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 that most of American Horror Story’s viewership is not, strictly speaking, Christian, and I wouldn’t make a motion to change that. The show features a ton 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. (So the first piece of evidence supporting the theory of the “bound will” is that I myself can’t stop watching.)

If you do give the show a chance, and I don’t recommend you do, at least do yourself a favor and start with the best, season two: Asylum. (Currently not a fan of season five.) Season two, however, builds an incredible story about an asylum from the 60s run by nuns, and the “horror” part of the story is born not from unfortunate circumstances but from 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 promotes a perspective similar to that of AHS, at least regarding the state of man (a horrifyingly low view). Mankind is constantly recoiling from 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 (maybe named after 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 ran over 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 the cane down, she looks like the perfect villain. But when she discovers that another character, Dr. Arden, is conducting violent human experiments on the patients, she works her hardest to expose him (Dr. Arden, by the way, also thinks he’s doing the right thing, that the ends justify his gruesome means, and that by his human 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, just like us—she has made mistakes, she will make mistakes, but she is always trying to do the right thing.

In one of her more spiteful moments, Sister Jude traps a reporter, Lana, in the asylum. Lana (played by Sarah Paulson, from 12 Years a Slave (I’ll watch anything with Sarah Paulson in it—her performance ultimately 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 and do something great. She wants to become famous.

Ultimately it’s a contest of righteousness: a blood-spattered staircase to the top. The characters clamber over each other, one on top of the other, trying to secure the trophy of righteousness for themselves. 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. In Thesis 3, Martin Luther exposes a critical feature of all human beings: regardless of who we are, whether a nun with a dark past, or a writer with self-centered motives, or a doctor who was never hugged by his mother, or just 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 defeatist bit of theology might seem to be the most horrifying theme of all, but stay tuned.

On a more personal level, our contemporary “pursuit of truth” makes us not so different from Sister Jude. The word “truth” bears a particularly positive ring, especially lately, and especially regarding art and spirituality. We gravitate towards art that is “truthful,” and we turn up our noses at all that is “fake.” Notice “correctness” isn’t a buzzword unless paired with “political,” in which case we are trying to convey an anal sort of social policing, in a condemning way—but maybe the common usage of “truth” isn’t so different. When we view truth as something to be pursued, we begin to confuse truth and rightness. Maybe the pursuit of truth is just the desire to be right, to move heaven and earth, to part the waters with a manmade paddle—and that’s just what Sister Jude does. That’s what the serial killer Bloodyface does. That’s what the Nazi doctor conducting human experiments for the betterment of mankind does. They are all pursuing rightness—righteousness by rightness. They want to be on the right team, to be the ones who know how to save the day. Like the characters in American Horror Story: Asylum, we think that if we can attain the truth, then we can be right, and then we can be righteous.

In practice, we can seek out rightness just as surely as we can pass a math test, but we cannot seek out truth. Truth seeks us out, and we will run from it every step of the way.

Confession/On Being Wrong

One right thing we can say is that we are wrong, trusting that God, through Jesus, mends the gap that follows.

Sister Jude is very concerned with sin—and therefore being right (“Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin!”). She points out when others sin, 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 always 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 11, when Sister Jude confronts Father Timothy, a priest who has fired her from her position as the 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 being dragged away to solitary confinement, Sister Jude says, “You will not prevail, Timothy. My God wouldn’t allow it.” She understands God isn’t just a God of endless affirmation; in fact, he’s quite the opposite. He works very diligently to de-affirm sin, with which we ourselves are wracked. Throughout the course of the show, Jude, too, was torn down (in my view, by the workings of the Holy Spirit); she went kicking and screaming into the ground, and she unlearned everything in order to see with “total clarity.” By the end, she is totally 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 it’s actually pro-Christian. Sister Jude and the others are human, sinful as the rest. The show illustrates the loss of faith in humanity, and the subtle but steady ascension of faith in God.

Another character to mention is named Grace. Grace is 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. Weil, always: “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! In these moments we see the character of the God who moves through death and sin, not in spite of it.

The concept of the bound will seems like bad news—but there has to be bad news before there can be good news. Otherwise, the good news is just 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 look with honesty at ourselves and our own mistakes. We can see ourselves in the self-righteousness of Sister Jude and the malice of Bloodyface, and, trusting that God will not change the channel on us, we can finally, as Luther would say, call a thing what it is: just one big American horror story.