Monday, July 19, 2010

The Great Reversal

There is an interesting trend that our culture seems to be following these days. It feels fresh, but there is nothing new about it. There isn't a much better example of it than in Heath Ledgers final movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The film has been released for a while now, however I just got the opportunity to see it. (Warning, this blog contains some spoilers). I found the movie incredibly thought provoking and so I have much to say... this blog could be on the lengthy side.

My readers should know well by now that I am a Christian, and so they could probably guess that I do philosophy through a primarily theological lens. This can be a blessing as well as a curse. A blessing because it keeps me grounded in what I strongly believe to be the truth, a curse because I sometimes read crooked philosophical motives into today's entertainment that are sometimes and sometimes not there.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a brilliant movie. Anyone who knows the first thing about philosophy should see its depth within the first few minutes. It is a story about an immortal story teller who has made repeated deals with the devil at the eventual risk of his daughter's life. She is to be turned over to him on her sixteenth birthday unless Doctor Parnassus wins the latest wager. The wagers always consist of this doctor competing with the devil over the souls of human beings. If the devil wins five souls, he wins, if Parnassus wins five, he wins. The duel for these souls takes place in a traveling circus attraction that allows those who enter to explore the world of their own imagination. Both the devil and Parnassus then try to make what they call "disciples" within the attraction.

If you're a Christian reading this plot summery, it may be peaking your interest. You may be thinking, "ah! Finally a story that symbolizes good vs. evil. It must have Christian influence." I don't claim to be anywhere near an expert in philosophy, but it often disappoints me how easily Christians are pleased by shallow Christian references in movies while the deeper themes are far more subtle and deep in there philosophical references. Some of these messages may be Christian, but many of them come from places many Christians have never studied or heard of. Yet many of these philosophies have influenced them through the entertainment industry since their youth. They usually don't even realize it.

If you choose to watch this movie, notice the beginning. What is it that the devil tries to prove in his end of Parnassus's original wager for eternal life? He takes the path of making disciples through fear and ignorance, while Parnassus takes the path of human imagination. This sounds like a clear cut wager between good and evil doesn't it? But what is it we see in the picture of the devil and his disciples? We see him being followed by a group of early catholic clergy. Parnassus is seen in the clouds surrounded by heavenly beings... many of which appear to be eastern religious symbols and such.

We see that in the end, the real evil is the controlling religion of the church, while the good path can only be found in the freedom of human imagination. We humans can only be completely free when we are allowed to find illumination within ourselves. Is this Christianity? Sure it is. It's Gnostic Christianity. A heresy that the apostle John addressed in the New Testament.

This philosophy can be seen most clearly in a conversation that takes place between two of the leading characters in the movie. The jist of it is this. One character asks, "Why doesn't Doctor Parnassus use his ability to control minds to run the world and make it better?" The other character responds, "He wants them to run themselves!"

These are some of the core ideas within existential as well as Gnostic philosophy. Gnosticism teaches that we can find illumination within ourselves if we will only look. Existentialism teaches that we are the ones that choose our essence. We are the ones that decide who we are underneath, no matter how crazy the world appears around us. Of course, this philosophy requires that we reject any God who would presume to tell us what to think or how to define ourselves. Is this what Christianity teaches? Of course not. Until Christ makes us a new creation, we are slaves to sin. The natural choice of our heart is sin. We cannot make the right choices on our own.

In this movie however, we see the beautiful daughter of our main character falling victim to a devil who works hard to convince the beautiful daughter of Parnassus that she is deserving of Hell. This is how he plans to win her. She begins to be corrupted only when she believes she is corrupted. Eventually, when Parnassus finishes his end of the bargain by killing the man who had been deceiving him and that the devil claimed was a villain., he asks, "Where is my daughter?" The devil says, "I don't know, she's your daughter. She's free isn't she?

This is where much story of morality and free will are revealed. However some of it remains a bit ambiguous. Was her danger a sham, or was she indeed in need of saving from some kind of evil? Some of the points in the movie are good, some are not. Some are unclear and open to interpretation. This sounds nice, however it is simply a greater evidence that the writer thinks the individual holds the greatest truth. I would recommend it if you wish to take a journey that will force you to think. However, I recommend that you try to find whether you agree with what I found to be rather blatant philosophical statements. I left out many details and main plot points, and so there may be some hidden messages I missed out on. If you are at all interested in philosophy, I recommend you check it out.