Religion in American Literature and Film?

From Long Pauses, I find an interview with the author of THE FILMGOER�S GUIDE TO GOD: I just skimmed it (and found the usual suspects there), but it made me think about the spiritual life of American cinema.

Not much jumps to mind in American cinema, except oddities such as Amadeus or Black Robe (or various tales of martyrdom). Give me time, and I’ll think of others (but none on a scale of a Tarkovsky). But I can’t think of a compelling example of the “poetry of religion” in American cinema.

As crazy as this sounds, I think spirituality comes up more often in fantasy TV shows. Buffy, for example. Star Trek, even Star Wars. (Religion is fun for teenage geeks to talk about as long as its priests have funny ears). Even the Simpsons and some of WB’s family-oriented shows. One thing about TV series is that after one or two seasons writers are scrambling around for things that haven’t been done yet. They can afford to be adventurous about storylines. I’m guessing that crime/law TV shows grapple with issues of justice, and at some point, religion must enter the picture.

It would be nice if some American filmmaker made use of some novel with semi-religious overtones (Brothers K ish). There’s a lot of religious novels in American literature (just to name an eccentric example: Old Man and the Sea).

Religious art can be “sexy” (well, in a poetic sense). Brothers Karamazov is compelling stuff for atheists and believers. The poetry of Tarkovsky’s Solaris has universal appeal. Even the writings of Catholic writers can have its decadent qualities. (Mauriac, Genet, Greene) And yet American cinema tries to be too literal, too parochial in its approach to Christianity or religion in general (See Mel Gibson’s film). American artists who made an honest effort to bring poetry to their religious sense are condemned as decadent (Martin Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ, Tony Kushner). Feel free to jump in with titles, but in American literature, religious-oriented books are segregated from other titles and even put into other bookstores (presumably because liberal humanists would have no interest in reading them).

This raises the question of belief and literary value. Critics are fond of pointing out that belief systems (politics, sexual preferences, religion) should have no impact on the overall judgment of an artistic work. However, cases where readers or viewers venture outside of their own personal belief system are becoming increasingly rare. A family values Republican is not going to watch a Tony Kushner play or read an Edmund White novel without feeling “soiled.” Although the converse may not be true, I as a secular humanist am inclined to view any recommendation to read a “religious novel” as highly suspicious (although I was always a big fan of Ingmar Bergman’s religious films). I went to a Jesuit high school and remember having Flannery O’Connor foisted on me by a didactic literature teacher. Only in a literature class at grad school, surrounded by grad students who were Jewish, radical feminists, atheist and agnostics, did I become aware of how universal her appeal (and sense of humor) was. Flannery O’Connor is a special case of course. Her lifelong struggle with lupus made spiritual questions important to her from early on. The irresistibility of her world derives from the fact she seems to be lampooning religious people at the same time she is making heavy-handed moral pronouncements. She is laughing at the shortcomings of those characters at the same time she shows great sympathy for their weaknesses. Laughter can break down many boundaries.

Literature offers opportunities to escape our trivial lives and experience the thrills of being astronauts, criminals, politicians, lovers and even spiders. Religion (especially Christianity) also concerns itself with empathy and compassion. But religion is also about declaring boundaries, blocking out temptation and condemning things that do not fit into your moral universe. In that respect, the aims of religion and Art diverge. Religion easily risks becoming another Ism that artistic works need to be judged against. Religion is about believing in one thing and believing it ardently. Art is about letting yourself (for a while at least) believe in anything.

Postscript: A great artist can suffuse a literary world with spirituality while also populating it with characters diametrically opposed to those same values without just using them as dramatic foils. I’m not talking about Darth Vader bad guys; I’m talking about Dr. Rieux of the “Plague” (the humanist doctor who cares little for religion) or Spike (the morally indifferent vampire in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or Dmitri (in Brothers Karamazov). Just as the Divine Creator is said to give mortals moral autonomy for the sake of choosing good over evil, authors succeed when they let their characters run loose, make mistakes and return as penitents.

Postscript 2: About a month after writing this essay, I encountered the incredible film, Rapture, starring Mimi Rogers. Yes, American cinema can ponder eternal questions when it wants to.

Postscript 3: See my updated thoughts.







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