You might expect such images in a teen horror flick, but this is prime-time television fare from the pilot of a religion-themed drama on NBC-TV. "Revelations," debuting April 13th, is billed as "the final chapter" in "the greatest story ever told." Using explicit references and images from Catholicism, as well as from popular fundamentalist fare such as the LaHaye-Jenkins "Left Behind" series and Hal Lindsey's "Late, Great Planet Earth," "Revelations" seeks to frighten and titillate us with end-times speculation, theophanies (ominous visitations from God, usually involving acts of nature, such as thunderstorms, "burning bushes," or earthquakes), and the ever-familiar battle between good and evil.
Not that this is anything new for television. "The X-Files" gave us preachers who charmed snakes into killing at their bidding, a child with stigmata (spontaneous bleeding imitating the wounds of Jesus), and faith healers from the dark side. "Charmed" uses demons and images of hell to stir up trouble for the witches and the "white lighters" who fight for good against the pantheon of spirits who work for evil. HBO's "Carnivale" features a rigid Christian pastor as a villain with the power to literally force people to their knees-or worse. And "Point Pleasant" centered around a young woman spawned by Satan's coupling with her human mother.
Producers of mystery-thriller dramas use religious imagery, usually loosely based on biblical images or descriptions from Dante's "Inferno," because those images are familiar to us and are understood to be scary, exciting, or both. An ax murderer is scary but an ax murderer "sent from hell to destroy all humanity" ups the ante in shock value.
This is to be expected; after all, TV producers need to create excitement among viewers so ratings will increase, and frankly, it's getting harder and harder to excite viewers who feel like we've "seen it all" already on cable or film. Certainly the mystery of the world beyond our vision and experience will always intrigue us. But often the networks go too far, using religious imagery manipulatively to stir up the faithful and create a buzz. When "Revelations" talks about Jesus and uses the image of a cross in its logo, it startles us because we're used to a more universalistic approach to religion on television.
Christians from various backgrounds will find something to hate about "Revelations." Liberal Christians will find the fiery "end of the world" signs at best hokey and at worst mean-spirited, playing into stereotypes that assume all Christians believe in a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Rev. Fred Schmidt, an Episcopal theologian and professor of Christian spirituality from Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, has gone on record saying this show will "give the Apocalypse a bad name." His point is that the biblical Book of Revelation is a poetic description of the hardships of early Christians, not a literal account of how the world will end. On the other side of the Christian spectrum, biblical literalists will complain that the TV show does not stick closely to what they see as God's apocalyptic "to do" list. But beyond this one problematic series, there's a larger question:
What happens when producers use religion to creep people out?
Luckily, we are not powerless at the hands of television producers who toy with us using religious images. We can discern whether the image presented in the story fits with our own image of God and with the many, varied images of God we find in our sacred texts. When we see a violent image designed to inspire fear and insecurity in us, we need to ask ourselves, "Is the God I believe in violent like this?"
The religious images we have known through history are meaningful-primarily as metaphors for the struggle we feel between our human natures and what we believe to be the nature of God. When this imagery is turned on us and used to frighten us, we need to think about why. Who benefits from such fear-mongering? Advertisers? Networks? Storytellers? We also need to ask what-and who-is left out of the story. In the case of Revelations, we could rightly wonder whether a Satan-worshiping prisoner or a nun investigating the paranormal are going to reveal the enormous love of God for the well-being of humanity? We might also wonder how this, and other creepy religious storylines, will affect those hearts and souls longing for images of unconditional love, boundless mercy, and healing compassion.
What these shows don't tell you is that images of destruction and violence in the Bible are few, while images of God as love, light, healing, and forgiveness are many. Many scholars who study the historical context and linguistic style of fearsome Scripture passages say the frightful images were placed there by writers who were familiar with the rhetorical use of poetic, metaphorical language in sacred texts, never dreaming that anyone in the future would ever take these images literally. These ancient writers knew something about God that producers of these religious horror shows don't seem to take into account.
That "ick," as it were, never has the last word.