Religious Fears: Fundamentalism and the Gothic

Posted by Eleanor Beal on September 09, 2015 in Blog, Eleanor Beal tagged with

In my previous post, I suggested that one of the ways we may begin to explore a contemporary Gothic theology is through its intersections with post-secular literary theory. The Post-secular addresses the spiritual impulse as it appears to re-emerge from within a capitalist, postmodern, post-Christian culture. Of particular interest is the earnest pursuit and reworking of the spiritual and sacred in late twentieth and early twenty-first century fiction. My attention is focused on the Gothic modes and attributes of this contemporary fiction and with tracing, in a more general sense, the ways in which the Gothic has, since its inception, negotiated and renegotiated the relationship between the religious and the secular.

In recent years the subject of religion has become once again a topic of discussion in culture and academia, while its iconography is becoming increasingly visible in popular culture, often recognised through Gothic and horror modes that blend the commercial and pop cultural with spirituality and myth. These synthetic worlds are postmodern and post-secular, playful and meaningful, in that, they incorporate the radical plurality of worldviews, ideological positions and discourses around religion and secularisation. At the same time, horror has gained a wider audience than ever before, moving from sub-culture into mainstream culture. No longer securely identified as a marginal literature, the Gothic’s increasingly mainstream potential is being used as a vehicle for reaching wider audiences by a variety of writers and film makers adapting its theological traditions to a number of very different cultural functions. This is evident from the pop-cultural religious symbolism in teen Gothic novels such as Twilight (2005) to the popular Catholic horror book series Odd Thomas (2003-2015), but also from the multiple television shows using Gothic and horror elements to explore religious history and theological theme such as The Strain, American Horror Story, The Hand of God, The Walking Dead and The Following. Despite once seeming the most formulaic, tired and parodied of the horror film genre, exorcism films are experiencing a revival, Judaic horror has appeared in the form of The Possession (2012) and The Unborn (2009) and The Wicker Man (2006) and Carrie (2013) have recently been remade for modern audiences.

  

 

These are only a few examples from many, demonstrating the diversity of religiously infused Gothic on the market. In the following section of this blog I want to briefly consider the most controversial and anti-enlightenment of this recent phenomena, that of a fundamentalist Christian Gothic literature.

In the last decade there has been an increasing rise in Gothic and horror narratives with a fundamentalist Christian world view. In particular, there has been a significant use of Gothic and horror motifs to inaugurate and instruct readers in a dispensational premillennialist ideology. These ideas refer to a belief in the ‘Rapture’ and an ‘End Times’ theology and are based in the theological premise that Christ’s true believers will be taken to heaven before the great Tribulation lasting seven years. During this time, those non-believers that do not ascend can come to expect the reign of the anti-Christ, catastrophic plagues, earthquakes, fire and brimstone as the final punishment for not accepting Christ as their personal saviour. The most well-known representations of this blending of Gothic and apocalyptic vision are contained in the Left Behind (1995-2007) novels conceived by evangelist and religious right activist Tim LaHaye and penned by writer Jerry B. Jenkins.

  The world represented in The Left Behind series plays up to many stock elements and generic expectations of the Gothic. There is the chronic sense of apprehension, the premonition of impending but unidentified disaster, precipitating ruin and damnation, revelations of loss and neglect and violent, tragic death as punishment for villainy. Paradoxically, it is this latter theme that makes the Left Behind novels so disturbing, culminating in the extermination of any world view outside the evangelical premillennialist. This includes Judaism, Catholicism and Islam but mainly those representing any form of secular or modernist thought.

Critical commentary on the Left Behind novels has, by and large, focused on the militancy of its authors’ religious message. On the one hand, this focus has served to highlight a significant cultural anxiety of the twenty-first century – the fear of religious extremism. On the other hand, it revisits and repositions the Gothic as a corrupting influence on impressionable young minds. From debates about the influence of the Gothic on female virtues in the eighteenth century to the Columbine High School massacre of 1999, the Gothic subculture has been seized upon to explain various moral panics about a youth culture preoccupied with decadence, violence and death. Religion has often been a significant part of this debate, framing the Gothic as an assault on Christian ethics with Satanism, sex and serial killing. However, the Left Behind novels have reversed the pattern of the usual media narrative.

 

Since the 1960s Gothic and horror has achieved an increasingly mainstream status but so has the apocalyptic message of Evangelical theology moved from a place of relative marginality to one of prominence. Left Behind has caught the public imagination at least partly because it suggests the dissemination of a different kind of threat to rationalism and secular tolerance and one that is usually considered at odds with the Gothic, that of right wing Christian America.

The Gothic makes a significant contribution to our understanding of how religion and politics are shifting in the contemporary cultural moment. However, it is safe to say that the Gothic has rarely worked as an uncritical facilitator of religious doctrine and biblical prophecy. In my next post I will further explore how the Gothic’s history of theatricality and theological conflict also destabilises the cultural politics of Evangelical identity.

 

 

 

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