In “Midnight Mass,” even the Devil quotes Scripture
January 27, 2022
“Midnight Mass” ought to make any confessing Christian feel a little bit of trepidation. Although an ancient evil is at the center of the miniseries, the real sense of creeping evil takes place in church, as words are twisted to do a dark bidding.
In Father Paul’s church, “If you give something to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3, paraphrased) becomes an injunction to secrecy. Deuteronomy 17:12 becomes a rationale for murder: “The man who acts presumptuously, by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God . . . that man shall die” (RSV). Throughout the miniseries, Scripture is manipulated for various purposes, and the evilest characters always have a scriptural justification for their actions. Bev, the church’s twisted lay leader, seems to particularly relish creative applications of Scripture.
Such examples ought to give us pause and make us reflect on the fact that the Bible can be used to justify almost anything. I myself experience this on a daily basis, as I bend the Bible to more just and inclusive ends than perhaps it allows. I feel justified in doing so, because I think the Spirit of God is at work in inviting us to the work of justice. As Cornel West puts it, “justice is what love looks like in public.” But ought I feel so secure in my reasonings?
Human beings have an almost limitless capacity for self-delusion, and “Midnight Mass” does much to put it on display. Perhaps that is its most redeeming offering: it forces the interpreter of Scripture to be humble.
“Midnight Mass” clearly indicts religion as the problem: it can whip people into a frenzy, support bad leaders, and make ordinary people collaborators with evil. Such indictments make my typical response—that religion is a tool and how it is used makes the difference—feel a little flat. It makes me consider the ways religion is at the heart of so much evil in our world.
Even so, that creeping sense of dread that “Midnight Mass” gives is useful. It forces me to consider the ways that I, too, might be deluded. Human beings have an almost limitless capacity for self-delusion, and “Midnight Mass” does much to put it on display. Perhaps that is its most redeeming offering: it forces the interpreter of Scripture to be humble.
And what else can we be? We have a book assembled from documents from the Bronze Age to late antiquity, translated into English most of the time (already an interpretation), and we are nearly two millennia separated from the New Testament.
Being humble doesn’t mean giving up the work of interpretation, but it does mean allowing that we could be wrong. For those wresting meaning from an ancient text, a little humility goes a long way. I oftentimes find myself preaching these days and ending with, “But who knows—I might be wrong.” Such statements are as much for me as for my congregation, a reminder that I ought not to be too confident in my capacities.
That humility is something I will be taking away from “the Crock-Pot” long after I have forgotten the plot.
Rev. Dr. Michael Woolf is senior minister, Lake Street Church of Evanston, Illinois. He holds a Doctor of Theology degree from Harvard Divinity School and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University.