Carl Sagan, one of the great proponents of the idea that earthlings have never been visited by aliens, wrote a novel entitled Contact. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but many years ago, on a long plane ride, I caught part of the movie version—most of it without the sound on, as I recall. While the ideas have been brewing for about a decade, I’ve been meaning to get around to watching the film. It is a bit of a slow-starter, but I finally sat down to watch it, with sound. While the movie ultimately remains agnostic—with a Twilight Zonish twist at the end—about whether the contact is truly alien or not, one aspect leaves no room for doubt: the movie is really about the relationship between religion and science. Eleanor Arroway cannot raise faith in anything but science, especially since her father’s premature death. Although she has a brief affair with Palmer Joss, a theological journalist, she just can’t believe what her senses don’t confirm.
Once the alien signal is announced, the response of the populace is overwhelmingly religious. One sect in particular seems to channel its faith into the hatred of science, and even Palmer, now an advisor to the president, questions whether science alone can really help humanity to progress. He is the one who nails shut the coffin of Dr. Arroway’s hopes of going to Vega to see the aliens. The reason: she doesn’t believe in God, and therefore is not qualified to represent the human race. Ah, the cruel irony of it all. When she finally does get a chance to visit space, the results are both Freudian and religious. She finds her father in a place like heaven, but her beloved science makes no record of her journey. At a congressional hearing she is made to admit that she believes in what happened without proof. Science is now standing on faith while the religious look smugly on.
Despite the pacing, Contact is an enjoyable movie. In many ways it hasn’t aged much since its 1997 release. Science and religion are still at loggerheads in some camps, and we are no closer to the stars than we were a decade and three-quarters ago. Reading books on the nexus of religion and science, one often gets the impression that the two are inevitably foes. Much of it goes back to a principle that recurs throughout Contact—Occam’s razor. The idea that the simplest explanation is the best does not seem to serve science (or religion) well. Although it works most of the time, it is because, as a friend recently said, we are willing to sweep the stuff that doesn’t fit off the table. Contact showed Occam’s razor with its indiscriminate cutting. Both the religious and the scientific end up bloody when it’s all over (metaphorically speaking, of course). It seems what religion and science really need is indeed contact.
One thing about Amazon Prime is that you can watch a movie multiple times with no real fiscal consequences. Alone on a Saturday, I started my ritual of looking for a movie to match my mood. I’ve posted before on Cabin in the Woods, a kind of Lovecraftian parody of the five-people-in-an-isolated-cabin motif, but the movie is so deeply based on religious motifs that I noticed many things I’d missed the first time around. When the college kids descend to the basement to choose, unwittingly, their fate, they happen upon a diary written by Patience Buckner—one of the zombie family that will eventually emerge to murder three of the five. So far so good. The backstory to the Buckner family is sketchy (Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are said to have written the script in three days, not much time to develop backstory), but they are religious zealots who believe in pain as a spiritual purgative. In other words, they hurt each other in an attempt to be religious. This idea is not without historical foundation, and although it plays only a small role in the movie, it is part of the larger plot as well.
The entire control center that is intended to keep the old gods satisfied, is a highly technical ritual center where the horror movie tropes take place to appease the ancient ones. As Sitterson and Hadley explain, the suffering of the kids as they face the ritual sacrifice is an essential element in pleasing the gods. It is, nevertheless, a ritual. As each victim is killed, a lever is pulled channelling blood down across icons of the roles played by the scapegoats. Marty, the stoner who ultimately figures out what is going on, makes the point that for a ritual all you need are robes and sticks. Of course, ritual is one of the main constituents of religion, and ritual has to meet the specs provided by the gods.
Cthulhu takes Manhattan
Modern day fascination with H. P. Lovecraft has led to a resurgence of interest in “the old gods.” Lovecraft, while personally an atheist, knew the powerful draw of the idea. Gods are controlled by ritual. Many religions trace the architecture of rituals to the deity placated by them, but this tacit domestication is a kind of archaic rule of law. Humans do this, gods will do that. The hastily written story of Cabin in the Woods
abides by this pattern. As long as somewhere in the world a human sacrifice is made according to specifications, things will continue as they are. In other words, our random world is a throw of the dice by the gods. Unlike his contemporary, Albert Einstein, Lovecraft’s gods did apparently play dice. Cabin in the Woods
is a modern farce of that ritual and is, in an unexpected way, a deeply religious movie.
Posted in Deities, Just for Fun, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged Albert Einstein, Amazon Prime, Cthulhu, Drew Goddard, H P Lovecraft, Joss Whedon, old gods, ritual, The Cabin in the Woods
In keeping with my current explorations of vampire religiosity, I watched Blade for the first time. I’m aware that the figure of Blade is based on a comic book hero, but it is a series with which I’m unfamiliar. The movie is the basis of my knowledge here. The first interesting connection, or more properly, disconnect, between religion and vampires is the fact that in Blade’s universe crosses and holy water do not work. Vampires do respond to garlic and silver, and even to chemicals developed in medical labs. The faith-based origins, however, have disappeared. At one point Karen tells the vampire Frost that he’s just infected, like with a virus. Vampirism was, historically, based on diabolic influence and the signs of the “one true faith” had the ability to destroy them. In the modern worldview, however, organic chemistry holds greater promise. These seem to be secular vampires.
Still, not so fast—religion is not completely absent from this world. Frost conspicuously bears the cognomen Deacon, and he plans a revolution that will bring about the incarnation of “the blood god.” This is because of a prophecy in the book of Erebus, “the vampire Bible,” shown hanging in strips like so many Undead Sea Scrolls. Erebus, of course, is borrowed from one of the many Greek terms for sections of the Underworld. Hades is a general term, but an entire geography of the realm of the dead was speculated. Erebus may be translated as “deep darkness,” and thus is appropriate for vampiric faith. Religion is not absent, it is just that Christianity is irrelevant for vampires. They do, however, borrow the concepts of sacred scripture, sacrifice, incarnation, and even twelve disciples.
When Blade has his final showdown with Frost—now the blood god incarnate—it is the EDTA, the scientifically developed anticoagulant, that destroys him. A fascinating subtext lurks here. Although clearly intended as an action movie, the plot undermines the vampire religion with science. Frost believes that the ancient ritual, decoded from a forgotten language, will turn him into a god. When you need to bring down a god, science seems to be the best weapon. Vampires—Frost anyway—are believers. Karen is confronted with the existence of vampires by accident, yet she discovers the most effective means of killing them scientifically. In the bloody battle between science and religion, it is clear which side is most powerful in the vampire universe of Blade.
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Deities, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Blade, comic books, Erebus, science and religion, Underworld, vampires
Poltergeist is one of those movies that evokes mixed emotions. Sure, it was one of the really scary ones when it just came out, and the rumors of a curse after the tragic early death of Heather O’Rourke probably added to the mystique. I actually didn’t see the movie until over a decade had passed since its release. It came out when I was in college, and I didn’t often splurge to see a movie in those days. VCRs were still expensive and your only real option was to rent a movie. In any case, a few years back I bought a cheap DVD and, after having seen many horror movies, it felt a little tame. And the ending was over-the-top. I have a theory that being unemployed makes you vulnerable to suggestion. Over the weekend I was looking for a movie I could watch for free on Amazon Prime, when Poltergeist II showed up. I hadn’t even realized that there had been a sequel, and after watching it, I think I understand why the movie was buried.
Poltergeist II: The Other Side picks up where the original left off. An added character, Taylor, a Native American shaman, brings good spirits to the Freeling family as the original poltergeists start to haunt Diane’s mother’s house, where they are staying. Interestingly, the ghosts are revealed to be those of a traveling, apocalyptic preacher and his followers. The preacher, Henry Kane, led his group to the desert where they awaited the end of the world and then died after it did not come. They were apparently the ghosts haunting the original Freeling house, and not those of the “Indian burial ground” that the first movie touted. Taylor brings the healing, Native American spirits into the conflict and they win out over the Christian sect ghosts. All of this was becoming more unbelievably campy until Carol Anne was rescued by her now deceased grandmother, in the form of an angel. This mythological cocktail left me feeling a bit dizzy.
Some interesting subtexts floated through this film. Native Americans were now good, rather than the haunting spirits of the first movie. Kane’s sect, which had to be a veiled reference to the Latter Day Saints, showed Christian millennialists as the truly dangerous otherworldly residents. Kane is a preacher (and Mezcal worm) that doesn’t really want to pass over into the light. Why he travels all the way to Phoenix to try to pick up a nine-year-old girl isn’t really clearly explained. Horror movies, of course, frequently make use of religion as a vehicle for what truly frightens. Often it is religion misunderstood. Kane was not a believable character, in this case, without the abject cynicism of an unholy ghost who traveled to the desert southwest to set up a new religion. Once Mormonism breaks into the mainstream, perhaps I’ll have the stomach to watch Poltergeist III and see where the evil shifts the next time.
Posted in Just for Fun, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, ghosts, Heather O'Rourke, Native American religion, poltergeist, Poltergeist II, shamanism
Stay away from the dark side. That’s generally good advice. Ironically, new religious movements (NRMs, in the biz) have come up in my conversations quite a bit lately. Some of my friends have suggested that I start a new religion—job security would no longer be an issue. I’ve been studying religions my whole life, and at times I’m sorely, sorely tempted. Meanwhile a friend pointed me to a story on Details.com about Jediism. Yes, there is a religion based on Star Wars—actually, I shouldn’t be too hasty here. There is at least one religion based on Star Wars; likely there are many. The question that is indubitably raised is okay, so do these people actually believe this stuff? Don’t they know Star Wars was written by George Lucas? How can it be a religion? I can only respond with: Have you ever heard of Scientology? Religions do not have to be believable to be believed in. History has shown that time and again.
Jediism is based on the teachings of saints like Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi. What they are teaching is straight Joseph Campbell. Served neat. Good versus evil. A sense that a cosmic force surrounds us. The hero’s journey. The same thing can be found in the Bible. Wrap it up in a Jedi cloak or in a Galilean robe and the end result isn’t much different. I’ve seen bumper stickers suggesting that Obi Wan died for my sins. Just as long as good wins out in the end, who’s to complain? Does it really matter if it happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away or just away in a manger?
The problem with religion is that we lack a proper definition. Christianity clearly uses the word to describe itself. When looking at those who thought differently (adherents of Judaism, Roman paganism, the great goddess of Syria) early Christians had to call them something. If Christianity is a religion, so must they all be. Some religions, however, are not based on belief, but practice. To be is to do. Some religions are based on historical people, some on fictional people. Some are very serious while others are difficult to tell. Some religions are ancient, but looking at the state of the world it’s hard to say that they’ve been terribly successful. So when a bunch of sci-fi fans think they’ve discovered the truth in the mind of George Lucas, who’s to argue? And I really do mean that about keeping away from the dark side.
Posted in Classical Mythology, Deities, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged George Lucas, Jediism, Joseph Campbell, New Religious Movements, Obi Wan Kenobi, Scientology, Star Wars, Yoda
Perhaps out of a warped—perverse even—sense of self-punishment, I watched The Omega Man. Being unemployed will make you react that way. I have a pretty high tolerance for theatrical assault, as my regular readers will know. For those of you with less self-destructive penchants, The Omega Man was the second cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend. The first movie version, The Last Man on Earth, was released in 1964, starring Vincent Price. The most recent version, borrowing the novel’s name and starring Will Smith, is the third and best attempt so far. In any case, The Omega Man opens with Charlton Heston thinking he’s the last man alive, and even that doesn’t stop him from taking his shirt off at every opportunity. That I could tolerate, however, had the movie not strayed from what I thought was its central premise—that Robert Neville was alone with a city full of vampires. Although Vincent Price did not, uncharacteristically, make a convincing last man alive, the earliest version at least retained the vampires. The Omega Man, perhaps in the spirit of 1971, substituted them for religious fanatics.
The substitution didn’t bother me so much, but the religious fanatics were pathetically acted. Leibowitzian, anti-progress monks, hating the science that led to the nuclear holocaust that made them photophobic night dwellers, they snack on sardines and graham crackers, but only come out at night to kill scientists. Well, only one, since Neville seems to be, uh, the last man on earth. They accuse him of making the wheel and using technology as they run around in off-the-rack children’s Halloween costumes acting otherwise infantile while Heston strikes dramatic poses, grimacing with a variety of machine guns in hand, as he simply shoots them. That’s not the way the world’s supposed to end. The vampires have become a religious society doing everything short of handing out tracts on the corner. Well, maybe it is the end of the world after all.
It is difficult to portray loneliness effectively. Those of us who’ve been there know it intimately, and somehow Charlton Heston has too much fun with it. Even Vincent Price had trouble making it look convincing (I mean, who still uses a saucer when having their coffee and wears a tie after the apocalypse?). Will Smith at least showed a man occasionally breaking down in tears. Charlton Heston doesn’t cry. And he doesn’t shy away from god-like delusions. When he finds the other survivors (or they find him), we learn that Neville has been attempting to cure the religion virus. Dutch says, “Christ, you could save the world.” Neville doesn’t deny the obvious messianization of his mission. In fact, pseudo-crucified on a piece of modern art, Neville receives a spear-thrust to the chest, and dies in cruciform posture in a pool of his own blood. His blood that has the antibodies to save the world. Sound familiar? For all the blood, the vampires are gone. And when I feel that the world is against me, I want to see vampires.
With all the buzz about the new Carrie movie just released, I decided to go back and watch the Brian De Palma version again. I’ve written here before about the religious symbolism of the movie, but I have to confess to never having read the novel. This time a particular symbol stood out, and I’m not sure whether it derives from De Palma or King. Crosses abound in the 1976 Carrie. This is a bit odd because of the indeterminate religion of Carrie’s mother. Clearly she has a belief in Jesus, but an odd Jesus it is. In Carrie’s prayer closet the statue—presumably of Jesus, since it is never clearly identified otherwise—is of a man whose abdomen in pierced with arrows. Those familiar with saints immediately recognize Saint Sebastian, but the arms are outstretched, as if this poor victim were both crucified and superfluously shot with arrows. The traditional cross, however, seems to be missing in that dark room. It reappears on prom night.
While Carrie is getting ready for the prom, her crazed mother peers out the window at passing cars, telling Carrie that Tommy isn’t coming. In one shot, as two cars pass in the street, there appears an inverted white cross on the road. I supposed at first that this was a painted parking space marker, but then, this is a residential street, and no such markers appear in other shots. Carrie’s mother had accused her of being a witch, and the upside-down cross is an oft-claimed symbol of Satanism (not the same, however, as Wicca). At the prom, Tommy insists that Carrie vote for them as the prom queen and king. When Carrie makes her x, the camera angle rotates slightly to reveal the sign as a Latin, as opposed to Saint Andrew’s cross. After Carrie kills everyone and goes home, her mother stabs her and, chasing her through the kitchen, makes the sign of the cross with her knife. Finally, Sue—in a dream?—wanders to Carrie’s burnt down house to lay flowers at the foot of a “for sale” sign that is a white cross, with the clashing words “Carrie White Burns in Hell” scrawled on it.
I may have missed more since the use of the symbol only dawned when the passing cars pointed me toward it. There is a strange kind of misuse of the cross here—not visible on the Sebastian-Jesus, and ultimately also Carrie’s mother figures, but inverted on the street, a sign of pride at the voting, made with a knife by the mother, and scrawled with an arrow pointing to Hell in the final scene. Carrie’s fiery end appears to confirm her mother’s interpretation of telekinesis as witchcraft. There is no forgiveness in this film. Well, I suppose I’ll have to go see the remake now. And maybe even read the book. I need to know if I’m just seeing things or if I’m still sleep-deprived from worrying about jobs and a surfeit of imagination as October’s chill settles in.
Upon occasion I found movie clips to be of great help in explaining ideas in religion classes. A movie whose clips I used sparingly, due to concerns for squeamishness, was Sleepy Hollow (the Tim Burton movie, not the modern television series). Upon viewing it again recently, I was impressed by just how much religion is intertwined in the narrative. This is especially interesting since Washington Irving’s story does not contain much in the way of religious symbolism or motifs. From the beginning of the film, Rev. Steenwyck is one of the conspirators, making the church complicit in the attempt to subvert the van Garrett will. When Ichabod Crane arrives in Sleepy Hollow the cleric drops a Bible—a recurring motif in the movie—on the table beside him, telling Ichabod it is the only book he will need. Christianity and Paganism clash throughout the film as a number of the women are revealed to be witches, either “innocents” or practitioners of a darker kind of magic.
In flashbacks Ichabod Crane recalls his mother’s white magic that draws the ire of his ordained father. Indeed, Ichabod’s father is a stylized amalgamation of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism blended into one. His harsh white chapel houses an inquisitorial torture chamber in which he murders his wife. Seeing her pagan symbols in the fireplace ash, he too drops a heavy Bible to point out his wife’s sins. When he stalks off from his medieval chamber of horrors, the camera angle shows him to be headless—he is the true terror, rather than the Horseman who was raised by magic and appeased by the simple return of stolen property—his head. Even in the present Rev. Steenwyck is both an adulterer and a murderer. The melee in the church leaves the final three conspirators dead.
The white witches, however, are marked by their purity. Mother Crane is so light that she can float up into the air. Katrina van Tassel draws chalk icons to protect Ichabod, indeed, the whole town, from evil. While Ichabod refers to his father with the evocative phrase “Bible-black tyrant,” his mother was an innocent child of nature. In the film Ichabod moves from the rational view of life to one that allows for the supernatural, in the form of magic. True, the Horseman cannot cross onto the consecrated ground of the church (another Catholic concept mixed in with the Protestant milieu), but the faith that saves Ichabod’s life is the book of spells given to him by Katrina. Yes, the physical book stopped a material bullet, but it was faith the put the book in the pocket in the first place. All very appropriate to bring students’ minds to religion in the autumn of the year.
Posted in Bible, Literature, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged Ichabod Crane, Pagan, Rev. Steenwyck, Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton, Washington Irving, witchcraft
Biblical tropes are alive and well in popular culture. Many would choose the flight option rather than admit they enjoy a good Bible story. They may anyway, however, without realizing it. Although The Dark Knight Rises came out over a year ago, I only just had the chance to watch it. For a kid who grew up on the campy 1960’s television series, Christopher Nolan offers adult fare. Put the kiddie menu away and sit up straight at the table. I don’t read reviews, in general, before seeing movies because I don’t enjoy spoilers. I had no idea whether Batman would come out of this alive or not. I wasn’t really even sure who Bane was (even before The Dark Knight everyone knew who the Joker was, or thought they did). The Dark Knight Rises places the whole of Heilsgeschichte (sacred history) before the viewer with verbal cues. Unless you’re reading while watching, you’ll miss it though.
Bruce Wayne is clearly cast as the wounded healer in this final installment of the trilogy. Physically and psychologically crippled, he hobbles around in a combination of Jesus and Yoda figures, somehow supernatural yet fully human. Death and resurrection transpire twice for him in this film. When Bane breaks Batman’s back (an often fatal injury) even Catwoman thinks he might be dead. He is very much alive, however, in the prison only “Bane” escaped (resurrection one). Not only does he rise from the grave, he also ascends into heaven by escaping the well—anyone who’s read Jeremiah, or even Genesis, knows the origin of that motif. Risen, ascended, and glorified, Batman returns to beat the crap out of Bane. But the bomb is still on the loose and before Batman faces his nemesis he tells Commissioner Gordon to arrange “an exodus”—Joseph’s descendants must get out of Egypt. At the Red Sea (the Hudson River) the Pharaoh’s army blocks the exodus of the children of St. Swithun’s who, in response, bow their heads in prayer (am I the only one seeing this?)
Commissioner Gordon, found guilty of betraying the common man, receives the sentence of Exile (“death, by exile” to be precise). Again, those sensitive to Jeremiah know that exile is a kind of death, but death with a noble purpose. The Heilsgeschichte of Israel involves exodus and exile. The Christians added on death, resurrection, and ascension. Christopher Nolan put them together in one Dark Knight. But I mentioned two resurrections, no? Flying the bomb out of Gotham, Batman is definitively blown to smithereens—the blast radius was, after all, six miles. And yet, Alfred has a post-resurrection visitation, where no touching occurs (Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father) sees his savior. Was the Bat the Holy Spirit on autopilot? Is that Catwoman with him? Might I be so bold as to type Mary Magdalene? Well, I may be over a year late with my observations of The Dark Knight Rises, but as I think Christopher Nolan understands, the Bible has been lying around even longer. If the success of this movie is anything to go by, it will be around for a long time yet to come.
Posted in Bible, Genesis, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Bane, Bible, Catwoman, Christopher Nolan, Dark Knight Rises, Exile, Exodus, Heilsgeschichte, Jeremiah, Jesus, Joseph, resurrection
We don’t have television service, and I haven’t watched TV regularly for about two decades. Over the years, however, we’ve collected the DVDs of the shows we miss, or which we wish we’d seen so that we missed them, and use those in lean times. Feeling a bit lonesome over the weekend I downed a few Twilight Zones followed by a Star Trek chaser. On a three year mission to explore strange new worlds, my wife and I have been working our way through Star Trek, the original series. We’ve finally reached the final chapters of the final frontier. I’ve noticed as we’ve gone through the episodes just how biblically literate the series is. Even Spock quotes the Bible from time to time. Over the weekend, to keep my mind off present reality, we ended up watching “The Way to Eden.” As much as I enjoyed Star Trek as a kid, when it was still new, the overtly ’60’s-themed episodes bother me as an adult. I’m very much still a hippie at heart, but I don’t like lingo, and the alien cool cats in their weird shorts and funky hairdos chanting “Herbert! Herbert!” still really bother me. Somewhat predictably the aliens hijack the Enterprise to reach their fabled paradise.
Spoiler alert! For those of you who’ve been asleep since 1969, or have had no curiosity about the inspiration behind all those geniuses who’ve ushered in the technological revolution, I’m about to reveal some details. Eden is deadly. The landing party finds the short-pants wearing, funky guitar-strumming crooner dead under a fruit tree. “His name was Adam,” Spock laconically notes. The scene of Dr. Sevrin’s burned foot has stayed with me since childhood, and I still cringe when he leaps out of the shuttlecraft to take a bite of the poisoned fruit. It was only as an adult that I realized his name was reminiscent of Eve, indeed, a kind of blending of the words “sin” and “Eve.” In a kind of homoerotic death scene, the two male leaders end up under the tree together. Probably my overactive imagination.
Sometimes I ponder how much a biblically illiterate society misses. I frequently told my students that the Bible is foundational for our culture. Whether or not you’re aware of it, it is reinforced regularly in ways both ortho- and heterodox. Despite our very secular self-awareness, entire movies, such as The Book of Eli, can be based on the premise of biblical literacy. It is entirely possible to watch movies and television shows, and to read novels (graphic and literary) with enjoyment and not notice the allusions. The reasons they are there, however, is that despite the abuses of literalism, the Bible does have some profound things to say. It’s up there with Shakespeare and Chaucer. And even with Roddenberry and his host of staff writers. And I suspect that it still will be, in some form, in the twenty-third century.
Posted in Bible, Genesis, Memoirs, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Bible, Book of Eli, Eden, Eve, Star Trek, television, The Way to Eden, Twilight Zone