January 30, 2012

Oh, God.

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Zachary Zahos ’15 contemplates religion in film.

Not terribly long ago, questioning your faith led to a pile of smoldering kindle for a slow, grisly death. Now, it only divides families and inspires death threats from a vocal minority.

How far we have come.

I do not speak in jest, for I find this a welcome shift, from global persecution to domestic quarrels. We pride ourselves on our freedom of religion, which, to the dismay of many, includes the absence of it. Of course, there still lies the debate over evolution in schools and the daily impasse that politicians back with Biblical verses.

But that belongs in another conversation entirely. When I need answers to the unanswerable, I turn to the greats who wrestled these intellectual behemoths: Paine, Marx, Mencken. The late Hitchens often compared Abrahamic faith to living in a “celestial North Korea.” What they all said in their literature and numerous filmed exchanges stirs the pot, no question.

I go a step further. I find God in movies. Tim Burton captured a brilliant allegory in his whimsical, underrated masterwork, Big Fish. A son parses through his father’s autobiographical tall tales to reach the truth in what he feels were narcissistic delusions. Burton juxtaposes these fantastical flashbacks with the present day ruins of the past.

The town of Spectre, a Southern gothic version of the lotus-eating colony in The Odyssey existed, but without all the fairy dust. His giant cannibal buddy was only abnormally tall. The Siamese twin entertainers he befriended in North Korea were only sororal twins. Burton examines Biblical myths and pagan lore to settle that, while lacking in veracity, these stories provide morals and comfort. The Book of Mormon took up the oft-ridiculed LDS faith with the same innocuous charge.

Last year’s controversial The Tree of Life started at the dawn of time, asking how all of this came to be. Director Terrence Malick anthropomorphizes images of nebulas and supernovae with a human presence. Fast-forward to life on Earth, where the swaying kelp on coral almost possesses a human face. Christians praised Malick’s work as an enlightening depiction of God’s grace. The film beautifully contemplates the miracle of life. Yet Malick does not take much stake in the masculine “God the Father” of Michelangelo, but sees rather a pantheistic, animist form that is all.

Then there is the most powerful film of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick held no concrete belief on religion. But, with all the film’s attention to science and technology, Kubrick has conceded that, “on the deepest psychological level, the film’s plot symbolizes the search for god, and it finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of god.”

An evolutionary monolith, kaleidoscopic wormhole and neoclassical bedroom are the tools of this god. This higher power may just be a superior alien species, but, in all of scripture, what much more is a god than that? These (unseen) extraterrestrials ultimately transform the fearless astronaut into one of their own, a being above man.

The key is that the one who dared into uncharted territory became the most powerful. The scientist would say knowledge breeds power. The priest would argue finding god derives it. At the core of the two sides, where is the difference? You can move towards science and away from faith-based immortality, yet still find yourself contemplating the meaning of infinity. Now if only we had the time on this earth to see it to an end.

Question what you believe. It is whether you accept or reject such beliefs after such metacognition that holds them to be true. Your philosophy holds true to you, and, in this case, absolutely no one else matters.

But, if I may share one last thought. Religion, in a fundamental sense, was created — or found, whatever the outlook — to cope with the depressing inevitability of death.

I seek to live and see, like the characters of Burton, Malick and Kubrick, learning the whole time and basing opinions on facts, not the other way around.  There is simply too much already here to be concerned about what’s there. For when you go, you may reach your maker who will commend you for using the potential of the brain and universe he made for you. Or, if there is nothing after it all, there is literally no time at all to decry it, for it is nothing. And, for that moment, all the Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Scientologists, Satanists, Pastafarians, agnostics, atheists, Joe Pesci-ites and otherwise will all be on — no, excuse me, under — the same playing field for once.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos