Faithful to Monsters

“Since childhood I’ve been faithful to monsters. I’ve been saved and absolved by them because monsters are the patron saints of our blissful imperfections.” Guillermo del Toro’s quote came to me via my colleague John W. Morehead’s wonderful Theofantastique (actually its Facebook page).  I get the sense that those of us in the field of teratology parallel play a lot.  At least I console myself that way because so few monster sites link to my blog.  Nevertheless, I have great respect for del Toro and his drive to bring monsters into the mainstream.  His quote, however, hits upon a central theme of what I try to do here and elsewhere—reflect on what monsters have to do with religion.

Notice the religious language (obviously intentional): faithful, saved, absolved, patron saints.  Monsters are indeed self-reflections, and they play on the same field as religion does.  Often at the same time.  Religion, even in the best of circumstances, entails fear.  If everything were fine all the time, what need would we have of it?  Instead, aspects of life we don’t cherish or anticipate come at us.  Winter comes far sooner than we expected.  Monsters lurk in that brief season between summer and winter, that autumn of the soul.  They know us quite well.  Our weaknesses are evident to them.  But as del Toro notes, they absolve.  And more readily than any Episcopalian.  The religion of monsters is fierce and forgiving.  When we watch them on the screen, we’re watching the drama of, in del Toro’s nomenclature, salvation.  If we didn’t require saving, again, why would we need religion (or monsters)?

Being faithful to monsters again bears comparison with the divine.  Should you become one of the lost while the 99 don’t require any assistance, your monsters will come find you.  In fact, that’s what they most specialize in.  What are dark nights of the soul without a little company?  It’s not sacrilegious to map the divine world with that of monsters, for any language regarding such high stakes beings must be metaphorical.  Our standard version of God is often a large human.  Generally he’s male, and he doesn’t always display compassion, although capable of doing so.  Monsters may be creatures of our own imaginations.  They are cast large on the screen since they too stand in for those to whom we owe some tribute for this is not a safe world in which to raise your kids.  Guillermo del Toro understands; we should listen.

Reel Salvation

salvationcinemaSalvation is a fraught concept. It’s one of those topics that’s been commandeered by the evangelical camp so that mainstreamers are afraid to touch it, as if it’s catching. The thing is, Christianity is built around the idea that people require saving. The question is how you go about getting “saved.” Some insist it’s being “born again,” while others take a more gradual, one might dare say “evolutionary,” approach. Either way the end result in the same—being rescued from that which threatens you. Like many people, I watch movies. Sometimes I do so with manic intensity, not really knowing why I do it. My personal rationalization is escapism. Living in a world of harsh realities such as Trump (and even before there were sources of great anxiety) one needs an escape hatch. You might say I’m seeking salvation through film.

Crystal Downing suggests I may not be alone in this. Salvation from Cinema: The Medium is the Message is a book that explores the salvific function of movies. These are not just Christian or Bible movies she’s talking about. Indeed, she spends some time wrestling with that preposition “from” in the title. Is cinema something from which one might be saved, or by which one might find salvation? The latter is her focus and she sharpens it by looking at theories which might make it happen. The stories, the stars, and even nudity are put forward as ways the silver screen has been thought to bring salvation to viewers. She also includes a very interesting discussion of breaking the fourth wall. This technique brings the contents directly to the viewer. The second half of her book is more theoretically dense, engaging with modern theorists about what salvation from cinema might mean. Her selection of films to discuss is wide and intriguing.

There can be little question that cinema has a deeper significance than it’s usually supposed. Part of the reason is, as Downing discusses, the easy marriage of capitalism and celluloid in the United States. Movies make money. To counter this she also discusses foreign and art house films as well. There can be little question that those who stand in the queue are seeking something. While cheaper than many diversions, going to the movies does involve a small investment and as capitalists we expect a return on that. So it is that we sit in the dark and allow others to guide us toward the light. That’s as fine a metaphor for salvation as any that the preacher might proffer.

Heroic Gestures

It seems like superheroes have been around forever. They are really, however, the product of comic books from the 1930s on. Adapting well to the big screen, a generation of kids is growing up that may have had their first taste of caped crusaders on the silver screen. I haven’t seen Batman V Superman, only the latest of a long string of the recent procession of such movies. Even so, the character of Superman—among the first superheroes—is less than a century old. Since the meme was conceived, however, it has mushroomed out into all kinds of outsiders offering deliverance. Superheroes are clearly about salvation. Even the anti-heroes. Otherwise they’re a hard lot to classify. Some have super powers. Others have only a lot of money and highly honed physical abilities. Or exceptional intelligence. The one thing they all offer is some kind of salvation. You might have to look for it, but it’s there.

Comic books in general, and superheroes in particular, have recently gained academic credibility. The ivory tower is often a location from which to look down on popular culture—the unwashed crowd—and seek more rarified topics of investigation. Superheroes, however, have proven resilient enough to this academic kryptonite to garner some attention. Comic books can be works of art. More than that, if a meme won’t let go, well, that itch should be telling us something. Sociologically, in a world of near constant uncertainty (who’d have guessed Trump would ever be where he is today?) superheroes seem to offer a stability that daily life lacks. Call it escapism, but what is salvation if not a form of escape? Let somebody else don the cowl and take care of the dangers we never even knew existed.

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Like many kids, I grew up making my own comic books. I invented a couple of superheroes that never found any adoring audiences, but the process taught me something. Looking back at those times in my life, they were periods of extreme crisis. My own superheroes were coping mechanisms. We couldn’t afford a lot of comic books, but once I started working, during junior high school, I started buying Doc Savage novels and consuming them like popcorn. I was trying to get through difficult times. I’ve seen editorials suggesting that the era of superhero movies is dwindling. I doubt that it is. They may eventually fade from the silver screen, but they will still lurk in the graphic novels and recesses of the internet. We need our heroes. We need deliverance.

Mere Monsters

While my colleagues and I wait to hear if our monster session will be approved, my thoughts naturally turn to the taxonomy of monsters. One of the perennial problems in the study of monsters is that definitions vary widely. We might all agree that a werewolf is a monster, but what of Cthulhu? Or of a horribly deformed, but completely natural animal? What about demons? Should we all agree that we know what a monster is, how do we divide them into categories for easy study? One way of doing this might be to rely on binaries. For example: natural monsters versus unnatural monsters, living monsters versus undead monsters, monsters from earth versus monsters not from earth, monsters created by humans versus naturally occurring monsters, fictional monsters versus monsters reported in nature. It soon becomes obvious that monsters are a widely divergent group of creatures.

Monsters have won an enduring place in popular culture. I think of The X-Files. Apart from the “mythology” of the series, many episodes featured a weekly scary monster. The same is true of Sleepy Hollow, now in its third season. Monster movies, although perhaps taking a back seat to super heroes of late, are regulars on the silver screen. We just can’t seem to live without our monsters. I’ve mentioned in my many posts about monsters that the connection with religion is so obvious that it hardly requires apology. But a deeper question has occurred to me. It has to do with the nature of religion (itself not well defined).

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Religions exist to deliver people from the trials they face. Offering Nirvana to break the endless cycles of reincarnation, or Heaven when we die after one go-round, religions claim to give us something of an assurance that things will work out. (Mostly.) In the light of this, why does religion give us monsters as well? Surely they are more than mere metaphors for the misfortunes of daily life. There has to be something more to it. What that more is, I’m not certain. I’m not even sure of how to approach the question. Monsters will, for me and many other Monster Boomers, remain a guilty pleasure that we are pleased to be able to address as adults. I am becoming more and more convinced that the more we learn about them, the more we learn about religion itself. And perhaps also about those who give shape to religious thought.

Kingdom Come

Bible in HistoryPopular media tells us the Bible is irrelevant. As someone who has struggled for years to find a non-sacerdotal job in that area of specialization, it’s not difficult to believe popular media is right. Despite all the rationales on all the religion department websites out there, there is little that you can do with your degree. It was refreshing, therefore, to read The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times, by David W. Kling. While not exactly what I expected it to be, Kling’s book did explore several specific pericopes (pericopae sounds too pretentious) with an eye toward showing how a single verse from the Bible could change western history. The examples go from the early monastic movement up to debates about women’s ordination that are, unbelievably, still on-going. The social movements he traces demonstrate that the Bible has been, and continues to be, more than just a book.

At several points through this volume I stopped to consider the implications. From an outsider’s point of view many of these debates must seem almost infantile. They would have no teeth at all if not for the belief that the salvation of humanity rode on their correct interpretation. Often—too often—the results were the torture and oppression of others, for the sake of the Gospel. If we’ve got this right, then we need to prove it through might. A mighty fortress is our God. So the Psalms seem to say.

Few people stop to consider just how deeply engrained in our culture the Bible is. The idea, on the surface, is almost like a fairy tale: once upon a time, God said… And yet, some of the most intelligent people the world has known have staked their very reputations on this claim. As a postscript to Kling, we can still see the Bible’s influence on politics—and therefore society—over a decade later. We still debate whether homosexuals can legally love one another. The biblical basis of this debate is thin, but it is a bulwark even today. We argue about stem cells, and although from the biblical worldview such things are mythical; yet that same Bible gives people the material with which to argue, eh, Jeremiah? And where is that female president we should’ve elected long ago? Any ideas, Paul? No matter how we may discount it, the Bible is, and will continue to be, a most influential book. Too bad we as a society don’t care to learn about it from specialists. Not when it’s so irrelevant.