Today I read, with interest, the interview that Gawker did about film with Peter H. Gilmore, High Priest of the Church of Satan.

(There's a sentence you never expected to read in Christianity Today, eh?)

It seems the Church of Satan has a list of recommended films on their website—here it is—and the folks at Gawker got interested in why these films are on the list. Which is a reasonable question, given the list includes some expected picks (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Evilspeak, Nosferatu, Rosemary's Baby) and some unexpected ones (everything from All the King's Men to Bladerunnner to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). Wise Blood, based on the Flannery O'Connor novel, is on there too.

My friend Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post brought the interview with Gilmore to my attention because, as she pointed out, it is a prime demonstration of the difference between capital-r and lowercase-r ”religious” films that I wrote about a week and a half ago.

Chief among my points was that a “religious” film asked the religious questions—what is the nature of humans, what is the end of mankind, how ought we to direct our lives—while “Religious” films give a particular answer to that question derived from an organized system of some sort.

And so a film made by a non-religious filmmaker may very well be a religious film, or even a Religious film; a Religious filmmaker may also make an ultimately non-religious film, or a film that gives answers derived from quite another belief system. (I'd venture to argue that most of the religious films I've seen have been made by non-religious filmmakers; many Religious films, by contrast, have not been religious.)

In this case, the Church of Satan recommends films that they see as giving Satanist answers to the religious questions.

It sure looks like the Satanists have a much better grasp on this than many other faithful. Satanism, Gilmore points out, is not exactly a religion:

Satanism is an atheist philosophy using Satan as a symbol of pride, liberty, and individualism, as did many before us who would not accept the status quo such as Milton, Byron, Twain, and Carducci. Since the universe is indifferent to us, we Satanists choose to establish our own subjective hierarchy of values with ourselves as highest among them. Thus atheism moves to what I call I­theism, where we are each our own "gods." We accept the full range of human emotions as healthy, from love to hate, noting both of those are uncommon extremes.

Article continues below

In other words, Satanism is existentialism and individualism run amok: it is the worship of the self above all other good. It’s a religion of the most American, most secular form: there is no transcendent good, not even a humanist or communitarian one, that supersedes the will of the individual. To use Internetspeak: IMHO, this is the natural end of the Enlightenment project. #humanfail

Then again: at least they're up front about it. The Satanist form of worship (which I'll take at face value, even if I came of age in the occult-obsessed 1990s) is, according to Gilmore, ritual for the purpose of “self-psychotherapy to rid ourselves of any emotions hindering our intelligently moderated pursuit of pleasures.”

So, if I read it correctly, then, adherents to the Church of Satan doesn't worship a transcendent being called Satan who is the dichotomous opponent of God (Gilmore calls that a “Christian mythology”)—rather, they worship the self, the individual, whose pleasure ought to be pursued above all others, so long as it doesn’t cause major problems for the pursuant. It is a religion, something they freely admit—a sort of humanism without the collective humanism, an organized system of belief that affirms your ability to opt out whenever, as long as you worship the self.

I say all that to try and set up the belief system, as best I can understand it. The films recommended by the Church all help develop these ideas. But though some make an appearance on the list—notably, Rosemary's Baby—Gilmore says that there's a lot about films about Satan worship are kind of dumb to them: “The breeding of Satan's child,” he says, “to us is silly, since God and Satan are both myths.” Earlier, he says that films dealing ostensibly with Satanism “usually offer devil worship in the context of a horror film, and so we tend to judge them on their efficacy as fright films, rather than as exemplars of Satanism—which they are not.”

Gilmore, who has an appropriate academic background for it, is writing a book about film theory—”to dispel the idea that is still rampant,” he says, “that a movie is Satanic if there's some reference to Satan, Lucifer, or other devils, demons, or the supernatural involved.” That sort of plot point device is perhaps interesting, but “for Satanists, very few films with such trappings have anything to do with Satanism's philosophical perspective.” (Though he thinks The Lego Movie might.)

Article continues below

By now some readers might be sharpening the pitchforks, wondering why I'm writing about Satanists here. Here are some things that everyone can learn.

“r”eligious films can be Religious films, even if it isn't on purpose.

Most of the movies on the list aren't “Satanist” films. The creators and writers weren't members of the Church of Satan. Rather, as Gilmore points out, they are films that give Satanist answers—which always incline toward the self—to the religious questions.

There is something wildly admirable here in what the Church of Satan is doing on their website: they see that anyone can espouse Satanist ideas, regardless of their orientation toward the religious questions. What they're pointing to is this fact: a system of belief that is religious (even Christianity) is partly, but not merely a set of beliefs to which you assent, nor a place you go on a Holy Day. Rather, it's a framework through which you view life, and the religious questions and practices that go along with that. You can give those questions answers that fit with a particular religion—God made me, the Universe cares, Allah demands allegiance—or not, but when you answer those questions, they're religious questions you're answering.

For Christians, and for all religious people, this seems important—if only because it seems key to either answer them in ways that orient viewers toward human flourishing, or to leave them open in order to provoke that exploration in the viewer. And for non-religious people, it seems important to realize that a film can leave the door open to questioning, too.

A movie might not be “Christian” just because it portrays Christianity (even in a favorable light).

I'm not well-versed enough in Christian film to know how many of the recent releases by Christians might be classified as not-Christian in their orientation, though I have some idea. Still, it seems important to point out that Matthew 22:37 quotes Jesus as saying that these two things are commanded: “Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” James suggests it is “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” I have seen movies about the latter (the pollution), but not as much the former. And I'm not sure we do a great job at either in our entertainment or our consumption, so eager are we to see ourselves represented onscreen, which can quickly violate the mandate in Matthew.

Article continues below

Conversely, though, as I told several friends after writing the r/Religious film post, when I think of Christian artists, I think primarily of artists who give answers that I see as Christian to the religious questions. I can't help but see Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy as Christian. I see Shotgun Stories' basic view of the world as Christian, and Wendy & Lucy, and even, I think, Magnolia, though I'm confident none of the filmmakers saw it that way.

Satanism is not just for Satanists.

I brought this article up in class today, because we were talking about physician-assisted suicide (prompted by the story of Brittany Maynard, who took prescription drugs to end her life after a brain cancer diagnosis recently) and the ethic of authenticity, which is the name that the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor gives to the sentiment in our age that it's not important what you choose to do with your life, as long as you choose. It's the Pinterest-fed sentiment that the greatest harm you can do yourself is to live a life in which what you do is dictated by anyone else's demands.

An astute senior raised her hand and said, “But isn't it funny that most pastors never talk about this?” I looked at her quizzically, and she said, “Well, I mean: last week in church, my pastor preached about whether or not we knew that aspects of our lives were under Christ's control, but it seems like it's much bigger than our individual lives.”

I did know what she meant: a friend told me just this weekend that it's a bit of a joke that after three years of ministry, every youth pastor in his not-very-cool city hears “a call” to plant a church in a much cooler city a few hours' drive away—a place where there are plenty of churches.

The thing, of course, is that Christian theology says that individuals have dignity, and we ought to seek to fufill God's individual call on our individual lives, whether that means we are bricklayers or teachers or pastors or lawyers, and whether it means we are single or married, and parents or not. There are many layers to the Christian view of the individual, some of which require seeking “authenticity.”

Article continues below

But the dark side of all of this—what Taylor would call the “pathological” side—is the functional individuality that seeps into the Christian church. And it's something that my undergraduates—95% of whom were raised in evangelical churches—caught onto instantly, so much that it sort of frightened me. “Ultimately,” Gilmore says, “we encourage people to watch whatever they like and judge according to their personal standards.” The flip side, and what I said today in class, was that Christian theology (rightly understood, anyhow) has embedded in it both the dignity and autonomy of the individual and the respect for the concerns and discerning of the community. Both must be balanced.

They get that these are formative—that they teach things without being vocal about what it is they are teaching.

In the case of these films, Gilmore points out, the reason to watch them is that they show a world in which the principles, practices, and ideals of Satanism have taken root in fruitful ways. Watching these uncritically may very well make us functional Satanists.

And this is why I’d argue that it’s important to reflect on every film we see, preferably with someone else, religious (or Religious) or not—someone who’s willing to think about what we just saw. This isn’t because I think we have to protect, somehow, our religious beliefs. A religious system worth believing can’t just fall apart at the first provocation.

But we all need to process media input, and for that, we need reflection and communities of discourse. Our imaginations are shaped by what we watch, whether or not we think they are (this is why I'm so interested in political dramas). Reflecting can help us see this more clearly and even counteract it, bending our imaginations back toward things like justice, generosity, empathy, and virtue.

I'm guessing the Church of Satan's goal isn't primarily to proselytize: they seem pretty bent on everyone finding their own way in life, according to their own rules. But the truth is, most films are individualistic to the extreme. I'm having a hard time coming up with one that isn't, right now. As an old pastor of mine used to say, the most dangerous message in movies today is any character who says, “Believe in yourself; you don't need anyone else.” Which is to say . . . a lot of movies. It seems evident, then, that Christians could be capable of making Satanist films.

Gives you pause, huh?

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
Previous Watch This Way Columns: