We are delighted to welcome Professor Gerald West to speak at our TheoRel seminar next week. Gerald is Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and African Biblical Hermeneutics in the School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also Director of the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research, a project in which biblical scholars and African readers of the Bible from poor, working-class, and marginalized communities collaborate for social transformation. His most recent publication is The Stolen Bible: From Tool of Imperialism to African Icon (2016). He is currently based at the University of Otago working on a book project (Facilitating Interpretive Resilience: Biblical Scholarship, Local Communities, and the Bible as a Site of Struggle) as part of the De Carle Distinguished Lectureship.
Gerald’s lecture for us next week is titled, “Building biblical interpretive resilience and resistance in the context of gender violence”. Gerald will discuss the ways that the Bible is complicit in gender violence in South African (and other) contexts. So how do we work with a complicit Bible in the struggle for gender justice? He will draw on the praxis of the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research’s ‘Tamar Campaign’ and ‘Redemptive Masculinity Campaign’, reflecting on the participatory interpretive practices of the Ujamaa Centre’s work, using the story of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:1-22 as an example.
This event is co-hosted by the Shiloh Project, a joint initiative run by scholars at the Universities of Auckland, Sheffield, and Leeds. It fosters research into the intersections of religion and rape culture.
The lecture is free and open to everyone. We hope to see you there.
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.
As promised yesterday, today’s Advent offering stays with that most fascinating biblical character – Delilah from Judges 16 – turning to look at one of her most iconic afterlives in popular culture, played by Austrian actor Hedy Lamarr in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic movie Samson and Delilah (Paramount, 1949).
Lamarr, an actor already ‘notorious for being notorious’ (Llewellyn-Jones 2005) due to her somewhat risqué film career to date, seems to have been the perfect choice for playing the part of DeMille’s captivatingly gorgeous Delilah. Wanting to make sure she looked the part, he instructed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head to make sure Lamarr’s Delilah embodied ‘biblical glamour’ (two words you don’t usually see in the same sentence).
And certainly, Head appears to have risen magnificently to DeMille’s challenge. Lamarr’s costumes are a triumph of exotic glamour, with their rich fabrics, jewel tones, and swirling drapes that reveal the maximum of flesh, while (barely) keeping within the strict Hollywood Production Code rules of the day. Like the plethora of femmes fatales who were appearing in the films noir of this period, Lamarr offers us a Delilah who is beautiful, beguiling, sensual, irresistible, and therefore utterly lethal. Her dangerousness lies in her seductive power, the way she captivates Samson, leaving this Hebrew strongman powerless to resist her sexual charms. And, while Lamarr alone is enough to make anyone swoon, her gorgeous costumes throughout this movie only accentuate her ravishing allure, guaranteeing that both Samson and her audience will gaze upon her with an unsettling and stomach-churning sense of danger and desire.
This final image is a favourite of mine. Just look at Lamarr’s sumptuous surroundings, her extravagant gold dress and jewels, the flashes of red in her accessories (and lips!) that alert us to her sexual lethality. Deliciously decadent, dangerous, and desirable, she really is that quintessence of the 1940s Hollywood femme fatale.
For more details on Edith Head’s ‘fashioning’ of Delilah, see this fascinating chapter:
Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd. ‘The fashioning of Delilah: Costume design, historicism and fantasy in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1940)’. In The Clothed Body in the Ancient World, ed. M. Harlow &. L. Llewellyn-Jones L Cleland. Oxford, 2005. p. 14-29.
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.
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).
According 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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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 220.127.116.11-9 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
One 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
The 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Bruce 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
This 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.”
Katniss, 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.
The 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.
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.
Today’s splendid student essay from our Theology 101 Bible in Popular Culture takes us into the world of video games. Although this has previously been a neglected area within academic research, it’s good to see a growing interest in the cultural and religious significance of this genre of popular culture. The recently published Exploring Videogames with Deleuze and Guttari (Routledge, 2015) by Colin Cremin (senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Auckland) analyses the content of videogames – including their narratives around gender and violence – and the social and cultural context in which they are played. Meanwhile, postgraduate student Emily Foster-Brown at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS, University of Sheffield) is just embarking on an MA thesis that explores the ways videogames engage with Judaeo-Christian conceptions of Jesus within their female character leads. So we are pleased to add to this new discussion on the Auckland TheoRel blog, by introducing the work of Brianna Vincent, a first year Arts student who is doing a double major in English and Writing Studies. Brianna is fascinated by the ways different mediums (books, comics, tv shows, video games etc) engage in storytelling; she was therefore delighted that our Bible and Pop Culture course gave her the opportunity to write about videogames and thus add her voice to the academic study of this fascinating form of cultural narrative. So, whether or not you are a gamer yourself, give yourself a treat and read Brianna’s excellent essay on contemporary messiahs in the hugely popular game, Dragon Age: Inquisition.
The Hand that Saved Thedas: The Inquisitor as a Messiah Figure
By Brianna Vincent
The American Monomyth and the concept of a messiah are found throughout contemporary popular culture, and Bioware’s video game Dragon Age: Inquisition is no exception. When the fantasy world of Thedas is thrown into chaos a protagonist rises up who incorporates three of the central themes surrounding messiahs and the American Monomyth; mysterious origins and powers, resurrection, and uniting the land against evil. The protagonist, first called the Herald of Andraste then the Inquisitor, functions in their context not merely as a hero figure but that of a holy saviour. As the game progresses we see the Inquisitor fulfil their Messianic role as they are confronted with their purportedly divine origins and powers, experience a sacrifice and resurrection arc that is reminiscent of the Judeo-Christian messiah figure of Jesus, and unite the lands of Thedas in a way that parallels the Tanakh’s understandings of a messiah. The character Varric declares near the beginning of this journey that “Heroes are everywhere. I’ve seen that. But the hole in the sky? That’s beyond heroes. We’re going to need a miracle” and indeed the protagonist needs to become more than a hero. The protagonist needs to become a messiah that can deliver Thedas its miracle – the protagonist needs to become the Inquisitor.
At the beginning of the game the Conclave at the Temple of Sacred Ashes was meeting to try to mediate peace between mage and templar factions currently embroiled in civil war. The sudden explosion which destroyed the Conclave, killed the Chantry’s holy leader, and tore a dangerous hole in the sky was as mysterious as it was destructive. This sets the world of Thedas in the common monomythic trope in which “The world seems out of control and people lose any sense of order or meaning” (Aichele 2011, 263), and it is in the midst of this mystery and chaos that the protagonist emerges. The protagonist falls out of the hole in the sky, called “the Breach,” with no memory of the incident and appears to have been saved by the divine figure of Andraste. The protagonist begins to follow in the traditions of the American Monomyth hero who “is distinguished by disguised origins, pure motivations, a redemptive task, and extraordinary powers” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 47).
The contention within the game over whether or not the protagonist was truly saved by Andraste codifies the protagonist as being “distinguished by disguised origins” (ibid) as well as having a “least-likely hero beginning” (Scheub 2012, 144), which is another key theme is the monomythic paradigm. The protagonist, now bearing the title “Herald of Andraste,” possesses “extraordinary powers” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 47) in the form of a magic welded onto their hand (called the Anchor) that will enable them to “defeat the forces of evil or overcome great challenges” (Clark and Clanton 2012, 118).
Another aspect of the American Monomyth, the “hero as outsider” origin tradition, is fulfilled as the protagonist becomes “both in the world but not of the world” (Kozlovic 2002, 10) as they are set apart from everyone else by “virtue of his unknown origins” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 47) and by the unique magic they possess. Thereby “the Chosen of Andraste, a blessed hero to save us all” is mired in mystery from the beginning as they, following the American Monomyth traditions, “find a new life amongst strangers” (Kozlovic 2002, 2) by joining the Inquisition, and embark on their “messianic rescue mission” of the world (Clark and Clanton 2012, 119).
A key element of the American Monomyth is “the selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6) and the protagonist fulfils this aspect of their role during the quest ‘In Your Heart Shall Burn’ which ties into themes of sacrifice, death, and resurrection found in the New Testament and in the American Monomyth.
The town of Haven is under siege by the villain Corypheus and his army and “there are no tactics to make this survivable.” The Herald goes to confront Corypheus to buy time for the Haven citizens to escape, in essence sacrificing themselves for Haven, and during the confrontation the Herald triggers an avalanche and is buried under the ice. In this sacrifice the protagonist not only incorporates the American Monomyth traditions of sacrifice but the biblical understanding for a messiah “to suffer and make himself as a ‘guilt offering’” (Satterthwaite, Hess, and Wenham 1995, 117) and the following “resurrection” of the protagonist continues these allusions. “Jesus experienced a resurrection from his grave site, Superman was resurrected from his grave site” (Kozlovic 2002, 7) and the Herald follows in these traditions as he or she rises from their would-be grave of ice and just as “Superman emerges from the water and, in another symbolic rebirth, regains his powers” (ibid) the Herald now emerges with a new power called the “Mark of the Rift.” As Scheub suggests “The movement of the hero is through a difficult terrain marked by tests and tasks, by villainy and traps, by various experiences that test his heroism and shape him” (2012, 144) and this heroic confrontation with the villain acts as a test that transforms our protagonist from the Herald into the Inquisitor as they are, after this trial, chosen to be the official leader of the Inquisition. The American Monomyth pattern of “persons depart from their community, undergo trials, and later return to be integrated as mature adults who can serve in new ways” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6) is therefore fulfilled as the Herald departs to sacrifice themselves, undergoes the trial of the confrontation with the villain, and then returns to the Inquisition ready to take on the task of being its leader. This resurrection also solidifies the Inquisitor as an ordained figure regardless of what the protagonist may personally believe:
“Our leaders struggle because of what we survivors witnessed. We saw our defender stand…and fall. And now, we have seen her return. The more the enemy is beyond us, the more miraculous your actions appear. And the more our trials seem ordained.”
Through this resurrection the Inquisitor has become a messiah figure to the people of Thedas, a hope against the threat of Corypheus who escaped the avalanche, and the messianic overtones in the subsequent “The Dawn Will Come” scene highlights this. After the avalanche the survivors of Haven sing while bowing, saluting, or otherwise showing reverence to the Inquisitor in a song that echoes verses in Isaiah. The song lyrics “The night is long and the path is dark. Look to the sky, for one day soon, the dawn will come” use similar imagery to that which surrounds the messianic prophecy “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2). These biblical allusions to a messiah overlap and combine with American Monomyth traditions around sacrifice and resurrection to create the Inquisitor not just as a hero but as a messiah figure within the world of the text.
The uniting of a community is another key aspect in the American Monomyth and the Inquisitor unites Thedas in a way uses those monomythic traditions as well as echoing the Tanakhh’s concepts of a political and military messiah. As Aichele notes, “The monomyth hero is typically solitary, and although she may have allies, she often performs her great deeds alone” (2011, 269) and these allies supporting the Inquisitor include a group of twelve companions, a parallel to the twelve disciples of Jesus, and the eventual support of the most powerful institutions of Thedas. The amount of power the Inquisitor gains through these allies has Biblical parallels where we can see such power described in verses like “and to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all people, nations and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14; quoted in Aichele 2011, 264). That political and military power gives Inquisitor the ability to make world-altering decisions like who shall rule Orlais, whether to banish the centuries old institution of the Wardens, and who should be the next religious leader of the Chantry.
This powerful leadership also mimics the leadership of the American monomyth hero who “offers a form of leadership without paying the price of political relationships or responding to the preferences of the majority” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 48) and how the monomythic hero “finds an answer in vigilantism” (ibid). The Inquisition is itself a vigilante institution, that was instigated when the Chantry failed to contend with the threat of Corypheus, and through it the Inquisitor has become a “combination of a heavenly judge and a king- or warrior messiah” (Trost 2010, 128). The Hebrew word Messiah is interconnected with the idea of “The Anointed One” (Satterthwaite, Hess, and Wenham 1995, 88) and the Inquisitor has been “anointed” by Andraste in the eyes of Thedas and operates within the three offices associated with the Tanakh messiah; the prophet, the priest, and the king (Barclay 1962, 93).
As the Herald of Andraste, this figure fulfils the offices of prophet and priest and as the Inquisitor ruling the Inquisition they incorporate the office of the king. The Enoch picture of the messiah is “a completely otherworldly figure of divine and majestic and superhuman power, destined to conquer and to judge all, to obliterate sinners and to exalt the righteous” (ibid) and the figure of the Inquisitor, sitting on the throne within their fortress Skyhold, endowed with religious authority and the magic of the anchor on their hand, while dispensing freedom and judgement as they see fit conforms to this interpretation of a messiah. Upon appointing the protagonist as the Inquisitor the character Cassandra says to them “I would be terrified handing this power to anyone. But I believe it is the only way” and it is with this terrifying power that the Inquisitor unites Thedas to stand against Corypheus wielding the political and military power that draws on the tropes of the American Monomyth and the Old Testament concepts of the Messiah.
As Scheub notes, “The hero’s journey… moves on the earth but it has mythic overtones and consequences” (2012, 143) and the Inquisitor’s journey of mysterious origins, sacrifice and resurrection, and uniting the land is rich in messianic and monomythic overtones. In the Inquisitor we can see “elements of the selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others and the zealous crusader who destroys evil” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6) that makes them a messiah within the world of Thedas and a fascinating character study outside the world of the text. The protagonist’s dual functions as ‘Herald of Andraste’ and ‘Inquisitor’ interweave different facets of a popular messiah figure; the monomythic beginnings, the Christ-like resurrection, and ideas of a powerful leadership by an ‘anointed one’ put forward by the Tanakh. It is these Biblical and American Monomythic conceptions and themes that combine to create the multi-layered contemporary messiah that we see in Dragon Age: Inquisition. A saviour that transforms from stranger, to chosen one, to a messiah who can save Thedas.
Today’s wonderful student offering brings us into the realm of UK politics, considering the prophetic (and Christ-like) qualities of that political phenomenon du jour, Jeremy Corbyn. The author of this piece is Harriet Winn, a first year student here at the University of Auckland, who is doing a BA in History and Theological and Religious Studies. Harriet originally hails from West London but now lives in Wellington with her family. While she admits the future is ‘frighteningly ambiguous’, she hopes to pursue a career in journalism or writing of some sort that invoves her working with people to make the world a more egalitarian place.
So, whether or not you are familiar with the intricacies of British politics, read on and enjoy this fabulous discussion of the Christlike Corbyn.
Jeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ – liberators of the last, the lost, and the least
By Harriet Winn
Jeremy Corbyn is a political anomaly. The hard-left socialist entered the race for leadership of the UK Labour Party somewhat begrudgingly, spurred on by his moral conviction that the government ought to be doing more for those in need (Hattenstone 2015). Whilst he was initially the distinct underdog of the contest, Corbyn emerged as the people’s favourite. He was elected leader of the Labour Party on September 12th, 2015 with an astonishing 59.5% of the vote (Eaton 2015). Despite living centuries apart, Jeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ have an exceptional amount in common; primarily, both are unlikely pioneers of radical socio-political movements. As established by the Council of Nicea in c.325, Jesus was monumentally more than a prophet – he was fully divine, yet he also displayed many of the traits of an ordinary prophet (Migliore 1991, 62-63, 148). Marcus J. Borg asserts that prophets fundamentally challenge the status-quo, have a passion for social justice, emerge as a prophet from a context of oppression by elites, and possess a vision of hope (Borg 2001, 111-44). Like Christ, Corbyn was the instigator of a grassroots revolution that embodied these traits, a revolution that prioritised compassion and justice, and spoke the language of hope. Corbyn is a 21st century prophet.
Prophets disturb what society deems ‘normal’; they challenge unquestioned assumptions and reject complacency (Borg 2001, 111). Like many prophets before him, Jesus disturbed the normalcy of life. Roman Palestine was a nation created and sustained by imperial violence; ‘it is increasingly clear that Roman military violence created the very conditions of and for Jesus’ mission’ (Horsley 2014, 54). Yet, in a culture permeated by violence, Jesus advocated for peace. As famously quoted in the Beatitudes; ‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also’ (Matt. 5:39). Jeremy Corbyn is also disruptive presence in the political sphere; he is rejuvenating politics by challenging the status quo and promoting peace. Corbyn takes a similar stance on violence and imperial war to Jesus; he is an ardent believer of pacifism.
Like Jesus, Corbyn does not just implicitly speak of pacifism – he actively engages in the advocacy and practice of it. ‘I have been very involved in the peace movement, the anti-nuclear campaign, the campaign against the Gulf war, the Afghan war…’ (Corbyn 2003, 39). Corbyn has made it exceedingly clear that he would never condone use of Trident: the UK’s nuclear weapon programme (Wintour 2015). His definitive stance on Trident has been interpreted by many of his opponents as threatening, a senior general from the UK military even insinuating that ‘the general staff would never allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of the country…’ (Eaton 2015). In a world where imperial violence and warfare is widespread and constant, Corbyn gives voice to a resonating and alternative rhetoric. Similarly to how Jesus’ radical values of non-violence unsettled Roman Palestine in the 1st century CE, Corbyn’s refreshing rhetoric moves against the grain of 21st century culture and politics.
Furthermore, prophets have a passion for social justice (Borg 2001, 118-20). Central to Jesus’ ministry was the defence of those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. Jesus’ ministry emphasised universality and inclusiveness (Braaten 2008, 167). Women in Roman Palestine were unquestionably inferior in status to men (Swidler 2007, 18). Yet, Jesus pioneered for the rights of women by teaching them the gospel; using examples of women doing good in his parables; choosing a woman to be the first witness of his resurrection; and by condemning misogynistic violence (John. 8:1-11) (Harrison and Richards 1996-7, 183). In the 21st century, the patriarchy continues to dominate and sexism still persists. Jeremy Corbyn pioneers for the rights of women and works earnestly to combat sexism and misogyny; 52% of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet are women (Arnett 2015). By giving more than half of the top jobs in his political party to women, Corbyn showed that he not only believes in the equality of women, but he will actively pursue it. Moreover, Corbyn launched a campaign called ‘Working With Women’ in which he claimed that ‘we will never be a successful society in which all are able to achieve their potential until we have equality for women’ (Corbyn 2015b). Distinctive parallels on the inclusion of women exist between Jesus’ ministry and Corbyn’s political campaign.
Like women, another group of overlooked individuals are children. Children are often ignored or not taken seriously. This was the case in Jesus’ lifetime, yet he spoke widely of the importance of children and the value that they offer to society; ‘Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”’ (Matt. 19:14). Just as the inclusion of children was a significant element of Jesus’ ministry, Corbyn also makes time for children in his political activity; ‘Corbyn proudly shows me one [a card] from the children of Duncombe Primary School in Islington, north London. “Please remember, just as you have always been there for us, we are there for you,” it reads’ (Eaton 2015). The legacy of Jeremy Corbyn will likely be one of prophetic and zealous commitment to striving for social justice for women and children.
In addition to challenging the status quo and being passionate about social justice, a fundamental aspect of prophecy is that it arises from a context of oppression of the vulnerable by the elites (Borg 2001, 127-28). Jesus regularly reinforced the idea that all humans are equal, and also exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders (Matt. 23:1-39) – who were amongst the elites in the social hierarchy of Roman Palestine. In The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Jesus said; ‘“So the last will be first, and the first will be last”’ (Matt. 20:16). Jesus emphasised the irrelevancy of social hierarchies and implied that the poorest, the most vulnerable of society would be valued most by him.
Jeremy Corbyn also dismisses such rigid social hierarchies as harmful and unnecessary; he recognises that the government is firmly rooted in the ideals of neo-liberalism, which values a deregulated economy. Corbyn believes that the government’s preoccupation with austerity is partly due to neo-liberalism. He condemns both neo-liberalism and austerity and cites the latter as an excuse for the rich to oppress the poor (Corbyn 2015a). Contrary to the current Conservative government in the UK – who Corbyn identifies as elitist oppressors, Corbyn avidly believes in the ability of the welfare state to bring about better quality of life for the most vulnerable. Fuelling speculation about the divinity of Corbyn is his employment of biblical imagery when speaking of the welfare state; ‘…we want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system… we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society’ (Crossley 2015). Corbyn’s vision is one of egalitarian socialism: where the poor and vulnerable will be treated with the same dignity and respect as the elitist rulers.
Both Jesus and Jeremy Corbyn also perpetuate a narrative of hope – hope is the language of a prosperous future (Borg 2001, 130). Hope is a recurring theme in Jesus’ sermons. Even when not mentioned explicitly, the topics broached by Jesus evoked hope in the oppressed by presenting a radical new way of living and thinking. Jesus’ narrative of hope is found most clearly in the Sermon on the Mount; ‘“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’ (Matt. 5:3-5). Jeremy Corbyn’s political mandate is commonly referred to by his supporters as ‘politics of hope’ (Chakrabortty 2015). Thus, to his supporters – many of whom suffer social deprivation, he is an explicit icon of hope: a prophet. Corbyn speaks of themes which are similar to those evident in the Sermon on the Mount; ‘…even his biggest fans admit he can’t open his mouth without expressing the need for peace, justice and solidarity’ (Hattenstone 2015).
Yet, Corbyn does not just talk about hope – he is a living embodiment of the term. Much of English society has grown cynical with politicians, and this can be seen in the waning voter turnout, which has been in steady decline since 1992 (Electoral Commission 2015). The deep-rooted cynicism towards politicians can be attributed to a plethora of reasons, but one of the most compelling is the expenses scandal of 2009, in which many MPs claimed the mortgages of their second houses on parliamentary expenses (Rogers 2009). During this scandal, Corbyn emerged as a man of integrity and a politician who practiced what he preached; ‘…it was reported that he had the lowest claim in the Commons – £8.96 for a printer cartridge’ (Hattenstone 2015). Corbyn does not only instil a sense of hope in his supporters that through him they will receive a better quality of life – he regenerates faith in the political system. Through Corbyn’s commitment to the underprivileged faction of British society, and through his integrity, he has cultivated a narrative of hope.
Jeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ: unassuming, pacifist warriors of social justice and hope. The similarities between the two men are pervasive and suggest that if Jesus walked earth today, he and Corbyn would have much to talk about. Corbyn is decidedly a contemporary prophet; he embodies the traits identified by Borg. Yet Corbyn surpasses prophetic status to something more potent – he is saviour-like; he resembles Jesus Christ. The similarities are uncanny; ‘Dichotomies don’t come much starker: the new leader of Britain’s left is either delusional or a saviour’ (Chakrabortty 2015). After all, even their initials suggest a divine affiliation…
All references to the Biblical text are from the NIV, unless otherwise stated.
Arnett, George. “Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet – older, more rebellious and less male.” The Guardian, September 14, 2015.
Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally. San Francisco: Harper, 2001.
Braaten, Carl E. That All May Believe: A Theology of the Gospel and the Mission of the Church. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.
Braaten, Carl E. Who is Jesus? Disputed Questions and Answers. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.
Chakrabortty, Aditya. “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics of hope can seize power from the elite.” The Guardian, September 14, 2015.
Corbyn, Jeremy. “Rogue States.” In Anti Imperialism: a guide for the movement, edited by Farah Reza, 33-41. London: Bookmarks, 2003.
Corbyn, Jeremy. “Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Britain can’t cut its way to prosperity. We have to build it.’” The Guardian, September 13, 2015a.
Corbyn, Jeremy. “Working With Women.” Paper presented to the Labour Party, July 28, 2015. Accessed October 8, 2015b.
Today’s student offering focuses on one of the most notorious female characters in the Hebrew Bible – Jezebel. Yet, despite the fact that her name has become synonymous with woman’s wiles and wicked wantonness, very little is actually known about this biblical figure. In popular culture, however, she takes on a range of colourful afterlives, and it is one of these afterlives that our guest blogger, Charlotte Guy, explores in her essay. Charlotte is in the final semester of her Bachelor of Arts degree, where she has majored in Politics and Media Studies. After graduating with her BA, she plans to continue with postgraduate study next year, and then hopes to work in political communications.
Thanks, Charlotte, for a fascinating essay – and I’m sure you will all enjoy learning more about the enigmatic (and much maligned) Jezebel.
The Harlot Queen? Jezebel in the Bible and Popular Culture
by Charlotte Guy
Jezebel was a young Phoenician princess who appeared in 1 and 2 Kings after marrying King Ahab of Israel, and who ultimately became one of the most prominent women in the Bible. Her narrative swiftly moves from promoting deities Baal and Asherah, to persecuting prophets of YHWH, and finally fabricating evidence of blasphemy to obtain land for her husband. Eventually, she was murdered and eaten by dogs, and Jehu rejoices in the fact that no one can ever say “here lies Jezebel” (2 Kgs. 9.37), assuming “that along with her body, her name will be dispersed over the face of the earth into nothingness” (Hazleton 199). However, this was not to be. To this day, Jezebel remains notorious. She is frequently referred to as a murderer, a harlot, an enemy of God, and even the most wicked women in all of the Bible. The character of Jezebel has played a significant role in the shaping of our modern society, particularly its patriarchal nature. But great variation in her character can be seen when looking at the historical Jezebel, the biblical Jezebel, and the many Jezebels that have appeared in popular culture throughout history.
This essay will investigate the causes and the ramifications of this variation, with a particular focus on the biblical Jezebel and Lesley Hazelton’s novel Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen. The novel draws extensively from the historical Jezebel, with Hazleton never deliberately straying from fact but rather writing using what she refers to as the “historical imagination” (23). Three gaps or grey areas in the biblical text will be explored – Jezebel’s thoughts on marrying Ahab and moving to Israel, how Jezebel’s character would be perceived by those who do not oppose her beliefs, and whether or not Jezebel is a faithful wife.
The Bible says nothing about how young Jezebel feels about moving to Israel and marrying a man she has never met. The reader is introduced to Jezebel not in her own right, but rather as a minor character in the story of Ahab – it is almost a passing comment that “he took to wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Zidonians” (1 Kgs. 16.31). Her characteristics are hardly considered, let alone her personal thoughts. This is a very significant gap in the story, for surely before one can be condemned as “the ultimate figure of feminine evil” (Quick 44), the societal and emotional context in which they are operating must be considered. Even in modern retellings of Jezebel’s story, it is rare to see any mention of Jezebel’s feelings at the beginning of her biblical narrative.
However, Lesley Hazelton’s novel explores her internal workings in explicit detail. The story begins the night before Jezebel is to be crowned queen and officially become Ahab’s wife, and “she is not sure if this is something she wants or dreads” (Hazleton 27). The reader is told that Jezebel “has not slept through the night since she arrived in this landlocked kingdom” (Hazleton 26), that she felt like a “hostage of politics” (Hazleton 34), and that she was devastated to have been “cut off from the most sophisticated culture of her time, never to return” (Hazleton 28). Her new husband “seemed wild and savage, brutal compared to the smooth-skinned men of the Tyrian court” and “shocked Jezebel at first. Repelled her, even” (Hazleton 43). Already, her strength is showing – she resolves to “never let anyone know how much she misses” her home, Tyre. But the novel makes it clear that while she is strong, she is also a teenage girl who is alone, scared and homesick. This would almost certainly have been the case for the historical Jezebel, but the Bible is silent on the issue. Instead, all we initially know of Jezebel is how she relates to men – “the first thing we learn about Jezebel is her marriage to Ahab, and the second is her origin as a daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidon” (Dutcher-Walls 24). She is essentially presented as an object in their control, and in many ways she was in her society. Lesley Hazelton’s book communicates a much more sympathetic portrayal of Jezebel than the Bible, not by changing the facts, but by presenting the emotions and societal constraints that lie behind them. This demonstrates the importance of keeping in mind “patriarchal assumptions about the story” (Quick 44) when considering the character of Jezebel in the Bible and all the representations of her that have appeared in popular culture since. Jezebel was a complex human being who faced difficulties that were factors in all of the decisions that she made, and it is important to treat her as such.
When telling the story of a person, it is impossible to create a perfectly factual account of their life – choices about phrasing and omissions must be made, and these choices will have ramifications. This is particularly clear in 1 and 2 Kings, where the information given about Jezebel frames her in an immensely negative light. Given the reverence in which the Bible is held, “it is easy to forget that it was written by specific men in specific times and places, for specific reasons” (Hazleton 15). The authors of Kings wished to communicate that the collapse of the Kingdom of Israel was divine punishment for being unfaithful to YHWH. Jezebel, already a “femme fatale” and “other” due to her status a powerful and foreign woman (Scholz 117), was at the centre of this issue, and was the perfect person to blame. The authors of Kings “must have counted their blessings for her very existence. If she had never lived, they would have had to invent her. And in a way, they did” (Hazleton 18). This brings to light an interesting gap in the biblical narrative – if it is the product of those who were fiercely opposed to everything Jezebel stood for, how would those who are able to view her more objectively perceive her character?
The Bible makes it clear that Jezebel did have many followers, due to the mention of “the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kgs. 18.19). This is the only indication of support for her – on the whole, she is presented as purely evil. However, even in modern times of religious tolerance, where Jezebel can be viewed more objectively, it is rare to see positive depictions of her largely due to her specific acts outlined in the Bible. Catherine Quick writes that Jezebel was “a most wicked woman… so much so that even feminist readers of the Old Testament, who have quite eagerly and insightfully reexamined the stories of other Old Testament women, seem reluctant to deal with her” (44). There are two key acts that make Jezebel difficult to redeem. Firstly, she “cut off the prophets of the Lord” (King James Version, 1 Kgs. 18.4). There are multiple ways of reading this, and Jezebel did not necessarily kill any prophets, but it is widely accepted that she did. Secondly, she plotted the murder of Naboth, whose land her husband Ahab wanted – she “wrote letters in Ahab’s name… saying, Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people: And set two men, sons of Belial, before him, to bear witness against him, saying, Thou didst blaspheme God and the king. And then carry him out, and stone him, that he may die” (1 Kgs. 21.8-10). However, in Lesley Hazelton’s novel, Jezebel is cleared of both these crimes. When she ‘cuts off’ the priests, she is removing them from a treaty rather than ending their lives, and she is depicted as far too smart to have been to blame for the Naboth plot, thinking that “it would have been easier and far more elegant to produce forged papers” and that “only a rank amateur in the exercise of power would go about things so transparently” (124). It is made clear that “the fact that she was framed does not necessarily mean she was innocent” and that “she was no angel either” (Hazleton 20). But while she is not perfect, removed from the bias of Kings 1 and 2, Jezebel becomes a more realistic character, rather than merely the evil foil to Elijah’s righteousness in a biblical tale of morality.
The image of Jezebel as an evil woman that stems from 1 and 2 Kings has taken on a life of its own in popular culture in the three thousand years since the account was written. Today, the name is used by lingerie brands, a prominent sex-focused blog, and as an insult to suggest that a girl is sexually promiscuous. All this has occurred despite the fact that there is no mention of Jezebel behaving in a way that could be deemed sexually immoral in the Bible. She is called a harlot or whore, depending on the translation, just once, when Jehu says to Joram “what peace, so long as the whoredoms of thy mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many?” (2 Kgs. 9.22). However, this was never intended as a comment on her sexual behaviour – rather her “unwavering allegiance to the Phoenician deities of her homeland renders her a harlot in the judgment of some biblical narrators and later commentators” (Everhart 688).
If anything, Jezebel was a particularly loyal wife in the biblical account, as evidenced by her efforts to obtain land from Naboth for her husband. Lesley Hazelton’s book does not greatly differ from the Bible in this regard, although it does go one step further in redeeming Jezebel by explicitly stating that “she was the image of sexual fidelity to her husband” and “certainly never plays the harlot” (Hazleton 19). The novel also states that the reason Jezebel “put paint on her eyes and adorned her head, and looked through a window” (2 Kgs. 9.30) in the moments before her death was purely so that she could “exit boldly, every inch a queen” (Hazleton 186). This is an important addition because Jezebel’s application of make-up prior to her death can be interpreted as an attempt at seduction, and this of course connotes sexual immorality. The image of Jezebel as a harlot demonstrates the tendency to assume sexual women are bad women and vice versa, even today. However, it is still somewhat bizarre given the lack of evidence, and it reveals how Jezebel was seemingly able to do nothing right – her whole tale was “twisted into a sequence of negatives” (McKinlay 33) even in cases where she did follow the societal expectations of her time.
After considering the stories of the historical Jezebel, the biblical Jezebel, and the Jezebel in Lesley Hazelton’s novel, it becomes clear that there is not just one Jezebel – she becomes a different person in each of her many afterlives. However, it can certainly be said that on the whole she has been treated unfairly throughout history, for while she was not perfect by any means, neither was she the irredeemably “wicked woman” she has been framed as. She was always fighting a losing battle as a young girl in a patriarchal society where her firmly-held beliefs were considered sacrilegious, and her story was told by those who were against everything she stood for and wished to use her as a tale of morality. In the thousands of years since Kings 1 and 2 were published, her reputation has suffered further damage due to the unfounded, yet widespread modern perception that she was sexually promiscuous. But along with these false perceptions, it is at least fitting that a queen of such strength has remained an iconic character for so long. It has been three thousand years since the historical Jezebel died, but thanks to her many afterlives “her spirit cannot be repressed… courageous, unbowed, and magnificent, Jezebel lives” (Hazleton 224).
Dutcher-Walls, Patricia. Jezebel: Portraits of a Queen. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2004.
Everhart, Janet S. “Jezebel: Framed by Eunuchs?” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 72.4 (2010): 688-698.
Frost, Stanley B. “Judgment on Jezebel, or A Woman Wronged.” Theology Today 20.4 (1964): 503-517.
Hazleton, Lesley. Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2007.
McKinlay, Judith E. “Eve and the Bad Girls Club.” Hecate 33.2 (2007): 31-42.
Quick, Catherine S. “Jezebel’s Last Laugh: The Rhetoric of Wicked Women.” Women and Language 16.1 (1993): 44-49.
Scholz, Susanne. Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible. New York: T&T Clark International, 2007.