Defending Tom

At the end of last week, I saw a reference to the Scientology training video with Tom Cruise that apparently has everybody snickering and commenting on "Mr. Looney Tunes"' latest exhibition of strange behaviour. So I hunted it down on Defamer and settled in to watch, prepared to witness the weirdness that is Tom these days.

And before I continue it should be said that in the past, I thought Tom Cruise was pretty weird. I thought Tom Cruise was weird before it became trendy to think that Tom Cruise was weird. His intensity is a little unsettling and, as I once told someone when discussing his being cast as Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, he's got "too many teeth", three words which neatly sum up everything I feel about him. (although admittedly, he was alright as Lestat)

That said, I would like to defend Tom Cruise. Or, more specifically, Tom Cruise in that video. I still think he might be a bit unusual in the rest of his life, but enough people seem to really like him, which might speak to him being unusual, but in a good way.

Part of the world's mocking of the video is how incoherent he appears in it, rambling on about concepts we don't understand. And I think the video sucks, but it is not necessarily Tom's fault. Whoever put this video together appears to have it in for him, as patching together an interview and excluding the questions that your subject is answering, is bound to make anyone look a smidge unhinged. Additionally, this is a Scientology training video, not intended for the public at large, and I suspect that if you are familiar with the terms that are used in the interview, it may make more sense.

Which brings me to Scientology. This is a new religion, barely 50 years old and very protective of its teachings, not sharing them with the rest of the world. So we name it a cult. The United States was founded by people fleeing religious persecution - people who were considered members of a cult, in the sense that they were worshiping in a way that was new, didn't have a lot of members and was very different than the majority. These days, we don't persecute and kill those whose religion we don't understand, we ridicule them.

Admittedly, Scientology with its talk of extraterrestrial dictatorships looks pretty funny, but if you think about it, any emergent religion that is different than the norm is going to look pretty funny. Imagine 2000 years ago someone trying to understand this newfangled religion with the fish symbol, asking a friend "so, let me get this straight - virgin birth? Really??". Or someone asking a Jew all those years ago "so what's the deal with the goat?". And I could go on, moving my way through all the major world religions that have been around long enough that their beliefs, history and practices are accepted and no longer thought ridiculous. Let me take a moment to make it clear that I am in no way ridiculing the beliefs and practices of any one religion, but making the point that the unfamiliar - especially unfamiliar belief systems that differ significantly from our own - is often called a weird or silly or so strange that we must get rid of it.

But what about the secrecy? Any new religion - and for that matter, any religion that is different than the norm - tends to be quiet about it. This is why the fish is a symbol of Christianity, this is why people built priest holes during a time in England when Catholicism was decidedly unpopular. So Scientology does the same - so far, is following pretty well established patterns of new and/or minority religions.

Back to Tom and the video. People point that the way he's laughing in the video, but I've seen him laugh in other contexts and that's the way he laughs. It's a bit of a odd laugh and dude sure does have a lot of teeth,, but so what? Aside from that, let's talk about what he says. I watched it once, then I watched it again and tried to mentally subtract the influence of the horrendous editing and the unfamiliar terms and concepts and found that largely, I was left with a man spoke about a belief system which really worked for him. I'm not sure I see any difference between this video and any other person speaking honestly to someone they trust about what their faith means to them - substitute someone speaking openly about their intense Christian or Buddhist beliefs and would there be a difference? People who believe strongly can get a little fervent when they feel free to express strong emotions. And maybe I understand it better now, because three years ago, there was a period in my life where every moment of the day was a religious experience. I didn't jump around on couches in front of millions of people, although I remember feeling equally fervent about this new-found awe and joy and about the way that I was sure, absolutely sure, that there was something greater than me in the universe.

And that's what it's all about, isn't it? Finding a way to express that sense of connection, about finding meaning in it all. Religious history and expression has always been a topic of interest to me and when I went to university I took a number of courses in various forms of comparative religion. Maybe it's coming to religion from the outside, so to speak, and from an academic point of view, but if you look at the historical development of various belief systems and you start looking at enough of them, you start seeing commonalities instead of differences. It starts out with faith and with finding a way to express that faith and as a religion becomes increasingly organized and formalized, things change. And we could spend a lot of time talking about organized religion, political implications, social control, etc., but I leave that for another day. Suffice it to say that I think that faith is very different from religion.

And the interesting thing about this brouhaha is that it has made me want to know more about Scientology. Not in the sense that I want to join so that maybe someday, I could meet Tom himself, but it made me realize how little I actually know about it. That most of my knowledge of Scientology is based on its beliefs being ridiculed in the popular press and I got offended by myself. Because I believe in making up my own mind and that in order to make up my mind, I need real information, not information that's filtered through somebody else's belief systems. I started on Wikipedia and discovered that - get this - many of the beliefs and tenets in Scientology tend to be remarkably similar to my own. Some aren't and I'm not too thrilled with some of the actions of the organized Scientology church, but then again, I'm not too thrilled with some of the actions of other organized religions.

So for once, I'm in Tom's corner. I wonder if that means he'll give me some of his money?