Student Showcase #6: The prophetic voice of Kendrick Lamar

Today’s student essay is another treat – like some of the other essays I’m sharing, it discusses the ways that certain contemporary figures appear to fulfill some of the same roles as the biblical prophets. Our author is Eddie Mataele, who is studying for a Bachelor of Arts here at the University of Auckland, majoring in Sociology with a minor in Pacific Studies. Eddie hails from Tonga, and currently lives in the Mangere district of Auckland. Once he completes his degree, he hopes to put it to good use working in the social and public sectors. Eddie took our Bible and Popular Culture course to meet his General Education requirements, and enjoyed the creative freedom offered by the assignments.

So, for all Kendrick Lamar fans out there (and everyone else too), sit back and enjoy the prophetic potential of this most fascinating musician.

kendrick brooklyn

Wickedness or Weakness? The Prophetic Role of Kendrick Duckworth Lamar

Eddie Mataele

Music can be used as a refuge from the cruel and haunting realities of life. On the other hand, it can also be a powerful platform for an artist to describe and express these realities into a stimulating, euphoric, and somewhat controversial masterpiece. Kendrick (Duckworth) Lamar (born June 17, 1987) is an African-American rapper, songwriter, and recipient of seven Grammy awards; whose music has conveyed his innocence, triumphs, trauma, and tragedies while growing up in the notoriously dangerous streets of Compton, Los Angeles. The dominant themes found in majority of his music catalogue is his critique of oppressive social structures, violence of gang culture, and his connection with God (Graham, 2017). Kendrick Lamar produced music that defends the rights of disenfranchised communities in USA and uplifts the voices of troubled youths, while openly conveying his personal experience with God, fame, wealth, poverty, violence, pride, fear, and more (Faraji, 2016). Similarly, ancient prophets found in the Bible also share these features.

According to Marcus J. Borg (2001), prophets are an ally of social justice, challenge the status-quo, empowers oppressed people, and protects the hope of a brighter future. The clear difference between ancient prophets outlined in the Bible and Kendrick Lamar is the cultural context/setting they are situated in. However, Kendrick shares similar biblical prophetic behaviour with ancient prophets such as Jeremiah, in that both figures openly voices their condemnation against the injustices caused by those in power (Fischer, 2015). Subsequently, this essay will aim to deliver a comprehensive analysis which supports the belief that Kendrick Lamar is a biblical prophet.

A key element of a biblical prophet outlined by Borg (2001) is their passion for social justice and serving the interests of the oppressed and disenfranchised communities. Specifically, Borg mentions the concept of “prophetic energizing”, which revolves around a prophet communicating with the oppressed, utilizing language that promotes hope , defends their identity, and rejoices in creating a brighter future (Borg, 2001). The prophet Isaiah declared messages of prophetic energizing to encourage Jewish people to believe in justice, hope, and God when they were exiled from Jerusalem and Judah by Babylonians in 586 BCE by using uplifting language:

“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace. The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands”

(Isaiah 55: 12)

south-park-kendrick-lamar-humble-00 These are some other aspects of the biblical prophets (and biblical texts more widely) which resonate with the music and impact of Kendrick Lamar, albeit in a darker and more aggressive manner. This is illustrated in his album “To Pimp A Butterfly” where he addresses issues suffered mainly by African-Americans. In alright”, Kendrick aggressively attacks white supremacy and police brutality while simultaneously glorifying the importance of developing strength from these struggles and express his faith in God. In short, he encourages his audience to find hope in the struggles they face, as it gives meaning to their inner-strength:

Hard times like, God! / Bad trips like, Yeah! / Nazareth, I’m f**ked up/ Homie, you f**ked up/ But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright”

The song also highlights the frustration and pain Black people in America are accustomed to because of the injustices committed by the police disproportionately killing unarmed African-Americans:

“Wouldn’t you know/ We been hurt, been down before/ N*gg*, when our pride was low/ Lookin’ at the world like, ‘Where do we go? / N*gg*, and we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’/ N*gg*, I’m at the preacher’s door/ My knees getting’ weak, and my gun might blow/ But we gon’ be alright”

kendrickKendrick creatively describes the historical and relentless pain of being Black in America as severely debilitating. However, he counters it by claiming it will not erase the hope of self-empowerment and fighting for social justice which he expresses by continuously shouting “we gon’ be alright”. The impact of this song and its powerful lyrics has transcended music and entered the domain of social and political activism. Black Lives Matter activists draw strength and solidarity by chanting the lyrics we gon’ be alright during their peaceful protests against police brutality. Kendrick’s live performance of the song angered highly conservative and narrow-minded FOX News presenters who argued that a music genre (Hip Hop/Rap) has created more damage than racism among young African-Americans (Media Matters, 2015). Kendrick was thus effective in challenging the status-quo upheld by dominant systems of power, which regularly silence dissident voices of the oppressed (Faraji, 2016). Ultimately, the song “alright” was one of many in this album which advocated for social justice and served as a source from which African-Americans could draw strength, hope and unity.

kendricklamarhumble-1493061968-compressed

Marcus Borg (2001) also suggested that biblical prophets are representatives of God or individuals who know God. This is not implying that biblical prophets are divine individuals, but rather indicates that prophets are individuals who believe in God’s teachings and deliver these teachings in a distinctive and influential manner (Borg, 2001). These too are features of a biblical prophet personified by Kendrick Lamar. His most recent album “DAMN.” comprehensively expresses his fears about his potential to be led to damnation (condemned by God to eternally suffer in Hell); to overcome this fear, he must first acknowledge it (Yoh, 2017). This is highlighted in the lyrics of his song “FEAR”:

“I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ loyalty from pride/ ‘cause my DNA won’t let me involve in the light of God/ I’m talkin’ fear, fear that love ain’t livin’ here no more/ I’m talkin’ fear, fear that it’s wickedness or weakness”

Moreover, Kendrick references the commandments and statues written in the book of Deuteronomy 28, and delivered to the Israelites by the prototypical prophet Moses. Through these references, Kendrick ponders whether his previous acts of disobedience stemmed from his own wickedness or inner weakness (Yoh, 2017). From living in a gang-infested city ripe with violence and drugs, family members who were pimps and gang bangers, to suffering deep mental and spiritual stress due to his riches and fame, Kendrick’s world was filled with madness and chaos.

These experiences could drive a person towards a path of destruction. Kendrick likens his own suffering in this chaotic world to the curse bestowed upon Israelites, outlined in Deuteronomy 28. This suggests he believes it is in his (self-proclaimed Israelite) DNA to flourish in temptation and sin (Yoh, 2017). However, he overcomes the fears of succumbing to a destructive future by acknowledging his fears and trusting God’s wisdom. His greatest fear is that he could lose all his financial, social, and spiritual riches due to basking in earthly pleasures and not fearing God (Yoh, 2017). Less focus is placed on the joy of God and more emphasis is awarded to the fear of God. Consequently, he implies that people should fear God because the blessings bestowed upon them can also be swiftly removed from their lives by God.

KLThe story of Job shares a few similarities with the story told by Kendrick Lamar. Job was a wealthy family man who was a staunchly obedient follower of God’s teachings but suffered unbelievable cruelty in the face of servitude, because God wanted to discredit Satan’s claim that Job is good only because God rewards him (Crook, 1959). Thus, Job was subjected to unbelievable suffering and pain. However, Job found meaning instead of despair in those dark moments. He gained humility, a refined perspective of God’s grace and a deep fear of God. At the end, God rewarded Job by restoring double of what he lost, which promotes the critical message that fearing God and trusting his wisdom will result in righteousness and salvation (Crook, 1959). Thus, Kendrick recognises the blessings he enjoys now were delivered by God and he fears that God can also take it all away because of his inner-weakness/wickedness.

In conclusion, Kendrick Lamar confronts his fears in order to overcome it and through this process he develops a deeper connection to God. In saying this, he also promotes the message of giving hope to yourself in times of tragedy and injustice, as it will develop greater inner-strength and self-empowerment. His music provoked intense solidarity among African-Americans protesting cruel injustices imposed on their community which reflects a core element of a biblical prophet suggested by Borg (2001). Moreover, he utilises his influence and power as a famous artist to convey his experiences with God and the influence it has had on him. Kendrick Lamar’s storytelling in his music empowers the narratives of the oppressed, fights systemic injustice, and expresses his deep belief and fear of God. Thus, he aligns with these aspects of a biblical prophet emphasised by Marcus Borg (2001).

Kendrick-Lamar-LA-1435711517
Kendrick Lamar in the video to ‘alright’

References

Borg, M. J. (2001). Reading the prophets again. In M. J. Borg (Ed.), Reading the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally (pp. 111-144). San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Crook, M. B. (1959). The Cruel God: Job’s search for the meaning of suffering. Boston: Beacon Press.

Faraji, S. (2016). Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance points to a simple truth: #Black lives matter when Africa matters . Africology: The journal of pan African studies, 3-6.

Fischer, G. (2015). Is there a Shalom, or not? Jeremiah, a prophet for South Africa. Old Testament Essays, 351-370.

Graham, N. (2017). What slaves we are: narrative, trauma, and power in Kendrick Lamar’s roots. Transition, 123-132.

Lamar, K. (2015). Kendrick Lamar Alright. Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-48u_uWMHY

Media Matters. (2015). Fox’s Geraldo Rivera: “Hip-Hop Has Done More Damage To Young African-Americans Than Racism In Recent Years”. Retrieved October 13, 2017, from https://www.mediamatters.org/video/2015/06/29/foxs-geraldo-rivera-hip-hop-has-done-more-damag/204195

Piffin, B. (2015). Police harassment leads to crowd singing Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”. Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUC_DOhfzwQ

Yoh. (2017). ‘DAMN.’ Decoded: Kendrick Lamar’s Album is About Breaking the Curse of Disobedience. Retrieved October 13, 2017, from http://djbooth.net/news/entry/2017-04-14-kendrick-lamar-damn-decoded

References from the Bible are taken from the New Internationl Version

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Student Showcase 3: Fishnets, Fetishes, and Faith – Religious Themes in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

From yesterday’s focus on the Bible and politics, we move to a most fabulous essay that considers religious and biblical themes in cult musical, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The piece is written by another student from our Bible and Popular Culture course, Kate Bodger, who hails from New Zealand and is studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and Classics. Kate doesn’t know what the future holds for her, but she hopes that it involves art, writing and traveling. She has always found religion fascinating even before she started going to church, and loves exploring its relationship to our everyday lives and culture. So she decided to take a few TheoRel papers as part of her degree, which she confirms was “an altogether good choice” as it meant she could put her excessive viewing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show to some use. Enjoy!

Rocky Horror poster
Images taken from TRHPS, dir. Jim Sharman, 20th Century Fox (1975)

Religion in Fishnet Tights

The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Religion

Kate Bodger

Ordinarily it would be easy to dismiss The Rocky Horror Picture Show (TRHPS) as having little in common with Christianity. But TRHPS dismisses the ordinary, and this 70s hit actually has numerous religious ties. The way fans have built such a following around the film makes it seem like its own seductive faith. Within this religion stands Dr. Frank n Furter, a contemporary messiah, saving those who feel like outsiders. In contrast to this a look inside the text exposes a different Frank n Furter who resembles more of a subverted bacchic messiah, bringing about the fall of humanity. It is clear that this midnight horror is not just dripping with blood and sex, but also religion.

TRHPS has spawned a particular following that can be likened to that of a religion. Popular culture can be seen as a religion when it displays parallels in form and function (Forbes 2005, p.15). TRHPS clearly mimics the form of a religion with the various traditions that have been created around the film. Audiences adorn the appropriate attire, fishnet tights and high heels, and head to their chosen place of worship, the cinema, to engage in various rituals, song, and dance. Fans of TRHPS do not just watch the film, they interact with it. Call and response techniques, just like in a Sunday mass, are used by the audience as they speak to the characters on screen. During the time warp audiences do the pelvic thrust with the Transylvanians, worshipping through song and dance.

timewarp gif

Props are also used with the audience throwing rice at the wedding scene, these props symbols of the Rocky-Horror-faith. TRHPS has birthed its own set of rites and routines, much like a religion. ‘Virgin Sacrifices’ are even a tradition with new comers or ‘virgins’ being initiated into the Rocky Horror family through challenges, or sometimes a pledge. This tradition references a sacrifice, something associated with appeasing or thanking a deity. These ‘virgin sacrifices’, also tie in with modern churches as they can be viewed as contemporary altar calls, or baptisms, with the ‘virgins’ saying goodbye to their old selves with this proclamation of faith. The crazy spectacle of TRHPS has led to it being described as a religious experience, and one writer called themselves “a true believer” (Berman 2015) after their first Rocky Horror experience. Aside from form TRHPS also mimics religion in terms of function. The enticing excitement of the cult classic has created its own community with a sense of security for outsiders and the marginalized. And at the center of this safe community is TRHPS’s very own seductive and sexy savior.

Frank 1
Frank n Furter

TRHPS attracts many outsiders, there is something welcoming about being told to be confident, and let go of any worries. The community that surrounds this cult classic feel they have been ‘saved’, in the sense they have been given a place where they can be themselves and gain a sense of freedom. The main figure revered in this community is the sweet transvestite himself; Frank n Furter. Frank n Furter has become a cultural icon, telling people to love themselves with an I-am-going-to-do-me-while-being-proud-and-loud attitude. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” (O’Brien and Sharman 1995) is one of Frank n Furter’s entry lines onto screen. The absurdity of the whole film and the fantastical escape the audience is taken on is mostly directed by Frank n Furter himself, being the king, or perhaps God, of his respective castle. Fans herald him as their savior from normalcy and the judgments of life. This liberation and acceptance also includes social justice, and a commitment to justice is one characteristic of a modern messiah figure (Reinhartz 2011, p.431).

RHPS laverne poster
Laverne Cox in the new TRHPS

TRHPS was released in 1975, and pushed the boundaries of its time with its sexual freedom and gender fluid identities. The cult classic became especially popular within the LBGTQA+ community. Laverne Cox who played the contemporary messiah in the new remake (2016) remarks, “After I saw Rocky Horror for the first time, it became a turning point in my life. It’s part of what gave me the courage to truly transition” (Baysinger 2016). And a gay fan has written about the experiences of “having two very special men come into [their] life” (Townley 2011), one being Jesus, and the other Frank n Furter, and in the course of the article Frank n Furter does more of the blessing and saving. Frank n Furter has not revolutionized queer rights, but he has become an icon for many who feel they are different, with TRHPS allowing a space for people to feel free from societal norms. The way Frank n Furter is heralded as such a symbol of sexual freedom and acceptance makes him the modern messiah of this contemporary religion. This interestingly is juxtaposed in contrast with the Frank n Furter’s character inside the film, who is more related to hedonism and havoc.

Frank gif

When we look at the Frank n Furter inside the film we are presented with a man with a very hedonistic lifestyle, who likes to manipulate and control others, a man who is both a murderer, and a cannibal. This Frank n Furter juxtaposes with the heralded figure mentioned earlier, making him a subverted messiah. Frank n Furter plays the role of a bacchic devil, “a postmodern, gay version of the god Dionysus, followed by his intoxicated Maenads” (Aviram 1992). In fact, the story of his hedonism influencing Brad and Janet, mimics the biblical story of the fall of humanity, where the serpent tricks Eve and then Adam into eating from the tree of good and evil (Genesis 3).

Brad and Janet
Brad and Janet, with Magenta and Riff Raff

The plot of TRHPS shadows this storyline, we have Brad and Janet, a perfect, clean cut couple, representing Adam and Eve, and Frank n Furter as the serpent, who offers them each a taste of the forbidden fruit, or sex. Janet is even ‘corrupted’ first, paralleling the biblical story with Eve being the first to eat the fruit. Their indulgence becomes a turning point as eventually both Janet and Brad are shown to be completely overwhelmed by desire in the floor show. The overarching story of TRHPS replicates the original sin, or the fall of humanity. And inside it Frank n Furter is the slithering snake that whispers and suggests; “give yourself over to absolute pleasure” (O’Brien and Sharman 1995).

Rocky and Frank
Frank and Rocky

Frank n Furter as a subverted savior is also highlighted through some of the film’s religious references. Rocky is brought to life by Frank n Furter. Not only is Frank n Furter elevated to god-like status by creating life, but he is paralleled with God as he sings “in just seven days, I can make you a man” (O’Brien and Sharman 1995). When biblically it took God seven days to create the universe (Genesis 1-2). However Frank n Furter does not see Rocky as his child, or his creation, but rather he made Rocky to satisfy sexual desires, as Frank n Furter sings in Sweet Transvestite, “he’s good for relieving my tension.” This subverted and perverse presentation of creation is again implied with a picture of Michel Angelo’s The Creation of Adam displayed on the floor of the pool, where Frank n Furter leads the way to hedonistic indulgence.

Frank with 2 women
Frank the great creator of life

The birthday dinner scene in TRHPS can also be seen as an inverted biblical reference. In the Bible Jesus said “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” (John 6:54). This dinner scene can be viewed as a twisted version of Jesus’ words and actions where the bread symbolized his body and the wine his blood (Dika 2003, p.113). Here Frank n Furter actually serves Eddie’s flesh and blood, and this particular scene is introduced by the criminologist with a picture of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in a book open behind him. The character of Frank n Furter presents itself as a seductive, serpent, and this begs the question how that is compatible with his alter-ego of the liberating messiah-like figure. It seems that TRHPS satirizes fears of the LGBTQA+ community, using the absurdity of the film to mock those who thought that anyone queer was a sex-mad alien sent to corrupt humanity. Meaning that Frank n Furter’s corruption as a character, makes him more of a savior-like figure.

birthday gif

TRHPS has become its own religion. A contemporary faith that is staying strong for a new generation of outsiders. The new Sunday best comes with fishnet stockings and bright red lips, and amazing grace has been replaced with Sweet Transvestite for worship. Frank n Furter sits on his throne at the head of this religion, as both a figure for the marginalized, and a character who mocks 70s homophobia through his devilish ways. All in all TRHPS presents itself as a religion of terrible thrills…

Frank B&W

 

Bibliography

References to the Bible are taken from the NRSV edition

Aviram, Amittai F. “Postmodern Gay Dionysus: Dr. Frank N. Furter.” Journal of Popular Culture 26, no. 3 Winter, 1992

Tim Baysinger. How Laverne Cox made Dr. Frank n Furter her own on Fox’s Rocky Horror Picture Show re-make. The Hollywood Reporter, 20/10/2016, accessed 3/10/2017, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/laverne-cox-foxs-rocky-horror-939846

Berman, Judy. We Live in the World ‘Rocky Horror’ Created. Flavorwire, 25/09/2015, accessed 3/10/2017, http://flavorwire.com/539534/we-live-in-the-world-rocky-horror-created

Dika, Vera. Recycled culture in contemporary art and film: the uses of nostalgia. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 2003.

Forbes, Bruce David. ‘Finding religion in unexpected places’ in Religion and popular culture in America ed. Jeffrey H. Mahan (University of California Press: 2005) 15

O’Brien Richard and Sharman, Jim. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Directed by Jim Sharman. 20th Century Fox, 1975.

Reinhartz, Adele. ‘Jesus and Christ figures’ in The Routledge companion to religion and film ed. John Lyden. Routledge: USA and Canada, 2011.

Kevin Townley. There is a light that never goes out. Rookie, 10/03/2011, accessed 20/09/2017 http://www.rookiemag.com/2011/10/rocky-horror-townley/

Student showcase 1: The Devil’s in the Detail

As in previous years, we are taking time throughout December to showcase some of the wonderful work done by our students in Auckland TheoRel. Starting us off today is Brittany Jacobsen, who took our most popular course, The Bible in Popular Culture (THEOREL 101G).  Brittany hails from Auckland and is working towards a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Classics and Anthropology. Her future plans include studying Classics at postgraduate level, hopefully at a University in either Athens or London. She took THEOREL 101G because it sounded so interesting and reassures me that it has been one of the best courses that she has taken so far in her degree (we aim to please). So read on and enjoy Brittany’s essay, which looks at the biblical figure of Satan, as represented in that most charismatic of TV anti-heroes, Lucifer Morningstar.

lucifer 1

Is Lucifer Really Satan? Satan in Popular Culture

By Brittany Jacobsen

Throughout history, Satan  has traditionally been portrayed in theological and cultural discourses as the embodiment of all evil (De La Torre & Hernández, 2011, p.11). This portrayal has its roots in the Bible’s characterisation of Satan (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.xiii). Yet Satan’s biblical portrayal is vague and contradictory (Wyman, 2016, p.4). And, when Lucifer Morningstar appears in FOX’s Lucifer (Kapinos, 2016-present) claiming that he is Satan, he subverts the Bible’s various depictions of this character in a number of ways. For, this popular culture afterlife presents a humanized portrayal of Satan – a Satan for the 21st-century. To do this, Lucifer fills in the gaps in biblical depictions of Satan – specifically, who Satan is and what he is like, his relationship with God, and his thoughts about his reputation as a tempter and a symbol of evil. Thus, Lucifer’s portrayal, although biblical in origin, extends well beyond the biblical traditions.

This essay will therefore compare the biblical portrayal of Satan with Lucifer’s using two methods for studying popular culture – the ‘world in the text’ and the ‘world behind the text’.  The ‘world in the text’ will involve discussing how Lucifer fills said biblical gaps, highlighting any similarities and differences between these portrayals. I suggest that there is a connection between the TV programme’s altered portrayal of Satan in Lucifer Morningstar and its 21st-century context – the ‘world behind the text’. That is, this particular biblical afterlife reflects 21st-century understandings of Satan, and highlights the rise of the anti-hero as a cultural trope.

In the world of Lucifer, Satan (aka Lucifer Morningstar) is the main character of the TV series, and so, he gains a personality, which contributes to his humanization. The show’s premise is that Lucifer is a fallen angel condemned by God to rule over Hell. The part is played by British actor Tom Ellis, who brings a great deal of charisma to this role. This is seen, for example, when Lucifer draws out other characters’ hidden desires; as we watch him do this, there is always a close-up of his face. The audience is thus compelled to look at Ellis’ ruggedly handsome face, his  cheeky smile, and sparkling eyes. We cannot look away. With individuals in the show paralleling our reaction, we understand this is the intended effect. With this face then, Satan becomes irresistible.

Lucy horns
Lucifer Morningstar, played by actor Tom Ellis

This idea of Satan having irresistible charm is not voiced in the Bible. Indeed, biblical passages mention little about who Satan is (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.1), let alone giving him a charismatic personality (Wyman, 2016, pp.3-4). This has led to later Christian traditions creating afterlives for Satan, which are not necessarily evoked explicitly in the Bible itself (De La Torre & Hernández, 2011, pp.81-82).

The TV show Lucifer also creates a new afterlife for Satan, one which locates this figure within a 21st-century context. Satan, as Lucifer Morningstar, is humanized by a vibrant personality, and thus fits the contemporary definition of an anti-hero – “a clearly – or even, severely – morally flawed main character whom the spectator is nonetheless encouraged to feel with, like and root for” (Vaage, 2016, p.xvi). Traditional assumptions made about Satan being the embodiment of all evil (De La Torre & Hernández, 2011, p.11) shape the world behind Lucifer, identifying our anti-hero as ‘morally flawed’. This is captured in the show when Lucifer is told by another character to “stop caring, you’re the Devil”. Compassion, or ‘caring’, is considered a moral virtue, and so does not fit with the traditional portrayal of Satan/Lucifer as evil. Yet in the TV show, we are offered a much more human, and relatable Satan, which ‘encourage[s] [us] to feel with, like and root for’ him (Vaage, 2016, p.xvi). With his charisma, the audience is drawn to Lucifer, and so in almost every scene he appears, he remains in the frame. This emphasizes that he is the focus of our attention, and so we become increasingly invested in him – he becomes our ‘anti-hero’, an increasingly popular figure within contemporary pop culture (Vaage, 2016, p.90).

Lucy gif

The Bible also does not offer a clear explanation of Satan’s relationship with God. Satan is depicted in the Old Testament as being employed by God to test human faith (Job 1-2). However, in contrast to the New Testament (see (Luke 10:18; cf. Revelation 12:1-6;  Acts 5:3), there is no mention of Satan being God’s rival (Telford, 2014, p.91), or an explicit embodiment of evil. Thus, while one can agree that in the Bible God and Satan have a relationship, this relationship is not consistent across the two testaments (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.1). Such inconsistency therefore offers us a biblical ‘gap’ around Satan’s character.

Lucifer fills this gap by making it explicit that the relationship between God and Satan is that of father and son. Lucifer repeatedly refers to God as “Dad” or “Father”, leaving us with no doubt about this. That this is their chosen relationship is significant in the show’s world. It implies that Satan’s biblical fall from heaven (Luke 10:18; cf. Revelation 12:1-6), and later adversarial role (Acts 5:3), were the result of childhood rebellion. This contributes to Lucifer’s humanized portrayal of Satan. His fall is said to be the result of “one of [God’s] children … act[ing] out”. The choice of describing this fall as “act[ing] out” against a parent implies that Satan is a rebellious child. This makes him appear more human because the audience can relate to this, perhaps having gone through similar stages of rebellion themselves. Therefore, because of this gap-filling, we gain a humanized portrayal of Satan.

Lucy 2

Satan is also a tempter. He is portrayed like this in both the Bible (Wyman, 2016, p.4) and Lucifer. In the Bible, this is fundamental to his character (cf. Job 1-2; Matthew 4:1-11). An important story about Satan, the temptation of Jesus, shows this most clearly (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.120). Here, Jesus is taken “to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Such an explicit statement linking Satan with performing temptation leaves no doubt that this is his role.

Hans Memling der Hölle
Hans Memling, Die Hölle (c. 1485)

Furthermore, this role has also contributed to Satan being presented as the embodiment of all evil (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.1). However, the connotations of the word ‘evil’ suggest someone who enjoys their depraved actions, similar to what we see in medieval depictions of the ‘evil’ Satan (De La Torre & Hernández, 2011, p.17). Yet, the Bible does not tell us about Satan’s thoughts or motivations about his role as tempter – sometimes it appears as though he is just doing his job, and with divine approval (Job 1-2). Thus, we see another biblical gap around Satan’s character.

Lucifer, in comparison, tells us Satan’s thoughts about being a tempter. The show acknowledges that Satan has this previous biblical role (Telford, 2014, p.90), however, it is presented as humanity’s excuse for human wrongdoing: as Lucifer complains, humans blame their own badness on him, claiming ‘the devil made me do it’. In a number of episodes, we are given insights into Lucifer’s thoughts on being a tempter. He sees himself as ‘vilified’, asking, ‘Why do they blame me for all their little failings as if I’d spent my days sitting on their shoulder forcing them to commit acts they’d otherwise find repulsive?’ Lucifer’s emotional response here is important because it again makes him appear more human, more relatable.

Lucy gif cheers

By filling the various biblical gaps in ways that humanize Satan, the TV character of Lucifer is influenced by 21st-century understandings of Satan as a figure of evil (Telford, 2014, p.103). In the 21st-century, Satan is no longer “the ultimate source of evil” (Wyman, 2016, p.14). The secularization of modern society has replaced him with secular figures of evil, human satanic figures (See Porter, 2017) – corrupt politicians and world leaders, war criminals, terrorists, unethical multinational companies . As a result, Satan has lost his mystical “power” in the minds of his 21st-century audience (Wyman, 2016, p. 15). Humanizing Satan in Lucifer reflects this loss because it suggests that he is now understood as one of us, rather than a supernatural entity. If evil is to be found, then it is to be found among the human community here on earth, rather than in a fallen angel or supernatural being. There is thus a connection between Lucifer’s altered portrayal and the world behind the text, our 21st-century context.

It is clear then, that Lucifer provides an altered portrayal of the biblical character Satan. In filling the specific biblical gaps of who Satan is and what he is like, his relationship with God, and his thoughts on being a tempter, Satan’s portrayal goes from vague to humanized. Therefore, Lucifer has “reflect[ed] the culture in which [it was] produced” (Telford, 2014, p.89). As we have seen, the humanization of Satan is the product of the 21st-century understandings of this figure, his relationship with evil, and the rise of the anti-hero.

Lucy flames

Reference list

All biblical citations are taken from the NRSV

De La Torre, M. A., & Hernández, A. (2011). The Quest for the Historical Satan. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Kapinos, Tom (Creator). (2016-present). Lucifer, [Television show]. United States: FOX.

Porter, A. L. (2017). Satanic Humans: Using Satanic Tropes To Guide And Misguide The Audience. Journal of Religion & Film, 21(1), 1-33.

Telford, W. R. (2014). “Speak of the Devil”: The Portrayal of Satan in the Christ Film. In E. S. Christianson & C. H. Partridge (Eds), The Lure of the Darkside: Satan and Western Demonology in Popular Culture (pp. 89-104).

Vaage, M. B. (2016). The Antihero in American Television. New York and London: Routledge.

Wray, T. J., & Mobley, G. (2005). The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots. New York and Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wyman, K. J. (2016). The Devil We Already Know: Medieval Representations of a Powerless Satan in Modern American Cinema. Journal of Religion & Film, 8(3), Article 7, 1-19.

Spotlighting student work 6: Gaming, inquisitors, and messiahs

coverToday’s splendid student essay from our Theology 101 Bible in Popular Culture takes us into the world of video games. Although this has previously been a neglected area within academic research, it’s good to see a growing interest in the cultural and religious significance of this genre of popular culture. The recently published Exploring Videogames with Deleuze and Guttari (Routledge, 2015) by Colin Cremin (senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Auckland) analyses the content of videogames – including their narratives around gender and violence – and the social and cultural context in which they are played. Meanwhile, postgraduate student Emily Foster-Brown at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS, University of Sheffield) is just embarking on an MA thesis that explores the ways videogames engage with Judaeo-Christian conceptions of Jesus within their female character leads. So we are pleased to add to this new discussion on the Auckland TheoRel blog, by introducing the work of Brianna Vincent, a first year Arts student who is doing a double major in English and Writing Studies. Brianna is fascinated by the ways different mediums (books, comics, tv shows, video games etc) engage in storytelling; she was therefore delighted that our Bible and Pop Culture course gave her the opportunity to write about videogames and thus add her voice to the academic study of this fascinating form of cultural narrative. So, whether or not you are a gamer yourself, give yourself a treat and read Brianna’s excellent essay on contemporary messiahs in the hugely popular game, Dragon Age: Inquisition.

inquisition posterThe Hand that Saved Thedas: The Inquisitor as a Messiah Figure

By Brianna Vincent

The American Monomyth and the concept of a messiah are found throughout contemporary popular culture, and Bioware’s video game Dragon Age: Inquisition is no exception. When the fantasy world of Thedas is thrown into chaos a protagonist rises up who incorporates three of the central themes surrounding messiahs and the American Monomyth; mysterious origins and powers, resurrection, and uniting the land against evil. The protagonist, first called the Herald of Andraste then the Inquisitor, functions in their context not merely as a hero figure but that of a holy saviour. As the game progresses we see the Inquisitor fulfil their Messianic role as they are confronted with their purportedly divine origins and powers, experience a sacrifice and resurrection arc that is reminiscent of the Judeo-Christian messiah figure of Jesus, and unite the lands of Thedas in a way that parallels the Tanakh’s understandings of a messiah. The character Varric declares near the beginning of this journey that “Heroes are everywhere. I’ve seen that. But the hole in the sky? That’s beyond heroes. We’re going to need a miracle” and indeed the protagonist needs to become more than a hero. The protagonist needs to become a messiah that can deliver Thedas its miracle – the protagonist needs to become the Inquisitor.

The Breach which destroyed the Conclave
The Breach which destroyed the Conclave

At the beginning of the game the Conclave at the Temple of Sacred Ashes was meeting to try to mediate peace between mage and templar factions currently embroiled in civil war. The sudden explosion which destroyed the Conclave, killed the Chantry’s holy leader, and tore a dangerous hole in the sky was as mysterious as it was destructive. This sets the world of Thedas in the common monomythic trope in which “The world seems out of control and people lose any sense of order or meaning” (Aichele 2011, 263), and it is in the midst of this mystery and chaos that the protagonist emerges. The protagonist falls out of the hole in the sky, called “the Breach,” with no memory of the incident and appears to have been saved by the divine figure of Andraste. The protagonist begins to follow in the traditions of the American Monomyth hero who “is distinguished by disguised origins, pure motivations, a redemptive task, and extraordinary powers” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 47).

Andraste triptych http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Andraste
Andraste triptych http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Andraste

The contention within the game over whether or not the protagonist was truly saved by Andraste codifies the protagonist as being “distinguished by disguised origins” (ibid) as well as having a “least-likely hero beginning” (Scheub 2012, 144), which is another key theme is the monomythic paradigm. The protagonist, now bearing the title “Herald of Andraste,” possesses “extraordinary powers” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 47) in the form of a magic welded onto their hand (called the Anchor) that will enable them to “defeat the forces of evil or overcome great challenges” (Clark and Clanton 2012, 118).

The Anchor (the mark that gives the Inquisitor the unique power to close the Breach and the smaller rifts)
The Anchor (the mark that gives the Inquisitor the unique power to close the Breach and the smaller rifts)

Another aspect of the American Monomyth, the “hero as outsider” origin tradition, is fulfilled as the protagonist becomes “both in the world but not of the world” (Kozlovic 2002, 10) as they are set apart from everyone else by “virtue of his unknown origins” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 47) and by the unique magic they possess. Thereby “the Chosen of Andraste, a blessed hero to save us all” is mired in mystery from the beginning as they, following the American Monomyth traditions, “find a new life amongst strangers” (Kozlovic 2002, 2) by joining the Inquisition, and embark on their “messianic rescue mission” of the world (Clark and Clanton 2012, 119).

The Inquisitor is confronted with being divinely chosen.
The Inquisitor is confronted with being divinely chosen.

A key element of the American Monomyth is “the selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6) and the protagonist fulfils this aspect of their role during the quest ‘In Your Heart Shall Burn’ which ties into themes of sacrifice, death, and resurrection found in the New Testament and in the American Monomyth.

The Inquisitor facing Corypheus to give the citizens of Haven enough time to escape
The Inquisitor facing Corypheus to give the citizens of Haven enough time to escape

The town of Haven is under siege by the villain Corypheus and his army and “there are no tactics to make this survivable.” The Herald goes to confront Corypheus to buy time for the Haven citizens to escape, in essence sacrificing themselves for Haven, and during the confrontation the Herald triggers an avalanche and is buried under the ice. In this sacrifice the protagonist not only incorporates the American Monomyth traditions of sacrifice but the biblical understanding for a messiah “to suffer and make himself as a ‘guilt offering’” (Satterthwaite, Hess, and Wenham 1995, 117) and the following “resurrection” of the protagonist continues these allusions. “Jesus experienced a resurrection from his grave site, Superman was resurrected from his grave site” (Kozlovic 2002, 7) and the Herald follows in these traditions as he or she rises from their would-be grave of ice and just as “Superman emerges from the water and, in another symbolic rebirth, regains his powers” (ibid) the Herald now emerges with a new power called the “Mark of the Rift.” As Scheub suggests “The movement of the hero is through a difficult terrain marked by tests and tasks, by villainy and traps, by various experiences that test his heroism and shape him” (2012, 144) and this heroic confrontation with the villain acts as a test that transforms our protagonist from the Herald into the Inquisitor as they are, after this trial, chosen to be the official leader of the Inquisition. The American Monomyth pattern of “persons depart from their community, undergo trials, and later return to be integrated as mature adults who can serve in new ways” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6) is therefore fulfilled as the Herald departs to sacrifice themselves, undergoes the trial of the confrontation with the villain, and then returns to the Inquisition ready to take on the task of being its leader. This resurrection also solidifies the Inquisitor as an ordained figure regardless of what the protagonist may personally believe:

“Our leaders struggle because of what we survivors witnessed. We saw our defender stand…and fall. And now, we have seen her return. The more the enemy is beyond us, the more miraculous your actions appear. And the more our trials seem ordained.”

The Inquisitor waking up after the avalanche
The Inquisitor waking up after the avalanche

Through this resurrection the Inquisitor has become a messiah figure to the people of Thedas, a hope against the threat of Corypheus who escaped the avalanche, and the messianic overtones in the subsequent “The Dawn Will Come” scene highlights this. After the avalanche the survivors of Haven sing while bowing, saluting, or otherwise showing reverence to the Inquisitor in a song that echoes verses in Isaiah. The song lyrics “The night is long and the path is dark. Look to the sky, for one day soon, the dawn will come” use similar imagery to that which surrounds the messianic prophecy “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2). These biblical allusions to a messiah overlap and combine with American Monomyth traditions around sacrifice and resurrection to create the Inquisitor not just as a hero but as a messiah figure within the world of the text.

Dawn will come
Dawn will come – the Inquisitor unites the community

The uniting of a community is another key aspect in the American Monomyth and the Inquisitor unites Thedas in a way uses those monomythic traditions as well as echoing the Tanakhh’s concepts of a political and military messiah. As Aichele notes, “The monomyth hero is typically solitary, and although she may have allies, she often performs her great deeds alone” (2011, 269) and these allies supporting the Inquisitor include a group of twelve companions, a parallel to the twelve disciples of Jesus, and the eventual support of the most powerful institutions of Thedas. The amount of power the Inquisitor gains through these allies has Biblical parallels where we can see such power described in verses like “and to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all people, nations and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14; quoted in Aichele 2011, 264). That political and military power gives Inquisitor the ability to make world-altering decisions like who shall rule Orlais, whether to banish the centuries old institution of the Wardens, and who should be the next religious leader of the Chantry.

The Inquisitor (centre) at the war table surrounded by their 12 companions. It's bit 'last supper'-like
The Inquisitor (centre) at the war table surrounded by their 12 companions – echoes of the Last Supper abound.

This powerful leadership also mimics the leadership of the American monomyth hero who “offers a form of leadership without paying the price of political relationships or responding to the preferences of the majority” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 48) and how the monomythic hero “finds an answer in vigilantism” (ibid). The Inquisition is itself a vigilante institution, that was instigated when the Chantry failed to contend with the threat of Corypheus, and through it the Inquisitor has become a “combination of a heavenly judge and a king- or warrior messiah” (Trost 2010, 128). The Hebrew word Messiah is interconnected with the idea of “The Anointed One” (Satterthwaite, Hess, and Wenham 1995, 88) and the Inquisitor has been “anointed” by Andraste in the eyes of Thedas and operates within the three offices associated with the Tanakh messiah; the prophet, the priest, and the king (Barclay 1962, 93).

Coronation of the Inqiusitor as leader of the Inquisition. In Hebrew BIble traditions, the king was anointed as messiah at his coronation.
Coronation of the Inqiusitor as leader of the Inquisition. In Hebrew Bible traditions, the king was anointed as messiah at his coronation.

As the Herald of Andraste, this figure fulfils the offices of prophet and priest and as the Inquisitor ruling the Inquisition they incorporate the office of the king. The Enoch picture of the messiah is “a completely otherworldly figure of divine and majestic and superhuman power, destined to conquer and to judge all, to obliterate sinners and to exalt the righteous” (ibid) and the figure of the Inquisitor, sitting on the throne within their fortress Skyhold, endowed with religious authority and the magic of the anchor on their hand, while dispensing freedom and judgement as they see fit conforms to this interpretation of a messiah. Upon appointing the protagonist as the Inquisitor the character Cassandra says to them “I would be terrified handing this power to anyone. But I believe it is the only way” and it is with this terrifying power that the Inquisitor unites Thedas to stand against Corypheus wielding the political and military power that draws on the tropes of the American Monomyth and the Old Testament concepts of the Messiah.

The Inquisitor (centre) surrounded by their companions
The Inquisitor (centre) surrounded by their companions

As Scheub notes, “The hero’s journey… moves on the earth but it has mythic overtones and consequences” (2012, 143) and the Inquisitor’s journey of mysterious origins, sacrifice and resurrection, and uniting the land is rich in messianic and monomythic overtones. In the Inquisitor we can see “elements of the selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others and the zealous crusader who destroys evil” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6) that makes them a messiah within the world of Thedas and a fascinating character study outside the world of the text. The protagonist’s dual functions as ‘Herald of Andraste’ and ‘Inquisitor’ interweave different facets of a popular messiah figure; the monomythic beginnings, the Christ-like resurrection, and ideas of a powerful leadership by an ‘anointed one’ put forward by the Tanakh. It is these Biblical and American Monomythic conceptions and themes that combine to create the multi-layered contemporary messiah that we see in Dragon Age: Inquisition. A saviour that transforms from stranger, to chosen one, to a messiah who can save Thedas.

fabulous imageBibliography

Aichele, George. “The Posthumanity of “the Son of Man”: Heroes as Postmodern Apocalypse.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 23, no. 3 (Fall, 2011): 263-275. Accessed October 10. http://ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/906100044?accountid=8424

Barclay, William. Jesus as They Saw Him: New Testament interpretations of Jesus. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Campbell, Heidi and Grieve, Gregory P. Playing with religion in digital games. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Clark, Terry Ray and Clanton, Dan W. Understanding religion and popular culture : theories, themes, products and practices. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2012.

Gaider, David. Dragon Age: Inquisition. Video Game. Developed by Bioware. Electronic Arts, 2014.

Kozlovic, Anton Karl. “Superman as Christ-Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah”. Journal of Religion and Film 6, no. 1 (2002). Accessed October 10. http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/superman.htm

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

Satterthwaite, Philip E, Richard S. Hess, and Gordon J. Wenham. The Lord’s Anointed: Interpretation of Old Testament Messianic Texts. Carlisle, U.K: Paternoster Press, 1995.

Scheub, Harold. Trickster and Hero: Two Characters in the Oral and Written Traditions of the World. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.

Trost, Travis D. Who Should Be King in Israel: a study on Roman imperial politics, the Dead Sea scrolls, and the Fourth Gospel. New York : P. Lang, 2010.

Spotlighting student work 2: Moses at the Movies

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

Sit back and enjoy!

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

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

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

by Bronwyn Prowse

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

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

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

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

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

Moses and Rameses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

moses red sea

References:

All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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