BABYLON, AVATAR, AND THE SEARCH FOR SIGNIFICANCE
The box-office disaster Babylon seems to say nothing whatsoever about religion.
Nothing remotely close to spirituality is even vaguely referenced throughout the story.
Yet early in the movie, a character says this:
"I always wanted to be part of something bigger…
Something that lasts.
That means something.”
On the one hand, that conversation leads to a night of drug-fueled, unhinged insanity, followed soon after by decades-long ambitions to “make it” in the movie business.
On the other hand, that basic sentiment is one we can all relate to.
After all, everyone wants to be part of “something that means something.”
Nobody wants to give themselves to something insignificant and short-lived – to spend the tiny amount of time and energy we have in ways that ultimately mean nothing.
As Viktor Frankl described in Man’s Search for Meaning, we all long for meaning. The flip side of this: we instinctively reject meaninglessness.
This gets near the heart of what makes us tick. It lies at the core of human nature.
So then, what do the characters in Babylon actually do about it?
What they want, essentially, is an answer to the meaning of life. That’s their starting point, their premise, the question they ask to get things rolling.
And what’s their answer?
Their answer is Hollywood.
If they could only find a way to get into the movie business, they imagine, that would be “IT”. They’d be part of something bigger, something that lasts, that means something. Because movies, as they imagine, do that.
Their lives will then matter, as they see it.
But are they right about that?
The results, as depicted in the movie – perhaps unsurprisingly – are mixed at best.
But there’s one point worth clarifying.
What they’re asking, in essence, is a spiritual question.
They’re asking how to spend a life that’s significant, that’s meaningful, that matters.
That’s traditionally been the job of religion to answer.
In earlier times, it wasn’t the job of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, or Washington D. C.
A functional and competent religion says, by way of philosophy, ritual, revelation, and community, “Your life matters,” and it conveys why that’s the case, very clearly, and it’s credible.
“A movie set is the most magical place on earth” is roughly a line a character declares at one point. There’s something to this – after all, some individuals get a taste of it and then spend their lives in pursuit of it.
The movie Avatar sometimes generated similar reactions. After seeing it, some reacted with a version of “that’s the world I want to live in.” The world of Avatar seemed enchanted – full of life and meaningful drama, at least compared to the drab and mundane routine of “normal” life.
But at the same time, again:
Real “magic” is generally supposed to be the jurisdiction of religion.
Genuine spirituality is supposed to reveal that our world actually is enchanted. We often just don’t see it.
A text believed to be nearly two thousand years old was discovered in 1945 said as much: “The kingdom of Heaven is spread upon the earth but men do not see it.”
The main purpose of a movie set is to make movies. To try to extract meaning from a movie set is like trying to squeeze honey from a rock, or trying to brush your teeth with a sledgehammer.
This thing just wasn’t made to do that.
It was made to perform a different job. It gets the order reversed. Stories aren’t supposed to merely help us escape reality. They’re supposed to help us see reality in a new way.
As Ernest Becker described, the key job of a society is to provide a hero-system to its citizens. A functional culture will provide its citizens with roles and responsibilities which equip them with a sense that they are overcoming death (or meaninglessness, or insignificance).
When a society succeeds in this, its citizens thrive. When it fails, that society disintegrates.
Society today is utterly failing on that front.
It’s pulling a near-total culture-wide faceplant.
It’s apparent to many of us that – with notable exceptions, and to make a broad, blanket statement – that our current culture-at-large offers a flood of bad answers to the meaning of life. Many of our hero-systems are dysfunctional. Our culture’s recommended mechanisms for overcoming death, meaninglessness, and insignificance seem quite weak.
But this doesn’t make religion obsolete. It just shoves it underground.
When a society fails to provide a functional and credible meaning-system, the result isn’t that nobody asks about the meaning of life.
Everybody asks about the meaning of life, constantly – either consciously or unconsciously.
The result is that we’re often left to ourselves to figure it out.
It means we have to navigate our inner labyrinths on our own, often with maps that are incomplete or untrustworthy.
We’re left wandering the Existential No-Man’s Zone.
This means tasking the most difficult problems of the universe to mere amateurs.
This often results in us coming to our own conclusions – conclusions that can be highly dubious. For example, it can lead to someone getting a small taste of genuine “magic” on a movie set, and as a logical result, then becoming a devout follower of Hollywood-as-religion, or celebritheism.
The basic idea is that if we could all just become movie stars, movie-makers, or uber-wealthy bigshots, then our lives would, at that point, have significance.
But in matters with this gravity, we have to be honest.
Hardly any of us will ever become glamorous Hollywood movie stars.
But it’s even worse than that.
Even those rare few who actually do succeed at becoming iconic movie stars – as Babylon portrays quite explicitly – even they are still vulnerable to winding up heartbroken and confused. Fame and wealth can be fickle gods, and celebritheism can be a turbulent ride.
But the spiritual mechanics that underlie much of this can help make sense of it.
The psychological dynamics seem to rely on projection.
We project idealized, magical aspects of ourselves onto celebrities. Then we can become fascinated or even obsessed with those projections, as if the receptacles of those projections embody the best, most idealized parts of ourselves, and are somehow vessels of something infinitely valuable or even sacred. Even celebrities themselves can get caught up in this and perplexed by it. But those projections can easily collapse. Herein lies the puzzling dynamic of us working to build professional actors up into demi-gods worthy of worship – and soon after, working to tear them down again.
We can arrive at a fairly certain conclusion from all this.
Celebritheism makes for a terrible religion.
It’s impossible for human beings to avoid spirituality.
But we can respond to it poorly.
Celebritheism is one way of responding to the core existential riddles life throws at us.
And it’s a sorry substitute for a real, legitimate, healthy religion.
We seem to be living through a time when religion and spirituality are some sort of final taboo. They’re often treated as the only topics we can’t speak about in public – not primarily because they’re controversial and divisive (we seem to talk about politics just fine), but because they’re seen as merely and wholly subjective personal opinions. This approach assumes religion to be a mere matter of taste, a creative choice, a freely chosen lifestyle. And anyone having anything to say about someone else’s lifestyle is like telling someone they should like mustard instead of mayonnaise, or vice-versa.
So, we don’t talk about it.
And so, we’re all left largely on our own to swim these difficult waters.
When something is wholly subjective and a matter of private, personal opinion, that just doesn’t mix well with anything that’s supposed to be actually true. Religion, in this sense, isn’t often depicted as something real or unreal, true or false, but a purely matter of taste. It’s presumed to be less in the realm of hard, scientific, objective fact, and more in the realm of favorite colors, songs, or flavors of ice cream.
In other words, even if religion is “allowed,” it’s often not really credible.
We often even define religion entirely in those terms, as “something I want to believe in, and even try to believe in sometimes, even if I really, naturally, don’t.”
A shorter way to say this: we’re living through “The Death of God.”
It’s what Nietzsche was trying to warn us about more than a century ago.
But a clear and sober look at all this will reveal that this is no small matter.
Many of our most basic assumptions on all this seem to be thoroughly mistaken.
If we want to live well, investing some effort in correcting those basic assumptions can be a very good way to spend time.
Each of us faces the Sphinx. Each of us has no choice but to find an answer to meaning and significance, an answer that will ideally help us to overcome the existential monster of meaninglessness and insignificance.
If we don’t take on this challenge with more than a bit of gusto, we can easily find ourselves vulnerable. We can find ourselves facing an existence that threatens to define us as insignificant, temporary, empty, and ultimately meaningless.
Hollywood offers us medicine for this condition.
But its medicine is weak.
We all choose a game to play in life. The “fame game” has huge risks and very few rewards.
Several of the characters in Babylon learn this lesson quite clearly.
Becoming rich and famous doesn’t solve the core problem at the heart of life. It can be neutral sometimes, or a pleasant distraction. But it isn’t The Answer.
To solve The Core Problem lies in a different direction entirely.
We all long for significance. If we don’t find it, we’ll search for substitutes. And when those substitutes fail – as they always do, eventually – we can find ourselves right back where we started.
We can find ourselves with no answers and on a search for genuine, legitimate, healthy answers to meaning in life.
We’ll be left with the search for something no-nonsense, something we experience directly instead of indirectly, something agreeable to reason, something that actually satisfies whatever design or engineering our human nature – our “human potential” – seems built for.
We’ll be left with the search for credible spirituality.
A credible spirituality explains life in a way that satisfies our deepest nature. It genuinely fulfills what we long for in the deepest recesses of our being.
It offers a functional hero-system – a way to overcome death, meaninglessness, and insignificance and offers purpose and a sense of richness to life – a richness that external wealth is a mere shadow and poor, temporary imitation of.
If all goes well, a credible spirituality will explain quite clearly how the rest of us – those of us who aren’t demigod-like celebrities – are quite thoroughly significant, thank you very much, and quite capable of living lives that overflow with meaning and purpose.
When we’ve found the real thing, we stop searching for substitutes.
At that point, movie sets would just be movie sets once again, and we wouldn’t have to reach out to them for The Answers. And the result, it seems, would be not just better Answers, but better movies.