Analysisbites: Omen! Battlestar! Jesus Camp!

It’s been a few days since my last post, and there isn’t much to say on the news front right now — apart from the fact that Cars, despite playing on more screens than any Pixar movie ever, is the first Pixar cartoon to have a smaller opening weekend in wide release than the Pixar cartoon that immediately preceded it (and indeed, depending on the final numbers that are due tomorrow, the film may turn out to have Pixar’s smallest opening weekend since Toy Story 2 came out way back in 1999) — but I did want to link to the following items, which “analyze” certain films and TV shows more than “review” them. I’ll quote some salient bits, but by all means, read the full-length articles at the links provided.

1. Gabriel McKee at comments on The Omen, Left Behind and “Christian cultural terrorism”:

But despite its spiritual themes, The Omen has a distinctly secular approach to religious ideas. Screenwriter David Seltzer has stated that he had never read the Bible before writing the screenplay, and it shows. The film repeatedly paraphrases Revelation, but never directly quotes it. Indeed, the infant Beast himself is the only element of John’s apocalypse that appears in the film. The Final Conflict eschews the canon altogether, inventing a book of the Bible — complete with faux-King James linguistic flourishes and an “it shall come to pass” — to contain its plot-driving prophecy. The Omen gives us an Antichrist with no doctrinal or scriptural strings attached, diffusing from the complexities of apocalyptic spirituality a single element, a sinister figure who is evil in the broadest sense.

Nowhere is this secular approach to Biblical prophecy more clear than in The Final Conflict. Damien, all-grown-up, is the head of Thorn Industries, a multinational corporation that has a stranglehold on the world’s economy and food supply. In the film’s climactic scene, Damien is betrayed and stabbed by a former lover, dying as the Second Coming occurs. The moment is somewhat anticlimactic, giving us a ghostly image of Jesus, a musical flourish, and a lighting cue — a far cry from the universal transformation in the closing chapters of Revelation. Jesus’ return occurs in secret, in the isolated ruins of a church, and we are left with the sense that not much has changed beyond the ouster of a sinister CEO. With the Antichrist out of the way, the world can get back to business as usual. The Omen’s Jesus brings not final judgment, but a return to the status quo.

The key Christian element missing from The Omen films is the presence of Christians. Aside from a handful of histrionic priests and scheming monks who become fodder for the films’ grand guignol death sequences, there’s nary a believer to be found. Early in the first film, Father Brennan, a priest who knows of Damien’s true origins, tells the boy’s father that he must “accept the Lord Jesus, drink His blood.” But Thorn ignores this advice, and doesn’t set foot inside a church until he attempts to kill Damien on consecrated ground in the film’s climax. As The Omen films would have it, all Christians are Catholics, all Catholics are clergy, and none of them can stop the Antichrist. The heroes, by contrast, are secularists, right up to the woman who finally kills Damien.

Richard Donner, the director of the first Omen film, sheds some interesting light on this conundrum with his non-supernatural interpretation of the story. Damien, he says, is not evil, and the deaths around him are coincidental. But the misguided faith of priests like Father Brennan lead Thorn, otherwise a rational man, to believe that his son must die. The movie, in this light, becomes a warning about the dangers of religious mania. The absence of Christians in the film underscores this statement about the dangers that radical faith can pose for secular society.

FWIW, I recently listened to Donner’s commentary on the DVD for the original Omen, and I have to say I don’t quite buy his take on the story — he throws in too many seemingly “objective” elements that Thorn and Father Brennan are not aware of, and thus could not be incorporating into their mania. And I do think there comes a point where the coincidences stack up so high that there would almost certainly have to be something more going on …

2. A monk I know recently lent me the first season of the new version of Battlestar Galactica, and I have to say it grew on me. I don’t watch live TV all that much, so I’m waiting for a chance to see the second season on DVD — but in the meantime, Seth Perry’s comments at Martin Marty’s Sightings pique my interest:

It wasn’t until the recent closing episodes of the second season that the show began to really round out the religious feature of its universe. The prophecy-heavy plotline on the human side seems to have played itself out for now, and the inevitability of those prophecies appears more explicitly in question. Similarly, events that Six had predicted did not turn out as she had foreseen. The most artful development, in my view, took the form of something that accompanies religion everywhere, but which had been missing from Cylon society: skepticism. First seen masquerading as a priest of the human religion, a model of Cylon appears who does not believe: “Supernatural divinities are the primitive’s answer for why the sun goes down at night.” Better yet, he makes it clear that his own skepticism is as unverifiable as the faith of the other Cylons: “At least that’s what we’ve been telling the others for years. Can’t really prove it one way or the other, of course.”

Now we’re talking. Galactica has been deservedly lauded for providing a novel setting for the playing out of real-life political, social, and moral issues, which is what the best science fiction always does. With the clear infusion of questions of faith into its theological trappings, the show can explore the way religion works in the real world — as a series of stops and starts, buoyed by faith and beset with doubt, among an assortment of individuals who believe different things to different degrees.

3. Kirsten A. Powers at The American Prospect critiques the documentary Jesus Camp for portraying one extremist segment of evangelicalism as though it somehow represented the whole:

Statistics about the spectacular number of “evangelicals” in the United States are ominously flashed onscreen throughout the movie, implicitly suggesting that Becky and her assembled camp are giving us a peek into the inner workings of the “evangelical movement.” But it might be worth questioning the conventional wisdom that the 100 million Americans who call themselves evangelicals all march to the same beat. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson have a vested interest in presenting this group as a conservative monolith under their exclusive and unquestioned control. And while there is no denying the electoral power of the Religious Right, Democrats should not assume that all, or even a majority, of evangelicals naturally hew to the Republican line.

While it’s never disclosed in the movie, Jesus Camp is in fact a Pentecostal camp, which puts it far to the right theologically and politically, even within the evangelical movement. The directors explained that they didn’t want to confuse audiences by disclosing this and instead referred to the camp only as “evangelical.” Unfortunately, they unwittingly added to the enormous confusion that people like Jim Wallis, author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, has been trying to clear up for years.

Hat tip to Jeffrey Overstreet for that last link.

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  • Thom

    I don’t know why, but this phrase really tickled me.
    “A monk I know recently lent me the first season of the new version of Battlestar Galactica,”