“Woe to those . . . . who put darkness for light” (Isa. 5:20).
"If it isn’t dark, it isn’t fun”: words of our professor to a class of graduate students at a leading school of art and design; words that reflect current trends within the creative world of art, media and literature. In a generation raised on Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Twilight, the media world has become very much as that professor saw it. Today’s secularity means that belief in God has been eclipsed by a fascination for the dark side. Science fiction and dark fantasy are now top-selling genres. Of the top 50 all-time highest grossing movies, 35, or nearly 70 percent, fit within those categories.1 They include the titles mentioned above as well as Avatar and The Lion King.
What do these films have in common? A belief in the circle or cycle of life, in the immortality of the soul, deep magic (in Star Wars expressed as The Force), and the message that salvation arises from the extraterrestrial and fantastical.The recent, high-grossing film The Black Panther connects both the hero and the villain with ancestor worship, a trance-like communication with the dead, and a resulting possession of supernatural power. And the world is eating it up as delectable gourmet entertainment.
In class my professor showed a love for and advocated for dark fun. She blamed Christianity for the witch hunts it sponsored, the innocent dying during the Crusades, and other atrocities and wars caused by the Christian faith. Early enough in the semester it became apparent that she had a personal interest in spiritualism. The themes chosen for our art projects were always dark. Her favorite artists and art expressed Gothic images of death and blood mixed with innocent looking dolls. After observing her watching African voodoo worship and shamans exorcising on YouTube, I was not sure what to think, or how to deal with the dark assignments she handed out.
I prayed, “God give me the right words to speak.”
Our confrontations began early, and deep within I bore the sinking feeling that something more than just art was going on in the classroom. Her professorial posture of “art director” gave her license to publicly rip to pieces anyone’s initial ideas and sketches if she didn’t like them. No clear explanation of what she wanted accompanied these public indignations of hers. My sketches continued to be rejected, and I must have been one of the last students to get approval. It felt like a test that put me under intense pressure. After class I often cried because of her terrible reviews and humiliation. Because of the strain I sincerely longed for the semester to be over.
Every day after classes I went to my apartment and prayed, asking God to use me as He saw fit. I asked Him to allow me to be a witness to anyone He desired me to reach. She was the last person I expected God would send me to, but that is exactly what He did.
One day after the semester was over I was surprised to see my professor standing in front of my apartment complex. She was excited about something: her house had just sold, just before her retirement at the end of the year, and she would be temporarily moving into my complex. She had noticed that I exercised in the apartment gym. “Can we be exercise partners together? That would be so much fun!” she exclaimed. I reluctantly agreed but was not sure what to say during our time together. I prayed, “God give me the right words to speak.”
During our first walk in the nearby city park, she discovered that I was Seventh-day Adventist. She was indignant: “How could you believe in a God that justified the Crusades?”
“That is not God,” I replied with a kind smile, “That is what man made God out to be.”
The next time we met she had done her homework online. “So as a Seventh-day Adventist you believe in creation? How is that possible in our scientific age?”
“Evolutionism has as many questions as creationism.” I responded. “Where does life originate from? There are many questions science cannot answer.”
Each time we walked, I felt God helping me with answers, many of which she could agree with and even relate to. Despite our different backgrounds, we talked freely about everything: religion, politics, personal family issues. Our differences made our conversation honest and meaningful. We truly enjoyed each other’s company. A couple times we missed our walks and she confessed that without them she would “go into a funk.” When the academic year ended it was time to say “goodbye.” We had become friends. She gave me a long hug, and looked at me with tears in her eyes: “Giselle, thank you for everything. You are a good ambassador for Christianity.”
Why the increase of spiritualism and science fiction in movies, literature, and art? I see it as humanity’s desperate effort to fill the void that modernism created when deconstructing the supernatural, and specifically by seeking to explain away the Judeo-Christian faith. We all long for a reality outside of our natural, finite world. We know that “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Rather, life is fundamentally spiritual. Humans everywhere sense this because God has placed “eternity in the human heart” (Eccl. 3:11).
But that sense of a reality far beyond our material goods is vigorously exploited by the enemy of love and life, the agent of deception and destruction. For Walt Disney Studios it is exploitation for financial success: one of my colleagues who worked as an art director for Walt Disney, always gets asked the question about spiritualism in their productions, and regularly responds, “Walt Disney is a business; they do not incorporate spiritualism with any intentional ‘hidden purpose,’ but simply because spiritualism sells.”
No doubt in Brazil, my native land, spiritualism may also have its economic benefits. But the phenomenon is so rampant that for many Brazilians it’s a given; many people there are intentionally involved with satanic spirits. Their passion gives evidence of humanity’s spiritual vacuum, as well as of the Great Controversy raging around us.
Seventh-day Adventists must answer the world’s need for hope with a message of hope. The three angels’ messages of Revelation 14:6-12 clearly outline God’s plan of salvation and His love for humanity, the very message needed for these final moments of earth’s history. Those messages call people out of Babylon, out of the confusion of false hope, false worship, and misguided allegiance to fantastical powers, to the gift of eternal life in Jesus now (see 1 John 5:13), and the opportunity to meet Him in peace at His soon return (see John 14:1-3).
The adversary would have us look to superheroes, to gods from the wider universe, and to the age-old deception spoken by the serpent years ago, “You will not surely die” (Gen 3:4) as he prepares the masses for his own final deception. But Christ our Lord has already come to Earth “To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). Following His light and His way of peace will bring us to a thoroughly different destination than would many of the visions that dominate our entertainment screens today.
Giselle Sarlí Hasel is associate professor of visual art and design at Southern Adventist University, where she also coordinates the John C. Williams Gallery of Art.