Unlocking Belief With "The Skeleton Key"
- Monday, August 22, 2005
For decades the West has been awash in spiritual multiculturalism. Open-mindedness is in, while "narrow, intolerant dogmatism" is out. Harry Blamires, in his book "In Defense of Dogmatism," notes that nowadays Christians are supposed to walk about as if they do not have definitive answers to life's most important questions. The journey is everything, the destination irrelevant. (Of course, if you have no destination in mind, your journeying looks remarkably like simply being lost.) Certainty, we are told, is dangerous.
Therefore it was refreshing to step into the theater recently to see an otherwise inconsequential horror film – "The Skeleton Key" – turn the West's fascination with spiritual openness on its ear. In the film, Caroline, a hospice worker plagued by guilt over her absence during her father's death, tries to find meaning through her job. After watching her hospice impersonally churn through patients, Caroline opts for a live-in position at the Devereaux house, located deep within the spooky bayous of Louisiana. It doesn't take long for the superstitions of the locals to become her own. What makes "The Skeleton Key" work is the way it exploits spiritual smorgasbord thinking, preys on false security, believes in the revelation of truth, and explores the force of fear.
The contemporary West prides itself on its spiritual openness – almost to the point of lunacy. Daniel Boorstin illustrates our paradoxical thinking when he comments in "The Image" that we want to worship at a church of our choice but simultaneously want to experience its transcendent power. We want to feel free to pick and choose what we will believe – and the determining factor appears to be our own personal comfort.
Caroline is an outstanding representative of modern spirituality. Shortly after her arrival at her new job, Mrs. Devereaux, whose house is filled with Catholic icons and paintings, asks Caroline if she is "religious at all" to which Caroline replies, "I try to keep an open mind." Mrs. Devereaux is pleased to hear it. We discover that Mrs. Devereaux's Louisiana parish is filled with religious syncretism – a little Catholicism blended with Voodoo and American folk magic. Caroline's open mind will fit right in.
Like many Western people, Caroline ultimately pins her security on her belief in science – particularly psychology. Once Caroline discovers that her patient, Mr. Devereaux, is convinced that his stroke-like condition is caused by supernatural means, Caroline decides to dabble in Hoodoo magic in the attempt to secure a psychosomatic cure. Jill, Caroline's friend, informs her about the Hoodoo practice and comforts Caroline by telling her that it is all psychological, and that "it can't hurt you if you don't believe in it." Viewers discover as the film progresses that maintaining an aloof agnosticism becomes increasingly difficult as the evidence for magical potency grows.
I have spoken with countless people who believe about God the way Caroline believes about the occult manifestations of the supernatural -- that by maintaining a kind of Swiss neutrality they fall outside the jurisdiction of supernatural powers. This line of thinking is flawed – even admitting that belief activates something that can hurt you indicates the reality of that something – activating belief. The thought line more closely resembles wishful thinking than careful analysis. Belief does not affect the truth or falsity of claims of the supernatural any more than primitive refusals to believe in flying machines threatens the existence of airlines.
The Truth Eventually Comes Out
The idea of faith is sometimes looked upon disparagingly by the West when some characterize faith as a kind of fairy-tale thinking focusing on things that "just ain't so." Faith claims, to this way of thinking, are outside the realm of science, and, therefore, do not qualify as "knowledge." But all knowledge ultimately rests in faith – including knowledge that comes from science – it all depends upon which authorities you believe. At the end of life, all supernatural claims will move from the realm of faith to the realm of fact. If false, they will be irrelevant, as death is nothing more than the cessation of life processes and the body turns to dust. If true, then how we respond to these claims in life can have eternal consequences.
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