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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

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

1970s Horror/Feminist Nightmare: Sexuality, Sin, and the Church in Alice, Sweet Alice

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1970s horror films elaborated on the figure of the slasher-killer character introduced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Just as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, most famously, depicted bloodthirsty, inscrutable killers, who seemed to murder their fellow human beings without reason, the 1976 film Alice, Sweet Alice (originally titled Communion) provided a slasher film with an unexpected and “principled” killer, inviting examination of the film through a theological lens.

Alice, Sweet Alice is set in a Roman Catholic parish during the early 1960s, prior to the liturgical and ideological reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Alice is introduced as a rather difficult Bad Seed-like 12-year-old as compared to her angelic sister, Karen; Catherine, her mother is young and has been separated from her husband, Dominic; Catherine is very close with Fr. Tom, one of the parish priests (although where this deep connection comes from is never explained). Alice’s contrary nature is first revealed when she dons a creepy mask and sets out to scare Fr. Tom’s elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Tredoni.

Shocking and quite ahead of its time, the film depicts the horrific murder of Alice’s sister Karen on the day of her first communion, while waiting in the church sacristy. As the family gathers to mourn the loss of Karen, Catherine’s overbearing sister, Annie is also brutally attacked by a masked figure in a child’s raincoat – a raincoat matching Alice’s St. Michael’s-school-issued uniform. Suspicion falls on Alice for the attack and the murder, as Fr. Tom declares that she has become increasingly distant. Alice fails a lie-detector test and is institutionalized. For the majority of the film, the director draws the audience to the assumption that Alice is a disturbed child and the murderer; however, while she is institutionalized, her estranged father is also murdered. **Spoiler** Alice is not, in fact the murderer, rather it is the parish housekeeper, Mrs. Tredoni, who sees it as her divine mission to protect the priests under her care.

Alice_Sweet_AliceAt different points in the film there are clues to why, seemingly innocent and self-sacrificing Mrs. Tredoni is a serial killer. In the aftermath of Catherine’s sister, Annie’s attack, Annie implicates Alice. Catherine screams at her, “You hate her [Alice] because you knew I was pregnant when I got married!”   Alice is the fruit of a sexual relationship outside of wedlock. In Mrs. Tredoni’s eyes this brands Catherine a whore and her husband a “filthy pig.” As Mrs. Tredoni is in the process of killing Alice’s father, Dominic, she reveals her mission, “God wants you punished … Fr. Tom belongs to the Church!” In Mrs. Tredoni’s mind, this mission was given to her after her own daughter died on the day of her own first communion. According to Mrs. Tredoni, she is doing God’s work, punishing sinners and protecting Fr. Tom from their evil influence

There are a couple of theological problems that rear their heads in this film. One is the hierarchical view of the lay state vs. the clerical state. In keeping with the era in which the movie is set, Mrs. Tredoni holds the clerical state to be vastly superior to those of regular lay people. This idea had a long development throughout Christian history, but in the sixteenth-century Council of Trent it was formally promulgated that celibacy and virginity were superior to the life of the common man and woman.   This concept of vocation was re-examined by Vatican II in the 1960s, where clerical and lay life were deemed different ways of life, yet equal. To put it rather simply, despite Vatican II’s statement the related issue of clerical celibacy continues to be debated. Pope Francis, as recently as May 27 of this year said that a celibate priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church was a “gift,” but “not dogma” and thus open to re-examination and debate of the tradition.[1]

A more pernicious theological and social question arises in Alice, Sweet Alice is the role of women vis-à-vis sin and sinfulness. Christianity’s track record with misogyny has been well documented and traced out by much better theologians than I. Equating women with the sinful, sexualized body, rooted in commentary on the biblical story of Adam and Eve, stretches as far back as the formative years of Christianity. Women in many theological texts and spiritual writings have been depicted as a sign of uncontrollable, sexual sinfulness and as a stumbling block to more spiritual men. Mrs. Tredoni’s assertion that Catherine is a whore for conceiving Alice out of wedlock also taints Alice. Throughout the film, Alice continues to act out, and in a disturbing subtext, acted upon sexually. Her descent into madness begins with her beginning to menstruate, which is not revealed to her parents until she is seen by the psychologist, Dr. Whitman, at the institution. Like Mrs. Tredoni, Dr. Whitman (also a woman) insinuates that Alice’s repressed hostility, capability for violence, and possible schizoid personality disorder is tied to her being conceived before Catherine and Dom’s wedding. Alice herself declares while institutionalized, “I don’t play with dolls anymore!” Her sadism and sinfulness, narratively, coincides with her becoming a woman.

The closing scene of the film reaffirms this correlation of Alice’s tainted-ness and burgeoning dangerous sexuality. While Alice kneels beside Mrs. Tredoni at the communion rail, Fr. Tom, who has become aware that his housekeep is the real murderer, denies both of them communion. Alice looks hatefully at the priest, as Mrs. Tredoni bellows that he would give a whore, pointing to Catherine, the host, but not herself. The elderly woman stabs the priest in the neck and then embraces him as he bleeds to death. Alice picks up the murder weapon and dreamily walks toward the audience. The film closes with her looking down at the bloody knife, smiling to herself, and then focusing a dead stare directly into the camera. The film closes on this disturbing note, insinuating that Alice has now crossed the line into madness; raising the question was Mrs. Tredoni right all along? Is Mrs. Tredoni’s conception of sexual morality and sin seems to be branded ethically correct? – surely not to the point of murder, however Alice’s murderous glare gives one pause for reflection on the cause and consequences of sin and the correlation with womanhood. Alice, Sweet Alice is a horror film indeed; one with a long Christian history that continues to play out in theology and church structures today.

 

[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/pope-francis-says-door-always-open-rethink-priestly-celibacy-n115136 — accessed 6.30.14

By: Seth Alexander

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