Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Nightmare Before Religious Syncretism

nightmare before ChristmasOne of my favorite Halloween movies is The Nightmare Before Christmas. I’m a sucker for Tim Burton and the music of Danny Elfman, and when you combine it with Christmas cheer and Halloween gothic macabre, you basically get the best Christmas/Halloween crossover extravaganza ever. But because over-analyzing things is my third-favorite hobby (next to soul-harvesting and baking), I got to thinking: could there be something more behind our stop-motion miniatures? I think there might be. The Nightmare Before Christmas is rich with lore and depth, and can serve as a cautionary tale against religious syncretism.

Religious syncretism is different from cultural appropriation. Usually cultural appropriation involves a “dominant” culture borrowing important or sacred elements from an oppressed culture for frivolous reasons. A non-Native American wearing a war bonnet as a costume or fashion accessory is a kind of cultural appropriation, because war bonnets are important spiritual and political objects worn by Native American men in tribes from the Plains region. The non-Native wearer doesn’t understand or care to understand the significance of the object. Religious syncretism involves the successful or unsuccessful melding of two belief systems, and is intimately connected with meaning. It’s precisely Jack’s search for meaning that moves him from cultural appropriation to attempting religious syncretism.

Spoilers for The Nightmare Before Christmas below, of course.

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Life of Pi

Life of Pi movie poster

On Monday of this week I saw Ang Lee’s movie Life of Pi based on Yann Martel’s book of the same name. I had not read the book but my mother had and really loved it so we went to see the movie together. Not having read the book, I knew the main situation was that of a boy named Pi somehow stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger after a shipwreck, but I didn’t know how the two found themselves in that situation or how they progressed from there but I thought it sounded interesting. I was pleased to learn that the story of Pi is a very interesting tale of faith, strength, and personal growth.

The movie opens with Pi as an adult talking with an author who was told to seek him out because he had “a story that would make you believe in God”. Pi begins by explaining to the man how he got his name, his youth in India as the son of a zookeeper, and his experiences with various religions. Raised Hindu, Pi eventually encounters Catholicism and Islam in India and sees both religions as additional ways of God revealing himself in addition to Hinduism. Pi’s father, who opposes to religion in favor of science, admonishes his son that accepting all faiths equally is essentially the same as having no faith at all and encourages Pi to start to think more critically about these religions to which he subscribes.

Throughout the story Pi discusses moments in which he believes he is in the presence of God or is experiencing some form of divine intervention. He sees God in the power of the storm, feels God’s saving hand time and again, etc. and the art department did a fantastic job illustrating these moments on film. Everything is beautiful and comes so close to being unrealistic, yet doesn’t feel too manufactured. The majesty and wonder of creation are incredibly portrayed in this film.

On that same note, the 3D effect was also very well-done. I’m not a big fan of 3D and while I think it’s fun and has certainly come a long way from the old days of bi-color glasses I don’t find it particularly realistic (most of the time it feels like it’s assaulting me and tending to go out of focus when things are moving fast) and rarely feel it adds to the film. In Life of Pi, however, I thought the effect was masterfully done and only once did it feel gimmicky (when the movie was suddenly letter-boxed just so a fish could “jump out of the frame” at the audience) so I give major credit to the designers behind this who made me forget I was watching a REAL-D 3D MOVIE rather than just a movie.

Life of Pi makes some interesting points about faith and religion but leaves them entirely up to the viewer to evaluate. Pi never says that he has chosen any faith to the exclusion of the others, nor does he necessarily encourage anyone to choose his beliefs, his father’s, or anyone else’s. The movie makes the case that faith is a personal journey that comes right down to how willing one is to believe in the extraordinary and it is this message that takes the movie from simply being good to being meaningful. I highly recommend it for its enjoyable story, stunning visuals, and thoughtful commentary.