Winter 2005, Vol. 7, No. 3

Table of Contents
Winter 2005

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Our New Religious Politics

Religion Gap Swings New Ways

A Certain Presidency

Schiavo Interminable

Iraq's Sunni Clergy Enter the Fray

Windsor Knot

Protestants in Decline

The Televangelical Scandal That Wasn't

Channeling Bleep

Cut-Rate Religion Coverage





Channeling Bleep
by Christine McCarthy McMorris


Last August, in the wake of the mind-boggling success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, word began leaking out about a film that promised an alternative spiritual vision: personal enlightenment in place of a personal God, understanding through science instead of through Scripture, and skepticism rather than faith as the highway to salvation. Promoted as “the anti-Passion,” it was called What the #&*! Do We Know!?

What the Bleep!?, as it came to be known, was a concoction of quantum physics, multiple realities, New Age spirituality, and anti-Bush anxiety. As a cultural product, it had more in common with The Passion than might have been expected.

To boost the prospects of their $4 million self-financed enterprise, the filmmakers pursued a Gibson-like plan. “We’re in the mind-body-spirit market, so we decided to mobilize that core group first,” co-director Betsey Chase told Variety’s Kim Snyder August 30.

First begging a booking in a small theater in their base of Yelm, Washington, in February, Snyder and partners William Arnst and Mark Vicente filled seats with students of nearby Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, then gave a special screening to 400 yogis in Los Angeles. In March they entered What the Bleep!? in a New Age-friendly Film Festival in Sedona, Arizona, and afterwards moved it to a local theater. With a built-in audience, the film took in $271,000 in two weeks—no mean feat for an independent movie without a distributor or marketing department.

Perhaps the greatest boost came from a clever website (www.whatthe that urged fans to form e-mail trees to demand showings of the film. “We get requests often,” Brit Withey, program director of the Denver Film Society, told the Denver Post’s film critic Lisa Kennedy August 15. “But never like this. Never one film. Never so many people.”

What the Bleep!? tells the story of a pervasively dissatisfied photographer (Marlee Matlin), who undergoes a spiritual rebirth after discovering, as puts it, “the uncertain world of the quantum field hidden behind what we consider to be our normal, waking reality.” No fewer than 14 talking heads expound on how that could be possible, and the possibilities are explored via animated sequences depicting the neurons, quarks, and peptides that supposedly rule our daily life.

Journalists got their first look in August after distributor Roadside Attractions picked up the film and gave it a wider release.

“It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” wrote Chicago Sun Times religion writer Cathleen Falsani in an August 27 article. “And I couldn’t turn it off.” Noting that the film sought to answer “existential conundrums such as What is God? What are emotions? What is the soul?,” Falsani quoted Arnst as saying that it sought “to resolve the split that’s been in culture for many centuries between spirit and science.”

The film was generally well received by reviewers in parts of the country where New Age sensibilities run high and traditional religious affiliation runs low. “[I]t’s a fantastic foray into genre bending, a welcome exploration of a complex topic,” raved the San Francisco Examiner’s Sabrina Crawford August 13. “The fascinating, Northwest-made documentary…makes a strong case that quantum physics will impact our future in ways that are now almost unimaginable,” William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer declared August 14. On August 26, the San Diego Union Tribune’s David Elliott called it a “genuinely upbeat movie with big questions and hopeful answers.”

But New Jersey is not Washington State. “Life is too short for Bleep like this,” groused Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star Ledger September 8. A couple of days later Scott Galupo of The Washington Times asked if the film shouldn’t be re-titled “What the Bleep Do We Know About Filmmaking?”

Matlin, sneered the New York Times’ Dave Kehr September 10, “gets a lesson in quantum mechanics from a basketball-playing child and ends up drawing little glitter hearts all over her body, apparently a sign of self-acceptance in some cultures of the American Far West.” Even the easily pleased Roger (“Two thumbs up”) Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a paltry two and a half stars, pointing out that What the Bleep!? was “a collision in the editing room between talking heads, an impenetrable human parable and a hallucinogenic animated cartoon.”

But it was John Gorenfeld’s September 16 article in that seriously interfered with the film’s good vibes. After chiding What the Bleep!? enthusiasts for checking their skepticism at the door, Gorenfeld turned to an examination of the credentials of the 14 talking heads’ credentials as experts. He identified Dr. Miceal Ledwith, named in the film as a former advisor to the Vatican, as “a former priest who left the Church after allegations of sexual abuse.” John Hagelin, who appeared onscreen to claim that meditating monks lowered the crime rate in Washington, D.C. by more than  25 percent, turned out to have done his research “while teaching at Maharishi University.”

What the Bleep!?’s most academically kosher expert, Columbia University philosophy professor David Albert, told Gorenfeld, “Had I known that I would have been so radically misrepresented in the movie, I certainly would not have agreed to be filmed.”

The main source of expertise, however, seems to come from Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old sage who, his followers believe, communicates (or “channels”) via a woman named J Z Knight. For those who may not remember, Ramtha emerged into American popular culture in the 1980s in a flurry of stories that highlighted such celebrity devotees as Shirley MacLaine and Linda Evans. Over the years, the Ramtha-ites have increasingly looked to cutting-edge science to validate their views.

What the Bleep!? actually identifies one of the talking heads as Ramtha himself, and at least three of the others, Gorenfeld reported, have taught or lectured at Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment (RSE) in Yelm. Gorenfeld also revealed that all three of the film’s co-directors were students of the “mystic, philosopher, master teacher and hierophant.”

The co-directors responded to Gorenfeld’s exposé by distributing “An Open Letter to the U.S. Media,” written in the tone of martyrdom familiar to observers of Mel Gibson’s press appearances on behalf of The Passion. “In the past, someone with an idea opposing the status quo was hung, beaten or crucified,” they declared. “Today we use the media to publicly crucify people and new ideas.”

Admitting that they had for some time been students of Ramtha (“a being living outside our space-time”), the co-directors denied that they were members of a cult (“The biggest cult we know is the U.S. government”) and listed the core beliefs taught at RSE—and, not incidentally, by the film:

     Consciousness and energy create reality
     Everyone is divine, regardless of sex, race, religion or creed
     When the mind is properly trained, it is capable of extraordinary things
     We are masters of our own destiny—no one outside of us determines        our reality.

October and November brought on a media battle between defenders of the film and those dubious about its claims.

Kim Ode’s Minneapolis Star Tribune November 20 column quoted a number of enthusiastic viewers, including electrical engineer Gary White: “Something in it resonates in a person, makes them say ‘Wow!, I think there’s some truth there I haven’t considered before.’” Similarly, Stephanie Innes’ article in the Arizona Daily Star (“Bleep Film Strikes a Chord, 150 Join in Multifaith Discussion Group,” November 20) explored a “discovered community” that the film had sparked, with discussion groups popping up in Jewish Community Centers, Unity Churches, and Yoga Centers across the country.

Many fans of the movie, Innes reported, agreed with Lynn Taylor, a former member of a mainline Protestant church, who said, “Organized religion is not a big attraction for me. The movie’s merger of science and spirituality was what really got my attention.”

On the other side, the Christian Science Monitor’s Peter N. Spotts asked physicists their opinion of the film and its claim that the unknowns of subatomic particles translated into theology. “They take advantage of things we don’t know very well or can’t test very well, then use it in an unfair way,” Northwestern University particle physicist Andre de Gouvea told him. Bruce Schumm, particle physicist at University of California at Santa Cruz called the film’s conclusions “two leaps beyond what scientists believe to be true.”

Controversy, however, doesn’t tend to be bad for business. On October 7, CNN Live Today host Daryn Kagan congratulated co-director Arnst on his film’s being shown on more than 100 screens and taking in millions of dollars simply on the strength of word of mouth. “My goal,” Arnst told Kagan, “is to get it all the way around the world, and for 100 million people on the planet to see it.”

The Wall Street Journal, always intrigued by a rags to millions saga, published an in-depth article on the film by John Lippman on November 5 (“How the Bleep Do They Do It?”) that noted ongoing box office returns of $500,000 to $600,000 a week. Oddly, Lippman claimed that What the Bleep!? “doesn’t go into detail about the beliefs of the Ramtha group.”

On December 3, Scott Bowles of USA Today reported that Arnst was “talking with television executives about a quantum physics network.” Said Arnst, “There are a lot of quantum physics followers out there. Who wouldn’t tune into The Dalai Lama Hour?”



Hit Counter