Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Theodicy, Dystheism, and Moral Complexity on Hannibal

There are some shows were you don’t expect to ever hear anything about religion, like Parks & Rec. Then there are shows where religious themes are going to come up all the time, like Joan of Arcadia. But sometimes, in shows you don’t expect, religious themes crop up quietly. One of these is Hannibal. Serial killers, culinary masterpieces, occasional harpsichord solos—it doesn’t seem like there’s much room to fit religion into the nightmarish drama that is Hannibal. Nevertheless, at times, hints of religious and spiritual matters do indeed appear in the show, coming from the place you’d least expect them: the mouth of Hannibal Lecter himself. Hannibal is a man of infinite complexity, and through his dialogues with Will Graham, as well as his own actions, we see glimpses of said deep inner complexity in regards to his beliefs about God and morality.

hannibalTrigger warning for typical Hannibal things, such as: gaslighting, mutilation, and of course, cannibalism.

In the first season of the show, Will Graham begins therapy sessions with Hannibal Lecter (one of the Worst Ideas anyone has ever had). This serves to further and deepen their completely dysfunctional bromance, as well as to let Hannibal get into Will’s head and set up everything to frame and hardcore gaslight him in later episodes. During these sessions, God in fact somehow does come up. In the second episode of the series, “Amuse-Bouche”, the two men are discussing the act of killing and how it makes a killer feel, and Hannibal utters the unsettling line, “Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time,” concluding, “…are we not created in His image?” Theodicy is the age-old question of “whence evil?”, how and why a purportedly good God allows evil in world. This quandary has plagued people of faith and the greatest theologians and philosophers throughout time. The most common method of justification is something along the lines of “The ways of God are beyond human understanding”, but there are other possible alternatives, including one Hannibal seems to believe: God is simply not good.

Hannibal and Will TherapyThat is dystheism in a nutshell; while not numbering among “The Top Ten Religious Tenets”, dystheistic strains of theology are not totally absent from the history of religious thought. They in fact are quite prominent in a number of religions with dualistic cosmology, such as many strains of Gnosticism, like the Manichaeans, or the medieval Cathars—their beliefs posited that the Creator of the material world was evil, and therefore the whole material world was evil as well. The “dual” part of their dualism did include a good God to balance the scales; His realm was the completely spiritual world, antithetical to the material.

I don’t think Hannibal’s worldview is as nuanced as Gnostic cosmology, nor that he is a neo-Manichaean, but I would definitely say he agrees with the statement “God is not good”. The degree to which God is not good is, in Hannibal’s mind, up for debate. Is He lawful neutral, for example, or chaotic evil, perhaps? Is He an uncaring, by-standing creator who does nothing to alleviate suffering, or an active, malevolent force? Hannibal’s statement that killing feels good to God seems to support the latter interpretation. Furthermore, Hannibal, in the same discussion as his previous quote,  mentions God “dropping a roof” on a group of worshipers (and he brings up another fatal church collapse during worship whose onus he puts on God in “Shiizakana”)—this pits God as the active agent of the church building’s collapse and therefore the demise of those gathered there. Not only does this make for a God who enjoys killing, but the act of killing worshipers in the midst of prayer gives God a sick, twisted sense of humor in addition to a sadistic bloodlust. “God is beyond measure in wanton malice, and matchless in his irony,” Hannibal muses in “Kō No Mono”.

Eat the RudeWhat does this mean for Hannibal? How do these beliefs inform his behavior? Now, people can clearly develop their ethics without religion or God of any kind in the picture; however, for those who do believe in a God, this typically has some kind of impact in shaping their morals. Theistic religions have a history of and tendency to enforce the idea that following laws and examples set forth by the divine is a major key to holiness—godliness is goodness. This works out for the greater good if one follows a God whose compassion is a primary attribute, but what if one’s God is like that of Hannibal? Does Hannibal’s motivation in killing stem from a desire to emulate God? Here is where things get very murky. I would say that on one hand, Hannibal envies the outright power and sheer impunity of his vision of God: God can kill whoever He wants, whenever He wants, and never has to answer to anybody for His actions. On the other hand, I think Hannibal may see himself as more moral than God—one of Hannibal’s main ideals is “eat the rude”. Though he’s certainly not above killing for other reasons if they serve a greater purpose for him, he sees discourtesy as a transgression punishable by death. Hannibal, ideally, kills only those he believes deserve to die, something that would clearly contrast him from his view of a malicious God who kills willy-nilly for His own wicked pleasure. When Hannibal talks about a God who would kill His own followers during worship for a sick thrill, Hannibal has a sardonic disdain; Hannibal sees himself as morally superior to such a being.

This sort of moral ambiguity extends beyond the mere act of murder itself; after all, it is what comes after the killing that really sets Hannibal apart. I have to say, this is one of the most confusing aspects of the show for me. Hannibal never says what his malicious God thinks about after killing; his own post-mortem proclivities come from some other font of grisly internal inspiration. But what kind of morality is Hannibal practicing by his cannibalism and post-mortem mutilation? “Eat the rude” implies a contempt for those Hannibal condemns—in “Tome-Wan”, Will Graham iterates this Hannibalism when he says of the villainous and despicable Mason Verger, “Mason Verger is a pig. He deserves to be somebody’s bacon.” Therefore, does Hannibal’s cannibalism represent a sort of punishment inflicted even after death, a shaming and desecration of the corpse? I would say yes. This contrasts sharply with the cannibalism of Garret Jacob Hobbs, “the Minnesota Shrike” of the pilot episode, whose legacy endures throughout the show. Hobbs believed that eating parts of his victims was a kind of honoring, of not wanting their death to just be some sort of bloodsport (not unlike some who hunt animals). He even did things like stuff pillows with his victims’ hair as a way to make sure no part of their body went to waste.

Will Graham Randall TierYet the sum of Hannibal’s actions still leaves me confused as to his intentions. Not only was he wont to eat his victims, in the show he has a penchant for extremely elaborate post-mortem posturing of the remains, creating brutally artistic tableaux with exquisitely nightmarish aesthetics. Why? In his Minnesota Shrike copycat killing in the pilot, Will uses his profiler superbrain to see that it is not the real killer, because the presentation seems to imply a mocking of the victim, rather than the respect that the Shrike actually has for his victims’ bodies. This plays right in with Hannibal’s desire to continue his punishment of his victims past death via desecrating their bodies, albeit through his unique and highly developed appreciation of visual aesthetics rather than his culinary expertise. However, at times Hannibal’s post-mortem art does seem to in fact be a way of honoring the deceased. When he manipulates Will Graham into killing Randall Tier in Season 2, he then makes sure Will goes through the painstaking process of posthumously transforming Tier’s body into the beast Tier always felt he was, an act that almost seems compassionate.

I think this shows Hannibal is a much more morally complex character than at first he appears. He is a man who finds rudeness supremely distasteful, yet often willfully engages in murder and cannibalism, things which seem much more morally reprehensible to us than mere rudeness. But he is also capable of bringing forth beauty from death, using his artfulness to symbolically elevate a body as easily as debase one. He is envious of God’s unrestrained, unchecked power over life and death, but he also sees God as using this power wastefully and irresponsibly; you could say he believes he can do better with this power. You might even say that at times he finds God… rude. Watch Your back, God, Hannibal’s got his eye on You.

Follow Lady Geek Girl and Friends on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook!