Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Can Christians Believe In Ghosts?

Or fairies? Or dragons? Or tree spirits?

The other day I was reading a review of My Neighbor Totoro (which is next up on the anime list for the little Darwins) from a Catholic film-reviewing site, and it cautioned parents that at one point in the movie one of the sisters goes to a giant tree which she has been told is the "guardian of the forest" and asks it to watch over her younger sister, currently lost in the forest. Hints of paganism such as this, the reviewer said, made the movie more suitable for teens and older children than youngsters.

Now, I don't believe any forests that I have run into to be shepherded by tree spirits, but it struck me as interesting that the reviewer seemed to believe that a) belief in such things is totally incompatible with Catholicism and b) asking the tree spirit to protect one's sister is inherently an act of supplicatory prayer, and thus pagan worship. Imagine for a moment that there are spirits which inhabit trees, and some of which are capable of overseeing the other trees and animals in the wood. Now, if this were the case, would it necessarily be "praying" to ask the spirit to protect your sibling?

Two things, I think, cause Christians these days to be deeply skeptical of anything regarding lesser members of the spiritual realm wandering the earth. First, there's a very justified fear of anything which smacks of spiritualism, witchcraft or satanism. Second, religious people are so often accused by the more secular members of society as being "nothing but superstitious" that we have a certain desire to show just how rational believers can be.

Yet throughout much of Christian history, a wide ranging folklore of ghosts, sprites, hobs, nobs, witches, dragons, trolls and goblins thrived. Was this simply a hold-over of paganism, as both modern "pagans" looking for a continuity with the "old faith" and also modern critics of "medieval superstition" (whether rationalist or fundamentalist) often claim?

Whether these folk beliefs can properly be call hold-overs from paganism strikes me as very open to interpretation. On the one hand, Christian folklore of the middle ages and renaissance did share some of its cast of characters with pagan folklore from before the coming of Christianity. On the other hand, Christians had in most cases reinterpreted what these folkloric creatures were based on their new Christian beliefs. Thus, nature sprites and household hobs which had previously been seen as bottom rung deities were now often seen as lesser demons or in many cases, as angels who failed to decide for or against God at the time of Lucifer's fall, and were thus banished to Earth until such time as they made up their minds.

This clearly made such spirits dangerous to know, both because they clearly weren't decisively good enough to have remained explicitly loyal to God, and also because one never knew which alliegance they might be trending towards at the moment. Some spirits were believed to be demonic in all but name, consorting with witches and corrupted material beings such as goblins, and fearing holy days and water (symbol of baptism). Others were simply attached to specific places, and more or less benevolent so long as they were treated with respect. Yet others might be generally well disposed to God and man.

Not to say that superstition and incipient paganism aren't dangers. But I think it's also important to keep in mind the ways in which many of these folk beliefs differed from paganism or from religious belief in general, in the sense that we as Christians think of it. Putting a bowl of cream out for the household nob was not necessarily a pagan offering, since nobs were not generally seen as any sort of god, but rather a local creature who could cause trouble if he was displeased, and do occasional favors if well taken care of. You get a glimpse of this worldview this in Milton's L'Allegro where a sprite threshes the grain in return for an offering of cream:

And he by Friars Lanthorn led
Tells how the drudging Goblin swet [ 105 ]
To ern his Cream-bowle duly set,
When in one night, ere glimps of morn,
His shadowy Flale hath thresh'd the Corn
That ten day-labourers could not end,
Then lies him down the. [ 110 ]
And stretch'd out all the Chimney's length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And Crop-full out of dores he flings,
Ere the first Cock his Mattin rings.

The consensus seems strong these days that this case of characters semi-supernatural are not real, though one can always hope they've simply become reclusive. And so there's no good reason why people should believe in them. But aside from the probably fact of their non-existence, I'm not sure that there's any moral reason why they shouldn't.

UPDATE FROM MRSDARWIN: Our Neighbor Totoro has arrived from Netflix and has fast become the favorite of the small Darwins, supplanting Kiki's Delivery Service (sent back to keep it safe from the tender mercies of the girls, who loved it so). At least in the English translation, I don't see any signs of spirit-worship. The girls talk to the Totoro (which might mean troll or tree spirit) and accept it as real, but there's no homage paid it or worship given it.

Actually, it's the SWEETEST MOVIE EVER and left both Darwin and me misty-eyed.


kipwatson said...

Yes, 'Totoro' as it is known in Japanese (and hence my Japanese speaking household) is the greatest animated movie ever, by the most wonderful creative spirit in that genre.

An extraordinary homage to the love of family and the bitterweet memories of childhood. How could anyone, particularly a Christian, not admire that? Is it because it's set in a Buddhist country?

How about that scene where they fish the tiny sandal out of the pond, and Satsuki says "it's not hers..."

Kiki's Delivery Service is also cute. And his recent ones are excellent, too (Spirited Away in particular). His movie about the Horishima Bomb was extraordinary, not meant for children though...

kipwatson said...

Oh, by the way, like (almost) all his amazing creations, Totoro is a pure product of Miyazaki's wonderful imagination, with no connection to Japanese myths or fairy tales.

The exceptions to this are some of the charaters in Spirited Away, and the delightful Kodama (tree spirits) from Princess Monomoke.

Anonymous said...

We own almost all the Miyazaki opus and I agree: Totoro is the sweetest movie ever made.

My son and I especially love "Spirited Away" and "Howl's Moving Castle."

Fred said...

I enjoy Miyazaki's films and value them for their beautifully realized contemplation on life. I want to thank you for pointing out this review, however. Miyazaki has a complex understanding of morality that challenges me. Characters that seem bad at first turn out to be good or at least misunderstood. For example, the river spirit in Spirited Away that first seemed to be a filthy monster. In the same film, the two sisters look the same but are quite different.

So, when Greydanus reflects upon the soot spirits in Totoro, it doesn't sound like fundamentalist prissiness to me. Instead, it calls my attention to a way of looking at life that shows a different way of approaching life (not that this approach can easily be identified with Miyazaki). The example of the soot spirits sounds like a common way of dealing with disappointment in life - even in the West.

Miyazaki is a thoughtful, attentive artist who invites criticism in a way that most Western fluff doesn't. To question aspects of his work is an honor.

Anonymous said...

We are very attached to all the Miyazaki Films! My two year old goes looking for the Totoro in the trees often. The innocence of the story is so prefect, it is just pure. I have seem the WWII one, Grave of the fire flies, and it is very good, but very overwhelming, even for an adult. I still think it is well worth watching. Sometimes I think Americans just miss the miss the simplicity of all of the Miyazaki tales and only see the cultural differences.

Fr Martin Fox said...

I'm totally unfamiliar with the film, so no comment on that.

But I'll reply to your original question.

I see no theological reason one may not "believe in" ghosts, fairies, dragons, trolls, leprecauns, et al. Of course, one can think of all manner of rational reasons one might object to believing in many or most of these things.

We do believe in the existence of spiritual evil, and while we are absolutely commanded to avoid any interaction with them, and we do well to avoid speculating about them, it seems to me this category provides for ample possible varieties. That's all I care to say about that, as I prefer to invest my imagninative and communicative skills in the direction of good.

C.S. Lewis actually attempted to fit things such as these into our own history in some of his fiction -- supposing that perhaps, in the past, magic and forms of life existed that cannot exist now, because the world "got older" and less magical. Regardless of the historical or scientific merit of such an idea, I see no moral problem with it.

As far as "ghosts," it depends on what they are; they might be evil spirits, or they might be human souls either damned or in some sort of intermediate state. That they might be real doesn't thereby mean that people don't imagine ghosts as well.

Seems to me the real issue is how such things fit into our faith. There's nothing wrong, for example, in talking to people who have died -- "praying" to them" or for them. Many people say they feel a actual presence of a departed loved one; many have dreams; and for all we know, that's real. But no reason any of this needs to be disturbing or distracting from faith, although it can be. That's when it's a problem.

Oh, and just because we might believe these things are real, doesn't make seances and divination okay. It's one thing to leave such matters to God, or to accept what comes; it's another thing to attempt to exert power over such spiritual realities -- and that's strictly forbidden.