The devil is totally evil and you should hate him! Actual religious beliefs affect how religion is portrayed in pop culture, and of course affects how religious figures are portrayed. Now, Satan may not be Jesus. He’s not a paragon of virtue that is upheld by believers (unless they are Satanists, but we aren’t talking about them), but nevertheless he is an extremely important character in Judeo-Christianity.
Because Satan is an evil character, pop culture often pits him against the noble and righteous characters. When we talk about the devil in pop culture, we are often talking about the typical villain archetype. He is evil without reason or remorse. He does everything he can to destroy our virtuous heroes. Not only does he attempt to destroy them in the typical “I’m going to kill you” way, he also attempts to destroy our heroes by tempting them to evil. By doing this the devil gains more souls for hell and turns people away from God.
A lot of people say that Nazis are the perfect villain, because everybody hates them. You will never have a theater full of people getting pissed at how Nazis are treated. Well, pencil in Satan next to Nazis. Our default setting is to hate Satan. There is nothing endearing about him. Furthermore, he has a plus side over the Nazis—he is more interesting. Remember this is a character that according to most Judeo-Christian mythology is someone who was best friends with God before rebelling against him. Again, our default is to assume God is good and awesome. God created us, gave us life, and free will, so why would someone hate him?
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.
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.
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.
Women often get screwed when it comes to being a Christ figure. Sure, if I was watching a movie about the actual historical person of Christ I would be a bit confused if Jesus was cast as a woman, but a Christ figure is just that, a figure. I don’t think anyone but perhaps crazed religious extremists would protest Aslan being a lioness instead of a lion, but alas, Christ was a man so I don’t blame anyone for constantly casting Christ figures as male. There is no harm in that and completely understandable. It does, however, leave another divine role open to women, one that doesn’t have a gender.
It’s been said that portrayals of God are often a white male. While this may be true in religious iconography, I don’t know if it’s fair to say the same about pop culture. In recent years, God has on occasion been black and even a woman once or twice; so pop culture has been branching out. Before that, while God was occasionally a white male, for the most part God was a disembodied voice or hand (think Monty Python or The Ten Commandments). Many times, God wouldn’t appear at all but would be an unseen, unknowable force, seemingly moving the events of the story (think Good Omens).
Women have been portrayed as God a few times, but for the most part we get what I call “a taste of the divine.” Women get an opportunity to touch or commune with the divine, but they don’t stay that way and often return to their normal human states after.
Rose Tyler of Dr. Who goes through one such touch with the divine in the season finale of Dr. Who in 2005 when she absorbs the heart of the Tardis.
To give you a bit of background I have only just finished watching the episodes of Dr. Who with the 9th Doctor. So if there is later information that I do not mention it’s because I’m not aware of it.
Anyway, Rose absorbs the heart of the Tardis and promptly becomes a conduit for God. Rose looks into the time vortex, which the Doctor explains that no one is supposed to see. He further tells her that if she doesn’t stop she’ll burn. This is very reflected of instances in the Old Testament where someone encounters God and is changed by or even dies by it. In this way, the Tardis appears much like the Arc of the Covenant, which the ancient Jews believed was the seat of the God. God is physically present in the Arc and anyone who looks upon or touches it that is not supposed to dies. The Doctor warns Rose that she is not meant to see the time vortex and is worried that Rose will burn up, but Rose manages to hold on long enough to destroy false gods (the Dalek emperor) and resurrect the dead.
Rose Tyler: I want you safe, my Doctor. Protected from the false God.
Emperor Dalek: You cannot hurt me. I am immortal.
Rose Tyler: You are tiny. I can see the whole of time and space, every single atom of your existence, and I divide them. Everything must come to dust. All things, everything dies.
This quote 1) shows Rose’s ability to see all things the way many imagine God. She sees the big picture. 2) Rose destroys a false God, which is a theme often depicted in theBible. In the final line, Rose actually discusses the creation of all things reflecting Genesis 3:19. “…for you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Finally, Rose restores life to those who have died and, despite the Doctor’s begging, seems unwilling to let the power go. Though it doesn’t seem to be because she is power hungry, but rather she doesn’t want to let go of this connection. Many Catholic and Orthodox saints who have claimed to experience the power of God describe it as touching ecstasy. Rose seems only able to let go after the Doctor describes his own experience feeling what Rose does. (And for those of you wondering, yes, the Doctor is something of a God figure too. I’ll get to him later.)
In the end, Rose let’s go of the power and remembers nothing, again implying that the power and awe of this divinity is too great for human Rose to comprehend. Well, not without dying anyway.
Buffy is another character that touches the divine and is even something of a Christ figure. Yes, Buffy dies to save the whole world and then rises from the dead, but I hope that last week’s talk on Christ figures has made you realize there is more to Christ figures then simple resurrection. After all, Spike died and rose again, but we’d hardly call him a Christ figure. Let’s call Buffy a pseudo-Christ figure, though Buffy does have her own touches with the divine. In the finale of season four, Buffy faces off against the Frankenstein-like monster Adam. Adam may be my absolute least favorite Buffy villain, but how Buffy defeats him is probably the coolest. Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles realize that the only way to stop him is to use a Sumerian enjoining spell to combine their power.
It’s worth mentioning here that Buffy, unlike most other fantasy/horror shows, draws on the Judeo-Christian tradition notably less. But let’s break this little spell down. It’s Sumerian, one of the first and greatest human civilizations. One could argue humanity started there—creation started there. Who creates? That’s right, God. Buffy does combine with Willow, Xander, and Giles, and Joss Whedon has even mentioned that this was to show the power and closeness of their relationship. One tradition in ancient Jewish and Christian culture was that God’s body was comprised of all people. In this way, God was all races, all genders. In other words, God was everything and humans were all just a tiny piece of God. Buffy and her Scooby Gang enjoining, in their combined strength, could be viewed as a larger piece of God.
In fact, the same things happen to Buffy as they did Rose. Buffy glows, especially her eyes, she turns death to life by turning Adam’s bullets into doves (Holy Spirit symbolism… maybe?), and seems to see the same bigger picture that Rose did.
Adam: How can you…?
UberBuffy: You can never hope to grasp the source of our power. But yours is right here.
She then proceeds to destroy the false god Adam, who was going to destroy humans by creating a new race of composite monsters, by removing his power source.
So these are some women who have communed with God and been a part of God, but hey, sometimes those women don’t need to commune with God, because they are God.
In the movie The Fifth Element, Leeloo is created by the Mondoshawns, a race of aliens, to defeat evil when combined with four elemental stones, thus obviously, making Leeloo the fifth one. Leeloo is created perfect and often called the Supreme Being. As a feminist, I always got a kick out of this movie, because of the constant assertion from people that don’t know Leeloo assuming the Supreme Being was a man. There is definitely a very obvious commentary here about female empowerment and God as feminine by the creators.
From a theological perspective, however, as much as I love this movie it can be damn well confusing. The religion in this movie is all over the place. Leeloo is created by these other aliens, yet she is the Supreme Being. Are those aliens gods? To create a Supreme Being you would assume they’d have to be. Or are they creating a body for God to inhabit in the same way that the Virgin Mary said yes and allowed God to be born through her. Furthermore, the idea that Leeloo could not defeat evil (evil here being this giant intelligent dark planet which only has the intent to destroy) without the stones (the four elements) limits her Godlike powers. If she is the Supreme Being couldn’t she just defeat the evil anyway? She doesn’t seem that powerful either. She has one fight scene in the whole movie, is later saved by Bruce Willis’s character, and then after realizing he loves her, saves the world, because love is worth protecting even if humanity tends to screw up. She defeats evil with the light of creation, but seems to have little to no control over it and it takes everything out of her.
The priest who is with Leeloo seems like he is part of another sect of Christianity. He makes the sign of the cross and still refers to a God or Lord throughout the movie, but calls Leeloo the Supreme Being and guides her through our world. Leeloo never has a big picture moment. In fact, she seems to know nothing about the world and spends a large chunking of the movie going through human history on the computer.
At this point, I have to conclude, that despite Leeloo and others constant assertions that Leeloo is the Supreme Being, she’s not, not really. I’m guessing more a super-powered human used, once again, as a conduit for the divine with the help of the stones. She may be perfect, but really she’s a perfect vessel, not God. This does not make me think this movie is any less awesome or any less a feminist narrative. It has its problems, but doesn’t everything. Leeloo may not be God, but she is still worth watching.
There is one female character that I know with absolute certainty is God.
God in Dogma is a woman. That’s just fact. It’s clear this God can take other vessels, but God’s actual gender in this movie is spelled out as being female. While that’s not theologically accurate because God has no gender and every gender at the same time, it is a refreshing change of pace. This God is completely and utterly powerful, awe-inspiring, but yet funny and relatable. She has a sense of humor about Her creations and Her plans, while still being powerful enough to see the bigger and to have greater plans in the first place.
It endlessly annoys me that a movie most Christian groups heavily criticized actually has an awesome portrayal of the feminine God and asks good theological questions. Dogma was a great movie about God and faith. You should keep an open mind and watch it.
I suppose now you all want me to talk about the male portrayals of God. Well, I need a break from God right now. What? Talking about God is hard. God is unknowable, after all. So what can we talk about next week if not God? It has to be something big, something that connects all people no matter what religion or philosophy. Hmm… oh, I know! The one thing all people fear to some extent.
Next time on Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: O Death!
Tune in next week and—die! Uh… I mean get some religion…