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It demonstrates that what we think of as modern is in fact imbued with Christianity.


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Christianity, Blood fiercely argues, must be reconsidered beyond the boundaries of religion alone. Blood : A Critique of Christianity. Gil Anidjar. Part One The Vampire State.

Rethinking public religion: Word, image, sound

Part Two Hematologies. From hugely popular, Academy Award—winning movies such as Misery and Contact to heavily marketed flops like Escape from LA , contemporary cult classics like Pulp Fiction and From Dusk Till Dawn , and standard box-office hits such as Seven , modern American cinema has made the correspondence of Christianity and violence a distinct and recurring theme. But in most of the films where believers employ brute force, the violence is villainous—religion is the evil that must be overcome before the movie can end.

But, as my students can now explain however grudgingly , Shawshank is also sentimental and simplistic.

Religion Dictionary

Shawshank being a prison movie, the main bad guy is the warden—an authoritarian, malicious, and finally murderous bully named Samuel Norton. Warden Norton is also a fundamentalist Christian, a fact the movie indicates as soon as he steps onto the screen. Put your trust in the Lord.

Your ass belongs to me. Let me pause here to say that I write about this issue advisedly. Indeed, calling out Hollywood for its offenses against religion—especially Christianity—is itself a tried-and-true maneuver in the culture war. For much of my lifetime, entire nonprofit organizations have existed largely to complain about Hollywood. America , and more are sure to come. But in most public discourse, that basic fact receives far less notice than the tired rhetoric of persecution coming from the religious right.

Sometimes, the movies themselves speak back—usually in order to double down.

Index of Cults and Religions

Lee Thompson and starring Robert Mitchum as a paroled convict who seeks to torture and kill the defense attorney who failed to get him freed fourteen years back. The villain in the second film is an analogue of the villain of public square Christianity. The movies also speak back by habitually representing a particular kind of Christianity—culture-war Christianity appears with regularity in Hollywood film, while other expressions of the faith are rarely to be found.

Indeed, in the simplistic narrative worlds of many mainstream movies, no religion exists at all apart from villainous religion—religion is the problem that must be overcome so that order can be restored, heroes can win, and credits can roll. The only religious voice in The Shawshank Redemption is that of the corrupt prison warden, who is also the main force behind the unjust incarceration of Andy Dufresne Robbins.

Everything else—every character, every space—in Shawshank seems to exist in an entirely secular context. When secularity is secured, peace is restored. Cavanaugh argues that this notion is a founding myth of the modern nation state—polities are successful insofar as they are able to cleanse themselves of the corrosive effects of religion.

In more recent times, abortion clinic bombings and the crimes of Islamist organizations are seen as essentially religious acts. Even acts of terrorism such as the Oklahoma City bombing of and the Norway shooting massacre of are frequently understood as religious in nature, though the perpetrators of those crimes Timothy McVeigh and Anders Behring Breivik, respectively bore only the slightest evidence of fidelity to any kind of religious creed or community.

Religious violence has loomed ever larger in our lifetimes, it seems, and prominent works of recent scholarship by the likes of Mark Juergensmeyer Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence and Charles Kimball When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs have sought to explain why religious belief is uniquely suited to promoting aggressive, transgressive behavior against innocent victims.

He does not mean that religious groups and people do not really kill—they do, of course, and many do so in the name of their god. The Thirty Years War may have pitted Protestants against Catholics initially, but it grew into a battle between Bourbons and Habsburgs—one Catholic dynasty warring against another. We even look for religious motivations to violence where there are none to be found. Again, Timothy McVeigh had virtually no contact with traditional Christianity, and Anders Behring Breivik self-consciously styled himself as a cultural Christian only to pit himself against Islamic immigrants in Europe he wrote that he does not accept Christian doctrine , yet the acts of both men have been studied as essentially Christian—the myth of religious violence gives us a way to understand these mysterious events.

In the real world as in the movies, religion must be tamed or removed altogether in order to rid the world of its violent tendencies. In our day, this redemptive violence is usually secular in nature. Cavanaugh argues that while we want to bracket off religion from public life because it is irrational and potentially violent, we are fine with employing secular violence without worrying overly much about the consequences.

One hundred thousand dead Iraqi civilians do not loom large in the imaginations of most Americans, because the violence performed on Iraqi soil since has been seen as redemptive—has been seen, in fact, as useful in rooting out an irrational Islam in order to replace it with a secular nation state. In the same way though of course with much less serious consequences , the movies employ the myth of redemptive violence in order to bring stories to resolution.

In many mainstream films, violence is the only way out, the only way for the story to come to a satisfying conclusion. When conflicts arose between two groups the only resolution to the strife was the identification of a scapegoat to blame for the problem, followed by the sacrifice of that scapegoat. All archaic religions, says Girard, are rooted in the ritualization of such a sacrifice—an original lynching that solves some crisis and later becomes divinized and performed over and over again. I just summarized the plot of The Cabin in the Woods, not to mention the framework for a great number of popular stories.

So in Hollywood, we have films that employ the myth of religious violence—postulating that religion is somehow particularly prone to do harm—but that also employ the myth of redemptive violence—believing that the only way to overcome villainous religion is by extinguishing it through more rational acts of violence. Most of the films that involve Christian killers behave in just this way—they employ the stereotype of dangerous religion in order to create a viable villain, then follow the pattern of removing religion in order to deliver a happy ending.

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In other words, they reflect and reify the basic terms of our ongoing culture war, and ensure a typical response from their public square combatants. But not all films featuring Christian killers paint by these numbers. Thankfully, some filmmakers take seriously the tragic irony of the real-world fact that so many Christian individuals and groups have employed violence—that is, they use film to creatively investigate how violence can arise in a religion whose founder rejected violence.

Some films stop the Christian killer tradition dead in its tracks, questioning whether religion qua religion is really all that violent at bottom, and whether violence must beget more violence.

Indeed, the high artistic points of this representational tradition interrogate this whole system and find that Christianity is capable of dealing with its own villains and of critiquing its own violence. They see Christian hypocrisy and corruption not as an occasion for culture-war skirmishes, but as a problem to be addressed artistically and imaginatively. This is especially true of the film The Night of the Hunter, which is perhaps the foundational film in the cinema of Christian villains. I first viewed Hunter a few years ago after coming across myriad references to it while reading about Christian violence in the movies.

In most of the literature on this topic, Hunter is regarded as a kind of urtext, an original critique of corrupt Christianity that set the standard for cinematic approaches to Christian killing. And so it is at one level. Based on a Gothic novel by Davis Grubb that reads like a William Faulkner fairy tale, Hunter focuses on a fraudulent revivalist preacher. For much of the film, only the audience can see his fraudulence—every other character in the story is drawn to his charismatic qualities.

Another widow? How many has it been?