Friday, October 21, 2011

Demonology and Eschatology, Hollywood Style Part 1

Hollywood has a renewed interest in the Christian audience (and its wallets) since the success of “The Passion of the Christ.” However, that is not the first time Christianity—and Catholicism in particular—has generated a lot of interest from the movie industry. In the seventies, there was a huge interest (not overly welcomed by the Church) generated with films like “The Exorcist” and “The Omen.”

The thing that stands out in these films is the religious nature of the Church. Normally, a Christian worldview informed by the Bible would see reality as being completely under the sovereign control of God, with no power in creation able to oppose Him. All creatures and all of history are under His control. Instead in the Hollywood version of Catholicism (as well as unfortunately throughout the history of the Church) Christianity is just one among many religions representing competing, often regional deities. The priests in these films always seem on the verge of failing and, in doing so, screwing up the will of God.

The demonology and eschatology of Hollywood is—not surprisingly—unbiblical and quite messy. Is that all these films have to offer, or is there something to be salvaged among all the questionable theology? Looking at the examples from the seventies will get us started:

“The Exorcist”

Blatty’s story, and in particular the filmed version of it, have done more to inform modern understanding and even most Christian’s ideas of what demons and possession are all about. Reports of possessions have increased since its release, and even the symptomatology of people claiming possession has changed to fit the film’s presentation. To think that it presents a Biblical, historical or even remotely real representation of possession is silly.

The most disturbing aspect of this film (that manages to be on nearly everyone’s list of scariest films of all time) is its outlook. It may be considered a positive that a story would take evil and the devil as serious and real threats, but to make them stronger than any good front humanity can mount against them is bleak. The perspective of this film is really that humanity is on its own against the devil. The religious ritual is ineffective and God seems to be an impartial observer.

“The Omen” Series

Twenty years prior to that period in the Nineties when evangelicals were actually using the left half of a posterior more frequently than the Bible as a witnessing tool there was another pop culture eschatology sweeping the nation. Hollywood had had a lot of success exploiting fear of the devil; now they turned to the antichrist in “The Omen.”

“The Omen” is basically a (very) slow boil of a suspense story where a child is revealed to be the son of Satan, set up to bring about the end of the human race. Anyone who gets in his way is coincidentally (and to all appearances accidentally) killed. The theology here is more than stupid, and the true fear being exploited is the fear of parenthood. Potentially interesting but in this story more akin to boring. They go for shock and gore, but too seldom for today’s audiences. A remake was attempted in 2006. It shoehorned more shock into the story, and everything looks more polished, but that just serves to reveal how empty the story really is.

“Damien: The Omen II” shows us how the antichrist fares as a teen. He discovers his true identity, and has knowing servants everywhere defending him against harm. This film (and to an extent the previous one) fed those fears everyone seemed to have in the eighties that there were secret servants of satanic cults throughout society.

The third film in the series is a real mess. The antichrist is now an adult. (Even though the film takes place in the early eighties and he was only five back in 1976!) He has been in control of his company for seven years so it is now time for Christ to return as a baby?! He has all babies born on the night of Christ’s return killed. Meanwhile seven priests are acting as assassins trying to prevent what amounts to Biblical prophecy. In the end, the Antichrist does not rise to world power as the Bible foretold and a shining, esoteric Christ appears (not as a baby) and there is peace on earth.

Some would argue perhaps that the increased interest in Christianity these films generated is a positive thing. Unfortunately, the ideas here are based on wild speculation rather than any historic interpretation of what the Bible teaches. Speculation and imagination are great in fiction. The problem arises when that speculation is presented as “real” Christian thought. Even then there may be interesting ideas or questions to explore. These stories simply trivialize and attempt to shock rather than inform or generate thought.

For more thoughts see Part 2

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