Religion in Popular Film by Frank Casper

It is my belief, more or less firmly held, that we Unitarians take democratic freedoms very seriously.  After all, they are enshrined in our principles. That is why last year, as some of you might recall, I celebrated this high holyday of democracy by holding our country up to the mirror of its own political ideals, providing a somber and sobering litany of failures that started along about the time the ink dried on the Bill of Rights. Some had commented, and I think fairly, that it was not quite in the upbeat spirit of a “holiday”. Rather, it was more something of an Oscar Wilde moment, who said that democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people.

It could be argued that Unitarians are serious about democracy because they know it is the key to what some regard as the most fundamental of human freedoms, the freedom of religion, defined by Unitarians as the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.  So this year, let’s examine the status of this most cherished freedom in the way any good Unitarian would, particularly in the Summer; by going to the movies.

Film Clip

“Freedom, truth, peace, and love, human illusions”.

Even after that, I guess it is fair to wonder why anyone would want to take the religious measure of a genre like pop film. After all, most of us do not on the whole attend movies, if we attend them at all, for religious reasons. Nor do we generally expect to suffer any experience from a film that most of us might call religious. If that’s true though, it would fail to explain why most religious institutions have from the very beginning regarded the genre of popular as a threat to their values, views, and authority. And judging from the dramatic impact some films can have on people, perhaps they’ve been right. I recall, for example, when seeing “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” for the first time, how some in the audience, wept, yearning to go with Richard Dreyfus on that heavenly space ship bearing benevolent gods.

But a more recent and considerably stronger example of a film evoking what could only be regarded as religious responses would be “Avatar”.  On blogs all over the internet, audiences complained of experiencing what became known in the media as the “Avatar Blues”. One viewer, for example, posted “

That’s all I have been doing as of late, searching the Internet for more info about ‘Avatar.’ I guess that helps. It’s so hard I can’t force myself to think that it’s just a movie, and to get over it, that living like the Na’vi will never happen. I think I need a rebound movie.

Another viewer said:

“Ever since I went to see ‘Avatar’ I have been depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na’vi made me want to be one of them. I can’t stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it. “I even contemplated suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and then everything is the same as in ‘Avatar.’ ”

And commenting on these others, another view said:

“I wasn’t depressed myself. In fact the movie made me happy. But I can understand why it made people depressed. The movie was so beautiful and it showed something we don’t have here on Earth. I think people saw we could be living in a completely different world and that caused them to be depressed.”

Perhaps you can see what some religious authorities have been concerned about. Religious messages do not necessarily come from what might be deemed explicitly or deliberately “religious” films, films like “The Ten Commandments” or all those stilted and overbearing films about Jesus. They can emerge in the course of any film, in scenes or dialogue, that rise to the level of broad and sweeping declarations about the nature of the world in which we live, and of what it means to be human within it. That is what we just saw in the clip from “American Beauty”. This is what I mean by a religious statement or message, and this is, I believe, what some viewers of “Avatar” had such a strong emotional reaction to, a world view, which can be appealing or frightening, but expressing a spirituality that can grasp people under the deceptive guise of mere entertainment.

This, of course, helps to underscore the interesting parallels that at least one book I’ve read draws between the experience of going to a movie, on the one hand,  and the experience of going to church, on the other. In each case, we enter the inner sanctum, designed to put us in the appropriate mood, a mood accompanied by the expectation that our perspective on reality will, for a short time at least, be suspended, questioned, or even altered. Except that this can happen as often in a theater as it can in a church, perhaps more often, and with at least as much and perhaps even more impact. It might, in fact, be safe to say that in many ways film has usurped the place that literature once had in our culture. Film has become the modern medium of myths, all those different stories we tell ourselves about our world and about our place within it.

And what a variety of spiritualities we find, expressed in films as diverse as “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Harold and Maude” or Matt Damon’s recent “The Adjustment Bureau” on the one side of the moral cosmos, to films like “Deliverance”, “Silence of the Lambs”, or the Cohen Brothers recent “A Serious Man” on the other.

But among the most enduring and endearing of films is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”, released in 1946.  George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, lives in the ordinary town of Bedford Falls. He is an ordinary man leading, in his view, at least, an ordinary life, an ordinary life that drove him toward an ordinary suicide. George Bailey’s life ultimately implodes from resentments he’d long harbored that his life did not yield the level of importance and value that he had dreamed from his childhood that he would achieve.  In that sense, George Bailey is most ordinary indeed.

But when at the behest of the prayers of his friends the heavens intercede on his behalf, we see unfold in the film four distinct but related religious messages that to me account for the films enduring appeal.  First, of course, is that the cosmos cares for us. Second, and more importantly in my view, is that not only does the cosmos care, but it remembers us.  This is what we see in the opening scenes of the film, when the heavens replay George’s life, for Clarence the angel, and for us, the audience. And to be remembered is arguably among the deepest of human desires, perhaps even the deepest, close in my view to the well-spring of all our many myths.

The third and perhaps equally important mythological point is that the nature of the world is such that the absence of even one life can alter the entire moral order. That is what we see when George is granted his wish and sees the world as it would have been had he never existed.  Each of us, therefore, plays a role in this life that no one else could have. So, in some really important sense, we are each indispensible to one another, and therefore to the outcome of the moral order of the world.  And it case you think this to be quaint notion of ancient cinematic history, it is important here to mention that a contemporary version of this mythological point is made in Matt Damon’s “The Adjustment Bureau” in that every human life plays a role in God’s plan, but the course of anyone’s life can alter that plan.

And this point is closely related to another, crucial subtext of “It’s A Wonderful Life”. Divine interventions in our lives, if they come, come through our friends. This is there from that opening scene just mentioned, where his friends pray, right through to the final scenes, when Clarence, his hapless guardian angel, dedicates to George a copy of Tom Sawyer by writing, “Remember George, no man is a failure who has friends”.

This critically important subtext is represented and carried throughout the film by Mary, George Bailey’s wife, played by Donna Reed. In an early scene from their childhood, it is in the midst of his boyhood brag about conquering the world that she leans and whispers in his deaf ear the salvation his grandiose dreams would long make him deaf to, “George Bailey”, I will love you till the day I die”. And she is there for him, always, even and especially when his life finally implodes. She is the one who rallies their extensive community of friends to his cause, working the salvation of the opening scene. He is reconciled to his broken life with the realization of what truly is important in his life, and in every life, ordinary or otherwise; relationships, the love and abiding affection of family and friends.

Appealing myths, don’t you think? – a caring universe with caring friends?  It’s the reason I ritually watch this film every Christmas. And it never fails to touch some deep yearning of mine, a yearning shared, I believe with my fellow Unitarians each time we pledge fidelity to building what we call the “beloved community”. We want the myth to be “real”. But, ( pause ) we exit the theater the way we exit the church, returning as ever to the “real” world, all the while perhaps wondering with Morpheus of “The Matrix”, what “is” real? Ironically, and as we shall see, particularly with “The Matrix”, that’s the very question that myths address, what’s “really real”, what’s really important, and how we might we orient our lives accordingly. This in my view has always been the ultimate and therefore, religious question, and there can be no genuine or thorough exploration of such questions without the religious freedom that so much of the world still seeks to deny. So many films address this issue in one way or another. They convey in subtle ways, myths of the “real” world, and many are not at all as friendly and welcoming as that of George Bailey’s.

For one stark contrast on the other side of the mythological universe one need only consider a movie like “Deliverance”, a deeply disturbing film with a religiously ambiguous title. In the human drama that unfolds with the killing of their rapist, we find four friends urgently debating the prospects of their survival, but just as importantly, the values by which their survival might be secured. In a pivotal scene, Drew screams at Louis that “it is a matter of the law”. But Louis, a man of instinct and action, laughs, turns to Drew, spreads his arms amidst the backwater wilderness of the GA Mountains and, declaring the religious point of the film exclaims, “What law, Drew? What law?” The entire scene is bathed in the sights, sounds and beauty of Nature, but here raw in tooth and claw, cold, pitiless, and thoroughly indifferent to human aspirations; a place where human beings are tribalistic, and where the only really important human virtue is the will to brutality in the cause of survival.

The contemporary fault line within our culture, and even within our own congregations, seems drawn, for our present purposes, somewhere between the myths of “It’s a Wonderful Life” on the one hand and that of “Deliverance” on the other, and it has not at all been a friendly exchange of ideas.

But other films use the beauty of nature to present altogether differing spiritual views. I’ll mention only two, the cult classic “Harold and Maude”, and of course, “American Beauty.  In both films, nature is anything but cold and pitiless. It is rather, in “Harold and Maude”, more like the cosmos of Stoicism, “the Great Circle of Life”, as Maude exclaims, resembling our 7th principle, the interdependent web, but imbued with a wisdom and tenderness that surpasses understanding.  And as we saw in the first film clip, this appealing myth is echoed in “American Beauty”, where the awesome beauty of nature is vivid, visceral, captured, in something as mundane and trivial as trash blowing in the wind, but  revealing underneath a force so profoundly benevolent, that by comparison every other human concern, even death, is completely overwhelmed by an abiding sense of gratitude.

And of course, we’d be monumentally remiss if we should fail to mention the work of Woody Allen, whose entire film legacy is a sustained cinematic dialogue with the big questions of meaning and value in life, even when he is making fun of all the various myths that grapple with these great issues, and of his own obsession with such questions. But Mr. Allen brings something more to the table. In films like “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, he offers his view of our resources for creating our myths; faith, reason, science, love, and hope. He has shown us in both humorous and serious ways the limits of those resources, and that we are for the most part pretty bewildered by the dither of our own mythological diversity.

And bewilderment provides as good a segway as any into the last film we will consider, the one that no discussion of religion in film can possibly ignore because it towers above most any in the history of the genre; “The Matrix”. Frankly, a fair rendering of this complex story is the subject of a sermon all its own. No other film, at least in my memory, has attempted to do philosophical theology on such an epic scale, served up with eye-popping, cutting edge special effects.  Whole books and dissertations have been written about this trilogy of films, telling us that the films have had a significant impact in the marketplace of ideas, which alone establishes their importance, certainly in pop culture, but also among legitimate circles of professional intellectuals, some of whom regard them as among the most intellectually sophisticated films ever made, a fact that the special effects that can obscure. So, if you are among those who came away completely bewildered, then perhaps there’s a good reason. Nonetheless, I am compelled to attempt an outline, and an interpretation that so far I’ve not found elsewhere.

Here, first, is the basic storyline. Sometime in the future, humankind becomes enslaved by a computer of our own making. The Matrix is the method of that enslavement. Imagine just for a moment that we have never actually lived a single moment of our lives; that we have all, in fact, been hooked to this computer, and that the computer has digitally implanted our lives, all of our experiences and memories, into our minds. From the moment we are “made”, not born; we have never had a single thought or experience of our own. That is the Matrix. The computer keeps us under control in order to exploit our bodies as a source of energy to power the world of machines that we created.

This storyline is the vehicle for the films two overarching themes. The first is a sustained meditation on what some regard as the most fundamental of all philosophical questions stretching back to Plato and his famous cave, “what is real”?  The same question, BTW, is the subject of the film “Inception”.  This isn’t real, Neo asks when first introduced to the Matrix? Morpheus replies, What “is” real? How do you “define” real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see”, he says, “then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain”. The “reality” is,  we actually have no way of knowing whether we are in fact hooked up to a computer. Be this as it may, this meditation on the nature of reality supports the second and perhaps, for our purposes, [the] most important theme of the films, the identity and destiny of the main character, Neo.

Largely because by the end of the last film Neo ends up saving the human race, he is often compared to Jesus. And of course, this alone, not to mention his resurrection of Trinity, makes the comparison, as agent Smith kept saying, inevitable. But again, as Agent smith kept insisting, “appearances can be deceiving”. Because, as it turns out, Neo is actually a creation of, and an agent for, the machine world, intended as a mechanism of control to keep the human race enslaved. His creation and mission is made necessary, according to the film, by a marvelous flaw in human nature that stymies what is otherwise the perfect mathematical precision of the Matrix software. That flaw is freedom, characterized in the film as the problem of choice.  It is why Neo in the beginning is offered the “choice” of the blue and red pills, and the debate between humans and the machines throughout the film is about freedom, whether it’s real, or an illusion.

This, frankly, should sound familiar, particularly on this holiday, which supposedly celebrates freedom, because it is the same debate we’re having amongst ourselves in this, the so called “real” world, right here and right now, even and I guess especially in a culture that is ostensibly founded on the document that this holiday honors. Neo is intended by the Machines as a technique for addressing this problem, to manage freedom and keep human beings under control, and now many forces are there among us that ever work to oppress and control us. The Matrix is a clear cinematic echo of our own enduring existential struggle. Like Neo in the film clip,  to the extent humankind continues to believe in freedom, justice, and love, we do so merely because we “choose to”.  There is no other reason.

So no, Neo is not Jesus. He is, rather, the Jesus myth in reverse. The God of Jesus created the human race. But the God of the Matrix is created by the human race. Like Jesus, Neo is sent by his God, the computer, into the world on a mission only he can accomplish. But where Jesus is sent to save the human race, Neo is sent to keep it enslaved. And where Jesus is said to have been successful, Neo will fail. Neo saves the human race, but not by the grace or power of divinity. He saves it through the depth of his humanity. Where Jesus saves humanity by believing in God, Neo saves it by believing in himself. Where Jesus is said to save us unto faith in another world, Neo restores freedom, and faith in this world. This is what the Matrix series is about, and I am hard pressed to imagine a more appropriate spiritual message for the holiday we today observe.

So, these are among the many worlds reflected in the genre of popular film. We have the myths of the cosmos as caring, cold, wise, beautiful, benevolent, and even imagined. But perhaps you’ll agree that these myths are much more than just images on the screen. They are mirrors of our lives. Many if not all of us have lived at least some of our lives within the influence of at least part, and perhaps serially or together, all of these myths. And many of us spend a good deal of our lives trying to sort through what we really believe, what is really real, what is really important to us and why. This is what it means to be religious. It is also what it means to be human. It is why religious freedom is arguably the most fundamental of unalienable human rights.