Sunday, October 8, 2017

Towards a Theology of Gore

By Daniel Otto Jack Petersen

Fake blood dripping from mouths and fake blades protruding from faux wounds on Halloween. It's as much a part of the ludic pageantry as monsters and webs and gravestones and the rest. What do we make of the gory, bloody element of this holiday?

Right when I started trying to write my own take on a zombie tale, I was immediately confronted with the need for a theology of gore. I wondered for a moment what the Bible could possibly have to say on grotesque and gruesome material like this. It was only for a moment. Immediately my mind was flooded with the copious amounts of gore that splatter the pages of Scripture: Jael and her famous tent peg assassination, Ehud and his famous surprise disembowelment of an obese king, that messed up Levite that dismembered his raped and murdered concubine and sent the pieces of her body all round the country, dogs eating up the body of wicked Queen Jezebel except for the feet and hands and skull, people in a besieged city fighting over whose baby to eat next, and just generally the beheadings and hangings and spears and swords and arrows thrusting people through, blood and guts a spilling.

All this gore makes the whole Israelite system of continuous, controlled, and holy animal sacrifice, the sacred ritual of circumcision, sanctified lamb's blood daubed on doorposts at Passover, and so on look positively clean and sane in comparison to the freakish orgy of blood that often prevailed (and often still does today). Yahweh was clearly taking the endemic bloodshed in hand and showing his people the way he was going to redeem all that bloody mess.

It's interesting that theology doesn't just disinfect all the gore and turn our eyes to more tasteful matters. We are made to look our bloodstained world full in the face and contemplate the horror and thereby long for a redemption big enough to deal with even this. It's no wonder the New Testament takes up the theme of blood and gore and makes it central to its salvation story and imagery. The Lamb who was Slain becomes paramount: the Roman cross of inhumanly torturous crucifixion, the Son of God's blood shed for the forgiveness of sin, sinners washed in his blood, the Son risen from the dead with the scars of his sacrifice retained even in his glorified state, believers promised that their bodies too will be so resurrected from the dead to eternal glory.

A perfect image for Halloween from all this biblical material comes from Ezekiel, the indisputable winner of Prophet of the Monstrous, Macabre, and Phantasmagorical. (Well, maybe he ties with Daniel.) The Spirit of Yahweh comes upon him and takes him in a vision to a valley, and 'it was full of bones'. The bones are dried out and Zeke is asked: 'Son of man, can these bones live?' He replies: 'Sovereign Lord, you alone know.' He is then commanded to prophesy to the dried out bones that God will cover them again with tendons and guts and skin and breathe life into them again. Zeke obeys:

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. (Ezekiel 37:7-10)

It's amazing to see that Yahweh performs a sort of reverse gore here. (Kind of like watching a slasher film on rewind!) He takes us step by step through the reanimation of these people, a sight as equally gruesome as seeing all the flesh ripped away, but this time with an outcome that is hopeful and glorious (what Tolkien called a 'eucatastrophe', a good catastrophe).

So theologically, I think part of what we can play at with gore on Halloween is the shedding of skin, spilling of blood, and exposing of skeletons in acceptance of their frailty on the one hand, but also in hope of their resurrection and glory on the other. After all, the very Son of God dressed up in humanity's gore too, up on top of a hill that looked like a Skull no less. Because of that gory display of divine love we can dress up and declare our 'Amen' to the prophecy: yes... these bones will live.