There’s plenty of buzz about the upcoming Anthony Hopkins film The Rite, which tells me that, somewhere, some publicist is going to keep his job. In my long years as an obscure Catholic journalist (is there any other kind?), I’ve gotten regular invites from PR companies that specialize in the “Christian market” to preview movies that have some religious “angle.” All too often, it’s plain from the press release that these are merely “family” movies: moderately interesting, moderately uplifting dramas of ordinary life to which you can bring the kids (though they’ll fall asleep), because they are free of nudity and profanity — in other words, they’re airplane versions of regular movies. I’ve nothing against that. Indeed, we need more such films, and I mourn the demise of the companies that used to “scrub” R-rated Hollywood pictures for the benefit of viewers with less jaded sensibilities. (The auteurs who make movies like No Strings Attached and Jackass 3D sued such well-meaning censors out of existence).
But I’m not going to make a special trip to preview, much less write about, films that are clearly rentals at best. The few times I’ve made it to such screenings, the audience was packed with Protestant pastors and Young Life leaders, and sprinkled with Roman collars and habits. The event always began with a chipper talk by a handsome lady publicist, pointing out the “refreshingly wholesome,” “life-affirming” message that pervaded the film, urging the pastors to recommend the movie from the pulpit, with the implicit or explicit argument: “You people are always complaining about all the filth that comes out of Hollywood. Well here it is, something we’ve made with you in mind. If you don’t support it, and it doesn’t turn a profit, we’ll just have to go ahead and greenlight Meet the Parents 4.“ And they do have a point. But it bothers me that so many of the movies promoted this way are not really “spiritual,” much less Christian; they’re simply bland and inoffensive.
The Catholic faith is neither. In fact, like really authentic Mexican food (think habeneros and fried crickets), it is at once both pungent and offensive. It offends me all the time, with the outrageous demands it makes of my fallen nature and the sheer weirdness of its claims. It asserts that, behind the veil of day-to-day schlepping, of work and laundry and television and microwaved burritos, we live on the front lines of a savage spiritual war waged by invisible entities (deathless malevolent demons and benevolent dead saints) whose winners will enjoy eternal happiness with a resurrected rabbi, and whose losers will writhe forever in unquenchable fire. Sometimes I step back and find myself saying in Jerry Seinfeld’s voice: What’s with all the craziness? Why can’t I just enjoy my soup?
The Church’s heroes, seen from a worldly point of view, are a pack of self-destructive zealots who embark on crackpot projects like lifelong celibacy, voluntary poverty, and (worst of all) obedience; who leave perfectly serviceable chateaus in France to go preach the Beatitudes to scalp-collecting Indians in freezing Canada; who volunteer to sneak into Stalin’s Russia precisely because he has imprisoned so many priests, then spend decades saying secret Masses in labor camps; who open up pro-life pregnancy centers in crappy neighborhoods so they can talk welfare queens into having still more babies we’ll have to pay for . . .
And so on. A religion like this doesn’t need after-school specials; it needs science fiction and fantasy, horror films and surrealism to convey the fundamental strangeness that it believes lies just beneath the surface of day-to-day “reality.” To keep our sense of perspective, every once in a while at one of our dull, desacralized liturgies, the priest needs to die of a heart attack in the pulpit (as happened at my old New York parish, St. Agnes, some years ago), if only to remind us of the stakes we’re playing for. We need — though let me stress, we don’t enjoy, and I do not want — the occasional “Flannery O’Connor moment.”
So that’s why I went to see the preview, a few years back, of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. That’s why I’m inclined to go see The Rite, though I have deep fears both of heterodoxy and cheesiness. Such movies, when they are done well, peel back the Norman Rockwell veil we’d all rather stayed in place and show us what lies behind it: Hieronymous Bosch. The proper purpose of art (when it goes beyond entertainment) is to show us a glimpse of the deep truths, the kind we can only endure in small and occasional doses. We couldn’t really stand it if every Sunday the Host were visibly transformed into a bloody chunk of flesh, as happened at Lanciano; we might not want to bring the kids. And, truth to tell, it would wear us all down. But little glimpses of this kind of thing, peeks into the great abyss of Mystery, dark or bright, are helpful from time to time.
Too often, films like The Rite don’t really serve this purpose, but instead feed into a nasty voyeurism of the sort that attracts us to evil. We see that the Enemy really does give tangible, spiritual power to some of his servants. As the author of nature’s order, God is loath to disrupt it, so He grants miracles rarely and dispenses them typically after we’re racked ourselves with prayer. Satan, who’s merely a vandal, will gladly perform hat-tricks and grant instant gratification. Exorcists, in their memoirs, inform us that you really can learn things from Ouija boards, summon spirits who might do your bidding, or cast spells upon your enemies. If you’re willing to play with plutonium, you can make little bombs to throw at people to vent your petty spite. But remember that you’re an idiot mucking around inside the core of a nuclear reactor, with no idea how the thing works and not the slightest protection against its effects.
The best depiction I’ve seen of how occultism kills the soul, Robert Hugh Benson’s novel The Necromancers, details what happens next: a slow, sick burn seeps into your brain. The colors of nature (which you’ve raped) all fade to a sickly, jaundiced yellow. Having glimpsed the dark underbelly of things, you become utterly cynical. Ordinary knowledge, earned through hard labor, loses all attraction compared to secrets, conspiracies, and gossip. You begin to see other people with that hideous spiritual hunger that demons feel all the time, as if they were healthy animals and you were a parasite, looking for somewhere to batten on them and drain their strength. Soon the glamour of evil fades, and once it’s too late (by any human power) for you to escape, you feel deep in your bones the crassness, the foulness, the cheapness of what you have become.
I wish more films that treat the occult would emphasize this point. Evil is a privation, and it lives only by borrowing strength — like a tapeworm, or a tick. We should certainly fear the devil, but he deserves no awe and should exert no fascination. We should not even pity him. What we need to feel is contempt.