The Incongruity Is What It’s All About

I got an email the other day from a student elsewhere in the US who was working on a paper on religion and film. I’m not sure how the paper will turn out, but when we later connected by phone I tried to prompt the student to think about this common genre — religion and film — not in terms of the data but in terms of something else.

You see, scholars of religion seem continually drawn to study things because they happen upon some descriptive elements with which they’re already familiar — as I noted long ago, if her name is Trinity then that character in The Matrix has got to be fair game for a scholar of religion to study.

But for those of us who think that the study of religion is not all about the descriptive details, there may be another way to talk about this thing we call religion and film. I wrote about this some time ago, of course, so that piece is out there if anyone cares to find it, but I thought I’d revisit this topic, with that recent phone call in mind.

While we were talking I changed the subject (well, as you’ll see, it wasn’t really a change) and asked why zombies got so popular recently, in books, on TV, in the movies. I had in mind a conversation I had with Kelly Baker, back in the Fall of 2014 when she visited UA as our Day Lecturer, in which narratives involving zombies were understood as a displaced site where one could experiment with social issues that were either too familiar or too loaded to just tackle head on. In other words, show me a zombie movie and I’ll show you issues of class, or race, gender, politics, etc., being explored at a distance from the viewer’s usual world, making those issues something we can re-consider, even if doing so in this tangential sort of way.

What I had in mind in all this was a quotation from Burton Mack’s The Myth of Innocence, a crucial book in the library of almost anyone who studies Christian origins. There, he writes about how the continuum established by classification systems that are framed by radically different and opposed poles work to make the day-to-day possible, allowing us to experience it and talk about. For, in his words, these systems

And so…, narratives about the undead walking around make all sorts of things in the taken-for-granted world of daily events possible to see, or to see in a new light.

Case in point, I then asked what the recent movie, The Martian, was all about — you know, the one where the guy is stranded on the red planet with no food or water or hope of being rescued for a pretty long time. That is, was it all about Mars or, rather, was Mars and all the descriptive stuff that comes with it (space helmets, dramatically barren landscapes, rockets and zero gravity out in space) a displaced setting where, dropping their guard a little, the audience could consider something that was actually happening in their own lives, something that was relevant to their own world — something such as the role of the scientific method and scientific research….?

Spoiler alert: did I mention he’s a botanist? Or what about the historical moment we’re now in, where personal preferences seem to outweigh scientific studies…?

In other words — and I’m hardly the first to come up with this — we might be missing the point if we focus too much on the red planet and fail to see that it’s not really about Mars at all. It’s about us and fairly mundane (but consequential, sure) matters that, ironically, might otherwise go unnoticed, had they not been placed at such an apparent distance from us, on a planet far away. (By the way, that’s kind’a the whole point about science fiction, at least for those who don’t dismiss it as a childish genre.)

Which brings us to movies that seem to have so-called religious themes in them — you know, devils and exorcisms, gods and an afterlife, all the elements that audiences here commonly class together as religious. While there are those who think these movies are about deep, metaphysical issues or carry some universal or spiritual relevance, issues that touch something that some call the human soul — “her name is Trinity, after all!” — the method outlined here takes a pretty different approach, seeing all of these seemingly fantastical narratives as all being akin: they each deploy an idealized system of radical and extreme opposites so as to set a stark, maybe even caricatured stage where something ordinary can be highlighted for a moment, to be considered for a while, allowing us to negotiate over it, agree, disagree, see it as different or the same, and at the end, think about it a little and maybe even rethink it just a bit.