Stand-in Line

Pop culture borrows from religion without knowing it.  Or maybe it’s just that religion has become so irrelevant that people no longer care.  Whichever may be the case, those who contribute to pop culture have a rich treasury from which to take withdrawals.  This occurred to me while waiting for a bus into New York.  Many people don’t want to stand in line (who does, really?).  In the Park-n-Ride subculture, you may leave an avatar in your place.  It’s probably not called an avatar, but since there’s nobody here to ask, I’m going to use the pop culture name.  You put your bag on the pavement, marking your place and then go sit in your car.  Since I’m going to be sitting in a big car for the next two hours, I prefer to stand outside.

The idea of an avatar is mediated to most people through either computer language or the movie.  I first encountered the term in the former sense in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.  I was an internet neophyte and had trouble conceiving a virtual world in those days.  Some time later came the latter.  James Cameron’s film embodied the idea—linked through software, the tired hardware of physical bodies could be given new life.  In some senses it was an even better life.  Now everyone knows what an avatar is.  Perhaps except that the idea is native to Hinduism.

Hinduism was never an organized, intentional religion such as Christianity.  It is rather a wide array of traditional beliefs that, in the light of missionary activity, had to be given a name.  There are many gods in Hinduism, and when a deity descends to earth s/he appears in a form recognizable to humans—an avatar.  Not being an Indologist, my understanding of the concept is very basic, but it’s enough to know that this religious idea found a role in pop culture first through computer representations of human beings.  We had flattered ourselves with being gods, since we had created a virtual world.  A world we couldn’t physically enter.  Avatars were, therefore, how we wanted others to experience us.  Snow Crash is peopled with all kinds of representations.  The internet today, nearly 30 years on, has many more.  After all, there are many gods.

I glance at my watch.  The bus should be here any minute now.  When it enters the lot I’ll see the deities behind these canvas and leather avatars.  They’ll be less impressive than I’ve imagined them, I’m sure.  And although we’ve created virtual reality, I still have to get on a physical bus to go to virtual work.

Prayer before Meals

It was in Wisconsin. Oshkosh. I was teaching for a year in a replacement position, and my roster of classes at the university covered several aspects of religious studies. During the course of prepping a course, I first saw it. The Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was only a virtual Flying Spaghetti Monster sighting, but since Creationism was much in the news in those days, I boiled with curiosity. By now it would probably be a strain to explain the whole thing, since everyone knows about his noodly appendages and predilection for pirates. The short story is that the Flying Spaghetti Monster was an invented deity to demonstrate the ridiculousness of trying to get Creationism taught as science in public schools. For those who believed in other gods, such as the FSM, there should be equal time in the classroom, the argument went. Since that time Pastafarianism has taken on the semblance of a real religion with “believers” earning the right to have driver’s license photos taken with colanders on their heads, and even a book of scriptures being written.

An Associated Press story from Sunday’s paper tells of the world’s first known Pastafarian wedding. Bylined Akaroa, New Zealand, the blurb indicates that the Oceanic nation down under has decided that Pastafarians can officiate at weddings, and a couple was married with al dente accoutrements. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it seems, is going the way of the somewhat more serious Jediism and Avatar religions in that people are deliberately electing fiction as their faith. Interestingly, this may not be a new phenomenon. We are told, for example, that Zarathustra deliberately outlined a new religion—one that may end up having had the greatest impact on humanity of all time, if roots are considered. In those days the strict division between fiction and fact may not have been a mental filter yet discovered. The “it really happened” test of religious veracity was still some distance in the future. Metaphor meant something then.

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The internet, it seems likely, has facilitated and accelerated the appearance of new religions. As with most things, the real issue comes down to money and power; if a government recognizes a New Religious Movement as legitimate, it may be granted tax exempt status. And how can it be proven that someone really does or does not believe what s/he says s/he does? If you’ve got a box of Barilla on your pantry shelf, who’s to say? It’s a short distance from that colander in the cupboard to the top of one’s head. And who doesn’t like pirates? And who’s to say that under that rotelle moon in a stelline-studded sky someone hasn’t indeed kissed their hand and swore the ultimate starchy allegiance? Keep watching the skies!

Resurrecting Color

ColorOfDistanceIf you’re one of those people who’s attached to books, you know the frustration of someone who borrows a book and never gives it back. Many years ago I stopped lending out books for that very reason. I do, however, sometimes give them away. A friend recently reciprocated the gift of a book, giving me Amy Thomson’s novel, The Color of Distance. It is a profound story involving, as is common on this blog, themes of resurrection and transformation. A science fiction tale, it is set on another planet where something has gone wrong with an Earth survey team. The humans are dying on this alien world when one of them, Juna, is transformed by the alien into something like one of them. She comes back to life transformed. It wasn’t until I finished the book that I read the cover blurb that reads “Reborn in her savior’s image, trapped in her savior’s world.” Not a bad summary, capturing as it does the deep religious elements in the story.

The religious aspect, however, comes through most clearly in the environmental elements of the novel. Humans, somewhat optimistically, had set in place protocols not to interfere with alien life. So much we know from Star Trek’s prime directive. What makes this so interesting in the case of The Color of Distance is that Thomson knows that any contact is contamination. Two worlds cannot meet. They must collide. There is a gentleness, however, in her narrative. Juna, marooned (long before The Martian) on a foreign planet, has to learn to see things through alien eyes. And every little thing that humans have done has left a footprint on the planet. Protecting our own planet is a profoundly religious undertaking.

It is clear that Thomson has influenced later writers and stories. Not only does The Martian pick up on the stranded aspect, but Avatar clearly presents a world similar in many respects to the planet of the Tendu. The Color of Distance is a book not easily forgotten. The world into which the reader is drawn is indeed one of transformation and resurrection. I suppose spoilers aren’t an issue with a book two decades old, but I will satisfy myself merely with noting that another resurrection takes place as the story winds to its close. Deeply hopeful, and almost prophetic, this novel should be more widely read, for the sake of the world on which it arose.

What If?

EncounteringETIA game that parenting books used to recommend was called “What if?”. It was an imagination game played by parents with their children to teach them about “stranger danger” in a way that wasn’t too scary. We naturally, it seems, fear the other. “What if?” kept coming to me as I read John Hart’s book Encountering ETI. ETI is a bit more precise than the more familiar ET, whom everyone knows, is an extra-terrestrial. The I stands for intelligence. What happens, in order words, when we meet extra-terrestrial intelligence? I very much admire academics such as Hart who are willing to ask what is such a necessary question. The point of the book is much more an ethical than a speculative one since human history has pretty much documented what happens when the Discovery Doctrine is applied. Natives (or TI, terrestrial intelligence, if you will) at the hands of newcomers with the Discovery Doctrine, are soon wiped out. History has repeated the story far too many times. Scientists such as Stephen Hawking even apply that to us, saying that if ETI arrives we will be exterminated. Hart takes a much more balanced look at the question.

Part of the problem is that we, as a society, have been taught to laugh at those who’ve seen UFOs. UFO stands for Unidentified Flying Object, and many people can’t identify what they see in the sky. But we all really know what I’m talking about. Those who’ve seen what may be non-terrestrial flying machines are automatically classed with the mentally unstable and ridiculed into silence. Thus it has been since the 1950s, despite foreign (!) governments and their militaries admitting that yes, we see things and we don’t know what they are. France, Argentina, and Russia, for example, have opened the files to some extent. The point that Hart makes is well taken—if we ridicule so automatically, will we be prepared when they arrive? Shouldn’t we be thinking about this now that scientists are discovering there are likely billions of planets in the Goldilocks Zone (capable of supporting life)? Ah, but it is so hard to let go of racial superiority! Homo sapiens sapiens are pretty impressed with themselves. As if nothing better could be conceived. Perhaps this is original sin.

Hart, whose book is subtitled Aliens in Avatar and the Americas, takes the possibility of visitation at face value. I’m sure it has impacted his career somewhat. The wise choice, it seems to me, is to take seriously what is almost a dead certainty—we are not the only life in the universe. Ironically, the idea that we are is largely based on the Bible. Genesis makes a pretty clear statement that we are God’s best idea. We’ve largely dropped God from the picture, so we, as humans, now occupy the top rung. And when we find humans different from ourselves we ask how we might exploit them to our advantage. (Here’s where Avatar comes in.) Hart’s book, as readable as it is affordable, is one that any thinker should take seriously. It is a book of ethics, writ large. Universal ethics, one might say. The aliens may not land in our lifetime, but chances are pretty good that they’re out there somewhere. It might be best to take some time to clean up the house before guests arrive.

Clash of the Watchers

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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.

The Force

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, or so it seems, I began studying religion not knowing where it would land me.  One of the great things about studying religion is the perpetual refreshing of religious thought that grows with human culture.  Anthropologists and philosophers and sociologists have difficulty defining exactly what religion is.  It is clearly a belief system of some description, but in many parts of the world religion is not so much reflective and reflexive—doing the ancient rituals and getting on with life.  Every great once in a while I learn about a new religion.  Those who don’t spend too much time thinking about it might be surprised to learn that new religions emerge quite frequently, and sometimes with the most unlikely of inspirations.  Consider Scientology.  While reading about new religions recently I discovered Jediism, or Star Wars religion.  Like Scientology, it is based on science fiction.  For those of us alive in another universe in 1977 it is difficult to convey to more recent hominins just how impressive Star Wars was.  Life-changing, in some instances.  Jediism takes the concept of the Force and makes it a central tenet of a belief system for the twenty-first century.
 
Having witnessed the impact of Avatar in even more recent lightyears, perhaps we should not be surprised that fantasy worlds spawn new religions.  After all, although death and suffering pervade even the most pristine of human-concocted galaxies, good ultimately wins over evil in these realms.  It is something worth hoping for.  Maybe even believing in.  Some people question how serious those who call themselves “Jedi” on religious surveys really are.  There are online Jedi sanctuaries, and even humor can be a part of a serious religion—consider the craze of Christian clowns that was going around in the 1980s.  For those of us from long ago, religions just don’t seem authentic without some antiquity to them; they should’ve been started centuries ago by founders who can be mythologized to sainthood or divinity.  We have more facts about the life of Yoda than we do of Jesus.


 
The thin line between fact and fiction grows more effaced every day.  Can religions be based on fictional founders?  Of course they can!  Without any means of determining objectively which religion is right (if any), we are left with only a person’s word about what s/he believes.  If I choose to believe that Sherlock Holmes was a real person what harm does it do?  It may even benefit the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  As Matt Rossano points out in his book Supernatural Selection, religions are about perceived relationships.  Many people have relationships with fictional characters, sometimes falling in love with one or fantasizing about being one.  Basing a religion on a fictional character may be the greatest sign of trust.  After all, we can’t even define religion in a way on which all specialists will agree.  Religion itself may be the ultimate fiction.  May the Force be with you, just in case.

Rising to The Abyss

The name James Cameron has become almost synonymous with epic, large-scale adventures that suggest improbable world with stilted dialogue. The first Cameron film I watched with the awareness of his direction was Titanic. Last night I watched The Abyss for the first time. Of course, I’d heard quite a bit about the film since its release over two decades ago, and I had to satisfy my curiosity. The Abyss turns out to be a prognostication for Titanic as well as Avatar, what with the fascination Cameron has for sinking ships, friendly aliens, and impossible love reconciled. In fact, many of the characters presented in The Abyss appear to reincarnate in Cameron’s latter films under different names, but in similar circumstances. The reason the film is worth mention on a blog about religion is its heavy reliance on traditional Christian imagery of the afterlife, projected into the abyss (turning Dante on his head).

When the crew of Deep Core investigate the sunken submarine USS Montana, crew member Jammer sees what he thinks is an angel and goes into shock that lands him in a coma (just to awake at the right time to save the day). The theme of personal sacrifice and resurrection (the Christ syndrome, we might call it) is acted out by both Lindsey Brigman and her husband Bud. Lindsey drowns herself so that she can be resuscitated, with the intention of saving both herself and her estranged husband. In his turn Virgil (aka Bud-everyone get the subtle reference to Dante here?) disarms a nuclear warhead (by snipping a single wire!) by diving beneath the capacity of his oxygen supply, texting his now adoring wife that he knew it would be a one-way ticket down. Then the aliens arrive. The whole light at the end of the tunnel trope becomes factual as the aliens-angel hybrids flutter over and take Virgil to safety. In case you missed the biblical references, they part the water and you get the strange suspicion that Moses is lurking behind the scenes somewhere.

Of course, some of these ideas will be fresher in viewer’s minds from Titantic and Avatar, but the theme of resurrection following self-sacrifice is a staple of Hollywood. It is the right combination for a feel-good movie, even if it ends up being sad. Perhaps it is the mark of living in a secular nation that has its origins in a Christian worldview. The battle of our religious status as a nation rages on, but the fact is, no matter how free we are with our religion, we will flock to movies where the protagonist willingly sacrifices him(less frequently her)-self with the reward of new life. This is not a Cameron trope, it is a United States self-image on the large screen. The technical gaffs of the underwater world of The Abyss may be many, but the film captured the imagination of many Americans, paving the way for the enormous success of Titanic and Avatar. Despite our tough exterior and willingness to start wars, we like to think of ourselves as the ultimate Christians.