Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Isn’t Horror Better Than Sunday Worship?

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked:  His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire; He is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in His sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in His eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”

From Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Jonathan Edwards, 1741

I am an amateur Calvinist who in later years defected from the Roman Catholicism of my childhood. Except for some theological tweaking of a few cherished doctrines, and some minor changes in décor and liturgical procedure, (chiefly, the elimination of statuary from worship), I cannot say that the change was all that dramatic or disorienting.  Ecumenism and modernization have served to blur distinctions among the Christian churches.  The branding that used to unite us into more closely knit communities of narrow, like minded believers has been replaced by a less socially expensive generic Christianity—not as fervent, but more marketable.

Church seems more comfortable and accommodating these days.  The music is accessible and pretty, (often contemporary, with a soft rock beat), the people are friendly, and there is ample fellowship and comfort food.  Sermons are soothing, encouraging, calming, reassuring.  We are reminded that we are forgiven our various all-too-human shortfalls, and are accepted fully as family.  We receive ‘unconditional positive regard’, both from our clergy, and presumably also from the Good Lord Himself.   

Afterwards, I am meant to feel ‘centered’, supported, and psychotherapeutically buzzed.  The experience of church is one of accommodation.  We can expect that scripture will be rendered in contemporary language, that hymns and liturgy will strive for gender neutrality and inclusiveness, that the ride will be scenic, pleasant, and comfortable.  It will not be particularly challenging to our personal status quo, or contemporary perceptions of society or morality.   To paraphrase Karl Marx, American religion has often become the Xanax of the masses. 

Why am I yawning so much?  (Where is Jonathon Edwards when you need him?) Something is missing.  Passion? Fervency? Blood?  I am not sure how long this process of exsanguination has been underway.  My hunch is that it began in the early 20th century, but received added impetus in the late 1960s.  What is now most conspicuous in its absence from worship these days is evil, the devil, good old death, and bad old hell.

Admittedly, talking about sin, death and eternal torment makes for awkward marketing and fails miserably as a conversation starter.
            Welcome to our church.
            You are going to die. Possibly sooner than you think.
            If you don’t repent, you can look forward to eternal torment.
Right after you die horribly.

The Good Book does a better job with this.
“There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say ‘Enough!’:  the grave, the barren womb, land which is never satisfied with water, and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’”   (Proverbs 30: 15-16)

Though rarely mentioned in the polite company of a worship service, the Bible contains numerous examples of unadulterated horror.  Here are just a few:

1.  A humble tent-dwelling woman creeps up to a sleeping enemy general, grabs a hammer, and pounds a tent peg into his skull.  (Judges 5: 24-27)

2.  After a few drinks, two young men presume to offer unauthorized incense burning near the altar and are instantly vaporized.  (Leviticus 10:1-2)

3.  The families of several of Moses’ political opponents are lined up outside their tents; the ground splits open and devours them alive, then closes over them—reminiscent of the climactic scene in the 2009 movie Drag Me to Hell.  (Numbers 16: 31-34)

4.  A monster with ten horns and seven heads, that looks like a leopard but has the feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion crawls out of the sea and begins to rule the world.  There is also an evil dragon.  (Revelation 13: 1-8).

5.  Satan makes a bet with God that Job will lose his faithfulness the moment his good fortune changes.  God then allows Satan to afflict Job with all kinds of disasters and horrible diseases—and wins the bet.  (Job 1: 6-22, 2: 1-10).  

It seems that these awful things comprise the source material for terror, horror, and despair—for horror entertainment.  Why is it that our movies, TV shows and fiction are filled with so many demons, walking dead, devastating plagues, vampires, ghosts, and visions of the apocalypse?  Is it because death, evil, and the possibility of a wrathful God—or for you atheists out there, the possibility of a meaningless existence—are no longer discussed in church?  Is it because the modern church is no longer the place one goes to face these terrors?

Not only is there horror material in the Bible, there is religious material in horror.  When my soul is perplexed I know that I can turn to the following authors for edification and moral guidance:

H.P. Lovecraft—on idolatry and apostasy
Robert E. Howard—on murder, mayhem and torture
Walter De La Mare—on spiritual and material theft
William Hope Hodgson—on greed, hubris, and deceit
Clark Ashton Smith—on necromancy
E.F. Benson—on sacrilege

Where can the faithful go to find answers to life’s biggest questions, to ponder the doom we all face in fearful yet loving fellowship and communion?

(Probably to a really scary movie.)



  1. You make some great points about church! Some pastors do talk about Hell and bad stuff, but usually on Wednesday night services when mature believers are present. Sunday services tend to be fluffy, and not as offensive.

  2. Sure--and I would expect the tone to be light and fluffy on high traffic holiday weekends as well.

    I'm not sure what the answer is. It must be a challenge for pastors to balance the desire to motivate and inspire the congregation with the need to avoid alienating anyone. These days, people expect to be gratified and accommodated.

    Not to be too grim, but in my mind the problem seems to be one of overall decadence and a sapping of the collective spirit. In contrast, I can imagine that the "sermons" attended by members of the Taliban or ISIS are quite a bit more invigorating and directive, giving them the fervor and willingness to kill and die for their beliefs. We perceive them as crazy and violent, but overlook their dedication and commitment.

    Would our comfortable and affluent culture, along with its "fluffy" religious institutions be able to generate that level of commitment if it were needed? (Are we in trouble if the answer is 'no'?)

    Thanks for visiting Munson!


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