Legion

LegionI just watched the movie Legion. I think it is perhaps best described as a “theological horror movie.” And by that, I don’t just mean that it is a horror movie that explores theological realms, but that it offers a “theological horror,” as it were.

What is the horror that it envisages? One that has been seen frequently in the religious and theological literature of humankind. The terrifying idea of a God who is a lot like us. A deity who gets tired of humanity’s misbehavior, and gets angry in a manner enough like the way humans do that he would command angels to descend, possess humans, and wreak pain and havoc among us.

Such a view of God appears naturally in the course of human psychological development. Is there any person who did not at some point in their childhood wish they had power to make the world right – by destroying those who are viewed as the cause of our suffering. We desire power to defeat our enemies, on the assumption that we are wholly right and they are wholly wrong.

What is good about the movie Legion is that it depicts a world in which things are not that simple. When angels are obeying orders to bring destruction and pain, what if anything distinguishes them from “demons”? Presumably only the question of whose orders they are following, which provides yet another chance to reflect on the issue of moral absolutes (or the lack thereof). If what these angels do is objectively wrong, then by what standard is that so? And if God commands the destruction, does that change things?

Fortunately, a deity who is like us can be thwarted. There may be the fear of retribution, but he has to catch us first. Because if he were controlling absolutely everything, simply willing those who disobey to die and those who obey to prosper, then there would be no evil, no angels needed to do his bidding. And so a universe of the sort the movie envisages requires that God be like us in this too – not wholly in control, not wholly involved, not able to realize every whim without assistance.

And that gives room for hope. Because a deity who is like us can learn. As Michael says to Gabriel more than once in the movie, “You gave him what he asked for; I gave him what he needed.” At such moments, we are confronted with a depiction of a deity who can learn, and improve. Such a deity is perhaps depicted in the Bible, in those stories in which humans plead for mercy and persuade God to relent from annihilating those who have displeased him.

And so a human-like God, however terrifying, also leaves room for hope. And the alternative, a God who is “wholly other,” who is nothing like us, is comparably terrifying, and likewise leaves room for hope. It is terrifying because God cannot be understood, confined, or assumed to view the world as we do, either in our best moments or in our worst. And it can allow for hope inasmuch as God’s otherness can provide a challenge to us to acknowledge that our own perspective is limited, and that if we could see the bigger picture, we would not think as we do about a great many subjects.

And so whatever you make of this horror movie, it is provocative in asking us to think about how much God is like us, and how much God is not. What do you think?

  • http://www.shinyphoto.co.uk/ Tim

    It sounds like the film portrays a "God, who.." and your criticism, if I may say so, does not sufficiently remove that ", who..".I believe God utterly transcends personhood, in two ways. The nature of God is neither "he" nor "she" (a pathetic diversion) nor "it" but just God, the Ground of Being, the sum of all experience (so, that's a conceptual way).God is also not merely involved in juggling human-interest stories around, either. God has quarks and quasars to handle – more to the point, God *is* the "handling" of quarks and quasars and everything in between. To reduce the immortal invisible to a story about one planet, one species, one unpleasant microcosm of experience ("sin") is a total narrow-minded travesty.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12963476276106907984 Sabio Lantz

    God *is* us, of course. But you review makes me want to watch the movie to learn more about us.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Sabio, indeed, the movie tells us more about ourselves than anything else – like all good (and not so good) theology.Tim, thank you for making an excellent point as well. I was trying to hint in that direction at the end, when I mentioned the possibility that God is wholly other, something unlike a human person in ways that are unclear and unimaginable.Of course, however much we may be persuaded that God is unlike us, there is bound to remain a measure of uncertainty to precisely how God differs from us, and what the implications might be. And so adopting a Tillichian or panentheist view of God involves not only admitting that we do not know, but that we often do not know whether we know or not. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01000798494472742263 J. L. Watts

    I loved the movie, but agree with your points. Didn't much care for how it ended, as it seems that God learned, but wasn't willing to call off the attack dogs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01000798494472742263 J. L. Watts

    Something is seriously wrong with blogger. Cannot stay logged in on your site. Just yours.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Even I've found things strange when it comes to Blogger. I'd appreciate any insight anyone may have as to the cause, and whether the issue is Blogger itself or something to do with my settings.Then again, as I write this it has kept me logged in! :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01000798494472742263 J. L. Watts

    Not sure, but I noticed it started around the time blogger hiccuped a bit ago.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Your particular specialty of analyzing religious themes in Sci Fi/Fantasy films must make you feel a bit like Mike and Joel from MST3K. I haven't watched Legion because all signs pointed to "turd" on that one. In our post enlightenment age the kind of religious horror movies , the kind based on all the Last Judgment frescoes, are pretty out of date. The concept just doesn't carry meaning with people who make movies any more, not like The Omen (Gregory Peck version) or Exorcist. It's a bit like the fate of the Universal Monsters. 80 years ago it seemed somewhat plausible that gypsies could curse people, Romania was home to the undead, and Egyptian tombs held animate corpse. Religious horror is still stuck in the tropes of yester year, and they don't work so well today. The original "Hellraiser" actually did something different, its demons where never explained as such so they kept some mystery. Hieronymus Bosch could probably inspire a good horror film, but I would stay away from a bunch of horny teens summon up a demon with their D&D; books or anything like that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12963476276106907984 Sabio Lantz

    @ JamesYou said, "like all good theology" — indeed!BTW, your interview with Luke at Common Sense Atheism was superb. You came across incredibly likeable (as I expected), brilliant, fair and fun! Damn, you can't get better than that!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Sabio, thanks for the compliments! Mike, I think what makes Legion work somewhat is precisely that it makes the rebellious angel rather than the obedient ones the hero.

  • http://www.shinyphoto.co.uk/ Tim

    Ah, you spotted my Borg influence (with Spong's enthusiasm) too. No apologies there. ;) There's a line to be trod between "something totally other" and looking back historically to "well, in Jesus' time, folks were experimenting with the idea of 'Father'".I'm not sure where that line turns when it meets Hollywood :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    It depends on the movie – in this one, "Legion," God is depicted as being a lot like Anakin Skywalker, a Father who needs his children to help him find his way.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    While the surface meaning of the movie was to sell popcorn to teenage boys, it seems the meta meaning of the film is a kind of Zeus/Kronos tale of our new concept of God replacing the fundamentalist one. Compassion vs. vengance but not man vs. nature, the idea of people remaking nature intto a better product seems to be out nowdays. Tim, I think to much has been made of the vastness of the cosmos and all the neat things like Quasars and Super Black Holes. While I doubt our planet is the only game in town, I fully beleive that contrary to so many space shows, we(not just homosapiense, but all sentiant beings) are not an insignifigant film of organic matter on the surface of a planet, but the the centerpeice of existance. The Sistine Chapel is just paint on a ceiling until you look at it, then its art. Saying that God is too busy fussing about with quarks and quasars to give us much thought would be like a person to busy playing guitar to ask themselves if they like music.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12963476276106907984 Sabio Lantz

    As always, James, you broaden my pleasures and understandings. I ordered the movie. Thank you. Watching it with your commentary will enrich the experience.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Sabio, I'll be very surprised if that is the case, but do indeed let me know what you think of the movie!

  • imarriedaxtian

    @James, I have not yet seen the movie. But from your review it seems that Hollywood have finally learned how to resolve the Euthyphro Dilemma.


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