Exiting the theater after seeing the recent film adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, a superlative adult fairy tale with horror elements, I (a decidedly non-horror fan) began to wonder if there wasn’t a deeper reflection on the nature of God under It‘s surface horror. In truth, I worried. What mad and unsettled part of me dared contemplate the face of God in that grinning, maniacal clown as he dropped into his well?
Maybe it was the presence of the Jewish kid (and Rabbi father), frustrated by looking for God in the Scriptures only to be interrupted by a grimacing woman in a painting, that started me thinking.
Or maybe it was the typography of the poster: the title IT scratched in blood red–off-kilter and oddly spaced–strangely resembling the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Hay…
Assuming these observances to be more than accidental, I dove deep into the meaning of Hay, the Hebrew letter. And that’s when I met my first obstacle: apparently in most cases that letter is used to reference God himself, or at least the presence of God.
Could the makers of the new movie It be suggesting Pennywise as a stand-in for God?
What a heretical thought. After all, wasn’t Pennywise clearly evil? Demonic? Horror personified? How could anyone rationally suggest him as divine, even in effect if not in identity? Nevertheless, it begged a new thought: is it possible that the physical intrusion of the divine into our lives could ever be perceived as horror? Or evil? Or, to cast a simpler, broader, and more childlike word: bad?
If someone grew up in an atmosphere of true horror (i.e. abuse or war), is it possible a divine appearance in their life could initially be perceived as horror, even as demonic? Or is that an insult to the Divine? Would the Divine always announce itself as its true nature? And, if it did, would the experiencer receive or perceive this announcement as truth? I wondered about the kids in It. With their lives steeped in actual parental horrors (sexual abuse, physical bullying, etc.), would they initially be able to differentiate between angel and demon?
It seems an absurd question. After all, who would be afraid of an angel, right? And yet, time and time again, the Bible records precisely that fear when angels appear. Even though some appear as ordinary-looking men–without even a mention of wings or giant size or luminescence–their first words are often ‘Do not be afraid.’
Because if the supernatural–whether divine or demonic–stepped into our physical existence and confronted us, wouldn’t we all be afraid?
Many of our Biblical heroes were. So afraid they couldn’t speak. So afraid the angels had to tell them not to be afraid just so they could get on with things.
Fearing I might be Alice chasing a rabbit down a hole, I pondered further how Pennywise could possibly qualify as a cinematic stand-in for God by drawing on my own reaction to the film’s climax. No specific spoilers here, so read on…
It’s no secret I abhor horror films. I’ve only seen a few (Nightmare on Elm Street, The Grudge, Cat’s Eye), and those had me scrunching down in my chair peering through a mask of fingers and leaving the theater (sometimes before it was over) with a stomach ache. You can imagine the trouble I had with a professor who encouraged me to seek God in the films I was most afraid of. (I think you may have caught my ear anew, Dr. Detweiler.)
But throughout It, despite the shock shots, brief gruesomeness, voluminous blood, and the proverbial house of horrors, I was never afraid but emboldened. I wanted to march right through that screen and strangle that clown. I felt a surge of power and desire to take on whatever was challenging those kids and slay it. While watching them, I became one of them–not victimized, but empowered, emboldened, and made brave by the horrors in front of us.
That’s when I might have glimpsed God. As Pennywise retreated from his final confrontation with the children, I saw them standing–strong, together, triumphant. Had Pennywise saved them by scaring them? By posing as Horror B in their lives, thus giving them a personified evil they had to seek out, face up to, and battle against, had Pennywise empowered them to do the same in their personal lives against Horror A (i.e. their parents)?
‘What a God thing to do,’ I surprisingly thought.
What a God-thing to bring lonely, outcast, self-proclaimed ‘losers’ into a club to let them know they’re not alone, nor even the losers they think they are. What a God-thing to teach them that together they will triumph, not in acting alone, thus revealing the value of community. What a God-thing to allow an interruption (in this case supernaturally horrific) into their lives that they could defeat and that would then enable, empower and teach them to defeat the ‘real evil’ of their lives and town. What a God-thing to prepare them to live emboldened lives of power and confidence over evil.
But how could Pennywise represent God, a friend of my faith challenged me, in instructing the bully to kill his father? That didn’t sound like the Gospel we knew, nor the Jesus that stood at the center of our theology. I still may not have an answer to that, and perhaps this analogy breaks down upon further stretching and examining, but it occurred to me that the Old Testament God commanded many of his followers to kill those He deemed unrighteous. In the IT story, the bully’s father has clearly been identified as evil and unrighteous–would there not be some freedom found in the bully obeying Pennywise’s command to kill this father? Again, we’re discussing a cinematic fairy tale here, a fictional construct where ancient evil has infected the town and turned the adults into evil–we’re not talking current reality nor advocating the killing of parents as God’s redemption. But in this story, is it too far to suggest the filmmakers may have been invoking an Old Testament God in constructing this story of ‘freedom from horror through horror?’
It’s a fascinating (and potentially heretical question to me), having been brought up in an evangelical Christian home and community. The true myth of Jesus so pervades my growing-up understanding of the Bible, that it’s hard to imagine how God was perceived by the ancients before Jesus arrived on the scene. I doubt seriously that He was viewed as the God of love. Not with all that judgment and war going on. That God was feared. That God blew down city walls, stopped the sun in the sky, and wiped out cities with plagues–that God was not to be messed with. If you were on the other side, that God was a horror. Even His own people were instructed to fear Him.
What did the residents of Sodom and Gommorah feel when God appeared in a fiery rain of destruction? What did Moses feel hiding in the cleft when God passed by and he had to hide his face? What did the Philistines experience when Samson slaughtered thousands with the jaw of an ass? Is it too far to suggest that this God of power and supernatural interruption who once appeared as horror might yet again appear as horror–if only in our word and image stories?
Let’s peek into modern times and pair an unlikely scripture with these thoughts. Consider the New Testament verse that commands: ‘In everything give thanks.’ Are we to take that seriously? And literally? If so, how does that relate to horror in my life? Am I to thank God for that?
If so, how can that be? Isn’t horror horror? Why would a loving God command us to thank him for horror? Or, put another way, if God is a loving God, how can bad things happen to good people? Or, in another, why does God allow suffering (i.e. personal, familial, or societal horror)? (And, yes if you’re counting, that’s ten questions in a row.)
Perhaps the movie It suggests an answer based in experiencing an Old Testament God. Perhaps Horror B is the only way to grow strong enough to defeat Horror A. Maybe that’s why we should give thanks. For all the horror Pennywise puts those kids through, they stand and survive. They vanquish the evil in their lives, come together in a community of love, and gain the power to proceed through life as conquerors. Because of Pennywise.
Why would a good and loving author like Stephen King let such bad things happen to his good and lovely literary kids? Because he’s evil? Or because maybe he’s telling us a story of how to be thankful for the horror in our lives–the horrors that teach us greater truths, that strengthen us, that equip us to move to higher levels of living.
Why would a new movie adaptation of King’s story It dare to suggest the face of Pennywise as God? Maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe it does because an Old Testament view of God dares to stare a horrific truth in the face: that God may appear as horror. That His deeds in our life can appear as horror. That in his love He may send what is perceived by us as horror to help us escape (or redeem us from) other horrors.
Am I going too far? I see trauma all around. I see good people daily encountering cancer, natural disasters, and human evils. Is God absent because of these? Is he judged as evil because he allows these ‘evils’? Even if He redeems them by using them to strengthen and teach us?
The few horror films I’ve seen have left me feeling sick and evil. Vanquished. But I was uplifted by the ending of IT because I knew those kids would be okay. They had triumphed over the worst horrors of their lives and I knew they’d triumph in the future over whatever they had to face–because of Pennywise.
I don’t know what horrors still await me in life. I have been blessed by facing very few so far. But I know the world around me and know those horrors lurk. I hope, through this rumination, that I may be better open to see God’s face in those horrors–to see His grace grinning back through whatever sufferings may come. In this way, I’m thankful for the new movie It. Thankful that it’s prepared me to be more thankful…even if God appears as Pennywise.