Thursday, May 18, 2006

go, Sir Ian!

[NB: In an earlier draft of this post, I committed the cardinal sin of geekdom when I confused Sir Ian McKellen with Christopher Lee. Christopher Lee is known among many geeks as Count Dooku the White for his portrayals of the Sith Lord Tyranus-- a.k.a. Count Dooku-- in George Lucas's Star Wars prequels, and Saruman the White in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sir Ian McKellen, in the meantime, is known for his portrayal of the wizard Gandalf the Grey (later the White). I'm trying to decide how best to expiate my sin. Would the sacrifice of my old hard drive be enough to appease the Divine Motherboard?]

The openly gay Sir Ian McKellen, one of the stars of the new movie "The Da Vinci Code" and better known to most sci-fi/fantasy geeks as the wizard Gandalf, has come out again, this time to say that the Bible is a work of fiction (read toward the bottom):

If "The Da Vinci Code" was already feeding the flames of controversy with its challenge to the basic tenets of Christianity, actor Ian McKellen managed to pour a refinery tank's worth of gasoline on the fire on this morning's 'Today' show, asserting that the Bible should carry a disclaimer saying that it is "fiction."

Matt Lauer, in his second day "On The Road With The Code," was in Cannes for the film festival, where the Code will have its debut. It has already been screened to some critics, who have given it decidedly mixed reviews.

As I reported here, NBC reporter Melissa Stark yesterday dipped a timid toe in the sea of controversy when she interviewed Code director Ron Howard, asking how he reacted to the controversy the movie has created . . . for the Church! Sounding more like a sensitivity trainer than a Hollywood director, Howard offered up some ambiguous prose about it being healthy thing for people to engage their beliefs.

Lauer took the bull of controversy more directly by the horns when he interviewed the cast and director Howard today. Said Lauer:

"There have been calls from some religious groups, they wanted a disclaimer at the beginning of this movie saying it is fiction because one of the themes in the book really knocks Christianity right on its ear, if Christ survived the crucifixion, he did not die for our sins and therefore was not resurrected. What I'm saying is, people wanted this to say 'fiction, fiction, fiction'. How would you all have felt if there was a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie? Would it have been okay with you?"

There was a pause, and then famed British actor Ian McKellen [Gandalf of Lord of the Rings], piped up:

"Well, I've often thought the Bible should have a disclaimer in the front saying this is fiction. I mean, walking on water, it takes an act of faith. And I have faith in this movie. Not that it's true, not that it's factual, but that it's a jolly good story. And I think audiences are clever enough and bright enough to separate out fact and fiction, and discuss the thing after they've seen it."

With the camera focused on McKellen, one could hear a distinctly nervous laugh in the background, seeming to come from either actor Tom Hanks or director Howard. McKellen's stunning bit of blasphemy is likely to test the adage that all publicity is good publicity.

As a Christian with a very liberal theological outlook, I have no trouble with Sir Ian's declaration. I'm not even convinced that he's wrong, because I agree that large chunks of the Bible probably are pious fabrications-- or at the very least, constructions representing both nascent and well-established biases within various religious communities (see, for example, the Johannine Circle and the way the Greek phrase hoi ioudaioi is employed to polemical effect in the Johannine writings).

But my inner religious scholar quibbles with Sir Ian insofar as it is, technically, incorrect to dismiss the entirety of the Bible as fiction (perhaps this isn't what Sir Ian was doing). Archaeology has both confirmed and discomfirmed claims found in the scriptures; the natural sciences have, arguably, debunked many other claims.

The Bible probably does contain fiction; whether one should label it simply as fiction is another matter, with much depending on how one defines literary genres (consider that one would be right to use the "fiction" label to describe A Tale of Two Cities, which also contains actual history).

How important are the scriptures to a community of belief? What relevance can they have outside that community? The question of the role of scripture has been dealt with in detail by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, whose book What is Scripture? (which covers scriptures from most of the major world religions) should be required reading for people interested in the textual aspects of comparative religious studies.

Christians who are scriptural non-literalists have to deal with the question of why exactly the Bible-- and not, say, Shakespeare-- has pride of place in the modern Christian worldview. Shakespeare's works, taken as a whole, deal with most of the same existential issues confronted in the Bible: living, dying, marriage, sex, victory, defeat, truth, deceit, love, loyalty, faith, piety, etc.-- questions of immediate relevance to one's situation. Shakespeare's works are also often a mixture of fact and fiction, and some of his words are so profound that they have an almost mystical weight and evoke emotions that are recognizably religious in character.

So, Dear Reader, why not replace the Bible with Shakespeare, if there's so little difference between the Word of the Lord and the words of the Bard? Why not simply collect poems by articulate homeless people, bind them together in a single volume, and replace the Bible with that?

If you're fairly conservative in your religious outlook, I doubt this will be much of an issue for you. But if you're not so conservative, then it's a good question to ponder, because some conservatives will wonder how, exactly, scripture is meaningful to you.

I have my own answers to these questions, but what are yours?

(Feel free to comment no matter what your religious orientation might be.)



R said...

I've always tried to live my life in accordance with the holy scriptures of The Cat In The Hat.

Anonymous said...

I'd be the first person to suggest that Shakespeare is the more appropriate choice.

Having said that, I'm not sure that a book is a necessary part of religion at all. Continual adapting of an old book to new needs strikes me as just silly when the old book is felt to have some kind of normative power.

As an aside, I think one could make the case that "book religion" is alive and well especially in the secular American and Canadian legal systems.

Jelly said...

It's interesting that you have posted about this subject today, because I was considering it considerably over lunch. I'm going to try to gather some thoughts to make a post. And maybe another comment. And a link. And a hot dog. And some makoli. It's raining. Maybe I should build an ark.

Maven said...

See, and here I thought "The Giving Tree," by Shel Silverstein was something, upon which I could base my philosophies:)

I view Scriptures thus:

1. Parables to teach a lesson.
2. A loose account of history and geopgraphy at the time.
3. Paulist propaganda.

I feel that the best can be summed up by Rabbi Hillel:

That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

And I thought it fitting to share these nuggets re: the Golden Rule:

Buddhism: "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful."

Christianity: "All things therefore that you want people to DO to you, DO thus to them"

Confucius: "Do not impose on others what you do not desire others to impose upon you."

Hinduism: "Let no man do to another that which would be repugnant to himself."

Zoroastrianism: "Human nature is good only when it does not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self."

Anonymous said...

If I had to label myself, I'd say I'm an agnostic. For most Acadians such as myself, Catholicism is of cultural and historical significance more than anything else. The Acadian catholics that weren't deported were forced to give up their religion when the Brits took control of Acadia. As the church played an important role on education, you can understand the affect that it would have had on Acadian culture if many hadn't simply packed up and left to settle further up North, out of the field of control of the British crown.