M. Night Shyamalan is a filmmaker who uses his craft to openly raise issues of religious faith. In the movie, Signs (2002),17 which he wrote and directed, crop circles are reported to have begun appearing all over the world and rumors are circulating of UFOs hovering in the earth's orbit. When a crop circle appears in the corn field of their family farm, the lead character in the story, Graham Hess - a disillusioned and recently widowed Episcopal priest played by Mel Gibson - is asked by his brother what all of this means. He replies,
There are only two kinds of people. [The first] see the lights and they see a miracle. They believe there is someone watching out for them and they feel hope. [For the second] everything is chance. They see the lights and their chances are 50/50. Could be bad or good. Deep down they feel whatever happens they are alone. And they feel fear.
The choice, as Hess boils it down for his brother, is between believing that there is an intelligence and purposefulness that underwrites the universe or conceding that we are alone in a randomly operating universe where the best we can hope for is a little good luck. As a place to start, this division of two ways that people respond to some anomaly in their experience offers two categories for analyzing overarching visions of the world that are now playing in popular culture.
But for the sake of capturing some important nuances in the prevailing visions of the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century in America, it might be helpful to consider some thicker terms by way of a detour through the work of two religious thinkers who have reflected on the phenomenology of faith: H. Richard Niebuhr and William James.
In his lectures on the nature of faith, published posthumously as Faith on Earth: An Inquiry into the Structure of Human Faith, Niebuhr describes a basic fault line to be found within faith. According to Niebuhr, virtually all of us, at least subconsciously, believe that our existence is worthwhile and that the whole world of being is meaningful. He writes, "There is in the background of existence, whether as memory of childhood, or as Platonic recollection of something heard in another existence, or as the echo of an inner voice, the sense of something glorious, splendid, clean and joyous for which this being and all being is intended." But in the normal course of life this fundamental faith is interrupted by "the great disillusionment," whether "in childhood or adolescence or later." A tragic chord is heard, a chord that reverberates through literature, art, and philosophy, which Niebuhr describes as the discovery "that things are not what they seem and that what they are is infinitely sadder, darker and more disappointing than what they appear to be..." This, he claims, is a constant in human experience.18 Each generation finds itself in a web of dissimulations spun by its forebears that its more contrary members must expose. They expose it, then begin to spin their own, and on it goes. For at least the last 40 years, we have become so accustomed to the great schemes and loyalties of our time being exposed as deceptions, or, at least, as "partly fictions," that we have developed a keen sense of irony in the way we regard all cultural conventions and all great causes.19
But it is important, Niebuhr insists, to understand that both fundamental faith and disillusionment do justice to reality. There is something "glorious, splendid, clean and joyous for which this being and all being is intended." For Niebuhr, drawing on a central theological symbol, this is a description of our innocent trust in God before the Fall that remains at the edges of our consciousness. But life in this world is post-Fall. We only know lives that have broken trust with the great and mysterious goodness at the center of all things, and generations of broken trust have built up massive defenses against it and diversions from it. Moreover, a profound disillusionment with "that One from which we all proceed" is not entirely unjustified - how, after all, could things have been allowed to become this sad and cruel and wretched? Has not this One who ought to have been loyal to us failed us? Our disillusionment stems from an understandable "distrust toward a being which... ought to be loyal, yet is not."20 Niebuhr goes on to parse our disillusionment into three manifestations of "broken faith."
• Defiance - Our broken faith in the Transcendent One gives rise to resentment and hostility. It may be a conscious defiance of God, or of the godless Nature of Things. "If the nature of things is the creation of a transcendent God," Niebuhr writes, "then that God is our enemy, and if it is not then the world itself is our enemy, and must be resisted though the fight may be carried on without personal hatred." In its noblest form, it begins out of a love for humanity, and particularly for the victims of cruelty, on whose behalf it "raises its voice against Omnipotence." Its complaint is raised in "the name of humane feeling or of spiritual values."21
• Fear - Overwhelmed by our awareness that human power is no match for the forces of reality that take so little regard of us, our broken faith expresses itself by trembling before "the powerful enemy." Niebuhr draws the distinction: "Defiance says, 'I am against God.' Fear says, 'God is against me.'" Such fear typically manifests itself through the terrors of conscience, the awareness of "an angry Otherness in the world which hunts out every secret fault." The terrorized conscience is most ill-at-ease with an unknown Otherness, and so goes to work churning out objects it can picture or conceptualize - "ghosts and wraiths and demons and vindictive deities." Once reified, these enemies are not resisted, but appeased. We bargain, grovel, and honor them in fear.22
• Escape - Weary of so much metaphysical distrust, broken faith can also move one in the direction of isolating oneself from the aggravation of it all. Here, "the effort is made to put all thought of that Other out of the mind while the self devotes itself to the little struggles and victories of life."23 Retreating to an imaginary world of penultimate concerns to which we can attach our ultimate loyalties, the "bright gods," as Niebuhr calls them, we can pretend to be at peace. Some who have opted for this mode of broken faith proceed to people their world with "kindly, beneficent powers." Others simply place the sense of transcendent reality out of bounds and become Epicureans who "interpret the world as superficial, without depth or meaning, without foundation or superstructure." Like Epicurus, they seek whatever satisfactions and pleasures can be had from those things that are within reach. The consolation here, Niebuhr suggests, is that "if you are very wise and do not attract its notice [the world] will not hurt you."24
I suggest that these three manifestations of broken faith constitute three distinguishable subcategories for ascertaining the meaning of life in the larger category of lost faith. Many current works of popular culture that probe the meaning of existence can be organized into one of these three subcategories.
But there are also nuances within the larger category of faith itself. Just as not all faithlessness is the same, not all faithfulness is the same. In his 1901-2 Gifford Lectures, which were subsequently published as the now classic Varieties of Religious Experience, the philosopher William James proposed the terms "once-born healthy-minded souls" and "twice-born sick souls" to differentiate between different dispositions among religious believers.
• Once-born - The healthy-minded soul is preoccupied with God's kindness and mercy, is impressed with the beauty and harmony of the world which God has made, and takes solace in the conviction that ours is the best of all possible worlds, overseen by the benevolent providence of a loving God. All that happens is for the best. Such souls are not distressed by their own imperfections, nor by the energetic efforts of the sinners around them. Preachers in this camp avoid "magnifying our consciousness of sin," and instead "seem devoted to making little of it."25 Sin and evil are imperfections that can be overcome. Healthy-minded souls are, as it were, temperamentally predisposed to cheerfulness, and forbid themselves "to linger... over the darker aspects of the universe."26 James refers to those with this type of faith as the "once born" because they embrace the world into which they were born, and persist in their belief that the God who oversees it is trustworthy. James gives as examples of the once-born: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and turn-of-the-century liberal Christianity.
• Twice-born - The sick soul, on the other hand, is the believer whose faith in the goodness of the world and the kindness of God has stumbled into one of three obstacles: the vanity of our attachment to mortal things which spill through our fingers like grains of sand, the irresistibility of personal sin, or the fear of a hostility of the universe toward our happiness, to the effect that their "original optimism and self-satisfaction get leveled with the dust."27 The disequilibria this causes is akin to seasickness, a condition in which one contemplates all things with disgust. Sadness, dread, despair, and melancholy overtake the sick soul. But what impressed James was the testimony of those who, like Leo Tolstoy and John Bunyan, had transcended these dark nights of the soul and, without denying the reality of the causes of their despair, had found a way to reaffirm their faith. James calls those who have undergone such anguish and come out the other side, confident of the goodness of existence and the meaningfulness of life, "the twice-born."28
So, under the guidance of James, it is possible to conceive of two subcat-egories for faith: the once-born and the twice-born. Add to these the three subcategories of broken faith and we have a useful template for sorting out different overarching visions of the world that are now playing in popular culture. The scripts of many songs, novels, movies, advertisements, television shows and music videos - at least those that purport to comment on what matters in life - enact these variations on the theme of faith.
To return to Niebuhr for a moment, it is worth noting that he views each of the three manifestations of broken faith (defiance, fear, and escape) as appearances of the Transcendent in our lives.29 In fact, these forms of broken faith parallel the very obstacles to faith that James elaborates as necessary way stations en route to the sobered faith of the second birth. Niebuhr insists that each one is a response to a preceding trust that has been disturbed. Distrust and disbelief presuppose a previously established trust and belief. A primordial faith in the Power that has thrown us into existence is affirmed in the very disappointment that expresses itself through defiance, fear, and escape. Each kind of brokenness contains a testimony, in other words, to a Reality that is being defied, feared, and escaped. Let us consider each of these subcategories of faith as it is realized in scripts that can be found in popular culture.
Was this article helpful?