Abhorrence of Religion, Culture and Arts
Art and theatre have for over a century generally been anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment. Religion has been, for the most part, pro established-orders and pro-authority over the same period. No matter what culture, these observations seem to apply! In some cases, such as in Iran, religion and establishment are intertwined just as in medieval European cultures and in the US today where every political persuasion needs approval from the god-fearing masses. Over the century, art and theatre have diverged from religious fervour in many ways. Yet it is surprising how much they converge. And how both religion and the arts ironically have basically similar premises.
The Abomination that is the movie "Jesus of Nazareth"
To begin this discussion, let us look at how contemporary artistic expression has depicted religious themes in the Western tradition. We might consider cinema, art and theatre.
A most sickening and soul-destroying theatrical screen work one could contemplate watching is Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth". Seeing famous actors using their cynical tricks over six hours to fake any semblance of authenticity in portraying potentially psychotic characters is a lesson in artistic charlatanism. Zeffirelli might have gained considerable credit as a director and innovator for some of his movies, but this piece of rubbish loses him all credibility. It is an abomination in terms of both religion and the arts. It unashamedly seeks a euro-centric Christian distortion using imagery, context and sentimental performances worthy of high-school kids at the Christmas pageant. It is art that extols a particular cultural hegemony that, at best is an affirmation of our romantic past, and at worst is a recipe for fascism.
In support of this statement, just note Robert Powell's sultry eyes and smug expressions when confronted with questioning. The director has him conforming to renaissance era painting imagery as if in a music video clip. You almost can hear REM doing "Losing My Religion" with every scene. You almost want to smack him in the face for his glib responses. There is nothing real in Powell's performance. Instead at every turn he is responding to a renaissance painting image! And if this isn't enough, then squirm at the apologetic performances of Rod Steiger, Anne Bancroft, Laurence Olivier, Michael York and James Mason as they struggle to make something of the pithy script. Pathetic! And I wonder if they ever lived it down ... though probably it was never an issue as few dared attack the Jesus of the TV series ...
Zeffirelli may not be a charlatan of film. He had genuine successes. Fortunately he had personal failures as well.
For instance he never did get to see women get the death penalty for having abortions in Italy. As a member of the Italian Parliament, Zeffirelli called for the death penalty to be applied to women who had abortions. He never got to see women being killed for this reason and no doubt this was a life's disappointment for him.
The Critical Quandary Emanating from "Jesus of Nazareth"
Firstly, Zeffirelli's desire to see women executed for wanting control of their bodies is not unique. It is not essentially a religious thing. Yet it points to deeper issues that relate to the energies that give rise to both religion and art. Zeffirelli's portrayal of Jesus as a mimetic image from renaissance paintings rather than as a human figure that had enormous impact probably results from that same sub-conscious yearning that causes religion and art to seek an alignment of observed reality and lived experience with an imagined over-arching possibility that one can never fully know nor achieve. It is that same premises that draws together equally abstract knowledge to make metaphorical understandings into concrete intellectual sculptures and literature; as in religion.
"Jesus of Nazareth" might have provided a powerful vehicle for exploration into deep faith and the spirit of creative invention and reinvention. For instance there is much in the gospels that might have thrown a more real and more relevant exploration of why religion has a place at all; why spirituality tries to make invisible and significant holds over human endeavour!
Let us consider the Gospel according to Matthew 34 or Luke 12. In these chapters Jesus is quoted to the effect:
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household."
The power of regeneration and creative struggle is an element in religious practice and thinking. And we find it in religious writing. This suggestion of creative struggle and the need to overturn all one's upbringing, culture and past allegiance is not peculiar to religion. Art has been through many such transformative phases and creative struggle is an essential part of artistic practice in theatre and art. While not directly attacking the Old Testament, the sword required in the above statement expressed warfare of an internal and relational struggle necessary to adopt new thinking that contradicted the past. Later Islamic traditions of Jihad might represent similar such elements.
Religion begins in abstraction as does art. Whether it requires sacrifice of a goat or a virgin girl to placate some unseen power that potentially brings terror or sustenance! Or whether it requires some form of sacrament or prayer to create an equilibrium in the observable universe! In the case of art and theatre, there is an artifice created that is representative or presenting of a physical manifestation of an idea, an ideal, a relationship or a sequence of events derived from imagination or real experience.
Yet the terror resulting from the unknown causes the seeking of solace in one's own image; an image that places the personal at the centre of the universe! Thus god is a reflection of our own image. The seemingly inexplicable becomes manageable as "enlightened" individuals provide concrete depictions of existence beyond the observable and lived experience. Narcissus becomes religion and religion becomes Narcissus almost denying any sense of spirituality beyond mirror images of one's limited imaginative conceptions.
The quandary for the artist creating within the religious and religious art traditions is one of how to broach the boundaries of cultural conceptions while being able to truly penetrate the origins of dogmas and moral codes. Zeffirelli opted for an extreme form of Eurocentric narcissism in order to shape his six hour long screen precis of the biblical story of Jesus. His conforming to unexamined mental and painted imagery as an adjunct to a precis of biblical referencing meant this work denied any form of spirituality or mystery!
This said, one must question as to whether any form of artistic expression that aims to affirm a particular cultural view of abstracted belief systems can do anything different! Culture, art and religion are ultimately progressions into various degrees of narcissism. To penetrate such gravitation within culture, art and religion requires the motivation and jolting prescription to jar and cut through the encasing mirrors of perception that surround the personal consumption or practice. Or perhaps it requires a process of stepping back from the equilibrium and allow for a kind of time-out or distance from such every-day experience.
In practice though, even with this jolt and stepping out, the result is likely to be the replacement of one such narcissistic imagery with another; such imagery to inform the trajectory of beliefs then formed into cultural precepts! It is a mistake to see religion and art as essentially irrational. From the point of view of narcissistic perceptions, they are perfectly rational. If god is within us, then it is perfectly reasonable to paint and picture god as looking like us. If art is an expression of how we feel and what we sense of the universe around us, no doubt the product will be like our reflection in the water. If such reality is shared within a culture then it is rational to enforce the view and see it reinforced through image representation and through social semiology and ritual.
When culture, art and religion engage even minimal processes for challenging and jarring this narcissistic tendency they each may hold the key to seeing and opening up the wider universe of existence. The concern is that those who hold the potential for doing just this, are in many, if not most, instances the prime controllers of the status quo and the guardians of smoke and mirrors that exemplify the narcissism of art, religion and ultimately of culture.