The Reaping

When Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank) investigates seemingly miraculous phenomena, she tells her students, she has a perfect record of finding natural, scientific explanations for what is happening. In the beginning of The Reaping (2007; streaming on Kanopy), she has just returned from investigating why people in a small Chilean town are hallucinating, and why a grave has been opened and the corpse appears to be preserved un-decayed. She discovers that people have buried toxic waste, which the earthquake has let loose into the water supply.

The Reaping is set up as a conflict between religious, superstitious hysteria and scientific, rational understanding. It fits well with modern assumptions about what science is, and what religion is: science is about reason, situated in the materialistic reality of the world (the only reality there is), while religion is about “faith,” which is private and takes over when we can’t explain something rationally. But this is not science versus religion; it is scientism, which by definition excludes any supra-materialistic explanations for events, versus a God-of-the-gaps religiosity, which limits God’s creative preservation of the world to the areas we cannot (yet) explain according to naturalistic assumptions.

We know that Katherine’s faith in purely naturalistic explanations for everything is going to be tested when she is asked to investigate what is happening in a small, Southern (read: backward) town where a section of river has seemingly turned into blood. She and her fellow researcher, Ben (Idris Elba), who is a Christian, use their scientific resources to test the water, the dead fish, and the surrounding area. Katherine’s story, and the reason for her rejection of God, is slowly revealed, as she explains that she was working in Sudan as a missionary with her husband and daughter. While she was there, there was a drought and her husband and daughter were “sacrificed” to appease God or the gods. The story gets a little murky here, as we are left to wonder how she escaped and how there was no one else to stop the Americans from being killed. The other person working with them was the priest whom we see in the opening scene, Father Costigan (Stephen Rea), and he tries to warn Katherine that she is in danger, but she doesn’t want to hear it, because it involves ancient prophecies and satanic cults. Again, this part of the plot feels a little half-baked, along with how it works itself out in the town where Katherine and Ben are investigating.

But the details of the cult, while contributing to a twist at the end of the movie, are less interesting to me than the way the conflict between Katherine’s scientism and the apparently supernatural events in Haven. The “plagues,” which come in the same order as they appear in the book of Exodus, quickly convince Katherine that she is not dealing with something that is explicable naturalistically. Unfortunately, that realization, at least within the movie, does not lead to any soul-searching about her complete denial of everything supernatural. Is Loren (AnnaSophia Robb) actually a messenger from God, sent to protect people from a demonic cult? If so, what does that mean for Katherine’s (lack of) faith?

My favorite scene is the argument between Ben and Katherine, where Ben is convinced that something supernatural is going on, while Katherine defends the naturalistic explanations of the Biblical plagues. She has the History Channel explanation down: a red algae caused flies and extreme numbers of frogs, which then caused decay and disease for cattle, while (all at the same time!) there was a dust storm causing darkness, unusual swarms of locusts, and severe electrical storms, which appeared to the credulous ancient Egyptians as fire from heaven; then the disease got into the grain, of which a larger portion was given to the eldest son, so he died. Somehow, it never seems to occur to people that such explanations assume the Biblical events, while at the same time straining credulity to the point of breaking. Sure, sure, all these things happened in close proximity to each other, just as the Bible says, but the plagues themselves couldn’t actually have been sent by God. To accept the first while automatically excluding the second is not science, but dogma. But more than that, for Christians to accept an inherent and unbridgeable division between the realms of physical and sensible knowledge of the creation and faith in the Creator is to divide God from His works. For us, examination and investigation of “natural” phenomena do not preclude the Creator, but require Him. There is a distinction, but not a division, between “natural” and “supernatural,” because both find their source in the Creator of both. It is only the bare naturalistic materialism of scientism that cannot bridge the gap, and must find even incredible explanations for events, because of prior assumptions and prejudices.

The Reaping can’t quite bear the weight of the question, while wrapping it in horror-movie tropes, but it’s always interesting to see good actors in films that, at least, raise the natural/supernatural question and attempt to show that they are not as far apart as we sometimes tend to assume.