Serial Killer Fiction and Why We Watch It

            For about as long as I can remember, I’ve been watching crime shows—Law & Order with its spin-offs, CSI, Castle, Bones, NCIS, Criminal Minds, and all the rest. My dad studied criminal justice in college, which probably had something to do with the frequency with which these shorts of shows were playing in the background of my early life. On top of these, we watched a lot of true crime as well. Through it all, one type of criminal has always held my attention, inspiring a fascination that I find half as disturbing as the crimes themselves—serial killers.

            Serial killers are horrific. They are defined by the pleasure they take in the fear, pain, humiliation, and ultimately death of others. A person with that sort of psychology not only kills, but often kills in a way that is truly sick, truly cruel, truly awful to consider. However much the drama of television and restraints of polite society might tone down the evil to a level viewers can handle, it does not erase the terrible nature of what these people do.

            Over the years, I periodically come back to TV shows and movies centered around serial killers. Most recently, I found myself caught up in the hunt for the Zodiac Killer, which is still quite an active case with online amateurs, even if it has stagnated with the actual police.

            Every time I return to something like this, I ask myself why I find it so fascinating. Some critics write as if people find pleasure in the gore, the violence, the sheer disturbing nature of what is done. I can grasp on an intellectual level that this might be the case, but I don’t understand it on a gut level. I have never been able to derive pleasure from negative emotions or situations—I don’t even understand the thrill of a rollercoaster, much less how something that horrific could be pleasing to someone in their right mind.

            For years I thought maybe it was the desire to understand evil. I don’t believe in the naïve vision of the world that says people are basically good and want to do the right thing. A lot of people don’t. Rather than shield our eyes to this reality, it would be better for us to understand evil, so that we know how to stop it, to restrain it, even to prevent it—to whatever degree that’s possible.

            So I told myself that’s probably what it was. I was interested in how their minds worked, what drove them to become so disturbed, and to commit such depraved acts. More than that, what let them do it with so little apparent guilt, with so much composure afterwards? The cold-bloodedness with which some of these guys discuss their crimes in prison interviews is chilling.

            But you can only watch so many of these movies and TV shows, only imbibe so many true crime documentaries, only read so much on the internet before you begin to get a sense of what’s going on. It’s not terribly complex, once you figure it out. There’s a bitterness, a feeling of humiliation rooted in some childhood trauma. There’s an alienation from the world, a lack of empathy. They strike out to feel powerful, to feel in control, to feel like other people don’t matter. That, at any rate, is the basic story with most of them.

            Another explanation I’ve considered is that I like to see justice done. Human beings have a basic sense of right and wrong. Even the serial killers often know quite well that what they are doing is wrong. In part, that’s where the thrill comes from. At any rate, when we see injustice, when we see the world go off-kilter, we like to see it made right. We like to see the culprit caught and punished.

            I like this explanation. Seeing them be captured is what most movies with serial killers are about, more or less. But it also explains my response and the response of others to seeing a killer get away with it—solve the puzzle. There are people dedicated to figuring out who the Zodiac is because the Zodiac can’t be allowed to do what he does and get away with it. We need to prove that there is justice in the world by making it happen. That, and solving puzzles is fun. Which could be an explanation in itself.

            But that’s something you can get from any cop show, with any kind of crime. Why serial killers? Why people that hunt people? There are plenty of terrible crimes out there that take as many lives, that are just as calloused, that are just much of a menace to society. Really, things like organized crime are much worse in terms of the damage they do. An insightful point was made in the Zodiac movie that more people die every year driving in LA than the Zodiac killed across his entire known career. Serial killers are scarier than other things, and devastating to individuals and families, but they are still pretty small scale compared to other injustices in the world.

            And perhaps that’s the answer. Maybe serial killers are fascinating because they are so much more terrifying. For so long I bought the “I want to understand their minds” explanation that it never occurred to me that I might view them exactly as what they are often called—monsters. I wouldn’t use that language. To call them that would be to dehumanize them, to create distance, and so to erase the terrifying insight that people can be truly evil. It would be to hand-wave away the fact that injustice often comes from us, not from distant, abstract institutions or the nature of the universe, but from our own choices.

            But I think that’s a mistake, too. The serial killer movies often do dehumanize them, however interested in getting you inside their minds they pretend to be. They are not interested in letting you understand how they justify themselves, just in showing you how sick they really are.

            And really, the nature of these serial killers is that they are people who have dehumanized themselves. What that kind of pathology means is that you no longer feel what healthy people feel, and no longer act how healthy people act. The people around you are no longer human beings, but objects to be used and manipulated, and ultimately discarded. You have separated yourself from the human race.

            So a serial killer movie is, in a very real sense, a monster movie. A threat comes from outside, one that is entirely negative and more deadly than anything we face in daily life. The hero tracks it down and puts a stop to it, rescuing someone—perhaps a damsel in distress, or perhaps a city or a nation gripped by terror. It’s classic. Beowulf, St. George, Dracula, James Bond—it’s one of Christopher Booker’s “Seven Basic Plots.” Jordan Peterson could explain it easily—chaos invades the hero’s world, and he has to rise up and defeat it.

            In other contexts, I certainly enjoy these kinds of movies. I think they have a very basic, very broad appeal across time and across large sections of humanity. It even fits in a specific variation on that theme, one very popular in our culture—the sharp-minded detective who defeats the criminal by discovering a clue in his one mistake. Serial killer stories are Sherlock Holmes with a darker, grislier antagonist.

            Of course, there is another explanation, one final possibility among all the other attempts to explain an obsession. What a serial killer does is kill. These are stories filled with death, with lives cut short. In our plush and comfortable lives in modern America, it can be easy to ignore our limited time on this earth. It can be easy to think we have everything and always will, or at least enough that our biggest worry is that we want more, not that we will starve.

            In that world, a serial killer story is a memento mori. The killer is death, stalking us. We are reminded that everything passes, that everything dies, that everything fades from memory. It is inevitable. There’s a way of dwelling on this that’s morbid, but it’s also something that can focus your priorities, that can remind you to live in the moment in the best way possible. And it can drive you to look beyond death, to look beyond the veil of this world and ask what deeper reality lies behind it. A story like that can shake us out of our petty discontent and drive us to pursue what is good while we still have time.

            Each of these explanations is good in its own way. They all capture a facet of what might be attractive, what might be fascinating in such a gruesome sort of tale. But none of them quite explains everything. And that, I think, is significant.

            Sometimes people have a tendency to seek a single, simple explanation for things. We are trained to think logically, or at least to aspire to think logically. We want to see a chain of reasoning that is sound. But if the logic works, that implies an inevitability to the course of events. But perhaps the fact that we got here is not inevitable.

            I don’t want to dive into the deeper mysteries of predestination. I am speaking here purely from a human level, from a perspective trapped inside of time, inside of cause and effect. Perhaps sometimes we love a certain kind of story not for any particular reason, but simply because we do. Perhaps we love it because we were exposed to it, we spent time with it, and we learned to find that things in it that made spending that time worthwhile.

            Perhaps the activity came first, the habit of watching, then came the fascination, and something like a justification for it only came later.

            Stories are not something that exist suspended in thin air. We pick them up from being around people. We are told them, or we are shown them. Perhaps I am fascinated by these stories, and return to them again and again, for the simple reason that I was raised with them. That explanation can sound so shallow and simple, but perhaps it’s more insightful about the way people actually work than all the other explanations I can offer. Habit shapes heart, practice shapes theory, action shapes reason.

            And community introduces us to habits.

            A few months ago, my parents dug out a box of my grandmother’s old books. They were mostly Stephen King, including first editions of some of the novels that made him famous. As I began to read them, I felt an instant connection with the world he painted, despite never having set foot in them. The darkness was familiar, the kind of evil, and the way people responded. It was haunting.

            This was the woman that raised my father, and he became fascinated by a certain sort of confrontation between good and evil. Caught up in that, he watched a certain sort of show, one that my mother learned to enjoy as well. Raised in that home, I too became caught up in that drama.

            There are all sorts of good reasons to watch this kind of show, but the real reason may simply be that, for those of us who do, these stories are in our blood.

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The Shape of Water and Del Toro’s Cosmic Fairy Stories

Guillermo Del Toro is one of the most well-known fans of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s work, his influence on Del Toro is fairly obvious. I’ve even seen one internet commenter refer to Del Toro’s Hellboy as the closest we’re ever going to get to a big tent Lovecraft adaptation.

Lovecraft is famous for a brand of fiction known as cosmic horror. The basic idea is that the universe is vast and uncaring. Humanity has no special place within it, and in its dark reaches there may be things so far beyond our understanding that we could only classify them as gods or monsters—and those monsters would be indifferent to us. Whatever threat they pose to humanity comes not from their desire to destroy us, not from some special, directed enmity towards mankind, but simply from the fact that we may get in the way of whatever their true goals are.

Like Lovrecraft, Del Toro’s stories do not tend to explain the overall cosmic structure of the universe, but rather to unsettle it, to disorient the viewer and make them realize how little they know about how the universe truly is. Like Lovecraft, he calls down to earth creatures that are profoundly Other, whose purposes we cannot understand, whose very forms and way of existing are strange to us. He explodes the notion that human life as we know it is all there is, or is even particularly significant in the grand scheme of things.

But unlike Lovecraft’s readers, Del Toro’s viewers rarely come away with a sense of despair, disgust, or disturbance. Rather than take cosmic strangeness and use it to put an arrogant humanity back in its proper place, Del Toro takes it and does something else: he tells a fairy story.

The way many of Del Toro’s films feel like “fairy tales for adults” has been remarked on often enough, but it doesn’t usually get placed in the context of his Lovecraftian influences. Anyone familiar enough with the folklore can tell you, though, that traditional fairy tales have a lot in common with Lovecraft—the Fair Folk, the Good People, whatever you call them, are first and foremost strange. They are unutterably inhuman in their motives and their way of life. To encounter them is profoundly dangerous and unsettling, not because they hate mankind, but simply because they care little for us one way or the other. Simply by being who they are, they might upend our very existence.

Of course, one key difference between fairy tales and Lovecraft is that fairy tales may often have a happy ending. The fairy’s magic, rather than destroying you and all you love, not to mention everything that exists, may instead rescue you from some tragedy, or grant you a gift you never thought you could have. For Lovecraft, this was inconceivable, and stories like this were nothing more than lies delusion. For Del Toro, this is par for the course.

In this breakdown of The Shape of Water, I want to examine exactly how this works.

 

The Allure of the Other

 

If Del Toro is good at anything, it’s design. The guy is meticulous in how he crafts his sets, his props, and his costumes. He creates notebooks for his movies, with sketches for every element of the design, and background notes on characters. He chooses his color palettes carefully, distinguishing one realm from another, for example, by whether it is blue-green or orange-red in overall tone.

But it’s his creatures in particular that are most alluring. Many of them start from a human base, but are over-muscled, or have a strange bone structure to the face. They are taller than mankind, and sometimes lack eyes, or have intricate designs traced into their skin. They are rarely colored in any of the usual shades of brown, but are often red, pale white, green, gold, blue, or some other strange shade.

The more monstrous are often tentacled, but rarely slimy or fungous, and often bear features that are less squiddish or octopoid than the average Lovecraft knockoff. They are frightening, but not disgusting.

Whatever form they take, Del Toro’s creatures are rarely repulsive, and often attractive.

The Shape of Water is about the romance between a human being and a Del Toro creature. The creature in this case, referred to only as “the Asset,” is an aquatic humanoid from somewhere in the Amazon. He is built like a male model, but covered in scales and fins, and is oddly segmented, with large, strange eyes. Like every other Del Toro creation, it’s a work of art.

For Elisa, the mute cleaning lady who works in the government lab where the Asset is kept, it is even more than that. Over the course of the movie, she shares eggs with it, plays music for it, and teaches it sign language. She dances for it from the other side of the glass. The bond is clearly mutual, and she is devastated when she discovers how cruelly it is being treated, and the fate that is in store for it. She rescues him, lets him live in her apartment bathtub, and their friendship blossoms into a romance—one that is eventually consummated in what ought to be a few very off-putting scenes.

Setting aside for the moment the idea of having sex with an Amazonian fish-person, the fact that Del Toro really did manage to pull off this inhuman romance is significant. This was love between a human being and something that was incredibly other.

A number of Lovecraft commentators have, along with Lovecraft himself, said that the most primal fear mankind has is the fear of the unknown. That which we don’t know is somehow supposed to be frightening, to be unsettling, to be something we would destroy rather than face. Del Toro calls bull on this, and he’s right to do so.

Humanity frequently loves the strange, the other, the unknown. We are attracted to the exotic, the new, the different. We love travelers’ tales and fantasy stories, tales of the distant future or the distant past, or of some far-off kingdom in a land not quite like our own.

The moment capitalism gave us the opportunity, we ditched homestyle fare in favor of a dozen different foreign cuisines—and now pizza, tacos, General Tso’s, and all the rest are a central part of the American diet.

One complaint about the portrayal of certain ethnicities in film is the way they are made exotic and sexualized in that context—that is, we look for the ways they are different rather than the same, because difference attracts us. And of course, most of humanity is attracted to a particular kind of strange and exotic anyways—the opposite sex.

There is something to be said here about religion, too. While it is true that we have generally portrayed gods in anthropomorphic ways, this is always qualified by their unearthly attributes—whether that is merely size, strength, and beauty, or the unsettling powers they have over aspects of reality. As often as not, we portray the gods as animal or half-animal. The very notion of worship is based around the fundamental strangeness of the divine—here is a thing different from myself, strange and other, and far more powerful than I. I must adore it.

Lovecraft, a homebody, a racist, and a bachelor for most of his life, did not often get this love of the other, but certain fantasy writers do. One of the first real fantasy books I read, the one that got me into this lifelong obsession, was Song in the Silence by Elizabeth Kerner. In it, the protagonist travels over a vast sea to a dangerous island in search of a legend—dragons. She wants to see something and befriend something that is sentient, but that is not human. The driving force of the story is that she has a powerful desire to see and know the Other.

The Shape of Water understands this, as do many other of Del Toro’s stories. Rather than recoil in fright or disgust when we encounter the other, Del Toro’s design asks us to marvel at it, to enjoy it. His characters will learn to love such creatures, to trust them, to befriend them. He takes the unsettling cosmic horror, and turns it into an appearance of the Fair Folk—strange, but also beautiful.

 

True Violence

 

There is, however, a dark side to Del Toro.

Del Toro movies aren’t shoot-‘em-ups. They’re not violent in that sense. The more free rein he’s given, the less a gun is fired. But when a gun is fired, it’s sickening.

Hollywood has given modern people the ability to see violence over and over, but not to feel it. We know it’s acting, and we know the “movie magic” will be undone when the scene is cut and the dead extras rise again and walk offstage to visit craft services. Often, we barely see what happens to bad guys that are killed onscreen—a motion is made in their direction, and they fall. It is less important to know what exactly happened to them than whether the good guy neutralized them. This is not violence, it’s playing a game where you can tag out members of the other team.

But Del Toro portrays movie violence as violence. The first violent scene in the movie comes when a man’s fingers are bit off. We see the stumps and the blood spurting from them, see his pale, shocked face, watch him collapse. This is our antagonist—he’s supposed to be intimidating. But the non-fatal and non-crippling wound is shown as profoundly painful, and his lifeblood spills out everywhere. Soon after, we find his fingers, and they are placed in a brown paper lunch bag for transportation. He later comments on this, as a condiment got on them. They are reattached, and we watch for the rest of the movie as the character waits for them either to get better or to rot and have to be removed.

Other scenes of violence are equally torturous. We get a disturbingly humorous introduction to a cattle prod, and then we see it pressed into the Asset’s flesh repeatedly a few scenes later. I say “pressed” because you can see his skin actually pushed in, not merely contacted, and you have to wonder if he is being cut by the prod as much as he is being electrocuted by it. Where another movie might show us a few zaps and leave it at that, having communicated the fact that the Asset is in pain, Del Toro lets it go on, again and again, driving home the cruelty and the degree of suffering. “You will not enjoy this or shrug this off,” he seems to say, “You will understand what it does to the creature.”

Guns in his universe are not point-and-click instruments that remove an inconvenient opposition. They leave entry and exit wounds. If these wounds are punched in a cheek, a finger can go through them, and you can drag the bleeding person along in excruciating pain. If placed elsewhere, there will be plenty of blood, and it will spread rather than merely streaming down a single channel. It will get everywhere and it will stain. And still the victim will not be dead. Guns are cruel, and Del Toro will make you aware of the fact.

Though violence is hardly supernatural, I do think this is one of the most Lovecraftian elements in Del Toro’s work. The way he uses it tells us that the universe is not a kind place. Cruel, bad things happen, and they happen suddenly and irrevocably. Once they happen, there will be time to contemplate them, to experience the pain. It will not be easy. The universe does not care for your feelings. Violence happens, and it is not good.

But violence does not get the last word in a Del Toro film, and that’s another thing that makes it a strikingly distinct than Lovecraft’s cosmic horror.

 

The Misfits of the World

 

“All us freaks have is each other.”

The quote comes from Hellboy, but it’s applicable here, too. The protagonists are a who’s-who of marginalized groups—a “differently abled” Hispanic woman, a black woman, a gay man, and, depending on how sympathetically you read him, a communist. They stand in contrast to a white, heterosexual, American male antagonist with a wife and two kids who lives in the suburbs, wears a suit, and is trying desperately to be “upwardly mobile.” The most ridiculously stereotypical “normal” American against the most ridiculously stereotypical collection of “not normal” Americans.

A certain sector of Twitter has done a lot of eye-rolling at this, and with good reason. On the face of it, it’s ham-handed and clichéd, and is definitely trying to score political points. It also requires zero sacrifice on the part of the filmmakers, challenging absolutely nothing about the world they live in. Since when is Hollywood a bastion of middle-class, heterosexual, monogamous, family-centered, anti-blaspheming, straight-laced, suburban, patriotic conservatism? The Oscars have been described as a series of lectures on sexual ethics from the people who protected Weinstein. The Shape of Water does nothing to undermine that image.

But set aside the politics for a moment. The idea of the marginalized winning instead of the mainstream is a classic trope of fairytales and folk stories, and even of the Biblical narrative. Whether it’s cobblers or seventh sons or scullery maids, fairy tales are full of the most unexpected people being the ones who save the kingdom, and often who end up ruling it, alongside whatever prince or princess that met along the way.

The kind of misfits Del Toro chooses for his heroines and heroes may often tell you exactly what decades of Hollywood the guy has been working in, but the particular kinds of misfits are less important than the fact that they are misfits. Del Toro portrays a world where horrible violence happens, where humanity’s place in the universe is not as central as we thought it was, and yet in the end the little guy is the one who wins. The underdog comes out on top. His world is the world of fairy tales.

 

God or Monster?

 

The Shape of Water revolves around the Asset.

The Asset is vulnerable. He can be captured, chained, and beaten. He bleeds. He needs food to survive, and if the chemical properties of the water he lives in are not properly maintained, he suffocates and begins to die.

The Asset is not all-wise or all-knowing. He does not know Elisa’s intentions to begin with, and he is slow in learning sign language. Music is a novelty to him, and cats are strange and frightening. At one point, Elisa tries to tell him how she feels, and he doesn’t even notice. He is busy eating his eggs, as indifferent as a housecat.

The Asset, it seems, is not a god.

But the Asset is a god. He was worshiped by the natives of the Amazon. Brought back to Elisa’s apartment, he his capable of healing wounds and restoring youth, in a limited form. He shines with a strange and otherworldly light, and it is uncertain whether this is an emotional reaction or a sign that power is flowing out of him. And finally, when killed, he is revived. When others are killed, he can revive them. He can even change the very nature of a being into something new.

Part of Lovecraft’s project is to destroy our notion of the distinction between gods and aliens, gods and monsters. Religion, science, magic—they are all the same in Lovecraft’s world. They are simply different names for our interaction with the unknown, and what we call that unknown, whether we think it is divine or demonic, is irrelevant. It is simply Other.

In the same way, Del Toro breaks down the distinction between god and monster with the Asset, and with many of his other creatures. He is not concerned with a simple binary of good-by-nature or evil-by-nature, nor is he concerned with the ultimate structure of the universe and anything that is truly, transcendently Divine. He is concerned only with the wide and wild variety of beings that may live in a universe as strange and vast as ours, each with its own limitations, but whose limitations are far different from our own.

 

A Fairy Tale Ending

 

Del Toro’s stories are, from start to finish, a fairy tale spin on Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. We encounter the Other, and learn that our place in this cold, uncaring, indifferent universe is far from secure. But instead of destroying us or driving us insane, the Other offers us a chance at redemption, at escape from tragedy or at achieving some dream we never thought was truly possible. The universe these two authors live in is metaphysically the same, but their outlook on it is not. For Del Toro, there is a chance of a happy ending.

I find this strange and interesting and human. Lovecraft insists that a world where we don’t matter in the grand scheme of things must be horrible. He yearned for order, and when he did not find it, he was disturbed. But Del Toro is an anarchist, and a liberal. He believes in individual freedom, in the ability of individuals to create their own meaning, their own dreams, and to pursue them to the end of the line.

A world that is cosmically indifferent is, by definition, not hostile to humanity. Lovecraft was so caught up in the horror, that his stories reflected a world where, in practice, the Other is hostile. Del Toro recognizes that while the Other may indeed be hostile, it is just as possible that it might find a reason to help us, or at least refrain from hurting us. And so Del Toro can have a fairy tale ending.

Ultimately I can’t agree with either perspective. I don’t believe the cosmos is essentially disordered and meaningless, or that we have no special place within it, although I would agree that we’re definitely not at the center of things. But if the cosmos really were indifferent, I think Del Toro’s take is probably the healthier and more accurate one. In a world that does not care one way or the other, why not take a chance and see if it will side with us? If anything, that desire is certainly more human.

Regardless, Del Toro’s cosmic fairy stories a great deal more fun to watch than Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is to read.

Annihilation, Buddhism, and How Stories Speak

A week or two back I went to see Annihilation with my father. It was a strange and interesting movie, and the further I watched, the stranger and more interesting it got. I came out of the theater already preparing to write a post trying to understand what it meant.

Before I could, a friend of mine popped up on Facebook chat and we had a conversation about it. I take this as one piece of evidence that talking with actual people is a really good thing, not just reading articles made for a general audience and frozen in time, incapable of response. That conversation drew my attention away from the question of what Annihilation meant, and towards the question of how we can understand what stories mean in general.

Before we can get there, though, I have to show you how I came to one possible understanding of what this story meant.

 

Buddhism and Annihilation

 

The whole idea, or at least a major one, of classical education is that teaches you to look to the classics. If work, or a piece of art, or a practice, or a set of beliefs took hold of an entire civilization and lasted for a thousand years, drawing generation after generation back to it, then there must be something in it worth learning about. My classical education, for many good reasons, has been focused on Western classics. While I wouldn’t have it otherwise, I do think it’s healthy for a well-rounded individual in the modern West to familiarize himself with Eastern classics as well.

I have found the Tao Te Ching and the tradition it represents pretty interesting, but Buddhism has been, for me, a tough nut to crack. There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is that Buddhism comes in some pretty extremely different varieties, and melds more or less well with other philosophies, ethical systems, and traditions of worship.

Here is what I think I understand, arranged in what I hope will be a helpful way, and relevant to understanding this story.

All things are impermanent. We are, for example, a temporary collection of molecules arranged in a particular fashion which will fade away. To live, we depend on a whole ecosystem of bacteria which do not share our DNA, and seem to have a mind of their own, but which cannot live without us. Our life is also sustained by what we take in, and what we put out becomes the basis for other forms of life. Nothing in this world is permanent, and the exact boundaries between one thing and another are an illusion. This is called anicca and it is one the three marks of existence.

Buddhism also holds that there is no permanent self—no soul that survives this body. Our own being, our self-consciousness, like our belief that other objects in the world are particular and separate from one another, is an illusion. We are a temporary collection of attributes which will one day cease to exist. This is called anatta, and it is another of the three marks of existence.

Despite the illusory nature of ourselves and of everything that exists, we find ourselves desiring these things, and desiring to keep them. Because they are constantly changing or being destroyed, we are filled with a particular kind of pain or frustration, a sort of suffering rooted in the fact that we can never be satisfied. This is called dukkha and is the third of the three marks of existence.

The goal of the Buddhist path is to escape dukkha and achieve liberation, known as moksha. This liberation from dukkha is achieved when you reach nirvana. Contrary to the way we sometimes use this word in the west, nirvana is not a state of ultimate bliss. It literally means “blowing out” or “quenching.” You achieve it not by reaching permanence, nor precisely by learning to love what you have when you have it, but more by ceasing to desire altogether.

When you achieve nirvana, you no longer have an attachment to this world, or to yourself. You escape the trap of reincarnation, and, like a candle, are “blown out.” You escape existence. You are annihilated.

 

Annihilation and Buddhism

 

I don’t think I understand Buddhism perfectly, and I certainly am not capable of capturing all the different varieties in a single explanation. I do think that this is a fair summary, however, of a basic form of Buddhism, at least as a Westerner might understand it.

Going into Annihilation, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It starts as a love story, as a story about soldiers and what they sacrifice to protect us. But the moment we enter the Shimmer, it becomes something else entirely.

The Shimmer is an alien force, something that came out of the sky in a meteor and spread to encompass some semi-tropical area on the Gulf coast. Its boundary shimmers, like some kaleidoscopic rainbow, or like the surface of a patch of motor oil. The inside is full of life, but life of a very strange kind.

Our first real introduction life inside the Shimmer is the discovery of a creeper along a dock leading to a boathouse. Its leaves and flowers are from a dozen different kinds of plants, but they all share the same vine. Somehow, multiple species exist on the same plant. Slightly later in the scene, our adventurers are attacked by a strange white alligator. When they kill it, they find the structure of its mouth and teeth are sharklike. Again, we find multiple species existing in a single creature.

A little later, we see a terrifying video left by one of the previous expeditions. A man’s insides were squirming, quite literally. His companions cut him open, and we see his intestines coiling like a snake. That which was supposed to be a non-sentient part of him, a mere organ, but organ on which he depended, had come alive. It had a life and motion of its own. Slightly later, we find the room where this was done. The man’s body has grown into two halves and crept up the wall. He is no longer alive in an animal sense, but he has become some combination of vines and colorful fungal growth, with an empty center.

Eventually, an explanation is given. The Shimmer scrambles signals—not just radio signals, but DNA as well. The boundaries between one species and another are impermanent. The Shimmer mixes their fundamental structure, their being, and causes them to grow and change into something else. We even see flowery shrubs that have grown to resemble the outlines of human beings.

The boundaries between one thing and another are impermanent and illusory. This is anicca.

Over the rest of the movie, each of the other members of the expedition are killed. Two are slaughtered by a bearlike lifeform that lives in the jungle, and it takes one of their dying screams into itself, becoming the sound by which it is recognized. But these deaths are less interesting in themselves than in how they lead to the deaths of the others.

First, the death of a physicist named Josie, who keeps her arms covered for most of the movie. She used to cut herself, and the scars now line the entirety of her forearms. After her companion’s scream is stolen by the bear, she makes the decision that she would rather go out on her own terms. She doesn’t want the only thing that remains of her when she dies to be a primal scream, an ugly thing, a thing of terror and despair. She wants to leave something of beauty in the world when she goes.

As she explains this to our protagonist, small shoots emerge from the cuts on her arms, buds tipping each one. As she walks away, still speaking, branches are sprouting everywhere. We know what is happening, and we can’t stop her. She turns a corner, and when we catch up, she has become one of the flowery shrubs in the shape of a human. Out of the crowd we see, we don’t even know which one she is.

The last living companion is a psychologist named Ventress who has picked the members of every previous expedition. She is dying of cancer, and that is part of why she decided to join this mission, and of why she chose to keep going once the others began to die. When our protagonist, Lena, catches up with her, she is inside a lighthouse at the center of the Shimmer, the place where the meteor fell and created this world.

The lighthouse is important. It is a place, quite literally, of enlightenment. When Lena enters, we see the sun shining through the hole where the meteor entered, and it is pointing to a black abyss where the meteor continued on its way. In the lighthouse, Lena sees a charred corpse sitting cross-legged in what, given what has gone before, immediately struck me as a Buddha-pose. There is a camera pointed at it. Lena begins to watch.

Her husband, Kane, who appeared at her house at the beginning of the movie after a long absence, is talking about the Shimmer’s effect on him. He takes a white phosphorous grenade, adopts the Buddha pose, and immolates himself. Then a second Kane appears from behind the camera, apparently dumbstruck by what he has just witnessed. It is unclear which of them, if either, was actually the real Kane. The one who died appeared to have Kane’s memories, but the one who lived acted as if he was shocked to see a second Kane.

Finally, Lena enters the black hole, the empty path of the meteor. When she descends, there is no rock at the center, no tangible object from which the Shimmer radiates. There is a platform, and a series of tunnels going in all directions. Standing on the platform is Ventress. After a brief conversation, during which Ventress expresses her belief that the Shimmer will come to encompass the entire world, and we do know it’s spreading, she vomits forth a stream of light, and then she dissolves into it. I say a stream, but it becomes a mixture of streaming light and glowing orbs.

What happens next is striking. The light gathers into something like an eye, into which Lena gazes. We star directly into it, and it looks, as my friend said, like a mandala. Then a drop of Lena’s blood enters the mandala, and suddenly it takes on a humanoid shape. The surface of the being is one vast mirror. Lena shoots it, but this has no permanent effect. It appears to chase Lena up into the lighthouse, where she confronts it.

Each move Lena makes is matched by the mirror-creature. She treats this like it’s a mere tactic of the being, and tries to run away. It’s more like a fixed law, as the thing imitates her even in her running, and ends up pressing her to the door with the same motions by which she attempts to open it. Crushed by the weight of the creature, Lena faints. She falls backwards, and the mirror-being falls with exactly the same motions, and lands just as she lands. Lena was freed from the creature’s weight not by fighting it, but by accepting the rules by which it functioned—willingly or not.

When she comes to, she engages the mirror creature in a dance. This results in her grabbing a white phosphorous grenade. She puts it in the creature’s hand and pulls the pin. Their hands joined, it at first appears that she will stay there and die with it. At the last moment, she runs. Behind her, we see the mirror being standing in place. A change ripples across it, and it becomes Lena, standing sad and alone as her twin departs.

The immolation of the being is strange. It is not consumed. It does not panic. It thoughtfully approaches some creepers on the wall and touches them, deliberately spreading the fire. Then it turns and descends the tunnel to the hollow beneath, to the emptiness. There it sits on the platform and adapts something like a Buddha pose. The fire spreads, and both the being and the lighthouse are consumed. By some strange subterranean connections, these are connected to other things in the Shimmer as well, and every unearthly thing Lena can see is also consumed. We soon learn that the Shimmer is gone entirely.

Back in the real world, a scientist in a hazmat suit is asking Lena questions. Earlier in the movie Ventress had stated that they weren’t sure whether the phenomenon was religious or alien or something else. Responding to her story, the scientist confidently declares that the thing must be, in fact, alien. He asks Lena what it wants. She says it wants nothing. But he points out that it has destroyed everything it touched. She says know, it didn’t destroy things, it changed them. But it had attacked her. No, it had only mirrored her—she had attacked it. He asks if it’s dead. That doesn’t seem to be an appropriate category.

From the moment Josie chooses to become one shrub in the Shimmer among all the rest, I began to wonder if this story was Buddhist. She escapes the horror of reality by escaping existence. Ventress also seems to reach both a literal and metaphorical enlightenment when she accepts her own annihilation. At the center of the phenomenon is nothing, because nothing truly exists. Everything is only a temporary state of things, an illusion. The key to escaping the pain, the anger, the loss that everyone in the movie feels seems to be accepting this.

The path to moksha, to escaping dukkha, is the path that leads to nirvana—to annihilation.

 

How Stories Speak

 

I laid out a far briefer version of this to my friend, who responded by saying that she didn’t think the Shimmer was supposed to be a good thing. Sure, it was beautiful, but look how sick and twisted so much of it was. There was a rot at the heart of all that life.

I understand that perspective. Looking at the raw effects of the Shimmer, it’s terrible. I could never write a story where this was a good thing. But I didn’t write this story.

Lena escaped, unlike the first two members of the expedition, and unlike seemingly every other expedition before. She did this by learning to play by the rules of the Shimmer. Josie escaped the fate of the other members, and came to a place she could accept, by letting the Shimmer do what it does, and becoming a part of it. Ventress found enlightenment at the emptiness in the center of the Shimmer’s source.

Those most at peace are those who learned to play by the Shimmer’s rules—to accept anicca, the fact that the distinctions between things are illusory and all existence is impermanent. They achieved peace by letting go of their desire to escape, to survive, to fix things—at least, for the most part.

When asked how she survived where others had not, Lena is uncertain, but says that maybe she had something to do, some reason to come back, where others did not. This reason does not appear to be defeating the Shimmer as saving the world. She could have died doing that, and besides, that attitude is adopted by the scientist interrogating her, who comes across as overly aggressing and overly simplistic in his thinking. The one who has seen it all and survived, the one we have sympathy for, rejects his perspective.

Neither does her reason seem to be to see her husband, Kane. He is alive, and she greets him, but she says, “You’re not Kane, are you?” Perhaps this is the double, and the “real” Kane is dead. But he replies, “I don’t think so. Are you Lena?” She doesn’t respond, and it doesn’t seem to matter. They embrace as if they were Kane and Lena. They do not see one another as threats, as opposed forces. And then we see the reason why.

In each of their eyes, floating in their iris, is a small, circular Shimmer.

Their experience has changed the way they perceive the world, and who they are. The terrible things they have done to each other no longer matter. They no longer care. They have accepted the impermanence of things and let go of their desire for it to be otherwise. They have accepted life as it is.

There is another concept in Buddhism, though I’m not sure it’s universal. This is the idea of the bodhisattva, a person who has achieved moksha, or come right to the edge of it, but refuses to cross into complete annihilation. Instead, they go back in order to teach the rest of the world the way to moksha. We must all escape suffering, escape our illusions. We must all embrace annihilation. That, at any rate, is my understanding of it.

It struck me in having this conversation that what I cited as evidence for my reading was telling—who seems to be happy? Who survives? The answer is, those who follow the rules. You are rewarded for proper behavior.

I think this is something of a general principle in storytelling. Stories communicate ideas not just by straight up telling you, but by showing you different kinds of behavior, and outcomes of that behavior.

This is often both far more primitive and far more complex than simply having a moral—the wrong or right things the characters do aren’t simply moral, but involve virtues like prudence, wisdom, decisiveness, or willingness to accept reality as well. The good or bad that happens to them isn’t simply the work of angels or the work of demons either—disasters may come from an enemy, but may also come from our own foolish behavior, or from the vicissitudes of life. Stories don’t just tell us how to be the good guy and how to be the bad guy, they just lay out a picture of what life is like by portraying the results different behaviors get.

This simply how stories work, and not a statement that all stories that do this have a good idea of what behaviors really do lead to what outcomes. We often notice that movies have unrealistic outcomes, and we can tell a mere daydream fantasy when it rewards someone simply for existing, and in spirt of their terrible character flaws which out to result in disaster. We also know when we’re watching propaganda, because there is no complexity in outcomes and all good things result from the good guys’ behavior and all bad things result from bad guys’ behavior. This is the grammar of storytelling, and it doesn’t ensure that the content will be correct.

This is why I look at Annihilation and see it as sort of a vindication of what seems like a pretty harsh Buddhist take on the world. Those who accept that existence is suffering find peace, and find it by either going out of existence, or by no longer being attached to it and returning to spread these truths. By the rules of the story, that is the perspective that is rewarded. That is what it encourages the viewer to accept

 

Other Readings

 

There are several other ways to read this story, and even though I think mine is pretty valid, I don’t think it’s anywhere near complete without several of these others to flesh things out.

Derek Rishmawy points out here that Annihilation does a very good job of capturing the truly Other. Often sci-fi movies portray aliens as something pretty relatable—they have the same desires we do, the same fears, the same motives for their actions. Often, they even resemble us physically. Annihilation truly captured the idea of the entirely Other, of an entity that was not humanoid in appearance, or even really personal in existence. The Shimmer is more of an ecosystem, and it is neither good nor bad in our categories.

I think this something very important for us to capture. We live in a very humanist age, when everything is measured in terms of man and what man can do. In Scripture, however, we find encounters with God that are terrifying, that defy our understanding of what the world is like. We realize in these encounters that we are not the center of the universe, not the measure of all things. Ultimate Reality will not bend to our will. Reality has to be confronted, accepted, and adapted to. Stories like Annihilation do a good job of portraying this sort of encounter.

Here Sonny Bunch looks at the movie in terms of body horror, among other things. I clearly trend towards the philosophical end of movie analysis, but this is something important as well. How do stories provoke unsettling and horrific feelings? In some cases, by doing freaky things to the human body. This teaches us something about how we think and feel as humans, and something about the world we live in when we’re doing that.

In this article, Film Crit Hulk spends time talking about the distinction made in the movie between self-destructing, which all of us do to some extent, and suicide. He grapples with issues of self-harm and suicidal thought, and with the pain of changes in life, and takes us through how the movie processes this. I’m not sure if this is in tension with my reading, or merely adds depth to it.

Here are two philosophical readings. One of them looks at the movie through a Nietzschean perspective, seeing the Shimmer as the circumstance that creates a new ubermensch, or a pair of them, and Adam and Eve that are the next step in evolution beyond Homo Sapiens as we know it. The other reads the movie in terms of existentialism and the inherent limits of science when it comes to tell us how to actually live. I commend that portion of the article in particular.

This last article struck me with an intriguing thought, an important qualification to this whole review. I interpreted this story in terms of Buddhism, but that author was quite capable of tackling some of the same issues about the nature of our temporary existence and how that squares with our desires, and did so in Western terms.

The West and the East have, to a certain extent, been very isolated from one another for a long time. Most of what Westerners know of Eastern philosophy is filtered through Westerners trying to grapple with it while using Western categories. There is certain to be misunderstanding. This also means that a Westerner is quite capable of grappling with things in what seem like Eastern terms to other Westerners, but may just be variations of Hegel or Nietzsche, or some other Western philosopher that resembles our picture of what the East is like.

So whether my reading of this movie as Buddhist is right is an entirely different question from whether the Buddhism I think I know is actually Buddhism, or whether that was what the director intended as he adapted it from the novel he drew it out of.

Finally, the strongest alternate reading I found doesn’t have a blog post to go with it, but came from my friend’s perception of the film: it’s about cancer. It begins with Lena introducing a class to cancer cells, a topic they will be exploring throughout the semester. In a conversation between Lena and Kane about whether God makes mistakes, she talks about how aging and death is a disease, and if our cells were slightly altered, we would be immortal. That, I believe it is implied, is more or less what cancer—something thriving too much in a body that can’t take it. Ventress has cancer, and the Shimmer certainly seems analogous to a cancer, and everything in it seems cancerous.

The cancer reading has a lot going for it, and certainly seems more explicit and intentional than some of the others. I don’t quite know how to square it with my own view, or whether a deeper exploration of that reading will destroy mine entirely. That’s one reason I think this is a good film—it’s saying a lot, and it will take multiple viewings to really get a grip on it.

In some ways, I think that’s what the point of a story is. It’s not just to teach you what the right path is, but to lead you back to reality and make you think about it. Stories are the breath we take, the moment of silence where the rest of life is set aside, where we are asked to look at reality as if it were something else, something separate from us. They help us to process what it means to be.

That’s why I think stories in general are valuable, and that’s why I think Annihilation in particular is one worth watching, whether or not the portrait it paints is one I ultimately believe is an accurate description of reality. It speaks to us about what life is like, and we get the chance to compare that to our own experience. We get to know life better and more deeply than we did before.

Black Panther and Living in Perspectives

I saw Black Panther about a week and a half ago, so this review is a long time coming. I was almost going to let it slide, but my brother has been inspiring in the last few days, so I finally mustered my limited after-school energy to put into words what I got out of the movie.

Especially because what I got out of it was, I think, a lesson worth learning.

Before I get into the meat, it’s worth noting that while this is certainly a good Marvel movie, and a successful Marvel movie. It’s still a Marvel movie. The action varies between meh and pretty alright, witty banter does a good job of entertaining while occasionally undercutting the gravity of the scene, we have a love interest that… exists, a dopey sidekick that becomes heroic, a really-bad bad guy and a somewhat-sympathetic bad guy, the trademark shiny Marvel visual aesthetic, the obligatory mid/post-credit scenes, and the equally obligatory sense of being “socially conscious.” It feels like you’ve been here before.

But director Ryan Coogler takes that and makes it better–he takes the obligatory tropes of the MCU and makes you forgot, from time to time, that that’s what they are.

Going into Black Panther, expected something highly politically charged. On the one side, everyone was proclaiming this a great victory for Black America, the first true Black superhero. (Conveniently forgetting about Blade, my favorite Wesley Snipes role and first unwitting introduction to Guillermo del Toro.) Also, his name was “Black Panther” it was about an African country being the best country on the planet. On the other hand were snarky but intriguing memes about Wakanda being a technologically modern monarchist nation that values its cultures and traditions so much that takes on an isolationist foreign policy and tightly controls its borders. So, whether explicitly SJW or a stealth alt-right hit, I was expecting interesting politics.

The politics was the least interesting part. Isolationism vs. colonialism vs. “nice foreign intervention” was definitely a theme, it took a back seat to the intrigue surrounding the throne and T’Chaka’s legacy. Whatever agenda the filmmakers had in that department, that didn’t seem to be where their heart was.

Their heart was in the characters.

In partisan era, in an age where we are exposed to the raw, indelicately stated views of those very different from us, we tend to reduce our understanding of the world to “that which is clearly right” and “that which is clearly wrong.” We rush to treating our neighbors like they are either morons or evil because their perspective is different from our own.

Now, right and wrong clearly exist. Sometimes they’re even fairly straightforward. But human beings are not simple creatures. They’re rarely orcs or idiots.

One question often discussed by certain friends of mine who maintain the secret, nefarious habit of writing stories is just how stories shape us. Many of us were told growing up that stories change the world, that they shape how people think. With stories, we can transform, or even save, our culture. For some of us, this became a slightly more sophisticated version of “every story has to have a moral.” In other words, tell us what to believe, and tell us why the other guys are orcs or idiots.

That was not Ryan Coogler’s goal.

Some folks in my newsfeed were outraged by the way slavery and colonialism played such a big role in the backstory and general milieu of Black Panther. They took it as Black people blaming all their problems on Whites, and demonization of all White folks. Given Black Panther’s place in the Marvel Universe, I highly doubt that’s a good reading.

I also think it’s a bad reading because Coogler did not make a story about White people. He made a story about Black people. Black Panther was an early and important Black superhero, and his coming into the MCU really is in the context of a push for more representation of Black folks both in front of and behind the camera. This was billed as an opportunity for people to speak to the mainstream whose opportunity to do so is usually limited and filtered through a business world that doesn’t quite belong to them.

Granting that context, the place of colonialism and slavery in the background is not a slap in the face to anybody. It’s a fact of African history, and a fact of Black American history. You complain about the uses that history is sometimes put to, but it’s ridiculous to complain about the fact that it’s acknowledged. That is the world these characters live in because it simply is the real world for a lot of people.

If that doesn’t bug you, and it shouldn’t, you get to see something really fantastic. Ryan Coogler and his excellent cast paint the audience a series of portraits, of characters who have radically different points of view. And then we get to live in them.

First off, take a look at T’Challa. T’Challa has inherited a kingdom from his father. He wants to rule it well, and to honor that legacy. That legacy involves long ages of Wakanda concealing itself from the world, hiding in secret while the rest of the planet descends into turmoil. T’Challa exists to protect his people.

His friend W’kabi takes a slightly different view. He guards the borders of Wakanda, and is therefore key in keeping it both safe and secret. But W’kabi sees what goes on in the outside world, and wants to see Wakand take a more active role in righting wrongs.

Enter “Killmonger,” AKA Eric Stevens—AKA N’Jadaka. Killmonger grew up in Oakland, in poverty and violence, in antagonism with the police and with the White America they seem to represent, in the world criss-crossed with scars of America’s rough racial past and its tense and uncertain present. But Killmonger is actually T’Challa’s cousin. He returns to Wakanda to claim the throne and implement something far more radical than W’kabi’s vision of increased intervention–he wants to reverse the colonization narrative, to lead an uprising and conquer that colonizing nations, to use violence liberate the oppressed everywhere, and to oppress their oppressors.

This opens a gap between T’Challa’s understanding of the world, and the way it actually is. This gap is represented by Zuri and by the spirit of T’Challa’s departed father, T’Chaka. T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu was sent as a secret agent to the United States. Seeing the plight of Black Americans at the time, he conspired with a black market arms dealer to steal Wakandan vibranium, and began to plot what sounds like a terrorist attack. When T’Chaka confronts him, begins to arrest him, and then N’Jobu attacks Zuri, forcing T’Chaka to kill him. T’Chaka and Zuri flee, leaving  behind N’Jobu’s body, as well his son–young N’Jadaka/Killmonger.

T’Chaka acted in the best interests of his country. He did his job, but it left his brother dead. Worst of all, he left behind an orphan. T’Challa has to struggle with this legacy–his father’s way of defending Wakanda came at a terrible cost, the cost of making a child fatherless, and of that child, now grown, coming back for revenge.

T’Challa and T’Chaka’s perspectives are painted very sympathetically, but so is Killmonger’s. He is responding to a very real grievance, and he is doing so in a way that he hopes will prevent others from enduring what he did. Killmonger is trying to save the world, every bit as much as all the other Marvel characters–except T’Challa.

In the background, we have been informed of the Jabari tribe, a group of Wakandans who refused to adopt the new technology and retreated into the mountains to maintain older, more traditional ways. T’Challa is almost killed, but his exiled friends find him deep in these mountains, being tended by the Jabari tribe and their leader, M’Baku. M’Baku, previously quite menacing, turns out to be friendly and helpful. After a few scenes, we begin to like the guy. He even shows up in the end in a classic here-comes-Han style unexpected rescue scene.

This odd for a group that is basically something between the Benedict Option and the Amish of the MCU. So, brief recap, the anti-technology, ultra-traditionalists are sympathetic, the conquer-the-world-to-save-it villain is sympathetic, and fabulously wealthy and advanced isolationists are sympathetic. Also, good buddy W’kabi, who strikes something of a balance–though a lopsided one–between Killmonger and T’Chaka/Zuri.

Caught between them all is T’Challa. By the end of the movie, Killmonger’s death scene leads us to sympathize with him more, not less. Yet the fact that Killmonger had to be defeated says a lot. T’Challa decidedly rejected his father’s path, but his love for both Zuri and his father remains clear. W’kabi looks like he might be descending into villainy, but there is a last-minute restraint which indicates that he has not so far gone that he is beyond redemption. M’Baku and the Jabari end up heroes.

There is obviously a clear good guy/bad guy divide in the conflict itself, but nobody (well, except the arms dealer) is completely unsympathetic. And that’s the value of what Coogler did.

One of the great virtues of storytelling, one of the most powerful things it can do to shape us, is not to highlight who the orcs and the idiots are, or to tell us exactly what to believe. It’s that it can make us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes–it can make us live life from someone else’s perspective.

I noted at the beginning that Black Panther is definitely a Marvel movie, but in a very real way it is a notch above most of the rest. Rarely in the MCU have I felt like the hero has, by the end, not just become stronger, but also wiser. I have often felt that they have become what I can only call “more socially conscious,” but I rarely come away with the impression that they are more compassionate. Here, I did.

If there’s a moral to the story of Black Panther, it’s not really about isolation or race in America or colonialism. It’s about the value of actually considering another perspective. Like T’Challa, we don’t have to come away in the end having adopted the views of our enemy, just to prove how understanding we are. But we should understand where they’re coming from, what good may be found in their view of the world, and we should acknowledge it.

Of course, that sort of charity and compassion is exactly what you would expect from a reactionary, monarchist paradise. 😉

Go see Black Panther.

The Invention of Religion in Japan

Against Christianity

 

The Bible never mentions Christianity. It does not preach Christianity, nor does it encourage us to preach Christianity. Paul did not preach Christianity, nor did any of the other apostles. During centuries when the church was strong and vibrant, she did not preach Christianity either. Christianity, like Judaism and “Yahwism,” is an invention of biblical scholars, theologians, and politicians, and one of its chief effects is to keep Christians and the church in their proper, marginal, place. The Bible speaks of Christians and of the church, but Christianity is gnostic, and the church firmly rejected gnosticism from her earliest days.

 

These are the provocative opening lines of Against Christianity, a book by pastor and theologian, Dr. Peter Leithart. (A larger chunk of the first chapter can be found here.) The thrust of the book is that the idea that Christianity is merely a system of doctrine we hold in our heads, or a set of stories that comfort us, or a private hobby we indulge in on the weekends in discreet sanctuaries out of the public eye—the sort of “Christianity” that is separate from the rest of life in more or less a modern heresy.

When I came across this slim booklet in high school, it had a profound effect on how I saw the world. I had grown up thinking of myself as a committed Christian, deeply opposed to the increasing secularization I saw in society. Then along comes a book that says the very categories by which I understand my faith are a product of secularism.

Leithart emphasized that the Bible did not teach an ideology, but preached an event and a person. It was not our beliefs which set His followers apart from the world, but a set of practices that He had instituted. The world would not be changed by a system of doctrine, but by a community. And this community was not a weekend club, but a fiercely political assembly, a rival to the various empires and coalitions and world orders proposed throughout history. The Gospel did not just overthrow the worldview of (presumably atheistic) Democrats, it challenged God-fearing, conservative, American evangelicals.

In some ways, most of my spiritual development since then has been struggling with the new categories Leithart introduced. It fit with certain things I had been taught, but often in odd ways.

For example, if by “Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship” you mean that we are defined by our loyalty to and identification with Christ, then that old evangelical commonplace was exactly what Leithart preached. But in another sense, he made that “relationship” seem far more profoundly “religious”—that is, mired in ritual and worship and the sort of devotion and obedience which allows for no competing loyalties.

Ultimately, his book asked me to consider what “Christianity” was, and whether that was even a good term for this thing I was involved in.

Against Religion

If Leithart’s Against Christianity was a paradigm shift, Jason A. Josephson-Storm’s The Invention of Religion in Japan was a far bigger one. Taken by itself, Leithart might almost seem to be saying that Christianity is just a really special religion, one that is so different from all the others that using the usual language is a bad idea. Josephson-Storm exploded the idea of “religion” entirely.

Now don’t take that the wrong way. Josephson-Storm does not disprove the existence of God, or deny that worship is meaningful, or anything like that. It’s not the thing itself that he explodes, but the concept.

“Religion” is a relatively new idea. If you said you were “religious” to a medieval, he would assume you were a monk. If you clarified that by saying you believed in God and went to church and all that business, he might shrug and say “Who doesn’t?” There was no “irreligion” as we think of it, and so specifying that you were “religious” as opposed to “irreligious” was hardly meaningful.

But what about the other “religions” Christians ran into in that era? Well, they didn’t think of them as alternative “religions,” but either placed them in the category of “heresy” or “idolatry.” We have to be careful here, because we can just read the idea “religion I think is false” into idolatry, but that isn’t how they understood it. For medievals, there was simply truth and falsehood—orthodoxy and heresy or superstition—and right worship and wrong worship. Wrong worship was idolatry, and you could accuse an Eastern Orthodox Christian of it as easily as a foreigner with foreign gods.

The closest thing medieval Christians encountered to an alternative Christianity was Islam. It was monotheistic, had a distinct founder, included divine revelation in the form of a holy book, and supported an intellectual world a scholastic would find familiar. But Islam was not regarded as a separate religion, but as a Christian heresy, or as idolatry and superstition, depending on who you asked.

All this is the haphazard explanation of an amateur. Josephson-Storm does a much better job of explaining how, as Christian nations formed in the wake of the Reformation, and as they expanded into new colonial empires, they carved out the category of “religion” as separate from “science” and “superstition” and even “magic.” Of course, The Invention of Religion in Japan does not focus on the European side of that story.

“Religion” in Japan

When Commodore Matthew Perry parked his ships off the coast of Japan in 1853, he forced Japan to begin interacting with the outside—and particularly Western—world. For about two centuries under the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan had shut itself off from the outside world, allowing only very limited interactions with China, Korea, and the Netherlands under very carefully prescribed conditions. For the next twenty years, they would spend their time drafting treaties with new foreign powers and opening themselves up to trade and modernization.

One curious feature of these treaties was that the Westerners were always demanding “the freedom to practice their religion” while in Japan. After the Meiji Restoration, when Japan began trying to craft a modern constitution in imitation of these same Westerners, they kept running into clauses about “freedom of religion.” Whatever it was, Westerners seemed to believe it was very important.

Japan had no word for “religion.” At first they thought it was just another word for Christianity, but that was clearly not the case. The foreigners kept asking the Japanese about their religions. The Japanese thought maybe the word might refer to systems of teaching, but Confucian teachings had little to do with gods or worship, and Westerners seemed focused on that. Japan certainly had gods and worship, but multiple theologies existed to explain any given god, or most popular rituals.

Suffice it to say intellectuals and diplomatic translators in Japan had a rough time trying to define religion. In the process, they may even have invented a few.

The Shinto Secular

As Japan underwent rapid modernization, they worked hard to relate modern science to their ancient beliefs about the world. One particular branch of science was called “kokugaku,” which Josephson-Storm translates “National Science.” It was partly concerned with philology and partly with classic Japanese literature. Experts in kokugaku claimed to peel away the layers of Buddhist theology that had come in from China and uncover the original Japanese gods.

As the state looked for something around which to consolidate national pride, they began to disentangle Buddhist doctrine, Buddhist language, Buddhist-style priests, and more obviously Buddhist rituals from the gods the Japanese had worshipped for centuries. This purified, original national religion became what we call “Shinto.”

“Shinto” literally means “the way of the gods.” It is not a system of doctrine, and there is no single prophet and no holy book associated with it. It is not particularly concerned with what we might think of as moral precepts. It is, first and foremost, a set of rituals for honoring the gods.

Our first impulse might be to call this a religion, but the Japanese state did not see it that way. As they developed their constitution, they determined that there would, indeed, be religious freedom. Buddhists and Christians and other sectarians would be free to keep their own beliefs, and even to worship. But the nation worshiped the gods, and any reasonable person would have no problem in participating. For the Japanese state, Shinto was not a religion. Shinto was secular. Shinto was even consistent with modern science.

Science, Religion, and Superstition

Again, Josephson-Storm has done a much better job of explaining these things than I can. I will probably spend years puzzling out the implications of what he suggests. It is truly unsettling for a mind used to modern categories.

As far as I understand at the moment, here is the idea he proposes: the modern, scientific state needed its citizen to put their faith in a system which could be used to uncover objective reality. This system was called “science.” Science was different than the purely personal and private phenomenon of “religion.” Religion might be indulged in to give life meaning, or to promote morality, but science was simply objective fact. It was the marvelous technique that gave the modern state its power. Everyone had to accept it.

Of course, there were dangerous beliefs as well, things that might have been thought to be religion or science at one time. But because they were clearly wrong, according to science, and clearly dangerous, according to the state, they had to be given some other name. These false beliefs were “superstition.” The state would allow for freedom of religion, but by and large attempted to stamp out superstition.

In other words, religion as a category was invented as part of the project of building modern nation-states. “Religion” was what you were allowed to believe in your head or do on your own time, but the secular—that which was scientifically, objectively true, and that which was backed by the state—was what all reasonable people must agree upon.

If Josephson-Storm is right, and if I have understood him, this has profound implications for what it means to be a Christian in modern society. Leithart’s point is right, but his insight has much more far-reaching implications than he suggests in Against Christianity. The division of some rituals into secular—pledging allegiance, the national anthem—and others as religious—baptism, the Lord’s Supper—is not a reflection of reality. It’s a political act. The division of some beliefs into secular—politics, science—and others as religious—theology, hermeneutics—is also more of a trick being pulled than a true division of things into their proper places.

For a Christian living in the modern world, both these books are worth reading and worth chewing on. At the very least, they ask us to take the categories we use far more seriously than we often do.

What A Town Has

The modern world loves to erase distinctions. We want access to the same burger wherever we go, to the same shopping centers, to the same gas stations. Both producers and consumers want the same TV and the same music and the same video games available in every region. A middle class black girl from the Atlanta suburbs and a first-generation Pakistani immigrant in Chicago and a white chick from rural New Hampshire should all be able to wear the same jeans.

I grew up in the same county, around the same town my entire life. It wasn’t a terribly small one, but my circles were small enough that I might as well have grown up in one of those farm towns that only has a school district because the nearest real town is too far to drive. A significant of that circle consisted of people whose families have been in the area longer than some countries have existed. The point being, I came from something of a bubble.

I stepped out of that bubble to go to college. It was strange. My town has a fairly large poor-as-dirt population, and a fairly large champagne-and-caviar population, and the middle is usually pretty fluid, and generally consists of young families. We’re also several hours from several different major cities, with ties to one being no stronger than ties to the other. We have a strong local identity, both because we’re a part of Texas that doesn’t exist in pop culture, and because we are the oldest town. That’s not to say everyone who lives here loves it, but they certainly know they live here.

In college, I was suddenly confronted with the fact that America has a large, distinct middle class, and that there really is a place called “suburbia.” Bits and pieces of TV’s portrait of that world applied to how I grew up, but I always thought the overall picture was some wildly distorted caricature that existed mostly in the heads of people from LA. Not so, apparently.

The suburban middle class grew up, more or less, in planned neighborhoods of houses that looked the same. They ate, shopped, and spent their weekends in nationwide, or at least coast-wide, chains of restaurants, shopping outlets, and movie theaters. The world where everybody, everywhere has access to the same thing was the world they grew up in.

In the midst of that world is a lot of music, a lot of literature, and not a few movies dedicated to a world they’ve never experienced. Whether that’s the rural, small town America half their grandparents or great-grandparents migrated from, or the crowded cities with immigrant neighborhoods the other half came from, it’s not something they’ve experienced. They have no connection to the old country or the old way of life. For them, that’s in the past, and all that remains is an idealized portrait of a world that no longer exists.

Part of coming to grips with the world is recognizing which of your ideals are just fantasies that will never and could never come to pass. There is true wisdom in taking the world as it actually is, and learning to live with that. For the children of the world I just described, the children of chain stores and suburban sprawl, part of growing up may be getting over the fact that they aren’t in a cozy small town or an exciting big city, and learning instead to be content with suburbia.

This is all my way of rationalizing a behavior I don’t understand, and one that fills me with deep sadness and exhaustion.

From this point of view, it’s reasonable to say that there are no longer real differences between one city and another, one town and another, or even between rural podunkville and the grand cities of the coasts. America has been homogenized. We live the same everywhere.

Part of me wants to respond to this as if it were a fight between one interpretation of the facts and another. America is only really homogenized for people of a certain class. But this isn’t really a class question. I’ve known rich and poor who love their place, and rich and poor who pay it no mind.

And that’s what it’s really about: love.

The town I attended college in is not terribly different in terms of certain raw facts than the one I grew up in. College town in a rural area, twenty to thirty thousand people. Across the county line is another town, slightly bigger, but without the claim to the same antiquity or artsiness. Nearest major cities are several hours away. Both have McDonald’s, both have Walmart, both have Redbox and Autozone.

But a town is far more than that. You can’t go to the Sterne-Hoya Soccer Complex, named after the old families that played host to Davy Crockett, and now renamed the Clint Dempsey Soccer Complex in honor of our hometown hero, just anywhere. You can’t walk the Lanana Creek Trail, past the place where Father Margil is said to have called up sacred springs to save the Caddos from a drought and keep the Mission alive a little longer. If you go to the downtown square, there’s no Old Time String Shop, and there’s no narrow, dangerous North Street heading up from there, past huge brick Baptist churches, past the library and rec center named for a leader of the black community in town. In many small towns, there is no black community.

You certainly can’t eat at Clear Springs in New York or Boston, and Mike’s BBQ doesn’t exist outside of this town. You also can’t take 225 west out of town, past the lake, and then curve around north to Henderson, passing Flower Mountain and catching the view of the hilly horizon from the road north of Cushing. You don’t get East Texas rain just anywhere, and you don’t get to see how folks around here react to a snow day. Not every place has cattle barns by the highway, or a reservoir that shares the name of a former Speaker of the House with a congressional office building in DC. He took the lectern when he left.

This is not naïve praise of Nacogdoches. Every town has things like this. Every place has things that make it unique. And these roads, trails, buildings, parks, lakes–all of that didn’t just pop up one day. It was people that built it, and people make a place what it is. This town is full of people, of families, that left their mark on it, and more are doing the same every day. There are unique things about this town because there are people here, and people make memories.

My problem with “all America is the same” isn’t that it points out some uncomfortable but true facts about how we live in the 21st century in a high-tech, highly mobile, capitalist society. It’s that it turns a blind eye to the beauty that exists in the world, to the agency people still have, to the world they make around themselves. It looks at the beautiful things all over America and shrugs.

I’m not trying to preserve an ideal of rural, small-town America here, either. New York is nothing like Boston is nothing like Chicago is nothing like LA is nothing like Portland is nothing like Houston is nothing like San Francisco. For that matter, some parts of New York are pretty different from other parts of New York. I also know that, whatever they have in common, suburban Atlanta and suburban Dallas and suburban Seattle can all produce some very different kinds of people.

We all tend to paper over our own era with imaginary worlds from some departed golden age, and criticize our times in light of that. The solution, though, is not to replace that image with one of a vast and endless wasteland of identical places. Every place is unique. That’s how the universe is wired. Neither capitalism nor technological progress are strong enough to overcome that. Our homes still have character, if you are willing to love them, willing to look, and willing to keep and to tend what you find.

Lewis, Lovecraft, and Reading Fantasy

 

            I recently stumbled across what is actually a very old article in The Imaginative Conservative, titled “Lost and Found in the Cosmos: Lovecraft, Lewis & Alien Worlds.” It’s the sort of article that was designed for me.

            When I was a pre-teen/early teen, my family switched not only churches, but theological traditions. Combined with other difficult events in my life, all the questioning and re-thinking I had to do about my faith was disconcerting. That was when I was introduced to C.S. Lewis’s apologetics material, which became my lifeline to sanity. Afterwards I explored his fiction, and even some of his academic material, and I have long thought I owed Lewis a sort of debt as my father in the faith.

            I stumbled onto Lovecraft, fittingly, at an equally insane time in my life. Lovecraft was not my father in much of anything, though he framed certain questions about the world in interesting ways. I also tend to think he’s refreshingly honest and self-aware for a materialist, but I’ve always been skeptical of materialists who take anything like an optimistic outlook on life.

            I would not call myself an expert on either of these men, though I have lived with someone that I think could claim that title on Lewis. I would say that I’m more than casually familiar with both, though, and each has done quite a lot to influence my writing in various ways. This is why I was delighted when the piece in The Imaginative Conservative highlighted a common thread between them, and in doing so, helped me to understand the world of fantasy literature a little better.

The Tools of Fantasy

 

            The article focuses on how Lewis and Lovecraft both told stories about alien life.

            For Lovecraft, alien life was fundamentally strange, disgusting, disturbing, and indifferent to the existence of mankind. There is no basis for friendship between our species and one of theirs, and often not even for communication. Our goals are different, our minds are different, the ways we see the world are different, and we are not even made of the same kind of matter. Any encounter between us drives one or the other to insanity or death.

            For Lewis, life outside our sphere may be strange, but it is not disturbing. Though we might not understand the aliens at first, soon we can grow to appreciate them, to admire their beauty and their skills, and the ways they interact with their environment. Each kind of creature is built for its own place, and though it may not thrive outside of the place, there is no fundamental opposition between one place and another, one species and another. There is a harmony at the back of all creation, and simply because one voice in the chorus may seem strange to another does not mean it does not have a place in whole.

            This is exactly the sort of thing fantasy literature is adept at highlighting. Both these men want to examine the nature of sentient life. To do this, they both created sentient life-forms in situations far different from our own, some of them taking forms that were utterly inhuman. They were then free to exercise their imagination and come to a deeper understanding of what it meant to be sentient. They also wanted to examine what it would be like to take a creature built for one place and let encounter a creature built for another. In fantasy literature, which I am using a shorthand for all speculative fiction, you are allowed to do that.

            Fantasy is a genre with the potential to examine the world in ways almost no other genre can. It can examine the structure of the cosmos, or expose its lack of structure, simply by sending you on a journey. It can explore the meaning of humanity by setting the human next to the inhuman, or by turning one into another. It can ponder the possibilities of predestination and free will by inventing prophecies or engaging in time-travel. The limitations nature imposes on the scientist and philosopher in the real world are overcome through the power of imagination in fantasy literature.

 

The Readers of Fantasy

 

            This aspect of the fantasy genre has always attracted me to it, the fact that it lies so close to the surface in both Lovecraft and C.S. Lewis is probably a major part of what attracts me to their writings. But this is not all that fantasy is, and that must be taken into account when examining the genre.

            J.R.R. Tolkien, who has the authority to speak on such topics, says that “fairy stories” are good for a number of things, and one of them is escape. We do not live in a perfect world, and at times it is good to rest from our labor, to enjoy a vacation of the mind to strange and distant place, from which we can return refreshed. If real suffering is a prison, fantasy allows us to fly the coop.

            This is a good and healthy use of fantasy, and the fact that Tolkien acknowledges it is quite honest. Some people criticize this use of fantasy, but he does not. There is a difference, he says, between the escape of the prisoner and the flight of the deserter. And there is also a word for people who are constantly worried about escape—he calls them prison guards.

            But an unhealthy kind of escapism, the kind Tolkien calls “the flight of the deserter,” does exist. I missed quite a lot of my teenage years while squirreled away in my room reading Harry Potter, or off in a corner trying to make my way through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I think a lot of fantasy readers can say the same. After all, it does take quite a lot of time to tear through five hundred page paperbacks, especially when there are a dozen to a series. The world is not built out of free time, and time spent there is not going to be time spent with family and friends.

            But it’s not just the amount of time spent that worries me. A large portion of the fantasy world, as has often been pointed out, is just repackaged Tolkien. It is not a genre known for innovation, though there are notable exceptions. The industry that nerd culture has become also expands this beyond unoriginal books and fills tabletop games, MMORPGs, card games, TV shows, and movies with the same old tropes. The worlds are familiar, the fantasy races are familiar, the MacGuffin swords and rings are familiar, and the characters and plots are old as dirt.

            There is something to be said for that. One of my favorite things about medieval literature is that authors didn’t feel the pressure to invent something new every time they set pen to paper—a reworking of old material was perfectly acceptable. Old and familiar is good for binding a community together, and allows you explore those same themes with a level of depth constant novelty just doesn’t allow. If you use it that way.

            But if fantasy is a genre with unique tools that allow it to explore the cosmos, and the nature of humanity, and other philosophical and scientific worlds in new and exciting ways, if all that is true, then this kind of thing is disappointing.

            Lewis taught me to think about hierarchy and place, the nature of being human, the nature of being male and female, and who God is in new and exciting ways.

            Lovecraft taught me to understand just what it means for man not to have a privileged place in the universe, and what the truly Other would be like if there was no harmony behind it all, and to contemplate the difference between science and magic, between religion and cosmic politics.

            Tolkien taught me to consider that great power that appears to be a gift may come at an unthinkable cost, and to realize that in a fallen world, death in its time might be a gift.

            I don’t want merely to escape. I don’t want to waste time in a world not my own simply because my own can get rough. I want to be equipped to handle that real world better. I need relaxation and refreshment, to be sure, but also need wisdom, need news eyes for the world. Fantasy has the ability to grant that, but when the genre becomes an exercise in revisiting the same old elves and dwarves, and the same old magic swords, it loses something important. It loses the magic that makes it unique.

            That’s not the fantasy I want to read.

            That’s not the kind of reader I want to be.