Friends, if you follow me on Instagram, you know that I've had a family emergency that has taken me offline for the past couple of weeks. I'm going to be spending the rest of 2016 with the ones I love the most, but you can expect to see me back in action with more commentary and reviews on bingeworthy classics and new winter shows in the New Year!
Finals week: the time of year when I wear headphones and spend a LOT of time in front of a laptop. From the moment I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda's performance of Alexander Hamilton at the White House in 2009, I knew Hamilton: an American Musical would be one of my favorite finals week obsessions. There are a thousand reasons why Hamilton is a joy for fans of history, musical theater and hip-hop (and for anyone with ears), but there is a lot for students of religion too.
For one thing, Hamilton is a mediation on Providence. In the opening number, we meet Alexander Hamilton - a brilliant but penniless orphan who immigrates to what would become (due in part to Hamilton's powerful writings and political maneuverings) the United States. Why was he born with so few resources and did his tragic, destitute beginnings make him into the tenacious, creative force of nature whose ideas helped create the world as we know it? Was it divine intervention or chance?
Later in life, Hamilton meets his nemesis (and [spoiler alert!] his killer), a privileged, wealthy young Aaron Burr. The two have a Mozart-Salieri type of relationship: Burr cannot understand what makes a man like Hamilton tick. And (in one of the most tightly-written songs you will ever hear), he questions his own more hesitant nature, his place in the grand scheme of life, and what questions Christianity can and can't answer in Wait for It.
In Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story, we get a poignant, understated musical finale that self-consciously critiques how we tell the story of our Founding Fathers (e.g. where are the Mothers?) and invites us to think about the afterlife in terms of legacy. Who makes sure that Hamilton lives on? Who gets to tell our stories? Do we live forever if they are told well?
SO while I'm finishing out the semester, chances are, I'll be listening to Hamilton... are you obsessed with Hamilton or some other record? Write me and let me know what I should be putting on my end-of-the-term playlist!
"Each and every one of us is on a journey. And we feel that it's important to be on that journey with the people you love."
David in The Invitation
A few years ago I watched the haunting PBS documentary Jonestown: the Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Told with interviews, film, and audio records, viewers experience a beautiful utopian dream slowly twisting and turning into a (now infamous) death cult. What must it have been like to witness the descent of the Peoples Temple? What must have been like to be a member? Would you know that you were being groomed for death? Would you feel the dread immediately or would it slowly, subtly build in your subconscious?
In The Invitation, an eerie, suffocating thriller-horror film, the lead character Will (Logan Marshall Green) may or may not be about to find out. Will and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) have been invited to a dinner party with old friends in a ritzy Hollywood home. Kira is eager to enjoy the evening, but Will is on edge. He's leery of the new peace that his fragile host (and ex-wife) Eden seems to have found with a group of devotees to spiritual guru "Dr. Joseph," (including the mesmerizing, menacing David (Michiel Huisman)). As the dinner progresses, Will's anxiety and paranoia increase. Is Will right to be this suspicious? The more we learn about the tragic history of this group of friends, the more we wonder whether or not Will's perspective can be trusted. And yet, something seems off about the house, its inhabitants, and the tranquility they seem to have found with Dr. Joseph....
The Invitation is a frightening psychological thriller. And its setting in Hollywood invites us to ask all sorts of good questions about new religious movements and class. Why is it that privileged folks in the American West, like those in this film, are drawn to religious innovations? The Invitation is fictional but there are many, many real-life examples of wealthy folks who join religious organizations like Scientology or Heaven's Gate. Why is it that having it all in California leaves people so soul-empty? Why doesn't 'old time religion' fill the void? And what is it about the region that allows for so much spiritual creativity?
In addition to academic questions about religious movements, the emotional and theological questions raised by The Invitation about the relationship between religion and tragedy are worth asking. Should religion always relieve grief? Should it explain sorrow away? Should religion reframe suffering in light of new spiritual understanding? Humans seem more open to spiritual answers during seasons of grief. What if those spiritual answers are dangerous? Like Will, you may find more questions than answers in The Invitation.