We are delighted to welcome Professor Gerald West to speak at our TheoRel seminar next week. Gerald is Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and African Biblical Hermeneutics in the School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also Director of the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research, a project in which biblical scholars and African readers of the Bible from poor, working-class, and marginalized communities collaborate for social transformation. His most recent publication is The Stolen Bible: From Tool of Imperialism to African Icon (2016). He is currently based at the University of Otago working on a book project (Facilitating Interpretive Resilience: Biblical Scholarship, Local Communities, and the Bible as a Site of Struggle) as part of the De Carle Distinguished Lectureship.
Gerald’s lecture for us next week is titled, “Building biblical interpretive resilience and resistance in the context of gender violence”. Gerald will discuss the ways that the Bible is complicit in gender violence in South African (and other) contexts. So how do we work with a complicit Bible in the struggle for gender justice? He will draw on the praxis of the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research’s ‘Tamar Campaign’ and ‘Redemptive Masculinity Campaign’, reflecting on the participatory interpretive practices of the Ujamaa Centre’s work, using the story of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:1-22 as an example.
This event is co-hosted by the Shiloh Project, a joint initiative run by scholars at the Universities of Auckland, Sheffield, and Leeds. It fosters research into the intersections of religion and rape culture.
The lecture is free and open to everyone. We hope to see you there.
Today’s essay continues our theme of contemporary messiahs, or super saviours, which we’ve explored over thepastfewdays. What makes this one a little different though is that the super saviour figure appears in a Japanese animated fantasy film, Princess Mononoke (more details here), rather than the more typical Western superhero brand. The author of this fab essay is Isabelle Steinman, who hails from sunny Hawke’s Bay. Isabelle is studying a Bachelor of Arts and Science conjoint, majoring in mathematics, physics, and philosophy. She hopes to carry on to do postgraduate study and likes the idea of working in academia one day. She took our Bible and Pop Culture class because, although an atheist, she has always been interested in religion, particularly religious art and architecture, and is fascinated by the impact that religion has on everybody’s lives, regardless of their personal beliefs.
Although I’ve never seen Princess Mononoke myself, Isabelle’s essay has made me want to watch it – so, whether or not you are familiar with this film, I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading what she has to say.
Princess Mononoke– a Story of Gods, Demons and a Cursed Messiah
Messiahs are everywhere in pop-culture. Characterised by a selfless passion for justice, a black and white moral code, extraordinary powers and an outsider status they maintain a strong connection with divinity or spirituality whilst remaining human. (Reinhartz, 2009). These Christ figures appear not only in Western culture but also in the East as is demonstrated in Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 animated film, Princess Mononoke.
After being cursed while killing a demon that was attacking his tribe, Ashitaka is forced to cut his hair, leave his people and journey far to the West in order to meet his fate. He arrives in a land caught in a struggle between the humans of Irontown and the gods of the forest. As he is able to move between the warring sides, he befriends both San, the ‘daughter’ of the wolf god Moro, and Lady Eboshi, the mistress of Irontown. Ashitaka possesses many Christ-like qualities. He is set apart from other characters by his unusual ways and his extraordinary strength and he is driven by a commitment to justice for which he eventually sacrifices himself and is resurrected.
Throughout the film, Ashitaka ‘otherness’ is emphasised. His unusual origins and extraordinary strengths distinguish him from other characters. Often referred to as ‘stranger’ or ‘outsider’ (Miyazaki, 1997), it is clear that the other characters do not see him as one of them. Ashitaka comes from the marginalised Emishi tribe that was believed to have been eradicated hundreds of years earlier. Separated from the culture that was advancing towards a technological future, the Emishi people are portrayed as the ‘guardians of ancient wisdoms of the forest’ (Bigelow, 2009). Unlike the other humans in the film, Ashitaka grew up with a strong connection with and respect for the natural world. We see this when Ashitaka saves two men of Irontown, carrying them home through the ‘forbidden forest’ (Miyazaki, 1997). While the men are terrified of the ethereal kodama (tree spirits), Ashitaka trusts the spirits to guide them through the forest saying that they are ‘a sign this forest is healthy’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Ashitaka’s unusual origins give him a different perspective to other characters in the film. He is not worried about wealth or power but has a deep-seated interest in nature and the preservation of life.
Ashitaka is also separated from other characters by his incredible, but still very human, strengths. The nature with which he returns the men to Irontown grants him a mixed reception. While the townspeople are grateful that their men are alive, they do not wholly trust this strange man who managed to travel through the taboo forest with two badly injured men; it is something they would not have dreamed possible. Ashitaka’s strength and fighting abilities seem almost unnatural to the other characters. ‘You fight like a demon’ (Miyazaki, 1997), one character tells Ashitaka. This emphasises both the magnitude and nature of Ashitaka’s powers. His strength, determination and archery skills, while god-like in measure, are human powers in essence. Ashitaka is only human and he does suffer under human hardships. This is important as, in order to be a relatable, and therefore successful, messiah he must have ‘the same limitations and weaknesses as an ‘ordinary’ and finite human being’ (Deacy, 1999).
Despite his humanity, it is still through a screen of suspicion that the other characters respect Ashitaka for his strengths. Mysterious, powerful, and therefore potentially dangerous, Ashitaka must be ‘othered’. It is this outsider status, which is common for messiah figures (Kozlovic, 2004), that allows Ashitaka to move between worlds and act in a messianic role. Messiahs, as semi-holy figures, must represent desirable values whilst being set apart from the rest of us. They are figures that we should aspire to be like. Human, and familiar enough to be relatable while being separate enough to revere.
Ashitaka’s incredible strength is balanced by his incredible love and respect for life. He is driven by a desire for peace and committed to his beliefs in justice. When these two values come into conflict, Ashitaka suffers. He wants to end violence but often must use violence to do so. When we first meet Ashitaka, he is protecting his people from a terrible demon. The creature seethes with writhing, black worms but even so Ashitaka first tries to reason with it. ‘Calm your fury, oh mighty lord’ (Miyazaki, 1997), he pleads. However, when the beast threatens some villagers, Ashitaka is forced to take decisive action, killing the demon with his bow and arrow. Ashitaka knows what is right but he still struggles to enforce it. He wants to protect the innocent and fight for the weak or marginalised but it pains him to take life and he does this only when there is no other option. We see this again when Ashitaka reflects on killing two samurai who were brutally attacking another village. ‘I was wrong to fight in that village’, he says, ‘two men are dead because of me’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Although he knows his actions were justified and that his skills gave him a unique power to help the defenceless villagers, he still feels a ‘reluctance to use those skills to do harm’ (Kraemer, 2016). Ashitaka’s complex moral code separates him from classic messiah figures. He does not rationalise the violence he uses but instead feels the weight of every life he takes. He is cursed not only with the mark on his arm but also by the guilt of the violence he must use.
Ashitaka’s desires are different from all other characters in the film resulting in him not taking a side in the conflict. It is not any particular victory that he wants but an end to violence. When questioned what it is that he desires, he says ‘What I want is for the humans and the forest to live in peace’ (Miyazaki, 1997). The other characters see the forest and the town as completely divided, different and unable to mix. But Ashitaka does see not the division between them. To him, all life is simply sacred. No matter what you must ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31). When San and Eboshi become involved in a vicious fight, Ashitaka intervenes and delivers a stirring sermon. His curse manifests itself as black, swirling tendrils as he shouts to the shocked and terrified crowd, ‘This is what hatred looks like! This is what it does when it catches hold of you! (Miyazaki, 1997). Ashitaka fight is not against against humans or gods but against hatred and it is his ‘willingness to meet violence with love’ (Kraemer, 2016) that is his greatest weapon.
Ashitaka’s image as a messiah figure is cemented in the other-worldliness of his resurrection and in his sacrifice. Miyazaki is careful in the way he portrays Ashitaka in these scenes. Although they are rich with godly powers, Ashitaka’s humanity is emphasised. As a messiah figure, Ashitaka is human touched by divinity. He is not a divine being himself but he is influenced by the gods and demons that are present in his life. This is epitomised in his resurrection. After Ashitaka is shot, San takes his lifeless body to a sacred island in the middle of the forest. She places a small plant above his head, a life to take in return for his. After she leaves, we see the forest spirit approach and revive Ashitaka in a strange, dream-like sequence. During the day, the god, who duty is to ‘give life and take life away’ (Miyazaki, 1997,) takes the form of a deer like creature with many antlers and humanoid face. We see flowers and plants bud, bloom, wilt and die under the creature’s feet as it walks. The forest spirit looks upon Ashitaka and the plant as the leaves of the plant wither and drop. In the morning, Ashitaka’s bullet wound is healed but the cursed mark remains. Although Ashitaka undergoes what is definitely a divine resurrection, it is not any divinity of his own that saves him but his pure heart. It is the forest spirit who, deeming Ashitaka worthy of resurrecting, saves him thus ensuring Ashitaka remains fully human.
In the stunning climax to the film, Ashitaka sacrifices himself to atone for humanity’s wrongdoings. Eboshi and the other humans have shot off and taken the forest spirit’s head. The ghostly shell of its body spews out deadly black liquid and long arms which search for its head. Ashitaka catches the carriers of the head and demand they give it to him to return before everything is destroyed. ‘Human hands must return it!’ (Miyazaki, 1997) He shouts. Humanity as a whole has sinned, they have turned their back on nature and committed the ultimate atrocity; killing the ‘very heart of the forest’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Messiah figures feel a duty to ‘take on the sinfulness of those around them’ (Kozlovic, 2004). Ashitaka must, therefore, act as a representative of humanity and sacrifice himself for their transgressions.
As he and San hold up the head for the god, they become covered with cursed marks. They are sure of their deaths but stand strong and true. With their sacrifice, they save not only themselves but all living things as a wash of new life spreads over the ruined land. Ashitaka not only possesses many of the characteristics of a messiah figure, his life and death also mirrors that of Christ in many ways. Just as Christ’s death gave humanity ‘forgiveness of sins’ (Ephesians 1:7), Ashitaka’s sacrifice saved the world. His resurrection and sacrifice mark him as a clear messiah figure.
Messiah figures in film are used as symbols to exemplify the characteristics and values that filmmakers want to promote (Deacy, 1999). In Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki teaches us a respect for life, as he said in a 2004 interview ‘We should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything’. He uses Ashitaka to convey a message of peace and environmentalism. Although Princess Mononoke is not explicitly religious, it does draw from Shinto mythology and beliefs and reflects many of the tenets of Western religion. Shinto faith ‘stresses relation and connectedness’ (Bigelow, 2009). This is an important theme that develops through the film as the characters realise relationships they were not previously aware of. In one of the last scenes, one of the townspeople comments ‘I didn’t know the forest spirit made the flowers grow’ (Miyazaki, 1997). As Christ literally gave a blind man sight (John 9:11), Ashitaka metaphorically opens the peoples’ eyes to the interdependent relationship between the town and the humans (Kraemer 2016). Although Miyazaki’s messiah may be more implicit than those typically found in Western culture, the ideals he teaches of love, peace and respect are essentially the same.
In conclusion, Ashitaka acts as a messiah figure to spread a message of peace. Miyazaki sets Ashitaka apart from other characters with Shis strange customs and extraordinary powers to make him able to move between warring sides. He is not the fully-assured messiah we see all too often in the West, but a saviour racked with guilt and uncertainty about how should carry out his mission without just creating more violence. Like Christ, He is fully committed to his beliefs and ready to sacrifice himself for them. In Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka not only learns to ‘see with eyes unclouded by hate’ (Miyazaki, 1997) but also teaches us to do the same.
All Biblical references are from the New International Version
Miyazaki, Hayao. 1997. Princess Mononoke. film. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Studio Ghibli. Toho.
Bigelow, Susan J. 2009. “Technologies of Perception: Miyazaki in Theory and Practice.” Animation: an interdisciplinary journal 4 (1): 55-75.
Deacy, Christopher R. 1999. “Screen Christologies: An evaluation of the role of Christ-figures in film.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 14 (3): 325-337.
Kozlovic, Anton Karl. 2004. “The Structural Characteristics of the Cinematic Christ-figure.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 8.
Kraemer, Christine Hoff. 2016. “Between the Worlds: Liminality and Self-Sacrfice in Princess Mononoke.” Journal of Religion and Film 8 (2).
Reinhartz, Adele. 2009. “Jesus and Christ figures.” In The Routledge Companion of Religion and Film, edited by John Lyden, 420-439. Taylor and Francis.
Today’s essay stays with our contemporary messiah theme, but looking at it a little differently. Rather than considering fictional characters in film and literature through the American Monomyth lens, today’s author, Emma Waymouth, considers the phenomenon of celebrity messiahs in popular culture, focusing in particular on the iconic figure of Beyoncé. Emma has lived in Auckland most of her life, and is currently studying for a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature and Psychology. She hopes to work eventually in mental health, focusing particularly on child health, and plans to begin volunteer work with Youthline next year. She is also looking forward to taking part in the University of Auckland’s 360º exchange programme in order to do part of her degree at the University of North Carolina. Emma took our Bible and Pop Culture course after a few friends recommended it to her, and she was interested to learn more about the subject.
This is an amazing essay – enjoy!
In the Name of Our Lord Beysus Christ: Beyoncé, Fandom and the Messiah figure
Beyoncé, the mononymous pop star, is one of the most famous and recognisable people in the world. Due to her immense talent as an artist and performer, unrelenting work ethic and excellent construction of her public image; Beyoncé has amassed a fan base, known as the Beyhive, which worships her in a fashion that is almost religious. In my essay I will be exploring this claim by discussing the ways in which Beyoncé exemplifies Lawrence and Jewett’s (2002) criteria for a messiah figure, and how that coincides with celebrity theory; exploring the reverence the Beyhive show her; and finally, by exploring Beyoncé’s own religiosity and her resulting refutation of her divine elevation.
According to Pete Ward’s (2011) definition of ‘celebrity’, Beyoncé is a true celebrity as she is known by a mononym, and is highly profitable due to that name and the fame it is associated with. Although, she has also transcended that category, moving in to the realm of “pop icon” wherein Ward states that “a star has to become a religious figure, to develop their own personality cult and to recruit followers”. This theory of celebrity ties in closely with Lawrence and Jewett’s theory of the American monomyth, wherein they emphasise how this figure minimises the complexity of humans, creating a dream world in which “no humans really live”. Thus, the Beyoncé we interact with, both as celebrity and messiah figure, is simply a symbolic rendering of the ideal human.
Beyoncé as a Messiah
The most vital aspect of Lawrence and Jewett’s criteria is the possession of “extraordinary powers”. Beyoncé has consistently proven her talent in the realm of music, both in her ability to effortlessly sing her way through songs of varying genres, and in her holistic artistic vision as showcased in Beyoncé (2013) and Lemonade (2016). Her dancing and acting ability are also much respected. Beyoncé herself, in a video diary leaked to the public (Reekz DC, 2010) refers to her musical talent as a “gift” that “God has given” her. This conveys that she herself is just as aware of the power and sanctity of her ability as her followers are. This gifting from God could be compared to the gifting of a prophetic path He gave to the prophet Moses, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” (Jeremiah 1:4-9). A resulting sense of nervous inadequacy is also a similarity between Moses and Beyoncé.
The second criterion is that of “unusual origins”. In Beyoncé’s case this would refer to the way in which she was effectively bred for stardom. This manifested in the extensive training she undertook as a child, primarily in the form of singing lessons (Lopez, 2015); as well as competing in talent shows that she regularly won (UnbornSuperstar88, 2013). Once she eventually did achieve professional success with girl group Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé herself was still effectively a child being only fifteen years of age. This origin story posits her as one of the lucky few who not only have talent but also the dedication to succeed in the competitive entertainment industry.
Another requisite of Lawrence and Jewett’s is that the figure remains ‘divinely competent’, something which is described as “deny[ing] the tragic complexities of human life”. This is an aspect of the messianic criteria that couples perfectly with the idea that superhuman infallibility is integral to the celebrity image. Something which Ward describes as celebrities representing “paradigms of the possible. As such they may be regarded almost as religious figures in that they present ideal forms of the self”. This manifests through Beyoncé’s carefully considered image, wherein she allows her art to speak for itself, giving few interviews and thus few chances to show weakness, or even ordinary human imperfection. Though, contrarily, relatability is also integral to celebrity, so there have been moments of vulnerability where Beyoncé has shared her struggles with miscarriage (Daily Mail, 2013) and unfaithfulness in a partner (Brennan, 2017). These admissions, and the way in which it has coloured her music, serve to humanise Beyoncé and allows fans to form a more intimate relationship with the star; this, in turn, contributes further to her elevation as a superhuman figure.
Another vital feature is that of a ‘selfless zeal for justice’. Beyoncé is involved in many philanthropic efforts; she heads her own charity called ‘Bey Good’ which the icon uses to fundraise for various relief efforts, support African-American students through a scholarship fund, and champion the achievements of women through regular blog posts featuring successful women and their stories (Beyoncé, 2017). She has recently, like Jesus the primary biblical messiah did in Matthew 14:13-21, returned to her native Houston to feed those who are without food due to hurricane Harvey. She has also routinely shown her support for the #BlackLivesMatter campaign by showing the hashtag during a video montage that paid tribute to the many Black Americans murdered by police in 2016(Peterson, 2016). She has also shown support to the mothers of these victims by having the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown appear in the Lemonade film.
The final criterion I’ll discuss is that of ‘renouncing sexuality’. This is part of the criteria as it removes the messiah figure from base human desire, elevating them above the animalistic urge. This is one aspect that Beyoncé does not fulfil, and the fact that she doesn’t is a powerful thing for her fans. Existing as a black woman in show business, Beyoncé has been scrutinised for her appearance and sexuality due to racist beauty ideals. Thus, the fact that she actively embraces and celebrates her sexuality in her music is powerful for her fans as it allows them to believe that they, too, could be (and are!) sexy and beautiful even if they don’t fit Eurocentric standards of beauty.
Coupled with these criteria for a messiah figure, Beyoncé also has a large fan following that shows her support and reverence, further casting her as a religious figure. These fans have congregated in to a fandom, described by Gray, Sandvoss and Lee Harrington (2007) as “a collective strategy, a communal effort to form interpretive communities”, meaning fandom could be interpreted as an active state of communal worship.
Fandom as Religious Worship
Beyoncé’s fanbase, commonly referred to as the ‘Beyhive’, are another contributing factor to Beyoncé’s messianic elevation. Lawrence and Jewett refer to fandom as forming a “new form of religious community”; with Ward echoing Ellis Cashmore’s continuation of this notion, even going so far as to trace the root of the word ‘fan’ to the Latin ‘fanaticus’, meaning ‘of the temple’. Thus, through fandom Beyoncé is moved from the realm of the profane to that of the sacred. This manifests primarily through the use of religious language and imagery when discussing Beyoncé, as evidenced by the affectionate nickname, ‘Beysus Christ’, and a popular meme wherein Beyoncé’s head is photoshopped on to an image of the Virgin Mary. There are also various other memes wherein Beyoncé is referred to as a saviour of the people. This role of saviour is one that is prevalent within the Beyhive, with many fans purportedly claiming that Beyoncé saved them from poor self-image and from mental health issues such as depression (Hill, 2017). This healing is messianic in the way that Jesus, too, healed people; “Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them” (Matthew 12:15).
Due to the vocal nature of the Beyhive, the fandom’s reverence of Beyoncé is well known both publicly and by the star herself. Beyoncé is a highly religious woman, a practicing Christian who is devoted to God and has a large belief in prayer (The Jesus Network, 2017); thus, it is no surprise that Beyoncé does not wish herself to be seen as divinity. This resistance is showcased in the line, ‘God is God and I am Not’, that appears in Lemonade. The monosyllabic nature of the line portrays, rather blatantly, that Beyoncé does not wish to be viewed as a divine figure. Though, interestingly, she does not give a description of what she ‘is’ – perhaps, still, she is more than human. The importance of this sentiment is reinforced through the issuing of the latest Beyoncé merchandise where the line appears multiple times (Beyoncé, 2017).
Celebrity is a construction that allows for, and encourages, an almost religious worship of a public figure. In keeping with Lawrence and Jewett’s theory of the monomyth, both phenomena require a certain dehumanisation of the figure in question. Beyoncé most definitely is a star that fulfils these criteria, as someone who has been elevated from the realm of the profane, garnering an almost religious sense of worship and adoration from her fans. She is both a true celebrity, and an almost messiah.
All references to Biblical texts are from the NRSV.
Carrying on our conversation around the pop culture figure of the ‘super-saviour’, today’s essay tackles one of the most popular figures to be identified as a modern messiah: Harry Potter. The author of this most fabulous essay is Saiyami Mehta, who is an Indian-born NZ student who has just completed her third year of study here at the University of Auckland. Saiyami is majoring in Geography and History, and plans to continue towards a PhD in environmental degradation and indigenous community involvement. She opted to do our Bible and Popular Culture course because she was intrigued to learn more about the Bible’s significance as a cultural text within contemporary contexts.
Saiyami has written a stellar essay here, focusing on J.K. Rowling’s novel series, so I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
The trials and tribulations of ‘The Boy who Lived’: Harry Potter’s GenZ struggle with his messiah complex
The dichotomy between good and evil has been a pervasive aspect of literature for eons. The Bible itself constantly addresses the age-old difficulty of differentiating one from the other, imploring mankind to “be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil (Proverbs 3:7).” It is this persistent struggle between the two that in antiquity led to a requirement in humanity for a powerful emissary – a messiah, or saviour figure – that would lead them to political or earthly salvation. The crucifixion of Jesus however, led to a transformation in the status of a messiah as becoming a bringer of redemption. Originating from the Hebrew word mashiach, meaning “anointed or chosen one”, the term has consistently been used as a template for saviour-figures in pop culture texts. None however, have melded into the twenty-first century messiah-mould (as characterised by the American monomyth) as fluidly as Harry Potter. This essay addresses the unusual origins, eventual desire for vengeance, and resistance to temptations of The Boy Who Lived as he, often unwillingly, took up the mantle of super-savior in the wizarding world to face Lord Voldemort. Alongside this, there are parallels drawn between the characters and events of the Harry Potter books with the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus.
Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces led the discussion on the archetypal storyline for heroic exploits in time-honoured tales during the late 1940s, and till date sets the scene for the plot of any cultural texts’ heroes. The Campbellian monomyth asserts that the hero travels from his own world into one of otherworldly facets, encounters dark forces that require resistance, emerges victorious and returns as a super-saviour figure for his people (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, p.5). This structure vaguely fits the template for the Harry Potter books, but the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist, Lord Voldemort, is far more complex than what is established in the classical monomyth, and represents the values of the more contemporary American version. Harry’s origins for example, are shown to be tied very early on in the books with Voldemort, resulting in his orphan (and thus unusual) status. Similarities between the Bible and Harry Potter are consistently displayed in the text and movies, particularly with the presence of temptations.
The Book of Genesis discusses the Garden of Eden, and how Adam and Eve, despite being warned, ate from the Tree of Knowledge, spurred on by the serpent, and as a result, “the eyes of both were opened (Genesis 3:1-7)”, meaning that they became aware of themselves and as such, incurred the displeasure of God. Temptations are frequently presented in front of Harry, often with Voldemort as the instigator. In The Philosopher’s Stone, Voldemort (through Quirrell) tempts Harry with promises of resurrecting his parents in exchange for the stone, asserting that “there is no good and evil. There is only power, and those too weak to seek it” (p.211). Harry, unlike Eve, rejects the temptation, thus establishing himself from the first book as a protagonist who willingly renounces mortal enticements for the greater good.
That is not to say that Harry possessed the otherworldly level of renouncing his desires as other messianic characters like Jesus. Certainly, it can be argued that in many instances, Harry put his own desires over the well-being of others or himself, such as his period of visions regarding the Department of Mysteries in The Order of the Phoenix, where ultimately the combination of curiosity and urgency to save Sirius Black led to the latter’s death. Nevertheless, the overarching understanding of a messiah is that the trials and tribulations they face often hurt yet strengthened them for the ultimate task of fighting the ultimate evil (Neal 2007, p.108). The Bible habitually dwelt on this crucial aspect of a messiah’s character development, stating that the sufferer must “consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance (James 1:2-4).”
The eventual development of Harry’s messianic status is further cemented however, through his continued renouncements of temptations in later books, such as in The Goblet of Fire when he gives his prize winnings to the Weasley twins (pp.635-6). Nothing could further cement his messianic quality of being above worldly desires however, than the statement Griphook makes vis-à-vis Harry’s character: “If there was a wizard of whom I would believe that they did not seek personal gain, it would be you, Harry Potter” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, p.394). This serves to show why Harry Potter can be granted the messianic status in the wizarding world.
The construct of social hierarchy provided a considerable support for how the wizarding world and Harry interacted. The creation of followers is a predominant aspect of a messiah figure, but in the case of Harry, the undertaking of the role as leader appeared to have persistently chafed. Interestingly, the decision to refuse the proverbial ‘call to greatness’ was made well before Harry had any capabilities to answer. When Sybil Trelawney prophesied that a child born at the end of July would be able to defeat the Dark Lord (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,p.741), Harry’s parents went into hiding until they were slain, which again hints at the digression taken by this messiah from the traditional path to greatness (Lytle 2013, p.29). This act of resistance of the title of leader remains a constant attribute of Harry’s innate nature, but by the final confrontation with Voldemort, Harry displays his messianic qualities by accepting that it has to be him. The gradual development of followers for Harry Potter provides further evidence of his messianic status in the wizarding world. This didn’t derive out of any quasi-divine powers on part of the protagonist; Harry’s entire existence indicated to many who studied or came into contact with him that here was someone who could bring about change. Ari Armstrong argues that it is Harry’s determination to keep his friends (and eventual followers) safe in all situations that ultimately generates faith in him amongst his peers (Armstrong 2011, p.52).
The Book of Exodus provides a similar account of Moses, who was disturbed by the treatment of his fellow Jews at the hands of the Egyptians, and began to lead them to the promised land, albeit unwillingly. Many parallels can be drawn between Moses and Harry, specifically their disinclination at becoming any sort of leader. Moses almost ceaselessly restates to God his inability to convince the Jews (Exodus 4:10-13; Exodus 6:9-12). Hermione has to explain to Harry why he is needed to start Dumbledore’s Army: “Harry, don’t you see? This… is exactly why we need you. We need to know what it’s really like facing him… facing Voldemort” (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, p.293). Harry’s courage is what eventually helps his followers and himself to gather and put their energies into following through with the plans constructed by Harry and Dumbledore, even if they don’t always see the benefits. Alongside this however, is the method by which Harry produced support for his cause during times of adversity.
In the Order of the Phoenix, Harry secretly gives an interview to Rita Skeeter about Voldemort, inciting many, like Seamus Finnigan to conclude that “he believes him” (500-514). The American monomyth explains that the followers of the super-savior often consist of women who require a white dominant male to lead them, but the Harry Potter saga steps away from this idea and combine the formidable power and intelligence of many female followers of Harry (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, p.8). Both Ginny and Hermione prove time and time again both their loyalties to Harry and their own talents. Ginny stands up for him in the second book against Draco Malfoy, while Hermione has frequently aided the Chosen One with notes from classes. The overall argument therefore can be made that while the messianic figure of Harry Potter generated considerable support, despite his reluctance, there was not as much of a depiction of him as a sole leader, all pervasive and powerful, but rather a well-chosen hero who had followers that provided him with advice.
The contemporary figure of Harry Potter provided its generation with a figure that certainly showed messianic characteristics, but not one that attached itself completely to the template of the American monomyth. The trials and tribulations of The Boy who Lived served to show both Harry and his friends the fruits of resisting temptations, and this was a key aspect of his depiction as a messiah for the wizarding world. The fact that an eleven-year-old orphan was capable of putting aside hopes, even false ones, about meeting his lost parents in order to do what was right showed that while he may not have chosen to be raised on a pedestal and followed as a leader, it was this reluctance and keen sense of equality with his followers that perhaps made Harry Potter an effective messiah of a cultural text.
All references to the Biblical text are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Armstrong, Ari. “Religion in Harry Potter – Do J. K. Rowling’s novels promote religion or undermine it?”. Skeptic Magazine Volume 17 Issue 1, December 2011.
Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.
Lytle, Amy. “Defense Against the Dark Arts: Harry Potter and the Allegory for Evil.” Honours Thesis, Regis University, 2013.
Neal, Connie, W. Wizards, wardrobes and wookiees: Navigating good and evil in Harry Potter, Narnia and Star Wars. InterVarsity Press, 2007.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997.
Rowling. J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000.
Rowling. J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007.
Continuing our theme of modern messiahs today, we turn to that fabulous classic movie, The Matrix, which intrigues not only moviegoers, but also theologians and scholars of religion, who have long recognized some fascinating engagement in the film with religious themes and tropes. One of our Bible and Popular Culture students, Minolie Rajapakse, spotted some connections between The Matrix and the American Monomyth, and wrote a marvellous essay about the film’s protagonist Neo as a modern messiah/supersaviour figure. Minolie hails originally from Sri Lanka, but has lived in New Zealand (Auckland) most of her life. She is doing a BA/BSc conjoint degree majoring in sociology and psychology. She hopes to pursue a career in psychology, particularly clinical psychology. Minolie took our Bible and Pop Culture course to discover some of the many ways the Bible influences pop culture and to learn more about the Bible’s stories and theologies.
So, whether you are a Matrix afficionado or not, we hope you enjoy Minolie’s fab essay.
Neo the great Messiah of The Matrix
Hollywood appears to have an obsession with ‘The American Monomyth’ culture, especially when it comes to religion. The American Monomyth allows for the portrayal of a hero in desperate times of need. These ideas may possibly stem from ideologies surrounding the bible, in particular with Jesus. This is arguably seen in the film, The Matrix (1999). The main protagonist Neo is an ordinary man who gets plunged into a computational world were machines rule and the previous known reality is rather a stimulation called the matrix. Neo can be viewed as a popular messiah figure because of his status of being “The One” in relation to his similarity to Jesus Christ. This is portrayed through his divine extraordinary powers, his representation as a saviour to his people embodying the American Monomyth superhero figure and lastly his purification through his death and resurrection.
The American Monomyth, as discussed by Jewett and Lawrence (2002), is a popular theme in thousands of movies; it frequently portrays, “a selfless superhero [who] emerges to renounce temptation and carry out the redemptive task”. The central protagonist has the sole ability to save the rest of humanity from evil. The heroic character often learns a greater knowledge and understanding about him/herself, which allows them to access their full power and abilities, allowing them to save their civilisation. With this storyline being represented numerously in films, it is often common to see the main protagonist being associated with biblical connotations such as being a divine saviour or messiah figure such like Jesus.
The Old Testament defines the messiah as “the anointed one” representing a holy or divine leader, elected and given authority for a specific task or reason (Bible Study Tools). Messiah figures come when times are desperate and a hero is needed. Arguably Neo can be seen as an example of this in The Matrix films as he is represented as a sacred and powerful man who is the only person capable of destroying the Matrix, giving him the status of being “The One”.
Parallelism between Jewett and Lawrence’s (2002) characteristics of the American Monomythic hero having “extraordinary powers” is represented through Neo’s character. In the beginning of the film Neo is presented as a common human, going by the name Thomas Anderson who is plunged into a world of dystopia. He is taken outside of the Matrix reality aided by his mentor Morpheus, where he is rebirthed into “the real world” and is renamed Neo. Significantly Neo is an anagram for one, a clever play on words by the directors, the Wachowski brothers, to reinforce Neo’s almighty status. Morpheus initially tells Neo that he believes Neo is “The One”- the one who can destroy the matrix simulation and save humanity. Neo’s extraordinary powers are clear in an early scene where he and Morpheus have a fighting training session. It is obvious to the audience and the other characters in the film that Neo has strengths like no other; Neo’s ability to quickly and easily learn makes him a competent opponent to the advanced Morpheus, even allowing him to overpower Morpheus. One character even exclaims, “Jesus Christ he’s fast…way above normal”. These extraordinary powers and abilities elevate Neo to a messianic status as he continuously proves himself worthy thus embodying his title of being “The One”.
Furthermore the final fight between Neo and Agent Smith (the film’s main antagonist) is a pivotal moment that depicts Neo as a messiah figure through his gifted extraordinary powers. This particular fight scene was considered legendary to cinematic viewers. This scene portrays Neo accepting his destiny and finally believing that he is “The One”. At that moment, his abilities are enhanced as he exhibits superhuman strength and power, which become unmatched compared to Agent Smith, and so Neo defeats him. Sutton and Winn (2001) note how commonly there is a representation of violence in the final confrontation between supersaviour and antagonist: “violence is an essential component of the monomyth.” This may act to reinforce ideas of power and strength which are typically associated with superheros and reinforces the final epic battle. Neo’s use of violence symbolises his extraordinary powers used for good, again epitomising him into a superhero/messiah figure as it reinforces his abilities and individuality compared to everyone else. I believe this makes him powerful and heroic in the eyes of others around him, reinforcing his special status as “The One”.
Neo’s representation in The Matrix can also be viewed as an allegory to Jesus Christ. For example, Paul Fontana (2003) writes that, “In ancient Israelite tradition there was an expectation that a great military leader would arise…this person was referred to as the messiah”. Furthermore he writes, “When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem the people hailed him as a king”. Arguably these parallels between Neo and Jesus reinforce Neo being a popular messiah figure, which is enhanced by Neo being “The One,” creating symmetry between him and Jesus. Moreover both Neo and Jesus displayed divine powers that made them seem of a higher celestial status compared to everyone around them. Neo’s extraordinary powers can be compared to that of Jesus’ miracles. In Matthew 9:1-8 Jesus performs the miracle of giving a paralytic the ability to walk again and in John 2:1-11:1 Jesus turns water into wine, again exhibiting divine extraordinary powers, which set him apart as an almighty individual, and a powerful messiah. These extraordinary powers and abilities resonate with the figure of a superhero, which idealises qualities such as mightiness, strength and confidence. These qualities are still deemed desirable in popular culture, which may be why Neo is arguably hailed as a popular messiah figure.
Neo’s portrayal as a messianic figure can also be exhibited through his representation as a self-sacrificing saviour – another criteria of the American Monomyth according to Jewett and Lawrence. In one scene, Neo meets with the Oracle, a wise woman whom the characters confide in to learn more about their future. The Oracle tells Neo that he is not “The One” and that a time will come when he will have to choose between saving his own life or the life of Morpheus. Later on in the film, Morpheus is captured by Agent Smith and is held hostage. Neo makes the brave decision to give his own life to save Morpheus, thus exhibiting his first sign of self-sacrifice and leadership. This saviour presentation is a common portrayal using the American Monomythic theme of a noble saviour stepping up and fulfilling his/her duty by making a sacrifice to save others. This representation of Neo also acts to categorise him as a selfless hero, a quality Jewett and Lawrence identify as being part of the American Monomyth.
Arguably Neo’s selflessness resonates with the qualities of a messiah because it reinforces his devotion to help others, in this particular case Morpheus. Neo’s self-sacrifice to save Morpheus (as he thinks he has to die for Morpheus to live, as the Oracle prophesised) creates symmetry with the American Monomyth theme of sacrifice. Jewett and Lawrence discuss this in terms of redemption: “the combining elements of the selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others”. Thus again, Neo can be viewed as a popular messiah figure because of this quality; his selflessness defines him as a saviour.
Neo’s sacrificial role in the film is enhanced through his death and resurrection, which ultimately represents a form of purification and enlightenment for his character. In the film, after rescuing Morpheus, Neo is still trapped in the matrix, left alone to fight Agent Smith. However as Neo is just about to escape, he is shot multiple times and dies. Back in the real world, Trinity declares her love for Neo and kisses his body, representing the kiss of life. Neo then takes a breath and wakes up, symbolising his acceptance of his status as “The One”. He is then able to see the Matrix and its manipulations and has the ability to control it, becoming all-powerful. He becomes purified through his strength and power and destroys Agent Smith. Rising from the dead and fulfilling his destiny and fate to help others ultimately reinforces Neo’s messianic status. His death and resurrection can be compared to that of Jesus’, as both died trying to save others – Neo for Morpheus and Jesus for the sins of humanity. Furthermore a similarity is seen between Neo and Jesus in terms of how both of them first encounter women when they are resurrected from the dead (Milford 2010). Neo first sees Trinity watching over him and Jesus meets Mary Magdalene according to the Gospel’s of Mark 16:9 and John 20:14. These similarities aim to reinforce the resemblance of Neo to Jesus, thus outlining Neo’s own representation as a messiah who dies but is then resurrected. After their resurrections, these two messianic figures appear to become purified and enlightened, through recognition of their status as “The One” and also through the love and loyalty of their followers.
One reason why Neo became such a popular messiah figure is because, by embodying the American Monomythic hero, he becomes a role model for the way some viewers would want to be themselves, someone they admire. Neo is selfless and brave in a frightening world, where computers and machines basically control the known reality. This would have been a very topical subject back in 1999 when the film premiered, as technology was beginning to boom and was changing society, which raised many anxieties within the general population. As Lang and Trimble (1988) suggest, “The hero came to represent the needs of the masses”. Blizek (2011) also notes that people turn to religion in times where there is worry or hardship, thus “religion reassures us in times of trouble”. Thus perhaps Neo came to represent a powerful saviour and hero amidst the culturally growing uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the future of technology (Szollosy 2017). Neo offered audiences a human saviour who could protect them from the dangers of technology. Thus he was morphed into a cultural messiah figure becoming a character people could relate to and identity with.
It is clear to see how Neo from The Matrix embodies the messiah figure as he is depicted as having similar characteristics as both the American Monomyth ‘supersaviour’ figure and Jesus. Neo’s extraordinary powers and abilities portray him as an almighty and powerful being, elevating him to a divine status (‘the One’) compared to others around him. His illustration of being a sacrificial saviour for his civilisation reinforces his selflessness and devotion to others, and his death and resurrection act to purify and enlighten his divine being. These portrayals of Neo, aim to epitomise him as a powerful messiah in a dark dystopian future, perhaps to reinforce that there will always be a hero, a saviour, a messiah to help and guide others and save the day even in the most terrifying moments or times.
References to the Bible are taken from the NRSV edition.
Fontana, P. (2003). Finding God in The Matrix. In G. Yeffeth (Eds.), Taking the red pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in The Matrix (pp. 159-184). United States of America: Independent Publishers Group
Lang, J. S., & Trimble, P. (1988). Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An examination of the American monomyth and the comic book superhero. The Journal of Popular Culture, 22(3), 157-173. doi: 10.1111/j.0022-3840.1988.2203_157.x
Silver, J. (Prod.), Wachowski, A,. & Wachowski, L. (Dir.) (1999). The Matrix [Motion picture]. United States of America: Village Roadshow Pictures
Sutton, D. L., & Winn, J. E. (2001). “Do We Get to Win This Time?”: POW/MIA Rescue Films and the American Monomyth. The Journal of American Culture, 24(1‐2), 25-30. doi: 10.1111/j.1537-4726.2001.2401_25.x
Szollosy, M. (2017). Freud, Frankenstein and our fear of robots: projection in our cultural perception of technology. AI and Society, 32(3), 433-439. doi 10.1007/s00146-016-0654-7
Today’s student essay continues the theme of contemporary messiahs, which we started looking at yesterday, and considers another superhero saviour – Batman – who has brought the American Monomyth to our screens. This fabulous essay is written by Ryan Costello, who has just completed his Bachelor of Commerce (majoring in marketing and management) here at the University of Auckland. Ryan originally hails from South Africa, and currently lives on Auckland’s North Shore. Next year, he plans to travel and work abroad, starting in the USA. His future plans include working in Human Resources and Management, and he hopes, ultimately, to start his own business. Ryan took our Bible and Popular Culture course after checking out our glowing reviews from previous years and on the recommendation of friends.
This is a wonderful essay, so we hope you enjoy it.
Gotham City: Batman, the Biblical Messiah and the American Monomyth
The concept of Messiahs links to the idea of an American-Monomyth, which is pop-culture’s modern day example of a secular western hero. Essentially, the monomyth acts as a substitute for Christ’s role, within a world where the idea of Christ is not present. A Messiah, on the other hand, is a Hebrew word associating with Jesus as an “anointed one” (Satterthwaite, Hess, and Wenham 1995, 88). This essay will look at Christopher Nolan’s film, The Dark Knight Rises. It will be argued that Batman acts as a Messiah figure within his community of Gotham. This paper will start by discussing the notions of the American Monomyth, and the Biblical Messiah, as well as exploring Batman’s primary similarities to these figures. Then, I will analyse Batman as a leader of Gotham in contrast to the Biblical Messiah, and to the other Messianic figure in the text, Bane. Next, it will discuss how Batman saves Gotham from sin, and compare it to the American Monomyth. Finally, I will look at how Batman suffers and sacrifices himself for the people of Gotham, and contrast it with the Biblical Messiah and sacrificial theme in American Monomyth.
Batman is a modern day version of the Biblical Messiah within the film and incorporates many characteristics of an American Monomyth. The people of Gotham City had spent their days in fear. Fear of the crime that surrounded them. Fear of the new villains that would emerge. They had this fear until Batman (A.K.A. Bruce Wayne) arrived as their saviour from these villains and this crime. Bruce is Batman’s alter-ego who lives a normal life. He is motivated purely by his desire for justice in the city that he loves; which enables him to persist and never give up, regardless of the foe he faces. The idea of a Monomyth is derived from the Biblical Messiah and entails a “lonely, selfless” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002: 5) hero who saves a “terrorized community” (ibid) and then subsequently disappears. Batman departed from his community of Gotham to “undergo trials and later return to be integrated” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002: 6) back into the city as a saviour. He did this through training alongside the League of Assassins, just as the angels had ministered to Jesus in Matthew 4:11 (Kozlovic, 2016). Upon Batman’s return, he was “both in the world but not of the world” (Kozlovic 2004: 10). Batman is a Monomyth through being “distinguished by disguised origins, pure motivations, a redemptive task, and extraordinary powers” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002: 47). Although Gotham is known for its crime, it experiences some temporary harmony when Batman defeats the evil attempting to take over. Although he engages in violence, it is portrayed as being justified because it is to rid the city of sin. As an audience, we can accept his violence because we understand it is for the greater good of Gotham and that as a Messianic figure he knows how to lead his city (IMatrix Wiki, 2013).
Batman portrayed himself as a leader in Gotham City throughout the film, similar to that of Jesus the Messiah, the American Monomyth and Bane, the main villain in the movie. Batman can be seen to fight with Bane for the role of the Messiah figure in Gotham. “Gotham, take control… take control of your city. Behold, the instrument of your liberation! Identify yourself to the world!” Bane says this which results in him gaining more followers.
Batman’s leadership is also similar to that of the American Monomyth through leading “without paying the price of political relationships or responding to the preferences of the majority” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002: 48). Just like Jesus, Batman had followers; however, there were also those who despised him and sought to destroy him, even if he was helping them. Three of the main police figures within the film have names which make reference to the Bible. These being Jim Gordon, John Blake, and Peter Foley. These names refer to three of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles in the Bible; John, James, and Peter. These three key figures follow him and always believe in him and his ability to save the people of Gotham from all the evil in the city. In Matthew 14:25-29, Jesus walks on water. This act is similar to when Batman walked on Ice towards Jim Gordon (James), to save him and other police officers. This similarity shows the resemblance the figures of Jesus and Batman have to each other, especially in their leadership qualities. Through this leadership, Batman can defend his city from sin.
Batman challenged the sin of his city when no one else was willing or able to. He is a vigilante who, against the odds, manages to always save the day, yet still experiences persecution from those very people he saves (Kozlovic, 2004). In the Dark Knight Rises, Batman shows himself as someone who does not just forgive others’ sins but also takes the burden of sin away from them. He illustrates this through granting Catwoman her only true desire; to have a clean slate, so that all of her crimes could disappear. Batman did this through deleting her criminal record from the International Crime Database. He forgives her even though she betrayed him (Richards, 2012). He wiped away her sins similar to the way Jesus is said to forgive our sins in 1 John 1:9. Bruce faces temptation to sin through Catwoman telling him to leave the city with her and abandon the effort to save the city. However, he resists this temptation because his purpose is to protect the people of Gotham (Kozlovic, 2000). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for 40 days by the devil, to act selfishly with his powers, yet Jesus always resists this temptation as well (Matthew 4:1-11). Through vigilantism Batman can act beyond the law, and can reinstate justice within Gotham City when it faces violence and evil. In Batman, we see “elements of the selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others and the zealous crusader who destroys evil” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002: 6).
Both Batman and Jesus were victorious over evil in their community. However, through Batman’s actions we can see flaws within the American Monomyth. Batman believes his actions are right no matter what they entail, which can raise questions about morality and ethics. He will do whatever it takes to achieve justice, but he is operating in the grey area between what is illegal and legal. He is already acting above the law, but is he above morality? Therefore, this shows that the only perfect Messiah is the Biblical one because Batman could not achieve justice without himself sinning. However, through Batman’s resurrection, he could rectify his wrongs, and bring new hope to his city.
Both Batman and Jesus experience some form of resurrection, which is one of the primary aspects of the Monomythic figure, which associates the Monomyth to Jesus, the Biblical Messiah. Although Bruce never died, his alter-ego Batman was gone for such a long period after being sent to the pit by Bane, that when he reappeared (rises), people viewed him as resurrected at a time when he was needed the most. Catwoman depicts a Mary Magdalene figure in the film after she is the first person to see Bruce after he returns from the pit, which symbolizes Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb, in Mark 16:9 (Babb, 2017; Kozlovic, 2004). There is a theory known as Christus Victor that states that through Jesus dying and being resurrected he was able to be triumphant over evil (Gunton, 1985; Kozlovic, 2004). Batman was only able to defeat Bane after he had experienced resurrection and a “rebirth” (Kozlovic, 2016: 17) of his superhuman-like power. It is almost as if Batman had a divine-like calling to the city, which would not allow him to fail in his mission to save the people of Gotham (Deacy, 1999). Kozlovic, 2016). At one point Batman instructs Gordon to light up his Bat Symbol – portraying him as coming back to life – which then gave Gotham new hope that the city could be saved because their Messiah had returned (Caro, 2012). The Batman symbol acts as a cross-like symbol which the people of Gotham look at for hope (Kozlovic, 2004). Therefore, Batman connects to the sacrificial and resurrection themes of the American Monomyth and from within the New Testament.
Within Christopher Nolan’s film, Batman incorporated many of the themes associated with a modern day Messiah, as he led Gotham to salvation. Although Nolan never mentions Christ, he was able to create religious symbolism through Batman, and the people surrounding him. Batman showed that a saviour can incorporate the ideals of a Messiah while still showing flaws within their ability to live that life. The key idea that was argued was that Batman is a significant Messianic figure to the people of Gotham. This essay began by looking at Batman’s primary characteristic similarities to Jesus, the Biblical Messiah, such as their heroic abilities. Next, it discussed Batman’s leadership in contrast to that of an American Messiah, Jesus, and Bane who led Gotham in an uprising. The idea that Batman could challenge the city’s sinful ways was then explored, through looking at his ability to resist any temptation to sin and to wipe away others’ sins. Lastly, the paper looked at Batman’s experiences with resurrection throughout the film, which has similarities to the Biblical Messiah’s experiences with it.
References to the Bible are taken from the NRSV Version
One of the most popular subjects we cover in our Bible and Popular Culture course is the American Monomyth (Lawrence and Jewett 2002) – the hugely common trope of the ‘modern messiah’ or ‘supersaviour’ in popular culture. Over the next few days, we’ll share some student essays on this topic, which consider the messianic credentials of fictional figures in film and TV. Starting us off, we have a marvellous essay by Alicia Lou, who considers the character of Matt Murdock (aka superhero Daredevil) as a contemporary messiah. Alicia comes from Christchurch, but has lived in Auckland for over 10 years. She is studying a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Arts conjoint, majoring in Criminology and Politics. She hopes to eventually work in the legal profession or in foreign affairs. Alicia took our Bible and Popular Culture course because she is curious about the roles that religion plays in the world and everyday life.
So sit back and learn a bit more about salvific superheroes!
“Do you believe in the devil, Father?”
Matthew Murdock: Messiah, Anti-hero and the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen
In the Tanakh, the Messiah is the saviour who will defeat evil and lead their community into a new life (LaCocque, 2015). The Messiah is also closely associated with Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is a parallel to the secular Western hero in the American Monomyth- the tale of a hero who saves his community from evil. Matthew Murdock, present in Marvel’s Daredevil (2015-) and The Defenders (2017-), satisfies many features of both a Christ figure and a monomythic superhero. His mysterious origins, zeal for justice and self-sacrifice resemble that of a saviour. This essay will analyse how Matthew both fulfills and rejects the Messiah role by becoming an anti-hero who refuses to play by the book and operates according to his own paradigm.
Matthew is depicted as a Messiah figure through his mysterious origins and extraordinary powers. As a child, he suffered a chemical accident that led to his blindness. As a result, he developed heightened superhuman abilities that allow him to gain an awareness of his surroundings. In 1×11, Matthew referred to his senses as ‘God’s will.’ He believes that God made each and every person with a purpose; a reason for being. Similarly, in John 6:38, Jesus also states that he is here to do the will of God. This connects to Lawrence and Jewett’s idea that a hero is often ‘aided by fate’ (2002, 6). Matthew sees this as a sign from God that he was destined to use his abilities for the greater good. As Jesus used his powers to heal people in Matthew 8, Matt also uses his senses to save innocent people from criminals.
This is a distinctive feature of a Messiah; the willingness to protect others from harm.
This relates to the monomyth as being ‘a selfless hero’ is part of the criterion. Matthew is a selfless hero as he fights crime every night to save people, risking his life in doing so. Lawrence and Jewett state that the hero’s fist is often irresistible and that his body is incapable of suffering fatal injury (2002). We see that this is not true for Matthew as his body is often beaten and bruised. Matthew’s injuries are analogous to that of Jesus in his mission. In Isaiah 52:14, Jesus is stated to be “so disfigured beyond that of any human being.” Additionally, Matthew’s wounds bare a close resemblance to the ‘Five Holy Wounds’ that Jesus received from his crucifixion (Vogt, 2009). Time and time again, Matthew’s wounds continue to re-open and he comes close to death on several occasions. His suffering is greatly emphasised, which humanises his messianic qualities and gives his actions a more important purpose. Matthew’s refusal to give up until the threat is eliminated symbolises his selflessness and ability to put others before himself just as Jesus did. This similarity makes Matthew a perfect replacement for Christ in a secular age.
In the Monomyth, the hero has a redemptive task to accomplish. With Wilson Fisk and a criminal organisation named ‘The Hand’ as an outside evil, normal institutions like the police and the legal department are unable to contend with these threats (Jewett & Lawrence, 2002). Matthew recognises that Fisk is above the law and that ‘The Hand’ are not visible to the public, so he takes it upon himself to rid the evil and bring his enemies to justice. This is also a feature of a Messiah; being motivated by a zeal for justice. Matthew’s motivation comes from growing up in Hell’s Kitchen. It is the place where his dad was murdered, a city full of crime and vice since before he was born. Matthew has personally witnessed the oppression and injustice in Hell’s Kitchen, as a son, as a lawyer and as a crime-fighter at night. This injustice is what motivates Matthew to seek redemption for his home. He states that he “needs to be the man this city needs” (1×5). This is similar to Jesus in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 where he “will overthrow the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming.” Like Matthew, Jesus also witnessed inequity and corruption; he too was motivated to overthrow evil by his own zeal for justice.
Matthew differs from a biblical Messiah by rejecting the standard good and evil paradigm. In Matthew 5:21, Jesus states that one “shall not murder…whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” Matthew abides by this rule as his Catholic faith prevents him from taking a life. However, Matthew is no Saint. He operates on his own methodology, which is in “shades of gray rather than in black and white” (Jewett & Lawrence, 2002, 48). Matthew often breaks the law and resorts to violence to achieve his means. He is frequently punching and torturing people until they are bleeding and begging for mercy; behaving in ways that are not Christ-like. Lang and Trimble state that the hero often partakes in “some violent act that the rest of society is incapable of performing” (1988, 166). Although violence may seem extreme, it is deemed necessary because lives are often at stake and innocent people will die. Matthew may commit wrongdoings but his intentions are genuine, thus his violence is purified. This makes his violence morally justified because it fulfills a greater purpose (Arnaudo & Richards, 2013). Ultimately, this delineation between right and wrong, good and bad is sometimes a blur. This is evident in Matthew as his lawyer-half represents the good while ‘Daredevil’ represents his darker alter-ego. The two halves cause Matt’s understanding of justice and vengeance to become twisted that he cannot separate them. He can only operate to his own methodology; a middle-ground between what Matthew believes is right and wrong. Matt’s inability to adhere to a standard black-and-white paradigm makes him an anomaly compared to a typical Messiah.
In the Monomyth, the hero must withstand temptation (Lawrence & Jewett, 2002). This also applies to a Messiah. In Matthew 4, Jesus was tempted by the Devil to use his powers. Eventually, “the devil left him,” which indicates that he overcame temptation. Matthew is also lured into temptation, but not in the conventional sense. Matthew has the temptation to kill. Frank Castle and Elektra Natchios are people who execute without remorse and are constantly tempting Matthew to kill. In 2×3, Frank urges Matthew to kill but Matt resists, stating that “I don’t kill anyone.” Matthew has a conflicted sense of self because he wants to succumb to this temptation but he knows that killing is wrong. Elektra appeals to his darker side by assuring him that “this is who you are, Matthew” (2×7). This is what Matthew is most afraid of; that he is a killer at heart and this makes him no better than the same criminals he condemns. It is this thought that conditions Matthew to renounce his temptations for most of the series.
It is not until Elektra’s death that Matt finally breaks his code; to avenge her by killing the man who murdered her. Matthew sabotages the monomyth by letting the temptation to kill consume him. He proves not to be a traditional Christ figure, but an anti-Messiah who tries to do the right thing and does not always succeed. Yet, Matt does not completely reject the messianic role; he merely adapts it. Matthew’s violent nature and tendency to make mistakes attributes to a modernised Messiah figure that is imperfect and deeply flawed.
Matthew’s mission ends when he achieves redemption and recedes into obscurity (Lawrence & Jewett, 2002). As a Messiah figure, Matthew can only achieve redemption through self-sacrifice, which parallels to Christ’s atonement in the Christus Victor theory. It states that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice to atone for the sins of others and to free humanity from evil (Noble, 2013). In Isaiah 53:5, Jesus was “pierced for our transgressions…and by his wounds we are healed.” Matthew realises that the only way he can prevent New York from being destroyed is to kill The Hand’s secret weapon: ‘The Black Sky,’ an ancient evil using Elektra’s body as a human vessel. He blames himself because if he had saved Elektra, the ‘Black Sky’ would not have been resurrected and lives would have been spared. This leads Matt to make the decision to stay behind as The Hand crumbles; to ensure that the evil is eradicated and to be with Elektra one last time. Matthew sacrifices himself to atone for the sins of humanity- the exploitation, injustice and barbarity residing in Hell’s Kitchen- and to atone for his own sins; the violence he inflicted, the evil he unleashed as ‘Daredevil’ and for allowing Elektra to die. Like Christ, Matt was a martyr for his faith. He was the sacrificial ‘lamb’ who took away the sins of the world (John 1:29). His death was the decisive victory that restored “the community to its paradisiacal condition” (Jewett & Lawrence, 2002, 6). In the end, Matthew is seen in a Church; bloody, barely moving but alive, signalling that he has been reborn. The sacrifice, death and resurrection of Matthew is directly akin to that of a biblical Messiah.
Matthew Murdock adheres to the Monomyth through his mysterious origins, selflessness and redemptive mission. Although there are many parallels to Jesus, Matt is not a classic biblical Messiah. He rejects the standard black-and-white paradigm and is an anti-hero; a paradoxical Christ figure that chooses to create his own path. Matthew adapts the traditional Messiah into a popular Messiah by showing that a saviour does not have to be a perfect monomythic hero. Matthew is flawed, broken and human, which only makes him a more relevant and absolute Messiah in popular culture.
All references to biblical texts are from the NIV.
Arnaudo, M. (2013). The Myth of the Superhero (J. Richards, Trans.). Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Goddard, D (Creator). (2015, April.10-present) Daredevil. New York, United States: Marvel Television, ABC Studios
LaCocque, A. (2015). Jesus the Messiah. In Jesus the Central Jew (pp. 15-42). Society of Biblical Literature.
Lang, J. S., & Trimble, P. (1988). Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An Examination of the American Monomyth and the Comic Book Superhero. In Journal of Popular Culture (Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 157-173).
Lawrence, J. S., & Jewett, R. (2002). The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Noble, T. A. (2013). Christian Holiness and the Atonement. In Holy Trinity: Holy People (pp. 128-157). James Clarke & Co Ltd.
Petrie, D., & Ramirez, M. (2017, August. 18- present) The Defenders. New York, United States: Marvel Television, ABC Studios
Vogt, P. (2009). “Honor to the Side”: The Adoration of the Side Wound of Jesus in Eighteenth-Century Mordvian Piety. Journal of Moravian History, 83-106.
Continuing our focus on contemporary prophetic figures, today’s student essay discusses the prophetic credentials of twentieth-century social activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980). The essay is written by Lauren Wilks, who is from Nelson, NZ. She has just completed her second year of study for a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Economics and International Business. Next year, she plans to spend a semester in Mexico on the University of Auckland’s 360° student exchange programme. Lauren took our Bible and Pop Culture course upon a recommendation by her elder sister who took the course in 2012 and enjoyed it a great deal. Lauren assures me she loved it just as much! Her essay is fabulous, so we hope you enjoy learning more about the amazing figure of Dorothy Day.
Living for more than today
“…God did not intend that there be so many poor… we are urging revolutionary change.”
(Day, cited in Barrett, 2017)
Summarised in her own words, Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a passionate pacifist and one of the most well-known Catholic social activists in history. Her uncompromising vision for social justice caused disturbance among the status quo, but generated lasting change to society’s role in serving the poor. Borg (2001) established a framework to define biblical prophets, which we can use to determine if a modern-day figure or group fulfills a similar prophetic function. Fulfilling all six criteria of Borg’s definition, Dan can be seen as effectively performing a prophetic role. This essay will conclude Day is a contemporary prophet, focusing on her disturbance of social norms, her prophetic action to fight for social justice, and her relationship with God. The biblical texts of Isaiah 58, Isaiah 20, Ezekiel 2 and Isaiah 41, will be used throughout to relate Day to the biblical prophets.
Borg (2001) explains that Biblical prophets disturbed dominant discourses, not just accepting, but challenging the status quo to fight for something they believed in. In Isaiah 58, Isaiah encourages the confrontation of injustice. He challenges false compared to true worship, stating religious practices are in vain if there are people who are oppressed, Isaiah 58:1, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion…” Day’s message of social justice, focused on pacifism and serving the poor. She confronted those in the church who were living comfortably, favouring the rich and powerful, while the poor were continuously mistreated. She insisted that the “church is the cross on which Christ is crucified”and that social injustice was an insult to Christ (Forest, n.da, para.23). Her heart for social justice was derived from Jesus’ message, particularly the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Day took this scripture of Jesus’ moral teaching and truly lived it out (Allison, n.d). Like Isaiah, she understood working for and being with the poor was an essential part of being Christian: “share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them” (Isaiah 58:7). She considered it immoral to call yourself Christian without acting out what the Bible requires. Day had a focused vision, which is evident in the following excerpt from her writings: “To follow the gospel teaching of the works of mercy. If your brother is hungry, feed him, shelter him. How can you show your love for God except by love for your brother and sister? The one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he hasn’t seen?” (Dear, 2011, para.28).
Day also challenged society to evaluate how everyone’s work benefits (or not) the wider community. She believed jobs in finance and advertising led to social tension by making people desire possession they did not need (Hinson-Hasty, 2014). Through her message of social justice, Day was a founding encourager in the Catholic Church expanding their outreach (Bailey, Ohlheiser & Zak, 2015).
Day lived in the 20th century, a time where many believed they were obliged to serve their country during war. She was outspoken in her anti-war stance and did not accept that moral conditions ratify war (Parachin, 2016). Her message addressed people in power, particularly Church leaders as throughout history, Popes had blessed armies and supported crusades (Forest, n.db). The Church had accepted ‘just war’, but Day wanted non-violence to become a fundamental Christian principle. Her pacifist views were revolutionary to the Church, in that she claimed violence contradicted biblical values as it fortified the rich and devastated the poor (Coy, 1988). She believed that in order to achieve peace, the most vulnerable needed to be helped. Like the prophet in Isaiah 58, she did not hold back in telling the Church their shortcomings. In writing to the Vatican Council, she said war was a crime against God and man (Fox, 2015). Although her message was radical at the time, it has since been accepted and adopted by many. Pope Francis named her one of the four most influential Americans in history. His support of Day’s non-violent ideologies shows the development in the Churches attitude towards peace and social justice (Bailey et al., 2015). Her willingness to critique the system and not accept that poverty was a normal part of society saw many touched by her message of justice and humility. Day clearly fulfills Borg’s criteria of disturbing social norms to bring about revolutionary change.
Another criterion is that Biblical prophets took action to amplify their message, translating prophetic speech into prophetic action (Borg, 2001). With reference to Isaiah 20:1-5, both Day and the prophet Isaiah used action to signify the importance of their messages. Isaiah protested the military alliance between Judah and Egypt, “Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent…” (Isaiah 20:3). Day always focused on what she could do, taking Catholic theology and putting it into action in prophetic ways (Chapp, 2015). Rather than helping the poor during the day, then returning to her comfortable home at night, Day fully immersed herself in a life of poverty to proclaim the importance of her vision (Chapp, 2015).
In May 1933, Day and Peter Maurin, a French revolutionary, started the Catholic Worker newspaper to synthesise Catholic social teaching and social justice (Xiaoyu, 2010). Her decision to live in voluntary poverty meant she was greatly empathetic, writing to and on behalf of the poor. The newspaper became a beacon of hope by confronting the oppressive system. She wrote about social injustices, using scripture to challenge the Church in failing to exemplify the Gospel message, but also to inspire action to help those in need. Her pacifist views caused division within the Catholic Worker movement, with those who believed war was justified breaking away from the movement. Even though her message was controversial, the complaints the Church received about the newspaper did not stop Day from publishing it despite its loss of popularity during the wars (Bailey et al., 2015).
The actions Day took were to fulfil God’s will. Drawing on Matthew 6:10, she said, “We are working for ‘a new heaven and a new earth, wherein justice dwelleth.’ We are trying to say with action, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’” (Zwick, n.d, para.12). Her writings on social justice drew those in need into Catholic homes, which led to the creation of the Houses of Hospitality. Day believed hospitality was part of Christian tradition, using the houses to live out biblical values (1 Peter 4:8-9). They provided food and shelter to the needy, and as Day’s message confronted the rich and powerful, the houses gave them an opportunity to serve the poor (Barnette, 2011). There was controversy around who was accepted into the homes, as some believed not all were ‘deserving poor’. Day replied by saying, as family in Christ, they were welcome to stay forever (Forest, n.db). She established and inspired many houses, by 1936, there were 33 houses throughout the US, with a growing need during the Great Depression (Forest, n.db). The movement continues today, with 200 Catholic Worker communities and 40 Catholic Worker Houses (Bailey et al., 2015).
Day spent her whole life serving others. Further actions she took for the oppressed include protesting outside the White House for women’s suffrage, which led to the first of seven imprisonments, and going on a hunger strike to protest poor jail conditions (Barnette, 2011). It is evident Day fulfils Borg’s criteria of prophetic action. With the Catholic Worker newspaper and the Houses of Hospitality, her life-long commitment of personal sacrifice translating vision into action.
Borg (2001) found the prophets to be passionate about both God and justice, a two-fold relationship between the world and spiritual realm. Day’s intimate relationship and experiences with God were the source of her vision for social justice (Dear, 2011). In Ezekiel 2, the spirit of the Lord commissioned Ezekiel to speak God’s word to the rebellious Israel, “…I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (Ezekiel 2:4). Day did not hear the audible voice of God calling her to serve the poor like Ezekiel and other Biblical prophets did, but God spoke to her through the Bible (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). Because she had an extensive knowledge of the Bible, she weaved scripture into her writings to convey not her message, but Jesus’ message. Using scripture as God’s mouthpiece, she once said, “If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God” (Howell, 2017, p.97). Borg (2001) sees the prophet’s dream as God’s dream. Day fulfils this criterion as she lived beyond herself, challenged by Jesus’ message to serve the poor (Mark 10:21). Daily spiritual devotions strengthened her knowledge and connection with God, which equipped her to face the challenges her fight for social justice bought (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). She said, “When God asks great things of us, great sacrifices,” (Ellsberg, 2010, para.11). The prophet Isaiah experienced great suffering in his life. Through the trials, he continually looked to God to renew his strength and protect him. Isaiah 41:10, “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you.” Day experienced discomfort in voluntary poverty. She let go of worldly possession as she believed to truly serve, was to give out of nothing (Hinson-Hasty, 2014). This was not easy, but her intimate relationship with God, through scripture and prayer, sustained her vision for justice.
Since Day’s passing in 1980, her message has remained relevant and is evident in the Catholic Church’s outreach. She is often drawn upon as a source of inspiration, upholding values of peace, community, and integration of faith and acts (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). It is clear Ezekiel was known as a prophet, Ezekiel 2:5, “Whether they hear or refuse to hear… they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” The Catholic Church has not named Day a prophet, but have identified her as an extraordinary person by commencing an inquiry into her canonisation (Catholic News Service, 2016). Elevating her to this status recognises her exceptional life and challenging vision of hope.
To summarise, Day can be regarded as a contemporary prophetic figure as defined by Borg. Her willingness to speak out for social justice, promoting pacifism and voluntary poverty, disturbed social norms. She used prophetic action through the Catholic Worker newspaper, Houses of Hospitality and protests, to solidify her vision. She believed in a personal God, and her strong relationship with him was the foundation of her mission. Although controversial at the time, her relentless commitment to pacifism and personal responsibility to the poor has continued to be an inspiration (Fox, 2015). Day’s legacy leaves a challenge, live out the Gospel and bear witness in everyday life (Ellsberg, 2010).
All Biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version
Today, our essay continues on the theme from previous days about prophetic figures in contemporary popular culture. One of our most popular essay topics, students discuss the ways that various contemporary figures perform some of the same functions for which the biblical prophets were renowned, albeit in new secular contexts. Today, Francesca Lamont Vince discusses the prophetic credentials of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, arguing that he too performed a distinctively prophetic role during his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Francesca is an Aucklander, studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Media Studies and Art History. In the future, she hopes to travel overseas and fulfill her dream of becoming an art curator or art dealer. She took our Bible and Popular Culture course because she is familiar with the Bible and enjoyed learning about the ways societies interpret biblical texts and continue to portray them within contemporary culture. And she wrote a marvellous essay that I hope you all enjoy.
Martin Luther King Jr:
A Modern-day Prophet Who Paved the Path to Equality and Justice
This essay compares Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to revered civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., and will conclude that King’s integral role in the Civil Rights Movement parallels the role of a biblical prophet. Like the biblical prophets, Martin Luther King Jr. had a passion for social justice, and devoted his life to liberating an oppressed group of people from unjust social systems. He maintained a close relationship with God and upheld the principles of his religion. He had a vision of racial equality and civil rights for all American citizens. King can be considered a modern-day prophet who delivered hope to the African American community. This essay will draw upon Marcus Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to demonstrate that King had similar attributes and a similar role within his contemporary society.
Borg argues that a prophetic figure emerges from a situation of oppression by the elites (Borg 127). Martin Luther King Jr. was raised in a society engrained with racial prejudices and discriminatory ideologies regarding black Americans. The mistreatment of African American people and institutionalized racism remained an inherent aspect of American society that King was exposed to. He studied in a segregated school, used segregated buses, witnessed extreme poverty around his neighbourhood, witnessed police brutality against black Americans, and he was racially abused, humiliated and insulted on a regular basis. Furthermore, as an African American person, King never had the full rights of a citizen and was an outsider in a systemically oppressive society.
The oppression suffered by the African American people parallels that of the Israelite people in the bible. Borg argues that biblical prophets such as Moses, emerged to indict the elites, their domination systems and their egalitarian social vision (128). Similarly, King emerged and began challenging existing elitist structures and authorities that were racially unjust. Therefore, Martin Luther King Jr. fulfils Borg’s definition as he emerged from an oppressive society and interceded on behalf of the oppressed African American community for justice and liberation.
According to Borg, a prophetic figure exercises a passion for social justice (Borg 118). King advocated on behalf of the oppressed African American population and demonstrated a prophetic concern for social justice and equality. Firstly, he orchestrated many events, marches and protests in his effort to achieve justice for the African American community, and he dedicated his life to nonviolent resistance against social injustices. In a letter he composed while in Birmingham Jail in 1963, he claimed that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ (King 6). King defended the rights of African American people and protested for equality. King’s concern with achieving social justice can be compared to the biblical prophet Moses. After being approached by God in Exodus 3, Moses pledges to deliver the oppressed Hebrew people out of Egypt (Exod. 3:7).
Similarly, King advocated on behalf of the African American people, who were victims of oppressive and racist regimes in America. He wanted to end discriminatory ideologies that were engrained in American society. He also wanted to abolish unjust laws against black people and establish justice for all. King used his privileged identity as an educated pastor to advocate and provide solidarity to those who were suffering at the hands of the oppressors (Slessarev-Jamir 28). His plight for social justice could also mirror the message preached by the biblical prophet Amos in the Old Testament. Amos said to ‘Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice’ (Amos 5: 12-15). Amos rebuked inhumane treatment of the disadvantaged and oppressed, and emphasized the practice of righteous behaviour. Martin Luther King Jr. put this message into practice in his fight to gain equal rights for the African American citizens. Unlike Amos however, King did not condemn the perpetrators of racism but rather he preached to ‘Love your enemies’ and that manifested itself in his nonviolent resistance approach (Ramsay 34). Overall, King denounced and protested moral evils, social inequalities and unjust social systems. In this way, he can be considered a social justice leader and thus fulfils one of Borg’s fundamental conceptions of a prophetic figure.
Borg argues that prophets gained their inspiration, sense of mission and passion through their relationship with God and their religion (123-124). King was brought up in a Christian family, and was therefore exposed to Christian teachings. In 1954, he commenced his pastoral ministry in Montgomery. Thus, he was deeply familiar with the Christian teachings and values. Borg proposed that biblical prophets were agents of God, and that their purpose was to articulate God’s “dream” and purpose (138). It is evident that God was central in King’s life and motivated his actions as a leader. Essentially, King thought of himself as a mediator between God and Man, as he wanted to impart the divine wisdom of God to the American society. In his autobiography, he stated ‘I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him before’ (Ramsay 36). He wrote that an inner voice told him to ‘stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forever’ (36).
Calling on God to answer for suffering can be considered an important aspect of contemporary religious prophetic activism (Slessarev-Jamir 37). King felt that is was his calling and duty as a Christian to bear God’s message of love and justice for all, and that manifested itself in the Civil Rights Movement he led. A quote from Deuteronomy captures the essence of a prophet as a mouthpiece for God, as King himself was. ‘I will raise up for them a prophet, like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command’ (Deut. 18:18-19).
Furthermore, Borg argues that biblical prophets acquired the courage for their mission from God (124). Just as the biblical prophet Jeremiah was beaten, threatened with death, and imprisoned, King too suffered death threats and acts of aggression, such as bombing and imprisonment (Borg 125). King remained resilient and brave in the face of the violent threats that were imposed on him and he indebted this courage to God. During the movement, King’s nonviolent approach toward the opposition was largely inspired by his Christian values. He encouraged the activists to passively resist against their oppressors, rather than impose violence. In his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ he stated, ‘I’m grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood’ (King 1). King therefore drew upon his Christianity to endorse nonviolent resistance. Upon analysing King’s actions and approaches during the civil rights movement, it is fair to say he was influenced by and highly connected to his spirituality and his relationship with God, just as the biblical prophets were. He not only considered his mission a moral responsibility, but also his responsibility as God’s devout servant.
Borg argues that prophets practiced ‘prophetic energizing’ to generate hope, and a vision of a better future (130). King shared a vision and dream for equality, liberation and civil rights for all American people. In his famous ‘I have a Dream Speech’ in 1963, King’s vision for the future is explicitly communicated. He argued that it was time to make ‘real promises of democracy,’ to achieve racial justice and to fulfil God’s vision of equality between all men (Sundquist and Miller 230). King then shared his aspirations and vision for the future of America, in the hopes that he would inspire his audiences. He stated, ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character…that little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers’ (232-33).
Similarly, Amos’ writings invoked hope and the prospect of change in the future. King acknowledged this when he quoted Amos in his speech; ‘let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24). This is also an example of the way King utilized the radical bible to communicate his message of hope and change. Throughout his career, King often alluded to the ‘Promised Land’ predominantly spoken about by Moses in the bible (Exod. 12:25). He refers to the ‘Promised Land’ to arouse hope and the prospect of a better future for America. King fulfils the role of prophet as consoler, giving hope to the otherwise hopeless hearer (Rabe 25). King’s speeches, sermons and writings embodied a prophetic rhetoric, and he empowered the African American people by sharing a ‘dream’ and vision of equality to come.
Overall, Martin Luther King Jr. can be considered a prophetic figure because he initiated change in his community and had a dream for social reformation in America. This essay has compared King to Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet. King emerged from an oppressive, racist society with unjust systems, and embodied the role of a prophetic figure who challenged this. He had an immense passion for social justice, similar to that expressed by Moses and Amos in the bible. Furthermore, King was largely influenced by the principles of his religion and believed his actions were guided by God. Lastly, King delivered a hopeful vision of the future to the American people, that of a nation who embodied equality and justice.
All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV.
Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Harper San Francisco, 2001.
King Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Letter from Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963, pp.1-12.
Rabe, Kent T. The False Security of the Believer. Xulon Press, 2008.
Ramsay, William M. Four Modern Prophets: Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gustavo Gutiérrez, Rosemary Radford Ruether. Westminster John Knox Press, 1986.
Slessarev-Jamir, Helene. Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America. NYU Press, 2011.
Sundquist, Eric J. and Mark Crispin Miller. King’s Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech. Yale University Press, 2009.
Today’s student essay is another treat – like some of the other essays I’m sharing, it discusses the ways that certain contemporary figures appear to fulfill some of the same roles as the biblical prophets. Our author is Eddie Mataele, who is studying for a Bachelor of Arts here at the University of Auckland, majoring in Sociology with a minor in Pacific Studies. Eddie hails from Tonga, and currently lives in the Mangere district of Auckland. Once he completes his degree, he hopes to put it to good use working in the social and public sectors. Eddie took our Bible and Popular Culture course to meet his General Education requirements, and enjoyed the creative freedom offered by the assignments.
So, for all Kendrick Lamar fans out there (and everyone else too), sit back and enjoy the prophetic potential of this most fascinating musician.
Wickedness or Weakness? The Prophetic Role of Kendrick Duckworth Lamar
Music can be used as a refuge from the cruel and haunting realities of life. On the other hand, it can also be a powerful platform for an artist to describe and express these realities into a stimulating, euphoric, and somewhat controversial masterpiece. Kendrick (Duckworth) Lamar (born June 17, 1987) is an African-American rapper, songwriter, and recipient of seven Grammy awards; whose music has conveyed his innocence, triumphs, trauma, and tragedies while growing up in the notoriously dangerous streets of Compton, Los Angeles. The dominant themes found in majority of his music catalogue is his critique of oppressive social structures, violence of gang culture, and his connection with God (Graham, 2017). Kendrick Lamar produced music that defends the rights of disenfranchised communities in USA and uplifts the voices of troubled youths, while openly conveying his personal experience with God, fame, wealth, poverty, violence, pride, fear, and more (Faraji, 2016). Similarly, ancient prophets found in the Bible also share these features.
According to Marcus J. Borg (2001), prophets are an ally of social justice, challenge the status-quo, empowers oppressed people, and protects the hope of a brighter future. The clear difference between ancient prophets outlined in the Bible and Kendrick Lamar is the cultural context/setting they are situated in. However, Kendrick shares similar biblical prophetic behaviour with ancient prophets such as Jeremiah, in that both figures openly voices their condemnation against the injustices caused by those in power (Fischer, 2015). Subsequently, this essay will aim to deliver a comprehensive analysis which supports the belief that Kendrick Lamar is a biblical prophet.
A key element of a biblical prophet outlined by Borg (2001) is their passion for social justice and serving the interests of the oppressed and disenfranchised communities. Specifically, Borg mentions the concept of “prophetic energizing”, which revolves around a prophet communicating with the oppressed, utilizing language that promotes hope , defends their identity, and rejoices in creating a brighter future (Borg, 2001). The prophet Isaiah declared messages of prophetic energizing to encourage Jewish people to believe in justice, hope, and God when they were exiled from Jerusalem and Judah by Babylonians in 586 BCE by using uplifting language:
“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace. The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands”
(Isaiah 55: 12)
These are some other aspects of the biblical prophets (and biblical texts more widely) which resonate with the music and impact of Kendrick Lamar, albeit in a darker and more aggressive manner. This is illustrated in his album “To Pimp A Butterfly” where he addresses issues suffered mainly by African-Americans. In “alright”, Kendrick aggressively attacks white supremacy and police brutality while simultaneously glorifying the importance of developing strength from these struggles and express his faith in God. In short, he encourages his audience to find hope in the struggles they face, as it gives meaning to their inner-strength:
“Hard times like, God! / Bad trips like, Yeah! / Nazareth, I’m f**ked up/ Homie, you f**ked up/ But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright”
The song also highlights the frustration and pain Black people in America are accustomed to because of the injustices committed by the police disproportionately killing unarmed African-Americans:
“Wouldn’t you know/ We been hurt, been down before/ N*gg*, when our pride was low/ Lookin’ at the world like, ‘Where do we go? / N*gg*, and we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’/ N*gg*, I’m at the preacher’s door/ My knees getting’ weak, and my gun might blow/ But we gon’ be alright”
Kendrick creatively describes the historical and relentless pain of being Black in America as severely debilitating. However, he counters it by claiming it will not erase the hope of self-empowerment and fighting for social justice which he expresses by continuously shouting “we gon’ be alright”. The impact of this song and its powerful lyrics has transcended music and entered the domain of social and political activism. Black Lives Matter activists draw strength and solidarity by chanting the lyrics “we gon’ be alright” during their peaceful protests against police brutality. Kendrick’s live performance of the song angered highly conservative and narrow-minded FOX News presenters who argued that a music genre (Hip Hop/Rap) has created more damage than racism among young African-Americans (Media Matters, 2015). Kendrick was thus effective in challenging the status-quo upheld by dominant systems of power, which regularly silence dissident voices of the oppressed (Faraji, 2016). Ultimately, the song “alright” was one of many in this album which advocated for social justice and served as a source from which African-Americans could draw strength, hope and unity.
Marcus Borg (2001) also suggested that biblical prophets are representatives of God or individuals who know God. This is not implying that biblical prophets are divine individuals, but rather indicates that prophets are individuals who believe in God’s teachings and deliver these teachings in a distinctive and influential manner (Borg, 2001). These too are features of a biblical prophet personified by Kendrick Lamar. His most recent album “DAMN.” comprehensively expresses his fears about his potential to be led to damnation (condemned by God to eternally suffer in Hell); to overcome this fear, he must first acknowledge it (Yoh, 2017). This is highlighted in the lyrics of his song “FEAR”:
“I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ loyalty from pride/ ‘cause my DNA won’t let me involve in the light of God/ I’m talkin’ fear, fear that love ain’t livin’ here no more/ I’m talkin’ fear, fear that it’s wickedness or weakness”
Moreover, Kendrick references the commandments and statues written in the book of Deuteronomy 28, and delivered to the Israelites by the prototypical prophet Moses. Through these references, Kendrick ponders whether his previous acts of disobedience stemmed from his own wickedness or inner weakness (Yoh, 2017). From living in a gang-infested city ripe with violence and drugs, family members who were pimps and gang bangers, to suffering deep mental and spiritual stress due to his riches and fame, Kendrick’s world was filled with madness and chaos.
These experiences could drive a person towards a path of destruction. Kendrick likens his own suffering in this chaotic world to the curse bestowed upon Israelites, outlined in Deuteronomy 28. This suggests he believes it is in his (self-proclaimed Israelite) DNA to flourish in temptation and sin (Yoh, 2017). However, he overcomes the fears of succumbing to a destructive future by acknowledging his fears and trusting God’s wisdom. His greatest fear is that he could lose all his financial, social, and spiritual riches due to basking in earthly pleasures and not fearing God (Yoh, 2017). Less focus is placed on the joy of God and more emphasis is awarded to the fear of God. Consequently, he implies that people should fear God because the blessings bestowed upon them can also be swiftly removed from their lives by God.
The story of Job shares a few similarities with the story told by Kendrick Lamar. Job was a wealthy family man who was a staunchly obedient follower of God’s teachings but suffered unbelievable cruelty in the face of servitude, because God wanted to discredit Satan’s claim that Job is good only because God rewards him (Crook, 1959). Thus, Job was subjected to unbelievable suffering and pain. However, Job found meaning instead of despair in those dark moments. He gained humility, a refined perspective of God’s grace and a deep fear of God. At the end, God rewarded Job by restoring double of what he lost, which promotes the critical message that fearing God and trusting his wisdom will result in righteousness and salvation (Crook, 1959). Thus, Kendrick recognises the blessings he enjoys now were delivered by God and he fears that God can also take it all away because of his inner-weakness/wickedness.
In conclusion, Kendrick Lamar confronts his fears in order to overcome it and through this process he develops a deeper connection to God. In saying this, he also promotes the message of giving hope to yourself in times of tragedy and injustice, as it will develop greater inner-strength and self-empowerment. His music provoked intense solidarity among African-Americans protesting cruel injustices imposed on their community which reflects a core element of a biblical prophet suggested by Borg (2001). Moreover, he utilises his influence and power as a famous artist to convey his experiences with God and the influence it has had on him. Kendrick Lamar’s storytelling in his music empowers the narratives of the oppressed, fights systemic injustice, and expresses his deep belief and fear of God. Thus, he aligns with these aspects of a biblical prophet emphasised by Marcus Borg (2001).
Borg, M. J. (2001). Reading the prophets again. In M. J. Borg (Ed.), Reading the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally (pp. 111-144). San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
Crook, M. B. (1959). The Cruel God: Job’s search for the meaning of suffering. Boston: Beacon Press.
Faraji, S. (2016). Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance points to a simple truth: #Black lives matter when Africa matters . Africology: The journal of pan African studies, 3-6.
Fischer, G. (2015). Is there a Shalom, or not? Jeremiah, a prophet for South Africa. Old Testament Essays, 351-370.
Graham, N. (2017). What slaves we are: narrative, trauma, and power in Kendrick Lamar’s roots. Transition, 123-132.