Thursday, November 10, 2011

Overview of Christ-types in Storytelling

Much of Western culture is influenced by Christianity.  Christ is the source and summit of our lives.  Thus types of Christ have shown up, first in Scripture, but later in literature and of course much later in film and into our current time.  These characters are often allegorical references to Christ who are themselves not actually Christ.  Three of the most common Christ-type examples in film are virgin birth, sacrificial love and resurrection.  Christ types began in Scripture as prefigures of Christ and extended past biblical times into the examples of the Saints.  Christ-types bring up a number of concerns in storytelling.  Do they truly point to Christ or are the merely an attempt to secularize the attributes of Christ and remove them from their source?  What types of characters can be Christ figures?  Does the overuse of Christological references turn them into meaningless cliches?  The use of Christ-types in storytelling is a complex issue that creators too often do not give enough thought to.

Virgin Birth
"Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us.'"  -Matthew 1:23
Virgin births are a common motif in mythology and religion, normally being tied to the child having some significance.  The height of this is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, being born of the ever-virgin Mary through the working of the Holy Spirit.  A virgin birth is a way to instantly turn any character into a Messianic figure.  Take the case of Anakin Skywalker born of the midichlorians.  He is a virgin birth and he is the chosen one.

Sacrificial Love
"Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."  -John 15:13
This is a very common motif and an easy opportunity to throw in a Christological reference.  Anytime a character sacrifices his life for others, he could be considered a Christ-type, although this interpretation may be too broad.  It is quite common for a character to be strewn out with his arms open wide like Christ on the cross to make the reference more obvious, as in the case of the William Wallace character in Braveheart.  Sacrificial love is possibly the most common Christ-type in the movies although the next example may have it beat.

"And he said to them, "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him."  -Mark 16:6
Resurrection is another common motif.  In this, the ties to Christ can also be less explicit, but are nonetheless there.  One of the prime examples of this is the case of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.  There are many other examples that I don't need to waste space throwing out there.  Resurrection is important to Christians not only as an event that happened to Christ but something we await for ourselves. 

Historically, Christ-types have shown up in many places.  Some of the earliest, traditionally prominent examples are in Scripture, in the Old Testament.  Adam and David were prefigures of Christ.  Christ is the new Adam and also the son of David.  David was an earthly king, but Christ is the heavenly king.  David "walked with God" yet sinned in the incident with Bathsheba.  Christ never sinned.  David's sin with Bathsheba is important as it makes him an imperfect prefigure of Christ.  In the New Testament and in the tradition of the Catholic Church, the saints are the new Christ-types.  They no longer prefigure, but look back.  With this comes a new set of expectations.  The failure of David becomes less acceptable in light of the example of Christ.  The Catholic Church has long had a theology of uniting sufferings to Christ which gives those sufferings meaning.  Many saints have received stigmata which also point to Christ, and there have been many Christian martyrs.

Christ-types bring up many concerns, especially for the Christian, in storytelling.  Do they truly point to Christ or do they merely secularize the attributes of Christ?  In the case of the saints, as has already been mentioned, there is a tradition of these things pointing to Christ, but covert Christian messages are so popular right now in a world that is becoming increasingly secular.  Certainly atheists and non-Christians can make a sacrifice of love, but Christ is the ultimate example.  While Christians don't have a monopoly on these themes, we do have their fullest example.  Turning the attributes of Christ into "general" virtues can turn people away from Christ and is dishonest.  Michael Foley cynically stated of the movie Superman Returns that it shows "(1) our society continues to be moved by the example of the Christian Savior, and (2) it prefers to find Him in any place other than the person of Jesus Christ."  Much of this predicament, though, depends on the authors intent and how an audience receives a work.  This is very complex.

Another question is who gets to be a Christ figure?  Should there be some litmus test of the character of characters who are portrayed as Christ figures.  Is it appropriate to make an immoral person into and allegorical Christ figure by the end of a movie, even when that person has no full redemption.  Does this sully the name of Christ or make Christian virtue seem attainable alongside not actually being attained?  Is Superman Returns an allegory for a Mary Magdalene having Christ's baby scenario?  On the other hand, only Christ can be Christ and we don't want flat, boring, perfect problem-free characters.  Even a sinner can aspire to sainthood.  Christ-types can show their weakness and remind us that they are not the real deal.

The biggest problem that leads to the others is brought on by our postmodern era of constantly and meaninglessly referencing everything.  One of the prime examples is the show "Family Guy."  They incessantly throw in haphazard references that only serve to break continuity and have no purpose to the story.  Jesus is becoming a needless throwaway reference like a gag in "Family Guy."  Every time someone dies in a movie, they have their arms outspread as on the cross.  Why?  There may as well be a Jesus reference.  Any character who is remotely "messianic" must be played up as a Christ-figure just because.  Christological references have become cliche.  This is so often done with no thought to the meaning or responsibility of the symbolism the author is creating.  It's just another opportunity to reference a common culture piece with the audience.

Christ-types in storytelling bring up complex and often ignored issues.  When dealing with God, it is good to be careful and reverent and to not throw allegories out willy-nilly.  Storytelling tropes need to be carefully studied and used responsibly.

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