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Sex, Religion, and Regeneration



A conversation with friends late last year keeps coming back to me. We were talking about the global youth climate strikes in which Greta Thunberg had emerged as a celebrity figure. My friend Chuck reflected, “People want her to be the next Messiah. But this is a time when we all need to be messianic.


Chuck’s comment brought into focus something that has been tugging on my mind for a while now: the relationship between the regenerative economy and the concept of religion. I realize this is a slippery slope — discussing religion in the context of business.


As if the slope weren’t slippery enough, for further lubrication I’ll add sex.


I’ll borrow an approach from my tenth grade sex education teacher: I’ll use a film. But instead of an over-simplified, sanitized script and preachy voiceover, I’m going to use the Quebecois film, Jésus de Montréal (Jesus of Montreal), to guide us.


I’m feeling awkward. Let me back up a step.


Religious Cluelessness

I majored in religious studies at university in the early 1990s. I chose this because I had noticed that ideas like “the Messiah” and religion more broadly were important to lots of people but I didn’t know what they meant. This seemed worthy of investigation.


Those years of study were a heady time for me having had literally no religious indoctrination. I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland. My quasi Christian experience centered around an annual family Christmas tree that didn’t connect to the Christ-child story told by Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas. The fact that Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and Santa Claus — who had apparently no relation to Jesus — showed up in other televised Christmas specials was not for me to wonder why.


I also have Jewish roots but they only manifested in my family having more bagels than our neighbours, coupled with a dim awareness that my maternal grandfather’s family name had changed from Klein to Cline somewhere along the way. That, and the family lore of our distant cousinship with Leonard Cohen, constituted the sum total of my Jewishness.


In the wider context of my cluelessness I never thought to ask if there was anything other than a Christian or Jew even though I knew I wasn’t really either. I didn’t even know that Jesus was Jewish until those university years, where I also learned that cousin Lenny had become “a Buddhist”, a term I encountered for the first time in a text book shortly before his now classic album The Future was released. Basic Christian ideas such as immaculate conception hadn’t crossed my mind until my Bible 101 course. (More on sex, including the “pretend it didn’t happen” kind, in a moment.)


Enter Jesus (Of Montreal)

Along with studying many different world religions I took a course that examined the historicity of the Bible in which we screened the film Jesus of Montreal. My friend Chuck’s recent comments brought recollections of the film back in a rush and since that conversation last October I have rewatched it three times (which if you know me you’ll realize is about 50% of the film watching I’ve done in that interval).


The concept of the film is fairly simple: the priest of a Catholic church that hosts an annual passion play (i.e. the story of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and resurrection) wants to update the script and bring a new cast on board in an effort to reinvigorate the church’s following. He invites an unknown actor, Daniel Coulombe (Lothaire Bluteau) who accepts the role and proceeds to research the historicity of Jesus in great detail, consulting many of the same sources we were using in the course. Daniel recruits four other actors who take on roles within the play and who, as the film proceeds, assume the allegorical roles of Mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus’ disciples, while Daniel’s character becomes more and more Christ-like.


Spoiler alert: Though you probably know what happens in the end unless you are as clueless as I was 30 years ago (Jesus gets killed) you may not know about the porn and commodified sex. If that’s the case, this would be a good time to pause and watch the film.


Change Agents Have Been At Regeneration For A While

The essence of regeneration in economic terms is about a new economy replacing the existing one. The regenerative economy creates the conditions that allow life to thrive by realigning economic (or, more fundamentally, human) activity with life’s principles — from biodiversity and a livable climate to social justice and wellbeing. To achieve this, a lot of our current norms and behaviors need to change, including the basics of our industrial systems. There are many people engaged in creating this shift, yet the changes are proving hard-fought and as such many are reaching for new and different leaders to guide the way, seeking out new messiahs if you will. Hence Chuck’s comment about Greta Thunberg.

According to Jesus of Montreal, about 2000 years ago someone was trying to do something similar: change societal norms to create a new paradigm of human relationships. Like many people today, and surely many change agents in between, Jesus thought the era he was living in was more important than any other.

The essence of Christianity was the emergence of a new interpretation of ourselves in relation to one another and to God — a reconnection to that which grants us life, one might say. The Bible also offers strong wording on what it means to use money in ways that aren’t aligned with loving kindness, providing the basic tenets of an ethical economy that thrives only in service of people, versus one which people must serve.


Jesus: Not Trying To “Play Jesus”

It’s apparent that Daniel Coulombe’s Jesus was not trying to “play Jesus”. Rather he saw socially accepted behaviors that were causing suffering and sought to change them. He also did not seek to be miraculous. Rather he was trying to get others to embrace life’s miraculousness. To Chuck’s point, this portrayal of Jesus does not have him showing up saying, “I am the Messiah.” Rather, he shows up messianic.


The Jesus of Jesus of Montreal had no armor, no pretense. He was unafraid to tell the truth as he understood it, even when it meant breaking taboos or calling out hypocrisy. His lack of armor was what made him so powerful. It is also what got him crucified, of course.


On taboos, early in the film there is a scene where Martin (Rémy Girard) is in a recording studio doing voiceover for a porn movie, dubbing French over English alongside two female actresses. There is meant to be another male voice actor — as the film being dubbed features two couples having sex — but he didn’t show up so Martin has to play both male parts. It is a hilarious scene as Martin’s acting skills are tested, switching from one man’s voice to the other in the heat of the moment.


The disaggregation of the studio actors’ voices from the action on the screen-within-a-screen is a bald, bold portrayal of an industry that commodifies and sensationalizes the orgasm, that basic physiological experience without which there is no human life. Porn is at once almost universally taboo yet widely accessed. Orgasms, meanwhile, are at once almost universally available yet taboo to discuss (much less have!) in most circumstances. And yet Daniel wades unabashedly into what would be shameful for many, and — during a break in the recording session — invites Martin to join the passion play cast. Martin agrees and walks off the set to take the role of one of Jesus’ apostles, Saint Peter.


On hypocrisy, this portrayal of Jesus goes straight to the foundations of religion. The inaugural performance of the passion play received rave reviews from local theatre critics but it horrified the priest who commissioned it. Father Leclerc (Gilles Pelletier) has all kinds of reasons why the play must be altered to hew more closely to the previous text, one which has been approved by the authorities of the Catholic church.


Meanwhile the priest has fewer concerns about his own sexual affair with Constance (Johanne-Marie Tremblay) who accepts the role of Mary, mother of Jesus in the play. It is a clever nod to the faux immaculacy accepted and promoted by the church — that of Jesus’ origins and of the celibacy of priests — and a display of the sort of full-frontal denial we see carried out every day when institutional harm is normalized.


Daniel doesn’t shame the priest for his choices but he stays the course on the revised script. At one point in the play the characters explain the evidence suggesting that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier. This is delivered without judging the devout for believing the immaculate conception myth and yet making sure anyone paying attention realizes it is just that: a myth.


Several scenes in the film are direct, modern retellings of biblical stories. In one scene — conjuring the Cleansing of the Temple — Mireille (Catherine Wilkening) is auditioning for a role in a beer commercial. The selection panel includes an ex-lover who had demeaned her into believing her only value as an actress was her body, preferably naked. Having now stepped into the role of Mary Magdalene, Mireille toggles between her new found legitimate acting role and earning a living by exposing her body on camera.


Daniel attends the audition and watches her being treated like an object by the advertising men and women. He beseeches Mireille to step away when they push her to take off more clothing. When provoked to stop the “little romantic scene” he queries, “Would you like me to make a scene?” Conjuring Jesus’ outburst in the temple both in action and words, Daniel upends the tables of recording equipment and slaps the woman in charge of the audition.

True to his lack of armor, when he is charged with damages and assault he declines free legal defense and pleads guilty. This leads to his being submitted to a psychological examination where the doctor pronounces that he is “better adjusted than most of the judges in this court.”


Being Messianic In The Age of Regeneration

Truth telling is awkward business. In Jesus’ case it was fatal. Similar hypocrisy and denial plays out today and those who call it out are often crucified in one way or another — ignored, ridiculed or punished somehow. If this were not the case, we would see fundamental behavioral shifts in response to the truth of the sixth great extinction and global warming. We would see wholesale calls for healing and reformation in response to the combined legacies of colonization, genocide, patriarchy and white supremacy baked into our capitalist and legal institutions. Instead the gears of industry — benefactors and in some cases outright causes of these deadly crises — grind on.


To be fair, we are not necessarily experiencing more suffering these days. As Jesus of Montreal reminds us, in Jesus’ time life was short for most people and the extreme suffering caused by crucifixion was a frequent gesture to remind people to heed the state’s authority. People’s appetite to witness carnage was also significant back then — gawking at crucified bodies was an expected norm. Nor has that appetite diminished much today. It is a media truism that “if it bleeds it leads”. The more the media shares on death and disaster the greater the ratings. It’s right up there on the shelf with “sex sells” in the Library of Obvious Truth.


On the one hand these things seem so fundamental as to be absurd to imagine changing. Reducing suffering (not rejoicing in it and profiting from it) and treating all life with respect (not as a sexualized or gender-based commodity at the behest of power structures) are what Jesus promoted. And many of those who stand forward today — who are being “messianic” to paraphrase Chuck — are promoting related ideas. Greta Thunberg is just one notable example.


On the other hand, it’s a mystery to be solved as to why we accept that if it bleeds it leads and that sex sells, while more life-affirming constructs that would serve us well are relegated to a lesser pile. I guess, “If it helps us feel physically, emotionally and spiritually whole it leads,” and, “Joy and peace are free” maybe don’t have quite the same ring to them.


When Bleeding Doesn’t Lead And Sex No Longer Sells

In the denouement of the film, after Daniel has sustained serious injury being crushed by the cross on which his Jesus character is crucified during the play, he rises from the stretcher in the overcrowded hospital that has no capacity to treat him.


Held on each arm by Constance and Mireille, stumbling weakly from the hospital into the subway station, he opines, “Life’s hard to bear, huh?”


The women console him.


Daniel continues, “People aren’t happy. That’s why. It’s the reason. The great events — even the theatre — it’s all done in search of happiness. The source of life is hidden.”


Here we are in 2020, where there are communities and conferences sprouting up around the theme of regenerative business, with umpteen books and articles appearing every day. I plead guilty myself on the charge of being a participant in this movement.


And yet regeneration is akin to a religion in the most fundamental sense — it’s about a reorientation of worldviews which leads to new norms and behaviors. The regenerative economy movement is both an exposure of unacceptable realities and an invitation to reconnect with life’s “source” (insert preferred wording of choice). Some scholars even suggest the word origin of “religion” comes from the Latin ligare, “to connect”. This is not what most people want to talk about in the boardroom, with their boss, or with their investment advisor, but it is part of what it means to be messianic.


The current economy — a religion in that it offers a worldview and fuels norms and behaviors — looks a lot like what Jesus was disturbed by when he attempted to cleanse the temple 2000 years ago, and it’s eerily similar to what Daniel Colombe was repulsed by as he attempted to save his colleagues from exploitation — financial and sexual — in favor of a more loving, compassionate path.


Regeneration doesn’t look like most business today, where profits come by extracting “value” from people and Earth while telling stories about community values along the way. It doesn’t look like a world where that which grants us life is either a commodified taboo (as with sex) or a stylized luxury (as with companies based on biodiversity or holistic wellness). And it most certainly doesn’t look like a world where everything with value has a price. If we need to go on an expensive “eco-vacation” to regenerate, we’ve named the problem right there.


This is not a new concept. Re-watching Jesus of Montreal reminded me that it was the same project for Jesus and probably the same for the Buddha, Confucius and many more (including many women — I’ll come back to that another time). What’s new are the stakes: our economy’s current architecture that’s locked into a collision course with our biosphere, and our global population making our collective behavior significant enough to merit naming a new Epoch, i.e. the Anthropocene.


And so this current round of regeneration is another deep rethink — or more aptly a refeel — on how we live in relation to one another. It invites a world where things that bleed most certainly don’t finance a media industry because no industry on Earth would profit from the suffering of humans or any other life form. It offers a world where in fact sex doesn’t sell — it’s just one more element of humanity’s beautiful biology, along with diversity, resilience and so much more.


I think back on Chuck’s words: Yes, we all need to be messianic. This is no time for celebrity leadership, waiting for individuals to perform miracles. It’s a time for each one of us to embrace life’s miraculousness, to model what we know to be right, to defend those who are being wronged, and to do so without armor, letting hate and shame fall to the side so that something new and better can emerge.


If we get that right, then sex and religion—instead of being scandalous or divisive forces in our midst—become one and the same with regeneration.



Bonus Track: One of many things I loved about the film was hearing birdruckus in the background. Those Montreal house sparrows are a relentless little crew of underrated extras.


Banner art is a chalk drawing by me, called Tree Crossings. Consider if you see it differently if you “read” it from left to right versus right to left. How about top to bottom, versus bottom to top?

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© 2018 B. Lorraine Smith