Thursday, January 16, 2014

wait in the van

Heading off to Utah today—taking a few members of our speech team to a tournament out there—not sure if I will have wi-fi tonight, so I’ve unfortunately got to do a “filler” blog. Since, I only posted a portion of my “Christ-Figure” paper in the fall, I figured I’d share the whole thing. There’s a lot that isn’t about Groundhog Day in here, but also some that is.

It’s entitled: From Man of Steel to Groundhog Day: A Proposed Redefinition of the Christ-Figure in Popular Film.

The text—longer than many of my blog entries, so feel free to skip ahead to tomorrow (an easier task for someone not reading day to day, I realize)—follows:

The Christ-Figure is a common element in modern American film. The Christ-Figure, on the one hand, works as shallow shorthand to suggest depth and meaning to a character that may not be there; on the other hand, it links the modern hero to a long-standing religious tradition, building on that depth. In the Western world, we understand the Christ-Figure regardless of our religious background. Indeed, modern cinema seems like an obvious extension of Bormann’s (1972) rhetorical vision of the masses, serving to “sustain the members’ sense of community... and to provide them with a social reality filled with heroes, villains, emotions, and attitudes” (p. 398). In fact, Kozlovic (2004) maintains that Christ-Figures exist in modern films because Hollywood films especially are “frequently created within a Judaeo-Christian context. Therefore, it is almost a natural response for Western scriptwriters looking for ideas and archetypes to tap into this familiar religious heritage when creating their new heroes.” Larsen (2013) counters, though, “If any figure who dies and returns; any figure who offers sacrifice in any way; any figure who comes from another world to do good, is a Christ figure, then how is Jesus all that different from so many of our movie heroes? At what point does Superman become less like Jesus and Jesus more like Superman?” In the following paper, I will be proposing that we need to redefine the Christ-Figure or accept the flaws in utilizing the term. If we are not careful, we will find any similarity at all and call a character a Christ-Figure. But, I would suggest that there is no bright line between what is and isn’t a Christ-Figure, so we need something of a sliding scale to measure the christic nature of a character. To do this, I will be comparing Christ Figures from several modern films, from the obvious to the less obvious Phil Connors.

Purpose and Description

My research questions are simple. First, in regards to an obvious example, how does Superman (in any of his incarnations but especially his presentation in Man of Steel (2013) serve as a Christ-Figure? Second, in regards to a less obvious example, how does Phil Connors in Groundhog Day (1993) serve as a Christ-Figure? Then, to expand the study necessarily, I will be asking the same question of the likes of William Wallace in Braveheart (1995)., John McClane in Die Hard (1988). John Coffey in The Green Mile (1999), Max Rockatansky in the Mad Max series, but especially Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), Neo in The Matrix (1999), James Cole in Twelve Monkeys (1995), Truman Burbank in The Truman Show (1998), John Connor and other characters in the Terminator series, and Max Da Costa in Elysium (2013). Comparing these Christ-Figures and others, I will formulate a list of characteristics necessary in the modern cinematic Christ-Figure. I will not be starting from scratch, however, but building on the work of Kozlovic (2002, 2004, and 2009) in defining the cinematic Christ-Figure. Finally, I will answer an additional set of research questions: first, do we need to redefine the Christ-Figure in order to continue to meaningfully utilize the term; and if possible, I will also attempt to answer, even if the Christ-Figure is used to exploit long-standing tradition in relation to religious beliefs, does that make it an invalid use or comparison? Essentially, is Larsen correct in suggesting that we reduce the biblical Christ by using him to create Christ-Figures?


After reviewing the literature (see the abbreviated review below), I will be examining the texts in question, from Man of Steel to Groundhog Day, using Kozlovic’s criteria. For example, his 2004 list, without in-depth description and analysis, follows:

  1. Tangible
  2. Central
  3. Outsiders
  4. Divinely Sourced and Tasked
  5. Alter Egos
  6. Special, Normal
  7. Twelve Associates
  8. The Holy Age
  9. Betrayer Associate
  10. A Sexually Identified Woman
  11. A Pointing Prophet and Baptism Rites
  12. A Decisive Death and Resurrection
  13. Triumphalism
  14. Service to “Lesser,” Sometimes Ungrateful Others
  15. Willing Sacrifice
  16. Innocent
  17. Cruciform Pose
  18. Cross Associations
  19. Miracles and Signs
  20. Simplicity
  21. Poverty
  22. Jesus’ Garb: Physical and Spiritual
  23. Blue Eyes
  24. Holy Exclamations
  25. J.C. Initials and “Christ” Referents

[I must interrupt this copy-and-paste job to point out that I wish I could figure out how to quickly format the table I made for my presentation handout to include in the blog. I had Kozlovic’s 25 criteria, then a Superman symbol next to each one that applied to Man of Steel, a small groundhog head next to each one that applied to Groundhog Day and a Die Hard battery next to each one that applied to Die Hard. I will have to format it for the blog at a later date.]

For an example of use, in a quick analysis (Black, 2013a, 2013b), Phil Connors fits 22 of those 25 criteria, though he is rarely described as a Christ-Figure. I will necessarily be taking into account Larsen’s (2013) critique of the Christ-Figure and expanding on it to find the weaknesses in Kozlovic’s lists. I will also explore Deacy’s (2008) critique of Christ-Figuring in general; Deacy points out, correctly, that “nobody functions in a cultural vacuum, and there is no such thing as a definitive, normative or objective theological lens through which one may embark upon a theological conversation” (p. 2). However, I would argue that Kozlovic’s lists, if standardized, could give us a definitive lens through which to embark on a cinematic conversation. Downing (1968) suggests a look at the literary Christ-Figure as well; I would use his exploration to further isolate the unique qualities of the cinematic Christ-Figure such as Kozlovic’s (2004) #23: Blue Eyes as this is a cinematic conceit dating back at least to King of Kings (1961). Additionally, I will be consulting Bentz and Shapiro (1998) to explore in a “mindful” manner what it means to be a Christ-Figure and what it means to experience the presence of a Christ-Figure as a member of the audience. Ultimately, I expect to expand and/or refine Kozlovic’s list so that the criteria are clear, specific, and less open to interpretation.

Literature Review

Before getting to the more in-depth comparison necessary for this study, I would explore (briefly) one of the more obvious Christ-Figures, Superman, in order to get into some of the other literature about Christ-Figures. In the latest Superman film, Man of Steel, we see once again deliberate similarities between Superman and Christ. Metaxas (2013) suggests that these similarities are not deliberate this time but rather that the “oft-noted parallels between Superman and Christ” are simply not obscured by director Zach Snyder. For example, Superman, in this film is 33, the age of Christ at his death. In 1978’s Superman: The Movie, Superman was 30, the age of Christ when he began his ministry. This is just one of many parallels. For more, we can turn to Kozlovic’s (2002) exploration of Superman as Christ-Figure, in which Kozlovic outlines twenty Superman-Jesus parallels and eight Christic personality traits shared by Superman. More generally, Kozlovic (2004 and 2009) outlined 25 structural characteristics that all cinematic Christ-Figures share. Kozlovic (2009) points out, “not all of these elements must exist in the one character, or in the one film, or at any one time to qualify as a legitimate Christ-figure, but the more of them, the stronger the christic construction, the more profound their holy resonance and the better the sacred storytelling parallels” (p. 4).

But, there may be a rhetorical danger in linking the modern hero to Christ too readily; as Walsh (2013) tells us, “Basting heroes with allusions to the Christ, then, is part of film’s deifications of the modern individual, and an interpretive focus on Christ figures runs the risk of turning from this modern context to ancient religious traditions too quickly” (p. 81). Larsen (2013) takes this one step further; he suggests that “the practice of identifying Christ figures almost always brings more to the movies at hand than it does to our understanding of Christ. It adds a religiosity and resonance (even if neither are intended), yet rarely informs our faith. As a theological exercise, Christ-figuring is a one-way street.” For students of film or communication in general, the search for the Christ-Figure then, in Larsen’s terms, would be useful. But, Larsen would certainly not recommend such a search for students of religion. Kozlovic (2002) counters, “Seeing biblical resonances in secular films may seem a theological heresy, but it is a legitimate activity.” Miles (2001) argues, “Contemporary movies can be seen as part of a long tradition in which images have been used to produce emotions, to strengthen attachment, and to encourage imitation. To neglect to analyze these images is to grant them an unexamined role in our attitudes, values, and relationships” (p. 70).

Larsen (2013) may have a point when it comes to the big heroes of cinema like Superman, but not all cinematic Christ-Figures are big. Kozlovic (2004 and 2009) cites Selma Jezkova (Björk) in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) in Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996), Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) in Thornton’s own Sling Blade (1996). None of these three is an over-the-top action hero like Superman (2013’s Henry Cavill or 1978’s Christopher Reeve). In fact, none of these is an obvious hero in our usual cinematic terms at all. Yet these sacrificial characters can be explained in christic terms. I would argue that despite Larsen’s complaints, the problem is not in simply identifying a character with Christ but in the message one takes away from that character. While 2013’s Man of Steel is a notably darker film than its 1978 predecessor, and some of its Christ imagery is so obvious as to seem trite, the character of Superman is still symbolic of hope, and not just because Man of Steel tells us that is what the “S” on his chest literally stands for.

In examining the cinematic Christ-Figure, I would add another Christ-Figure to the already extensive list—Phil Connors (Bill Murray) in Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993) specifically because he is not a heroic character in any way until nearly the end of the film’s third act. Also, I would examine Phil Connors because he is far from our modern superhero, and thus bypasses (or perhaps spotlights) the complaints of Larsen (2013). Also, despite its simplistic structure, a mere romantic comedy with a science fiction twist, the film “has become a curious favorite of religious leaders of many faiths, who all see in “Groundhog Day” a reflection of their own spiritual messages” (Kuczynski, 2003). Obviously, there is a “theological dimension to Phil’s transformation” in Groundhog Day (Foley, 2004). However, I would argue that because Groundhog Day has been accepted by many as a film with a religious message that Phil Connors is worth exploring as a Christ-Figure to maybe add new criteria to the likes of Kozlovic’s (2002, 2004 and 2009) various lists. The Christ-Figure hero need not save the entire world, he needn’t demonstrate the difference between sacrifice and atonement (which Larsen (2013) might say is missing from Kozlovic’s lists), but he should inspire the audience to be better than they already are.

Kozlovic (2005) suggests that “secular films can engage in religious storytelling without appearing ‘religious.’” Groundhog Day, which on its surface is not at all religious, fits this notion to a T. Walsh (2013) makes “a modest proposal” the exploration of Christ-Figures in film, specifically, that they “should recognize the syncretic, cinematic, and modern character of cinema heroes, respect the genre of the films under review, and seek to learn what ‘christ’ means in the films’ own intertextual play” (p. 97). “A modest Christ-figure analysis,” Walsh further suggests, “would assay a meaningful, interesting interpretation of the film in question” (p. 83). It is necessary that we keep looking for Christ-Figures, not simply because they exist but because, as a society we do not primarily get our informing images from the walls of churches as historical Christians did; we get them from the media culture in which we live” (Miles, 2001, p. 70). As I said above, the Christ-Figure can be simplistic shorthand but it can also link characters and audiences to long-standing religious—and cinematic—tradition. Miles (2001) continues: “Contemporary movies can be seen as part of a long tradition in which images have been used to produce emotion, to strengthen attachment, and to encourage imitation. To neglect to analyze these images is to grant them an unexamined role in our attitudes, values, and relationships” (ibid). Larsen (2013) suggests a danger in the “one-way street” of “Christ-figuring” but I would counter that the danger does not lie in reducing the biblical Christ by replacing him with a cinematic Christ-Figure but in taking nothing meaningful from either.

[I will not be including the bibliography here as the formatting would be complicated. If you want to see all the sources, let me know. For now, I am off to the rental van, to Vegas, to Salt Lake City, and beyond… I guess.]

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to figure out how to get something closer to South Park’s “Shitter” app so I can blog straight from my brain while driving (or doing, well, anything at all).

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