Confounding Expectations

A couple of days ago I was watching a TV show called Lucifer. The premise is that Satan, bored of running Hell, decamps to Los Angeles and becomes a consultant for the LAPD. Of course, he’s a scoundrel, speaks with an English accent and runs a debauched nightclub when he’d not working his day job. He’s also a natty dresser, a pansexual nymphomaniac and swigs booze out of a flask. Even though he calls himself Lucifer Morningstar and freely tells everyone he’s The Devil, no one believes him – at first. They think he’s just a very talented and rich crackpot.

So, as Lucifer and his brother, an angel named Amenadiel, are visiting a porn set while investigating a crime his celestial brother said, “There must be hundreds of porn stars in Hell.” Lucifer replied “Sadly, no, on account of all the good work they do here on Earth, I assume.”

When I heard that I laughed out loud. Don’t get me wrong. I understand pornography turns human sexuality into commerce, devalues women and men and, in its darkest corners, cooks up some pretty weird shit. But this fictional Satan might have been on to something. When I was in seminary, we were watching a Madonna video and cluck clucking about her dancing in a negligee by some burning crosses when our spiritual director walked by and said, “That’s a great video.”

‘How could you say such a thing?” I demanded.

“Sometimes art can show the erotic side of God,” he said. I never forgot that.

Now, I don’t think God’s running a string of strip clubs but if, as many believe, we are made in the image and likeness of God, then He must be erotic as well, albeit on a level we will never understand. And our fascination with sex and yes, porn, is a clouded, imperfect and very dim reflection of the eroticism contained in Mystery. And who hasn’t looked at a beautiful body and let a prayer of thanksgiving fly heavenward? I know I have. And the act of sex, with its potential for new life, vulnerability and connection drives most of us to fall into each other’s arms. Ever wonder why so many of us say God’s name when we’re knocking boots? I don’t think that’s an accident.

Porn has been around ever since man first painted a pair of boobs on a cave wall. When my parents went to the ruins of Pompeii they laughed at the pictures of people doing the mambo on an ancient brothel’s walls. Statues in India of people getting freaky were carved as far back as 800 A.D. People in every time and every age have been fascinated by sex –  we’ve always liked seeing images of people getting it on. The erotic pulls us in.

But many people do think porn stars are going to hell. As a wise old man once wrote,  we often fill hell with people we don’t like. But I also think we fill hell with those who reveal uncomfortable truths about ourselves. In the documentary After Porn Ends, when asked about what happens to performers when they leave the porn industry. William Margold, a longtime producer of blue movies said. “The ones that got out of this business and now are being blighted by the society that jacked off to them … well, the society is the one that’s guilty for that… They’re damning (porn stars) for something that gave them pleasure.” On Sunday, many churchgoers loudly proclaim porn stars will be huffing sulfur. But on Friday night you might find some of the same people “wanking” it to the erotic adventures of Tiffany Vixen and John Goodwood. That’s some serious disconnect there. And that kind of hypocrisy is probably a bigger sin than having sex on film for money.

I have no idea if porn stars “do good work” for mankind. But what I found so refreshing in our TV Satan’s quip is he doesn’t condemn them or gleefully anticipate eternally barbequing them. He confounds our expectations and suggests other sins are far, far worse. Did you see that video of a hospital dumping a sick woman into the freezing streets clad in just a flimsy paper gown? Tell me, who’s sin is greater? A porn star’s or the people who dumped a poor, sick woman into the unforgiving night?

There’s a lot wrong with porn, no doubt, but we respond to it and gobble it up by the terabyte. What I find much more worrisome are things like Tinder. Swipe right, swipe left? Judge a person solely by their looks in a second? And how about the lynch mobs on social media?  The misguided outrage and bullying? An eleven-year old girl in the town next to mine killed herself because she was being bullied online. A few months ago, a porn star named August Ames killed herself for the same reason. Those people who vented their toxic rage into the web might be more to Lucifer’s liking.

But the last time I read Scripture, judgement is not up to us. And if, as I expect God’s priorities are radically different from ours, we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Jesus also confounded people’s expectations. He hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors and zealots and, while he told them to “sin no more” he didn’t say they were going to hell. He saved his greatest opprobrium for, you guessed it, hypocrites.

And the real Lucifer?  I have no idea. Maybe he is the Adversary and evil incarnate. But in some parts of Scripture he works for God. On the TV show he’s actually depicted as a decent chap, which has driven some Christian groups bananas.  But we put ourselves in Hell, TV Lucifer tells us, he’s just the warden. On another episode of the show, after he reveals his true nature to a mortal, he tells him, “You humans… You send yourselves, driven down by your own guilt. Forcing yourselves to relive your sins over and over. And the best part: The doors aren’t locked. You can leave any time.”

I believe in Hell. People often overestimate their goodness and it’s probably good to have the thought of hellfire tickling our consciences lest we get complacent. But I was raised Catholic and nowhere is it written that anyone in in Hell. Nowhere. It could be packed to the rafters. It might be empty. We just don’t know. But my late Godfather, a Catholic priest, always preached about the boundless mercy of God –  a mercy that is so radical, mysteriously both justice and love, that it will confound our expectations.

Most people think the Apocalypse will be the end of the world –  when we’re divided into two groups, judged, and then marched like lemmings into Heaven or Hell. But that’s not what the word apocalypse means. It comes from the Greek word apokalupsis which means to “unveil” or“laying bear, making naked.” To reveal – revelation.  And it’s no accident that the guy who wrote that book proclaimed that Christ is the bridegroom and we are the bride. That is, when you think about it, very erotic.  Remember the times you’ve had sex –  when you partner shed his or her clothes and stood before you, warts and all – and you loved them all the same.  That’s a beautiful thing we all yearn for.

Perhaps Judgement Day will be a time when we’re all laid bare and everything we’ve done, both good and bad, and all our connections to each other, will be on full display. We will be naked and vulnerable – unable to hide anything. For some of us, that might be extremely painful, but it could possibly be a time of great joy. Pope Benedict, in his encyclical, Spe Salvi, mentioned the atheist philosopher Theodor Adorno’s view “that justice —true justice—would require a world ‘where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.” Or, more simply put, a time “when every tear will be wiped away.”

Imagine that. Every bad thing that has ever been done – undone. But for this to work, the former Pope wrote, “…there can be no justice without a resurrection of the dead.” Strangely, that makes sense to me. When I’ve encountered persons whose loved were murdered, all the justice in the world was meaningless to them. They just wanted their loved ones back.  Maybe that is an echo of what is to come. Perhaps, as Adorno suggested,  true justice has to mean that everyone who was ever been burned in ovens, murdered, raped, molested, tortured or psychologically tormented – and the perpetrators, maybe – will be made whole. You get another crack at life on earth. This is a wildly radical hope which sounds absurd to our modern sensibilities.  But just look at how weird quantum physics is. What? A particle can be in more than one place at a time? Time and distance might mean nothing? That every probability could be playing out in an immense multiverse?  Maybe anything is possible, including the resurrection of the dead. Who knows?

Of course, when we die our consciousness might just wink out and our body reduced to atoms. If you’re a thinking person you must consider that possibility. But, as Albert Einstein said upon hearing about the death of his friend, “Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us … know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Or, to put it more elegantly, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

So, don’t have a cow about TV Lucifer being a good guy. Don’t worry about a porn star’s salvation –  worry about your own. And the older I get, I find myself clinging to the hope that there is a mercy waiting for us that is radical and boundless.

What comes next may confound our expectations.

4 thoughts on “Confounding Expectations”

  1. Patricia says:

    Profound words! Thank you!

  2. Leonard says:

    Most excellent and thoughtful

  3. a fan in seattle says:

    Isn’t it funny how the most vocally pious are always the most hypocritical. Nice words. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Robert Dobbs says:

    I wish that this was published somewhere for many more people to see. It’s a wonderful rumination on good and evil and where they lead and what they really mean and don’t mean.

    In some sense, Heaven and Hell are here and now, and those who self-righteously condemn those who perhaps violate the letter of the law, are those in whom the spirit of love and the holiness of God has already died. They are in hell right now, doing the work of demons in this world.

    As for God and the Devil — ever seen the remake of “Bedazzled?” It’s very good: a movie about what happens to a guy when he can get anything he wants — but doesn’t really know what he wants. And God and Satan both weigh in, in unexpected ways. At the end of the film — when he’s made the choices he really should have made all along — Satan and God are seen in the background talking over coffee at a sidewalk cafe.

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