Ron Howard’s new adaptation of the Dan Brown book Angels and Demons represents a breakthrough in Hollywood’s approach toward religion, taking the discussions of faith away from the extremes of proselytizing and rejection to the middle ground. That is where most believers are, and that is where great storytelling takes place. And Angels and Demons is great storytelling.
As a practicing Muslim working inside Hollywood, I have often felt that there is a tangible bias in the entertainment industry, not just against my own religion, but against people of faith in general. Too often, I have seen important film and television projects that look at religious faith in a sophisticated way disappear into a black hole within the system. The excuse used by many traditional Hollywood types, that religion is just too controversial a matter to deal with in cinema, has always rung false.
Indeed, the great moguls who founded Hollywood knew that the majority of their audience consisted of devout believers, and being smart businessmen, they catered to religious ticket buyers with majestic films like The Robe and The Ten Commandments. Indeed, it is the latter film, Cecile B. DeMille’s epic on Moses, which has exerted profound personal influence on me both as a believer and as a filmmaker. The Ten Commandments was the first movie I ever saw after I emigrated from Pakistan to the United States at the age of three.
Watching that film on our newly acquired television set in our tiny apartment in Queens, I was taken away to a magical dimension. A world where God spoke to men through a burning bush and a pillar of fire, where a shepherd’s staff could transform into a snake and the Nile could turn red with blood, a world where an evil Pharaoh could be humbled by a simple prophet emerging from the desert. I remembered turning to my father as the end credits rolled, my heart pounding with wonder, and asking him a question that would begin my personal journey of faith.
“What is God?”
Over the years, I have heard many answers to that question, but none that has yet to satisfy me more than the one my father gave me that night after we watched the movie.
“God is the light of the universe. What Moses saw was just one ray of that light.”
His perspective has stayed with me over the years, and has allowed me to approach both my craft as a filmmaker and novelist, as well as my social interactions as a human being, with a sense of humility. The Ten Commandments taught me that God is everywhere, and His voice can be heard at any time, from any source. Whether it is through a bush burning in the desert, or from the mouth of someone from another culture, even another religion, God’s voice is always echoing around us, if we only choose to hear.
Yet faith, as any true believer will admit, is hard. We are imperfect people living in a broken world trying to make sense of it all, and it is often hard to reconcile what our hearts tell us about the spiritual beauty of God and what our senses tell us about the evils and suffering of creation. Faith at its best is our shelter during the storms of life, our sturdy ship to guide us through the turbulent seas of the human experience. But at its worst, it can be used as a tool to control and oppress others, to spread suffering instead of love in this world. Any believer who is sincere must confront daily the contradictions that come with belief and somehow synthesize these opposing realities in a way that makes sense to the heart, even if it cannot be grasped by reason. To trust that there is purpose and meaning in this cosmos, despite the onslaught of evidence to the contrary. Maybe that is why it is called “faith” in the first place.
Angels and Demons is the first Hollywood movie in a long time that really looks at what it means to be a believer, and the extremes that can be found among people who look to faith for guidance. Without revealing the film’s secrets, I think it is safe to say that it is a movie that examines whether science and religion are incompatible, and explores the dark actions that people take when they conclude that one of these disciplines threatens the other.
While some conservative Catholics might find the film’s portrayal of the secret dealings inside the Vatican offensive, I think most people, Christian or otherwise, will appreciate its very human picture of characters who are motivated by faith and committed to struggling with “demons,” both in others and within themselves. It is this presentation of raw, imperfect human beings struggling with faith that I appreciated most, as I face these battles within myself every day as a believer.
Indeed, when I wrote my novel, Mother of the Believers, I found myself naturally examining these conflicts in the context of the birth of Islam. My book, which follows the rise of Islam from the perspective of Aisha, Prophet Muhammad’s wife, portrays the early Muslim community as consisting of very complex, passionate and, at times, flawed individuals. People who most overcome their own inner demons to do good, and when they sometimes fail, who repent and return to the “straight path,” as sincere faith is called in the Qur’an.
What I hope my novel accomplished, and what I know Angels and Demons did, is to take the discussion of religion out of the hands of extremists with an agenda. That agenda could be the desire to proselytize others and convince them of the truth of a religion, or to go to other extreme, which is to mock believers as simpletons who couple faith in God with a conviction that the earth is flat and that babies come from storks.
To my sorrow, many of my colleagues in Hollywood share the latter agenda. People of faith have complained for years, with real justification, that Hollywood promotes an anti-religion outlook. Bill Maher’s recent documentary Religulous went out of its way to find the wackiest, craziest believers in the world and then mock them. And Hollywood studios continue to resist making movies that would appeal to believers. Long before there was any controversy over Mel Gibson’s beliefs, his idea about doing a film on the Crucifixion in Aramaic was mocked by studio executives, who could not understand why such a film might appeal to millions of Christians.
While one can certainly take Mr. Gibson to task for some of his words and actions, the movie is a powerful and compelling work of cinema that even a non-Christian like myself can appreciate. At its core, it is a film about the central Christian story of the Messiah’s tragic sacrifice for mankind. How could that not be a blockbuster? And yet many people I knew in the industry flew into an outraged frenzy when The Passion of the Christ became a huge global hit. It was as if the demonstrated power of traditional religious audiences was a personal insult to the worldview of many Hollywood players, who, in my experience, usually worship only one god – money.
This prejudice against faith inside Hollywood makes Angels and Demons an even greater accomplishment. Ron Howard’s movie is important not only because it treats religious faith with respect, but because it actually explores the central issue that is important to many believers today – how to reconcile ancient religious beliefs with the modern discoveries of science. Contrary to the prejudices of anti-religion writers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, the majority of faithful people are not living in a delusional world, their eyes and ears closed to science and discovery. InAngels and Demons, one of the most important scientists involved in cutting edge physics research happens to be a Catholic priest. For that character, the quest to understand the fabric of the universe through the lens of quantum science is very much a religious quest to pierce the veil and see at last the Face of God.
As several characters in the film point out, religion and science are methodologies to come to understand the truth of the cosmos. They do not need to be antithetical to each other. In fact, they can and should be complementary human endeavors to understand this remarkable universe in which we find ourselves.
And this is by no means a radical new perspective among believers. As the film points out, Galileo saw himself as a devout man seeking to understand God’s creation. Isaac Newton also found no contradiction between faith and science and believed the existence of God was self-evident. It was simply his role as a scientist to better understand the work of the Creator. God was the cosmic clockmaker and scientists were merely examining the delicate inner workings of His design.
And in the modern world, with the strange and inexplicable discoveries of quantum physics, scientific treatises on the nature of reality sound remarkably like ancient mystical writings. The more we learn about the shocking contradictions and improbable mechanics of the subatomic world, the more it appears that the universe is less like Newton’s giant clock and more like one giant dream, imagined from within an implicate order that transcends human reason. Such a vision would be familiar to the Sufis of Islam, along with their counterparts among Buddhist masters, Kabbalists and Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart.
And it is not only the scientists that are beginning to realize that something truly magical serves as the foundation of reality. Believers are beginning to see in the wondrous scientific order of the universe the evidence of the Divine in action. In The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Francis S. Collins explains why the discoveries of modern science only confirmed his personal faith as a Christian. Mr. Collins is no backwoods preacher – he is a pioneering medical geneticist who once led the Human Genome Project.
A similar effort to unite faith and science has long been under way in my own faith, Islam. In my novel, I discuss how Islam was founded on a hunger for knowledge. Prophet Muhammad said: “Seek knowledge, even if you must go to China.” And his words inspired Muslims to become the world’s greatest scientists at a time when Europe was mired in the Dark Ages. In Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists, Michael Hamilton Morgan demonstrates how Muslim scientists in the Middle Ages made incredible advances in every field of study, from astronomy to medicine to mathematics.
In the modern world, there has been a popular effort among Muslim writers to present Islam’s scripture, the Qur’an, as completely compatible with the discoveries of modern science. A bestselling book in the Muslim world, The Bible, The Qur’an, and Science, by a French physician Maurice Bucaille, argues that the Qur’anic verses describing everything from the expansion of the universe to the intricate details of embryonic growth inside the womb are in absolute alignment with modern scientific theories.
Of course, non-believers will be skeptical of such claims, but the point is not whether Mr. Bucaille’s reading of the Qur’an is correct. What matters is that his theories are now commonplace among Muslims, so that believers do not find modern scientific discoveries to be in any way threatening to their faith. In fact, because of this widespread interpretation of the Qur’an, many Muslims find confirmation of their faith through the discoveries of modern science. The painful Christian debate over the primacy of faith versus science that is portrayed in Angels and Demons is simply not happening in the Muslim world, as there is already a consensus that there can never be any contradiction between the two.
But even if one is unconvinced that any ancient scripture can remain unchallenged by the discoveries of modern science, it is important to note that the purpose of scripture is not, in fact, to serve as a scientific textbook. The purpose of any holy text that has survived the centuries is to provide moral and ethical guidance to human beings. That is true of the Bible, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita and the Buddhist Sutras. These texts are meant to help us as human beings live in this world and make sense of our lives. They survive because they work.
A Christian friend of mine once asked how I reconciled the story of Adam and Eve in the Qur’an with the scientific consensus on evolution. I smiled and said to him that I didn’t bother. It’s like comparing apples and musical notes. The scientific theory and the scriptural story serve totally different purposes.
Science is about how. Religion is about why.
Scientists examine the fossil record and come to an understanding of what it means for the history of life on our planet. But the scriptural story of creation is not about history – it is about values. As a believer, the story of Adam and Eve teaches me everything I need to know about what it means to be human. We are all children of Adam, whose name simply means “dust” in Hebrew and Arabic. We are children of this earth. Human beings are brothers and sisters, all part of one family. Like our archetypal father figure, we can make mistakes, we can sin, and we can also repent and find forgiveness. That is the lesson of the story in both the Bible and the Qur’an. Whether it describes a historical event is absolutely pointless and irrelevant.
Science can tell me how I got here as a human being, but it cannot tell me what I am supposed to do now. Indeed science without a spiritual connection can be used to create great evil, as the Nazis proved with their eugenics experiments. The Nazis believed in the methodology of science, but they did not believe in the simple lesson derived from faith – that human life is sacred. The ancient stories and rituals of our religions are meant to help us learn profound spiritual truths that cannot be deduced by examining cells under a microscope. It is that power of wise storytelling that is religion’s purpose and gift to humanity.
Cecil B. DeMille understood that. He knew that the power of the Bible lay in its stories, and he turned those stories into incredibly moving, epic films. These ancient tales about good versus evil, the power of love and forgiveness, and the triumph of the weak over the proud, are timeless and have meaning for every generation. It is a kind of storytelling that Hollywood has sadly forgotten.
But perhaps with Angels and Demons, Hollywood can start moving away from the extremes of materialism and cynicism toward the spiritual center where the audience eagerly awaits. And then maybe we filmmakers might be able to play a more profound role as storytellers that help human beings make sense of this truly majestic cosmos.