I’m sorry, don’t know why I’ve had ghost stories on my mind. But, I ran across an essay that talked about the differences between US or Western ghost stories and Japanese. (Here is the link, although it is really geeky. http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/the-ghost-did-what-translation-exposing-providentialist-thinking/) The summary is to say that US ghost stories tend to reward the virtuous and punish the evil. That essay calls this providential, although that is a terrible definition of providence, which biblically is “the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.” The providence of God is not that he’s the galactic scorekeeper, but that he is gracious and merciful, not visiting upon sinners their due rewards. Japanese ghost stories have a different morality that can be shocking to Westerners. In the Western sense, complete innocents can die. People who do nothing to help but heed warnings can live. Victory, if you want to call it that, can simply be diverting the ghost out of your house somewhere else.
I find ghost stories and maybe horror stories in general interesting because they are almost always theological. They reveal more clearly than almost anything else what we actually believe about “God, the universe and everything.” I also think that is why the horror genre is a niche. Most people don’t actually want to think about theology. Which makes the pastoral job interesting. Because part of the job is not just getting people to think about such things, but to maybe make corrections to their thinking. And maybe even make changes in their lives to bring them into closer alignment with good theology. And it is part of the job not because any pastors really want to be the morality police. We don’t. It is part of the job because it is part of equipping the saints. We all enter the crucible. You don’t want to be putting on the armor while you are already being tested. You want to have it girded prior. So part of the job is Pastor as haunting ghost to get you to think about these things.
The Western ghost story, with its embedded works righteousness, is a fable of the law. And that law has three purposes: 1) The Curb, 2) The Mirror and 3) The rule. Watching a US ghost story where the evil and promiscuous die functions as a curb in that the innocent viewer might see where punishment is given and not follow that path. It functions as a mirror in that we might see what is due to us in certain characters. It functions as a rule in that it holds up – via the hero and heroine – a still more excellent way. The biggest problem with that fable is that it also lies. It holds out hope that by following the hero’s path we might live. By the law, we all die.
This is where I think the Japanese ghost story is a nice correction. It is a world of at best disinterested spirits, and at worst malevolent spirits. The disinterested do their jobs with varying levels of competence. It is interesting to me pondering a hurricane as the result of the weather power taking a day off. And I don’t think that is far off the biblical picture of “the powers that be.” (Luke 21:26, Romans 8:38, Eph 6:12, 1 Pet 3:22). And of course “Satan prowls like a roaring lion.” Stealing from Sci Fi/Fantasy, we live in a dark forest. Oh, we think we know everything because of our recent mastery of matter. But maybe we don’t have the mastery we think we do. We think we have clear cut the forest, but have we?
The secret to many Japanese ghost stories is “the wise old man or woman.” This character is usually a minor one, but they haunt the story. They show up usually after some deaths when the main characters are desperate. They tell the characters what is happening. And they tell the characters how to avoid it. And then they leave. What happens in the Japanese film is not about personal holiness. Did you follow the law? What happens is did you hear and take heed? The characters that are open to wisdom’s word are saved. Those who have ears to hear are not always those we think deserve it.
This is the advent of the gospel. The star has appeared. The light shines in the darkness. Are we willing to set aside worldly wisdom and follow the star? Or do we insist upon our own knowledge unto salvation? At least in the Japanese ghost story, the one who listens to the Word makes it out of the dark forest and lives.