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.

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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.

Behind the Exodus

Over this past week two of my friends/colleagues were quoted in major media outlets about Exodus: Gods and Kings. Being merely a blogger with nearly two decades of teaching Hebrew Bible means, naturally, that I have nothing valuable to say. Nevertheless, I would meekly venture to make my own observations and cast them out there into the world-wide web and see what happens. I haven’t seen the movie since it only opens tomorrow. I already know it is only loosely based on the Bible. Still, I wonder at the talking heads who constantly declare the Bible to be irrelevant to a throughly modern world. Okay, so I realize that this is about money, but Manhattan is often seen to be one of the more sophisticated cultural landmarks in the country. This summer I couldn’t walk more than a book or two without being inundated with Noah posters. Now I am finding the same with Exodus paraphernalia. If we try to put the Bible away, it seems, it will come to find us.

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The Bible, relevant or not, is full of great baseline stories. Even in a secular society we can see the appeal of Noah and his menagerie to young children who are so fascinated with animals. We decorate youngsters’ sleepwear and toys with elephants and lions and giraffes (interestingly not mentioning that these are primarily African animals) aboard an ark with an unfailingly cheerful Noah. Now we have another classic—the great liberation story (also set in Africa) of a people held in bondage being released by divine command. We are a post-Christian society, according to the pundits, so who this divine one is remains an open question. The idea that one people is kept oppressed by another people, however, is presented as unequivocally wrong. Moses rides out on a horse, weapons in hand. Are we not focusing on the larger point yet?

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This latest love affair with the Bible as a source of great cinematography will not last forever. It will surely ebb away until only a few old blog posts might remain to remind us there was a time when Holy Writ inspired screen writers and directors. Nevertheless, the Bible bides its time. Back in the days when I used to teach Hebrew Bible Hollywood didn’t do too much to help out. Students had to slog through pages of picture-less Bibles to get the gist of the what God had in mind. The results may not be the same from those comfy seats in movie theaters, but a future generation will come to see Charlton Heston as a white man who loved guns being overcome by a newer generation of producers and directors who know there is a larger story here. Of course, I’m only a blogger with no credentials. Still I know what I see on the streets of the city.

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I’m not sure what Patheos is, but it has been on my web-radar (or is it “ping”?) for some time now. They host bloggers with a more substantial platform than mine, and often have a number of comments that must require a full-time coterie of first responders. As a working class blogger, however, I siphon off their success to spin my own ideas a little further. All of this is preface to the fact that a recent article by Michael Stone on Patheos comments on Texas’s approval of textbooks where Moses inspired “the American system of democracy.” We are all used to Texas shenanigans by now, but making laws with the ultimate lawmaker just as a movie is being released that portrays Moses as a warrior is apt in a way that Rick Perry’s stomping grounds may not truly appreciate. The need to validate outdated laws with a largely mythical biblical figure is telling. Revisionist history depends on the version of history that is more compelling at the moment, and I find Moses charging the Egyptian army on horseback eerily appropriate.

Textbooks are insidious. They are society’s first crack at young, and naturally open, minds. As we socialize the rising generations to support that with which we’ve always felt comfortable—not wanting to jeopardize our ease in our advancing age—it becomes important to provide the appropriate propaganda. As I speak with fellow scholars (if I may be so bold) I frequently hear them decrying textbooks. By their nature they are a leveling off of what naturally comes in mounds—heaps, even. They are a tool used to keep everything even in a world of rough knowledge. They are insidious in that they are hard to override. Those of us who’ve taught in college know how difficult credibility is when “the book says” is the standard line of recourse. If it was published by Pearson corporation, it must be true.

Revisionist history.

Revisionist history.

Of course, we venerate the published word. Today the Bible, I suspect, were it newly composed, would have difficulty finding a publisher. Since it was written a couple thousand years ago, however, it retains all the trappings of hoary wisdom that is required to make the elders comfortable. Even scholars of the Bible have, as a matter of course, questioned Moses’ role in the story for centuries. As early as the Middle Ages some sages were asking how Moses knew to write his own death scene. Even so, the vast majority took the word literally, and now that we’ve defined ourselves as a “Christian nation,” or at least the southern half of a Christian nation, we can use the Bible as a textbook. What could be more natural? On the big screen I anticipate Christian Bale charging the Egyptians on horseback. In the Pentateuch I read of Moses hiding behind Aaron’s eloquence. One is biblical, but is it believable? If it comes to a contest of force between the two, I’ll go with Ridley Scott every time.

Get Out of Town

If the Bible were to be written today, it would be more graphic. Those who’ve read it know that it is a graphic book already, but with no literal illustrations. Somewhat surprisingly for a post-Christian society where the Bible generally gets bad press, this year has seen the release of at least two major movies based, loosely, on scripture. Noah came with a flood of hype this summer, and even then we were told to keep an eye out for a movie on the exodus later in the year. The New York Times heralds the imminent arrival of Exodus: Gods and Kings with a movie preview. Like Noah the new movie will take liberties with the biblical accounts of the exodus. (The Bible itself is not consistent on the story in any case. The “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15 differs considerably from the prior prose account.) Ridley Scott, who gave us Alien, has cast the iconic Batman, Christian Bale, as Moses. When I first read about this during the summer, I wondered how Bale would take the meek role of the humblest man on earth. With considerable chutzpah seems to be the answer.

The review by Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, however, make the most not of Moses but of his mentor, Yahweh. Using an eleven-year old, Isaac Andrews, as the deity, the movie “preserves the awful severity of the Old Testament God.” In this it touches on one of the sore-spots among biblical scholars and theologians both—the characterization of a bifurcated deity. God in the New Testament is frequently said to be loving and kind (except for the iron-clad rule that makes him (as he is male) sacrifice his own child), while the deity of the Hebrew Bible is said to be angry, mean, and vindictive. Others say he’s simply just just. We like to see a divinity who is swayed by mercy and is deeply aware of the human condition. The Bible presents, it seems, a conflicted God who is sometimes just as confused as we are.

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Casting a deity who is forever young, however, may be a stroke of genius. In the Bible, in as far as there is a coherent storyline, God does seem to evolve. Sure, there are those who claim God always remains the same, but any deity whose first recorded words to Adam and Eve, after laying down the rules, take the form of an interrogative certainly must be able to learn and grow. Of course, it is very much like a human to suppose that the world could not have existed before we got here to see it. We who are so fascinated by the idea that the world could have carried on without us for the generations before we were born. What was God doing in those eons, besides playing with dinosaurs, like a child? I don’t suppose Exodus will delve into those questions, busy as it will be with battle scenes and other adult situations. At least if it’s true to the Bible, which, despite popular opinion is so graphic that would have a hard time retaining an R rating, if taken literally.

Fire Bearer

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Part prequel and part religious odyssey, Prometheus both treads familiar ground and explores new territory. In keeping with my invariable sense of timing (I saw none of the Alien trilogy in theaters), I waited until well after the fact to see the movie. I had heard Prometheus called a prequel, but even if I hadn’t some of the Ridley Scottish touches might’ve given it away: a large ship bound for a distant planet, evidence of unexpected inhabitants—yes, they knew about the “engineers” (we could call them “watchers”) but not the proto-Aliens they were breeding. We even have the android that understands science’s need to be greater than that of human need. Déjà vu. Still, there’s something very different here—direct discussion of religion and how faith plays into the work of scientists. Elizabeth Shaw, the sole survivor, wears a cross as she tries to work out what her father’s teaching about religion might mean. The cross isn’t hidden in the background—it is brought out into the open and discussed.

If you haven’t seen the movie, the premise is that ancient artifacts (including the ubiquitous Sumerian, Egyptian, and Mayan templates) added to a new discovery in Scotland, demonstrate that a race of giants have been inviting us to their planet for thousands of years. In fact, they had engineered us. (Ironically, the biologist who espouses Darwin is among the first to die.) Peter Wayland, industrialist billionaire who doesn’t want to die, funds a trip to meet these engineers. The engineers, save one, died long ago. Apparently of some plague (cue the aliens!) that were created to destroy humans. They were about ready to send the nasty beasties to earth when they were overcome, with only a single survivor. No coincidence that this planet was reached on Christmas day. It becomes clear to Dr. Shaw that these engineers were intent on destroying the human race they created. And still, she slips her cross back on before facing the engineers of life and death. This was Noah without all the water (and much better writers).

Of course we think we know the rest of the story. Sigourney Weaver bravely led us through three alien attacks before sacrificing herself in a New Testament kind of ending. But what about Elizabeth Shaw? She who bore and aborted the mother of aliens in a very maculate conception? She is off to a prequel’s prequel to find out why these engineers wanted to destroy us. Rumor tells of Prometheus 2, and I wonder if we will get to meet our maker’s makers. Although Scott is an atheist, he brings us Moses later this year, and has already given us Mary and Jesus wrapped up into one with Ripley and her spiritual mother, a sci-fi St Anne, in Elizabeth Shaw. After all Elizabeth was cousin to Mary, and now that the question of faith has been openly discussed, it will have to be more fully addressed. Among the unanswered questions is whether I be able to make it to the theater on time to see this one, or will two years vanish before I find the time to address the eternal questions that Ridley Scott always seems to pose.

Alien Religion

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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.