Friends and Readers – Sorry we have been MIA for so long, between dissertation chapters Seth and I were lost somewhere between Narnia and Dorne. We’ll always come back to you though, just like Percy Jackson’s sword, Riptide.
One of my other jobs, a job that I love more than all the others – except parenting – is teaching undergrads. I’ve had such great experiences with them as they learn to discuss and challenge theological concepts. When we begin a semester, there is always one or two students who believe that my class is going to require or involve an element of faith. This may be more true of those in divinity schools, but in an academic department we teach the systematic components of belief systems. Most of the time it involves less spiritual or meditative practices and more in the way of reason and logic. This does not mean that many (most?) of us don’t practice what we teach or don’t find it exciting when a student makes that deeper spiritual connection. It just means that we can take a particular approach to theology that involves scrutiny and methodology. Even in teaching the spirituality of the ascetics, for instance, the act of teaching that is logical and systematic rather than practicing the contemplation that the ascetics practice themselves. Having said that, the hallmark of a good theologian is being able to connect this theoretical framework and system to a grounded reality as it is needed, ultimately coming back full circle to practice and praxis.
One of my favorite, all-time favorite, series is BBC’s Sherlock. I have been an avid Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fan since I was a wee kid. I love mystery, I love puzzles, and I love logic. I love the logical world and how everything fits so harmoniously and beautifully. It was only natural that in watching the series I began to think about any connections between it and theology or theological principles. In this case, with no overt theological tones staring me in the face, finding that theological piece was harder than I had supposed or hoped. Not that it is always necessary to have theological themes, but I tend to believe and see threads in most every sphere of life.
In this case, rather than looking at a specific episode of Sherlock I wanted to look at it as a whole body of work, one which I very much respect. The character of Sherlock Holmes is based, both in the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the BBC rendition, on a person steeped in deductive logic. The “minutia” of the world becomes unimportant to Sherlock unless it pertains in a direct way to a case or his work. He is hyper-focused and this results in his lack of care towards, what I would call, the niceties of life. Sherlock tells Watson that it is his work that matters. Sherlock, however, is an extreme case. While he claims to not care if the sun rotates around the moon or vice versa, he has his moments of pause. In “The Great Game,” he and Watson have this exchange while looking up at the stars under the Vauxhall Arches :
Moffat is a masterful writer in being true to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character in that Sherlock, though focused on his deductive work, is not unappreciative of the natural world or even beauty.
Theology, as well, as much as it relies on experience and affect, has almost always employed the use of reason, knowledge, and rationality as the human-only means of seeking and attempting to understand God. The likes of Plato and Aristotle set the foundation for the rational in the works of Augustine and Aquinas. God created an ordered world and so we, as humans, participate in that order as reasonable beings. While our experiences allow us to be in relation with God, our reason is the compass that points the way. In a sense, Sherlock is the extreme case of a principle in which we all function.
This brings me to stress again that science and theology ought not to be strangers, but complementary to one another. Do you like Sherlock? Me too. Try some Aquinas. Read the Treatise on Law or the Soul, you may find yourself caught wanting to know how the story ends and how humans can possibly work the way they do. It’s all there waiting for you. Watch out, however, you might find yourself addicted to something new.
Game of Thrones better hurry up because True Blood is over!
I know, Eric and Sookie, we’re upset too.
In our last True Blood article, we talked about hope and the purpose of belief in something, even if that something is not organized religion. I know I will probably not make too many friends by saying this, but there were parts of the True Blood series finale that I actually liked… a lot.
I mean, let’s face it, endings are hard to write, even harder to write so that everyone is happy. Endings to a seven season series on vampires, fairies, werewolves, demons, witches, shifters, and all other manner of mythical being – yet harder still. The truth is that no one really wants to leave Bon Temps, so having any ending is not going to give you the warm fuzzies. Stick with me here and I will explain why I found the ending to be, theologically at least, acceptable.
It only makes sense that when we talk about theology in an overt way in True Blood that the Reverend Daniels almost always has something to do with it. He is a “man of God” afterall. This time, however, it’s not Sam, but Sookie, that seeks his advice. See Sookie has a huge choice to make and it’s a choice that echoes to days past – “to be or not to be?” The origin of that question harkens to days past to another writer who constantly challenged his characters in their decisions. Sookie’s predicament, not unlike Hamlet’s, revolves around acceptance of an unfair life versus becoming… well nothing. While Sookie is not looking to kill herself, she is contemplating getting rid of an essential piece of herself. Should Sookie aid in Bill’s death and ultimately render herself powerless – a normal human being?
I am not going to tackle the “to kill” or “not to kill” ethical dilemma here, which would be made even more complex by dealing with an already dead vampire. Rather, I want to talk about Sookie Stackhouse, who she is, what she is, and her decision about what to become.
Sookie lived few decades of her reality not knowing, in name, that she was fae. She knew she was gifted, as did everyone around her, and knew that that made her different. While she didn’t have a word to put to her gift Sookie had a center – a piece of self, recognized by herself, that she held at her core. Maybe it was her soul, maybe it was just her essence, the being of Sookie Stackhouse. In fact we all have that piece, the evidence that makes us recognizable to ourselves as ourselves. Sometime through abuse, trauma, and tragedy, that piece can get damaged, but it is always there – still – at the heart of the self. Sookie, in her decision, risked losing that vital core. On the other hand, she loved Bill and sometimes sacrifice is also vital when helping and caring for those you love. She contemplated sacrificing herself for his demise. Sookie sought out the Reverend Daniel in order to get some advice on the subject.
Sookie: Do you believe that God made us all as He meant us to be, or… do you think that some of us are just… mistakes?
Sookie: But what if I just want to lead a normal life? What if I’m tired of being what I am? Am I sinning against God if I decide not to be?
Rev. D: Now hold– hold on a second. Are you saying that you can un-fairy yourself? Oh, that’s another story, then, because, yes– yes, I believe we are all as God made us, but I also believe He doesn’t have to lead our lives and He doesn’t have to walk in our shoes. What I’m getting at is God wouldn’t have given us these amazing brains we’ve got if He didn’t expect that, at some point, we were gonna start using ’em to make our own decisions, to exercise our free will.
Similarly, in a flashback to Gran, Gran told Sookie in reference to having a “normal” life and family,
“Stop it! I don’t want to hear you talking like that. You can have any kind of life you want. You can persevere. Anything you want, Sookie, you are entitled to it. There are no limits on you if you don’t put them on yourself.”
In the end, Sookie couldn’t do it. Giving up her light, her essence, was too much, she had to be herself.
Aside from the conversation with Reverend Daniels, there is a theme running throughout the series from Lafayette to Steve Newlin that God makes, God creates, as God sees fit. In other words, God doesn’t make mistakes. On the surface that could be a problem, would that indicate that we should never seek to change any part of ourselves, physical or otherwise? Well, no. Many theologians have written on the gifts that God gave to humans to be able to come to know and love themselves and others. It is reasonable – reason being one of those gifts – for someone to feel that their essence is one way or the other. Sookie felt that she was a fairy, she also felt that she wanted a family and what she deemed a “normal” life. I don’t feel that Sookie was defined by her choice, her pregnancy, or her family life. I don’t feel that the writers threw everything away for the standard American family in this instance or that, when she wants to be, Sookie is any less of a badass fairy than she was before. I do feel the need to acknowledge Sookie’s choice and the affirmation of what she wants, even if she is only a character, as that choice is essential to being human and to affirming the self that God created. I would be equally supportive is she had chosen to become a lesbian and live in a hippie commune with Ginger, but that was not her choice – at least not as it was presented to the audience.
The importance of this episode can be summed up in three steps.
- God created us – no mistakes, no deficiencies.
- God also gave us free will to screw up when we choose or to be true to ourselves, or any combination.
- No one has the right to decide anyone else’s core, being, self, or interior light.
That’s the beauty of our life with God – always loved, always free, always true.
Peace out Bon Temps.
 Shakespeare, Hamlet
Last month (July 2014) a new comic book series debuted called The Devilers. It was brought to my attention via social media, and, because Theo+Pop deals in theology and popular culture, it made me pause for a moment. We have not yet written on comic books, nor is this an area in which I am well-versed, but a mention of this new series seems appropriate.
By chance, (and don’t ask why) I happened to see the 1999 film End of Days just before reading the first installment of The Devilers. End of Days pits a pre-California-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger against the powers of darkness in a pre-millennium apocalyptic fantasy. There were several movies of this type released around the year 2000, playing on millennial dread ranging from the birth of the antichrist to the potential ravages of the Y2K bug. End of Days takes the former as the matter of its theme on Armageddon and includes many familiar set-pieces for this type of film: a satanic conspiracy, founded upon a widespread and secret cult of devil-worshippers, an innocent and ignorant character balanced somewhere between antichrist/savior of the world (dependent upon who “wins” in the narrative), and a Roman Catholic Church with special “inside” knowledge about the conspiracy and a population of priests ranging from pious hand-wringing to violent crusading.
The Devilers is now 2 issues into the series and has displayed some of these narrative characteristics; however, there are significant differences within the text that hint at some innovations in how this comic book is going to tell the story of humanity’s battle with the diabolical.
In issue #1, the reader is introduced to Father Malcolm O’Rourke, a rather bad-boy priest who is drinking in a bar with a skeptic, dismantling the popular idea of demons. It is into the middle of this conversation that a cardinal in full ecclesiastical dress bursts, informing Malcolm that he has been called upon and is needed because, cryptically, “they’ve broken through.” Cut to a scene of carnage in St. Peter’s Basilica: Demons by the score have invaded the Vatican and are killing and burning everyone and everything in sight.
Malcolm is needed because of his special abilities to see (demons are invisible to the average person) and deal with demons. The Cardinal, David Michael Reed, seems to be an old acquaintance of the priest and reveals that the world is in the midst of a war. “We signed a deal with the beast below hundreds of years ago and it’s kept ever since.” Apparently the “deal” the Church struck with the devil has gone south and all hell has literally broken loose.
We have priests, a Church with special, secret knowledge about a satanic conspiracy, and a ground team in place just for the occasion. The parallels with End of Days are striking. It is, however, too soon to discard The Devilers as another reiteration of well-worn territory. As the first issue closes, Cardinal Reed whisks Malcolm to ground zero of the demonic attack to meet the rest of his team of exorcist. Rather than a band of crusading priests at different levels of their faith in God and the Church, the team is ecumenical, consisting of a woman rabbi, a Muslim demonologist, a celebrity guru, and a Taoist mystic. In the final image, the team is poised on the edge of the abyss, with a giant demon looming before them.
The second installment continues to develop the characters of the group, providing more background on all members. As they delve deeper into the bowels of hell, they learn that the Devil is no longer in charge in hell. As one tormented soul reveals, “He [the Devil] been deposed. Kicked off the Rock. That’s why … they come out up topways.” Who is the team fighting then? The question hangs tantalizing in the air as the ecumenical exorcist head deeper into a maze that leads to the center of a Hell that is just as gruesome as anything Dante could have ever imaged.
The title of this short reflection, “Who is the Devil? Who is the Pope?” refers to the potentiality of what will develop in this 2014 retelling of the story of battle between good and evil. How will this horror comic deal with the question and will it be different from the way it’s often depicted in popular culture.
End of Days depicts a pope who is a man of peace, but also a man of inaction. He largely sits by while crusading cardinals attempt to kill anyone who gets in the way of shutting down the threat of the Devil’s reign on earth. The Church, in this film, is filled with both sinners and saints. The Devilers, seems to tread on similar ground; at the same time the inter-religious collaboration of the exorcism team points to post-Vatican II understandings of ecumenism and our twenty-first century global context. The Devil Arnold Schwarzenegger battles in the 1999 film is a classical depiction, while in The Devilers, the Devil isn’t the main antagonist, at least not at this point in the game.
All this is said early on in a series that will stretch into next year. It’s a bit of popular culture that Theo+Pop will be keeping on its radar.
 Fialkov, Daniel Hale and Traino, Matt. The Devilers, #1, July 2014, 5
 Ibid., 12
 Fialkov, Daniel Hale and Traino, Matt. The Devilers, #2, August 2014, 4
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 has 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:
- Who the hell does she think she is?
- 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?
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. 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.
 See David Tracy, Elizabeth Johnson, Augustine, etc.
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!
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 about 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 failed 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
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.
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 was a sign of the beginning of the end. 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.”
Some Christians felt that the Anti-Christ could be Saddam Hussein. 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.
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. 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. 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 cliff-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
 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.
 Wojcik, Daniel. The End of the World As We Know It. (New York: New York University Press 1997) 156.
 Time Magazine. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,972285-2,00.html>
 Wojcik, Daniel. The End of the World As We Know It. (New York: New York University Press 1997) 157.
 Ibid.. 158-9. Wojcik interestingly enough wrote this book in 1997 before Gulf War II began.
 Thompson, Kirsten Moana. Apocalyptic Dread: American Film at the Turn of the Millenium. (Albany: State University of New York Press 2007) 1.
 America Online. July 6, 2008. Mayan Calendar, <http://news.aol.com/story/_a/thousands-expect-apocalypse-in-2012/20080706152409990001>.
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>.
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!
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,
“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
The 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.” 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.”
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.
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
 Carnivàle, Season I, Episode 1, 2003.
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” 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.
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 creatures. 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. 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
 EXTANT, Mickey Fisher. Pilot, July 9, 2014: CBS.
 I really want to point out to Molly that if she lived in Bon Temps, this would be a completely explicable phenomenon.