Filmmaker And Satanic Temple Leader Talk New Documentary 'Hail Satan?'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For something that doesn't move or talk, monuments have been the subject of much debate and deep feeling in recent years. And not just Confederate monuments, but also religious ones. And one of those debates played out in Arkansas, where State Senator Jason Rapert petitioned to erect a statue of the Ten Commandments outside the Capitol building in Little Rock. In response, a group called The Satanic Temple asked to have a monument of their choosing displayed on government property. It was of Baphomet, a goat-headed angel-winged icon. And let's just say the offer wasn't that well received.
That fight and The Satanic Temple more broadly is the subject of a new documentary called "Hail Satan?" - that's with a question mark. And it follows the founding of this group, which is bringing a puckish new voice to a very thoughtful and actually serious debate over religious freedom.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAIL SATAN?")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We are Satanists. We are also Americans. We are just as powerful as those who work in this institution here.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, we are.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We do not seek followers. We are seeking collaborators.
MARTIN: The film was directed by Penny Lane, known for her award-winning film "Our Nixon." And Penny Lane is with us now from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. And she's there with Lucien Greaves. He's the co-founder and spokesperson for The Satanic Temple. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.
PENNY LANE: Hello.
LUCIEN GREAVES: Thanks for having us.
MARTIN: Penny Lane, I'm going to start with you. How did you come across The Satanic Temple? And how did you decide that you wanted to make a film about them?
LANE: Well, I came across The Satanic Temple kind of like everyone else. I saw some really funny, startling news headlines about this Baphomet monument and its sort of success and journey in Oklahoma and into Arkansas. And I was interested in making a film about The Satanic Temple because I saw a real storytelling opportunity in the sense that lots of news coverage had existed of this movement, but all of the news coverage stopped at the top level, most obvious questions, and then never went any deeper. And the more I looked into it the more amazing, surprising, thought-provoking, funny and ultimately moving and inspiring things I found.
MARTIN: So, Lucien, early in the film, you say, quote, "what we want to do is force people to evaluate their notions of the United States being a Christian nation. It's not. We're a secular nation. And we are supposed to be a democratic pluralistic nation. We're supposed to be a nation that doesn't allow the government to dictate what is appropriate religious expression."
It's a very complete and complex philosophy, right? And as briefly as you, can can you just describe how you came to the place of this is what I believe, but not just this is what I believe, but this is how I'm going to express it?
GREAVES: Well, the this is what I believe came a lot earlier. And really, I had no inclination to advertise my affinity for the non-theistic satanic construct until there was a real need to do so in the activism world. We think it's really our duty to show people where their cognitive dissonance is when they consider issues of religious liberty and don't think beyond it only privileging their one tribalistic point of view. And that's something The Satanic Temple has really forced people to evaluate.
MARTIN: Somebody in the film asks not you, but one of the other chapter heads, why not just be an atheist? And he says atheism is boring.
LANE: Yeah, it is boring.
MARTIN: Is that about right, though? Is that really it? Or is there more to it?
LANE: It's not just that atheism is boring. It's that atheism in and of itself is not a kind of affirmative set of organized values. It's more saying what you're not than what you are. And as a lifelong atheist myself, I can attest to the fact that atheism doesn't give you a community. It doesn't give you a mythology, a sort of organizing set of principles or ethics. And it doesn't give you a kind of way to organize yourself in relationship to others and make change in the world.
MARTIN: There's a montage in the film where the various members talk about why they joined. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAIL SATAN?")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm not a very social person. Most of my interactions are online.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It wasn't until I took that step to try to meet these people. That's where it really all came together. And I was terrified that I was just going to meet a bunch of people that were, like, all right, so we're going to meet up at the church. We'll hand out spray paint cans. And we'll kick over some graves. And everyone was amazing.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I came from a very, like, conservatively religious background.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I was very much a devout Christian growing up. You could almost say a zealot.
MARTIN: OK, Lucien, don't - you can't hit me because you're far away. It sounds like church. It sounds like church. People are looking for something. They find their people. And they're together. And it's awesome, right?
GREAVES: Well, those are the best elements of a church. And I'm not going to say that anything associated with religion is wrong. Obviously I believe we are an authentic form of religious expression. I stand by that we are a religion.
LANE: It is like church. Nobody wants to hit you for saying that.
GREAVES: But those are the best parts of a church, right, that sense of community, that sense of common purpose and ethics. And, I mean, we might not agree with different churches and the ethics they have, but I certainly don't put down the need for anybody to have those elements in their lives.
MARTIN: Penny, what's your take? Why do you think people join The Satanic Temple?
LANE: Well, it's sort of exactly what you said before. Like, you were a little nervous to say it's like church. And I think it is a church for people who didn't think they liked church. I mean, there is one person in my film who says I am very surprised to find myself part of an actual religion. And I think that's true for many, many members of The Satanic Temple. They have lived in this society where the idea of religion and religious identity and going to church has been so exclusively tied to values that they don't share that they had given up on that idea. And as Lucien said earlier, giving up on the idea of religion leaves a gigantic meaning-hole in your life.
MARTIN: Lucien, I'm sorry, you're still such a mystery to me because I feel like, you know, if people have watched a lot of the local news coverage of your groups in various different places, you would kind of see it as this quirky oddity. But you, in fact, have a very complete and thought-out philosophy and methodology. And, you know, forgive me, I just want to know where it comes from.
GREAVES: I read a lot. I get out a lot. I talk to people a lot. I don't claim to even be the author of this movement. I think it would be a real failing of mine if I began to think that I created this cultural moment that makes The Satanic Temple relevant. Now, all I can do is work to recognize what those elements are.
MARTIN: I totally get it. But I still want to know, like, where were you born? Like, what did your parents do?
GREAVES: I try not to personalize any of these things. And that was kind of a...
MARTIN: Is it in part because you don't want people to deify you?
LANE: Yeah, no.
GREAVES: Right. That is very much - that's very much it. And those were kind of restrictions we put on Penny in making the film is that we didn't want it to become anybody's biography. We didn't want it to be biographical vignettes. We wanted it to be clear that this is a broader movement. And I feel anytime I start to give a biography of myself, people fall into this assumption that you need to have these characteristics or that background to truly understand what this is. And I think that there is a lot of people who can understand this and it denigrates all the people who work with us, I think, to turn it into any one person's mission.
MARTIN: I wonder if you have any compassion or empathy for people who are either afraid of you or who think - not just you, the movement - who would think that it's not just dangerous, but bad for society? I mean, I understand that that can be hard to do if you experience other people as oppressors, but religious impulses have also fueled the civil rights movement, you know, the peace movement, the anti-nuclear movement. Do you have any empathy for people who have these religious commitments, traditional religious commitments?
GREAVES: Well, there's this idea that Satan is the author of all cruelty and evil. And if you acknowledge Satan as a mythological character, some people think you're just kind of arbitrarily trying to change that story. But I think there's something more important going on there. And that retaining this myth of Satan being the ultimate evil has done real tangible harm in the world. This idea that Satan is the author of all evil kind of upholds this notion that those who claim to be speaking on behalf of Jesus are the ones who are the arbiters of what is morally correct at all times, and that they're right about everything, and they don't need to revise their thinking on anything at all.
I can understand why they would be put off by somebody saying that they're a Satanist. I also expect people to at least be flexible enough to see what we're actually doing, judge us for our real-world actions, and have some kind of ability to revise their thinking based upon what they know about us.
MARTIN: That's Lucien Greaves. He's the co-founder and spokesperson for The Satanic Temple. It's the subject of a new film by Penny Lane. It's called "Hail Satan?" - that's with a question mark. And they were both with us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Penny Lane, Lucien Greaves, thank you so much for talking to us.
LANE: Thank you.
GREAVES: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.