Wednesday, September 29, 2010

City of Angels: Why is Christian Philosophy so Negative?

We watched an old Meg Ryan / Nicolas Cage movie last night called City of Angels. It was a decent romantic tragedy, though a bit slow moving. But it got me to wondering: why is Christian philosophy so profoundly negative? Why does happiness always come at a terrible price? Why is love a zero-sum game where if someone wins, someone else has to lose?

(Spoiler alert!) In City of Angels, Nicolas Cage plays Seth, an angel who watches over the good citizens of Los Angeles. Meg Ryan plays a heart surgeon (Dr. Maggie Rice) who is having a personal crisis over the fact that some of her patients die. Since Seth is an angel, he doesn't have human senses like touch, taste or smell. To make a long (literally) movie short, Seth falls in love with Maggie, discovers that angels can "fall to Earth" and become human, and so he gives up his immortality for love. After a good dose of reality (cuts, bruises, rain and getting robbed), he gets to spend one blissful night with Meg Ryan before she is hit by a truck and killed.

I totally don't get this. This is one of the weirdest things about Christianity: whenever something good happens, it has to be balanced by something tragic.

Seth the angel is immortal and he loves saving people from danger and comforting them when they die. He gets to hear the choir of Angels in the sunrise every morning. But God has given humans the greatest gift of all. Seth is denied the pleasures of touch, taste and smell. He can't feel a caress, experience the burst of flavor of a fresh pear, inhale the fresh morning air, or feel love through a hug.

Why, if God is loving and merciful, didn't he make his angles truly happy? He's all powerful, so presumably anything is possible. Why can't Seth be an angel and enjoy the pleasures that humans have? Why is the Christian God so determined that nobody be truly happy, including His own angels?

And why the tragic ending? Why did God have to take Seth's happiness away, and take Dr. Maggie Rice's life in her prime? Apparently Seth somehow pissed God off by falling in love and choosing Maggie over immortality, so God decided to show Seth true bliss for a night, and then destroy it all.

I know ... it's just a movie. But it's more than that, because it embodies a theme that pervades Christianity, and for that matter, Judaism: there are no winners. All of the good things in life are temptations, and if we partake, God will get us. We have to be humble and ascetic or else God will be angered by our presumption that we deserve happiness and will take it away.

As for me, I'll take Humanism any day. Humanism starts with the basic idea that human happiness is a good thing, that we should cherish and nurture it at every turn. And more importantly, Humanism tells us that when we find happiness, we should simply enjoy it.

Life isn't a zero-sum game where joy has to be balanced by sorrow. Life can be good, but it's up to us to make it good. If we are always looking for the cloud, we'll surely find it. But if we believe that happiness is possible, we can make it so.


  1. They use this philosophy because it's a good way to diffuse the "why does evil exist" argument. The sentimentality attached to this win-lose paradigm dampens questioning and logic and tries to produce reasons based wholly on emotional manipulation. ... "it's just the way it is; now stop asking why and pray!". It's the only way they can live with the paradox of "evil".

  2. The big 3 Zoarastic-based religions seem to be all about control and misery, even though they promise happiness, love, and comradery with the divine. Too many empty promises made by those who want to control using divine spirits to back them up, and people still want to die and kill in their name. It all goes back to the song from "Beauty and the Beast". "We don't like what we don't understand, in fact it scares us, and this beast is mysterious at least..."
    So don't look into the mysterious, don't solve the puzzles, don't be taken in by logic, and maybe Yahweh might decide your soul might be worth saving? Where are all the "happy texts" that Pollyanna told us about? I know the bible has not been altered that much, but pop culture has too much. When did having good clean fun become a sin? Are we sinning when we watch a fun family movie or riding a rollercoaster at a theme park? Just like Mr. James I guess I am rambling, but when it comes to the BIG 3 Z's, Too many of us who aren't part of them can't help but ramble.

  3. First of all, see the original movie - "Wings of Desire" - a German movie by Wim Wenders which is one of the masterworks of 20th Century cinema. I haven't seen "City of Angels", but it looks like crap, a travesty of the film of which it is supposed to be a remake.

    What makes you think this is a Christian film? Sure it has angels, but I don't think the original ever said they were Christian angels.

    As for the negativity of Christianity, it depends on where you look. I suppose Christianity (if we mean organised religion) is often negative in the ways you say, but one finds much less of this in the words of Jesus. (Sure if you see it all as God's plan then the crucifixion is pretty negative.) But Jesus wasn't negative about the pleasures of life. He liked to hang out with the whores and drunks, etc. The people who knew how to have a good time. And when he said that stuff about a man who looks at a woman with lust in his eyes committing adultery with her in his heart, he wasn't saying that sex was a bad thing. He was saying that those who desired another man's wife might as well have had sex with her, because repressed desires alienate one from the God within. It's not sex that does this, but repressing it. And those who don't admit their imperfections, their sins, such as lusting after women, may, in denial, end up stoning adulterous women. Like in "King Lear" where it talks about the judge whipping the whore that he secretly wants to fuck. Jesus didn't want people to be ascetics, avoiding the pleasures of the world. He just wanted us to honest about ourselves so that love could form between us, in a way that hypocrisy would not let it.

    One can get this view of Jesus philosophy very clearly through the works of William Blake :

    "Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
    As the catterpillar [sic] chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys. (8.21, 9.55, E36)"

    "Abstinence sows sand all over
    The ruddy limbs & flaming hair
    But Desire Gratified
    Plants fruits & beauty there. (E474)"

    "Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity. / He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence." (7.4-5, E35)"

    "Better murder an infant in its cradle than nurse an unacted desire."

    I think the origin's of Christian asceticism may be with Paul. He seems to have been a miserable bugger in many ways, and very anti-sex.

    My theory is that evil is the imposition of one's will upon another, hence : slavery, rape, war, genocide...

    But some believe that other things are evil, such as forms of consensual sexual behaviour or irreverence to their particular god. I think they believe that these things are sinful simply because they threaten their fragile repressed ego. Sex, and other forms of pleasure, can be very unsettling to the person trying to maintain some rigid form of discipline, which religion often is. There are some laidback religious people, but more often they are struggling to hold it all together. Thus the uptight guys who wrote the Old Testament and the uptight guys who created the Christian churches put a curse on such subversive pleasure which would threaten not just their own egos, but the hierarchies of which they are apart. For an explanation of the relationship of sex repression to hierarchical social organisation, check out "The Mass Psychology of Fascism" by Wilhelm Reich, a man who also asserted that there was no evidence of Jesus being anti-sex.

  4. City of Angels was a typical crude Americanized bastardization of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire.

    Can anyone think of a single foreign film that was improved by Hollywood remaking it? I sure can't.

    P.S. Nick Cage was much more angelic as Big Daddy in Kick Ass.

  5. Hollywood does not equal Christian theology. The drama was created for the cinema, so your why questions should be answered by a screenwriter or director, not by Christian "philosophers". Why would you not critically examine the motives of Hollywood as much as those of religion (none of which sanctioned the movie)?

    Asceticism is a spiritual practice that can be found in a variety of faith traditions. The origins vary. In some cases it is a way for the institution (the Church) to keep followers in check morally, and keep themselves in power. In some cases, asceticism was a form of civil protest. Many women in history, for example, pledged a life of asceticism to escape social requirements to marry (men they did not love). These are just a few historical/cultural examples. Dissertations have been written on the subject.

    And Christianity only teaches that “God is out to get us” in a very narrow understanding and spiritual application. Most Christians (beyond children who cannot understand more advance concepts, developmentally) would not profess that God.

    -Spirituality Student

  6. Anon -- Hollywood screenwriters write using themes that resonate with their audience. Hollywood is like a mirror on society, reflecting back and amplifying our dreams and beliefs.

    And you're mistaken about the Christian view of God. The problem is that the Bible has so many contradictions that you can "prove" God is anything you like, from benevolent to cruel. Here's another blog I wrote on this very topic.

  7. Jaycubed – Nicolas Cage's best role by far was Raising Arizona. I don't ever think I laughed so hard.

  8. Of course the Bible has contradictions. It was penned by humans (white, male, privilidged ones at that). You have to go beyond the Bible to understand the full scope of Christian teachings. It is called Theology, and yes, it is all over the spectrum too. Apprarently some fundamentalists hurt you along the way and now you have Christianity wrapped up in a little box. Hopes and dreams and reflections of society are not theology, nor dogma, nor specific Church teachings. Those are influenced by far more than Faith, and the movie is too, and to use it as a pure representation of Christian teachings is as effective as using Britany Spears as a sole representative for modern music.

    -Spirituality Student

  9. Craig A. James said...
    Jaycubed – Nicolas Cage's best role by far was Raising Arizona. I don't ever think I laughed so hard.
    While I agree that Raising Arizona is Cage's best role, I don't think he's particularly angelic in that film


    Dear SS (spirituality student)

    The reason that the people you find on this site oppose all Theologies is not that they don't understand them (check the current studies showing atheists know far more about religious tenets than do Believers) or that "some fundamentalists hurt" us.

    We understand what it is you're selling and we actively reject it because it is childishly simplistic, supremely stupid, morally bankrupt and destructive to both societies & individuals.

    When we "go beyond the Bible to understand the full scope of Christian teachings", what we find is a history of horror perpetrated by True Believers of every stripe.

    As an instruction manual for how to live a moral life, the various Bibles of the monotheistic religion are horrible. As a record of how humans actually do act towards each other, they can be quite informative.

  10. SS -- I don't get your point. My blog wasn't trying to claim that one movie represents Christianity. Rather, I was using it as an illustration, just one "embodiment" if you will, of Christianity's embedded negativism. The Christian concept of original sin is probably the foundation of this negativism, and it's amplified by so many of Christianity's core beliefs. The vilification of sex by the apostle Paul and by St. Augustine is another example of this negativism (I've written a number of blogs about the immorality of Christian morals if you want to learn more about my thoughts).

    I still maintain that Christians and Jews have a deeply ingrained idea that good has to be accompanied by bad, that there always has to be some sort of cosmic balance to keep us from being completely happy.

    In fact, the opposite is definitely true: That God has promised that our suffering here on Earth will be rewarded in Heaven if we behave. It's been my experience that most religious people also reverse this in their minds and feel like without suffering there can be no rewards.

    This movie was merely an example of that type of thinking, and I find it to be an incredibly destructive core philosophy. Most Christians and Jews (and probably Muslims, but I don't personally know very many) don't even realize that they think this way, but watch their responses to life's challenges and rewards, and you'll realize just how pervasive this belief is.

  11. Anon -- you wrote, "Apprarently some fundamentalists hurt you along the way ..."

    Do you think you're playing with kids here?

    Here is some advice: Don't ever say this. It insults my intelligence and makes you look foolish. This is a big mistake that many religious people make, assuming that every atheist is angry or hurt. It's incredibly condescending.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. I was raised in a non-religious family, educated as a scientist and engineer at top universities, and never cared much one way or the other about religion until a decade or two ago when it became apparent to me the damage the Christian right is doing to our morals, our education, and our ability to do good science.

  12. Perhaps I'm just dark but to me the best stories are the ones that are majorly dark and depressing but hold a small glimmer of hope in the end. I don't know, I like sad endings. Happy Endings to me are just... well, boring.

    The idea of the 'happy ending' was actually quite foreign to the east until American culture invaded.


Dear readers -- I am no longer blogging and after leaving these blogs open for two years have finally stopped accepting comments due to spammers. Thanks for your interest. If you'd like to write to me, click on the "Contact" link at the top. Thanks! -- CJ.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.