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‘Midnight Mass’ and the dark side of faith

By Joel Pablo Salud Published Nov 03, 2021 7:32 pm

Faith. A word that is always associated with everything that is good.

Like hope, possibility, opportunity, confidence in what can be expected, faith believes in the best in people, in circumstance, even in exceptionally dire or dubious situations, as though nothing is too bad that no amount of good can come out of it.

But the thing with faith is that it is often bracketed with blindness or the lack of solid evidence thereof. The idiom “a leap of faith” is fundamentally a leap into nothing, hoping against hope you won’t fall into the jagged rocks below.

Trust of this kind, unbendable as it is robust, is anchored on what can neither be seen, felt, nor touched, but on a higher power no human, however erudite, could ever explain.

Thus, the dark side of faith comes where anyone, even with the best intentions, can be dragged by the nose and left to rot in a hope unstable enough to someday leave him disenchanted, if not damaged to the very core.

Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass, a horror series now showing on Netflix, runs on a sequence of events which happened in a small island’s fishing community of deeply religious folks.

The terrifying series begins with the arrival of a young charismatic and rather handsome priest, Fr. Paul Hill, played by Hamish Linklater. He tells the rather dwindling congregation that Monsignor Pruitt, the former parish priest, has taken ill after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The archdiocese has chosen Fr. Paul Hill to replace the ailing priest for the time being.

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The succeeding days, which later turn into an open pageant of miracles, signs, and wonders, spark a revival in the small-town church. Little do people know that Fr. Paul Hill, even with the best intentions, is sliding down the road to perdition, and that the old and supposedly sick monsignor is everything but in the throes of death.

Without going into more spoilers, let me just say that Midnight Mass, in the hands of the genius director, Mike Flanagan, brings to fore a question much too relevant in this day and age: how much of your life are you willing to bet on the power and words of one man?

While religious authority and political authority have their differences, these are only by a hair’s breadth by any standards. Their similarities are startling. They both demand respect and obedience based merely on labels. Pastor, priest, President, or whether these had been earned or not makes the slightest difference.

In fact, one can round off the two into a singular bubble and call it faith. Faith that no harm will ever come to you (because at the very core you believe he has no intention of doing so) even if such obedience and respect border on a confidence that is only reserved for God or a higher, eternally compassionate power.

This sort of faith accepts everything the human authority says or does as heaven’s representative without any hint of suspicion or doubt. This is so because one believes at any given point that to question such an authority is to question whatever faith in the person or system one holds dear.

Worse, to cast doubt on such a person is no different from casting doubt on yourselves as loyal subjects. It is this boomeranging of suspicion back to the believer that ultimately prevents the same from changing his mind even in the face of shady actions.

The result can be devastating: where the person in authority wittingly puts himself in league with demons, the rest can only, and this unwittingly, see angels. Worse, where miracles and the trickeries of darkness collide, it would be well-nigh impossible to tell them apart.

While Midnight Mass cannot be fairly weighed as a critique of religion, it is clearly a denunciation of fundamentalist thinking predominantly present in religious and political thought. Think Nazis and every cult, sacred or otherwise, that had ever existed.

Strict adherence to tradition, unquestioning and largely automatic, fundamentalist thinking summarizes Midnight Mass in much the same way as the story behind The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Like every other tale where sheep is led to the slaughter, it tells us there is a dark side to faith, obedience, and loyalty.

The idea of fundamentalist thinking also tells us how people can bring their religious convictions into political life. When such crosses over the borders of politics, one can rest assured that the damage will not be limited to the individual but the collective as a whole.

This is where democracy becomes our very own poison, and the choices of the majority our weakest link. When the majority begins to mistake titles for authority and privilege for power, the consequences of blind obedience can leave the whole in a serious quandary.

In Midnight Mass, the presumption that a spiritual leader can do no wrong all because he’s anointed by God rings true even for political figures. And not by any stretch of the imagination is this an exaggeration. Most political leaders, more so the authoritarian sort, often peddle the idea that even in a democracy, the presidency is granted by destiny.

Quoting the Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy, the priest’s assistant, Bev Keane (played by Samantha Sloyan), hammers on what could very well be religion’s statute of no limitations: “The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord, your God, that man shall die.”

Yet, there can never be the slightest doubt as to what the Apostle John said in one of his letters to the Church: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

The same inquiry is indispensable to everyone who wishes to question authority, political or otherwise. Paul the Apostle echoes the call: “But examine everything carefully.”

Independent thinking is not shunned by the Scriptures, all the more by political thought. Real faith thrives in a healthy curiosity, a vigorous sense of doubt, not blind obedience. If you’re a believer in any religion, or even an atheist, to have reservations is as human as human can ever be.

The same doubts and curiosities have fueled civilization’s spiritual, social, and economic progress. No amount of blind loyalty has ever created anything except trolls.