You've found Father McKenzie. But are you really looking for Eleanor Rigby?

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Even the demons believe, and tremble

Speaking of Mark Shea, I should clarify that when I disagreed with him that Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings is a "deeply Catholic film", I was not merely saying "any good film with a Christian message of some sort must necessarily be Evangelical". Rather, some good films (and other sagas) are particularly Catholic in their theology, others are more Evangelical (and a lot, of course, are anti-both). I was musing on this recently when I got to see Hellboy at last, on DVD. And Hellboy really is a deeply Catholic film, in three ways:

(1) The good guys use particular physical objects (most notably a crucifix) to battle evil supernatural beings. Divine (or, at any rate, Lawful Good) power is depicted as being especially present in some things and not others. Hellboy explains how his gun, the "Samaritan", is loaded with (literally) magic bullets: "these babies. Made 'em myself. Holy water, clover leaf, silver shavings, white oak... the works." At another point, Hellboy's mentor mentions that "In 1938, [Hitler] acquired the spear of Longinus, which pierced the side of Christ. He who holds it becomes invincible." You don't see this, by contrast, in Frank E Peretti's fiction, which is also about angels battling demons. Peretti, a Pentecostal, depicts spiritual and physical warfare as basically exclusive alternatives, and Protestants would largely agree.[*] To an Evangelical, any supernatural power inherent in a relic -- granting, arguendo, that there's any there at all -- would come from its association with God or His angels and saints, and therefore cannot be appropriated and used by the bad guys for evil purposes.

I wrote this comment at Mark's blog last June (but unfortunately did not save a hyperlink to the Haloscan page):

Re [someone's question] “why is it [always] a Black [Catholic] Mass and not a Black [Evangelical worship] Service?” Generally speaking, Protestants do not regard God’s power as confined to physical objects. Therefore there’s nothing to desecrate with any supernatural effect. You can threaten, upset and anger people by burning down their church, but you can’t capture God’s power and make it your own by stealing the communion wafers or the wine/ grape juice. Protestants often get accused of "idolatry" towards the Bible, but even if someone steals or destroys your big black-leather-bound family heirloom KJV (with Words Of Christ In Red), you just buy another one from Word Bookshop. Whereas if someone steals the thigh bone of St Morticius from the reliquary, you can’t simply replace it with any old other bone from the graveyard – it has to be that particular object to have the same effect bringing you closer to God.

... I think that this is a strong factor in a lot of evangelical – well, you could call it “caution”/ “wariness”/ “fear”/ “revulsion” (choose your term) towards the Catholic/ Orthodox tendency to regard the Divine is especially present in particular places (icons, shrines, the Eucharist). If God is especially present in the Ark of the Covenant, then you “lose God” to some extent if the Philistines capture it. If God is especially present in the Eucharistic bread, then you "lose God" if Satanists steal and profane it; they don’t just bring condemnation on themselves. The Prot fear, I suspect, is that taken to extremes this undermines God’s sovereignty and you end up with some kind of "Open Theism".

As a rule, to Protestants, Jesus is safely glorified in heaven and cannot be “grasped”, so to speak, by anyone here on earth. To Catholics, I think, this makes God remote and uninvolved, and culminates in either hyper-Calvinism if God intervenes on earth, or Deism/ Unitarianism if He doesn’t.

I do not say that the above proves either side is right... [but] this fear/ wariness/ caution (call it what you will) explains a lot of the difference over this issue.

(2) The plot of Hellboy places great emphasis on freedom of individual choice. Nobody is predestined unto damnation -- not even a horned, red-skinned demon brought into this world by Indy-Jones-style Nazis opening a forbidden porthole through some occult rite. Hellboy's human sidekick reminds him, at the moment of temptation, "Your father gave you that choice". Literally, he's referring to the human scientist/ occultist who adopted the baby demon, but his words bear also the sensus plenior of referring to God. Some would say that this is outright Pelagianism -- but I do not think so. It can be interpreted in the Catholic sense: you have freedom of choice only because of the grace of God. At the end, Agent John Myers muses on this further: "What makes a man a man? A friend of mine once asked. It's the choices he makes. Not how he starts things, but how he finishes them." This echoes Dumbledore's words to Harry Potter in The Prisoner of Azkaban: "It is not our abilities that show what we truly are... it is our choices."

Of course, Protestants would agree up to a point about human freedom -- human responsibility is a more accurate description of the Evangelical view -- but to see human nature as (relatively) equally balanced between good and evil is much more the Catholic position. Both sides agree that original sin tilts the billiard table of the conscience in the "sinful" direction, but for Catholics it's a dictionary under two table legs whereas for Prots the table is propped up at a ninety-degree slant.

(3) Hellboy also emphasises discipline and obedience to one's spiritual "parent". Hellboy chafes at the discipline his "Father" imposes, but we, the audience, know that Professor Bruttenholm's restrictions are objectively necessary to stop Hellboy endangering himself and those around him. Contrast other films where the lesson the hero[ine] must learn is not to trust some seemingly benevolent authority figure, but instead to think for oneself (I prophesy that Star Wars Ep III: The Sith Have Serious Issues will emphasise this with Anakin falling under the sway of the seemingly noble and paternal Palpatine).

This confirms, by a third witness, my earlier observation that Catholic comic-book superheroes (eg, Nightcrawler and DareDevil respectively) "tend to be tormented by guilt -- as you would too, if you either looked like a devil or dressed like one."

[*] But then compare this passage from Perelandra (Voyage to Venus), by the Anglican CS Lewis:

"...It stood to reason that a struggle with the Devil meant a spiritual struggle ... the notion of a physical combat was only fit for a savage. If only it were as simple as that..."

But then, of course, Dr Ransom realises that punching out the possessed don is precisely what he's meant to do.

1 comment:

tkozal said...

Tom, Tom here, you should see Van Helsing. Van Helsing belongs to a secret Vatican (albeit ecuminical) organization. the guy who played Faramir in LOTR (David Wenham) plays his nerdy, Q-type technician.

Schlock, yes, but worth a couple of hours. Hellboy is perhaps the better flick, but did nowehere as well in the box office.