The Invitation is absolutely one of the most bone-chilling films I’ve ever beheld, for what it is in itself and for the the mirror it eerily holds up to my experience.
When the film’s protagonist, Will, is invited by his ex-wife, Eden, to his former home for a dinner party she’s hosting with her new partner, David, the audience’s sympathetic impulse to escape is immediate and colossal. It’s so manifestly a terrible idea. We know the gathering will be unbearably awkward but we aren’t prepared for the ghastly night that awaits him and the other guests.
One of the film’s greatest strengths lies in how it effortlessly ratchets up the nebulous dread that builds throughout most of its runtime until it hypertrophies and bursts in its climax. But it does so by having the other guests maintain the party’s strange status quo by reproving Will for his steadily growing misgivings. Will senses something isn’t right, something is terribly wrong here, but it’s more his intuition than it is an exhibit of empirical evidence guiding him in this.
And the audience knows he’s right. Or rather, suspects he’s right. Because there wouldn’t be a movie if Will was just a socially maladjusted divorcee having to endure a dinner get-together… right? But Will is the aperture through which the viewer witnesses the unfolding drama, an indicator that his perspective is the hermeneutical key to unlock whatever we’re about to see. And yet as he haltingly pieces things together and complains that the answers he’s getting are insufficient, we, the audience, feel uncomfortable with how he’s introducing noise into the tonality of the gathering. Will’s qualms are pebbles breaking up the evening’s placid surface and it’s hard for us to tolerate that.
And his misgivings grow beyond the obvious uncomfortability of reconnecting with a former spouse: more and bigger indicators of something— we know not what— keep arriving which provoke him to speak up. But still we want him to quiet down and not disrupt the party. Come on, Will. Everyone’s having a good time. Do you have to cause a scene? The viewer becomes an enabler of whatever’s happening exactly to the extent that she longs for Will to keep his cool and just drop it.
The Invitation premiered in 2015 as I was gearing up for an ill-advised trip of my own. It’s the parallels between the story it depicts and my own that feels all too much like a hand around my throat.
I came to Bethlehem College and Seminary (yes, that one) at the tail end of summer five years ago. I was humming with nervous energy at the time, excited for a new prospect, for the possibilities whispering from around the corner of a completed degree program, but also hesitant as I had become disenamored with Piper and Christian Hedonism and complementarianism and the entire neo-Calvinist apparatus over the prior year. I remember I was slated to begin my program and with only weeks to go the gravity of what I was about to embark upon crashed upon me at 666 ft/s².
I scrambled to claw my way out of the hole I had dug for myself but the paths had already been cleared and the launch was primed. Moreover, my pastor and a friend in my church’s leadership team summoned me to an emergency meeting at Chick-fil-A (and if that isn’t a sure enough sign of the type of church I belonged to then count yourself fortunate) where they dismissed my fears and convinced me to follow through with the plan. So strictly speaking, it’s true: I pushed the button, I said “yes,” but not because I was persuaded. I was put in a corner and goaded into accepting that this was best. Which wasn’t very difficult, as I feared being seen as divisive or unsubmissive or any of the other Together for the Gospel-esque argot that defined our parochial, quasi-Reformed subculture.
So I went. My family and I packed up all our belongings and made the northward trek to the Twin Cities and I tried my best to suppress the disquiet gripping my innards.
That fall I knew I was in a bad place. The school’s teachings on gender were odious. The school’s teaching on the Trinity was ahistorical and heterodox. The school’s libelous tirades against “liberals” (i.e., anyone who disagreed with them) was exhausting as I felt the weight of a hundred straw men being heaped atop what I already knew. I constantly felt like I was one hand-raising away from being condemned myself. After all, my doctrine of election was more indebted to Barth than it was to Calvin; my sacramentology was devoutly anti-Zwingli; I had no compunction whatsoever about confessing the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” because you don’t get to show up centuries late to the party and tamper with the Creed; I see no problem with women’s ordination, etc., etc., etc.
You might think, “So you disagreed with the school’s position on some things. What was so hard about that?” But it’s about more than disagreement. It’s about finding yourself stuck on a rock in a stream of sewage which is trying its damndest to topple you and send you down that creek of toxicity. Because the things I found myself so morally exercised over weren’t adiaphora or otherwise inconsequential things: they were matters of egregious ethical and historical import. They were things that made a difference in our bearing towards the world and each other. And they were bludgeoning, squashing things, meant to crush their opponents but also frighten those who weren’t so zealous into getting in line.
I was asked once to contribute to a debate in-class by providing arguments for the legitimacy of American slavery. “There are none,” I answered.
How wonderful that Jonathan Edwards was able to work full-time pastoring his congregation at Northampton as well as write so many treatises for our edification, one professor practically sang. “Well, sure,” I countered, “because he had slaves to take care of everything for him. That allows someone to do a lot of writing as long as they’re white and well-to-do.”
But I was told that those social details didn’t factor into the assessment of ideas— only the analytical evaluation of those ideas was important. (Isn’t that convenient?)
The tapestry of God’s glory is the more beautiful for weaving dark threads within it, a philosophy professor asserted. The disasters and evils that befall our world are irreplaceable details in the work of art that make God’s glory shine all the brighter. “Hold on,” I countered. “There is nothing beautiful about a tank rolling over a baby. Nothing makes that glorious. Nothing. That God works to bring good out of such reprehensible evil says nothing other than that that was ugly and despicable. He doesn’t bring that about to show himself off.”
But that right there was the line that was consistently being reproduced class after class after class. The pain and disaster and tragedy of the world are actually good if seen rightly. “Behind a frowning providence/He hides a smiling face,” was a favorite couplet in circulation there. But which God hides his smiling face behind cataclysm and distress? Who is this deus absconditus? Who is this God confessed as “good” who inflicts these things upon the people he is claimed to love? I knew what the picture reminded me of: an abusive spouse. “But he loves me,” is the cliched answer so many battered wives need to be true. Likewise, we were instructed to cling to the God who relentlessly clobbers his image bearers with all the viciousness of a fallen world because that violence is the mark of his love.
It’s absolutely incoherent.
So given a little more time, sure enough, I was called out as a liberal. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t: it was enough that I wasn’t toeing the party line. As such I was an egalitarian, pro-feminist, socialist liberal who was squeamish about the sovereignty of God.
“Do you care about God’s lordship?” I was asked.
“Of course I do,” I answered once. “But all of us need that lordship to not be anything like the lordship we see on display in history time and time again. Coercive, egotistical, manipulative. God’s lordship can’t be any of those things and be good.”
I was advised time and time again not to be so upset, to be more reasonable, to put things in perspective and remember my professors and my classmates are just trying to serve God the best they knew how.
But it isn’t good enough.
Because I’ve seen the misery etched into mothers’ faces, permanently defeated by their boorish, know-nothing husbands’ never-ending right to veto their suggestions and insights. I’ve seen young men in their early twenties exhausted by the burdens of “biblical manhood” they must exemplify if they’re to be approved. I’ve seen undergraduate women shocked at my suggestion they attend seminary because they understand that in this system that is unthinkable. Dark, contemptible things disguised as light; strangling things that masquerade as fresh air; coffins that present themselves as doorways into life.
In hindsight I can recognize some potential for solidarity between me and all of them, but it was only ever potential. Because in the moment I was utterly, crushingly alone. None of them were going to disrupt the status quo. Alone in my grievances and objections and choking on the noxious atmosphere of malignant “theology,” I felt absolutely beaten to a pulp by the collective mistrust against me.
On May 19, 2017, I graduated from my program and walked across the stage at Bethlehem, my soul shriveled and my hope all but exhausted. I honestly didn’t think I would live long enough to make it to that point. I never considered killing myself but there were plenty of times I wished I would just cease to exist. After all the not-choices that I’ve let be made for me, now it comes to this, was the overriding thought governing me. I feel the reverberations of the moral terror and spiritual anguish within which I was locked at the time right now and shudder as I remember them.
I made a lot of mistakes during this time trying to self-medicate against the pain and the existential nausea. I reached the lowest point of my life and turned to some dark things trying to feel something other than the emptiness that had colonized my soul. So I’m not trying to pretend I’m the hero of this story. I’m not innocent. These things just happened and I was there and can report them. That’s all.
So I’m not Will. In The Invitation, Will finally reaches a point at which he can no longer keep up any pretense of things being normal. He calls attention to the group’s missing friend, Choi, who has somehow been detained for hours. Doing what, exactly? In a rare moment of cell phone reception he hears a voicemail from Choi saying that he arrived at the house hours ago.
“Where’s Choi?” Will asks Eden and David, seemingly amused at first. “Where the fuck is Choi?” Again he’s told to lower his voice, to calm down, but this time he refuses. “Why is everyone acting so fucking polite? Something isn’t right here… There is something very strange going on here and no one is saying anything,” he asserts. He won’t have it any longer: no more euphemisms or circumlocutions or ignoring the elephant at the dining table. He names the thing Eden, David, and David’s friend, Pruitt, have joined themselves to what it actually is: a cult. He cuts off an objection from one of his friends that everyone has the right to their own beliefs: “No! It’s not about communion, it’s not about family, it’s about denial,” Will diagnoses.
It’s about pretending that death is something that can be managed if we call it good. That we should make friends with death. That we should submerge our discontent with the way things are within an escape from the world. Eden is trying to escape the weight of her grief, but Will hasn’t yet been able to fully assimilate the death of their son two years prior. Death means something because their son means something. But not the way the peddlers of false hope construe it. Death is an enemy to be overcome, and it is inevitable. It isn’t our friend. And nothing makes it easy or turns it into an anesthetic for the world’s hurts. To be a creature is to hurt. We hurt because people mean something to us. To shut that off is to surrender our humanity.
And so finally the pretense evaporates. Or rather, the husk of the evening is broken open, and David’s, Eden’s, and Pruitt’s latent intent is unleashed. They have concealed the murderous facet of the invitation to their guests, but, bizarrely, the niceties and evangelistic overtures thus far haven’t been false. That death-oriented kernel has been waiting to take root in time, in the bodies of themselves and their guests, as they believe it is the entryway into peace. Like the animal Will mercifully dispatches at the beginning of the film, they believe they are doing their guests a favor. Because The Invitation is a cult which enshrines death as the greatest gift in this world.
The party erupts into panicked confusion as one of them is found dead, poisoned. David and his accomplice, Pruitt, begin to chase down and execute the remaining guests. Will and Kira take advantage of Will’s firsthand knowledge of the house to hide, but eventually Pruitt finds them. He begins strangling Will. “Don’t worry,” he soothingly intones, “there’s a plan for us.”
The film ends with Will and his girlfriend, Kira, having survived David’s and Pruitt’s plan. They look across the valley and see dozens of red lanterns hanging in yards, just like the one David hung earlier. A helicopter races overhead to the chaos erupting citywide as members of The Invitation carry out their ministries of mercy.
The gospel turns the world’s values on their heads, yes, but it doesn’t overturn all of our shared judgments of what is good and beautiful. God in Heaven! You don’t need a sophisticated epistemology to know that suffering is bad, that pandemics are bad, that the squashing of grief and its repackaging into marks of blessedness is bullshit. You only need to know that in the beginning God made what was and said that being was good to know that. There is a way that seemeth right unto the young, restless, and reformed, but the end thereof are the ways of death.
“All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world,” Eric Hoffer writes in The True Believer. “They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it… To rely on the evidence of senses and of reason is heresy and treason.” A page later he concludes, “Crude absurdities, trivial nonsense and sublime truths are equally potent in readying people for self-sacrifice if they are accepted as the sole, eternal truth.” And we aid and abet that fanatical death-drive when we reprove people for rocking the boat, for upsetting the party and spoiling all the nice people’s fun.
But that status quo has to be unsettled or a lot of people are going to die. Either biologically, or inside, in their souls. So ask the question. Ignore the disapproving faces shocked by your indelicacy. When you see these things don’t add up, that the answers don’t make any sense, ask the question: Where’s Choi? And then get the hell out of there and bring as many people as you can.