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A movie review of
Directed by Penny Lane
(Magnolia Pictures, 2019)
*Rated R for graphic nudity and language
The new Magnolia Pictures documentary Hail Satan?, directed by avant-garde documentarian Penny Lane, is a thought-provoking darkly comedic study of an upstart faction of Satanists known as The Satanic Temple (TST). Cofounded by Lucien Greaves and Malcom Jarry in 2013, TST has been a growing, mischievous, and yet whimsical presence in public life. The group has earned a reputation as diehard political activists, taking the art of trolling to a whole new level.1 But trolling aside, make no mistake, this group is a social force.
The plot follows TST through a dozen or so of their staged protests, comprising a veritable media circus over the past six years. But weaving these major scenes together is the commentary of TST members themselves. The organized protests provide the main plot of the film, and raise the question of how religious freedom works. The personal stories lend an intriguing subplot, asking, “What kind of person would identify as a Satanist?”
How Does Religious Freedom Work? Hail Satan? portrays The Satanic Temple as a left-wing social-activist group that is helping to protect against religious overreach in politics. The main theme of their protests is the separation of church and state.2 TST is probably right in believing that church-state theocracy tends toward abuse. One thing we’ve learned over the past 500 years or so is that western societies haven’t always had a great track record with church-state unions. It’s not clear, however, what they would count as “theocracy,” as opposed to Christians in politics, civic religious symbols (such as “In God we Trust” on our currency), or just the lasting cultural echoes of a nation that was founded on the Judeo-Christian ethic.3
TST is clever with their protests. They don’t merely stage a march or launch a petition; they have a knack for camera-friendly theatrics, all capitalizing on their religious liberties. After Florida governor Rick Scott authorized prayer in schools in 2012, Satanists gathered at the state capitol building, chanting, “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott,” flaunting how his open-door policy for prayer in schools would allow for satanic prayers, too. When public schools in Oregon allowed after-school Bible clubs, local Satanists seized the opportunity to sponsor Satanism clubs at school. When a monument of the Ten Commandments was erected at the Arkansas capital building, Satanists unveiled an 8.5-foot-tall satanic statue (a Baphomet).
The message is clear: when governing officials open the door for direct Christian influence in the public sector, TST is liable to send a flash mob through that door to exercise their religious rights. In the eyes of TST, “religious freedom” means legal sanction for all religions.
Ironically, even though TST is an official religion (as of April 2019)4, they have a lot in common with the aggressive secularism of Dan Barker’s Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF). Both TST and FFRF are left-wing atheist activists trying to preserve a secular government and minimize religious (and especially conservative Christian) influence in the public sector. And both are a stark contrast to the American Center for Law and Justice and Alliance Defending Freedom.
Religious freedom is a hard-fought victory in the age of human rights legislation. In the United States, we esteem religious liberty so much that it’s encoded in our First Amendment as a capstone for other basic rights: free speech, free press, free assembly, and freedom to petition one’s government. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”5
The First Amendment surprisingly says nothing about the “separation of church and state.” That phrase was originally penned by Thomas Jefferson in his Letter to the Danbury Baptists (Jan. 1, 1802), reassuring them that the government is prohibited from interfering in church affairs, and not the other way around. Jefferson even closes the letter “with kind prayers” to God, revealing his comfort level with religious influence in his own governmental role.
Many Christians, however, might not know the rich and interesting history behind the doctrine of religious freedom. And they may not have explored the pros and cons of competing interpretations such as the “separation” view reflected by TST and FFRD. In this way, Hail Satan? raises a poignant challenge for Christians to study the legal doctrine of religious freedom, explore the implications and outcomes of this important idea, and stand up for a wise and righteous version of religious freedom in the public square.6
What Kind of Person Would Identify As a Satanist? The testimonies of Temple members throughout Hail Satan? raise another important question: who would veer so far from the popular path of modern culture, or stray so far from our Judeo-Christian heritage, to where they would identify as a Satanist? One would think such a move would invite scorn, confusion, and raise a few judgmental eyebrows. I found this aspect of the film to be even more riveting than the main storyline (i.e., the political protests). Underneath the main plot of Hail Satan? is a biographical subplot of an underdog story.
A motley crew of religious rebels are driven away from mainstream society by overbearing conformist hypocrites in the church. In their lonely quest for authenticity, each of these misfits ventures into the rough terrain of rebellion, cynicism, skepticism, and atheism. They may wander, but they’re not lost sheep. They don’t want a shepherd. Society treats them as outcasts, but they are explorers. When they finally stumble across The Satanic Temple, they realize they aren’t alone. They’ve been on the same journey all along without even knowing it. Which journey? The “left hand path” — an alternative worldview inverting conventional ethics and culture. They call themselves Satanists not for love of Satan (they don’t believe the fallen angel written about in the Bible exists) but because “Satan” symbolizes this alternative path better than anything else. United by the same restless spirit and a common enemy, they join forces and take revenge against religious bullies to combat injustice and topple abusive powers.
This underdog story emerges in filmed testimonials with Satanists, some with their identities hidden. At this point in the story, the Christian minister in me wept over them. They told stories of growing up in the church, playing Dungeons and Dragons as kids, listening to heavy metal music, having unanswered questions and dogmatic parents, facing church abuse and fake Christians and bullying. In sharing their stories, a psychological profile emerged.
Satanists are often dissidents from Christian culture. They can point out, by name, different hypocrites, abusive leaders, bullies, and fake Christians who all (seem to) prove that Christianity is a fool’s errand. The ultimate figure in Christianity, they believe, was a hypocrite, too. Using archival animation footage of children’s stories, Hail Satan? walks the audience through a satanic retelling of the Fall in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3). God, the cosmic killjoy, makes arbitrary laws promoting ignorance and forbidding knowledge and freedom. Abusive Christian leaders are just following God’s example by tyrannizing the masses.
One cannot help but wonder if the ranks of modern Satanism would be smaller if not for sex scandals and pedophile priests in churches. Apologist Walter Martin famously said, “Cults are the unpaid bills of the church,” and Satanism is no exception.7 Jesus’ harshest rebuke was of religious hypocrites (Matt. 23). Perhaps Christians can earn credibility and win back some of our dissidents by boldly confronting the sin in our pews instead of excusing it away in order to save a minister’s career.
Another struggle for Satanists is authority issues. Throughout the film, TST is depicted in red shades of adolescent angst crystalizing into sharp opposition against “theocracy,” the church, and political social-conservatives. In Greaves’s words, TST identifies as “anti-authoritarian and democratic in principle.”8 Satanism is for all “who gravitate with an affinity toward the ‘eternal rebel,’” for whom “Satan appears as the antithesis of today’s Evangelical Theocrats.”9 Plus, the “left-hand path” is individualistic, opposing moral and cultural authorities especially when their rules require blindly trusting leaders. In all seriousness, if oppositional defiant disorder were a religion, it would be Satanism.
Satanists range politically from left-wing to libertarian, seeking stark separation of church and state, and promoting pro-choice and LGBTQ-friendly policies.10 They tend to question moral absolutism, especially the moralism touted by preachy conservatives. But they don’t necessarily see themselves as immoral either. They even flaunt their alternative morality, for example, by conducting a “pink mass” on the gravesite of Catharine Johnson (the mother of Fred Phelps, of Westboro Baptist Church). This ritual was said to convert her to lesbianism in the afterlife. As TST rejects supernaturalism, this ritual was more mockery than magic, intended as a rebuke of Westboro’s infamous anti-LGBTQ antics.
Satanists also tend to be deeply misunderstood — owing in part to the fact that its critics (not its advocates) popularly define it. According to religious studies professor Joseph Laycock, “Calling someone a ‘Satanist’ was a way Christians from different factions discredited one another.”11 Generally, Christians don’t know much about Satanism except that they don’t want to be accused of it. Outsiders may not realize that TST Satanists are typically atheists, don’t believe in magic, and use most of their “dark” imagery (such as pitchforks and horns) for theatrical purposes and photo ops. There’s no unholy magical power in wearing a pentagram or dressing in black. On Satanism, there is no ritual abuse, blood drinking, or religious worship of a literal Satan. Satan is just a symbol for them.12
Satanists are also humanists. Another strange phenomenon happened as I watched this film. I couldn’t help but feel like I’ve seen all of this before; there was something strangely familiar about the TST. Skimming articles on Lucien Greaves and modern brands of Satanism, it felt less like a religion and more like new atheism. The personality profile of TST Satanists strewn across this film differs only by degree from the stereotypical humanist, skeptic, anti-Christian, left-wing, anti-authoritarian atheists I’ve repeatedly encountered over my eighteen years of public apologetics ministry. At least from an outsider’s perspective, there seems to be a strong family resemblance between TST Satanists and new atheists.
What Kind of Cultural Impact Can We Expect from This Film? While this film won’t break the box office, it was well received in its debut at the Sundance Film Festival13and already has earned high marks on IMDB14 and Rotten Tomatoes15. This film likely will earn a cult following (no pun intended) and not just from occult enthusiasts but also from political liberals, documentary buffs, and anyone with a devilish sense of humor (pun intended). Scanning reviews of this film, the critics are generally positive.16
Hail Satan? is definitely a sympathetic perspective. Penny Lane takes this group very seriously, as she helps the audience to laugh at their jokes, understand their plight, and revel in their impressive influence. Lane seems biased in favor of this group, even if she does not identify as a Satanist herself.17 But, to be fair, this is a documentary and not a panel discussion or a formal debate. It’s not designed as a balanced scholarly exchange of ideas. Watching a documentary, audiences need to account for this bias typical of documentary film. Nevertheless, this movie deserves a great deal of spiritual discernment, since audiences may feel pressured into sympathy for the devil.
The film is strong and positive publicity for TST. Ironically, the early scenes of the movie, using whimsical music and a comical tone, almost discredit TST as a joke. The director herself “couldn’t tell if the Satanists were sincere or kidding, but eventually realized that they were both.”18 The Satanic Temple isn’t a joke, or at least, it’s not just a joke. Their manner of protest is designed to make people laugh and think.
Concerned Christians should take note of this film and of The Satanic Temple as a cultural phenomenon. They would be mistaken to think the TST is anything less than an aggressive activist religion poised for continued growth — at least as long as national religious polls are trending away from a Christian majority.19 Christians should take TST seriously, but our best defense against TST is, on the public front, to understand and uphold our religious freedoms in the public square. And on the home front, to maintain good old-fashioned Christlike living (Eph. 5:1–2). From the stories in this film, these anti-Christians seem to have been driven away from the church not by the doctrine of the trinity, philosophical objections, or doubts about the virgin birth but by hypocritical and anti-intellectual attitudes of self-proclaimed Christians.
Should You Watch This Film? The film is entertaining, intelligent, raises important questions, stirs up discussion, and touches on public issues that deserve our attention: religious freedom, freedom of speech, abortion, and LGBTQ advocacy. Lane’s film is also a thoughtful character study of a misunderstood people group, giving a humanitarian glimpse into the satanic fringe of modern religious humanism.
Now, this film is not for young people. I also wouldn’t recommend it for people who are fascinated (tempted) by new atheism, religious humanism, Satanism, or occultism. For vulnerable minds, this positive treatment of Satanism will do more harm than good. Use some common sense as Christians before taking anyone to see this film. It’s riddled with objectionable material, such as full-frontal nudity (male and female), foul language, blasphemy, sacrilege, scary scenes, and other adult situations. These are context-sensitive features, however, and not just gratuitously tacked-on scenes, but they’re still unapologetic features of the satanic lifestyle proudly portrayed across the film. Hail Satan? earns every bit of its R rating.
With that warning in place, many discerning Christians such as apologetics professionals, researchers, academics, and some pastors will find this film is worth serious study. ––John D. Ferrer
John D. Ferrer (PhD, Philosophy of Religion, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a teaching fellow with the Equal Rights Institute.
“Jesus doesn’t encounter Matthew and John — or you and me — and ask, ‘What do you know?’ He doesn’t even ask, ‘What do you believe?’ He asks, ‘What do you want?’ This is the most incisive, piercing question Jesus can ask of us precisely because we are what we want.” —from You Are What You Love, by James K.A. Smith