Music

The Conjuring’s fire-and-brimstone sermon

Josh Larsen

Silly me. I thought The Conjuring was just a horror movie.

It’s a good one to be sure, a lo-fi reinvigoration of haunted-house clichés that startles you even when you see the scares coming. And yes, there are religious elements, considering the heroes are Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a husband-and-wife team of demonologists who work in conjunction with the Catholic church. But invoking Christian rites is standard operating procedure for the horror genre, from the granddaddy of them all, The Exorcist, to, yes, 2011’s The Rite.

So I didn’t think much about the religious references; like the mysteriously banging doors and inexplicably dying clocks, I figured they came with the territory. But it turns out I was missing an evangelistic message in The Conjuring. In a piece entitled, “Can a horror film lead people to God?,” Religion News Service’s Kevin Eckstrom interviewed The Conjuring’s screenwriters, the sibling team of Chad and Carey Hayes, who essentially said, “Yes.”

“To have two characters that were so strong in their faith, we didn’t have to preach it, we didn’t have to thump it, we just had to show it,” Carey Hayes said in the interview. “Their faith was the sharpest tool in their toolbox.”

The Hayes brothers describe themselves as Christians in the interview, with Carey noting that “we’re 100-percent aware of the reality that there is darkness and there is light. We’ve seen it. We’ve witnessed it.”

Their movie surprised Hollywood by taking first place at the box office its opening weekend, leading some to speculate about its evangelistic potential. In the RNS piece, Christian film producer Bobby Downes is quoted as saying “The Gospel is sharing this idea that it can take only a small amount of light to dispel a whole lot of darkness.”

Fire-and-brimstone preaching runs counter to how the Gospel message is framed in, well, the Gospel.

I wonder. If there is an altar call of sorts in the film, it’s the final text on the screen. After battling a demonic force that has been tormenting a family with five girls in rural Rhode Island, Wilson’s Ed Warren is quoted as saying: “Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal, and they exist today. The fairy tale is true. The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.”

If The Conjuring is preaching, then, it’s in the fire-and-brimstone tradition. Indeed, looking at the movie this way brings to mind Jonathan Edwards’ 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In it, Edwards frequently relies on horror language to frighten his listeners into faith. “Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering,” he exhorted.

I realize Edwards’ intent was to unsettle his audience, yet I’ve never been quite comfortable with this approach for reasons beyond my fear of burning for eternity. Namely, fire-and-brimstone preaching runs counter to how the Gospel message is framed in, well, the Gospel. Jesus speaks of weeping and gnashing of teeth, yes, but such harsh passages are in the context of an overarching message of forgiveness and love. Christ’s life and atoning death is the frequent focus, not the particulars of our response (or the punishment for not responding properly).

The Conjuring, like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” employs scare tactics – and I’m not just talking about what happens to the family dog. If the movie is an act of evangelism, it’s akin to the guy wearing the billboard declaring, “Repent – the end is near!” or the church-sponsored haunted house featuring scenes of damnation. I have a feeling it will be equally ineffective.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, Evangelism