Reel Jesus: The Challenge of Popular Culture
by Samuel Thambusamy
Popular culture re-presents cultural values and mediates its ‘meaning’ to the media generation. Despite the body-image excesses, permissiveness and secularization of society, Jesus is ALIVE within popular culture. It isn’t unusual to find images of Jesus on magazine covers and movie screens. This is an attempt to briefly map Christ-figures in the media.
JESUS – THE CONTROVERSY
Some cultural products ‘introduce’ a controversial element within the Jesus narrative. A romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is assumed and given a 20th century ‘sexual’ twist. The romantic theme is also ‘skillfully’ unpacked through the power of the story. The runaway Broadway hit musical Jesus Christ Superstar alluded to a special relationship through the song: I don’t know how to love him. The musical has become a cultural phenomenon and is still popular worldwide and. The Last Temptation of Christ went a step forward and featured the Jesus’ temptation of momentary sexual imagination. Now, Dan Brown’s best selling novel Da Vinci Code provides the semblance of “impeccable research” to the assumption. In the earlier era of William E. Phipps and Nikos Kazantazakis had also posited a romantic relationship. So some cultural products present a “human-only” Jesus who could not be God. In the guise of exploring the humanity of Christ, they end up only contradicting his divinity. While the romantic relationship is entirely based on rhetorical analysis it still informs “religious conversations” at workplace/neighborhood.
JESUS – UPDATED
Jesus has been featured in the Sci-fi genre. Jesus on Mars is set on planet Mars involving an alien civilization. The allien Krsh are won over to human religion. Jesus arrives among the Krsh and convinces the scientifically advanced Krsh. Interestingly, Jesus leads spaceships back to Earth reminiscent of the Second Coming. Similarly, Jesus Thief is about an attempt by a wealthy microbiologist Dr. Felix Rossi to clone Jesus Christ. Both novels effectively use a fictional Jesus to comment on contemporary religious belief. These are attempts to ‘update’ Jesus to fit modern aspirations. Moreover they subtly play the ‘skeptic vs. believer’ theme.
Some attempt an exploration of Jesus’ relevance for a contemporary world. The film Jesus of Montreal (1989) explores an unconventional interpretation of Jesus through the characters hired to present a passion play. The actors’ lives soon begin to mirror the Passion itself. On a similar note the book Jesus in America explores the diversity of Jesus throughout American history and maps the experiences of American Christians. The author’s hypothesis is that even Jesus would listen in wonder, joy, confusion, and dismay to the things Americans have said about him for four hundred years.
JESUS – THE MYTH
Some challenge the historicity of Jesus, let alone the historicity of gospels. A recent documentary The God who wasn’t there (2005) explores the Jesus-myth theory. It’s intent is to unabashedly challenge modern Christianity and propagate the idea that Jesus never existed at all. Despite all evidence to the contrary in the works of secular historians, several prominent personalities such as Richard Dawkins , Sam Harris , Richard Carrier , Allan Dundes , Earl Doherty , and Timothy Freke have lent academic credence to such a “deficient” conclusion. The documentary raises several questions on the Jesus of history. Not surprisingly, its tagline reads: Hold on to your faith. It’s in for a bumpy ride.
Some films, in its narrative structure, closely parallel Jesus narratives. In fact, such Christ-figures in popular films are aplenty. Besides, the ‘Messianic Figure’ formula where the central character transforms lives and ultimately undergoes martyrdom is a proven success formula. Anton Kozlovic outlines some ways to recognize the celluloid incarnations:
- They are characterized as from “ above”, “ beyond” or “ out there” (For example, Superman is from the planet Krypton, and is sent by his father Jor-el to earth to help the planet progress socially).
- They are special agents who appear normal (For example, the alien Klaatu in ‘The Day the Earth stood still’ is Mr. Carpenter in every day life, and in The Matrix, Neo is a skilled computer hacker who is also ‘the One’).
- They begin their divine mission when they reach the mystical age of thirty (Superman starts saving the world at thirty).
- They sometimes have intimate friends surrounding them, and often are betrayed by one of them (for example Cypher betrays Neo in the Matrix).
- They are tagged along by a woman who bears the shadow of Mary Magdalene (For example Lois Lane in the Superman, Trinity in the Matrix etc).
- There is John the Baptist figure who points to the Christ figure (For example, in Jesus of Montreal the actor Pascal Berger refers to Coulombe as a fellow actor greater than himself and Morpheus announces Neo is ‘the One’).
- They finally return home by ascending into the starry heavens (For example The Day the Earth Stood Still, Extra Terrestrial, Starman and K-Pax).
- Interestingly, they have the initials JC (John Coffey in The Green Mile, John Connor in Terminator, John Cole in Twelve Monkey).
Several studies are undertaken to discover Christ figures. Neo in Matrix and Clarke Kent in Superman are notable examples that have spurred academic interests. The subtext of Christ-figures in Sci-fi and in action genre are effectively used to subvert the presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and herein lays the challenge of Messianic-figure films. Kozlovic contends, “ These transcendental heroes are not accidental by products of script writing but rather deliberately engineered cinematic transfigurations of Jesus Christ”. But, why must Christ-figures be featured in cultural products? Kozlovic writes, “ Motivations are to be found in the complex interplay of history, fear, fun, image saturation, cultural pervasiveness and changing notions of faith and blasphemy, humor and holiness. It is often a question of tactic… Sometimes, it’s even a straightforward desire to tell a good story”.
Let me briefly discuss some positive depictions of Jesus in the media.
J.R.R. Tolkein’s Trilogy The Lord of the Rings and C.S Lewis Chronicles of Narnia offer some clues of engaging with popular culture in its own terms. J.R.R.Tolkein has embedded the ‘Christ-figures’ subtly within the plot.
- Gandalf is a Christ figure. His fall into “Shadow” is Christ’s descent into Hell. His defeat of the Balrog – a figure of Satan – is Christ’s defeat of Satan, and of course it is followed by resurrection. Gandalf the White, therefore, is the Risen Christ. His voyage into the west at the end, along with the elves, is a figure of the Ascension.
- Samwise Gamgee is Christ the servant. He makes himself a living sacrifice as he aids Frodo.
- Frodo, the Ring Bearer, is Christ the Sin Bearer. He carries the burden of the Ring as Christ carried the burden of sin. Frodo’s wound on Weathertop is a figurative of Christ’s spear wound on the Cross-. Frodo’s voyage to the west, like Gandalf’s, is also symbolic of the Ascension.
- Aragorn is the Christ of the Second Coming. It is no coincidence that Aragorn brings the dead with him when he returns.
Stephen contends, “ the films (The Lord of the Rings) honor that vision in a way that Christian viewers can appreciate, and that for non-Christian postmodern may represent a rare encounter with an unironic vision of good and evil, a moral vision of evil and of the ever-present human susceptibility to temptation. Similarly, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia contains Christian ideas that are easily accessible to younger readers. Lewis wrote in a letter: Aslan is “ an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘what might Christ become like, if there really were a world like Narnia”.
Mel Gibson’s blockbuster movie The Passion of the Christ situated “Jesus” within mainstream discourse. It visually captures the 12 hours of Jesus’ life leading to his crucifixion. It portrays the lost dimension of Christ’s suffering. On the motivations for the movie Mel Gibson says, “I want to show the humanity of Christ as well as the divine aspect. It’s a rendering that for me is very realistic and as close as possible to what I perceive the truth to be.” The Passion has been God’s instrument. In the words of a reviewer, “It reminds us of how God works within the garbage of our culture, and even within the garbage in our souls. To free us and make us whole”.
FACING THE CHALLENGE
All Media Messages are a construct. They are embedded with values and points of view. They are produced with a creative language with its own rules and to gain profit and/or power. The intention of the celluloid re-presentations of Jesus seems to relate him to the postmodern mindset. However, they betray the socio-cultural and political contexts within which they emerge. Twentieth-century attitude and sensibilities pervade the theme, style, structure, lyrics and visual vocabulary. Perhaps, we need to re-echo the words of George Tyrell in the book Christianity at the Crossroads (1963): “ those who had written had merely peered down the well of history and seen the reflection of their own faces”.
We live in a screen-age where media is the dominant form of expression. We live in an image culture. Todd Kappelman contends, “ Scriptwriters, directors, and actors do more to shape the culture which we live in than do the giants of literature or philosophy”. Visual texts (and their subtexts) raise the question of the divinity of Jesus, the divine-human nature of Jesus and the historicity of the Gospels. The popularity of the visual and its potential to impact the sub-conscious needs to be taken seriously. We need to engage with the challenges posed by popular culture.
A Christology beyond the biblical narrative seems to be emerging within popular culture that is media-ted at a mass level. How the masses perceive such ‘reel’ images of Jesus (and their subtexts) would affect their perception of the ‘real’ Jesus. The power of the visual narrative to provide for a surplus of ‘meaning’ negotiated within a cultural context/s cannot be underestimated. It is therefore imperative that we familiarize and understand the constructs of Jesus within popular culture.