Spotlighting student work #18: A Murderous Messiah

EvaToday’s essay is from THEOREL 101/G student, Eve Greensill (pictured left!). Eva has chosen a fascinating topic, considering convicted killer Charles Manson as a ‘popular messiah’ figure. Here’s a little bit about Eva.

I’m from Taranaki, and moved to Auckland at the start of 2018 to study at the University of Auckland. I’m studying a Bachelor of Arts with majors in Psychology and Drama. I don’t have any definite goals for the future yet, I’d like to see what avenues my degree leads me to, and what passions I find through study. Over the course of my first year I’ve developed an interest in Eastern psychologies, and intend to travel to India after my degree to learn more. THEOREL 101 was hands down one of my favourite courses this year, I loved how the assignment and exam provided so much space to explore personal interests in relation to course material. I also really enjoyed how it challenged the way that I had thought about the bible and its place in pop culture.

Sit back and enjoy the read!

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Manson: Murder, Madness and… Messiahship?!

Eva Greensill

When considering contemporary messiahs in pop culture, many think of the heroic and widely adored figures such as Barack Obama, Harry Potter, or Ritchie McCaw. It’s easy to forget the dark underbelly of messiah-types in which people who do unspeakably horrific acts also exhibit an eerie number of the typical features by which we define our beloved heroic messiahs. One such ‘dark messiah’ is Charles Manson. Manson was a cult leader who rose to infamy in the late 1960’s after he was involved with nine murders. His beliefs were based on the biblical apocalyptic texts in Revelation, which he believed indicated an imminent race war between African Americans and white Americans. He also believed that the Beatles were prophets of this race war and named his ideology ‘Helter Skelter’ after a song from their ‘White Album’. Manson promised his cult, the Family, that they would be safe in the desert during this supposed war until the white Americans had been killed, and then the cult would emerge and rule over society. The important factors to consider when examining Manson as a popular messiah are the differing definitions of messiah between the New Testament and Old Testament, the application of the American monomyth, and the typical features of a popular messiah which can be applied to Manson.

This essay will be discussing Manson regarding the New Testament concept of messiah. However, it is interesting to consider how Manson can be viewed, or perhaps how he viewed himself, in relation to the Old Testament definition. A messiah in the Old Testament was a person anointed by God to be a political and military leader, as David was anointed by Samuel – “The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him… and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:12-13). To himself and to his followers, it is likely that Manson did fit the idea of a Hebrew messiah, as his ideology was politically grounded with strong beliefs around necessary war. Manson also claimed to have a unique understanding of the bible, and so despite not having been anointed by God in a literal manner such as King David, Manson’s supposed special relationship with God along with his political agenda does draw strong parallels to the Hebrew concept of messiah. The definition in the New Testament differs from the Old Testament, as the identification of Jesus as a messiah brought the idea that a messiah was a figure who brought spiritual salvation; a more abstract concept than the political salvation associated with Hebrew messiahs.

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Charles Manson at the time of his arrest

The American monomyth in relation to popular messiahs is based on the New Testament definition of messiah. The American monomyth as discussed by Jewett and Lawrence focuses on a community under threat, from which a messianic savior-figure arises to conquer evil and restore the community to safety (Jewett and Lawrence 2002, p.6). The American monomyth is mainly discussed regarding fictional superheroes, however, the concept can also be applied to real historical figures, as will be outlined in the case of Charles Manson. The creation of fictional heroes speaks to a deep societal yearning for a real savior to arise who can solve the problems faced by a community or nation at a certain point in time. For example, ‘Superman’ was first published in 1938, at the end of the Great Depression, while America was on the precipice of World War II. As Trimble wrote of the ‘Superman’ creators; “Growing up in one of the most difficult periods in American history, perhaps, to them, the only means of finding the promised American dream was through the intervention of a super-powered strongman” (Lang and Trimble 1988, p.160). When looking at Charles Manson, it is apparent that the 1960s were a time of political unrest, known as “a volatile era of social and political turbulence… The decade was characterized by emphases on psychedelic drug use, sexual exploration, racial equality, and activism through music…” (Altman 2015, p.3). It is highly plausible that such an environment created a longing for a messiah figure of the American monomyth to arise and ease the social unrest, in the same way that such a longing was present at the time of Superman’s creation. Therefore, the Manson Family’s view of Manson as such a figure is not implausible, as his ideology was one that promised social resolution. Manson did also cultivate this idea of him as a messianic figure, even going as far as to model himself as Jesus. Nielsen outlines how the Family developed an idea of Manson as a Christ-figure due to heavy drug consumption, during which Manson would reenact the crucifixion of Jesus (1984, p.323).

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Charles Manson arrives at the courthouse in Independence, California, on December 3, 1969.

In further analysis of Charles Manson as a messiah figure, it becomes clear that he does fit a majority of features attributed to contemporary messiahs by Jewett and Lawrence. These features are generally based off characteristics of biblical messiahs, or Jesus in particular. One such feature is unusual or unknown origins, which aligns with Jesus’ unusual birth to a virgin mother (Matt. 1:18-25). Manson’s childhood was unusual in the fact that it was a difficult one. His mother was fifteen when she gave birth to him and went to prison when Manson was only four. By thirteen, Manson had been involved in auto theft and armed robbery, which resulted in him being sent to juvenile detention for most of his adolescence (Arledge 2017). Another feature of a contemporary messiah which Manson can claim is that of being an ‘outsider’; somehow set apart from others. While Manson made it his mission to be surrounded by other people, he was set apart from them by his psychology; as a psychopath he would be unable to feel empathy or remorse.Therefore he could not truly connect with and relate to those around him, making him an ‘outsider’. Manson also shows the feature of rationalization of violence, as he justified the nine murders by claiming that it was necessary to start his imagined race war. Tex Watson, one of the Family members wrote in his autobiography that Charlie told them to commit murder to “do what blackie didn’t have the energy or the smarts to do – ignite Helter Skelter and bring in Charlie’s kingdom” (Watson 1978, p.67).

Additionally, Manson exhibits ‘extraordinary powers’, another feature of popular messiahs. However rather than supernatural powers, his abilities lie in his manipulation of people through his charisma and reasoning, which combined with the use of drugs, essentially allowed him to brainwash people. Furthermore, the messianic feature of thematic death and resurrection is apparent in how Manson promised his followers safety from the supposed apocalyptic race war. He told the Family they would escape to the desert during the war and live in the ‘bottomless pit’ from Revelation 9:1 – “a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit”. It is interesting that in theology, the ‘bottomless pit’ is commonly understood to refer to hell, and so perhaps Manson saw the idea of taking shelter in this pit as type of death. He also made his followers believe that once the African Americans were victorious, the family would emerge and rule the earth, which fits with the idea of resurrection. Another feature of a contemporary messiah which can be applied to Manson is the idea of a loyal band of iconic followers. Comparative to how Jesus had his disciples, Manson had his Family, many of whom would have been willing to die for him (Mark 3.13-19).

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Charles Manson, surprisingly short for such a ‘big’ personality

Another potential feature of a popular messiah that Manson could be argued to adhere to is that of remaining collected under pressure.  Even though Manson was renowned for exhibiting bizarre behavior during his trial and in subsequent interviews, it could be argued that this was an act for Manson to manipulate how the court and the rest of the world saw him, which would suggest that underneath all the insanity, he was in fact, collected. This idea is supported by how, even as a child, Manson would use similar methods to protect himself, something which he called the ‘insane game’ – “This ‘game’ consisted of Charles using noises, erratic gestures, rapid movements, and any other means at his disposal to convince potential threats that he was crazy and not worth their time” (Altman 2015, p.21). The only two messianic features which Manson does not fit is that of having a selfless passion for justice, and of renouncing sexuality and withstanding temptation. Objectively, Manson’s actions cannot be described as just in any righteous sense, and his use of drugs and sex were instrumental in the manipulation of his followers.

It is indisputable that Manson is a widely recognized figure in pop culture. His recent death has only served to cement the intrigue surrounding his life, and filmmakers are scrambling to capitalize on this and capture the essence of Manson on screen. However, Manson can not only be defined as a pop culture icon, but also as a contemporary messiah, in relation to both Hebrew and New Testament definitions, the American monomyth and by conventional features attributed to messiahs. This creates interesting reflections around human susceptibility to evil when it is masked by a charismatic leader, and just how far people can be willing to go to fulfil someone else’s vision. Manson was not the first messianic figure to use his power over others to commit unthinkable atrocities against others, nor unfortunately, will he be the last.

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Jeremy Davies presents us with a rather Christ-like Manson in 2004 movie, Helter Skelter

Bibliography

All references to the Biblical text are from the New Revised Standard Version

Altman, Robin, “Sympathy for the Devil: Charles Manson’s Exploitation of California’s 1960s Counter-Culture.” Undergraduate Honours Theses, University of Colorado (2015) https://scholar.colorado.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2017&context=honr_theses

Arledge., Roone, creator. “20/20 Truth and Lies: The Family Manson”. Aired 17thMarch 2017; USA, ABC Networks. Accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqL70yz65B4

Jewett, Robert, and John Shelton Lawrence. “The myth of the American superhero.”Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (2002).

Lang, Jeffrey S., and Patrick Trimble. “Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An examination of the American monomyth and the comic book superhero.” The Journal of Popular Culture 22, no. 3 (1988): 157-173.

Nielsen, Donald A. “Charles Manson’s Family of Love: A Case Study of Anomism, Puerilism and Transmoral Consciousness in Civilizational Perspective.”Sociological Analysis 45, no. 4 (1984): 315-337. doi:10.2307/3711297.

Watson, Charles (Tex), Chaplain Ray Hoekstra. “Will You Die for Me?”New York, Fleming H. Revell Co. (1978).

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Spotlighting Student Work #7: Basketball’s Chosen James

And now for something completely different–we have an essay about a sporting saviour by student Jamahlia Smith. This essay discusses basketball icon LeBron James and his role as a chosen one within the sport. We will let Jamahlia say a bit about herself.

I am Maori (Ngai Tahu), Pakeha, and Tongan. I’m in third year and double major in social anthropology and (mainly NZ) history. I plan to do a post graduate diploma in early childhood education and look forward to developing and participating in inclusive environments for young children. I took this paper as although I have explored religion across cultures, there was a gap in my knowledge of biblical texts. It has been eye-opening, and the course has created a passionate and inclusive learning environment.

Now for LeBron!
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King James – The Chosen One

Jamahlia Smith

The American Monomyth can certainly be seen in film and television, such as the current abundance of superhero movies (Lawrence & Jewett, 2002). However, messiah figures are not restricted to a world of fantasy – they also walk among us. Sport exemplifies secular devotion in the modern day. The National Basketball Association (NBA) is one of the biggest sites for fanatical devotion in the sports world. LeBron James plays in the NBA, and is one of the most well-known and followed figures in basketball today. In this essay I will demonstrate how James fulfils many of the characteristics of a modern messiah, drawing comparisons to Jesus – a biblical messiah. I will argue that James is a modern messiah in the sporting world by outlining his professional career. Furthermore, I will argue James is just as much a messiah off the court due to his participation in social justice, politics, activism, and charity.

Like many messianic figures, LeBron James’ origins were unusual in nature, and he was set apart from others at an early age. James’ mother was just sixteen at the time of his birth (Wahl, 2002). His early life was rough, as he moved frequently in the low socio-economic areas of Akron, Ohio (Wahl, 2002). James never knew his biological father, however in fourth grade he moved in with his basketball coach (Marsh, 2010; Wahl, 2002). James then flourished as a young man, both academically, and in sports. Similarities can be seen in James and Jesus’ early lives. In Matthew 1:18-24, Jesus is embraced by Joseph, a man who is not his biological father. As James grew older his divine, outsider status became apparent. Before starting his NBA career in 2003, the hype surrounding James was rising at a rapid rate (Marsh, 2010). At just seventeen years old, messianic language was used to describe James, as can be seen in the 2002 Sports Illustrated cover that positions James as “The Chosen One”:

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The young James. Full of energy.

Moreover, many in the sports industry assigned greatness to James. For context, Kobe Bryant was one of the biggest names in basketball in the late nineties through to the 2000s, and is hailed as one of the greatest players of all time. Adidas representative Sonny Vaccaro asserted “At this age LeBron is better than anybody I’ve seen in thirty-seven years in this business, including Kobe” (Wahl, 2002). Coach Jim Fenerty shared Vaccaro’s sentiments: “We played Kobe when Kobe was a senior, and LeBron is the best player we’ve ever played against. LeBron is physically stronger than Kobe was as a senior, and we’ve never had anybody shoot better against us” (Wahl, 2002). Positioning James as superior to Bryant before James had entered the NBA was huge, and nicely exemplifies the sensational nature surrounding James’ early career. Perhaps most importantly, James embraced his outsider status from a young age, this is demonstrated particularly well in his first tattoo that came shortly after his Sports Illustrated cover in 2002:

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And a really nice back, too.

In John 4:25-26, Jesus accepts his messiah status exclaiming “I am he”. James is most certainly not an apprehensive messiah figure, and I believe his first tattoo can be seen as a contemporary expression of “I am he”. James’ messiah status has evolved over time and in monolithic proportions as he entered the NBA and was given an international platform to flaunt his powers.

Notions of LeBron James’ extraordinary powers and divine competence come from his inherent talents, but have also been constructed through specific Nike marketing campaigns. Again, we can see James embracing a messianic identity, claiming extraordinary talents and the ability to remain ‘cool’ as can be seen in his Sports Illustrated article:

A lot of players know how to play the game, but they really don’t know how to play the game, if you know what I mean. They can put the ball in the hoop, but I see things before they even happen (Wahl, 2002).

This highlights James’ self-proclamation of physical prowess, but more importantly here is the claim of magical mental abilities (Billings & Mocarski, 2014). Nike played on these attitudes surrounding James, developing commercials that utilized religious iconography, and positioned James as a quasi-divine figure that should be worshiped. This is seen in two commercials: “Book of Dimes” and “Pressure”.

“Book of Dimes” is set on a basketball court that has been transformed to also resemble a church service. There is a podium in which ‘preacher’ Bernie Mac stands, with a gospel choir behind him. He preaches to the audience, not from the bible but from the “King James Playbook”. Mac reads: “Basketball’s chosen one asked the soul of the game for court vision, and it was granted to him”. The audience becomes increasingly excited. It is at this point LeBron James enters the ‘church’ – the audience rejoices, with singing and celebration:

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Holy crap

This commercial has obvious religious connotations. Firstly, Nike declares James ‘King James’ – attaching a religious narrative to James, with the King James Bible having influence in America (Billings & Mocarski, 2014). Further, the commercial assigns a clear messianic identity to James – James is positioned as an extraordinary individual, who deserves worship (Marsh, 2010).

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Rejoicing all around

This commercial has obvious religious connotations. Firstly, Nike declares James ‘King James’ – attaching a religious narrative to James, with the King James Bible having influence in America (Billings & Mocarski, 2014). Further, the commercial assigns a clear messianic identity to James – James is positioned as an extraordinary individual, who deserves worship (Marsh, 2010).

“Pressure” is less overtly religious, however it does present a modern messiah narrative by demonstrating LeBron James’ divine competence. The commercial depicts James playing his first NBA game. James is given the ball as the commentators exclaim: “talk about pressure, is he going to be able to handle it?” The crowd is loud and rowdy, awaiting action from James. However, he then freezes, staying still for around ninety percent of the one-minute commercial. The crowd grows silent, commentators whisper “talk about not being able to handle the pressure”.  Suddenly, James laughs and proceeds over the three-point line to take his shot. This commercial shows James’ ability to stay ‘cool’ in the face of pressure, both physically and mentally, fulfilling the criteria of a divinely competent modern messiah (Billings & Mocarski, 2014).

It is also of note that LeBron James’ career was on the rise when NBA legend Michael Jordan was retiring from professional basketball. Jordan’s departure from the NBA left a gap that needed to be filled – a Second Coming of Michael Jordan (Marsh, 2010). The 2002 Sports Illustrated article together with the two Nike commercials clearly demonstrate the American Monomyth narrative – James was born of unusual circumstances, was given an extraordinary gift, and divine competence, in order to restore faith in the NBA after Jordan’s retirement (Laurence & Jewett, 2002; Marsh, 2010).

I will now turn my attention to LeBron James’ divine competence off the court, exploring his selfless zeal for justice through social activism. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement arose from a rise in police brutality and racial profiling in America, which saw many young African American males killed by police (Coombs & Cassilo, 2017). James supports the BLM movement, demonstrating his black and white moral world that is driven by justice. This can be seen through various acts in social media, and also in real life:

 

In the first image James and his teammates wear the same clothing Trayvon Martin wore when murdered by police, highlighting problematic racial profiling. In the second image, James wears a shirt depicting the last words of Eric Garner before his death at the hands of police (Strauss & Scott, 2014). The clear message bought forth is that James stands in solidarity with victims of police violence. James supports the African American community, providing a platform to bring light to these issues. This highlighting of injustice through peaceful protest was recognized, most notably by Barack Obama who commented:

We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness. We went through a long stretch there where [with] well-paid athletes the notion was: just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves. LeBron is an example of a young man who has, in his own way and in a respectful way, tried to say, ‘I’m part of this society, too’ and focus attention (Westfall, 2014).

James’ activism is exemplary of the American Monomyth narrative – America is in a state of social crisis (racism, violence, political indifference), James attempts to deliver his community from evil through peaceful protest (Laurence & Jewett, 2002). Further, James’ careful approach to protest is reminiscent of Matthew 5:43-48 which stresses the importance of peaceful relationships, even with one’s enemies. James’ participation in social activism very much aligns him as a modern messiah. Moreover, the deliberate choice to focus on attention rather than aggression demonstrates James’ divine competence in relation to social justice (Coombs & Cassilo, 2017).

Sport offers hope for national and regional communities. Sports stars and teams often have a loyal band of followers. LeBron James fandom takes these notions to the next level. It is typical for fans to strongly support certain teams, with the athletes in these teams taking a secondary role. However, James’ fandom supersedes team supports and loyalty. Fans of James will follow him wherever he goes, the team in which he is in has become irrelevant. Further, these disciples look upon James in awe and as quasi-divine. This can be seen in Nike’s “Witness” campaign. This campaign involved a commercial in which fans express their undying admiration for James whilst wearing “witness” shirts. Nike then took fans notions of James, and constructed his image in billboard form:

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What a guy

This billboard depicts James in a Christ-like manner, with his arms extended. Moreover, this billboard is huge, demonstrating James’ larger than life status (Marsh, 2010). James fandom is not restricted to basketball. James has built a loyal following as a community leader and role model due to his social activism previously mentioned, together with his many charitable acts, including opening schools for disadvantaged children (Savvas, 2018). In this way, James is situated as ‘bigger’ than his position as an athlete, rather he is an empathetic messiah, whom should be witnessed and worshipped in all his glory (Billings & Mocarski, 2014).

LeBron James exemplifies the American Monomyth just as much as the fictional superheroes we watch at the movies. James fully embraces his identity – he has been on a messianic path since his unconventional childhood, and is assured he is made for greatness. James blurs lines between religion and pop culture through his career as an athlete. However, James is never limited to his on-court life. He transcends sports through his social activism and passion for justice. His devoted followers witness and admire his extraordinary powers both on and off the court.

 

Bibliography

All references to the Biblical text are from the NIV.

Bob Bob. (2008, May 14). Nike Basketbal: Witness – LeBron James Ad . Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbpAIAew2DY

Burfiend, G. (2014). All the King’s men. [online image]. Retrieved from http://web.colby.edu/ar120/2014/04/25/all-the-kings-men/

Coombs, D. S., & Cassilo, D. (2017). Athletes and/or activists: LeBron James and Black lives matter. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 41(5), 425-444. doi:10.1177/0193723517719665

Hughes, A. (2004). Book of Dimes. . Retrieved from http://www.believemedia.co.uk/work/allen-hughes-nike-book-of-dimes/

James, L. [kingjames]. (2012, March 24). #WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice . Retrieved from https://twitter.com/kingjames/status/183243305428058112?lang=en

Jewett, R., & Lawrence, J. S. (2002). The myth of the American superhero. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

LeBrecht, M. (2002). LeBron James SI Covers. [online image]. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/nba/photos/2007/06/07lebron-james-si-covers#1

Marsh, B. E. (2010). The Emperor and the Little King: The Narrative Construction of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2345/1322

Mocarski, R., & Billings, A. C. (2014). Manufacturing a messiah: How Nike and LeBron James co-constructed the legend of King James. Communication & Sport, 2(1), 3-23. doi:10.1177/2167479513481456

Savvas, L. (2018). LeBron James opens school for underprivileged children. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/sport/basketball/45018003

Strauss, C. & Scott, N. (2014). LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Nets players wear ‘I can’t breathe’ shirts before Cavs game. USA Today. Retrieved from https://ftw.usatoday.com/

Tony Ricks. (2006, May 14). Nike – LeBron James Pressure . Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rv3niQ-w3y0

Wahl, G. (2002). AHEAD OF HIS CLASS: Ohio High School Junior LeBron James is so Good that He’s Already being Mentioned as the Heir to Air Jordan. Sports Illustrated. (Feb 18. 2002). Retrieved from https://www.si.com/vault/2002/02/18/318739/ahead-of-his-class-ohio-high-school-junior-lebron-james-is-so-good-that-hes-already-being-mentioned-as-the-heir-to-air-jordan

Watson, T. (2014). 10 Of The NBA’s Most Tattooed Players. [online image]. Retrieved from https://www.vibe.com/2014/04/10-nbas-most-tattooed-players/vibe-nba-tattoo-lebron-james/

Westfall, S. (2014) President Obama: More Sports Stars Should Speak Out on Social Issues. People Magazine. Retrieved from https://people.com

February 2002 Sports Illustrated cover. Retrieved from LeBron James SI Covers by Michael LeBrecht, 2007, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 08, from https://www.si.com/nba/photos/2007/06/07lebron-james-si-covers#1

LeBron James’ ‘CHOSEN 1’ tattoo. Retrieved from 10 Of The NBA’s Most Tattooed Players by Terrence Watson, 2014, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 08, from https://www.vibe.com/2014/04/10-nbas-most-tattooed-players/vibe-nba-tattoo-lebron-james/

Stills from “Book of Dimes” Nike commercial. Retrieved from Believe Media by Allen Hughes, 2004, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 09, from http://www.believemedia.co.uk/work/allen-hughes-nike-book-of-dimes/

Tweet about Trayvon Martin. Retrieved from Twitter by LeBron James, 2012, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 09, from https://twitter.com/kingjames/status/183243305428058112?lang=en

“I can’t breathe” shirt. From LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Nets players wear ‘I can’t breathe’ shirts before Cavs game by Chris Strauss and Nate Scott, 2014, Retrieved 2018, Oct 09, from https://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/12/kyrie-irving-i-cant-breathe-t-shirt-before-cavaliers-eric-garner-lebron-james

“We are all witnesses” billboard. From All the King’s men by Grant Burfeind, 2014, Retrieved 2018, Oct. 09, from http://web.colby.edu/ar120/2014/04/25/all-the-kings-men/

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Student Spotlight #13: In the Name of Our Lord Beysus Christ

Today’s essay stays with our contemporary messiah theme, but looking at it a little differently. Rather than considering fictional characters in film and literature through the American Monomyth lens, today’s author, Emma Waymouth, considers the phenomenon of celebrity messiahs in popular culture, focusing in particular on the iconic figure of Beyoncé. Emma has lived in Auckland most of her life, and is currently studying for a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature and Psychology. She hopes to work eventually in mental health, focusing particularly on child health, and plans to begin volunteer work with Youthline next year. She is also looking forward to taking part in the University of Auckland’s 360º exchange programme in order to do part of her degree at the University of North Carolina. Emma took our Bible and Pop Culture course after a few friends recommended it to her, and she was interested to learn more about the subject.

This is an amazing essay – enjoy!

In the Name of Our Lord Beysus Christ: Beyoncé, Fandom and the Messiah figure

Emma Waymouth

BeyismBeyoncé, the mononymous pop star, is one of the most famous and recognisable people in the world. Due to her immense talent as an artist and performer, unrelenting work ethic and excellent construction of her public image; Beyoncé has amassed a fan base, known as the Beyhive, which worships her in a fashion that is almost religious. In my essay I will be exploring this claim by discussing the ways in which Beyoncé exemplifies Lawrence and Jewett’s (2002) criteria for a messiah figure, and how that coincides with celebrity theory; exploring the reverence the Beyhive show her; and finally, by exploring Beyoncé’s own religiosity and her resulting refutation of her divine elevation.

According to Pete Ward’s (2011) definition of ‘celebrity’, Beyoncé is a true celebrity as she is known by a mononym, and is highly profitable due to that name and the fame it is associated with. Although, she has also transcended that category, moving in to the realm of “pop icon” wherein Ward states that “a star has to become a religious figure, to develop their own personality cult and to recruit followers”. This theory of celebrity ties in closely with Lawrence and Jewett’s theory of the American monomyth, wherein they emphasise how this figure minimises the complexity of humans, creating a dream world in which “no humans really live”. Thus, the Beyoncé we interact with, both as celebrity and messiah figure, is simply a symbolic rendering of the ideal human.

 

Beyoncé as a Messiah

The most vital aspect of Lawrence and Jewett’s criteria is the possession of “extraordinary powers”. Beyoncé has consistently proven her talent in the realm of music, both in her ability to effortlessly sing her way through songs of varying genres, and in her holistic artistic vision as showcased in Beyoncé (2013) and Lemonade (2016). Her dancing and acting ability are also much respected. Beyoncé herself, in a video diary leaked to the public (Reekz DC, 2010) refers to her musical talent as a “gift” that “God has given” her. This conveys that she herself is just as aware of the power and sanctity of her ability as her followers are. This gifting from God could be compared to the gifting of a prophetic path He gave to the prophet Moses, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” (Jeremiah 1:4-9). A resulting sense of nervous inadequacy is also a similarity between Moses and Beyoncé.

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Beyoncé at the Grammys, 2017

The second criterion is that of “unusual origins”. In Beyoncé’s case this would refer to the way in which she was effectively bred for stardom. This manifested in the extensive training she undertook as a child, primarily in the form of singing lessons (Lopez, 2015); as well as competing in talent shows that she regularly won (UnbornSuperstar88, 2013). Once she eventually did achieve professional success with girl group Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé herself was still effectively a child being only fifteen years of age. This origin story posits her as one of the lucky few who not only have talent but also the dedication to succeed in the competitive entertainment industry.

beyAnother requisite of Lawrence and Jewett’s is that the figure remains ‘divinely competent’, something which is described as “deny[ing] the tragic complexities of human life”. This is an aspect of the messianic criteria that couples perfectly with the idea that superhuman infallibility is integral to the celebrity image. Something which Ward describes as celebrities representing “paradigms of the possible. As such they may be regarded almost as religious figures in that they present ideal forms of the self”. This manifests through Beyoncé’s carefully considered image, wherein she allows her art to speak for itself, giving few interviews and thus few chances to show weakness, or even ordinary human imperfection. Though, contrarily, relatability is also integral to celebrity, so there have been moments of vulnerability where Beyoncé has shared her struggles with miscarriage (Daily Mail, 2013) and unfaithfulness in a partner (Brennan, 2017). These admissions, and the way in which it has coloured her music, serve to humanise Beyoncé and allows fans to form a more intimate relationship with the star; this, in turn, contributes further to her elevation as a superhuman figure.

beygood-haitiAnother vital feature is that of a ‘selfless zeal for justice’. Beyoncé is involved in many philanthropic efforts; she heads her own charity called ‘Bey Good’ which the icon uses to fundraise for various relief efforts, support African-American students through a scholarship fund, and champion the achievements of women through regular blog posts featuring successful women and their stories (Beyoncé, 2017). She has recently, like Jesus the primary biblical messiah did in Matthew 14:13-21, returned to her native Houston to feed those who are without food due to hurricane Harvey. She has also routinely shown her support for the #BlackLivesMatter campaign by showing the hashtag during a video montage that paid tribute to the many Black Americans murdered by police in 2016(Peterson, 2016). She has also shown support to the mothers of these victims by having the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown appear in the Lemonade film.

The final criterion I’ll discuss is that of ‘renouncing sexuality’. This is part of the criteria as it removes the messiah figure from base human desire, elevating them above the animalistic urge. This is one aspect that Beyoncé does not fulfil, and the fact that she doesn’t is a powerful thing for her fans. Existing as a black woman in show business, Beyoncé has been scrutinised for her appearance and sexuality due to racist beauty ideals. Thus, the fact that she actively embraces and celebrates her sexuality in her music is powerful for her fans as it allows them to believe that they, too, could be (and are!) sexy and beautiful even if they don’t fit Eurocentric standards of beauty.

Coupled with these criteria for a messiah figure, Beyoncé also has a large fan following that shows her support and reverence, further casting her as a religious figure. These fans have congregated in to a fandom, described by Gray, Sandvoss and Lee Harrington (2007) as “a collective strategy, a communal effort to form interpretive communities”, meaning fandom could be interpreted as an active state of communal worship.

Fandom as Religious Worship

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Beyoncé’s fanbase, commonly referred to as the ‘Beyhive’, are another contributing factor to Beyoncé’s messianic elevation. Lawrence and Jewett refer to fandom as forming a “new form of religious community”; with Ward echoing Ellis Cashmore’s continuation of this notion, even going so far as to trace the root of the word ‘fan’ to the Latin ‘fanaticus’, meaning ‘of the temple’. Thus, through fandom Beyoncé is moved from the realm of the profane to that of the sacred. This manifests primarily through the use of religious language and imagery when discussing Beyoncé, as evidenced by the affectionate nickname, ‘Beysus Christ’, and a popular meme wherein Beyoncé’s head is photoshopped on to an image of the Virgin Mary. There are also various other memes wherein Beyoncé is referred to as a saviour of the people. This role of saviour is one that is prevalent within the Beyhive, with many fans purportedly claiming that Beyoncé saved them from poor self-image and from mental health issues such as depression (Hill, 2017). This healing is messianic in the way that Jesus, too, healed people; “Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them” (Matthew 12:15).

Due to the vocal nature of the Beyhive, the fandom’s reverence of Beyoncé is well known both publicly and by the star herself. Beyoncé is a highly religious woman, a practicing Christian who is devoted to God and has a large belief in prayer (The Jesus Network, 2017); thus, it is no surprise that Beyoncé does not wish herself to be seen as divinity. This resistance is showcased in the line, ‘God is God and I am Not’, that appears in Lemonade. The monosyllabic nature of the line portrays, rather blatantly, that Beyoncé does not wish to be viewed as a divine figure. Though, interestingly, she does not give a description of what she ‘is’ – perhaps, still, she is more than human. The importance of this sentiment is reinforced through the issuing of the latest Beyoncé merchandise where the line appears multiple times (Beyoncé, 2017).

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Conclusion

Celebrity is a construction that allows for, and encourages, an almost religious worship of a public figure. In keeping with Lawrence and Jewett’s theory of the monomyth, both phenomena require a certain dehumanisation of the figure in question. Beyoncé most definitely is a star that fulfils these criteria, as someone who has been elevated from the realm of the profane, garnering an almost religious sense of worship and adoration from her fans. She is both a true celebrity, and an almost messiah.

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 Works Cited

All references to Biblical texts are from the NRSV.

Beyoncé. (2017). BeyGood. Retrieved from: https://www.beyonce.com.

Brennan, A. (2017). Jay-Z suggests he really did cheat on Beyoncé. GQ. Retrieved from: http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/jay-z-cheated-beyonce

Daily Mail Reporter. (2013). ‘It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever been through’: Beyonce opens up about her miscarriage for the first time. The Daily Mail. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2271378/Beyonce-miscarriage-details-Star-opens-heartache-candid-interview.html

Gray, J. & Sandvoss, C. & Harrington, C. (2007). Why Study Fans? Fandom: Identities and communities in a mediated world. (pp. 1-16). New York, New York: NYU Press.

Hill, C. (2017). Beyoncé Saved A Fan From Depression, Because That’s What Beyoncé Does. Retrieved from: http://thesixthirty.com/ravefaced/beyonce-saved-a-fan-from-depression-because-thats-what-beyonce-does/

Lawrence, J. S. & Jewett, R. (2002). The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

Lopez, K. (2015). Meet the man behind Beyonce’s incredible voice: He’s looking for next big star. WGNO ABC. Retrieved from: http://wgno.com/2015/05/21/meet-the-man-behind-beyonces-incredible-voice-hes-looking-for-next-big-star/

Peterson, A. (2016). Beyoncé is a powerful voice for Black Lives Matter. Some people hate her for it. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/07/10/beyonce-is-a-powerful-voice-for-black-lives-matter-some-people-hate-her-for-it/?utm_term=.320892e96e20

Reekz DC. (29 December 2010). Beyonce – Why Did God Give Me This Talent (LEAKED). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O63dea1U33g

Rojek, C. (2007). Celebrity and Religion. In Redmond, S. & Holmes, S. Stardom and Celebrity: A Reader. (pp. 171-180).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

 

UnbornSuperstar88. (9 November 2013). Beyoncé at 7 Years Old Performing “Home”. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OeqgtpOYGU

Ward, P. (2011). Gods Behaving Badly: Media, Religion and Celebrity Culture. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Zeichner, N. (2016). Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown’s Mothers Made a Memorable Appearance in Beyoncé’s Lemonade. The Fader. Retrieved from: http://www.thefader.com/2016/04/24/beyonce-lemonade-michael-brown-trayvon-martin-forward-black-lives-matter

 

 

Student Spotlight #12: Harry Potter – GenZ Messiah

Carrying on our conversation around the pop culture figure of the ‘super-saviour’, today’s essay tackles one of the most popular figures to be identified as a modern messiah: Harry Potter. The author of this most fabulous essay is Saiyami Mehta, who is an Indian-born NZ student who has just completed her third year of study here at the University of Auckland. Saiyami is majoring in Geography and History, and plans to continue towards a PhD in environmental degradation and indigenous community involvement. She opted to do our Bible and Popular Culture course because she was intrigued to learn more about the Bible’s significance as a cultural text within contemporary contexts.

Saiyami has written a stellar essay here, focusing on J.K. Rowling’s novel series, so I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

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The trials and tribulations of ‘The Boy who Lived’: Harry Potter’s GenZ struggle with his messiah complex

Saiyami Mehta

The dichotomy between good and evil has been a pervasive aspect of literature for eons. The Bible itself constantly addresses the age-old difficulty of differentiating one from the other, imploring mankind to “be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil (Proverbs 3:7).” It is this persistent struggle between the two that in antiquity led to a requirement in humanity for a powerful emissary – a messiah, or saviour figure – that would lead them to political or earthly salvation. The crucifixion of Jesus however, led to a transformation in the status of a messiah as becoming a bringer of redemption. Originating from the Hebrew word mashiach, meaning “anointed or chosen one”, the term has consistently been used as a template for saviour-figures in pop culture texts. None however, have melded into the twenty-first century messiah-mould (as characterised by the American monomyth) as fluidly as Harry Potter. This essay addresses the unusual origins, eventual desire for vengeance, and resistance to temptations of The Boy Who Lived as he, often unwillingly, took up the mantle of super-savior in the wizarding world to face Lord Voldemort. Alongside this, there are parallels drawn between the characters and events of the Harry Potter books with the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus.

harry vs voldemort
Harry and Voldemort

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces led the discussion on the archetypal storyline for heroic exploits in time-honoured tales during the late 1940s, and till date sets the scene for the plot of any cultural texts’ heroes. The Campbellian monomyth asserts that the hero travels from his own world into one of otherworldly facets, encounters dark forces that require resistance, emerges victorious and returns as a super-saviour figure for his people (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, p.5). This structure vaguely fits the template for the Harry Potter books, but the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist, Lord Voldemort, is far more complex than what is established in the classical monomyth, and represents the values of the more contemporary American version. Harry’s origins for example, are shown to be tied very early on in the books with Voldemort, resulting in his orphan (and thus unusual) status. Similarities between the Bible and Harry Potter are consistently displayed in the text and movies, particularly with the presence of temptations.

(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
John Spencer, Eve Tempted (1877)

The Book of Genesis discusses the Garden of Eden, and how Adam and Eve, despite being warned, ate from the Tree of Knowledge, spurred on by the serpent, and as a result, “the eyes of both were opened (Genesis 3:1-7)”, meaning that they became aware of themselves and as such, incurred the displeasure of God. Temptations are frequently presented in front of Harry, often with Voldemort as the instigator. In The Philosopher’s Stone, Voldemort (through Quirrell) tempts Harry with promises of resurrecting his parents in exchange for the stone, asserting that “there is no good and evil. There is only power, and those too weak to seek it” (p.211). Harry, unlike Eve, rejects the temptation, thus establishing himself from the first book as a protagonist who willingly renounces mortal enticements for the greater good.

phoenixThat is not to say that Harry possessed the otherworldly level of renouncing his desires as other messianic characters like Jesus. Certainly, it can be argued that in many instances, Harry put his own desires over the well-being of others or himself, such as his period of visions regarding the Department of Mysteries in The Order of the Phoenix, where ultimately the combination of curiosity and urgency to save Sirius Black led to the latter’s death. Nevertheless, the overarching understanding of a messiah is that the trials and tribulations they face often hurt yet strengthened them for the ultimate task of fighting the ultimate evil (Neal 2007, p.108). The Bible habitually dwelt on this crucial aspect of a messiah’s character development, stating that the sufferer must “consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance (James 1:2-4).”

The eventual development of Harry’s messianic status is further cemented however, gobletthrough his continued renouncements of temptations in later books, such as in The Goblet of Fire when he gives his prize winnings to the Weasley twins (pp.635-6). Nothing could further cement his messianic quality of being above worldly desires however, than the statement Griphook makes vis-à-vis Harry’s character: “If there was a wizard of whom I would believe that they did not seek personal gain, it would be you, Harry Potter” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, p.394). This serves to show why Harry Potter can be granted the messianic status in the wizarding world.

The construct of social hierarchy provided a considerable support for how the wizarding world and Harry interacted. The creation of followers is a predominant aspect of a messiah figure, but in the case of Harry, the undertaking of the role as leader appeared to have persistently chafed. Interestingly, the decision to refuse the proverbial ‘call to greatness’ was made well before Harry had any capabilities to answer. When Sybil Trelawney prophesied that a child born at the end of July would be able to defeat the Dark Lord (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,p.741), Harry’s parents went into hiding until they were slain, which again hints at the digression taken by this messiah from the traditional path to greatness (Lytle 2013, p.29). This act of resistance of the title of leader remains a constant attribute hallowsof Harry’s innate nature, but by the final confrontation with Voldemort, Harry displays his messianic qualities by accepting that it has to be him. The gradual development of followers for Harry Potter provides further evidence of his messianic status in the wizarding world. This didn’t derive out of any quasi-divine powers on part of the protagonist; Harry’s entire existence indicated to many who studied or came into contact with him that here was someone who could bring about change. Ari Armstrong argues that it is Harry’s determination to keep his friends (and eventual followers) safe in all situations that ultimately generates faith in him amongst his peers (Armstrong 2011, p.52).

The Book of Exodus provides a similar account of Moses, who was disturbed by the treatment of his fellow Jews at the hands of the Egyptians, and began to lead them to the promised land, albeit unwillingly. Many parallels can be drawn between Moses and Harry, specifically their disinclination at becoming any sort of leader. Moses almost ceaselessly restates to God his inability to convince the Jews (Exodus 4:10-13; Exodus 6:9-12). Hermione has to explain to Harry why he is needed to start Dumbledore’s Army: “Harry, don’t you see? This… is exactly why we need you. We need to know what it’s really like facing him… facing Voldemort” (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, p.293). Harry’s courage is what eventually helps his followers and himself to gather and put their energies into following through with the plans constructed by Harry and Dumbledore, even if they don’t always see the benefits. Alongside this however, is the method by which Harry produced support for his cause during times of adversity.

In the Order of the Phoenix, Harry secretly gives an interview to Rita Skeeter about stoneVoldemort, inciting many, like Seamus Finnigan to conclude that “he believes him” (500-514). The American monomyth explains that the followers of the super-savior often consist of women who require a white dominant male to lead them, but the Harry Potter saga steps away from this idea and combine the formidable power and intelligence of many female followers of Harry (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, p.8). Both Ginny and Hermione prove time and time again both their loyalties to Harry and their own talents. Ginny stands up for him in the second book against Draco Malfoy, while Hermione has frequently aided the Chosen One with notes from classes. The overall argument therefore can be made that while the messianic figure of Harry Potter generated considerable support, despite his reluctance, there was not as much of a depiction of him as a sole leader, all pervasive and powerful, but rather a well-chosen hero who had followers that provided him with advice.

The contemporary figure of Harry Potter provided its generation with a figure that certainly showed messianic characteristics, but not one that attached itself completely to the template of the American monomyth. The trials and tribulations of The Boy who Lived served to show both Harry and his friends the fruits of resisting temptations, and this was a key aspect of his depiction as a messiah for the wizarding world. The fact that an eleven-year-old orphan was capable of putting aside hopes, even false ones, about meeting his lost parents in order to do what was right showed that while he may not have chosen to be raised on a pedestal and followed as a leader, it was this reluctance and keen sense of equality with his followers that perhaps made Harry Potter an effective messiah of a cultural text.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

All references to the Biblical text are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Armstrong, Ari. “Religion in Harry Potter – Do J. K. Rowling’s novels promote religion or undermine it?”. Skeptic Magazine Volume 17 Issue 1, December 2011.

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

Lytle, Amy. “Defense Against the Dark Arts: Harry Potter and the Allegory for Evil.” Honours Thesis, Regis University, 2013.

Neal, Connie, W. Wizards, wardrobes and wookiees: Navigating good and evil in Harry Potter, Narnia and Star Wars. InterVarsity Press, 2007.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997.

Rowling. J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000.

Rowling. J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007.

Student Spotlight #11: A Matrix Messiah

Continuing our theme of modern messiahs today, we turn to that fabulous classic movie, The Matrix, which intrigues not only moviegoers, but also theologians and scholars of religion, who have long recognized some fascinating engagement in the film with religious themes and tropes. One of our Bible and Popular Culture students, Minolie Rajapakse, spotted some connections between The Matrix and the American Monomyth, and wrote a marvellous essay about the film’s protagonist Neo as a modern messiah/supersaviour figure. Minolie hails originally from Sri Lanka, but has lived in New Zealand (Auckland) most of her life. She is doing a BA/BSc conjoint degree majoring in sociology and psychology. She hopes to pursue a career in psychology, particularly clinical psychology. Minolie took our Bible and Pop Culture course to discover some of the many ways the Bible influences pop culture and to learn more about the Bible’s stories and theologies.

So, whether you are a Matrix afficionado or not, we hope you enjoy Minolie’s fab essay.

Neo the great Messiah of The Matrix

Minolie Rajapakse

Matrix poster

Hollywood appears to have an obsession with ‘The American Monomyth’ culture, especially when it comes to religion. The American Monomyth allows for the portrayal of a hero in desperate times of need. These ideas may possibly stem from ideologies surrounding the bible, in particular with Jesus. This is arguably seen in the film, The Matrix (1999). The main protagonist Neo is an ordinary man who gets plunged into a computational world were machines rule and the previous known reality is rather a stimulation called the matrix. Neo can be viewed as a popular messiah figure because of his status of being “The One” in relation to his similarity to Jesus Christ. This is portrayed through his divine extraordinary powers, his representation as a saviour to his people embodying the American Monomyth superhero figure and lastly his purification through his death and resurrection.

The American Monomyth, as discussed by Jewett and Lawrence (2002), is a popular theme in thousands of movies; it frequently portrays, “a selfless superhero [who] emerges to renounce temptation and carry out the redemptive task”. The central protagonist has the sole ability to save the rest of humanity from evil. The heroic character often learns a greater knowledge and understanding about him/herself, which allows them to access their full power and abilities, allowing them to save their civilisation. With this storyline being represented numerously in films, it is often common to see the main protagonist being associated with biblical connotations such as being a divine saviour or messiah figure such like Jesus.

The Old Testament defines the messiah as “the anointed one” representing a holy or divine leader, elected and given authority for a specific task or reason (Bible Study Tools). Messiah figures come when times are desperate and a hero is needed. Arguably Neo can be seen as an example of this in The Matrix films as he is represented as a sacred and powerful man who is the only person capable of destroying the Matrix, giving him the status of being “The One”.

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Neo

Parallelism between Jewett and Lawrence’s (2002) characteristics of the American Monomythic hero having “extraordinary powers” is represented through Neo’s character. In the beginning of the film Neo is presented as a common human, going by the name Thomas Anderson who is plunged into a world of dystopia. He is taken outside of the Matrix reality aided by his mentor Morpheus, where he is rebirthed into “the real world” and is renamed Neo. Significantly Neo is an anagram for one, a clever play on words by the directors, the Wachowski brothers, to reinforce Neo’s almighty status. Morpheus initially tells Neo that he believes Neo is “The One”- the one who can destroy the matrix simulation and save humanity. Neo’s extraordinary powers are clear in an early scene where he and Morpheus have a fighting training session. It is obvious to the audience and the other characters in the film that Neo has strengths like no other; Neo’s ability to quickly and easily learn makes him a competent opponent to the advanced Morpheus, even allowing him to overpower Morpheus. One character even exclaims, “Jesus Christ he’s fast…way above normal”. These extraordinary powers and abilities elevate Neo to a messianic status as he continuously proves himself worthy thus embodying his title of being “The One”.

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Neo and Morpheus

Furthermore the final fight between Neo and Agent Smith (the film’s main antagonist) is a pivotal moment that depicts Neo as a messiah figure through his gifted extraordinary powers. This particular fight scene was considered legendary to cinematic viewers. This scene portrays Neo accepting his destiny and finally believing that he is “The One”. At that moment, his abilities are enhanced as he exhibits superhuman strength and power, which become unmatched compared to Agent Smith, and so Neo defeats him. Sutton and Winn (2001) note how commonly there is a representation of violence in the final confrontation between supersaviour and antagonist: “violence is an essential component of the monomyth.” This may act to reinforce ideas of power and strength which are typically associated with superheros and reinforces the final epic battle. Neo’s use of violence symbolises his extraordinary powers used for good, again epitomising him into a superhero/messiah figure as it reinforces his abilities and individuality compared to everyone else. I believe this makes him powerful and heroic in the eyes of others around him, reinforcing his special status as “The One”.

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Neo’s extraordinary powers

Neo’s representation in The Matrix can also be viewed as an allegory to Jesus Christ. For example, Paul Fontana (2003) writes that, “In ancient Israelite tradition there was an expectation that a great military leader would arise…this person was referred to as the messiah”. Furthermore he writes, “When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem the people hailed him as a king”. Arguably these parallels between Neo and Jesus reinforce Neo being a popular messiah figure, which is enhanced by Neo being “The One,” creating symmetry between him and Jesus. Moreover both Neo and Jesus displayed divine powers that made them seem of a higher celestial status compared to everyone around them. Neo’s extraordinary powers can be compared to that of Jesus’ miracles. In Matthew 9:1-8 Jesus performs the miracle of giving a paralytic the ability to walk again and in John 2:1-11:1 Jesus turns water into wine, again exhibiting divine extraordinary powers, which set him apart as an almighty individual, and a powerful messiah. These extraordinary powers and abilities resonate with the figure of a superhero, which idealises qualities such as mightiness, strength and confidence. These qualities are still deemed desirable in popular culture, which may be why Neo is arguably hailed as a popular messiah figure.

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Special powers and miracles

Neo’s portrayal as a messianic figure can also be exhibited through his representation as a self-sacrificing saviour – another criteria of the American Monomyth according to Jewett and Lawrence. In one scene, Neo meets with the Oracle, a wise woman whom the characters confide in to learn more about their future. The Oracle tells Neo that he is not “The One” and that a time will come when he will have to choose between saving his own life or the life of Morpheus. Later on in the film, Morpheus is captured by Agent Smith and is held hostage. Neo makes the brave decision to give his own life to save Morpheus, thus exhibiting his first sign of self-sacrifice and leadership. This saviour presentation is a common portrayal using the American Monomythic theme of a noble saviour stepping up and fulfilling his/her duty by making a sacrifice to save others. This representation of Neo also acts to categorise him as a selfless hero, a quality Jewett and Lawrence identify as being part of the American Monomyth.

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The Matrix

Arguably Neo’s selflessness resonates with the qualities of a messiah because it reinforces his devotion to help others, in this particular case Morpheus. Neo’s self-sacrifice to save Morpheus (as he thinks he has to die for Morpheus to live, as the Oracle prophesised) creates symmetry with the American Monomyth theme of sacrifice. Jewett and Lawrence discuss this in terms of redemption: “the combining elements of the selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others”. Thus again, Neo can be viewed as a popular messiah figure because of this quality; his selflessness defines him as a saviour.

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Morpheus

Neo’s sacrificial role in the film is enhanced through his death and resurrection, which ultimately represents a form of purification and enlightenment for his character. In the film, after rescuing Morpheus, Neo is still trapped in the matrix, left alone to fight Agent Smith. However as Neo is just about to escape, he is shot multiple times and dies. Back in the real world, Trinity declares her love for Neo and kisses his body, representing the kiss of life. Neo then takes a breath and wakes up, symbolising his acceptance of his status as “The One”. He is then able to see the Matrix and its manipulations and has the ability to control it, becoming all-powerful. He becomes purified through his strength and power and destroys Agent Smith. Rising from the dead and fulfilling his destiny and fate to help others ultimately reinforces Neo’s messianic status. His death and resurrection can be compared to that of Jesus’, as both died trying to save others – Neo for Morpheus and Jesus for the sins of humanity. Furthermore a similarity is seen between Neo and Jesus in terms of how both of them first encounter women when they are resurrected from the dead (Milford 2010). Neo first sees Trinity watching over him and Jesus meets Mary Magdalene according to the Gospel’s of Mark 16:9 and John 20:14. These similarities aim to reinforce the resemblance of Neo to Jesus, thus outlining Neo’s own representation as a messiah who dies but is then resurrected. After their resurrections, these two messianic figures appear to become purified and enlightened, through recognition of their status as “The One” and also through the love and loyalty of their followers.

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Trinity kisses Neo back to life

One reason why Neo became such a popular messiah figure is because, by embodying the American Monomythic hero, he becomes a role model for the way some viewers would want to be themselves, someone they admire. Neo is selfless and brave in a frightening world, where computers and machines basically control the known reality. This would have been a very topical subject back in 1999 when the film premiered, as technology was beginning to boom and was changing society, which raised many anxieties within the general population. As Lang and Trimble (1988) suggest, “The hero came to represent the needs of the masses”. Blizek (2011) also notes that people turn to religion in times where there is worry or hardship, thus “religion reassures us in times of trouble”. Thus perhaps Neo came to represent a powerful saviour and hero amidst the culturally growing uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the future of technology (Szollosy 2017). Neo offered audiences a human saviour who could protect them from the dangers of technology. Thus he was morphed into a cultural messiah figure becoming a character people could relate to and identity with.

It is clear to see how Neo from The Matrix embodies the messiah figure as he is depicted as having similar characteristics as both the American Monomyth ‘supersaviour’ figure and Jesus. Neo’s extraordinary powers and abilities portray him as an almighty and powerful being, elevating him to a divine status (‘the One’) compared to others around him. His illustration of being a sacrificial saviour for his civilisation reinforces his selflessness and devotion to others, and his death and resurrection act to purify and enlighten his divine being. These portrayals of Neo, aim to epitomise him as a powerful messiah in a dark dystopian future, perhaps to reinforce that there will always be a hero, a saviour, a messiah to help and guide others and save the day even in the most terrifying moments or times.

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References

References to the Bible are taken from the NRSV edition.

BibleStudyTools. Messiah. Retrieved from         http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/messiah/

Blizek, W. L. (2011). Finding Religion in Film: A Methodology for Religion and Film Studies. International Journal of the Humanities9(7).             http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=eb6bea1d-2a50-4f4a-947a-   9bfc560b850c%40sessionmgr120&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=91798207&db=hlh

Fontana, P. (2003). Finding God in The Matrix. In G. Yeffeth (Eds.), Taking the red pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in The Matrix (pp. 159-184). United States of America: Independent Publishers Group

Jewett, R., & Lawrence. S. J. (2002). In R. Jewett & J. S. Lawrence (Eds.), The myth of the American Superhero (pp. 3-8, 47-48). Retrieved from             https://content.talisaspire.com/auckland/bundles/5966d92d646be02ae4    496124

Lang, J. S., & Trimble, P. (1988). Whatever happened to the Man of  Tomorrow? An examination of the American monomyth and the comic book superhero. The Journal of Popular Culture22(3), 157-173. doi: 10.1111/j.0022-3840.1988.2203_157.x

Milford, M. (2010). Neo-Christ: Jesus, the matrix, and secondary allegory as a       rhetorical form. Southern Communication Journal75(1), 17-34.             http://www.tandfonline.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/doi/abs/10.1080/10417940902780686

Silver, J. (Prod.), Wachowski, A,. & Wachowski, L. (Dir.) (1999). The Matrix  [Motion picture]. United States of America: Village Roadshow Pictures

Sutton, D. L., & Winn, J. E. (2001). “Do We Get to Win This Time?”: POW/MIA Rescue Films and the American Monomyth. The Journal of American Culture24(1‐2), 25-30. doi: 10.1111/j.1537-4726.2001.2401_25.x

Szollosy, M. (2017). Freud, Frankenstein and our fear of robots: projection in our cultural perception of technology. AI and Society, 32(3), 433-439. doi 10.1007/s00146-016-0654-7

 

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

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

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

game-thrones-daenerys-her-dragons-gifs

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

by

Joanna Fountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

game-of-thrones-season-3-episode-10-mhysa-daenerys

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Bibliography

All references to biblical texts are taken from the NIV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Spotlighting student work 1: Rugby as Religion

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

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

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

Rugby, Religion, Richie and Redemption

By Ben Fulton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Sir John Kirwin
Sir John Kirwin

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

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

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

Endnotes

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

References to the Bible are taken from the NRSV