Wednesday, September 30, 2015
"I don't believe it...I don't believe it...."
I was in my early teens and I had the growing suspicion the world was not going to end soon. I felt great dismay at this. I had been a Jehovah's Witness all my life but after my mother's row with the organization over a family member we weren't Witnesses anymore. And in one swoop I was no longer allowed to see the kids I'd grown up with. I was left with the kids at school I had been warned repeatedly were Worldly and were bad associations who would spoil my chances of getting to hug a koala bear in paradise Earth (if the illustrations in The Watchtower were anything to go by). I was lost, restless and looking for escape. My mother began her hunt for a new religious tradition that would eventually land her a perfectly nice new church. But I already knew organized religion and I were not going to be getting back together.
It's not that I didn't trust another denomination to produce a sense of the sacred and numinous in me. It's more that I had never, ever had that feeling in all my years of being a Witness. Jehovah's Witness' Kingdom Halls tend to be drab looking buildings. And it's an aesthetic that carries down to the faith itself. In an effort to purge itself of anything that remotely smacks of "Christendom" (read: Catholicism) Jehovah's Witnesses have carefully soaked and stripped religion of any sense of ritual, celebration, and marking of time. The pagan origins of most major Holidays, and birthday observances, meant those went right out the window. And Witnesses had no youth programs at all. Why would you bother with those things after all, when the world is ending next Tuesday? And that meant life was carefully marked by all the things you avoided doing, instead of the things you did.
I would always feel guilty about looking longingly at decorated Christmas trees. And I would feel even more guilty when we'd tour an old cathedral when traveling and I'd get a sense of reverence and of the centuries that had passed under its arches. In the immediate aftermath of leaving the Witness, or "The Truth" as insiders call it -big red flag right there-, I longed for a sense of purpose. And it came via a video store rental box.
I had picked it out because it had a spaceship on the cover, and I liked "Star Wars". And I watched, with an increasing sense of the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, as a a great mystery unfolded. Strange lights were flickering across the sky, a group of WWII planes lost decades ago are found in Mexico, an Indianapolis lineman can't stop creating images of a strange tower. And in the middle of the Gobi Desert a cargo ship is found, the people documenting it taking an understandable moment to stare in incredulity before recording it.
And I forgot it was "just" a movie. I entered into it, crouched behind the scrub grass, holding my breath as the ships came in for a landing at Devil's Tower. And John Williams' score, a perfect blend of the magisterial and the fragile sense of wonder wound around my cells and made them light up like the Mothership as it returned to the sky. I cried when Truffaut signed to the alien and it signed back and I felt so happy and alive as the credits rolled. I reveled in what I'd just seen. None of it was "real" and yet it's not that I didn't care, rather it's that I saw stories, good stories, great stories, have a deeper truth and reality of their own. And that it did not diminish movies' power to know they were the result of many different people pooling their skills to create worlds out of sound stages, costumes and matte paintings. Rather it spoke of the medium at its best, that when everything came together the viewer could be transported and changed. That secular art could be sacred too.
I had longed so much for a sense of the numinous and I'd found it at last. In the shivers that ran up my spine as the people looked into the cockpits of the empty planes and found their late forties calendars and photos in pristine condition. In the host of hands pointed up when asked where the music they were singing came from. I spent the next several weeks staring intently at the night sky, wondering if someone was looking back. I couldn't help but notice that instead of the Jehovah's Witness fixation on Armageddon here was a story with the message that great change was coming from the heavens, and it didn't want to destroy, it wanted to talk. It's worth remembering the original meaning of "apocalypse", which is the sense of a veil being lifted and a revelation of new knowledge. I had changed, I now knew things I didn't before.
And I knew I could never return to the gray twilight of going to meetings at the Kingdom Hall, going out in service, going to assemblies and patiently waiting for that apocalypse that was just, no really, we mean it this time, around the corner. It set me on the path of the addicting process of seeing a great film for the first time. That sensation of a hole being blown through my mind and my worldview. The sunlight streaming through the rubble and peeking through it to find in wonder that the world had gotten bigger, more mysterious. That feeling was there in everything from the phantasmagoria of "The Red Shoes" to the endless green jungles of "Aguirre: The Wrath of God". It's why I have no patience for the most tiresome type of non believer who feels it's very, very important to sneer that it's just a "myth" or "fairy tale". Forgetting that myths and fairy tales are the bedrock of humanity, the stories we tell to make sense of the chaos. Just because it's a trick doesn't mean it's not magic. Some people find that sense of awe in religion, I found it in art. Movies are my church and I watch them in faith, hope, and charity that the next one will change my life.