My rating: ***
Episode 2 of Apparitions is perhaps a little less convincing than the first one but what is interesting about it is how it manages to foreground contemporary cultural clichés about good and evil. There are some fairly absurd plot twists concerning the Chief Exorcist of Rome who is the main character, Father Jacob’s mentor. It transpires that the former after being interned as a Jew in a concentration camp during World War II is so horrified by the experience that he converts to Christianity and then converts to Satanism (!) How the Church bureaucracy which has employed him in a fairly important position has completely failed to notice this is a bit of a mystery.
Gnostic ideas of a Manichean struggle between two equivalent and equally dubious powers – God and Satan are wheeled out in the series with humans somehow stuck in the middle of the struggle for power. In recent years, a whole subgenre using this kind of Gnostic mythology and other medieval heretical and Cabbalistic teachings and demonologies has emerged. Examples include The Prophecy trilogy (with Christopher Walken), the Australian film Gabriel and also Constantine with Tilda Swinton and Keanu Reaves. We also see elements of these ideas in the TV series Supernatural and Dr. Who writer and producer Russell T. Davies’ film The Second Coming. I might also mention a slightly earlier contribution to the genre – the short-lived 1998 TV series Brimstone.
Father Jacob is incited to ‘convert’ to faith in Satan, which postures as a kind of dark obverse to faith in God. The God who emerges in both Apparitions and the films I have listed above is a fickle and remote dictator who seems to who have created the world purely for his own amusement and doesn’t hesitate to involve his servants in violence to promote his own cause.
What I found most interesting about episode 2 of Apparitions, however, was the notion put forward by the demon that rather than just being powerful predators, demons are in fact victims of a tyrannical God who has thrown them into hell to be tortured in much the same way as Nazis tortured the Jews in concentration camps. The notion of demons as victims is certainly an indication of current thinking on a number of fronts, in particular in terms of responsibility for action.
It is unclear whether the demon in the first two episodes is the Devil himself or just one of his minions, but he runs this line as a way of tempting Father Jacob and undermining his ‘faith’. How can one trust a God who tortures his own creatures in this way? Much is made of how clever and subtle the Devil is and how clever and dangerous his arguments are but what we get instead in this episode are the hoary old notions that if God is good why is there evil in the world? A God who allows evil and sends people and demons to hell is simply not viable and so on and so forth.
Some elementary logic here is helpful. If we believe people are free to choose their own fates and that God respects that freedom, then they have to be free to choose to reject God and to go to hell in a handbasket of their own accord. (I might also mention in passing the odd notion of heaven and hell as geographical spaces in these world views. Formal theological definitions of hell involve simply the absence of God.) There are plenty of science fiction and literary depictions of the unfreedoms involved in compulsory utopias where all are ‘happy’, which can be used to counter these kind of arguments.
People live in a social environment and no element in that system is insulated from the rest of the system. ‘Innocent victims’ (and others less innocent) are perhaps not being ‘punished’ by a heartless God, but are dealing with the short and long term consequences of the actions of others within a very complex and interconnected social and physical environment. Addressing problems at this level might be more helpful, rather than blaming some straw man figure of a remote and temperamental God, or alternately blaming the existence of a socio-cultural belief in God for all our ills (Richard Dawkins). Economic crisis and rampant corporate greed anyone?
There are some weak arguments from Father Jacob along the lines that the demons made their choice and have to live with it, but it all boils down ultimately to pure assertion that God is good and the Devil is evil so there!