Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Gods of Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale constantly amazes me with how unique it is, especially when it comes to religion. It manages to take real religious ideas and weave something entirely new and different from the thing that originally inspired them. The Smiling God, the beagle puppy, and the angels are inspired by Abrahamic religions, but while it’s clear that Huntokar and the other gods are definitely at least inspired by real deities, the creators of Night Vale have managed to create their own unique pantheon.

Several episodes ago, we learned that the god Huntokar, who has been mentioned in passing throughout the show, is the god of Night Vale and has been protecting the people of Night Vale since the very beginning. However, we came to discover that her protection also nearly doomed Night Vale by causing the multiple versions of the town in different universes to collapse in on themselves. In this episode, Huntokar mentions that she is one of four old gods that include the Glow Cloud (ALL HAIL), the Woman from Italy, and the Distant Prince.

Writers tend to take two different routes when it comes to adding deities to their stories. They either use gods of real religions, or they invent their own. Creating your own deities has the major advantage that you aren’t taking the risk of portraying another religion’s deities in a potentially harmful way. However, we cannot escape the fact that we are affected by what we know about religions and their deities and inevitably the audience may realize that these “fake gods” are inspired by real ones. It’s fine to be inspired by real deities, but it’s important to still develop them in such a way as to make them their own unique god, otherwise the portrayal could still end up seeming problematic. And that is exactly what the creators of Welcome to Night Vale were able to do. Their deities are clearly inspired by different real gods, but are written in such a way that they become their own unique god and are not simply a copy of another deity.

Spoilers for Welcome to Night Vale for up to Episode 113.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: “God Johnson” and Fear of Characterizing God

(image via mymbuzz.com)

The second season of Lucifer recently ended and I have to say that it was amazing. However, there was one episode in particular that I both loved and was frustrated with called “God Johnson”. In this episode, Lucifer and Chloe head to a mental institution where a man has been murdered. The main suspect in the case is God—or, well, a man who thinks he is God, and who even legally changed his name to God Johnson. Lucifer confronts Johnson to tell him that the real God is an asshole, but he stops shorts when Johnson calls him by his angelic name, Samael. This prompts Lucifer to believe Johnson really is God. Later Lucifer admits himself into the same institution and sees Johnson heal a human, again causing him to truly believe this is really God. I was so excited about this! After the show introduced God’s wife, I was hoping we would eventually get to meet God himself and explore the relationship between God and Lucifer in a more real way. Sadly, though, this episode doesn’t take the direction that I would have hoped. God’s character is not engaged with in the same way that Lucifer’s is. God remains just this impassive, omnipotent, but never present figure. Despite how our media loves to play with religion in its shows, movies, etc., the Abrahamic God appears to be off limits in terms of real character exploration.

Spoilers for the Lucifer episode “God Johnson” below.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: House of Sim

screenshot by beggar1015

screenshot by beggar1015

The Sims is one of the most popular god-simulation games on the planet. I’ve been playing it since the original Sims game, when babies were made by passionately kissing a bunch of times in a row and children never grew up. Nowadays, Sims 4 is making progressive strides in the world of inclusive gaming. The creators want everyone to feel like they can see themselves represented in their Sims and tell more diverse stories than ever. Most recently, a patch removed the rigid gender binary in the Create-a-Sim workshop. Now you can customize your Sim’s gender, their ability to be pregnant or make others pregnant, and if they prefer masculine or feminine clothing. It’s not total gender customizability, but it’s a new and significant move in the name of inclusivity and representation. We can customize our Sim’s age, education, occupation, and where they live. Sims now come in all colors of the rainbow (literally). Sexual orientation is determined by the player’s will. There are Vampire-Sims, Zombie-Sims, Fairy-Sims, Witch-Sims, Plant-Sims, Werewolf-Sims, Mermaid-Sims, and Alien-sims. So why haven’t the creators touched religion yet? Well, there may be a few reasons, and none of them are great.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Lucifer and Ethics

LuciferMany people, when they think of the devil, think of a being without any kind of ethics or morality. I guess it stands to reason that if you believe God is good then the devil should fly in the face of that and just be utterly unethical and immoral in every way possible. But is that really the case? Could it be that the devil actually just has a completely different understanding of ethics? Well, it depends on which version of the devil you are talking about. And the devil’s ethics in the new Fox TV show Lucifer are particularly interesting.

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Web Crush Wednesdays: Millennial Gospel

I can’t remember how I discovered the Millennial Gospel on Tumblr, but now that I have, I don’t know what my life would be like without it. As someone who studied theology and is a feminist active in social justice, it is sometimes difficult for me to find people who feel the way I do when it comes to God. It’s difficult for me to find people who believe Christ would be marching on the streets in Ferguson, telling someone off for slut-shaming, or chastising churches for their hostile attitudes toward the queer community. So imagine my surprise when I found the blogs of two lovely ladies who were embarking on a project to show what the radical nature of God’s love would, or should, look like today. This is exactly what the Millennial Gospel is.

Millennial Gospel

(photoset via millennialgospel)

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Prince of Egypt & Acceptable Biblical Storytelling

There are certain things that I just really cannot stand when it comes to retelling stories from the Bible. One of these things is the casting of white actors to play Biblical figures who lived in Africa or in the Middle East. Another is the attempt to “amp up” Biblical stories and make them more “action-packed”. That said, I have no problem with people taking creative liberties with Biblical stories as long as they remain true to the spirit of the original. Exodus: Gods and Kings seems to have committed all of the above atrocities on what would otherwise be a good Biblical story. But I don’t want to talk about the racist trainwreck that is Exodus: Gods and Kings (at least not much); rather, I want to talk about one movie that did it all right and explain why future movies about the Bible should follow its example. So without further ado, let’s talk about why The Prince of Egypt is one of the best damn retellings of a Biblical story pretty much ever.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Brother vs. Brother in Supernatural

CainMany of you who used to read my Supernatural reviews know that I am no longer watching the show because I could no longer handle its rampant racism, sexism, and constant queerbaiting. But as always, Supernatural finds ways to drag me back in, and it started when I saw this gifset and realized that Supernatural made Cain the good guy and Abel the bad guy in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Now, even in a very secular society, I think most people know this isn’t how the story of Cain and Abel goes. I know it works better with Supernatural’s mythology and I suppose that the writers assumed that they were being clever by revealing the Biblical character everyone thinks is evil as good, but actually following the original Biblical narrative would have been more profound.

Let me explain.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Vishnu: Hinduism in Pop Culture

When I was a much younger little lady, I had a falling out with the Almighty. I firmly believed that there was no god/goddess/gods or anything else of the kind. A year later my attitude grew and changed and I once again believed in something. I was raised Catholic all my life but after my year of atheism I wasn’t sure whether or not Christianity was right for me. So I began to research other religions to see if they fit me and my personal beliefs better. There was one religion that stood out to me above all the others: Hinduism. I loved Hinduism; it spoke to me in a way that no other religion had in years. I was even lucky enough to visit the Hindu temple near where I lived and talk to some of the people there. Eventually, I was led back to Christianity, but Hinduism would always have a special place in my heart.

Which is why on behalf of everyone who practices Hinduism I would like to apologize for the poor portrayal Hinduism in pop culture—at least in western culture.

Most westerners don’t know much about Hinduism. Even with the various research that I have done and the classes I have taken I would venture to say I don’t even know too much about Hinduism, because it is largely underrepresented in America. Other than Christianity, the two religions that get noticed the most are Judaism and Islam. I’d guess that this is at least partly because they are all Abrahamic religions, they share the same roots, same God, and many of the same religious figures. Many eastern religions, because they don’t have these similarities, are often a mystery to many westerns. Buddhism, for example, despite being a religion with a strong sense of pacifism, is often shown in western pop culture as having cool Kung fu fighting monks that use magic to kick your ass… yep. Hinduism gets a bad reputation I think because it is a polytheistic religion. Because most western religions our monotheistic anything that deviates from tends to look strange. This might explain while Hinduism gets portrayed as some old school pagan religion with virgin sacrifices and brutal, violent, and often evil gods.

There aren’t many examples of Hinduism in pop culture but here are two that bother me the most.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom:

Oh this movie, while mildly entertaining it is one of the most racist (and sexist) movies in the Indiana Jones trilogy (there are only three, damn it). The Hindu people eat giant bugs and frozen monkey brains. Now I have never been to India, but I don’t think the food is anything like that, but basic culture aside let’s look at the religious aspects of this movie.

Indiana Jones crash-lands in the Himalayas and discovers a village where the people believe he was sent by the god Shiva to help retrieve the sacred Sivalinga stone, as well as the children, who have been kidnapped from the village. While attempting to retrieve the stones Indiana comes into conflict with a group of Kali worshippers who kidnap children, kill people, turn people into zombies (with a potion called the Blood of Kali), and commit ritualistic sacrifices lead by the evil priest Mola Ram. Mola Ram hopes to obtain all the Sivalinga stones and use them to rule the world! Mwhahaaha! His is an evil laugh.

There are so many problems it almost not worth it to pull it apart. Shiva is not really discussed at all in this movie despite the Sivalinga stones being his sacred stones. Shiva is a destroyer god and part of the Brahman so he is extremely powerful. Kali is also Shiva’s consort so I’m not sure what the writers where implying here by pitting the two groups against each other. Kali is a goddess of death and I guess many people view that then as evil or bad, but in the eastern traditions death does not mean evil. Remember Shiva is the destroyer, but death and destruction are also a part of rebirth and change. Kali and Shiva are also often connected with the death and destruction of obstacles or evil. They are both seen as good and great protectors.

Going off of Indiana Jones you’d think Shiva was a pacifist and Kali is the devil. The movie pits the two gods against each other as if they are the Christian God and the devil, but this is in no way the case. With all the great stories involving the Hindu gods why the writers of this script felt the need to invent their own Hindu traditions is beyond me.

Supernatural episode “Hammer of the Gods”:

Supernatural is a TV show that draws heavily on Judeo-Christian mythology so it’s no surprise that anything outside of that mythology isn’t handled very well in the show. In the season five episode Hammer of the Gods, Dean and Sam are led to a motel where various gods have gathered to try and find a way to stop the Judeo-Christian apocalypse. This could have been really interesting and it was, actually, it was a great episode, but as far as its portrayal of the Hindu gods goes… it was problematic.

In Supernatural pagan gods are all bad, and like to eat and kill people. Furthermore, they are all a lot weaker than they were when they had more worshippers. Okay, that’s an interesting take, but Kali and Ganesh, the two Hindu gods in this episode, are still worshipped and have many followers today. Though there are still a few groups that worship Odin or Hermes today, they pale in comparison to followers of Hinduism. After Christianity and Islam, Hinduism in the world’s third largest religion. Yet in the show, Kali and Ganesh are not nearly as powerful as the Christian God, in fact, they confess that they can’t even kill an angel.

That was something that really bothered me about this episode. I expected that Kali and Ganesh could take out an angel or two, but no, these gods don’t even faze them. Probably the most upsetting moment in the episode is when Lucifer shows up and kills all the gods! Kali only manages to survive because Gabriel, another archangel, protects her from Lucifer, but Ganesh is killed on screen. Let me repeat that, Ganesh, a god from the third largest religion in the world, is murdered on screen by Lucifer. That would be like Jesus being torn to pieces by Kali in a TV show. One major figure from one religion brutally murdering another major religious figure from a different religion. I mean, how did no one stop and ask, “hey, could this be offensive?”

Furthermore, Kali and Ganesh are shown to be of course pagan gods, which they are not. Paganism and Hinduism are very different. They are further shown killing and eating people.

I also think it shows how ignorant western culture is by the fact that the writers choose Kali and Ganesh as the two gods to represent Hinduism. If a council of gods was called, I’m pretty sure Vishnu and Shiva, of the Brahma would be the ones in attendance, not Kali and Ganesh. I assume they were chosen because these are the two most recognizable to westerners.

I find it especially interesting that Kali gives a short speech about the arrogance of westerners in this episode, but that doesn’t stop the episode itself from being exceedingly arrogant.

So I’ll say it again, for everyone who is a follower of Hinduism let me apologize on behalf of Hollywood and all America media. We are very, very sorry.