Tag Archives: theology

Movie Meaning

Theology has never been my thing. Now, those who don’t parse things too finely may find that an odd statement. “This blog almost always addresses religion,” they may say, “how can you say theology’s not your thing?” Perhaps for the layperson “theology” means anything having to do with religion. In the biz it has a more specific meaning. Theology is tied to a faith system. It tries to explain, rationally, what that belief system entails. Religious studies is more about studying what religion is and how it works. It was this fine distinction that put me off from reading Screening the Afterlife: Theology, Eschatology and Film. Christopher Deacy treats the subject theologically and, depending on the theologian, that can mean a lot of effort for little result. I was, however, pleased about a number of things in Deacy’s book. He doesn’t shy away from horror, for one. And he takes cinema seriously.

The idea behind the book is straightforward—theology and movies should be in dialogue about the afterlife. At a number of points Deacy makes it clear that films reach a wider audience than theology books. Again, those of us in the biz know that to be very true. If people watch movies they begin to accept what those movies tell them as true. For those of one of the established faith systems, if things haven’t altered all the much since I was young, discussing the religious meaning of a secular film is always interesting. (Some of my friends drew the line, however, when I found Elijah parallels in a film where a bread machine went out of control, but that’s a story for another time.) People take movies seriously. During economically depressed times, movies thrive. We need to pay attention to them.

The problem with theology is, no matter how open it may be, there’s always some element of rightness involved—this perspective is right and that one wrong. It can hardly be any other way. To open the door too widely is to invite yourself to exit. Deacy selects films he finds theologically meaningful when addressing (mostly) Christian views of the afterlife. I’m guessing—and it’s only a guess—that many people get their information from popular media and theologians are completely off the screen. That doesn’t mean theology has no place, but it does mean that its place is in the hands of other scholars rather than those who just want to sit around and talk about the film they saw last night. Both may be profound, but one is more clearly enjoyable than the other.

Strange Chemistry

AlchemicalBeliefOne of the many antiquated beliefs that have been left behind over the centuries is alchemy. Today we tend to think that anyone who supposed natural substances could have been transmuted into others must have been naïve at best, or credulous at least. Bruce Janacek’s Alchemical Belief: Occultism in the Religious Culture of Early Modern England sheds light on the wider worldview of the alchemists. Some of them, anyway. Firstly, it is quite clear that many adepts of alchemy were very intelligent people. We easily forget that in addition to rewriting the laws of physics, Sir Isaac Newton practiced alchemy throughout his adult life. There’s something incredibly beguiling about the idea of an underlying unity of materials. Today atomic theory has answered that unity, perhaps a little too well. And that bring up the second important insight in Jancek’s book: alchemists often had an ulterior motive.

Early modern alchemists (think of those emerging from the wake of the Reformation, and you won’t be far wrong) often had a religious motivation for their work. Alchemy isn’t just turning base metals into gold—that’s just its most spectacular claim. Janacek points out that several alchemists were also attempting to prove the legitimacy of Christian theology through their explorations. Concepts as strange as the Trinity, or even the divisions of Christianity itself that were happening in the shadow of Luther, indicated to ordered minds that theological truth must be a unity. That unity, once found in alchemy, would naturally apply to the world of the church. The church, after all, can’t defy the very laws of the universe, can it? These early scientists accepted that there might also be a mystical element involved. Some rejected that aspect, but felt that the basic ideas of alchemy itself were sound.

Like dinosaurs, alchemy pretty much went extinct with the onset of the empirical method. Also like dinosaurs, it survived into the new age, transmuted in form. Alchemy was one of the ancestors of that bane of college students everywhere: chemistry. We tend to forget that astrology laid the groundwork for astronomy and creation (not quite an “ism” in those days) led to the study of biology. Religious ideas underlie much of what led to modern science. Religion, after all, indulges the curiosity of humankind. We are allowed (in the best instances) to let our minds range where they will. Later on theology, or some such device, will rein them in, but until such a time the psyche is free to explore. And build systems. And offer explanations. The alchemy comes when all of this is taken from the hands of natural philosophers and put into the laboratory only. And the rest of us await pronouncements from above of what might be real, or not.

Latter-Day Battlestars

Science fiction, when I was a child, constituted my fantasy life. I read such science fiction books as were available to a kid in a small town with no actual bookstore, and I watched what I could on a television with three or four channels. Star Trek and Twilight Zone were staples. As I got to high school there were more offerings, and one that I remember particularly liking was Battlestar Galactica. I was disappointed when the show ran only a few months. Something about looking for a home, being a scrappy, rag-tag fleet fighting against the odds appealed to me. Although I grew away from sci-fi as I went to college and studied more “serious” subjects, I never completely abandoned it. So the other day when I had reason to use the word “cylon” in something I was writing, I decided to do a little reading about the original series. I never did watch the reboot, as I was far too busy for television by then.

Battlestar_Galactica_1978_-_intro

I was surprised to learn that the original 1978 series was an exploration of Mormon theology. The show’s creator, Glen A. Larson, was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and, not surprisingly, used his fiction to promote his religious ideals. After all, Orson Scott Card, of Ender’s Game fame, is also a Mormon and elements of its theology come through in his work. As a child I didn’t watch television for religion, but rather as form of escape. I wouldn’t have guessed, however, that I was escaping to Mormon theology. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a bit more shy about telling outsiders its theology than many Christian bodies are. Mainstream Christianity, after all, is one of the main ingredients in our cultural soup. Any Methodist will be happy to tell you Wesley’s theology, if they happen to know it.

I haven’t watched television for over two decades. Very select shows we’ll watch on DVD, being the old-fashioned sort, but I missed the reincarnation of Battlestar Galactica in 2004. I’ve always had a soft spot for the originals when it comes to sci fi. The original Star Trek, the original Star Wars, and even that sleepy and terribly dated Space 1999. I suppose as a working-class child looking for an escape these shows had a kind of religious message. Although my religion taught a conventional Heaven and Hell, I wondered what was out there beyond even that, since the tri-partite universe was basically earth-bound. And science fiction offered to lead me to other worlds where things might be better. On the Enterprise we might whizz past the Galactica and wave, even if it was piloted by Mormons in space. And L. Ron Hubbard was known to me only as a writer of science fiction rather than the creator of a new religion.

Theological Fiends

SuchADarkThingVampires are among the most theological of monsters. Not that I’m a theologian, but I sometimes read those who are. Although zombies and vampires rival one another for the ascendent monster of the moment, I’ve always had a soft spot for the vampire, conceptually. The actual idea of drinking blood has always distressed my vegetarian sensibilities, but there is a deep intrigue about the character who constantly takes and never gives. And sees in the dark. And is practically immortal, unless violently killed. All of these aspects, and more, have theological undertones. M. Jess Peacock’s Such A Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture deals with such ideas and more. A self-admitted fan of all things vampiric, Peacock finds unexpected angles to the undead metaphor that make for connections between Christianity and the cultural vampire. He explores Otto’s understanding of the holy and how vampires fit aspects of it, the importance of blood, theodicy, and sin, as well as religious iconography and why crosses work against vampires (when they do). Most fascinating, however, is how vampires effect social change.

Since I often write about monsters, and specifically vampires, on this blog, it should be no surprise that I should read such a book. The question of why vampires have such staying power in our society is one that many have pondered. Peacock, by tying the vampire into deep theological needs (and we’ve been taught for many decades that theological needs are unrealistic fantasies themselves) has perhaps found a reason why. Just because we deny a need doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Think of all those Medieval monks denying sexuality. Biology, no matter how transcendent our focus, has a way of reminding us that we have needs. Vampires are, if anything, very forthright about their requirements. You have blood, they need blood. They will take it any way they can. And this leads to its own kind of ethic where, in some movies and stories, we, the victims, end up rooting for the vampire.

The social justice aspect of Peacock’s study is the one I found most compelling. We live in an era in which financial vampires openly and selfishly drain the blood of any victims they may find. What they do is done in daylight and no crucifix is large enough, no stake is strong enough, to stop them. We sit in our theater seats and watch as the economy rises and falls with the wealthy and their willingness to invest (or not) in the very economy that made them rich. Elections are won now by money supplied by corporations. Yes, the presidency can be, and is, purchased. Most politicians don’t know the price of a loaf of bread. Christianity, in any case, understands bread and blood to be analogues. The two are complementary, and represent the totality of human need. The vampire, as Peacock notes, can symbolize the difficulties of social justice. They may have their fangs deeply embedded in our necks, but at some level we have come to love our vampires. Even when they give us nothing in return.

Deep Things

Religion concerns itself with the big issues. The biggest. As a child, I remember wondering how anyone could be concerned with less than the ultimate. No, I wasn’t a nascent Tillichian, I was just someone who saw things in what I supposed was a practical light. If you’ve got the temporary, the fleeting, the insubstantial over here, and the permanent, immortal, supreme over there—who wouldn’t go for the gusto? I suppose by my reasoning that all people would end up clergy of some sort, we would all be fixated on why we’re here and what our purpose was. You’ll still find pockets of theologians here and there who debate these kinds of issues, but our existence has grown comfortable enough that, for some people at least, if this ends up being all there is then, gosh, it’s been a fun ride thank you very much. But I don’t want to get out of the train just yet. I wonder if there’s more than the ultimate. It is a religious question.

For a while I grew enamored of the trappings of religion. Ceremony, ritual, strong rhetoric in sermons—these things can move you, and become beguiling. Somehow, knowing there’s an infinite universe just outside the church doors gives me pause for consideration. The ultimate must be very big. Walking through a large city helps to provide some perspective. I find myself next to buildings that cause me to tremble when I consider the implications. Next to those tons and tons of stone, steel, and glass, I am the smallest spark. But those buildings are dwarfed by the city that contains them, and that city a mere pinpoint on a map of the country. Even the planet is less than an atom in the universe of infinite size. Who can help but to be concerned about the scope of it all? Ever since I was a child I’ve worried about this.

In the media today, religion is all about hypocrisy and whose pants are at what latitude vis-a-vis whom. While matters of love are ultimate in their own way, we, as people, have a much larger space with which to concern ourselves. Science has stepped up to the dock when it comes to sworn testimony about the universe we inhabit, but even scientists shrug once we get back before the big bang. Time is even more inexorable than space—there’s always got to be a time before time. Like any child we can always ask, and what happened before that? Perhaps time is the true ultimate. Thank you for spending a bit of your ultimate reading this. It’s time for me to catch the bus, but work will never inspire me the way the rest of the universe does.

Hubble's eye view

Hubble’s eye view

In the Bleak Midwinter

Labels. They can be problematic. Given our human brain structures, we are predisposed to patterns and categorization. Is it edible or not? Predator or prey? Like me or different from me? We constantly scan our world, categorizing as we go, holding our people, experiences, and places in a temporary, floating mode of immediate recognition. I’ve had people who read my blog ask me, “What are you?” My guess is that they want a simple, pat answer: Christian or not, religious or not, dangerous or not. The more specific the better, since the more precise the label the better fit the box we stuff you into will be. Given the trajectory of my unorthodox career, it is common for me to be labeled as “theologian.” It is a categorization I deny, but since the study of ancient texts and myths generally falls under the rubric of “theology” it is not entirely inappropriate. I prefer to leave theology to those more intelligent than myself.

It is with great joy, therefore, that a new blog has emerged from a worthy theologian. Bleak Theology makes its premiere today. I have known the talented writer, Burke, for some time. And I know that some fantastic things will appear on this blog. In its own words: “Bleak theology is anxious, but not despairing. It is pessimistic, but not hopeless. It is materialistic, but not idolatrous. It doesn’t always have hope, but it certainly would like to have that hope… It’s a theology that gazes troublingly up at Mt. Moriah; that sits in sack and ashcloth and resists cursing God and dying; that cries out that everything is meaningless (meaningless!); that sits by the rivers of Babylon and cries; that staggers away from the crucifixion disillusioned; and, after seeing the stone rolled back and the dead vanished, leaves the tomb and tells no one.” We have great things to anticipate. Melancholy is its own variety of joy, as some of us are continually discovering.

Labels. Some people make a lot of the alphabet soup one is legitimately able to put after one’s name. A friend once told me that he’d heard a Ph.D. insist on being called “Doctor” by the attendant when he pulled into a gas station. I have a label for such people, and it fits better than the one they prefer. I have known and worked for Ph.D.-bearing individuals who just as dumb as the rest of us. Sometimes even more so. Theology is not a discipline where advanced degrees are required, for either those who have them or those who don’t. The fact is we’re all thrown into this same world together and, like it or not, no one has the answers. Some may don their papal tiaras or their fancy academic robes with striped sleeves, and claim hegemony, but the truth is we are all seekers. The best company one might hope to find is with the person who honestly struggles. Embrace bleak theology and eschew easy classification. There may be no hope for us yet.

10 Questions

This week’s Time magazine’s 10 Questions feature is directed to Stephen Hawking. Predictably, the first one concerns God. “If God doesn’t exist, why did the concept of his existence become almost universal?” a reader asks. I was less concerned with the answer than with the implications of the question itself. The very question represents a paradigm shift. Time was, such questions were directed to local clergy. The minister had the answers. To be sure, many millions, if not billions, of people regularly rely on their clergy for divine guidance. I used to teach clergy, so I am wary. Today, however, we need to know if all the answers fit. To find out if God exists, ask a scientist.

Theologians have earned their reputation as inscrutable doyens of the unspeakable. I have been involved in higher education in the field of religion for nearly twenty years and when I read theologians I am left scratching my head and asking “what?” Erudite to the point of being obtuse, the issues and methods of theologians address the unknowable. Much of it is idle speculation. The specialists, however, must earn their keep. Deans are impressed by what they can’t understand. God himself, I’m sure, wonders what some of it means. Is it any wonder that the average citizen would rather ask Dr. Hawking than ask some obscure theologian?

Religion and science are bound to bump at the borders like the parallel universes of string theory. Both are concerned with explaining things. Science has a proven track record of presenting verifiable results while theology has produced a poke full of intangibles. I am the first to admit to being a working-class Joe who has no special knowledge. What I’ve learned has come from the many classes I’ve endured and the books I’ve read. As far as I can tell, none of it comes directly from God. In my mind’s eye I reverse the situation. I see a popular theologian, take your pick (I have trouble conjuring the moniker of a household-name theologian), being featured in 10 Questions and the first query being, “What is M-Theory?” I can imagine the convoluted answer.