In his book The Poilitics of Discipleship, Graham Ward explains that a new visibility of religion exists, citing the explosive popularity of Harry Potter as an example. Religious themes and supernatural imagery are everywhere these days, but rarely conform to any existing religion, usually borrowing heavily from them in an attempt to express some other-ness. To put it another way, people are seeking or sensing that there is more to this world than we can see and touch, and they’re talking about it, but not in Church. When I try to make sense of theological themes in popular culture, it’s usually quite difficult to say that they’re Christian even if they borrow extensively from Christianity. I picked up a cheap book about the Gospel of the Matrix (though I never did read it), but even if the Matrix is actually alluding to Christianity, it’s Gnostic Christianity; more likely, it appropriates Christian themes and images to tell the old-as-time story of a messiah or hero who overcomes all boundaries to set us free.
Sometimes, the new visibility of religion deliberately interacts with Christianity; however, Biblical illiteracy and a widely unchurched population means that the Christianity they interact with is (deliberately or unknowingly) a folk Christianity built on centuries of custom and (often mis-) understanding rather than on firm doctrine or biblical teaching. I’ve had my first blog request: an old friend suggested I talk about this comic by Three Panel Soul (http://www.threepanelsoul.com/view.php?date=2007-06-25).
The accompanying blog post is entitled “Judeo-Christian motifs in “Where on Earth is Carmen San Diego”, and knowing the comic it’s supposed to be funny (and is!) rather than factual, but it does serve well to showcase this phenomenon of the new visibility of religion and the old phenomenon of folk religion and poor doctrine. Let’s look at their comparison between the children’s cartoon and God.
The obvious place to start is the image of God as playing a game, with all the world as the characters within the game. Many Christian theologians have concluded that all of creation exists for God’s pleasure alone (Calvinists, anyone?), but the notion that it’s a game is just as much (or more) a pagan notion, like something out of Greek mythology. The next point in the first panel is that God, the player, could presumably resolve all conflict in the “game” by his will alone, yet for his own reasons chooses not to. This is a play on the problem of evil, which some have taken to be the biggest apologetic challenge for Christianity; “if God is good, why does he let bad things happen to good people?” The answer to that, as I understand it, is that God cannot make everyone get along and do right by one another without robbing us of free will; without our ability to choose the good, the good loses its meaning and our love ceases to be love, being only programming from on high. This is not because God is limited, but because we are.
The second panel is remarkably more accurate than I initially gave it credit for: Satan is created, and thus entirely at God’s mercy, but is allowed to serve a function (the word “Satan” means “accuser”). The problem in this panel is the dualism implied in the next sentence: Satan does not, nor has ever, communicated with God as an equal (even in a relationship established at God’s pleasure). Christian history is full of legends of the fall, taken from a few vague verses in Isaiah and Revelation, about wars in heaven and the like, which have grown into a dualism (yin-yang, if you will) that comes straight out of Zoroastrianism and a few other eastern or pagan religions. Judeo-Christian theology does not include a dualism or equality between good and evil, darkness and light; a recurring theme of the Bible is God’s triumph over evil and chaos, his creation of light and banishment of darkness.
The last panel, I assume, is talking about Catholicism, suggesting that God does not communicate directly with his followers but only through a hierarchy headed by the “Chief” (Pope?). It’s a fun parallel, but I’d like to point out that even Catholicism does not hold that the only way to hear from God is through the Pope; prayer is, and has always been, our method of communication with God. Further, ancient methods of prayer include much more listening and meditation than we are prone to these days (we usually just talk talk talk at God), and so it’s been a norm throughout the centuries of Christianity to hear from God directly – a concept that had a dramatic reawakening in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements throughout history but particularly in the past century. The comparison between God and the game breaks down when you see God as trinitarian (perhaps why the first panel refers to God as being an “Old-testament God”), because the player (God in Christ) would have become one of the detectives and defeated Carmen San Diego once and for all, and then indwelt (the Holy Spirit) Zack and Ivy and helped them to build a new society without crime.
The comparison is good enough to stick, it’s funny, and it shows how one can find traces of religion and religious concepts in just about anything. There is actually an institute running from my school that studies the interaction between religion and pop culture; I attended seminars about religious themes in Joss Whedon television shows (particularly Dollhouse, Firefly and Buffy), Zombie movies (resurrection, anyone?) and heavy metal music, among others. Christians often get freaked out by representations of religion in culture that doesn’t conform to our doctrines (see the reaction to Harry Potter); perhaps it is much better for us to recognize this new visibility of religion as a positive thing and provide the knowledge to fill in the metaphors, making all truth (as it always does) point to Christ.