Controversial Judas

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

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

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

By

Flo Cardon

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

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

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

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

 

judas-kiss2The Judas kiss

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

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

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

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

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

judas-kiss

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY

All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

by

Joanna Fountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Bibliography

All references to biblical texts are taken from the NIV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Salome – victim, seductress, or both?

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

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

by

Wen-Juenn Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moreau’s L’Apparition, detail

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

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Barry Moser, Salome kissing the head of Iokanaan (2011)

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

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Salome in True Blood (HBO)

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

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

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

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

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Sexualised Salome in HBO’s True Blood

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

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

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

salome-3

References

Primary Sources

All biblical quotes are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible.

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

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

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

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

Secondary Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotlighting student work finale: The Mysterious Magdalene

For our final student essay from the 2015 Bible and Popular Culture course, it seemed fitting to focus on one of the most popular biblical characters from this course: Mary Magdalene. Despite the fact that the biblical traditions about this character reveal little about her, Mary of Magdala has remained a figure of intrigue within popular culture over the centuries. Artists, literati, musicians and filmmakers have taken these scant biblical sources and conjured up (with more than a little creative licence) a plethora of colourful cultural afterlives for Mary, some of which have become so ubiquitous in the collective cultural consciousness that they are frequently conflated with the biblical traditions to the extent that the Mary of culture and the Mary of the gospels become indistinguishable from one another.

To discuss this further, I’ll hand you over to our guest blogger for the day, Sally Finegan-Dodds. Sally is a ‘new start’ student who is studying for a conjoint degree in Law and a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in psychology and sociology. After completing her studies, she hopes to work in the prison system and wants to help make New Zealand a better place for everyone. Sally tells me that she ‘absolutely loved’ doing the Bible and Popular Culture course, and would highly recommend it to other students, given its applicability to everyday life.

So, enjoy our final student essay for 2015. Next week, the season of Advent begins and I will be commencing Auckland TheoRel’s annual Advent Calendar. Something to look forward to.

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Who was Mary Magdalene?

by Sally Finegan-Dodds

 The afterlives of Mary Magdalene have taken many shapes and forms throughout history and in contemporary society. While the New Testament offers a number of different traditions about Mary, there are also many silences surrounding her character. Popular culture has therefore filled these silences. In this essay, I will focus on two particular cultural texts that have constructed an intriguing afterlife for Mary Magdalene: Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code  and the film adaptation by Ron Howard (2006).

DaVinciCodeAccording to the New Testament Gospel traditions, Mary is a follower of Jesus, travelling with him and the other disciples. These Gospels place Mary at significant events in Jesus’ life, such as his travelling and ministry with his disciples, his crucifixion and his resurrection (Chilton, 2005). Yet Mary is only mentioned throughout the New Testament thirteen times, which proves problematic when tracing her historical and narrative background (Kennedy, 2012). This is important to remember when analysing how Mary’s character has been constructed over time, as much of her character is left silent (King, 2005). Thus assumptions have inevitably played a part in the construction of Mary’s portrayal in popular culture (Kennedy, 2012).

Domenico_Tintoretto_-_The_Penitent_Magdalene
Tintoretto, The Penitent Magdalene (1598)

Throughout much of history and popular culture, Mary has been portrayed as a sinful prostitute from whom Jesus expelled seven demons (De Boer, 1997). She is compared frequently with Eve, the biblical woman in Genesis 2-3 traditionally associated with sinfulness and temptation (King, 2005). However, the tradition of the ‘Penitent Magdalene’ has also been used as an explicit example of the good that prevails from repenting for sin (King, 2005). These assumptions about Mary Magdalene the ‘sinner’ are commonly understood as the reason for her having become involved with Jesus and his disciples (King, 2005). Yet this character portrayal of Mary as a prostitute has no biblical basis (Ehrman, 2006). In reality, there is a scarcity of information about Mary in the Gospels, and the information that is there is not always consistent (Ehrman, 2006). The only fragment of information that in any way hints at a dark or negative past for Mary is that she had seven demons exorcised from her by Jesus (Luke 8:2). The seven demons have in the past been associated with the seven deadly sins (King, 2005).

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Anthony Sandys, Mary Magdalene (1858). Sandys has conflated Mary here with the sinful woman in Luke 7.36-50, who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfumed oil.

This construct of Mary as a sinner has shaped many portrayals in popular culture. It is important to analyse how this construct came to exist. An amalgamation of the four New Testament Gospels have manifested with time to create the prevalent ideology of Mary as a prostitute (Ehrman, 2006). There are sixteen women called Mary named in the Gospels, as well as several unnamed women (e.g. in Luke 7.36-50; John 8.1-11), who have been conflated to produce the common image of Mary as a ‘sinful’ prostitute (Ehrman, 2006). The label ‘sinner’ has also deviated from the realm it originally belonged to; a sinner in first century Jewish thought traditionally meant one who did not keep to the Torah law rigorously whereas this label, when applied to women, has been associated with sexual sinfulness, and thus used to claim Mary was a prostitute (Ehrman, 2006). Confirming this conception, Pope Gregory the Great in 591 CE issued a Homily affirming Mary as a sinful prostitute and an embodiment of the seven deadly sins (King, 2005).

THE DA VINCI CODE
Leigh Teabing, Sophie Neveu, and Robert Langdon argue about who Mary Magdalene really was (Ron Howard, The Da Vinci Code, 2006)

This illusory image of Mary Magdalene is raised in Howard’s (2006) film The Da Vinci Code in which Howard draws upon explicits retelling of the New Testament Gospels as well as additional sources, particularly the Gnostic Gospels. The film first introduces the common belief about Mary Magdalene as a prostitute (Ehrmann 2006). However, as the story progresses this depiction is challenged dramatically. Using Brown’s (2003) narrative, Howard (2006) portrays Mary as Jesus’s favourite disciple with whom he has a deep connection. Mary was not a prostitute but rather the most important person to Jesus, one of history’s best-kept secrets and a person imbued with holiness (Kennedy, 2012).

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Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper (c.1520)

This portrayal of Mary Magdalene draws some of its support from the historically iconic image of Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, used by Brown to give veracity to the claim Mary was the chosen disciple – the only woman present at the Last Supper and seated on the right hand of Jesus. The novel and film suggest that she is chosen for this position because she was Jesus’ most faithful and loyal follower. In the New Testament, Mary does undoubtedly have a special status, given that she is one of the first witnesses to the risen Jesus (John 20.1-2, Mathew 28:1-8 and Mark 16:1-8). Brown, however, has filled the gaps around these biblical traditions by claiming that such a status indicates she is Jesus’ ‘chosen one’. Such a claim challenges the misogynist patriarchal framework of Christianity, which has insisted on viewing Mary simply as a sinful follower of Jesus and his disciples (Chilton, 2005). In The Da Vinci Code, this challenge is made explicit, as the accusation is made that Mary’s position has intentionally been obstructed by the patriarchal Church, who deliberately tainted her image through the (erroneous) allusions to her prostitution (Kennedy, 2012).

gospel of Philip, recreation
Facscimile of the Gospel of Philip

Additionally, The Da Vinci Code also suggests that Mary was Jesus’s wife and lover. Brown draws upon the Gnostic Gospel traditions as evidence of this claim. The Gospel according to Philip 11.3.59.6-9 is the most widely known text in relation to this notion (Chilton, 2005). This text refers to Mary as the ‘companion’ to Jesus, and according to Brown, the term ‘companion’ conveyed the meaning of ‘spouse’ during the first century (Chilton, 2005). The Gospel of Phillip 64.1-10 also suggests that Jesus reserved a special love for Mary in contrast to that felt for other disciples, a favouritism that Chilton (2006) suggests has consolidated Mary’s reputation in popular modern culture as having been more than just a disciple to Jesus. In addition to these threads, Philip’s Gospel also mentions Jesus frequently ‘kissing’ Mary Magdalene, which again, Brown leaps upon to facilitate the idea that Mary was Jesus’s wife (Chilton, 2006). Although the exact location of this kiss is unknown (the manuscript is damaged in the crucial spot: ‘[Jesus] used to kiss her often on the____’), many have sought to fill the gap with the word ‘mouth’, thus further propelling the idea Mary was Jesus’s wife (Chilton, 2006). Yet the nature and significance of the kiss is unclear and does not by necessity imply a sexual relationship between the couple. Moreover, the term ‘companion’ conveys other nuances of meaning beyond that of spouse. It is also important to acknowledge there is nothing in the New Testament that specifically cements the notion of marriage between Mary and Jesus.

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Sophie and Robert take a close look at Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (Howard, 2006)

The Da Vinci Code novel and movie adaptation both refer to the idea that Mary was not only Jesus’s wife but also the mother of his child. Brown’s story fills the gaps in the canonical Gospels with the idea that Jesus was both divine and mortal (Kennedy, 2012). This retelling suggests Mary Magdalene was far important in the formation of Christianity and much more than just a disciple (Kennedy, 2012). The idea that Jesus’s bloodline carried by Mary Magdalene, is still in existence is the film’s central premise (Howard, 2006). This premise is based on the many silences in biblical texts concerning Jesus’ and Mary’s relationship, as well as the evidence from the Gospel of Philip, described above. This combination supports the claim that Mary was a mother and wife who was deliberately hidden from the world (Howard, 2006), and whose true status as Jesus’s wife and a mother was obstructed in Christianity by those seeking to keep woman separate from ecclesial power (King, 2005).

THE DA VINCI CODE, Audrey Tautou, Tom Hanks, 2006, (c) Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection
Sophie Neveu, descendent of the royal bloodline of Mary and Jesus? (Howard 2006)

Dan Brown’s reference to the mystery of the Holy Grail and the suggestion that Mary’s womb was indeed the Holy Grail, is insightful if not challenging (Kennedy, 2006). The Da Vinci Code concludes that Jesus’s bloodline is still existent within the character of Sophie Neveu. She is then regarded as the Holy Grail as she is a woman carrying on the secrets of Mary’s true identity and heritage (Howard, 2006). This representation utilises the theme in popular culture of Mary as a protector of pregnant woman and the matron of fertility and childbirth (Chilton, 2006). However, this more positive portrayal of Mary is still draped in patriarchal constructs as Mary is still subordinated by her gender (reduced to the status of ‘carriers’ of divine seed), while the religious male figures in the film still attempt to render her status unknown (Kennedy, 2006). Brown’s storyline, replicated by Howard in the movie, is thus an amalgamation of assumptions loosely linked to the biblical Gospels, and relying on biblical silences to portray Mary as one of the most important woman in Christianity.

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The Gospel of Mary, fragment

Another piece of evidence presented in The Da Vinci Code as evidence of Mary’s status as Holy Grail is Gnostic Gospel of Mary, which records that after Jesus’s death, Mary continued to have a huge influence in the early Church as Jesus’ chosen teacher (Chilton, 2006). This Gospel claims was Peter was hostile about the fact that Jesus chose Mary. These fragments are used in The Da Vinci Code to support the idea further that Mary was suppressed by dominant patriarchal Church forces, who objected to her special status (Chilton, 2006). Brown and Howard both present the Gnostic texts as ‘true’ accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, which were omitted from the New Testament intentionally to hide Mary’s significance.

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At the end of The Da Vinci Code, symbologist Robert Langdon believes he has cracked the ‘code’ and discovered the tomb of Mary Magdalene – in a crypt beneath the Louvre

Thus, from the discussion above, we can suggest that Mary Magdalene’s character has been warped and misshaped consistently within popular culture, adapting to suit the cultural ideologies and beliefs of whomever is telling her story. The Bible contributes to these creative afterlives for Mary with its vague references to her, which leave ample room for creations of counter-memories (Kennedy, 2006). The Da Vinci Code novel and film portray an explicit, more rounded and fleshed-out Mary. However, it is essential to analyse how these various afterlives of Mary Magdalene are constructed. As the Gospel of Philip 69:7 -11 states ‘Truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in types and images. The world will not receive truth any other way’. Truth is inevitably accompanied by human subjectivity and cultural influences. Thus, when examining Mary’s portrayal in The Da Vinci Code, we need to bear this in mind.

In conclusion, both the New Testament and Gnostic Gospels allow us some insight into the portrayal of Mary Magdalene within early Christianity. However, this essay has highlighted the silences surrounding Mary’s character within these texts, and has considered how these silences have been filled in popular culture. The Da Vinci Code fleshes out Mary’s character by acknowledging the inherently patriarchal stigma that has surrounded Mary due to her reputation as a prostitute; the novel and movie seek to dispel this stigma by generating more inspirational notions of who Mary was. Brown employs the notion of Mary as a wife and mother furthering the depiction of Mary’s significant status in Christianity. Yet, like all of Mary’s afterlives, this is perhaps more subjective than based on historical or textual evidence. The ‘real’ Mary Magdalene may simply have to remain the best kept secret of all time.

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 References

 All Biblical references are sourced from RSV.

Brown, D. (2003). The Da Vinci Code (1st Ed). United Kingdom: Transworld Publishers.

Calley, J. & Grazer. B (Producers), Howard, R. (Director). (2006). The Da Vinci Code. America: Colombia Pictures.

Chilton, R. (2005). Mary Magdalene: A biography (1st ed.). New York: Doubleday.

 De Boer, E. (1997). Mary Magdalene: beyond the myth (1st ed). Harrisburg, Pa: Trinity Press International.

Ehrman, B. D. (2006). Mary Magdalene in Popular Culture and History. In Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend, pp.179-92. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kennedy, T.M. (2012). Mary Magdalene and the Politics of Public Memory: Interrogating The Da Vinci Code. In Feminist Formations, Vol.24 (2), pp. 120-139.

King, K.L. (2003). The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the first woman apostle (1st ed). Santa Rose, CA: Polebridge press.

 

Spotlighting student work 11: The Art of Temptation

Our penultimate piece of student work from Auckland TheoRel’s Bible and Popular Culture class focuses on a biblical tradition that has been ubiquitously retold in visual culture – the Genesis 2-3 narrative of Adam and Eve. We’ve discussed this text quite a few times on this blog, including here, here, and here, particularly its presentation in visual culture. So, adding her own voice to this fascinating topic, let me introduce our guest blogger today, Natalie Koch. Natalie has just finished her fifth year studying for conjoint Law and Bachelor of Arts degrees; in her BA, she is majoring in English. She wants to work as a lawyer in the future and is also interested in pursuing a Masters degree in law. Natalie  took our Bible and Popular Culture course because she thought it sounded really interesting, and  enjoyed learning more about the different ways that the Bible is used in popular culture.

So, let’s revisit the Garden of Eden and look to see how our disobedient duo have been depicted in the works of three artists from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Eve as ‘Leading Lady’ and Adam as ‘Sidekick’: The Theme of Blame in Genesis 2-3

by Natalie Koch

Genesis 2-3 delineates the creation of man and woman. and their subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden. “Adam and Eve” by Gustav Klimt, “Adam and Eve” by Karoly Patkó and “the Fruit Eaters” by Barnaby Furnas, all retell the biblical story. These artworks may be termed ‘high culture’ but they also engage with popular culture as part of a “cultural phenomena that [is] both widely distributed and widely recognized” (Sanders 2009, viii-x). In Klimt and Patkó’s work, disparities between the biblical narrative and its visual representation tend to conform to portrayals of Eve as the primary instigator in the transgression scene. As a result, she subsumes the majority of the blame for the Fall. In contrast, Barnaby Furnas portrays Adam and Eve as equal participants in the action. Eve’s blame is ameliorated by her portrayal as one link in the chain of causation.

In Genesis 3, wrongdoing is a condition precedent for punishment. The biblical text divides blame between Adam, Eve and the serpent by distributing punishment between them. The biblical author does not allocate sole blame with Eve. The language that God uses when addressing Eve parallels the language employed with Adam and the serpent. A rhetoric of blame is framed by similar semantic patterns that are reiterated with all three characters: God asks Eve “What is this you have done?” (v.13); when judging the serpent, “Because you have done this” (v.14), and when sentencing Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you” (v.17). The essence of Adam and Eve’s punishment is somewhat alike, although manifested in different forms. Diane M. Sharon explains that the Hebrew word connoting ‘sorrow’ or pain’ is used to describe both punishments, but that it also signifies ‘hard work’. She concludes that the consequence for both is that “continued survival for them and for their descendants will now require hard work” (Sharon 1998, 79). Therefore, the biblical text does not hold Eve solely responsible for the Fall.

However, the biblical author appears to deploy a degree of blame-shifting between the characters. When God asks Adam whether he has eaten from the tree, Adam replies that “the woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (Gen 3.12). As a result, Adam shifts the focus from himself to both God and Eve (Fewell and Gunn 1993, 33). Mignon R. Jacobs argues that, subsequently, “the Deity blames the woman for the role in the man’s action. It appears that the Deity is persuaded that the man is telling the truth” (2007, 64). However, blame is not allocated as unequivocally as Jacobs seems to assume. By asking Eve what she has done, God may be merely seeking confirmation of Adam’s account. In direct contrast, God does not give the serpent a similar opportunity to explain its actions. Therefore, the biblical author does not linger upon Eve’s culpability or overlook Adam or the serpent’s role. Eve is permitted to shift the blame from herself to the serpent (Gen 3.13).

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Gustav Klimt, Adam and Eve (1917)

Gustav Klimt’s “Adam and Eve” retells Genesis 2-3 in a way that indirectly reinforces cultural perceptions of Eve’s sole responsibility for the Fall. Adam is relegated to the background and is almost entirely shielded by the figure of Eve. In addition, he is featured in dark colours that create the impression that he is in shadow. Therefore, it is possible for the viewer to overlook Adam’s presence altogether. Adam’s lack of pictorial presence has the corresponding effect of diminishing his role in the overall narrative (Edwards 2012, 17).

klimt detailBy contrast, Eve occupies the entire foreground. She is portrayed in bright light. The juxtaposition of her white skin with Adam’s shadowed face compounds her function as the focal point of the painting. As a result, Eve’s portrayal reinforces her responsibility in the transgression scene by tapping into cultural assumptions of her role as primary actor. In addition, Adam is depicted with his eyes closed, whereas Eve’s gaze is front-on and directed towards the viewer. Her dominance may invert the gendered hierarchy of the biblical narrative. (ibid, 20). However, it is unlikely that Klimt is actively undermining the androcentric focus of Genesis 2-3. Rather, Eve’s direct gaze suggests that she is about to make a conscious choice. The emphasis on Eve replicates traditional portrayals of her as chief instigator of the action.

klimt eve's wee faceEve’s dominant role is consistent with Genesis 3. In distinction, it is unclear whether Adam is present until the biblical author informs the reader that he “was with her” (v.6). However, Klimt’s work purports to portray Genesis 2, rather than Genesis 3. For instance, Eve is naked. In Genesis 2, Adam and Eve are “both naked, and they felt no shame” (v.25), whereas, in Genesis 3, they make “coverings for themselves” (v.6). Furthermore, the painting is marked by the absence of fruit, and the inclusion of flowers presupposes that the couple are still in the Garden of Eden. Eve’s prominence in the painting is inconsistent with her passive role in Genesis 2, where she is only present at the culmination of the episode; does not speak; and largely functions as an object who is acted upon by God, who creates her (2.22) and Adam, who names her (3.23). The inconsistency between Eve’s role in Genesis 2 and her portrayal in the painting reinforces traditional perceptions of blame by alluding to, and capitalising on, her actions in Genesis 3.

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Karoly Patko, Adam and Eve (1920)

Similar to Klimt’s “Adam and Eve”, Karoly Patkó does not challenge the common cultural conception of Eve as leader in the transgression scene. Eve is portrayed handing fruit to Adam. Adam’s pose presupposes an element of indecision. The positioning of his left hand behind his head is indicative of an internal conflict, whereas his right arm is raised as if to shield himself from Eve’s advances. Adam’s pose implies that Eve is tempting Adam. Whereas Adam is represented visually in a state of internal dilemma, the biblical narrative does not recount his thoughts. It is unclear whether Adam was an unwilling participant. Although an element of compulsion is implied by Adam’s claim that he ate the fruit because Eve gave it to him, coupled with God’s explication that Adam’s punishment results from obedience to his wife, the biblical narrative as a whole negates the inference that Eve induced Adam to eat the fruit. Adam is present while Eve is conversing with the serpent and he appears wholly compliant. By depicting Eve tempting Adam, Patkó reconstructs the portrayal of Eve as a temptress, and the associated connotations of blame contemplated by that role.

pATKO DETAILUnlike Klimt’s work, Adam is not consigned to the background. Rather, Adam and Eve occupy equal space within the painting’s composition. However, both Klimt and Patkó shield Adam’s body from the viewer to differing degrees. Whereas Adam is completely effaced by Eve in Klimt’s “Adam and Eve”, Patkó has depicted Adam with his entire body facing away from the viewer. In contrast, Eve is turned towards the viewer. Both figures are naked. Nakedness is consistent with the innocence of the Prelapsarian stage in the biblical narrative.

patkoHowever, Eve’s nakedness assumes a different dimension because it is made directly accessible to the viewer vis-à-vis the stark contrast between Adam and Eve’s postures. In addition, Patkó uses chiaroscuro to highlight Eve’s body. The emphasis on the naked female form is coded with cultural stereotypes of Eve as a temptress because it is patterned on “the temptation of female sexuality” (Exum 2011, 92). Therefore, the representation of Eve’s nudity is embedded with cultural attitudes pertaining to female sexuality (Miles 1989, 81-82). By accentuating the female form, Patkó reaffirms the association between Eve’s culpability and her sexuality.

In contrast to both Klimt and Patkó, Barnaby Furnas’ “the Fruit Eaters” depicts all four characters from Genesis 2-3. In addition, Eve is not the primary focus of the work. Rather, the serpent is bright red and occupies most of the composition’s space.

Furnas_-_The_Fruit_Eaters 2013
Barnaby Furnas, The Fruit Eaters (2013)

The eye-catching colouring and position of the serpent stress its key role in the narrative. Moreover, the serpent’s horns, concomitant with the way in which it coils around Adam and Eve, creates an ominous tone. The emphasis on the serpent as instigator of the action ameliorates the blame that is commonly allocated to Eve in pictorial representations of Genesis 2-3. Moreover, it is difficult to distinguish between Adam and Eve. Both figures are amalgamated, and both hold fruit. The comparative similarity of Furnas’ representation of Adam and Eve eschews common depictions of Eve as more responsible than her counterpart.

fURNAS GOD HIDES BEHIND A TREE
God watches events from behind a tree

“The Fruit Eaters” is unique to the extent that it raises questions about God’s role in the Fall. The biblical narrative is not explicit about God’s physical whereabouts during the transgression scene. It is only after Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit that they “hear the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden” (Gen 3.8). In contrast, Furnas’ God is hidden behind a tree. His partial visibility may be a figurative symbol for his omniscience. However, it also creates the impression that God is surreptitiously spying on the couple. In this way, the painting implies that God has predetermined the outcome of the transgression scene. The biblical narrative does not overtly provide God with the same knowledge: God asks Adam where he is and whether he has eaten the fruit. In addition, God’s absence during the transgression scene absolves God of responsibility for the Fall (Jacobs 2007, 62). Furnas tempers Eve’s culpability by portraying Adam and Eve as mutual actors. Moreover, the dominance of the serpent, and the presence of God, further qualifies their liability.

Klimt and Patkó emphasis the role of Eve in Genesis 2-3. In both paintings, Adam’s presence is mitigated. As a result, each painting rehashes common cultural assumptions concerning Eve’s blameworthiness for the Fall. In contrast, Furnas’ “Fruit Eaters” depicts all of the characters of the biblical story in an apparent mutual accusation. In addition, the presence of God in the Garden of Eden is unique. It militates against Eve’s sole responsibility and, instead, raises questions about God’s role in humankind’s fall from Eden.

 Bibliography

Bach, Alice Women, Seduction and Betrayal in Biblical Narratives Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Brenner, Athalya A Feminist Companion to Genesis Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

Edwards, Katie B. “Genesis 2-3: The Creation of an Icon” in Admen and Eve: The Bible in Contemporary Advertising, 12-34, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012.

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

Fewell, Danna Nolan and Gunn, David M. Gender, Power & Promise: The Subject of the Bible’s First Story Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Jacobs, Mignon R. Gender, Power and Persuasion: The Genesis Narratives and Contemporary Portraits, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007.

Miles, Margaret Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West

Sanders, Theresa Approaching Eden: Adam and Eve in Popular Culture United Kingdom: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.

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

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

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

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

BioShock Infinite as critique of the American Monomyth

by Samuel McKenzie

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

Flying city
The flying city of Columbia, the setting of the game

A Last Chance for Redemption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fig 6
Fig. 6

Dies, Died, Will Die

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

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

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

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

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

Lives, Lived, Will Live

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

end

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Showcasing student work 9: The Messianic Doctor (Who?)

In this final week of showcasing student work from our Bible and Pop Culture course (THEO 101/G), we return to the theme of popular messiahs and the American Monomyth. Our guest author is Amy Calder – Amy is in her first year studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English. She admits to enjoying THEO 101 a great deal, especially as it gave her the opportunity to brag to her friends about being able to write an essay about top TV programme, Doctor Who. Amy hopes to continue her studies to postgraduate level once she has finished her degree. So, whether or not you are a fan of the Time Lord, read on and enjoy.

tenant and light

The Gallifreyan and the Galilean: Doctor Who, the Biblical Messiah and the American Monomyth

by Amy Calder

Messiah means an “anointed person or thing” (Stanton 2002, 242). There are many references to messiahs throughout the Hebrew bible, but Jesus is the figure who has come to be synonymous with the term in Christian tradition. The way Jesus behaved during his life, and particularly his death and resurrection, provides a model for the secular hero of western pop-culture known as the American Monomyth. Despite the name, this is not exclusive to American characters or texts. The monomyth involves a hero who is “lonely, selfless and sexless” who saves a community in danger then disappears (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 5-6). Doctor Who (1963-1989, 1996, 2005-present) is a British science-fiction television show. This essay will focus on the Russel T Davies era of the series (2005-2010). The Doctor is an outsider and loner – the last of his people, the Time Lords of Gallifrey. He renounces temptation, particularly the temptation to become human. Most importantly, the Doctor sacrifices himself and is resurrected twice in the Davies era. Davies, as an outspoken atheist (Clark 2015, 33), did not intend for the Doctor to be a Christ figure but rather a Christ substitute (ibid, 31).

Ninth 1One of the aspects of the American Monomythic hero is that they come from outside of the threatened community or that they are a loner within that community (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 47). In the classic series, the Doctor had a difficult relationship with his own people. He chose to interfere with the universe rather than being merely observant. Jesus had a similar relationship with his home people. When he returns to his hometown to continue his ministry, the people think of him only as a carpenter’s son. He tells them “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town and in his own home” (Matt 13:57).

Doctor Who
The Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler

In the revival series, the Ninth Doctor is fresh from the Time War, which has left him the last of his kind. He embodies the Monomythic idea of originating outside the community he saves (ibid), and moving on. In “New Earth” (2.1, 2006) he is called “the lonely god.” Rose Tyler becomes the first companion of the revival series, and a disciple-like figure. Rose adopts a similar lifestyle to him, leaving behind her mother and boyfriend to travel in the Tardis. Similarly, Jesus’ disciples are asked to leave everything to follow him (Matt 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20). It could be argued that Jesus and his disciples cut family associations to focus on their ministry without distraction. Jesus, in fact, seems to place loyalty to God above loyalty to family in Mark 3 where he calls his followers his mother and brothers. In Doctor Who‘s series 2 finale “Doomsday” (2.13, 2006), the Tenth Doctor has to seal the void into a parallel universe. Because Rose has been to this universe, she is in danger of being sucked into the void and lost forever. The Doctor intends to send her into the parallel universe with her family, but she chooses to stay with him, putting herself in danger and potentially isolating herself permanently from her family. The Doctor is a messiah-like hero in that he never has a sense of home, aside from those he brings with him.

dr who and his disciples
The Tenth Doctor and his ‘disciples’

In the American Monomyth, the hero overcomes temptation, and remains chaste for the duration of the mission (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 47). Overcoming temptation is also important for the biblical messiah. Jesus undergoes 40 days of temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). The Devil tempts Jesus into using his power for selfish reasons, and tempts him with power. Whether Jesus was tempted sexually is unclear, although widely speculated. In Hebrews 4:15 the author writes “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” This implies that Jesus faced some sort of sexual or romantic temptation but did not give in to it.

Dr who and Joan Redfern
Dr Who and Joan Redfern

Likewise, Dee identifies “sexual abstinence” as one of the main parallels between The Doctor and Jesus (2010, 24). However, although nothing is made explicit, we know the Doctor was married in Gallifrey and had children. For the Doctor, the greatest temptation is humanity. In the two-parter story “Human Nature” (3.8, 2007) and “The Family of Blood” (3.9, 2007), the Doctor becomes temporarily human to hide from a family of aliens. His human alter-ego, John Smith, is unaware of true nature as a Time Lord and falls in love with a nurse, Joan Redfern. Towards the end of the story, John Smith must choose to take up his true identity and save the day, or remain human and be with Joan. He imagines growing old by Joan’s side. When he chooses to become the Doctor again, we know he has fought the temptation of humanity.

perfect goodbye rose
Dr Who and Rose, “Journey’s End”

Central to the Monomythic hero is the humanity-defying ability to be resurrected after death, the aspect which connects the American Monomyth most directly with Jesus as a Biblical Messiah. Ever since the first doctor became the second because of the failing health of the actor (Clark, 2015, 32-33), “regeneration” has become central to Doctor Who. But death in itself is not characteristic of the American Monomyth, rather death as sacrifice for a community. The Doctor makes many sacrifices to save humanity, but his deaths in the Davies era are to save individuals.

regeneration
The Ninth Doctor must die and regenerate in “The Parting of the Ways”

In “The Parting of the Ways” (1.13, 2005), Rose looks into the Heart of the Tardis and gains God-like powers. However, the power is too much for her, so the Doctor absorbs it himself, knowing it will kill him but that he will be able to regenerate. The Doctor’s speech to Rose before regeneration shows a calm resignation to his fate not unlike Jesus or other heroes following the Monomythic structure: “Time Lords have this little trick. It’s sort of a way of cheating death. Except… it means I’m going to change.” He knows, like Jesus, that he will be resurrected, although Rose is unaware of this. When he has regenerated, she struggles to accept his new face, not unlike Mary Magdalene who thinks the newly resurrected Jesus is the gardener (John 20:11-18).

end of timeThe Doctor has a different kind of “resurrection” in “The Last of the Time Lords” (3.13, 2007) when he is resurrected through the “prayers” and faith of the people Martha has talked to (Balstrup 2014, 148), amplified through the Archangel Network (Dee 2010, 29). When the Tenth Doctor becomes the Eleventh in “The End of Time Part 2” (special episode 5, 2010), the Doctor once again sacrifices himself for a friend, Wilfred Mott. After having saved the universe from the end of time itself, the Doctor hears four knocks and knows he will soon die. The Doctor rescues Wilf from the radiation chamber, and then begins to regenerate. However, he is less resigned to his fate than his predecessor. He visits all of his present incarnations’ former companions like Jesus appearing to his disciples before his ascension. Then, his final words before his regeneration “I don’t want to go” echo Jesus prayer in Gethsemane; “Take this cup from me” (Mark 14: 36). However, the Doctor has no choice, and he is reborn once again. Hefner notes the symbolism of sacrifice as a guilt-offering (Heffner 1980, 417). For Jesus, it is an offering for the guilt of humanity. For the Tenth Doctor, it is a guilt-offering for himself – for all the people he failed to save.

tenant and screwdriverThe titular character of Doctor Who fits many of the aspects of the American Monomythic hero. Firstly, he is a loner who saves the world, and moves on. However, his greatest temptation is settling down and living a normal life. Instead, he must sacrifice himself to save the world, and die for his friends. Russel T Davies invokes religious symbolism without completely acknowledging the Doctor as Christ-like. However, the audience reception of the character is just as important (dee 2010, 24). Whether seeing him as representing Christ, a substitute for him in a God-less universe, or a powerful secular hero, the Doctor continues to inspire audiences to this day.

gif rose and dr

Bibliography

All references to the Biblical text are from the NIV.

Balstrup, Sarah. “Doctor Who: Christianity, Atheism, and the Source of Sacredness in the Davies Years.” Journal Of Religion & Popular Culture 26, no. 2 (2014): 145-156.

Celibacy. In Encyclopedia of the Bible Online. 2012. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. Retrieved 9 Oct. 2015, from http://www.degruyter.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/view/EBR/MainLemma_5780

Clarke, Jim. ””The Resurrection Days Are Over”: Resurrection from Doctor Who to Torchwood.” Journal Of Religion & Popular Culture 27, no. 1 (2015): 31-44.

Dee, Amy-Chin. “Davies, Dawkins and Deus ex Tardis: Who finds God in the Doctor?” In Ruminations, Peregrination and Regenerations: A Critical Approach to Doctor Who, edited by Christopher J. Hansen, 22-34. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.

Family. In Encyclopedia of the Bible Online. 2014. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. Retrieved 9 Oct. 2015, from http://www.degruyter.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/view/EBR/MainLemma_5211

Hefner, Philip J. “The cultural significance of Jesus’ death as sacrifice.” The Journal Of Religion 60, no. 4 (1980): 411-439.

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

Stanton, Graham. The Gospels and Jesus. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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.

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