Religion in the Adult Classroom

In 2005, 12 men in a small secular European democracy decided to draw a quasi-mythical figure who has been dead for 1400 years. They were trying to make a point. They knew that in many Muslim cultures, it is considered offensive to draw Mohamed. But they have a culture too – a European culture that believes it is important to be allowed to mock and tease and ridicule religion. It is because Europeans have been doing this for centuries now that we can no longer be tyrannized....

Islamist plots to hunt the artists down and slaughter them began. Earlier this year, a man with an axe smashed into one of their houses, and very nearly killed the cartoonist in front of his small grand-daughter. This week, another plot to murder them seems to have been exposed, this time allegedly spanning Ireland and the United States....

Let's state some principles that – if religion wasn't involved – would be so obvious it would seem ludicrous to have to say them out loud. Drawing a cartoon is not an act of aggression. Trying to kill somebody with an axe is. There is no moral equivalence between peacefully expressing your disagreement with an idea – any idea – and trying to kill somebody for it.
Johann Hari, The Pope, the Prophet, and the religious support for evil,
The Independent (UK), March 19 2010

I don't know what the question was, but the answer a learner gave was, "I'm not really involved in a church. Like, we don't really go to church. But, I mean, I watch all the movies!"

Hey! Me, too!

But we didn't talk much beyond that - didn't get into a teachable moment about Middle Eastern history or the impact of Rome on later European culture or why the Pope's been in the newspaper lately. That's because there are two near-taboo subjects in my classrooms: race and religion.

I take responsibility for the former. I'm apt to get all RCMP-at-the-airport when I think someone's making a racist slur. Unfortunately, this seems to have created a discomfort with all talk of race. Learners grow visibly uneasy when someone asks, for example, why native North Americans share features with North Asians.

The other taboo topic, as far as I can see, is rooted in either a heartfelt wish to avoid getting preached to by a devote classmate, or a desire to avoid being disrespectful toward another's religion.

You wouldn't think that was a bad thing, this wishing to be polite. But the demand for unearned respect, warns Hari, "is a creeping vine. It soon extends beyond religious ideas to religious institutions – even when they commit the worst crimes imaginable."
It is now an indisputable fact that the Catholic Church systematically covered up the rape of children across the globe, and knowingly, consciously put pedophiles in charge of more kids. Joseph Ratzinger – who claims to be "infallible" – was at the heart of this policy for decades.
Yet, says Hari, there are still many voices demanding respect "for the Pope, when he should be in a police station being quizzed about his role in covering up and thereby enabling the rape of children."

It is quite possible to help learners prepare for the GED without talking about the early Baptists who wrapped Catholics in chains and tipped them out of rowboats into Swiss lakes, or... well, any of the other thousand dreadful things Western Christians did to their neighbours with the best of intentions.

But I'm not sure, anymore, that it is possible to help learners prepare to become citizens of a democracy while averting our eyes to the things men do.

Watching the movies isn't enough.

If there was I movie I'd recommend, I suppose it would be The Ten Commandments. I love the language, the astounding converse and pacing.

I don't know who to credit for that. The screenplay was written by a committee, if you can believe it. Also, deMille, the director/producer, had a reputation for bringing strong actors to a role and then letting them build their own character. I take that to mean it was the actors themselves who brought the film's language to life.

Yet, deMille was the guiding force. Presumably it was he, for example, who decided that the parting scene between Moses and the woman who raised him would be played without music. It is the right combination of acting, camera angles, and score that makes the scene of the old woman caught beneath the stone so exciting, or brings such tension to the scene of Pharaoh walking in on Moses when the stone pillar is being raised.

Throughout the movie, Heston (Moses) speaks and moves like an actor on stage. Some people will always laugh at it or call it over-the-top or something - mostly because they don't understand theater. He and Yul Brenner (Ramses) and give the movie all that dignity and weight Shakespeare is supposed to have. Maybe Shakespeare really has it, I don't know: Five hundred years down the road, I can barely translate Shakespeare. The Ten Commandments is written in an English I recognize and remember, and so it moves me.

Mind you, I don't exactly think it's a great message movie - though I'm aware that it may have had an important resonance in racially segregated America. Mark this interchange between Moses, now accepting his Hebrew heritage and rejecting Egypt's social structure, and the pharaoh who raised him:

Moses: No son could have more love for you than I.
Sethi: Then why are you forcing me to destroy you? What evil has done this to you?
Moses: The evil that men should turn their brothers into beasts of burden, to be stripped of spirit, and hope, and strength - only because they are of another race, another creed. If there is a god, he did not mean this to be so.
That's heady stuff for 1956. The same year, of course, The Searchers, starring John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter, took an equally sober look at racism. And just a few months earlier, in December of 1955, Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s involvement in the fight against racial segregation.

On the other hand, the sourly racist (and sexist) The King and I was also a top box office earner that year; as was the equally sexist Guys and Dolls, starring Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, and Jean Simmons (released in November of 1955).

But, anyway, all that's beside the point. I was saying that I don't think The Ten Commandments is an important movie. I don't think children should be forced to watch it. I don't think it should form the spine of curricula or inform our understanding of history. It's too full of historical and biblical errors and wild fantasies.

But I'm intrigued by the religious message, though probably not in the way the writers intended.

See, I find the humanist religion of the young Moses compelling - much more so than that of Moses the Prophet. Here's a snippet from the "old woman caught beneath the stones scene":

Yochabel: Wise and Noble One, I was caught. I had not the strength to free myself.
Moses: Your shoulders should not bear a burden, old woman.
Yochabel: The Lord has renewed my strength and lightened my burdens.
Moses: He would have done better to remove them.
And, a few lines later, to Joshua (whose action caused the commotion that lead to Moses saving the old woman):

Moses: You know it is death to strike an Egyptian.
Joshua: I know it.
Moses: Yet you struck him. Why?
Joshua: To free the old woman.
Moses: What is she to you?
Joshua: An old woman.
Egyptian guard: Lord Moses, send him to his death!
Moses: The man has courage. You do not speak like a slave.

[...Ah, but then the inevitable eyes-toward-heaven bit...]

: God made men. Men made slaves.
Moses: Whose god?
Joshua: The God of Abraham, the Almighty God!
Moses: If your god is almighty, why does he leave you in bondage?
Joshua: He will chose the hour of our freedom and the man who will deliver it!
Indeed, if there is a weakness in the movie it is in the gradual reduction of Moses' character (and dialogue), from a complex, searching human being to an eyes-heavenward, wooden mouthpiece for an always-right deity. Unlike Shakespeare's King Lear, who out in the storm learns to talk more like a human being, Moses becomes less intelligible during the heavy weather. He becomes less human, and more distant, more "other".

This makes it harder to identify with and cheer for him. The young Moses, with all his idealism, is gone. It is a removal (unintentionally?) voiced in a conversation between Moses' two love interests near the third act of the film:

Nefertiti: You need have no fear of me.
Sephora: I feared only his memory of you.
Nefertiti: You have been able to erase it?
Sephora: He has forgotten both of us. You lost him when he went to seek his god. I lost him when he found his god.

Now, Moses' rival, Ramses, is no one to admire. To Nefertiti he boasts: "You will be mine, like my dog, or my horse, or my falcon, except that I shall love you more - and trust you less."

Still, at least he never surrenders his voice. When the new, super-Moses appears undefeatable, Ramses retains his hard dignity and determination to live as his version of a human being:

Commander of the Host: Let us go from this place, men cannot fight against a God.
Ramses: Better to die in battle with a God then to live in shame.

But that is the last flash of human spirit. From then on, the film reduces human beings to friends or enemies of an inscrutable, irreproachable deity - whose mouthpiece claims to be just as inscrutable and irreproachable.

No, watching the movie isn't enough. There's no scene where Israel calls Moses to account for his actions, no validation of the principle of one person, one vote.

So what are we facilitators to do? When the religious prey on children and attack cartoonists with axes, what are we to do? In our classes, talking about the world, what is appropriate?

I don't know.

Let it go for now. Enjoy your Easter. If you get a chance,watch the film and enjoy the rare prose, the richness of modern English (circa 1910-1960). Maybe it'll give us some of the words we need in a time and place like this.

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