Who made Heaven?

It is interesting how three different things can all at the same time present interesting and challenging notions about the nature of Heaven (and Hell). I have just finished reading both The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and Surface Detail by Iain M Banks. In addition, I have just finished watching Supernatural season 5. In all of these, ideas about the afterlife are very strong, different, and really not entirely in line with Christian orthodoxy.

In all of them there is a sense of Heaven as a construct. In The Lovely Bones it is really a literary device, a construct to tell the story in the way it is told. What we see of  “heaven” is also constructed to be a place to hang out until the dead person comes to some sort of resolution. While this is the most traditional view of heaven in some senses, Christian symbology is totally missing – there is no God, no angels, no sense of redemption – really it is a fun place to hang out and from which to check out the world .

In contrast, Supernatural does have angels – although God has gone AWOL. Angels are not kind and loving – they are totally fiery old testament types. Heaven itself is also something of a construct – tailored to the individual, it is a constant re-run of the best moments of your life. While Supernatural engages with traditional Christianity, it does it in a reality where the Archangel Gabriel pretends to be someone else so he can have an affair with Kali, and the other Gods get together to discuss the annoyingness of the Christian apocalypse. This play with ideas where Heaven is never really on your side, even if Hell is definitely against you problematises uncritical religious devotion – even if God does exist, we really do need to question his motives.

Surface Detail pre-supposes a post-Christian universe, but one in which familiar notions of Heaven and Hell persist among varying different cultures. The notion that one will be punished in Hell if one is a wrong-doer is made real as virtual reality technology and devices which allow you to store you soul for “re-vention” have come into being. The truly terrible thing about these Hells is that the hideous tortures that people undergo there are software – created by someone on the outside. In this universe the Heavens are multitudinous – all constructed, mostly without religious overtones. They are places where one’s digital construct goes to live after bodily death – for ever, or until one fades away.

These notions of Heaven and Hell are not entirely post-Christian – Surface Detail provides a pretty clear critique of this aspect of current religions while Supernatural definitely questions and challenges it, interestingly without deviating far from Christian mythology. In fact, in both it is the use of a very literal interpretation of Hell and angels and the like which creates the critique and the questions. What I find particularly interesting is the way that these works are able to utilise the construct of a Heaven and hell without accepting the religiosity which goes with it. Supernatural uses the constructions as primarily as part of its narrative – it isn’t a religious critique first and foremost. Similarly, The Lovely Bones seems to use the notion of Heaven without engaging at all with any Christian (or other religious) iconography at all. Surface Detail uses the ideas to demonstrate their socially constructed role at certain developmental phases of cultures as well as exposing the evil emptiness at the heart of the use of Hell.

Heaven and Hell are constructions, constructions which usually serve a purpose which relates to social control, In these works they are constructions as well – but constructions which serve a narrative purpose and which, in general, manage to reveal their own scaffolding.

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Normalising the horrific – television and suicide bombers

Let’s call this entry a late night place holder, something I might come back to in greater depth later. I am interested in the role that television, and I mean fictional televison, plays in normalising, or at least how the depiction of things become normalised, by television. This first struck me in the way that torture was shown during the early to mid 2000s – shows like Lost, Alias, Battlestar Galactica and 24 were full of it, and not always by bad guys and in ways that were, for a time, less and less problematised. But that discussion itself is one for later.

Tonight I watched episode 10 of season 5 of Supernatural and something that had struck me watching V about a month ago, caught my attention again. Here were good characters engaging in suicide bombing. Since the rise of suicide bombing in our news over the past 20 years, we have seen plenty of bad characters using suicide bombing tactics on television. It has been in Spooks and, in the third case of suicide bombing that I have seen in the last month on television, quite recently on 24. But these are expected locations for suicide bombing, particularly because it is the bad guy, the one who needs to be stopped, who is the bomber.

Back when Cylons occupied New Caprica in Battlestar Galactica, the resistance used suicide bombing. What was interesting at the time was how the show carefully problematised this use, with debates about it and the clear implication that the “innocent” would die along with the occupiers. This use of suicide bombing was carefully thought through and did make some interesting points to challenge the way we thought about suicide bombing and its use by the oppressed.

In V last month it was a throwaway moment – a character we didn’t know but who was clearly on the side we are unambiguously supposed to support, setting off a bomb to kill himself and others who were in thrall to the supreme bad guy. What has changed to allow such a unquestioning, unproblematic use of suicide bombing by a good character?

The case in Supernatural was a little different – there is an element of the “last stand” about it as Jo is going to die anyway. But this does not explain her mother choosing to kill herself along side her. And yes, they were only killing hell hounds. While the trope of the “soldier” allowing their impending death to be sped up in order to save others is a very common one in war related films, the idea of a full able person killing themselves is much less common.

The other suicide bombing which I haven’t mentioned yet is that which sets off the action of Caprica. Again here as in Battlestar there is a much greater problematisation of the use of suicide bombing, but still questions remain about it.

My central question is, how often did we see suicide bombing on our televisions even 10 years ago? How has the frequency increased? Does this mean anything? Are we entering a Baudrillardian spiral in which the referent disappears?

Thoughts to return to later – but I welcome any comments or ideas.

Supernatural and the evils of the good

Warning Supernatural season 4 spoilers ahead

I have just finished watching season 4 of Supernatural which was provided a whole new range of things to make it interesting. Of course, Jensen Ackles makes it interesting enough for me, but perhaps that doesn’t work for everyone.

Anyway, up until this season, like Buffy and Angel, the demon and ghost hunting of Supernatural has occured in a largely secular world. While religious iconography and paraphenalia and language is used to fight the bad at times, over all, there is really not a sense of religion or, in particular, God. Even when they get dragged into Hell.

In season 4 however, one gets to meet the other side as the angels drag Dean out of hell and spend some time hanging out on earth. The angels do not, however, cover themselves in the glory one would expect for the heavenly host. Their  engagements with the Winchester brothers leave one wondering from quite early on about where the differences between the hosts of heaven and hell lie.

While Castiel, the angel who is appointed to guide Dean most closely is generally good intentioned, many of his fellow angels’ motives are not as clear. From early on we see that Uriel is willing to smite an entire town from the earth in order to thwart the demons regardless of the collateral damage that might entail. This, to Uriel, is secondary to doing the job he is supposed to be doing. Later it becomes clear that Uriel and oothers have a slightly different agenda to the Winchesters, and are even killing other angels to achieve it. Zachariah takes Dean out of the equation to ensure that Lucifer will be released from Hell. He is even a bit skeezy, offering Dean access to Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, with Mary-Anne thrown in for free, as a distraction during the coming of the apocalypse. For Zachariah and his angel friends, armageddon is a bonus because they get to kick some demon butt in a battle they are convinced they can win. The fact that it will use the entire world as it battlefield is irrelevant, as is the number of humans who are killed in the process, as long as they ultimately achieve their goals.

In many ways the angels are very like the demons, and when Lucifer does rise, his angelic status is made very clear – he isn’t a demon, he is an angel, albeit a fallen one. Like demons, angels must use a human body to act on earth – a body which, as with demons, they use and abuse. As is made clear to the vessel that contained Castiel while he is temporarily freed as Castiel is taken back to heaven for discipline, his life will never be his own again following the experience. Giving yourself over to an angel is as likely to end in horrible death or permanent departure from your own life as being possessed by a demon.

This depiction of angels is enormously subversive. The parallels between the actions of the angels and the portrayal of the CIA in season 6 of Spooks which I am also currently watching is enormous. Not to mention the parallels with the whole Iraq War. The angels quietly allow the demons to raise Lucifer because it provides them with an excuse to wage their own “just” war which achieves their ultimate strategic goals. Lucifer, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, is the perfect excuse to whip out the Archangel Michael and his terrible sword, never mind the innocent casualties.

Its subversion goes beyond the political into the very loaded area of Christian conceptions of God. As Lucifer says to his vessel in the first episode of season 5 – either God is a sadist or he doesn’t care. Dean reaches the same conclusion – that God has left the building or doesn’t even exist and even Zachariah notes that God has checked out. I have a small fear that this season we might see a return of God or a greater emphasis on his ultimate goodness, as Castiel sees finding God as the solution to the problem, however, I also had that fear when angels first appeared, so maybe Supernatural will continue to unsettle notions of good and evil and god, angels in heaven.

And in a side note, I do like the self-referentialism that they have going on. There is enough humour in it for it to avoid the hopelessly over serious….Although the Sam/Dean slash fiction is a mite disturbing…