Coping with the horror and trauma of life today
Horror confronts our sense of being made in God's image, something Matthew's Gospel shows us how to address
By Scott Harrower
August 26 2016Human beings are the only creatures that are persons: humans alone are made in God’s image. In our ideal state and environment, being made in God’s image is reflected and enacted in the very precious and special relational, functional and moral aspects of being human. However, we live in a world in which Shalom has been vandalised. Hence we experience, perceive, anticipate, participate in, and witness acts of violence in its many guises. These forms of violence may be deliberate physical or emotional violence by other persons, assault by demonic agents, devastation by the forces of nature, or they may be our own toxic thoughts. Examples may include acts of terrorism, sexual harassment or abuse, forced isolation from family members, being driven to self-harm, tsunamis, and suicidal thoughts.
Each of these and their lingering after-effects are traumatic.1 These acts and our perceptions of them are powerfully transgressive, invasive and deteriorating, so much so that they diminish our personhood in its relational, functional and moral aspects. They constitute a catastrophic move away from our very personhood, our very being as images of God — horrors in the truest sense. They are horrors because they are instances of de-creation – this is conceptually, pragmatically and aesthetically horrible.
This common, though wholly unnatural, state of affairs has profound traumatising after-effects. These revolve around fear and the mood this creates. This fear is particularly warranted when it is based upon a series of intense doubts given the commonplace experience of the world: these doubts are doubt about the goodness of God, the possibility of meaningful life and for hope in the future. The overwhelming sense of dread caused by these doubts undermines those very things that make us persons: the relational, functional and moral aspects of being God’s images. In other words, the evidential problem of evil leads us to doubt that there is a good God, that there is such a thing as purposeful life as images of God, and by implication any sense that life is meaningful, hopeful, and worth living.
Since the Enlightenment, horrors and the “storms of trauma” that ensue, have generated significant cultural, philosophical and experiential reasons for horror-centric and traumatised worldviews.2 One expression of this perception of reality is the literary genre of horror. This is a form of art-horror. This genre is “the imagination of disaster,” a view of events and of the world in which there are few, if any, possibilities for hope.3 The horror genre is one way, albeit a paranoid way, by which people try to understand and navigate ordinary human existence, which is marked by both gross and commonplace horrors.4
Given both the commonplace nature of a horror-tainted worldview as well as horror being an important survival genre, it is not surprising that many who read or hear the Bible today, do so from the perspective of personal horror and from an art-horror perspective.5 Surprisingly, many of the literary features and events in Matthew’s Gospel would affirm such a reading strategy.
The narrative sequence of the first four chapters of Matthew alone includes the following: the wretched history of a nation, confusion, the disturbed mind of a pseudo-king, deception as a survival technique, apparitions by supernatural beings, the massacre of boys, an innocent family being forced into exile, and the torment of Jesus by his enemy the Devil.
Later chapters overwhelm the reader with stories of disease, poverty, alienation, lies, plots, a suicide, torture and abandonment. Therefore, on one level, Matthew may seem to affirm many of the central motifs and emotions associated with horrors, such as trauma, disaster and fear, etc. Indeed, there is much to be gained from reading Matthew’s Gospel through a “horror-reading” which points out the many evils that human beings suffer in this world. However, an unchallenged horror-reading of Matthew raises problems to do with the nature of God, meaning and hope in this world. Hence, despite the many points of literary affinity between Matthew and gothic horror literature, the narrative and worldview Matthew presents resist and subvert this kind of reading.
In fact, Matthew’s Gospel suggests a reparative reading of a reality, even though the reality includes horrors within it.6 Thereby, the author of Matthew does not perpetuate the horrors we experience at cultural, philosophical, experiential levels; rather Matthew’s Gospel resists a “paranoid” and fearful view of reality by offering the possibility of meaningful living, hope and reversal despite the presence of horror in the world.
This is ultimately predicated upon a trinitarian view of God as the Father, Son and Spirit who renews those who belong to the community of faith. In particular, this Gospel provides stories and imagery related to the special presence of God with individuals and his community, clear teaching on what a meaningful and hopeful life looks like, the promise of divine and human enablement of qualitatively rich life with God and others. All of this is in anticipation of the new world in which God’s will for life is unimpeded. In other words, it is a life lived in retrieval of personhood as an image of God – someone who is being renewed relationally, functionally and morally.
These powerful elements within Matthew’s Gospel subvert a strong horror-reading of its story and of reality more broadly. Instead, it can be read reparatively as a supernatural-realist tragicomedy.7 It is realist in the sense that it does affirm particular kinds of fear and suffering that are integral to the Christian life, as necessary aspects of re-orientation towards God. As disciples “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father,” they will fear God; carry a cross; be sheep amongst wolves, and become increasingly like veterans in the conflict for light in a hostile world.
This realism is co-ordinated with the magical supernaturalism whereby divine presence and aid are available directly and indirectly to those who know the God whose name is the Father, Son and Spirit. As a tragi-comedy, the story ends on a note of hope. In addition it makes the reader aware of the means by which this hope may be sustained in the midst of, and after, horror and trauma. These include a life of prayer, imitating the character of God, belonging to the community of faith, and the ritual of the Lord’s Supper.
Finally, the story of Matthew’s Gospel is a tragicomedy. On the one hand it affirms that much of our participation in and experience of life is tragic. On the other, and at the same time, the story of Jesus as the victorious king affirms that the story has classic comedic structure in which the ending is qualitatively better than the narrative’s start and low points. The dominant emotion in Matthew is therefore not fear, but hope. This hope and the life recommended by Mathew’s Gospel may enable those who appropriate its message by faith to being the journey of partial recovery from horror’s traumas. Matthew’s Gospel is not only accessible, and particularly open to contemporary horror readers, it is also highly relevant and transformative for Christian readers who have experienced horrors and live life after the storms of trauma.
The Revd Dr Scott Harrower is Lecturer in Christian Thought at Ridley College, Melbourne.
1. Schaefer and Schaefer eds, Trauma and Resilience (Condeo Press, 2012), vi.
2. Rambo, Shelly. “Spirit and Trauma.” Interpretation 69.1 (2015): 7-19.
3. In contrast to tragedy, horror does not offer the possibility of “…purgation through violence.” Smith, “Horror Versus Tragedy: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Olaf Stapledon's Sirius,” 26.1 (1985): 73.
4. Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading,” in Touching feeling: Affect, pedagogy, performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003). Cited in Murphy, “Founding Foreclosures: Violence and Rhetorical Ownership in Philosophical Discourse on the Body,” 55.1 (2016): 11-13.
5. I am using art-horror in the sense used in Carroll, The philosophy of horror, or, Paradoxes of the heart (New York: Routledge, 1990), 8.
6. Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading.” Cited in Murphy, “Founding Foreclosures: Violence and Rhetorical Ownership in Philosophical Discourse on the Body,” 11-13.
7. Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading.” Cited in Murphy, “Founding Foreclosures: Violence and Rhetorical Ownership in Philosophical Discourse on the Body,” 11-13.