Student spotlight #14: A Saviour from the East

Today’s essay continues our theme of contemporary messiahs, or super saviours, which we’ve explored over the past few days. What makes this one a little different though is that the super saviour figure appears in a Japanese animated fantasy film, Princess Mononoke (more details here), rather than the more typical Western superhero brand. The author of this fab essay is Isabelle Steinman, who hails from sunny Hawke’s Bay. Isabelle is studying a Bachelor of Arts and Science conjoint, majoring in mathematics, physics, and philosophy. She hopes to carry on to do postgraduate study and likes the idea of working in academia one day. She took our Bible and Pop Culture class because, although an atheist, she has always been interested in religion, particularly religious art and architecture, and is fascinated by the impact that religion has on everybody’s lives, regardless of their personal beliefs.

Although I’ve never seen Princess Mononoke myself, Isabelle’s essay has made me want to watch it – so, whether or not you are familiar with this film, I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading what she has to say.
Ashitaka
Ashitaka

Princess Mononoke– a Story of Gods, Demons and a Cursed Messiah

Isabelle Steinmann

mononokeMessiahs are everywhere in pop-culture. Characterised by a selfless passion for justice, a black and white moral code, extraordinary powers and an outsider status they maintain a strong connection with divinity or spirituality whilst remaining human. (Reinhartz, 2009). These Christ figures appear not only in Western culture but also in the East as is demonstrated in Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 animated film, Princess Mononoke.

 After being cursed while killing a demon that was attacking his tribe, Ashitaka is forced to cut his hair, leave his people and journey far to the West in order to meet his fate. He arrives in a land caught in a struggle between the humans of Irontown and the gods of the forest. As he is able to move between the warring sides, he befriends both San, the ‘daughter’ of the wolf god Moro, and Lady Eboshi, the mistress of Irontown. Ashitaka possesses many Christ-like qualities. He is set apart from other characters by his unusual ways and his extraordinary strength and he is driven by a commitment to justice for which he eventually sacrifices himself and is resurrected.

Throughout the film, Ashitaka ‘otherness’ is emphasised. His unusual origins and extraordinary strengths distinguish him from other characters. Often referred to as ‘stranger’ or ‘outsider’ (Miyazaki, 1997), it is clear that the other characters do not see him as one of them. Ashitaka comes from the marginalised Emishi tribe that was believed to have been eradicated hundreds of years earlier. Separated from the culture that was advancing towards a technological future, the Emishi people are portrayed as the ‘guardians of ancient wisdoms of the forest’ (Bigelow, 2009). Unlike the other humans in the film, Ashitaka grew up with a strong connection with and respect for the natural world. We see this when Ashitaka saves two men of Irontown, carrying them home through the ‘forbidden forest’ (Miyazaki, 1997). While the men are terrified of the ethereal kodama (tree spirits), Ashitaka trusts the spirits to guide them through the forest saying that they are ‘a sign this forest is healthy’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Ashitaka’s unusual origins give him a different perspective to other characters in the film. He is not worried about wealth or power but has a deep-seated interest in nature and the preservation of life.

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Ashitaka is also separated from other characters by his incredible, but still very human, strengths. The nature with which he returns the men to Irontown grants him a mixed reception. While the townspeople are grateful that their men are alive, they do not wholly trust this strange man who managed to travel through the taboo forest with two badly injured men; it is something they would not have dreamed possible. Ashitaka’s strength and fighting abilities seem almost unnatural to the other characters. ‘You fight like a demon’ (Miyazaki, 1997), one character tells Ashitaka. This emphasises both the magnitude and nature of Ashitaka’s powers. His strength, determination and archery skills, while god-like in measure, are human powers in essence. Ashitaka is only human and he does suffer under human hardships. This is important as, in order to be a relatable, and therefore successful, messiah he must have ‘the same limitations and weaknesses as an ‘ordinary’ and finite human being’ (Deacy, 1999).

Despite his humanity, it is still through a screen of suspicion that the other characters respect Ashitaka for his strengths. Mysterious, powerful, and therefore potentially dangerous, Ashitaka must be ‘othered’. It is this outsider status, which is common for messiah figures (Kozlovic, 2004), that allows Ashitaka to move between worlds and act in a messianic role. Messiahs, as semi-holy figures, must represent desirable values whilst being set apart from the rest of us. They are figures that we should aspire to be like. Human, and familiar enough to be relatable while being separate enough to revere.

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Ashitaka’s incredible strength is balanced by his incredible love and respect for life. He is driven by a desire for peace and committed to his beliefs in justice. When these two values come into conflict, Ashitaka suffers. He wants to end violence but often must use violence to do so. When we first meet Ashitaka, he is protecting his people from a terrible demon. The creature seethes with writhing, black worms but even so Ashitaka first tries to reason with it. ‘Calm your fury, oh mighty lord’ (Miyazaki, 1997), he pleads. However, when the beast threatens some villagers, Ashitaka is forced to take decisive action, killing the demon with his bow and arrow. Ashitaka knows what is right but he still struggles to enforce it. He wants to protect the innocent and fight for the weak or ashikta 2marginalised but it pains him to take life and he does this only when there is no other option. We see this again when Ashitaka reflects on killing two samurai who were brutally attacking another village. ‘I was wrong to fight in that village’, he says, ‘two men are dead because of me’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Although he knows his actions were justified and that his skills gave him a unique power to help the defenceless villagers, he still feels a ‘reluctance to use those skills to do harm’ (Kraemer, 2016). Ashitaka’s complex moral code separates him from classic messiah figures. He does not rationalise the violence he uses but instead feels the weight of every life he takes. He is cursed not only with the mark on his arm but also by the guilt of the violence he must use.

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Ashitaka’s desires are different from all other characters in the film resulting in him not taking a side in the conflict. It is not any particular victory that he wants but an end to violence. When questioned what it is that he desires, he says ‘What I want is for the humans and the forest to live in peace’ (Miyazaki, 1997). The other characters see the forest and the town as completely divided, different and unable to mix. But Ashitaka does see not the division between them. To him, all life is simply sacred. No matter what you must ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31). When San and Eboshi become involved in a vicious fight, Ashitaka intervenes and delivers a stirring sermon. His curse manifests itself as black, swirling tendrils as he shouts to the shocked and terrified crowd, ‘This is what hatred looks like! This is what it does when it catches hold of you! (Miyazaki, 1997). Ashitaka fight is not against against humans or gods but against hatred and it is his ‘willingness to meet violence with love’ (Kraemer, 2016) that is his greatest weapon.

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Ashitaka’s image as a messiah figure is cemented in the other-worldliness of his resurrection and in his sacrifice. Miyazaki is careful in the way he portrays Ashitaka in these scenes. Although they are rich with godly powers, Ashitaka’s humanity is emphasised. As a messiah figure, Ashitaka is human touched by divinity. He is not a divine being himself but he is influenced by the gods and demons that are present in his life. This is epitomised in his resurrection. After Ashitaka is shot, San takes his lifeless body to a sacred island in the middle of the forest. She places a small plant above his head, a life to take in return for his. After she leaves, we see the forest spirit approach and revive Ashitaka in a strange, dream-like sequence. During the day, the god, who duty is to ‘give life and take life away’ (Miyazaki, 1997,) takes the form of a deer like creature with many antlers and humanoid face. We see flowers and plants bud, bloom, wilt and die under the creature’s feet as it walks. The forest spirit looks upon Ashitaka and the plant as the leaves of the plant wither and drop. In the morning, Ashitaka’s bullet wound is healed but the cursed mark remains. Although Ashitaka undergoes what is definitely a divine resurrection, it is not any divinity of his own that saves him but his pure heart. It is the forest spirit who, deeming Ashitaka worthy of resurrecting, saves him thus ensuring Ashitaka remains fully human.

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In the stunning climax to the film, Ashitaka sacrifices himself to atone for humanity’s wrongdoings. Eboshi and the other humans have shot off and taken the forest spirit’s head. The ghostly shell of its body spews out deadly black liquid and long arms which search for its head. Ashitaka catches the carriers of the head and demand they give it to him to return before everything is destroyed. ‘Human hands must return it!’ (Miyazaki, 1997) He shouts. Humanity as a whole has sinned, they have turned their back on nature and committed the ultimate atrocity; killing the ‘very heart of the forest’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Messiah figures feel a duty to ‘take on the sinfulness of those around them’ (Kozlovic, 2004). Ashitaka must, therefore, act as a representative of humanity and sacrifice himself for their transgressions.

PM7As he and San hold up the head for the god, they become covered with cursed marks. They are sure of their deaths but stand strong and true. With their sacrifice, they save not only themselves but all living things as a wash of new life spreads over the ruined land. Ashitaka not only possesses many of the characteristics of a messiah figure, his life and death also mirrors that of Christ in many ways. Just as Christ’s death gave humanity ‘forgiveness of sins’ (Ephesians 1:7), Ashitaka’s sacrifice saved the world. His resurrection and sacrifice mark him as a clear messiah figure.

PM8Messiah figures in film are used as symbols to exemplify the characteristics and values that filmmakers want to promote (Deacy, 1999). In Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki teaches us a respect for life, as he said in a 2004 interview ‘We should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything’. He uses Ashitaka to convey a message of peace and environmentalism. Although Princess Mononoke is not explicitly religious, it does draw from Shinto mythology and beliefs and reflects many of the tenets of Western religion. Shinto faith ‘stresses relation and connectedness’ (Bigelow, 2009). This is an important theme that develops through the film as the characters realise relationships they were not previously aware of. In one of the last scenes, one of the townspeople comments ‘I didn’t know the forest spirit made the flowers grow’ (Miyazaki, 1997). As Christ literally gave a blind man sight (John 9:11), Ashitaka metaphorically opens the peoples’ eyes to the interdependent relationship between the town and the humans (Kraemer 2016). Although Miyazaki’s messiah may be more implicit than those typically found in Western culture, the ideals he teaches of love, peace and respect are essentially the same.

PM9In conclusion, Ashitaka acts as a messiah figure to spread a message of peace. Miyazaki sets Ashitaka apart from other characters with Shis strange customs and extraordinary powers to make him able to move between warring sides. He is not the fully-assured messiah we see all too often in the West, but a saviour racked with guilt and uncertainty about how should carry out his mission without just creating more violence. Like Christ, He is fully committed to his beliefs and ready to sacrifice himself for them. In Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka not only learns to ‘see with eyes unclouded by hate’ (Miyazaki, 1997) but also teaches us to do the same.

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Bibliography

All Biblical references are from the New International Version

Miyazaki, Hayao. 1997. Princess Mononoke. film. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Studio Ghibli. Toho.

Bigelow, Susan J. 2009. “Technologies of Perception: Miyazaki in Theory and Practice.” Animation: an interdisciplinary journal 4 (1): 55-75.

Deacy, Christopher R. 1999. “Screen Christologies: An evaluation of the role of Christ-figures in film.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 14 (3): 325-337.

Kozlovic, Anton Karl. 2004. “The Structural Characteristics of the Cinematic Christ-figure.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 8.

Kraemer, Christine Hoff. 2016. “Between the Worlds: Liminality and Self-Sacrfice in Princess Mononoke.” Journal of Religion and Film 8 (2).

Reinhartz, Adele. 2009. “Jesus and Christ figures.” In The Routledge Companion of Religion and Film, edited by John Lyden, 420-439. Taylor and Francis.

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Student showcase #8: A Prophetic Day

Continuing our focus on contemporary prophetic figures, today’s student essay discusses the prophetic credentials of twentieth-century social activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980). The essay is written by Lauren Wilks, who is from Nelson, NZ. She has just completed her second year of study for a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Economics and International Business. Next year, she plans to spend a semester in Mexico on the University of Auckland’s 360° student exchange programme. Lauren took our Bible and Pop Culture course upon a recommendation by her elder sister who took the course in 2012 and enjoyed it a great deal. Lauren assures me she loved it just as much! Her essay is fabulous, so we hope you enjoy learning more about the amazing figure of Dorothy Day.

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Dorothy Day (unknown photographer)

Living for more than today

Lauren Wilks

“…God did not intend that there be so many poor… we are urging revolutionary change.”

(Day, cited in Barrett, 2017)

Summarised in her own words, Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a passionate pacifist and one of the most well-known Catholic social activists in history. Her uncompromising vision for social justice caused disturbance among the status quo, but generated lasting change to society’s role in serving the poor. Borg (2001) established a framework to define biblical prophets, which we can use to determine if a modern-day figure or group fulfills a similar prophetic function. Fulfilling all six criteria of Borg’s definition, Dan can be seen as effectively performing a prophetic role. This essay will conclude Day is a contemporary prophet, focusing on her disturbance of social norms, her prophetic action to fight for social justice, and her relationship with God. The biblical texts of Isaiah 58, Isaiah 20, Ezekiel 2 and Isaiah 41, will be used throughout to relate Day to the biblical prophets.

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Dorothy Day (unknown photographer)

Borg (2001) explains that Biblical prophets disturbed dominant discourses, not just accepting, but challenging the status quo to fight for something they believed in. In Isaiah 58, Isaiah encourages the confrontation of injustice. He challenges false compared to true worship, stating religious practices are in vain if there are people who are oppressed, Isaiah 58:1, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion…” Day’s message of social justice, focused on pacifism and serving the poor. She confronted those in the church who were living comfortably, favouring the rich and powerful, while the poor were continuously mistreated. She insisted that the “church is the cross on which Christ is crucified”and that social injustice was an insult to Christ (Forest, n.da, para.23). Her heart for social justice was derived from Jesus’ message, particularly the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Day took this scripture of Jesus’ moral teaching and truly lived it out (Allison, n.d). Like Isaiah, she understood working for and being with the poor was an essential part of being Christian: “share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them” (Isaiah 58:7). She considered it immoral to call yourself Christian without acting out what the Bible requires. Day had a focused vision, which is evident in the following excerpt from her writings: “To follow the gospel teaching of the works of mercy. If your brother is hungry, feed him, shelter him. How can you show your love for God except by love for your brother and sister? The one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he hasn’t seen?” (Dear, 2011, para.28).

Day also challenged society to evaluate how everyone’s work benefits (or not) the wider community. She believed jobs in finance and advertising led to social tension by making people desire possession they did not need (Hinson-Hasty, 2014). Through her message of social justice, Day was a founding encourager in the Catholic Church expanding their outreach (Bailey, Ohlheiser & Zak, 2015).

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

Day lived in the 20th century, a time where many believed they were obliged to serve their country during war. She was outspoken in her anti-war stance and did not accept that moral conditions ratify war (Parachin, 2016). Her message addressed people in power, particularly Church leaders as throughout history, Popes had blessed armies and supported crusades (Forest, n.db). The Church had accepted ‘just war’, but Day wanted non-violence to become a fundamental Christian principle. Her pacifist views were revolutionary to the Church, in that she claimed violence contradicted biblical values as it fortified the rich and devastated the poor (Coy, 1988). She believed that in order to achieve peace, the most vulnerable needed to be helped. Like the prophet in Isaiah 58, she did not hold back in telling the Church their shortcomings. In writing to the Vatican Council, she said war was a crime against God and man (Fox, 2015). Although her message was radical at the time, it has since been accepted and adopted by many. Pope Francis named her one of the four most influential Americans in history. His support of Day’s non-violent ideologies shows the development in the Churches attitude towards peace and social justice (Bailey et al., 2015). Her willingness to critique the system and not accept that poverty was a normal part of society saw many touched by her message of justice and humility. Day clearly fulfills Borg’s criteria of disturbing social norms to bring about revolutionary change.

Another criterion is that Biblical prophets took action to amplify their message, translating prophetic speech into prophetic action (Borg, 2001). With reference to Isaiah 20:1-5, both Day and the prophet Isaiah used action to signify the importance of their messages. Isaiah protested the military alliance between Judah and Egypt, “Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent…” (Isaiah 20:3). Day always focused on what she could do, taking Catholic theology and putting it into action in prophetic ways (Chapp, 2015). Rather than helping the poor during the day, then returning to her comfortable home at night, Day fully immersed herself in a life of poverty to proclaim the importance of her vision (Chapp, 2015).

 

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

In May 1933, Day and Peter Maurin, a French revolutionary, started the Catholic Worker newspaper to synthesise Catholic social teaching and social justice (Xiaoyu, 2010). Her decision to live in voluntary poverty meant she was greatly empathetic, writing to and on behalf of the poor. The newspaper became a beacon of hope by confronting the oppressive system. She wrote about social injustices, using scripture to challenge the Church in failing to exemplify the Gospel message, but also to inspire action to help those in need. Her pacifist views caused division within the Catholic Worker movement, with those who believed war was justified breaking away from the movement. Even though her message was controversial, the complaints the Church received about the newspaper did not stop Day from publishing it despite its loss of popularity during the wars (Bailey et al., 2015).

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

The actions Day took were to fulfil God’s will. Drawing on Matthew 6:10, she said, “We are working for ‘a new heaven and a new earth, wherein justice dwelleth.’ We are trying to say with action, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’” (Zwick, n.d, para.12). Her writings on social justice drew those in need into Catholic homes, which led to the creation of the Houses of Hospitality. Day believed hospitality was part of Christian tradition, using the houses to live out biblical values (1 Peter 4:8-9). They provided food and shelter to the needy, and as Day’s message confronted the rich and powerful, the houses gave them an opportunity to serve the poor (Barnette, 2011). There was controversy around who was accepted into the homes, as some believed not all were ‘deserving poor’. Day replied by saying, as family in Christ, they were welcome to stay forever (Forest, n.db). She established and inspired many houses, by 1936, there were 33 houses throughout the US, with a growing need during the Great Depression (Forest, n.db). The movement continues today, with 200 Catholic Worker communities and 40 Catholic Worker Houses (Bailey et al., 2015).

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

Day spent her whole life serving others. Further actions she took for the oppressed include protesting outside the White House for women’s suffrage, which led to the first of seven imprisonments, and going on a hunger strike to protest poor jail conditions (Barnette, 2011). It is evident Day fulfils Borg’s criteria of prophetic action. With the Catholic Worker newspaper and the Houses of Hospitality, her life-long commitment of personal sacrifice translating vision into action.

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

Borg (2001) found the prophets to be passionate about both God and justice, a two-fold relationship between the world and spiritual realm. Day’s intimate relationship and experiences with God were the source of her vision for social justice (Dear, 2011). In Ezekiel 2, the spirit of the Lord commissioned Ezekiel to speak God’s word to the rebellious Israel, “…I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (Ezekiel 2:4). Day did not hear the audible voice of God calling her to serve the poor like Ezekiel and other Biblical prophets did, but God spoke to her through the Bible (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). Because she had an extensive knowledge of the Bible, she weaved scripture into her writings to convey not her message, but Jesus’ message. Using scripture as God’s mouthpiece, she once said, “If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God” (Howell, 2017, p.97). Borg (2001) sees the prophet’s dream as God’s dream. Day fulfils this criterion as she lived beyond herself, challenged by Jesus’ message to serve the poor (Mark 10:21). Daily spiritual devotions strengthened her knowledge and connection with God, which equipped her to face the challenges her fight for social justice bought (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). She said, “When God asks great things of us, great sacrifices,” (Ellsberg, 2010, para.11). The prophet Isaiah experienced great suffering in his life. Through the trials, he continually looked to God to renew his strength and protect him. Isaiah 41:10, “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you.” Day experienced discomfort in voluntary poverty. She let go of worldly possession as she believed to truly serve, was to give out of nothing (Hinson-Hasty, 2014). This was not easy, but her intimate relationship with God, through scripture and prayer, sustained her vision for justice.

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

Since Day’s passing in 1980, her message has remained relevant and is evident in the Catholic Church’s outreach. She is often drawn upon as a source of inspiration, upholding values of peace, community, and integration of faith and acts (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). It is clear Ezekiel was known as a prophet, Ezekiel 2:5, “Whether they hear or refuse to hear… they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” The Catholic Church has not named Day a prophet, but have identified her as an extraordinary person by commencing an inquiry into her canonisation (Catholic News Service, 2016). Elevating her to this status recognises her exceptional life and challenging vision of hope.

To summarise, Day can be regarded as a contemporary prophetic figure as defined by Borg. Her willingness to speak out for social justice, promoting pacifism and voluntary poverty, disturbed social norms. She used prophetic action through the Catholic Worker newspaper, Houses of Hospitality and protests, to solidify her vision. She believed in a personal God, and her strong relationship with him was the foundation of her mission. Although controversial at the time, her relentless commitment to pacifism and personal responsibility to the poor has continued to be an inspiration (Fox, 2015). Day’s legacy leaves a challenge, live out the Gospel and bear witness in everyday life (Ellsberg, 2010).

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

 

Reference list

All Biblical texts are from the  New Revised Standard Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Showcase 3: Fishnets, Fetishes, and Faith – Religious Themes in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

From yesterday’s focus on the Bible and politics, we move to a most fabulous essay that considers religious and biblical themes in cult musical, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The piece is written by another student from our Bible and Popular Culture course, Kate Bodger, who hails from New Zealand and is studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and Classics. Kate doesn’t know what the future holds for her, but she hopes that it involves art, writing and traveling. She has always found religion fascinating even before she started going to church, and loves exploring its relationship to our everyday lives and culture. So she decided to take a few TheoRel papers as part of her degree, which she confirms was “an altogether good choice” as it meant she could put her excessive viewing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show to some use. Enjoy!

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Images taken from TRHPS, dir. Jim Sharman, 20th Century Fox (1975)

Religion in Fishnet Tights

The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Religion

Kate Bodger

Ordinarily it would be easy to dismiss The Rocky Horror Picture Show (TRHPS) as having little in common with Christianity. But TRHPS dismisses the ordinary, and this 70s hit actually has numerous religious ties. The way fans have built such a following around the film makes it seem like its own seductive faith. Within this religion stands Dr. Frank n Furter, a contemporary messiah, saving those who feel like outsiders. In contrast to this a look inside the text exposes a different Frank n Furter who resembles more of a subverted bacchic messiah, bringing about the fall of humanity. It is clear that this midnight horror is not just dripping with blood and sex, but also religion.

TRHPS has spawned a particular following that can be likened to that of a religion. Popular culture can be seen as a religion when it displays parallels in form and function (Forbes 2005, p.15). TRHPS clearly mimics the form of a religion with the various traditions that have been created around the film. Audiences adorn the appropriate attire, fishnet tights and high heels, and head to their chosen place of worship, the cinema, to engage in various rituals, song, and dance. Fans of TRHPS do not just watch the film, they interact with it. Call and response techniques, just like in a Sunday mass, are used by the audience as they speak to the characters on screen. During the time warp audiences do the pelvic thrust with the Transylvanians, worshipping through song and dance.

timewarp gif

Props are also used with the audience throwing rice at the wedding scene, these props symbols of the Rocky-Horror-faith. TRHPS has birthed its own set of rites and routines, much like a religion. ‘Virgin Sacrifices’ are even a tradition with new comers or ‘virgins’ being initiated into the Rocky Horror family through challenges, or sometimes a pledge. This tradition references a sacrifice, something associated with appeasing or thanking a deity. These ‘virgin sacrifices’, also tie in with modern churches as they can be viewed as contemporary altar calls, or baptisms, with the ‘virgins’ saying goodbye to their old selves with this proclamation of faith. The crazy spectacle of TRHPS has led to it being described as a religious experience, and one writer called themselves “a true believer” (Berman 2015) after their first Rocky Horror experience. Aside from form TRHPS also mimics religion in terms of function. The enticing excitement of the cult classic has created its own community with a sense of security for outsiders and the marginalized. And at the center of this safe community is TRHPS’s very own seductive and sexy savior.

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Frank n Furter

TRHPS attracts many outsiders, there is something welcoming about being told to be confident, and let go of any worries. The community that surrounds this cult classic feel they have been ‘saved’, in the sense they have been given a place where they can be themselves and gain a sense of freedom. The main figure revered in this community is the sweet transvestite himself; Frank n Furter. Frank n Furter has become a cultural icon, telling people to love themselves with an I-am-going-to-do-me-while-being-proud-and-loud attitude. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” (O’Brien and Sharman 1995) is one of Frank n Furter’s entry lines onto screen. The absurdity of the whole film and the fantastical escape the audience is taken on is mostly directed by Frank n Furter himself, being the king, or perhaps God, of his respective castle. Fans herald him as their savior from normalcy and the judgments of life. This liberation and acceptance also includes social justice, and a commitment to justice is one characteristic of a modern messiah figure (Reinhartz 2011, p.431).

RHPS laverne poster
Laverne Cox in the new TRHPS

TRHPS was released in 1975, and pushed the boundaries of its time with its sexual freedom and gender fluid identities. The cult classic became especially popular within the LBGTQA+ community. Laverne Cox who played the contemporary messiah in the new remake (2016) remarks, “After I saw Rocky Horror for the first time, it became a turning point in my life. It’s part of what gave me the courage to truly transition” (Baysinger 2016). And a gay fan has written about the experiences of “having two very special men come into [their] life” (Townley 2011), one being Jesus, and the other Frank n Furter, and in the course of the article Frank n Furter does more of the blessing and saving. Frank n Furter has not revolutionized queer rights, but he has become an icon for many who feel they are different, with TRHPS allowing a space for people to feel free from societal norms. The way Frank n Furter is heralded as such a symbol of sexual freedom and acceptance makes him the modern messiah of this contemporary religion. This interestingly is juxtaposed in contrast with the Frank n Furter’s character inside the film, who is more related to hedonism and havoc.

Frank gif

When we look at the Frank n Furter inside the film we are presented with a man with a very hedonistic lifestyle, who likes to manipulate and control others, a man who is both a murderer, and a cannibal. This Frank n Furter juxtaposes with the heralded figure mentioned earlier, making him a subverted messiah. Frank n Furter plays the role of a bacchic devil, “a postmodern, gay version of the god Dionysus, followed by his intoxicated Maenads” (Aviram 1992). In fact, the story of his hedonism influencing Brad and Janet, mimics the biblical story of the fall of humanity, where the serpent tricks Eve and then Adam into eating from the tree of good and evil (Genesis 3).

Brad and Janet
Brad and Janet, with Magenta and Riff Raff

The plot of TRHPS shadows this storyline, we have Brad and Janet, a perfect, clean cut couple, representing Adam and Eve, and Frank n Furter as the serpent, who offers them each a taste of the forbidden fruit, or sex. Janet is even ‘corrupted’ first, paralleling the biblical story with Eve being the first to eat the fruit. Their indulgence becomes a turning point as eventually both Janet and Brad are shown to be completely overwhelmed by desire in the floor show. The overarching story of TRHPS replicates the original sin, or the fall of humanity. And inside it Frank n Furter is the slithering snake that whispers and suggests; “give yourself over to absolute pleasure” (O’Brien and Sharman 1995).

Rocky and Frank
Frank and Rocky

Frank n Furter as a subverted savior is also highlighted through some of the film’s religious references. Rocky is brought to life by Frank n Furter. Not only is Frank n Furter elevated to god-like status by creating life, but he is paralleled with God as he sings “in just seven days, I can make you a man” (O’Brien and Sharman 1995). When biblically it took God seven days to create the universe (Genesis 1-2). However Frank n Furter does not see Rocky as his child, or his creation, but rather he made Rocky to satisfy sexual desires, as Frank n Furter sings in Sweet Transvestite, “he’s good for relieving my tension.” This subverted and perverse presentation of creation is again implied with a picture of Michel Angelo’s The Creation of Adam displayed on the floor of the pool, where Frank n Furter leads the way to hedonistic indulgence.

Frank with 2 women
Frank the great creator of life

The birthday dinner scene in TRHPS can also be seen as an inverted biblical reference. In the Bible Jesus said “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” (John 6:54). This dinner scene can be viewed as a twisted version of Jesus’ words and actions where the bread symbolized his body and the wine his blood (Dika 2003, p.113). Here Frank n Furter actually serves Eddie’s flesh and blood, and this particular scene is introduced by the criminologist with a picture of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in a book open behind him. The character of Frank n Furter presents itself as a seductive, serpent, and this begs the question how that is compatible with his alter-ego of the liberating messiah-like figure. It seems that TRHPS satirizes fears of the LGBTQA+ community, using the absurdity of the film to mock those who thought that anyone queer was a sex-mad alien sent to corrupt humanity. Meaning that Frank n Furter’s corruption as a character, makes him more of a savior-like figure.

birthday gif

TRHPS has become its own religion. A contemporary faith that is staying strong for a new generation of outsiders. The new Sunday best comes with fishnet stockings and bright red lips, and amazing grace has been replaced with Sweet Transvestite for worship. Frank n Furter sits on his throne at the head of this religion, as both a figure for the marginalized, and a character who mocks 70s homophobia through his devilish ways. All in all TRHPS presents itself as a religion of terrible thrills…

Frank B&W

 

Bibliography

References to the Bible are taken from the NRSV edition

Aviram, Amittai F. “Postmodern Gay Dionysus: Dr. Frank N. Furter.” Journal of Popular Culture 26, no. 3 Winter, 1992

Tim Baysinger. How Laverne Cox made Dr. Frank n Furter her own on Fox’s Rocky Horror Picture Show re-make. The Hollywood Reporter, 20/10/2016, accessed 3/10/2017, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/laverne-cox-foxs-rocky-horror-939846

Berman, Judy. We Live in the World ‘Rocky Horror’ Created. Flavorwire, 25/09/2015, accessed 3/10/2017, http://flavorwire.com/539534/we-live-in-the-world-rocky-horror-created

Dika, Vera. Recycled culture in contemporary art and film: the uses of nostalgia. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 2003.

Forbes, Bruce David. ‘Finding religion in unexpected places’ in Religion and popular culture in America ed. Jeffrey H. Mahan (University of California Press: 2005) 15

O’Brien Richard and Sharman, Jim. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Directed by Jim Sharman. 20th Century Fox, 1975.

Reinhartz, Adele. ‘Jesus and Christ figures’ in The Routledge companion to religion and film ed. John Lyden. Routledge: USA and Canada, 2011.

Kevin Townley. There is a light that never goes out. Rookie, 10/03/2011, accessed 20/09/2017 http://www.rookiemag.com/2011/10/rocky-horror-townley/

Student Showcase 2: Politics, Prophets, and Jacindamania

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

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

Jacindamania herald
Image from New Zealand Herald 3 August 2017

Jacindamania: Analysing the Election of Biblical Proportions

Mathew Sherlock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lets do this
Ardern on the campaign trail. Stuff.co.nz

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

Jacinda foghorn 2
Ardern visits the University of Auckland. Wikimedia Commons.

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

kiwi dream
Jacinda Ardern speaking in Auckland, 2016. Wikimedia Commons

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

Jacinda portrait
Ardern being sworn in as PM. Governer General NZ

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

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

lovely pic of Jacinda

 Bibliography

All references to the Bible are from the NRSV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salome – victim, seductress, or both?

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

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

by

Wen-Juenn Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moreau’s L’Apparition, detail

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

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

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

salome-1
Salome in True Blood (HBO)

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

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

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

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

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Sexualised Salome in HBO’s True Blood

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

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True Blood‘s Salome – sexy and terrifying

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

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References

Primary Sources

All biblical quotes are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible.

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

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

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

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

Secondary Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prophecy and M.I.A.

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

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

by

Pooja Upadhyay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delilah and Judith

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

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

Struck Down by a Woman

by 

Elizabeth Newton Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

All biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Showcasing Student Work 10: BioShock: Infinite and the American Monomyth

Last week, we showcased an essay by Brianna Vincent, who had written about messianic themes and the American Monomyth in the videogame Dragon Age: Inquisition. Today’s student offering from our Bible and Popular Culture course likewise looks for a modern messiah in a popular video game, this time focusing on the first-person shooter game released by Irrational Games in 2013: BioShock Infinite. Our guest author is Samuel McKenzie, a soon-to-be third year BA student in the Faculty of Arts, who is majoring in French and German. Samuel took the course because he has always been fascinated by religious and biblical themes in pop culture; he also admits that he enjoyed the opportunity to write an essay on a videogame, and his favourite game to boot! After completing his degree, Samuel hopes to eventually do a Masters degree in Translation Studies.

So, whether or not you are a gamer yourself, give yourselves a treat and listen to Samuel as he considers the way that BioShock Infinity both affirms and disrupts conventional themes of messiahship.

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‘You think a dunk in the river is gonna wash away the things I’ve done?’

BioShock Infinite as critique of the American Monomyth

by Samuel McKenzie

The protagonist of a First-Person Shooter (FPS) videogame is typically a mysterious loner who emerges to rescue a community from evil. His morality is absolute, his violence justified, his sexuality renounced or absent. He is composed – almost divinely competent – even when facing odds and taking damage that would surely destroy a lesser man. His abilities may sometimes even seem supernatural. These qualities, then, mean that the FPS protagonist typifies the archetype that is the American Monomyth (Jewett and Lawrence 2002, 47), and one would then expect the protagonist of a game that has been referred to as “one of the best-first person shooters ever made” (online review) to be a particularly striking example of the concept. But Booker DeWitt, protagonist of Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite, is not your typical messianic archetype. In this essay, I will be analysing how Booker’s portrayal both fulfils and subverts the concept of the American Monomyth, and how this ‘’anti-messiah’’ figure ties in to the Biblical messiah through analogy for the Christus Victor theory of atonement. As this essay will discuss storyline elements and plot details, spoilers will follow.

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The flying city of Columbia, the setting of the game

A Last Chance for Redemption

     In many ways, Booker DeWitt is an example of the American Monomyth. He is an outsider to the city of Columbia, the setting of the game. We know very little about his backstory but for a few key elements – such that he is from New York, that he fought in the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, and that he worked for the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. (fig. 1)

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Fig 1: Booker’s Detective ID from the game’s loading screen

Booker renounces temptation, not once in-game showing any sexual interest, or getting caught up in a game of cards or round of drinks. This rejection of temptation parallels a key story in the life of the messianic figure the American Monomyth is intended to replace – Jesus of Nazareth. In Matthew’s gospel, we are told a story of how Jesus was tempted thrice by the devil in the wilderness, and rejected temptation each time (Matt 4.1-11).

  Like many messianic figures, Booker faces persecution. Soon after his arrival in Columbia, he is taken for the “false shepherd” foretold of in prophecy by Prophet Comstock, the leader of Columbia’s theocracy. The people of Columbia believe that the false shepherd will lead their “lamb” – Elizabeth, Comstock’s daughter and heir – ‘’astray’’. (fig. 2)

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Fig 2: an in-game poster featuring the “false shepherd”

As such, he receives an extremely hostile reception. The rhetoric of a ‘’false shepherd’’ has Biblical roots – the Book of Ezekiel uses an analogy of ‘’false’’ shepherds to decry leaders of Israel who will not care for their people (Ezekiel 34).

As he is our protagonist, we naturally ally with Booker. The player must play as Booker DeWitt, and thereby sees all situations with him at centre. We unconsciously justify his actions as necessary to achieve his goals, and through doing so, are presented with a figure whom we see as unjustly targeted, but one we believe will make things right, as the standard messianic archetype.

I am not a righteous man, I am not a holy man

        However, Booker DeWitt is not the standard messianic archetype. The concept of the American Monomyth is not without flaw, and BioShock Infinite subjects it to thorough critique. The messiah is very much an ideal – Sarbatoare notes that the Jewish messiah’s “personal qualities surpass the ordinary standard of human abilities” (Sarbatoare 2004, 54). (fig. 3)

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Fig .3: Booker using a “vigor” in a fight, a tonic that grants him pseudo-magical powers

The American Monomyth’s violence is typically seen as sanctified – but in fact, this seems to contrast several Biblical views on the topic. In Genesis 6 – the story of Noah – the Bible claims that the flood was sent because the earth was “filled with violence” (Gen 6.11-13). In Isaiah 59.2-7, Isaiah’s criticisms of the unjust involve accusations that “acts of violence mark their ways”. The sins humans perform are summarised under the concept of their effect – violence (Schwager 1987, 48-51). Booker goes through the game wracked with guilt over his violent past. When he, near its end, encounters a priest performing river baptisms, he snarls at his companion, Elizabeth, “You think a dunk in the river is gonna wash away the things I’ve done?”

BioShock Infinite takes place across different timelines, and through two of Booker’s alternate selves, the game criticises the expectations of the American Monomyth as a social outsider. Lang and Trimble note that the American Monomyth must complete “some violent act that the rest of society is incapable of performing” (Lang and Trimble 1988, 166), and yet is expected to serve as saviour figure. In one timeline, Booker allies with the anarchist Vox Populi, and quickly rises to become a leading figure in their movement. (fig.4) However, when Booker and Elizabeth enter this timeline, they discover that the revolution has destroyed Columbia and slaughtered most of its civilian population. The combination of expectations of abnormal violence and leadership results, unsurprisingly, in a ticking time-bomb.

Fig 4
Fig. 4: A Vox Populi poster of Booker from an alternative timeline

In another timeline, Booker becomes the architect behind and ruler of Columbia, Zachary Comstock. Comstock possesses an intensely bigoted, binary moral outlook. In one offshoot timeline, Booker finds an elderly Elizabeth in 1984, tortured by Comstock into ideological compliance, overseeing Columbia’s airships attacking New York. (fig.5, fig.6)

fig 5
Fig. 5: A mural to Comstock at Columbia’s “Welcome Centre” for new arrivals

Through the character of Comstock, BioShock Infinite manages to highlight the flaw in the American Monomyth’s morality – its absolutism. When the American Monomyth’s black-and-white moral view is coupled with his sanctified violence, the result is someone with absolute belief in his ways and a willingness – or even propensity – to take any ends to achieve them.

Fig 6
Fig. 6

Dies, Died, Will Die

   But the end Booker takes to achieve redemption is that of sacrifice, in a parallel to the Christus Victor theory of atonement. The Christus Victor theory posits that through his death, Jesus “fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world… under which mankind is in bondage” (Gunton 1985, 129). As Booker progresses through the story, he is witness to the injustice, oppression and devastation resulting from Comstock’s extremist rule over Columbia. He realises that to truly defeat Comstock, he must “smother that bastard in his crib”, at the root of all his timelines. This leads to Booker to the site of a river baptism, where he learns that Zachary Comstock is him, in a universe where he underwent the baptism to cope with his post-war guilt, and, believing himself to be absolved of his sins, became a religious zealot. Elizabeth is his daughter – Comstock, infertile from repeated use of trans-dimensional technology, travelled to Booker’s reality and bought his then-infant daughter, Anna, off an indebted Booker in order to have a biological heir. (fig.7)

Fig 7
Fig. 7: Booker attempts to stop Comstock from leaving with Anna DeWitt

Booker then undergoes the baptism, but stays under the water and drowns in what appears to be suicide, which is then implied to have undone Comstock’s becoming. (fig.8)

Fig 8
Fig. 8: Booker drowning while various iterations of Elizabeth look on

Booker’s death is redemptive. He starts the story travelling to Columbia to repay a debt, and ends it by wiping away another – the blood debt that Comstock has accrued. By sacrificing his own life, Booker takes on the sins of others – the injustice, oppression and violence occurring in the game – and redeems them by ensuring that they never occurred. Romans 6.3-4 mentions the idea of a “baptism into death”, saying that those baptised were “buried with” Jesus in order to “live a new life”. With Booker’s death as parallel to this analogy, the renewal it creates is highlighted, allowing his story to close so that others may begin.

Lives, Lived, Will Live

   BioShock Infinite’s protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is both an example and subversion of the American Monomyth, highlighting the key issues of the trope – those of its violence, moral absolutism and unrealistic expectations. And yet, Booker is far from being a failed messiah – he delivers redemption that his more typically messianic alternate selves cannot. Perhaps the game means to show that a messianic figure does not need to be some grand, imposing, perfect moral hero – it can just as easily be a flawed messiah, an imperfect messiah, but a believable messiah. It is realism that makes a fantasy more compelling – and thus, humanising a messiah gives his message more potency. After all, when Elizabeth asks Booker, “Booker, are you afraid of God?”, his response is “No – But I’m afraid of you.”

end

Bibliography

All references to the Biblical text are from the New International Version (UK).

“List of accolades received by BioShock Infinite.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 26th, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_accolades_received_by_BioShock_Infinite

“Booker DeWitt.” BioShock Wiki. Accessed September 27th, 2015. http://bioshock.wikia.com/wiki/Booker_DeWitt

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

Lang, Jeffrey S., and Patrick Trimble. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An Examination of the American Monomyth and the Comic Book Superhero.” The Journal of Popular Culture 22, no. 3 (1988): 157-173.

Jewett, Robert, and John Shelton Lawrence. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002

Sarbatoare, Octavian. “Messianic Ideas: Historical Sources, and some Contemporary Expectations of Fulfilment.” Honours Thesis, University of Sydney, 2004. http://prijipati.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/7194 (accessed September 27th, 2015)

Schwager, Raymund. Must there be scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1987.

 

Danger and Desire – Edenic reflections

Adriaen van der Werff, Adam en Eva (c.1711)
Adriaen van der Werff, Adam en Eva (c.1711)

As you will recall from a previous post, I’ve been teaching a course this semester on the Bible and visual exegesis, exploring visual culture as a source of biblical interpretation. Classes have been going well, so I thought I’d share some images and insights we’ve covered in some of the lectures. I’ll start off with our lecture from a few weeks back on Adam and Eve in art and advertising.

We began with an overview of some of the ambiguities in the text of Genesis 2-3, particularly in relation to what Genesis 3 – the story of the ‘Fall’ – says about gender and female sexuality. Does Eve’s creation after Adam – and from Adam – suggest that woman is subordinate to man within the divinely mandated created order? Why does the snake talk to Eve, rather than Adam – does it suggest women’s greater vulnerability to temptation and disobedience? Why did Adam eat the fruit given to him by Eve – did she have to persuade or tempt him to eat it or did he bite into it quite willingly? And what was the forbidden fruit anyway – and why was it forbidden by God in the first place?

Countless interpretations of these textual ambiguities have been put forward over the centuries, many of which have pointed not only to woman’s secondary status in the created order but also to her textual characterisation as weak-willed and naive, prone to sin and solely to blame for the ‘fall’ of humanity and the loss of Edenic relations between both male and female and humanity and God. Moreover, Eve also stands accused of being the archetypal temptress, who uses her sexual allure to entice men away from their natural godliness and to indulge in the ‘forbidden fruit’ of untrammelled sexual desire. As the early Christian and Jewish readings of Genesis 2-3 quoted below suggest, this biblical narrative does not only recount the misdeeds of the first female biblical character, it advances an ideology about all women, explaining their dangerous nature and justifying the need for male dominance and control.

  • 1 Timothy 2.12-14: ‘I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor’.
  • Ben Sirach 25.24 (2nd Century BCE wisdom text): ‘From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die’.
  • Philo (Jewish philosopher, 25 BCE-50 CE): Women are ‘the beginning of blameworthy life’. Their bodily appetites are ‘the beginning of wrongs and violation of law, the pleasure for the sake of which men bring on themselves the life of mortality and wretchedness in lieu of that of immortality and bliss’.
  • Augustine (Christian theologian, 354-430 CE): ‘[Eve] was of small intelligence and … lives more in accordance with the promptings of the inferior flesh than by the superior reason’.
  • Clement of Alexandria (Christian theologian, 150-215 CE): ‘Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman…the consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame’.
  • Tertullian (Christian theologian, 155-245 CE): ‘And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert— that is, death— even the Son of God had to die’.
  • Jerome (priest, theologian 347-430 CE): ‘Woman is the root of all evil
  • 15th Century with-hunter’s manual, Malleus Maleficarum: ‘In the Old Testament, the Scriptures have much that is evil to say about women, and this because of the first temptress Eve and her imitators’.

malleus.cover

Yes, throughout the long history of interpretation surrounding Genesis 2-3, Eve gets the blame for all humanity’s woes; moreover, all women are Eve, all women are associated with sin, guilt, temptation, and evil. No wonder men have to exert power over us, lest our evil natures wreak further havoc in this divinely ordained patriarchal world. We might be tempted to roll our eyes at the outdated views of these early interpretive efforts, dismissing their horrible misogyny as the result of archaic responses that no longer wield power in our contemporary Bible-reading cultures. Alternatively, we may tend to agree with their general interpretation of Genesis 2-3, but seek to whitewash the violence and vitriol of of such readings with platitudinous appeals to the far more equitable creation account of Genesis 1, where ‘male and female’ are both created – concurrently it seems – in the ‘image of God’. And yet, despite the fact that these early interpretations of Genesis 2-3 are indeed products of their time, their legacy across time and space has been ubiquitous and far from harmless; indeed, it’s almost a truism to say that the Genesis 2-3 text has had and continues to have a real and deleterious effect on women’s social, political, and religious lives: as feminist theologian Mary Daly noted:

0704339935.01.MZZZZZZZ‘The myth [of Gen 2-3]  has projected a malignant image of the male-female relationship and of the “nature” of women that is still deeply imbedded in the modern psyche … The myth has in fact affected doctrines and laws that concern women’s status in society and it has contributed to the mind-set of those who continue to grind out biased, male-centred ethical theories … [It] undergirds destructive patterns in the fabric of our culture’.

Beyond God the Father, 1973.

So, if we turn to some of the visual depictions of Genesis 2-3 created across the centuries, what can we tell about the way artists have interpreted this biblical text? Do they likewise reflect the views of those early readings given above, pinning the blame on Eve for the whole sorry mess that was ‘the Fall’? Carrying out a survey of artists’ presentations of Genesis 3 from the Medieval period through to the nineteenth century fin de siècle and on to the present day, it becomes clear that the notion of Eve as Adam’s temptress – and her close affiliation with the snake, that source of sinful temptation – remained alive and well in visual culture. In some artworks, for example, Eve and the snake share a rather spooky resemblance, confirming the artists’ association of woman with this serpentine symbol of evil.

Masolino, Temptation of Adam and Eve, 1425
Masolino, Temptation of Adam and Eve, 1425
The Fall of Adam and Eve, Hugo van der Goes, c. 1470
The Fall of Adam and Eve, Hugo van der Goes, c. 1470

In other visual portrayals of Genesis 3, Eve may not look like the snake, but her close affiliation with it is clear to see. In William Blake’s Eve Tempted by the Serpent, this bizarre couple sashay around the tree of knowledge together, while Adam lies snoozing, oblivious to the disastrous events about to unfold.

William Blake, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, c.1800
William Blake, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, c.1800

In works by Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Henry Fuseli, and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, there’s even a wee bit of flirtation going on between Eve and the snake, while in Franz von Stuck’s work, Adam and Eve, Eve and the snake appear to become one flesh, the lapis lazuli creature mimicking the serpentine curves of the woman’s body until they coalesce to form one terrible fanged mouth that offers the man that fateful fruit.

Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Eve, 1896
Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Eve, 1896
Henry Fuseli, The Serpent Tempting Eve (Satan’s first address to Eve), 1802
Henry Fuseli, The Serpent Tempting Eve (Satan’s first address to Eve), 1802
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Eve Tempted (c.1877)
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Eve Tempted (c.1877)
Franz von Stuck, Adam and Eve (1893)
Franz von Stuck, Adam and Eve (1893)

Also, note how in some of these paintings, Eve is alone with the snake, accentuating the closeness of their relationship and, as J. Cheryl Exum has suggested, allowing Adam to be acquitted of at least some of the blame for his and Eve’s act of fruity disobedience. And even when he is present in the picture, some artists seem to insist that Adam was an unwilling partaker of the forbidden fruit, driven to this disastrous act as the result of Eve’s feminine wiles and skills of temptation.

William Strang, The Temptation (1899)
William Strang, The Temptation (1899)
Titian, The Fall of Man (c.1570)
Titian, The Fall of Man (c.1550)
Victor Brauner, Adam and Eve 1923
Victor Brauner, Adam and Eve 1923

But how did Eve tempt Adam to eat the forbidden fruit? And what was this fruit anyway – what did it represent? The biblical text doesn’t explicitly tell us, but as Katie Edwards has suggested (in her fabulous book Admen and Eve), given the rich biblical tradition of pairing together the themes of female sexuality and fruit (see Song of Songs 2:3-5 and 4:12-16 for example) – not to mention the sexualised implications of female nakedness found throughout the Hebrew biblical traditions – it may be that Eve’s ability to tempt her man to disobey the divine word was due to the overwhelming power of her sexuality. In other words, she didn’t simply persuade Adam to eat a piece of fruit – she seduced him until he was powerless to resist her charms, until he forgot about any divine prohibition and, throwing caution to the wind, sank his teeth into the delights of the flesh. And certainly, artists such as John Liston Byam Shaw make quite explicit this association between female sexuality and the sin of the ‘Fall’. Eve – as woman – is shamelessly seductive here – framed by the rich colours and exotic creatures of Eden (including a rather ginormous snake), she appears to have entranced poor Adam to the point of catatonia as he stands, trapped between those two most deadly of creatures – the woman and the snake – with nowhere left to run.

John Liston Byam Shaw, The Woman, the Man, the Serpent (1911)
John Liston Byam Shaw, The Woman, the Man, the Serpent (1911)

Even in contemporary depictions of the Adam and Eve biblical traditions – for example, advertising images that use iconography from the Genesis 2-3 text – this sexualising of Eve persists, along with that same insistence that Adam, while not entirely blameless, was rendered helpless by the overwhelming (and thus dangerous) power of woman’s sensual allure.

Bobby's Taproom and Grill advert
Bobby’s Taproom and Grill advert
Bobby's Taproom and Grill ad
Bobby’s Taproom and Grill advertising image
TSUM department store ad
TSUM department store ad

These contemporary images – although created under the banner of (hetero)sex positive postfeminism – may still convey an implicit message that such allure may need to be proscribed and policed. As Edwards notes in Admen and Eve, women’s sexuality and self-objectification before the male gaze can now be advertised as a source of their social and sexual power; yet, there is a concomitant claim that such potent female sexuality poses a threat to men and masculinity. Meanwhile, both of these ideological responses blissfully ignore the daily reality for countless women that their sexuality is less a source of their power than a site of shame, vulnerability, and violence.   While Paul, Philo, the Church fathers, and countless others insist that women’s sexuality led man to lose his paradise, the reality may be that the paradise of patriarchy never did get lost in the first place, but remains very much a reality, sustained by those myths and misperceptions surrounding female sexuality – given voice in Genesis 2-3 and their interpretive traditions – that serve to keep women firmly in that marginal space of shame, subordination, and sexual sin.

I’ll be back soon with more reflections from our Danger and Desire course – next time, we’ll survey the cultural phenomenon of ‘Salomania’ – that centuries-long artistic love affair with the young royal dancer who caused John the Baptist to, quite literally, lose his head.

References for this discussion:

Edwards, Katie B. Admen and Eve: The Bible and Contemporary Advertising (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012).

Exum, J. Cheryl. “Notorious Biblical Women in Manchester: Spencer Stanhope’s Eve and Frederick Pickersgill’s Delilah.” In Bible Art Gallery, edited by Martin O’Kane, 69-96 (The Bible in the Modern World, 21. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).

Danger and Desire: New course offering for Theology at Auckland

crowd

Those of you who have visited the blog before will be aware that I have a bit of a thing for exploring the Bible in the visual arts (see our annual December Advent offerings, for example, or some previous posts here, here, and here). So I’m thrilled this year to be teaching  on this very topic. Titled Danger and Desire: The Bible and Visual Culture, this brand new course will introduce students to the concept of visual exegesis, showing them how visual images (including art, film, TV, and advertising) can be valuable tools for the biblical interpreter to use in their readings of biblical stories, themes and, characters. These pictorial presentations of the biblical material are rather like biblical commentaries or scholarly articles in visual form – the image maker is an interpreter of the text, not merely its illustrator. And, through their particular visual media, they gift to us fascinating retellings of the biblical stories, multicoloured afterlives of biblical characters, and reflections on biblical themes that can at times be thrilling, surprising, and even challenging.

Robert Lentz
Robert Lentz, David and Jonathan (c. 2005)

Exodus-Gods-and-Kings-Poster-7

In case I’ve whetted your interest, I’ve listed the course description and lecture topics below, along with a very select bibliography of some resources we’ll be using. And, as the course progresses, I’ll share with you some of the insights that I get from each lecture, not to mention some of the wonderful images we’ll be looking at each week.

Franz-Von-Stuck-adam-and-Eve
Franz von Stuck, Adam and Eve

Danger and Desire: The Bible and Visual Culture

An exploration of the ways that biblical characters, themes, and stories have been represented in the visual arts, including fine art, advertising, and film. Students will consider the interrelationship between biblical and cultural texts, learning various methods of biblical interpretation which utilise visual images as interpretive tools to make new sense of the biblical traditions and their history of interpretation.

Lectures:

  1. Introduction to visual exegesis and hermeneutical aesthetics
  2. Sin, sexuality, and selling power: Adam and Eve in art and advertising
  3. Don’t lose your head: Judith and Salome as biblical femmes fatales
  4. Querying masculinities: exploring biblical ambiguities in the visual arts (David and Jonathan; Jacob wrestling with the man at Jabbok)
  5. Querying femininities: exploring more biblical ambiguities in the visual arts (Ruth and Naomi)
  6. Highlighting or hiding the abject body? Hagar in art
  7. Bathing beauties and peeping toms: Bathsheba and Susanna in art
  8. Giving shape to suffering: the book of Job in art (focus on William Blake and Samuel Bak)
  9. Retelling familiar tales: the parable of the good Samaritan in art and on screen
  10. Visualizing the (masculine) holy: Jesus and messiah imagery in art, film, and advertising
Samuel Bak Journey
Samuel Bak, Journey (1991)

Select bibliography

Adams, Ann Jensen. Rembrandt’s Bathsheba Reading King David’s Letter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Allison, Dale C. Jr., Christine Helmer, Thomas Römer,  Choon-Leong Seow, Barry Dov Walfish,  and Eric Ziolkowski (eds.) Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009-

Clines, David J. and J. Cheryl Exum (eds.). Biblical Reception (2012-2013).

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

Edwards, Katie B.  Admen and Eve: The Bible in Contemporary Advertising. The Bible in the Modern World, 48. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2012.

Exum, J. Cheryl. The Bible in Film: The Bible and Film. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Exum, J. Cheryl.  Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012 (2nd edn).

Exum, J. Cheryl and Ela Nutu (eds.). Between the Text and the Canvas: The Bible and Art in Dialogue. The Bible in the Modern World, 13. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009

Harvey, John.  The Bible as Visual Culture: When Text Becomes Image. The Bible in the Modern World, 57. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.

Joynes, Christine E. (ed.). Perspectives on the Passion: Encountering the Bible through the Arts. London: T&T Clark, 2007.

O’Kane, Martin (ed.). Bible Art Gallery. The Bible in the Modern World, 21. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011.

________ (ed.). Imaging the Bible: An Introduction to Biblical Art. London: SPCK, 2008.

________. Painting the Text: The Artist as Biblical Interpreter. The Bible in the Modern World, 8. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009.

Renan, Ernest. Christ in Art. New York: Parkstone International, 2010.

Rowland, Christopher. Blake and the Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Terrien, Samuel. The Iconography of Job through the Centuries: Artists as Biblical Interpreters. University Park: PSU Press, 1996.

Salome and John the Baptist John Vassos 1927
John Vassos, Salome and John the Baptist (1927)
Adam and Eve Underwear Ad
Adam and Eve imagery in Bench/ undies ad
banksy-graffiti-street-art-8
Banksy, Crucifixion