Category Archives: Art and Faith

Andrei Tarkovsky on Art and on Cinema

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Seven images of Joan

The following seven frames are from Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). They occur just after Joan has been told that she will not be allowed to attend mass.

There are so many memorable moments in this incredible film that it is hard to pick out any one, but this brief moment caught me emotionally. It seems to exemplify the role that religion so often plays in claiming rights it can only pretend to own.

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The spiritual disciplines of a married woman

Typically one does not go to Godard seeking a spiritual film. Not that his films are devoid of spiritual concerns (his 1985 film Je vous salue, Marie deals directly with spiritual concerns) but Tarkovsky or Bresson or Kieslowski are more typical choices for spiritual cinema. On the other hand, through a different lens as it were, Godard is a very spiritual director, particularly when it comes to his critiques of modern society. On the surface he catalogs – in his own dry humor – the many phenomena of our strange and extravagant late-industrial culture with all of its gaudy materialism, its objects, and its fetishes. And yet are not his characters often living out their new modern spirituality in a sea of things, words, actions, violence, sex, love, books, images, ideas, advertising, and every other signifier of something other? That something other may, in fact, be faith. The question, then, is what is this modern faith?

Godard’s cinema has always been a cinema de jour. His emerges from the endless world of the now. In this age where “God is dead” the drive within each of us for meaning, and finding that meaning in relation to something outside of ourselves, has not gone away. If we find no God we will make one, and as is always the case, we fashion our gods according to our own needs and desires, and in our own image. We then adopt forms of spiritual disciplines that serve our image of God and the imagined requirements of our new spirituality.

What is a spiritual discipline? There are numerous definitions but, in short, a spiritual discipline is a habit or regular pattern of specific actions repeatedly observed in order to bring one into closer relation to God and to what God desires for one to know. It is something one does as an act of devotion and a means of advancement or growth.

How do we see this playing itself out in Godard’s films? In À bout de souffle (1960), a paean to the Hollywood gangster film, Michel exhibits a kind of ritualistic and constant homage to the film gangster archetype, Humphrey Bogart. He goes through the motions, adopts character traits, tropes, stylistic postures, and language to inhabit the ideal of his film hero. His focus and devotion are fundamentally religious, and his actions play out like spiritual disciplines – immature and humorous at times, but spiritual disciplines nonetheless. What Godard gives us in his unique way is a portrait of the spiritual status of French youth in 1960. In a world where traditional religious options fade they are replaced by a new religion, that of the cinema. In the end Michel dies as a martyr to his faith.

In Une femme mariée: Suite de fragments d’un film tourné en 1964 (1964) Godard presents another kind of spirituality, that of the sexual body in a consumeristic world. Although sexuality is one of the oldest “religions” in human history Godard examines it within a thoroughly modern context. Charlotte, who is married to one man and in love with another, is juggling her relationships while gauging herself against the constant inputs she receives (accepts, seeks) from advertising – in particular, advertisements about female beauty and, especially, those pertaining to the ideal bust. Her life becomes a constant calculation of actions – maybe motions is a better word – to present herself both to the world and to herself. She becomes both priestess and offering at the altar of modern woman.

One scene in the film highlights Charlotte’s commitments. Here she is finishing her bath.

une-femme-mariee-1

She meditates (on what we do not know) with perhaps an intelligent expression, perhaps vacuous. She exits the bath. The camera followers her legs. She dries off.

une-femme-mariee-2

She then used scissors to trim her leg hair.

une-femme-mariee-3

Then trims her already carefully coiffed locks.

une-femme-mariee-4

She then trims her pubic hair.

une-femme-mariee-5

The camera does not follow the scissors, but we hear them and assume she is not trimming her bellybutton hair.

European films of the 1960s gained a reputation in the U.S. for being risqué. Though tame by today’s standards, to have a woman trim her pubic hair, even if only suggested, would have called attention to itself, and Godard makes sure the camera holds long enough for us to notice. Within the context of the film this shot makes a great deal of sense. Her bathing and grooming, and the calling attention to the details of her actions present to us the actions of her spirituality, her disciplines. This is not a world without a god, rather it is a world of many gods (her husband worships airplanes and is a pilot) and her god is a combination of love, sex, her body, her image as woman, etc. In this quiet moment we are voyeurs to her prayer, to her communion.

More than Godard’s other films of this era Une femme mariée is a highly formalized, stylish, and unusually crafted visual fugue of body parts, actions and gestures, and environments. At times we are drawn toward comparisons with Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) for its uncompromising formalism and spiritual quest of its protagonist, and to Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) also for its formalism, sexuality and the spiritual struggle of its characters in light of nuclear weapons. Godard takes the next step to characterize the spiritual quest of the modern woman (we should included men as well, though that is sometimes debatable with Godard) as neither traditionally religious/Christian or driven by existential terror, rather the new spirituality is a commodity based religion of self-image mediated through the world of late industrial production and consumerism. What makes this work, and elevates the film, is that Godard’s characters do not suffer the anguish of extreme religious piety or existential nihilism, rather they fully inhabit their world as accepting individuals who embrace the proscriptions of their circumstances – like peasants in medieval Europe, like good 20th century bourgeoisie.

In this way Godard stands as one of the more significant artists of the late modern/post-modern period. Later he would take these themes to greater and more political heights with such films as 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1967) and Weekend (1967). Godard, though thoroughly materialistic, may also be a more spiritual director than most – a consideration we do not consider enough.

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just another word of encouragement

A few days ago I had some fun posting and commenting on various “alternative” images of Jesus that have become increasingly popular on the Internet. I titled that post another jesus. If you follow this blog at all you know I occasionally write on religious topics, mainly because I am a Christian trying to sort out the differences of my cultural Christianity from my faith. This is part of my overall journey in search of Truth, wisdom, and an authentic Christianity. So with that in mind, I had a recently amusing and disconcerting experience the other day which has prompted me to change my comments policies for now (they’re now moderated).

On that “another jesus” post I got the following comments (I made some slight changes to make it less offensive. I apologize if any here are offended.):

Hello i dont know who ur but i warn u if u display such kind of pictures and if u display jesus in very wrng ting…if u do this i will kick ur a** through visiting ur place ur mother f**ker….jesus is real son of a god he cures us and he helps every moments and loves us all the times…..f**k i kill u …ur a** f**ker….contact me if u have guts rohith_fancy25585@yahoo.com

Apart from the fact that this is actually a death threat if taken seriously, there are a lot of things one could say about these comments. At first I thought it might be a joke. In my experience such comments are so the opposite of what a Christ follower would say or do that I just new they couldn’t be serious. But then I realized, no, this commenter thinks he/she is defending Jesus. I could be wrong – maybe someone knows different.

Regardless, this commenter’s thoughts/assumptions/insults have given me some pause. Here are some attempts at understanding this helpful soul:

  • The commenter means to be giving me a word of encouragement, but the only English he knows was learned from watching Quentin Tarantino films. I realize Rohith is an Indian name. It could just be a “cultural divide” kind of thing. I need to be more sensitive to these things.
  • Maybe I should have known that “jesus is real son of a god he cures us and he helps every moments and loves us all the times” means we personally don’t have to worry about curing, helping, or loving – since he does that for us. That must be why he can immediately follow that sentence with “f**k i kill u.” It’s because of the freedom he has in Christ.
  • But then, he does say “son of a god” – a god. Which god does he mean? How many gods are we talking about here? I will try to keep an open mind.
  • If I don’t email him back do I not “have guts”? Is that what it takes these day to be evangelized? To “have guts”? I’m assuming here that what he really means by wanting me to contact him is so he can let me know God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life.
  • It could be that he really is not a Christian (surprise) but is, in fact, a new-age dialecticist who is hoping to create some new religious synthesis through confrontation and this is just his way of inviting me to his new religion. So this could be a very sophisticated Hegelian tactic, just cleverly disguised as something opposite.
  • Grammatical clarification: Can “ur” mean both “you are” and “your” in the same comment? Is that legal? It certainly makes it difficult to understand what exactly he means by “ur a** f**ker.” Of course, if I had guts I would just ask him.

Maybe you have some additional thoughts. Maybe you “have guts” to contact Mr. Fancy25585 and carry on a meaningful dialog. Let me know how it goes. As for my part, I’m already on to other things.

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another jesus

If you search for images of Jesus on the Internet you will find an unending supply of everything from the serious to the comic, pious to the sacrilegious, realistic to the saccharine. Jesus has always been an appropriated figure by different Christian groups, but now it seems everyone appropriates Jesus for any reason, group, or perspective. Or, to put it another way, Jesus is increasingly seen as a non-religious figure who can be anything you want him to be. I think this can be seen as both a bad thing and a good thing.

Bad because Jesus was and is who he was and is. Any other perspective or viewpoint is not true. That would hold true for our perspective of anyone. But it’s good because so many traditional images of Jesus are just as wrong headed as the many non-traditional. It is a good thing to have our assumptions challenged, and to be reminded that we may not know as much as we think we do. If we don’t take Jesus seriously then, I suppose, anything goes. But if we do take him seriously then it makes sense to find out who he really was – and is. I would expect non-Christians to have fairly limited knowledge of Jesus but, ironically, many Christians do as well.

I saw a lot of politicized images of Jesus. One of the biggest debates going on today (consciously and unconsciously) is whether Jesus was a political figure with a political agenda and whether that political agenda was conservative or liberal. I am inclined to think Jesus was more of a political figure than I have been taught, and I am inclined to see the more liberal side of his politics. However, I think his politics were far more radical than either left or right.

As for those images, here are some of the least offensive, but still non-reverent, images I found in just a few minutes:


The not-meek, not-mild Jesus. Sure he’ll die for your sins, but he’s still as tough as a Chevy truck.


No comment needed – except – reminds me of the ‘who would Jesus bomb’ slogan.


The kind, teaching non-non-violent Jesus.


The Jesus for whom there will be no cross, I suppose. Lookout Romans, it’s smackdown time.


The radical leftist Jesus. “After fasting for forty days, Jesus put on his beret and returned to the collective.”


The twitter gospel Jesus. But why does “sins” have to be spelled with a “z”? It’s not any shorter or easier to type on your blackberry.


The Rastafarian Jesus (I suppose). Is he actually looking at anything?


The astronaut Jesus. He’s in orbit and he’s coming back!


And ironically, maybe the most scriptural of all, the un-dead Jesus. He lives!

Now I recognize how goofy these images of Jesus are, but so are classic Victorian ones like this:

And yet, we have this one in our house and I like it. Hmm.

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Filed under Art and Faith, Christianity, humor, Internet, religion

Very Brief Thoughts on Religion and the Art of Appropriation: Or How the Post-Christendom Church Mirrors the Impulse of Postmodern Art

Are we not postmodern?


be, by Barbara Kruger

My brain often works best by comparison. In this post I want to briefly compare the postmodern impulse in art making and the post-Christendom worship of the emergent/emerging1 church. I fully admit my ideas are not fully baked, and yet the process of putting them forth might teach me a thing or two.

Somewhere in the transition from the 1960s to the late 1970s Art reached its end. The end was prefigured by such notables as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, among others. The end of art wasn’t really about the end of art, but about the end of a series of historical/cultural problems and intuitions tackled largely in succession since the Renaissance. What happened over time was a decline in interest in those issues as they either were solved (“solved” is a rather subjective term with regards to art) or they were found no longer relevant. The world changed and so did the world of art.

But art never stops. Art will emerge as long as humans exist.


Hymn, by Damien Hirst, 2000

What happened (one thing that happened) was a new impulse, that of appropriation. This impulse was already coursing through the veins of art; Picasso appropriated, Johns and Warhol appropriated, and many others. But with postmodern art artistic action began to twist free from the weight of art history and the art’s weighty lineage. Art and art history began to work more and more independently from each other. Of course that independence wasn’t complete, but art makers felt that art had become fundamentally divorced from meta-narratives. Now the appropriation of anything and everything was possible – even appropriation of that weighty lineage. In this sense art finally became art.


Portable War Memorial, by Ed Kienholz, 1968

What is meant by appropriation?

To appropriate something involves taking possession of it. In the visual arts, the term appropriation often refers to the use of borrowed elements in the creation of new work. The borrowed elements may include images, forms or styles from art history or from popular culture, or materials and techniques from non-art contexts. Since the 1980s the term has also referred more specifically to quoting the work of another artist to create a new work. The new work does not actually alter the original per se; the new work uses the original to create a new work. In most cases the original remains accessible as the original, without change.2

Key here is that last part. The “original remains accessible as the original, without change.” This is a kind of quoting without quoting; a kind of objective theft for subjective purposes. One could say it’s a synthesis, something new from something old that becomes new merely through the act of appropriation. In this way an old work of art may become a new work of art fully within a new context – and seen as a new work of art because of new ownership as it were. But this should be expected, for “there is nothing outside the text” as Jacques Derrida once said.3


After Walker Evans 2, by Sherrie Levine (1981).

Keeping this in mind I want to shift gears a bit.

Christianity has gone through (and is going through) similar changes. Christianity is one of the great meta-narratives in world history. However, many Christians (some of whom prefer the term Christ followers) have begun to twist free of their traditional moorings. They see their faith and Christianity as two different entities. Faith is no longer strictly about being a member of a particular group with its set of proscribed codes, mores, or rituals. The focus has shifted more toward Jesus and away from the historical church. Jesus has become the deconstruction force, deconstructing Christianity.


Jesus has a power lunch with the money changers?
(Why I put this picture in here I don’t know.)

If faith is a passionate, existential belief in the lordship of Jesus, then Christianity as an external religious set of practices can be other, is other. This otherness allows the multiplicity of historical and cultural expressions of Christianity to be appropriated as the “believer” sees fit. One is no longer bound by a tradition, rather by faith. Christian practices and disciplines from any branch of the church and any time period can be appropriated by the Christ follower on an as needed basis. Logically, then, practices from non-Christian sources might be appropriated as well. If being a Christ follower is no longer about religion (or being religious), then religion, as a set of optional practices and disciplines, becomes a non-threat.

More and more Christians today are seeking old, and very old, religious practices – going back to the historical church and gleaning. I assume the idea is that through the course of the modern era we may have lost some good things. I assume this is more true for Protestants than Catholics or Orthodox. The question on the table is whether these practices are meaningful and might they negatively influence one’s faith – a real fear for many Protestant apologists. I don’t have an answer for that at this time. I am both curious and wary, and certainly interested.


Christ followers walk a labyrinth

Why does this interest me? I came to a deep re-evaluation of my faith as an undergraduate (more than 20 years ago). I was an art history major, a film studies major, and part of a college ministry team in a large Baptist church. I began to have too many conflicts between my faith (which I held to be true) and the Christian culture in which I was immersed. My Christianity was deconstructing, but only because my faith was stronger. I began to see that the outward forms were of little consequence compared to my pursuit of truth and my beliefs. Interestingly art played a big part in this. Art is what helped me realize the freedom that resides at the center of the story of Jesus. I saw artmaking, which is such a natural human thing to do, chafing under the weight of Art’s meta-narrative. Breaking free did not destroy artmaking, in fact artmaking flourished. Breaking free merely lowered the dominance of the meta-narrative a few notches. I think, similarly, I knew intuitively my faith could handle some freedom.

And so I left that Christian culture behind for a while. I took a breather. But I did not leave Christ behind. In fact my faith became stronger, my theology more grounded, and my hope deeper. Now I am at the fringes of that culture again and wondering.

Modern Christ followers, many of whom are part of what is sometimes called the emerging church, are appropriating many religious practices – trying them out as it where – in much the same way that artmakers are appropriating many things from both “within” and “without” the art world. And just like with artmaking, if one’s faith is authentic then one has great freedom in one’s practices.


Image by Luke Flowers from this article

Phyllis Tickle has recently articulated the idea that the emerging church is really part of a wholesale worldwide emerging, religious and otherwise. She has also likened the shifting and changes in Christianity to be like a great rummage sale, where people sift through what is there, what has come before, what others have done, to find what they need and what they didn’t know they needed. According to Tickle these rummage sales tend to occur within Christianity about every 500 years or so. The current rummaging includes searching for spiritual practices that have been lost, long unused, or never before used in the current context(s). These practices include anything from how we “do” church, to how we pray and fellowship, to classic disiplines like solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, sacrifice, study, worship, celebration, service, confession, and submission. Most of these practices were never truly promoted or explored in my Christian upbringing, and they are large foreign concepts to a consumeristic culture.

I am not yet sold on the idea of spiritual disciplines. I am still inclined to think of a truly spiritual person as being one in whom the Spirit of God is at work – which I see as a one way street: God invading a person’s life. And I am inclined to think that one cannot move or change one’s spirituality through any action unless God initiates and completes the work. Yet, just as with all issues of God’s sovereignty and human action (and choice) there is what we know of God and what we actually experience every day. With that in view I can see spiritual disciplines as offering tremendous encouragement and I find myself increasingly curious about exploring disciplines. I also see them as being very much a matter of personal choice. Regardless, the re-emergence of disciplines and practices is evidence of a church extending beyond the modernist model of Christianity, which I see as generally positive.

1. I am purposely conflating these two terms, though many would seek to separate them, because under the umbrella of this particular topic one finds the comparison still holds true.

2. “Appropriation (art).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Sep 2008, 15:40 UTC. 17 Sep 2008

3. I believe that quote is found in Of Grammatology.

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Filed under aesthetics, Art and Faith, artmaking, Christianity, culture, religion, theology

theology and the narrative arts

[In this post I ruminate on the relationship of art to our belief, or absence of belief, in God, god, or gods. As is typical for me, my train of thought is more lurching than steady, and my end goal is more personal than pedagogical.]

Our lenses
I love Pasolini’s seminal filmIl Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964). It is a work of great and simple beauty. It is also a powerful film that flies in the face of the overly sentimentalized and often lifeless versions of Jesus’ life that came before. And yet, Pasolini, though he seems to be taking the story directly from the words on the page (the Gospel of St. Matthew), understands Christ through his own political and personal commitments. In other words, Pasolini, the devout Marxist, unabashed homosexual, and hater of the Catholic Church, saw a Christ that was thoroughly materialist (philosophically) and politically radical (of the socialist ilk).


An earthy, socialist Christ
Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus
from
Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964)

As I understand it, for Pasolini, Jesus was a kind of pre-incarnate Karl Marx (rather than the incarnate God) who challenged the status quo of his day, and died as the earliest socialist martyr. Pasolini’s belief in the non-existence of God played a big part in how he saw Jesus and why he made the film. In a sense one could say Il Vangelo secondo Matteo is a kind of materialist corrective to the church’s position.

As I said, I love Pasolini’s film, but he got it wrong. I say this because of my own beliefs about God and about Jesus which, though personal on the one hand, I believe are also objectively true. My understanding of God is integral to the set of the “lenses” through which I look at the world. In other words, the difference between me and Pasolini is not really about any of his films, rather our differences go back to our presuppositions about God, truth, and the goals of human existence – even if we may agree on many things, and no doubt I am generally in awe of him as an artist.

Certainly great works of art are not, in our experience, predicated on any particular belief about God.

The God Who Is There
I have been thinking lately (and off and on for a long time) of the role that theology plays, or does not play, in how one approaches watching a film, looking at a painting, listening to a piece of music, or reading a book. So much of what we get out of a work of art comes from what we are able to bring to it, especially what it is we want from that particular work of art, and of art in general. What we want, I believe, is deeply affected by, and even grows out of, whether or not we are convinced of the existence of God, or god, or many gods, or none at all. So much depends on whether we are convinced of some ultimate meaning in the Universe, or whether we believe there is no ultimate meaning. And so much depends on how honest, even ruthlessly honest, we are with ourselves about these issues and their implications.

I use the word theology specifically. The term “theology” is a compound of two Greek words, θεος (theos: god) and λογος (logos: rational utterance). What I am interested in is a reasoned and rational examination of God, not merely of some vague spirituality (but that’s another presupposition isn’t it). What I find critical is the blunt question: Do you (do I) believe in God? How one answers that question has profound implications.

But the question is already on the table. We have inherited it. We can’t get away from it, just as we can’t get away from a myriad of other questions. And how we live our lives, including the art we make, is directly related to our answer. Art is a part of how we live our lives and, in many ways, emerges from the very heart of the matter. This is as true for Pasolini as it is for Spielberg as it is for Tarantino.

Often a work of art has, embedded within it, the answer to the question. Sometimes that answer is obvious. More often the answer is like backstory, a kind of presupposition that sits in the background and informs the art out front, as it were.

Moral Objects
A work of art is, in some ways, a mysterious thing. Like love, we know what art is, but we can’t always nail it down and give it a clear definition and well defined boundaries. Art emerges from deep within our humanness. Every culture and society has organically produced art, that is, art which emerges naturally from withing that culture or society. When I was an art history major many years ago I was introduced to many ancient works of art, via slides of course, like this exciting number:


Seated female, Halaf; 7th–6th millennium B.C., Mesopotamia or Syria
Ceramic, paint; H. 5.1 cm, W. 4.5 c
m
Metropolitan Museum of Art

This little statuette dates from nearly nine thousand years ago. Most likely it is a symbol of fertility. And most likely it was part of the symbolic rites and proto-religious system of that time. Many thousands of figures like this one have been unearthed. This little object speaks volumes about what was important to that ancient culture, like the importance of fertility to agrarian societies, and the importance of sexuality, and the very human need to supplicate before a god for one’s well-being. It also speaks of the human tendency to create symbols and to understand the world in terms of abstractions.

What I find interesting is how ancient and deeply ingrained is the human need to grasp at metaphysical solutions to the everyday muck of life problems, fears, and desires. I also find it fascinating that humans have to make physical objects that express the metaphysical, the ontological, the teleological, etc.

Even the Israelites, who had seen the ten plagues on Egypt, who had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, who had the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke in the wilderness, who had seen the walls of Jericho miraculously fall, and who had seen many other wonders of Yahweh, still created the golden calf, and still kept idols of other gods in their houses, and still built or maintained the high places (religious sites on hilltops to worship gods other than Yahweh). Today we have our idols and gods too – witness the way we worship our sports teams, or entertainers, our possessions, ourselves, for example.

Moral Stories
What humans have always seemed to enjoy are stories of moral dilemmas played out in both mundane and fantastical ways. Consider the medieval mystery plays. These were more than merely pedagogical in nature, they were social events that brought people together and incorporated some audience participation, including talking back to the characters during the performance, etc.

I hear that in some movie theaters in other countries (I write from the U.S.) audiences are very vocal and even talk to the screen, as it were, and critique out loud the actions of the characters while the film is playing. Regardless, quiet or vocal, we all seem to gravitate toward the moral. We like passing judgment, we like justice, and, interestingly, we like wickedness too. However, without some kind of absolute from which morality emanates, having a moral opinion is, in final terms, as much comic as it is tragic.


Medieval Mystery Play

So why do we continue to hold moral positions in a morally relativistic and credulistic world? If I had a clear answer I could probably chair some philosophy or psychology department somewhere. My guess, though, is that we will invent an absolute if we can’t find one. In other words, if one doesn’t believe in moral absolutes, or in something big enough (God for example), then one will invent a substitute absolute, for example: an economic or political system, or a biological and physical set of laws, or maybe an absolute that claims there are no absolutes. Regardless, the moral story still digs deep into our souls.

Even the most mundane and vapid kinds of films have some moral content which can be understood within a larger framework of meaning. Consider this audio review of the recent film Tranformers by a pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. (The review is at the end of that post.)

Only Physical, or Metaphysical?
As I take a look at the popular art of today, that is, television shows (i.e. CSI, Survivor, et al) and film (i.e. Michael Clayton, Enchanted, et al), I see worlds presented that do not include God, or any so-called traditional god, that is, a creator deity with whom our destiny lies. These are materialistic worlds, worlds in which stuff is the ultimate reality, no final truth, and no source of meaning. Interestingly, the goals of the characters are all about meaning, and soul searching, and truth.

The characters or contestants are driven forward by things or ideas that they deem important. This is basic story telling. This is fundamental script writing. But it doesn’t make sense if there is no final meaning in the universe, otherwise it’s just a cruel game. Why should we care that someone is searching for something that doesn’t exist? Or even if, for some untenable reason, we do care, why should they search? Consider this quote regarding the modern predicament:

The quality of modern life seemed ever equivocal. Spectacular empowerment was countered by a widespread sense of anxious helplessness. Profound moral and aesthetic sensitivity confronted horrific cruelty and waste. The price of technology’s accelerating advance grew ever higher. And in the background of every pleasure and every achievement loomed humanity’s unprecedented vulnerability. Under the West’s direction and impetus, modern man had burst forward and outward, with tremendous centrifugal force, complexity, variety, and speed. And yet it appeared he had driven himself into a terrestrial nightmare and a spiritual wasteland, a fierce constriction, a seemingly irresolvable predicament.

~Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind
What does one do with this? How does one come to terms with a spiritual wasteland, or an irresolvable predicament? Is it so that rational human beings must suffer the conflict of a great desire for meaning in a world that has no ultimate meaning? Is religion an answer or a placebo? No matter what we do we do not get away from these questions. How we solve them, or come to terms with them, is a big deal (or maybe it is also meaningless). My contention is that there is a God, that that God is there, and that that God is knowable. But am I deluded? I don’t think so. And the person who thinks I am deluded believes from a place of conviction as well. I find this more than fascinating.

Michael Clayton

What most recently sparked my thinking about all this God and art stuff was a recent viewing of Michael Clayton. The story in this film plays itself out in a Western (geographically & conceptually), materialistic world where there is no transcendent god. It is a thoroughly modern view of human existence. There are no moral absolutes. And yet, Clayton is a man in search of himself. He is in desperate need of a positive existential moment. He needs to make a self-defining, self-actualizing choice so that he can move beyond his cliff-edge existence and become who he should be. He needs to make the right choice even if it is difficult and painful, even if it means giving up who he has been. There is nothing narratively original in this aspect of the story. It is as timeless as a Greek tragedy.

The story revolves around a legal battle in which a company is being sued for its harmful actions. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is the attorney working the case. Unfortunately for his law firm and for his client he is deeply troubled by the case. He feels he is defending murder, in a sense. The firm sends Michael Clayton (George Clooney) to talk with Edens. Part of that conversation goes like this:

Michael Clayton: You are the senior litigating partner of one of the largest, most respected law firms in the world. You are a legend.
Arthur Edens: I’m an accomplice!
Michael Clayton: You’re a manic-depressive!
Arthur Edens: I am Shiva, the god of death


“I am Shiva, the god of death.”

Wow. Where did that come from? Shiva, the god of death? It certainly grabs one’s attention, and it sounds rather cool, but why, in this film, out of nowhere make a reference to one of the principal deities of Hinduism? I say “nowhere” because there is no indication throughout the film that any of the characters believe in any kind of god or religion. In fact, it could be argued that the problem facing all the characters is that, because there is no god, no ultimate reality to which they are finally accountable, they are lost in a sea of moral floundering. Morality becomes personal preference, personal conviction, and power.

Making a reference to Shiva, the destroyer and transformer Hindu god, makes some sense then. First, Edens feels like a destroyer, or at least one who defends the destroyer. He has personal convictions of wrongdoing and it is eating away his soul. Second, in a world personal morality one can choose, as one needs or sees fit, any god that works for the moment, so why not Shiva? Shiva becomes Eden’s god of choice because the concept of Shiva explains his convictions somehow. Shiva is his self-image for the moment. Tomorrow it might be a different god. Maybe Vishnu or Brahma. Or maybe a Sumerian god.

Interestingly the reference to Shiva comes up again. Once Clayton confronts Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) with the fact that he has carried out Eden’s plan to expose the company, we get this bit of dialog:

Karen Crowder: You don’t want the money?
Michael Clayton: Keep the money. You’ll need it.
Don Jefferies: Is this fellow bothering you?
Michael Clayton: Am I bothering you?
Don Jefferies: Karen, I’ve got a board waiting in there. What the hell’s going on? Who are you?
Michael Clayton: I’m Shiva, the God of death.


“I am Shiva, the god of death.”

Again it’s Shiva, the god of death, and this time the line is used as a final punctuation to the film’s climax. However, unlike Eden, Clayton uses the line more for its effect on Crowder and Jefferies than from a sense of personal identification. What might that effect be? Within the context of the film, and within the context of a largely non-Hindu society, this line comes as a kind of shock, a non-sequitur of sorts, that specifically draws attention to itself. I imagine the filmmakers intend the line to read something like “I am the fictional, mythological god Shiva (in a metaphorical sense of course) who is bringing about a kind of death to you, a death that you are powerless to avoid.” In other words, we are not to assume that the filmmakers or the characters actually believe in the existence of Shiva, rather the idea of Shiva is appropriated in order to convey something meaningful.

To the person who does not believe in Shiva, such a line might merely have a kind of cool factor. To a devout Hindu this line might be somewhat disconcerting – I don’t know because I am not a Hindu. What is interesting is that none of the characters have made a conversion to any religion, or even gone through any particularly religious experience. Edens has had mental breakdown because of deep moral tensions. Clayton has crossed over into a personally powerful existential decision. But neither have obviously embraced Hinduism. (If I missed something, let me know.)

Interestingly, the narrative arc of Michael Clayton follows a traditional Western style morality tale. And yet, one could say the characters, who do not overtly believe in any god, still wrestle with issues that derive their moral content from a Judeo-Christian heritage, and then, ironically, symbolically claim a Hindu god as justification for their actions. I find this both puzzling and not surprising. It is exemplary of the pluralistic/post-modern society that I live in.

In the film’s final shot we see Clayton riding alone in the back of a taxi. It is a meditative shot. He does not look happy or fulfilled. Maybe he is, but his countenance is rather sullen. Has he saved himself by his actions? Has he found redemption for who he was? How can he be sure he has actually changed as a person? None of these questions are answered. One could say that finally he made the right decision after a life of bad ones, and that is good. But one could say that he still has not solved the deeper question of his existence.

The radical truth is that in a world without a God that stands as an ultimate source of meaning then any decision made by Clayton does not really have any meaning. His final decision, though it may resonate powerfully within us the viewers, doesn’t really matter, no matter how personally, existentially transforming it may be for him. At best one can say he made his decision, so what. Any decision would have had the same value. But, of course, we know deep down that can’t be true. We live knowing there is right and wrong, and what we believe we believe to be true.

Crimes and Misdemeanors
Consider the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s brilliant 1989 film about morality, choice, and justice. In this film Allen explores how morality flows from where one begins, that is, from the set of presuppositions one claims about God, the universe, our existence, meaning, etc. He also seriously toys with our expectations (our need) for justice to win out.

The film is also very much about the existence, or non-existence, of God, and what that means. I love this quote from Judah Rosenthal:

I remember my father telling me, “The eyes of God are on us always.” The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.

There is something both sinister and humorous about it. It also represents our modern tendency to analyze ourselves and mistrust our motives.

But there is so much more to consider in this quote and in this film. The following two part video analysis is an excellent overview of the film’s themes:

When I first saw Crimes and Misdemeanors I was both stunned and thrilled. At the end I thought “perfect”, that’s how it should end, with him getting away with murder, not because I wanted him to, but because I so expected him to get caught and I liked the irony. Allen turns everything on it head and gets us to think. Thinking is a good thing, especially about truth and morality.

Our view of God has a great deal to do with how we understand and appreciate Crimes and Misdemeanors. If there is no God are the characters and their actions meaningless? Is our desire for justice merely a temporary chemical reaction to a situation that emerged from the chance combination of sub-atomic particles? Or do we live as though our desire comes from someplace more profound?

[Side note: In Star Wars, when the Death Star blows up the planet Alderaan, do we merely observe the rearranging of material particles (something of ultimate inconsequence), or do we assume that blowing up a planet and its inhabitants is an act of evil? Get over it old man Kenobi, you moralist! That was no tremor in the force. Probably just gas.]

Finally

I am inclined to think there is no such thing as a narrative without some moral content.
Either a series of events are purely a-moral, an arbitrary grouping of cause and effect acts without meaning, or they are, in some way, the result of decisions. If decisions are involved then those actions have meaning and therefore have a moral dimension. I see narrative as being fundamentally the result of decisionsand therefore fundamentally moral.

But as soon as well make a moral claim we assume an absolute. We might say our claim is purely cultural or situational or merely a personal decision, but we don’t really live that way. When we say war is wrong, or rape is wrong, or Nazi death camps are wrong, we assume a universal. And if we claim universals then what is our foundation? This is the very point at which our belief or non-belief in God, god, or gods, has the most gravity.

Woody Allen leaves the question open in Crimes and Misdemeanors, but he is relying on the fact that we cannot. He creates in us a tension, and something to talk about. Michael Clayton leaves us somewhat satisfied, yet under its surface there is no final meaning, its only opinion. What is great about both of these films is how they tap into the very human predicament of having to sort out the deep questions of how we are to live our lives and upon what are we going to base our choices.

I can be in awe of an artist even though our beliefs about God may differ. What we have is a common humanity, which is a truly profound connection. Even so, it is worth calling out our differences as well, not for the sake of creating divisions, but of understanding each other and seeking the truth. For we are, by nature, truth seekers. But then that’s another universal I am claiming.

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