Hellbenders

    The other night, I watched a movie called ‘Hellbenders’.  Written and directed by J.T. Petty and starring Clancy Brown (who you may remember as the Kurgan from ‘Highlander’) and Clifton Collins Jr., ‘Hellbenders’ is the story of the Brooklyn chapter of the Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints, a group of men and women who live lives of sin and debauchery so that their souls are always damnation-ready.  They are called to exorcisms, and when they meet a particularly powerful demon, they tempt him to possess them and then kill themselves, thus dragging the demon back down to hell with them.

    They run into trouble when the Catholic Church tries to shut them down on the same week that Surtr is freed and sets the Apocalypse in motion.  Surtr is called an ‘old god’ in the movie, but nerds may recognize him as a Norse jotunn, a giant, who does, in fact, feature prominently in Ragnarok – apparently, he brings forth the flames that will devour the earth.

    The movie received poor reviews (only 33% on Rotten Tomatoes, for example), but I kind of loved it.  It was farcical, obviously, and campy, but it was genuinely funny.  The Hellbound Saints are an unprepossessing yet dedicated lot.  They earnestly keep a ledger book of sins, consistently falling short in both severity and frequency of sin. They are schlubby in the extreme; their main sin seems to be drunkenness.  They are unlikely saviors, totally un-battle-ready, and I found them completely charming.

     More than that, I think it’s a great premise, and I’m a complete sucker for a great premise.  It reminded me of one of my favorite Borges stories, ‘Three Versions of Judas Iscariot’.  Borges is too astonishingly good and beautiful to summarize without extreme discomfort, but, with humility: in it, Borges tells briefly of a fictional scholar, Nils Runeberg, who comes to believe that Christ’s sacrifice was total, his abasement for the salvation of mankind complete:

    “God, argues Nils Runeberg, stooped to become man for the redemption of the human race; we might well then presume that the sacrifice effected by him was perfect, not invalidated or attenuated by omissions.  To limit his suffering to the agony of one afternoon on the cross is to fall into contradiction…God was made totally man, but man to the point of iniquity, man to the point of reprobation and the Abyss…he chose an abject existence: He was Judas.”

    I’ve always thought that an incredibly interesting and sophisticated bit of thinking on Borges’ part, and I enjoyed the less-sophisticated, but still very enjoyable, mirror in ‘Hellbenders’.  It presents a, to me, compelling theological paradox: can you go to hell for sins which you have committed for holy reasons?  If you are doing an evil thing in an act of godly sacrifice, are you really committing evil?  Or is it the religious equivalent of a justifiable homicide?

‘Three Versions of Judas’ can be found in the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges.

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