Sacrifice as Horror: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Mola Ram’s sacrifice in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Lucasfilm, 1984)

I was a big fan of Indiana Jones in my childhood. I must have watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade a dozen times or more. But once was enough when it came to The Temple of Doom! This movie is the apotheosis of bizarre grossness, pumped up with successive hits of cringe-inducing shocks. It certainly appealed to a little boy’s dark side, but the spiritual hangover afterward—like a stomach full of Zesty Doritos—was not worth it. I recently revisited the movie, and although this viewing wasn’t as traumatizing, it will probably be my last. Yikes.

The image of the evil priest Mola Ram ripping out a man’s heart in sacrifice was one of two moments in the movie that stuck with me over the years (the other was the dessert of chilled monkey brains served in the palace). This memory bubbled up to the surface of my mind as I wrote my forthcoming book Welcoming Gifts: Sacrifice in the Bible and Christian Life. So, with the book off to press and me twiddling my thumbs in anticipation of its release, I decided to return to Pankot Palace and the labyrinth of caves beneath it in order to look into the depiction of human sacrifice presented there. 

That heart-ripping ritual had so invaded my child psyche that I mistakenly remembered many such sacrifices occurring—in truth, only one is shown, though human sacrifice casts a shadow over the whole film. Indie and company discover this sacrifice after defeating an evil henchman, finding a secret passage, and escaping a booby trap (all in a day’s work for Indiana Jones). As they look on from above and out of sight, a man is brought onto a stage, where Mola Ram stands in exotic and sinister priestly dress. Across a lava-filled chasm, worshipers chant and gyrate hysterically. After the victim is shackled to a metal frame, Mola Ram comes toward him, caresses his face, and softly utters diabolical incantations. He reaches up toward an idol with flaming eyes and mouth, and then, by pressing his fingers into the man’s chest, he somehow pulls out his still-beating heart as the man screams. Wow!

But that ain’t it! The man is somehow still alive as Mola Ram displays his beating heart to the congregation. The frame that holds him is hoisted up on chains and rotated to the horizontal so that he must gaze downward as the floor opens and a swirling lava pit is revealed. He is lowered into the lava, and as its heat sets his flesh alight, his heart ignites in the priest’s hand. The cage finally plunges into the lava and the man is no more, having been sent down alive into the evil pagan god’s own hell.

In The Temple of Doom sacrifice is a bizarre and grotesque relic of barbarity. It is the climax of a foul odyssey that progresses from a dinner of giant beetles, eyeball soup, and monkey brains through a cave swarming ankle-deep with insects to that gory heart and smoldering flesh. It is a cruelty from which people need to be saved, an inhumanity that should be banished from the world, and a horror that characters and audience alike are glad to escape.

Although Mola Ram’s sacrifice is an over-the-top caricature, it reflects how most people feel about ritual sacrifice today. The slaughter of human victims captivates our imagination, even though the evidence shows that this practice was extremely rare. Even if human victims are set to one side, sacrifices of animals seem almost equally foul and sadistic to us, a dark reveling in blood. Strangely enough, however, ancient people didn’t consider sacrifice violent or bloodthirsty. For them it was no more cruel or horrific than slaughtering animals for food—work we take for granted with every trip to the grocery store.

Our modern preconceptions about sacrifice must surely present an obstacle to the Christian gospel, especially as it is preached in certain circles. Although people raised in the Faith might take Christ’s sacrifice for granted, how does it strike the ears of others who hear about the Cross for the first time as adults? There is a tragic yet easily imaginable potential for the unchurched to react to Christ’s sacrifice in the same way we react to the cinematic sacrifice just described—seeing Jesus as the weak victim shackled to the metal frame and God the Father as Mola Ram, satiating the divine, fiery wrath by ripping out His Son’s heart and casting Him into the flames.

Strangely, this obstacle to evangelism is a self-inflicted wound. Sacrifice in the ancient world (whether Jewish or pagan) was nothing like the movie version. (Yes, there were some horrific anomalies like child sacrifice to Molech, but let’s focus on the 99.9% here.) It was an offering of food to God (or the so-called gods) as an invitation to fellowship—a gesture of hospitality that also overflowed to incorporate one’s kinsfolk and neighbors. Animals were killed so that their meat could be offered as food, along with grains, oil, and wine. These formed a meal that was divided between divine and human participants, with the divine portions symbolically sent up to heaven by means of an altar and the human portions eaten here on earth in the form of a banquet. Ancient people reveled in sacrifice, enjoyed it, loved it, and even indulged in it.

Our dark, modern view of sacrifice grew out of the medieval Christian obsession with the sufferings of Christ. Although crucifixion was clearly a horrific way to die, it was the medieval Western church that made this suffering the axis of our salvation, the means by which Christ placated the Father and redeemed us from punishment. The Cross of suffering—as the ultimate sacrifice—then redefined all sacrifices as acts of violence. And now, in a post-Christian world that no longer assumes the validity of Christian dogma, this idolization of cruelty has become a liability.

And what an unnecessary liability it is! For the Bible is clear that obedience, not suffering, is the power of the Cross. St. Paul writes: “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one righteous deed leads to righteousness of life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18, 19). Doing God’s will was the sacrifice by which Christ made us righteous and holy; it was through obedience, not bloody slaughter, that He fulfilled the Old Testament sacrifices (see Heb. 10:1–18). This obedience was the hospitality God had always truly desired, like delicious and inviting food for Him.

God was pleased not by Christ’s pain but by His faithfulness in the face of every hardship, persecution, and suffering. Christ’s sacrifice was not a weak capitulation to savage power (like the poor man brutalized by Mola Ram), but instead a brave and determined love of God and neighbor that outlasts all the barbarities of this sinful world. Isn’t this a beautiful thought to share with our neighbors, a source of joy and inspiration? God has brought humanity back to Himself by sending His Son to offer the obedience that restores our fellowship with Him. That, my friends, is the gospel and it really is good news.

2 comments:

  1. Temple of Doom is still one of my favorites! The thing about sacrifice was that it was meant to appease the wrath of the gods or to encourage their benevolence – or at least to dissuade their malevolence. The main difference between Christian sacrifice and Pagan, is the inverted order. God is not appeased by sacrifice and has no need for us to fulfill. The Eucharist is in part a statement that “I feed you, you don’t feed me.” Only repentance can turn away wrath. Pagan ritual would never have the Christian element of repentance and the best it could do was give some sort of assurance that you were protected – and this by a fickle and unreliable source. So, I think there is something actually to not so much appreciate about Temple of Doom (Spielberg and Lucas late made public apologies to Indians) or to human sacrifice, but to help realize the Gospel. Man’s attempts, in cooperation with demons, to set up a sacrificial system becomes inevitably inverted – and TOD may actually help us see that a little bit though a tad bit gross. I have long believed that Abraham’s command to sacrifice Isaac, only to be told to stop, was in part a test of faith, but also to establish that human sacrifice had no place among God’s people. Thanks for tying in Indiana Jones to a post!

  2. Thank you for your work on teaching proper understanding of what “sacrifice” is and how it unites us with our God. I think that word has been given a very bad rep too and yet, our Loving God demands sacrifices from us. Yet, a proper and true Orthodox understanding of “sacrifice” makes me what to go do more!!!!! Truly understanding what Christ meant when He said “take up your Cross and follow me” and that true loving sacrifice to our Lord and Savior blesses us and the people.

    Christ is Risen!

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