The Believer (2001)

The Believer is based on a true story about a Jew who became an anti-Semite.  His reasons for hating Jews are fascinating but difficult to discuss. Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), the Jewish anti-Semite in this movie, is able to reveal his reasons for hating Jews and give further reasons for what to do about them because he is a Jew.  But as I am not a Jew, my repeating what he said in a review almost seems to be off limits.  It is a variation on the old principle, “I can criticize my family, but you cannot.”  It is the same as when a black comedian is able to get away with using derogatory words to refer to African Americans because he is one, while a white comedian would be pilloried for using those very same words.  Nevertheless, the ideas advanced in this movie may actually provide insight into anti-Semitism and thus are worth understanding, even if those are ideas are repugnant.

As the movie opens, we see Danny working out with dumbbells, making it clear that strength is important to him.  His head is shaved, and on his arm, we see a tattoo of the triskele, a three-sided swastika.  What we hear, however, is a flashback to a time when Danny was a young boy in school.  The teacher is telling the story of when God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  The teacher asks the class what the meaning of the story is, and a boy gives the standard answer, that it was “a test of Abraham’s faith and devotion to God.”  Then the teacher calls on Danny, noting, somewhat derisively, that as usual Danny has something to add.  Danny replies that it is not about Abraham’s faith, but about God’s power:  “God says, ‘You know how powerful I am?  I can make you do anything I want, no matter how stupid.  Even kill your own son, because I’m everything and you’re nothing.’”

The scene changes to a subway station, where we see a teenager wearing a yarmulke.  He looks down as he walks, as if he is afraid to look anyone in the eye.  He gets on the subway, sits down, and opens a textbook, with his shoulders squeezed together, as if trying to make himself as small as possible.  He wants for all the world to be left alone.  But it is no good, because Danny sees him.  Filled with hatred, Danny begins stepping on the boys shoes, until the boy gets off the train.  Danny follows him knocks the book out of his hand.  The boy just stands there meekly.  Danny picks up the book and sees that it is a textbook from an institution that teaches Orthodox Judaism.  Danny hits the boy, knocking him down, and then starts kicking him.  As he does so, he alludes to the story of Abraham, asking the boy if he thinks this is a test, if God is going to provide a ram instead of him.

Then he tells the boy to hit him.  “Do me a favor.  Why don’t you fucking hit me.  OK?  Hit me!  Hit me!  Hit me!  Hit me!  Fucking hit me, please!  You fucking kike!”  At first, this sounds like the standard act of a bully, sticking his chin out, daring someone to hit him, after which he intends to beat him up.  But it is more than that.  Danny really wants the boy to hit him.  And that is because what Danny hates about Jews is that they won’t fight.

At this point, we must stop and ask the obvious question:  Is it true that Jews won’t fight?  The answer would seem to be “No.”  The Old Testament is full of stories about Hebrews fighting.  The history of organized crime in America includes Jews like Bugsy Siegel, Arnold Rothstein, and Meyer Lansky, who didn’t get where they were by being afraid to fight.  More respectably, of course, there are the Jews of Israel, whose willingness to fight is beyond question.  However, as important as it is to note this discrepancy between what Danny believes and the facts, let us simply continue with what Danny believes for the moment.

Danny locates a fascist group on the internet headed by Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane), and he and three of his friends attend a meeting, where Zampf is comparing the good old days with the way things are now, which is bad.  He says that is why he is a fascist, because only a fascist government can straighten things out.  When a man asks about race, Zampf says this isn’t the time for that, even though he did make reference to all the black faces one now sees in the neighborhood.  Danny interrupts, saying that race is central to problem, that the modern world is a Jewish disease, the disease of abstraction.  And the solution to that disease, he says, is “killing Jews.”  Zampf objects, saying that it will be Germany all over again.  “Isn’t that what we want,” Danny replies, “Germany all over again, only done right this time?”  Later in the movie, when one of his neo-Nazi friends suggests that the holocaust was a hoax, Danny replies, “If Hitler didn’t kill six million Jews, why in the hell is he a hero?”  As far as Danny is concerned, if Hitler didn’t kill all those Jews, then he was a “putz.”

Danny says that people hate Jews, but then qualifies it:  “The very word [Jew] makes their skin crawl.  And it’s not even hate.  It’s the way you feel when a rat runs across the floor.  You want to step on it.  You just want to crush it.”  So, it’s a kind of hate arising out of disgust.  Danny says, “You don’t even know why.  It’s a physical reaction, and everyone feels it.”  But as we have already seen, from the example of the Jewish boy he bullied, as well as the example of God and Abraham, it is the refusal of the Jew to fight back Danny believes is the cause of that feeling.

In another flashback to that day in the classroom, we hear another student point out that Abraham never killed Isaac, because God provided a ram as a substitute.  First, Danny argues that Abraham really did kill Isaac on that day, just as God wanted, but that the story was changed later to make it more acceptable.  Then Danny points out that even if the traditional story was the correct one, once Isaac raised his hand with the knife in order to plunge it in, he had already killed Isaac in his heart.  Abraham, Danny continues, would never have been able to forget that and neither would Isaac.  Furthermore, he says, the whole Jewish people were permanently scarred.

One of the people at the meeting headed by Zampf was a free-lance reporter, Guy Danielsen (A.D. Miles), who is doing research on right-wing groups.  When Danny started speaking, he could immediately see that there was something special about Danny’s ideas.  He manages to get Danny to agree to an interview.  Guy asks Danny to elaborate on his remark at the meeting to the effect that the modern world is a Jewish disease.  Danny begins, “In this racialist movement we believe there is a hierarchy of races.  You know, whites at the top, blacks at the bottom.  Asians, Arabs, Latins somewhere in between.”

Conspicuous by its absence is the place of the Jews in this hierarchy, even though it is supposedly an answer to the “Jewish disease” question.  It is almost as if the Jews cannot be ranked with the rest because they are qualitatively different from the others.  Guy presses Danny about the Jewish disease.

Danny begins by using sexuality as an example.  He asserts that Jews are obsessed with oral sex because a Jew is essentially female.  “Real men—white, Christian men—we fuck a woman.  We make her come with our cocks.  But a Jew doesn’t like to penetrate and thrust.  He can’t assert himself in that way, so he resorts to these perversions….  So after a woman’s had a Jewish man, she’s ruined.  She never wants to be with a normal partner again.”  When Guy asks if that means the Jew is a better lover, Danny says it does not.  “I said he gives pleasure.  That’s actually a weakness.”

This notion that a Jew is essentially female goes with his views that Jews will not fight, because physical fighting tends to be a masculine trait.  As for this last remark that giving pleasure is a weakness, it is interesting that Danny’s girlfriend, Carla Moebius (Summer Phoenix), whom he met at the Zampf meeting, told Danny she wanted him to hurt her just before they had sex, and the next morning she had a bruise on her mouth.  I guess she is his kind of woman.

Danny continues, saying that the Jews control the media and investment banks, and “they carry out in those realms the exact same principles they display in sexuality.  They undermine traditional life and they deracinate society.  Deracinate.  Tear out the roots.  A real people derives its genius from the land, from the sun, from the sea, from the soil.  That is how they know themselves.  But Jews don’t even have soil.”  Guy makes the obvious objection that Jews in Israel have their own soil, their own country, but Danny responds that the Israelis are not Jews.

If we balked at the notion that Jews will not fight, Danny’s declaration that Israelis are not Jews seems preposterous.  However, this is not the first time I have heard this claim.  Most notably, Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative is, not surprisingly, a book about the importance that territory plays in the behavior of many animals, including man.  He argues that Jews are not a race the way Caucasians or Negroes are, but are a group of people distinguished by their lack of territory.  Once they acquired territory, the citizens of Israel ceased to be Jews.  According to Ardrey, people in Israel are different in every way from the Jews of the Diaspora:

It is not just physique.  It is posture, a manner of walking, a manner of speaking, a manner of thought.  The “Jewish personality” has vanished, replaced by that of the Israeli, a being as confident, as resolute, and as willing to do battle as a roebuck on his wooded acres.  You go to a party in Tel-Aviv and someone asks the inevitable question, “How do you like Israel?” and you answer, “Fine.  But where are the Jews?” And the party goes off into the greatest laughter, for it is the nation’s joke.  [p. 286]

The fact that Ardrey and Danny are in agreement does not mean they are right, of course.  But the point is that as bizarre as Danny’s claim that Israelis are not Jews seems to be, it is not unique to him.  If it is an instance of the no true Scotsman fallacy, it is apparently a common one.

Danny continues with this line of reasoning: “Notice the Israelis.  It’s fundamentally a secular society.  They no longer need Judaism because they have soil.  The real Jew is a wanderer.  He’s a nomad.  He’s got no roots and no attachments, so he universalizes everything.  He can’t hammer a nail or plough a field.  All he can do is buy and sell and invest capital, manipulate markets.  And it’s, like, all mental.  He takes the life of a people rooted in soil and turns it into a cosmopolitan culture based on books and numbers and ideas.  You know, this is his strength.”

When Danny said at the meeting that the Jewish disease was the disease of abstraction, we may not have understood what he meant, but the above quotation gives us a fuller sense of what he was driving at.  He continues:  “Take the greatest Jewish minds:  Marx, Freud, Einstein.  What have they given us?  Communism, infantile sexuality, and the atom bomb.  In the three centuries it’s taken these people to emerge from the ghettos of Europe, they’ve ripped us out of a world of order and reason, thrown us into class warfare, irrational urges, relativity, into a world where the very existence of matter and meaning is in question.  Why? Because it’s the deepest impulse of a Jewish soul to pull at the very fabric of life till there’s nothing left but a thread.  They want nothing but nothingness, nothingness without end.”

The reporter is awed by the intricate weaving of ideas that Danny puts forth, but then asks him how he can believe all this when he is a Jew himself, something he discovered in the course of his investigations.  Danny becomes angry, threatening to sue Guy if he publishes that.  He sticks a pistol in Guy’s mouth and says he will kill himself if he prints that.  His anger is in part that he is ashamed of being a Jew, but it is also in part that he is still struggling with his Jewishness, with his affinity for the Jewish race.  His threat to commit suicide is a harbinger of what is to come.

In the earlier scene where Danny tried to get the Jewish boy to hit him, I argued that this was more than a bully’s dare.  It was, in a strange way, a desire to help the boy, to get him to fight.  Danny hates the Jew, but he also loves the Jew.  This struggle against his Jewishness becomes clearer as the movie progresses.

After deliberately provoking a fight in a kosher restaurant by making fun of the dietary laws, Danny and his friends are ordered by the judge to undergo sensitivity training.  They listen to some survivors of the holocaust tell their stories.  A man tells of how a Nazi soldier bayoneted his three-year-old son right in front of him.  While Danny’s friends are sitting around with looks of insolence on their faces, we see, just barely, the moisture in Danny’s eyes.  He is clearly distressed by the story.  He berates the man for not fighting back against that soldier.  As he does so, his hands move across his face, as if to surreptitiously wipe the tears away.  A Jewish woman argues back, saying he would have been killed.  Danny replies that death would have been better than surviving with the memory of having done nothing.  Again the woman challenges that, quite effectively, pointing out that it is easy to talk like a hero, but braver men than Danny were broken by the Nazis.  Danny gets up saying that he and his friends have nothing to learn from the holocaust survivors, that they should be learning from Danny and his friends, to kill your enemy.

Throughout the movie, Danny has done more than talk about killing Jews.  He has been planning something, either an assassination or a bombing.  He and his friends break into a synagogue and begin trashing the place.  As they start to plant a bomb, someone discovers a Torah Scroll.  Danny becomes protective of it, while his friends want to desecrate it.  After they spit on it, tear it, and stomp on it, Danny carefully rolls it back up.  Somewhat later, as he carefully and lovingly tapes the torn part of the scroll back together, he fantasizes about being the Nazi soldier who bayoneted the child.  I’d say this guy is pretty mixed up.

When the bomb fails to go off, a Rabbi on television explains that the power cell in the timer gave out thirteen minutes before it was set to explode.  He goes on to say that once again God intervened to save the Jews.  He begins elaborating a kind of mystical doctrine in which God has thirteen attributes, the highest of which means “nothingness without end.”  When we heard Danny say, in the interview with Guy, that Jews want nothingness without end, many of us might have thought this was just part of his strange theory, but this statement by the Rabbi indicates that much of Danny’s thinking is based on his scholarly knowledge of Judaism.

At the Zampf meeting, Danny had talked about killing Ilio Manzetti, a Jewish investment banker.  One of his friends, Drake (Glenn Fitzgerald), who is a sharpshooter, asks Danny if he wants to kill a Jew, who turns out to be Manzetti.  When Manzetti walks out of the synagogue, Danny aims and shoots, but misses.  Drake accuses him of doing it on purpose.  Then he discovers that Danny is wearing a prayer shawl beneath his shirt.  “Fucking kike!” he exclaims.  “I knew it.”  They fight over the rifle, and Danny shoots Drake in the leg and gets away.

There is another flashback to that day in school when Danny gave his interpretation of the meaning of God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, which in some ways recapitulates the story of the Jew, his child, and the Nazi soldier.  As noted above, Danny had maintained that what really happened that day was that God did not substitute a ram at the last minute.  And just as Danny insisted that the Jew should have fought back against the Nazi, even if it cost him his life, so too does Danny think that Abraham should have fought back against God to protect Isaac.

Picking up where the last flashback left off, Danny continues, “The whole Jewish people were permanently scarred by what happened at Mount Moriah.  And we still live in terror.”  When a fellow student says that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, Danny replies, “Fear of God makes you afraid of everything.  All the Jews are good at is being afraid, at being sacrificed.”  Someone asks if he even believes in God, to which Danny replies, “I’m the only one who does believe.  I see him for the power-drugged madman that he is.  And we’re supposed to worship this deity?  I say, ‘Never!’”  The teacher tells a student to go get Rabbi Springer to remove Danny from the class.  He then turns to Danny, saying that if Danny had come out of Egypt, God would have destroyed him in the desert with all those who worshipped the Golden Calf.  “Then let him destroy me now,” Danny replies defiantly.  “Let him crush me like the conceited bully that he is.”  He looks up, as if at God in Heaven, and says, “Go ahead.”  We next see Danny running from the classroom, going down the stairs, symbolically suggesting his descent into the world anti-Semitism, into hate, into Hell.

Carla’s mother, Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell), and Zampf have decided to launch an intellectually serious fascist movement, and they want Danny to give speeches to help with the fundraising, rather than get involved in assassinations or bombings, because, as Lina says, they already have enough thugs.  He likes the idea, but he is disturbed both by the idea that he is an intellectual and by the idea of fundraising, presumably because he thinks of intellect and money as Jewish concerns.  In fact, he is so disturbed that he rushes outside and throws up.

Carla follows him outside, and starts kissing him.  Kissing someone who has just vomited is disgusting, and nothing like it has ever been seen in a mainstream movie before or since.  In the interview with Guy, we recall that Danny said that oral sex was a perversion, and sexual perversion is something Danny associates with Jews.  We have already seen that Carla likes Danny to hurt her during sex, and on a previous occasion, she invited him to her room, telling him to come to her window at midnight.  When he got there, she was humping on Zampf.  While Danny watched, she looked right at him and had an orgasm.  So, we have masochism, exhibitionism, and scatology (of a sort).  Presumably this represents another conflict of emotions for Danny in his sexual relationship with a perverted Gentile girl.

Danny gives a speech in front of a handful of people, most of whom admit to being anti-Semites.  Danny begins by posing a question as to why we hate the Jews.  “Do we hate them because they push their way in where they don’t belong?  Or do we hate them because they’re clannish and keep to themselves?  Because they’re tight with money, or because they flash it around?  Because they’re Bolsheviks or because they’re capitalists?  Because they have the highest IQs or because they have the most active sex lives?”

His audience is undoubtedly confounded by this, because he makes it clear that the reasons people give for not liking Jews are inconsistent.  He continues, “You want to know why we hate them?  Because we hate them.  Because it’s an axiom of civilization, that just as man longs for woman, loves his children, and fears death, he hates Jews.  There’s no reason.  And if there were, some smart-assed kike would try to prove us wrong, which would only make us hate them more.  And really, we have all the reasons we need in three simple letters:  ‘J,’ ‘E,’ ‘W.’ ‘Jew.’  You say it a million times, it’s the only word that never loses its meaning.”  Danny’s views seem to vacillate between giving reasons for hating Jews, such as that they won’t fight or they like abstractions, to saying that the hate is more fundamental than the reasons, which really don’t matter.

In the next scene, we see Danny talking to an investment banker who is willing to give a thousand dollars to the Zampf group, on account of an article that Danny wrote.  He advises Danny to forget about all that stuff about the Jews, not because the banker disagrees with Danny’s anti-Semitism, but because it just doesn’t play any more.  “There’s only the market,” he says, “and it doesn’t care who you are.”  When Danny says that people still need values and beliefs, the banker replies, “No, they don’t.  Not the smart ones.”  The banker agrees to give Danny as much as five thousand dollars, but adds, “When you fall off this horse, come see me.  I could show you how to make a lot of money.”

Danny says, “You’re a Jew.  You may not realize it, but you are.”

The banker shrugs.  “Maybe I am.  Maybe we’re all Jews now.  What’s the difference?”

And so, this banker is Danny’s opposite number.  Whereas Danny is a Jew who has become an anti-Semite, this investment banker is an anti-Semite who has become a Jew.  In a similar way, Carla, who has figured out that Danny is a Jew on account of his obsession with Jews, is becoming Jewish herself, learning Hebrew and wanting to observe the Sabbath.

Danny runs into some old friends of his, who are Jewish, and he is invited to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with them at a synagogue.  When he gets there, he gets into a heated argument with Avi (Judah Lazarus), with whom he used to argue all the time at school.  Avi accuses Danny of being a fascist, saying he thinks “Jews are wimps.”  When he says Danny is a Jewish Nazi, Danny replies that Avi is a Zionist Nazi, that Zionists acts like Stormtroopers.  A woman standing nearby asks, “And you hate them because they’re wimps or because they’re Stormtroopers?”  It is the very thing Danny warned about in his speech, the contradictory reasons people give for hating Jews.  In fact, there are cross-currents of inconsistency running back and forth through this movie too numerous to mention them all.  And the inconsistencies point back to Danny’s more fundamental point, that the hatred of the Jews is irrational, and reasons are something people struggle to come up with to make sense of their hatred.

The speech that Danny gave making this point was to an audience casually dressed, who appeared to be working class.  But following the scene at the synagogue, Danny is back at Lina’s house, which is filled with well-dressed people, “right-wing money,” as Lina puts it.  She has hopes that Danny’s speech will be what it takes to really get the movement going.

Danny gets before the crowd and begins singing a Jewish prayer.  He then explains why he did so:  “Who wants to destroy the Jews?  Who wants to grind their bones into the dust?  And who wants to see them rise again?  Wealthier, more successful, powerful, cultured, more intelligent than ever?  Then you know what we have to do?  We have to love them.  ‘What!  Did he say, “Love the Jews?”’  It’s strange, I know.  But with these people, nothing is simple.  The Jew says all he wants is to be left alone to study his Torah, do a little business, fornicate with his oversexed wife.  But it’s not true.  He wants to be hated.  He longs for our scorn.  He clings to it, as if it were the very core of his being.  If Hitler had not existed, the Jews would’ve invented him.  For without such hatred, the so-called Chosen People would vanish from the Earth.  And this reveals a terrible truth and the crux of our problem as Nazis.  The worse the Jews are treated, the stronger they become.  Egyptian slavery made them a nation.  The pogroms hardened them.  Auschwitz gave birth to the state of Israel.  Suffering, it seems, is the very crucible of their genius.  So, if the Jews are, as one of their own has said, ‘A people who won’t take “Yes” for an answer,’ let us say ‘Yes’ to them.  They thrive on opposition.  Let us cease to oppose them.  The only way to annihilate this insidious people once and for all is to open our arms, invite them into our homes, and embrace them.  Only then will they vanish into assimilation, normality, and love.  But we cannot pretend.  The Jew is nothing, if not clever.  He will see through hypocrisy and condescension.  To destroy him, we must love him sincerely.”

It is clear that this is not something that Danny has believed all along, but has only recently concluded as the last, logical, inexorable step in his philosophy.  If it is the essence of the Jew to be hated, as Danny has claimed, then only love will destroy him, will deprive him of the very thing he needs to be Jewish.  It also represents the synthesis of Danny’s own psychological struggle, the fact that he both hates and loves the Jew.

Danny has always been more than just the typical anti-Semite, has always taken things beyond what his audience is used to, starting when he was just a student in school; but this speech is so paradoxical and confusing to his audience that he starts losing them.  Guy, the reporter, moves forward through the crowd, for he is the one person in the room who is able to follow Danny’s reasoning.  He asks Danny if this destruction of the Jew through love would not make the Jew more powerful than he already is.

Danny answers, “Yes.  Infinitely more.  They would become as God.  It’s the Jews’ destiny to be annihilated so they can be deified.  Jesus understood this perfectly.  And look what was accomplished there with the death of just one enlightened Jew.  Imagine what would happen if we killed them all.”  With that, Danny suggests they accompany him in the Jewish prayer with which he began.  But, of course, the people in the room are leaving bewildered.

Lina is furious with Danny and wants him out of the organization, but she is interrupted by Zampf to come look at a news report that Manzetti has been assassinated.  Danny has been bothered for some time that he only talks about killing Jews but has never actually killed one.  He knows Drake was the assassin, and what really bothers him is that others suspect Danny did it, rubbing it in that it was not him.  And so, he reverts to hate.  And because the newspaper shows a picture of him as a boy and reveals that he is Jewish, his hatred becomes suicidal.

Danny and his friend plant a bomb in the pulpit of a synagogue timed to go off during Neilah, a service for Yom Kippur.  His friend tells him that the pulpit has been reinforced, which will inhibit the outward blast, but Danny says that all that matters is that the pulpit be destroyed.  Because Danny earlier said that he intended to daven, to recite the liturgical prayer at the service, it is beginning to look as though Danny intends a mass-murder-suicide.  When he arrives at the synagogue, he not only sees the people he was arguing with on Rosh Hashanah, but also Carla, who refuses to leave the service.  As he sits behind Carla, he again imagines himself as the Nazi bayoneting the child, but also imagines that he is the child’s father, who then attacks the Nazi, effectively struggling with himself as both Jew and Nazi.

Danny davens as he said he would, but as the clock approaches the designated time, he has a change of heart, telling everyone about the bomb and to get out of the room.  He remains at the pulpit, recalling the day in school when he defied God to destroy him.  And then the bomb explodes.  In the last moments of his life, he sees himself back at school as an adult, only this time climbing the stairs instead of descending.  His teacher tells him that maybe he was right, that Isaac was killed on Mount Moriah, but then was reborn in the world to come.  But Danny keeps ascending without really knowing toward what, toward nothingness.

When Is a Religion Not a Religion?

When is a religion not a religion?  When you are an idealist.

The distinction between idealism and realism can be understood in many different ways, but in its most ordinary sense, an idealist understands the world in terms of how things ought to be, whereas the realist understands the world as it really is.

Let me begin with an example from my youth, the attitude toward rock and roll during the 1950s. I remember a lot of people who did not like rock and roll saying that it was not music. Sometimes they would soften this bald assertion with a qualifier, by saying, “Rock and roll is not really music,” thereby acknowledging that it had some of the features normally associated with music, in that sounds were produced with musical instruments, but that these sounds nevertheless did not rise to the level of actually being music.  At the time, I thought this was rather a strange way of talking.  I wondered why they did not simply say that it was bad music if they did not like it, rather than that it was not music at all.  Of course, one could go further and say that it is just a matter of taste, but that is a tangential point. What is important is that those who said rock and roll was not music were idealists.  They had a conception of music that was more important to them than the particular instances of music one finds in the world.  And if some of those instances did not measure up to that conception, they were not worthy of the name.  Realists, on the other hand, figure that music is whatever they find it to be, and while some of it is good, some of it is bad.

Sometimes the idealist takes the first instance of a thing in his experience to be its essential nature.  The first musicals I ever saw were Oklahoma! (1955) and The King and I (1956), for such musicals were quite popular in the 1950s. As a result, anyone my age who is an idealist is likely to take such movies as defining instances.  Years later, when I watched Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), I could see that this was a different kind of musical, and I subsequently learned that it is referred to as a backstage musical, where the music takes place on stage or during rehearsals, as opposed to expressionist musicals, where disembodied orchestras accompany people singing and dancing in ways never found in real life.  Rather than make this simple distinction, however, I have known people my age who, like me, were exposed to expressionist musicals in their youth, and who insist that backstage musicals were not really musicals.  Had they seen the backstage musicals first, they would doubtless have said that it was the expressionist musicals that were really not musicals.

But first instances do not always determine the ideal.  In matters of love, for example, early instances of this passion are usually short-lived and somewhat painful.  But the idealist does not take this first experience of love to be its essence.  When he gets older, he says it was not really love, not true love, but just puppy love.  In this case, the idealist separates the part about love that he likes from the part he does not like.  Then he purifies it some more by saying that true love never dies, and that it is devoid of all selfish feeling.  By the time he gets through with it, he begins to find that love is rare, and if he goes too far down this path, he will become disillusioned and say that there really is no such thing.  He would rather deny that love exists than forsake the ideal conception he has of it.  A realist, on the other hand, figures that love is what he finds it to be.  The world is full of love, as far as he can see, and while some of it is good, some of it is bad.  Sometimes love is selfless, but sometimes love is quite selfish.  Sometimes love lasts and sometimes it doesn’t.

The perennial question as to whether men and women can be friends breaks along the divide between idealist and realist.  The idealist purifies friendship so much that it scarcely exists between those of the same sex, let alone between the opposite sex, where sexual desire can be disruptive in one way or the other.  As a result, he is likely to conclude that men and women cannot be friends.  The realist, on the other hand, finds a world full of friendships between men and women, and he simply notes that such friendships are a little more tenuous on account of the ways in which sex can intrude.

As indicated in these examples, an idealist is likely to use words like “true” and “really,” to distinguish his pure conceptions of things from what might appear to be counterexamples.  It is the idealist who is most prone to commit the no true Scotsman fallacy.  An example of this fallacy would be a situation in which a person says, “All Scotsmen are thrifty.”  When someone points out that Duncan is a Scotsman but is not thrifty, the person who made the original generalization says, “Well, Duncan is no true Scotsman.”  The person who commits this fallacy cares more about his idea of what a Scotsman is than the actual facts of the matter, and that is characteristic of an idealist.  He reifies his idea of a Scotsman as an essence, which a person must have to be a true Scotsman.  A realist, by way of contrast, would admit that Duncan is an exception to the rule and modify his original claim, perhaps by saying, “Most Scotsmen are thrifty.”

Last year (September, 2014), during President Obama’s address to the nation explaining the need to go to war against ISIL (to use his preferred acronym), he made a point of declaring that ISIL was not Islamic:  “No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim,” he said.  Considering that Obama’s own religion of Christianity has a long history of doing precisely that, beginning with Joshua’s genocidal slaughter of every man, woman, child, infant, and assorted animals in the Promised Land, what are we to make of this claim?

The idealist begins with his own religion, purifies it, and makes this the standard against which all others are measured.  If they do not live up to his ideal conception, then they are not really religions.  The realist looks at history and present variations of religious faith, and he accepts that there are all sorts of religions, many of which he may regard as evil. And so, given this distinction, it is clear that Obama is an idealist.  He prefers to say that the ideology espoused by ISIL is not a religion, that it is not Islam or a sect or even a version of Islam.

But there must be more to it than that.  In an important fifteen-minute speech to the nation as to why we are going to war, he felt it necessary to express his idealist position that ISIL was not a religion, when he need not have brought the subject up at all.  In all likelihood, he wanted to avoid the characterization of this being a religious war, in part to protect Muslims in this country against discrimination and violence, and in part to mollify the nations of the Middle East that might be a little sensitive in this matter.

If so, there may be an unfortunate consequence in refusing to recognize the religious nature of  ISIL.  One of the disadvantages of being an idealist is that the failure to recognize the way the world is can lead to a serious miscalculation.  Let us reconsider an earlier example.  It may not matter much what people say about music and musicals, but in matters of love the idealist is more likely to be made miserable by love than the realist.  When a marriage results in divorce, the idealist may blame his wife or he may blame himself, but he never blames love.  As a result, he only learns that he should never have married her, not that he should never have married at all. Furthermore, by expecting more from love than is actually found in the world, the idealist is more likely to be disappointed.

By not recognizing that ISIL is religious in nature, we are underestimating what we are going up against. It is precisely because the members of ISIL are religious that they are so dangerous.  We may prevail against ISIL in this war simply because we are so powerful, but one thing we lack is their total commitment. I do not know whether Joe Scarborough, the host of Morning Joe, is an idealist, but I suspect he shares Obama’s view about ISIL not being religious in nature from what he has said on several occasions.  In particular, he has expressed amazement at the way these terrorist groups never seem to learn that when they anger Americans by attacking us, we end up destroying them. To me, the answer is obvious. They do it because they believe that they are carrying out the will of Allah. If we kill them, they die as martyrs, and they will be honored in Paradise.

I say this without irony.  They do not only half believe the way most people do, including, I suspect, Joe Scarborough and President Obama.  They believe completely, and with a faith so strong that we here in secular American can scarcely appreciate.

A long time ago, Fox News instituted the practice of refusing to use the expression “suicide bomber,” a policy I assume is still in place.  Instead, people who blow themselves up in a marketplace are referred to as “homicide bombers.”  The first thing that is striking about this is that the word “homicide” really adds no information to the word “bomber,” except perhaps to keep us from thinking about an airplane.  People who use bombs invariably kill people, or at least intend to.  Maybe in a movie like The Fountainhead (1949), Howard Roark can blow up a building without hurting anybody, but that is strictly a fictional fantasy.  The word “suicide” used to modify the word “bomber,” on the other hand, adds a great deal of information.  Someone who is willing to die to in order to detonate a bomb is far more dangerous than someone who is willing to set off the bomb provided he stands a fair chance of surviving.  Presumably, Fox replaced this very useful adjective “suicide” with the redundant “homicide” because they wanted to emphasize the harm that is caused to others, but in so doing, they suppress the much more important fact that these suicide bombers truly believe in their cause, believe that they have right on their side, believe that Allah will be pleased.

I am sadly one of the very small minority that is opposed to this war.  But if fight we must, it would be nice if we were a little more realistic about the nature of the enemy, an enemy who cares more about what they are fighting for than we do, because they are fighting a war of religion.

Hardcore (1979)

Hardcore begins in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Christmas day, where much of the congregation from the Dutch Reformation Church has gathered together in the house of Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott).  Even allowing for the fact that it is a Christian holiday, we see that for these people, religion permeates every aspect of their lives.  And while this movie can be enjoyed by those that know next to nothing about Christian theology, I believe an appreciation for this film is enhanced by an understanding of the particular version of Christianity that these people believe in, especially since the story can be understood allegorically.  For that reason, and because I have always been fascinated by the doctrine of predestination, I shall indulge myself in a preliminary discussion of it.

In one room, some men are discussing the unpardonable sin, rejection of the Holy Spirit.  Actually, the verses in the Bible that mention the unpardonable sin, Mark 3:29 and Luke 12:10, speak of blaspheming against the Holy Ghost, but these men are apparently construing that as rejecting the Holy Ghost. One man questions whether one can be guilty of that sin unwittingly. That suggestion is dismissed by another as verging on the Pelagian heresy.

Pelagius was a British monk who, on his visit to Rome just before the turn of the fifth century, was disturbed by the effect that the idea of predestination was having on people.  It was thought that because of Adam’s original sin, everyone is born sinful.  Only with the grace of God could a person be saved, but man is so corrupt that he cannot sincerely ask for God’s grace unless he already has it.  This is known as the doctrine of prevenient grace.  Then, once one has God’s grace, one’s salvation is assured, and one has no choice but to follow the path of righteousness, known as the doctrine of irresistible grace.  And as God ordained all things in advance, it was already determined before man was born whether he would receive God’s grace and be saved or not.  Pelagius concluded that these doctrines were causing people to become fatalistic.  If everyone is predestined to either be saved or damned, there seems to be little point in trying to be good.

According to St. Augustine, a contemporary of Pelagius and a strong proponent of predestination, man did have free will, but without God’s grace, all he could do was choose one sin rather than another.  Pelagius countered this by arguing that man’s free will was such that he could choose to be good all on his own, and that he could ask for God’s grace freely.  Subsequent Pelagians continued this line of thought, maintaining that Adam’s sin was not passed on to subsequent generations, and that there were men without sin before the coming of Christ.  Of course, this called into question the whole need for Christ’s crucifixion:  if man was not all that sinful, there seemed to be no need for God to atone for man’s sins by suffering on the cross.  As a result, this line of thinking came to be known as the Pelagian heresy.

With the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin took predestination one step further.  Whereas Augustine had maintained that man had free will, but that it was not worth much unless accompanied by the grace of God, Luther and Calvin rejected the idea of free will outright.  There was no such thing.  All had been ordained by God from eternity, including who would be saved and who would be damned.  As Calvin said, everyone deserves damnation, and all salvation is unmerited, granted by God to a select few, not because they deserved it, but because it pleased God to do so.  It is this Calvinistic theology that Jake’s congregation believes in.

Referring back to the man who wondered whether one could commit the unpardonable sin of rejecting the Holy Ghost unwittingly, he was suggesting that if such a man knew he was doing that, he might choose not to.  But that would seem to suggest that he had the power to choose otherwise, which implies free will.

While the theological discussion among the men is going on in one room, in another room a bunch of kids are watching television with Joe VanDorn, apparently Jake’s father.  On the television, some men dressed in Santa Claus suits are dancing to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”  Joe gets disgusted, stands up and turns the set off, saying that the people who make shows like that are the kids who used to live in Grand Rapids and then left for California (a harbinger of what is to come).  “I didn’t like them when they were here, and I don’t like them out there.”  It seems like harmless enough entertainment, but Santa Claus and Christmas trees represent a secularized form of Christmas, not to mention the fact that a lot of Calvinists regard dancing as sinful.

Jake voices some concern about his teenage daughter Kristen and her cousin Marsha going to a Youth Calvinist Convention in California.  He expresses his misgivings somewhat jokingly, because he knows they will be heavily chaperoned, but as it turns out, such concern was more warranted than he imagined.

The next day at his furniture factory, Jake talks to a woman he hired to design a sign for his business.  He doesn’t quite like it because it is too “overpowering,” although if anything is overpowering, it is Jake’s personality.  The woman says she has worked really hard to get the color just right, but she says she will change it, if that is what he wants.  He says he would not have hired a display designer, if he did not trust her taste.  But he keeps expressing misgivings until she agrees to change the sign the way he wants it.  Once she consents to making the sign the way he prefers it, Jake says, “If you say so.”  This recapitulates the whole business about God and free will discussed above.  The display designer supposedly has free will in choosing the color for the sign, but the color that will end up being on the sign has been ordained by Jake.

Jake gets a call from one of the counselors, informing him that on a trip to an amusement park, Kristen disappeared.  Jake and Marsha’s father Wes, Jake’s brother-in-law, fly out to California, where Marsha tells them that there was a boy there that Kristen met.  At the police station, the detective suggests that Kristen may have run away.  When Jake becomes angry, saying his daughter was not the type to run away, he gets his first of many doses of culture shock when the detective informs him that her being a runaway is the best they can hope for, as he points to pictures of other girls who may never come back at all.

Jake decides to hire a private detective, Andy Mast (Peter Boyle), whose hardboiled, irreligious talk disturbs Jake, even though he realizes Mast is the kind of guy he needs to help find his daughter.  Mast apologizes for offending Jake’s religious beliefs, noting that he is a practitioner of Mind Science himself, as if that is supposed to be reassuring.  Mast tells Jake and Wes to go back home and says he will call them when he knows something.

Several weeks later, Wes tells Jake that we can’t always understand the Lord’s ways, that the Lord his testing him, that he has to have faith.  This is an irritating trait that some people have, presuming to advise those suffering from a misfortune about the mysterious ways of God, but considering the community in which they live, it is not surprising.  In any event, Jake expresses his contempt for the remark about having faith.  As is often the case, it is easy to talk about God’s ways and having faith as long as the bad stuff is happening to others.  But now that something bad may have happened to his daughter, he begins to have doubts.

Mast turns up in Grand Rapids with an 8mm hardcore movie, which he shows to Jake in a “stall” theater that he has use of for an hour.  Today, Jake would be told which adult website to look at, but back in the 1970s, when this movie was made, before cable, video cassette recorders, and the internet, most pornographic movies were seen in adult movie theaters or in adult bookstores with private stalls.  The movie shows two men having sex with Kristen, which has a devastating effect on Jake.  Mast promises he will find her, and he heads back to California.

Jake gets tired of just waiting around, so he drives out to California and surprises Mast while he is in the middle of “doing research” (slipping the panties off a porn star).  Jake becomes so angry, he runs Mast out of his own apartment, and then goes through some of the evidence that Mast has accumulated (pictures, names, addresses) and decides to see if he can find his daughter himself.

The structure of this movie from this point is like that in Dante’s Inferno, where Jake gradually descends into the sex trade, at first by looking at the street prostitutes and advertisements, then by pretending to be a customer in an adult book store where he looks at the various adult novelties and magazines.  He does fine as long as people think he just wants sex, but as soon as he starts asking questions, trying to find out if anyone has seen his daughter, he runs into trouble, at one point being bounced from a whorehouse.

Since that gets him nowhere, he decides he will do better pretending to be a producer of pornographic movies, which will allow him to meet a lot of people in that business.  He goes to see Mr. Ramada, a movie producer whose name Jake got from Mast’s files.  Ramada gives Jake some advice.  “Start small.  Start with the kiddie porn.”  Well, that makes sense.  Children are small.  Ramada is serious, but clearly Paul Schrader, the writer and director of this movie, is making a sick joke, although one with a purpose.  I said that this movie has the structure of Dante’s Inferno, where we encounter increasingly worse aspects of the sex trade as the movie proceeds.  Child pornography is the worst form of pornography, belonging in what would correspond to the lowest circle of Hell.  But Ramada makes it sound as if child pornography corresponds to Limbo, where one finds the unbaptized infants.

The reason Schrader dismissed child pornography in this manner was to get it out of the way.  He wanted snuff films to be the worst form of pornography in his movie, especially since it would directly threaten Kristen.  Technically, the 8mm movie showing Kristen having sex would today be counted as child pornography, because she is a minor.  But what Ramada is referring to, of course, is prepubescent children, which is vastly worse.

Jake does not take the advice about kiddie porn, of course, but he does have some success posing as a producer of smut.  In pretending to interview “actors” for a film, one of the men he saw in the movie with Kristen finally shows up.  When Jake asks him where he can find the girl he was in the movie with, the guy says she abused him in the making of that movie and that he never wants to work with that “freaky bitch” again.  Jake becomes angry and beats the porn star until he gets some information out of him, which leads him to Niki (Season Hubley), whom Jake had already met on the set of a porn film being produced by Ramada.   Niki regularly works at a place called Les Girls, and if you ever wanted to find out just how disgusting the sex trade can be, the scene at that establishment alone is worth the price of admission.  Niki will become his guide into the lower regions of the sex trade, much in the way Virgil was a guide for Dante.  Virgil was a virtuous pagan.  Niki is also a pagan of sorts, referring to herself as a Venusian, as in Venus, the goddess of love.  She agrees to help Jake find Kristen.

Niki is perceptive.  She quickly figures out that Jake is not a producer.  He tells her he is a detective, but she sees through that too.  He finally tells her that he is Kristen’s father and that he is a widower, but later she asks him point blank, “Your wife’s not dead, is she?” to which he admits his wife left him. She is clearly thinking it was for the same reason that his daughter ran away.

In addition to being smart, Niki is likable.  In fact, we begin at this point to compare her to Jake’s daughter, who is a big nothing.  Kristen is so docile and passive that it would be easy to indoctrinate her into a religion, and then just as easy for someone to come along and talk her into running away.  We feel sorry for Kristen, who cannot help being what she is (there is no free will, after all), but we would much rather spend time with Niki.

She becomes curious about Jake’s beliefs, and he tells her they can be summed up by the acronym “TULIP,” which covers some of the things discussed above.  “T” stands for “total depravity,” which is the doctrine of original sin, that man is incapable of good.  “U” stands for “unconditional election, which is the belief that God has chosen a certain number of elect from the beginning of time.  “L” stands for “limited atonement,” which means only the elect will go to Heaven.  “I” stands for “irresistible grace,” meaning that one who has God’s grace cannot choose to reject the Holy Ghost.  And “P” stands for the “perseverance of the saints,” by which is meant that you cannot fall from grace once you have it.

Niki helps Jake look for Tod, the other guy in the film with Kristen.  She learns that Tod has been associating with Ratan, and she becomes visibly shaken, saying, “He’s into pain.”  Of course, the name “Ratan” is only one letter removed from “Satan,” which is appropriate, since he is the most evil man in the entire sex trade.  Mast, who in the meantime has been secretly rehired by Wes, catches up with Jake.  When asked, Mast tells him that Ratan is the kind of man who can supply child whores and sex slaves, and who can have people raped or killed while the cameras are rolling.  Niki sets up an appointment for Jake to meet Tod in an adult bookstore, where Jake says he wants to see one of Ratan’s most recent films, thinking that Kristen may be in it.  It turns out she is not, which is fortunate, because what starts out to be a phony bondage flick turns into a snuff film in which a man and a woman are murdered by Ratan with a knife.  By the time the movie is over, Tod has disappeared.

Just as we compared Niki with Kristen, Niki begins to think of herself as Jake’s daughter, telling Mast that Jake will take care of her, get her out of the sex trade.  Mast ridicules the idea.  When Jake returns, he demands that Niki tell him where he can find Tod.  She is afraid to talk, saying she is afraid Jake will desert her.  He slaps her and threatens to beat her with his fists until she tells him.  Then he kisses her on the forehead and promises he won’t forget her.

Jake catches up with Tod at his bondage business and beats him until he tells Jake where Ratan is.  When Jake finds Ratan in a strip joint, Kristen is with him.  Ratan slashes Jake with his knife and runs out.  Mast had followed Jake, and he shoots Ratan, killing him.  Kristen is hostile to Jake at first. Her rejection of their way of life in Grand Rapids is like the rejection of the Holy Spirit, which is the unpardonable sin.  But the elect can never fall from grace, and Jake makes excuses for her, saying they forced her. Kristen asserts that she left because she wanted to, but there is no such thing as free will in their religion.  Jake admits his failures, however, and they reconcile.  After helping his daughter into the police car (they need her as a witness), he turns and sees Niki.  As he fumbles with his words, she realizes that Mast was right, that Jake has no more need of her.  Jake turns to Mast, asking him if there is something that can be done for her, if money would help.  But in so doing, Jake refers to her as “the girl” rather than as “Niki,” so we know he wants to distance himself from her.  Mast tells him to go home, that he does not belong there.

In his Guide for the Film Fanatic, Danny Peary makes the following observation in reviewing this movie:

By the time Scott [Jake] saves his daughter from the pimp who controls her, he believes he has learned to be a good father to her—but his sudden rejection of Hubley [Niki], as being unworthy to be his daughter’s adopted sister, shows he is a hypocrite.  … [The] ending is not very satisfying because the girl you care about gets the shaft while the other gets salvation.

Peary is right as far as how we feel about the ending, but that is precisely the effect Schrader intended.  Kristen is like one of the elect in Calvinism, someone who has been saved without seeming to be worthy of special consideration; while Niki is like one of the damned, whose exclusion from being one of God’s chosen strikes us as not only unfair, but also heartless.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

Because The Greatest Story Ever Told is 225 minutes long, long enough to put in pretty much every part of the story of Jesus that is recorded in the Gospels, it is in many ways more interesting to reflect upon the things that were left out.

It is surprising that many of the well-known miracles were only mentioned, not depicted visually: no scene of Jesus (Max von Sydow) turning water into wine, walking on water, or feeding the multitude with a basket of loaves and fishes. It is not surprising, on the other hand, that we do not see Jesus’s prediction that some of the people he is talking to will still be alive when the kingdom of God comes.

A lot of sins go unmentioned in this movie. Jesus does not say it is adultery to lust after a woman in your heart, or that it is a sin to get divorced, or that marrying someone who is divorced is adultery. But we do get the scene where the adulteress is saved by Jesus, who defies the mob by saying that the one without sin should cast the first stone. That’s what the audience wants to hear, not that lust or divorce are also forms of adultery, but that real adultery itself will be forgiven.

As is typical for a movie about Jesus, he never talks about Hell. There is a movie in which Jesus spends a lot of time talking about all the people who are going to Hell, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), but that is an exception. All the other Jesus movies leave that topic pretty much alone, at least as far as the sermons of Jesus are concerned. In The Greatest Story Ever Told, other people talk about Hell instead. In one scene, there is a religious figure who says that God is going to punish the wicked, but Jesus admonishes him, saying that God is about mercy. Never mind that what the guy was saying was actually similar to what Jesus himself says in the Bible, in this movie, Jesus will have none of it. This is followed shortly by a scene in which John the Baptist (Charlton Heston) tells King Herod (Claude Rains) that he is going to Hell for committing adultery, which again is consistent with the Biblical Jesus but not the Jesus of this movie. And when Jesus is giving Peter (Gary Raymond) the keys of the kingdom, even the relatively innocuous expression “gates of Hell” is left out of Jesus’s speech.

That this movie plays it safe in its treatment of Jesus, avoiding the depiction of anything that might make the audience uncomfortable, is understandable. What is somewhat perplexing, however, is the movie’s treatment of Judas (David McCallum). Where the Bible is ambiguous regarding Judas, so too is the movie. For example, there is some debate as to whether Judas received communion at the Last Supper. Consequently, the movie is ambiguous on this point as well. We see Judas holding the cup near his lips. Then the camera cuts away to Jesus, who makes a brief remark, after which we see Judas still holding he cup, leaving it an open question as to whether he took a sip. Fine. But where the Bible is not ambiguous is on Judas’s motive for betraying Jesus. Judas negotiates with the chief of priests to get thirty pieces of silver for delivering Jesus. The motive is money, pure and simple. But in the movie, instead of asking for money, we hear Judas going on about what a wonderful person Jesus is. And then, somewhat later, when he is given the pieces of silver that he did not ask for, he says he didn’t want any money, which leaves his betrayal of Jesus completely unmotivated. One almost gets the impression that the people who made this movie did not want to show Judas in a bad light, even though this is the man that Dante did not hesitate to put right next to Satan in the frozen lake at the center of the earth.  This treatment of Judas in various Jesus movies is covered more extensively in my essay “On the Rehabilitation of Judas.”

There is one thing in this movie that should have been kept out, and that is John Wayne’s only line. Right at the moment of Jesus’s death, we hear the Duke saying, “Truly, this man was the son of God,” in that unmistakable voice of his, and it is hard to keep from laughing.

Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

It is often said that Intolerance:  Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages was not well-received at the time, because it was over three hours long, and because it jumped back and forth among four different stories from four different time periods. Well, what was true then is still true today. The only way this movie deserves praise is if we handicap it for when it was made, or because we feel obliged to show deference to D.W. Griffith, who directed it.

In watching this movie, it soon becomes clear that the intolerance referred to in the title is religious in nature, for in each of the four stories, it is religion that causes all the suffering (actually, in the fourth story, it is more a matter of women becoming morally righteous as they age and lose their looks). Oddly enough, after showing how much misery is caused by religion (or moral righteousness) for over two thousand years, at the end of the movie, the heavens open up and God’s grace is shed on earth, right in the middle of a war, causing everyone to stop fighting and love one another. So, I guess religion is bad, but God is good. Except, you have to wonder, What was God waiting for? If he was going to intervene and stop all the religious killing, he could have done that a long time ago.

In three of the stories, good people die, but in the fourth story, set in modern times, the innocent man about to be hanged is saved by a melodramatic, last-minute confession from the real murderer. The reason for the difference is inexplicable. There is no indication that progress has been made over the centuries, for religious or moral intolerance is depicted as being just as prevalent today as in the past. If the innocent man had been hanged, that would at least have provided artistic unity for the four stories. As it is, the man’s reprieve is capricious. D.W. Griffith probably figured the audience deserved at least one happy ending, especially since no one was going to believe that business about God’s belated intervention in the middle of a war.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

If I told you I just saw a movie made in Italy in the 1960s where people stare at each other while the wind blows, and with the sound of horses whinnying or roosters crowing in the background, you would probably guess that I had seen a spaghetti Western by Sergio Leone. But no, it was this Jesus movie, The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Because the movie is filmed in gritty black and white, you would almost think that documentary footage of the life of Jesus had been found.

Unlike other Jesus movies, this one actually has Jesus talking about sending people to Hell. Other Jesus movies play it safe with the Beatitudes. There might be mention of the “gates of Hell” as Jesus gives Peter the keys of the Kingdom, but that is about it. However, the Jesus in this movie spends half his time talking about Hell and the people who are likely to go there.

This movie does have one thing in common with Hollywood Jesus movies: there is not one word about divorce being a sin and that those who remarry are committing adultery. No Jesus movie has the guts to touch that subject.

Heaven in the Movies

Because Heaven does not exist, it is purely the product of our imagination. Unlike the world we live in, where we must continually adjust our conceptions to fit reality, resulting in much disappointment, Heaven never suffers the limitations of experienced reality, but is free to realize our every hope and dream.

Of course, owing to our religious upbringing, we are usually provided with a conception of Heaven before we have a chance to imagine one for ourselves, and thus the imaginings of others may impose themselves on us before we have a chance to make a significant contribution of our own.  Those who are independent enough in their thinking to reject the conception of Heaven acquired in childhood and replace it with their own are independent enough in their thinking not to believe in Heaven at all.  And yet, in some way or other, Heaven has been imagined by different peoples at different times, and so, it would seem that in some way or other the different conceptions of an afterlife must be suited to us.

There are four different conceptions of Heaven.  The first is that it is a refuge from the pain and suffering of this world.  All of us have suffered at one time or other, and in such circumstances, relief from that suffering is all we care about. And so, the more suffering there is for a people, the more likely they are to conceive of Heaven in this way.  An example of this is Heaven Is for Real (2014).  In that movie, a family is under a lot of stress, because the husband, a pastor, has several jobs, but they are still in debt and overwhelmed financially.  Their four-year-old son almost dies from a ruptured appendix, and in the hospital, while being operated on, goes to Heaven temporarily.  In addition to describing what Heaven is like visually, seeing Jesus and angels and whatnot, the message is that everything will be all right, that deceased loved ones are there, and they are happy.

The second is that it is place where one exacts an imaginary revenge on those one hates. St. Thomas Aquinas said that the saints in Heaven will be able to witness the suffering of the damned so that their bliss will be more delightful for them.  But most of us do not hate that much, which is why many people who are religious do not have a Hell as part of their conception of an afterlife. At most, they have a Heck. Consequently, Heaven conceived in conjunction with Hell as places where divine justice is meted out no longer appeals to us either.

The third conception is that it is a continuation of the life we presently have. We find this sort of thing in the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology and in the Asgard of Norse mythology.  In the movie Hud (1963), after the funeral service for his grandfather, Lonnie (Brandon de Wilde) says, “He ain’t in any loaf-around eternal life.  He’s the way he always was, enjoying his good horses, looking after the land, trying to figure out ways to beat the dry weather and wind.”  While this conception might be more suitable for those of us who have been fortunate enough to find life worth living, we have difficulty taking it seriously.  In particular, it makes no sense that a rancher would worry about the dry weather and wind in Heaven when there would be plenty of food for everyone, assuming people eat in Heaven, which is unlikely.   In general, most of what we do on Earth makes sense only when done on Earth.  In Heaven, such Earthly activity would be lacking in purpose.  About the only way to make sense of this idea is that his grandfather would be suspended in an ideal state, with no sense that he had died, looking over his land and his livestock in perpetuity.  Perhaps that was the idea behind the river Lethe of Greek mythology, to drink from which would cause forgetfulness.  His grandfather would have no sense of the passage of time, because in each succeeding moment, he would forget the moment that came before it.

But this is a false happiness, which appeals to us and repels us at the same time.  Lonnie may want to think of his grandfather that way, but is it something he would really want for himself?  In any event, Lonnie apparently does not take his sentimental notions seriously either, given what follows. When the preacher tries to console him by saying that his grandfather has gone to a better place, Lonnie replies, “I don’t think so. Not unless dirt is a better place than air,” thereby contradicting what he said just moments before.

The fourth conception is the adolescent’s Heaven, a place where one can party all the time, get drunk, get laid.  This conception is not confined to adolescents, of course, for Islam promises the men that are faithful that they will have seventy-two virgins in Paradise.  And yet, as delightful a sensual afterlife seems to be, it seldom appeals to the mature mind.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that such delights are often deemed sinful, and thus there is a disconnect between condemning them here on Earth while praising them in Heaven.  More likely it is the fact that while most of us enjoy that sort of thing once in a while, an eternity of such goings-on seems a little pointless.

In short, none of these conceptions of Heaven really appeals to us. And this is strange, because, as noted above, Heaven can be whatever we imagine it to be. As evidence that these conceptions do not appeal to us, we might note the way movies portray Heaven. Movies, even when they are about life on Earth, are products of the imagination, so all the more so are they suited to presenting depictions of Heaven.

The movie The Green Pastures (1936) is a movie that depicts Heaven as imagined by African Americans, specifically, rural blacks living in the South, and it fits into the third category.  Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the movie depicts Heaven as white people imagined that southern, rural blacks would imagine it. White audiences were comfortable with this depiction of Heaven, because they could smile condescendingly at what they regarded as the naïve notions of the black race.  This attitude is underscored by having the camera close in on the eyes of black children in Sunday School just before Heaven is portrayed on the screen, making it doubly clear that what we are watching is a childlike portrayal of Heaven.  In other words, white audiences were not asked to take this view of Heaven seriously.

To a certain extent, The Green Pastures also belongs in the fourth category, in that Heaven seems to be one long picnic.  Angels fish for pleasure, eat good food, smoke cigars, and go dancing on Saturday night.  There is no explicit mention of sex, but with all the little cherubs about and references to mammies, one gathers that angels get married and have children.  On the other hand, things in Heaven are pretty tame compared to the drinking, gambling, and philandering taking place on Earth just before the Flood, so the Heaven in this movie does not quite realize the adolescent’s conception of Paradise.

My next example is the movie Heaven Can Wait (1943).  This is a comedy in which a man, Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), dies and is resigned to go to Hell for his sins, all of which are of a sexual nature, such as cheating on his wife.  He is in luck, though, for the Devil (Laird Cregar) is most pleasant and understanding.  In fact, with a Devil like that, there would seem to be no need for a God.  After hearing of Henry’s infidelities, the Devil decides that Henry is not suitable for Hell and will spend eternity in Heaven.  In the original ending, Henry gets on the elevator and tells the operator he is going up.  At the next floor, however, a beautiful woman gets on, saying she is going down.  The operator looks at Henry, who says, “That’s OK. Heaven can wait.”

The implication is that Henry is not in much of a hurry to get to Heaven, where he will probably have to spend eternity being faithful to his wife, assuming they even have sex in Heaven, which is doubtful.  Therefore, he decides to see if he can get a little on the side just one more time before being condemned to Heaven. Unfortunately, that original ending met with objections and was deleted, which not only resulted in a lesser movie, but also left people wondering what the title meant.

This movie is not to be confused, of course, with a movie of the same name made in 1978, which was a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).  For simplicity’s sake, I will discuss Heaven Can Wait (1978) only, for the two movies are basically alike.  Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) is a professional football player who dies in an accident. But when he gets to Heaven, instead of meeting the traditional St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, he meets Mr. Jordan (James Mason), who realizes that Joe was not supposed to die just yet.  But since Joe’s body has already been cremated, a new body will have to be found for him belonging to someone recently deceased.

What is striking about this movie is that though Joe has just learned that there is God and a Heaven, yet all he cares about is getting a body that will allow him to play in the Super Bowl. Now, if I found out I would have to go back to Earth, the first question I would have asked Mr. Jordan would be, “Is there a Hell, and if so, what do I have to do to stay out of it?”  There is no more important question one could possibly want an answer to than that. And whatever the answer to that question was, I would never again be able to concern myself with worldly goods like football, but would be spiritually transformed.

But that aside, the point is that Joe doesn’t care about Heaven. Granted, when he finally gets the body he needs, his memory is wiped clean of all that took place between the accident and his winning the Super Bowl.  But during the time in between, he is totally indifferent to Heaven (or the Hell that I would be worried about). The implicit message of this movie, as well as the original on which it was based, is that life on Earth is worth more than an afterlife in Heaven.

A movie with the opposite structure is Stairway to Heaven (1946). Whereas in the movie just discussed, a man dies who was not supposed to, in this movie, a man who was supposed to die does not. Actually, the movie begins with a disclaimer, saying that the movie is a story of two worlds, the first of which is that of our life here on Earth; the second, in the mind of a young airman. It then goes on to deny “any resemblance between this imaginary world and any other world, known or unknown.”  But whether the Heaven depicted is the imagination of this British World War II pilot, Peter Carter (David Niven), or is supposed to be the real Heaven as imagined by those who produced the movie, the result is the same:  the Heaven so imagined is the pits.  Not surprisingly, then, Peter does not want to go to Heaven as he was supposed to, but wants to continue to live on Earth, especially since he just fell in love. This results in the need to have a trial to see whether Peter gets to stay on Earth or must go to Heaven.

Heaven is undesirable for four reasons.  First, it is colorless, both literally and figuratively, with only the scenes on Earth being in color. Second, it is lifeless, both literally and figuratively, for with the exception of the new arrivals (who are in such a jolly good mood, they get on your nerves), everyone else in Heaven is lethargic and dull. Third, souls in Heaven are prudish beyond all reason. We all know that there is no sin in Heaven, which is part of what makes it so boring, but in this Heaven, you are not even allowed to say, “Holy smoke!” Fourth, there is no love in Heaven, but there is hate. Conductor 71, having dismissed love as the feeling of the moment, says that the prosecutor in Peter’s case hates Peter’s guts, as part of a hatred for the British that has lasted for two centuries, on account of his having been an American killed by the British during the American Revolution. This hatred turns out to be petty and spiteful beyond belief.

Apparently, Heaven in this movie is really caught up in World War II, because they have a special Aircrew Section just for the pilots of the Allied forces. We never get to see the Aircrew Section for the Axis Powers for some reason. The receptionist, or whatever she is, shows a newly arrived pilot where they keep the files on everyone on Earth: Russian, Chinese, black or white, Republican or Democrat. She doesn’t mention anything about the files of Germans, Japanese, or Italians. Gosh! You don’t suppose they all went to Hell, do you?

Just about the time we have settled into the idea that this business about Heaven is the hallucination of a man who has jumped out of a plane without a parachute, it turns out that his hallucinations are caused by a brain tumor, the symptoms of which began six months before he jumped. So, it is ambiguous as to whether the tumor is the hallucination of a man who is falling to his death, or the leap out of a burning plane is the hallucination of a man with a brain tumor.

Anyway, brain surgery is performed on Peter while his trial is taking place in Heaven. Ultimately, it comes down to a question of which should prevail, the Law of Heaven, or love on Earth. Finally, June (Kim Hunter), the woman Peter loves, is willing to die in Peter’s place, thereby proving that she loves him, the result of which is that they both get to live. The judge quotes Sir Walter Scott’s poem about how love conquers all, the last line of which says, “For love is heaven, and heaven is love,” an assertion that stands in contradiction to all that has come before. At the same time, the surgery back down on Earth proves to be a success.  So, Peter and June will get married and live happily ever after. Or rather, they will be happy until they die. Then they will go to Heaven and have to exist in that dreadful place for eternity.

Regardless of whichever conception of Heaven one imagines or is seen in the movies, one thing that always bothers me is the lack of privacy.  Now, I realize that there is no need for bedrooms or bathrooms in Heaven, since there typically is no sex in Heaven and certainly no need to excrete waste material. But I would still find it maddening not be to be able to get away by myself once in a while.  And yet, in any depiction you have ever seen of Heaven, you never see someone walk into his own little room and close the door behind him.

Because Heaven does not seem to have much appeal, it is understandable that people would turn to reincarnation as an alternative.  That would make sense. If life is so much better than Heaven, then the best thing is just to keep being reincarnated. The movie that makes this point is What Dreams May Come (1998), in which the connection between Heaven and the imagination is even more explicit than the preceding one.

A lot of people used to believe that marriages were made in Heaven.  Today, people speak of being soul mates.  Whatever expression one uses, that is the idea behind the marriage of Chris (Robin Williams) and Annie (Annabella Sciorra).  They have two children who die in a car crash, leading Annie to have a mental breakdown. They almost get a divorce.  A year later, Chris also dies in a car accident.

He eventually makes it to Heaven, which is a wonderful place shaped by the imagination.  But since Heaven is created by the imagination, so too is Hell. According to traditional Christianity, people who commit suicide go to Hell, and New Age philosophy is apparently in agreement on this point, if this movie is any indication, where people do not go to Hell because they are evil, but because they got confused and committed suicide. In other words, life is so wonderful that suicide cannot possibly be a rational act, no matter how miserable one is, so anyone who hates life enough to commit suicide must be confused. When Annie kills herself, she is trapped in Hell by her confusion. Chris manages to rescue her, but all the other suicides remain in Hell for eternity. Too bad for them.

Anyway, Chris and Annie make it to Heaven where they are safe. But Chris suggests that they be reincarnated so that they can meet each other again and experience another life together. Of course, that means taking a chance of becoming confused, committing suicide, and going to Hell, with little likelihood of there being another rescue. Who in his right mind would chance it? But the idea is that life is so wonderful that it is even better than Heaven, even worth the risk of committing suicide and being eternally damned.

Of course, that wonderful life involves such things as having your children die in a car accident, having the marriage deteriorate to the point of almost getting a divorce, and then having a husband die in an accident. Who wouldn’t want the chance to experience something like that again? Who wouldn’t forgo Heaven and risk Hell to experience such misery and suffering once more?

The thrust of all these movies is that life on Earth is preferable to an eternity in Heaven, even if that life turns out to be pretty miserable.  How are we to make sense of this?  I can think of only two possible explanations.  The first is that human nature is suited for life on Earth, which means a life filled with struggle, even if it is a struggle we often lose, causing us misery and pain. Regardless of whether life is worth living, or whether it would have been better had we never been born, it is all we know. We simply are not constitutionally suited for Heaven, and thus the idea of it makes us uncomfortable.  The other reason is that even people who are religious only half believe it, like Lonnie in the movie Hud, and thus are inclined to cling to the only existence they are sure of rather than waste their lives worrying about something that may well be nothing but a product of their imagination.

In Defense of Skepticism

Though it would be natural enough to infer from the title of this essay that it will be a polemic against religion, yet it is really not religion that concerns me, even if it is inevitable that the subject of religion will be a part of it. What I wish to defend is skepticism understood in its broadest sense, which arises from a general disinclination to believe.

One of the things that always bemused me when watching The X Files (1993-2002) was the sign over Mulder’s desk that read, “I want to believe.”  And as if to make sure we understood that this attitude was the quintessence of Mulder’s character, it was even included in the title of the 2008 movie based on this series:  The X Files:  I Want to Believe.  Now, this represents more than just being open-minded, in which one is willing to consider it at least possible that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and that some of it visits us from time to time.  No, this is much more than that.

Had Mulder’s sign read, “I hope it’s true,” that would have been perfectly understandable.  Alternatively, had his sign read, “I want to know,” that would have been understandable as well, and it would have been an attitude with which Scully would have been in complete agreement.  In that case, the difference would have been between Mulder, who hopes that there are aliens from other planets visiting us in flying saucers, and Scully, who thinks the whole business is just wishful thinking; but in either case, whatever the truth of the matter, they would both want to know it. But Mulder did not want know.  He wanted to believe. What does that mean?

I said this essay would not principally be about religion, but it is necessary for me to note that there is one sense in which I understand wanting to believe, and that is the case with religion. Of course, not all religions have the same attitude toward belief.  It is my understanding that Judaism is not about believing things; it is about doing things.  I have even read that one can be a Jew without believing in God, provided one observes the Sabbath, eats kosher food, wears a yarmulke, and so on.  That may be a rather extreme interpretation of Judaism, to which many may take exception, but the relative importance of doing over believing is probably correct.  At the other extreme are the religions of Christianity and Islam, in which belief is paramount.

Regarding Christianity, children are usually told that good people go to Heaven and bad people go to Hell, because getting children to behave is a difficult challenge, and parents are not averse to using a little superstition to fill in for them when they are not around.  But as one grows older, one learns that belief is the sine qua non of salvation.  Christians may debate whether faith alone is sufficient for salvation, or whether both faith and works are necessary; but in either case, without faith, there is no salvation.

There are two reasons for this.  First, by their very nature, religious beliefs are not acquired by observing the world around us.  The only reassurance people have that there is a God or an afterlife is that from the time they were five years old, they found themselves surrounded by other people who also believed those things.  Therefore, any encounter with disbelief is extremely disconcerting, because it undermines their faith.  Religious belief is a house of cards in which each person’s belief reinforces the beliefs of others. Disbelief is a puff of wind that with so little force can collapse the entire edifice.  It is for this reason that there is so much hostility to the atheist, the infidel, and the apostate.

Second, if the priest is to have power, it is essential that people believe. Whether they sin or not is a relatively minor consideration.  In fact, sin may even conduce to the power of the priest, provided people feel the need to turn to him for forgiveness.  To this end, the doctrine of original sin guarantees that everyone is so sinful from the moment of birth, or even while in the womb, according to St. Augustine, that only by believing that Jesus died for one’s sins can one be saved.  Therefore, the power of the priest is not weakened by sin, but strengthened by it. Disbelief, on the other hand, is a threat to his power, and cannot be tolerated.

So important is this need to have others believe, that those who do not are threatened with eternal damnation.  Unfortunately, since belief is largely involuntary, this can lead to a great deal of stress for those who find themselves unable to believe the teachings of childhood, but are unable to rid themselves of the superstitious fears instilled by such teachings.  They are persuaded by Pascal’s wager that there is not much to lose by believing in God, even if he does not exist; whereas there is a lot to lose by not believing in God when Hell yawns before you. When such a person says, “I want to believe,” that is something I completely understand.

But what does it mean when someone like Mulder wants to believe, even though there is no punishment for not believing?  For some people, like those who dabble in the occult or New Age philosophy, I suppose beliefs must be like delicious morsels, just waiting to be tasted.  As for me, I have never wanted to believe anything in my entire life.  Ultimately, I end up believing something only when the alternatives require more credulity on my part than that about which I might have some initial doubts.  For example, I believe there is an external, physical reality: by nature, because it is instinctive to do so; and philosophically, because I would otherwise have to believe something preposterous, such as Descartes’ evil genius, Berkeley’s God, or the solipsistic hallucinations of my own mind.

And now I arrive, finally, at my skepticism regarding science.  Let me begin with global warming.  I regard the issue of climate change as a complex subject, which, quite frankly, I have no interest in, have not studied, do not intend to, and am content to have no beliefs on the subject whatsoever.  I have a friend who adamantly denies that human beings cause global warming, and, as she has advanced degrees in science, she becomes exasperated with me when I refuse to accept her authority on this matter.  By the same token, there is an equally hostile attitude on the other side of this issue toward those who do not enthusiastically embrace the doctrine of climate change, calling them science-deniers, and comparing them with people who do not believe in evolution.

The point of this comparison is to make people ashamed to confess their doubts on the subject, lest they be lumped in with Christian fundamentalists.  Of course, there is a world of difference between the two, and it goes back to my point about physical objects, which I believe to exist as a kind of default position.  In other words, if it turns out that there is anthropogenic climate change, I will not be surprised, because that will mean that the scientific consensus was correct.  If it turns out that there is no anthropogenic climate change, I will not be surprised, because scientists have been wrong before.  My overall world view will not be affected one way or the other.  With evolution, on the other hand, the matter is quite different.  I would like to say that I believe that life evolved owing to the courses in biology I took in high school and college, along with the half-dozen or so books I have read on the subject since, but that would not be true.  I accepted evolution as true when I first heard about it at the age of eight, mostly for lack of any credible alternatives.  To reject evolution, one must either believe that there is spontaneous generation, in which, for instance, worms spontaneously arise out of the mud; or one must accept some cockamamie nonsense, like that found in the Book of Genesis.  So, unlike the case with global warming, if it turns out that I am wrong about evolution, and that in fact, the world is only six thousand years old, and Adam and Eve are my ancestors, then I might just as well quit thinking altogether, except, perhaps, for trying to figure out how to avoid going to Hell.

An important consideration in my skepticism here is that there is nothing I can do about global warming, even if I were interested in the subject enough to study it.  I could spend the next several years mastering all the mathematics and science needed to evaluate the papers that have been written on the subject, and it would have no practical consequence whatsoever. What the world does or does not do about climate change will not be affected by what I know or merely believe.  Hypothetically, if it were up to me, or if we were taking a vote on the subject, I would, in a manner similar to Pascal’s wager, vote to assume that there is man-made global warming, and institute things like cap-and-trade; for regardless of the truth of the matter, there is more to lose by not doing what needs to be done, than there is by doing something that turns out to be unnecessary.  Unlike Pascal’s wager, however, it would not be necessary that I believe, only that I act.  And whereas beliefs are largely involuntary, our actions are mostly under our control.

Another issue in which one is likely to be castigated for being a science-denier concerns genetically-modified organisms, in particular, the corn that has been modified by Monsanto in order to tolerate Roundup, which is a herbicide.  Here too I am skeptical, but in this case, there is something I can do about it, thus justifying some effort on my part to become knowledgeable on the subject, although not enough, unfortunately, for me to reach any definite conclusion. Nevertheless, I can buy organic corn.  And my ability to avoid this modified corn would be further enhanced were there mandatory labeling of such, but there is a lot of resistance to that, which only makes me suspicious.  At the present time, I will not buy corn unless it is organic, just to be sure.  This is not because I believe that the corn is bad for me, for it may well turn out to be harmless.  But neither do I believe the studies that conclude that this corn and its associated poison are safe, science notwithstanding. Once more this is like Pascal’s wager, only applied to actions rather than beliefs.  I have more to lose by eating Roundup-laced corn should it turn out to be dangerous, than I have to lose by eating organic corn only, even if Roundup turns out to be harmless.

In short, I am perfectly content to be skeptical about science, especially when corporate profits and political power are at stake, and will gladly endure the obloquy of those who find my skepticism in such matters intolerable.  And even when I am forced to act, and must choose to do one thing rather than another, I can remain skeptical while I do so.

Finally, there are certain propositions about which the expression of even a hint of doubt is absolutely forbidden.  Even to bring such subjects up, as something doubted by others, though not oneself, would incur the wrath of the mob.  On these matters, it is prudent to be silent. Fortunately, there is no Hell for having doubts, and one can always be skeptical in private. And this suits me fine, because I do not want to believe.

What Dreams May Come (1998)

A lot of people used to believe that marriages were made in Heaven.  Today, people speak of being soul mates.  Whatever expression one uses, that is the idea behind the marriage of Chris (Robin Williams) and Annie (Annabella Sciorra) in What Dreams May Come.  They have two children who die in a car crash, leading Annie to have a mental breakdown.  They almost get a divorce.  A year later, Chris also dies in a car accident.

He eventually makes it to Heaven, which is a wonderful place shaped by the imagination.  But since Heaven is created by the imagination, so too is Hell.  According to traditional Christianity, people who commit suicide go to Hell, and New Age philosophy is apparently in agreement on this point, if the movie What Dreams May Come is any indication. In this movie, people do not go to Hell because they are evil, but because they got confused and committed suicide. When Annie kills herself, she is trapped in Hell by her confusion. Her husband Chris manages to rescue her, but all the other suicides remain in Hell for eternity. Too bad for them.

Anyway, Chris and Annie make it to Heaven where they are safe. But Chris suggests that they be reincarnated so that they can meet each other again and experience another life together. Of course, that means taking a chance of becoming confused, committing suicide, and going to Hell, with little likelihood of there being another rescue. Who in his right mind would chance it? But the idea is that life is so wonderful that it is even better than Heaven, even worth the risk of committing suicide and being eternally damned.

Of course, that wonderful life involves such things as having your children die in a car accident, having the marriage deteriorate to the point of almost getting a divorce, and then having a husband die in an accident. Who wouldn’t want the chance to experience something like that again? Who wouldn’t forgo Heaven and risk Hell to experience such misery and suffering once more?

On the Rehabilitation of Judas

As is often the case around the time of Easter, a lot of Jesus movies are shown on television, and last Easter I decided to binge-watch a bunch of them.  I like to compare the story of Jesus as told in the movies, one with another, and all of them with the Bible.  My reasons for doing so are various.

One reason is rather silly, but I like it too much to give it up. When Jesus was born, the three wise men saw his star and decided to follow it.  We often see paintings depicting their journey, with the star about twenty or thirty degrees above the horizon, and occasionally such a scene occurs in a movie. Oddly enough, even when the wise men are close enough to see at a distance the place where Jesus is lying in the manger, the star still marks off the same angle above the horizon. I keep hoping that one of these days they will make a movie in which we see the three wise men leaning way back on their camels, looking straight up, whereupon one of them says, “Well, the star is directly overhead, so I guess this barn must be the place.”

On a more serious note, I like to see how miracles are presented.  While The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) is unabashed in its presentation of the miraculous, so that we see Jesus walking on water, the other movies downplay this element. In King of Kings (1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), for example, we do not see such miracles, but only hear about them.  The recently produced Killing Jesus (2015) similarly eschews the outrageously miraculous, only showing Jesus curing people of bodily ailments, which might easily be thought of as conditions that were temporary anyway, or as hysterical conditions alleviated through the power of suggestion.  In other words, the people who make movies know that many in the audience do not believe in miracles or even that Jesus was the Son of God.  If they were to see a multitude being fed with a basket of loaves and fishes, they would snicker and begin to distance themselves from the movie.  To appeal to those of a secular bent, the producers tend to keep the supernatural to a minimum, to tell the story as it might have happened even if there is no God.

In a similar vein, Jesus is no longer good enough for modern audiences, and the producers realize that they need to clean up his act.  In fact, if you made a movie in which Jesus were shown saying some of the things he actually said in the Bible, audiences would get up from their seats and walk out, and many people would be calling for a boycott.  For example, Matthew 5:32, “…whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.”  If someone were to put that in a Jesus movie, he would be taken out into the market place and stoned.

The most important part of Jesus’s rehabilitation is the purging of all references to Hell, damnation, and punishment of sinners. Once again, the great exception is The Gospel According to St. Matthew, in which Jesus speaks at length about people going to Hell and being punished for their sins, just as he does in the title Gospel.  In The Big Fisherman (1959), when Jesus gives Peter the keys of the Kingdom, he makes a passing reference to Hell, as he does in Matthew 6:18, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” But in presenting this scene in The Greatest Story Ever Told and in Killing Jesus, the last part of that line is suppressed, innocuous though it is.

It occurred to me that the reason for bowdlerizing the Bible in this way was to make the movies suitable for children.  But these same movies have no problem having other characters, such as John the Baptist, talk about lust, fornication, adultery, incest, and Hell.  In The Greatest Story Ever Told, a man talks of sinners being punished by God, and even though Jesus says pretty much the same thing in the Bible, the movie Jesus rebukes him, saying God is all about forgiveness.

But while the rehabilitation of Jesus is understandable, owing to the need to bring his moral character in line with what is agreeable to modern thinking, as I watched these movies, I was struck by the parallel rehabilitation of Judas. The Bible gives us a straightforward reason as to why Judas betrayed Jesus. He did it for thirty pieces of silver.  As a motive, money is sufficient to explain any crime, no matter how evil it may be.  Not all crimes have money as a motive, and not all people can be moved to commit such crimes for money. But given that it is the motive for some evil deed, we have no trouble accepting it.

And yet, most of the movies I watched were at pains to give Judas another motive. Once again, the major exception was The Gospel According to St. Matthew, which told the story straight. The Passion of the Christ (2004) does so as well. But all others felt the need to conjure up another reason.  In Killing Jesus, Judas is shown to be fearing for his life. And when he makes the deal, he is told that his life will be spared, to which he replies, “That must be why I do this.”  The same motive, along with a couple of others, is given in the silent version of King of Kings (1927).  On the intertitle, it says, “And so it was that Judas, bitter…panic stricken…desperate…all hope of earthly kingdom gone, betrayed his Lord for thirty pieces of silver.”  At the bottom of the intertitle, there is a citation of chapter and verse: Matthew 26:14-15.

I didn’t remember that one, so I looked it up.  In my Bible, at Matthew 26:14-15, it says, “Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver.”  I guess Cecil B. DeMille, who directed this movie, must have had a different translation.

Apparently, all this business about Judas being bitter, panic stricken, and filled with despair was DeMille’s substitute motive for what he really thought was going on, according to Doug McClelland in his book, The Unkindest Cuts: The Scissors and the Cinema:

[DeMille’s] feelings were close to shock when the Cinema people lopped off virtually all of the opening episodes containing the affair between Mary Magdalene and Judas.  After this, neither Magdalene nor Judas made much sense to him as characters.  He viewed it as unlikely that a man would betray a King for “a lousy 30 pieces of silver.  There must have been a dame in the background,” he told us in a tone of finality. [page 59]

Cherchez la femme!  Well, you can look for the woman, if you like, but you won’t find anything about Mary Magdalene and Judas having an affair in the Bible.  And how would that explain anything, anyway?  If Judas and Mary were already having sex, what would be the point in betraying Jesus?  Well, I suppose we should not try to criticize a plot point that was cut out of the picture.  We can simply content ourselves with adding sex to the fabricated motives that are attributed to Judas.

In the remake of King of Kings (1961), Judas is given a very different motive. According to the narrator, Judas betrays Jesus “to test and prove forever the divine power of the Messiah.” The idea, I suppose, is that when Jesus made short work of the Roman legion, laying them waste, everyone would see that he was the Son of God.  The only problem with that is it’s not in the Bible.

In The Greatest Story Ever Told, no motive is given at all.  Judas appears to be confused.  He goes to the priests and says he will tell them where Jesus is, but they have to promise not to hurt him, because Jesus is a wonderful person, who never did an unkind thing in his life. Except for getting them to promise not to hurt Jesus, he asks for nothing in return.  Later, we see the high priest counting out thirty pieces of silver, to which Judas says that he didn’t do it for the money.  Needless to say, that is not in the Bible either.

In The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Jesus conspires with Judas. He asks Judas to betray him so that he can bring salvation to all. This is actually an old theory, put forth in the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, thought to have been written in the second century, so apparently people have been making excuses for Judas for a long time.

Part of the reason may be due to the long struggle over free will versus predestination. On the one hand, Judas cannot be thought evil unless he acted of his own free will.  On the other hand, it appears that Judas was destined to betray Jesus, suggesting that he was compelled.  With too much free will, one gets the Pelagian heresy, in which Jesus’s death on the cross was unnecessary, because man is capable of salvation without help from God. Without free will, however, it would seem that man cannot be blamed for his sins.  Some argue that Jesus simply knew in advance what Judas would do of his own free will, a theory known as single predestination. Others, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, deny that man has free will.  In their theory, known as double predestination, God does not merely know what will happen, he ordained it from the beginning.  But whether it was an act of free will or predestination, there is no reason to find another motive for Judas. Either he was greedy and betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver of his own free will; or God ordained in advance that Judas would betray Jesus for money, using Satan as his instrument (John 13:27).

The motive of money being equally compatible with free will and predestination, there must be another reason why so many movies, along with the books they are based on, feel the need to root around for other motives. Either Judas was afraid for his life, or he wanted to keep having sex with Mary Magdalene without any interference from Jesus, or he thought he could prove Jesus was the Messiah, or he was confused, or he was acting at the behest of Jesus.  What they all have in common is that they exonerate Judas or mitigate his act of betrayal.  Unlike Dante, who placed Judas in the frozen lake at the bottom of Hell, right next to Satan, we no longer want to think of Judas as evil.

The rehabilitation of Judas is a necessary corollary to the rehabilitation of Jesus.  We cannot have a movie depicting a Jesus who never mentions Hell or eternal punishment, who is all about love and forgiveness, and still keep the same old Judas, who deserves to burn in the everlasting fire.  In order to change Jesus into a better person than the one we find in the Gospels, we have to make Judas a better person as well.