High Castle Blade Runner

DivineMadnessGrowing up evangelical, one of the popular topics of conversation was crypto-christians. (My spellcheck insists that this is a lowercase expression.) Crypto-christians are people, generally famous people, who might be secretly “Christian.” You see, despite stereotypes most evangelicals really do want people to go to heaven. In fact, they tend to be obsessed with it. And besides, it can’t hurt to have a celeb backing your claims. One name that never came up in my circles was Philip K. Dick. I grew up reading science fiction. My reading patterns (which haven’t changed much) involved reading what I could find among used books at Goodwill. We were poor, and besides, there were no bookstores in our town. Like many people, I’m sure, I learned of Dick by watching Blade Runner. I occasionally heard others discussing the movie, but I hadn’t seen it myself and thus continued blithely unaware until I began teaching. I then read how Blade Runner is a possible Christian analogy, and curious, I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Since then Dick, who never made it big in his lifetime, has become a staple of the sci-fi diet. In The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick Kyle Arnold explores the now famous 2-3-74 episode. Dick, in addition to being over-medicated, had mystical experiences. The “big one” took place beginning on the date implied in its title. This vision, while not orthodox by any standard, is clearly religious. Critics tend to think that Dick may have either faked it or that he underwent some kind of schizophrenic episode. Arnold, a clinical psychologist, has the chops to demonstrate that these latter explanations are off base. Dick had a legitimate visionary experience—something even neuroscientists can’t access because the experience is subjective and personal. It had a large impact on his life, but it did not make him mentally ill.

Arnold is not, as far as I can tell, a crypto-christian hunter. He is a psychologist attempting to understand a most complex and tormented writer of superior science fiction. What becomes clear, however, is that Dick was well-informed about Christianity. He imagined himself a secretive first-century Christian in an oppressive Roman Empire. This aspect of his life tends not to emerge in pop culture discussions—how Christian can you be and still be cool? Certainly Dick was not a conventional believer, but religious imagery and even actions became some of the most important moments of his life, according to his own recollections. Philip K. Dick was clearly a haunted man. And one of the specters haunting him was an often undiagnosed religion.

What Do Sheep Know?

We trust those we see in the media. You see, those who have the longest reach can bring in the most advertising dollars and therefore must have a wisdom the rest of us lack. The cult of celebrity is perhaps the truest cult of all. Don’t get me wrong, I like reading books by bestselling authors once in a while, and I like movies by talented directors and writers. The problem with the cult of celebrity that it often confuses fame with knowledge. If someone knows how to get you to pull your wallet out, they must know about all kinds of things, right? It stands to reason. A recent article in The Guardian features an interview with Ridley Scott. Forever in my mind typecast as the director of Blade Runner and Alien, I think of Scott as one who understands science fiction. He, of course, gave us a version of Exodus that many didn’t buy, and now that The Martian has been gaining attention, people are once again wondering what they might learn from the director.

Blade_Runner_poster

Ironically, like the recently late David Bowie, Scott considers himself an agnostic. As the Guardian article says, that doesn’t stop him from having a lot to say about God. Catherine Shoard notes that religious questioning runs throughout Scott’s movies. The big issues, it seems, still matter. People will crowd to his movies and perhaps not even know that they were facing the questions that motivate people like Scott. Taking up such questions in the hopes of making a career out of it all is still not a wise choice, but if you can put it in fiction without people knowing it, you might become famous.

I’ve always been of the opinion that everyone is an expert when it comes to religion. Believer or not, everyone knows what to believe and is pretty certain about it. The people I find most fascinating in this mix are those who dare to question. While many doctrinaire religions call questioners “doubters” and suggest curiosity is some kind of sin, there are both religious and non who face the world with questions rather than answers. To me, this seems a more honest approach to things. The funny thing about this appreciation is that it is seldom reciprocal. Of course, people might be interested if I’d directed a block-buster movie or if I were a star. Until that happens, I’m an expert just like everybody else.

Bleak Visions

The day was leaden and rainy. Hopes for seeing the sun over the next several days dim. I had been warned about this, but once my mind has settled on vampires, they’re hard to resist. The reviews said Priest, as a movie, was full of cliched dialogue and predictable outcomes. This is true. But still, it is perhaps the most religious vampire movie ever made. While some have doubted my analyses of Underworld and other vampire films, Priest is set in a Pullmanesque world dominated by a church that has lost its belief in vampires. In fact, the civilized world, in scenes reminiscent of Blade Runner, owes ultimate allegiance to the church. Based on the graphic novels by Hyung Min-woo, the post-apocalyptic world of Priest presents an over-industrialized society where humans live in walled cities (ironically, Jericho has no walls). Vampires, more fierce than any Count, even by fifteenth-century standards, rip humans to shreds, but have been forced into reservations by the warrior priests. Their weapons are cross-shaped, but there is otherwise no reference to Jesus in the movie—only an amorphous “God.”

Despite the endless tropes, “a vampire killed my brother,” “the Priest is her father,” and endless chatter about the nobility of sacrifice, the movie is strangely compelling. Visually it maintains the appeal of a place somewhere between Planet of the Apes and the Book of Eli. And something appeals about priests who are willing to fight evil rather than sit around arguing about whether women should be allowed to join the movement or not. Keeping with modern proportions, we see only one female priest and none among the Monseigneurs, but she is the one who actually stops the vampires. And these are vampires that have evolved into the blind, naked denizens of the night who kill, apparently, for the sheer joy of it. The only article of faith the church can muster is, “if you go against the church, you go against God.”

I wonder if anyone in the world of religions is tracking how society perceives them. Religions once stood for our noblest aspirations, and our humblest weaknesses. Like bad caricatures from the movies, religious organizations don’t shy away from the desire for ultimate power. In His Dark Materials and in Priest, the church is content with nothing less than total domination. This is not missionary zeal, but good, honest power-lust. Not all religions are like that, of course. Still, there are those who perceive them that way. Maybe it is my own insecurity, or maybe it is the fact that I’m seldom convinced I have the answers, but I can’t help but feel the thrill of justification at the rebel who maintains conviction to the ideals s/he holds deeply. It takes no backbone to enforce obedience when might is on your side. But only those who have faced the vampires personally know who the real enemy is.