I am not a religion scholare or theologian. You can say I am a religion student, and I might be alright with that. I consider myself to be first and foremost a writer. Religion is my area of passion, so if you’d like to be more formal, you may call me a religion writer. I, of course, carry out research, but I do not research in order to discover> Research is only one rather small part of what I do. I also reflect, and try to pray, but for me, discovery comes from writing itself, putting abstract ideas into a tangible product to be embraced or rejected by those who encounter it, much like an artist approaches their work. I am not always objective in what I write – my mind usually does not work in that way. I seek only to contribute to the human quest to ask big questions, and if I’m lucky, help us find a few answers.
Using the world around us to make sense of the big questions: Film & television plays a fairly large role in influencing all of our experiences here on earth, or at least in this country. Even if we don’t see a lot of TV or films, we still find out about it, and to some degree, it influences us. Like ther Americans, I flirt with with addiction to entertainment, and since I can’t get religion out of my head, my TV and film viewing are tinted by it. So here is my attempt to reconcile att that information, all those ideas in my head that keep me awake late at night. If this project helps me only to sleep at night, I’ll be content.
In the best selling nonfiction book Stupid White Men, Michael Moore discusses MIT linguist and leftist political critic Noam Chomsky’s remark that listening to sports news programs demonstrates the fascinating ability of the human mind to retain facts and provide in-depth analysis of highly complex situations and histories. Moore notes“our challenge, Chomsky said, was to find a way to make politics as gripping and engaging as sports” (86). is much closer to. Having listened to both Chomsky and Moore go off on their highly critical diatribes, I must say that Moore is much closer to accomplishing this than Chomsky, who is even less engaging than watching Congress debates on C-Span. It’s not really Chomsky’s fault – American movers and shakers provide much less interesting and enjoyable material for beltway correspondents. The slam dunk of a politician is to see a bill they sponsored signed by the President. If I were to choose my viewing purely by its entertainment value, I’d choose basketball. Even entertainers are more interesting with their marriages and divorces, shoot-em-up scenes on the silver screen, and what they name their puppies. I don’t know the numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if programs like Entertainment Tonight and Late Night with David Lettermen are more successful than PBS’s Bill Moyer’s Now or Religion and Ethics. At least the richest African American and woman Oprah Winfrey, who nine times out of ten does more than trashy, sappy “inspirational” programming, but instead hosts guests such as Beatrice from Africa who received a gift of a pregnant goat from Heifer International to provide her family and village with milk and kids to sell. Without this gift Beatrice would not be able to attend school, a right we in America often take for granted, or even complain about. With her billions, Oprah took the show another step forward, donating even more animals to Beatrice’s village to provide them with the economic security needed to pay for basic human needs they rarely could take advantage of. Now, Oprah has taken on the children of Africa, supporting AIDS orphans, an epidemic. Perhaps Winfrey provides the single most riveting analysis of the current state of our world. She doesn’t tackle every problem at once, or address issues in every single episode of her program, and maybe that’s her secret. Michael Moore has enjoyed much successs, especially ever since September 11, 2001, the great tragedy that almost kept Stupid White Men off the shelves. His publisher instead distributed only a limited run at first, but the book soon reached New York Time’s number one slot for nonfiction. Moore kept going and produced his Grammy winning documentary Bowling for Columbine. Upon his receiving the award, Moore gave an acceptance speech that his the news like a sports victory. The awards were being held in the earliest days of the second US war against Iraq, and Moore stepped to the mic and shouted “Shame on you Mr. Bush.” The audience of celebrities responded with equal amount of boos and cheers, and the people in the sound booth cranked up the elevatyor music through the loud speakers, politely “signalling” him to get the heck off stage. If that’s not riveting politics, I don’t know what is!
I used to study politics, I mean seriously study it – academically I mean. But it got too depressing. I was that riveted with politics. These days I’m more interested in religion, and I’m right now trying to figure out how to make religion as riveting as Michael Jordan confounding everyone in his presence. September 11 scandalized religion, and purchases of the Koran shot up, thanks in large part to white middle class Americans trying to make sense, to prove why or why not Muslims would dare attack us. And the Holy Bible is the best selling book of all time. But is religion still that riveting? Are there people like Oprah and Moore who make religion so riveting? There are a few authors who are doing this – Kathleen Norris among the top writers. My task as I see it is to do what I can to make religion this fascinating – to myself, and to the general public, without, of course, selling it short – on the contrary, making it come genuinely to life the way it is meant to will make ti the most riveting thing under the sun. But boring the general public with religion is way too easy to do.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the same term “icon” is used today to designate an individual who holds influence in popular culture as is used to designate an image of a religious personality or event for the purposes of spiritual enrichment. Both are enshrined in rich tradition, and both provide a vehicle for us to shine a light on our own lives and identity.
Ancient Christian painters of icons, or iconographers, were known to keep strict disciplines of purity. To portray holy people, saints and others who lived so close to God was seen as an extremely sacred task. Any impurity that the iconographer had would do severe injustice to their subject matter. So many American pop icons on the other hand seem to carry out a strikingly opposite tradition, almost as if by duty, of extreme impurity, quite possibly because of their subject matter. The calling of today’s popular artists (and I believe they can be in all seriousness, in most circumstances be considered artists in the fullest definition of the term) is to reflect back to the culture at large its very own nature, our collective past, present, and future. It doesn’t take too much analysis to realize the great mix of light and darkness within the human race. It is interesting to note that most of us would probably much rather prefer watching films and television, and listening to the latest music than to sit down to the news in any format, or study and practice our religious faith. But this is not necessarily as dooming as some critics try to make it appear. Spirituality is the way we make sense of and connect to the reality that goes beyond ourselves. Religion can certainly do this, but that takes time, which we constantly, ironically say we are running out of (although the clock keeps ticking), and immense commitment, or so we think. And without deeply rooting ourselves in God or whatever greater source of the truest life we desire to hold onto, we have no stomach for most of the news. We already know our world is going to hell, so why remind ourselves? Even if one person tried to change our direction, we would still fall way too short. (This is a matter for the pundits, and I will leave it to them to tell us what they think. We all know they won’t hesitate to do so.) Instead we choose to laugh, cry, scream, shake our heads at people who might act like the news says people do, but at least most teens and adults know they are not real, and we can safely distance ourselves from our won dreadful reality enough to forget that people really do act like that, and every day. Of course not everything portrayed in our entertainment is totally genuine in its basis in reality, but most times it is close enough. If we expose ourselves to enough entertainment we may begin to act like the characters we see and hear, which are written based on how we humans act and react. The line between cause and effect, between reality and make believe often blurs, but in the long run I think most adults and teens know this boundary well enough to be able to cope with our real lives. When we can’t discern these differences, there may be problems. I shall leave that to the sociologists.
I once heard a Catholic describe the saints as merely people to learn from, not perfect individuals, not what we think of when we encounter the word “saintly.” There are many saints who were far less than perfect in their lives, like... Perhaps this makes them more accessible, more believably human. We often overemphasize the divinity of Christ so extremely that we fail to see his humanity. The Gnostic heresy was guilty of this very thing, believing the point of Christ was in the holy Knowledge of God. For me and many others I know, it is Christ’s humanness that makes him more accessible and believable, therefore making God more accessible. Writers must make their characters behave in believable ways, otherwise no one will tolerate the story, and it will become an artistic and commercial failure (but the two are not necessarily one and the same). Celebrities can certainly seem believably human. We can see them with our own eyes in many different settings, but we can get into the habit of making them into idols, seeing only their great ability to tell us a story, to look like gods at all the Hollywood festivities, and them media industry, which relies on these icons for their own survival, often doesn’t help us keep our celebrities in perspective. But if we keep our image of these fellow humans with flaws just like our own in check, and remember that their work is simply a symbolic, allegorical representation of the reality we experience every day, rather than a replacement of it, then Hollywood (the artists more than the business folk) can do its job properly, which is, I believe, more than just to entertain, but to express what our world is like, and how we can get the most value from what little time we are privileged to be in this sacred place.
Just as the Bible uses stories to direct us toward life with God, so can Hollywood tell us valuable tales about our relationship with our world. A story need no mention anything religious to hold spirititual signifigance. Nowhere does the Hebrew book of Esther mention God, and yet there is the Jewish holiday of Purim based on the story.
It starts with the search, and we are all looking for the same thing – the truth behind and beyond this seemingly empty existence. We search far and wide until the search itself drives our every move, but still come up short. And then, in our failure, we can barely stand to face the world outside our door, and fall into a deep, exhausted sleep. It is at that precise moment that the door we have been hunting for so long appears at last and opens. The truth arrives and brings us out of our slumber. The divine reality calls us by name, yet we still do not comprehend what it is or why it has chosen us. As we try in earnest to escape from it, the truth remains persistent until finally, but still confused, we believe in it to carry us where we yearn so much to go.
So begins The Matrix, a film chock full of allegorical parallels to ancient and modern mythologies, philosophies, and world faiths including Buddhism and Christianity. Writer/directors Larry and Andy Wachowski declined to answer questions about the religious and philosophical underpinnings of their tale, stating instead that they prefer The Matrix trilogy (The Matrix plus its two additional installments The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions) speaks for itself. It is abundantly clear that the brothers had much of these ideas in their heads when creating the films. The official movie website has an entire section on the philosophy of The Matrix, but none of the essays are written by the Wachowskis themselves, nor do they comment on any of the writings on their or any other website on the subject, of which there are many. It seems that they are open to seeing their work in nearly any way the viewer decides to perceive it, which in my view suggests that the brothers are serious about their craft, because true art is meant to serve the audience, and artists generally let the audience interpret their work for themselves.