In the Middle Ages, many Christians believed that taking a spiritual pilgrimage to visit holy shrines and relics would give them a chance to experience God more deeply. Jerusalem represented the ultimate destination for faithful followers of means. But for the vast majority of believers, such a journey was, practically speaking, impossible.
Instead, they might take a shorter sojourn to revered sites scattered across Europe. They hoped for healing. Purification. Maybe even a transcendent touch from the Almighty.
It’s tempting for some to scoff at such impulses today, viewing them as little more than superstition paired with misguided wishful thinking. And in the wake of the Reformation, there was a renewed emphasis on each individual’s relationship with God through Jesus Christ, a corrective on some of these more fantastical spiritual impulses.
That said, the human impulse to go on pilgrimages has hardly been purged through centuries of theological refinement and technological progress. Instead, I’d suggest it’s taken on new forms that reflect the values of our predominantly secular culture (in the developed West, at least) today.
The faithful still make pilgrimages. But many of today’s “holy” sites are venerated not for spiritual reasons. No, they’re venerated because we saw them in the movies.
I was reminded of that last week when I read about an irate owner of a famous house in Astoria, Ore. Specifically, the house featured in the cult classic movie The Goonies in 1985.
So many people have come that the owner of the house recently covered part of it with a blue tarp and handwritten signs and notes to the faithful telling them, essentially, not to bother her anymore. The signs say, “Private Property” and “Access Closed to Goonies House.” A longer note reads, “Imagine that you buy a house, fix it up, spend money, time and love. Then the city of Astoria encourages 100,000’s of people to come and stand in front and view it … This driveway (maintained by homeowners) sees 1,000+ people every day. Most are kind, fun and welcome, but many are not.”
Not surprisingly in 2015, there’s a social media connection to this story, as online outlets have provided new publicity for the house three decades after it appeared on the big screen. Still, even social media doesn’t completely explain why so many thousands of people would want to visit the real site of a fictional story that’s three decades old.
What’s going on here?
Just as those Medieval pilgrims longed for a touch of the divine, I think there’s something about movies that’s bigger than life to their fans. These movie “relics” are something that people will travel to experience personally. To take your picture with some scene or prop from an old, beloved movie somehow feels, well, important. It gives participants a chance, albeit a small one, to enter personally into a story larger than their own. In short, it feels special.
I’ll admit I’ve even had a couple such moments myself.
Years ago, I had a chance to visit the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. Among other things, it houses various memorabilia from renowned Christian writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. I remember sitting down at Tolkien’s desk and writing a journal entry in my own notebook. And it felt really significant. I don’t worship Tolkien, obviously. But to be in such close personal proximity to the place he penned my favorite story was a deeply meaningful experience.
On another occasion, I was driving in Madison County, Iowa, the county just to the south of the one where I grew up. I saw a sign for the famous Hogback Bridge near Winterset, one of the wooden “stars” of the book and movie The Bridges of Madison County. I thought I’d check out what all the hubbub was about, and somewhat spontaneously detoured down a gravel road to take a look for myself.
It was a nice old wooden bridge. Very pretty, with all sorts of personal inscriptions scrawled into it. But, let’s be honest: It was just a bridge. I was glad I’d seen it, but it didn’t change my life.
As I was about to get in my car, something remarkable and utterly unexpected happened. A bus full of Japanese tourists pulled up, and they all disembarked and began to taking pictures.
Having grown up in rural Iowa, it was beyond comprehension to me that 35 or 40 people would have travelled all the way from Asia to see this bridge (and, no doubt, the others mentioned in the story). But here they were. Having their own transcendent moment.
These experiences—at a bridge, a desk, a house—speak to the power of story. And they speak to our deeply longing to touch something grander than ourselves. In ages past, religions (of various kinds) provided that kind of experience. Today, for many folks, an old movie set seems to offer a secular facsimile. It’s a reminder, perhaps, of how deeply we long for God—even if some of those posing for pictures thought they were just snapping a selfie in the driveway of that old Goonies house.