All Things Are Possible . . . in Books, Films, and Campfire Tales

    Those who have lived long enough will recall the Cecil B. DeMille 1956 cinematic classic The Ten Commandments, starring Anne Baxter, Yul Brynner, and Charlton Heston, the blockbuster Hollywood portrayal of Moses (played by Heston) as he leads the classical Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt and through Sinai to the “promised land” of Canaan. As a child, I literally shook with excitement during the climactic scene where Moses raises his divine staff over the Red Sea, only to observe the spectacle of Yahweh parting those millions upon millions of gallons of water so that His chosen people may pass, escaping the encroachment of Pharaoh’s armies. The god of Moses surely had unmatched might . . .  on the silver screen, that is!
    You see, anything is possible, even with the special effect technologies of the 1950s, in fiction. The very limits of possibility in fiction equal the vastness of the human imagination. Contrary to Descartes and Hume (in their principle of conceivability), however, the human imagination does not determine the limits of reality and cannot determine the limits of reality. For in the case of the former, would this not itself be self-evident? Would we not perceive a rather limitless lack of constraint in our own mundane world? And, in the case of the latter, only in a world delimited by human thought can such synapses govern the universe. What narcissism to suppose that the vast cosmos should comply with mere human figment and fantasy!
    In the first gospel to find its way into early Christian canon, that is, the Gospel of Mark, the textualized Jesus famously stated: “All things are possible for the one who believes.” (Mk 9.23) One may probe critically the inherent relationship between the mental operations involved in imagination and in mythological belief, and contrast them with the strictures of mundane realia, that is, the world that we plainly and commonly know and experience. Stepping back from the Christian Bible and taking the collection of texts in as a whole, one may make the perhaps rather obvious observation: The scale and spectacle of miracles tends to decline as one reads through the narratives chronologically. The Torah, being composed many centuries after its alleged spacial, chronological setting, exhibited the most spectacular of all biblical miracles. For the ancient Hebrew peoples, in times when TV, film, and radio did not exist, such inventive, epic (aetiological) tales met many cultural and familial needs. After the Torah, such biblical tales of mirabilia became far more modest and localized, until finally, with the Gospels and Acts, the “special effects” typically occurred in secret before only a select few (e.g., the Transfiguration). This all picks up again, and most dramatically, once one reads through to the Apocalypse of John, a.k.a. Revelation, a narrative brimming with dark apocalyptic fantasy by way of depiction of an inaccessible future, a hellish world altogether beyond the creative compass (and civic character) of a Cecil B. DeMille.
    Human life can become a tough pill to swallow. Psychologically, religion-induced fantasy has served to encapsulate the bitter, bare realities of human existence. Recognition of such at times cold realities became the master subtext of Lee and Magee’s 2012 film Life of Pi. In this movie, Pi survives a foundering boat wreck through a series of traumatic events upon a life-raft, whereupon a cannibalizing passenger reduced to savage survival kills his mother at which point Pi is forced to slay him and to use his body as fish-bait for survival. The story, however, comes as a long metaphor, with zoo animals instead of humans aboard the raft. In the end, Pi states profoundly that such a metaphor is “as it goes with the matter of God.” The anthropically (and culturally) biased myth of divine supervision, however narcissistic in ideation, functions to mitigate the coarse, heartless cruelties of human existence.
    On the flip-side, however, the wildly dark, judgmental fantasy worlds depicted in the tales of Noah and in the biblical final apocalypse, express a cathartic loathing of the human species, a vitriol only remedied by the arrogance of religious self-assurance: Solely we, the distinguished chosen, ingratiate sufficient exceptional divine favor; all others be damned! The deity thus serves as a literary device or placeholder for raw psychological contempt for humankind, not to mention indignity toward the earth. Formerly-Jewish film-makers Darren Aronofsky and Ari Hendel of the 2014 film Noah (starring Russell Crowe), for instance, found the “miracle” of the flood, once vividly contemplated, so unpalatable that they had apparently de-converted to atheism by the time of the film’s final release.
    The mundane realities of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic history from antiquity to the present belie the worlds of marvels foisted within the whimsical storyboards of scripture. Religionists, by embracing such  “Peter Pan” alternative universes, tacitly reject the empirical, real world of quotidian human existence within which we find ourselves. This essay intends to challenge that move, not merely for its failure to reason, but also for ignoring and disparaging the splendor and enchantment only to be known by the full, unmitigated human embrace of our empirical reality as a species.

* For further reading on the fictional modality and genre of the New Testament Gospels, see my own recently published article.

- - -
Dr. Miller, author of Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (Routledge, 2015), is a humanistic critic of contemporary religion and a trans-disciplinary research scholar exploring the cultural and literary nexus between classical antiquity and the social origins of earliest Christianity. His published work focuses on the mythological roots of the New Testament Gospel portraitures of Jesus, the sacralized founding emblem of the Christian religion.