Oh, My Pop Culture Church: Criticizing Organized Religion Doesn’t Have to Be Anti-Religion

Take the plot of any Final Fantasy game—we always have our spiky-haired leader with a giant sword, some dude named Cid, chocobos, moogles, and many more similarities. The games also give us some evil force attempting to wipe out all of humanity. But another thing the narratives also have in common is an all-powerful, corrupt organization or government that controls the world. In Final Fantasy VII, this was the Shinra company. In FFXII, it was the invading country of Archadia. In FFXIII, we have the Sanctum. And in Final Fantasy X, our corrupt organization is Yevon, the leading religion in the world of Spira.

FFX Yu YevonFinal Fantasy uses a lot of mythology, and it’s not always accurate to the religions it borrows from. In other ways, the games do an immensely wonderful job with different faiths. Final Fantasy X is one of these games. FFX opens up a discussion about religion that we as consumers probably need. While Final Fantasy does have both good and bad religious representation, the games are not shy about criticizing the faiths they borrow from.

I wouldn’t say that the Final Fantasy games are being overtly anti-religious in any game. Or, at the very least, I wouldn’t say that the games are specifically created with an anti-religious agenda. Final Fantasy’s big thing, though, is that it criticizes people with power, and religion is just one avenue through which it does so.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Lilith: Vampire Religion in True Blood

I typically start watching a show years after it debuts, and then catch up in binge-watching bursts. True Blood is no different, so while Season 5 is new and fresh for me, it actually aired two years ago. As someone who enjoys thinking critically about religion, this season really stood out for me because a main plotline was the role of religion in the vampire community. The show posits a sort of vampire ethnic religion, complete with scriptures and its very own divinity, Lilith. The name “Lilith” has been given to approximately three bajillion various characters in genre media, but Lilith on True Blood was pretty specifically delineated. She is an ancient being who blurs the lines between messiah and deity, worshipped by a segment of the vampire population who call themselves Sanguinistas. After the jump, I’ll get more in detail about the rich religious parallels this season offered. Major spoilers for Seasons 5 and 6 of True Blood.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Resurrection: Who Gets to Come Back?

Hello lovely readers! Since it’s been roughly one week (and 2000 years, give or take) since one of the most famous resurrections, I thought I’d talk a little about some slightly more recent examples from pop culture. More specifically, I’m gonna talk about that awkward moment in a sci-fi/fantasy show when a character gets resurrected, and then, a season or two later, some other character does not get resurrected. Whoops. This is even a scenario that takes place in the Bible. We have stories of Jesus raising Lazarus in one of the Gospels, and the daughter of Jairus in the others, clearly establishing Jesus’s ability to raise the dead. But how many other people around him and his followers died without being resurrected?

This happens frequently in any story world where resurrection is possible. Why does this happen? Oversight? Quota filled? Price hikes? Join me on a tour of some of the more notable instances of this phenomenon in some of geekdom’s favorite shows. Character deaths are obviously major spoilers, so spoiler alerts below for Buffy the Vampire SlayerWarehouse 13, and Charmed.

Yo, Buffy,  I'm really happy for you, I'mma let you finish rising from the dead, but Jesus had one of the best resurrections of all time!

Yo, Buffy, I’m really happy for you, I’mma let you finish rising from the dead, but Jesus had one of the best resurrections of all time!

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Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: The Whitewashing of Christianity

So this is kind of sort of a Christmas post, but before you say that Christmas was several weeks ago, technically Christmas lasts until the Baptism of Christ. That’s today, so that makes this post in January acceptable.

Not too long before Christmas this past year, Fox News once again stirred up some controversy about race in a debate of whether or not Santa was white. This eventually led to a comment that Jesus was also white.

Pictured: What Jesus most likely actually looked like.

Pictured: What Jesus most likely actually looked like.

As someone who studies theology for a living, both comments are utterly laughable to me. But it’s also pretty par for the course when it comes to Christianity. Many figures from Christianity, especially early Christianity, were not white, but as Europe became more Christian, the myth of a white Christ started to predominate. Now, there is nothing wrong with white people having pictures of Jesus, Saint Nicholas, or any other saints/religious figures that look like them. In the same way that people should be able to see themselves in pop culture, people should be able to see themselves in religion. This is why, if you look hard enough, you can find religious iconography of Jesus portrayed as almost every nationality. As religious scholar Reza Aslan says, though, there is a difference between a personal Christ and the real-life historical figure, Jesus. Jesus was a poor Aramaic-speaking Middle-Eastern Jew, not the blonde haired, blue-eyed white guy you see in most Jesus movies.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Jesus the Man of Steel

superman-jesus-christ-worth1000I loved the Man of Steel movie! I adored it, in fact, and not only was it great, but some interesting Christian images crept into it as well. I did a post before about Christ figures and explained how if you don’t realize Superman is a Christ figure then you aren’t watching the movies right. Well, the Man of Steel movie, more than any other Superman movie so far, lays the Christ figure parallels on pretty thickly. Let’s take a look at what this movie did differently to make the parallels more obvious.

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Ace plays Final Fantasy VII: The Plot Thickens

Final-Fantasy-VII-Aerith-DeathSo I’ve already given an overall review on the plot of this game, but for any of you who either didn’t read that or didn’t play the game, here’s what the plot boils down to in its simplest form: some asshole’s mother tells said asshole to summon a meteor to murder the Planet, so he does it without question. Of course, that doesn’t really do the plot justice, because as I said last time, Final Fantasy VII can become really complex, especially when we take into account the setting and character backstories.

Furthermore, VII did something completely unexpected and shocking: It killed off a main character.

This is not something that often happened in games at this point in time. The death of Aerith has to be one of the most memorable moments in video game-dom. Unfortunately, though FFVII did succeed in giving Aerith’s death meaning, her passing is still surrounded by plot holes.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Jesus in Musicals

The story of Jesus has been called “The greatest story ever told” and he has had a larger impact on the course of Western history than almost any other historical figure, so it’s no surprise that his story has been the subject of musicalization multiple times. The Passion narrative (Jesus’ suffering and death) and the events leading up to it tell a tale of love, personal growth, betrayal, and political unrest to name just a few. These themes lend themselves readily to musical narrative and can be emphasized or downplayed, depending on the creative team’s personal views on what’s important in the story and/or what’s important to the culture in which the piece is created. The three musicals I’m going to look at today are Jesus Christ SuperstarGodspell, and !Hero. Since this is an “Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus” post and not a “Theatre Thursday” I will be discussing their religious themes rather than critiquing the shows themselves as is my usual game.

One of the first stage musicals I ever saw as a kid was a high school production of Jesus Christ Superstar and I loved it so much. I mean, I loved Jesus and though I hadn’t consciously defined myself as a musical fan yet, I always loved musicals so the combination of the two was magic for me. Even though many of the show’s themes went over my head, two ideas from my two favorite songs (at the time) stuck with me long after the show ended: “Let the world turn without you tonight” from Mary Magdalene’s “Everything’s Alright” and “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, who are you? What have you sacrificed?” from the show’s title number. Both lines are directed to Jesus and both indicate this show’s overall portrayal of him: a good man, but a man only.

According to Christian tradition, Jesus is more than a man; he is the Son of God and to varying degrees from religion to religion his divinity is emphasized. In Jesus Christ Superstar, however, his humanity is emphasized to the point of ignoring his divinity. One of the things composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has said of his creation is that he was interested in the idea of Jesus as a “superstar”; what was it like for him to be the equivalent of what we would now call a media sensation? This was his driving force for creating the musical, taking a new approach to a very well-known tale. He was not trying to make a religious education piece and so the specific matters of faith, such as Jesus’ divinity, are left out of the piece and it’s up to the audience to fill in the gaps with his or her own beliefs. I appreciate the humanization of Christ; that’s the main reason those two lines I mentioned earlier stuck with me for so long. It’s easy to imagine Jesus as a character in a story, so it’s important to remember that he was also a living, breathing person with thoughts and emotions just like anyone else.

Godspell, a musical by Stephen Schwartz, carries the description “A musical adaptation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew” which, if I am remembering correctly, is the gospel which was meant to reach out to Gentiles and spread the word of Jesus beyond Jewish communities. Like Jesus Christ SuperstarGodspell takes a very new and potentially challenging view on Jesus and his story. In this musical, Jesus is represented as a theatrical clown which, according to the show’s souvenir program, is meant to make him more likable, approachable. As a clown, Jesus is friendly, fun, and someone we want to follow. (I personally disagree and find clowns repugnant, but that’s neither here nor there, I suppose.) This Jesus is friendlier than the one in Jesus Christ Superstar, but there is a similar emphasis on his humanity eclipsing his divinity.

In Godspell Jesus is compared to philosophers more so than religious figures and he and his friends mostly hang around philosophizing and sharing stories. Eventually, the Passion narrative emerges and is handled quite nicely, but it isn’t the focus of the story. This musical shows Jesus as someone we should remember for his ideas and not his death which has its merits. Yes, Jesus’ sacrifice is central to Christians, but it’s important to remember that there is more to his story than just his suffering and death.

The third and final musical I’m going to talk about is quite different than the previous two. Not only was it produced considerably later (2003, according to the CD I have, while the above musicals came out in the early 70’s) but its intended audience is quite different. While Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell were written for general audiences as part of commercial musical theatre, !Hero, near as I can tell, was written for Christians by Christians which comes with its own problems.

!Hero is set in modern times, but in a world where Jesus was never born, meaning that Christianity doesn’t exist and the world is still waiting for the Messiah. In comes Jesus, known to most as simply “Hero”, to work his miracles, teach his lessons, and eventually die for the salvation of his followers. There are some similarities to Jesus Christ Superstar in the way Jesus is shown to be a media sensation, but what this show does that neither of the previous two did is emphasize Jesus’ divinity. We see this Jesus perform miracles and teach his followers not just to be nice to people, but to pray and follow the Word of God. This musical also includes the exchange between Jesus and the disciples of “Who do the people say I am? Who do you say I am?” to which Petrov (Peter) responds “I think you’re the Son of God”. Like the others though, this show still does try to make Jesus human and relatable as well, although perhaps not as likable as Godspell does. Hero, for example, seems to be very dismissive of Jude (Judas) in most of their interactions which seems to be an attempt to vilify Judas, whereas Godspell and especially Jesus Christ Superstar try to humanize him as well.

What really sets this story apart from the other musical adaptations of Jesus’ life is that it’s really about Jesus, front and center, all the way through. Jesus Christ Superstar is almost more about Judas, who is as important if not more so than Jesus in the show’s narrative; Godspell is kind of like “Jesus ‘n’ Pals”; but !Hero, as you can probably guess from the title, is all about Jesus, and unlike the other two, it includes his resurrection after his death. This is also a weakness of the show, however.

Because it seems to have been written with Christians in mind, Jesus is much less real than in Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar and his importance to society is perhaps over-emphasized. The world in which Hero is born is broken; there is no religion in existence save for a single synagogue in New York City, and an ominous group known as I.C.O.N. rules the world. While I do believe Jesus’ existence and teachings have shaped much of the world, I don’t believe that his removal from history would cause the downfall of religion as this show would have us believe.

From the perspective of a person of faith, !Hero tells the most complete story of Christ, though, and gives the most credence to its source. I really don’t think that a story of Jesus ought to end with the crucifixion as Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell do, because Jesus’ story didn’t end there. Whether you believe in the Resurrection or not, Jesus’ impact lasted far beyond his crucifixion and I feel that Jesus Christ Superstar tends to leave the implication that Jesus’ teachings died with him. Godspell does a little more for his legacy as the final number proclaims “Long live God/Prepare ye the way of the Lord” indicating that the message goes on. If you’re looking for a full representation of Jesus as fully divine and fully man, however, you’re going to want to check out !Hero.

I think that all three of these musicals offer food for thought and have worthwhile depictions of Jesus. There’s something to be learned from each of them and I enjoy them all. If you know of any other musicalizations of Jesus’s story, please let me know in the comments! I know there are some lesser known shows that I’ve seen locally but these are the only three I know of which have been widely produced.