Perhaps I was reading too much into the symbolic
language of this film, but when the opening shot featured two squatters
scrabbling around in the dusty ruins of a Mexican church, I had a feeling
institutional Christianity was in for a rough ride. That feeling intensified
when one of the squatters broke through the church’s rotting floor and
discovered a religious relic wrapped in a Nazi flag, no less. And instead of
bringing about healing or redemption, this relic—the so-called “Spear of
Destiny” used to pierce Jesus’ side following his crucifixion—brought only
death and destruction. In less than 60 seconds, the filmmakers had depicted the
church as irrelevant, fascist, superstitious, and lethal. Where were they going
to go from here?
As the film progressed, however, I was surprised to discover that Constantine wasn’t as interested in attacking the church as it was in appropriating various aspects of Christian theology and mythology for its own purposes. Using a mixture of Catholic and Protestant tradition as raw material, the filmmakers created their own rather fascinating cosmology, one that posits—not unlike the book of Job—that God and Satan have made a wager with no less than the souls of humankind hanging in the balance. The rules? No interference allowed, just influence. The cosmic super being with the most souls in the end wins. Thrown into the mix is a race of half-breeds—half-human/half-angel or demon. These are the “influence peddlers,” as John Constantine calls them. With full-blooded demons and angels restricted to their respectively hellish and heavenly realms, the half-breeds are the only non-human participants in this celestial game.
Every so often, one of these half-breeds breaks the rules, moving from influence to interference. When this happens, Constantine steps in and “deports” them back to hell. To do so, he employs a combination of pagan and Catholic artifacts and rituals, a fact that is sure to incite those who hold allegiance to the Vatican. How did John Constantine—a mere human—inherit such a role? Since he was a child, the spiritual beings that haunt this world were plainly visible to him, and he to them. Eventually, this “gift” of seeing became so overwhelming that Constantine tried to commit suicide as a way of escape. But rather than offer an escape from hell, his actions delivered him to that place of fire and brimstone instead—them’s the breaks, according to Catholicism’s rules about such matters. Two minutes later, his soul was yanked back to the land of the living. But for Constantine, it felt like he had been gone for an eternity.
Forever altered by his sojourn into hell but knowing he was doomed to return as a consequence for his sin, Constantine has dedicated his life to deporting as many demons as possible in the hope that eventually God will relent and grant him admission to heaven. The point that Constantine keeps overlooking though—as a half-breed angel named Gabriel reminds him—is that you can’t earn your way into God’s good graces. It takes faith and self-sacrifice.
Even before his stint in hell, faith was not something with which John Constantine struggled. Who needs faith when the things hoped for, the things unseen—and the things most feared—are all around you (cf. Hebrews 11:1)? It’s self-sacrifice that poses the real problem to Constantine, but not because he is inherently self-centered. He just doesn’t see the point of it. And who can blame him? With a God who merely toys with the beings he has created, how could anyone take his ethical requirements seriously? God’s apparent indifference to the affairs of Men puts him not only in the same league as the devil but also on the same team. Such a God could not be anything but evil. But not all hope is lost for Constantine. Despite appearances to the contrary, eventually even he comes to believe that God might have a plan for his life, one that doesn’t involve relegating him to eternal damnation.
No doubt, many Christians will be upset that this film takes such license with orthodox theology. This might be a valid criticism if Constantine actually tried to portray its version of the spiritual world as true—the same way author Dan Brown tried to portray The Da Vinci Code’s version of church history as correct. However, the people behind this film make no bones about the fact that they are constructing a fantasy, period. That they treat the church as basically inconsequential in the spiritual battles that rage on this planet is not to be taken lightly. But once again, I do not think it is something to get angry about. If some people feel this way about the church, it is incumbent on Christians to find out why and then address such issues accordingly, not simply lash out because someone dared to criticize our record.
While the theology of this film is far from orthodox, the themes and questions it raises are a different story. Few Christian films have done a better job of depicting the difference between works and grace. And few mainstream films offer such a strong affirmation of the spiritual dimension of life, showing it to be every bit as real and consequential as the physical. Constantine also addresses a number of spiritual questions that seem particularly pressing at this point in time, questions like “Is God good?” “Does he have a plan for me?” “Is he out to get me?” “Is he even there?” and “What must I do to be saved?”
While I hope viewers won’t blindly accept the deistic, dualistic portrayal of good and evil in this film, I do hope it inspires them to think more seriously about the above questions and the spiritual dimension of life as a whole. Constantine certainly had that effect on me. And for those of you who feel the filmmakers’ depiction of the church in the opening sequence of this film was pretty much dead on, I urge you to give Christianity a second chance. The church’s record is far from unblemished. But it is not nearly the inconsequential, fascist, spiritually bankrupt institution this film makes it out to be.
Not quite The Matrix but infinitely better than Van Helsing, Constantine is that rare supernatural thriller that isn’t afraid to make you think. I’m already looking forward to the sequel.