'Stranger Things' and a theology of monsters

August 23rd, 2016

My wife and I just finished watching Stranger Things, Netflix's latest hit series. If you haven't seen this show: watch it. Now. It's a relatively tame (TV-14) sci-fi/fantasy/horror series centered on small town residents trying to unravel a super-natural mystery. It's The X-Files meets The Goonies meets E.T., complete with the delightfully '80s setting of the latter two. It's smart, well-written, suspenseful, and entertaining. I was shocked when I realized that I liked every single character on the show. Nerd culture is front and center, too, making the series even more fun for, well, people like me.

Also, if you haven't seen this show: stop reading here. Sorry, but SPOILERS ahead. But if you have watched Stranger Things (wasn't it so good!?) then, by all means, read on.

At the heart of the story is a young girl named Eleven ('El', for short), whose mother was the subject of military experimentation which resulted in her daughter being born with, as one boy repeated puts it, "superpowers." El has the ability (among other, very Stephen King-esque powers) to make out-of-body journeys to "the Upside Down," a nightmare landscape that is the dark shadow of our world. Locations on Earth are mimicked in the Upside Down, only there they're cold and dark, and deadly. The danger lies in the Upside Down's one natural resident, a nightmarish and very hungry monster. When a gateway between that world and our own is opened inadvertently, the monster begins to prey on the unsuspecting towns-people.

Only once does this shadowy, alternate world and its resident draw any kind of theological reflection from the characters on Stranger Things. Late in the series, when El is searching the Upside Down for a missing person, she finds a dead body. In her terror and horror, El begins to cry out, "God! God!!"

Where is God in a world of nightmares? Is there a God in a world of monsters?

El's question receives an immediate answer: a kind voice calls back to her, "It's ok ... We're right here ... It's ok ... We've got you ... Don't be afraid." This is not God speaking, but the mother of a missing boy El is searching for, who is waiting with El's body back in our reality as the girl explores the Upside Down. The mother assures this frightened child that she's not alone, that she's safe.

Stranger Things's answer to our search for God in the midst of darkness and horrors is the presence and comfort of others. Friendship is a major theme in the show, but by the end it's not only friends who are relying on each other: a new, unlikely community has formed, made up of all of those who've encountered the truth and are committed to fighting against the darkness together. They support each other, and because they have one another, there's hope that good will prevail in the end.

Sometimes, when faced with the true monsters in our right-side-up world — monsters like depression, suicide bombers, human trafficking, Alzheimer's, or cancer (one which, we eventually learn, casts a long shadow over the story of Stranger Things— we're going to find ourselves wondering where God is. When people are horrified and afraid, when the darkness seems overwhelming and people feel alone, the Church has to be the voice that says: It's okay. We're right here. We've got you. Don't be afraid.

After all, we believe in a Savior who destroys monsters.

Demons routinely retreated before him. In a battle of wits, he outmatched the Devil himself (depicted later on, in Revelation chapter 12, as a man-eating dragon, all heads and horns and teeth). Jesus entered into the jaws of Death, and carved a path out the other side — a path that, one day, will allow all of his followers to elude Death's grasp and cause Death to die. That dreaded monster that consumes everyone and everything in its path will be swallowed up forever (Isa 25:8; 1 Cor 15:54).

And not only do we worship a monster-slayer, but we are his deputies in the world today. 

Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to inhabit the Church, we have been called the "Body of Christ," his hands and feet in this world. When El cried out for God, a voice of human compassion answered her. We must be that voice of compassion, not because God is absent, but because God is present in the Church. God is not silent; God has chosen to comfort the afflicted, heal the wounded, and rid the world of monsters through the work of the Church. We're the community of those committed to fighting the darkness together, carrying on what Jesus started.

The darkness is real — maybe not the kind of horrors you can see on Stranger Things, but horrors no less. Things that break our hearts, scar our souls, and shake our faith. The good news about monsters is that they're things that will pass away one day, things that God will heal and make new (Rev 21:1-4).

But in the meantime, while we live in this broken world, Christians can't simply offer words of deferred comfort and imperceptible hope. We have to stand in the gap and, empowered by God's Spirit, confront every horror we can spot, so the world can know what God is about and see that God's work isn't done.

We have to demonstrate with our lives what a good theology of monsters looks like.

This post originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.

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