Midsommar: A Haunting Portrayal of Pagan Religion
Midsommar, written and directed by Ari Aster, is likely a movie that no one should really watch, or, at least, should really want to watch. Aster’s particularly disturbing cinematic display tells the story of a group of American anthropology students invited to witness a secret festival in a remote part of Sweden by one of their foreign colleagues, Pelle, a member of the same community that orchestrates the fest. However, what the Americans unexpectedly step into is an reclusive world of neo-paganism, where cultic rituals that, on the surface appearing harmless, if not admirable, ultimately turn out to be utterly bizarre, logically incoherent, and supremely violent.
While Midsommar can be campy at times, it is not a simple slasher flick. It is first off a well-made film, with visual effects that supplement its already grotesque theme (something I will return to shortly). Everything in Midsommar seems to be alive and moving, yet in a most unsettling and chilling manner, not unlike when the Ancient Mariner first looks overboard only to see “slimy things [that] did crawl with legs, upon the slimy sea.” There is a sort of visual “slime” in Midsommar, where things that should not move, move, and things that should not be amassed together, but rather kept distinct, are massed together into some kind of gargantuan mega-organism. However it is this very synthetic act of putting things together that should not be together, which lies at the heart not just of the movie’s artistic form, but of its subject matter, namely pagan nature worship. In so doing the film goes beyond mere Hollywood horror for the sake of entertainment, and tries to explore more subtle sociological, philosophical, and religious themes.
In this sense, Midsommar attempts to dramatically capture what to Christian eyes should be innately repulsive: a vivid portrayal of pagan religion, cultic life, and the worship of the creation over the Creator (Romans 1:18-32). But it is also for this reason that Midsommar may be a movie worth watching, albeit with the right intentions and proper warnings in place. For the point of the film is not to condemn pagan beliefs or practices, but present them in a rather straightforward and non-judgmental way; all the while, of course, looking to thrill the viewer.
Yet, this is not to say that the film praises or glorifies such cultic practices either. Rather, what Aster give us is a serious look at what one might expect if society really did return to more primitive forms of belief, and ancestral tribal traditions. There is a mundane realism about Midsommar, which makes the whole notion of neo-pagan practice seem entirely plausible. Couple this with the very real hyper-relativism of our times and the rise of the spiritual but not religious “nones,” and one might begin to sense that we may not be so far from slipping into our own midsummer nightmare.
In one particularly unsettling scene the film does make commentary on how the average Westerner, raised in a Judeo-Christian culture (typified by a young British couple) might react to one of the more bloody practices of pagan occultism (this scene has to do with sacrificial suicide, and is gut-wrenching to watch). This pivotal scene however, where the malevolence of the cult, which up to now has only been hinted at, suddenly gushes forth in graphic detail, only shows how the typical Modern might plausibly react to religiously condoned brutality. The scene makes not judgement as to whether the couples’ reaction to such treatment of human life, and human bodies, is itself good or evil, right or wrong. It only shows that their sensibilities have been shaped in such a way that they find the gory act repulsive, or as some moral philosophers might say, “Sacrificial suicide, yuk!”
Still, we are left to wonder if the couple even knows why they find this bloodletting so upsetting (actually the scene goes beyond mere suicide, as one of the ‘jumpers’ fails to die on impact, resulting in the need to finish the job). Further, in the very next scene, another of the exchange students, ironically named Christian, after viewing the same ritual suicide, reacts saying that he is “trying to keep an open mind” about the cult’s practices. And so we see the ugly face of post-modernism in Midsommar, as all forms of human practice are democratized and made morally equal, no matter how much blood is shed, or how many spirits invoked. As I will show later, however, this is neither an attitude that is confined to our films, nor to secular culture, but one that now has permeated into the very center of the Church’s institutional space.
Thus, if Aster’s offering in Midsommar captures historical nature worship with any degree of accuracy, then the film can act as a vivid reminder of what it must have been like when early missionaries confronted pagan nature religions on their own turf, and did spiritual battle with their gods. After all, as missionaries like St. Boniface moved into unknown parts of Northern Europe, and the New World, it was these living horrors of pagan cultic life, replete with all its guts and gore, its unhinged sensuality (there is a particular graphic cultic sex scene that is too vivid to recount here), and most of all, its fundamentally flawed beliefs about God and man, that they combated. Would it be the case today that the Church would do the same as our missionary forefathers? Or would we shrink before these made-made images, and their non-existent gods, or perhaps their truly existing demonic masters?
Nature Worship and The Grotesque
At the heart of Midsommar’s vision of contemporary, pagan nature worship is the intermingling of features of beauty (e.g. order, symmetry, light, intricately balanced patterns), with unexpected and sudden instances of ugliness (e.g. disorder, malformation, and death). This intermingling of life and death, tranquility with sudden, shocking violence, is grounded in the underlying ontology of many historical pagan religions, namely monism, or the belief that all things are actually just one thing, and that there exists no real distinctions between physical bodies, or even spiritual ones.
This idea of ontological sameness is depicted in several scenes where one of the lead characters, Dani, experiences parts of her body as one in being with the very earth she is standing on, or the grass she is lying in; as if to say that when it comes to their essences Dani, the human person, and the grass are not in any way really inherently different. They, Dani and the grass, or Dani and the dirt, are literally one thing, not just in being though, but also in value.
On such a view, a view that sees human persons and grass as ontological equals, it should come to no surprise that the cult’s practices result in treating both persons and grass in effectively the same manner, for they just are the same thing. Thus, when the “Harga” cult ultimately selects its ‘human’ sacrifices for the festival’s uniquely destructive closing ceremony (which, mercifully, only occurs every 90 years), it is consistent with their metaphysical beliefs that the bodies of their human offerings literally be made to look like other things found in nature (e.g. plants, animals, etc). I will not go into details here of how this is done, since such images truly are the things of nightmares, at least for those reared in a culture structured by biblical principles and imbued with Christian imagery. But, such images should shock, since they are expressions of that which is deeply disordered.
Ultimately it is only the Christian worldview that allow for an imagery that rightly orders, and rightly categorizes, light and dark, good and evil, because it first rightly orders beings and their properties (John 1, 1 John 1:5, Romans 1:18-32). That right ordering with regard to nature and its creatures hinges ultimately on the Divine Nature, and the image of God in man, the fundamental dogmatic claims that separate nature religion from monotheistic faith, and that finds unique expression only with the coming of the Godman, Jesus Christ. For only God can, hypostatically, unite the pure with the impure, holiness with corruption, divine spirit with mortal flesh, bringing redemption to the one through the Grace of the other.
In contrast pagan culture sees nature, or better yet “mother” nature, as humankind’s ultimate progenitor, and to look only to her for guidance on life just is to wind up with an ambiguous metaphysical and moral understanding, one that opens the door for indecencies and brutalities of various stripes, and that ultimately plunge humanity into total dissolution. Morality plainly cannot be derived from a careful examination of Mother Earth alone, for with sin in the world, the creation itself groans for its own redemption (Romans 8:20-23). Thus, apart from the revelation of God in Christ, we are left only with the example of a creation infected with corruption, and thereby find ourselves lost as to how to discern between good and evil.
It is not without reason therefore that all of the grotesque acts in Midsommar take place under the bright and ever-present midsummer sun, for on monism there is not even a clear distinction between light and dark, day and night. This lack of distinction is, in fact, just what the grotesque is, man’s, or Satan’s, attempt to blend together what God has ordained to be apart, or as Wolfgang Kayser puts it,“Grotesque art can be defined as art whose form and subject matter appear to be a part of, while contradictory to, the natural, social, or personal worlds of which we are a part. Its images most often embody distortions, exaggeration, a fusion of incompatible parts in such a fashion that it confronts us as strange and disordered, as a world turned upside down.” (see The Grotesque in Art and Literature, 2-3). The presentation or embrace of the grotesque is the outworking of false thinking that has drastic consequences for human life, and for human culture.
Thus, while some of the cult’s activities in Midsommar would technically be considered criminal by today’s legal standards, the film indirectly reminds us that today’s standards are those that have been shaped by 1900 years of Christian morality, a morality grounded in the divine nature of the one true God, i.e. in Beauty Itself. Hence, the very making of the film forces us to recall that not only have our current moral and legal standards not always been the case, but that perhaps these standards could once again devolve, allowing us to fall back into actual nature worship, and its consequent cultic practices. One must seriously ask oneself, “Are we really that far off from reaffirming the beliefs and reimplementing the practices of the ancient druids, vikings, or Aztecs?”
Midsommar suggests that possibility is now more plausible than ever. But, in a culture that already celebrates abortion on demand, transgenderism in schools, and radical environmentalism, one might also ask whether a movie like Midsommar should even be necessary to tip us off to the real threat of an emerging paganism. It may even be the case, as some recent and rather glaring incidents suggest, that this paganism has never really gone away, and, even more disconcerting, may now be finding its defenders within the highest echelons of the Church.
Can the Church Be Compliant with Paganism? Pachamama and the Amazon Synod
Moving from the paganism in mimetic form to paganism in reality, recent events in the Catholic Church’s historical center Rome, revolving around some images of an Amazonian deity, Pachamama, have also acted as a jarring wake-up call for some, but certainly not all, that nature worship is alive and well in our time. Of course that such primitive tribal religion is alive and well is not what is controversial. What is controversial is whether or not the Catholic Church was condoning the adoration and worship of Pachamama, the “Andean fertility goddess” by allowing the figures to be housed in the Church of Santa Maria in Trasnpontina during the Amazonian synod.
While the analysis of Pachamama and the placement of several images of her in the side altar of Santa Maria continues to rage, one thing is clear: that Pachamama cannot be associated with the Virgin Mary. As one former Argentinian Bishop has made abundantly clear, “To say that this statue represents the Virgin is a lie. She is not Our Lady of the Amazon because the only Lady of the Amazon is Mary of Nazareth.” Moreover that the cult of Pachamama is one that fundamentally worships and adores the earth through ritual sacrifice and propitiation is easily established, as any quick internet search will confirm. Like the cult portrayed in Aster’s thriller, earth, or The Earth, is at the heart of Pachamama religion. When taken together with other recent displays that elevate the creature over the Creator, as when Greenpeace emblazoned St. Peter’s cupola with the words “Planet Earth First” prior to Donald Trump’s first Vatican visit, it may be time for those loyal to the Lordship of Christ, and convicted by the inspired and infallible Word of God, to take serious heed of what is going on around us, not just in the culture, but inside the walls of the so-called “visible church.” And, if need be, to rise up, just as two young Austrian laymen did, who, in an act reminiscent of Reformational zeal, rightly tossed the demonic images of Pachamam into the Tiber, sparking off a worldwide debate over the nature and perversity of idol worship.
In Midsommar, the fictional American and English visitors who happen upon the Harga cult are simply too secularized to stand up against the vicious, barbaric practices they witness. Having themselves grown up in a culture that has abandoned the truth of Christianity, a culture ruled by the dictatorship of relativism, they lack the necessary beliefs, the spiritual integrity, and moral fortitude to tear down the idols around them, and stop the gruesome and ungodly practices they see. For to do so would require that they know the Gospel, the Good News of the one true God, and His son Jesus Christ. Thank God that in the real world, there are still true missionaries of Christ who are willing to cast down such images, images that have infiltrated into the very heart of the Church’s own sacramental life, images that cannot be endured lest we betray the greatest of all commands, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to have no other gods before Him.