Lately I’ve been thinking about the purpose of the strange, the intriguing, the fascinating, the enchanting. Each of these qualities seem not to invite or contribute a whole lot to human happiness or well-being in and of themselves—they usually tend to be gateway experiences to something else. Maybe a memory, a thrilling encounter, an unresolved past, a profound realization, a debt we owe someone that never got paid. Enchantment seems to have the most positive connotation of the bunch, but perhaps that’s a bit deceptive and not necessarily the truth of the matter. Maybe what makes enchantment attractive (at least to some of us) is its ability to bring us closer to what seems unknown or dangerous without having to actually delve into the crippling depths of uncertainty, or contend with the uglier realities of violence. We’re drawn to the magical forest because of its obvious beauty and mystery, but it’s equally likely that it might also harbor something horrifying, a fear that gradually becomes realized as you journey toward its center. It’s that interplay of magic and danger, beauty and fear, which gives enchantment that power to allure.
Who knows what the spiritual or psychological purpose of horror might be. Maybe it keeps something dead inside us alive, or marks what will always need to be confronted long after we’ve decided to move on from it. We might not recognize where we are or who we’ve become as we approach our greatest fears, but like the uncanny, horror brings a foreign familiarity with it. It’s that odd, bewitching combination that propels us forward as we revisit those secluded psychic spaces that get cordoned off from consciousness, spaces which might be richly revealing yet we nevertheless prefer to go on ignoring because of their difficulty. Maybe the purpose of horror is to finally force us to feel something about what we dread, especially after we’ve spent so long running from what we need to know, do, or face. It’s the last stop in salvaging what we risk becoming numb toward, as true hardness (spiritual, psychological, or otherwise) often is a point of no return. From that perspective, the capacity to feel fear or fascination might be the living evidence of those aspects of ourselves which have survived the tragic processes of decay, calcification, and petrification. The “hardness of hearts” is often what precipitates God’s judgement—at least in several biblical narratives—and as difficult as that experience is, it too is beneficial to the extent that it clears the way for a new chapter in the lives of his people.
I don’t think these themes are “unchristian” or unattested in Christian writings, liturgies, or art. One of the worst things about evangelicalism is its cultural poverty, because it’s not an unchosen poverty that comes from lack of opportunity or resources—it’s a moralistic value that’s celebrated and enforced in its communities for reasons I’ve never been able to fully comprehend.1 For years what horrified me was the thought of becoming “contaminated” by various influences within our culture, but paradoxically that fear concealed a deeper desire to engage culture (maybe that was the real fear). At least Christmas carols are mostly acceptable, and you can hear the musical equivalent of enchantment and intrigue in many of them, especially Oh Holy Night (I can’t be the only one who thinks this one sounds a bit creepy at times). It’s not hard to notice the darkness that randomly surfaces in the melody, but of course the song is about exactly that, i.e. telling the story of a world immersed in night, in darkness, at the time Christ arrives on the scene. I like this song because daylight doesn’t come; so often light is offered as the antidote to darkness, but the message here is that Christ transforms something we might think of as “bad” into a holy occasion.
Curiously, one of the most chilling moments is found in the first verse that announces Christ’s arrival: “till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.” It’s always fascinated me how the melody changes here from something relatively child-like to something more moody and chromatic, again right as the lyric announces Christ arrival in the world. And that line about the soul feeling its worth is gorgeous and powerful on its own, but connecting this idea to Christ’s birth gives it an added layer of meaning for me. The soul felt the worth it already had, it wasn’t given worth with the arrival of Christianity. Maybe triggering that deep remembering of our spiritual value is yet another way that Christ saves, and maybe depravity is not an innate or essential human condition but something that accumulates inside and around us as we live our lives in a world filled with sin and suffering. When we don’t even know that this is happening, maybe it takes a haunting melody to capture our wandering attention and help us return to what we’ve always already known.
- I don’t want to be overly cynical here or misrepresent the contemporary evangelical cultural landscape—there really are a lot of spaces trying to remedy this issue. I recently discovered The Christian Humanist podcast (although I’m not too sure how the hosts religiously identify), and I always love reading what the folks at Ekstasis Magazine are curating.