imagesIn “The Central Sector,” Merleau-Ponty’s second chapter of The Structure of Behavior the philosopher first introduces the difference and relation of figure and ground. The passage discusses the effect of natural light on the perception of a grey ring on a yellow ground, but the fungible and yet persistent relation of figure and ground trails with and through most of his lectures and writings. What is figure and what is ground—and how they are perceived—are not isolatable, he claims, but (in words I draw from a slightly different discussion) “depend on a constellation of both proprioceptive and exterioceptive stimuli” (89). As with perception of the world, so with perception of religion, I would argue. Religion is not a thing or object but a constellation of particular (and culturally predictable) patterns of figure, ground, and contrast.

MV5BMTg3MjgwMzEzNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzU1NDQ3MTE@._V1__SX1218_SY588_“Snowpiercer” (Joon-ho Bong, 2013) is the most obvious. This odd Korean film has attained something of cult status in the U.S., maybe because it stars “Captain America”Chris Evans as its warped messiah figure, and maybe because its parlay of environmental devastation and severe antagonism between the rich and the poor is a crass enough and linear enough ground not to be taken too seriously. The film pits a religion of survival through violent protection of the status quo against a religion of democracy through violent overthrow of privilege. Curtis (Chris Evans) is clearly positioned as the figure chosen to lead humanity to a kind of Lucan justice: The poor, the hungry, the weeping and the hated seek their heavenly reward of material abundance and social recognition. What Curtis cannot bring himself to sacrifice in part—or perhaps because Curtis cannot sacrifice parts of himself—he sacrifices in total, redeeming the loss of one mother-child couplet for another, and resetting earth’s counters to a new (and thawing) Eden, with the recognition of nature itself (the animal gaze) substituting for spiritual resurrection. The film avails itself of a crass and basic ground of Christian filmic mythology in a manner that works sufficiently to drive forward the plot, though it ends up flopping like a fish out of water around unproductive questions. MV5BNDcyODQ0ODAzM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTQxMzkxMDE@._V1__SX1218_SY588_“We Are the Best” (Lukas Moodysson, 2013) is a less obvious but still familiar refraction of a Christian grounding form. Two 12-year old Swedish girls grasp at the dying embers of punk rock to thread a wavering line of meaning in their worlds of primarily benign neglect. Their families and teachers are barely present, but punk externalizes the huge ‘Fuck You, World’ that they seem to carry around with them. Just as the figured friendship of Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) reaches an intolerable pitch of annoyance, they listen to Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) play classical guitar at a talent show and decide to recruit this friendless Christian as the sole figure who might teach them just enough musical skill to keep afloat their punk obsession. Hedvig’s mom (Ann-Sofie Rase) slips into stereotype as a doctrine-oriented dogmatist, but Hedvig herself oozes the best sort of proselytizing—that of quietly being a model of Christ, a grounding force of peace, honesty, love, dedication, commitment, and responsibility. Hedvig’s gradual, solid influence on her two friends turns the film’s title into a religious double entendre: punk may or may not be dead, but sinking into a Christian ground can indeed make them the best.

MV5BMjM2NTg3NDE0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODYxNjU0MzE@._V1__SX1218_SY588_“Wild” (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014) also relies on a familiar kind of god, but one often categorized as ‘spiritual, not religious’. Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) departs into the wilderness to “become the woman my mother intended me to be,” or, in standard back-to-nature parlance, to “find herself.” The film loops from an opening scene of mountaintop frustration through a series of flashbacks, and when the story returns to its opening scene, Cheryl turns around and unexpectedly encounters a small red fox sitting calmly and staring at her. The fox appears only twice again, but it clearly stands for or as a spirit guide or familiar. The fox is metonymic for the wild, the fox is her god, and she is foxy: beautiful, canny, quiet, and aloof. Like an Escher picture, the figure is the ground, the ground is the contrast, and the contrast is the figure, depending on how you look at it.

**all photographs taken from the respective movie “photo” pages on