Nathaniel Metz's Blog

1st year doctoral student in theology at Baylor. This blog exists to help me formulate my thoughts and practice writing. It does not speak for any institution.

#JohnMilbank #NewTestament #Scripture #history #RadicalOrthodoxy #review

I should start with a full disclosure that I make absolutely no pretensions of being a biblical scholar or a New Testament historian. I am thoroughly implanted more within the “theology” stream of religious studies — even dabbling more into philosophical theology than biblical studies. However, the question of the historical Jesus always manages to grab my attention. Even more meta-historical debates, such as what it even means to quest for a “historical” Jesus or whether that's a worthwhile pursuit, manage to allure me. Recently, I came across a line of argumentation that I had not previously seen, so I would like to make sense of it by writing out a summary of the argument here. Perhaps some real historians or biblical scholars could easily blow through this line of reasoning, but I found it interesting enough to at least ponder.

In a previous post (link below), I attempted to map out John Milbank's objections to the “Radical Evil” theory of the ontology of evil, which is in his book Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon from Routledge press. In a later chapter of his book, titled “Crucifixion: Obscure Deliverance”, Milbank goes on to discuss the historicity of the trial and execution of Jesus, which sets up his discussion of the atonement. All cited page numbers are from that chapter.

Setting the Stage: Common Objections to the Gospel Narrative

Milbank first summarizes the common objections against the historicity of the trial and condemnation narratives presented in the Gospels. Of course, the belief that an influential religious person named Jesus was crucified by Romans is something that almost all scholars believe, regardless of religious affiliation. However, the particularities found within the four gospel accounts are often called into question.

According to Milbank, the general skepticism rests within the belief that the narratives themselves contain too much material that is exceptional to the first-century world, both with regard to Christ and Roman law (pgs. 82, 92). These scholars maintain that the gospel materials contain many details not corroborated elsewhere in what we know about first-century Palestine and Roman history. Examples are as follows: the Passover amnesty (the releasing of Barrabas) (p. 82), Pilate making concessions, and the nature of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin combined with the fact that Jesus died a Roman death (p. 83). Regarding the Sanhedrin, it seems unlikely for Jesus to be charged with blasphemy since, according to many scholars, the typical charge for blasphemy was improperly uttering the secret name of God (p. 83). Even if Jesus had been condemned for blasphemy, it seems likely that the Sanhedrin would’ve just stoned Jesus, which they did with other prophets (p. 83). Regarding the trials of Jesus, it also seems unlikely that any followers of Christ would be privy to the private conversations between Jesus and Pilate (p. 83).

So what, according to many scholars, accounts for the narrative invention of the gospel writers and their act of downplaying Roman involvement? The most popular theory is that the new Christian communities wanted to distinguish themselves from Judaism after the destruction of the temple to avoid incurring Roman wrath upon themselves (p. 83). In this view, the narratives utilized were a type of survival technique. More severely, some scholars also theorize that the Gospel narratives downplaying Roman involvement are the result of anti-Semitic attitudes within the early Christian writers (p. 83).

Milbank Strikes Back

In contrast to these views, Milbank provides a counter-proposal.

Milbank’s chief contention is that, regarding the gospel narratives and Roman law itself, exceptionality is the point. The whole reason why the Gospel writers wanted to record the story — why Christianity was developing as a movement — is because they believed the events that unfolded were exceptional (pgs. 84, 92). Of course, from the Christian perspective, these events were exceptional because they were unique events of God’s interaction in the world — especially the unparalleled event of the Incarnation.

But beyond the theological exceptionality of Christ’s life and death, there is also a degree of historical exceptionality to the events that should not cause one to dismiss them right away. After all, exceptions to historical norms do occur, and so according to Milbank, exception in itself is not sufficient grounds for dismissal (p. 84). Furthermore, extraordinary events are often the most likely events to be recorded (p. 84). In Milbank’s assessment, it seems that the scholars basing their dismissal of the Gospel accounts historicity on exceptionality beg the question against the very exceptionality presumed by the Gospel writers (p. 85). Instead, we ought to admit that bigger events in history that have complex origins (p. 84). Milbank points to WWI as an example (p. 84). The start of WWI is not reducible to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Instead, it was brought about by many complex situations that compounded upon each other, gaining a sense of maddening acceleration (p. 84). Within the complex web of unfolding history, effects can often exceed their cause (or web of causes), which Milbank thinks is exactly the case of Christ’s death on the cross (p. 85).

Finally, Milbank makes an interesting (albeit offhand) comment about privileging non-gospel sources over and against the gospel accounts. Of course, there's some rational sense in privileging non-gospel sources for historical inquiring. The Christians who wrote the gospels had an invested interest in promoting their agenda and thus are far from unbiased reporters. Therefore, scholars want corroboration with non-gospel accounts of events because one could more plausibly claim that certain events took place if the evidence was accepted by all parties involved. However, Milbank notes that we should not get too carried away with this. He says: “... the issue arises of why one should treat Josephus and rabbinic texts as independent background sources, and not accord the gospels the same status; is this to privilege official and established literature over insurrectionary and emergent voices?)” (p. 86). This is an interesting remark I had never considered. In our modern context, Christianity is an established global power — most often a majority voice in many parts of the world. However, in the first century, this was not the case. Christianity was far more insurrectionary, whereas the established historians (perhaps with some exceptions) were often writing as one aligned with the Roman Empire, and thus could even fall into a reactionary perspective. At the very least, Milbank reminds us that no writers are unbiased, and it gives a different light on the gospel writers and their emergent social position.

After arguing against the scholarly dismissal of exceptionality, Milbank replies to the objections directly. Regarding Pilate’s role as portrayed in the Gospels, Milbank notes that is common for tyrannical rulers to occasionally allow the people to have their way as appeasement in order to maintain order (p. 86). Furthermore, concerning the objection to the trial dialogue between Pilate and Christ, it is somewhat possible for word to have leaked out regarding what Pilate said to Jesus (p. 86). More likely, however, the dialogue is a reconstruction by the four Gospel writers. Nonetheless, a reconstructed dialogue that abides by the ancient practices of history qua sacred story-telling does not mean that the events should be immediately discounted as anti-historical (p. 86). The dialogue might very well be fitting to the real events that took place, even if they are not literal word-for-word transcriptions. After all, we do this all the time for biopic films, but reconstructed dialogue with purposeful, literary incentive does not cause us to assume that such an event never took place.

Regarding the Sanhedrin, Milbank argues, citing Philo, that the charge of blasphemy could depend on context, and the use of certain phrases by Jesus (THE Son of Man, if Jesus ever claimed to be the Son of God, etc.) could qualify for blasphemy. Furthermore, it’s possible that Jesus’ threats and prophetic denouncements at the Temple could’ve been the real issue over his trouble with the Sanhedrin (p. 86).

Furthermore, we have other existing examples of the Sandehrin attempting to have self-appointed prophets put to death, which were recorded by Josephus (pgs. 86-87). Milbank notes that Pilate had the ability to “try the crimes of non-Roman citizens by a process of personal cognitio that was exceptional” to the regular rule of law, allowing Pilate to try “without jury-courts or specific criminal laws and with absolute personal license as to the punishments that could be meted out” (p. 86). Milbank notes that this usually happened within the “margins” of the Empire and served to keep “good order and appeasement” amongst the subjugated people (p. 87).

Of course, there is still the question of the gospel writers wanting to distinguish themselves from Judaism and as well as the charge of anti-semitism. In response, Milbank says that we don't know for sure to what degree the gospel writers thought of themselves as distinct from Judaism and the Jewish people (p. 87). Even the Gospel of John, which receives the most charge of anti-Semitism, “attributes a great deal of blame to Pilate” — and the Synoptics attribute even more blame to Pilate (p. 87). Pilate is depicted as cruel, playful, unwilling to release an innocent man, and an ironic witness to the truth despite himself (p. 87). Likewise, the gospel narrative does not depict the Jewish people as executing their own sovereign will, as if Jesus' death rests solely on their shoulders (p. 87). For example, the author of Luke-Acts is quite careful to state that the Jewish individuals who had problems with Jesus were the leaders within Jerusalem, not all Jewish people (p. 88). As Milbank says: “What Luke stresses is the division of Israel with regard to Jesus, just as in Acts he stressed the division of the whole of the known world” (p. 88). Additionally, Luke 23 depicts large numbers of people both condemning Jesus and also weeping for Jesus' condemnation (p. 90). The author of Luke, in a sense, maintains that all parties (indeed, the whole world, as is stressed in Acts) share some of the blame for Jesus' death, while also noting how many Jewish people were against Jesus' execution. If this is so, then Milbank argues that this sounds quite far removed from the charge of the gospel's narrative being a mere ideological construction (p. 88). From Milbank's perspective, if the gospel writers were wanting to exonerate Rome, they could have done a better job (p. 87).

I'll throw in my own comment here and say that, regardless of whether or not Milbank is correct, Christians still need to make a great effort to denounce anti-semitism and critique the ways in which the Gospel narratives have been used to persecute Jewish people. Such practices are unacceptable, and in our current political climate in which anti-semitism is on the rise, we must be above reproach and make a stand to help our Jewish neighbors and friends.

Finally, Milbank responds to the position that the Passover Amnesty is ahistorical. Following the work of scholars like Simon Legasse and Jean Colin, Milbank believes that Pilate, being formerly located at the free city of Caesarea, borrowed a practice called “epiboesis” to deal with the strange situation of Jesus. Epiboesis was a practice in ancient Rome utilized amongst “'free cities' of the Oriental empire” where “people could be condemned and executed by popular vote and acclamation (including instances of preference between two people accused),” and it is a practice for which we have other recorded instances (p. 89). Milbank postulates that both Pilate and Herod were familiar with the practice of epiboesis, given that Pilate was from Caesarea and Herod from Decapolis, “the ring of free cities surrounding Galilee, where Herod held sway” (p. 89). Thus, we have two actors within the narrative who plausibly knew about epiboesis and, according to the Gospel narratives, invoked this practice in dealing with Jesus. The other option is that Luke, being from the free city of Antioch, invented this aspect of the narrative based on his own experiences. However, Milbank disagrees with this proposition, saying that it “conflicts with the structural consonance of the four gospel accounts, and the general accepted historical secondariness of the Lukan version” (p. 89).

Milbank Develops His Case

Milbank notes that, according to late antique grammarian Pomeius Festus and the scholar Giorgia Agamben, there was a practice within Roman law that allowed for citizens to kill someone after condemning that person as a mob. The person killed would be labeled a “homo sacer.” The “sacer,” which means “cast out,” was a truly unique and exceptional instance of bloodshed that was outside typical classification, being understood as something different than homicide, punishment, sacrifice, or the death penalty (p. 90). The sacer killing has parallels to other facets of Roman law, such as “patria potestas,” something common to both Jewish and Roman law, which gave the father absolute right over the life of his son (p. 90).

Keeping with his common theme on exceptionality, Milbank contests that, for Rome, exception is the rule (p. 91). Law was the “self-bestowal of normativity by the de facto possessor of power” (p. 91). This results from the nature of Roman sovereignty, whereby a singleness of sovereign power requires others to execute one's orders, hence having systems in place for mob justice in cases like a sacer (91).

How does all of this relate to Jesus and the Gospel narratives? According to Milbank's reading of the texts, Jesus is passed off in a sacerian fashion 3 times: from Jerusalem leaders to the Romans, from the Romans to the mob, and then from the mob to the Roman executioners (p. 92). The mob then lynches Jesus via Roman execution under the power of cognitio, such that “the necessary exception of mob lynching coincided precisely with regular execution” (p. 93). All of this seems to fit within “the structures of Roman law and the interactions between incompatible yet forcibly supplementary Roman and Jewish jurisdictions” (p. 93).

Concluding Thoughts

I'm not sure if Milbank is correct on this matter, simply because I'm not a New Testament historian, so it would be foolish for me to make absolute proclamations on the matter. Nonetheless, I certainly found this a fascinating article, and I was surprised by how I had not come across any of the material before. Up until reading Milbank's essay, I had assumed that most of the trial narrative was a theological invention by the authors which, though it might convey something about the theological significance of Jesus' death, wasn't exactly historical in a strict sense. Milbank's essay was a great challenge to that assumption. Regardless of whether his theories hold up, I think his best point is about the importance of exception within the narrative. I think he's right about how, too often, scholars are quick to label material in the Gospels as “ahistorical” based on their exceptional character, when the Gospel writers themselves seem to be preoccupied with Jesus' death precisely because it was exceptional.

Anyways, I hope this was a helpful summary of Milbank's essay. At the very least, it helped me wrap my head around what he was talking about, and it exposed me to some cool new ideas.

#animism #aesthetics #CasparDavidFriedrich #Kant #theology #art #romanticism

Yesterday, I watched a video by the Danish scholar Rune Rasmussen, an independent scholar who makes online teaching material (and other things) under the Nordic Animist moniker. His work is fascinating and thought-provoking, and I recommend looking into his work if you're interested in topics like environmentalism, land-connectedness, animism, traditional Nordic wisdom, or similar topics. And he does it all while critiquing white supremacy, so he's a much-needed voice within the Norse spheres of online intelligentsia.

In the above video, Rune discusses how the era of Romanticism (roughly speaking, the 1800s) was permeated with a nostalgia for the beauty of the natural world and pre-Christian history, such as the Viking age and its relics. However, these Romanticists did not allow their nostalgia to move them into a deeper sense of connection to the beauty of the natural world. Instead, they viewed nature with an almost cold, disconnected gaze, looking at a forest or mountain no different than one would look at a painting in a museum. Rasmussen uses Caspar David Friedrich's famous painting “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” as a prime example.

Rasmussen claims that in contrast to the disconnected, disinterested gaze of Romanticism, we need to instead cultivate practices and ways of being that deeply connect us back to the natural world, rather than viewing ourselves as separate from it. Of course, one of the problems with doing that is how so much of our modern world is, through its architecture and geography, anthropocentric and designed to keep us separated from nature.

It's a great video, and I encourage you to check it out. One reason why I thought it was so intriguing is because the Romantic era is fascinating to me. 19-20th-century theology, philosophy, and art are kind of like my intellectual comfort food (though I don't claim to be an expert). Thus, I wanted to jump on the opportunity to make some additional comments about what Rasmussen said because I think it's a very important topic.

Regarding the context of Romanticist art, I think it's important to acknowledge the influence of Immanuel Kant's theory of aesthetics. To give a very rough summary, Kant based his theory of aesthetics on the idea that beauty is a subjective experience, arising from a harmony between our cognitive and sensory faculties. According to Kant, our perception of beauty depends on our ability to recognize order and harmony in the natural world and in artistic creations. Kant argues that beauty is not a property of objects themselves, but rather a product of our own cognitive faculties, and therefore cannot be objectively measured.

Now here's where things get interesting. One of the central components of Kant's aesthetics is the notion of disinterestedness. According to Kant, in order to have an aesthetic experience of something, we must approach it with a disinterested attitude. This means that we must focus on the object's form, rather than its function or practical use. We must also approach the object without any personal biases, desires, or interests that might interfere with our ability to appreciate it for its own sake. Kant argues that the disinterested attitude is necessary for aesthetic judgment because it allows us to appreciate the object's beauty in a pure and unadulterated way.

Sound familiar? That's basically what Rasmussen was critiquing in the video about Romanticism. My understanding is that such a theme within some of Romanticism is a result of Kant's influence, particularly his notion of disinterestedness. It's no wonder then that almost every copy of Kant's “Critique of Pure Judgment” actually has Friedrich's “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” on the cover!

So how do we move forward? Shockingly, I think that Romanticism — and Caspar David Friedrich in particular — might point us in the right direction. Like Virgil in Dante's Inferno, they cannot take us the full way to Paradise, but I do think they offer some form of guidance toward our goal, especially in the case of those who would normally put up their guard against anything animist, which is quite prevalent in the Christian circles I often interact with.

I won't contest Rune's critique of Friedrich's “Wanderer” painting in the video. However, if one engages with the rest of Friedrich's paintings, I think there's a case to be made that Friedrich is something of a quasi-animist within the Protestant Christian tradition of that era. In fact, many of his paintings push against Kant's theory of aesthetics.

To lay the groundwork, it's useful to point out that around the time of Friedrich, there were more intellectual influences and movements than simply Kantianism. That era also saw the rise of the theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher as well as the post-Hegelians. Schleiermachian theology seems to be an influence on Caspar Friedrich's paintings. Schleiermacher believed that religious experience is primarily characterized by a feeling of absolute dependence — the moment of recognizing one's own finitude in contrast to the Infinite beauty and majesty of God. It's something of a theological notion of the sublime — an experience so awe-inspiring, beautiful, and magnificent that it becomes terrifying, such as standing on the edge of a cliff (again, back to Caspar Friedrich's painting). However, for Schleiermacher and for Caspar Friedrich, the sublime is something that ought to inspire a sense of worship, rather than disinterestedness. The feeling of finitude when faced with a mountain or forest ought to make us think about how much greater God's Infinite majesty must be, and thus be compelled with a sense of worship and recognition that we must place our total dependence on the One Above All.

Now, if the story stopped there, we could still be left with the problem of disinterestedness. After all, we might still be only looking at nature rather than connecting to it. However, I think it's also important to mention the post-Hegelians and Friedrich's own way of relating to nature.

To give a very rough summary, many of the post-Hegelians, talked about God using many phrases, such as “the Absolute,” which were influenced by, you guessed it, Hegel's philosophy. One of the perspectives used to describe God was God as the animating principle of all reality. Thus, in contrast to a Cartesian dead, machinic matter, the world is radiating with life because it is animated by its Creator. Nature, creation, and the material of the world are given a supramundane sacredness through the life-giving, animating power of God, who is the Absolute Ground of all being.

Such a perspective fits the Romanticist's love of nature. But it seems to me that the implication of this perspective is that, to be truly religious, one must be connected to nature. To love the Creator, one must love the Creation. I actually believe that, in many of Friedrich's paintings, we see this post-Hegelian, Schleiermachian Christian quasi-animism in operation.

For example, Friedrich painted an image of a wooden crucifix standing in the middle of some evergreen trees in the depths of winter. In the background, there is a large cathedral clouded by fog. If one looks closely, we can see footsteps and hiking sticks in the snow leading up to the crucifix. According to my understanding, Friedrich meant this as a statement about how true religious devotion requires one to venture out into nature, even in its harsh conditions. It is by connecting to Creation that one will encounter Christ. In fact, for this painting, enduring the harsher aspects of nature, such as the frigid winter, draws us into a deeper understanding of the love of God displayed in Christ's passion. The humble crucifix contrasts with the giant cathedral in the background obscured by fog which, though beautiful in its own way, can lead to a disconnection from nature if one were to reside only in the cathedral. Instead, it is a connection to Creation that prompts the endurance of faith, which is symbolized in the evergreen trees, which are a common symbol in Friedrich's paintings for the endurance of faith because evergreen trees remain green regardless of the season.

Another example in Friedrich's work depicts two men joyously gazing at the moon during a night walk in a forest. I'm not sure to what extent Friedrich was concretely influenced by St. Francis, but it seems to me that Friedrich has captured a Franciscan attitude toward Christianity. As the Canticle of St. Francis says, “Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, / In the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.”

I say that Friedrich was a quasi-animist not only because he thought nature was important for religious experience, but also because he believed that nature is animated by the presence of God, and learning how to “read” creation around us will direct us into a deeper worship and love of God. I say 'quasi'-animist because I don't know what Friedrich would think about the flows of non-human subjectivity or consciousness that might inhabit the natural world. However, he certainly believed that God's divine subjectivity and personhood flow through nature. From a Christian perspective, one might say that God is the ontological foundation of the flows of non-human subjectivity attested to by animism, similarly to how God is the ontological foundation of human subjectivity and being.

Out of this belief that God operates through God's Creation, Friedrich developed an uncanny and quite impressive ability to “read” natural landscapes theologically and religiously. He would spend hours hiking through forests and mountains and would see everything around him as permeated with religious symbolism. The Kimbell Art Museum's description of “Mountain Peak with Drifting Clouds” gives a very useful example:

“While the rendition of the drifting clouds suggests a naturalist’s awareness of meteorology, Friedrich almost certainly saw in them a symbolic meaning; veiling the distance and casting shadows across the landscape, they are an image of the shifting, imperfect conditions that nature provides for the illumination of the spirit. In the foreground a toppled tree is portrayed in matter-of-fact detail. It may symbolize mortality as a barrier to spiritual progress: according to some interpretations of Scripture, nature only became subject to death when the Fall of humankind corrupted the originally blissful landscape of Eden. Even the leafless evergreens in the middle distance (trees often understood as premonitions of eternity, given their relative immunity to seasonal change) bear witness to death. Finally, far off in the distance, as if in a separate realm all but inaccessible to human striving, Friedrich includes a fortresslike mountain peak––a revelation, perhaps, of the possibility of salvation.”

It seems that, for Caspar Friedrich, if one is truly connected and embedded within nature — not just disinterestedly, but truly willing to pilgrimage through the snow — then one will be directed to worship. As I interpret Friedrich, his landscape paintings become quasi-iconographic, a window through which heaven breaks into our world. Friedrich is trying to show us how heaven is breaking through into the Creation that exists all around us, but we need to go out into nature in order to experience it. And if the landscape paintings are iconographic, then perhaps it teaches that one of the avenues back to land-connectedness is through liturgy and ritual. Within the Christian tradition, there is actually a fascinating illustration of this in the Ethiopian Orthodox forest churches. Their worship practices and worship spaces cannot be separated from the forest around them.

Of course, this might not be the most satisfactory answer for those working within a pagan animist tradition. Nonetheless, I think it's a very important question for Christians to consider how our liturgical practices and sacred spaces might move us back toward connecting with the land.

#filmanalysis #horror #Bataille #theology #Trinity #Eucharist #philosophy


In John Carpenter's “The Thing,” a group of researchers in Antarctica discover an alien organism that can imitate and assimilate any living creature with which it comes into contact. As paranoia and mistrust grow among the team, they struggle to identify who among them is human and who is the deadly “thing.” With their communication and transportation systems sabotaged, the team must face the terrifying reality that they may not be able to stop the creature from escaping and infecting the rest of the world. As tensions rise and the body count increases, the survivors must make a desperate attempt to destroy the creature before it destroys them.

This film is well-regarded as a classic, and one of the greatest horror films of all time. It feels especially relevant today given that its themes of isolation, fear of being contaminated, and general distrust of others resonate with situations of the real world during the COVID pandemic and our politically tumultuous times. However, the film is also packed full of intriguing philosophical discourse and, surprisingly, religious motifs as well.

Bataille and the Hive Mind

One of the most fascinating elements of the film is how the creature exhibits a “hive mind,” which can operate as a single consciousness without being bound to a particular spatial location. I recently listened to a review of this film by the philosophers on the podcast “Horror Vanguard” (, and they mentioned a fascinating bit of fan-fiction written from the creature's perspective (apologies because I do not remember and could not find the name of the story). Essentially, in the story, when the alien creature encounters humans, it has an experience of pure, abject terror because of the nature of human consciousness. According to the story, the rest of the universe exhibits a type of “hive-mind” consciousness as well, where entities are able to slip their consciousnesses in and out of each other without a problem. However, when encountering humans, the entity sees bounded consciousness for the first time and experiences complete existential terror. The idea of a consciousness being imprisoned inside of a rock cavity — unable to experience a truly intimate connection with the world around it — is a hellish punishment and a Lovecraftian horror to the Lovecraftian entity itself.

In the film, the Thing is a creature from outer space that crash-landed in Antarctica thousands of years ago and lived frozen under the ice until scientists dug it up. Thus, the Thing occupies a fascinating blend of simultaneous “outsideness” via its alien nature and “insideness” via its submersion under the surface — a type of repression awaiting release, ala the psychoanalytic unconscious. In my own reading, the outsideness of the Thing represents that which lies outside the bounded sphere of human consciousness — i.e., that which gets excluded in the individuation of the subject as he or she develops. In a sense, this is a Bataillean interpretation, which also brings about the religious connection.

I wrote previously about Georges Bataille's theory of immanent connection, individuation, and religious experience, but I will re-iterate it here:

The disruption of the distinction between self and the external world was a topic that fascinated French philosopher Georges Bataille. He placed this phenomenon within a dialectic between “discontinuity” (think “individuation) and “continuity.” Discontinuity is defined by Bataille as that which makes the individual distinct from the rest of the world—i.e., not in continuity with other beings, the ability to say, I am not identical to other things, but I am a unique being. In Bataille’s words, 

“This gulf (of discontinuity) exists, for instance, between you, listening to me, and me, speaking to you. We are attempting to communicate, but no communication between us can abolish our fundamental difference. If you die, it is not my death. You and I are discontinuous beings” (emphasis original). 

By “continuity,” Bataille simply means the parts of the external world that are devoid of sentience or subjectivity, whereas discontinuity arises from subjectivity. For Bataille, the chief example of continuity is death, in which the individuation of the subject passes, and the physical body is transformed into a corpse—a continuity with the rest of existence, subjectless and subsumed without resistance into the external order of things.

Bataille linked discontinuity with eroticism and continuity with death. As he said, “The transition from the normal state to that of erotic desire presupposes a partial dissolution of the person as he exists in the realm of discontinuity.” One becomes aware of one’s own individuation from the world and subsequently longs for a deeper connection beyond oneself—chiefly exemplified by the eros of romantic encounter with a beloved. Death, on the other hand, brings the loss of self to the order of the external world. To push the erotic to its extreme can even induce a type of ‘death,’ such as the loss of oneself in the most passionate of romantic encounters. In Bataille’s famous work Erotism: Death and Sensuality, he provides numerous examples in which death and eros, though distinct, are frequently intermingled, often resulting in states of ecstasy or fervor.

When applied to Carpenter's “The Thing,” we see that the Thing is a return of the repressed continuity lost to the individuated, bounded consciousness. By becoming subsumed into the entity's hive mind, the scientists in the film experience an inverted or 'negative' quasi-religious experience in which they are drawn out of their own consciousness and into a greater force beyond themselves. However, unlike in the experience of God, this sense of being drawn into continuity brings about the destruction of self rather than its higher fulfillment.

I find these themes of unbounded consciousness and continuity not only interesting philosophically but also theologically. The mystics, during their rapturous and ecstatic encounters with God, often testify about experiencing deeper connection and continuity with all of Creation through the overwhelming and sublime love of God.

God and Unbounded Consciousness

Furthermore, it seems that many theological doctrines convey something of an 'unbounded consciousness' as well. For example, God is conscious — in whatever sense we could analogously say this — and yet the mind of God is not bound to any particular location. This sense of non-spatial consciousness seems to perhaps operate within the Christian understanding of the Trinity as well. Whether one ascribes to the Latin or Social models of the Trinity, the core of the doctrine is that one God simultaneously, necessarily, and essentially exists in three figures/persons/modes of being/hypostases/insert-best-term-here. It seems to me that there is, analogously speaking, some type of unbounded selfhood operating within the Godhead. But who knows? Maybe that's heretical.

Finally, I wonder if we could talk about Christ's presence in the Eucharist as another sense of unbounded existence. What's interesting for the Thing is that not only does the entity exhibit an unbounded consciousness, but also that its body is somewhat unbounded as well. Its physical form can slip in and out of different bodies and inhabit multiple, disconnected bodies at the same time. I wonder if, analogously speaking, Christ's presence in the Eucharist could be thought of in a similar way. Christ can easily “slip into” or transubstantiate multiple Eucharist wafers at the same time, even at a distance, and yet each wafer is still the body of Christ. But who knows? That might also be heretical. These were just the thoughts sparked by the film. Hopefully, they prove fruitful for your own theological and philosophical imagination.

#horror #filmanalysis #capitalism #theology #Moltmann #NickLand #Deleuze #JasonHickel #JacquesEllul #SpiritualWarfare

In this article, I'm going to create a rough sketch for a modern notion of spiritual warfare by providing a narrative of the networks and systems in our world that auto-create themselves through a traumatic parody of divine providence. For lack of a better term, I will refer to this auto-organizing system as “Capitalism,” while also acknowledging the limitations of that term, given that what I will say applies also to Sovietism and Maoism. Again, this is a blog where I experiment because I find that often it's only through writing that I'm able to make connections and study new ideas.

What is Spiritual Warfare?

The Christian concept of spiritual warfare generally refers to the belief that there is a realm phenomenologically experienced but outside of our direct perception in which believers are engaged in a constant battle against evil forces, who are trying to oppose the will of God both through systemic superstructures of oppression and violence as well as through more individuated “temptations,” such as corruption, vice, greed, and not loving others the way one ought to. This concept is based on various passages in the Bible, such as Ephesians 6:12, which states “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Christians have interpreted this in a variety of ways. Some think Satan and demons are, in some sense, real. Others take this language to be more metaphorical about how corruption, oppression, and violence can be destructive forces in the world, moving us toward a different end than the Kingdom of God.

Why am I Talking About This?

Reinvoking the language of spiritual warfare might seem like an odd and slightly crazy decision. After all, it’s an old Christian concept that, unless you are in certain Christian circles, is not talked about very much. But I have a hunch that the language of spiritual warfare might be fruitful for a narrative of Capitalism as opposed to the Kingdom of God.

I think we need a deeper sense of myth and narrative in our world today. However, by using the language of spiritual warfare, we might be able to build a bridge for conversation with more evangelical or even fundamentalist Christians, for whom critiques of Capitalism sound like Marxism, which immediately turns them off and prevents dialogue. Furthermore, the language of spiritual warfare allows us to bring in more scriptural resources to talk about the state of the world today, which could help preachers more easily address issues like climate change from the pulpit. Finally, I think our cultural analysis and critique could potentially be bolstered by spiritual warfare theory.

Opening Illustration: Stranger Things and the Upside Down

In the TV show, Stranger Things, there is a parallel dimension called the Upside Down harboring evil creatures against which the main characters must fight, which occasionally requires the characters to traverse inside the strange new dimension. The Upside Down is a decrepit parody of the real world, where, instead of humans, the town of Hawkins is filled with monsters, toxic air, and rhizomatic vines. This dark, parallel dimension is tethered to the real world but is also distinct from it. It is a conditioning force in the real world, but most people don’t have direct experience with it except for rare occasions. But even when people don't experience it directly, the Upside Down still lingers as an outside force breaking into the real world, creating violence and trauma. Several monsters within the dimension, such as Vecna and the Mind Flayer, want to break into our realm and corrupt or 'de-create' all of reality to be under their control — kind of like Lord Sauron with the One Ring of power in Lord of the Rings.

The Upside Down itself is somewhat confusing and the rules of how it works are not fully parsed out. Visually, it’s full of rhizomes, vines, and creatures that humans don’t fully understand, who exhibit strange powers not accessible to (most) humans.

While watching the show, part of me couldn't help but think of Gilles Deleuze's and Nick Land's transcendental materialism. Deleuze was a French philosopher who developed the concept of “transcendental materialism” as an alternative to traditional forms of materialism and idealism. Deleuze's theory is a form of ontology that asserts that reality is composed of an interrelated and constantly flowing multiplicity of immanent, dynamic processes or “flows” rather than fixed, substantial entities. Deleuze argues that traditional materialism, which posits that there is a single, underlying physical reality that can be objectively known, is limited in that it does not account for the ways in which reality is constantly in flux and shaped by human perception and thought. Similarly, he argues that traditional idealism, which posits that reality is a product of mind or consciousness, is limited in that it does not account for the ways in which the material world shapes and constrains human perception and thought. Instead, Deleuze's transcendental materialism posits that reality is a constantly flowing multiplicity of immanent processes that are both shaped by and shape human perception and thought. He emphasizes that reality is not a fixed, objective thing, but rather a constantly changing process that is both shaped by and shapes human subjectivity. He also emphasizes the importance of understanding how these flows or multiplicities are connected, relational, and mutually affecting each other, which he calls a “rhizomatic” structure.

The idea that reality is a constantly flowing multiplicity of immanent processes that are both shaped by and shape human perception and thought is (with some exception) a decent metaphor for the Upside Down. The rhizomatic vines, storms, and sludge of the Upside Down are constantly flowing, fluxing, and transforming; however, the work of humans also impacts what goes on in the Upside Down. I'm sure Deleuze would object to how easily distinguished the two realms are from one another, but the inter-penetrating and mutually corrupting nature of the realms might be satisfactory enough. The Upside Down is thus, in a sense, a sinister aesthetic depiction of a transcendental materialism that has gone into darker territory, especially when we consider how Nick Land (and the CCRU) developed Deleuze's theory.

Nick Land is highly influenced by Deleuze’s transcendental materialism and coined the term “fanged noumena” to describe the monstrous, destructive, and uncontrollable forces that he believes are unleashed by the acceleration of technological progress and the intensification of global capitalism. Fanged Noumena is a combination of Marx, Kantian transcendental philosophy, and H.P. Lovecraft. For Marx, capitalism is vampiric: “Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” In the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, cosmic, extra-dimensional monsters exist in a manner that is beyond the comprehension of humans, which is like the Kantian concept of “noumenous,” the reality that exists independently of our phenomenological experience and thus cannot be “known” directly but only inferred (according to Kant). In Lovecraft, this outsideness and beyondness leads to madness, destruction, or both. Land combines these notions and thus theorizes capitalism as a type of Lovecraftian monster rearranging our world in order to be devoured; it is fanged noumena.

Even more broadly, fanged noumena refers to the idea that the world contains monstrous entities that exist beyond human comprehension and control. These forces are not only beyond human understanding, but they are also hostile to human life and well-being. Land sees these forces as emerging from the acceleration of technology, capitalism, and the intensification of global processes, representing a growing threat to human civilization. Fanged noumena are a product of the intensification of global capitalism, which creates a situation in which the economy, technology, and culture are all in a state of constant and rapid acceleration. Land believes that these forces are breaking down traditional forms of social organization and creating a new reality that is fundamentally different from anything that has come before. These forces are pushing humanity towards a state of hyper-modernity and a new form of barbarism — a situation in which traditional forms of morality, ethics, and humanism will be no longer applicable.

As he said in his famous essay “Meltdown,” “The story goes like this: Earth is captured by a technocapital singularity as renaissance rationalization and oceanic navigation lock into commoditization take-off. Logistically accelerating techno-economic interactivity crumbles social order in auto-sophisticating machine runaway. As markets learn to manufacture intelligence, politics modernizes, upgrades paranoia, and tries to get a grip.” For Land, capitalism is a cybernetic, self-organizing system created by a Lovecraftian Artificial Intelligence from the future.

Wow. Yeah, I know, but stay with me. Again, this is narrative-building, and whether or not Land truly believes this as a literal picture is beside the point.

What’s interesting to me about Land’s theory-fiction is that it is a type of parody or “shadow” of eschatological ontology. In the eschatological ontologies of theologians like Jürgen Moltmann, God’s transcendence is not primarily one of space, but of time. The total and complete redemption of all things being reconciled to God in Christ (Colossians 1) is a future reality that is breaking into the present, shaping our world to bring about the Kingdom of God. It’s like the common saying in theology: The Kingdom of God is both here and not yet. God’s Being — the highest form of reality, reality itself — is both immanent and transcendent to Creation, and is the ground of our being providing the ultimate conditioning factors upon our existence.

Now, compare Moltmann to Land.

God’s Kingdom is manifest through peace, justice, reconciliation, and, above all, the work of the Holy Spirit. Contrarily, Land’s Lovecraftian AI kingdom is manifest through destruction, death, acceleration of autonomous technique and technology, as well as the meltdown of reality into the control of the transcendental monster of techno-capitalist singularity. To quote Land's Meltdown essay again:

“The body count climbs through a series of globewars. Emergent Planetary Commercium trashes the Holy Roman Empire, the Napoleonic Continental System, the Second and Third Reich, and the Soviet International, cranking-up world disorder through compressing phases. Deregulation and the state arms-race each other into cyberspace. By the time soft-engineering slithers out of its box into yours, human security is lurching into crisis. … Converging upon terrestrial meltdown singularity, phase-out culture accelerates through its digitech-heated adaptive landscape, passing through compression thresholds normed to an intensive logistic curve: 1500, 1756, 1884, 1948, 1980, 1996, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2011 ... Nothing human makes it out of the near-future.”

To bring us back to Stranger Things, there's a sense in which, Capitalism, from a Landian narrative, is like the Mind Flayer — a monster from another realm breaking into our world to re-create the Earth according to its own vision. It is a type of fanged noumena conditioning our world through violence, destruction, and trauma. Just like how creatures from the Upside Down want to break into the world and transform it according to their own purposes, capitalism wants to manifest itself through the acceleration of horror. In the virtual sphere, television displays more horrendous material than we could imagine through cable news coverage and some forms of popular entertainment. When this wasn’t enough, the internet pushed the pedal to the floor, showing us every form of depravity and violence known to humanity. Imagine what could be next.

In the non-virtual spaces, the fanged noumena system exerts its manifest destiny through trauma and violence in even more hideous forms. It is not just the traumatization of humans via colonialism, slave labor, alienation, etc., but also the traumatization of the non-human facets of Creation via slaughterhouses, factory farms, deforestation, and climate change. All of Creation gets reterritorialized into these new traumatizing and brutalizing systems. This is also why Soviet and Chinese communism ultimately fell into similar plights: they exerted a manifest destiny of trauma via mass executions and brutal, merciless rule. The communist goal for the end of Capitalism ( a type of immanent and materialist Kingdom of God or heaven on earth) was sought after through means and techniques similar to the techno-capitalist system itself, such as mass violence and brutality. Thus, it’s no wonder that “brutalist” architecture was one of the core icons of Soviet communism. In this sense, we can see that “capitalism” isn’t a broad enough term because both Stalinism and Capitalism operated under this “traumatic providence.” Both are instances of spiritual warfare.


I’m sure many are rolling their eyes right now, which is fine. Again, I’m writing this more experimentally than dogmatically to see if this line of thought is fruitful or not. There are, of course, the obligatory notes about Land not being a good person and who should not be idolized, and I should note that I denounce his racism, political views, and his gun-ho endorsement of these traumatizing forces. It’s as if he sees the horror of techno-capitalism, but then endorses it, which is crazy to me. He's like someone who learns about Cthulhu and then joins the cult to worship him. Likewise, I’m skeptical about whether one should introduce Landian theory to American White Evangelicals, who, at least at this time, are quite prone to losing themselves in conspiracy theories.

Putting Land’s misanthropic character aside, the first object to all of this techno-capitalist fanged noumena mythos is simply that it is more like science fiction than actual analysis. One can get so caught up in a mythology of capitalism as a monster from Lovecraftian fiction that one ends up ignoring the real world around us.

I’m sympathetic to this objection. After all, Nick Land lost his mind worshiping what he thought was the coming techno-capitalist singularity as if he was in the cult of Cthulhu. Plenty of impressionable people on the internet follow in Land’s footsteps, and it seems that many of them are losing grip on reality, which can be seen in how they so willingly give themselves into every kind of conspiracy theory. It’s a type of self-induced schizophrenia (which, in a way, almost proves their theory).

Nonetheless, I don’t want to entirely dismiss this line of thinking only on the grounds that it is mythological and narrative-driven. I think humans need more myths, if by “myth” we mean something like our deepest meanings and understandings of the world set in narrative form. Developing a myth allows one to relate to complex phenomena, and myth is especially important when trauma is involved because trauma is, by its nature, difficult to talk about. (Neurologically speaking, trauma shuts off or slows down many of the language-making parts of our brain, which then makes the traumatic event difficult to verbalize).

However, even if we insist on more empirical analysis, it seems to me that the fanged noumena myth of techno-capitalism isn’t too far off from the truth. If we look back on the history of capitalism, from the death of feudalism, through colonialism, slave labor, industrialization, and to the present day, we see enormous amounts of death and destruction. Of course, death and destruction existed before Capitalism, and many important and life-saving innovations have come about through Capitalism, but it certainly has not been a peaceful walk into utopia.

Jason Hickel in his book “Less is Moore: How Degrowth will Save the World” provides a fantastic analysis of capitalism and its history of violence. Hickel’s work is quite empirical and I recommend it as a companion piece to this writing. As a general summary, Jason Hickel wrote that the origins of Capitalism can be traced back to the 16th century, after the violent suppression of peasant revolts during the death of feudalism and when European colonizers began to extract resources and labor from colonized territories. He argues that the accumulation of wealth and resources through colonialism and imperialism created the conditions for the rise of capitalism as we know it today. According to Hickel, the wealth generated through colonialism and imperialism allowed capitalist economies to grow, and this in turn led to the development of new technologies and the expansion of markets. To feed these expanded systems, Capitalism utilized a foundation of systemic racism and exploitation, particularly through the enslavement of millions of people of African descent, and the genocide of indigenous people in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Furthermore, as an example, the colonization of British imperial capitalism led to the death of around 100 million in the years 1880 to 1920, which is greater than all the famines that occurred under communist governments combined ( The legacy of imperialism and exploitation continues to shape the global economy today, and it is a major factor behind the persistent inequality, poverty, and devastating environmental conditions that exist in the world today.

What I like about Hickel’s work, in contrast to Land, is that Hickel sees Capitalism as related to systems of production and the manner in which resources are extracted and then commodified within an economic system that demands constant growth. A system that requires infinite growth using finite, fragile resources — including transforming colonized humans into resources — is bound to generate major problems, such as the current climate crisis. Hickel notes that phenomena such as markets and trades existed well before Capitalism and are not necessarily the problem. So the whole objection of “You don't like Capitalism and yet you bought something from a store” is beside the point. The point is not engaging in trade or purchasing items, but the systems and supply chains behind the construction of those items. Land, however, seems to ascribe the label of Capitalism to anything that is rationally organized and generates a surplus, which I think is too broad a definition.

Nonetheless, the narrative of Capitalism as spiritual warfare is useful because it can transform the empirical facts of the devastation wrought by techno-capitalist systems into a narrative, grounded in familiar scriptural motifs, which is easier for us average folks to relate to. As the scholar Rune Rasmussen often argues on his “Nordic Animism” channels and writing, the mass public desperately needs such meaning-making myths in order to properly orient themselves to these problems. When scientists, for instance, talk about the science behind climate change, they are doing great work and producing great science. However, the language of scientific studies is often quite technical and difficult to understand. One struggles to build a relationship with it. What is needed, Rasmussen argues, is the transformation of such technical material into a broader story — a myth if you'd like — to which average people can relate.

A Literal Myth?

One probably wonders: Is the spiritual warfare language literally true, or is it a type of fiction that is merely good at expressing other factual statements? I think either option is reasonable, and I’m sure some people, who don’t believe in something like actual demonic entities, would want to follow the latter position. Admittedly, I bounce back and forth between the two. Nonetheless, as I’m writing this article, I’m increasingly intrigued by the picture of demonic, satanic forces as a dark, shadowy, “upside down” transcendental that is wreaking havoc in our world through traumatizing systems of destruction (deforestation, climate change, slavery, colonialism, factory farms), which is like a privation of divine providence. If Satan exists, I think that’s a more compelling picture than what one hears of in conspiracy theories like QAnon or the motifs often depicted in Christian movies.

Finally, I think such a narrative of Capitalism as spiritual warfare presents interesting implementations for our spiritual lives. When evaluating different religious practices, we can now ask: Which kingdom does this practice benefit? Additionally, I think it holds insight for our religious services. By participating in liturgy, we are taught to live into a different narrative — i.e., the “true myth” of God’s future redemption which is breaking into our present.

Furthermore, the spiritual warfare of Capitalism mythos provides intriguing insights for the spiritual practice of prayer. One such example is the book “Prayer and the Modern Man” by Jacques Ellul.

Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher and sociologist who wrote extensively about the role of technology in society and the impact it has on individuals and communities. Ellul argued that modern society was characterized by the proliferation of technology and the growth of bureaucratic structures, which reduced individuals to mere cogs in a larger machine. He claimed this threatened to rob people of their ability to think for themselves and act freely, leaving them feeling disconnected from each other and God.

Ellul saw prayer as a form of resistance against the technological and bureaucratic structures that dominate modern society. Prayer is a way to connect with the divine, reclaim one's humanity, and resist the often dehumanizing forces of technology and bureaucracy. He saw it as a form of meditation that allows individuals to disconnect from the distractions of the world and focus on their relationship with God. Through prayer, individuals can find peace and solace, and they can gain a deeper understanding of their place in the world and their role in society.

In his view, prayer is also a form of social resistance because it allows individuals to challenge the dominant ideologies and values of society and reject the status quo. He believed that by praying, people can reclaim their autonomy and challenge the structures of power that threatened their freedom and dignity.

Now, I'm not saying we can just pray away Capitalism. We do need broader systemic change, and here, I'll point back to Hickel who offers many concrete suggestions for change. Nonetheless, if Capitalism is, in some sense, partially a spiritual battle, we will need to invoke spiritual weapons like prayer and worship in order to combat it.


In conclusion, the spiritual warfare of Capitalism refers to a mythos of Capitalism as the fanged noumena of a dark transcendence that is breaking into our world and wanting to corrupt Creation through a traumatic anti-providence, which is a parody of God's eschatological providence of love and redemption that is breaking into our present from the future. By conceiving of Capitalism as spiritual warfare, we gain insight into how these techno-economic systems grow themselves through exploitation, brutality, and trauma, and we also see different insights for how spiritual practices can help play a role in resisting them.

#JohnMilbank #Kant #Schelling #Modernity #RadicalOrthodoxy #evil #ontology #review


In this article, I will attempt to work through and summarize chapter 1 of John Milbank's book “Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon.” Milbank is a notoriously difficult scholar to understand, in part because his writing style lacks clarity and is prone to circle around topics. He'll talk about one subject for a while, move on to something else, and then only finish his thoughts about the original subject three pages later. Nonetheless, he is a brilliant individual who is bringing up vital questions for theology in our time. Because he's been so influential in recent decades, I want to understand more of his thinking, and I'm sure others do too. So I've spent the last several weeks mapping out his critique of the “Radical Evil” theory and why he believes that we should not move away from the classical Privation Theory of evil.

What is the Privation Theory of Evil?

Let's set the context by giving a brief definition of the Privation Theory: The Privation Theory of evil is the idea that evil is the absence or lack of good. According to this theory, evil is not a positive thing in itself, but rather the absence or privation of something that is good. For example, darkness is not a positive thing, but rather the absence of light. Similarly, a hole is not a positive thing in itself, but the lack of presence of something else, like having a cheese wedge with holes in it. These are analogies that illustrate something called an 'ontological lack.' Likewise, the Privation Theory maintains that evil is not a positive thing in itself, but rather the absence or 'privation' of good. From Augustine through Thomas Aquinas and others, this is often taken to be the classical theological view regarding the nature of evil.

One can understand why theologians would want to hold onto such a view when we consider the following syllogism:

(1) Everything that exists is created and sustained by God. (2) Evil exists. (3) Therefore, evil is created and sustained by God.

Because, classically speaking, most theists maintain that God is all-good and all-loving (indeed, Love and Goodness itself), the position that God would create and sustain Evil (with a capital E) seems contradictory. Thus, most theologians throughout history have denied premise 2 and said that evil is instead a privation of being the way darkness is a privation of light.

There are actually different options beyond the Privation Theory for solving the above syllogism. For example, philosopher Alexander Pruss has proposed a “mismatch” theory in which we say that evil is the result of improperly ordered good things. Bleach is good (or at least neutral) in itself. Soup is good or neutral in itself. But when you combine the two and give it to someone to drink, then it is a “mismatch” and thus should be labeled evil.

However, since the time of Immanuel Kant and the influence of the German Idealist movement (including Schelling, Martin Heidegger, and Slavoj Zizek), a different theory of evil has gained prominence, which John Milbank labeled the “Radical Evil” theory.

What is the Radical Evil Theory?

Starting with Kant and then picking up steam after the horrors of events like the Holocaust, Radical Evil theory holds these evils to be so atrocious that they cannot be a privation of the good, but something else more sinister. An instance of radical evil is a positive (i.e., not privative) evil for its own sake (Milbank, 1), seeing “evil as a viable exercise of power” (Milbank, 6). It is an action of evil for its own sake and a “willed denial of the good” in favor of destruction, such as the Nazis' attempting to destroy of the Jewish people. As a result, Radical Evil proposes moving the conversation from being/ontology to the finite human will (Milbank, 1).

Why Would Theorists of Radical Evil Want to Reject the Classical Privation Theory of Evil?

The following is my best attempt to summarize Milbank's assessment of Radical Evil theory:

First, according to the Radical Evil theorists, the Privation Theory of evil tends toward justifying evil (Milbank, 6), even paradoxically grounding evil within ontology, which is exactly what the Privation view wants to avoid. According to the Privation Theory, the human will itself is good; the problem is human finitude in which we exercise our will toward lesser goods or will toward the good but through the wrong means (Milbank, 6). The good human will ultimately falls short because it is attached to a finite human being. This state of finitude combined with sin clouds our moral perception, making it difficult to will as we ought (i.e., will the truly good, beautiful, and perfect in accordance to the infinite beatific vision of God).

As Milbank summarizes: “Thus while it might seem that privation theory, by defining evil as lack of being, prevents any rooting of evil in the ontological, in fact it does affirm such rooting. For since evil is rooted in finitude, and the finite is caused by the infinite, the infinite is the real ultimate source of lack […].” (Milbank, 7)

In other words, if Infinite Being (God, in a classical sense) creates finitude, then wouldn’t Being be responsible for evil?

In contrast to Privation, Radical Evil theorists say that evil should be ‘placed’ within the human will rather than finitude (Milbank, 7). If one places evil somewhere outside the human will, then it diminishes the responsibility of freedom (Milbank, 17).

In contrast to the classical view of the human will espoused by the Privation Theory, Radical Evil proposes an alternative picture of the will, which maintains that the will is not bound by incapacity or misperception (Milbank, 12). This new perspective is where we come under the influence of Immanuel Kant. Milbank states it as follows:

“In no sense could radical evil for [Kant] connote loss of vision of the infinite, since the bounds between the finite and the infinite are permanently fixed and permit no participatory mediation. For Kant, we will, adequately, as finite creatures, with reference only to our finitude; at the same time, we do invoke a noumenal infinitude in which our spirits are truly at home – yet this infinitude only impinges on the finite as the empty and incomprehensible formality of freedom which is inexplicably able to interrupt the fatedness of phenomenal causality.” (Milbank, 12)

Thus, for Immanuel Kant, we do not lose our vision of the infinite because we could never have such a vision. In Kantian theory, the infinite is noumenal because it lies outside of what we can claim with any certainty to know in itself. For those without a background in philosophy, that might be confusing, so let's summarize Kant's philosophy real quick:

Immanuel Kant's distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal refers to the distinction between the way things appear to us (phenomenal) and the way things are in themselves (noumenal). The phenomenal world is the world as it appears to us through our senses and the way our mind processes that information. This includes our experiences, perceptions, and sensations. It is the world of appearances, and it is the only world that we can know through our senses and reason. The noumenal world is the world as it is in itself, independent of our perception and understanding of it. It is the world of things-in-themselves, and it cannot be known through our senses or reason alone. According to Kant, the noumenal world is unknowable and can only be inferred through our experiences in the phenomenal world. Kant believed that our understanding of the world is limited to the phenomenal world, and that the noumenal world can only be known by pure reason. He also argued that our knowledge of the world is shaped by the innate structures of our mind, such as the categories of understanding and the forms of intuition.

For Kant, we are free qua transcendental, which is grounded in a priori reason, not based upon any experience. Thus, freedom is not corrupted by external factors as in the case of the Privation Theory of finitude. (Milbank, 13). For Kant, nothing within the causal order can affect the realm of freedom (Milbank, 15). Basically, Kant is using his unique theory of freedom to critique the Privation Theory's view of the will.

Immanuel Kant's theory of freedom, as outlined in his Critique of Practical Reason and other works, holds that individuals have an innate capacity for rationality and autonomy, and that the exercise of this capacity is necessary for an individual to be truly free. Since human beings possess the capacity for rational agency, it means that we are capable of making choices based on reason and moral principles, rather than being determined by outside forces or natural laws. For Kant, the ability to make autonomous choices is what sets human beings apart from other creatures and is necessary for moral responsibility. In his works, he argued that free will is a precondition for morality and that moral responsibility is only possible if individuals have the freedom to make choices.

Thus, in contrast to the Privation Theory, freedom is not a gift of grace given to humanity by God, but rather an “inert give,” something existing within the a priori, transcendental structure of human cognition (Milbank, 20). Human will is thus capable of choosing either Good or Evil. But if this is the case, then radical evil is just as much an inert given (Milbank, 20).

Regarding evil, instead of maintaining that we have a good will that is corrupted by finitude (i.e., seeking lesser goods when we ought to seek higher goods or seeking higher goods in the wrong way), Kant believed we are caught in a situation in which the will is willing against itself — “an innate failure of the will itself to will freedom” (Milbank, 13). For example, we tend to adopt and live by non-moral maxims. Thus, instead of following a universal categorical imperative (treat no one as merely a means to an end but always also as an end in themselves), we often follow more self-centered habits. Instead of telling the truth, we lie. Instead of sharing necessary resources with the community, we hoard them for ourselves.

According to the new perspective of Radical Evil, Good and Evil are pre-ontological terms, existing before the Infinite/finite distinction (Milbank, 7). Milbank uses the term “dark indifferent ground of the infinite”(7) to talk about the transcendental, noumenal good/evil distinction. Because Good and Evil are pre-ontological, the finite is able to manifest extreme goodness or evil (Milbank, 7), implying perhaps that the finite will would be able to manifest infinite goodness, given that there is no ontological constraint on doing so. The following point is not mentioned by Milbank, but I think that, if such a theory is correct, it would behold potentially interesting implications for how we talk about Christology, as one could say that Jesus’ human nature was capable of manifesting the infinite good. But I digress...

If Good and Evil are pre-ontological, then it would also imply that the Infinite (God) could also manifest extreme evil because Goodness would no longer be equated with the Being Itself of God (Milbank, 7). Milbank notes that, in his estimate, Friedrich Schelling has the most compelling theological reason for ascribing to the Radical Evil theory. According to Schelling, God’s good will comes in the “dark indifferent ground of the infinite” in which God freely and lovingly chooses to be infinitely good, and likewise chooses to bestow this loving goodness to Creation. According to Schelling, this decision of God to choose love and goodness is what makes God worthy of worship and gratitude (Milbank, 7). In other words, why bother worshiping if God's love and goodness are inevitable?

Milbank Strikes Back

Milbank begins his counterattack by rejecting the univocity of being theory proposed by Duns Scotus and which seems to be presupposed by Radical Evil theorists. Duns Scotus was a medieval philosopher who developed the doctrine of the univocity of being, which holds that the term “being” has a single, uniform meaning when applied to all things. In other words, according to the doctrine of univocity, being has the same meaning when applied to God, humans, animals, and all other entities. According to Duns Scotus, this uniform meaning of being is grounded in the concept of existence itself, which he believed was common to all things. He argued that the concept of existence is a simple, undivided whole that cannot be further analyzed or broken down into smaller parts. This means that being, as a concept, cannot be divided into different categories or levels, as some philosophers had suggested.

According to Milbank, such a flat ontology would imply that the lack of evil exists as much as the infinite (Milbank, 18). If the finite exists equally as much as the infinite, then “the lack of evil exists as much as the infinite (Milbank, 18). This then causes people to justify evil according to providential design (Milbank, 18). It’s as if post-Scotus scholars have accepted the problematic syllogism at the beginning of this article and insisted that evil exists but it is justified because it is providentially ordered (or even orchestrated) by God.

After distancing himself from the univocity of being, Milbank notes that Radical Evil seems to make suffering in nature providential (Milbank, 18). We can see this in the thought of Immanuel Kant. For Kant, possessing a good will is only evidenced through resistance to suffering (Milbank, 18). As Milbank says, “The passage to moral virtue via the sublime also traverses the exercise of radical evil, just as the path to civilized peace lies dialectically through warfare” (Milbank, 18-19). However, if this is the case, then the “purportedly moral self-overcoming will might still be the natural heroic will — at once sublime and radically evil,” such as Milton’s depiction of Satan in Paradise Lost or in a sadist who is willing to sacrifice comfort, security, and survival in order to exercise its own freedom (Milbank, 19). In other words, there are plenty of examples of people enduring suffering for their own cause, but going about it in a morally reprehensible manner. Likewise, even if one did resist suffering in accordance to, for Kant, the categorical imperative, it seems as if an environment of suffering is necessary in order to have something to resist. In any case, it's no guarantee that our resistance to such suffering will be truly moral.

In order to get around this problem, Kant must invoke a concept of Divine Grace that works on the will (Milbank, 19-20), but this then defeats the purpose of placing evil within human limits. Or, at the very least, it is a concept of freedom that is “far more positivistically and pietistically irruptive than Augustinian Thomist grace” (Milbank, 20). For the Augustine-Thomist view, God gives us the power to will the good in the proper orientation and manner. But for Kant, “the will to the good has reduced to the mere will to have a good will in hope that God, by grace, will impute to us a good will” (Milbank 20). Thus, in constrast to what is sometimes thought, the theory of Radical Evil is not a secular theory of evil but rather an alternative theology (Milbank, 20).

Milbank also critiques the claim that Radical Evil proposes a pre-ontological theory of evil, maintaining that the “dark indifferent ground of the infinite” is still ontological (Milbank, 17). His arguments in this section, at least to me, were the most confusing, but let's give it a stab anyways. Let's start with this quote:

“(…) the decision for evil is referred to a prior possibility for such freedom — to a freedom prior to freedom and indifferent to good and evil, which alone establishes freedom as freedom.” (Milbank, 17)

Essentially, this boils down to the following problem: How could we then say that radical evil is an inert given in the same manner as infinite good? Radical Evil maintains that evil is “instigated by will alone” (Milbank, 17). Additionally, evil is not caused by freedom, since “freedom, as free, causes only the Good” (Milbank, 17).

But if this is the case, then how can the dark ground of noumenal freedom (”freedom prior to freedom”) possibly exert a will toward evil if freedom only wills the good? (Milbank, 17). It would seem that the bad will cannot “blame a possibility lodged within the order of causality” (Milbank, 17). Presumably, this is because causality belongs to the phenomenal realm whereas the pre-ontological good/evil distinction — as well as freedom itself — belongs to the noumenal realm.

Thus, we end up with a “breaking in” of a “radical pre-personal freedom which is prior to decision” (Milbank, 17). However, under this picture, how could an individual will be held responsible for a pre-personal decision? It seems like such a picture is actually an ontological or para-ontological excuse, grounding evil in a dark noumenal transcendental. Thus, whereas Radical Evil theory wants to chide the privation theory for making an ontological excuse for evil, it seems that Radical Evil itself makes a similar move.

Defense of Privation: Privation Does Not Excuse Evil

Milbank believes that, “For evil to be at all, it must still deploy some good,” (Milbank, 22) because evil is not lodged in any reality whatsoever (Milbank, 17). If this is the case, then evil is without cause, which means we cannot talk about its origins and it cannot have an explanation (Milbank, 17-18). As he says,

“But when evil possesses us, not only are we responsible for this possession, it is also the case that this possession delivers the very phenomenon of autonomous responsibility. Evil is just that for which alone we are solely responsible. Evil is self-governing autonomy — evil is the Kantian good, the modern good.” (Milbank, 18)

This is perhaps a moot point, but I think Milbank could have made this point more powerful by using a word like “corrupts” instead of “possesses” because possession language makes evil sound ontological whereas corruption sounds privative.

In contrast to the Radical Evil's perspective, Milbank notes that much of what we call radical evil is actually the product of petty and banal economic and social decisions (Milbank, 21). Saying something like “the holocaust reveals a new metaphysical dimension of evil” ignores the concrete political and ideological forces that produced the holocaust (Milbank, 21) and can even glamorize atrocities, absolutizing them as something almost divine and outside of comprehension (Milbank, 54).

Related to this point, Milbank provides an intriguing argument about how the Nazis themselves seemed to be following a broken Kantian morality. According to Kant (or, at least, according to Milbank's understanding of Kant), the categorical imperative must be schematized according to lesser imperatives (Milbank, 23). Not everyone has grasped that he or she is an autonomous free agent self-giving the universal law. Or, it might be the case that people are willing evil rather than the categorical imperative. Many of us need something like moral baby steps or more general principles of law to keep us in check. Because one needs lesser imperatives, the state issuing laws is similar to the transcendental law of freedom for the individual (Milbank, 23). Kant even ontologizes this law-giving morality by describing the Holy Trinity in such terms (Milbank, 23).

However, according to Milbank, by making such a move, one collapses the categorical and the contingent by conflating the lesser imperative of the laws issued by a sovereign state with the universal categorical imperative (Milbank, 24). Under Kant’s schematization, how can one distinguish a good will from a bad will? How could one justify resistance to a morally corrupt leader or a decadent state like the Nazis? We end up reaching the problematic conclusion that, if Kant is correct, then “to oppose political sovereignty is to oppose moral sovereignty” (Milbank, 24). In other words, if one is going to follow the higher moral duty, one must absolutely follow the law of the state. Milbank notes that when on trial, Nazi officials like Eichmann seemed to display a broken Kantian morality along these lines (Milbank, 22). Instead of the sovereign free will of the autonomous individual (Kant’s moral ideal), the Nazi officials adopted the sovereign will of the Führer. But according to the moral schematism laid out above, such a replacement makes sense within a Kantian system (Milbank, 23). To follow the higher moral duty, one must absolutely follow the law of the state. If one refused to commit genocide against the Jewish people, one was not following the law of the state. Therefore, if one failed to execute Jewish people, one failed to follow the higher moral duty. But surely, that's wrong.

Ongoing Impact of Kant's Proposal

And now, we finally reach our concluding remarks. If Radical Evil and Kant's proposal is true, then where does that leave us? First, “free will,” conceived as an abstract free autonomy, becomes equated with the Good (Milbank, 25). This is different than the view espoused by Milbank and other theologians in church history, which states that free will is a gift given to us by the grace of God. According to Milbank, the separation of free will from the grace of God, grounding it rather within the notion of the individual autonomous will, has created disastrous results. As he says,

“Moral liberalism tends to engender an uneasy oscillation between absolute promotion of one's own freedom for any goal whatsoever, and absolute sacrifice to the freedom of the other, again without any conditions as to the goals that others should pursue. Writ large at the level of the State, this produces a giant-scale oscillation between a present collective identity as an end in itself, and the endless self-sacrifice of individuals for the sake of a better future.” (Milbank, 25)

In other words, we are driven for endless self-sacrifice for the sake of a better future, but this leads to massive amounts of exploitation and sacrifice of others in order to reach our vague and undefined goals of progress (Milbank, 25).

Hopefully, this exploration of Milbank has been beneficial. At the very least, this has been a useful personal exercise for me to try to wrap my head around what he is saying.

All quotations are from “Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon” by John Milbank, Routledge Publishing, UK. 2003.

#atmosphere #Bataille #capitalism #consumerism #architecture #atmospherictheology #AndyWarhol

For starters, let's consider a quick definition of the concept of “non-place”:

Non-places are spaces that are not specifically designed for or associated with any particular social or cultural activities. They are often characterized by their lack of history or unique character, and are used by people for transit or as places to perform simple, practical tasks. Examples of non-places include airports, highway rest stops, and chain stores. Non-places are often seen as being anonymous and lacking in local or cultural significance. They are often contrasted with places, which are spaces that are associated with specific social or cultural activities and have a sense of history and character.

In this sense, a non-place is quite similar to a liminal space, which is likewise associated with transition and waiting, such as a hotel room or a shopping mall during closing hours. A liminal space can be a non-place, but I don't think they are precisely identical because a liminal space can still have a coherent sense of identity. For example, I remember when I was a kid, I once had to make a trip to my elementary school on a weekend. Walking through those abandoned, lifeless halls was certainly liminal, but it was not devoid of identity. My elementary school had a firmly established identity, which was connected to a broader historical development and narrative. A non-place, on the other hand, specifically lacks such an identity and historical narrative within a specific culture. The ubiquitous presence of a non-space provides for it something like a quasi-omnipresence that dissolves any particularity or presence itself.

The example of an airport mentioned above reminds me of Andy Warhol, who once said that he loved going through the airport. Apparently, he would go through security and traverse the terminals multiple times without ever intending to board the plane. In his book, “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol,” he said,

“Today my favorite kind of atmosphere is the airport atmosphere. (...) Airplanes and airports have my favorite kind of food service, my favorite kind of bathrooms, my favorite peppermint Life Savers, my favorite kinds of entertainment, my favorite loudspeaker address systems, my favorite conveyor belts, my favorite graphics and colors, the best security checks, the best views, the best perfume shops, the best employees, and the best optimism. I love the way you don't have to think about where you're going, someone else is doing that (...).”

Ironically, this is pre-9/11 airport travel, and going to an airport has only gotten more stressful with so many added security measures. Nonetheless, it's interesting that Warhol notes how one can, at least in his time, traverse an airport without thinking, as if one is a cog in the machine.

The machinic nature of going through the non-space of an airport fits well with the themes in much of Warhol's art — namely, the de-subjectifying power of commercialism and capitalism. As Warhol famously said, “Paintings are too hard. The things I want to show are mechanical. Machines have less problems. I'd like to be a machine. Wouldn't you?” Additionally, it is said that Warhol would create his art in a state of consumerist “zero-consciousness” where he would achieve a quasi-meditative state by simultaneously running the television and radio while thumbing through a magazine. When creating his art, Warhol would allow his consciousness to be thoroughly saturated by the mass consumer pop-culture of late capitalism, and thus you have Pop art. It seems to me that such zero-consciousness or de-subjectivity is the pure phenomenological experience of non-places.

Now, if I asked people to pick the ideal form of music to fill the atmospheres of non-places, they would perhaps suggest “smooth jazz,” elevator music, or corporate muzak. Muzak is a brand of background music that is played in public places, such as stores, offices, and hotels. It is typically designed to be unobtrusive and to create a pleasant or relaxing atmosphere for people who are working or shopping. In a sense, it is created to be “heard” but not listened to, existing purely for the sake of supporting the atmosphere of a non-place.

Because muzak is typically meant to point away from itself, it is a form of art that rejects itself as art. This is why I think vaporwave — and especially its subgenre “mallsoft” — is so interesting as an art movement. Mallsoft severs muzak from its original architectural, non-place location, and forces the listener to engage with music itself. In a sense, mallsoft tries to capture the atmosphere-in-itself of non-places.

For a sample of this type of music, here is my favorite mallsoft album:

Non-place and Religious Experience

Under the proper atmospheric conditions, when a non-space is combined with muzak, the result can be a type of regulated de-subjectivity, prompting the individual into a Warholian machinic behavior. In many cases, such as chain stores, the desired behavior is consumerism.

I don't mean to be too deterministic in my assessment. Atmospheres are composed of many agents, and people relate to spaces in different ways that are not a priori controllable when establishing an atmosphere. However, I think many of us could relate to the experience of getting “lost” in a dreamlike state while out shopping, moving on autopilot the way we sometimes unconsciously drive cars. Through this phenomenon, I think we can see that non-places operate as a type of sacred space for capitalism.

The religious nature of non-places might perhaps be linked to the feeling of continuity with the atmosphere brought about through (however brief) a disruption in the distinction between self and the external world.

The disruption of the distinction between self and the external world was a topic that fascinated French philosopher Georges Bataille. He placed this phenomenon within a dialectic between “discontinuity” (think “individuation) and “continuity.” Discontinuity is defined by Bataille as that which makes the individual distinct from the rest of the world—i.e., not in continuity with other beings, the ability to say, I am not identical to other things, but I am a unique being. In Bataille’s words, 

“This gulf (of discontinuity) exists, for instance, between you, listening to me, and me, speaking to you. We are attempting to communicate, but no communication between us can abolish our fundamental difference. If you die, it is not my death. You and I are discontinuous beings” (emphasis original). 

By “continuity,” Bataille simply means the parts of the external world that are devoid of sentience or subjectivity, whereas discontinuity arises from subjectivity. For Bataille, the chief example of continuity is death, in which the individuation of the subject passes, and the physical body is transformed into a corpse—a continuity with the rest of existence, subjectless and subsumed without resistance into the external order of things. The continuity-discontinuity dialectic is what makes atmospheres (and non-places) so interesting: in some cases, an atmosphere can inextricably link self and non-self. In most cases, the link is not so extreme, but it is still enough to cause a sense of wonder because it calls one’s discontinuity into question.

Bataille linked discontinuity with eroticism and continuity with death. As he said, “The transition from the normal state to that of erotic desire presupposes a partial dissolution of the person as he exists in the realm of discontinuity.” One becomes aware of one’s own individuation from the world and subsequently longs for a deeper connection beyond oneself—chiefly exemplified by the eros of romantic encounter with a beloved. Death, on the other hand, brings the loss of self to the order of the external world. To push the erotic to its extreme can even induce a type of ‘death,’ such as the loss of oneself in the most passionate of romantic encounters. In Bataille’s famous work Erotism: Death and Sensuality, he provides numerous examples in which death and eros, though distinct, are frequently intermingled, often resulting in states of ecstasy or fervor. The implication for atmospheric studies is as follows: By linking subjectivity and objectivity, atmosphere can be an avenue for blending discontinuity (eros) and continuity (loss of self) together into an ecstatic or surreal experience that is both spatial and emotional. Atmospheres can influence experiences of transcendence through the expansion of bodily space, resulting in a deeper connection to the surrounding world.

However, being subsumed (in whatever degree) into a space brings about danger: If the self is being, in some sense, disrupted and reconstituted, then into what new sense of identity is one emerging? In the case of non-places, it seems that one's identity is being reconstituted into that of a consumer. In a less-radical interpretation, we could say that this reconstitution might be trivial at best or only slightly harmful in that too much consumerism perhaps distracts us from more important matters and can lead to too much waste. In a more radical interpretation, non-places can be seen as “sacred” spaces in which the individual experiences a (brief) apotheosis into the capitalist machine god that is seeking world-domination and devotion, a type of spiritual warfare attempting to usurp the rightful rule of God. But again, that's a pretty extreme reading. At the very least, I think we can see that capitalism bears with it a certain type of truncated and immanent religious modality.

Between Meritocracy and Marx: An Analysis of “Christmas Evil”

#movie #filmanalysis #philosophy #capitalism #christmas #advent #JacquesEllul #MartinLutherKing

If I had to pick a Christmas movie to list as my favorite right now, I think I would say the 1980 film, “Christmas Evil.” Because of the title and a few of the tropes related to slasher films of that era, many are quick to dismiss this film as another cash grab trying to imitate the success of John Carpenter's “Halloween.” Though I'm fine with this film sitting within the horror genre, and I'm not trying to minimize the artistic possibility of slashers, I think this film encompasses much more than people often give it credit for when they keep the discourse at the level of “cheesy Christmas horror film.” In fact, and this is perhaps my boldest claim, I think this movie is almost more related to a Shakespearean tragedy than a conventional slasher.

“Christmas Evil” follows the plot of an alienated, unstable, middle-aged man, whose delusions and identification with Santa Claus overtake him, ultimately leading him on a quest of mayhem, violence, tragedy, and surprising amounts of sincere love, kindness, and the true spirit of Christmas. Imagine Hamlet meets Taxi Driver meets Frankenstein, and you have “Christmas Evil.” This film was not released to critical or audience acclaim back in the 80s, though now it has received a bit of a re-appreciation, taking on something of a cult status amongst horror enthusiasts on the Internet. Some might find this movie campy or silly, but I personally think it is a well-made film with competent acting and unabashed sincerity, showing our main character as both hero and villain. In what follows, I will sketch out my interpretation of the film as depicting the tragedy of alienation and the need to form a collective movement beyond the meritocracy of capitalism.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Here is a more in-depth summary of the main plot points.

Harry Stadling lives on his own and works in an assembly-line toy factory for a large company. His relationship with his family is strained, and it seems as if he has no friends — often being the object of teasing by his colleagues in the factory.

Quite early on, we learn that Harry believes that he himself is actually a type of Santa Claus figure — even going so far as to spy on the neighbor's kids and keep his own “naughty and nice” list. In the first scene of the film, we learn that, as a young boy, Harry's father dressed up as Santa on Christmas Eve to surprise Harry and his younger brother, Philip. Philip understood that the man in the Santa costume was really their father, but Harry wholeheartedly believed it was the real Santa. To prove that it was the real Santa, Harry went back downstairs, whereupon he found Santa (his father) kissing and fondling his mother. Harry experienced this moment as the ultimate betrayal and came to believe that Santa Claus is of ill repute. For Harry, this betrayal is experienced as a “death of God” moment. To cope with this loss of his divine hero, Harry takes up the mantle of Santa for himself — to be the figure of good the “real” Santa could never be.

In the present, Harry is busy creating his own Santa suit and fake beard, becoming overjoyed that he has finally completed the ensemble and found his true self. As part of his new Santa identity, he discovers tremendous joy in making his own toys by hand rather than the cheap plastic ones at the factory.

For the rest of the film, we witness instances of great joy and horrendous tragedy. Harry finds out that one of the leaders of the toy company is making empty promises about donating toys to a children's hospital, using these promises of charity as a PR stunt to make more money without concern for the children. Enraged by this duplicity, Harry goes to the hospital himself, dressed as Santa Claus, and delivers the presents he made by hand (as well as some he stole from the factory). As an aside, I think this is a sincerely beautiful moment, and I’ll admit I actually teared up during this scene.

Soon after visiting the hospital, Harry finds the owner of the company at a Christmas Eve church service. Harry plans on killing the owner in revenge but ends up killing three other people in the crowd who harassed him. Harry then flees the scene and escapes to a Christmas party where he spreads Christmas cheer and brings joy to those around him. Again, a beautiful moment.

However, the police are out looking for him, and the next day while Santa Harry is walking through a part of town highly decorated with Christmas lights, families see him and suspect him to be the killer that the police are looking for. However, the children in the families sincerely believe he is the real Santa. One of the fathers tries to attack Harry, but Harry manages to escape.

The police and town catch up with Harry, and he is chased through the streets like Frankenstein's monster. Harry tries to escape in his van, and he accidentally drives off a bridge. But instead of falling to his death, Harry's van flies in the air, and he glides into the night sky like Santa Claus. We are then left to wonder if this is merely Harry's final delusion or if he really was Santa Claus all along.

I left out a few elements from the summary, but that should be more than enough for us to talk about the themes and philosophy at work in the film.

Santa Claus is a deeply embedded archetype within American society. On the one hand, Santa reveals the ideological meritocracy of society — that the good should be rewarded and the bad should be punished without exception. But on the other hand, the figure of Santa stills holds an excess of quasi-liberatory principles outside of that ideology, which is perhaps grounded within the archetype’s origins in the St. Nicholas mythology. Let's break this down more.

Within the Santa mythos, those who are deemed good are rewarded with commodities. Those who are bad are punished with coal. However, the criteria of moral evaluation are left vague. What exactly is it that determines who is good and who is bad? What virtues should the children possess? Should they be following the categorical imperative or maximizing utilitarian good? Goodness and badness are simply assumed standards that perhaps are merely regurgitations of wider capitalist values like working hard, being obedient, submitting to authority, and not complaining. Furthermore, the reward and punishment system neglects material circumstances that might influence a child’s behavior. Growing up in abusive homes will often lead children to certain behaviors deemed bad. But to dismiss the child as merely a bad kid without working to end the abuse and bring healing to the trauma is grossly unfair and disingenuous. It seems that Santa’s evaluations are lacking in this essential nuance.

However, at the same time, there is something positive about the Santa archetype. Santa represents gift-giving instead of industrialized capitalist exchange. This is especially the case when the Santa lore is engaged with the more original and less modernized depictions of Santa in his toyshop making toys by hand rather than in a Fordist factory. There is a gratuity and excess within Santa in that, in its purest form, he wants to bring joy to children by giving them gifts that need no financial reciprocity. Perhaps this is the leftover sense of Christian charitable love from the original St. Nicholas mythos, in which Nicholas gave gifts to children in need. In the Christian understanding, gift-giving is a form of relation that mirrors the grace of God, who gives salvation freely out of God’s abundant love. Indeed, all of Creation is considered to be a gracious gift from God. Of course, charity in-itself is not the death blow to capitalism, but it perhaps shows a type of relation that could help us imagine a post-capitalist mode of relating to one another and to society as a whole.

Additionally, there is something admittedly appealing (at least to me) about Santa's insistence on goodness. The philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that freedom emerges from our knowledge of conformity to the categorical imperative — a universal moral law. In other words, we are free because we are moral agents. Freedom is linked to morality. There are certainly problems and objects to Kant's theory, but if one applies this to the Santa mythos, then there could emerge a possibility of helping children gain a deeper appreciation for their own agency. And helping children become empowered by understanding their own agency — especially that this agency can be used for good — seems to me like a necessary and good aspect of raising children.

But one of the main problems with Kant's theory, as well as the Santa mythos, is that Kant is too individualistic. In order to experience the true flourishing and freedom of a just society, we need each other's help. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be... This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Santa’s failure is not exactly a call to virtuous living (albeit an undefined call), but a call to virtuous living without taking into account humanity’s interdependence upon one another and how moral living cannot truly flourish without communities addressing issues of material, emotional, or spiritual scarcity.

Santa is a naive Kantian, and so is our main character, Harry. But instead of the universal law of the categorical imperative, we have the universality of capitalism. This film hits hard on the alienating effects of capitalism. Toward the beginning of the film, Harry expresses the tragedy of how industrialization and Fordism have separated the laborer from the results of production, resulting in flimsy objects and planned obsolescence. As Harry says, “Nobody here is interested in good toys. ... You've never felt the thrill of making a good toy. And how could you in this (factory)? ... Don't you understand how useful rigidly constructed toys are? How inspirational? Their value goes way beyond making money.”

Capitalism within the film brings about an alienation within labor and a devaluing of craftsmanship, but the narrative also shows the devasting impact of alienation on mental health. There is an unfortunate trope in films (especially the horror genre) where neuro-divergent people and those with mental disabilities are portrayed as monsters or threats. One might initially assume that “Christmas Evil” falls prey to this same trope, but I think the film actually is critical of how capitalist societies treat neuro-divergent people. As we see in the scene at the hospital, it’s entirely possible for Harry to flourish in society. In a better society, Harry would have a community that supports him, helps him, and encourages his gifts, heart, and craftmanship. I’ve seen it happen before in a church ministry that fed the homeless. A neuro-divergent man was one of their top workers in the charity, and his unique gifting was able to flourish and be celebrated. Neuro-divergent people offer a unique gift that could be received by society, but, as we see in this film, more often than not, neuro-divergent people suffer the most from alienation.

Furthermore, “Christmas Evil” shows how the marginalized and needy are neglected by society, and how easily charity can be co-opted for capitalism’s own self-interest. The children in the hospital are neglected on Christmas, and the toy company exploits this reality with pseudo-charity aimed at increasing their own profits. In the eyes of the factory owners (the purest archetype of the bourgeoisie), the children in the hospital are nothing more than a PR stunt to improve the company’s repertoire with consumers. I don't think charity isn’t wrong in-itself. In fact, as I said before, charity radicalized toward a gift-giving relation to society might be a virtue that could help move communities toward post-capitalism. But often, charity is reduced to merely treating symptoms without engaging with the structural causes of those symptoms.

When the alienation of capitalism and the death of God within society (as I mentioned earlier regarding the incident with Father-Santa) are combined, it leads to tragedy. Without a social support system or a wider vision of the Kingdom of God, Harry becomes a law unto himself. In Kantian philosophy, this ought to be a point of freedom: the individual gains autonomy by following the categorical imperative which is given to oneself through the faculties of practical reason innate within the human mind (or something like that). But instead of freedom, Harry becomes his own law is a form of vigilantism that merely radicalizes the meritocracy of his society. The good are rewarded and the naughty are punished. Harry takes that meritocracy and then flips it back onto the people who are most responsible for maintaining that ideological system (as well as some other bullies). If you want only the good people to live and the bad people to be resigned to death, then the exploitive greedy bourgeoise should be punished. However, the film also shows the perils of trying to maintain this revolution using the ideological forms of meritocracy — or, as Jacques Ellul often pointed out, when one’s means are not in accordance with one’s ends. One needs a revolution that no longer abides by the capitalist bourgeois ideology.

Meritocracy is empowered by structural and systemic violence against those deemed “naughty” or not fitting the cultural ideal. Thus, violence can be easily incorporated back into the ideological system. As Martin Luther King said, “You can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.” The pleasure we get when Harry is about to kill that greedy capitalist who exploited children in the hospital shows just how internalized this absolutist and merciless meritocracy has conditioned our consciousness. When the other petty hecklers are killed instead of the factory owner, and their friend is left screaming in pure traumatic horror, we are forced to recognize the misguided ways of this form of consciousness.

All of this is why I think this film is better understood as a Shakespearean tragedy rather than purely a horror film. At the heart of “Christmas Evil” is a tortured soul who could’ve been a force for good. But instead, he is brought down by the tragedy surrounding him. And we are left to wonder what it would take to rearrange our society so that those facing similar plights to Harry might not fall into such tragedy but rather find communities of redemption.

#movie #horror #filmanalysis #theology #JacquesEllul #Christmas #Advent

“Anna and the Apocalypse” made a small splash in public awareness around 2017 for being one of the boldest (if not bizarre) genre mashups to date: a zombie horror Christmas musical tragicomedy.

The summary on IMDB reads as follows: “A zombie apocalypse threatens the sleepy town of Little Haven – at Christmas – forcing Anna and her friends to fight, slash and sing their way to survival, facing the undead in a desperate race to reach their loved ones. But they soon discover that no one is safe in this new world, and with civilization falling apart around them, the only people they can truly rely on are each other.”

Some have described this film as “Shaun of the Dead” (another zombie comedy film) meets “High School Musical” (the greatest musical of all time. Don't even try to debate me). I re-watched the film this year, and something about it really resonated with me. Upon second viewing, I was able to get over the initial shock of a zombie Christmas musical and actually engage with how the horror and musical genres coalesce to communicate the themes within the narrative and character arcs. In a fascinating way, two of the most predictable and gaudy genres work together to create a new form of apocalyptic art.

The word apocalypse is often thrown around to refer to the end of the world, but that's not necessarily what apocalypse means. In the biblical sense, apocalypse means a revelation. It's as if the curtain of reality is pulled back, and one sees into the divine realm, such as the heavenly host, spiritual warfare, etc. However, there is a tangential connection to the “end of the world” because often such revelations show how the present order of the world is coming to an end. For example, in “Shaun of the Dead,” zombies are used to depict the apocalypse of falling in love and how such an apocalyptic revelation can upend one's life, resulting in the rearrangement of how one is currently living. One receives a glimpse into a new type of modality (being in love), and this results in the present order of life coming to an end.

In “Anna and the Apocalypse,” the zombie outbreak is symbolic of the apocalypse of leaving one's hometown (and especially doing this while transitioning out of high school). Anna is a high school senior who lives with her single father after her mother passed away. After graduation, she plans on taking a year to travel the world instead of going off to university. However, her dad is livid about this decision and is instead insistent upon her following a more conventional life path.

The characters who survive the film are the ones who desire to escape the suffocation of their hometown: Steph, a lesbian woman whose concerns about the marginalized are dismissed, while at the same time being neglected and not accepted by her parents. The other survivor, besides Anna, is a young man, Nick, who has an abusive father. Conversely, the characters who die are the ones who wish to stay in their hometown. In this sense, the zombies are symbolic of the forces that keep one tethered to the sluggish suburban sprawl of “sleepy” hometowns that can zap aspirations or, in the case of minority groups, such as our queer character Steph, create oppressive conditions and even violence.

I must admit how impressed I am with how much work is done by the film's genre form. There’s a sense in which this movie is over-saturated by form. The characters and the narrative cannot escape the duel oppression of both the horror genre and the musical genre. Interestingly enough, this also turns so many people off from enjoying the film. It combines many elements that people would not like. There are many who cannot tolerate musicals for their cheesy and unrealistic and predictable structure. And there are many who cannot tolerate the horror genre for its display of the grotesque. But within the over-saturation of form, the very content of the film emerges. Just like the film cannot escape the clichés and rigorous structure of its dual genre, neither can the characters escape the suffocation of their hometown. Both horror films and musicals are prone to feeling “unrealistic,” which makes them harder to enjoy for viewers who prefer being more fully immersed in the movie they are watching. But in a similar vein, many of the characters within the film feel as if the life they currently live is unrealistic, and they feel as if they cannot be fully immersed within it. The way in which the form alienates many viewers reflects the alienation experienced by the characters within the narrative.

However, this film is, importantly, also a Christmas movie. Some commentators have objected that Christmas doesn't have much to do with the movie, but rather that the narrative just happens to fall on Christmas Day. But I disagree. Christmas spirit is an essential liberating force for the characters that allows them to hold onto hope and keep pressing on. When Anna's father is bitten by a zombie and she must say her final goodbye, he tells her, “Merry Christmas, Anna.” Symbolically, this is Anna's father finally accepting that she will move on and travel the world — that she will leave her hometown. Additionally, Anna's weapon of choice that enables her to fend off zombies successfully is a giant candy cane, which I take to be symbolic of her harnessing the power of Christmas. And furthermore, snow falling (the presence of Christmas spirit) often happens when the characters rediscover hope — such as in the final scene of the film.

To be clear: I don't mean “Christmas spirit” in a generic, Hallmark movie sense. Rather, I think the Christmas spirit at work in this film is the hope of Advent. In his book “Hope in a Time of Abandonment,” the theologian and philosopher Jacques Ellul argues that hope is not the absence of despair but rather a choice of faith made in the midst of despair. However, for Ellul, this choice is not vague, wishful thinking, but rather a recollection and proclamation of the promises given through God's self-revelation. Hope is thus holding onto the promises of God, grounded in the revelation of Christ, even during times in which God feels absent. A powerful illustration of this hope is the Advent narrative found within the New Testament. Mary chooses to give birth to and raise the Christ child even though the brutal reign of the Roman Empire seems omnipotent and her personal situation of poverty and potential social ostracization seem inevitable and unjust. In a sense, there is a resonance between the characters of Mary and Anna: both choose an apocalyptic hope even though the material circumstances around them are bleak.

Lyrics from the song “I Will Believe” from the movie:

As I look back over my yesterdays
I was so sure, certain I'd find my way
But now the world is such a different place
All of my dreams are gone without a trace

Where is the light that used to shine?
Oh, where is the life that once was mine?
But while there's hope, while I still breathe
I will believe

There was a time nothing could hold us back
Our days were bright before this earth turned black
But now my faith feels like a distant ghost
I lost the things I used to need the most

Where is the light that used to shine?
Where is the life that once was mine?
But while there's hope, while I still breathe
I will believe

All of a sudden the blood in my veins runs cold
Thinkin' about all the days that I just let go
If I had reckoned the seconds would slip from me
I'd have paid twice for the price of the memory
For the memory

Where is the light that used to shine?
Oh, where is the life that once was mine?
But while there's hope, while I still breathe
I will believe
But while there's hope, while I still breathe
I will believe

The Paganism is the Point: A Theological Reflection on the Yule Goat and Advent

#advent #theologicalreflection #indigenous #Lewis #Tolkien

My own family has always been festive beyond the norm when it comes to the holidays. We inherited that trait from my maternal grandmother, who was full-blooded Scandinavian and raised by a family who came to America on a boat from Norway. Thus, our Christmases were always filled with Scandinavian Christmas motifs, such as lefse, which is a common Norwegian desert.

However, being raised in the Bible belt of Texas, I was aware of some people who did not participate in certain Christmas practices because of religious convictions. In their reasoning, Christmas, in the modern sense, was a holiday filled with pagan symbolism and haunted by the ghosts of our pre-Christian heathenry, hell-bent on distracting us from Jesus. Kirk Cameron even made a movie about the problem (though ultimately arguing in favor of Christmas).

I respect these people's sincere convictions regarding proper religious practice. But I actually think that their disavowal of pagan Yuletide misses important theological insight that arises when one compares Yule and Advent. In fact, I think pre-Christian Yuletide witnesses to an important theological truth, which is given concrete reality in the Advent of Christ. Perhaps not all of the practices associated with Yuletide are in accordance with Christian holiness, but there's certainly an important theological resonance between the two celebrations.

Yuletide refers to a period of festivities originating in the Scandinavian and Celtic regions of the world. The festivities occurred during the darkest season of the year — which were especially brutal in places like Scandinavia, where winter is harsh and the nights last much longer. Yuletide was a means of choosing joy in the midst of such a bleak period. Instead of caving to seasonal depression, the people chose merriment and celebration.

The Yule Goat was a key figure within this proclamation of hope. Often within the community, someone would masquerade as a goat-like figure and trot through the community. The popular figure, “Krampus,” is one such example that has continued to the modern day. The Yule Goat would sometimes be understood as a spirit of the forest who would come out and greet the community on special nights, such as the winter solstice. Importantly, the Yule Goat would come bearing fire, which is why, in Krampus festivals, many of the performers hold torches. A creature emerging from the forest holding light is a symbol of hope that promises renewal. In due time, the forests and land will once again be teeming with life. The season of winter will not last forever. Spring and rebirth will come.

(For more information on the Yule Goat, you can watch this video: [Link] (

It seems to me that Christ fits rather well into such a narrative. Christ is himself the Light of the World (cf. John 1:4 and John 8:12) — or “True Light from True Light” as the Nicene Creed says. Christ is the beacon of hope and the promise of redemption in the midst of despair, who brings resurrection into a season conditioned by death.

The Yule Goat was often a forest spirit who brought hope for the renewal of the land. Christ performs a similar function. For example, it is common to read the “suffering servant” songs from Isaiah as being applicable to or describing Christ (this is especially done around Christmas). Consider Isaiah 11:6-9.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion will feed together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Or, consider what is written in Colossians 1:19-20.

“For in (Christ) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

The incarnation of Christ ushers a type of 're-creation' into our world. This is why Christian art has often used the egg as a symbol of resurrection: from out of the shell of the old world, Christ's new redemption springs forth. Within this new creation, “all things” (Col. 1:20) shall be reconciled to God. This is not only for human creatures but for non-human creatures as well.

The nativity story of Christ shows all of these facets coming together to witness the dawning of the new creation: humans, angels, non-human animals, and celestial bodies come together to celebrate God's light breaking into the darkness. All of these themes fit rather well with the themes of Yuletide.

Hopefully, what I've written comes across as slightly more sophisticated than mere “Jesus-juking.” For those unaware, “Jesus-juking” is when you start down the direction of a popular topic, and then you quickly juke to a new direction by shoehorning Jesus into the conversation. You see it all the time in the “youth pastor voice” memes.

youth pastor voice “Tom Brady retired and then after 39 days returned. I know someone who did it in three. Who needs the GOAT when you got the Lamb?”

But beyond my potential Jesus-juke, I think that seeing a theological resonance between the ancient practices and wisdom of pre-Christian traditional knowledge and later Christian beliefs can be fruitful for thinking about what it means for the Universal Christ to interact with all people. For example, I've been fascinated recently by Indigenous Native American/American Indian Christian theology and how they relate Christ to their traditions and identity.

Consider a statement written for the United Methodist Church:

“Through corporate and personal conviction, our people individually and tribally are led by the Spirit of God to a greater awareness of God. Traditional beliefs, consistent with the gospel and the historic witness of the Church should not be understood as contrary to our beliefs as Native Christians. The testimony of historic and contemporary Native Christians should be counted in the historic witness of the Church. [...] Many Native traditions were erroneously feared, rather than understood as vehicles for the grace and the knowledge of God. Such fears have resulted in the persecution of traditional Native peoples [...]. Many Native traditions have been misinterpreted as sin, rather than varying cultural expressions leading to a deeper understanding of our Creator and the Creator’s divine presence and action in our world.”

The testimony of Native American/American Indian Christians shows how God uses pre-Christian traditional wisdom to reveal God's truth and act as witnesses to the revelation of Christ. Under this light, perhaps the Yule Goat mythos and tradition is part of the mythology that, as C.S. Lewis postulated, God has written on the hearts of humanity. “Myth” in this context is the technical sense, which means a people's deepest meaning written in narrative form. Lewis argued that many of the pre-Christian myths contain important truths that align well with the Gospel, and perhaps were means by which the Holy Spirit prepared people for the revelation of Christ. Christ is then a type of “true myth” (Lewis's term) or myth-made flesh. Lewis's own work in the Chronicles of Narnia — as well as his colleague, Tolkien — are illustrations of how Christian theology can interact with pre-Christian myths and serve as vessels for theological insight.

If we are going to believe that Christ is the universal Savior for all people, then we should not be afraid of, e.g., indigenous traditional knowledge or “pagan” mythology in themselves. Rather, we ought to celebrate the ways in which the Holy Spirit was speaking to people before they heard about Jesus.

A Theological Reflection on “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965)

#analysis #art #film #theology #advent #consumerism

I’ve always loved the Charlie Brown Christmas special for how beautiful it is. It has a pacing that doesn't rush but is simply allowed to linger— a pacing that breaks through the hyperspeed of our accelerated society. The form of the pacing and the themes of finding Advent in the midst of chaotic commercialism perfectly coalesce, creating a masterpiece of animation that stands the test of time. For most of my life, I simply enjoyed the show's artistry, but in recent years, I've come to appreciate the beauty of its themes and message.

Through the simplified art and gorgeous music, the episode captures a sacredness of the everyday: catching snowflakes on one's tongue, ice skating, throwing snowballs at a can — these moments are lifted in a peaceful glimpse of the sacred. In a way, it harkens the same energy as Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: slow pacing with an underlying spirit of wonder and gratitude for life. An appreciation of the sacred everyday stands in contrast to the foreboding consumerism that lingers in the background and haunts Charlie Brown. Despite the sacred moments happening around him, Charlie Brown seems to be absent from such experiences. Instead, he dejectedly saunters through his town, bearing the existential weight of capitalist-driven alienation, asking himself: “What is the true meaning of Christmas?”

He knows the answer does not lie in commercialism, which is portrayed through his little sister's letter to Santa: “Just send cash. How about 10s and 20s?” Lucy comes a tad bit closer to the meaning of Christmas, such as when she invites Charlie Brown to participate in the Christmas pageant. However, as she readily admits, her real ambitions are capitalist accumulation (“Santa never brings me what I really want... real estate”) and her desire to be the “Christmas Queen” in a pageant permeated with commercial trappings. Charlie Brown rejects both of these modalities.

Though Charlie Brown is well aware of the Advent Story from scripture, he has yet to connect with the theological meaning behind the story—i.e., with the revelation of God in Christ. Like much of our secular age, for Charlie Brown, religious acts are severed from their higher, sacred meaning or perhaps overshadowed by commercialism's chaos. It is not until he goes on his quest to find a Christmas tree that he encounters the shocking reality of the sacred.

What I love about this scene is how vastness and magnitude of sacred sublimity is found within a humble tree. It's like the scripture passage from Isaiah 53:2, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” What is beautiful about the tree is not its opulence, but how real it is. Within a landscape of artificial aluminum trees, Charlie stumbles upon a remnant of a more honest Creation, as if he is Moses encountering the burning bush. Charlie Brown has yet to find the words to express his experience, but he returns to the pageant and Advent Story with what he discovered, with an experiential connection to the deeper meaning of Advent.

I find it particularly beautiful how the creators portray Charlie Brown’s love for that little tree. Not only is the tree an encounter with the sacredness of an authentic Advent, but the tree is also a projection of Charlie Brown himself, which is why he is so drawn to it. Though it’s not perfect, that tree is still better than the fake aluminum trees. It’s better because it’s real and authentic, rather than the contrived and manufactured trees in the dazzling advertisements of consumerism.

When Charlie Brown returns to the pageant, we get a heartbreaking scene as people laugh at his tree (the way they laugh at him personally). The tree doesn’t conform to the image that was marketed to them. Just like Charlie Brown is marginalized and humiliated, so is this little tree. As Isaiah 53 goes on to say, “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.”

In this context, Linus reading from the Gospel of Luke takes on a whole new meaning. I've heard some Christians interpret this moment as merely a declaration that “Jesus is the reason for the season” rather than Santa Claus or consumerism. Of course, as a Christian, I believe Christmas is about God rather than commodities, and I don't want to dissuade people from focusing on Christ. But too often, this sort of interpretation falls into the “war on Christmas” ideological ploys rather than a serious engagement with capitalism. Furthermore, I think the “Jesus is the reason for the season” interpretation misses the broader meaning of the scripture within the context of the narrative.

In Luke, angels announce the birth of Christ to a group of poor shepherds who are quite literally on the outskirts of town and on the outskirts of society. The author of Luke included this story in keeping with his general theme that Christ came to seek and save the lost — those who are poor, oppressed, and on the margins of society. The shocking and magnificent eruption of divine revelation as the heavenly host bring the message of the messiah is presented, not to a king, but to humble shepherds. Just like the shepherds, Charlie Brown is on the outside of society—consistently marginalized and humiliated by his peers. After hearing the Gospel reading, Charlie Brown recognizes that God's love for the outsiders and marginalized applies to him as well.

In a newfound sense of personal worth, Charlie Brown is able to accept himself and accept the little tree. He is able to believe that his tree (and he himself!) is beautiful, despite what others might think. The Gospel proclamation helps make sense of Charlie's experience of finding the sacred within such a meek tree. After witnessing both the Gospel presentation and Charlie Brown’s reception, his friends repent and realize how wrong they were to bully and ridicule him. They even recognize the beauty of Charlie Brown’s tree (and Charlie himself): “I never did think it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” Charlie Brown’s tree was always beautiful, and the support of his friends help make it even more so. The episode ends with a rendition of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” a song that encapsulates the Gospel reading. God's Kingship is found in a humble baby, who reconciles the lost to God — a reconciliation experienced by Charlie Brown and his peers.