A person can have character. They can have scruples and be a solid citizen. Does that make them religious? Maybe. Maybe not. But these may indicate that the person is spiritual, as their behavior is indicative of being on some kind of spiritual path.
What is spirituality? It’s taking that inner journey that enables a person to discover the essence of their being. It’s searching for the deepest values and meanings in life. In other words, it’s the embracing of life. The non secular path is a trail that will permit you to try to do that more fully, but it will not make you more holy and closer to God. Religion contributes, but will not in itself deliver spirituality.
Religion is hollow without feeling.
I’ve always believed that all true art is the result of spirituality. It is one of my deepest truths. After all, the goal of art is the embodiment of life. It contains all the primary forces of consciousness. When we think of artists, we usually go right to the image of a tortured soul, someone not quite mentally stable, or in other words, somebody who lops off their own ear and then dances about in sunflowers. Make the mistake of doubting the sincerity of a passionate artist and they will become impatient with your lack of faith. They will wait for you to come home (insert mental image of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction here) to confront your blasphemy.
There is a definite passion and devotion when it comes to artists. The creation of their art becomes integral to their spirituality and their spiritual path. Artists who don’t listen to their soul and respond to it, suffer.
Throughout history, in other cultures at alternative times, usually it has always been the holy man who created icons of worship and taught others the way to experience the divine. I talk of the shamans and ancient priests. It’s only in our modern culture that we’ve drained all the emotional juice from rituals, beliefs, customs, and religion. We’ve psychologically separated the idea of artist from the holy man.
Spirituality and art work together. You cannot have one without the other.
Most of us are familiar with Stephen King. We’ve all read him. He began as a struggling artist who lived in poverty, spending his days writing reams of fiction that couldn’t get published and languishing in a self-induced hell of alcoholism and depression. His frustrated wife dug one of his failed manuscripts out of the garbage, and in typical wife style, nagged him into finishing it. That manuscript was the novel Carrie, which converted Stephen King almost instantly from a tortured deadbeat into a pop-culture novel-writing cyborg of epic proportions.
He’s now published a gazillion books. But dig deeper into his works and you’ll notice that the world’s most famous HORROR writer is also one of the world’s most spiritually attuned novelists. Spirituality is the featured texture that runs beneath the surface of all his stories. In every one of them, he bathes his characters in sin and then confronts them with pain. Those characters are then given an opportunity to rise above their adversity by faith.
Only God can forgive sins. He has forgiven us by washing away our sins in the agonal blood of His crucified Son, but Stephen King understands that sacrifice doesn’t change our responsibility to atone for our sins whenever possible. Atonement is a powerful theme in his novels.
Atonement is the lock on the door we close against our dark pasts.
Thumbing through my dictionary, I find that the definition of Redemption is deliverance from sin. It means salvation and the atonement for guilt.
Which brings me to the reason I’ve knocked on your door this fine Sunday and handed you a free copy of Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. If you have a few moments, I’d like you to sit down and ask yourself an important question: “Have you accepted Morgan Freeman’s voice as your Lord and Savior?”
I’m joking, of course, but DANG! Does that guy have a great voice or what. Much like an old prostitute’s vagina, his voice is deep and comforting. It probably has the power to give life or take it away. When Morgan Freeman’s voice doesn’t like something, that something quickly learns to be more awesome or ceases to exist.
For instance, the dinosaurs. Morgan Freeman once turned down a role in Jurassic Park because he said the idea of a movie about dinosaurs was silly. His voice echoed back to prehistoric times and the dinosaurs heard him. Being surprisingly sensitive creatures, and despite having their bellies full of caveman flesh, all the dinosaurs promptly fell over and gave up on living.
Oh, science will tell you it was some kind of extinction level event, but that isn’t true. I’m pretty sure it was the power of Morgan Freeman’s voice.
The film version of Stephen King’s novella was shortened to The Shawshank Redemption and tells the story of Andy Dufresne, an innocent man serving life in prison and who splits his time between filling out tax forms and getting gang raped. The poor man‘s only solace is that all this horror is narrated by the soothing disembodied voice of Morgan Freeman.
One night, a depressed Andy retreats into his jail cell with a length of rope, leaving Morgan Freeman’s voice to worry that Andy is going to hang himself. The next morning, the prison warden opens up the cell, finds it empty, smashes the place up and looks behind a poster of Raquel Welsh to find–SPOILER WARNING–Gwyneth Paltrow’s severed head. Oh, wait, sorry. That was a different Morgan Freeman movie. What the warden discovers behind the poster is a hole in the wall through which Andy has escaped. We learn that he has spent his decades in prison meticulously chiseling himself an escape route in preparation for one day becoming a metaphor for the human spirit.
And people love that metaphor. Get busy living or get busy dying. That’s what carried the film to being voted #1 on IMDb’s top 250 films of all time. Seriously, the world’s largest movie database on the internet, the destination of 100 million users each month, voted The Shawshank Redemption as the favorite film of all time.
The movie has become something of a modern Gospel. Folks just respond to it’s messages of hope, sin, redemption, salvation and faith. It is a Christian parable that reminds everyone that we all hold the keys to our own prisons.
“Hope is a dangerous thing,” Morgan Freeman’s voice tells us. And it can feel that way because we’re surrounded by pain, struggle, degradation, violence and brutality. No doubt about it, the world can sometimes seem like a hellish place. The beauty of a Mozart aria can dissolve the walls around us and expand our consciousness, but such moments get us into trouble. Beauty teases us.
I’ve heard some denounce the film as anti-Christian because of it’s glaring portrayal of Warden Norton, an obnoxious Bible-thumping Christian who distributed Bibles to new prisoners and claimed: “I believe in two things: discipline and the Bible. Here you’ll receive both. Put your trust in the Lord. Your ass belongs to me.” He refers to the Bible throughout the film to justify his sadistic brutality of the prisoners and to add an air of pious authority to underscore his corruption and ruthlessness.
Okay, I understand the complaint. The Warden is the only Christian character in the film and he, in effect, uses the Bible as a symbol of oppression and hypocrisy. Yep, I get it.
So what was Stephen King really thinking when he created the character of Warden Norton? That the man was a vehicle of social commentary. People are weary of corruption hidden behind the guise of righteousness. The Warden proclaims to believe in the Bible yet does not live by its ways. He is spiritually crippled by his inability to identify with lower men.
During a cell tossing scene, the Warden quotes Mark 13:35 to Andy: “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming.” Using this quote allows Norton to make himself appear powerful. Andy retaliates back with John 8:12, “Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Andy realizes that Norton is corrupt and that he doesn‘t take the Gospel seriously. He is challenging the warden by saying that the path to a moral life is not by following Norton. Norton ends this confrontation by handing Andy’s Bible back to him and instructing: “Salvation lies within.”
This is true. Andy’s own inner strength will eventually deliver that.
Years later, at the end of the film, with the sirens of impending justice descending upon him, Warden Norton notices his wife’s cross-stitch on the wall with the phrase “HIS JUDGMENT COMETH AND THAT RIGHT SOON.” He removes the cross-stitch from the wall and opens the safe behind it. All he finds is Andy’s Bible with an inscription written on the inside cover: “Dear Warden, you were right. Salvation lay within. Andy Defresne.” The Warden’s earlier statement has proven biblically, theologically, and literally true. Turning to the book of Exodus, the biblical story of escape from bondage, the Warden discovers the empty hiding place of Andy’s rock hammer.
It was unconventional, but the Bible was used as a symbol of liberation.
To those who criticize The Shawshank Redemption as being anti-Christian because of the Warden’s portrayal, they should go back to their own Bibles and study the actions of the Pharisees. The Hebrews that held themselves as most important to God made themselves the most bitter, and deadly, opponents of Jesus Christ and His message.
Stephen King understood the lesson from the Pharisees and modeled Warden Norton on them. The movie isn’t saying that all Christians are crazy, it’s just that religion seems to give certain types of crazy people a chance to shine. Self-righteousness is not righteousness.
The symbolism is implied rather than obvious, but the falsely convicted Andy is meant to resemble a modern-day Christ figure. He vanishes from his tomb-like cell only to be reborn in the baptismal waters of a nearby creek, causing Norton to angrily scream, “Lord, it’s a miracle!” Don’t forget the film’s most famously iconic image, the poster shot, that of Andy rejoicing in the storm, with his arms outstretched, his head lifted toward heaven, in a moment of agony and ecstasy.
This is the moment of salvation, of deliverance, of redemption.
Andy becomes a symbol of the crucifixion.
The film is great on multiple levels. It‘s a sly prison drama, a heroic journey, a social commentary, and religious parable. It is a tale of friendship between the two inmates, Andy and Red (Morgan Freeman) who find comfort and commonality in their differences. Guilty and innocent, old and young, black and white. Andy is fortified by Red’s experience, and Red is ultimately freed by Andy’s faith. All of it leads to the parable, the redemption, in a wonderful narrative of rebirth. It is a story that tells us spiritual growth is a voyage of commitment and hope, but redemption is not complete until the two forces of spirituality unite, the savior and the saved.
And where do Andy and Red reunite at the end of The Shawshank Redemption? Like Christ and the disciples, who became fishers of men, they meet on the seashore where Andy is fixing a boat he plans to use for charter fishing.
The Pacific Ocean becomes a symbol of a bright and blessed future, the place hoped for, a kind of heaven, all glittering light and endless expanse of blue.
A warm place that has no memory.
Atonement locks the door against their dark pasts.
Thanks for your time, you can keep the literature. I’ll be leaving now. What’s that, you want me to exit through the toilet? Sure, no problem. I’ll crawl through five hundred yards of shit smelling foulness you can’t even imagine. Five hundred yards. That’s the length of five football fields, just short of half a mile.
Have a nice Sunday.