Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Christ-Figure in Movies/Books: Grace or Redemption?

In one of my previous posts (Fertility--Infertility & the Environment) I got into a rather lively discussion with a fellow blogger, Erik Hare, about the tendency in Western Culture mythos (in literature and in movies, particularly) to portray the main character in fiction as Christ figure and the ramifications of this choice. Erik lamented the separation that has occurred between Jesus the Teacher and Christ the Redeemer. I hadn’t really given this much thought until he brought it up. But his examples (e.g., Matrix and Harry Potter) and his discourse were so compelling, I've had to give it considerable thought. And here are my thoughts…

Today’s Christ-like hero suffers for the sins of the world and prepares himself (often struggling with this considerably) to deliver salvation, usually through fighting or violent confrontation and often with an incredible arsenal of weapons. I was swiftly brought to mind of the many action shoot-em up films whose tortured hero redeems him(her)self through some selfless, though violent action (e.g., Soylent Green, Matrix, V for Vendetta, Ultra Violet, Aeon Flux--all sci-fi movies, by the way, and ones I very much enjoyed watching. And what about all those superhero movies, like Spiderman or Superman 2?). These films represent a version of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, where the original hero leaves his ‘ordinary world’ wherein he/she has some major flaw to overcome (like apathy, greed, distrust, anger, fear of strawberries…etc.) to answer ‘the call’ to be the hero he/she was destined to become. It is a very familiar trope and I'll get to this in more detail in a later post. Erik Hare’s enthralling post on his blog at Author's Den further expounded our discussion. Erik suggested that Western culture’s “concept of Redemption has invariably separated from the Grace that created it.” Jesus the Teacher had somehow fallen to the wayside to make room for Christ the Redeemer.
Here’s the difference according to Erik: “Jesus the Teacher said to ‘turn the other cheek’, but today’s Redeemers kick ass. Jesus the Teacher told us that what is done in love is blessed, but today’s Redeemers have more personal and interior motivations.” The two have simply become two different people, says Erik and “the latter is a superstar” compared to the former.” He ends his post with these compelling thoughts:
“The Beatitudes have become rather old fashioned, it seems, as has the idea of Grace...That is what seems to be the problem with today’s Redeemers – theirs is a personal battle with evil, and not a social one. ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ is an alien concept in a world that is perfectly self centered. All that’s left to do is kick ass on those who disagr – er, behave in an evil way, yeah, that’s it! If popular fiction really is a mirror being held up against us, the image we see is not a pretty one. The heritage of Western Culture has turned into a strange kind of cartoon – exaggerated, repetitious, vain, slapstick, and ultimately too silly watch. For some reason, very few people seem to understand this. They are too busy fixing their own hair in the mirror.”
If you still don’t get what Erik and I are talking about, go watch the poignant film “Pay It Forward” and then contrast its main character with the one in “Ultra Violet” or “The Matrix”.
The definition for Grace occupies almost half a page in the dictionary. When I think of Grace I think of selfless compassion, humility, gentleness, kindness, mercy and forgiveness and both inner and outer beauty. So, why does Grace languish in the shadows of redemption? Why do we watch—and more importantly, totally enjoy—these latter movies at the expense of the former? Why do we long for a strong but flawed hero with personal issues as our icon? One who is often tough, independent, and ‘kicks ass’ at the expense of gentleness, humility, cooperation and selflessness? If, as Erik suggests, we are seeking heroes who reflect our own self-image or at least the traits we strive to have, then what does popular fiction say about our choices in life? Is Erik right about this dichotomy? Well, I’d say definitely yes…but also no…
While I agree with Erik on the apparent separation of Christ figure in today’s popular fiction, perhaps there is another way to look at these tales that resolves this apparent dichotomy; if one were to view them more as allegories with traits and values represented in several characters woven together in a complete and whole tapestry. And that way is to include the secondary character as being equally important. Let’s take Matrix, for instance. In fact, Neo isn’t the only Jesus-figure. His two female opposites (Trinity/Oracle) demonstrate Christ-like traits that embody grace, mercy and love (the holy spirit). Okay, so Trinity kicks major ass too; but her character also provides the chief motivation for our main ‘kick-ass’ hero through her selfless love and humility.
I assert that these two aspects of Christ (merciful teacher and redeemer) are indeed both represented (albeit in separate individuals) in films today: two individuals, one Christ the redeemer and the other Jesus the savior/teacher, often joined through a bond of selfless love; two halves of a whole. The Gnostics have a word for this divine male/female pair: they call them syzygies, aeons (beings of light and emanations of God) that exist as complimentary pairs or twins. The aeon pair of Caen (which represents power, the redeemer) and Akhana (truth, love and grace) are complimentary and inseparable. The yin/yang of a whole. The paradoxical oxymoron of chaos in order (or order in chaos). In Gnostic belief, aeons are emanations of God. According to one version, an aeon named Sophia (wisdom) emanated without her partner aeon, creating a Demiurge (responsible for the creation of the physical universe; Ialdaboth in Gnostic texts) which was not part of the Pleroma (fullness and the region of light) and apart from the divine totality [a metaphor possibly for humanity]). God then emanated two savior aeons, Christ and the Holy Spirit to save man from the Demiurge. Christ then took the form of the man, Jesus, in order to teach man how to achieve Gnosis (and know God). So, for every Neo there is a Trinity/Oracle; for Violet there is Six; for Aeon Flux there is Trevor Goodchild; for Harry there is Dumbledore, Hermione and Ron; and so on. In this way, the two complimentary aspects of Christ are reconciled. And in cases where such complimentary pairing is achieved (e.g., Neo would not have succeeded without both Trinity or the Oracle) we are taught that selfless cooperation is the highest form of heroism.
Erik Hare's book, Downriver, is available at www.amazon.com. Erik says his own use of Jesus in Downriver used the foundation of Grace within a strongly cultural context.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.


Modern Matriarch said...

I would argue that the "christ-figure" iconography is not always intended by the writer, but is the result of western reader response. As Joseph Campbell pointed out, these archetypes exist across history and cultures.

Of course, my reader response would interpret these elements as patriarchal vs. matriarchal icnonography, but I am obviously bias. LOL

Anonymous said...

First of all, thank you! I'll work up better responses over the next several years, leading up until the time I grow old and die. :-)

First off, to the matriarch, I agree that these characters are not always intended, but as writers lean on existing symbols they reinforce them. I hope that writers see my discussion in this area as a wake-up call. Watch what you are writing!

Now, to Nina's great addition. I totally agree that many ancient people had a far more sophisticated take on this than we do. But let's think this over a bit. The ancients were more sophisticated. They had duality, we have ass-kicking. They had complimentary images, we have ass-kicking.

It's not just that we are dreadfully bland as we try so very hard to look kewl. It's the way we express it, with nearly every situation outside of our own experience naturally calling for an ass-kicking. This is the response of a schoolyard bully, a maladjusted dunce with a deep inferiority complex.

Besides, doesn't anyone realize that trying so hard to be kewl is the total opposite of kewl in the first place?

OK, there's a lot more to think about here. I hope you can see that I'm trying to get beyond the usual "violence in culture creates a violent culture" routine and get to some of the roots of why we feel compelled to pummel.

Modern Matriarch said...


I am totally down with dualism. Now let's get the heck outta here before the Flatlander's storm the place and start kicking our ass!

Anonymous said...

Flatlanders? As in Illinoinian, er, Illinoisians, er ... people from Illinois? I'm not too worried about them, da Bears can't keep their quarterback from winding up flat on his back every play (no matter who takes the snap).

We can take 'em. We can also out drink 'em. They're lightweights.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

I know a lot of books are written and films are made for this religious interpretation. Paul Newman's 'Cool Hand Luke' was one in the late 1960's.

sfgirl said...

Wonderful dialogue, Tricia and Erik! As a writer (and reviewer) I would suggest that most often than not the writer/screenwriter is very aware of the iconography, the symbology, the metaphor being portrayed. Yes, much is intuited, but much is also consciously put in. I, for one, do not choose my characters whimsically (right down to their name, and the colour of their hair). Therefore, the responsibility sits very heavily on the writer. As artists, we have the opportunity--and responsibility--to change the paradigms of our culture.

Anonymous said...

You got it, Nina.

We constantly hear how change is moving at a faster pace. Yet so much of our literature/entertainment has more or less crawled up Western Civilization's backside and died.

The way we constantly ref back on very old ideas, each time dumbing them down a little bit more, makes me think there is a definite backlash to all the change, a conservative streak that is lost and bewildered.

My blog, and nearly all of my writing, is about getting back to what we as a kind of chimp really need in this maelstrom of everything changing. To me, it's about people, not all the fancy techno nonsense.

And the way popular culture works, I think that people actually agree with me. The way all these fancy toys are used is narcissistic bordering on paranoid. That wouldn't be popular if we weren't deeply afraid.

Just my opinion, of course.

sfgirl said...

I just happen to agree with it, Erik. And I think you've hit it perfectly with that one word: fear. When we let fear drive us, we are in trouble. It's fear that fuels the bully, fear of others and ultimately of oneself.

Modern Matriarch said...

aaahh, now I am getting the drift of the original conversation. I agree that literary iconography is intentional, and that western literature is dominated by western iconography. My frustration is with western culture interpreting all literary works through that same filter. I agree, though, that writers should be much more aware of the images they are perpetuating--great topic.

bezdomny said...

We would of course be better off seeing Christ as a true friend and companion. As writers intend their written words to change paradigms, Christ, through his spoken words and actions was setting an example of changes in perception and comprehension: "The kingdom of heaven is within you," "YOUR faith has healed you,"
"my true brothers and sisters are those who believe as I do." He made our consciousness itself the undeniable evidence for our own and God's nature; and he made it the object of our exploration: "for there was no form of suffering humanity to which he did not relate." His way was to demonstrate the equivalence of love,freedom, and joy and life itself in its essence. And to show their true power as the ultimate one.

sfgirl said...

Very well said, Bezdomny!

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