Nerd Testament: the shooting messengers

One of my favorite movies is The Prophecy, a fantasy film written and directed by Gred Widen, who wrote the original screenplay for Highlander.  It’s a movie about angels.  And in this movie, angels are not pretty androgynous entities flitting around in lacy robes and white fluffy wings teaching people important life lessons and spreading comfort.  They are not Roma Downey.  They are not Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life.  Greg Widen’s angels, for what might actually be the first time in movie history, are the bloody-handed inhuman foot soldiers of God we see in the Old Testament, back when God’s messengers had to start every conversation with the words “fear not.”  As one of the characters in the movie puts it:

Did you ever notice how in the Bible, when ever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?

And one of them, the angel Gabriel, has fallen from grace.  Angered by God’s decision to give what he describes as “talking monkeys” precedence over the angels (which, as it happens, is the reason some theorists ascribe to Lucifer’s initial rebellion), he’s started a second war in Heaven.

These angels, grim-faced emotionless creatures in long coats, waging a war they don’t understand, are the direct predecessors of the angels in the TV show Supernatural.  Trenchcoats, detached demeanors, even the occasional habit of referring to humans as talking monkeys.  The angels on Supernatural have also inherited some of the themes explored in The Prophecy.  The angel Castiel is a good soldier, but he’s begun to doubt the rightness of his orders.  It seems no one, even among the Hosts of Heaven, has actually seen their Father in a very, very long time.  They’ve been stationed on this ball of dirt, far from home, fighting a war with no end in sight.  Their orders don’t always make sense.  Sometimes, they’re told to do things that seem monstrous.  The next-to-last episode had them using “enhanced interrogation” techniques on a captured demon like celestial Jack Bauers.

The parallels with certain recent events may be left as an exercise to the reader.

The point is, the show is doing something rather interesting with these angels.  The elements of Christian mythology they’ve borrowed have been rather modified and reworked, which does slightly irritate me as a student of both the Bible and occult lore in general, but the story isn’t really about angels.  It’s about us.

Castiel has begun to doubt.  In the show’s mythology, angels possess the traditional angelic lack of doubt, but not the perfect gnosis that makes doubt impossible.  Essentially, they’re fanatics.  Fundamentalists, absolutely certain that what they do is right despite a lack of evidence.  And while neither the meager data in the Bible nor the much vaster realm of extra-Biblical lore and speculation on the subject really allow for an angel experiencing this kind of character arc (not anymore, at least.  The time for them to doubt or remain loyal came once, when the Morning Star raised his rebel throne and waged war in Heaven) since they are supposed to live in the immediate presence of God himself, once more this is not really a story about angels.

Unlike them, we do live in a world where God is elusive, miracles are dubious, and where faith is slippery.  Like the Devil says in The Prophecy, “It’s hard to believe, Thomas.  So hard…”

The problem with fundamentalism is that it allows no room for doubt.  Once the facade begins to crumble, it all falls to pieces.  That happens in The Prophecy to Gabriel.  It happens in Supernatural to Castiel’s brother-in-arms Uriel, who concludes that God is a myth and Lucifer, the proud rebel, made the only decision that made any sense.  It’s the reason so many of the really, really angry and bitter atheists come from strict Christian backgrounds (of course, a lot of them don’t lose their fundamentalism so much as shift its focus).  If you’re not supposed to question, then you will break when questions force themselves upon you.

And they will force themselves upon you.  This is not a tidy world.  This is not a clean world.  This is not a safe, a kind, a merciful or a just world.  We’re called upon to try and make it those things as best we can, for behold, the Kingdom of God is within you, but for perfect mercy, and perfect justice, we have to wait until the Man comes around.  Like Christopher Walken’s Gabriel says,

I’m an angel. I kill firstborns while their mamas watch. I turn cities into salt. I even, when I feel like it, rip the souls from little girls, and from now till kingdom come, the only thing you can count on in your existence is never understanding why.

Coping with the imperfections of the world, coping with evil, is hard.

Here’s the interesting thing about what’s happening with Castiel in Supernatural.  He’s come to that same crossroads, face to face with doubt, fear, and a world that doesn’t make sense in which all traces of God seem to have vanished, and he seems to be moving in the other direction.  He’s trying to do right despite it all.

“Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

Or, as the Doctor puts it in one of my favorite bits from Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia (seven minutes and forty-five seconds in):

We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.

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12 Responses to “Nerd Testament: the shooting messengers”

  1. You are freaking awesome.

  2. You mean Puddleglum, right? Because now I really want to see the Doctor shoehorned into The Silver Chair. >_<

    And, yeah. Awesome post.

  3. “The problem with fundamentalism is that it allows no room for doubt.”

    Neither does faith.

  4. bradellison Says:

    “You mean Puddleglum, right? Because now I really want to see the Doctor shoehorned into The Silver Chair. >_<”

    I may mean Captain Redbeard Rum.

    “Neither does faith.”

    I don’t know you, or your background, but you seem to be working from a different definition of the word “faith” than I am.

  5. Faith, as I understand it, is belief without proof. From doubt follows reason; from reason, proof. Once proof is present, you no longer have faith, you have evidence.

  6. bradellison Says:

    I’m not entirely convinced of the validity of the doubt=>reason=>proof chain. Certainly, that process is not inevitable. Nor, for that matter, do I belief faith and reason are mutually exclusive. I regard them as being complementary, answering different questions in different ways.

    None of which, however, actually has much to do with the question of whether faith excludes doubt. From my own experience, as a person of faith who has known many people of faith, doubt is an inevitable constant, which is why it’s called faith and not certainty.

  7. Doubt is the process of asking “What? How? Why?”. Reason is the process of answering What, How, and Why. Proof consists of the answers. Faith is unquestioning acceptance, reason involves questioning everything. I don’t see how they could ever be anything but contradictory.

    Okay, I suppose if one is willing to live with unresolved doubt striking to the very core of one’s worldview, undermining everything one knows about the way the world works, and possibly making everything one has done and said an awful, terrible lie, you could have room for doubt with faith.

  8. Victor, I think your definitions of things are off…

    Faith is the recognition that I don’t necessarily know how or why something is but I believe anyhow. I don’t know why bad stuff happens, but I believe God is in control and his Will is Good, despite the fact that bad stuff continues to happen. Faith is saying “I trust you”.

    It’s not unquestioning, but maybe unreasonable all the same. So, having doubts and questions and asking why is a big part of coming to the point where you can say “I trust you” in every situation. Blind faith is no faith at all because it’s only there until suddenly the person isn’t prepared to deal with something and then they wonder why God is suddenly not there for them… Faith is a process, and without having gone through it one cannot be strong in their faith.

  9. bradellison Says:

    “Doubt is the process of asking “What? How? Why?”. Reason is the process of answering What, How, and Why. Proof consists of the answers. Faith is unquestioning acceptance, reason involves questioning everything. I don’t see how they could ever be anything but contradictory.”

    I’m afraid I cannot concede you your definitions of either faith or doubt. Again, faith is not synonymous with certainty. Your definition of reason suits me better, though it’s worth noting that reason doesn’t guarantee answers to those questions, or anything else.

    “Okay, I suppose if one is willing to live with unresolved doubt striking to the very core of one’s worldview, undermining everything one knows about the way the world works, and possibly making everything one has done and said an awful, terrible lie, you could have room for doubt with faith.”

    Not a Lovecraft fan, then? No matter what you believe in, there’s no escaping the possibility that your understanding of the universe is horribly, nightmarishly wrong. Faith doesn’t cure that, and neither does reason. Doubt’s an artifact of being human, and one that most functioning adults have come to terms with in one way or another.

  10. “Faith is the recognition that I don’t necessarily know how or why something is but I believe anyhow.”

    That sounds like exactly the definition I’ve been using: Faith is belief in something without any evidence for or against it. Now, if both of you, Angel and Brad, want to tell me that your experience with faith includes, in addition, dealing with the doubt that comes with that, okay. I can accept that my definition of faith was incomplete.

    Brad – you’re right that doubt comes with being human. In my experience you can deal with it in one of two ways: You can learn to suppress and ignore it, accepting any psychological lumps as part of learning to be faithful, or you can use reason to explore and illuminate the doubts, rendering them unthreatening and even enlightening. The possibility remains that everything the reasoning person understands *at any given moment* is wrong, but the reasoning person is constantly engaged in an activity specifically designed to anticipate this: re-examining everything known, comparing it with any new evidence, and re-evaluating the conclusions. Then the prospect of being proven wrong is no longer frightening, but exciting, because it means vast vistas of new knowledge.

  11. “That sounds like exactly the definition I’ve been using: Faith is belief in something without any evidence for or against it.”

    Er, no. You said “Faith is unquestioning acceptance, reason involves questioning everything. I don’t see how they could ever be anything but contradictory.”

    On the contrary, I was attempting to point out that Faith and Reason both involve questioning everything, but Reason needs to find an answer, where Faith can accept that sometimes there is no answer that my Reason can understand. They are two different ways of approaching the same questions, and often they work in conjunction with each other.

  12. “Faith is unquestioning acceptance”
    “Faith is belief in something without any evidence for or against it”

    Those two are exactly the same, full stop. To question something is to seek evidence, which is why I don’t see how faith involves questioning anything. If I tell you I live on the moon, and you have faith that I am telling you the truth, you’re not questioning my statement. Thinking “well, I don’t know if he’s right but I trust him anyway” is *not* questioning me. Thinking “How can I check whether or not he is right?” is questioning me.

    Reason does involve questioning everything. It doesn’t “need” to find an answer in the sense that if it doesn’t get one it will curl up into a whimpering ball and cry. It “needs” to find one in the sense that what it does is expose answers when the evidence is there to support them. In cases where there is no verified answer, I prefer to admit and be comfortable with a gap rather than fill it with something unverified.

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