Revelations Under the Dome: Don’t Drink the Water

Utilitarianism, Darwinism, Principles of Proportionality. All these concepts have been used, experimented with, and abused at some point in human history. Over time, they have been combined with various doctrine in different religions. The initial discussion here is about the fact that we do use concepts, like those mentioned above, to make the world go ‘round whether it is in the public or private sector, the government or religious systems. It is true, however, that at times we are not consistent with the application of these principles, sometimes we disagree on these principles, and sometimes people take initiative to use these principles in the name of the greater good… without consulting the greater good. **coughREBECCAcough** Ahem…

 

For example, while the principle of proportionality, which in its most basic form states that the violence and force used in a war must be proportionate to the attack that will be suffered, is one of the criteria for Catholic Teaching’s Jus ad bellum, it is not applied in any other area of Catholic Teaching. The principle of proportionality does not only have to be used in time of war or violence, there are other areas where this could be applied. The choice, because it is a choice, to apply this principle in one area of Catholic Teaching, but not other areas has, of course, historical ties. All I think we should take away from this, since I am not at this point writing on Jus ad bellum specifically, is that at different points in history there is a proposed need to use different philosophical, political, and religious methodologies to deal with the problem at hand. While I may, now, disagree with how proportionality is used, I do accept that the concept when applied to a historical war may have been appropriate for that time.

 

Ok, tangent over, let’s look at some of the concepts and principles I brought up.

 

Utilitarianism – Morally right action that produces the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. Example: I hate ricotta cheese, but damn it all, everyone else wants it in the lasagna so we put it in.

 

Darwinism – Loaded term since it has been hijacked many times over. For our purpose let’s call it survival of the fittest. Example – May all the lactose intolerant perish on this ricotta-filled lasagna for their inferior genes.

 

Hedonistic Utilitarianism – Classical Utility meets selfish pleasure (arguably Bentham and Mill were not hedonistic because of a hierarchical view of normative good associated with pleasure) so the greatest amount of pleasure that I can get for me… crossing over into egoism. Example: Screw the ricotta, we’re using mozzarella because I want it.

 

Proportionality – As previously discussed. Example: The ricotta went bad, BUT I should serve it anyway to the ricotta lovers because that cheese is evil and in order to have a purified cheese state they (sadly) need to perish for the greater mozzarella good. (Or something like that.)

 

Got it? Truth here – I really do hate ricotta, and I’m Italian.

 

Ok then. So WHY am I bringing all this up?! Thank you for asking.

 

UNDER. THE. DOME.

 

REBECCA…. grrrrrrrrrr (growl with me here…)

 

**Spoilers… but for a few weeks ago**

 

Setting – you are under a dome and you have limited resources with disaster after disaster hitting. Eventually, with no point in sight of the dome lifting, there is a good chance you will run out of food and die. Obviously the leaders, any leaders, at this point have to make tough decisions. No one wants a population to starve. SO let’s talk about what happened specifically with Rebecca and Jim.

 

Let me start with Rebecca by saying that it’s easy to hate her following this episode. She Alice_Ep_4_Season_2_Page_Picturehas since redeemed her crazy-self a little, but I don’t forget Swine Flu Roulette very easily. Rebecca, aside from her personal Dad issues (“Sometimes there are no answers”, right?) takes a stance that she is going to play the part of nature/God and thin the population via a strain of swine flu. **Pan to shot of Harriet’s baby, Alice ** As her sinister plan unfolds we, the helpless audience, realize that this means potentially killing off people we love – Harriet, Alice the second, Andrea! – and the already traumatized and beleaguered residents of the dome. With the support of Big Jim, Rebecca goes to unleash the virus in the holy water in the church. **Pan to shot #2 of adorable cooing baby Alice**

 

 

In fairness to Jim, he was duped. Rebecca convinced him that he was the one that was in control and had to release the virus even knowing that he wouldn’t do it. Rebecca, in the end, also stops herself, though her reasoning is the strength of the virus and not the people of the town.

 

Jim “You want me to play God?”

Rebecca “You said you wanted to see who could carry their own weight. This is how. It’s not God… it’s, it’s Darwin! It’s survival of the fittest.”

 

Two questions arose instantly for me:

  1. Who the hell does she think she is?
  2. How do you adequately measure the worthiness of lives to save?

 

I won’t spend much time on question one because you all can answer that for yourselves. Question two, however, is interesting. We can’t say that Christian principles have never made room for killing or “letting die,” but from the camera shots of the baby Alice’s life, to the final battle ground of the virus being in the church, it seems that the “Christian” thing to do and Rebecca’s “Saviors for Science” stand on opposing sides. It is true that Harriet is overheard saying,

 

“Sometimes there are no answers, Tom, try to have faith. We’ll get through this together,”

 

but isn’t that exactly Rebecca’s point? She wants solutions, not pandering. There are, however, fine lines here that Rebecca is crossing.

 

Nature, if the dome is not lifted, will deal first-hand with the population problem through starvation. People will naturally get sick, people will naturally die. All of the above will happen whether Rebecca plants the virus or not. Her argument of mercy takes each person’s free will and plucks it out of their hands by another human being deciding that they will take population control into their own hands.

 

Rebecca could indeed call it Darwinism or even Utilitarianism since she is apparently trying to save at least a portion of the population from starvation. While these principles in other cases in time may have worked, was it right for Chester’s Mill?

 

Rebecca PineRebecca “A virus is nature’s way of leveling the playing field…. It’s merciful.”

 

Nature, God’s creation, has the ability to sift through populations without human interference. To Harriet’s point, we as humans are unable to understand fully the divine cosmic order. Many theologians have written and discussed analogical imagination, metaphorical speech, cataphatic and apophatic language – all these being ways that human beings, unable to understand on God-Term can interact and know the divine.[1] For those who would identify as believers, the mystery of suffering, death, love, and of God is something we strive to accept gracefully.

 

The language used throughout the episode Revelation that speaks of Big Jim as God, of deciding mercy, of Darwin versus the church, points to the town under the dome as a potential new creation. It is it’s own context, away from the outside world. A context in which God can be buried and resurrected in the form of Big Jim. Julia, is clearly in favor of democracy, though her plan seems to be flawed as well with people revolting. It will be interesting over the next few weeks to see how the balance shifts and to see the new Revelations to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] See David Tracy, Elizabeth Johnson, Augustine, etc. 

Atheists and Angels – How King David and Bono Might Save The Winchester Brothers (and Angel)

Friends, we have a guest author this week! So excited to turn this over to my very own prophet. So sit up straight, give her your full attention, and read on!

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Tuesday Sammy

Let me start by confessing that, unlike our gracious hosts, I am no theologian. I am by training a musician, by current career path a soulless bureaucrat, and by hobby a sometime blog- writer with an iffy background in occult studies and shinobi philosophy. Back in college (when my friendship with Erica and Seth began), I was most consumed with my then-hobby of angelology.

Hence my screen name of Zophiel Malfoy.

This is also why, when they asked if I would be interested in writing a guest post, Erica suggested writing on the show Supernatural. Because angels, hot guys, classic rock, occult studies, guns and sharp pointy things . . . practically made for me, right?

To be honest, I’ve a love/ hate relationship with the show. For as much as I love the characters (Dean, Sam, Castiel), the actors who portray them (Jared, Jensen, Misha), the idea behind Supernatural, and many of the episodes, there are times when I cannot avoid the impression that the creators are using the show to express their existential angst without actually doing the work of working it out and finding resolution. This is a common problem for a person of faith encountering the products of Hollywood. For just as easily as we can sometimes identify the creative works of people of faith, so too we can sometimes easily tell the works of atheists, for each are often marked with either a glowing hope or sinking despair, respectively. Likewise, while people of a particular faith may be able to address other faiths (real or imaginary) with some minimal insight, one can often identify the creations of atheists from the complete and utter lack of anything past a 4th grade conceptualization of faith or belief.

Before I must go farther, this is not intended to be an atheist-bashing piece. (It is a bashing of Lazy Atheists Piece, ftr :P ). One of the more impressive television shows of my formative years was J. Michael Strazinsky’s Babylon 5. Strazinsky, a self-identified atheist, nonetheless had a show that treated matters of faith with respect and even, perhaps, a bit of admiration. I can think of no episode of any TV show that addresses faith with more intelligence and depth than the B5 episode “Passing Through Gethsemane”. This episode and show will, perhaps, have a blog entry of their own, so I’ll restrain myself, and simply acknowledge that atheists are perfectly capable of dealing in a competent manner with matters of faith.

They just often don’t.

One of the charming things abosupernatural-cast-cw-season-6ut Supernatural, especially the early seasons, from the point of view of someone that was already familiar with the lore, was the way they would take a subject – creature, superstition, etc—and twist or alter one or two details. Whether the brothers Sam and Dean Winchester were facing a wendigo, skinwalker, werewolf, or tulpa, a knowledgeable viewer could laugh and chuckle and appreciate the research that went into getting things in the SPN universe just so close to our lore, but just slightly off.

Things started to go awry in season 5. Originally, Castiel (the Angel who rescues Dean from Hell and managed to charm the pants off all the female—and some of the male—viewers) was only supposed to be a one-off character. (Un)Fortunately, he was perfectly (and adorably) portrayed by Misha Collins, who managed to bring his own quirky style to the portrayal, and so infatuated the viewership that the role of his character (and the angels in general) was greatly expanded. Initially, this allowed for some of the fun tweaking of known lore: Raphael, known in actual angel-lore as the goofiest of angels, becomes serious and humorless, while SPN Gabriel takes on the role of twistedly-funny trickster (to the extent that he moonlights as the Norse trickster- deity Loki). Uriel maintains his gravitas and reputation for being someone you don’t cross, while Anael (also spelled Annael, Haniel, etc. ) takes her role as the Angel of the Sephirah Netzach rather literally in some senses when she gets it on with Dean in the back seat of his car.

The SPN universe is established very early on as a Christian Universe—that is, a universe where Christian belief is Truth or, at least, very close to Truth. For instance, in one of the earliest episodes, Dean states that one can detect a demon by saying the name of God in their hearing—their eyes will turn black. And the name Dean uses is Christo. While gnostics may argue that this name does not necessarily imply established Christianity, the fact is that the vast majority of the audience will register “Christ” as Jesus, and thus the rules of the SPN-verse establish Jesus as Divine and therefore the universe of the show as ostensibly Christian, even if various pagan deities do show up to cause trouble now and then.

Until the expansion of the role of angels, this doesn’t cause much trouble, because it’s all in the background. However, with the angels and their concerns coming to the fore, the Christian-ish-nature of the SPN verse assumes more importance—and this is where they run into trouble. It’s one thing to mess around with the small details of a faith system—but it’s another to alter the root structure of a faith system. Such shifts require a moderately complete understanding of the faith as-it-is, or else the changes to the structure will soon have everything collapsing under the weight of its own confusion and chaos.

And this is precisely what has happened on the SPN verse, the confusion and inconsistency that typifies the post-season-5 episodes can be traced to the instability implanted in season 5. It starts with the revelation that God has “left the building”. This alone could be worked with, as there are hints at the end of season 5 as to where God is. But it quickly becomes clear in the later seasons that there was no plan for God’s absence. He remains out of the picture and the universe spirals into chaos without His direction. Still, this is a matter that can still be resolved, as the show it not yet completely over.

The next thing, however, is what really destabilizes the SPN-verse. In season 5, episode 16, “Dark Side of the Moon”, Dean and Sam journey though Heaven in search of God. Instead they find the angel Joshua, the only being that God is maintaining communication with. Joshua confirms that God had a hand in several earlier miracles, but then explains that God is unwilling to do anything more, and that he wants Sam to stop praying—because He’s not listening, He’s not going to be listening, and really, just give it a rest already.

While the revelation of God’s apathy creates drama for the characters, especially Castiel, this is where the suspension of disbelief starts to break up for viewers of faith. God missing is one thing, but God Apathetic is nonsensical. Most standard Christian theologies these days tend to agree with the Julian of Norwich Observationality Principle: That the entirely of the Cosmos exists, and maintains existence, by the constant and unwavering attention of Him that created all. That the most infinitesimal moment of distraction would immediately erase all of Space/ Time. Therefore, any universe with a Christian God that becomes apathetic is a universe that instantly ceases to exist and in fact, never was. Therefore, that this happens in SPN is, for the viewer of faith, a thing too heavy for belief-suspension.

Added to this are un-fallen angels that, with few exceptions, are in the mold of Lucifer, despising humans as “Mud Monkeys”, and willing to both kill each other and work with demons. After the Castiel is a Trollfailed Apocalypse, the angels lose their collective minds, and episode by episode, season by season, the complexity and chaos of the canon start to get too heavy, the internal story logic breaking down. These problems are exacerbated by writers who clearly aren’t familiar with earlier seasons (Changing the rules of shapeshifters, forgetting that Sam and Dean already have a relationship with Cain, etc. . .)

All of this has roots in the fact that the creators of the Supernatural universe seem to have no understanding of Christian (nor, while we’re at it, Jewish) cosmology or metaphsyics–beyond the shiny angels and (seemingly) silent Deity– nor do they seem to care overly much to gain such understanding. It is a vexing thing.

This said, as a believing Christian I must allow room for the Holy Spirit– the show is not yet ended, and there is yet hope for redemption. There are several ways that a serious team could untangle this mess, and possibly gift America (if not the world) with some of the most profound television ever created. While I will continue to harbor doubts, this is a theoretical possibility.

After writing the first half of this essay, I took a wander about my house. Which is to say, walk a few steps, turn round a corner, walk a few more. . . I was drawn into my meditation room where, between my copy of The Imitation of Christ and a small Jack Sparrow plushie, was kept my copy of Selections from the Book of Psalms; with an introduction by Bono. As I am quite a U2 fan, it is no surprise to anyone that I own a copy of this little volume. Pulling it down (and shifting Capt. Sparrow such that the Kempis would stay upright), I delved once more into the rockstar’s reflections on scripture:

“. . . At age 12, I was a fan of David, he felt familiar…like a pop star could feel familiar. The words of the psalms were as poetic as they were religious and he was a star. A dramatic character, because before David could fulfil the prophecy and become the king of Israel, he had to take quite a beating. He was forced into exile and ended up in a cave in some no-name border town facing the collapse of his ego and abandonment by God. But this is where the soap opera got interesting, this is where David was said to have composed his first psalm–a blues. That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues. Man shouting at God–“My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?” (Psalm 22)

. . . Humorous, sometimes blasphemous, the blues was backslidin’ music; but by its very opposition, flattered the subject of its perfect cousin Gospel.

Abandonment, displacement, is the stuff of my favourite psalms. The Psalter may be a font of gospel music, but for me it’s in his despair that the psalmist really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger. “How long, Lord? Wilt thou hide thyself forever?” (Psalm 89) or “Answer me when I call” (Psalm 5).

. . . “Psalm 40″ is interesting in that it suggests a time in which grace will replace karma, and love the very strict laws of Moses (i.e. fulfil them). I love that thought. David, who committed some of the most selfish as well as selfless acts, was depending on it. That the scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me; now it is a source of great comfort.

“40” became the closing song of U2 shows and on hundreds of occasions, literally hundreds of thousands of people of every size and shape t-shirt have shouted back the refrain, pinched from “Psalm 6″: “How long (to sing this song)”. I had thought of it as a nagging question–pulling at the hem of an invisible deity whose presence we glimpse only when we act in love. . .”

Perhaps it is fitting that a rock star should so clearly express the way that Supernatural can still become something greater than it has been. With certain events of the most recent season (season 9), the possibility is opened that the words of Joshua in season 5 were a lie, that it wasn’t even Joshua they were speaking to. (I don’t think this is where the show is going– I would be floored if they went this route. But perhaps that’s my own cynicism speaking.) Not only have Sam and Dean been brought low, but so has all of Creation, Heaven and Hell included. Likewise the audience who, enamored and bewitched by the story of Dean, Sam, and their friend Castiel, have been dragged along as everything fell apart. If this truly was done on purpose (and after the 4th-wall-smashing 6th season episode, “The French Mistake, who the heck can tell?) then it would be one of the most clever and daring things a television show has ever done. Pull everyone, even the fans, through the process of despair and defeat, only to redeem everything, including the fans, at the end.

It could still happen.

It did with David and Job, so maybe it can still happen with Sammy, Dean and Cas.

Author: Zophiel Malfoy

Carnivàle: The Apocalypse is Back / Part 3

When we take a closer look at the 1990s, the years in which Knauf created and wrote Carnivàle, we must seek out the catalyst for this revolution of the apocalyptic mind. For many, both the mainstream Christian and fundamentalist groups, the catalyst in the 1990s was the Persian Gulf War. This military was believed by many to mark the beginning of the end while for others it was an example of America’s systematic political failing. In either case, it triggered a series of visions, ideas, and worries on apocalyptic events. Similar to John’s Revelation, when our social infrastructures fail us, when fear and imminent danger enter our lives, we move to express these manifest fears; for Americans, media is a powerful resource. If our social and political structures will not save us, we must create the Messiah who will, or live without hope of redemption.

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Since the Gulf War in the early 1990s, there have been numerous studies on the effects that the war had on everything from religion to economy. A large number of studies have also been done on the apocalyptic vision produced as a result of the Gulf War. Approximately 15% of America’s population felt that the Gulf War I[1] was a sign of the beginning of the end.[2] This aggravated bad blood between many Christian and Muslim people. A Time Life article, written in 1991, immediately relates the looming Gulf War I to the apocalypse,

           “Rather, the “mother of battles” (as Saddam Hussein likes to call it) is about the fulfillment of biblical prophecies regarding the imminence of Armageddon.”[3]

 

Some Christians felt that the Anti-Christ could be Saddam Hussein.[4] It was in this world that Knauf created his world of Carnivàle; a world, which would be fraught with the ultimate battle between good and evil. In Knauf’s tale of Revelation, however, things are distorted and the lines between good and evil are blurred. He harkens the same sentiments that many people experienced with Gulf War I; perhaps they were fooled as to who represented each side. After Gulf War I had ended, many fundamentalist Christians felt that this was a false-peace and that a second war would erupt.[5]

 

The culmination of global wars, social imagination, media technology, and literary motif made a singular impact on Carnivàle, its story, and its timeline. Kirsten Thompson, author of Apocalyptic Dread, explains that this combination led to American cinema starting in the 1990s to bear such heavy apocalyptic themes.[6] Thompson also discusses the Gulf Wars to be prime material to create apocalyptic frenzy. When political structures crashed, the public released tensions and fear through media outlets. This phenomenon is more noticeable now that the internet has become an increasingly popular way to express fear and anger, criticism or praise for events that seem insurmountable.

 

In 2005 HBO decided that ratings were too low to continue with Carnivàle, which was supposed to include at least one more season. It had been almost five years since a major tragedy on American soil and seemingly as Americans began to gain hope, they lost interest in the end of time. Secular images, however, of apocalypse or apocalyptic prophecy show up at times in American cinema and culture. Even today there are always news stories about something that may or may not destroy the world. Most recently the prophecies have focused around the Large Hadron Collider or the Mayan Calendar ending in 2012.[7] These events continue to shape our apocalyptic imagination. The word “apocalypse,” in and of itself, is an important key to understanding the inherent difference between the religious idea of apocalypse and the secular idea of apocalypse. When we speak of apocalypse in religious terms, we refer to the revelation of narrative in a framework in which God will ultimately liberate God’s chosen from the oppressors. The eschaton in Judeo-Christian theology is a bringer of hope for God’s people, not a senseless and despondent event. In contrast, when the term “apocalypse” is used in a secular way, the idea of hope is lost because there is no God, no creator-being who will save the chosen in the end. In nihilistic fashion, the world simply ends without hope in a destructive way that imbues terror amongst the world’s population. The secular apocalypse rejects the theological basis for the eschaton that allows the religious apocalypse to be liberating rather than a violent destruction. In some ways, the secular apocalypse aims to liberate itself from the fundamentals of religion, rather than the fear and permanence of a death without hope. Many of the wars fought are in part due to religious intolerance and difference, and many scandals have shaken the foundations of the churches. As a result people are turning away from the theological frameworks that once provided them hope. Carnivàle is an example of art in which the lines between good and evil are blurred; this is becoming more common within secular apocalyptic media. The common theme of end-of-life destruction will continue as a main theme in both religious and secular apocalypses. The difference, however, is whether or not there is the hope of life after death that the religious apocalypse holds dear. For those who have turned away from religion, for whatever reason, the secular apocalypse has no established hope for ever-lasting life; death is a permanent and inevitable trap.

 

As 21st century viewers of Carnivàle, we know that the prophecies of Alamogordo will come true. The atomic bomb was indeed tested and used against civilians. Regardless of the unresolved cTrinity-Blast-10-secliff-hanger ending, Daniel Knauf seems to have given his answer that we will eventually be the means of our own destruction. Again and again in American apocalyptic films the Church fails us, religion is weak or corrupted, and perhaps even God has abandoned us. While secular apocalypses retain the imagery of the Book of Revelation, they speak a very different message. The veil they lift is upon the inescapable bleakness of our future, and until the secular apocalyptic imagination finds a replacement for the hope that God brings within the religious apocalypse, the end of all things will simply imply the beginning of nothing.

 

Co-Authored By: Erica Saccucci and Seth Alexander

 

[1] In lieu of the fact that we will be discussing both the 1990 Gulf War as well as the 2003 Gulf War, we will call them Gulf War I and Gulf War II respectively.

[2] Wojcik, Daniel. The End of the World As We Know It. (New York: New York University Press 1997) 156.

[3] Time Magazine. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,972285-2,00.html&gt;

[4] Wojcik, Daniel. The End of the World As We Know It. (New York: New York University Press 1997) 157.

[5] Ibid.. 158-9. Wojcik interestingly enough wrote this book in 1997 before Gulf War II began.

[6] Thompson, Kirsten Moana. Apocalyptic Dread: American Film at the Turn of the Millenium. (Albany: State University of New York Press 2007) 1.

[7] America Online. July 6, 2008. Mayan Calendar, <http://news.aol.com/story/_a/thousands-expect-apocalypse-in-2012/20080706152409990001&gt;.

The Tech Herald. December 8, 2008. Large Hadron Collider, <http://www.thetechherald.com/article.php/200850/2583/End-of-the-world-claims-set-to-resume-with-summer-LHC-reboot&gt;.

Carnivàle: The Apocalypse is Here / Part 2

We come to you this week with a short, but important, second segment on Carnivàle. The sides of light and darkness have each been chosen, though the lines are arguably less clear throughout the series. In one of Knauf’s more brilliant moments, “light” creatures and “dark” creatures are never a cartooned version of themselves. In other words, they each exhibit and inhibit essential qualities of the other. Ben has a dark side just like Justin has a light side. Humanity tends to like paintings with broad strokes, essentializing and sometimes demonizing qualities of the other when in actuality we should be talking always in a multi-dimensional dynamic way about each other. Read on readers and see what unfolds in Knauf’s tale of Apocalypse!

Carnivale - Season 2

As season two opens, the audience is brought back to the story with the words of Brother Justin: “As God has tested Job, so too have we been tested brothers and sisters.” Knauf explicitly uses biblical references for his second season opener. This imagery of suffering, and of Job’s tragedy, re-centers the audience with an apocalyptic mind set; the end is coming. Knauf brings out the suffering of this time period well. As this opening episode, “Los Moscos, NM”, of season two progresses, the audience witnesses Ben in one of the nuclear bomb tests at Alamogordo, NM. When the bomb historically detonated, it was compared to something like the creation of the world or the second coming of Christ. As the bomb explodes in the series, everything is obliterated, but as the dust settles, Ben’s and Justin’s crouching figures remain. This scene serves not only as an apocalyptic tag for the series, but also creates a map within the storyline as Alamogordo will be Ben’s next destination. The result is the link of Ben’s journey toward Alamogordo, a place fraught with man-made peril, and ultimately one step closer to Justin, who represents the ultimate end. As Ben comes out of his vision, a character yells to him that he cannot run from the inevitable fight or millions will die.

Knauf also expands the apocalyptic and biblically related characterizations underpinning Brother Justin and Ben during season two. Justin, whom the audience first comes to know as a holy man, is rapidly changing into a demon. Uncertainty surrounds Justin’s true nature, however, until he addresses his ministry in a sermon,

 

“I now realize that you are not here to hear the words of other men. You are here for me. So that I am not alone in the garden. ”

After the bishops try to regain control of their rogue minister, Justin takes a stand and declares himself the snake to the people of Eden. Knauf has fully revealed Justin as the antagonist and the beast in his own Revelation.

The association of Justin as devil and Ben as savior is not only carefully written within each episode, but also works masterfully with the progression of three specific episodes in season two. Rodrigo Garcia, the director of Carnivàle, says of the two characters,

carnivale-after-the-ball-3

“Obviously one of the main themes is the conflict between good and evil… Another extremely interesting theme is the theme of identity. Both leads — Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin — they’re haunted by their powers, by their dreams. ”

The epic battle between Justin and Ben takes place in a cornfield in New Canaan. Both of the characters – Ben armed with a dagger, Justin with a scythe – draw blood from one another. Ben plunges the dagger fatally deep into Justin. Ben, also wounded, is soon dragged away by the carnival troupe for a quick getaway. As they pull away, Sofie walks into the field. The shot pulls out, and the audience sees the cornfield rapidly dying around her. In the final scene, Ben lies unconscious in Management’s trailer. Knauf’s final vision for Carnivàle leaves the audience with many questions. Sofie, who discovers her own ability to heal by touch, chooses her fate and heals Justin. Ben, who has no one to heal him, suffers in the trailer. There is no conclusion as to whether or not Ben lives. Does Knauf intend to show that the battle between good and evil goes on indefinitely? Is there hope for a new tomorrow? Clancy Brown, the actor who portrays Justin, summarizes the thematic heft of Carnivàle in an interview,

 

“This is the story of the final confrontation, between these two entities, the final battle between God and Satan, for the soul of man. And, well, we are the products of that battle. So, you decide, who won or who lost. Are we creatures of light, or are we creatures of darkness? ”

 

The ultimate ambiguity leads the audience into a frenzy of unknowing.

 

Co-Written by: Seth Alexander and Erica Saccucci

Carnivàle: The Apocalypse is Coming / Part 1

theopopcarnivalepicThe apocalypse has different meanings to different communities, but these beliefs have become so engrained in the American psyche that there is now a sense of the apocalyptic even for those who do not necessarily hold to other religious beliefs. What American film history shows developing, beginning particularly in the late 1960s and up to the present, is the idea of a secular apocalypse. The short-lived series Carnivàle (2003-2005), created by Daniel Knauf and originally crafted as a feature film is aAn archetypal tale of good versus evil, the series periodically sat in a drawer and was edited and reworked until, ultimately, HBO decided to produce it as an episodic series after the new millennium. If you have not seen the series, we would implore you to watch, it just might save your soul.

Daniel Knauf uses the cataclysmic events of the 1930s to form the beginning point of his good-versus-evil epic, blending imagery and events from the Book of Revelation to drive home the point that the work is an apocalypse, but a secular one. Knauf’s work is rife with religious overtones, including his own construction of a dualistic cosmology, but the final outcome is that humanity is responsible for the light and darkness in the world, and if there is an eventual end of the world, it will be at the hands of humanity, who have “traded away wonder for reason.”[1] Carnivàle is a concrete example of American apocalypticism in the 21st century: it encapsulates the development from a religious idea to a secular belief in end times, with a focus on the human causes of the final act in Earth’s history.

The opening monologue in the pilot episode of Carnivàle sets the apocalyptic tone for the entire series. Samson, the leader of the carnival troupe, looking old and battered in a close-up of his face, addresses the audience:

 

“Before the beginning, after the Great War between Heaven and Hell, God created the Earth and gave dominion over it to the crafty ape he called Man. And to each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness. And great armies clashed by night in the ancient war between Good and Evil. There was magic then; nobility and unimaginable cruelty. And so it was until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity, and Man forever traded away wonder for reason.[2]

 

The protagonist of this drama is Ben, a poor farmer who has lost everything in the Dust Bowl. He comes into contact and ultimately joins a traveling carnival troupe, peopled with a cast of colorful characters, including Samson, the second-in-command to the mysterious unseen figure known as “Management”; a catatonic seer, Apollonia, who is only able to communicate through a mediator, her daughter Sophie; Jonesey, the manager of the roustabout, maintenance crew; Lodz, a blind prognosticator. Two other important characters who are not connected to the troupe are Brother Justin and Iris Crowe, siblings who lead a Methodist church community in Mintern, California, far from the carnival’s Midwestern meanderings.

Carnivale

As Season One of Carnivàle progresses, the stories of Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin Crowe parallel in their respective searches for meaning in life and exploration of mysterious, unexplainable powers. The two characters only intersect in their cryptic dreams that they share, despite being strangers to one another. Ben is led in his journey by clues about his past from members of the troupe. He discovers and harnesses a supernatural ability to heal by touch. Justin, meanwhile, must follow the visions of his vocation that he believes are sent from God. Initially his visions seem to be impelling him to start a new ministry for the migrant workers who are pouring into California from the Dust Bowl affected states looking for work. Brother Justin later gains celebrity by partnering with a popular radio personality and strikes a deal with him to broadcast his sermons. He also begins to give into the dark side of his nature. What began as a vocation to minister to the migrant workers becomes Justin’s building of a personality cult and a virtual army of those who are “wandering after him” and his Temple of Jericho ministry. His powers of dark omniscience, which at first plague him, are embraced and utilized to further his goals. Both characters’ situations lead them in polar opposite trajectories: Ben toward the light and Justin toward darkness.

Knauf’s structure of the cosmos for Carnivàle is Gnostic: in each generation a creature of light and a creature of darkness are born. The history of the world up until the time period in which the dramatic action takes place has been characterized by an overall balance of the two opposing principles. This theme of balance is integral to the continuation of the world, appearing in the light character’s ability to heal and give life only if they take energy or a full life from something else.The tension within Carnivàle, symbolized within the very name of the program, is the overturning of this balanced order, which endangers the perpetuation and well-being of the world. Throughout the two seasons of the program, the central question becomes whether Ben Hawkins will be able to hold the balance in place, or if Brother Justin will triumph and bring about an age of darkness, sending the world into a cataclysmic oblivion.

 

Co-Authored By: Seth Alexander and Erica Saccucci

 

[1] Carnivàle, Season I, Episode 1, 2003.

[2] ibid.

 

 

 

 

Death of an Angel

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This article is, perhaps, a bit different from what you’ve seen so far from Theo + POP. If nothing else, I hope it will prompt you to see the film under discussion and to ask yourself the questions posed at the end in an authentic way.

A little over a week ago, Pope Francis, now known for his off-the-cuff remarks, gave an unprepared speech in Campobasso, Italy on good stewardship of the earth. In this speech the pope branded environmental exploitation as both the “greatest challenge” and greatest sin of our time.[1]   Pope Francis has also been highly critical of unfettered capitalism and has called for a reigning in of the “economy of exclusion.” In this vein, the present pope lends his voice to similar calls made by other popes, environmentalists, liberation theologians, activists – to name a few groups. As we continually read news stories about the threat of global warming, the collapse of bee colonies, the crisis of unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border, it seems that Pope Francis’ words are not so much prophetic, as a diagnosis of what is really going on in our globalized world and what Christians and all people of good will are called to take seriously.

In the midst of all these things (which can seem overwhelming), I am reminded again of a poignant documentary from 2008 titled They Killed Sister Dorothy, the story of the murder of a 73-year-old Sister of Notre Dame de Namur in Anapu Brazil and its aftermath. Because of the wide net the film casts – dealing with issues of environmental and economic justice and sustainability, the social sins of power and corruption, and how the United States has been involved in global social sin – I always show this documentary to the Introduction to Christian Theology classes I teach.

Without giving a synopsis of the narrative that unfolds in the documentary, Sr. Dorothy worked in the Amazon for over thirty years, advocating for the poorest of the poor. She became a proponent of the PDS program, developed by the Brazilian government to give landless workers plots of rainforest to farm in a sustainable manner. Sr. Dorothy’s advocacy for the poor and for the mind-boggling (sarcasm) idea that “Everyone can share in a prophetic way” in the earth’s resources eventually led to a conspiracy by landowners to have her assassinated.[2] The majority of the film follows Sr. Dorothy’s brother, David, as he goes to Brazil to see through the judicial hearings of those involved in the murder.

From a theological perspective, They Killed Sister Dorothy is interesting because it turns the camera back around to the reality of a martyr’s death. It is not the sanitized and edifying depiction of martyrdom a la The Robe (1953), or reminiscent of Romantic artistic renderings. Sr. Dorothy died quietly — alone on a deserted road in the rainforest – the sharp burst of gunfire and then silence. Yet, like martyrs from the Roman arena, Sr. Dorothy’s witness (μάρτυς is the Greek word for “witness”) still gives hope – in this case, hope to the people of Anapu. Hope that, like a Biblical promise, the mighty will be cast from their thrones and the lowly raised up.

It also shows that with a martyr’s death there is not necessarily a happy, Hollywood ending. The community in Anapu continues to wrestle with corrupt politics and spotty enforcement of laws regarding the PDS. One of the conspirators to murder is initially sentenced to 30 years in prison, but is retried a year later and found not guilty. The main rancher involved in the plot never comes to trail. Yet still Sr. Dorothy’s life and death offers hope. The hope is for another way – another possibility for how the community can be in the world despite the power of greed and the political leverage of money.

A decade later and a world away, the realities depicted in They Killed Sister Dorothy, continues to shine a light on injustice and abuse of power. What the film illuminates is a microcosm of sin, analogously applicable to our global macrocosm. It begs us to question ourselves, “Where do we stand?” in this complex web.

 

How are we heeding Sr. Dorothy’s voice to live in the world in a sustainable way? How have we responded to Pope Francis’ call to participate in just economies? These questions need to be asked and need to challenge us: Do something.

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By: Seth Alexander

 

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/05/pope-francis-nature-environment-sin-_n_5559631.html — Accessed 7.10.14

[2] Daniel Junge, They Killed Sister Dorothy. Home Box Office, 2008.

Why “EXTANT” is Exigent and Religion Still Matters

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I happened to catch the series premiere of EXTANT a day late (our nun friends caught it on time,) but it was well worth the wait. They were also accurate in their initial reaction of EXTANT being odd for all the reasons I discuss below. It’s a good thing I love odd. We normally post weekly on Tuesdays, but everyone gets an extra post this week because of the premiere!

My primary branch of interest within theology is reproductive ethics, so you can only imagine that I was as wide-eyed as my daughter spying a cup of gelato while the pilot unfolded in front of me. This is going to be fairly short long since there is only one episode to discuss and realistically I actually have more questions for viewers than comments – at least at this time. (Side-note, that time was 30 minutes ago before I started writing. Things change.)

Let’s break this down into three main themes that I think everyone may want to watch as time goes on. These themes, for me, bring up essential questions within the realms of moral theology, reproductive theology, and basic human existentialism. I would imagine based on the pilot that these will continue to be points of development for each character.

Moral theology. We have talked a little about moral theology before in different ways. It is actually a large subset of theology and itself encompasses many different topics. In a most basic sense, moral theology discusses how we develop a sense of “right”Extant-Banner from “wrong” and how we form ethics, rules, and law based on that function. EXTANT seems to be indicating early on that the moral and ethical realm will be visited quite frequently. Not only is there the questionable moral development of Ethan, the Woods’ humanoid robot son, but also an overarching storyline of what was done to Molly, who knows about it, and why they are keeping it a secret.

We will get to Molly in a moment though, let’s first talk about Ethan. Dr. John Woods, Ethan’s father, is a robotic scientist who created Ethan after he and Molly were not able to have children of their own. For all intents and purposes, Ethan is a robot. There was no indication that he had organic human material, which would make him a cyborg, so he was built in the image of human beings, but not made of the same material. In Christianity, the belief is that humans are created in the imago dei, the image of God. So to make other human beings, particularly in Roman Catholic ethics, goes against what the Church would say are the laws of nature. Similarly, in creating a robotic child, that child cannot take the place of organic life, which is solely created by God via male-female sexual intercourse. John is the creator of his son, built in his likeness. John treats Ethan no different than a human child. He believes that Ethan will learn right from wrong in the same way that a human child would and could – to John it is a matter of process. Ethan is programmed with the same moral process that a human would develop when they encounter problems. John does not seem to prescribe to a religion, as far as can be told from the pilot, so having a robotic child is a non-issue… or is it? So what is the issue and why does Ms. Femi Dodd get all huffy as John presents Ethan to the board at Yasumoto Company?

 

Femi: What is the protocol in the event your… experiment… fails? Do you have an emergency plan for their shut down?

John: To preserve their power? Absolutely. It’s called interlude mode. ::to Ethan:: Do you mind?

Femi: Excuse me Dr. Woods, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for the resting mode, I meant for their termination.

John: To kill them.

Femi: That wording is a bit inelegant, but yes.

John: Do you have a child?

Femi: I have a daughter.

John: Do you have a plan to kill her?

Femi: My daughter’s a human being.

John: I don’t understand the difference.

Femi: Well for starters, she has a soul.

John: With all due respect, Ms. Dodd, there is no such thing as a soul.[1]

 

A few moments after this exchange, John explains his position to Femi. He feels that those who believe that there is anything inexplicable by science, are idiots. Femi responds that she, then, is an idiot. Clearly it went downhill from there. Stepping back and examining their heated exchange, Femi Dodd provides the perspective that the element of unknown, in this case represented by religious belief, is ever present. There is no science to explain the soul in the way that religion/theology understands the soul. The soul, the essence of the person that exists, regardless of their physical birth and being, is also connected philosophically speaking to the conscience, which in turn guides a person morally.

What seems on the surface to be a question in EXTANT of either believing in a soul or believing in science, is actually asking on a deeper level if morality and learning to be moral are based only in process or in essence. John, of course, would argue that morality is taught as a process and therefore with the right programming anyone/thing that has the intelligence can learn to be moral via human connection and experience. This is why John calls his project “Humanichs.” Femi, obviously, is arguing that there is, by design, an essence and conscience in the human being that cannot be replicated via process or mechanics. The status of the Humanich would have to be affirmed socially before a decision on killing a humanich could be made. Similarly to other sci-fi stories, the struggle between science and religion play out nicely.

 

But let’s complicate this. Molly.

 

Molly, being unable previously to bear children, finds herself pregnant after returning from a solitary space mission aboard the “Seraphim.” Incidentally, “Seraphim” is also the name of a hierarchy of angel-like creaturesseraphim13thcentury. They are not only messengers at times but, more importantly, the ones that maintain purity and help God to maintain order. Remember that little insight!

During her mission she found herself face to face with her ex, Marcus, and proceeds (we can assume, I would say) to have some type of physical exchange. Molly blacks-out during this time. Upon reviewing the camera footage after she wakes up, she sees that she is alone, there was no one else there – or at least, no one that can be seen on film.[2] There is no indication whether her child is human or alien, but it is a life growing inside her. Molly is now facing the dilemma of having to tell John that she is carrying a baby-something-or-other that is not his. Oh, and by the way, conception happened while she was completely alone other than a ghostly hallucination. If little Marcus-geist turns out to be a baby alien, will John love it because he can teach it a moral process?

In the meantime, Molly fights with both Ethan and John about Ethan’s bad behavior. For Molly this is an indication that Ethan is not a “real” child in the sense of a human child. This is the point where I started to look around for Gigolo Joe’s entrance. Molly tells John that loving, for Ethan, is a process and not a human bond. John, again, believes that if the process to love is there that is what matters, even if the material is different. During Molly and Ethan’s fight, Molly chases after him and finds him standing over a dead bird with blood on his hand. Molly recoils, Ethan says he found it that way. Ethan then, quickly, moves to compliment Molly’s hair. Is Ethan telling the truth? Is the process to turn to flattery a way to disarm the situation?

So we have a ship named after an order of heavenly beings, a conception of unknown origin (perhaps not immaculate, but certainly peculiar,) the spirit of a dead lover asking for help, and the argument over sources of morality and conscience in created beings including a Humanich child. Molly is certainly left in a hard place at the end of the episode. Not only does she have to establish for herself whether or not her robo-child actually has the capacity for real love and morality, but she also has geist-child to contend with.

Did a scientifically superior species impregnate Molly or was it a miracle? Should robots have the same rights as human beings even if it is unknown whether or not they have the same moral capacity? Stay tuned for our next episode of EXTANT inquiries.

 

By: Erica Saccucci

 

[1] EXTANT, Mickey Fisher. Pilot, July 9, 2014: CBS.

[2] I really want to point out to Molly that if she lived in Bon Temps, this would be a completely explicable phenomenon.

True Blood S.7 Ep.3 – Who Wants to Place a Bet on the Pale Rider?

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Makes sense that a blog on theology + POP culture would frequently turn to the subject of faith. For those in theology, who are used to dealing with specifics and minutia, “faith” is a sobering, yet broad, term. It doesn’t describe in entirety a belief system, a method, or the interpretation of sacred doctrine. Faith, rather, is understood from the standpoint of the being, in this case a human and shape-shifter, who seeks a God, gods, and something to believe in. I plan to discuss more on this in later articles, but some theologians and scientists, sometimes even working together, are trying to bridge the gap between philosophy/theology and science. But we’ll get to that later, for this article, let’s focus on the unknown, the unknowable, and the unseen – the problematic (to some!) concept of faith.

True Blood this past Sunday, true to form, had some surprising twists. **SPOILERS AHEAD! – LIKE RIGHT NOW…** Alcide dies, Mrs. Fortenberry dies (oh darn…), and Sarah Newlin’s new love guru dies. Tara only recently died and everyone, including our beloved dog-shifting Sam Merlotte, is still reeling from finding the town of St. Alice decimated. Even the supernats, who are in the thick of it like Sam, are having trouble coming to terms with the chaotic chain of events that have unfolded.

 

Sam: “You take the simplest most everyday thing you do. These people, these people just sat down for a frozen pizza dinner. What if that was the last thing you were ever gonna do? Because life is supposed to add up to something, not some half eaten slice of pizza. They got my fiancé, Reverend, my fiancé and my child. My life was just starting to head up to something.”

Rev.: “You’re gonna get ‘em back, you’re gonna meet that baby of yours, but you got to have faith.” Rev Dan and Sam

Sam: “Reverend, they had Jesuses everywhere. They had Jesuses on the walls, they had Jesuses on the mail, and every single bedroom – they had faith. What good did it do them?”

Rev.: “What good would not having it done them?”

Sam: “I don’t know, at least they wouldn’t have been blind to the fact that the devil’s coming.”

 

Sam, in his time of need, does what any self-respecting southerner in Bon Temps would do and turns to his Reverend. During their heart-to-heart, Sam explains to the Reverend Daniels that all the faith in the world did not stop death, or the devil in Sam’s words, from ravaging the people of St. Alice in their, seemingly, normal frozen pizza eating existence. So what does faith buy anyone but empty hope?

Rev. Daniels did a fairly fine job of answering Sam’s doubting Thomas pleas, but I’d like a crack at it all the same. The Rev. Daniels said, “What good would not having it done them?” That line made me think back to Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s Wager is actually a small part of a much larger, and much more complicated work than is given credit, Pensées. Pascal wanted to work on coming up with a rational proof of God’s existence, or at least the reason that people should believe there is a God. For those interested in the intricate version, go here http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager/. In short, very very short terms, the wager works like this, it is better to bet, probability-wise, on the existence of God and to have faith in that, than to bet against God’s existence. It is more beneficial to the person to believe in God. Pascal outlines those reasons; again dealing with probability, but also that if you believe in God, and there is a gain (happiness) then you will win it all. If you believe in God and lose, you lose nothing because without God’s existence, there is no happiness unbegotten to be lost – you just live in normal existence, but you live in hope. That is a gross oversimplification, but it will do for these purposes. Sam and Rev. Daniels are standing on opposite paths, but both heading towards the same horizon, death. Sam is not buying into this wager. He sees death around him, coming for people without prejudice or reserve. He sees “Jesuses” everywhere and yet these people still suffered awful deaths. Not only can Sam not see an after-life offered, but also he is consumed by the fear of the present – a place where frozen pizza is symbolic of a pathetic last meal.

Rev. Daniels, on the other hand, tells Sam,

“Now looky here, this ain’t the kinda thing I’d say in front of the congregation, but since it’s just you and me right now – death is a dark and blinding mother-fucker whether you see it coming or you don’t. But a life spent in anticipation of it coming, Sam, well that’s not a life worth living.”

Rev. Daniels’ perception is to wager on what he sees as the most productive, to live in hope and happiness. After all, like Pascal, what does he have to lose? Even if there is no after-life, since it is improbable (though we do have several episodes to go…who knows…) is it better to live without any faith in something or to believe that each moment holds a piece of time that is meaningful in itself, despite a march towards death?

Everyone has their own answer. Scholars of Pascal argue greatly about the specifics of the wager, can it even be used and applied adequately in a general way? I think the point that the Reverend is trying to make, however, is that we can spend each day taking for granted the little moments in search of the big picture, but we would be lying to ourselves if we denied that life is lived in those infinitesimally small bits of time. We love not only on a large scale, but also moment to moment. Whether you believe in God, to a certain degree, may even be irrelevant. The real question of the wager is whether or not you are going to let fear, despair, and blindness rob you of life. If you do, the “devil” has most certainly won, for now you have lost the good stuff that life is made of.[1]

 

By: Erica Saccucci

 

 

 

[1] Just for reference, the author (me!) does not believe in a physical devil. No incantations of Satan, Mammon, Beelzebub, Perdition, Lucifer, or Old Scratch have been done to complete this article.

1970s Horror/Feminist Nightmare: Sexuality, Sin, and the Church in Alice, Sweet Alice

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1970s horror films elaborated on the figure of the slasher-killer character introduced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Just as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, most famously, depicted bloodthirsty, inscrutable killers, who seemed to murder their fellow human beings without reason, the 1976 film Alice, Sweet Alice (originally titled Communion) provided a slasher film with an unexpected and “principled” killer, inviting examination of the film through a theological lens.

Alice, Sweet Alice is set in a Roman Catholic parish during the early 1960s, prior to the liturgical and ideological reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Alice is introduced as a rather difficult Bad Seed-like 12-year-old as compared to her angelic sister, Karen; Catherine, her mother is young and has been separated from her husband, Dominic; Catherine is very close with Fr. Tom, one of the parish priests (although where this deep connection comes from is never explained). Alice’s contrary nature is first revealed when she dons a creepy mask and sets out to scare Fr. Tom’s elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Tredoni.

Shocking and quite ahead of its time, the film depicts the horrific murder of Alice’s sister Karen on the day of her first communion, while waiting in the church sacristy. As the family gathers to mourn the loss of Karen, Catherine’s overbearing sister, Annie is also brutally attacked by a masked figure in a child’s raincoat – a raincoat matching Alice’s St. Michael’s-school-issued uniform. Suspicion falls on Alice for the attack and the murder, as Fr. Tom declares that she has become increasingly distant. Alice fails a lie-detector test and is institutionalized. For the majority of the film, the director draws the audience to the assumption that Alice is a disturbed child and the murderer; however, while she is institutionalized, her estranged father is also murdered. **Spoiler** Alice is not, in fact the murderer, rather it is the parish housekeeper, Mrs. Tredoni, who sees it as her divine mission to protect the priests under her care.

Alice_Sweet_AliceAt different points in the film there are clues to why, seemingly innocent and self-sacrificing Mrs. Tredoni is a serial killer. In the aftermath of Catherine’s sister, Annie’s attack, Annie implicates Alice. Catherine screams at her, “You hate her [Alice] because you knew I was pregnant when I got married!”   Alice is the fruit of a sexual relationship outside of wedlock. In Mrs. Tredoni’s eyes this brands Catherine a whore and her husband a “filthy pig.” As Mrs. Tredoni is in the process of killing Alice’s father, Dominic, she reveals her mission, “God wants you punished … Fr. Tom belongs to the Church!” In Mrs. Tredoni’s mind, this mission was given to her after her own daughter died on the day of her own first communion. According to Mrs. Tredoni, she is doing God’s work, punishing sinners and protecting Fr. Tom from their evil influence

There are a couple of theological problems that rear their heads in this film. One is the hierarchical view of the lay state vs. the clerical state. In keeping with the era in which the movie is set, Mrs. Tredoni holds the clerical state to be vastly superior to those of regular lay people. This idea had a long development throughout Christian history, but in the sixteenth-century Council of Trent it was formally promulgated that celibacy and virginity were superior to the life of the common man and woman.   This concept of vocation was re-examined by Vatican II in the 1960s, where clerical and lay life were deemed different ways of life, yet equal. To put it rather simply, despite Vatican II’s statement the related issue of clerical celibacy continues to be debated. Pope Francis, as recently as May 27 of this year said that a celibate priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church was a “gift,” but “not dogma” and thus open to re-examination and debate of the tradition.[1]

A more pernicious theological and social question arises in Alice, Sweet Alice is the role of women vis-à-vis sin and sinfulness. Christianity’s track record with misogyny has been well documented and traced out by much better theologians than I. Equating women with the sinful, sexualized body, rooted in commentary on the biblical story of Adam and Eve, stretches as far back as the formative years of Christianity. Women in many theological texts and spiritual writings have been depicted as a sign of uncontrollable, sexual sinfulness and as a stumbling block to more spiritual men. Mrs. Tredoni’s assertion that Catherine is a whore for conceiving Alice out of wedlock also taints Alice. Throughout the film, Alice continues to act out, and in a disturbing subtext, acted upon sexually. Her descent into madness begins with her beginning to menstruate, which is not revealed to her parents until she is seen by the psychologist, Dr. Whitman, at the institution. Like Mrs. Tredoni, Dr. Whitman (also a woman) insinuates that Alice’s repressed hostility, capability for violence, and possible schizoid personality disorder is tied to her being conceived before Catherine and Dom’s wedding. Alice herself declares while institutionalized, “I don’t play with dolls anymore!” Her sadism and sinfulness, narratively, coincides with her becoming a woman.

The closing scene of the film reaffirms this correlation of Alice’s tainted-ness and burgeoning dangerous sexuality. While Alice kneels beside Mrs. Tredoni at the communion rail, Fr. Tom, who has become aware that his housekeep is the real murderer, denies both of them communion. Alice looks hatefully at the priest, as Mrs. Tredoni bellows that he would give a whore, pointing to Catherine, the host, but not herself. The elderly woman stabs the priest in the neck and then embraces him as he bleeds to death. Alice picks up the murder weapon and dreamily walks toward the audience. The film closes with her looking down at the bloody knife, smiling to herself, and then focusing a dead stare directly into the camera. The film closes on this disturbing note, insinuating that Alice has now crossed the line into madness; raising the question was Mrs. Tredoni right all along? Is Mrs. Tredoni’s conception of sexual morality and sin seems to be branded ethically correct? – surely not to the point of murder, however Alice’s murderous glare gives one pause for reflection on the cause and consequences of sin and the correlation with womanhood. Alice, Sweet Alice is a horror film indeed; one with a long Christian history that continues to play out in theology and church structures today.

 

[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/pope-francis-says-door-always-open-rethink-priestly-celibacy-n115136 — accessed 6.30.14

By: Seth Alexander

“Captain, you mind if I say grace?” … “Only if you say it out loud” – Firefly, Serenity, and Morality in the ‘Verse.

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It took all of my will power, which is actually very little, to wait even one posting to write an article on Firefly. Firefly and its follow-up, Serenity, received both heavy cultic praise as well as criticism on its western-meets-space-meets-Chineselanguage-dystopian-Whedonverse identity. For those who love it already, read on. For those who don’t… well… there is really no help for that, read on anyway.

I could, potentially, write a book on Firefly/Serenity, but since we’re dealing here with ideas in theo+POP, let’s stick to a few key themes, shiny? Being a dystopian sci-fi, Firefly was set after the Earth was destroyed, everyone baled, and then went on to wreck other parts of the ‘verse in an inter-planetary war. Firefly takes place after that war. The revolutionary Browncoats, representative of the outer planets, lost the war to the central planets and the Alliance. That was summarized from my head, so if you want to read the full synopsis, travel here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firefly_(TV_series)

So where does religion and/or theology fit into Firefly? Well, let’s begin with the idea that the themes of theology go beyond the obvious character of Shepherd Book, the wandering overtly Christological figure. Though Book is certainly in the theological trenches, he is not representative of Firefly’s theology in its entirety. As a Shepherd, even one with an unknown and potentially questionable past, Book is about faith and morality. Though he seems, at first, to be the “holy” character, his interests lie more in people finding goodness in their own beliefs than in people finding God in his. Risking a spoiler for all those who are reading this posthaste, at the end of Book’s life, after being fatally wounded by operatives of the Alliance, he tells a perpetually reluctant Captain Malcolm Reynolds, “I don’t care what you believe. Just believe it…” before he took his final breath. [1] Book, being the gun-wielding preacher that he was, questioned his own Christian morality in its imperfection. It was clear from this scene, however, that he was more concerned with Mal finding his own sense of goodness. Book knew that a moral life was not only about belief in “absoluteserenity-book-death” principles, but rather the efficacy and commitment of belief in general. In other words, he wanted Mal to find that spark worth fighting for.

Digging a little more deeply into this theme of believer vs. skeptic, while Book makes a good case for believers – being that he is generally a “good” person – the skeptics are not completely misguided in their anti-religious sentiments. After all, River was almost burned at the stake by zealots along with her brother, Simon, for being a witch.[2] Mal was married off in a furtive ritual to Saffron, who we all know turned out to be bat-shite crazy.[3] The religiously zealous can, at times, take beliefs to the extreme. On the other hand, the scientific minds were also convinced of their own greatness and god-like intelligence. They killed off the entire planet of Miranda and in the process created the Reavers – the very worst…and scariest!…of humanity. Though it is understandable that Mal distances himself from these atrocities on both sides, which turns him into a nonpartisan automaton, it only works for so long. Eventually, like Tiresias, he begins to see beyond his blindness. Mal cannot ignore his own moral values rooted in humanity, and so chooses to do what he believes is good for all.

It seems that the word “good” gets tossed around frequently when we discuss topics like saving the world and what is “just.” Justice for the Alliance was indicative of control, order, wealth, and the sterilization of messy humanity. The Browncoats, Mal in particular, fight against the “Big Brother” system so that justice will prevail and ordinary people can live good lives. Where self-interest thrives, it is clear that nothing else can. There is a fragile balance in order that Mal and his tenacious crew seek to restore.

Book’s dying moment, as described earlier, is essential to the Firefly philosophy. Similarly to Karl Rahner’s idea on the anonymous Christian, Book sees that through conscience and intent of goodness, belief – a most powerful gift – can be found in the most unexpected places.[4]

As Book and River discuss in the episode Jaynestown,

“Shepherd Book: What are we up to, sweetheart?
River Tam: Fixing your Bible.
Shepherd Book: I, um…
Shepherd Book: What?
River Tam: Bible’s broken. Contradictions, false logistics – doesn’t make sense.
Shepherd Book: No, no. You-you-you can’t…
River Tam: So we’ll integrate non-progressional evolution theory with God’s creation of Eden. Eleven inherent metaphoric parallels already there. Eleven. Important number. Prime number. One goes into the house of eleven eleven times, but always comes out one. Noah’s ark is a problem.
Shepherd Book: Really?
River Tam: We’ll have to call it early quantum state phenomenon. Only way to fit 5000 species of
mammal on the same boat.
Shepherd Book: River, you don’t fix the Bible.
River: It’s broken. It doesn’t make sense.
Shepherd Book: It’s not about making sense. It’s about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It’s about faith. You don’t fix faith, River. It fixes you.”[5]

 

[1] Joss Whedon, Serenity. Universal Pictures, 2005. 1:06:52.

[2] ibid. “Safe,” Firefly. Fox. November 8, 2002.

[3] ibid. “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” October 4, 2002.

[4] Rahner, Karl and  Paul ImhofHubert Biallowons. Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews 1965-1982. New York: Crossroad. 1986.

[5] Joss Whedon. “Jaynestown.” Firefly. Fox. October 18, 2002.

By: Erica Saccucci

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