December 12, 2007

Tyrannical Piety

In his January 7, 2005, review of the movie "Virgin," Roger Ebert wrote:

"Movies can't seem to deal with faith as a positive element in an admirable life, and the only religions taken seriously by Hollywood are the kinds promoted in stores that also sell incense and tarot decks."

Perhaps what Ebert describes is a result of political pendulum swinging of the current day. Each of the three major world belief systems -- Islam, Judaism, and Christianity -- have become backdrops against which brutish men and greedy governments have justified their insidious acts. Rulers have long used religion to sway and control the polity. The historic menace of self-righteousness persists today, in governments and in majorities, in families and in individuals. So, as artistic counterpoint to tyrannical piety, film makers may tend to push the pendulum arm away from neutral depictions of religiosity.

Anyway, to the extent I weary of "Hollywood" storytelling, though, I take solace in fiction. Literature can do what many modern movies indeed have not -- literature can show faith as an important underpinning of a life well lived.

The bishop of Digne and Jean Val Jean of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables are two characters whose actions were shaped positively by faith. Hugo's Javert is a character whose self-righteouness led to his own demise. Javert's zeal distorted his sense of justice and mercy. In his moral rigidity he could not dare imagine continuing his life under the shadow of Jean Val Jean's mercy.

Caution, then, to us all.