Spotlighting student work #18: A Murderous Messiah

EvaToday’s essay is from THEOREL 101/G student, Eve Greensill (pictured left!). Eva has chosen a fascinating topic, considering convicted killer Charles Manson as a ‘popular messiah’ figure. Here’s a little bit about Eva.

I’m from Taranaki, and moved to Auckland at the start of 2018 to study at the University of Auckland. I’m studying a Bachelor of Arts with majors in Psychology and Drama. I don’t have any definite goals for the future yet, I’d like to see what avenues my degree leads me to, and what passions I find through study. Over the course of my first year I’ve developed an interest in Eastern psychologies, and intend to travel to India after my degree to learn more. THEOREL 101 was hands down one of my favourite courses this year, I loved how the assignment and exam provided so much space to explore personal interests in relation to course material. I also really enjoyed how it challenged the way that I had thought about the bible and its place in pop culture.

Sit back and enjoy the read!

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Manson: Murder, Madness and… Messiahship?!

Eva Greensill

When considering contemporary messiahs in pop culture, many think of the heroic and widely adored figures such as Barack Obama, Harry Potter, or Ritchie McCaw. It’s easy to forget the dark underbelly of messiah-types in which people who do unspeakably horrific acts also exhibit an eerie number of the typical features by which we define our beloved heroic messiahs. One such ‘dark messiah’ is Charles Manson. Manson was a cult leader who rose to infamy in the late 1960’s after he was involved with nine murders. His beliefs were based on the biblical apocalyptic texts in Revelation, which he believed indicated an imminent race war between African Americans and white Americans. He also believed that the Beatles were prophets of this race war and named his ideology ‘Helter Skelter’ after a song from their ‘White Album’. Manson promised his cult, the Family, that they would be safe in the desert during this supposed war until the white Americans had been killed, and then the cult would emerge and rule over society. The important factors to consider when examining Manson as a popular messiah are the differing definitions of messiah between the New Testament and Old Testament, the application of the American monomyth, and the typical features of a popular messiah which can be applied to Manson.

This essay will be discussing Manson regarding the New Testament concept of messiah. However, it is interesting to consider how Manson can be viewed, or perhaps how he viewed himself, in relation to the Old Testament definition. A messiah in the Old Testament was a person anointed by God to be a political and military leader, as David was anointed by Samuel – “The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him… and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:12-13). To himself and to his followers, it is likely that Manson did fit the idea of a Hebrew messiah, as his ideology was politically grounded with strong beliefs around necessary war. Manson also claimed to have a unique understanding of the bible, and so despite not having been anointed by God in a literal manner such as King David, Manson’s supposed special relationship with God along with his political agenda does draw strong parallels to the Hebrew concept of messiah. The definition in the New Testament differs from the Old Testament, as the identification of Jesus as a messiah brought the idea that a messiah was a figure who brought spiritual salvation; a more abstract concept than the political salvation associated with Hebrew messiahs.

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Charles Manson at the time of his arrest

The American monomyth in relation to popular messiahs is based on the New Testament definition of messiah. The American monomyth as discussed by Jewett and Lawrence focuses on a community under threat, from which a messianic savior-figure arises to conquer evil and restore the community to safety (Jewett and Lawrence 2002, p.6). The American monomyth is mainly discussed regarding fictional superheroes, however, the concept can also be applied to real historical figures, as will be outlined in the case of Charles Manson. The creation of fictional heroes speaks to a deep societal yearning for a real savior to arise who can solve the problems faced by a community or nation at a certain point in time. For example, ‘Superman’ was first published in 1938, at the end of the Great Depression, while America was on the precipice of World War II. As Trimble wrote of the ‘Superman’ creators; “Growing up in one of the most difficult periods in American history, perhaps, to them, the only means of finding the promised American dream was through the intervention of a super-powered strongman” (Lang and Trimble 1988, p.160). When looking at Charles Manson, it is apparent that the 1960s were a time of political unrest, known as “a volatile era of social and political turbulence… The decade was characterized by emphases on psychedelic drug use, sexual exploration, racial equality, and activism through music…” (Altman 2015, p.3). It is highly plausible that such an environment created a longing for a messiah figure of the American monomyth to arise and ease the social unrest, in the same way that such a longing was present at the time of Superman’s creation. Therefore, the Manson Family’s view of Manson as such a figure is not implausible, as his ideology was one that promised social resolution. Manson did also cultivate this idea of him as a messianic figure, even going as far as to model himself as Jesus. Nielsen outlines how the Family developed an idea of Manson as a Christ-figure due to heavy drug consumption, during which Manson would reenact the crucifixion of Jesus (1984, p.323).

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Charles Manson arrives at the courthouse in Independence, California, on December 3, 1969.

In further analysis of Charles Manson as a messiah figure, it becomes clear that he does fit a majority of features attributed to contemporary messiahs by Jewett and Lawrence. These features are generally based off characteristics of biblical messiahs, or Jesus in particular. One such feature is unusual or unknown origins, which aligns with Jesus’ unusual birth to a virgin mother (Matt. 1:18-25). Manson’s childhood was unusual in the fact that it was a difficult one. His mother was fifteen when she gave birth to him and went to prison when Manson was only four. By thirteen, Manson had been involved in auto theft and armed robbery, which resulted in him being sent to juvenile detention for most of his adolescence (Arledge 2017). Another feature of a contemporary messiah which Manson can claim is that of being an ‘outsider’; somehow set apart from others. While Manson made it his mission to be surrounded by other people, he was set apart from them by his psychology; as a psychopath he would be unable to feel empathy or remorse.Therefore he could not truly connect with and relate to those around him, making him an ‘outsider’. Manson also shows the feature of rationalization of violence, as he justified the nine murders by claiming that it was necessary to start his imagined race war. Tex Watson, one of the Family members wrote in his autobiography that Charlie told them to commit murder to “do what blackie didn’t have the energy or the smarts to do – ignite Helter Skelter and bring in Charlie’s kingdom” (Watson 1978, p.67).

Additionally, Manson exhibits ‘extraordinary powers’, another feature of popular messiahs. However rather than supernatural powers, his abilities lie in his manipulation of people through his charisma and reasoning, which combined with the use of drugs, essentially allowed him to brainwash people. Furthermore, the messianic feature of thematic death and resurrection is apparent in how Manson promised his followers safety from the supposed apocalyptic race war. He told the Family they would escape to the desert during the war and live in the ‘bottomless pit’ from Revelation 9:1 – “a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit”. It is interesting that in theology, the ‘bottomless pit’ is commonly understood to refer to hell, and so perhaps Manson saw the idea of taking shelter in this pit as type of death. He also made his followers believe that once the African Americans were victorious, the family would emerge and rule the earth, which fits with the idea of resurrection. Another feature of a contemporary messiah which can be applied to Manson is the idea of a loyal band of iconic followers. Comparative to how Jesus had his disciples, Manson had his Family, many of whom would have been willing to die for him (Mark 3.13-19).

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Charles Manson, surprisingly short for such a ‘big’ personality

Another potential feature of a popular messiah that Manson could be argued to adhere to is that of remaining collected under pressure.  Even though Manson was renowned for exhibiting bizarre behavior during his trial and in subsequent interviews, it could be argued that this was an act for Manson to manipulate how the court and the rest of the world saw him, which would suggest that underneath all the insanity, he was in fact, collected. This idea is supported by how, even as a child, Manson would use similar methods to protect himself, something which he called the ‘insane game’ – “This ‘game’ consisted of Charles using noises, erratic gestures, rapid movements, and any other means at his disposal to convince potential threats that he was crazy and not worth their time” (Altman 2015, p.21). The only two messianic features which Manson does not fit is that of having a selfless passion for justice, and of renouncing sexuality and withstanding temptation. Objectively, Manson’s actions cannot be described as just in any righteous sense, and his use of drugs and sex were instrumental in the manipulation of his followers.

It is indisputable that Manson is a widely recognized figure in pop culture. His recent death has only served to cement the intrigue surrounding his life, and filmmakers are scrambling to capitalize on this and capture the essence of Manson on screen. However, Manson can not only be defined as a pop culture icon, but also as a contemporary messiah, in relation to both Hebrew and New Testament definitions, the American monomyth and by conventional features attributed to messiahs. This creates interesting reflections around human susceptibility to evil when it is masked by a charismatic leader, and just how far people can be willing to go to fulfil someone else’s vision. Manson was not the first messianic figure to use his power over others to commit unthinkable atrocities against others, nor unfortunately, will he be the last.

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Jeremy Davies presents us with a rather Christ-like Manson in 2004 movie, Helter Skelter

Bibliography

All references to the Biblical text are from the New Revised Standard Version

Altman, Robin, “Sympathy for the Devil: Charles Manson’s Exploitation of California’s 1960s Counter-Culture.” Undergraduate Honours Theses, University of Colorado (2015) https://scholar.colorado.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2017&context=honr_theses

Arledge., Roone, creator. “20/20 Truth and Lies: The Family Manson”. Aired 17thMarch 2017; USA, ABC Networks. Accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqL70yz65B4

Jewett, Robert, and John Shelton Lawrence. “The myth of the American superhero.”Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (2002).

Lang, Jeffrey S., and Patrick Trimble. “Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An examination of the American monomyth and the comic book superhero.” The Journal of Popular Culture 22, no. 3 (1988): 157-173.

Nielsen, Donald A. “Charles Manson’s Family of Love: A Case Study of Anomism, Puerilism and Transmoral Consciousness in Civilizational Perspective.”Sociological Analysis 45, no. 4 (1984): 315-337. doi:10.2307/3711297.

Watson, Charles (Tex), Chaplain Ray Hoekstra. “Will You Die for Me?”New York, Fleming H. Revell Co. (1978).

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Spotlighting Student Work #16: Silence, Speech, Prophecy, and Veganism

Today’s essay comes from student Niki Menzies, here’s a bit of background about Niki and her piece:

I’m studying toward a conjoint Commerce/Arts degree, majoring in Art History, Chinese and International Business (that’s the plan anyway). During high school in Wellington, I took an ‘English with Philosophy’ class that partially focussed on Christianity – I remember finding Christianity and the Bible very interesting, so when I saw that I could take THEOREL101 as part of my Art History major I was very excited. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the THEOREL 101 course this semester. It opened my eyes to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways the Bible has influenced the world around me. It also made me realise that the Bible is a much more important text than I thought it was – I guess from a secular standpoint, I never thought about the role the Bible plays in politics or gender discourses. The freedom of the course is also great, I loved being able to apply course material to some of my personal interests.  I am interested in animal rights and the criticism activists face for their views, and wanted to explore the actions of one activist in relation to the Biblical prophets.

Here’s the essay, enjoy the read!

A Voice for the Voiceless:  James Aspey’s Prophetic Mission Against Animal Cruelty

Niki Menzies

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Animal rights activist James Aspey dedicates his life to being a voice for the voiceless. His mission is to end injustices against our earth’s “voiceless victims” (Aspey, 2015a). Aspey (2015a) aims to stop the human oppression and exploitation of animals, and move the world toward a vegan lifestyle. He believes veganism – refraining from “consuming, wearing or using” animals (Aspey, 2016) – is a lifestyle that is aligned with universal values of compassion and justice (Aspey, 2016b).  Aspey’s activism includes group demonstrations, powerful orations and disruptive protests that seek to open peoples’ eyes to the indifference they have toward the current treatment of animals (perceived by Aspey to be social injustices). Aspey’s actions share many of the markers of biblical prophets as described by Marcus Borg (2001). Using Borg’s definition of the biblical prophet, I will analyse Aspey’s activism to argue that he functions as a contemporary prophetic figure in today’s society.

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The man himself–chick included

Marcus Borg (2001) identifies several shared markers of biblical prophets. Firstly, he writes that biblical prophecy grows from situations of oppression; usually the oppression of the poor and vulnerable by elites (Borg, 2001). Prophets therefore are concerned with social justice issues, for which they share a passion (Borg, 2001). They condemn injustice and social oppression, naming offenders and pronouncing ominous warnings about their fate (Houston, 2018). Prophets Micah and Isaiah were concerned with injustice caused by the rich and powerful exploiting the poor or vulnerable (Micah 3:10; Isaiah 58:3, The New Revised Standard Version). Micah objected to the ways in which powerful rulers benefited from the suffering of others, building their cities upon foundations of exploitation and inequality (Micah 3:10). In a similar way, Aspey opposes what he sees to be horrendous crimes of injustice in the world. However, his focus is directed at our treatment of animals, rather than fellow humans. He argues that humans are oppressors who commit violent injustices against animals by breeding them for consumption (Aspey, 2016b). Animals are “innocent and vulnerable beings” (Aspey, 2016b) that humans exploit from a position of power. Aspey (2018) names the oppressor of animals to be “the consumer,” who creates the demand for animal products. Furthermore, while Aspey’s direct focus is on animal cruelty, he also argues that the consumption of animal products contributes to a situation that might be more readily accepted as a social inequality; he argues that by producing animals to be consumed, suffering humans are being deprived of food, as plants and water are being inefficiently assigned to animal agriculture instead of starving children (Aspey, 2015). These children are victims of a consumer culture that values the consumption of animals even though it is an inefficient use of resources. Aspey’s passion for social justice mirrors that of biblical prophets; like Micah, Aspey has identified situations of oppression in which  stronger parties oppresses weaker ones, and is passionately condemning them.

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Aspey participated in a year of silence from 2014 to 2015

Borg (2001) also observes that the biblical prophets interrupt dominant ideologies by speaking ‘truths’ about practices that are normalised in society. An example of this is the prophet Amos’ condemning of religious worship as a redeemer of unjust behaviour (Borg, 2001). Amos believed that justice was inherently connected to God, and therefore worshipping God meant nothing if one continued to turn a blind eye to injustice: “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them . . . But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:22-24). In a similar way, Aspey objects to the normalised practice of factory-farming animals for human consumption. Many of his demonstrations seek to educate people about farming practices, such as displaying images of slaughterhouses on the streets (Aspey, 2017). Aspey also uses inflammatory and emotive language such as “holocaust” and “torture” to describe the slaughter of animals (Aspey, 2018) in an attempt to destabilise acceptance of the practice. Furthermore, he criticises the increasingly popular practice of buying ‘free-range’ or ‘cruelty-free’ products, arguing that this makes no difference to the overall suffering of animals (Aspey, 2016c). Aspey believes there is no such thing as ‘humane slaughter’, therefore one cannot claim to have compassion or to support animal rights if they continue to consume any animal products (regardless of whether it is free-range) (LIVEKINDLY, 2017).  Like Amos, Aspey refuses to accept the belief that certain actions can redeem other injustices; just as worshipping God means nothing if one continues to turn a blind eye to oppression, buying free range is not enough when free-range animals will end their lives in the same slaughterhouse as factory-farmed ones (Aspey, 2016c).

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I can feel the oration from here.

Another important characteristic shared by biblical prophets and Aspey is that they are powerful orators. Borg (2001) writes of the electrifying nature of the prophets’ addresses, specifically the sophistication of Amos’ oration techniques. Amos used evocative language to paint powerful images in the minds of his audience; for example, his description of the rich and powerful who “lie on beds of ivory. . .  who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp” (Amos 6:4-5). Aspey’s oration technique can be considered similar to Micah’s when the prophet condemns the rulers of Israel in this fiery speech: “You . . . who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones” (Micah 3:2-3). Using similarly violent and emotive language, Aspey (2018) paints pictures of animals having their throats slit or being killed in “gas chambers” as part in “longest standing holocaust” of all time. Like Amos and Micah, Aspey seeks to use his orations to evoke strong imagery in the minds of his audience, specifically disturbing and violent imagery that will change perceptions of injustices (animal rearing and consumption).

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I mean I’d listen to anyone with that face. Although I might get distracted by the background dude’s amazing beard.

Biblical prophets complete dramatic acts to draw attention to their cause and to rouse followers (Borg, 2001). These acts often contain an element of endurance; Isaiah walked barefoot and naked for three years in protest against injustices committed against the Assyrians (Isaiah 20:3). Another biblical prophet, Ezekiel, was instructed by God to lie on his side – first his left, then his right – for the number of days that Israel and Jerusalem were to be exiled (respectively) (Ezekiel 4:1-8). The intent of these symbolic actions was to draw attention and add drama to the prophets’ messages (Borg, 2001). Intentionally dramatic acts of protest are common in animal rights activism; an activist Morgan Redfern-Hardisty is currently walking the length of New Zealand barefoot to protest being pressured to serve cow’s milk in his café (Newshub, 2018). Aspey has carried out similar acts of endurance, such as undergoing twenty-four hours of tattooing (Aspey, 2016a). In 2014, Aspey undertook a dramatic act similar to Isaiah, swearing a 365-day vow of silence to raise awareness of animal exploitation. In his Sunrise News interview on national Australian television, Aspey ended his silence by explaining his intention had been to “raise awareness for the voiceless victims of this planet” (Aspey, 2015a). In the same way that Isaiah used prophetic action is used to dramatize his message (Borg, 2001), Aspey completed an act of endurance to draw attention to the plight of animals. His prophetic act succeeded in growing his audience by giving him the opportunity to speak on national television, and contained a dramatic element which drew attention to his mission.

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An image from the Voiceless campaign

Finally, biblical prophets share a vision for the future that provides hope to sustain the power of their messages (Borg, 2001).  Borg (2001) writes that the prophets skilfully construct images of a better future, in a way that ensures that their prophetic action retains its vitality; they create hope that provides their oppressed audience with energy to continue. Borg (2001) writes that biblical prophets such as Isaiah conveyed to their audiences messages of hope that their communities would survive or be rejuvenated (Borg, 2001). For example, Isaiah had a vision that the exiled Jewish would return to their homeland (Isaiah 40:1-5). Jeremiah prophesised that a war would come upon Jerusalem, but provided reassurance by saying that his audience would survive and that their God was always with them (Jeremiah 31:31-33). Aspey’s own vision for the future fulfils this element of Borg’s definition. He imagines a “vegan world” (Aspey, 2018) without injustice toward animals. Aspey also conveys a hopefulness to his supporters of the growing vegan movement. He frequently reiterates the strength of his message and the pace at which veganism is spreading in the world, calling it the “fastest growing social justice movement of our time” (Aspey, 2016b). Although he cannot reassure the ‘victims’ of oppression (animals) of the possibility of a better future, Aspey uses his vision to encourage supporters and other vegans to continue their activism. In the same way as biblical prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Aspey’s vision instils a sense of hope and strength in his community.

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A young advocate

In this essay I have argued that James Aspey shares the characteristics of biblical prophets as described by Marcus Borg (2001). Like the biblical prophets, Aspey’s mission is to fight a perceived situation of social injustice where the weak are exploited by the powerful.  He also shares with biblical prophets strong oration skills and a willingness to carry out dramatic acts in order to energise and draw attention to his message. Finally, Aspey has a vision for the future that gives hope to his supporters, just as prophets promised survival and rejuvenation to the communities they addressed. It is safe to say that Aspey’s behaviour mirrors that of the biblical prophets, and therefore he can be seen to fulfil the criteria of a prophetic figure in today’s society.

 

Bibliography

Aspey, J. (2016). Blog from Voiceless365 campaign. Retrieved from http://www.jamesaspey.com.au/blog/

Aspey, J. (2016a). Think24. Retrieved from http://www.jamesaspey.com.au/think24/

Aspey, J. [James & Carly]. (2015, Feb 9) (4/9) Vegan Tattoos: World Hunger

[Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvzYhOA1Q1c

Aspey, J. [James & Carly]. (2015a, Jan 13). Breaking my 365 Day Vow of Silence [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgR_zz8Kmbs

Aspey, J. [James & Carly]. (2016b, Apr 5). This Speech is your WAKE UP CALL! [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHOcox2lvQo

Aspey, J. [James & Carly]. (2016c, Mar 2). What About Plants/Free-Range/Humane/Vegetarian? etc…. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omVwanc0bEA

Aspey, J. [James & Carly]. (2017, Nov 27). Conditioned Mind Starts to Crack [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YM_C97Pf-BU&t=707s

Aspey, J. [James & Carly]. (2018, Jul 20) IN THE FACE OF A HOLOCAUST [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxDncfFbEkw

Borg, M.J. (2001). Reading the Prophets Again. In Reading the Bible Again for the First Time; Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally (1st Ed, pp. 111-144). San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Giles, T. (2018). Prophets as performers. Retrieved from https://www.bibleodyssey.org/passages/related-articles/prophets-as-performers

Houston, W. J. (2018). Social justice and the prophets. Retrieved from http://www.bibleodyssey.org/passages/related-articles/social-justice-and-the-prophets

LIVEKINDLY. (2017, Jul 30). Why Should You Go Vegan? | Exclusive Interview | James Aspey [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5l8lQeW3b4

Newshub. (2018). Vegan to walk the length of NZ barefoot in protest of landlord’s decision on cow’s milk. Retrieved from https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/lifestyle/2018/09/vegan-to-walk-the-length-of-nz-barefoot-in-protest-of-landlord-s-decision-on-cow-s-milk.html

Spotlighting Student Work #13: Followers of the Apocalypse

Tonight we have a essay from local Jamie Lee–here’s a bit about Jamie and their essay.

I am from Auckland, I am studying a Bachelor of Arts double majoring in Film, Television and Media Studies and English. I am about to head on exchange to the University of California, Santa Barbara, and intend on becoming an English teacher overseas once I complete my degree. I have thoroughly enjoyed this class, as while I am not the most devout Catholic in the world, I have an interest in the way religion and popular culture interact with each other especially through film, music and video games. I am also very interested in the way the Bible has affected modern literature and storytelling as a whole. The main reason I chose to do an essay on Apocalyptic literature was in order to understand both its function and how it was written, as I intend on exploring creative writing alongside my current career plans, and felt like this knowledge might help inspire me creatively in the future.

Enjoy the read and have a good weekend!

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Bombs, Blizzards and Blight: Apocalypse in Popular Culture

Jamie Lee

Popular culture literature, for example films, gaming and music, have manipulated the Bible’s apocalyptic literary genre in order to convey modern audiences social anxieties about the future. Inspired by the Book of Revelation’s symbolism of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and fantastical imagery of the ‘end of the world’, modern apocalyptic literature has been used to convey fears of absolute nuclear annihilation and fears of a global environmental catastrophe leading to humanity’s demise.

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The Book of Revelation’s best boys

The Book of Revelation’s original function was as a symbolic depiction of current events, using fantastical imagery to both depict contemporary anxieties and to spread hope to a Christian audience who were facing persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. This is particularly obvious in the symbolic image of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, each of which is reflective of one of these contemporary anxieties. The first horse, ‘Conquest’, is described as “a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer” (Revelation 6:2). Similarly, the remaining horses of ‘War’ (red), ‘Famine’ (black) and ‘Death’ (pale) all reflect the anxieties of early Christians in the times of persecution they lived in.

Coded language was also used in apocalyptic literature to depict contemporary anxieties, particularly the image of the “mark of the beast”. The “mark of the beast” can be decoded in Revelation 13:18, which reads, “the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. It’s number is six hundred sixty-six”. Through the technique of “gematria”, the number 666 can be decoded into the words “Caesar Nero”, who is both the first Roman emperor and one of the most brutal emperors to persecute Christians following the “Great Fire of Rome”, which Christians were scapegoated as causing in 64AD (Marcus Borg, p.277).

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The apocalyptic fire of Rome

The other function of biblical apocalyptic literature was to provide an ‘end goal’ or resolution to this persecution, which in the case of the Book of Revelation appears through the use of destructive eschatological imagery. This particularly visible in Revelation 16:18, which reads “there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake.” The use of fantastical imagery is what inspired modern writers of apocalyptic literature to use similar imagery in their own works. However, there have been many shifts in the way apocalyptic literature functions in the modern era, particularly in the way in which it is read. As Bart D. Ehrman states in an interview, the Bible’s apocalyptic literature is often misread by the modern audience “as if these apocalypses are predicting things in our own future”, simply because these fantastical events imagined in the Bible never occurred in history. For contemporary readers of apocalyptic literature in the Bible, it was used directly to create hope for them in the face of ongoing Christian persecution, whereas the apocalyptic literature seen in popular culture is far more concerned about the future of society.

Fear of the outbreak of a full scale nuclear war and ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD) has been a very real concern of society since World War II when the first atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. The first use of the atom bomb in Hiroshima led to the instant obliteration of 60,000 buildings within a three mile radius, and between 64,000 to 240,000 people died from mechanical, thermal or radiation injuries (Phillip M. Boffey, p.679). The sheer capabilities of nuclear weapons as shown by these two bombings led to ‘nuclear warfare’ becoming a very real fear of society, and this fear translated into popular culture in the form of modern apocalyptic literature.

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Those 2008 graphics really make you feel the desolation

The video game, Fallout 3 explores a post-apocalyptic civilization following the outbreak of full scale nuclear warfare in the year 2077. One of the most striking things about Fallout 3 is how lifeless the open-world of the “Capital Wasteland” is. Set in the ruins of Washington, D.C. almost no vegetation grows, the colour saturation is extremely pale and the Wasteland itself is filled with derelict, abandoned buildings and constant fighting between the survivors of the war, who without laws or government now do as they wish, with no consequences. This imagery of a desolate and lawless wasteland shares many similarities with apocalyptic literature in the Bible, for example Isaiah 24:1 reads, “Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate.” Additionally, Fallout 3’s main quest itself is inspired by the “spring of the water of life” seen in Revelation 21:6, by forcing the “Lone Wanderer” (the player) to decide whether or not they provide clean water for the people of the “Capital Wasteland”, or to unleash a devastating virus in it to purify the “Wasteland” of its violence and corruption.

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The colour palette may be similar, but the player characters are more attractive

Similarly, the film Mad Max: Fury Road uses much of the same imagery that is seen in the “Capital Wasteland”. Set in its own post-apocalyptic wasteland after an energy crisis led to the end of civilization, this wasteland is particularly distinct, as the entire movie is filled with imagery of sand and rusty machinery saturated in the colours of “ochre by day, cobalt by night” (Nick Pinkerton, p.82). The plot of the film revolves around the escape of the five wives of the tyrant, “Immortan Joe”, through the help of one of Joe’s lieutenants “Imperator Furiosa”, who intends on taking them to the “Green Place”, an idyllic land from Furiosa’s childhood. The discovery that the “Green Place” no longer exists — now a swampland — is extremely similar to the biblical verse of Revelation 8:7, which reads “there came hail and fire… they were hurled into the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.” One crucial similarity between all of the aforementioned apocalyptic texts (Revelation, Fallout 3, Mad Max: Fury Road) is that they are rife with nostalgia, and all of them long for a return to a golden age.

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Furiosa in Fury Road’s wasteland

As Borg’s reading suggests, Jesus is considered the bringer of a “true golden age of peace on earth”, which is exactly what Revelation calls on its contemporary readers to wait for (p. 284). In the same way, the use of ironic 1940’s rhythm and blues such as “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by the Ink Spots in Fallout 3 and Furiosa’s idyllic memory of the “Green Place” in Mad Max: Fury Road conveys a longing for a return to a simpler past which in reality can never be recovered.

Another fear in modern society which has been translated into popular culture is the increasing concern about climate change leading to a cataclysmic environmental apocalypse. Revelation’s imagery of cataclysmic events in particular have been the inspiration for popular culture interpretations of an environmental apocalypse. The film Soylent Green, based off the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison is set in a dystopian New York in the year 2022, where large-scale industrialization has led to overpopulation, resource shortages, pollution and global warming due to the greenhouse effect.

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The plot of the story revolves around the discovery of the horrible secret behind the new food source — “Soylent Green” — and what it is made from, after Sol Roth, Detective Thorn’s personal librarian discovers that the oceans are dying. This imagery of dying oceans is matched by Revelation 16:3, which reads “every living thing in the sea died.” The secret of what Soylent Green is actually made of is then discovered by Detective Thorn, as he finds that it is not made from animal products, but instead that Soylent Green is made out of people! Similarly, films such as 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow take the theme of climate change and use identical imagery to what is seen in Revelation to depict what an environmental apocalypse could look like. Catastrophic weather events seen in these films range from “floods” (Revelation 12:15), “earthquakes” (Revelation 8:5), “huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people” (Revelation 16:21) and “a third of humankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur” (Revelation 9:18). However, the key difference between Revelation and modern apocalyptic literature is that modern apocalyptic literature (especially films) typically dissociate themselves from the spiritual themes and messages of Revelation, instead preferring to focus on the resilience of humanity as a race.

One of the rare cases in which an environmental apocalypse is depicted on the big screen with an anxiety of contemporary Bible readers is in the science-fiction film Interstellar. The main cause of Interstellar’s environmental apocalypse is through the form of “Blight” which has wiped out almost every crop on the planet, and threatens to wipe out the last viable crop humanity has, corn. The manner in which “Blight” is personified in Interstellar is identical to the way “Pestilence” is personified as the horseman of the black horse from the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Revelation 6:5-6). “Blight” is also extremely similar to the famine in Revelation 18:8 which reads “plagues will come in a single day — pestilence and mourning and famine.” However, the solution to this plight faced in Interstellar is not spiritual, instead it is extraterrestrial.

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Look at all that extraterritory

Modern apocalyptic literature and the anxieties they reflect, such as nuclear warfare and climate change, are modern interpretations of society’s new “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. While the imagery of the apocalypse has remained remarkably similar over the course of two-thousand years, the function of apocalyptic literature has drastically shifted from providing hope for its readers by promising a return to a golden age to casting doubts and projecting fear about the future.

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Bibliography

All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV

Boffey, Philip M. “HIROSHIMA/NAGASAKI: Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission Perseveres in Sensitive Studies.” Science, vol. 168, no. 3932, 1970, pp. 679–683. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1729022.

Ehrman, Bart D. “Apocalyptic Literature.” Bible Odyssey, National Endowment For The Humanities, 2013, http://www.bibleodyssey.org/tools/video-gallery/a/apocalyptic-literature.aspx.

Pinkerton, Nick. “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Sight & Sound, vol. 25, no. 7, July 2015, pp. 81–82.

“Reading Revelation Again.” Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally, by Marcus J. Borg, HarperSanFrancisco, 2001, pp. 265–292.

Reagan, David R. “Nuclear Weapons in the End Times.” Lamb and Lion Ministries, christinprophecy.org/articles/nuclear-weapons-in-the-end-times/.

 

Spotlighting Student Work #10: Fashion Deities

Today we have an essay from local Bella Qian–here’s a bit about her, and the piece:

I’m an Auckland gal who loves her city, though the recent gas prices have had me looking at the running costs of horses. I have just finished my second year of a highly employable Bachelor of Arts majoring in Ancient History and Psychology. One day I hope to pursue a post grad degree in Psychology as I have personally experienced the consequences of New Zealand’s flawed mental health system and attitudes, so the dream is to make a difference. I chose to write about fashion and religion in my essay because of my love for fashion (as evidenced through my bank statements) as well as my interest in consumerism and capitalism. This essay was very enjoyable to write and I hope that anyone reading it can find a point or two amidst my excessive shoe descriptions that gets them to stop and think.

Enjoy the read and have a great weekend!

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Popes in Prada and Angels in Lingerie

Bella Qian

Fashion and religion are both major influences in society as they explicitly and implicitly impact the way we think, feel, and act. When these two important bodies crash and merge in popular culture, a whole new set of meanings and implications emerge. Throughout history, clothing has been used for far more than to cover our bodies, it has held political, social, sexual, and economic implications (Schmidt 1989). Within religion, these implications still hold strong and clothing is given a whole new set of meanings in this context. However, these meanings were challenged through new interpretations of religious dress at the 2018 Met Gala, one of the biggest fashion events in Western society. Religion has also made its way into the fashion world via the unexpected area of lingerie. One of the most successful lingerie brands in the world, Victoria’s Secret, has been using ‘angels’ to model their lingerie for over a decade. Yet the meaning and use of these ‘angels’ seem to be drastically different from the ones mentioned in the Bible. This essay then aims to examine how religion has been used in fashion, using the example of the 2018 Met Gala, and Victoria’s Secret’s angels.

Within all major religions, dress has been used to serve the purpose of establishing and enforcing ideologies and hierarchies (Arthur 1999). Historically, for members and followers of the church, modesty is viewed as an important value that should be displayed through clothing, particularly for women. Thus, the excessive display of flesh is not encouraged and clothing should act to cover the body (ibid.). The colour and type of clothing also mattered; during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, vibrant and luxurious clothing was condemned. Instead, sombre dress was encouraged as it reflected the Christian focus on salvation and redemption (ibid.). The Catholic clergy also reflect the significance of dress through the different colours and items worn by members of different priestly rankings. At the bottom of the hierarchy are priests, who wear black, above them are bishops who wear violet, then cardinals in scarlet, and finally the pope, who is dressed in white. On top of colour, slight differences in their everyday dress from the hats they wear to the laces on their shoes are also used to display their differences in rank. Interestingly, these differences are not simply used to differentiate between clerical positions, but also hold religious symbolism (Bolton et al 2018). The white that is associated with the pope represents purity and sanctity that only he is worthy of (Arthur 1999). From these examples, we can see that clothing has important meanings and functions within the church.

French Archbishop Philippe Barbarin attends a Good Friday mass in Saint-Jean Cathedral in Lyon
Look at that colour coordination

These meanings and functions were completely flipped in the 2018 Met Gala with its theme of “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. The Met Gala is a charity event that has been running for 73 years and is arguably the most anticipated fashion event every year (Hoffower 2018). This year, the outfits worn by the celebrities at the event unreservedly exceeded expectations as they were amazing examples of how religion can be interpreted in fashion. Being the most exclusive fashion event of the year, with tickets allegedly costing up to US$50,000, it is unsurprising that many celebrities went over the top to make a statement.  This year’s gala was filled with all sorts of extravagant jewels, crosses, halos, and even wings. Many celebrities also chose to reference specific religious figures, like the Virgin Mary in her manifestation as the lady of sorrows.

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However, we do not see any modestly clothed and grieving Marys as depicted in religious art; instead, we see bejewelled Marys in thousand-dollar designer outfits. Explicitly, these outfit choices may be a way to further indicate the superior or divine status of these celebrities. The event itself is already exclusive – not only do guests need to be able to afford the $50,000 ticket, the event is invite-only, with a lengthy waitlist. The celebrities attending the gala have the modern world’s seal of approval, they are our contemporary aristocracy. Thus, by associating themselves with powerful and respected religious figures at this exclusive event, their status is further elevated. This can then have a cultural function of reinforcing an ‘us and them’ hierarchy. These celebrities, like the religious figures we worship, are out of reach and our only contact with them should be through our worshipping and idolizing of them. Furthermore, there may be a cultural function of holding up western ideals. The event’s exclusive guest list shows us the ideals of success and wealth, the achievements of the attendants creates a standard for onlookers and further separates them. The theme of the Met gala creates an idealization of certain of religion, and the choice of Catholicism raises questions like: is Catholicism better? Elevated? Or more red-carpet ready than other religions in the world? Additionally, when Catholicism was chosen as a theme for the most exclusive fashion event in Western society, its superiority and authority are reinforced. This can function to further the dominant role of Western ideas, standards, and beliefs in modern society.

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Thus, not only do these dazzling Marys represent a beautiful crossing over of religion and high fashion, they also function to reinforce the status of both the attendants and modern Western ideologies.

Some of the outfits at the gala were particularly memorable as they managed to implicitly challenge the norms and ideologies of the church while being high fashion. One of these was singer and actress Solange Knowles’ outfit where she wore a gold halo that she paired with a flowing black durag. The halo was common amongst other celebrities and its meaning was straightforward, associating its wearer with holiness. Thus, it was her durag that stood out. The durag is dated back to the nineteenth century and was originally worn by slaves to keep their hair back. Yet its use completely changed with the black power movement during the late 1960’s which preached for equality and racial pride for those of African descent. During this movement, the durag became a popular accessory amongst African American youth and it is still used today (White and Hertz 2013). Importantly, on her durag, Solange had written in jewels, “My God Wears a Durag” (Edwards 2018). This juxtaposition of opulence with a symbol of slavery and later street culture captivates onlookers while sending a very important message. With her outfit, Solange reminds us that heaven is not white like it is commonly depicted and interpreted. Her outfit also disrupts and challenges the white dominance in religious art and imagery while celebrating the existence and importance of women of colour in religion (Edwards 2018).  Unlike the bejewelled Marys who reinforce modern hierarchies, Solange’s outfit has a function of including and giving a voice to those who are marginalised by Western discourses. Just like a biblical prophet, Solange disturbs our sense of normalcy and challenges the cultural status quo (Borg 2000).

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That headpiece combo though

Another memorable outfit was the one worn by Rihanna who came dressed as a pope. What made it unforgettable was that her outfit was not made of silk and cotton like an actual pope’s robe, instead, every inch of her white dress and robe was encrusted in jewels and pearls. Here, she juxtaposes the purity of the colour white with the opulence of diamonds and gems. This juxtaposition may function as a criticism of religion’s longstanding gender biases. Knowing that women are still not allowed to become popes, Rihanna’s extravagant and feminine pope attire then shows us that women can be popes, and they are going to do it their way. To further her pope garb, she wore a matching and unsurprisingly bejewelled papal tiara, which is traditionally worn by popes when they are coronated or during special ceremonies.

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All hail Her Holiness Rhianna

What really completed her outfit, though, were her US$4,000 crystal encrusted black Christian Louboutin shoes. More than just a popular piece of fashion, the shoes became meaningful when paired with her pope attire. Christian Louboutin shoes have an iconic red sole and are notoriously difficult and painful to wear despite their price. The red bottoms stand out against her predominantly white outfit and the biblical association of the colour red with sin (Isiah 1:18) juxtaposes against the association of white with purity (Revelation 3:4-5;18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9;13-14). Hence, it is as if Rihanna is replicating the painful struggle women have endured in their fight for equality. In the eyes of men, we may have sinned but that won’t stop us from continuing to make progress, one bedazzled high heeled step at a time. The implicit meanings of her outfit as a whole are endless. Not only did it reimagine Catholicism as a religion that celebrates women and fashion, but it also calls out the church’s deep-rooted bias against women. As a woman of colour, her pope attire directly addresses the ban on women ever becoming ordained priests and challenges the church’s white patriarchal status quo in the process (Wynne and Janssens 2018). Thus, these powerful outfits worn by Solange and Rihanna show that for one night, fashion challenged religion.

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Rihanna again – with those shoes

One specific aspect of religion that has surprisingly found its way into fashion is the concept of angels. In the Bible, angels are described as powerful creations of God, who act as his messengers and are faithful to him (Daniel 4:13; Colossians 1:16; Revelation 5:11-12). There is no unanimous description of their physical attributes in the Bible and examples of their appearance include the form of a male human and a form that causes fear in people (Genesis 18. Hebrews 13:2, Matthew 28:4). Contrary to popular belief and depiction, these angels are also very rarely described as having wings and when they do, they tend to have six of them (Isaiah 6:1-8). The lack of a consistent angelic form in the Bible thus allowed a lot of room for creativity for early Christian artists (Marshall and Walsham 2006). Yet, from the fourth century onwards, most artists gravitated towards depicting angels with two wings, and having a saintly androgynous nature. However, all of these depictions of angels in art and the Bible wildly contrasts the ‘angels’ we have seen walk down lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret runway for the past decade. Here, the angels are in fact successful female models with a huge social following (Opelka 2017). The only thing these Victoria’s Secret ‘angels’ may physically have in common with the ones in the Bible and religious art is the wings they frequently wear when modelling the brand’s lingerie. Yet even when ‘winged’, their extravagant and often multi-coloured floor-length wings are far from the ones seen in religious imagery. Wings aside, these ‘angels’ are marketed as living ideals of western beauty standards who also happen to be in lingerie. This ideal of a perfect woman being both sexy and heavenly then produces an unattainable ideal for women. Interestingly, the elevated status this ideal gives the Victoria’s Secret ‘angels’ may be a point of similarity with the biblical angels. Yet instead of being powerful creations of God, Victoria’s Secret’s ‘angels’ are powerful creations of the sexist and exploitive Western consumer market.

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Victoria’s Secret Angels

Controlling almost 40% of sales in intimate apparel, Victoria’s Secret is the largest and most successful lingerie brand in America and The Victoria’s Secret Angels have been vital in their success (Anderson 2014). Interestingly, despite their use of ‘angels’, Victoria’s Secret does not affiliate itself with religion. This is known as capitalist spirituality, where religious themes are exploited for the benefit of the corporation (Liegghio 2014). Thus, their use of these ‘angels’ is actually a clever consumerism tactic. By dressing their models up like angels while in lingerie, the brand gives them a divine quality while retaining their sex appeal (ibid.). Their giant soft white wings, contrasted with their sultry appearance creates a seemingly otherworldly and ethereal attraction. Sometimes, sharp black wings are used instead which creates a more ‘sinful’ attraction (Smith 2002). By juxtaposing religious and sexual imagery, the appeal of the ‘angels’ is intensified (ibid). The brand also creates an allure and elite status around these ‘angels’ by creating a hierarchy of models with them at the top. Currently, there are only 15 models worldwide who have the ‘angel’ title which is only given after careful selection of the model’s physical attributes and social popularity (Liegghio 2014). This exclusivity adds to their appeal as it causes them to appear desirable. By making these ‘angels’ objects of desire, the lingerie they model sells successfully because it allows buyers to be closer or similar to these otherwise untouchable beings (ibid.). In doing so, the brand has expertly created an illusion of a divine yet alluring ‘angel’ in order to sell their product. In the end, Victoria’s Secret’s use of angels is a prime example of religion being used and exploited in popular culture.

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Black-winged ‘bad’ angel

In conclusion, the fashion world has used religion creatively to send its messages. The 2018 Met Gala displayed the omnipotent powers of fashion using religion as its medium. That night, fabric and jewels challenged religion’s injustices and biases better than words could. The Gala showed that now, fashion is in charge, what is right and wrong is told by Vogue, not by the Vatican (Wynne and Janssens 2018). On the other hand, Victoria’s Secret showed us that religion can be capitalized and consumed, all without consequence. Perhaps that is Victoria’s secret after all. As a result, it is undeniable that the fashion world has redefined religion because now, our popes wear Prada, and our angels are in lingerie.

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Bibliography

All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV

Anderson, Elizabeth. “A look at how Victoria’s Secret became a multi-billion dollar company.” Business Insider. Updated Dec 2, 2014. https://www.businessinsider.com/a-look-at-how-victorias-secret-became-a-multi-billion-dollar-company-2014-12?IR=T

Arthur, Linda B. Religion, Dress and the Body. Dress and the Body Series. Oxford: Berg, 1999.

Bolton, Andrew, Barbara D. Bohem, Marzia C. Gallo, Griffith Mann, David Morgan, Gianfranco C. Ravasi, David Tracy. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. 2nd ed. New York: Yale University Press, 2018.

Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible again for the first time: Taking the Bible seriously but not literally. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2001.

Edwards, Katie. “The Pope Wears Prada: how religion and fashion connected at Met Gala 2018.” The Conversation. Updated May 9, 2018. https://theconversation.com/the-pope-wears-prada-how-religion-and-fashion-connected-at-met-gala-2018-96290

François Gauthier & Tuomas Martikainen (2018) Introduction: the marketization of religion, Religion, 48:3, 361-366, DOI: 10.1080/0048721X.2018.1482614

Harms, Ernst. “The Psychology of Clothes.” American Journal of Sociology 44, no. 2 (1938): 239-50.

Hoffower, Hillary. “$30,000 tickets, $2 million jewellery, and $2,000 tuxedos: Unbelievable facts show how opulent the Met Gala is.” Business Insider. Updated May 3, 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com.au/met-gala-2018-theme-cost-ticket-dress-jewlery-2018-5?r=US&IR=T

Jeal, Roy R. “Clothes Make the (Wo)Man.” In Foundations for Sociorhetorical Exploration: A Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity Reader, edited by Robbins Vernon K., Von Thaden Robert H., and Bruehler Bart B., 393-414. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2016. doi:10.2307/j.ctt1f5g5j7.18.

Juffer, Jane. “A Pornographic Femininity? Telling and Selling Victoria’s (Dirty) Secrets.” Social Text, no. 48 (1996): 27-48. doi:10.2307/466785.

Klassen, Pamela E. “The Robes of Womanhood: Dress and Authenticity among African American Methodist Women in the Nineteenth Century.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 14, no. 1 (2004): 39-82. doi:10.1525/rac.2004.14.1.39.

Lange, Maggie. “Victoria’s Secret Angels: A Historical Perspective. “The Cut. Updated Nov 13, 2013. https://www.thecut.com/2013/11/victorias-secret-angels-a-historical-approach.html

Liegghio, Vanessa. “When Angels Fall.” Medium. Updated Nov 8, 2014. https://medium.com/religion-and-popular-culture/when-angels-fall-7d3c6d478f64

Lewis, Reina, ed. Modest Fashion: Styling Bodies, Mediating Faith. London: I. B. Tauris & Company, Limited, 2013.

Marshall, Peter and Walsham, Alexandra. Angels in the Early Modern World. London: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Mayo, Janet. A History of Ecclesiastical Dress. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1984.

Meier, Brian P., Michael D. Robinson, and Gerald L. Clore. “Why Good Guys Wear White: Automatic Inferences about Stimulus Valence Based on Brightness.” Psychological Science 15, no. 2 (2004): 82-87.

Opelka, Brenna. “There’s a huge difference between a Victoria’s Secret model and an Angel.” This is Insider. Updated Nov 17, 2017. https://www.thisisinsider.com/difference-between-victorias-secret-model-and-angel-2017-11

Santana, Richard and Gregory Erickson. “Consuming Faith: Advertising, the Pornographic Gaze and Religion Desire.” In Religion and Popular Culture: Rescripting the Sacred, 50–66. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “”A Church-Going People Are a Dress-Loving People”: Clothes, Communication, and Religious Culture in Early America.” Church History 58, no. 1 (1989): 36-51.

Smith, Marie D. “Decoding Victoria’s Secret: The Marketing of Sexual Beauty and Ambivalence.” Studies in Popular Culture 25, no. 1 (2002): 39-47.

Valdivia, Angharad N. “Chapter 11: The Secret of My Desire: Gender, Class, and Sexuality in Lingerie Catalogs.” Counterpoints54 (1997): 225-50.

White, Horace, and Michael Hertz. Do-rag. US Patent US20110247126A1, filed April 6, 2011, and issued October 13, 2011.

Winkle, Ross E. ““You Are What You Wear”: The Dress and Identity of Jesus as High Priest in John’s Apocalypse.” In Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity: Constituents and Critique, edited by Wiley Henrietta L. and Eberhart Christian A., 327-46. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2017.

Wynne, Katherine and Alice Janssens. “Fashion as religion, and a higher moral fabric.” The globe and mail. Updated May 14, 2018. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-fashion-as-religion-and-a-higher-moral-fabric/

 

Spotlighting Student Work #7: Basketball’s Chosen James

And now for something completely different–we have an essay about a sporting saviour by student Jamahlia Smith. This essay discusses basketball icon LeBron James and his role as a chosen one within the sport. We will let Jamahlia say a bit about herself.

I am Maori (Ngai Tahu), Pakeha, and Tongan. I’m in third year and double major in social anthropology and (mainly NZ) history. I plan to do a post graduate diploma in early childhood education and look forward to developing and participating in inclusive environments for young children. I took this paper as although I have explored religion across cultures, there was a gap in my knowledge of biblical texts. It has been eye-opening, and the course has created a passionate and inclusive learning environment.

Now for LeBron!
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King James – The Chosen One

Jamahlia Smith

The American Monomyth can certainly be seen in film and television, such as the current abundance of superhero movies (Lawrence & Jewett, 2002). However, messiah figures are not restricted to a world of fantasy – they also walk among us. Sport exemplifies secular devotion in the modern day. The National Basketball Association (NBA) is one of the biggest sites for fanatical devotion in the sports world. LeBron James plays in the NBA, and is one of the most well-known and followed figures in basketball today. In this essay I will demonstrate how James fulfils many of the characteristics of a modern messiah, drawing comparisons to Jesus – a biblical messiah. I will argue that James is a modern messiah in the sporting world by outlining his professional career. Furthermore, I will argue James is just as much a messiah off the court due to his participation in social justice, politics, activism, and charity.

Like many messianic figures, LeBron James’ origins were unusual in nature, and he was set apart from others at an early age. James’ mother was just sixteen at the time of his birth (Wahl, 2002). His early life was rough, as he moved frequently in the low socio-economic areas of Akron, Ohio (Wahl, 2002). James never knew his biological father, however in fourth grade he moved in with his basketball coach (Marsh, 2010; Wahl, 2002). James then flourished as a young man, both academically, and in sports. Similarities can be seen in James and Jesus’ early lives. In Matthew 1:18-24, Jesus is embraced by Joseph, a man who is not his biological father. As James grew older his divine, outsider status became apparent. Before starting his NBA career in 2003, the hype surrounding James was rising at a rapid rate (Marsh, 2010). At just seventeen years old, messianic language was used to describe James, as can be seen in the 2002 Sports Illustrated cover that positions James as “The Chosen One”:

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The young James. Full of energy.

Moreover, many in the sports industry assigned greatness to James. For context, Kobe Bryant was one of the biggest names in basketball in the late nineties through to the 2000s, and is hailed as one of the greatest players of all time. Adidas representative Sonny Vaccaro asserted “At this age LeBron is better than anybody I’ve seen in thirty-seven years in this business, including Kobe” (Wahl, 2002). Coach Jim Fenerty shared Vaccaro’s sentiments: “We played Kobe when Kobe was a senior, and LeBron is the best player we’ve ever played against. LeBron is physically stronger than Kobe was as a senior, and we’ve never had anybody shoot better against us” (Wahl, 2002). Positioning James as superior to Bryant before James had entered the NBA was huge, and nicely exemplifies the sensational nature surrounding James’ early career. Perhaps most importantly, James embraced his outsider status from a young age, this is demonstrated particularly well in his first tattoo that came shortly after his Sports Illustrated cover in 2002:

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And a really nice back, too.

In John 4:25-26, Jesus accepts his messiah status exclaiming “I am he”. James is most certainly not an apprehensive messiah figure, and I believe his first tattoo can be seen as a contemporary expression of “I am he”. James’ messiah status has evolved over time and in monolithic proportions as he entered the NBA and was given an international platform to flaunt his powers.

Notions of LeBron James’ extraordinary powers and divine competence come from his inherent talents, but have also been constructed through specific Nike marketing campaigns. Again, we can see James embracing a messianic identity, claiming extraordinary talents and the ability to remain ‘cool’ as can be seen in his Sports Illustrated article:

A lot of players know how to play the game, but they really don’t know how to play the game, if you know what I mean. They can put the ball in the hoop, but I see things before they even happen (Wahl, 2002).

This highlights James’ self-proclamation of physical prowess, but more importantly here is the claim of magical mental abilities (Billings & Mocarski, 2014). Nike played on these attitudes surrounding James, developing commercials that utilized religious iconography, and positioned James as a quasi-divine figure that should be worshiped. This is seen in two commercials: “Book of Dimes” and “Pressure”.

“Book of Dimes” is set on a basketball court that has been transformed to also resemble a church service. There is a podium in which ‘preacher’ Bernie Mac stands, with a gospel choir behind him. He preaches to the audience, not from the bible but from the “King James Playbook”. Mac reads: “Basketball’s chosen one asked the soul of the game for court vision, and it was granted to him”. The audience becomes increasingly excited. It is at this point LeBron James enters the ‘church’ – the audience rejoices, with singing and celebration:

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Holy crap

This commercial has obvious religious connotations. Firstly, Nike declares James ‘King James’ – attaching a religious narrative to James, with the King James Bible having influence in America (Billings & Mocarski, 2014). Further, the commercial assigns a clear messianic identity to James – James is positioned as an extraordinary individual, who deserves worship (Marsh, 2010).

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Rejoicing all around

This commercial has obvious religious connotations. Firstly, Nike declares James ‘King James’ – attaching a religious narrative to James, with the King James Bible having influence in America (Billings & Mocarski, 2014). Further, the commercial assigns a clear messianic identity to James – James is positioned as an extraordinary individual, who deserves worship (Marsh, 2010).

“Pressure” is less overtly religious, however it does present a modern messiah narrative by demonstrating LeBron James’ divine competence. The commercial depicts James playing his first NBA game. James is given the ball as the commentators exclaim: “talk about pressure, is he going to be able to handle it?” The crowd is loud and rowdy, awaiting action from James. However, he then freezes, staying still for around ninety percent of the one-minute commercial. The crowd grows silent, commentators whisper “talk about not being able to handle the pressure”.  Suddenly, James laughs and proceeds over the three-point line to take his shot. This commercial shows James’ ability to stay ‘cool’ in the face of pressure, both physically and mentally, fulfilling the criteria of a divinely competent modern messiah (Billings & Mocarski, 2014).

It is also of note that LeBron James’ career was on the rise when NBA legend Michael Jordan was retiring from professional basketball. Jordan’s departure from the NBA left a gap that needed to be filled – a Second Coming of Michael Jordan (Marsh, 2010). The 2002 Sports Illustrated article together with the two Nike commercials clearly demonstrate the American Monomyth narrative – James was born of unusual circumstances, was given an extraordinary gift, and divine competence, in order to restore faith in the NBA after Jordan’s retirement (Laurence & Jewett, 2002; Marsh, 2010).

I will now turn my attention to LeBron James’ divine competence off the court, exploring his selfless zeal for justice through social activism. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement arose from a rise in police brutality and racial profiling in America, which saw many young African American males killed by police (Coombs & Cassilo, 2017). James supports the BLM movement, demonstrating his black and white moral world that is driven by justice. This can be seen through various acts in social media, and also in real life:

 

In the first image James and his teammates wear the same clothing Trayvon Martin wore when murdered by police, highlighting problematic racial profiling. In the second image, James wears a shirt depicting the last words of Eric Garner before his death at the hands of police (Strauss & Scott, 2014). The clear message bought forth is that James stands in solidarity with victims of police violence. James supports the African American community, providing a platform to bring light to these issues. This highlighting of injustice through peaceful protest was recognized, most notably by Barack Obama who commented:

We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness. We went through a long stretch there where [with] well-paid athletes the notion was: just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves. LeBron is an example of a young man who has, in his own way and in a respectful way, tried to say, ‘I’m part of this society, too’ and focus attention (Westfall, 2014).

James’ activism is exemplary of the American Monomyth narrative – America is in a state of social crisis (racism, violence, political indifference), James attempts to deliver his community from evil through peaceful protest (Laurence & Jewett, 2002). Further, James’ careful approach to protest is reminiscent of Matthew 5:43-48 which stresses the importance of peaceful relationships, even with one’s enemies. James’ participation in social activism very much aligns him as a modern messiah. Moreover, the deliberate choice to focus on attention rather than aggression demonstrates James’ divine competence in relation to social justice (Coombs & Cassilo, 2017).

Sport offers hope for national and regional communities. Sports stars and teams often have a loyal band of followers. LeBron James fandom takes these notions to the next level. It is typical for fans to strongly support certain teams, with the athletes in these teams taking a secondary role. However, James’ fandom supersedes team supports and loyalty. Fans of James will follow him wherever he goes, the team in which he is in has become irrelevant. Further, these disciples look upon James in awe and as quasi-divine. This can be seen in Nike’s “Witness” campaign. This campaign involved a commercial in which fans express their undying admiration for James whilst wearing “witness” shirts. Nike then took fans notions of James, and constructed his image in billboard form:

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What a guy

This billboard depicts James in a Christ-like manner, with his arms extended. Moreover, this billboard is huge, demonstrating James’ larger than life status (Marsh, 2010). James fandom is not restricted to basketball. James has built a loyal following as a community leader and role model due to his social activism previously mentioned, together with his many charitable acts, including opening schools for disadvantaged children (Savvas, 2018). In this way, James is situated as ‘bigger’ than his position as an athlete, rather he is an empathetic messiah, whom should be witnessed and worshipped in all his glory (Billings & Mocarski, 2014).

LeBron James exemplifies the American Monomyth just as much as the fictional superheroes we watch at the movies. James fully embraces his identity – he has been on a messianic path since his unconventional childhood, and is assured he is made for greatness. James blurs lines between religion and pop culture through his career as an athlete. However, James is never limited to his on-court life. He transcends sports through his social activism and passion for justice. His devoted followers witness and admire his extraordinary powers both on and off the court.

 

Bibliography

All references to the Biblical text are from the NIV.

Bob Bob. (2008, May 14). Nike Basketbal: Witness – LeBron James Ad . Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbpAIAew2DY

Burfiend, G. (2014). All the King’s men. [online image]. Retrieved from http://web.colby.edu/ar120/2014/04/25/all-the-kings-men/

Coombs, D. S., & Cassilo, D. (2017). Athletes and/or activists: LeBron James and Black lives matter. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 41(5), 425-444. doi:10.1177/0193723517719665

Hughes, A. (2004). Book of Dimes. . Retrieved from http://www.believemedia.co.uk/work/allen-hughes-nike-book-of-dimes/

James, L. [kingjames]. (2012, March 24). #WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice . Retrieved from https://twitter.com/kingjames/status/183243305428058112?lang=en

Jewett, R., & Lawrence, J. S. (2002). The myth of the American superhero. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

LeBrecht, M. (2002). LeBron James SI Covers. [online image]. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/nba/photos/2007/06/07lebron-james-si-covers#1

Marsh, B. E. (2010). The Emperor and the Little King: The Narrative Construction of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2345/1322

Mocarski, R., & Billings, A. C. (2014). Manufacturing a messiah: How Nike and LeBron James co-constructed the legend of King James. Communication & Sport, 2(1), 3-23. doi:10.1177/2167479513481456

Savvas, L. (2018). LeBron James opens school for underprivileged children. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/sport/basketball/45018003

Strauss, C. & Scott, N. (2014). LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Nets players wear ‘I can’t breathe’ shirts before Cavs game. USA Today. Retrieved from https://ftw.usatoday.com/

Tony Ricks. (2006, May 14). Nike – LeBron James Pressure . Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rv3niQ-w3y0

Wahl, G. (2002). AHEAD OF HIS CLASS: Ohio High School Junior LeBron James is so Good that He’s Already being Mentioned as the Heir to Air Jordan. Sports Illustrated. (Feb 18. 2002). Retrieved from https://www.si.com/vault/2002/02/18/318739/ahead-of-his-class-ohio-high-school-junior-lebron-james-is-so-good-that-hes-already-being-mentioned-as-the-heir-to-air-jordan

Watson, T. (2014). 10 Of The NBA’s Most Tattooed Players. [online image]. Retrieved from https://www.vibe.com/2014/04/10-nbas-most-tattooed-players/vibe-nba-tattoo-lebron-james/

Westfall, S. (2014) President Obama: More Sports Stars Should Speak Out on Social Issues. People Magazine. Retrieved from https://people.com

February 2002 Sports Illustrated cover. Retrieved from LeBron James SI Covers by Michael LeBrecht, 2007, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 08, from https://www.si.com/nba/photos/2007/06/07lebron-james-si-covers#1

LeBron James’ ‘CHOSEN 1’ tattoo. Retrieved from 10 Of The NBA’s Most Tattooed Players by Terrence Watson, 2014, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 08, from https://www.vibe.com/2014/04/10-nbas-most-tattooed-players/vibe-nba-tattoo-lebron-james/

Stills from “Book of Dimes” Nike commercial. Retrieved from Believe Media by Allen Hughes, 2004, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 09, from http://www.believemedia.co.uk/work/allen-hughes-nike-book-of-dimes/

Tweet about Trayvon Martin. Retrieved from Twitter by LeBron James, 2012, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 09, from https://twitter.com/kingjames/status/183243305428058112?lang=en

“I can’t breathe” shirt. From LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Nets players wear ‘I can’t breathe’ shirts before Cavs game by Chris Strauss and Nate Scott, 2014, Retrieved 2018, Oct 09, from https://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/12/kyrie-irving-i-cant-breathe-t-shirt-before-cavaliers-eric-garner-lebron-james

“We are all witnesses” billboard. From All the King’s men by Grant Burfeind, 2014, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 09, from http://web.colby.edu/ar120/2014/04/25/all-the-kings-men/

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Spotlighting Student Work #1: Dealing with the Devil

It’s that time of year again, where we showcase some of the best student work from this year’s Bible and Popular Culture (THEOREL 101) class. Starting us off is a wonderful essay from Ani Harris. We’ll let Ani introduce herself.

I’m a first year from the sunny fruit bowl that is Hawke’s Bay. Currently, I’m studying a degree in Arts majoring in Psychology and Gender Studies which so far has been thrilling! In the future, I hope to go into post-graduate–if I’m lucky–to continue researching my fields of interest. I’d like to one day work within academia.

Within the THEOREL 101 course, I particularly enjoyed looking at the bible with a feminist lens and tracking the evolution of figures in the bible alongside history as I’ve never had that opportunity before. I can recall absolutely fizzing over some of the assigned reading to the point where I printed it out to keep it on my wall. I’ve always had a bit of an interest in theology but I’ve never been able to really explore it in the way THEOREL 101 let me. THEOREL 101 was an incredibly enjoyable paper and I happily did my best to wake up so I could get to the 9am classes (though with not non-existent complaints).

I actually took THEOREL 101 for two reasons. The first being that it fulfilled criteria as a stage I paper under Gender Studies and the other being because of my own self-interest. I grew up in a Catholic household and though I’m not Catholic myself I’ve always been very intrigued by religion as a whole and the effect it has had and continues to have on the world. This course gave me the opportunity to discover new facets of the bible I hadn’t yet considered and quite successfully played on many of my interests. It was my absolute favourite paper this semester.

Without further ado, let’s deal with the devil.

BIBPOPLUCIFER

THE DEAL WITH THE DEVIL: SATAN AND RELIGIOUS FANFICTION

Ani Harris

This essay will analyse the Devil as a Biblical character who has a popular afterlife. I will explore this using Dante Alighieri’s Inferno showcases the Devil as a monstrous being, a typical trope in Western religious fiction, Paradise Lost by John Milton and the trope of “Sexy Satan” with Fox’s portrayal of Neil Gaiman’s Lucifer and an animated reboot adaptation of 1970’s Japanese comic Devilman, play around with perceptions of one of the world’s most famous characters. Each portrayal highlights the different tropes and caricatures that have been used and changed over time since the advent of the Devil’s very first appearance in Abrahamic religion.

The Devil’s beginning has its roots in the Bible. However, his first appearance does not come where most would assume. Contrary to popular belief, Satan does not make an appearance in Genesis. The serpent who tempted Eve (Genesis 3:1-24) was not at the time associated with Satan. And, despite the Devil’s later characterization as a tempter, accuser, and prosecutor of humanity, he never appeared as an entity in his own right until the Book of Enoch. Part of the deuterocanonical writings, the Book of Enoch is not part of the Hebrew Bible, and though sometimes included in Christian Bibles, it is mainly considered non-canonical within most denominations. It details the casting out of “the satans”, sinful angels who taught humanity wickedness in the form of technology and invention (Enoch 41:7; Enoch 8:1-9).

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The Fall

This original Satan goes by the alias of Azazyel, alternatively spelt ‘Azazeel’, and is stated to have, along with other angels, taught humanity lessons covering a wide range of topics. From weapon creation and progression to perceptions of beauty, the spectrum includes the coveting of precious stones and metals, innumerable attempts to perform sorcery, increasing the known limits of mathematics, and acquiring other dangerous forms of knowledge in the eyes of heaven (Enoch 9:5-9). In the Hebrew Bible, Satan is instead “the satan”, God’s tester and persecutor who stands to prove the inherent possibility for wickedness and impiety in humanity (Job 1:6-8; Zechariah 3:1-7).  From Enoch, Job, and Zechariah, we gain some of the foundational tropes of the character “Satan” which commonly appear to this day; “angel to demon king”, “tempter of humanity”, and “evil incarnate”. Though Satan was never physically described in the Bible the cultural approximation became an amalgamation of deities of various other religions; a monster with a tail, the legs of a goat, and crowned with horns. And with these depictions birthed the trope of “monster Satan”.

With the original character and accompanying tropes defined, the focus can now change to the Devil’s cultural afterlives. Of religious fiction, one of the most renowned is Dante Alighieri’s book series Divine Comedy, with the Inferno being the most relevant volume for the purpose of this essay. The Inferno chronicles Dante’s descent into and guided journey through Hell.

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Dante, and the entrance to Hell

Satan in this novel appears in the thirty-fourth chapter. Colossal in his grotesque visage, Dante’s Satan is endowed of the “monster Satan” trope; he has three faces of which he uses their mouths to chew on three people whom Dante considers the most traitorous of humanity. Satan in this work of fiction has also has large, leathery bat wings attached just under his chin, and excessively hairy legs (Dante & Musa 1971). Dante’s figure of the Devil retains many of the original biblical tropes; not only “monster Satan” but his “angel to demon king” arc as well. Dante himself states that had Satan been as beautiful as he was now ugly he can, therefore, understand how he is the source of all bad in the world. From this, we can discern that the Inferno expects readers to understand Satan’s origin as an angel fallen from grace. Dante’s Satan is a wonderful reference point for the popular image of the Devil before his Renaissance rebirth within another piece of literary fiction.

Contrary to Dante’s portrayal, Milton’s depiction of Satan in Paradise Lost was considered blasphemous. An epic poem written in vernacular English following the very entity of conceptualised evil which began by invoking the Holy Spirit as a muse. Milton’s satan operates on the notion that Satan, formerly known as Lucifer, retained his visage as the most beautiful of all the angels when he fell from Heaven. Which then shows that Milton’s version of Satan is sympathetic. He is considered the most favoured of all the angels and decides that should it be impossible to be God’s favourite (Milton 1674 rpt. in 2001). He rebels and tries to usurp God, claiming that angels should all reign as gods whilst God is simply a tyrant. Thus, he falls.

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Alas!

Tragic in a desire all too common. He then goes on to attempt another rebellion, by tempting God’s newly created humans, of which Milton subtly implies he is jealous of, to sin and thus join him in banishment (Milton 1674 rpt. in 2001). This sets the stage for a tragic hero who appears to be rebelling out of a childish need for validation and attention of any kind. Milton’s Satan appears not as the root cause of all evil but merely a child throwing a tantrum. Paradise Lost has been a major inspiration and provided the perfect material for the changing world to take Satan as a literary device and apply him in many ways to great effect. Milton’s reconceptualization of Satan as both a sympathetic and beautiful figure greatly stoked the flames of popular culture turning a monstrous and terrifying evil into a nuanced character with great depth. Satan becomes a potential anti-hero and even protagonist along with his trademark villainy. Even his conceptualisation as a villain is changed by Milton’s portrayal. Lucifer is the first recorded entity to claim free will and oppose God. Refusing ignorance and order for knowledge and the ability to make and be a part of unorganised chaos. He is the first recorded instance of an individual leading a rebellion against what they consider a corrupt power, a trope which is not only common in modern pop culture but almost its own genre.

Milton’s Satan paved the way for Satan to become Lucifer.

lucifer-netflix
Hello there

Based on a character from Neil Gaiman’s lauded comic book series The Sandman, Lucifer is a fantasy police drama developed by Tom Kapinos and produced by Fox. The premise of the film is Lucifer Morningstar, Tom Ellis, leaving hell for Los Angeles. Lucifer runs a nightclub, Lux, and acts as a consultant for the LAPD using his powers of persuasion and desire to deal justice to sinners. Kapinos’ Lucifer takes a great deal of inspiration from Milton’s Satan. Kapinos’ Lucifer is entirely a sympathetic character within the series. The show goes so far as to have Lucifer explicitly say that humanity merely blamed him for their sin rather than being accountable for their actions, effectively demonizing him as a scapegoat, and humans are responsible for damning themselves (Sánchez 2017). Kapinos’ Lucifer plays heavily into the “sympathetic Satan” trope with viewers encouraged to empathize with the devil and understand him as a pawn in his father’s plans which in itself displays the trope of “the devil has daddy issues”. Lucifer is consistently paranoid that his father, God, is manipulating him and often acts out of fear of being made to return to hell and be humanity’s scapegoat again (Shilati 2017; Gaviola 2017). Played by Tom Ellis, Lucifer is physically very attractive and seems to play directly into the “sexy Satan” trope, however, Lucifer has a second visage he calls his “devil-face”. Lucifer’s “devil-face” is bald, red-skinned, heavily scarred, and glows with an inner light like fire, his sclera turns a deep red and his irises gold. This “devil-face” plays into the pre-Milton “monster Satan” trope and exists as a unique juxtaposition as both faces belong to Lucifer and yet one makes him seems human and beautiful and the other demonic and ugly. This devil is well beloved in the show and in current day popular culture.

In contrast to Lucifer’s family-friendly Satan, Devilman Crybaby has been lauded as one of the most violent, gratuitously chaotic, and disturbing animated shows of 2018 (Farokhmanesh, M. 2018).

DevilmanCrybaby_Review_01
Ryo/Satan (left), Akira (right)

Based on Go Nagai’s 1970’s manga Devilman, Devilman Crybaby written by Ichirō Ōkouchi and directed by Masaaki Yuasa is a dark fantasy horror animated series around the characters Akira Fudo and his childhood friend Ryo Asuka. The premise of Devilman Crybaby is Akira’s attempt to help Ryo expose demons to the world. In this portrayal, Ōkouchi’s Satan takes many post-Milton tropes. Physically portrayed as beautiful as both Ryo Asuka and Satan, Ōkouchi’s Satan does not take a monstrous form at any point remaining well within the trope of “sexy Satan” while his legions of demons take monstrous and often revolting forms.

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Yes, I am.

Ōkouchi’s Satan remains a tempter and persecutor of humanity and retains his status as the root cause of all evil within the show. In the show’s eighth episode after Ryo has learned his origins as Satan, he proceeds to cause more chaos in an already unstable world where demons had been revealed by betraying Akira and broadcasting an ill-intentioned warning that anyone dissatisfied with society could be a demon (Shibata 2018). Ōkouchi’s portrayal of Satan and Ryo is complex and while appreciated by audiences for his role as an antagonist he is not a character one can feel overly sympathetic for save for brief moment where his affection for Akira humanizes him.

Overall, this essay explained how Satan’s portrayal in popular culture is seen through Milton’s Paradise Lost, Fox’s Lucifer and Devilman Crybaby. Since conception, the devil has always been a fascinating Biblical character, and authors has taken him and written him into stories as the oldest villain and one of humanity’s most rebellious role models. Through Milton’s epic, Satan became understandable and the way was paved for the humanization of the greatest evil in Abrahamic religion. The devil lives on through pop culture, influencing and teaching much like his original incarnation. In the end, Neil Gaiman said it best; To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due (Gaiman, 1992).

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And to all a good night. (Lucifer as he appears in Sandman)

References

References to the Bible are taken from the New Revised Standard Version

The Book of Enoch (1917) translated by R.H. Charles

Dante, A., & Musa, M. (1971). Dante’s Inferno. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Milton, J. 1674. (2001). Paradise Lost; and, Paradise Regained. New York: Signet Classic

Rafferty, C. (Writer); Costa, M. (Writer); Sánchez, E. (Director) (2017) Lucifer Season 3 Episode 7 “Off the Record”

Ning, J. (Writer); Shilati, S. (Director) Lucifer Season 2 Episode 16 “God Johnson”

Modrovich, I. (Writer); Gaviola, K. (Director) Lucifer Season 3 Episode 1 “They’re Back, Aren’t They?”

Farokhmanesh, M. (2018) Devilman Crybaby is Netflix’s horniest, most shockingly violent show yet: And that’s exactly why you should watch it https://www.theverge.com/2018/1/21/16905278/devilman-crybaby-netflix-review-violence-sex

Ōkouchi, I. (Writer); Shibata, K. (Director) (2018) Devilman Crybaby Episode 8 “I Must Know Myself”

Gaiman, N. (1992) The Sandman #21-28: Season of Mists. DC Comics

Public lecture: Professor Gerald West

gerald picWe 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.

Gerald West seminar poster

Student Spotlight #13: In the Name of Our Lord Beysus Christ

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

Emma Waymouth

BeyismBeyoncé, 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.

beyonce
Beyoncé at the Grammys, 2017

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.

beyAnother 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.

beygood-haitiAnother 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

Beyonce-Is-My-Religion-2017-Letter-Funny-Print-T-Shirt-Female-Tops-Short-Sleeve-Black-White

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).

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Conclusion

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.

bee messiah

 Works Cited

All references to Biblical texts are from the NRSV.

Beyoncé. (2017). BeyGood. Retrieved from: https://www.beyonce.com.

Brennan, A. (2017). Jay-Z suggests he really did cheat on Beyoncé. GQ. Retrieved from: http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/jay-z-cheated-beyonce

Daily Mail Reporter. (2013). ‘It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever been through’: Beyonce opens up about her miscarriage for the first time. The Daily Mail. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2271378/Beyonce-miscarriage-details-Star-opens-heartache-candid-interview.html

Gray, J. & Sandvoss, C. & Harrington, C. (2007). Why Study Fans? Fandom: Identities and communities in a mediated world. (pp. 1-16). New York, New York: NYU Press.

Hill, C. (2017). Beyoncé Saved A Fan From Depression, Because That’s What Beyoncé Does. Retrieved from: http://thesixthirty.com/ravefaced/beyonce-saved-a-fan-from-depression-because-thats-what-beyonce-does/

Lawrence, J. S. & Jewett, R. (2002). The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

Lopez, K. (2015). Meet the man behind Beyonce’s incredible voice: He’s looking for next big star. WGNO ABC. Retrieved from: http://wgno.com/2015/05/21/meet-the-man-behind-beyonces-incredible-voice-hes-looking-for-next-big-star/

Peterson, A. (2016). Beyoncé is a powerful voice for Black Lives Matter. Some people hate her for it. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/07/10/beyonce-is-a-powerful-voice-for-black-lives-matter-some-people-hate-her-for-it/?utm_term=.320892e96e20

Reekz DC. (29 December 2010). Beyonce – Why Did God Give Me This Talent (LEAKED). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O63dea1U33g

Rojek, C. (2007). Celebrity and Religion. In Redmond, S. & Holmes, S. Stardom and Celebrity: A Reader. (pp. 171-180).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

 

UnbornSuperstar88. (9 November 2013). Beyoncé at 7 Years Old Performing “Home”. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OeqgtpOYGU

Ward, P. (2011). Gods Behaving Badly: Media, Religion and Celebrity Culture. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Zeichner, N. (2016). Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown’s Mothers Made a Memorable Appearance in Beyoncé’s Lemonade. The Fader. Retrieved from: http://www.thefader.com/2016/04/24/beyonce-lemonade-michael-brown-trayvon-martin-forward-black-lives-matter

 

 

Student Spotlight #12: Harry Potter – GenZ Messiah

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.

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The trials and tribulations of ‘The Boy who Lived’: Harry Potter’s GenZ struggle with his messiah complex

Saiyami Mehta

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.

harry vs voldemort
Harry and Voldemort

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.

(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
John Spencer, Eve Tempted (1877)

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.

phoenixThat 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, gobletthrough 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 hallowsof 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 stoneVoldemort, 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.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

Student showcase #8: A Prophetic Day

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.

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Dorothy Day (unknown photographer)

Living for more than today

Lauren Wilks

“…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.

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Dorothy Day (unknown photographer)

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).

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Day (centre) protesting World War 1 (1917) Picture from dorothydayguild.org

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).

 

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Day at pacifist rally, NY, 1959 (Photo by Vivian Cherry)

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).

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Dorothy Day’s Hospitality House, a shelter for homeless people

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).

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Dorothy Day, head of Catholic Worker, inside the Worker office
 Photo by Judd Mehlman/NY Daily News/Getty

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.

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Day praying at the Church of the Nativity, NY, c.1970. Bob Fitch Marquette University Archives

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.

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Dorothy Day with her grandchildren (CNS photo/courtesy of Marquette University archives)

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).

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Dorothy Day in 1970 (Bob Fitch Photo Archive © Stanford University Libraries)

 

Reference list

All Biblical texts are from the  New Revised Standard Version

Allaire, J. & Broughton, R. (n.d). An introduction to the life and spirituality of Dorothy Day. The Catholic Worker Movement. Retrieved from http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/life-and-spirituality.html

Allison, D. (n.d). The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). Bible Odyssey. Retrieved from https://www.bibleodyssey.org/

Bailey, S., Ohlheiser, A. & Zak, D. (2015, September 24). Pope Francis praised Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Here’s who they were. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com

Barnette, S. (2011). Houses of hospitality: The material rhetoric of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. University of Tennessee. Retrieved from http://trace.tennessee.edu/

Barrett, L. (2017). Taking to the streets, and beyond. Yale Divinity School. Retrieved from http://reflections.yale.edu/article/god-and-money-turning-tables/taking-streets-and-beyond

Borg, M. (2001). Readings the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco

Catholic News Service. (2016, April 22). Inquiry into Dorothy Days life next step in sainthood cause. National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.ncronline.org/news/people/inquiry-dorothy-days-life-next-step-sainthood-cause

Chapp, L. (2015). The precarity of love: Dorothy Day on poverty. International Catholic Review. Retrieved from http://www.communio-icr.com/files/Chapp_-_42.2_Poverty_and_Kenosis.pdf

Coy, P. (1988).  A revolution of the heart. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Dear, J. (2011, January 25). Dorothy Day’s letters show heartache, faith. National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.ncronline.org

Ellsberg, R. (2010, November). Day by day: The letters and journals of Dorothy Day. U.S Catholic Worker, 75(11), 34-36

Forest, J. (n.da). What I learned about justice from Dorothy Day. US Catholic. Retrieved from http://www.uscatholic.org/culture/social-justice/2009/02/what-i-learned-about-justice-dorothy-day

Forest, J. (n.db). Servant of God Dorothy Day. The Catholic Worker Movement. Retrieved from http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/servant-of-god.html

Fox, T. (2015, September 24). Day and Merton: The Catholic radicals Francis cited. National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.ncronline.org

Hinson-Hasty, E. (2014). Dorothy Day for armchair theologians. Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press

Howell, J. (2017). Worshipful. Oregon: Cascade Books

Parachin, V. (2016, April 29). Dorothy Day, Social conscience of American Catholics. Our Sunday Visitor. Retrieved from https://www.osv.com

The Catholic Worker Movement. (n.d). Dorothy Day. Retrieved from http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/themes/On%20Poverty%20(Dorothy%20Day).pdf

Xiaoyu, P. (2010). The conversion of a radical – Dorothy Day and the Catholic social thought. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2(5), 7470-7478. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2010.05.112

Zwick, M. (n.d). What is the Catholic Worker Movement. Houston Catholic Worker. Retrieved from http://cjd.org/about/what-is-the-catholic-worker-movement/