Jesus as Dionysus and Demeter

Parable-of-the-sowerIn the western imagination YHWH and his messiah have most often been equated with Zeus, lord of the sky, and Apollo, his light giving son … or is it sun?

And yet, the scriptures again and again speak YHWH as Lord of earth, sky and sea and everything in them. Would it not be just as apt to imagine Jesus in terms of Dionysus, whom Greeks thanked for wine, or Demeter, whom Greeks thanked for bread? After all, the ancient Isaelites saw YHWH as Lord of the harvest and Jesus spoke of God’s harvest often enough!

Greek Mythology in the New Testament

 

hades
Hades

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)

And I tell you that interacting with contemporary Pagans has given me greater appreciation for just how often the messianic Jews of the New Testament encountered and engaged with Greek mythology. Too often we skip over the explicit references to Hades (too many to mention), Tartarus (2 Peter 2), Artemis (Acts 19), Zeus and Hermes (Acts 14) and the more oblique references to Ares (Acts 17) and the Gemini twins (Acts 28) without a second thought to the mythological subtext. Yet they are all worth meditating on.

It makes me wonder, if Jesus had lived in India (now don’t start), would he have dropped mythopoetic references to Kali and Shiva instead? If the apostles Barnabas and Paul had journeyed through Scandinavia instead of Lystra, would they have been mistaken for Thor and Odin instead?

Maybe if we let our imaginations run free we may even see ways to engage more sensitively and substantially with the mythologies of our culture!

Behemoth and Leviathan

Behemoth and Leviathan by PutridusCor
I found this image of Behemoth and Leviathan on DeviantArt by a person calling themselves PutridusCor, which seems to be the moniker for a guy named Aidan in Canada.

Behemoth and Leviathan are two enigmatic animals mentioned in the Old Testament book of Job. Some equate Behemoth and Leviathan with a hippopotamus and a crocodile respectively, others have compared them to primeval monsters of pagan mythology. This artist seems to have taken the latter approach.

Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey

Why is Joseph Campbell important? For those of you not familiar with him, Joseph Campbell was an American mythology professor, writer, and speaker, best known for his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The journey of the hero, what he called the monomyth, figured prominently in Campbell’s comparative studies, and his writings on the hero’s journey have influenced such films as The Matrix and Star Wars. He has also, as a populariser of Carl Jung, exerted a noteworthy influence on popular spirituality, particularly with the Pagan and Gnostic revivals.

Heroes were important to Campbell because, to him, they conveyed universal truths about our own journeys of self-discovery and the means through which societies are renewed.

The personal side. My own interest in Joseph Campbell took off a number of years ago through conversations with Pagan friends who were heavily influenced by him. Indeed I was invited to a Joseph Campbell study group one evening. It dove tailed with my previous interests in Jung, the collective consciousness, alternative spirituality, liminal ritual and the films mentioned above. It also presented me with interesting apologetic challenges, for the story of Jesus was very much interpreted by Campbell through a monomythic lens. In essence, for him, all religions are just masks which obscure the transcendent realities behind myth.

Christian considerations. I have found it interesting, therefore, to explore how Campbell’s thinking squares with the thinking of two Christian mythologists that I am sure you are familiar with, C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien. Drew Trotter writes:

C. S. Lewis’s view of myth and its relation to his stories is complex, and would find some agreement with Campbell’s, but fundamentally he disagrees on a number of crucial points … Eventually, Lewis came to believe in a Christianity that held onto both myth and history and incorporated them both into a belief that Christianity is a myth, but more than a myth because it actually tells of real history and a God who, in space and time, became Incarnate, a word so important to him, he almost always capitalises it.

For more on this see my previous post on Inklings on Myth.

As you might imagine, my thinking is more in line with the Inklings, both in terms of having some fundamental disagreements with Campbell, yet still agreeing in many other ways.

But, despite some criticisms, I believe Campbell has some important insights for us on the power of story, on journeys into liminality, and what this means for the study of spirituality and society. He has particularly influenced how I view and craft alternative worship – in that I consider story far more important than style. And, as you may gather from the name of this blog, I very much see incarnational living as a journey of self discovery and social renewal as well.

Faith as an Alien Realm

Jesus_is_a_fucking_alien

Interesting interview going on with Douglas Cowan on Sacred Terror at TheoFantastique (see part I and II).

That gives me a wonderful pretext for posting this beauty entitled "Jesus is a Fucking Alien." Not a sentiment I share with the artist obviously but certainly a raw comment on how many experience Christianity, Christ and Christians.

What I find interesting is the path Cowan offers us, to explore the sacred through the horrific and alien in movies and other media. What do our fears and terrors reveal about us? How does exploring them help us to get under our skins? [click to enlarge]

FNORD

O how truth is stranger than fiction. I just had to relay this astronomical news from Leslie at Karmic Knowledge:

The dwarf planet formerly known as Xena received its official name today: Eris.

Eris is the Goddess of Discord, after whom an entire alternative religion has been named. If you’ve ever attended a Discordian Ritual, you will understand why I am holding my head between my hands. Eris love to make trouble. Whenever she appears, chaos and confusion ensue.

It was Eris who, with her golden apple, set into motion the events that would lead to the Trojan War. Lasting 10 years, the war’s most famous symbol, the Trojan Horse, has become a metaphor for deception and trickery.

Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology, the man who discovered the dwarf planet, said the name was “too perfect to resist.” Perhaps Mr. Brown has a copy of the Principia Discordia hidden in one of his desk drawers.

Whatever his motive, by choosing a name that reflects the current state of world affairs, Mr. Brown has helped to shape the future of astrological interpretation.

O Lordy, the Discordians are gonna have a field day. And here I was thinking Xena the Princes Warrior was a troublesome enough name for a (dwarf) planet.

I thought this was a joke at first – I mean, hell, anything associated with Discordians usually is – but I tracked the source back and it turns out this is official, with the International Astronomical Union having given Eris the nod on 13 September 2006.

Makes me wonder if we should have just stuck with Xena, but of course then the companion moon would have had to have been named Gabrielle instead of Dysnomia and we would have had the fundies up in arms about a lesbian relationship being inscribed in the heavens.

Mythology, Aussie Style

In his article “Junkies, thieves, idiots and depressives” David Dale explores what makes Australian culture and mythology distinctive, and what make foreign imports unpalatable.

Apparently the film-makers of Australia have taken to heart the theme song of Mad Max 3: “We don’t need another hero; We don’t need to know the way home.” They seem to agree with the Hollywood screenwriter Christopher Vogler that Australia is a “hero-phobic society”. And with the actor-director Steve Vidler that we suck at triumphalist movies because we have the wrong founding myth.

Last week this column celebrated the 20th birthday of Crocodile Dundee by asking why Australia doesn’t make hit movies of that kind any more. We got impassioned responses from 87 readers.

Part of the answer may lie in the theories of Christopher Vogler. He became hugely influential from the mid-80s after he wrote a memo to his bosses at the Disney studio claiming that all successful stories — even the silliest comedies — involve a classic plot structure he calls “The Hero’s Journey”. He says human beings are genetically programmed to respond to certain characters (archetypes) and to this progression of events: a person is summoned on a quest, meets a mentor and new friends along the road, overcomes obstacles, enters the inmost cave and confronts the ultimate evil, goes through a form of death and resurrection, and returns home with “the elixir” — an idea that saves his tribe, or love, or self-knowledge. The most obvious example of this structure is the original Star Wars.

But in the second edition of his book, The Writer’s Journey, Vogler wonders if his outline might be a tool of American imperialism: “My Australian teachers helped me see that such elements might make good stories for the world market but may not reflect the views of all cultures … The Australians distrust appeals to heroic virtue because such concepts have been used to lure generations of young Australian males into fighting Britain’s battles.

“Australians have their heroes, of course, but they tend to be unassuming and self-effacing, and will remain reluctant for much longer than heroes in other cultures. In Australian culture it’s unseemly to seek out leadership or the limelight, and anyone who does is a ‘tall poppy’, quickly cut down. The most admirable hero is one who denies his heroic role as long as possible and who, like Mad Max, avoids accepting responsibility for anyone but himself.”

Like all broad brush stroke generalizations I am sure this can be picked apart – the Australian psyche is becoming a lot more complex in the face of  multicultualism – but as a broad brush stroke look at Australian culture and mythology I believe there is a strong grain of truth here, and consequently, some important things for Christians to take on board if they would contextualize Christianity for post-modern Australians.

Post-modernity, if anything, seems reinforce our mistrust of heroic mythologies (read: metanarratives), particularly those which transparently serve foreign interests. Witness Aussie cynicism to Axis of Evil language, even amongst those Aussies who are strong supporters of John Howard and the War in Iraq. Any suggestion that John Howard should adopt such language is generally greeted by laughter  or worse. And the suggestion that Aussies should make an Australian version of the movie “Airforce One” usually has people rolling in the aisles. “Honest” John says'”G G Get off my plane!” LOL

So consider more closely this statement:

“Sometimes we try to appropriate the American myth for our stories. And a strange thing happens. Mostly Australian audiences will not believe it.”

The article focusses on myths of a cinematic variety but what about metanarratives of the more religious variety? What about the stories we live in as Christians and the stories those in the Emerging Church conversation tell about themselves and the society we live in? How believable are the global conversations to ordinary Australians? Many aren’t believable even to me.

The Hybrid as Chosen One

Just a few stray thoughts: Have you even noticed how many mythological messiahs are hybrids?

I’m not just thinking of the demigods of ancient mythology like Hercules, Orpheus and Achilles. What I’m primarily focusing on are the half-humans and bi-cultural heroes from contemporary mythology. Here are a few of my favorites:

There are the science fiction hybrids

  • Terminator – The hero of the second movie is a cyborg who saves the future savior
  • The Dune series – The Messiah, Paul Maud’Dib, is a water world boy who comes as desert savior. The God-Emperor, Leto, is a half-sandworm who leads humanity down the Golden Path.
  • The Hyperion cantos – The savior of humanity, Aenea, is the child of human and AI parents
  • Superman – An alien raised by human foster parents
  • Stranger in a Strange Land – The human hero was raised by Martians
  • Taken – In this new TV series the child of promise, Allie, is a half-alien human

Then there are the fantasy hybrids

  • Lord of the Rings – Aragorn, the coming king, is an Elf-friend steeped in Elf culture
  • Harry Potter – The hero is a half-blood wizard

Then there are the horror hybrids

  • Blade – The hero is a half-vampire
  • Hell Boy (not really a favorite but I’ll mention anyway) – The hero is a demon raised by humans
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer – The heroine’s lover and sometimes savior, Angel, is a redeemed vampire with a human soul

And to take a more historical angle, think of bi-cultural heros such as Laurence of Arabia and Ghandi. Remember Ghandi spent time being educated in England before he led India to independence from England.

As archetypes go, hybrid heroes are the ones who stand between worlds and offer hope of uniting them, or alternately, defeating the alien other.

The Blade character is the one that prompted these thoughts last night given I was at the Blue Moon Festival. Here I was, sitting eating dinner in Enmore and thinking over my previous post on Pop Culture and New Religions when this Goth guy walked in dressed full on like Blade, chest armor and all!

Further reflection: the hybrid hero is often the tortured hero.

Much of the street theatrics at last night’s Blue Moon Festival seemed to have an element hero-worship to me. Idolization of tortured icons. Think about it. There’s an obvious link to Jesus in all this. But is Christian community as we experience it more like a torturing community than tortured community? If you are one who stands between worlds and the community is locked into one world it can sometimes feel that way. But the resurrected Christ stood between worlds.

If we are the body of Christ should that not be true of us also? If Christianity is ever to regain heroic status in popular consciousness (as it once had) we must relearn (as a community) to stand between worlds: to live as hybrids.

I’ll leave you with a quote:

Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.

Joseph Campbell,

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949

Unicorns, Satyrs, and the Bible

Unicorns are a popular creature of mythology but did you know some people interpret them into the Bible? I recently came across a reference to unicorns which stated:

The word “unicorn” is based on the Hebrew word re’em (“horned animal”), in early versions of the Old Testament translated as “monokeros”, meaning “one horn”, which became “unicorn” in English.

I couldn’t let this one pass by, particularly since:

(1) the Old Testament was written in Hebrew not  Greek, so the Greek transliteration monokeros is hardly authoritative,

(2) I have never come across a reference to unicorns myself in any of my translations of the Bible so this was news to me,

(3) but also since I find the mythological links between Christ and unicorns quite intruiging and am always open to learning more about mythology.

Anyway, with a bit of searching I came across a article on Unicorns, Satyrs and the Bible by Apologetics Press where it asserts unicorns do make an ‘appearance’ in the Bible, but only in the King James Version (KJV) where His Highness failed to go back to the original Hebrew and botched up the translation. Not the first time for the KJV translators made a mistake now is it! Anyway if you ever have a rainy day and feel like scanning the KJV Bible, try looking up Numbers 23:22; 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9,10; Psalms 22:21; 29:6; 92:10; Isaiah 34:7 for a chuckle. Don’t bother with more contemporary translations that go back to the Hebrew as you’ll never find unicorns there.

The irony of all this fussing about the appearance or not of unicorns in the Bible is that real unicorns do exist, or at least in a fashion. I recently learned from Margot Alder’s book “Drawing Down the Moon” that a technique for ‘creating’ unicorns was recovered by a Dr W. Franklin Dove and commercialised by Neo-Pagan pioneers Morning Glory and Oberon Zell, the founder of the Church of all Worlds. You can find a synopsis of the process at Book of the Unicorn.

How do I approach this though? Well I don’t read unicorns into the bible myself, that’s for sure. But I think the unicorn myths themselves hint at Jesus, for the blood of the unicorn gives eternal life.