Monday, April 06, 2009

Religion in Popular Culture

Thinking about Religion in Pop on my twitter feed -- feel free to discuss it here. I may update the twitter feed later today if anything strikes me. The question on my mind is what makes some of these successful engagements, others superficial, and others just bad?

Buffy and Angel, The Last Airbender -- I feel like the fantasy context make these different but perhaps that is unfair.

Supreme. Didn't Kirby turn out to be God? Or am I thinking of another book?

Preacher. This was too ... something for me. Pandering? Juvenile? Were the religious themes interesting in the end?

Superman. In Returns he is Jesus, and the story is lame. In All Star he is our benevolent creator, always watching.

City of Angels, Touched by An Angel, Michael -- far too overt.

LOST. To early to call. Destiny? Egyptian mysticism? Angels? Time travel? I miss Mr. Eko's Christianity being in the mix.

Joan of Arcadia. I missed this but it strikes me as a more overtly Christian, less quirky version of Wonderfalls.

Wonderfalls. Mystical forces mature a disaffected 20 something into caring about, and helping, the world around her.

Quantum Leap. A satisfying reveal that Sam -- along with others -- has been a kind of angel, with a bittersweet ending.

Kings. A tricked out soap opera that avoids being accused of one by drawing on, and taking seriously, the Bible.

BSG. A literal Deus Ex Machina (I think I have to avoid saying more for for fear of spoilers).


James said...

Kirby was God in Mark Waid's Fantastic Four, don't know about Supreme.

Jake said...

I don't really get why Geoff wants to separate Buffy, Angel, and Avatar from all the other examples he gives with super-powered characters.

Geoff Klock said...

Jake -- I don't know either. I guess it just feels like the primary reason for the mystical is as an explanation of super-powers? The other shows seem more to be about, or contain, people grappling with god in the world. Do we want, for example, to call any vampire movie pop culture thinking seriously about religion (though obviously some do). But I do think it is entirely possible you are right and this is a bullshit distinction.

John Kipling said...

Gotta give a shout out to Dr. Manhattan. His blue copies of himself to pleasure Laurie Jupiter is clear shout out to schexy Krishna (another hero/god among men). Krishna is said to have made 100 even over a thousand copies of himself to pleasure his many partners and wives.

Pedro said...

Kirby is a god like force in Supreme, but he is also god in waid's FF run.

Streebo said...

What about Morrison's Invisibles? Pantheism in pop culture?

As for Preacher - were there any religious themes in it? It always read like one long dick and fart joke with religious iconography draped over it.

neilshyminsky said...

The more i think about BSG, the less i think it speaks to religion in any way. I'm collecting more thoughts about its politics, which i'll post to my blog soon, but i think that the ending is more coherent if it's read as an attempt to ethically resolve the redemption theme than make a spiritual statement. (And even if that resolution leaves us wanting, it's still more interesting than the alternative.)

hcduvall said...

Because I've borrowed it from a friend and I'm watching it now: Full Metal Alchemist tackles faith vs. science head on, in a more consistent and rational manner than any anime (and most shows) I've ever seen. Mind you, Alchemy stands in and awesome super-science, but the lesson of episode one is man should not trample in the realm of God and it runs from there. It's also a bit baffling, because while it handles its subject more maturely, if not subtly, than anything else of its type, and it happens to be fairly creepy/graphic, it also panders with cute kids, pipsqueak protagonists, and bouts of broad humor. It is a transplant though.

I'm not versed in Buffy or Angel as well as others, but for all the foofarah they dealt with, there wasn't quite the amount of handwringing you'd expect if it wanted to talk about religion. It was humanist at most, the way Firefly was supposed to touch existentialism.

Avatar touched on some Buddhist-lite concepts, but whether that's because it was a kids' show and couldn't be explicit, or just an non-Judeo-Christian concepts getting generally diluted is up for debate.

Jake said...


You're saying that Buffy/Angel are shows where the mystic stuff is basically just thrown in to justify the super? Ehhh, I dunno, what with Angel always lamenting about the "powers that be." Plus the Buffster actually experiencing a heaven-like dimension. Not that either of those were their respective shows' high points, or main points (especially Buffy, where it sort of DOES feel like the hell stuff is just the trappings for fun dialogue and girl power). Though I do feel bad about saying that shit is less consequential in Buffy, if only because it is the show that birthed a show where it mattered more.

Shoot me in the face if I misunderstood what you were saying in the first place.

Jason said...

You didn't like Preacher? You son of a bitch, I will never read this blog again.

Just kidding. Actually, I agree. It really was pandering and juvenile, wasn't it? It's nice to see that said.

finsof72 said...

I think 'Signs' uses religion as well as I've ever seen it. It uses it in subtle, yet fundamental ways without ever exploiting it, and its climactic finish does an amazing job of giving the audience an epiphany that makes it eerily effective. It's not only one of my favorite movies, but one I use as sort of a refrence tool for myself whenever I'm coming up with a story and I incorporated many of its themes into a short film earlier this year.

Of course, then Shamylan (spelling?) had to go jump off the pedestal he'd built for himself and right into a vat of pathetic ineptitude. He's probably having lunch with Uwe Boll, right now, who shouldn't be outdone with his massacre of everything religious with that 2005 film I don't even think I should name for fear of vomitting all over my computer (hint: it stars Tara Reid as a 'scientist' and ryhmes with 'Alone in the Ark')

scott91777 said...

Hey, this is the first time Fins has made a Uwe Boll reference on this blog!

Who do you hate more, him or Michael Bay?


Have you ever seen "Wings of Desire" the Wim Wenders film that "City of Angels" was based on? If "City of Angels" was to overt, then it was too prentetious... but Peter Falk as an a former angel was pretty cool...

finsof72 said...

Uwe Boll by FAR. Michael Bay has accepted the fact that all he can make are testosterone-driven explosion-laced movies with no logical plot elements and all the genius writing of an episode of G.I. Joe. He even pokes fun at himself in a commercial where he walks around doing nothing but blowing up stuff, which I find hilarious:

Uwe Boll, on the other hand, is the WORST kind of director, I'm sorry, the worst kind of PERSON. The kind who not only doesn't realize how bad he is, but continues to insist that he's the best and that everyone else sucks. He challenged his critics to a boxing match. Wonderful. So you can beat up puny movie critics, that MUST mean you're an awesome director. No. He sucks. I hate him. I hate anyone who supports him. And if you think there is an ounce of sanity in Uwe Boll's head, then you yourself need to check into the mental ward with him and you can both make lego movies and then complain when they don't get an Oscar.


Also, if you love religious exploitation, go check out 'Knowing.'

Gareth said...

I haven't seen Kings yet, but I have to wonder whether that world has the same Bible we do, with the same story of David. If they call a big tank "Goliath", and have a "David slays Goliath" headline, that seems to mean that they do. Since the show is supposed to follow the Bible story, this could get pretty weird.

Christian said...

Best thing about that Michael Bay commercial? Look at the framed picture in the background. That's right. That's a framed Explosion.

And Signs is terrible. Water? Water is your big weakness? Wrong planet to invade, idiots. And the religious parts were contrite, stupid and infuriating.

Then again I dislike all Bryan Fuller's religious TV as well. So I might not be bias. Fatalism and Determinism are not admirable themes. I get that it's tempting, when working with fiction, but I really hate the concept.

finsof72 said...

Yes I will admit that the whole 'hey, let's invade a planet filled with 70% of our weakness' thing has bothered me a little, and has been the constant in critical complaints...but at the same time I don't mind sacrificing a little logic in the name of making a point, which I think the movie does.

James said...

It kind of works for me because the way the aliens are handled more resembles a fable than a science fiction movie.

hcduvall said...

I thought the water thing was funny when I read that plot in an old Transformers comic. That said, there aren't that many inhabited planets out there, so may'be the aliens are figuring "There's a hell of a lot of water down there, but we gotta eat." Or whatever it is they were invading for.

Dave said...

You know fins, I've actually met Uwe Boll, and if you think someone so fundamentally harmless and inoffensive is a "terrible PERSON," you've never met a terrible person in your life.

That said, given your apparently boundless capacity for hatred towards a man whose total impact on the world was making a few bad movies, I kind of wish you do at some point.

Graham said...

Try reading Preacher in the context of it's author having grown up in Northern Ireland during one of the bloodier inter-religious conflicts we've seen in modern times, and the effects that living in such a place would have on an author's opinions about religion and social behavior.

Sure, the Ennis loves dick jokes, sex, facial deformities, etc., but at the same time, these often seem more like gimmicks designed to intice people in reading what really turn out to be examinimations of morality, social issues, and fairly deep philosophical conepts. And they're being geared towards the kind of folks who would never pick up a well written textbook on the issue of pedophellia or religous schisms save for a brief scan to get through class, when forced.

By the time you hit volume 4 (in trades), most of the sex jokes have toned down, and the series really hits its stride with what it wants to say about religion and America.

Kirk said...

I find Kings to be fascinating, especially if one considers scripture to be an open source document.The comic book, Testament, did a similar thing with Genesis and Exodus, though with much more depth and symbolism.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Neon Genesis Evangelion is an interesting example, although it seems to mostly use religious imagery as excuses for cool visuals and such. But fans have definitely taken discussion of "what it all means" to an extreme.

I like Preacher quite a bit, and while the sex jokes can be juvenile, I think it ends up being a pretty interesting examination of the Christian religion. That might be due to me being an atheist who was raised as a conservative Christian, but I do like to see the contradictions and horrible morality in the religion pointed out whenever possible.

And speaking of which, when it comes to Signs, I'm of the opinion that it's pretty pat and simplistic in its view of religion. Mel Gibson got his faith back through the whole tragedy because of something cryptic his wife said as she was dying, and because his son didn't get killed by the aliens. But what about the rest of the world? Why couldn't God be nice enough to help everyone else out from the massive destruction? That's what I hate about the American version of Christianity, which celebrates every little bit of personal fortune as a gift from God, who cares enough about us to heal our colds if we pray for him to, but apparently ignores the people dying of starvation in the rest of the world. It's pretty narrow-minded and sickening, if you ask me.