Ernest grips his knife as he pursues his prey. He’s brought his new neighbor and friend, Jack, out to the desert to kill him. As Ernest approaches Jack, the latter confidently yells, “I am he, the truth!” Immediately, wings of flame burst from his back. Ernest believes he has summoned an angel, and he prostrates himself in worship. The camera cuts to a shot behind Jack, and the audience sees the source of the fire, two canisters of flammable chemicals. Ernest has been duped. He does not know he is worshipping a false god.
An existential hunt for meaning in his life had driven Ernest nearly mad. He had been driven away from the people he held dearest, so he had no idea how to live a fulfilling life. This struggle is one that philosophers and theologians have discussed for millennia. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, asserts that undergoing necessary suffering can improve a person. In Frankl’s case, he was able to survive the horrors of the camps because he believed his life had value and that someone needed to keep up the memory of his dead friends. Ernest’s endeavor took suffering, but he had been ill-prepared for it.
The cultists often twist or parody Christian doctrines and beliefs, something Satan is apt to do in the Bible.
In trying to find things to do during quarantine, I came across Strange Angel on CBS All Access. The show, set in the late 1930s and early 1940s, follows Jack Parsons, an aspiring rocket scientist, and his wife, Susan. Jack’s peers think he is crazy for believing that man could walk on the moon. He struggles to make ends meet and have a good relationship with Susan.
Jack and Susan’s lives change when, one day, their strange new neighbor, Ernest, introduces them to the agape, a parish of occultists who live in their neighborhood.
The agape is a group of theological Satanists who try to “manifest” what they want through sex rituals. Jack is not particularly religious, so he falls for it quickly, but Susan, who grew up Catholic, is a little more reluctant. After first resisting, she finally succumbs to the cult, finding its beliefs of moral relativism and sexual freedom much more liberating than the moral rigidity of Catholicism. She and Jack like that there are only two rules of their new religion: “do what thou wilt” and “love is the law.”
Once both of them are fully initiated, things start going really well. Jack gets a lucrative government contract to help the US compete with the Nazis’ jet engines and rockets. Susan has a new-found agency, and their sex life is great. However, things soon go awry. Jack learns that his career achievements can be taken away just as easily as they were given. Furthermore, the cult sees monogamy as restrictive and confining, so the intimacy he and Susan had disappears once they violate their vows. They find that the cult’s two dictates are suitable for instant gratification but lacking in long-term fulfillment.
The “love” that the occultists refer to is not this type. They define love as any fleeting sexual passion.
The cultists often twist or parody Christian doctrines and beliefs, something Satan is apt to do in the Bible. During Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4, Satan encourages Him, if He really is the Son of God, to jump off of a cliff in anticipation of a promise that angels will catch Him. Jesus declines, declaring that “you shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
Satan interprets the aforementioned promise to mean that one can invoke God’s power on a whim, a belief that can lead to disastrous results. The same is true of the cult’s belief that “love is the law.” For Christians, love is the law. Jesus taught in Mark 12 that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Additionally, God is the fulness of love. As Jesus said in John 15, “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
The “love” that the occultists refer to is not this type. They define love as any fleeting sexual passion. While English has one word for love, Greek, in which the New Testament was written, has multiple. It is ironic that the cult’s official name is the agape. In Greek, that word represents St. Thomas Aquinas’ fullest form of love, one which sacrifices one’s own good for another. What the cultists feel is eros, a sexual passion which, in marriage, ideally goes hand-in-hand with agape. But the cultists are trying to have the former without the latter. They have no commitment, and, thus, no fulfillment.
The show’s message is that meaningful suffering is good. Of course, this does not mean one should directly inflict suffering on another; rather, individuals should choose to voluntarily suffer for others, making sacrifices and bettering themselves for it.
Connected to the definitions of love is the one rule of “do what thou wilt.” The most glaring problem with this precept is that “what thou wilt” can be terrible. Jack and Susan both express dismay at the sexual partners the other chooses, but, under their new moral code, the two have no grounds to object. This law is meant to mitigate suffering but ultimately increases it.
This suffering is at the very heart of Strange Angel’s conflict. Whenever the cultists are faced with a serious challenge that would require them to suffer, they do not know how to handle it. In their indulgence, they have not adequately prepared themselves to resist their passions. The cultists fail because their entire meaning in life was in being governed by fleeting desires. When this pleasure was denied to them, their lives lost all meaning.
The show’s message is that meaningful suffering is good. Of course, this does not mean one should directly inflict suffering on another; rather, individuals should choose to voluntarily suffer for others, making sacrifices and bettering themselves for it. As the laws of God dictate, only there can one truly find love.