Stephen King’s IT: A Halloween Parable about America and Its Orange-Haired Clown

Pennywise 2

I don’t like horror films. They’re too much like real life with its mass shootings, hurricanes, and the policies of that clown in the White House. So I demurred when friends invited me to see the film version of Stephen King’s IT.

In the end, however, I was somehow persuaded. After all, as a box office phenomenon, IT remains the highest grossing “R” rated film in history. Its subconscious cultural content, I suspected, might somehow explain that huge box office success. So I accompanied my friends to our local Miramax determined to find that content.

Before I get to that however, a word about the film itself. . . To put it succinctly, IT was quite boring. In terms of horror, it didn’t even succeed in the (otherwise quite easy) task of scaring me!

Think about the movie’s unlikely premise: a group of 7 pre-teens meet a terrifying clown who lives submerged in the sewer underworld of Derry, a small town in Maine. The kids are all outsiders; they even call their group “The Losers’ Club.” One is black, another Jewish, and the remainders a tomboy, a stutterer, a frail hypochondriac, an overweight intellectual, and a wise-cracking smart-aleck.

The Losers’ adversary appears every 27 years to maim, kill and disappear children in Derry. No one but the kids can see the motley spirit who appears all-powerful. Nonetheless, in the end, (spoiler alert) the children improbably, but only apparently kill the clown. (Readers of King’s book know Pennywise will return in 30 years or so – thus setting up the dreaded sequel.)

Oh hum!

None of this is to say that IT wasn’t terrifying. However, its truly scary characters were the story’s adults – especially the Losers’ parents. They were variously fat and lazy, sexually abusive, violent in the extreme, deceptive, authoritarian, possessive and stultifying.

What united them all was their mirror-perfect depiction of our country’s adult refusal to recognize an extreme violence threatening our own children, even when it’s staring us in the face. Nothing mobilized the adults; not disappearances, shootings, torn limbs, decapitations, bleed-outs, bullying, racism, child abuse and even a room covered with blood. They just couldn’t see any of it, and got angry when the children suggested that something was wrong.

Of course, all of this reflects our culture’s normalization of terror in a country described by that other Mr. King (Martin) as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” We’re blind, for instance, to the horror of our economic system that today allows the preventable deaths of 30,000 children each day – without most of us taking any more note of the tragedy than the adults in Derry’s Maine-stream.

With the clown, we leave the terrifying adult world, and enter an ironically less threatening spirit world. But the spirit of what? The clown’s name “Pennywise” might offer a clue. (After all, Stephen King did choose to call him that?) Pennywise’s puzzling designation implies a connection between terror and money. Could he be the embodiment of an economic spirit that saves pennies, while being pound-foolish – the implied second half of the clown’s name? There’s got to be some meaning there.

In any case, and regardless of Stephen King’s intentions, our culture’s short-term focus on saving pennies (e.g. by defunding public schools, and healthcare) destroys children’s lives as surely as bites from the movie-clown’s yellowed incisors.

So, my premonitions may have been spot-on. Despite its artistic demerits, IT does hold lessons for those determined to probe its cultural context. They include:

  • Wake up!
  • Realize our pound-foolish system is destroying our children.
  • It depends on terror, fear, and violence to do so
  • Most of its older victims are in denial.
  • Younger “Losers” know better.
  • Listen to them.
  • And don’t be afraid of that violent, pennywise clown in the oversized suit.
  • Get rid of him as soon as possible.

Sunday Homily: Our Willful Blindness (especially about 9/11)

9:11

Readings for 4th Sunday of Lent: I SAM 16: 1B, 6-7, 10-13A; PS 23: 1-6; EPH 5: 8-14; JN 9: 1-14

The Liturgy of the Word for this fourth Sunday of Lent centralizes the themes of blindness, seeing, light and darkness. For me, those topics raise questions about being sightless in our contemporary culture. With us, it’s a nearly universal condition. In fact, you might say that ours is a culture that actually rewards blindness and punishes those who can see. For instance:

  • We “Americans” can’t allow ourselves to even imagine the implications of admitting that a right-wing coup took place in our country in the year 2000 when conservative Supreme Court justices overruled the popular electoral will. So we pretend that was normal. We refuse to see what actually happened.
  • The coup continued in 2016 when the Republican Party stole control of virtually all branches of the U.S. government. Yes, they stole it through a whole series of anti-democratic measures including Citizens United, gerrymandering, voter suppression, hackable electronic voting machines, James Comey’s last-minute investigation of Hillary Clinton, and possible Russian interference in the whole process. And yet we carry on as though none of those elements made any difference.
  • Meanwhile, politicians assure their electoral futures by asking us to close our eyes to their own crimes while they highlight those of the enemy du jour. For example, they want us to wring our hands over Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine, while ignoring routine and less warranted U.S. interventions from Grenada to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.
  • Then there are the climate-change deniers. They refuse to recognize the human causes of climate chaos while reaping billions in profit as the world disintegrates before our sightless eyes.
  • Additionally, we allow ourselves to be more easily persuaded by explanations of the CIA and NSA (part of whose acknowledged mission is to deceive) than by whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange who simply release what government says about itself. Somehow we’ve been convinced that the official sources have authority and integrity, while the whistle-blowers are suspect.
  • Above all, our culture is blind to what our own eyes told us took place on September 11th 2001, when three World Trade Center (WTC) buildings collapsed in demolition style after a few hours of localized fires of quite ordinary intensity as far as such tragic conflagrations go.

I say “above all” because the events of 9/11/01 have truly changed our world and continue to do so. They have been used to justify “works of darkness” like those Paul alludes to in today’s second reading from Ephesians. Though Paul shrinks from even mentioning them by name, today we might say that they include the War on Terrorism itself along with Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, racial profiling, drone warfare, torture, water boarding, rendition, Guantanamo, NSA spying, intrusive airport pat-downs . . . .

It’s all justified by 9/11. Paul implies that no one who performs such works is worthy of belief. They operate in secret and in the dark. “Expose them,” Paul urges.

And what needs to be exposed about 9/11? Clearly it’s the weakness of the “official story” we’ve all memorized so well. It says that in the case of two of the WTC buildings, fires feeding off the planes’ jet fuel caused steel girders to melt or weaken to the breaking point. Higher floors fell on top of lower ones, and the buildings pancaked smoothly to the ground. This explanation is accepted even though fires caused by jet fuel cannot even approach the temperatures necessary for such melt-down.

This is not to mention Trade Center Building # 7 that wasn’t even impacted by an airplane and whose demolition style crumbling remains unexplained to this day. Nor need we mention the testimonies of Scientists for 9/11 Truth, the “group of scientific professionals calling for a new, independent, and scientific investigation of the events of September 11, 2001.”

This is not a claim that the U.S. government was necessarily behind the events of 9/11/01. Rather, what’s called for is addressing unanswered questions posed by the scientists just mentioned as well as by scholars of the stature and theological sensibilities of David Ray Griffin.

Griffin is the Process theologian who has devoted the latest phase of his stellar career to raising consciousness about the need to 9/11’s unanswered questions because of the indisputably key role that the tragedy continues to play in “American” political life. He connects 9/11 directly with Jesus and his Kingdom values. I’m sure that, like me, he would see today’s readings as linked to 9/11 blindness.

In 9/11 context, consider today’s readings one by one. They establish principles for dealing with all official stories, explanations and denials.

The first reading tells us that political considerations like the ones just mentioned are not out-of-place in reflections like this. Samuel’s unlikely selection of David from among older and more “worthy” candidates to rule over Israel reminds us that the All Parent is deeply concerned with politics and just governance. In the political realm, Her ways cannot be dictated by what is apparent to merely human wisdom. They always involve preferential option for the least. God’s habit is to turn cultural perceptions upside-down.

The excerpt from Paul’s letter to his friends in Ephesus expands that theme. It identifies Jesus precisely as the one who gives sight to “the least” previously living in the darkness of their contemporary culture governed by falsehood, evil and injustice. Paul says that such darkness is exposed and dispelled by Jesus who brings a bright light that makes everything visible and produces all kinds of goodness, truth and justice.

Then in today’s gospel selection, Jesus shows what it means to bring light. He cures a man born blind. John tells the story through a series of seven interviews involving the poor man. In the process, the formerly sightless beggar doesn’t merely regain the physical ability to see. He also obtains an in-sight that helps him stand up to authorities whose “official” interpretations of Jesus’ healing contradict the blind man’s own senses.

The interviews involve Jesus’ disciples, a conversation with the blind man’s neighbors, three exchanges with Pharisees, interrogation of the blind man’s parents, and a final encounter Jesus himself. In the course of the interactions, the story of the blind man’s cure is recounted three times with delightful elements of magic, humor and irony. The repetition is necessary because the Pharisees, the story’s authority figures, refuse to admit that an ordinary person’s act of seeing can reveal more truth than their official theologized denials and a priori explanations.

So the Pharisees try to convince the cured blind man that he’s lying; he wasn’t really blind at all. They try to get the man’s parents to support their allegations. When that doesn’t work, the Pharisees try to discredit Jesus. He’s a sinner, they say, because he doesn’t observe the Sabbath.

But the beggar refuses to cave in. He insists on believing his own senses, especially sight. “I don’t know much about theology,” he repeats, “but I do know that I was blind and now I see.”

Be like the healed blind man, is the message here. Don’t believe the agents of darkness.

Today’s gospel story goes even further with that instruction. It presents Jesus as not merely turning Pharisaic perceptions upside down, but more generally his culture’s blind spots about truth itself. Those convictions are mirrored in the question of Jesus disciples at the beginning of the episode. Along with Jesus, they see the man born blind. So they ask, “Is this man’s condition the result of his own sin or that of his parents?”

By the end of the story Jesus answers their query with a statement worthy of a Zen master. He says that blindness is no sin at all. It’s seeing that’s sinful. To “clarify,” Jesus adds, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.”

In other words, the story is meant to raise the question, what kind of blindness is virtuous and what kind of seeing is sinful? For Jesus, the Pharisees’ claim to clear sightedness is actually blindness. The blind man’s admission that he was formerly blind and that Jesus cured him represents clarity of vision.

With all that in mind, here are the quasi-principles for post 9/11 discernment that today’s readings suggest:

  • Sacred Scripture is indeed concerned with political realities.
  • From the faith perspective, official explanations are probably false.
  • We should not believe those who perform works of darkness.
  • Kingdom consciousness turns official “reality” upside-down.
  • Those whom dominant culture dismisses as blind probably have clearer insight than their “betters.”
  • We should believe what we see with our own eyes regardless of what the agents of darkness tell us.

In a world shaped by our dear “leaders’” entirely suspect account of 9/11, accepting those gospel principles would drive us to join David Ray Griffin and the 9/11 Truth Movement as they call for a new, independent, and scientific investigation of the events of September 11, 2001.

Curing our nation of 9/11 blindness would deprive our masters of a powerful pretext to justify their works of darkness. That deprivation would truly change everything.