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The Horror of Divine Holiness
"Our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29)
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
Remember 41 years ago when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas provided a startlingly potent and accurate cinematic depiction of biblical deity? It came at the dramatic climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark. You know the story: The bad guys have finally gotten their hands on the fabled Ark of the Covenant. Indy and Marion are tied to a stake nearby, where they will be forced to watch these evil Nazis win. The Nazis open the ark. And all hell breaks loose. Or rather, all heaven. The distinction appears to hinge on the nature or character of the person beholding the divine manifestation, as depicted in the transformation of the initially angelic-looking beings that stream out of the Ark into demonic figures when confronted with men of this type.
When I first saw this scene at age 11, I was not old enough to catch the wonderful subtext about German frigging Nazis, of all people, opening the ancient Israelite Ark of the Covenant and being utterly, horrifically, deliciously destroyed by divine fire from Yahweh. Nor was I hip to the fact that the entire scene was, in cultural terms, an absolute miracle, not only because it offered a representation of the nature of divine holiness in its wrathful aspect that was so direct, terrifying, and accurate to the biblical version that it might have come right out of Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy —
[The Old Testament '“fear of God” is] a terror fraught with an inward shuddering such as not even the most menacing and overpowering created thing can instill. It has something spectral about it. . . .
[Yahweh’s wrath] is, as has been well said, ‘like a hidden force of nature,’ like stored-up electricity, discharging itself on anyone who comes too near.1
— but because it appeared in a movie that was directly aimed at a broad popular audience. This was heady, potent, revolutionary stuff to transmit to the masses. I’m of the opinion that the shock waves are still resounding and spreading throughout human societies and cultures.
Personally, at age 11, I was simply overwhelmed by the spectacle, and also by the fact that my parents, who carefully curated my youthful viewing habits, were actually letting me watch such a thing. But many other parents were similarly letting this movie and that scene with its transformative implications embed itself in the psyches of their children and themselves. People of all ages, not only here in the United States (where I’m located) but around the world, were imbibing the same lesson, which some of them had already received from their religious traditions, but maybe not this vividly and overpoweringly, about the awesome, fearsome, fascinating, mesmerizing, terrifying nature of divine holiness when viewed — or especially when, God help us, encountered — from the finite, creaturely perspective of mere mortals. “Don’t look, Marion!” shouts Indy, keeping his wits about him as he remembers the ancient injunction that one cannot see the LORD and live. “Keep your eyes shut!” For indeed, as the ancient Deuteronomist solemnly, fearfully pointed out, “the LORD your God is a devouring fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24). Some 1500 years later, the unknown author of the New Testament Book of Hebrews reaffirmed this: “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). It was this same author who also, appropriately, noted that, in point of fact, “it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
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But back to our modern media environment: Fast forward 33 years from the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark, to the year 2014, and somehow, astonishingly, this all happened again in a different form and context when The Onion provided a worthy successor to Spielberg’s and Lucas’s classic scene. As mentioned, Raiders shows a group of German Nazis getting their well-deserved comeuppance from Yahweh. In The Onion’s much shorter exposition of the same idea, the gag is to show what would happen if a big broadcast television network tried to strap God into a chair for that most insipid of all puff pieces, the religious interview by a talking head journalist. I must have watched this 20 times when it first came out. I watched it again as I was writing this piece, and I can report that it still holds up. It is still hilarious, and also, let’s face it, intensely frightening.
Though some people with certain religious convictions and understandings might find this video to be in bad taste or perhaps even sacrilegious, I think the subtext, which the video pretty much thrusts in your face, is actually quite true to one of the central theological tenets of the Abrahamic faith traditions and their dreadful devouring fire of a deity: God is God, and He/She/It is not going to play nice with any of your prefabricated approaches or expectations. To anyone who adopts a glib or presumptuous approach, God isn’t going to manifest as anything remotely comprehensible or comfortable, or even endurable or survivable, as The Onion’s heedless journalist, no less than Spielberg’s and Lucas’s ill-fated Nazis, immediately finds out.
For some reason, I feel led to close this fairly shapeless ad hoc rumination with a passage from my own story, “An Abhorrence to All Flesh” (which you can find in To Rouse Leviathan):
Throughout the Bible. Wars. Plagues. Bloodshed on a scale that can still horrify even here in the aftermath of the bloodiest of all centuries. The tale of Truth breaking through into the world of flesh. Fire from the Lord, the cleansing fire that burns away the false to reveal the true nature of all it touches.2
Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational, trans. John W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 14, 18.
Matt Cardin, To Rouse Leviathan (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2019), 36.