Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 28, 1996

On The Humanities:
For Believers,
Fundamental Things

Steve Libowitz
It's hard to read the newspaper or watch television news without coming upon a story about religious fundamentalism, especially when one or another movement turns to violence. Writing Seminars chairman Mark Crispin Miller believes such press accounts tend mostly toward the sensational and the alarmist and don't accurately portray the essence of these groups.

Miller, a professor of film and media studies, has programmed Believers: The Impact of Religious Fundamentalism, a controversial film/video series he hopes will help audiences more fully understand today's resurgent fundamentalism through some of its most militant examples.

"These films are not propaganda for these movements," he says. "Rather they offer a more nuanced and informed view of these movements than we normally get.

"What's important is that we present a program that comes down on the side of no particular fundamentalism and takes a critical view of the Islamic, Christian, Jewish and Hindu religious movements."

All screenings will be at the Baltimore Museum of Art each Wednesday in June (and on July 3), beginning at 7 p.m. (see box for dates and titles).

Each of the five evenings will feature a presenter who will discuss the films before and after they are shown. "In each case, we tried to come up with a presenter who could discuss each film learnedly and dispassionately, from the inside," Miller says.

Presenters include Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for The Nation and a frequent panelist on CNN's Crossfire; Salim Muwakkil, senior editor of In These Times; Village Voice reporter James Ridgeway; John L. Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at George Washington University and editor in chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World; and Johns Hopkins anthropology professor Talal Asad.

The presenters also will discuss the films on The Lisa Simeone Show, which will air at 10 a.m. on WJHU Radio the Sunday prior to each Wednesday's screening.

Miller thinks the timing is just right for this series. He notes that Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres--whose upcoming election bid is complicated by religious extremists from many sides--has said the three major threats to democracy in this century have been fascism, communism and now fundamentalism.

"I don't think anyone alive can remember a time when Islamic Fundamentalism posed such a threat throughout the Middle East, or a time when the Christian Fundamentalists were as politically powerful as they are now," Miller says.

What does he think is behind the rise in fundamentalism, particularly the violent variety?

"To some extent it is an understandable reaction to the rise of the consumer culture and the intrusions of modernity into everyday life, which now revolves increasingly around Big Macs and the Magic Kingdom," he says. "That is an extreme form of secularism, which has inspired an extreme fundamentalist counter reaction.

"Also, we have seen the world becoming more and more corporatized, national identities becoming less pronounced, linguistic peculiarities disappearing. With the whole world becoming like a corporate atrium, people are retreating into various regressive sects."

Miller says that no one locally is programming film series that have such timely and intellectual aspirations. A former board member of the now-defunct Baltimore Film Forum--the model for such programming--Miller wants to fill the void left by the Film Forum's demise this past winter.

This new incarnation of thematically linked screenings interwoven with radio and in-theater discussion was first tried in April with a series on Shakespeare on film. In July and August, Miller will present a series of rock and roll movies (without analysis, Miller notes).

These three series are meant as a precursor to the proposed launching in October of a more formal year-round film society, featuring weekly screenings and discussions with experts drawn from among the Hopkins faculty and beyond.

For more information about the upcoming series of films on religious fundamentalism, call (410)669-1986.

Believers: The Impact of Religious Fundamentalism 7 p.m. Wednesdays Baltimore Museum of Art

    June 5--Jewish/Hamas Fundamentalism
    We Are God's Soldiers (documentary)
    Inside God's Bunker (documentary)
    Presenter: Christopher Hitchens

    June 12-- Islamic Fundamentalism
    Brother Minister: The Assassination of Malcolm X (documentary)
    Hell's Angel: Mother Teresa of Calcutta (short documentary)
    Presenter: Salim Muwakkil

    June 19--Christian Fundamentalism
    Blood in the Face (documentary)
    Presenter: James Ridgeway

    June 26--Islamic Fundamentalism
    Bab El-Oued City (drama)
    Presenter: John L. Esposito

    July 3--Hindu Fundamentalism
    In the Name of God (documentary)
    Presenter: Talal Asad

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