Saturday, September 19, 2009

Film, Religion and Dogma

When considering whether film is truly a religion, it seems appropriate to begin by defining religion itself. If one simply consults a standard dictionary, religion can be defined as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.”[1] While workable, this explanation is rather limited. In Religion as Faith, John C. Lyden discusses the historical attempts to define religion including Friedrich Schleiermacher’s that religion is “’the feeling of absolute dependence’ on that which the Christian calls God so that ‘to feel oneself absolutely dependent and to be conscious of being in relationship with God are one and the same thing.’”[2] Lyden goes on to detail Rudolph Otto’s assertion that “religion is the feeling that arises when we encounter the ‘holy’ or ‘numinous,’ that which transcends us so totally that it inspires a mixture of fascination and fear.”[3]

These definitions which stem from nineteenth and twentieth century theology influenced scholars such as Mircea Eliade who “defined religion by its relation to ‘the sacred’ in distinction from ‘the profane’.” Perhaps the most influential modern definition came from Paul Tillich who “defined religion as ‘ultimate concern,’ meaning that each of us has something that receives our highest devotion and from which we expect fulfillment. It demands the total surrender of all other concerns to it as the primary concern of our being.”[4] Furthermore, Tillich felt that when we give our devotion to that which is nonultimate, finite or nontranscendent, we will become disappointed.

In considering film as a religion, Lyden seems unconcerned with the numinous or sacred as a part of his definition. Although I understand the merit of approaching the discussion of film and faith as an interreligious dialog, I find Lyden’s definition to be lacking some of the strength of Schleiermacher and Tillich. The idea that we are drawn to devote ourselves to that which is of ultimate concern resonates very deeply in me. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."[5] In my experience, when we yoke ourselves to the nonultimate we are sorely disappointed. If one accepts the notion of film as religion, I am convinced that this particular religion will not give us the peace and joy that comes from faith in Jesus Christ.

In contrast to Lyden’s proposition of film as religion, in her book, Seeing is Believing, Margaret Miles states that “what films do best… is to articulate the anxieties of a changing society. In films, the competing issues of society intersect and can be formulated for consideration, for understanding, and for negotiation of meaning.” [6] I find her notion that films “help Americans consider the ancient and perennial question of human life. How should we live?” much more palatable than Lyden’s idea of “film as religion”.

When considering whether I am a greater fan of Miles or Lyden, I felt much more in tune with Miles. As a proof text for this, I offer Kevin Smith’s film “Dogma”. For those who couldn’t tolerate the language or graphic violence, “Dogma” is the story of what happens when two fallen angels are clued into a loophole which will allow them to reenter heaven. Charged with stopping Loki and Bartleby from inadvertently destroying all of creation is Bethany, the last Scion, Jesus’ great-great-great…. grand niece.
When it was released, “Dogma” attracted a lot of negative attention, particularly from the Roman Catholic Church and conservative Christians. I, on the other hand, found it to be incredibly insightful. (And terribly funny!) Writer Kevin Smith, who also plays one of the “prophets” Silent Bob, wrote a screenplay that demonstrates a keen insight into many of the frustrations and confusions that Christians experience. This is not the stuff that one can base a system of faith upon, but it does give us food for thought when considering, how should we live
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LIZ: That kills me. You and church. We work in a field that specializes in pissing off the cloth and you add insult to injury by breaking bread with them every week.
BETHANY: I sit there every Sunday and I feel nothing. I can remember sitting in
church when I was a kid and being moved - like everything meant something, like I was important. And the stories of all these holy people were so inspiring. Now I sit there and think about my checking account, and what I'm going to wear to work the next day.[7]
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SERENDIPITY: I have issues with anyone who treats faith as a burden instead of a blessing. You people don't celebrate your faith; you mourn it.[8]
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SERENDIPITY: When are you people going to learn? It's not about who's right or wrong. No denominations nailed it yet, and they never will because they're all too self-righteous to realize that it doesn't matter what you have faith in, just that you have faith. Your hearts are in the right place, but your brains need to wake up.[9]
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BETHANY: You're saying that having beliefs is a bad thing?
RUFUS: I think it's better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier.[10]

[1] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Http:// Accessed September 17, 2009.
[2] John C. Lyden, Film as Religion, (New York: New York University Press, 2003). p.37
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid, p. 38
[5] Matthew 11:28-30
[6] Margaret R. Miles, Seeing is Believing, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996) p. 193
[7] Dogma, Director and Writer: Kevin Smith, Performers: Linda Fiorentino, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Jason Lee. View Askew Productions, 1999.
[8] Ibid
[9] Ibid
[10] Ibid