Throwback Thursdays: Men in Black

men-in-blackFor this week’s installment of Throwback Thursdays, I want to give a throwback to another one of my favorite childhood movies—1997’s Men In Black. I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately and since it’s on Netflix in Canada, I’ve been rewatching it quite a lot and I find it’s still fun, enjoyable, and comforting.

Spoilers for the movie below, obviously.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Religious But Not Spiritual

A while ago Stinekey wrote a post about people who call themselves spiritual, but not religious. What people generally mean by this is that they do believe in a “something more”, but they’re not attached to a specific religious belief system. While pondering a topic for my own post I considered that the opposite, things that are religious but not spiritual, are also a common feature in media.

What do I mean by that? Well, I mean that different forms of media often use religious figures in their stories without showing any spiritual aspect of said religion. And while I think this happens across faiths, a lot of pagan pantheons get this short shrift more often, probably because the general public doesn’t usually think of Greek or Egyptian or Norse deities as being worshiped in the modern day.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Satan is Literally a Dark Wizard

When you grow up reading a lot of genre fiction, especially young adult and high fantasy, a major turning point in your emotional growth is realizing that “the dark lord”, as you have come to know this all-too-common character archetype, doesn’t really exist. In reality, evil as an ideal is never made manifest in a single adversary whose sole objective is to destroy and corrupt the goodness in the world. Sure, there are people who are “bad” from your own perspective, and bad qualities like selfishness, prejudice, and lack of empathy are generally culturally agreed upon, but even the worst people are generally heroes in their own minds, people who have not yet been shown the error of their ways. No one sets out to be Sauron or the White Witch or Voldemort, and no matter how much power and influence bad people achieve, I know of no instance where anyone has claimed that their ultimate goal was the advancement of the cause of evil.

Most frameworks of morality grasp this concept pretty well: that good and evil are not absolutes, and that humans inherently have the capacity for both positive and negative behaviors. The major exception seems to be in certain camps of modern Christianity, which assigns a motive and influence to Satan that is very much comparable to the fictional and largely metaphorical presence of Sauron and other prototypical “dark lords”. While in Tolkien’s case, Sauron was a metaphor for industrialization, and in the case of children’s books, morality is artificially externalized and simplified for the sake of young readers, the Christian reading of Satan is—as far as many active faith communities are concerned—neither metaphorical nor exaggerated. Satan is literally a dark wizard.

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Throwback Thursdays: Babylon 5

babylon-5-stationIn this week’s Throwback Thursday, I want to talk about my favorite sci-fi show of all time—Babylon 5. I feel like the voice-over intro which begins each episode is a pretty good summary of what the show is about:

It was the dawn of the third age of mankind – ten years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully. It’s a port of call – home away from home – for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Humans and aliens wrapped in two million five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal… all alone in the night. It can be a dangerous place, but it’s our last best hope for peace. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2258. The name of the place is Babylon 5.

Babylon 5 has had a special place in my heart since I was a child. Unlike Stargate SG-1, which I wrote about a while back, Babylon 5 used to be on late at night (like, 10pm) and my dad used to watch it every week. So, sometimes after my mom had put my brother and me to bed, I would quietly get up and sneak into the living room and ask my dad to let me watch it with him. And he would sometimes let me.

Unfortunately, not much of the show stuck in my memory and what did stick might not not been very accurate, so a couple of years ago, I decided to watch it all again. I hoped it would be good, but I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Christian Objects Are Magic

Let me start off by saying this: magic is a part of Christianity. In fact, it’s a part of every religion. Special prayers, powerful objects like crosses or holy water, and even the Church building itself all are seen to carry some sort of supernatural power. These things contain not only God’s power, but also are meant to protect us from evil. These are all magical elements.

Christians don’t have a good history with magic. All the way back in the Old Testament magic and sorcery are condemned as evil, but like many things in the Bible, this is also contradictory with other teachings. In a book not included in most Christian biblical canons, The Testament of Solomon, is actually a magical textbook. Solomon, the wisest of all the Old Testament kings, learns magic that allows him to summon and control demons (and angels to some degree). It’s a fascinating read and I suggest that everyone pick it up at some point. Just be wary about trying anything you learn in there, as it might not go so well for you.

In some ways I actually think whether magic is good or bad isn’t contradicted in the Bible. Magic is good if you learn your skills from God or the angels and honor them for that accordingly. Magic only becomes bad if it’s learned from devils (or evil spirits), if it’s used for your own selfish purposes, or if the user starts to believe the power they have is their own and not God’s. If you still don’t believe that magic is a part of Christianity, then I offer you this example: almost all Catholics I know, when attempting to sell their house, will go out and buy a statue of St. Joseph and bury him upside down in the backyard. This will supposedly help your house sell faster and many Catholics I met swear buy it. I have no idea where this tradition comes from, but if this isn’t an example of magic in faith, I don’t know what is.

So yes, magic is a part of Christianity. I have no problem with that. What does drive me crazy is when characters in TV shows or movies use these Christian objects and attribute nothing back to Christianity or Christian magic. This object banishes demons, because… well, it does. No one thinks about why.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

Buffy is guilty of this particular issue though I usually tend to give the show a pass. Buffydoesn’t have any particular mythology that it is drawing from. It’s one of those shows that constructs its own mythology from various other mythologies. The only time I ever get annoyed with Buffy is when they interpret Bible passages, because they usually interpret them so wrong that it kind of makes me laugh. That being said, they do interpret biblical passages in a way that fits their own personal mythology though. So again, Buffy is really more borrowing from various mythologies than being true to just one.

What really bothers me is their use of crosses and Halloween. Really all vampire movies and shows that employ the cross mythology does this, but it still bothers me. The cross repels vampires. Why? Nobody knows or at least no one explains. Buffy always wears a cross, but only as protection, not any real belief. I think I would be okay with the cross repelling vampires if all holy symbols did the same thing. Like if the Star of David, or a statue of Krishna would also repel and burn vampires, it could be viewed as a sign that all the good forces in the universe condemn the evil vampires. But this only works with crosses, which is never explained and no preference for Christianity is ever expressed in the show. To me this just makes it confusing. Just because there is magic in a show doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be rules. The magic should at least kind of make sense.

Halloween is another thing in Buffy that bothers me. The supernatural takes a night off on Halloween, but this is never explained either. I have a theory that it is because Halloween is actually All Hallows Eve, which comes before All Saints Day, a Christian holiday. Halloween, whether Pagan or Christian, has some religious significance, but any connection to those faiths is swept under the rug, leaving those of us who pay attention to things like that perplexed.

Supernatural:

Until season four and the introduction of beautiful, perfect-in-every-way Castiel, Supernatural would often annoy me. Supernatural draws on Pagan and Judeo-Christian mythology, but I would argue it draws more on the Judeo-Christian mythology (especially in later seasons). What would drive me crazy wasn’t so much that they used these magical Christian objects to fight evil, but that they would use them and then assert that not only was there no God, but there was no good higher power at all. What?! Okay, Sam believed in God and angels, but Dean never did. Dean didn’t even believe in Lucifer until season four. And while this may be in character for Sam to believe and Dean not to, it drove me crazy that Dean wouldn’t believe and then use a Latin exorcism, invoke the name of Christ to reveal demons, use rosaries, holy water, and devils traps to fight off demons. Where do you think that stuff comes from, Dean? Why would invoking Christ’s name work on demons if there is no God? Why would holy water work if there aren’t any good forces in the universe? Did the demons get together with the hunters one day and just agree that certain things would be allowed to hurt them? While the show eventually fixed this with the introduction of the angels and revealing that God does exist, those first three seasons will always be endlessly frustrating for me because that.

There are more shows like this, but this is all we have time for right now. Feel free to tell me about other shows, movies, books, etc. that do this. And feel free to point out how pop culture does this with other religions besides Christianity.

And as always, tune in next time and get 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!

 

Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: The Divine Feminine

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 the Bible. 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…