Classic Monsters

Convergent evolution is a term that’s used for when two unrelated species, separated by some gulf, develop a smilier trait independently.  I began studying monsters in biblical reception history before I really knew others were doing so.  After I’d written Holy Horror I discovered an article by another scholar who was doing similar things, even looking at some of the same movies.  Liz Gloyn, it turns out, was also doing something quite similar with classical monsters.  Her Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture just came out a couple months ago.  Having taught classical mythology for a few semesters at Montclair State University, I have retained an interest in the subject and I was delighted to find a scholar who suggested that to get at the real substance you sometimes have to look beyond the heroes to the monsters they fight.  It’s the monsters who often prove more human.

Covering both cinema and television, Gloyn considers how classical monsters are represented in modern reception.  She looks at their appearance in literary forms as well.  Obviously not all of these reception avenues can be examined, but those she chooses are entertaining and informative.  In the case of biblical studies, I long ago came to the conclusion that biblical scholars pretty much just speak to each other.  The average person doesn’t read their books and the average pastor doesn’t either.  Laity, for the most part, get their interpretation of the Good Book from pop culture.  There’s a very good case to be made that, shy of sitting down and reading through a very big book, people would have little access to the Bible, or classics, if it weren’t for media representations.

Concurrent with my teaching classical mythology, the release of the reboot of Clash of the Titans transpired. (Gloyn covers both the original and the remake in her book.)  Students were really excited, anticipating the film.  It was one of the rare times (The Book of Eli was another) when I felt compelled to watch a movie as an adjunct professor, simply to share the experience with my pupils.  Clash of the Titans had made an impact on me in high school but the reboot failed to take me to the same place.  Still, here be monsters.  Those who’d never read Hesiod, Ovid, Pseudo-Apollodorus, or Homer, may have thought they were getting the straight dope from the silver screen.  That’s what reception history is all about.  Gloyn’s treatment kept me riveted, and I used to teach the subject.  Monsters have a way of doing that to you.

Not Your Grandma’s Moses

Exodus Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings is, in many ways, a startling movie. It didn’t leave me with a strong impression of profundity, but it did make me a bit reflective. The media hype about God as an eleven-year-old boy proved to be merely hype. In fact, the boy deity was one of the most intriguing characters in the film. The role was played respectfully, and God, like a good Englishman, favored his tea. There was nothing comedic about it, however. More troubling was the agnostic Moses, à la Clash of the Titans with its unbelieving Perseus. Moses, even after meeting God, comes across as having little interior life. He hides in a cave and builds an army of terrorists making him seem like Moses bin Laden. He conceals himself while innocent Hebrews are hanged for his crimes (and did they even hang people in ancient Egypt?). When a great storm brews over Memphis, however, it is with a sense of wonder that we ponder at an eleven-year-old doing all this.

The movie plays lightly with the scholarly “explanations” that used to be doled out in seminaries about how one plague led to another. In fact, the character called “the Expert” in the credits is shown lecturing the Pharaoh on the causation scheme of clay churning up in the Nile turning it red, and killing the fish which in turn drove the frogs from the toxic water, but when they died flies came along and the flies spread disease. Then the Expert is hanged. Not so subtle a warning to biblical scholars. In fact, there seems to be a science behind much of the movie that makes miracles less acts of God than acts of nature. Even the drying of the Red Sea is understated. Its return is reminiscent of the Christmas Tsunami of 2004. God is sometimes not there when you’d expect a deity to care.

On the matter of caring, for an age of nones who have concerns for equality, the film was thin on women’s roles, making even the Bible appear to foreground them more. Sigourney Weaver—great in any context—seems only to be there to wish Moses dead. Even Miriam is given scant lines in the movie and no role in the Exodus itself. In Prince of Egypt she at least led her famous song. Zipporah is lovely but shows no sign of being as handy with a flint knife as Exodus makes her out to be. A woman of action. Miriam’s quick thinking saved the infant Moses. Overall, however, the Bible is a guy’s book, and Exodus is a guy’s flick. Opening with the battle of Qadesh on the Orontes is a way to draw men to a Bible movie. Lots of slashing, gashing, and charging horses. And the splendor of Egypt, filmed in Spain and the Canary Islands. Some miracles, it seems, are even impossible for CGI.

New Gods

The new gods are the old gods, apparently. Increasingly I feel myself to be in the old category, but I do glance at Wired once in a while in a vain attempt to recapture my decidedly low-tech youth. I was halfway through July’s edition when I saw “Worship More Gods!” near the top of the page. Of course, gods aren’t what they used to be. The short column, Angry Nerd, was on about all the movies out there featuring Greek gods. Classic gods. Although they’ve been around for a couple of millennia or more, they had apparently fallen into the obsolescence pile for a number of centuries, staring around 1700 years ago. When I was in fifth grade I first heard about these gods (okay, I had watched that ridiculous cartoon Hercules—pre-Disney—as a child, but does that really count?). Mrs. McAlevy (and I sure hope I spelled that right!) felt that kids in my redneck little town needed to know about the gods and heroes. It was some of the most fun I ever had in school. I took a reprise class in college, just for good measure. After all, Clash of the Titans had just shown that gold can rain down like that in Danaë’s secret chamber, if you hit that sweet spot. Myth movies have flourished ever since.

Gods

Can we ever have enough of the old gods? There are lessons to be learned there still. It is safe to say that one of those lessons is that we should not act as the gods do. Almost always they do not stand as moral exemplars. Lest we feel too superior on that point, it is worth pointing out that the God of the Bible sometimes pulls some tricks that we would consider a little less than moral, right, Abraham? The role of the gods is to tell us what to do, not to show us. Impossibly high moral standards, after all, are difficult even for the mighty ones to keep. With great power and little accountability, well, we don’t need to have gods to show us what happens.

I’m not intending to put words in the mouth of the Angry Nerd. The point of the article seems to be that we should share the wealth. There are plenty of other cultures out there with very colorful gods (sometimes literally colorful). In the cultures I’ve studied those gods pretty much fall into the same category as my step-father’s mantra “do as I say and not as I do.” Rank hath its privileges. There’s no doubt that the gods provide some good moral guidance—even the deities of the Canaanites seem to have had pretty clean expectations for humankind. But when it comes to behavior, well, let’s just say they don’t behave like a bunch of nerds. These are the frat boys of the universe. We obey because we know it’s dangerous to do otherwise. So in this day of religious sensibility, perhaps having a few more gods wouldn’t hurt. As long as we keep in mind that every deity has his or her limitations.

Clash of the Watchers

NoahMovie

I don’t know about you, but I think I got gypped with my Bible. I have just come out of Noah where I saw amazing sights and a seriously troubled Noah to whom God refuses to say a single word. Controversy still swirls around the web concerning the movie, but I honestly have to say that it was more like Clash of the Titans (2010) than anything else. Except a thin part of the plot—and a few character names—that were borrowed from the Bible, this could have been Herodotus rather than Moses. I don’t recall finding any exploding lava angels in Genesis 1-11, and magic rocks that seem to fit better into a Mormon worldview than a biblical one. Gopher-wood trees grow incredibly fast, and Noah sure fights very well for being a six-hundred year-old man. So why all the fuss? This is a movie folks, not scripture. For the price of the ticket you can buy yourself a new Bible and read the entire story in fifteen minutes (it’s just over two chapters long). If it’s an action movie you’re looking for, I thought The Avengers was better.

What struck me most about the movie, apart from the watchers, which were admittedly an improvement on Holy Writ, was the subtext of evangelicalism. Noah, when he decides to build the ark appears suddenly with an evangelically approved haircut. He also had grown decided misanthropic, insisting that the ark is only for the animals’ sake, and that he only allows Shem to have a wife because he thinks she is barren. When he considers finding wives for Ham and Japheth, there is a huge meat for sex kind of deal going on in Tubal-Cain’s city that disgusts Noah so much that his vegetarian righteousness declares that all people will die off once the ark runs aground. And, of course, he will have to kill his granddaughters. This is a dark and tormented Noah who drinks to forget his problems in a world where God only speaks in cryptic dreams and one gets the sense that Noah is very Republican in his lack of compassion. Take out the whole human race while you’ve got the chance.

The movie is filled with mixed messages. Noah certainly doesn’t appear to live up to his name (“comfort,” by simple translation), and although the supernatural is everywhere, a compassionate deity is utterly lacking. Species die off when Tubal-Cain gets hungry. And the very sign of blessing is the skin shed by the serpent that led to the fall. What are we supposed to learn from this? A vague, Avatar-esque “the planet is good” message does give me a little hope, but seeing Noah poising a knife above an infant’s head only because she’s female makes me a bit squeamish. Noah obeys simply for obedience’s sake and people are mere stains on an otherwise ideal world. Before the fall Adam and Eve veritably glowed. Adam stoops to pick up the serpent’s skin while Eve engineers the fall of all. The special effects are good, but the story, it seems to me, is all wet. That’s the gospel truth.

Human Show

TrumanshowAt least a decade had passed since I watched The Truman Show. Jim Carrey has gone on to achieve an over-the-top kind of fame, but Truman is a thoughtful movie that raises several troubling questions. It is also one of the films of the 1990s that shamelessly cast an uncaring god (the not so subtly named Christof) against the goofy, but serious Truman Burbank. The movie is old enough not to worry about spoilers, so a quick run-down might refresh other hazy memories. Truman is the star of a show where a massive set that includes an entire island has been built around him. The vision of Christof, an unwanted baby is recorded from birth in an artificial, “perfect” world that revolves around him. Until he begins to notice events that, in the real world, would be paranormal. Objects falling from a clear sky, dead people reappearing, fake sets under construction. Determined to learn the truth, he faces his fear to escape by literally walking through a door in the sky.

Christof is “the creator.” From his base in the sky, he looks down on Truman as his star “son” grows to a Christ-like 30 years of age. He is protected from all harm, yet terrified of anything that might aid his escape from the ante-world he inhabits. When he slips the cameras and begins to make his way across the water, Christof, still not wanting to relinquish the ruse, throws a storm at Truman’s sailboat, striking it repeatedly with lightning. “Hit him again,” he growls to his crew. “Again!” It is difficult to watch as the loving god is angered to the point of destroying his only son. When Truman literally reaches the end of his world, he walks on the water to reach the stairway to heaven. Metaphors are flying thick and fast. Christof breaks in as a voice from the sky to convince Truman that his life will be perfect if he continues to pretend that reality is only what it seems to be. His devoted fans cheer as Truman ascends and walks through that door into another reality.

Many books on the theology of film have appeared over the past decade as it has become clear that people are very much affected by what they see on the screen. Our brains resonate with what we are seeing to such a degree that movies participate in our perceptions of reality. In an increasingly secular world, we have come to distrust our gods. This truth has echoed through many movies in the past several years. Although not living up to the hype, The Clash of the Titans—the remake—had classical heroes disputing the power of the gods. Truman doesn’t go that far. We are never informed about what life after the delusion is like. The hole in the sky is black. We know that on the other side, our world, there will be terrible disappointments and tremendous sadness. It may be that there will be no gods at all on this side of the studio. Although showing its age a little, The Truman Show still speaks volumes about the religious experience.

Charon’s Obol

One of the concomitants of spending time with religion is a non-morbid fixation on death. As a college student I was surprised to learn that other people my age did not think about death nearly every day. Perhaps with a typical college student’s obsession with the other end of the life cycle this is only natural. Ever since I was a child, however, I felt frustrated by the lack of permanence that characterized all of the striving involved with life. We work very hard and then we die. I suppose that is one of the reasons religion appealed so strongly to me—it had an answer to this dilemma. Science, as I began to experience it about the same time, suggested a radically different conclusion: we have no souls, and so it is best to accept the fact that death is the end and get on with life. No wonder Ecclesiastes has always been my favorite book of the Bible.

While reading about–shhh!–death recently, I came across an interesting tidbit. Pope Pius IX was buried with a coin. I’ve read that even John Paul II was buried with coinage, but I’ve not been able to find credible sources on that. What is fascinating about this practice is that no matter how it is vested, burial with money is a form of Charon’s obol. With movies like Clash of the Titans, many modern people are aware of the need to pay Charon to cross the River Styx. (Back in the radical days of traditional education just about everyone would’ve learned this in the course of studying the classics. In any case…) The gifting of the dead with money represents the survival of a pagan custom that likely stretches back well before ancient Greece. Even before money was invented people buried the dead with goods that the living would never be able to use again. They may not have considered this payment to a ferryman, but the principle is the same.

This idea has a strong grip on our psyches. Not one of my favorite movies, I have watched Ghostship a time or two. What initially brought me to the movie was the fact that it is a horror-movie built around the character of Charon. The mysterious stranger who lures the crew of the Arctic Warrior onto the Antonia Graza laden with gold is named Ferriman. The salvage crew quickly forget the tons and tons of metal that they came for in exchange for the a few dozen bars of gold. Of course, a sole survivor lives to tell the tale. The thing about Charon’s obol is that once he is paid, death is inevitable. Thus death and money are inextricably twined like earbuds carelessly tossed into a backpack. It seems that no matter how you measure it, the only winner is Charon. Maybe the Greeks have something to teach us yet.

Charon’s got ahold of our Psyches

Battle Billboards

Perhaps the oddest intangible accompanying democracy is the concept that all things are negotiable. Add to that a capitalist sensibility that everything has its price and even truth itself feels like a matter of debate. We see this all the time with Creationists so desperately wanting the Bible to the “true” that they twist science into a fairy tale noose from which to hang their literalist god. The tendency, however, does not stop with them.

Surely one of the most tense stretches of pavement in the country is NJ 495 leading into the Lincoln Tunnel. The aorta pumping countless metallic cells into the heart of Manhattan, drivers and passengers often sit motionless in it for seemingly endless periods to crawl forward like an inchworm entering the Olympics. It is there that Battle Billboards takes place.

I have followed the Atheist billboard development with some interest. In my limited experience with the Lincoln Tunnel, I have noted the digital billboard on the Jersey side bears the message of atheist.org near the major Christian holidays, so as Easter approaches the newest one reads “Celebrate Living Without God” to promote a rally on the Mall in DC. Both religion and science make claims of how to know the truth. Truth with a capital T should be non-negotiable by definition. The problem is that nobody has the Truth. We’re still trying to figure it out. Atheist.org holds a firm conviction that life would be better without religion. Clearly not everyone agrees. Clarity, it seems, is the chimera of debates over Truth.

A few seconds after the atheist.org ad flashes off the big screen, an ad for Wrath of the Titans (coming soon to theaters) flashes on. Irony can be sweeter than honey and as bitter as the Dead Sea. The most recent Clash of the Titans (2010) borrowed little from classical mythology beyond the names and large plot lines. An atheistic Perseus just doesn’t fit the classical taste. In the new film, Zeus—surely one of the prototypes for modern conceptions of God—is captured by Hades and has to be rescued by his unbelieving son. Could any movie be a more thinly disguised Easter story? Atheists? Wrath of the Titans? Which way to jump? Fortunately for me, traffic going into the Lincoln Tunnel in these lanes is one way. That’s the kind of certainty we all can live with.

Light from above or hopeless ambiguity?

Old Myth

The Greek gods are in the ascendant again. They seldom disappear completely, but the big movie studios have rediscovered the special effects boon that only gods can deliver. When I first began to teach my Mythology course at Montclair State University, the Clash of the Titans remake and Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief were both released just as the class was getting underway. It seemed like interest had been lost since the original Clash of the Titans back in 1981 when I was still a student. Special effects then meant Ray Harryhausen. Now they are measured in terabytes and whatever is larger than that. So Immortals was released recently, but I haven’t seen it yet. Picking up on the sometimes forgotten hero Theseus, the Athenian answer to Hercules, the movie promises to bring the divine into the theater.

In the spate of movies showing gods, America is not yet ready for a movie featuring Yahweh. Oh, certainly there have been films where the god of Israel has loomed very large behind the scenes, but with a prohibition of making images—no paparazzi need apply—it seems unlikely that we’ll see a special effects extravaganza featuring the Almighty. Besides, few Americans have reconciled themselves with the mythic nature of many Bible stories. As politicians and televangelists insist, these stories are fact, not entertainment. GCI Yahweh always stops at the somewhat comic George Burns or Morgan Freeman figures. Charleton Heston, where have you gone? Yahweh of the Bible is a gun-toting, hard-talking, pestilence-slinging, American-style deity. And action is where it counts.

Critics say Immortals suffers on the side of story-line at the expense of gore and action. A factor that is often overlooked, however, is mythology’s inherent mutability. “The Classics,” as we grandly call them, do not derive from a super-Scripture of literalist myths. Each writer told his (less often, her) story in his (her) own way. Although there were those who took such stories literally, as Socrates will silently confess, I suspect not a few knew these were stories told to make a point. There is no right way to tell a myth. From Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts to Disney’s Hercules to Singh’s Immortals, mythology transcends the mere mortals telling it. This is the greatest shame of the modern world—we have traded the beauty of myth for a paltry handful of literalism approaches to religion. And the literary (and cinematic) world is much the poorer for it.

Theseus looking for immortality

Troying Around

While discussing Homer with my relatives, it was decided that we should watch the movie Troy. Although conceived as a blockbuster retelling of the Iliad, the presentation reminded me significantly of The Clash of the Titans (2010). In both instances the directors and writers attempted to portray a realism of sorts, making Achilles and Perseus into just regular guys with issues. There is something of the fallen hero here, and perhaps a misunderstanding of the way the Greeks understood their greats. While it can’t be denied that heroes were intended as figures of unattainable stature, they were in some sense conceived as role models for mere mortals. The Iliad is an exploration of the anger of Achilles and the unpredictable influence of the gods.

As the critics pointed out when the movie was first released, the absence of the gods from the film is a serious departure from the Iliad. Without the gods, Achilles takes on a level of prominence never intended by Homer (whoever he was) and the playing out of his revenge begins to feel like a bad western. Although the Iliad does focus on Achilles, it requires an ensemble cast. None of the characters are evil like the movie portrays Agamemnon. He, along with his brother Menelaus, is the hapless inheritor of the curse of the house of Atreus. No matter what Agamemnon does, he is doomed. This fatalism is cut short in Troy as Menelaus, Ajax, and Agamemnon fall in the foreshortened battle of Troy.

The Trojan War is a myth. There is no history to portray accurately here. Instead there are gods and heroes. In removing the gods—a subtle nod toward many modern sensitivities—the movie loses its soul to beat the bank. And so perhaps it is a modern parable for a society that values money above all else. Whether the gods are real or not is immaterial, for they are but projections of the human spirit. Without them we are mere molecules conglomerated into biological entities with no purpose. Troy is a movie that falls short of truly mythical status, but at the same time holds a mirror to modern culture and asks “are you so sure that you can live without the gods?”

Slash of the Titans

I’m suffering from mythology overload. Last night I watched the mediocre 2010 version of Clash of the Titans on DVD. Since I’ve been grading students papers on mythology non-stop for over a week now, I felt that I needed to see what all the fuss was about. Again. I saw the movie in a theater earlier this year and wrote a post on the post-modern perspective the film has on the gods. To get a better sense of a movie, however, a repeated viewing is awful helpful. The fact is that the public exposure to mythology is often limited to the movies. Students frequently ask if something they saw in the Disney version of Hercules is the way it really happened in the myths. Nothing really happened in the myths.

Meanwhile angry letters have been pouring into the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Rounding out a new losing season, Rutgers University football coach Greg Schiano remains the highest paid employee of the state of New Jersey. Academic voices are feeble, but economics makes people sit up and pay attention. Money talks. Brains are lazy when it comes to rigorous thought. As the collection of heroes gathered in the forest of Calydon to chase the great boar Artemis let loose on the city, the academic world has also chased the glory of the pig-skin. And poor Meleager paid the price of the public outcry when it was over. Even though his team won the biggest college bowl ever.

It is hard to tell the real villain in Clash of the Titans. The writers suggest it might be Zeus, or Hades, Medusa, the “Kraken,” Acrisius, Cephus, or even the “fire priest.” Everybody’s looking for someone to blame. Things aren’t right in Argos. Others blame state legislators, the president of Rutgers University, or the football coach himself. The fact is in both the movie and in the university priorities have been skewed. Nobody is driving except the money, no matter which box office it goes into.

Who's got the pig-skin?

Medusa’s Legacy

Having just finished my Mythology course at Montclair, I’ve picked up a few books to delve once again into a sublimated childhood interest. I was first introduced to Greek mythology back in Mrs. MacAlevy’s fifth-grade class in Rouseville Elementary. The story of Perseus, in particular, has stayed with me ever since. Of course, being taught in serious religion classes that this was all silly nonsense, what with the multiplicity of overly amorous deities whimsically whipping thunderbolts at humanity (everyone knew there was really only a single celibate deity whimsically spreading pestilence among humanity), I drifted away. Mythology continued to be an interest, but the Greek variety went the way of the dodo. The occasional Pauline reference to Artemis fanned the old flames, but just a little. I had more serious religion to comprehend.

So now, decades later, I find myself needing to catch up on the classics. To rejuvenate my interests, I once again turned to Perseus. My brother and I forked out the extra cash for 3-D to see the remade Clash of the Titans this spring, and I found myself even watching the 1981 version in a Harryhausen-induced haze to refresh my memory. The original movie realized the deficiencies of the classic story on the big screen and embellished shamelessly to wow the critics. One of the most memorable scenes was Perseus in the lair of Medusa. So I found myself reading Stephen Wilk’s Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon.

Wilk is a physicist and a member of a prominent optical society. He brings the fresh insights of a non-classics specialist to the story of Medusa (I should know, since I too am a non-classics specialist). This study raised my limited level of awareness in several respects, particularly in the repeated emphasis on eyes in the book. What really struck me the most, however, was how it became clear that Medusa was yet again an embodiment of female power ruthlessly struck down by a virile young man with nothing better to do than slay her. Medusa is the victim in the story, cut down for simply being what she is – a strong female figure. I could not agree with all of Wilk’s assessments, but this provocative book brought many interesting concepts to light.

Medusa, like Lilith, is the symbol of fear for a threatened manhood; women who are true femmes fatale – preying on male pretensions for sport. Until society willingly accords true equality, such figures will remain necessary to remind us that gender should never be the factor by which an individual’s contribution is to be judged. I suspect Mrs. MacAlevy knew something that the Greeks had also realized: repression only increases the ferocity of the repressed.

Perseus asserting the male prerogative

Zoroastrian Odyssey

Clinton's Red Mill

Clinton’s Red Mill is a popular New Jersey attraction, but numerous reports of paranormal activity have thrown an additional lifeline to the museum in the form of much-needed revenue in the form of seasonal ghost tours. Last year about this time my family and I participated in one. Touring the old grounds at night can certainly lead to spooky experiences, even for those of us who sit on the fence about ghosts. We discovered that The Atlantic Paranormal Society, the “TAPS” of Ghost Hunters fame, had investigated the Mill the previous year. We watched several episodes of the popular show, and for a lark, my wife bought me a subscription to TAPS Paramagazine for my birthday. All in good fun. I always thumb through when it arrives, but it is hard to take much of it seriously.

The last issue (volume vi, issue 2), however, contained an article about Demonology. Now, I thought I had graduated from The Exorcist and the Exorcism of Emily Rose to a healthy skepticism, but I could not resist reading this article. The first statement declares, “A demon is a fallen Angel that rebelled against God along with Satan, refusing to be humble before, and serve, God” (Adam Blai). While I never make light of things I don’t understand, I did consider the fact that the concept of demons, which derives from a Judeo-Christian mythology, presupposes a mythic war between the powers of good and evil. At the same time, I have been reading up on the Zoroastrians, one of the oldest continuously practiced religions in the world. There can be no serious doubt that the Judeo-Christian tradition borrowed the concept of the demonic from their Iranian neighbors of the ancient Persian Empire.

A Zoroastrian fravashi

The implications of the Zoroastrian connection are profound. If the ancient sage and Afghani priest Zarathustra was correct about the dualistic conflict of good and evil, was he not also right about Mithra and the Amesha Spentas as well? Zoroastrianism gave the Judeo-Christian tradition its base concept of Heaven and Hell, but the divinity of fire they did not accept. By picking and choosing what fit best into its experience, Judaism developed into a religion that allowed for Christian demons and angels and all the invisible hosts of the ethereal realms. Today many Christians accept demons as literal beings (less so jinns, although Clash of the Titans (2010) allowed for them). What does this say about the remainder of Zoroastrianism? Perhaps Ghost Hunters should begin with the Gathas and move on to the Avesta? As for me, I’ll be over here, sitting on the fence.

Clash of the Titans

Over the weekend I joined the thousands flocking to theaters to see Clash of the Titans. I first met Perseus in fifth grade and have been intrigued by classical mythology ever since. I tried not to believe that it was nearly three decades ago that I sat in the single screen theater back in Oil City, Pennsylvania watching a film with the same title and Ray Harryhausen’s famous stop-motion animated creatures. I was anticipating great things. While the new Clash is visually stunning at several points, the post-modern story line primarily demanded my attention. While there are gods galore in the film, the message is maybe not atheistic, but, to coin a word, anolatric – denying worship to the gods. Time and again Perseus refuses the help of the gods and when he finally meets Zeus, his absentee father, he shows him anything but respect.

Who let the trogs out?

The Greeks, like all ancient peoples, primarily feared the gods. Not offending deities was a societal expectation since an infraction on the part of any citizen might lead to divine repercussions. Dictys, Perseus’ adopted father, rails against the gods for allowing the degeneration of society, a trait that Perseus takes to extremes in the movie. In battling the monsters, Perseus is storming Olympus itself. In a nod to the Easter weekend crowds, Perseus defeats death himself by banishing Hades to an incongruously fiery underworld. I left the theater slightly stunned; here had been a hero standing before the very gods but refusing to worship. Clash of the Titans indeed.

While my family was off winning the Connecticut Regional First Robotics competition in Hartford (go Team 102!), I had consoled myself the night before seeing Clash by watching the cheesy 1968 Japanese giant monster classic, Wrath of Daimajin (also known as Return of the Giant Majin). I had seen the original Giant Majin some time ago, but here was a “monster” movie where the destructive colossus was himself a god. The Giant Majin is a protective mountain deity who, when injustice grows unchecked, breaks free of his rocky home and destroys the wicked. The Wrath of Daimajin included startling biblical imagery: as the Majin stomps through the sea the waters part as if Moses were on the god’s shoulder. The faithful female protagonist is being executed on a cross (burned at the stake, but tied to a cross), and the Majin breaks the gibbet and holds her aloft, the very tableau of the evil-banishing crucifix. As always, the Giant Majin vanishes at the end, leaving the oppressed to build their own, better future.

I dream of Majin with a dark green face

Such movies are benchmarks of public theology. Made by laypersons trying to express their ideas about the divine world, I find them a crucial measure for any teacher of religion to watch, mark and inwardly digest. In just 24 hours I saw a Shinto god go Christian and a Greek polytheist lose his faith. The world just can’t figure out if the gods are for us or against us.

Paul Does the Classics

I first became aware of Greek mythology in fifth grade. My teacher in an industrial, rough and yet rural school, believed in the benefits of teaching aspiring drug addicts and laborers the stories of gods and heroes. I immediately adored the stories we heard and read. Raised in a religious household, however, I feared enjoying the tales of what were admittedly pagan gods after all, too much. In the educational topography of my youth, we were on the brink of this brave new electronic world we’ve entered, and mythology was not considered a terribly useful part of the curriculum after that. I left the gods behind. In a class on the Christian Scriptures in college, however, my instructor suggested we all go see Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version) for its appreciative (if a little hokey) presentation of the Greek world. I enjoyed the movie and even took a class in the literature department on mythology.

Over the years I have touched and gone on Greco-Roman mythology while specializing in the mythology of Ugarit. Now that I’m teaching a course on mythology, I’m going back to my classical roots and rereading the stories of times not quite so ancient as the fertile crescent civilizations’, but older than what is considered practical nowadays. While rereading Euripides’ play The Bacchae, the concentration of images, concepts, and actions that recur in the Bible stood out in chiaroscuro. Especially noticeable were references to Paul in the book of Acts.

Like Paul, Dionysus comes to be imprisoned. Not recognized as a divine figure, King Pentheus of Thebes locked him in chains until he could demonstrate that Dionysus is just the wild imaginary figure of repressed women. An earthquake, however, soon rattles the city and Dionysus emerges, chains shed, to the astonishment of Pentheus. The scene reads like Paul and Silas’ escape from jail in Philippi (Acts 16). Admittedly this could be coincidence. A few lines later, however, Dionysus, free from prison, tells Pentheus, “Don’t kick against the goad – a man against a god,” (Act 3, Paul Roche’s translation). Even so, Paul on his way to Damascus sees a vision of a god and is asked, “Why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26.14). Perhaps Luke had read his Euripides?

Now I’m no scholar of the Christian Scriptures (although I have taught courses on them a time or two), but when obvious parallels exist it is incumbent upon modern readers to pay attention. The parallels of Dionysus and Jesus were evident to early Christians, so what I noticed was nothing new. When the followers of Dionysus, however, strike a rock with their sticks and water flows out, I wondered if Euripides had read his Torah!

Paul's bedtime reading