Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Can Wonder Woman Be Jesus?

(via variety)

If you haven’t yet seen the new Wonder Woman movie… seriously, why haven’t you? It’s fabulous. After we gushed about its awesomeness while coming out of the theater, I mentioned to my group that Diana Prince seems like an awesome unconventional Christ figure. They were a little confused, because (spoiler alert) Wonder Woman isn’t crucified, and she’s certainly not a man. I couldn’t really explain it well then, but I can now.

Wonder Woman might be the most famous female superhero. While her story makes references to Greek myths, it doesn’t seem like her creators were Greek, and her writers didn’t really bother for accuracy when it comes to those myths. On the other hand, Christianity is so influential to Western culture and its history that Christ figures show up all over the place in our stories. We’ve already talked about how Disney’s Hercules draws from Greek myths but still turns Hercules into a Christ figure. Nearly all fictional Christ figures are male. So while making Wonder Woman into a Christ figure doesn’t do much for Greek mythology, it breaks new ground in the way we can understand what a Christ figure can be.

Significant spoilers for Wonder Woman below.

Wonder Woman is the story of a woman named Diana, who’s on a quest to defeat Ares, the God of War, and save the world. Diana is an Amazon, a semi-immortal being with special abilities. Amazons were created to defend humanity against Ares. When Diana saves the life of WWI pilot Steve Trevor, she teams up with him to help fight baddies during WWI on the way to confronting Ares. Diana destroys Ares, but not before learning some valuable lessons along the way.

Some might say that Steve Trevor is a more fitting Christ figure. After all, Steve is a man, just like Jesus. Steve commandeers a plane filled with dangerous gas, flies it high enough to disperse the gas safely, and triggers an explosion to destroy the plane and gas. Steve ends up sacrificing himself on the plane to save innocent lives. Christians consider Jesus’s own death a sacrifice to save humanity from the deathly consequences of sin. If being a man and choosing a sacrificial death are the only requirements to being a Christ figure, then yes, Steve is the only real Christ figure in the film. But as important as Jesus’s death is, there’s so much more than that to Jesus.

First, being a man doesn’t necessarily make one a better Christ figure. All Christians believe that all humans are supposed to imitate Jesus in the way that they live their lives, no exception. But even within Christianity there are figures who challenge the rigid ideas that a certain type of masculinity must be applied to Jesus. Julian of Norwich was a 15th century English anchoress. An anchoress is a woman who lives the ascetic life of a hermit, “anchoring” herself in a small enclosed room, usually attached to a church. It’s a bit like being a cloistered nun without other nuns. They answer to no one but the local bishop. (You can read about an experience of a modern woman who temporarily lived as an anchoress here.) Julian cloistered herself in a room connected to a local church, and was available to offer prayers and spiritual advice to anyone who visited her. Julian was a mystic, and she’s venerated as a saint in the Lutheran Church and Anglican Communion. “St. Julian” was the name of the church she lived at; we don’t know if that was also her real name. Julian is a controversial figure for many of her theological ideas. One of her most famous is her reflections on Jesus as Mother. As one scholar describes:

The motherhood of Julian’s God is not merely metaphorical but is a very real attribute of the nature of God. God is our Mother, not in a merely sentimental sense, but at the profoundest levels of our existence…All stages of the divine maternity are present in Julian’s reflections: Enclosure and growth within the womb; the labor and birth; the suckling of the infant and the feeding of the child…Nowhere is the divine motherhood more powerfully expressed than in the beautiful images of Mother Jesus bearing us for joy and endless life, nourishing us with him/herself and comforting us against his/her breast. (Maria Lichtmann)

Julian’s statue in the Norwich Cathedral (via wikipedia)

As Julian herself wrote:

“A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most courteously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament, which is the precious food of life itself… The mother can lay the child tenderly to her breast, but our tender mother Jesus, he can familiarly lead us to his blessed breast through his sweet open side….”

While not all women are or can be mothers, motherhood is an important component to the whole of femininity. Ascribing feminine characteristics to Jesus, especially through the powerful image of motherhood, shows us that painting Jesus as an exclusively masculine figure, one whom only masculine characters can properly emulate, just doesn’t work.

If we look at Jesus as a character in a story, he has a lot more in common with Diana than Steve. Jesus has a human mother and a divine father; Diana’s mother is the Amazon Hippolyta and her father is the god Zeus. Jesus was conceived under special circumstances; his mother was a virgin and “overshadowed” by the mysterious and divine Holy Spirit. Diana was molded from clay by her mother, and given life by Zeus. Jesus is incarnated in order to save humanity from death. Diana was born to be the “God-killer”, the ultimate weapon to defeat Ares and save humanity from itself.

The Greek gods (namely Zeus and Ares) are pretty Christian-coded. They don’t act like the Greek gods of their own mythos, but rather seem to be more like the good and evil godlike figures familiar to a society heavily influenced by Christianity. Zeus is like God the Father: the most powerful and good Father god, but a god that feels a bit distant. In the stories of Jesus and Diana, God the Father/Zeus play an important role but live off-screen. Ares acts a lot like a Lucifer character. He works for the subjugation and ultimate destruction of humanity. Ares infects human nature with a propensity toward anger, war, destruction, and evil. His influence acts a whole lot like Original Sin, in the way that it acts as a corrupting influence on the way humans are meant to act. As Jesus conquers death and the person of Lucifer, Diana also conquers Ares. Just before Diana destroys Ares, she calls him “brother”. In most of Christianity, Jesus is an uncreated, co-eternal being who is just as much God as God the Father is God (yes, it’s supposed to be confusing), Lucifer is “merely” a powerful creature. But in Mormonism, Jesus and Lucifer are spirit brothers. Both are created by God the Father, just as Diana and Ares are siblings through their relationship with Zeus.

In the Bible (Luke 2:52) we see that Jesus “learns and grows in wisdom and maturity.” This is after a young Jesus goes out on his own to the Temple in Jerusalem to speak with the rabbis and other scholars there, without telling his mother and step-father, causing a conflict in his family. A young Diana secretly learns to fight from her aunt, behind her mother’s back, causing conflict in her family. Throughout the movie, Diana also learns and grows in maturity, as she discovers that defeating evil requires a lot more complexity than her simple, clear-cut initial ideas.

The most important way Diana is like Jesus is in the way both believe in the power and centrality of love. Jesus’s public ministry is centered around love. In the Gospel of Matthew, the Jewish religious leader tries to get Jesus to say something blasphemous, or something contrary to the sacred laws of God. The author writes:

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them [a scholar of the law] tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourselfThe whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:33–40)

The Pharisees and Sadducees perceived Jesus as a threat to their authority. One of the Pharisees asks a trick question; by saying that one law is greater than another, the leaders are trying to attack Jesus’s credibility and hope he stumbles in a way that will allow them to impose sanctions or punishment on him, thereby asserting their authority over him. But Jesus circumvents this by citing the (implicit) spirit of the laws of God. For Jesus, everything is about loving well.

Diana is also motivated by love. Sure, her love of Steve helps her defeat Ares, but throughout the whole movie, Diana helps so many people because she loves them. In one scene we see Diana running through the trenches of No Man’s Land to save the village of Veld, because she desperately wants to help each and every one of the wounded and suffering people. Helping these people is considered not only a distraction from her mission to defeat Ares, but also impossible. Yet Diana doesn’t care. She wants to save everyone she can. It’s only after Veld is destroyed by a gas bomb and Diana arrives too late to save anyone that she turns her full focus to the mission, but not before spending a few moments in mourning for the dead. The final lines of the movie speak to this beautifully:

I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learnt that inside every one of them there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves – something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know… that only love can truly save the world. So now I stay, I fight, and I give – for the world I know can be. This is my mission now, for ever. (IMDb)

Diana’s mission is to bring more love into the world. She learns that there is more evil in the world because there is evil in human hearts. While this evil isn’t something she can defeat with her weapons and armor, it’s still something she can fight, and continues to fight. Diana lives out her purpose as an Amazon by defending humanity through love. Many Christians interpret Christ’s sacrificial death like this, too. All Christians believe Jesus died and rose to life, meaning that death does not have the permanence and finality it might have had otherwise. Many Christians believe that while Jesus conquers Satan and death through his own death and resurrection, we humans still have to learn to grow in love before the full extent of that sacrifice can be realized in the world. Only love can save the world: both the love that motivated the savior and the love that needs to motivate our hearts.

It’s so important that we can see Wonder Woman as a genuine Christ figure. We get so many stories of straight white men saving the world. In Western culture even Jesus is most often portrayed as a straight white man, when the historical Jesus Christ was Middle Eastern and there’s little to no evidence concerning his sexual orientation. Seeing Jesus in Wonder Woman can help us see everyone in Jesus. As Jesus himself says in the Gospel of Matthew, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for me.” Learning to see Jesus in new ways, even as Mother, can help Christians be better Christians.

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2 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Can Wonder Woman Be Jesus?

  1. When I saw the film for the second time last night, I thought it was interesting that in the moment she defeats Ares and gives him the final shot that destroys him, she is floating in the air and in “crucifix position,” i.e. arms outstretched. While it makes for a dramatic pose, certainly, I think it was deliberate symbolism on the part of the film’s creators to suggest what you’re saying here.

  2. Pingback: Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Where are My Goddesses? | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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