[The author, a prize-winning and critically acclaimed filmmaker, is an Iglesia ni Cristo member who steadily worshipped for four years. This makes him eminently qualified to write a well-rounded review of the blockbuster film, “Manalo.”]
Second of three parts
In INC indoctrination sessions it is stressed that Felix is the angel referred to in Revelation as rising from the east to confront the four winds that had power over of the earth; the four winds are taken to be the Big Four world powers (Britain, France, United States and Italy) that evolved as a consequence of World War 1. It is quite odd that “Manalo” makes no assertion in this regard. It is too basic an INC concern to be neglected. One can only conjecture that the filmmakers do not subscribe to the claim and so thought it better to do away with that aspect in favor of focusing on the strides made by INC. In the postwar period onward to its supposed one hundredth year, INC has gone much beyond Philippine horizons, beginning with Hawaii, then Australia, further onward to Continental USA, Europe, the Middle East, and finally, Jerusalem, where, as sang in INC’s official anthem “Ako’y Iglesia Ni Cristo,” it all began.
Three years of dedicated membership in the INC had given me enough spiritual inspiration to translate the Tagalog song into English, reflecting what I believe must be a hankering among non-Filipino members for release of their native spiritual sentiments. The lyrics go thus:
I am Iglesia Ni Cristo
The church of prophets in the East come true
Now it has gone back to Jerusalem
Once it’s holy home
‘Tis Christ that I will always follow
No matter what’s up for tomorrow
I shall be Iglesia ni Cristo
Till the end of my bones and marrow
I swear to dedicate myself to God
As Jesus did the same
In persecutions and in suffering
Shall I bear all the pain
Now, I can only sing, those were the days, of lovely what-might-have-beens.
Deep into continued spirituality, of religious attendance in twice-a-week worship, participation in INC activities which included hands-on training of INC members in filmmaking, finding my place converted into a dako or site for INC meetings, and what else, I just found myself thirsting for full understanding of the scriptures.
That’s why in viewing “Manalo” I completely empathize with Felix as he moves from one faith to another, ceaseless in his search for the one true church as mandated by the Bible. At one point, Felix laments that he cannot continue preaching things that are contrary to what is preached in the Bible. It is simply unfortunate that empathizing with Felix in this regard leads me to contradicting him eventually.
Surely, I cannot claim to be versed in the Bible. I am much too far from that. Rather what I can claim is that I have come across certain passages in the Bible being contradicted by teachings of Iglesia ni Cristo. One such teaching, dealing with the question of whether Christ is God or man, is dwelt upon in the movie. Felix reads just one passage from the scriptures and on the strength of that one single quotation proclaims Christ is man not God. My own readings of the Bible give me a preponderance of verses attesting to Christ being not man but God. The entirety of John, Chapter 1 is testimony to Christ’s divinity, particularly 1-3: “Before the world was created, the Word already existed; he was with God, and he was the same as God. From the very beginning the word was with God. Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creations was made without him.” And in 17:5, on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus prays in the garden, looking up to heaven, “Father! Give me glory in your presence now, the same glory I had with you before the world was made.” These occasions, far, far from each other in time speak of the same thing with amazing consistency about Christ being with God before the world was created: Christ is God.
And yet for all the wealth of verses that can be cited in the Bible to prove Christ is God, I would never go as far as proclaiming my findings as the truth. What I would need only whenever I would raise issues on this matter was for my questions to be answered. But either my questions were answered in the already hackneyed manner as had been characteristic of earlier indoctrination and therefore not providing any satisfactory clarification, or were dismissed outright as devil-inspired, which invariably got my ire. Imagine, a minister calling you a devil all for wanting deeper Biblical learning.
But then, as stressed at the outset, that’s Iglesia Ni Cristo. On the matter of pasakop, absolute obedience is required of every member. When it proclaims Christ is man, not God, bow your head and say “Opo.” Otherwise one is denied salvation. It is in the heart of every INC member to gain salvation after death and it is inculcated in his brain time and again that only in INC will man be saved. “That’s what the Bible says,” I would be told.
The answer would not satisfy me. I would argue that here I am, the Devil, and I come forward claiming I am the Iglesia Ni Cristo, does that make my claim valid all because the church name I use is written in the Bible? For that matter, which of the number of churches all registered in the SEC and all using Iglesia Ni Cristo as their names is the true church of God?
God’s divine essence cannot be that so simple as to derive merely from a citation of Biblical inscription. I believe it is the practice of acts prescribed in Biblical inscription that is the source of the flowering of Godliness in man. I don’t pretend I know how to define those acts other than sticking to these words by Paul: “And to faith add knowledge, to knowledge virtue, to virtue temperance, to temperance Godliness, to Godliness brotherly kindness.” Somehow I find this advice a good formula for living in harmony with myself, my family and my fellowmen.
In contrast, the incessant evangelizing I found myself subjected to in the course of my membership in INC has had the effect of throwing me in endless torment. Could I really last this pretentiousness, this hypocrisy. We preach God and the glory of spiritual salvation and yet continuously boast of achievements in domains that are best left to sanlibutan. For instance, I would ask: What does it profit a church to gain Guinness but lose members? Why are we so concerned about building the biggest arena in the world when judgment day is nearing? Are we to bring this to heaven? And the magnificent chapels, too? And the medals and certificates of recognition? And now the film that had the biggest attendance in a premiere showing in all history, that scored the biggest gross on a non-holiday opening day. In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon laments all these as vanity, just like chasing the wind.
Old habits are difficult to kill, but that evening I last attended an INC worship and the minister, equating the words of God to the words of the Prime Minister, declared an abominable terrorism: “Ano ang ginagawa ng Diyos sa mga ayaw pasakop? Pinapatay! (What does God do to those who disobey? Kill!),” I was thrown back to that state of mind I had in 1994 when finally seized with disgust at smoking which was ruining my lungs I crushed my last stick of cigarette on the floor with my shoe, declaring, “Ayoko na! (Enough!)” I had peace of lungs since then, not craving for Marlboro not a bit anymore, and completely, too.
One post on Facebook has this brag: “Manalo is not meant to make money.” Though it has been bruited about repeatedly that the film has broken box-office records both local and foreign, meaning money is a concern of the film after all, the obvious undertone of that Facebook boast is that “Manalo” is meant for attaining spiritual ends.
End of part 2
The conclusion or part 3 will appear tomorrow, Saturday Oct. 17.
The author, Mauro Gia Samonte, is an accomplished movie journalist who for a time ran a column in the Lifestyle-Entertainment section of The Manila Times. A known filmmaker, he has more than 50 movie titles to his credit. He has won two best screenplay awards, one from the Metro Manila Film Festival and another from the Film Academy of the Philippines.