At two miles long and one mile wide, New Testament Antioch was home to around 150,000 people. For reference, that’s 117 human beings per acre – three times the population density of New York City.
Tenements collapsed periodically beneath the weight of residents, who were packed tightly into edifices built five stories up. Earthquakes only hastened the catastrophe: Several times, the entire city had to be rebuilt because a kitchen fire spread, first to nearby dwelling units, and then throughout whole building, and into the streets, and on through the city.
Inhabitants kept livestock in their apartments – which, except for the wealthiest citizens, might have been the size of your aunt’s walk-in closet – and housed the whole family, with “rooms” sometimes separated by curtains, or makeshift dividing walls. And there was no “sanitation system” to speak of. Even Rome itself was a “chamber pot” and “pit latrine” society. You were surrounded by the muck and mire of more people than could comfortably fit in any space.
In other words, the average city dweller at the height of Pax Romana bore the probability of their imminent death in mind from one hour to the next. Into this milieu, Paul’s Christianity, an ubiquitously urban phenomenon, spread at a break-neck speed that largely rendered the official protections afforded by Constantine and co. gratuitous. At the incorrigible rate that they were multiplying, it was only a matter of time before the population balance so tipped in favor of Paul’s torchbearers that persecutions became, frankly, inadvisable.
Around two-thousand years later, a college friend suggested that my taste in film was a sign of nascent perversity. She had arrived unannounced while Garrett Crawford and I were finishing up Takashi Miike’s Audition, and came through the door minutes before the gruesome final act. As the torture began, she turned her eyes from the screen and chastised us for watching such filth.
I was taken aback. “I thought you loved scary movies?” We turned the film off to finish later. She picked a different movie on Netflix – with a much higher body count but absolutely no sense of the gravity of death. “See,” she pontificated, about halfway into the replacement film, “you don’t have to show people getting slaughtered to make a scary movie.” We were more careful about answering the door from then on.
I learned about death in the 1990s, from an episode of Law and Order, or something like it. My grandfather had passed away a year or two earlier, but at that point I was too young to understand what it had meant. I can still remember the fateful evening well: I was five, or five-and-a-half, cuddled up next to my parents in the master bedroom. Crime shows were a nightly routine, and I was afraid of my bedroom (aren’t we all, really?), so I would spend hours past my bedtime watching prime-time voyeurisms at their side.
The scene was set: It’s sunrise, and a young woman walks into a quiet office-building. Knocking on her boss’s door, there is no answer. Thinking that he must have dozed off working in the early hours of the morning, she turns the knob and walks in. Inside, her boss is hunched over his desk, motionless – a murky cup of coffee next to him.
She taps his shoulder, to no response. She taps it again, and the results are the same. With all of her strength, she lifts up his torso, but he remains still. It dawns on her that he is dead, and she screams.
There is a stylish smash-cut to our favorite detective-people at the scene of the crime. A nameless extra looks through the papers on a clipboard as he railroads through some stellar expository dialogue: the man had been poisoned, the cup of joe at his desk the murder weapon. Our lead detective takes a breath, turns to one of the side-characters, removes his sunglasses, and quips: “I guess he didn’t like the coffee, either.”
The show’s theme song comes roaring in, and the opening titles begin to play.
I pieced together, in that moment, that a point comes in everyone’s life in which no more points come – and that sometimes that point comes because somebody kills you. I also pieced together, as one would from the aforementioned piece of programming, that death is funny, or at least inconsequential.
I was not allowed to watch Yu Yu Hakusho, or Dragonball, or Cyborg 009, because some concerned parents had spoken at our church about the danger that violent programming poses to our nation’s children. Columbine was fresh on everyone’s mind, and the good folks at the church drank it up.
Less “objectionable” programs never made the “concerned parents blacklist” (which is to say, programs filled with seemingly inconsequential carnage). It was fine, in other words, to see a building filled with people explode (while Tom Cruise does a swan dive out the window, landing on a motorcycle), so long as the viewer is never asked to contemplate the consequences of blowing up a building filled with people.
Rorouni Kenshin was off limits, because its portrayal of mortality was tragic, even traumatic. Mission Impossible was acceptable because it was pornography.
In some strange, primordial past, a man and woman lived with God in a good garden, with good foods, good company, good bodies and good souls. For no reason I can ascertain, they made mockery of His only rule: Do not eat from that tree, of the “knowledge of Good and Evil.” This decision was far-reaching and disastrous: Their role had been to tend the garden, care for the animals, multiply and expand the reaches of God’s cultivated glory into every uninhabited corner of the earth, and perhaps the cosmos. Turning-coat broke the world – literally. They had not simply broken a rule, they had nicked the threads that wove creation together. Man and woman, man and animal, man and shrubbery – all disjoined at “The Fall,” consigned to disharmony, together.
The whole creation, figuratively speaking, holds together by a thread, one might say, so to dispose of the sinful humanity might’ve meant to burn the whole project down. Instead, the Garden-Keeper sings: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15), which could be otherwise stated that the “offspring” of the woman will somehow crush, and thus conquer, the serpent to whom this song is addressed.
The serpent is not identified as “the devil” until much later, in extra-biblical texts, but at the very least John (Rev. 20:2) seems to have agreed. When Moses wrote, if nothing else, he was not inventing; He was reproducing ancient stories, passed down orally, and giving blood and bones to their disparate flesh. The image of “serpent,” “leviathan,” “dragon,” were pregnant with associations. There was a force, perhaps personal and perhaps not, which reflexively upset the best laid plans of those who sought to protect civilization, cultivate peace, organize society, for which these were a placeholder. The serpent was an Ancient Near-Eastern bogeyman that the “offspring,” the “seed” of the woman would conquer. A deliverer would come to unwreck the world.
All this within the opening chapters of what may be Moses’ magnum opus. In the chapters that immediately follow, a man will murder his brother, his descendants will become warmongers (one of whom, Lamech, will write a song about it), the “floodgates of heaven” will open and drown nearly all the inhabitants of earth, among the survivors at least one (Ham) will prove to be a sexual predator, and we’re barely ten chapters in.
You’d think that if there’s any work of art that ought to be roundly unobjectionable, it’s the Holy Bible. But here it is – “God’s autobiography,” as some call it – unembarrassedly gruesome.
We’ve come a long ways from the age when death was omnipresent, an albatross hung heavy over us. In Antioch you went to sleep and wondered if your body would remain intact as you dreamed. The omnipresence of death would change you. You grew into adulthood shaped by the burn and blister of interminable frailty. At the height of Imperial civilization life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” And this conditioned us to crave a certain breed of stories: Ancient comedy is bloody, for example, even cruel. The butt of every joke was the horror of the human experience.
Stories today are often “escapist,” what Marcuse and co. call “kitsch.” One consequence of this is that our modern folk tales are passively conservative. Not in any sense that would please William Buckley Jr., of course, but in the sense that if there is an ethos to contemporary entertainment, it is that the world is as it will be, and there is no sense clamoring about how it should be.
Which is strange: Mortality rates have never been lower; At least in the so-called “First World,” human society has never been less stratified, poverty less ruinous, existence less abominable. Life is marginally painless in the “First World,” from which most of our modern lore is produced, whether films or novels or otherwise. But we are uniquely preoccupied with distracting ourselves.
It’s curious that the Bible is not so. The story of the man and woman in the garden, of Cain and Abel, of the Canaanite conquest, the Crucifixion, and whatever’s going on in Revelation – all deeply objectionable by the standards currently fashionable among the devout. It may be that the devout prefer harmless kitsch to holy writ because kitsch, being harmless, is always passively conservative, and holy writ, like the Scriptures, are always “subversive” in ways we haven’t thought to embody yet. Horror films are not holy writ, but they are well-nigh the only medium that approach the abject terror the Bible’s redemptiano a trauma (that’s not a saying, that I know of, I just said it because I said it). We’d do well not to gut them by demanding “propriety.”
[The featured image is Edvard Munch’s ‘The Lonely Ones,’ ca. 1899.]