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.