Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix series, Midnight Mass, was always bound to be a focal point for one culture war or another. Flanagan has already established himself as a filmmaker that people talk about, and his horror films and shows consistently become cultural events.
Add to this Midnight Mass’s overt and deep exploration of religion, and the stage is set for a critical moment. Horror is, of course, the most appropriate genre to explore religion, a position that Flanagan seems to take in Midnight Mass as well. [Spoilers ahead.]
The “angel” in this series is clearly a vampire, but the show never seems to dispute its divinity. Add to this the motif of the Eucharist in the series, where the consumption of the blood and body of Christ in common union transubstantiates into textbook cannibalism. Flanagan sees that if Christianity is founded on anything beyond Christ, it is numerous examples of horror.
In short, the Christian religion itself is a kind of horror story, albeit one that ultimately emphasizes redemption from the Fall.
Indeed, its embracing of horror to explore theology makes Midnight Mass a perfect opportunity to think about the particularly horrific moment that American Christianity is living through right now. But first, let’s explore what makes this show such a powerful theological text.
What Flanagan and his excellent cast have created in this series is a little world, an amalgam of Stephen King and the Holy Bible, in which believers and non-believers alike can enter into communion to ponder faith and its role in the modern world. This communion, these conversations, in fact play a central role in the plot of the seven-episode series.
The extended mini-series offers filmmakers one main thing that film does not: time. Many series, like The Sopranos, for instance, use that time to construct elaborate and intersecting sub-plots that richly develop otherwise minor characters. Flanagan does a bit of that here as well, but the bulk of the extra time afforded him in the seven hours he has to work with is dedicated to long conversations.
Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) counseling the just-paroled Riley (Zach Gilford) at their AA meetings, Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) telling Dr. Gunning (Annabeth Gish) of his experience as a Muslim police officer after 9/11, and the beautiful scene where teenaged Leeza (Annarah Cymone), recently healed from her paralysis, forgives town drunk Joe Collie (Robert Longstreet) for paralyzing her in a drunken shooting accident are but a few examples of these theological conversations. Each of these scenes, simply two people in a room discussing life, add rich and complex layers to the characters and the story. But each of these conversations do more than simply make the show interesting. These characters are discussing theology, each in their own way.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the long conversation that Riley Flynn and Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), school teacher and single mother-to-be, have in the wake of Erin’s lost pregnancy. Here the show puts on a theological masterclass as the two discuss life after death. Riley, the atheist, makes a beautiful and compelling argument for pure materialism as he imagines his body dissolving away to feed the existing life around him. Erin, who has a sincere but fraught faith in Christ, imagines her unborn daughter being welcomed into the eternal light and community of Heaven, welcomed by God himself.
Each listens with an appreciation for the other and the series never seems to favor one idea over another. The mini-series also makes full accommodation for Sheriff Hassan’s faith Islamic faith. In short, Midnight Mass acts as a kind of dialogue about theology, open to all who wish to join in.
What stood out most to me, however, is the absolute timeliness of its reflections on Christianity. In fact, I would argue that no recent work has so passionately tapped into the anxieties of American Christianity in the wake of Donald Trump’s successful wooing of many Evangelicals.
To very briefly summarize the story, a young priest, Father Paul unexpectedly comes to Crockett Island, a dying old fishing village isolated from the mainland. With him comes a new vitality and miracles begin happening, putting into motion a religious revival that will culminate in a night of abject horror by the series’ end.
We learn that Father Paul is actually the island’s own Monsignor Pruitt, the ancient priest who, suffering from dementia, went on a final pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he encountered a vampiric angel that gave him back his youth. The ultimate cost of that miracle is, unbeknownst to Father Paul, horror.
The seductiveness of the miraculous is the show’s main subject. When the miracles begin happening, it’s difficult to not be moved by them. A viewer of faith is stirred as vision is restored, bad backs are healed, Alzheimer’s is reversed, and most notably, a paralyzed girl rises from her wheelchair.
But Midnight Mass shows how the miraculous nature of these events is also what makes horror possible if close attention isn’t paid. After seven episodes, we understand that a gradual shift in the island’s Christian religion has occurred, and a fundamental one at that.
This is where the series serves as a powerful metaphor for Christians in the post-Trump era.
When one looks at the Christianity on the island before Father Paul’s revival, one sees a simple faith in good works and community. Yes, it is but the husk of much more vibrant faith of long ago, but it is still sweet and hopeful. Scripture is cited as a source of comfort and hope beyond reason.
Conversely, the image of the church in the show’s final episode is one of nightmarish horror and demonic brutality. Yet both communities use the same language and quote from the same scriptures to guide them. By the end of the series, the Bible is used to defend and encourage monstrous acts that would have been rejected out of hand by this same community at an earlier time. Somewhere, in the incremental steps between those two churches, something changed – and no one noticed until it was too late.
The island’s Muslim police officer, Sheriff Hassan, traces the development of Islam itself to such theological transformations. In a meeting about teaching religion in public schools, he argues before his Christian neighbors that Islam recognizes the prophetic status of Jesus, but was developed as a corrective response to the heretical transformations of Christianity in the centuries after his life.
We’ve seen theological transformations in Christianity in the last half-decade as well. The religious advocates for “Family Values” and “Pro-Life” politics have somehow, without changing their religious language, completely changed their theologies. Quoting front the same scriptures, they’ve constructed a new religious worldview, a brutal one that often sides with oppressors over the oppressed. One wonders when a qualifying adjective must be added to the “Christianity” of this group to distinguish them from their former selves.
An important point needs to be made here. It is not as though the potential for this embrace of authoritarianism has not always existed in the old theology. In Midnight Mass, Father Paul only uses the institutional powers and sacred texts available to him in his former life as Monsignor Pruitt. One need only read powerful new histories of Evangelicalism, such as Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes DuMez to see how the same potential has always lived in tension with the brighter angels of the faith in America. But surely it didn’t have to end this way, did it?
While thinking about Midnight Mass, I kept wondering about the points where someone might have seen something and talked Father Paul out of his plan. By the end, he is horrified by what he’s done, so surely there was a moment along the way when someone might have intervened in some way.
Only one religious character saw something amiss. Mildred Gunning (Alex Essoe), cured by Father Paul’s miracles of dementia, returns to church after many years and immediately understands “this is not my church”. She had missed the transition and only saw the before-and-after. This gave her a perspective the others lacked. Unfortunately, the people of Crockett Island were too caught up in the appearance of miracles to question the actions of the miracle worker.
This is too often the story of recent Christian history in America. The popular podcast by Christianity Today, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, repeatedly makes this point. The podcast follows Pastor Mark Driscoll’s meteoric rise after his founding of Mars Hill Church in secular, progressive Seattle. The fact that Driscoll found immense success with a conservative (often reactionary, to be honest) theology in that liberal environment made him a superstar in the Christian world and he was supported by Christian leaders all over the country, who looked the other way at his obvious character flaws.
The sexism, bullying, and implicit violence of Driscoll’s personality were not enough to get these people to intervene. They looked at the results of his ministry and allowed themselves to be dragged through the mud with Driscoll on his descent into theological brutality. The ongoing question of the podcast is, Why?
Midnight Mass provides part of the answer. The flock and the enabling powers-that-be are so focused on the miracles, they don’t notice the transformation of the theology into a movement that eventually becomes the literal inverse of Christianity. That the same scriptures could be used seamlessly through the transition make everyone susceptible to the delusion.
Mike Flanagan’s religious allegory is essential viewing for Christians in America. It urges the Christian viewer to, like Mildred Gunning, take a moment and realize some perspective.