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.
Caroline tries to deny the reality of her occult experiences, eventually reduced to (if you've seen the trailers) chanting a reassurance of her disbelief. But each denial brings her closer to a conversion she desperately wishes to avoid. Humans believe – we are hardwired to do so. Life is not a question of whether we will believe, but in what or Who. Pascal's Wager – which roughly argues that it is safer to believe in God than to not – may be dicey as an apologetic statement, but it is a great discussion starter.
The Force of Fear
Rudolf Otto, in "The Idea of the Holy," comments on the uncanniness of the supernatural. Otto calls it the mysterium tremendum, a part of which is the sensation of supernatural "otherness" that can make your flesh crawl. As Caroline walks her script-appointed path, her cool detachment is replaced by fear and horror. Everything she wanted to deny she discovers is true. The Bible claims that supernatural powers are a reality. Movies such as "The Skeleton Key" cause people to ponder that claim. The shiver of excitement that supernatural films deliver is often later replaced by moments of contemplation. This movie would not work if there were not some suspicion that a transcendent realm exists. I am not arguing for the veracity of Hoodoo, but for the reality of spirits – and more importantly, for the reality of God.
Otto argues that the dread in the dark is, for many, a first step toward the light. Now that many of our pulpits no longer speak of heaven and hell, Hollywood has stepped in to slake our supernatural thirst. Christians should respond to the feelings Hollywood creates by discussing the nature of supernatural reality and leading people toward a deeper understanding. Discussion cards on MovieMinistry.com can help those new to using film as an evangelistic tool. In an age that tries to ignore the supernatural, horror films provide a portal. Carefully examined, they can reveal the desire in everyone for a life beyond this present one, which can only be grasped by faith.
Marc T. Newman, PhD (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people.
Publication of this analysis does not constitute endorsement of the film. WARNING: MPAA has given this movie a PG-13 rating for violence, disturbing images, some partial nudity, and thematic material.
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