I 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?
Posted in Bible, Civil Religion, Current Events, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged 10 Questions, Belinda Luscombe, Crystal Cathedral, Game of Thrones, Heritage USA, Lakewood Church, Lego Movie, Mark Burnett, Non-Stop, Son of God, Time
“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.
Posted in Bible, Genesis, Movies, Natural Disasters, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Cecil B. DeMille, Exodus, Genesis, New Jersey Star-Ledger, Noah, Son of God, Stephen Whitty, Veggie Tales
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.
Childhood dies in pieces. There is nothing a young boy desires more than a father to show him how to negotiate life. As Mick Jagger eloquently declared, however, many of us know “you can’t always get what you want.” I did not get to know my father growing up, and so I did what any American did in the 1960s—I looked to television for solutions. Children can be terribly naive, but I had a shortlist of ideal candidates in my head. The one who unwittingly set the direction for my life was shipwrecked on a not-so-grim deserted island. Everyone loved Gilligan because he made them laugh, but the Professor, he seemed the ideal father: rational, mostly kind, and generally unflappable. My earliest career ambition, before I decided that janitor was my true calling, was to be a scientist. This was largely because of the Professor. Religion eventually interfered in my plans, but even as I attended seminary, and then graduate school, the Professor never left me. He had been a kind of father figure to me. I’m sure going to miss Russell Johnson.
I still feel a stab of delight when, watching old Twilight Zone episodes, “the Professor” appears. When I see Johnson in It Came From Outer Space and This Island Earth, it’s a particular island I’m thinking about. An island where, if religion came up, it was treated lightheartedly but even science, for all its clear thinking, never managed to help get the castaways rescued. This island represented my childhood. Innocent, sincere, and strangely funny. Little did I realize at the time that the science Roy Hinkley advocated would become such a fierce enemy to the religious milieu from whose baptismal waters I’d never fully emerge. It sure would’ve helped to have had a father to sort all this out.
Back before Borders (a kind of ersatz father) closed,Tina Louise came to our local to promote her new children’s book. I couldn’t believe I was standing twenty feet from a childhood icon—a movie star, nonetheless. How shocked I was to see her in The Stepford Wives where she talked about sex—that was always in the deep, deep background on the island. Pagan gods exerted real power on Gilligan’s island. As I grew up, religion held me in its powerful grip. With the Professor and the Bible in my head, I went off to become logical, intellectual, cynical. I taught Bible, students called me professor. Then my career was shipwrecked. Is it any wonder that I had that nightmare about being lost at Nashotah House again last night? Sometimes a boy just needs a father to show him the way. Thank you, Professor, for stepping in. You influenced one life in a way that I’m sure you never expected.
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Memoirs, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Science
Tagged 1950s science fiction, Gilligan's Island, Nashotah House, Roy Hinkley, Russell Johnson, science and religion, seminary, The Professor
Having a life-long phobia of mental institutions, I shy away from situations that refuse to make sense. Some have attributed this to my having had an alcoholic father and responding with an über-rational expectation of analyzing how other people would likely act. Whatever its cause, the fear is real. So thirty years ago, when I watched One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I assumed it would be the last time. It was a relatively recent movie at the time, and it was required viewing for one of my college courses. With my phobia I really couldn’t get beyond the heebie-jeebies to consider what was going on beneath the surface, which is to say, most of the movie. Well, a few decades will cure many ills and I sat down to watch the movie again and my own experiences of asylum-like, heartless institutions in the intervening years had indeed hardened me a bit. I noticed much that I’d missed the first time around. For one thing the story of King David kept coming to mind.
For those who read the Bible somewhat objectively, David is a player, and not always the most admirable character. He has a subtle charm that wins the reader of the books of Samuel back time and again. He steps into a situation where his ambition is held back by a kind of Nurse Ratched named King Saul. So what does David do? He pretends to be insane and runs off to join the Philistines. He gathers a band of miscreants about him and goes to towns taking what isn’t his. He even brings a forbidden woman into his house. As R. P. McMurphy goes through these same shenanigans, he comes to really love young Billy (Saul’s son Jonathan). In the course of the movie our ersatz David takes a suffering nation and heals it. There, however, the parallels end and Ken Kesey’s story takes over.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that Kesey intentionally drew on the story of David—that would be crazy talk—but I do often wonder about the aphorism attributed to his son Solomon that there is nothing new under the sun. There were those who felt that Solomon had lost touch with reality as he sat down to write Ecclesiastes. The great stories, in some sense, have already been told. But not all. Those of us who write seek new truths, and sometimes use ancient sources to do it. David is remembered as one of the great biblical characters. One of the reasons, undoubtedly, is that he is so fallibly human—he’s not impossibly pious like Moses, or unfailingly sad like Jeremiah. He is a good man with peccadilloes for which we are willing to forgive him just for the pleasure of watching him go on. No, Kesey may not have had the Bible in his hand as he dreamed up the character of R. P. McMurphy, but he produced a true representation nevertheless. Of course, I might just be insane myself.
Posted in Bible, Literature, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Bible, Ecclesiastes, Ken Kesey, King David, Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, R. P. McMurphy, Samuel
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