“The Master” and its Connections to Current Trends in American Religion

At the beginning of last week, Arizona State University gave its students (including me!) a two-day break. “What to do with 48-hours free from classes, lectures and university-related events?” I wondered. In all honesty, I was grateful for any amount of break time. As it turns out, I used three of those hours to squeeze in a movie before the real work (like writing this blog post) began again.

I had heard good things about “The Master,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It is a film set in the early 1950s, and is implicitly about L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of scientology.

On Tuesday morning, I rose early, hoping to get to the theater before any crowds scooped up all of the tickets. Keep in mind it was a middle-of-the-week, early afternoon showing of a movie that had been playing for over a month. Let’s just say I had little to worry about in terms of securing a seat. As I arrived at the box office, I was greeted by two pleasant surprises: tickets for the 1:05 p.m. showing were not only still available in abundance, but they were also only five dollars! Here is photographic proof that my movie-going experience was quite literally a solo experience…

Audiences may not be flocking to the theaters to see “The Master” in Phoenix, but critics like A.O. Scott have found it compelling.

In any case, while the film may have been playing for an underwhelming five people (I actually counted), “The Master” itself did not disappoint. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film was distributed by The Weinstein Company and also stars Amy Adams and Laura Dern. Phoenix is not my favorite actor, but his character, Freddie Quell, is compelling, if only because of his self-contradictions. As the film begins, Quell is a wayward soul with a troubled family history. He cannot keep a job and is addicted to sex and alcohol, and displays signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (although they did not have this diagnosis in Post-World War II America). In many ways, one can argue that Quell needed nothing more than a strong, forceful personality like Dodd to “save” him and to turn him away from following a less than desirable path.

Other characters question Quell’s loyalty to Dodd and to what they call “the cause,” but for much of the movie’s two and a half hours, Phoenix’s character can be described as a fierce defender of his new mentor and the belief system Dodd is creating. Ultimately, for all of its twists and turns, I believe Anderson’s new film is a criticism of Hubbard’s philosophy, as Hoffman’s character can be overly ostentatious and self-righteous. There are uncomfortable moments when the viewer is made to feel that whatever movement or cause or belief system Dodd is attempting to establish is more of a cult than a warm, welcoming community. But I also think that for whatever flaws it displayed, “The Master” can provide some insight into the current lack of faith in religion in America.

A recent episode of On Point with Tom Ashbrook titled The New Profile of Faith aired on NPR Thursday, October 11. One of the guests, Gregory Smith of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says that the number of people claiming no religious affiliation at all is at roughly 20 percent overall. The study was also written about in the Los Angeles Times as well as other major publications, and it finds that while Protestants were 62 percent of the religious population forty years ago, they now comprise 48 percent of Americans in terms of faith groups.

One might assume that downturns in the national economy and generally high unemployment rates could actually increase the number of religiously affiliated people in the country. Certainly, the viewer could see that Lancaster Dodd heavily influenced Freddie Quell in large part because of his difficult personal difficulties with family life and personal relationships. But just as economic and other struggles can bring people closer to their faith, they can also drive people away from a church, synagogue or other place of worship.1 Sometimes, it is not issues like the economy or politics that affects a person’s faith, but rather something that occurs within the institution, such as the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Gregory Smith notes the impact of decreasing American religiosity on Catholicism in his On Point interview, saying, “in the process of religious switching, Catholicism loses more members than any other group… There are four people who are former Catholics for every convert to Catholicism.”

“‘The Master’ is really more Freddie’s story than Dodd’s, and some of the film’s drama resides in the struggle between the two characters — and perhaps the two actors — for supremacy,” writes A.O. Scott

The primary point to be made here is that, while Americans appear to be losing faith in numerous institutions in recent years, religion is one in which it is easy to quantify either tremendous fervor or lack thereof. It’s doubtful that Anderson set out to create his latest film with any mindfulness of the shift in people’s belief systems, but “The Master” does drive home the point that those who lack a deep sense of connection to any religious institution can be more easily influenced by charismatic, confident leaders like Lancaster Dodd. Over sixty years after “The Master” is set, here in 2012, many people are still seeking strong leaders in numerous aspects of everyday life, including religion.

I was surprised that “The Master” did not receive the public acclaim I believe it deserves, as many of the reviews I read online posted by fans panned the movie, saying that is “masquerades as some great character play” and calling it “a self-indulgent exercise in art.” Was it the best movie I have seen within the year? No. Was it the best movie it could have been? No. Is it a movie that I would watch over and over again? No. (more on this last question in a later post) But despite all of that, the movie I saw was entertaining, thought-provoking and carried a message about the power and potential pitfalls of religiosity in American life.

Quick notes: (1) “The Master” has an R rating for multiple reasons, so it’s best to leave the kids at home. (2) For another interesting NPR podcast dealing with this topic, check out Episode 320 of “Snap Judgment,” called Losing My Religion. (3) I would also recommend reading the review on this movie by prolific New York Times critic A.O. Scott written in September.

1. It is also important to note that there is a distinction between having faith in a particular religion and being spiritual. One can count themselves as spiritual or a believer in God, but do not attend formal religious services, as the study cited.

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