If Spiritual Battles Gave Off Sparks
It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I had intended to watch The Passion of the Christ on Good Friday. But life’s being what it is, these days, I couldn’t manage the 126 minutes required. And by the time Saturday rolled around, it felt more appropriate to turn attention toward the Resurrection, which took up only about the final minute of the film.
So, at the end of an exhausting Holy Week of sick children and the consequent sleepless nights, my wife and I turned toward more explicit entertainment, with Christian messages mainly in its metaphors. We watched the first installment of The Hobbit.
The interplay of the thoughts about the two movies brought to mind an impression I took away from the Portsmouth Institute conference on Cardinal Newman in 2010: We have a habit of insisting that the reality of God ought to make the world something different from what it is, and then we blame Him for not making the world what it is not.
Either God exists within the world as we experience it, or He does not. Waiting for crosses burning the sky merely postpones the decision to believe, and as demonic faces in the explosion on September 11, 2001, proved, if you haven’t already decided, it would be awfully difficult for a supernatural sign to be decisive on its own.
More specifically, though, during the various speeches and presentations of the 2010 conference, I remember having the sense that the speakers were fundamentally talking about the reality of spiritual battle. Somehow, it seems, the modern imagination has atrophied in its capacity to believe in that which it cannot see.
With all of our gadgets and the nigh-upon-disprovable reality of video’s special effects, we need the light show. If a priest’s counsel of a severely distraught person involved bolts of energy and explosions, few would doubt. If the long process of liberating people from possession by evil ideas came as wizards’ battle of wills and the revivification of the healed victim came with instant physical change, none would question the reality of the evil and the good.
In all respects, the ailment and the fact of being healed might be equivalent, but we look to the visible battle as the mark of reality. So, since we don’t experience magic in the world in the same way that we can imagine it in a movie, it seems all too plausible that nothing else that we can’t visibly see in life exists, either.
Further, in fiction we have no trouble placing the material in partnership with the spiritual, or the magic. Inadequate as swords may be against trolls, they offer some protection from the mystical. A robotic bird can be one wonder of many in a quest of gods and monsters.
Yet, in life, when human ingenuity gives us tools to fight the forces of evil and corruption, as well as the harmful vicissitudes of the world, as we learn how to manipulate chemicals to affect physiology and psychology, we conclude somehow that all must be material. I’d suggest that bombs and bullets can subdue military enemies, but performing the spiritual feat of changing people’s minds might be more powerful, still. Antidepressants may ease the sensation that unseen and down-pulling hooks are buried deep in every follicle, but imparting meaning and hope to each others’ lives can be liberating without the drugs.
In that regard, the quick presentation of the Resurrection in The Passion carried the message well. Materially, we see a naked man in a tomb with a hole in his hand, stepping forward to martial music.
If we know the Bible, we know that, having returned from death, Jesus’ main action was to have some conversations. There is some mention of the special effects, as it were, in His final appearances, but the miracle exists mainly in His appearance — that He’s among us.
We’ve celebrated Easter, yet again, and life will go on as it has. As for light shows and magic, I’m increasingly convinced that the decision is not one of determining what it means that they do not happen, but of observing that they do.