We are delighted to welcome Professor Gerald West to speak at our TheoRel seminar next week. Gerald is Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and African Biblical Hermeneutics in the School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also Director of the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research, a project in which biblical scholars and African readers of the Bible from poor, working-class, and marginalized communities collaborate for social transformation. His most recent publication is The Stolen Bible: From Tool of Imperialism to African Icon (2016). He is currently based at the University of Otago working on a book project (Facilitating Interpretive Resilience: Biblical Scholarship, Local Communities, and the Bible as a Site of Struggle) as part of the De Carle Distinguished Lectureship.
Gerald’s lecture for us next week is titled, “Building biblical interpretive resilience and resistance in the context of gender violence”. Gerald will discuss the ways that the Bible is complicit in gender violence in South African (and other) contexts. So how do we work with a complicit Bible in the struggle for gender justice? He will draw on the praxis of the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research’s ‘Tamar Campaign’ and ‘Redemptive Masculinity Campaign’, reflecting on the participatory interpretive practices of the Ujamaa Centre’s work, using the story of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:1-22 as an example.
This event is co-hosted by the Shiloh Project, a joint initiative run by scholars at the Universities of Auckland, Sheffield, and Leeds. It fosters research into the intersections of religion and rape culture.
The lecture is free and open to everyone. We hope to see you there.
Today’s essay stays with our contemporary messiah theme, but looking at it a little differently. Rather than considering fictional characters in film and literature through the American Monomyth lens, today’s author, Emma Waymouth, considers the phenomenon of celebrity messiahs in popular culture, focusing in particular on the iconic figure of Beyoncé. Emma has lived in Auckland most of her life, and is currently studying for a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature and Psychology. She hopes to work eventually in mental health, focusing particularly on child health, and plans to begin volunteer work with Youthline next year. She is also looking forward to taking part in the University of Auckland’s 360º exchange programme in order to do part of her degree at the University of North Carolina. Emma took our Bible and Pop Culture course after a few friends recommended it to her, and she was interested to learn more about the subject.
This is an amazing essay – enjoy!
In the Name of Our Lord Beysus Christ: Beyoncé, Fandom and the Messiah figure
Beyoncé, the mononymous pop star, is one of the most famous and recognisable people in the world. Due to her immense talent as an artist and performer, unrelenting work ethic and excellent construction of her public image; Beyoncé has amassed a fan base, known as the Beyhive, which worships her in a fashion that is almost religious. In my essay I will be exploring this claim by discussing the ways in which Beyoncé exemplifies Lawrence and Jewett’s (2002) criteria for a messiah figure, and how that coincides with celebrity theory; exploring the reverence the Beyhive show her; and finally, by exploring Beyoncé’s own religiosity and her resulting refutation of her divine elevation.
According to Pete Ward’s (2011) definition of ‘celebrity’, Beyoncé is a true celebrity as she is known by a mononym, and is highly profitable due to that name and the fame it is associated with. Although, she has also transcended that category, moving in to the realm of “pop icon” wherein Ward states that “a star has to become a religious figure, to develop their own personality cult and to recruit followers”. This theory of celebrity ties in closely with Lawrence and Jewett’s theory of the American monomyth, wherein they emphasise how this figure minimises the complexity of humans, creating a dream world in which “no humans really live”. Thus, the Beyoncé we interact with, both as celebrity and messiah figure, is simply a symbolic rendering of the ideal human.
Beyoncé as a Messiah
The most vital aspect of Lawrence and Jewett’s criteria is the possession of “extraordinary powers”. Beyoncé has consistently proven her talent in the realm of music, both in her ability to effortlessly sing her way through songs of varying genres, and in her holistic artistic vision as showcased in Beyoncé (2013) and Lemonade (2016). Her dancing and acting ability are also much respected. Beyoncé herself, in a video diary leaked to the public (Reekz DC, 2010) refers to her musical talent as a “gift” that “God has given” her. This conveys that she herself is just as aware of the power and sanctity of her ability as her followers are. This gifting from God could be compared to the gifting of a prophetic path He gave to the prophet Moses, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” (Jeremiah 1:4-9). A resulting sense of nervous inadequacy is also a similarity between Moses and Beyoncé.
The second criterion is that of “unusual origins”. In Beyoncé’s case this would refer to the way in which she was effectively bred for stardom. This manifested in the extensive training she undertook as a child, primarily in the form of singing lessons (Lopez, 2015); as well as competing in talent shows that she regularly won (UnbornSuperstar88, 2013). Once she eventually did achieve professional success with girl group Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé herself was still effectively a child being only fifteen years of age. This origin story posits her as one of the lucky few who not only have talent but also the dedication to succeed in the competitive entertainment industry.
Another requisite of Lawrence and Jewett’s is that the figure remains ‘divinely competent’, something which is described as “deny[ing] the tragic complexities of human life”. This is an aspect of the messianic criteria that couples perfectly with the idea that superhuman infallibility is integral to the celebrity image. Something which Ward describes as celebrities representing “paradigms of the possible. As such they may be regarded almost as religious figures in that they present ideal forms of the self”. This manifests through Beyoncé’s carefully considered image, wherein she allows her art to speak for itself, giving few interviews and thus few chances to show weakness, or even ordinary human imperfection. Though, contrarily, relatability is also integral to celebrity, so there have been moments of vulnerability where Beyoncé has shared her struggles with miscarriage (Daily Mail, 2013) and unfaithfulness in a partner (Brennan, 2017). These admissions, and the way in which it has coloured her music, serve to humanise Beyoncé and allows fans to form a more intimate relationship with the star; this, in turn, contributes further to her elevation as a superhuman figure.
Another vital feature is that of a ‘selfless zeal for justice’. Beyoncé is involved in many philanthropic efforts; she heads her own charity called ‘Bey Good’ which the icon uses to fundraise for various relief efforts, support African-American students through a scholarship fund, and champion the achievements of women through regular blog posts featuring successful women and their stories (Beyoncé, 2017). She has recently, like Jesus the primary biblical messiah did in Matthew 14:13-21, returned to her native Houston to feed those who are without food due to hurricane Harvey. She has also routinely shown her support for the #BlackLivesMatter campaign by showing the hashtag during a video montage that paid tribute to the many Black Americans murdered by police in 2016(Peterson, 2016). She has also shown support to the mothers of these victims by having the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown appear in the Lemonade film.
The final criterion I’ll discuss is that of ‘renouncing sexuality’. This is part of the criteria as it removes the messiah figure from base human desire, elevating them above the animalistic urge. This is one aspect that Beyoncé does not fulfil, and the fact that she doesn’t is a powerful thing for her fans. Existing as a black woman in show business, Beyoncé has been scrutinised for her appearance and sexuality due to racist beauty ideals. Thus, the fact that she actively embraces and celebrates her sexuality in her music is powerful for her fans as it allows them to believe that they, too, could be (and are!) sexy and beautiful even if they don’t fit Eurocentric standards of beauty.
Coupled with these criteria for a messiah figure, Beyoncé also has a large fan following that shows her support and reverence, further casting her as a religious figure. These fans have congregated in to a fandom, described by Gray, Sandvoss and Lee Harrington (2007) as “a collective strategy, a communal effort to form interpretive communities”, meaning fandom could be interpreted as an active state of communal worship.
Fandom as Religious Worship
Beyoncé’s fanbase, commonly referred to as the ‘Beyhive’, are another contributing factor to Beyoncé’s messianic elevation. Lawrence and Jewett refer to fandom as forming a “new form of religious community”; with Ward echoing Ellis Cashmore’s continuation of this notion, even going so far as to trace the root of the word ‘fan’ to the Latin ‘fanaticus’, meaning ‘of the temple’. Thus, through fandom Beyoncé is moved from the realm of the profane to that of the sacred. This manifests primarily through the use of religious language and imagery when discussing Beyoncé, as evidenced by the affectionate nickname, ‘Beysus Christ’, and a popular meme wherein Beyoncé’s head is photoshopped on to an image of the Virgin Mary. There are also various other memes wherein Beyoncé is referred to as a saviour of the people. This role of saviour is one that is prevalent within the Beyhive, with many fans purportedly claiming that Beyoncé saved them from poor self-image and from mental health issues such as depression (Hill, 2017). This healing is messianic in the way that Jesus, too, healed people; “Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them” (Matthew 12:15).
Due to the vocal nature of the Beyhive, the fandom’s reverence of Beyoncé is well known both publicly and by the star herself. Beyoncé is a highly religious woman, a practicing Christian who is devoted to God and has a large belief in prayer (The Jesus Network, 2017); thus, it is no surprise that Beyoncé does not wish herself to be seen as divinity. This resistance is showcased in the line, ‘God is God and I am Not’, that appears in Lemonade. The monosyllabic nature of the line portrays, rather blatantly, that Beyoncé does not wish to be viewed as a divine figure. Though, interestingly, she does not give a description of what she ‘is’ – perhaps, still, she is more than human. The importance of this sentiment is reinforced through the issuing of the latest Beyoncé merchandise where the line appears multiple times (Beyoncé, 2017).
Celebrity is a construction that allows for, and encourages, an almost religious worship of a public figure. In keeping with Lawrence and Jewett’s theory of the monomyth, both phenomena require a certain dehumanisation of the figure in question. Beyoncé most definitely is a star that fulfils these criteria, as someone who has been elevated from the realm of the profane, garnering an almost religious sense of worship and adoration from her fans. She is both a true celebrity, and an almost messiah.
All references to Biblical texts are from the NRSV.
Carrying on our conversation around the pop culture figure of the ‘super-saviour’, today’s essay tackles one of the most popular figures to be identified as a modern messiah: Harry Potter. The author of this most fabulous essay is Saiyami Mehta, who is an Indian-born NZ student who has just completed her third year of study here at the University of Auckland. Saiyami is majoring in Geography and History, and plans to continue towards a PhD in environmental degradation and indigenous community involvement. She opted to do our Bible and Popular Culture course because she was intrigued to learn more about the Bible’s significance as a cultural text within contemporary contexts.
Saiyami has written a stellar essay here, focusing on J.K. Rowling’s novel series, so I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
The trials and tribulations of ‘The Boy who Lived’: Harry Potter’s GenZ struggle with his messiah complex
The dichotomy between good and evil has been a pervasive aspect of literature for eons. The Bible itself constantly addresses the age-old difficulty of differentiating one from the other, imploring mankind to “be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil (Proverbs 3:7).” It is this persistent struggle between the two that in antiquity led to a requirement in humanity for a powerful emissary – a messiah, or saviour figure – that would lead them to political or earthly salvation. The crucifixion of Jesus however, led to a transformation in the status of a messiah as becoming a bringer of redemption. Originating from the Hebrew word mashiach, meaning “anointed or chosen one”, the term has consistently been used as a template for saviour-figures in pop culture texts. None however, have melded into the twenty-first century messiah-mould (as characterised by the American monomyth) as fluidly as Harry Potter. This essay addresses the unusual origins, eventual desire for vengeance, and resistance to temptations of The Boy Who Lived as he, often unwillingly, took up the mantle of super-savior in the wizarding world to face Lord Voldemort. Alongside this, there are parallels drawn between the characters and events of the Harry Potter books with the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus.
Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces led the discussion on the archetypal storyline for heroic exploits in time-honoured tales during the late 1940s, and till date sets the scene for the plot of any cultural texts’ heroes. The Campbellian monomyth asserts that the hero travels from his own world into one of otherworldly facets, encounters dark forces that require resistance, emerges victorious and returns as a super-saviour figure for his people (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, p.5). This structure vaguely fits the template for the Harry Potter books, but the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist, Lord Voldemort, is far more complex than what is established in the classical monomyth, and represents the values of the more contemporary American version. Harry’s origins for example, are shown to be tied very early on in the books with Voldemort, resulting in his orphan (and thus unusual) status. Similarities between the Bible and Harry Potter are consistently displayed in the text and movies, particularly with the presence of temptations.
The Book of Genesis discusses the Garden of Eden, and how Adam and Eve, despite being warned, ate from the Tree of Knowledge, spurred on by the serpent, and as a result, “the eyes of both were opened (Genesis 3:1-7)”, meaning that they became aware of themselves and as such, incurred the displeasure of God. Temptations are frequently presented in front of Harry, often with Voldemort as the instigator. In The Philosopher’s Stone, Voldemort (through Quirrell) tempts Harry with promises of resurrecting his parents in exchange for the stone, asserting that “there is no good and evil. There is only power, and those too weak to seek it” (p.211). Harry, unlike Eve, rejects the temptation, thus establishing himself from the first book as a protagonist who willingly renounces mortal enticements for the greater good.
That is not to say that Harry possessed the otherworldly level of renouncing his desires as other messianic characters like Jesus. Certainly, it can be argued that in many instances, Harry put his own desires over the well-being of others or himself, such as his period of visions regarding the Department of Mysteries in The Order of the Phoenix, where ultimately the combination of curiosity and urgency to save Sirius Black led to the latter’s death. Nevertheless, the overarching understanding of a messiah is that the trials and tribulations they face often hurt yet strengthened them for the ultimate task of fighting the ultimate evil (Neal 2007, p.108). The Bible habitually dwelt on this crucial aspect of a messiah’s character development, stating that the sufferer must “consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance (James 1:2-4).”
The eventual development of Harry’s messianic status is further cemented however, through his continued renouncements of temptations in later books, such as in The Goblet of Fire when he gives his prize winnings to the Weasley twins (pp.635-6). Nothing could further cement his messianic quality of being above worldly desires however, than the statement Griphook makes vis-à-vis Harry’s character: “If there was a wizard of whom I would believe that they did not seek personal gain, it would be you, Harry Potter” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, p.394). This serves to show why Harry Potter can be granted the messianic status in the wizarding world.
The construct of social hierarchy provided a considerable support for how the wizarding world and Harry interacted. The creation of followers is a predominant aspect of a messiah figure, but in the case of Harry, the undertaking of the role as leader appeared to have persistently chafed. Interestingly, the decision to refuse the proverbial ‘call to greatness’ was made well before Harry had any capabilities to answer. When Sybil Trelawney prophesied that a child born at the end of July would be able to defeat the Dark Lord (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,p.741), Harry’s parents went into hiding until they were slain, which again hints at the digression taken by this messiah from the traditional path to greatness (Lytle 2013, p.29). This act of resistance of the title of leader remains a constant attribute of Harry’s innate nature, but by the final confrontation with Voldemort, Harry displays his messianic qualities by accepting that it has to be him. The gradual development of followers for Harry Potter provides further evidence of his messianic status in the wizarding world. This didn’t derive out of any quasi-divine powers on part of the protagonist; Harry’s entire existence indicated to many who studied or came into contact with him that here was someone who could bring about change. Ari Armstrong argues that it is Harry’s determination to keep his friends (and eventual followers) safe in all situations that ultimately generates faith in him amongst his peers (Armstrong 2011, p.52).
The Book of Exodus provides a similar account of Moses, who was disturbed by the treatment of his fellow Jews at the hands of the Egyptians, and began to lead them to the promised land, albeit unwillingly. Many parallels can be drawn between Moses and Harry, specifically their disinclination at becoming any sort of leader. Moses almost ceaselessly restates to God his inability to convince the Jews (Exodus 4:10-13; Exodus 6:9-12). Hermione has to explain to Harry why he is needed to start Dumbledore’s Army: “Harry, don’t you see? This… is exactly why we need you. We need to know what it’s really like facing him… facing Voldemort” (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, p.293). Harry’s courage is what eventually helps his followers and himself to gather and put their energies into following through with the plans constructed by Harry and Dumbledore, even if they don’t always see the benefits. Alongside this however, is the method by which Harry produced support for his cause during times of adversity.
In the Order of the Phoenix, Harry secretly gives an interview to Rita Skeeter about Voldemort, inciting many, like Seamus Finnigan to conclude that “he believes him” (500-514). The American monomyth explains that the followers of the super-savior often consist of women who require a white dominant male to lead them, but the Harry Potter saga steps away from this idea and combine the formidable power and intelligence of many female followers of Harry (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, p.8). Both Ginny and Hermione prove time and time again both their loyalties to Harry and their own talents. Ginny stands up for him in the second book against Draco Malfoy, while Hermione has frequently aided the Chosen One with notes from classes. The overall argument therefore can be made that while the messianic figure of Harry Potter generated considerable support, despite his reluctance, there was not as much of a depiction of him as a sole leader, all pervasive and powerful, but rather a well-chosen hero who had followers that provided him with advice.
The contemporary figure of Harry Potter provided its generation with a figure that certainly showed messianic characteristics, but not one that attached itself completely to the template of the American monomyth. The trials and tribulations of The Boy who Lived served to show both Harry and his friends the fruits of resisting temptations, and this was a key aspect of his depiction as a messiah for the wizarding world. The fact that an eleven-year-old orphan was capable of putting aside hopes, even false ones, about meeting his lost parents in order to do what was right showed that while he may not have chosen to be raised on a pedestal and followed as a leader, it was this reluctance and keen sense of equality with his followers that perhaps made Harry Potter an effective messiah of a cultural text.
All references to the Biblical text are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Armstrong, Ari. “Religion in Harry Potter – Do J. K. Rowling’s novels promote religion or undermine it?”. Skeptic Magazine Volume 17 Issue 1, December 2011.
Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.
Lytle, Amy. “Defense Against the Dark Arts: Harry Potter and the Allegory for Evil.” Honours Thesis, Regis University, 2013.
Neal, Connie, W. Wizards, wardrobes and wookiees: Navigating good and evil in Harry Potter, Narnia and Star Wars. InterVarsity Press, 2007.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997.
Rowling. J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000.
Rowling. J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007.
Continuing our focus on contemporary prophetic figures, today’s student essay discusses the prophetic credentials of twentieth-century social activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980). The essay is written by Lauren Wilks, who is from Nelson, NZ. She has just completed her second year of study for a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Economics and International Business. Next year, she plans to spend a semester in Mexico on the University of Auckland’s 360° student exchange programme. Lauren took our Bible and Pop Culture course upon a recommendation by her elder sister who took the course in 2012 and enjoyed it a great deal. Lauren assures me she loved it just as much! Her essay is fabulous, so we hope you enjoy learning more about the amazing figure of Dorothy Day.
Living for more than today
“…God did not intend that there be so many poor… we are urging revolutionary change.”
(Day, cited in Barrett, 2017)
Summarised in her own words, Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a passionate pacifist and one of the most well-known Catholic social activists in history. Her uncompromising vision for social justice caused disturbance among the status quo, but generated lasting change to society’s role in serving the poor. Borg (2001) established a framework to define biblical prophets, which we can use to determine if a modern-day figure or group fulfills a similar prophetic function. Fulfilling all six criteria of Borg’s definition, Dan can be seen as effectively performing a prophetic role. This essay will conclude Day is a contemporary prophet, focusing on her disturbance of social norms, her prophetic action to fight for social justice, and her relationship with God. The biblical texts of Isaiah 58, Isaiah 20, Ezekiel 2 and Isaiah 41, will be used throughout to relate Day to the biblical prophets.
Borg (2001) explains that Biblical prophets disturbed dominant discourses, not just accepting, but challenging the status quo to fight for something they believed in. In Isaiah 58, Isaiah encourages the confrontation of injustice. He challenges false compared to true worship, stating religious practices are in vain if there are people who are oppressed, Isaiah 58:1, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion…” Day’s message of social justice, focused on pacifism and serving the poor. She confronted those in the church who were living comfortably, favouring the rich and powerful, while the poor were continuously mistreated. She insisted that the “church is the cross on which Christ is crucified”and that social injustice was an insult to Christ (Forest, n.da, para.23). Her heart for social justice was derived from Jesus’ message, particularly the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Day took this scripture of Jesus’ moral teaching and truly lived it out (Allison, n.d). Like Isaiah, she understood working for and being with the poor was an essential part of being Christian: “share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them” (Isaiah 58:7). She considered it immoral to call yourself Christian without acting out what the Bible requires. Day had a focused vision, which is evident in the following excerpt from her writings: “To follow the gospel teaching of the works of mercy. If your brother is hungry, feed him, shelter him. How can you show your love for God except by love for your brother and sister? The one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he hasn’t seen?” (Dear, 2011, para.28).
Day also challenged society to evaluate how everyone’s work benefits (or not) the wider community. She believed jobs in finance and advertising led to social tension by making people desire possession they did not need (Hinson-Hasty, 2014). Through her message of social justice, Day was a founding encourager in the Catholic Church expanding their outreach (Bailey, Ohlheiser & Zak, 2015).
Day lived in the 20th century, a time where many believed they were obliged to serve their country during war. She was outspoken in her anti-war stance and did not accept that moral conditions ratify war (Parachin, 2016). Her message addressed people in power, particularly Church leaders as throughout history, Popes had blessed armies and supported crusades (Forest, n.db). The Church had accepted ‘just war’, but Day wanted non-violence to become a fundamental Christian principle. Her pacifist views were revolutionary to the Church, in that she claimed violence contradicted biblical values as it fortified the rich and devastated the poor (Coy, 1988). She believed that in order to achieve peace, the most vulnerable needed to be helped. Like the prophet in Isaiah 58, she did not hold back in telling the Church their shortcomings. In writing to the Vatican Council, she said war was a crime against God and man (Fox, 2015). Although her message was radical at the time, it has since been accepted and adopted by many. Pope Francis named her one of the four most influential Americans in history. His support of Day’s non-violent ideologies shows the development in the Churches attitude towards peace and social justice (Bailey et al., 2015). Her willingness to critique the system and not accept that poverty was a normal part of society saw many touched by her message of justice and humility. Day clearly fulfills Borg’s criteria of disturbing social norms to bring about revolutionary change.
Another criterion is that Biblical prophets took action to amplify their message, translating prophetic speech into prophetic action (Borg, 2001). With reference to Isaiah 20:1-5, both Day and the prophet Isaiah used action to signify the importance of their messages. Isaiah protested the military alliance between Judah and Egypt, “Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent…” (Isaiah 20:3). Day always focused on what she could do, taking Catholic theology and putting it into action in prophetic ways (Chapp, 2015). Rather than helping the poor during the day, then returning to her comfortable home at night, Day fully immersed herself in a life of poverty to proclaim the importance of her vision (Chapp, 2015).
In May 1933, Day and Peter Maurin, a French revolutionary, started the Catholic Worker newspaper to synthesise Catholic social teaching and social justice (Xiaoyu, 2010). Her decision to live in voluntary poverty meant she was greatly empathetic, writing to and on behalf of the poor. The newspaper became a beacon of hope by confronting the oppressive system. She wrote about social injustices, using scripture to challenge the Church in failing to exemplify the Gospel message, but also to inspire action to help those in need. Her pacifist views caused division within the Catholic Worker movement, with those who believed war was justified breaking away from the movement. Even though her message was controversial, the complaints the Church received about the newspaper did not stop Day from publishing it despite its loss of popularity during the wars (Bailey et al., 2015).
The actions Day took were to fulfil God’s will. Drawing on Matthew 6:10, she said, “We are working for ‘a new heaven and a new earth, wherein justice dwelleth.’ We are trying to say with action, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’” (Zwick, n.d, para.12). Her writings on social justice drew those in need into Catholic homes, which led to the creation of the Houses of Hospitality. Day believed hospitality was part of Christian tradition, using the houses to live out biblical values (1 Peter 4:8-9). They provided food and shelter to the needy, and as Day’s message confronted the rich and powerful, the houses gave them an opportunity to serve the poor (Barnette, 2011). There was controversy around who was accepted into the homes, as some believed not all were ‘deserving poor’. Day replied by saying, as family in Christ, they were welcome to stay forever (Forest, n.db). She established and inspired many houses, by 1936, there were 33 houses throughout the US, with a growing need during the Great Depression (Forest, n.db). The movement continues today, with 200 Catholic Worker communities and 40 Catholic Worker Houses (Bailey et al., 2015).
Day spent her whole life serving others. Further actions she took for the oppressed include protesting outside the White House for women’s suffrage, which led to the first of seven imprisonments, and going on a hunger strike to protest poor jail conditions (Barnette, 2011). It is evident Day fulfils Borg’s criteria of prophetic action. With the Catholic Worker newspaper and the Houses of Hospitality, her life-long commitment of personal sacrifice translating vision into action.
Borg (2001) found the prophets to be passionate about both God and justice, a two-fold relationship between the world and spiritual realm. Day’s intimate relationship and experiences with God were the source of her vision for social justice (Dear, 2011). In Ezekiel 2, the spirit of the Lord commissioned Ezekiel to speak God’s word to the rebellious Israel, “…I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (Ezekiel 2:4). Day did not hear the audible voice of God calling her to serve the poor like Ezekiel and other Biblical prophets did, but God spoke to her through the Bible (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). Because she had an extensive knowledge of the Bible, she weaved scripture into her writings to convey not her message, but Jesus’ message. Using scripture as God’s mouthpiece, she once said, “If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God” (Howell, 2017, p.97). Borg (2001) sees the prophet’s dream as God’s dream. Day fulfils this criterion as she lived beyond herself, challenged by Jesus’ message to serve the poor (Mark 10:21). Daily spiritual devotions strengthened her knowledge and connection with God, which equipped her to face the challenges her fight for social justice bought (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). She said, “When God asks great things of us, great sacrifices,” (Ellsberg, 2010, para.11). The prophet Isaiah experienced great suffering in his life. Through the trials, he continually looked to God to renew his strength and protect him. Isaiah 41:10, “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you.” Day experienced discomfort in voluntary poverty. She let go of worldly possession as she believed to truly serve, was to give out of nothing (Hinson-Hasty, 2014). This was not easy, but her intimate relationship with God, through scripture and prayer, sustained her vision for justice.
Since Day’s passing in 1980, her message has remained relevant and is evident in the Catholic Church’s outreach. She is often drawn upon as a source of inspiration, upholding values of peace, community, and integration of faith and acts (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). It is clear Ezekiel was known as a prophet, Ezekiel 2:5, “Whether they hear or refuse to hear… they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” The Catholic Church has not named Day a prophet, but have identified her as an extraordinary person by commencing an inquiry into her canonisation (Catholic News Service, 2016). Elevating her to this status recognises her exceptional life and challenging vision of hope.
To summarise, Day can be regarded as a contemporary prophetic figure as defined by Borg. Her willingness to speak out for social justice, promoting pacifism and voluntary poverty, disturbed social norms. She used prophetic action through the Catholic Worker newspaper, Houses of Hospitality and protests, to solidify her vision. She believed in a personal God, and her strong relationship with him was the foundation of her mission. Although controversial at the time, her relentless commitment to pacifism and personal responsibility to the poor has continued to be an inspiration (Fox, 2015). Day’s legacy leaves a challenge, live out the Gospel and bear witness in everyday life (Ellsberg, 2010).
All Biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version
Today, our essay continues on the theme from previous days about prophetic figures in contemporary popular culture. One of our most popular essay topics, students discuss the ways that various contemporary figures perform some of the same functions for which the biblical prophets were renowned, albeit in new secular contexts. Today, Francesca Lamont Vince discusses the prophetic credentials of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, arguing that he too performed a distinctively prophetic role during his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Francesca is an Aucklander, studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Media Studies and Art History. In the future, she hopes to travel overseas and fulfill her dream of becoming an art curator or art dealer. She took our Bible and Popular Culture course because she is familiar with the Bible and enjoyed learning about the ways societies interpret biblical texts and continue to portray them within contemporary culture. And she wrote a marvellous essay that I hope you all enjoy.
Martin Luther King Jr:
A Modern-day Prophet Who Paved the Path to Equality and Justice
This essay compares Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to revered civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., and will conclude that King’s integral role in the Civil Rights Movement parallels the role of a biblical prophet. Like the biblical prophets, Martin Luther King Jr. had a passion for social justice, and devoted his life to liberating an oppressed group of people from unjust social systems. He maintained a close relationship with God and upheld the principles of his religion. He had a vision of racial equality and civil rights for all American citizens. King can be considered a modern-day prophet who delivered hope to the African American community. This essay will draw upon Marcus Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to demonstrate that King had similar attributes and a similar role within his contemporary society.
Borg argues that a prophetic figure emerges from a situation of oppression by the elites (Borg 127). Martin Luther King Jr. was raised in a society engrained with racial prejudices and discriminatory ideologies regarding black Americans. The mistreatment of African American people and institutionalized racism remained an inherent aspect of American society that King was exposed to. He studied in a segregated school, used segregated buses, witnessed extreme poverty around his neighbourhood, witnessed police brutality against black Americans, and he was racially abused, humiliated and insulted on a regular basis. Furthermore, as an African American person, King never had the full rights of a citizen and was an outsider in a systemically oppressive society.
The oppression suffered by the African American people parallels that of the Israelite people in the bible. Borg argues that biblical prophets such as Moses, emerged to indict the elites, their domination systems and their egalitarian social vision (128). Similarly, King emerged and began challenging existing elitist structures and authorities that were racially unjust. Therefore, Martin Luther King Jr. fulfils Borg’s definition as he emerged from an oppressive society and interceded on behalf of the oppressed African American community for justice and liberation.
According to Borg, a prophetic figure exercises a passion for social justice (Borg 118). King advocated on behalf of the oppressed African American population and demonstrated a prophetic concern for social justice and equality. Firstly, he orchestrated many events, marches and protests in his effort to achieve justice for the African American community, and he dedicated his life to nonviolent resistance against social injustices. In a letter he composed while in Birmingham Jail in 1963, he claimed that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ (King 6). King defended the rights of African American people and protested for equality. King’s concern with achieving social justice can be compared to the biblical prophet Moses. After being approached by God in Exodus 3, Moses pledges to deliver the oppressed Hebrew people out of Egypt (Exod. 3:7).
Similarly, King advocated on behalf of the African American people, who were victims of oppressive and racist regimes in America. He wanted to end discriminatory ideologies that were engrained in American society. He also wanted to abolish unjust laws against black people and establish justice for all. King used his privileged identity as an educated pastor to advocate and provide solidarity to those who were suffering at the hands of the oppressors (Slessarev-Jamir 28). His plight for social justice could also mirror the message preached by the biblical prophet Amos in the Old Testament. Amos said to ‘Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice’ (Amos 5: 12-15). Amos rebuked inhumane treatment of the disadvantaged and oppressed, and emphasized the practice of righteous behaviour. Martin Luther King Jr. put this message into practice in his fight to gain equal rights for the African American citizens. Unlike Amos however, King did not condemn the perpetrators of racism but rather he preached to ‘Love your enemies’ and that manifested itself in his nonviolent resistance approach (Ramsay 34). Overall, King denounced and protested moral evils, social inequalities and unjust social systems. In this way, he can be considered a social justice leader and thus fulfils one of Borg’s fundamental conceptions of a prophetic figure.
Borg argues that prophets gained their inspiration, sense of mission and passion through their relationship with God and their religion (123-124). King was brought up in a Christian family, and was therefore exposed to Christian teachings. In 1954, he commenced his pastoral ministry in Montgomery. Thus, he was deeply familiar with the Christian teachings and values. Borg proposed that biblical prophets were agents of God, and that their purpose was to articulate God’s “dream” and purpose (138). It is evident that God was central in King’s life and motivated his actions as a leader. Essentially, King thought of himself as a mediator between God and Man, as he wanted to impart the divine wisdom of God to the American society. In his autobiography, he stated ‘I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him before’ (Ramsay 36). He wrote that an inner voice told him to ‘stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forever’ (36).
Calling on God to answer for suffering can be considered an important aspect of contemporary religious prophetic activism (Slessarev-Jamir 37). King felt that is was his calling and duty as a Christian to bear God’s message of love and justice for all, and that manifested itself in the Civil Rights Movement he led. A quote from Deuteronomy captures the essence of a prophet as a mouthpiece for God, as King himself was. ‘I will raise up for them a prophet, like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command’ (Deut. 18:18-19).
Furthermore, Borg argues that biblical prophets acquired the courage for their mission from God (124). Just as the biblical prophet Jeremiah was beaten, threatened with death, and imprisoned, King too suffered death threats and acts of aggression, such as bombing and imprisonment (Borg 125). King remained resilient and brave in the face of the violent threats that were imposed on him and he indebted this courage to God. During the movement, King’s nonviolent approach toward the opposition was largely inspired by his Christian values. He encouraged the activists to passively resist against their oppressors, rather than impose violence. In his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ he stated, ‘I’m grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood’ (King 1). King therefore drew upon his Christianity to endorse nonviolent resistance. Upon analysing King’s actions and approaches during the civil rights movement, it is fair to say he was influenced by and highly connected to his spirituality and his relationship with God, just as the biblical prophets were. He not only considered his mission a moral responsibility, but also his responsibility as God’s devout servant.
Borg argues that prophets practiced ‘prophetic energizing’ to generate hope, and a vision of a better future (130). King shared a vision and dream for equality, liberation and civil rights for all American people. In his famous ‘I have a Dream Speech’ in 1963, King’s vision for the future is explicitly communicated. He argued that it was time to make ‘real promises of democracy,’ to achieve racial justice and to fulfil God’s vision of equality between all men (Sundquist and Miller 230). King then shared his aspirations and vision for the future of America, in the hopes that he would inspire his audiences. He stated, ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character…that little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers’ (232-33).
Similarly, Amos’ writings invoked hope and the prospect of change in the future. King acknowledged this when he quoted Amos in his speech; ‘let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24). This is also an example of the way King utilized the radical bible to communicate his message of hope and change. Throughout his career, King often alluded to the ‘Promised Land’ predominantly spoken about by Moses in the bible (Exod. 12:25). He refers to the ‘Promised Land’ to arouse hope and the prospect of a better future for America. King fulfils the role of prophet as consoler, giving hope to the otherwise hopeless hearer (Rabe 25). King’s speeches, sermons and writings embodied a prophetic rhetoric, and he empowered the African American people by sharing a ‘dream’ and vision of equality to come.
Overall, Martin Luther King Jr. can be considered a prophetic figure because he initiated change in his community and had a dream for social reformation in America. This essay has compared King to Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet. King emerged from an oppressive, racist society with unjust systems, and embodied the role of a prophetic figure who challenged this. He had an immense passion for social justice, similar to that expressed by Moses and Amos in the bible. Furthermore, King was largely influenced by the principles of his religion and believed his actions were guided by God. Lastly, King delivered a hopeful vision of the future to the American people, that of a nation who embodied equality and justice.
All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV.
Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Harper San Francisco, 2001.
King Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Letter from Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963, pp.1-12.
Rabe, Kent T. The False Security of the Believer. Xulon Press, 2008.
Ramsay, William M. Four Modern Prophets: Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gustavo Gutiérrez, Rosemary Radford Ruether. Westminster John Knox Press, 1986.
Slessarev-Jamir, Helene. Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America. NYU Press, 2011.
Sundquist, Eric J. and Mark Crispin Miller. King’s Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech. Yale University Press, 2009.
Today’s student 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.
Jacindamania: Analysing the Election of Biblical Proportions
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet: The Fictional Messiah U.S. Politics Always Needed
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
All references to the Biblical Text are from the New International Version (NIV).
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.
‘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.
 John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero, Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans, 2002, p.6
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
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.
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.
However, 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. 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.
The 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.
The 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.
An 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.
In 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.
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.
 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.
All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV
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.
Protector of the Realm, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons: Daenerys Targaryen as a Christ Figure in Game of Thrones
“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.
Fig 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.
Fig 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.
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”.
Fig 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.
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.