War in Heaven

Van_Helsing_poster

Van Helsing, about which I’ve posted before, is not a great film, but it is perhaps the closest that modern cinema has to offer for my childhood Saturday afternoon viewing. Vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monster all appear together in a ménage à trois that Universal would’ve been proud to own in the 1960s. With lines cribbed from some of the Universal originals, plus some less believable chatter from Steven Sommers, the campy film is unrelentingly in dialogue with religion and its monsters. Indeed, the plot revolves around the church’s plan to save humanity from monsters by the employment of the eponymous van Helsing. I’ve probably seen the movie half a dozen times, and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit the this is the first time I’ve stopped to wonder at why, unlike Bram Stoker’s van Helsing, the one in the movie is named “Gabriel.”

It should’ve been obvious at the first viewing, but this time I was watching the movie with the intention of parsing its theology. In medieval Roman Catholic angelology, there are seven archangels. Two of them (or three, depending on whose Bible you are reading) are named in Holy Writ. Gabriel is, of course, one of them. The movie also shifts Dracula from being son of a Wallachian nobleman to being the “son of the Devil” (clearly by adoption). The Devil’s gift of resurrection (with which the movie is rife) comes with the vampiristic curse. And the climax of the film has the leader of God’s army (“the left hand of God”), Gabriel, battling the son of Satan. This is none other than the war in Heaven of which the Bible speaks. The leader of the archangelic army is actually Michael, but having “Mike van Helsing” as your lead just doesn’t carry the gravitas of Gabriel.

The movie opens with Dracula claiming that science has triumphed over God, and yet the mythology of monsters prevails. Frankenstein’s creation is morally pure, being a loving child of science, and the church declares him anathema. Throughout the movie all the monsters claim to want is to live, to survive. In fact, they are already resurrected. The werewolves get the dog’s share of the theology, however. They are infected or cursed rather than reborn. The war in Heaven has come to earth as angels and demons battle for supremacy. In the end, it is the human family chosen by God that goes extinct. I’m not sure all the theology adds up at the end of the film, but again, that is the very nature of mythology. And a film that can bring back a careless Saturday afternoon really doesn’t need to make sense at all.

Help from Above

Frisbee, like Kleenex and Band-Aid, is a brand name that has become generic. Since at least the time of ancient Greece people have been fascinated with flying discs, and like many kids of my generation I grew up with a Frisbee or two around the house. We didn’t have much money, and in my younger days I remember playing “frisbee” with the lids to large margarine tubs—it’s more difficult to get these to do tricks, but they fly passably well with the right flick of the wrist. When I got to college I started to hear about a new game called “Frisbee golf.” It usually involved a group of friends and their flying discs picking out a target and seeing who could get their Frisbee there in the fewest tosses. Well, college was a couple decades ago (ahem), and who has time for Frisbee in the serious adult world of trying to stay employed? When some friends asked me to join in a game of disc golf over a recent weekend I knew a couple of things had happened. First, Frisbee had been either usurped or commodified to the point that it was either illegal or gouache to use their discs to try to hit “that tree over there,” like the redneck with his shotgun on a Friday night. Second, to play the game you needed to have the right equipment. Out on the course we came across a couple of guys with “golf bags” full of discs that they had to flip through like so many CDs before each toss. I felt woefully amateur. Like golfing in jeans.

IMG_1140Fortunately my friends had discs. Scientifically engineered discs, no less. Different “Frisbees” (not a technical “Frisbee” among them, not even a Wham-o) with different weights and characteristics made for specific tasks. I thought of the famous sculpture of the discus thrower and wondered what Plato would’ve made of all this. Since we were a large group with limited discs, we each chose one to be “our” disc so that we could follow it. It was either a rare show of masculine aggression or perhaps religious curiosity that drew me to the distance disc called Archangel. Bright orange, the Archangel was emblazoned with an actual heavenly being with his (a masculine angel, this) sword. He wore a vaguely Egyptianizing headdress that brought to mind the plagues of Egypt. The disc was heavy compared to a Frisbee, and had an edge like a, well, a sword. A dull sword of course, maybe wooden as opposed to steel. That disc could fly (although it didn’t improve my score much).

Angels have had a long fascination for us mere mortals. Originally a class of messenger gods in antiquity, monotheism forced them into a subservient role where swiftness was essential. For some, such as the Angel of Death (more likely the source of the imagery behind my Archangel), weaponry was essential. Unlike the Angel of Death my aim wasn’t very accurate. Or maybe that is just like the Angel of Death. No firstborn were slain by an hour’s diversion of tossing some Frisbees around, but my thoughts had been driven back to the biblical origins of my implement. I wondered why there was no archangel of peace. A few days later it was announced that Nelson Mandela had died. My thoughts went to Gandhi. To Siddhartha Gautama. Even to Jesus. Yes, there have been those who’ve insisted on the way of peace. And many differences might be settled by a friendly game of Frisbee golf, minus, of course, the copyright infringement.