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.

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

Death of an Angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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By: Seth Alexander

 

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

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