Religious belief or mental illness?
Now be honest: do you think the world is going to be drastically transformed, probably not for the better, in your lifetime?
Sociologists tell us that two-thirds of Americans do. And that only counts traditional millennials, the âLeft Behindâ crowd and their ilk. But as scholar Richard Landes recently described in his ledger Heaven on Earth: Varieties of the Millennial Experience, apocalyptic thought comes in many forms: secular, political, mystical and many others. Even those of us who don’t wear special underwear because we think we’re about to step out of our levitating clothes still have doomsday opinions on climate change, the global financial meltdown, or even 2012. .
The paranoid few
How to respond to such fears? If the consensus of climatologists is correct (and it is a consensus; here is a scientific opinion poll), vast swathes of forest will die within the next fifty years, many species will be wiped out, and coastal ecosystems will disappear on an ever-increasing level. seen since the Ice Age. If the worst-case scenarios envisioned by mainstream economists materialize, our entire economic system is in danger of systemic collapse. And if nanotechnology, genomics, and artificial intelligence continue to evolve at their current rates, we could all live on forever, at least as minds uploaded to a huge mainframe.
In short, the paranoid few who seem genuinely disturbed by the possibility of the coming end of the world are perhaps reacting most sensibly to current events. Or not.
This ambiguity is at the heart of Jeff Nichols’ recent film To protect. Like lesser efforts like M. Night Shyamalan’s Panels, this film explores whether its protagonist is a madman, or a prophet, or both. About three-quarters of the way, he seems to resolve this tension. Curtis, played by Michael Shannon, inherited paranoid schizophrenia from his mother. The massive storm he predicts (and ruins his life for to prepare for) is not happening. He’s about to be cured and possibly institutionalized.
But then, in literally the last scene of the film, Curtis and his family see an oncoming mega-storm that eerily reminiscent of Curtis’ own nightmares. Nichols called it an end of “hope,” and in an interview Shannon suggests it was there from the start, adding that, in her opinion, the movie is really about anxiety, not mental illness.
What had been one genre of film, a devastating and realistic exploration of a man’s descent into madness, suddenly becomes another: a parable about the nature of millennial angst.
Or both simultaneously. Many films exist in this formal interzone, with the mystery being part of the allure. Shyamalan is the master of this game; his movies The village and The event the two seem to be one type of movie, to turn out to be another. These are not just twists; they are genre twists, in which the audience is uncertain of the rules of the world of the film itself.
Normally, this clearly distinguishes films from reality. At least under normal circumstances, mine is not a world of dinosaurs, ring bearers, or talking animals. Movies where the characters turn out to be dead, or dreaming, or in The Matrix, are therefore distinct from ordinary life.
To protect, however, is not. Just before seeing the movie, I read an article noting that there had been more exorcisms in America last year than any other year on record. What is, really, the dividing line between religious belief and mental illness? If a person believes the world is about to end, we assume they are insane. If a thousand believe it, they have a religious conviction.
Of course, all religions are pretty absurd if taken literally. Thousands of pure lands ruled by good bodhisattvas? Golden tablets buried in the New World, containing a story of Canaanite tribes that left absolutely no archaeological trace? The sun and the moon still? Not to mention the crazy holiday story of a “magic baby” born to a virgin (humorously parodied by a fake Kristen Stewart video that’s currently going viral).
Progressives are supposed to respect the hyperliteral readings of Scripture by fundamentalists, even if they defy all logic. But then again, we are under no obligation to respect new religious movements (“cults” for you and me), especially if they involve UFOs. Scientology and Mormonism (in some quarters) fall somewhere in between.
Likewise, some generic sense of messianism is probably acceptable. Harold Camping is not. The 54% of Americans who believe the Second Coming will happen before 2050 falls somewhere in between. (As for Michele Bachmann, who said âwe are in the last daysâ, I’ll let you decide.)
Prophets and fools
But does any of this make sense? Take the storm at the end of To protect as allegorical. This could represent a number of impending disasters. Is Curtis building a tornado shelter really more paranoid than turning your money into gold or learning how to grow your own food? What is awesome To protect it’s because he convinces us that only a madman can behave like Curtis. But in the end, it’s not so much that he’s a prophet after all, it’s that neither of us knows where to stand. Do we trust the nagging voice telling us that something is wrong? Or the calm voice of reason, which can relax us in oblivion?
It seems to me that believing that God buried dinosaur bones is ridiculous. But then, isn’t using the word âGodâ to describe a projection of experiences, hopes and dreams as well?
As a student of millennialism – I’m finishing my doctorate on 18th century messianic heretic Jacob Frank – I know I’m skeptical of 2012, 2000, and anything related to the rapture. . The world has always been about to end. But am I, therefore, too much skeptical of predictions of a global economic collapse?
God, Jesus and the Rapture are never mentioned during To protect. But as I watched Curtis grow more and more paranoid, I couldn’t help but think of the two religious crooks. and Jeremiah from the spiritual left. Everything seems crazy to me. Or are reasonable people the craziest of all?