By Brandon Basse
In Van Helsing, the familiar humanity versus vampire trope receives a new twist. The series takes place in the near future where the long dormant Yellowstone supervolcano erupts and the ensuing ash obscures the sun enough for vampires to come out during the day. This allows vampires to take over large portions of the United States during a period called The Rising. As the eruption moves further into the past, the ash begins to dissipate giving humanity hope and the vampires a potentially shortened reign.
The Van Helsing universe (VHU) mirrors ours with a general belief in active supernatural evil, but not active supernatural good, at least not in the form of Anselm’s classical “maximally great being.” For instance, the progenitor of all vampires is called “The Dark One” and her group of vampiric female concubines, The Sisterhood, have upside down crosses on their foreheads, but there is no purely supernatural force of active good. Following along with this motif, vampires are not repelled by crucifixes and can walk into churches but cannot walk on the hallowed ground of a cemetery which suggests that human death is sacred.
Finally, toward the end of season three, in “Christ Pose,” the series confronts the idea of God through the character of Simon, a lone fisherman, who believes that God divinely protects him. Throughout the episode, the mysterious stranger inexplicably escapes being killed by vampires, first as an individual and then, along with a group of main characters, goes undetected as an army of ravenous vampires walks past them. Just as the other characters begin to question their doubt in a maximally great being, Simon appears to walk on water, but as the camera switches angles, the perceived supernatural event is shown to be an illusion as he walks along a submerged bulkhead therefore planting doubt in the character’s and viewer’s minds about supernatural goodness.
It is into this world that Vanessa Van Helsing awakens from a three-year coma. The opening credits of the first episode introduce her as the potential savior of humanity. That, combined with an opening scene where she is attacked by three vampires, one of which bites her neck and begins to spit up blood and regain its humanity. As Vanessa comes to terms with her new reality, she must also grapple with the deepening mystery of her own identity as a new creation that is either not fully human nor fully vampire or fully human and fully vampire.
Several times in the series, human characters state their hope that things will go back to the way things were before The Rising. This nostalgia acknowledges the current experience of the characters, but dismisses, as unimportant, the reality that evil, in the form of vampires, still existed under the thin veneer of human society. There are two other observable main human character groups: those who are too young to remember what life was like before The Rising, and those who have been turned back from undead to living. For those who experienced being undead and have come back to life, there cannot be a return to a prior reality, but only the forging of a new one. Therefore, the younger characters, who have not experienced anything other than reality shaped by overt evil, are stuck between the nostalgic and progressive groups.
Vanessa’s character transcends and connects both groups. The Nostalgics want to return to the garden where humanity was seemingly in control of its destiny and the vampire, like a wily serpent, existed mostly in the margins with rare direct confrontations. The progressives recognize the problematic nature of the vampire population and its existential threat to survival but are so distracted by defeating them through natural means that they are blinded to how vampiric evil must be defeated and are deceived into being complicit by supporting a secret vampire company. Only Vanessa and her sister Scarlett, through their genealogical link to the original vampire hunter, Abraham Van Helsing, understand that the only way to defeat the vampires is to kill the Dark One.
As evidenced by the “Christ Pose” episode, each group exists in a world that wants to believe in a maximally great being as formulated by Christian theism; omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent, but is confronted by unspeakable natural and moral evil that keeps their universe in doubt. This leads to a truncated stratum of Niebuhrian groupings. The Nostalgics are against (the current) culture and long for the past. The young people are of culture simply by lack of experience and lack any reference point or tangible vision of a different culture. The Progressives are those above culture as they possess a more tangible vision and therefore mission of transforming culture.
Current American Christianity is much like Van Helsing. There are those who long for the return of a supposed golden age obscured by David Bartonesque historiographies that pay homage to the virtues of the American church, while ignoring its complicity in less than virtuous activities and are therefore tacitly wishing to return to a time where its evil action was acceptable, and on the other side are those who are working towards a vision that is so divorced from the spiritual tradition of Christianity rooted in the disciplines, that it deceives itself into thinking that unreflective praxis is the only path to eschatological hope. Stuck in between are the young who must navigate a Post-Christian society and are unable to reference a past golden age due to experience or a hopeful, Christ eschaton because the church has refused to nurture them.
Like Van Helsing, the church must come of age by recognizing and halting its complicity in historic and current evil and, in repentance, walk the other way. The path the church must follow is not the one of the Nostalgics or the Progressives, but of Christ who did not come to take us back to the garden but is the first born of all creation in whom all believers are collected into. Just as Paul maintains in Romans 6, believers are passive participants in Christ’s death and resurrection, so the church’s praxis is rooted in the truth of liberation rooted and worked out from the Christ event. The church cannot be dualistic, as there are no humans that are disembodied souls or bodies without souls, there can be no church without both faith and works which are the nephesh or essence of the Christian faith.
Brandon Basse is a husband and father of four whose research interests include Christian music, World Christianity, and Contextual Theology. He is currently a Th.D candidate in Contextual Theology at Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, PA. You can visit his website at Theology for the People to find out what he is up to.