It’s been nearly a week since I finished the new series by Mike Flanagan, Midnight Mass, and it would be an understatement to suggest many thoughts and feelings after watching this show remain. To its credit I suppose, except that those feelings come with a good deal of tension and frustration. I don’t think I’ve been this frustrated by a story since the finale of The Good Place. And that’s saying something, because that shows final season and the way it takes a brilliant premise and formulates it into a superficially imposed and convoluted vision of life and death and meaning still gets under my skin.
Full transparency- I watched this show as a person of faith. A person of heavily deconstructed and reconstructed faith mind you, but nevertheless as one who finds value in and who is convinced by the idea of transcendent Truth and Knowledge and a personal Creator. And in case you were not aware, questions of faith and doubt and God play a prominant role in this series. On this front, I found the questions and struggles and tensions the show brings to light poignant and pertinant, and unquestioningly timely given the progressive failures of the church in recent years that have been coming to light in the form of abuses, scandals, political affiliations and more. The show has some good and important things on its mind in speaking of these things, but unfortunately this all becomes problematic and troubling when the story reaches its ultimate resolution
I should also say upfront, my struggles with this show are less a critique of its quality (it has some structural issues, and I feel like it would have worked far better as a 2/2 and a half hour film rather than a drawn out series, but overall it is a decently constructed if not altogether great horror series that follows on the heels of the success of Hill House), and more a critique of its themes.
With that in mind, I should throw up a SPOILER WARNING here.
Death, Faith, Forgiveness and the Universal Struggle
So right from the start the show tells us it’s going to be about three main things-
1. Death and the stuff that death exposes in terms of our failures, our successes and our legacy
2. Faith’s answer to the problem of death and the affiliated problem of suffering and struggle, with a particular focus on the notion of God’s absence or God’s involvement forming a tension within this suffering.
3. Forgiveness, and further forgiveness in light of an often corrupted and fallible Church which bears the witness of God in the world, as a key part of the answer to the problem of death and suffering
The third point is the one that gets the least fleshed out despite its prominance in the early going. The second is used both as a framing device (with chapters walking through the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation, and Psalms, lament, Wisdom/Proverbs, including a unique transitional movement from the new to the old covenant forming the inbetween) and as a way of locating and contextualizing the characters within their different experiences and trauma and struggle. The first acts as the great unifier, weaving it’s way through the individual stories of these characters and bringing them together in the image of Christ’s death, an image we must then translate withn the problematic witness of the Church itself, using the uncomfortable imagery of Christs sacrifice to bring to light.
Here’s the thing. I imagine someone who doesn’t hold to faith could be far less invested in the series’ questions and, to a lesser degree, it’s eventual answers. Not because death and struggle is not a universal reality, but because they will be seeing this story entirely through the illusionary nature of its existential struggle. In this light it’s all a grand metaphor, which includes an entertaining if then sometimes silly piece of horror that shouldn’t be taken all that seriously because neither should God and the Devil and least of all the Church, which then of course encapsaltes the religious as a whole. To say that bluntly, I have had many conversations with the non-religious in which they aren’t really concerned with wrestling with the question of God at all. Which is to say, at least part of why I reacted to this film so strongly is because I took and take it very seriously
And in taking it seriously, rather than simply seeing it as a simple statement about the corruption and dangers of religion and the Church, I see the show confronting the struggles of the Church in a way that makes it recognizably human and only all too relevant for anyone struggling with the failure of both to uphold and locate goodness and love in this world. In many ways this is a show that at least wants to function as a conversation from the inside, one informed by the genuine awareness of what the Church represents (hope) and what it often resembles (hopelessness), but one that then finds its roots in a universal reality that makes sense in the stories of all.
The Illusion of the Self, the Fallacy of Belief, And a Loss of Diversity
There is a crucial scene where our two main characters, a young man recently released from prison for killing someone in a drunk driving accident (which frames the simple but complex reasoning for why he has abandoned his faith), and a young woman with a troubled and rebellious past who has found her way back to faith, are discussing the question, what happens when we die. The woman makes an important observation within this, or one that flows from this- the man can’t possibly take her seriously since she believes in God. If they are being honest he has to see her as delusionary, a fool, or something inbetween. He denies this, but as things progress this gets betrayed for what it actually is, demonstrating that with his conviction this is the way he is then forced to hear and translate her story.
This brought to mind for me some recent conversations I have had with some non-religious friends where I posed a very similar question. I wondered about how it is that they could sit in a room with people who believe in God and not see themsleves as necessarily above them in terms of their awareness of reality, as one who is closer to the rational and reasonable facts, and therefore truth of our existence. I asked them how it is that, in a scenario that finds them in a room full of ten people who hold to religious conviction, regardeless of which religion, they could hear these stories and these convictions and see them as something other than delusional expressions of the mind. My friends all responded the same way as the young man in this series. They also inevitably betrayed themselves in the same fashion as thinking otherwise at more than a few points in our subsequent conversation.
I told these friends that, as a person of faith nothing could be more frustrating than to know that I am forced to be misunderstood and not fully known as I am in conversation with someone else. If I know nothing else, there at least seems to be a need and a desire for my experiences to be seen as true and legitimate, and not simply in a relatvistic sense, which loses its lustre and relevance pretty quickly. In my view, given the nature of how conviction works within our different worldviews, non-faith is forced to express on some level as a position of certainty while faith is a necessary embrace of uncertainty and mystery, both of which flow in their own way from our shared experiences and questions as people. I pushed this further in my personal conversations and maintained that it is inevitable that the ones necessarily ostrisized and isolated in a secular society are the religious. This is why a truly secular society can never be truly diverse one. When conviction of belief is divorced from life and forced to function outside of the boundaries of our guiding structures, diversity becomes impossible. To imagine a world devoid of religion is to imagine a world devoid of our defining and shaping stories and myths and culture, along with our inherent differences. A world where everything is essentially and necessarily homogeneous. Just look at the Western influence invading places where this culture still has a presence and this becomes very evident.
Now, of course its is pertinent to point out here that one of the main messages of the series is that religion, with its convictions, very quickly and quite often becomes a picture of exclusion, married to systems of power and politics that lead to corruption. And yet it also demonstrates this truth using distinctly religious terms, such as sin, evil, the darkness, the devil. However we address the problem it is apparent we need the language of religion in order to judge it appropriately. There is even a distinct awareness that runs through the show that the problem is infact an inherently human one where this language seems to be intuiive in all of its symbolic presence, even as it represents itself within broken systems and failed actions. This should inhibit anyone from propping up the Church itself as the primary problem and thus trumpeting a godless vision of the world as the true answer to the problem, but if reviews and reactions thus far are any indication, this is far from the case.
The Problem of the Self, the Laws of Entropy, and the Nature of Religious Language
Where this ultimately leads in the show is towards this confronting of individualism and power as interrlated parts of the same central problem of light and dark, good and evil, that Genesis imagines. This is captured in the move to replace God with self. The question that remains as the series approaches its final episode is, if this is the problem how do we then truly move from the self to the other. If not through religion and or with the aid of religious language, how does this world and the lives within it be and become about something other than oursleves. After all, in a strictly materialist sense nature is determinitive, driven as it is by cause and effect and the laws of entropy that govern the universe. And this includes the puzzle that is consciousness. In a godless world we rest on the assumption that when broken down to its most basic function, consciousness is simple cause and effect. The selfish gene is what allows us to survive and to thrive and to categorize even the most basic evidential traits of cooperative activity as necessary and good, even if “selfishness” doesn’t actually exist as a moral truth in a materialist sense when seen in light of nature.
So then, what do we do when we strip this world of our delusions and see it as it is? What do the characters in this story do when their faith in God reaches a point of crisis, such as in how it is that a loving God can allow or ignore suffering. And what do these characters do when the Church is revealed for what it is- a seemingly failed instituion? As this wonderful article and assessment of the show posits, why is it seemingly easier to believe in vampires than God? At so many points along the way the series makes attempts to uncover something of the mystery that pulls us forward and holds us togther. Mystery, it seems, is important whether we believe in God or not, as it is in the mystery that we find hope. It is by upholding a sense of mystery that we can then also uphold something of the transcendent, however that translates into our view of the world. We can begin to imagine, irrationally speaking, life being more than its struggle. We can begin to imagine a light shinging in the dark, where the sun shines on both good and evil giving it it’s redemptive glow. Making something out of nothing if you will. Finding meaning in the governing laws of entropy. And yet, what also becomes clear here is the confronting of this very basic fact- in letting go of or rejecting the delusion of God, humans inevitably and consistently replace it with a different delusions in order to justify and rationalize this sense of meaning. We simply replace God with something else, and most often, something the show begins to imagine with a rich sense of irony, we replace God with the illusion of the self, the same thing it wants to then deconstruct. The conundrum of existence is that, when seen for what it seemingly is we quickly become dissillusioned. And thus we fill in the gaps with a lie, often using religious lanuage to do so, whether we are aware of it or not.
The Basic Conundrum: What Has The Power to Unify the Human Experience Within its Diversity and It’s Shared Struggle
Which is what makes the series’ conclusion, the point where the film abandons it’s tensions and moves to provide an answer to the conundrum of existence, almost hypocritical in a sense. A big reason for this is because of how the series develops the young woman, among others, as people wrestling with the stuff of life. They have genuine questions and concerns, and life itself, speaking in a strictly materialist sense, has left them wanting in its measure of inequity, illusions of justice, and matters of chance. And this is what is curious to me. We live in a world where such religion as the show depicts has spent a lot of time being destructive and exclusionary and unhelpful in addressing this question. This has played a role in many walking away from the faith and has inspired much hate and cynicism over religion, much like the young man in this series. People like me on the other hand have been equally disillusioned, but in finding our way back to faith continue to engage in critique from the inside, much like the young woman. The Church doesn’t seem to represent an answer as much as it offers the promise of something that feels desperately and consistently just outside of our grasp.
But here is the thing. The question that remains in this conundrum is, what unifies us. What brings us together in our differences, in our questions and our struggles? What has the power to say life is good, love is true, and we belong, and present us with a future where these things will have their say, where the light will do away with the darkness? That’s the lingering question that swirls around within the the film’s overarching narrative, with the intention being to imagine a world where all of the religions, the secular structures, the religious and non religious, can find their meaning togther, in a single truth, in a larger narrative if you will that shares this hope filled trajectory. We can critique religiious tedencies towards illusions of hope, but we are then faced with secular visions of progress that work equally towards such a future in its eradication of disease and its own versions of immortality. The question then is, how do we move from the self to the other. The problem is that the film attempts to imagine this in a way that doesn’t ring true for all. In fact, I would even wager the show’s answer to this question doesn’t ring true to the experience of any if we are being fully honest. The answer that emerges in the series’ final monologue, one given by the young woman and which attempts to bridge her answer to the question, what happens when we die, with the young mans, is one that strips the world of its ability to hold conviction in something greater than ourselves, and which dismisses the young woman’s disillusionment and struggle at the same time, something that holds the disparate threads of these characters in relationship to eachother, altogether. In this final dialogue even the young, stillborn child she loses fades from view. The way it does this is by leaning into the materialist vision that the self is an illusion, a falsehood, a lie, and that life is built on the fabric of memories that ultimatley get forgotten. There is no such thing as a person, therefore the problem of self does not exist either. It encases this in a highly romanticized vision of reality of course, which is why even though the non religious generally do not accept this way of thinking when it comes to how they live in the day to day, they also usually build their own rational arguments about life and death around it unconsciously and necessarily. As was already pointed out, in a purely materialist sense this is in fact true. The self is an illusion that we create in order to give us meaning. We might have excised God from the picture, but very few are legitimately comfortable imagining a world without the things that God represents. Very few live as nihilists, and for good reason. When faced with reailty life doesn’t beg to lived, it begs to be survived. Modernist comforts and conveniences have blinded us to this, but it doesn’t take long to note that comforts and conveniences don’t do away with the questions this show brings to the table and wants to take seriously. In fact, science seems to demonstrate that they often heighten these questions and make these anxieties even more apparent.
Failed Answers in the lllusions
The real question then is, when we face the problem (death and suffering and struggle), and we take God out of the picture, do we have the ability to then attend to these questions rationally? I think this series pretends that we can, but it does so while also making a case that that this requires irrational beliefs to be upheld. It plays it’s cards and then exposes a trick deck, and what gets sacrificed is the honest questions and the struggle that makes us human and defines our search for meaning. It can only ever say that suffering exists inspite of our good experiences in this world. It can only ever strive to make life a little bit better than it is, to borrow from Neil Pasricha, the author of the infamous blog 1000 Days of Awesome and its subsequent and complimentary book The Book of Awesome . It offers a vision of the world where we are but material beings, but where we can make this material mean something. How? By elevating the power of the self- making and manipulating our memories, living life, loving, being togther. Never mind the things that the film brings up as the darkeness- cancer, violence, personal failures, death and more death, isolation, poverty, pain, struggle, rejection, broken families and communities, unfulfilled longings and desires. As Pasricha would argue, happiness comes from the constant manipuation of our minds in writing these things into an imposed narrative, one that does not need to be true in order to be helpful. Ironically, for both Pasricha and this show the self is the only thing that really remains in the end, and that is in itself an illusion, a fleeting blip in time that fades into oblivion as though it never existed at all, precisely because it never did. Detach ourselves from the idea that it must exist and you will find happiness.
For all the accuastions lobbied on to the idea of God in the guise of “how could a loving God exist when…” type questions which permeate this film, the emptiness of the answer it imagines in God’s absence takes the easy road out. It fails to actually address the suffering of its own premise. It lacks no actual hope, merely illusions that exist to sere the self and thus enable survival. In this movement from the self to the other, even such an existential concern is exposed as selfish in its gain. It is what I would describe as genuinely hopeless. The best it can do is imagine something that doesn’t exist, oddly enough, and even then this only really makes sense to the privileged who are lucky enough to have the means make the most of their existence. Worst yet, all of the judgment lobbied at the chuch has nowhere to go when God exists as an illusion. The problem then must circle back on reality, life itself, or if we are humble enough onto human nature (or nature), creating something of a conundrm for human consciousness, the basis for which we formulate our sense of unique responsibility within nature, something we don’t apply elsewere in the same way.
This is why I struggled so deeply with this series’ vision of death, and thus this series vision of life and meaning. It left me exactly where I found myself once upon a time, wrestling with the only true thing about this world and the laws that we can observe within it- nihilism. The same thing I find the non religious often resist and ignore despite the evidential nature of the science. It’s common for life to get romanticized in this view, but strip away those superficial notes, which often mimic superficial religiosity, and what lies underneath is hollow darkness. An inconsistent expression of some undefined notions of love, goodness and happiness functioning without a universal definition of life and sentience that only need to do enough to make us feel that we aren’t bad in order to satisfy its existence. And it all rests on this one thing- memories. Memories that are illusions. Memories that literally formulate time where it otherwise does not physically exist. And it does so for the sake of, at best, our temporary future survival.
Answering the Question, Why Do I Believe
Which is where I come back to what faith means to me. For me what faith affords me is a genuine diversity, a way of saying that things like love, goodness and Truth have their source in something greater than my forgotten memories. It provides me with something to step into, something that has the power to rationally declare life in death, hope in struggle, meaning in meaninglessness, belonging in isolation and rejection, love in hate. Our darkness and our goodness gets illuminated by the light. Faith affords this world a narrative, one that breathes through all of the convictions and religions and ideologies a sense of coexisting forming and revelatory Truth. Faith is relationship, the reason why I can say I am not alone, and the reason why I can say we are not alone. Faith gives me something to participate in, a given meaning rather than a created one. It gives me the freedom to step into one of its most scandalous notions- forgivness, of self and other, with an eternal perspective in mind.
Faith ultimately gives me hope. A way of seeing every end as a new, eternal beginning. A way of standing in a new creation reality and imagining it in our midst. Where God feels absent I am present, and that given sense of self becomes a witness to Gods presence in our midst in its fallible and broken nature, in both its goodness and its darkness
And all of these things (here is the beauty of faith for me) rest in the truth that all living beings and all of creation is good, and all participate in this goodness whether they know it or not. That’s the beauty of being able to lay claim to Truth. It stands apart from us, visible as we see the signposts of the good in the broken. It brings all of the stories, all of the religions, all of the struggle togther into a uniform story about the god-human-creation narrative. Yes, as the young woman in the film suggests, this is what we are saying when we say God, but God isn’t just a metaphorical idea. If that is what God is, simply a romanticizing of the material reality, then God is an illusion just as is the idea of the self, and God does not hold the power to truly redeem what we sense is not as it should be. God is left like the final vision of this series, fading with us into the finiteness of the universe which will one day find its end in the laws of entropy. Evil and death and destruction will win and the darkness will reign. This is the only true narrative in a godless world that remains. Attempts to convince ourselves otherwise in here and now are what they are- lies made to distract us from the reality and attend to the disillusioned self. Any sense that order was somehow imagined from the disorder will go with it into that final oblivion. This is the grand project of life, lest we impose a different narrative on to it. And as this show suggests, this is difficult to do, if not impossible, when the reality of this world shows itself for what it is, injust and full of struggle. We are enslaved to seeing meaning as attached to happiness, happineess attached to the notion of the self, and the self dependent on our ability to control and manipulate the illusions that hold it together.
If God is real and present and True, this reality looks different. What we do here actually matters. It is not forgotten. It is part of a grander project that is bringing life to death, hope to despair, love to the hated and disenfranchised and the oprhaned, joy to the brokenhearted. It is actually transforming this thing we call life into something new and beautiful, which looks different than the grand experiment we like to call the enlightenment, which upholds self and progress as the highest ideal. As religious language would posit, with this comes forgivness of all sins, thus sweeping us up into this story despite how we see oursleves, how we see God, and how we experience this world. This is the true invitation, something this series tables so definitively but then desperately misses in its final translation.