are only the movies that are explicitly religious. I had no trouble pointing out to my long-suffering January term classes that religion plays a role in many movies, most of them explicitly secular. Those in Hollywood know that religious themes—the Bible even—resonate with the general public. Having grown up in, or maybe even below, John Q. Public, I have always known that the Bible makes good movies. Doubt it? Ask E.T. As he appeared risen, ascended, and glorified, the stranger from above wearing a white shroud and backlit with a nimbus, many of us squirmed in our seats for we had seen a clever representation of our Lord.

Perhaps it is resistance to the McCarthyism of the 1950s that so many intellectuals associate with religion, but academics just can’t seem to understand that this is important. The Bible business is a multi-million dollar industry, and yet, universities would prefer to ignore the implications. Meanwhile in Hollywood, they’re trying to make sure they get the blend just right. Theatrics and theology. You’ve got to be careful whom you choose to offend. The Last Temptation of Christ, based on a novel written by a devout Nikos Kazantzakis, just didn’t perform as a Scorsese movie. It is the job of people like Jonathan Bock to figure out why. And it isn’t hard to see that it’s a buyers market on America’s left coast. Indeed, without a hint of cynicism the Bible will bring in a flood. But that’s just academic. Or it should be.

Noah looks down over Times Square

Noah looks down over Times Square

Flood of Fancy

Years ago I was approached to write a book about Noah. There was still some hope at that time that I might find a university job and that my words would have more credibility than just any old internet hack. At the time I’d read just about every book about Noah that had been written—and there weren’t that many. Biblical scholars, beyond tying the story to its obvious Mesopotamian sources, have long relegated the tale to the nursery school of biblical drama. Sure, it’s a great story, but what serious scholar takes an interest in a great story? Well, I outlived my academic job and it looks like Noah is going to have the last laugh. We’re told that the Pope has been tweeted about the movie by Russell Crowe and that several Islamic nations have already banned it. According to Today Darren Aronofsky, the director, is more interested in getting non-believers into the theater than trying to please the faithful. Well, let’s face it. A movie based strictly on the Bible would have to be pretty preachy.

The bigger draw seems to be this: our society is simultaneously deemed secular and religious. Americans go to church. They also respond to surveys that they believe in God, the Devil, Heaven, and Hell. They also act as if none of this were true. Business practices tend to be anything but caring, and we show no concerted effort to make sure basic healthcare is offered to all our citizens, let alone the millions who are daily suffering and dying elsewhere in the world. We don’t want to reduce our emissions as a real flood—a literal flood—is on the rise on a global scale. Maybe we’re waiting for a biblical-scale miracle to save us. Noah’s face stares out at you all across Midtown. Judgment is upon us.

NoahMovie

Action films draw male viewers. Religious movies draw females. Aronofsky and Crowe have the winning combination. No gender-bias for a secular-religious nation that has enough loose change to spend a weekend at the movies. The biggest complaint is that it isn’t the Bible. I have to admit I’m kind of enjoying the hype, despite the fact that I never received the chance to write that Noah book that was next on my agenda. If I had, now it might have enjoyed the sales that Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah—scheduled for release three days before the movie—surely will. Timing has never been my strong suit. Of course, money can be its own sort of flood, and many more drown in it than in the literal waters of a secular-religious society. According to Genesis a raven was released to fly about looking for land. The Crowe might have been a better choice since movies, as we all know, improve upon the book.

Frozen Few

It’s that time of year, neither winter nor spring, when ambivalence is in the air. Gray skies with just the first damp aromas of a change in the season, followed by another snow storm and icy winds custom-made in the arctic. So we turn to movies. Frozen is continuing to make headlines and break records. And although the critics voice strong opinions, ambivalence about a powerful message still rocks a society that can’t decide if a woman director having success is an anomaly or an idea far past its time. Stories about the animated feature crop up on the internet on a daily basis, five months after its theatrical release. Some claim it is the most Christian movie in years while others claim it has homosexual marriage at its core. The queen doesn’t need a man and the world’s most conservative, progressive society is in a muddle.

Perhaps I’m just showing my age, but I noticed what I thought was an older child in the sauna when Anna first meets Kristoff. The movie didn’t give me any clues as to his being a gay partner to the shopkeeper, although it’s none of my business if he is. Disney movies have had subtle clues to a kind of radical equality that I’ve noticed over the years, from Edgar’s license plate that reads RU-1 in The Aristocats to two masculine creatures sharing a pad in Monsters Inc. I even remember some people staring suspiciously at Ernie and Bert while the insanely ambiguous Teletubbies were faulted for carrying purses and dressing in primary colors. (Even Judas Iscariot kept a purse, according to the Bible.) A good, empowering story is suspect if we think something more is going on when the lights go out in cartoon-land. Our culture can seem to think of little else beyond mores and how to enforce them.

Globalization has repeatedly demonstrated that there are many different ways of being in the world. And yet, when worlds collide the more conservative culture inevitably makes claims on its more “progressive” neighbor. We see this happening as the church in Africa, now larger than the church in America, drives social policy through denominations that somehow feel guilt at promoting equality. Perhaps proselytization is, at the core, of our fear of difference. What if the other guy is right and we are wrong? Read that back into all our misguided ancestors and we feel chilled indeed. How far do we really trust objective truth? My guess is that ice ages have come and gone that have forged the truth of the moment. Only when the cold faces us do we really admit just how slippery truth might be.

The beauty of ice.

The beauty of ice.

Backyard Archaeology

Among safe topics for discussion among strangers and casual acquaintances, the weather tops the list. It affects each and every one of us continually, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The ideal neutral subject. In fact, however, the weather is highly freighted with religious thinking, deeply sublimated. If you listen closely, you will hear it. Well, this year, at least in the northeast of the United States, winter has been the topic. We still have snow on the ground in New Jersey, and it has been here continually since January. The thaw has begun, however, and when I went to fetch the paper I noticed a newly melted item on the lawn—an archaic newspaper. Obviously the paper-deliverer missed the front steps that day, and by the time I stepped outside it had already been buried. Curious, I brought it inside to get a first-hand look at the past. It was the Monday, February 3 paper. The day after the Super Bowl. Apparently nothing much else was happening in the world a month ago. I don’t even know who played in the game.

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Religion and sports have a long pedigree. One of the first books I signed up at Routledge was on religion and sports in American culture. Routledge decided to sack me before the book was published, so I haven’t had the opportunity to see it yet. Nevertheless, it is clear that the meaning once provided by the strong arm of the Lord is now covered by the stronger arm of the athlete. I’ve watched in fascination as reporters question the players after the game, panning for bits of wisdom as if they might actually get us up off the couch and lead us to a few minutes of physical glory. Instead cliches trickle out: “we saw what needed to be done and did it.” “I took it to the next level.” “First of all, I want to thank Jesus.” Each one like a nugget of pure gold. I still don’t even know who was playing.

On my kitchen table, however, sits a soggy newspaper with the answers to that. The news is old news. And damp. We’ve had an entire Olympics since then, and war seems to be breaking out in the Crimea. Wait a minute, what century is this again? It seems that no matter how old the news is, it still isn’t old enough. One of the oldest news flashes received by humankind, if the Mesopotamians are to be believed, is that there is a huge flood coming. I turn on my browser and lo, a flood indeed! Noah will be released later this month. Posters began to appear in Manhattan as soon as the Super Bowl cleared out. Move on to the next big thing. And, unbeknownst to me, a newspaper laid buried beneath the snow, containing all the information I needed to know. I’m still wondering how that flood turned out.

Star Tracks

Star_Trek_The_Motion_Picture_posterLong ago in a galaxy far away—1979 in rural western Pennsylvania, to be precise—the local inhabitants were surprised to learn that James T. Kirk was now an admiral. Two years earlier Star Wars had thrilled us with special effects first mastered in 2001: A Space Odyssey but a more accessible plot. Robert Wise, who had not only given the world The Sound of Music, but also The Day the Earth Stood Still, took the helm for the new Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Star Trek geeks, of which crowd I do not count myself, hadn’t really taken their cliched role in the emerging high tech society, and CGI was still a few years off. Nevertheless, rumors in school had it that the movie featured a bald woman and had boldly gone where no man had gone before. The original crew was all there. So on a Friday night I dutifully made my way to the Drake Theater to watch and left saying, “is that all?” Star Wars was action-packed and fun, filled with archetypes and wise-cracking robots. Star Trek had Voyager 6, like E.T., trying to phone home. In a word, the movie was forgettable.

On a tour of the original Star Trek world, I finally sat down to watch The Motion Picture, with its grandly archaic-sounding name, last night. I shuddered to think I’d last seen it 35 years ago—that makes me as old as the crew was starting to look—but this time I was able to see things I hadn’t before. Spoiler alert! Voyager 6 is looking for God. The original Voyager 1 reached the end of our solar system a couple years back, but in 1979 there was no reason to suppose that we wouldn’t try again and again to reach out to parts unknown. We were rapidly become materialistic, and the universe could be a known quantity. Three centuries in the future, Voyager 6 is headed home, having been rebuilt into an unstoppable living machine. When the creator—humanity—doesn’t pick up the phone V’ger poises to wipe out the carbon-based infestation until it learns how to physically, biologically merge with a human being (cue the bald lady and otherwise superfluous Captain Decker). Lots of colorful lights and we can all go home.

Even now I can’t muster the courage to say the movie is profound, but it does touch on an issue that has only grown over time—we have voluntarily left our deities behind. In our rush to reduce the world to the least common denominator, we have pulled the plug on the cosmic phone. The Voyager program ran out of steam as the Cold War was heating up down here on earth and we were being told we were all just a bunch of atoms fooling around anyway. The machines, in the meantime, had come to believe. I probably won’t survive another 35 years to watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture again, but I do hope that in that time we may become more aware of our humanity. And I do hope that if someone divine does happen to call, that we’ll at least pick up the phone.

10 More Questions

10QuestionsI don’t watch television. This is not some moralizing, high-brow stance—it’s just the fact that it isn’t cost-effective with the little time I have for the tube. Growing up, however, television was at times my best friend. I see we’ve grown apart over the years. Who’s to blame? In this week’s Time magazine, the 10 Questions are directed to Mark Burnett, whom, prior to reading them, I couldn’t have identified with my TV Guide atop a Bible. Burnett is the mind behind the movie Son of God, originally a History Channel television show that managed to beat out even Game of Thrones. The laconic remarks left to Burnett reveal a man somewhat cagey about religion, but with a sense of mission nonetheless. What had never occurred to me is that even evangelists have corporate sponsors. According to Belinda Luscombe, Burnett said, “Do you remember what it was that launched Billy Graham? It was William Randolph Hearst. And Hearst Corporation put the first initial money into The Bible series and Son of God.” The first money into the son of God, Billy Graham, and the Bible. Who can match such a pedigree?

The public airing of faith lacks something without big money. The Crystal Cathedral, Lakewood Church, Heritage USA. Where would we be without the media moguls to lead us? There’s gold in them thar hills. All it takes is those willing to ask the gullible to mine it. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also, n’est-ce pas? Seems like the Son of God raced past the Lego Movie on its opening weekend, but fell behind Non-Stop, although he’s still gaining. This is the sign of true divinity. Who will ultimately win? Does anybody have an ark?

Crystal Cathedral Ministries went bankrupt in 2010 and sold the Cathedral to the Catholics. Heritage USA lost a slug-out with Hurricane Hugo, as Jim Bakker was checking into a cell with Lyndon LaRouche. Can even the Son of God rock the critics with such a record? Mark Burnett is also credited with helping to create reality television. As we watch the rise and decline of the Duck empire, and the tearful admissions of personal failings from evangelists so rich that we have to admit a funny thing happened on the way to the Compaq Center, can there be any doubt where reality really lies? Who can really tell the difference between The Bible and The Game of Thrones?

No, Uh

Noah2014Poster

“Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.” The words belong to Cecil B. DeMille, according to Stephen Whitty’s weekend write-up about Bible movies in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. The story was inspired by a trio of big-budget Bible films—Son of God, Noah, and Exodus—set to be released this year. While Mel Gibson put me off of Jesus movies, perhaps forever, I’ve been planning to see Noah ever since my wife first pointed the poster out to me in a local theater lobby last month. The flood story has always spoken to me, lasting well beyond the nursery years with all the fluffy animals aboard the ark. One of the points that Whitty is making, however, is that Hollywood knows something the New Atheists do not—there’s big money in religion. People will pay to see it on the big screen. The Bible still speaks to a secular nation.

Noah’s story has been dramatized many times over in the entertainment media. It is often a theme in popular fiction, although well hidden, and reemerges in the occasional search for the lost ark documentaries or Veggie Tales shorts. There’s something timeless about the world-wide flood. For me it seems to go back to the thrill of the impossible. Those first eleven chapters of Genesis teem with the surreal world of lifespans centuries long, primordial gardens full of good food, gods intermarrying with humans, and waters that cover any number of sins. There’s a robust, adventurous air to such stories—they push on the boundaries of human experience and burst beyond them. It doesn’t matter whether Noah’s ark is round, boxy, or extraterrestrial—the flood’s the thing. It appeals to imagination like less mundane disasters simply can’t.

I don’t go to the movies to learn about the Bible. I can do that right at home with a single outlay for a relatively cheap book that can be read over and over again. No, it is these early days of the Bible that give rise to the prepositional phrase “of biblical proportions,” that the movies show so well. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to make the transition from Batman to Moses when Exodus comes out later this year, but next month I do plan to let the waters of the largest event in earth’s fictive history wash over me with all its CGI glory. Seeing is not always believing, but the flood is one of the most powerful stories ever told. Who can resist the calling of deep unto deep? Be warned, the entire theater will be in the splash zone.

Room for One More

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Conspiracy theories have a definite attraction. In a world where governments are more known for keeping secrets than for carrying out the will of the people, they are often easy enough to believe. Elected officials are, of course, human. Humans have recourse to prevarication from time to time, but we do expect that a corporation that takes its secular tithe from our income should be honest about its doings. So it is that I find Room 237 endlessly fascinating. Room 237 is a documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Winter is also an appropriate season to watch The Shining, so I took the ersatz experience of Room 237. This documentary, besides featuring some interesting conspiracies, also shows how religions may come to be.

Stanley Kubrick, as common knowledge goes, was a genius. In a day when movies are often pure escapism, much of it brainless, it might be surprising to consider a film-maker a literal genius, but anyone who’s watched one of Kubrick’s mature films is left in no doubt. The Shining, although based on the Stephen King novel, takes the story in very different directions, and there is much more going on in the film than first meets the eye. Room 237 interviews true Shining affectionados who find the “real” story line to be the genocide of Native Americans, the holocaust, a retelling of the minotaur myth, the faking of the filming of the moon landing, and a variety of other perceptions beyond the norm. Kubrick, known for the care he took in arranging every shot, clearly put subtexts into this film. What really caught my attention, however, was when one of the commentators said that he had his first real religious experience while watching 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001 has always been one of my favorite movies. Simple and sometimes psychedelic, even with the novelization it is almost impossible to understand. With that haunting monolith, so like an outgrown iPhone, I found myself as a child believing in the evolution Kubrick suggested as a higher power led from ape to space in the instant of a bone toss. The majesty of that film that never lets humanity claim any true superiority still has the power to conjure nightmares that The Shining can’t. With the grand soundtrack of the opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra (himself the founder of a religion), I can understand how this might be a numinous experience. Movies function as modern myths, and, I contend, that is one reason that religious themes emerge so readily in great films. In Room 237 none of those interviewed considered any religious elements for The Shining, but no doubt, if an ape can walk on the moon, they’re there.

Flash Freeze

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One industry has, in this era of leisure, proven itself powerfully recession-proof. Entertainment, conceived broadly enough to include the sellers of strong drink, always seems to do well when the bread-and-butter parts of the economy tank. Among the entertainment giants is Disney, making it an easy target for curmudgeons like yours truly. Every once in a while, however, the cynicism has to melt. Frozen induced one of those experiences. I left the theater feeling that this may have been the best Disney movie of all time. You see, I grew up largely without Disney. We didn’t vacation in fantasy-lands like Disney World (when we could afford to vacation at all), and watching a movie was a rare treat. We did see some of the old style animations that came to our small town, such as Bambi and Dumbo, and we did watch the television program, I want to say on Sunday night. My real experience of Disney, however, came with parenthood where VHS and then CD then online versions of the movies made them accessible any time, in nearly any place. In the past decade or so, I’ve noticed, Disney has been putting considerable money behind the crafting of story, something many movie moguls fail to attempt. Frozen, however, stunned me.

The visual beauty of the Scandinavian world is no doubt part of it. I don’t often mention C. S. Lewis on this blog—he has been so thoroughly appropriated by the evangelical crowd that it is often difficult to admit how influential his work was to my college-age self. Lewis was unashamed of his Christianity, but in his fiction it isn’t always in your face. When I read Surprised by Joy, his autobiography, a scene—just a sentence really—lodged in my head. Joy, he noted, could be brought on by visions of the grandeur of the frozen far north. Lewis noted that not everyone has that perception, but I certainly share it with him. Elsa’s icy world impales with its beauty. Although I’m sensitive to cold, a deep desire stirred in the construction of that isolated ice castle. Elsa could, as an appropriately messianic figure, walk on water and ascend to heaven.

Of course, as I’ve observed before, the central trope of cinema is resurrection. Anna takes on the self-sacrificial role for her sister, marking Disney’s move away from the magic of the heterosexual kiss as the cure to all female ills. No, here are women who thrive not only without, but in spite of strong male characters. This is a world where not one, but two female protagonists are needed to carry the plot to fulfillment. Self-sacrifice, in fantasy worlds, often leads to resurrection. With Anna’s act of love for her sister, the cinematic world has reached an important pinnacle in its lesson to children: love comes in many forms, and if it is really love it is never bad. Elsa ends up satisfied without a king to guide her, a woman who reigns as she is, not as society says she should be. If only the ice of our patriarchal world could be melted so easily.