TCS Daily

A Religious Experience

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - May 14, 2003 12:00 AM

Eugene "Rod" Roddenberry Jr. is working on a documentary about the effect of Star Trek on popular culture. (I've written about that here and here.) It looks as if he's got more grist for his mill, with this

Position Available: Interpreter, must be fluent in Klingon. The language created for the Star Trek TV series and movies is one of about 55 needed by the office that treats mental health patients in metropolitan Multnomah County. . . . "There are some cases where we've had mental health patients where this was all they would speak," said the county's purchasing administrator, Franna Hathaway.

County officials said that obligates them to respond with a Klingon-English interpreter, putting the language of starship Enterprise officer Worf and other Klingon characters on a par with common languages such as Russian and Vietnamese, and less common tongues including Dari and Tongan.

Well, not quite on a par, as there really are Tongans. Klingons, on the other hand, are fortunately fictional, though there is a Klingon Language Institute. But you'd have to be crazy to speak Klingon and nothing else. Well, I guess that's the point. (Though closer examination suggests that the problem isn't likely to come up much.)

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of people around the world are listing their religion as Jedi on official census forms. Some even seem to be serious. Jediism, we're told, stands for this sort of thing:

A Jedi strives to excel physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, and can put these in motion instantly. This requires discipline, patience and perfect practice, for a Jedi is always mindful of what lies behind and what lies ahead, and prepares for the encounter with his destiny. A Jedi Knight engages in the battle to be victorious - on whatever front he is faced with in the modern world. . . .

A Jedi Knight must not allow evil to take place. . . . To remain aloof in situations where a Jedi's intervention would prevent the dark side from attaining another foothold is the same as helping it do so. This a Jedi Knight must never do. A True Jedi Knight must constantly be wary of his path, making certain he does not stray toward the dark side, but remains firm in the light. Therefore, when the situation warrants it, the Jedi acts as an extension of the Will of the Force, and is therefore sponsored and backed by that Will.

The "21 Maxims" seem a bit hazy on the specifics of what constitutes evil, but I guess you can answer those questions by listening to The Force. (And, really, can't you, most of the time?) And it's not just Jedis. Quite a few people are wondering if The Matrix is really a vehicle for Christian thought:

"There's two ways to look at this from a Christian perspective," says Glenn Yeffeth, editor of the book Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in The Matrix. "One is that it's retelling the story of Christ," he says. "The other way to look at it is a very violent film filled with garden-variety blasphemy that exploits people's resonance with the Christian narrative to fool people into a story that is fundamentally atheistic."

Well, that narrows it down. But, as with the the Klingon language and Jediism as a religion, there's no question that quite a few people believe in this stuff. Only a few formally follow the Jedi Maxims, but millions are guided in their actions, at some level, by the example of Obi Wan Kenobi - or, for that matter, of Neo or James T. Kirk or even Bill and Ted. ("Be excellent to one another!" Well, that's not such bad advice, really.)

Does science fiction compete with religion as a source of moral guidance in the public sphere? The answer, I think, would have to be "yes." There may be numerous reasons for that. One is, as Isaac Asimov once put it, that "it is the chief characteristic of the religion of science, that it works." Both religion and science have been promising a better future for centuries now. Science, however, has delivered on its promises in a way that's hard to miss, while religion promises its benefits in a hereafter from which no one returns. That is bound to make science fiction - which promises a better, or at least more glamorous, science-based future - a plausible competitor for religion.

It's also possible that today's science-fiction films compete with religion on another level. In the old days, religious pageantry - sometimes enhanced with psychoactive substances of different kinds, or with hypnotic music - was the most exciting thing people were likely to run across in their everyday life. Special costumes, masks, ceremonies, big fancy buildings, and so on all tended to create a sense of separation between the sacred and the ordinary, and to make religious ceremonies stick in people's minds.

Now movies provide many of the same characteristics, in a more intense form. The synthetic experience of attending a film, with its arresting special effects, meticulously-planned shots and narrative, and music carefully designed to drive viewers' emotions into the desired state, may have a similar effect, imprinting the message of the film into people's minds at a level below consciousness, just as religious ceremonies have done for millennia. Movie people have joked about this for years. As Peter O'Toole's character said in The Stunt Man, "If God could do the things we can do, he'd be a happy man." (Maybe this is why theocracies - from the Taliban to the mullahs in Iran to the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia - fear movies: they're afraid of the competition.) If this is true, then we should see gaming-derived religious movements, too, very soon.

To the extent that science-fiction films provide a competitive source of morality, they have some advantages and some drawbacks. One advantage is that they're inevitably anti-theocracy: Theocrats (like dictators generally) don't want people to even imagine alternative sources of morality or authority. Another is that they tend, for fairly obvious plot reasons, to focus on individuals, and an increased focus on the needs and desires of individuals is almost inevitably pro-freedom and anti-tyranny.

On the other hand, movies are made by people from Hollywood, who are not particularly well-endowed with moral authority. What's more, they're made to sell, meaning that they tend to offer visions that people find attractive, regardless of their inherent merit.

On balance, I think we come out ahead on this deal. That Hollywood possesses no moral authority on its own means that people will not take its messages on faith. That movies have to sell means that they're unlikely to become too preachy. (As Sam Goldwyn famously advised, if you want to send a message, you're better off using Western Union than a film).

Either way, we're stuck with them. So my advice to you, if you're filmmaker or want to be one, is to bear in mind that the messages you build into your films may stick with the audiences long after the final credits roll. Try to use that power for good and not, as Obi Wan would say, for Ee-vill.

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