There has been a lot of supernatural fiction on both the big and the small screen in the last decade. As a fan of genre fiction, I approve… generally. Not all of it is good, of course. Some of it is downright unwatchable. Much of it is nothing more than soap opera or cheap romance fiction dressed up with genre trappings. But a fair amount of it has been pretty decent, and some of it has been really good.
But all of it – at least to my knowledge – suffers from a serious problem:
They need a priest in the party.
A lot of this discussion is going to center around the CW television drama Supernatural, because that’s the show my wife and I were watching when we first formulated the theory. But the basic premise holds across the genre – in its modern form, anyway.
So, as stated, let’s take the show Supernatural. For those unfamiliar with it, the show is about two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester. Their mother was brutally killed by a demon when they were small children. As a result, their father dedicated the rest of his life to hunting supernatural creatures. When the series begins, Sam has rejected that life and set out to try for something normal – college, a career, etc. Then their father disappears and Sam is pulled back into the life of demon hunting, thus setting up the main premise of the show: the two brothers on a constant road trip fighting off demons, monsters, ghosts, and pretty much any other supernatural creature you can think of every week.
Personally, I found the first season of the show to be the strongest by a good margin. There’s a stereotype out there of shows getting bogged down in a “monster of the week” format, but that worked for Supernatural. The show is at its very best when it’s dragging up obscure myths and legends – whether the ancient or the urban variety – and just running with the concept of two brothers on a road trip helping people. When the series-long story arc begins is when the show starts having issues. Well, actually the issues begin before that but they’re livable. They ramp up to killing any value of the show after that – although clearly there are many who disagree with me, since the show is still running strong in the ratings on its tenth season. I stopped watching after the fifth season, and frankly both it and the preceding season were pretty weak.
Ultimately, though, the culprit of that began at the beginning: they needed a priest in the party.
Let’s start with season one. At this point, the show exists in a universe where:
- The major characters know for a fact that demons, monsters and other supernatural creatures are real.
- They have met such creatures.
- They have fought such creatures.
- The have used religious items – especially holy water – to great effect in fighting these creatures.
Despite these points, and especially despite these last points, Dean has no faith whatsoever and the best that Sam can manage is a kind of vague “there must be something” modern spirituality.
Excuse me for a minute, but what?! Imagine for a moment that you are living their lifestyle. You have no home – you live in a new hotel room in a new town every few days. You fight dangerous creatures all the time. You know, for a fact, that holy or blessed items help combat these creatures. And you have no serious relationships anyway.
What do you do? I know what I would do: I would find my way to a seminary and get my butt ordained. Even if you don’t actually believe in the religious teachings of the church, it clearly gives you an edge. Once you’re ordained, any water can become holy water in a pinch. You can bless your own weapons. You can perform your own exorcisms. The brothers do quite a bit of this anyway, but one would think in a world where holy water actually, you know, works that a priest would be more effective at exorcisms.
OK, so you’ve decided that becoming a priest is too hard. Or maybe it just takes you out of the game too long and people are getting hurt. Guess what? There are more than thirty-eight thousand priests in the United States. Get one to join the party. Or – at the very, very least – you make friends with a few of them. Stay in touch when you’re in that part of the country. Get them to provide you with stuff.
So why do the brothers never do this? Because the Hollywood producers of the show don’t take the Christian religion seriously.
The show borrows the mythological trappings of Christianity: crosses, holy water, exorcisms, and, in later seasons, even angels. But the problem is that none of these items working the way they do in the show makes any sense without the theological aspects of Christianity to back them up.
Holy water works in more or less the traditional ways. In other words, it’s effective against undead creatures like vampires. But why does it work? And why only on those creatures? Under traditional Christian theology and the traditional folklore of vampires this makes perfect sense. Vampires are creatures who have forsaken God, consciously chosen to damn their own souls, and chosen an unlife of wretched evil. Therefore holy water, crosses, and anything else sacred is the antithesis of their very being.
What are angels? In traditional theology they are messengers of God. The very word means messenger (it’s the same Greek root from which our word evangelize comes). And yet for the first three seasons of the show, God is only mentioned in the moments when Dean is explaining why he (very unbelievably, as described above) has no faith in Him.
Speaking of that, where do the demons come from? The traditional view, again, is that they are fallen angels. But what exactly does fallen mean? It means that they’ve turned away from God – who, as noted, is barely mentioned in the first few seasons. And if demons aren’t creatures that have turned away from God, then why do things like holy water work against them? Evidently the answer is, “just because.”
This is a problem that only gets worse in later seasons as the show tries to address this issue and finds itself getting more and more convoluted.
In the second season, Dean makes a deal with a demon to save the day. The deal is that the demon will take his soul. But what good is a soul to a demon without the Christian theology to back it up? What purpose does it serve? This, again, is never really explained.
In the third season his deal comes due and Dean’s soul is taken into Hell. A Hell that is distinctly Christian in type and likeness, although Christ is mentioned in the series even less than God. In fact, in the five seasons that I’ve personally viewed Christ is not mentioned one single time. Nor is he ever hinted at, referenced, or anything. So why does this kind of Hell exist? Because this is definitely the Christian version… unless it’s the Islamic version, although once more there is no reference to Muhammad, the Quran, or any Islamic theology. So why does this Hell exist?
In the fourth season the Angels show up. One of them rescues Dean from Hell, and – this is the good part – the rest of the season centers around the brothers trying to stop Lucifer from rising out of Hell. This is where things get really bad. Because up until now, you can kind of make a stretch out of it being a whole “religion of the book” approach and just trying to be a vague Judeo-Christian theological world. That’s still kind of lame, but you can almost make it work. But battle between Lucifer and the angels is unquestionably Christian in origin, coming straight out of the Revelation of St. John. Of course, they fail to stop Lucifer from rising so season five is all about defeating him. This continues stealing from the Christian mythological tradition by bringing in the archangel Michael.
Over the course of seasons four and five the real butchery begins as we discover that Sam and Dean are caught in between the warring factions of the demons and the angels. And that is the real travesty of the whole show. The angels and demons are reduced to nothing more than two warring factions, no different than, say, the Washington Redskins versus the Dallas Cowboys, Democrats versus Republicans or Red vs Blue. Without realizing that they’ve done it, the entirety of the show has now been reduced from (previously) being about fighting evil to… just fighting other factions.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not offended – although I do think there are grounds to be, if I was the kind of person who was easily offended. At least, I’m not offended for the sake of my religion. Christ is stronger than that and he can tolerate a bit of mockery. I might be just a tad bit offended over just how badly these issues damaged what was otherwise an enjoyable story.
This kind of thing bothered me before, back when I was an atheist, and for the same reason. It’s absolutely terrible for the story. The story would be far more enjoyable if they just made decisions that actually make sense with the elements that they’ve borrowed. OK, they don’t want to run with Christian theology. Maybe they want to create their own instead to fill the void. And from where they were going at the end of season five and what I’ve read past that, it sure sounds like they’ve tried. But Christian theology, mythology and folklore has two thousand years of history behind it. The kinks have been worked out, so to speak If you’re going to replace it, you’ve got a lot of homework to do.
But I don’t think this was a storytelling decision, or not a pure one. And the reason I don’t believe that is because this isn’t just an issue with Supernatural. It’s endemic in everything that comes out of Hollywood these days. It’s in very nearly every aspect of this genre. Can we get real for a minute and acknowledge that Hollywood has a problem with Christianity? When the decision happens this frequently and very clearly has this large of a negative effect on the story, it’s clearly not being done for the sake of the viewers. Hollywood has an agenda and Christianity isn’t part of it.
The thing is, they’re hurting their own stories more than they’re hurting us.