The Theology of Frankenstein
October 31, 2014
I have been asked the question, “Why would you, as a minister, share stories like this? Why tell such things and talk about the theology of Monsters?” One of the reasons to do this is found in these words from noted biblical scholar Phyllis Trible, “To tell and hear tales of terror is to wrestle demons in the night, without a compassionate God to save us. In combat we wonder about the names of demons…We struggle mightily, only to be wounded. But yet we hold on, seeking a blessing: the healing of wounds and the restoration of health.”
Frankenstein: This is, possibly, the first science fiction story ever written. Mary Shelley wrote this story in the early 1800s and was inspired to write it after a night of seeing who could write the best horror story with her then fiancé Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. This story has seen numerous books, films, and TV shows done over and over again. Most of us are familiar with, even if we’ve not seen, the 1931 “Frankenstein” starring Boris Karloff.
For those of you not familiar with the story, a quick summation would be to say it’s the story of a scientist who desires to create life. In the book and the movies this occurs for a wide range of reasons but suffice it to say that the creature is made from the various body parts of corpses and then brought to life through some type of scientific experiment.
So, just to prepare for this sermon I had the difficult task of watching three, count them, three Frankenstein movies. I watched the original 1931 version (which I’d seen before), the Bride of Frankenstein, and The Curse of Frankenstein starring legendary actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (both of which I’d not seen before.) I also watched the most recent movie I, Frankenstein a few months back.
Trivia: The monster never has a name in the early movies though, in the book and the newest movie, he is referred to as Adam. So, when you hear me mention Frankenstein today I’m referring to the creator of the monster.
The creator’s first name in the original movie is Henry though in the book and the 1950s “Curse of Frankenstein” he is called Victor which is the same name he had in the book.
There is no assistant named Igor in any of the movies.
Before delving into our Scripture text today, I’d like to talk about some things we can learn directly from the Frankenstein story. At it’s heart, it is a story about humanity’s search for immortality. It delves into our own hubris to seek to create life on our own without the help of God and the dreadful result which ensues. Sinful humanity strives to create like God and the result is often disastrous.
This theme has infused much of science fiction, horror, and fantasy down through the years. People often wrote these stories who may or may not have considered themselves Christians or people of faith yet, at their heart, they seemed to understand that our knowledge is tainted by sin and selfishness. When we try and create something in our own image, it is often shown as broken and incomplete.
Another theme that is seen both in the book and directly stated in the 1950s movie, Curse of Frankenstein, is said by Victor Frankenstein “one’s facial character is built up by what lies behind it…in the brain. A benevolent mind and the face assumes the patterns of benevolence, an evil mind and an evil face.” And this is the #theologyofmonsters. This is how many people view the world…they automatically judge someone or something to be a monster by the exterior. They assume that beauty on the outside must mean beauty on the inside and ugliness on the outside means ugliness on the inside.
Sadly, this is too often true in the church and the Christian faith. We use trite phrase such as “cleanliness is next to godliness” and other such phrases which are never found in the Scriptures. We quickly forget that Jesus reached out and healed lepers through His touch and often spent time with those who were on the margins of his world.
And, in the movie “Curse of Frankenstein” it’s seen that, where Victor Frankenstein’s character is concerned, this does not seem to be true. He looks great for most of the movie until the very end where he is disheveled and filthy. Yet, in reality, we know this isn’t true. Some of the most beautiful looking people have committed the most heinous of acts while those who may not look the best on the outside are some of the kindest and most caring of people you would ever meet.
Now, this is just the introduction! I want us to delve a bit deeper into this story and to do so we need to turn to one of the most difficult biblical stories I’ve ever come across. This story is referred to as a “text of terror” by Phyllis Trible and is found in Judges 19 and 20.
Judges 20: All the people of Israel from Dan to Beersheba, including the people who dwelt beyond the Jordan Riverin Gilead, gathered as one before the Eternal at Mizpah. 2 The leaders of every tribe, of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves to the assembly, to the 400,000 soldiers armed for war. 3 (And the people of Benjamin heard that the other tribes had gathered at Mizpah.)
Israelites: Tell us, what happened to bring about this criminal act?
Levite (standing in front of the assembly): 4 I arrived in Gibeah in Benjamin with my mistress. We only wanted to spend the night, 5 but the leaders of the city came to the house where we were staying and surrounded it, wanting to attack me. They intended to kill me, but they raped my mistress until she died. 6 So I took her body and cut her into pieces and sent her throughout our land that is Israel’s inheritance so that everyone could know what an outrage the men of Gibeah have committed! 7 So now, you people of Israel, I am looking to you for counsel. What should we do?
Israelites (standing together): 8 We will not return to our tents, and we will not go home to our houses, 9 but this is what we will do to Gibeah: We will cast lots to choose who will go into battle against it. 10 We will also choose 10 men from every 100 throughout Israel, 100 of every 1,000, and 1,000 of every 10,000 to bring provisions for the troops who will go to repay the disgrace done by Gibeah of Benjamin against the rest of Israel.
11 So all the people of Israel gathered against Gibeah, united in their judgment, intent on action.
12 The tribes of Israel sent messengers throughout the land of Benjamin.
Messengers: Do you know what has happened? What about this crime that has been committed among you? 13 Turn over those perverted men from Gibeah so we can put them to death and cleanse this evil from Israel!
But the people of Benjamin would not listen to their kinsmen, the other tribes of Israel. 14 The Benjaminites gathered together, out of their towns, to Gibeah to go to battle against the rest of Israel.
This is a difficult passage to read and if you read the details of this story in Judges 19 and further along in the following chapters it should make you weep. Yet, as Trible says, “If art imitates life, Scripture likewise reflects it in both holiness and horror.”
And this is a horrifying text. It should frighten us, frustrate us, and anger us. To see a woman abused in such a manner should horrify anyone as we see the abuse heaped upon her by the Levite and how her body is used to rally people to war. She is never viewed as a human being…just an object. The story never gives her a name…just like the monster in Frankenstein is never truly given a name.
Isn’t this how we make monsters of people? We leave them nameless? We spoke of this last week. We use phrases such as “those people” or we refuse to give those we dislike a proper name and instead use ethnic and racial slurs to refer to them. We leave them humiliated and dehumanized on the side of the road.
Isn’t it easier to abuse a person when we depersonalize them? And isn’t this what happens in the story of the concubine as well as the story of Frankenstein’s monster? These two beings are easy to dismiss when we don’t give them a name and leave them lying by the side of the road torn and bleeding. And this is the worst sin we can commit…to dehumanize others and not see within them the image of God.
In doing so, we create victims…victims who either intentionally or unintentionally become victimizers themselves. In the story of Frankenstein, we see a creature hurt and shunned by his creator thrown out into the world nameless and alone. This creature then victimizes others time and again because he or she has been cast adrift, nameless, and alone. The only time, in any of the stories that the creature knows a bit of peace and kindness is when, in the movie Bride of Frankenstein, he comes across a blind man in a cabin who recognizes in this creature an opportunity for companionship and friendship. The most touching scene in this movie is when the blind man kneels down and prays. Yes! He prays and thanks God for giving him a companion.
Yet, this reprieve is suddenly taken away when the old blind man, who has not thought to name the creature, finds a new set of visitors at his door who are immediately set to destroy the creature.
Now let us return to the story of the concubine. A woman who has suffered abuse at the hands of the Levite. A man who says he wants to “share his heart” with her but never does so. He doesn’t acknowledge her throughout the story and, instead, sees her as a piece of property. This Levite has no desire to protect her but only to use her as a possession. In fact, to protect himself he throws her out of the house to be abused by a gang of men.
The next morning the woman is returned to him wounded and possibly dying. She is a victim of this man’s selfishness and his inability to recognize her as a human being and then he takes her body, chops it into twelve pieces, and then makes her a victim and a, sadly, an unintentional victimizer. The story, in some versions, doesn’t even tell us if the woman was even dead when this Levite, this so-called priest, does this to her! This man then uses this woman’s body to start a war with the same evil people who had repeatedly raped her.
In the end, this defenseless woman is a victim who is then used to victimize others. Because of her death and the way her body has been abused, if you read the story further, you will find out that 600 more women are then abused and mistreated.
What are we to do with stories such as these? Stories that do not end well. How do we, as Christians, handle them? Trible says that, “to seek redemption in these stories in the resurrection is perverse. Sad stories do not have happy endings.”
Strangely enough, I found myself agreeing with Trible in these words and I was shocked. Shocked because, for the last decade or so, I’ve thought that the resurrection was the one way to make all stories end well. I’d forgotten one simple and important truth of the Christian faith…
In today’s Gospel reading, we find the redemption of ourselves (not the redemption of the stories I’ve shared!), let me read it to you once more:
“Caiaphas, the High Priest that year said, ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about [concerning Jesus]; what you don’t understand is that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people so the whole nation won’t perish.’ His speech was more than it seemed. As high priest that year, Caiaphas prophesied (without knowing it) that Jesus would die on behalf of the entire nation, and not just for the children of Israel—He would die so all God’s children could be gathered from the four corners of the world into one people.” John 11:49-52 The Voice Translation
This is the answer. Jesus has become the victim to end our victimization of others. When we live into Christ Jesus’ death on the cross and see it for what it is, one who willingly became the victim to end our victimization of ourselves and each other, then we can move into something better. We begin to place our desire to victimize others for selfish gain upon Him—Jesus—The Crucified Lord. We lay all of our sinful desire to get over on others, to break them down, to dehumanize them, to make them appear less than ourselves, our desire to abuse and control, our desire for revenge and vengeance, we place these sinful realities on the Cross of Christ and then we begin to move into a new life. In gazing upon the Crucified Lord, we gaze upon our own ability to victimize and, if we are willing, we begin to leave this sinful proclivity there as we move into a new life.
This new life then looks out at a broken, hurting, humanity…the Frankenstein’s Monsters of this world and we see in those hurting and nameless people something better. When we live into the Christ of the Cross, we give the Monsters of this world a new name: Children of God, Friend, Neighbor, Brother, Sister, Tom, Jane, Margaret, Judy, Charles, Jennifer, Amy, Bill….and when we see them as human beings we can no longer stand idly by and see them abused and hurt by a cruel and oppressive world which has not yet learned to live into the Cross of Christ.
Let us pray:
God of endless love,
ever caring, ever strong,
always present, always just:
You gave us your only Son
to save us by the blood of the cross.
Gentle Jesus, shepherd of peace,
join to your own suffering,
the pain of all who have been hurt
in body, mind, and spirit
by those who betrayed the trust placed in them.
Hear our cries as we agonize
over the harm done to our brothers and sisters.
Breathe wisdom into our prayers,
soothe restless hearts with hope,
steady shaken spirits with faith;
Show us the way to justice and wholeness,
enlightened by truth and enfolded in your mercy.
Holy Spirit, comforter of our hearts,
heal your people’s wounds
and transform our brokenness.
Grant us courage and wisdom, humility and grace,
so that we may act with justice
and find peace in you.
We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.