Thursday, March 04, 2010

Film and Theology: Our story and God's story -- through the lens of Hellboy

I have found film to be a fertile ground for theological reflection, particularly with youth and even in congregational use. I decided then to use films during Lent to talk about our story, that is, the narratives most of our culture/society use to bring meaning to our lives, defined mainly by film, although you could also make the case for television, books and music, and how these stories resonate with God's story (or run counter to God's story as the case sometimes might be).

On our first gathering, in the midst of Vespers, I used the Tim Burton film, Big Fish. There the theme of story that brings about meaning is so prevalent, the film begs to be used. In such a traditional father-son conflict, the son defines himself over and against the tales his father tells, until his father, lying on his death bed, invites the son into the story. This invitation, I said, is much the same invitation we have in Lent, to enter into God's story and see our story in light of what God is doing in the world. The bible is after all, primarily a story that spans time and space, encapsulating the beginning and end of creation, giving us the truth about the One who is present and active throughout it all, bringing it to a glorious perfection.

Last night I wrestled with what to do. How do we engage the story of creation without dealing with the fallen and broken nature of our world and our lives? I decided to use the movie Hellboy. Originally a comic book by Mike Mignola, Hellboy is somewhere at the heart of the question. The opening voiceover asks, "What makes a man a man? Is it his beginning?" Are we fallen creatures bound to remain that way forever? Are we who are born into sin, unable to fear, love and trust God, destined to be so?

Well, no, the film makes the claim. Caught between two conflicting narratives, two conflicting identities, Hellboy hears the power of the one, granting freedom from the old identity. Begging him to open the gate for the demonic power, one villain yells, "You are the Right Hand of Doom!" Literally we come to understand that his massive right hand is itself the key to unlock the gate. In the next moment Hellboy's associate, a young agent, grasps for a set of rosary beads, yells out, "Remember who you are!" and flings the beads toward him. The cross lands in his palm, burning a mark into his palm, so reminiscent of the cross marked on our brows in baptism. There we are marked with identity that comes from outside of us. In the film, it is said that we have the power to choose between good and evil. If we understand this outside of the identity granted to us as children of God, this is patently false. If however, we understand that in the power of the gospel that we, fallen and rebellious creatures, are granted the identity of children of God, and therefore God gives us the power to choose then absolutely yes! The quote from John1:12 rings here, "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God."

Given the strength of that message, I decided ultimately to use the film, although I was aware that some of the scenes were violent in nature. I wrestled with this because I did not know how it would be received. I did let the folks in attendance know that there would be violent scenes, although in my appraisal it was cartoonish, comic-style violence. I told people if they felt they needed to they should avert their eyes. In the end, one person left and she and I talked about it. I apologized that my choice made her feel like she needed to leave. But the others remained and it seemed to be that it was helpful to prime the theological pumps to wrestle with evil in our worlds, in fact in our very selves.

In some ways, comic-book violence, with the battles between good and evil are a safe place to explore the realities of a broken world. Demons and Nazis and warfare might seem like they do not belong in the church, but they are a reality of the world and we should name them for what they are, enemies of God. As I reflected upon the violent aspects of Hellboy, I thought about the role of Grimm's Fairy Tales, not the sanitized Disney versions mind you, but the original tales. They were often gruesome, with children being eaten by wolves, or evil vain queens placing younger, more beautiful people under spells. These grotesque tales allowed parents and others to tell of the dangers of the world without causing children to withdraw entirely. They were not meant as ethical tales, but more often than not to describe a reality. There is evil in the world, and we best be cautious.

In the light of a culture and society, who believe that people are mostly good even with their flaws, we lose the ability to name evil as evil. We fail in our wrestling with our very selves to see the power of sin at work in our members. We become deaf to the power that the gospel unleashes to hear that we are free from the oppression to sin, that we are given the power to choose what God desires, even if we still fall short. We need these stories of evil, mainly to tell lay bare the illusions of the world, that is mostly well; that it just might need a little tweaking.

Then we may realize with Paul in Romans 7, "Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?" Having named the evil for what it is, even that evil within us, we may then acclaim the following verse, " Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! " (Rom. 7:25)