Oxford Biblical Studies Online is a subscription service for institutions that gives access to many biblical studies resources produced by the press.It also features current essays that stand on this side of the paywall, written on contemporary issues.In a shameless self-promoting plug, I’d direct you to this link to see my latest publication.You see, I’m not alone in looking at Bible through the lens of horror.As the acknowledgements to Holy Horror reveal, many conversations were going on that led to that book.While the ideas contained in it are my own, I’m by no means the only one to have noticed that the Good Book makes guest appearances in genre fiction.One of the points I made to my students when I held a teaching post was that the Bible is ubiquitous in our culture, whether we know it or not.Just look at the Republican Party and beg to differ.
The idea is not without precedent.For those who read the Bible real horror isn’t hard to find.The Good Book can be quite a scary book.Consider for just a moment the final installment—Revelation, apart from being full of amazing imagery, is an amazingly violent book.Attack helicopters and atomic bombs may not yet have been invented, but there was no shortage of ways to kill people in the pre-gunpowder world.Revelation paints the world in the throes of horrible suffering and death.Indeed, the completely fictional Left Behind series rejoices in the death of the unrighteous who are, well, left behind.Even today there’s a significant segment of “Christianity” that rejoices in the chaos Trump has unleashed.
In the OBSO article I sketch a brief history of how this came to be.The history could work in the other direction as well.The fact is the Bible and horror have always gone fairly well together.Among genre literature, however, horror is a distinctive category only after the eighteenth century (CE).Early horror novels, under the guise of Gothic fiction, often involve religious elements.Culture was already biblically suffused then.This is a natural outgrowth of a would steeped in violence.Personally, I don’t like gore.I don’t watch horror to get any kind of gross-out fix.My purposes are somewhat different than many viewers, I suspect.What we do all have in common, though, is that we realize horror has something honest to say to us.And it has been saying it to us since from in the beginning.
I’ve been reading about Paul.You know, that Paul.What has struck me from this reading is that if he weren’t in the Bible rational people would likely think Paul was writing nonsense.Getting into the Good Book is a big score, for sure, but a close look at what this particular apostle wrote does raise eyebrows, as well as questions.Over my editing years I’ve discovered quite a few methods of dealing with the saint from Tarsus, but what they really point to is the elephant in the room—we don’t really know what Paul was on about.A few basic facts stand out: the Paul of Acts doesn’t match the Paul of the authentic letters, and although Paul never met Jesus he became the architect of much of Christianity.
There’s a reason that I focused my doctoral work on the Hebrew Bible rather than the New Testament.Still, it remains fascinating to look closely at Paul’s claims.At some points he sounds downright modern.Like a Republican he declares that he can be tried by no human power.Specially selected by God himself, he can’t be judged by the standards of normal people.This is dangerous territory even for those who eventually end up in the Good Book, especially since it wasn’t written as an abstraction, but to a specific readership in a specific place dealing with specific issues.Galatia wasn’t the same as Corinth.The issues at Philippi weren’t the same as those in Rome.Yet, being in Scripture makes all his musings equally inspired.
The more we learn about Scripture the more difficult it becomes.Perceptions evolve over time, and we know nothing about how various books were selected.There are no committee minutes.We don’t even know the committee’s name or if it was ad hoc or standing.With repeated and long-term use these books became Bible.Take Paul’s letters—it’s virtually certain that we don’t have them all.He makes reference to letters that we don’t have.What might he have written therein?Is part of divine revelation missing?The discovery of other gospels and many contemporary religious texts to those that made the Bible cut raises questions that can only be resolved with the category “inspiration.”Christianity isn’t unified enough to add any more books, although some sects do nevertheless.Paul is very much like that—an example of not being subject to human trial.For a founder of a major religion we know surprisingly little about him.
Ailanthus is known as the “tree of heaven.”It’s an introduced species in North America and, like many such species, it outcompetes its rivals.The tree of heaven isn’t bad to look at—in fact its handsome appearance was one of the reasons it was brought to these shores.Heaven isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, however.The tree is aggressive and resilient, and difficult to eradicate.Among the many unexpected “gifts” the former owners of our house left us was a back yard full of ailanthus trees.At first I thought they were pleasant but then I had to remove a small one.The smell almost knocked me off my feet.I then learned that the Chinese name for it translates to “foul smelling tree.”Whose version of heaven is this?
Over the weekend I spent some time lopping off trees of heaven.Mosquitoes, I found out, love its shade.It keeps the kinds of friends you might expect.Heaven is, after all, a construct.The word can refer to either the great dome of the sky in which the ancients believed deities dwelled, or the realm of blessedness to which the righteous go after death.In either case, it was assumed to be a pleasant place.Any trees there (and there are some according to the Good Book) would likely have a pleasing fragrance.The ironically named version we get down here didn’t get the memo, it seems.As best as I can determine, the name of the tree refers to its rapid growth, as if it’s grasping for the sky.
A problem with our own species is that we seem to think we know more about this world than we do.We introduce species from other parts of the planet without considering how they impact the local environment.In the case of a property with lazy former owners, it can translate to a real problem with heaven trees.We’re often taken in by the innocence of names.The first time I saw a tree of heaven, in a public park in New Jersey, I thought I should write a blog post about it.It took being invaded by heaven, however, to make it seem relevant.Heaven is a foreign nation, it seems.It should smell nice and be open to people of all nations and creeds.According to Revelation the trees up there bear fruit every month of the year.Presumably in heaven someone else has to take care of the yard work.
The Bible is a book of horror. This isn’t the main point in Holy Horror, but the fact is terror is never far from the surface in the Good Book. My days as a young scholar of the Bible were defined by the works of feminist scholars. One of the influential books of that generation was Texts of Terror by Phyllis Trible. Not hiding behind a masculine orthodoxy, she looked at how various biblical stories appeared from the eyes of female readers. There is indeed terror everywhere. The evils of slavery condemn that hideous loss of agency when one human being becomes considered the property of another. Women, before the feminist movement began, were taught that the Good Book demands this perverted social structure. They are indeed, in the eyes of its patriarchal world, property.
Important as this realization is, the terrors of Scripture go deeper. Even overlooking the genocides—the numbers make it difficult to take in the horrors of the individuals classed as faceless victims—there are multiple accounts of gruesome murders and violence in the Bible. Wars were an annual expectation. Diplomacy was often considered religious compromise. “Us verses them” mentality led to constant conflict. When it came to executing one another, the denizens of the Good Book could be quite inventive. No doubt women and foreigners were poorly treated on a daily basis, but when left to their own devices with divine voices in their heads, the men of Holy Writ knew how to terrorize one another quite effectively.
Even after the message of Jesus of Nazareth, which included love and care and compassion, the Bible goes on to close with the violent visions of Revelation. Perhaps it’s not appreciated so much in the present day, but the Apocalypse had a difficult time making it into the Good Book. Unfortunately the reasons weren’t that it was a book of horror, but the very fact that its status was debated should give us pause when hiding behind the rhetoric of a canon with its door slammed shut. The Bible contains some high, soaring words of noble thoughts and divine consolation. God can be an empathetic lover. With its status, in toto, as a book of divine revelation we have to pay serious attention to the fact of its participation in the genre of horror. Much of this is in the backstory of the films I discuss in Holy Horror. Others may have already explored this dynamic of Scripture, but it’s often a Good Book gone bad.
I flatter myself to think that some people enjoy my daily musings, although they’re sometimes grim. Religion often is. One curious example of this is the “Hell-Mouth.” Some time back a friend sent me a link to a British Library blog post “Highway to Hell.” The story is about illustrated medieval manuscripts depicting the Hell-Mouth—a monster with wide, gaping jaws and a gob crammed full of human souls bound for eternal torment. Not a pretty picture. The BL post reasonably suggests that the image originates in early Anglo-Saxon literature. We know the Teutonic penchant for the gothic, so all is fine and good. In fact, however, the image is far older than that.
In sorely neglected and almost forgotten Ugarit there is a fascinating mythological text. Known to ancient northwest semitic nerds as KTU 1.23, the text is strange even by Canaanite standards. El, the chief god whose name translates as, well, “god,” seduces two young goddesses (presumably). The young ladies give birth to monsters—devourers with one lip reaching to the heavens and the other to the underworld. Every living thing is swept in. What is this if not a Hell-Mouth? Indeed, if I might indulge in my past passion for Ras Shamra just a touch more, the deity Mot (whose name translates to “Death”) is portrayed with an equally voracious appetite. Everything gets gobbled up, even Baal.
These lurid images of all-consuming mouths, however, aren’t direct ancestors to the Hell-Mouth. Although some of the ideas from Ugarit survived in the culture that would eventually emerge as the Israelites, the city itself was destroyed for the last time before Moses picked up his chisel. The people of Ugarit were long gone before he licked his thumb and applied his quill-pen to Genesis. Ideas, however, may be the closest to eternity that humans can come. The Bible doesn’t describe any Hell-Mouths as such, but Revelation can come close. Ras Shamra was only rediscovered in the 1920s, so no Anglo-Saxon had access to its vivid images of the Hell-Mouth that existed even before Hell itself became a thing. Humans are endlessly inventive. Ideas go underground for centuries at a time only to reemerge when the moment’s propitious. The Middle Ages with their Black Deaths and highly stratified society and burgeoning witch hunts and inquisitions were such a time. Looking over the current landscape I have to wonder if the recent revival of the Hell-Mouth might not have something to do with the time in which it has gained renewed interest as well. Some appetites will never be satisfied.
Maybe you’ve felt it too. The insecurity of liking something other people don’t. Having grown up an Evangelical, I had to try to explain myself at multiple points for liking scary stuff. I love Halloween. I spent my young Saturday afternoons watching monster movies on our black-and-white television. After losing a long-term job at a decidedly gothic seminary, I began consoling myself with horror films. I don’t know why. I also don’t know why other people shun those of us with this particular habit. It’s not like I’m going to make you sit down and watch them with me if you don’t want to. You don’t even need to buy my book, and if you do (thank you!) you don’t have to read it.
One of the issues I’ve often grappled with is why “Christians” dislike horror. Reading the accounts of the martyrs is way worse than almost anything I’ve seen on screen. Revelation, let’s face it, is a horror show of Schadenfreude and ultra-violence. The Calvinistic idea that God would create the vast majority of people to burn in an eternal Hell of fire for reasons best kept to himself (yup, he’s a guy) is hardly charitable. So why do Christians say you shouldn’t watch horror? One of the observations from this lowbrow viewer is that the message behind horror is often good. Moral. Ethical even. We have trouble getting around the form of the message to see its substance.
I seldom talk about horror movies. Maybe that’s why I write about them so much. But the fear of judgment remains strong, even with maturity. The lurking Evangelical fear is that watching horror will entice the young to become interested in evil. I think it’s fair to say that all Christians are somewhat fascinated by evil—where does it come from? Why doesn’t God stop it? Horror films seldom glorify the monster. The protagonists, often flawed, fight evil and sometimes succeed. Do I really need to justify this interest at all? It’s no exaggeration to say that, although no longer an Evangelical I still feel the weight of both their stares and those of others who can’t understand why a nice guy watches such unbecoming things. My book doesn’t answer those kinds of questions, but it may contain implicit answers within. Of course, you’ll only know that if you read it. Not that I’m asking you to do so—it doesn’t even have a title yet.
Say what you will about western Pennsylvania, but it was a location fairly safe from natural disasters. My hometown was too far inland for hurricanes to cause much damage. A little too far east for Midwest tornadoes to touch down (mostly). Adequate-to-too-much rain, so wildfires didn’t occur. Not on any fault-lines that invited earthquakes, and volcanoes only thousands of miles away. We did get floods along the rivers during spring, but if you lived up the hill they weren’t much of a personal threat. It felt safe from the big news items of today. Leaving home for the sake of finding work moved me into Tornado Alley for many years, and currently, in New Jersey, in the range of hurricanes now and again. Still reeling from Hurricane Harvey and lack of effective national leadership, Irma is devastating lives, and Jose is in her wake. Then a massive earthquake rocks Mexico. It feels like the apocalypse.
Image credit: NASA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Ironically, many people read the Bible as a linear story from the creation of the world in Genesis to the end of the world in Revelation. They make an obvious set of bookends. Unlike western Pennsylvania, Israel lies on a fault-line that means earthquakes are not uncommon. Droughts occur. And being right on the path between major empires, it was frequently subject to human disasters such as invasions. It was not the most secure place to write a book that would change worldviews for millennia thereafter. What is so fascinating about this is that the message (or more properly, messages) of the Bible gets lost in the conceit that this is somehow a story of the history of the world with lots and lots of pages of preachy stuff between the exciting bits at the beginning and the end.
In times of natural disasters, people turn to the Bible for comfort. There are verses, often pulled from context, that do a fine job of that. Nevertheless, the Bible is an enormously complex text. Of its many books, Genesis and Revelation have had disproportionate influence on society. Any natural disaster big enough can be called “biblical.” Since the time of William Miller and John Nelson Darby, such disasters have been interpreted as heralding the end of the world. It is scary to see the devastation a single hurricane can cause. When it is followed closely by a second, one can’t help feeling a bit like Job. The apocalypse, however, is a misreading of Revelation. The book ends with Heaven on Earth. And if you can find a quiet place to read, you’ll find plenty of unexpected stuff tucked away in the middle. Just don’t take it too literally since that too leads to disasters.