In February of 1928, the pulp magazine Weird Tales published “The Call of Cthulhu.” Written by H.P. Lovecraft, the short story is narrated by the fictional Francis Wayland Thurston as he sorts through the notes of his grandfather who was a professor of Semitic languages at Brown University. Slowly, Thurston finds himself following the paper trail through accounts of strange dreams of terrifying landscapes, human sacrifice at the hands of crazed cultists, and culminating in the awakening of Cthulhu, an ancient godlike being of unspeakable horror and nightmare. Thus began the expansive universe of Lovecraftian horror known as The Cthulhu Mythos.
Fun stuff. If you’re into magic, puzzles, sea monsters, and an unrelenting sense of impending doom, Lovecraft is the writer for you. Lovecraft was a philosophical nihilist and he was plagued by nightmares for most of his life. Having grown up on the New England coast he also had a deep fear of the ocean and sea creatures. These influences are ever present in his work, whether they be the role of dreams in the mental instability of the narrators or the description of squid-like monsters lurking in the depths. While this may not sound scary (tentacle monsters aren’t really in fashion now), Lovecraft uses first person narration to deliberately create both a sense of unreliability on the narrator’s testimony and a sense of foreboding peril.
The terror of this otherworldly being is inescapable and all of creation will suffer. It is all quite ominous and unnerving. The horror of The Cthulhu Mythos hinges on the unfathomable power of the “The Great Old Ones” (Cthulhu and other demigods in Lovecraft’s pantheon) and the inevitability of their dominion. Yet the narrator never witnesses Cthulhu for himself. Instead, he can only conceive it as others recount their experiences. What is horrific about Cthulhu are the testimonies of those who have already witnessed it and the subsequent societal responses. People of lesser intellect and civility (Lovecraft was a racist so these are often minorities) join cults that seek to expedite the coming reign. Those of the academic persuasion succumb to insanity because they cannot conceive the vastness and terror of Cthulhu. These beings are beyond comprehension and ontologically malevolent. And they are coming.
Cthulhu, in all of its horror and unfathomable-ness, appears to be the exact opposite of the loving God professed in Christianity. But is it? If Cthulhu’s horror stems from it’s inconceivability, then maybe not so much.
You may be familiar with Job in the Old Testament. Job loses everything as part of a bet between God and Satan (I can hear your questions and objections seething up, but read the prologue to Job. That’s gist the of it, albeit in need of nuancing). The book is composed of these long speeches between Job and his three friends as they try to explain and systematize the suffering Job has undergone. And none of their answers are sufficient. Finally, God answers Job. And the answer is one of terrible power, not merely in word but out of a fierce torrent of storm. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?…Who shut the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? (Job 38:4, 8)” The divine speech at the climax of Job is God challenging him to comprehend that enormity, the majesty, and the unfettered power of the Creator. There’s even sea monsters: “Can you draw out Leviathan with a sea hook? (41:1).” God keeps hammering at Job with a challenge that could be paraphrased as “Can you conceive the awesome might that has bounded the chaos of the cosmos?”
Go read Job 38-41. Read it and try to forget for a moment any notion that God is Love. The benevolence of God (towards Job at least) is predominantly absent from the divine speech. Isn’t the speech awesome and powerful and terrifying? Perhaps not too far from the inescapable might of Cthulhu?
The whole divine speech reinforces God’s ontological inconceivability. Much like Cthulhu. So what’s the difference? While resisting the temptation to get preachy, let us remember God’s benevolence, the reality that God is Love. It is only God’s love that makes the inconceivable more bearable as to not drive us to insane. But God without Love…
Well, my friends, I think that’s a Lovecraftian terror.
Christians should write horror, and they should write it well. And Christians should engage fear.
“But, Dan, what about 2 Timothy 1:7? About God not giving us a spirit of fear?” Good question. What about in Proverbs? “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).” There’s some contextual stuff to flesh out in both cases. So let’s agree that such excerpts merit further discussion. But fear is a universal experience. For some reason 2 Timothy gets used to tell Christians why they should never be afraid of anything, ever. But we know fear. Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom because fear is a natural instinct. Fear helps us know our limits. Growing up, I was told the “fear of God” is more appropriately understood to mean respect for God. While that is not untrue, it is lacking. If you have ever been in the presence of a wild animal (or watched The Revenant), you have likely experienced some healthy fear there. Sure you want to respect the creature, but you respect it because you know this bear could really eviscerate you on a whim.
We should write horror because many in the church as of late have denounced fear as lack of trust. But fear is real. And God can be terrifying. Actually, I think it is by the grace of God that God is not more terrifying. Let’s use horror stories to illustrate that it is natural, and often good, for finite beings such as ourselves to have fear.
To at least be in fear for a moment or a season.
But that’s not the end. There’s love and grace.
But that’s for next week.
Happy October, folks.