April 22, 2010

Religion vs. Hollywood

It starts with your need to safeguard our children and a desire to promote wholesome, life-affirming values and develop the intellect, empathy and artistic appreciation of our society. This desire makes you sit and pay attention to the voices of religious critics of Hollywood. So you initially feel drawn to read Brent Bozell III’s blog and decentfilms.com.

It ends when you realize the “Family Friendly” common ground you thought you shared with the religious critics disguises another mission entirely.
What mission is that? Well it becomes rather obvious after a while.

All Must Serve Our Objectives

All religious fundamentalists would prefer if all forms of artistic expression acted in service of their doctrines, values and their preferred socio-economic/political paradigm.

Just like Al Jezera acts in service of fundamentalist Muslim doctrines and values, in our western society, the Christian fundamentalists want Hollywood to do the same. In a society that promises free speech and free enterprise, they cannot compete with Hollywood’s volume and mass audience. So, the only way is to seek to infiltrate and plagiarize. When that does not work, they use boycotts and when that does not work, they seek to overthrow the entire industry by seeding mass suspicion of Hollywood through constant condemnation.

Why do religious entities have this far-fetched presumption that artistic expression should serve them?

Well, who says it’s far-fetched? At one point in time, all art did was serve religion.

When Religion Owned And Dictated Everything

There was a time when religious advancement was the only purpose for which art would be sanctioned, whether music, drama, poetic verse, art, sculpture and architecture. It was not just art but any discipline which could influence the individual materially, intellectually, physically, socio-politically or emotionally. The religious empires must have realised early one that if one controlled these aspects, it was easier to also influence the spiritual lives of human beings.
From the Middle East to Europe, religion controlled everything, from finance to scientific research and education to the practice of medicine to law to governance to philosophy and of course art.

This was not the case everywhere though.

Art for art’s sake was already practiced in many parts of the East in ancient Japan, China and India and among many indigenous cultures that did not view the physical world as less “hallowed” than the spiritual world but a valid continuation of it. Creativity was recognized as Divine expression and there was just as much reverence for a poem about the cherry blossoms as there was for a song about the Goddess that created them. The act of being creative was seen as a spiritual act no matter if the art created was inspired by religion, sex or nature. The first European visitors to the Orient were astounded by the vibrancy, the colour, the creative energy that seemed to effuse every waking moment.

Back in church ruled Europe, a composer was expected to compose religious music. A painter was expected to be commissioned by the Church. Anything outside of that was considered “folk”, “heathen” and severely censored. In Islamic territories art and what could be represented, written or composed was restricted even more. The hand, heart and head were intended to serve God in everything. Of course the catch is, “God” and “the man-made religious bureaucracy” were essentially one and the same thing. If you dared to question that, it would be the gallows, chopping block, stoning hill, iron maiden or pyre for you!

However, man would soon discover that religion was not the ultimate source of truth and fulfillment of the material, intellectual, physical, socio-political or emotional needs of mankind.

Religious Control Challenged

It happened with science (intellectual & physical) first when people like Galileo saw that science was its own authority. The laws that govern our universe cannot be religiously mandated or interpreted only through a narrow religious doctrine from an ancient “holy” book. Of course, he paid an awful price for challenging the Church on their inaccurate stance about the sun revolving around the earth.
Other disciplines that quickly followed were medicine (intellectual & physical) and the discovery of germs and rejection of demons being the cause of illness. Next came governance, law, philosophy (intellectual & socio-political) which re-birthed (it was already born in Greece centuries ago) the concept of democracy, equality, just cause, trial by jury and paved the way for our secular (Church is separate from State) societies today.

Once we began objective research, observation of the human condition and governance of human society free from religious superstition and supposition, art, which is a reflection of life, quickly followed.

Art for art’s sake took off during the Renaissance. By the time the Post Revolutionary Bohemian movement and Age of Reason dawned, it was already fully emancipated from the Church. New doorways opened as absinthe, marijuana and opium found their way into the intellectual and artistic communities of Europe. It finally dawned on Europeans that that just like philosophy and science, art can, all by itself be a means of seeking, questioning and answering the deepest dilemmas of the universe without any slavish devotion to religion. If a person was creative enough to explore independently, truth and enlightenment would find them eventually.
In Islamic societies, the restrictions remained and still remain to this day.

The religious war against artistic expression and fight for ultimate control of it is fully demonstrated by the Muslim Fundamentalists in Somalia want to ban all music because it is “un-Islamic”.

The religious establishment hates competition.

Although most denominations gave up the battle for science and medicine, they are still fighting for control of the way we govern ourselves, think about ourselves, think about others, relate to others and how we express all of this through art.
The ascendance of art as its own authority presented a challenge to the religious status quo, especially because artistic expression in all its forms proved to be a profound, popular and powerful influencer and trigger rivaling even religious devotion. Can you imagine the affront when people began flocking to the theatre more than they did to the churches and leaving vast sums of money to the arts? Can you imagine the outrage when people got moral lessons from plays by Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde instead of their parish priest?

Artistic expression has the power to evoke the same emotional high and spiritual transcendence on which religious devotion once had the monopoly.

Art has no master and no limits. Painters, musicians, playwrights, sculptors and writers began setting their imagination free and it would not be long before they imagined worlds where religion did not figure and situations where the morality expounded by religion was inferior to bourgeoning human wisdom. Art was universal, anarchic and a tool available to radicals to challenge the status quo on which religion depends.

When moving images (motion picture) and the industry around it was discovered and implemented it was not by devout Christians or Muslims. The founders of Hollywood’s top studios were worldly, Deistic, atheistic, Masonic or Jewish. The new art-form was founded in a still young country whose founding fathers lay the foundation for a New World where no religious belief was to be given special dispensation by the State. All were guaranteed free speech as they were freedom of belief.

The founders of Hollywood’s top studios, Warner Bros, Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount, Columbia were not devout Christians or Muslims.

A war between religion and Hollywood for the hearts and minds of people was inevitable.

Hollywood is certainly not the only or most perfect model of independent, revolutionary artistic expression. Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims also protest visual art exhibitions, literature, television, plays and music that do not serve their interests. However Hollywood is the most powerful force of artistic exploitation and conveyance in our world. It also refuses to aid the survival of the religious status quo even though that was not how their relationship started off.

How The Relationship Went Sour

There was a time when Hollywood took the religious preferences and status quo of America very seriously.

There was a time when Hollywood still pandered heavily to religion and the status quo police in America. It not only produced scores of religious films which brought fantastic tales of the bible to life, it often found itself presenting to America a picture of herself that was not actually true or even right. The fifties were not as wholesome as Hollywood portrayed. Fortunately, not all art-forms in the 1950s fell short of authenticity. The literature, poetry, art and underground music of that time revealed women suffering in quiet desperation; no longer content to be girly, subservient sycophants. The happy dancing “negroes” content to be the help was not the norm. Young people weren’t just chastely kissing in the backseat while listening to Perry Cuomo and America was not doing heroic things abroad in Africa and Asia. A storm more chaotic than a Jackson Pollock painting was brewing.

Many who over-depended on Hollywood were caught completely off-guard by the civil rights, women’s and hippie movement. The new rock and roll rebellious culture seemed to come out of nowhere. Then, all of a sudden, rather than censure it, Hollywood started to embrace the youth culture, new age thinking and changing status quo. That was a betrayal many conservative Christians still have not forgiven. In fact there seemed to be a new fraction in Hollywood that became almost desperate to regain authenticity and be the voice of the young and innovative instead of the voice of the establishment.

Hollywood chose to embrace the changing culture rather than cling to the establishment and instantly won lifelong enemies among America’s conservative values base.

This would only add to the outrage and post traumatic stress disorder of many from that “Good Ole 50’s” generation who had their comforting status quo rug unexpectedly and violently pulled from beneath them. The same outraged voices who protested Elvis’ swinging hips and white Petula Clark singing with black Harry Belafonte during primetime television are the forbearers of the anti-Hollywood brigade. They were unprepared for the loss of their “lily-white” television, traditional gender roles and simple morality where everyone knew their place. They are not going to make that mistake again.

What Religion Wants From The Media

If Christian fundamentalists had their way could have their way, we’d all be watching “Christian films” and if Muslim fundamentalists had their way, we’d be watching "Muslim films".

Of course when artistic expression is dictated by religion it quickly becomes contrived, creatively unoriginal and uninspiring. It’s the reason why Renaissances happen! The human spirit simply cannot contain its need to engage in true, uncensored reflection or exploration of life in all its diverse, complex glory. Religious dictated art can never serve the imagination’s yearning to entertain all the billions of universal possibilities that exist in the future. Religious dictated art cannot risk being thought-provoking and open ended to allow for personal interpretation and spark debate.

For although that is purpose of art. It is not the purpose of religion. It never has been!

To illustrate, sometimes there moments when Hollywood actually gets it right! They come out swinging for environmental conservation; break down prejudices, crush gender and sexual stereotypes, convey profound messages against greed, violence, colonialism, fundamentalism, apathy, fear and encourage healthy skepticism, investigatory mind-set and creative thinking. Plus they do it with poignancy, sophistication in a way that is entertaining and most importantly age appropriate for the intended audience. Sometimes Hollywood gets it so right, the film is downright spiritual on a universal level.

So you think, wow, the religious critics must love this film!

Only to find out, they HATE it.

And you go, “What? I thought we were on the same page here?”

Well no, you’re not.

Join the ranks of those baffled by religious critique of Avatar as “evil promotion of paganism and the hippie Green movement”; American Beauty as “a blatant attack on traditional family values”, Crash as “morally suspect” and Happy Feet as "sneaky and dangerous message to children about society accepting homosexuality and young ones knowing better than their elders.”

When many of us see reviews like this, we are just as shocked to learn we were momentarily associated with the kind of loons who rant about Harry Potter being evil or declare fatwa on a Danish cartoonist.

What are we missing here?
What we are missing is knowledge the religious fundamentalist’s real motivations.

Even when Hollywood gets it right for you and me, the religious right is still outraged.

Christian and Muslim fundamentalists will naturally oppose ANY source that seeks to influence any opinions or behaviours that challenge or contradict their doctrines and dominance as the only, unchallenged, undisputed voice of authority. This is essential to having influence over a large population that can be mobilized to defend the socio-economic and political systems that best serves their organizational needs.

Therefore you can trust a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim to nix a film that has even the smallest iota of:

• Sympathetic or positive portrayal of non-Abrahamic/Judeo Christian beliefs, especially magic (Harry Potter), indigenous Shamanism (Avatar), Hinduism etc.
• Skepticism about religious doctrines (Da Vinci Code, Stigmata, Fitna)
• Positive portrayal of sexual relationship constructs outside what they believe to be the only right one- e.g. romance and sex between unmarried straight couples(Pretty Woman, Ghost, and thousands more)
• Tolerance, acceptance, understanding of those who do not fit their ideal of human sexuality (Philadelphia, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Laramie Project)
• Portraying women as self-determined, sexually liberated, vocal and proud and able to demand and enjoy good sex free of all male-dominated religious constructs (Sex And The City, Bridget Jonses Diary)
• Less than flattering portrayals of their preferred family construct- domestic abuse, unhappy, unfulfilled housewives, domineering, insensitive husbands, poor sex life, adultery, divorce etc. (American Beauty, The Hours, Revolutionary Road, The Stoning of Soraya M)
• Promoting defiance of authority, rejection of the status quo, tradition and elders not being always being right especially directed at youth (Footloose, Happy Feet)
• Any messages about embracing different cultures, accepting diversity, respecting foreign cultures especially directed at children (Rabbit Proof Fence, Little Princess)
• Negative portrayals of their religious organizations or communities, historical or present-day (Joan of Arc, The Kingdom, Deliver Us From Evil, Submission {a film about abuse of women in certain Islamic communities which cost the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh his life at the hands of a Muslim extremist})
• Negative portrayals of the political/economic systems with which the religion enjoys a comfortable symbiosis (see my next blog post) (Bowling For Columbine, An Inconvenient Truth)
• Any promotion of earth-loving, hippie, one-love, universality where their religion enjoys no superiority over any other beliefs systems (Who Is God?)
• Shows a future world, fantasy world or our world where their religion plays no role (Too many films to count)

So while a film may pass your artistic, intellectual or even parenting standards it may not pass those of the religious fundamentalist. This is so obvious when it comes to one thing in particular…sex.

Sex, Hollywood And The Religious Right

Sex is the one thing Abrahamic-Judeo-Christian religions have always regulated with an iron fist. The artistic urge has also compelled us to explore this aspect of our human existence. Some of the first pictures we drew on rock walls were of the naked human form and sexual organs and similarly some of the first images to be captured by the earliest motion picture camera were the naked human form and sexual intercourse. The fascination has never stopped. Hollywood cannot portray enough of sex and it does so with no regard for what the religious status quo may prefer. Take homosexuality for example.

Remember that art reflects life. Our human societies have been given new insights about sexuality thanks to science which like Galileo proved, speaks the truth even if it contradicts what the various holy books and holy men say. Scientific research has revealed that homosexuality is not unnatural. Nature favours diversity in everything, including gender and sexuality. So it is actually unnatural to expect 7 billion individuals to have a uniform sexuality, uniform gender construct and unilateral form of sexual expression.

Those who are religiously proud are understandably offended and affronted because their views on homosexuality are being openly contradicted now that the findings of independent scientific and medical research and human rights activism changed what the mainstream knows to be true.

Science is now getting closer to confirming that sexual diversity is written into our genetic code. After extensive research, the medical community also agrees and their peer-reviewed studies have confirmed homosexuality is not a mental illness and gays and lesbians can be just as healthy, well-adjusted, contributing members of society in every way as straight people. However the biggest shift in thinking came from gays and lesbians coming out and speaking their truth no matter what condemnation they faced. By presenting a human face, they became harder to demonize as a result.

Just as it did interracial romance in times past with films like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Star Trek (which scandalized the Southern Baptist Convention who sent hate mail in droves), Hollywood now pioneers positive portrayals of gays and lesbians. Those who are religiously proud are understandably offended and affronted because their views on the subject are being openly contradicted and no longer being presented as the absolute authority on the matter.

The religious right continues to expect the public to accept without proper scientific substantiation that they are the final authority on all matters concerning our sexuality.

Surprisingly, I fully support their right to air their grievances. Free speech, remember? What I do not support is that they do not use the same privilege of free speech that emboldens Hollywood, to prove to the public that their religious views on homosexuality are more valid and well-founded. Instead, the religious right’s first response is always advocacy of censorship with the assumption all should obey because they are the final authority on the matter. However, they are yet to properly substantiate this.

Judging What Is Truly Harmful To A Society

Many Christian critiques of Hollywood’s portrayal of sex only focus on, HOW NUDE were the couples and was it WAS IN KEEPING WITH OUR STANDARDS OF BIBLICAL SEXUAL MORALITY. A traditionalist Muslim most likely would share those concerns just (substitute Koran for bible) plus have an emphasized condemnation of any portrayals of female sexual satisfaction if they are the kind of Muslim that practices female genital mutilation.

Look I don’t care if you want to have Christian sex or Muslim sex and I don’t expect you to have sex informed by my spiritual outlook. That is none of my business. But the things that are far more universally important to society are my business. Ironically they are hardly ever the things religious fundamentalists focus on.

The rational, reasonable concerns we should have with Hollywood and its portrayals of sex and gender roles should transcend anyone’s particular religious beliefs and apply to all people universally.

For example, it is everyone’s business that every adult engages in CONSENSUAL SEX and only WITH ANOTHER ADULT. NO FORM OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE should ever be glamorized in film nor should UNSAFE SEXUAL BEHAVIOR as sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy are also everybody’s business. The proliferation of any UNFAIR, EXPLOITATIVE, OPPRESSIVE OR INHUMANE GENDER ROLES that robs men and women of their sexual self-esteem are also societal concerns. Growing up with constant INACCURATE portrayals of men automatically knowing the very first time, what a woman likes in bed can lead to so many unfair expectations and sexual problems in marriage which are the leading cause of divorce which often inhibit couples with children from parenting properly during and afterwards.

“Lot and his daughters” the “Holy Books” are rife with sexuality, including incest, rape, polygamy, mutilation and worse.

We should all want everyone to have fulfilling sex lives so they can be good contributors to society whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, atheist. Thankfully we have more than enough knowledge through objective science and research to know what works best for the sexual health, happiness and well-being of men and women regardless of their personal faith-based beliefs.

Sex and human sexuality is a natural part of life. It even features prominently in “holy books” which require religious people to explain to children about incest, polygamy, adultery, forced marriages, attempted same-sex gang rape and worse but somehow cannot manage their children’s exposure to the slightest bit of sexuality in films that requires similar explanation of the context.

There is absolutely no need to throw a hissy fit about cinematic portrayals of nudity, homosexuality, or the sexual act itself. It is part of real life. Art reflects real life. The issue should be the intention. Does it serve a loftier purpose whether artistic, spiritual, educational (Romeo & Juliet, Blue Lagoon, Victor Victoria) or is it just for cheap thrills? The issue should be age appropriateness. How much sexual realism is okay for what age? Can the context be discussed and explained properly.

So when should you throw a hissy fit? Let me illustrate:

Today, we know from countless peer reviewed studies how important self-esteem is for young girls to help them make responsible and rewarding sexual choices.

A movie like Twilight where the female lead is weak-minded, aimless, self-absorbed and allows her life to be compromised literally all for a boy who is walking death, stalks her and wants to drink her blood, sends a dangerous message to young girls. Sure, in future films (based on the novel) the female protagonist waits till marriage to have sex, but it leaves her bruised and battered and pregnant with a baby that could kill her, which she insists on having regardless. What a wonderful message for young girls! Only a boy can add meaning to your otherwise empty life and your desperate teenage crush based purely on superficial attraction trumps your own self-preservation.

Now take a movie like Juno where the female lead is strong minded, intelligent, confident and actually has goals and talent but makes a common irresponsible mistake and gets pregnant out of wedlock. She handles it astutely by making lofty and shrewd choices, showing wit and spirit. She experiences a dramatic learning curve about love, life and trusting people, emerging stronger and wiser at the end.

Which movie do you think will contribute more to blind, love-sick, irresponsible sexual choices among teenage girls? For me and teen development experts and most discerning parents, it’s Twilight, not Juno.

Put your shame aside and be honest and open with your children about sex.

Religious film critics would have us measure every inch of exposed flesh. They want us to time the length of every teenage French kiss and meticulously scan fingers for wedding bands. I advise looking at movies through a more discerning lens. Do not judge based on your own sexual shame. That is not going to help your kids. It will only distract you from more important issues and more important values that influence our young people about sex and sexuality. It will only make you miss valuable opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue with them about these issues.

If we truly got honest, empowered and enlightened about sex and were able to pass that on to our kids, religion would no longer be the final authority on the matter. That is what they truly fear.

Sex is not even the most important factor to me when it comes to Hollywood.

It’s violence.

Superfluous violence should outrage us with a passion that far exceeds our prudery!

Yet Christian and Muslim film reviewers excuse more violence than sex. It shows where people’s hang-ups truly are in our society. So no matter what, we could always use a little more serial killer slashers, renegade cops shooting out in the streets, people blowing up things and cinematic reenactments of passion plays whose original purpose was meant to incite Jewish hatred in ancient times. But more kissing and lovemaking? No thanks. Religious movie critics expect me to buy that nihilistic or gore filled violence just to sicken, shock and scare is less of a threat to young people and society than watching two men fall in love. Please.

Have we forgotten the tragic history of our humanity through the ages?

A buxom starlet in the throes of orgasm should delight us! She is doing something nature intended her to experience, something that does not violate the universal principle of “Do unto others”. A buxom starlet in the throes of gory agony at the hand of a sadistic killer is what should disgust us! Audiences watching it and laughing should outrage us. Have we no respect for the victims and families of the real life versions of these monsters? The gangsta lifestyle is not glamorous! Have we lost sight of the young lives snuffed out in the street and the mothers wailing with grief? War is not a fun adventure and good rollicking time! It is a tragedy.
When it comes to spilling the blood of another human being, it is never entertainment. It was wrong when the Romans did it in their coliseums. It is wrong now. I don’t have to overemphasize why it should concern us as a society regardless of religious belief.

The ugly truth is, the gory horror and violent action film industry serves the religious agenda very well. If we actually were to become peace-loving, they will have a harder time selling intolerance and violent condemnation to us.

Then again, if we human beings began to really sensitize ourselves to have a low tolerance for violence it would threaten the religious status quo. Read the Old Testament lately? Ever listened to a impassioned sermon about hell? Ever listen to the hate-filled vitriol of a radical Imam? How can you sell death and destruction in a religion if people have no stomach for it and no admiration for a God that sanctions it? How can you instill a fear of evil if you cannot constantly point to pointless blood soaked portrayals of it?

The ugly truth is, the gory horror and violent action film industry serves the religious agenda very well. They can always point to it and go, “See? Demons, demons everywhere! That’s why you need us to protect you!” And once we continue to stimulate that reptilian part of our brain with violent film, it makes it easier for them to stimulate it when they need us to put aside all compassion in order to hate and commit acts of violence in “Gods” name against those who threaten their supremacy.

In the 1940s, a boy would gaze in wonder at in his comic book or movie screen or a Jules Verne novel as he saw science fictional tales of space travel, robots, hand held computer devices, super cars and brain scanners. Today, all of these things are reality. What we imagine we can make real. We self-fulfill our fantasies. Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s reality. So does it not behoove us to have uplifting film portraits of the future of our earth and human society? They can still be filled with complexity, conflict and challenges but we should be learning more advanced lessons that evolve us further and faster as a species (Minority Report, Bicentennial Man). The last thing we want is for the films portraying a zombie-filled, violent, hopeless, pointless future where global apocalypse is inevitable to actually come to pass. And yes, they all could…easily.

If we really care about our evolution as a species away from the primitive, fear-driven animal to towards enlightened beings, the only violence we should ever tolerate in film should be:

Mythical/Symbolic- only to demonstrate the universal struggle of good versus evil and executed with an emphasis on the tragedy of war; forgiveness trumping revenge and violence always being the least preferred, least noble solution (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Spiderman)

Historical/Documentary- so we never forget and never make the same mistakes again (The Pianist, Hotel Rwanda)

Farcical/Blatantly Ridiculous- Obviously for laughs, the characters remain unhurt despite it (The Jerk, Bruce Almighty, Finding Nemo)

Hollywood is not the total saint.

It often foregoes excellent cinema for the sake of easy money through focus-group inspired, condescending drivel, what I call “junk films” based on the same formula as junk food. It needs to pay more attention to age appropriate entertainment and stop promoting sexuality among little girls way too early. It must address the superficiality which breeds insecurity about body image in both men and women. It needs to tackle over-reliance on sex for the sake of cheap thrills and not true artistic poignancy. It must take a long hard difficult look at any continued glamorization of violence, irresponsible drug abuse, non-consensual sex and harmful racial, gender and sexual stereotypes.

However religion is not the total saint either (we’ll save that for the next blog)

The fact is they are both simply two competing forms of “show-business”.
And you know how ruthless “show business” can be to ensure it has a captive and compliant audience.

There is all that soul-sucking, in-humane, greedy power-hungry, and unenlightened bullshit. However in all fairness amidst all that grime there are also breakthrough concepts, true creative genius, lofty collaboration, humanitarian intentions and yes sometimes even meaningful spirituality that advances us forward as a species. However it requires you to look at both religion and the world of art, media and film with a more discerning eye. Most of all, abandon the thinking that any form of “show-business” is the absolute authority on anything.