Religion

Movie Review: Risen

There been somewhat of a boom in biblical films over the past few years but I generally avoid them.  The primary reason is that I avoid new films in general but I also know that Hollywood hates Christianity.

The irony is that Hollywood is all about making money, and they know the Christian market is substantial, so they try to tap into it.  Even so they can’t resist the urge to sucker-punch their audience.

Anyone remember “The Golden Compass?”

This was supposed to be a monster hit and it came out on the heels of the wildly-successful first Narnia movie.  Family friendly!  Fantastic beasts in a kid’s story.

Oh, and totally anti-religion.  Strangely, Christians didn’t bring their kids to see it and the nascent franchise crashed and burned.

So when I saw “Risen” in the previews I was curious, but not enough to buy a ticket and go see it.

Last night I finally got around to watching it.

It’s excellent.

The reviews for it have been mixed, I assume because most critics hate the topic.  For those who don’t know (or forgot about it), “Risen” tells the tale of the Crucifixion and Resurrection from the point of view of a Roman military officer (played by Joseph Fiennes).

 This device allows the film to approach the subject skeptically, and (I think) show how people would really react if they saw these miracles happening.  Let’s face it:  If a guy was condemned to death, killed and then rose again, people would freak. 

If you’re a pagan and you see the power of God, you might be driven to drink trying to figure out what just happened.

I don’t want to give too much away, (even though if you’ve read the Gospels you know the story), but the varying ways people dealt with the situation just rang true.  Often we don’t see the miracle, just the aftermath, which I think is more powerful.

I would even go so far as to say this film is much better than Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”  It didn’t get the attention, but it should.

Though the comparison may seem odd, the last time I enjoyed a movie this thoroughly was “300.”  The tone and look was perfect.  I intend to watch it again this week with the kids.  It’s that good. 


Leah Remini and the Crisis of Scientology

For the last few weeks I’ve been watching A&E’s show about Scientology, hosted by Leah Remini.  I confess I had no idea who the woman even is – I had heard of some of her shows, but never watched them. 

I have to admit it is a very effective expose – far more detailed (and therefore disturbing) than HBO’s “Going Clear,” which I’ve also viewed.

“Going Clear” introduced me into the world of anti-Scientology, which I find fascinating.  There are a number of web sites out there, including Operation Clambake and one by someone named Tony Ortega, and they provide all manner of interesting material.

My first awareness of Scientology was those TV commercials in the 1980s, and I assumed “Dianetics” was just another self-help book.  I was a subscriber to Time magazine back when they ran their “Cult of Greed” article, but none of it really interested me.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found faith – and its perversions – more compelling.

It seems to me that Scientology went through several phases in its development.  The first was when it was marketed as a science – something new and modern, appropriate for the dawn of the Space Age.  L. Ron Hubbard was a pulp sci-fi author, and that was his comfort zone.

He made a bunch of money based on it, and that led to issues with the IRS.  Hubbard was a strange duck in many ways, and one of the fascinating contradictions is how he glorified and never really let go of his mediocre Navy career (the Church of Scientology is modeled on the Navy’s command structure, complete with uniforms, ranks and “flag bases”), yet at same time loathed the US government, particularly the IRS.  The guy was petitioning for disability checks all the while striking a pure libertarian pose.

It seems to me that the focus shifted during the 1960s and Scientology began to regard itself as a religion – no doubt partly to gain a tax exemption.  Still, growth appeared to have been steady and widespread into the 1970s.  New Age stuff was cool, and there were a lot of burned-out hippies seeking to reform and refocus their lives.

And then Hubbard got his foothold into Hollywood.

I think that was the heyday of ‘evangelical Scientology,’ and the 1980s marketing push was an act of desperation rather than a move flowing from confidence.

At any rate, the organization portrayed by both shows is one that is retrenching, authoritarian and almost entirely reliant on internal growth (members having kids and raising them in the faith) than creating converts.

Lots of stuff has been written about Hubbard himself, most of it outside Scientology being very unfavorable.  Watching the videos of him, the guy looks shifty – a master confidence man.  His own son said as much when he broke from the organization.

According to the family, at the end of his life, Hubbard was a prisoner of his own creation, trapped by the religion he created.  Obviously the Scientologists disagree, and claim their exalted founder continued to provide insight and leadership right up the moment when he shrugged off the mortal coil and ascended to the next level.

Hubbard’s critics accuse him of very manner of sin, pointing to his dabbling in the occult (including the practices of Aleister Crowley) and dubbing him a greedy master of deception.  I have to wonder, though, if deep down he didn’t want his mythology to be true. 

The best liars are the ones who can sell themselves on what they say.  I think he knew his work was bunk, but desperately wanted it to be true.  After all, how cool would it be if people really could transcend time and space and wage interstellar war for the salvation of the galaxy?

The propaganda I’ve seen for the Sea Org (a branch of Scientology) really pushes this angle and the fact that Hubbard went all-in on the whole Space Navy thing (he was the Commodore and correspondence uses military formats) shows to me at least that he was obsessed with living out his military fantasy.

When he died, one of his acolytes took over after a brief power struggle.  David Miscavige is widely reviled by the ex-Scientology community, some of whom actually still cling to its teachings.  To them, Miscavige is a heretic who made himself Pope.

In writing this, I suppose I’m risking retaliation by Scientology, since they tend to respond quickly and aggressively to any and all forms of criticism.  That’s a major focus on the show – how they use a policy called “fair game” to discredit and destroy their foes.

They seem to be pretty vigilant about it.  I notice that they already have a paid advertisement up at Google to discredit the A&E show, complete with a special domain.

The Federalist has been running stories about the show and a number of commenters keep derailing to conversation by attacking other religions.  This comment thread was hijacked by some virulent anti-Catholics who put laughably false allegations out there – ones that were easily refuted, but of course the goal wasn’t to turn people away from the Church but rather change the subject away from Scientology.  Mission accomplished.

Various people have thrown bricks at Scientology before, to little apparent effect, but I have to wonder if this time is different.  The number of defectors seems to be growing and a lot of them held pretty high rank.

The attacks against them also seem pretty weak.  A&E has provided all of them (and Remini reads portions during the show) and instead of discrediting the people, it makes Scientology look pretty bad.

I mean, every one of these formerly high-ranking people is accused of physical abuse and corruption.  But wait, I thought they had been in the thing for years?  I thought they had been “cleared.”  How could so many corrupt people rise so high?  A few of the defectors raised that point – if the leadership is a bunch of spouse-abusers, how did they get into positions of power?  Did no one spot this?

It’s possible to believe that a single bad apple could sneak through the vetting process, but when it keeps happening, one has to wonder:  How thorough is our training?  How enlightened are these people, really?

I think the crucial difference now is that information is so much easier to find.  Before, if I wanted to read about Scientology, I would have to go to a library and hope that some of these books were there.

Now (as I’ve shown above) the information on the internet is plentiful.  A few minutes of web searches will provide plenty of startling revelations for would-be converts.

To combat this, Scientology tries to keep its members from the internet.  This might work for people already raised in its confines, but the current generation is completely wired.  They have smart phones and surf constantly.  Trying to convince them that everything they read on the internet is a lie is a bit of a stretch.  I’m not saying that it is impossible, but if (for example) you buy a copy of “Dianetics” and want to learn more about it, what you find might not be encouraging.

It will be interesting to see what happens going forward.  The Remini show was supposed to have only six episodes but they added one and the final episode (next week) is now billed as a "season" rather than "series" finale.

It's hard for me to see how Scientology survives this onslaught.