War in the Heavens

Where is the road of modern culture taking us? The real question is not whether there are intriguing, entertaining, and even edifying details along the route, but what is the final destination. Are we Christians asking this question as we consume contemporary cultural material? Or are we gradually losing our bearings, the moral compass spinning aimlessly? What is the dominant terrain, the pitch of the slope? I believe it is heading downward, and the occasional bumps in the road that offer a sense of upward mobility (such as the “values” in the Harry Potter books) contribute to an illusion. In order to see clearly the extent to which we have been absorbed by the illusion, we first must recognize how strong is the need in human nature for confidence in the world, and the instinctive aversion to the threat of “negativity” or “intolerance.” 

For the time being, most Christians still maintain certain limits, vague lines across which hedonist culture cannot invade our personal lives. Though the limits are constantly probed and pressured, faint alarm bells still ring within us from time to time whenever there is too much violation. We overcome our fear of being “negative” or “intolerant” and rise to the defense. However, our response is often wavering, and rarely is it consistent.

It can be difficult for us to see this at first, and discernment is further complicated by the presence in contemporary neo-pagan fantasy of positive secondary values, some of which appear to reinforce good as understood by the Christian Faith. However, whatever survives of authentic morality in them is often no more than a residue of what it once was. Full of internal contradictions, the few positive values are dominated by subjectivity and impulse. Those Christians who emphasize these values, while ignoring the repeated violation of absolute principles, run the risk of straining out gnats and swallowing camels. As Mona Mikaël pithily expressed it in her monumental study of symbolism in the Harry Potter series, they “hold fiercely to the drop of honey and ignore the septic tank in which it dilutes beyond recognition.” [1] One might extend the metaphor to ask whether it would be acceptable if the proportions were 50/50. Or 90/10? Perhaps 99/1? At what point does the presence of infection become “harmless”?

Imagine two mothers, or two fathers, having a discussion about what kind of cultural material is best to give their children: One parent is cautious about the way most contemporary fantasy mixes good and evil (and sometimes inverts them). The other parent has grown accustomed to the septic environment and is more trusting of the surrounding culture. When he tastes the mixture his tongue reassures him that it is honey.

“It is sweet,” he declares. “It is good. The virus, the bacteria, the toxin you speak of is a figment of your imagination, the product of your irrational fears about contamination!”

“Do not be deceived by the taste,” says the cautious parent. “It is better for people not to consume such mixtures.”

The trusting parent says with a certain tension: “So you want to quarantine your children, lock them away in an antiseptic environment!”

“Not at all,” replies the other. “Regardless of the exact ratio of healthy and unhealthy materials, is it not obvious that consuming any virus, toxin, or virulent bacteria is detrimental to health? I simply do not want to feed this particular honey to my children.”

“But by not giving them this honey you are harming your children.”

“Explain to me, precisely, how I am harming my children by abstaining from giving them infected food.”

“It is not infected! Besides, you’re going to isolate your children, make them strangers in their own culture. Do you want them to be weird?”

“But I just saw you dip your finger into a septic tank and lick it. That seems a little weird to me.”

“It is not a septic tank. It is a very large reservoir containing, admittedly, some unpleasant things, but also many good things. We need to focus on the good. You really have a problem with negativity, you know. It’s making you intolerant.”

“Yes, I am intolerant.”

A shocked pause. “Pardon me?”

“I’m intolerant of anything that will make my children sick.”

“Are you accusing me of making my children sick?!”

“I respect your right to make your own decision. I have no respect for the contents of the septic tank.”

“What?”

“I was making a distinction.”

And so it goes—the seemingly irresolvable, supposedly rational dialogues of the Western world as it loses its bearings, its sense of the actual moral order in the universe. The loss of that sense is due in no small part to the loss of our understanding of the power of stories as conveyers of truth or falsehood, the power of symbols over consciousness (and hence conscience), and beneath it our loss of the meaning of language itself.

To what degree have our judgments been influenced by the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times? Are we evangelizing, or are we being anti-evangelized? Are we succumbing to the age-old problem of assimilation? To what degree have we mistaken the assimilation by paganism for legitimate inculturation, that is, the adaptation of Christian culture to the “language” of the surrounding non-Christian culture? What, precisely, is a legitimate adaptation of non-Christian culture? Can we really “baptize” the symbols and activities of the realm of darkness without negative effects? These are particularly urgent questions, because we are no longer the early Christians cleansing a classical pagan temple and consecrating it as a church. We are “Late Western Man,” to use C. S. Lewis’s term, and we are in the midst of a social revolution that is assaulting the truly sacred and degrading it at every turn.

And what will another three generations bring into play if our moral sense continues to weaken? Dr. Russell Kirk, in a lecture on the moral imagination, warned that a people who reject the right order of the soul and the true good of society will in the end inherit “fire and slaughter.” When culture is deprived of authentic moral vision, he says, the rise of the “diabolic imagination” is the inevitable result. What begins as rootless idealism soon passes into the totalitarian sphere of “narcotic illusions” that end in “diabolic regimes.” [2]

 

Narcotic illusions

For more than 35 years of family life, my wife and I have not had television in our home, preferring instead to focus on reading and music and other forms of cultural life. Our children grew up to be imaginative, independent thinkers, capable of creating their own rich cultural life in their families. Even now, in late middle-age, my wife and I rarely see films in theaters (once every few years), and watch very few videos at home. From time to time, whenever I am exposed to the new media culture, I am always startled by the changes that have occurred since my last experience.

Recently we went to a movie theater complex with some friends, in order to see a film about which we had read good reviews. As we sat waiting for it in the darkened theater, we were subjected to four previews of forthcoming films, the sound system blasting us and the visual images pummeling us in rapid-paced, aggressive style. All four of the previews displayed supernatural themes in various warped manifestations, each combining horror, terror, and paranormal experiences. Sex, combined with violence and supernatural powers, were essential components in each story.

The final preview was the worst. In it, a group of people were under siege in a roadside diner (named Paradise Falls) by God’s angels, because, according to the plot line, God had run out of patience with mankind and had decided to destroy us all. The most sinister of the angels was introduced as “the archangel Gabriel.” He was opposed by the archangel “Michael” who had come down to earth to protect a young waitress from Gabriel (and from God). She was pregnant with a child destined to be a new Christ who would save mankind. Gabriel and his assistant angels, the “legion” of the title, were so monstrous and hate-filled their behavior resembled that of demons. The corruption of symbols was blatant. The messages: God is not omnipotent and is a mixture of good and evil; even the greatest of angels (Michael being the highest) can still rebel; the Kingdom of heaven is divided; those who obey God are evil; those who resist God are good. [3]

After this noxious diet of previews, the main feature began and it too was full of shocking surprises, horror combined with human violence. After a few minutes we got up and left. Hoping not to lose our ticket money, we wandered around the complex of 24 theaters, searching for an alternative. We slipped into several and read the posters for all and were surprised to learn that not a single film was without some objectionable content. Of course, we knew that the state of the popular culture is poor, at times sinking to low points, but always rising again, we had presumed. If I recall correctly, the 1980’s were a cinematic cesspool, though somewhat better in the 1990’s. Perhaps we stumbled into the “temple” of cinema at a bad time of year. Nevertheless, it was a revelation to learn the extent of the corruption, and we wondered what were the odds that this was purely chance. It sparked a good discussion on the long ride home (we live some hours drive away from the closest movie theater), and among several questions that arose was whether culture merely reflects the preoccupations of the society from which it emerges, or whether culture shapes and directs that society. We concluded that it was both.

I remembered a film I had seen in 1996, titled Dragonheart. [4] This is the tale of a tenth-century kingdom ruled by a tyrant. When the king is killed in a peasant uprising, his son inherits the crown but is wounded when his heart is pierced by a spear; he is beyond all hope of recovery. His mother the queen takes him into an underground cave that is the lair of a dragon. She kneels before the dragon and calls him “Lord,” and begs him to save the prince’s life. The dragon removes half of his own heart and inserts it into the gasping wound in the prince’s chest, then heals the wound with a touch of his claw.

The queen says to her son, “He [the dragon] will save you.” And to the dragon she says, “He [the prince] will grow in your grace.” The prince recovers and grows to manhood, the dragon’s heart beating within him. The prince becomes totally evil, a tyrant like his father, and the viewer is led to believe that, in this detail at least, traditional symbolism is at work—the heart of a dragon will make a man into a dragon. But this is not so, for later we learn that the prince’s own evil nature has overshadowed the dragon’s good heart. When the dragon reappears in the story and becomes the central character, we are shown, step by step, that he is not the terrifying monster we think dragons are. He dabbles in the role the superstitious peasants have assigned to him (the traditional concept of dragon), but he never really does any harm, except to dragon-slayers, and then only when they attack him without provocation. Through his growing friendship with a reformed dragon-slayer, we gradually come to see the dragon’s true character. He is wise, noble, ethical, and witty. He merely plays upon the irrational fears of the humans regarding dragons because he knows that they are not yet ready to understand the higher wisdom, a vision known only to dragons and their enlightened human initiates.

The plot unfolds with the dragon more and more playing the role of protector and advocate of the people’s rights, rising up against the evil tyrant (the prince with half a dragon’s heart in him). Along the way, traditional Christian symbols and allegiances are overturned, scripture passages are mocked, and characters once-Christian find a more successful path to defend the good of “The People.” For example, a priest throws away his cross and takes up a bow and arrow and goes to war.

Then comes a crucial scene in which the priest shoots an arrow into the prince’s heart. But the prince does not fall; he pulls the arrow from his heart and smiles. Neither Christian myth nor Christian might can stop this kind of evil. Here we begin to understand the intention of the film-maker: The prince cannot die because a dragon’s heart beats within him, even though he, not the dragon, has corrupted the heart. The evil prince will die only when the dragon dies (compare this with the co-dependency of Voldemort and Harry, especially in volume seven of the Potter series). Knowing this, the dragon willingly sacrifices his own life in order to end the reign of evil. At this point we see the real purpose of the film—the presentation of the dragon as a Christ-figure.

Shortly before this decisive climax, the dragon describes in mystical tones his vision of the history of the universe: “Long ago, when man was young and the dragon already old, the wisest of our race took pity on man. He gathered together all the dragons, who vowed to watch over man always. And at the moment of his death, the night became alive with those stars [the dragon points to the constellation Draco], and thus was born the dragons’ heaven.” He explains that he had shared his heart with the dying young prince in order to “reunite man and dragon and to ensure my place among my ancient brothers of the sky.”

In the final moments of the film, after the dragon’s death, he is assumed into the heavens amidst heart-throbbing music and star bursts, and becomes part of the constellation Draco. The crowd of humans watch this cosmic spectacle, their faces filled with religious fervor. A voice-over narrator says that in the years following “Draco’s sacrifice” a time of justice and brotherhood came upon the world, “golden years warmed by an unworldly light. And when things were most difficult, Draco’s star shone more brightly for all of us who knew where to look.”

Yes, the gnosis that liberates, the higher knowledge of the initiates, those who know where to look. Few members of an audience would know that, according to the lore of witchcraft and Satanism, the constellation Draco is the original home of Satan and is reverenced in their rituals. Here is a warning about where conscious or subconscious gnosticism can lead. What begins as one’s insistence on the right to decide the meaning of good and evil leads inevitably to spiritual blindness. Step by step, we are led from the wholly good. Then, as the will is progressively weakened and the mind darkened, we suffer more serious damage to the foundation itself and arrive, finally, if we should lose all reason, at some manifestation of the diabolical.

When this process is promulgated with all the genius of modern cinematic technology, packaged in the trappings of art and mysticism, our peril increases exponentially. How long does it take for us to arrive at the mental and spiritual condition where we become indifferent to the words of Jesus: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10: 17-20); and the vision of St. John in Revelation: “And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Rev 12: 7-9); and St. Peter’s admonition: “Stay sober and alert, for your adversary the devil is prowling about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5: 8-9); and Christ’s most sobering warning to the apostles at the Last Supper: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has begged permission to sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). How long until we find ourselves saying without any uneasiness or flicker of doubt, “Well, that’s our Christian myth. The world is full of myths, and each has its truth, and who can know which is the better?”

St. Paul prophetically warned the Christians of his times that in the future the Church would face many trials, and that chief among these would be not only persecutions originating outside the body of believers, but corruption of the faith from within:

 

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound doctrine, but, having itching ears and following their own desires, they will surround themselves with teachers to suit their own likings. They will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. (2 Timothy 4: 3-4)

 

Indeed, the world has again become infested with myths, as it was during the most corrupt era of the Roman empire. The word myth derives from the Greek mythos, a traditional story that embodies a people’s view of the world and the cosmos. It can have the secondary meaning of a popular belief that has grown up around a person or thing. A third meaning is any unfounded or false notion. In modern parlance these distinct meanings can blend into one sense. In its primary meaning, however, the distinction made by C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton is that while Christianity is a myth because it fulfills many traditional elements of embodying the cosmic drama, it is at the same time a “true myth” because the events of salvation history recorded in Scripture actually happened. Yet in our era, due to our over-saturation in revived and new myths received from a steady diet of film and television drama, with their onslaught of imagery and symbols, our vision can blur and then we can succumb to the sense that all myths are more or less of equal value. Their contradictions are resolved in our minds by the belief that they each contain some truth pointing to an unseen higher truth.

As the consciousness of late Western man, the child of Christendom, slides back into paganism, it is inevitable that his world will make sense to him only in this way. What his ancestors once believed as fact is now comprehensible to him only as one of many symbol-systems—the best system, perhaps, says the gnosticized Christian, but one that should not exclude other systems. In this way, with the key of the “higher” gnosis, fueled by his emotional “experiences” and his intuitions about the matter, he considers the “Christian myth” as imaginative material that may be revised as long as the revisions serve his “higher truth.”

 

Star Wars or War in the Heavens?

What stands in the path of this rewriting of symbols about the real struggle in the universe? Only the Church, only its adamant, timeless insistence on the absolute authority of God, and on objective moral absolutes given to mankind by God. Which brings to mind another film, Revenge of the Sith, the 2005 episode III of the Star Wars series.

One of this film’s positive elements is its chilling portrayal of the psychological seduction of Anakin Skywalker (the young Darth Vader) into the world of evil, “the dark side of the Force.” The Star Wars universe is involved in an epic struggle between the latter and the “light side of the Force,” a cosmology that has strongly affected the modern imagination. Notice, for example, how the expression “The Force be with you!” has entered common parlance in Western culture. It is used as a half-humorous greeting, of course, yet it would not continue to be used so frequently if it were not in some way manifesting internal questions and unacknowledged doubts and fears in the heart of modern man. Whether or not he can articulate it, he ponders what good and evil really are, and what is their relationship with each other. More often than not, he intuitively “sees” good and evil as co-equal and balanced in a great tension-equilibrium in creation, little knowing that this is a doctrine often found in various New Age movements and the occult. It surfaces in various other forms, such as the now familiar symbol of yin-yang, behind which is the ancient Chinese belief in the interconnectedness and interdependence of opposing forces in nature and in man. It surfaces in philosophy in mutated, disguised forms such as Hegelian dialectic, and its offspring “dialectic materialism” (Marxism). It surfaces in culture in a thousand manifestations, for example, the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula LeGuin, which, like Potter-world, is about “good” and “evil” sorcerers who struggle to maintain the “Great Equilibrium.”

In a talk he gave in 1985, George Lukas said that he had consciously based his screenplay of the first film in the Star Wars series on the ideas of the mythologist Joseph Campbell. Influenced by Vedanta Hinduism and the Gnostic theories of Carl Jung, Campbell once wrote: “All religions are merely misunderstood mythologies.” For example, in his book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion, Campbell states that the concepts of God as Creator and Person, the resurrection of the body, Heaven, the Virgin Birth, and other Christian doctrines are “evident nonsense.” They are, he asserts, no more than projections of the human mind; they are metaphors and dreamlike “mythological forms” not based in objective historical reality. Campbell’s favorite theme is also to be found in his other books, such as The Masks of God and The Hero With a Thousand Faces

If religion is only about imaginary “mythological forms,” then it naturally follows that novelists and film-makers are free to make of religious truths whatever they like. They can redefine the real war in the heavens according to the terms established by fictional war among the stars. A case in point is a scene in Star Wars’ Episode Three, a dialogue between Anakin and his former teacher Obi-Wan Kenobe that takes place at the climax of the film. Obi-wan is a Jedi Master, defender of the good, embodiment of the “light side of the Force.” Anakin-Darth has secretly become a Sith, an embodiment of “the dark side of the Force.” In their final debate Obi-Wan-the-good shouts, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!”

At a time when the Church is seeking at every turn to stem the rising tide of evil by defending moral absolutes, one of the great cultural icons of Goodness, Truth, and Justice says, in effect, that only the most evil people speak of absolutes. We could dismiss this as a “minor” flaw in a film that has some points to make about courage and sacrifice. We could say, “It’s only culture.” We could say, “It’s just a movie.” We could say that George Lucas has given us no more than a bit of rollicking fun with a scrambled cosmology full of internal contradictions, but, oh well, that’s the way it goes with most things we watch, so let’s focus on the good in these films. The fact is, millions of young people leave the theaters pumped with adrenaline and impregnated with the thought (buried somewhere in their minds) that people who speak of absolutes should be regarded with suspicion and are probably up to no good. How can they think otherwise? Correction: How can they feel otherwise? Most people in this generation are unformed in their concepts of the moral order of the universe and have little or no objective measurement with which to assess such declarations. How many in the audience are capable of replying to our hero Obi-Wan, “No, it is the Sith who deny the existence of absolutes!” [5]

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[1] Mikaël, Mona, Harry Potter et L’Ordre des Ténèbres, Editions Saint-Remi, France, 2007; abridged edition 2008; Editio Sanctus Martinus, Combermere, Canada, 2009. The abridged edition republished 2009, and original unabridged republished by Editio Sanctus Martinus, autumn 2009. These editions are currently available in French language only, with translation into English in progress.

[2] Russell Kirk, “The Perversity of Recent Fiction: Reflections on the Moral Imagination,” in Reclaiming a Patrimony, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1982.

[3] At this writing Legion is scheduled to be released in January, 2010.

[4] This film is examined in greater detail in my book, A Landscape With Dragons: the Battle for Your Child’s Mind, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1998.

[5] Revenge of the Sith earned over $848 million worldwide. It was the highest grossing film of 2005 in the U. S. A. and the second-highest grossing film of 2005, worldwide, behind Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.