I'm blessed to have a very understanding and tolerant congregation. Of me at least. Over the years the Highland Church of Christ has allowed me to teach a variety of classes on some unusual subject matter.
For example, a couple of years ago our Adult Faith minister asked me for the title of a class I was about to offer. The conversation went a bit like this:
"Hi Richard, what can I use as the title for your upcoming class?"Eventually the title became Toward a Theology of Ugly. Which isn't all that illuminating, but it was a compromise.
"Yes, Ugly. One word. Ugly."
"Okay, what is a class titled Ugly going to be about?"
"Well, we tend to think of things as right versus wrong, good versus evil. Those categories are pretty clean. But a lot of the time what we call 'evil' is really just 'ugly.' And ugly isn't always evil or bad. In fact, God is often found with the ugly. So, I want to think about Christian mission aesthetically as well as morally and point out locations of divergence."
"That sounds like a great class but will the title Ugly get that across?"
"Perhaps not, but I really like the idea of a class titled Ugly."
Perhaps the strangest class Highland let me do was a class entitled Monsters: The Theology of Frankenstein, Werewolves, Vampires, and Zombies. It was great fun and very successful. The success of the class was largely due to the gracious and thought-provoking participation of three friends--Bill, Dan, and Kenny--from the Art/Design and English Departments at ACU.
This post and the posts that follow (just follow the links at the end of each post) recap much of the material we covered in that class:
You might be wondering, did you really do a class on Monsters at church? Yes we did. And it went really well. It went well because monsters are a wonderfully fun and intellectually surprising location for theological reflection.
To start, let's use this post to introduce the category of "monster" and hint at the theological fruits tucked away in the world of Frankenstein, werewolves, vampires, and zombies.
The word "monster" has its origins in the Latin monstrum, meaning "omen" or "warning." The question is, as a sign and omen, what are monsters warning us about?
A start of an answer might begin by considering the anthropological literature concerning monsters. David Gilmore in his book Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors notes that monsters are cultural universals. All peoples have their monsters. This seems to imply that, whatever the omen/warning monsters provide for us, the threat is common to us all, shared across time, place, culture, and creed.
This observation about monsters already reveals the richness of the construct. Monsters appear to reveal something about the universal human experience or predicament. If so, can we figure out what monsters are trying to tell us?
Gilmore's analysis of monsters worldwide, across time and cultures, reveals that monsters appear to share some common characteristics. Gilmore's list of common monster characteristics includes:
AggressiveThe list is rich. Some of these characteristics seem obvious. Fear dominates. Fears of predation. Fears of evil. Fears of impotence. But there are some odd things in the list as well. Take hybridization. Why, exactly, do monsters tend to be hybrids, ontological mixtures? What is the nature of that omen/warning?
My hope, in this first post, is simply to pique your curiosity about monsters as locations for theological reflection. And to further pique your curiosity here is a sketch of some of the coming posts:
Frankenstein:So, welcome to the world of monsters!
Monsters are often a odd mixture of being both victim and victimizer. That is, monsters enter our world and inflict harm. This justifies the crowd in taking up torches and heading out after the monster for some mob violence and vigilante justice. Thus, monsters are ways of hiding the scapegoating functions of social and religious violence. Monsters are interesting locations for reflection upon the work of Rene Girard.
We are fearful of becoming monsters. We fear the "monster within" that we are barely able to hold in check. I am the monster. Or, at the very least, I fear that the line between me and the monster is very, very thin and fragile.
We are both repulsed by and attracted to monsters. And sometimes the attraction has an erotic twist. Think of Anne Rice's books or the Twilight series. Monsters can be cool. We can desire to be monsters. How are we to make sense of this mixture of horror and desire?
The monsters of the undead embody our fears of death. In agrarian eras we confronted death more directly. Nowadays we have to wait for the dead to come to our door once a year at Halloween. Or we can go to zombie movies. Either way, we feel a need to use monsters to confront our bodies, their gooshy vulnerabilities, and their ultimate demise. Monsters are existential.
Next Post: Jekyll & Hyde