Brian discusses The Goddamned: The Virgin Brides, written by Jason Aaron, art by R.M. Guera, colors by Giulia Brusco
Greetings Geek Friends! Welcome to another episode of Church of the Geek’s Off the Shelf, our weekly comic review. I am Brian Bennett, your regular co-host of Church of the Geek.
For most of our weekly reviews, Sam and I have been picking books that were typically released a few weeks before we recorded. This episode is a bit different, because, first and foremost, my recovery from surgery put a delay in me picking up my books from my friendly local comic shop. My “to read” pile is big and I am still reading books from June. Secondly, this work deals explicitly with biblical texts. So despite the last issue of this limited series being released May 26, 2021 (and issue one beginning in July 2020), I have felt the strong desire to do a review on The Goddamned: The Virgin Brides, issues one through five, written by Jason Aaron, art by R.M. Guera, and colors by Giula Brusco.
Let me first offer a word of caution. I am not bothered by explicit language, nudity, graphic violence, or even ideas that some might consider blasphemous. If those things bother you, I will tell you right now, this work has all of these in plenty and you should probably not pick it up. You might even want to stop listening to this right now, or not. The choice is yours. But I have let you know.
Following their original volume that focused on Cain, Aaron and Guera turn to another short text in Genesis, from the beginning of the sixth chapter, the first four verses to be exact. In those verses, we read of the burgeoning population upon the earth and that daughters were being born. The angels found these women to be fair, and took them as wives, who bore children who were half human, half angel… the Nephilim, the great warriors of renown, giants… perhaps even the Goliath whom David slew. Four brief verses is all it takes for Aaron and Guera to … what is the right word? Reimagine? Reboot? Reinterpret? Deconstruct? The text. These four verses leave plenty of latitude in working to put a story together. Those four verses are a scaffolding upon which this story is built upon.
The story follows two young girls, Sharri and Jael, who live in a convent established upon the mountain of the Lord. Here they are raised by nuns so that they might be married to angels and bear the Nephilim. Life in the convent is brutal. The nuns are quick to beat the girls for minor offenses. The nuns run a carefully ordered convent, making sure to instruct the girls about their purpose… so let’s add child brides and sex trafficking to the list of things that will bother you, because the nuns are supported in their work by the Ladies of the Mountain, a warrior caste of bare chested women, terribly efficient in their brutal fighting skills.
In order to keep a steady stream of girls moving up the mountain to their angelic grooms, the warriors descend from the mountain on their mountain goat mounts, to slay tribes of people, taking the female children back up to the convent. These Ladies of the Mountains are also tasked with escorting a virgin up the mountain at her wedding. In this volume they are also called upon to track down Sharri and Jael when, upon discovery of Sharri’s first period, the blooming of the rose that will trigger Sharri’s marriage to an angel, they run.
The girls run because they have seen, and we also through their discovery, that the marriage is not the romantic ideal that they might have hoped for. Their friend Lillian appears to Sharri, badly burned by the terrible glory that accompanies the angel. Jael sees the fruit of such a union in the Nephilim, monsters who destroy the mothers, and brutalize their nursery workers.
Again, this book is not an easy read. But I have been unable to turn away from it. A number of questions have popped up in my reading. Who gets to speak about the meaning of scripture? How exactly do I characterize this work? A reboot that rejects scripture? Or something that works to deconstruct texts that have been used to control women and their bodies across centuries?
It is worth noting that the vast majority of the major characters throughout the five issues are female. We never see an angel, although here the implication is that the angels are clearly male because they mate with women. God is consistently referred to as “he” but we never see God either. The only other characters we see are the serpents in the thorns, agents of satan, who meet up with Jael and Sharri as they are trying to escape.
It is hard to miss the message that women have been subjugated, mistreated, abused, and killed in the name of God, and at the same time work to uphold the patriarchal system that keeps them in bondage. Whenever the prioress, the chief of the warriors, catches the girls, she tells them the reason they needed to protect the convent is that it brought purpose and order, something that was lacking among the evil ways of man. Normally, I would bristle at the gender specificity of that phrase, but that is clearly the point. It is the evil of men that have brought about the reduction of women to breeding stock, whether it be for men or angels. And like it or not, scripture has played a terrible role here.
This line of questions does lead me to that other question… who gets to interpret scripture? On the one hand, the task of interpreting scripture should be for the community that holds scripture to be authoritative for their lives. At the same time, I can see, and have seen far too often here recently, that interpretation that is only ever an insider’s task can become an echo chamber. Of course, the church is not a monolithic body. We have any number of schools of interpretation going on. Nonetheless, if we who are united in Christ, can have a diversity of interpretations (although to be fair, I know many Christians would argue that this idea is not at all allowable), why shouldn’t those who had been raised on, something to which Jason Aaron spoke in a conversation with Tripp Fuller and Will Rose, but ultimately set it aside, be allowed to offer their take on it as well. (a link to that conversation is in the show notes)
What is not clear however, is where this interpretation is headed. Is this a deconstruction of what had been taught and a way to make sense out of this? Or is this leading to a further rejection of scripture. It remains unclear at this stage. There are hints throughout that this series is not over. The Virgin Brides is the second volume in The Goddamned, there are mentions to the waters and the rains. Genesis chapter 6 is the beginning of the Noah story after all.
But what is unclear is exactly what this is going to say about God. And this point is the important part for the interpretive task. I certainly don’t want to see Aaron and Guera to go down the problematic wrathful God of the Hebrew bible path. Not only because we run into the Marcionite heresy, but also because this work seems too smart for all of that. Yes, this book is a challenge to read, because of the material and the faith stance, but there is something very helpful for me to ponder in my own proclamation. Do I uphold an image of a God primarily concerned with wrath? Who is hinted at as having “true crimes” (those crimes I suspect will be the coming flood that wipes almost all of humanity out because of their wickedness, which of course the text points back to God) ? How do I handle the hard questions about God? Why is there evil in the world? Why is the church often the locus of brokenness rather than a beacon of healing and hope? What does genuine faith look like?
Aaron clearly writes as someone who is familiar with the original story material and Guera and Brusco put together brilliant art that emphasizes the brutal nature of existence in this world. Even in the uncomfortable response I have to this book, I recognize something of value here for my own ongoing dialogue with faith, my vocation, and the nature of God. I will look for the next volume of The Goddamned to see where this team continues to take us.
Geek be with you.
Friend of the podcast Wil Rose and Homebrewed Christianity host Trip Fuller talk with Jason Aaron: