Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Harrison Ford as a Christ figure? 

Human beings are often described as pattern-recognizing creatures.  We find faces in the clouds, Mother Mary in a peanut butter sandwich, lottery numbers in the New York Times crossword puzzle, a picture of Jesus in a vanilla wafer.  
Get thee behind me?

A well-known critic of Christianity recently made the absurd claim that "all" Christian apologists "lack the imagination of a child."  Right.  Think what C. S. Lewis, the most famous apologist of the 20th Century, could have written with a little imagination!  Or J. R. R. Tolkien, the "apologist" who brought him to faith.  Or G. K. Chesterton, the greatest Catholic apologist of the 20th Century -- why couldn't Lepanto or Ballad of the White Horse show just a little originality and romantic verve?  Let's not even talk about Blaise Pascal, or Augustine who invented and mastered the psychological autobiography with the same strokes of the pen . . .

A more plausible accusation against cultural apologists may be that we have too much imagination. 

Here, for example, a fellow named Daniel Mumby lists "50 Films that you wouldn't think are Christian, but actually are."

Some of these alleged parallels seem far-fetched, to put mildly.  As one person puts it, half the "Christian" films, are films a Christian shouldn't be watching.  Eyes Wide Shut?  Clockwork Orange?  And I think Mumby badly overrates Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which Johnny Depp channels Michael Jackson.  Skeptics on PZ Myers's page take this list as an example of the stifling Christian tendency to ruin good pagan fun by reading our redemption story into it ("I guess everything looks Christian to a Christian.")  Dune?  Isn't that full of Islamic motifs? 

And how about Bladerunner?  This Harrison Ford movie might be what we call “pre-evangelism:” repent, or LA will get the weather of Forks, Washington, you’ll have to order your lunch from holograms that speak garbled Japanese, and psychopathic robots will find novel ways of disembowling you after love-making.  (Or is that An Inconvenient Truth?)

And where on this list (I growl) is that great Christian parable, Groundhog Day?

All this points to an intellectual temptation to which fulfillment thinkers, like myself, are apt to succomb.  One can find hints and foreshadowings of anything, anywhere, if one looks hard enough. 
I find them in China, and wrote a book on "how Jesus fulfills the Chinese culture."  In some ways, it's still my favorite book, and it's probably sold the most copies, too. 

Are we guilty of too much imagination?  Is that where Christianity came from?  Did Jesus' first followers read too much into the Old Testament, and extract a long series of "prophecies" that were originally meant to be nothing of the sort? 

Yet there ARE such things as hints.  Actions can have symbolic meaning.  Promises can be made and kept. 

And alongside the ability to find patterns, humans also have a corresponding talent, sometimes, of overlooking them.  It is possible to be a hypochondriac, and it is also possible to ignore symptoms until one is half dead.  Scrooge didn't want to see Marlowe on his door knob.  Some people are too suspicious, and others too gullible.

In some ways, Christian theology is the search for a pattern that makes sense of human, and even cosmic, history. 

Atheists do the same thing -- they call it "evolution." 

We may agree that the slow unfolding of natural events is part of the creation pattern.  But we also recognize a deeper pattern of entering and transforming: "the divine Logos, the Word made flesh." 

One can see Harrison Ford as the product of 3.8 billion years of evolution, along with his brother the cobra hissing at him in Raiders of the Lost Ark

One can see him as an image of God, fallen, but who sometimes plays roles that remind us of our need for a Savior, for a divine, Herculean hero who risks his neck on behalf of the rest of us.  (And isn't the ark a symbol of God's presence?) 

It's easy to get carried away!  I don't see faces on vanilla wafers, and don't want to, anymore than Scrooge wanted to see Marlowe on his door knob.  But I think history does have meaning, and I think Isaiah did prophesy the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  (And so, perhaps, did Lao Zi.)  Fulfillment operates on different levels, with overt prophecies, implicit promises, accidental parallels, and even patterns of nature, like the rebirth of corn in the spring, that find new meaning not just in the long, slow story of creation, but in the story of Jesus, who changes the meaning of history.   

I was inclined at first to laugh, too, at some of the "parallels" in these movies -- kick back and enjoy them, or in some cases avoid them.  But "all truth is God's truth," and in the end, there really is no place to hide from His presence -- not even at the movies.


Joshua said...

"The True Son of Heaven" is a great book that I'm currently reading.

What sort of guideline would you give believers to keep them from reading too much into non-Christian things?

For example, being overly optimistic myself, I sometimes read Christian-themes into non-Christian lyrics.

Was Origen like you or me? :)

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Joshua -- that's a great question.

I'm tempted to say, like art, you'll know it when you see it. But that won't do, because people see it differently.

Here's one way to separate the wheat from the chaff: make a list, say, of all that is said about the "Suffering Servant" in Isaiah 52-3. Mark what is of central importance, from possible poetic flourishes.

Then ask yourself: who could this be talking about, besides Jesus?

Some suggestions have been offered -- the nation of Israel, Ezekiel.

Do these proposed parallels match more of what is said about the Suffering Servant than Jesus, or less? How much does one have to twist the passage to make them fit?

The same questions apply to the Sage Lao Zi speaks about. Some people think he was "really" talking about King Wen, founder of the Zhou Dynasty. Yuan Zhiming suggests he was talking about Jesus. Following New Testament example, you might say he was talking about both.

But even if Isaiah or Lao Zi weren't consciously thinking of Jesus, and even if the portraits they drew were imperfect sketches, it might be that he fulfills truth displayed in them. Or at least, they might be useful models within Jewish and Chinese cultures for explaining who Jesus is.

So there are three kinds of claims we might make: (1) divine prophecy; (2) "general revelation" in Nature or the human mind fulfilled in Jesus; or (3) good marketing.

I'm inclined to see Isaiah as (1), Lao Zi as (1), or at least (2), Plato's righteous man as (2) (but some of these movies more as 3).

The Christian interpretation also brings these great ancient texts to life, and gives them renewed meaning in the modern world. I think we can do that, without smothering non-Christians, or sucking all the vitality out of the original, by being cautious in our interpretation, recognizing the original context and meaning, and giving the ancient sages (and modern film-makers) respect for their own insights. If we love Lao Zi for his own greatness, not just as an appendage to our collective ecclesiastical egos, then we can respect both the "otherness" and the proto-Christian insight, even inspiration, of the artist.

That was more than I planned to say, but I'm not sure it fully answers your question. There are other reasons I think Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah, and Ezekiel is not -- a fulfillment is, by definition, something greater than the original.

But I'm still thinking about this, myself. Any ideas?

Crude said...

One of the few, few shining moments in my Catholic schooling that I remember was when a kindly old nun told her english class that, as Catholics, when we read fiction books or watch movies, we should be attempting to take away a Christian understanding from it - even if that wasn't the intent of the author.

At the time, I thought it was silly. Now, I don't. And I think one key is to recognize that 'finding Christianity' in a movie or book does not mean coming to the conclusion that 'The author intended to give this message'. It just means taking in a story with a particular perspective and making your own understanding of it, informed by your own principles. You can do that while recognizing 'That's not what this writer intended' all at the same time.

For the record, Groundhog Day is a favorite of mine as well.

David B Marshall said...

Crude: Do follow the link, then, and read the article on the Gospel in Groundhog Day. It's good.

Joshua said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response, David.

Actually, growing up in a nondenominational setting, people within that circle pushed to see "Christ" in just about everything, tying it to having a "single eye". I tend to see a lot of Chinese history and philosophy in this light; like people stuck in a dark room looking, feeling, and shouting out for a light. I think it's particularly clear in Mozi and his idea of "universal love" (note: not to be confused with the '60s notion of the same name), which is about as close to the teachings of Jesus as any culture ever got without Him.

But, like you, I'm still thinking about all these things and trying to learn how it all fits into the whole.

Joel said...

Reading allegories of Jesus into everything is the opposite mistake of fundamentalist separatism, though less harmful. If we're going to engage with the arts, we have to meet them on their own terms, not force meanings in that aren't there.

Dune and its sequels, for example, (the books, I haven't seen the movie) have plenty of good material for a discussion on the nature of power or the human tendency to self-destruct in pursuit of our deepest desires.

In his new "Paul Through Mediteranean Eyes" on 1 Corinthians, Kenneth Bailey argues that Paul had Pericles' speech about the sacrifice of Greek warriors in mind when he discusses the wisdom of God and the cross in chapters 1 and 2. But Paul does not try to force an allegory or say "Jesus is just like these warriors", and there are as many contrasts as similarities.