Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Reflections on ‘Being Human’

Recently, I was reading a post by Peter Chattaway at Christianity Today’s Movie Blog about the new angel flick Legion, and I was struck by his comment questioning whether or not Christians should treat the angel Gabriel as "another mythical figure to reinvent as we will." It struck me not only because that is an interesting question in and of itself (and interesting to ponder not only when it comes to movies about angels but also biblical retells like Kings), but also because I’ve recently been thinking about a reinvention of a myth that’s been occurring over the last few decades: the vampire. And I’m finding it play out in a fascinating way in BBC’s Being Human, a so-far (I’ve only seen the first episode) intriguing British drama that focuses on three unusual roommates: Annie (a ghost), George (a werewolf) and Mitchell (a vampire).

Now, I’m not even close to an expert in vampire myth and legend (and folks like Beth at The Painful Nowning Process, Jason at NonModern and Ken at C. Orthodoxy would probably be able to comment on this much better than I) but in all my reading and movie watching over the years—from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight and the silent black and white vampires to Angel and Being Human’s Mitchell—I’m finding it dang intriguing how it seems our current time and space is reinventing this myth, moving it away from an irredeemable, predatory and unrepentant creature of evil (and a condition from which salvation comes, if at all, in being transformed back into a human) to a myth in which to explore a very personal and inescapable aspect of our human experience—namely, the darkness within each of us or, in biblical terms, our bent towards sin—we must live with on this side of death yet long to find (and even somehow know there must be?) redemption and salvation in spite of it. In other words, in a good portion of our modern vampire stories, the vampire seems to be moving from a figure of villainy with little or no desire to repent to a more human-like figure in which the darkness within is intensified—but so also is the desire for redemption and the capacity for repentance.

In Being Human, the desire for human blood is referred to as a hunger and overwhelming, vicious craving, like a drug or alcohol. In fact, other vampires refer to Mitchell (who is struggling to stop feeding on humans) as “on the wagon.” It is a destructive and dangerous desire, one that seeks to satiate the self’s own desire at the cost of the well-being and even the life of another’s—and that sounds biblically familiar. Yet unlike older vampire legends (and perhaps modern retells like I am Legend), in Being Human, being a vampire is something about which those infected or turned still have a choice about giving into those desires and cravings; they can live and survive without human blood—but they must constantly struggle against the desire. After an encounter with other vampires, George tells Annie: “I’d forgotten what they’re like, the others. They’re predators. Every inch of them is just hunger and fury. The energy it must take [Mitchell], every minute, not to be like that.” That, at least to me, seems to be a very human struggle.

And Being Human, like a lot of other modern vampire stories, not only explores the darkness within common man (as opposed to a pure villain) but also struggles to discover ways in which to experience salvation and redemption within that condition. Interestingly, in Being Human (as in the Buffy/Angel universe, Anne Rice’s vampire novels and Meyer’s Twilight), many of those ways have to do with the support, accountability and love of friends or family, being confronted in others what it looks like to travel down the wrong path too long, regretting your previous choices and making a choice to embrace a new way of life, and facing up to your own sins and powerlessness to overcome it on your own—all of which reflect biblical truths concerning the power of love, fellowship, community, confession, repentance and confronting the nature of sin (particularly as seen in Romans 1) in our own conversion and transformation.

There are aspects of this shift with which I resonate, in part because it gives us a chance to explore a truth about our experience that the older myths did not. For example, stories like Being Human (at least, so far) reflect and explore salvation, redemption and conversion as a gradual process requiring constant choice rather than a single choice resulting in an instant or perfected end state this side of death. And this reflects or echoes a scriptural truth. To a great extent, Scripture reflects our own salvation, redemption and conversion as a process, something we will be working out and growing into our whole lives through daily choices. As Scot McKnight puts it in Jesus Creed, “Conversion is more than just an event; it is a process. Like wisdom, it takes a lifetime. Conversion is a lifelong series of gentle (or noisy) nods of the soul. The question of when someone is converted is much less important than that they are converting.” This conversion to this new life requires continual repentance—or as Mark Scandrette explains it in Soul Graffiti, “rethinking the way we think.” It is a transformation, relationship, and journey that lasts our entire walk this side of death.

Another aspect I resonate with is how the greatest power in these stories tends to be sacrifice and love, which is also biblical. Being Human strongly reflects the power and value of being loved and loving others in overcoming evil both within and without. Mitchell helps George find a safe and secure place to endure his transformation into a werewolf (and keep from harming others). Mitchell and George take time to comfort Annie as she struggles with the pain and despair of her ex-fiancé moving on without her. And at the end of the first episode, Annie reflects how she feels safer when the three of them are together. We were created to love and be loved, to live and walk with each other; we can’t go alone. We need each other—and when we love each other and act together we tend to be much stronger and change the world around us in much larger ways.

And love involves sacrificing our own desires to do what is in the best interest of another. At the end of the first episode, Mitchell is forced to make a decision on whether or not to join a group of vampires who plan to either feed on, convert or destroy humans. He responds: “I choose them” (the humans). Mitchell is rethinking the way he thinks and sacrificing his own security and desires for others. And that is not only working in him in overcoming his personal evil but also confronting and working towards overcoming evil in the world around them.

That things like love, sacrifice, fellowship, community, confession, and repentance have power to transform and overcome evil in stories like these and in the world around us makes sense. These are core aspects of our creation, who we are, and the way we were created to live and breathe. But they are truly and more fully powerful and transformational when they are conducted in context of a relationship with God—who created us. As Scandrette puts it, “The sacrifice of Jesus is how we gain access to God’s power. Making a life in the kingdom of love is what we need the power for.”

And God seems absent (so far) in Being Human. The characters have no sense of security or hope other than each other (and even that is shaky at times). Neither is there a sense of hope or assurance of ultimate freedom from their darkness or surety of where they will end up after death. And that is a drastic difference from biblical truth. We know how the Story ends; we know Jesus has conquered death and darkness for good. And we know where we are going, the freedom we will have.

And, unlike Mitchell, we are not left alone and broken to strive against the tide of darkness that seems to threaten to overwhelm us and the world. Jesus offers us a chance to to be made new, the way we were created and intended to be. Not only will we be free, but he’s given us access to the wide open spaces of God’s love, grace and glory now. We are invited to taste, experience and grow into that freedom now—and that only strengthens our hope for the end in the Story. And unlike Mitchell (and many others in modern vampire stories), there is a power within that enables and manages our transformation: God’s own Spirit. When we trust that he is who he says and can do what he says, God makes us new. As Dan Stone puts it, we may not feel like it, but its true. Here, in the middle of the Story, part of that journey is learning to live free and loved in that truth even as we struggle with the death throes of sin.

But we can’t experience that without a relationship. As McKnight puts it, “The goal of a disciple of Jesus is relationship, not perfection.” As we walk with and participate in that Jesus, he invites us to cooperate with him in our own transformation. As we walk with him, we open ourselves more and more to God’s grace and love—and he transforms us into (as Dallas Willard put it) the kind of people who are Christ-like. But that is a result of the relationship, not the other way around. We were made to be in relationship with and receive our life from God; everything else eventually falls short. As we walk with God, at some point we come to the place Peter did when he declares, “[N]o other name has been or will be given to us by which we can be saved, only this one." Not a religion, system of beliefs, or doctrine but a Person.

In this middle part of the Story, we work out this new life—this “salvation”—as we go, working with God to leave behind more and more of the old and dark and plunge ever further into the new, to live large out of the abundant and wide open spaces of God’s grace and life. And as we do, we become more and more the kind of people who act Christ-like.

It’ll be interesting to see if Mitchell eventually becomes the kind of creature who desires human blood less and less—and how that transformation occurs. Will it be solely by force of personal will and the support of his community? Or will there be a scientific salvation? A conversion back to human being? Or will there be a force that offers him power and transformation from within? Could there be a supernatural intervention?

I am intrigued with the way the vampire myth is being reinvented these days. And I appreciate how storytellers are exploring and seeking ways to fix the broken and darkest parts of ourselves. In part, I suppose, they are exploring what it means to be, well, human.

(Image: BBC) miscctgy

3 comments:

elrambo said...

You work fast! I watched this first ep and have been thinking somewhat incoherently in this direction, so I'm very much in agreement with what you've said here.

Hope the series continues to be challenging and interesting.

Jason said...

Sounds interesting. I will have to check it out.

There is certainly a shift going on in the vampire myth, but I am not sure that the questions are all that different than they were 100 years ago. It is just that the perspective and focus has moved away from humans struggling with temptation and the appeal of evil (formerly symbolized by the vampires) to the vampires themselves being the creatures who struggle. One of the end results of this shift is that evil itself becomes a bit grey. Before, the evil was real and always bad; now there seems to be no absolute evil but only choices that everyone--even the vampires--struggle with.

It is a very postmodern, existential thing to do. I for one find it a little less interesting because it removes the extremes from the equation. Before there was evil (vampires) and good (usually God or a higher power) with humans in between fighting against or giving into evil. Now there is often just the middle, with no real evil (excepting vampires or humans giving into weakness) and no need room for God either.

I love this topic. There is material here for a whole book with all the shifts this rich mythology has gone through in the past 125 years or so!

Carmen Andres said...

Beth, I’m sure pretty sure that your most “incoherent” thoughts would be oh so much more coherent than mine, heh.

Jason, I’m not sure that it’s a move away from absolute evil as much as it’s a move towards exploring the evil within. In most of the modern reinventions, there are also vampires and monsters so far down the path of evil that there is little if any chance of redemption—-if only because it is fairly obvious they will not *want* to repent. And I think that by taking a mythical figure that is traditionally seen as evil personified and making it more human-like (complete with the capacity for guilt, shame, regret, choice, and repentance), it is taking evil from outside of us and inviting us to face it within us.

I’ve wondered if this might have to do less with postmodernism (or at least, not primarily) and more to do with a culture that has been so steeped in secularism that the true condition of humanity is squeezing out and demanding to be examined—-namely, that we are not good by nature, but broken and in need of some power(s) towards redemption and salvation.

Of course, the question becomes: From where and in what do we find redemption? And the answers, admittedly, tend toward the existential and secular (though, imho, they do at least reflect biblical principles that have previously been ignored or minimized).