Monday, August 10, 2015

Episode Review: "Die Hand Die Verletzt" (2x14)

The episode for today in the 204-day rewatch is "Die Hand Die Verletzt." Although this episode focuses on the occult rather than Christianity, it does touch on themes of hypocrisy in Christianity or any religion and the dangers of complacency and watered-down faith. The full review is below and also on the Top Ten Religious Episodes page.

Die Hand Die Verletzt (2x14)
Original airdate: 1/27/95
Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong
Directed by Kim Manners


“Die Hand Die Verletzt” brings up interesting issues about complacency, hypocrisy, and the potency of religion. It pairs well with the seventh season episode “Signs & Wonders,” which also raises questions about the true nature of the devil and the symbolism of snakes in religion.

The PTC (Parent Teacher Commitee) objects to doing the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, saying it is not appropriate for this high school, then they refer to leading in prayer. The initial impression we get is that these are conservative Christians who think a play about Jesus is too controversial or sacrilegious and who pray at their meetings. But appearances can be deceiving, as we soon find out. They light a candle and shut the door; as they begin to pray, the light seeping through the doorframe turns a hellish red. They pray, “Sein ist die Hand die verletzt” (translated for us as “Thine is the hand that wounds”).... Hail the Lords of Darkness.”

Outwardly, especially toward Mulder and Scully, the PTC continues to play up the stereotype of conservative Christians, indignant about the music and television their children are exposed to as a corrupting influence that leads to events such as occult murder. (Later, after Ausbury’s true religion is revealed, he still blames the media, saying that his daughter filled in the blanks in her memory from things she saw on Geraldo.) While the identification of the PTC as Christians is only implicit at the beginning, it becomes explicit when Mulder tells Ausbury that his desire for revenge against anyone who would hurt his daughter isn’t “a very Christian tenet” and when Ausbury later contrasts his own faith and practices with those of Christians. Hypocrisy is built into the very practice and demeanor of the PTC because they perpetuate the stereotypes against Satanism and devil worship in order to hide their own participation in the same.


The boys conducting the “seance,” Jerry Stevens and Dave Duran, represent those who dabble in the forms of religion but have no understanding of its power. They pray to the same group as the PTC: the Lords of Darkness, Rulers of the Earth, Kings of the Underworld.

Dave reads, “Know ye all who dwell in the light of professed righteousness,” which brings to mind the hypocrisy of the PTC, as those who profess to be righteous, or who masquerade as the righteous (the good and just) but behind closed doors live out the opposite.

Dave continues, “that the others who know the keys and the angels have opened the gate.” These words give a sense of foreboding, because Dave through his words appears to open the gates to hell and unleash something on the community. (This may also allude to Rev. 1:18 [a verse quoted in “Millennium”], which refers to Jesus holding the keys of Death and of Hades, or Hell.) Dave and Jerry -- and the PTC, who are not serious about their beliefs and rituals -- have toyed with something they do not understand and have unwittingly unlocked the gate. Dave later tells Mulder and Scully, “I never thought it would work.... I’m afraid we called up some devil” -- which, of course, is exactly what has happened.

As the teens run away in terror while Jerry is attacked, Andrea chants the Hail Mary, in contrast to the PTC (and the text read by Dave), who chant, “Hail the Lords of Darkness.”

The toads falling from the sky are reminiscent of the second plague preceding the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt (Exod. 8:1-15). This recalls the battle of signs and wonders between Moses and the pharaoh’s magicians, and the theme of true versus false religion. This provides a backdrop for the comparison between Christianity and occultism throughout the episode: though both may contain a form of power, just as both Moses and the Egyptian magicians could perform the same wonders (here, creating a plague of frogs), does that make both belief systems equal? The difference between the God of Moses and the gods of the Egyptians is that Moses’s God is able to undo the plague (killing the frogs) when Moses prays for it, and Moses’s God has a purpose behind his displays of power: to release his people from slavery. Likewise, though Christianity and occultism may both contain forms of sacrifice and may both demonstrate supernatural power, are both equal, or does something else distinguish them? Ausbury seems to find that something else when he has a change of heart.

Through Scully’s skepticism and reasonable arguments, the episode raises the theme that recurs in other episodes (“Syzygy,” “Empedocles”) that while there are often rumors of devil worship and Satanic cults, FBI efforts to investigate such claims have led to little or no evidence, that it is nothing more than rumors and group hysteria -- but in this case, the rumors prove to be true.

Ausbury quotes from Psalm 94:1, “Thou, God of vengeance, shine forth!” Mulder replies that even the devil can quote Scripture to fit his needs (as happens especially in the temptation of Jesus by Satan in Matt. 4 and Luke 4). This is the first time in the episode that the agents connect the PTC to occultism. Ausbury’s reply, that the devil travels in many forms, shows the suspicion and fear that he lives with, knowing that the devil is on the loose seeking blood but may appear as anyone or anything. This also raises the issue of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, or the devil appearing in deceptive guise, which recurs especially in “Signs & Wonders” (see also “Revelations,” “All Souls”). If the devil can appear as anyone, then truly you can trust no one. In this case, the devil comes in the form of a caring, old-fashioned substitute teacher (compare to “Signs & Wonders,” where Mulder says that people expect horns and a tail, not a kindly man telling you what you want to hear).

Ausbury has a change of heart, or a conversion, when his daughter becomes the victim and he experiences the callousness of the other PTC members. They recognize that their faith requires sacrifice and that they must take the murders as a wake-up call to return to faithful devotion and practice. But Ausbury values the life of his daughter more highly than he does the ancient rituals. He can’t accept that sacrifice is required when the sacrifice is his own daughter, and especially when the others are willing to let her take the blame in order to cover their own misdeeds.

Ausbury’s change of heart is punctuated by his confession of this to Mulder, a dialogue that serves as a key to the entire episode. Ausbury raises the issues of hypocrisy and persecution and contrasts his own faith with Christianity. He was raised to believe that Christians were hypocrites. Aside from the hypocrisy he saw in their practices, there was the historical fact that the Christians of his forefathers’ day (the Puritans) came to America to flee religious persecution, and then they became the persecutors when they hunted out practitioners of the occult and witchcraft. Now, Ausbury and the PTC have become the hypocrites, symbolically so when they act as if they are Christians who are persecuting occultists. But the hypocrisy goes much deeper, rooted in their watered-down faith.

Ausbury’s other criticism of Christianity is that they teach to “do unto others” (referring to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you [Matt. 7:12]), while humanity’s natural tendency is to “do as thou wilst” (a phrase generally attributed to noted occultist Aleister Crowley, for whom the school, Crowley High School, is named) -- do what you will, or whatever feels right. In other words, humans, like animals, behave on instinct and impulse. What Christianity teaches is to live with self-restraint and selflessness, to overcome our natural urges. But Ausbury has seen the animalistic impulses of his fellow believers, and he has come to realize that he is better than an animal. He can rise above his urges to put the good of others (especially his daughter) above his own. Ausbury shows that humans do (or he does) have a sense of morality, even though his religion stands counter to that. He thinks it is natural to behave as animals, but when he sees true animalistic behavior, he believes in a sense of right and wrong that transcends the animal instincts of self-preservation.

Mulder also points out the hypocrisy of Ausbury and his fellow practitioners by comparing their watering down of the ancient rituals to the Christian practice of watering down the communion wine by using grape juice instead. While there is not a one-to-one correlation between communion and the occult sacrifices, the point is driven home by the association with the group that Ausbury considers to be hypocrites.

Mulder’s question to Ausbury hits on the real problem behind their hypocrisy: “You knew the possibilities contained in your beliefs.... Did you really think you could call up the devil and ask him to behave?” When paired with Mulder’s earlier statements that even the Church of Satan has renounced murder, it begs the question whether any religion can truly lose the ancient rituals entirely or only fool themselves by losing the beliefs while the rites and incantations retain their power. Specifically, in this case, perhaps a religion worshiping a being known for death and destruction cannot so easily walk away from the very things that being is associated with. The true risk is that those in the know do not inform others of the real power behind the words and rituals, so that someone like Dave stumbles across the words, thinks they are innocuous, and calls up something powerful that he doesn’t understand.

Aside from the references to Azazel, it is never entirely clear exactly what belief or religion the PTC represents. Mulder refers to modern witches and Wicca representing a much less violent form of religion than one associated with ritualistic murder and says that even the Church of Satan has renounced murder and torture. The PTC may be part of a renegade, more extreme faction of either type of belief system, or simply is a modern expression of an ancient religious tradition, one that has not yet formally renounced such practices but has let them slide. Whatever their faith, Ausbury explains that it has a long history, going back in the community seven generations.

Ausbury and the PTC appear to have made a pact, or covenant, with the devil, a pact that may go back a couple hundred years. They agreed to faithfully adhere to the rituals, including the masses and blood sacrifices, likely in exchange for power and prosperity. The fact that the PTC members are leaders in the community shows that they have reaped the benefits of their pact. When they fail to uphold their end of the bargain, however, the devil comes to claim what is owed.

This contrasts with the idea of covenant in Christianity, as inherited from Judaism. Mulder refers to the communion wine, which in the New Testament is the blood of the new covenant (cf. Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; 1 Cor. 11:25). This alludes back to the role of blood sacrifice (of animals, not humans) in establishing the covenant at Sinai between the Israelites and the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod. 24:8). The Israelites promised to obey God’s laws, and in exchange God promised them a land of their own and prosperity in that land. But there were also promises of what would happen to them if they failed to hold up their end of the bargain by obeying the law. Like Ausbury and the PTC, after several generations of prosperity, the Israelites grew complacent and failed to fulfill their side of the pact, so they suffered the consequences (exile from their land), until they returned to God.

The snake that appears throughout the episode associated with Mrs. Paddock and then comes to kill Ausbury plays on the symbolism of snakes as representing evil and especially Satan in the Garden of Eden (see especially “Signs & Wonders,” where this association is more fully explored).

In the end, the PTC falls victim to their own complacency and the terms of their covenant. They lived with the belief that they were no better than animals, and so Ausbury died like an animal, consumed by a snake. They gave up on blood sacrifices, and so their own blood became the sacrifice to satisfy the terms of their covenant. They called up the devil, but the devil would not behave.

References:

In the passage that Dave Duran reads, he refers to Azazel. The PTC later says that Jerry was displayed according to the rites of Azazel. The name Azazel appears in some modern translations of Leviticus 16, in the passage describing a ritual on the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), in which the sins of the people are transferred to a scapegoat, who is sent into the wilderness (“to Azazel” Lev. 6:10, NRSV) to carry away their sins. In subsequent literature and mythology, the name Azazel has been attached to a fallen angel or demon.

Mulder refers to drinking grape juice instead of wine in communion as though this compares to passing over ancient rituals. The use of grape juice is typically to avoid the alcoholic properties of wine, either for faith communities that generally abstain for alcohol or for individuals who should avoid alcohol (such as alcoholics or those who are underage). Since grape juice and wine are both fruit of the vine (that is, produced from grapes), grape juice is generally not considered to be a significant change to the original practice of consuming wine and bread. For those who believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation (the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine and the transformation of the elements in some metaphysical way), the key part of the ritual is the blessing by the ordained priest, not the alcohol properties of the wine.

Discussion Questions:

1) Ausbury tells Mulder that humanity’s natural tendency is to “do what thou wilst” (do what you will) rather than live by the Golden Rule (“do unto others,” or treat others the way that you want to be treated). What are examples of each way of living? Which seems more natural to you? Which seems a better way to live? Why?

2) Ausbury says that humans are nothing but animals, no better and no worse. Do you think this is true? In what ways are humans similar to animals? In what ways are humans different? What role does morality (right and wrong) play in human life, especially compared to animals?

3) What happens when religious rituals are practiced only for the sake of the ritual and the original meaning behind it is lost? What is -- or should be -- the relationship between faith and ritual? Are rituals just reminders of the past, or do they hold true power?

4) How do we avoid complacency or hypocrisy in religion? In other words, how do we avoid becoming people who just go through the motions and do not have true faith?

5) What purpose do sacrifices play in religion? What role does communion play in Christianity, and how does this compare to the blood sacrifices of animals used by the ancient Israelites and early Jews? What does it mean that Jesus’s blood is referred to as the blood of the (new) covenant?