Saturday, November 1, 2014

Faith and Our Stories of Horror

Last night, as the swarms of trick-or-treaters waned away, I blew out the candles in the Jack-o-Lanterns, shut down the lights, and closed up shop.

The boys were out and about, over at a party thrown by a mutual friend.  They're teens, and Trick-or-Treating through the neighborhood--or ours, at least--is no longer the Thing To Do.

"Let's watch a horror movie," said the wife, and I agreed.  But what?  I'm completely uninterested in slasher flicks, or anything that mistakes disgust for real horror.

I racked my brain for something of the genre that might be genuinely spooky, and recalled a film called The something, you know, was this haunted house, and a couple, and they were ghost hunters.  The Haunting?  No, that's something else.  Hmmm.  Through the miracle of the inter webs, a string of keywords popped that memory out of our embodied collective subconscious: The Conjuring.  It had been well reviewed, as I recalled, and the previews had been generally creepy.

So we settled in together on the sofa, and I made a bucket of popcorn as a chaser for the candy we'd been noshing on all evening, and we got ready to be scared.

Honestly, it was exactly what we were looking for, for most of the film.  It took its sweet time developing dread, playing around with subtle hints of the horrific, dancing around our human fear of the dark terror of shadow.   It was well acted, solidly scripted, and directed with a competent, practiced hand.  For most of the film, it had my wife burrowing into my side and curling up close, which is exactly what you're looking for in a scary movie.

But at a certain point, it lost me.  After this, there are spoilers, so...just lettin' ya know.

Where it wandered afield came, in all places, in its religiousness.  The Conjuring was a very, very Christian movie, in the sense that it spoke clearly out of a robust Catholicism.  The villains were demons and dark witches, and in order to drive out those forces, the power of the Holy Catholic Church was the primary tool in the toolshed.

That meant strategically placed crucifixes, prayers of abjuration recited in Latin, silver crosses worn prominently as wards against the devil.

And as these things came into play, the spell of the movie was broken for me.  That sense of realism, so carefully and elegantly developed by the cast and the director, just came apart in my mind.

This was not, honestly, because it was a Catholic film and I'm Protestant.  It's because...well...I'm clergy, and clergy with a mystic bent.

When the characters started talking about using the authority of denominational hierarchies to battle supernatural beings, it made me snert a little bit.

Dark and inhuman powers are manipulating the very fabric of reality itself!   A demon just hurled my Clerk of Session across the room!  Quick! Call the Presbytery Offices!

I mean, I love those folks,

The idea of confronting a levitating devil-witch with a prayerbook also just seems utterly absurd.   Sure, the Christian faith bears within it some potent, reality-bending magic.  I buy that.  I know how to do that, sort of.

But prayer has limits, and ancient tongues bear no greater power than our own language.  When one of the protagonists kicks in with the Latin, I don't get that sense of hoc est corpus meum magic.  It's just...words.

"Demon!  Listen and tremble as I draw on the Holy Power of Exegesis! Tremble before the words of this passage read and then interpreted in the Original Koine Greek!"

I would certainly pray for strength and courage in such a moment, or say words of blessing.  I might speak what I know to be true over and against the lies of a dark being.  But I wouldn't expect magic, any more than I expect magic when praying about cancer, or about an addiction, or about any of the very real and horrible things that break bodies and souls and cultures.

Faith has a potent place in the struggle against darkness.  It's just that the reality of that place is rather different than our stories of the supernatural spin it.