Thesis 3. Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins. – Luther

I think it’s safe to assume most of American Horror Story’s viewership is not, strictly speaking, Christian. I wouldn’t make a motion to change that. The show is far from virtuous and features quite a lot of sex, drugs, and victims skinned alive. But by what would seem to be the mark of my kind I cannot practice what I preach and am currently up to my neck in season five.

American Horror Story was one of the first “anthology series” in contemporary television. Each season tells its own self-contained story, so if you do give the show a chance — I don’t recommend it — at least do yourself a favor and start with the best, season two: Asylum. (So far not a fan of season five.) Season two takes place in the 60s and tells of an asylum for the criminally insane, managed by nuns. Notably, the “horror” part of the story is borne not of unfortunate circumstances but of the characters themselves, who, in confidence of their own rightness, constantly ruin each others’ day — to say the least. Spoilers ahead.

The Bound Will/Righteousness by Rightness

Each episode serves as a gory and profound parable of the human condition. Christianity offers a perspective similar to that of AHS, at least regarding the state of man (a markedly low view). Mankind constantly recoils from the goodness of God because the true desires of the heart are not God but sin. Jessica Lange famously says as much, playing Sister Jude, the lead role in Asylum: “All monsters are human.”

Sister Jude (possibly named for the weirdest epistle in the Bible, e.g. “Michael argued about the body of Moses”) was once a prostitute; she is now running away from her past, and one memory in particular, in which she killed a child while driving drunk. Having turned to the Church, she now does everything in her power not just to make herself righteous but also to make the world a better place. She ‘charitably’ manages the asylum and whips the patients when they misbehave or when they act, in her eyes, immorally. As she brings down the cane, she looks like the perfect villain. But when Jude discovers that another character, Dr. Arden, is conducting violent human experiments on the patients, she works her hardest to expose him (Dr. Arden, notice, also believes he’s doing the right thing, that the ends justify his gruesome means, and that by his experiments he might somehow improve the human race) — and suddenly we’re cheering for Sister Jude on her quest. Suddenly, we see a saint in her. We never really know if she’s a hero or a villain, and that’s ultimately why this story succeeds. Because she’s both, like all of us. She has made mistakes, she will make mistakes, but she is trying her best to do the right thing.

In one of her more spiteful moments, Sister Jude traps a reporter, Lana Winters, in the asylum. Lana (played by Sarah Paulson, from 12 Years a Slave (I’ll watch anything with Sarah Paulson in it — her performance steals the show)) initially tries to bring to light the asylum’s goings-on, but we later realize that even Lana has ulterior motives. She is not a pure-hearted do-gooder. Rather, she wants to publish a sensational story, to accomplish something self-augmenting and do something great. She wants to become famous.

Ultimately it’s a contest, a blood-spattered staircase to the top. The characters clamber over one another, each trying to secure the trophy of righteousness. The most interesting part is that these characters are convinced they are doing the right thing. If only the characters in AHS: Asylum had read a little Heidelberg Disputation, maybe things wouldn’t have gone so sour. Who knows? In Thesis 3, Martin Luther exposes a critical feature of the human condition: regardless of who we are, whether a nun with a dark past, or a writer with a hidden agenda, or a doctor who was never hugged by his mother, or simply an average joe, even our good deeds are most likely mortal sins. Luther argues that the will is bound no matter which way we turn. This defeating bit of theology might seem the most horrifying theme of all, but read on.

Confession/On Being Wrong

Sister Jude is very concerned with sin, and therefore being right. (Laughably she says, “Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin!”) She points out whenever others have sinned, as well as when she herself has sinned. She genuinely tries to understand her own sins, and to confess them. On the one hand she gives a grade-A effort; on the other hand, she’s so often wrong. She’s so mixed-up that she doesn’t even know what her worst deeds are. Luther explains confession this way:

Concerning confession, it is taught that no one should be compelled to enumerate sins in detail. For this is impossible, as the psalm [19:12] says: ‘But who can detect their errors?’ And Jeremiah [17:9] says: ‘The human heart is so devious that no one can understand it.’

As much as we are selfishly curved in ourselves (incurvatus in se), we are also curved away from ourselves, twisting backwards to avoid the ugly truth.

A particularly poignant moment occurs in episode eleven, when Sister Jude confronts Father Timothy, a priest who has fired her from her position as head of the asylum and who has committed her as a patient there. “It’s an extraordinary thing,” she says to him. “You throw me in the madhouse, you strip away everything I have, everything I know, you treat me like a rabid dog, like a madwoman, and you know what happens? I’m blessed with the gift of total clarity. I am more sane now as a madwoman than I ever was as the head of this asylum.” Here, we at last begin to see God’s character — the active Spirit who works through paradox and contradiction, who blesses the poor, dines with prostitutes, gives sight to the blind and clarity to the mad.

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As she is dragged away to solitary confinement, Sister Jude says, “You will not prevail, Timothy. My God wouldn’t allow it.” What Jude does understand is that God isn’t a god of endless affirmation; quite the opposite. He works very diligently to de-affirm the sin with which we are wracked. Throughout the course of the show, Jude, too, was torn down (in my view, by what could be interpreted as the workings of the Holy Spirit); she unlearned everything in order to see with “total clarity.” By the end, she is fried and crazy, and we absolutely love her.

A lot of viewers will interpret the initial less-than-favorable depiction of clergy as anti-Christian, but in my view it’s pro. As I’ve heard many a clergyperson say, “The church will hurt you but God will not.” Sister Jude and the others are human as all of us. The show illustrates a loss of faith in humanity, and a subtle but steady ascension of faith in the inhuman.

Another character to mention is Grace. Grace is (at first) one of the only clear-eyed patients at the asylum, and we trust her almost immediately. Turns out, she is messed up, too. She humbly confesses her history of violence to another patient through a cell wall (cf. Simone Weil, naturally: “Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.”) The confession and admission of her own sinfulness brings her closer to the other patients, despite their physical separation by the asylum’s walls. Later, Grace takes a bullet to protect a fellow patient — and is resurrected a few episodes later by aliens! Phew. In these moments we see the character of the God who moves through death and sin, not only in spite of it.

The bound will seems like bad news — but there has to be bad news before there can be good. Otherwise, the good news is an illusion, which is the worst news. Luther explains that because our will is bound to sin,

Thus we are confident and certain that we are pleasing to God, not by means of the accomplishments of our works but because of the graciousness of his mercy, which has been promised to us, and if we do less or act in an evil way, that he will not reckon it against us but that he will forgive us in a fatherly way and make things better.

Given this certainty, we can begin to look with honesty at our own selves and our own mistakes. We can see ourselves in the self-righteousness of Sister Jude, even the malice of Bloodyface. Trusting that God will not change the channel on us, we can, as Luther would say, call a thing what it is: one big American horror story. Even so, He “will forgive us in a fatherly way, and make things better.”