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From Intern Quentin . . .

Grace and Peace from God our Father and Lord Jesus Christ, 

There are times when pop culture picks something up in the mainstream that we find offensive, inappropriate, or way too explicit to be on tv. And when that happens, our first thought might be to completely ignore it or to call for its cancellation without having watched it because of what others have said. But when something isn’t our cup-of-tea or when we find something that really challenges our perspective, it’s important to remember that there can still be something to learn from those shows, movies, music or books that we find offensive, inappropriate, or too explicit. And a big part of this series is searching for those religious themes across the spectrum of pop culture, offensive or not. 

Now, one of these shows that has been called out for being offensive, inappropriate, or too explicit is Amazon Prime’s new animated series Hazbin Hotel. The show started out as a YouTube series in 2019 and was picked up by A24 Studios to stream on Amazon Prime. Since its release this year, the show has received critical success because of its animation style, original musical style, and cast, and is one of the most streamed animated series of the new year on Prime. But the show has also received negative criticism from Christian groups because of the story and world building by the show’s creator. 

But why would Hazbin Hotel receive such criticism from Christian groups? Well, the show follows its protagonist, Charlie Morningstar, the daughter of Lucifer, attempting to rehabilitate sinners in her Hazbin Hotel, so that these sinners in hell can enter into Heaven. The series retells the creation story to establish Lucifer as a free thinker who was cast down to hell for being different and sets up Heaven’s leadership as hypocritical angels. These angels talk of redemption and mercy but annually purge hell of its sinners, which condemns the condemned to a second death. Throughout its first season, the show covers several adult themes, such as graphic violence, substance abuse, domestic abuse, and swearing, which gets it a TV-MA rating. Additionally, Jesus and God are not depicted in the series because it is a fictional story with fictional depictions of biblical and original characters. So, it is no surprise that Christian groups have been offended and displeased by the subject matter of Hazbin Hotel, it’s twist on the biblical narrative, and depiction of biblical characters. 

But again, before judging this show by all of that listed above, I think we should be open to the question, is there anything here of value that we as Christians can learn from and take with us in our lives today? And when we look at the show’s depiction of themes of redemption, salvation, hypocritical leadership and institutions, I think we can learn a little about how some of our neighbors, who are unlike us, think about and view the worldwide Church. 

A major theme is viewing Heaven as an institution of legalistic standards. That there are rules and laws that must be followed word-for-word and strictly with no grace allowed in these rules. Heaven is expected to be perfect, merciful, and morally right, but the legalistic standards begin to crack any image of Heaven that is like this in the series. First, the angels of Heaven are expected to be open to the idea of redemption and mercy through Charlie’s Hazbin Hotel, but the angels actually prefer to punish the sinners of Hell as a form of entertainment to kill sinners a second time. Second, the angelic representatives that meet with Hell, who hold sinners to a higher standard of behavior to achieve salvation, hypocritically use just as much foul language, gestures, and behaviors as the sinners below in Hell. Third, when Charlie confronts Heaven with the additional pain and suffering that they’ve caused through their annual purge, Heaven’s leaders respond by ignoring the pleas of sinners who do want to change for the better. 

And I think Hazbin Hotel depicts Heaven in this legalistic and imperfect way because it’s what the creators see when viewing the worldwide church as outsiders. That the creators relate more to these handful of sinners the show follows that Heaven, and the worldwide Church, wants nothing to do with. That Heaven, and the worldwide church, tries to hold onto this perfect image that in reality is riddled with flaws, hypocrisy, and controversy. That people outside of the church view the worldwide Church as an institution that teaches about grace – this underserved love that God gifts to all people – but restricts that grace to only those that follow the status quo to fit in. That Heaven, and the worldwide Church, cling to an image of perfection that actually is imperfect, led by imperfect people, saved by that freely given grace. 

And so, the beauty of religious themes in popular culture, is that it not only invites us to wander and wonder about our faith in different and unique ways, like with Star Wars and Percy Jackson, but it also invites us to wrestle with things that challenge us and our faith. Shows, movies, music, and books like Hazbin Hotel, that makes fun of Heaven and angels and makes a handful of sinners in Hell the good guys, invites us to wrestle with how we share God’s gift of grace with those unlike us, how we welcome strangers who are really our neighbors, how we acknowledge that the church is not meant for perfect people nor is it perfect, but that the truth is it’s meant for all of us, who are imperfectly loved children of God. Even with all of that, Hazbin Hotel still might not be a show you want to watch, but with all of its offensiveness, inappropriateness, and twists on biblical stories, I think there is still something and more that we can learn from it. 

Peace and Blessings,
Quentin Surace