Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft once stated in a talk that “If your faith is weak and you’re afraid to lose it, don’t read The Brothers Karamazov” (“Peter Kreeft: Making Sense of Suffering” Socrates in the City Podcast). With humility, I would like to issue a similar caution about diving headfirst into Mike Flanagan’s recent Netflix mini-series Midnight Mass. However, I believe that seeing this work of art first and then engaging in conversations about it is a task that Christians should partake in. Flangan, in this show, introduces and teases out a plethora of questions that Christians have been grappling with and grasping for the apt words to speak about for millennia. Moreover, for brevity, I think there are a few worth meditating on in this article.
First, a brief sketch of the show might be beneficial to the reader.
SO, SPOILERS AHEAD.
The show starts with a close-up shot of an Ichthus (Jesus fish) bumper sticker. Then the camera abruptly pans to reveal the aftermath of a deadly car collision. This opening sequence speaks volumes and foreshadows what is to unfold during the story. The audience is quickly introduced to Riley (portrayed excellently by Friday Night Lights’ Zach Gilford), who has just killed a young woman because he was driving intoxicated.
When I first saw this episode, it evoked Asaph’s lament in Psalm 73:3: “For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (NIV). Riley echoes this cry in a later, crucial episode while in an AA meeting with the exuberant Fr. Paul (Hamish Linklater).
Furthermore, Fr. Paul is not what he seems. At first, he tells the inhabitants of tiny, secluded Crockett Island that he is filling in for their beloved but withering Monsignor Pruitt while away on the mainland receiving care. However, in a plot twist that even the most attuned horror fans may not see coming, Fr. Paul is, in fact, a revitalized Monsignor Pruitt. While on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Pruitt is bitten by what he describes as an “angel of the Lord,” but what everyone watching knows from first glance is a vampire. Because he is bitten, he is transformed into his younger self.
Believing this to be a blessing from God, he stows away the monster and transports it back to Crockett Island. Hence, one of the first takeaways from Midnight Mass: sometimes the most genuine and well-intentioned people are the ones who inflict the most damage on their fellow image-bearers. This aspect of the show invited me to examine in what areas of my life am I confident that I am doing good but am instead causing traumatic hurt to someone I know and love?
After Fr. Paul/Pruitt’s sinister schemes are unearthed, a shift occurs in characterization. The characters on the margins: an atheist recovering alcoholic (Riley), a lesbian doctor (Sarah), and a Muslim sheriff (Hassan), behave more like Christ than the “Christian leaders” in the community; for instance, Fr. Paul, the instantly dislikable Bev Keane, and other gatekeepers. There are exceptions to this, such as the pregnant Erin (played brilliantly by Flanagan’s wife Kate Siegel), Leeza, daughter of the Crockett Island mayor, Sarah’s aging mom, Mildred, and Riley’s devout parents. Although Erin does appear to lose her religion during a stellar soliloquy that she delivers in the final episode “Revelation.”
These characters are much more than stock characters. Flanagan’s writing wraps these characters in flesh and gives them the voice to expound on how they perceive and sort out the events around them. The citizens of Crockett Island are not mouthpieces built only to shuttle plot points along. They are almost embodied perspectives. Riley and Erin, in particular, deliver some of the most poignant monologues I have ever heard on screen. They are so moving that they feel like they were cut, whole cloth out of a great work of literature. Similarly, Hassan and Riley’s mom, Annie, do get in some fantastic memorable one-liners.
Christians might be uncomfortable with some of Riley and Erin’s conclusions, but they cannot ignore them. At a pivotal scene in episode six, ironically titled “Acts of the Apostles,” a goodbye letter from Riley addressed to Monsignor Pruitt simply but boldly reads, “Remember we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” This succinct statement is a sadly necessary corrective for far too many pastors and elders, who, like Fr. Paul in later episodes, have an overinflated view of themselves and their abilities.
Egoism in leaders is something that has been in the forefront of many Christians’ minds, in light of Christianity Today’s “Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast. Whenever shepherds do great things, the ends begin to justify the means for many in the fold. That is precisely what happens with the revolving rogue’s gallery that is Bev Keane, local handyman Sturge, and the pliant parents of Leeza Scarborough. (It should be noted that all of these characters, with the exception of Bev, have their own redeeming moments in the end). I do not write that to inordinately pick on pastors. I have tremendous respect for my pastors and there is much for laypeople to also be remorseful for in this series. Many of the laypeople in Midnight Mass fall under the sway of the allure of eternal life, albeit eternal life through a shortcut involving a vampire (there is a metaphor in that for American Christians). This leads to them viciously attacking their neighbors, the very people they—we are called to love. In the process, they transmogrify into something sub-human. And if that is not a fitting allegorizing of Sin, I do not know what is.
Again, not to belabor this point, but the ones who demonstrate love for their neighbors on Crockett Island are the outsiders and a few churchy stragglers. Nowhere is that sentiment more strongly felt in Scripture than in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In a sense, Flanagan and crew have unintentionally spun a modern retelling of Jesus’ parable. And I hope this reimagining of it shakes us out of our familiarity with the parable and startles—even offends us.
I am a Florida native (a Florida man if you will) and I enjoy being present in God’s good creation here whether that be on our beaches or hiking in our beautiful state forests. I also love Mary Oliver’s poetry, Sally Rooney’s books, and Sufjan Stevens’ music and I could hold conversations about any of those topics for hours.