Hollywood Searches For God

Maggie Gallagher

12/6/2012 9:28:00 AM - Maggie Gallagher

Have you noticed how much of Hollywood is preoccupied with thoughts of God?

"Life of Pi" is the latest example of a movie with essentially religious themes.

Artists in a postmodern culture are thinking about the relationship between story and truth. Even the movie "Lincoln" is organized around the idea that false narratives can serve the greater good in politics. When the people are bad, the politician must lie or mislead to serve the good.

It's rather discomfiting to see so many liberal elites embrace this movie, isn't it?

Hollywood's recent search for God began with "The Master," a very odd film about a man who creates his own religion and builds a community around it. Then there is "Cloud Atlas," a movie that makes no sense at all, narratively speaking, but weaves together tales of past lives into a larger truthiness about sacred mysteries."Cloud Atlas" somehow manages to tap into the founding narratives of American freedom and connect them with Eastern religious ideas to build a sense that awe and mystery lie at the heart of existence. "With every act of kindness or every crime, you are building your future." Things that seem unconnected are connected in ways we -- and the film -- cannot explain but emotionally believe.

"Cloud Atlas" is one of an increasing number of films I would call "religious porn."

Think for a moment about the relationship between that little god Eros and standard porn. Our erotic drives are meant to pull us out of ourselves and launch us on the great task of love -- ultimately loving our husband or wife, and the children our bodies make together.

Porn tantalizes and misdirects this impulse, diverts it from reality into a self-contained fantasy. Porn is not nearly as good as sexual love, but it is much cheaper and easier to get. Standard porn diverts the energy needed to create the real. In a similar way, religious porn movies like "Cloud Atlas" shamelessly tap into the deep human religious impulse and attempt to redirect it from truth to fantasy, in order to make money.

"Life of Pi," on the other hand, is something quite different -- a great artist's serious exploration of how to make sense of faith in the postmodern world.

In a culture accustomed to porn, to stories intended to make one feel good without any clear, committed relationship to truth, an artist cannot raise such a question subtly and expect to be understood.

And so Ang Lee, the director, makes it amply clear what this story is about: It is a story that will "make you believe in God," as the narrator says.

SPOILER ALERT: I do not think this movie can be spoiled, but if you worry about such things, stop reading, run out and see the movie.

The first version of the movie that will make you believe in God is a visually gorgeous story of a boy who survives a shipwreck on a boat with a tiger. His faith helps him survive by sustaining hope against fierce and unforgiving, but beautiful, Nature.

But overlaid at the very end is another argument for God's existence, another explanation for the persistence of faith.

In this version, the real story is not a story about surviving on a boat with a tiger, but about coming face to face with the monstrous human capacity for evil. The tiger is an allegory, a metaphor, a story the boy tells himself to survive in the face of that which cannot be faced openly.

In extremis, faced with the undeniable reality of monstrous human evil, including our own, do we believe in a higher power or must we live with evil alone? Which story do we prefer?

The tiger, shouts out nearly every human heart who watches this movie. "And so it goes with God," the now-grown boy says. "Life of Pi" is nothing less than a beautiful dramatization of Pascal's Wager.