Hollywood Bible #3: Ghostbusters

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I refuse to believe that Ghostbusters came out when I was seven. There’s no way it was released thirty years ago. That just makes me feel old.

After all these years, after all the times I’ve sat there quoting along with Bill Murray and Rick Moranis, I never noticed that they misquote the Bible. Sure, Ray says he’s reciting Revelation 7:12, he’s actually a chapter out. It’s Revelation 6:12 that talks about earthquakes and the sun turning black and darkness covering the earth. It’s a pretty apocalyptic passage, the sort of thing you expect from Revelation. After all, it’s the End Of The World book, the one that’s full of monsters and disasters and the disintegration of society. That’s why it gets used in movies like Ghostbusters.

But the misquote points to a different slant on Revelation; 6:12 is a hymn of praise and worship and celebration: “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever.” It’s not the sort of thing you expect to hear during Armageddon, when a giant marshmallow monster is stomping on your church.

But then Revelation is a weird book. It’s apocalyptic literature, so weird comes with the territory. The book starts out with letters to seven churches around Asia Minor and then things get crazy – visions of angels and destruction, a collapsed timeline that sometimes feels like it’s talking about historical events and other times seems to be talking about the future. Images shift – a lion becomes a lamb within the space of two verses, and martial imagery of swords and blood gets subverted. It’s currently fashionable to interpret Revelation in a somewhat reductionist way (“x means y, and that’s why z is obviously the antichrist!”), but the reality feels slipperier. It’s not even a book about the End of the World, because in the end Heaven and Earth are reborn.

So maybe we can forgive Ray his misquote – Revelation has confused as many theologians as it has parapsychologists. And even in mis-speaking he becomes a prophet; he and Winston may be having a portentous conversation about how the end is all kinds of nigh, but unwittingly they point to a verse that’s about the triumph of a good God and the destruction of evil. That’s probably a good thing to hold on to next time you’re riding into battle with the forces of evil.

All that said, my favourite line is still: “Listen! Do you smell something?”…

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Hollywood Bible #2b: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Ask yourself, why do you seek the Cup of Christ? Is it for His glory, or for yours?

In my last post I wrote about Raiders of the Lost Ark and how great it is. But let’s not forget it’s part of a franchise, one of the rare kind where the other films mostly stand up to the original. And, as I was talking about how Raiders is based in Judaism and the Old Testament, today I figured I’d go to the other end of the Bible: step forward Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and its quest for the Holy Grail.

Only despite the whole Da Vinci Code kerfuffle, there’s a problem. Because the Holy Grail isn’t in the Bible, or at least not in any direct way.

Jesus coins the wine/blood symbolism at the Last Supper but there’s no great description of a Grail, they just use a cup to drink from. Boring and conventional I know, but there you go. No, the Holy Grail is basically a medieval plot device.

See, somewhere between 1181 and 1190, a French poet called Chretian de Troyes wrote Perceval: The Story of the Grail. During the poem, Perceval manages to impress King Arthur, fall in love, meets the Fisher King and has a vision of the Grail. Here it’s an object of power, capable of healing the Fisher King if only Perceval asks the right questions – which he fails to do. It’s nothing to do with the Bloodline of Christ, it’s just the cup that the King’s communion is carried in, important because that’s the only food and drink he’s receiving.

The Grail became holy around a decade later, when Robort de Boron fills in the gaps of its history – Joseph of Arimathea uses the cup from the Last Supper to collect some of Christ’s blood after the crucifixion, eventually making his way to Britain (which links in with an early tradition that had Joseph and a bunch of other minor characters from the Gospels making their way across Europe, as well as being the source of the idea that Jesus once visited England as a boy – cue Jerusalem). None of this really has anything to do with the Bible – effectively it’s New Testament fanfic. Somewhere along the line the Grail became the object of a quest carried out by Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and it became enshrined in literature as a sacred macguffin.

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And in a lot of ways, that’s the Grail’s purpose in The Last Crusade – it’s an excuse to reconcile Indy with his father, and once this happens, the Grail is lost again. However, it’s this story, contrasted with the actions of the film’s antagonists, that shows that Indy is capable of understanding, and experiencing grace.

Look at the film’s bad guy. Donovan is a suave but ruthless businessman obsessed with the Grail and its potential to bring him immortality. To this end he aligns himself with the Nazis and manipulates both of the Joneses; after all, they’re all really just tools to help him live forever. It’s that arrogance, however, that ultimately damns him – when confronted with a roomful of potential Grails, from which he must drink to receive eternal life, he picks the most ornate. He sees the world from a pedestal and the Grail as his prize – of course it’s going to be shiny and jewel-encrusted. But whoops, it’s the wrong one and it ages him to death instead – “He chose…poorly,” the Grail’s guardian wryly comments. Donovan’s Grail quest was all about the prize, not the lessons learned along the way – after all, he never learned them because the other characters did all the work.

Indy, on the other hand, has purer motivations – he just wants to save his dad’s life and go home. And yet because of this, because his quest is noble and involves risking his neck for that of another, Indy is able to succeed. He does his homework (“Jehovah is spelled with an ‘I!'”), he risks his life, and he’s finally able to act with humility and wisdom – he doesn’t want to be a king, he just wants his dad back. “That’s not the cup of a carpenter,” he mutters about Donovan’s false grail, before picking the cheapest and most inconspicuous cup on offer. This is the right choice, because this is the Cup of Christ and the Grail and it’s associated quest reflects this – humility, wisdom, self-sacrifice, reconciliation. The Christian concept of humanity being reconciled back to God is symbolised through the Spielbergian theme of a son’s relationship with his father, and once this happens the Grail is no longer needed – it disappears and its temple collapses, job done, and all that remains for our heroes to do is return home wiser than when they set out.

Heck, even the audience is enlightened in the final moments – we find out that Indy named himself after the family dog.

I guess it’s appropriate that a trilogy (let’s put aside The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for the moment) that began with Indy confronted by the Wrath of God (in the form of the opened Ark of the Covenant) should end with him encountering God’s grace – judgement and mercy meet around the Easter story in which the Grail myth has its origins. The prodigals return home and a fracture family is reunited. We’ve seen wrath – and melted Nazis – now we get to see healing.

There’s another Indy film after this, of course, but that plays with sci-fi more than it does with myth and somehow it’s weaker for it – it tries to emulate fifties B-movies, but bringing in aliens and Communists (the interchangeable ‘Other’ of films like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers) weakens it somehow – Indy seems to be the detrrmined hero who doesn’t know when to stop even when divine forces are moving around him. It’s that determination and heroism that brings him a measure of healing in The Last Crusade. I’d say he deserved it, but that wouldn’t be grace – Indy’s always been a rough diamond for all his heroism.

But even rogues can sometimes be pilgrims.

Check out the first in this series – Pulp Fiction and Ezekiel</em>

Hollywood Bible #2a: Raiders of the Lost Ark

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Raiders is an awesome film, of course, one of those movies where everything, from the direction to the story to the casting to Harrison Ford’s dysentery conspire to capture lightning in a bottle in a way that modern blockbusters often fail to manage. It’s a pure-blooded classic, from the opening scene (BOULDER!) to the ending (BOXES!) via divine retribution (GOD SMITING NAZIS!) and it’s fantastic. Ford could go mad and take the lead role in a new Catwoman movie and we’d still forgive him, simply because he’s Han AND Indy. The guy gets a pass just because of that. He’s even inspired the coolest Mr. Potato Head.

But part of the power of Raiders is that it’s rooted in religion and folklore, the stakes of the movie hanging on both the evil of the Nazis, and concepts of the Old Testament Wrath of God. The Ark has power beyonf human imagining and that raises it beyond a plot MacGuffin to something far scarier – frankly, none of the characters, good or bad, should be going anywhere near it.

This is pretty true to the Biblical accounts. Here’s the story: Moses leads the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt after God rains down plagues on Pharoah and parts the Red Sea. Following this, God makes a covenant, or agreement, with the fledgling Israel – this is marked by the 10 Commandments and a box – ark – in which to keep them (I wrote a little about the guy who built the ark here). This Ark became a physical symbol of God’s presence with the Israelites, going before them in battle, infused by the holy power of God and impossible to touch with your bare hands.

This is where Raiders draws upon the biblical texts – there are stories of people dying after touching the Ark and, when it’s captured by the Philistines, they’re struck by a plague of, well, hemorrhoids. The Ark is not something to be messed with.

Anyway, eventually the Babylonians conquered Israel and the Ark disappears from view. No-one knows what happened to it, and it’s at this point that it passes from religious history into rumour, folklore and mythology. Raiders suggests it ended up buried in Egypt, waiting for some hubristic Nazis to dig it up. There are, however, other ideas…

One of the apocryphal (non-canonical) biblical texts, 2 Maccabees, says that the prophet Jeremiah realised that Israel was going down and buried the Ark in an unknown cave, not to be revealed until God Himself made it known.

Meanwhile, others lay claim to safeguarding the Ark, most famously Ethiopia. Apparently there is an artifact kept in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, Axum, that may of may not be the Ark. The Glory of Kings, a text written in 1225 to legitimise the Ethiopian royal family, says that it’s there, and all Ethiopian churches contain a replica of the Ark. Interestingly, a while ago the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church said he was going to reveal the truth about the Ark; the next day he changed his mind. This doesn’t exactly help quash speculation.

Then there are the Lemba people of southern Africa, who have a tradition of a mysterious but sacred artifact known as the Ngoma Lungundu, “the drum that thunders” (implying the voice of God). What may a replica of the Ark is on display in Zimbabwe, after being hidden away in a storeroom for years… Which sounds a little familiar.

It’s not just Africa making claims. At the turn of the 20th century there was even speculation that the Ark was in Ireland, with some enthusiasts starting to dig up the Hill of Tara until someone had the sense to stop them before they destroyed one of the country’s spiritual centres.

The fact is, we don’t know what happened to the Ark of Covenant, and that worked in the favour of Raiders – at the end of the film the Ark is lost again, this time to the forces of bureaucracy. Maybe it’s for the best – you don’t mess around with the infinite, to paraphrase another movie. For an archeologist, Indy doesn’t have much success with getting his finds back home – he’s not working with history, he’s working with faith, religion, the divine. “It belongs in a museum,” he says during another of his adventures, but that’s not always true – in the case of the Ark he has to close his eyes and stay out of the way. It’s not often that a movie has something visceral to say about the power of God.

Fortunately Raiders isn’t any old movie.

Check out the first in this series – Pulp Fiction and Ezekiel

Hollywood Bible #1: Pulp Fiction and Ezekiel 25:17

Okay, this is something new I wanted to try out on the blog. Let’s see how it goes.

The Bible is one of the foundational documents of western civilisation, and even though it’s not as widely read as it once was, you can still see its influence in culture. After all, it keeps cropping up in unlikely places, like metal albums and horror films. One of the most dramatic uses of a Bible quote in Hollywood is in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where a passage from Ezekiel is used as both a hitman’s signature and a possible path for his redemption.

Of course, the main reason it’s dramatic is because it’s quoted by Samuel L. Jackson, who is possibly the coolest man on Earth, and therefore if he comes after you quoting the Bible you listen carefully. And then you run away, because he’s probably gonna shoot you.

At the risk of calling down his vengeance though, I should point out that he’s not quoting the Bible.

Oh, he says he’s reading Ezekiel 25:17, and in context I doubt anyone’s about to argue with him. But here’s what he says:

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy My brothers. And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee.”

But here’s what Ezekiel actually says:

“I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I take vengeance on them.’”

The reason for the discrepancy is obvious – Tarantino wanted Jackson to say something awesome and biblical and wrote something that sounded right but that also helped advance the plot of the film. Straight forward enough, but as this blog only really exists to poke around in the Bible, I thought it was worth looking at a little closer.

See, towards the end of the film, Jackson’s character, who’s had something of an epiphany, explains why he quotes the Bible. He confesses that, in the context of the pseudo-passage, he’s been “the tyranny of evil men”, but he’s now trying to be the shepherd.

Now that’s interesting, because shepherds, good and bad, are a theme in Ezekiel. Flick forward nine chapters in the actual Bible, and you’ll see that Ezekiel 34 is an extended attack on the bad shepherds – leaders of Israel who are leading their people astray. That’s the problem with Jackson’s speech – the people meant to be shepherds have been dropping the ball, leaving one person to take over, God himself. Hence the other famous passage about shepherds alluded to in Tarantino’s speech, Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing…even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil…“). In other words, when religious and political leaders drop the ball, God himself takes up the slack. And that’s why there’s an emphasis in John’s gospel on Jesus being, yep, the Good Shepherd. We can also cross reference that with the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke, which is a parable of redemption.

I guess this ties in to the other famous story refered to in Jackson’s speech – “For he is truly his brother’s keeper” echos “Am I my brother’s keeper?” from Genesis 4. Here it’s a dismissive thing – Cain’s stroppy response to God asking where Abel is (the answer is that Cain’s murdered his brother and God’s about to bust him). There’s a sense in which the murder is only a part of Cain’s crime – in one violent act, he’s also shattered the bonds of family and community as well (possibly out of arrogance and an identity crisis). “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Well, yes, you are, and you’ve screwed up. To show his divorce from society, Cain ends up as a “restless wanderer upon the earth.”

That’s why the more aspirational use of the phrase in Pulp Fiction sounds right – it echoes the idea of loving your neighbour, of going the extra mile, of healing the wounds inflected by Cain. Jackson’s character says he’s going to “walk the earth” like another Caine (the guy from the show Kung Fu). Hmm.

So there you go; the quote version of Ezekiel may not be real, but it has echoes of the actual Bible, some of which tie in with the wider plot of the film. And it reveals another truth, less important but nevertheless cool:

The Bible always sounds awesomes when it’s read by Samuel L. Jackson.