I have said elsewhere that movies and
movie theaters are the post-modern substitutes for the religion and Gothic cathedrals
of the past. (Click here for more.) That point is illustrated once again by Robert
Redford's Legend of Bagger Vance, a beautifully photographed film based
on the novel by Steven Pressfield. In this movie, which uses the game of golf
as a metaphor for life, Redford repeats the formula which he employed so successfully
in River Runs Through It, where fly fishing was the metaphorical setting
for a parable of redemption.
Redford understands what he is up to, and
how to avoid the minefields that might lie in his path. Rather than speaking of
movies as a substitute for religion, he frames his purpose in far less provocative
terms. "When I was young, mythology was huge for me - larger-than-life characters
in bigger-than-life situations," he is quoted as saying on the film maker's website.
It's hard to imagine religious viewers objecting to a film maker who purports
to be engaged in myth making. After all, few people who are committed to any of
the major faith traditions acknowledge that their own faith tradition has much
in common with myth. Myth is what others believe; one's own faith is truth.
it would be a good idea if people who are concerned about the health and vitality
of a particular faith tradition followed very intently what Redford is up to.
He continues: "It's the classic journey of a hero who falls into darkness through
some disconnect with his soul, and then of his coming back into the light with
the help of a spiritual guide. It also had a very strong love story, which is
the best way to show the hero's coming back to life. Lastly, it had a challenge,
a great contest. In the mythological sense, there finally has to come that 'slaying
of the dragon' scene, and in this case it's an extraordinary golf match. You put
all that together and you have a solid foundation to tell a really good story."
As he has done in several prior films, Redford cast as his male lead an
actor who strongly resembles the young Robert Redford. In this case, Matt Damon
was given the Redford like lead. Clearly Damon not only looks the part, he understands
the significance of the undertaking. After reading the script, Damon commented.
"This is a story of redemption." Redford cast Charlize Theron as the female lead.
She too connected with the major themes of the script in a deeply personal way,
seeing the struggle of her character, Adele Invergordon, as the mirror image of
that of her own mother, who fought to hold the family construction business in
South Africa together following the death of her father.
But the star
of this film actually turns out to be Will Smith, whom Redford chose to play the
part of the title character, Bagger Vance. The choice of Smith might strike some
critics as curious. But Redford explains: "When you're dealing with someone who
is a spiritual guide, how are you going to present that character? Are you going
to have him coming in on a moonbeam or go for something else? I chose a different
route, which I felt was more interesting both visually and from a storytelling
standpoint - that of a 'coyote trickster.' The 'coyote trickster' means you're
never really going to know what this character's up to - the very person who is
going to describe the mysteries of life to you is himself a mystery. I thought
that was great stuff. And for me, Will Smith was the perfect person to play that
Again Redford chooses to describe Bagger Vance using terminology
that will be less threatening to persons of major faith traditions. After all,
few Catholics, Protestants, Muslims or Jews are going to object to a movie in
which an African American plays the "coyote trickster." Or even "spiritual guide."
But how about Savior or Messiah? And that is exactly what the Will Smith character
is in this movie. Likewise, who would object to a "coyote trickster appearing
in the form of a caddy in a golf tournament. But how about the Christ figure appearing
in that role? And that too, is what the Bagger Vance character represents.
each and every one of us is our one true, authentic swing. Something we was born
with. Something that is ours and ours alone. Something that can't be learned ...
something that got to be remembered. -- Bagger Vance
majority of movie reviews written from a religious perspective focus on issues
like the amount of sex, violence, or profanity in a particular film. Or the way
in which religion is treated. This film, in which neither religion or God are
even mentioned, and which does not have large amounts of either sex or violence,
may not even appear on the radar screen of such reviewers. This is a big mistake.
Ironically, those who review movies, television shows, or computer games for their
religiously committed readers are as mesmerized by violence and sex as the film
makers and television producers whom they criticize. By focusing on these topics,
such reviewers are missing the big picture. Which is that spirituality is moving
out of churches, synagogues and mosques and into movie theatres, television networks
What really matters is not the amount of either sex or
violence in a particular film, but the messages and meanings that are communicated.
And whether a particular message has sufficient power as good story to capture
and hold the attention of an audience. The stories that capture and hold your
attention are the ones that shape your life. This the founders of all the world's
great religions understood very well. People are not influenced by being preached
at, lectured to, or coerced into prescribed patterns of behavior. People are motivated
by powerful stories that convey a sense that their own lives have meaning. Better
yet is a moving story that also contains clues about specific actions that the
listener might take, leading to some greatly desirable result: like happiness
or a sense of well being.
One of the reasons I like this film is that
it conveys something that Christian mystics, Buddhist masters, and spiritual guides
from other faith traditions have understood for thousands of years. Becoming the
person you are meant to be involves the sometimes ironic and painful process of
letting go of the ego and its needs, dying to the self, so as to enter a deeper
relationship with the world, with other people, and ultimately with God.
Christians, it is Jesus Christ who leads one along this path. For Buddhists, it
is the Buddha. For the Matt Damon character in this movie, it is Bagger Vance.
Taking this journey, as this movie makes clear, involves certain "habits of the
heart" which religious practitioners refer to as spiritual discipline. In Buddhist
meditation it is called "attention." In the Legend of Bagger Vance this is what
Matt Damon learns. And Robert Redford, who evidently has studied Buddhism, portrays
the process vividly. Using an imaginative combination of zoom lenses, camera angels,
and shifts in perspective, the film makers are able to convey the difference between
being distracted by one's surroundings and attending to them. Bagger Vance refers
to it as "being in the field." In this important distinction lies the difference
between being trapped by ego (sin) and being liberated (born again/saved/redeemed).
The result for Matt Damon, is not just victory in a golf match, it is victory
over the demons that had taken possession of himself.
Being able to tell
a moving story that captures and holds one's attention, ... this is what gives
any communicator power, whether within the traditional media of religion or the
new media of television, film and the computer. Unless the leaders of organized
religions remember this lesson that their founders understood so well, the great
news story of the twenty-first century will be the continuing migration of humanity's
spiritual life from the world of organized religion, and its institutions, to
the commercial world of the new media. If you think that a giant corporation like
Dreamworks, Disney or Time/Warner can be trusted as the caretaker of your soul
more than, say, the Roman Catholic Church or the Society of Friends, then this
may constitute good news. If you believe, on the other hand, that the world's
great faith traditions are better served by institutions whose sole purpose is
to nurture the spiritual life, then what is happening in popular culture may be
a cause for alarm.
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you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call: 917-439-2305
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.