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(-- from Sh'ma 11/225, January 8, 1982)
Theophany in the Movie Theater
By David Resnik
"and after the fire, a still small voice... " I Kings 19:12What a delicious coincidence that the successful debut of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" coincided with the annual repertory engagement of the Book of Numbers as the weekly Torah portion in the synagogue. There are obvious similarities between the two -- for instance, the Nazis marching the ark of the covenant through a wadi in a military procession (complete with tribal banners) which cannot help but evoke the desert march of the Israelites with that same ark. More striking is the fact that the movie and Numbers share a common set of intriguing ambivalence toward the divine. These deeper issues merit reflection, especially if we can compare the portrayal of the human condition in a diverse group of recent films with that in Numbers. (Since so much of the action of "Raiders" takes place in the desert, it is more fitting to call the Book of Numbers by its common Hebrew name, Bamidbar, "in the desert.")
Let me say at the outset that "Raiders" is an enjoyable picture to be seen by all. The fact that the Moral Majority would commend both the picture's theology and its PG rating should not hinder members of minorities from seeing the film. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, here is a brief synopsis. Indiana Jones, an idealistic young American archaeologist, is dispatched by the Department of the Army to the Egyptian desert to retrieve the lost ark of the covenant about to be unearthed by the Nazis just prior to World War II. Though the Army is unsure of the strategic value of the ark, it is not the kind of potentially powerful resource that should be allowed to fall into enemy hands. After a long series of thrilling chases, nearmisses, near-hits, and so on, the hero (with some help from his quasi-liberated heroine) rescues the ark from the Sons of Darkness. (Whether the Department of the Army are the Sons of Light is a point on which the film is largely silent but skeptical.)
A Wealth of Themes
The film is stuffed with lots of themes, too many to be more than briefly mentioned here. Among them: how easily corrupted is the religion of secular scientific humanism. The archaeologists in the film openly profess the meaninglessness of the religions of the cultures they study though somehow they believe that studying those cultures has transcendent value. Social scientists often assume that their fervent research efforts must be the functional equivalent of religious belief. (Thus the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association bids its users to "follow the style religiously: it is a good way to catch omissions and oversights. ") It is no surprise, therefore, when these selfless searchers for truth are coopted for the crassest of military objectives. Then there is the motif of barehanded Yankee courage overcoming the mechanized might of the enemy. (Is there a veiled reference here to the Israelite triumph over the Egyptian army at the time of the Exodus?)
However interesting these motifs may be, of special interest is the philosophical flip-flop of our young hero at witnessing the opening of the ark. Inexplicably he comes to believe that there is a fearful power in the ark and that anyone who experiences it directly will die (a notion lifted from Manoach in Judges 13:22 "We shall surely die because we have seen God.") He survives by keeping his eyes tightly closed while all those who stare into the open ark meet a dazzling death with special effects worthy of Ezekiel himself. There is no clearer precedent for their death than Judges 6:19: "The Lord struck at the men of Beth Shemesh because they looked into the Ark of the Lord."
That the filmmaker accepts the objective power of the ark and of God is verified by contrast with the thrilling opening sequence of the film where Jones successfully lifts a golden idol from a South American pagan temple. There are dangers galore in the temple but they are security devices engineered by native devotees to protect the idol. There is no reason to think that the idol can take care of itself. Not so the ark of the Lord. Here there is power to spare, from the small-scale (obliterating a nearby Nazi insignia) to the grand laying low of the Nazis reminiscent of the ark's destroying the Philistines who have taken it captive (Judges 5-6).
Experience Does Not Entail Belief
But what then? Does this plain-as-day miracle make a believer of the young archaeologist? The movie gives us no reason to believe so. To be sure, he wants to study the ark but there is no hint that the show of divine power demands an ongoing commitment. It is precisely this lack of faith that typified the Israelites in the desert. Despite repeated miraculous intercessions on their behalf, each subsequent hardship sent them carping at Moses for ever having taken them out of Egypt. Their gluttonous craving for meat followed by the miracle of the quail (Numbers 11; the sudden appearance of the presence of the Lord which keeps the people from pelting Moses and Aaron with stones (Numbers 14); the earth's swallowing up Korach and his rebellious band (Numbers 16); the flowering of Aaron's staff as a sign of divine favor (Numbers 17)...the list of miracles seems as long as the forty-year trek itself.
The fatal flaw of the generation of the desert was not some slave mentality, but deep-seated fickleness and faithlessness, which kept them from making an ongoing commitment in the absence of supernatural events. Moreover, the repeated attacks on Moses show the Israelites' seemingly congenital blindness to the fact that power is God's, not Moses'.
What is striking in recent films is how new found competence in special effects allows filmmakers to create spectacular events which command the assent of the protagonists (and their audiences), but only as long as the special effects last. Like any other one night stand, the next morning brings a more sober view of promises made in the heat of the night. Thus, in "The Exorcist, " a life of religious commitment would seem to be the least that the mother and her purged daughter should take upon themselves for being freed from Satan by the Church. But no such commitment is forthcoming. The film even robs us of the reaction of a young priest whose intellect had pulled him away from faith. He too witnessed the reality of Satan and the saving power of the Church. Yet his premature death spares the filmmaker the difficulty of portraying the nature of a religious commitment that is aware both of intellectuality and of religious reality.
"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" presented similar dilemmas without resolution. The film had a young man making incomprehensible (to himself and to his family) attempts to establish communication with higher forms of life. The ultimate revelation takes place on a mountaintop in a scene reminiscent of the Sinaitic theophany. (Somehow many filmmakers have grasped the Biblical image of God's riding a storm cloud for it is time lapse shots of clouds which often herald the arrival of the divine or supernatural being. Thus, Psalms 18:10-12:
"He bent the sky and came down, thick cloud beneath his feet. Mounted on a cherub, He flew, gliding on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his screen; dark thunderheads, dense clouds of the sky, were His pavilion around about Him."But the film ends with the hero disappearing into a spaceship and once again we are deprived of a look at what sense witnesses to the great event make of it, what lasting impact (if any) it has on their lives, and how they manage to communicate these extraordinary events to those who were not present.
Similarity to Biblical Theme
So the fickleness of the human spirit portrayed in these contemporary films has a distinguished lineage stretching back to the book of Bamidbar. But in Bamidbar the failings of the people are a sin, and the "generation of the desert" became a synonym in the Jewish tradition for recalcitrance. (There is ambivalence here, too, cf. Jeremiah 31:2-3). As a counterpoint to the people's constancy, Moses' devotion to God and to His people is projected as the ideal. Indeed, Moses' own somewhat obscure lapse of faith at the rock (Numbers 20:2-13) leads to his tragic death: "But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, `Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm my sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.'
Contemporary cinematic art falls short by allowing human ingratitude and fickleness to pass without criticism. The failure is even greater in those films (like "The Exorcist" and "Raiders") which accept the reality of the divine presence but shrink from portraying a serious commitment to it. The Israelites in the desert were unable to make such a commitment and they paid with their lives. Today's filmmakers (or, more correctly, the culture they serve) seem unwilling to address the difficult question of religious commitment and they too, in some sense, are paying with their lives. Our filmmakers have mastered the art of manufacturing fireworks; they do not yet seem capable of helping us to hear the still small voice.
Divine Presence Absent in Our Time
In this sense, "Raiders" is a cut above the others, for its closing scene rather eloquently symbolizes how the source of religious belief becomes lost in the morass of modern life. So too does traditional Jewish theology characterize our age as one of hester panim, the concealment of the divine presence. Still, the failure of a movie about the ark to portray at least one religious soul is almost overwhelming. After all, in Biblical theology the precise function of the ark was to provide a contact point on which the divine presence could localize for human benefit. The cherubim (nicely portrayed in "Raiders") are the footstool of God: "the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of Hosts enthroned on the Cherubim" (I Samuel 4:4). If "Raiders" couldn't give us a clear picture of salvation, from where will our help come? I guess we'll have to wait for "The Chosen."
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