The Werewolf Priesthood

Well, I’m exhausted. We’re coming up on Spring Break, and as excited as my students are for the rest, I’m coasting into it on fumes. Luckily for me, tonight my youngest fell asleep in my arms at about 6:15 so my wife and I were gifted with a quiet evening. One thing I like to do that I haven’t been able to lately is sit down with milk and cookies and watch monster movies, so this is what I did.

I went with an childhood favorite, Stephen King’s Silver Bullet. It’s a really fun (and surprisingly sweet) werewolf movie with Corey Haim, Gary Busey, and Anne of Green Gables. If you have Amazon Prime, it’s free right now, so you should check it out.

SPOILER’S AHEAD

(as if you care…come on, no one’s really going to watch this are they?)

The story is your basic whodunit, with clues about the werewolf’s identity being slowly unfolded until … tada … it’s the local minister.

Silver Bullet

This notion, the werewolf priest, intrigues me.

It apparently has a long folklore tradition, but this movie is my only experience with it. I’m sure that there are Christians out there who will take great exception to the plot twist and see it as another in a long line of instances where Hollywood, or “the mainstream media” cruelly trashes religion in general and Christians in particular. This is a tired and not-very-true-or-interesting narrative that I don’t feel like dealing with here. Let’s just say that every profession and culture thinks it gets overwhelmingly negative press. See almost any movie about an English professor. So shut up and think about what it means to be part of the Royal Priesthood. More on this below.

One thing I find so fascinating about the werewolf priest in this particular movie is that, on some level, there is a sense that God may actually be using this monster for his own terrifying ends and purposes. The priest’s affliction (we never find out how he became a werewolf) has the appearance of divine calling at the beginning of the movie. He doesn’t truly become the bad guy until he tries to keep his secret safe by attempting to kill a disabled little boy who knows his secret. Before this, his victims seem to be chosen not by random, but by the Almighty himself. I have no idea about the doctrinal ramifications of this narrative, but it does make for some thought-provoking viewing. Those more theologically-minded than me are requested to comment further about this below.

The other thing about the priest’s curse is that I could sort of relate. I remember delivering a sermon at church once about the royal priesthood and finding the whole thing to be rather impossible. We’re somehow supposed to live in this world in a way that resists its institutions while simultaneously respecting them. I quote:

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

This is a rather tall order, I think. In my sermon, I think I also threw in a bit about werewolves and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (much to my pastor’s chagrin, I’m sure), paying close attention to the damage we often do when we seek to withdraw from the constraints placed on us by various institutional manifestations of “the man.”

 

Richard Mansfield was best known for the dual ...

Richard Mansfield was best known for the dual role depicted in this double exposure: he starred in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in both New York and London. The stage adaptation opened in London in 1887, a year after the publication of the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The ironic dilemma we are ultimately faced with is that to properly live outside the systems of culture, we have to live in harmony with them. The line is exceedingly thin. The werewolf priest apparently failed at some point to ethically walk it, and became not an agent of God’s mysterious will, but a true monster.

I teach English. (Wow! What a smooth transition). I teach at a tiny Christian college in a small, rural town, much like the one in the movie. I love living here and I love my job very much, but, being new to the area, I have often felt a dreadful isolation and have, at times, withdrawn. In some sense, and through no real fault of my own, I have not lived as harmoniously within the local cultural institutions as I eventually hope to as I grown into my role in the community.

In the absence of that harmony, I have thrown myself into my work to a sometimes frightening degree. I stay late when I’m not teaching, and I exhaust myself when I am. I love what I’m doing, and I think I’m doing a good job by my students. This has been a rich and rewarding experience that I would never trade, as I do feel I’m doing the work God has blessed and cursed me with.

Watching this movie for the umpteenth time has made me pause, though. My work is my responsibility, but so also are my family and my community. How can I walk the line as werewolf priest, without becoming a monster?

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Towards a Werewolf Apologetics

werewolves

Quick note at the start. If you haven’t yet, please click the Facebook “Like” button to the left. I try to supplement this blog with miscellaneous links and such on Facebook a couple of times a week. Having folks look at them would be great. Now for this werewolf business.

I recently introduced my students to Michael Chabon’s short stories, specifically one entitled “Werewolves in Their Youth.” It’s a great story that revels in both the wonder and the danger of the human imagination. It’s right up my alley, in other words.

I have a strategy when it comes to teaching. It basically boils down to confusing my students whenever possible, then working to help them catch up. I call this “education.” I pace around the room and stand beside them, lean over and ask them a direct question face to face . . . I basically model my classroom presence after Vincent D’Onofrio’s character in Law in Order: Criminal Intent. Sure they look at me like I’m a little crazy, but at least they pay attention most of the time. What can I say? As much as I’d like to be Lionel Trilling, I’m ever only Groucho Marx. Sometimes I even dress like him to teach.

Anderson Groucho

I know, I know. But sometimes a cigar is just a rolled-up piece of brown construction paper. More Freud further down.

Anyway, many of my students were disturbed when they looked at the syllabus on the first day of class and saw the title of the Chabon story. I teach at a small Christian college in a rural area and I think that I may have, as the kids say, “freaked them out” a little. Not wanting to have the villagers descend on my castle with pitchforks and torches, I assured them that there weren’t any actual werewolves in the story, just two misfit boys with wild imaginations.

But now I’m thinking, why not?

I happen to really love werewolf movies (a shock to my regulars, I’m sure), and I’m quite certain that a course devoted to werewolves would be entirely appropriate at any college, particularly a Christian college.

Alright, time for apologetics mode. Stay with me.

Treatise on the Christian Werewolf

Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf describes the human condition as such:

There was once a man, Harry, called the Steppenwolf. He went on two legs, wore clothes and was a human being, but nevertheless he was in reality a wolf of the Steppes. He had learned a good deal of all that people of a good intelligence can, and was a fairly clever fellow. What he had not learned, however was this: to find contentment in himself and his own life.

The werewolf, as imagined in Hesse’s novel, but particularly the classical Hollywood rendition, is a splendid image of what it is to be human. All of us, each in our own way, walk the line between civility and brutality. This (I assume) mythical creature embodies that struggle. Here is a human body striving to live in a society with other humans, and upon it, brutal, cruel nature has collapsed.

Now, with the advent of the Twilight franchise, I know that the ancient conflict between human and nature is not fashionable. Ms. Meyer has popularized what I call, “the Magical Werewolf.” This is an individual who has come to some sort of happy oneness with nature and draws upon its violent resources to gain righteous empowerment and glittery self-actualization. This is self-help gibberish and I’ll have nothing to do with it. By stripping the creature of its agony, the Magical Werewolf has also stripped it of its dignity. I prefer the An American Werewolf in London vision:

A true Christian

This scene leaves no doubt that David is cursed. Well, I don’t want to break this to you, but we are all cursed. At the beginning of the film, David is just an innocent college-kid hiking across Europe on summer vacation. By the end, he is a vicious killer. The scene above captures the tortuous moments which comprise the border between the two. And I submit that these moments are where we all are most of the time. This film (my personal favorite movie) shows us the torment of living in a society as fallen, sinful creatures. The werewolf is a uniquely sympathetic monster because he or she is each of us.

There is, I think, ample evidence in the Bible for my argument. As cursed punishment, Adam and Eve are placed into direct and eternal conflict with nature, banished from their previously easy communion with the animals (take that Team Jacob). This forced distinction between human beings and nature is consistent. Over and over, association with nature equates with cursedness. Chosen Jacob was a man of the house, rejected Esau, a man of the wilderness. In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar is cursed in a manner that startlingly resembles the above clip:

The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.

“The Dew of Heaven” is one of my favorite poetic images in the bible. It has the sound of pleasure, as if the divine has graced the recipient with soothing, life-giving refreshment. The reality for the once and future King, however, is horror. This divine drenching washes the humanity from his body. This is precisely the tragedy of the Wolfman. Nature has not empowered him to be a better human, it has overtaken his body and stripped away his humanity entirely. This is the very definition of horror. All I am trying to say here is that there is textual precedent in the Bible for the metaphor I’m trying to extend to Christianity.

However, I don’t mean to set the werewolf’s borders at Christendom. This tragic figure speaks to me mainly as a human being. In previous posts, I’ve tried to own my less than flattering moments because I think they are a big part of whatever meaning rests in human experience. To ignore my cruel self is to ignore the conflict between Civilization and its Discontents. My responsible wishes to contribute to society perpetually wrestle against my desires to destroy it. Culture versus Anarchy. Perhaps this conflict is what inspired Matthew Arnold’s animalistic sideburns. I am Tyler Durden.

The werewolf helps us visualize the precarious position we humans occupy on this planet as we strive to wedge civilization into the natural realm. Its tragedy, its horror, its loss of the human pronouns “he” and “she,” help us imagine and experience the wondrous horror that life is.

Wolverine

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