Today’s student essay for THEOREL 101/G (our Bible and Popular Culture course) comes from Dario Davidson. Dario has taken that well known biblical story of Adam and Eve’s temptation (Genesis 3) and read it alongside the movie, The Matrix. The result? A wonderfully creative analysis of both the film and the biblical narrative, which brings new meaning and insights to both texts.
So read on, and enjoy!
Adam and Eve Chose the Red Pill
The Garden of Eden is an integral part of the Bible in modern culture. The dramatic conclusion of Genesis is the backdrop for what is now universally known as “Original Sin”. Adam and Eve’s choice represented God’s creation rebelling for the first time by succumbing to temptation and consuming the forbidden fruit. This story has a long and diverse cultural afterlife. In 1999, in a radical retelling of Genesis Three, the dystopian science fiction film “The Matrix” was released. Based on The Wachowski brothers’ 1997 script, it encompassed the ongoing debate regarding artificial intelligence, with a strong anchor in Descartes’ original venture into metaphysics. The Matrix confronted audiences with the uncomfortable possibility that reality was an entirely subjective term. Beyond the initial focus on robots and digital worlds, it becomes clear that this story is a bold reimagining of Mankind’s fall from grace. It did so by invoking the same fundamental thematic setting and character arcs but presented them from an inverted perspective.
Our Eden in this case is a computer-generated simulation of late twentieth century Earth, known as The Matrix, being simultaneously experienced by all humans. The Matrix’s version of God is the Artificial Intelligence. It is a multitude of entities driven by a single consciousness, with a stranglehold on the reality of every living person. It exerts its will through a host of programs, one of which is Agent Smith. Adam and Eve are clearly manifested in the Matrix’s protagonist, Thomas and his love-interest, Trinity. No Garden of Eden is complete without a serpent. The Matrix gives us Morpheus: a man both vilified and hunted by A.I., it is he who presents Thomas with the forbidden fruit of knowledge. All the fundamental characters are being represented. Upon closer inspection it becomes clear that The Matrix and Genesis Three have thematic similarities that are clearly more than coincidental.
“So, the lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep” (Genesis 2:21)
Before Eve, Adam was not alone in the garden. He was surrounded by all the animals God had created and lived among them. Despite this, he feels lonely and incomplete. “But for Adam, no suitable helper was found.” (Genesis 2:20). Eve is made while Adam sleeps. It is the creation of his paramour that eases his restlessness. Thomas A. Anderson is a computer programmer living in New York city. He is painfully ordinary, and like most technologically-inclined people of the late nineties, a loner. He lives in The Matrix, unaware of the world outside of it. He is surrounded by people, but ultimately isolated from them. In the first act of The Matrix, several scenes show Thomas waking from various dreams. They are intentionally shown to confuse the viewer between what is a dream and what is reality. Upon waking from one such dream-like experience, Thomas meets Trinity, who, as well as having an obviously biblical name, comes to him with the temptation of true knowledge. Much like Eve did in Genesis 3, she tells him that knowledge lies in defiance of the law. The crucial turning point for Thomas in the first act of the Matrix is his decision to trust Trinity over the authorities of the world. He knows she is a notorious, criminal computer hacker. Despite this, his thirst for knowledge pushes him to trust her at the risk of being “exiled” from society. Adam knew that the consequence of disobeying God would be severe, but he trusted Eve and sought truth over compliance.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1).
The serpent has long been branded the culprit behind mankind’s first temptation. He lurked in the shadows, relying on wit and cunning instead of brawn. It is towards the climax of the first Act that Trinity brings Thomas to Morpheus. Morpheus, in Greek mythology, refers to the God of dreams; a shrewd title for the man who seeks to free Thomas from the ‘dreamworld’ of The Matrix. Morpheus is relentlessly hunted by A.I for his ongoing defiance. During his interrogation of Thomas, Agent Smith describes Morpheus as “the most dangerous man alive”. Although it is clear that the A.I. considers Morpheus an adversary, he is not Satan. Indeed, Genesis never claims that the serpent is Satan either. It is only a much later Christian tradition to describe the serpent as synonymous with Satan (Tate, 1992). However, Morpheus does fulfil virtually the exact role as the serpent in Eden, by acting in direct opposition to the will of God.
First, Morpheus finds Trinity, who in turn, finds Thomas and tells him that she knows the answers he has been seeking. In Genesis, Eve ate the fruit first, and then tempted Adam. In the climax of the first act, we see Morpheus offer Neo two pills, the red pill and the blue pill. The red pill represents the tree of knowledge from the Garden. Morpheus promises Neo that he offers him “The truth, nothing more”. The blue pill will return him to his life of ignorant bliss. Here, it is Morpheus who acts as the archetypal challenger of faith. Morpheus and the serpent even have the same view of the Garden, perceiving it as a restriction of liberty instead of a paradise. This is heavily reflected in the choice of words used by Morpheus upon freeing Thomas. The serpent says, “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened” (Genesis 3:5). When Thomas first exits The Matrix, he asks why his eyes hurt, to which Morpheus replies “you’ve never used them before”.
“But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:17).”
In Genesis, God makes laws based on a lie and deceives Adam and Eve about the nature of their existence. Upon eating the fruit, they do not die but instead realize the nature of their reality; in this instance, that they are naked. Whether or not being naked in Eden is bad or good is a moot point. The fact is that it is true,and they now recognize it as such.
When Thomas is initially awoken from the artificial world inside The Matrix, he sees the true hellscape that the real world has become. The sky is blackened with thick clouds of smoke. The ground is scorched and devoid of all life. Having lived in a simulation of relative peace his whole life, the sight before him rocks him to his core. He has ceased to live in the Matrix and is now aware of the true nature of reality.
The A.I. has removed humanity’s burden of existing in a polluted and desolate world by trapping them inside The Matrix. The few humans who have escaped live harsh, fearful lives compared to their enslaved counterparts. When Adam and Eve are exiled, God inflicts suffering upon them in the form of painful childbirth, and a life of labour. But like Adam, to Thomas, truth is more important than comfort. Thomas resents the A.I. for keeping humans ignorant and seeks to free them all. God wanted subservience from mankind in exchange for their peaceful and oblivious existence. This is the nature of the A.I. controlling the Matrix: it only seeks to exploit people for the power they can provide it. Much like an all-powerful God demanding unquestioning obedience and worship, its power within the Matrix is virtually limitless. By illustrating Thomas and the rest of humanity as slaves, the Wachowskis were trying to challenge the usual depiction of Adam and Eve’s disobedience not as a failure, but instead as a revolution against tyranny.
The Matrix can provide a new way of examining Genesis 3 for modern audiences. Through the depiction of a disillusioned and incomplete man, we get an understanding of Thomas’ yearning for truth. Despite his relative comforts and luxuries, there is a profound lack of meaning in his life. It was Trinity who came to him with the promise of fulfilment and truth. Morpheus gave Thomas the chance to opt out, and to continue living as a servant, but Thomas was compelled to seek answers. The A.I fulfilled its role as the great deceiver, imprisoning the entire human race out of self-interest. Omnipotent and omnipresent, it was swift to exact judgement on humans it deemed disobedient. Through their script, the Wachowskis were trying to illustrate the immorality of Genesis Three. The fact that mankind was deceived from the start suggests not benevolence on God’s part but an egocentric agenda. Adam and Eve chose the ‘red pill’, were cursed by God, and cast out of Eden forever. Adam was forced to labour and work the earth while Eve suffered terrible pain in bearing children. Nevertheless, they were together, and they knew truth.
THOMAS/NEO “I can’t go back, can I?”
MORPHEUS “No. But, even if you could, knowing what you know now, would you really want to?”
Tate, M. E. (1992). Satan in the old testament. Review & Expositor, 89(4), 461-474.
Wachowski, Andrew. Wachowski, Larry. (1996) The Matrix. “IMSDB”. Retrieved from URL.
Today’s essay is from THEOREL 101/G student, Eve Greensill (pictured left!). Eva has chosen a fascinating topic, considering convicted killer Charles Manson as a ‘popular messiah’ figure. Here’s a little bit about Eva.
I’m from Taranaki, and moved to Auckland at the start of 2018 to study at the University of Auckland. I’m studying a Bachelor of Arts with majors in Psychology and Drama. I don’t have any definite goals for the future yet, I’d like to see what avenues my degree leads me to, and what passions I find through study. Over the course of my first year I’ve developed an interest in Eastern psychologies, and intend to travel to India after my degree to learn more. THEOREL 101 was hands down one of my favourite courses this year, I loved how the assignment and exam provided so much space to explore personal interests in relation to course material. I also really enjoyed how it challenged the way that I had thought about the bible and its place in pop culture.
Sit back and enjoy the read!
Manson: Murder, Madness and… Messiahship?!
When considering contemporary messiahs in pop culture, many think of the heroic and widely adored figures such as Barack Obama, Harry Potter, or Ritchie McCaw. It’s easy to forget the dark underbelly of messiah-types in which people who do unspeakably horrific acts also exhibit an eerie number of the typical features by which we define our beloved heroic messiahs. One such ‘dark messiah’ is Charles Manson. Manson was a cult leader who rose to infamy in the late 1960’s after he was involved with nine murders. His beliefs were based on the biblical apocalyptic texts in Revelation, which he believed indicated an imminent race war between African Americans and white Americans. He also believed that the Beatles were prophets of this race war and named his ideology ‘Helter Skelter’ after a song from their ‘White Album’. Manson promised his cult, the Family, that they would be safe in the desert during this supposed war until the white Americans had been killed, and then the cult would emerge and rule over society. The important factors to consider when examining Manson as a popular messiah are the differing definitions of messiah between the New Testament and Old Testament, the application of the American monomyth, and the typical features of a popular messiah which can be applied to Manson.
This essay will be discussing Manson regarding the New Testament concept of messiah. However, it is interesting to consider how Manson can be viewed, or perhaps how he viewed himself, in relation to the Old Testament definition. A messiah in the Old Testament was a person anointed by God to be a political and military leader, as David was anointed by Samuel – “The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him… and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:12-13). To himself and to his followers, it is likely that Manson did fit the idea of a Hebrew messiah, as his ideology was politically grounded with strong beliefs around necessary war. Manson also claimed to have a unique understanding of the bible, and so despite not having been anointed by God in a literal manner such as King David, Manson’s supposed special relationship with God along with his political agenda does draw strong parallels to the Hebrew concept of messiah. The definition in the New Testament differs from the Old Testament, as the identification of Jesus as a messiah brought the idea that a messiah was a figure who brought spiritual salvation; a more abstract concept than the political salvation associated with Hebrew messiahs.
The American monomyth in relation to popular messiahs is based on the New Testament definition of messiah. The American monomyth as discussed by Jewett and Lawrence focuses on a community under threat, from which a messianic savior-figure arises to conquer evil and restore the community to safety (Jewett and Lawrence 2002, p.6). The American monomyth is mainly discussed regarding fictional superheroes, however, the concept can also be applied to real historical figures, as will be outlined in the case of Charles Manson. The creation of fictional heroes speaks to a deep societal yearning for a real savior to arise who can solve the problems faced by a community or nation at a certain point in time. For example, ‘Superman’ was first published in 1938, at the end of the Great Depression, while America was on the precipice of World War II. As Trimble wrote of the ‘Superman’ creators; “Growing up in one of the most difficult periods in American history, perhaps, to them, the only means of finding the promised American dream was through the intervention of a super-powered strongman” (Lang and Trimble 1988, p.160). When looking at Charles Manson, it is apparent that the 1960s were a time of political unrest, known as “a volatile era of social and political turbulence… The decade was characterized by emphases on psychedelic drug use, sexual exploration, racial equality, and activism through music…” (Altman 2015, p.3). It is highly plausible that such an environment created a longing for a messiah figure of the American monomyth to arise and ease the social unrest, in the same way that such a longing was present at the time of Superman’s creation. Therefore, the Manson Family’s view of Manson as such a figure is not implausible, as his ideology was one that promised social resolution. Manson did also cultivate this idea of him as a messianic figure, even going as far as to model himself as Jesus. Nielsen outlines how the Family developed an idea of Manson as a Christ-figure due to heavy drug consumption, during which Manson would reenact the crucifixion of Jesus (1984, p.323).
In further analysis of Charles Manson as a messiah figure, it becomes clear that he does fit a majority of features attributed to contemporary messiahs by Jewett and Lawrence. These features are generally based off characteristics of biblical messiahs, or Jesus in particular. One such feature is unusual or unknown origins, which aligns with Jesus’ unusual birth to a virgin mother (Matt. 1:18-25). Manson’s childhood was unusual in the fact that it was a difficult one. His mother was fifteen when she gave birth to him and went to prison when Manson was only four. By thirteen, Manson had been involved in auto theft and armed robbery, which resulted in him being sent to juvenile detention for most of his adolescence (Arledge 2017). Another feature of a contemporary messiah which Manson can claim is that of being an ‘outsider’; somehow set apart from others. While Manson made it his mission to be surrounded by other people, he was set apart from them by his psychology; as a psychopath he would be unable to feel empathy or remorse.Therefore he could not truly connect with and relate to those around him, making him an ‘outsider’. Manson also shows the feature of rationalization of violence, as he justified the nine murders by claiming that it was necessary to start his imagined race war. Tex Watson, one of the Family members wrote in his autobiography that Charlie told them to commit murder to “do what blackie didn’t have the energy or the smarts to do – ignite Helter Skelter and bring in Charlie’s kingdom” (Watson 1978, p.67).
Additionally, Manson exhibits ‘extraordinary powers’, another feature of popular messiahs. However rather than supernatural powers, his abilities lie in his manipulation of people through his charisma and reasoning, which combined with the use of drugs, essentially allowed him to brainwash people. Furthermore, the messianic feature of thematic death and resurrection is apparent in how Manson promised his followers safety from the supposed apocalyptic race war. He told the Family they would escape to the desert during the war and live in the ‘bottomless pit’ from Revelation 9:1 – “a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit”. It is interesting that in theology, the ‘bottomless pit’ is commonly understood to refer to hell, and so perhaps Manson saw the idea of taking shelter in this pit as type of death. He also made his followers believe that once the African Americans were victorious, the family would emerge and rule the earth, which fits with the idea of resurrection. Another feature of a contemporary messiah which can be applied to Manson is the idea of a loyal band of iconic followers. Comparative to how Jesus had his disciples, Manson had his Family, many of whom would have been willing to die for him (Mark 3.13-19).
Another potential feature of a popular messiah that Manson could be argued to adhere to is that of remaining collected under pressure. Even though Manson was renowned for exhibiting bizarre behavior during his trial and in subsequent interviews, it could be argued that this was an act for Manson to manipulate how the court and the rest of the world saw him, which would suggest that underneath all the insanity, he was in fact, collected. This idea is supported by how, even as a child, Manson would use similar methods to protect himself, something which he called the ‘insane game’ – “This ‘game’ consisted of Charles using noises, erratic gestures, rapid movements, and any other means at his disposal to convince potential threats that he was crazy and not worth their time” (Altman 2015, p.21). The only two messianic features which Manson does not fit is that of having a selfless passion for justice, and of renouncing sexuality and withstanding temptation. Objectively, Manson’s actions cannot be described as just in any righteous sense, and his use of drugs and sex were instrumental in the manipulation of his followers.
It is indisputable that Manson is a widely recognized figure in pop culture. His recent death has only served to cement the intrigue surrounding his life, and filmmakers are scrambling to capitalize on this and capture the essence of Manson on screen. However, Manson can not only be defined as a pop culture icon, but also as a contemporary messiah, in relation to both Hebrew and New Testament definitions, the American monomyth and by conventional features attributed to messiahs. This creates interesting reflections around human susceptibility to evil when it is masked by a charismatic leader, and just how far people can be willing to go to fulfil someone else’s vision. Manson was not the first messianic figure to use his power over others to commit unthinkable atrocities against others, nor unfortunately, will he be the last.
All references to the Biblical text are from the New Revised Standard Version
Jewett, Robert, and John Shelton Lawrence. “The myth of the American superhero.”Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (2002).
Lang, Jeffrey S., and Patrick Trimble. “Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An examination of the American monomyth and the comic book superhero.” The Journal of Popular Culture 22, no. 3 (1988): 157-173.
Nielsen, Donald A. “Charles Manson’s Family of Love: A Case Study of Anomism, Puerilism and Transmoral Consciousness in Civilizational Perspective.”Sociological Analysis 45, no. 4 (1984): 315-337. doi:10.2307/3711297.
Watson, Charles (Tex), Chaplain Ray Hoekstra. “Will You Die for Me?”New York, Fleming H. Revell Co. (1978).
Today’s essay comes from student Niki Menzies, here’s a bit of background about Niki and her piece:
I’m studying toward a conjoint Commerce/Arts degree, majoring in Art History, Chinese and International Business (that’s the plan anyway). During high school in Wellington, I took an ‘English with Philosophy’ class that partially focussed on Christianity – I remember finding Christianity and the Bible very interesting, so when I saw that I could take THEOREL101 as part of my Art History major I was very excited.
I thoroughly enjoyed the THEOREL 101 course this semester. It opened my eyes to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways the Bible has influenced the world around me. It also made me realise that the Bible is a much more important text than I thought it was – I guess from a secular standpoint, I never thought about the role the Bible plays in politics or gender discourses. The freedom of the course is also great, I loved being able to apply course material to some of my personal interests. I am interested in animal rights and the criticism activists face for their views, and wanted to explore the actions of one activist in relation to the Biblical prophets.
Here’s the essay, enjoy the read!
A Voice for the Voiceless: James Aspey’s Prophetic Mission Against Animal Cruelty
Animal rights activist James Aspey dedicates his life to being a voice for the voiceless. His mission is to end injustices against our earth’s “voiceless victims” (Aspey, 2015a). Aspey (2015a) aims to stop the human oppression and exploitation of animals, and move the world toward a vegan lifestyle. He believes veganism – refraining from “consuming, wearing or using” animals (Aspey, 2016) – is a lifestyle that is aligned with universal values of compassion and justice (Aspey, 2016b). Aspey’s activism includes group demonstrations, powerful orations and disruptive protests that seek to open peoples’ eyes to the indifference they have toward the current treatment of animals (perceived by Aspey to be social injustices). Aspey’s actions share many of the markers of biblical prophets as described by Marcus Borg (2001). Using Borg’s definition of the biblical prophet, I will analyse Aspey’s activism to argue that he functions as a contemporary prophetic figure in today’s society.
Marcus Borg (2001) identifies several shared markers of biblical prophets. Firstly, he writes that biblical prophecy grows from situations of oppression; usually the oppression of the poor and vulnerable by elites (Borg, 2001). Prophets therefore are concerned with social justice issues, for which they share a passion (Borg, 2001). They condemn injustice and social oppression, naming offenders and pronouncing ominous warnings about their fate (Houston, 2018). Prophets Micah and Isaiah were concerned with injustice caused by the rich and powerful exploiting the poor or vulnerable (Micah 3:10; Isaiah 58:3, The New Revised Standard Version). Micah objected to the ways in which powerful rulers benefited from the suffering of others, building their cities upon foundations of exploitation and inequality (Micah 3:10). In a similar way, Aspey opposes what he sees to be horrendous crimes of injustice in the world. However, his focus is directed at our treatment of animals, rather than fellow humans. He argues that humans are oppressors who commit violent injustices against animals by breeding them for consumption (Aspey, 2016b). Animals are “innocent and vulnerable beings” (Aspey, 2016b) that humans exploit from a position of power. Aspey (2018) names the oppressor of animals to be “the consumer,” who creates the demand for animal products. Furthermore, while Aspey’s direct focus is on animal cruelty, he also argues that the consumption of animal products contributes to a situation that might be more readily accepted as a social inequality; he argues that by producing animals to be consumed, suffering humans are being deprived of food, as plants and water are being inefficiently assigned to animal agriculture instead of starving children (Aspey, 2015). These children are victims of a consumer culture that values the consumption of animals even though it is an inefficient use of resources. Aspey’s passion for social justice mirrors that of biblical prophets; like Micah, Aspey has identified situations of oppression in which stronger parties oppresses weaker ones, and is passionately condemning them.
Borg (2001) also observes that the biblical prophets interrupt dominant ideologies by speaking ‘truths’ about practices that are normalised in society. An example of this is the prophet Amos’ condemning of religious worship as a redeemer of unjust behaviour (Borg, 2001). Amos believed that justice was inherently connected to God, and therefore worshipping God meant nothing if one continued to turn a blind eye to injustice: “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them . . . But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:22-24). In a similar way, Aspey objects to the normalised practice of factory-farming animals for human consumption. Many of his demonstrations seek to educate people about farming practices, such as displaying images of slaughterhouses on the streets (Aspey, 2017). Aspey also uses inflammatory and emotive language such as “holocaust” and “torture” to describe the slaughter of animals (Aspey, 2018) in an attempt to destabilise acceptance of the practice. Furthermore, he criticises the increasingly popular practice of buying ‘free-range’ or ‘cruelty-free’ products, arguing that this makes no difference to the overall suffering of animals (Aspey, 2016c). Aspey believes there is no such thing as ‘humane slaughter’, therefore one cannot claim to have compassion or to support animal rights if they continue to consume any animal products (regardless of whether it is free-range) (LIVEKINDLY, 2017). Like Amos, Aspey refuses to accept the belief that certain actions can redeem other injustices; just as worshipping God means nothing if one continues to turn a blind eye to oppression, buying free range is not enough when free-range animals will end their lives in the same slaughterhouse as factory-farmed ones (Aspey, 2016c).
Another important characteristic shared by biblical prophets and Aspey is that they are powerful orators. Borg (2001) writes of the electrifying nature of the prophets’ addresses, specifically the sophistication of Amos’ oration techniques. Amos used evocative language to paint powerful images in the minds of his audience; for example, his description of the rich and powerful who “lie on beds of ivory. . . who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp” (Amos 6:4-5). Aspey’s oration technique can be considered similar to Micah’s when the prophet condemns the rulers of Israel in this fiery speech: “You . . . who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones” (Micah 3:2-3). Using similarly violent and emotive language, Aspey (2018) paints pictures of animals having their throats slit or being killed in “gas chambers” as part in “longest standing holocaust” of all time. Like Amos and Micah, Aspey seeks to use his orations to evoke strong imagery in the minds of his audience, specifically disturbing and violent imagery that will change perceptions of injustices (animal rearing and consumption).
Biblical prophets complete dramatic acts to draw attention to their cause and to rouse followers (Borg, 2001). These acts often contain an element of endurance; Isaiah walked barefoot and naked for three years in protest against injustices committed against the Assyrians (Isaiah 20:3). Another biblical prophet, Ezekiel, was instructed by God to lie on his side – first his left, then his right – for the number of days that Israel and Jerusalem were to be exiled (respectively) (Ezekiel 4:1-8). The intent of these symbolic actions was to draw attention and add drama to the prophets’ messages (Borg, 2001). Intentionally dramatic acts of protest are common in animal rights activism; an activist Morgan Redfern-Hardisty is currently walking the length of New Zealand barefoot to protest being pressured to serve cow’s milk in his café (Newshub, 2018). Aspey has carried out similar acts of endurance, such as undergoing twenty-four hours of tattooing (Aspey, 2016a). In 2014, Aspey undertook a dramatic act similar to Isaiah, swearing a 365-day vow of silence to raise awareness of animal exploitation. In his Sunrise News interview on national Australian television, Aspey ended his silence by explaining his intention had been to “raise awareness for the voiceless victims of this planet” (Aspey, 2015a). In the same way that Isaiah used prophetic action is used to dramatize his message (Borg, 2001), Aspey completed an act of endurance to draw attention to the plight of animals. His prophetic act succeeded in growing his audience by giving him the opportunity to speak on national television, and contained a dramatic element which drew attention to his mission.
Finally, biblical prophets share a vision for the future that provides hope to sustain the power of their messages (Borg, 2001). Borg (2001) writes that the prophets skilfully construct images of a better future, in a way that ensures that their prophetic action retains its vitality; they create hope that provides their oppressed audience with energy to continue. Borg (2001) writes that biblical prophets such as Isaiah conveyed to their audiences messages of hope that their communities would survive or be rejuvenated (Borg, 2001). For example, Isaiah had a vision that the exiled Jewish would return to their homeland (Isaiah 40:1-5). Jeremiah prophesised that a war would come upon Jerusalem, but provided reassurance by saying that his audience would survive and that their God was always with them (Jeremiah 31:31-33). Aspey’s own vision for the future fulfils this element of Borg’s definition. He imagines a “vegan world” (Aspey, 2018) without injustice toward animals. Aspey also conveys a hopefulness to his supporters of the growing vegan movement. He frequently reiterates the strength of his message and the pace at which veganism is spreading in the world, calling it the “fastest growing social justice movement of our time” (Aspey, 2016b). Although he cannot reassure the ‘victims’ of oppression (animals) of the possibility of a better future, Aspey uses his vision to encourage supporters and other vegans to continue their activism. In the same way as biblical prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Aspey’s vision instils a sense of hope and strength in his community.
In this essay I have argued that James Aspey shares the characteristics of biblical prophets as described by Marcus Borg (2001). Like the biblical prophets, Aspey’s mission is to fight a perceived situation of social injustice where the weak are exploited by the powerful. He also shares with biblical prophets strong oration skills and a willingness to carry out dramatic acts in order to energise and draw attention to his message. Finally, Aspey has a vision for the future that gives hope to his supporters, just as prophets promised survival and rejuvenation to the communities they addressed. It is safe to say that Aspey’s behaviour mirrors that of the biblical prophets, and therefore he can be seen to fulfil the criteria of a prophetic figure in today’s society.
Tonight we have a essay from local Jamie Lee–here’s a bit about Jamie and their essay.
I am from Auckland, I am studying a Bachelor of Arts double majoring in Film, Television and Media Studies and English. I am about to head on exchange to the University of California, Santa Barbara, and intend on becoming an English teacher overseas once I complete my degree. I have thoroughly enjoyed this class, as while I am not the most devout Catholic in the world, I have an interest in the way religion and popular culture interact with each other especially through film, music and video games. I am also very interested in the way the Bible has affected modern literature and storytelling as a whole. The main reason I chose to do an essay on Apocalyptic literature was in order to understand both its function and how it was written, as I intend on exploring creative writing alongside my current career plans, and felt like this knowledge might help inspire me creatively in the future.
Enjoy the read and have a good weekend!
Bombs, Blizzards and Blight: Apocalypse in Popular Culture
Popular culture literature, for example films, gaming and music, have manipulated the Bible’s apocalyptic literary genre in order to convey modern audiences social anxieties about the future. Inspired by the Book of Revelation’s symbolism of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and fantastical imagery of the ‘end of the world’, modern apocalyptic literature has been used to convey fears of absolute nuclear annihilation and fears of a global environmental catastrophe leading to humanity’s demise.
The Book of Revelation’s original function was as a symbolic depiction of current events, using fantastical imagery to both depict contemporary anxieties and to spread hope to a Christian audience who were facing persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. This is particularly obvious in the symbolic image of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, each of which is reflective of one of these contemporary anxieties. The first horse, ‘Conquest’, is described as “a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer” (Revelation 6:2). Similarly, the remaining horses of ‘War’ (red), ‘Famine’ (black) and ‘Death’ (pale) all reflect the anxieties of early Christians in the times of persecution they lived in.
Coded language was also used in apocalyptic literature to depict contemporary anxieties, particularly the image of the “mark of the beast”. The “mark of the beast” can be decoded in Revelation 13:18, which reads, “the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. It’s number is six hundred sixty-six”. Through the technique of “gematria”, the number 666 can be decoded into the words “Caesar Nero”, who is both the first Roman emperor and one of the most brutal emperors to persecute Christians following the “Great Fire of Rome”, which Christians were scapegoated as causing in 64AD (Marcus Borg, p.277).
The other function of biblical apocalyptic literature was to provide an ‘end goal’ or resolution to this persecution, which in the case of the Book of Revelation appears through the use of destructive eschatological imagery. This particularly visible in Revelation 16:18, which reads “there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake.” The use of fantastical imagery is what inspired modern writers of apocalyptic literature to use similar imagery in their own works. However, there have been many shifts in the way apocalyptic literature functions in the modern era, particularly in the way in which it is read. As Bart D. Ehrman states in an interview, the Bible’s apocalyptic literature is often misread by the modern audience “as if these apocalypses are predicting things in our own future”, simply because these fantastical events imagined in the Bible never occurred in history. For contemporary readers of apocalyptic literature in the Bible, it was used directly to create hope for them in the face of ongoing Christian persecution, whereas the apocalyptic literature seen in popular culture is far more concerned about the future of society.
Fear of the outbreak of a full scale nuclear war and ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD) has been a very real concern of society since World War II when the first atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. The first use of the atom bomb in Hiroshima led to the instant obliteration of 60,000 buildings within a three mile radius, and between 64,000 to 240,000 people died from mechanical, thermal or radiation injuries (Phillip M. Boffey, p.679). The sheer capabilities of nuclear weapons as shown by these two bombings led to ‘nuclear warfare’ becoming a very real fear of society, and this fear translated into popular culture in the form of modern apocalyptic literature.
The video game, Fallout 3 explores a post-apocalyptic civilization following the outbreak of full scale nuclear warfare in the year 2077. One of the most striking things about Fallout 3 is how lifeless the open-world of the “Capital Wasteland” is. Set in the ruins of Washington, D.C. almost no vegetation grows, the colour saturation is extremely pale and the Wasteland itself is filled with derelict, abandoned buildings and constant fighting between the survivors of the war, who without laws or government now do as they wish, with no consequences. This imagery of a desolate and lawless wasteland shares many similarities with apocalyptic literature in the Bible, for example Isaiah 24:1 reads, “Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate.” Additionally, Fallout 3’s main quest itself is inspired by the “spring of the water of life” seen in Revelation 21:6, by forcing the “Lone Wanderer” (the player) to decide whether or not they provide clean water for the people of the “Capital Wasteland”, or to unleash a devastating virus in it to purify the “Wasteland” of its violence and corruption.
Similarly, the film Mad Max: Fury Road uses much of the same imagery that is seen in the “Capital Wasteland”. Set in its own post-apocalyptic wasteland after an energy crisis led to the end of civilization, this wasteland is particularly distinct, as the entire movie is filled with imagery of sand and rusty machinery saturated in the colours of “ochre by day, cobalt by night” (Nick Pinkerton, p.82). The plot of the film revolves around the escape of the five wives of the tyrant, “Immortan Joe”, through the help of one of Joe’s lieutenants “Imperator Furiosa”, who intends on taking them to the “Green Place”, an idyllic land from Furiosa’s childhood. The discovery that the “Green Place” no longer exists — now a swampland — is extremely similar to the biblical verse of Revelation 8:7, which reads “there came hail and fire… they were hurled into the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.” One crucial similarity between all of the aforementioned apocalyptic texts (Revelation, Fallout 3, Mad Max: Fury Road) is that they are rife with nostalgia, and all of them long for a return to a golden age.
As Borg’s reading suggests, Jesus is considered the bringer of a “true golden age of peace on earth”, which is exactly what Revelation calls on its contemporary readers to wait for (p. 284). In the same way, the use of ironic 1940’s rhythm and blues such as “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by the Ink Spots in Fallout 3 and Furiosa’s idyllic memory of the “Green Place” in Mad Max: Fury Road conveys a longing for a return to a simpler past which in reality can never be recovered.
Another fear in modern society which has been translated into popular culture is the increasing concern about climate change leading to a cataclysmic environmental apocalypse. Revelation’s imagery of cataclysmic events in particular have been the inspiration for popular culture interpretations of an environmental apocalypse. The film Soylent Green, based off the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison is set in a dystopian New York in the year 2022, where large-scale industrialization has led to overpopulation, resource shortages, pollution and global warming due to the greenhouse effect.
The plot of the story revolves around the discovery of the horrible secret behind the new food source — “Soylent Green” — and what it is made from, after Sol Roth, Detective Thorn’s personal librarian discovers that the oceans are dying. This imagery of dying oceans is matched by Revelation 16:3, which reads “every living thing in the sea died.” The secret of what Soylent Green is actually made of is then discovered by Detective Thorn, as he finds that it is not made from animal products, but instead that Soylent Green is made out of people! Similarly, films such as 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow take the theme of climate change and use identical imagery to what is seen in Revelation to depict what an environmental apocalypse could look like. Catastrophic weather events seen in these films range from “floods” (Revelation 12:15), “earthquakes” (Revelation 8:5), “huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people” (Revelation 16:21) and “a third of humankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur” (Revelation 9:18). However, the key difference between Revelation and modern apocalyptic literature is that modern apocalyptic literature (especially films) typically dissociate themselves from the spiritual themes and messages of Revelation, instead preferring to focus on the resilience of humanity as a race.
One of the rare cases in which an environmental apocalypse is depicted on the big screen with an anxiety of contemporary Bible readers is in the science-fiction film Interstellar. The main cause of Interstellar’s environmental apocalypse is through the form of “Blight” which has wiped out almost every crop on the planet, and threatens to wipe out the last viable crop humanity has, corn. The manner in which “Blight” is personified in Interstellar is identical to the way “Pestilence” is personified as the horseman of the black horse from the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Revelation 6:5-6). “Blight” is also extremely similar to the famine in Revelation 18:8 which reads “plagues will come in a single day — pestilence and mourning and famine.” However, the solution to this plight faced in Interstellar is not spiritual, instead it is extraterrestrial.
Modern apocalyptic literature and the anxieties they reflect, such as nuclear warfare and climate change, are modern interpretations of society’s new “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. While the imagery of the apocalypse has remained remarkably similar over the course of two-thousand years, the function of apocalyptic literature has drastically shifted from providing hope for its readers by promising a return to a golden age to casting doubts and projecting fear about the future.
All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV
Boffey, Philip M. “HIROSHIMA/NAGASAKI: Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission Perseveres in Sensitive Studies.” Science, vol. 168, no. 3932, 1970, pp. 679–683. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1729022.
Today’s essay is from Lois Denbury, and discusses Christianity’s most famous female figure, and her presence in art.
I am studying for a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Art History and minor European Studies. I was inspired to write this essay after completing papers on the history of art, in particular, Ways of Seeing Contemporary Art, also Understanding Contemporary Art Practice. On graduating, I hope to join a local primary school and assist children with their reading skills. I live on the North Shore and enjoy the lifestyle of sun and sea. I chose the Bible and Pop Culture paper to look at the many ways in which the Bible influences contemporary art and film, and also to learn more about the Bible stories. The depiction of The Virgin Mary has been of particular interest to me throughout my studies in Art History.
Enjoy your Sunday and have a good read!
The Virgin Mary: Controversy in Contemporary Art
I will discuss the biblical portrayal of the Virgin Mary and compare it with some of her contemporary afterlives. The majority of the Virgin Mary’s contemporary afterlives are religious statues and paintings, which are usually found in churches. I will reference three examples of Mary’s contemporary afterlives, which have all caused great debate. They are three artworks, where the creators have had a religious background and the reaction from viewers to the artworks has been strong. I will highlight the public reaction to these works, where the Virgin Mary was depicted in non-traditional ways. In these less religious times, today, Mary is often depicted according to contemporary values, which can provoke great controversy (Tsironis).
In the New Testament Gospels, the Virgin Mary is portrayed as an ordinary, young Jewish woman, who was chosen by God to become the mother of his Son (Carlson). The four Gospels all give different accounts of Mary, but the Gospels of Luke and John give the most complete picture (Carlson). Luke tells us how Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel, who announced that she had been chosen to become the mother of the Son of God (New Revised Standard Version, Luke 1.26-28). Mary asked how that could be possible, as she was still a virgin, but accepted Gabriel’s explanation and the honour. During her pregnancy, Mary left her home town of Nazareth to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who was also pregnant (Luke 1.34-36). Mary stayed at Elizabeth’s house for three months (Luke 1.39-56). Later, Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born and placed in a manger (Luke 2.5-7). Luke also records the visit of Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem to present their son at the Temple (Luke 2.22-40). Then, when Jesus reached the age of twelve, the family travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover, but he disappeared and Mary and Joseph had to search for three days, before they found him at the Temple, where he was teaching (Luke 2.41-52). Luke also confirms that Mary was very happy to serve God (Luke 2.19, 2.51). However, we have to look to Matthew’s Gospel for the account of the family’s flight to Egypt to escape King Herod’s soldiers, who wanted to kill the baby Jesus (Matthew 2.13-23). Similarly, we need to refer to the Gospel of John to find confirmation that Mary was present at the Crucifixion of her Son (John 19.25-27). John also includes the miracle at the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, at the request of his mother (John 2.1-11). Overall we get a picture of the Virgin Mary as a caring mother, who was happy to carry out God’s wishes (Carlson). However, the traditional image of Mary has been built up by later artistic interpretations of her role as the Mother of God.
Ever since the biblical accounts of the Virgin Mary were written, 2000 years ago, she has been a very popular figure in the history of Christianity, being depicted in many religious artworks, such as portraits and statues, throughout Europe. Her portrayal in the Bible has been taken as a base image and revised over the centuries by many artists and churches (Badley). Artists have depicted her in certain traditional formats, from the breastfeeding Mother of God to the Queen of Heaven (Badley). However, Mary’s popularity weakened after the Reformation, as Protestantism, which generally does not share the Catholics’ affection for the Virgin Mary, came to dominate large parts of Europe. By the twentieth century, Europe had become a much more secular society and, as a result, respect for Mary had weakened further. This is the background that has led to some modern artists depicting the Virgin Mary in ways that appear to be disrespectful. My three examples of less respectful contemporary depictions of the Virgin Mary all caused controversy when they first appeared.
My first example is a painting by British artist, Chris Ofili, who was educated at a Catholic school and became known in the 1990s for his paintings of black men and women (Nesbitt 9). However, he was also well known for including elephant dung and pornographic images in his paintings (Nesbitt 10-13). In 1996, he mixed all of these elements together, to create a painting called The Holy Virgin Mary (1996).
Many people thought that he had gone too far with his large painting of a black Virgin Mary, which included small erotic images and highlighted her breast in elephant dung. The painting was displayed in a major exhibition in London and Berlin, without too much upset (Nesbitt 16). But, when the exhibition was moved to New York, in 1999, the painting was condemned by the Catholic Mayor of the city and the local Cardinal Archbishop. The Mayor threatened to hold back the funding for the Brooklyn Art Museum, despite never actually seeing the offending painting (Nesbitt 16). The publicity generated in the press by the furore resonated around the world. However, both artwork and Museum weathered the storm and Ofili’s fame and reputation grew as a result. The episode was only defused when a Federal Judge ruled that censorship of the Ofili painting was not an option (Nesbitt 16-17).
Secondly, the vicar of Saint Matthew’s Anglican Church in Auckland erected special Christmas billboard images of the Virgin Mary in 2009 and 2011. In 2011, Mary was portrayed holding a pregnancy test kit and appeared to be shocked by the result. There was no caption on the billboard, as the vicar wanted viewers to put forward suitable suggestions.
His advertising agency reported that he wanted “to spark thought and conversation in the community” and he hoped to encourage people to be generous to those who needed help at Christmas time (Whybin/TBWA). However, a different view was taken by Gerry Bowler, who believes that the vicar wanted to “cause offence for the sake of debate” and reports that the billboard was eventually pulled down by “an angry passer-by” (132). Saint Matthew’s Church received much publicity from the Christmas billboard, but also a lot of criticism. Bowler concludes that, after one more year of his provocative Christmas messages, the vicar concerned left the Anglican Church, in 2013, to take a position with a “suburban Presbyterian” church. He continued to produce his Christmas billboards at his new location, but they were less controversial than the billboards he created for Saint Matthew’s (Bowler 132).
My final contemporary artwork is called The Virgin Mother, 2005, a large bronze sculpture, which was created by British postmodern artist, Damien Hirst.
It is a three metre tall statue of a pregnant woman, with the layers of skin and flesh cut away on one side to display a baby inside her womb. Niki Tsironis records that this statue was prominently placed in the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, in 2006. She states her belief that Hirst’s aim was to shock the viewer, as they are very likely to interpret the name Virgin Mother as being the Virgin Mary (179). Tsironis sees it as Hirst’s attempt to remove the mystery surrounding the Virgin Mary; to reflect the “deconstructed society” of the twenty-first century (179). This Hirst sculpture has since been purchased by an American multi-millionaire, who relocated and placed it in his estate in New York. However, in 2014, he was forced to cover The Virgin Mother with a large tarpaulin, because of complaints from his neighbours (Massive Damien Hirst).
In conclusion, it is interesting that these three provocative art depictions of the Virgin Mary were all created by people who had a religious background. The two artists grew up in Catholic homes and the creator of the billboard was an Anglican vicar. When compared with the biblical image of the modest Virgin Mary, I would agree that these three contemporary artworks are very controversial. However, the description of the Virgin Mary that we get from the Gospels was written at a time, when religion dominated people’s lives and women had a very different position in life, compared to today. Despite the changes over time, in the twenty-first century, the majority of the Virgin Mary’s afterlives are still statues and paintings in Catholic churches. These three controversial artworks were all created by people who, besides having a religious background, appear to be independent thinkers. However, they and their artworks could simply be a reflection of contemporary postmodern thinking, as claimed by Tsironis (179).
All references to the Biblical text are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Tsironis, Niki. “Emotion and the Senses in Marian Homilies of the Middle Byzantine period” In The Cult of the Mother of God in Byzantium: Texts and Images, edited by Leslie Brubaker and Mary B. Cunningham, Ashgate Publishing, 2011, pp.179-198.
Today we have an essay from local Bella Qian–here’s a bit about her, and the piece:
I’m an Auckland gal who loves her city, though the recent gas prices have had me looking at the running costs of horses. I have just finished my second year of a highly employable Bachelor of Arts majoring in Ancient History and Psychology. One day I hope to pursue a post grad degree in Psychology as I have personally experienced the consequences of New Zealand’s flawed mental health system and attitudes, so the dream is to make a difference. I chose to write about fashion and religion in my essay because of my love for fashion (as evidenced through my bank statements) as well as my interest in consumerism and capitalism. This essay was very enjoyable to write and I hope that anyone reading it can find a point or two amidst my excessive shoe descriptions that gets them to stop and think.
Enjoy the read and have a great weekend!
Popes in Prada and Angels in Lingerie
Fashion and religion are both major influences in society as they explicitly and implicitly impact the way we think, feel, and act. When these two important bodies crash and merge in popular culture, a whole new set of meanings and implications emerge. Throughout history, clothing has been used for far more than to cover our bodies, it has held political, social, sexual, and economic implications (Schmidt 1989). Within religion, these implications still hold strong and clothing is given a whole new set of meanings in this context. However, these meanings were challenged through new interpretations of religious dress at the 2018 Met Gala, one of the biggest fashion events in Western society. Religion has also made its way into the fashion world via the unexpected area of lingerie. One of the most successful lingerie brands in the world, Victoria’s Secret, has been using ‘angels’ to model their lingerie for over a decade. Yet the meaning and use of these ‘angels’ seem to be drastically different from the ones mentioned in the Bible. This essay then aims to examine how religion has been used in fashion, using the example of the 2018 Met Gala, and Victoria’s Secret’s angels.
Within all major religions, dress has been used to serve the purpose of establishing and enforcing ideologies and hierarchies (Arthur 1999). Historically, for members and followers of the church, modesty is viewed as an important value that should be displayed through clothing, particularly for women. Thus, the excessive display of flesh is not encouraged and clothing should act to cover the body (ibid.). The colour and type of clothing also mattered; during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, vibrant and luxurious clothing was condemned. Instead, sombre dress was encouraged as it reflected the Christian focus on salvation and redemption (ibid.). The Catholic clergy also reflect the significance of dress through the different colours and items worn by members of different priestly rankings. At the bottom of the hierarchy are priests, who wear black, above them are bishops who wear violet, then cardinals in scarlet, and finally the pope, who is dressed in white. On top of colour, slight differences in their everyday dress from the hats they wear to the laces on their shoes are also used to display their differences in rank. Interestingly, these differences are not simply used to differentiate between clerical positions, but also hold religious symbolism (Bolton et al 2018). The white that is associated with the pope represents purity and sanctity that only he is worthy of (Arthur 1999). From these examples, we can see that clothing has important meanings and functions within the church.
These meanings and functions were completely flipped in the 2018 Met Gala with its theme of “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. The Met Gala is a charity event that has been running for 73 years and is arguably the most anticipated fashion event every year (Hoffower 2018). This year, the outfits worn by the celebrities at the event unreservedly exceeded expectations as they were amazing examples of how religion can be interpreted in fashion. Being the most exclusive fashion event of the year, with tickets allegedly costing up to US$50,000, it is unsurprising that many celebrities went over the top to make a statement. This year’s gala was filled with all sorts of extravagant jewels, crosses, halos, and even wings. Many celebrities also chose to reference specific religious figures, like the Virgin Mary in her manifestation as the lady of sorrows.
However, we do not see any modestly clothed and grieving Marys as depicted in religious art; instead, we see bejewelled Marys in thousand-dollar designer outfits. Explicitly, these outfit choices may be a way to further indicate the superior or divine status of these celebrities. The event itself is already exclusive – not only do guests need to be able to afford the $50,000 ticket, the event is invite-only, with a lengthy waitlist. The celebrities attending the gala have the modern world’s seal of approval, they are our contemporary aristocracy. Thus, by associating themselves with powerful and respected religious figures at this exclusive event, their status is further elevated. This can then have a cultural function of reinforcing an ‘us and them’ hierarchy. These celebrities, like the religious figures we worship, are out of reach and our only contact with them should be through our worshipping and idolizing of them. Furthermore, there may be a cultural function of holding up western ideals. The event’s exclusive guest list shows us the ideals of success and wealth, the achievements of the attendants creates a standard for onlookers and further separates them. The theme of the Met gala creates an idealization of certain of religion, and the choice of Catholicism raises questions like: is Catholicism better? Elevated? Or more red-carpet ready than other religions in the world? Additionally, when Catholicism was chosen as a theme for the most exclusive fashion event in Western society, its superiority and authority are reinforced. This can function to further the dominant role of Western ideas, standards, and beliefs in modern society.
Thus, not only do these dazzling Marys represent a beautiful crossing over of religion and high fashion, they also function to reinforce the status of both the attendants and modern Western ideologies.
Some of the outfits at the gala were particularly memorable as they managed to implicitly challenge the norms and ideologies of the church while being high fashion. One of these was singer and actress Solange Knowles’ outfit where she wore a gold halo that she paired with a flowing black durag. The halo was common amongst other celebrities and its meaning was straightforward, associating its wearer with holiness. Thus, it was her durag that stood out. The durag is dated back to the nineteenth century and was originally worn by slaves to keep their hair back. Yet its use completely changed with the black power movement during the late 1960’s which preached for equality and racial pride for those of African descent. During this movement, the durag became a popular accessory amongst African American youth and it is still used today (White and Hertz 2013). Importantly, on her durag, Solange had written in jewels, “My God Wears a Durag” (Edwards 2018). This juxtaposition of opulence with a symbol of slavery and later street culture captivates onlookers while sending a very important message. With her outfit, Solange reminds us that heaven is not white like it is commonly depicted and interpreted. Her outfit also disrupts and challenges the white dominance in religious art and imagery while celebrating the existence and importance of women of colour in religion (Edwards 2018). Unlike the bejewelled Marys who reinforce modern hierarchies, Solange’s outfit has a function of including and giving a voice to those who are marginalised by Western discourses. Just like a biblical prophet, Solange disturbs our sense of normalcy and challenges the cultural status quo (Borg 2000).
Another memorable outfit was the one worn by Rihanna who came dressed as a pope. What made it unforgettable was that her outfit was not made of silk and cotton like an actual pope’s robe, instead, every inch of her white dress and robe was encrusted in jewels and pearls. Here, she juxtaposes the purity of the colour white with the opulence of diamonds and gems. This juxtaposition may function as a criticism of religion’s longstanding gender biases. Knowing that women are still not allowed to become popes, Rihanna’s extravagant and feminine pope attire then shows us that women can be popes, and they are going to do it their way. To further her pope garb, she wore a matching and unsurprisingly bejewelled papal tiara, which is traditionally worn by popes when they are coronated or during special ceremonies.
What really completed her outfit, though, were her US$4,000 crystal encrusted black Christian Louboutin shoes. More than just a popular piece of fashion, the shoes became meaningful when paired with her pope attire. Christian Louboutin shoes have an iconic red sole and are notoriously difficult and painful to wear despite their price. The red bottoms stand out against her predominantly white outfit and the biblical association of the colour red with sin (Isiah 1:18) juxtaposes against the association of white with purity (Revelation 3:4-5;18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9;13-14). Hence, it is as if Rihanna is replicating the painful struggle women have endured in their fight for equality. In the eyes of men, we may have sinned but that won’t stop us from continuing to make progress, one bedazzled high heeled step at a time. The implicit meanings of her outfit as a whole are endless. Not only did it reimagine Catholicism as a religion that celebrates women and fashion, but it also calls out the church’s deep-rooted bias against women. As a woman of colour, her pope attire directly addresses the ban on women ever becoming ordained priests and challenges the church’s white patriarchal status quo in the process (Wynne and Janssens 2018). Thus, these powerful outfits worn by Solange and Rihanna show that for one night, fashion challenged religion.
One specific aspect of religion that has surprisingly found its way into fashion is the concept of angels. In the Bible, angels are described as powerful creations of God, who act as his messengers and are faithful to him (Daniel 4:13; Colossians 1:16; Revelation 5:11-12). There is no unanimous description of their physical attributes in the Bible and examples of their appearance include the form of a male human and a form that causes fear in people (Genesis 18. Hebrews 13:2, Matthew 28:4). Contrary to popular belief and depiction, these angels are also very rarely described as having wings and when they do, they tend to have six of them (Isaiah 6:1-8). The lack of a consistent angelic form in the Bible thus allowed a lot of room for creativity for early Christian artists (Marshall and Walsham 2006). Yet, from the fourth century onwards, most artists gravitated towards depicting angels with two wings, and having a saintly androgynous nature. However, all of these depictions of angels in art and the Bible wildly contrasts the ‘angels’ we have seen walk down lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret runway for the past decade. Here, the angels are in fact successful female models with a huge social following (Opelka 2017). The only thing these Victoria’s Secret ‘angels’ may physically have in common with the ones in the Bible and religious art is the wings they frequently wear when modelling the brand’s lingerie. Yet even when ‘winged’, their extravagant and often multi-coloured floor-length wings are far from the ones seen in religious imagery. Wings aside, these ‘angels’ are marketed as living ideals of western beauty standards who also happen to be in lingerie. This ideal of a perfect woman being both sexy and heavenly then produces an unattainable ideal for women. Interestingly, the elevated status this ideal gives the Victoria’s Secret ‘angels’ may be a point of similarity with the biblical angels. Yet instead of being powerful creations of God, Victoria’s Secret’s ‘angels’ are powerful creations of the sexist and exploitive Western consumer market.
Controlling almost 40% of sales in intimate apparel, Victoria’s Secret is the largest and most successful lingerie brand in America and The Victoria’s Secret Angels have been vital in their success (Anderson 2014). Interestingly, despite their use of ‘angels’, Victoria’s Secret does not affiliate itself with religion. This is known as capitalist spirituality, where religious themes are exploited for the benefit of the corporation (Liegghio 2014). Thus, their use of these ‘angels’ is actually a clever consumerism tactic. By dressing their models up like angels while in lingerie, the brand gives them a divine quality while retaining their sex appeal (ibid.). Their giant soft white wings, contrasted with their sultry appearance creates a seemingly otherworldly and ethereal attraction. Sometimes, sharp black wings are used instead which creates a more ‘sinful’ attraction (Smith 2002). By juxtaposing religious and sexual imagery, the appeal of the ‘angels’ is intensified (ibid). The brand also creates an allure and elite status around these ‘angels’ by creating a hierarchy of models with them at the top. Currently, there are only 15 models worldwide who have the ‘angel’ title which is only given after careful selection of the model’s physical attributes and social popularity (Liegghio 2014). This exclusivity adds to their appeal as it causes them to appear desirable. By making these ‘angels’ objects of desire, the lingerie they model sells successfully because it allows buyers to be closer or similar to these otherwise untouchable beings (ibid.). In doing so, the brand has expertly created an illusion of a divine yet alluring ‘angel’ in order to sell their product. In the end, Victoria’s Secret’s use of angels is a prime example of religion being used and exploited in popular culture.
In conclusion, the fashion world has used religion creatively to send its messages. The 2018 Met Gala displayed the omnipotent powers of fashion using religion as its medium. That night, fabric and jewels challenged religion’s injustices and biases better than words could. The Gala showed that now, fashion is in charge, what is right and wrong is told by Vogue, not by the Vatican (Wynne and Janssens 2018). On the other hand, Victoria’s Secret showed us that religion can be capitalized and consumed, all without consequence. Perhaps that is Victoria’s secret after all. As a result, it is undeniable that the fashion world has redefined religion because now, our popes wear Prada, and our angels are in lingerie.
All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV
Arthur, Linda B. Religion, Dress and the Body. Dress and the Body Series. Oxford: Berg, 1999.
Bolton, Andrew, Barbara D. Bohem, Marzia C. Gallo, Griffith Mann, David Morgan, Gianfranco C. Ravasi, David Tracy. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. 2nd ed. New York: Yale University Press, 2018.
Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible again for the first time: Taking the Bible seriously but not literally. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2001.
Jeal, Roy R. “Clothes Make the (Wo)Man.” In Foundations for Sociorhetorical Exploration: A Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity Reader, edited by Robbins Vernon K., Von Thaden Robert H., and Bruehler Bart B., 393-414. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2016. doi:10.2307/j.ctt1f5g5j7.18.
Juffer, Jane. “A Pornographic Femininity? Telling and Selling Victoria’s (Dirty) Secrets.” Social Text, no. 48 (1996): 27-48. doi:10.2307/466785.
Klassen, Pamela E. “The Robes of Womanhood: Dress and Authenticity among African American Methodist Women in the Nineteenth Century.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 14, no. 1 (2004): 39-82. doi:10.1525/rac.2004.14.1.39.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “”A Church-Going People Are a Dress-Loving People”: Clothes, Communication, and Religious Culture in Early America.” Church History 58, no. 1 (1989): 36-51.
Smith, Marie D. “Decoding Victoria’s Secret: The Marketing of Sexual Beauty and Ambivalence.” Studies in Popular Culture 25, no. 1 (2002): 39-47.
Valdivia, Angharad N. “Chapter 11: The Secret of My Desire: Gender, Class, and Sexuality in Lingerie Catalogs.” Counterpoints54 (1997): 225-50.
White, Horace, and Michael Hertz. Do-rag. US Patent US20110247126A1, filed April 6, 2011, and issued October 13, 2011.
Winkle, Ross E. ““You Are What You Wear”: The Dress and Identity of Jesus as High Priest in John’s Apocalypse.” In Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity: Constituents and Critique, edited by Wiley Henrietta L. and Eberhart Christian A., 327-46. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2017.
Tonight we have a highly interesting essay relating the apocalyptic and revelatory themes in the bible to the message of hope expressed through metal music. Our author is Varun Modi, here’s a bit about him.
With my family originally coming from India, then moving to the United Kingdom and then New Zealand – one could say I’ve been around a fair bit. Having settled in Rotorua and completed high school, I decided to come to Auckland University to study 1st year Biomedical sciences with the aim of getting into Medical School. As per the requirement of the course I was to pick up a General Education paper, and ended up choosing TheoRel 101G. Having come from Anglican schools I was fairly familiar with the Bible, but less so with Popular Culture – and I thought that learning the interlinking of these two would aid me in becoming more street smart, whilst being a nice break from all the science. The reviews online were fabulous for the course, and as it fit into my timetable – why not? Having particularly enjoyed the apocalypse week, I decided to base my essay around this topic – linking one of my guilty pleasures of metal music to this was a ‘Revelation’ (Pun intended :P)
Enjoy the read, and have a good night.
The Revelation of Metal Music
One can argue that metal music isn’t included in popular culture, yet one could also argue that it allows one to express one’s feelings and thoughts in a form that can often be deemed as angrier. Therefore, metal music has its own niche in popular culture, acting as a medium for emotions and thoughts to be expressed. One theme prevalent in metal music is that of hope, utilised by bands such as Avenged Sevenfold. This mimics the theme of hope in the book of Revelation, and as such, metal bands use explicit and implicit allusions to Revelation to aid the deliverance of their underlying message. Yet, different interpretations of this book have led to unique perspectives on Revelation, thus allowing for varying portrayals of hope, anxiety and fantastical descriptions of oppression.
‘The Beast and the Harlot’ is a song by Avenged Sevenfold that portrays a theme of hope for those who have sinned. This contradicts what is stated in the book of Revelation, yet the song still utilises explicit allisions to it. Therefore, the apocalyptic theme of hope is used to similar effect, but the text is used in a different application. This may reflect a modern interpretation of the text. The song describes the ‘symbolic woman’ that sits on a ‘seven-headed beast’ with ‘ten horns raised from his head’ (Sevenfold & Murdock, ‘The Beast and the Harlot’, 2006). This is an explicit allusion to the description in Revelation 17:3,15; thereby creating a similar setting to the story in Revelation. The woman’s actions of ‘fornicating with our kinds’ directly relates to Revelation 18:3, she is ‘a dwelling place for demons’ and is referred to as ‘Babylon’ who is fallen; these descriptions cement the song’s allusions and background (Sevenfold & Murdock, ‘The Beast and the Harlot’, 2006). The destruction ‘in an hour’ marks God’s judgement day (Sevenfold & Murdock, ‘The Beast and the Harlot’, 2006) – it is here where the storyline deviates. In Revelation hope was for the servants who stayed loyal, whereas in the song hope is portrayed for ‘all us sinners’ (Sevenfold & Murdock, ‘The Beast and the Harlot’, 2006). The song states that ‘you’ve made the wrong decision and it’s easy to see’, referring to a sin, and also that ‘you’re welcome to the city where your future is set forever’ to ‘serve above’ (Sevenfold & Murdock, ‘The Beast and the Harlot’, 2006). In contrast, Revelation states in 21:8 that sinners are place in ‘the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is second death’.
One can argue this change is due to taking the original text in context with other biblical texts and modern Christian tradition, thereby sinners would be allowed into the new city. Revelation 21:27 states that ‘only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life’ ‘will enter it’. In Anglican tradition, it can be thought that if one repents one’s sins and is forgiven then one can be accepted into the Kingdom of Heaven. The Lamb is often used as a synonym for Jesus, and therefore if one who has sinned repents, they may be allowed into the new kingdom where ‘nothing accursed will be found there’ (Revelation 22:3). Therefore, the more modern context creates a similar theme of hope like Revelation, yet does so for a different group of people than the original text.
‘The Wicked End’ by Avenged Sevenfold shows Revelation from a radical perspective, offering a different modern interpretation that uses implicit allusion whilst providing a theme of people being in a position of oppression yearning for hope – similar to this theme in Revelation. One can argue that the song’s perspective is of a person with the mark of the beast, who has been bullied into wearing this mark yet is still to have judgement day ruled upon him. This person has accepted that they ‘won’t be here tomorrow’, whilst still asking the prophet to ‘feel sorrow for mankind’s chance to survive’ (Sevenfold & Murdock, ‘The Wicked End’, 2005) – which has somewhat of a resemblance to a plea. The only direct allusion to Revelation is of 13:18, where the person states, ‘we have grown into the numbers six hundred sixty six’ (Sevenfold & Murdock, ‘The Wicked End’, 2005) – this signifies that they are one with the mark of the beast. The reason as to why the person appears to be oppressed, in a time where it would be liberating to be sided with the beast, is that they suggest they have lived a ‘life of misery’. The person seems aware of ‘man becoming more corrupt now, godless, wicked and cruel’ (Sevenfold & Murdock, ‘The Wicked End’, 2005) – suggesting they don’t agree with these actions of mankind. This allusion aids in cementing the context relative to Revelation and the position of the person in the song, who is in an oppressed state – oppression being like the faithful people in Revelation but unlike them in the sense of who is being oppressed.
Furthermore, there are other Biblical references alluded to in this song, such as in the second chorus where the person says to ‘dust the apple off, savour each bite and deep inside you know Adam was right’ (Sevenfold & Murdock, ‘The Wicked End’, 2005). This explicit allusion is to Genesis 3, referencing what can be viewed as the first sin of humankind. The suggestion to savour each bite emulates a relishing of sin, whilst also appreciating that one cannot freely sin – replicating the theme of how the beasts reign was only for 42 months (Revelation 11:2), a limited period of time. The notion of Adam being in the right can be interpreted in many ways. It could be viewed as stated in Genesis 3:6 where Eve ‘gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate’ – showing someone following in the footsteps of the first person to have sinned, such as the person may have done in this situation – perhaps against their will. Furthermore, it could be said that it is a necessity for Adam and Eve to eat the apple to allow humankind to flourish to their true nature and not always be protected by God (Frank, 1995; see also the Book of Job). The point of this allusion is to signify the persona as a sinner whilst trying to convince us as a judge that the sin is justified due to potential oppression. The other Biblical allusion is to that of ‘Mary’s words rang so true’, which can be interpreted as a reference to Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in Luke 1:46-55. The allusion to Luke 1:46-55 shows that God is a powerful saviour, exemplifying his strength over the beast and everything else through creating ‘chastisement worse than the flood’ (Sevenfold & Murdock, ‘The Wicked End’, 2005).
The presence of implicit allusions to Revelation in the song are of ‘heaven’ falling, ‘his sins’ and the ‘churches burning, women ravaged, children crying’ (Sevenfold & Murdock, ‘The Wicked End’, 2005). These refer to the formation of the New City, the sins of the Beast whom the people with the mark of the beast are now ‘left with’ and the fall of Babylon respectively (Sevenfold & Murdock, ‘The Wicked End’, 2005). The use of these implicit allusions here helps portray the desired perspective of the judgement the person is to face whilst keeping the original context of Revelation. This modern interpretation taken by Avenged Sevenfold emphasises this theme of oppression and hope, and serves as a plea for help from those who have been wrongfully forced into sinful situation – this can be a common occurrence in modern society, for example, people in situations of religious oppression, and those who do things they don’t believe in only to save their own lives.
Implicit and explicit allusions can be used to varying effects to portray a theme of hope, yet these are not separate and can exist on a spectrum to access the advantages of both to portray a theme. A theme portrayed in Revelation is anxiety of the people at the time this book was written, represented by the four horsemen – Conquest, War, Famine and Death (Revelation 6:1-8). In Metallica’s ‘The Four Horsemen’, the titles of the horsemen are Time, Famine, Pestilence and Death (Metallica, 1983). The explicit allusion of using the same idea of the Four Horsemen and keeping Famine and Death, whilst also the implicit allusion by changing Conquest and War to Time and Pestilence shows the transition in the anxieties of the times. Some anxieties seem to be set in time whereas others fluctuate, and the fact that Metallica deviates from the original text shows modern acclimatization of these apocalyptic themes in metal music. The similar effect of portraying anxieties of the time in Revelation is copied here. On the other hand, themes from Revelation copied in metal music are not always used to similar effect. The use of fantastical imagery is ever prevalent in metal music, as it is in Revelation, especially in a genre known as power metal. Bands such as Dragonforce and Sonata Arctica emphasise this imagery by their high anthemic and choral vocals. Yet nowadays, in comparison to Revelation where fantastic imagery was used to describe oppression discreetly and to hide critique from a political power, this imagery is more often used to express individual feelings and thoughts rather than to critique a particular political agenda.
The use of themes of anxiety, hope and oppression in metal music expresses the bands’ own frustrations and thoughts, sometimes hidden behind vivid imagery. Therefore, there will be an overlap with apocalyptic themes in this context – yet not many songs create allusions to the book of Revelation. These allusions allow for these themes to be expressed in a different light from the original context, using implicit or explicit allusions. One could argue the place of apocalyptic themes in the metal fan base is necessary to resonate with a fan base during tough times – as the musicality can often help vent frustrations or calm oneself. The expression of these themes utilising metal as a genre creates a medium that can lend itself to more fantastical imagery, destruction and freer expression as opposed to other genres of music, which may conform to certain boundaries imposed by the music industry powers-that-be.
Frank, S. (1995). Eve Was Right to Eat the ‘Apple’: The Importance of Narrative in the Art of Lawyering. Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, 8(1), 79-118.
It’s that time of year again, where we showcase some of the best student work from this year’s Bible and Popular Culture (THEOREL 101) class. Starting us off is a wonderful essay from Ani Harris. We’ll let Ani introduce herself.
I’m a first year from the sunny fruit bowl that is Hawke’s Bay. Currently, I’m studying a degree in Arts majoring in Psychology and Gender Studies which so far has been thrilling! In the future, I hope to go into post-graduate–if I’m lucky–to continue researching my fields of interest. I’d like to one day work within academia.
Within the THEOREL 101 course, I particularly enjoyed looking at the bible with a feminist lens and tracking the evolution of figures in the bible alongside history as I’ve never had that opportunity before. I can recall absolutely fizzing over some of the assigned reading to the point where I printed it out to keep it on my wall. I’ve always had a bit of an interest in theology but I’ve never been able to really explore it in the way THEOREL 101 let me. THEOREL 101 was an incredibly enjoyable paper and I happily did my best to wake up so I could get to the 9am classes (though with not non-existent complaints).
I actually took THEOREL 101 for two reasons. The first being that it fulfilled criteria as a stage I paper under Gender Studies and the other being because of my own self-interest. I grew up in a Catholic household and though I’m not Catholic myself I’ve always been very intrigued by religion as a whole and the effect it has had and continues to have on the world. This course gave me the opportunity to discover new facets of the bible I hadn’t yet considered and quite successfully played on many of my interests. It was my absolute favourite paper this semester.
Without further ado, let’s deal with the devil.
THE DEAL WITH THE DEVIL: SATAN AND RELIGIOUS FANFICTION
This essay will analyse the Devil as a Biblical character who has a popular afterlife. I will explore this using Dante Alighieri’s Inferno showcases the Devil as a monstrous being, a typical trope in Western religious fiction, ParadiseLost by John Milton and the trope of “Sexy Satan” with Fox’s portrayal of Neil Gaiman’s Lucifer and an animated reboot adaptation of 1970’s Japanese comic Devilman, play around with perceptions of one of the world’s most famous characters. Each portrayal highlights the different tropes and caricatures that have been used and changed over time since the advent of the Devil’s very first appearance in Abrahamic religion.
The Devil’s beginning has its roots in the Bible. However, his first appearance does not come where most would assume. Contrary to popular belief, Satan does not make an appearance in Genesis. The serpent who tempted Eve (Genesis 3:1-24) was not at the time associated with Satan. And, despite the Devil’s later characterization as a tempter, accuser, and prosecutor of humanity, he never appeared as an entity in his own right until the Book of Enoch. Part of the deuterocanonical writings, the Book of Enoch is not part of the Hebrew Bible, and though sometimes included in Christian Bibles, it is mainly considered non-canonical within most denominations. It details the casting out of “the satans”, sinful angels who taught humanity wickedness in the form of technology and invention (Enoch 41:7; Enoch 8:1-9).
This original Satan goes by the alias of Azazyel, alternatively spelt ‘Azazeel’, and is stated to have, along with other angels, taught humanity lessons covering a wide range of topics. From weapon creation and progression to perceptions of beauty, the spectrum includes the coveting of precious stones and metals, innumerable attempts to perform sorcery, increasing the known limits of mathematics, and acquiring other dangerous forms of knowledge in the eyes of heaven (Enoch 9:5-9). In the Hebrew Bible, Satan is instead “the satan”, God’s tester and persecutor who stands to prove the inherent possibility for wickedness and impiety in humanity (Job 1:6-8; Zechariah 3:1-7). From Enoch, Job, and Zechariah, we gain some of the foundational tropes of the character “Satan” which commonly appear to this day; “angel to demon king”, “tempter of humanity”, and “evil incarnate”. Though Satan was never physically described in the Bible the cultural approximation became an amalgamation of deities of various other religions; a monster with a tail, the legs of a goat, and crowned with horns. And with these depictions birthed the trope of “monster Satan”.
With the original character and accompanying tropes defined, the focus can now change to the Devil’s cultural afterlives. Of religious fiction, one of the most renowned is Dante Alighieri’s book series Divine Comedy, with the Inferno being the most relevant volume for the purpose of this essay. The Inferno chronicles Dante’s descent into and guided journey through Hell.
Satan in this novel appears in the thirty-fourth chapter. Colossal in his grotesque visage, Dante’s Satan is endowed of the “monster Satan” trope; he has three faces of which he uses their mouths to chew on three people whom Dante considers the most traitorous of humanity. Satan in this work of fiction has also has large, leathery bat wings attached just under his chin, and excessively hairy legs (Dante & Musa 1971). Dante’s figure of the Devil retains many of the original biblical tropes; not only “monster Satan” but his “angel to demon king” arc as well. Dante himself states that had Satan been as beautiful as he was now ugly he can, therefore, understand how he is the source of all bad in the world. From this, we can discern that the Inferno expects readers to understand Satan’s origin as an angel fallen from grace. Dante’s Satan is a wonderful reference point for the popular image of the Devil before his Renaissance rebirth within another piece of literary fiction.
Contrary to Dante’s portrayal, Milton’s depiction of Satan in Paradise Lost was considered blasphemous. An epic poem written in vernacular English following the very entity of conceptualised evil which began by invoking the Holy Spirit as a muse. Milton’s satan operates on the notion that Satan, formerly known as Lucifer, retained his visage as the most beautiful of all the angels when he fell from Heaven. Which then shows that Milton’s version of Satan is sympathetic. He is considered the most favoured of all the angels and decides that should it be impossible to be God’s favourite (Milton 1674 rpt. in 2001). He rebels and tries to usurp God, claiming that angels should all reign as gods whilst God is simply a tyrant. Thus, he falls.
Tragic in a desire all too common. He then goes on to attempt another rebellion, by tempting God’s newly created humans, of which Milton subtly implies he is jealous of, to sin and thus join him in banishment (Milton 1674 rpt. in 2001). This sets the stage for a tragic hero who appears to be rebelling out of a childish need for validation and attention of any kind. Milton’s Satan appears not as the root cause of all evil but merely a child throwing a tantrum. Paradise Lost has been a major inspiration and provided the perfect material for the changing world to take Satan as a literary device and apply him in many ways to great effect. Milton’s reconceptualization of Satan as both a sympathetic and beautiful figure greatly stoked the flames of popular culture turning a monstrous and terrifying evil into a nuanced character with great depth. Satan becomes a potential anti-hero and even protagonist along with his trademark villainy. Even his conceptualisation as a villain is changed by Milton’s portrayal. Lucifer is the first recorded entity to claim free will and oppose God. Refusing ignorance and order for knowledge and the ability to make and be a part of unorganised chaos. He is the first recorded instance of an individual leading a rebellion against what they consider a corrupt power, a trope which is not only common in modern pop culture but almost its own genre.
Milton’s Satan paved the way for Satan to become Lucifer.
Based on a character from Neil Gaiman’s lauded comic book series The Sandman, Lucifer is a fantasy police drama developed by Tom Kapinos and produced by Fox. The premise of the film is Lucifer Morningstar, Tom Ellis, leaving hell for Los Angeles. Lucifer runs a nightclub, Lux, and acts as a consultant for the LAPD using his powers of persuasion and desire to deal justice to sinners. Kapinos’ Lucifer takes a great deal of inspiration from Milton’s Satan. Kapinos’ Lucifer is entirely a sympathetic character within the series. The show goes so far as to have Lucifer explicitly say that humanity merely blamed him for their sin rather than being accountable for their actions, effectively demonizing him as a scapegoat, and humans are responsible for damning themselves (Sánchez 2017). Kapinos’ Lucifer plays heavily into the “sympathetic Satan” trope with viewers encouraged to empathize with the devil and understand him as a pawn in his father’s plans which in itself displays the trope of “the devil has daddy issues”. Lucifer is consistently paranoid that his father, God, is manipulating him and often acts out of fear of being made to return to hell and be humanity’s scapegoat again (Shilati 2017; Gaviola 2017). Played by Tom Ellis, Lucifer is physically very attractive and seems to play directly into the “sexy Satan” trope, however, Lucifer has a second visage he calls his “devil-face”. Lucifer’s “devil-face” is bald, red-skinned, heavily scarred, and glows with an inner light like fire, his sclera turns a deep red and his irises gold. This “devil-face” plays into the pre-Milton “monster Satan” trope and exists as a unique juxtaposition as both faces belong to Lucifer and yet one makes him seems human and beautiful and the other demonic and ugly. This devil is well beloved in the show and in current day popular culture.
In contrast to Lucifer’s family-friendly Satan, Devilman Crybaby has been lauded as one of the most violent, gratuitously chaotic, and disturbing animated shows of 2018 (Farokhmanesh, M. 2018).
Based on Go Nagai’s 1970’s manga Devilman, Devilman Crybaby written by Ichirō Ōkouchi and directed by Masaaki Yuasa is a dark fantasy horror animated series around the characters Akira Fudo and his childhood friend Ryo Asuka. The premise of Devilman Crybaby is Akira’s attempt to help Ryo expose demons to the world. In this portrayal, Ōkouchi’s Satan takes many post-Milton tropes. Physically portrayed as beautiful as both Ryo Asuka and Satan, Ōkouchi’s Satan does not take a monstrous form at any point remaining well within the trope of “sexy Satan” while his legions of demons take monstrous and often revolting forms.
Ōkouchi’s Satan remains a tempter and persecutor of humanity and retains his status as the root cause of all evil within the show. In the show’s eighth episode after Ryo has learned his origins as Satan, he proceeds to cause more chaos in an already unstable world where demons had been revealed by betraying Akira and broadcasting an ill-intentioned warning that anyone dissatisfied with society could be a demon (Shibata 2018). Ōkouchi’s portrayal of Satan and Ryo is complex and while appreciated by audiences for his role as an antagonist he is not a character one can feel overly sympathetic for save for brief moment where his affection for Akira humanizes him.
Overall, this essay explained how Satan’s portrayal in popular culture is seen through Milton’s Paradise Lost, Fox’s Lucifer and Devilman Crybaby. Since conception, the devil has always been a fascinating Biblical character, and authors has taken him and written him into stories as the oldest villain and one of humanity’s most rebellious role models. Through Milton’s epic, Satan became understandable and the way was paved for the humanization of the greatest evil in Abrahamic religion. The devil lives on through pop culture, influencing and teaching much like his original incarnation. In the end, Neil Gaiman said it best; To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due (Gaiman, 1992).
References to the Bible are taken from the New Revised Standard Version
The Book of Enoch (1917) translated by R.H. Charles
Dante, A., & Musa, M. (1971). Dante’s Inferno. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Milton, J. 1674. (2001). Paradise Lost; and, Paradise Regained. New York: Signet Classic
Rafferty, C. (Writer); Costa, M. (Writer); Sánchez, E. (Director) (2017) Lucifer Season 3 Episode 7 “Off the Record”
Ning, J. (Writer); Shilati, S. (Director) Lucifer Season 2 Episode 16 “God Johnson”
Modrovich, I. (Writer); Gaviola, K. (Director) Lucifer Season 3 Episode 1 “They’re Back, Aren’t They?”
Today’s essay continues our theme of contemporary messiahs, or super saviours, which we’ve explored over thepastfewdays. What makes this one a little different though is that the super saviour figure appears in a Japanese animated fantasy film, Princess Mononoke (more details here), rather than the more typical Western superhero brand. The author of this fab essay is Isabelle Steinman, who hails from sunny Hawke’s Bay. Isabelle is studying a Bachelor of Arts and Science conjoint, majoring in mathematics, physics, and philosophy. She hopes to carry on to do postgraduate study and likes the idea of working in academia one day. She took our Bible and Pop Culture class because, although an atheist, she has always been interested in religion, particularly religious art and architecture, and is fascinated by the impact that religion has on everybody’s lives, regardless of their personal beliefs.
Although I’ve never seen Princess Mononoke myself, Isabelle’s essay has made me want to watch it – so, whether or not you are familiar with this film, I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading what she has to say.
Princess Mononoke– a Story of Gods, Demons and a Cursed Messiah
Messiahs are everywhere in pop-culture. Characterised by a selfless passion for justice, a black and white moral code, extraordinary powers and an outsider status they maintain a strong connection with divinity or spirituality whilst remaining human. (Reinhartz, 2009). These Christ figures appear not only in Western culture but also in the East as is demonstrated in Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 animated film, Princess Mononoke.
After being cursed while killing a demon that was attacking his tribe, Ashitaka is forced to cut his hair, leave his people and journey far to the West in order to meet his fate. He arrives in a land caught in a struggle between the humans of Irontown and the gods of the forest. As he is able to move between the warring sides, he befriends both San, the ‘daughter’ of the wolf god Moro, and Lady Eboshi, the mistress of Irontown. Ashitaka possesses many Christ-like qualities. He is set apart from other characters by his unusual ways and his extraordinary strength and he is driven by a commitment to justice for which he eventually sacrifices himself and is resurrected.
Throughout the film, Ashitaka ‘otherness’ is emphasised. His unusual origins and extraordinary strengths distinguish him from other characters. Often referred to as ‘stranger’ or ‘outsider’ (Miyazaki, 1997), it is clear that the other characters do not see him as one of them. Ashitaka comes from the marginalised Emishi tribe that was believed to have been eradicated hundreds of years earlier. Separated from the culture that was advancing towards a technological future, the Emishi people are portrayed as the ‘guardians of ancient wisdoms of the forest’ (Bigelow, 2009). Unlike the other humans in the film, Ashitaka grew up with a strong connection with and respect for the natural world. We see this when Ashitaka saves two men of Irontown, carrying them home through the ‘forbidden forest’ (Miyazaki, 1997). While the men are terrified of the ethereal kodama (tree spirits), Ashitaka trusts the spirits to guide them through the forest saying that they are ‘a sign this forest is healthy’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Ashitaka’s unusual origins give him a different perspective to other characters in the film. He is not worried about wealth or power but has a deep-seated interest in nature and the preservation of life.
Ashitaka is also separated from other characters by his incredible, but still very human, strengths. The nature with which he returns the men to Irontown grants him a mixed reception. While the townspeople are grateful that their men are alive, they do not wholly trust this strange man who managed to travel through the taboo forest with two badly injured men; it is something they would not have dreamed possible. Ashitaka’s strength and fighting abilities seem almost unnatural to the other characters. ‘You fight like a demon’ (Miyazaki, 1997), one character tells Ashitaka. This emphasises both the magnitude and nature of Ashitaka’s powers. His strength, determination and archery skills, while god-like in measure, are human powers in essence. Ashitaka is only human and he does suffer under human hardships. This is important as, in order to be a relatable, and therefore successful, messiah he must have ‘the same limitations and weaknesses as an ‘ordinary’ and finite human being’ (Deacy, 1999).
Despite his humanity, it is still through a screen of suspicion that the other characters respect Ashitaka for his strengths. Mysterious, powerful, and therefore potentially dangerous, Ashitaka must be ‘othered’. It is this outsider status, which is common for messiah figures (Kozlovic, 2004), that allows Ashitaka to move between worlds and act in a messianic role. Messiahs, as semi-holy figures, must represent desirable values whilst being set apart from the rest of us. They are figures that we should aspire to be like. Human, and familiar enough to be relatable while being separate enough to revere.
Ashitaka’s incredible strength is balanced by his incredible love and respect for life. He is driven by a desire for peace and committed to his beliefs in justice. When these two values come into conflict, Ashitaka suffers. He wants to end violence but often must use violence to do so. When we first meet Ashitaka, he is protecting his people from a terrible demon. The creature seethes with writhing, black worms but even so Ashitaka first tries to reason with it. ‘Calm your fury, oh mighty lord’ (Miyazaki, 1997), he pleads. However, when the beast threatens some villagers, Ashitaka is forced to take decisive action, killing the demon with his bow and arrow. Ashitaka knows what is right but he still struggles to enforce it. He wants to protect the innocent and fight for the weak or marginalised but it pains him to take life and he does this only when there is no other option. We see this again when Ashitaka reflects on killing two samurai who were brutally attacking another village. ‘I was wrong to fight in that village’, he says, ‘two men are dead because of me’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Although he knows his actions were justified and that his skills gave him a unique power to help the defenceless villagers, he still feels a ‘reluctance to use those skills to do harm’ (Kraemer, 2016). Ashitaka’s complex moral code separates him from classic messiah figures. He does not rationalise the violence he uses but instead feels the weight of every life he takes. He is cursed not only with the mark on his arm but also by the guilt of the violence he must use.
Ashitaka’s desires are different from all other characters in the film resulting in him not taking a side in the conflict. It is not any particular victory that he wants but an end to violence. When questioned what it is that he desires, he says ‘What I want is for the humans and the forest to live in peace’ (Miyazaki, 1997). The other characters see the forest and the town as completely divided, different and unable to mix. But Ashitaka does see not the division between them. To him, all life is simply sacred. No matter what you must ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31). When San and Eboshi become involved in a vicious fight, Ashitaka intervenes and delivers a stirring sermon. His curse manifests itself as black, swirling tendrils as he shouts to the shocked and terrified crowd, ‘This is what hatred looks like! This is what it does when it catches hold of you! (Miyazaki, 1997). Ashitaka fight is not against against humans or gods but against hatred and it is his ‘willingness to meet violence with love’ (Kraemer, 2016) that is his greatest weapon.
Ashitaka’s image as a messiah figure is cemented in the other-worldliness of his resurrection and in his sacrifice. Miyazaki is careful in the way he portrays Ashitaka in these scenes. Although they are rich with godly powers, Ashitaka’s humanity is emphasised. As a messiah figure, Ashitaka is human touched by divinity. He is not a divine being himself but he is influenced by the gods and demons that are present in his life. This is epitomised in his resurrection. After Ashitaka is shot, San takes his lifeless body to a sacred island in the middle of the forest. She places a small plant above his head, a life to take in return for his. After she leaves, we see the forest spirit approach and revive Ashitaka in a strange, dream-like sequence. During the day, the god, who duty is to ‘give life and take life away’ (Miyazaki, 1997,) takes the form of a deer like creature with many antlers and humanoid face. We see flowers and plants bud, bloom, wilt and die under the creature’s feet as it walks. The forest spirit looks upon Ashitaka and the plant as the leaves of the plant wither and drop. In the morning, Ashitaka’s bullet wound is healed but the cursed mark remains. Although Ashitaka undergoes what is definitely a divine resurrection, it is not any divinity of his own that saves him but his pure heart. It is the forest spirit who, deeming Ashitaka worthy of resurrecting, saves him thus ensuring Ashitaka remains fully human.
In the stunning climax to the film, Ashitaka sacrifices himself to atone for humanity’s wrongdoings. Eboshi and the other humans have shot off and taken the forest spirit’s head. The ghostly shell of its body spews out deadly black liquid and long arms which search for its head. Ashitaka catches the carriers of the head and demand they give it to him to return before everything is destroyed. ‘Human hands must return it!’ (Miyazaki, 1997) He shouts. Humanity as a whole has sinned, they have turned their back on nature and committed the ultimate atrocity; killing the ‘very heart of the forest’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Messiah figures feel a duty to ‘take on the sinfulness of those around them’ (Kozlovic, 2004). Ashitaka must, therefore, act as a representative of humanity and sacrifice himself for their transgressions.
As he and San hold up the head for the god, they become covered with cursed marks. They are sure of their deaths but stand strong and true. With their sacrifice, they save not only themselves but all living things as a wash of new life spreads over the ruined land. Ashitaka not only possesses many of the characteristics of a messiah figure, his life and death also mirrors that of Christ in many ways. Just as Christ’s death gave humanity ‘forgiveness of sins’ (Ephesians 1:7), Ashitaka’s sacrifice saved the world. His resurrection and sacrifice mark him as a clear messiah figure.
Messiah figures in film are used as symbols to exemplify the characteristics and values that filmmakers want to promote (Deacy, 1999). In Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki teaches us a respect for life, as he said in a 2004 interview ‘We should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything’. He uses Ashitaka to convey a message of peace and environmentalism. Although Princess Mononoke is not explicitly religious, it does draw from Shinto mythology and beliefs and reflects many of the tenets of Western religion. Shinto faith ‘stresses relation and connectedness’ (Bigelow, 2009). This is an important theme that develops through the film as the characters realise relationships they were not previously aware of. In one of the last scenes, one of the townspeople comments ‘I didn’t know the forest spirit made the flowers grow’ (Miyazaki, 1997). As Christ literally gave a blind man sight (John 9:11), Ashitaka metaphorically opens the peoples’ eyes to the interdependent relationship between the town and the humans (Kraemer 2016). Although Miyazaki’s messiah may be more implicit than those typically found in Western culture, the ideals he teaches of love, peace and respect are essentially the same.
In conclusion, Ashitaka acts as a messiah figure to spread a message of peace. Miyazaki sets Ashitaka apart from other characters with Shis strange customs and extraordinary powers to make him able to move between warring sides. He is not the fully-assured messiah we see all too often in the West, but a saviour racked with guilt and uncertainty about how should carry out his mission without just creating more violence. Like Christ, He is fully committed to his beliefs and ready to sacrifice himself for them. In Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka not only learns to ‘see with eyes unclouded by hate’ (Miyazaki, 1997) but also teaches us to do the same.
All Biblical references are from the New International Version
Miyazaki, Hayao. 1997. Princess Mononoke. film. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Studio Ghibli. Toho.
Bigelow, Susan J. 2009. “Technologies of Perception: Miyazaki in Theory and Practice.” Animation: an interdisciplinary journal 4 (1): 55-75.
Deacy, Christopher R. 1999. “Screen Christologies: An evaluation of the role of Christ-figures in film.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 14 (3): 325-337.
Kozlovic, Anton Karl. 2004. “The Structural Characteristics of the Cinematic Christ-figure.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 8.
Kraemer, Christine Hoff. 2016. “Between the Worlds: Liminality and Self-Sacrfice in Princess Mononoke.” Journal of Religion and Film 8 (2).
Reinhartz, Adele. 2009. “Jesus and Christ figures.” In The Routledge Companion of Religion and Film, edited by John Lyden, 420-439. Taylor and Francis.
Today’s essay stays with our contemporary messiah theme, but looking at it a little differently. Rather than considering fictional characters in film and literature through the American Monomyth lens, today’s author, Emma Waymouth, considers the phenomenon of celebrity messiahs in popular culture, focusing in particular on the iconic figure of Beyoncé. Emma has lived in Auckland most of her life, and is currently studying for a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature and Psychology. She hopes to work eventually in mental health, focusing particularly on child health, and plans to begin volunteer work with Youthline next year. She is also looking forward to taking part in the University of Auckland’s 360º exchange programme in order to do part of her degree at the University of North Carolina. Emma took our Bible and Pop Culture course after a few friends recommended it to her, and she was interested to learn more about the subject.
This is an amazing essay – enjoy!
In the Name of Our Lord Beysus Christ: Beyoncé, Fandom and the Messiah figure
Beyoncé, the mononymous pop star, is one of the most famous and recognisable people in the world. Due to her immense talent as an artist and performer, unrelenting work ethic and excellent construction of her public image; Beyoncé has amassed a fan base, known as the Beyhive, which worships her in a fashion that is almost religious. In my essay I will be exploring this claim by discussing the ways in which Beyoncé exemplifies Lawrence and Jewett’s (2002) criteria for a messiah figure, and how that coincides with celebrity theory; exploring the reverence the Beyhive show her; and finally, by exploring Beyoncé’s own religiosity and her resulting refutation of her divine elevation.
According to Pete Ward’s (2011) definition of ‘celebrity’, Beyoncé is a true celebrity as she is known by a mononym, and is highly profitable due to that name and the fame it is associated with. Although, she has also transcended that category, moving in to the realm of “pop icon” wherein Ward states that “a star has to become a religious figure, to develop their own personality cult and to recruit followers”. This theory of celebrity ties in closely with Lawrence and Jewett’s theory of the American monomyth, wherein they emphasise how this figure minimises the complexity of humans, creating a dream world in which “no humans really live”. Thus, the Beyoncé we interact with, both as celebrity and messiah figure, is simply a symbolic rendering of the ideal human.
Beyoncé as a Messiah
The most vital aspect of Lawrence and Jewett’s criteria is the possession of “extraordinary powers”. Beyoncé has consistently proven her talent in the realm of music, both in her ability to effortlessly sing her way through songs of varying genres, and in her holistic artistic vision as showcased in Beyoncé (2013) and Lemonade (2016). Her dancing and acting ability are also much respected. Beyoncé herself, in a video diary leaked to the public (Reekz DC, 2010) refers to her musical talent as a “gift” that “God has given” her. This conveys that she herself is just as aware of the power and sanctity of her ability as her followers are. This gifting from God could be compared to the gifting of a prophetic path He gave to the prophet Moses, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” (Jeremiah 1:4-9). A resulting sense of nervous inadequacy is also a similarity between Moses and Beyoncé.
The second criterion is that of “unusual origins”. In Beyoncé’s case this would refer to the way in which she was effectively bred for stardom. This manifested in the extensive training she undertook as a child, primarily in the form of singing lessons (Lopez, 2015); as well as competing in talent shows that she regularly won (UnbornSuperstar88, 2013). Once she eventually did achieve professional success with girl group Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé herself was still effectively a child being only fifteen years of age. This origin story posits her as one of the lucky few who not only have talent but also the dedication to succeed in the competitive entertainment industry.
Another requisite of Lawrence and Jewett’s is that the figure remains ‘divinely competent’, something which is described as “deny[ing] the tragic complexities of human life”. This is an aspect of the messianic criteria that couples perfectly with the idea that superhuman infallibility is integral to the celebrity image. Something which Ward describes as celebrities representing “paradigms of the possible. As such they may be regarded almost as religious figures in that they present ideal forms of the self”. This manifests through Beyoncé’s carefully considered image, wherein she allows her art to speak for itself, giving few interviews and thus few chances to show weakness, or even ordinary human imperfection. Though, contrarily, relatability is also integral to celebrity, so there have been moments of vulnerability where Beyoncé has shared her struggles with miscarriage (Daily Mail, 2013) and unfaithfulness in a partner (Brennan, 2017). These admissions, and the way in which it has coloured her music, serve to humanise Beyoncé and allows fans to form a more intimate relationship with the star; this, in turn, contributes further to her elevation as a superhuman figure.
Another vital feature is that of a ‘selfless zeal for justice’. Beyoncé is involved in many philanthropic efforts; she heads her own charity called ‘Bey Good’ which the icon uses to fundraise for various relief efforts, support African-American students through a scholarship fund, and champion the achievements of women through regular blog posts featuring successful women and their stories (Beyoncé, 2017). She has recently, like Jesus the primary biblical messiah did in Matthew 14:13-21, returned to her native Houston to feed those who are without food due to hurricane Harvey. She has also routinely shown her support for the #BlackLivesMatter campaign by showing the hashtag during a video montage that paid tribute to the many Black Americans murdered by police in 2016(Peterson, 2016). She has also shown support to the mothers of these victims by having the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown appear in the Lemonade film.
The final criterion I’ll discuss is that of ‘renouncing sexuality’. This is part of the criteria as it removes the messiah figure from base human desire, elevating them above the animalistic urge. This is one aspect that Beyoncé does not fulfil, and the fact that she doesn’t is a powerful thing for her fans. Existing as a black woman in show business, Beyoncé has been scrutinised for her appearance and sexuality due to racist beauty ideals. Thus, the fact that she actively embraces and celebrates her sexuality in her music is powerful for her fans as it allows them to believe that they, too, could be (and are!) sexy and beautiful even if they don’t fit Eurocentric standards of beauty.
Coupled with these criteria for a messiah figure, Beyoncé also has a large fan following that shows her support and reverence, further casting her as a religious figure. These fans have congregated in to a fandom, described by Gray, Sandvoss and Lee Harrington (2007) as “a collective strategy, a communal effort to form interpretive communities”, meaning fandom could be interpreted as an active state of communal worship.
Fandom as Religious Worship
Beyoncé’s fanbase, commonly referred to as the ‘Beyhive’, are another contributing factor to Beyoncé’s messianic elevation. Lawrence and Jewett refer to fandom as forming a “new form of religious community”; with Ward echoing Ellis Cashmore’s continuation of this notion, even going so far as to trace the root of the word ‘fan’ to the Latin ‘fanaticus’, meaning ‘of the temple’. Thus, through fandom Beyoncé is moved from the realm of the profane to that of the sacred. This manifests primarily through the use of religious language and imagery when discussing Beyoncé, as evidenced by the affectionate nickname, ‘Beysus Christ’, and a popular meme wherein Beyoncé’s head is photoshopped on to an image of the Virgin Mary. There are also various other memes wherein Beyoncé is referred to as a saviour of the people. This role of saviour is one that is prevalent within the Beyhive, with many fans purportedly claiming that Beyoncé saved them from poor self-image and from mental health issues such as depression (Hill, 2017). This healing is messianic in the way that Jesus, too, healed people; “Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them” (Matthew 12:15).
Due to the vocal nature of the Beyhive, the fandom’s reverence of Beyoncé is well known both publicly and by the star herself. Beyoncé is a highly religious woman, a practicing Christian who is devoted to God and has a large belief in prayer (The Jesus Network, 2017); thus, it is no surprise that Beyoncé does not wish herself to be seen as divinity. This resistance is showcased in the line, ‘God is God and I am Not’, that appears in Lemonade. The monosyllabic nature of the line portrays, rather blatantly, that Beyoncé does not wish to be viewed as a divine figure. Though, interestingly, she does not give a description of what she ‘is’ – perhaps, still, she is more than human. The importance of this sentiment is reinforced through the issuing of the latest Beyoncé merchandise where the line appears multiple times (Beyoncé, 2017).
Celebrity is a construction that allows for, and encourages, an almost religious worship of a public figure. In keeping with Lawrence and Jewett’s theory of the monomyth, both phenomena require a certain dehumanisation of the figure in question. Beyoncé most definitely is a star that fulfils these criteria, as someone who has been elevated from the realm of the profane, garnering an almost religious sense of worship and adoration from her fans. She is both a true celebrity, and an almost messiah.
All references to Biblical texts are from the NRSV.