Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Indiana Jones and the Neutered Belief Systems

The Indiana Jones movies, especially the first and third ones (that is to say, the two good ones), are favorites in my household. Upon our most recent rewatch, however, I was struck by the realization that they are just some of a number of movies and franchises in which the narrative of the movie itself proves the existence of a certain religion’s God, while at the same time undermining that religion’s believers. These films aren’t billed as “religious”, and they don’t necessarily push a proselytizing message—we never see Indy asking someone else if they’ve accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior—but nevertheless, throughout the films the actual, objective power of Jewish and Christian artifacts is emphasized.


In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy goes up against Nazi forces who want to find the Ark of the Covenant, the biblical container for the Ten Commandments. The mythology of the Ark states that any army that goes into battle carrying the Ark will be victorious, so obviously the Nazis are interested in taking it for themselves. The spirit of this myth, of course, is that the Chosen people of God keep the Ark, and so God is on their side, but both the Nazis and our heroes interpret it as meaning that the Ark is a magical amulet promising luck in battle. This simultaneously assigns a spiritual power to the Ark, while taking away the agency of the deity who gives it that power.

The face you make right before your face melts off.

The face you make right before your face melts off.

The narrative never really decides whether it wants God to have agency in this scenario, either. At one point in the story we see the Nazi logo on the outside of the crate carrying the Ark catch fire. The implication is that the higher power behind the Ark does not agree with the Nazis and does not want to be associated with their mark. However, in the end of the movie, when the Nazis finally open the Ark, literally everyone present who looks inside is immolated. Indiana and Marianne only survive by averting their eyes. In this case, God apparently has decided he isn’t going to make a moral judgment on the people present, which makes the Ark once again into a blunt, mass weapon for whomever chooses to use it. This undermines the actual story of the Ark in the Old Testament, in which the Ark is, with few exceptions, only useful to God’s Chosen people when those people show God the proper respect and honor.

This happens again in the Indiana Jones story that deals with New Testament myth. In The Last Crusade, Indy must (yet again) stay ahead of the Nazis as he hunts for the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus purportedly drank during the Last Supper. The clues lead him to an ancient church, where, behind a series of traps, he finds the Grail and its keeper. This guardian is a knight who’s been kept alive since the 1200s by drinking from the Holy Grail. The knight believes that only those who are truly worthy in God’s eyes can survive the traps and get to the Grail, but that doesn’t seem to be necessarily true.

indiana-jones-the-last-crusade-knightThe trials to access the Grail don’t require any serious personal conviction—only an understanding of how to apply scholarly knowledge to the traps guarding the cave where it’s stored. The Grail itself doesn’t even judge the morality or belief of those who use it; it is, like the Ark, just a blunt instrument that can be used by anyone who wields it. The final trial to use the Grail is simply to choose the correct chalice from a number of different ornate goblets. The Grail turns out to be the simple wooden cup, which anyone who remembers that Jesus was a carpenter, including the Nazis present, could figure out. In reality, while some ancient Jewish literature and Christian Gnostic writings do teach that you must have certain knowledge to attain Heaven, you still had to actually believe in God as well.

The Grail does differ from the Ark in that it heals and offers eternal life rather than being a weapon that ensures victory in battle. You could also argue that it requires self-sacrifice, as it is tied to the church where it rests by some magical power, and cannot be removed without destroying the temple. If you want to achieve eternal life, you have to be willing to stay with the Grail in the Church forever.

He has chosen...poorly.

He has chosen… poorly.

But that still doesn’t necessarily require a belief in Jesus as Lord—just strong mental discipline. And you can still use the healing properties of the Grail and leave—wounds don’t reopen after you’ve left the church grounds.

The problem here is twofold. By giving religious objects real pull in the physical world for anyone who uses them, it demeans the belief behind the object by making it generically magical rather than inherently spiritual. You don’t have to believe in the religion for its power to work. The narrative confirms the existence of God-like power while negating the necessity of believing in said deity. It also undermines people who genuinely believe in Judaism or Christianity by representing aspects of their faith tradition as strange, impersonal magic without ever giving us any characters who are authentically Jewish or Christian. And that’s just in the two movies that focus in a generally positive way on Judeo-Christian belief—let’s not get me started on Indiana Jones and The Writers Who Have No Idea What Hinduism Is and Indiana Jones and The Writers Who Watched Too Many Episodes of Ancient Aliens.

Follow Lady Geek Girl and Friends on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook!

7 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Indiana Jones and the Neutered Belief Systems

  1. I feel that the properties of the Ark as mentioned in the post stem from Biblical grounding. When the Philistines steal the Ark and set it before Dagon, there aren’t any believers in God present, so it is more about God acting on disrespect from the Philistines. As the Americans never attempt to use the Ark for their own purposes, we never see if the Ark is indeed a passive object. We only see that it has acted against those who sought to misuse it, as it did in the Bible.
    As for universal face-melting, that stems from when God could only show his back even to his chosen leader Moses, and once he had gifted Moses with the Ten Commandments, had Moses put a veil over his face, as even the rest of his Chosen People could not stand to see the glory of God so directly.

    The Grail does subscribe to removing God’s agency, but that was done far before the Indy franchise simply perpetuated that angle. Last Crusade was operating off of the Arthurian legends that had already magic-ized the Grail, which in some of the original legends wasn’t even the Holy Chalice, but a stone.

    Any thoughts on Xena’s takes on Judaism? It also has an instance of the Ark, as well as The Sacrifice of Isaac.

  2. The director of the movies obviously holds Christianity in contempt. He even gives a hint when Indy sees a golden crucifix and sneers, “It belongs in a museum.”

    • “It belongs in a museum” has nothing to do with anyone’s attitude toward Christianity, and everything to do with Indy wanting artifacts to be in museums available to the public rather than in private collections.

  3. I’m afraid I like Crystal Skull better then Crusade.

    ” literally everyone present who looks inside is immolated. Indiana and Marianne only survive by averting their eyes. In this case, God apparently has decided he isn’t going to make a moral judgment on the people present”

    I feel like you’re making an either/or here out of something that isn’t meant to be one. Refusing to look at that moment was a moral distinction, by not looking your showing the Deity the proper respect. The Old Testament does record Ark once killing a man for merely touching it, so it’s Awesome is Biblical capable of killing regardless of Moral Judgment. But the film ultimately agrees that there was no way the Nazis could have wielded it’s power in battle.

    The Holy Grail is merely a Christian dressing on a Cletic pagan concept. so me as a Fundamentalist 6 day Young Earth creationist Evangelical Christian I could care less how the Grail is mis represented.

  4. Pingback: Throwback Thursdays: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

Comments are closed.