The Theology of Monsters: Part 5, Illicit Hybrids & The Fate of the Church

One of the consistent themes in monsters is hybridization. That is, monsters are often ontological mixtures, blends, and composites. A quick tour through the world of mythology and legend shows us this:

Minotaurs: Half human & half bull
Centaurs: Half human & half horse
Fauns: Half human & half goat
Mermaids: Half human & half fish
Some blends are fun and fanciful. For example, Pegasus is a horse with wings (horse/bird blend) and a Unicorn is a horse with a horn.

But some blends are scary. For example, Medusa had snakes for hair. Freaky.

Fans of the X-Men see lots of these hybrids. For example, Archangel is a man who has wings. Wolverine is a man/wolverine hybrid. And Beast is a man/beast hybrid (which is kind of funny as "beast" isn't an animal but is a kind of generic atavistic category).

Past the X-Men, lots of superheros get their powers through hybridization. Spiderman is a man/spider mix and the Thing from the Fantastic Four is an odd man/rock mix.

Now, reflecting on all this, it should be clear that hybridization is a source for the monstrous. Even if we identify with and cheer for the superhero, comic book lovers know that persecution of the hybrid (as a freak, mutant, or monster) is a constant source of material. The X-Men movies were built around that theme.

But many of these hybrids are monsters-lite. They are freaky, otherworldly, and uncanny (in fact, the X-Men were initially "The Uncanny X-Men") but don't seem to be "monsters," strongly understood. Pegasus, despite being a hybrid, doesn't seem like a prototypical monster.

In short, monsters are not simply hybrids. They are a certain kind of hybrid. If so, what kind?

Well, I'm new to this literature, but based upon my reading I'm going to offer up a little theory. The basic insight, which I'm borrowing from my ACU colleague Kenny who spoke about monstrous hybrids at our Bible class, is that the hybrid must be experienced as transgressive. That is, we must be offended or repulsed by the mixture found in the hybrid. The mixture must be illicit.

That is a good start, but it tends to put off the deeper question. What makes a mixture illicit or not? Why am I not repulsed by angels but find a man with a bug-head monstrous?

(And let's pause a bit to note that when I say "angels" I'm talking about glowing people with wings. Which, strangely, has little to do with biblical descriptions of heavenly creatures. Take this example from Ezekiel:
...and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had the hands of a man. All four of them had faces and wings...Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle...
I've never seen a Living Creature figurine at my local Bible Bookstore...)

So what makes a hybrid transgressive? Let me offer one hypothesis.

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has suggested that as we move through social space one of the dimensions we move through is a Divinity space. That is, when I hear a beautiful symphony, enter a magnificent cathedral, engage in acts of charity, or watch a glorious sunset we tend to move "up" on the Divinity dimension. We feel, to use Haidt's term, "elevated." Transcendence is a movement upward on the Divinity dimension. By contrast, we can also come into contact with behaviors, people, or experiences that move us downward on the Divinity dimension. There is an experience of feeling degraded, debased, polluted, dehumanized, or profaned. Charles Taylor in his book The Secular Age has argued that in Western cultures we've lost an acute experience of the Divinity dimension. We think in terms of justice and harm rather than pollution or purity. Regardless, even in Western cultures we retain notions of degradation and "appropriateness." Civic and public space are protected from vulgar, profane, indecent, or illicit material. Our civic spaces are not religious but they retain a notion of decorum and dignity. These are symptoms of the Divinity dimension still at work.

My argument about transgressive hybrids is that the hybrid becomes monstrous when the mixture combines the two poles of the Divinity dimension. What maps onto these two poles will, obviously, be culturally relative with lots of room for individual differences. But, broadly speaking, within a culture there is some general agreement about how facets of existence map onto the Divinity dimension. For example, in the West wings are high on the Divinity dimension. Perhaps because flying is a symbol of transcendence. Thus, attaching wings to a human isn't illicit. It fact, it might be elevating (e.g., angels). By contrast, bugs, rats, and reptiles are lower on the Divinity dimension (in Western cultures). Thus, combining these features with humans seems more illicit and, thus, moves us closer to monsters.

Now you might be asking, "This is all very interesting, but does it have any practical implications?" I think so. Consider this:

Religious traditions and persons tend to vary in how much they emphasize the Divinity dimension. Religious traditions/persons who do strongly emphasize the Divinity dimension will see their religious existence as the pursuit of "holiness" and "purity." This means that they will have strong notions of pollution and defilement. These notions of pollution or defilement can be applied to the Self or to Others. These religious persons will have a kind of obsessive-compulsive faith, a faith aimed at staying "clean."

This means that, if these reflections about monsters are correct, that a purity-based faith will create more monsters. By emphasizing the Divinity dimension these persons are more offended by what they regard as "illicit mixtures," the clean and the unclean coming together.

This perspective allows us to come at the argument between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding contact with the "unclean" at table fellowship from a new angle. For the Pharisees, the "unclean" at table was a transgressive mixture, an illicit hybrid, a "monster." Jesus, by contrast, saw the mixture as holy, as being high rather than low on the Divinity dimension.

In short, hybridization in monsters allows us to approach the issue of mixing or blending in our world. When is the blend illicit? When is it holy? What is or is not a monster? And this connects with the issues raised in the last post: Is the Devil on the side of the monster or the hero?

On such questions rests the fate of the church in the world.

Next Post: Monsters & Death

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15 thoughts on “The Theology of Monsters: Part 5, Illicit Hybrids & The Fate of the Church”

  1. It is a brilliant coincidence that you should be writing these posts as I try to integrate Hogwarts into my Hebrew Sunday school curriculum!

  2. Is your purpose to help us understand that the "line" that is so clear to us, is really unclear....These lines and distinctions only inhibit the commonality amongst mankind and limits our abiblity to engage in "difference"...we do sanction and sanctify our view, at the demise of other views.

    The freedom of difference of opinions is defended in our Bill of Rights, beccause we understand without giving room to difference, then we are headed for oppression...and limitation of personal and individual and certain group freedoms....

  3. One thing I noted in researching lions - as part of the Griffindor thing I am working on with children, the lion of Psalm 91:13 is a rare beast and the idea of lion is used metaphorically in the psalms. So this psychological usage of monsters goes back a long way under different words. Next I am off to do snakes - two already mentioned in Psalm 91, and the most subtle in Genesis 3. Isn't is true that we are all composite monsters? The old man-new man tug of war is not resolved by moral purity but by death. There is a delightful set of images of the dragons of Revelation from the 15th century (can't find the reference at the moment)- they all look like rag dolls ready for ridicule. But we too are all dragons whatever purity status we think we have. To kosher such a beast requires real intervention by the creator of weal and wholeness alike.

  4. I think this is why the Church Fathers developed the "God/Man" Jesus, as someone who can "take away our projections (as in scape-goating),and our internal recriminations" (whichever side one plays out on...). Thus, we can embrace, because we are "freed" from self-recrimination or a need to punish punitively to "salve our complusivity" to purify...

    Healthy faith is about owning "oneself", taking responsibility for one's behavior and serving the values we most affirm...that is a fully formed "person".

  5. Richard, Bob, I wish you guys had been my Sunday School teachers!

    I don't have anything intelligent to contribute at the moment, but just wanted to say that I'm enjoying the series. Keep 'em coming!

  6. wow, the fate of the church in the world. why didn't we ever do a coffee shop on this? if anyone had ever pitched it to me...

  7. Interesting, too, the illustration in Haggai - there's some kind of check valve between the clean and the unclean that allows influence to flow only one way as a result of incidental contact. qb

  8. Angie & Bob,
    In our bible class, my colleague Kenny explored some of the ideas about hybrids you note. That is, both Jesus (God/Man) and us (Spirit/Animal) can be seen as a hybrids. The issue for some is: Is this mixture illicit? Some, the Gnostics come to mind, clearly thought so.

    Thanks. I'm grateful that my church allows me to do odd classes.

    Yes, there is no hyperbole here: THE FATE OF THE CHURCH IN THE WORLD HANGS IN THE BALANCE. To translate my post into your language: The church's mission cannot be defined without relation to the Other. Thus, the approach toward Otherness (the church in the world) is the critical issue for defining the church's mission. If so, then the issues raised by this post sit at the critical nexus of discernment (e.g., Illicit mixtures; Justice vs. holiness; hospitality vs. purity; Being in but not of; Jesus's debate with the Pharisees).

    In the psychology literature the trend is called negativity dominance. During contact the polluted contaminates the pure, not the other way around. Except, that is, in the gospels, when contact with Jesus purifies the contaminated. That purity reversal is distinctive of Jesus.

  9. Since you are a psychologist who likes to understand theology through experience, I will take some time to critique your theory with my experience...

    I presently do not want anything to do with what I have experienced in my present situation. It has become a message of rejection or manipulation, at least in my perspective...these experiences have led me to create another identity. I believe that you suggested this happening. I just read about political ponorology, the study of evil...and the church can be the culprit, which undermines faith big create evil, as well as individuals...

    I believe that desire or body or will is not the "problem" but a difference of "view", value and commitment. These are differences that cannot be "synthesized" as their whole understanding is based on a different "language", and understanding...

    So, the "God/Man" distinctive is not just a religious "term" useful for religious means, but also any "god/man" human is about fulfilling potential, evaluating and committing to values, and determining purpose. I believe these are individually determined, not societially directed, or constructed. That does not mean that social structures are not "good", but these are only means to an end in development, not the end...some think the church or political system is the, man is the end, in himself, as a unique creation..or conglomeration of DNA, which transcribes our unique individuality...

  10. May I add that the idea of the sacred is an protection of personal boundary, that is no more selfish than a nation defending its boundaries.
    Self and other is the healthiest and fullest form of personhood, which is our social contract, treaty, diplomacy, etc...One cannot reach the "other" without the issue of security being addressed.
    Nations, as well as individuals, seek security, which is not selfishness, but "training the "other" in respect, honor, and allowing dignity to another...many forms of "training' have been used in diplomatic efforts...sanctions to war. And war is sometimes the only means or language that is understood, because of the entrenched ideology that needs exterme means to subvert its evil intent...

  11. I'm somewhat surprised that a discussion of the Jew/Samaritan/Gentile categories wasn't spawned from this post (or more detailed monologue); and how this connects with the Peter/Cornelius story of Acts 10ish. But isn't it interesting how Paul's conversion and the Antioch outreach bookend it!

  12. In the paragraph that begins "My argument about transgressive hybrids..." sounds more like you describe someone who has found an equal balance between the two poles of the 'divinity dimension', now explain how that would make them a monster.

    Furthermore it sounds like a whole load of religious drivel.

  13. hi Richard--

    am wondering if you've come across anything on the posthuman in connection with your musings on purity/defilement and monsters? this is certainly an area where my research and this topic overlap, particularly with the notion of transgessive hybridity (for example, the cyborg="Man"/"Machine" hybrid, and can be either a monstrous, fearful narrative figure or a liberative one, depending on p.o.v.). Just curious!

  14. JTB,
    My reading in this area is pretty sketchy. This post and a recent post of mine about the uncanny valley represents what I know on the topic.

    I'd love to read your disseration on this subject. I've known you were writing about cyborgs but I don't know what that is all about and I'm very curious about your work.

  15. What you need to read is the book of Jasher, if you want to hear about hybrids.  The keephah and the ducheephath! 

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