This will be brief: I was quite surprised to find that I liked The Immortals. Tarsem Singh mostly made the film’s overtly fabricated aesthetic work in its favor, Henry Cavill was more charismatic than I’d expected, and it’s always nice to see Stephen Dorff be Stephen Dorff. Even more intriguing was how the story foregrounded religious faith and free will. As a Christian, I tend to appreciate when films endorse a quintessentially religious view of the world. At the same time, by explicitly tangling with religious ideas, films that appear to endorse spirituality unambiguously open up an entirely different can of worms. In the case of Immortals, it’s the inseparable link between righteousness and violence. We’re told early on that while the souls of men are immortal, the souls of righteous men are immortal and divine. The ending of the film opens up the possibility that men can be the equal of gods if they are righteous enough. That idea, in itself, is a sticky enough bit of theological provocation. But what troubles me is that the film’s fetishization of bloodshed and brutality inextricably links violent deeds with divine immortality. Though I don’t doubt that Theseus, as portrayed in the film, is a heroic figure, he’s definitely a heroic figure in the ancient Greek tradition: which is to say, he kills eloquently and often. The idea that the righteous faithful must prove their righteousness through acts of war is rather frightening. As much as I enjoyed the film, I recognize that a part of my enjoyment should probably held in suspicion. Even if the bloodshed and brutality is meant to be a metaphor for spiritual warfare, I was left with the impression that the film was infatuated with the awful struggle, which it seemed to confuse the the victory itself. There’s a difference between acknowledging the necessity of good doing battle with evil and celebrating the battle itself. I realize that a movie like Immortals is vying for mythic grandeur, and the old myths tend not to feature nuance, subtlety, and moral introspection as narrative strength (as I said, this film’s moral compass is very much in keeping with the spirit of Greek mythology), so in a way I know that I’m missing the point of the film. But it’s important to remember that even works and acts of faith are open to debate, criticism, and question, however awesome (in the purest sense of the word) they may be. That’s the struggle believers of all stripes must face, but we don’t idolize that struggle. We worship our God; the struggle is the means of worship, not the end itself. Idolizing the struggle valorizes us, not our object of worship. Immortals flips that premise on its head, which could be an intriguing subversion of traditional religious orthodoxy, except that it’s framed in terms of violence. That makes it more Nietzchean than conventionally religious, I suppose, but it also reduces the power of faith to the strength of arms. There’s something disquieting about that reduction, as gloriously as it may be rendered.☕
Tag Archives: faith
The premise of Kami Nomi zo Shiru Sekai, on paper, promises lurid hijinks and innuendo: a dweeby high school student who does nothing but play dating sims accidently strikes a deal with a cute demon girl, and he must now use his gaming skills to seduce a panoply of girls, each of whom fits parameters ripped right from his games. For little boys who go to sleep with images of panty shots and inadvertent boob grabs dancing in their heads, this scenario would be divine gift. Unexpectedly, there is relatively little truly ribald content in Kami Nomi zo Shiru Sekai; instead, each seduction scenario spends a great deal of time dramatizing — empathizing with — the inner lives of the girls Keima must “conquer.” A series highlight is the paean to the splendors of reading in the arc devoted to Shiori, a shy librarian with a crippling fear of speaking to others, which plays like a segment of Disney’s Fantasia. The amount of time spent on giving the female characters lives and personalities of their own suggests a profound respect for them as individuals and women. Continue reading
The celebrated eleventh chapter of Hebrews — the “by faith” soliloquy — opens with a delightfully simple and perfectly maddening definition of concept. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The writer goes on to cite numerous examples of Old Testament figures that would have been familiar to his readers, asserting that their faith in the Almighty saw them through unimaginable hardships and miraculous blessings. But then, in verse 39, he hits us with a sucker punch: “These [people] were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised…” Ouch. The author’s point is that they were looking forward to the incarnation of Christ, even if they didn’t know it. What’s important to keep in mind, though, is that the religion of “Christianity” at this point was still mostly a small splinter cult of Judaism. Not only did all the people whose faith the writer lauds not know to what, precisely, they were looking forward; it’s likely they might not have recognized it. Faith, then, is something a bit amorphous in definition, even when it’s centered in a specific person or concept, like Jesus or the Messiah. According to Hebrews 12, the God in whom we’re supposed to place unconditional faith might go out of his way to test believers and force them to endure hardships as a test of discipline. Personally, I think it’s kind of a weak argument to make for the problem of pain and injustice in this world (God wants us to endure hellish torment so that we’ll be better people? What?), but I don’t think that’s the takeaway lesson from this bit of Scripture.
The lesson that emerges to me is that faith in itself does not compensate for the troubles of living life; it does not, in itself, explain pain and injustice. Faith exists separately from and beyond the problems of what we might as well call “evil,” and it is in drawing a line between faith and worldly experience that a “person of faith” (as we’re often called) faces a great deal of spiritual difficulty. In short, the nature of faith is dependent entirely upon the individual who possesses it. It is human nature to look for evidence to support one’s faith paradigm. Kurosawa may have approached the question of faith from a humanist perspective, but faith is faith, and Rashomon articulates its pitfalls brilliantly. Continue reading