That's me in the spotlight....
I should be inspired by an internet article that tries to discuss TV's ideas about religion, especially when I basically agree with the premise as presented in the sub-headline: "TV portrays religion in a number of ways. What hasn’t been considered as often is the purpose of faith." Too true; all too true. Of course, there are problems with defining "faith" apart from "religion," because the definition of "faith" usually has to do with what you believe (not who you trust, or "have faith in"), and then we start arguing over whether religion is a social construct while "faith" is something individuals engage in, and the whole thing goes right off the rails.
The actual discussion, however, is about TV shows: "The Exorcist," "Penny Dreadful," "Preacher," and "The Good Place." I'm not familiar with any of them (I plan to catch up on "Penny Dreadful" on Netflix at some point, but then again, I might not. It's not compelling me; and I never considered it as having anything to do with religion.). "The Exorcist" is an extension of the novel/movie, but with two different priests (both fairly young, apparently; gotta get the demographic) fighting demons; oh, and the Catholic church bureaucracy, which I suppose is a bone to Clint Eastwood fans, or something. Well, always gotta fight the power, or the Man; amirite? Oh, "Exorcist" is thematically connected to "Outcast," where a village is apparently plagued by demons. Sounds a little like Stephen King to me, but what do I know? I don't know how these two are connected to "Preacher," except that in that one the title character carries around a being called "Genesis" (Biblical, get it?) and sets up a conversation between a church congregation and God. According to the article that conversation doesn't go well (if it did the TV show would end abruptly, I guess); but then again Jonathan Edwards would have something to say about sinners in the hands of God. Annie Dillard would, too; but maybe I'm getting too literary for television.
You might be noticing a pattern here, and it isn't just that TV loves action and prefers violence when it can get it. Apparently "Penny Dreadful" includes a character who clings tenaciously to her faith, only to lose it in what the article calls "that most Victorian of evils, a broken heart." I have to say, that's not a peculiarly Victorian evil; it certainly ranks high in modern Hollywood storylines, too. So high my first thought is hardly that it's Victorian in nature at all. The list goes on: "Game of Thrones" apparently was set in motion by a loss of faith (The Red Priestess realizes her vision are false*), and this leads to an interesting (but also false) conclusion:
Notice that these shows all hang on supernatural themes. Indeed, genre television and film has long provided creators with the means to approach many existential questions, including dissections of faith, in such an oblique fashion.Well, yeah, supernatural as opposed to religious themes, I agree. But that's the way TV handles religion now. Once it was schmaltzy piety, or dreary doe-eyed piety (Heavenly choirs singing in the background as the sun breaks through the clouds and enlightens a beatific actress's face, which is turned heavenward); now it's all about power. Which, in modern understanding, is what the "supernatural" is for: access to power, physical, visible, undeniable power.
It's a post-Romantic idea. Scan European literature, and witches are either the Witch of Endor, in 1 Samuel, or the Delphic Oracle in Greece, two characters with a shared root: knowledge. The Witch of Endor is no Harry Potter-esque witch, but someone who passes on messages to Saul from Samuel. Likewise the Delphic Oracle gave messages from the gods to humans. Later, in European folklore collected during the Romantic interest in anthropology, witches appear as symbols of evil. But the witch in Hansel and Gretel doesn't wave a wand over the children, and few if any of the witches in Grimm's tales exhibit the kind of power over the elements, or even objects, that we connect with the Sorcerer's Apprentice or Harry Potter. Tolkien's Gandalf is an elder wizard of this kind; he sets off fireworks, and sparks his staff into light, but he fights with a sword and exhibits courage and knowledge, not access to supernatural powers whenever the dwarves or the Fellowship are in a tight spot and could use, say, a transportation spell.
Supernatural is our modern term, for exerting power with no seeming connection between object and human except will. It's a metaphor grown out of the Industrial revolution. We even comfort ourselves that "primitive tribes" (and aside from a few cargo cults, there's no real evidence for it) would think our technology "magic" if they were to see it. But that's what we call magic; their culture may simply call it "power."
That's the connection between all those stories: access to power. It's what we've been seeking ever since we found energy sources that would give us machines of power, and since we found the power latent in petroleum, it has made us power mad, indeed. So our presentations of religion in popular culture, which amount to discussions of religion in the public square, turn on access to power and the use of power: power to control demons, or power to confront God, or just the old complaint that the gods don't listen and don't care, and won't share their power. What good is God, after all, if God won't share power?
And what if the omnipotent being whom we call by so many names, refuses to intervene when we need it most? What if it doesn’t know anything?Because knowledge, you know, is power. We think that's universal, too, except in the most famous case of the Oracle speaking for the gods, and of Tiresias speaking truth to power, Oedipus found knowledge left him powerless. If God won't intervene when we need it, if God won't even make a display of God's power, what good is God?
64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
64:2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
64:3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
Isaiah 64:1-3. Like I said, it's a very old question. And it's a very old demand: a demand that God display some power. Not that Isaiah continues in that vein:
64:4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
64:5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
64:6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
64:7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
64:8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.
64:9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.