Not too long ago, a polymath visionary, writer and all-around strange dude began to assemble adherents who believed that his odd and fanciful writings revealed deep truths. These truths concerned the inner nature of mankind and the cosmic struggle between the forces of Good and Evil playing out on the battlefield of Earth. The visionary was a strange but charismatic individual, dismissed as a charlatan by some but revered by others. Their master’s teachings gained ground over time, appealing in particular to certain elites and celebrities. The teaching became a church, a few famous adherents gave the new teaching visibility, and slowly people stopped laughing—or at least kept the sneering more private.
It was often hard to figure out exactly what this new religion taught. There was a World of Light, which gave birth to the First Man, who had five sons who corresponded to the five light elements. There were three separate creations, and twelve virgins of light, not to mention the Column of Glory and some aborted giants and five evil kingdoms and—seriously, this thing was harder to follow than a Game of Thrones episode. But the basic idea was that humans were entirely spiritual beings trapped through some misfortune in the physical world, and our job was to liberate ourselves from the evil of the material plane and reside forever in the spirit world.
I am talking, of course, about the third-century Gnostic leader Mani, but if you thought it sounded a lot like Scientology, you’d be right. L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s deeply weird founder, had a lot in common with Mani and Manichaeism, which just goes to show that if you’re going to found your own religion you should at least do the research and make sure it hasn’t already been founded by someone else. Manichaeism was basically the Mormonism of its day—small but mighty, growing in popularity over a few hundred years, and, frankly, far more interesting than the Christianity upon which it was based.
As I sat through Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, quietly chewing on my own femur to stay awake, I had time to consider how much less frustrating and boring a film about Manichaeism might be. But wait, how how does movie that features Philip Seymour Hoffman yelling “Pigfuck!” at people manage to be boring? Could it be that I’m just not the target demographic? Or maybe I’m just contrary enough to be irritated by a movie that asks us to think—really think, goddamnit, are you even listening to me?—without giving us anything to think about.
Anderson’s movie follows drifter and all-around loser Freddie Quell, who hooks up with L. Ron Hubbard—excuse me, Lancaster Dodd—and then drifts around with him, occasionally beating up people who say insulting things about L. Caster Hubb-dodd. More weirdly, the movie also features quite a lot of masturbating, probably meant to show us either how sexually obsessed and animalistic Freddie is or how religion is just so much pointless wanking off. But then I’m actually not sure if the masturbation was meant to be anything other than kind of gritty and gross, because I’m not sure what the movie thought about anything. If this movie were a person, it would be that relentlessly neutral counselor who, no matter what you say, always replies, “And how does that make you feel?” without ever betraying an actual human emotion.
And that’s a shame because there is a lot in the story of Scientology and its founding that is worth thinking about. Granted, The Master isn’t about Scientology (sorry, The Cause); rather, it’s about the emotional lives of the people involved in the founding of The Cause. It’s as though the contents of the religion—any religion—are as unknowable as they are uninteresting. Of course, emotions are exactly what the The Cause—okay, screw it, Scientology—sets out to conquer, striving to free us from the imprisonment of our physical bodies, allowing us to return to the perfected Thetan bodies we used to inhabit, in which we (or at least, major donors) can access the superpowers that are our birthright. As a basic proposition, that’s no more or less crazy than giving your disciples power over snakes and poison, the idea that Jesus came to Utah, or, for that matter, came to Earth at all.
One of the coolest things Scientology claims to do is lead adherents to “remember” through elementary hypnosis their past lives, back many hundreds or sometimes trillions of years. (If you object that the human race is only about a million years old, you’re forgetting your star body before you got imprisoned on Earth, boo yah.) It’s easy to chortle up one’s sleeve at people under hypnosis, and I kept waiting for Anderson to punch us in the gut on that one. I wanted our proxy Freddie to undergo one of the Master’s “sessions” and have a full-on out-of-body experience, taking us along for the ride. I wanted our easy dismissal of the Master’s ideas choke-chopped by an undeniably real experience of some sort, and I wanted to watch Freddie’s skepticism come face to face with the inexplicable.
But Anderson’s movie is short on the inexplicable, remaining as earth-bound and pedestrian—as relentlessly non-Thetan—as critics of Scientology might wish. As a person of faith, I can’t help but be disappointed. Does Anderson mean to suggest that all faith in things not seen is just so much wankery? And if it’s just Scientology and its eccentric Master that he’s accusing of emptiness, why? There were tons of other opportunities to place Scientology in perspective, to locate it on the continuum of other religions. Freddie spends time in a migrant workers’ camp, which would have been a great place to show us the presence of faith in the lives of the poor; he spends years, presumably, in the wartime navy, another few years muddling through Middle America—why did Anderson choose to make religion curiously absent in all those places, in this most religious of countries?
I suspect the answer is that having lost religious literacy, we no longer understand where one religion fits next to another, or what the relationship is between them. When that intellectual framework dissolves, we are left with just our emotions to explain things, and every thoughtful discussion devolves into middle-school counselor land. (Did I just make L. Ron Hubbard’s anti-emotional point for him?)
As for Mani and his religion, Manichaeism was around for quite some time before it was finally overcome by more orthodox forms of Christianity. It survived in pockets for almost a thousand years, flourishing in Northern Africa, migrating to China, and eventually becoming the official state religion of the Uighur Turks. St. Augustine, the great theologian of Western Christianity, was once a Manichaean (presumably Manichaeism was easier to quit than Scientology), and the foundational idea of a Good/Evil, Light/Dark, Spirit/Matter split in the world survives in many forms. One day’s crazy cult is the next day’s traditional religion, but no religion is forever. Like languages, they evolve and die, mutate and transform. Who can tell what strange twists along the path of religious history await Hubbard’s group?
In Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s incomparable meditation on religion in this strange country, Louis says to his Mormon boyfriend, “Any religion that’s not at least two thousand years old is a cult—and I know people who would call that generous.” Maybe all it will take is time. Maybe one day your great-great-grand-daughter will marry a Scientologist and make awesome little Thetan babies. Maybe one day Tom Cruise will be spoken of as a wise prophet. Maybe.