Dick Cheney’s Repentance
My reaction to watching The Day After Tomorrow
On Tuesday evening, June 26, 2004, I was supposed to be in an airplane flying to Norfolk, Virginia for our General Assembly, but our flight was cancelled due to bad weather, so I had a free evening, and my wife and I decided to eat out and go to the picture show—I’ve seen one movie at the theater in the past two years. As we enjoyed our romantic meal at Arby’s, we opted for action and adventure and purchased two tickets for the AlGorecal disaster flick, The Day After Tomorrow.
I won’t give the plot away—ha! ha! It’s just rolling action and disaster, no surprises, because the only twists in this plot are the twisters in Los Angeles.
There is an obvious take-off on the current administration: a middle-aged President and an older, all business, Vice-President. The President looked a bit like Al Gore himself, but the V.P. could have been Dick Cheney’s brother.
The best part of the movie—but only if you can see it as a piece of comic relief, undoubtedly not the director’s intention—is the worst part, because it was so cliché riddled that it sounded as if it had been written as part of a skit for a church youth group. It was Vice-President Cheney’s, er, I mean Becker’s, “repentance,” televised globally on . . . are you ready?
But my wife and I enjoyed it immensely—great escapist adventure, and we even held hands through half of it—even though the film was a piece of religious propaganda.
Its underlying evangelistic message was brought home in a couple of scenes in the New York Public Library. As the small group of survivors is huddled there in a room with a fireplace, tearing pages out of books and feeding the fire, one of the two surviving librarians holds an obviously old book. It is an original Gutenberg Bible, which the man had taken from the rare book room. As the small group of survivors is huddled before a fireplace in an upstairs room of the New York Public Library, tearing pages out of books and feeding the fire, the man clutches the book, refusing to throw it into the fire. One of the surviving high school students derisively asks, “Do you think that book will save you?”
“No,” he responds, “I’m an atheist.” He then adds that this is a Gutenberg Bible, the first book ever printed and goes on to comment that this makes it worth saving as a most valuable piece of Western Civilization: printing marks the beginning of the Enlightenment.
There is no response of belief on the part of the teenaged girl—I thought that she might at least have muttered some New Age stuff, but she didn’t. Her lack of response is not unimportant. In an earlier scene where the survivors are gathering books, there is an argument between the two surviving librarians, the older man and a woman. The argument is over a book by Nietzsche. She says that Nietzsche was a male chauvinist; the man responds that Nietzsche was the greatest thinker of the nineteenth century. This, too, is quite important because of Nietzsche’s core religious teaching: Nietzsche saw Christianity, with its focus on life after death and patient submission, rooted in faith in the promises of God, as destructive; Nietzsche pressed the idea that a god who would rescue man is dead.
In my view, that’s one reason why the librarian specifically mentions Western civilization. It’s not because he views its Greek, Roman, Jewish and Christian pillars as perpetually true; it’s because of what liberated man has built on these four pillars: an Enlightenment understanding of the Cosmos. There is no life after death, either through Eastern reincarnation or the hodgepodge of New Ageism; nor is there truth to Classical immortality of the soul or the Christian resurrection of the body, and, more importantly, there is no god to rescue us. This fragile world is exclusively in our hands, and the Enlightened West should be leading the way in sacrificing economic health on the altar of ecology, since we alone understand how the world works—not those foolish Arabs with their all-powerful Allah, nor the Hindus with their pantheon of deities and reincarnation. Religion isn’t neutral; it’s become dangerous in the modern world. That’s my read on it—smart people are atheists, and people who are not atheists are not simply fools, they are the very ones allowing this abuse of our ecosystem.
The fundamental religious message running through The Day After Tomorrow is one of the threads motivating the War on Terror, not that Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Blair are closet members of the Green Party. It’s that the Crusade of the twenty-first century is not that of Christianity against Islam, but of a secularistic inculcation of “Democratic values” that have no specific, religiously defined, root. Of course, this War is actually very religious, but its war against the “Fundamentalists” of the world is religious in an unconscious and naïve way. “Fundamentalists” are the enemy—all who believe that their religious understanding should help shape public policy. Furthermore, by “Democratic values,” I don’t necessarily mean “one man, one vote,” but the establishment of a New World Order, where religion is kept in its place and not allowed to “destroy the world.” The more capitalistic side of this New World Order, at least in the United States, would find lots of adherents in the Republican Party; whereas, the more environmentalist side would find its best representative in former Vice-President, Al Gore, a Democrat and a religious zealot who sees this film as an effective tool of evangelism: everybody ought to see it.
We should never forget that all cinematic presentations are pieces of propaganda and, indeed, that the purpose of the theatre has always been religious: as Aristotle points out in his Poetics, the purpose of tragedy is to arouse terror and pity and thereby bring about the catharsis (katharsis) of these emotions.* A play can change the way that people think and feel about things far more effectively than reasoned discourse. Given twenty-first century technology—the special effects in The Day After Tomorrow are fantastic—drama can do this through films as never before in history. That’s why we must never allow our children to watch dramatic presentations outside the context of Deuteronomy 6:4-7. (“Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”)
As I said, it was pure escapist entertainment, but its evangelistic message is obvious; that’s why the Bible is cherished as the fragment that marks the beginning of Man’s liberation from God. This illustrates why we cannot watch a film like this uncritically. Indeed, can we ever watch any film uncritically? Isn’t watching a movie a bit like attending the worship service of a religious cult? You may find the service very entertaining, but you’ve got to guard your heart.
* Aristotle, The Poetics, “Tragedy is, then, a representation of an action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude—by means of language enriched with all kinds of ornament, each used separately in the different parts of the play: it represents men in action and does not use narrative, and through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions.” (English.) (Greek.)
As Aristotle discusses various tragedies, he comes to the case of Orestes and comments about “the madness that led to his capture and his escape by means of the purification.” (English.) (In Greek, “salvation through the catharsis,” SWTARIA DIA THS KATHARESEWS.) This example, dramatically portrayed, may enable the audience to experience salvific purgation as well.
‘Aristotle’s word for this effect is “purgation” or “catharsis.” The Greek word can mean either the cleansing of the body (a medical term) or the cleansing of the spirit (a religious term). Some interpreters are shocked by it, because they do not wish to associate poetry with laxatives and enemas; others insist that Aristotle had the religious meaning in mind. I think it is more sensible to assume that Aristotle did not mean either one literally: he was talking about tragedy, not medicine or religion, and his use of the term “purgation” is analogical. There are certainly bodily changes (in our chemistry, breathing, muscular tensions, and the like) as we undergo the emotions of tragedy, and they may well constitute a release like that of literal purgation. But tragedy speaks essentially to the mind and the spirit, and its effect is like that which believers get from religious ceremonies intended to cleanse the spirit. Aristotle noticed (Politics, VIII) that, in religious rituals that he knew the passions were stirred, released, and at last appeased; and he must have been thinking partly of that when he used the term “purgation” to describe the effect of tragedy.’ [Aristotle, The Poetics, trans. S. H. Butcher, intro. Francis Fergusson, “Introduction,” (Hill & Wang Pub; 1961), p. 35.]