Heavens Above, Apocalypse Below

A middle-aged man, I was decidedly in the minority at an 11am weekday screening of “Gravity” at the Grove, one of the open-air consumerist Potemkin villages that began sprouting in Los Angeles and other Sunbelt cities just before the economic downturn in 2008. About a third of the audience was under the age of 1, and each of those diapered cinephiles was accompanied by at least one grownup female companion. The possibility of a cacophony of crying infants worried me a bit, but when a lesbian couple settled in next to me with all of their baby-on-board paraphernalia, I knew I was in the right place.

No spoilers. I’ll just say that Sandra Bullock can expect another Oscar nomination, and her character’s rapturously rendered rebirth at the end of the narrative was especially gratifying. The most interesting aspect of the film, from my perspective, was the tacit but pervasive reference to the overview effect, a shift in existential perspective that many spacefarers across the geopolitical spectrum have reported since Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth over half a century ago. Seeing our biome as a whole, suspended in the great void, produces an appreciation for its preciousness and makes much of the overheated drama of human society seem like so much petty squabbling.

And it is. I suspect the remarkable popular and critical success of “Gravity” has to do, at least in part, with the facsimile of the overview effect that the film imparts to an audience living in a country whose noisiest political actors seem hell-bent on hastening the End Times.  It’s worth noting that references to the Apocalypse punctuate much news coverage of the debt-ceiling crisis—in mainstream media like the New York Times and the Atlantic as well as staid Wall Street-oriented outlets like Businessweek and Bloomberg.

The Times is usually pretty good about publishing news analysis pieces that offer deeper and wider perspective on important events. But it has yet to examine the close relationship between Tea Party religiosity and the movement’s alarming alacrity for brinksmanship—a connection begging to be made, considering how easily talk of the apocalypse has slipped into reportage that is otherwise oblivious to the influence of religion on the events in question.

At its best, journalism offers a kind of overview effect to news consumers. The importance of that notion struck me as the credits rolled and several dozen young mothers softly murmured knowingly to one another while they tended to their sleeping babies. Safe, stable societies need journalistic institutions that are committed to illuminating the relationships—religious as well as monetary and political—that support the exercise of power. In its coverage of the debt crisis, the Times has followed the money and analyzed political machinations, but it has yet to see religion hiding in plain sight.

About Nick Shindo Street

Nick Shindo Street was most recently Senior Writer at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, where he reported on Pentecostal and charismatic religious movements in the global South. Previously, he served as a contributing editor for LGBT issues at Religion Dispatches and as a contributing writer for the Jewish Journal. His reportage on science, religion, sexuality and culture has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Global Post and L.A. Weekly. He is a student at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles.
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