The Theology of Monsters: Part 4, The Greatest Monster Story Ever Told

When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat's head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.

So goes the scapegoat ritual in Leviticus 16. The scapegoat, carrying the sins of the people, is released into the forsaken places where the evil spirit Azazel resides. (And then what? Azazel eats the goat? Kills it? It's not clear. I'm sure the rabbis had ready answers for this....)

For our purposes, the dark side of the scapegoat ritual is that something evil must be expelled by the community before the community can be declared holy and sanctified. Thus, we call this mechanism--expelling the evil thing to purify ourselves--scapegoating.

As far as monster and devil imagery goes, aspects of the (scape)goat--horns and hooves--were used and often fused with reptilian features to echo the other main symbol of evil in the Old Testament: The serpent of Genesis 3. Later, in the Book of Revelation, the serpent scales up to a dragon. You can see this goat/snake fusion in this description of a "beast" in Revelation: Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon. To this day, many monsters are horned or have reptilian features.

Interestingly, the snake and the lamb are signs of both Jesus and the Devil. We've just noted the Devil/Goat/Snake connections. Most know the Jesus/Lamb connection (and, yes, the lamb also has horns: See Revelation 5). The snake connection with Jesus comes from the Old Testament story where Moses had to form a bronze snake to save the Israelites from vipers. Anyone bitten by a snake could look toward the bronze snake and be saved (Numbers 21). The snake connection with Jesus come from when Jesus compares his actions on the cross to the bronze snake:

John 3. 14-15
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
The Jesus/Devil and Snake/Goat parallels are very intriguing in that they reveal the dangerous dynamics of holiness. Something must be expelled or sacrificed (the scapegoat) to make the group holy. Now, is the goat the Devil or Jesus? The bible seems to hint that both are the goat.

Rene Girard makes sense of this mix by arguing that the primal act of scapegoating, as a social and religious action, was believed to be an expulsion of the Devil, the evil ones amongst us. These people, the scapegoats, were expelled/sacrificed to purify the community. But as Girard notes, these "scapegoats" tended to be marginal, politically voiceless, and powerless persons. Yet, the community feels victimized by these people. They are believed to be the cause of the group's ill fortune. And feeling victimized, the group creates more victims by sacrificing the scapegoats.

According to Girard, in the gospels Jesus steps into the scapegoating mechanism and sacrifices himself. The people responsible for crucifying Jesus think he's the Devil. But we, the readers of the gospel, see the scapegoat as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus inverts the symbolism of the animal in question: Scapegoat (Devil) is revealed to be Lamb (Jesus). By being identified as the Devil Jesus saves us from the Devil. Phrased another way, by being identified as the scapegoat Jesus saves us from scapegoating. Jesus unmasks the mechanism.

What does this have to do with monsters? Well, beyond monster iconography (horns and reptilian features) let's consider the most famous quote in the monster literature:
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.
--Friedrich Nietzsche
How do we risk becoming monsters in our fight against monsters? Again, we've just seen how scapegoating is a dangerous business. In light of the gospel story, can we be confident that by expelling/killing/sacrificing the monster we are saving rather than damning ourselves? Is the scapegoat the Devil or Jesus?

One of the tensions of the monster concept is that monsters are both victims and victimizers. We feel victimized by monsters. They enter our world and harm us. That is how every monster story begins. Frankenstein drowns a girl. A vampire bites someone. Grendel kills some people. Monsters are victimizers.

But many monster stories have a nuanced Part 2. After the actions of the monster we find the monster hunted and killed. Frankenstein is hounded by the mob. A vampire gets the stake. Grendel is killed by Beowulf. It looks, well, like this:

Well, not quite like that. But Beauty and the Beast (btw, note the horns!) is a wonderful illustration of the tension in monster stories. The victimizer (the beast) is revealed to be the victim. This moral reversal is at the heart of both the gospel and many monster stories. It's the Devil/Jesus, Victimizer/Victim, Monster/Hero, Scapegoat/Lamb inversion.

In short, a big theme in monster stories is this worry that the monster is being wrongly scapegoated. We often identify and feel sympathy for the monster. We stand in solidarity with the monster.

Why do we tell stories like this? Why tell stories were the monsters are the victims and the "heros" are evil? I think because the monster story is trying to preach the gospel. To make us suspicious about our lust to scapegoat. And in this sense, the gospel is a kind of monster story.

The greatest monster story ever told.

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One thought on “The Theology of Monsters: Part 4, The Greatest Monster Story Ever Told”

  1. I just can't resist pointing to another great philosopher who has, IMHO, captured some of the essence of this. That Being the Guru of Okefenokee Swamp Pogo (Walt Kelly). To wit:
    "Specializations and markings of individuals everywhere abound in such profusion that major idiosyncrasies can be properly ascribed to the mass. Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle.

    "There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.


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