Sunday, April 09, 2006

Leap of Faith

I added HBO to my digital-cable package a few weeks ago, and am glad I did. It's not like the old days when one pay-station cost you another $10 per month. I think I pay another $13 or so for about nine or ten HBO stations, including an HBO-on-demand option which basically allows me to play, free of any additional charges, any movie or special currently running, at the time of my choosing.

Anyway, today provided two of my favorite Steve Martin movies, the comedy My Blue Heaven, with Rick Moranis, and the drama-ish Leap of Faith.

Leap of Faith in particular I regard as one of the most under-rated pics of the last couple of decades. Along with Groundhog Day, it's also very spiritual in the broad sense of the word. That it includes the beautiful Debra Winger and Lolita Davidovich doesn't hurt. But the movie provides a twist of the stereotypical schiester minister, playing the Bible for bucks. In one particularly poignant scene, Steve Martin's character has been Benny Hinning the crowd, appearing to heal, or at least "bless" several people hand-picked from the audience by Martin's roadies. But a crippled Lukas Haas, walking with braces, also comes forward for healing. After initially rebuffing him, Martin is called back out onto the stage by the crowd to heal him, too. The Martin character, recognizing his bind, shrewdly emphasizes the need for faith to generate the boy's healing, and points to a known skeptic in the crowd, the sheriff played by Liam Neeson, as being the barrier for the boy's miracle. Except Haas steps gingerly up to the Jesus statute, touches its feet, and slowly begins to actually walk, discarding his braces along the way, to the shock and awe of the crowd.

Meanwhile, the Debra Winger character, who has struck up a friendship with the small-town Kansas sheriff, begins to see in the town and in Neeson a place to settle down, abandoning Martin's spiritual road show for a life of gentile, small-town America.

Martin, meanwhile, is prepared to use the Haas miracle as an additional spectacle for his traveling parade but amidst his cynicism, wanders among the townees and out of towners who've been lured to Martin's tent-revival but who are now seemingly joined together around the tent in groups of community, laughing, eating, studying scripture and so on. Martin seems genuinely affected by the mood, faith, optimism, and hope among the groups, who among other things, are desperately in need of rain for the crops.

The movie ends with Martin riding off, literally, into the sunset, hiching a ride with a trucker bound for Pensacola, FL, but devoid of his band and spiritual-circus entrapments. It's ambigious as to whether Martin is going to continue a life of chicanery, which adds to the movie's appeal and mystery, but as the truck pulls out of town, the much desired rain begins to fall, leading the community to celebrate in unity.

The 1992 movie continues to strike a cord for obvious reasons today; the world of faith continues to affect our relationships and politics, mostly, it seems, for the worse.

But the movie at least offers a glimpse of what a different, more positive spirituality could look like, devoid of political manipulations and denominational hierarchies. That Haas' character is healed despite Martin's blatant trickery suggests that one's spiritual experience is not dependent upon the machinations of others.

All of this to seguay to Paul Waldman's column here.

I largely agree with Waldman in that I think this is a potentially promising development--the introduction of comparative religion courses in high schools. These first two are in the south, naturally, but I suspect other jurisdications may begin to implement them as well.

For one thing, I've come to believe that one of the unfortunate side-effects of a more stringent "establishment clause" policy on the part of the federal government has been that it has resulted in faith becoming more politicized. It has allowed opportunistic church leaders to portray themselves and their faith as being "persecuted", helping them to rake in the dollars and inflame people's passions. It's also meant that a knowledge of religious things has been relegated to the churches, who are doing it badly.

Although more secular folks will undoubtedly be put-off by any apparent blurring of the line between church and state--a worry I share, it's worth considering for liberals as to whether the state has a legitimate interest in educating its citizens about different religions, instead of leaving it totally to a field of demagogic pastors.

As Waldman suggests, students would be made aware not just of the Bible's condemnations of homosexuality, but about other Biblically-defined "abominations" as well.

In short, such a course offers the opportunity for taking the Bible and religion out of the closet into which right-wing ministers have shoved it. They're monopolicy over defining religion would begin to shrink. And maybe such courses would lead to people asking questions about holy writ that many conservative evangelicals would rather avoid.

What are the drawbacks? Waldman doesn't really allude to any, but it's certainly possible, maybe even likely, that such courses would be abused, used by religious advocates to try to indocrinate students into one particular point of view--turning an educational experience into a worship experience.

This may be unavoidable in some locales, but one way to minimize it would be to ensure that standardized tests include factual questions about other religions students would be expected to know.

Another drawback is that rather than serving to dampen religious fundamentalism, it may only spur it, by causing religious leaders to latch onto other, even more divisive cultural wedge issues, feeling buttressed by the fact that religion has been let back in the public schools as a first step.

Meanwhile, a drawback for Christians is the degree to which religion becomes only more politicized as a result. One of the rationales for the separation of church and state, after all, is not only to protect the state from religion, but to protect religion from the state. Would exposing religion to greater public scrutiny lead to a greater crisis of doubt?

Perhaps. But for both seculars and people of faith, neither group has been well-served by the sheltering of faith and right-wing monopolization of the same that has grown over the past several decades. Given the contentious nature of the culture wars today, and the vast array of misinformation that exists of and in the religious world, more information and better forms of education certainly can't hurt.

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