Religion Today

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Power of God?

[Warning: Contains spoilers]

Indiana Jones the adventurer-archaeologist is back in the new film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Once again, he is on the trail of a powerful religious object, this time a crystal skull worshipped by a South American tribe. The film is set in the 1950s and Indy is opposed by a Russian scientist and her army henchmen who use violence, kidnapping, and murder to get possession of the skull.

With the skull as the central attraction, the film actually constitutes a meditation about the nature of belief, particularly belief in god, or in this case, gods. The Indians believe the skull is a sacred object, made holy as a symbol of divine beings worthy of their worship. The Russians see the skull solely as an object of power; they do not believe in the existence of any gods, but see the object as a source of knowledge and mental powers, which they can use for world domination. Indiana Jones portrays the scientific skeptic; he does not believe in magic, gods, or religion. To him, the skull is important because the Indians considered it important. It should be shared with all humanity by being displayed in a museum and studied.

Once the chase is on, Indy and the Russians head deep into the South American jungle, discovering ruins like those of the Mayans. Upon reaching the temple’s inner sanctum, they discover that the crystal skull is the actual skull of a space alien. When they place the skull on a headless alien skeleton, power is triggered. The skeleton reanimates, along with the nearby alien skeletons, the Russian scientist receives the psychic knowledge she desires, and then, as in the earlier films, Jones and his friends run for their lives.

The film’s climax indicates the Russians’ belief was correct. There were no gods. Instead, there were only space aliens. The Indians had mistaken the aliens for gods, and the aliens had taken advantage of that error. Jones’ skepticism was also mistaken, for the skull had power; not that of magic, but of the advanced technology of a star-traveling people.

The notion that the gods were actually space aliens visiting earth is not new. In the late 1960s and 1970s, this idea was popularized by Erich von Daniken, whose book Chariots of the Gods? sold millions of copies around the world. In this and later writings, he propounded the notion that the technology of the ancient world was given by visiting space aliens. Whether it was the building of the pyramids, Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly chariots, the statues on Easter Island, or Babylonian stories of heavenly travel, Von Daniken sees them as evidence of visiting aliens.

But Von Daniken’s favorite body of evidence are the Mayan, Incan, and other Central and South American sites of massive temples and pyramids. From the Mexican site of Palenque, Von Daniken identifies a pictorial carving of a human sacrifice on an altar as a spaceman sitting in a space capsule. A picture of a priest in an elaborate headdress becomes for him an astronaut with a space helmet.

So this new Indiana Jones’ film taps into Von Daniken’s ideas, even the fascination with South American ruins, and identifies gods as space aliens. Gods are not divine, supernatural beings, but flesh-and-blood creatures (or rather flesh-and-crystal-skull beings) with advanced technology. It suggests we poor superstitious humans have mistaken technology for divinity.

This message stands in sharp contrast to the three previous Indiana Jones’ films. In them, the powerful sacred object reinforces the presence and potency of the divine. At the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant’s power is revealed as that of God. The closing scenes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom show that the village’s stone lingam still brings Shiva’s blessing to the village, and the cup of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade remains imbued with the power of Jesus’ blood. And in each film, Indy the skeptic is shown to be the only one who understands and respects the object’s divine power and the divinity responsible for it, even though he does not believe in them.

How Constantine created the Christian Church

What marks the beginning of the Christian Church, the social organization uniting Christians? The answer depends on the definition of “church.” If “church” means the people who adhere to Jesus’ teachings, then Jesus began it. Some Christians believe that Peter founded the church at the behest of Jesus himself. Others would see the first church as the Jerusalem Church, created by the disciples after Jesus’ death and led by James until his death in 63 AD.

But if the founding of the church is defined as the first body of Christian leaders who could determine accurate Christian belief and establish with sound authority their definition of Christianity across the Mediterranean world, then the single man most responsible for that achievement was Constantine I, the Emperor of Rome. Although the creation and organization of the Church was clearly a process that took place over several decades, the founding event was the Council of Nicea in 325.

If Jesus died sometime around 30 AD, why did it take nearly three centuries to found the organized Church? There are three main reasons.

First, travel and communication were difficult at that time. It was difficult to make decisions and to run organizations that had offices more than a day’s walk, or perhaps horse-back ride, apart. When trading businesses established offices in different ports, for example, they had to operate essentially as independent business because of the difficulties of coordination. Fledgling Christianity sent out missionaries to establish new Christian communities, but then had to allow each community to run itself, as indicates by Paul’s letters to the churches he established.

Second, there was little agreement about Christianity’s beliefs and teachings, the nature of Jesus and God, what writings were sacred, or even how to worship. There was a wide variety of views, many of which were later declared heresies, Donatists in North Africa, Gnostics in Egypt, and Arians in Syria. And do not forget the Adoptionists, the Modalists, the Manicheans, the Montanists, the Marcionites, the Ebionites, the Nestorians, and the Meletians, to name just a few.

Third, imperial persecutions of Christians happened every few decades. These drove Christianity underground and caused many Christians to turn away. But almost worse were the rifts that appeared afterwards between Christians who kept the faith and those who apostatized to save their lives, both of whom still considered themselves Christians.

Constantine appeared on the scene in the midst of the so-called Great Persecution under Emperor Diocletian begun in 303. By 305, the problems caused by the persecution were overtaken by those of determining Diocletian’s successor. More than six different generals would fight to become next Emperor. Constantine stood out because he became a Christian, and unabashedly made Jesus the patron of his army. By 313, just two contenders remained, Constantine and Licinius. The two jointly issued the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity a legal religion and officially ended the persecution. But it was not until 324 that Constantine finally became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.

Constantine saw Christianity’s belief in one god as a way to unify the Empire that had been so badly divided for two decades. But he discovered that Christianity itself was not unified. So he called the Council of Nicea in 325 to bring together the 1800 bishops from around the Empire to work out official doctrine and provide the basis for a unified Church. Constantine paid for the entire Council and even paid for travel, giving bishops the right of free transportation on the imperial postal system.

The Council laid the foundation of orthodox theology (=catholic theology) and declared several differing theologies heresies. Constantine’s support initially gave Orthodoxy the ability to require Christians to adopt their doctrinal formulation. While during the next few decades, the Church’s fortunes waxed and waned, within a century, Christianity had been declared the official religion of the Roman Empire and non-Christian religions were in steep decline.

(This was written for May 29, 2008.)