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

NoahMovie

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.

Virtually Divine

So I decided to try virtual reality for a while. I have been reading about the influence technology has on religion, so I thought a trip to Wikitude would be instructive. Now I don’t want to sling lingo like I’m some sort of real techie, but Wikitude is an app that shows the artificial worlds of virtual reality in your immediate environment. Many of us live our day-to-day lives without realizing that we are surrounded by powerful, invisible beings who can only be seen through electronic eyes. We have given our physical world an imaginary overlay that may turn out to be more real than reality itself. So I clicked on Wikitude and took a peek around my office on Third Avenue. Wikitude shows those things that I would have called “dialogue boxes” as a kid, but that now stand in for overlays against any mapped reality. In Manhattan there are many, many of them. I clicked on the one nearest my finger. It read, “A monster is destroying the city.” Like it read my mind.

In some ways I never got over the naïve realism I grew up believing. I first read about avatars in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Back then the idea of virtual worlds was still pretty new, and although Norman Spinrad and William Gibson had played with the idea earlier, the Snow Crash version is what stayed in my head. Avatars, I knew from my research on ancient religions, came from very early Indian belief. In what we now casually call “Hinduism,” some believed that gods came down and walked among us as avatars. Christians would later call this “incarnation.” In virtual reality, we are the gods and we descend into the world of human making as embodied electronic versions of ourselves. The idea, however, goes back to one of the most ancient religions in the world.

I’m not sure I feel safe in this virtual world I’ve discovered. I was relieved when I clicked on Wikitude the next day to find the menacing monster nowhere in sight. But is it really gone? The physical world has no shortage of ways to frighten the very sensibilities out of us. Many of them go by the name of religion. In this world, I can’t just click off the screen and be safe. It used to be that our simple, domed world had a divine bowl above it with a loving, if often very stern, parent watching over us. Now we have become that god, creating monsters and worlds to house them. Maybe that is the best answer to theodicy yet. When we create virtual worlds, we always include evil in the picture. Perhaps it has always been thus with the gods.

Reality or not?

Bibles and Broomsticks

Continuing my musings on Kent Nerburn’s The Wolf at Twilight, I must pause for a moment on chapter eight, “Bibles and Broomsticks.” I must confess to having learned quite a bit in this account, and among the more disturbing facts is that government agents routinely removed Lakota children from their homes so that they would be sent to boarding schools to learn “white ways.” Many of these schools were run by Christian groups; in “Dan’s” case, the school was Roman Catholic. Confused and frightened, away from home, these children were compelled to give up their traditional ways so that they would be more accommodating to the people who had taken over their land. In the midst of the difficulties faced, Dan makes some pointed observations about the difference between what he had been taught as a child and what the establishment schools proclaimed. In punishment for speaking his own language, Dan was once sentenced to kneel on several marbles while holding a heavy Bible out at the end of each outstretched arm. Later he reveals that many of the children were sexually abused by the priests out on the prairie, far from the help of any non-religious adult.

Despite the grimness of this scenario, a parable may lurk for those of us who live in supposedly more enlightened times. The Bible being used as a physical weapon may be rare today, but it certainly has lost no force as a metaphorical one. We see this constantly when overly eager televangelists and politicians unilaterally declare that natural disasters are of divine origin, the god of the black book punishing the country he founded. Their logic twists like the rubber band on the balsam toy airplane of their mental depth. Complexity is the work of the devil when God can be blamed for every misfortune against those of whom they disapprove. The truly sad part is that they are continuing the oppression that was behind the mistreatment of the Native Americans. Books only enlighten minds when they are opened. Making a Bible into a cross is about as pagan an idea as can be conceived (my apologies to any pagans reading this—pagans are not nearly so barbarous).

At one point Dan explains to Nerburn that the Creator’s lessons could be found by observing nature, such as listening to the song of a bird. He said, “We could have taught your people, too. But they never listened…They just looked in their Black Book. They said it had everything they needed to learn the Creator’s lessons.” We are starting to learn this lesson, but very, very slowly. It was not by accident that the Navi in Avatar were portrayed as symbolic of Native Americans while the greedy industrialists mining their planet considered it manifest destiny to take charge. The Bible does not have all the answers. Those which it does contain in no way justify the abuse of others for one’s personal gain. It is one of history’s legitimate mysteries how an intelligent people can shut out reason when personal gain is at stake. It is easier to do, apparently, when there is a divine book to blame. When the Bible is used to punish others, however, it is always a safe bet that it has never been opened.

Differing worldviews

Blue Monkey God

A friend of mine pointed me to the following YouTube video:

Having spent many years in Wisconsin, I have to admit that this isn’t the weirdest thing I’ve witnessed. Not even the weirdest thing in the name of religion. Nevertheless, the fact that grown adults are running around the Wisconsin woods dressed as Na’vi and throwing toilet paper onto innocent trees shows just how diverse religions can be. My ears perked up at about the 3:50 mark on the video where Tsu’tey says “I didn’t believe in God before Avatar” – a statement that catapults James Cameron into the role of father of God, I guess. What will it take to make some people believe?

I have said for years that movies are the new mythology. At the risk of showing my age, and blowing my coolness factor, I recall the episode of Northern Exposure (“Rosebud”) where Leonard Quinhagak, a Native American shaman, tries to discover the healing myths of the Caucasians. The inhabitants of Cicely simply don’t know any myths. Meanwhile, in a separate plot, Ed Chigliak attempts to make a movie. The juxtaposition illustrates quite nicely how movies are indeed modern myths. The sense of transport many viewers reported upon seeing Avatar (critics, be quiet) also illustrates this phenomenon. Movies take us outside ourselves in a way most religions would kill (some literally do) to achieve.

Donning a blue body suit and freezing your tail off in Wisconsin may not be everyone’s favored form of religious expression. It is healthier than much of the religion I saw expressed at Nashotah House. In fact, when Tsu’tey and Eytukan are shooting arrows at the manikin of a woman I thought I had slipped back into my accustomed pew for a spell. The myth of Avatar is that peace, love, and tolerance may indeed coexist without the greed of the sky people who only want the money. There is a truth deeply buried here. If a few more cassocks could be shed along with a few more human tears perhaps we could embrace the contents of Pandora’s box unafraid.

The Return of the Goddess

When the coalescence of events points in a single direction, it is worth paying attention. Goddesses, it seems, are once again on the move. Not Asherah this time, although she seldom sits still, but the creator goddesses. The notion that creation is a female prerogative seems only natural, and the concept is in the ascendant. In a local setting, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater troop is performing “Dancing Spirit,” a piece by Ronald K. Brown. The dance features a move that Brown attributes to Yemaya, the Yoruba goddess of creation.

WikiCommons' Yemaya

Now I have to confess to knowing little of Yemaya and Yoruba – African mythology beyond ancient Egypt has fallen outside my limited scope – but from the little I know I can see that she represents a fascination with feminine power. A dance to celebrate the power of the creatrix feels appropriate. Worlds created by masculine deities always go awry. Perhaps the power struggles built into images of strength and domination will always lead to conflict and suffering. The mother is here to protect.

Despite its flaws, Avatar also shares in this image of the protecting mother. Eywa may be a fictional deity devised to give the Na’vi a central focus, but her mythological profile is sound. It is the mother who gives life and protects that life. The father disciplines and starts wars. These are not universal archetypes, but rather coalescences. Religions involve worship and worship may derive from fear or from love. I suspect that the goddesses engender the latter. I suggest that we could learn much from the creator goddesses.

I See You, This Time

With the advent of Avatar on DVD, I finally had the opportunity to see the movie. This time there was no booming bass and overly active 3-D, and I didn’t end up feeling nauseous for days after. On a small screen it lacked the compelling sense of being in each scene that the first ten minutes of my theatrical experience of the movie had, before I had to seal my eyes tight for the rest of the film or be carried out on a stretcher. Nevertheless, I was able to follow the story this time.

I have posted several times on my affinity for old science fiction films; a large part of my boyhood was spent watching hours of improbable adventure on the black-and-white. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I ended up studying religion instead of science, or even literature. Religion, however, is deeply embedded in science fiction, probably because it is deeply embedded in people. And Avatar was no different. Early commentators noted the similarities of Pandora to Eden. Two trees in the garden (Hometree and the Tree of Souls) were easily borrowed from Genesis. The idea of nearly naked natives living in harmony with the world around them, the soft, graceful curves of the forest contrasted sharply with the angular, obtrusive construction vehicles intent on raping paradise. I’m a sucker for archetypes, I guess. The concept of Eywa as “All Mother,” a nurturing goddess rather than a frowning father deity, only enhanced the sense that Pardora’s box should not be violently wrenched open. Even the hideout of the protagonists was nestled among floating rocks called the Hallelujah Mountains – presumably the name given by earthlings.

Yes, the writing was at times trite, and the characters were caricatures of themselves, but in the tragic light of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, Avatar’s world was pristine, uncomplicated by greed and corruption. The Na‘vi, like zealous Christians, are born twice; the metaphor of foolishly maintaining hope in the harsh light of uncaring entrepreneurs might lead to a limited salvation even for this tired old planet. I am an unrepentant tree-hugger. And if there is a film that, despite its limitations, says it is alright, even noble, to hug trees, then I say it is religious in the deepest possible sense.

All Mother is watching

Eager for Eden

In a recent email from the Clergy Letter Project, Michael Zimmerman reports that the movie Creation is shortly scheduled to be released in the United States. To quote from the Project newsletter:

“You may have heard that the film, Creation, about Charles Darwin and his struggle with his faith after his daughter, Annie, died had trouble finding a US distributor because it was seen as being too controversial for the American public, particularly after being attacked on Movieguide.org, an influential site which reviews films from a supposedly ‘Christian perspective’.”

It is disturbing that a non-fiction film has been blocked from American viewers because distributors found the content too controversial. The controversy has nothing to do with sex or violence, but an assault on the fantasy of a literal interpretation of Genesis. Disturbing fact challenges comfortable fantasy.

In a related story, an article on CNN.com explores the sense of depression that several viewers of Avatar felt after the movie ended. While the reasons are deep and complex, the overall theme seems to be that these viewers can’t shake the image of a pristine world that seemed so real for two-and-a-half hours. They long for a paradise that doesn’t exist. A paradise that has never existed. I am not unsympathetic. Although I could not view the film, I left from the theater with a similar, if less intense, feeling. It is a similar emotion to that when a truly special event takes place and the mind plays it over and over like a new and significant song. Impressions and hazy images and euphoria wash over you, and a longing for a moment that can never be recaptured consumes your consciousness. These are some of the most bittersweet moments of life. They are the very heartbeat of fantasy.

There never was an Eden. Human existence has been brutal and harsh since we first stood upright and wondered why we could think. America is a nation in deep denial about this harsh reality. We would rather believe the biblical Eden is a literal paradise and that our aching imaginations are somehow giving us glimpses of a fabled utopia where life was perfect. Well, almost perfect. The movie Avatar presents a paradigm that many Americans can relate to: an electronic world of endless possibilities shielding us from the stark realities of illness, pollution, tragedy, and death. We are insulated in our surreal environment that we have created for ourselves.

The human capacity for wonder is perhaps the greatest asset that consciousness has deigned to bequeath us. We can imagine a world where all creatures live in harmony with their environment and love and peace flourish. But that is not our world. A good corrective to these tempting fantasies is to read some good old classic Greek tragedies. These imaginative explorations of the human condition are as true to life as dreams of utopian worlds are removed from it. It is all a matter of perspective. And the Greeks were writing B.C.E. — Before the Computer Era — when reality had not been hidden behind a haze of ephemeral electrons.

Prophets in Disguise

Yesterday I decided to take a break from austerity and take my family to see Avatar. Not just on the big screen (a rare enough treat), but in 3-D Imax format. In my zeal I had forgotten about my debilitating congenital problem with motion sickness. I have had trouble since I was a child sitting in the backseat, or riding backward on a train, or even turning my head around too fast. Once I was talked into riding a county fair ride by some high school friends and found myself still getting nauseous two weeks later. I have learned to live with this embarrassing problem, but sometimes I forget that the mere suggestion of motion will send me over the edge. I managed the first twenty minutes of the movie before having to close my eyes and bow my head for the rest of it. It is an interesting experience to listen to a movie. Following the basic plot wasn’t too hard, at least when I wasn’t thinking about all the talk of great special effects and the money I’d spent to see them.

Like most science-fiction movies, Avatar makes substantial use of biblical and mythological themes. The planet is named Pandora, after the “Greek Eve,” and I could hear traces of the hero quest throughout. When the indigenous people were introduced, however, my ears pricked up (as I understand those of the characters do). The Na’vi, it turns out, share the name of the prophets of the Bible. The Hebrew title for prophet is nb’, pronounced the same as the movie characters. I thought about this as I wondered what was going on during the action sequences that I could not see. Those who guard the traditional ways are the prophets, silenced by the grinding machinery of modernization.

Even avatars have their origins in religion. The first I had heard of avatars in science fiction was in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. The idea felt so fresh then that I had to remind myself that Hinduism had given the world avatars as earthly manifestations of deities centuries ago. Placing oneself in another form ultimately stimulates the question of which is the true self, the ultimate reality. It is an inherently religious question.

The morning after, the room is still swaying about me, I can’t scroll down on the computer screen, and I am asking the questions of reality again. It cheers me that Avatar is doing so well at the box office. Any movie, even if unseen, that causes the viewer to question a frequently painful reality is worth the price of admission.

Another blue avatar