Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Why Only Exotic Gods Coming to Life in Movies?

Here's an idea for a movie: a Lakota boy is adopted and raised by Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. He is thus mostly ignorant of Christianity; and given his genetic ancestry, he is fascinated with Old World culture. He becomes an archaeologist and travels to Israel. While there, he discovers an ancient tomb...a tomb that locals fear, and one old man tries to warn him about. Though their "New Testament" describes the power of the demigod who was killed and put in the cave, this archaeologist knows better than to believe in primitive fairy tales. Until, of course, strange things start happening. The bread and fish he bought for lunch one day keeps replenishing itself, and one of the other professors who had been laid up with leprosy magically heals. Was he about to discover that this "Christ" was real, and had awoken? And even more, that the locals' god had a dark side as well?

Of course I'm deliberately being uncomfortably irreverent, even offensive. If instead of the tomb I'd used Mohammed's angel-cave, people would really be upset with me. And yet when you see a movie with a white archaeologist being chased around by an awakened Native American god, that's somehow okay...and that's exactly the point. There is a strange disconnect here. Movies are "allowed" to concretely depict the powers of pagan gods that we remember mostly as myths; that is, they can do so without being considered offensive. But movies are not allowed to depict the powers of gods that people still actually believe in.

Above: in The Mask Jim Carrey was supposed to be wearing the Mask of Loki, the Norse God of mischief, which gave him powers. Below: a major studio is unlikely to make a movie about Christ rising from the dead like this. But wait - people actually believe that he did! Shouldn't there be more support for doing such a movie then?

For the purposes of supernatural horror, people who identify as Christian are quite willing to suspend disbelief about the reality of an exotic god for the duration of a movie or book. So Christians should love a movie about a literal avenging Christ, or Jews about the modern Angel of Death, right? Imagine it: U.S. fighter planes scramble over the Red Sea, firing missiles pointlessly into the Angel's swirling mass. Lamb's blood for door-painting is at a premium on Amazon. (I can't wait for 2-day shipping, we're already up to the seventh deadly plague! ZING, HEY-O!) But guess what? They don't love it. Even talking about it in this way may seem provocative. (An experiment: would trying to explain Buddha's supposed cobra-calming ability be offensive? Shiva's appearance from a flaming lingham? How about a movie about the search for the Mormon gold tablets or the Scientologists' alien-spirit volcano? If some are okay and some are not, why? I think the answer is fairly obvious.)

Of course there are exceptions to this strange ban on movies depicting the gods or forces people say they believe in. The American film industry made a number of such pictures in the 1950s and 60s, and more recently, Passion of the Christ - although these took pains to identify themselves as narratives created by the in-group, and all carefully kept themselves within the scriptural understandings of their likely audience. The only action movies per se made about these themes were Raiders of the Lost Ark and especially the Holy Grail. But there, it's not about Indy getting a gleam in his eye and going on a quest to use the power of the Holy Grail - no, in both cases with Biblical artifact maguffins, it's really, really bad guys who in their hubris have gone looking for them. It's also likely that setting the adventure a few decades in the past insulates it from moral discomfort. It would make people very itchy if Raiders were re-made to take place in the Middle East today, with ISIS fighters digging for the ark and grail.

The likely reason that we're allowed to put mostly-abandoned gods, but not ones worshipped contemporarily, in works of fiction - even if we don't personally believe in them, and just know that many other people do - is the same reason people get uncomfortable about the direct, concrete discussion of religious stories, even if not from a critical standpoint. Angry Christ fighting off the Navy Seals by walking out on the water where they can't get him would move the whole thing out of ritual-land and into concrete visualization, which is very uncomfortable for modern people who believe in things like laws of nature. And we have a frankly misguided sense that it's offensive to do this with anyone's continuing beliefs. But the second the last Scientologist dies - then I guess it's okay to make the L. Ron Hubbard zombie movie.

In this case, giving power to indigenous gods is not a compliment, or an endorsement of their reality. It's exactly because we clearly understand that they're silly that they can serve as entertainment. But we don't want to get led into thinking or explicitly saying that about contemporary gods.

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