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On “Christian Horror” and Atheist Dread

On “Christian Horror” and Atheist Dread

by Mike Duran · 40 comments

Perhaps the best argument for “Christian horror” is atheism. While both believing and unbelieving novelists acknowledge, and write about, the horrific — they share distinctively different views as to its nature. And ultimately, those different worldviews are what makes their stories genuinely dreadful.

Of course, the debate about “Christian Horror” rages on. Is the label congruent with Christian values, sustainable, and ultimately productive? Those things are worth discussing. But something that hasn’t been discussed as much is the deeper, more compelling philosophical reasons why Christian authors should be at the forefront of the horror genre. That reason is “Atheist horror.”

Behind every work of fiction is a worldview that frames it. Yes, Christian fiction tends to wear its worldview on its sleeve. But what is often unacknowledged is how much contemporary horror writers incorporate an equally pronounced, diametrically opposed, worldview.

A prime example  is H.P. Lovecraft, often considered one of the masters of horror. Lovecraft was an atheist. His stories are full of cosmic dread and ancient terrors, a combination of monsters and modern philosophy. In one of the greatest essays on horror ever penned, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft writes:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space. (emphasis mine)

In the early twentieth century, German theologian Rudolf Otto, in his book “The Idea of the Holy,” coined the term “numinous” to describe religious experience of the “wholly other,” the divine. Here’s Wikipedia on numinous:

According to Otto the numinous experience has two aspects: mysterium tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a Holy other.

Notice that while both men acknowledged an “awful mystery” at the core of the universe, Otto defined it in terms of Something, while Lovecraft defined it in terms of Nothing. Thus their “fear and trembling” was qualitatively different. While Otto is drawn to commune with the “Holy other,” Lovecraft is mortified by “the daemons of unplumbed space.” As Lovecraft saw it, it was a “suspension” of belief in the “fixed laws of Nature” that sheltered us from “the assaults of chaos.” Science, once our only “safeguard” against madness, inevitably rouses “unexplainable dread.”

No wonder, the “deity” at the heart of Lovecraft’s fiction, Azathoth, is little more than cosmic protoplasm. In “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931), the narrator describes this god as a “monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space.” The word “nuclear,” as used by Lovecraft here, refers to nucleus, rather than nuclear power, implying a monstrous chaos exists at the nucleus of the universe. Is it any wonder that Azathoth is most commonly pictured as an amorphous mass of tentacles, bone, teeth, gristle… whatever? Writes Joseph Morales, “Lovecraft’s description of Azathoth makes use of our childhood image of a God in charge of all things, but then subverts that image by investing it with the most essential attribute of the mechanistic-materialistic worldview: a total lack of conscious purpose” (emphasis in original). In this sense, Lovecraft is remaining true to his non-religious roots.

For the atheist horrorist, nothing but a “monstrous chaos” without “conscious purpose” can exist, godlike, at the center of the universe. This is true terror.

In Atheism’s Mythographer, Jason Colavito writes:

The key to the abyss in Lovecraft’s world was Science itself. It was through science that the well-spring of horror arose, and this is what captivated the minds of those who read him. Lovecraft introduced a new brand of horror that dispenced with the supernatural as an opposition to the natural order.

In other words, for Lovecraft, horror was not antithetical to the “natural order” — the natural order was horrifying; horror was not irrational, but the byproduct of rationality. In the atheistic model, when we see our Universe for what it really is, we should be very, very afraid.

Needless to say, this is unlike the Christian worldview. While the Bible teaches that creation is fallen, Nature is hardly at the mercy of primal forces. At the center of the Universe is not a “monstrous chaos,” but a loving God with “conscious purpose,” intimately involved in the affairs of man, extending mercy and exacting judgment. In other words, Jesus is the anti-Azothoth.

Likewise, the “dread” invoked by the Christian writer is dissimilar to that of the atheist. Scripture warns, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). This “fear” is pivotal to “Christian horror.” Whereas the atheist author invokes the fear of the absence of God, the Christian invokes the fear of the presence of God. The “horror” is in His existence, not His non-existence. Of course, this “horror” is for those who deny Him, ignore His warnings, and refuse His mercy. Sadly, terror awaits those on the “wrong side” of the Universe.

Both “Christian horror” and “Atheist horror” seek to invoke dread in their readers. However, “Christian horror” is the result of the “numinous,” while “Atheist horror” is the result of “nothingness.” “Christian horror” is based on the God Who Is There, while “Atheist horror” is based on the God Who Isn’t. “Christian horror” provides a way of escape; “Atheist horror” cannot. Heck, in the atheist’s worldview, the heroine can escape the clutches of serial killers and zombie hordes. But she must succumb, inevitably, to the Great Void.

Perhaps there is no greater horror than that of an atheistic worldview. Forget blood, gore, and ghoulies. A world without meaning and purpose is the ultimate horror. A universe that arose by chance, exists without meaning, where lives plummet toward annihilation is the worst kind of horror. The child huddled in bed, fixated upon the dark closet, becomes the adult gaping into the void of what, he believes, is a godless universe. And unlike the Christian novelist, the atheist author has nothing but more “dark closets” to offer their readers.

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