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Anthropomorphic Personifications

So. I was watching the movie “Ghost Rider” the other day – made from a Marvel Comic, starring Nicholas Cage. According to Netflix, this movie belongs in the Horror genre, but I’m not so sure. Now, I’ll grant you that no one else seems to have this genre but me, but still I say this movie belongs in the ‘Cute Boys Being Theologically Sketchy’ genre. In case you are interested, other movies that also belong to that exalted state include Dogma, The Order, Interview with the Vampire, Queen of the Damned… I trust you are beginning to see a trend? Movies that might be compelling, amusing, or otherwise redeeming stories in and of themselves, but that use an outdated Christian mythology (or, if you will, Very Sketchy Yet Still Somewhat Accepted Theology) as anything from a plot device, to the foundation of the primary plot. Popular themes of outdated Christian mythology (or as I say, VSYSSAT) that crop up in Hollywood on a regular basis includes the following list: supernatural beings as unforgivable creatures, or abominations, (see: most vampire lore, though admittedly not the latest emo offering from Ms. Meyers – thank you, Ma’am, for small favors); demonic beings/possession vs. God’s chosen superhero – clergy, lay, or atheist; Armageddon/end of days; Angels accidentally falling in love (you never hear of dominions falling in love, however).

Now, this is not to say that I don’t get my share of calls for exorcisms – you know I do, just as you know I hand them off to someone who is actually qualified and called to do whatever it is one does when one performs an exorcism or cleansing. Watching this movie, however, got me to thinking. And for those of you who are not in the know, Ghost Rider is based on the Marvel comic of the same name about a young man who accidentally sells his soul to the devil in order to heal his father, who shortly thereafter dies of a completely unrelated accident. The terms of the contract: to be the devil’s bounty hunter, tracking down hellish escapees (because naturally, the devil has no power on earth – don’t tell Job), and sending them back. One could see how this might make a longstanding, though perhaps tedious comic. To liven it up a smidge, add a skeletal motorcycle, a flaming skull for a head, and – please note the quotes – “The Penance Stare”. Ahem. Apparently, the devil usually only hoodwinks those who are greedy enough to agree to his terms, not just young and stupid enough to think a contract signed in blood with a random creepy stranger is going to get your dad through an ugly cancer diagnosis. So, add the plot twist: the Ghost Rider, whose name, yes, is Johnny Blaze, has morals and a conscience and has never been motivated by greed, though sometimes by sheer stupidity. So does he only send back the escapees? No, naturally not. He uses his power for good – and I use that phrase in the loosest of senses. He gets all fired up in the presence of ‘evil’ (literally – his head turns into a ball of flames and he no longer resembles Nicholas Cage so much as a pet project from Industrial Light and Magic), and without lifting a finger, stares them down. In his eyes they experience all of the pain and suffering they have caused in their own lifetime, and simply by virtue of his stare, he acts as judge, jury and executioner, for the person keels over shortly thereafter.

Come to think of it, the Ghost Rider is reminding me of another skeletal rider on a pale steed who shall remain nameless.

And so the movie moves on with an unsatisfying romantic subplot, demonic henchmen that hide in the elements (though clearly the Ghost Rider himself is the missing element of fire), and some theological drivel about the superevil son of the devil (clearly he is not the Diet Coke of Evil) who is trying to open what seems to be the equivalent of a hellmouth, only without the vampires. Blah, blah, blah, guess who wins?

This is all well and good, but the point of the blog was to share my musings on this anthropomorphic personification of humanity’s perceived separation from God – also known as the devil.

You see, it dawned on me that in some ways we as a modern culture (and perhaps this has happened much earlier than I suspect– I haven’t researched it yet, but given works like ‘The Monk’ I imagine there has been quite a foundation for this, laid throughout all of history) have created a minor deity of this figure that in the old testament was merely one of court of the Almighty God, as it was understood in the myth of Job. Between the gospel account of John (written 60-80 years after the fact, and NOT as an eyewitness account), and the Revelation to John (different John, written even later), suddenly we have a devil, a Satan that looks a bit like Caesar and everything that Christians thought to be wrong in the world – a poser god that while obviously unimportant, gets blamed for everything inconvenient to lay at the feet of God, is actively working to undo the justice and peace of creation, and is someone/thing with something like parity to God.

Alternately, the devil is simply seen as some kind of malevolent keeper of the underworld, some kind of Hades perpetually missing his Persephone (which could make any husband cranky, really) and suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder with a focus on passive aggression.

And it’s so easy to see the threads of Roman and Greek mythology. It’s easy to see the threads of even more ancient Mesopotamian legend. It’s easy to see where Greek thought mingled in with the middle ages movement of Scholasticism. It’s easy to see were Enlightenment came in and where and when Science, Rationalism, Modernism, and Quantum Theory all started to affect how we tell ourselves stories of Those Things We Still Don’t Understand.

But where does that leave us? It may be that the old man in a toga on a cloud, the beautiful one in white with wings, the guy with red horns, and the aforementioned skeleton with a scythe on a pale horse are the only remaining anthropomorphic personifications left to us. Certainly, Justice has already been buried and sealed in her tomb. And perhaps there are good, rational, sociological reasons for this shift. But where does that leave us?

Perhaps now we can begin to look at our religious stories with new eyes. (As we were always meant to? As we always do anyway, whether we’re given permission or not?) Perhaps it is time to look at our stories and see what parts of them are trying to teach us the wisdom of the ages, and what part of them are cautionary tales to a danger that no longer exists.

…xposted at work blog…

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