Richard Beck at Experimental Theology is in the midst of an interesting series on monsters:
“Last fall I taught a class at my church entitled Monsters: The Theology of Frankenstein, Werewolves, Vampires, and Zombies. It was great fun and very successful.”
And now he’s blogging some of it.
Part I: Intro. Beck sets the stage by asking, since the Latin monstrum means ‘omen or ‘warning,’ what are monsters warning us about?
Part II: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde : The monster within, the notion of a ‘duplex self’ with competing impulses, living day to day with our transgressive urges. He talks about monsters as liminal creatures, located in between “civilization and the abyss.” Should we approach these monsters? Chase them away? Do we have to become monsters in order to truly understand them? Beck asks:
“Do you put your soul at hazard if you want to understand monsters? Do we really want to understand why someone commits a heinous crime? Because if we had an answer (e.g., they were abused, broken family, brain disorder) are we at risk of explaining the evil away?”
(Coincidentally, the Henning Mankell crime novel I’m reading now, Firewall, poses many of these same questions.)
Part III: Monsters and Heroes: This post is about projection, how we create monsters “by projecting aspects of the self onto others. A monster is created to expel the monster within.” It’s a blind process, one we’re unaware of: “‘[T]he monster of the mind is always the familiar self disguised as the alien other.'” Not only is the other the monster, but the self then becomes the hero (I’m good and you’re bad). Beck ends by saying that “a healthy church embraces itself as monster. ”
Part IV: The Greatest Monster Story Ever Told: All about scapegoating, reptiles and things with horns. In monster stories, there’s often a ‘moral reversal’ where “the victimizer (the beast) is revealed to be the victim.”
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. –Friedrich Nietzsche”
Part V: Illicit Hybrids & The Fate of the Church Looks at transgressive hybrids such as Medusa, Spiderman, the X-Men, and those that include bug or reptile features appended to humans. Conclusion?: “A purity-based faith will create more monsters.”
Part VI: Monsters, Horror and Death: The proliferation of monster, horror and zombie movies, and the ‘the pornography of death’ in a modern culture like American that “is typified by systematic cultural death repression.”
Part VII: Extending Hospitality to Monsters, on monsters as the “demonization of the ‘Other'” and of the need to “‘de-alienate’ the alien,” to “let the other be the other…acknowledging difference between self and other without separating them so schismatically that no relation at all is possible.”
I’m reminded, reading Beck’s pieces, of an essay I read a while ago, by Claire Blackstock, about the reality TV show ‘America’s Next Top Model.’ She talks about Rene Girard’s concept of the ‘monstrous double.’ Girard’s idea is that “the monster takes the place of all that everyone wants to absorb and destroy at the same time, that is, the rival.” During times of crisis, “each one is a rival of everyone else, each one is also the double of everyone else” (this formulation is found on p. 18 of Mimetic Theory and Hermeneutics by Paolo Diego Bubbio, in the May 2005 Colloquy) In other words, we are mirrors of each other without recognising it, so that though I think I am me, I am really reflecting you, and vice versa. Doubles usually have many similarities to each other but they believe they are completely different.
Which brings us back to reality TV. Blackstock identifies reality TV itself as just such a monstrous double, with its programmes so similar to each other that they blur into one, a “muddied mess” that “has yet to define one victim. It continues in its cycle of small, artificial sacrifices.”
Then she says [paragraph break mine]:
“I think our monster depends on the unrequited search for the final victim. Only if we consider ourselves, the viewers, as faces blurred among faces of the monstrous double can we understand the impulse toward ritualistic and violent sacrifice so obviously a part of a program like ANTM. We must keep the monster alive and fed because it can never die; we can never draw away back into difference because isolation does not work like that; we can only look for but never identify a true victim because a true victim would explode the façade we’ve created. We have mystified ourselves into thinking that we are separate, when in actuality we depend for coherence on this monstrous and continued doubling. …
“By keeping ourselves in a perpetual state of crisis, always seeking but never finding the sacrificial victim, we create and order a cosmos that finds structure in the idea that doom and destruction are always just around the corner and just barely held at bay. We have found a kind of stability in our instability …. and it is only through the grace and mercy of our god that we live another day.
“The god we worship, whom we appease with our wretched and rotten sacrifices of living flesh through false TV images, is this violently tendered interim peace we covet, closing our eyes to the blur of doubles that might reveal us as intimately connected to those who threaten us. It is this ritual and sacrificial structure — a nation seeking stability through the perpetuation of the sacrificial crisis — that reveals our secular TV culture as highly religious.”