Movies and the Spiritual Life

Get out the popcorn,“Monk’s Way, Sannyasi Way, Human Way” goes to the movies!  There’s a couple of movies I would like to talk about, but first let us consider movies in general as relating to the spiritual journey.  At the deeper levels of the spiritual life it must be said that things like movies are purely a diversion and a distraction and can simply get in the way.  At the deepest level it won’t really matter but there is a bit of a journey before one gets there.  But mostly it is like all of societal life, a feeble substitute for what the spiritual life opens up for us.  Go out into the midst of society, into the streets, the stores, the homes, the gathering places and look and listen to what people are doing and saying and what they are concerned about and what interests them; and you will find it’s all Plato’s Cave.  Recall: a group of people trapped in a deep, dark cave, sitting facing a wall watching the shadows dancing on the wall cast by a fire behind them.  They believe these shadows are reality.  This was Plato’s comment on our condition.  Very apt still, perhaps even more so.  The shadows are simply more technically sophisticated, but they are still shadows.  If one person happens to liberate himself and make it out of this dark cave and emerge into the sunlight, he/she will then see Reality and if that person goes back to tell his/her fellow “prisoners” about this, he will not be believed.  There is no other reality for these people.  Such is the condition of most of societal life, and it is easy to see this if you just look around you.  Thus the spiritual journey is very difficult in the midst of society, and thus so many who have gotten a sense that there is way out of this cave tend to remove themselves to a certain degree from “business as usual” society.


Movies more often than not are simply just another aspect of this “life in the cave of shadows.”  But there is one significant difference.  Before one reaches the deeper levels of the spiritual life when in fact you should just simply put away such diversions, some movies—very few, but some—can give you a sense of what is deeper than the mere surface reality.  There are movies that can indicate that there is more to “here” than this “cave of shadows.”  That is a true function of all great art, and some movies can play the same role.  Now some people might point out that there is this thing called “religious movies.”  What they mean are movies whose very content is emphatically and clearly “very religious”–Biblical movies for example.   With very few exceptions these are to be avoided at all costs(like a lot of religious art)!!  These are mostly the products of very distorted hearts  which project their distortions onto the movie screen.  Of course the whole process starts by a profound misreading of the Biblical text (which is problematic in itself and not as fundamentalists claim: “the truth, nothing but the truth, the whole truth”!) as if it were history or science or biography and then taking that narrative and using it as a vehicle for their own distortions.  Actually Christianity and Judaism have done a lot of that long before there were movies, but now we are talking about movies.  There are a few notable exceptions, and one would be Pasolini’s Gospel of Matthew which was done in the early ‘60s and is still very timely and not out of date.   For many, this movie was a surprise because Pasolini was an unbeliever, a homosexual and a Marxist—so this quiet, poetic, austere, ultrasimple presentation of Jesus in the simple unembellished words of the Gospel came as a total surprise.  Pasolini wanted to make a move about Jesus truthfully, and he used the Gospel of Matthew as his script.  So actually it is very faithful to the Gospel text in a very unusual way—you see the words in a representation of how that world would have looked and sounded.  It is done in the style of Italian neorealism with no established big actors in any role.  He used “real people.” This was not to be some distorted pious holy-card world.    A remarkable portrayal of Jesus that you usually don’t meet in Church!   Also this is not the “mystic Jesus” of Abhishiktananda, for example; nor the Risen Christ of true Christian theology; but it was and still is a very important aspect of Jesus’s life, this portrayal of a gritty, poor Jesus who is not “soft and meek” but a champion of the underclass.  Not someone who simply comes to rubber-stamp your own desires for success, especially if you are rich.  So a movie like this can serve a good purpose if it leads you to question a kind of surface piety and starts you searching for something deeper. A good religious movie can be a launching point for “spiritual depth” but not necessarily so and certainly not very often either.


Now most Biblical movies, whether you call them religious or not, are actually a block to any real spirituality.  Like I said, they are mostly a misreading and misrepresentation of the Biblical text and its many problems and difficulties in interpretation and on top of that they become projections of the moviemakers own distortions which in turn feeds on the distortions of the movie viewers.  (In that regard movies are only carrying on what fundamentalist ministers, priests and rabbis have been doing for centuries.)  A very good example of that is the new movie “Noah.”  A truly horrible movie.   It shows a gross misunderstanding of that Biblical story and furthermore it adds all kinds of elements to “enhance” the story making it simply another Hollywood disaster flick of which there have been many in recent years (one wonders what is going on in our collective unconscious!).  I was curious what some movie reviewers did with that movie and what kind of impact it might have, so I consulted one reviewer and what I found confirmed my worst fears and expectations.  This was written by Bob Grimm, and I will quote extensively:  “I did my share of Bible reading when I was a kid and teen.  In fact, I read it multiple times from cover to cover….  Of all the literature I read as an impressionable youth, none was more violent and more insane than the Bible.  Actually, I will go as far as to say the Bible is the sickest book ever written when it comes to death and destruction.  If you count the predicted Apocalypse, the whole world dies more than once in that particular piece of literature.  That’s a huge body count.  Whether you are religious or not, the Bible is, no doubt, a pretty sweet platform for over-the-top cinema.  With “Noah”, director Darren Aronfsky has concocted a totally crazy, darkly nasty disaster film befitting those few pages in the book of Genesis.”  And so on…!


But there are “spiritual movies” that are not at all at first glance religious or spiritual, certainly not “Biblical,” and these are the ones which are the most interesting, have the deepest impact and bring us to the edge of a real spiritual journey.  I would like to consider two such movies.  The first one is the “Life of Pi,” an award winning movie with an incredible story and very popular both because of the inherent interest in the unusual story and remarkable photography, and also something much deeper….  It is a truly spiritual movie but not in an obvious way—even though it has quite a few overt references to religion in it.  It is a truly spiritual movie in a way that probably makes conservative, orthodox believers in all religions feel a bit uncomfortable even if they don’t quite get the real point of the story.


So what do we make of the “Life of Pi”?  It is an incredible tale of survival of a young Indian man by the name of Piscine Molitor Patel—shortened to Pi.  A would-be writer visits him in his adult home in Canada and requests to hear his strange story of survival.  Pi tells him his whole life story from his childhood.  He asks the writer if he believes in God.  The question is not irrelevant because the whole childhood of Pi is enveloped by the “story of God.”  The writer professes a kind of agnosticism, so Pi tells him that one needs a story to introduce one to the reality of God.  And each and every religion presents a kind of story that introduces one to that Reality.  Pi of course begins his life with the “story” of Hinduism in the person of Krishna, but he is a young man with an open and deep heart (and monks would say, a pure heart) so he is open to learning the other great stories that lead to God.  And so when he learns about Christ he is deeply puzzled and troubled but drawn deeper and deeper into that story.  Then comes the story of Islam.  He takes on each story without abandoning the previous one.  His father chides him about that.  His father is committed to the “story” of science and rationalism.  It is a powerful story that makes things happen, where you control the world, etc.  His father is not interested in any other story.   So this is the first part of the movie and sets the stage for what is to come.

The next part is what most people get interested in—this incredible tale of survival on a large lifeboat with a wild tiger in the middle of the Pacific.  He spends months on this lifeboat with this tiger and a few other animals that get eaten early on.  Pi has quite a few adventures during these months at sea, but when he is finally rescued and the investigators come to talk to him about the shipwreck that killed everyone, including his family, they do not believe his story—it is so incredible.  Thus he begins to tell them a story that they might believe, a very rational, logical but grim account of how his family and a few crew members fought against each other for survival and the use of the few survival resources.  So the investigators are left to believe or to accept either story—they have a choice between these two stories.  At first they choose the obvious, the more rational story that fits their limits of understanding and imagination.  It makes “sense” within their limited perspective.  But it turns out that ultimately they write down the “incredible tiger story” as the true explanation of what happened.  They choose the more wondrous story.  And then Pi asks his visitor, “which  story of the two do you prefer?”  And the young writer also says, the one with the tiger.  And Pi then gives the main line in the whole movie: “And so it is with God.”  The young writer is struggling with his unbelief, with his agnosticism, but Pi points out to him that he is not compelled to believe anything, but of the stories he has heard, the various ones about God and the logical rational scientific one, of these which one would he prefer as the “ground story” of this world, the basis of it all.   The writer does not answer but you can see the smile on his face, a smile of relief.  So, first of all faith is not compulsion and there is no “proof” of anything in the spiritual world.  What we have is a different explanation for the meaning of it all, and that is a start.  But then, and this is what makes the conservative movie viewer very uneasy, the movie seems to be saying that all “stories of God” lead to God.  Here too you have a choice—no compulsion—you will NOT have made a mistake if you choose the “wrong one.”  There is no wrong choice.  Pi somehow absorbs all the stories of God into himself even as he seems to be an Indian Christian.  How can he do that? How can he hold in his heart the “story” of Hinduism, the “story” of Christianity, and the “story” of Islam all at the same time?  God is a Reality so far beyond any story that this Reality is totally beyond our understanding, but we Christians find that we best approach this Reality through the person of Jesus; but that doesn’t mean that we cannot at the same time learn much from the stories of Islam and Hinduism and others and approach God with the greatest intimacy through these stories.     So this is a movie that opens one on a long spiritual journey which transcends the logical rational world both of science and of theology.


Finally there is another movie I would like to consider, one that is even less “religious” than the “Life of Pi.”  This is a short little piece called “Return to Balance: A Climber’s Journey.”  This is not a major movie but a small production that you can probably pick up at your local library on a DVD.  It features world-class rock climber Ron Kauk and it is set in Yosemite.  The movie has no explicit talk of God, of religion, of spirituality, etc., but it is a deeply spiritual movie with a fundamental tone of Taoism and Native American spirituality.  First of all just the scenery itself evokes “something wonderful” underlying all our lives.  It is a beauty and an evocation right from the Chinese Taoist and Buddhist scroll paintings.  It is a picture of a world that Han-shan knew quite well.  And then there is the story of Ron Kauk.  He began his young climbing life in a very competitive spirit, in attempts to “conquer” the mountain, in impressing people, etc.  But climbing turned out to be a spiritual path that transformed his heart.  Now he dwells in the wilds and on the rock walls in a way that very few can appreciate.  He is in a very different space now than where he began, and that’s a true sign of a spiritual journey.  He uses that word “connected” a lot in this movie.  I thought of all those young people in our cities who are constantly texting trying to feel connected, and here is a man who is so deeply connected that they have not a clue about this reality.  “Connectedness” does not come from some gadget but from the heart.  Anyway, this is a very simple, understated movie with few words and no “special effects,” but one with a deeply penetrating insight into the real need of your heart.