Entries tagged with “religion”.


IFRANKENSTEIN-good-immortal-evil

On a recent trip to Germany, I took the opportunity to reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (a fascinating book to be sure—remind me sometime to talk about the critique of Calvinism present in the story). On the way home from said trip, I noticed that one of the movies available to watch on the plane was I, Frankenstein. I’d never heard of the film but I thought it an appropriate choice, even if the description was somewhat ludicrous: “Adam [ie, Frankenstein’s monster] finds himself caught in the middle of a battle between gargoyles and demons that are battling to discover the secret to his immortality.

…. Right.

Still, I turned on the film. And the plot is basically that described above. There is a secret “sacred order of gargoyles” instituted by the Archangel Michael to protect humanity from a secret battalion of demons still lose on earth. When an angel kills a demon, the demon is “descended” to hell (yes, they use “descended” as a transitive verb). Contrariwise, a gargoyle killed by a demon is “ascended.” The demons want to reanimate thousands of dead corpses—using the secret of Frankenstein’s science—so that they call up their “descended” brethren to possess the bodies (because, according to this movie, demons cannot possess the living, only reanimated corpses, and these only if they have a silly star cut into their foreheads. Apparently reanimated corpses—like Adam—don’t have souls to crowd the demons or something.]

The film is, of course, silly at best. The plot is bizarre, the CGI is nothing special, and the dialogue goes from dumb to dumber (a far cry from Shelley’s work). Still, the film illustrates an interesting trend in supernaturally-themed movies: namely, the use of angelic and demonic beings, but first stripping them of their religious significance.

To be sure, I, Frankenstein doesn’t strip all religious reference. We hear Adam told (and I paraphrase) that he is the only living thing “not created by God,” that he consequently has “no soul,” and that “God will surely damn him.” But the God invoked is a mysterious being, referenced tangentially, and then forgotten. Even the gargoyles who fight for God seem to have no direct connection with Him: it seems that only their queen has access to higher spiritual powers—the archangels—and she never bothers to give them a call during the film.

gargoyle-crossOther religious elements are similarly stripped of their significance. For example, we are told that only “sacramental” objects can “descend” a demon. But any object can be “sacramental,” we learn, so long as it has the symbol of the gargoyle order carved into it. That symbol? It’s a cross of sorts, but a cross with two additional horizontal lines added to it (below the normal horizontal line). And these secondary lines are so long as to disguise that it’s a cross at all. In fact, it’s first introduced sideways on screen, so it took me a while to realize it even was a cross! Jesus isn’t in this film, even if His symbol is co-opted and adapted.

It’s a common enough feature in contemporary cinema: a generic God stripped of any specific identifying characteristics. And this use of generic religion has consequences, in that it consistently feeds into a Law-based depiction of religion. The Adam of this movie differs from his biblical namesake. Unlike the progenitor of humankind who was created “in the image of God” and thus endowed with a soul, our film protagonist is not. The solution to this problem? Earn a soul by doing good deeds of course. Fulfill your part in generic-God’s mysterious destiny and you too will be rewarded!

Frankenstein is a masterpiece of Gothic fiction, and well worth the read. But I, Frankenstein, like many Hollywood films, is missing the key element in a supernatural drama: namely, a divinity (and religion) that makes sense.

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Something from First Thoughts.

In light of court cases regarding Scientology in the United Kingdom, I had a post a bit back asking what the word “religion” even means.  See the post here: “What is religion anyhow?”

Last week Statistics Canada released the new numbers on faith in Canada. See my article at First Things discussing the changes here. The big news? From 2001 to 2011, the percentage of the Canadian population identifying as Christian dropped ten percent—from 77% to 67.3%.

Read more here.

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Doctor-Who-Akhaten

The Doctor confronts the old god in “The Rings of Akhaten.”

In case you haven’t heard, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who. As a fan, I’ve wanted to pay homage to the show for some time, planning to write a post discussing the good Doctor and religion. Now seems as good a time as any, given that the most recent episode “The Rings of Akhaten” is a story in which the Doctor comes face to face with a “god.”

It’s a common enough theme in science fiction: the self-proclaimed deity who is unmasked as a pretender (think Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country—“What does God need with a starship?”). Still, the Doctor’s confrontations with religious beings are a little different than those in other science fiction series. He is, after all, a semi-divine figure himself. All space and time is at his disposal. He can go anywhere and anywhen. He’s more Q than Picard, if you will.

The Doctor’s confrontations with religious beings is different than in other science fiction. He is, after all, a semi-divine figure himself.

So when the Doctor comes up against a “god,” we know he’ll be able to expose it as a fraud. And it always is another a fraud. It might be a powerful being; it might be ancient. It might, as in the most recent episode, have existed for millennia, feeding on the offerings and worship of its followers. But whatever else it is, it is not truly divine. It is as much a part of the universe as anything else. It can always be explained. It can always be understood.

Except, perhaps, in one two-part story from the Tenth Doctor’s era. In this story, the Doctor again comes across someone professing godhood: he meets a being which claims to be the Beast, the devil himself. But the Doctor has faced many false gods in his day; they are all pretenders. “If you are the Beast,” he mocks, “then answer me this: Which one, hmm? Because the universe has been busy since you’ve been gone. There’s more religions than there are planets in the sky. There’s the Arkaphets, Christianity, Pash-Pash, New Judaism, San Claar, Church of the Tin Vagabond. Which devil are you?”

Only this time the devil is real. “Which devil are you?” the Doctor asks. “All of them,” the Beast replies. He is not lying.

Here the Doctor is confronted with something greater—and more terrifying—than he can imagine. Not merely because it is an unknown but instead because it is by its nature unknowable. When the Doctor asks the Beast when he came to be chained in the Pit, the latter answers, “Before time.” This answer makes no sense to the Doctor; he cannot conceive of a “before time.”

“What does ‘before time’ mean?” he asks.

“Before time and light and space and matter. Before the cataclysm. Before this universe was created.”

“You can’t have come from before the universe,” the Doctor responds incredulously. “That’s impossible.”

To which the Beast replies, “Is that your religion?”

The Doctor can only respond, “It’s a belief.”

The Beast scoffs, “You know nothing. All of you, so small.”

Here the Doctor, nigh on a deity himself, is confronted by something beyond him. Unknowable. Unthinkable. Impossible. He cannot conceive of existence before time and matter. His reason is too small; it cannot bend so far. He cannot comprehend it. He cannot measure it and test it. “If that thing had said it was from beyond the universe, I’d have believed it. But before? Impossible.”

So too did God question Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone?” (Job 38:4-6). The questions are, for Job, impossible to answer; they are beyond his understanding: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3). But Job’s inability to answer God’s questions about creation—and the Doctor’s inability to comprehend existence “before time”—does not change the fact of their existence.

So then: the Doctor finds himself opposed by a power he cannot even comprehend. He has no more ideas. He has no more options. Even the TARDIS—and, consequently, the only chance of escape—has been lost. All hope is at an end. The situation is utterly and completely beyond him.

The situation is utterly and completely beyond him. How fitting then, that the solution must also come from beyond him.

How fitting then, that the solution must also come from beyond him. It has, in fact, been prepared in advance by those who first imprisoned the devil. The Beast had been imprisoned “before time,” he tells us, when “the Disciples of the Light rose up against me and chained me in the pit for all eternity.”

doctor-who-satan-pit

The Doctor meets the Devil in “The Satan Pit.”

It is impossible to miss the reference to Scripture here. “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (Revelation 12:7-9). And again: “The angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day” (Jude 6).

As in the biblical text, the devil was defeated and chained in the darkness (in the television series, the devil is quite literally chained on an “impossible planet” fixed in space in the shadow of a black hole). But the Disciples of the Light seem to have foreseen both the Beast’s attempt to escape and the Doctor’s presence at the event. When all hope is lost, the Doctor finds the Disciples of Light have prepared a solution for him ahead of time—quite literally before time existed.

Having fallen into the Pit, the Doctor awakens to find he was “expected.” “I was given a safe landing and air,” he says to the Beast, asking why. Slowly it dawns on him: provision for his safe descent was not the devil’s doing; it was the work of the Disciples of Light. “That’s it!” he exclaims. “You didn’t give me air, your jailers did! They set this up. They need me alive, because if you’re escaping then I need to stop you!” The Doctor discovers what the Disciples of Light intend him to do, and he does it—knowing full well it will mean his own death.

Except it doesn’t. In a deus ex machina worthy of the name, the Doctor’s previously lost TARDIS is discovered to have also fallen into the Pit. In fact, it’s landed right where it needs to be, almost as if by plan. And perhaps it was by plan. That’s what’s so fascinating about this particular Doctor Who story: it leaves room for the possibility of something more—something beyond mortal comprehension, beyond even the super-human Doctor’s understanding. The Doctor lays down his life to defeat the devil, only to find his life restored to him in the end.

God out of the machine indeed.

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The two-part story under discussion here is “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit.”

Cross-posted at A Christian Thing.

holy-postSo, it’s a day after people noticed my National Post article “Disagree with Christians? Fine. But do not silence them.” I have to say, I’m surprised it got quite the attention it did. In just one day, 130 comments had been posted on the article, and a couple dozen tweets for and against had flown through Twitter. Meanwhile on Facebook, there were 322 shares and likes of the article, with a fair amount of accompanying conversation. One thing’s for sure: it got people talking. But how fruitful exactly was the resulting conversation?

You’ll recall that my major concern in the article was a growing intolerance in Canada towards religious people (especially Christians). It was pretty clear early on in the day that my concerns were shared by others: “Thank goodness someone finally noticed,” wrote one person on Facebook. “We live in a world where you can be of any faith or no faith, except for Christian.” Another on Twitter wrote that it “seems like [people] nowadays only defend freedom of speech and religion for a select few, while silencing others.” Many Christians seem to feel a growing antipathy towards them.

While some people agreed with my article, many others did not. A number of their comments were insulting, questioning my sanity for believing in “Christian mythology.” But that of course did not mean their comments were bad. Distasteful, perhaps, but not unacceptable. I was arguing in my article on the importance of open discussion, of allowing Christians to speak freely in the public arena. And being given that privilege myself, I also have to respect the freedom of those who disagree with me to speak freely as well. One commenter agreed with another that I was a bit mad. “But we don’t silence him,” that person cautioned, “We just criticize and ridicule him.” Fair enough. The right to insult is also included in the right to freedom of speech. To be sure, I don’t think this is a very helpful sort of rhetoric; it tends to shut down dialogue, not keep it going. But censoring each other in the public realm isn’t the answer either. That’s something I and the commenter both agree on: censorship should be eschewed.

Of course, some commenters confirmed my article’s point by saying openly that they thought religion should be banned—that is to say, censored—from the public forum. “It is reasonable to expect sex as being an activity for consenting adults in the privacy of their bedrooms,” writes one commenter, “and that’s the best for religion too.” Some would indeed like to see Christians (and other religious groups) silenced—to keep their religion at home and not let it show up in the public square. It’s an opinion that I fear is growing, and it is at this type of intolerance my article was aimed: knee jerk, shut ’em up, anti-Christian rhetoric.

As for the actual subject of religious persecution, some commenters don’t seem to think it’s an injustice at all: “People killed for their religion are no more martyrs than soccer fans killed in a riot,” writes one commenter. I find it shocking that the targeted extermination of people solely based on their religion can be so callously disregarded, shrugged off as it were the natural consequence of doing something you knew was dangerous. You played the game, the commenter seems to say, and sometimes people die in that game. Them’s the breaks. Don’t like it? Get out of the game.

But there were also oddball comments on the other side too. One commenter suggested that negative online reaction to the Office for Religious Freedom was done mostly by people who “take a personal delight in the death of Christians.” When asked by another if they specifically meant that the CBC as an organization takes a personal delight in the death of Christians, the first commenter said yes.

Needless to say, that’s a radical departure from what I suggested in my article—and a despicable accusation to boot. I argue that there’s a growing intolerance in Canada to people of faith, and that we see a glimpse of that in the overly negative online reaction to the Office for Religious Freedom. But I’m careful to point out that this is intolerance; it’s not persecution, at least not in the sense that many religious and non-religious people face persecution in other parts of the world. Still, we should resist attempts to silence religious people in Canada, to affirm our right to be part of the public forum. Whatever our faith or non-faith, we live in this country together; we all have the right to discuss openly and freely our opinions on how our shared society should operate. We should feel free to be part of the dialogue.

I was grateful to see at least a little bit of that happening in some of the comments on my article. One religious and one non-religious commenter suggested that, while the online debate was polarized, it might be easier to get along in real life. “If we met, I am sure we would get along fine because we [would] see each other as people first,” writes one.

I hope that type of level-headedness prevails.

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Jack Layton’s funeral is tomorrow, and I felt I should honour his contributions to Canadian society in some small way. His compassion and concern for the downtrodden was inspiring, as was his commitment to keeping his politics civil. Whatever one’s political inclinations, we can all thank God for that type of leadership.

Jack Layton and his wife Olivia Chow in front of St. Francis of Assissi Church (Toronto), during the 2011 Good Friday Procession. Image from Toronto Star.

As my blog is primarily focused on faith, and the relationship between faith and culture, I thought it worthwhile to consider Layton’s approach to faith. Layton was a practising member of the United Church of Canada (though he joked in one instance, “I don’t practise as frequently as I should”). The following are selections from Layton’s written and spoken words where he talks about personal faith, and the role faith can and should play in the political process. Make of them what you will.

“Faith and Politics: Party Leaders Respond.” Faith Today. Jan-Feb 2006. (co-written with Bill Blaikie). http://www.evangelicalfellowship.ca/page.aspx?pid=1247

There is much common ground to be found and to be developed between the religious left and the religious right

The challenge for Canadians who want to practise a politics that is faithful to their understanding of God, of their Scriptures and of their own faith tradition, is how to do this appropriately in the secular, pluralistic and multi-faith society that Canada has become. For Christians this is particularly challenging, because this needs to be done in a way that preserves the right of Christians to bring their values into the public square while respecting the fact that in a post-Christendom context no policy can be officially adopted or rejected for explicitly Christian reasons, as might have been the case in a previous era….

There will always be a role for Christians, and for people of other faiths, to speak out of their prophetic traditions, challenging the rulers of their day to do justice, to love kindness and mercy, and to measure their political choices not in terms of how they help the rich and already powerful, but how they help the hungry, the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized and the environment that future generations will have to live in.

The prophetic voice may not always be welcome in public policy debates, but it is essential that its role be defended as one of the important ways that the spirit speaks to us in human history.

“Interview with Jack Layton.” Canada Kick Ass. October 11, (2009?). http://www.canadaka.net/article/673-interview-with-jack-layton

We’ve actually started a faith and justice commission in our party because we believe that this idea that people who have values that motivate them in politics derived from whatever their faith journey might have been, this idea that this is somehow the exclusive preserve of a far-right component of the population is just simply wrong….

Of course we also have a profound, not only understanding, but belief in the separation of church and state. That is a very very important principle in Canada. We’ve also chosen, however, to be a multi-cultural sort of society. So we’ve allowed for gray areas around the edges, and I think that’s part of working things out in a complex society, and ours is a little more complex than most.

“Jack Layton: Role of Faith.” listenuptv. August 22, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WuiHUQ8pBI

[Responding to a question about the role of faith in his life]: [Faith] has been an active role. My folks got us involved in the youth movement of the United Church right from the get go. I used to be in the junior choir – before my voice changed. We used to go to a group – in fact, my mom and dad ran the group – it was called the “Bible Study Class” at 9:30 on Sunday morning. Three of us went. One was because my dad was running it so naturally I had to go. And there were two others who went. And he said to us, “What would we have to do different?” And I’d say, “Well, you’ve gotta make it more relevant. For example, what if you made it Sunday nights? And what if you changed it from “Bible Study Class” to some other name? Maybe some of our friends who come.” So we came up with the name “Infusers” – the idea that you could infuse your ideas and your work and your enthusiasm into the community. And before you knew it, practically every kid in Hudson was coming (mostly because it was the only way you could get out on a Sunday night was to say you were going down to Mr. Layton’s Bible study class at the church). But we had all kinds of involvement, and… we would go out and meet seniors…. and we’d sing with them or bring them things that they needed. That whole notion of service. So what do I derive from all of that? It’s the concept of service – an optimistic opportunity to serve.

“How the leaders view religion and politics.” Globe and Mail. April 21, 2011. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/how-the-leaders-view-religion-and-politics/article1995302/

I believe that people’s ideas and promises should be the issues of the campaign. It shouldn’t matter if a policy idea [comes] from a place of faith or a practical experience – but people should judge for themselves how it will affect them and their community….

Any Canadian should be able to become prime minister by earning the confidence of the Canadians who elect them, no matter what their faith status might be. A prime minister needs [to] be able to reach out and talk with people from all kinds of different backgrounds – bringing people together from diverse backgrounds is an important leadership trait….

[When asked to describe “a time of personal or political crisis when your faith guided your or helped you”]: Some aspects of one’s faith and spirituality, especially in difficult times, really should remain private.

“Statement by NDP Leader Jack Layton on the Kirpan.” New Democratic Party. January 20, 2011. http://www.ndp.ca/press/statement-by-new-democrat-leader-jack-layton-on-kirpan

It’s time to stop playing divisive, political games with Canadian’s religious beliefs. Canada has a reputation of tolerance and understanding, and we must continue to work together and embrace our differences.

And now, some additional thoughts on Jack Layton’s faith, but this time from his friend Bill Blaikie, an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada, currently serving as an MLA in Manitoba, having served as an NDP MP from 1979 to 2008. His thoughts were published a day after Jack Layton passed away.

“Jack Layton’s strength had Sunday school roots: NDP stalwart Bill Blaikie remembers his friend.” Christian Week. August 23, 2011. http://christianweek.org/stories.php?id=1651

“Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful, and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

With these final words, penned just days before his untimely death on August 22, Jack Layton expressed the firm foundation of his worldview. It was a way of looking at the world that had its roots in his United Church upbringing – a spiritual inheritance he cherished and nurtured as his life progressed….

Jack Layton’s light always shone for a more inclusive, loving, environmentally sensitive world. He dared to believe God’s will could be done on Earth as it was in heaven if those who wanted to anticipate the kingdom and its justice pursued it with discipline and courage.

Canadian Christians, whatever their politics and whatever their disagreements might be, should recognize that in losing Jack Layton we have lost a great example of a public life significantly shaped by the church.

Jack ran the race set before him and fought the good fight. I am as sure as one can be in this life that the words “well done, my good and faithful servant” welcomed him into God’s care and keeping.

Layton’s final thoughts on faith and life will be revealed tomorrow at his funeral. The Globe and Mail reports that he had begun planning it with the Rev. Brent Hawkes more than a month ago. Rev. Hawkes says that Layton asked him to deliver a couple of specific messages during the service. We will have to wait until then to learn what they are.

A few Fridays back, outspoken Atheist Christopher Hitchens and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair held a debate on whether religion was a force for good or evil. That type of event – where the religious are called on to justify their very existence – has become more and more common in recent years as atheists such as Hitchens and Richard Dawkins become increasingly strident (and fervent, I might add) in their condemnation of religion.

In light of this new hostile atmosphere, Charles Lewis (religion reporter for the National Post and editor of the Holy Post religion blogsite) has released an open letter to atheists. It’s entitled “Dear atheists: most of us don’t care what you think.”

Most atheists do not have a clue what religion is about. They see religious people as blind sheep following a series of incomprehensible rules and dogmas and then scoff at their lack of enlightenment.
And again:
Every serious religious person knows faith includes struggle. Faith is not about sweet “feelings.” Real faith is a lot tougher and more difficult than feelings…. Faith is about a certainty of something underlying all that surrounds us and a dogged acceptance that this life is part of an eternal pilgrimage that has trials.

An article well worth the read. Check it out on the Holy Post website.