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Erik VanBezooijenFebruary 23, 2024
The movie poster from the film Deliver Us featuring a woman bathing in an icy body of water in an opening in the shape of a cross Photo: Magnolia Pictures

It is perhaps a coincidence that 2023, one of the hottest years on record, also saw a wave of religious horror movies, from “The Pope’s Exorcist”to “The Nun II”to “The Exorcist: Believer.”But of all those movies, only the independent “Deliver Us,” released last September, uses the Christian theme of apocalypse to explore the painfully timely issue of climate crisis.

“Deliver Us” was co-directed and co-written by the Catholic filmmaker Lee Roy Kunz, who also stars as Father Fox, a Jesuit priest who’s broken his vow of celibacy with oil heiress Laura. Father Fox plans to leave the priesthood to be a father to their unborn child, but at the urging of his superior, he agrees to undertake one last mission for the Vatican: verifying Russian nun Sister Yulia’s claim that she has been immaculately conceived with twin brothers, one of whom she’s convinced is the Second Coming, the other the Antichrist.

“Deliver Us” uses the Christian theme of apocalypse to explore the painfully timely issue of climate crisis.

Upon arriving at Sister Yulia’s convent, Father Fox learns that Vox Dei, a shadowy organization within the Vatican, plans to kill her unborn children in order to forestall a prophesied final battle between good and evil in which the Messiah will ultimately triumph, but only after great destruction to humanity.

As dread of this supernatural apocalypse mounts, the film continuously alludes to the humanmade apocalypse dreaded by many in our real world—that of climate change. In an early scene, Sister Yulia listens to dire findings from a United Nations climate report on the news. Later, Laura mentions that her family has tried to transition to renewable energy in recent years, but as a strange psychic pandemic takes hold of the population, her employees become convinced her family’s activities have poisoned their water supply, leading them to attack her.

It’s this subtext of climate anxiety and social breakdown, at a time when our prospects of mitigating the worst consequences of climate change look increasingly bleak, that makes the film especially chilling.

There is a long history in America of Christianity being used to justify ethnocentric and nationalistic beliefs, but in recent years, environmental concerns have worked their way into that toxic ideological stew. For instance, the El Paso shooter’s horrific violence in 2019 was motivated by a blend of ecofascism and white Christian nationalist fear of “the Great Replacement.” Though this was an extreme case, it is not unlikely that environmental anxieties will increasingly fuel white Christian nationalist rhetoric.

It is easy to condemn such violence. Yet it is also humbling—and disturbing—to recognize that these terrorists are utterly convinced of the rightness of their cause. This raises an important question for Catholics: In times of crisis, how can we know that we are truly acting in alignment with God’s will, rather than our own? How can we discern whether we are deepening our faith by relying on God, rather than self-righteously rationalizing evil—whether that evil takes the form of extremist eco-terrorism or of an unwillingness to create more sustainable ways of living?

One would not expect a horror movie to offer answers, but “Deliver Us”does just that by drawing on an unexpected source: Jungian psychology.

The film’s Jungian influence is evident from the scene in which Father Fox first learns of the prophecy from Cardinal Russo, with whom he’s investigating Sister Yulia’s case. Father Fox is incredulous when Russo tells him the prophecy dates to an elite, pre-Christian caste of Zoroastrian priests. “It’s not Christian,” Father Fox protests. But the Vatican still takes the prophecy as divinely inspired. This is a distinctively Jungian understanding of God—a primordial reality transcendent of any particular religion, yet communicating itself through direct, individual experience to people in all times and places, in the form of archetypal imagery in omens, dreams and visions.

Shortly after, Father Fox begins to experience dreams and visions of his own, as does Sister Yulia. Fox’s Jesuitical skepticism makes him hesitant to give them—or the prophecy—any credence, but Sister Yulia sees her dreams as direct revelations from God that she and Fox, like Joseph and Mary, are destined to raise the Messiah together.

In times of crisis, how can we know that we are truly acting in alignment with God’s will, rather than our own?

By trusting the rightness of her personal intuition, Sister Yulia is able to find her place in God’s plan, even as religious officials oppose her.

Yet the movie does not simplistically champion personal intuition as an infallible guide to discernment. Though Sister Yulia seems to have a direct channel to God throughout the movie, Father Fox’s psyche is clouded by his personal fears, desires and resentments.

This is most evident after he finds empirical proof that the prophecy is true, a discovery that comes shortly after he watches Laura, pregnant with his unborn child, suffer a tragic fate at the hands of her employees.

Throughout the movie, Father Fox has zealously striven to do good. But faced with conclusive evidence that God has willed a course of events that contradict his own judgments of good and evil, Father Fox experiences a vision, colored by his rage and grief at Laura’s suffering, that convinces him to defy God and take humanity’s salvation upon himself by murdering the child he believes will grow up to become the Antichrist.

His inability to accept apparent evil as a part of God’s will distorts Father Fox’s connection to God at a critical, anguished moment, leading him to megalomania and violence—justified in his mind by the lives he intends to save. The once-principled priest even becomes willing to kill innocents who stand in the way of his mission to kill the child.

On the other hand, Sister Yulia exemplifies a radical acceptance of God’s will, whatever it entails. “God made the world like this, good and bad,” she tells a fear-crazed Father Fox. Her conception of God contains all life’s ambiguities, good and evil, joy and suffering, and so is vast enough to withstand any challenge.

What is the basis for moral action, if God’s will encompasses both good and evil? “Deliver Us”casts light on this murky idea.

These contrasting attitudes toward the divine nature—one dualistic, the other holistic—touch upon another, slightly more obscure strain in Jung’s thought. Throughout his writings, Jung showed a fascination with the doctrine of the trinity and the problem of evil. He took issue with the orthodox Catholic idea of evil as a “privatio boni,” or absence of good. In his view, evil should be seen not only as having a substance of its own, but also as an integral part of the divine nature.

To many Catholics, this conceptualization of God might seem morally confusing at best, and blasphemous at worst. What is the basis for moral action, if God’s will encompasses both good and evil?

Watching the final scenes of “Deliver Us”casts light on this murky idea. By accepting evil as a part of the divine will, Sister Yulia is able to help God bring about a greater good than she could have foreseen, while Father Fox’s failure to accept evil drives him to take actions that seem altruistic, but in fact hinder God’s work of redemption.

Jung’s insistence on viewing evil as part of the divine can help Catholics to endure times of crisis without lapsing into fanaticism—if “good and evil” are understood to mean our preconceptions of good and evil. In Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Jung seems to imply that by accepting the inextricability of good from evil within our own psyches and in the world at large, we can redeem the parts of our experience that seem evil, bringing about a greater good: “I hope for my patients and for myself that everything, light and darkness, decision and agonizing doubt, may turn to ‘good”—and by ‘good’ I mean…an unfolding which does no damage to either of them but conserves the possibilities of life.”

Rather than leading us to lapse into nihilism or despair, viewing apparent “evils” as part of God’s will for creation can help us to see those evils as opportunities for redemption and transformation, especially during times of crisis. We can learn to see refugees not as enemies, but as fellows in a common struggle against an economic system that values profit over life. We can begin to let go of wealth hoarding and unsustainable consumption in order to practice mutual aid and ecological stewardship. And we can allow our grief at the loss of species to renew our awareness of Earth as a sacramental gift.

At a stressful time in a doom-laden culture, the prospect of a climate-change-centered horror movie might sound daunting. But alone among the many religious horror films released in the last year, “Deliver Us”offers not only visceral scares, but genuine, hard-won hope.

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