By Austin Freeman
The eldritch fingerprints of H.P. Lovecraft seem to be everywhere–tentacles, myriad eyes, regressive cults, and ancient names excavated from prehistoric monuments, bearing knowledge of forces greater and more terrifying than the soft anthropomorphic gods of the civilized world. From tabletop gaming to young adult comics to flagship television programs, Lovecraft’s great old ones are the current touchstone for the ultimate Big Bad.
But should Christian theologians read H.P. Lovecraft? Should anyone? In our day and age, Lovecraft seems to be the morose poster-boy for everything which must be Canceled: a misogynistic, anti-semitic, aristocratic white supremacist. More than that, Lovecraft is an outspoken opponent of Jesus Christ, explicitly taking the Nietzschean tack and dismissing Jesus as the pale Messiah of the weak and power-hungry. He ought therefore to have made enemies everywhere.
But insulating ourselves from bad ideas doesn’t make people stop believing them. It does, however, make us unprepared to tackle them when they eventually confront us. It is clear that Lovecraft had many bad ideas. He also had many interesting ideas. And denying anyone permission to talk about the interesting ideas because they were held by someone with bad ideas is a form of genetic fallacy.
So what does Lovecraft contribute? Why is he worth talking about?
First, understanding our intellectual opponents helps to sharpen and refine our own positions. Sextus Empiricus, Hume, and Nietzsche can be wonderful dialogue partners–especially because, like Lovecraft, they are honest about their own positions and their implications.
Second, and more importantly: much like Hume did in the 18th Century, Lovecraft’s work reflects a larger cultural disposition. Imbibing the new relativistic science of the 19th Century, Lovecraft retools horror for a new centerless, shapeless universe.
Once there was Dante and his Paradiso, illustrating the geocentric medieval cosmos. Then Milton wrote a new epic space journey for the Galilean age, with Satan flying from globe to globe through the vast, dark, empty spaces of Chaos. Now, Lovecraft embodies the universe according to Darwin and Einstein. The amorphous, alien, incomprehensible entities with which Lovecraft populates his stories have replaced the werewolves, vampires, and specters of Gothic literature just as Planck and Curie replaced Newton.
Rather than in the inbreaking of the supernatural, terror now lies within our own universe, in the nagging worry that perhaps the world doesn’t make sense after all. Who knows how things work, but there is no guarantee that the inexorable laws of Nature ought to be of any comfort to a brain organ derived from primordial sludge.
It is here that Lovecraft’s cosmic literature resonates with many Christian theologians. As I write in my introduction to Theology and H.P. Lovecraft, “Lovecraft, like Nietzsche’s Madman, is deeply troubled by such a universe and recognizes that if there are no golden gods atop Mount Olympus, the world is poorer for it” (5). His horror is the horror of nihilism, a much deeper and more insidious threat than the ghost in the basement that leaves traditional metaphysics and ethics intact.
Lovecraft agrees with Christianity about what might constitute the ultimate horror, and that is what makes him a fascinating author to read. But his arguments for this sort of universe as real, as true, are very thin, and here the Christian theologian has an opportunity to provide correction and hope. So, in Lovecraft, theology finds grist for strong critique of an explicit ideological and ethical opponent, and also an opportunity to say “yes, but…”
To me, that’s an opportunity worth taking.
Austin M. Freeman (PhD, systematic theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) specializes in the theology of fantasy literature, especially that of J.R.R. Tolkien. He is the editor of Theology and H.P. Lovecraft.