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

Don’t Believe the Monkey in the Tree: True Detective’s Rust Cohle finds…

True Detective

 

Existentialism, nihilism, Christology, just enough big words there to get dangerous when it comes to explaining Rust Cohle in True Detective. See, from the non-theological perspective of those who don’t work with theology for a living, I can understand the urge to move toward nihilism to describe Rust. After all, his outlook is continuously pessimistic and bleak to say the least. “Raw-bone edgy”[1] is the phrase that Marty uses to describe his beleaguered partner. Nihilism and post-modernity, however, do not always reside together within the same house and certainly do not have to walk hand in hand in South Louisiana.

The pivotal point, as Rust narrates it, was the death of his daughter. There is a bold absence of Rust’s narrated life
before the moment of her death. His narration begins with the telling of her story in the small bits and pieces he can choke out through his grounded pain. Very little is said of his mother, or even his first marriage. As audience, we come to find out more about his relationship with Linda, a friend of Marty’s wife, than we do his marriage. It becomes obvious within the first three episodes that his daughter’s death was not only his unraveling, but also the catalyst for his turn away from belief in general. Whether you call his newly formed narrative one of fantasy, reality, pessimism, or nihilism does not really matter. What does matter is that the story is his to tell, encompassed and fueled by his pain and anger, that is where the story begins. So when you claim that the story is about Nietzschean concepts bathed in post-modernity, I’m going to say that it’s much more simple than that. This is the story of a man who experienced ultimate loss and is out to seek redemption.

Now I’m not aiming to go all Christological here either. The references to Christ are blatant enough that if you have seen the first season in its entirety, you can pull them together. Rust wakes up in episode two blurred by the camera as the cross on the wall behind him remains in focus. As Rust sits up, he comes into focus and the cross becomes blurry. In many ways they are currently in opposite states from one another. Rust is seeking forgiTrue Detectiveveness, not necessarily from God, but from himself. A redemption of humanity, a reconciliation of existence. Theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the evil that happens to human beings with the existence of a loving God, is a common quip to face upon the death of a loved one, particularly an innocent. Rust, through his grief, attempts to reason that his daughter is better off in her blackness, that “yanking” a soul out of non-existence into the “meat” of a body is cruel.[2] He repeats himself in trying to convince those around him, and ultimately himself, that she is better off dead. He describes himself as lucky for not having to raise a child in the world.

At the same time, as he rages against his own pain in humanity, he remains. No constitution to kill himself, reconciled to his nature, stuck in his programming. No matter how he phrases it, he is stuck to life. The detectives interviewing Rust ask him why he even went into homicide after all he had been through. He responded with 1 Corinthians 12:12, “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.”[3] He needed to remain part of the one body. That is not the position of a nihilist, it’s the position of one seeking the wholeness of humanity.

Despite his brash comments about organized religion, in particular it seems Christianity of the evangelical nature, he is clear in what he finds repulsive. Entitlement, individualism, spoon-fed morality, are the ideas that Rust rallies against. Being a member of one body, which is a Christian theological principle, is a part of his journey to find his own self once again.

In “Form and Void,” the season finale, we watch as Rust is on the edge of death. As he returns to the world he says to Marty that he “shouldn’t even be here,” and that his “definitions [were] fading.”[4] He felt his daughter in the darkness, his father in the darkness, and begins to describe that he felt a part of everything he loved. Looking back to the Corinthians verse, what he describes is coming back to the whole of who he was, to his core. As the final scene between Rust and Marty closes, they go back and forth about the stars. Rust opens with discussing the oldest story of the dark versus the light. While Marty claims that the darkness seems to have a lot more territory as he gazes upward, Rust closes with “Once there was only dark, if you ask me, the light’s winning.”[5]

While some deny that Rust had a conversion and others claim that it could not be anything but a conversion to Christ, there is a middle ground that needs to be explored. First, conversion does not indicate that Rust became a tent-revival preaching Christian. There are philosophical and theological principles in Christianity that do not involve the weaving of fairy tales, nor the charisma beneath a tent. While Rust may continue to be critical and skeptical of organized religion, which we may or may not see in the upcoming season, he certainly experienced something during the season finale that brought him back to life, back into the whole body, and into his own redemption for all those things he suffered during the period of his narration. In short, Rust found, perhaps, the single most essential quality to the Christian tradition, hope.

 

[1] Nick Pizzolatto, True Detective, television, Cary Joji Fukunaga (2014; New York: HBO.) broadcast. Episode 1.

[2] ibid. Episode 2.

[3] 1 Cor. 12:12 NAB

[4] Nick Pizzolatto, True Detective, television, Cary Joji Fukunaga (2014; New York: HBO.) broadcast. Episode 8.

[5] ibid.

By: Erica Saccucci

Marie Laveau and the Devil: Misrepresentation of Vodou and Women’s Religious Leadership in American Horror Story: Coven

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The third season (Coven) of American Horror Story (AHS) was by far the most popular installment to date of the television series.   A record number of 4.2 million viewers tuned in for the season finale to find out who would reign supreme in this epic of witches from Salem and voodoo queens, all set in magical New Orleans.[1] Due to the increased popularity of the most recent season of AHS, it seems appropriate to address some racial and religious injustices perpetrated by the program – common Hollywood prejudices whose firm grip upon the popular imagination has apparently not relaxed in the twenty-first century.

Many published works on Vodou include a preface that says something like, “Vodou is not devil worship, black magic, cannibalism, etc.” This is a necessary introduction, as Vodou is a religious tradition that has long been glamorized and vilified by scandalized white voyeurism and fear of black power. Hollywood did not originate the diabolic spectacle versions of Vodou, but has been a vehicle for its wide dispersion. The ubiquitous image of the zombie of Walking Dead or any comparable works have their roots in the sensationalist creation of “voodoo” by white writers.

The grim fascination of Vodou for white audiences began in the eighteenth century with the legendary Vodou roots of the Haitian Revolution, in which men and women of color rose up against a sadistically cruel slave economy in the French colony of St. Domingue and, ultimately, won independence. The victory of the Haitian republicans horrified white slaveholders in the newly-independent United States and caused political turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic. Suspicion of the savage “slave religion” of Vodou has followed it ever since, and in the twentieth century became fertile ground for the spectacular entertainment of Hollywood.

So with that, what has all this to do with AHS: Coven?

Coven introduces the viewer to the fictional New Orleans boarding school, Miss Robichaux’s Academy, a school for young witches. The school was founded by the persecuted witches of Salem, who fled New England for New Orleans, and is now a safe haven and place of instruction for modern witches. There is a tense peace in the City of New Orleans between the predominantly white witches of the academy and Marie Laveau, the centuries-old voodoo queen and her devotees, who are women of color.

The focus of the season is, by far, the Salem-heritage witches of Miss Robichaux’s; however, Marie Laveau and her fellow Vodou sévités, based at a hair salon, stand as antagonists to the witches. As such, the development of Marie Laveau’s character is less comprehensive than the other characters; however, near the end of the season a window into Marie’s past is opened that directly touches on the themes of race and religion.

It is revealed that the source of Marie’s powers and her extraordinarily long life is a deal she made with Papa Legba, one of the principal lwa of the Vodou pantheon. Here is the first problem with the depiction of Vodou in AHS, it is never portrayed as a religion, but as a black magical tradition. Papa Legba shows up to explain how Marie received her powers. Legba is iconographically a muddle of other lwa, principally the familiar figure of Baron Samedi (always depicted as negative and scary by Hollywood). Naratively, Legba functions more like the figure of the Christian devil. He is the lord of Hell and comes to collect those bound for the afterlife; his deal with Marie is to exchange power and immortality for her soul. Another stipulation of this deal is that she must provide him with the soul of an innocent child each year. Here the depiction of Legba goes beyond any kind of blending of lwa characteristics and stumbles headlong into the lurid sensationalism of white commentators on Vodou since, at least, the nineteenth century.

Papa Legba, in Vodou practice, is the keeper of the crossroads. It is he who holds the keys to gate between the world of the lwa and the world of human beings. As such, Legba is served and petitioned at any Vodou service, so that the ceremony may take place at all. As such, the iconography of St. Peter with the keys of heaven and hell is often used to represent Legba. Alternately, he is depicted as a man with a cane, broad-brimmed hat, smoking a pipe, and attended by a dog. Thus, both iconographically and characteristically, AHS made a mess of the figure of this important lwa. Making him a cocaine-snorting baby-eater is the offensive icing on the cake, so to speak. Not only does this distort Vodou in rather unimaginative ways, it treats Marie Laveau in a misogynistic and, again, racially problematic light.

Laveau, the real Marie Laveau, can in many ways not be separated from the legends that have grown up around her (such is the also the case with Delphine Lalaurie, who figures into the AHS narrative). What can be said definitively about Marie Laveau is that she was a spiritual practitioner in the city of New Orleans, who had some measure of public recognition for her work. She is, perhaps, one of the most popularly well-known women religious leaders in a city that has known many, from the Ursuline sisters that helped settle and build the young colony to a long line of women’s leadership in the Spiritual Churches of the city. Women, both Vodou, Christian, and beyond have been arbiters of the divine and leaders of the community in New Orleans. AHS demonizes Marie Laveau and her religious tradition just as male religious leaders have discounted the leadership of women for centuries. The narrative spends more time working through the character of the notorious racist and slave-torturer, Mme. Delphine Lalaurie, and renders Laveau and Queenie as rather flat versions of the “good” and “bad negro.”

If the writers of AHS were going to write a fanciful revision of the Salem Witch Trials — themselves an historical instance of religious hysteria and violence of against  women—why then are the same racist and misogynistic tropes trotted out for the “voodoo” women of New Orleans?

Granted,the concept of “horror” is written into the very title of this television series; however, it doesn’t seem that the kind of atrocities the writers ended up depicting, either blatantly or subtly, were what they had in mind for this season about scary witches.

 

[1] http://www.vulture.com/2014/01/ratings-american-horror-story-coven-finale.html — accessed 3.2.14

 

By: Seth Alexander

 

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