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God’s Hand on the Hilt

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Genesis 22:1-19) transports me to a small Texas town where FBI agents are pursuing leads to find the “Hand of God” serial killer, in the 2001 horror film, Frailty (spoiler alert for any who might want to watch the movie). We learn that Bill Paxton’s character, a single father of two small boys, has had a vision where an angel told him there were demons in their midst, and he would receive a list of names of those demons who were masquerading as humans, and he would be given the weapons to kill those demons. We also learn that whenever Bill Paxton touches those people, he is able to see the horrendous and demonic crimes they have committed in their past. The angelic weapon of choice is an axe, named Otis. The father recruits his two boys, Adam and Fenton, to help him be part of the hand of God in destroying these demons. So far, so good, as horror films go. Several “demons” get slashed and buried, but one of the sons, Fenton, is convinced that his dad is crazy, and tries to get out of it. Later, the angel reveals to the dad that Fenton, too, is a demon, and must be killed. The Hand of God has to do its work, and Otis finds its way into Fenton’s body. There’s more to it, and I won’t spoil it all. Suffice it to say, it’s a disturbing movie, with great acting by Paxton and Matthew McConaughey and Powers Booth. I’m generally into comedies and dramas, and only occasionally dip into the horror genre, only when Kim’s out of town, as she would have nightmares for weeks if she was ever exposed to a movie like this. But I do recommend this one.

Such a script might seem about as bad as it gets – a religious zealot crazy father seeing a vision that his 12 year old son is a demon, and killing him. But that’s not as bad as it gets. We go back to Genesis 22 for a script far more horrifying. Here, a religious zealot hears the voice of God commanding him to kill his beloved young son, but in this scenario there’s no justification of demonic possession or horrendous crimes to be atoned for, in fact, there’s no justification at all. This movie would not be full-length; the economy of language is as startling as the plot itself. There is little dialogue, no questioning, save Isaac’s question at the end. There’s no commentary, no explanation. That God would put the patriarch of faith to the test, commanding him to break what would later be a core commandment – thou shalt not kill, is not under consideration. That would be left for the viewers over the generations (and one of the best of these is Søren Kierkegaard, as he posited several plot lines and character studies and alternative epilogues to the story in his book, Fear and Trembling). But none of that is here in the passage. While Moses’ law would later indict the idolaters who sacrificed their children to Molech, there is no such indictment to God’s command that Abraham lay Isaac on the altar and slit his throat. Adding to the horror is that this very place of sacrifice, this very place where a father was ready to slay his son, became the holy of holies, that most sacred worship space now covered by the Dome of the Rock. That this story has had the potential over the centuries to lead people to child abuse and infanticide does not rob it of its harsh and incisive and compact truth. Holiness and horror are forever mixed in the minds of the faithful.

In the frailty of my faith, I am unable to give such a disturbing mixture a full embrace. The “happy ending” and the Christological symbolism does not keep me from recoiling from the story, much as Kim shuns stories such as God’s Hand serial killings. But when I am able to engage the story, something does strike a chord. I remember that when Father Abraham was first called by God, he responded with a simple henani, here I am, and he followed God’s instruction to leave his past behind. And here, as he is called to abandon all dreams of a future hope, he responds with the same henani, here I am. Similarly, our faith at some level calls us to lay down past triumphs and tragedies as well as future hopes and fears, both of which can become idols of attachment. The hymn asks us, Is your all on the altar of sacrifice laid? and if we truly want to access the holy of holies in our lives, we have to say yes, hineni, here I am, in the now, not in the previous or the potential, however precious those are to us. Sacrificing what is beloved, letting go, is madness. It tells me that this creation we have been born into is indeed crazy, with a contradictory God shocking and horrifying, hand on the hilt to create incisions deep in our hearts, so that we might enter into the deepest places of love and grace. This is our world, and this story, too is the Word of God. Hineni. Here I am. Here we are.

How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.

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