Hollywood Searches for God

Welcome back!

Since you and I last conversed, there’s been an election.

The Republicans, hungry as never before to defeat a mediocre president, failed to unseat him.

Four marriage amendments lost at the ballot for the first time.

People are flailing around angry, hurt, disappointed and yes, scared.

I fell silent because I feel strongly this is a time for thinking hard.

Watching GOP elites–including Ann Coulter bless her!–blame the GOP defeats on social issues is so sad and comically stupid that I have a hard time engaging in that debate.

Mitt Romney ran on economic issues.  He and his surrogate Karl Rove spent not a dime of the almost one billion dollars they spent on ads touting Romney’s socially conservative views on life or marriage.  Pres. Obama’s new assault on religious liberty went mostly unmentioned, for fear it would be turned into a debate on contraception.  The impending battle at the Supreme Court to constitutionalize gay marriage went unmentioned.  The fact that the Obama mandates will fund drugs that can cause abortions went unnoticed.

So in our two-party system, one party went all in on pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, pro-government mandates on religion.  The other party fell silent, in response, and tried to run on the promise that “economic competence”– limited government, lower spending, no new taxes— would restart the economy.

The “truce strategy” first articulated by Gov. Mitch Daniels was tried. And this “truce strategy” failed abjectly.

We wake up in a new world.  The strategic map in politics–and through politics, culture– has fundamentally shifted. (Politics is not separate from culture–it is one means of doing culture–of making an argument of what is true, what is good, what is beautiful and most importantly what is legitimate opinion in the range of opinion in American society).

Figuring out how to respond to this strategic change requires hard and serious thought.

It may be that America has fundamentally changed, morally speaking,  and the social issues that brought Reagan Democrats into the party no longer help elect Republicans.

I’m not saying that’s true, mind you.  But if one assumes that this is the truth, as the GOP and conservative elites act as if they do so think,  it still doesn’t solve the bigger problem economic conservatives face: Americans are not libertarians.   They are pragmatists.  And Romney’s economic message failed to persuade Americans in the middle of sadly sluggish economy that GOP economic policies would help them and their families.

Better a government that gives you a cell phone, or a student loan, than one which taxes you and gives you nothing.

Blaming the social issues for the self-evident and obvious failure of the Republican economic message is so dumb, I can’t even get worked up about it.

This is going to be an ongoing conversation, I promise you, moving forward.

But today I want to think with you about something about something else: Have you noticed how much this year Hollywood is pre-occupied with thoughts of God?

“Life of Pi” is the latest example, but this blockbuster epic by a true artist, Ang Lee, caps a year of movies on essentially religious themes.

This is the year God goes to Hollywood, or rather (since He has always been there) Hollywood searches for God.

Artists in a postmodern culture are thinking about the relationship between story and truth.  You can see that even in the movie “LIncoln” which is organized around the idea that false narratives can serve the greater good in politics.

“I do not believe in equality in all things, only in equality before the law” the movie version of the great abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens misleadingly proclaims, in order to get the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery passed.  When the people are bad the politician must lie to serve the good.

Rather discomfiting to see so many liberal elites embrace the movie, actually, which I rush to add is really a good movie worth seeing–it operates on many levels.

Hollywood’s search for God began with “The Master” a very very odd film about a man who creates his own religion and builds a community around it. I wish I could tell you what the movie was about, in the larger sense.  I never quite got it. But it is a story of how a charismatic man creates and believes his own religious tale, and persuades others to join him in his religious fantasy.

Then there is “Cloud Atlas” a movie that makes no sense at all narratively speaking, but weaves together tales of past lives into a large truthiness about sacred mysteries. “Cloud Atlas” somehow manages to tap into the founding narratives of American freedom and connect them with Eastern religious ideas to build a sense that awe and mystery lie at the heart of existence. The movie works, artistically speaking. “With every act of kindness or every crime, you are building your future.”   Things that seem unconnected are connected, in way we–and the film–cannot explain but emotionally believe.

Cloud Atlas is one of an increasing number of films I would call “religious porn.” Think for a moment about the relationship between the little god Eros and porn.  Our erotic drives are meant to pull us out of ourselves and launch us on the great task of love–ultimately loving our husband or wife, and the children our bodies make together.

Porn tantalizes and misdirects this impulse, diverts it from reality into a self-contained fantasy.  Porn is not nearly as good as sexual love but it is much cheaper and easier to get. Cheap satisfactions that divert the energy needed to create the real.  In a similar way, I mean religious porn movies like “Cloud Atlas” tap into the deep human religious impulse shamelessly and attempt to redirect it from truth to fantasy, in order to make money.

The fragmentation of desires meant to lead us out of ourselves to truth, to heroism, to love— redirected instead inward, harmlessly and or/ impotently dissipating desire instead of calling us to the hard work of fulfilling it–sometimes I glimpse or suspect this as the essence of the culture dynamic in which we live: the pornification of all culture.

The “Life of Pi” on the other hand is something quite different: a great artist’s serious reflection and exploration of how to make sense of faith in the modern, and postmodern, world.

In a culture accustomed to false narratives, to porn, to stories intended to make one feel good without any clear committed relationship to truth, an artist cannot raise such a question subtly and expect to be understood.

And so Ang Lee, the director, makes it amply clear what this story is about: it is a story that will “make you believe in God” as the narrator says.  (Spoiler alert: I do not think this movie can be spoiled, but if you worry about such things run out and see the movie and then come back and finish reading our conversation).

How did the boy-hero Pi Patel come to faith?  Pi’s faith is syncretic. He calls himself a Catholic Hindu, someone who feels guilty “before a million gods, instead of just one.” Someone has to introduce you to God, by telling you a story, Pi points out, and his mother introduced him to the multiple Hindu gods who became for the god-prone boy his “superheroes.”  Then at the age of 12 a priest introduced him to Christ. This story “made no sense to me, the innocent atoning for the sins of the guilty.”  But the priest told him that all he had to know was that God so loves us He sacrificed for us His only son.

“I was introduced to faith via Hinduism, but Christianity introduced me to God’s love.”

The first version of the story that will make you believe in God is a visually gorgeous and fantastic story of a boy who survives a shipwreck on a boat with a fierce beast of a tiger named “Richard Parker.” God comes to the boy in the form of a fish to feed the tiger.  He finds rest and hope in his faith. He surrenders his life to God with gratitude, willing to die if God will it.  God has other plans. The boy trains the tiger and together they survive. His faith helps him survive by sustaining hope against fierce-and-unforgiving, but beautiful, Nature.

This is not that convincing an argument for God to modern ears.  But overlaid at the very end is another argument for God’s existence, another explanation for the persistence of faith.

In this version, Pi’s real story is not a story of surviving on a boat with a tiger, but coming face to face with the monstrous human capacity for evil.  The tiger is an allegory, a metaphor, a story the boy tells himself to survive in the face of that which cannot be faced openly.

How do you survive watching a man kill and eat another human being.  How do you survive watching your mother be murdered for her flesh?

Here is another big broad clue: “Richard Parker,” the name of the tiger in the Life of Pi, is also the name of the shipwrecked victim of Edgar Allen Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, published in 1838.  After the shipwreck, Poe’s Richard Parker suggests they draw lots and the one who loses will be killed and eaten by the remaining men.  Richard Parker draws the lot and is cannibalized.

Life repeated art in 1884 when the yacht Mignonette sank. The cabin boy Richard Parker was killed and eaten by the three other survivors.

In extremis, faced with the undeniable reality of monstrous human evil–not only others but our own–do we believe in a higher power that guides us or are we must we live face to face with evil alone?  Evidence cannot answer the question.  “Science tells us what is out there, but not what is in here,” the boy’s mother told him.

Which story do we prefer?

The tiger, shouts out every human heart who watches this movie.  “And so it goes with God” an older Pi Patel says.  This is a dramatization of Pascal’s wager.

Here’s the fascinating thing about this movie: most of the reviewers of “Life of Pi” prefer not getting what Ang Lee has made extraordinarily obvious is the point of the movie.

All that stuff about God and faith and evil?  “Book club gets in the way” sniffs a reviewer.

The New York Times’ A.O Scott loved the beastliness of the tiger, but questioned the film’s thesis of benevolent power behind the universe which he said feels, “more like a result of delusion or deceit.”

Many preferred to simply revel in the power of story unrelated to questions of truth.  Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly, wrote, “Everything looks beautiful in Life of Pi. . . .Lee’s bigger theme isn’t God or survival, but the awesome adventure of making the imaginary visible, the adventure of making movies.”

Angela Watercutter at Wired was pretty blunt “Stunning Visuals Make Up for Life of Pi’s Preachiness”:

“The first eye-roll comes pretty early into Life of Pi.It’s not that anything particularly poorly scripted or bone-headedly acted has happened — far from it — it’s just that when anyone on a movie screen says they’re about to tell a story that will make you “believe in God,” it’s almost a little too sincere to take. (And for atheists, it’s probably an affront to their ethos.) Luckily, Life of Pi doesn’t continue like that for the entire film. . . . much like The Chronicles of Narnia before it, buried in all the religious allegory stuff is an actual story of a young man’s quest to stay alive. With a Bengal tiger. On a lifeboat.”
Dana Steven of Slate was the rare critic who didn’t like the movie at all saying the film, “might be a good movie to see stoned—or maybe it’s just one that makes you feel as though you already are stoned.”  But she especially didn’t like the ending where the theme is made visible: the “movie’s energy peters out in a series of book-club conversations about divine will, the power of storytelling, and the resilience of the human spirit.”

For David Edelstein on CBS News, “Life of Pi” testifies to the power of art to replace God: “‘Life of Pi’ speaks to MY religion: A faith in the transformative power of storytelling – and the magic of movies.”

Some people prefer porn, apparently.

Some people prefer to merely avert their eyes from the terrible evils that have driven men and women to God.  They prefer the stories where truth is irrelevant because they are so enjoyable to watch.

On Friday, yet another federal court rejected the idea gay marriage is a civil right.

The Nevada district court is under the authority of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, to whom this decision is now being appealed.  The issues the 9th Circuit tried to dodge in crafting an allegedly “narrow” decision in the Prop 8 case are now squarely before it: is sexual orientation a protected class? And if so which orientations? Does the federal Constitution require the recognition of gay unions as marriages?

I have always been optimistic that if we can get the question before the Court before Pres. Obama is in a position to remake it with new Justices, we will win on this question.  There is no right to gay marriage in the U.S. Constitution

Justice Kennedy is going to prefer to let the democratic process work rather than creating a Roe v. Wade absolutism that shuts down the public debate.

And with each passing election, it is getting increasingly hard to conclude that gay people in this country are a politically powerless class in need of extraordinary protections by the courts, as racial minorities needed.

Things are about to get much more difficult.  So what?

Sustaining a reasonable belief that our deepest desires are rooted in something that is real and good and most importantly true—that’s our task for the forseeable future.

If God can come to Hollywood, all things are possible.

Peter Wolfgang
Peter Wolfgang

"It may be that America has fundamentally changed, morally speaking, and the social issues that brought Reagan Democrats into the party no longer help elect Republicans." I suppose the key word is "may" and that "may" hinges on the fact that Romney--without ever saying so explicitly--ran on Daniels' "truce" and not on Reagan's social issues. If Romney had fought on those issues and lost we could say with greater certainty that those issues no longer help the GOP. Right now all we can say is that running away from them did not help.

Elaine Al Meqdad
Elaine Al Meqdad

Maggie, this is one of the most brilliant pieces of writing i have read in quite sometime! You have got me hooked as well as an loyal, truth seeking, committed following from me! Thank you again, so very much for such an outstanding work! Many Blessings to you always, Elaine Al Meqdad