"Don't you feel in your heart that these contradictions do not really contradict; that there is a cosmos that contains them all? The soul goes round upon a wheel of stars and all things return…Good and Evil go round in a wheel that is one thing and not many. Do you not realize in your heart, do you not believe behind all your beliefs, that there is but one reality and we are its shadows; and that all things are but aspects of one thing; a center where men melt into Man and Man into God?"
"No," said Father Brown.
Shorter Ross Douthat: "Hollywood Is Going To Hell (Again)". December 20
I SAT down the other night--on the exercise bike--to watch Frontline's From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, not realizing, or remembering, that it was a) a decade old and b) the first of at least thirty-seven parts.
I don't know if you've noticed, or care, but The History Channel is now The Jesus and Nostradamus Network, and, worse yet, peer pressure is starting to get to the National Geographic Channel. One afternoon last weekend NGS was running Secrets of the Shroud of Turin; dissatisfied viewers could switch to History for History's Mysteries: The Shroud of Turin. The former promised to investigate the forensic and evidence [sic] connected to the mysterious Shroud of Turin, which is like tuning in the Science Channel to find they're trying to get to the bottom of this Earth revolves around the Sun business.
Similarly, PBS promised the show included, and I quote, "New Testament theologians, archaeologists and historians who serve as both critics and storytellers", which, as seasoned observers understand, means they couldn't even start the thing without fudge, omitting "Biblical" before that "archaeologists", which leads us to suspect, correctly, as it turns out, that they've left it off "historians" as well. Now, I had an hour of mind-but-not-knee-numbing exercise ahead of me, and if television isn't there to get you through that sort of thing it's there for nothing. And I made twenty-three minutes. (On the bike I lasted the full hour, thanks for asking.)
And maybe I'll go back for some of the rest of it, but look: if you can't win without stacking the deck, then at least have the courtesy to try to stack the deck without anyone noticing. To begin with, if nothing is known of any historical Jesus, and nothing is, don't say "virtually nothing". "Virtually nothing" means "something". If Josephus never so much as casts an eye in Jesus' direction, you should be a little sheepish, if you'll pardon the expression, when you suggest his mentioning John the Baptist grounds everything after in historical fact. If you have to start the thing off with the same disclaimer they used on that old Leonard Nimoy show, then clue your collection of professional Metaphysicians, Sinecures, and Table Knockers that they're not lecturing a bunch of home-schooled Freshmen who've already signaled their willingness to believe absolutely anything Absolute, and have 'em can the wink wink Of Course This Doesn't Quite Jibe With the Historical Record, You Know wink wink winkedy wink routines. Because to many of the rest of us, "doesn't quite jibe" means "making shit up". And if you simply have to keep reminding the audience that your record is 22-0, try to avoid revealing with every other breath that all your fights are fixed.
We bring this up not because Douthat once again has found the black cat in the coal bin at midnight despite the dead batteries in the flashlight he forgot to bring; that damn cat is perched on his shoulder all the time, anyway. We just wish to aver, once again, that epistemological methods developed in the ongoing effort to determine the theoretical average density of tap-dancing angels on a standard metal cloth fastener do not translate well to other areas of inquiry, especially those involving mentally stable people, known inhabitable planets, or factual information.
It’s fitting that James Cameron’s “Avatar” arrived in theaters at Christmastime. Like the holiday season itself, the science fiction epic is a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess wrapped around a deeply felt religious message. It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James.
Point one: just as in the "real world" it is considered bad, if not losing form to acknowledge that all the facts are on your opponent's side ("Of course," says Fashionably Rumpled Yale Divinity or Suitably Nerdish West Texas State Biblical Archaelogy prof to PBS cameras, "we know that Caesar Augustus never ordered a worldwide census, nor, had he, would his power have extended to the citizens of Rome's client states, and that, even if it had, commanding them to return to their birthplaces instead of, say, counting them where they stood, seems, on the surface, to have been an invitation for inaccuracy to no apparent purpose whatever. Still, as we have seen…"), pulling the Reverse "But This Is Just Secular Religion!" gambit so early in the game merely acknowledges the weakness of one's own position. It's just the Gospels According to Ross, too, as long as we're going there, with the salient distinction that James Cameron's just making a fucking sci-fi flick, and you're the one who thinks the walls of Sacred Truth are being breeched.
(Point one-a: whose goddam crass commercialism is it, anyway? The other eleven months of the year this is a Christian nation, or a "Judeo-Christian" one if you need to pull some votes from outside, but whenever it does something unseemly it turns into a bunch of horoscope-consulting barbarians. And that Invisible Hand is inerrant, so long as it's being stuck up someone else's bum. Sheesh, either eat what your dog trees, or get a new dog.)
“Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.
In Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing.
Th' fuck didn't you just stay home?
If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.
Ross, goddamnit, you're only a generation old. And you give us precious little ("virtually no") evidence you know anything about history except what's been pre-shaped to fit the conclusions you already had. And if any ("virtually every") narrative arc from some popular flicker sounds familiar, it's because there's only three or four to begin with.
It’s the truth that Kevin Costner discovered when he went dancing with wolves. It’s the metaphysic woven through Disney cartoons like “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas.” And it’s the dogma of George Lucas’s Jedi, whose mystical Force “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”
I'm just guessing, Ross-O, but when you couldn't get dates in high school, did you chalk it up to the fact that girls didn't like really smart guys?
Hollywood keeps returning to these themes because millions of Americans respond favorably to them. From Deepak Chopra to Eckhart Tolle, the “religion and inspiration” section in your local bookstore is crowded with titles pushing a pantheistic message.
Funny you bring that up, Ross, because last night I went to my local Barnes & Noble for some last-minute shopping, and--besides the fact that the "Current Events" section was crammed to bursting with wingnut screeds, headshots of Glen Beck melting into Sarah Palin to Laura Ingraham to Mark Levin to Mike Huckabee to the extent that I'm through shopping in the place--the "Christianity" section is now separated from the "Inspiration" section, apparently to appease people who think as you do, that the One True Religion needs to be segregated for its own protection. I guess after this column the Science Fiction section will be moving to a tent in the parking lot.
A recent Pew Forum report on how Americans mix and match theology found that many self-professed Christians hold beliefs about the “spiritual energy” of trees and mountains that would fit right in among the indigo-tinted Na’Vi.
Says the man recently heard bemoaning the crass commercial exploitation of a Sacred Holiday his people swiped from the pagans.
As usual, Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming.
Jesus Christ, are you sure you're not confusing him with Nostradamus? I mean, it's been a while, and maybe I misread him, but when somebody says "de Tocqueville", I think "Frenchman with an uncanny knack for describing the political egalitarianism, and perhaps something of the national character of the early 19th century European colonizers of the United States", not "Kreskin with a quill pen".
Today there are other forces that expand pantheism’s American appeal. We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse.
O-kay, let's just return to our point, shall we, about what happens when you spend your entire life talking only to people who agree with you, when you play tennis only if the net's down and the baselines have been erased, and when you've already declared yourself the winner. It means that, faced with overwhelming scientific consensus that this facile Christian-slash-Capitalist Dominionism of yours falls something short of perfection, your single solitary Hah-vahd education recourse is to start yelling "Heathen Devils!"
Not to mention that there's about a billion Hindus and 300 million Buddhists who would dispute the remarkably egocentric idea that a "successful" religion "needs" a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of "thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse, or would if they gave a flying fuck what you think.
The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response.
Well, it could be that the question is whether Nature can be questioned by a guy who looks like he never got any closer to Her than his family's summer place on the lake.
Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality.
Yes, indeed, Ross; many other thought systems fail to solve the problems that yours invents. And without Law we have Anarchy. What I don't understand is how you reach the threshold of middle age without even considering that the issue could have two sides. I mean, this bundle of Bronze Age apocalyptic terror, Just-So stories for perpetual children, and sanctification of one's tiniest opinions is termed a Faith, ain't it? It all works in your favor if it's true, but that's something you'll never know, let alone prove to anyone else, and over the course of the last two centuries your particular blend of theological certitude and literal-mindedness has come in for a pretty thorough debunking. The Earth isn't the center of the universe, nor is the sun, and for that matter we've got no idea if ours is the only universe in town, or if we're still inhabiting the same one we woke up in this morning. Meanwhile, Nature seems perfectly happy to neither create nor destroy, regardless of what you think, the Universe(s) may be poised between Fire and Ice, or Not, and God knows where Schrödinger's cat got to. Hindus have all the Time in the world, and an uncountable number of other worlds beyond. The Buddhists are probably having a nice cup of tea, and a good laugh about it all. And if there're no crassly commercial After Christmas Sales in the Hereafter a lot of your fellow Christians are gonna be plenty pissed off, Ross. Maybe you should just relax. You know; take in a movie or something.