Sunday, January 28, 2007

The End of Times Puppet Show

Today I had planned to finish rereading J. R. R. Tolkien's seminal essay "On Fairy Stories" and use it as a lens through which to craft a review of Pan's Labyrinth, but I ended up having a busy day. First, I got roped into a bunch of astronomy websites about black holes, and then I had to attend my wife's sister's husband's 60th birthday. Oh well, he's a fine fellow. And I got to meet their dogs.

Anyway, some friends came over afterward and we had a light dinner and watched Jesus Camp. Holy shit! This film documents a woman who runs a fundamentalist Christian summer camp for children, and examines a few of the children who attend. It is an example of a documentary that portrays its subjects in the most sympathetic way and allows the viewer to judge for himself.

This woman has perfected some disturbing techniques in mind control and manipulation. Watching her interact with the children is a sobering experience. Her convictions were comical yet alarming. As an added bonus, the film was made prior to Ted Haggard being outed as a meth-fueled queerbag, so he is featured prominently in a few scenes. Somehow, he's far less creepy as a drug-addicted gay man than he is in the footage of this film. Enjoy!


John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Sam, you really ought to read some of what Elaine Pagels has written about Gnostic Christianity. It has totally opened my eyes, and puts this kinda stuff in a totally different light. Beyond Belief, her book about the Gospel of Thomas is probably the best place to start. The Gnostic Gospels is a good primer on Gnosticism, but not as interesting. I am almost done with Gnostic Paul, and it is blowing me away.

Gnostic Paul suggests that the kind of fundamentalist power plays you see in "Jesus Camp" was recognized in the early church as a problem endemic in faith. This sort of legalism and obsession with control is typical among those gnostics refered to simply as "immature" Christians.

Mature Christians, in this very ancient Christian view, are much more willing to allow for contradicition and paradox. They accept that much (if not most) scriptural teaching is allegory, intended to point us to something that is literally beyond words. They view faith as a process of growth, of coming to know God, of "becoming Christs" in our own right. We become Christs through humility and kindness, not through perfectionism or control. They view judgmentalism, manipulation and domination as absolute anathema to everything Christianity is supposed to be about.

It is very revealing to consider the history of orthodox Christianity and its relationship to what we call "gnosticism" (the gnostics didn't call themselves that... the term gnostic simply means "those who know"). It suggests that at a certain point, the immature Christians got impatient, and branded their more "mature" brethren and sisters as heretics. Christianity has suffered ever since, though we've seen occasional streams of mysticism and heresy popping up time and time again, injecting new life into the old faith.

According to Pagels, most of Paul's theology specifically addressed this problem, and was geared toward teaching people how it might be possible to move the church as a whole to a higher level: through patience, love, and in relationship with one another.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

I might add... The suppression of gnostic Christianity was not just a result of an internal feud among Christians with different perspectives. For obvious reasons, orthodox Christianity with its emphasis on hierarchy, its belief that there's only one way to do things, its emphasis on obedience and authority, was much more in line with what the Emperor of Rome wanted in a religion. Gnostics were suppressed because it didn't suit the Emperors to have people running around saying that we are all Christs, that we all have the light of truth in us.

Knight of Nothing said...

I almost feel like writing another essay on this film. It is an amazing window into the world of evangelical Christianity.

If the Gnostic Paul puts a context around the fundamentalist's desire to transform the U.S. into a Christian state, then engaging these evangelicals in a dialog does not seem to be a useful exercise. How can you convice someone that their desire for control and domination in Jesus's name is really just a desire for control and domination?

These Christians seem to have solved the ancient dilemma of which Pagels writes and you cite: they have fused the internal Christ (Jesus as their personal savior and the Guiding Light to Truth, Peace, Justice, and Eternal Life) with the will to power (the fear of damnation and the desire to shape public policy to suit their particular view of morality).

I have been meaning to read The End of Faith by Sam Harris. In it, he argues that Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, with its emphasis on the afterlife and its tendency to claim sole access to salvation, has no place in the modern person's mind. He believes that this tradition serves only to divide people. He seems to be saying that its "legalism and obsession with control," as you call it, is an inseparable part of these faiths.

Viewed through that framework, the mystical, spiritual Christian would seem to be the exception, rather than the rule.