In Defense of Fictional Hellfire
I wasn’t allowed to watch the WB television show “Charmed” when I was in middle school. I babysat Monday nights and once my care was in bed, it was that or Fear Factor. But I once told my mom I’d watched a “Charmed” episode and she said she didn’t like that the show was all about witchcraft. So I watched people eat worms and jump off cliffs instead.
This thought stayed as a shadow for a few years. I knew my mother didn’t like my interest in the supernatural, but soon I was past the ages of parental censorship. Yet whenever I read or watched something involving mystical forces, I felt a little like I had something to hide, especially if it involved witchcraft. Maybe I didn’t want to open the possibility of judgment—that people would question my faith and my conscience. Maybe I thought I had something to be ashamed of. But over time I grew up and shame developed into defense. I love compelling stories that involve magic and demons, good and bad witches, vampires—stories many people argue glorify the occult and corrupt vulnerable youth and adults. And I love God. The two can be mutually supportive. Apparent contradictions to Christian myth can stimulate faith.
Ignorance and fear have led to a particular attitude towards “wicked” supernatural in fiction. Certain people, many conservative Christians among them, believe the stories promote illicit practices. They quote Exodus 22:18, “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live,” and try to censor the story about a boy named Harry Potter and his sacrifices that instilled a love for reading in a desiring generation. Even a book series like “Harry Potter” with deep Christian principles of loyalty, fellowship and resurrection isn’t safe.
At the heart of that matter is the line between what is real and what is the creative product of someone’s imagination. The more that line is blurred, the more people must consider the world they themselves live in. The more that line is blurred, the more afraid people become of what could be real and the more afraid they become about what other people will believe is real. Opinion, backed up by personal experience: people are afraid of the gray area. Looking at things in black and white and as good and bad makes examination easier just as creating a strong division between fiction and our world makes acceptance easier. Looking at the material and calling it either taboo or fake sparks a threatening ignorance. There are the people who hold too much stock in supernatural stories because they believe they are corruptive and heretical. And on the opposite end there are people who don’t put any stock in supernatural stories because they accept them as fiction and therefore removed from their own life.
I’ve invested myself in characters that walk the night, ones that are hurt and fighting, betrayed, betrayers, fallen. I’ve burned passion for their stories. The vampires, authored by many. The witches and wizards. The fallen angels. The mythologies arcing centuries, criss-crossing and rewriting history. But I can’t keep them completely separate from my life because they deal with the same morality I face. I hold great stock in these stories and I recently realized they make me face in the best and worst of ways the existence of God and His role in our lives. I don’t think it’s inappropriate as a good Christian to do that.
Take the television show “Supernatural,” one of my favorites. Two brothers fighting to find and destroy the evil that killed their mother in a fire twenty years before. They are hunters of the supernatural, facing sometimes concrete but often blurred “forces of evil.” And demons, plenty of them. That was the first three seasons. It took a turn in the season four premiere when an angel named Castiel appeared. BAM! Out of nowhere, we’re introduced the side the show had kind of avoided. They’ve been exorcising demons, destroying ghosts, fighting hell hounds, making deals at crossroads. But…angels? Even the show creator hadn’t planned to go there. Dean had said to his brother in season one, “There’s no higher power, there’s no God. I mean, there’s just chaos, and violence, and random unpredictable evil that comes out of nowhere and rips you to shreds.” BUT HOW CAN THAT BE? How can there be all the evil and none of the grace? Aren’t these often stories of personal redemption? Is it easier to accept reading or watching this kind of thing if you can push away the thought of God, call it fiction and let it be?
Castiel’s introduction triggered the immense desire for justification inside me. As I watched on, completely enraptured and never offended, I found myself dealing with suggestions many Christians would shout, “Heresy!” at: the possibility of corruption in the heavenly system and a seemingly absent holy father. And it made me think hard about my own beliefs. I believe God is always listening. I believe God alone is all-knowing. I don’t believe the plot lines I’m drooling over are true but I also don’t believe they are unreal. They offer a legitimate examination of humanity as so much fabulous television, film and books do. As much as they are excellent storytelling, they are encouragement to THINK. To consider and evaluate and thus come to a better understanding of our own beliefs and purpose. Sometimes this comes in the form of a half-hour comedy about middle-aged friends trying to figure out their lives. Sometimes it’s a movie about pirates swashbuckling and double-crossing. And sometimes it’s that next popular teenage vampire-human love story.
I propose the middle ground between “promoting un-Christian thoughts” and “ultimate fiction”: open your minds to ideas that challenge your own. It’s an intellectual dilemma some would say contradicts what it means to have faith. There’s not supposed to be intellect in faith. According to Merriam-Webster, faith is a firm belief in something for which there is no proof. And I am not arguing for proof of God. That’s the leap we take. I just believe personal analysis can bring us closer to Him because when we just stand back and outright accept something, there’s a limited level of connection. Faith should be explored not assumed.
Quoting the Armageddon novel “Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, “God does not play dice with the universe: He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players [i.e. everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.” Yes, it’s scary. There’s a plan and we don’t know it—we don’t need to know it and we can’t hope to learn it. But maybe the converging armies of heaven and hell on the small screen of your living room can offer the exploration we need to strengthen our faith and relationship with God.