Dracula’s atheist writers acknowledge Western debt to Christianity

Mark Gatiss (left) and Steven Moffat, writers of the BBC and Netflix’s Dracula. Courtesy of Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence
Mark Gatiss (left) and Steven Moffat, writers of the BBC and Netflix’s Dracula. Courtesy of Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence

Given that it is still fashionable for the literati of Western society to regard Christians as imbeciles, it was refreshing to hear the writers of the BBC and Netflix’s Dracula, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, who describe themselves as “a couple of ageing atheists,” acknowledge the genuine value of Christianity both as a rational faith and as a cultural force.

Gatiss and Moffat may have taken considerable liberties with the original Bram Stoker novel. But speaking on the BBC Obsessed With… podcast, they said that they had felt it necessary to take the Christian aspects of the story seriously.

“You can’t ignore the fact that Dracula fears the cross. And we were not going to write a nun struggling with her faith — and in the end regaining her faith — without taking that seriously, and trying to work out what that means to her, and how she deals with that. It’s all very well for us in our modern world to dismiss all that stuff. In more frightening times that icon of morality [the cross] sort of built a civilization, even if we kind of don’t think that way.”

Steven Moffat, co‑writer of ‘Dracula’

Hence, just as in the original, Dracula is terrified of the symbol of the crucifix. His great nemesis is the power of the gospel. And his adversary, a nun named Agatha van Helsing, is presented as an intelligent, complex and personable woman.

The discussion on this subject occurs between 19’50” and 22’40” on the podcast. At this particular juncture Moffat does most of the talking. He says:

“You can’t ignore the fact that Dracula fears the cross. And we were not going to write a nun struggling with her faith — and in the end regaining her faith — without taking that seriously, and trying to work out what that means to her, and how she deals with that. … We were determined to treat that seriously. It’s all very well for us in our modern world to dismiss all that stuff. In more frightening times that icon of morality [the cross] sort of built a civilization, even if we kind of don’t think that way.”

He then continues:

“Every Christian I know struggles with their faith. And I know very, very clever Christians. So it’s not right to slag that stuff off.”

And:

“It’s that code [Christianity] that Western civilization is sort of built around, even if we’ve sort of packaged that away as a fairy tale. It’s a lovely fairy tale about a superpowered carpenter, great. But it’s still roughly the code we live by. So one should take it seriously.”

The sign of the cross as a means of warding off the power of the demonic has a long history in Christianity. In one of the earliest Christian hagiographies, Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony, which was written in the fourth century A.D. and describes the life of an ascetic who went to glory in A.D. 356, the monk tells some believers who come to visit him in a deserted fort to protect themselves by making the sign of the cross.[1]

“There has long been a widespread tendency in Western society to deny the influence of Christianity (especially its positive influence) on who we are today. Any progress we have made as society is attributed to the secularizing forces of the Enlightenment and the modern realization that God is simply a human construct, best by far dispensed with. Our Christian past and the way it has shaped us is simply airbrushed out. It’s a kind of universal, tacit conspiracy: ‘Don’t mention the war.’”

There has long been a widespread tendency in Western society to deny the influence of Christianity (especially its positive influence) on who we are today. Any progress we have made as society is attributed to the secularizing forces of the Enlightenment and the modern realization that God is simply a human construct, best by far dispensed with. Our Christian past and the way it has shaped us is simply airbrushed out. It’s a kind of universal, tacit conspiracy: “Don’t mention the war.”

This being so, it is refreshing to hear Messrs. Moffat and Gatiss give us a more honest appraisal of the West’s Christian past, and to acknowledge that there really are some intelligent people out there for whom the God of Christianity is not simply a human construct.

The character Agatha van Helsing, the “atheist nun” in their Dracula adaptation, is somebody who genuinely struggles with the Christian faith, and we see her struggle not simply as a past thing — a faith she has outgrown — but as an ongoing battle, which eventually leads her back to belief in God. And which Christian doesn’t struggle with his or her faith, as Moffat acknowledges?

It is because the Christian faith is rich and complex that Christians struggle with it. When the Lord says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” what does that mean for the believer? When he tells his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,” what does that mean? What Scripture tells us that “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord,” what is the person who has himself committed adultery to make of it?

It is this richness and complexity that gives the Christian faith — besides, of course, its divine origin — its enduring quality, its ability to withstand all the onslaughts of ideas down the ages and still to be believed by millions of people for, very nearly, two thousand years. Indeed, before that, why the Jewish faith was believed in so persistently, so doggedly, for over a thousand years before the coming of its Messiah (and still believed in by millions today).

So next time you hear somebody describing Christians as imbeciles, gently remind him or her that even the screenwriters of his or her favourite shows say that they know some “very, very clever Christians.”

 

The Times: ‘Atheist Dracula writers took Christianity seriously’ (3 January)
https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/atheist-dracula-writers-took-christianity-seriously-wslbdc3kn

The Times: ‘Dracula reflects the power of Christianity’ (Melanie Phillips, 7 January)
https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/dracula-reflects-the-power-of-christianity-7zkn37j37

BBC Obsessed With… podcast (2 January)
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p07z64m5
The key discussion on this subject occurs between 19’50” and 22’40”.

Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony online
https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204/npnf204.xvi.i.html

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Athanasius and J. B McLaughlin, St. Antony of the Desert (Rockford, Ill.: Tan Books, 1995), 18; Life of Antony by Athanasius 14, in Carolinne White, Early Christian Lives (Penguin Classics, 1998), 18.

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