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.

Alien Religion


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.

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.

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.

Sinking Ships

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, last night I revisited Titanic. Since I tend to view art from the perspective of metaphor, I was once again struck by how our society resembles that great ship. In particular, with the current turmoil between plutocratic governors and the average citizens who’ve elected them, the brazen upper-class passengers on the Titanic embody the interests of the self-interested. When Captain Smith leads the privileged first class travelers in “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” in their own private chapel unsullied by the second and third class detritus, the line “for those in peril on the sea” resonates with the Prosperity Gospel. The well-to-do are that way through no fault of their own; God loves them more and made them better off than the rest. And when icebergs float, those unloved by their creator sink.

Over the past few weeks, in the shadow of events unfolding in Egypt and even Libya, we have seen the assertions of the aristocratic governor class assailing the workers. Attempting to make unions illegal, reducing the services offered to the poor, attempting to shorten the lives of the elderly by withdrawing medical programs (let us not ask how much profit pharmaceutical companies make for they are dearly loved by their father who art in Fort Knox), they know the rush of divine power. Indeed, populations are so complacent that as long as we have our MTV (substitute here your favorite media narcotic), that we shrug our collective shoulders and say “whatever.”

Perhaps it is not the metaphor James Cameron intended, but it is the working class Jack who sinks to an icy grave while the privileged but bankrupt Rose remains afloat. Our sympathies are with the young lady abused by privileged society, but the lifeboats should best remain half empty to preserve the upper crust rather than risk all going down together. After all, the Bible informs us that bread cast upon the waters comes back. And those who take up more than their fair share of the lifeboats wager that when that bread comes back it will be docile and subdued after its ordeals in the North Atlantic, and the Carpathia will come and restore society to its proper order. And so perhaps it is only a metaphor that more than a decade later the shoo-in for the Academy Awards is a film about the royal family. I think I see an iceberg ahead.

This is only a metaphor