Student Showcase #7

Today, our essay continues on the theme from previous days about prophetic figures in contemporary popular culture. One of our most popular essay topics, students discuss the ways that various contemporary figures perform some of the same functions for which the biblical prophets were renowned, albeit in new secular contexts. Today, Francesca Lamont Vince discusses the prophetic credentials of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, arguing that he too performed a distinctively prophetic role during his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Francesca is an Aucklander, studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Media Studies and Art History. In the future, she hopes to travel overseas and fulfill her dream of becoming an art curator or art dealer. She took our Bible and Popular Culture course because she is familiar with the Bible and enjoyed learning about the ways societies interpret biblical texts and continue to portray them within contemporary culture. And she wrote a marvellous essay that I hope you all enjoy.

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Martin Luther King (Associated Press)

Martin Luther King Jr:

 A Modern-day Prophet Who Paved the Path to Equality and Justice

Francesca Lamont-Vince

This essay compares Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to revered civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., and will conclude that King’s integral role in the Civil Rights Movement parallels the role of a biblical prophet. Like the biblical prophets, Martin Luther King Jr. had a passion for social justice, and devoted his life to liberating an oppressed group of people from unjust social systems. He maintained a close relationship with God and upheld the principles of his religion. He had a vision of racial equality and civil rights for all American citizens. King can be considered a modern-day prophet who delivered hope to the African American community. This essay will draw upon Marcus Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to demonstrate that King had similar attributes and a similar role within his contemporary society.

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Associated Press

Borg argues that a prophetic figure emerges from a situation of oppression by the elites (Borg 127). Martin Luther King Jr. was raised in a society engrained with racial prejudices and discriminatory ideologies regarding black Americans. The mistreatment of African American people and institutionalized racism remained an inherent aspect of American society that King was exposed to. He studied in a segregated school, used segregated buses, witnessed extreme poverty around his neighbourhood, witnessed police brutality against black Americans, and he was racially abused, humiliated and insulted on a regular basis. Furthermore, as an African American person, King never had the full rights of a citizen and was an outsider in a systemically oppressive society.

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Mississippi police attempt to thwart MLK on a march, 1996 (AP)
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MLK arrested in Montgomery for ‘loitering’ (1958, AP)

The oppression suffered by the African American people parallels that of the Israelite people in the bible. Borg argues that biblical prophets such as Moses, emerged to indict the elites, their domination systems and their egalitarian social vision (128).  Similarly, King emerged and began challenging existing elitist structures and authorities that were racially unjust. Therefore, Martin Luther King Jr. fulfils Borg’s definition as he emerged from an oppressive society and interceded on behalf of the oppressed African American community for justice and liberation.

According to Borg, a prophetic figure exercises a passion for social justice (Borg 118). King advocated on behalf of the oppressed African American population and demonstrated a prophetic concern for social justice and equality. Firstly, he orchestrated many events, marches and protests in his effort to achieve justice for the African American community, and he dedicated his life to nonviolent resistance against social injustices. In a letter he composed while in Birmingham Jail in 1963, he claimed that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ (King 6). King defended the rights of African American people and protested for equality. King’s concern with achieving social justice can be compared to the biblical prophet Moses. After being approached by God in Exodus 3, Moses pledges to deliver the oppressed Hebrew people out of Egypt (Exod. 3:7).

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The Selma-Montgomery march, 1965 (AP)

Similarly, King advocated on behalf of the African American people, who were victims of oppressive and racist regimes in America. He wanted to end discriminatory ideologies that were engrained in American society. He also wanted to abolish unjust laws against black people and establish justice for all. King used his privileged identity as an educated pastor to advocate and provide solidarity to those who were suffering at the hands of the oppressors (Slessarev-Jamir 28). His plight for social justice could also mirror the message preached by the biblical prophet Amos in the Old Testament. Amos said to ‘Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice’ (Amos 5: 12-15). Amos rebuked inhumane treatment of the disadvantaged and oppressed, and emphasized the practice of righteous behaviour. Martin Luther King Jr. put this message into practice in his fight to gain equal rights for the African American citizens. Unlike Amos however, King did not condemn the perpetrators of racism but rather he preached to ‘Love your enemies’ and that manifested itself in his nonviolent resistance approach (Ramsay 34). Overall, King denounced and protested moral evils, social inequalities and unjust social systems. In this way, he can be considered a social justice leader and thus fulfils one of Borg’s fundamental conceptions of a prophetic figure.

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Associated Press

Borg argues that prophets gained their inspiration, sense of mission and passion through their relationship with God and their religion (123-124). King was brought up in a Christian family, and was therefore exposed to Christian teachings. In 1954, he commenced his pastoral ministry in Montgomery. Thus, he was deeply familiar with the Christian teachings and values. Borg proposed that biblical prophets were agents of God, and that their purpose was to articulate God’s “dream” and purpose (138). It is evident that God was central in King’s life and motivated his actions as a leader. Essentially, King thought of himself as a mediator between God and Man, as he wanted to impart the divine wisdom of God to the American society. In his autobiography, he stated ‘I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him before’ (Ramsay 36). He wrote that an inner voice told him to ‘stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forever’ (36).

Calling on God to answer for suffering can be considered an important aspect of contemporary religious prophetic activism (Slessarev-Jamir 37). King felt that is was his calling and duty as a Christian to bear God’s message of love and justice for all, and that manifested itself in the Civil Rights Movement he led. A quote from Deuteronomy captures the essence of a prophet as a mouthpiece for God, as King himself was. ‘I will raise up for them a prophet, like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command’ (Deut. 18:18-19).

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Associated Press

Furthermore, Borg argues that biblical prophets acquired the courage for their mission from God (124). Just as the biblical prophet Jeremiah was beaten, threatened with death, and imprisoned, King too suffered death threats and acts of aggression, such as bombing and imprisonment (Borg 125). King remained resilient and brave in the face of the violent threats that were imposed on him and he indebted this courage to God. During the movement, King’s nonviolent approach toward the opposition was largely inspired by his Christian values. He encouraged the activists to passively resist against their oppressors, rather than impose violence. In his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ he stated, ‘I’m grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood’ (King 1). King therefore drew upon his Christianity to endorse nonviolent resistance. Upon analysing King’s actions and approaches during the civil rights movement, it is fair to say he was influenced by and highly connected to his spirituality and his relationship with God, just as the biblical prophets were. He not only considered his mission a moral responsibility, but also his responsibility as God’s devout servant.

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March on Washington 1963 (photo by Rowland Scherman)

Borg argues that prophets practiced ‘prophetic energizing’ to generate hope, and a vision of a better future (130). King shared a vision and dream for equality, liberation and civil rights for all American people. In his famous ‘I have a Dream Speech’ in 1963, King’s vision for the future is explicitly communicated. He argued that it was time to make ‘real promises of democracy,’ to achieve racial justice and to fulfil God’s vision of equality between all men (Sundquist and Miller 230). King then shared his aspirations and vision for the future of America, in the hopes that he would inspire his audiences. He stated, ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character…that little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers’ (232-33).

Similarly, Amos’ writings invoked hope and the prospect of change in the future. King acknowledged this when he quoted Amos in his speech; ‘let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24). This is also an example of the way King utilized the radical bible to communicate his message of hope and change. Throughout his career, King often alluded to the ‘Promised Land’ predominantly spoken about by Moses in the bible (Exod. 12:25). He refers to the ‘Promised Land’ to arouse hope and the prospect of a better future for America. King fulfils the role of prophet as consoler, giving hope to the otherwise hopeless hearer (Rabe 25). King’s speeches, sermons and writings embodied a prophetic rhetoric, and he empowered the African American people by sharing a ‘dream’ and vision of equality to come.

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King delivers his ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington, 1963 (AP)

Overall, Martin Luther King Jr. can be considered a prophetic figure because he initiated change in his community and had a dream for social reformation in America. This essay has compared King to Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet. King emerged from an oppressive, racist society with unjust systems, and embodied the role of a prophetic figure who challenged this. He had an immense passion for social justice, similar to that expressed by Moses and Amos in the bible. Furthermore, King was largely influenced by the principles of his religion and believed his actions were guided by God. Lastly, King delivered a hopeful vision of the future to the American people, that of a nation who embodied equality and justice.

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References

All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV.

Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Harper San Francisco, 2001.

King Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Letter from Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963, pp.1-12.

Rabe, Kent T. The False Security of the Believer. Xulon Press, 2008.

Ramsay, William M. Four Modern Prophets: Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gustavo Gutiérrez, Rosemary Radford Ruether. Westminster John Knox Press, 1986.

Slessarev-Jamir, Helene. Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America. NYU Press, 2011.

Sundquist, Eric J. and Mark Crispin Miller. King’s Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech. Yale University Press, 2009.

 

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Student Showcase 2: Politics, Prophets, and Jacindamania

Today’s student offering comes from Mathew Sherlock. Mathew hails from Devonport in Auckland and is currently studying towards a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws conjoint, majoring in Spanish. He hopes to work in politics some time in the future. Mathew took our Bible in Popular Culture class because religion and the Bible were completely new subjects for him – thankfully, he found the course very interesting, especially our discussions around contemporary prophetic figures and the American Monomyth, or ‘supersaviour’ in pop culture.

Mathew’s essay was incredibly timely in its focus on the rise of Labour Party politician Jacinda Ardern, who stood as the party’s leader during the 2017 General Election. The election resulted in a hung parliament, with neither Labour nor the incumbent National Party having an adequate majority to form a government. After a nail-biting few weeks, on October 19th, New Zealand First party leader Winston Peters declared he was prepared to form a coalition government with Labour. So, exactly one day after Mathew submitted this essay, Jacinda was declared NZ’s new Prime Minister. Serendipity. To learn more about her impressive rise to power, read on and enjoy this most fabulous essay.

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Image from New Zealand Herald 3 August 2017

Jacindamania: Analysing the Election of Biblical Proportions

Mathew Sherlock

The General Election of 2017 seemed to be a guaranteed victory for the National Party. Until Jacinda Ardern entered the picture. After her appointment as leader of the Labour Party, Ardern swept the nation, in a craze nicknamed “Jacindamania” (Kwai 2017). Marcus Borg identifies that biblical prophets disturb our sense of normalcy, possess a passion for social justice, and bring hope to the oppressed (2001, pp.111-44). Through analysing Ardern’s views and her corresponding policies proposed throughout the election, we can see that she matches these requirements. Comparing Ardern’s actions with biblical prophets Amos and Deutero-Isaiah will reach the conclusion that Ardern can be regarded a contemporary biblical prophet.

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Election billboard with Jacinda Ardern and former Labour leader, Andrew Little. newstalkzb.co.nz

Borg (2001) identifies that a biblical prophet disturbs our sense of normalcy and challenges dominant discourses within society. Ardern certainly disturbed the political normalcy of the 2017 election, which seemed to be a landslide victory for the National Party with an anticipated fourth term in government. Under previous Labour leader Andrew Little’s reign, the main party in opposition was polling at 24%, its lowest point since the 1990s (Trevett 2017). There was no foreseeable chance of a non-National victory. However, after assuming leadership, Ardern drastically increased the party’s polling percentage, peaking at 44% at one point during the election (Small and Walters 2017). This unprecedented twenty-point advancement for Labour in the electoral race changed the course of what seemed to be an obvious continuation of the National-led government, into the most enthralling election campaign in recent New Zealand history (Du Fresne 2017). Throughout the campaign, Ardern challenged New Zealand: choose between risk and hope (“Stuff Leaders’ Debate” 2017). There is risk attached to sticking to the status quo, whereas hope can make change for the better (ibid.). New Zealand’s sense of normalcy was greatly disturbed; placed at a political crossroad between stagnancy and change.

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Dunedin artist Sam Sharpe with his Jacinda Ardern-inspired artwork. Stuff.co.nz

Ardern challenged the dominant neoliberal discourse shaped by the National Party’s nine years in government. Neoliberalism’s key features promote the value of the free market and individual choice in addressing inequalities (Mirowski and Plehwe 2009). Their main election promise was a tax-cut, reducing the responsibility on the state for poverty and other social injustices (“Tax and Finances 2017” 2017). Ardern’s social democratic views contrast greatly from this, which promote legislation to redress inequalities and oppose tax cuts when other pressing social issues are present (Heywood 2012). Ardern challenged National’s policies that sought to benefit the wealthy, as child poverty had not decreased significantly over National’s term in government “Stuff Leaders’ Debate” 2017). Ardern’s view on societal issues were seen through her proposed policies, reinvigorating the discourse on how to address social inequalities. Examples of this were her free tertiary education policy, Maori-centred attainment standards, and stricter rules on land ownership to promote more first home buyers (“Labour’s Plan” 2017). These challenged the discourse shaped over the past nine years which placed individual responsibility on solutions. Despite this, they were generally well received by the New Zealand public, as reflected in Labours large increase in polling.

Ardern’s actions can be compared with biblical prophet Amos. Amos became prominent in the northern kingdom of Israel, a society where the rich were living extravagant lives while the poor were suffering (Thompson 1992, p.72). Amos disturbed their sense of normalcy, condemning the severe social and economic disparity (Bergant 2006, p.94). Amos challenged that the rich “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4). This critique of the wealthy citizens of Israel challenged the discourse surrounding the gap between the poor and rich. Both Ardern and Amos disturbed a society where the ruling class had failed to identify social and economic disparities, challenging the way they should be addressed. Thus, Ardern fulfils this requirement of a biblical prophet.

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Jacinda Ardern with Kelvin Davis, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

Borg also identifies that a biblical prophet has a passion for social justice (2001, p.118). Ardern’s passion is seen through her views and policies proposed during the election. Ardern centred her campaign around her social democratic beliefs; emphasising equal opportunity, communal responsibility, and the power of effective social justice (Murphy 2017). Ardern’s social justice focuses on the marginalised and disadvantaged groups in New Zealand, aiming for a more equal society. One example of this is the implementation of Maori education programmes that emphasise Maori learning methods and measures of success (“Labour’s Plan” 2017). This redresses the disadvantage Maori students face in the current education system, possessing a disappointing 50.6% secondary school retention rate as opposed to 75.4% of non-Maori (Marriot and Sim 2015, p.5).

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Ardern on the campaign trail. Stuff.co.nz

From her social democratic viewpoint, systemic inequalities and disadvantages are argued to be a result of colonisation and ongoing disregard to differing values between cultures (Humpage 2015, p.450). As such, the implementation of such targeted policy helps distribute justice and equal opportunities to the groups that need it most (ibid.). Another example is Ardern’s assertion to reduce child poverty, claiming it was the initial reason for her interest in entering politics (“New Zealand 2017 election debate – LIVE| Newshub.”). Borg suggests that biblical prophets understand that sin comprises primarily as injustices, therefore placing such great emphasis on addressing social inequalities (2001, p.120). This is reflected in Ardern’s focus on marginalised groups in New Zealand society whom are impacted by such disadvantages. Reducing injustice is a key feature of a biblical prophet, and a characteristic that is prevalent in Ardern’s views and policies.

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Ardern visits the University of Auckland. Wikimedia Commons.

Ardern’s passion for social justice mirrors that of biblical prophet Amos. Amos viewed injustices not as crimes of warfare, but social issues (Borg 2001, p.118). His passion for social justice emerged through his indictment of the wealthy for exploiting the poor (ibid.). Amos saw a large class disparity, where the rich were gaining influence, while the poor became disempowered (Bergant 2006, p.91). This disparity eroded communal responsibility for societal problems within Israel (ibid.). Like Ardern, Amos’ focus on communal responsibility emerged through his passion for social justice. The wealthy had an obligation to help address injustices face by the peasantry that had become disenfranchised (ibid.). Amos brought these issues to light after first increasing his following through announcing God’s judgement against Israel’s neighbouring enemies (Borg 2001, p.118). Then, Amos took advantage of his growing audience to turn and indict Israel itself for its social and economic inequalities (ibid.). Amos deplored the economic differences solely benefitting the wealthy while disadvantaging the poor (Bergant 2006, p.91). Amos thus increased the power of his message and following through addressing social issues that stemmed from the economic class gap present in Israel. Although Ardern did not come from a religious perspective in her campaign, nor used God as a justification for her passion for social justice, she used similar techniques to Amos. Criticising National’s apathy to address social issues, notably income inequality and rising house prices in New Zealand helped increase voter support for the Labour Party, and Ardern’s electoral campaign (“1 NEWS Vote17 – Vote 2017 – Leaders Debate 1” 2017). Framing the social inequalities as the result of nine years of inaction from the National government similarly identifies Nationals “sins” as social injustices, as Amos did to the wealthy people of Israel.

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Jacinda Ardern speaking in Auckland, 2016. Wikimedia Commons

Borg also identifies that a biblical prophet has a vision, a dream that brings hope to the oppressed (2001, p.130). Prophets may engage in prophetic energising, which values the use of language to create hope and bring forth a bright future (ibid.). Ardern’s incredible achievements in the 2017 General Election in seven weeks of her campaign brought hope to many New Zealanders that the government can strive to do better. New Zealand could be greater than what it already was. Ardern made use of prophetic energising in her speeches and debates, using almost poetic language to inspire voters. An example of this was her response to claims that her effect on the election polls was vapid; she was merely stardust that would soon settle and fade. Ardern responded elegantly that “this stardust won’t settle”, because New Zealand should not have to settle with what the current government was providing (“Stuff Leaders’ Debate” 2017). Bringing forth a prophetic message that New Zealand could do better, Ardern provided hope to the large portion of the public that had felt left out during the nine years of a National-led government (ibid.). She made use of this energising effect, imploring voters to choose change, and a better New Zealand.

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Ardern being sworn in as PM. Governer General NZ

Ardern’s energising prophetic vision draws parallels to Deutero-Isaiah, an unnamed prophet in the later chapters of the Book of Isaiah (Borg 2001, p.131). Deutero-Isaiah brought hope to a large group of Jewish exiles, using similar prophetic energising methods to mitigate the widespread panic and despair (ibid.). He energises the disenfranchised Jewish exiles, all survivors of the deadly Babylon conquest by reaffirming their love through God’s sight (ibid.). Deutero-Isaiah used language to promote a sense of hope in the exiles, assuring them in God’s vision that they should “not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand,” (Isaiah 41:10). Deutero-Isaiah and Ardern both spoke to a group that felt denied of rights and freedoms in their society, and used prophetic language to bring forth a brighter future inspired by their vision.

Ardern can be considered a contemporary biblical prophet. Although she does not come from the traditionally religious foundations of traditional biblical prophets such as Amos and Deutero-Isaiah, she matches many of the key requirements proposed by Borg. Ardern disrupted the normalcy of the New Zealand General Election, challenged dominant discourses with a promotion of social justice, and used prophetic energising methods to bring hope to many New Zealanders looking for a better future. Negating any successes or defeats for her and the Labour Party, she is an inspiration for New Zealand.

lovely pic of Jacinda

 Bibliography

All references to the Bible are from the NRSV

Bergant, Dianne. Israel’s Story, Part 1. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2006

Borg, Marcus. “Reading the prophets again.” In Reading the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally. 1st edition, pp. 111-144. San Francisco: Harper, 2001.

Du Fresne, Karl. “The political drama is real this time as National faces stiff challenge for power.” Stuff. August 23, 2017.
https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/opinion/96012551/the-political-drama-is-real-this-time-as-national-faces-stiff-challenge-for-power

Heywood, Andrew. Political ideologies: an introduction (5th edition). Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Humpage, Louise. “The Treaty and Social Policy.” In New Zealand government and politics, edited by Janine Hayward, 6th edition, pp. 449-459. Victoria: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Kwai, Isabella. “New Zealand’s Election Had Been Predictable. Then ‘Jacindamania’ Hit.” The New York Times. September 4, 2017.

“Labour’s Plan.” Labour Party of New Zealand. Accessed October 17, 2017. http://www.labour.org.nz/policy

Marriot, Lisa. Sim, Dalice. “Indicators of inequality for Maori and Pacific people.” Journal of New Zealand Studies, no. 20 (2015) pp.1-30.

Milne, Jonathan. “The last pitch: Labour leader Jacinda Ardern answers tough questions from Bill English, voters.” Stuff. September 17, 2017. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/96867354/The-last-pitch-Labour-leader-Jacinda-Ardern-answers-tough-questions-from-Bill-English-voters

Mirowski, Philip., Plhewe, Dieter. The road from Mont Pèlerin: the making of the neoliberal thought collective. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Murphy, Tim. “What Jacinda Ardern wants.” Newsroom August 1, 2017. https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2017/07/31/40717/what-jacinda-wants

“New Zealand 2017 election debate – LIVE| Newshub.” Newshub. YouTube video. 1:38:02. Posted 4 September 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20KBI7vV_-U

Small, Vernon., Walters, Laura. “Labour leaps into the lead in new poll, as leaders prepare for first debate.” Stuff. August 31, 2017. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/96370074/labour-leaps-into-the-lead-in-new-poll-as-leaders-prepare-for-first-debate  

“Stuff Leader’s Debate.” Stuff.co.nz. YouTube video. 3:08:59. Posted 7 September 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2dZ42gx1qI

“Tax and Finances.” National Party of New Zealand. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://www.national.org.nz/tax_finances

Thompson, Michael. “Amos – A Prophet of Hope?” The Expository Times 104, no.3 (1992): pp.71-76.

Trevett, Claire. “Labour leader Andrew Little says he considered stepping down in face of bad polling.” The New Zealand Herald. July 30, 2017. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11896970

“1 NEWS Vote17 – Vote 2017 – Leaders Debate 1.” TVNZ. Video. 45:05. Posted 31 August 2017. https://www.tvnz.co.nz/shows/vote-2017/debates/s1-e1

Student showcase 1: The Devil’s in the Detail

As in previous years, we are taking time throughout December to showcase some of the wonderful work done by our students in Auckland TheoRel. Starting us off today is Brittany Jacobsen, who took our most popular course, The Bible in Popular Culture (THEOREL 101G).  Brittany hails from Auckland and is working towards a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Classics and Anthropology. Her future plans include studying Classics at postgraduate level, hopefully at a University in either Athens or London. She took THEOREL 101G because it sounded so interesting and reassures me that it has been one of the best courses that she has taken so far in her degree (we aim to please). So read on and enjoy Brittany’s essay, which looks at the biblical figure of Satan, as represented in that most charismatic of TV anti-heroes, Lucifer Morningstar.

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Is Lucifer Really Satan? Satan in Popular Culture

By Brittany Jacobsen

Throughout history, Satan  has traditionally been portrayed in theological and cultural discourses as the embodiment of all evil (De La Torre & Hernández, 2011, p.11). This portrayal has its roots in the Bible’s characterisation of Satan (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.xiii). Yet Satan’s biblical portrayal is vague and contradictory (Wyman, 2016, p.4). And, when Lucifer Morningstar appears in FOX’s Lucifer (Kapinos, 2016-present) claiming that he is Satan, he subverts the Bible’s various depictions of this character in a number of ways. For, this popular culture afterlife presents a humanized portrayal of Satan – a Satan for the 21st-century. To do this, Lucifer fills in the gaps in biblical depictions of Satan – specifically, who Satan is and what he is like, his relationship with God, and his thoughts about his reputation as a tempter and a symbol of evil. Thus, Lucifer’s portrayal, although biblical in origin, extends well beyond the biblical traditions.

This essay will therefore compare the biblical portrayal of Satan with Lucifer’s using two methods for studying popular culture – the ‘world in the text’ and the ‘world behind the text’.  The ‘world in the text’ will involve discussing how Lucifer fills said biblical gaps, highlighting any similarities and differences between these portrayals. I suggest that there is a connection between the TV programme’s altered portrayal of Satan in Lucifer Morningstar and its 21st-century context – the ‘world behind the text’. That is, this particular biblical afterlife reflects 21st-century understandings of Satan, and highlights the rise of the anti-hero as a cultural trope.

In the world of Lucifer, Satan (aka Lucifer Morningstar) is the main character of the TV series, and so, he gains a personality, which contributes to his humanization. The show’s premise is that Lucifer is a fallen angel condemned by God to rule over Hell. The part is played by British actor Tom Ellis, who brings a great deal of charisma to this role. This is seen, for example, when Lucifer draws out other characters’ hidden desires; as we watch him do this, there is always a close-up of his face. The audience is thus compelled to look at Ellis’ ruggedly handsome face, his  cheeky smile, and sparkling eyes. We cannot look away. With individuals in the show paralleling our reaction, we understand this is the intended effect. With this face then, Satan becomes irresistible.

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Lucifer Morningstar, played by actor Tom Ellis

This idea of Satan having irresistible charm is not voiced in the Bible. Indeed, biblical passages mention little about who Satan is (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.1), let alone giving him a charismatic personality (Wyman, 2016, pp.3-4). This has led to later Christian traditions creating afterlives for Satan, which are not necessarily evoked explicitly in the Bible itself (De La Torre & Hernández, 2011, pp.81-82).

The TV show Lucifer also creates a new afterlife for Satan, one which locates this figure within a 21st-century context. Satan, as Lucifer Morningstar, is humanized by a vibrant personality, and thus fits the contemporary definition of an anti-hero – “a clearly – or even, severely – morally flawed main character whom the spectator is nonetheless encouraged to feel with, like and root for” (Vaage, 2016, p.xvi). Traditional assumptions made about Satan being the embodiment of all evil (De La Torre & Hernández, 2011, p.11) shape the world behind Lucifer, identifying our anti-hero as ‘morally flawed’. This is captured in the show when Lucifer is told by another character to “stop caring, you’re the Devil”. Compassion, or ‘caring’, is considered a moral virtue, and so does not fit with the traditional portrayal of Satan/Lucifer as evil. Yet in the TV show, we are offered a much more human, and relatable Satan, which ‘encourage[s] [us] to feel with, like and root for’ him (Vaage, 2016, p.xvi). With his charisma, the audience is drawn to Lucifer, and so in almost every scene he appears, he remains in the frame. This emphasizes that he is the focus of our attention, and so we become increasingly invested in him – he becomes our ‘anti-hero’, an increasingly popular figure within contemporary pop culture (Vaage, 2016, p.90).

Lucy gif

The Bible also does not offer a clear explanation of Satan’s relationship with God. Satan is depicted in the Old Testament as being employed by God to test human faith (Job 1-2). However, in contrast to the New Testament (see (Luke 10:18; cf. Revelation 12:1-6;  Acts 5:3), there is no mention of Satan being God’s rival (Telford, 2014, p.91), or an explicit embodiment of evil. Thus, while one can agree that in the Bible God and Satan have a relationship, this relationship is not consistent across the two testaments (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.1). Such inconsistency therefore offers us a biblical ‘gap’ around Satan’s character.

Lucifer fills this gap by making it explicit that the relationship between God and Satan is that of father and son. Lucifer repeatedly refers to God as “Dad” or “Father”, leaving us with no doubt about this. That this is their chosen relationship is significant in the show’s world. It implies that Satan’s biblical fall from heaven (Luke 10:18; cf. Revelation 12:1-6), and later adversarial role (Acts 5:3), were the result of childhood rebellion. This contributes to Lucifer’s humanized portrayal of Satan. His fall is said to be the result of “one of [God’s] children … act[ing] out”. The choice of describing this fall as “act[ing] out” against a parent implies that Satan is a rebellious child. This makes him appear more human because the audience can relate to this, perhaps having gone through similar stages of rebellion themselves. Therefore, because of this gap-filling, we gain a humanized portrayal of Satan.

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Satan is also a tempter. He is portrayed like this in both the Bible (Wyman, 2016, p.4) and Lucifer. In the Bible, this is fundamental to his character (cf. Job 1-2; Matthew 4:1-11). An important story about Satan, the temptation of Jesus, shows this most clearly (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.120). Here, Jesus is taken “to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Such an explicit statement linking Satan with performing temptation leaves no doubt that this is his role.

Hans Memling der Hölle
Hans Memling, Die Hölle (c. 1485)

Furthermore, this role has also contributed to Satan being presented as the embodiment of all evil (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.1). However, the connotations of the word ‘evil’ suggest someone who enjoys their depraved actions, similar to what we see in medieval depictions of the ‘evil’ Satan (De La Torre & Hernández, 2011, p.17). Yet, the Bible does not tell us about Satan’s thoughts or motivations about his role as tempter – sometimes it appears as though he is just doing his job, and with divine approval (Job 1-2). Thus, we see another biblical gap around Satan’s character.

Lucifer, in comparison, tells us Satan’s thoughts about being a tempter. The show acknowledges that Satan has this previous biblical role (Telford, 2014, p.90), however, it is presented as humanity’s excuse for human wrongdoing: as Lucifer complains, humans blame their own badness on him, claiming ‘the devil made me do it’. In a number of episodes, we are given insights into Lucifer’s thoughts on being a tempter. He sees himself as ‘vilified’, asking, ‘Why do they blame me for all their little failings as if I’d spent my days sitting on their shoulder forcing them to commit acts they’d otherwise find repulsive?’ Lucifer’s emotional response here is important because it again makes him appear more human, more relatable.

Lucy gif cheers

By filling the various biblical gaps in ways that humanize Satan, the TV character of Lucifer is influenced by 21st-century understandings of Satan as a figure of evil (Telford, 2014, p.103). In the 21st-century, Satan is no longer “the ultimate source of evil” (Wyman, 2016, p.14). The secularization of modern society has replaced him with secular figures of evil, human satanic figures (See Porter, 2017) – corrupt politicians and world leaders, war criminals, terrorists, unethical multinational companies . As a result, Satan has lost his mystical “power” in the minds of his 21st-century audience (Wyman, 2016, p. 15). Humanizing Satan in Lucifer reflects this loss because it suggests that he is now understood as one of us, rather than a supernatural entity. If evil is to be found, then it is to be found among the human community here on earth, rather than in a fallen angel or supernatural being. There is thus a connection between Lucifer’s altered portrayal and the world behind the text, our 21st-century context.

It is clear then, that Lucifer provides an altered portrayal of the biblical character Satan. In filling the specific biblical gaps of who Satan is and what he is like, his relationship with God, and his thoughts on being a tempter, Satan’s portrayal goes from vague to humanized. Therefore, Lucifer has “reflect[ed] the culture in which [it was] produced” (Telford, 2014, p.89). As we have seen, the humanization of Satan is the product of the 21st-century understandings of this figure, his relationship with evil, and the rise of the anti-hero.

Lucy flames

Reference list

All biblical citations are taken from the NRSV

De La Torre, M. A., & Hernández, A. (2011). The Quest for the Historical Satan. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Kapinos, Tom (Creator). (2016-present). Lucifer, [Television show]. United States: FOX.

Porter, A. L. (2017). Satanic Humans: Using Satanic Tropes To Guide And Misguide The Audience. Journal of Religion & Film, 21(1), 1-33.

Telford, W. R. (2014). “Speak of the Devil”: The Portrayal of Satan in the Christ Film. In E. S. Christianson & C. H. Partridge (Eds), The Lure of the Darkside: Satan and Western Demonology in Popular Culture (pp. 89-104).

Vaage, M. B. (2016). The Antihero in American Television. New York and London: Routledge.

Wray, T. J., & Mobley, G. (2005). The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots. New York and Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wyman, K. J. (2016). The Devil We Already Know: Medieval Representations of a Powerless Satan in Modern American Cinema. Journal of Religion & Film, 8(3), Article 7, 1-19.

Political Supersaviour

Today’s Bible and Pop Culture essay comes from Bachelor of Arts student Jessica Marshall. Jessica has just finished her second year of her Arts degree, majoring in history and English. She was born in Manchester, in the UK, but has lived in Auckland since she was ten years old. Jessica hopes to be a journalist once she finishes her studies. Like Christiane Amanpour and Kate Adie, she is passionate about wanting to hold people responsible in the court of public opinion, in order to ‘right the wrongs’ that we see too much of in the world.

Jessica chose the wonderful TV series West Wing as the focus of her essay, and her evaluation of President Bartlet as a contemporary saviour figure casts a cynical eye at contemporary US politics. Enjoy.

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Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet: The Fictional Messiah U.S. Politics Always Needed

By

Jessica Marshall

At this point in time, politics in the United States has become a mockery of the democracy it claims to stand for. So, in the time of such a travesty, we must look to fiction. The television series The West Wing (1999-2006) created and written by Aaron Sorkin has the greatest example of a President (fictional or otherwise) that the United States could hope for in Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet. As one writer put it, ‘One of the only things that has made life worth living for left-leaning liberals … is the small fact that, for one hour … [George W. Bush] is not the president’ (Clark 2005, 224). And unlike most presidential characters, Bartlet is multi-faceted and layered (Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles 2006, 153). In this essay, I will argue that Bartlet shares a number of features with the figure of the contemporary messiah or ‘supersaviour’, who Jewett and Lawrence identify in their discussion of the American Monomyth (2002). I will do this through analysing several storylines and episodes of West Wing, including the Pilot (1×01), the shooting storyline (1×22 – 2×02), the episode ‘Two Cathedrals’ (2×22) and, finally, the parabolic episode ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ (3×01).

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There’s a phrase that came out of the protest movements of the 1960s: ‘The personal is political.’ It seems to be a sentiment that has continued over the decades, even going so far as to enter into the fictional White House, making itself pronounced in the pilot episode of The West Wing. One character, Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford), deals with a faux pas with regards to the religious right. This is how our hero, President Jed Bartlet, is brought into the picture. Josh is forced to apologise for the faux pas. In the midst of this meeting, after another staffer – Toby – becomes frustrated with the recipient of the apology over racist comments she has made towards Jews, a debate over the Ten Commandments breaks out between Toby and one member of the religious right, John Van Dyke. Van Dyke makes the claim that ‘Honour thy father’ (Exod. 20.3) is the First Commandment. An argument ensues between Toby and Van Dyke in which Toby explains that ‘Honour thy father’ is, in fact, the Third Commandment, to which Van Dyke responds with the question ‘Then what’s the First Commandment?’ At this moment, President Bartlet walks into the room, answering the question correctly. Here, Bartlet combines the selfless zeal of a man who rescues a staff member he should have fired for a one-liner (Josh) with the zealous saviour who rescues the White House from evil. Yet, perhaps his behaviour is not entirely selfless (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6). Bartlet’s granddaughter, twelve-years-old, received a death threat from an over-zealous fringe group going by the name ‘The Lambs of God’, all because – in an article – she stated her opinions on reproductive rights. Bartlet, having already corrected them on the order of the Ten Commandments, then poses a question to those present in the room: ‘From what part of holy scripture do you suppose The Lambs of God drew their divine inspiration when they sent my twelve-year-old granddaughter a bloody Raggedy Ann doll with a knife through its throat?’ It is in this scene that Bartlet proves one of his messianic superpowers, according to the American Monomyth: his intelligence (Primiano 2009, 99). It shows up again and again throughout the show’s run, but the message is always the same: you would be best advised not to go up against him in a battle of wits.

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Perhaps the best storyline that Aaron Sorkin ever tackled as the writer on The West Wing – and one of its most controversial – was that of the Roslyn shooting. Here, we see two resurrections. In flashback, we see the resurrection of Bartlet the politician and in the present we see the resurrection of Bartlet’s staffer, Josh Lyman. While the second resurrection is important to another storyline, one I will discuss later, the first is the more interesting. At the beginning of the flashback, it looks like Senator John Hoynes (the Vice-President in present time) will win the Democratic nomination. Bartlet, on the other hand, is the dark horse, the outside candidate no one expects to succeed. As a woman in a New Hampshire bar says to Toby, ‘I didn’t even know Bartlet was running’ (‘In The Shadow of Two Gunmen Part One’ 2000). In the following scene, however, Bartlet again proves his intelligence; during a speech in Nashua, New Hampshire, he talks about the economy and taxes – not exactly a rousing topic, let’s face it. But then, when asked about a vote in Congress over the New England Dairy Farming Compact (he voted against a bill that would have given dairy farmers more money, but caused the price of milk to rise), Bartlet responds simply with ‘Yeah, I screwed you on that.’  It is one of those turning points for an election campaign. Normally, these occur during the presidential debates after the parties have announced their nominees (for example, Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960 or Bush vs. Dukakis in 1988; see Spacey and Brunetti 2016). That this could happen so early in a campaign that next to no one had even heard of is nothing short of miraculous. He continues, saying, ‘One in five children live in the most abject, dangerous, hopeless, backbreaking, gut-wrenching poverty… I voted against the bill ‘cause I didn’t want it to be hard for people to buy milk… if you expect anything different from the President… I suggest you vote for somebody else.’ It’s an honesty we rarely see in politicians, it’s endearing, it makes you want to vote for the guy who admits that he stiffed his own constituents and it raises from the dead a campaign few even knew existed. In reviving the campaign with one speech, Bartlet resurrects his career as a politician and, therefore, himself.

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One of the most heart-breaking moments in this television series comes when President Bartlet yells at God in the National Cathedral in the episode entitled ‘Two Cathedrals’ (2001). It is flashback-heavy episode, as Bartlet deals with his grief for his secretary and friend, Mrs Landingham who has died in a car crash. The speech (a chunk of which is in Latin – the language of the traditional Catholic mass) is juxtaposed against Bartlet’s memories of his abusive father. In doing this, it pits God against Bartlet’s own father. The anger Bartlet felt towards his father for years is mixed in with his ire towards God in his moments of grief: ‘”You can’t conceive nor can it, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know whose ass he was kissing there ‘cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son.’ He all but screams, the sound of his voice echoing across the empty Cathedral. His anger is easily understandable. Christians are reminded that people are all ‘God’s children’ (Rom 8.16). Yet, even the most devoted of followers, the most desperate to please the father, cannot do so and even if they try their best to do so, God still takes and takes and takes. He’s taken Mrs Landingham, the only parental figure Bartlet had left, handed him a case of remitting-relapsing Multiple Sclerosis, and had his staffer, Josh Lyman – a man Bartlet has come to see as his own son – shot. Why? Bartlet, himself, asks this question: ‘What did I ever do to [Jesus] but praise his glory and praise his name?’ Confused and angry, Bartlet admits that he has lied to the American public with regards to his MS diagnosis, but surely that makes him like Jesus sending his disciples away before his crucifixion – he does not want the people around him to suffer because of who he is or the suffering he has to endure.

The final episode I wish to talk about is the first episode of the third season, entitled ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ (2001). Officially, a special rather than an actual episode (at the beginning of the episode, the cast inform us that it does not fit in with the normal plot). It was filmed and aired within the four weeks after the events of September 11th, a point at which the majority of the entertainment industry avoided referencing even the idea of violence, let alone terrorism (Jones and Dionisopoulos 2004, 21). It is parabolic, as students from the Presidential Classroom programme wind up in the midst of what the Secret Service calls a ‘Crash’ (meaning that the White House has been breached). For a small moment, as his staffers – Josh Lyman, Toby Ziegler, Sam Seaborn, C.J. Cregg and Charlie Young – are in the midst of fielding questions regarding terrorism, President Bartlet walks in with his wife, Abbey. Here, he is asked by a student whether or not there is something noble in being a martyr. To this, he replies with the line ‘A martyr would rather suffer death at the hands of an oppressor than renounce his beliefs. Killing yourself and innocent people to make a point is sick, twisted, brutal, dumb-ass murder… we don’t need martyrs right now. We need heroes. A hero would die for his country but he’d much rather live for it.’ Here, Bartlet crosses borders. His speech comes at a time in American history when they need a leader, a time when the Patriot Act was being passed with little to no forethought as to what it could do. In giving this speech, the United States is given a leader, a hero to quote the character himself, one who will not simply go to war because it is the easier option. The speech reminds people of who the enemy really is: not one particular race (as had already been explained earlier in the episode) or a particular religion but anyone who commits heinous attacks against America and its people. It is Bartlet’s sermon on the Mount moment, but instead of preaching to the poor and downtrodden, he preaches to those who form the future of society: children. Instead of saying ‘Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom in heaven,’ he says that America needs a hero and, like any Messiah, allows for the phrase ‘and I am it’ to go unsaid (Matt. 5.3).

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There was a reason I subtitled this essay ‘The Fictional Messiah U.S. Politics Always Needed’ and, yes, it has to do with my own political leanings. It also has to do with the fact that Jed Bartlet, a creation of Aaron Sorkin’s own mind, represents the best of all the Presidents of American history. He’s honest like Lincoln, witty like Kennedy and Reagan. There’s an idea known as the cult of leadership and it’s normally applied to dictators like Stalin or Kim Jong-Il. In The West Wing, I believe we have a leader, albeit fictional, we could add to a list of political messiahs who actually deserve the cult of leadership. He is honest, a reviver of dead political campaigns, intelligent and he does not even realise that he is a hero. Jed Bartlet is the man America needs to bring it back from the abyss.

Bibliography

All references to the Biblical Text are from the New International Version (NIV).

Written Sources

Clark, J. Elizabeth. ‘The Bartlet Administration and Contemporary Populism in NBC’s The West Wing’ in Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon (Eds.), The Contemporary Television Series. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2005. Pp.224-243

Jones, Robert and George N. Dionisopoulos, ‘Scripting a Tragedy: The “Isaac and Ishmael” Episode of The West Wing as Parable’ Popular Communication Vol.2 (1), 2004, pp.21-40

Parry-Giles, Trevor and Shawn Parry-Giles. The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U.S. Nationalism. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2006

Primiano, Leonard N. ‘”For What I Have Done and What I Have Failed To Do”: Vernacular Catholicism and The West Wing’ in Diane H. Winston (Ed.), Small Screen, Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion. Waco, Texas. Baylor University Press, 2009, pp. 99-123

Shelton Lawrence, John and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Electronic Sources

‘George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis’ Race for the White House, directed by David Bartlett, produced by Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti. United States: CNN, 2016.

‘Government Surveillance’ Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Produced by Liz Stanton. United States: Avalon Television and Partially Important Productions, 2015

‘In The Shadow of Two Gunmen Part One’ The West Wing, directed by Thomas Schlamme, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2000

‘Isaac and Ishmael’ The West Wing. Directed by Christopher Misiano, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2001.

‘John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon’ Race for the White House, directed by Christopher Spencer, produced by Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti. United States: CNN, 2016‘Pilot’ The West Wing. TV Series. Directed by Thomas Schlamme. Written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 1999.

‘Pilot’ The West Wing. TV Series. Directed by Thomas Schlamme. Written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 1999.

‘Two Cathedrals’ The West Wing. Directed by Thomas Schlamme, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2001.

[1] John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero, Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans, 2002, p.6

 

Controversial Judas

Today’s student essay comes from Flo Cardon, another student who took our Bible and Pop Culture class earlier this year. Flo is currently in the middle of completing her Bachelor of Arts degree, with a major in Classics and a minor in Ancient History. She loves art and history and in her spare time, enjoys painting. Unsurprisingly, her primarily subject matter in her art relates to religion and mythology. She also loves watching films, particularly musicals (which can probably be deducted from her essay topic!).

Flo chose a controversial biblical character to focus on in her essay – Judas – considering his (equally controversial) afterlife in the movie Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s a great essay, so read on, and enjoy.

Heaven on Their Minds: Judas in the Bible and Popular Culture

By

Flo Cardon

The name ‘Judas’ has become synonymous with ideas of betrayal, disloyalty and treachery. It is commonly known that in the Bible, Jesus Christ was betrayed by the only ex-disciple, Judas Iscariot, in exchange for money. The Bible presents Judas as a two dimensional person, simplified down to only that one moment in his life where he gave Jesus over to the Romans and sealed his fate as ‘Judas, the one that would betray him’ forever. Norman Jewison’s musical film Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) presents Judas as a complex and tragic character that plays an important part in the story of Jesus Christs’ life. By comparing Jewison’s Judas with his biblical counterpart, many investigations can be made into the history of Judas as a character and his portrayal as the one who brought down Jesus Christ.

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Carl Anderson as Judas in Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar

In comparison to the Bible, Jewison’s Judas is presented as the tragic figure and the one who the audience should sympathise with. He is shown as only wanting the best for Jesus and the Jews, and uses the entire first musical number as a soliloquy as to how he thinks Jesus is going to doom all his followers and friends as well as himself. Here Judas is not presented as a villain but Jesus’ worried friend. His motivation is to get Jesus to listen to him so that they can prevent Jesus’ movement from getting too large that it will get attention from Roman authorities. This is not a man with evil intent, but one that cares for his friends and the danger he sees they are bringing upon themselves. Biblical Judas is a stark contrast to this; Judas is referred to as ‘Judas, the one that would betray [Jesus]’ more often than not. In the Gospel of John, Judas criticises Jesus’ use of expensive perfume on himself and voices that he thinks the money used on this perfume could have gone to the poor, and is subsequently labelled as a thief (John 12.5-6). This shows that Biblical Judas is motivated to betray Jesus through money, and not friendship like in the film. Judas’ realisation of the inevitability of Jesus’ fate at the beginning of the film contrasted with his obliviousness of the fact that he would be the one that brought Jesus’ downfall brings about an extremely tragic aspect to Judas’ character that isn’t found in the Bible. Before Judas’ death, he sings about how he did not know he was handing Jesus over to die, which is another tragic contrast to how he only intended to betray Jesus so that he would protect the fate of all those that followed his growing movement, including Jesus himself. This emphasises the tragic nature of Judas’ part in this story, as he was unknowingly playing into Jesus’ inevitable arrest and crucifixion much more than he was let on.

Photo of Carl AndersonHowever, in the Bible during the last supper, it is written in the Gospel of John that ‘the devil had already prompted Judas to betray Jesus’ (John 13.2), meaning that Biblical Judas only needed to be prompted in order to actually betray Jesus in exchange for money. Both versions of Judas hang themselves in response to Jesus’ sentence to be crucified, but in the film we feel much sorrier for Judas here than the Judas in the Bible. In the Bible, Judas’ death is short and sweet, with no sympathy or remorse shown towards him, just that ‘he went away and hanged himself’ (Matt. 27.5). This seems to imply that he did deserve this tragic ending, as he was shown as the villain who handed Jesus over to the Romans and only that, nothing more. However, just after Jewison’s Judas dies, we hear ‘So long Judas, poor old Judas…’ sung repeatedly as the outro of his death song, reinforcing the idea that Judas was the victim of this story and that he did not deserve this outcome. No one listened to his accurate predictions of what would happen to Jesus and his movement, and he died as a result.[1] Judas in Norman Jewison’s musical film compared to the Bible provides us with insight into the complexity of his character and differing nature of interpretations of it. Judas is clearly the villain in the Bible because of his betrayal of Jesus, but Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) presents us with a Judas with a much more composite, and therefore human, nature.

 

judas-kiss2The Judas kiss

An important aspect of the change in Judas between the Bible and Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) is Judas’ race. It is known that Judas was a Palestinian Jew born in Jericho and one of the most well-educated among the Apostles. However, in the film, Judas is played by Carl Anderson, a black man, which caused a variety of controversy when the film was released. Among the controversy was the accusation that making the ‘villain’ of the narrative black was anti-Semitic. It was argued that by making Judas the only black person gave the character evil connotations, as the ‘true villains’ of the story, the Jewish priests, are also primarily clad in black (Hebron 2016, 157). When the film was initially released, Rabbi Marc Tenenbaum described it as ‘a witch’s brew of anti-black and anti-Semitic venom’ (Bennette 2016). This is in reference to how Judas has been depicted as the prototype of an evil Jewish figure throughout history, with offensive and stereotypical anti-Semitic features like a hooked nose, large eyes and black hair (Meyer 2009, 2). This dehumanized Judas as a biblical figure, cutting him down to being the villain who sold off Jesus Christ to be executed.

judas-jesus-superstarThe decision to make Judas black, as Marc Tenenbaum mentioned, also stirred up discussion of the portrayal as anti-black. This is the reversal of the anti-Semitic idea, as people thought Jewison’s Judas to be anti-black through the fact that the only black character is Judas, the primary image of betrayal and evil, according to the Bible. Carl Anderson being cast to play Judas is also argued to be ‘a comment on the history of African Americans’ (Grace 2009, 98). This can primarily be seen in Judas’ death scene, in which his suicide is clearly reminiscent of the lynching, especially the large amounts of black Americans that were lynched in the first half of the twentieth century as a result of extreme racial oppression and tension in the United States. This blurred the line between the actor and his role, as Judas knew of the violence and oppression that was being carried out by the Romans like no one else did (Hebron 2016, 159), which is a parallel to the racial suppression of black people that was still being carried out when the film was released, and still continues to this day, with the numerous racist responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. Judas understood violence and oppression like no one else did, yet no one listened to him. This afterlife of Judas is vastly different to that of the original biblical Judas, which can be seen in these varying responses to the choice to make Judas a black man in the musical film.

carl-anderson-judasAn interesting yet unique aspect of Jewison’s film is that it is told primarily through Judas’ point of view. It is obvious that Jesus is the hero in the Bible but that is because it is written by his devout followers, whereas it can be argued that Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) was created as a reaction to the lack of investigation into Judas’ side of the story, where Judas himself is the protagonist. This is because of Judas’ character development in the narrative; Judas started off as a follower of Jesus, he believed and supported him, subsequently betrayed him, and then felt such an overwhelming guilt at what he had done that he committed suicide. This is true for both the 1973 film and the gospels. But whereas in the Bible Judas’ feelings and thoughts are ambiguous, the film allows us a look into Judas as the main character and as someone who changes and learns (Miller 2011). The fact that the film is from Judas’ point of view means that the audience is being shown the story of Jesus through the eyes of someone who is critiquing him. Judas is allowed to critique Jesus here, as the audience goes into the narrative knowing the famous story of Judas’ betrayal, and knows that he is seen by many as the ‘villain’ of the musical. Judas’ critique of Jesus shows us mainly that he sees Jesus as not the son of God but a human man who put himself in danger by putting the focus on himself rather than the philosophies he preaches.

judas-5In the Bible, Judas is only mentioned in relation to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, which does not allow as much character development as the film. This contrast fills in a lot of gaps in the Bible, like what Judas’ thoughts, motives and opinions were when it came to Jesus and the last week of his life. He shows us a Jesus that is human enough to get angry, flip tables at the temple, get overwhelmed at his popularity and even doubt his own faith in his cause. Compared to the cool, calm and collected Jesus shown in the Gospels, this musical Jesus is a lot more unpredictable and human, as shown through Judas’ perspective. Judas can also be seen as he central character through the fact that in the film, Judas is the one resurrected, and not Jesus, as it is more commonly shown. Whether Judas’ reappearance after death is Jesus’ dream or, as some have put it, Satan himself appearing to Jesus to taunt him, Judas uses this last song of his to interrogate Jesus as well as apologise for what he did. Judas doesn’t get to apologise in the Bible, he is just said to have hanged himself and that was the end of biblical Judas. Judas in this film is not the hero, but he is more of one than Jesus is shown to be. Jesus, with his short temper and doubting faith, seems to be more of a villain than Judas in this film, showing how Judas’ point of view presents a unique take on the constantly retold biblical story.

judas-close-up

In conclusion, Judas in the Bible can be compared to his counterpart in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) to reveal some in depth conclusions about his character and reactions to it. While the film may not change too much of the narrative presented to us in the Bible, Norman Jewison fills in gaps surrounding Judas’ thought processes and motivations as a complex character and puzzle piece in Jesus Christ’s last week alive. We are given the ending we expect to see but with new depth and details, which is what a successful rendition of a biblical tale, like Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), should aim to do.

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[1] This is reminiscent of the Greek myth of Cassandra, who was a prophet that no one listened to before she was killed; She is known as a central figure of epic tragedy, which shows how clearly Judas’ portrayal in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) is one of the most tragic nature, emphasising how the complexity of this version of Judas is a stark contrast to the two dimensionality of Biblical Judas.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV

Bennette, Georgette, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar Resurrected’, The Huffington Post, 8 October 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/georgette-bennett-phd/jesus-christ-superstar-resurrected_b_1712061.html

Grace, Pamela, New Approaches to Film Genre: Religious Film: Christianity and the Hagiopic. Great Britain, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Hebron, Carol A., Judas Iscariot: Damned or Redeemed: A Critical Examination of the Portrayal of Judas in Jesus Films (1902-2014). Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.

Meyer, Marvin W., Judas: The Definitive Collection of Gospels and Legends About the Infamous Apostle of Jesus. Harper Collins, 2009.

Miller, Scott, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals. Boston, Northeastern University Press, 2011.

 

 

A throne fit for a messiah: Daenerys Targaryen as a contemporary Christ

Today’s advent essay comes from Joanna Fountain, one of the students who took our Bible and Popular Culture course (THEOREL 101) earlier this year. Joanna has just completed her third year of studies towards her Bachelor of Arts degree, double majoring in history and classical studies. After university she hopes to become a published writer, encouraging future generations to get off their screens and read a book instead. Joanna enroled in Theorel 101 out of interest, and assures me that she  thoroughly enjoyed taking the course – and would highly recommend it!

Joanna’s essay touches on one of our more popular themes in the course – modern messiahs in pop culture. So read on, and enjoy.

game-thrones-daenerys-her-dragons-gifs

Protector of the Realm, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons: Daenerys Targaryen as a Christ Figure in Game of Thrones

by

Joanna Fountain

“This Mother of Dragons, this Breaker of Chains, is above all a rescuer.

-Tyrion Lannister, A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 5)

As Bruce David Forbes says, “religion appears not only in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples; it also appears in popular culture” (2005, 1). Often appearing in the fantasy genre of literature and visual media, including film and television, is the common trope of a messianic protagonist who is very much the hero of the story. In George R. R. Martin’s fictional world of Westeros, there is no one singular protagonist, but in the character of Daenerys Targaryen are numerous indicators of a Christ figure. Such a figure appears in popular culture again and again, subsequently creating the concept of the American Monomyth (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6). In many ways, Daenerys Targaryen provides an implicit parallel to the biblical Christ as a secular counterpart. The circumstances surrounding multiple events in her life, the messianic symbols attached to her character, and her perceived image by others as a liberator and a powerful contender all bear a close resemblance to the Biblical narrative of Jesus Christ as told in the New Testament Gospels. This essay will seek to explain how Daenerys Targaryen both fulfils and sabotages the notion of the American Monomyth in the way that she is a messiah figure who operates outside the standard black and white paradigm, rather operating within shades of grey in her characterisation. Because this essay will discuss plot details of both Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present) and the HBO television series Game of Thrones (2011-present), spoilers will follow.
game-of-thrones-daenerys-dragonFig 1: Daenerys hatches three dragons in “Fire and Blood” (1.10)

According to the writings of John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett, the American Monomyth secularises “the Judaeo-Christian dramas of community redemption”, creating a character who embodies a combination of the ‘selfless servant’ who sacrifices their own needs for those of others and the ‘zealous crusader’ who triumphs over evil (2002, 6). The American Monomyth therefore serves the function in which a character in popular culture serves as a secular replacement to the Biblical Christ (ibid). What also is indicative of this supersaviour or the popular messiah is their justification for their use of violence for the greater good (5). These figures operate under a paradigm of black and white; the supersaviour is the light and good hero pitted against the bad villain. In terms of Daenerys’ character, she befits these prerequisites, but she is not wholly ‘good’ in the way she is portrayed. The constant use of warmongering imagery in her use of military might to free the slaves in Essos, and her unapologetic sexual appetites present her more as a character who operates in between the black and white paradigm, as a somewhat ‘anti-messiah’ who uses violence to fulfil and justify her noble task of freeing slaves. Constantly associated with Daenerys are the words ‘fire and blood’; words that do not necessarily match her with the image of the ‘perfect’ biblical Christ. But perhaps this is because Daenerys modernises and humanises the Christ figure of the American Monomyth concept. Therefore, this brutal side to her character is woven into the messiah rhetoric as a way of presenting a Christ figure who is flawed, humanised and relatable, thus shedding new light on the messianic individual of popular culture.

got2Fig 2: The Red Comet, seen in “The North Remembers” (2.01)

Robert Detweiler argues in his article ‘Christ and the Christ Figure in American Fiction’ that often in modern fiction the allegorical Christ figure offers the symbolic potential of Christ without the added implication of commitment to Christian faith (1964, 118). The likening of Daenerys Targaryen as a secular Christ figure is done implicitly in the way that the signs and symbols of the biblical messiah are translated into signs and symbols of Daenerys, the popular messiah. The first, and most obvious, of these is the Red Comet that appears in the sky soon after Daenerys successfully hatches three dragons from stone eggs (a ‘miracle’ in itself as the species were previously extinct). She even says herself in A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 2): “[the comet] is the herald of my coming”. Such treatment of a comet signifying her “coming” immediately bears resemblance to the star that proclaimed the birth of Jesus Christ in the New Testament Gospels (Matthew 2.2-10, Luke 21.25). Additionally, both Daenerys and Christ are descended from a line of kings (Matthew 1), and both undergo a “resurrection”. As highlighted in Luke 24.46, there is the emphasis that the death and resurrection of the biblical Christ was foretold in the old teachings long before the coming of the messiah. Such a prophecy of the messiah has a similar treatment in the world of Game of Thrones. Mentioned numerous times in the books and in the television adaptation is the prophecy of Azor Ahai, also known as “the Lord’s chosen” and very much the Game of Thrones’ version of a prophesied messiah. According to Melisandre, a red priestess, in A Dance with Dragons, the coming of the prophesied Azor Ahai will be signified “when the red star bleeds” and this saviour will “be born again … to awake dragons out of stone”. All three of these signs occur in short succession with Daenerys walking into a burning pyre, only to be discovered the next morning sitting amongst the ashes of the fire, alive, and holding three baby dragons (fig 1), while the red comet (fig 2) appears very soon after. Though it has not been confirmed in either the books or the television series if Daenerys is in fact the prophesied Azor Ahai, she has nevertheless fulfilled these three parts to the prophecy. Regardless, the fact alone that the symbols associated with the biblical messiah are translated to symbols of Daenerys therefore provide the implication that she indeed represents a secular Christ within her own narrative.

game-of-thrones-season-3-episode-10-mhysa-daenerys

Fig 3: Daenerys proclaimed ‘mhysa’ (‘mother’) by the freed slaves of Yunkai in “Mhysa” (3.10)

Just as the biblical messiah’s noble task was to be a saviour to humankind, Daenerys Targaryen is again portrayed in a similar light in the way that her task to free all slaves in Slavers Bay makes her a saviour to many as a result. The aforementioned symbols of Daenerys as the popular messiah adds further justification to her role as a saviour. With three dragons in her possession, Daenerys becomes a powerful contender to those she considers her earthly enemies, in this case the slavers, and is able to wage war on them for their slaves’ freedom. In fact, this contempt for slavery is a common ideal in the Christ figure (Gunton 1985, 137, 143). This may be due to slavery often having strong connotations to sin in the Bible, particularly in the way that Jesus says in John 8.34 that mankind is “a slave to sin”. Therefore, it can be argued that Daenerys’ preoccupation with ending slavery takes a rather more literal interpretation of the biblical messiah’s task of liberating humankind from their sins. Daenerys’ resulting reputation as a saviour is best highlighted in the final scene of Game of Thrones’ third season in which she is proclaimed ‘mhysa’ by the freed slaves of Yunkai (fig. 3). The cinematography of the scene arguably bears some similarity to Jesus entering Jerusalem, declared a king (Luke 19.28-40). This image of Daenerys being surrounded by grateful slaves who declare her their “mhysa”, or “mother”, therefore provides the best visual justification as the “Breaker of Chains”, a liberator, and a saviour from “sin”.

got4Fig 4: A slave of Meereen beholds one of the many unlocked collars that Daenerys has catapulted over the city walls to show that all who follow her are freed in “Breaker of Chains” (4.03)

Hebrews 2.14-15 speaks about how Jesus Christ “shared in [mankind’s] humanity” so that “he might break the power of him who hold the power of death … and free those … held in slavery”. Therefore, Daenerys Targaryen is an equally human messiah with added flaws, and exists within the “grey areas” of the good/bad paradigm whose noble task is her attempts to liberate slaves in Essos, thus earning her a reputation as a saviour to those she frees. What further develops Daenerys as a popular messiah figure are the numerous implicit parallels of her character to the Biblical Christ of the New Testament Gospels, including messianic symbols and experiences. As a result, Daenerys Targaryen arguably serves as a secular counterpart to the Biblical Christ. But in the wide world of popular culture, Daenerys Targaryen is only one of many popular messiahs according to the American Monomyth (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 3-5). This is perhaps because in a world that is becoming increasingly secular, popular culture is one of the ways that a secular audience may engage in religious themes. As Detweiler argues:

With the shift of interest away from religion and the relocation of values from the divine to the human sphere that have characterised the past one hundred years, the traits and mission have been transferred to man, so that for some writers the nature and intentions of Christ can be observed in any good, moral, or heroic person. (1964, 3-5)

Therefore, the American Monomyth serves to initiate a dialogue between religion and popular culture, so that readers of modern literature may learn about Jesus through a secular counterpart. Daenerys as the (theoretically) prophesied Azor Ahai parallels the Biblical prophesied messiah, just as her noble task to end slavery is a very literal adaptation of the Christ as a liberator of everyone who is a slave to sin. This is why Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen makes a great fictional, popular messiah to a secular culture seeking a saviour from the many growing tensions apparent in contemporary society.

 

game-of-thrones-wallpaper-daenerys-wallpaper-1

Bibliography

All references to biblical texts are taken from the NIV.

Detweiler, Robert. ‘Christ and the Christ Figure in American Fiction’. The Christian Scholar 47, no. 2 (1964): pp. 111-124.

Forbes, Bruce David. ‘Introduction: Finding Religion in Unexpected Places’. In Religion and Popular Culture in America: Revised Edition, edited by Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, pp. 1-20. University of California Press, 2005.

Game of Thrones. Television Series. Created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. New York, NY: HBO, 2011-present.

Gunton, Colin. ‘“Christus Victor” Revisited: A Study in the Metaphor and the Transformation of Meaning’. The Journal of Theological Studies 36, no. 1 (1985): pp. 129-145.

Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Lewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. W. B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Martin, George R. R. A Song of Ice and Fire. Bantam, 1996-present.

 

 

 

 

Salome – victim, seductress, or both?

Today’s advent student offering is a marvellous essay written by THEOREL 101 student Wen-Juenn Lee. WenJuenn is a third year student majoring in English Literature and Media Studies. She tells me that she likes to read, write and discuss everything related to Harry Styles being a contemporary messiah. But, for her Bible and Pop Culture essay, she tore herself away from Harry and wrote this excellent piece on that most enigmatic biblical figure – Salome. Read on, and enjoy.

The Dance of Seduction: the Power of Popular Culture on Shaping the Portrayal of Mark’s Dancing Daughter in the Bible

by

Wen-Juenn Lee

Although religion and popular culture are often perceived as two distinct categories, the relationship between the Bible and popular culture has often been dynamic. This is seen in the biblical portrayal of Herodias’ dancing daughter in Mark, and her subsequent afterlives in film, literature and art. As society alters and gives meaning to biblical characters in a way they can understand, we see the dialectic process in which popular culture, societal attitudes and religion shape one another in an ongoing evolution.

In Mark 6:21-29, Herodias’ daughter danced before King Herod and his guests, which delighted the King. As a reward, he offered her “anything you like and I will give it to you.” Herodias, furious that John the Baptist had condemned Herod’s marriage to Herodias, told her daughter to ask for John’s head. So the daughter requested, “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head, immediately, on a dish.” In front of his guests and in swearing an oath to the girl, Herod was reluctant to break his promise to her. So Herod sent his guard to execute John, and to bring his head on a dish.

As Mark simply referred to the dancing daughter as “daughter of Herodias,” inevitable gaps surrounding the daughter’s identity and motivations emerge. In Flavius Josephus’ historical account The Antiquities of the Jews, a stepdaughter of Herod’s is referred to as Salome. (Book XVIII, Chapter 5, 4) In this way, people came to identify Salome as the same person as the dancing daughter, explaining why the daughter is only ever referred to as Herodias’ daughter and not Herod’s. Thus, the dynamic between “Herodias’ daughter” and Herod becomes a crucial factor in the way artists and writers understood Salome’s dance. According to Josephus, Salome was born around 14 A.D and married twice. Her name, deriving from the Hebrew word Shalom, means peace. Her status as a daughter of a queen, and eventually becoming queen herself, gives her a position of relative power, not to mention indicating her wealth.

Nevertheless, apart from these few inferences we can make, information about Salome, and the dance she became associated with, are scarce and few. Referred to as “the girl”, Salome’s age when she performed the dance could range from a pre-pubescent to a young adult. Her personality, which may have contributed to her motivations to dance, remain unstated. Thus, society is fascinated with a character and a dance about which there is has virtually no historical information. Furthermore, the question of Salome’s motivations for performing her dance, and in obeying her mother to ask for John the Baptist’s head, remains a mystery. In both Mark and Matthew, Herodias tells Salome to ask for John the Baptist’s head, but Salome is the one who makes the specific request “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head, immediately, on a dish.” In asking for John the Baptist’s head, specifically “on a dish”, was Salome merely obeying her mother, or did she have personal investments in asking for his head?

lapparition
Gustave Moreau, L’Apparition (c.1876)

A hugely significant force that influenced society’s perception of Salome was Gustave Moreau’s L’Apparition, where Salome is interrupted by an apparition of John the Baptist’s head in the climax of her dance. Although the Bible does not describe Salome’s dance, Moreau interprets it in an extremely sexualised manner. Using Jospheus’ report, Moreau understood Salome as a step-daughter dancing sexually in front of her king. A languid leg peeks out from behind the sheer fabric of her dress, and an outstretched arm directs us to the decapitated head of John. Her body, twisted at the waist, directs the male gaze to her fully frontal and almost nude torso. Crowned with ostentatious jewels and Byzantine-like patterns on her skirt, Salome reinforces Western attitudes on the eroticised and oriental ‘Other’ (Said). The power of the gaze is extremely important in L’Apparition.

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Moreau’s L’Apparition, detail

Expressionless, Salome’s eyes directly meet John’s bloody head, floating in mid-air. His mouth is open in horror, while his eyes beseech and plead for Salome’s mercy. In the background, Herod, Herodias and the executioner gaze oblivious to the head of John the Baptist, while a performer looks off in the distance. While everyone averts their eyes, thereby averting their responsibility in the beheading, Salome’s expressionlessly gazes up to meet her victim’s, confirming her guilt. In depicting Salome as defiantly staring at the man she is about to behead, Moreau puts her at the forefront of the beheading, cutting out Herodias and Herod’s responsibility in John’s beheading. In this way, the nature of Salome’s dance changes. Salome is not a pawn who obliviously follows her mother’s orders, but a femme fatale who uses her sexuality to intentionally charm Herod, and simultaneously bring the downfall of a holy man. Like Eve tempting man to sin, Salome dances to ‘charm’ the King, “indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning,” to the consequences of her actions (Huysmans, 24).

salome-barry-moser
Barry Moser, Salome kissing the head of Iokanaan (2011)

In this way, the gaps of Salome’s dance and character in the Bible are filled in inadvertently by 19thcentury attitudes towards female sexuality. A dancing female who then follows her mother’s request for the beheading of a man can only be understood in one way; sexualised, immodest and manipulative. Moreau interprets Salome as solely guided by her sheer, destructive lust, an ‘enchantress’ intentionally wreaking havoc through dance. Similarly, Oscar Wilde expanded on Salome as evil seductress, seen in his L’Apparition-inspired play Salomé. Salomé, in love and spurned by John the Baptist, kisses John’s mutilated head after the climax of her vengeful dance. In this way, Moreau twists the biblical Salome to become the ultimate metaphor of destructive female sexuality, a metaphor that artists used to perpetuate patriarchal attitudes towards women. Merely referred to as “daughter of Herodias”, she is twisted into a sexualised step-daughter whose “dance”, barely described in the Bible, is interpreted as sexually manipulative. This is what shapes Salome’s appearance and personality, presented as a dark haired “exotic” temptress that is equally seductive as she is destructive.

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Salome in True Blood (HBO)

More recently, Salome emerges in HBO’s Television Series True Blood, as an elite and powerful vampire and leader of the antagonist group “The Authority.” Speaking to, and engaging in, conversation with her portrayal in the Bible and in art, Salome says, “They made me a convenient villain, a symbol of dangerous female sexuality. But I was just a girl with a severely f**ked up family.” In this way, Salome presents herself as a victim, one who was “just a girl” as opposed to the sexually developed femme fatale Moreau portrays her as. Instead, “they wrapped me up and delivered me to my step-father’s bed,” which was a “dance, of sorts.”

Thus,  Salome is portrayed as a pawn in which her mother “trades” her body in exchange for John the Baptist’s head. The syntax of “wrapped me” and “delivered me” stresses Salome’s passiveness in the face of her mother’s schemes. Helpless to the politics and “f**ked up family” she is a part of, Salome has no personal motivations in “dancing” in front of King Herod, or in asking for John the Baptist’s head. Instead, Salome is coerced by a heartless mother, and taken advantage of by her lustful step-father; the victim of the “dance” as opposed to its perpetrator.  Thus, Herod and Herodias become the vilified agents that drive Salome’s dance and John the Baptist’s beheading. Although Salome’s dance is interpreted with an underlying sexual nature like Moreau’s L’Apparition, True Blood uses the “metaphorical” dance of coercive sexual intercourse to highlight Salome’s vulnerability as a victim of the sexual act, cementing her empathy with the audience. Bill’s horror, depicted in a close up shot of his face, and Salome’s own suppressed emotions reinforce the empathy we are meant to feel for her.

salome-and-bill
Salome and Bill, in True Blood (HBO)

But as quickly as True Blood tries to deconstruct Salome as dancing femme fatale, it perpetuates it. Salome uses her sexuality as a tool for power, in gauging the trustworthiness of Bill and Eric, and in coercing them to join “The Authority.” Her attempts and success, in seducing both Bill and Eric, are depicted as calculative and insidious, rather than acting out of genuine affection. Meanwhile, Bill and Eric, unaware that the other has been “wooed” by Salome, are depicted as helpless victims in the face of Salome’s aggressive sexuality: “She gets what she wants.” The gratuitous panning shot over Salome’s nude body as she slowly disrobes in front of Eric parallels Moreau’s male gaze, directing our attention to Salome’s breasts and hips. Staring at Eric as she undresses, Salome’s defiant gaze also parallels Moreau’s Salome, depicting her sexual agency as diabolical through the power of her gaze. Clothed in black lace and pink silk, Salome’s dark hair, red lipstick and heavily accented speech reinforces her depiction as a “foreign” femme fatale, who uses her sexuality to bring about the downfall of men. As Bill and Salome become lovers, Salome is depicted as bringing about Bill’s moral downfall, coercing him to do increasingly immoral acts. Urging Bill to feed on a pregnant women, and causing him to betray his best friend, Salome “taints” Bill’s moral compass, threatening his notions of good and evil. In this way, Salome embodies the stereotype she claims not be, seducing men for her own evil purposes.

salome-2
Sexualised Salome in HBO’s True Blood

On the one hand, then, True Blood seeks to dismantle the patriarchal interpretation of Salome as destructive femme fatale, by offering an alternative interpretation of Salome as victim, rather than perpetrator of a dance that caused John the Baptist’s beheading. Echoing mainstream feminist thought, Salome draws attention to the misogynistic portrayals of women in art: “I became a convenient symbol of dangerous female sexuality.” But the on the other hand, Salome as victim also has the danger of perpetuating gendered stereotypes. She must either be a damsel in distress or a manipulative whore, there is no in between. True Blood, reflecting wider Hollywood discourses, still relies on simplified and dichotomous understandings of female sexuality to interpret and depict Salome’s dance; as a virtue, with Salome as victim, or as a sin, with Salome as sexual agent. Either way, Salome’s physicality, as an object to be dressed in revealing clothes, and to be gazed at with long panning shots, perpetuates society’s hyper-sexualised treatment of female bodies; Salome, as a biblical dancing woman, is part of that. Perhaps “a progressive straight feminist reading…is actually impossible in light of the heavy misogynist cultural burden the Salome figure has carried for almost two thousand years” (Dierkes-Thrun, 201). Thus, True Blood’s Salome reflects conflicting attitudes towards female sexuality, shaped by a society whose own negotiations with gender and sexuality attempt to be progressive, but are equally influenced by lingering, traditional ideologies.

salome-4
True Blood‘s Salome – sexy and terrifying

From the gaps that emerge in Salome’s depiction in the Bible, her motivations to dance, and her responsibility in John the Baptist’s beheading, popular culture understands and depicts Salome’s motivations and character as a hyper-sexualised femme fatale, reflecting the varying and sometimes conflicting attitudes towards female sexuality. As L’Apparition and True Blood shows us, popular culture has the ability to adapt and shape Salome, through contemporary cultural attitudes that transgress the ambiguous and sometimes static depiction of a character in the Bible.

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References

Primary Sources

All biblical quotes are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible.

Moreau, Gustave. L’Apparition. 1876, oil on canvas, the Louvre, Paris.

“Whatever I Am, You Made Me.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Raelle Tucker, directed by David Petrarca, HBO, 2012.

“Somebody That I Used To Know.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Mark Hudis, directed by Stephen Moyer, HBO, 2012.

“Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Raelle Tucker, directed by Dan Attias, HBO, 2012.

Secondary Sources

Cooke, Peter. “‘It isn’t a Dance’: Gustave Moreau’s Salome and The Apparition.Dance Research, Vol. 29 Issue 2, 2012. pp. 214-232

Clanton, Dan. “Trollops to Temptresses.” Daring, Disreputable and Devout : Interpreting the Hebrew Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. T & T Clark International, 2009.  Print.

Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.

Girard, Rene. “Scandal and the Dance: Salome in the Gospel of Mark”. New Literary History. Vol. 15, Issue 2, 1984. pp. 311-324

Huysman, Joris Karl. À Rebours. London, UK; Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jewish. Accessed on http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York, US; Pantheon Books. 1

Prophecy and M.I.A.

Today’s advent offering is from another Bible and Pop Culture (THEOREL 101) student, Pooja Upadhyay. Pooja is a fourth year student studying Law and Arts at Auckland, who thoroughly enjoyed this course, describing it as ‘a wonderful breath of fresh air’ in their otherwise hectic schedule. Pooja has written about British rap artist M.I.A., comparing her to Marcus Borg’s definitions of the biblical prophets. Enjoy!

mia-first

M.I.A.: Present-day Pop Prophet

by

Pooja Upadhyay

This essay compares Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to the popular-music rap artist Mathangi Arulpragasam (M.I.A.), concluding that M.I.A.’s role in western popular culture is similar to that of a biblical prophet. Like biblical prophets, M.I.A. challenges the status-quo, has a passion for social justice, and engages with forms of prophetic speech. Although she does not have the same relationship with God as biblical prophets, her relationship with God still resembles biblical prophetic behaviour in more secular ways. In sum, this essay will conclude that M.I.A. and ancient biblical prophets play similar roles in society.

According to Marcus Borg, biblical prophets challenge the status-quo (2001, 124-5). M.I.A. certainly follows suit. Firstly, many pop-culture artists tend to create mass-produce music that avoids controversial themes (Hirsch 1971, 372). Unlike these artists, she produces music that is politically charged. In her music video for “Born Free” (2010), she depicts US soldiers arresting boys with ginger hair, taking them to a field, and graphically killing them. The video is a shocking portrayal of genocide in modern-day United States, which led to considerable flak for the artist. M.I.A. used this to condemn western institutions and audiences for their outrage against the fictional video, and their contrasting indifference to a real video of “naked dead bodies being shot in the head, blindfolded” that she had tweeted months before. Thus, she challenges the status-quo with her art.

M.I.A. also confronts another convention of the pop culture industry, which requires mass-produced artist to package, market and sell not just their art, but themselves as a commodity (Shuker 2016, 132). She rejects product endorsement opportunities and struggles with the idea of the musician becoming the focus, not the music. Thus, similar to biblical prophets and their role as agitators, she refuses to conform to multiple aspects of the mass-produced pop-culture artist paradigm.

Pursuant to Borg’s work, biblical prophets are also passionate about social justice and advocate for oppressed peoples (2001, 118). M.I.A. is a champion of refugees and persecuted Sri Lankan Tamils. Through her song “Borders”, she brings the harsh realities of refugees to the forefront of western media consumption. In “Borders”, she lists a number of antagonistic ideas such as “identities”, “your privilege”, and “egos”. She ridicules these by rapping, “what’s up with that?” after each one, condemning the powers of the world for their identity politics and general complacency in alleviating the Syrian refugee crisis. M.I.A.’s passion comes through when she advocates for solutions and discusses how multi-culturalism and integrating refugees enriches communities.

A strong parallel can be drawn between the archetypal biblical prophet Moses, and M.I.A. when she advocates for Tamils. Called upon by God in Exodus 3, Moses takes responsibility for leading the Hebrews out of oppression in Egypt (Exod. 3.7). Similarly, through media interviews, she acts as a leader for the liberation of Tamils oppressed by the Singhalese regime. The exile and displacement experienced by the Hebrews in Moses’ narrative (and in other prophetic texts, including Isaiah and Jeremiah) resembles the experiences suffered by the Syrian and Tamil refugees for which she advocates (Slessarev-Jamir 2011, 28). Thus, through her advocacy, she performs the role of social justice warrior that is so fundamental to Borg’s conception of biblical prophets.

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Borg posits that while some biblical prophets arouse feelings of hope through ‘prophetic energizing’, others engage in more pessimistic speech, called ‘prophetic criticising’ (2001, 130). This is where prophets speak critically of dominant systems of power, whose practices oppress others. M.I.A. criticises governments for their sins (their ignorance of others’ suffering and their persecution of particular groups), in a way that is similar to the prophetic critique Jeremiah performs when declaring the sins of Israel (Jeremiah 2). Rather than issuing a prophetic oracle though, M.I.A. uses 21st century media to convey her message, tweeting sarcastic and cynical comments such as, “Can u catch Pokemon Go at these refugee camps tho”, and “#SriLanka rejects international involvement in accountability + denies war crimes…again.” She thus fulfils the more negative function of prophetic speech, offering a voice of protest against those in power.

Despite, M.I.A.’s cynical dialogue, the effect of her prophetic behaviour generates hope. Although no current scholarship can demonstrate the effect she has on audiences, comments from Twitter and web articles suggest she arouses and inspires audiences. For example, Anupa Mistry, writing in the Pitchfork e-zine, discusses how she fears xenophobic attacks in Canada as a woman of colour, particularly after the Paris terrorist attacks (2015). Mistry argues that M.I.A. is a lifeline for outsiders like her. Additionally, on the release of M.I.A.’s new album AIM, some of her Twitter fans tweeted comments such as, “AIM uplifts me” and, “This album is a voice for the voiceless”. These are contemporary manifestations of M.I.A.’s prophetic impact.

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Lastly, Borg asserts that biblical prophets have a strong relationship with God. This relationship involves ‘call stories’ whereby God appoints individuals with a sacred task (Borg 2001, 124). While M.I.A. may not have received a prophetic ‘call’ from God herself, she does call on God herself through her art, as a means of highlighting God’s absence. In her song, “Born Free”, M.I.A. raps “Lord whoever you are, come out wherever you are”. In the video for this song, images of Mary and the crucifix appear in the context of the ghetto. This Christian imagery, in conjunction with M.I.A.’s demand that God come out, reflects the idea that despite victims of violence and oppression looking to God for protection, God fails to save them. Further, in the song “Story to be told”, M.I.A. raps that she wrote a letter to the Pope but “he never gave me a rope”, highlighting once more God’s silence in her time of need.

However, even biblical prophets have doubted God’s efficacy. In Exodus 5. 22-3, Moses asks God, “Why have you brought trouble on this people?” and then criticises God for not rescuing his people. Furthermore, calling on God to answer for suffering is a recognized feature of contemporary religious prophetic activism (Slessarev-Jamir 2011, 37). Thus, M.I.A.’s apparent doubts about God’s power does not detract from the similarities that bind her to both biblical prophets and contemporary prophetic figures. And, while her proclamations, “I’m not a Christian girl”, and “I don’t even need a religion”, may appear to highlight her differences to religious prophets, I would argue that she still shares with the biblical prophets a passion for social justice, which, as with the prophets (Borg 2001, 123), is shaped and directed by the cultural context in which she is situated.

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This essay has compared artist M.I.A. to the biblical prophets, as defined by Marcus Borg. Like these prophets, M.I.A. challenges the dominant expectations that come with being a pop-music rapper signed with a powerful record label. M.I.A.’s passion for social justice resembles Moses, whilst her prophetic critique may remind us of Jeremiah. Although, God did not call on M.I.A., she still has the sense of duty towards her people that biblical prophets inherited from God. Overall, despite being centuries apart and living in hugely different contexts, M.I.A. still shares a similar role with these ancient prophets.

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Bibliography

Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally. New York: PerfectBound, 2001.

Hirsch, Paul M. “Sociological Approaches to the Pop Music Phenomenon.” The American Behavioral Scientist 14, no. 3 (1971): 371-388. http://ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/docview/194670965?accountid=8424.

“How M.I.A. is a Lifeline in Times of Terror.” Pitchfork. Nov. 23, 2015. http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/967-how-mia-is-a-lifeline-in-times-of-terror/.

Jones, Gaynor, and Jay Rahn. “Definitions of Popular Music: Recycled.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 11. No 4 (1977): 79-92. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3332182.

Lewis. Twitter post. Sept. 13, 2016, 1:10am. https://twitter.com/lewniverse/status/775607452653985795?lang=en.

MIA. “Born Free.” YouTube video, 9:05. Posted by “MIAVEVO,” April 28, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeMvUlxXyz8&oref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DIeMvUlxXyz8&has_verified=1.

MIA, interview by Jian Gomeshi. “M.I.A. on Q TV (viewer discretion advised).” Q on CBC. YouTube video. October 18, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaK0YBA8Lss.

MIA. “Born Free.” YouTube video, 4:42. Posted by “MIAVEVO,” February 17, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-Nw7HbaeWY&list=RDr-Nw7HbaeWY.

“M.I.A. talks about her music video “Borders” on Al Jazeera.” YouTube video, 3:58. Posted by “worldtown,” January 14, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTMQXBQMSU0.

“MIA: Pop singer M.I.A’s Interview on Channel 4.” YouTube video, 12:48. Posted by “Tamil News,” January 14, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezhPp5rK9UQ.

MIA. Twitter post. July 25, 2016, 1:02pm. https://twitter.com/MIAuniverse/status/757667438318260224?lang=en.

MIA. Twitter post. June 15, 2016, 7:05am. https://twitter.com/MIAuniverse/status/743081911703212032?lang=en.

MIA. Sexodus. Interscope, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOcRiv9BZwU.

MIA. Freedun. Interscope, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_Nc1FdTD10.

Shuker, Roy. Understanding Popular Music Culture. Oxon: Routledge, 2016.

Slessarev-Jamir, Helene. Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America. New York: NYU Press, 2011. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/stable/j.ctt15zc8pw.

Yusuf. Twitter post. September 13, 2016, 12.44am. https://twitter.com/yuzi/status/775600934076448772?lang=en.

Delilah and Judith

Today’s wonderful student offering comes from Elizabeth Newton-Jackson, who focuses on one of my favourite biblical characters – Delilah.  Elizabeth has just finished the first year of her BA, majoring in religion and art history. Elizabeth has a passion for the study of religion and is particularly enthusiastic about exploring the relationships between religion and art. She therefore really enjoyed taking our Bible and Popular Culture course this year (THEOREL 101), describing it as ‘the perfect introduction to the study of religion’. The course has also  increased her determination to study religion at postgraduate level.

So sit back and enjoy Elizabeth’s thought-provoking essay on Delilah and Judith – two biblical women who, despite similarities in their stories, are so often depicted very differently in popular culture.

Struck Down by a Woman

by 

Elizabeth Newton Jackson

To be “ensnared by a woman” (Josephus Ant. 5.8), to be deceived and defeated by one of the fairer sex has long been considered one of the greater downfalls of man. This perceived weakness of men however, seems to reflect more negatively on the women involved. Artistic portrayals of the infamous Delilah of Judges 16 exemplify this perfectly. The deceptively dangerous woman is a trope well established in art, and yet the figure of Judith from the deuterocanonical book of Judith, who betrayed a mighty warrior for her people, is hailed as a hero. The two women, infamous and famous, are treated with vast differences in art. These artistic treatments take liberties in altering and adding to the original biblical narratives to a point where these biblical characters, Delilah the perceived harlot and Judith the virtuous widow, seem almost pitted against each other as the two sides of woman. Not only do these artistic representations reflect back onto readings of the biblical text, they also embody and perpetuate certain ideas of the intrinsic nature of woman in the world outside the text.

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Rubens, Samson and Delilah, 1609-10 (oil on wood), National Gallery, London

Delilah’s image as the artful seductress is so entrenched that her name has become almost synonymous with the danger of female allure (Kahr 1972, 282). Art has played a significant role in bolstering this image with Rubens’ Samson and Delilah, 1609-1610 unashamedly presenting Delilah as the “harlot among Philistines” (Josephus Ant. 5.8) The sensuality of the scene heightens the air of shocking betrayal as Samson the great warrior lies in a post coital slumber in the temptress’s lap, his hair gently cut under the soft light of a candle. Tension is suggested by the menacing presence of the Philistine soldiers at the open door, waiting for a signal to strike (Kahr 282). Delilah’s exposed breasts are explicit signifiers of her sexualized role in the scene but viewers are further assured of her status as a harlot through the rich red of Delilah’s dress (Exum 1996, 192) and the presence of the elderly procuress (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 461). A statue of Venus and Cupid perched in an alcove of the dingy wall further emphasises the brothel atmosphere (469). Even the inclusion of so many figures in an otherwise intimate scene helps to define a tone of detachment. Delilah is simply doing her duty, she has seduced Samson and has no qualms about betraying him. Although this Delilah is not vengeful or triumphant in the way she is in another work of the same subject by Rubens, titled Gefangennahme Simsons (Exum 1996, 194), she is clearly a woman who has surrendered to her senses and coerced Samson to do the same. Her utmost fault is in her sexuality.

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Rubens, Gefangennahme Simpsons, 1618-20 (oil on wood), Alte Pinakothek, Munich

This emphasis on sexuality does not come from the biblical text. Judges 16:1-22 discloses nothing of Delilah’s profession or personality. We are told only that she lives in the valley of Sorek, was given money by the lords of the Philistines in return for the secret of Samson’s strength and (depending on the translation) cut his hair or had it cut by a manservant (Clanton 2009, 68). There are many gaps within the story of Samson and Delilah and yet the specificity of the gaps that Rubens’ painting fills results in a clear portrayal of Delilah as a heartless femme fatale. Painting Delilah in this light solidifies ideas of the character that may have no real basis in the biblical text. Artists are known to approach subjects with licence, but in the illustration of biblical narratives there is perhaps an assumption of greater respect for the original source (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 463). Respect of this kind is particularly relevant when considering past uses of biblical art in depicting sacred stories to those who were illiterate or did not have access to the Bible in their own language. Many Northern European artists, likely Rubens himself, used not only the Bible itself as a source but commentary by Flavius Josephus, a Jewish scholar of the 1st century AD. Josephus barely changed the narrative of Samson and Delilah, but he did change it enough by pointing to Delilah’s identity both as a harlot and a Philistine in the very first sentence (Ant. 5.8). The world inside the text of Rubens’ Samson and Delilah depicts a narrative that is at odds with the world inside the biblical text and yet the strength and frequency of the portrayal of Delilah as a deceitful harlot reflects back on the biblical text, making it more difficult to distinguish between these two separate worlds.

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Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-9 (oil on canvas), Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica

Although the book of Judith does not have the ambiguities of Judges 16, revealing much about Judith and her defeat of Holofernes, the famous heroine is most certainly a character of paradoxes. She is virtuous (Judith 8:2-8) but knowingly uses her beauty to seduce (10:3-4). She is righteous but lies (11:5) and ruthlessly kills (13:8). Her actions seem to far exceed the mere ‘seduction’ of Rubens’ Delilah. However, Judith is an Israelite and thus cannot fit the femme fatale image her actions may suggest. Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-99 proves this through its lack of reference to the character’s lies and seduction. Caravaggio paints a figure of pure innocence, dressed in pale, modest clothing and bathed in light, the use of chiaroscuro splitting the canvas in two in a blatant display of good and evil. Viewing only the half of the canvas containing Judith herself, one would find difficulty recognising the murder being committed. Her expression displays pity and she stands as far away from Holofernes as possible, severing his head from his body in a detached, almost meek way.

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Donatello, Judith and Holofernes, 1455-60 (bronze), Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

The painting gives us no doubt as to Judith’s status as a heroine. Yet in the biblical text, Judith lies repeatedly, disrespects the dead by taking Holofernes’ head back to her people (Judith 13:15) and ultimately disregards the lives of her own warriors by sending them after the retreating enemy (15:2-3). However, in artistic representations these unsavoury deeds are brushed aside, likely due to Judith’s status as an Israelite. The point here is not to condemn or defame Judith but instead to explore the reasons behind her depiction in art. In Donatello’s bronze Judith and Holofernes, 1455-60, Judith is again a righteous heroine. This work was commissioned by the Medici family and used as a symbol of power and virtue, proving the dedication of this influential family to the people of Renaissance Florence (McHam 2001, 32). The fact that the biblical character of Judith could be appropriated for this purpose and used as recognisable symbol for power and purity proves how wide the divide is between representations of Delilah and Judith. While one is a heroine and invoked to defend and uphold the virtue and power of a great family and city, the other is used to warn men of the danger of women’s allure. The world inside Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes does not quite seem to add up with the world inside the biblical text and yet the two are conflated, resulting in an image of Judith that is far removed from that of Delilah.

Both Samson and Holofernes were struck down by women, charmed by words and beauty before an ultimate betrayal. Surely this common ending for the men of each story must also draw a parallel between the women. Both Judith and Delilah are witty with their words and take it upon themselves whether directly in the case of Judith or indirectly in the case of Delilah to destroy great warriors. There are ambiguities as to whether Delilah does this willingly but the book of Judith makes it clear that the widow formulates and single-handedly carries out her own plan of revenge.

There is far less known about Delilah than Judith but the holes in Delilah’s narrative have been liberally filled by artistic representations. If one was to simply read the biblical text without knowledge of these representations, perhaps it would not be so easy to condemn Delilah and praise Judith. However, there are aspects of the characterisations of these women which make it clear how we are to judge each. Judith is pure. She refuses to remarry after her husband’s death (Judith 8:4) and although she uses her beauty to seduce Holofernes into trusting her, she does not give him her body (13:16). This is emphasised within both biblical and artistic representations. Delilah on the other hand, although the Bible does not comment on her sexuality, is unequivocally labelled as a prostitute in Rubens’ two works and the works of other artists as well as within Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. Perhaps this specific alteration of the biblical text is designed to emphasise Delilah’s definite place on the ‘wrong’ side of womanhood due to the part she played in the destruction of one of God’s chosen. However, bringing sexuality into the narrative does more than solidify a negative image, it makes this sexuality the reason for Delilah’s position as the enemy. This is because it is a point of clear difference between her artistic representations and not only those of Judith but of other saintly women of the Bible, the Virgin Mary being the most obvious example. For the world in front of the artistic representations, this makes Delilah and Judith more than two biblical characters. They are instead portrayals of the different sides of women, and respectively connote ideas of Eve (sinful temptress) and Mary (holy virgin). This categorisation marks a clear divide that equates ‘purity’ with self- sacrifice and sexuality with greed and betrayal.

Artistic interpretations of Delilah and Judith seem to work like a form of Chinese whispers. The two biblical women are taken out of the pages of the Bible, passed through the works of artists such as Rubens and Caravaggio who have the power to alter and add, and then presented to us, the world in front of the text as the unaltered originals; in reality, however, they are markedly altered. Presenting the Delilah and Judith of artistic interpretation as the same women as the biblical text also reflects back onto readings and interpretations of the women in the Bible, suggesting that there is always a clear black and white divide between the virtuous ‘virgin’ figure and the deceitful harlot.

The bible is a vastly influential spiritual, cultural and historical text and for this reason artistic portrayals of its characters are far more than depictions of narrative. The differences between Delilah and Judith as portrayed in the paintings of Rubens and Caravaggio do not simply reflect differences between two biblical characters but shape and emphasise ideas of the how the Bible addresses women and even how women are seen in our secular world, the world in front of the text. Although this may not be the explicit purpose of the artistic representations of Judith and Delilah, the division between purity and perceived sexual immorality as a division between right and wrong has and will continue to have a lasting impact.

Bibliography

All biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version.

Clanton, Dan W. Daring, Disreputable and Devout : Interpreting the Hebrew Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. New York: T & T Clark International, 2009.

Exum Cheryl J.  Plotted, Shot, and Painted Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.

Georgievska-Shine, Aneta “Rubens and the Tropes of Deceit in Samson and Delilah.” Word & Image 23, no. 4 (2007): 460-473. doi: 10.1080/02666286.2007.10435799

Josephus, Flavius. The Whole Works of Flavius Josephus, Translated by Sir Roger L’Estrange. The Seventh ed. Aberdeen: Printed and Sold by J. Bruce and J. Boyle, 1768.

Kahr, Madlyn “Delilah.” The Art Bulletin 54, no. 3 (1972): 282-299. Doi: 10.2307/3048997.

McHam, Sarah Blake. “Donatello’s Bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici Rule in Florence.” The Art Bulletin 83, no. 1 (2001): 32.

 

 

Student essay – The Bible and the politics of assisted dying

Today’s student essay invites us to reflect on the sensitive topic of assisted dying. It was written by Andrew Cardy, a recent graduate of the University of Auckland, as part of his course work for our popular General Education course, The Bible in Popular Culture (THEOREL 101G). Andrew has just completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Honours, and a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and History. He is currently researching Pedagogical Games at the University of Auckland, and looks to complete his Masters qualification in the near future. As well as being a very hardworking student, Andrew is also a youth worker, a vestry member, and a synod representative of St. Andrew’s Epsom, here in Auckland.

Andrew’s essay considers the political debates around assisted dying, particularly the use of the Bible as a ‘cultural prop’ within these debates. I hope you enjoy.

assisted-dying

The Bible and Assisted Dying Bills

by Andrew Cardy

The Bible has been a popular point of reference in political discourse since its inception over 2,000 years ago. Within popular culture’s dialogue today the Bible serves as an authoritative, and at times instructive, tool that is widely appropriated by both the secular and religious alike. The current political rhetoric regarding euthanasia (henceforth referred to as ‘assisted death’) is indicative of this. Utilising this case study as a springboard, this essay will discuss the Bible’s use as a ‘cultural prop’ in contemporary politics today. After unpacking this term, focus will turn to the two key points of contention in the assisted dying debate, concluding with a brief summary of New Zealand’s current political rhetoric on the issue. The interest of this investigation is not in valuing one side of the debate over the other, but rather in assessing their various uses of the Bible in the creation of their claims.

Nations with a strong bond between Church and State often offer political discourse riddled with both implicit and explicit references to the Bible. The perception of the politician responsible is the primary concern, rather than the literal meaning of the text. The Bible is cited in order to prop up the individual’s public persona (Crossley 2014, 42). In this way the Bible is used as a ‘Cultural Prop’, defined by Yale Professor Joel Baden as a means of affirming certain personal religious values within a political context (2014). The Bible’s iconic form as a means of moral and ethical instruction informs such a use, as prospective voters or viewers are more likely to be persuaded by its insertion into political rhetoric. The recent political debates around assisted death have led to examples of this type of use as evidenced in the USA and UK especially, where explicit reference to the Bible was present in a majority of submissions made on legislature (Rae 2016, 264). However, engagement with the text is often irresponsible, as Reverend Jonathan Clatworthy noted on the Carter v. Canada case, “consistency lay in political affiliation rather than theological argument: theologians could adapt biblical text… to reach the desired conclusions” (2015, 137).

Certainly the most pronounced, and perhaps the most fundamental, point of contention is around the ‘sanctity of life’ idea, the belief that all life is sacred. For those opposing the introduction of assisted death the most unshakeable assertion of all comes from commandment, “Thou shall not murder” (Exod. 20.13). The political precedent for this was most strongly advocated by Pope John Paul II in 1980 when he said, “no one can make an attempt on the life of a person without opposing God’s love, [constituting a] violation of the divine law [and] an attack on humanity.” A cultural and religious figure of extraordinary influence, the Pope’s message has the power to shift public opinion, as was the case in 1980. Since this momentous statement, the impetus has shifted onto the right to take away life as being reserved only for God, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1.21). Excerpts like that of Job 1:21 are present in the submission made by the Catholic Bishops of Alberta who wrote, “killing is not a medicine” (Smith et al 2016). These interpretations by the Pope and Bishops are derived from what Hauer and Young coined as the ‘historical world’, the world behind the text, which accounts for circumstances that existed at the time of the Bible’s inception.

Those who are in favour of the newly proposed legisature legalising assisted death have disputed this use of the Bible as being out of touch, as Professor Ron Hamel wrote, “euthanasia is not new… what seems new is the cultural context in which the question arises” (Hamel 1991, 15). Those such as Reverend Clatworthy contend that these passages were meant for an audience familiar with gladiators and high mortality rates, rather than the context of overpopulation that persists today (2015, 136). The assertion of this view is that modern science and medicine has allowed human life to be extended beyond the expectancy of the Bible’s “seventy years, or perhaps eighty” (Ps. 90.10). Lord George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, notably spoke in favour of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill in the UK. Carey reasons that “statements that… life is ‘sacred’ and ‘thou shalt not kill’… are too broad to be relevant,” instead he describes these principles as “the backcloth to the debate” (Carey 2015, 114). Lord Carey and his colleagues are herein applying the rhetoric of the Bible through the lens of the “contemporary world,” the world in front of the text itself. Interpretations of this kind place greater emphasis on the context of culture today, as the ability to extend life differentiates from God “forming man from the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2.7). In their use of scripture, those such as Lord Carey employ a dynamic equivalence translation, rather than the formal equivalence used by Pope John Paul II. In this way they use the thoughts of the passages rather than the actual words themselves in creating their argument to better suit a contemporary world context.

Alongside the debate around ‘sacredness of life’, another main point of contention is the question around the biblical themes of compassion and protection for the vulnerable. Those who have opposed the recent assisted dying bills rely on inferences from the Bible, such as that of the commandment, “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mk 12.31). Compassion in this instance is interpreted as referring to the continuing caring for one another as a primary concern. The recently proposed ‘End of Life Choice Bill’ in New Zealand prompted such a response from the Catholic Bishop caucus: “Legalising euthanasia would place the lives of the vulnerable at risk… the mark of a good society is its ability and willingness to care for those who are most vulnerable” (2013). Compassion here is given from a care perspective, like that of the Hippocratic Oath, which advocates the continued assistance to people even if they are in dire circumstances. This use of the Bible is termed by Robert Myles as the “Cultural Bible” which “refers to the use of the Bible beyond its typical confines of institutional religion” (2016, 138; c.f. Crossley 2014). The assertions made seek to underpin debate in a shared identity and shared responsibility, creating what Professor Paul Badham referred to as a “caring community” (Badham 2015, 198).

Lord Falconer and Lord Carey disputed these claims in the recent debates in the UK, instead asserting that it is more compassionate to give someone decency in death. The foundation for this line of debate does not often come directly from scripture, but rather from developments in science and technology. The research used states that not all pain can be stopped, in which cases sedation into a vegetative state is inevitable. Dr. Atul Gawande wrote, “we cannot be endlessly trying to simply preserve life. If is to have a purpose,” as many see sedation to be an unfit methodology (Webb 2014). The leading politicians for these assisted death proposals believe that assisted death is in fact a more compassionate and caring path. Leader of the ACT Party David Seymour said in his initial address to parliament, “there needs to be a more compassionate option in New Zealand”, as similarly Lord Falconer opened his legislate with, “For a person facing this prospect… the choice is cruel.” Here the sense of a “cultural bible” acquires fresh meaning, as the inferences of biblical scripture are appropriated in paraphrased translations. This appropriation of the Bible has some resonance with what Myles referred to as the “Radical Bible” in its advocacy of change and support in relief of the suffering (2016, 132; c.f. Crossley 2014). Though there is very little in terms of direct reference to the text, the Bible’s interpreted themes of care and justice offer the foundation for this scientifically supported understanding.

The contemporary context in New Zealand is ripe with instances of these implicit references to the Bible. As Myles wrote, “political discourse in New Zealand is, for the most part, decidedly secular” for politicians avoid explicit reference in fear of “alienating a large proportion of the population” (2016, 138). Instead the rhetoric of politicians such as David Seymour focuses on directing debate away from discussion of scripture, and instead into ideals like that of choice. In Seymour’s line of argument the Catholic backgrounds of politicians like Bill English and Simon O’Connor act as roadblocks for the vehicle of change (Moir 2016). In this discourse around the right to choice, Seymour is implicitly referencing the “Liberal Bible,” in his affirmation of individualism and democracy (Myles 2016, 140). Liberal lines of argument spring up in all his public rhetoric, as he positions himself as a “representative in a democracy to support the will of my people” (Grant 2015). This use of the Bible had success in Canada, where by focusing on the polling numbers of the voters instead of “attempting to balance competing values” the bill would irrevocably be put through (Rae 2015, 260). The moral concept of a shared community are put aside in using the Liberal Bible, as individualism is instead at the forefront, giving people the full autonomy of choice in pursuing their own individual beliefs. New Zealand offers a complementary demographic, consisting of myriad cultures held together by capitalist ideals of individuality, presenting Seymour a plausible ground from which to propose his legislation.

On Friday 14th October, David Seymour debated his proposed legislation at St. Luke’s Church, a progressive Presbyterian Church in Remuera, Auckland. In the discussions that follow this over the months to come, one should expect to see various uses of the Bible, both implicit and explicit, in addressing the sanctity of life and compassion for the vulnerable. As witnessed from other contemporary debates overseas, each of these arguments will likely be founded in scripture in one way or another. While the focus and emphasis of the two sides differ, in using the world inside or outside the text, or adhering to traditions of the Cultural, Radical or Liberal Bible, the political incentive will remain consistent – that is to use the Bible like a “cultural prop” in order to “buttress politicians’ existing agendas,” which, as Yvonne Sherword remarks, “has little to do with the text” (2012, 2; c.f. Myles 2016, 140). This use of the Bible will persist in contemporary politics as long as a voting demographic upholds it as a source for moral and ethical guidance. So for the foreseeable future, and the assisted dying debates to come, pay close attention to the rhetoric used, and realise your own religious and cultural background as well as that of the speakers in divining your own belief.

holyrood-getty
Getty Images

Bibliography

Baden, Joel. “What use is the Bible?” The Nantucket Project. Nantucket, Massachusetts. March 28, 2014.

Badham, Paul. “Assisted dying: an international overview.” Modern Believing 2, no. 56, 2015. pp. 197 – 208.

Carey, George. “Re-assessing assisted dying: a personal statement.” Modern Believing 2, no. 56, 2015. pp. 105 – 132.
Clatworthy, Jonathan. “The dilemmas we face today: assisted dying, life, death, technology and law.” Modern Believing 2, no. 56, 2015. pp. 134 – 144.

Crossley, James. Harnessing chaos: The Bible in English political discourse since 1968. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Grant, Nick. “Seymour begins his fight for End of Life Choice Bill.” Radio Broadcast. Produced by My NBR Radio. New Zealand, October 14, 2015.

Hamel, Ronald. Choosing Death: active euthanasia, religion, and the public debate. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991.

inthehouseNZ. “04.05.2016 – General Debate – Part 4.” Video Recording. Produced by Tandern Studios. Wellington, New Zealand: May 4, 2016.

Moir, Jo. “Euthanasia debate: what’s different about David Seymour’s bill?” Stuff. 28 January, 2016.
http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/euthanasia-debate/76021897/Euthanasia-debate-Whats-different-about-David-Seymours-bill

Myles, Robert. “Winston Peters ‘put his hand to the plow’: The Bible in New Zealand political discourse.” Journal of the Bible and its reception 3, no. 1, 2016, pp. 135-153.

“NZ Catholic Bishops message.” The Nathaniel Centre. 27 September, 2013.http://www.nathaniel.org.nz/euthanasia/23-campaigns/euthanasia/modal-windows/262-summary

Rae, Nicola. “New Zealanders’ Attitudes toward Physician-Assisted Dying.” Journal of Palliative Medicine 18, no. 2, 2015. Pp. 259 – 265

Richard Smith, et al. “Statement of the Catholic Bishops of Albertia on Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.” February 11, 2016.

“Sacred congregation for the doctrine of the faith: Declaration on euthanasia.” The Vatican. May 5th, 1980.http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19800505_euthanasia_en.html

Seymour, David. “Why I’ve prepared this Bill.” Life Choice. http://www.lifechoice.org.nz/

Sherwood, Yvonne. Biblical Blasphemy: Trial of the sacred for a secular age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2012.

Supreme Court of Canada. “Carter vs. Canada” Attorney General. SCC 5, 2015.

Webb, Justin. “Reith lecturer and rock-star doctor Atul Gawande on life, death and how to cure the NHS.” radiotimes.com, 25 November 2014. http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2014-11-25/reith-lecturer-and-rock-star-doctor-atul-gawande-on-life-death-and-how-to-cure-the-nhs.