Monday, June 21, 2010

The Smartest Religious Movie Ever Made

Recently, I wrote a post about faith which seemed to stir up a lot of strong feelings. So strong were these feelings, in fact, that I decided it best to stay away from the subject from now on. But then I saw my name mentioned on someone else's blog dealing with faith, and thought, "Well, if people are still interested in my views on the subject..." So I've decided to take another stab at it. I've even eschewed the usual wordplay in the post's title. I'm telling you flat out it's about the smartest religious movie ever made.

And what movie might that be? The Ten Commandments? No, as entertaining as that film is, it's not the smartest. Nor is it that other mainstay from Easters past, Ben-Hur.

And it's not King of Kings, Sign of the Cross, Song of Bernadette, Going My Way, Bells of St. Mary, The Keys of the Kingdom, Joan of Arc, Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Quo Vadis, The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, Salome, Solomon and Sheba, The Silver Chalice, The Big Fisherman, Barabbas, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Nun Story, The Singing Nun, Lillies of the Field, The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Bible...In The Beginning, The Sound of Music, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, King David, or The Last Temptation of Christ.

It's not even Bruce Almighty

No, the smartest religious movie ever made is...

Raiders of the Lost Ark.

What's that, you say? Raiders of the Lost Ark? That's not a religious movie! It's action-adventure!

Well, there is action, as well as adventure. And there's also religion. At least there's something from the Bible. Where do you think the Ark comes from? Actually, there are two Arks in the Bible. The more famous Ark is the big boat with all the animals that Noah captained. The other Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, is less well known. At least it was less well known before director Steven Spielberg, producer George Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan got their hands on it. Here's King James' earlier take:

10 "And they shall make an ark of acacia wood; two and a half cubits shall be its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height. 11 And you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and out you shall overlay it, and shall make on it a molding of gold all around. 12 You shall cast four rings of gold for it, and put them in its four corners; two rings shall be on one side, and two rings on the other side. 13 And you shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 14 You shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, that the ark may be carried by them. 15 The poles shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. 16 And you shall put into the ark the Testimony which I will give you.

--Exodus 25:10-16

The above is God's instructions to Moses on how to build the Ark. Where Moses was supposed to get all that gold, I have no idea. Anyway, the Ark was a kind of chest with supernatural powers that contained bits and pieces of the original Ten Commandments. The Israelites carried it around the wilderness for some 40-odd years, until they reached the Promised Land. After that, it pops up throughout the Old Testament, often to lethal effect, zapping Philistines or even dim-witted Israelites who come too near the thing. Keep that in mind as I discuss the movie.

Now, I said Raiders was smart. But it's not immediately smart. Like any Hollywood product designed to separate an adolescent from his 1981 currency, there's a lot of watchable silliness. The movie begins in a South American jungle in 1936, where we find a big guy with a big hat, ratty clothes, and a whip going into a cave to snatch an ancient idol, evading all sorts of pre-Industrial Age booby traps to do so. He gets out of the cave alive, only to be confronted by an apparent archrival backed by a bunch of spear carrying natives. Our hero is forced to hand over the idol, and then somehow manages to outrun, outjump, and and outswing hundreds of spears thrown in his direction. None of this has anything to do with the Ark of the Covenant, which is in a whole different hemisphere. It's all meant to establish character, and, boy, what a character: Indiana Jones, an professor of archeology (his real first name is Henry, but you won't find that out for another couple of sequels) who apparently doesn't believe in hiring hundreds of diggers to excavate a site, but rather just do the job himself.

Back in his classroom at the university, having exchanged his ratty clothes and whip for a tweedy suit and blackboard chalk, he's approached by a couple of government agents. Adolf Hitler is looking for the Ark of the Lost Covenant, hoping its' powers of God will give him an edge in the upcoming World War II. Now, the agents refer to Hitler as a "nut" and that he's "crazy" for actually thinking he can get away with this. But as nutty and crazy as Hitler may be, they decide to hire Professor Jones to stop him, just to be on the safe side. Do intelligence agents always outsource their work to college archeology professors? They must be understaffed.

Anyway, Indiana Jones goes to Cairo, meets an old flame who decides to help him find the Ark. The Nazis, along with the archrival from the film's opening scene, try to stop him. But Indy does indeed find the Ark, only to quickly lose it to the Nazis. My memory's a bit faulty on this, but the Ark seems to pass back and forth between the Jones and the Nazis until they all end up on some island together. Indy has a chance to destroy the Ark with a rocket launcher (good thing to have when a whip won't do), but, dedicated archaeologist that he is, can't bear to destroy something of such obvious historical significance.

Now we come to the part that always intrigues me. The Nazis have won. They've prevailed. They've got the Ark. Before presenting it to the Fuhrer himself, they decide to take a peek inside.

They shouldn't have. Benign ghostlike figures at first emerge, but they quickly turn malignant. Fire and lightening shoot out out of the Ark, fricasseeing the Nazis standing closest to it. The ones standing a little farther away don't last much longer, as they soon melt or combust or both. Only Indy and his girlfriend survive, having shielded their eyes.

So by winning the Nazis have lost. The power of God gives them no actual military advantage. How you gonna use a weapon if you can't even open the damn thing? Not that the U.S. government is much better. They must have shelled out a lot taxpayers' money, in transportation costs if nothing else, to have Indiana Jones go halfway around the world to stop the Nazis from finding something that turned out to be irrelevant. He could have saved himself the trouble and just stayed in the classroom, though it's always nice to see old lovers reunite.

Indy gets the Ark (did he close it back up with his eyes shut?) to Washington D.C., where it is stored in a giant government warehouse.

"Fools. Bureaucratic fools! They don't know what they've got there," Indy says at the end.

I imagine sometimes after Pearl Harbor, some of those bureaucratic fools will open up the Ark to see just what kind of military advantage it gives them. When they do, well, time to mop up the warehouse floor. So the WWII in the movie's fictional world is fought much like the WWII in our real one, without any discernible help from God.

Of course, in our real world, people are always fighting and thinking God gives them some sort of advantage. Look at the Middle East. The Israelis and the Arabs have been fighting over the Holy Land for how long now? And why is it even called the Holy Land? If the Lord created the entire Earth, shouldn't the whole enchilada be considered holy, rather than just one tiny morsel? Then there's the people who attacked us on 9/11, thinking they were doing God's work. The average devout terrorist doesn't even have to open up an ark if they wish to immolate themselves. They'll do it with a strapped-on bomb, with the expectation that they'll be greeted in Heaven by 72 virgins (what do they have against more experienced women?) And what about female suicide bombers? Are they greeted by 72 eunuchs?

Just as in Raiders, the U.S. Government in not immune to the sway of God's strategic value. According to Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack , in the run-up to the Iraq war, George W. Bush referred to himself as a "messenger of God" who was doing the "Lord's work". In the Pentagon, the war was often referred to as a "crusade".

Meanwhile, the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland seems to be finally winding down. It only took four centuries.

To be fair, if you examine some of these religious wars more closely, you'd see that they're as much about politics, territorial conquest, ethnicity, and natural resources (oil comes to mind) as they are about the divine. But nothing rallies the troops like saying it's God's work.

From the Crusades on, can you really say all the blood shed in God's name has made the world a more spiritual place?

Some arks should just stay lost.


  1. killing in the name of god has always struck me as the ultimate oxymoron.
    as for raiders of the lost ark, YEEESSS! don't you just love cubits? and whips? never mind.

  2. @standing--OK, I think I know why you're wearing black in your photo.

    Uh, forget I said that.

  3. Perhaps my feminine side is not well developed because I can't imagine what use 72 eunuchs would be, Maybe a choir?
    The interesting thing is that most religions have some form of the golden rule; preaching compassion toward others. "Perhaps the highest form of compassion is putting people out of their misery" Hitler said, tongue firmly in cheek.

  4. As they say in the marines, "Kill them all; let God sort them out!" Makes sense, since wars all seem to follow the same pattern, whether it's making the world safe for democracy, or making it safe for the oil companies, the enemy are always heathens and deserve to die because our cause is just and are god the right one (with the emphasis on right).

  5. Too bad one can't go back and edit... that's "our god" not "are god..."

  6. @Tag--I said male suicide bombers are greeted by 72 (presumably female) virgins, so I wanted an equavelent of that for female suicide bombers. I guess I could have just said "male virgins", but I wanted a different word altogether, and "eunuch" was the best I could come up with. Why would women look forward to something like that? Well, Western women would have no reason, but an Islamic woman could finally shed the veil and burqua in front of a male--72, in fact-- without fear of reprisal. Plus, who's to say the Vienna Boys Choir didn't have its' share of female followers.

    @Badger--Don't feel so bad. The inability to edit comments without canceling them altogether is the bane of my online existence.

  7. wv - adlymand: a male virgin used as sacrifice in cases of female suicide bombers, usually one of 72.

  8. My favorite faith-based movie is "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

  9. @Erin--I love that movie, and have seen it numerous times. There is kind of a spiritual feeling toward the end, isn't there? I love how the aliens choose goofy Richard Dreyfuss to go on their spacetrip with them rather all those stiff, somber folks in sunglasses.

  10. What a witty, smart movie commentary!

    I wonder if the implicit power of the Lord in "Raiders" leaves an effect on impressionable youth with the message: "Boy, you better by wary of God's power." My boys were 6, 7 and 8 when I took them to see that. The religion that I raised them in was pretty mystically scary so I shudder to think how the movie reinforced that.

  11. @Kass--Thank you for your comment. I'm happy you liked the post.

    As far as scary images of God goes, special effects, as well as explicit violence, had advanced so much in movies by 1981, that the Lord's wrath could be portrayed more gruesomely than ever before. But, all things being equal, I think this version of God may be relatively more benign when compared to earlier movies. Raiders seems to be questioning, maybe even satirizing, the whole pulp fiction notion that the supernatural is just lying around for the taking. But look at The Ten Commandments (1956). In that movie, the Lord, in the guise of fog, kills all the first born in Egypt, regardless of whether those first born seriously object to Isrealite independence. Less gruesome special effects, for sure, but I find it a much more chilling interpretation of God.


In order to keep the hucksters, humbugs, scoundrels, psychos, morons, and last but not least, artificial intelligentsia at bay, I have decided to turn on comment moderation. On the plus side, I've gotten rid of the word verification.