RELS 399: 01- FALL 1999


Oral Presentation and Individual Analysis Questions


A 1 HUMAN NATURE – J.A. Phillips has written that "Eve was the first femme fatale" - the seductress who so commonly appears in Hollywood films and literary fiction to lure man from his ideal nature or noble behavior and bring about his downfall (p. 51, Eve: The History of an Idea). Numerous Church Fathers placed the onus of the Fall on Eve; subsequently all women were linked with the bodily desires and drives of humankind (notably sex, death, physical pleasures). Moral dilemmas surrounding human embodiment, represented through the body of woman, were understood to be the punitive outcome for the consumption of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

What are the "forbidden fruits" that are consumed in Pleasantville? How does Pleasantville navigate the relationship between living the moral life and enjoying the sensual pleasures of the body (food, art, music, sex, etc.)? Is the body and its sensual and aesthetic drives and desires portrayed in a negative or positive light? And, finally, are these drives and desires gendered?

A 2 FREE WILL - In Augustine’s understanding of the Fall, human free will plays a major role in accounting for the presence of evil in the world, and evil results from the willful rebellion of humanity against God. This interpretation of Genesis seems to connect human free will with evil and rebellion. The Eastern Orthodox view of the Fall does not advocate such a close connection between human free will and evil. This view seems to support a more evolutionary view. For humans to develop to their full potential they require freedom of choice. And freedom is only real when there is an environment that responds with real consequences, for good or evil. Human life then is an arena for the development of individual potential in which one must bear the responsibility for one’s own choices.

In the movie Pleasantville, discuss which views of free will seem to be featured in the film. Do specific characters focus or adopt specific views of free will? Does the director emphasize one view of free will for the entire film?

A 3 COMMUNITY – Several cultural analysts during the last few decades have noted that North Americans are obsessed with perfection. Writer Richard Fenn provides a sociological and theological analysis of this perfectionist impulse in British and American culture, "the dream of the perfect act" that fuses politics with the divine will. John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett dealt with the popular culture side of this dream in The American Monomyth, an analysis of the superheroic figure whose perfect appearance and performance have dominated popular entertainment and advertisements since the 1930s. Christian theology has also placed particular emphasis on perfection: the idea of perfection in the Garden of Eden and the idea of perfecting oneself. Pleasantville presents its own version of a perfect community. What is the view of the perfect community? How are these ideas of perfection influenced by specific interpretations of Genesis?

A 4 REALITY - Augustine’s interpretation of the Fall suggests that the original situation of humanity was a state of perfection from which our first parents departed with dire consequences for the entire human race. The Garden of Eden has been continuously described as a place of paradise with no sickness, suffering or toil. The action of Adam and Eve denied that paradise to all of humanity. This seems also to be the plot of Pleasantville where the actions of some of the characters result in the Fall from Paradise. Does the movie condemn a character(s) for destroying or changing paradise? Would one see the changes in Pleasantville as a type of Fall?

A 5 Individual Reaction Paper - In his Nobel Prize winning book, Messengers of God (1976), Elie Wiesel invokes the Adam and Eve story as a foundational text for the contemporary Western man and woman. As a story, it establishes our beginning, our point of departure, and conveys in less than forty verses that each of us "yearns to recapture some lost paradise, [and that] everyone of us bears the mark of some violated, stolen innocence" (p. 7).

Once we were made, Genesis states, in the image of God. In films and stories we continue to circle around the framework of the Fall in order to examine critically our current state of "corruption"- the way in which our humanity has departed from that which is "godly". Often this corruption is thought to be expressed in our physicality or our embodiment (physical pleasures and pains). What kind of "innocence" was lost in Pleasantville? How is the human body portrayed in relation to its drives and desires? Do these drives and desires make us more or less "in the image of God" (that is, attaining our full human potential) according to the film?


B 1 HUMAN NATURE - In reference to the replicants, Blade Runner introduces the question of whether they are human or not. There seems to be little question that the replicants are human beings in a "physical sense". From the information provided in the film, the replicants are products of certain genetic codes drawn from particular human cells. They have all the attributes associated with the physical aspect of being human. However, are they human in other aspects? In other words, do the replicants have a mind, soul, spirit, I, ego, consciousness, psyche, subconscious, unconscious, or id? According to the film, what are the significant or important attributes of a human person?

B 2 FREE WILL - Schoepflin notes in his article " Apocalypse in an Age of Science" that: " Western civilization ‘under’ these Enlightenment principles came to represent supreme confidence in the scientific method, a devotion to humanism’s trust in human reason and virtue, a commitment to liberalism, with its twin doctrines of individual freedom and representative government, and an unbounded confidence in program" (431). Schoepflin also notes that specific historical tensions resulted in a "healthy dose of pessimism". Given the specific view of human nature, community and reality advocated by Blade Runner, what is its view on the role and function of human free will? In other words, does human free will result in "evil" or is it necessary, or part of the human journey to perfection?

B 3 COMMUNITY - In the lectures three views of human nature were proposed. These views also present corresponding views of the relationship between human nature and the community. For example, the deterministic view of human nature suggests that human nature will evolve due to changes in social and cultural institutions. Which of the three views seem to be advocated by the film Blade Runner? Focus on the view the film has of the relationship between human nature and the community.

B 4 REALITY - Jean Baudrillard describes it well: the technological products of the centered subject have usurped the power that once belonged to the citizen and the state. Technology holds humanity in its thrall. The mind/body dichotomy of modernism gives way to the postmodern trichotomy of mind/body/machine, and the mind and body, once fighting a Cartesian battle for preeminence, are now both vulnerable to annexation by technology. In the extremes that postmodernism describes, technology simulates both body and mind and breaks from the human being, which is now superfluous to the march of progress. The subject is replaced by its own objects. Postmodern critics are concerned, then, with the way technology transforms our experience of physique and psyche – in short, with how it changes our conceptions of self in relation to the world. (Rushing, The Intellectual Landscape, p. 14).

According to Blade Runner, how is technology changing our conceptions of the self in relation to the world?

B 5 Individual Reaction Paper - In our technocratic and scientific world view the human body is not understood holistically, but as an object made up of transferable bits and pieces. Body components can be exchanged or replaced like spare parts: blood transfusions, organ transplants, prosthetic devices, artificial bones and joints, false teeth, plastic surgery, breast and penile implants. We can all be disassembled and reassembled like machines. Similarly, the building blocks of life can also be altered at will: genetic engineering, sex selection, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, test tube babies, sex changes - and just this year it was determined that men can carry a fetus to term in their own bodies.

The pragmatic goals of some scientific advancements are clear: the alleviation of pain and suffering, the ability to make all bodies fully "functional," and the prolongation of life. But too, is it possible that in our drive for these goods we are also seeking a means to perfect the human body? To make each of us "super-human"? What does this say about our relationship to our corporeal foundations? What is the ultimate goal of physical perfection? And in attaining this perfection, can we still maintain our humanity?

Secondly, is the underlying motive of such achievements an aspiration to be "godlike" – to make of ourselves creators instead of that which has been created (as in the Golem story)?

Examine the way in which these questions are explored in Blade Runner. The replicants are the super-"humans" of Blade Runner: they have superior physical attributes, strength and intelligence. Does this make them more or less human? Having created them, does this make their human creators "godlike"?


C 1 HUMAN NATURE - Ben Jonson, in his "Hymn to the Belly" declares that in the act of fervent consumption one may "break’st all thy girdles and break’st forth a god", while the anonymous author of "Moderation in Food" speaks ill of the "brutal intemperance" of gluttony that is nothing less than a "sinful waste".

Babette’s Feast could be said to portray two such distinct world views: One understands the religious life as a self-conscious and moral moderation of physical indulgence - a rejection of sensual pleasures in this world as a means to attain entry to the next; the second espouses a celebration and aesthetic engagement and appreciation for the divine as it is represented in this world.

In what manner are these two world-views portrayed by the director (positive-negative)? Does the director highlight one view over the other (polarize them)? Or are the two views reconciled by the film?

C 2 FREE WILL - Often Free Will is thought to bring evil into this world. However, free will is not necessarily confined to "evil" choices. According to some theologians and scholars, one is also free to choose love and goodness. Jean Schuler says of Babette’s Feast that the film accounts for the way that "Evil can be accommodated without much bother; what confounds our ordinary bookkeeping is goodness or love". In what manner are "goodness and love" attained in the film? Why does reconciliation and salvation evade the day to day moral living of the community? What is Babette able to offer ("gift") to the community? In her act of giving, what is lost and gained? Does Babette’s gesture constitute a "sacrifice"?

C 3 COMMUNITY - Julia Kristeva notes that divine revelation often requires an "acceptance of radical otherness" and "the recognition of foreignness" within a homogenous community (a community constructed on an identity of "sameness"). This otherness is often represented by the physical presence of a foreigner, as the story of Ruth the Moabite in the Hebrew Bible, and the story of Paul in the New Testament demonstrate. Jesus Christ, as a "stranger to this world," could also be understood under this rubric of bringing about an acceptance of "difference".

In what way does Babette insert a "radical otherness" into the lives of the Danish town where she lives? How does her presence affect their communal living? In her role as outsider and servant, what does she bring to the religious life of the community?

C 4 REALITY - Lynda Sexson suggests that the Old Testament is a "set of contradictory recipes for making food sacred". From the forbidden fruit, through to the manna from heaven and the unleavened bread of exile, the Hebrew Bible is focused on the "transmutation of food" from ordinary, physical nourishment to sacred sustenance. The New Testament further develops the sacrality of consumption in the Last Supper and the establishment of the Eucharist. David Carrasco has noted that all world religions ritualize consumption and paraphrases this impulse in a simple phrase: "We Eat the Gods and the Gods Eat Us".

What is the relationship between food and the sacred in Babette’s Feast? How does the feast function to bring the community together? What does Babette’s feast do that the sisters’ regular repast does not?

C 5 Individual Reaction Paper - In Babette’s Feast Psalm 85 is repeated, "Mercy and truth shall meet. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss". The Danish sisters understand this statement to be an expression of their faithful living. Babette, on the other hand, demonstrates this through her act of artistic creation. What is the relationship between faith and the aesthetic as it is demonstrated in the film? Can one reconcile an ethical life and the aesthetic impulse? In what way could the Psalm be understood by the end of the film?


D 1 HUMAN NATURE - John Atwell notes the following about Schopenhauer’s thought:

Human salvation can be expressed in several ways: (1) the body and its insatiable demands are limited to self-preservation, with the intellect or objective will carrying out its essential function; (2) the human being is largely defleshified, and thereby spiritualized; and, in Schopenhauer’s inimitable language, (3) the genitals give way to the supremacy of the brain. And what is the result? Just this: "If the will-to-live exhibited itself merely as an impulse to self-preservation, that would be only an affirmation of the individual phenomenon for the span of time of its natural duration. The cares and troubles of such a life would not be great, and consequently existence would prove easy and cheerful." Typically, however, the will-to-live will not be satisfied with mere self-preservation, but will instead manifest itself as sexual impulse (and encroachment on others, hence wrong), thereby bringing "into consciousness unrest, uneasiness, and melancholy." What is necessary, then, is "a voluntary suppression" of the will, which Schopenhauer denominates ‘the turning of the will’: "If this has taken place, that unconcern and cheerfulness of the merely individual existence are restored to consciousness, and indeed raised to a higher power". (206)

The character Crooked Finger in Antonia’s Line refers to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. He is the mentor and teacher for Antonia, her daughter and granddaughter. Therefore, they are all schooled in the philosophy of Schopenhauer. Does Antonia and her line reflect in their lives Schopenhauer’s ideas about human nature?

D 2 FREE WILL - In Being and Nothingness, Jean Paul Sartre, wrote:

The essential consequence of our earlier remarks is that man being condemned to be free carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being. We are taking the word "responsibility" in its ordinary sense as "consciousness" (of) being the incontestable author of an event or of an object. In this sense the responsibility of the for-itself is overwhelming since he is the one by whom it happens that there is a world; since he is also the one who makes himself be, then whatever may be the situation in which he finds himself, the for-itself must wholly assume this situation with its peculiar coefficient of adversity, even though it be insupportable.

Both films Antonia’s Line and Before the Rain examine the themes of freedom and responsibility. One must be free to be responsible and, at the same time, one must use this freedom responsibly. One is free and responsible for one’s own way of being or self and one is also free and responsible for creating one’s own world. Discuss how Antonia’s Line and Before the Rain view the ideas of being both free and responsible.

D 3 COMMUNITY - Harvey Cox notes:

Man-as-sinner has usually been pictured by religious writers as man-the insurrectionary, the proud heaven-storming rebel who has not learned to be content with his lot. Refined and escalated in literature, this image blossoms in the heroic Satans and Lucifers of Goethe and Milton. No wonder we find sin so interesting and sinners more attractive than saints. No wonder we secretly admire Lucifer while our orthodox doctrine condemns him to the lake of fire. This misleading view of sin as pride and rebelliousness has given the very word sin an intriguing lustre: a naked Eve with moist bedroom eyes guiltily tasting the forbidden apple; a slithery, clearly phallic, serpent; man defying the petty conventions imposed on him by small-minded people (On Not Leaving it to the Snake, xi).

In Before the Rain, is this the view of sin or evil that dominates the film? Or, is there another view and, if so, describe that view.

D 4 REALITY - In Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, Zobra the Greek, Zobra met a ninety-year old man who was busy planting an olive tree. In explaining why, at this age, he was planting such a slow-growing tree, the old man said, "My son, I carry on as if I should never die!" and Zobra, replies "And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute."

Both Zobra and the ninety-year old man have faced and accepted the finitude of human life and incorporated "death" into their way of life or view of life. Consider Antonia’s Line; how does the film or a given character view the finitude of human life. In other words, examine how the film or a given character views death and has incorporated that understanding into their view of humanity and/or life.

D 5 Individual Reaction Paper - Reinhold Niebuhr, a twentieth-century American Christian theologian noted:

[Another] source of religious vitality is derived from the social character of human existence; from the fact that men cannot be themselves or fulfill themselves within themselves, but only in an affectionate and responsible relation to their fellows. It is this fact, rather than the fiat of any scripture, which makes the law of love the basic law for man. This law is not of purely religious origin, and indeed it is not necessary to be religious to ascertain its validity (The Religious Situation in America in Religion and Contemporary Society, p. 146).

The law that Niebuhr is referring to is "Love thy neighbour as thyself". Take either Antonia’s Line or Before the Rain and discuss whether the film sees the law of love as necessary for ensuring the development of the individual. In other words, if a community does not follow the law of love does it impede or destroy the individual?