Constantine raises theological conversation; it does not raise the bar for good filmmaking

Someday, Constantine will make a fine Mystery Science Theater 4000 episode. Walking out of the theater, the people I saw this movie with were already laughing.

The opening scene is highly reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with a couple of Mexican peasants scrabbling aimlessly in the dirt until a sinkhole opens to reveal the Spear of Destiny, the spear used to kill Christ, wrapped in a Nazi flag. Thus is the Son of Satan born, or something like that.

Given that the plot is too complex to even be explained clearly in this two-hour-long movie, it certainly can’t be fairly summarized here. But essentially, Keanu Reeves (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) plays John Constantine, a Los Angeles exorcist who is dying of lung cancer and trying fruitlessly to atone for past sins by sending half-breed demons back to hell.

God and Satan are a couple of old men who have a friendly rivalry going on about who can attain the most human souls without using any direct contact with the humans.

But some of the real demons start a revolt, and Satan’s son bands with Gabriel to break out of Hell, where his dad would like him to stay.

And Matrix-style action ensues.

Interestingly, Satan’s son coming to earth would be a violation of the “no direct contact” clause in God and Satan’s bet, but apparently God’s son coming to earth was not; unless God has been cheating long before the demons have.

Speaking of God’s son, wasn’t it a cross, and not a spear, that killed him?

If all this makes the movie sound bad, that’s because it is bad. And that’s without the subtle anti-immigration message that may or may not be intended by the film.

That’s not to say there is nothing valuable to be gained by seeing Constantine.

Rather, the completely befuddling back story makes for a good criticism of the average evangelical’s open theism: if God and Satan are simply the super-powerful captains of two warring factions of spiritual beings, why couldn’t some of their minions split off and form a third power, upsetting the proper Good vs. Evil balance? Frank Peretti would have a field day with this setup.

Constantine can also help show how weak modern Christians’ angelology is. We Protestants have come to terms with God and his power’s relation to our wills, but it is not so clear as to what role demons and angels play. Do they whisper in our ears? Or possess us? What power can beings that are supernatural but not omnipotent have on the natural world?

Perhaps the clearest example of the holes in our worldview is that of the nature of exorcism. The Biblical stories provide us no clear handbook for casting out demons, or at least not one that modern people can understand.

But John Constantine (in his more orthodox cases at least) deals with possessions by chanting Latin at the victims. Sometimes, when the demon is unusually tough, the exorcism requires two people chanting Latin.

What sort of devils are these that are more affected by two human voices than one?

Any attempt by a Christian to try to explain the intricacies of fighting the underworld ends up sounding like a sci-fi fan’s defense of his favorite movie.

Constantine is clearly not a particularly good movie, nor even one that will inspire devotees to argue that it does really make sense after all. But that said, it is fun to watch and might even bring about a good theological conversation or two.

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