"Finding God in the City of Angeles": Documentary film screening and discussion
October 13, 2011



The documentary film, “Finding God in the City of Angels,” commissioned and produced by ISS, was screened at the last Brown Bag discussion event. Rich visuals pan across religious and social dynamics in the Los Angeles area to highlight scriptural formations and contestations in an urban setting. Some ISS staff along with students in the Critical Comparative Scriptures class reflect on and  highlight issues and questions raised in the film.

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Tia Carley:
Several things from Finding God in the City of Angels stood out to me or raised questions for me.  While I could not hope to address all of the issues it begins to raise here, I want to touch briefly on a few of them, rather than a more sustained analysis of one of them. First, the film shows the incredible creativity and ingenuity with which human beings approach their scriptures.  The practices, rituals, performances, and ways of reading that surround scriptures stand as striking examples of the endless creativity involved in meaning making and signifying with texts.   Whether sung, danced, displayed, or inscribed upon the body, communities have recourse to an enormous variety of strategies and tools for relating to the text (or non-text) that they deem sacred.   And yet, one Jewish woman noted, “These laws were from thousands of years ago.  It had to have come from God.  How could humans have thought that up?” For me, the statement raises questions far greater than simply one of how a particular individual views her relationship to the text and the text’s relationship to the transcendent.  Rather, it raises questions about what it is about humans that makes us want to resist and deny our own creativity and inventiveness when it comes to scripture.  Given the amazing capacity of humans to “think things up” both now and in the past, why are we so invested in denying that we have this capacity, especially when it comes to scriptures?
        Second, the film highlighted for me the diverse ways in which physical human bodies become ways of relating to scripture.  Whether a Christian preacher holding a Bible, an Orthodox Jew binding tefillin,  a holy woman giving hugs, or Hare Krishna dancing and chanting, that scripture is something that is always related to the body, and is always, in different ways inscribed upon bodies, was evident throughout the movie.  The media of film seems particular appropriate for capturing this relationship.  The ways in which communities and individuals move in relation to and as a response to scripture can be highlighted, as can the ways in which bodies—especially female bodies—can become sites of signifying and meaning-making, through dance, or dress etc.
        Finally, I want to ask about the roles that power, dominance, and hegemony play in the ways in which humans interact with scriptures.  These issues were never—or rarely—brought to the forefront in the film, however, I would argue that, as scriptures are always sites of power, in a way, it is an issue that is inescapable.  The way in which the film is bookended by discussions of scripture by indigenous American peoples, who draw out issues of power and dominance in the discussion of religion, I think helps to raise the issues of power in places in the film where it might otherwise go un-noticed.  For example, one might read some of the new religious movements portrayed in the film as claiming the power for self-definition over against definitions forced upon them by the so-called “world religions.” Or, one might ask questions about how certain communities discussed in the film—for example the black church, or the hispanic church—came to be Christian communities that take the Bible as their scripture (and also, why, in their religious art, figures are represented white, rather than as people of color, in some cases)? In these and other cases, issues of power obviously run deep.

Seth Clark:
It has been a long known idea that where a massive cosmopolitan area is located, one will find manifestations of different ideologies and cultures.  However, Los Angeles is a prime example of religious diversity manifested in one sprawling city.  Everything from indigenous cultures to Judeo-Christian traditions, to Eastern religions in their various forms, is manifested in this living and thriving city.
        Upon reflection, it seems that Finding God in the City of Angels is manifested in finding the importance and meaning of the work of scriptures in these different religious manifestations.  Everything from strong liturgy to expressive dance and the mere manifestation of individual life itself was counted as scripture in this film.  One of the more interesting aspects of the film is when the narrator notes that new manifestations of religious diversity are present in LA and the film shows a group of people wearing t-shirts that read: "Jews for Jesus."  This movement is actually not all that new, one could argue that a careful reading of the Gospel According to Matthew could reveal a strong Jewish Christian community in the late first century and that another group of individuals known as "ebionites" manifested the rituals and practices of Judaism while acknowledging Jesus as the key figure and messiah of their movement.  Another example of such phenomena is the coverage of the "Ecclesia Gnostica" that utilizes Catholic rituals but envisions the universe and cosmology as the ancient sect "Sethianism", based on select texts in the Nag Hammadi Library.  Therefore, the primary question that the film raised for me is any expression of religion, especially the Judeo-Christian tradition, actually new, or could these expressions merely be seen as a cyclical manifestation of old traditions?  Is Christianity a trans-linear phenomena?  What role do scriptures play in such phenomena: written and performance-based?

Jason Hiebert:
I thought that the movie did a good job of showing the breadth of religion in the Los Angeles area.  Certainly, it must have been difficult to try and give appropriate time to each tradition.  Even so, I felt that Christianity and Judaism received much more attention than any of the other faiths.  Perhaps this is appropriate, given their dominance in American culture.
          I found it interesting that there was only one person who unequivocally claimed on camera to represent absolute truth - a fundamentalist Christian.  Many of the other spokespersons tried to downplay the exclusivity of their claims.  One of the Muslims who was interviewed, for instance, made it a point to emphasize that they honor all the prophets of Judaism and Christianity.  Still, people could not keep from making universal claims. I noticed several dealing with anthropology.  One Sikh said that Sikhism encourages people to live as they were "naturally created to live."  And the lady who founded Love Exchange also said that religion is a slave master if it tells you to go against your "natural self."  But even if they are not trying to be polemical, what they understand to be naturally human would be in tension with how other religions understand it, at least, and in many cases incompatible. Unfortunately, the film could not dive into issues like that.  The last note I took on the film was a quote, that people are "espousing a text but denying it at the same time."

David Olali:
Finding God, I think, focuses on the human need of meaning-seeking.  Also, I find some parts of the film truly troubling, breaking “norms” of my spiritual formations.  On the whole, the documentary begs for conversations within-between isolated practitioners, and professors of religions, in its fattening out of, and its broadening remapping of the socio-functional definitions of scriptures, and their agencies.
         The brilliance and multiplicities of religious believes buried in Los Angeles are “resurrected” and “brought to life” in this film, a narrative of chaotic human searches for meaningful existence, in atmospheres of suppression and loss.  The interviewed persons in the documentary —as I see—are stories of courage, challenge, audacity, passion.  Also striking for me is how many of the featured individuals are breaks-away from dominant groups, yet they remained firm in their choice of the term “scriptures.”  But the Buddhism; the swirling dancer; the musics; the tribal religions; the churches, the hip-hop dancers’ perception of Tupac (Lesane Parish Crooks) as scriptures is simply too much to handle  all at once.
         Finding God is apt narration of a post-evangelical era; takes the bull by the horn, challenges all to accept and share responsibilities for dark phases of post-fundamentality, arising from claims to divine “ownership” of sacred texts, and hegemonic legitimacy.  Highly creative, adventurous and enlightening— a resourcefully shocking “wow”— brave, this documentary film is compelling reason not to see as preposterous religious claims, but rather their ordering roles in modeling of community life.
         Due to its forceful visuals and subjective individualisms through its narrating of peoples’ lived experiences, thus establishing an undeniable palpability in its contemporaneity, Finding God exteriorizes with specific nuances the studies of scriptures within the Critical Comparative Scriptures program modeled after the Institute for Signifying Scriptures programmatic.
         The film sets me asking if the cycles of religious and social formations modeled in inventiveness made it necessary for the documentary makers to use of “scripture”.  Did most of the interview respondents “understand” scriptures, in the way the Roman Catholic “understand” scriptures? Could it be that “scriptures” are defined by the vagaries of life rather than by the choice of the definers?  If not, could there any other ways of understanding of the scripture-phenomenon, without recreating the violence of the dominant orders. How does Finding God interrogate the legitimacy of authority represented in traditional notions of scriptures, and what are the implications of these? How much of un-biblical are the “scriptures” portrayed here; what, in particular, do Christians imply when they use the same term: “scriptures”?


Melissa Reid:
Finding God in the City of Angels is a panorama of the diverse religious communities of Los Angeles that poses one question to the individuals that make up these religious communities—what is scripture?  The answer may surprise you.  For some “scripture” is a text that individuals signify upon in order to make meaning.  For others “scripture” is not text, and answers range from land to social change.  A priestess from the Goddess Temple of Orange County replied, “For us, the original text is woman’s body not any book.”  Her response brought to mind Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life to mind, in which de Certeau engages in a discussion of the body and law—law defined as the symbolic system derived from common stories and legends.  He argues that every type of power is written on bodies, be it the social or individual body, of its subjects.  Books are merely metaphors for bodies—that the printed text actually refers to what is already written on our bodies.  De Certeau argues that our bodies are used to create particular social norms.  Rules and customs are inscribed upon our bodies, and we become living signifiers of these rules and customs.  Collectively these bodies convey an order, and our bodies are made into emblems of the law.  Therefore, in the case of the goddess worshippers at the Goddess Temple of Orange County they themselves are their “scriptures.”
         Finding God in the City of Angels does not tell you what “scripture” is.  It allows for the individuals who make up these various religious communities to tell you what it is.  The documentary does not conclude with a precise definition of “scripture.”  In fact, it exemplifies why “scripture” cannot be defined narrowly as text and challenges the viewer to redefine his/her concept of “scripture.”  


Gregg Sherman:
“Finding God in the City of Angels” is a deeply moving and conscious–stirring film exploring not only the extreme variety of religious traditions in Los Angeles, but also their array of perspectives, definitions, interactions, and interpretations of “scripture.” The film starts its journey with the native traditions of the Tongva and Chumash people groups. Before the industrial demolition of the land and displacement of the people, Native Americans graciously received their “text” or “scriptures” through the land and their religious ceremonies. The notion that scriptures are only defined within a “text” is quickly challenged in the film. From this point the film continues somewhat chronologically as each religion staked its claims in the area.
        After watching the film, I could not help but wondering how much each religious tradition’s view of scripture has changed by dwelling in the religious pool of Los Angeles. One such inspiring example would be the African American church redefining Christianity within their culture and history. The notion of God setting the captives free brings this community a refreshingly new identity and relationship with the Christian scriptures. In addition to reinterpretations within their own cultural and social context, more text and even lyrics are open to inclusion within their set of scriptures. For example, some hold the words and lyrics of Tupac to be scripture. Another religious tradition with different views of scripture would be Goddess Theology; they hold the woman’s body to be their “original text” and divine manual, to guide them through life. The film does continue exploring the diversity of religious traditions in Los Angeles, ranging from Judaism to Agape International, and Sufism to Christian Fundamentalism. Diversity of human expression and perception with regard to religious views on scripture, currently finds no greater home than the City of Angels.


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