The Theology of Horror Games – The Biblical Approach to Horror (Part 3)

 

Evil is real. If there’s one part of Christianity that truly, utterly, stands out from many of the other faiths, that definitive three words statement sums up a great deal of the whole Christian faith. Our response to that reality inspires or denies the existence or nonexistence of the Creator, whether we believe that evil exists as an ontological status of being or merely non-preferential actions.

 

And yet, on the other hand, we could say that evil isn’t real. The Bible does not show us an evil that exists as a thing in itself, but a process that emerged within the creative order. The Law of Entropy set into human affairs from the moment of humanity’s first transgression, and we haven’t recovered since. Saint Augustine of Hippo first formulated the idea of evil as the privation (or absence, more colloquially) of good; this quote from The Enchridion will make that rather obvious:

And in the universe, even that which is called evil, when it is regulated and put in its own place, only enhances our admiration of the good; for we enjoy and value the good more when we compare it with the evil. For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil. For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present—namely, the diseases and wounds—go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance,—the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils—that is, privations of the good which we call health—are accidents. Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in the healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.

neoplatinismus

Loving that Neoplatonism!

Augustine’s perfectly logical thought processes mean that most Christians also consider evil less as a thing in itself and more the absence of something. This derives as much from Augustine’s rejection of Manichaeism as it does his need to develop a theology explaining evil in both himself and others. The Christian cannot deny God’s goodness – the whole thing rests on that essential, undeniable fact – and evil cannot come from God. Thus, it does not exist as a thing in itself. Little evil and big evil alike form from the imperfections of things, not as essential characteristics.

We must ask, then: what about horror movies? Do they not contain evil things, the very notion of evils imprinted into our collective modern consciousness? Obviously, much of the original symbolism of monster like vampires fade over time; they emerged when people still wondered at the world and saw mysteries, good and evil, beyond their comprehension. Our scientific mindset turns them into a laugh and a joke, a vehicle for passing thrills and jokes. Yet, we continue to resonate with horror stories, the fear of the unknown, and the fear of forces beyond our reckoning that seek our harm. Even with the Creator of the universe watching over us, we still sense that something’s not quite right with the world.

Then, this explains why horror continues in the public sphere: it represents a direct confrontation with evil, of whatever definition, in the world. It shows that evil swallows most things, all things, but that good will eventually rise up and win. That’s the contrast between Western and Eastern horror; ours still demonstrates an inkling of Christian tradition and straightforward notions of good and evil. In a world with ghosts and spirits with varying motives as in Japanese horror films, however, no one remains safe and nothing will save you. It’s no wonder such tales end with terrifying bleakness.

Or, you might say, such films confirm our tendency towards the dark side. We would rather see a bleak world that cannot change than one that requires our effort and our strength to fix. Is it worth the fight? Why not just die? Yet the protagonists cling on to life desperately, beyond what anyone should. Why do we portray our suffering characters in said films like that? Because hope remains in the human heart, even when it cannot see through the darkness. Hope only exists in hopelessness – a strange paradox, and one to which Chesterton all too familiarly notes:

…charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all…For practical purposes it is at the hopeless moment that we require the hopeful man, and the virtue either does not exist at all, or begins to exist at that moment. Exactly at the instant when hope ceases to be reasonable it begins to be useful.

I wager that our attraction to horror arises out of this hope, this unreasonable faith in the face of real evil. Unfortunately, our times means that we begin to retrofit these stories into a new mindset – one that uses the symbols of horror in a cursory fashion, or even to present utter hopelessness unto death rather than a light at the end of the tunnel. Horror makes us crave goodness rather than darkness. We desire life, not death. That’s the whole point! When they wallow in the dark even unto the end, what benefit do we gain? Even Stephen King can tell you the point of it:

Here is the final truth of horror movies: They do not love death, as some have suggested; they love life. They do not celebrate deformity but by dwelling on deformity, they sing of health and energy. By showing us the miseries of the damned, they help us to rediscover the smaller (but never petty) joys of our own lives. They are the barber’s leeches of the psyche, drawing not bad blood but anxiety … for a little while anyway.

True fulfillment comes through Christ. Horror reminds us of our need for the Ultimate Good to confront the face of True Evil. It tells us that we need to focus on the good, but that God’s goodness can emerge out of the bad. A large contrast helps us to focus on what’s really important, to see things as they truly are. After all, Phillipians 4 still tells to focus on the good:

8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

Certainly, none of this means I will watch them. But you’re welcome to do it!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Cameron Hurlock

    Hey man I recently started reading your articles and I appreciate the insight you provide. What do you think of people using Phil 4:8 as a way of providing a strict prohibition on any media (music, movies, games, etc.) that has pretty much any depiction of sin in it? I was hoping you could elaborate on what you think that verse means. Also the one about everything you do being to the glory of God. Thanks man I enjoy reading your work.

    • Zachery Oliver

      I have always found the Phil 4:8 argument of “any sin in any media” to be problematic for a few reasons:

      1. The Bible itself contains many depictions of sin. If it is sin, you name it, it’s in some book of the Bible (especially the Old Testament, with the raping and incest and murder and etc – God definitely did not approve of those things).

      2. Problem is, we cannot think outside of the context of sin, because it continues to be a daily reality for us. While we strive NOT to do so, and we are certainly freed from its power, we still lapse and are prone to bad judgment. So, regardless of whether or not we want to “remove all sin” in our media, this is simply not possible. Stories have no conflict otherwise; you cannot know evil without good, and even the Bible depicts this in a way we can understand.

      3. Now, if things do cause you to sin because they have sin in them, then the answer is easy – don’t watch/read/whatever. A simple solution! But, on the same note, don’t cause others to stumble with it either. That is, talk about it with people who also understand it’s simply media. But to brothers/sisters who can’t handle such things, it’s not beneficial. Context is key!

      As for the glory of God…well, various theologians have thought many different things about some things for the past 2000 years, so I can’t really give you a definitive answer on that one. But as it relates to entertainment media in specific, that is up to you 🙂

      • Cameron Hurlock

        My man we are on the same wavelength! I’ve discussed this recently with a couple of other older guys who are of a different generation I guess you would say and they keep saying why would you put that kind of stuff in your mind going back to Phil 4:8? What would you say to this?

        I read your article on Grand Theft Auto as well and you once again hit the target right on the mark when you talked about people needing to realizes games and movies are fantasy NOT reality. Obviously, when people can’t do this it causes problems and you should definitely censor what they watch (thinking of kids here mainly).

        I’ve been thinking about media a lot lately cause I really enjoy to watch films when I am not busy with medical school and as you mentioned before if it was the mere depiction of sin that was the problem, than reading the Bible would be sinful. Do you agree that there is a kind of double standard most I guess what you would call more conservative or old timer Christians place on media? For example violence in the movies is wrong EXCEPT when its the Passion of Christ then all of a sudden its ok.

        Another thing that crossed my mind when thinking about this topic is that if I died and had to give an account to God for all the movies I watched I just can’t think of anyway you could call the mere watching of them a sin unless it had a direct effect on your behavior to some degree. What do you think of that?

        Do you have any good recommendations for reviews of movies by Christians not just on Christian movies (they’re usually terrible quality)?

        Finally, while I was looking online for good sites for this kind of stuff and people always use that verse about stuff being beneficial. I would agree with you that most media is meaningless cause its not real so there’s no need to attach a moral component to it. What do you think of this verse and how it relates to media? I feel like people who try to identify positive themes or Christ like messages in every movie they watch may be trying too hard. Can’t we just take a movie for what it is? A movie, nothing more nothing less. I don’t think there’s a strong link between an adult watching something in a movie and then the movie causing them to directly commit that action.

        Sorry for the lengthy response. I just got really into it while writing cause I’ve had all these ideas in my head for a few weeks now and nobody to bounce them off of. I would love it for you respond and expand on anything you feel compelled to as well as answer any questions I may have posed. Or just refer me to other articles you may have already written on some of these topics that would be wonderful. Take your time if need be!

        P.S. I loved your point on without sin in the stories there would be absolutely no conflict to resolve.

      • Cameron Hurlock

        hey man thanks for the response. Would you be willing to answer a few more thoughts I had on this topic?