Auckland TheoRel are delighted to announce not one, but two wonderful seminars coming up next week. The first features TheoRel’s Caroline Blyth as the first guest speaker in a new seminar series hosted by the Gender Studies programme here at the University of Auckland. The seminar will be held in room 040B in the Owen G Glenn building on Grafton Road.
Next, on Friday 17th March, our visiting scholar, Jo Henderson-Merrygold will be delivering the first of our ‘My Queer Research’ seminars, brought to you by Hidden Perspectives: Bringing the Arts Out of the Closet – a new project at the University of Auckland, which provides a social and academic community for LGBTIQ+ students across the Faculty of Arts. This seminar will be co-hosted by Gender Studies and Theology and Religion.
Both of these events promise to be fabulous, so we hope to see you there!
For further inquiries about the seminars, or Hidden Perspectives, please contact Caroline Blyth.
Today’s advent student offering is a marvellous essay written by THEOREL 101 student Wen-Juenn Lee. Wen–Juenn 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
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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Today’s advent offering is from another Bible and Pop Culture (THEOREL 101) student, Pooja Upadhyay. Pooja is a fourth year student studying Law and Arts at Auckland, who thoroughly enjoyed this course, describing it as ‘a wonderful breath of fresh air’ in their otherwise hectic schedule. Pooja has written about British rap artist M.I.A., comparing her to Marcus Borg’s definitions of the biblical prophets. Enjoy!
M.I.A.: Present-day Pop Prophet
This essay compares Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to the popular-music rap artist Mathangi Arulpragasam (M.I.A.), concluding that M.I.A.’s role in western popular culture is similar to that of a biblical prophet. Like biblical prophets, M.I.A. challenges the status-quo, has a passion for social justice, and engages with forms of prophetic speech. Although she does not have the same relationship with God as biblical prophets, her relationship with God still resembles biblical prophetic behaviour in more secular ways. In sum, this essay will conclude that M.I.A. and ancient biblical prophets play similar roles in society.
According to Marcus Borg, biblical prophets challenge the status-quo (2001, 124-5). M.I.A. certainly follows suit. Firstly, many pop-culture artists tend to create mass-produce music that avoids controversial themes (Hirsch 1971, 372). Unlike these artists, she produces music that is politically charged. In her music video for “Born Free” (2010), she depicts US soldiers arresting boys with ginger hair, taking them to a field, and graphically killing them. The video is a shocking portrayal of genocide in modern-day United States, which led to considerable flak for the artist. M.I.A. used this to condemn western institutions and audiences for their outrage against the fictional video, and their contrasting indifference to a real video of “naked dead bodies being shot in the head, blindfolded” that she had tweeted months before. Thus, she challenges the status-quo with her art.
M.I.A. also confronts another convention of the pop culture industry, which requires mass-produced artist to package, market and sell not just their art, but themselves as a commodity (Shuker 2016, 132). She rejects product endorsement opportunities and struggles with the idea of the musician becoming the focus, not the music. Thus, similar to biblical prophets and their role as agitators, she refuses to conform to multiple aspects of the mass-produced pop-culture artist paradigm.
Pursuant to Borg’s work, biblical prophets are also passionate about social justice and advocate for oppressed peoples (2001, 118). M.I.A. is a champion of refugees and persecuted Sri Lankan Tamils. Through her song “Borders”, she brings the harsh realities of refugees to the forefront of western media consumption. In “Borders”, she lists a number of antagonistic ideas such as “identities”, “your privilege”, and “egos”. She ridicules these by rapping, “what’s up with that?” after each one, condemning the powers of the world for their identity politics and general complacency in alleviating the Syrian refugee crisis. M.I.A.’s passion comes through when she advocates for solutions and discusses how multi-culturalism and integrating refugees enriches communities.
A strong parallel can be drawn between the archetypal biblical prophet Moses, and M.I.A. when she advocates for Tamils. Called upon by God in Exodus 3, Moses takes responsibility for leading the Hebrews out of oppression in Egypt (Exod. 3.7). Similarly, through media interviews, she acts as a leader for the liberation of Tamils oppressed by the Singhalese regime. The exile and displacement experienced by the Hebrews in Moses’ narrative (and in other prophetic texts, including Isaiah and Jeremiah) resembles the experiences suffered by the Syrian and Tamil refugees for which she advocates (Slessarev-Jamir 2011, 28). Thus, through her advocacy, she performs the role of social justice warrior that is so fundamental to Borg’s conception of biblical prophets.
Borg posits that while some biblical prophets arouse feelings of hope through ‘prophetic energizing’, others engage in more pessimistic speech, called ‘prophetic criticising’ (2001, 130). This is where prophets speak critically of dominant systems of power, whose practices oppress others. M.I.A. criticises governments for their sins (their ignorance of others’ suffering and their persecution of particular groups), in a way that is similar to the prophetic critique Jeremiah performs when declaring the sins of Israel (Jeremiah 2). Rather than issuing a prophetic oracle though, M.I.A. uses 21st century media to convey her message, tweeting sarcastic and cynical comments such as, “Can u catch Pokemon Go at these refugee camps tho”, and “#SriLanka rejects international involvement in accountability + denies war crimes…again.” She thus fulfils the more negative function of prophetic speech, offering a voice of protest against those in power.
Despite, M.I.A.’s cynical dialogue, the effect of her prophetic behaviour generates hope. Although no current scholarship can demonstrate the effect she has on audiences, comments from Twitter and web articles suggest she arouses and inspires audiences. For example, Anupa Mistry, writing in the Pitchfork e-zine, discusses how she fears xenophobic attacks in Canada as a woman of colour, particularly after the Paris terrorist attacks (2015). Mistry argues that M.I.A. is a lifeline for outsiders like her. Additionally, on the release of M.I.A.’s new album AIM, some of her Twitter fans tweeted comments such as, “AIM uplifts me” and, “This album is a voice for the voiceless”. These are contemporary manifestations of M.I.A.’s prophetic impact.
Lastly, Borg asserts that biblical prophets have a strong relationship with God. This relationship involves ‘call stories’ whereby God appoints individuals with a sacred task (Borg 2001, 124). While M.I.A. may not have received a prophetic ‘call’ from God herself, she does call on God herself through her art, as a means of highlighting God’s absence. In her song, “Born Free”, M.I.A. raps “Lord whoever you are, come out wherever you are”. In the video for this song, images of Mary and the crucifix appear in the context of the ghetto. This Christian imagery, in conjunction with M.I.A.’s demand that God come out, reflects the idea that despite victims of violence and oppression looking to God for protection, God fails to save them. Further, in the song “Story to be told”, M.I.A. raps that she wrote a letter to the Pope but “he never gave me a rope”, highlighting once more God’s silence in her time of need.
However, even biblical prophets have doubted God’s efficacy. In Exodus 5. 22-3, Moses asks God, “Why have you brought trouble on this people?” and then criticises God for not rescuing his people. Furthermore, calling on God to answer for suffering is a recognized feature of contemporary religious prophetic activism (Slessarev-Jamir 2011, 37). Thus, M.I.A.’s apparent doubts about God’s power does not detract from the similarities that bind her to both biblical prophets and contemporary prophetic figures. And, while her proclamations, “I’m not a Christian girl”, and “I don’t even need a religion”, may appear to highlight her differences to religious prophets, I would argue that she still shares with the biblical prophets a passion for social justice, which, as with the prophets (Borg 2001, 123), is shaped and directed by the cultural context in which she is situated.
This essay has compared artist M.I.A. to the biblical prophets, as defined by Marcus Borg. Like these prophets, M.I.A. challenges the dominant expectations that come with being a pop-music rapper signed with a powerful record label. M.I.A.’s passion for social justice resembles Moses, whilst her prophetic critique may remind us of Jeremiah. Although, God did not call on M.I.A., she still has the sense of duty towards her people that biblical prophets inherited from God. Overall, despite being centuries apart and living in hugely different contexts, M.I.A. still shares a similar role with these ancient prophets.
Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally. New York: PerfectBound, 2001.
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).
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).
By 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.
Eve’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.
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.
Unlike 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.
However, 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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)
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)
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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)
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.”
All references to the Biblical text are from the New International Version (UK).
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
Our new member of staff Dr Robert Myles is kicking off this semester’s research seminars with his intriguingly titled paper ‘Jesus Exploitation of Servant Labour’. For more details, follow the link below to his blog, and if you are in the Auckland area on Friday 20th March, 2-3pm, please come along!
Those of you who have visited the blog before will be aware that I have a bit of a thing for exploring the Bible in the visual arts (see our annual December Advent offerings, for example, or some previous posts here, here, and here). So I’m thrilled this year to be teaching on this very topic. Titled Danger and Desire: The Bible and Visual Culture, this brand new course will introduce students to the concept of visual exegesis, showing them how visual images (including art, film, TV, and advertising) can be valuable tools for the biblical interpreter to use in their readings of biblical stories, themes and, characters. These pictorial presentations of the biblical material are rather like biblical commentaries or scholarly articles in visual form – the image maker is an interpreter of the text, not merely its illustrator. And, through their particular visual media, they gift to us fascinating retellings of the biblical stories, multicoloured afterlives of biblical characters, and reflections on biblical themes that can at times be thrilling, surprising, and even challenging.
In case I’ve whetted your interest, I’ve listed the course description and lecture topics below, along with a very select bibliography of some resources we’ll be using. And, as the course progresses, I’ll share with you some of the insights that I get from each lecture, not to mention some of the wonderful images we’ll be looking at each week.
Danger and Desire: The Bible and Visual Culture
An exploration of the ways that biblical characters, themes, and stories have been represented in the visual arts, including fine art, advertising, and film. Students will consider the interrelationship between biblical and cultural texts, learning various methods of biblical interpretation which utilise visual images as interpretive tools to make new sense of the biblical traditions and their history of interpretation.
Introduction to visual exegesis and hermeneutical aesthetics
Sin, sexuality, and selling power: Adam and Eve in art and advertising
Don’t lose your head: Judith and Salome as biblical femmesfatales
Querying masculinities: exploring biblical ambiguities in the visual arts (David and Jonathan; Jacob wrestling with the man at Jabbok)
Querying femininities: exploring more biblical ambiguities in the visual arts (Ruth and Naomi)
Highlighting or hiding the abject body? Hagar in art
Bathing beauties and peeping toms: Bathsheba and Susanna in art
Giving shape to suffering: the book of Job in art (focus on William Blake and Samuel Bak)
Retelling familiar tales: the parable of the good Samaritan in art and on screen
Visualizing the (masculine) holy: Jesus and messiah imagery in art, film, and advertising
Adams, Ann Jensen. Rembrandt’s Bathsheba Reading King David’s Letter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Allison, Dale C. Jr., Christine Helmer, Thomas Römer, Choon-Leong Seow, Barry Dov Walfish, and Eric Ziolkowski (eds.) Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009-
Clines, David J. and J. Cheryl Exum (eds.). Biblical Reception (2012-2013).
Clanton, Dan. Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. New York: T&T Clark, 2009.
Edwards, Katie B. Admen and Eve: The Bible in Contemporary Advertising. The Bible in the Modern World, 48. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2012.
Exum, J. Cheryl. The Bible in Film: The Bible and Film. Leiden: Brill, 2006.
Exum, J. Cheryl. Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012 (2nd edn).
Exum, J. Cheryl and Ela Nutu (eds.). Between the Text and the Canvas: The Bible and Art in Dialogue. The Bible in the Modern World, 13. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009
Harvey, John. The Bible as Visual Culture: When Text Becomes Image. The Bible in the Modern World, 57. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.
Joynes, Christine E. (ed.). Perspectives on the Passion: Encountering the Bible through the Arts. London: T&T Clark, 2007.
O’Kane, Martin (ed.). Bible Art Gallery. The Bible in the Modern World, 21. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011.
________ (ed.). Imaging the Bible: An Introduction to Biblical Art. London: SPCK, 2008.
________. Painting the Text: The Artist as Biblical Interpreter. The Bible in the Modern World, 8. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009.
Renan, Ernest. Christ in Art. New York: Parkstone International, 2010.
Rowland, Christopher. Blake and the Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
Terrien, Samuel. The Iconography of Job through the Centuries: Artists as BiblicalInterpreters. University Park: PSU Press, 1996.