Saturday, January 22, 2011

Blasphemies and Hosannas: A Hymn for the Arts

Ricky Gervais
The funny if rather nasty jokes about Hollywood royalty that comedian Ricky Gervais unleashed while hosting the Golden Globes on January 16 seemed to shock the assembled crowd in designer gowns and tuxedos. I’m betting most viewers, perhaps in their PJs, were far more upset by those ten little words he used in his final quip of the night: “I’d like to thank God...for making me an atheist.”

With that, the sarcastic Brit certainly was skewering all the televised award shows that feature winners, often with an arm raised toward the sky, expressing their appreciation for divine intervention. The Almighty, if there is one, has nothing better to do than make sure some actor or musician or dancer-with-the-stars gets the coveted prize. Although Gervais also was tapping into a sort of bait-and-switch brand of humor, God-fearing people – of which there are many millions in the United States – possibly hoped he would be struck by lightning before even leaving the stage. Presenter Robert Downey Jr., apparently stunned by an introduction that unkindly referred to his rehab for drug addiction a decade ago, mentioned the evening’s “mean-spirited” tone; the devout multitudes watching at home likely felt more concerned about offending the Holy Spirit.

Various polls have indicated that 76 percent of Americans consider themselves believers, one of the highest numbers among developed nations. (Iconoclastic Vermont, where I live, ranks 48th in terms of populations in the 50 states that regularly attend a house of worship.) For heaven’s sake, “In God We Trust” is even printed on our currency. Religion drives our politics, with most government officials ending their big speeches by asking to the Supreme Being to bless the country. The military has become increasingly prone to evangelical proselytizing, despite a mandate to remain non-denominational: Recently, the Army required 800,000 soldiers to take a “Spiritual Fitness” test. A rabid right-wing Christian guest speaker, former Marine Lieutenant Clebe McClary, will address the Air Force Academy in early February.

Separation of church and state? Only for secular suckers these days.

In the civilian world, John Lennon’s “Imagine” currently can be heard on a TV commercial for Cisco Systems, a high-tech communications corporation. The ad leaves out the line “Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion, too.” Heaven forbid we remember the beloved late Beatle as an atheist! The word atheism dates back to ancient Greece, though people calling themselves atheists didn’t really emerge until about the 18th century. Along with pagans, such freethinkers were sometimes burned at the stake over the course of human history. (Ricky Gervais’ fate is yet to be determined.)

Ideas espoused by Age of Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (the inspiration for Terry O’Quinn’s shape-shifting character on Lost) influenced many of America’s Founding Fathers (Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton) a century later, in the late 1700s. They were Deists, recognizing God but rejecting prophecies, miracles and all organized religion. Nonetheless, these pioneers are frequently cited by modern-day conservatives as exemplars of righteousness.

Religulous director Larry Charles and Bill Maher
Comic and serious skeptic Bill Maher, who keeps the conversations lively on HBO’s Real Time, always wonders aloud how any lucid person could fathom a talking snake. He ridicules such Garden of Eden lore, along with other “fairytales and myths,” in Religulous. This 2008 documentary, directed by Larry Charles of Borat fame, travels to Jerusalem, the Vatican and the Holy Land Experience Theme Park in Florida to interview pious folks. The outspoken Maher is one of the few celebrities who dare to publicly challenge accepted – or, as theologians might contend, received – wisdom. I’m guessing he’ll have something positive to say about Gervais before too long.

In a nation so overtaken by blind faith, some tend to freak out when faced with rational doubters. The same is true for fundamentalists of any stripe. The New Testament is as off-limits to criticism as the Koran. Does the notion of Armageddon sound that much saner than jihad? Will those who are “saved” really ascend in the Rapture? Will martyrs be met by 72 virgins in Paradise? Granted, the majority of religions are not necessarily doomsday cults. But where do they draw the line between how they interpret their respective bibles and common sense?

 Kings of Leon
As a Jewish-mystic-anarchist-Taoist-agnostic who eventually realized magical thinking can be a dangerous delusion, I ask that question every time my car radio blasts “Radioactive,” a powerful single by Kings of Leon that’s getting a lot of attention. This Nashville-based band is comprised of three brothers and their cousin, all with the surname of Followill: Vocalist Caleb, 29, on rhythm guitar; Jared, 25, bass; Nathan, 21, drums; and Matthew, 26, lead guitar. The home-schooled siblings were the spawn of an itinerant Pentecostal preacher who constantly moved them all through the South in order to sermonize at revival meetings and other venues for zealotry. Until he quit the church and divorced his wife in 1997, that is.

As emerging Led Zeppelin fans, the long-haired lads were then finally able to pursue their passion for what previously had been deemed a false idol – rock ‘n’ roll. In a subsequent interview, Nathan recalled that, after signing with RCA in 2001, “We locked ourselves in the basement with an ounce of marijuana and literally spent a month down there. My mom would bring us food..." The songs that resulted from this stoned self-exile are on the first album they released, 2003’s Holy Roller Novocaine.

Since then, the band has composed mostly typical dour odes to problematic relationships, life on the road and youthful alienation. For example, “Your beauty, it still brings me to my knees./ Don’t waste a tear on me, it’s my disease...” or “See, the time we shared, it was precious to me./ But all the while, I was dreaming of revelry ...” Periodically, fire and brimstone burn their way into the mix: “Ain’t gonna sell my soul to the devil./ Ain’t gonna get down on her level./ Ain’t gonna sell my soul to Lucifer./ Tell your girlfriend I ain’t got no use for her.”

Caleb Followill
With a sound that’s been dubbed “hillbilly new wave,” Kings of Leon is not one of those Christian rock ensembles offering double entendres that appear to be about personal love while actually praising the Lord. But “Radioactive,” from their fifth album (last year’s Come Around Sundown), does harken back to reverent familial roots. There’s a rush of sacrosanct symbolism when the charismatic Caleb, wearing a cross on a chain around his neck, belts out these lyrics with conviction:

“When the roll is called up yonder, I hope you see me there.
It's in the water, It's where you came from.
It's in the water, It's where you came from...
Your sons and daughters in all their glory, it's gonna shape 'em.
And when they clash and come together, and start a rising,
Just drink the water where you came from, where you came from...”

The H2O imagery must refer to baptism, no? But the words also evoke evolution, amid the national born-again battle to assert 5,000-year-old “intelligent design” as responsible for all life on the 4.5-million-year-old Earth. In the Charles Darwin scenario, every living thing originated as organic molecules stewing in the primordial ooze that once covered the planet. Where we came from. Whatever the case, “Radioactive” is up for two Grammys on February 13. The Followill boys may sing “just drink the water” but, if You Know Who is thanked for their success, I’ll have to believe they’re just drinking the Kool-Aid.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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