Most people associate horror with demons, Satanism, and witchcraft or slasher-type films. This being the case, few can understand how a horror film could possibly communicate the Gospel. From now on, whenver I’m confronted with this question, I will merely point to the movie Constantine and quote, “only in the face of horror do you find your noblest self.” This was easily the most theologically rich movies I have seen in a long time. It was like a tour of Dante’s Inferno—if Dante chain-smoked, that is.

“Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.’” Matthew 12:25

Click to enlargeThe character of John Constantine was created by comic book deity Alan Moore (The Watchmen, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) during his run on the comic book Swamp Thing. The character was spun into his own series called Hellblazer (its definitive runs being under Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis), where Constantine became a noirish anti-hero in every sense of the word. Think of him as an exorcist-cum-hard boiled PI, casting out demons in his own name and under his own powers, relying on his ability to cheat and con them. He gets by playing one demon against another, even father against son. That becomes the sticking point of the character: somehow, in what should be the simplest cases of black vs. white, good vs. evil, Constantine manages to muck up the waters to an often frustrating shade of gray.

I came in fully expecting to hate this movie once I heard they had made Constantine American rather than British. (Look at how the Americanization of The League of Extra-Ordinary Gentlemen helped gut the original comic material when translated to film). Casting Keanu “he of the wooden acting school” Reeves rather than Sting (the actor of choice when the movie was originally proposed over a decade ago) or even James Marsters (Spike, from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer/Angel) made it nearly impossible for me to give this movie the benefit of the doubt.

But I was pleasantly surprised.

If you didn’t know anything about Constantine, then at first glance, this almost looks like The Devil’s Advocate, part II. Reeves continues to be drawn to the science-fiction/horror world. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrix trilogy. I can see what drew him to this spiritual kinsmen of Neo, John Constantine. We all often feel like him, trapped somewhere between heaven and hell. Unsure if there is a plan to this life, because we can’t see much rhyme or reason to what happens here, we struggle to make it from one day to the next. Click to enlargeConstantine’s struggle is shared by Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) who’s investigating the apparent suicide of her twin sister. The difference between them is that Constantine, who is suffering from terminal lung cancer, labors under the knowledge of where he is destined to go when he dies. And it ain’t pretty. Dodson, meanwhile, is not even sure she believes in the spirit world, never mind an ultimate spiritual destination.

There is quite a bit about this movie that will/should make people uncomfortable. (The comic book always had that disturbing/“this feels wrong” sort of quality to it for me.) This movie, however, redeems the comic in a lot of ways. It focuses more clearly on the heart of what makes Constantine resonate with me. It reminds us of a world we like to pretend isn’t there, either from lack of belief or an all too real belief in it. The movie presents a positively Medieval view of Heaven and Hell. “Behind every wall, every window” this battle between Heaven and Hell wages, with Constantine caught in the middle. The reality of this constant battle, that Constantine had been witness to since his childhood, overwhelms him to the point of suicide. According to Constantine, God is a disinterested spectator, “a kid with an ant farm.” He and the demons vie to see who will rule Hell and take over the Earth. So Constantine merely capitulates to what he already sees as a foregone conclusion.

“Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord did we not prophecy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles? Then I will plainly tell them, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.’” Matthew 7:22-23

His suicide lands him squarely in Hell, but he doesn’t stay there for long. His body is resuscitated, and his spirit pulled back to earth. Even so, the awareness that Hell is his final destination alters Constantine’s life to the point where his entire focus becomes trying to buy his way into heaven. Serving God in his own way and on his own terms, he “deports” those demons who intrude into our plane. Even though he knows why he is going to hell (because he tried to take his own life), he still wonders if, perhaps, he goes to church enough, prays enough, tithe’s enough; perhaps he might, as W.C. Fields put it, “Find a loophole.”

So Constantine finds himself caught in the Great Detente. In a scenario reminiscent of the opening chapter of the book of Job, God and the devil have made a bet of sorts. The angels in heaven and the demons in hell are not allowed to directly interfere with humans. Both sides are reduced to little more than “influence peddlers.” A balance must be maintained. Satan’s son, Mammon (if God could have a son, so could Satan, the movie posits) seeks to blow the balance out the water by fully entering our plane of existence. He aims to use the Spear of Destiny, the sword used to pierce Christ while He was on the cross, to do it.

Click to enlargeUltimately, this is a story about faith. Constantine is a man without faith. After all, what good is faith when he knows full well that there is a God and a devil, and that both were out to get him? He has plenty of head knowledge, but it doesn’t translate into a heart knowledge that impacted his life (other than a sense of self-preservation). He lived life to keep his butt out of Hell just a little bit longer.

Plenty of other touchstones abound. The movie takes place in Los Angeles, the “City of Angels”. Billboards read “Your time is running out” and “Got Faith?” In a “ba
ptism” scene, Det. Dodson gets a glimpse of what it means to be united in death, burial, and resurrection in her brief sojourn to Hell.

Click to enlargeOverall, this felt like a good introduction to the world of Constantine, where we learn the rules and vocabulary, to a world we hadn’t seen. So, much like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, there’s a lot of exposition, but if has the feel of the beginning of a franchise. Visually exciting, there was no shortage of imagination from first-time director, Francis Lawrence (best known for music videos). The scenes in Hell look right out of the pages of a Middle Ages art book. This was definitely one of the more satisfying horror movies/comic book translations in recent memory. Not quite The Matrix, not quite your standard horror movie, hopefully the movie won’t frustrate too many viewers with its “innovative” theology and it’s refusal to tie up all the loose ends.

Spiritual Connections: The Constantine Gospel

At times, we have to dig pretty deep to find spiritual connections in a movie. At other times, we simply can’t escape them. Constantine definitely falls into the latter category. If The Matrix trilogy is the story of Christ in allegory, this movie is the systematic theology. Here are a few things we learn from Constantine:

We wonder if we’re doomed, yet we wander through life under the illusion that we can get through it under our own strength. This is how John Constantine enters the movie, attempting to live out his version of what he thinks his purpose is. He took it on himself to exorcize demons in order to impress God into letting him into heaven. Unfortunately for Constantine, God”s rules are different from Constantine’s rules.

An issue that came up recently on a message board that I frequent was “When you read stories or see films dealing with the supernatural, do you want hard-and-fast explanations of the supernatural elements or do you prefer them left ‘in the air,’ open to interpretation?” For me, explanations are like rules, and the story has to stick to the rules. I like horror writer Geoff Cooper’s answer to this question: “If you’re going to explain it, the explanation should be better than the mystery of not knowing.” That is what the spiritual life is all about. Without too much searching, we sense or realize that there are rules to our existence. The law is written on our hearts or in a book waiting to reveal itself to us. This movie revolved around the law. For the Catholic church, a person who commits suicide goes to Hell. That’s the law. In the movie, the balance between good and evil, the non-interference pact between God and Satan, must be maintained. That’s also a law. Man has the choice to seek redemption. That’s the law.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in God or the devil. As Det. Dodson says at one point, people are capable of their own evil. For another, both God and the devil believe in people. Both have invested themselves in the choices that people make for themselves and, thus, the battle for people’s souls was enjoined.

Humans have been granted a gift, one great enough to earn the jealousy of angels. It is the gift of redemption. God’s love is so great that no matter how bad we screw up, all we have to do is ask for forgiveness, and God will embrace us. We are not worthy of this gift, we have done nothing to earn it. It was given freely as a gift of God’s love.

Contrary to what Constantine believes at the outset of this film, we cannot earn redemption through his own efforts. Like Constantine, no matter how hard we try, our efforts are never good enough, and we fall short. Several times, Constantine comes close to saving the day under his own efforts, but just misses.

Only through the power of prayer and faith can we receive the gift of redemption. To be truly forgiven, you have to ask for absolution. A demon, Balthazar (Gavin McGregor Rossdale), gets tricked into confessing because he forgets this fact. Even Constantine has to be reminded of it, by Satan (a scene stealing Peter Stormare) no less, who explains why Constantine keeps seeming to fail.

The key to salvation is found through blood and (self-)sacrifice. Constantine has to shed his own blood and die (a second time), to give himself up voluntarily, to finally defeat evil. Only through this act is his redemption found.

Yes, there’s a plan for all of us. Constantine had to die twice before he figured this out. The angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) sums it up best: “Be the hand of God. It’s your choice. It’s always been your choice.”

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