A Christian Perspective on Horror in Movies & Culture
- Friday, October 12, 2012
The full-blown abject terror of an infinite God—unmediated by grace—would be overwhelming and impossible to bear. And try as we might, we cannot entirely vanquish our sense of God or our creeping fears regarding him. The fear is inescapable. It is also unbearable. The only thing we can do is develop techniques to cope with the fear, just like a mountain climber or a skydiver does. The fear has to be managed— it has to be controlled. Uncontrolled fear is crippling. I believe that one way this management can be undertaken (and it can be done very effectively) is through storytelling. Fiction is a management tool through which suppressed truths slowly reemerge in bits and pieces, chunks and tatters, despite our attempts to bury the way the world really is. Narrative in general, and the very powerful, reality-replacing narrative art of film, can present to us an entirely convincing object of fear that has nevertheless been controlled, tamed, and reduced to a manageable package. One moment we are petrified in the dark theater—the next we are walking to the coffee shop laughing with our friends. Not so with deity.
What does the Bible say about the fear of God? The concept of "the fear of the Lord" is widely misunderstood, even by many Christians. It is quite often mocked by those who do not believe and who think that believers feel like I did while watching late-night scary movies as a kid. But this understanding is not at all accurate. The fear of God is taught everywhere in Scripture, and it is a fairly simple idea that we find consistently in all parts of the Old and New Testaments. The psalmist teaches that "the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding . . ." (Ps. 111:10). Wisdom—not to be confused with intelligence or knowledge, though they are all interrelated—begins only with a rightly reverential awe and respect for God, as well as a fear of offending him. Fearing God always features this moral and ethical component: "by the fear of the LORD one turns away from evil" (Prov. 16:6). Fear of God, repentance, and slow but steady moral growth are intimately bound up together. "Behold, the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding" (Job 28:28). Refusing to fear God is the clearest marker of a foolish person, according to Solomon: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction" (Prov. 1:7).
Paradoxically, the God who is worthy of fear promises those who trust in him that they do not need to be afraid of him in the normal, fallen sense. God's words of comfort to Abraham in Genesis 15:1 are typical: "Fear not, Abram, I am your shield. . . ." There is marvelous irony here. The one thing in the universe we really should fear— God—protects us from himself by enacting his grace for our benefit and his glory. Thus, if you fear him you have no need to be afraid. If you do not fear him you have every reason to be afraid. The most frightening verse in all of Scripture is Hebrews 10:31: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." What God asks is more than reasonable and in fact becomes easier the more we trust in him. He asks that we respond only as we should, with awe, respect, and obedience in the face of his sublimity, his infinity, his power, and his holiness. If we do not do that, then we find ourselves living enslaved to various other fears, none of which is pleasant.
For a believer, fearing God is a sublime, deep pleasure. That is what the ultimate fear is—pleasurable. It is not supposed to be negative, uncomfortable, or debilitating, but rather edifying by showing us who and what we are in terms of an almighty and infinite being. The fear of God, ironically, is not fearful for a Christian. Because we are wired to gain pleasure from the fear of God, yet as a race we do not so fear him, we find ourselves in the rather perverse position of experiencing certain pleasures coming to us in the form of highly manufactured and densely controlled fears packaged as entertainment. I believe this is why "fear for pleasure" has become such a profitable sector of the film industry. We want to have something to fear, and yet we want to maintain control over that fear, to limit that fear within prescribed boundaries, which we can never do in the case of the "fear of the Lord." Fearing God cannot be bounded, yet we can trust his care and love for us, his promise that he will not harm us. The precise opposite is the case in horror films: the evil entity wants to harm us—but we can control it, because we know it isn't real.
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