When teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I realized that an effective way to engage students was through popular culture. I could assign them just about any choice of movie and have them look for the religious themes of whatever class in it for a short paper. Of course, most went for the low-hanging fruit, over my teaching years, and I eventually had to ban movies with obvious religious themes or premises. One of those movies was Bruce Almighty. In a fit of nostalgia, I recently rewatched it. Never a big Jim Carrie fan, I nevertheless always enjoyed Bruce Almighty—it was such an improvement over those truly dreadful Oh, God! movies that were so popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I never found George Burns funny, and he made for an awfully feeble God. Everyone was buzzing in the new millennium when God was portrayed by a black man, Morgan Freeman. Still, we await a director who dares cast a female God. Patriarchy runs deep.
One of the features that movies portraying God run up against is showing a believable omnipotence. The powers granted to mortals always seem so petty. Theodicy is always raised in these kinds of movies—why people suffer if God is good and all powerful—and since movies rely on directors and writers rather than theologians, they often leave the answer at the doorstep of free will. Human suffering is our own fault. In our society we can’t have a movie that actually pins the blame back on the divine, because that wouldn’t be funny. And movies where people meet God are almost always comedies. But Bruce Almighty is actually a bit more sophisticated than it seems at first. That is best seen in the outtakes perhaps, where Morgan Freeman seems to care more about people than George Burns did. Of course, my memory on the older movies is hazy. They were considered slightly blasphemous three-and-a-half decades ago. Today they seem tame.
Why do movies with God in the cast rake it in at the box office? A couple of reasons suggest themselves. As humans, we like to place ourselves in the role of the divine to consider what we would do with unlimited power. Who wouldn’t, like Bruce Nolan, at least include their own satisfaction in the package? I think, however, there is a deeper, more serious reason. We do genuinely wonder about God’s motivation. Most of us don’t have the training to know how to grapple with the often incomprehensible arguments that theologians make. Even when we do, they still make no sense. Our movie gods appeal to us because they are so terribly Freudian—made in the human image. We can’t conceive of a god who’s not like us, so we at least make the situation funny. If we can’t achieve omnipotence, at least we can hope for a few laughs.
Posted in Deities, Just for Fun, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Bruce Almighty, George Burns, Jim Carrie, Morgan Freeman, Oh God!, theodicy, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
CNN recently interviewed Frans de Waal about his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates. Of course the book immediately went on my “to read” list. I’ve followed de Waal’s non-technical work for years and I have come to trust his judgment. As director of part of Yerkes Primate Research Center, de Waal knows apes better than most of us know our neighbors. He has been exploring the origins of altruism and empathy in the great apes and has come to some amazing conclusions. His past work has shown that much of what we have attributed to special revelation has actually arisen in people through regular evolution. The apes, particularly the bonobos, but also chimpanzees, show startlingly human reactions to moral situations. In the interview, de Waal notes the implications for religion. In his opinion, morality predates religion since the former is seen in other primates while the latter is not.
As much as I trust de Waal’s judgment, the unanswered question remains: what exactly is religion? Animals display rudimentary religious behaviors, but in human-speak religion is often intertwined with belief. In watching a recent episode of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole—“Is There Life After Death?”—it was clear that while scientists tend to stand on the “no” side of this divide, in the end it comes down to a matter of belief. Not all religions, however, are tied to belief. Some religions assert that what you believe is not important, but rather, what you do. In such religions morality is much more like our primate kin’s version of religion. As Freeman points out, you really can’t know what another person believes. You can ask, but if you believe their response is always an open question. Here is the dilemma of religion as a matter of belief. Even Jesus putatively said, “by their fruits you will know them.” Morality here sounds like religion.
Frans de Waal suggests in his interview that morality differs from religion by being earlier in the evolutionary scale. If, however, religion evolved—which it surely did, as we can continue to observe its evolution today—it may be of a piece with morality. We object to suggesting animals have religion; this suggestion would knock humanity off its pedestal as the only species to which an incredibly human-like god revealed (as it is said) himself. What de Waal has gone beyond proving in his previous books is that much of what qualifies as religion is found among the great apes. De Waal doesn’t put it in those words, but as a lifelong student of religion I have observed the connections first-hand. A scientist may not feel qualified to define religion, just as a religionist is not qualified to correct a scientist. I eagerly await the chance to read The Bonobo and the Atheist, but I already know that I will find much of what de Waal writes to be beyond question, and we may all be much closer to the origins of religion than we realize. Even our great ape kin.
Michelangelo’s muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)
Posted in Animals, Books, Evolution, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged altruism, bonobo, chimpanzee, CNN, empathy, Evolution, Frans de Waal, morality, Morgan Freeman, The Bonobo and the Atheist, Through the Wormhole, Yerkes Primate Research Center
Over the last couple of days the Higgs boson has been in the news. Although I seldom ventured too far from New College and the faculty of divinity at the University of Edinburgh, it makes me glow with a special pride knowing I inhabited a small corner of the university of Peter Higgs. (And many other luminaries, including Charles Darwin.) My hopes of understanding the Higgs boson are more remote than even finding a university post (very long odds indeed), but I know that it is so important to physics that it has earned the moniker of “the God particle.” I first learned of the Higgs boson through Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole series. At that stage it hadn’t yet acquired its divine status. Godhood must be earned, after all, at least in the eyes of humans. It is the proposed particle that stands to make sense of quantum physics, the world of the very small and the very weird.
There is an object lesson hidden in here. When even scientists get pushed to the limits of human knowledge, superlatives grow diminished. What can we call such a radical, powerful force in human thought? The particle itself, the boson, is not inherently stronger than a proton or electron, but its divine designation comes from its ability to, dare I say, replace god. In other words, it is the particle that explains so much that it is like the new god. News stories do not tell us where the nickname arose, but the best guess seems to be that some journalist with a flair for the dramatic brought God into the equation. God sells copy. But has the name also got enough room for a snake around the tree—or rather, around the nucleus?
In America, where science is under siege, any claims for God will be taken literally by some. We have witnessed again and again sheer silliness being paraded as “science” by Bible “experts” who take nearly half the population with them. The mental gyrations of the intelligent design crowd as they try to force God back into the equation should be warning enough. The God particle is baiting them and most Americans are ill-equipped to decide for themselves what is actually science. No sooner do we get a grip on nanotechnology than we begin building nanocathedrals. In that cathedral if scientists find the Higgs boson, it will not be god. It will, like god, open the door to many more unexplained phenomena, for god is not an explanatory principle. If we need a name to convey the great, rational explanatory power of such an elusive sub-atomic bit it seems to me—and I may be biased—that we call it the Edinburgh particle instead.
Posted in Bibliolatry, Creationism, Current Events, Higher Education, Posts, Science
Tagged Bibliolatry, Charles Darwin, God particle, Higgs boson, Morgan Freeman, particle physics, Peter Higgs, science and religion, University of Edinburgh
The Greek gods are in the ascendant again. They seldom disappear completely, but the big movie studios have rediscovered the special effects boon that only gods can deliver. When I first began to teach my Mythology course at Montclair State University, the Clash of the Titans remake and Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief were both released just as the class was getting underway. It seemed like interest had been lost since the original Clash of the Titans back in 1981 when I was still a student. Special effects then meant Ray Harryhausen. Now they are measured in terabytes and whatever is larger than that. So Immortals was released recently, but I haven’t seen it yet. Picking up on the sometimes forgotten hero Theseus, the Athenian answer to Hercules, the movie promises to bring the divine into the theater.
In the spate of movies showing gods, America is not yet ready for a movie featuring Yahweh. Oh, certainly there have been films where the god of Israel has loomed very large behind the scenes, but with a prohibition of making images—no paparazzi need apply—it seems unlikely that we’ll see a special effects extravaganza featuring the Almighty. Besides, few Americans have reconciled themselves with the mythic nature of many Bible stories. As politicians and televangelists insist, these stories are fact, not entertainment. GCI Yahweh always stops at the somewhat comic George Burns or Morgan Freeman figures. Charleton Heston, where have you gone? Yahweh of the Bible is a gun-toting, hard-talking, pestilence-slinging, American-style deity. And action is where it counts.
Critics say Immortals suffers on the side of story-line at the expense of gore and action. A factor that is often overlooked, however, is mythology’s inherent mutability. “The Classics,” as we grandly call them, do not derive from a super-Scripture of literalist myths. Each writer told his (less often, her) story in his (her) own way. Although there were those who took such stories literally, as Socrates will silently confess, I suspect not a few knew these were stories told to make a point. There is no right way to tell a myth. From Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts to Disney’s Hercules to Singh’s Immortals, mythology transcends the mere mortals telling it. This is the greatest shame of the modern world—we have traded the beauty of myth for a paltry handful of literalism approaches to religion. And the literary (and cinematic) world is much the poorer for it.
Theseus looking for immortality
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Deities, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Clash of the Titans, George Burns, Greek mythology, Hercules, Immortals, Jason and the Argonauts, Montclair State University, Morgan Freeman, Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief, Ray Harryhausen, Socrates, Theseus, Yahweh
In one of the coolest homework assignments ever, my daughter was supposed to watch The Matrix. Her digital electronics class makes constant reference to the movie, so her teacher decided that in order to “get it,” those who hadn’t seen the movie should watch it. I know the film has many nay-sayers and some of the acting may not attain the highest standards, but it remains among my favorite movies. At Nashotah House, early in the dawning millennium, many students watched the film religiously. One student had it on his laptop and a small knot of his classmates would gather around just about every morning to watch before my class began. I was a bit put off by the claims that it was a “New Testament allegory,” but I have come to realize that without resurrection, the film industry in this country would be dead. American audiences (especially) crave the possibility of coming back. And even though I’m as much a sucker for a good love story as the next guy, that resurrection scene isn’t the highlight of the movie. Not by a long shot.
The Matrix has always been one of my favorites because of the basic premise: what if the world is not real? I’ve been plagued by that question for about as long as I can remember. When, in my first philosophy class, I learned about naïve realism, my worldview shifted. Who’s to say what’s real? And if someone decides to shoot me to shut me up, the lights might go out, but will there be anything left behind? Not that I believe I’m a source of energy for evil robot overlords (I get too easily chilled to believe that), but I often think about the tenuousness of it all. Our reality changes when we fall asleep, and each day we assume that a continuity is the same as the essence of our existence. There’s no way to check it, however, and I’m not entirely convinced. That’s why I like The Matrix so much. Someone else understands my deep fear that none of this is real.
The moment when Neo refuses to leave, but turns to fight Agent Smith, Trinity asks Morpheus what is happening. Morpheus responds, “He’s beginning to believe!” That line always gets me. The idea that something out there actually tips the balance on the side of good creates a longing so deep that it hurts. When I wake up the next morning, however, I see the headlines bring more suffering, more status quo ante-Christ. The last thing I want to see on the front page is Chris Christie’s face first thing in the morning. It can be a very cruel world. In one of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole episodes, a scientist suggests that a Matrix-like world may match our reality. God, the scientist suggests, may be a programmer and has coded us to live in a virtual world. The tapping of my fingers is just an algorithm. I’m not yet beginning to believe that. But if I ever do I’ll be forced to conclude that our programming deity has either a wicked sense of humor, or is just plain wicked.
Posted in Bible, Consciousness, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Chris Christie, digital electronics, Morgan Freeman, naive realism, Nashotah House, New Testament, resurrection, The Matrix, Through the Wormhole
I’ve been watching some episodes of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole, the recent Science Channel sop to the masses to explain what scientists are thinking. I always appreciate when scientists (and other specialists) are willing to abandon argot and talk to the rest of us in plainspeak. Even if the implications are a little scary. The episodes I watched this weekend shared a near determinism. The physicists interviewed stopped shy of saying that all is ordained by the rules of science, but the implications still rang loudly in my ears. This concept is at home in the church.
Back as a college student attending a Presbyterian school (I have never ascribed to this particular flavor of Christian thought), I first chanced upon predestination. In fact, the subject was well nigh unavoidable. Students of all majors and backgrounds ended up discussing it around dinner tables as well as in the classroom. The instigator, instead of physics, was John Calvin. His theology suggested that mere mortals had no say in their destinies; God created some to be saved, the rest to be damned, fairness be confounded. I sat through many classes where the professors would argue with erudite words that all this had been foreordained. Some, “double predestinarians,” went as far as to argue that every firing of every synapse, every motion of every muscle, had been predetermined by God before the creation of the world. When I asked “why?” I was told that God has his (always “his”) reasons, and that I, a non-Presbyterian, should simply accept my fate.
Four years of wrangling and no one managed to convince the opposite party. One of my more intelligent professors once told me after class, “you free-willers always win on philosophical grounds, but we predestinarians always win on scriptural grounds.” He seemed to think that solved it. Perhaps he was predestined to conclude that. I disagreed. No greater monster could exist than a deity who predestined the horror we’ve created in our world. To see all this human suffering, much of it pointless, and simply shrug and say “God has his reasons,” is to implicate the creator in a cosmic Nuremberg. For me, I’d feel safer with the physicists saying it is all a matter of unfeeling cosmic laws. Perhaps I’m predestined to write this, but I still think they’re all wrong.
Was Calvin predestined to wear that hat?
Posted in Bible, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts, Science, Sects
Tagged determinism, John Calvin, Morgan Freeman, physics, predestination, Presbyterian, Through the Wormhole
The Science Channel’s program, Through the Wormhole, hosted by Morgan Freeman, has a noble goal: help educate non-scientists with cutting-edge ideas. The series opens with an episode on God: “Is There a Creator?” Interestingly, in our society there are those who turn the question around. Religious folks ask the question: does science really have the answers? It is the classic ouroboros, the snake swallowing its own tail. Perhaps the best way to consider this entrenched issue is to consider its history. Gods emerged as explanatory figures. In the days when the Bible was the oldest known book, it was believable that God had dictated it and therefore the idea of God required no explanation: the ultimate tautology. When extra-biblical material predating the Bible was discovered, a warning bell rang. Most established religions in the western world simply pretended not to hear.
Snake, dragon, whatever.
Neuroscientist Michael Persinger of Laurentian University features in this Wormhole episode, demonstrating his “God helmet.” The principle is that stimulating the specific part of the right hemisphere of the brain that corresponds to the left hemisphere’s region of “selfhood,” a brain will fabricate a presence. While the experiment has promising results, it can’t fully explain God. Other neuroscientists are working on the issue as well. Historically we know that Yahweh was one among a polytheistic entourage of deities. With the stresses and mysteries of exilic existence, monotheism was born. Only one of those many gods survived. By studying the character of Yahweh’s departed compatriots, however, we can learn of the origins of gods as well.
Science entered the picture much later. By the time of truly empirical observation, God was an assumption as certain as ether. When science offered an alternative explanation, religion countered. “I see your Big Bang and raise you one Prime Mover.” And thus it will always go. With no witnesses, alas, no intelligence even yet evolved, our universe began. We can ask the physicist or we can ask the priest. Even if God is discovered and described in the laboratory, with or without a helmet, those standing outside will always believe, with Anselm, that there is an even bigger one somewhere out there.
Posted in Consciousness, Creationism, Deities, Evolution, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged Alselm, creation, Michael Persinger, Monotheism, Morgan Freeman, neuroscience, religion and science, Science Channel, tautology, Through the Wormhole