Popular fiction, at its best, is like walking down the street holding a mirror facing outward. It starts as nothing more than a reflection of who we are as a society, but the spectacle of it forces us to want to improve ourselves. Our image is never as attractive as we’d like, so the temptation to at least straighten our hair is instinctive.
Sadly, some things are so ingrained in the culture that they usually go unsaid. One thing I was recently discussing was the tendency to include a Christ figure as a central character. From ET to Harry Potter to Neo and many others, some kind of suffering redeemer has become popular in a way that was not true even twenty years ago.
I was chatting with Nina Munteanu on her thoughtful blog “The Alien Next Door” on this topic. She has a way getting to the heart of things quickly, and doesn’t ignore good ideas:
My initial take on this phenom is that Western Culture is at a complete dead-end and won’t go anywhere until we retrace our steps. It’s as if we are constantly reffing back on ourselves, incapable of going anywhere except the most worn path. What makes this so much worse is the separation that has occurred between Jesus the Teacher and Christ the Redeemer.
The use of Redemption themes in art goes back a long way. My favorite is “The Great Gate of Kiev”, or the final movement of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. The story was that Mussorgsky’s good friend Viktor Hartmann had just died, and an exhibit of his works was organized to benefit his widow and kids. Mussorgsky would premiere a new work for piano highlighting the works, saving his plans for a new city gate for the end. The work is triumphant, yet staggers with odd grace notes and stammers through triplets. The church bells ring out clear above it all. And yet, despite being cut off at the knees with grief, Mussorgsky states his belief in Redemption through art, even if at times it is hard to hear that he believes it himself. This is what Redemption with Grace sounds like.
Compare this for a moment with a popular Redeemer for our time, Neo from “The Matrix”. He suffers for the sins of the world, and he is prepared to deliver salvation. He does it through fighting, often with weapons. Or Harry Potter, who has to die so that evil is vanquished from the world, after a terribly violent confrontation. Is this what the New Testament taught us?
Our concept of Redemption has invariably been separated from the Grace that created it. Jesus the Teacher has been somehow separated from these modern shadows of Christ the Redeemer. Jesus the Teacher said to “turn the other cheek”, but today’s Redeemers kick serious ass. Jesus the Teacher told us that what is done in love is blessed, but today’s Redeemers have more personal and interior motivations.
How could the two have become separated? I can’t answer that. It makes no sense to me at all, but I cannot find any other way to describe the problem. Jesus the Teacher is simply a very different person from Christ the Redeemer, and the latter is a superstar in comparison to the former. What I do know that there is an article in Time right now regarding today’s Pentacostal and Evangelical Christian movements that writes completely around this problem, just like every other aspect of our culture:
The Beattitudes have become rather old fashioned, it seems, as has the idea of Grace. My own use of a Jesus figure in “Downriver” was very deliberately done through the foundation of Grace and within a strongly cultural context. 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.