Mind Flayers, Systemic Evil, and Other Demonic Forces

ST2 Will

***SPOILERS AHEAD for Season Two of Stranger Things***

“They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.”
Mark 5:1-2 (NRSV)

One of the last classes I took in seminary was “Spirit World, Global Church.” It addressed topics surrounding what we in Christian-speak call spiritual realms, namely dealing with angels, demons, spiritual warfare, and the like.

I entered the class with great fear and trembling. I used to be a Pentecostal who believed demons could possess my soul if I fell into any form of backsliding, from “engaging in witchcraft” (because of my love of Harry Potter) to doubting basic tenants of Christian orthodoxy. Even watching horror movies and doing yoga could open me to demonic possession and cause me to fall out of God’s favor.

This seminary class seemed tailor-made to bring me face-to-face with this upbringing from which I had run so far away. And as such, I feared being in the class would force me back into the mold of the person I had been years ago: narrow-minded with a black-and-white view of the world and the supernatural. I feared I would abandon my interests and loved ones in an effort to stay “pure” and “untainted,” something I had done in the past.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”
Mark 5:6-9 (NRSV)

Despite abandoning most of my old Pentecostal beliefs, possession still scares the shit out of me.

I have never seen an exorcism movie. If I see a picture of Reagan from The Exorcist or see a clip from The Conjuring, I struggle to sleep. When things go bump in the night, I wait for a shadowy demon to jump out from behind a door and take me over.

I am 27 years old and have not set foot in a Pentecostal church in over 5 years, yet I am still held captive by the theology of demonic possession.

I don’t mess with this stuff. Even though I do not 100% believe in it, I give it enough respect in the hope that it won’t happen to me.

I am fully aware that this isn’t a foolproof plan.

But when I took the class, I began to think about ways our spirits and our bodies, the so-called “spirit realm” and the “physical realm,” are connected, how there are times when it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

A couple of months after I completed the class, I binge-watched Stranger Things.

Last month, my husband and I finished the second season, and once again, I can’t help but think of possession and the blurred lines between the two realms.

Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
Mark 5:11-13 (NRSV)

Stranger Things tackles possession in Season Two. There is the “Mind Flayer,” a monster made of shadows and tendrils, who invades Will’s body, mind, and soul, forcing itself into its human host and causing Will to lose agency over himself.

It’s a parasitic relationship. There is neither camaraderie nor mutuality; the one uses the other for its own gain. In the process, the demonic force separates its host from his loved ones. It steals memories from and inflicts bodily harm upon Will. Under the Mind Flayer’s possession, Will unwittingly leads the soldiers who wish to close the Upside Down to their grotesque demise, and he is only able to communicate with his loved ones by tapping out Morse code with his fingers.

Fortunately, Season Two ends with the Mind Flayer fleeing for its life after a confrontation with some space heaters and Will dancing with a girl at the Snow Ball. But before we get our hopes up that all is well, we see a shot of the monster watching over Hawkins in the Upside Down while Sting’s creepy ass song fades out.

And as the music and monster fade, we are left wondering if everything really will be OK.

Stories about possession usually end on a happy note. Once the evil is gone, life seemingly goes “back to normal,” whatever that means. The possessed person has little to no memory of the horrifying experience, and they skip through life happier for having survived.

But how do we move forward after evil has touched and consumed us?

Some, like Will, go to the dance, hang out with their friends and family, and try to recover. Some, like the demoniac, work within their own communities to spread the good news of new life, new beginnings, and new hope.

But what about people touched by the physical evils of this world?

My church taught me it takes great trust in Jesus to cast out a demon, and where Jesus is, evil cannot dwell. But as the years went by, and I continued to see people possessed by real-world demons, I wondered if this meant not a lot of people trusted Jesus, or if Jesus is absent more often than he says.

I wondered how I’m supposed to look at evil and possession, not only through the lens of the supernatural, but as the very real and physical evils that nip at our heels every day.

Now, I believe we are possessed when we are separated from God, ourselves, and each other.

Systemic racism makes evil puppets out of us as much, if not more so, than a demonic entity can. There is demonic activity in our obsession with power and wealth at the expense of our human siblings and our very planet. Evil wins when we look at others, from our closest loved ones to strangers on the street, from avatars in cyberspace to our own reflections, and see anything less than the image of God worthy of honor and dignity.

I also continue to believe that good art turns our own reality upside down to show us how to confront and shape it. It creates monsters so we know they can be slain. It creates heroes and villains so we know how, as humans, we can rise and fall.

So while there may not be a physical Mind Flayer beneath our feet, there are powers that seek to do harm, first to the individual and then on a global scale. And we have the power to either destroy these powers or be drawn into doing their bidding.

We have the power to buy into white supremacy or break its stranglehold over us and over people of color. We have the power to buy into a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality or help those who are drowning under systemic oppression. We can go with the mob mentality of ignoring abuse and brutality when it happens in front of us, or we can call it out when it happens and prevent it from happening in the first place.

We have all received the holy calling to live in camaraderie and mutuality with each other, and we have all, at one time or another, answered that call by exploiting each other.

We have the capacity to be Mind Flayers, and we have the ability to slay them.

Which path will we choose?

*****

By the grace of God, may we realize when the demonic entities of evil are possessing us, as oppressors and as victims of oppression.

May those possessed and used as tools of oppression find ways to break free from our destructive cycles. May those possessed by oppression find freedom, identity, comfort, and love in themselves and their communities.

And when we break free from our yokes of possession and oppression, may we exorcise the demon-possessed systems, that their evil work may die for good, and new life may be born.

I’m Not “Woke”

Oil Lamp

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.” – Matthew 25:1-10 (NRSV)

In high school, I had thick, springy curls that my straight- and thin-haired friends and family envied. One of those friends, a white girl, told me that I had “black people hair.” I took it as a compliment.

I took it as such a compliment that I told my mother what my friend said while we were riding on the DC metro, and a woman of color was sitting in the seat right behind me.

My mother tried, in vain, to get me to shut up. But I still spewed those words out of my mouth.

There’s no nice way to put it: I made a racist comment.

At the next station, the woman in the seat behind me got up to leave, and as she walked by our seats, her bag bumped me rather roughly in the arm.

It was more than likely an accident. But I felt enough shame to never say the remark ever again.

*****

I wish I could say I stopped making racist comments and remarks, intentional or otherwise, after this encounter. But I didn’t.

Hell, I still say and think problematic words and thoughts. I still have strong biases that need time, effort, and intention to destroy.

Yet I once considered myself a “woke” person. I’m sure other white people did, too.

And that in and of itself is problematic.

First of all, as a white person, I shouldn’t be using a term that began as an urge by and for people of color  to “remain vigilant, but also to keep safe,” before being appropriated into a badge white allies use to say that “if they walk the walk, they get to talk the talk.”

Second of all, the use of the phrase implies that there is a prize white people get when they cross the non-existent finish line of “not being racist anymore.” For white people, our so-called “wokeness,” our collection of quotes, behaviors, and friends, does not prove we’re “no longer racist.”

Our work of dismantling white supremacy is more than that. It is an uncomfortable and unceasing journey, and white people can cover themselves with merit badges without putting a dent in this system.

Claiming a so-called “wokeness” separates us from other white people. It allows us to claim we’re done being racist while other white people are not.

It’s a false claim that says we no longer have biases towards people of color that still need to be broken down.

It’s a claim that falsely announces the demise of this whole system.

The hard truth of it all is I didn’t magically stopped being a racist when I started chanting “Black Lives Matter” or when I marched in Charlottesville.

I’m still part of this broken system, so I’m still a racist. And that hasn’t stopped yet. Not now. Maybe not even in my own lifetime.

The same applies to all of us white folks.

*****

Along with most white Christians, I like to think I’m one of those wise, eternity-minded bridesmaids in Matthew’s parable, ready and waiting for the coming Kingdom with oil overflowing.

But more often than not, I’m one of the foolish ones caught unaware and unprepared, left begging my siblings of color for oil to light my lamp instead of fetching it for myself ahead of time.

So I’m getting rid of this “woke” label, one that was never mine to claim to begin with.

Instead, I’m waking up to my own self, my own biases and complicity, and the system that has made them all possible. I’m waking up to my past sins and attempting to move forward in humble repentance instead of being paralyzed by personal shame. I’m awakening compassion, empathy, and understanding within me, and I’m opening my ears to be more attuned to the stories of pain and joy from people of color. I will wake up to my need to admit wrong-doing and to apologize.

But waking up isn’t an easy process, either, nor is it a quick one.

Sometimes, I hit the snooze button. Sometimes, I take a long time to rub the sleep out of my eyes. Sometimes, that bed of privilege and supremacy is so comfortable that I don’t want to dream of resting on anything else, even when I know that comfort is built on the backs of my marginalized siblings.

Sometimes, like the seven bridesmaids in Matthew’s parable, I awaken with a jolt to discover I have no oil in my lamp and am lost in the dark, and those wiser and more prepared are moving towards a more perfect world.

It is in those times I am called to remember it’s one thing to bring a lamp in a dark space and quite another to bring the oil to light it.

And the sooner we realize we don’t have what we need to illuminate the darkness, the sooner we might start following those who have known the way much longer than we have.

An Open Letter to Fanboys

Dear Fanboys,

I know you’re upset over the apparent “robbery” of “your” characters: the loss of your Doctors and Thors to women, your white Peter Parker “usurped” by Afro-Hispanic Miles Morales, your straight Hal Jordan “taken over” by queer Alan Parker, your blonde Captain Marvel flying out so Pakistani Muslim Khamala Khan can soar in.

How dare they touch your precious characters, you cry. And all in the name of something as ridiculous as “politically correct” culture.

You cry out to the geekdom gods: “Why have you forsaken me?”

Oh, my dears.

Just stop.

Seriously.

 

This is exactly what you sound like. Do you really want to be Dudley Dursley?

 

Enough with the cries of “P.C. culture is ruining geekdom” and “the canon says this character has to be THIS way,” as if those characters don’t already break accepted laws of physics and science.

 

If a time-traveling, regenerating alien hanging out with their past form makes more sense to you than that same alien regenerating into a woman, you’re being a little choosy with how you apply your logic.

You’re not being persecuted. You’re not losing your stories.

What you’re experiencing is a thing called “change.”

The world and culture are shifting around you. And as such, the representation of that world is going to change.

Straight, cis, able-bodied, white men aren’t the only people calling all of the shots anymore. Not only are more women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and disabled people finally getting the right to tell their stories; they have also been reading, watching, and loving the same characters and worlds you have.

All we are asking is that those heroes look like us once in a while.

But why not make an original character, though, you ask. Why must you “steal” one of ours? Go get your own, you demand!

Ah, yes, why didn’t we think of that? It’s easy, right? After all, your characters seemed to spring up out of nowhere with such frequency, we should be able to do the same.

If only it were the case that movies and shows with diverse casts of characters made by people who aren’t straight, male, or white didn’t take longer to make because producers don’t trust the characters will be likeable or even “articulate.” If only these projects weren’t desperately underfunded to the point that the production companies attempt to bribe their creators with more money if they just cast a white lead. 

Not to mention the frequency with which these beloved, well-rounded shows with this type of casting are dropped.

 

I guess they gotta make way for more episodes of Iron Fist, The Ranch, and whatever else Adam Sandler can cough up.

 

Why aren’t more women and people of color trying to tell their own stories, you ask. Why aren’t they working hard to get in the director’s seat or behind the writing desk?

Here’s the short answer: They are.

They’re working their asses off.

They’re also being met with microagressions like “I’m pleasantly surprised you knew what you were doing,” are blamed for a variety of minor issues for the sake of being a “minority,” and fearing that if they drop any “ethnic” dialogue or bring up too many “issues,” they’ll lose the project for good.

 

Not to mention the legitimate and very threatening harassment they receive online for critiquing video games while having vaginas and posting selfies with their fellow artists. 

These add up real quick and make pursuing a passion that much more exhausting and even dangerous. And it takes a special kind of strength to be willing to pursue what you love when all of that is coming at you every day.

When we get excited over a female Doctor, a woman of color being the main character in the new Star Trek, and actual Muslim women writing the story of an actual Muslim superhero, it’s not because we want to “steal” your characters for the sake of being “P.C.” We are excited, because just like you got David Tennant and 11 other men as the Doctor, and you had Captains Kirk and Picard (take your pick), we get Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor and First Officer Burnham. We get people who are like us telling stories about heroes who are like us. We have icons to admire and exonerate, whom we aspire to be one day, just as you always have.

 

It looks like a sun is collapsing behind her, and she’s still taking time to pose all stoically for the camera. How badass is that?!

 

When only one-third of speaking characters are female, despite the fact that women represent just over half the population in America, when just 28.3 percent of characters with dialogue are from non-white racial/ethnic groups, though such groups are nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, and when only two percent of speaking characters are identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual, we will line up in huge numbers for Wonder Woman’s release and binge watch The Handmaid’s Tale, American Gods, and Transparent.

When negative mass media portrayals of black men shape public views of and attitudes toward men of color, which can result in self-demoralization and a reduction of self-esteem for people of color and enable judges to hand out harsher sentences and the police to shoot indiscriminately, we will rejoice when Idris Elba heads The Dark Tower, John Boyega is a lead in Star Wars, and A Wrinkle in Time is driven by Storm Reid with Ava Duvernay at the helm.

So instead of complaining, please support us. We have good stories to tell. Heck, we even have universal stories to share, believe it or not.

Support us because you want more people to love fandom and geek culture.

Support us because stories are sacred and affect all of us in sacred ways.

Support us because we’re all a bunch of geeks who are into some crazy, weird, phenomenal stories, so we might as well enjoy them together while the rest of the world casts their judgmental looks upon our weirdness.

Sorry I’m Late: Showing Up for Justice after Ignoring the Invitations

rsvp

Broomwithaview.com

I read recently how protesting and resisting systemic evil in Trump’s America is like finally showing up to a party after numerous invitations and delays.

Organizations like Black Lives Matter, the ACLU, the International Rescue Committee, and other activist groups have known of this corruption for a much longer time than most of us privileged people. Some were born into this system and have been pushing back from an early age. Others “got woke” and caught the memo as early as they could and jumped right into action.

I, on the other hand, showed up to this “party” beyond fashionably late.

I made plenty of excuses in the process, too.

I didn’t know if anyone I knew would be there. I didn’t know what to say when I showed up, because I didn’t know if I would understand what everyone was saying and didn’t want to make any more social faux pas than I already do.

I also didn’t know what to bring. Should I keep it cheap and bring a bag of chips or actually go through the effort of preparing a tasty entree? Should I buy a little gift on the way or make something crafty and impressive so everyone there would know my presence was legitimate?

I didn’t know how to deal with my own power and privilege in these contexts, either. I didn’t know if I could voice my insights or if I should let everyone else do the talking. Would I be too “white,” too “hetero,” or too privileged to even have a reason to be there? Would people think I was there to fulfill my Messiah-complex? Would I know if that was my reason?

More than being uncomfortable with messing up, though, I didn’t want to arrive needing to learn anything. I wanted to arrive fully prepared and ready to do everything just right, as if I were the host and the leader, not the one invited to be led.

So instead of being with and learning from those who are most oppressed, I read articles and posted tweets. I wrote about social justice from my perspective, and while I mentioned the marginalized, I didn’t learn too much about their own perspectives. When I did read their words, I let my own guilt and shame push me away from their pain instead of deeper into it.

Finally, after the election, I began to realize I no longer cared (as much) if I said or did the wrong things as long as I said and did something. I began to honestly acknowledge my role, not to lead and take over, but to follow and learn from those affected most by these evils.

I finally showed up to the party, and I felt a little awkward.

I arrived with my bag of chips in hand and a sheepish grin on my face, all apologetic for my tardiness, and tried to figure out how to take part in the festivities.

I know I don’t get the head seat, which as a natural leader bothers me. I don’t get to call all the shots, which as an outspoken person discomforts me. I have to listen and learn more than I interject and teach, and my desire to control and be “right” are going to make this so difficult and so necessary.

I am so terribly late, and it will take me a while to feel comfortable with the crowd. It’s going to take some time for me to stop berating myself for showing up as late as I did, and to own my lateness without letting it own me.

In that time, though, I will listen to, learn from, and live with those on the front lines as a no-longer absent ally.

So to those with whom I am marching, protesting, and resisting, who have been doing this work a lot longer than I: Thank you for the invitation and for still opening the door and welcoming me in when you had every right to tell me to hit the road. Thank you for giving me the grace to learn and be here with you.

I’m sorry ahead of time for the things I will say that will show how much learning about I still have to do. I’m sorry for the times I will unintentionally step on your toes and try to be the leader when I am called to be the follower. I can only hope you will forgive me and extend grace my way, even when I don’t deserve it, in your own way and time.

Above all, know I am here with you because you are made in the sacred image of God, and I want to honor the divinity within you as well as I can.

Thank you for letting me join with you as an ally.

To those in my shoes, all tied up in power and privilege, wanting to be part of this but unsure exactly how, get involved anyway you can. March, protest, talk to your representatives.

Most of all, talk with and be among those whom these policies most affect, because they will be the ones to lead these movements and make change happen, because their lives and livelihoods are on the line.

Listen to and learn from them. Don’t try to lead. Instead, follow. Let them be the leaders of their own movements. Be allies instead of saviors.

You’re going to make mistakes. Of course you are. We all do. Be quick to apologize, quick to learn, and quick to move forward.

May God be with us, and may we be with each other, in the victories and pitfalls.

*****

To learn more about being involved in social change as a privileged person, check out Christena Cleveland’s upcoming series, How to be last:  A practical theology for privileged people.