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

Carnivàle: The Apocalypse is Coming / Part 1

theopopcarnivalepicThe apocalypse has different meanings to different communities, but these beliefs have become so engrained in the American psyche that there is now a sense of the apocalyptic even for those who do not necessarily hold to other religious beliefs. What American film history shows developing, beginning particularly in the late 1960s and up to the present, is the idea of a secular apocalypse. The short-lived series Carnivàle (2003-2005), created by Daniel Knauf and originally crafted as a feature film is aAn archetypal tale of good versus evil, the series periodically sat in a drawer and was edited and reworked until, ultimately, HBO decided to produce it as an episodic series after the new millennium. If you have not seen the series, we would implore you to watch, it just might save your soul.

Daniel Knauf uses the cataclysmic events of the 1930s to form the beginning point of his good-versus-evil epic, blending imagery and events from the Book of Revelation to drive home the point that the work is an apocalypse, but a secular one. Knauf’s work is rife with religious overtones, including his own construction of a dualistic cosmology, but the final outcome is that humanity is responsible for the light and darkness in the world, and if there is an eventual end of the world, it will be at the hands of humanity, who have “traded away wonder for reason.”[1] Carnivàle is a concrete example of American apocalypticism in the 21st century: it encapsulates the development from a religious idea to a secular belief in end times, with a focus on the human causes of the final act in Earth’s history.

The opening monologue in the pilot episode of Carnivàle sets the apocalyptic tone for the entire series. Samson, the leader of the carnival troupe, looking old and battered in a close-up of his face, addresses the audience:

 

“Before the beginning, after the Great War between Heaven and Hell, God created the Earth and gave dominion over it to the crafty ape he called Man. And to each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness. And great armies clashed by night in the ancient war between Good and Evil. There was magic then; nobility and unimaginable cruelty. And so it was until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity, and Man forever traded away wonder for reason.[2]

 

The protagonist of this drama is Ben, a poor farmer who has lost everything in the Dust Bowl. He comes into contact and ultimately joins a traveling carnival troupe, peopled with a cast of colorful characters, including Samson, the second-in-command to the mysterious unseen figure known as “Management”; a catatonic seer, Apollonia, who is only able to communicate through a mediator, her daughter Sophie; Jonesey, the manager of the roustabout, maintenance crew; Lodz, a blind prognosticator. Two other important characters who are not connected to the troupe are Brother Justin and Iris Crowe, siblings who lead a Methodist church community in Mintern, California, far from the carnival’s Midwestern meanderings.

Carnivale

As Season One of Carnivàle progresses, the stories of Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin Crowe parallel in their respective searches for meaning in life and exploration of mysterious, unexplainable powers. The two characters only intersect in their cryptic dreams that they share, despite being strangers to one another. Ben is led in his journey by clues about his past from members of the troupe. He discovers and harnesses a supernatural ability to heal by touch. Justin, meanwhile, must follow the visions of his vocation that he believes are sent from God. Initially his visions seem to be impelling him to start a new ministry for the migrant workers who are pouring into California from the Dust Bowl affected states looking for work. Brother Justin later gains celebrity by partnering with a popular radio personality and strikes a deal with him to broadcast his sermons. He also begins to give into the dark side of his nature. What began as a vocation to minister to the migrant workers becomes Justin’s building of a personality cult and a virtual army of those who are “wandering after him” and his Temple of Jericho ministry. His powers of dark omniscience, which at first plague him, are embraced and utilized to further his goals. Both characters’ situations lead them in polar opposite trajectories: Ben toward the light and Justin toward darkness.

Knauf’s structure of the cosmos for Carnivàle is Gnostic: in each generation a creature of light and a creature of darkness are born. The history of the world up until the time period in which the dramatic action takes place has been characterized by an overall balance of the two opposing principles. This theme of balance is integral to the continuation of the world, appearing in the light character’s ability to heal and give life only if they take energy or a full life from something else.The tension within Carnivàle, symbolized within the very name of the program, is the overturning of this balanced order, which endangers the perpetuation and well-being of the world. Throughout the two seasons of the program, the central question becomes whether Ben Hawkins will be able to hold the balance in place, or if Brother Justin will triumph and bring about an age of darkness, sending the world into a cataclysmic oblivion.

 

Co-Authored By: Seth Alexander and Erica Saccucci

 

[1] Carnivàle, Season I, Episode 1, 2003.

[2] ibid.