Oh, My Pop Culture Pantheon: Gods Alive!

Many stories circle around one particular religion or mythology. However, I think it can be equally interesting when a book or show addresses multiple mythologies simultaneously—when a story posits that all the gods and goddesses from various religions exist and interact. What are the politics like between these groups? The power dynamics? Let’s look at a few examples.

Percy Jackson/The Red Pyramid:

The original Percy Jackson quintet doesn’t touch on any sort of gods outside the Greek pantheon, and on its face, The Kane Chronicles (of which I’ve only read The Red Pyramid) is entirely about Egyptian mythology. However, there was one really interesting moment in The Red Pyramid when the two main kids are hiding out in New York and they look over to Manhattan, seeing thunder and lightning over the Empire State Building (new home of Mt. Olympus in the Jackson books). When they ask their mentor about it, they are told that Manhattan is Greek territory and Egyptian deities don’t go there. This suggests a world where all the pantheons of previous civilizations still exist, are aware of each other, have at some point agreed upon divisions of American territory between themselves, and respect each other’s power. This one throwaway line made me wonder what other pantheons Riordan will eventually delve into—Norse? Aztec? Hindu? I’m excited to see.

Supernatural:

Lady Geek Girl touched on the fail of Supernatural where it concerns Hinduism last week, but I’d say that it fails concerning pretty much any non-Christian religion. The idea that the show appears to work from is that the gods of all other traditions, including ancient ‘pagan’ (the name they give to any sort of Druidic or less-well known gods, mostly Anglo-Saxon) traditions, still exist, but their power is derived from their worshippers, and they no longer have as much clout in the modern world because of the rise of Christianity. LGG pointed out that in this mindset, the Hindu and other Asian gods should be much more powerful than they are portrayed, but most deities of non-Christian mythologies, although more powerful than the average ghost or demon, can usually be killed with a fancy stake or bled-upon ram’s horn. Nothing from a non-Christian pantheon can come close to the power of the angels or other Christian powers, and the non-Christian deities are portrayed as having to band together to protect themselves from complete destruction.

American Gods:

American Gods is a wonderful book by Neil Gaiman.  It also works from the idea that gods are only as powerful as the population of their worshippers can make them, but takes this concept in a far different direction from Supernatural. This story posits that the gods of the Old World immigrated to the US like so many other groups in the last two centuries, and have lost much of their power. Now, the old gods are banding together, and they are massing to make war against the New Gods of America—not Jesus or the Judeo-Christian God, but rather powerful personifications of Media, Celebrity, Drugs, and other fascinations of modern culture. The focus of this story is on Norse myth, but many other traditions’ gods are portrayed, in what I think is a realistic way: they all are aware of each other’s powers and are justifiably suspicious of each other, but have grudgingly put aside their differences to defend their place in America.

What stories have I missed? Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comes to mind, but I figured I’d focus on the more topical of Gaiman’s works here. Anyway, let me know in the comments, and, as always, tune in next time to get some religion!

Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Christianity in Anime

As with any situation where some people try to represent a tradition they don’t really know that much about, the Japanese are pretty ace at reimagining Christianity in the weirdest of ways. (Disclaimer: Yes, I know America does the same thing when they make every Buddhist monk a master of kung fu or something, I know as far as Christianity is concerned Christians have some of the least space historically to complain about appropriation, but that’s not what I’m gonna focus on today.)

Christianity first came to southern Japan with the first merchants during the European age of exploration, circa the 17th century. The Japanese government had finally restabilized itself following the Warring States era, and the ruling Tokugawa family decided that the foreigners’ religion (among other foreigner things) was a threat to the nation, and implemented a closed-borders policy, where no foreigners went in and no Japanese went out. Part of this policy made being a Christian a capital offense. This went on for over two and a half centuries, until the Tokugawa regime was toppled, America bullied Japan into reopening, and a new government was established. To this day, the population of Christians in Japan is about 1% of the total number of Japanese.

tl;dr: Historically and currently, Japan doesn’t have a lot of Christians and the Japanese in general (yay sweeping generalizations) don’t really get or care about getting a grasp on the meat of the doctrine, since they mostly all follow a vaguely atheist mix of Buddhism and Shintoism.

In part, because of the fact that Christianity isn’t really understood, there are a lot of really crazy anime that involve Christianity since it can make a theoretically great backdrop for anything with a supernatural plot. You may remember my Manga Mondays review of Hellsing? Well, it’s my honor to start there.

Hellsing’s main characters are English Protestants fighting vampires, and good god are they bloodthirsty, but not as bloodthirsty as the amoral and nigh-sociopathic forces of the

Catholic Church’s Division XIII, the Iscariot unit. They are basically a holdover from the most vicious and brutal of Crusaders—willing to kill anything—human or supernatural—that doesn’t profess the Catholic faith. At one point in the story, the Pope (who may or may not be JPII) gives permission for actual Catholic crusader armies to level London, as the first step in a Reconquista of the heathen Protestant islands. Yikes. The Church is by no means perfect, but I’m pretty sure that the Vatican does not have legions of crack soldiers for this sort of purpose.

Also, there’s, y’know, the gun.

There are also a lot of misconceptions about religious life. For example, Sister Esther of Trinity Blood and Sister Rosette of Chrono Crusade both have romantic interests in their male companions, Father Abel, a priest, and Chrono, a demon, respectively. Rosette’s also drawn in a super fetishistic way—thigh highs and garter belts under that habit? Of course there are. Trinity Blood also goes against current Catholic doctrine with a female Cardinal, but Caterina’s so badass that I don’t give any bothers about that.

In Rurouni Kenshin filler as well as in Samurai Champloo, the main characters encounter secret Christian groups in southern Japan, and they often wield plans to take over Japan like real Christian groups wielded rosaries.

A particularly strange case is that of Saiyuki—the story is based on a founding myth of Mahayana Buddhism, for cripe’s sake, and the main character is a Buddhist priest, but in the anime at least, we see statues of the Virgin Mary protecting a town from demons in a way that nothing Buddhist can.

And there are dozens of anime, mostly romantic (they’re a particularly common setting for shoujo-ai like Maria-sama ga Miteru) that are set in Catholic schools, but where the chapels are more of a place for a dramatic scene change than a place for worship.

I could go on for a long time, here. But I won’t. There are certainly anime that represent Christianity more reasonably. In the new anime Kids on the Slope/Sakamichi no Apollon, the main character moves to Kyushu and the friends he makes are Christians. In general, he has a typical Japanese reaction—he doesn’t get it, but he doesn’t resent them or try to convert them or anything either. They just happen to be Christian, with no guns, demons, or corny, chaste, and over-dramatic girls-love involved. To be fair, this is a slice of life anime and most of the rest I mentioned are fantasy in some way, but nevertheless, it was a breath of fresh air to see it.

What other anime do you know of with weird religious overtones or themes, readers? Let me know in the comments. For now, though, that’s a wrap on this week’s Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus.

Tune in next time and get some religion!

Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: The Antichrist

Every end of the world tale needs the antichrist. It’s not really the end of the world without him.

For those of you that may not know, the antichrist is kind of the evil mirror image of Christ, as the name suggests. The antichrist is mentioned in the Bible several times, along with other antichrists, who are connected to him. It’s not strictly stated what the antichrist(s) relationship is to Satan. We only know that the antichrist is a bad person who will do many bad things.

In our pop culture, however, the antichrist is always directly tied to Satan. This isn’t a complete invention of pop culture; though no explicit relationship is stated in the Bible, the relationship between Satan and the antichrist is in many Christian traditions. Some think the antichrist is Satan incarnated in human form, much like Jesus was God incarnated in human form. Others think the antichrist is autonomous from Satan, but rather is Satan’s son following after his father in the ways of evil. However, this leads to an interesting theme that’s been popping up in our pop culture. Let’s take a look!

There are a lot of movies with adult antichrists, but I don’t want to talk about those. Why? Because they’re boring. Adult antichrists are always evil, mustache-twirling villains with little to no personality. Who wants to read a post about that? No one, that’s who. I would like to talk about the antichrist’s evolution in pop culture though. You see, somewhere along the line someone realized that if the antichrist was in human form and was supposed to be this mirror image to Christ, well then, he had to grow up like Christ, right?

The Omen:

The Omen is one of my all-time favorite horror movies. It takes that basic idea that people sometimes speculate on: if you met someone who you knew would grow up to be evil could/would you kill them when they were an innocent child? Damian, our little antichrist, is not an innocent child, I don’t even think any part of him is human, but to most of the adults around him he appears to be, thus dealing with the moral debate of the above question.

Some brief background information: Robert Thorn, the U.S. ambassador to England, and his wife Katherine suffer a tragedy when Katherine’s baby is born dead, but a “kind” priest points out that another baby lost its mother. He convinces Robert to switch the babies and spare his wife the sorrow of losing their baby. Thorn agrees and begins raising Damien. Many creepy deaths happen around Damien, along with having a creepy nanny, and acting violently when he’s near churches. Eventually, after much convincing from priests and a photographer, and after the death of his wife, Thorn finally realizes that Damien is the antichrist and tries to kill him. He fails and is shot by police and Damien is taken to live with the president of the United States who was conveniently a close friend of Thorns.

Though the main characters in The Omen are unsure and often deny that Damien is the antichrist, it’s only done to build the suspense of the audience. The evidence the viewer is presented with makes it extremely clear that Damien is the antichrist. The audience even sees moments when Damien is simply alone with his nanny that more than reveal his evil nature. There is never a moment where one feels that Thorn is hallucinating things.

In this way, the character of the antichrist doesn’t develop much from the adult version. He is still pure evil, but he’s a little kid. This did have one major development however, the idea that the antichrist could grow up with a human family and maybe even have a human mother. This idea allowed for many interesting changes in the character of the antichrist.

Supernatural:

I like to think that people are good people and that human beings are somehow special. I think this comes, in many ways, with the territory of being a Christian. Humans (also everything ever) was created by God and thus basically good, and since humans were created in God’s image and likeness we have a special place in creation. To me this naturally evokes many humanist concepts. All people regardless of religion tend to believe there is something special about humanity (of course we’re also all humans, so I guess we’re kind of bias).

Humanism is a major theme in Supernatural. Pitting the very human Sam and Dean against monsters, demons, and angels. Humanity, despite all its flaws and weaknesses, is what makes Sam and Dean so strong.

Another major theme is free will. Humans have the distinct ability to make choices that these other beings don’t, at least not without consequences.

These two themes come into play in the evolution of the antichrist. If the antichrist is not evil incarnate but simply born of an evil being and a human than the antichrist has to have that same spark of humanity and the same free will. In the same way that Christ could have chosen not to start his ministry and die on a cross, the antichrist could choose not to bring about the reign of the evil one.

In Supernatural, Sam and Dean come to a town where lies children believe (the tooth fairy, your face will freeze that way, etc) begin coming true. They discover this is because of a boy named Jesse, who is the product of a demon (notably not Satan) and a human woman the demon was possessing. Jesse doesn’t know any of this. Nor does he know he has powers. Castiel, the angel, realizing the boy is the antichrist tries to kill him despite Sam believing that Jesse could choose not to be evil. Castiel fails and is followed by Sam and Dean, who want Jesse to choose to fight with them, and then Jesse’s demon father who is trying to convince Jesse to join the devil. After the truth is revealed to Jesse, the boy makes a decision. He gets rid of the demon, puts the town back to normal, and uses his powers to disappear. Choosing not to fight for either side but remain out of the war all together.

Again this shows the unique development of a young innocent antichrist who is half human and thus, basically good, using his free will to make the correct decision. A decision not to fight all together. In this way Jesse removes himself entirely from the script both Heaven and Hell have placed on him, which is perhaps his greatest power of all.

But Supernatural isn’t the first to write a humanistic tale involving the antichrist.

Good Omens:

How much do I love Good Omens? So much! Good Omens, written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, tells the story of the end of the world. The story focuses primarily on an angel and a demon who have grown attached to the world, and a young antichrist who has grown up with a normal middle class family in England. The story clearly is at least partly satirizing The Omen. Adam, the antichrist, is meant to grow up with a wealthy American family in America, but a mix up in the hospital (run by Satanic nuns) causes little Adam to grow up in a completely average family and environment.

Adam realizes he has powers and at first is tempted to use them. In an otherwise hilarious book one scene comes off as actually being pretty spooky. Adam uses his powers to control his friend’s will. This only lasts a minute or two before he realizes how wrong what he’s doing is. Adam’s powers allow him to figure out how the world will end, and he and his young friends leave to try and stop the apocalypse. Adam faces down the four horsemen (including Death himself), Beelzebub, and the Metatron. Adam, when faced with these supernatural beings, seems genuinely annoyed with them and determined to defend earth and humanity.

“I don’t see what’s so t’riffic about creating people as people and then gettin’ upset ‘cos they act like people,” said Adam severely. “Anyway, if you stopped tellin’ people it’s all sorted out after they’re dead, they might try sorting it all out while they’re alive.”

Good Omens really focuses on humanistic ideals. Adam, despite being the literal son of Satan, grows up a normal human child with good parents, friends, and a great life. He sees the virtue of humanity and is annoyed by Heaven and Hell for trying to make humanity into something it isn’t. Adam himself shows the virtues of being human by living just a normal life and being able to make choices, and the right choices at that.

The end of the world focuses a lot on good people and bad people, the Saved and the Damed, but these more humanist versions of the antichrist ask a fundamental question: What is the real sin? Perhaps it’s not being human. People are created as people, but then try not to act like people because they think that what they are is flawed and wrong.

The fun thing about shows like Supernatural and books like Good Omens is that they explore what really makes humanity what it is what makes them good, using the narrative of the end of days to show how great people can be and important humanity really is.

Next time on Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Humanity at the End of the World

Tune in next time and get some religion!

 

Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: It’s Easter

I know last week I said that I would be talking about the antichrist in pop culture this week, but I greatly miscalculated my calendar and did not realize that post would fall on Easter. While I am not a superstitious person, it seems disrespectful to talk about the antichrist on the day meant to celebrate Christ’s victory over evil.

So for now, Happy Easter from all of us here at Lady Geek Girl and Friends!

See you next week when I will discuss the antichrist in pop culture!

Tune in next time and find some religion!

 

Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: The Evil Woman or the Whore of Babylon

So here we go, the first of my End of World posts. Let me start with this disclaimer: I am not, in any way, shape, or form a Biblical literalist. I find taking the Bible literally impossible. I don’t know nor do I understand how people are able to take the Bible at face value. That being said, most Americans tend to take the Bible literally, and that’s reflected in our pop culture, especially when we talk about the apocalypse.

To say that the Bible is problematic when it comes to the portrayal of women is like saying that Jack Donaghy is awesome. In other words, it’s an understatement. Now don’t get me wrong; there are many good women in the Bible, but there are many more evil ones. These evil women are often instruments of the devil and, of course, key parts of the apocalypse, so they make their appearance a lot in these types movies, TV shows, and books.

In the Bible, the Whore of Babylon is representative of the Roman Empire’s powerful but decadent and morally bankrupt ways. In Supernatural, the Whore of Babylon is an evil demon that takes the form of a woman. She, as Castiel, puts it, “‘…shall come, bearing false prophecy.’ This creature has the power to take a human’s form, read minds. Book of Revelation calls her ‘the Whore of Babylon.’” In Supernatural the Whore’s main job is to condemn as many souls as possible. How does she do this? She turns people to religious fundamentalists.

In this way Supernatural invites its viewers to see the harm in blindly flowing something they don’t understand. Those being manipulated by the Whore do so out for fear for salvation. They are so scared of not being saved they are willing to kill people in order to do it. In this way, the show uses the Whore to point out the real sin that is condemning them to hell. It’s not drinking or premarital sex, but hypocrisy and judgment. In the end, Dean kills the Whore and those following her ask the question, “How will we be saved now?” The answer is they have to figure it out for themselves and that the path of righteousness is a hard one filled with difficulty and questioning, not blind faith.

Supernatural managed to take what could have been a very sexist trope (the evil woman) and turned it into a more complex message about religion, allowing them to elegantly side step some of these gender issues that show up in the Bible. There are many other evil women we could talk about in Supernatural, but they pretty much all die before the apocalypse, so we’ll limit it to this one evil lady.

Stephen King’s The Stand is another great apocalyptic story. For the purposes of this article, though, we are going to stick with the TV miniseries. Why? Because I have yet to read the book, and because the miniseries is awesome.

In The Stand, Larry Underwood meets the young, beautiful, and mysterious Nadine Cross. Both Larry and Nadine are attracted to each other, maybe even in love with each other, but Nadine refuses to engage in any sort of sexual activity with Larry, because she keeps on having visions of Randall Flagg. Randall is actually Satan in human form. Through his seduction, Nadine makes terrible choices, which leads to the death of several of the protagonists. Randall Flagg tempts Nadine and draws her too him, eventually they have sex and Nadine becomes pregnant with, presumably, the antichrist. Nadine repents of her actions and rebels against the devil in the only way that is left to her—she kills herself and the baby.

From a feminist perspective, this could potentially be a terrible portrayal of a woman. Nadine is a strong woman that wants great things for herself, but in her pursuit of those great things she ends up getting in over her head and destroying herself… yep. On the other hand, however, Nadine’s character is very human and compelling. Nadine struggles with whether or not she should pursue her own goals or help other people. She does ultimately fail and chooses the wrong thing, but she realizes what she did wrong at the end.

The only problem I really have with Nadine’s character is that at the end when she realizes what she did was wrong she kills herself. This isn’t exactly the type of message I think we need in our pop culture, especially in one with religious overtones. The harder path, the better one, would be for Nadine to live and try to work against the devil, to actively make amends for what she has done. By having Nadine commit suicide, her story becomes completely tragic, which I’m guessing is what Stephen King was going for, but personally I think the story would be more complex and interesting had Nadine lived.

Nadine, like many evil apocalyptic women, is there for one reason: to bring one of the most important apocalyptic figures into the world.

Next time on Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: The Antichrist.

Tune in next time and get some religion!

Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: The End is Here

The end it nigh! The end is nigh! There have been signs in the stars! War, famine, DEATH! Repent! Repent… are you bored yet?

If you haven’t heard something along these lines from street preachers, televangelists, or crappy magazines, then you have probably heard it from a crap ton of movies. The apocalypse, according to these people, is always happening. Every generation has said that the end was coming soon and that’s reflected in our movies, books, and TV shows.

There are all kinds of apocalypses. Environmental, zombie, and religious, just to name a few of the many different apocalypse motifs. Obviously, we are not going to be talking about the nonreligious ones for the purposes of this series. So if you were hoping I would talk about Wallie, The Day After Tomorrow, 28 Days Later, or Resident Evil: Apocalypse, then I apologize because I’m not.

What will I be talking about? Well, religious apocalypse stories are usually based on one thing, the Book of Revelation, found in the Christian Bible. In order to talk about the differences in how the Judeo-Christian apocalypse is portrayed, it needs to be broken down into certain elements that seem to appear in every apocalyptic story. There are certain characters and themes that always pop up.

So over the next couple of weeks I will explore the apocalypse and all it entails. So what’s up first…?

Next time on Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: The Evil Woman or the Whore of Babylon.

Tune in next time and find some religion!

Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: O Death!

Do I really need to explain why death is important to religion? Life, death, and the afterlife are key parts of any religion. That mysterious force that is death has perplexed humanity for… well, ever. Why do some people die while others live? And what part does God have in it all? Well, let’s look at my three favorite examples of Death as he/she is often personified in pop culture.

Check out the first appearance of Supernatural’s Death.

Man, doesn’t that video just give you chills.

The portrayal of Death in Supernatural is one of my favorites. Despite looking completely normal, if a bit skeletal, Death is clearly a wholly other being of great power. When Dean Winchester first meets Death it becomes very clear fighting Death will not be plausible. That becomes even more obvious when Dean actually talks to Death. Death describes how he is so powerful that to him Dean appears like nothing more than an ameba and even describes Lucifer, arguably one of the most powerful angels in exist as “a bratty child.” But Death’s power becomes even more obvious when he talks about God. He describes himself as being as old as God, maybe even older. He furthermore explains how in the end even God will die and he’ll reap God. And though it’s never shown in the TV series, it is implied that Death talks to God and knows where God is—God has been notably absent in the show. Death, like God, sees the big picture and understands how the world works. Because of his power and his ability to understand seemingly everything, Death appears as this indifferent larger-than-life figure.

Death spares Chicago because he likes the pizza, he pulls Sam’s soul from hell, but refuses to do the same for Adam, and seems to only do this because he wants something from Dean. The only person that Death seems particularly fond is actually God. When Dean, Sam, and Bobby bind Death to them in order to kill Castiel, who proclaimed himself god, Death doesn’t understand that they want him to kill the Castiel god and thinks that they want him to kill the God. Death tries to stall. He lies and says that he can’t, and when Castiel shows up calling himself god Death makes fun of him, calling him a “mutated angel” and says, “I know God, and you sir, are no God.”

I think the Death of Supernatural is portrayed as he is because he is based on humanity’s own feelings about death. Death is the awe-inspiring, impartial, unfeeling force in the universe, but for those of us with some spirituality we also have a sense that Death is part of something greater and more important. In this respect, Death in Supernatural is portrayed extremely well.

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

I’m not ashamed to say that Good Omens is perhaps my all-time favorite novels with one of my all-time favorite portrayals of Death, or I guess for these purposes we should call him DEATH. In this portrayal, DEATH is not impartial. DEATH is excited for the end of the world. It is described by him and the other horseman as waiting for Christmas or your birthday. At the end of the novel, the antichrist Adam faces down DEATH because he doesn’t want the world to end. DEATH wants the world to end and tries to convince Adam to follow along with his nature, but when Adam and his friends defeat the other horseman, DEATH grudgingly concedes that the apocalypse cannot continue, but makes of point of saying that he is not defeated.

BUT I, he said, AM NOT LIKE THEM. I AM AZRAEL, CREATED TO BE CREATION’S SHADOW. YOU CANNOT DESTROY ME. THAT WOULD DESTROY THE WORLD.

The heat of their stare faded. Adam scratched his nose.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “There might be a way.” He grinned back.

DEATH himself cannot be defeated and even the other horsemen seem to continue to exist in some form, but Adam implies that perhaps there is a way. I think this might be implying the idea that Christ defeats it in the act of his crucifixion and resurrection, or even the obvious fact that if DEATH does go through with the apocalypse there will either be Hell on earth or Heaven on earth, meaning that DEATH would no longer need to exist. In enacting the apocalypse, DEATH would actually be killing himself.

Neil Gaiman apparently owns my soul because he has another portrayal of Death that is my absolute favorite. Death in the Sandman Comics is very different for several reasons. First, unlike most portrayals of Death, this Death is a woman, shown as being a young attractive goth chick. She is also very different in the way that she functions. This Death is not distant, impartial, uncaring; she is invested in the world. She adds the spark of life to all babies when they are born and remembers them all, calling them by name when they die. She enjoys life and enjoys humanity and the many other creatures that inhabit the Sandman universe. She is often seen giving advice to her brother Dream and genuinely seems to care about everyone.

This Death is clearly a benevolent and caring one who understands the importance of Death, while understanding the fear and misunderstanding of Death that comes from those finite beings that can’t see the larger picture.

I hope all this talk about Death hasn’t depressed anyone. Personally, I find it extremely hopeful. This makes me think that though we humans fear our own death, we fear the death of everything just as much, while at the same time many people long for the end of days. Weird, right?

Next time on Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: The End is Here

Tune in next time and find some religion!