Thursday, October 25, 2007

Watching Constantine, Reading Golem

Complaining about these things is like trying to keep the tide from coming in; you might convince a few people to stand on the beach with you, but the tide won't take any notice of your numbers.

I was watching Constantine the other day; well, parts of it; I had to wander in and out, I couldn't attend to it like I wanted to. And yes, I know, there are better ways to waste my time, or my mind, but it satisfied some atavistic desire I had at the time; even though it did later decay into complete foolishness and excuses for not-so-special effects. But I digress.

The bit I did watch involved Keanu "Neo" Reeves in the fabulously baronial setting (well, the Bishops are the "Princes of the Church," no?) of a Bishop's residence, talking to a very female Gabriel (nothing like John Travolta at all) in a business suit (you knew she was an angel because "Neo" saw her wings!), advising him as to why, despite his faith (?), he was doomed to die and go to hell. And why was that? The rules, of course, the rules! As Gabriel put it: "You're going to die young because you smoked 30 cigarettes a day since you were 15. And you're going to hell because of the life you took." Apparently he committed suicide, and now is back as an exorcist, only so he can die again by his own hand (Irony!). This "explanation" is a typical take on the Catholic teaching of "natural law" (thank you, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas!): you see, just as it's a "law" of nature that cigarettes will give you lung cancer, it's also an immutable law of salvation that murder will condemn you to hell.

Got it? And all that talk about grace and salvation? Well, sorry, but you broke the rules. Even human justice systems are neither this cruel nor this inflexible. But theological systems are often presented this way. It's the whole purpose of religion, isn't it? To oppress and control and scarify the populace into submission?

No, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but then it's taken from a comic book and, as I mentioned, there doesn't seem to be a lot of point to highlighting the flaws in a comic book version of Christian theology.

Before that, I'd read a picture book I'd never seen before, about the medieval Jewish legend of the "golem." According to this version of the tale, a truly holy rabbi, a tziddik, muttered the proper incantations from Kabbalah and uttered the holy name of the Creator, and because of his holiness he was able to raise the golem (the word is used in the Psalms to mean "incomplete substance") from the clay. The rabbi inscribes on the golem's forehead the Hebrew letters "emet", which means "truth." The golem serves the rabbi and defends the Jews of Praque from persecution by the Gentile populace. The golem does this by taking those who tries to arouse violence against the Jews to the authorities, as he is instructed. Finally a riot threatens the Jewish ghetto, and the golem becomes a giant who attacks the rioters with great violence. Too much violence; but the point is made. The ruler of Prague promises to protect the Jews, and the rabbi promises to destroy the golem. The golem, however, loves life and doesn't want to die. Still, the rabbi erases the first aleph from the golem's forehead, and emet becomes "met," or death.

The lovely part of this (aside from the amazing illustrations) was the sense that the golem was not a monster, a creation of evil, but a servant, a creation made possible because the rabbi was holy enough to make the golem possible. Echoes of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein are obvious here, but the reading of Genesis couldn't be more different. I don't know what the Jewish readings of Genesis 2 are, but the standard Christian reading is about the "original sin" of seeking the power of God, and almost getting it. That, of course, is the "sin" of Shelley's story. But if you don't posit a universe divided into good v. evil, with both sides equally armed and earth their chosen battlefield (can't they go play somewhere else?), you relinquish a number of concerns with "rules" which must be immutable and inflexible.

Or at least you get a much more interesting take on the relationship between God and humanity. Which would seem to be an argument for abandoning Christianity, until you ask yourself: is Christianity really about keeping all the rules? And where in the gospels did Jesus say: "Whosoever doth not believeth in me or follow all the rules I myself have broken, will perish and will have everlasting life in everlasting torment! Bwahahahahaha!"

Just wondering. I gotta go.

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