Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Devil’s Meeting: M. Night Shyamalan’s “Devil”

Billed as the first of “The Night Chronicles,” Shyamalan’s “Devil” opens with a sequence that is strange but apt:  a long helicopter pan over the city, it would be a fairly standard orienting sequence, except that it is presented upside-down.  It thus becomes an experience of disorientation, and then you realize that it is also an apt visual statement of the arrival of the “devil” in question:  the creature, in effect, has to come up to get to where we human beings are.  But not up from a human perspective, as in up out of the ground, but rather up from the spiritual realm in which it lives.  Its priorities are entirely the opposite of the good God who created this physical realm, so it makes a clear and apt theological statement to visualize it as approaching our realm from a literally inverted perspective.

The quote from Peter about the devil roaming the Earth like a lion, seeking whom he may destroy, tells us exactly what we will be dealing with.  Shyamalan’s concept is a putative folk tale, that sometimes “the devil” will trap a small collection of humans together somewhere and “torture them before taking their souls,” an event called “The Devil’s Meeting.”  One of the characters tells us that his grandmother told him that this always begins “with a suicide paving the way for the devil’s arrival, and it would always end with the deaths of all those trapped.” 

Our focus character, a recovering alcoholic cop, is struggling to forgive the unknown man who killed his family in a hit and run; his AA sponsor advises him that in order to get his life back, he “may have to start believing in something greater than himself.”  This is a bit more “2 by 4” than Shyamalan needs to be; we know he’s a better writer than this.  But after that slightly obvious set-up, he gets rolling in the old-school Twilight Zone manner we know and love.
The story is a marvelously well-crafted “locked room” mystery, with excellent red herrings and multiple twists--Ten Little Indians in a claustrophobic high-rise elevator, with our detective slowly coming to terms with the reality of an evil beyond what mere mortals can and do so often dish out upon each other.  In the end, the “devil” is thwarted by a genuine offer of self-sacrifice on behalf of another (“Take me instead;” “STOP SAYING THAT!”), and honest, spirit-broken confession—and forgiveness. 

While the notion of “The Devil’s Meeting” is certainly extra-Biblical, if there ever were such a horrific conference the resolution modeled here in type seems to confirm what the Bible would teach us is the effective strategy against this enemy.  “Devil” is thus not only a very welcome return to what Shyamalan does best—the tight, well-crafted “feature-length Twilight Zone episode,” but also rather a good excursion into Christian worldview, as well. 

Well done, Night!  Where are the rest of these “Chronicles,” anyway?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Hallowed for No Reason: The Hallowed Ones, by Laura Bickle

I found this novel by searching for “Christian Thriller” in the Young Adult listings of our local library.  It didn’t have that yellow “Christian” sticker on it, so I was excited to hope that somebody was actually working in a Christian worldview in this important genre, while likely getting more young readers by not being “pigeonholed.”  What a thoroughgoing disappointment.

There is some attempt to present evil as actual and supernatural:  the vampires are presented as some kind of more-than-biological scourge, and as irredeemably bad and dangerous—no sparkles here.  There is even a suggestion that they may have actually been spawned by a group of Satanists (having a lark at a sci-fi convention, the rumor goes, and inadvertently unleashing this horrifying evil into the world).  And there is a vague notion that BELIEF is protective against them:  the Amish community is at first protected against them because the whole community is essentially a church, therefore “hallowed ground.” 

But the author is quite thorough in showing us that actual FAITH has nothing to do with anything.  Mere belief in ANYthing will suffice:  a coven of witches that meet in a New Jersey strip mall is equally “hallowed;” a Himmelsbrief (written prayer) that our heroine carries with her protects her from attack, not because she believes it, but because the old man who wrote it for her does; even the tattoos of symbols related to ancient Egyptian gods with which the young outsider has marred his body are protective against attack, although he does not believe in these gods—the symbols are just “personally meaningful” to him in some vague, unspecified way.  Thus faith is reduced to the level of superstition (it would seem that even a lucky rabbit’s foot, if you in any way “believed” in it, would protect you against this evil).

As (predictably and boringly) usual, the representatives of an actual faith—the Amish religious community our young heroine finds herself growing up in—are presented as oppressive, irrational, and even dangerous.  They are cruel and unfeeling to the wounded outsider (leaving him outside their fence to die), and dismissive and nasty to anyone who questions anything they say—in other words, distinctly un-Christ-like.  Finally, they are shown to be deeply foolish (if their orders were followed, more lives would have been lost during the course of the story), and terrifyingly corrupting (when the young man who has been our heroine’s best friend all her life officially becomes a full-fledged member of the church, he suddenly becomes an abusive, unfaithful rapist).

The typical (destructive, anti-Christ) Young Adult Fiction formula is (again predictably, and sadly) clearly in evidence here:  in order to become the woman she is meant to be, our heroine must

1)  reject the beliefs and values of her (ineffectual) parents and the (oppressive, wrong) faith community,

2)  give herself sexually to the young outsider she’s only just met (of course)—

a)  with not a thought regarding the dangers of possible pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted diseases in this post-apocalyptic environment (forget about the heartbreaking spiritual degradation involved); and

b)  with the obligatory gross error that “love” equals the feeling of infatuation—she “never felt like this before,” therefore this must be real love, which therefore justifies anything; and finally

3)  leave the community (again, as predictably usual)—out into an enormously dangerous world full of apparently real evil, with no substantive defense other than “stay in the sunlight” (never mind the obvious flaw of, you know, that whole regularly-occurring night thing).   

If only Bickle could have used her otherwise interesting germ of an idea to present a strong case for real faith, real hope, and staying in the real Light. 

Cross this one off the list. 

If you know of any authors working in the “Young Adult” genre from an actual Christian worldview (whether the work is labeled “Christian” or—especially—if not), please do suggest them!