Preaching in Hell, Part 4: Coffee for the Devil
In the first half of this series, I proposed that it’s worthwhile to investigate examples of Christian truth in popular culture in order to engage our neighbors and reveal the glory of God in our culture. I looked first at one example of a Christian missionary priest bringing the light of Christ to a hellish place: Shepherd Book in the series Firefly and its Serenity film and comics spinoffs. This time, I’ll introduce you to another priest on another world.
The Netflix television show Daredevil takes place in Hell’s Kitchen, which in the Marvel Universe is aptly named. It’s a rough, dangerous section of Manhattan, home to drug cartels and mobster gangs, all ruled by the violent and sinister Kingpin, Wilson Fisk. This neighborhood is Hell, and it needs a preacher. Or, better yet, a priest.
Father Lantom appears early in Episode One, hearing the confession of a blind attorney named Matt Murdock. The scene is Roman Catholic at its most formulaic. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been a long time since my last confession.”The penitent goes into a long digression about his dad, getting so conversational that he cusses. The priest’s firstword is a gruff admonition: “Language,”and it takes a while yet before the confessor loses his patience and cuts Matt off: “This would beeasier if you tell me what you’ve done.”
Matt’s reply introduces the moral struggle ofthe show: “I’m seeking forgiveness,”he says, “for something I’m going to do.”
The priest is still a stock character. “That’s not how this works. What exactly are you going to do?”And cut, to the docks, where the blind man- now in a black mask- rescues several women by beating up their trafficker.
Matt has a basic moral quandary which grows more urgent as the season progresses. How far does he go to protect and defend people without becoming as bad as the enemy persecuting them? He frames this moral conflict as a contest with the Devil, and in his first extended conversation with the priest asks, “Do you believe in the Devil, Father? Do you believe he exists? In this world, among us?”
I’ll interrupt here to note that we’re now three-quarters done with the show. Matt made confession in Episode One, went back to church in Episode Three, but balked when Father Lantom invited him for conversation over a latte. A whole lot of blood flows under the bridge before Matt finally returns and nervously asks the priest for that latte. His question is almost frantic.
Father Lantom responds with the only exposition we get of his own character. In seminary, he was academic to the point that he abstracted the Devil into an idea. But during pastoral ministry overseas, he witnessed horrors which convinced him otherwise. “Yes, Matthew, I believe he walks among us, taking many forms.”And Matthew asks,
“What if you could have stopped him from ever hurting anyone again?”
Lantom is direct. “Stopped him how?”
The job of a priest is complex and varied. We Orthodox Christians see a priest’s role as first and foremost liturgical and sacramental. All of a priest’s other functions – including pastoral counseling – stem from his presence at the altar, leading the Divine Liturgy.
We don’t get to see Father Lantom in a liturgical role except in a brief scene at a funeral. Despite the informality of lattes, nearly all of his other appearances are sacramental – hearing confession.
Let me digress for some criticism. One, we never see absolution. Matt’s confessions usually seem to be more about wrestling with an idea than about identifying his sin and repenting of it. But that’s where Matt is, and a priest has to meet a person where that person is. Two – and I do think this matters – we’re made privy to the contents of a confession. Fictional though it be, the seal of confession is sacred, and I think it’d be more appropriate for the audience to witness the sacrament only from an inaudible distance.
Pastoral counseling, audible to the viewer, can come after absolution without intruding on the sanctity of the Holy Mystery. I do mean this seriously. Nevertheless, if we’re to engage our culture, we can overlook a flaw like this and instead observe what is good here.
There is much to be praised, and that’ll be the topic of my next instalment. I’ll investigate Father Lantom’s pastoral counseling, and show how his patient guidance leads Matt Murdock towards repentance and salvation.
“Into the Ring.” Daredevil. Dir. Phil Abraham. Writer Drew Goddard. Marvel Television, 2015. Netflix broadcast.
“Speak of the Devil.” Daredevil. Dir. Nelson McCormick. Writers Christos Gage and Ruth Fletcher Gage. Marvel Television, 2015. Netflix broadcast.
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