There’s an artist you should know about. His name is Andrew Peterson. This week all my posts will be about his work. Here’s the first one. When you listen to it, keep a box of tissues handy.
I have never been freaked out by paganism.
G.K. Chesterton has addressed the important question of what paganism really is and how it relates to being human in his book The Everlasting Man. So I was going to do a brand-new post about paganism drawing on that book. I was going to discuss how not everything in pagan practice is what we would strictly call religion, because it includes local history, genealogy, cosmology, entertainment, medicine, etc., etc. I was going to mention that all human beings need rituals, ways of dealing with illness, ways to mark the seasons, times of mourning and times of play, that literally every human practice was developed first by pagans and blah blah blah.
But I wasn’t able to get access to G.K. Chesterton’s book so as to write a brand-new post on all of this. Besides, conveniently, I have already written one.
I’ve posted a link to this article before, but I know you guys. I know you don’t usually click on links. So here it is again: Pagan Origins: Should Christians Worry?
Here are two books I’ve been reading this month:
And the fact that I’ve been reading them both in the same month is a complete coincidence. I promise.
God and His Bureaucrats
Several years ago now, I found myself sitting in a house in a jungle somewhere in Southeast Asia, among a small ethnic group whose name has been redacted so I can write about them. Although I knew Christian believers in that group, on this night I was sitting across from a devotee of the local religion.
We sat cross-legged on the ironwood floor, and he had a cigarette pack on the floor in front of him. He was very passionate about our topic of discussion. He didn’t raise his voice, but I could tell he was worked up. Whenever he was making an especially important point, he would pick up the cigarette pack and slam it down again.
He spoke thus:
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that we [of this local religion] don’t believe in God. That’s a slander. We do (slam) believe in God. But we also (slam) believe in (slam) His bureaucrats.”
This is a very Southeast Asian view of the spiritual world: the heavenly bureaucracy. You can see it presented visually in some Hindu temples that resemble a tall, pointy mountain, and this mountain is covered with little niches, and in each niche is a statue of a divine being. They are not placed in there randomly. There is a place for each of them, and each in its place.
This view is also reflected in the governing structure of the country in which I was sitting at the time. At the top is the President. Below him (or her) are the governors of the provinces. Below these, in descending order, are five or six additional ranks, each responsible over a smaller geographical area, until you get down to Village Head (or mayor). And below him, in each village, are the heads of families. It’s an elaborate bureaucratic system, but everyone knows the names of all the ranks. They have to deal with them daily. And of course, you always show respect to anyone with a rank anywhere above your own.
My pagan friend went on,
“Think about it. You wouldn’t expect the President to attend your wedding. Maybe not even the Governor. But you might get [the next rank down], or [the rank below that]. Now think about how many weddings must take place on a given day, all over the world. God can’t possibly be at all of them. He would send His bureaucrats.”
His point was that showing disrespect to the local spiritual “bureaucrats” would be akin to dishonoring God.
Now, clearly this person’s concept of God was anthropomorphic. He thought of Him as a big President in the sky, not omnipresent, not capable of (or even probably interested in) attending all the weddings. However, my main point with this story is that this person, out in the jungle, subscribing to a spiritual view of the world that most readers of this blog might find strange or even comical, had a concept of God as distinct from lesser gods. As he would be the first to tell you, he knew about and honored God.
This people group had no problem grasping the concept of “the Creator.” They had a beautiful, polysyllabic name for Him [again, redacted in exchange for the privilege of writing about these folks]. When individuals from this ethnic group became Christians, that name was the name they used in their prayers.
Local Religions Ground but also Divide
I have a lot of sympathy for local deities and mythologies. It is good for people to have their own culture and mythology, to feel grounded in something to which they legitimately belong. But in a cosmopolitan culture (and we are not the first cosmopolitan culture to discover this) there is a problem with just following our ancestors’ lead for the totality of our religion. The problem is that ancestral religion and identity politics don’t mix. I probably don’t need to elaborate on this. You can find your own examples of the impossible dilemmas it creates. The world is bristling with them.
United by One God
I could probably write another 1,000 words about this problem and cast no more light on it. So instead, listen to the words of Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, as he spoke to a group of sophisticated pagan philosophers:
“People of Athens, I see that you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an Unknown God.’ Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He Himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”
(You wouldn’t think “He determined the exact places where they would live” is very surprising, but I have heard that it brought one group of native translators to tears. They had thought that no one, human or divine, cared about them; that they had been forgotten.)
“God did this so that people would seek Him and perhaps reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.’”
(By the way, notice how he alludes to the wisdom already found in their own culture. But Paul, who was bi-cultural, isn’t finished. Now he is going to call them to a purer, more direct worship of the Creator.)
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all people by raising him from the dead.”
Acts 17:22 – 31
Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god.’ Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.Paul of Tarsus, Act 17:22 – 27
Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 2
… the thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life – picturesque and full of poetical curiosity … If a man says that extinction is better than existence or a blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking. If a man prefers nothing, I can give him nothing. But nearly all the people I have ever met … would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance – the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need to so view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome.G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 1
Reader response is a wonderful style of literary criticism which allows the reviewer to just note down their personal reactions, even if those reactions occurred while watching the show at midnight, when we get sleepy and our inner five-year-old emerges.
This post doesn’t explain the plot step by step, but it does contain all the spoilers and all the sarcasm.
So, my reactions to the movie version of Angels and Demons, in order …
1. Oooh, these Catholics are so mysterious and sinister!
2. Science-y stuff is happening inside the big collider. The people are speaking French. They think the collider might blow everything up, but they press on anyway because it’s Science.
3. Now they have made antimatter.
4. The messenger from the Vatican speaks English with a cool, ominous accent. He seems to be perfectly fluent, but he can’t remember the word formídable. The closest he can get is for-mi-dá-blay. The professor has to translate for him.
5. The professor is really smart. He knows more about Catholic history than the Catholics themselves. Seems legit.
6. The Illuminati were a bunch of honest truth seekers who were absolutely, positively not into the occult. They were just rationalists and scientists who were persecuted by the Catholic Church. Now they want to use the antimatter to blow up a small country (Vatican City), but that is totally justified because the Catholics branded a cross on the chests of five Illuminati back in the 1500s.
7. The Illuminati have kidnapped the four preferiti, a.k.a. Cardinals who are being considered to become the next Pope. The other Cardinals are in conclave. The Great Elector, the leader of these, is obviously the bad guy. He doesn’t want to evacuate St. Peter’s Square, even though it clearly might be a good idea. He has “I WANT TO BE POPE” written on his forehead, and it’s possible he is behind this whole scheme. He either works for the Illuminati, or is more likely using them.
8. The Illuminati assassin is torturing the preferiti one by one and leaving them around Vatican City for the Professor to find.
9. VATICAN CITY SCAVENGER HUNT!!!
10. Wow, I am just learning so much from this movie. I had NO IDEA that the church adopted the symbols and holidays of previous pagan religions, or that Dec. 25 was originally … oh, wait. Yes I did. I wrote an article about it here.
11. Also, English was the language of rebels and mavericks, like Shakespeare and Chaucer. (Chaucer????)
12. Honestly. There are no admirable characters in this movie. Not the Great Elector, not the Komandant of the Swiss guard, not the Illuminati assassin because torture, not the Professor because he always looks like everyone is getting on his last nerve with all this religion stuff … The only admirable character is a young priest who was the Pope’s protégé and who confusingly still loves the church as a place of simple people full of compassion even though he admits the church has “always sought to impede progress.” I’ll bet he apostatizes before the end. Either that or he becomes the next Pope.
13. The Pope was murdered, by the way. Turns out he didn’t really have a stroke. I think we are supposed to feel sorry for him (or for the protégé), but the scene when they open his coffin displays a black, swollen tongue protruding from his mouth and spreading a stain over the rest of his face. Clearly super symbolic.
14. Speaking of symbolism, in one scene the Professor gets trapped in the Vatican Archives. To preserve the ancient books there, oxygen is kept to a low level and the walls are lined with lead. When the power goes off, the electronic doors lock. The professor has to break out of this hall of old books where he cannot breathe or communicate with the outside world, or he will literally die from being stifled. The only way he can break out is to push a heavy bookcase full of priceless artifacts into the re-enforced glass, destroying these precious objects.
Hmm, what ever could all of this symbolize? Let me think …
15. OK, they have saved the one remaining preferitus. And they have found the antimatter. But – oh no! – they can’t replace the battery that will prevent an explosion, without possibly causing an explosion.
16. The protégé is taking the antimatter up in a helicopter so the explosion doesn’t kill anyone! He’s going to be martyred and made a saint!
17. Oh wait, he parachuted out!
18. But the explosion high over St. Peter’s Square is blowing his parachute all around! He’s going to die after all.
19. He survived! Now the cardinals are finding an obscure bylaw that allows them to make him Pope.
20. But the Professor has just found a hidden video that shows the protégé was the one who hired the assassin! He just made it look like an Illuminati plot! It was him all along!
I did not see that coming.
21. But the reasons he did it were the same old tired reasons we have been told all along. He killed the Pope because the Pope was OK with the scientists making antimatter and the protégé thought it was blasphemous.
22. In other words, he did all this in order to impede progress because he thought it might diminish the power of the church.
23. The lady scientist feels guilty about having made antimatter because it was stolen by the assassin and almost used to kill thousands of people. She wonders if they should go on making antimatter.
The professor encourages her to make some more. That’s good advice. After all, what are the odds of something like this happening again?
24. The Great Elector is now allowing the remaining preferitus to become Pope and is acting all nice & humble towards the Professor. “Religion is flawed, but that’s because people are flawed.”
OK, I was wrong about the Great Elector. Still, this feels like Dan Brown is trying to have it both ways. He’s just spent an entire movie showing us that religious zeal is really really bad and destructive, but now he wants to say that it’s also not, with no reasons given.
Verdict: I ended up really enjoying this movie because it was so twisty. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was a hatchet job. Even the twists serve its purpose, because the person behind the evil plot turned out to be the character who seemed the most saintly and was certainly the most zealous. He ends up setting himself on fire, murmuring, “Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit” and then screaming and writhing like a demon as he burns. If that’s not blasphemous I don’t know what is.
Bjorn Andreas Bull-Hansen blogs here about men’s mental health, viking culture and bushcraft (“viking camp”). That’s why I call him an actual Viking.
I realize that not all of you will make the time to watch this 8-minute video, so below are some highlights of the transcript. But you need to watch the video to get the full effect of the Norwegian accent, the poignant eye contact, and especially the emotion in this guy’s voice at 6:55 when he talks about “our gods. Or what we perceive as holy.”
Highlights of Bjorn Andreas Bull-Hansen Talking about Female Thor
“So, you want to make Thor a woman.”
[takes swig from beer bottle]
“… you people.
“Listen. I’m OK with a female Thor. I don’t care! That’s only because I’m a grownup.
“But here’s the thing. Thor is a symbol of masculine power. But I do suspect that … the writers … have a little bit of an agenda and they think it’s interesting to tear down that concept of masculine power. But let me tell you, there is actually such a thing.”
[takes swig of beer]
“My ancestors, they knew how important masculine power is for our society, for the family, and for our culture. And let me just say that you are stepping on something now that means a lot to some of us.
“So go ahead, make Thor a woman. But just know this: if you think it’s OK to make Thor a woman, you should never again criticize anyone for ‘cultural appropriation.’
“Every day, I walk my dog among the grave mounds of my ancestors. And my belief system is no less important than any other belief system.
“We should all lower our shoulders when it comes to our gods. Or what we perceive as holy. I think the world would be a better place if we did. But never again will you cry out about ‘cultural appropriation.’ Because that’s what you’re doing now, making Thor female.”
[swig of beer] [shakes head] “You people.
“So go ahead, go ahead! I don’t care. Thor is still out there. All around us, as a symbol of masculine power. He is present in every healthy society, in every healthy family.
“That’s all for now. Have a wonderful day! Bye-bye.”
A fool finds no pleasure in understanding/but delights in airing his own opinions.Proverbs 18:2