Zoroaster, a Persian prophet, was the first man in heaven. Someone had to do it. One giant leap for mankind. To be the first prophet is to be the first to ride a bike, it’s novel, gunmetal and efficient, but once the people realize it’s the way to get around, they catch like the Bubonic. Almost as dirty, too. Ahura Mazda, god before God, came to him in a vision. Why are they always spectral? On the banks of this river in Persia, the world began to undergo a series of beginnings. Why is a question of history and how is a question of belief, so we are left with something of an amalgam. When I think about religion, what should come to mind? Or is it beyond thought, a thing attributed to but impossible to grasp? To answer this and whatever else itches but can’t be scratched, I like to turn to a few things: the world, the people, and the people’s reaction to the world, art.
Religion is not blood, but perhaps in the story of Earth, it is more like the embalming fluid that petrifies and sustains a tragedy until they make up a curse for it and Howard Carter dies all over again. It takes more than ten God-given fingers to count the atrocities carried out in the name of faith. The Crusades, the Holocaust, 9/11, and so on and so forth. Of course, whatever is put on the banner is never the sole, or even primary reason at the heart of cruelty, but according to Georgia Code, Title 16, Chapter 2, Article 2, party to a crime receives full prosecution, and is therefore guilty by association.
Unfortunately for God, He is one of the best ways to find gold. Today, though, it is not the fortune of the Aztecs we seek. It is even worse. Currently over 400,000 refuges are fleeing the Rohingya state of Myanmar. There is no poetic or transcendental way to talk about genocide. What is happening is horrific. The Buddhist majority government is recklessly killing and driving out the Muslim Rohingyan minority. Villages are being burned and land mines are placed at the border of Bangladesh so those who managed to flee may never return. The government calls it a “clearance” of insurgents, a word so phonetically close to “cleansing” it almost seems like they want you to know. Those who fancy themselves free-thinking often turn away from religion at the first sight of an event like this. But really, imagine if loving soccer meant ruthlessly attacking all those who play field hockey. People might just stop playing sports all together. But, of course, these things are not equal, as even those who denounce God worship one, with the new cults of the secular revolving around the world and environment, their Bible not being made from trees but instead just being the trees. To put it in its broadest terms, of recorded history, religion has led to some utterly terrible things, and some argue that millions could have been saved without it. We will never know. We do know, however, that today the church is the greatest giver to the poor and destitute, and of the Earth-shattering discoveries of science, the first and boldest were in pursuit of God’s infinite glory.
I have misled you, reader. Using religion and faith like this so interchangeably, it is wrong. Discussing the power of religion in the world is discussing the way one of the greatest and most influential institutions has shaped it. But to individuals, faith is personal, and God is, for lack of a better term, theirs. Churches, synagogues and mosques are still sustained today in many of the more affluent parts of the world for tradition, yes, but also to collect those willing to believe themselves, and to believe for themselves. When I began to ask people about their faith and how they came into it, I was immensely surprised to hear few, if any, stories about how Mama had them confirmed where she was wed in some white Colonial Episcopalian affair. I was duly insolent and wholly prejudiced, and I guess I wanted to laugh at things I could never myself understand. The most pious people I know have all had tests of faith. More questions than answers remain. I could go on, as hearing people talk about how hard it can be to be a person is extremely powerful and the best practice of gratitude and empathy, maybe the only traits that make us better than animals. Perhaps faith is a fire, needing constant fuel and repair, but hot and powerful all the same, and religion is its potential to either engulf or warm, save or destroy. Atheists seem to sooner turn on religion than faith, unable to shake logical deficiencies and the unexplainable, seeking the values of such a body over its implications. It all comes together in some strange tie-dye that made Tom Cruise leave seminary school to join the Scientologists. That middle, that opalescent space for belief and fact alike, is the only true place for thought, to me, and to think in images is to think in art.
The Coen brothers, a pair of Jewish guys from Minnesota, made the closest thing art house, aesthetically inclined movie-making, has to complete bewilderment in A Serious Man. It centers around Larry Gopnik’s debacle of a life and his struggle to find answers in Judaism. A demure, slim aspect ratio film that will not stop asking, “What’s going on,” a purely reflexive and kind of dumb question attempting to rationalize life’s failures. Larry’s wife leaves him, her lover dies and he pays for the funeral, he ends up in a motel smoking pot with a former neighbor and trying the whole time to meet with a geriatric Rabbi at his temple. But really, he just wants to be a good man, and is completely lost in faith and sensibility. There is no closure to this film, just as there will be no conclusion to this. It is a mindless jumble of the consequences to action and inaction. I have nothing more to say on here, other than my favorite and the least popular aspect of faith: the quiet temptation to be human, and for that to be something ethereal. Sy Ableman, the man who steals Larry’s wife, put it curiously, “Now I can see it’s subtle, clever, but at the end of the day, is it convincing?” To him, it is a measure of how comfortable we are with being uncomfortable, with not knowing, but maybe Frank Ocean is right, it’s all a one-man cult putting cyanide in your Styrofoam cup.