One of the many questions that haunt evangelical Christians is whether it is okay to watch horror films or not.The same applies to whether it’s okay to listen to rock-n-roll (even as it’s reaching its senior years).Cultural accommodation is often seen as evil and evangelicalism, as a movement, is frequently offered as a culture all its own.I recently rewatched Brian Dannelly’s Saved!, a coming-of-age comedy about a group of teenagers at American Eagle Christian High School.Gently satirical, it portrays well how evangelicals try to redefine “cool” in a Christian mode.Taking tropes from pop culture and “baptizing” them, Pastor Skip—the principal—assures the young people that they’re every bit as cool as secular culture icons, only the Christians are going to heaven.
The film came out when I was teaching at Nashotah House.That seminary also had problems with secular culture, but in a completely different way.Its method was basically to ignore that culture.Isolated, Anglo-Catholic, one might even say “Medieval” but for the sanitation, it was likely not a safe place for a professor to be watching such films.Evangelicalism and right-wing Catholicism were beginning to find each other.Once the cats and dogs of the theological world, they were becoming more like goldfish in their bowl, watching a strange and unnerving world just outside the glass.A world in which they couldn’t survive.Now, Saved! is only a cinematic version of this, but it has a few profound moments.Mary, the protagonist, comes to see the hypocrisy of both the school and her former friends when she supports a boyfriend who is gay.
At one point her friends attempt an intervention.They try to exorcize Mary, and when that fails one of them throws a Bible at her.Picking it up, Mary says “This is not a weapon.”Since this movie isn’t by any stretch of the imagination horror, I didn’t address it in Holy Horror.As I rewatched it in the light of that book, however, I recognized a motif I did discuss in it.The use of the Bible in movies is extremely common.That applies to films that don’t have an overt Christian setting such as this one does.The iconic Bible is a protean book.Despite what Mary says it can indeed be a weapon.It often is.Many of us have been harmed by it.Christian separatist culture has its own dark side, even if it’s carefully hidden, its adherents think, from the secular world outside the fishbowl.
At Nashotah House I met my first real-life servant.This was a student—a candidate for the priesthood—who’d formally been a “domestic.”Now, being Episcopalian one doesn’t bat an eyelash at that sort of thing but I was secretly in shock that servants still existed.I’m woefully uninformed about aristocracy.Having grown up poor I resent the idea of a person being placed in the role of fulfilling the whims of someone just because they have money.My wife has more of a fascination about this than I do, and she was recently reading a book about servants.This post isn’t about domestics, however.It’s about foreign gods.In the book she was reading my wife noticed one of the servants writing that old-fashioned stoves were like Moloch.Were it not for Sleepy Hollow, I suspect, many modern people wouldn’t know the name at all. Who was Moloch?
Moloch, according to the Bible, was a “Canaanite” deity.Specifically, he was a god that demanded child sacrifice.The phrase the Good Book uses is that his worshippers made their children “pass through the fire” for Moloch.Very little is known about this deity, and the question of human sacrifice is endlessly debated.Theologically it makes sense, but practically it doesn’t.Deities want servants and living bodies do that better than dead ones.Although it’s been suggested that “passing through” could be a symbolic offering, by far the majority of scholars have taken this act as an actual sacrifice.The ultimate servant is a dead servant.Moloch, you see, comes from the same root as the word “king.”And kings are fond of having many servants.
Image credit: Johann Lund, Wikimedia Commons
So how is a stove like Moloch?The classic image of the god, which looks like a scene from The Wicker Man, holds the answer.Well circulated since the early eighteenth century, this engraving has captured the imagination of modern people.A massive, multi-chambered statue intended to consume by the raging fire in its belly.This is the way in which a stove might resemble a Canaanite deity.The servant who described cookware thus knew whereof she spoke.Archaeological evidence for the “cult of Moloch” is slim.It is almost certain that nothing like this fanciful image ever existed.Moloch, in other words, lives in the imagination.One aspect, however, rings true.Like most tyrannical rulers the deity wants unquestioning obedience on the part of servants.And this is a viewpoint not limited to deities.
Dystopia reading and/or watching may be more practical than it seems.History often reveals authors who may be accused of pessimism more as prophets than mere anxious antagonists.Two books, according to the media, took off after November 2016.One was George Orwell’s 1984,and the other was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.I’d read both long before I started this blog, but I recently asked my wife if she’d be interested in seeing the movie of the latter.While teaching at Rutgers, I had a 4-hour intensive course and to give students a break from my lecturing I’d have us discuss Bible scenes from secular movies.The Handmaid’s Tale was one of them.Watching it again last night, I realized the problematic nature of Holy Writ.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie (and novel) that involves what I call “Bible abuse” in Holy Horror.That is to say, the Bible can be used to oppress rather than to liberate.To cause human suffering instead of eliminating it.Sure, to make Atwood’s dystopia work a future catastrophe of fertility has to occur, but the military state, the assumed superiority, and the will to control on the part of men are all too real.We’ve witnessed this in the United States government over the past two years.A lot more has been revealed than personal greed—that side of human nature that quotes the Good Book while doing the bad thing.In the movie it’s literally so, while our “leaders” are only a metaphoric step away from it.Although it’s not horror, it’s a terrifying movie.I still have trouble watching The Stepford Wives.Why is equality so easy in the abstract, but so difficult when it comes to actual life?
Aggression is not a social value.This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of using Scripture to enforce oppressive regimes.The whole point of the New Testament is self-denial for the sake of others.That may be why the only Bible reading in the movie comes from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Rachel.Although this isn’t one of the traditional “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, it nevertheless illustrates the point well.A culture that values women only for their reproductive capacities is dystopian to its very core.When a book, no matter how holy, is divorced from its context it becomes a deadly weapon of blunt force.Atwood moves beyond Orwell here—the government that sees itself as biblical can be far more insidious that one that only weighs evil on the secular scale. Not only the Bible ends up being abused.
The thing about the Devil is that evil is no laughing matter.Darren Oldridge had no easy task limiting the dark lord to The Devil: A Very Short Introduction.He nevertheless does an admirable job packing lots of provocative stuff into a small package.The historian of religion part of me found his short history of Satan in chapter 2 a compelling synthesis of the character’s background.Longer sources get tangled in theological weeds once the New Testament’s over, what with erstwhile saints being recast as heretics over some minute point of doctrine.Lots of ideas about the Devil were floating around in those days, even as they are today.A particularly important point, however, is made early in this book: even during the Enlightenment most intellectuals—including scientists—assumed the reality of the spiritual world.It was only when materialism alone came to reign that there could be no Devil because there could be no spirits.
A vast disconnect continues to exist between “public intellectuals” and hoi polloi.The vast majority of people in the world are religious.Even in, especially in, the United States a great number of people believe in the Devil.Many of those same people can’t recognize political evil when it stands naked before them.Here’s the irony of it all: Oldridge discusses how an evil system, let’s say Nazism, blinded many otherwise decent people to the evil they were asked to perform.Rhetoric that demonized the other, when dispersed over large crowds, has historically had that effect.Today we see “Christians” claiming that a social system of helping those in need is of the Devil.The greatest weapon of the prince of darkness is the sincerely believed lie.
Lies have always been associated with the Devil.When the number of untruths coming from the White House has broken the very meter for measuring lies, those who claim the name of the crucified man who advocated care for the poor shout all the more loudly.Not at the lies, but at those who don’t accept them.Historically, the reign of facts has kept some checks on the Devil.Even Jesus accused Herod of watching Fox—or was it being a fox?—too bad there are no facts to check.Oldridge doesn’t tip his hand as to whether there is an actual Devil or not.Society has, however,no trouble making up its mind.All they need to do is turn on the television.
There’s a weird silent time, after a book is published, when you start wondering how it’s doing.Holy Horror was apparently released November 29, and published December 29, if done according to standard publishing practice.The release date is when stock is received in the warehouse.The book is printed and technically available, but not yet published.Publication is about a month later when the sellers, distributors, etc., have received their orders and can begin sending them out.Publishing, as I’ve noted before, is a slow business.Somewhere around this point you start wondering how your book is doing.Reviews take some time to appear.The publisher falls silent (I know this from the editorial perspective as well).You start thinking, did it really happen?
This is the internet syndrome.We’ve become used to instant results and it’s difficult to believe that can get by without minute-by-minute updates.The problem is publishing is slow.Reading a book takes time.Not all readers review.It’s perhaps the kind of malaise you expect in late winter.In my case, however, my book was an autumn book that missed its release date by a few months.Yes, hardcore horror fans are still chomping at the bit for upcoming features like Us, but the public in general is well on its way to Valentines Day and what comes after.We are pretty much a holiday-driven culture and Holy Horror was a Halloween book released after Christmas.That, and the combination of Bible and horror is unexpected, with many, I’m guessing, thinking the book is something it isn’t.
Often at work I ponder how publishing has changed, even if it runs like sap in January.Professional writers—those who lived from their books alone—used to be rare.Most authors were otherwise employed, and many of them worked in publishing.It stands to reason when you think about it.I’ve worked for three publishers and finding other writers is, and has been, a rarity.Instead editorial boards consist of people who largely don’t have the experience of writing a book of their own talking about author expectations.A disconnect has emerged where writers find employment in other industries and find themselves wondering why publishers do things the way they do.Even with that background knowledge, I do wonder how my little book is doing.It’s only natural.And now that we’ve progressed to February, it’s only eight months more until October.
After reading many popular books, coming to a scholarly tome can be a shock to the system.This is especially the case when said academic volume contains lots of information (not all do, believe me!).David Brakke’s Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity has been on my reading list for quite some time.One of the perils of being a renegade academic is that you have no university library at hand and I’m not sure I want to reveal this side of myself to the local public librarian yet.In any case, it would be difficult to summarize all that Brakke covers in this insightful treatment.One of the elements that struck this reader, however, is the protean nature of the demons with which the eponymous monks wrestled.
Keep in mind that although demons appear throughout the Bible in various forms there is no single definition of what they are.They appear to be spiritual monsters, in short.Some passages seem to suggest they are fallen angels.Others that they are foreign (primarily pre-Christian) gods.Later ideas add the possibility that they are children of the Watchers, or even, as Brakke explains, evil thoughts.The desert monks didn’t dwell on trying to discern their origin myth—they were out there to purify their souls, not to do academic research.The Hebrew Bible does suggest that demons were creatures of the desert.As monasticism began, appropriately in Egypt, one natural resource found in abundance was wilderness real estate.The mortgage, however, was a constant struggle with demons.
Many of these demons developed into the seven deadly sins.Not surprisingly, men living alone in the desert found themselves the victims of sexual temptation.This led to, in some cases, the demonizing of women.We’d call this classic blaming the victim, but this is theology, not common sense.Anything that stood between a monk and his (sometimes her) direct experience of God could, in some sense, be considered demonic.Brakke presents a description of several of these early desert-dwellers and their warfare with their demons.Much of their characterization of evil would be considered racist and sexist today.Brakke does make the point that during the Roman Empire—the period of the earliest monks—race wasn’t perceived the same way that it is in modern times.Nevertheless, some of this book can make the reader uncomfortable, and not just because of demons.Or, perhaps, that’s what they really are after all.
Christianity isn’t known for its sense of humor.The same can be said of other religions as well, of course.What else should we expect concerning belief systems that claim eternal consequences?A story by Colin Dwyeron NPR explains that the Haifa Museum of Art had to remove a sculpture titled “McJesus” due to public violence.The sculpture depicts a crucified Ronald McDonald, and a number of althoughs follow: although Haifa is in Israel a large number of Christians protested.Although the practice of crucifixion was uncomfortably common in ancient days it has come to be associated with one particular case.Although the message might be interpreted as a condemnation of commercialism, protestors took it to be aimed at their faith.Perhaps it was.Artists can be notoriously ambiguous in that way.
Ronald McDonald is a liminal, if ubiquitous figure.Instantly recognizable, he has been challenged before as a threat to christendom.I once heard a priest lament that children recognized the golden arches more than the cross.Well, that’s not surprising—we don’t go around telling our kids about crucifixion daily.(Or shouldn’t.)A massive Ronnie, on the other hand, floats down Manhattan every Thanksgiving Day.He’s on posters, commercials, and 42nd Street.He’s the patron saint of branding.With his garish clashing color palette, his red and yellow never mix to orange and they linger in our minds to ensure us that no matter where we might be there’s always cheap, if unhealthy, food nearby.Mr. McDonald has become a religious symbol of capitalism.
Even as a child I noticed the great deal of excitement that accompanied the opening of the local McDonald’s.In a small, corroded corner of the rust belt, families piled into cars to drive to Oil City to see this wonder.It was like an epiphany.Eating out that the poor could afford.Just about everything in downtown Oil City is now closed, but the last time I was there that McDonald’s still stood.Back in Haifa an ironic depiction led to real violence.Angry Christians carrying stones couldn’t see the statue as a condemnation of consumer culture.Their beleaguered religion was at risk.Blood flowed and the art piece was removed and packed off to Finland.Although the point of the display was to question religious appropriation in the support of consumerism, and although that message could ultimately support the teachings of the religion it evokes, the branding came across all wrong.Church is your kind of place…