Today I saw the latest P.T. Anderson film, “The Master.” One of the best directed and acted movies I’ve ever seen. But I’ll admit that I love almost everything he does (yes, even Punch-Drunk Love). The Master is a film inspired by the legacy of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the scientology movement. Here “inspired” means that the Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character is a leader of a new religious movement, but his character is not named “L. Ron Hubbard”. I am told, however, that there are many parallels and that these are intentional parallels.
This is the second film wherein P.T. Anderson features a religious charlatan. You might remember that “There Will Be Blood” featured a charismatic, charlatan preacher played by Paul Dano. It makes one wonder why this particular theme is important to him. Whatever the reason, seeing this film reminded me of a thought experiment I have employed a couple times for pedagogical purposes. When discussing the historical Jesus in Church settings, I have posed this question: If Jesus showed up today and started doing the sorts of things that Jesus (purportedly) did in the Gospels, what would be your first impression? In other words, if a holy man wandered into town and started casting out demons, and preaching politics, and healing via faith, would you be intrigued or repelled?
Some folks beat around the bush with a non-answer, but many (more than I would have guessed) voice their honest inclination toward caution. For example, I was gmail-chatting with a good friend of mine recently when this topic came up. Keep in mind that this person is highly intelligent, toward the conservative end of the spectrum, and self-identifies and a traditional Southern Baptist. I’ve renamed him “Christian” here. I’ve also censored his colorful language for the weak of heart:
11:02 AM me: hey dude
11:04 AM Christian: hey
me: happy birthday
Christian: thanks :)
11:05 AM Im older than Jesus now
me: yeah, what did he know that you don't know now?
Christian: He knew far less than me, most likely
me: yeah! bloody do-gooder
11:06 AM Christian: He probably wouldn't have liked me at all
what with my gentile blood
me: he would have looked at you and thought... this guy speaks complete jibberish
11:07 AM me: do you think you might have converted to Judaism if you'd met Jesus back in the day?
Christian: Weird counterfactual.
you're saying: if I were raised in the first century as a gentile, would I have converted?
11:08 AM Probably not
me: presumably, being a Jew would have been the only way to get close to Jesus
Christian: If I were back there now, knowing what I know now, I think I'd just try to approach him very humbly and do whatever he said
me: like the centurion
Christian: yeah i guess so
11:09 AM me: what if he called you a dog
Christian: but not knowing what I know now, given my personality, I probably would have thought that he was a charlatan
me: that's funny... at least you're honest
Christian: I think that to someone like me, Jesus would almost inevitably have come off at about the Benny Hinn level
11:10 AM Perhaps if I had met him in person and he had affected me in some supernatural way
me: If I'm honest, I'd probably think the same thing
Christian: Of course, that's partly because we're educated 21st century guys
so the counterfactual confounds some of that
11:11 AM I'd have thought he was being a d**k if he called me a dog
me: It's an interesting thought experiment... I use it with my students
Christian: I wonder if he called her a dog with disdain in his heart, or if he was instead doing something else
11:12 AM me: hard to know how to answer that
11:13 AM Christian: I think Jesus would have bothered me with his hyperbole and obscure ways of making points
I think I would have lost patience with him if I were arguing with him
I would have thought he wasn't very smart
just goes to show that I'm kind of an idiot about that sort of thing
me: Well, he would make you look bad by taking an absurd position just to throw you a curveball
11:13 AM Christian: exactly
I hate that
it really bugs me
me: are you sure that you're really a Christian?
Christian: Yes, of course
I just know myself
in retrospect, what he would deserve from me is my devotion and humility
But I wouldn't have known that at the time the way I know it nonw
11:13 AM me: back in a min
11:17 AM me: sorry… well, it's a good thing, then, that your American Jesus has been pre-packaged to suit your tastes
Christian: idk about that
setting aside stuff like that
there is something to be said for historical perspective
it makes it easier to see who was important and who was just a charlatan
11:18 AM maybe that's what Jesus meant when he said to Thomas that those who do not see with their eyes and touch with their hands but believe are blessed
me: well, I suppose that his death was proof enough for most folks that he was a pretender
11:19 AM Christian: I wonder how many of his followers never believed that he rose again
Kind of sad
me: yeah... I suppose that this is why Christianity is built on the belief in the resurrection - because otherwise, he was just charlatan
11:20 AM Christian: Yeah, that seems to be what Paul thought
I always figured that Christ meant that people who come much later and only have history were worse off than Thomas, but mabye he meant that we're better off!
me: so the question is .... was the resurrection a necessary element to continue the cult... or was it the thing that started the cult?
11:21 AM Christian: Oh, they were already underway at that point; without the resurrection, though, they would have been done.
I don't call it a cult
I don't think it's true that 'cult' just means 'fledgling religion'
me: hahaha - in a technical sense, cult is the right word
11:22 AM cult
Christian: WEll, it means more than that in the English language of 2012
me: only if you're a Romney lover
Christian: It's pejorative
it has become pejorative, anyway
11:23 AM me: in one of the worlds I live in... its pejorative.... in the other world its just technical speak
anyway, you're the one who called our Lord a charlatan
Christian: In english, it's pejorative. In religion-academese who the f**k knows.
Christian: No, no
11:24 AM me: you're going to hell for sure now
Christian: I said I'd have thought he was a charlatan if I had been alive then
wrongly thought it
I can just imagine going to hell for something like that
and being pissed off for all eternity
that I got a bum rap
me: have you seen the louis ck episode about Jesus on the cross?
11:25 AM me: really worth watching... a bit sad, but thought provoking
Christian: is it pretty offensive?
me: no, less than most of his stuff
11:26 AM it has this long back story of him in catholic school
Christian: I'll have a look
he's definitely funny
me: season one I think
Christian: huh I thought I'd seen all that
me: hey I better run
11:31 AM Christian: Nice to chat with you
have a good one
I include this conversation to illustrate a simple point. Jesus was faith healer, he was an exorcist, he taught in esoteric ways, and his disciples founded a movement that must be considered a “fledgling religion” or (to risk a pejorative term) a “cult.” Add to this the communalism practiced by this founding group and you’ve got a pretty good repellent for traditionalists. Many traditionalists (like my friend “Christian”) would have steered clear of Jesus simply because he looked like a charlatan.
Here’s hoping – at the very least – that Jesus was better looking than Philip Seymour Hoffman.