I watched the new Disney take on the Lone Ranger on the weekend, and I must say I enjoyed it, even though I know this admission will remove any faint vestiges of cool that I might have once had (though after blogging about Midsomer Murders, I suspect that bridge has well and truly been crossed.)
Anyway, I enjoyed it. Yes, it was of Bollywood-esque length and variousness, with horror (particularly the scene involving the baddy eating someone’s heart (mercifully off camera)) followed by mysticism (the goody being healed by mystic Native American Spirituality), which was in turn succeeded by some moderately comic business (involving Johnny Depp talking to a horse.) But then, I have always enjoyed that about Bollywood: like Shakespeare, making a pretty good stab at being all things to all punters. It’s just a shame that there were no good song and dance numbers to speak of.
This is certainly not the Disney of my childhood; I find it a little hard to imagine Mickey and the rest eating the heart of an enemy, though perhaps this is just baddy inflation – cut to shot of Dr Evil demanding “one million dollars.” It certainly did make my flesh crawl.
But the Lone Ranger generally is not what I want to write about, but rather, specifically the way spirituality is used in this particular example of (fairly) popular culture. This is expressed in the film in a number of tensions. The first tension is with Religion, represented by a group of Presbyterians (with a brass band which made them seem more like the Salvation Army), who invite our hero (John Reid) to pray with them, only to be rebuffed by John, who displays Locke’s Two Treatises of Government which he describes as his “Bible.” He then goes on to demonstrate his commitment to a modern, pluralistic order in various other scenes. Unlike, I’m sorry to say, those ghastly Presbyterians who are appear again in a later scene mainly to protest prudishly against the general naughtiness of brothel / general carnival presided over by Helena Bonham Carter, but also for their leader to have a brief chance to display himself as a racist by abusing poor old Tonto as he walks past, and then leading an honest-to-God mob including pitchforks and torches.
The second tension is between both John’s Enlightenment world and the religious world with the wild, untamed, lavishly made up and slightly camp world of Spirituality, in the person of Tonto, acted by the unmistakable Johnny Depp. Tonto is cool. He knows stuff about the wilderness, is worldly enough to have spent time at the brothel/carnival thing, has a complex internal life, and apparently has the power to bring people back from the dead, when the Spirit is willing. He dominates the film, and makes the spiritual world which he represents both very present and highly compelling.
So, lets draw out this three way tension. There is ordinary, secular, modern John. Then there are the conventionally religious group of embarrassing Presbyterians. And then there is Johnny/Tonto. John is immediately out of his depth – naïve, impractical, idealistic, albeit (of course) supremely well intentioned. You identify with him, with his self-conscious modernity. You could easily imagine him tweeting his experiences, using his iPad to scan his case notes, probably a bit of a fan of cringe-worthy Dad-rock. When we first meet him, he is even coming back from lawyer school on the East Coast. He is coming from the future, bringing his sensible, moderate, rather bourgeois Enlightenment (it is Locke he is holding after all, not Rouseau) riding the train, the symbol of the ordered future which includes us.
He is pretty quickly overwhelmed by circumstances, and winds up apparently dead. The world-view that all you need is more education and surely we could just all talk this out is killed by the experience of radical evil. Is it drawing a terribly long bow to see a parallel to the death that the optimistic world of modernism died in the wars of the Twentieth Century? All it takes is one Concentration Camp Commandant listening to Schubert Lieder to demonstrate the deep shortcomings of that worldview.
To spiritualise it, perhaps we can see an echo here of our own experience. Being the sensible, modern people that we are, living our ethical lives, giving change to buskers, voting with our conscience, even paying for our digital media (thanks to Spotify) somehow isn’t enough any more. We yearn for something more – something deeper, wilder, older. Richer, and more exciting. And no matter how carefully we study Locke or even Rousseau, we somehow can’t transcend that feeling.
Religion is dismissed pretty emphatically in the movie – not just by those embarrassing tambourine playing Presbyterians, but (SPOILER ALERT!) with a darker tone, with it operating as cover for the real baddy of the piece. (END SPOILER). At best it is irrelevant, at worst it is a hypocritical sham, providing cover for the worst motives, and worst behaviour, possible.
To say the least we certainly aren’t left feeling positively towards it.
But Spirituality, on the other hand, as represented by dear old Tonto/Johnny Depp – that is where the movie shows its heart. Who wouldn’t want to be like that? He’s funny, cynical, worldly, knowledgeable, ironic, surprisingly patient, and efficacious. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but by the end of the film, we are surprised to find ourselves taking him very seriously indeed. I mean, he raises a man from the dead – you have to respect that. In fact, you want to be him – or at least to be guided by him. He has, it is fair to say, a difficult back story, and seems differently-hinged. But there is something compelling about him.
Obviously we are deep in the land of myth here, and my Enlightenment self is saying rather scornful things to me. But there is something here, something I want to get my teeth into. I do want something which goes beyond the strict limits, and obvious limitations, of modernism. Something exciting, and I completely share the sense that religion has an ugly name in our culture. It seems to imply, at best, a boring, penny-pinching, bland, play it safe attitude to life.
The thing is, though, that we human beings are mythic creatures, creatures of story, first and foremost. All our ability to abstract facts and ideas out of our stories is a late developed skill, and very secondary to our primary nature as story-telling creatures. When faith is experienced primarily in terms of truth claims which can then be measured against a standard of orthodoxy, then it becomes a boring, stultifying thing, and I can really see why “secular” people don’t want anything to do with it at all.
Faith experienced as a risky spirit quest, on the other hand – that I can get into. That seems like a fit way of understanding my life in general, and my spiritual life in particular. It is strong language, and a good cultural fit – and, I think probably better theology. Perhaps I might draw it out in future posts.
Here is a question to think about: is your life a spiritual quest?
(We did a session talking about this at Cafechurch this week – I uploaded the presentation to the website )
 Incidentally, that’s quite an interesting tension, because John himself finds the whole thing a bit shocking and distasteful, but I guess it just serves as a trope for “sex = naughtiness = a general desire to shock the bourgeoisie