[Caleb] The Witch (2015): A New Evangelical Cautionary Tale

Last week, an old acquaintance of mine from a Pentecostal background posted an Evangelical critique of Halloween as “Satanic.” Now as you might expect from a regular contributor here at Grindhouse Theology, I disagreed with that assessment. As a counterpoint, I sent him an essay on the radically Christian nature of Halloween. But of course, he never responded. I doubt he even opened the link. But you know what? That’s okay. He’s a kind-hearted person with a history of community service that, I’m quite sure, would put mine to shame.

But still, his is not a particularly surprising attitude from a 21st century Evangelical. It is a pretty disappointing one, however. Evangelicalism use to be something more than the political apocalypticism & cultural hysteria it has since devolved into (even in my short lifetime). David Bebbington, a contemporary Scottish religious historian has set forward the well-known “Bebbington Quadrilateral,” a four-point definition of Evangelicalism from its 18th century origins through its late 20th century counterpart. Those four points are: 

  • Biblicism – a high view of Christian Scripture
  • Crucicentrism – a focus on the atoning, substitutionary work of Christ on the cross
  • Conversionism – a priority in proselytizing people into the Christian faith
  • Activism – a belief that Christianity must be practiced for the sake of the neighbor

These four identifiers are, in my opinion, coherent & admirable goals when rightly understood. The first two are firmly grounded in a trust in the Triune God, while the latter two are firmly committed to the love of the neighbor. But my fear is that these ideas have altogether collapsed in on themselves. Or maybe worse, they’ve become cruel parodies of the real thing. What happened to the kind of Evangelical activism that reformed Western laws on slavery & the sex trade? Where is the kind of Evangelical conversionism that led to radical hospitality & missionary movements? We see the faces of William Carey, Josephine Butler, William Wilberforce, & Charlotte Moon standing defiantly against abuse & dehumanization from within an old Evangelical tradition. So where have these moral convictions & intellectual weight gone? How has Evangelicalism today become a corpulent mass of stone-hearted politics, social apathy, & shockingly empty moralism? Is that too harsh? Perhaps… But it brings to mind another incident that my Greek Orthodox friend recently told me about.

While on break at his job, he was reading Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century atheist philosopher whom, despite his brilliant polemics, my friend is researching in order to critique. In the middle of his research, his Evangelical boss approached him & asked, “What are you reading?” He responded with the intention to explain, “Schopenhauer. He’s an atheist philosopher, but I think he’s profoundly illuminating, a brilliant prose writer, & one of my fav—” He was cut short. With an aggravated scoff, his boss barked, “Well, he’s in torment now! And all his work was in vain!” then stormed out of the room, I suppose feeling as if he had defended the faith.

My friend was understandably disheartened. Here he was, a good employee & fellow Christian with a desire & talent to teach theology & philosophy for the sake of the Church, while a thoughtless Evangelical barged in to completely obliterate the conversation. He wouldn’t even listen to what was actually being said. And sadly, this has become the unflattering, but true-to-life portrait of Evangelicalism today: blustering & proud; ignorant & incorrigible. What happened to this great faith movement that produced cultural leaders with integrity & charity—people like Charles Spurgeon, Fanny Crosby, Elizabeth Eliot, or Billy Graham?

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But I guess you may be asking: what does any of this have to do with The Witch (2015)? Well, actually, quite a lot. When I first saw the movie back in 2016, I knew it would stick with me for a long time, because it was a world that, although 400 years removed, was ideologically akin to my own. I grew up in an Evangelical Baptist church (a largely good one, I want to clarify) that was deeply informed by Puritan theology, a tradition that—I agree with novelist Marilynne Robinson in her Harvard Divinity Bulletin essay—is too often oversimplified & maligned. The Elizabethan dialogue wasn’t even strange to me as someone who had been hearing the words of John Owen & Richard Baxter from the pulpit since I was a child. And the Puritanism represented in the film is, broadly speaking, fairly accurate in its language. But the problem is not so much with dogmatic details as some critics have suggested, but rather with the sectarian attitude that leads a devout family into a literal & spiritual wilderness, completely isolated from their community, & therefore, completely vulnerable to what the King James Bible refers to as “the wiles of the Devil.”

So what is the main dilemma of this film? Again, I don’t think it’s a doctrinal one (necessarily), but a practical one. Wrong belief leads to wrong practice, sure. But can good belief simply have insufficient interpretations, & therefore, improper applications? I think this is one thing that  Timothy Keller, the Evangelical Presbyterian theologian gets right in discussing healthy doctrine & devotion. On several occasions (& I am paraphrasing here), he notes how secular people worry that taking the Christian Gospel too seriously produces morally repugnant groups like the Westboro Church. He helpfully points out that they are not actually Christian enough, however! What? How is that possible? Well, because they are willing to take Jesus seriously on words of warning & judgment, but they are wholly unwilling to take him seriously on words of mercy & grace. Since they are biblicists (albeit poor ones), it’s hard to understand why they don’t take Jesus literally when he warns people of faith to treat blatant sinners & social outcasts well —“I desire mercy, & not (religious) sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, ESV).

But back to The Witch. Again, the problem with this family is that their action leads them into isolation, both literally & figuratively. Instead of reconciling with their offended Puritan community, they choose to separate entirely. As William (Ralph Ineson) stands before the town’s tribunal in the opening scene defending his nebulous sectarian beliefs, one member charges him with the sin of pride: the arch-sin of the Christian faith & the highest medal of honor for the Satanic Church. And the rest of the film unfolds around this tragically accurate initial assessment.

As the family sets off into the wilderness, singing their fading hymns as their wagon disappears in the tree line, we hear an ungodly choir of Satanic chants crescendoing in the score. The following hour is a showcase of the entire family’s piety being offset by a diabolical pride. William, so hellbent on proving he doesn’t need the Church, willingly allows his family to be torn apart without ever asking for external help. Katherine (Kate Dickie) cares more about mouthing meaningless prayers than she does comforting her grieving family. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is terrorized by the thought of a vengeful God while leering after his own sister’s body. And Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy) fears divine wrath while fantasizing about the power she could have as “the witch of the wood,” completely set free from the burden of her faith & her family. Every single one of them resentfully leans on their religion, only concerned that it gives them the powerful desires of their already rotten hearts.

By the film’s end, Thomasin has given herself over to Satan himself—cloaked in the unassuming attire of Black Philip (the family goat) all along. She walks into the woods without her shift (a reverse Eden) & joins a ring of convulsing women chanting & howling around a fire. Suddenly, they begin ascending into the sky. The camera cuts to Thomasin’s face. She realizes she is levitating. She is bewitched. She throws back her bloody head & laughs. The last shot of her, arms outstretched & cast against a shadowy tree, while a diabolical choir wails in the background. It is a mock crucifixion—an ascent to power by a descent into pure Evil.

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What are we to make of this? Some have read this sympathetically as a move towards an ancient & female-centric occultism, which, allegedly, is a more egalitarian framing of the world. But this isn’t feminism. After all, these women are under the spell of a deceptive & masculine power. And some have read it nostalgically as a return to a less rigid & more libertine pre-Christian paganism, which, allegedly, is a more libertarian view of reality. But this isn’t freedom, either. After all, the violence that had to be committed in order to achieve this state is, in its own way, a kind of spiritual fascism—to men, to women, & indeed, to all of humanity.

No, this isn’t an empowering ending. It’s a denouement in chains. But what has any of this to do with Evangelicalism? Well, I’m of the opinion that this “orthodox” family shares the same terrifying flaws of much of 21st century Evangelicalism, which is, I believe, ultimately rooted in pride. There’s an unwillingness to abide theological variation of any kind. There’s a frenzied zeal to separate & purify oneself from any idealogical opponent. There’s an over-zealous commitment to constructing a society that exists outside of & away from real community—from the world. This isn’t Christianity. It’s Satanism. It isn’t piety. It’s pride.

As I’ve been preaching through the Gospel According to Mark to my own community for the past several months, what’s struck me particularly hard is how opposition to Jesus (who heals, exorcises, forgives, humanizes & loves) comes from both prideful religious scorekeepers & arrogant pagan defectors. The result of their opposition is isolation from themselves, from their community, & ultimately, from their God. So the sin of pride isn’t merely a religious problem; it’s a universal one.

Throughout the movie, the entire family questions whether God could ever possibly forgive them of their sins. Not only do they overestimate themselves, but they radically underestimate the grace of God. Their pride is still destructive even when it takes the form of self-pity. So could the Gospel really be so good that despite their & our flaws, foibles, & outright sins, that God could still truly love & forgive us? Could this scandalous announcement actually be true? All of Christian history has answered with a resounding yes, because Christ Jesus, according the Apostle Paul, is the ultimate Yes of God (2 Corinthians 1:19).

Why then do we become zealots, sectarians, malcontents, & isolationists? I think it’s because this Good Word that Christ Jesus obliterates our need to self-justify before God & man seems too good to be true—or perhaps more sinisterly, too humbling to be received. Nothing is more dangerous, then, than to respond to this cosmic declaration with a proud, pull-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps reply to God.

So what’s the cautionary tale Christians can take away from The Witch? Well, that self-reliance is not all that it’s cracked up to be. And even worse, self-righteousness is more the Devil’s playground than it is the Lord’s Kingdom. That’s why the modern Church of Satan revels in it: it’s radically anti-Christ. So if Evangelicalism thinks that a circle-the-wagons, grasp-for-power mentality is somehow more holy than Jesus’ commissioning them (Matthew 28) to go & freely love their neighbors in a vastly complex, variated, & even hostile world (John 17), well maybe they aren’t actually in the camp of the Lord, but the wilderness of the Devil. And contrary to what Black Philip might suggest, nothing tastes “deliciously” in that.

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