Today’s student essay for THEOREL 101/G (our Bible and Popular Culture course) comes from Dario Davidson. Dario has taken that well known biblical story of Adam and Eve’s temptation (Genesis 3) and read it alongside the movie, The Matrix. The result? A wonderfully creative analysis of both the film and the biblical narrative, which brings new meaning and insights to both texts.
So read on, and enjoy!
Adam and Eve Chose the Red Pill
The Garden of Eden is an integral part of the Bible in modern culture. The dramatic conclusion of Genesis is the backdrop for what is now universally known as “Original Sin”. Adam and Eve’s choice represented God’s creation rebelling for the first time by succumbing to temptation and consuming the forbidden fruit. This story has a long and diverse cultural afterlife. In 1999, in a radical retelling of Genesis Three, the dystopian science fiction film “The Matrix” was released. Based on The Wachowski brothers’ 1997 script, it encompassed the ongoing debate regarding artificial intelligence, with a strong anchor in Descartes’ original venture into metaphysics. The Matrix confronted audiences with the uncomfortable possibility that reality was an entirely subjective term. Beyond the initial focus on robots and digital worlds, it becomes clear that this story is a bold reimagining of Mankind’s fall from grace. It did so by invoking the same fundamental thematic setting and character arcs but presented them from an inverted perspective.
Our Eden in this case is a computer-generated simulation of late twentieth century Earth, known as The Matrix, being simultaneously experienced by all humans. The Matrix’s version of God is the Artificial Intelligence. It is a multitude of entities driven by a single consciousness, with a stranglehold on the reality of every living person. It exerts its will through a host of programs, one of which is Agent Smith. Adam and Eve are clearly manifested in the Matrix’s protagonist, Thomas and his love-interest, Trinity. No Garden of Eden is complete without a serpent. The Matrix gives us Morpheus: a man both vilified and hunted by A.I., it is he who presents Thomas with the forbidden fruit of knowledge. All the fundamental characters are being represented. Upon closer inspection it becomes clear that The Matrix and Genesis Three have thematic similarities that are clearly more than coincidental.
“So, the lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep” (Genesis 2:21)
Before Eve, Adam was not alone in the garden. He was surrounded by all the animals God had created and lived among them. Despite this, he feels lonely and incomplete. “But for Adam, no suitable helper was found.” (Genesis 2:20). Eve is made while Adam sleeps. It is the creation of his paramour that eases his restlessness. Thomas A. Anderson is a computer programmer living in New York city. He is painfully ordinary, and like most technologically-inclined people of the late nineties, a loner. He lives in The Matrix, unaware of the world outside of it. He is surrounded by people, but ultimately isolated from them. In the first act of The Matrix, several scenes show Thomas waking from various dreams. They are intentionally shown to confuse the viewer between what is a dream and what is reality. Upon waking from one such dream-like experience, Thomas meets Trinity, who, as well as having an obviously biblical name, comes to him with the temptation of true knowledge. Much like Eve did in Genesis 3, she tells him that knowledge lies in defiance of the law. The crucial turning point for Thomas in the first act of the Matrix is his decision to trust Trinity over the authorities of the world. He knows she is a notorious, criminal computer hacker. Despite this, his thirst for knowledge pushes him to trust her at the risk of being “exiled” from society. Adam knew that the consequence of disobeying God would be severe, but he trusted Eve and sought truth over compliance.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1).
The serpent has long been branded the culprit behind mankind’s first temptation. He lurked in the shadows, relying on wit and cunning instead of brawn. It is towards the climax of the first Act that Trinity brings Thomas to Morpheus. Morpheus, in Greek mythology, refers to the God of dreams; a shrewd title for the man who seeks to free Thomas from the ‘dreamworld’ of The Matrix. Morpheus is relentlessly hunted by A.I for his ongoing defiance. During his interrogation of Thomas, Agent Smith describes Morpheus as “the most dangerous man alive”. Although it is clear that the A.I. considers Morpheus an adversary, he is not Satan. Indeed, Genesis never claims that the serpent is Satan either. It is only a much later Christian tradition to describe the serpent as synonymous with Satan (Tate, 1992). However, Morpheus does fulfil virtually the exact role as the serpent in Eden, by acting in direct opposition to the will of God.
First, Morpheus finds Trinity, who in turn, finds Thomas and tells him that she knows the answers he has been seeking. In Genesis, Eve ate the fruit first, and then tempted Adam. In the climax of the first act, we see Morpheus offer Neo two pills, the red pill and the blue pill. The red pill represents the tree of knowledge from the Garden. Morpheus promises Neo that he offers him “The truth, nothing more”. The blue pill will return him to his life of ignorant bliss. Here, it is Morpheus who acts as the archetypal challenger of faith. Morpheus and the serpent even have the same view of the Garden, perceiving it as a restriction of liberty instead of a paradise. This is heavily reflected in the choice of words used by Morpheus upon freeing Thomas. The serpent says, “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened” (Genesis 3:5). When Thomas first exits The Matrix, he asks why his eyes hurt, to which Morpheus replies “you’ve never used them before”.
“But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:17).”
In Genesis, God makes laws based on a lie and deceives Adam and Eve about the nature of their existence. Upon eating the fruit, they do not die but instead realize the nature of their reality; in this instance, that they are naked. Whether or not being naked in Eden is bad or good is a moot point. The fact is that it is true,and they now recognize it as such.
When Thomas is initially awoken from the artificial world inside The Matrix, he sees the true hellscape that the real world has become. The sky is blackened with thick clouds of smoke. The ground is scorched and devoid of all life. Having lived in a simulation of relative peace his whole life, the sight before him rocks him to his core. He has ceased to live in the Matrix and is now aware of the true nature of reality.
The A.I. has removed humanity’s burden of existing in a polluted and desolate world by trapping them inside The Matrix. The few humans who have escaped live harsh, fearful lives compared to their enslaved counterparts. When Adam and Eve are exiled, God inflicts suffering upon them in the form of painful childbirth, and a life of labour. But like Adam, to Thomas, truth is more important than comfort. Thomas resents the A.I. for keeping humans ignorant and seeks to free them all. God wanted subservience from mankind in exchange for their peaceful and oblivious existence. This is the nature of the A.I. controlling the Matrix: it only seeks to exploit people for the power they can provide it. Much like an all-powerful God demanding unquestioning obedience and worship, its power within the Matrix is virtually limitless. By illustrating Thomas and the rest of humanity as slaves, the Wachowskis were trying to challenge the usual depiction of Adam and Eve’s disobedience not as a failure, but instead as a revolution against tyranny.
The Matrix can provide a new way of examining Genesis 3 for modern audiences. Through the depiction of a disillusioned and incomplete man, we get an understanding of Thomas’ yearning for truth. Despite his relative comforts and luxuries, there is a profound lack of meaning in his life. It was Trinity who came to him with the promise of fulfilment and truth. Morpheus gave Thomas the chance to opt out, and to continue living as a servant, but Thomas was compelled to seek answers. The A.I fulfilled its role as the great deceiver, imprisoning the entire human race out of self-interest. Omnipotent and omnipresent, it was swift to exact judgement on humans it deemed disobedient. Through their script, the Wachowskis were trying to illustrate the immorality of Genesis Three. The fact that mankind was deceived from the start suggests not benevolence on God’s part but an egocentric agenda. Adam and Eve chose the ‘red pill’, were cursed by God, and cast out of Eden forever. Adam was forced to labour and work the earth while Eve suffered terrible pain in bearing children. Nevertheless, they were together, and they knew truth.
THOMAS/NEO “I can’t go back, can I?”
MORPHEUS “No. But, even if you could, knowing what you know now, would you really want to?”
Tate, M. E. (1992). Satan in the old testament. Review & Expositor, 89(4), 461-474.
Wachowski, Andrew. Wachowski, Larry. (1996) The Matrix. “IMSDB”. Retrieved from URL.
Today’s essay is from THEOREL 101/G student, Eve Greensill (pictured left!). Eva has chosen a fascinating topic, considering convicted killer Charles Manson as a ‘popular messiah’ figure. Here’s a little bit about Eva.
I’m from Taranaki, and moved to Auckland at the start of 2018 to study at the University of Auckland. I’m studying a Bachelor of Arts with majors in Psychology and Drama. I don’t have any definite goals for the future yet, I’d like to see what avenues my degree leads me to, and what passions I find through study. Over the course of my first year I’ve developed an interest in Eastern psychologies, and intend to travel to India after my degree to learn more. THEOREL 101 was hands down one of my favourite courses this year, I loved how the assignment and exam provided so much space to explore personal interests in relation to course material. I also really enjoyed how it challenged the way that I had thought about the bible and its place in pop culture.
Sit back and enjoy the read!
Manson: Murder, Madness and… Messiahship?!
When considering contemporary messiahs in pop culture, many think of the heroic and widely adored figures such as Barack Obama, Harry Potter, or Ritchie McCaw. It’s easy to forget the dark underbelly of messiah-types in which people who do unspeakably horrific acts also exhibit an eerie number of the typical features by which we define our beloved heroic messiahs. One such ‘dark messiah’ is Charles Manson. Manson was a cult leader who rose to infamy in the late 1960’s after he was involved with nine murders. His beliefs were based on the biblical apocalyptic texts in Revelation, which he believed indicated an imminent race war between African Americans and white Americans. He also believed that the Beatles were prophets of this race war and named his ideology ‘Helter Skelter’ after a song from their ‘White Album’. Manson promised his cult, the Family, that they would be safe in the desert during this supposed war until the white Americans had been killed, and then the cult would emerge and rule over society. The important factors to consider when examining Manson as a popular messiah are the differing definitions of messiah between the New Testament and Old Testament, the application of the American monomyth, and the typical features of a popular messiah which can be applied to Manson.
This essay will be discussing Manson regarding the New Testament concept of messiah. However, it is interesting to consider how Manson can be viewed, or perhaps how he viewed himself, in relation to the Old Testament definition. A messiah in the Old Testament was a person anointed by God to be a political and military leader, as David was anointed by Samuel – “The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him… and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:12-13). To himself and to his followers, it is likely that Manson did fit the idea of a Hebrew messiah, as his ideology was politically grounded with strong beliefs around necessary war. Manson also claimed to have a unique understanding of the bible, and so despite not having been anointed by God in a literal manner such as King David, Manson’s supposed special relationship with God along with his political agenda does draw strong parallels to the Hebrew concept of messiah. The definition in the New Testament differs from the Old Testament, as the identification of Jesus as a messiah brought the idea that a messiah was a figure who brought spiritual salvation; a more abstract concept than the political salvation associated with Hebrew messiahs.
The American monomyth in relation to popular messiahs is based on the New Testament definition of messiah. The American monomyth as discussed by Jewett and Lawrence focuses on a community under threat, from which a messianic savior-figure arises to conquer evil and restore the community to safety (Jewett and Lawrence 2002, p.6). The American monomyth is mainly discussed regarding fictional superheroes, however, the concept can also be applied to real historical figures, as will be outlined in the case of Charles Manson. The creation of fictional heroes speaks to a deep societal yearning for a real savior to arise who can solve the problems faced by a community or nation at a certain point in time. For example, ‘Superman’ was first published in 1938, at the end of the Great Depression, while America was on the precipice of World War II. As Trimble wrote of the ‘Superman’ creators; “Growing up in one of the most difficult periods in American history, perhaps, to them, the only means of finding the promised American dream was through the intervention of a super-powered strongman” (Lang and Trimble 1988, p.160). When looking at Charles Manson, it is apparent that the 1960s were a time of political unrest, known as “a volatile era of social and political turbulence… The decade was characterized by emphases on psychedelic drug use, sexual exploration, racial equality, and activism through music…” (Altman 2015, p.3). It is highly plausible that such an environment created a longing for a messiah figure of the American monomyth to arise and ease the social unrest, in the same way that such a longing was present at the time of Superman’s creation. Therefore, the Manson Family’s view of Manson as such a figure is not implausible, as his ideology was one that promised social resolution. Manson did also cultivate this idea of him as a messianic figure, even going as far as to model himself as Jesus. Nielsen outlines how the Family developed an idea of Manson as a Christ-figure due to heavy drug consumption, during which Manson would reenact the crucifixion of Jesus (1984, p.323).
In further analysis of Charles Manson as a messiah figure, it becomes clear that he does fit a majority of features attributed to contemporary messiahs by Jewett and Lawrence. These features are generally based off characteristics of biblical messiahs, or Jesus in particular. One such feature is unusual or unknown origins, which aligns with Jesus’ unusual birth to a virgin mother (Matt. 1:18-25). Manson’s childhood was unusual in the fact that it was a difficult one. His mother was fifteen when she gave birth to him and went to prison when Manson was only four. By thirteen, Manson had been involved in auto theft and armed robbery, which resulted in him being sent to juvenile detention for most of his adolescence (Arledge 2017). Another feature of a contemporary messiah which Manson can claim is that of being an ‘outsider’; somehow set apart from others. While Manson made it his mission to be surrounded by other people, he was set apart from them by his psychology; as a psychopath he would be unable to feel empathy or remorse.Therefore he could not truly connect with and relate to those around him, making him an ‘outsider’. Manson also shows the feature of rationalization of violence, as he justified the nine murders by claiming that it was necessary to start his imagined race war. Tex Watson, one of the Family members wrote in his autobiography that Charlie told them to commit murder to “do what blackie didn’t have the energy or the smarts to do – ignite Helter Skelter and bring in Charlie’s kingdom” (Watson 1978, p.67).
Additionally, Manson exhibits ‘extraordinary powers’, another feature of popular messiahs. However rather than supernatural powers, his abilities lie in his manipulation of people through his charisma and reasoning, which combined with the use of drugs, essentially allowed him to brainwash people. Furthermore, the messianic feature of thematic death and resurrection is apparent in how Manson promised his followers safety from the supposed apocalyptic race war. He told the Family they would escape to the desert during the war and live in the ‘bottomless pit’ from Revelation 9:1 – “a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit”. It is interesting that in theology, the ‘bottomless pit’ is commonly understood to refer to hell, and so perhaps Manson saw the idea of taking shelter in this pit as type of death. He also made his followers believe that once the African Americans were victorious, the family would emerge and rule the earth, which fits with the idea of resurrection. Another feature of a contemporary messiah which can be applied to Manson is the idea of a loyal band of iconic followers. Comparative to how Jesus had his disciples, Manson had his Family, many of whom would have been willing to die for him (Mark 3.13-19).
Another potential feature of a popular messiah that Manson could be argued to adhere to is that of remaining collected under pressure. Even though Manson was renowned for exhibiting bizarre behavior during his trial and in subsequent interviews, it could be argued that this was an act for Manson to manipulate how the court and the rest of the world saw him, which would suggest that underneath all the insanity, he was in fact, collected. This idea is supported by how, even as a child, Manson would use similar methods to protect himself, something which he called the ‘insane game’ – “This ‘game’ consisted of Charles using noises, erratic gestures, rapid movements, and any other means at his disposal to convince potential threats that he was crazy and not worth their time” (Altman 2015, p.21). The only two messianic features which Manson does not fit is that of having a selfless passion for justice, and of renouncing sexuality and withstanding temptation. Objectively, Manson’s actions cannot be described as just in any righteous sense, and his use of drugs and sex were instrumental in the manipulation of his followers.
It is indisputable that Manson is a widely recognized figure in pop culture. His recent death has only served to cement the intrigue surrounding his life, and filmmakers are scrambling to capitalize on this and capture the essence of Manson on screen. However, Manson can not only be defined as a pop culture icon, but also as a contemporary messiah, in relation to both Hebrew and New Testament definitions, the American monomyth and by conventional features attributed to messiahs. This creates interesting reflections around human susceptibility to evil when it is masked by a charismatic leader, and just how far people can be willing to go to fulfil someone else’s vision. Manson was not the first messianic figure to use his power over others to commit unthinkable atrocities against others, nor unfortunately, will he be the last.
All references to the Biblical text are from the New Revised Standard Version
Jewett, Robert, and John Shelton Lawrence. “The myth of the American superhero.”Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (2002).
Lang, Jeffrey S., and Patrick Trimble. “Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An examination of the American monomyth and the comic book superhero.” The Journal of Popular Culture 22, no. 3 (1988): 157-173.
Nielsen, Donald A. “Charles Manson’s Family of Love: A Case Study of Anomism, Puerilism and Transmoral Consciousness in Civilizational Perspective.”Sociological Analysis 45, no. 4 (1984): 315-337. doi:10.2307/3711297.
Watson, Charles (Tex), Chaplain Ray Hoekstra. “Will You Die for Me?”New York, Fleming H. Revell Co. (1978).
Today’s essay is a piece from Lynn Song, exploring biblical influences in the recent screen adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Here’s a bit about Lynn:
I was born in South Korea but lived in Auckland for my whole life. I am now done with my Bachelors of Fine Arts and Arts (art history) degree and thinking about taking a break before studying for Masters. I took Theorel 101 because I come from a family with different religious beliefs and had been religious myself before. I find it fascinating how much religion can impact people’s lives in very negative ways and was interested in proof-texting Bible and the idea of Bible as a cultural prop.
Here’s the essay, have a great day.
Looking into The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) for justification of Rape culture within the Bible
In this essay, I will be looking into the new Hulu TV series The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) to explore justification of ‘Rape culture’ shared within the Christian and Hebrew Bibles. The series sets place in a dystopian society named Gilead founded by religion-driven fascists government with authoritarian powers. The laws and systems of Gilead are taken from the Bible to justify their unethical political stances, and provides reason for why one must confront records of violence and encouragement of ‘rape culture’ within the Bible. The term ‘rape culture’ originated in the 1970s by American feminists to describe a culture that does not condone sexual violence while it is contrarily also accepted as a social norm by both men and women (Schulte 2). It links itself to broader patterns of misogyny and sexism rooted in the foundations of patriarchal culture, which supports and accepts rape as well as other forms of gender violence as the expression of sexuality (Blyth et al. 2). Therefore, in this essay, I will be looking into the normalization of rape culture within patriarchal culture exemplified in the Bible while looking into The Handmaid’s Tale as an example of its manifest.
The most iconic and disturbing scene of The Handmaid’s Tale is the ‘Ceremony’ scene that represents the core of the existence of Gilead and fits within the literal definition of ‘rape culture’. As mentioned above, Gilead is a totalitarian and dystopian nation formed to counter the global issue of low birth rates. Their solution requires looking into the Bible for answers of which the government is heavily inspired on the story of Jacob in Genesis, hence why militants of Gilead refers to themselves as ‘the Sons of Jacob’. Handmaids in Genesis are given to Leah and Rachel by their father as wedding presents of which they have complete authority over them, with both Rachel and Leah using their handmaids to increase the population of the Tribes of Israel (Genesis 30). Gilead incorporates Genesis almost literally into their laws and designates handmaids to all commanders and their barren wives so they can raise a child of their own. Once a month on a handmaid’s fertile days, they are forced to partake in a highly ritualized ceremony to be “seeded” by the commander while his wife constrains the handmaid’s arms between her legs. However, unlike Bilhah, who has no voice over the matter, June the protagonist and handmaid to Commander Fred and his wife Serena is given a voice to describe the horrific ‘Ceremony’. Through June, the viewers confirm themselves that this monthly ceremony which is propagandized as a holy event, is a justification of gang rape that is ignored and encouraged in Gilead as it is normalized in the Bible. First, the selected handmaids are brainwashed at the Rachel and Leah Centre by Aunt Lydia and other Aunts to indoctrinate handmaids in accepting their fates justified by the Bible. Secondly, prior to the rape of the handmaids, their respective commander reads a verse from Genesis 30:4 reminding them that the act is a religious practice, silencing the rights of the handmaids and any questions concerning consent. The scene highlights encouragement of ‘rape culture’ within Gilead, but it also reflects on our own societal values and norms on the concept of consent and sexual violence.
The rituals of the ‘Ceremony’, accentuates on the existence of patriarchy and misogyny within the Bible. By reading Genesis 30:4 before the act, Gilead blames the decreasing rate of birth rates on women rather than considering the infertility of men. This supports Schulte’s claims that a woman’s primary value in the biblical texts is her fertility (20). From analyzing the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34, one can find underlying misogynistic and patriarchal biblical laws around a woman’s virginity and as per its impact on our ‘rape culture’. The story of Dinah marginalizes Dinah’s experience as a rape victim by first, simplifying the act as “he took her and raped her” (Genesis 34:2). Secondly, by falling in love with Dinah after and demanding her as his wife to his father Hamor (Genesis 34:3-4). In addition, the men in the story talk of the rape as if Dinah had been “defiled” (Genesis 34:5,13,27) and resultantly agree to trade Dinah to her rapist in exchange for the women of Hivite (Genesis 34:15-16). The rapist Shechem’s excitement is demonstrated as he was “delighted with Jacob’s daughter” (Genesis 34:19), addressing Dinah as only “Jacob’s daughter” after he had raped her and forced her into marriage. And lastly, Jacob’s anger towards his sons Simeon and Levi for avenging their sister and putting their land in danger invokes a sexist response where they refer to Dinah as a “prostitute” (Genesis 34:30-31). In the whole chapter, Dinah is voiceless and her presence is only acknowledged by the male members of the two families. Schulte further points out that the ‘victim’ in the Bible isn’t the person who was sexually violated but the male family members who will suffer financial loss due to the loss of her virginity (7). This alludes to the notion that raping a virgin daughter is equivalent of robbing something of monetary value from her father or her brothers. This idea of monetary possession does not only apply to daughters but also wives of a man as the Decalogue lists wives amongst houses and animals of man’s possession, treating women as male property (13).
This underlying patriarchy is also applied in our social hegemony, as reflected in an extremist form of Gilead as well. The men are hierarchically superior to women as they are referred to as ‘Guardians of the Faith’ or ‘Commanders of the Faithful’ while women are categorized by their class, sexuality, and fertility into ‘Econowives’, ‘Handmaids’, ‘Marthas’ or ‘Unwomen’. Women have also been stripped off any ownership, rights, and jobs they previously possessed in order to meet the standards of Gilead. As previously stated, their values as women lie solely on their marriage and fertility. They are forbidden to read even the scriptures and are forced to learn and practice house maintenance as we see Serena spending her time. Serena is happily forced into her mere role as a supportive housewife but as Commander Cushing threatens their safety after the terrorist attack in the Red Centre, she takes charge and files a report framing Cushing as a traitor. She does this with the help of June, who was an editor in her former life before Gilead took over with the two women successfully eliminate Cushing as a threat. However, once Fred found out after his discharge, Serena is whipped to ‘discipline’ her for taking charge and acting by herself, shocking both June and Serena. This scene is reflective of the Whore of Babylon with her scarlet beast in Revelation 17, as her existence, power and authority contest the stability of the patriarchal culture (Blythe et al. 53). Serena had been ‘disciplined’ for her act of breaching male masculinity as she acted as an equal to her husband rather than being beneath him and within his care. The Bible enforces gender hierarchy from the beginning of the creation as Eve was created of Adam’s flesh to be his companion, therefore she is part of him and he holds ownership over her (84). Eve’s sole existence was to accommodate Adam, placing all women below men. By generating gender-specific stereotypes that associated women with negativity and evil, it rationalized the gender-biased treatment of women through misogyny.
The Jezebel scene of The Handmaid’s Tale mirrors the virgin/whore binaries as per the classification of women in the Bible. The ‘good’ women are sanctioned within Gilead, fulfilling the roles of Wives, Handmaids, and Marthas, whereas outside Gilead exists only the corrupted and ‘bad’ women of Jezebels and Unwomen. During Fred and June’s affair, Fred ‘splurges’ June with a gold dress that is not in blue, red, nor earthy tones as women of Gilead dress and dresses her up to take her outside Gilead to a secret brothel for the ‘Son of Jacobs’. June reunites with her friend Moira who had escaped Gilead at the beginning of her reformation, and was now living as a Jezebel in order to stay alive. However, despite human trafficking and sexual slavery, Jezebels are presented with a sense of freedom and liberation. Moira also explains most of Jezebels consist of educated females refusing to live sanctioned lives within Gilead, holding onto their freedom and individual autonomy. This brothel scene appears conflicting to all of Gilead’s values of holiness and pristine life as the Decalogue forbids adultery. It also accentuates societal binaries of women by requiring them to stay pure by valuing women’s virginity. This makes women feel worthless and dirty if they are no longer virgins before marriage, which in turn fuels the ‘rape culture’. This disassociation with the act of sexual intercourse forces unrealistic expectations of purity onto women as the men reimagine a sexual fantasy of pure submissiveness (Blythe et al 53).
From analyzing The Handmaid’s Tale in relation to the Hebrew and the Christian Bible, one can understand the fundamental values of patriarchy and misogyny. Women are treated as commodities of the patriarchal society as we see with Bilhah, Dinah, and June in order to retain power structures of male masculinity. The submissiveness of women below men is consistently ingrained within the Bible’s passages while Gilead is a modern example of misusing the Bible as a cultural prop to justify hatred and sexual violence.
Today’s essay comes from student Niki Menzies, here’s a bit of background about Niki and her piece:
I’m studying toward a conjoint Commerce/Arts degree, majoring in Art History, Chinese and International Business (that’s the plan anyway). During high school in Wellington, I took an ‘English with Philosophy’ class that partially focussed on Christianity – I remember finding Christianity and the Bible very interesting, so when I saw that I could take THEOREL101 as part of my Art History major I was very excited.
I thoroughly enjoyed the THEOREL 101 course this semester. It opened my eyes to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways the Bible has influenced the world around me. It also made me realise that the Bible is a much more important text than I thought it was – I guess from a secular standpoint, I never thought about the role the Bible plays in politics or gender discourses. The freedom of the course is also great, I loved being able to apply course material to some of my personal interests. I am interested in animal rights and the criticism activists face for their views, and wanted to explore the actions of one activist in relation to the Biblical prophets.
Here’s the essay, enjoy the read!
A Voice for the Voiceless: James Aspey’s Prophetic Mission Against Animal Cruelty
Animal rights activist James Aspey dedicates his life to being a voice for the voiceless. His mission is to end injustices against our earth’s “voiceless victims” (Aspey, 2015a). Aspey (2015a) aims to stop the human oppression and exploitation of animals, and move the world toward a vegan lifestyle. He believes veganism – refraining from “consuming, wearing or using” animals (Aspey, 2016) – is a lifestyle that is aligned with universal values of compassion and justice (Aspey, 2016b). Aspey’s activism includes group demonstrations, powerful orations and disruptive protests that seek to open peoples’ eyes to the indifference they have toward the current treatment of animals (perceived by Aspey to be social injustices). Aspey’s actions share many of the markers of biblical prophets as described by Marcus Borg (2001). Using Borg’s definition of the biblical prophet, I will analyse Aspey’s activism to argue that he functions as a contemporary prophetic figure in today’s society.
Marcus Borg (2001) identifies several shared markers of biblical prophets. Firstly, he writes that biblical prophecy grows from situations of oppression; usually the oppression of the poor and vulnerable by elites (Borg, 2001). Prophets therefore are concerned with social justice issues, for which they share a passion (Borg, 2001). They condemn injustice and social oppression, naming offenders and pronouncing ominous warnings about their fate (Houston, 2018). Prophets Micah and Isaiah were concerned with injustice caused by the rich and powerful exploiting the poor or vulnerable (Micah 3:10; Isaiah 58:3, The New Revised Standard Version). Micah objected to the ways in which powerful rulers benefited from the suffering of others, building their cities upon foundations of exploitation and inequality (Micah 3:10). In a similar way, Aspey opposes what he sees to be horrendous crimes of injustice in the world. However, his focus is directed at our treatment of animals, rather than fellow humans. He argues that humans are oppressors who commit violent injustices against animals by breeding them for consumption (Aspey, 2016b). Animals are “innocent and vulnerable beings” (Aspey, 2016b) that humans exploit from a position of power. Aspey (2018) names the oppressor of animals to be “the consumer,” who creates the demand for animal products. Furthermore, while Aspey’s direct focus is on animal cruelty, he also argues that the consumption of animal products contributes to a situation that might be more readily accepted as a social inequality; he argues that by producing animals to be consumed, suffering humans are being deprived of food, as plants and water are being inefficiently assigned to animal agriculture instead of starving children (Aspey, 2015). These children are victims of a consumer culture that values the consumption of animals even though it is an inefficient use of resources. Aspey’s passion for social justice mirrors that of biblical prophets; like Micah, Aspey has identified situations of oppression in which stronger parties oppresses weaker ones, and is passionately condemning them.
Borg (2001) also observes that the biblical prophets interrupt dominant ideologies by speaking ‘truths’ about practices that are normalised in society. An example of this is the prophet Amos’ condemning of religious worship as a redeemer of unjust behaviour (Borg, 2001). Amos believed that justice was inherently connected to God, and therefore worshipping God meant nothing if one continued to turn a blind eye to injustice: “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them . . . But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:22-24). In a similar way, Aspey objects to the normalised practice of factory-farming animals for human consumption. Many of his demonstrations seek to educate people about farming practices, such as displaying images of slaughterhouses on the streets (Aspey, 2017). Aspey also uses inflammatory and emotive language such as “holocaust” and “torture” to describe the slaughter of animals (Aspey, 2018) in an attempt to destabilise acceptance of the practice. Furthermore, he criticises the increasingly popular practice of buying ‘free-range’ or ‘cruelty-free’ products, arguing that this makes no difference to the overall suffering of animals (Aspey, 2016c). Aspey believes there is no such thing as ‘humane slaughter’, therefore one cannot claim to have compassion or to support animal rights if they continue to consume any animal products (regardless of whether it is free-range) (LIVEKINDLY, 2017). Like Amos, Aspey refuses to accept the belief that certain actions can redeem other injustices; just as worshipping God means nothing if one continues to turn a blind eye to oppression, buying free range is not enough when free-range animals will end their lives in the same slaughterhouse as factory-farmed ones (Aspey, 2016c).
Another important characteristic shared by biblical prophets and Aspey is that they are powerful orators. Borg (2001) writes of the electrifying nature of the prophets’ addresses, specifically the sophistication of Amos’ oration techniques. Amos used evocative language to paint powerful images in the minds of his audience; for example, his description of the rich and powerful who “lie on beds of ivory. . . who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp” (Amos 6:4-5). Aspey’s oration technique can be considered similar to Micah’s when the prophet condemns the rulers of Israel in this fiery speech: “You . . . who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones” (Micah 3:2-3). Using similarly violent and emotive language, Aspey (2018) paints pictures of animals having their throats slit or being killed in “gas chambers” as part in “longest standing holocaust” of all time. Like Amos and Micah, Aspey seeks to use his orations to evoke strong imagery in the minds of his audience, specifically disturbing and violent imagery that will change perceptions of injustices (animal rearing and consumption).
Biblical prophets complete dramatic acts to draw attention to their cause and to rouse followers (Borg, 2001). These acts often contain an element of endurance; Isaiah walked barefoot and naked for three years in protest against injustices committed against the Assyrians (Isaiah 20:3). Another biblical prophet, Ezekiel, was instructed by God to lie on his side – first his left, then his right – for the number of days that Israel and Jerusalem were to be exiled (respectively) (Ezekiel 4:1-8). The intent of these symbolic actions was to draw attention and add drama to the prophets’ messages (Borg, 2001). Intentionally dramatic acts of protest are common in animal rights activism; an activist Morgan Redfern-Hardisty is currently walking the length of New Zealand barefoot to protest being pressured to serve cow’s milk in his café (Newshub, 2018). Aspey has carried out similar acts of endurance, such as undergoing twenty-four hours of tattooing (Aspey, 2016a). In 2014, Aspey undertook a dramatic act similar to Isaiah, swearing a 365-day vow of silence to raise awareness of animal exploitation. In his Sunrise News interview on national Australian television, Aspey ended his silence by explaining his intention had been to “raise awareness for the voiceless victims of this planet” (Aspey, 2015a). In the same way that Isaiah used prophetic action is used to dramatize his message (Borg, 2001), Aspey completed an act of endurance to draw attention to the plight of animals. His prophetic act succeeded in growing his audience by giving him the opportunity to speak on national television, and contained a dramatic element which drew attention to his mission.
Finally, biblical prophets share a vision for the future that provides hope to sustain the power of their messages (Borg, 2001). Borg (2001) writes that the prophets skilfully construct images of a better future, in a way that ensures that their prophetic action retains its vitality; they create hope that provides their oppressed audience with energy to continue. Borg (2001) writes that biblical prophets such as Isaiah conveyed to their audiences messages of hope that their communities would survive or be rejuvenated (Borg, 2001). For example, Isaiah had a vision that the exiled Jewish would return to their homeland (Isaiah 40:1-5). Jeremiah prophesised that a war would come upon Jerusalem, but provided reassurance by saying that his audience would survive and that their God was always with them (Jeremiah 31:31-33). Aspey’s own vision for the future fulfils this element of Borg’s definition. He imagines a “vegan world” (Aspey, 2018) without injustice toward animals. Aspey also conveys a hopefulness to his supporters of the growing vegan movement. He frequently reiterates the strength of his message and the pace at which veganism is spreading in the world, calling it the “fastest growing social justice movement of our time” (Aspey, 2016b). Although he cannot reassure the ‘victims’ of oppression (animals) of the possibility of a better future, Aspey uses his vision to encourage supporters and other vegans to continue their activism. In the same way as biblical prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Aspey’s vision instils a sense of hope and strength in his community.
In this essay I have argued that James Aspey shares the characteristics of biblical prophets as described by Marcus Borg (2001). Like the biblical prophets, Aspey’s mission is to fight a perceived situation of social injustice where the weak are exploited by the powerful. He also shares with biblical prophets strong oration skills and a willingness to carry out dramatic acts in order to energise and draw attention to his message. Finally, Aspey has a vision for the future that gives hope to his supporters, just as prophets promised survival and rejuvenation to the communities they addressed. It is safe to say that Aspey’s behaviour mirrors that of the biblical prophets, and therefore he can be seen to fulfil the criteria of a prophetic figure in today’s society.
Tonight we’re hearing from Liz Olney, with an essay discussing Netflix re-boot Queer Eye. Here’s some background about Liz.
I’m from Auckland (more specifically from the Shore – born and raised haha!). I am currently studying for a law-arts conjoint (LLB/BA), majoring in sociology and criminology, which I am enjoying. I would like to go into law and see where that takes me. I took the Bible in Pop Culture course because it had VERY good reviews online and it sounded very interesting – I’ve always been quite curious about religious beliefs as I haven’t had too much direct exposure to them myself.
Let’s have a look at the essay!
Queer Eye for the Prophetic Guy
Netflix’s 2018 show ‘Queer Eye’ has been a smash hit, winning the Emmy for ‘Outstanding Structured Reality Program’. Its five stars (Jonathan van Ness, Tan France, Karamo Brown, Antoni Porowski, and Bobby Berk) have shot to fame with their charisma, humour, and honesty. These five men (dubbed the ‘Fab Five’) transform people’s lives every episode and, whilst doing so, raise awareness of many important social issues. In this essay I will explain how the Fab Five embody three of Marcus Borg’s definitions of biblical prophets: they disturb our sense of normalcy, emerge from a situation of oppression by elites, and have a passion for social justice (2001).
Firstly, the Fab Five disturb our sense of normalcy. As openly gay men, they do not shy away from discussing controversial topics. In fact, they arguably consider it to be their responsibility given the platform they have. For example, Brown (an African-American man) gets pulled over by a police officer while driving. This turns out to be a prank, but the concern on Brown’s face prior to his knowledge of this is prominent. This results in a dialogue between Brown and the police officer regarding the genuine fear black Americans experience when interacting with police officers. Brown elaborates: “My kid did not want to get his licence because he was scared he was going to get pulled over and shot by a cop” (Brown, 2018). This conversation was visibly difficult for both men, but it was productive and meaningful, with the two men shaking hands afterwards.
One of the main dominant discourses in society the Fab Five clearly aim to challenge is the toxic nature of masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity describes the highly influential stereotype that men are the more powerful gender and that women should be subordinate to men (Connell, 2005). Toxic masculinity stems from this concept, with men feeling as though they have to be as ‘manly’ as possible, not care ‘too much’ about their appearance, and hide their emotions. Van Ness especially emphasises the importance of self-care. In every episode van Ness demonstrates various skincare routines, as well as giving each episode’s star a new haircut to make sure they look their best and feel confident. Van Ness himself frequently behaves in a feminine manner – he often wears dresses and high heels, has long, freely-hanging hair, and refers to himself as ‘she’. His behaviours help to remove the stigma around men dressing and acting like anything other than the archetypal masculine man. I believe both of these examples show how the Fab Five disturb normalcy: they actively tackle social issues that are frowned upon or rarely spoken of.
Jeremiah, a biblical prophet, also disturbed his society’s sense of normalcy, and was not afraid to speak out against dominant discourses. In Jeremiah 2:14-19, he refers to Israel as a “slave”, and “plunder”, before asking: “Have you not brought this upon yourself by forsaking the Lord your God, while he led you in the way?” At the time, it was commonly known that Israel was a wasteland, but Jeremiah took this further by actively blaming the people for this because of their “evil and bitter” behaviour. This message would have been initially disapproved of as most people would have thought this was unfair and inaccurate. Similarly, the Fab Five bravely represent several unpopular opinions. For example, their openness about their sexuality is often met with harsh judgment and offensive remarks, but they do not let this stop them from expressing the ideas they believe in. In this way, both Jeremiah and the Fab Five challenge dominant ideologies and disturb society’s sense of normalcy.
Secondly, ‘prophecy emerges from a situation of oppression by elites’ (Borg, 2001). Despite the positive shift in support of the LGBTQI+ community, there is no doubt that the LGBTQI+ community is still oppressed. There are many statistics that prove this. For example, 34% of American LGBTQI+ youths have been bullied at school, and 29% of American LGBTQI+ youths attempted suicide in 2014 – compared to 6% of heterosexual youths (CDC, 2015). The Fab Five often talk about the oppression they have experienced – for example, Berk shares how he was kicked out of his Church and his home when he came out as gay. He elaborates on what he was taught in his Church: “Gay people were bad, and they were paedophiles, and they were evil. So I spent every prayer meeting and every Sunday crying and begging God not to make me gay” (Berk, 2018). It is very obvious that Berk, as well the other members of the Fab Five were (and still are) oppressed as openly gay men, especially considering the public nature of their work. Therefore, they understand what it is like to be oppressed and stand up for people in similar situations so that hopefully, one day, these people will no longer have to experience what they went through.
This desire to help and protect groups affected by oppression resembles the biblical prophet Amos, who said: “…you cows of Bashan…who oppress the poor, who crush the needy…the Lord God has sworn by his holiness: the time is surely coming upon you” (Amos 4:1-2). This shows a fierce hatred towards the ‘elites’ that discriminate against people for reasons that cannot be helped. This statement is backed up by the introduction of God – if an authoritative figure such as God has said something, it must be true. While the Fab Five address different oppressed societies, it is clear that both parties aim to remove the barrier between the elite and the oppressed. Furthermore, while Queer Eye’s stars do not quote God to give their ideas weight, they have other strategies. The Fab Five use: an internationally acclaimed TV show; their own immense followings; and the support of other well-respected people (e.g. the other members of the Fab Five, famous celebrities, and political figures). Therefore, the Fab Five are able to deliver their message (to stop oppressing the weak) with impact, just like Amos.
Lastly, Queer Eye’s Fab Five have a passion for social justice. The very first episode begins with a montage of clips of the five men talking about how much featuring on the show means to them. France sums up the Fab Five’s intention perfectly by stating: “Our fight is for acceptance” (France, 2018). Brown further adds: “We’ve all got to come together in a way we can understand each other” (Brown, 2018). As previously discussed, the Fab Five speak out against the status quo when it comes to social issues, especially those that lead to oppression of certain groups in society. I believe these behaviours show the men’s strong passion for social justice – they are so passionate about getting a message out about what they believe is right. On the show, (amongst other things) they want the LGBTQI+ community to be accepted for who they are. However, the Fab Five fit this prophecy definition in their personal lives too – they use their fame as a platform to voice their opinions and influence millions of people. For example, Porowski used his Instagram account (which has 2.5 million followers) to announce publicly that he attended a pride parade in Canada with prominent political figures, including Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada (2018). Another example is the repetitive posting on Instagram by Brown and van Ness (who have 1.7 and 2.6 million followers respectively) encouraging people to vote. Brown posted a video with van Ness in October (shortly following the controversial appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court) where he said: “In this upcoming election you have to get out and vote…because your voice has power” (2018). I believe posts such as these clearly show the men’s desire for social justice. They want everyone to be treated equally and have their opinions heard, and they take their fame as an opportunity to get this message across.
Again, the Fab Five resemble the biblical prophet Amos. Amos 5:23-24 states: “I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”. Clearly, Amos is a devout believer in social justice too. The quoted passage shows the belief that while people may have very rigid beliefs, nothing should be listened to except for what is right. This aligns with the idea the Fab Five present: social justice is crucial and should be aimed for. As previously discussed, the social issues presented by both parties differ greatly. Furthermore, it can be argued that Amos is specifically referring to the treatment of the poor, whereas the Fab Five refer to many different social issues, as well as simply presenting the overall message that everybody’s voices should be heard. However, one distinct similarity to Amos’ words is the use of colourful imagery. For example, in a post encouraging people to vote, van Ness states that “the light is coming” (2018). This invokes an emotional response, which further encourages people to listen to what is being said. Put simply, both Amos and the Fab Five’s goal to inspire social justice is obvious.
In conclusion, I have presented how Queer Eye’s Fab Five disturb society’s sense of normalcy, emerge from a situation of oppression (and represent those who are oppressed), and have a passion for social justice. Van Ness, France, Brown, Porowski, and Berk’s refreshing positivity and honesty has inspired many, which is why the show has been so successful. In the words of Terry Giles (2018): “the prophetic performer does not leave his audience as he found them”, and this is most definitely the case with the Fab Five.
All references to the biblical text are from the NRSV.
Borg, M. J. (2001). Reading the Bible again for the first time; taking the Bible seriously but not literally (1st ed.). San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
This weekend’s essay is about the FAMOUS detective Dirk Gently. Our author is the one and only Katie Worthington. Here’s a bit about Katie.
I have just moved to Auckland this year from a small town up North called Waipu. I am currently studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in sociology and media. I want to focus on gender and sexuality and their representation in the media. I loved taking THEOREL 101 as an elective paper this year. I was not planning on doing anything with theology as I did not grow up with any religious ties. However, after talking to the people at the open day, I was intrigued by the subject. This paper combined well with my majors as it looked at the culture industry and Bible representations in media.
Read on, and remember–everything is connected.
The Holistic Messiah? Dirk Gently and the American Monomyth
Crime shows often feature the American Monomyth where, through unique powers of deduction and group of loyal followers, an outside individual solves an impossible case. The television series, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (2016-2017), created by Max Landis, features the Messiah archetype through the character of Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett) as he uses his powers of coincidence combined with faith in the universe to let individual aspects of a case, piece itself together. Lawrence and Shelton discuss the characteristics of a modern Messiah such as motivated by selfless zeal for justice, renouncement of sexuality, and the justification of violence (2002). The portrayal of Messiahs in television has evolved as each creator has added their spin on the Messiah archetype. Thus, Dirk’s character appears more relatable gaining empathy from a modern audience deviating from some Messiah traits. The Messiah figure is still relevant as they provide hope to the audience drawing on the human desire to be saved.
Dirk inhabits a selfless zeal for justice; however, he could also be described as a reluctant Messiah. Lawrence and Shelton describe this as one of the critical features of a monomythic superhero (47). Jesus fought for those who had been cast out from society. Jesus associates himself with those facing hardships, such as in Mark 1:29-34 where he cures many who were either sick or demon possessed. Jesus placed others above himself which translates into the American Monomyth. The American Monomyth describes the commodification of a Christ character in order to make them relevant in modern society (Lawrence & Jewett, 21). Religion is treated as a product to sell to the masses giving into the capitalism and consumerism of western society (Forbes, 13). This commodification leads to the production of the messiah Archetype within pop culture. Dirk presents his own selfless zeal for justice as he puts himself in harm’s way in order to solve the case and return the time machine to Patrick Spring. Examples of this in season one is the death maze in episode four and the climax of the series in episode seven where he gets shot with a crossbow numerous times pushing him to the brink of death. This scene is an example of Dirk being willing to suffer, and also raises themes of resurrection, another critical element of a modern Messiah.
While Dirk attempts to fight for justice for others, he can also be described as a reluctant Messiah. In episode two season one, Dirk reveals that he does not like following these cases but has to do them because it is the right thing. He tells Todd (Elijah Wood), “The cases I end up on if I do not solve them, no one does.” Dirk is aware of his situation and understands that he is working for an entity that is greater than himself. This highlights Dirk’s perseverance in helping Lydia and solving the murder of Patrick Spring. However, this description of the monomythic superhero is problematic as considers the world to either be good or evil (Lawrence & Jewett, 47). The American Monomyth oversimplifies the lines of good and evil to the point where the ‘good’ is the perspective told by the story. Jesus draws strict guidelines of morality in Matthew 5:17-48. These rules consider the world in black and white. Dirk, however, is not perfect. He unintentionally participates in several murders throughout the series as well as lies to his followers. However, since Dirk appears to be acting on behalf of fate, he is excused from these faults. In the perspective of the villains in the series, Gordon would be considered their Messiah, delivering them their justice. However, Landis creates the story from Dirk’s point of view as he eventually wins and his story gets told. This example demonstrates the problems behind a Messiah’s selfless zeal for justice as it depends on the perspective of the story. Dirk aims for justice for Lydia and Patrick, however, discards others in the process.
Another aspect of a modern Messiah that Dirk possesses is his renouncement of sexuality. There is no mention of Jesus’ sexual experiences in the Bible. Throughout the entirety of season one, Dirk also has no love interest. In the second season, Dirk enters a relationship with The Beast. This emphasises Dirk’s asexuality as he is an unwilling boyfriend in the arrangement. The Beast, who resembles a fairy tale creature, treats Dirk as a pet. Eventually, he escapes from the highly uncomfortable situation. However, this characteristic does not only include the renouncement of sexuality but the resistance of temptations. Here, one may argue that Dirk is not a Messiah. Matthew 4:1-11 describes Jesus’ resistance of temptation through the example of fasting for 40 days in the desert. Here, the devil tempts him with food and power, however, Jesus declines. Dirk consistently gives into his temptations and impulses as this a key aspect of solving the case holistically. Consequently, this ‘flaw’ makes Dirk appear more relatable to the audience. Dirk explains his process of solving a case as “interconnectedness” and “coincidence” as “once hired [he] is intrinsically connected to the specific case [which he] will eventually solve.” The crank Dirk steals from the Spring mansion can be viewed as either impulse or intuition as it later becomes relevant to the case. His extraordinary powers appear when he follows his impulses appearing to give in to every temptation.
However, this is an element that has been created to make the character relatable and entertaining to modern audiences. Sjö describes the hegemonic masculinity portrayed through pop culture messiahs (179). Dirk strays away from this ideal through presenting his emotions making him appear to rush into temptations. This loss of control can be seen as a failure (Sjö, 180). Dirk’s emotional meltdowns not only ignites sympathy from the audience but also adds comedy to the show, drawing in the audience further. This could also be used to argue that Dirk does not embody a modern messiah as he fails to remain calm under pressure. But while he appears to be a clueless detective, Dirk does remain competent. For example, he breaks down in the death maze realising that his friend could die at any moment. This moment of empathy allows the audience to sympathise with the character thus investing in the pair’s survival. Dirk still can solve each room and successfully escape the maze. Dirk’s competence appears to be not of his choosing as it is a string of coincidences that help him solve the case. Dirk rebuts this himself when he states to Todd, “Just because you know you are playing a game doesn’t mean you don’t choose your moves.” Dirk also critique Todd’s “choices out of desperation” revealing he is much more in control than he first appears. Despite not being initially apparent, Dirk’s non-hegemonic portrayal of his masculinity still fits the mould of a modern Messiah as he remains competent throughout the series.
Dirk does not intentionally initiate violence, however, those surrounding him perform violent acts which are justified contributing to a characteristic of a modern Messiah. Lawrence and Shelton state a significant aspect of the American Monomyth is the justification of violence, claiming their fictional world contain a clear moral consciousness (48). This contrasts Jesus’ campaign for non-violent actions. In Matthew 26:52, Jesus states “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Dirk Gently does not personally inflict any violence on his enemies however his friends are justified in the murders they commit. Most notably, Bart (Fiona Dourif) is a holistic assassin, who throughout the series receives criticism for her “murder spree.” However, after each death, the victim’s background is revealed and we discover that they are often either murderers or kidnappers. Despite questioning within the series, the audience does not judge her because she kills, but instead focuses on whom she kills. Her violence is justified as these people present a physical manifestation of evil. This idea follows the strict guidelines of morality the television series can create. This fantasy fulfils people’s desires to simplify the world into good and evil, a place in which they live vicariously through the hero (Lawrence & Shelton, 48). The supporting characters display the moral ambiguities of the American Monomyth continuing to present Dirk as a modern Messiah.
Overall, Dirk Gently embodies characteristics of a modern Messiah. The American Monomyth modernises the Christ figure in order to sell them to a sympathetic audience. This archetype has consumed the film and television industries as audiences can relate to the characters in their simplified world. While Dirk is a reluctant Messiah, he has a selfless zeal for justice, renounces sexuality and the violence surrounding him is justified. Dirk’s story depicts suffering and facing temptations thus, making him a complex character for the audience to relate. The storyline follows that of the American Monomyth as his extraordinary powers solve unusual cases. Dirk expresses emotions deviating from the Messiah Archetype to gain empathy from the audience. This highlights the relevance of a Messiah figure in pop culture as it provides relief from the ordinary world. Despite this deviance, Dirk remains competent under pressure fulfilling requirements of the American Monomyth. Consequently, Dirk can be described as a modern Messiah in pop culture.
All references to the Biblical text are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Created by Max Landis, 2016-2017.
Forbes, B. D. “Introduction.” Religion and Popular Culture in America, edited by Forbes, B. D., Mahan, J. H., University of California Press, 2005, pp1-20.
Lawrence, J. S., Jewett, R.. “The American Monomyth in the New Century.” The Myth of the American Superhero, Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002, pp 3-48.
Sjö, S. “Postmodern Messiahs: the changing saviours of contemporary popular culture.” Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis, Vol. 21, 2009, Vol.21, pp.196-212.
Tonight we have a essay from local Jamie Lee–here’s a bit about Jamie and their essay.
I am from Auckland, I am studying a Bachelor of Arts double majoring in Film, Television and Media Studies and English. I am about to head on exchange to the University of California, Santa Barbara, and intend on becoming an English teacher overseas once I complete my degree. I have thoroughly enjoyed this class, as while I am not the most devout Catholic in the world, I have an interest in the way religion and popular culture interact with each other especially through film, music and video games. I am also very interested in the way the Bible has affected modern literature and storytelling as a whole. The main reason I chose to do an essay on Apocalyptic literature was in order to understand both its function and how it was written, as I intend on exploring creative writing alongside my current career plans, and felt like this knowledge might help inspire me creatively in the future.
Enjoy the read and have a good weekend!
Bombs, Blizzards and Blight: Apocalypse in Popular Culture
Popular culture literature, for example films, gaming and music, have manipulated the Bible’s apocalyptic literary genre in order to convey modern audiences social anxieties about the future. Inspired by the Book of Revelation’s symbolism of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and fantastical imagery of the ‘end of the world’, modern apocalyptic literature has been used to convey fears of absolute nuclear annihilation and fears of a global environmental catastrophe leading to humanity’s demise.
The Book of Revelation’s original function was as a symbolic depiction of current events, using fantastical imagery to both depict contemporary anxieties and to spread hope to a Christian audience who were facing persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. This is particularly obvious in the symbolic image of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, each of which is reflective of one of these contemporary anxieties. The first horse, ‘Conquest’, is described as “a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer” (Revelation 6:2). Similarly, the remaining horses of ‘War’ (red), ‘Famine’ (black) and ‘Death’ (pale) all reflect the anxieties of early Christians in the times of persecution they lived in.
Coded language was also used in apocalyptic literature to depict contemporary anxieties, particularly the image of the “mark of the beast”. The “mark of the beast” can be decoded in Revelation 13:18, which reads, “the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. It’s number is six hundred sixty-six”. Through the technique of “gematria”, the number 666 can be decoded into the words “Caesar Nero”, who is both the first Roman emperor and one of the most brutal emperors to persecute Christians following the “Great Fire of Rome”, which Christians were scapegoated as causing in 64AD (Marcus Borg, p.277).
The other function of biblical apocalyptic literature was to provide an ‘end goal’ or resolution to this persecution, which in the case of the Book of Revelation appears through the use of destructive eschatological imagery. This particularly visible in Revelation 16:18, which reads “there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake.” The use of fantastical imagery is what inspired modern writers of apocalyptic literature to use similar imagery in their own works. However, there have been many shifts in the way apocalyptic literature functions in the modern era, particularly in the way in which it is read. As Bart D. Ehrman states in an interview, the Bible’s apocalyptic literature is often misread by the modern audience “as if these apocalypses are predicting things in our own future”, simply because these fantastical events imagined in the Bible never occurred in history. For contemporary readers of apocalyptic literature in the Bible, it was used directly to create hope for them in the face of ongoing Christian persecution, whereas the apocalyptic literature seen in popular culture is far more concerned about the future of society.
Fear of the outbreak of a full scale nuclear war and ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD) has been a very real concern of society since World War II when the first atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. The first use of the atom bomb in Hiroshima led to the instant obliteration of 60,000 buildings within a three mile radius, and between 64,000 to 240,000 people died from mechanical, thermal or radiation injuries (Phillip M. Boffey, p.679). The sheer capabilities of nuclear weapons as shown by these two bombings led to ‘nuclear warfare’ becoming a very real fear of society, and this fear translated into popular culture in the form of modern apocalyptic literature.
The video game, Fallout 3 explores a post-apocalyptic civilization following the outbreak of full scale nuclear warfare in the year 2077. One of the most striking things about Fallout 3 is how lifeless the open-world of the “Capital Wasteland” is. Set in the ruins of Washington, D.C. almost no vegetation grows, the colour saturation is extremely pale and the Wasteland itself is filled with derelict, abandoned buildings and constant fighting between the survivors of the war, who without laws or government now do as they wish, with no consequences. This imagery of a desolate and lawless wasteland shares many similarities with apocalyptic literature in the Bible, for example Isaiah 24:1 reads, “Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate.” Additionally, Fallout 3’s main quest itself is inspired by the “spring of the water of life” seen in Revelation 21:6, by forcing the “Lone Wanderer” (the player) to decide whether or not they provide clean water for the people of the “Capital Wasteland”, or to unleash a devastating virus in it to purify the “Wasteland” of its violence and corruption.
Similarly, the film Mad Max: Fury Road uses much of the same imagery that is seen in the “Capital Wasteland”. Set in its own post-apocalyptic wasteland after an energy crisis led to the end of civilization, this wasteland is particularly distinct, as the entire movie is filled with imagery of sand and rusty machinery saturated in the colours of “ochre by day, cobalt by night” (Nick Pinkerton, p.82). The plot of the film revolves around the escape of the five wives of the tyrant, “Immortan Joe”, through the help of one of Joe’s lieutenants “Imperator Furiosa”, who intends on taking them to the “Green Place”, an idyllic land from Furiosa’s childhood. The discovery that the “Green Place” no longer exists — now a swampland — is extremely similar to the biblical verse of Revelation 8:7, which reads “there came hail and fire… they were hurled into the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.” One crucial similarity between all of the aforementioned apocalyptic texts (Revelation, Fallout 3, Mad Max: Fury Road) is that they are rife with nostalgia, and all of them long for a return to a golden age.
As Borg’s reading suggests, Jesus is considered the bringer of a “true golden age of peace on earth”, which is exactly what Revelation calls on its contemporary readers to wait for (p. 284). In the same way, the use of ironic 1940’s rhythm and blues such as “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by the Ink Spots in Fallout 3 and Furiosa’s idyllic memory of the “Green Place” in Mad Max: Fury Road conveys a longing for a return to a simpler past which in reality can never be recovered.
Another fear in modern society which has been translated into popular culture is the increasing concern about climate change leading to a cataclysmic environmental apocalypse. Revelation’s imagery of cataclysmic events in particular have been the inspiration for popular culture interpretations of an environmental apocalypse. The film Soylent Green, based off the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison is set in a dystopian New York in the year 2022, where large-scale industrialization has led to overpopulation, resource shortages, pollution and global warming due to the greenhouse effect.
The plot of the story revolves around the discovery of the horrible secret behind the new food source — “Soylent Green” — and what it is made from, after Sol Roth, Detective Thorn’s personal librarian discovers that the oceans are dying. This imagery of dying oceans is matched by Revelation 16:3, which reads “every living thing in the sea died.” The secret of what Soylent Green is actually made of is then discovered by Detective Thorn, as he finds that it is not made from animal products, but instead that Soylent Green is made out of people! Similarly, films such as 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow take the theme of climate change and use identical imagery to what is seen in Revelation to depict what an environmental apocalypse could look like. Catastrophic weather events seen in these films range from “floods” (Revelation 12:15), “earthquakes” (Revelation 8:5), “huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people” (Revelation 16:21) and “a third of humankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur” (Revelation 9:18). However, the key difference between Revelation and modern apocalyptic literature is that modern apocalyptic literature (especially films) typically dissociate themselves from the spiritual themes and messages of Revelation, instead preferring to focus on the resilience of humanity as a race.
One of the rare cases in which an environmental apocalypse is depicted on the big screen with an anxiety of contemporary Bible readers is in the science-fiction film Interstellar. The main cause of Interstellar’s environmental apocalypse is through the form of “Blight” which has wiped out almost every crop on the planet, and threatens to wipe out the last viable crop humanity has, corn. The manner in which “Blight” is personified in Interstellar is identical to the way “Pestilence” is personified as the horseman of the black horse from the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Revelation 6:5-6). “Blight” is also extremely similar to the famine in Revelation 18:8 which reads “plagues will come in a single day — pestilence and mourning and famine.” However, the solution to this plight faced in Interstellar is not spiritual, instead it is extraterrestrial.
Modern apocalyptic literature and the anxieties they reflect, such as nuclear warfare and climate change, are modern interpretations of society’s new “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. While the imagery of the apocalypse has remained remarkably similar over the course of two-thousand years, the function of apocalyptic literature has drastically shifted from providing hope for its readers by promising a return to a golden age to casting doubts and projecting fear about the future.
All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV
Boffey, Philip M. “HIROSHIMA/NAGASAKI: Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission Perseveres in Sensitive Studies.” Science, vol. 168, no. 3932, 1970, pp. 679–683. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1729022.
Today’s essay is brought to us by Kyla Palmer, and features the excellent Marvel superhero Doctor Strange. Here’s some background about Kyla.
I am from here in Auckland, out west in Waimauku, and I am currently studying medicinal chemistry. I am not entirely sure what I want to do at the end of my degree, but I am looking into post graduate studies and potentially going into research. This was one of my General Education papers, and I chose it because although I am a Christian and have spent a year at a Bible college, I thought it would be really cool to study how the Bible and some of its specific themes are portrayed in pop culture.
I have really enjoyed how much THEOREL 101 has made me think about things in a different light, consider the way that people use the bible, and the implications that this can have on both our interpretation of it and also the way that society thinks about a whole range of issues.
It has challenged me a lot because I am used to science papers where the answers are right and wrong, black and white – but this has helped broaden my horizons and think more deeply, so thank you very much for that!
Enjoy the read!
A Strange New-Age Messiah?
We all need a hero, someone to look to for meaning and purpose. As secularisation increases, more people are turning away from religion (Statistics New Zealand, 2014), yet still have a sense of needing something greater than themselves, a hope in the midst of despair. Lawrence & Jewett (2002) comment on “supersaviour”/messiah figures in pop culture as “a replacement for the Christ Figure, whose credibility was eroded by scientific rationalism.” Although they may be a replacement, the figures we see and the values and abilities they have still “reflect a hope for divine, redemptive powers that science has never eradicated from the popular mind” (p. 7). Filmmakers draw upon this implicit human need of a saviour, and create characters that portray many of these ideals. This trope is referred to as the American Monomyth, the overarching story centering around the protagonist who is “…distinguished by disguised origins, pure motivations, a redemptive task, and extraordinary powers” (Lawrence & Jewett, 2002, p. 47). In this essay I will show how Dr Strange fits traditional monomythic standards, albeit in a flawed way. I will also explain how the film exemplifies a shift in the monomyth coinciding with current changes in the attitudes and beliefs of society today.
The American Monomyth is based on biblical messiahs – human political or military leaders in the Old Testament, chosen by God to defeat earthly enemies (1 Sam 16:1-13). The New Testament messiah was Jesus, chosen by God to bring spiritual, rather than physical salvation (Eph 6:12). Often the monomyth centres around physical salvation from an earthly enemy, however in the case of Dr Strange, the enemy is both physical and spiritual, evidenced by the focus on supernatural powers, other realms of reality, and death. Dormammu resides in the Dark Dimension and claims to have power over death, providing “life everlasting” (Feige & Derrickson, 2016). These dark powers come to earth and battle against Dr Strange in different dimensions. Through the common spiritual type of enemy being faced, we can see a link between Dr Strange and the New Testament messiah, Jesus. Although not strictly part of the monomyth, this can help frame Strange as having aspects of his character that can be compared to biblical messiahs in both the Old and New Testaments.
One of the main features of the traditional American monomyth is that the messiah is “vaguely defined as from ‘above’ or ‘beyond’… thus they are in the world, but not of the world” (Kozlovic, 2004, ). Dr Strange poses a contrast to this trope, he comes from normal beginnings and is 100% human, with failings and vulnerabilities. In this sense he does not fit with this aspect of the traditional monomyth. However, Sjö (2009) notes that changing worldviews move away from higher deities, resulting in “a mostly human messiah, who becomes a saviour through his own struggles” (p. 182). After a car crash off a cliff, Dr Strange damages his hands beyond repair, and when modern medicine fails, seeks other methods. Upon reaching Kamar-Taj, he learns to use powers which can be harnessed for good or evil.
Through his struggle he “meet[s] his destiny and become[s] who he was meant to be” (Sjö, 2009, p. 178). Mordo tells Strange that “what you just did takes more than a good memory. You were born for the mystic arts” (Feige & Derrickson, 2016). Thus Strange is not just talented, but seems to have a propensity for magic that surpasses other humans. The postmodern definition of a character becoming a saviour is represented by Dr Strange and exemplifies how cultural changes affect in film and media. However I argue that although this aspect fits a more contemporary monomyth, Dr Strange still encompasses traditional monomythic ideas, showing a period of transition in film, rather than the final result of postmodern change. One reason for this is because in addition to Strange developing his powers and reaching his potential through his own struggles, he is also anointed in the sense of a biblical messiah.
In the Old Testament, messiah translates to ‘anointed one’ – at their inauguration Kings and priests were anointed with oil (Porter, 2007). At one of the key defining moments in Dr Strange’s character development, the cloak of levitation saves him from death, therefore choosing him… ‘the cloak of levitation chose you?’ (Feige & Derrickson, 2016). The moment the relic chose Strange represents his ‘anointing’ as the people’s messiah. The anointing of Strange not only links back to the anointing of kings and priests in the Old Testament, it also reflects that of Jesus at his baptism (Matt 3:13- 17). The contrast between Jesus and Dr Strange is also seen in that Jesus had disguised origins, born of a virgin in a humble and unassuming place – a stable (Luke 1:26-38). The origins of his life and resurrection after death show that Jesus was both human and divine, which contrasts with the humanity of Dr Strange. These aspects show how the way in which Dr Strange fulfils the unusual origins contrasts with biblical messiahs, yet meets postmodern and traditional monomyth requirements.
Another aspect of the American Monomyth is that the super-saviour “withstands all temptations” (Lawrence & Jewett, 2002, p. 47). Dr Strange is fully human, and so just as we face temptations daily, Strange is tempted by career success, relationships, and victory over death. Kaecilius tempts Dr Strange in a way that emulates Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. He speaks to Dr Strange about the Dark Dimension, attempting to recruit him by playing on human weakness; “humanity longs for the eternal, time is what enslaves us” (Feige & Derrickson, 2016). He tells Strange that if he draws power from the Dark Dimension he can escape death and live forever. Just as Jesus refused to yield to temptations in Luke 4:1- 13 (food, water, and power over all the earth), Dr Strange refuses to succumb to the allure of eternal life, instead fighting for what he knows is right. The temptation that Dr Strange faces and his response to it shows that he fulfils the monomyth aspect of withstanding temptation.
Sacrifice is an important aspect of the American Monomyth and appears in many messiah-figures, including Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Katniss Everdeen and Thor (Kozlovic, 2000). The motivation for this sacrifice is commonly a zeal for justice; the hero longs to see evil conquered and good prevail. Jesus Christ is this perfect saviour figure in the bible, who gave his life so that death would be destroyed (Mark 10:45, John 20). He wanted his Father’s will to be done so that evil would be overcome (John 17:4). Dr Strange does make sacrifices, but he is not a perfect saviour figure as he initially does not want to have anything to do with helping the greater good. Instead, he endeavours to further his abilities so that he can heal his hands and become a doctor again, “I’m out, I came here to heal my hands, not to fight in some mystical war” (Feige & Derrickson, 2016). Thus, at the beginning of his journey to becoming a true messiah, Strange is not a “selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others and the zealous crusader who destroys evil” (Lawrence & Jewett, 2002, p. 6). This changes as he talks to Christine Palmer, “You said losing my hands didn’t have to be the end. That it could be a beginning” (Feige & Derrickson, 2016). We see that this transition to sacrificial behaviour has become more complete as Strange speaks to Dormammu in the Dark Dimension and is prepared to face pain and dying for all eternity so that others can live.
Dormammu: Then you will spend eternity dying!
Dr. Strange: Yes, but everyone on Earth will live.
Dormammu: But you will suffer!
Dr. Strange: Pain’s an old friend.
(Feige & Derrickson, 2016).
Strange goes from initially only caring for himself and what would benefit him, to making choices based on the survival of the universe. The change in his attitudes signifies his transition from just another talented human, to a saviour and messiah figure. Although there are similarities between the sacrificial behaviour of Strange and Jesus as messiahs, there is a key difference. Consistency. Jesus remained the same, assured of his calling and his identity. Strange, however, undergoes a journey of not only saving the universe, but also of discovering himself.
Overall, Dr Strange has proved to display many of the characteristics of a messiah figure. He is anointed, chosen for the redemptive task of saving the universe. He also resists temptations and makes sacrifices for the greater good of his community, regardless of the cost to himself as he loses his old way of life so that others may live without fear. Although Strange is chosen, we still see a struggle and a change in his attitudes from self-service to that of true justice. This progression shows a shift in the traditional monomyth from a divinely righteous figure to a ‘postmodern’ messiah that understands struggles and uses them to become a saviour through their own strength. For these reasons I can conclude that Dr Strange is a true representation of our cultural change, and he is our Strange New-Age Messiah.
All References to the Biblical Text are from the NIV.
Feige, K. (Prod.), & Derrickson, S. (Dir.). (2016). Dr Strange [DVD]. USA: Marvel Studios.
Kozlovic, A. K. (2000). ‘The Bible is Alive and Well and Living in Popular Films!’: A Survey of Some Western Cinematic Transfigurations of Holy Writ. Australian Religion Studies Review, 13(1), 56-71.
Today’s essay is from Lois Denbury, and discusses Christianity’s most famous female figure, and her presence in art.
I am studying for a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Art History and minor European Studies. I was inspired to write this essay after completing papers on the history of art, in particular, Ways of Seeing Contemporary Art, also Understanding Contemporary Art Practice. On graduating, I hope to join a local primary school and assist children with their reading skills. I live on the North Shore and enjoy the lifestyle of sun and sea. I chose the Bible and Pop Culture paper to look at the many ways in which the Bible influences contemporary art and film, and also to learn more about the Bible stories. The depiction of The Virgin Mary has been of particular interest to me throughout my studies in Art History.
Enjoy your Sunday and have a good read!
The Virgin Mary: Controversy in Contemporary Art
I will discuss the biblical portrayal of the Virgin Mary and compare it with some of her contemporary afterlives. The majority of the Virgin Mary’s contemporary afterlives are religious statues and paintings, which are usually found in churches. I will reference three examples of Mary’s contemporary afterlives, which have all caused great debate. They are three artworks, where the creators have had a religious background and the reaction from viewers to the artworks has been strong. I will highlight the public reaction to these works, where the Virgin Mary was depicted in non-traditional ways. In these less religious times, today, Mary is often depicted according to contemporary values, which can provoke great controversy (Tsironis).
In the New Testament Gospels, the Virgin Mary is portrayed as an ordinary, young Jewish woman, who was chosen by God to become the mother of his Son (Carlson). The four Gospels all give different accounts of Mary, but the Gospels of Luke and John give the most complete picture (Carlson). Luke tells us how Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel, who announced that she had been chosen to become the mother of the Son of God (New Revised Standard Version, Luke 1.26-28). Mary asked how that could be possible, as she was still a virgin, but accepted Gabriel’s explanation and the honour. During her pregnancy, Mary left her home town of Nazareth to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who was also pregnant (Luke 1.34-36). Mary stayed at Elizabeth’s house for three months (Luke 1.39-56). Later, Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born and placed in a manger (Luke 2.5-7). Luke also records the visit of Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem to present their son at the Temple (Luke 2.22-40). Then, when Jesus reached the age of twelve, the family travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover, but he disappeared and Mary and Joseph had to search for three days, before they found him at the Temple, where he was teaching (Luke 2.41-52). Luke also confirms that Mary was very happy to serve God (Luke 2.19, 2.51). However, we have to look to Matthew’s Gospel for the account of the family’s flight to Egypt to escape King Herod’s soldiers, who wanted to kill the baby Jesus (Matthew 2.13-23). Similarly, we need to refer to the Gospel of John to find confirmation that Mary was present at the Crucifixion of her Son (John 19.25-27). John also includes the miracle at the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, at the request of his mother (John 2.1-11). Overall we get a picture of the Virgin Mary as a caring mother, who was happy to carry out God’s wishes (Carlson). However, the traditional image of Mary has been built up by later artistic interpretations of her role as the Mother of God.
Ever since the biblical accounts of the Virgin Mary were written, 2000 years ago, she has been a very popular figure in the history of Christianity, being depicted in many religious artworks, such as portraits and statues, throughout Europe. Her portrayal in the Bible has been taken as a base image and revised over the centuries by many artists and churches (Badley). Artists have depicted her in certain traditional formats, from the breastfeeding Mother of God to the Queen of Heaven (Badley). However, Mary’s popularity weakened after the Reformation, as Protestantism, which generally does not share the Catholics’ affection for the Virgin Mary, came to dominate large parts of Europe. By the twentieth century, Europe had become a much more secular society and, as a result, respect for Mary had weakened further. This is the background that has led to some modern artists depicting the Virgin Mary in ways that appear to be disrespectful. My three examples of less respectful contemporary depictions of the Virgin Mary all caused controversy when they first appeared.
My first example is a painting by British artist, Chris Ofili, who was educated at a Catholic school and became known in the 1990s for his paintings of black men and women (Nesbitt 9). However, he was also well known for including elephant dung and pornographic images in his paintings (Nesbitt 10-13). In 1996, he mixed all of these elements together, to create a painting called The Holy Virgin Mary (1996).
Many people thought that he had gone too far with his large painting of a black Virgin Mary, which included small erotic images and highlighted her breast in elephant dung. The painting was displayed in a major exhibition in London and Berlin, without too much upset (Nesbitt 16). But, when the exhibition was moved to New York, in 1999, the painting was condemned by the Catholic Mayor of the city and the local Cardinal Archbishop. The Mayor threatened to hold back the funding for the Brooklyn Art Museum, despite never actually seeing the offending painting (Nesbitt 16). The publicity generated in the press by the furore resonated around the world. However, both artwork and Museum weathered the storm and Ofili’s fame and reputation grew as a result. The episode was only defused when a Federal Judge ruled that censorship of the Ofili painting was not an option (Nesbitt 16-17).
Secondly, the vicar of Saint Matthew’s Anglican Church in Auckland erected special Christmas billboard images of the Virgin Mary in 2009 and 2011. In 2011, Mary was portrayed holding a pregnancy test kit and appeared to be shocked by the result. There was no caption on the billboard, as the vicar wanted viewers to put forward suitable suggestions.
His advertising agency reported that he wanted “to spark thought and conversation in the community” and he hoped to encourage people to be generous to those who needed help at Christmas time (Whybin/TBWA). However, a different view was taken by Gerry Bowler, who believes that the vicar wanted to “cause offence for the sake of debate” and reports that the billboard was eventually pulled down by “an angry passer-by” (132). Saint Matthew’s Church received much publicity from the Christmas billboard, but also a lot of criticism. Bowler concludes that, after one more year of his provocative Christmas messages, the vicar concerned left the Anglican Church, in 2013, to take a position with a “suburban Presbyterian” church. He continued to produce his Christmas billboards at his new location, but they were less controversial than the billboards he created for Saint Matthew’s (Bowler 132).
My final contemporary artwork is called The Virgin Mother, 2005, a large bronze sculpture, which was created by British postmodern artist, Damien Hirst.
It is a three metre tall statue of a pregnant woman, with the layers of skin and flesh cut away on one side to display a baby inside her womb. Niki Tsironis records that this statue was prominently placed in the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, in 2006. She states her belief that Hirst’s aim was to shock the viewer, as they are very likely to interpret the name Virgin Mother as being the Virgin Mary (179). Tsironis sees it as Hirst’s attempt to remove the mystery surrounding the Virgin Mary; to reflect the “deconstructed society” of the twenty-first century (179). This Hirst sculpture has since been purchased by an American multi-millionaire, who relocated and placed it in his estate in New York. However, in 2014, he was forced to cover The Virgin Mother with a large tarpaulin, because of complaints from his neighbours (Massive Damien Hirst).
In conclusion, it is interesting that these three provocative art depictions of the Virgin Mary were all created by people who had a religious background. The two artists grew up in Catholic homes and the creator of the billboard was an Anglican vicar. When compared with the biblical image of the modest Virgin Mary, I would agree that these three contemporary artworks are very controversial. However, the description of the Virgin Mary that we get from the Gospels was written at a time, when religion dominated people’s lives and women had a very different position in life, compared to today. Despite the changes over time, in the twenty-first century, the majority of the Virgin Mary’s afterlives are still statues and paintings in Catholic churches. These three controversial artworks were all created by people who, besides having a religious background, appear to be independent thinkers. However, they and their artworks could simply be a reflection of contemporary postmodern thinking, as claimed by Tsironis (179).
All references to the Biblical text are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Tsironis, Niki. “Emotion and the Senses in Marian Homilies of the Middle Byzantine period” In The Cult of the Mother of God in Byzantium: Texts and Images, edited by Leslie Brubaker and Mary B. Cunningham, Ashgate Publishing, 2011, pp.179-198.
Today we have an essay from local Bella Qian–here’s a bit about her, and the piece:
I’m an Auckland gal who loves her city, though the recent gas prices have had me looking at the running costs of horses. I have just finished my second year of a highly employable Bachelor of Arts majoring in Ancient History and Psychology. One day I hope to pursue a post grad degree in Psychology as I have personally experienced the consequences of New Zealand’s flawed mental health system and attitudes, so the dream is to make a difference. I chose to write about fashion and religion in my essay because of my love for fashion (as evidenced through my bank statements) as well as my interest in consumerism and capitalism. This essay was very enjoyable to write and I hope that anyone reading it can find a point or two amidst my excessive shoe descriptions that gets them to stop and think.
Enjoy the read and have a great weekend!
Popes in Prada and Angels in Lingerie
Fashion and religion are both major influences in society as they explicitly and implicitly impact the way we think, feel, and act. When these two important bodies crash and merge in popular culture, a whole new set of meanings and implications emerge. Throughout history, clothing has been used for far more than to cover our bodies, it has held political, social, sexual, and economic implications (Schmidt 1989). Within religion, these implications still hold strong and clothing is given a whole new set of meanings in this context. However, these meanings were challenged through new interpretations of religious dress at the 2018 Met Gala, one of the biggest fashion events in Western society. Religion has also made its way into the fashion world via the unexpected area of lingerie. One of the most successful lingerie brands in the world, Victoria’s Secret, has been using ‘angels’ to model their lingerie for over a decade. Yet the meaning and use of these ‘angels’ seem to be drastically different from the ones mentioned in the Bible. This essay then aims to examine how religion has been used in fashion, using the example of the 2018 Met Gala, and Victoria’s Secret’s angels.
Within all major religions, dress has been used to serve the purpose of establishing and enforcing ideologies and hierarchies (Arthur 1999). Historically, for members and followers of the church, modesty is viewed as an important value that should be displayed through clothing, particularly for women. Thus, the excessive display of flesh is not encouraged and clothing should act to cover the body (ibid.). The colour and type of clothing also mattered; during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, vibrant and luxurious clothing was condemned. Instead, sombre dress was encouraged as it reflected the Christian focus on salvation and redemption (ibid.). The Catholic clergy also reflect the significance of dress through the different colours and items worn by members of different priestly rankings. At the bottom of the hierarchy are priests, who wear black, above them are bishops who wear violet, then cardinals in scarlet, and finally the pope, who is dressed in white. On top of colour, slight differences in their everyday dress from the hats they wear to the laces on their shoes are also used to display their differences in rank. Interestingly, these differences are not simply used to differentiate between clerical positions, but also hold religious symbolism (Bolton et al 2018). The white that is associated with the pope represents purity and sanctity that only he is worthy of (Arthur 1999). From these examples, we can see that clothing has important meanings and functions within the church.
These meanings and functions were completely flipped in the 2018 Met Gala with its theme of “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. The Met Gala is a charity event that has been running for 73 years and is arguably the most anticipated fashion event every year (Hoffower 2018). This year, the outfits worn by the celebrities at the event unreservedly exceeded expectations as they were amazing examples of how religion can be interpreted in fashion. Being the most exclusive fashion event of the year, with tickets allegedly costing up to US$50,000, it is unsurprising that many celebrities went over the top to make a statement. This year’s gala was filled with all sorts of extravagant jewels, crosses, halos, and even wings. Many celebrities also chose to reference specific religious figures, like the Virgin Mary in her manifestation as the lady of sorrows.
However, we do not see any modestly clothed and grieving Marys as depicted in religious art; instead, we see bejewelled Marys in thousand-dollar designer outfits. Explicitly, these outfit choices may be a way to further indicate the superior or divine status of these celebrities. The event itself is already exclusive – not only do guests need to be able to afford the $50,000 ticket, the event is invite-only, with a lengthy waitlist. The celebrities attending the gala have the modern world’s seal of approval, they are our contemporary aristocracy. Thus, by associating themselves with powerful and respected religious figures at this exclusive event, their status is further elevated. This can then have a cultural function of reinforcing an ‘us and them’ hierarchy. These celebrities, like the religious figures we worship, are out of reach and our only contact with them should be through our worshipping and idolizing of them. Furthermore, there may be a cultural function of holding up western ideals. The event’s exclusive guest list shows us the ideals of success and wealth, the achievements of the attendants creates a standard for onlookers and further separates them. The theme of the Met gala creates an idealization of certain of religion, and the choice of Catholicism raises questions like: is Catholicism better? Elevated? Or more red-carpet ready than other religions in the world? Additionally, when Catholicism was chosen as a theme for the most exclusive fashion event in Western society, its superiority and authority are reinforced. This can function to further the dominant role of Western ideas, standards, and beliefs in modern society.
Thus, not only do these dazzling Marys represent a beautiful crossing over of religion and high fashion, they also function to reinforce the status of both the attendants and modern Western ideologies.
Some of the outfits at the gala were particularly memorable as they managed to implicitly challenge the norms and ideologies of the church while being high fashion. One of these was singer and actress Solange Knowles’ outfit where she wore a gold halo that she paired with a flowing black durag. The halo was common amongst other celebrities and its meaning was straightforward, associating its wearer with holiness. Thus, it was her durag that stood out. The durag is dated back to the nineteenth century and was originally worn by slaves to keep their hair back. Yet its use completely changed with the black power movement during the late 1960’s which preached for equality and racial pride for those of African descent. During this movement, the durag became a popular accessory amongst African American youth and it is still used today (White and Hertz 2013). Importantly, on her durag, Solange had written in jewels, “My God Wears a Durag” (Edwards 2018). This juxtaposition of opulence with a symbol of slavery and later street culture captivates onlookers while sending a very important message. With her outfit, Solange reminds us that heaven is not white like it is commonly depicted and interpreted. Her outfit also disrupts and challenges the white dominance in religious art and imagery while celebrating the existence and importance of women of colour in religion (Edwards 2018). Unlike the bejewelled Marys who reinforce modern hierarchies, Solange’s outfit has a function of including and giving a voice to those who are marginalised by Western discourses. Just like a biblical prophet, Solange disturbs our sense of normalcy and challenges the cultural status quo (Borg 2000).
Another memorable outfit was the one worn by Rihanna who came dressed as a pope. What made it unforgettable was that her outfit was not made of silk and cotton like an actual pope’s robe, instead, every inch of her white dress and robe was encrusted in jewels and pearls. Here, she juxtaposes the purity of the colour white with the opulence of diamonds and gems. This juxtaposition may function as a criticism of religion’s longstanding gender biases. Knowing that women are still not allowed to become popes, Rihanna’s extravagant and feminine pope attire then shows us that women can be popes, and they are going to do it their way. To further her pope garb, she wore a matching and unsurprisingly bejewelled papal tiara, which is traditionally worn by popes when they are coronated or during special ceremonies.
What really completed her outfit, though, were her US$4,000 crystal encrusted black Christian Louboutin shoes. More than just a popular piece of fashion, the shoes became meaningful when paired with her pope attire. Christian Louboutin shoes have an iconic red sole and are notoriously difficult and painful to wear despite their price. The red bottoms stand out against her predominantly white outfit and the biblical association of the colour red with sin (Isiah 1:18) juxtaposes against the association of white with purity (Revelation 3:4-5;18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9;13-14). Hence, it is as if Rihanna is replicating the painful struggle women have endured in their fight for equality. In the eyes of men, we may have sinned but that won’t stop us from continuing to make progress, one bedazzled high heeled step at a time. The implicit meanings of her outfit as a whole are endless. Not only did it reimagine Catholicism as a religion that celebrates women and fashion, but it also calls out the church’s deep-rooted bias against women. As a woman of colour, her pope attire directly addresses the ban on women ever becoming ordained priests and challenges the church’s white patriarchal status quo in the process (Wynne and Janssens 2018). Thus, these powerful outfits worn by Solange and Rihanna show that for one night, fashion challenged religion.
One specific aspect of religion that has surprisingly found its way into fashion is the concept of angels. In the Bible, angels are described as powerful creations of God, who act as his messengers and are faithful to him (Daniel 4:13; Colossians 1:16; Revelation 5:11-12). There is no unanimous description of their physical attributes in the Bible and examples of their appearance include the form of a male human and a form that causes fear in people (Genesis 18. Hebrews 13:2, Matthew 28:4). Contrary to popular belief and depiction, these angels are also very rarely described as having wings and when they do, they tend to have six of them (Isaiah 6:1-8). The lack of a consistent angelic form in the Bible thus allowed a lot of room for creativity for early Christian artists (Marshall and Walsham 2006). Yet, from the fourth century onwards, most artists gravitated towards depicting angels with two wings, and having a saintly androgynous nature. However, all of these depictions of angels in art and the Bible wildly contrasts the ‘angels’ we have seen walk down lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret runway for the past decade. Here, the angels are in fact successful female models with a huge social following (Opelka 2017). The only thing these Victoria’s Secret ‘angels’ may physically have in common with the ones in the Bible and religious art is the wings they frequently wear when modelling the brand’s lingerie. Yet even when ‘winged’, their extravagant and often multi-coloured floor-length wings are far from the ones seen in religious imagery. Wings aside, these ‘angels’ are marketed as living ideals of western beauty standards who also happen to be in lingerie. This ideal of a perfect woman being both sexy and heavenly then produces an unattainable ideal for women. Interestingly, the elevated status this ideal gives the Victoria’s Secret ‘angels’ may be a point of similarity with the biblical angels. Yet instead of being powerful creations of God, Victoria’s Secret’s ‘angels’ are powerful creations of the sexist and exploitive Western consumer market.
Controlling almost 40% of sales in intimate apparel, Victoria’s Secret is the largest and most successful lingerie brand in America and The Victoria’s Secret Angels have been vital in their success (Anderson 2014). Interestingly, despite their use of ‘angels’, Victoria’s Secret does not affiliate itself with religion. This is known as capitalist spirituality, where religious themes are exploited for the benefit of the corporation (Liegghio 2014). Thus, their use of these ‘angels’ is actually a clever consumerism tactic. By dressing their models up like angels while in lingerie, the brand gives them a divine quality while retaining their sex appeal (ibid.). Their giant soft white wings, contrasted with their sultry appearance creates a seemingly otherworldly and ethereal attraction. Sometimes, sharp black wings are used instead which creates a more ‘sinful’ attraction (Smith 2002). By juxtaposing religious and sexual imagery, the appeal of the ‘angels’ is intensified (ibid). The brand also creates an allure and elite status around these ‘angels’ by creating a hierarchy of models with them at the top. Currently, there are only 15 models worldwide who have the ‘angel’ title which is only given after careful selection of the model’s physical attributes and social popularity (Liegghio 2014). This exclusivity adds to their appeal as it causes them to appear desirable. By making these ‘angels’ objects of desire, the lingerie they model sells successfully because it allows buyers to be closer or similar to these otherwise untouchable beings (ibid.). In doing so, the brand has expertly created an illusion of a divine yet alluring ‘angel’ in order to sell their product. In the end, Victoria’s Secret’s use of angels is a prime example of religion being used and exploited in popular culture.
In conclusion, the fashion world has used religion creatively to send its messages. The 2018 Met Gala displayed the omnipotent powers of fashion using religion as its medium. That night, fabric and jewels challenged religion’s injustices and biases better than words could. The Gala showed that now, fashion is in charge, what is right and wrong is told by Vogue, not by the Vatican (Wynne and Janssens 2018). On the other hand, Victoria’s Secret showed us that religion can be capitalized and consumed, all without consequence. Perhaps that is Victoria’s secret after all. As a result, it is undeniable that the fashion world has redefined religion because now, our popes wear Prada, and our angels are in lingerie.
All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV
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