Religion at the Academy Awards

As we bow to the golden statue called Oscar, devoting ourselves to the saintly thespians, joining in rituals of exaltation, and reading our sacred gossip columns, we might stop to ponder the continuing place of religious themes, topics, and tropes in the year's top movies. We see it from bullet-riddled, bible-thumping slavers to chaos monsters at the depths of the bayou, from young boys mixing and merging South Asian rituals to moral compunctions about torture. This year's Oscar line-up is once again rife with religious references, and the entertainment industry may be overtaking religious institutions as the prime mythmakers and ritual producers in a society where the "nones" are on the rise.

The desire for some kind of redemption pulses through human life, while belief in the vehicles of that redemption -- grace, karma, or hard work -- is heavily exploited in Hollywood. The really bad guys deserve their place in the pit, but most wretches can still be saved. Commenting on his novel, "Les Miserables," Victor Hugo noted how the plot moves from "evil to good . . . from nothingness to God." But apparently the simplicity of that narrative arc is not enough to get contemporary audiences through the journey, so via Broadway, Hollywood adds music. Some show tunes and a few pretty faces help make the widows, orphans, and thieves bearable, paving our redemptive route.

But if the bad guys are ugly, in face and spirit, we might delight in a harsher justice. "Django Unchained" was, according to one prominent reviewer, a "narcotic and delirious pleasure." Quentin Tarantino's Blaxploitation-meets-spaghetti-western raises questions about the role of violence, and the place of religion in the creation of this nation. (For that matter, so did Lincoln.) Two scenes bring this into the religious realm. One occurs early on when a slaver carries around a Bible and a whip, misquoting some choice passages about God's justice. Several pages of a Bible are stuck to his body when Django (Jamie Foxx) shoots him. The page over his heart, a "breastplate of righteousness" (see Isaiah 59.17), becomes a target for a bullet.

The corollary scene comes toward the end, when Django begins some serious retribution. Cued up is John Legend's neo-soul song, "Who did that to you?" As Django prepares to unload bullets into slavers' bodies, Legend's lyrics remind us that vengeance is the Lord's but "I'ma do it first," since "my judgment's divine." The implications are clear: Django embodies God's vengeance. And as the Brittle brothers topple, Django proclaims, "I like the way you die, boy," a statement that becomes the narcotic, delirious cry of the audience as well.

Django's revenge is not far from the historical Christian abolitionist John Brown, who took up arms at the same point in history in which Django Unchained was set, on the eve of the Civil War. Brown stated "I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them: that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge, or vindictive spirit." After a failed military attempt to steal guns from the armory at Harper's Ferry, Victor Hugo himself published a letter seeking Brown's pardon. Christian charity, attitudes toward the oppressed, and violence, are entangled in ways difficult to unwind.

T.S. Eliot once poeticized about the power of the "strange, brown god" that is a river, and how we moderns forget about this power when we build bridges over it. Until it rages, rises, and destroys. Water may cleanse, but in religious myth after myth (not just the one about Noah) water brings death. Floods represent chaos erupting from the depths, overtaking the cosmic order of the land of the living. Both Beasts of the Southern Wild and Life of Pi tap into this ancient story source, bringing us back to the primal, destructive, and ultimately re-creative power of water.

The great deity Vishnu tamed the chaos of the infinite sea and reclined on the back of the sea snake Shesha. An image and telling of that myth is shown toward the beginning of the Ang Lee-directed "Life of Pi," a story that unfolds through the young protagonist Piscine Molitor, AKA "Pi" (Suraj Sharma), aboard a lifeboat with a slightly-tamed tiger. The waters have raged and killed his family, and Pi survives a hero's journey across an ocean of sharks, carnivorous islands, and, oh yeah, that tiger. He is drawn to ritual and tradition, and gleefully syncretizes elements of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian practices. What sticks in his throat most is the absence of ritual, the hindrances to the ceremonies of drawing things to a close and allowing a little cosmos in the face of chaos. When left without the institutions and communities that help foster such activities, meaning is lost.

"Beasts" (dir. Behn Zeitlin) also finds a young protagonist on a hero's journey, fighting the threats of chaos, of waters that rise to overtake her community's way of life. The floods come, as well as the eponymous beasts, and threaten the order of things, like the Hebrew Bible's Behemoth. Until young Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) can come to some point of resolve in her life, some acceptance of death and change, the beasts threaten. She tells her stories through pictures on the insides of boxes, like the Stone Age humans who left the marks of their beasts in the caves of Lascaux.

More than any other film last year, "The Master" tells the story of our contemporary spirituality, the background to our current, collectively recited creed, "I'm spiritual not religious." A cryptically historical account of the rise of Scientology, Paul Thomas Anderson's film embarks on a project of mythologizing about the American Century. Firmly set at the start of the Baby Boomer generation, "The Master" is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who through hypnosis uncovers personal stories for clients/adherents/customers (and it's never clear which). Psychotherapy mixes with self-seeking, and a cosmic structure is set in place, pointing toward a more pure, perfect, and pleasant tomorrow. Mythologies are no longer stuck in a distant past, but our very selves are firmly placed within mythical history.

In an age of "nones," and a general a movement away from organized religion, sacred traces yet abound. One wonders if the religious dimensions of life can ever really be excised, as ancient myths and rituals and symbols form a backbone of cultural productions. Perhaps, as Eliot put it, "The river is within us, the sea is all about us."

Plate's Picks for Religious Oscars 2012

S. Brent Plate is Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Hamilton College. His books include "Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World" and "Blasphemy: Art that Offends." He is currently writing "A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects" with Beacon Press.