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.]

 Image: “Age of Chaos” by Nick Keller from Desktop Nexus

About Matt Cardin


Posted on November 3, 2012, in Arts & Entertainment, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I’m getting rather sick of Lovecraft getting called a materialist, since the man lived for weird fiction and the feelings it gave him.

  2. Christians can comprehend no mystery if they fill their contemplation of the Void with their interpretation of what that Mystery necessarily is, instead of allowing it to blossom and touch the feelings where it may. The later is what Lovecraft always aspired to do. for Lovecraft, the Bible is an old book, and the secret lore of the Universe is of Higher knowing. the Bible, and the Christian religion is nothing compared to the audient void, that told Lovecraft its wisdom through his dreams.

    “But more wonderful than the lore of old men and the lore of books is the secret lore of ocean. Blue, green, gray, white or black; smooth, ruffled, or mountainous; that ocean is not silent. All my days have I watched it and listened to it, and I know it well. At first it told to me only the plain little tales of calm beaches and near ports, but with the years it grew more friendly and spoke of other things; of things more strange and more distant in space and time. Sometimes at twilight the gray vapors of the horizon have parted to grant me glimpses of the ways beyond; and sometimes at night the deep waters of the sea have grown clear and phosphorescent, to grant me glimpses of the ways beneath. And these glimpses have been as often of the ways that were and the ways that might be, as of the ways that are; for ocean is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of Time.” – H. P. Lovecraft

  3. I can think of another interesting analogy between HPL’s point of view and the christian outlook. Even if the message is ultimately one of hope and salvation the presence of the Almighty in the Bible is always accompanied by a sense of terror. Thus the inevitable refrain associated with every revelation. Fear Not!

    Don’t be afraid.

    In fact one might be tempted to say the aspect that distinguishes a genuine revelation from the false is that it contains this moment of terror. One does not stare into the face of god and live. The difference is that Lovecraft’s gods don’t care if you are destroyed by the vision and wouldn’t notice if you were!

  4. Well put, Ezra.

  5. The City in the Sea

    Lo! Death has reared himself a throne

    In a strange city lying alone

    Far down within the dim West,

    Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best

    Have gone to their eternal rest.

    There shrines and palaces and towers

    (Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)

    Resemble nothing that is ours.

    Around, by lifting winds forgot,

    Resignedly beneath the sky

    The melancholy waters lie.

    No rays from the holy heaven come down

    On the long night-time of that town;

    But light from out the lurid sea

    Streams up the turrets silently-

    Gleams up the pinnacles far and free-

    Up domes- up spires- up kingly halls-

    Up fanes- up Babylon-like walls-

    Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers

    Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers-

    Up many and many a marvellous shrine

    Whose wreathed friezes intertwine

    The viol, the violet, and the vine.

    Resignedly beneath the sky

    The melancholy waters lie.

    So blend the turrets and shadows there

    That all seem pendulous in air,

    While from a proud tower in the town

    Death looks gigantically down.

    There open fanes and gaping graves

    Yawn level with the luminous waves;

    But not the riches there that lie

    In each idol’s diamond eye-

    Not the gaily-jewelled dead

    Tempt the waters from their bed;

    For no ripples curl, alas!

    Along that wilderness of glass-

    No swellings tell that winds may be

    Upon some far-off happier sea-

    No heavings hint that winds have been

    On seas less hideously serene.

    But lo, a stir is in the air!

    The wave- there is a movement there!

    As if the towers had thrust aside,

    In slightly sinking, the dull tide-

    As if their tops had feebly given

    A void within the filmy Heaven.

    The waves have now a redder glow-

    The hours are breathing faint and low-

    And when, amid no earthly moans,

    Down, down that town shall settle hence,

    Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,

    Shall do it reverence.

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