[THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW! IF YOU CARE ABOUT THAT SORT OF THING, STOP NOW. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!]
K and I recently finished Midnight Mass on Netflix. I enjoyed it–this time of year I’m always in the mood for some horror fiction and there’s a lot out there that just isn’t good (I also recently watched Gretel & Hansel, which was mildly interesting but really just doesn’t merit a post).
Much has already been said about the series’ approach to religion, but rather than respond to the thoughts of others (many of which I’ve found cogent and insightful even where I may not agree with them), I thought I’d write my own instead.
Communion and Vampirism
Let’s first address the elephant in the room, shall we? Midnight Mass is certainly not the only piece of fiction to have made an association between vampirism and Communion. The Vampire: The Masquerade roleplaying game played with this idea and Biblical legend has perhaps always played a part in the various cultural ideas of vampirism–after all, if you have a Christian worldview and also believe in the existence of vampires (as was somewhat broadly the case almost to the 20th century and still has its holdouts) you have to figure out how the two ideas mesh. Various possibilities have been put forth in religious folklore–Cain, Lilith, etc.
The accusation that the “love feasts” of early Christians involved the literal eating of flesh was made by the Romans (probably either in cynical propaganda or credulous misunderstandings of the new religion’s rites), but Christianity doesn’t stand alone in this regard–the “blood libel” against the Jews throughout the medieval period represents a much more serious and lasting accusation than that against Christians. If you’re unfamiliar, the “blood libel” is a long-running tradition of belief that Jews were actually eating Christian babies and children, or at least killing them and using their blood. It shouldn’t need to be said but: this was an outright anti-Semitic lie perpetuated out of a cultural need for a culpable “other” and justification for pogroms against and the exile of Jews that had financial motivations as much as socio-religious ones.
For purposes of this post, though, I’m less interested in historical beliefs and more interested in the seemingly-natural association humans seem to draw between Communion and vampirism. In other words: what does it mean to “eat the body of Christ” and “drink the blood of Christ?” This will not be a thorough discussion of the theologies of Communion, but rather some general thoughts on the matter.
The first question raised, of course, is whether the terms are intended to be literal or figurative. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation takes the meaning literally–and this, of course, is part of the reason that Midnight Mass works with Catholic liturgy and theology in a way that just wouldn’t track the same for a Protestant theology holding that the meaning of Communion is symbolic and commemorative.
The doctrine of transubstantiation is a difficult one at best. On the one hand, that means a direct confrontation with the belief that you are literally eating your Savior (and the necessary follow-up question of “why?”). On the other, this creates the additional problem of what happens to the body of Christ once you’ve ingested it, requiring a doctrine of “untransubstantiation,” because it would be improper to defecate your Lord and Savior. Yes, that’s funny, and I giggle, too, but it’s the sort of corner that theology can back itself into sometimes. I am less inclined to believe that this is a matter of the foolishness of early theologians and more inclined to believe that it simply a matter of the limitations of the human mind as it struggles with divine mystery. There’s just really no way to definitively determine the question of transubstantiation, so doctrine on the subject must be based on other theological assumptions rather than logic applied to the question itself.
As a Methodist, I belong to a tradition that denies transubstantiation and views it as a sacrament, but one that serves as reminder for grace and divine action rather than a regular miracle. Maybe that sits well with me because of my own skepticism (where, of course, skepticism is the exercise of intellectual analysis before coming to a conclusion rather than taking an answer entirely on faith–or, conversely, denying a possibility outright). This is because I think that the metaphor of Communion is two-fold: on the side of the supplicant, the metaphor is one of spiritual sustenance embodied in reference to literal sustenance. Jesus states in the Gospels that he is the source of the living water, and that he is the bread of life, but we do not take these statements to mean, literally, that Jesus was made of water or of bread. Nevertheless, the meaning is clear–God is sustainer of all things, whether that’s the coherence of reality itself or the strength of the individual soul.
The metaphor on Christ’s side–body and blood–serves as a metaphor for sacrifice. “No greater love has a man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Does that qualify as a mixed metaphor? Maybe, but I’d chalk it up to Chesterton’s argument that Christianity overcomes “problems” of contradiction by “combining furious opposites, keeping them both, and keeping them furious.” Hence, perhaps, the love of some Christian theologians for “both/and” as the answer to apparent contradictions.
If we view Communion in this light, the comparison to vampirism breaks down immediately. There is no predation or consumption on or of one party by the other, but two different ways of looking at the meaning of the same event, both of which are simultaneously true if not directly compatible. For me, personally, this is where I find the argument for a commemorative Communion more convincing than the argument for transubstantiation; not in the rejection of the possibility of miracle but in preference of the meaning that most fits with my understanding of Christianity as a whole.
None of this is to discount the possibility of a personal, existential and mystical encounter with God through the act and ritual of Communion, regardless of your theological view of the sacrament.
Critique of Religion
Much has been made of the character of Bev Keane as vehicle for much critique of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Rightly so, she is the main villain and a truly horrible person. But, I’d argue (as others have done) that the critique demonstrated by her character is not a critique of religion itself, but of the use of religion–and equally applicable to the misuse of any philosophy or system of belief adhered to without any doubt or humility. That could just as easily be aggressive atheism, materialist science, the social-Darwinism tenets of neo-capitalism, political beliefs or, in a slightly less dangerous and much more amusing version, fandom.
It is not the substantive belief (i.e. Christianity) that makes Bev Keane evil. The story provides Christian characters antithetical to such a reading. Think in particular of Annie Flynn, who first offers a verbal rebuke (from the lens of Christianity) to Bev Keane and then lays down her life for the benefit of others in that ultimate expression of love meant to counterbalance the evil Keane has worked. If you want to argue that the fact that Annie doesn’t actually die undercuts her sacrifice, I have two responses. First, there are some consequences that are worse than death–especially to a Christian who believes in the promise of eternal life. Becoming whatever she became after she transitioned into undeath would not have been a welcome prospect. Second, that does not undo the terror that must be overcome to willingly slit one’s own throat and experience what followed.
Instead, there are two possibilities for explaining Bev Keane’s evil, and both are both infuriating and ubiquitous in humanity. The first possibility is that her position and the use of her faith serves only to fulfill those petty desires of the small-minded: something to control, something to feel superior to, something to set you apart for special praise. The second is that she has allowed her convictions to stand in the way of her compassion. This is the behavior that causes Jesus to rebuke the Pharisees so many times in the Gospels, to call them “white-washed sepulchers.”
I would argue that all genuine faith (regardless of creed or theology) must begin from a place of humility and an acceptance of love for others as the deciding factor in all moral questions. It is humility that keeps us from the surety and pride in our own ideas that allows them to justify hurting others in the interests of “purity of doctrine.” It is love that guides us not to hurt others for our own gain. That Jesus demonstrates these points time and time again is one of the most convincing aspects of Christianity to me, personally. At the same time, regardless of doctrine, I cannot conceive of a good God who would not appreciate a person who follows these practices, regardless of the specifics of their theology.
Erin Greene’s Speech
Here’s the problem that I have with the narrative and the arguments it makes: Erin Greene’s “I am that I am” death speech. Now, to be complete forthright and honest, I’m biased against the argument made by this speech in the first place, so take it as you will (which may be not at all). Here’s a transcript of the monologue so that it is fresh before you:
“Speaking for myself? Myself. My self. That’s the problem. That’s the whole problem with the whole thing. That word: self. That’s not the word, that’s not right, that isn’t — that isn’t. How did I forget that? When did I forget that? The body stops a cell at a time, but the brain keeps firing those neurons. Little lightning bolts, like fireworks inside, and I thought I’d despair or feel afraid, but I don’t feel any of that. None of it. Because I’m too busy. I’m too busy in this moment. Remembering. Of course. I remember that every atom in my body was forged in a star. This matter, this body, is mostly just empty space after all, and solid matter?
It’s just energy vibrating very slowly and there is no me. There never was. The electrons of my body mingle and dance with the electrons of the ground below me and the air I’m no longer breathing. And I remember there is no point where any of that ends and I begin. I remember I am energy. Not memory. Not self. My name, my personality, my choices, all came after me. I was before them and I will be after, and everything else is pictures picked up along the way. Fleeting little dreamlets printed on the tissue of my dying brain.
And I am the lightning that jumps between. I am the energy fighting the neurons. And I’m returning. Just by remembering, I’m returning home. It’s like a drop of water falling back into the ocean, of which it’s always been a part. All things, a part. All of us, a part. You, me, and my little girl, and my mother, and my father, everyone who’s ever been. Every plant, every animal, every atom, every star, every galaxy, all of it. More galaxies in the universe than grains of sand on the beach.
That’s what we’re talking about when we say God. The one. The cosmos, and its infinite dreams. We are the cosmos dreaming of itself. It’s simply a dream that I think is my life, every time. But I’ll forget this. I always do. I always forget my dreams. But now, in this split second, in the moment I remember, the instant I remember, I comprehend everything at once. There is no time. There is no death. Life is a dream. It’s a wish. Made again and again and again and again and again and again and on into eternity. And I am all of it. I am everything. I am all. I am that I am.”
The first thing I take issue with is that the speech exists at all. If you’re going to spend an entire series deconstructing religion and the problems that arise within it, I find it disingenuous to substitute your own argument for cosmological truth in the final act–it just makes everything that came before a strawman for knocking down, a rhetorical sleight-of-hand to lend strength to a belief about fundamental reality just as unprovable as the ones you’ve spent the rest of the story questioning. Given that the rest of the narrative raises questions about how we judge the leaps of faith we willingly make–or are called to make by others–trying to answer the question only cheapens it. The more honest approach is to leave the question open: we don’t know for sure what ultimate reality is or what happens when we die, no matter how deeply we believe in the answer provided by one faith or another, so let’s start from a place of compassion towards others and humility in our understanding of self.
For this same reason, this speech is entirely unnecessary and overreaches. The only satisfying answer that we find in the questions raised by the story lie within our lived lives, not our expectations of the afterlife. How our faith causes is to treat people in the here and now is the primary focus of any theological argument made by the show, so why suddenly go beyond that?
[Aside: I’d also note that this is the same focus that Jesus takes in the Gospels–he spends much less time (but not none) discussing the nature of the afterlife or resurrection, because (I think) however God has (or has not) structured any life to come, anything more than the hope of it is a distraction from the lives we lead now. Jesus has much more to say on how we ought to conduct ourselves in our present lives; I’d argue the central theme of his teachings is a revelation of how creation operates (or should operate) so that we can use that knowledge now.]
Here’s where, if the approach taken by Erin’s speech appeals to you, you may really want to leave off. I think it’s only fair to deconstruct that argument about the nature of reality in the same way the show does for other religious ideas. Here we go.
The speech begins with a denial that the self exists, but continues to speak in the first person. This is a problem that I have with any theological argument that asserts that denial of the self and re-assimilation to an undifferentiated whole is the purpose or end of existence. First, because this is, effectively, death. If you do not believe in an afterlife, that’s fine, this concept will work for you. But it is incompatible with the idea that we continue to exist after the assimilating event, you are, by necessity, a self.
More important, if you are arguing that the self is only an illusion (as does Greene in her monologue, as do some forms of Buddhism), who is making the argument? You have no internal consistency when you argue that there is no true thing as self and then make a bunch of statements as assertions made by yourself. This is the same problem with the materialist arguments that “there is no self, there is only the illusion of self because consciousness is an unfunctioning byproduct of firing neurons” (something that Green alludes to herself) or that we lack free will because “we’re just bags of chemicals.”
Erin’s cosmology leads to nothing morally superior to Christianity or any other philosophy or theology–it is not exempt from being misused. If I am everything and everything is me, I can justify doing whatever I want for my own power, because it’s all me anyway. If my actions only hurt myself, there is no one but me who can truly complain about anything I do, even if it seems to hurt part of me–I have the right to hurt myself as an autonomous being. Bev Keane could find ways to work with this kind of solipsism with no more difficulty than she justifies herself through Christianity.
I’m going to sidestep the hubris of decided that one is God, not to mention the absurdity of denying the existence self and then claiming such an expansive definition of self.
That said, I do believe that this philosophy is particularly apt for a horror story…if the point of the philosophy is existential terror. Really think about what Erin is arguing about her existence–she continually “forgets” and believes that she’s a self, has experiences, comes to find out she’s not a self and it has only been a “dream,” then forgets that dream and goes through the process ad infinitum. This is a cycle of believing that there is meaning in existence and then finding that there is none. It is a masturbatory universe playing with itself because there’s nothing else to do. Without variety, without self, without memory, without relationship, where can meaning be found?
Between Riley Flynn and Erin, what I really see motivating their beliefs is a desire for oblivion, a desire for the end of suffering. That’s understandable from a certain perspective; given enough suffering, the will to continue to exist in the face of pain and despair will eventually abate. I’d like to say I think of the Book of Job when I think of this, but really I think of the narrator in Fight Club: “On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” This is a desire for escape, a desire simply to stop suffering. Given Riley and Erin’s experiences in life, I see why such a belief would be appealing. And maybe that’s all we get at the end of life, a ceasing to exist that alleviates all pain–but that also denies any of the joys of existence. I have only my faith to say otherwise.
But that is, in fact, part of why I have faith. I want to believe that there is an ultimate meaning to existence, that we exist in the creation of an omnipotent and beneficent God who wants the highest joy for each of us when all is said and done in this world. No joy that ends can be the highest joy, so it stands to reason that eternal life is necessary (though not sufficient) to the abundant life Jesus promises us. Instead of having a hope to one day escape the bad, I would rather have something more–a hope for being complete in the good.
That faith and hope makes me a better person. Yes, it helps me to suffer more patiently. Yes, it helps me to be generally happier. But it also helps me to strive to create meaning, in both life and art. It helps me to love others and to push for that abundant life here and now (what, after all, is eternity but an unending “now?”). It helps me to do good. This kind of faith isn’t a crutch; it’s a ladder.
It’s possible that Erin’s explanation of reality is the correct one; I lack the knowledge and experience to say anything conclusive on the matter. But I also see no reason, theological or practical, to live one’s life with such a belief. I, for one, will continue to set my faith on something higher.
If you watched this show and felt that it singled out Christianity for special treatment (I think there’s an argument that it went softer on Islam, but it’s also true that that may only be a matter of space in the story and the fact that it is Monsignor Pruitt and his church that is the focus), I’d ask you to ask why you think that is. There is, as I’ve mentioned above, the strange relationship between Communion and vampirism. But I’d argue that that’s not it. Instead, I’d argue that this is a matter of the times in which we find ourselves and of the nature of American Christianity (painted unfairly in the broadest possible brush, of course).
In the past few years, we’ve had conservative Christians call Obama the antichrist, act as if Trump were the Second Coming (a thought so antithetical to me that I have a physical reaction upon writing it), call the Covid-19 vaccine a sign of the End Times, use their faith as an excuse for not showing compassion to their fellow man (again with the vaccine, and I’ve written previously about the use of faith as an excuse given by child placing agencies to discriminate within the Texas foster and adoptive care systems) to support fascism undercurrents and spread lies about our government, to make arguments against equality, and so on and so on. The litany of offenses would be a long one indeed, and this is nothing new.
Given these stances and their affect on believers and non-believers alike, they should be subject to scrutiny and criticism. It should be a matter for every honest believer, regardless of their specific beliefs, to introspectively question the rightness of their theological positions as a matter of a desire to truly live faithfully–entrenched tradition and interpretations of doctrine originating in very different historical contexts should be especially subject to this process. Not because we have changed for the better, necessarily, but because the interpretations that arose in one context may be influenced by that context just as ours affects our interpretation. The argument that progressive Christians are trying to “change the Bible” because of changes in culture is a willful ignorance that all interpretation is subject to human limitation and the influence of culture on the mind. By having a greater diversity of interpretations, we may be able to make comparisons and weigh arguments to find something closer to the truth.
Those who’ve read my blog for a while know that one of the primary focuses in my religious writing is to argue against the fundamentalist and conservative interpretations of Christianity that I believe grossly miss the meaning of the faith–and create barriers to others in considering what true Christianity is about by creating an image of the faith that is repulsive to those who feel that compassion and love, not fear and hatred, is the message of a good God, regardless of the specific faith. In that sense, Midnight Mass makes a strong and valuable point–we have a moral obligation to consider whether our religious beliefs lead to good things or bad, lead us to make the world better or to make it worse. When it’s the latter, is it really fair to resort to divine mandate theory–that because God said it it’s true and moral? Or should we believe in a God that does not ask us to hurt others for vainglory?