If, every Easter season, one were to try watching a different movie based on the gospels, there’d only be so many years before running out of orthodox examples and veering into unconventional, potentially weirder, territory.*
Which is just to say last year found me writing a post about watching Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time and being, well, unexpectedly floored by the thing. They way it captured, rather than a historical moment, the complex legacy the gospels’ve left on our culture. How it took seriously, maybe for the last time on that scale, the ways even secular cultural producers were God-haunted. Its insistence on combining the major excesses of the early 70’s with genuine religious inquiry. And that finale.
Let’s watch it again
In another post here on DT there was a discussion about what it means to riff on classic stories, particular ones that’ve already had definitive adaptations. Think updating a Greek tragedy or telling a story from the antagonist’s vantage point. But it’s one thing to give Romeo a handgun, or set Batman abrood, and another thing altogether to portray Jesus as a rock icon. Or put words in his mouth. For all Superstar’s powerful dynamics there’s still a tangible unease: is it really okay to play fast and loose with depictions of the divine?
Maybe Harold Bloom can help us find an answer.
Harold’s probably one of the few literary critics who’s reached rock-star status, and mostly for his contributions to the canon wars of the 90’s**. He was a staunch defender of the western canon as an idea, one under attack, as he saw, by academics looking to broaden curriculums to include more minority voices. For him, the aesthetic experience of literature (what he called ‘the sublime’) trumped social or political interests (no matter how noble, or necessary), and his ambitious tome The Western Canon was the shot he volleyed over the bow.
The debate over the interplay of aesthetics and social impact still continues today, but one of the things from the book that struck me most was his discussion of the Bible – for Harold, Jesus exists as two separate realities: the historical presence and the literary character. It might seem like a throwaway suggestion but it very much got my headgears spinning.
It reminded me a lot of a conversation I had with a guest once – her name was Yifan and our chat was the subject of another post here at Deep Down Things. Growing up in an officially atheistic country, she didn’t have a lot of religious education and was exploring different traditions – that evening I ended up getting asked more than a few questions about Christianity. In the middle of talking about what the crucifixion means (and how we describe Jesus as having effectively footed the bill for our transgressions), I made a decision (one I‘m still unsure about) to use the word karma to talk about the effects of sin. While sin and karma are wildly different things, she was able to get what I was going for enough to realize the weight of what we were talking about.
“I really appreciate you telling me this,” she said later, “I never got what Christianity was about before. No one ever told me.”
From there the post leapfrogged through a couple tangents on the nature of words themselves. Their power as symbols. As many lovely semioticians and postmodernists would have us know, symbols have two parts: the signifier (the symbol itself) and the signified (the meaning behind the symbol). Words themselves work very much this way – the word tree isn’t the tree itself so much as a sign that’s supposed to point in the direction of some oak or other.
Why does it matter? Well, we’re able to function as a society, more or less productively, mainly because we agree on most words and their meanings. There are other terms, though, that we find a tad more debatable. Love, for example. Or freedom, phobia, tomato.*** The word God has fallen into the second category for a while now – for one person it can mean ‘creator’ or ‘lover,’ but for someone else ‘oppressor’ or ‘monstrous judge.’ And when we don’t make sure we’re on the same page, words (like ribbons, or the colour of a poppy) can leave major cultural scars when things get heated. And things haven’t been cooling down much lately.
Depictions of a character are symbols too, in a way. That said, if the movie’s based on true events, we don’t necessarily ask ourselves if the signifier and the signified line up every time. We see Gandhi and associate the protagonist, to the degree we trust the script’s accuracy, with the historical figure. We might not think, on first glance, that Cleopatra’s been eclipsed almost beyond recognition by her mascara’d representations. But though many of us connect characters to their factual counterparts without much thought (unless having a big reason not to, like in any Tarantino film), Harold Bloom raises his hand from the back of the room to suggest they’re always two, separate things.
Obviously it’s more complicated when it comes to Jesus – when we talk about his depiction in the gospels there’s a thick layer of scriptural authority to be taken into account.**** But movies aren’t scripture, and Harold’s assertion of literary separateness applies just as much to them as to texts, and lining up even just the traditional representations of Christ makes the case pretty compellingly. It’s hard to reconcile the unblinking, nearly bloodless depiction in Jesus of Nazareth with The Passion’s earthier saviour.
Read: if we feel compelled to see all depictions of Jesus as attempts to represent Jesus himself, we’re going to cry ‘blasphemy!’ every time a Jesus Christ Superstar or a Last Temptation pokes its head above water. But, but, if we decide to see these depictions as distinct from theological propositions, then we’re able to approach them with less moral anxiety. We might even be able to take something useful or profound out of the experience, something that might not be present in a more traditional approach.
I’ve already gone on (at perhaps unjustified length) about why I’m a fan of Superstar, and so let’s take another movie to task:
This isn’t the first time Darren Aronofsky’s popped up on the blog (click here for a discussion of his film Noah) and, given his obsession with biblical themes, it probably won’t be the last. But while movies like The Fountain and Pi hinted at the ways Darren’s God-hauntedness his latest, mother!, is a full-frontal dive right into Genesis.
In a nutshell, mother! retells the Bible from the POV of a thinly-veiled mother Nature (Jennifer Lawrence, credited as ‘mother’) who lives with her artist husband (Javier Bardem, credited as ‘Him’) in a pastoral, if isolated, country home. She carries the painfully futile hope of maintaining an Eden all their own. Him is very obviously God the Father, and he increasingly opens the house up to an alarming trickle of humanity – first to Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Adam and Eve, then their two sons. And then everyone else.
If one takes the movie as an attempt to adapt scripture literally or say something of theological substance then, sure, it falls on its face. But when, following Harold’s lead, we acknowledge the aesthetic distance between God and Javier’s Him, we’re able to perceive this self-absorbed, gaslighting abuser as a way to look at things with new eyes. Seeing Jennifer’s horror as people (read: us) slowly infiltrate her house is a sharp reminder of our occasionally-more-than-blatant sense of entitlement to everything. Her frantic stabbing at the people who take (and eat) her son****** takes the enduring scandal of the mass and smashes it over our heads like a china plate.
We’ve been invited into an intimacy with God, and the familiarity that comes with the territory blinds us to how holy-batshit-Batman this whole thing actually is. mother!’s derailed-bananas onslaught on the senses (and good taste) succeeds, where traditional adaptations do not, in reminding us of just that. It might not have been Darren’s intention, but an attentive Christian can leave with a revolting sense of just how unnaturally (or supernaturally) our sins were paid for. All because of an ability to separate depictions of God from God himself.
It takes a bit of mental stretching, but if we’re able to take Harold’s advice to heart we might find ourselves able to encounter profound, profound depths in art we may have otherwise found threatening. And the act of distancing representations from spiritual realities isn’t limited to depictions of God.
Take the way hell or the devil’s been represented in pop culture – he’s often portrayed in a way that lines up with theology, but at times there’s something quite different going on. Take Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (discussed on our blog here and here) for example: the trilogy’s child protagonists team up with heroic fallen angels fighting the tyrannical reign of that universe’s heaven. Or Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic Master and Margarita, sporting a devil in disguise who highlights the absurdities of the Soviet system. Or the demon of Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake, who gives Eve the apple because he really just wants her to get smarter. Or the legit Church of Satan, which promotes the devil as an archetype of free inquiry as well as the rejection of what’s seen as dangerous, anti-human doctrine.
To one group of people, these portrayals evoke the actual prince of darkness. To another, they speak to a desire for integrity – for the rejection of unchurches, untruths and unheavens, to use the language of a previous post. If we reject these devils outright, we run the risk of dismissing the very legitimate thing folks are trying to say through them. Which is really, really screwed up: in an honest attempt to reject evil, we might end up pushing away a nuanced expression of a gut-wrenchingly-necessary necessity. Which is a good way to be dismissed oneself. And to, arguably, earn the dismissal.
Yes, AC/DC and Lady Gaga are playing to the bad-boy in all our hearts with lyrics referring to hell and whatnot, but underneath their posturing’s a valid, if perhaps misdirected, desire for vitality. For life. A rejection of the ways we may have gone too far, culturally, in stigmatizing desire, spontaneity, sex or the body in general.
So when we’re faced with depictions of God, the devil, heaven or hell, ones that don’t match up with theology, we have some choices to make: we can either claim there’s an objective signified for every signifier (hell always means hell) or we can notice the distinction between the two and find out what’s really going on (the proverbial highway to hell being a flight from superficial manners and into a more authentic way of accepting one’s humanity, for example).
The implications here are not miniscule. Imagine a teenager going through that awkward discovering-herself phase, finding solace in the image of a hell cast as a refuge for misfits. Her mother, if she interprets this misfit-hell as hell itself and pushes against it, runs the risk of communicating to her daughter that heaven really isn’t a place where she belongs. If this mother, though, notices the difference between theological hell and misfit-hell, she can ask questions, get to know why her kid feels the way she does. Maybe she’ll notice an unheaven her daughter’s struggling against. Maybe they can find a way to fight it together.
By making the distinction between genuine devils/hells and the devils/hells that struggle against unJesuses******* and unheavens, we recover the ability to speak into a broken culture. We find a way to stand united with people we may have assumed, perhaps uncharitably, to be our enemies – united against bullshit and the appropriation of theology.
But dude, this can be really exhausting.
When we ask people to be on the watch for the range of contexts a word can have, we’re asking for a high level of cultural literacy. Maybe we might get to a point where kids are learning this stuff in school, but we’re nowhere near that yet. And it takes a lot of energy to detach ourselves from the associations we have with words like God, heaven or hell. And most of us have deadlines/families/geopolitics taking up our headspace instead.
It doesn’t exactly help that this’s something a bit foreign to Catholic cultural traditions. In the Middle Ages, for example, the Church had what we might call (perhaps uncharitably) a monopoly on symbols and representations. As referred to in essays by Daniel Mitsui and Jonathan McDonald, there were long-standing traditions about what things like bread or pelicans were meant to evoke. The resilience of these associations is partially what gives artistic traditions their power: by engaging, rather than rejecting, the way these symbols have resonated over time, we find a way to make the past present again.********
But more than that, the ways Catholic tradition firmly associated certain signifiers and signifieds provided a visual shorthand that anyone, regardless of literacy, could engage with. If we’re constantly wondering if lions mean what lions usually mean, they’d be less effective at communicating fortitude or kingship to someone who can’t read. To expect people to dramatically change the ways they process symbols, especially without the necessary education and a matching cultural shift, would pretty much amount to a dubious elitism. And we’ve become exhaustingly familiar with the kinds of resentment elitism can provoke.
That said, with literacy came an end to any firm monopoly on symbols, and trying to impose the old status quo would come off as artificial at best. I think of Canadian author Michael O’Brien, whose popular book A Landscape With Dragons argued that creating distance between the symbol of a dragon and traditional archetypes of the evil serpent would be bound to end in moral confusion. If you’ve read this far you’ll already know what I’d argue.********* But the author’s work is certainly worth a post of its own.
So we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, Harold Bloom’s inclination to separate symbols from their immediate associations can help us understand each other on levels that can prevent or de-escalate culture war. But on the other hand the ability to do so is dependent on a deep level of cultural literacy, and to some it may feel like it rubs against Catholic cultural tradition. More than that, it can cause scandal. It can set us up for intellectual pride. It empowers us. It exhausts us.
It’s an incredibly vulnerable position to be in, having a mission we’re depressingly ill-equipped for. We come from a tradition affirming that strength will come through the cracks of our weakness, that Hands bigger than ours will make up for what we lack. We’re asked to trust, like miners lowered down a hole in the earth, that even silver can be extracted from ore. It’s a big ask. Because cultural literacy comes over time, and never without a struggle. Plus we’re painfully unaware, sometimes, of who exactly we’re struggling with, or what consequences the struggle has. On us, on our culture, on the people we care about.
So come, Holy Spirit.
We’re heading down the mine.
*I don’t particularly recommend Hamlet 2, nor it’s sexy-Jesus musical number (I am not providing a link – you’ll have to do the dirty work for yourself).
**Confusingly, one of the major pro-canon books of the time, The Closing of the American Mind, was written by another Bloom (Allan).
*** IT IS NOT A BERRY PLEASE STOP TALKING.
****But even if, as we believe, his depiction in the New Testament lines up with the historical and theological Jesus, there are those who might say it’s still legit to discuss the person and the literary appearance as two different things.*****
*****That said, the argument can also be made that the gospel, the literal Word, is a manifestation of the Logos and thus an expression of Christ himself.
*********That this’s a profound misunderstanding of the very nature of symbols, and the assumption of an objective meaning to any signifier can lead to serious cultural damage.
Josh Nadeau lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.