Showcasing student work 8: Modern messiahs and The Hunger Games

Today’s student offering returns to the theme of the American Monomyth and its understanding of the modern messiah in pop culture. Our guest author is Tessa Duncan, a second year student studying for a Bachelor of Commerce and majoring in Accounting and Information Systems. Tessa hopes to qualify as a Chartered Accountant after finishing her degree, and would like to work in auditing or corporate finance. She took our Theology 101 Bible and Popular Culture course because she thought religion would be a fascinating area to study (she’s right!), and the course  interested her in particular because as a Christian, she was keen to discover how a text that has been so important to her personally has influenced and been influenced by popular culture. Tessa chose to explore the messianic qualities of a figure who is currently very in vogue within both contemporary literature and film: Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. So, whether or not you’ve read the books or seen the movies, sit back and enjoy.

Katniss 1
Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games movies

Katniss Everdeen, the Girl Messiah

By Tessa Duncan

 The word “Messiah” causes many to immediately think of Jesus. After all, Christians believe He was the original Messiah. But Messiah figures have appeared in cultural texts across the centuries, and have taken on a new life in current popular culture. These figures traditionally tend to be male, following the traditional Judaic expectation, but there are many female Messiah figures and one, for me, stands out above the rest: The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. In this essay, I will discuss the American monomyth and the characteristics it gives for a popular culture Messiah. I will use these, and a small discussion on the Christus Victor theory, to discuss why I think Katniss makes for a great example of a pop culture Messiah.

hunger games book coverBruce David Forbes (2005) talks briefly on Christ figures in films, giving examples such as E.T., Neo from The Matrix films and Superman. He notes that these allegories tend to have a similar plot structure that was first introduced by Joseph Campbell as the classical monomyth, in which a hero “ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” This plot structure may have been applicable to popular culture long ago, when it included the stories of Ulysses and St. George and the dragon, but doesn’t have much relevance to popular stories and films today, and definitely doesn’t relate to The Hunger Games and the story of Katniss Everdeen. Fortunately, this was a view shared by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence. They developed the idea of the American monomyth to describe a plot structure that is pervasive in popular culture today. Their monomyth is of “a community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity,” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002). They admit that there are a multitude of variations on this basic plot structure, and The Hunger Games is no exception – I don’t think anyone would describe Panem as “a community in harmonious paradise” – but it does give some useful criteria for identifying a Christ figure in pop culture. Their monomythical hero is someone who is selfless and “impassively gives his life for others,” avoids temptations, carries out the task at hand that culminates in a victory for the good guys, and then fades into obscurity. This makes, in my opinion, The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen a near-perfect Christ figure.

katniss poster mockingjay

The first characteristic of the pop culture Messiah figure is selflessness. Lawrence and Jewett list it as the first criterion for their monomythic hero, and David Fillingim (2010) goes so far as to describe “a theme of voluntary self-sacrifice” as “most essential among all Christ-figure characteristics.” Throughout the Hunger Games series, Katniss Everdeen shows herself to be incredibly selfless. In order to keep her family from starving, she chooses to accept a small amount of oil and grain from the Capitol in exchange for entering her name in the reaping pool extra times, resulting in her name being entered 20 times, as opposed to the minimum of five times for 16 year old citizens of Panem, and thus greatly increasing her chances of being picked for that year’s Hunger Games (Collins, 2008).

Katniss_Prim_Catching_Fire
Katniss and her sister Prim, in Catching Fire

And we can’t talk about Katniss’ selflessness without talking about the fact that she volunteered to take her sister Prim’s place in the Hunger Games, absolutely convinced she wouldn’t return. In Mockingjay, when deciding how to use Katniss to inspire the rebels of the districts, Haymitch Abernathy asks everyone to think of one time where she had genuinely moved them, and her volunteering in her sister’s place is the first example given (Collins, 2010). In Catching Fire, when Katniss figures out she will have to go back into the arena with one of the only friends she has in the world, she immediately goes to Haymitch to ask him to do all he can to keep Peeta alive, again knowing this would be at the cost of her own life. Katniss demonstrates time and again that she would willingly give her life for others, meeting our first criterion for a pop culture Messiah perfectly.

Katnis gale and peeta
Katniss, Peeta and Gale

Lawrence and Jewett’s monomythic hero is also “marked by sexual renunciation” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002). The media greatly played up the love triangle aspect of the films, but the Katniss portrayed in the books is very much uninterested in love and romance, having decided a long time ago never to get married, for fear of watching her children being picked for the Hunger Games. Katniss has two love interests in the series, her fellow tribute Peeta Mellark and her best friend Gale Hawthorne. Very soon after we are introduced to Gale in The Hunger Games, Katniss tells the reader explicitly that “there has never been anything romantic between Gale and me,” (Collins, 2008). However, in Catching Fire, Katniss realises that she does, in fact, have feelings for Gale. She says, “Gale is mine. I am his. Anything else is unthinkable,” (Collins, 2009) but never acts on these feelings, scared of what the Capitol would do to him given that everyone believes she is madly in love with Peeta and this is the only thing preventing a full-on rebellion. Katniss’ entire relationship with Peeta was simply a means of keeping them both alive during their first Hunger Games and of convincing the districts that their refusal to kill each other in the final minutes of their Hunger Games was an act of love, not rebellion. Peeta, though, makes it clear that for him, it isn’t just an act. When Katniss does begin to share his feelings in the Games’ arena in Catching Fire, she again chooses to ignore them, knowing they wouldn’t both make it out of the arena a second time and chooses to focus on keeping him alive instead. Katniss spends the entirety of the series ignoring her romantic feelings to protect the men involved, only being able to admit her feelings for and begin a romantic involvement with Peeta in the final lines of Mockingjay (Collins, 2010), and in doing so, she meets another key criterion for being a pop culture Messiah.

Katniss and Peeta
Katniss and Peeta

The final criteria – the hero carrying out the redemptive task, culminating in a decisive victory and fading into obscurity – are all well-demonstrated in Mockingjay. It takes some convincing, and a short list of demands on her part, but Katniss agrees to be the figurehead of the rebellion against the Capitol (Collins, 2010). In spite of the great personal risk involved, she is present at many battles in the districts and plays an active role in getting every district to turn on the Capitol. It is she who leads the first team of rebels through the booby-trapped streets of the Capitol to President Snow’s residence. In the end, she doesn’t kill President Snow herself, but that’s a decision that doesn’t really matter; by this stage, all of Panem had already turned against President Snow and he dies seconds later anyway, resulting in a decisive victory for the rebellion. With the victory a sure thing, as Katniss says, “no-one knows quite what to do with me now the war’s over.” She moves back to District 12, where she, Peeta and Haymitch try to move on. The book doesn’t make it clear exactly, but it seems they are mostly left in peace, the parts they played in the rebellion remembered, but they themselves are left to fade into obscurity. This is just another way in which Katniss fits the criteria for the pop culture Messiah figure, and by now, makes her a very good candidate indeed.

katniss moody sepiaThis far, I have discussed pop culture Messiahs and the criteria for what makes a character a pop culture Messiah, but haven’t yet discussed who Christians believe to be the original Messiah and similarities between Him and Katniss Everdeen. Granted, there aren’t many, but there is one worth mentioning: Both faced a great triumph over evil. Several theories try to explain Jesus’ Messiahship, and the Christus Victor theory in particular applies to Katniss Everdeen as a pop culture Messiah. The Christus Victor theory is the idea that Jesus’ death and resurrection gave him the final victory over everything that holds humanity captive (Galli, 2011). There are many verses in the Bible which talk about Jesus’ victory, and many of these can be applied to Katniss’ victory. Hebrews 2:15-15 says that Jesus “shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death…and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

Hunger games catching fire posterKatniss, like Jesus, shared in her people’s condition – oppression by the Capitol. Having experienced it all her life, it was a big factor in her decision to be the face of the rebellion. Her victory, too, allowed her people to be set free from their fear of death at the Capitol’s hands, as it was fear of being completely obliterated by the Capitol, like District 13 had been, that ensured there had been no rebellion for 75 years. 2 Thessalonians 2:8 gives a powerful image of Jesus’ final victory, saying that “Lord Jesus will overthrow [the lawless one] with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming.” By the time the fight reaches the Capitol, President Snow is already defeated. But the only reason the rebellion caught on was because of powerful propaganda films made by Katniss and the rebels at District 13. It was Katniss’ words that gave strength to the rebellion, and she overthrew the Capitol with the breath of her mouth just as Jesus overthrew the “lawless one”. Taking a look at the Christus Victor theory allows us to draw parallels between Katniss and Jesus, and lends strength to Katniss’ position as a pop culture Messiah.

Jennifer LawrenceThe idea of American monomyth gives us a very clear and distinct type of hero; one who, among other things, is selfless, resists temptation, carries out a redemptive task to return their world to a paradisiacal state, has a decisive victory and fades into obscurity. The Christus Victor theory expands on the characteristic of a decisive victory by comparing said victory to Jesus’ triumph over death. The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen shares all these characteristics, and we can see strong parallels between her and Jesus’ respective victories over their enemies, and it is for these reasons that I believe she makes a great pop culture Messiah.hunger games katniss with wings

References

All references to Biblical texts are from the New International Version, 1985

Collins, S. (2008). The Hunger Games. Scholastic Press.

Collins, S. (2009). Catching Fire. Scholastic Press.

Collins, S. (2010). Mockingjay. Scholastic Press.

Fillingim, D. (2010). When Jesus was a Girl: Polymythic Female Christ Figures in Whale Rider and Steel Magnolias. Journal of Religion and Film, 14(1).

Forbes, B., Mahan, J. & Chidster, D. (2005). Religion and popular culture in America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Retrieved October 6, 2015, from:

Galli, M. (2011, April 7). The Problem with Christus Victor: An increasingly popular view of the atonement forces the question: What are we saved from? Christianity Today.

Lawrence, J. and Jewett, R. (2002). The myth of the American superhero. Eerdmans Publishing.

Advertisements

Spotlighting student work 2: Moses at the Movies

In the last blog post, I mentioned that I’d be showcasing some fabulous student essays from our Theology 101 Bible and Popular Culture course that ran this semester. Today’s offering is by Theology 101 student Bronwyn Prowse, who chose to write about that most fascinating biblical character, Moses, and his wonderfully complex afterlife in Ridley Scott’s 2014 movie, Exodus: God and Kings (see the official trailer here). Bronwyn is currently in her first year of a BA at the University of Auckland, majoring in psychology. Coming from a Christian background, she decided to try out a theology paper, and hopes to incorporate others into her BA, so that she can integrate her faith with her future career in psychology.

Sit back and enjoy!

Exodus-Gods-and-Kings-2014-Tamil-Dubbed-Movie-HD-720p-Watch-Online

From “Let my people go!” to “Let my name be known!”

Comparing Moses’ portrayal in the Bible and “Exodus; God and Kings”

by Bronwyn Prowse

Moses is arguably the most influential biblical character in the book of Exodus (Meyers, 2005), and notably one of the most interesting in world literature (Hays, 2014). However, although such titles have been placed upon his character, little is known about his personal early life and his upbringing (Britt, 2004). Because of this, there have been various portrayals and interpretations of his life in modern texts and popular culture. This is particularly apparent within Hollywood, where there have been films, plays and songs made around his story. Sections of Moses’ life have been portrayed in various lights; the most recent being through Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014), which focuses on the freeing of Moses’ people, the Israelites, from the hands of the Egyptians. Scott has taken Moses from the Bible and has constructed a warrior out of the gaps in the Biblical text. In this essay comparisons of Moses will be made, between his character in the film and in the Bible, to compare the similarities and differences in both his portrayal and personality.

NT; (c) Kingston Lacy; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Moses with his mother in the bulrushes (British School, late 19th Century)

Biblical accounts of Moses’ early life in Egypt are relatively scarce (Coomber, 2014). His birth and upbringing are only mentioned within Exodus 2 in the first ten verses (Ex 2:1-10)- where, after being found in a basket in the Nile, Moses is taken in and raised in Pharaoh’s household in Egypt. Furthermore, the Bible does not disclose any features of Moses’ life in Egypt within these ten verses, nor does it include any awareness of his past. The only evidence that supports Moses’ understanding of his Hebrew origins is when he kills an Egyptian guard for beating a Hebrew slave, described as “one of his kinsfolk” (Ex 2:11). Having found out about the murder, Pharaoh issues a death warrant on Moses, who flees from Egypt. It is evident that the verses have several gaps about Moses’ upbringing; it is not clear how he knew of his origins, there is no mention of his place in Pharaoh’s house, or his status within the household. Notably, scholars have reasoned that this could be due to the emphasis placed on God as a central figure throughout the Biblical story, rather than Moses himself (von Rad, 2012). This shift in attention from Moses to God as the dominant presence keeps focus on the God of the Hebrews rather than the person (Britt, 2004).

Where the Bible has lacked in detail of his life in Egypt, Scott has used these gaps to recreate Moses in “Exodus: God and Kings”. Although components of Moses’ story in the film follow with the Biblical account, the majority of the film’s portrayal of his character are constructed. Predominantly, he is portrayed to be a mighty warrior, who is familiar with combat and initially fights alongside his brother Ramses as a general for the Royal family (Hays, 2014). The film also adapts Moses’ personality to fit the mould of a warrior character. When compared to the relatively relatable Biblical Moses, who was frightened and somewhat insecure (Coomber, 2014), Scott’s warrior interpretation shows a bold, strong, hegemonic man (Murphy, 2015). In his review of the film, Matthew Coomber (2014) notes that this adaptation of Moses is to fit the demand modern day audiences desire for a “hero” figure. While it is admirable that the Moses of the Bible succeeded in liberating the Israelites, it hardly makes a Hollywood blockbuster if an action films key figure is more or less ordinary (Coomber, 2014). Because of this, Moses has been portrayed in a different light to meet modern demands, regardless of whether such a portrayal accurately depicts the Biblical Moses whom God selected (Hays, 2014).

moses warriorAdding to the portrayal of a warrior figure is the use of a sword to replace Moses’ shepherd’s staff. The staff was a tool which a shepherd used to herd sheep – a humble object that was not a weapon (Hays, 2014). It was through Moses’ staff that God performed various miracles (e.g. Exod. 4.1-4; Num 20.11). This links back to the idea that Moses was merely a messenger through which God spoke – the events that followed (the plagues, the Passover, the exodus itself) were predominantly fought by God himself (Murphy, 2015). Scott’s use of the sword throughout the film further emphasises the warrior stance Moses is given. By replacing the staff with the sword, Scott takes a relatable object and person, and changes them to instead portray a warrior figure. This is reemphasised in Moses’ initial conversation with God at the burning bush. God makes it clear that he needs “a general” to fight for him, therefore a sword makes more logical sense for Moses to use than a staff.

Moses and Rameses

However, this again draws Scott’s depiction of Moses further away from the Biblical Moses. It is also symbolic of the supposed bond between Moses and his brother Rameses. This links back to the construction of Moses as a modern film character where the Bible lacks in detail – it is not clear if the two men had such a bond. Through this uncertainty, Scott is again able to construct a desirable and relational portrayal of Moses to a modern audience (Hays, 2014).

In contrast, while the film constructs a warrior out of Moses, there are elements of his portrayal that lead us to believe he is not as much of a warrior figure as first thought. As the film progresses, Moses moves from being a general to a shepherd, and then ultimately the leader of a nation. With these transitions, Scott is able to show Moses’ human side alongside his warrior status. This can be seen when God comes to Moses at the burning bush, during the period of his life as a shepherd. Moses is submerged in mud after being caught in a landslide, while herding some sheep during a storm. This is his first encounter with the Hebrew God in the film, who comes to him in the form of a young boy. Moses is vulnerable – he is trapped with mud covering his entire body apart from his face. All warrior elements of his character are stripped away to show an intimate moment. However, upon questioning, God, as I mentoned above, expresses his need for a “general” to fight for him (Scott, 2014). The topic of conversation stays fixed on Moses’ role as a general, regardless of his position at the time as a shepherd. Scott thus maintains the prevailing warrior theme through this vulnerable portrayal of Moses.

In Exodus: God and Kings, God is prtrayed as an angry and vengeaful boy.
In Exodus: God and Kings, God is prtrayed as an angry and vengeaful boy, whose complex relationship with Moses strengthens throughout the movie.

Moses can also be seen as a more relatable human figure through his complex and at times stormy relationship with God. This is apparent in scenes where he and God are arguing about the plagues that are hitting Egypt. Moses makes it clear that he is not comfortable with the suffering both the Hebrews and the Egyptians are going through (Hays, 2014). At one point he states to God that ‘it’s not easy to see the people I grew up with suffering this much’ (Scott, 2014). Furthermore, he flatly refuses to partake in God’s final plague, which involves the slaughter of first born Egyptian boys. He says that he wants no part in the act, and that God ‘cannot do this’ (Scott, 2014). Hays (2014) suggests that this is again to relate to a modern day audience, who would feel uncomfortable with a deity that conjures up mass killings of children. During these scenes, another Hebrew character, Joshua, is shown spying on Moses while he is in heated discussion with God. To Joshua, it looks as though Moses is having an argument with himself. He is unable to see who Moses is talking to – he is only able to see the man before him. There have been suggestions that  the biblical and filmic Moses was hallucinating his encounters with God, however these encounters can also be interpreted as God’s power (Von Tunzelman, 2015). He chooses who he shows himself to – an ability that clearly displays the difference between God and humanity. God in the film, regardless of his child-like portrayal, is still ultimately in control and is powerful. By keeping the portrayal of a powerful God, Scott draws attention to the fact that Moses is, ultimately, still a man, regardless of his warrior stance.

Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt
Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt

Interestingly, while Moses in the movie is clearly in a state of unease about the events taking place in Egypt, there is no indication of such feelings for Moses in the Bible (Hays, 2014). In the Biblical text, Moses is continuously obedient to God with the passing of each plague, and does not question his authority or judgements (Ex 7:20 ; 8:6 ; 8:17 ; 9:10 ; 9:23 ; 10:3 ; 10:22 ; 12:21). It is clear that Moses in the Bible is aware that, in order for his people to be freed, he would require help from a higher source that was not restricted to earthly abilities (Hays, 2014). Further to this, the initiation of several of the plagues involved Moses’ staff (Ex 7:20; 8:6; 8:17; 10:22), using God’s abilities. The staff, as I mentioned above, is a key element that Scott changes to a sword in the film (Hays, 2014). This is another indication of a Moses that audiences want, rather than an accurate portrayal of the biblical Moses whom God selected (Hays, 2014) – it is far more difficult to sympathise with a figure who condones the murderous deeds of a vengeaful God. It is clear, therefore, that Moses in the movie was ultimately intended to be a dominant warrior figure who stood up to God and fought against injustice rather than a passive servant who obediently stood by while God wreaked havoc upon the Egyptians.

In summary, Moses is a character who is continuing to influence and intrigue audiences today (Hays, 2014). The portrayal of his life in the Bible is epic, and shows a man who with God’s help has extraordinary capability; nevertheless, Moses himself remains fundamentally ordinary (von Rad, 2012). Due to a greater focus on God in the Bible, little is known about Moses’ early life in Egypt. Because of these blanks in the story, modern day filmmakers such as Ridley Scott have been able to shape and recreate Moses into a warrior, and ultimately a desirable movie character. Certain elements of the Moses in the film are stripped back to portray him in a more human light, especially during his encounters with God, but ultimately, “Exodus: God and Kings” portrays Moses as a bold, fierce warrior in order to fit a Hollywood mould and to cater to modern audiences (Hays, 2014).

moses red sea

References:

All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV

Britt, B. (2004). Rewriting Moses: The Narrative Eclipse of the Text. London, GBR: T & T Clark International.

Coomber, Matthew J.M. (2014). Dis-Disabling Moses. Noah’s Flood, 1(1), 1-4. Retrieved from http://www.floodofnoah.com/#!academic-responses-to-exodus-movie/ctnz

Hays, Christopher B. (2014). Live By the Sword, Die By the Sword: The Reinvention of the Reluctant Prophet as MovieMosesTM. Noah’s Flood, 1(1), 1-3. Retrieved from http://www.floodofnoah.com/#!academic-responses-to-exodus-movie/ctnz

Meyers, C. (2005). Exodus. Cambridge, GBR: Cambridge University Press.

Murphy, Kelly J. (2015). Moses the Man, Miriam… The Missing?. Noah’s Flood, 1(1), 1-5. Retrieved from http://www.floodofnoah.com/#!academic-responses-to-exodus-movie/ctnz

Scott, R. (2014). Exodus: God and Kings [Motion picture]. United States of America: Twentieth Century Fox.

von, R. G. (2012). Moses. Cambridge, GBR: James Clarke & Co.

Spotlighting student work 1: Rugby as Religion

This semester, I have been involved in teaching our most popular course here at the University of Auckland, Theology 101 The Bible and Popular Culture. As the semester is winding to a close, I thought that it would be a perfect opportunity to share some of the excellent student work that came out of the course. So, for the next few weeks, I’ll be showcasing a number of essays that really capture the exciting and engaging research that can be done in this field of biblical studies.

Given the events of the past weekend (for those of you living in places where rugby is not treated as a sacred event, please see here), it seemed apt to begin with an essay that considers the biblical and religious themes found within the glorious game of rugby. This essay was written by Theology 101 student Ben Fulton. Ben is a first year student taking joint degrees in Engineering and Arts here at the University of Auckland. Although he took Theology 101 as part of his General Education requirements, he enjoyed the course so much that he is now considering taking more courses in Theology and Religious Studies as a minor in his Arts degree. Ben chose this topic for his essay because, like so many Kiwis, he admits to having ‘an obligatory interest in rugby’. So sit back, read, and enjoy Ben’s discussion on rugby, religion, and Richie McCaw.

New Zealand All Blacks perform the Haka during the 2011 Rugby World Cup semi-final match Australia vs New Zealand at Eden Park Stadium in Auckland on October 16, 2011. AFP PHOTO / GREG WOOD

Rugby, Religion, Richie and Redemption

By Ben Fulton

Imagine a world where Richie McCaw is the Messiah, delivering us from evil. A cosmos where John Kirwan, stone tablet and staff under each arm, is an active visionary who selflessly relives his own dark experiences for the benefit of other sufferers. An environment where we pray to our idols, congregate at the Cloud (1), and worship together in behemothic stadiums. Only this world isn’t so imaginary after all. This is the world we, as New Zealanders, live in. It is often stated that rugby is our nation’s religion. But can this claim be validated, in an academic sense? Can a sport truly be spiritual, all­-encompassing and faith-­invoking enough to function as a religion? Through examining the similitude between rugby and more traditional  religions, investigating the tenets of religion itself and exploring both Richie McCaw and John Kirwan as case studies of modern day Messiahs and prophets respectively in popular culture, this essay aims to answer these core questions and realise the fundamental place that rugby has in our society.

Heavenly skies over Eden Park Rugby ground Auckland
Heavenly skies over Eden Park Rugby ground Auckland

The links between rugby and religion are innumerable. The contemporaneously relevant Rugby World Cup is referred to daily as the Holy Grail. ‘Rugby Heaven’ is a website owned by Fairfax Media, “covering every aspect of the game” (2). Eden Park can be viewed as a place of worship (3), where people unify as a community to express exaltation, and the regular Biblical references to the stadium as the “Garden of Eden” (4) cannot be denied. Yet within the Holy Land, people trespass. As Jesus proclaims in Mark 11:17, “My house should be called a house of prayer for all the nations…but you have made it a den of robbers,” whereby the temple of Jerusalem has been tarnished by those sinning within its walls. We could extend this analogy in considering the ticket scalpers outsides the turnstiles at Eden Park, turning what should be a place for exaltation and ardour to a money­laundering, corruption­rife means of making a quick dollar. Yet the similarities between sport and religion do not end here. Just as religion brings nations together the world over, rugby binds people to one another in New Zealand, as evidenced by the title of Martin Snedden’s (CEO of Rugby World Cup 2011) book where New Zealand is described as a “Stadium of Four Million” (5). Mike Grimshaw, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Canterbury describes rugby as “the fervour, the passion, the excitement occupying the space in people’s lives” (6), which is analogous only to religion in the social milieu of New Zealand today. And the esteemed rugby writer Gregor Paul affirms that rugby possesses similar traits to religion when he states that rugby is “a means to show who you are and what you can do…a commitment to play with style, an unshakeable belief that fear and imagination will conquer all. To consider playing any other way is sacrilege” (7). Hence there is remarkable resemblance between rugby and religion, and the innumerable links between the two cannot be understated.

All Blacks fans Rubgy world cup, 2015
All Blacks fans Rubgy world cup, 2015

Sam Kellerman, brother of ESPN boxing commentator Max, described sport as a world where the result is neither life nor death but considered as if it were so, and a spiritual universe where one has to constantly grapple with life and death, yet the latter is inevitable regardless (8). However, perhaps religion and sport are not opposing forces, but instead interlocking circles. Religion as been stipulated by Clifford Geertz to mean “an organised collection of beliefs, cultural systems and world views…[from which] people derive ethics or a preferred lifestyle” (9). Rugby, aside from being a sport, is a way of life here in New Zealand from the Saturday morning pilgrimage to play/support the Under 12s, to being the most hotly contested water cooler conversation at work, to the All Blacks as the pillar in which many thousands of New Zealanders invest much of their time and faith. Oscar Fernández and Roberto Cachán­Cruz argue that sporting rites “arouse in the group [participants and spectators of sport] a feeling of belonging, of communitas” (10), an analysis which is certainly applicable to rugby in New Zealand. Amateur rugby clubs, bars and the stadiums themselves are all communities where people are bounded together by their ‘love of the game.’ And thus we see the resemblance between sport and religion itself, many of which are founded on the key attributes of love, faith and salvation. Jesus himself in John 6:47 proclaims “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life,” which goes to show the power of faith, a central tenet of followers of both rugby and Christianity. If, as Paul Tillich believes, “Religion is the substance of culture and culture the form of religion” (11) and rugby can be considered culture in New Zealand ­ it certainly is ingrained in our popular culture psyche ­ then rugby certainly has cause to be labelled a form of religion in our rugby­mad nation.

Captain of the ABs, Richie McCaw
Captain of the ABs, Richie McCaw

Central to many religions is the role of a saviour figure who brings redemption to his (or her) people through their extraordinary powers, and rugby is no exception. While other nationals will inevitably wax lyrical about their own Messiahs ­ Jonny WIlkinson for the English, Brian O’Driscoll for the Irish ­ in New Zealand there is one Messiah who stands peerless: captain for a decade, stoic fighter, humble leader: Richie McCaw. The American Monomyth often describes modern day Messiahs in popular culture as having a selfless zeal for justice, unbelievable abilities, their violence purified and the ability to both withstand temptation and remain calm under pressure (12). Richie McCaw undeniably ticks these boxes. Commentator Sandy Abbot describes McCaw as “articulate, polite, responsible…[always full of] great dignity and humility” (13), hence he is clearly a man of unquestionable character. His playing a full match during the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final with a broken foot speaks volumes of his unrivalled ability and perseverance. Despite playing a brutal contact sport, his vengeance on the rugby field is purified and justified (largely due to his irreproachable character and the nature of the game). Furthermore, his autobiography The Open Side describes his uncanny ability to remain calm under pressure when he speaks of the ‘blue zone,’ a state of focus and clarity to counteract ‘the red zone’ where things are not going to plan, leaving lesser mortals in distress (14). Finally, he has resisted temptation, keeping his scandal­free private life far removed from the public All Blacks Captain we see in the media, and has no vices or bad habits that would invalidate his claim to be a Messiah figure in New Zealand. As if we need further proof of this, he is often referred to simply by first name (drawing parallels with a certain Biblical character) and radio station The Rock have produced an image with the caption “Richie McCaw died..But he’s alright now” (15).

Richie risen from the dead? Poster created by NZ radio hosts Jono and Ben

Richie McCaw saved us from despair against the French in the 2011 World Cup Final and continues to bring hope and joy to New Zealanders today, hence the claim that he can be labelled as a Messiah figure is well justified.

 Sir John Kirwin
Sir John Kirwin

If Richie McCaw is New Zealand’s saviour, then there is no one better placed to be portrayed as an inspired teacher than Sir John Kirwan. Kirwan has spoken openly about his mental health issues (namely depression and an anxiety disorder) and broken the mould of All Blacks as phlegmatic and hard men, empowering a generation to speak up when in similar circumstances. He certainly meets Marcus J. Borg’s requirements of a modern­day prophet (16). He has disturbed a sense of normalcy in giving a very real, human insight to his struggles, something that no rugby player (or major sports star in New Zealand) has ever done before. His prophetic words, for example “Yesterday is gone from my control, so I don’t worry about it…I can make decisions that will feed my soul and give me the life that I can feel good about” (17) is certainly accompanied by corresponding action, as evidenced by his very prominent role with DepressionNZ and his regular public speaking at schools and functions around the country (18). Kirwan has clearly emerged from a state of (psychological) oppression to a new world, full of hope and the benevolent desire to assist others in transitioning to a happier state. Very powerfully, he has preached “Greatness is the ability to feel good in your own skin. Greatness is the ability to be happy. Greatness is my Dad. Greatness is simpler than we think.” This is testament to his ability to motivate others, fuelling the optimism that those struggling need. His vision, courage and drive to improve both his own quality of life, and later that of others’, has been remarkable. Therefore there are grounds for the parallels drawn between Kirwan and Biblical prophets, and he should hence be recognised as a central member of the New Zealand Diocese of the Church of Rugby, as it were.

Having all of the hallmarks of a religion, one sees that rugby can be considered akin to a religious movement in New Zealand. It fosters a sense of community for the masses, has some definite overlap in terms of language with religion, and contains prominent theological characters such as prophets and Messiahs. The role of rugby as a religion cannot be understated, for it is our national pastime, but also a well of faith and a binding agent for its people. Perhaps rugby should not be laughed off as “only a game.” Perhaps it should not be considered sacrilegious to compare the sport to spirituality. Perhaps both rugby and religion can be “the lights of [our] world” (Matthew 5:14). Because if it takes two to tango, both religion and rugby can together put on a vibrant show.

All Blacks performing the haka at the 2015 Rugby World Cup
All Blacks performing the haka at the 2015 Rugby World Cup

Endnotes

  1. Mike Valintine, prod. “Close Up.” Rugby as Religion. TV ONE. 30 Sept. 2011..
  2. “Fairfax Media to Launch Rugby Heaven.” Scoop. N.p., 5 June 2007. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.
  3. Cherie Howie, “Meet the AB’s Loyal Super Fans.” The New Zealand Herald[Auckland] 23 Aug. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.
  4. Duncan Johnstone, “Ten reasons why the All Blacks don’t lose at Eden Park,” stuff.co.nz, 13 August 2015. Web 24 September 2015.
  5. Martin Snedden, A Stadium of Four Million. Auckland, N.Z.: Hodder Moa, 2012.
  6. Mike Grimshaw, “What If…Rugby Were New Zealand’s Religion?” University of Canterbury, Christchurch. 28 Sept. 2015. Lecture.
  7. Gregor Paul, Black Obsession: The All Black’s Quest for World Cup Success. Auckland: ExislePub., 2009. 164.
  1. William J.Baker, “Introduction.” Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Academic International [ebrary]. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.
  2. Clifford Geertz and Michael Banton, Religion as a Cultural System. London: Tavistock, 1966.
  3. Oscar Fernández and Roberto Cachán­Cruz, “An Assessment of the Dynamic of Religious Ritualism in Sporting Environments.” Springer Science + Business (2013): 1­9. 2 July 2013. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.
  4. Paul Tillich,On the Boundary; an Autobiographical Sketch. New York: Scribner, 1966.
  5. John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.
  6. Sandy Abbot, “Richie McCaw ­ A Hero.” NZ News UK. N.p., 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.
  7. Richie McCaw and Greg McGee. Richie McCaw: The Open Side. Auckland: Hodder Moa,2012.
  8. “I Heard Richie McCaw Died” Jono and Ben. The Rock Radio Station, 16 Sept. 2015. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.
  9. Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but NotLiterally. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
  1. John Kirwan and Margie Thomson. All Blacks Don’t Cry: A Story of Hope. North Shore, N.Z.: Penguin, 2010.
  2. Kelly, Rachael. “Sir John Kirwan Opens up about Depression to Gore Pupils.” The Southland Times, 27 July 2015. Web. 1 Oct. 2015.

References to the Bible are taken from the NRSV