Not Your Grandma’s Moses

Exodus Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings is, in many ways, a startling movie. It didn’t leave me with a strong impression of profundity, but it did make me a bit reflective. The media hype about God as an eleven-year-old boy proved to be merely hype. In fact, the boy deity was one of the most intriguing characters in the film. The role was played respectfully, and God, like a good Englishman, favored his tea. There was nothing comedic about it, however. More troubling was the agnostic Moses, à la Clash of the Titans with its unbelieving Perseus. Moses, even after meeting God, comes across as having little interior life. He hides in a cave and builds an army of terrorists making him seem like Moses bin Laden. He conceals himself while innocent Hebrews are hanged for his crimes (and did they even hang people in ancient Egypt?). When a great storm brews over Memphis, however, it is with a sense of wonder that we ponder at an eleven-year-old doing all this.

The movie plays lightly with the scholarly “explanations” that used to be doled out in seminaries about how one plague led to another. In fact, the character called “the Expert” in the credits is shown lecturing the Pharaoh on the causation scheme of clay churning up in the Nile turning it red, and killing the fish which in turn drove the frogs from the toxic water, but when they died flies came along and the flies spread disease. Then the Expert is hanged. Not so subtle a warning to biblical scholars. In fact, there seems to be a science behind much of the movie that makes miracles less acts of God than acts of nature. Even the drying of the Red Sea is understated. Its return is reminiscent of the Christmas Tsunami of 2004. God is sometimes not there when you’d expect a deity to care.

On the matter of caring, for an age of nones who have concerns for equality, the film was thin on women’s roles, making even the Bible appear to foreground them more. Sigourney Weaver—great in any context—seems only to be there to wish Moses dead. Even Miriam is given scant lines in the movie and no role in the Exodus itself. In Prince of Egypt she at least led her famous song. Zipporah is lovely but shows no sign of being as handy with a flint knife as Exodus makes her out to be. A woman of action. Miriam’s quick thinking saved the infant Moses. Overall, however, the Bible is a guy’s book, and Exodus is a guy’s flick. Opening with the battle of Qadesh on the Orontes is a way to draw men to a Bible movie. Lots of slashing, gashing, and charging horses. And the splendor of Egypt, filmed in Spain and the Canary Islands. Some miracles, it seems, are even impossible for CGI.

New Gods

The new gods are the old gods, apparently. Increasingly I feel myself to be in the old category, but I do glance at Wired once in a while in a vain attempt to recapture my decidedly low-tech youth. I was halfway through July’s edition when I saw “Worship More Gods!” near the top of the page. Of course, gods aren’t what they used to be. The short column, Angry Nerd, was on about all the movies out there featuring Greek gods. Classic gods. Although they’ve been around for a couple of millennia or more, they had apparently fallen into the obsolescence pile for a number of centuries, staring around 1700 years ago. When I was in fifth grade I first heard about these gods (okay, I had watched that ridiculous cartoon Hercules—pre-Disney—as a child, but does that really count?). Mrs. McAlevy (and I sure hope I spelled that right!) felt that kids in my redneck little town needed to know about the gods and heroes. It was some of the most fun I ever had in school. I took a reprise class in college, just for good measure. After all, Clash of the Titans had just shown that gold can rain down like that in Danaë’s secret chamber, if you hit that sweet spot. Myth movies have flourished ever since.

Gods

Can we ever have enough of the old gods? There are lessons to be learned there still. It is safe to say that one of those lessons is that we should not act as the gods do. Almost always they do not stand as moral exemplars. Lest we feel too superior on that point, it is worth pointing out that the God of the Bible sometimes pulls some tricks that we would consider a little less than moral, right, Abraham? The role of the gods is to tell us what to do, not to show us. Impossibly high moral standards, after all, are difficult even for the mighty ones to keep. With great power and little accountability, well, we don’t need to have gods to show us what happens.

I’m not intending to put words in the mouth of the Angry Nerd. The point of the article seems to be that we should share the wealth. There are plenty of other cultures out there with very colorful gods (sometimes literally colorful). In the cultures I’ve studied those gods pretty much fall into the same category as my step-father’s mantra “do as I say and not as I do.” Rank hath its privileges. There’s no doubt that the gods provide some good moral guidance—even the deities of the Canaanites seem to have had pretty clean expectations for humankind. But when it comes to behavior, well, let’s just say they don’t behave like a bunch of nerds. These are the frat boys of the universe. We obey because we know it’s dangerous to do otherwise. So in this day of religious sensibility, perhaps having a few more gods wouldn’t hurt. As long as we keep in mind that every deity has his or her limitations.

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.

Human Show

TrumanshowAt least a decade had passed since I watched The Truman Show. Jim Carrey has gone on to achieve an over-the-top kind of fame, but Truman is a thoughtful movie that raises several troubling questions. It is also one of the films of the 1990s that shamelessly cast an uncaring god (the not so subtly named Christof) against the goofy, but serious Truman Burbank. The movie is old enough not to worry about spoilers, so a quick run-down might refresh other hazy memories. Truman is the star of a show where a massive set that includes an entire island has been built around him. The vision of Christof, an unwanted baby is recorded from birth in an artificial, “perfect” world that revolves around him. Until he begins to notice events that, in the real world, would be paranormal. Objects falling from a clear sky, dead people reappearing, fake sets under construction. Determined to learn the truth, he faces his fear to escape by literally walking through a door in the sky.

Christof is “the creator.” From his base in the sky, he looks down on Truman as his star “son” grows to a Christ-like 30 years of age. He is protected from all harm, yet terrified of anything that might aid his escape from the ante-world he inhabits. When he slips the cameras and begins to make his way across the water, Christof, still not wanting to relinquish the ruse, throws a storm at Truman’s sailboat, striking it repeatedly with lightning. “Hit him again,” he growls to his crew. “Again!” It is difficult to watch as the loving god is angered to the point of destroying his only son. When Truman literally reaches the end of his world, he walks on the water to reach the stairway to heaven. Metaphors are flying thick and fast. Christof breaks in as a voice from the sky to convince Truman that his life will be perfect if he continues to pretend that reality is only what it seems to be. His devoted fans cheer as Truman ascends and walks through that door into another reality.

Many books on the theology of film have appeared over the past decade as it has become clear that people are very much affected by what they see on the screen. Our brains resonate with what we are seeing to such a degree that movies participate in our perceptions of reality. In an increasingly secular world, we have come to distrust our gods. This truth has echoed through many movies in the past several years. Although not living up to the hype, The Clash of the Titans—the remake—had classical heroes disputing the power of the gods. Truman doesn’t go that far. We are never informed about what life after the delusion is like. The hole in the sky is black. We know that on the other side, our world, there will be terrible disappointments and tremendous sadness. It may be that there will be no gods at all on this side of the studio. Although showing its age a little, The Truman Show still speaks volumes about the religious experience.

Charon’s Obol

One of the concomitants of spending time with religion is a non-morbid fixation on death. As a college student I was surprised to learn that other people my age did not think about death nearly every day. Perhaps with a typical college student’s obsession with the other end of the life cycle this is only natural. Ever since I was a child, however, I felt frustrated by the lack of permanence that characterized all of the striving involved with life. We work very hard and then we die. I suppose that is one of the reasons religion appealed so strongly to me—it had an answer to this dilemma. Science, as I began to experience it about the same time, suggested a radically different conclusion: we have no souls, and so it is best to accept the fact that death is the end and get on with life. No wonder Ecclesiastes has always been my favorite book of the Bible.

While reading about–shhh!–death recently, I came across an interesting tidbit. Pope Pius IX was buried with a coin. I’ve read that even John Paul II was buried with coinage, but I’ve not been able to find credible sources on that. What is fascinating about this practice is that no matter how it is vested, burial with money is a form of Charon’s obol. With movies like Clash of the Titans, many modern people are aware of the need to pay Charon to cross the River Styx. (Back in the radical days of traditional education just about everyone would’ve learned this in the course of studying the classics. In any case…) The gifting of the dead with money represents the survival of a pagan custom that likely stretches back well before ancient Greece. Even before money was invented people buried the dead with goods that the living would never be able to use again. They may not have considered this payment to a ferryman, but the principle is the same.

This idea has a strong grip on our psyches. Not one of my favorite movies, I have watched Ghostship a time or two. What initially brought me to the movie was the fact that it is a horror-movie built around the character of Charon. The mysterious stranger who lures the crew of the Arctic Warrior onto the Antonia Graza laden with gold is named Ferriman. The salvage crew quickly forget the tons and tons of metal that they came for in exchange for the a few dozen bars of gold. Of course, a sole survivor lives to tell the tale. The thing about Charon’s obol is that once he is paid, death is inevitable. Thus death and money are inextricably twined like earbuds carelessly tossed into a backpack. It seems that no matter how you measure it, the only winner is Charon. Maybe the Greeks have something to teach us yet.

Charon’s got ahold of our Psyches

Battle Billboards

Perhaps the oddest intangible accompanying democracy is the concept that all things are negotiable. Add to that a capitalist sensibility that everything has its price and even truth itself feels like a matter of debate. We see this all the time with Creationists so desperately wanting the Bible to the “true” that they twist science into a fairy tale noose from which to hang their literalist god. The tendency, however, does not stop with them.

Surely one of the most tense stretches of pavement in the country is NJ 495 leading into the Lincoln Tunnel. The aorta pumping countless metallic cells into the heart of Manhattan, drivers and passengers often sit motionless in it for seemingly endless periods to crawl forward like an inchworm entering the Olympics. It is there that Battle Billboards takes place.

I have followed the Atheist billboard development with some interest. In my limited experience with the Lincoln Tunnel, I have noted the digital billboard on the Jersey side bears the message of atheist.org near the major Christian holidays, so as Easter approaches the newest one reads “Celebrate Living Without God” to promote a rally on the Mall in DC. Both religion and science make claims of how to know the truth. Truth with a capital T should be non-negotiable by definition. The problem is that nobody has the Truth. We’re still trying to figure it out. Atheist.org holds a firm conviction that life would be better without religion. Clearly not everyone agrees. Clarity, it seems, is the chimera of debates over Truth.

A few seconds after the atheist.org ad flashes off the big screen, an ad for Wrath of the Titans (coming soon to theaters) flashes on. Irony can be sweeter than honey and as bitter as the Dead Sea. The most recent Clash of the Titans (2010) borrowed little from classical mythology beyond the names and large plot lines. An atheistic Perseus just doesn’t fit the classical taste. In the new film, Zeus—surely one of the prototypes for modern conceptions of God—is captured by Hades and has to be rescued by his unbelieving son. Could any movie be a more thinly disguised Easter story? Atheists? Wrath of the Titans? Which way to jump? Fortunately for me, traffic going into the Lincoln Tunnel in these lanes is one way. That’s the kind of certainty we all can live with.

Light from above or hopeless ambiguity?

Old Myth

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