Religion, Sci-Fi and the Age of Disposable Human Bodies

By Ronald Brown

As I stood by one of the burning gats on the bank of the sacred Ganges River, I couldn’t help but contemplate the Hindu approach to death.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims view the death of the body as the end of our earthly existence. The individual then goes on to either heaven or hell if he or she is religious, or we simply cease to exist if we do not subscribe to one or the other of the major world religions. For Hindus, on the other hand, one body is disposed of and the person takes on another to continue his or her spiritual voyage.

As I watched one worn-out garment after another being consumed by flames, I couldn’t help but think of challenges disposable human bodies will pose for Christians in the future.

Unfortunately, the only serious discussion I found of this topic was not by religious thinkers but rather in serious Sci-Fi literature such as Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 novel, Childhood’s End. Transcendent evolution is also a theme in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a film co-written by Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick.  I contend religious leaders must begin to confront this urgent question.

The time has come for humans to ponder their post-body existence and the freedom this will result in.

For too long religions have not only venerated the human body but idolized it. At the dawn of the 21st century, humans are slowly ending their millennia-long romance with physical bodies and are surging into the brave new bodiless world. The profound influence material bodies have exerted on human religions is coming to an end. Before the age of embodied humans is relegated to the trashcan of human history, I chronicle in this article the impact of material bodies on religions.

The body in world religions

Judaism, Christianity and Islam place great emphasis on the human body.

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Oscar-Winning Films that Address Racism

By Kathy Winings

Three very different films released in 2018 address racism from unique perspectives. Two are based on real events and the third is an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel. Each film also won at least one Oscar at February’s Academy Awards.

Set in the early 1970s, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a quintessential Baldwin story about poverty, race, family, and love. The film is directed by Barry Jenkins, director of the 2017 Best Picture Oscar winner, “Moonlight.” Regina King received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her strong portrayal of the mother of the story’s young heroine, Tish.

Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James) are a young black couple living in Harlem who fall in love and find themselves expecting their first baby. But Baldwin’s complex story doesn’t end there. At a time when a young couple awaiting their first child should be excited and anxiously preparing for the birth, the realities of one’s identity mars that anticipation.

As fate would have it, Fonny is wrongly arrested for the alleged rape of a young Puerto Rican woman. A white policeman known for his racist attitudes makes the arrest. While Fonny is lingering in jail awaiting trial, Tish, her mother and sister try to fight for Fonny’s freedom but it is an uphill battle. For one, the Puerto Rican woman who was brutally raped is not to be found. Second, the one witness, a young African American who can verify that Fonny was nowhere near where the scene of the rape, is also arrested on questionable charges. As a result, Fonny remains in prison while hoping for a quick resolution of his case — a fairly standard experience for black men in Harlem of that time.

Baldwin was gifted in portraying the challenges of the American working class black family struggling to survive, economically and emotionally, recognizing how tenuous life could be when you were black and fighting a system bent on ensuring you did not succeed. It is clear that fighting racism and racist attitudes is an uphill battle for Tish and Fonny. Young black men knew if they were arrested for crimes they did not commit, they could linger in prison for years with some even dying there at worst or learning destructive lifestyles at best. The longer Fonny is incarcerated, the more he begins to accept the inevitable. Tish, though, is relentless.

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“Welcome to Marwen”: The Remaking of a Life

By Kathy Winings

In April 2000, just across the Hudson River from UTS’s Barrytown campus, a terrible assault took place outside a bar in Kingston, New York, an historic city that served as New York’s first capital.

Mark Hogancamp, an artist and showroom designer, was beaten almost to death by five young men using just their fists and feet. While drinking, Hogancamp had let slip that in the privacy of his own home, he was a cross-dresser. Taking exception to that, the thugs waited outside the bar and attacked him.

Suffering extensive brain damage, Hogancamp spent over 40 days in the hospital, including nine in a coma, healing and relearning how to walk, talk, eat, and trying to live a normal life.

Fortunately for him, Hogancamp awoke with no memory of the attack — but he also lost memory of his past life. It meant he had to find a way to deal with his constant anger and depression — all of which resulted from his traumatic brain injury. Thus was born the tiny village of Marwencol.

Built out of plywood scraps and other materials he found lying around, Hogancamp created an imaginary Belgian village and populated it with Barbie dolls and World War II action figures. Daily life was built around World War II narratives that he created, featuring the women as a band of heroes led by one American solider — Captain Hogie — going head to head with five Nazi soldiers in these different scenarios.

Marwencol became Hogancamp’s therapy on a daily basis. It also became a way for him to find a new career. As he played out his stories through posing the dolls in Marwencol, Hogancamp began to photograph them, ultimately coming to the public’s attention and establishing his career through gallery exhibitions that showcased his unique photographs.

This is the background story for director Robert Zemeckis’ new film, “Welcome to Marwen,” starring Steve Carell as Hogancamp and Leslie Mann as his neighbor, Nicol, who becomes his good friend as well as the inspiration for one of his female soldiers in Marwencol.

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Unificationist Reflections on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

By Laurent Ladouce

Bohemian Rhapsody” — the all-time highest-grossing music biographical film in just two months since release, a huge success in Korea, and a 2019 Oscar nominee for Best Picture — has prompted me as a Unificationist to reflect on the life of singer-songwriter Freddie Mercury (1946-91).

Directed by Bryan Singer, the movie focuses on a critical period of Mercury’s life, 1970-85 (portrayed on screen by Rami Malek). We watch movies with various glasses, and among Unificationists, each of us may see “Bohemian Rhapsody” very differently.

Rather than comment in the light of the Principle, I focus in this review on a few themes from the biopic to shed light on several aspects of our teaching.

The film, for example, depicts an artist imitating the three blessings, then trying to separate from his antichrist demons. In a sense, “Bohemian Rhapsody” features Adam, Eve and the Archangel in a garden. Their behavior is quite reminiscent of our teaching on the Fall, but reveals other dimensions of sexual disorder than the typical kind of adultery. The movie helps us understand what kingship and a coronation entail.

This film also causes us to reflect on notions such as symbol, image and substance. It helps us understand the path to becoming a false idol, to becoming an iconic figure, and leaves the door open to the path of substantializing true love.

Creation, fall and redemption of an idol

“Bohemian Rhapsody” depicts the growth and ascension of one of the greatest voices in rock music (the Rock God, according to Britain’s OnePoll), and how the stage persona of Freddie Mercury was created gradually, mostly by himself, so that he became idolized by millions. In this ascent, Mercury was driven by the power of an absolute narcissism, which brought him to the summit.

We then see his spiritual and physical fall, and descent into hell. The narcissistic idol is transformed into a puppet driven into hell by sexual passion, until a ridiculous man is disguised as a king enjoying evil joy in the kingdom of loneliness.

The film ends with the consequences of his physical fall and early steps toward what can be seen as a form of human redemption. The person who has suffered so much because of sin begins the suffering course of redeeming his mistakes.

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“Black Panther”: Theological and Moral Issues Add Impact to Film

By Kathy Winings

It’s official: “Black Panther” is now the third highest-grossing film ever in America, surpassing 1997’s “Titanic,” though it was released theatrically only in mid-February.

Even before the film opened, it enjoyed one of the most aggressive promotional campaigns in recent history and maintained first place in ticket sales for many weeks.

So when I decided to see the movie, I wasn’t sure what to expect – would it live up to the hype or would it be just another Marvel escapist movie? I was so surprised when I found the film was everything it was promised to be and more.

“Black Panther” offers more than the usual Marvel Cinematic Universe fare. It has considerable substance that speaks to our modern world. The film picks up from “Captain America: Civil War” with the return of King T’Challa, known also as the Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman), to his home country of Wakanda for his coronation as its new leader.

From this point forward, though, we begin to see what distinguishes this film from other superhero films. On one level, it offers an interesting balance of traditionalism and modernity.

We are introduced to a point of traditionalism with the coronation process that includes the right to challenge the future king in mortal combat. The example of modernity, on the other hand, is seen in the fact that Wakanda’s technological advancements are far beyond that of the rest of the world thanks to its secret natural resource – a special mineral called vibranium.

The film is built around three challenges facing the new king. Two of the challenges involve threats to T’Challa’s reign. One of these threats is in the form of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a black market arms dealer, smuggler and general nemesis to the King and to Wakanda; your classic bad guy/good guy and good and evil script.

The second challenge comes from an American-born ex-military man, Erik Stevens, a.k.a. “Killmonger,” revealed to be T’Challa’s cousin. An angry young man who was orphaned at a young age and who experienced a race-torn world, Erik (Michael B. Jordan) becomes a formidable opponent to T’Challa. More profoundly, this challenge raises theological and moral questions around the concepts of resentment and anger vs. revenge and forgiveness.

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“The Circle” and a World of Total Transparency

By Kathy Winings

Is it possible to go too far with our digital technologies? Is total transparency a good thing? If the majority of people in the world were digitally connected and our lives were out in the open, could we have a better, safer world? Are people ready to live in a totally transparent, digital world?

The new film, “The Circle,” attempts to answer these questions. “The Circle” focuses on a young woman, Mae Holland (Emma Watson), who lands an entry-level job in customer service at the Circle, a massive, powerful tech conglomerate, through a good friend who works in the company. Imagine Google, Facebook and Amazon all rolled into one company. That’s the Circle.

Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), CEO and co-founder of the Circle, is an energetic and charismatic leader who appeals to the idealism of his employees — all of whom seem to be under the age of 35. With the personality of a Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg, Bailey and his COO and co-founder, Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), emphasize transparency and accountability with each new digital breakthrough they unveil. Much like the practice in today’s big tech firms, there is a regular company-wide gathering in which the new innovative breakthrough of the day is showcased and employees can cheer and marvel as their company pushes the boundaries of technology without questioning it.

Mae is drawn deeper and deeper into the Circle. Bailey is good at coming up with catchy names and phrases and selling the new tech innovations through personal stories that touch the emotions and ignite the idealism of his employees – most especially Mae. In her first week on the job, she is introduced to a webcam the size of a marble that is heralded as a means to a totally transparent world where no one can get away with discrimination, human rights abuses or crime, dubbed “SeeChange.” Bailey’s catchphrase is, “Knowing is good but knowing everything is better.”

Shortly after the launch of SeeChange, a U.S. senator trying to open an investigation against Bailey is forced out of office due to seemingly questionable actions unearthed by Circle technology operating under the guise of transparency.  Mae and her colleagues see this as a reason to celebrate their company’s role in making a change for the better.

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An Encounter with the Holy Trinity: “The Shack”

by Kathy Winings

It is not often a reflective and innovative film that is deeply theological comes to the big screen – and is worth our time and attention. But “The Shack” fits this bill nicely. Not unlike “Heaven is for Real,” “The Shack” reminds us we are never alone, that God is always there with us. And what “Heaven is for Real” did for reimagining the spiritual world, “The Shack” does for the holy trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The movie tells the heart-wrenching story of Mack Phillips (played by Sam Worthington), a family man who must endure the disappearance and presumed death of his youngest daughter and make sense of a loving God.

The film begins with a brief but critical glimpse of Mack as a young boy who witnesses his abusive yet church-going father beat his mother at the slightest provocation. After Mack confesses to the family pastor about the beatings, his father beats him again, pushing the young boy to take drastic action, which turns into a secret that haunts him throughout his adult life. Mack’s wife, Nan (Radha Mitchell), knows he has a secret eating at him but she cannot convince him to talk about it. Nor can his neighbor, Willie (Tim McGraw), a faithful and God-loving man.

As a loving husband and father, it is clear Mack cannot seem to come to terms with a God who is there for us, loves us and to whom we can turn. After all, why did God allow his father to treat his wife and son so terribly? Would an omnipresent loving God really do that? Because he cannot find answers to his questions about God, he forms an uneasy truce with God. At the same time, he feels his wife’s faith is strong enough for both of them for the time being.  What is interesting is his wife’s nickname for God. She calls him “Papa,” with her children following suit.

A catalyzing event occurs one summer when Mack takes his three children camping to their favorite lake while his wife must stay behind. During this fateful trip, his youngest daughter, Missy, suddenly disappears while Mack is focused on saving his other daughter and son who become trapped under their canoe while boating. One moment she is there coloring her pictures and the next minute, she is gone; a parent’s nightmare.

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“Fences” and “Hidden Figures”: Finding Purpose in Unexpected Places

By Kathy Winings

kathy_winings_3_profileTwo recent films, each nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, help white America understand the challenges and struggles of black America from different perspectives. On the one hand, “Fences” is a story that shines a light on the challenges and issues faced by black families in the 1950s. On the other hand, in “Hidden Figures,” we have Hollywood telling the amazing story of three immensely talented black women who made invaluable contributions to NASA and the American space program.

August Wilson has been called one of the finest American playwrights of the 20th century. His plays have highlighted and brought to life African Americans in everyday roles dealing with everyday issues including love, struggle, duty, and betrayal. The impetus behind his plays was so white Americans could begin to see African Americans in a different light; see them dealing with the same issues that define life for most whites so that whites just might treat African Americans differently. “Fences” was one of his best-known plays for which he received both a Pulitzer and a Tony award.  In 2016, “Fences” came to the big screen directed by Denzel Washington.

“Fences” is the story of Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh.  Portrayed passionately by Denzel Washington, Maxson is a bitter man whose dream of becoming a professional baseball player died early on because he was too old by the time Major League  Baseball began admitting black players. As a result, after spending time in prison, he now struggles with his own ambitions to find success in his job and as a man needing to feel vibrant and loved. Yet, he looks for this, as the proverbial song says, “in all the wrong places.”

His main support is his long-suffering wife, Rose, played brilliantly by Viola Davis, who won the 2010 Tony for best actress in the role and the 2017 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the same role (her Oscar acceptance speech was deeply moving).

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“Jackie”: The Legacy of Camelot

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By Kathy Winings

kathy_winings_3_profileThose of us of a certain age will never forget what we were doing on that fateful day — November 22, 1963 — when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald.

I certainly remember where I was on that rainy day. I was returning to my fifth grade classroom with my classmates after having attended our weekly religious education class. For the next week, my parents and I followed the television coverage chronicling the events leading up to President Kennedy’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

The assassination of JFK will remain one of those iconic moments in American history. All of these memories came back to me while watching “Jackie,” a new film starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy and directed by Pablo Larrain.

“Jackie” allows us to get a glimpse of what Jacqueline Kennedy may have been like those first few days after her husband’s death. She tells her story through the lens of journalist Theodore H. White’s interview in Life magazine conducted with the former First Lady shortly after she moved out of the White House.

White had been contacted by Mrs. Kennedy to write her story because of what she believed were unflattering and hurtful news stories written about her immediately after the assassination. The guarded and intensely private woman that the American public saw is juxtaposed with a picture of a very real, very human woman who had just experienced a brutal and violent end to her larger-than-life husband.

Throughout the film, Jackie struggles with finding meaning in what she witnessed while also needing to redefine not only her husband’s legacy but also who she is now that she is no longer First Lady. As she goes about arranging her husband’s funeral while also going through their living quarters at the White House in preparation for moving out, Portman shows a woman on an emotional roller coaster, unable to find her emotional rudder — chain smoking and drinking as a way to cope late at night when no one can see.

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