The Art of the Religious Narrative
September 24, 2010

Via Alyssa, here’s a trailer for “the Christian Movie Event of the Year,” whose chief selling point seems to be how it effortlessly fuses self-righteous didacticism with the wooden, dull-eyed imitation of life we normally associate with the walking dead:

This is really the latest offering in a whole cottage industry of truly artless, half-assed religious propaganda. Of course these heavy-handed conversion narratives are nothing new—nor are they limited to Christianity, or even religion—but this specific subset of evangelical porn truly is a trend unto itself. A trend starting, I think, with the Left Behind series, and branching out into Twilight (which, to be fair, is a good deal more subtle about it) and less well-known works like Fireproof.

There’s a lot you can blame for the general suckitude of this subgenre—semi-comatose actors, cheap production values and so on—but I think the fatal flaw here is that the whole enterprise is misguided. You simply can’t craft a compelling narrative based around a central philosophical question—Should we let Jesus Christ into our hearts?—when you’re already so thoroughly persuaded of the answer that you can’t even come up with any reasonable objections.

Take the above trailer as an example. The protagonist seems to have no dilemma whatsoever: everyone around him confirms that God exists and is awesome, and the big guy Himself conspires to align everything so that conversion to Christianity is the best possible choice. No cost, all reward. That’s propaganda, not art.

It’s a bummer, because we know for a fact that deeply religious narrative art can be done well. Example A: Dostoevsky, arguably history’s greatest practitioner of the philosophical novel. Crime and Punishment ends with Raskolnikov finding spiritual salvation, but the road he takes to get there goes through some dark, unabashedly nihilistic territory. And Dostoevsky takes that nihilism seriously. Raskolnikov’s initial worldview is twisted, to be sure, but it’s also coherent and strangely compelling.

(Another good example, also courtesy of Alyssa: In Paradise Lost, Satan is pretty much the most interesting and sympathetic character in the whole damn poem. Milton’s no Satanist, but he cares enough to show us why the Lord of Darkness might feel like he has a legitimate beef with the Lord.)

For a more contemporary example of how to do this stuff correctly, look at the TV show Kings, a prematurely cancelled revisionist take on King David’s rise to power. In the show, God is inscrutable, demanding, and seemingly morally ambiguous. Though of course we know that He’s going to be revealed as right in the end—He’s God, after all—we also understand why King Silas, long His faithful servant, struggles with the urge to fight back against His divine will. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Silas ends up being a far more compelling character than David, the show’s ostensible protagonist. (Though that could also have a lot to do with the fact that Silas is played by Ian fucking McShane.)

The irony is that where Left Behind and its spawn fail—and Dostoevsky and Kings succeed—the Bible succeeds as well. Jesus has his moment of doubt on the cross. Abraham is told to murder his own son, and later actually negotiates with God in an attempt to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah. Jacob—the founder of the tribe of the Israelites—is named Yis’rael, or He Who Wrestles With God.

What makes these stories compelling isn’t that they involved square-jawed men doing the will of an infallible being. It’s that the heroes, before they carry out God’s will, must first struggle with epic spiritual questions that A) do not have easy answers and B) have unimaginably high stakes. As an admitted outsider, I have way more respect for the long, hard, seemingly endless road to spiritual peace than the quick and easy medicine with a spoonful of sugar. It’s more honest, it’s more nuanced and interesting, and, most of all, it makes for a way better story.

Evangelical Polytheism
May 20, 2010

Yesterday I noticed that Matt Duss of Wonk Room had tweeted approvingly a link to an argument you sometimes hear from opponents of right-wing evangelicalism.

Hussein Rashid writes:

As was pointed out at that time by multiple religious thinkers, by arguing that there were at least two Gods, Christian and Muslim, Christianists were following a belief system that was not monotheistic and was not in accord with the Gospels. Now the chairman of the Tea Party Express, Mark Williams, seems to have forgotten this basic point, writing that the Muslim God is a “monkey-god” and that Muslims are “animals of allah,” reports Zachary Roth at TPMMuckraker.

It seems that Christianists and Islamists share a bad theology in this regard. I want to extend Reza Aslan’s suggestion in How to Win a Cosmic War that what these groups share is the belief that all issues are inherently theological. To me, the logical conclusion is if their side is not winning, it’s because their God is being challenged by another God. If their God was truly all-powerful, their enemies should have fallen by now. The only rational recourse, then, is to break with the idea of monotheism and allow for other gods.

It’s no secret that the Judeo-Christian-Islamo cosmology can be traced back to its influences in various polytheistic and henotheistic faiths (notably Zoroastrianism and late-empire Roman mythology), but I don’t think what we see here is genuine henotheism. It’s more of a rhetorical stance, an attempt to get a rise out of Muslims through racially-charged mockery of their most basic beliefs. If pressed, Williams would likely argue that Allah isn’t really a god, but instead one of the countless masks that Satan wears.

Of course, the evangelical conception of Satan is suspiciously omnipresent, to the extent that I’d call the question of whether or not he’s a god a semantic distinction; he’s at least as powerful, if not more so, than many of Olympians. But within the internal logic of evangelical Christianity, it’s a distinction that matters enough for the right-wing evangelical to be unphased by the argument.

This is why I tend to be pretty skeptical of attempts to refute the claims of the more hateful strains of Christian fundamentalism by playing their rhetorical games. It’s not specific smears on other faiths like this that are the real problem; it’s the first principles of the people making them. That’s what we should be going after.

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