Today I read, with interest, the interview that Gawker did about film with Peter H. Gilmore, High Priest of the Church of Satan.
(There’s a sentence you never expected to read in Christianity Today, eh?)
It seems the Church of Satan has a list of recommended films on their website—here it is—and the folks at Gawker got interested in why these films are on the list. Which is a reasonable question, given the list includes some expected picks (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Evilspeak, Nosferatu, Rosemary’s Baby) and some unexpected ones (everything from All the King’s Men to Bladerunnner to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). Wise Blood, based on the Flannery O’Connor novel, is on there too.
My friend Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post brought the interview with Gilmore to my attention because, as she pointed out, it is a prime demonstration of the difference between capital-r and lowercase-r ”religious” films that I wrote about a week and a half ago.
Chief among my points was that a “religious” film asked the religious questions—what is the nature of humans, what is the end of mankind, how ought we to direct our lives—while “Religious” films give a particular answer to that question derived from an organized system of some sort.
And so a film made by a non-religious filmmaker may very well be a religious film, or even a Religious film; a Religious filmmaker may also make an ultimately non-religious film, or a film that gives answers derived from quite another belief system. (I’d venture to argue that most of the religious films I’ve seen have been made by non-religious filmmakers; many Religious films, by contrast, have not been religious.)
In this case, the Church of Satan recommends films that they see as giving Satanist answers to the religious questions.
It sure looks like the Satanists have a much better grasp on this than many other faithful. Satanism, Gilmore points out, is not exactly a religion:
Satanism is an atheist philosophy using Satan as a symbol of pride, liberty, and individualism, as did many before us who would not accept the status quo such as Milton, Byron, Twain, and Carducci. Since the universe is indifferent to us, we Satanists choose to establish our own subjective hierarchy of values with ourselves as highest among them. Thus atheism moves to what I call Itheism, where we are each our own “gods.” We accept the full range of human emotions as healthy, from love to hate, noting both of those are uncommon extremes.
In other words, Satanism is existentialism and individualism run amok: it is the worship of the self above all other good. It’s a religion of the most American, most secular form: there is no transcendent good, not even a humanist or communitarian one, that supersedes the will of the individual. To use Internetspeak: IMHO, this is the natural end of the Enlightenment project. #humanfail
Then again: at least they’re up front about it. The Satanist form of worship (which I’ll take at face value, even if I came of age in the occult-obsessed 1990s) is, according to Gilmore, ritual for the purpose of “self-psychotherapy to rid ourselves of any emotions hindering our intelligently moderated pursuit of pleasures.”
So, if I read it correctly, then, adherents to the Church of Satan doesn’t worship a transcendent being called Satan who is the dichotomous opponent of God (Gilmore calls that a “Christian mythology”)—rather, they worship the self, the individual, whose pleasure ought to be pursued above all others, so long as it doesn’t cause major problems for the pursuant. It is a religion, something they freely admit—a sort of humanism without the collective humanism, an organized system of belief that affirms your ability to opt out whenever, as long as you worship the self.