Friday, May 06, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

Earlier today I saw Kingdom of Heaven. Overall I was pleased with my experience.

Of course most of the movie toted the Hollywood line on morality, religion, virtue, etc. All the religious clergy characters were unforgivably, all of the individually spiritually characters were good right down to their very core, and all of the fanatics were completely without merit (not to mention somehow powerful yet unskilled... how these morons ever rose to prominent ranks the world may never know).

It's interesting to see how 21st century Americans transpose themselves onto 12th century French and Syrian characters. All of the characters resembled our own personality archetypes much more so than 12th century personas. There's the humble peasant who rises to the top, the good humble peoples of the land (I mean this movie really goes the extra mile... Hitler didn't even have the propoganda firepower to make the Lander Volk quite this humble, quite this pious, or quite this innocent and unconquered), the good King (president) who wants peace and religious harmony, the Evil King (a right-wing war mongering xenophobe), and religious notions, while cute, always have to be tempered with a little secular American know-how (sure Americans weren't there, but surely their crusading ancestors in the Holy Lands were constantly trying to give the peasants their Universal Human Rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the pursuit of happiness, and the pursuit of happiness, by which we mean the pursuit of happiness on one's own materially-centered terms).

The Crusades are often used as the example par excellence of Religion gone horribly wrong. It's all a bunch of mindless hatred in the name of God and Evangelism. I take real exception to this meta-narrative. The Crusades were the logical end of two civilizations clashing. Sure, there were religious overtones, but one has to appreciate them more like the religious tensions in former Yugoslavia today - religion is but one of many complex features defining the line between two groups who view one another as live-or-die competition, just as Serbians are incidentally Orthodox, Croats are incidentally Catholic, and Bosnians are incidentally Muslims (yet all in reality are predominately secular). At the end of the day it's people who are competing for land and wealth. This idea that there's always enough to go around is basically post-Indisutrial Revolution and shouldn't be read back into older ways of reasoning.

The crusaders for their part had just seen 2/3 of historic Christendom snarfed up in 300 years by an upstart faith which they viewed as little more than a powerful heresy. Naturally it wasn't hard to stir up the drums of war to go even the score.

Also, let's not forget that learning, literacy, and social contract were all on the undeveloped end of the spectrum in the early 12th century. We have a habit of imagining a vast host of conspiring PhD's behind all the evils of history. Rather we should think of a time when different virtues abounded. Life was seen as more immediate, kill or be killed. War was waged by powerful men who were substantially more clever than those they led, but also not what we would call modern UN diplomats. So-and-so King of such-and-such didn't have to go through the Security Council to get a resolution authorizing the use of force. He simply gathered up his boys with promises of something better and charged off to take what was "his". We also shouldn't imagine that a Baptized culture is the same as a Church-going culture. Sure, the Lord might Baptize the Pigswine's kid, but the Pigswine and family probably weren't regularly expected at chapel. That's a later date. And sure, the clergy were literate to a certain degree, but not enough to challenge any kind of beauracracy ruling, nor enough to make elaborate ethical arguments on behalf of their poor, put upon parishioners. Besides, the Baron who owned their church was probably a cousin, so do we think they're going to lobby against them? These weren't seminary educated people who had 4 years of undergrad and 3 in vocational grad school, they were just certain folk set aside to do the church work.

All that aside, it's interesting to see our virtues and values personified on-screen. The movie is worth the watch if only to let your mind rest and soak in the good plot, 1 - dimensional yet inspiring characters, and to see good cinemotography at work. Sword-and-sandal epics are just good fun.

Of course it's also fun to turn your brain on and think of how comical it is to see 21st century people vicariously solve the issues of the 12th century with their ideals of justice and equality. Instead of naming the characters, just think of them as "that's the one the director wants to be" and "that's the hypocritical evangelical kid who tried to convert him in college" and "that's the one who beat him up on the playground".


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