Thursday, November 8, 2007

How Hollywood Saved God

So goes the title of newest The Atlantic Monthly's article by Hanna Rosin on the cinematic bowdlerization of Phillip Pullman's earnestly atheistic trilogy's "His Dark Materials"' first installment, "The Golden Compass." I asked my sons if the books were worth it, and they agreed, but cautioned that I'd look like a geek reading them on the train. Still, the theology, or response to such, intrigues me. Last night, they asked me up for (to them) Must See TV. A rare opportunity to bond, up on my bed-- they both were sick and now I am too. So, paterfamilially, they drew me away from pondering the late Irish mystic John Moriarty (see yesterday's entry; if William Blake knew Gaelic, aboriginal lore, and Egyptian arcana) to watch "South Park."

I admit the first episode I viewed (the second on the video game "Guitar Hero" sent up the rock-star biopic) was the sort that was better than I had feared. If you take lines (I paraphrase, alas) like "Jesus Christ left a rabbit to rule in his place" as seriously as millions did "The DaVinci Code." The end proved even clever. The rabbit, Snowball, true heir(ess?) to Peter's throne, nibbled and twitched. His/her only reply ["ex cathedra" in matters of faith or morals], remained a silent one. We were left to interpret for ourselves, as were the pleading functionaries at the Vatican, about what Jesus wanted his church to tell people about how to live their lives.

I often wonder if-- as Diarmuid O Murchu suggested (see last week's blog review) spirituality will supplant religion. How, against the Rock of Ages of billions and billions served? Yet, O Murchu noted, many who proclaim allegiance in the congregation may endure many dark nights of their souls. He hints that the faithful may be fewer than the denominational rolls report. I suppose that's akin to how many hundreds of millions of us register as Republicans or Democrats vs. how many Americans piously believe that Hilary or Rudy will redeem our cynical plutocracy.

If we should evolve into a less credulous species, as science batters the borders of ancient scriptural explanations for how the leopard got his spots, will the contemplation of the stars, as Sam Harris seems to suggest in "The End of Faith," satisfy our yearnings for the transcendent? Can we praise DNA? Comets? Hurricane Katrina? The San Andreas Fault? Stillborn babies? Or the life force that brings the triple cancer that killed Moriarty and which--if in single but no less malignant a form-- threatens the life of one of my wife's friends today?

What force is left to venerate, if one remains unconvinced of the transcendent? Pullman muses that no Hollywood film voices what could be, for millions, the concerns too many articulate only in the safety of their conscience, never aloud. Is part of progress an increase in secularization? Surely the Cold War that led to today's endless war on terror both show the folly of creeds that belie the divine spark. Our substitutes, Marx or the mall, have failed to liberate us far from Allah or the Pope.

We abandon creeds, then lament their loss. As O Murchu and Moriarty warn, this expectation that goods and knowledge will assuage our lonely hunger will be cruelly betrayed. However, less piety and more liberal attitudes are trades for education and wealth, according to a global pattern. Is this any comfort? We live in an exception to this rule. The U.S. apparently is alone in its religiosity compared to Western nations; certain of the Arab countries also prove dishearteningly recalcitrant. Dubai, as yesterday's NY Times reported, jails homosexuals. But in secret. Publicity might ruin their P.R campaign. They beckon us to partake of air-conditioned Xanadu.

Consumer frenzy meets fanatical Wahhabism. NPR or Promise Keepers. Retail therapy or another box ticked off by the shrink as a DSM insurance code. Postmodern tradeoffs.

So, I cannot help, as I muddle mentally, in passing along inadvertently or directly my own lack of faith. My sense of wonder at my cultural inheritance, so rooted in Catholicism, and my unease with this legacy continue to both accumulate. The news also brought an article about Orthodox Jews in Israel. A cellphone that cuts the daily going rate from six to two cents a minute for a gizmo marketed for the black hats. Yet, on Shabbas, the rate jumps censoriously to $2.60 a minute to punish the stick-gatherers and lighters of fire. Technologically, they build the fence around the Torah. Such phones-- like ISPs shorn of temptations parallel to those Orwellian information highways in China our hi-tech firms sell its despotic regime to monitor dissidents and hunt freedom-seekers-- limit surfing on the Net. National Geographic videos remain popular in certain Bet Shamesh shops. But, they clip scenes of animals copulating.

My wife sighs: is this the inevitable path any organized religion leads to? That of thou shalt nots? I recall us hearing Richard Dawkins as we drove back to Tacoma from Seattle. Before static overcame the NPR affiliate-- that is, when you leave behind the blue-state veneer for the red-state basecoat-- we heard Dawkins reiterate his blame on those who are liberal believers but who by their tolerance allow room for the fanatics to fulminate unopposed. We remain, democratically if lackadaiscally, open to endless rounds of disputed questions lacking chapter-and-verse answers.

It's a world where Adam Gadahn, son of a Jewish hippie drop-out from Orange County comfort, winds up being raised on a goat farm in what remains of rural Riverside County. After his heavy metal teendom, he becomes now Al-Qaeda's English-language spokesman for its videos. He hectors us in dar-al-harb to convert or risk death. This freedom provided for those who vow our damnation leaves me uneasy about the merits of limitless trust in open borders as the only alternative to Patriot Acts. And, I speak as one who has been unable to find out from TSA if or if not my common-as-dirt name is on or off the watch list. Their letter responding to my request could have been cited in "Politics & the English Language" for its ambiguity.

Are we setting up, as destructive technology allies with fundamentalist hatred, another holocaust? What was then a blitzkrieg, now a jihad against the subhuman, the infidel? Nuclear power meets with rogue operatives, arcane learning with training camps to brainwash discontents from the middle classes, the sons of immigrants, the converts from suburbia; how will the Enlightenment's virtues triumph? Back again to O Murchu, Moriarty, and Desmond Fennell: three Irish thinkers who warn that our own greed and luxury in turn foment only more anguish. They are a few of those prophets who wander among doubts that neither frequent flyer miles nor Range Rovers can ease.

So, the makers of films that flinch from genuine expressions of doubt and unbelief recoil at the mere possibility that God does not exist, unable to state this even for dramatic effect in an adaptation of novels aimed at thoughtful teens who may have longed for the alternative to Narnia. O Murchu reminds us that many of us pass in our youth and adulthood through many stages of being lukewarm at best towards religion, yet are impelled to seek out the spiritual. We search without direction, he warns, dissuaded by religious proponents but discouraged by arcane whimsy or occult flimsy. Perhaps, honest discussion of Pullman could move many seekers into confidence in their own direction. Instead, we get Catholics putting out a 24-page booklet warning of errors in Pullman. It does smack of the Index Prohibitarum. Yet, ignorance runs rampant in the media and pop culture regarding Christianity. Nothing wrong on the one hand; as a medievalist after all, I wish the Church had done more to counter the hype of the "Da Vinci Code." If we want honesty on religious debate, we need to be fair to the historical and factual record.

But, I also wish the Church could stimulate an open discussion of the story Pullman-- with more sophistication than Dan Brown's caricatures and conspiracies-- has created. Such a symposium would boost the profile for both Catholic and unbeliever-- and so many who waver, who wonder, and who cannot take a side or a stance that they will never later reject or revise. That too is human nature. The mainstream Hollywood moguls, as with "The Golden Compass," for all of their Westside and Sundance and Cannes poses and purported liberalism, will not sanction voices which express secularism if the First Amendment threatens a Christmas audience or triggers a Baptist boycott.

Many pundits forget how varied and winding are the paths to enlightenment. They either inflate the claims of Dawkins or Harris, or diminish the beauty of, say, Philip Groening's documentary "Into Great Silence." (I have written of this on my blog before; this is a paean to the seduction of renunciation for God alone. Yet, its maker himself remains a doubter, and all the more respectful for that of the committment his subjects have vowed.) Moriarty drifted away from the Church in the 1960s only to return to a revamped notion of it that he could live with, combined with his own syncretism, before his death. O Murchu grew up in Cork never meeting a Protestant until he was a young man. Fennell began his career as a theological correspondent in the days of Vatican II. All three still comment on an Ireland which has become utterly transformed spiritually since their youth, or even mine, so sudden has the change been. They warn, despite the failures of the Church, that men and women need guidance. We cannot give over the course of our souls and spirits to a society that sees us only as investment opportunities, target markets, or 59 types of Claritas-generated demographic fiefdoms.

In closing, I wonder what "His Dark Materials" conjures up as an answer to replace our prayers. I disagree with Pullman's put-down of his fellow Oxonian Tolkien, but I respect Pullman's wish for a story that takes the side of the devil's advocate, so to speak. As in the origin of the trilogy's title with Milton's "Paradise Lost."

No wonder why we're turning out little agnostics in our household, at best--or worst. So, to balance the ledger and in the Jesuit spirit of my college education, I foolhardily encourage both doubters and deniers, true believers and campus crusaders a final word that even Pullman could learn from. Here's a reminder of how radical an Greek Christian saint could be in imagining a God beyond our conception! Michael Miller writes this last comment (after providing this saint's citation) about "Apophatic Theology" on today's IFSB discussion list devoted to study of that most austere order of monks, the hermit Carthusians. Not a Yahoo Group many readers of Pullman may belong to, or vice versa, but in such dialogue as my blog invites,I the twain shall indeed, and verily forsooth, meet! Off now, Shabbat night, to seek out yoga with wife via cable, in my old Loyola sweatshirt, before reading Moriarty.

"[God] himself neither is nor becomes in any way at all any of the things that are or become, since he can in no way be ranked naturally with the things that are. Therefore, it is more appropriate to say that he is not, because he transcends being.
He has an existence that is simple and unknown and inaccessible to all,
utterly beyond any understanding, and beyond any affirmation or negation."

St. Maximos the Confessor, "Classics of Western Spirituality" (Paulist Press, N.Y.) pp. 34-35.

I believe that apophatic theology or negative theology is at the center of Christian theology. At its center is the fact that God's nature is completely unknowable. If we speak of God as good or all-powerful, this has to do with our needs and the limitations of our language; "good" means something different from the sort of thing we mean when we speak of good pizza or even a good deed. Apophatic theology says that while God may not be understood and is unknowable, we participate in God's being through sharing in God's divine energies. But God is finally unknowable, and, because of his infinite otherness we can only approach- but never fully arrive at- God.
Image: Eva Green as the Witch Queen flies over "a landscape denuded of religious imagery," according to the Atlantic's caption.

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