By Eugene R. Schlesinger
This post contains spoilers, though I have tried to avoid revealing major plot developments.
The most religious show on television may well be premised on the worship of Satan. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which just completed its two-part first season on Netflix, provides a dark, new, and popular spin on the classic character of Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka), whose origins lie in Archie Comics, and whose most recent cultural avatar was the innocent sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996-2003). Far removed from the whimsical hijinks of previous versions of Sabrina, the current series delves into the practical implications of Sabrina’s hybrid character (half mortal, half witch) and witchcraft by following the logic that if she practices witchcraft she must be a Satanist. The depictions of Satanism vary in tone from the camp of exclamations like What the Heaven? to the gruesome shock of blood spurting from the throats of human victims offered in sacrifice to the Dark Lord.
Much about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is compelling. The visual aesthetic is excellent, the characters are generally relatable, the plot is charged enough to keep the action moving, and then there’s the fascination that attends things occult. (I did not expect to find the relationship between Sabrina and her mortal boyfriend, Harvey [Ross Lynch], to be so charmingly wholesome.) Most fascinating to me, as a theologian, is to consider the show’s relationship with Christianity. At several points, apparently without realizing it, Sabrina is beset with contradictions that cry out for a resolution within the Christian faith.
The fascinating thing about pop-culture depictions of Satanism is that they must assume the truth of Christianity in order to be viable. This is in some contrast to the beliefs and practices of organizations like the Church of Satan, who regard Lucifer as only a Promethean symbol, rather than an entity who receives their devotion or worship, and certainly differs from the beliefs of contemporary practitioners of witchcraft, who have no dog in this fight. The Satanism of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina looks to a personal Lucifer Morningstar: an angel cast out of heaven for rebelling against “the False God” (the characters’ consistent appellation for the Christian God), and who gives his followers “delicious” powers in exchange for their souls.
The religion of Sabrina, “the Church of Night,” is entirely parasitic upon Christianity. Indeed, many of its activities are premised on mocking Christian beliefs and practices. This occurs with varying degrees of effectiveness. The show’s writers have clearly hired a consultant to help them come up with at least plausible Latin for their incantations, and the Church of Night’s members are more willing to talk about Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice for humanity than many of my fellow Episcopalians. But they rather bungled the decision to have an anti-pope, apparently not realizing that this phrase refers to a rival claimant to the See of Peter, rather than a perverse inversion of him.
Among the most fascinating interactions between Satanism and Christianity is that, while Sabrina’s father pledged her to the Dark Lord in her infancy, her mother had her covertly baptized in a Catholic Church, leading to rival claims upon her soul. In general, Sabrina shows little interest in exploring her Catholic identity, though she’s not averse to benefiting from the loopholes afforded her by her baptism, like an ability to enter consecrated ground. In that regard, she may well be a symbol of modern Christian youth.
This parasitic interplay between Satanism and Christianity leads to some significant tensions within the show’s vision. As the action progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the Devil is not such a nice guy after all. Though the Church of Night talks a big game about personal freedom and self-actualization, it turns out that the Dark Lord is petty, controlling, vindictive, and cruel. This is no tragic, Miltonian anti-hero, nor even a misunderstood figure who’s suffered from centuries of Christian propaganda, but a figure every bit as evil as classical Christianity has made him out to be. This in itself is noteworthy.
Every so often, Christian groups of a more conservative bent will be worked into a wave of satanic panic, fearing that Dungeons and Dragons or the Harry Potter books might glamorize the path of darkness and lead susceptible children astray and into the Devil’s clutches. I’ve not seen any such backlash to The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina — whether because I’m far enough removed from such groups that their cries of protest no longer reach me or because times have changed. But in some ways it embodies the overt Satanism that concerned parents feared in these other media. In other ways, it inoculates against the feared effect.
The deeper one delves into the series, the less glamorous and attractive Devil worship becomes. To derive a pro-Satanism message from this show would require the same level of inattentiveness needed to come away from Breaking Bad thinking that cooking meth would be a sensible career path.
With all this considered, one would think that perhaps it would occur to any of the characters to consider Christianity or even just turn to God in their struggle against the forces of darkness. After all, the story’s imaginative universe depends upon the existence of God and recognizes that he opposes Satan, who it turns out is someone who ought to be opposed. What’s more, the characters explicitly recognize that Satan is not a deity, but a mere creature, which would mean that God is also infinitely more powerful. And we have not just a generic theism, but also empirical demonstrations that Christianity is true. “The Nazarene” has walked the earth, done miracles, and offered himself as a redemptive sacrifice. The sacrament of baptism has real and lasting effects, which can counteract the powers of the Devil. Yet when the Gates of Hell threaten to burst open, no one approaches the church about which it has been promised that these gates will never prevail (Matt. 16:18).
I am not suggesting that The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina should have turned itself into an apologetic or evangelistic tool for Christianity, nor that the season should have ended with Sabrina deciding to complete her initiation into the Catholic Church by being confirmed and making her first Communion. Such twists would undoubtedly undercut the show’s effectiveness. But one cannot help but wonder at these tensions and contradictions. They perhaps unwittingly reveal something of what Hans Urs von Balthasar called the “pathos of the world stage” (Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. 4: The Action). Human existence is shot through with ambiguities, which cry out for a resolution beyond what humans can attain by our natural powers. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina clarifies that the primary obstacle to Christian conversion is not intellectual but volitional, thereby echoing St. Augustine’s internal struggle against his will, a struggle that only ended when God, by his grace, opened the door to belief.
These messages are not overt in the show, of course, and it is perfectly possible to watch Sabrina purely for entertainment. Yet for those who desire to reflect on the deeper questions raised by a show premised on Satanism, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina presents ample material for consideration, and has the potential to bear much fruit.