I 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?