The Theology of Monsters: Part 7, Extending Hospitality to Monsters

The theological richness of monsters comes from the fact that monsters allow us to reflect upon notions of otherness, alienness, strangeness, and alterity. More specifically, monsters ask us to confront and analyze our fears of the Other to determine if those fears are misdirected.

To review, many of things feared in monsters are aspects of the self. As Richard Kearney writes in his book Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Ideas of Otherness monsters remind us that the "ego is never wholly sovereign...Each monster narrative recalls that the self is never secure in itself." Monsters are "tokens of fracture within the human psyche."

Feeling this fracture, we've noted how we project the transgressive aspects of the self onto the Other. Kearney writes that "we often project onto others those unconscious fears from which we recoil in ourselves." We handle our own evil by attempting "to repudiate it by projecting it exclusively onto outsiders." This creates "the polarization between Us and Them" resulting in the Monster/Hero duality we discussed in a prior post, a duality where I am Good and the Other is Bad. Kearney summarizes, "all too often, humans have [allowed] paranoid delusions to serve the purpose of making sense of our confused emotions by externalizing them into black-and-white scenarios."

This process of externalizing the evil aspects of the self creates the religious impulse known as scapegoating. The Other, the stranger, the alien, and the alter are selected for sacrifice or expulsion. As David Gilmore writes, a monster is "the demonization of the 'Other' in the image of the monster as a political device for scapegoating those whom the rules of society deem impure or unworthy--the transgressors and deviants." These deviants are considered to be "[d]eformed, amoral, [and] unsocialized to the point of inhumanness." But we should also note that these scapegoats, as objects of aggression, are also means of expelling collective guilt. Recall the whole point of the scapegoat ritual in Leviticus 16: The removal of communal guilt. As Gilmore summarizes: monsters "serve also as vehicles for the expiation of guilt as well as aggression: there is a strong sense in which the monster is an incarnation of the urge for self-punishment and a unified metaphor for both sadism and victimization (after all, the horrible monster is always killed off, usually in the most gruesome manner imaginable, by humans). We have to address this issue of dualism, of emotive ambivalence, in which the monster stands for both the victim and the victimizer."

In sum, the processes of projection and scapegoating create the notion that evil is exterior. As Kearney notes, "the experience of evil has often been linked with notions of exteriority." Once this move has been made Otherness becomes demonized. "Evil was alienation and the evil one was the alien...the other is an adversary, the stranger a scapegoat, the dissenter a devil."

I'm reviewing all this to raise, in the last post of this series, the most important question concerning monsters: Should we extend hospitality to monsters? The notions of hospitality, embrace, and welcome are central concepts in the missional church conversations. But if hospitality sits at one pole then monsters sit at the exact opposite pole. The issue of the monster is the issue of the Other and, thus, the issue of hospitality and the mission of the church in the world. The Problem of Hospitality is the Problem of the Monster.

Should we extend hospitality to monsters? Based upon all that we have been discussing the answer seems to be a clear "Yes." As Kearney writes, "friendship begins by welcoming difference." We must "de-alienate" the alien. Further, "[p]eace requires nothing less than the decoupling of the stranger and the scapegoat." This doesn't mean we eliminate all difference. We need difference. As Kearney notes, "Otherness is a horizon of selfhood." We need Others, capital O. So, we must "let the other be the other...acknowledging difference between self and other without separating them so schismatically that no relation at all is possible."

In short, yes, we must extend hospitality to the alien, the stranger, the Other. To welcome the other is to bring peace and to become a complete Self.

This much seems easy, but Kearney's discussion raises an important issue. He asks, "How can we tell the difference between benign and malign others? How do we know...when the other is truly an enemy who seeks to destroy us or an innocent scapegoat projected by our phobias?"

This, I think, is a question often unasked in conversations about hospitality. Is hospitality to be relative or absolute? We are sent out into the world to give and receive acts of welcome. But we are called to do this while being "shrewd as snakes" and being wary of "wolves in sheep's clothing." Phrased in the language of monster stories, a vampire has no power over you in your own home. That is, unless, you invite the vampire into your home. That act of hospitality leads to your destruction.

The point being, hospitality is a difficult practice. It involves discernment. Should we extend hospitality to monsters?

Let me be concrete by giving three examples. One social, one political, and one involving the church:

Should sexual offenders be nationally registered and tracked? Should you, personally, go to the National Sex Offender Registry and locate which of your neighbors are sexual offenders?

Should the prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp be brought to US soil and given due process?

Should churches practice closed or open communion? For example, how should your church deal with gay members who wish to join and journey with your community?

I bring up these issues simply to raise the problem of extending hospitality to monsters. It's a complicated issue, one that I think is getting overlooked in the missional church conversation. In this, I've found monsters to be an important location for theological and missional reflection.

My reflections will end here (for now). May your theological adventures with monsters continue. And may your acts of hospitality toward monsters be filled with wisdom and grace.

And, finally, I hope your church let's you do a Bible class about all this...

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

9 thoughts on “The Theology of Monsters: Part 7, Extending Hospitality to Monsters”

  1. What a wonderful twist on "friendly looking stranger". Reading your blog my thoughts went in three directions. One is the safe monsters who are maligned. I think or Day the Earth Stood Still (1950s version) or the movie version of Squanto from a bout 10 years ago. The second direction is the monsters portrayed as villains (Grudge, Silence of the Lambs, others?) who seem to act out as vile annihilators. And third, the monsters who are not villainous but just angry and dangerous but out of our own actions (Godzilla, The Ring).

    Just for fun I Googled "scary movies list" and came up with a pretty horrific list of the top 50. Number 10 (I think?) was Jesus Camp!

    Here's a monster video:

  2. Great series of posts! I got a lot out of them.

    I was reading the Summa Contra Gentiles the other day and came across a text where Aquinas talks about "monsters". Monsters, for Aquinas, are some of the only things that can happen by chance as opposed to everything else which is ultimately caused by God. Interesting tidbit at any rate.

  3. "Monsters" are things beyond our control, as they create chaos and confusion. Such views are ill-informed views of "UFOs" (stars), and demon possession (mental illness), etc. Children believe in monsters, as their universe has not incorporated all there is not know "out there".

    In an ordered government, where there are protections in place, to rectify order when disorder occurs, then we in the West don't have these experiences, except through terrorists attacks, which are real and alive monsters. These monsters are not to be toyed with as in multiculturalism, but identified.

    Although I believe Islam has a right to exist, ideally, Islam does not believe others have a right to have differences of opinion concerning religion and politics, otherwise, they could be satisfied with the West and the rule of law. No, they must protect their "special religion" and their "shair'ia law" from the infidel, which gives the infidel "no rights". We tolerate this to our destruction, I believe.

  4. An excellent series - many thanks. I think the enemy in the Psalms also addresses this issue. Complaining to God about the enemy often makes one deal with the enemy within.

    Also I note in Job that Leviathan is an inclusio. See my translation here. God makes him a pet - is this hospitality?

  5. Bob, If you want to take God domesticating Leviathon, then God is a pragmatic utilirarian (using evil for good, which makes him not a God of love for the individual, but a Egoistic Being, such as Calvin's deterministic one....

    But, why should we quibble over a God that is just an evolutionary concept in our minds? If we acknowledge our limitations to understand something that is bigger than us and the universe, that we cannot comprehend, but that by the very fact that we have the concept of God in our minds, means that he must exist...then...don't we have to remaing humble before everyone and everything as it concerns knowledge?

  6. Me and humble in the same sentence? I too am a monster and an insecure one - but I am having fun communicating with ancient monsters dressed up as complete and fearing God and eschewing evil or garbed in poet's clothing. (I enjoy the modern monsters too but I fear them - especially in power clothes.) I eschew evil not because I don't understand it - but exactly because I do - since I have seen my passion misdirected and foolishly applied. Yes - I can't help but agree that we ought to be humble. Am I complete? Only as far as I have had boldness to enter the holy place. I must speak in metaphors but I mean reality.

  7. Another awesome series!
    And again, a feeling that the discussion has really only begun.

    To take the final question further:

    1. As we extend hospitality
    to "monsters", WHO/WHAT defines
    us as being the "hero"
    and "them" as being
    the "monster"?

    2. The prevailing soteriological
    model apparently has God Himself
    judging few to be "heros" and
    most to be "monsters" at the
    end of the eternal day.

    3. With question 1 unanwsered and
    comment 2 assumed, it seems
    impossible for an extended hand
    of hospitality from the "hero"
    not to come off as
    patronizing / self-righteous
    to the "monster".

    Thank you again Dr. Beck!

    Gary Y.

  8. Gary - you give me a motive and questions for considering the monster portrayed in Job - namely Job himself. Curious that Tur Sinai in his commentary after a bit of textual reconstruction in chapter 3 uses 'hero' as his gloss for those whom Leviathan engaged against God. Months of work to do for even a first translation.

  9. In your theory, how do you allow for national/international relations? It seems very simplistic, naive and even dangerous to "trust' those who have proven themselves as a threat to "law and order".

    Just this morning, it was reported that Russia is to put "bombers" in Cuba and Venuzuela. Cuba is only 80 miles from our shores and Russia has been not too friendly lately. Clinton extended a "hospitable" hand in her meeting, but isn't the meeting "image and rhetoric"? What is really transpiring is what plans are being made.

    Obama's behavior toward one of our major allies, Great Britain, also, makes on wonder. Winston Churchhill's statue, a "hospitable gesture" by Great Britian, was sent back. And when George Brown came to visit, his wife following, there was no "formal dinner" together as couples, and the "press conference" seemed to be an after thought...What is one to think?

    The chnages that are taking place and that are being talked about doesn't lend itself to a "hospitable" attitude toward those in government who demand more and mroe sacrifice, when we already give more world-wide than anyone else. Sure, there are those that abuse the system but that doesn't mean the system should be re-vamped or done away with altogether. It seem Obama et al, think that our captislistic system is wrong, or broken...and the rhetoric will not be appeasing to the ears of the Americans for much longer unless there are some real solutions forthcoming...

    So, in a crisis time, it more often than not, leads to fear, anxiety, and more crime, instead of an "ooshey, gooshy" "we're all in this together" feeling...Americans are too individualistic to "feel the love" of the 60's. And I don't think that individualism is the worst thing in a value system...unless there is a sociopathic conscience.

Leave a Reply