July 2, 2014

Jesus and Freddy Krueger

Englund as Freddy Krueger
Englund as Freddy Krueger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the horror genre, there is a recurrent theme one finds in many stories in which a supernatural villain derives its power from victims' fear. As long as potential victims believe in the monster, it remains powerful. Should that belief wane, the monster loses strength. The Nightmare on Elm Street film franchise might be the most profitable example of a story involving such a monster, but it is certainly not the only one. There are many tales of supernatural monsters that depend on belief for their very survival.

We can speculate about the reasons this particular theme is so popular, and I imagine we could identify at least a few. The point I'd like to make here is that this theme is part of a broader context in which our culture promotes the power of belief.

When we encounter this theme in a horror context, we learn that belief can be destructive. Our belief fuels the supernatural monster, who is then able to harm us. Belief can endanger us, allowing our fears to assault us. And yet, our survival also lies in belief. If we forget about the monster, lose our fear of it, and stop believing, it will lose power and be unable to harm us. In some versions of the story, we may even learn to replace belief in the monster with belief in our ourselves. We deprive the monster of power and empower ourselves. But the bottom line is always the same: belief is an extremely powerful force.

Outside the horror context, we encounter similar messages about the power of belief in all sorts of stories aimed at children. Consider the cartoons specials that run in December every year. A child's belief brings a snowman to life. In many Disney tales, belief brings all sorts of implausible things to life. Fantasy becomes reality, fueled by belief. Wishes are granted by genies, inanimate objects come to life, and animals speak our language.

If one were to assemble the thousands of stories, television shows, and movies which promote the power of belief, it would be awfully tempting to conclude that this theme was tapping into a part of our collective psyche in the sense that any good myth or archetypal story does, that they were part of a systematic effort to convince us of something, or both. In any case, the fit between the lesson we find in such stories and the Jesus story is hard to miss.

The Jesus story does not make much sense unless we are ready to accept the power of belief. Why would a god care what we believed at all? This question seems less relevant if we have been taught from birth about the incredible power of belief. Perhaps we might then be willing to accept the odd view that belief is more important than behavior. Does it make any sense that a loving god would save those who believed and punish those who did not? Not unless we have been softened up to such ideas throughout our lives. Cultural messages have made sure that messages about the power of belief are part of who we are.

The characters in horror movies who must learn to change their beliefs have a difficult task in front of them - they must disempower the monster that threatens them by no longer believing in it. Is it realistic that they can simply turn off their belief like that? Many Christians insist that the fate of your "soul" depends on your ability to believe in Jesus, regardless of what your rational mind tells you about the plausibility of what you are being asked to believe. Is it realistic to think that you can simply start believing something you do not believe?

Freddy Krueger may not have been designed as another cultural mechanism for promoting the power of belief. The relevance to the Jesus story may be entirely coincidental. But it seems like we could decide to remember Freddy as a lesson in the dangers of giving into fear of the supernatural and a reminder to discard supernatural notions and believe in ourselves. Perhaps it is time for us to send Jesus packing by realizing that gods are unnecessary, fictional, and derive whatever power our culture assigns them from our belief. No longer believing in Freddy made him disappear; now it is Jesus' turn.

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