Despite my interest in aliens, my viewing of the Alien movies has been tenuous at best. The image of what looked like an egg hatching a green sun over a particularly badly formed waffle always brought the tagline “In space no one can hear you scream,” to my juvenile mind. When the original movie came out in 1979, it seemed too scary for a kid in high school. I first saw Aliens (part 2) when living with a friend after seminary. He explained to me the missing gaps left from never having seen the original, and I was impressed by how Sigourney Weaver pretty much took on the alien queen single-handedly. I was still too young, however, to realize that there’s always room for an alien or its egg to attach itself inside any spaceship or escape pod. You can never really get rid of the things. I finally saw the first installment some ten years later, and it was clear that, as in nearly all series, the first was the best. Ridley Scott’s films take considerable energy to watch. No one seems capable of matching his dark moods and sense of a hopeless future. I left it at this state for another decade, until recently reading that Alien 3 marked the culmination of the “theology” of the series. Over the holiday break I decided to find out if this was true.
Ripley, who can never get a break, finds herself the sole survivor (again) on a prison-colony at what used to be a lead ore refinery deep in space. While the company had abandoned the facility, a group of inmates who had formed a religious order decided to remain. Having grown up in a refinery town, so far I’m on board with the story. Separated from society, from women, and from temptation, the prisoners are a fundamentalist sect that would seem to fit well into the woods of Wisconsin. Ripley threatens their delicate balance of celibacy, and although not a virgin she ends up conceiving an alien in a Madonna-esque way, not even knowing how she became pregnant. When she decides to incinerate herself rather than allow the alien to be born, she falls into the fire in a cruciform dive just to drive the point home. Before her dive into hell, however, Ripley tries to motivate this band of incarcerated monks to fight the alien. When they say the company will save them, she responds, “What makes you think they’re gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass-end of space?” Again, echoes of Wisconsin.
Doubtless, my experience of the movies has been skewed by my own experience. Still, Alien 3 holds to a pattern that emerges fairly often in movies with a strong horror theme—religion is the progenitor of terror. The prisoners’ religion is described as “apocalyptic,” and it frequently appears that in movies where a civilization is on the brink of collapse, religion awaits to greet the survivors with open arms on the other side. In the horror genre, this is often a cold, clammy comfort. Although religious elements were largely lacking in the Ridley Scott and James Cameron episodes, I do hear distant echoes of Moby Dick here from the very beginning. The dark alien, like the white whale, is elusive and destructive and does not relinquish its hunt until Captain Ahab, or Lieutenant Ripley, is dead in its grip. And since Alien Resurrection awaits in yet another sequel, like the white whale, the alien never truly goes away.
Posted in Feminism, Literature, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged Alien, Alien 3, aliens, James Cameron, Moby Dick, Ridley Scott, Sigourney Weaver, Wisconsin
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
About 55,000 tourists visit Liechtenstein every year. This blog was viewed about 210,000 times in 2012. If it were Liechtenstein, it would take about 4 years for that many people to see it. Your blog had more visits than a small country in Europe!
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It’s a little embarrassing to admit that after having pondered religion for all of my life, I still have no clear idea what it is. In my case pondering includes three degrees in the study of religion and almost two decades in teaching it. I still read books that introduce religion, hoping to catch some distilled essence that I might label the core of the phenomena that go by the name. Some least common denominator. But that’s not how life works. Even the most basic of things can be complex, so I recently turned to John D. Caputo’s On Religion to find out what a philosopher thinks it might be. From the start this little book is jarring. Caputo, while staunchly refusing to tip his hand, defines the religious as those who love God. Or god. Or not really god, but something that might be as impersonal as the Force. Of course, love is as slippery a term as “God,” so Caputo suggests that it is caring for more than one’s own self. If many of our religious politicians and televangelists could get even that far perhaps we’d be closer to the religious idea of heaven itself. Then when Caputo turned philosophical, he started to lose me a little.
The big problem, and one of which Caputo is well aware, is that loving God is a western religious ideal. There are those who claim that some “Eastern religions,” such as Buddhism, Taoism, and that of Confucius’ followers, are actually philosophies and not religions. But if we’re trying to define religion, excluding a very large portion of the world’s belief structures seems to tilt the balance a bit dangerously westward. Come to think about it, the idea that all people have to have some kind of religion is a western conceit as well. Who are we to define the terms of another’s existence? That, it seems to me, is one of the problems of reductionism. Assuming that all people accept the premise that an empirical system can explain everything will not rid the world of religious martyrs. So what is to be done?
Caputo has thought about this as well. He concludes his short manifesto with a chapter entitled “On Religion—Without Religion.” Here the true root of the problem is exposed—religions that claim they alone can be true. For Caputo’s purposes western religions work best here because the three major monotheistic faiths share so much in common. Put crassly, the real question is where does the line of final revelation end. Is it Moses? Jesus? Mohammad? We could go on—Joseph Smith? Raël? Philosophically, at least, Caputo suggests that all religions could co-exist if they were willing to admit that they are all right. It boggles the reductionist mind. How can they all be right? How can they not be? After all, despite the millennia spent on the topic, we still don’t know what religion is.
Succoth in Waukesha, Wisconsin. A pillar of the local synagogue had invited me to come to his booth with some of my seminary students to let them celebrate an ancient tradition and talk to a Jewish believer about it. We were all having a good time, and someone mentioned Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.” One of the seminarians, brash as always, spoke up and admired “Rufus Wainwright’s cover in the movie Shrek.” Although I’d corrected many students before, I let this faux pas ride. Music is very personal to me, and the cover played in the movie Shrek was John Cale’s version, although the soundtrack substituted Rufus Wainwright’s cover of John Cale’s cover. And this student was far too young to have appreciated the Velvet Underground. I was a little surprised, then, when my wife pointed me to a CNN story this week about the thriving popularity of the song. Instead of putting my paltry words out there on CNN for all the world to see, I decided to address them here, to my private audience.
Leonard Cohen has been described as a man who writes songs with a prayerbook in one hand and a picture of a naked lady in the other. He has spent time in monasteries and his lyrics have a very serious edge to them. What the many self-proclaimed experts commenting on CNN seem to have missed is that Cohen’s song is a song for old men looking backward. Yes, it is rife with biblical imagery, but no, it is not a religious song. Not in the sense that it is often used today. John Cale got that. When I hear his early work with Lou Reed or even his first cover of “Hallelujah” that managed to capture something even Cohen hadn’t (no mean feat, that), I can hear the aging Cale casting a glance back to the same place that Cohen saw. We are all aging and we all remember the vitality of those years when possibilities seemed endless. No, it takes decades for a hallelujah to become broken. All the versions by popular artists trying to breathe soul into a tragedy have missed the point. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.
I only listen to this song when I’m alone, preferably with John Cale. When Leonard Cohen sent him the lyrics there were 15 pages of them. The CNN report cites the 75 or 80 verses that Cohen wrote. That’s because the song is a life. The biblical images of the song first captured my attention, but I also realized that it was a song about something that’s gone and that’s never coming back. Not for guys my age. Not for guys who can still remember being eighteen and feeling like life hadn’t even begun yet. Now I look back over five decades. I hear “Heroin” seeping from my brother’s room, somehow knowing the dissonant chords would stay with me for the rest of my life, although I have never personally used drugs. There is a longing there, a longing for something that life offers maybe once, for a few short years. Age and inevitability catch up with everyone, and breathy young artists think they’re chic when they cover a song that is meant for old men who remember what glory used to feel like. Only those with experienced ears can really hear Leonard Cohen’s hallelujah.
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts, Rock-n-Roll
Tagged CNN, Hallelujah, Heroin, John Cale, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, Velvet Underground