The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14), Year A
Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”Matthew 14:22-33
I have always been deeply frustrated by horror films. Especially when I was younger, I was always one of those annoying people who would try and give advice to the characters on screen. My frustration was always how simple the solutions would be: don’t go into the dark hallway while the ominous music swells, run the other direction, look at where you are going while fleeing from the monster to not trip. The solutions were always so obvious, it was deeply frustrating to see the characters always making the exact wrong decision.
As an adult I have remained equally annoying to watch horror films with. Though I have become better educated so I can air my grievances with greater accuracy and frequency. Yet of all the horror films I have seen, no sub-genre of horror frustrates me more than exorcist films. Beyond minor irritants such as the typical portrayal of an inept, corrupt, or overzealous priest, and a painfully obvious misunderstanding of Christian doctrine, what frustrates me the most is a lack of coherency in the theology they present. Often these films build their story around a quasi-medieval Roman Catholic worldview: demons are real and meddle in human affairs, ancient rites & rituals are required to expel them, Christian imagery such as crosses, prayers, and the Lord’s Name are effective in holding them off. What I can never understand is: if the world the story takes place in is one that is dictated by the logic of late-medieval Roman Catholic doctrine and demonology, why do the characters never pray? They will use crosses and charms depicting saints (usually St. George or St. Dustan for their historical depiction as demon-slayers), even reciting passages from Scripture, but rarely do they actually pray for help from God, even though they seem to know and believe that it would work.
Why do writers and directors make these poor narrative choices? It is often that many do not bother to research their subject, they simply want to play with the imagery and intrigue without trying to respect or understand it. There is also the rather obvious reason that the films would be quite short if the characters were smart enough to simply ask God for help. While a Deus ex Machina works well in theology, I can see how it would fizzle the mood in a horror movie. Though more than anything else, somewhat ironically, it is the writer’s very own fears. They are too afraid to ask the really scary questions: What if God said no? What if God was silent? What if God was never there at all?
They side-step the questions because they are afraid of the implication that there is only evil in the world, as it is as much of an anticlimax as a Deus ex Machina. The idea that evil has really won the day is as ridiculous as the theory that this is the best of all possible worlds. Such pessimism is so unrealistic that the writers know it would take the fun out of movie, and ultimately cause the studio to lose money. Thus, our poor characters are rendered helplessly agnostic, defying all reason and narrative intrigue for the sake of a cheap jump-scare and an incoherent commentary on postmodern society.
Horror, like any popular media, both shapes and is shaped by the presumptions of our society. In our postmodern age, fear is abound. The ghouls, legends, and unknown that made up the horror stories of our ancestors have largely been put to bed in exchange for our own inner demons and general decay of a strong community bonds. Couple this with a pessimistic view of human nature and a basic misunderstanding of existentialism, and we have the perfect monster: Humanity possessed. Yet the common overtures to this dim view of reality are little more than a fad. A passing adolescent phase of first being disappointed by the world and mistaking despair for narrative depth.
If we stop for a moment and think about it, it is a rather boring story.
If there were any real courage in telling a horror story, it would be to put away the childish monsters and tell a story about what really frightens us: stepping out in faith.
Only it cannot be done. To tell a story of risking something for the good, only to fail, is not actually horror, but the all-too-real experience shared by all humanity. Horror is merely entertainment, a distraction from the quiet disappointment that really keeps us up at night. The monsters were never real, but the disappointment is much more frightening.
It is this fear that possess humanity and keeps us in darkness. We fear that there is not enough, so we hoard. We fear that we may be wrong in our assumptions, so we lash out against our neighbors or hide in echo chambers. We fear that we will be victimized, so we make our neighbors our victims. We fear that we have been deceived, so we tell ourselves comfortable lies. We fear that we will be disappointed, so we dare not believe.
If we are so possessed, why then do we not pray?
“What if God says no?” “What if God is silent?” “What if God has never been there at all?” This is the fear that holds us back. There is a strange comfort in total despair: if we had no hope we could not be disappointed, if we never move we never have to be unsure if we chose the right path, if we never try to make the world better we never have take responsibility for our part in keeping it in a mess.
For all the posturing and complex sociological and pseudo-psychological analysis, we make the same mistake that the characters in horror films make: we forget to reach out to God for help. We even make the mistake for the same reason: we make dumb choices and miss obvious solutions when we are scared.
Let us for a moment look past cheap scare-tactics to a story that instead offers real help. An anti-horror story if you will.
It was a dark and stormy night. The winds raged and the sea swelled, rocking the ship to sickening angles. The rain so heavy it threatened to drown them even on the ship. Lightening cracks across the sky, followed by a burst of thunder that strikes the men in their very hearts.
They cannot see land, they left long ago, they cannot see the way forward, nor behind, nor to the left, nor the right. They are beset at all sides, death from above and the void below. Both threaten to swallow them whole.
They are profoundly alone.
That is, through the wind, the chaos, the noise, darkness, and flashes of light, in the distance they realize they are not alone. They are being approached by an otherworldly figure; pursuing them, chasing them, coming for them. What could the figure want? Cosmic horror grips them, storms they knew, death they knew, let the sea take them! At least that is a fate they are acquainted with.
Suddenly, they are called by name. “Come!”
He steps out, leaving what little he knew, and begins to walk on the water. It holds. Dumbfounded, he walks toward the figure.
The rain pours heavier, the wind howls, another flash of lightening, another kick in the chest from thunder. The amazement gives way and the fear wraps its icy grip on his legs. It begins to drag him down, the void is ready to take him.
He is profoundly alone.
A hand grabs him. Wresting him from the depths.
“You of little faith, why do you doubt?” When they return to the ship all is quiet, the sea calms as the dawn breaks.
Do not mistake this story’s ending for pious speculation, nor its optimism for naivety. It is a profoundly real experience that we all face. Everything is at stake; we are beset from all sides. Fear drags us down and threatens to swallow us whole. The lesson is not in the end, when all is calm, and we all look foolish for having feared at all. We know the end of the story. We’ve known for a long time. But we are not yet at the end, at the calm.
We are still in the storm.
We are in the storm, yet we are called to come out of our hiding places, to step out of a sinking ship and walk above our fear. We are called by name to something higher, something otherworldly that we have seen but do not fully understand. From that call, from taking that first step, stepping out in faith, we learn that we have always been able to walk on water. We can live above our fear. Once we stop merely trying to survive, selfishly trying to “just get by”, hoping that the world will simply pass us by, that is when we can walk on water.
But we must walk on our own two legs. We must answer the call. Being courageous, having faith is not passive; it only works if we act in faith. We will be weighed down, when we realize that we are moving beyond the sinking ship we have always known. We will be disappointed because we do not understand, but we cannot let it drag us down. The storm will continue to rage, and we will continue to walk forward. Even a society as faithless as ours has already taken the first steps. It is our task to keep moving forward and not let ourselves sink into the void.
Even when we feel like we are sinking, we are not alone.
The Word is very near you,
on your lips and in your heart