Theology and Horror: Answering the Concerns of the Critics

Guest post by John W. Morehead

As a co-editor with Brandon Grafius of the new volume Theology and Horror: Explorations of the Dark Religious Imagination, I was asked to submit a post to help bring attention to our new work. I will use the opportunity to respond to tendencies that at times see a disconnect between theology and horror, a view found among many conservative religious believers as well as academics.

For a number of years now, I’ve been reflecting, writing, and editing on the intersection of religion as well as theology and horror. For me, it has always seemed a very natural thing, but from time to time, I am reminded that others do not share this perspective. Some have general concerns about how the process of theologizing should be done, while others question the worthiness of horror as a research focus, whether from the perspectives of religion and theology, or any other discipline. I will provide brief responses to each of these.

First, there is the concern that theology is or should be restricted to theologians, with the Bible as its subject matter. In my view, this is far too restrictive an understanding of theology. I hold to a broader conception of theology as a way of reflecting on our relationship to the transcendent (however conceived as an ordering element with which we should attune our lives), and from this flows some of the most important and foundational questions of life. Understood in this broader sense, it is not only Christian theologians who pursue theology, but on average, every day people with no formal theological training, as well as people in non-Christian religious traditions who seek to answer questions in light of the gods or whatever ultimate concern they may have and seek to align their lives with. It should also be noted that theologizing is not limited to religious adherents. Secular Humanists can pursue an ‘atheology’ in their search for meaning. A good example of this everyday theologizing process in connection with horror comes from Douglas Cowan. This is the thrust of his exploration of the work of one of the greatest contemporary horror writers, Stephen King, who Cowan discusses in his book America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King. King can be understood as someone exploring deep theological questions beyond ecclesiological contexts, and doing so by way of the horror genre.

Beyond this general concern about the appropriateness of theology beyond a narrow specialization in ecclesiological and academic contexts, there are the concerns of two particular groups. The first is conservative religious believers. Some of the objections I’ve heard in this group is that theology is only properly done as the scripture is interpreted, systematized, and applied to the big questions, and further, any attempt at connecting theology to something so dark and evil as horror must surely be out of bounds. I’ve already responded somewhat to the first part of this objection with my thoughts on general objections to a wider theology. Part of the problem for conservative Christians in this regard comes from the emphasis, at least in the Protestant context, on the idea of sola scriptura, that the Bible alone is the sole authority for Christian faith and practice. With this starting place, it is easy to see how the process of theology is seen as limited to an interpretation and explication of the sacred text. This idea is debated, but my concern here is that scriptura is often not sola. One’s denomination, doctrines, experiences and a host of assumptions are brought into the reading of the text. And what of natural theology, that revelation and insights into the divine can be derived from the natural world? That, too, is acknowledged by conservative Protestants, even if it doesn’t receive much attention. My response to the first part of this conservative religious objection to theology and horror is that not only should theology be understood as a broader project beyond the sacred text, but it must also account for the natural world, including human experience. This brings us to the second part of the objection, and that is that theology should not be connected to horror. Here, my criticism of conservative Christians, and I write as a centrist member of their tribe, is that there is a tendency to sanitize their understanding of scripture, and thus, they miss the horror found within its pages. As the New Atheists have repeatedly pointed out, the pages of the Bible are filled with all sorts of dark things, from divine judgments to seemingly deity-commanded genocidal human behavior. If holy writ can express such things and still have value, even as a sacred text, why can’t the horror genre itself be understood as having value, and further still, why can’t it also be an important conversation partner with theology? In my view, some critical self-reflection is needed here among conservative Christians. They seem to have moved beyond their past demonization of rock and roll; perhaps the same will be true of horror in the not too distant future.

Then there are the objections that some academics have about theology and horror. Like the general concerns, and those of religious believers mentioned above, some academics have a very restricted view of what theology is, how it should be done, who should be doing it, and whether theology is legitimately connected to this enterprise. For those interested in the rationale for our volume, we purposefully adopted a much broader understanding of theology so as to learn something new about theology and horror as they are brought together in dialogue. The other objection found at times among some academics is that horror shouldn’t be considered a respectable academic subject matter. This view was held more widely in the past, but thankfully, an increasing number of scholars recognize the significance of horror in popular culture, and that it represents a topic worth of exploration from interdisciplinary perspectives, including religion and theology. Various authors have paved the way on this over the years, from Timothy Beal to Douglas Cowan to Scott Poole to Stephen Asma to Joseph Laycock and Natasha Mikles, and many others. Our book Theology and Horror includes contributions from both established and up and coming scholars, providing additional evidence of the significance of horror as an area for academic exploration.

So upon more careful reflection, perhaps our new volume isn’t a problem after all. We see it as a good contribution to a growing field of inquiry. Reading its pages just might help us understand not only theology and horror, but what our fascination with both of these areas of inquiry have to tell us about the human experience.

John W. Morehead blogs at www.theofantastique.com, is the editor or co-editor of several volumes on genre and pop culture, and is co-editor of The Journal of Gods and Monsters.

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