Sunday 22 March 2009

Leap of Faith (1992)

The last of a dying breed, it seems, Leap of Faith is a funny, semi-cynical, semi-sympathetic, incisive look into the modern fad of evangelical Christianity in Small Town, America. Its ability to treat Christian evangelism wryly and cynically, yet without mocking or belittling its adherents, is something people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would do well to learn from. Lordie Lordie, we are tired of those two! But more on them later.

Leap of Faith centers around a charismatic charlatan, Jonas Nightingale (Steve Martin), and his troupe of "Angels of Mercy" (including such unexpected faces as Meatloaf! Philip Seymour Hoffman! a full-on gospel choir!). Jonas, with the help of his top assistant Jane (Debra Winger), runs a traveling Christian roadshow which features lively gospel music, on-the-spot healing, people falling into seizures and speaking tongues, and the like. One day, when their tour buses break down in a nowhere town in the middle of the country, Jonas decides to put on a show and generate some much-needed cash. He meets some resistance from the local sheriff, Will (Liam Neeson), who sees through Jonas' act immediately and disapproves of him taking advantage of the poor townsfolk. The townsfolk, in the meantime, are very poor indeed - long-suffering farmers with various tales of woe. One particularly woeful tale concerns the local diner's young waitress, Marva (Lolita Davidovich), and her disabled brother, Boyd (Lukas Haas). As Jonas and Jane get more and more mixed up with the people's lives, they find it more and more difficult to confront their preconceived notions about faith, suckers and scams.

This film, which establishes itself in the first half hour as a black comedy aimed at the cynical, urban non-Christian ("Ha ha, look at how stupid those Baptist hicks are!"), eventually becomes something much more sympathetic and even-handed. Slowly, as Jonas and Jane meaningfully engage with the community, we see the importance faith has in the lives of this highly vulnerable socioeconomic group. Even better - just when the movie has built up sympathy for the poor man and his reliance on his religion, and you think Jonas is a real jerk for conning people out of the last few pennies they have, the film flips the tables and reveals the unexpected humanity of Jonas himself. No, don't worry. He won't be "seeing the light", or even becoming a particular nice human being. But things do become complicated enough that we can't judge either the conman or the naive, superstitious victims.

Like Jesus Christ Superstar, this film should appeal to both Christians and non-Christians alike (assuming you're not too hardline, ahem, Peter Travers). What we think Travers misses about the "fake sincerity" in the end is that things aren't black and white, "Christian" or "rational", and, yes, it is possible to respect people you disagree with. Goodness, the Anglo-American New Atheism movement could do with a dollop of that humility! It's so frustrating to read those books by Dawkins and Hitchens that, because they can't understand why a human being would choose to hold a non-rational belief, naturally belittle and mock the people that do as ignorant or delusional. A much better book than any of Dawkins' or Hitchens', if you're interested in reading atheist philosophy, is George H. Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God, which makes its case using real philosophy - not ridicule.

Actually, tangential rant about Dawkins and Hitchens: another irritating factor about those two is how they seem entirely guided by a particularly ethnocentric concept of reality. Yes, the post-Enlightenment rationality is a great thing, but, as postcolonial and magic(al) realist writers can attest, the European post-Enlightenment rationality narrative is not the only narrative. There are alternative experiences of history and reality, experienced by people who weren't educated at Oxbridge in the "great classics" of Shakespeare, Eliot and other dead, white men, and who live in a far different world. What's irritating is that Dawkins or Hitchens don't allow for any leeway, they don't seem to have any sympathy for people who might hold "irrational", "non-Enlightenment approved" ideas about reality. As the father from La meglio gioventù tells his son, "You're so intelligent, yet you have so much trouble conceiving of some things!" We'd say the same to Dawkins and Hitchens, two highly educated men who seem incapable of conceiving of transcendental experience and therefore ridicule all religious believers for the logical fallacies in the most superficial interpretation of their beliefs.

We take, as an example, Christopher Hitchens' criticism of Buddhism: see page 23 of his book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:
The god Buddha was born through an opening in his mother's flank.

Illogical? Yes. But also a complete misreading of Buddhism and the role of the Buddha! (Nutshell: He's not a god.) And goodness, selling Buddhism like that is like selling Beethoven as "a composer who couldn't hear a thing" to people who have never heard any Beethoven. (Nutshell: Beethoven was amazing.)

Basically, our bottom line is that there's a lot more complexity, both philosophically and ethically, in criticizing religion. Assuming that all religion is wrong, as Dawkins and Hitchens do, assumes that (1) an ultimate truth exists out there, and (2) oops, only Dawkins and Hitchens understand it and can lead us to righteous rationality. Philosophically, that's just bollocks. Furthermore, there's also an ethical dilemma to these sweeping gestures against "Baptist hicks" or "Eastern cults" (Hitchens' phrase!): the socioeconomic background which leads people to a particular faith is often a big factor in their belief. Not everyone has the fortune to lead an unattached, educated, urban lifestyle where exploring alternative faiths is encouraged and the entire buffet of beliefs is available. It's so easy, for example, to criticize Christianity in America - especially if you're a white, university-educated, middle- to upper-class urbanite. We've always noticed how easy it is to mock Christianity in America, whereas it remains (as it should) taboo to mock Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism. We think this has to do with the fact that the most mocked Christians are the "white trash" "rednecks" who liberal urban Americans (the PPCC included, though we're trying to break the habit) assume are all close-minded bigots. In the name of tolerance, then, a great intolerance is practiced. And because the targeted group were historically empowered - that is, Christian white males - we don't allow them any leeway or sensitivity now. And so we mock their beliefs! (Interestingly, this sounds like the way poor Brahmins were treated in a post-affirmative action India - as read in Pankaj Mishra's excellent Temptations of the West.)

Phew. Long tangent. But the point is this: it's not nice to mock other people's religious beliefs, even when they make no sense to us. Leap of Faith demonstrates sensitivity and humanity by showing the mocker (Jonas and his band) and the mocked (the townsfolk) with the same amount of respect and sympathy. It's funny without being mean or cheap, and touching without being schmaltzy. We highly recommend it.


eliza bennet said...

Loved reading this post, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great post, and I wholeheartedly agree re: Dawkins and Hitchens. Ugh, those two.

And not to quibble, but...if the Eliot you reference is George Eliot, wouldn't she be a dead white woman?

a ppcc representative said...

eliza bennet - Thanks! I'm feeling a bit sheepish about it today, since I let myself rant so much. *blush*

Heqit - Those two indeed! And nah, I was thinking T.S. Eliot.

bawa said...

Interesting post and thanks for all the references and links.

I saw Danny Boyle's Millions (2005) the other day: and what an amazing film! Apparently appluaded at every Film Festival but don't think it made it commercially. Watch it if you can, its got a lovely take on religion and morality too!

Meanwhile, I shall try and watch this one when it gets here.

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

I saw this in the theater back in the day and hardly remember it, but it comes as no surprise to me that Steve Martin has done something awesome.

PPCC, it's like you're in my head. I've been having a very hard time processing other people's beliefs (and their word and actions that stem from them) latey, and I all too often fall into that camp you mention. Just the other day I was typing OPIATE OF THE MASSES in all caps to someone. And I was also fretting over a sort of inverse idea, which is wondering why people ascribe to belief systems that make them feel miserable about themselves ("pebble in shoe of the masses"?). Probably around the time I was watching Dharmputra in which Hinduism and Islam are the only two religions, and their followers the only type of Indian people, mentioned, and even though that's understandable for the time period and point of the story, it's still totally irritating.

a ppcc representative said...

bawa - Thanks for the recommendation! I've been curious about Millions ever since I heard people mentioning how similar Slumdog Millionaire is to it. Leap of Faith is a lot of fun, very sweet and intelligent - I really recommend it!

Beth - Steve Martin is a GENIUS! (Literally!) He also has one of the largest private art collections in the US, which is also great.

I think my whole rant was inspired by a flash of insight I (think I) had when I realized that when I would criticize Christianity and feel edgy, provocative and insightful, I realized that instead I was just repeating exactly what anyone else in my demographic (educated globalized white person) says. And I noticed that I was a LOT harsher on Christianity than I was with other religions practiced in the US, because I felt "safe" criticizing them - that is, I didn't feel like I was being anti-Semitic/anti-Islam/anti-whateverist/intolerant. Instead, I felt "enlightened" - a natural feeling, I guess, when you criticize what you perceive to be the hegemony. But that realization made me understand that when you think you're being a righteous rationalist, you're actually just being dismissive and elitist - like, there's a whole load of socioeconomic issues which come up (the links between poverty and social conservatism, historical issues such as the Holocaust, political issues such as Islamophobia, etc.) and usually that's what you're really talking about anyway (without noticing).

Agreed, of course, that ignoring religious minorities is bad and religious-based guilt/anger is bad. But I'm trying to slow down my (urban intellectual) impulse to just knock down people who are radically different from me (e.g. conservative Christians! or whoever).

This is all part of slowly realizing that so many of my strongly-held opinions, which I had assumed were based on my free will/intelligence, are actually just the standard package an educated urban American white person is exposed to. (Even loving international cinema!) So I'm trying to let go of these opinions, etc.

Hmm, don't know if all that made sense.

bawa said...

Oh, it isn't at all similar! You would be disappointed if you looked at it that way.
But it does have the Danny Boyle stamp:i.e. attempting something different each time, a bit of fantasy, very British humour, and an overall upbeat look at human nature despite all the baddies and depressing situations.

P.S. Am following all the religious discussion but you are saying it all, so not writing anything on that!

Anonymous said...

Re: Uninterchangeable Eliots -- of course. : ) Should have known.

I like the P-PCC's points about the undesirability of sneering at true believers, too. As the strident atheism of my teen years mellows into something slightly more agnostic, I am (thank goodness) developing more of an appreciation of the role(s) that religious beliefs play in people's lives. It's all (shockingly, I know!) much more nuanced than I thought ten years ago -- at that point, I was all "THEY just don't want to SEE the TRUTH that I KNOW because EVERYTHING WE'VE BEEN TAUGHT IS A LIE."

Maybe if I ever write a book I'll call it Beyond Theism and Atheism...

a ppcc representative said...

bawa - Oh, I'm relieved to hear that - I'm a bit Slumdogged out at the moment. Danny Boyle is always fun, will check it out!

Re: religious discussion - I re-read what I wrote and realized I probably should have paused a little to collect my thoughts. My argument could have been better presented!

Heqit - I hear ya! And it's nice to mellow. :) Plus, everything movies have taught me about morality (e.g. My Son the Fanatic, Saaheb, La meglio gioventu', etc.) has indicated that being easygoing and nice is better than being righteous and indignant about all the world's injustices. Even if the latter seems so pressing and urgent (esp when you're young!). Hey, if you wrote that book, I'd read it!