How secular writers handle religious concepts is of the greatest interest to me, particularly since it usually starts interesting discussions in message boards and prompts similar articles all across the web. Several things transpired this past week that got the wheels in my head to turning. The Rite dominated the Box Office, I saw Devil on DVD, and the alien Anna visited the Vatican in ABC’s V. It seems that faith and the idea of the human soul is now on everyone’s mind.
The Rite is not really my cup of tea — I am not a horror story fanatic and as much as I think the Vatican having an Exorcism School is just about the coolest thing ever, I tend to be a little tentative about watching anything having to do with demonic possession. I do want to see it eventually, just from the comfort of my own home in the mid-afternoon with all the lights on! However, I was interested to read an article by the priest on which one of the characters is loosely based in which he discussed our culture’s propensity to permit evil into our lives. Though he believes actual demonic possessions are rare, he also thinks certain things can “open the door” to demons getting a grip on our lives. One would think his explanation would rely mainly on our culture’s increasing fascination with the occult, and while he did mention that as having an effect, he also talked about such things as sexual perversions, since it has been his experience that people who were sexually abused growing up have a harder time spiritually, as if the other person’s evil has left a negative spiritual residue in their life. (He did not say that these victims became possessed, only that often it formed a “dark stronghold” in their life.)
Sensationalized versions of demonic possession have been rampant in Hollywood, but The Rite does not stray too much from the true formula (although it does include quoting passages from a religious book and discerning the name of the demon in order to cast it out). The biggest mistake it makes is professing that anyone can be possessed — which I believe is impossible; no demon can exist alongside the presence of the Holy Spirit, which indwells in the soul of all believers. Which brings me, indirectly, to Devil, the most recent project by M. Night Shyamalan that focuses on “the supernatural in everyday life” (the first of three films). I will have a proper review of it on my site over this weekend, but while it defines “horror” in many ways, I was also astonished at its relatively sensible depiction of good and evil, its assumption that sinners belong to the Devil, and only true repentance can redeem them. In the film, a handful of people are stuck in an elevator and the Devil picks them off one by one, blocking all outside attempts at saving them.
The symbolism is striking — the elevator represents hell, since it is both the devil’s playground and a confined, often dark and oppressive space in which the inhabitants rapidly turn on one another. (C.S. Lewis touched on this concept briefly in The Great Divorce, in which his vision of hell was a place in which no soul trapped there could stand anyone else, thus discourse frequently caused them to move further away from one another.) The security office can see the inhabitants of the elevator, but the microphone is only working one way — the security guards can hear nothing that happens in the elevator, rather like the concept that the cries of the damned cannot be heard by those in heaven above. Only one person makes it out of the elevator alive, since in facing down the Devil he confesses to a sin he has hidden and begs for forgiveness. The Devil stares at him a moment and then says, “Damn… I really wanted you.” I won’t ruin the twist for you if you ever choose to see the film, but it carries on the theme of redemption and how confession relieves the soul. While the film is spine-tingling and jarring (and downright creepy… I should have known better than to watch it at night even with the lights on), it does promise us at the end that “if the devil exists, God does too,” so ultimately as believers we have nothing to fear.
Which brings me to one memorable quote from the film, when one of the security officers confronts a policeman with the assumption that “… everyone believes in the devil a little bit, even if they won’t admit it.” I was struck by it, because I believe it is true. What scares us the most are things that in some distant corner of our mind, we suspect may be true. Many argue that faith is obsolete and God does not exist, but if this were true, why would we invent and continue to entertain ourselves with such things as Gods, Angels, Demons, or Ghosts? Every civilization in the world from the beginning of time has had similar fears and stories; all of them fear the dead in some form or another and believe in the spirit world. Could it be that we know the spiritual realm exists, even if we profess not to believe in it? Why does the Devil scare us? It’s not because he is an imaginary, made-up explanation for all the horrible things people do in this world, but because we know what he is capable of… and we all know or at least fear that he exists.
It is only our modern society that has rejected the concept of God — previous societies would not dare think such a thing, much less profess it. Is that because there is less evidence of the existence of God in our modern world than when people had to rely on Him for their every need? That could be possible, or it could be that we are so confident in our scientific advancements that arrogantly, we assume there is no longer a need for a belief in a higher power. Whether or not we choose to believe, we cannot explain things rationally that have to do with the spirit world. And these things do happen — exorcisms, curses, demonic activities in certain places and cultures. If we cannot find a rational explanation, it must exist… and if it exists, what is it? If it is a spirit, it may be a demon, and if it is a demon, then we have to believe in the Devil, and from there we find ourselves once more at the foot of God’s throne. But even if we dismiss all the things that make our skin crawl, movies about the Devil and demons still scare us, the notion of Ghosts put us ill at ease, and there is the ever-pesky soul to be concerned about. The idea that each human being possesses a soul disconcerts nonbelievers because if they admitted to it, they would have to accept that the soul is immortal and therefore accountable to a higher power — and that every life is precious, even that of the unborn.
Science is in many ways the catalyst of atheism but it is science fiction that most frequently introduces the idea of a soul and therefore, of a higher power. Stargate SG-1 explored the notion that the ancient gods in pagan culture on Earth were actually a domineering superior race, while also exploring the concept of “ascending” to a higher plane — in death, the soul of the person would rise to another, superior form of existence far more powerful. Buffy the Vampire Slayer portrayed the idea that vampires lost their souls when they were turned, but two of them regained their souls (and through having a child, another temporarily found her own) — Angel was “cursed” with one to punish him for his many crimes, and Spike earned a soul through eternal torment in hell, because he wanted to become worthy of Buffy. The Twilight book series even talks about the loss of a soul, although in that case, Bella is willing to sacrifice hers for Edward.
But the one current series I have my eye on is V, which is a (probably short-lived) series on ABC about an alien race intent on conquering, breeding with, and destroying humanity. From the start the writers introduced a religious aspect in introducing a Catholic priest as one of the main characters, and frequently, the voice of conscience in the Fifth Column, a group intent on proving the Visitors have evil intentions. At the start of this season, the idea of humans having souls was brought to the attention of Anna, the Queen of the Visitors, who fears her own recent devastation over the loss of her children implies that she may be becoming weak due to the awakening of her own soul. Anna is hell-bent (forgive the pun) on figuring out how to separate from her soul and destroy it. In order to understand the idea of a soul, she decides to go to the “experts” and pay a diplomatic visit to the Vatican.
There, she encounters one of her own kind who had no intention of revealing himself, a spy planted by her mother fifteen years earlier — but the Visitor has changed. He has been working as a priest for so long that his view of humanity, and his emphasis on the importance of the soul, has altered his intentions. He believes the soul is the greatest discovery they have ever made. Though the series does not come right out and say it, the heavy implication is that not only has he obtained a soul, but he has also come to believe in a higher power, God. Putting aside one obvious discussion point (if he did have a soul, does that mean he was saved? could a Visitor find redemption in Christ?), we find an unusually positive depiction of faith in the drama. There is nothing arrogant or assuming about him, only gentleness and clarity of thought, a kind of grace that becomes him and is shared with Father Jack, who has turned from a life of violence as a soldier to one of forgiveness and love within the Church.
With all the many catalysts that could have been used to make the show controversial or push the plot forward, why would they choose the soul? Perhaps because it is our deep inner belief that we all have one and it “separates us from the animals,” as the Priest tells Anna. Literary science has always agreed that souls cannot be created by humans but by God alone. The Victorian novel Frankenstein underlined this heavily, for Victor brings something back from the dead that is soulless and is horrified by his own invention. His attempt to tamper with creation winds up destroying everything he loves most, because his soulless creature does not appreciate being left to wander alone in the world. This trend continues, inspiring us to suspect that our culture’s increasing and continued fascination with such things as the devil, demons, and souls serves to remind us that deep down, all of us know we cannot explain everything that transpires in this realm. Even if we refuse to admit it to ourselves.