Wednesday, September 17, 2008

INHERITING THE WHIRLWIND


I have just screened the 1960 Stanley Kramer film, Inherit the Wind. I have viewed it many times. In the ways one usually makes a judgement about a movie, this is a very good film.

You will probably recall that this is the motion picture version of the stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee that depicts the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, held in Tennessee, circa 1925. Taking much dramatic license, the film portrays that real-life trial which pitted the brilliant lawyer Clarence Darrow, who was defending a young high schoolteacher accused of presenting evolution, against Williams Jennings Bryan, the fundamentalist icon who prosecuted him.

But the film, while good, it is also a sad, brutal affair. It vividly tackles such questions as freedom of thought, freedom of speech and the deplorable mindset of religious bigotry, but it also quite honestly (and surprisingly) presents the angst found in an a-moral modernity through the caustic cynicism of the H.L Mencken character (Gene Kelly’s portrayal of the cynic is astounding).

The point I would emphasize here is that this film is a metaphor for the now historic and blatant challenge to Western Christian fundamentalism not only by Hollywood, but by the ongoing Enlightenment worldview as well. That is, this film cannot be viewed without sensing the stiff challenge to the literalist mindset of post-reformation fundamentalism, for, the question is: In a pluralistic society should a literalistic religious worldview, which is both pre-scientific and pre-modern, have a place at the table?

Clearly, Kramer’s answer is no. He says no to the bigoted, no to the back-water and no to the provincial, and he goes out of his way to make this point by portraying the religious as unwashed, fat, gluttonous, bigoted, deceitful and cowardly.

Is this fair?

Of course, my initial impulse in response to the film is to defend the religious no matter what their stripe, but early on I found my heart was not in it. All too often this caricature is just too accurate. All too often this is the mentality of the religious fundamentalist. Having been stung by their ways, I know whereof I speak.

Digging deeper here, the religious fundamentalist, historically, have feared the blurring changes of modernity -- even as they embraced its benefits -- because those changes leave them surrounded on an ever-shrinking cultural island. They were afraid because they had no social tools for translating the strange world of the Bible (Karl Barth) into the new scientific world of intricate explanations, other than saying the same things more loudly and with more contempt.

Simply put, the fundamentalist instinctively feared what they knew would displace them from the safety-net of the familiar and the biblical.

What were they to do, for instance, with the scientific dating that argued convincingly for the old age of the earth? How was that to be squared with the Bible? Here, as elsewhere, the learning of modern science clearly and openly defied their understanding and interpretation of the Bible’s account of reality.

For them, much was at stake here. If they were to absorb this new scientific account of reality it first meant they had to somehow accommodate the new worldview, but this accommodation required a grave, radical shift away from the literal Bible, and this shift would ultimately drive them toward a new kind of world-navigation and world-building exercise that had never been asked of them. Accommodation did not fit their worldview. It rather felt rather like the glue that held the universe together no longer had the strength to be an adhesive. Accommodation was considered defeat.

So, this confrontation of worldviews left the fundamentalist with few options. They could stay where they were or face acute, cognitive displacement. In the end they decided to ride out this cognitive hurricane and hope for the best. What tipped the scales in this decision, I suggest, was that they finally sensed that what was at stake was actually much more than cognitive displacement. What they sensed is that a turn toward the Enlightenment was a turn toward a profound cognitive upheaval. Should anyone be surprised then, that the response has been one long temper-tantrum of both anger and hate?

The film, probably inadvertently, also hints at what is actually the key question facing American society today, and it’s not a religious question. Instead, it is the idea of class. Kramer looks down his nose at most of the hoi polloi as if he is cleaning their smelly muck off his shoes. This film comes to us from an elitists point of view, and it asks the same question the upper-class continually asks: How do we escape this rabble of rubes? How can we divest ourselves of their plaster-of-paris ashtrays, polyester leisure suits, beer swollen bellies, Craftsman tools, midwestern morals and slaughter-house religion?

This is important because what the religious so often describe as the clash of cultures (the culture wars), and what the politicians so often use as wedge issues, in reality is nothing more than the conflict of class – the haves against the have-nots, the sophisticated against the unsophisticated, the upper-class against the lower middle-class, the purveyors of knowledge against the owners of business. Remember this: it is from class and not so much from Holy Writ that we grow our view of race, gender and politics. (Peter Berger)

I also think it is important to realize that this foregoing description is instructive for an even more important reason. That is, it points directly to a further decisive moment that will eventually face not only the fundamentalist church, but the protestant church in general. Namely, the final death of Christendom. Simply put: How is the post-modern church going to survive in a culture where even its own members no longer comprehend the dialect or vocabulary of Christianity?

To put a fine point on this, Jesus was, after all, from Nazareth of Judea and not Nazareth of Pennsylvania. Or, to put an even finer point on this, since Jesus is unacquainted with our medicine, our technology, our social structures and our institutions – what then does he have to say to us, and how are we supposed to translate what he says into our day, so that we can hear him again? How do his pastoral sermons about farmers and lost sheep translate with density into the happenings of world-wide-web, instant cellular communication, microwaves, global positioning systems, holocausts, freeze-dried mystery meats, Viagra and holograms?

We are now very close to Bonhoeffer’s famous question: Who is Jesus for us today?

But, notice carefully, the question was not how to relate the pre-modern Bible to a post-modern culture outside the walls of the church. This was a difficult question, the one posed in the film, but it is not the most difficult question. No, the most compelling source of resistance to protestant dogma, especially in its fundamentalist form, occurs from within the walls of the church, and it is this new reality that will eventually cut to the very fiber of what it means to in fact be Christian.

In short: How are we going to relate this ancient Bible to the coming crop of post-modern church members, that is to say, our children?

Remember, in the film, it was the high school students who stood by their teacher, not because they necessarily believed in Darwin’s theory, but rather because they believed in their instructor. Likewise, the church’s post-modern young people will be standing by cultural minorities like gays for the same reason, and the church’s worldview be damned! In the post-christian world relationship trumps doctrine.

Put still another way, even though an entire generation of post-modern children are growing-up in the church, they are not growing with the church. The church’s stilted and awkward teachings on science, history, race, divorce, gender, the corporate elite, the environment and sexual orientation means nothing to these young members. They tolerate it while they are at home, but when they discard the nest, as they inevitably will, they will discard these teachings as well because they have been socialized into a radically different view of the world than that of their parents and that of older christendomed church members. So, the question is: Will the Bible mean anything to them, anything but a feeble, vapid memory?