Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Quantico should be cancelled

Jewish date:  5 ’Adhar Sheni 5776 (Parashath Wayyiqra’).

Today’s holidays:  Bahá’í Month of Fasting, Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Edward G. Wood (Church of the SubGenius), Bacchanalia (Roman Religion).

Greetings.

When I first saw promos for Quantico, I thought the show was nothing worthy of attention.  However, since then, accusations have been made of the show being anti-Semitic, e.g., “Major Jewish Group Demands ABC Cancel ‘Quantico’ for ‘Vicious Defamation of Jews, Israel and the IDF’”.  The Zionist Organization of America even compiled a long list of anti-Semitism and apologetics for Islamic terrorism in the show, ending it with urging readers to complain to the network responsible, ABC.  In the name of fairness, I have watched Quantico (all 12 episodes which as of this writing can be viewed by someone who is not currently paying on Hulu), and the accusations are completely true.    As I do not believe I can reasonably write a better review than the Zionist Organization of America’s, I refer my readers to their “ZOA: ABC’s Anti-Semitic Terrorism Soap-Opera “Quantico” Defames Jews & Israel, Should Be Cancelled” and urge them to follow their instructions to complain to ABC.

To the people at ABC, who are going to get a copy of this:  Quantico deserves to be cancelled.  I realize it is a piece of fiction, but in this fiction lies are presented as if they are fact.  Lies are not harmless.  These lies condemn the innocent and exculpate the guilty.  Sadly, people do believe things from fiction, even fiction as blatantly unrealistic as The X-Files.  And when people believe lies like those presented in Quantico, the result is unfair prejudice against Jews and a blindness towards Islamic terrorism.  Please do the right thing, cancel the show, and make the public apology you owe to Israel and the Jewish people.  Thanks in advance for your attention.

Peace.

’Aharon/Aaron

Friday, December 4, 2015

Everybody sucks: a theological review of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon

Jewish date:  22 Kislev 5776 (Parashath Wayeshev).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of John Damascene (Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Mechagodzilla (Church of the Subgenius), Bona Dea (ancient Roman religion).

Everybody sucks:  a theological review of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

One of the most persistent stories in the English-speaking world is the legend of King Arthur.  The most famous telling is Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (published in 1485).  Since then the legend and select parts of it have been retold many times, including:  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Idylls of the King, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (itself made into movies), Mr. Merlin, Merlin (the miniseries), Merlin (the TV series), Prince Valiant, The Once and Future King, and The Sword in the Stone.  (This list is nowhere near complete.  The lists on Wikipedia are huge.)

An aspect of the legend of King Arthur which is often not explicitly stated—and yet is relevant to this blog—is that it is a Christian story.  Arthur is a Christian king supported by Christian knights.  One thread of the story is the quest to find the Holy Grail (the cup which Jesus drank from in at the Last Supper), humorously depicted in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Even if someone interprets the legend in such a way to downplay the religious aspect—and many interpreters do that—the Christian nature of Arthur and his court remains as a subtext.

Every interpretation the legend gives it a new spin, and eventually a Neopagan interpretation was produced in the form of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, a rewriting according to Neopagan matriarchal pseudo-history.  The spin was novel enough that the book was on The New York Times bestseller list, and a miniseries was made based on the book.  All the well-known elements of the story (and even some lesser-known elements) remain intact, just reworked to fit a different set of assumptions.  Rather than putting Arthur in some idealized British past age, the story is set in Britain not long after the Romans have left.  At the start of the story, the island is a patchwork of small kingdoms and tribes.  There is no overall unity, and there is constant threat of invasion and war.  Avalon is recast as a pagan religious site, populated mostly by priestesses and their acolytes studying to be priestesses.  The Lady of the Lake becomes the high priestess, and the Merlin the high priest.  (The definite article is not a typo.  Two Merlins, Taliesin and his successor, Kevin, appear in the story.)  The whole plot deals with the struggle between paganism and Christianity in Britain.  Christianity has already become the favored religion in many courts, and it continues to spread.  As paganism is abandoned, Avalon slowly slips into the mists and away from the rest of the world; it may only be reached deliberately by magic.  In this religiously divided world, all the major characters belong to one religion or another, a few being pagans pretending to be Christians or religiously confused.  (Other religions are somehow absent.)

Morgaine (as in Morgaine le Fey) is promoted to central character and becomes a pagan priestess of Avalon, eventually becoming the high priestess.  Arthur becomes king by “sacred marriage”; he sleeps with his half-sister Morgaine as a proxy for the Goddess and marries the land.  (That business about him marrying the land is not a typo.)  Arthur has the problem of trying to satisfy both a Christian aristocracy and pagan peasants.  (Or so we are told.  Much is written about the aristocracy, but peasants receive little screen time.)  When Arthur gets too Christian under the influence of his wife Gwenhwyfar and thus fails to live up to the pagan priestesses’ hopes, Morgaine plots his downfall according the cycle that sacred kings are supposed to undergo:  they reign for a time under the consent of the real, female ruler, and when they falter, they are ritually killed and replaced.  (See The Golden Bough.)

The writer displays a consistent hatred for Christianity.  The pagans repeatedly claim that all gods are the same god—a typical Neopagan claim—but this claim runs afoul of the fact that Christians for the most part do not believe this, both in the book and real life.  It should go without saying that the Neopagan claim of the existence of a goddess who is all goddesses has even less Christian acceptance.  There is a little lip service towards ecumenicism (e.g., Taliesin claims to have attended mass and taken communion), but Christians get depicted badly, and the more dedicated they are to Christianity, the worse they are depicted.  Thus Christian priests and nuns are depicted as mean, rigid, life-hating, patriarchal people.  Christians are intolerant, obsessed with sin, and hypocritical, especially about sex.  One cannot even finish reading a sentence about one of these people without feeling revulsion.  Only by embracing Neopagan ideals can a Christian gain favor in the eyes of the author.  Very prominently, Gwenhwyfar is so seriously Christian that she pushes Arthur to Christianize himself, his court, and by extension Britain—and she is treated for the most part as the enemy.  However, when she slips up and commits adultery or at least emotional intimacy with Lancelet—behavior which is acceptable to Neopagans but not Christians—and maybe feels a bit ecumenical is she treated sympathetically.  Symmetrically, Kevin starts off as a good (though secret) pagan, completely approved by the author, but then he decides that the way to deal with the Christianization of Britain is to use pagan religious articles in Christian ceremonies—which is treated as unconscionably evil.

Bradley also goes out of her way to make Christians look like a bunch of idiots.  Morgaine steps in when Kevin tries to use pagan religious articles in a Christian ceremony and turns the experience into a full-blown ecstatic pagan ceremony.  The Christians are unable to comprehend what has really happened, so they interpret it as a Christian revelatory experience involving the Holy Grail.  Many of the knights then set out on a fruitless quest to find the Grail.  If this makes no sense to you, do not be surprised.  It makes no sense in context either.

If this negative treatment of Christians sounds familiar, I have written reviews of books betraying such attitudes before.  Philip Pullman created his own deliberately perverse version of Christianity for His Dark Materials, and Ayn Rand depicted everyone who is not selfish as contemptible.  The technique is simple:  portray the hated group in a negative light at all times, thus making the favored group look good.  The technique is purely rhetorical, not rational or logical.  A fictional story is not constrained to be realistic.  There are some Christians who are jerks in real life, but when Christians are consistently jerks without a good reason for all the Christians in the setting to be jerks, the story comes off as biased.

To be fair, Bradley is under no delusion that being a pagan automatically makes someone good and pure.  (Contrast Pullman and Rand, who are that delusional.)  But Bradley goes overboard in depicting pagans as something other than idealized saints.  The central pagan character, Morgaine, wavers a good deal in her devotion to the Goddess and spends a number of years completely derelict in her duties.  She sleeps regularly with Kevin without the benefit of marriage, and then later has an affair with her stepson Accolon; the latter is rationalized by him being a pagan and them claiming to do so for religious reasons.  She sends Accolon to kill Arthur for abandoning paganism, but Arthur wins the battle and kills Accolon.  For Kevin’s treason, Morgaine orders the young priestess Nimue to seduce Kevin to return him to Avalon for execution.  While Nimue is successful, she falls in love with Kevin in the process; overcome by guilt, she commits suicide.  (What?  Was sending an assassin with a sword too hard?)  As a heroine, Morgaine leaves a lot to be desired—and she is arguably the best portrayed pagan in the entire book.  The others are no better morally.  (Do not get me started on Morgause, who abandons all principle and practices blatantly black magic.)

Even bizarre jumps of logic are not limited to Christians.  Morgaine has her own episode at the end of the story in which she looks upon the Christians around her and finally sees something positive.  Her beloved Lancelet, at the end of his life, has retired to a monastery and was ordained as a priest shortly before his death.  And Morgaine herself sees enough of paganism among nuns—the only time nuns are portrayed positively—with their communal living and their veneration of Mary and Bridget.  Why this suffices her is never stated; anyone with a basic knowledge of Christianity knows that even Mary, despite her high status, is not considered a goddess, while God is most certainly considered a god.  Thus it takes great intellectual dishonesty to see pagan duotheism in Roman Catholicism. 

Perhaps the most bizarre jump of logic is the one that isn’t made.  The way to keep a religion going is to encourage people to believe in it and practice it.  But Morgaine and her fellow priestesses barely do so.  Morgaine on a number of occasions warns Arthur to keep his pagan coronation oaths, and when he fails to do so, Morgaine plays politics and seeks his downfall—as if killing Arthur would show that paganism is the truth.  Never do the pagan priestesses even discuss trying to spread paganism.  There are no pagan missionaries trying to show the people that paganism is the truth in any way, shape or form.   Since the Christians, unlike the pagans, evangelize, it is little wonder that they win out in the end.

Where The Mists of Avalon fails miserably as a polemic is that it never shows what is so great about paganism or how it is better than Christianity.  The focus on paganism in this book is whether or not it is going to survive.  Why it should survive is not really dealt with.  Demonstrating the truth of paganism is not considered at all.  Even as a moral system, no attempt is ever made to show that paganism is better (according to any criteria) than Christianity.  Hence, as accordance with the title of this review, everybody sucks.

Overall classification:  Pretentious, dreary fantasy novel.

Theological rating:  D.

Friday, October 16, 2015

A theological review of M*A*S*H

Jewish date:  3 Marḥeshwan 5776.

Today’s holidays:  Feast of Ida Craddock (Thelema), Feast Day of St. Mrs. Emma Peel/St. Lynne England (Church of the Subgenius).

Greetings.

Sorry I have not posted in over a year.  I got a full-time job, and do not have a lot of free time for writing these days.  Other things going on in my life have also reduced my available writing time.  One of these things has been my mother’s untimely departure from this world a year ago.  As part of the mourning process, I felt the need to write a theological review relevant to her.  And so I spent a lot of time reviewing the relevant material and (even harder) writing the review included below.

Peace.

’Aharon/Aaron



A theological review of M*A*S*H
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

This review is dedicated to the memory of my late mother, Carol Jeanne Adelman, whose favorite show was M*A*S*H.

The original incarnation of M*A*S*H was a novel by Richard Hooker which came out in 1968.  A movie version was released in 1970.  The movie was adapted into a TV series which ran for 11 seasons from 1972 to 1983.  There are also a number of sequels to the original books and a TV series sequel to the movie (Trapper John, M.D.).  The TV series spawned two sequels:  AfterM*A*S*H, which lasted a season and a half, and W*A*L*T*E*R, which never made in past the pilot.  All three versions of M*A*S*H (but not their sequels) are set during the Korean War (1950 to 1953) and deal primarily with the lives of doctors, nurses, and other personnel at the 4077th MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital).  The book, the movie, and the earliest seasons of the original series were released during the Vietnam War (1955 to 1975), and the anti-war attitudes that many Americans had at the time are reflected in the writing, especial for the TV show.

No version of M*A*S*H is primarily theological fiction.  The book and the movie are essentially comedies focusing on the crazy things done by the doctors and the nurses at MASH 4077, but at a relatively shallow level.  As such, in the movie religion is treated as something to laugh at (along with pretty much everything else in the film).  Hence Captain Frank Burns’s prayers are mocked by his tent-mates; only later do we find out that he is morally reprehensible and worthy of our hatred.  And Father Mulcahy is depicted as weak and fairly insignificant.  There really is not much to analyze.

The TV series, however, delves a lot more into the backgrounds and thinking of the characters and explores why they do crazy things.  War is presented as horrifically ugly.  War wrecks people’s lives and often ends them.  It is brutal for those whose country the war occurs in and those who serve in the armies fighting the war.  The situation is so bad that it is frequently referred to metaphorically as “Hell”.  Indeed, in “The General’s Practitioner”, Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce argues that war is worse than Hell; only sinners go to Hell, while war is full of innocent bystanders.

Faced with everything from primitive living conditions to unpalatable food to bureaucracy to forced separation from their loved ones to the real possibility of being killed, the personnel of the 4077th, paradoxically, deal with the insanity around them by acting in an insane manner.  It is the insanity of the situation and the insane things which the characters do which are the focus of the humor of the show; the war itself and explorations into the thinking of the characters—even the reasons for insanity as a psychological self-defense mechanism—are never treated as funny.

Given the TV series’ tendency to delve into the thinking of the characters, it is no surprise that their thoughts on religion get discussed over the span of 11 seasons.  In fact, the majority of episodes have some sort of religious reference.  There are so many religious references—your humble blogger’s notes on the subject run to 21 pages—that detailing them all is not compatible with keeping this review to a reasonable length.  (I apologize for not analyzing all the religiously themed jokes.)  However, in all this data, there is a very consistent pattern on how religion is depicted:  Religion is presented very positively.  Or to be more precise, religion done correctly is presented very positively.  Abuses of religion—the sorts of things which seriously religious people in real life often complain about—on the other hand, are depicted negatively.  To illustrate, let us examine two central characters, Father Mulcahy and Major Burns.

Father Mulcahy:  The most obvious manifestation of religion—and example of religion done correctly—is Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy, a Catholic priest and the camp chaplain.  At times he seems naïve, but the writers had a lot of fun expanding on his character to the extent that this review cannot truly do him justice, though the general idea seems to be that he should be a holy, yet human, character.  In the episode “Heroes”, he relates the following origin story to the dying boxer “Gentleman” Joe Cavanaugh:

I’m sure people tell you this all the time, but you’ve always been quite a hero to me.  Actually, when I was growing up I had two heroes, no offense:  you and Plato.  I know that sounds strange.  I loved Plato’s notion of an ideal plane.  I could even picture it:  rambling fields and trees, sort of like the suburbs, but in the sky.  I wished I could live there myself.  I suppose that’s because my real life was less than ideal.  I was small and wore thick glasses, probably from reading too much Plato.  And I was an easy target for the neighborhood kids.  I didn’t even try to fight back.  I didn’t think fisticuffs were very, oh, Platonic.  Well, when I was 12, my father dragged me to see my first fight.  It was you versus Tony Giovanetti.  By the ninth round, you were punching him at will.  The crowd was yelling, “Put him away!  Put him away!”  My father was one of the loudest.  All of a sudden, you stopped punching.  You stepped back, and you told the ref to stop the fight, because the man had been hurt enough.  And I realized for the first time that it was possible to defend myself and still maintain my principles.  If Plato had been a boxer, I suspect he’d have fought like you.  That was when I made up my mind to keep one foot in the ideal plane and the other foot in the real world.

Father Mulcahy at MASH 4077 works hard to live up to his ideals.  He takes his duty as a priest and the teachings of the Gospels and church seriously, with an emphasis on the most compassionate teachings of Jesus.  Besides holding services, he hears confessions, performs last rites, and prays for his comrades.  He is compassionate to almost everyone.  He is quite tolerant of followers of other religions (“38 Across”, “Ping Pong”, “Exorcism”).  Father Mulcahy helps out at a local orphanage, and eagerly volunteers to help out at camp as necessary.  For an extreme example, in “The Yalu Brick Road” most of the camp is sick with salmonella, and Father Mulcahy—one of the few who are unaffected—happily performs even the most menial chores.  He is also quite willing to stand up for his principles, despite the costs and risks.  He refuses to compromise the sanctity of the confessional, even though it means he has to retrieve stolen sodium pentathol hidden under a bell himself (with the help of Corporal Maxwell Klinger) at risk to his life.  The sanctity of the confessional reappears in “Identity Crisis”, in which Father Mulcahy has to coerce a soldier to abandon a plan to go back to the United States by stealing the identity of a dead comrade—again without publicizing the contents of a confession.  In “A Holy Mess”, Father Mulcahy defends a fugitive soldier’s right to sanctuary in the mess tent—then being used for services—and when appeals to higher-ups deny this right, he has the guts to rebuke the fugitive for attempting to use a loaded gun to get sent back home and grabs the weapon away from him.  

It would have been easy for the writers to write Father Mulcahy as a cliché of a religious character, either making him blandly faultless or hypocritical.  But in the TV series, as previously noted, the writers put a lot of effort into making Father Mulcahy a human character.  So while he is an excellent priest, he is more than just a priest.  For example, he took after “Gentleman” Joe and took up boxing and even taught it in seminary (“Requiem for a Lightweight”).  Appropriately for a comedy show, Father Mulcahy has a sense of humor and regularly trades jokes with Hawkeye—both often referencing religious ideas in the jokes.  (He also has the humility to be amused and not really offended by the Father Mulcahy sound-alike contest in “Movie Night”.)  He plays the piano.  And like many of the characters at the 4077th, he drinks, bets, and plays poker.  (In “Our Finest Hour” he claims he finds the latter relaxing.)

Father Mulcahy is human enough to occasionally show some flaws in his character.  He is disappointed about not being promoted from second lieutenant to captain and makes a fuss about it (“An Eye for a Tooth”, “Captains Outrageous”).  (He is eventually successful.)  On a number of occasions, he gets angry and sometimes even shows it when rebuking sinners.  (Arguably anger is not the best thing for a religious paragon to show, but it is still a natural thing for a human to do.)  In one episode (“Dear Sis”), a wounded soldier insists on being examined by a doctor immediately during triage, and when Father Mulcahy tries to convince him to be patient, the soldier hits the priest.  Instinctively, Father Mulcahy hits back, and he is so upset by what he has done that he spends the rest of the episode trying to atone.

In short, while Father Mulcahy is a holy man, he nevertheless remains a man.

Major Burns:  Just as M*A*S*H has a realistic religious person, it also has an example of a religious hypocrite in Major Frank Burns.  Major Burns portrays himself as an upstanding Christian.  He reads his Bible regularly.  He speaks constantly about morality and the sanctity of marriage.  These do not make up for the fact that what he practices is anything but what Jesus actually preached.  He lies, he cheats, and he steals.  (E.g., in “The Gun”, Frank steals a colonel’s antique gun, passes it off as his own to Margaret, denies it, lets Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reilly take the blame, and only reluctantly returns the gun back under threat of being exposed.)  He treats almost every other character in the series with contempt and lacks sympathy for anyone.  He is greedy (“Major Fred C. Dobbs”, “Movie Tonight”). He is ill-tempered, with him insulting someone in probably every episode in which he appears.  He hates non-Christians (including atheists) and even tries to stop the practice of religions other than Christianity (“Life with Father”, “The Abduction of Margaret Houlihan”, “The Korean Surgeon”, “Exorcism”, “38 Across”, “Ping Pong”, “Love Story”, “Dr. Pierce and Mr. Hyde”).  He is also ignorant that Greek Orthodoxy is a form of Christianity (“Private Charles Lamb”).  Most infamously, for much of his time at the 4077th he has an affair with Major Margaret Houlihan and tries to hide it from his wife Louise.

To be fair, real-life humans (including this review’s author) are generally a bit hypocritical.  It is very easy for one to have high ideals.  Living up to those ideals is another matter entirely.  Many of us recognize that we do not truly live up to our ideals.  Many of us who recognize our shortcomings make some attempt to do better.  What makes Frank particularly hypocritical is that  he never gets very far in trying to do better.  He always remains rotten to the core.  He has a few moments where he shows a more human, sympathetic side, but his gains are always wiped out by the next episode.  He shows little in the way of guilt and only admits wrongdoing if he is caught.  “Repentance” is not in his vocabulary.  

Other characters:  This bifurcated depiction of religion is carried over to other characters as well.  No other regular character is as visibly religious as Father Mulcahy or consistently evil as Frank Burns, but while religion-related jokes are abundant (e.g., Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake claiming “I avoid church religiously” in “Operation Noselift”), making fun of religion is conspicuously absent; making fun of hypocrisy and evil is constant.  No one makes fun of Captain B.J. Hunnicutt for being a Presbyterian or Radar for being a Methodist.  No one even makes fun of Klinger for wavering between atheism and Catholicism.  (In “The Kids” he is caught praying and claims he gave up atheism for Lent.)  Even the bomber who cracks and believes himself to be Jesus is treated sympathetically (“Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?”).

Treated less sympathetically is Margaret, Frank’s partner in faithlessness.  She starts off as co-antagonist along with Frank and is likewise treated unsympathetically by the writers.  However, once she dumps Frank and gets friendlier, the writers make her a more sympathetic character.  (She is not alone in such treatment.  Major Charles Emerson Winchester III starts off as a selfish jerk, but he becomes more friendly and compassionate as the series progresses.  Accordingly, the writers are more inclined to depict him positively as time goes on.)

The positive depiction of Father Mulcahy as a good religious figure extends to how the other characters view him.  The vast majority of characters treat him with at least deference—including the black market (“Out of Gas”)—regardless of their religion or lack thereof.  Father Mulcahy is generally well liked and respected.  Some characters (such as Radar and Colonel Sherman T. Potter) are on their best behavior around him or apologize if they are not.  Whenever Father Mulcahy feels that he does not make enough of a difference at the 4077th, Hawkeye—a secularist by all appearances—steps up and praises him for being an inspiration for his “decency” and “humanity”.

Frank Burns, on the other hand, is the regular character most hated by everyone else at the 4077th, with even Margaret periodically getting angry at him and eventually dumping him for Lieutenant Colonel Donald Penobscot.  When Frank is eventually transferred back to the USA, no one is sorry to see him go.

The style of humor presented in M*A*S*H is arguably socially functional.  People’s religious beliefs and practices are frequently serious business—whether or not we agree with said beliefs and practices.  Many people’s religion has deep emotional and even rational roots, letting them make some sense of the World.  Religion also helps many people live more moral lives (according to many common views of what constitutes “moral”).  Religion helps many people connect with others or find some sense of purpose or meaning.  Whether or not one agrees with other people’s religions, they are not jokes.  Laughing at religion, especially religion which brings out the best in people, is thus mean-spirited and a slap in the face of people trying to do good—something to avoid.

Laughing at evil people, on the other hand, is a time-honored tradition.  Many of those reading this will recall cartoons from childhood in which bad things happened to characters who deserve them.  Frank Burns is the live-action equivalent of Elmer Fudd or Sylvester.  As an unwavering evil (and a mediocre doctor), he is constantly on the receiving end of insults, practical jokes, and undisguised contempt from all sides—and we are meant to side against him and find what happens to him funny.  Little wonder also that Frank did not last the entire series; without the ability to grow, there was only so much they could do with his character.  He is the example of what is generally agreed how we should not behave.

Hopefully one can learn from M*A*S*H something about what deserves and does not deserve to be treated as funny.

Friday, July 4, 2014

I find George Lucas’s lack of faith disturbing: a theological review of the Star Wars movies

Jewish date:  6 Tammuz 5774 (Parashath Balaq).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of St. Elizabeth Montgomery (Church of the SubGenius), Founder’s Day (some form of Neopaganism).



I find George Lucas’s lack of faith disturbing:  a theological review of the Star Wars movies
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

WARNING:  SPOILER ALERT!  THE FOLLOWING REVIEW ASSUMES A DECENT KNOWLEDGE OF THE STAR WARS MOVIES.  IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THEM, YOU SHOULD RUSH TO SEE THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY AS SOON AS REALISTICALLY POSSIBLE; YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT.

NOTE:  This review only covers the prequel and original trilogies (Episodes I-VI).  There is a lot more Star Wars material, but 1) none of it has the same level of canonicity, 2) that which your humble blogger has copies of does not substantially change the conclusions of this review, 3) a sequel trilogy (Episodes VII-IX) is in the works, and preexisting materials set after the original trilogy have been relegated to an alternate, non-canon timeline, and 4) the Star Wars Extended Universe is not sufficiently significant to be of great importance to the Divine Misconceptions project, and 5) obtaining and reading everything in the Star Wars Extended Universe would put off this review by several years.

One could have easily foreseen a theological review of the Star Wars Universe coming, even without the prescient powers of Palpatine/Darth Sidious; Star Wars is too big a cultural phenomenon and too fun for me to ignore.  (And, yes, there is a Star Trek review, or maybe a set of reviews, in the works, too.)  Before I start nitpicking on specifically religious issues, I think it fair to say that the original trilogy of Star Wars movies (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) got so much right in terms of plot, characters, dialog, acting, excitement, and effects (even before computer-generated images) to make them a real pleasure to watch and to make it easy to forgive anything done wrong in them.  (There are good reasons why there are dedicated Star Wars fans.)  The prequel trilogy (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith), on the other hand, while having largely good effects, suffers from obviously bad writing and acting (e.g., Jar Jar Binks, practically everything said in the romance of Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker, and how Anakin turned to the Dark Side).  All of this is well-known to any Star Wars fan.

Religion—the general topic of this blog—is not a major concern in the Star Wars saga.  Most of the characters, major and minor, are not religious in thought, beliefs, or behavior.  With few exceptions—the biggest one being a rather strange exception at that—they do not reference religion directly at all.  This is extremely surprising.  Consider these facts:

1) The population of the galaxy is about 1017 beings (according to Wookieepedia).  Even if we disregard this source, real galaxies have on the order of 1011 stars, so even if the average population of a star system is very small (say, 1), that still makes for a huge number of people.

2) Humans make up a large proportion of the population (also according to Wookieepedia, but, yes, a whole lot of the characters in all six films are humans).  So expect even with a very low estimate of the population of the galaxy (1011), there should still be a huge number of specifically human people.

3) Humans being overwhelmingly secular in science-fiction is a cliché.  Humans in real life tend to pay at least lip service to a religion.  According to Wikipedia—yes, I am being lazy on my research here—2.01% of real-life humans are “atheists” and 16% more are “non-religious”.  To the credit of the people who wrote the relevant article, it discusses the difficulties of counting atheists, e.g., being an “atheist” is not the same thing as dissociating oneself from a religious group or abstaining from all religious activity.  But even assuming every single “atheist” and “non-religious” person is completely non-religious, that would leave almost 82% of humanity as more or less religious.

One would reasonably expect with all these humans populating the galaxy, there should be a huge amount of religious activity.  Yet there is very little to show of all this.  Maybe there is something about the sorts of characters which get screen time which tends to make them not religious.  Bounty hunters, gangsters, gamblers, smugglers, and anyone living in Mos Eisley (the “wretched hive of scum and villainy”) might not be good candidates for religiousness, but what would be implausible about people joining the Rebellion out of religious feelings of the need to fight oppression and injustice?  Of all the central characters, only C3PO—a character who is more comic relief than anything else—shows any religious sentiment:  he exclaims “Thank the Maker!” in A New Hope, but that is the full extent of his religiosity.  The only overtly religious characters are the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, and then not for long.  When they first see C3PO, they mistake him for a god.  They bow and chant to him, and they wish to sacrifice Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca to him.  Luke then uses his Jedi powers to fake a miracle to convince the Ewoks that such a sacrifice is offensive to their new deity, so they release their captives.  After this, any visible religious activity by the Ewoks ceases.  That the Ewoks practice a religion at all may be due to the cliché that low-technology cultures are more religious and superstitious that high-technology cultures.  George Lucas largely follows the common science-fiction cliché that people in high-technology cultures have no need for religion.

The only thing actually identified as a “religion” in the movies is the belief system/philosophy/praxis of the Jedi.  The Jedi do have some of the trappings of a religion:  a temple, mental discipline, and a code of behavior.  What passes for Jedi theology, on the other hand, will strike those who subscribe to an Abrahamic religion as strange.  No god—or even karma—is ever mentioned, but instead the Jedi believe in the Force, an “energy field” generated by life which permeates the Universe.  The Force behaves rather like modern magic:  by properly directing one’s feelings and beliefs, one can use it to accomplish superhuman feats.  The most visually obvious of these—besides being able to fight with lightsabers—is telekinesis (moving objects at a distance).  Also featured are the ability to control the minds of others (as in “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”), clairvoyance (seeing things at a distance), prescience (seeing the future), and telepathy.  Note that while prescience in the Star Wars saga is often labeled “prophecy”, no mention is ever made of Divine communication (which is characteristic of prophecy in Abrahamic religions).  The Jedi can survive death in the form of a ghost, but this is not a Divine or karmic reward for living a good life; it is the result of a long-term project of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi.

Membership in the Jedi Order is not open to everyone.  All life in the galaxy has obligate symbiotic microbes known as “midi-chlorians”.  The more midi-chlorians one has in one’s body, the more one is able to use the Force.  As using the Force is what the Jedi are all about, only those with high midi-chlorian levels are eligible to become Jedi—and even then, maybe not.  Objection is made to training Anakin Skywalker and later his son Luke for them being too old.  Clearly the Jedi want to recruit only those who will be able to complete the training and perform their duties.  Issues such as belief or having the right lineage are never mentioned and seem to be irrelevant.

The Force has two “sides”, the Light Side and the Dark Side.  These two sides do not differ merely in qualities, unlike yin and yang or the ancient Greek elements.  It is the morality of the two sides of the Force which is constantly emphasized.  Thus morality in the Star Wars universe is presented in dualistic terms:  there are two—and only two—sides.  The Light Side of the Force is good, and the Dark Side is evil.  Likewise, those who ally themselves with the Light Side, such as the Jedi and later the Rebels, are good, while those who ally themselves with the Dark Side are evil.  For the sake of this moral symmetry, the Jedi have a dark equivalent, the Sith.  The Sith have all the same powers as the Jedi, the difference in their technique being that the Jedi try to maintain emotional self-control, while the Sith channel their negative emotions into Force effects.  For no apparent reason, the Sith are limited to two at any time, a master (in this case Palpatine/Darth Sidious) and a pupil (successively Darth Maul, Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus, and Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader); the Jedi, on the other hand, can exist in any number.

The upshot of this built-in morality is that characters who are somehow morally “gray” are forced to choose a side (as do Han Solo and Lando Calrissian), be minor characters, or die.  There is, in fact, only one important character who manages to maintain any substantial degree of moral grayness:  Anakin Skywalker, later known as Darth Vader.  He merits such an exception, because he is the central character of the series and thus needs to undergo character development.  Anakin undergoes a two-part moral transformation:

1) In the prequel trilogy, Anakin starts off as an innocent slave child thrust into the world of the Jedi.  Once he is freed, he lives under an increasingly large amount of stress.  He is traumatized by war, terrified by prescient and clairvoyant visions of tragedy, and trying to keep his forbidden marriage a secret.  To make it worse, he is too emotionally immature and unstable to properly deal with all this, so he eventually breaks and embraces the Dark Side under the influence of Palpatine/Darth Sidious.  This is handled with all the grace and beauty of a novice swimmer doing a bellyflop (like so much in the prequel trilogy).  The sane and psychologically realistic way of handling this transition would have been to have Anakin gradually rationalize increasingly worse behaviors as he fights in the Clone Wars, only formally embracing the Dark Side after doing something abominable for the sake of the Republic.  What he actually does is irrationally panic over a vision that his wife Padmé will die in childbirth and stupidly turn to Palpatine/Darth Sidious on the unsubstantiated claim that he has the power to save her—which he fails to do.  There are people who convert irrationally or quickly in real life, but few who do it as irrationally and quickly as Anakin.

2) In the original trilogy, the conversion of Darth Vader is handled much more credibly.  I call him “Darth Vader” at this point, because at the start of the original trilogy he has given himself completely to the Dark Side and no longer identifies himself as Anakin Skywalker.  Indeed, Obi Wan Kenobi even tells Luke that Vader murdered Anakin, later insisting this to be true “from a certain point of view.”  Vader is a paragon of principled evil, efficient and merciless to anyone who stands between him and completion of his goals.  This includes a number of minions he kills for failure by using the Force to choke them.  He even blows up the inhabited planet of Alderaan as part of his efforts to crush the Rebellion.  And yet this monster is not irredeemably evil.  He has a weakness:  his son Luke Skywalker, who is studying to become a Jedi.  Palpatine’s reaction to discovering that Vader has a son is to wish the son dead.  Vader, on the other hand, is pleased to learn of Luke’s existence and rationalizes that he wishes to turn him to the Dark Side.  Vader makes this intention clear to Luke, even when fighting him; he even wishes that they rule the galaxy together.  Even though that encounter is a failure (which is to be expected, since Vader cuts off Luke’s hand), Vader tries again at their next encounter, not putting in the effort needed to strike Luke down, instead losing a hand in the fight and being prepared to let Luke strike him down and take his place as the Sith apprentice.  When Luke remains steadfast with the Light Side, Palpatine tries killing Luke by zapping him with electricity.  Unable to bear the sight of Luke screaming in pain, Vader kills Palpatine, thus saving Luke, even though he mortally wounds himself in the process.  Vader dies redeemed and reconciled to his son.  This is the way real-life conversion frequently works:  small stirrings which could initially be overlooked build until the conversion manifests itself openly.  Kudos to George Lucas for getting this right.

Many religions have a concept that there is a war between the forces of good and evil, and the war may be to some degree predestined.  This naturally leads to the possibility of foreseeing some aspect of the battles that lie ahead.  In the prequel trilogy, this takes the form of the prediction that Anakin Skywalker is the chosen one who will bring “balance” to the Force.  None of the Jedi foresee what really happens, but Palpatine/Darth Sidious might.  Somewhat more useful foresight occurs in the original trilogy.  Darth Vader may foresee a showdown coming in The Empire Strikes Back, but the second half of Return of the Jedi is filled with foresight of the final showdown between Luke, Vader, and Palpatine.  Not only all three of them know it is coming, but so do Yoda and Obi Wan.  Vader sets things up so the meeting can occur, and Luke, Jesus-like, walks willingly into the trap, believing that there is still good in Vader and hoping that he will come to embrace it.  The only thing no one really seems to know reliably is what the outcome will be.  Palpatine is genuinely shocked that Vader betrays him.

Less common in religions (if it exists at all) is the idea that good and evil exist in balance.  The way things normally work is that the forces of good are ultimately more powerful that the powers of evil—the opposite of balance.  A true balance between good and evil would require them to be equally powerful—an idea which is downright heretical in any mainstream Abrahamic religion, but a situation akin to the moral theory of The Dark Crystal, where good + evil = perfection.  Obi Wan in Revenge of the Sith bemoans to Anakin that he was supposed to bring balance to the Force by eliminating the Sith, only for Anakin to instead become a Sith.  But arguably Anakin actually fulfilled his destiny in the prequel trilogy.  At the start of The Phantom Menace, there were a large number of Jedi, but only two Sith (Sidious and Maul).  The balance was tilted severely towards the Light Side.  By the end of Revenge of the Sith, the two remaining Sith, Sidious and Vader, had destroyed all of the Jedi except two:  Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi.  With equal numbers of Jedis and Sith, the balance in the Force was restored.

This makes for an inconvenient implication for the original trilogy.  Near the end of Return of the Jedi, Vader kills Palpatine and turns to the Light Side, dying soon afterwards himself.  This leaves one Jedi and zero Sith left alive.  This situation is as lop-sided as possible.  The prequel trilogy made evil a necessity, completely on-par with good.  Lop-sidedness is intolerable, so Vader is guilty of abandoning his duty.  And George Lucas is guilty of not properly figuring out the “balance” issue before he made the prequel trilogy.

WARNING:  SPECULATION AHEAD.

By this point, everyone knows that Disney, which bought the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas, is working on continuing the movie series with Episodes VII-IX.  This brings us a new hope (however small) for a fuller picture of religion in the galaxy, especially after the fall of the Empire.

At the very least, I hope that the problem of the “balance” of the Force will be addressed.  The easiest way would be to reveal that the original prediction was simply wrong or even fake.  Perhaps it was all part of Palpatine’s machinations, based on his own prescience, to make sure that the unstable Anakin Skywalker would be in place to turn to the Dark Side.  Palpatine was evil and skilled enough to create a civil war to manipulate the entire galaxy and seize control; faking a prophecy would not be beyond him.

A deeper alternative, however, would be to explore what the “Light Side” and “Dark Side” really are.  Are they really good and evil, respectively?  Or do they perhaps represent qualities which often, but do not necessarily, lead to good and evil?  Could there be evil Jedi who despite emotional serenity nevertheless deliberately commit acts of evil?  Could there be good Sith who take all their anger and rage and use it to fight injustice?  If so, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader as a ghost may return to fulfill his destiny in a way that no one foresaw, to bring balance to the Force, not by balancing good against evil, but by training a new generation of Sith who use their powers for good, thus balancing out the new generation of Jedi which everyone Luke Skywalker to train.  Besides taking the Star Wars Universe in an interesting direction, this would have the advantage of allowing Anakin to continue appearing as the central character and continue his moral development.

Overall classification:  Light science-fiction/fantasy/adventure movies.

Theological rating:  D, as the religious situation as depicted is difficult to believe and clichéd, plus Jediism does not reflect real-life religions well.  However, this series of movies is scheduled for expansion.  Disney is advised to fix the “balance” problem and fill in the holes left by Lucas.  It is entirely feasible to redeem the series theologically.


Note:  Credit goes to Darth Vader for inspiring the title of this review.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What does the Creator want?: a review of Noah (2014 film)

Jewish date:  8 ’Iyyar 5774 (evening) (Parashath BeHar Sinay).

Today’s holidays:  Day 23 of the ‘Omer (Judaism), Feast Day of St. Peter Lorre (Church of the SubGenius).

What does the Creator want?:  a review of Noah (2014 film)

by Aaron Solomon Adelman

The story of Noaḥ (Noah) is one of the most familiar stories in the Hebrew Bible.  This is probably because it is in the early chapters of the first book, Genesis, so  it is one of the most likely to be read, especially by people who fail to read very far in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Due its familiarity, it is periodically dramatized and adapted.  Already on this blog I have reviewed Noah’s Ark (1999 miniseries) and the quasi-adaptation Evan Almighty.  Considering the publicity and number of reviews of the recent Noah movie (titled המבול, “The Flood” here in Israel), I could not ignore it.  As with previous reviews, the story of Noaḥ will be treated as a literal story, even though it is arguably esoteric.

The makers of the film clearly apparently read the original text (Genesis 6-10) and tried to get some things right.  The general outlines of the story are all there—Noaḥ, his wife, his three sons Shem, Ḥam (Ham), and Yefeth (Japheth), building the ark, the flood, the sending forth of the raven and the dove, and the restarting of human society.  The genealogical context of where Noaḥ comes from is correct, including his grandfather Methushelaḥ (Methuselah) and his father Lamekh (Lamech) and there being two competing lines of humanity from Qayin (Cain) and Sheth (Seth).  The ark is correctly depicted as an ark in the literal sense:  a box.  (Think about it.  The term used in the original text, תֵּבָה (tevah) means “box”, and there is no mention of anything one would expect specifically on a boat, such as oars, a sail, or a rudder.)  There was also a lot of work put into the visual effects and some thought about the logistics of life on the ark.

But when one goes into the behavior and reasoning of the characters that the film goes horribly wrong, as the writers violate a cardinal unwritten rule of good religious thought:

YOU WILL NOT TAMPER WITH TRADITION.

And the tampering is not for the better, dramatically or religiously, and the worst of it lies at the very heart of the story.

The writers of the film botched the theology of the original text.  The Hebrew Bible consistently depicts YHWH as clear about what He wants.  Yes, there are some mysterious prophecies about what will happen in the future, but He is explicit about what He wants humans to do in the present.  And when He is angry at humans, it is because humans are disobeying the commands He has given them—and in the age of prophecy, He sent periodic messages about what people were doing wrong.  Being a god, YHWH is quite capable of communicating, so humans do not have to guess what He wants.  (I am well aware of the inherent problems of interpretation.  But when YHWH is ready to smite someone, it is always over “big picture” issues, such as murder, idolatry, sexual immorality, theft, abuse of the sacrificial system, and violation of Shabbath, not minutiae.)  Thus YHWH tells Noaḥ in Genesis 6:13-21 why humanity is doomed, how the doom is going to happen, and what He wants Noaḥ to do about it.  Noaḥ is to build an ark according to a specific plan, stock it with two or seven of each species of animal (the number depending on species), and he, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives are to ride out the flood in the ark.  Humanity is meant to survive.

The film, in contrast, depicts the Creator—His name is never mentioned—as having abominable communication skills; He never says anything.  In the film, the Creator sends Noah a vision of drowned people.  He has to go to his grandfather Methuselah to make any sense of what he saw and discover that a flood is coming.  There is no explicit message of why the Creator is sending a flood, what Noah is supposed to do, or what the Creator plans for the future.  Noah has to fill in the gaps with inference, gut feelings, and sheer guesswork—with the emphasis on gut feelings and guesswork.  This leads humanity to the brink of disaster.  Noah guesses that the Creator intends for those on the ark to be the last humans.  Because of this, he refuses to find wives for Ham and Japheth—or even let Ham bring a girl with him onto the ark.  When Shem’s (presumedly) barren wife Ila gets miraculously pregnant, Noah is determined to kill the child, should it prove to be a girl, lest humanity have a chance of continuing.  This idea is unpopular among the rest of the humans on the ark.  Shem builds an escape craft for himself and Ila, but Noah destroys it.  When Ila gives birth to twin girls, Noah only relents at the last second.  He initially feels unbearably guilty for not killing the babies and lives apart from the rest of his family; he has a cave to himself and indulges in wine until Ila argues to him that the Creator really meant for humanity to continue, thus choosing Noah for his being sufficiently moral to show mercy on his granddaughters.  At that point the Creator shows the rainbow, and the movie ends.  This change in the relationship between the Creator and humans makes some sense dramatically, as it creates serious problems to be overcome.  But the problems it creates only serve to make the Creator and Noah look worse:  the Creator due to His inability to plainly say what he wants, rather than forcing Noah to guess what He wants him to do, and Noah due to him making desperate, misanthropic guesses which could easily be wrong.  For this change alone the writers deserve condemnation.

The lack of clear Divine communication is also evident in the question of why the flood is brought.  In Genesis 6:11, the answer is explicit:  destruction (or corruption) of the Earth and violence; Noaḥ is told exactly that soon afterwards, so he has no reason to express doubt.  But in the film the Creator leaves Noah to figure out what He is thinking.  And the solution that Noah comes up with is environmental destruction.  The Cainites have created a civilization advanced enough to produce iron weapons, and in the process they have wrecked much of the environment.  Part of this is due to mining for a flammable mineral known as “zohar”.  Another part of this is due to the extensive consumption of meat; they are never shown eating anything else on their own initiative.  The Cainites are shown as cruel, enslaving each other to trade for meat, and waging war, but Noah puts the emphasis on their disregard for the environment.  Noah views his mission as an environmentalist one:  once the flood is over, he is to restock the Earth with animals and plants—and humans are to go extinct so that they can never wreck the environment again.  Noah sees evil as inherent in humanity—essentially the Christian doctrine of original sin—thus his insistence on human extinction.  

Moving the emphasis for the flood to environmental destruction, rather than immorality, is not an improvement.  The Hebrew Bible is overwhelmingly filled with laws about and preaching on human behavior, but almost all of it deals with how humans treat each other and YHWH; very little is said on animal welfare, and one has to read between the lines to see any concern for the environment.  The paucity of environmental material is demonstrated by the book Ecology in the Bible by Nogah Hareuveni and Helen Frenkley, which is a mere 52 pages, 30 of which consist of photographs; the actual text consists of material on animals and plants as part of the world of the Hebrew Bible, but not really environmentalism per se.  Environmentalism, to someone steeped in the Hebrew Bible is a matter of human welfare, as we humans have to live on this planet; acting stupidly about our home is something we should not need a deity to tell us to not do, and we are not allowed to act in ways that hurt other people.  The film, on the other hand, inverts the priorities.  Environmentalism is changed from a means to an overriding goal; Noah considers animal “innocent”, unlike humans, so their existence must be assured.  In contrast, human existence, much less welfare, is precariously threatened, rather than assumed.  Furthermore, the flood is not a good way to help the environment.  Yes, the environment sucks, but parts of it are still there.  After the flood there is nothing, and “sucks” is still better than “nothing”.  While all terrestrial animal species are saved on the ark (except those that, according to the film, went extinct there), the populations preserved are very small.  In real life, this is recipe for extinction.  The loss of one member of a species can mean the loss of the whole species, and those which survive end up severely inbred.  And if the animals are truly innocent, as Noah thinks, why do only a tiny number of them survive?  Would it not be fairer for the Creator to instead send a plague to kill off humanity and spare everything else?  Without a doubt, the writers failed to think things through when introducing the theme of environmentalism into the film, and the result is morally perverse.

Arguably the reason for warping the story is to make it more suitable for action and drama.  Noaḥ in the original text is not an action hero.  He does not fight with other humans or struggle with the commands of YHWH.  To transform him into the Noah of the film, he has to have problems which cannot be dealt with quietly and gently.  Hence the writers made the messages of the Creator hard to understand, leading to drama which should not be there.  The Cainites are co-opted as villains, and their leader, Tuval-Qayin (Tubal-Cain, Genesis 4:22), preaches everything which is abominable to Noah, actively fights against Noah, stows aboard the ark, proves a bad influence on Ham, eats animals on the ark, and has a final showdown fight scene with Noah, all for the sake of extra drama and action.  The mysterious Children of ’Elohim (Genesis 6:2) are metamorphosed into the Watchers, rock monsters who are really fallen angels who find forgiveness from the Creator for daring to help humanity by helping build the ark and dying spectacularly fighting the Cainites.  And, of course, the flood itself is depicted horrifically, with the Cainites screaming as they seek higher ground to escape the rising waters and ultimately drown.  The film does succeed in creating an adrenaline rush—but only at the cost of wrecking the letter and spirit of the original story.

Overall classification:  CGI-heavy action movie.

Theological rating:  F.  Darren Aronofsky is hereby banned from making religion-rated films for life.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A theological review of The Mummy Returns and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Jewish date:  19 ’Adhar Ri’shon 5774 (Parashath Wayyaqhel).

Today’s holidays:  Chaoflux (Discordianism), Feast Day of St. Señor Wenches (Church of the SubGenius), Narconon Day (Scientology).


Given how bad The Mummy was—theologically and otherwise—I considered not reviewing its two sequels.  (Seriously.  That movie would have been noticeably more theologically accurate had they had the Egyptian priests pray “Hail to the Sun God! / He really is a fun god! / Ra!  Ra!  Ra! / Ra!  Ra!  Ra!”, which is silly, but at least contains some authentic Egyptian theology.)  I watched them anyway.  The people who made them seem to have tried to make them less obviously stupid and more entertaining in the style of the Indiana Jones movies, but both sequels still have stupidity problems.  

WARNING:  MERCILESS SPOILER ALERT! 

The problem is not merely that people who accidentally revived a mummy and had to deal with killing it again would be well advised to keep away from Egypt and everything even remotely Egyptian for life.  These sequels both share the original’s serious flaw that rising of dead rulers who might bring about the end of the World as we know it could have easily been prevented.

The Mummy Returns makes an attempt at constructing a theology for this series.  Long ago, a defeated warrior, the Scorpion King, pledged his soul to the Egyptian god Anubis in exchange for victory and revenge against his enemies.  Anubis accepted his bargain, and when the Scorpion King was victorious, He took the Scorpion King and his army.  And now the threat is that the a cult led by Meela Nais, the reincarnation of Anck-su-namun (the love interest of the bad guy from the last film), will resurrect Imhotep (the bad guy from the last film), and Imhotep will defeat the awakened Scorpion King and gain the latter’s powers, thus letting him bring about the end of the World as we know it.

Authenticity check:  I am not an expert on ancient Egyptian religion by any means, but this sounded wrong, so I looked up Anubis.  It turns out that Anubis was the god of the afterlife, not the counterpart of Satan.  A Faustian bargain with Anubis makes no sense, as the Scorpion King’s soul was destined to be delivered to the care of Anubis no matter what.  And since all mortals must eventually go to Anubis, unless he turns into a pathological over-worker, He has no real motivation to drum up business by getting more humans killed in the short term.  A better choice for an evil god would have been Set, who, if memory serves correctly, came to be identified as evil.  As for Anubis or any other god making it possible for any mortal to gain end-of-the-World powers of destruction, I cannot recall anything like that happening in the stories of any religion.  (If anyone has an example of this, please let me know.)  Such power belongs to gods and beings operating on the level of gods alone, and for them to make in attainable by mortals is to confer godhood.  As Imhotep and the Scorpion King, unlike the Pharaohs, have no claim to godhood, such power is inappropriate for them.

I would also like to note that reincarnation is not something I have ever heard about the ancient Egyptians believing in.  I am aware they seriously believed in the afterlife and made preparations for it.  If anyone is aware of the ancient Egyptians believing that we come back, please let me know.  The form presented, in which Anck-su-namun somehow requires her original soul being restored to her despite being reincarnated, makes no sense.

In obvious symmetry, it was not just Anck-su-namun who was reincarnated.  Evelyn O’Connell, the female lead, is the reincarnation of Nefertiri, daughter of Seti I, and she spends a nice chunk of the film regaining memories from that previous life.  Anck-sun-namun and Nefertiri did not like each other at all, to the extent that they fought in some sort of combat for entertainment of Seti I’s court (or more likely, given how they were dressed, the entertainment of emotionally immature male viewers) and took what they were doing as something more serious than a friendly match.  Likewise, Meela/Anck-sun-namun and Evelyn fight extremely seriously and try to kill each other.

If the name “Nefertiri” sounds familiar, you probably have seen The Ten Commandments, where she is wife of Pharaoh Raameses II.  Pharaoh Seti I is mentioned by name in The Prince of Egypt, where he is the father of Raameses II.  Nefertari (correct spelling), Raameses II, and Seti I were all real people, though I cannot confirm at this time who Nefertari’s father was.  As the writers of this film show no theological or historical sophistication, Nefertari was most likely co-opted as someone convenient and preexisting to oppose Anck-su-namun rather than for deeper reasons.  There was also a real Imhotep, but he lived much earlier than Seti I and company.

Pretty much everything else religious in The Mummy Returns is minor, such as small prayers asking for protection.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, while retaining many of the same characters as The Mummy Returns, changes the setting to China, thus throwing out alleged theological connections to Egypt.  The only real connections to religion in this film are some Buddha sculptures.  I would like to mention, however, that Shangri-La appears prominently in this film.  From popular culture, one might think that Shangri-La is a place from Buddhism or Chinese traditional religion.  It is not.  Shangri-La is a purely fictional place from James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, published in 1933.  Shangri-La may be inspired by Shambhala, a place from Tibetan Buddhist tradition, but that is a topic for me to research another time.

Oh, I would like to note that ancient booby-trapped tombs, such as those portrayed in this series and the Indiana Jones series, do not exist.  I looked it up.  Over time they would break down and stop working, and the ancients never mentioned creating such things  Instead, ancient Egyptian tombs were frequently broken into soon after they were sealed.  One can argue that booby-trapped tombs make for a good action sequences, which is fine if they are backed up with a story good enough to counterbalance historical inaccuracies—just so long as one does not take such things seriously.

Overall classification:  Action movies with Indiana Jones envy.


Theological rating:  D- for The Mummy Returns (for recognizing that the ancient Egyptians had gods who interacted with humans, but still screwing up massively) and I for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (for lack of theological content and failing to deal with the wretched lack of theology in its predecessors).

Monday, February 17, 2014

A theological review of The Mummy (1999)

Jewish date:  18 ’Adhar Ri’shon 5774 (evening) (Parashath Wayyaqhel).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of St. Isaac Asimov (Church of the SubGenius), Feast of Giordano Bruno the Martyr (Thelema), Quirinalia (Celtic Neopaganism).

It has been pointed out to me that I often give negative reviews.  This being Divine Misconceptions, the blog in which I look at religious fallacies and misinformation, that is to be expected regularly.  However, the other day a friend of mine lent me a disk-on-key which had The Mummy Trilogy on it (among other things), and I watched The Mummy this morning, at it is of such quality that I must apologize to the reader (but not the people who made it) for the tone of what I am about to write.

WARNING:  SPOILERS AHEAD.

To put it bluntly, The Mummy is a stupid movie.  Now, there is material which, despite being stupid in some aspect, nevertheless is very enjoyable.  For example, Gilligan’s Island is considered a stupid show, but the humor holds up well enough that it is still enjoyable, especially when humorous.  Or consider Galaxy Quest, which has obvious holes in the plausibility large enough to fly a starship through, but nevertheless is a hilarious parody of Star Trek and related material.  

Unlike such material, The Mummy is stupid to the core, starting with the basic premise.  Yes, it is conceivable that the high priest of Egypt Imhotep might have an affair with the mistress of the Pharaoh Seti I, Anck-su-Namun, but that is dangerously stupid, especially since they do not have the sense to carry on their meetings somewhere no one would see them together.  And it would stupid of them to murder Seti I when he confronts them; that is asking for retribution.  And it would be stupid for Anck-su-Namun to commit suicide, expecting Imhotep to resurrect her, as he might fail.  And it would be stupid for Seti’s guards, once they catch Imhotep and stop him from resurrecting Anck-su-Namun, to put a horrible curse on him which there is even the slightest possibility that he might escape and cause the end of the World as we know it.  And even more stupid, the guards did not even have the sense to destroy the book that could be used to free Imhotep, the key to open the book, and the map to find him.  And because of all this stupidity, Imhotep gets accidentally freed, people get mutilated and killed, and there is the very real threat of disaster.  This is made even worse by the characters sometime in the 1920s, seeking Imhotep’s treasure, also acting stupidly.  Such a huge mass of stupidity, untempered by anything which could mitigate it (such as making it a parody of monster-of-the-week films or imbuing it with dead-on psychological fidelity), utterly wrecks suspension of disbelief and wrecks the entire film.

This weapons-of-mass-destruction-grade stupidity is clearly reflected in The Mummy’s approach to religion:  complete incompetence.  There is no attempt whatsoever at theology or plausible depiction of religion.  Despite Imhotep being a high priest of the ancient Egyptian religion, one would never know it from his speech and behavior.  He does not speak in religious terms, nor does he perform any religious practices; the nearest he comes is to try to resurrect Anck-su-Namun magically.  His priests, who were mummified alive for no apparent reason, act no more religiously; they are just so many extras to be controlled by other mortals.  To be sure, God and Allah are mentioned by other characters, but only in minor prayers wishing others success.  The most religious action in the movie is when Imhotep rises, a total idiot starts praying to the gods of a number of religions (and Buddha, who is not properly a god), hoping that at least one will answer him.  The freeing of Imhotep also unleashes the Ten Plagues; this is a bizarre misreading of Exodus, where they are a punishment on the Egyptians (including their priests) from YHWH, not something unleashed by an Egyptian priest.  The writers are also unaware that the magi are the priests of Zoroastrianism, not a secret society meant to keep Imhotep from being freed.

Your humble blogger would also like to note that whoever wrote this film has no idea what a mummy is.  Real mummies (at least in Egypt) were meant to let the dead have an afterlife.  The internal organs of bodies were removed, and the bodies carefully preserved so that they would not decay.  The souls of the dead could then dwell within their bodies indefinitely.  The dead were thus provided with all the necessities of life (or afterlife), including food.  The Mummy, on the other hand, inverts the original intent and treats mummification as torture.  Hence Imhotep’s priests are mummified (incorrectly) alive and Imhotep is sealed away to be tortured by beetles forever.  If Seti’s guards really wanted to do something horrible to him, they should have killed him and destroyed his body so his soul would have nowhere to go.

Overall classification:  Stupid horror film with weak attempts at humor.

Theological rating:  F (like the rest of the film, stupid).