Elizabeth: The Gnostic Myth

We watched “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” the other night. No, I wouldn’t call it “anti-Catholic,” as some of my Catholic friends have, for the simple reason that they would suggest that it is therefore “pro-Protestant.” It isn’t.

As the commentaries on the DVD by director Shekhar Kapur make clear, he’s trying to make a morality play on issues of “tolerance” vs. “religious fanaticism” in today’s world. Thus the Spanish, though they are Catholic, with candles and clerics and crucifixes galore, really represent “religious fanaticism”; draped in black, slinking across the screen like the mustached villain in a bad melodrama (please feel free to “boo” and “hiss”), they are evil, and represent those religious forces even good church-going Americans fear. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is the embodiment of reason and enlightenment; she is a benign monarch who wants to be generous and protective of her Catholic subjects. She represents tolerance and compassion and wisdom.

Not only Catholics, but also the descendants of the real Protestants of the period, whether Puritan or Lutheran or Anabaptist, should smirk at this characterization.

The screenplay was written by William Nicholson, also known for “Gladiator” and both versions of “Shadowlands.” He was raised and educated Catholic, but, as his autobiographical sketch notes, he outgrew Christianity while in college.

I still considered myself a practising Catholic as I began my university career, as a scholar at Christ’s College, Cambridge; but by the time I left all that was left was the space in me that my faith had occupied for so long. Much as I wanted to go on believing, it became clear to me that it’s we humans who make God, in our great need. God, if he existed, would have no need of humanity. But as all my writing demonstrates, the need or the puzzle or the hunger has never left me.

Director Shekhar Kapur is also a spiritual seeker, and is aligned with Deepak Chopra. He has said this is a film about Elizabeth seeking her own divinity. In another place, he recalls that Cate Blanchett suggested he was trying to tell the story of the Buddha through Elizabeth, and he says, “She was the only one that got it.”

If you’ve seen the movie, think of the scene where Elizabeth strides barefoot to the cliffs to observe the burning Armada. She’s no longer wearing the Galadriel-like armor and riding an elvish horse as she did in her rallying the troops speech (“Upon St. Crispin’s Day!” was all that was lacking). Now she stands barefoot and apparently vulnerable–but she has been transformed. It is not a “Protestant wind” that wrecks this Armada–it is the Divine Virginia, whose glance causes the winds to blow and the lightning to fall upon the benighted Spaniards. Here she has pulled away from her own mortal prison and awakened the inner sleeper, repelling the forces of Mara. She is Neo of “The Matrix.” She is Muad’Dib of “Dune.”

We don’t sympathize with this Elizabeth at the end. We don’t find her repulsive. We can only laugh at Kapur’s silly New Age vision.

5 thoughts on “Elizabeth: The Gnostic Myth

  1. Ahem, ahem, Liz wasn’t that tolerant of all her Catholic subjects, in “John Bull’s other Island” she was responsible for systematic massacres.

  2. Gnostic or Proto-Liberal?

    Richard Rorty observed:

    “I’m delighted that liberal theologians do their best to do what Pio Nono said shouldn’t be done – try to accommodate Christianity to modern science, modern culture, and democratic society. If I were a fundamentalist Christian, I’d be appalled by the wishy-washiness of [the liberal] version of the Christian faith. But since I am a non-believer who is frightened of the barbarity of many fundamentalist Christians (e.g. their homophobia), I welcome theological liberalism. Maybe liberal theologians will eventually produce a version of Christianity so wishy-washy that nobody will be interested in being a Christian anymore. If so, something will have been lost, but probably more will have been gained.”

    @ Faith & Theology

  3. If Kapur were a simple liberal, that might be the case. But I’ve noted his relationship with Chopra, and his theme of divinization.

  4. While it is true that Elizabeth I did execute Catholics, it is important to note the reason. It was not for heresy (she did not execute them for their beliefs), but treason. It was English Catholics support for Mary (Stewart) Queen of Scots, in the many plots to murder Elizabeth and put her on the throne. There were even Catholic’s who were members of her council. She even said she was not interested in looking into and judging the heart. People often say Mary was killed because she was Catholic, not true, she was executed because she was plotting with Phillip of Spain to kill her cousin. I agree that this movie is inaccurate. If someone wants to find out more about her and the issues of her reign I would suggest, “Elizabeth and Mary: Rivals, Cousins, Queens” by Jane Dunn.

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