Friends, we have a guest author this week! So excited to turn this over to my very own prophet. So sit up straight, give her your full attention, and read on!
Let me start by confessing that, unlike our gracious hosts, I am no theologian. I am by training a musician, by current career path a soulless bureaucrat, and by hobby a sometime blog- writer with an iffy background in occult studies and shinobi philosophy. Back in college (when my friendship with Erica and Seth began), I was most consumed with my then-hobby of angelology.
Hence my screen name of Zophiel Malfoy.
This is also why, when they asked if I would be interested in writing a guest post, Erica suggested writing on the show Supernatural. Because angels, hot guys, classic rock, occult studies, guns and sharp pointy things . . . practically made for me, right?
To be honest, I’ve a love/ hate relationship with the show. For as much as I love the characters (Dean, Sam, Castiel), the actors who portray them (Jared, Jensen, Misha), the idea behind Supernatural, and many of the episodes, there are times when I cannot avoid the impression that the creators are using the show to express their existential angst without actually doing the work of working it out and finding resolution. This is a common problem for a person of faith encountering the products of Hollywood. For just as easily as we can sometimes identify the creative works of people of faith, so too we can sometimes easily tell the works of atheists, for each are often marked with either a glowing hope or sinking despair, respectively. Likewise, while people of a particular faith may be able to address other faiths (real or imaginary) with some minimal insight, one can often identify the creations of atheists from the complete and utter lack of anything past a 4th grade conceptualization of faith or belief.
Before I must go farther, this is not intended to be an atheist-bashing piece. (It is a bashing of Lazy Atheists Piece, ftr 😛 ). One of the more impressive television shows of my formative years was J. Michael Strazinsky’s Babylon 5. Strazinsky, a self-identified atheist, nonetheless had a show that treated matters of faith with respect and even, perhaps, a bit of admiration. I can think of no episode of any TV show that addresses faith with more intelligence and depth than the B5 episode “Passing Through Gethsemane”. This episode and show will, perhaps, have a blog entry of their own, so I’ll restrain myself, and simply acknowledge that atheists are perfectly capable of dealing in a competent manner with matters of faith.
They just often don’t.
One of the charming things about Supernatural, especially the early seasons, from the point of view of someone that was already familiar with the lore, was the way they would take a subject – creature, superstition, etc—and twist or alter one or two details. Whether the brothers Sam and Dean Winchester were facing a wendigo, skinwalker, werewolf, or tulpa, a knowledgeable viewer could laugh and chuckle and appreciate the research that went into getting things in the SPN universe just so close to our lore, but just slightly off.
Things started to go awry in season 5. Originally, Castiel (the Angel who rescues Dean from Hell and managed to charm the pants off all the female—and some of the male—viewers) was only supposed to be a one-off character. (Un)Fortunately, he was perfectly (and adorably) portrayed by Misha Collins, who managed to bring his own quirky style to the portrayal, and so infatuated the viewership that the role of his character (and the angels in general) was greatly expanded. Initially, this allowed for some of the fun tweaking of known lore: Raphael, known in actual angel-lore as the goofiest of angels, becomes serious and humorless, while SPN Gabriel takes on the role of twistedly-funny trickster (to the extent that he moonlights as the Norse trickster- deity Loki). Uriel maintains his gravitas and reputation for being someone you don’t cross, while Anael (also spelled Annael, Haniel, etc. ) takes her role as the Angel of the Sephirah Netzach rather literally in some senses when she gets it on with Dean in the back seat of his car.
The SPN universe is established very early on as a Christian Universe—that is, a universe where Christian belief is Truth or, at least, very close to Truth. For instance, in one of the earliest episodes, Dean states that one can detect a demon by saying the name of God in their hearing—their eyes will turn black. And the name Dean uses is Christo. While gnostics may argue that this name does not necessarily imply established Christianity, the fact is that the vast majority of the audience will register “Christ” as Jesus, and thus the rules of the SPN-verse establish Jesus as Divine and therefore the universe of the show as ostensibly Christian, even if various pagan deities do show up to cause trouble now and then.
Until the expansion of the role of angels, this doesn’t cause much trouble, because it’s all in the background. However, with the angels and their concerns coming to the fore, the Christian-ish-nature of the SPN verse assumes more importance—and this is where they run into trouble. It’s one thing to mess around with the small details of a faith system—but it’s another to alter the root structure of a faith system. Such shifts require a moderately complete understanding of the faith as-it-is, or else the changes to the structure will soon have everything collapsing under the weight of its own confusion and chaos.
And this is precisely what has happened on the SPN verse, the confusion and inconsistency that typifies the post-season-5 episodes can be traced to the instability implanted in season 5. It starts with the revelation that God has “left the building”. This alone could be worked with, as there are hints at the end of season 5 as to where God is. But it quickly becomes clear in the later seasons that there was no plan for God’s absence. He remains out of the picture and the universe spirals into chaos without His direction. Still, this is a matter that can still be resolved, as the show it not yet completely over.
The next thing, however, is what really destabilizes the SPN-verse. In season 5, episode 16, “Dark Side of the Moon”, Dean and Sam journey though Heaven in search of God. Instead they find the angel Joshua, the only being that God is maintaining communication with. Joshua confirms that God had a hand in several earlier miracles, but then explains that God is unwilling to do anything more, and that he wants Sam to stop praying—because He’s not listening, He’s not going to be listening, and really, just give it a rest already.
While the revelation of God’s apathy creates drama for the characters, especially Castiel, this is where the suspension of disbelief starts to break up for viewers of faith. God missing is one thing, but God Apathetic is nonsensical. Most standard Christian theologies these days tend to agree with the Julian of Norwich Observationality Principle: That the entirely of the Cosmos exists, and maintains existence, by the constant and unwavering attention of Him that created all. That the most infinitesimal moment of distraction would immediately erase all of Space/ Time. Therefore, any universe with a Christian God that becomes apathetic is a universe that instantly ceases to exist and in fact, never was. Therefore, that this happens in SPN is, for the viewer of faith, a thing too heavy for belief-suspension.
Added to this are un-fallen angels that, with few exceptions, are in the mold of Lucifer, despising humans as “Mud Monkeys”, and willing to both kill each other and work with demons. After the failed Apocalypse, the angels lose their collective minds, and episode by episode, season by season, the complexity and chaos of the canon start to get too heavy, the internal story logic breaking down. These problems are exacerbated by writers who clearly aren’t familiar with earlier seasons (Changing the rules of shapeshifters, forgetting that Sam and Dean already have a relationship with Cain, etc. . .)
All of this has roots in the fact that the creators of the Supernatural universe seem to have no understanding of Christian (nor, while we’re at it, Jewish) cosmology or metaphsyics–beyond the shiny angels and (seemingly) silent Deity– nor do they seem to care overly much to gain such understanding. It is a vexing thing.
This said, as a believing Christian I must allow room for the Holy Spirit– the show is not yet ended, and there is yet hope for redemption. There are several ways that a serious team could untangle this mess, and possibly gift America (if not the world) with some of the most profound television ever created. While I will continue to harbor doubts, this is a theoretical possibility.
After writing the first half of this essay, I took a wander about my house. Which is to say, walk a few steps, turn round a corner, walk a few more. . . I was drawn into my meditation room where, between my copy of The Imitation of Christ and a small Jack Sparrow plushie, was kept my copy of Selections from the Book of Psalms; with an introduction by Bono. As I am quite a U2 fan, it is no surprise to anyone that I own a copy of this little volume. Pulling it down (and shifting Capt. Sparrow such that the Kempis would stay upright), I delved once more into the rockstar’s reflections on scripture:
“. . . At age 12, I was a fan of David, he felt familiar…like a pop star could feel familiar. The words of the psalms were as poetic as they were religious and he was a star. A dramatic character, because before David could fulfil the prophecy and become the king of Israel, he had to take quite a beating. He was forced into exile and ended up in a cave in some no-name border town facing the collapse of his ego and abandonment by God. But this is where the soap opera got interesting, this is where David was said to have composed his first psalm–a blues. That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues. Man shouting at God–“My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?” (Psalm 22)
. . . Humorous, sometimes blasphemous, the blues was backslidin’ music; but by its very opposition, flattered the subject of its perfect cousin Gospel.
Abandonment, displacement, is the stuff of my favourite psalms. The Psalter may be a font of gospel music, but for me it’s in his despair that the psalmist really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger. “How long, Lord? Wilt thou hide thyself forever?” (Psalm 89) or “Answer me when I call” (Psalm 5).
. . . “Psalm 40” is interesting in that it suggests a time in which grace will replace karma, and love the very strict laws of Moses (i.e. fulfil them). I love that thought. David, who committed some of the most selfish as well as selfless acts, was depending on it. That the scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me; now it is a source of great comfort.
“40” became the closing song of U2 shows and on hundreds of occasions, literally hundreds of thousands of people of every size and shape t-shirt have shouted back the refrain, pinched from “Psalm 6”: “How long (to sing this song)”. I had thought of it as a nagging question–pulling at the hem of an invisible deity whose presence we glimpse only when we act in love. . .”
Perhaps it is fitting that a rock star should so clearly express the way that Supernatural can still become something greater than it has been. With certain events of the most recent season (season 9), the possibility is opened that the words of Joshua in season 5 were a lie, that it wasn’t even Joshua they were speaking to. (I don’t think this is where the show is going– I would be floored if they went this route. But perhaps that’s my own cynicism speaking.) Not only have Sam and Dean been brought low, but so has all of Creation, Heaven and Hell included. Likewise the audience who, enamored and bewitched by the story of Dean, Sam, and their friend Castiel, have been dragged along as everything fell apart. If this truly was done on purpose (and after the 4th-wall-smashing 6th season episode, “The French Mistake“, who the heck can tell?) then it would be one of the most clever and daring things a television show has ever done. Pull everyone, even the fans, through the process of despair and defeat, only to redeem everything, including the fans, at the end.
It could still happen.
It did with David and Job, so maybe it can still happen with Sammy, Dean and Cas.
Author: Zophiel Malfoy