Tag: gnosticism

Supernatural (TV series)

My rating: ***

Season 4 episode 7: ‘It’s the great pumpkin, Sam Winchester’

Well, while I am on a roll, I thought I might as well continue with this discussion of God, angels and demons and the supernatural and so on and so forth. Perhaps a more lengthy piece on the emergence of a neo-gnostic themes in contemporary popular culture, might be something I can do at some later stage.

I have always had a bit of a take it or leave it attitude towards Supernatural. I watch it because it is fantasy/ science fiction and is reasonably inoffensive. Many people (especially women) watch it for the two main characters – the Winchester brothers – but I find them of fairly limited interest and I am not unduly concerned when I miss an episode or two.

The series takes the mystique out of the supernatural to some extent, and the two brothers have a fairly practical approach to the problems caused by the intervention of usually evil supernatural creatures into the mundane. This particular episode is set at Halloween. The most interesting aspect of the episode is the appearance of not just one – but two angels. The introduction of angels at the beginning of the current season (season 4) has actually got me almost interested in the series. Clearly the Christopher Walken The Prophecy movies have sparked off a whole trend for seriously dangerous and somewhat ambiguous angels in film and TV. No Touched by an Angel saccharine here! Misha Collins who plays the angel Castiel who rescued one of the brothers, Dean, from Hell is superb and hits just the right note of dangerous and jaded cool. Nice Columbo style trench coat as well. (I wonder whether this is an oblique reference to Peter Falk’s appearance in Wim Wender’s angel movie Wings of Desire?) I will be fascinated to see how the series writers try to solve the tricky question of God that introducing angels raises.

Unfortunately there are already signs of compromise in relation to Castiel’s character when we see him secretly expressing some ‘doubts’ to Dean about the mission he has been sent on. It is the difference, not the similarity of angels to humans which makes them interesting and it would be good to see the writers of Supernatural maintain that distance. This is something The Prophecy movies manage well.

I thought this lolcat picture of a hoard of demon cats would be entirely appropriate for this post. ‘Basement Cat’ is the lolcat name for the Devil.

Basement Cat summons his legions...

Apparitions (2008) Episode 2

My rating: ***
Spoiler alert

My post on episode one

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!

The Amber Spyglass

My rating: *
Spoiler Alert

The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, Book 3) The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

My review

This book is well written and the story really hooks you in, but I really disliked the philosophy Pullman is pushing. This philosophy seems to be a kind of Nietzschean materialist version of gnosticism (phew!). His is a universe which allows only of one interpretation, a place where the event is nothing but the intervention of chaos and the void and must be negated so the status quo can be restored in the full glory of its disciplinary order. It is a universe where the human curiosity for knowledge leads to ruin and annihilation (although the author overtly claims the opposite) and where the fluidity of identity must be replaced by the supremacy of the rational and by fixed identity.

Just to break down those abstractions a bit. The ‘event’ is the opening up of windows to other worlds by scientists – Lord Asriel and the scientists in the Cittagazze. This leads to the beginning of the breakdown of the universe and the potential annihilation of consciousness. It is scientific curiosity about what is out there and other worlds that leads to this situation.

Views on identity centre around daemons (souls). Children have daemons which can change shape until they reach puberty. After that, they become fixed which Pullman indicates several times is a good thing and a sign of maturity and wisdom. This identity also appears to maintain the social order. Once a servant always a servant. As Lyra explains in The Amber Spyglass the daemons of servants are usually dogs, indicating that these are people who need to be led and ordered around. One is not a servant due to unjust social circumstances or questionable social hierarchies but because that is what one’s nature is and one must remain as ordained. Entire armies of Tartars have wolf daemons. If one is not happy with one’s daemon – too bad – you are stuck with it. So much for social justice or working on the self as a project.

Lyra, when she hits puberty, loses her intuitive ability to read the alethiometer and must then be formed by the disciplinary institution of the (boarding) school in order to develop rational techniques to read it. It is the Modernist idea that fantasy and intuition are the province of childhood and are properly replaced by adult ‘rationality’. C. Wright Mills provides a classic example of this kind of thinking in his 1959 work The Sociological Imagination.

Dust appears to be conscious matter which works in sync with humans – it is both attracted to humans and generated by humans. It relies on humans to aggregate into a conscious form. Angels are beings who can’t quite pull it off in terms of really existing because they have no real material body. They are half existences (even if they are powerful) and envy the body of humans.

A propos this angelic nature, Will is content to ask entities such as angels whether they are stronger or weaker than humans. When the first angel he meets, Balthamos, replies he is weaker than humans, Will bluntly tells him that he has to do what he orders him to do in that case. This theme of exploiting his position as the strongest emerges again and again. If Will thinks he can exercise power over somebody or something he doesn’t hesitate to do so. The Nietzschean hero indeed.

‘God’ or ‘the Authority’ is an evil being who only wants to dominate and control Man and is frightened of the power of the latter. What we have here is an old-fashioned modernist anthropomorphic view of the universe. Humans (and the equivalents thereof) are the centre and the raison d’être of all conscious being.

On another topic, the idea of a romantic interlude between two twelve year old children resulting in the salvation of the universe both present and future is both tacky and unconvincing. Why should ‘Dust’ (aka conscious matter particles) find such an event to be the stabilising point?

There is no room for multiple interpretations of elements within Pullman’s cosmology, which makes it a very closed and small universe. At the same time it is hard to pin down what is actually going on satisfactorily and it all seems very confused and self-contradictory at the edges. It would appear that both scientific and spiritual forms of experimental knowledge are dangerous to the well-being of the entire universe and that the best we can do is conform to a rigid disciplinary status quo which will preserve our nature and protect us from the danger of annihilation. There is nothing but a gaping void beyond or outside of this status quo. Even when you are dead you are recycled to guarantee the ongoing existence of this ghastly stasis.

In conclusion, one is left with nowhere to go at the end of Pullman’s trilogy but that would appear to be the author’s aim in any case.