Christians and cosmic horror: Linked by Lovecraft?
In a fascinating October 30 article published at Hieropraxis — a website about Christian apologetics and, more broadly, “literature and faith, truth and beauty” — creative writing teacher Garret Johnson, who works for both the University of Houston and Houston Baptist University, talks about the deep value of Lovecraftian cosmic horror for Christians. Specifically, he argues that many Christians and other theists may live with a too-thin view of the cosmos and the awesomeness of the powers and principles that exceed it and lie beyond the natural world of scientific investigation, and that cosmic horror of the kind represented most pointedly by Lovecraft may offer a necessary philosophical and even theological corrective.
It’s an excellent piece in its own right (despite its invocation of that damnable doppelgänger, Edgar Allen Poe, as well as a misspelling of Cthulhu), but it takes on added significance for Teeming Brain readers because of its direct resonance with the expansive conversation-slash-debate that exploded here recently when I wrote a critical response to Jonathan Ryan’s absorbing examination in Christianity Today of Lovecraft, Machen, and the tension between cosmic horror and sacred terror. See “Cosmic Horror, Sacred Terror, and the Nightside Transformation of Consciousness,” along with its raft of comments.
I heartily commend Johnson’s article to the attention of everybody involved, especially since it shows him claiming things about the fundamental import and impact of Lovecraft’s fiction that Ryan denies to Lovecraft and attributes instead to Machen. Here’s a taste, with emphases added by me:
Interestingly…for a materialist, Lovecraft seems to possess an unusual mistrust of the ultimate ends of “the sciences” and a profound lack of confidence in the autonomous human mind to either arrive at ultimate truths or to handle them once arrived at. This turns out to be a critical link between Christians and those who share such a vision of the universe as Lovecraft’s — particularly those who also flock to the unique realm of literature that is “Supernatural Horror.”
… I’m wondering if it’s as immediately odd to others as it is to me that an adamantly hard-nosed materialist not only attempted a serious treatise on “supernatural” literature but also specialized in writing it, himself. It’s true that, in Lovecraft’s mind, the beastly grotesqueries he depicted — variously referred to as the Old Ones, the Great Old Ones, the Elder Gods, etc — were meant to be phenomena of strictly natural origin. But he saw such an immense gulf between the far reaches of possibility in the natural order and the human capacity for understanding such possibilities that it made for a frightening contrast: the bigness and power of the universe against the smallness and ignorance of humanity.
… The thing that’s ferociously interesting about this is that Lovecraft recognizes, and articulates (in his fiction especially), certain realities more incisively than do many of us theists who profess doctrinal convictions about them: both the frightening reality (or possibility to Lovecraft) of sentient beings with great power that exist in the universe but are not human, and the relative ignorance of an often over-confident, hubristic human race in the face of such large forces. This latter reality is compounded by another: the inability of the human mind to fully comprehend the deep things of existence.
Another great commonality, then, between Christians and readers and writers of Horror (not the gore-fest kind, but this subtle, supernatural kind) is a deep sense of, and response to, the realities of things unseen, unknown, things of deep mystery.
— Garret Johnson, “HP Lovecraft and Christian Thought,” Hieropraxis, October 30, 2012
[Update March 5, 2018: The above link has been changed to an archived page at the Internet Archive, as the original page and site are no longer available.]