Towards the end of her fine essay in Mark C. Taylor’s Critical Terms for Religious Studies, Margaret R. Miles distinguishes between icons used in some Christian traditions (e.g., Eastern Orthodox) and the images of contemporary film. The latter, she argues, “function iconically” only when “viewers augment the image[s]… imagin[ing] how it would feel to be in the protagonist’s situation… the smells, the tastes, the touch the film character experiences… Moreover, Christians who use icons gaze at the same image again and again; most people see a film only once, though some people see a few films again and again.”
With respect to a great many Hollywood-generated images, Miles’ point is well taken: perhaps they typically do not “function iconically,” as her terminology would have it. But this situation may be shifting in important ways. As noted in a range of recent accounts, sites associated with contemporary films–such as the “life-size” statue of Jedi Master Yoda (pictured above) at Lucasfilm Studios beside the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco–are becoming important travel destinations for growing numbers. Increasingly, it seems, Americans (and folk from other nations as well) want to be in such places and to do those things that allow them to draw closer to beloved images.
Indeed, the range of (ritual?) performances at such sites is remarkable. Those who visit the Yoda statue may, for instance, bring their children who have “been raised on the Star Wars films,” hoping that they might “absorb Yoda’s teachings… through sheer proximity to the statue.” They may also visit other geographical locations where various scenes from the films were shot, such as Luke Skywalker’s childhood desert home (Tunesia), the salt flats over which R2D2 roamed (Death Valley), the forests through which Luke raced with Imperial Storm Troopers (Northern California), or be married where Padme and Anakin were married (Lake Como, Italy).
Nor is it exclusively images from the Star Wars genre that have received imitative performances. The Mansfield State Penitentiary and the surrounding town of Mansfield, Ohio, were Shawshank Redemption (1994) was filmed, have witnessed the emergence of a cottage industry catering to those who want to walk through Shawshank’s cells, be married in its courtyard, crawl through the faux sewage tunnel through which Tim Robbins’ character made his escape, or find the oak tree under which Morgan Friedman’s character discovered a secret message, map, and money left for him.
For someone interested in the emergence of new religious movements, this mode of social production becomes especially interesting when we think about how far might it come to extend. Could the vast institutional (Christian and otherwise) religious mainstream (in America and elsewhere) come to explicitly incorporate transnationally-distributed Hollywood images that are already “functioning iconically”? While this may strike many observers as entirely too “far out,” it is worth remembering -to return to Star Wars as one among many possible examples-that Jediist churches, orders, temples, academies, and so forth are flourishing in a variety of Western societies (e.g., Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the U.S.). We also have seen the explicit blending of Jedi-Christian and Jedi-Islamic traditions, and popular resources offering other possible syntheses (e.g. books like The Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters). The suggestion here is not that Jedi or other Hollywood images might come to dominate mainstream expressions as something imposed from without, but rather that they might come to infiltrate them from within, exerting a hermeneutical Force that could be with us religiously as well as cinematically.