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Review by Joshua Gibbs
Before Orthodox Christians receive the Eucharist, they confess, “Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss; but like the thief will I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord in Thy Kingdom.” In the age of the internet, one has to wonder, what good does it do to “not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies,” given that anyone may find a seemingly endless conversation about the Orthodox Eucharist online? The credo seems born of outmoded cultural norms, harkening back to a time when the uninitiated were not even permitted to stand in the nave of a Church when Communion was celebrated. At the same time, while I am not a person who often fields questions about what it is like to receive the Eucharist, were some skeptic to inquire of me how it felt to have the actual body and blood of Christ pass my lips, I believe I would decline to answer. While such a skeptic could go find a discussion of the matter on an Orthodox website, that fact in no way diminishes my own responsibility to the confession, which means keeping mum.
Granted, I would probably struggle to not feel some sense of self-righteousness in declining to answer. Generally speaking, Christians have lost any sense of discretion when discussing religion. We regard the defining physical act of marriage to be off-limits in discussion, though the defining physical act of the Christian cult is not regarded with such austerity. In that way, a true knowledge of the sex lives of others remains mysterious. Sin clouds knowledge and judgment, so anyone who has so far abandoned prudence and moderation as to discuss the particulars of sex with a friend (or stranger) is probably doing so in a convoluted frame of mind and thus rendered incapable of saying anything true. Can the same also be said of someone blabbing the esoterica of their worship to the impious?
It is on that final point that Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief suffers serious problems of credibility.
It might be said that practicing Scientologists are of a far more devout character than many modern Christians, simply because Scientologists regard many of their holy stories as fit only for the eyes and ears of the faithful. For his documentary, Gibney collected many former Scientologists, the disgruntled and ill-treated, and asked them for dirt. By this point, most people who have an interest in Scientology have read summations of founder Lafayette Ronald Hubbard’s creation story, which, despite its outlandish imagery, is nothing more absurd than run-of-the-mill Gnostic accounts from the Late Antique. Granted, anyone with a sense of humor will find it hard to keep a straight face when encountering an alternative take on Genesis which involves a “Galactic Confederacy” or “spacecraft resembling Douglas DC-8 airliners,” though plenty of atheist comics win easy laughs pointing out that Christian Holy Writ describes talking snakes, talking donkeys, talking dirt, not to mention a long and grievous story about where rainbows came from. In a lecture delivered at Pepperdine, David Bentley Hart suggested that if Genesis is read literally, the Curse sounds a lot like one of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, perhaps one befitting the title, “How the Snake Lost His Legs.” Obviously, Hart doesn’t take Genesis this way, but this is because he reads it as a sacred text, an oracle. When Gibney presents the story of Xenu and the hydrogen bombs and so forth, he provides plenty of cheap special effects to accompany it, though one has to wonder if the story would seem so absurd if Morgan Freeman was doing voice-over and Terrence Malick, in full blown dinosaurs-and-Polish-requiems mode, shot the thing. Gibney has ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis (whose Crash took Best Picture in 2005) describe his exasperation when he was finally given access to the myth after attaining OTIII level clearance in the Church, though Gibney leaves it at that. Exasperation. He has little interest in the deeper psychological aspects of “belief,” reducing the very act of belief to imprisonment (i.e. the title of the documentary). I kept waiting for Gibney to ask a humane question of his subjects. Paul Haggis seems a sensitive soul and I would have been fascinated to know what effect finding out, at eleven in the morning, his body was infested with invisible space aliens had on the rest of his afternoon. Did you look at your wife differently after finding this out? Did you find yourself more prone to give money to panhandlers? Did this knowledge have any effect on, say, how delicious you found your favorite foods? But Gibney goes for the jugular and so all such questions about personality go unasked.
But, to what extent can Haggis even be trusted? He has renounced his oaths, abandoned the faith, and so all his former convictions seem to him so much dross and detritus. Further, we discover later that the last straw for Haggis was finding out Scientology regarded homosexuality as an aberration. Haggis has two daughters who are lesbian and he found it unconscionable to participate in a religion which condemned them. Gibney seems sympathetic with Haggis on this point. He doesn’t press the sincerity of Haggis’ commitment. We don’t hear any tough questions about binding covenants or hating-father-and-mother-and-following-Me. For Haggis, as well as for Gibney, intolerance of homosexuality means the ballgame.
In the end, Gibney’s documentary isn’t about belief at all. But neither is it about self-deception, intrigue, fraud, doubt or hope. That documentary would simply be Paul Thomas Anderson’s criminally underrated The Master. Going Clear is an expose, only slightly less self-congratulatory than a John Stossel piece on American bureaucracy. Gibney even uses a number of establishing shots wherein the camera rises rapidly thirty feet in the air outside the Scientology headquarters— these same shots are favored by MTV and NBC reality shows set in beach houses. Such transitional problems underscore Gibney’s lack of focus. At times, Going Clear is a history of Scientology, at other times, a thumbnail sketch of Hubbard or a record of current leader David Miscavige’s many wrongs. A few of the videos of Scientology pow-wows Gibney has acquired are interesting, though I think I would have preferred just watching a semi-inquisitive Jesuit priest (or a Dominican hardnose) converse openly with one of the ex-bigwig blasphemers for two hours.
Documentaries are always, and can only ever be, about people. Make a documentary about the Corvette and you will end up talking with the people who manufacture them, the people that repair them, the people that blow their life’s savings on one. Make a documentary about sushi and you end up following the chef to the market and watching him handle a tuna, then subjectively decide if it is good enough. Make a documentary about a religion and you end up investigating the lives of the men and women who shaped its dogmas and creeds, the personal fight to interpret those dogmas in this or that way. Stare at any human face for long enough and you will break down in tears, for you will understand, along with Elder Zosima and Jean-Paul Sartre, that you are responsible for the testimony written in that face. Gibney has shirked the documentarian’s burden. He has finally made a dismal, incurious film that will enlighten no one.