Roberto De La Noval

Originally from sunny Miami, Florida, Rob De La Noval now lives in South Bend, Indiana, where he is pursuing a PhD in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His book reviews and essays have appeared in The Living Church and First Things. He enjoys chess, good television, and dancing.

A Strange Bargain

The fourteenth in the Marvel’s sprawling cinematic universe, Dr. Strange stands heads above its predecessors in both beauty and brains. The film’s action sequences boggle the senses, the colors and costumes lap the camera warmly, and the distinct takes on the fascinating faces of Benedict Cumberbatch and a shorn Tilda Swinton mesmerize the viewer more than any exploits of CGI. But it is in how the film poses its metaphysical questions that Dr. Strange outshines any other superhero movie to date.

When we first meet him, Dr. Stephen Strange is as smug and as smart as they come. His knowledge of medicine dazzling, his precision in surgery exacting, Strange performs medical miracles that outshine all his co-workers on the hospital floor, producing in turns envy and exasperation. But Strange’s life of genius, fame, and wealth abruptly crashes and burns in the wake of an accident occasioned by texting and driving (a not-so-subtle message from the film producers). Strange loses function in his hands and thereby forfeits his career and his identity. And when all Western medicine fails to find him healing, Strange turns East—to Nepal, where he will meet “The Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton). The Ancient One is a master of magical arts who, after much hesitation, decides to initiate Strange into the arts which will allow him to heal his body not through Western science, but through the Eastern practice of mastering the body through mastering the spirit.

In these scenes we find the most philosophically satisfying—and topically provocative—feature of the film: it throws down the gauntlet to all forms of scientific and materialist reductionism of the human body and of human experience. Dr. Strange, initially and brutishly skeptical of any learning outside his sphere of competence, literally falls to his knees in humility after Swinton’s character unveils for him the vast multiverse in which we all exist, whose secrets and depths not even she can hope to ever completely mine. Astral body projection, “mirror dimensions,” portals between Hong Kong and London: all these are just a part of the new world(s) to which Dr. Strange is invited when he is told by friend-and-future series villain Mordo (played with convincing earnestness by Chiwetel Ejiofor) to “forget everything that you think you know.” This is the sort of film to make Richard Dawkins squirm.

Yet the film’s adumbration of greater realms only serves to heighten the peculiarity and wonder of our world. There is no crass dualism here replacing an equally unsensing materialism. The astral body and the physical body depend on each other for life; kill the one and you destroy the other. The internet, symbolized through the Kamar-Taj Wi-Fi password “Shamballa,” appears in its regular juxtaposition to the magical arts as mystical as anything the Ancient One can conjure. And the nearly endless eye-candy of the “bending” of space and time in the film’s action sequences transforms city streets and skyscrapers into so many gears in the massive clock that is our finite world.

In these sequences the film visually indicates its preoccupying concern with time. Dr. Strange’s material wealth is signified not so much by his speeding sports car as by his vast collection of wristwatches. His relational wealth (basically squandered fifteen minutes into the film) physically appears in the form of a watch given him by his erstwhile lover, Dr. Christine Palmer, who had engraved on the back of the timepiece; “Time will tell how much I love you.” (Strange’s inability to give her time in their past relationship suggests in turn how much he truly loved her.) And it is ultimately time which saves the day in the film, when Dr. Strange, with his time-manipulating magical relic, takes finitude into the Void and holds emptiness captive in a ghastly Groundhog Day until he has his way. By repeating the same event over and over, Dr. Strange discloses finitude as a gift of alternate possibilities: each moment contains its own multiverse, and it is in our human ability to “try again another day” that lies the miracle of our own existence and the beauty of this world.

Yet not every character in the movie agrees with this way of seeing things. Dr. Strange finds his character double in Kaecilius (“the blind one”; played by Mads Mikkelsen), the greatest-disciple-turned-deserter who trained under The Ancient One, but who now seeks to destroy this world. His reason? Finitude and finality exist as perpetual “insults” to our human experience, and it is only the dark god Dormammu (a name that sounds not a little like the Latin for “sleep”) who can bring an end to this cycle of birth, death, and frailty by allowing the world to be absorbed into the Void.

While at first it may appear that Strange and Kaecilius do not have much in common—the former has spent his entire life rejecting belief in anything beyond the empirical while the latter has given himself completely to the magical arts—multiple similarities suggest themselves. First, there is their shared brokenness which led them to the Ancient One, as well as their natural abilities with the magical arts. Both, furthermore, are consummate technocrats. Whether it is Kaecilius’ manipulation of the dark arts—outside of the “natural law,” as the disciples of the Ancient One remind viewers repeatedly—or Strange’s fixation with knowledge as a tool to advance his career and to keep his own personal suffering at bay, both characters subject their gifts to the logic of technique, all in order to transcend the crushing limitations of their own finitude. One line they both utter (in one form or another) draws our attention to the central problem of the film: “You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” For Strange, this belief arises from his scientific materialism (“We are made of matter, and nothing more”); for Kaecilius, it is the inevitability of death which calls his allegiance to this way of viewing the world—and his attendant rage.

What, then, is the value of the finite? This is the central question the film poses insistently and repeatedly. Does the specter of death damn every moment to insignificance in the face of our coming, cosmic heat death? Or why go so far out in time—does not the ever-present possibility and inevitability of our personal deaths render the finite, as Kaecilius sharply puts it, an insult? Only if the human spirit longs for the eternal. But how to achieve this eternality is precisely at issue in the film, for it turns out that Kaecilius’ solution to the problem entails his own dissolution into the Void. As Dr. Strange warns Kaecilius about his final fate: “I don’t think you’re going to like it.” Within the film, however, there is no break-through of a true transcendence that could account for the finite in an eternal register; Strange ultimately reduces transcendence to our immanent frame, making self-transcendence through personal sacrifice the highest goal, good, and possibility for the human spirit.

This sacrifice comes in various orders, and they are not all equal. The most obvious is that demanded of Dr. Strange by the Ancient One: give up your self-absorption and submit yourself to forces beyond your rational control, especially death. For Strange that moment of sacrifice comes in giving up control in the operating room to a doctor whom he had previously and often belittled. For the Ancient One the consummate sacrifice was the calm acceptance of her own death, even after aeons of life. But it is in Swinton’s character that the sacrifices bleed a darker red. It is revealed halfway through the film that the Ancient One has been drawing power from Dormammu, the very essence of evil, in order to prolong her life on earth in order to protect the earth from countless threats. This, of course, is “outside the natural law,” and the sacrifice it demanded was one of the moral order: to sacrifice her ideals in order to serve the greater good. It is a lesson that the Ancient One will impart to Strange, who is “flexible enough,” she claims, to understand its necessity.

Personal implication in evil is the necessary sacrifice that keeps the gods of death at bay: an economy of sacrifice in which good can never triumph without some measure of evil. And that means the real, bloody sacrifice of those who must be killed in the process of keeping the peace (the myth of redemptive violence ubiquitous in comic book lore). The psychological cost of such a sacrifice is what produces a sense of nobility in the characters who are aware of its weight, like the Ancient One and her faithful disciple Mordo. Dr. Strange resists this logic at first, horrified that he has killed in self-defense and demanding that there be another way of dealing with evil. Yet, Dr. Strange eventually accepts the tragic vision of the Ancient One, killing when necessary, and becoming the Ancient One’s true successor when Mordo cannot bear the repeated breaking of natural law and the inevitable cosmic reckoning coming in its wake. “The bill comes due,” Mordo reminds us, and his defection from Dr. Strange reveals that cosmic peace was bought at the price of the Ancient One and Strange breaking their own moral code. Mordo and Dr. Strange’s divergent ‘eulogies’ on the Ancient One upon her death—from the former that she was a hypocrite and from the latter that “she was complicated”—highlight this moral diving line running through this film.

For its implacable attack on the metaphysics of reductive materialism, Christians can be grateful. It matters not that the broadened horizon of the possible comes from both quantum mechanics and Eastern esotericism; when cultural frustrations with our reductive metaphysics will not seek answers in Christianity, largely considered discredited, perhaps only the cultural “other” of the East, alongside the ever-growing strangeness of particle physics, can open the mind enough to for some to give a Christian vision of the world a hearing again. And the film’s trenchant critique of technique, whether in science and the mystical arts, and the egomania that so often accompanies this manipulative attitude towards the given is commendable. This film raises questions which will be asked with greater insistence as our rapidly progressing scientific knowledge continues to outstrip our moral preparedness to deal with the technologies soon to be thrust upon us, with all their terrible possibilities. The words of Dr. Christine Palmer, the film’s consistent voice of reason (precisely because her concerns transcends bare rationality) continue to resonate after the credits roll: “What you’re doing isn’t medicine—it’s mania.”

Yet the film also subjects to this same critique of technological egomania the desire to achieve eternal life, as represented by Kaecilius. Here a Christian moral vision must part ways with the film, for Christianity cannot but view death as an ultimate enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). As David Bentley Hart writes in The Doors of the Sea: “Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.” There is, in fact, something commendable in Kaecilius’ “rage against the dying of the light” which he spies on the horizon for himself and for all beings; in light of this, we must cast some suspicion on the Ancient One’s calm acceptance of death. For, after all, if death were not some sort of evil, why would the Ancient One have compromised herself in order to prevent for aeons the end of our world? If there is not some truth in Kaecilius’ vision, would there be any difference between the world’s immediate union with Dormammu’s “Void” and its distant but eventual heat death?

The life of Jesus Christ shows us that that there is to be no bargaining with sin and death. When Christ descends to Hades, he does not strike a deal with the devil; instead, he liberates captives and crushes death through death. Christ need kill no one on his march to Golgotha; instead, he bears the crushing weight of finality and finitude to its end, and then, in the lightness of the resurrection, raises the myriad configurations of finitude to their final home. The path to self-transcendence is indeed self-sacrifice, but that self-sacrifice is grounded and supported by the fullness of life and love that simply is the fabric of our universe. Unlike Dr. Strange, who levitates in to deceive the infinite Void with the wiles of finitude, Christians looks to Christ grounded on the cross, staring down death with eyes behind which shines Infinity itself. In this strange union of the temporal and the eternal, of the finite and the infinite, the finite is transfigured while remaining itself, and no commerce with evil or any breaking of the limits of nature is required to get us there.

From this perspective Marvel’s Dr. Strange appears as a stupendous artifact of Christian moral vision divorced from a Christian metaphysical framework. In its denunciation of technocratic egoism and in its valuation of finitude and love above all technical attempts to overcome the natural law, it sounds a salutary warning. But in its joining of good and evil in an endless metaphysical dance, and in its inability to free finitude from the constraints of death, the movie’s vision of sacrifice as self-transcendence turns our gaze to the same Void that it spends so much of its time warning us against. Dr. Strange is right: if we end up there, we won’t like it.

Screaming for Silence

With the recent release of their sixth studio album, Pale Horses, Philadelphia-based band mewithoutYou (henceforth mwY) has once again delivered the musically tight and lyrically dense output their fans have come to expect, including the religious exploration typical of their music. This latest album represents a return to roots for the band, not only musically, but also spiritually. Multiple tracks’ narratives are interspersed with Christian hymns, and the careful listener can hear an acknowledgement of homecoming in the words of the opening track, Pale Horse, when frontman Aaron Weiss sings of the “oil and wine/ I thought I’d left that all behind.” Here, Weiss continues his insistent musical address to God, but who is mwY’s God?

mewithoutyou-pale-horses

Pale Horses

The answer to the question is not so simple as “Jesus Christ,” though Weiss is open about his Christian faith off the stage. Close attention to mwY’s lyrics reveals that the answer lies in the realm of the apophatic or ‘negative’ theological traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—the three religious traditions with which Weiss works the most and the three religious traditions with which he was raised. The goal of traditional apophatic theology is to probe religious language to highlight its limitations in regard to the God who cannot be contained by human speech and thought. This form of religious speech that questions religious speech serves to prepare the believer for individual contact with God, an encounter that can often be encumbered by theological language.

We can trace this thread throughout the band’s discography, and in what follows I will offer a global interpretation of a number of mwY’s songs that present this apophatic theology. By this global interpretation I don’t mean to suggest that there are no inconsistencies of thought between the albums, or that Weiss’ thought has not developed throughout the band’s career; both of these are true. Nonetheless, there remains a consistent vision with regard to both the language and experience of God that we can discern in Weiss’ lyrics, beginning in earnest with the band’s sophomore album, Catch For Us the Foxes.  

Recurrent in this album is the contrast between the revelatory functions of silence and the distracting effect of music and words. In “Leaf,” Weiss bemoans the cleverness of his verbal response to the suffering in the human condition:

“However much you talk…however well you talk…/You make a certain sense, but still only stupid talk /However much I strut around…however loud I sing/ the Shining One inside me won’t say anything.”

This call to silence is repeated in, “The Soviet,” where Weiss pleads for musicians to “turn [their] ears to silence/ for they [the little foxes] only come out when it’s quiet.” The little foxes in this album, drawn from Song of Songs (2:15), signify the sins defacing the vineyard of our lives. In the face of suffering and sin, the human instinct to speak, to make noise, can stand in the way of self-knowledge and contact with the silent Other at the heart of all our striving. There is, of course, an irony to the band using words and music to request that words stop, and the album itself reflects that awareness of this in “Four Word Letter (Pt. Two),” when Weiss promises to “curb all our never-ending, clever complaining,” for “who’s ever heard of a singer criticized by his song?”

It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright

This skepticism of talk extends in other mwY songs explicitly towards religious discourse. In “Every Thought a Thought of You,” the opener to their fourth album It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright, Weiss confidently sings, “No need for books when we’re with You.” The reference to holy scriptures (of any faith) is plain, but this statement should not be understood as a blanket call to do away with religious texts; indeed, the incessant biblical allusions that pepper the album make that reading difficult to sustain. Nevertheless, these texts’ ability to accomplish what some religious believers desire from them is directly challenged. In the song “My Exit, Unfair” from Foxes, Weiss sings that he “said water expecting the word/ to satisfy my thirst/ Talking all about the second and third/ when I haven’t understood the first.” This time the contrast is between talking and understanding; there exists an insufficiency in words—however religiously charged they may be—to deliver their promised presences. The religious centrality of water in Christianity is well known, of course, and when we consider that Christ refers to himself as the “living Water” (John 4; John 7), we can appreciate the depth of Weiss’ critique of remaining at the level of tidy religious talk when dealing with the depths of human desire (thirst).  

This problem of religious language intensifies in “Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume,” the centerpiece track of the band’s 2012 Ten Stories. Weiss opens the song with cries of the confusion of language: “Provisionally ‘I,’ practically alive/ mistook signs for signified.” The theme is picked up later in the song with an extended metaphor of words as arrows shot out into the world. The story’s narrator sings “midnight archer songs” with “broken bows,” proclaiming “our aimless arrow words don’t mean a thing/ so by now I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s no God/ and there’s definitely a God!” Listening to the song, you experience a jolt of confusion and upended expectation when Weiss apparently confesses to a loss of faith, only to have that understanding immediately reversed by Weiss’ equally insistent claim that there’s “definitely a God.” Here Weiss pushes his listeners to recognize that to speak of God’s existence is a complicated affair, involving negation and affirmation, as well as development over the course of a lifetime. As he sings in the third track of Pale Horses, “D-Minor,” “This is not the first time God has died/…this is not the first time capitalized three-letter-sound has died.” “God” will, in the course of a believer’s life, repeatedly “die,” and this is exemplified by Weiss’ reduction of the idea of God to its bare conceptuality in the meager signification of its spelling and sound.

Belief in God, then, paradoxically involves a certain suspension of belief in God, and suspension of beliefs more broadly is something mwY’s music asks of its listeners for the sake of a deeper contemplation of the mystery to which their lyrics point. They ask their fans not to mistake a sign for the signified. Wrapped up in this suspension of beliefs is a suspension of the self-conception that develops around those beliefs. The dissolution of the self and the dissolution of belief go hand-in-hand, as we can see from a progression of three songs in the band’s third album, Brother, Sister.

Brother, Sister

Brother, Sister

Three songs about spiders split the album into thirds. The first, “Yellow Spider,” ends with the lines “Yellow spider, yellow leaf/ Confirms my deepest held belief,” which is then paralleled by “Orange Spider’s” identical ending. However, the third spider song, “Brownish Spider,” goes in a quite different direction: “Brownish spider, brownish leaf/ confirms my deepest held belief…/ no more spider, no more leaf/ no more me, no more belief.” This final line illuminates the development throughout the three songs: From clear yellow, to darker orange, to a muted brown whose edges appear hazy: “brownish” spider. Paralleling the dissolution of the self and belief, then, is a new experience of the world itself.

What might this dissolution of world, self, and belief amount to? Sheer negation or deconstruction? Not so, and the climactic track of It’s All Crazy, “The King Beetle on a Coconut Estate,” shows why. One of the band’s most beloved and brilliant songs, “The King Beetle” presents the clearest picture of the apophatic theology in mwY’s music. Weiss sings the tale of a colony of beetles who regularly wonder in amazement at the fire burned on their estate every year, the “Great Mystery,” as the beetles call it. The Beetle King offers generous rewards for any citizen who can carry back the Great Mystery to the King, and a professor and an army lieutenant volunteer for the task. Both fail; the former due to presumption that his knowledge qualified him for contact with the fire, and the latter because of the delusion that his strength could prepare him to face the great unknown. The King’s wrath toward the lieutenant appears in one of the band’s most dramatic lines: “The Beetle King slammed down his fist,/  ‘Your flowery description’s no better than his/ We sent for the Great Light and you bring us this./ We didn’t ask what it seems like—/ we asked what it is.’” With these words, the Beetle King takes leave of his family and kingdom to fly straight into that Great Light, the “blazing unknown,” as Weiss calls it. The result is a chorus from his subjects, proclaiming, “Our Beloved’s not dead, but His Highness instead/ has been utterly changed into fire.” The chorus continues its chant, “Why not be utterly changed into fire?” until the final, hushed note of the song.

This is the apophatic vision of God championed by the great religious traditions: to strip the self of concepts which hinder the attainment of mystical union with the One whose very being cannot be touched without the complete loss—or transformation—of self. The chorus’ final cry comes from the collection of Sayings of the Desert Fathers, specifically from the counsel of early Christian desert father Abba Joseph to Abba Lot. Lot inquires of Joseph what else he can do to further his monastic vocation, and Abba Joseph responds by raising his hands to heaven, his fingers becoming like ten lamps of fire. He then asks Abba Lot the very question Weiss poses to his listeners at the end of “The King Beetle.” Seen in this light, the apophatic extremism of mwY is a necessary purgation before encountering the greater mystery of God.

One final look at the lyrics of a song from Foxes, this time from the closing track, “Son of a Widow,” will paint a picture of the process and results of such a mystical union. The song begins with Weiss plaintively singing, “I’ll ring your doorbell/ until you let me in./ I can no longer tell/ where You end and I begin.” The main guitar begins its slide downward just as Weiss finishes the word ‘doorbell,’ coming in at such a similar pitch that the listener can easily mistake the guitar for a continuation of Weiss’ voice. The same effect occurs again in the next line, but this time the guitar comes in as Weiss sings “tell,” creating the same continuing effect, but also effecting a union between voice and guitar which parallels the union of human and divine Weiss sings of.

Aaron Weiss

Aaron Weiss

This union is accomplished through incessant supplication (“ring your doorbell until you let me in”), an allusion to Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge in Luke 18 (which itself connects with the title of the song). Like a lone grape on a vine, longing for the company of the other grapes that have been already plucked, Weiss suggests this union can only be accomplished by being pressed into wine. Here the band plays with Jesus’ statement in John 15 that he is the “true Vine” in which his disciples live. To know the life of that vine, to truly become one with it, the grape must lose itself, its form, and its life: it must be crushed. And that—to let go of ideas, of the world, and selves in order to become one with the One, “Alone to the Alone”—is the apophatic theology of mwY’s music.

In the end, apophatic theology only makes sense within a religious tradition: it is the negative side of what we say about God, a purgative for the positive affirmations of what religious believers trust to be true. MwY’s music pushes listeners to examine again and again what they say and what they believe, not so that they might dispense with faith, but that they might not let their theological language and beliefs solidify into the idols humans relentlessly construct in the place of the true God. “What picture holds us now?” Weiss asks in the Pale Horses song “Red Cow,” and that is the question mwY’s apophatic theology puts to us: what pictures hold us now and keep us from the transformative union hoped for in the heart of genuine faith? Religious belief and apophaticism, affirmation and negation—these go together, for they both, through construction and deconstruction, lead believers to God. This dual movement of the life of faith is best expressed in the final lines of “Four Word Letter, (Pt. Two),” where Weiss shouts to God:

“We have all our beliefs, but we don’t want our beliefs. / God of peace, we want You.”