The Prophet at the movies

1 11 2010

…The elements of distraction, pleasure, and amusement play a large part in church rites. By theatrical methods the church works on the sight, the sense of smell (through incense), and through them on the imagination. Man’s desire for the theatrical, a desire to see and hear the unusual, the striking, a desire for a break in the ordinary monotony of life, is great and ineradicable; it persists from early childhood to advanced old age. In order to liberate the common masses from ritual and the ecclesiasticism acquired by habit, antireligious propaganda alone is not enough. Of course, it is necessary; but its direct practical influence is limited to a small minority of the more courageous in spirit. The bulk of the people are not affected by antireligious propaganda; but that is not because their spiritual relation to religion is so profound. On the contrary, there is no spiritual relation at all; there is only a formless, inert, mechanical relation, which has not passed through the consciousness; a relation like that of the street sight-seer, who on occasion does not object to joining in a procession or a pompous ceremony, or listening to singing, or waving his arms.

Meaningless ritual, which lies on the consciousness like an inert burden, cannot be destroyed by criticism alone; it can be supplanted by new forms of life, new amusements, new and more cultured theaters. Here again, thoughts go naturally to the most powerful – because it is the most democratic – instrument of the theater: the cinema. Having no need of a clergy in brocade, etc., the cinema unfolds on the white screen spectacular images of greater grip than are provided by the richest church, grown wise in the experience of a thousand years, or by mosque or synagogue. In church only one drama is performed, and always one and the same, year in, year out; while in the cinema next door you will be shown the Easters of heathen, Jew, and Christian, in their historic sequence, with their similarity of ritual. The cinema amuses, educates, strikes the imagination by images, and liberates you from the need of crossing the church door. The cinema is a great competitor not only of the tavern but also of the church. Here is an instrument which we must secure at all costs!

Leon Trotsky, 1923

I am always amused by those who say, “hahaha, those Marxists are so stupid! None of what they said ever happened, etc.” This as global capitalism crumbles all around us (“that’s because we didn’t have enough capitalism” – yeah, right) and virtually all of Marx’s predictions on culture came true. (Read the opening of the Communist Manifesto, it’s an eye opener).

But above, this is even more the case. While Soviet cinema isn’t exactly the most popular in the world, Trotsky’s analysis of the relationship between the movies and religion is eerily profound. Perhaps our religious consciousness is even more acutely reflective of what we see in the movies, and indeed, by extension, television, Youtube, Facebook, and other fora where we can put moving pictures. Even how we think of the “spiritual life” is cinematic; St. Ignatius Loyola, with his two standards meditation, is perhaps the first real cinematic screen play writer. And that is why John Paul II “moved” so many people: his entire papacy was cinematic in its conception and execution. “It’s a tool for evangelization.” In that, they are echoing Trotsky. “They’re so stupid” indeed.

The other side of the issue is that church services themselves have had to become “cinematic”, or more specifically, geared towards the television consumer. The Mass cannot be more than an hour. In Protestant services, in my understanding, they can be longer than that, but they change every week and have various forms of entertainment grafted into them (songs based on pop music, “engaged” preaching, other forms of “fellowship”). Trotsky didn’t live in a Protestant country, so you would have to nuance his insights a bit for those places. All the same, it seems that the attitude of modern man when it comes to church is “here we are now, entertain us”. We may call it “edification” or getting in touch with Jesus, but it’s the same thing.

Perhaps people have always come to church just to be entertained. Is that such a bad thing?



5 responses

2 11 2010

very good article and Nice support article.
Thank you for sharing information.

1 11 2010
Bernard Brandt

Oh, come now, Arturo. I do wish that you would stop constructing straw men which you can later easily demolish, and instead take the time and trouble actually to examine the real views of those with whom you disagree. It would at least make for a more interesting argument.

As regards those who opposed Marxism-Leninism in its various forms during the 70 year war (1918-1988, that is), I know of few who regarded its exponents as “stupid”. Quite the opposite: from the John Birch Society to Senator McCarthy and his advocates, to a man they thought of communists as fiendishly intelligent, and involved in an elaborate conspiracy to achieve their ends. They held this belief so strongly that ‘moderates’ tended to think of those on the right as ‘paranoid’

While there may be a few who these days laugh at the great Beast of world Communism, now that it is more or less conveniently dead (save perhaps in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, or among the current [but diminishing] White House staff), they remind me of the old thief in the movie Conan the Destroyer, who plunged his dagger into the monster after Conan (played more or less ably by Der Governator) had dispatched it. As for me, though, I think the best thing is to follow the advice of the old Pagan who said: De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est.

Nor do I think that it can honestly be said that World Capitalism is responsible for the world’s current problems. That might be the case if Capitalism existed in any form resembling what it was in either Great Britain or the United States before 1914. But the combination of the destructive boom-bust cycles, and the dangerous concentration of wealth into the hands of a few (both admittedly the result of pure or “laissez-faire capitalism”), caused governments to try any number of measures, ranging from complete nationalization (tried by both the Nazis and the Soviets), to extreme socialist regulation (tried by most of the governments of Europe), to a process of cooperation between government and business (tried by the Fascists of Spain and Italy, and more recently by the system of corporate fascism which is currently the actual state of affairs in the United States of America.

I think it more fair, and more realistic, to state that the current crisis is the failure of ANY of the current systems of government to effectively regulate the excesses of the market system.

Having finished with the straw men, I would agree with you as regards Trotski’s assessment of the importance of ritual and the involvement of the senses with both the Russian Orthodox Church and the then new state religion of Marxism-Leninism. I believe that the insights of Lenin and Trotski may have bid fair to making their religion so popular as to have taken over the world, just as I believe that the tyranny of Stalin and his successors made it inevitable that that religion would fail and fall.

One might also profitably look at the connection between ritual involvement of the senses and modern religion, particularly the religion of spectacle which is modern evangelical protestantism, and either its emulation by certain RC liturgists, or its repudiation by others (both I believe to the deformation of genuine Catholic liturgy.

Alternatively, one might consider a revived theology of iconology, which might promote both Orthodox and Catholic worship and avoid the defects of liturgy considered as mere spectacle.

Just a thought.

1 11 2010

I also read from an article at the Atlantic ,IIRC via Ta-Nehesi Coates’ columns, that the rise of Civil War re-enactment companies, fantasy role playing games like D&D ,World of Warcraft etc., Renassaince Fairs, provide a lot of the needs for ritual, hierarchy and pagaentry that the “secret societies” did back in the 1800’s. Henceforth, a lot of these fraternal organizations were not only there to sell insurance policies but were the 1800’s version of a D&D club. First the movies, then TV , and now the Internet, yeah Leon definitely had his finger on it.

1 11 2010

Sounds like you’ve nailed it.

Also, I read awhile back (forget where) an author who said that the proliferation of fraternal organizations in 19th-Century America (Freemasons, Oddfellows, Elks, etc.) was at least in part due to a hungering for rite and ritual, for the dramatic. In other words, the initiations and various ceremonials, though we might view them as silly or irrelevant, served a need that the Protestant churches weren’t meeting. The same author pointed out that the decline in fraternal orders begins about the same time as cinema starts to proliferate. Guess Leon called it on that, too.

1 11 2010

I would say that religion, regardless of type, is a sort of entertainment, although the experiences vary widely. In “traditional black churches” (e.g., AME, CME, Holiness, COGIC, various sorts of Baptist), the services can last anywhere from two hours to four, depending on the Sunday. Although the preaching and music in such churches is considered “lively” the parishoners are supposed to be edified and sanctified, not simply entertained. Of course, lively services are not for everyone, and many blacks find them to be declasse. So they go to more “dignified” liturgical churches. They’re still being entertained, albeit in a PBS way rather than a gmc manner. Even if you go to a Buddhist meditation center, the attendee is being entertained in a more subtle way. While religious people may deny that they expect entertainment from their respective place of worship, the fact is that they do expect some kind of compensation for their time, be it inner peace, sensory stimulation, an increase in grace, good music (however that’s defined), or some kind of intellectual diversion. In the past, churches were the only things open on Sundays so they had a monopoly on first day activities. Now church has to compete with television, the internet, and 100s of other things that one can do instead of attend religious services, and there’s little social pressure that compels people to attend just to keep up appearances.

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