Category Archives: Christianity

God in “Supernatural”: Asking the Big Question and Getting a Big Answer


By Paula R. Stiles


For a long time, there has been great speculation about which character was God in the show Supernatural. Many candidates for the post have come through, including pagan gods, archangels, Death, and ambitious angels souped-up on monster souls or powerful tablets. The show’s big initial stab at answering the question came at the end of season five, when it hinted that the Prophet Chuck who was recording the lives of the Brothers Winchester was actually God Himself. Fandom reaction was mixed and the original showrunner, Eric Kripke, left soon after, whereupon the storyline was dropped, unconfirmed.

Part of the problem was that even when they first made the suggestion that a writer within the story was actually writing the story and was therefore God (in Chuck’s first appearance in “The Monster at the End of This Book” near the end of season four), the writers acknowledged that this was probably a bit too meta even for the show and more than a little self-indulgent (The Writer Is God!). Probably the biggest problem, though, was that it was too simplistic.

The show had taken multiple stabs at the question of the nature of God and divinity in its universe for years, some of them quite contradictory. There were, for example, pagan gods who gave favors in exchange for human sacrifices. There was the idea embodied in the first such episode (season one’s “Scarecrow”) of Hunters coming out of nowhere as saviors in the middle of the night. There was the deadbeat dad concept beaten to a pulp in seasons four and five. There was the aforementioned idea of the Author as God.There was Lucifer as the embodiment of Evil. There was the personification of Death. Jesus was occasionally mentioned as someone who had permanently broken the monsters and pagan gods’ hold on humanity. Prometheus came up in a similar vein in season seven. Things got complex and picking one idea was always bound to disappoint people.

I wrote an article a few years ago for Innsmouth Free Press on the nature of Jesus in the show. In it, I suggested that Jesus and God the distant Father in the show might not be one and the same. In fact, they are not the same aspect of God in the Christian Trinity, so they shouldn’t be the same in a fictional story based on the Trinity concept, either. Yet, it’s not uncommon for shows to ignore the Trinity completely and go with a completely monotheistic God the Father (or Mother) figure.

Then the show introduced the concept of the Darkness at the very end of season ten. While this was likely based on a DC comics “character” known as The Great Darkness from Swamp Thing back in the 80s, the show took it in a pretty different direction. For one thing, on the show, the Darkness was female. She was a character named Amara who wore an outfit that hearkened considerably toward bare-breasted Minoan snake goddesses and who appeared to be in large part inspired by references to a goddess figure in the Bible (Jeremiah) called the Queen of Heaven.

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For another, she was God’s sister – in fact, she was significantly more powerful than God (who turned out to be Chuck the Prophet) Himself. For a third, unlike the comics, she wasn’t actually evil. And for a fourth, she had a significant and unique connection to one of the show’s two protagonists, Dean Winchester, who had previously been portrayed as a human Christ figure frequently expected to be responsible for the welfare of the entire world.

This started to open up some possibilities for a far more complex and compelling treatment of divinity than television generally gets. Mind you, the writing got pretty broad in the way of Star Trek: TOS films like The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier, but it “went there” with admirable sincerity. The awkwardness of talking heads in sports bars, gardens and children’s parks did not actually negate the depth and heft of the material being addressed.

When Chuck initially came back in “Don’t Call Me Shurley” toward the end of season 11, it appeared the show would have him and him alone be God. This meant it would therefore never address the fact that he was a master of many atrocities, the ultimate absentee father. But then a remarkable thing happened – first, Dean called Chuck out on being a deadbeat dad and lousy brother, on behalf of both humanity and Chuck’s sister, Amara. Second, the hints that Chuck was actually perhaps the bad guy in the story with his sister coalesced in the show actually allowing her to take her revenge on him. And then, once she finally had regained the upper hand and punished him, she came to realize this wasn’t what she wanted. Having gone through her own journey, she was ready to listen to Dean’s help in finding out what she did want, which was to reconcile with Chuck and find her own way in this new world.

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This was a pretty powerful thing. Not only did it finally play out and defuse the deadbeat dad aspect by forcing Chuck to own up to it and pay for it, but it also defused the usual misogynistic overtones in the story (around which the show Lucifer on FOX is dancing with its own version of this trope) by making Amara, not the bad guy but the ultimately vindicated, triumphant and merciful party. She won by being the bigger person in the exchange. Chuck could have just come out, faced her, apologized, and let the chips fall at the beginning of the season, but instead, he chose to be a coward and work through his very confused “Firewall between Light and Dark,” Dean, instead. Dean was confused because, as far as he knew, he was only human and a nobody, despite the recurring tendency of everyone around him to hold him responsible for the weight of the world.

It turned out Dean was wrong.

And that brought in the third aspect of divinity. In Chuck, we had the biblical creator God, the cruel judge, the deadbeat dad. In Amara, we had the primordial chaos of Genesis and Mediterranean/Mesopotamian origin stories, like a very intense and pagan version of the Holy Spirit rather than the biblical Queen of Heaven in the Book of Jeremiah. In Dean, we had a human Christ figure who directly helped and interceded for the world with the other two figures, almost like a combination of Christ and the medieval version of his semi-divine mother Mary. The Firewall. Only, as Chuck hinted, perhaps not entirely human. And probably not so mortal. Definitely unique.

For obvious reasons, the writers never “went there” because you can’t admit that a main character is effectively immortal and throw him into situations where he might be killed by the monster of the week. So, they fudged, but if Dean is the only Firewall that has ever been (and it appears he is), then yes, he’s basically immortal.

This role is especially interesting in that Dean and Amara’s stories were in parallel, which also brings in the role of the Mega Team Free Will this season, AKA Chuck’s “Chosen.” Dean was able to intercede with Amara due to a mysterious “connection” whose origins remain unclear. That connection felt sympathetic and real because he had experienced the same level of betrayal from his family and friends, had a similar feeling of isolation, and was himself working through it to an unclear goal. In fact, he spent a great deal of the season trying to get other people to kill Amara because he couldn’t bring himself to want to and felt others were blaming him for not stepping up to the plate in his usual role as killer and blunt instrument. For a long time, he failed to recognize that he was actually growing beyond that limited role.

Meanwhile, other people simply felt this was an Achilles Heel Amara had put in him and not an actual signal that perhaps he needed to seek another, gentler route. Well, except for Chuck, but as I already said, Chuck was being a coward about it all and doing a lot of hinting rather than explaining. He of course justified this as Dean having to be the one to make his own decision. Because he’s Chuck.

Some fans have complained that neither Dean or Amara turned out to be as terrible and destructive as advertised, but I think that was ultimately the point. The fear that others felt about either of them losing control created more conflict and destruction than either of them actually did. And they both ended the cycle by taking the high road together.

So, TFW was influencing both Dean and Amara throughout the season, for good and for ill, in ways that helped them grow and figure out what they wanted, and help each other figure it out, too. Dean told Amara near the end that she simply saw in him a substitute for her brother, but I think Dean was underestimating himself. Amara’s connection to Dean was significantly different from her connection to her brother and it still is.

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Sam’s role in this is pretty interesting. At the beginning of the show, Kripke wrote him wanting to live a normal, human life, but worrying about his demon blood, about not being quite human. Meanwhile, Dean was human but feral from a life in the supernatural world. Each brother has his own way in which he is human, but Sam is the one who has sought out normal and has a connection to it. Sam is also the one who has always prayed to God and who is in awe of Chuck when Chuck’s true nature is revealed to him. Never mind that Chuck doesn’t care enough to intervene when Sam is infected (either time) by the Darkness, only when Dean finally asks for help. Sam still has faith.

Sam also struggles with conflicting feelings over loyalty and betrayal regarding his brother, whereas he has no relationship with the Darkness. His terror when Amara explodes at her brother in “We Happy Few” and takes back the Mark is the extent of his reaction to her.

The rest of TFW, not all of them human, are also important. Castiel (a rogue angel), Crowley (King of Hell) and Crowley’s mother Rowena (a powerful witch) are all outcasts who are either outcast by their association with the Brothers or who acquire a purpose and family by their association with the Brothers. Meg forlornly attached herself to Dean in later years, seeking someone new to whom she could ally. It’s like the oft-stated motif in the Bible that God doesn’t choose the great and mighty as His instruments but the broken and the downtrodden, the better to show His glory. Similarly, Chuck’s Chosen are outcasts who coalesce around the Brothers Winchester, especially Dean.

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The big question is where do they go from here? There is no possible way to go back without some epic plot-holing. Chuck left Dean in charge when he and Amara went off on their road trip and both cliffhangers turn on Dean’s suicide mission to save the world. If the world has been saved, then Dean should be dead. If he’s not, then those “happy few” in the know will immediately realize that something has changed. The sun didn’t die. Dean didn’t blow up. And Chuck has disappeared. Plus, Dean shows up with his mother who has been dead for over thirty years, clearly rewarded for his labors. There’s no way Dean can hide being on the same level with Chuck and Amara, or at least the question of whether he is.

Supernatural returns tonight at 9pm on the CW. We’ll see what happens next.


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Templars Are to Blame: Dating the Shroud of Turin


By Paula R. Stiles


Today is the 709th anniversary of the arrest of the Knights Templar in France in a pre-dawn raid. Let’s explore one of the artifacts and legends that have been connected to them after that date.

I’ve long been fascinated by the story of the Shroud of Turin. I’m a medievalist and most medievalists find the period of the Black Death (starting with the latter half of the 14th century) compelling in a ghoulish sort of way. It was a huge world-wide demographic change, the best-recorded example of one of Nature’s rare attempts to wipe us humans completely out.

It’s therefore equally intriguing that in the middle of this huge societal eruption, one of the most unique, strange and controversial relics of the Middle Ages appears — a piece of linen almost fifteen feet long and over three feet wide with an image of a naked dead man superimposed on it, front and back. In other words, a shroud. Since the late 14th century, this shroud has been linked to Jesus Christ.

It’s interesting to note that the first confirmed record of the Shroud is a report to the Pope in 1390 stating that it was a fake relic and the creator of it had confessed. Since then, the provenance (also known as “chain of custody”) of the Shroud has been remarkably solid. “Provenance” is the documentary history of where an object has been and what’s happened to it. For example, we know that the Shroud was in the middle of a church fire in 1532 that burned so hot it melted holes in the silver reliquary, singing holes right through the folded-up Shroud in a line down each side. Subsequently, a small and dedicated group of nuns patched these holes with new cloth.

The trail grows a lot more iffy prior to 1390. We have some documentation of it in either 1353 or 1357 related to the display of the Shroud by the widow of Geoffroi de Charny, a French knight who died at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. Geoffroi has been more tentatively linked to a possible uncle, Geoffroi de Charney, the last Grand Marshal of the Order of the Knights Templar, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1314. Even more tentatively, some have speculated that the Shroud fell into Templar hands after it was pillaged from a famous Byzantine collection of crucifixion relics during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. This theory was put forth by popular Templar historian Ian Wilson in The Turin Shroud in 1978. Academic Templar historian Malcolm Barber thoroughly examined these claims in a 1982 article, “The Templars and the Turin Shroud,” and came up with a verdict of inconclusive.

The Pray Codex
The Pray Codex

The Byzantine relic, known as the Mandylion (or the Image of Edessa) was a cloth upon which Christ’s face had miraculously appeared. It was part of a collection of crucifixion relics such as wood and nails from the Holy Cross. The record trail for it goes back to the sixth century and a tradition goes back to the early fourth century. After that, even the spottiest provenance goes cold.

The Mandylion is also related to an acheiropoieta (icons or other holy images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary not made by human hands) tradition in which a pious woman known as St Veronica wiped the face of Jesus while he was carrying the cross to Golgotha. His image was then impressed on the cloth by miraculous means. Images related to this tradition began to appear in the 14th century. The Shroud is unique in that it is a full-body acheiropoieton image rather than just a head and appears to reflect older traditions such as that in the late-12th century Pray Codex from Hungary.

The main problem with the Shroud of Turin is that even though it has excellent provenance back to the Middle Ages, its origin point (known as its “provenience”) remains unknown. All we know is when it was first displayed and even that’s in the murk before 1390. The Pray Codex and the St Veronica tradition give us some hints, but again, don’t really date it. And that’s important because if it does date to the early 1350s (or earlier), the story of the forger’s confession starts to fall apart. It’s unlikely that person had survived to 1390.

And that brings us to the iffy science. Numerous tests have been done on the Shroud, giving it a date ranging all the way back to two thousand years ago. The most famous one, of course, is the carbon dating of sampling from 1988 that dated the Shroud to between 1260 and 1390. Much ink has been spilled and shouting done over the test. Its proponents (who were basically debunkers and people anxious to promote carbon dating, which was then still rather a young science) insisted it was the best possible way to date the Shroud and everyone else doing other tests was biased. Its critics complained that the science was faulty, the sample too small, the Shroud was contaminated by extra carbon (remember that fire?), the sample had been taken from a smaller patch, and so on.

The basic science, all things considered, was pretty solid, but the other criticisms have validity. It was only one test done 28 years ago. Carbon dating has moved on and that one test did not account for things like the fact the Shroud has been handled a great deal over the past six hundred years, and that yes, there have been patches, as well as that it has been subjected to a major fire. And there is one other major issue.

Now, I want to say that while I lean toward the romance of the Shroud really going back to ancient times, I don’t think it can ever be anything but a matter of faith whether it was the shroud of Jesus Christ. Even if we could date it to the first century CE, let alone from Palestine, there’s no real way to prove that it was wrapped around the Son of God.

But it would be good to know a fairly solid origin point so we could get that provenience and establish some other things about the Shroud’s origins, especially the alleged Templar connection. I mean, we’re still trying to figure out how it was made (assuming you don’t buy the acheiropoieton theory). Was an actual bleeding dead body involved (and how chilling is that idea, especially if it was created in 1353, during the first wave of the Black Death)? Was it a standard shroud or was someone killed to make it? Or was it very cleverly painted, which would make it an amazing masterpiece of medieval art?

Also, what about the story of the Widow de Charny? While early medieval women had a pretty strong influence on Church cultic practice, this was largely frowned upon by the 14th century. A secular woman, especially an unmarried/widowed one, creating a cult center involving a major relic (or icon, as the Church officially terms the Shroud), especially during the initial period of the Black Death, was highly unusual.

The carbon dating doesn’t answer any of these questions. In fact, despite their claims of having no bias, the proponents of the carbon dating test knew perfectly well that any dating post-1390 would have no legitimacy in light of the very strong documentary provenance from that point, and even the more-iffy dating to the middle of the 14th century. It’s not just the issues with the possibility of contamination from other sources. These could be resolved (albeit the Church is not thrilled by the idea of allowing testers to rip up the Shroud, especially in order to debunk it as an ancient relic) by more testing. The problem is that the century the 1988 test gave is precisely the century that requires the most clarification in the Shroud’s history. If testing makes it older than the 14th century, and especially the 13th century, that gives some solidity to the proposed chain of evidence involving the Charnys and the Templars. But by just saying it’s somewhere in the 14th or late 13th century, the carbon dating test gave us absolutely no new information. Thanks to the provenance, we already knew that.

Unfortunately, those engaged in the carbon dating project didn’t care. They wanted to “prove” that the Shroud was no older than its documentary provenance. They wanted to debunk, to shut down the debate. They most certainly had a bias there. The problem was that they didn’t prove anything (the dating range went back 130 years before the confirmed documentary trail) and they didn’t help with confirming any of the previous stories. And they certainly didn’t shut down the debate. Even if the carbon dating was accurate, it wasn’t accurate enough.

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