Any believer sallying forth to the local library can be certain to find a fair number of Christian outposts across the Dewey Decimal system. We’ve got philosophy well sorted, what with Augustine and Alvin Plantinga and dozens between. The poetic landscape is littered with Christians, from Dante Alighieri to George Herbert to the incomparable T.S. Eliot. Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis blazed a thoroughly respectable trail through science fiction, and the phenomenon we know today as the fantasy genre would arguably not exist without J.R.R. Tolkien.
But there are a few tracts of literary wilderness that remain distinctly vacant of Christian exploration. And there are at least two, in fact, whose invigorating climates believers would do well to traverse.
Let it never be said that 2016 brought us only scandal and sorrow! For that was the year we received God’s blessing in the form of The Babylon Bee (may it buzz forever). In less than three years, this glorious little bastion of irreverence has lampooned every corner of Christendom. Neither Calvinist nor Arminian, Catholic nor Baptist, conservative nor liberal is safe from the Bee. If there be irony or hypocrisy, vice or foolishness, rest assured it shall feel a certain sarcastic sting, for such is the power and privilege of satire.
Satire can cure any number of ills. It drains tyrants of their prestige. It exposes the assininity of assumptions. It detects absurdities within controversies. Even the apostle Paul dabbled in satire, as when he told the circumcision faction that, if removing flesh made men holy, then they’d better go for broke and “emasculate themselves” (Gal. 5:12).
Sharper even than the keenest polemic, satire can extract an argument’s inconsistencies and magnify them for all to see. Opinions impervious to rational dispute shrivel in its hyperbolic heat, for even the debater who refuses to bow to logic will bend to laughter. And when fallacies cloud important issues, satire cuts through the fog, brushing away personal attacks and broad generalizations with a sharp gust of levity. It is, in short, an invaluable asset to any heated discussion. But satire’s greatest power lies in making us laugh, not at our opponents, but at ourselves.
Precious few experiences are more liberating than laughing at yourself. Although admitting defeat to a deft counterpoint is ultimately edifying, we can’t exactly call it uplifting. But satire, at its best, grants us a humility unmixed with shame. It’s the spoonful of humor that helps the correction go down. To have our eyes so suddenly and skillfully opened to our own inanity that we can’t but double over in hysterics, too tickled to even be embarrassed—what could be more freeing?
And what could be more necessary, in an age when Christians find ourselves polarized by every issue from substitutionary atonement to yoga pants? When, since Pentecost, have we more desperately needed healing from the insidious disease of taking ourselves too seriously? So, dust off your Voltaire. Hunt down some Vonnegut. Sail off with Jonathan Swift. Devour every Terry Pratchett novel you can get your hands on. Laugh heartily, my friends. And if ever you find yourself suffering an excess of mirth, take a stroll down a darker alley.
Horror is, in fact, very difficult to define. It has an unsettling habit of oozing into other genres. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, witches, and the like are often cited as denizens of the world of horror, but all these can also be found in the world of Harry Potter, which is decidedly fantasy. The shelves of horror run thick with violence and wrongful death, but so do the mystery novels of P.D. James. Stephen King’s Carrie and Roald Dahl’s Matilda are both stories about a bullied young girl who uses her telekinetic powers to punish her abusers, but only one is horror. Why?
The answer lies in the fact that horror, unlike mystery, fantasy, or science fiction, sets out to disturb the reader with a view of the world gone fundamentally wrong. We watch Hercule Poirot solve The A.B.C Murders with vastly different emotions than those we experience following Clarice Starling’s investigation in The Silence of the Lambs. Agatha Christie’s murderers kill for comfortably commonplace reasons—money, jealousy, vengeance, fear. Their motives are certainly immoral, but they’re also comprehensible. Hannibal Lecter, however, kills for reasons that make no sense within our understanding of reality and sanity. Beings and phenomena like him are, as Noël Carroll explains in The Philosophy of Horror, “unnatural relative to a culture’s conceptual scheme of nature.”
The inimitable H.P. Lovecraft puts it more poetically, arguing that what humans fear most is “a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.” The monsters of horror terrify, not with tooth and claw, but with their very existence. Characters flee, not at danger, but at the unbearable thought that such a being could exist in their world. They scream, not from pain, but because the conceptual framework which allows them to function as sane beings has been shattered. For horror, in its most essential form, is about forcing us to experience the torture of watching our worldview crumble. And strange though it may seem, that experience can be a healthy one.
Horror provides a release valve for a culture bursting with the pressure of its own baseless optimism. This genre is one of the few occasions when our culture is willing to admit what Christians already know: that all creation is groaning in agony, longing to be set free from corruption and bondage (Rom. 8:19-23). When we read horror, we hear the world admit, in a thin shriek of fiction, “All is not right.” Horror strips away, for just a few pages, the delusion that we and our fellow humans are anything but depraved. It crushes the daydream that we have any real control in a cold and crippled universe. It flings away the fantasy that we have any right or reason to expect a happy ending. Horror allows us to feel, in a controlled environment, the same shuddering terror that threatens to crush us at the funeral of a suicide or in the wake of a divorce: the realization that the world has, indeed, gone fundamentally wrong, and we are powerless to correct it.
Horror is, in short, simply the first verse of the gospel: the Fall. Philippians 4:8 calls us to think on what is true, and so it is a good and healthful thing to soberly consider and viscerally feel the horrific, cosmic weight of human sin. Lest we think ourselves immune to suffering, let us attend “The Masque of the Red Death” with Edgar Allan Poe. Lest we trivialize our own corruption, let us gaze steadily on Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. And lest we think, for one mad moment, that we have any real control over the universe, let us listen carefully to Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu. Let us live, for a few hours, in the deep despair of fallen creation bereft of a Savior. For we, brothers and sisters, are the only community in this benighted world who can stare deeply into the void and walk away laughing. And an expedition through the arctic paths of The Mountains of Madness will leave us more grateful for the warmth of our Father and more determined to bring others out of the kingdom of darkness and into his marvelous light (Col. 1:13).