God in the Box

The documentary film God in the Box came to my campus this week. Here’s a trailer:

Two days before the documentary was screened, a version of “the Box” was set up outside the student center, so that students could step inside and record their own “What does God look like to me?” videos. Selections from that footage were then compiled into a short to accompany our campus screening of God in the Box. Two students from courses I’m currently teaching were included in the short, which felt a little weird, I have to say (it was like eavesdropping on them in the confessional), although I felt teacherly pride in how articulate they were (not that I can really claim credit for that).

This documentary is a great artifact for my current research project, which is unpacking the politics of religious pluralism in the U.S. today. By that I mean, I’m interested in analyzing the discourse used by advocates of religious pluralism, so I can identify, denaturalize, and contextualize their underlying assumptions and agendas. This film works well for that because there’s a certain coyness about the way filmmaker discusses his project, both in the film and on its website, which allows me to come in and say: All right, so what exactly is going on here? What are you trying to accomplish with this film?

  • What social problem do you imagine that your project is addressing? (In this case, as with many advocates of pluralism, the filmmaker sees the project as a corrective to conflict around religion–including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, judging from something he said during the Q&A following the screening).
  • How exactly, do you imagine that your project is going to meliorate the problem? (How do you imagine that religious conflict will be averted by audiences watching a movie in which random strangers tell the camera  about their views of God… and in which the author of The Christ Conspiracy pontificates about the unity supposedly underlying all the world’s religions? Sorry, a little editorializing there. Really, though, that was professionally painful to watch.)
  • When you use rhetorical yes/no questions like,  “Is there an emerging, ‘un-organized’ religion or faith developing today?” or, “We think our views of God are accurate, as compared to primitive descriptions of God just a few thousand years ago. But will our descendants, a couple thousand years from now, be looking back on our current interpretations as, just as primitive?”–why do you pose rhetorical questions rather than just making your argument directly? What does that discursive strategy suggest about how you’re trying to position yourself in relation to other parties on the social landscape who speak normatively to audiences about religion? And why do you find those questions relevant to the problem you’re trying to address?
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