Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Rapture and the Priest

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.


Anonymous said...

victor/victoria. antonio/antonia? :)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Nathaniel.

J.D. said...

Excellent post, Nat. It speaks very truly, and for that I congratulate you. I'd say what, but I've discussed WAY more matters of religion than any 14 year-old should.

Andrew Bemis said...

"So, the cinema is my church now."

A conclusion I've also come to after a religious background that shares some similarities to yours. It's a joy to discover this common ground, especially since you've written about it so eloquently.

Ashley said...

Nathaniel this is very moving.

Anonymous said...


MichaelMcl said...

Nathaniel, that's a very moving, and a very sad story.
I must say, it makes me glad I didn't grow up in your church. What brand of Christianity was it, if you don't mind my asking?

I should btw signal my faith at this point... It's had its highs and lows, but the hope (and it is a hope, not an assurance, for sure) of another life beyond this life, governed by love and justice, is something that I wouldn't want to live without. It doesn't however take away my desire to make the very best impression on this world I can while I'm here.

My own preferred films for spirituality: Kundun (Scorsese's finest - a film which believes in its subject's divinity, but can reconcile it with humanity); The New World (I think a lot Malick's films are very spiritual, but especially this one); I remember liking Leap of Faith a lot at the time; Afterlife (Japanese film). I've always been a bit hesitant to check out Priest in light of Bird's subsequent Ravenous - does the same vicious sense of humour appear?

Glenn Dunks said...

Never having grown up without any religious tether attached to me I am thankful I never had to go through any of that. That was really well written, Nat. Makes me want to see The Rapture (I've already seen Priest and quite liked it).

adam k. said...

"Free from the need to define..."

I thought this was why you made lists?


touché Adam but defining one given year of hollywood output is much different than defining THE MEANING OF LIFE [cue thunderous music]

to everyone. thanks for taking this in the spirit it was intended. I really don't wanna diss anyone's beliefs I just think beliefs need to stay personal and the world is in such danger with everyone demanding they be public and shared

Anonymous said...

you did not diss my beliefs i have none,i too cried when i saw priest as i knew i was trapped as he was,i feel the religion aspect of that film was like my family as in you play a role that your family expects when really you are not that person,i must say also it had the most tasteful & sensual gay sex scene ever!!!! showing it too be natural and not titilating or gatuitous and being a uk film helped no buff gym queens here too ordinairy men discovering what they are and what they do not want to be,a really good piece nat thanks for that!!!

VW said...

Hi, Nathaniel. I've been "away" for awhile & then I return to your blog and encounter this truly stunning post. Very heartfelt in an intelligently philosophical vein.

Thanks so much for the post.

adam k. said...

But are those things really that different? Really? (the output of Hollywood and the meaning of life) Hee.

You did say the cinema was your church.

I do think that the religious impulse and the urge to list are related ; )

Attila the Mom said...

Lovely, lovely post.

Kurtis O said...

I watched The Passion of Joan of Arc two months ago for the first time(!) in a film course and I was absolutely blown away. After repeated viewings, not only has it become one of my favorites of all time as well, but Falconetti as Joan is also one of the most amazing screen performances I've ever seen in my life. Sorry, I just got so excited when I saw the picture in the post.