The new version of “Godzilla” reminds a pastor that stories are always in danger of being sanitized, whether a monster movie warning of atomic danger or the sacred story of Jesus.
Confession: I plan to see the new Godzilla movie, billed by critics as the best monster flick since “Jaws” back in 1975.
One reason I want to see “Godzilla” nouveau is my interest in the evolution of the special effects industry, which has now managed to create believable monsters out of, well, thin air and endow them with a credibility the creature-makers of yesteryear could only have imagined. But there’s another reason, too.
“Godzilla,” a Japanese film directed by Ishiro Honda, debuted in 1954 and featured as the monster an actor zipped into a rubber reptile suit who strode about a miniature Tokyo wreaking havoc, derailing model trains and ingesting toy cars. But “Godzilla” was, from the Japanese perspective, a far more important film than Americans understood.
Japan remains the only nation to have been on the receiving end of nuclear weapons, and “Godzilla” was an anti-nuclear polemic from the people who knew best the terror of the atomic age. When the 1954 film was translated into English and released in American theaters, its original cultural context had already been lost, and American viewers perceived little more than King Kong gone reptilian. Ho hum.
In one of those synaptic serendipities that occur well outside logic, I recalled “Godzilla” while reading Reza Aslan’s “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” during a recent beach vacation. I’d been meaning to read “Zealot” but hadn’t, until my youngest brother handed it off to me, asking that I let him know what I thought. So in filial fidelity, I delved into it.
To folk who’ve been educated in the historical-critical method of studying Scripture -- further confession: I hold an M.Div. from Duke -- much of the ground Aslan covers is not new; what makes “Zealot” compelling reading is the author’s description of first-century Palestine in its economic, political and theological complexity, as well as his thesis that Jesus of Nazareth bore little resemblance to the “Christ of faith,” who was largely the creation of St. Paul.
While some New Testament scholars have disputed Aslan’s analysis, his book reiterates a basic point folk of faith ought to remember: the sacred story always stands in peril of sanitization.
And herein lies my second reason for wanting to see “Godzilla” nouveau: I want to see whether any shred remains of the primal, anti-nuclear warning, surely as relevant now as in 1954. I’ll bet not. I’ll bet all has been sanitized, technologically enhanced, politically denuded, rendered in shades of beige.
This time of year I think of clergy colleagues in the United Methodist Church who will be moving into new parishes, “receiving new appointments” in our tribal argot, for whom the sanitization of the sacred story could become a tantalizing option.
It’s far easier to preach the Prince of Peace than to recall the frenzied Galilean who overturned the moneychangers’ tables; more conducive to church growth to exegete the lilies of the field than to mention that Jesus provided health care to the poor. The sacred story stands always in peril of sanitization, the newest edition bearing scant resemblance to the prophetic original. Pleasant preaching may be done all across the spectrum of benign beige, to the great relief of one’s new flock, come July 1, or whenever a pastor takes over a new pulpit. Cupcake Christology -- always a winner.
One of the languages the Spirit speaks in her habitually annoying manner is synaptic serendipity. Just when you’re cruising along in your reading or reflection, Pilate’s revulsion at Jesus safely stowed away in the back of your mind, the Spirit, uninvited, turns up and links Godzilla to Caiaphas. Please, God, may it continue so until Jesus of Nazareth comes in final victory.