Film & Philosophy: Frailty

Warning: If you haven’t seen this movie, this post will contain spoilers.

SWalters suggested Frailty to me after a conversation where we were discussing how anyone could ever be certain whether or not God was speaking to them. This movie delivered on that question in a big way.

Frailty and Philosophy

The father in the movie is visited by angels one night, and he is told that he must fulfill God’s will by killing “demons,” which look just like humans. He shares this message with his two sons. The younger son immediately buys into this mission, and is supportive and helpful in carrying it out. The older son is a little more thoughtful, but concludes that his father has gone insane, and actively works against his mission. The movie is crafted in such a way that the audience is clearly meant to side with the older son.

Yet, the end offers a surprising twist. The younger son grows up to takeover the mission of his father, eventually killing his own brother and the FBI agent who was investigating murders related to the brother. The FBI agent had actually killed his own mother, and was himself a “demon.” Even though the younger brother walked into FBI headquarters, the video tape went fuzzy where his head was and so no one could identify him. This leaves us with the conclusion that the father and younger brother truly were doing God’s work all along.

Frailty and Existentialism

When I teach introduction to philosophy, I usually include a day on Soren Kierkegaard, a Christian existentialist. In developing his ethics, Kierkegaard discusses the case of Abraham being ordered by God to kill son Isaac, though God ultimately rescinds the order. This inevitably leads to the students discussing how we can really be sure it’s God who is communicating with us and not the Devil, or even some form of mental illness.

Usually, there is a lot of silence as they realize how difficult this question is to answer, but very quickly an angry minority begins to speak up. The answer that always gets brought up is that you can know whether or not this message is from God based on the content. In the case of Abraham God doesn’t follow through with this command, and this shows how God is loving and compassionate and kind. God would never command anyone to kill other human “demons.”

Old Testament vs. New Testament

However, this is where I struggle with some of the tenets of Christianity. There are images of two very different Gods, one as love and compassion, and another as an angry God dangling sinners over the fires of Hell.

The story of Noah’s Ark in particular seems disturbing along these lines. Not only did God choose to destroy many humans (who were fallen and wicked) but also almost every animal on the earth. And he did it through storms. I remember being very angry when, after Hurricane Katrina, some people suggested that the storm was the wrath of God sent down on the sinful city of New Orleans (despite the fact that it actually directly struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where I lived at the time). However, an interpretation such as this actually lines up quite well with the moral of Noah’s Ark. If God would send floods to destroy almost every human and animal on the earth, why not send a hurricane to New Orleans?

And I suppose this is what I find unsatisfying with the response that we can tell whether or not it is God talking to us through the content of the message. One of the very first religious stories I became familiar with as a child showed God committing massive genocide because he no longer liked the very beings he created. I’m not sure how to reconcile that with the currently more popular image of God as love.

Divine Command Theory

I know many people choose to simply ignore the Old Testament, but my understanding is that in the New Testament, Jesus pretty explicitly accepts the Old Testament. I’m very interested in any insight on how to reconcile these two very different conceptions of God.

My students who suggest the content of the message is what matters are contradicting what is known as Divine Command Theory – which states that whatever God commands one to do just is the “good” or the “right.” If God commands love, that is good. If God were to command hate, that would be good. The Divine Command Theory, in a way, then, does offer a solution to the contrast between the Old Testament and the New Testament – God simply demanded different things at different times.

But if that’s the solution, then we are still left with the troubling question – how do we ever know whether or not it’s God speaking to us or some other force? If God can love and God can smite, how do we rule out recent superstorm Hurricane Sandy as divine punishment?

Please share your thoughts with me in the comments!

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