Tag Archives: Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

From Zombies to Christ, Bringing Darkness to Light

Written by guest blogger James R. Crooke.

Zombies, as we know them in pop-culture—apocalyptic, cannibalistic, infectious-plague monsters—were first depicted in George A. Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, which pioneered an entirely new horror genre: the zombie apocalypse. This was the first time zombies communicated, and they have been communicating meaningfully ever since.

A typical trope of their message is the indictment of human societies and, consequently, human nature. Philosopher-filmmakers aim to scare us with our nature and prick our consciences by bringing darkness to light, exposing what is evil and ugly.

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) exemplifies this par excellence. Its sufficiently zombie-like rage-monster was inspired partly by his objections to the social intolerance and distemper of the nineties, when rage was all the rage. It provoked him to ask: why are we like this?[1] One purpose of the movie, then, was to shine a spotlight on the audience, so that they might reflect on this predicament and ask the same question. Among other things, he achieves this by using two staple cinematic devices of the genre, disfiguration and comparison.

Disfiguration concretises the human spirit, fashioning a monster in our image. Generally, it externalises some particular sub-rational, aberrant trait in order to give definite form to it. Boyle’s monster externalises rage, which mirrors our own rage back at us, so we might see it for what it is. Comparison reinforces disfiguration when survivors’ behaviour conforms to the monsters’. This blurs the lines between human and zombie, signalling the real monster: us. Boyle’s narrative develops so that one protagonist, Jim, eventually behaves so indistinguishably from a rage-monster that another protagonist almost dispatches him. Most startling is that his behaviour, whilst monstrous, is so recognisably human.

Anyone who agrees with this comparison will recognise how relevant Boyle’s critique is to a culture wherein rage is still so pervasive that, since 2014, various media outlets have judged every year a year of outrage.[2] We are behaving like a horde of zombies biting and devouring one another. Zombies, then, cut through the philosophical fog of postmodernist agnosticism to expose boundaries, distant and hazy horizons recollected. Whatever intellectual doubts we might have about normative humanness, Boyle’s zombie reassures us that we know that rage is not it. Frozen in its headlights, we are exposed, and yet enlightened that rage dehumanises us. The corollary of this realisation is the sense that we are, or should be, greater than this; that our capacity to rage and our succumbing to rage indicate the loss of a significant stature or dignity.

As my article, “Zombies! ‘They’re Us’”, demonstrates I am not only interested in cultural exegesis but in how a Christian theological hermeneutic of culture interacts with pop-cultural phenomena, their worlds and their transcendentals. With respect to the analysis above, Christian anthropology has continuities with Boyle’s representations. It affirms that rage-monsters tell the truth about ourselves: rage is a dehumanising, destructive evil, not a rational, creative good, and our capacity for rage is indicative of a ruined state. It affirms the desire for dignity this assumes, and the paradoxical juxtaposition of darkness and dignity in the human condition. But it wants to fill the conspicuous silence of his representation—and indeed in zombie movies generally—concerning the cause of this darkness. The Christian faith answers Boyle’s question by shining a light on an even darker, sub-rational force then rage: sin. Explanations of sin differ in Christian discourse (e.g. self-incurvature, pride, self-love, idolatry, enmity against the Creator, transgressing the Creator-creature distinction), but whatever the preferred term, this radical corruption at the centre of our personhood is the Christian answer to Boyle’s question, rejecting merely social explanations or justifications for rage.

The Christian response, however, is not merely an epistemological claim, but a soteriological claim. Christianity responds to the human darkness and longings for human dignity exposed in ragemonster representation by reassuring us that all is not lost and inviting us to bring this darkness to the light, to a dignity restored in the image of the one, who said, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness”[3]—Jesus Christ.

James R. Crooke is an independent scholar and contributor to the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. His latest article, “Zombies! ‘They’re Us’” is temporarily free to read here.

Notes

1 Boyle, Danny and Dunham, Brent. Danny Boyle: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011), 72.

Hollywood Archive. “’28 Days Later’ Danny Boyle Interview”. youtube.com, YouTube Video, 4:25, 27 July 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grm1oJYR25k (accessed February 15, 2019), 0:27-0:30

2 Turner, Julia, et al. “2014: The Year of Outrage.” Slate.com, Slate Magazine, 17 Dec. 2014, www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2014/12/ the_year_of_outrage_2014_everything_you_were_angry_about_on_social_media.html (accessed February 15, 2019).

Berlatsky, Noah. “The Year in Outrage: Our Constant Indignation Is Wearying, but Often Necessary.” Latimes.com, Los Angeles Times, 22 Dec. 2015, www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/laoe-1222-berlatsky-year-in-outrage-20151222-story.html (accessed February 15, 2019).

Hislop, Ian. “The Age of Outrage.” Newstatesman.com, New Statesman, 5 Dec. 2016, www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/12/age-outrage (accessed February 15, 2019).

Hewitt, Hugh. “2017 Is the Year of Outrage at Anything and Everything.” Businesstimes.com, The Business Times, The Business Times, 1 Jan. 4200, www.businesstimes.com.sg/life-culture/2017is-the-year-of-outrage-at-anything-and-everything (accessed February 15, 2019).

Friedersdorf, Conor. “Reflections on a Year of Outrage.” Theatlantic.com, Atlantic Media Company, 30 Dec. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/12/year-of-outrage/579100/ (accessed February 15, 2019).

Williams, Rob. “2019 Looks Like Another ‘Year of Outrage’ For Publishers. Mediapost.com, MediaPost, 23 Jan. 2019, www.mediapost.com/publications/article/330913/2019-looks-likeanother-year-of-outrage-for-publ.html?edition=112568 (accessed February 15, 2019).

3 John 12:46 (ESV).

Images Caption

A shot of me finding light in the darkness.

Attempting to Publish with Images of a Super™ Well-Known Intellectual Property

Written by guest blogger Christopher B. Zeichmann, author of “Champion of the Oppressed: Redescribing the Jewishness of Superman as Populist Authenticity Politics” published in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 29.2 (Summer 2017).

Superman vs the KKK

Image from Look Magazine 17 Feb 1940.

It’s exciting enough to get a manuscript accepted for publication, but since it was on the topic of Superman and Jewish identity, I knew my childhood self was cheering as well. Among the refereed suggestions for revisions was the following: “I very much like the inclusion of relevant scans of the comics. My only suggestion here would be to balance out the social justice samples with ones referenced later in the article that make the case for Superman’s Jewishness – e.g., the panels that mention Samson.” Easy enough: several comic book panels jumped to mind to which I had access and might clarify things for the reader. The editors were happy with the new scans and that was the end of the story, or so I thought…

A few months later, UTP asked me to procure reproduction permission for these images. Though the images would presumably fall under “fair use” policies, UTP understandably has a policy that requiring explicit permission to avoid legal issues. This seemed straightforward enough to me: since I’m not making any money on this article and UTP is a university press, DC Comics would happily grant such permission. First, I was surprised at how incredibly difficult it was to even find contact information for DC Comics’ rights-and-permissions department; nothing is posted on their website, nor on the website of their parent company, Warner Entertainment, and the few references to a phone number I found online were to their old offices before they moved from the east coast to the west coast. After a few days of fruitless googling, I decided to go with the “Hail Mary” option of calling Warner Brothers’ main number and just getting transferred until I found someone who could help me. This took a few hours and several phone calls, but eventually I got hold of someone who gave me the email address to get hold of the right person.

Initial correspondence was encouraging, but this was tempered when I spoke with my father – he works at a company that recently got permission make their product with “major brand” logos on them. My father, in his kind and loving way, informed me that my optimism might be misplaced; if I thought about the situation from DC’s perspective, they had no reason to give permission to reproduce that wouldn’t net them any money. It would turn out he was more or less correct. DC Comics has not denied me permission, but they have ceased responding to me.

UTP and I have come up with two viable workarounds. First, one of the benefits of a digital-only journal is that I can link readers to a relevant page on my own personal website, where I have already reproduced the images for presenting similar work [http://christopherzeichmann.com/superman/]. DC is normally quite happy to have fansites promote their properties, so long as they do not reproduce entire comics and do profit from it – that is, I don’t have much to worry about myself. Second, there are a few obscure-but-relevant comic book stories that are in the public domain, including the famous one up above of Superman threatening Adolf Hitler. UTP and I have not yet decided on which of the two (or a combination thereof) we might adopt, but all hope is not lost. All of this to say, if you’re hoping to reproduce images of a major intellectual property in an article, it may be good to have backup options.

Christopher B. Zeichmann’s article on Superman and Jewish identity, titled “Champion of the Oppressed: Redescribing the Jewishness of Superman as Populist Authenticity Politics,” appears in the Summer 2017 issue of the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. Available to read on JRPC Online or on Project MUSE.

Watchmen, Nostalgia, and Fascism; or, Rorschach Voted Trump (Part 2 of 2)

Written by guest blogger Kathryn Imray.

Click here to read Part 1.

The grown Rorschach’s enemies are ‘lechers,’ communists, liberals, the pampered and decadent, intellectuals, smooth-talkers, heroin users, child pornographers, homosexuals, politicians, ‘whores,’ women who have children by different fathers, and welfare cheats (1:1, 14 16, 19). Some rapists are not acceptable (4:23), others aren’t so bad (1:21). He reads right-wing literature, including the New Frontiersman (7:11), the Watchmen equivalent of Breitbart. His world is a blood-filled gutter (1:1), and there is only one response to “this relentless world” (5:19). Rorschach takes up his mask, gloves, coat, and shoes, dressing himself beneath a poster for Nostalgia (5:19), with the slogan, “Oh, how the ghost of you clings” (see Image 2).

5:19, Absolute EditionImage 2; 5:19, Absolute Edition

Adrian Veidt sells Nostalgia. Veidt was born rich, but gave it away to become a self-made man. He is “the world’s smartest man,” whose computer password Dan cracks on his second guess. He is a consummate salesman, marketing his image in perfume, hair spray, action figures, and a body building regime (“I will give you bodies beyond your wildest imaginings,” his promotional material says, amid the bodies of his victims [12:6]). He inhabits a large, gold-filled tower, has another large house in the south, and watches a lot of televisions. He wants to be — he knows he is — a great man, and he exploits his sales talents to control the fate of the world, and exploits the world to improve his sales.

between chapters 11 and 12, Absolute EditionImage 3; between chapters 11 and 12, Absolute Edition

Nostalgia is marketed through two slogans: “Oh, how the ghost of you clings” (5:19; 8:25); and, “Where is the essence that was so divine?” (3:7). In a letter to his Cosmetics and Toiletries Director, Veidt writes of Nostalgia:

“It seems to me that the success of the campaign is directly linked to the state of global uncertainty that has endured for the past forty year or more. In an era of stress and anxiety, when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely, the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse either in fantasies of the future or in modified visions of a half-imagined past” (unnumbered page, between chapters 10 and 11).

Veidt’s marketing techniques tap into the connection between fear of death and political conservatism. In the future, though, and in anticipation of the peace he plans to bring to the world, the Nostalgia line is to be replaced with a new line, “Millenium” [sic], its imagery “controversial and modern, projecting a vision of a technological Utopia.” The final ad for Nostalgia has a new slogan, “The times they are a’changing,” running from a classic font to a ‘futuristic’ font, and ushering in Veidt’s technological Utopia (see Image 3). Later, amid pro-Russian cultural and culinary artifacts, Veidt’s new perfume is advertised (see Image 4). “Millennium” is written in solid block print across the torsos of two handsome, healthy, heterosexual blondes facing the rising sun. It is an image reminiscent of communist propaganda, and along with the slogan, in a subtly futuristic script, “This is the time. These are the feelings,” rebrands the make-believe of a past age for a future one.

 12:31, Absolute EditionImage 4; 12:31, Absolute Edition

*All references are to the chapter and page in Alan Moore and David Gibbons, Watchmen (Absolute Watchmen), New York: DC Comics, 2005. All images shown are from that edition of the graphic novel.

Kathryn Imray’s article, “Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Do Right? Theodicies in Watchmen, is available in the latest issue of the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Vol. 29, Issue 2 (2017).

Watchmen, Nostalgia, and Fascism; or, Rorschach Voted Trump (Part 1 of 2)

Written by guest blogger Kathryn Imray.

Rorschach is the character I appreciate least in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen,* and I begrudgingly included him in my article for the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture on theodicies in Watchmen. To summarize my argument there, Rorschach represents the position that evil, and the suffering it entails, is a product of human behaviour. For Rorschach, an indifferent God creates an abyss in which this human evil thrives, and into which he imposes his own moral system. Rorschach’s moral system is, I argue, a “monstrous, black-and-white, neo-fascist retributive justice.”

Nostalgia by Veidt

Image 1; Chapter 9 splash page, Absolute Edition

As I wrote about Rorschach, I wondered where this moral system came from, for it is certainly not the only possible response to a meaningless universe. My mind returned repeatedly to a bottle of perfume peppered throughout the narrative, Nostalgia by Veidt (IMAGE 1), and the impact of that symbol on the lives of the characters, who all long for something from the past. Veidt longs for the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians. Dan longs for sexual adequacy, and gets it back when he puts on his old costume. The elderly Sally Jupiter has a bottle of Nostalgia on her dressing table (8:1), and longs for her lost love, her rapist, Eddie Blake. She gives voice to this nostalgia:

“Every day the future looks a little bit darker. But the past, even the grimy parts of it, well, it just keeps getting brighter all the time” (2:4).

Her daughter, Laurie, carries a bottle of Nostalgia in her hand bag (9:21). This image overlaps that of the snowglobe she owned as a girl, “a little glass bubble of somewhere else” (9:7; 9:24). When she smashes the snowglobe, and the bottle of Nostalgia, they were not filled with a “different sort of time” after all, but only with water (9:8; 9:24). This longed-for past, then, this “different sort of time” (9:7; 9:24), is make-believe.

Rorschach longs for the values of post-WWII America, and one can imagine he would be heartened by Donald Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again.” When he walks along the street, “Women’s breasts [are] draped across every billboard . . . Was offered Swedish love and French love but not American love. American love; like Coke in green glass bottles, they don’t make it anymore” (2:25). His idols are good men, decent men, like his father and President Truman, “who believed in a day’s work for a day’s pay” (1:1). Like Laurie, Rorschach is looking into a snowglobe of childish make-believe. In his youth he wrote an essay on the father he never met, whose name was ‘charlie’ (with a lower case c), no last name, kicked out by Rorschach’s mother because he was a big supporter of Truman. He likes Truman because his father would have wanted him to, and because he believes it was a good thing to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. His father never claimed him, the young Rorschach says, because he was probably killed defending his country, fighting the Nazis (unnumbered page between chapters 6 and 7).

Click here to read Part 2.

*All references are to the chapter and page in Alan Moore and David Gibbons, Watchmen (Absolute Watchmen), New York: DC Comics, 2005. All images shown are from that edition of the graphic novel.

Kathryn Imray’s article, “Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Do Right? Theodicies in Watchmen, is available in the latest issue of the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Vol. 29, Issue 2 (2017).

Happy International Open Access Week 2016!

To kick off Open Access Week 2016, we are very excited to announce that in keeping with this year’s theme of taking action to open up research and scholarship, we will be making the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture fully open access for the entire week!


 
The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture is a web-based, peer-reviewed journal committed to the academic exploration, analysis and interpretation, from a range of disciplinary perspectives, of the interrelations and interactions between religion and religious expression and popular culture, broadly defined as the products of contemporary mass culture. The journal is based in Canada but is international in scope, and open to explorations of religion and popular culture in a variety of nationalities and cultures.

In our most recently published issue of JRPC, you can find some great articles on how religion plays into such pop culture phenomena as Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Mad Men.

JRPC is available online here!

International Open Access Week 2016 takes place from October 24–30. For more information, please visit http://www.openaccessweek.org/

Happy Reading!