Tag Archives: Film & Television

Disgust — Provocations from Trier’s Antichrist

6 Nov

When I was writing my halloween posts last week I came across a link to a film review blog called A Movie A Week. It’s exactly what it sounds like–a site where critic Shaun Henisey reviews one movie a week. As I read through his reviews, I realized that Henisey had reviewed a challenging film, Antichrist, which I had been failing to talk myself into watching until recently. Henisey’s review is both generous and cautionary. Lars Von Trier‘s film is notorious for its extended meditation on (or embodiment of) misogyny. It’s a sexually graphic and psychologically intense film that divided audiences and critics alike. Detroit News film critic Tom Long’s comments are typical of positive reviews: “Self-loathing, mean, ugly and perfectly made, Antichrist is probably the best film ever that you’d recommend to absolutely no one.” On the other side, Dallas Morning News critic Christopher Kelly wrote, “Antichrist is a unique form of cruel and unusual punishment: an unrelenting orgy of graphic sex, violence and cynicism that also manages to be wildly pretentious.”

You can see the overlap in the critical reviews of this film–it is a disturbing piece of cinema. For some there was meaning in the madness; for others there was only madness.

Antichrist by Lars von Trier

Antichrist by Lars von Trier (Photo credit: ‘Lil)

Rather than write directly about the film–I think Henisey’s review captures many of the essential religious themes–I want to say a few words about disgust. First, a basic definition of disgust is a feeling of revulsion or profound disapproval aroused by something unpleasant or offensive. Disgust is a negative emotional response. It requires us to have moral, aesthetic, or religious boundaries. Disgust crosses the line. To bring Mary Douglas and Emile Durkheim to the discussion, disgust is taboo-breaking that places us in danger of becoming impure. Disgust assumes we are pure. It is a moral high ground. Consider the satellite of synonyms for disgust: revulsion, repugnance, aversion, distaste, nausea, abhorrence, loathing, detestation, odium, horror, contempt, and outrage. Is it possible that these alternatives are varieties of emotional condescension?

When we watch a film that really gets down in the muck, what is the nature of our disgust? Is it reflective? Are we repelled by seeing any fraction of ourselves? Or is it alienating? Are we repelled by the lack of relation?

Disgust is an emotional that has received considerable study. What’s fascinating, however, is that there are few studies of disgust as a religious faculty in modern experience. (I know of several studies of monastic practices that deal extensively with self-mutilation and other ascetic practices.) Yet religious studies appears to have overlooked this emotion today (whereas our colleagues in the social sciences have not).

When a movie like Trier’s comes along that provokes such intense reactions of revulsion and offense, I wonder whether it has successfully manipulated foundational religious elements to these effects. The wrapper of visceral gore makes it difficult to judge. What disgusts us in the film? Can we segment the stimuli? If so, are there more centrally religious elements? For our students, can these elements be extracted from the film to be discussed with material more appropriate for the classroom. (Despite my firm belief that there are really no limits to the objects we study in the academy, I do believe there are a number of limits to the objects we teach with in the classroom. Antichrist violates so many of these I hardly know where to begin.) In short, can we approach a “disgusting” film didactically and then employ its lessons on less dangerously provocative material?

In the context of a class I am slowly developing on the supernatural, disgust is an emotion that I’m sure will be invoked at least once. After all, can you imagine watching The Exorcist and not being even a little disgusted by the demon’s provocations? So, at the end here, I have a very practical motivation for my inquiries. I expect to need a way to deal with disgust and its satellites of similar emotional responses. We cannot stop feeling when we watch horror films. In truth, and as I said in my post on horror and religion, I think those feelings are central to the genre.

Thus, how would you discuss disgust in a religious studies classroom? Do you see a place for it? How would you deal with it? If you have thoughts, let me know below.

Related articles on my supernatural course

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Is Horror Religious?

1 Nov

Every Halloween is an intense reminder to me that religion and horror go hand-in-glove. All Hallow’s Eve has become a secular candy-infused target for conservative religious figures, and yet these critics are not wrong to lament the religious inversions that are on display. We become the monsters we should fear. We masquerade in identities it would be better not to claim. I find the thought of living in Superman’s world as equally disturbing as I believe it would be to live in Freddy Kreuger’s. If conservative religious voices express their concern that these actions make us less able to distinguish between reality and fantasy, I think they’re on to something. (However, they are decisively less persuasive when they claim that weakening this boundary means we are crossing the line separating good and evil.) Let me explain.

A basic interpretation of ritual, Emile Durkheim’s, for instance, suggests that ritual operates using cyclic rhythms to interrupt the banality of everyday life. Rituals express significant chronological and spatial differences. Eliade’s formulation of these ideas, especially in The Myth of the Eternal Return, suggested that this was a religious predisposition of all humans. In the modern world, Eliade feared, we have lost our religious bearings. Ritual has lost its ability to express sacred time and space.

English: Emile Durkheim's grave. Italiano: La ...

English: Emile Durkheim’s grave. Italiano: La tomba di Emile Durkheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Jonathan Z. Smith came along to tear down the ritual model as built by Eliade and Durkheim, one of his significant contributions was to distinguish between the religious actor’s imagination and their expectation. Ritual became an act of imagining–not a true expectation of change. In this respect, Smith embodies every fear Eliade had about the demystified or disenchanted modern world. Smith’s ritual world is one where ritual agents imagine their magic works. However, at some level, even if unspoken, ritual agents know their actions are not magic. In a perfect world, Smith argued, it wouldn’t be necessary for us to speak symbolically. Our rituals would always have the exact effects that we ascribed to them. Rain when we asked for rain. Healing when we desired healing. And so on.

If this seems difficult to follow, consider this. One of the major theological elements in the divide between Protestants and Catholics is over transubstantiation. When the host (the bread as the body of Jesus) is consecrated, is that material truly changed into the body of Jesus? Even hardened Catholics have difficulty explaining why the wafer still appears to be a wafer. The theology of change in essence without change in form is a delicate bit of spiritual prestidigitation. Protestants, by contrast, more openly say that the wine had not changed from alcohol to blood. For them the change is symbolic.

Back to horror now. As a genre, horror begins in the Gothic era. Yet, as I noted in a previous post about ghosts, there is a much older tradition of paranormal experience–folklore. Folklore is a cultural expression where normative beliefs and practices are passed from generation to generation. In this sense, folklore is very much the mechanism for passing ritual expectations. It preserves the sense of imagination while sustaining expectations. What is the key to good storytelling? Getting the listener to ask “Then what?” What happened next is the folktale’s engine.

We have two overlapping but distinct genres. Folklore is not always horrific. Horror is definitely not always folklore. Horror is often fictional, which certainly makes a difference since folklore like myth always strives for truth. But that’s not the rub. Horror is the genre whose object is the production of terror. I say terror here for two reasons. First, I don’t want to confuse the genre with its product. Second, I want to emphasize the kind of terror the Rudolf Otto evoked in his famous use of mysterium tremendum et fascinas. This is the numinous–that which is wholly other, that tells us simultaneously to look away but also compels us to look. This is the beating heart of horror–actions which are beyond reckoning that both invite and discourage attention.

Let’s return now to horror and its Halloween critics. When we play as devils, they say, we risk becoming demoniacs. Smith’s ritual corrective suggests that religious agents can more readily separate the imagination they employ while wearing masks from the reality that they do not become what the masks represent. We are a society at play, not a society playing at becoming. That religious folks think becoming the monsters is possible is notable.

The challenge of the genre of horror is continually producing experiences that are wholly other. It shares with religious ritual the goal of playing convincingly while acknowledging that becoming is not ruled out. Despite Smith’s objections, we live in a world where a vast majority of people believe, beyond all factual evidence and reason, that becoming just might be possible. This explains the urgency in critics’ voices as well as the attraction of Horror. There is a remote possibility, the genre seems to say, that this could happen. That slim chance is what makes us share a protagonist’s doubt about whether they locked the back door. That possibility is not folklore’s “what happened then” but rather horror’s “what if this really happened?”

The speculative core of horror is one of the reasons I think it is inevitably, and fundamentally, religious. It is the spectrum of religious behavior and thought that preserves the terror of radical possibilities. A serial killer is some absurd form of hideous, blasphemous miracle. The return of ancient world-destroying gods? Another grotesque possibility.

Cthulu Jack O' Lantern

Cthulu Jack O’ Lantern (Photo credit: joebeone)

Finally, however, I think that beyond possibility, it is terror that pushes all horror into the religious. That of which we are terrified–physical, psychical, or mental harm–cut deeply into the core of religious bodies, souls, and minds. It causes us to question whether bodies are sacred. It make us wonder whether our souls are secure. It make us wonder whether our minds are whole.

The damage horror inflicts–and one of the reasons I don’t flatly reject horror’s religious critics–can be quite real. Terror opens interrogative room. This isn’t the same space as the miraculous. This is a space where reality is inverted, subverted, and rejected. It can be profoundly emotional.

Horror, when it is at its most horrific, is our own lives tipped just slightly out of balance. It makes the whole world unheimlich (unfamiliar in the sense of uncanny). We lose our sense of being at home. Thus while folklore preserves our world; horror breaks it down until it is no longer familiar to us.

Otto claimed that this disorientation was fundamentally religious. This Halloween week I find myself agreeing with him. So, is horror religious? Yes. Absolutely.

Thought Experiment Addendum

On Twitter Daniel Silliman suggested that one way to test my inquiry would be ask “could horror be irreligious?” He said he didn’t think so. I agreed. Can you think of a way for horror to be irreligious? I’ll note that to the best of my knowledge, Wikipedia’s suggestion that irreligion can be indifference, rejection, and hostility to religion seems unhelpfully broad. It notes right away that religious rejection (atheism, for instance) is different from hostility to religion (antitheism). This suggests we might be better off limiting the discussion to indifference to religion. After all, if one is hostile to religion then one is still dealing with religion. So, to be more precise, can horror be indifferent to religion?

Angels and Belief

22 Oct

Some surveys estimate that nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe in Angels. For comparison, that’s four times the number that believe that humans evolved without divine guidance. It’s really a staggering figure. It’s equal to the entirety of Americans whose congregations are evangelical Protestant, historically black, Mormon, mainline Protestant, and Catholic. It’s one of the few religious beliefs that truly appears to qualify as American. Of course, that number could be grossly exaggerated. Polling on this issue ranges from 55% to 77%. Even at 5 in 10, however, this is not a marginal belief.

The word angel comes from the Greek word angelos, which means messenger. In the Hebrew Bible, one of the central verses is Daniel 12:1. Here it is in the New Living Translation:

Archangel Michael casts out the arrogant angel...

Archangel Michael casts out the arrogant angels. Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1866. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At that time Michael, the archangel who stands guard over your nation, will arise. Then there will be a time of anguish greater than any since nations first came into existence. But at that time every one of your people whose name is written in the book will be rescued.

The use of archangel here is unusual. Most translations keep the more exacting term “great prince.” What the NLT expresses, however, is the canonical understanding that Michael is the supernatural guardian of or advocate for the Jewish nation. Michael and Gabriel (also from the Book of Daniel) are among the only angels accepted by nearly all branches of Christianity and Judaism. (They do this in part because of Jude 1:9, which more directly calls Michael the mightiest of the angels.)

The problem with the legitimacy of a broader range of named angels is not only one of different canons, but also of interpretation of verses. The New Testament is particularly important for establishing hierarchy and structure for angels in a celestial court. The most important contributor to this evolution of popular (non-theological) understanding of angels is undoubtedly 17th century poet John Milton. Paradise Lost, Milton’s masterpiece, narrates the Fall of Man. It chronicles this through two intertwined stories: Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Satan’s leadership of a celestial rebellion against God.

Paradise Lost contains much that is biblical, but it is also, and fundamentally, a work of fiction. Milton’s expansion and elaboration on the nature of sin, redemption, and cosmic warfare were seminal for popular culture’s representation of Satan, the Fall, and angelic hosts.

Wikipedia has a useful reference list of adaptations of and allusions to Paradise Lost. Some of these are well-known–the poems of William Blake, for instance–which others are far more oblique. One of my favorites is probably Neil Gaiman’s SandmanI have a soft spot for graphic novels and Gaiman. We’re getting away from angels here, but Sandman is about the lord of Dreams (i.e, Morpheus), his escape from imprisonment, and his rise to power. It’s dark horror filled with mythological references. It’s smartly written and beautifully illustrated. In short, it’s amazing and totally worth your time.

Back to angels. Let’s start with a basic overview of the films/tv we could use to talk about angels. This list is adapted from this post on beliefnet.  I probably get to choose ONE. That’s rough, since the impression you give about angels will vary so widely.

1. Angels in the Outfield (1994)

A light-hearted family film where angels inspire baseball players. It’s a shameless plug for the Angels baseball franchise. It took advantage of the 1990s revival of interest in angels to sell baseball tickets.

2. Touched by an Angel (1994-2003)

A soap opera approach to angels as personal guides to restoring individuals’ connection to God. Angels are delicate, helpful, and spiritual. They are the family you want fighting on your side.

3. Michael (1996)

A somewhat irreverent but ultimately redemptive look at angels. As the tag said, “He’s an angel… not a saint.” The angel is provocative–he makes things happen because he is so understanding of the world is so un-human.

4. City of Angels (1998)

This is an adaptation of a 1987 German film. An angel falls in love with a human and must decide whether to give up his wings. Angels here are more like psychopomps than protectors.

5. Dogma (1999)

Two fallen angels “help” a pregnant woman so they can return to heaven. It’s one of Kevin Smith’s best films. It’s gritty and ugly, but it weaves a fascinating mythological narrative with just enough biblical elements to not come untethered from Christianity. Angels here must play by the rules, but they are also willing to push the rules to the breaking point to achieve their own personal goals.

6. Angels in America (2003)

Tony Kushner’s play got a big screen adaptation. An angel tells an AIDS patient that he is a prophet with an important mission to save humanity. It’s a powerful piece that deals with some very serious issues. Angels are awesome and bliss-inducing. They are messengers above and beyond humanity.

7. Constantine (2005)

This adaptation of a comic book describes John Constantine‘s battle with the angel Gabriel, who has joined forces with Satan to try to get back to heaven. Confession: I love this movie. It has exorcisms, demons, angels, occult ritual elements, and a host of other juicy elements for analysis. It plays on the Paradise Lost themes as well as engages–very deliberately–with the issues of suicide, redemption, and the afterlife. 

So where does that leave me?

I can show the extreme commercialism of angels (#1), which does go along way to explaining the cultural crossover of Christian beliefs into New Age lifestyles. Angels became a part of the broader “spiritual” environment. Extracted from their Judeo-Christian roots, this meant that really the only thing that was left over was the imagery and the basic outline of their supernatural role.

I could show the mainstream use of angels as propoganda for getting folks to return to the pews (#2). Perhaps (#3) best exemplifies how humanity is idealized. Why would you not want to be an angel? Only humans can be truly redeemed. Michael (#4) shows both the good and bad sides of angels. It’s funny and, by the end, has a strong message about why the relationship between angels and humans matter.

The most biblical depiction of angels of all these items is, perhaps, Angels in America (#6). However, in this work, angels are primarily provocative. They get things moving, and then humans carry on afterward.

Constantine (film)

Constantine (2005) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And yet I’m most drawn to Dogma and Constantine. Perhaps this reveals a bit about the orientation of my popular culture preferences. That’s fine. And yet I think there’s every reason to think that the themes in these films would play best in a course on the supernatural.

First, both films directly involve fallen angels and their attempt to return to the celestial court. Regaining God’s favor is exceedingly difficult for angels. They do not have the bargain God struck with humans through Jesus. How can they get around this redemptive problem?

Second, angels are significant characters in these films. They are not incidental, nor are they simply plot devices. Dogma does this more than Constantine, but for a course on supernaturalism, Constantine has many additional elements that would be worthwhile. It also does not have a monster made out of excrement. Dogma might be perfect otherwise, but I hesitate to show the, pardon my language here, shit-monster in my classroom.

So, I think in the end I’d vote for Constantine. (And I will write a separate post about its many excellent religious themes.) If you have a comment on this, let me know! I’m getting pretty close to the full scope of the course here, so probably only one or two more items. Demons will be next, and then, maybe, superhumanity and magic, presented together as elements that provide an object for criticism by conservative religious movements.

Ghosts & American Religion

16 Oct

This post continues yesterday’s thematic concern for a course proposal on the supernatural. Unlike mystical pregnancies, ghosts have a less discrete origin in religious materials. Whether you call them phantoms, spooks, hauntings, or specters, this genre of apparitions are the spirits of the dead. Let’s take a look at where we could start:

Deuteronomy 18:9-12’s prohibition on spiritism and sorcery:

(9) When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. (10) There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer (11) or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, (12) for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD.

English: Henry Fuseli - Hamlet and his father'...

English: Henry Fuseli – Hamlet and his father’s Ghost (1780-1785, ink and pencil on cardboard, 38 × 49,5 cm) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It stands to reason that Spirits should have been taboo in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And yet by the Renaissance, the infusion of hermetic and other metaphysical practices revived the interest in necromancy and spiritism. Sure, I’m skipping a vast swathe of history here, but I’m not a medievalist and this course is designed to highlight contemporary American popular cultural expressions of the supernatural. Anyway, after the Renaissance, the willingness to re-consider spirits may have indirectly helped produce what is perhaps the most famous ghost in all of fiction: Hamlet’s Father.

Here’s what Hamlet says when he encounters the Ghost in Act 1, Scene 4:

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee “Hamlet,”
“King,” “Father,” “royal Dane.” O, answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance, but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulcher,
Wherein we saw thee quietly interred,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous and we fools of nature,
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?

It’s great stuff. Hamlet’s speech raises more than a few issues, too. Are apparitions from heaven or hell? How do ghosts circumvent death? Are all things that run contrary to nature hideous? Is our unfinished business in life our duty to resolve in death? [Ghost (1990) famously takes this final question as its raison d’être.] Of course, Hamlet is not centrally about the ghost of Hamlet’s father. It does create an interesting trope–the living as surrogates for the dead. This trope is replayed almost yearly through Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Why does Marley’s ghost haunt Scrooge? Because Scrooge can avoid the regrets Marley’s miserliness created. Scrooge is both literally and figuratively haunted by Marley’s Ghost.

A Christmas Carol remains a profoundly British work, even if contemporary re-tellings like A Christmas Carol (2009) starring Jim Carrey were produced for American audiences. Dickens’ original 1843 capitalized on the growing interest in Spiritualism before the famous Fox sisters appeared in 1848. Before that moment, mesmerism was the rage. This is the era not only of Joseph Smith and the birth of Mormonism, but also Andrew Jackson Davis who relied on the work of Anton Mesmer and Emmanuel Swedenborg to popularize his ideas on animal magnetism and a host of other metaphysical principles. [Catherine Albanese is currently working on editing AJD’s journals–get excited!]

So here’s the rub. If I’ve got a course on supernatural themes in modern America, so far I’ve got an ancient Jewish prohibition on spiritism and two very famous English fictional ghost stories. I haven’t even mentioned high literature’s favorite ghost story, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw! It’s not even clear James gets to count as American since he spent over half his life in England and became a British subject shortly before his death in 1915. Better choices? Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe. Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar puts his finger right on the button of the perceived dangers of spiritism and mesmerism (possession). Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of best known American supernatural fictions. (And the current remake on FOX isn’t awful). Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables was inspired and infused with the literal ghosts of the Salem Witchcraft trials.

So these are the type of primary source materials we can begin with. They are fiction, sure, but they are also projections of American attitudes about Ghosts in the 19th century. That all of these authors worked during the rise of Spiritualism is no coincidence.

The real question, the one I’d hope to get students to explore in this course unit, is what is the context for contemporary ghost stories? Think of it like this: Poe wouldn’t have written about mesmerism if it hadn’t been consuming American culture in the 1840s. If we pick a selection of modern ghost films, say Poltergeist (1982), Ghostbusters (1984), Ghost (1990), and The Sixth Sense (1999), what do they say about America today? Do we think of ghosts in the same way? Why not? How do we explain the difference? [With a slightly different selection of films it would be easy to go the “ghost in the machine” route to ask how technology has become a conduit for supernatural entities.]

One thing I want to solve is the problem letting the genre of demonic spirits spill over too much into the discussion of ghosts. The Exorcist, The Conjuring, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose also deal with spirits. Yet these films rely on expressly Christian theological frameworks to explain the operation of demonic spirits. It is the lack of clear religious boundaries that makes so many Ghost films feel simultaneously spiritual but not religious. Ghosts operating independently appear culturally and religiously diffuse. They are empty signifiers waiting for interpretation. This is a clue on the context for many modern Ghost stories–the broad influence of New Age and Metaphysical beliefs–but it also suggests something about Ghosts as a trope. They function as lenses for particular kinds of questions about the relationship between life and death. This is not the same as the struggle between God and Satan (in which demons are employed to show the fragility and power of humanity). It’s a fine line, but one that I hope to find better ways to articulate in the future.

Come back soon for more thematic elements. Angels and Demons should be next!

Mystical Pregnancies

15 Oct

Io9 strikes again with Katharine Trendacosta’s list of “The Most Ridiculous Mystical Pregnancies in Fiction.” It’s a solid compilation that ranges from Twilight to Xena: Warrior Princess and Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the end of the post, Trendacosta directs readers to Anita Sarkeesian’s take on Tropes Vs. Women.  It’s definitely worth 7 minutes of your time:

As Sarkeesian explains, pregnancy in speculative fiction is commonly a vehicle for reducing women from vibrant characters to incubators. Moreover, pregnancy is frequently made into a traumatic, monstrous experience. Just remember Bella’s pregnancy in Breaking Dawn, which featured the fetal vampire’s attempt to kill her human mother. Critics emerged en masse to complain not just about the representation of the female body during pregnancy, but also its deceitful portrait of the emotional lives of mothers. (See Think Progress, Adios Barbie, or Io9).

As I develop a course on the supernatural to add to my teaching portfolio, I’m on the lookout for thematic content that highlights a broad range of religious issues. Mystical pregnancies is excellent in this respect.

    1. There are  so many clear examples of mystical pregnancies in film that every student is likely to be familiar with at least one or two fictional examples. The abundance of examples also means that every student could research their own example. This fosters a climate of comparison that will help focus attention on the common dimensions of the trope.
    2. It focuses on issues of gender in a different way than horror’s more general application of the trope of the virgin. This is a chance to explore motherhood as a juxtaposition to sexual purity.
    3. This opens avenues to discuss Mariology–the prototypical mystical birth that I would expect all my students to become experts on.  What does it mean to be both immaculate and the mother of God? What do women think about Mary as a religious ideal? How do they reconcile Mary’s life with their own experiences with motherhood?
    4. Supernatural fiction is a vehicle for the discussion of reproductive and sexual rights. All too often demonic possession is an opportunity to highlight the boundaries of sexual norms. The Exorcist, for instance, sexualizes a young possessed girl through her intense, vulgar language. When monstrous pregnancies introduce demonic fetuses, is this a punishment for sexual acts? A test of faith or obedience? Under what circumstances does pregnancy become evil? How are infants imagined as violations of nature? (As when Bella’s child grows at an accelerated rate.) [Depending on time, this may also be a time to introduce the history of the culture wars that is the broader historical context for so many of these fictional works.]
    5. Supernatural fiction often demonstrates basic biological and human imperatives through inversion. Why is The Omen so shocking? It tells the story of parents who ultimately conclude they must sacrifice their demonic offspring. It’s a perverse adaptation of the story of Abraham and Isaac–only in this case Abraham tries to go through with the sacrifice and is narrowly stopped by the police. What are we to make of the triumph of evil here? Is obedience to the law a sufficient replacement for obedience to God? What are the limits of our parental instincts? Is infanticide ever natural?
    6. Finally, it discretely thematizes the vast supernatural canon. We can effectively group content with pregnancies or pseudo-pregnancies without worrying about the many other issues they raise. This frees me to deal effectively with movies that run a broad supernatural gauntlet (like The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby). I can easily find another movie to deal with prophecy, the anti-Christ, demonic possession, etc.

Feel free to suggest more issues that you would raise! I’m also on the lookout for excellent secondary sources if you know of any! (I have this fascinating thesis by Natasha Lopusina with its many excellent sources. Thank goodness for the digital age!)

Plotting Religion in Juvenile Animated Series

8 Oct

Batman Beyond

My Netflix queue often suggests interesting animated series for me. I never know quite what I’m getting into. Sometimes I am rewarded, as I was when I discovered Rosario + Vampire (an overtly raunchy monster high school drama that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone unless they understood the context of the sexualization of female characters in anime).

Other times I’m not convinced of the recommendation. Batman Beyond is a good example. While I’m unlikely to turn my back on Batman, I find the series frustratingly incomplete in its portrait of a futuristic Gotham. I’ve always found Batman an intensively spiritual character. While religion is never operating at the surface, Batman’s moral core–especially his principle of not killing enemies–is likely the reason for his enduring appeal. (This is the show’s premise, too: Bruce Wayne’s age makes him unable to uphold this principle.)

While I don’t know that I want to set the boundaries on categories of ethics and religion, it is often the case that shows like Batman Beyond rely almost exclusively on secularly-derived moral principles and not on obvious religiously ones. I should be clear here. I don’t we can easily parse the morals presented in the show and derive them from two categories, secular morals and religious morals. It may even be impossible.

What I mean is that the writers of Batman Beyond have consciously removed the structures of religious belief and practice that might suggest religious origins for the moral cores of the characters. Why does Batman fight crime? He has a personal stake in preventing the kind of crime that took the life of his parents. Why does the youthful Batman fight crime? Because he too has a personal stake in stopping crime. They are both compelled by some hidden moral imperative and orientation to do good. So I say secular-derived moral principles because the show gives me no contextual information that these laudable values have arisen out of religious training or devotion.

Avatar Korra from Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra

Let’s look at a counter-example. The Legend of Korra is a spin-off of Nickelodeon’s seminal series Avatar the Last Airbender. The second season, which started just a few weeks ago and can be watched on Nick.com, is profoundly and explicitly religious. There is a demonstrable religious world, complete with an active and engaging cosmology, ritual practices, and shades of religious belief.

Frankly, I was a bit stunned when I saw the start of this season’s plot arc. The spirit world is out of balance and Avatar Korra, as the bridge between the human and spirit world, must figure out how to repair the damage. Korra’s journey this season, like Aang’s before her in the original series, is one of wrestling with destiny, fulfilling her role as spiritual leader, and defeating those who would upset the balance of the world. (Aang, for instance, had to resolve his principle of not killing anyone with the inevitable to-the-death battle he would have with the warmongering Fire Lord.) Korra will surely face a similar test of her principles this season.

There’s more here than just the overt or covert presence of religion and morality. I believe–and it is just my opinion–that Korra is just a better show than Batman Beyond. The animation, plot, character development, world creation, and so on, they are all superior. This doesn’t mean that I picked Batman Beyond as a straw man. I enjoy the show, despite its defects. And I’m still watching its several seasons, so I haven’t ruled out the possibility that it may pick up its game.

What I think is crucial is that nearly all animated shows (perhaps because they are made for children) fall in a grid plot made by the intersection poles of overt/covert, religious/moral. Batman Beyond is overtly moral but neither overtly or covertly religious. The Legend of Korra is both overtly religious and overtly moral. And so on. Sure, this is simplistic, but it is a start for thinking about the ways that animated television deals with the problem of introducing ethical questions. Moreover, it differentiates between those questions asked in religious terms, “What is the right thing to do as the Avatar,” and those asked in moral ones, “What is the right thing to do?” These aren’t the same.


If I were to draw my schema, as basic as it may be, it would look something like this: 

Overt/Covert & Ethical/ReligiousI suppose that’s a beginning. It also reminds me of the excellent lawful evil/good charts that often appear as memes for popular cultural works. In the world of The Dark Knight, for instance, the Joker is the epitome of chaotic evil. As the saying goes, some folks just want to watch the world burn.  Superman is the perennial contender for lawful good–he’s the pinnacle of justice. (And that’s part of the reason that the story arc of Superman: Red Son, where baby Superman lands in Communist Russia, is so amazing.)

I often have to defend my interest in children’s and young adult anime to friends and colleagues. Graphic novels have attained an air of respectability that comes with multi-million dollar movie franchises. So if you look at those, you’re going to escape some of the criticism. When I was young, in that post-Vietnam era, G. I. Joe and its portrait of American militarism suggested exactly the kind of narrative that emerged in Desert Storm. Similarly, Ducktales highlighted the kind of entrepreneurial capitalism that would become essential in the dot com boom.

If today’s youths retreat to Korra and Batman, I sure want to think about what the effects of these shows are going to be. For instance, Batman Beyond and Korra are both terribly suspicious of experimental technology in the hands of aggressive corporate interests. How quickly the lessons of the recession have inflected the moral elements of children’s television! Animated series are cultural mana for young persons and we ignore them at our own peril.

Blasphemous Gaming — The Binding of Isaac (2011)

28 Aug

When Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl released their independent video game The Binding of Isaac in 2011, they probably had some idea that their creation would be controversial. They didn’t expect it would sell a million copies, but they had high hopes for their unusual creation.

If you watched the embedded clip above, you’ll know now that the premise of the game is profoundly religious: Isaac is to be sacrificed to God by his devout mother, so he escapes to the basement where he fights monsters. We’re probably all aware that Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah (re-read Genesis 22 if you need a refresher). It’s commonly interpreted as a test of faith or loyalty, but it also has significant meaning in relation to the substitutive nature of sacrifice (animals for people). In this game, it’s an opportunity for the darkest religious themes to become power-ups for your character’s survival as Isaac.

If you want to get a sense of the gameplay, you can watch some of NorthernLion’s YouTube videos. You might want to briefly browse the game’s wiki of increasingly powerful items that help you survive. If you played the original NES The Legend of Zelda or the UNIX classic Rogue, you’ll find the game oddly familiar. If you’re not into games, a few minutes to get the gist of what the tone and mood of the gameplay is like is plenty.  (Warning: Northernlion’s language is NSFW right from the start, but he’s the most prolific Binding player on YouTube and his profane reactions emphasize the non-religious context of most gamer’s experience of the religious content.)

Naturally, what angered many observers when the game launched the profoundly dark and graphic presentation of religious elements. From the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to seemingly satanic imagery with pentagrams and the fictional grimoire Necronomicon, there is an abundance of provocative themes. Despite the cartoon style of the game, this is not for children. Nintendo, for instance, fearing the ease with which their young gamers could access the item in their online shops, removed the product from their stores. (This was mostly discussed as an instance of Nintendo failing to understand their own fleeting status as a gaming platform for serious gamers.)

The major issue surrounding the game became its designation as “blasphemous.” After all, this term is entirely relative. Blasphemy assumes discourses of truth and untruth, devout and disparaging speech. For retailers (and countries that assign ratings to game like Germany, Australia, and the United States), the issues of propriety, morality, and responsibility came headlong into discussions over religious norms and free speech. Who says the themes the game shows are blasphemous? Who has the right to decide the content is blasphemous for others? And so on.

This controversy has subsided–it’s 2013 and the game continues to produce additional content that has significantly expanded the range of religious endings gamers find when they win–but the issues have not gone away.

As you can see, even Bioshock Infinite, an A list game from multimillion dollar developer Irrational Games, had a spate of bad press among Christian gamers who felt unable to accept the false baptism the main character requires to enter the game. Valve, makers of a game-platform called Steam where players downloaded the game, may have even gone so far as to refund the money of an offended gamer (in violation of their stated refund policies).

As narrative games become increasingly more sophisticated, we can all expect more and more rough patches between fictional representations of religion and the religious beliefs of gamers. Bioshock is just the latest (and biggest) title to have stirred these waters. I imagine that Witcher 3 (a hack-and-slash game with strong religious elements) might have this problem.  Or Diablo 3‘s newest expansion Reaper of Souls, which has an obvious Grim Reaper character as the newest protagonist.

If you’re watching religion in popular culture and all you’ve got on your plate is cinema and television, you’re missing the massive enterprise that is modern gaming culture. Superheroes may have leapt from comics to the screen, but franchises like Resident Evil, Doom, Mortal Kombat, Streetfighter, Pokemon, Tomb Raider, Hitman, Prince of Persia, and Silent Hill show that games are increasingly sources of cinematic profits.

Look here in the future for more posts about the religious elements of Bioshock Infinite, Assassin’s Creed, Diablo, and The Witcher. It’s a big help if you let me know you’d like to see these. Let me know in the comments and I’ll make it happen sooner rather than later.