Nobody Puts Babies in the Corner

Have you ever met one of those people who hates children? You know the type. They insist that every child that walked the face of the Earth is born of Satan. That children are urchins, brats, and disgusting. I bring up child-haters because they are here and there are many. Some people don’t like that children are not born with social norms already in hand. Some don’t like that their reasoning differs from adults. Many don’t like that they act out in public, or talk a lot, or cry, or make noise. That’s funny to me, since once upon a time, we all went through those SAME EXACT STAGES. When did we become so intolerant of our vulnerable population?

And I get it. Sometimes my kids drive me nuts as well. It takes a great deal of education, learning, experimentation, and failure to raise children. It’s damn hard. As we talk about these struggles, I can’t help but think about the health of populations. What does our apathetic view of children mean for a secular apocalypse? I read once upon a time, a long time ago, that the health of a population was only as good as that care received by its most vulnerable members. If that is the case, I would say that we’re not doing a very good job considering how we treat children. Maria Montessori once wrote, 

      “In their dealings with children adults do not become egotistic but egocentric. They look upon everything pertaining to a child’s soul from their own point of view and, consequently, their misapprehensions are constantly on the increase.”

I believe that Montessori was on to something. Why are adults so hardput to understand children? Perhaps it’s as simple as perspective.

Having said that, I am still shocked on social media when I see hatred spread concerning our youngest generation. I’ve spent a great deal of time teaching and researching children. I do happen to love kids. Perhaps for me, being on the other side, I am being unfair to call out the child-haters of the world. Let’s for a moment though dig a little deeper into why the phenonmenon of child-hating bothers me to my core. Stick by me for a few and let’s think.

Our two most vulnerable populations are our children and our elderly. They are entering and ending their lives, respectively, which puts them in an at-risk state. As children are born, they are helpless and innocent. The world around them decides how well they will be treated regardless of their cries. As the elderly leave our world, they also have once again become helpless in many cases as aging takes its toll on the body and the mind. We will have lengthy discussions on the elderly, but for this article we’ll focus on our children. Regarding children, there are a few topics to cover. I would like to bring to light the issues of abuse and trafficking, eclipsing childrens’ rights by adult rights via the movie Children of Men, and take a critical glimpse at our future.

ABUSE and TRAFFICKING

I would like to bring you a ton of statistics on child-trafficking and child abuse, but as an underground movement they are honestly hard to track. The majority of crimes go unreported or uninvestigated. To give you some ideas, however, nearly 700,000 children are the victims of abuse every year in the United States. Of those 700,000 nearly 2,000 lose their lives to their abusers.[1] Now that is just an estimate of those proven to be abused. 3.5 million cases are investigated each year. I can tell you from experience, some of those cases that are set aside, also have indications of abuse. Our system is overburdened. 15% of these children suffer from multiple types of abuse – physical, negligent, and sexual. 7% are sexually abused by someone they know. That means, approximately in any given year, 50,000 are sexually abused in the United States, while 105,000 face multiple forms of abuse. The Chicago Public School district alone has 355,000 students. Think about that, the entire school district of kids doubled.[2] If your heart didn’t just sink, then I think we best have a deeper discussion together. I would like to believe, that most of you are feeling disgusted and mortified – me too.

Trafficking is another distinct way that children are exploited. The Polaris Project alone assisted 22,000 people (adults and children) who were the victims of human trafficking last year.[3] The statistics for trafficking are even more difficult to come by. What we do know is that children under eighteen suffer the highest rate of sex trafficking. Traffickers see children as easy prey, particularly children who come from abusive or negligent homes.

I do not, however, bring up these statistics just to alarm or make you see your lunch one more time. No, I bring this to light because with these given statistics, knowing full well that our children face abusers every single day, most of us do absolutely nothing. Abuse takes place across socio-economic status, across colors, across cultures. It does not descriminate its victims. In a time where we are very concerned with how our adults are treated, we still, as a whole, DO NOT seem to be concerned with the welfare of our children. When we’re told of the death of a child, the murder of a child, our reaction is to feel sad and say, that poor baby, that poor family. It seems that our emotional stirring is the extent of our movement on this issue. When Joette Malone, a vibrant two year old, was murdered in Hammond, Indiana there were no protests to find her killer.[4] There were no lootings in her name. A toddler who will not get to her next birthday because our adults do not care for the children around them. One year old Sincere Gaston was shot on the way home from the laundromat with her Mom, while Mekhi James, three, was shot and killed sitting in his father’s car. As our adults rally for their freedom from abuse, from scandal, from brutality, our young ones get murdered. How about AJ Freund who was brutally abused and attacked by his parents? AJ was five and repeatedly hit and abused in a cold shower until he was dead. Perhaps we should discuss the most recent execution of Cannon Hinnant, also five, who was shot at point blank range while riding his bike? How many more children are we going to watch get murdered by violence, neglect, and abuse? How many more have to endure situations the likes of which we adults are now saying of ourselves, “NO! You can’t do that to me because I matter!”

Those children look to us to say they matter because they are too young to say it by themselves, they need their hand in ours.

We should be ashamed.

ECLIPSING RIGHTS – CHILDREN OF MEN

My best guess is that by now some might say to themselves that I just don’t understand the power of movements or I am being unfair in the amount of care we give to our children. 

For most families, I would say that you’re absolutely correct. I do not see the majority of our families in the United States as abusive or uncaring. What I do see is that while we do well to care for our own children or our kin, we do not have a united front on behalf of children who are not in some sort of relation to us.

I would also say that our interests as adults get easily hijacked by causes that are more bold, ambitious, rewarding, and pertinent to our lives as grown people. For instance, while I support the movement of women and men coming forward as being sexually abused, for that MUST end as well, imagine being raped at six. What about twelve? What if it’s a family friend or neighbor – you get my drift. Children who are victims of this type of abuse are in desperate need of advocates on their side. There is no trivialization of sexual abuse, ever, on my part. I do, however, believe we need to accept and realize what segments of the population require extra protection as well as our help in processing their victimization.

The 2006 movie Children of Men brings to light some interesting issues concerning our topic. It is an apocalyptic, dystopian, movie that glimpes into a world where the youngest living person (who soon dies) is eighteen. For eighteen long years women have been unable to become pregnant or to carry any children. The world faces a crisis of a dwindling population in light of no births. As depression and futility set in, the main character Theo looks for signs of hope on his journey. His hope comes in the form of a refugee named Kee. Theo is told that Kee is important, but in a particularly striking scene, standing amongst livestock in a manger-esque style, Kee reveals her pregnant belly to Theo. Ahhh, hope.

In a world of despair, the tiniest member is the source of hope. In our world religions, most  have a healthy understanding of children as hope of the future. Their life is held in the highest of regard not because others don’t matter, but because without our help they may not continue to live. Children are born requiring complete assistance from their care-givers in order to continue living. Without us, we face a world without them.

The struggle for Theo to save and protect Kee, and ultimately the child, is daunting. In a world more concerned with who belongs in which country, who is rich, who is starving, which adult is getting what they want, the life of a pregnant refugee woman hangs in the balance. SPOILER ALERT! Kee successfully gives birth to a baby girl whom she names after Theo’s dead son.

There are two main reasons that I bring up Children of Men in reference to our themes of secular apocalypse and the lives of children. First, I would say that it is striking to watch a movie where the devastation does not revolve around a monster, plague, or meterological situation. The apocalyptic theme here is the loss of children. That stands in stark contrast to other recent apocalyptic films where the apocalypse is brought on by supernatural or otherworldly forces. The loss of a child to death is, as I understand it from others, the most painful experience a parent can go through. In the film that loss is experienced by the world, not just singular people. As an apocalyptic movie, it is interesting that it is also a not-so-overtly theological movie. It is a movie about faith and hope and love and kindness. From the manger scene with Kee to Theo’s very name as a relation to god(s) the movie is full of theological themes. As you may have read in some of our other articles on secular apocalypse, the interesting thing about theological apocalypse is the element of hope. For one aspect of Children of Men, children are hope.

While I would love nothing more than to end on that note of children being hope, I cannot. While I believe strongly in the message of the movie, as a whole, I also believe that within it lies a cautionary tale. Towards the end of the movie there is a scene after the birth of baby Dylan that is striking. In the scene, there is bombing and shooting and military skirmish happening all around Theo and Kee. Shrapnel is flying, debris is getting blasted everywhere as Theo tries to get Kee out of a building and to safety. No matter who was in the scene fighting, as Kee walked by with baby Dylan, they immediately stopped and put down their guns. The blasting halted as mother and child safely exited the building. Some men and women were crying. They were all struck by awe of a living child, a sign of hope. As Kee passes them and you witness the change, you are filled with hope for the future. A new baby is so very exciting in a world where no births have happened for eighteen years. After Kee is gone, the fighting, skirmish, and hatred begins again immediately. Hope was a passing glance.

This is a cautionary tale because if the world can stay hopeful with the coming of new life, with the renewal of a love of children, and the protection of children, then the world truly has something to be hopeful for. However, if our hope in the future, in children, in creation, in pure goodness, is nothing more than a passing glance because we are too busy thinking about our adult problems and causes, then hope passes us by and we will no longer be able to crawl out of our rabbit holes. Maria Montessori’s prophetic words of egocentric adulthood have been fulfilled and the apocalypse carries on.

The choice is up to you.

ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS

Where do we go from here? 

Should you stop protesting in what you believe in because I’m telling you to pay attention to children? No, don’t be silly.

Should you stop worrying about sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and exploitation of adults? NO! They need our help as well.

My concern is not that you stop working on other causes in the name of them not being important. My concern is that you remember some of our most important members of society because they cannot fend for themselves. These children need our help and our attention. 

What I will say is that while we are out rallying for a better world, don’t continue to allow it to be a world where children are being killed daily and we are silently complacent about it because we’re busy doing other things.

Be Theo. Look up and see new life. Dare to give it your all to protect it. And hope.


[1] https://www.nationalchildrensalliance.org/media-room/national-statistics-on-child-abuse/

[2] https://www.cps.edu/about/stats-facts/

[3] https://polarisproject.org/myths-facts-and-statistics/

[4] https://abc7chicago.com/$10k-reward-offered-in-toddlers-shooting-death-in-hammond/6368767/

Antichrist Superstar

The identity of the Antichrist is legion. Through the centuries religious communities have associated this apocalyptic figure with figures as diverse as Roman emperors, popes, and collective identities of heretical groups as a whole. All this to say, Christians have offered a wide variety of interpretations for evil personified over the last 2000 years. Our contemporary society has shown no lack of effort in this regard, though the trajectory seems to have changed a bit. In fact, because of the ease with which media and ideas are disseminated via the internet, apocalyptic material has the potential to be more prevalent now than ever before. This speed of transmission has led the eminent scholar of apocalypticism and mysticism, Bernard McGinn, to opine that we are living in “the most apocalyptic time of the last 2000 years.” Despite this continued interest in the end times, in this exploration of apocalyptic themes I will be focusing on the figure of the Antichrist and his evolution between the Middle Ages and our contemporary world. I will briefly examine two popular depictions of this figure in contemporary film with an eye to how it is different than his handling by medieval authors. Lastly, I will propose some current Antichrist-type language being currently deployed.

While belief in the literal Antichrist does continue to this day in certain religious communities, by and large the figure of the Antichrist has receded in the religious imagination since the Enlightenment. That said, the antichrist, as a symbol of utter evil with some form of human cooperation, continues to capture the imagination of creators of popular culture through film, television, and novels (just to name a few forms of media). Two very recognizable depictions can be found in the films from the late twentieth century (which were significantly rebooted in the early twenty-first century) are Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976). The reboots of Rosemary’s Baby came in 2014 as a television mini-series and a new feature film of The Omen premiered in the summer of 2006. For the purpose of this article, I will be focusing on the “original” films rather than the reboots — though a side-by-side comparison of the source material with its reinterpretation for a generation 30+ years later would be likely very illuminating.

Before examining the 20th-century film versions of the Antichrist, it is important, I think, to briefly discuss how the Antichrist and the Book of Revelation from which he emerges have been handled by Christians prior to the (Post-)Modern world. Early Christian commentators on the rather obtuse last book of the Christian canon, such as Victorinus (early second century), interpreted the events of the end times recorded in the book as literal prophecies of what was to come. However, as Christianity become more aligned with the Roman state, biblical exegetes such as Jerome discarded this type of hermeneutical lens for one that found the value of Revelation to be more allegorical. The focus by Jerome and later commentary authors down through the Middle Ages was recapitulation. Jerome stresses a timeless and ecclesial reading of the book, and in doing so removes a sense of immanent cosmic cataclysm and replaces it with the recurring problems facing the institutional Church.

For Jerome and authors like him, the Antichrist was at the same time the persecuting emperor(s) of pagan Rome, but also any enemy of the Church who spread error or strife amongst the people of God. As E. Ann Matter explains, through this lens of recapitulation “the Apocalypse presents a series of typological events recurring in sacred history from the time of the patriarchs, through the unknown future of the Church on earth, to the parousia.” As such, while the Antichrist could be associated with any number of singular figures, many times Christians ascribed a collective interpretation of Antichrist to groups in enmity with the Church, such as the heretical Arians and other various heresies, and, later with rival religious communities like Muslims with whom Christians came into direct warfare for centuries. Alongside this exegetical tradition of the apocalypse however, there were still traditions of texts wherein Christian authors awaited the coming of the Antichrist and enumerated ways in which to be able to identify him. The most famous medieval text of this kind can be found Adso of Montier-en-Der’s tenth-century De ortu et tempore Antichristi. It is also shown to be a concern in the “Antichrist tables” found in the eighth-century Beatus Apocalypse, which could be used to examine the names of the Antichrist and interpret their number (whether it resulted in a tally of 666).

Common to all of these interpretations of the medieval understanding of the Antichrist, whether of bloodthirsty emperor of the past, a heretical body of the present, or a depraved pontiff of the future, the figure is always one of a human being given completely over to evil. As Adso writes to Queen Gerberga in the tenth century, “[The Antichrist] is a man, he will still be the source of all sins and the Son of Perdition, that is, the son of the devil, no through nature bu through imitation because he will fulfill the devil’s will in everything.” This interpretation of the figure of the Antichrist is fully coherent with the bigger picture of understanding of the Book of Revelation for medieval authors. The Antichrist is a fully-human cooperator with the devil. He fulfills a role in apocalyptic scenarios, but it is a temporary one. The Antichrist’s time to plague the Church is short, he will ultimately be overthrown, and Christ (and the Church) will be triumphant. It is on this point that there is stark departure from medieval depictions of the Antichrist and those that we encounter in contemporary fiction.

Returning to the twentieth century, the Antichrist who emerges from the films Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen is one quite different than Adso’s Son of Perdition. Both films offer a literal interpretation of the figure of the Antichrist. In Rosemary’s Baby it is ultimately revealed that the titular baby will, in fact, grow up to be the Antichrist, while in The Omen, the protagonist comes to realize that his adopted son, Damian, is the Antichrist, and must be destroyed. In both films, the Antichrist is not a human in full cooperation with evil, but is in some way a perversion of the hypostatic union of humanity and divinity that is unique to Christ in Christian theology. The figure of the Antichrist in these films evolves from an evil human being to a somehow supernatural force of evil. Furthermore, divorced from a more comprehensive understanding of the Book of Revelation, the Antichrist figure in these films will not assuredly be defeated and the salvation of the world by Christ is not something the characters in the narrative receive, leaving viewers with a sense of dread. This is a complete inversion of the original aim of apocalyptic literature, which was to reassure believers that troubled times would eventually come to an end. For viewers of Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, the diabolical children in the films are a promise of possibly unfettered violence yet to come.

The settings of both films are similar in their theological terrain. Both occur in the Modern world where belief in God, the devil, and the efficacy of the Church are questionable. Yet in both of these decidedly anti-metaphysical worlds comes a beastly, supernatural child who has some connection to a devil everyone seems to have forgotten about. In both Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen rather innocent couples fall into the clutches of a satanic conspiracy to bring the Antichrist into the world. Rosemary and her husband guy are groomed by an eccentric elderly couple to become the parents of a child brought about through Rosemary’s ritual rape by Satan. In The Omen, American diplomat, Robert, and his wife, Katherine, lose their infant son in a hospital fire, only to have him replaced by a human child that was somehow born of a jackal. In both narratives, Rosemary and Robert eventually are made aware of their children’s true identity. In the case of Rosemary, she acquiesces to her role as mother of the Antichrist, and Robert attempts to kill his adopted son to avert cataclysmic disaster — he is unsuccessful and dies in the attempt. Both narratives come to a close with the survival of the Antichrist children and the promise that they will grow to successfully fulfill their apocalyptic roles. In narratives that offer viewers an either non-existent (or at the very least disinterested God) and an impotent Church juxtaposed with a very real devil and sophisticated network of satanic devotees, the reign of the Antichrist seems as though it will go along unimpeded until the end of the world. Both films set out a world that has been disappointed by institutional Christianity and its promise of salvation, and, perhaps because of that, has an even more robust understanding of the reality of evil. From a theological point of view, these films offer no hope, and make a rather forceful statement that we are living in a kind of Modern hellish existence where God is dead and religion offers no succor.

As mentioned above, it would be interesting to examine the context and reinterpretation of both of these films that occurred 30+ years after their original releases. I would hazard a guess that the sense of God and institutional Christianity would not be improved. Further, particularly after the sexual abuse crisis that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church, and, now, in the midst of a 2020 pandemic and widespread civil unrest, it seems that hope from traditional Christian outlets is not a comfort to many. In this very secular twenty-first century and particularly this unprecedented year of 2020, it seems that Antichrist-like language is still being deployed. In this case, we seem to have swung back to a non-supernatural, fully human and corporate identification with evil personified: the police. Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th, 2020, the righteous anger of the Black Lives Matter movement has not only swept across the United States, but the face of the whole world. As a result of this, centuries long simmering anger about racial oppression, inequity, and violence have spilled out onto the streets. The police, who have often been perpetrators of this race-based violence, have exacerbated that image by strong-arm responses to peaceful protesters in cities across the US. The cry of ACAB (All Cops are Bastards) has become ubiquitous and binary language verging on the very apocalyptic has become common. The corporate identification of cops as a group of personified evil has become mainstream, but rather than a supernatural author of evil with whom they cooperate, it is the very real legacy of institutionalized racism, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and red lining that this group have been charged with furthering through insidious cooperation. Unlike in the Book of Revelation, the impetus for salvation has not been ascribed to the Risen Christ, but to something he definitely advocated in his earthly life: Justice for the poor and care for those marginalized by a corrupt and ossified society built on privilege for the few.

Apocalypse, Maybe Later.

There is a definitive difference between a Religious Apocalypse and a Secular Apocalypse. A Religious Apocalypse sets its foundation in the idea that change is not only imminent, but necessary to the fulfillment of God’s Will. It brings into reality the end of times, the end of life as human beings know it on Earth so that we may rejoin our Creator. In contrast, a Secular Apocalypse doesn’t bear this teleological fruit. The very word Apocalypse is borrowed and altered to simply describe an ending of all we, as humans, know. Let’s examine the potential for hope in Secular Apocalypses, which are otherwise, quite hopeless. But first, let’s look at what, exactly, a Religious Apocalypse might be.

Throughout our day we hear sound bytes from various media sources. They give us information, sometimes accurate, sometimes not. We become engaged in the stories that swirl around our minds. We listen to the directives given to us as we try to weave them into some sort of meaningful life.

“Folks are supposed to remain within their homes unless they work within what is considered an essential activity or an essential industry…” Sam Liccardo, Mayor of San Jose.

“The borders to Canada and Mexico will be closed to non-essential travelers,” Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State.

Daily we hear stories of the dying, the elderly in nursing homes without assistance or family to visit, the young suffering from the likes of Kawasaki disease. We are reminded of a collapsing economy, dams being breached both emotionally and physically. It seems that within the course of a few months, the world was forced to a kneeling halt, at the mercy of an invisible foe.

Is this the Apocalypse?

The answer to that truly depends on who you are and what you believe.

Religious Apocalypse

The word Apocalypse has its roots in the Greek word, apokaluptein/apokalupsis; to uncover or reveal. The very word Apocalypse is Revelation. Over the years, due to the nature in which revelations happened in the ancient world, the use of the word mutated. In the beginning, Apocalypse was associated with events that occurred to populations that believed in one God or many gods. The people of the ancient world were believers in the faith to which they surrendered their lives. If crops failed, they needed to praise and worship the gods in a more pleasing way. If catastrophe happened, it was part of a plan that would be revealed in time. In any case, through the lamentations of their suffering, they believed that the unveiling before them would brighten their path for better times, for a future with change, or in light of the final Apocalypse, bring them in communion with their Creator God.

It is safe to say in our contemporary society that not everyone prays to the gods to heal their crops. Many, not all, Churches are reporting their membership is down. There is now a large portion of our population, at least in Westernized countries, who already experienced their own personal revelation; there is no God; or at least no religious or spiritual God. One could argue that some have replaced a God of religion with a god of economy, a god of materialism, a god of desires. Can money, material goods, or pleasure take the place of the function of God? Will these new gods soothe the need for comfort and revelation that our ancient ancestors sought?

Not really. 

The function of the God and gods of yesteryear were not to give the people what they wanted or desired, but to bring human beings deeper into the divine plan. Without this sense of rejoining something beyond us, something bigger, deeper, infinite, we truly face the end of existence. If we look deeply as to what the Apocalypse is supposed to give us by means of its, sometimes painful, revelations, it is hope.

Hope is a word that is fierce in its tenderness. It is the essence of the human spirit. Hope has been the source of our moxy to continue on as human beings when the world falls apart around us. If we don’t belive in something, anything, greater than ourselves and our own creations, where does that hope come from? 

Some might say that they are the source of their own hope. Ok, true, we have the ability to muster up amazing goals and ambitions, but for what? When we talk about hope, associated with the Apocalypse, we are driving at the idea that we have hope in a plan through the suffering that will help us find eternal and infinite peace. That is the essence of the Religious Apocalypse, bringing about the end times on Earth to find inifinite peace on another plane of existence.

What did these Religious Apocalypses look like anyway? Well let’s look at a couple. Now some of these examples are not the Earth-ending types of Apocalypse. They do still exemplify a similar format to the all-ending type of Apocalypse. Perhaps the most important on this list is the Genesis flood. In the book of Genesis, Noah is told to build an ark for his family and pairs of animals. Frequently in the Bible we see God giving orders to God’s plan in hopes that some human will actually listen and follow them. God always however makes a promise with these marching orders. God’s promise to Noah is that though the Earth would face destruction, he and his family would survive the flood with this troop of animals. 40 days and 40 nights it rains and rains. Noah feels restless and wonders if this will ever end, but remembering God’s promise. The flooding does indeed end and life begins anew for Noah, his family, and the animals who will repopulate this beautiful new Earth.

Orders. A Promise. Destruction. Hope. Divine Flourishing.

When we look into these Biblical stories, particularly in the case of the Apocalypse, we are looking at allegory; a piece of writing that is meant to be interpreted into a tale of meaning, moral, or at times, warning. Similarly to the Genesis flood, the plagues that were bestowed upon Egypt were also looked at as Apocalyptic. God gave orders to the people of Egypt, God’s faithful follow those orders, such as marking their lintels with the blood of a spring lamb, God then promises the faithful they will be spared, God brings destruction down upon the unfaithful, the faithful remain hopeful in their changed life, the faithful live on in new ways of divine flourishing.

Perhaps, however, the Biblical book most associated with the notion of Apocalypse is … well … the book of Revelation! Revelation is indeed one of the most interesting pieces of the Bible. Out of all of the plauges, famine, world destructions, and desolation, it is the one Apocalytpic story that is most frequently taken literally by readers. While it speaks rather explicitly about the end of times using vivid symbols and imagery, it is still in actuality an allegory. The author, whom scholars call John because of the writing style compared to other Biblical writings, was writing of the Christians in captivity in an allegorical manner. The thinking today is that their persecutors would think it more harmless crack-pot Christian stuff and not realize that John was submersively writing about Christian liberation through Christ. The point, no different than our other Biblical allegories, is a story about the darkest of times, a faithful people, and the hope that is born from their faith that God has a better plan on the other side. They want to know that their suffering was not for nought. Their desire was to live God’s plan and find their inifinite peace.

Secular Apocalypse

What’s the deal? Why are we so hot about Religious Apocalypse in an age of science where we *clearly* have no proof of God? Well, because the age of science hasn’t found an adequate way to maintain hope in people for belief in a better tomorrow, or even a different tomorrow.

If we follow our line of thinking, the Apocalypse came to human beings out of a need to understand a few things:

1) There is truly something beyond us that connects us all universally, it is inifinite, it encompasses all of humanity, and it is some sort of creator spirit. 

2) When shit goes down on Earth, this God-spirit has our back. There is an exit plan.

3) The prospect of an exit plan brings human beings real hope that they haven’t lived for nothing and they will continue on to something.

Simple, right? Then where do we go so wrong?

Perhaps the best examples of Secular Apocalypse that we see are in popular culture television shows and movies. Let’s face it, they are the allegory of their time. For better or worse we learn morals, lessons, and yes, even warnings (looking at you  The Exorcist) from these live allegories. They’re all so different though, how do we know what’s apocalyptic? When we think it’s apocalyptic, why don’t all these allegories work the same way? Though that answer is complicated, let’s try to break it down. 

The first pop culture Apocalypse story that should be considered is a show that was written in the late 90s and made in 2002 and 2003. HBO found a hit in the cult classic, Carnivàle. Gritty, sexy, religious, flamboyant, it was everything that HBO could ask for from anything pre Game of Thrones. The story’s basis is set in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. A time of faminine, pestilence, war, suffering. It was rife for the four horsemen to just pop out on that screen. Though it does highlight much symbolic imagery from the book of Revelation from the Whore of Babylon to Beasts, it stops short of following in the footsteps theologically. Carnivàle, instead, becomes a gnostic story about the war between the light and the darkness. It is a fight between a god and a devil for the souls of humanity. Everything from the Alamogordo bomb to the dirt blowing and fields withering indicates the level of destruction throughout the show. It represents Apocalypse perfectly in its destruction. It falls short, however, in following through in meaning. It leaves the audience waiting for hope – literally because it was canceled. 

Aside from its cancelation, Carnivàle lacked a cohesive storyline that would end this Apocalypse in a hopeful way. The ending suggested that the darkness could as easily win over the light. There was no creator God supplying a promise of change to the people that would bring a sense of fulfillment. Like listening to any COVID-19 update, you are left with few answers, more questions, and a deflated plan of where we will go from here.

“Similarly 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 or redemption.”

Carnivàle falls short of creating that Messiah.

It is not the worst, though, out of all pop culture examples of Apocalypse. At least Carnivàle makes an attempt to enter into a deeper philosophical and religious dialogue about beings outside of human beings who are at work in the universe. During the early 2000s and even beyond, there was a slew of outbreak, disaster themed movies that filled the box offices. Everything from global warming biting our collective asses, to volcanoes, to zombies – lots of freaking zombies – there was a new onslaught of apocalyptic dread movies. There really isn’t much to say about these movies other than they are a gratuitous play on the fears of human beings. The watchers of these apocalyptic dread movies and tv shows are filled with anxiety over the future while they watch the world crumble with no hope at all. The Earth is a ball of land and water, mother nature hates us, and we are left wondering why COVID-19 has actually not turned us all into zombies. Enough said, they’re not truly an Apocalypse at all, just a play on our deepest fears.

There is another grouping of movies that shows more promist than the Carnivàle-type shows, and certainly more than the apocalyptic dread movies. Let’s talk about The Avengers. More specifically, let’s talk about Endgame.

Fascinating in its premise, alluring by its cinematics and characters, Endgame is the three hour devotion of time that was most like a true allegorical Apocalypse. Outside of the side stories that weave the epic together, Endgame’s premise is simple; The Avengers are tasked with protecting the world from Thanos, life will be saved if they can, Thanos destroys everything, through sacrifice they find hope and band together, the new world flourishes. Absent of the explicit elements and talk of God, it has potential to at least be considered and taken seriously. 

At the beginning of Endgame we watch a sorrowful Hawkeye watch his entire family turn to dust at the snap of a finger. We already know that half of the human population was literally turned into dust. Thanos, himself, like a god, retreat to a beautiful garden to marvel at his handiwork and retire. How very biblical of him even stating, “I am inevitable.” 

More important than the imposter god, however, is the interaction between our heroes. In one faithful moment on Vormir, as Hawkeye and Black Widow understand how to get the soul stone, it becomes clear a great sacrifice needs to be made; one of them must die. After the ensuing battle, Black Widow outsmarts Hawkeye and falls from his grip, dying. The soul stone will only appear to someone who has lost equally what they seek – a soul. 

The soul stone, however, and this great sacrifice like a flood for 40 days, is only one of the reasons that this should be considered as our new Apocalypse allegory. Six infinity stones in total sum allow someone to control, everything, in a god-like manner. Whomever controls these stones is able to do whatever good or evil they choose for the world. The infinity stones, space, reality, power, soul, mind, and time, represent principles of the universe that are beyond human being’s full understanding and control. They are likened to a universal creator spirit. While Thanos wants to shred the universe into pieces to recreate his beatific vision, the Avengers work to put the infinity stones out of human (and alien) hands in order to allow the universe to thrive on its own.

Endgame may still be a story of light vs. darkness and perhaps its not so different from Carnivàle in that way. Endgame, however, provides in spades exactly what humanity needs when we talk about the end of the world, the end of all we know, hope.

Carrying On

As we stand on yet another precipice of inevitable change, it is normal to wonder from time to time, “What will become of us?” This anxiety is familiar to humanity. We have experienced these fears since our creation. As certain as we are that these fears have been part of our DNA since our beginning, we can be equally sure that we have made it through these times by carrying on with hope in our hearts, minds, and souls.

A pandemic is spreading quickly across our world. We don’t have a cure, we don’t have a vaccine. All we have is our hope for the future. Our world, will be changed indefinitely by what has happend to us. If we allow ourselves to be drenched in apocalyptic dread, we will never see our new futures for what they can become. If we take a spiritual or religious lens and look at this new challenge, we can see hope on the other side of these tragedies. Like Noah, like the Avengers, it’s not in us to simply give up. We challenge, we fight, we continue. In the words of Tony Stark, “Everybody wants a happy ending. Right? But it doesn’t always roll that way. Maybe this time. I’m hoping if you play this back, it’s in celebration…”

Sherlock and POP theology!

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.

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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,Potterlock 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 :

Sherlock:  “Beautiful isn’t it?”Starsinthesky
John Watson: “I thought you didn’t care about…”
Sherlock: “Doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it.”

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.

get-friend-hooked-on-sherlock-mission-accomplished-thumb

True Blood Series Finale, “Thank You,” You’re Welcome

Game of Thrones better hurry up because True Blood is over! 

True Blood

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?”[1] 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?

 

Rev. D: I heard about all you’ve done for this town, and believe it or not, Sookie, most folks are saying we wouldn’t be here Sookie and Dwithout you. How can you think for one second that you’re a mistake?

 

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 thatPregnant Sookie 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.

  1. God created us – no mistakes, no deficiencies.
  2. God also gave us free will to screw up when we choose or to be true to ourselves, or any combination.
  3. 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.

[1] Shakespeare, Hamlet

Who is the Devil? Who is the Pope?

Detail from The Deeds of the Antichrist by Luca Signorelli
Detail from The Deeds of the Antichrist by Luca Signorelli

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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.

[1] Fialkov, Daniel Hale and Traino, Matt. The Devilers, #1, July 2014, 5

[2] Ibid., 12

[3] Fialkov, Daniel Hale and Traino, Matt. The Devilers, #2, August 2014, 4

Revelations Under the Dome: Don’t Drink the Water

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

UNDER. THE. DOME.

 

REBECCA…. grrrrrrrrrr (growl with me here…)

 

**Spoilers… but for a few weeks ago**

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Jim “You want me to play God?”

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

 

Two questions arose instantly for me:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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Tuesday Sammy

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

Hence my screen name of Zophiel Malfoy.

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

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

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

They just often don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It could still happen.

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

Author: Zophiel Malfoy

Carnivàle: The Apocalypse is Back / Part 3

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Co-Authored By: Erica Saccucci and Seth Alexander

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carnivàle: The Apocalypse is Here / Part 2

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

Carnivale - Season 2

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

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

 

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

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

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

carnivale-after-the-ball-3

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Co-Written by: Seth Alexander and Erica Saccucci