Thursday, March 11, 2010

God at War in "Gabriel"

While poking around Netflix the other night, a movie I had never heard anything about was suggested to me, and it caught my attention: Gabriel, released in 2007. I watched the trailer online and it looked like your run-of-the-mill low-budget action good-guy/bad-guy movie, this time pitting angels and demons against each other in a city-based depiction of purgatory that looked like a prototypical dark, gothic city in the tradition Frank Miller (Sin City), or perhaps The Crow.

Normally, I would steer clear of these kinds of movies, because they strike me as formulaic and unimaginative. However, the namesake of this movie, the archangel, Gabriel, is a being that I have an affinity for. You see, I've assumed the role of the angel Gabriel for two film projects done last year for a seminary class (see Millennium Update episodes One & Two). I also steer clear of these kinds of movies because my wife can't stand them. But, as luck or fate or predestination would have it, my wife was gone this particular evening, and the movie was available for instant streaming, so I pulled it up and gave it a watch.

Read on for my review of the movie, Gabriel, with some theological reflections interspersed throughout...

No-spoiler synopsis
As stated above, this movie takes place in the spiritual/temporal dimension of purgatory. Not earth, not quite heaven, and not quite hell. The movie also explains at the outset that purgatory is a battleground for the angelic forces of good and evil; servants of the Light or the Darkness over the outcome of the souls held in this intermediate realm. We're told that seven archangels (called "arcs") and seven fallen angels are locked in combat, and the state of the battle as we start the movie in isn't good for the good guys (and gal). The fallen ones are winning, having knocked off all but one arc. The "city" of purgatory now is perpetually dark and rainy and soul-crushing.  Enter our hero: Gabriel, who we see make his cosmic journey from the Light and eventually falling into purgatory.

The thing I like about how this location is set up, is that it reminds me of John Milton's Paradise Lost. In that epic poetic work of the 17th century, the spiritual/temporal dimensions are laid out in similar fashion. There is travel involved in traversing these planes of existence, and the places and the travels are vividly described. Dante's Divine Comedy, from the 14th century uses a similar cosmological worldview.

The way angelic powers are dealt with in this movie has strong hints of the Force, from the Star Wars universe, including its light and dark sides. This is visually represented by Gabriel's strikingly blue eyes when he first arrives in purgatory, a stark contrast to everything else dark around him. Meeting a defeated arc, Gabriel learns that as long as he's making his angelic powers apparent, the fallen angels will be able to sense his presence like so much Darth Vader. In order to conceal himself and work toward liberating purgatory, Gabriel masks his angelic powers. His eyes turn dark. While this notion of masking of presence isn't explored in the Star Wars movies, it is dealt with in the novels, particularly the recent Legacy of the Force series.

What follows in the movie does indeed stay on the tried-and-true formula of action movies. The depictions of the depravity of demonically-ruled purgatory and the violent conflict that erupts as Gabriel embarks on his liberation mission are not for the faint of heart. Anyone who's been thoroughly desensitized to violence in the media won't see anything new, but "good boys and girls" who steer clear of such corrupting influences might lose some sleep.

I can't really get into the role of sacrifice, forgiveness, and redemption in this movie without jeopardizing some late plot developments (spoilers), but I'll nod toward those things as being present and pivotal, and they're worth some theological reflection.

Whither the Son of Man?
While this movie borrows heavily from the biblical narrative(s) in both Hebrew & Greek testaments (OT & NT), it can hardly be said that this movie represents a distinctly Christian allegory. Whereas Milton's Paradise Lost incorporates the Christ, the chosen one of God, into its overall story arc, Gabriel settles for a Jesus-less tale set in purgatory. It is possible to attribute some Christ-like qualities into the character of Gabriel, there is by no means a universe-shaping Christology present, nor a sense of the Holy Spirit's presence or work. So it's a non-trinitarian affair, to be sure. Even the references to the overseeing powers of God and Satan are vague realities, passing references, and not a comprehensive part of the movie's story.

One thing about this movie that has kept me thinking about it, is its connection to some academic reading I'm doing in my theological work, particularly on the subject of spiritual warfare. The text I'm working with for a seminary class is Greg Boyd's God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict (IVP, 1997). In this book, Boyd is challenging the underlying thought systems that have made the following question possible: "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Those underlying thought systems which make such a question possible (the so-called "problem of evil," or theodicy) are misguided, Boyd argues, and reflect more of a Hellenistic philosophical perspective than the cosmological perspective of both the Hebrew people and early followers of Jesus. That worldview, Boyd argues, is one that takes seriously spiritual beings (angels) that are "free agents" (just as humans are), and have the ability to affect - for good or ill - aspects of God's created order. The biblical perspective also locates the central, corralling leader of all evil will in the fallen angel, Satan.

It's a fascinating topic that I'm just now wading into (only on chapter 1, after a lengthy introduction), but Boyd is speaking my language, as the section I find myself in now is entitled "Satan and postmodernism," and I'm anticipating him making use of postmodern thought in a way that will get me all jazzed up.

So to come back to Gabriel and close this reflection: perhaps there's something to this angels and demons spiritual battle narrative that is clearly still capturing people's imaginations. Vast swaths of modern Christian people (particularly in the West, after the Enlightenment) have been re-trained to "demythologize" Scripture (thanks, Rudy Bultmann) and reinterpret such things as angels, demons, and Satan into moral-therapeutic psychological categories. "Dealing with my inner demons."

I'm not ready to speak strongly from either perspective, because I have to confess that I was raised to do the "demythologizing," but am starting to see the merits of Boyd's perspective, and am seeing it articulated in intelligent, academic (more importantly, biblically theological) language.

So thanks, Gabriel, for capturing my imagination and getting infused into a topic which I'm developing a theological awareness of. Oh, more review-type stuff: the acting is so-so, I liked the character of Gabriel the most, one or two characters were actually laughably silly (one of the demons was...Jamaican, I guess). Not a must-see, but it was the right movie at the right time for me, for all the reasons listed above.

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