I normally avoid talking about religion. It's so easy to offend people who believe differently. But there are days when I'm reminded of how deeply my life was shaped by it. So in the interest of exorcizing personal demons in public (what fun. er...) I thought I'd go there while the film & faith blog-a-thon had 'em speaking in tongues under virtual blog tents.
I grew up in a religious home and until I was about 22/23 I basically did as instructed, believed, followed suit. As I hit my mid 20s I began to feel more strangled and bewildered by religion and my eyes began to open to how shallow, impersonal and patriarchal the rules and regulations were. I felt trapped. I wrestled with its place in my life for a few years and during that time I had two personal revelations ... i.e. I saw two films.
The first was The Rapture (1991, which I saw in 1993 or 1994) The Michael Tolkin movie starred an Oscar worthy Mimi Rogers as a randy swinger who gets "born again" with tragic results. The film terrified me because I already implicity understood how easy it was for true believers to abandon rational thinking. In high school I'd already noticed how weirdly nihilistic my evangelical high school friends could be. The end of the world wasn't something they feared: they professed to look forward to it. If we're to have an apocalypse it's only because religious fundamentalists will hand deliver it to us. In other words: life's what you make it. Put enough religious fundamentalists in power and world wars are easy to come by... "bring it on" indeed.
Faith can be a beautiful thing: we all need to believe in something larger than ourselves but when it's placed above all else it has wicked powers of distortion. You can abandon reason and morality (the things done in the name of God: sickening). You can become an easy target for manipulation by others who do the explaining for you (organized religion and anything that knows how to harness its power, like political leaders).
I wish I could say that the terror I felt watching The Rapture faded with time but it didn't. The film was eerily prescient. Though I was a religious and spiritual kid I thought that "Jesus freaks" --that was the term at the time (yes it was once uncool to talk about God all the time back in the 80s and early 90s) so excuse the insensitivity-- would remain a visible but minor subculture like say civil war reenactors or extreme sports enthusiasts. But fundamentalism, that dangerously blinding strand of religion --any religion-- went mainstream. The Rapture was a dark prophet.
The other film that shook me was Priest (1995), Antonio Bird's fine drama about a priest (Linus Roache) struggling with more than one of his vows both internally (his sexuality) and externally when he comes face to face with true evil from within his own congregation. I sat in the theater sobbing as the credits rolled. That one hit too close to home. When I love a movie I'm in no hurry to exit the theater during the credits but in this particular case I could barely stand up, let alone run for the door.
Though I'd shed many more tears as I wrestled myself away, I grew happier with the distance from church. To each his own I firmly believe (I'm sure that some people are made happier by it but it's definitely not for me) but I see religion now as a horror movie. Both offer up rigid sex-phobic moralities, both operate by nightmare logic and worst of all: even if you are willing to play the dangerous games, most of the participants don't survive anyway.
Leaving the church I was raised in (and the entire concept of organized religion behind) was not a decision I made lightly but I thank God for giving me the strength to do it. Free from distorting groupthink and absolutism, it's easier (though never easy mind you) to get clarity about emotional and spiritual matters. There's comfort and maturity in taking responsibility for your own life rather than letting others determine your course.
So, the cinema is my church now. It's not flawless but it's blessedly fluid and accepts all who enter: come as you are. I can look at spiritually minded films, particulary singular character religious experiences like the one in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) one of my all time favorite films, and be deeply moved. I'm one stepped remove from it but that's the perspective I needed: free from the need to define, nothing feels as limited as it once did.